In praise of Frank M. Snowden, Jr: a personal tribute

Lindsay Johns

Today marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important black Classical scholars of the twentieth century. Frank M. Snowden, Jr (1911–2007) was a Harvard-educated African-American Classicist and the foremost authority on black people in antiquity. His copious erudition and assiduously-researched discoveries about race and (the lack of) racism in antiquity have been, and should remain, instrumental in informing both our perceptions of the Classical world and of the discipline of Classics itself.

In Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (Harvard UP, 1970) and Before Color Prejudice (Harvard UP, 1983), Snowden argued that colour prejudice did not exist in Ancient Greece and Rome, that racism is effectively a modern scourge for which there is no Classical precedent (his friend W.E.B. Du Bois similarly called it “the problem of the twentieth century”), and that the 20th century mapped its own racial prejudices onto an antiquity that was multiethnic, multicultural and in the main harmonious.

Snowden’s two groundbreaking works.

Born to a middle-class family in Virginia, Snowden was educated in Boston and then Harvard, where he was one of very few African-Americans to excel in the field of Classics. He went on to teach at Howard University in Washington DC for the majority of his career, retiring in 1976. He also held prestigious governmental posts in Paris and Rome. At a time of egregious racial segregation in the US before World War II and then of draconian discrimination throughout the Civil Rights era, Snowden’s achievements are all the more inspirational and humbling. He demonstrated by his example that the studies of Ancient Greece and Rome are for all, irrespective of colour, and that Classics as an academic discipline can and should transcend race. By his research, but also in his life, he showed that Classics can be broad and inclusive, not the elitist and exclusively white discipline that it is sometimes harmfully – and erroneously – portrayed as being today.

The ancient world that Snowden’s scholarship revealed was one of African intellectuals, scholars, writers, statesmen, and military leaders, especially in ancient Rome. Thankfully black people were not just slaves, as depicted in Hollywood films such as Spartacus (1960) and Gladiator (2000). Snowden’s contribution spectacularly disproved the pernicious notion that white people have a monopoly on the cerebral, while black people are wholly physical – a notion which has bedevilled so much of Western (and by extension global) civilisation.

Snowden in his thirties (1940s).

Anachronistic projection has done immense damage not only to our view of antiquity, but also to race relations over the last three hundred years, and Snowden’s work offers the much-needed assertion of intellectual parity between races. He promulgated in lucid and elegant prose that there was an important African presence in the Classical world, and that, contrary to modern assumptions, the ancients did not view Africans with racial contempt. He argued that racism as we understand it today was a post-Classical condition that arose in Europe after 1500 AD.

Snowden painstakingly demonstrated that racial prejudice based on skin colour did not exist in Ancient Rome, and that non-black people in antiquity rarely equated blackness with cultural inferiority or subordination. Much of this was due to the fact that most of the black people Romans encountered were not slaves, and that Romanitas, rather than colour, determined one’s progress in Roman society. “Nothing comparable to the virulent color prejudice of modern times existed in the ancient world,” Snowden declares in Before Color Prejudice. “The ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin color was not a sign of inferiority; Greeks and Romans did not establish color as an obstacle to integration.”

Snowden shares with Du Bois the news of his revolutionary work, submitted for publication in summer 1945, and eventually appearing in the American Journal of Philology for July 1947 and American Anthropologist for Jan.–Mar. 1948 (letter of 28 May 1945, W.E.B. Du Bois papers, UMass Amherst, MA, USA).

Snowden ranged across Homer, Herodotus, Sophocles, Aristotle, Heliodorus and his remarkable Aethiopica, Virgil, Ovid, Pliny the Elder, Martial, Juvenal and Plutarch to show a world of racial integration that evinced a discernible lack of racial animus towards black people. Moreover, his magisterial scholarship helped to restore the distorted picture of antiquity by showing that people of African descent have had a tangible impact on the way in which global history has been shaped, demonstrating in particular the sizeable contribution of black people to the West’s intellectual efflorescence.

This ostensibly revisionist take on the place of race in the Classical world revolutionized my own thinking, bolstering my self-esteem as a recalcitrant teenager of colour grappling with Classics and ardently wanting to find a place therein. It was also instrumental in stoking my passion for antiquity and later, as an adult, shaping my world-view as a writer of colour proud to be educated in the Western canon and the Classical tradition. In short, Snowden’s research about black people in the ancient world gave both hope and validation to my love of the subject.

Some critics have accused Snowden of idealizing the past, but he maintained throughout his career that racial bias was a relatively modern phenomenon and not conspicuous in Ancient Greece and Rome. As he stated, “Ancient Roman society never made color the basis for judging a man.” Although I am no academic myself, I am yet to see any good reason to disbelieve him.

Black-figure vase depicting the departure of Memnon, legendary king of the Ethiopians, for Troy, c. 550-525 BC (Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels, Belgium).

An outstanding scholar, polyglot and polymath, Snowden has long been one of my intellectual heroes. Sadly, few people today (particularly in the UK) have even heard of him, so it is high time that he is rescued from undeserved neglect. His theses about racism in the Classical world should be better known, especially given their salience in the so-called ‘Culture Wars’ that are currently raging. His work has much to offer our understanding that racism based on skin colour was not in fact built into the foundation of what can loosely be termed “Western civilisation”.

At a time when university humanities curricula are being stridently “decolonised” (especially in Anglophone countries), and when Classics is still being maligned as “male, pale and stale” and a tool for white supremacy, Snowden’s research provides a welcome, not to mention intellectually rigorous counterbalance. Classics need not be seen as only full of, and essentially only for, Dead White Men, but a subject with the history and literature of ancient Africa at its core. Classics has to do not just with Homer and Virgil, Thucydides and Tacitus, then, but with Apuleius and Fronto, with Lactantius and St Augustine.

Snowden’s love of the literature and thought of Ancient Greece and Rome, in addition to his recognition of the lack of colour prejudice in the Classical world, strongly refute the view that Classics is a discipline only for and about white people. In these racially turbulent and discombobulating times, Snowden’s intellectual legacy, as well as his life’s example, are arguably needed more than ever. It is a shame that his fundamentally optimistic scholarly conclusions about the place of race in the Classical world should now be impugned for political rather than intellectual motives.

Snowden receiving his National Humanities Medal at the White House on 14 Nov. 2003 (credit: Washington Post). His nominator said: “Howard students will remember him for his dramatic classroom recitations in ancient Greek and Latin from memory and his plea for the beauty and universality of great literature.”

Take the case of Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, fl. 160s BC) whose biography tells a remarkable story: he was an African from Carthage who came to Rome as a slave and yet went on to become one of the founding fathers not only of Latin drama, but by extension of Western literature, influencing Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Molière. Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto (“I am a human being and I consider nothing human alien to me”), he wrote – an apposite summary of Snowden’s belief in Classics’ humanistic and global message, which his learning, scholarship and teaching powerfully brought home throughout his long career.

To rephrase Tennyson’s famous encomium to Virgil: “I salute thee, Mr Snowden, I that loved thee since my day began.” Honouring Frank M. Snowden, Jr – a proud black intellectual in a hitherto overwhelmingly white field – demands that we recognise that the study of Classical antiquity is universal and timeless, and that the myriad joys of Classics are for everyone, regardless of race, colour, or creed.

Lindsay Johns is a writer and broadcaster. He read Modern Languages at Oxford and is currently a non-residential Fellow at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University. He considers himself a Classicist manqué, a bootleg Classicist, or just an interested layman, depending on who’s asking.

Further Reading

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (A.C. McClurg & Co., Chicago, 1903).

A.N. Sherwin-White, Racial Prejudice in Imperial Rome (The J.H. Gray Lectures for 1966) (Cambridge UP, 1967).

Frank M. Snowden, Jr, Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 1970).

Frank M. Snowden, Jr, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 1983).

Lloyd A. Thompson, Romans and Blacks (Oklahoma UP, Norman, OK / Routledge, London, 1989).

Snowden’s doctoral thesis (Harvard, 1944), De servis libertisque Pompeianis (On slaves and freedmen in Pompeii) remains unpublished (and untranslated out of Latin).