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Discussions have erupted across the Latin teaching community about race and representation in our portrayal of Ancient Rome. Should teachers prioritize equitable representation or historical accuracy? Perhaps these goals are not mutually exclusive.

Roman fresco from Pompei depicting a man holding a scroll and a woman holding a stylus and wax tablet.

The Portrait of Terentius Neo, Pompeii

There has been a lot of hand-wringing recently in the Latin teaching community about how to address systemic racism in our field. One topic that has been especially ripe for heated debate is how we choose to depict the ancient world for our students. Some argue that we have an obligation to teach the ancient Roman world as a multi-racial world so that all types of students feel represented. Others argue that doing so would create a false impression of ancient history in order to make it more palatable to modern sensibilities. What if the solution to this problem has been staring us in the face this whole time?

Why do we assume that ancient Rome was racially homogenous in the first place? If we’ve been watching movies, reading books or playing video games, we would assume that Ancient Rome was a posh suburb just outside of London. We would also assume that the Romans themselves would have been considered White people, if they traveled in time to the present. This is not just a popular cultural phenomenon; educational materials have reflected this same image for the past 200 years. One can easily go from primary school through university and encounter no challenges to this paradigm, so it’s no wonder that depicting racial diversity in the Ancient World seems so radical.

Are we seriously meant to believe that the most populous city in the Ancient World, the capital of an intercontinental empire, was free from racial diversity? At first glance, this seems absolutely ludicrous. For this to be true, one has to believe that travel itself did not exist in Ancient Roman times. One has to believe that moving from one place to another is some sort of fancy modern invention. This all-White Ancient Rome concept is laughably absurd, yet it still persists to this day.

The myth of a racially homogenous Ancient Rome is a relatively modern invention. Race itself is also a modern invention. The concept of Race was invented a few hundred years ago to justify brutal imperial policies such as mass colonization, genocide and slavery. Central to this notion of race is the idea that “White” people are genetically superior to all other types of people. Since no actual scientific evidence supports the existence of Race, evidence needed to be invented. Overnight, Ancient Rome becomes a purely White civilization that only fell because they ultimately failed to keep the other races out.

If our main resistance to portraying the Ancient Romans as, what we would call, racially diverse is that we don’t want to fabricate history, we’re a bit late to the party because history has already been rewritten! The answer that has been staring right at us is that Ancient Rome was in fact a multi-racial society. Our job as teachers is to put the people of color back into our portrayals of Ancient Rome. Not only because it would be more historically accurate, but because it’s the right thing to do for our students.

Image credit: 

Public domain

John Bracey

About the author: 
My name is John Bracey and I have been a Latin teacher in Massachusetts since 2010. I have a B.A. in Classics from UMass Amherst and an MA from Boston College. I have taught Latin exclusively using Comprehensible Input for the past several years. I lead workshops around the country for language teachers of all kinds. I am also the 2016 Massachusetts Latin teacher of the year!
John Bracey