Black people according to Herodotus
Herodotus, a Greek historian, wrote a history of the known world 2,440 years ago. It is the oldest book we have where a person we would call White talks at length about black-skinned people.
Three things set him apart from the way Whites talk about Blacks in our time:
- He did not divide the world by race. He divided it by continent – Europe, Asia and Libya (Africa) – and by language – Greek and barbarian – but not by race. He talks about people with black skin, but not about “black people” as if they were one of the main kinds of humans. He applies the term “Ethiopian” to some black-skinned people, but not to all.
- Egyptians were black. He saw Egyptians as having black skin and woolly hair (Herodotus, 2.104). He visited Egypt 75 years after the Persians had taken over but before the Greeks, Romans and Arabs had. He travelled the whole length of the country from north to south.
- No colourism. In his time, people with black skin, like Egyptians and Ethiopians, were more civilized than some with white skin, like Scythians and Celts. Lighter-skinned Greeks got much of their civilization from darker-skinned Egyptians. White-skinned people were not even the most beautiful:
“The Ethiopians to whom Cambyses sent these gifts are reputed to be the tallest and most beautiful of all peoples.” (3.20)
The incomplete list of people with black skin in Herodotus:
- Egyptians – seen as having the most ancient civilization, way older than Greece.
- Ethiopians (Nubians, etc) – live south of Egypt. Meroe is their mother city (2.29). Civilized but not as civilized as Egypt (2.30). They once ruled Egypt (2.100, 137-139). Herodotus seems to apply the term “Ethiopian” to more than just Nubians: he also talks about long-lived Ethiopians (3.17-26, 97) and cave-dwelling Ethiopians (4.183). Most of them would have been Nilo-Saharans.
- Asian Ethiopians (Dravidians?) – look just like Ethiopians but their hair is straight instead of woolly. They serve in the Persian army in their own divisions as part of the Indian contingent (7.70).
- Colchians – live on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Because they have black skin, woolly hair and practise circumcision, Herodotus says they are clearly Egyptian (2.104).
- short men (Pygmies?) – live along what is probably the Niger River (2.32-33) and somewhere on the west coast of Africa (4.43). They live in cities. Those along the Niger practise sorcery. Those on the coast, called dwarfs, wear clothes made of palm leaves.
Other Africans: Herodotus talks about the people who live along the coast between Egypt and Carthage (4.168-180) and along the caravan route that goes west across the Sahara (4.181-199). He does not bring up their skin colour, but remarks on the long hair of those who live along the coast. Most of them would have been Berbers.
In Africa, Herodotus visited Egypt and, just to the west,Cyrene. The rest he knows about from asking questions, particularly in Egypt.
Cicero called Herodotus the “Father of History”. Plutarch called him the “father of lies”. Herodotus felt his duty was to report what he had seen and heard. He expresses doubts about some of what he reports, but puts it out there to let readers come to their own conclusions.
Source: Herodotus, “History” (425 BC). See above for book and section numbers.