Thursday, April 26, 2012

Denise McCoskey's "Race: Antiquity and its Legacy"

Denise Eileen McCoskey is Associate Professor of Classics and an affiliate in Black World Studies at Miami University, Ohio. She has written extensively on the politics of race in antiquity, and in 2009 she won the American Philological Association Award for Excellence in Teaching at the College Level.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, and reported the following:
Race: Antiquity and its Legacy provides a comprehensive introduction to race in classical antiquity. In it, I wanted to demonstrate the sheer number of contexts in which race mattered to the Greeks and Romans, allowing readers to experience the complexity of race—and the breadth and evolution of its forms—in fields as diverse as ancient racial theory, ethnography, social practice, art and literature. In addition, I link changes over time in the meanings of race to historical circumstances, such as Greece’s monumental encounter with the Persians. Notably, although ancient writers recognized a diversity of skin colors among human populations, skin color difference did not provide the foundation for ancient racial thought. The Greeks and Romans in no way considered themselves “white,” a fact overlooked in many efforts to include them in a genealogy of “white” civilization. Thus, I also trace the use (and abuse) of ancient ideas about race in more modern eras.

Given the range of topics, I hoped page 99 would feature one of my more appealing sites of analysis, such as the always-intriguing Cleopatra or the lavish Roman triumph. Instead, page 99 discussed (cringe) ancient taxation. How does such a seemingly mundane subject represent my book as a whole? Taxation actually illustrates well two major arguments: the role of context (including the tax form) in defining race and the shifting operation of race over time.

Page 99 discusses a specific tax policy undertaken in Egypt under Greek rule, one that gave financial advantages to those claiming “Greek” status. Yet “Greeks” in the tax code were defined “in ways perhaps different from our expectations: Jews and Egyptians were also able in some cases to claim ‘Greek’ tax-status” (99). While race played a distinct role in governmental policy, taxation thus established racial boundaries and their consequences in ways different from other contexts, such as social interactions or cultural display.

The tax code also changed over time, shifting its privileged category from “Greeks” to those associated with Greek practices. That occupations, such as teachers or athletes, rather than people per se received dispensation “reinforces conclusions discussed elsewhere ... namely that during the Hellenistic period, cultural practice was acquiring greater and greater authority in defining Greek identity” (99)—in other words, despite its many differences from other racial structures, tax policy followed a larger trend for redefining “Greekness” not by who you were but what you did, a trend that was accelerating in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests.
Read more about Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue