The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anti-Blackness and transphobia are older than we thought

In the Byzantine Empire, ideas of race and gender were deeply intertwined.

A fresco of Emperor John II Komnenos and Empress Irene in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. (iStock)
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When did racism begin? Because of how ideas about race shape our contemporary world, some have argued that racism did not exist in the ancient and medieval worlds, that it was a modern invention. Proposing that there was a past before racism helped prop up the notion that Americans were living in a post-racial present, in the decades after the Civil Rights movement.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

More than just race thinking and varied forms of racialized prejudices, the ancient and medieval world provide us with a deep legacy of anti-Blackness. This history of anti-Blackness has not only defined modern racism as we know it, but also shaped how gender and sexuality have been explained and represented for centuries. Remembering this longer history of racism and transphobia should remind us of how deeply ingrained these ideas are — and how much effort it will take to root them out.

Recognizing anti-Blackness in the deep past, particularly the Christian Middle Ages, allows us to better understand how colorist prejudices were racialized and transmitted from Ancient Greece and Rome to the modern Western world. Throughout this period, Christianity attempted to position itself as a new “race” (genos) or group of people that transcended ethnic categories and civilizations by proselytizing across the known world from India to Ethiopia. But Christianity still retained the deep anti-Blackness rooted in ancient theories of racialized and gendered differences.

The Byzantine Empire (or, more accurately, the medieval Roman Empire) controlled the eastern Mediterranean from 330 to 1453 C.E. with its capital in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul. Constantinople was the envy of the Western medieval world, a cosmopolitan center at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Asia. Because of its lineage dating to antiquity, the Byzantine Empire provides a unique lens on how racial tropes persisted across millennia and how they were transmitted and reconceived under Christian rule.

European visitors to Constantinople often remarked on the city’s racial diversity and commented on the darker skin of its emperors and peoples. Surprisingly, Byzantine sources were often silent on this racialized difference, potentially taking it for granted in their cosmopolitan empire. Yet while Byzantines were not White in the eyes of their European neighbors, they also privileged Whiteness in their descriptions of feminine beauty and often contoured their own identity through a prism of anti-Blackness.

For example, Byzantine intellectuals boasted about the students who came to work with them from around the globe and imperial authors praised the diversity of the imperial court. In 1174, Eustathios of Thessaloniki celebrated the diversity of the emperor’s entourage by listing all the various envoys from foreign lands present, including, “the Indian too, slightly tinged with black, and the Ethiopian with his whole skin burnt dark.” At the same time, the popular epic romance, “Digenes Akritas,” dating to the same period, described its hero’s Arab father as knowing the Romans’ (i.e. Byzantines’) language perfectly, having curly hair and saying that his complexion was “not black like the Ethiopians but fair and handsome.”

While outsiders could be scorned for their dark complexion, dark skin wasn’t considered bad in all cases for the subjects of the Byzantine Empire. In fact, it was associated with the admirable strength of ancient heroes, like Odysseus, who Homer described as “black skinned” (melanochroous) in the “Odyssey.” But whether dark skin was seen as virtue or ugliness depended on one’s gender and sexuality.

A dark complexion was prized as a sign of masculinity: Manly men were said to have dark skin. But dark skin was considered unfeminine, and therefore dark-skinned women were viewed negatively — as were light-skinned men. Since white skin was associated with feminine beauty, when translated onto the male body it became a sign of queerness and “effeminacy.”

One Byzantine emperor, Manuel I Komnenos, was praised at length for his dark complexion. But his eulogy revealed the gendered view on dark skin in this period. Komnenos’s dark skin matched his dignity since it did not display “an effeminate paleness … having aspired to an appearance that one does not find on womanly or soft people.” In Greek, terms like “womanly” (gynaikias) and “soft” (malthakous) were slurs for effeminate men and for men who slept with men respectively. Malthakos was even a technical term in late antique medicine to pathologize same-gender desire, particularly for men acting as the passive partner in such acts.

When discussing this same emperor in the early 13th century, chronicler Niketas Choniates wrote that “in complexion he was neither snow-white like those reared in the shade nor the color of deep black smoke like those exposed to the burning rays of the sun; he was, consequently, not fair-complexioned but swarthy in appearance.” Like the emperor’s eulogizers, Choniates is clear to highlight Komnenos as someone who spent his time in the sun doing manly things. Yet he also walked a careful racial tightrope: wanting to praise the emperor’s dark skin — and therefore his masculinity — while also making sure not to associate him with “those exposed to the burning rays of the sun.” In other words, making sure to not associate the color of his skin with a distinctly racialized group, such as Black Africans, what Greek texts would have vaguely referred to as “Ethiopians” (literally meaning, “burnt-faced”).

This reference to the burning rays of the sun is crucial, because since antiquity it was believed that not only did the sun’s rays darken the skin, but the climate also altered people’s character. For example, those reared in the extreme cold and shade were understood as having been burned white by the cold, and Hippocrates even said that the men in these places became eunuchs and behaved like women. Thus, the understanding that dark skin was associated with masculinity and virility emerged from this broader dialogue involving both racialized and gendered identities.

Some unique tales of transgender saints from the 5th to the 9th centuries provide a vivid illustration of how these identities intersect. These saints had been assigned female at birth but lived out their lives as men in male monastic communities. Across their stories, we read how their bodies changed over the years, with their breasts withering, the cessation of menstruation — and their skin gaining a darker and coarse complexion. One trans monk’s former husband does not even recognize his former wife because he appeared “just as an Ethiopian.” Part of affirming the male gender of these trans monks involved articulating a transformation in skin color.

These associations between race thinking and gender were so central that in depictions of the Ethiopian Eunuch (a figure assigned male at birth who was castrated in childhood) from the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, the figure of the eunuch was rarely depicted as a Black person — even though “Ethiopian” was defined in contemporaneous dictionaries as literally meaning “a black person.” Instead, the Ethiopian eunuch was depicted as a White youth because it was pale whiteness that was associated with the appearance of eunuchs.

Eunuchs played an important role in the Byzantine Empire, understood not quite as men, and often attacked with misogynistic language and stereotypes. Therefore, it was their disputed gender identity that came to determine the depiction of eunuchs’ skin by artists, deploying the same palettes used for the depiction of courtly women with pale, white skin and rosy cheeks.

It is in these rich and nuanced crossings of gender, sexuality and race that the Middle Ages can productively shatter many of our preconceptions — and also make us aware of the deep and interlaced histories of racism and transphobia. Across history, racializing peoples as others often went far beyond epidermal, physiognomic or genetic markers of race alone. Accurately understanding the complex and intertwined history of these ideas is key to understanding our world where racism and transphobia have become the dominant ideologies of hatred.

The Middle Ages offer crucial lessons to us today as we continue the struggle for trans rights, work against anti-Black police brutality and articulate the importance of teaching our history of racism in classrooms.