Friday, November 27, 2020

Africans in Greek and Roman Art

 The Bronze Age Minoans of Crete were probably the first Greeks to come into contact with Ethiopians, a Greek name meaning those with "burnt" faces.  The tomb of Rekhmire, governor of Thebes and vizier during the reigns of the pharaohs Thutmosis III and Amenhotep II, circa 1400 BCE, includes one of the earliest depictions of both African and Aegean peoples, thought to be Nubians and Minoans.  However, the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age severed Greek connections with Egypt and even the Near East.

Trade between the Greeks and the northern periphery of Africa finally resumed in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE including the establishment of trading centers along the Nile and at Cyrene on the northern coast of Africa. Then depictions of Africans began to appear in Aegean art.

All black Africans were known as Ethiopians to the ancient Greeks, as the fifth-century BCE historian Herodotus tells us, with their black skin color being the primary identifying physical characteristic. The black glaze central to Athenian vase painting was ideally suited for representing black skin and archaeologists have also recovered black African comic masks used in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

By the 4th century BCE, Ethiopians were regularly featured in Greek vase painting, especially on the highly decorative red-figure vases produced by the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia, although depictions of Ethiopians in scenes of everyday life were still rare.  However, after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, knowledge of Nubia became more widespread as Greeks and Africans lived together in metropolitan centers like Alexandria.

As a result, African imagery in Greek art expanded  and Ethiopians were frequently depicted as athletes and entertainers. African artisans became subjects of artwork, too,  as well as some African slaves captured during wartime or through piracy.  Images of "Ethiopians" began to appear on gold jewelry and fine bronze statuettes like the one included here from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Read more about it and view additional artifacts at:

Bronze lamp in the shape of a Nubian head Pompeii Roman 1st century CE that I photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibition" at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, Oregon.

Roman portrait of a man with African attributes carved with a turned head and redirected gaze in the style of Caracalla 230-240 CE photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Bronze lamp in the shape of a Nubian head found near the Porta Nola in Pompeii Roman 1st century CE that I photographed at "Pompeii: The Exhibit" at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington.

Head of a Man with tight, curly hair, Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 100 BCE Marble that I photographed at the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York.

Terracotta vase in the form of a sleeping African boy Cypriot 3rd-2nd century BCE from Cyprus that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Terracotta vase combining the distinctive neck of the Shape VII oinochoe with a naturalistic head of a young black-African boy Etruscan 4th century BCE  that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Terracotta vase with janiform heads (left) and terracotta mug in the form a black African boy's head Etruscan late 4th century BCE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Head of a Young Roman Boy probably from North Africa 150-200 CE Marble that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Bronze statuette of an African (known as Ethiopian) youth, 3rd–2nd century BCE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The distinctive garment is characteristic of artisans, especially those working in the heat of a foundry, forge, or brazier.
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