Is Herodotus Racist?

Answer by Tom Harrison

In a passage of his famous memoir, Travels with Herodotus, the journalist Ryszard Kapuściński speculates about how Herodotus might have treated his slaves. ‘I think that he was a kind-hearted man, and gave them little reason to complain overly much’. This response to Herodotus was clearly the product of Kapuściński’s particular formation in Communist-era Poland, but it is also perhaps representative of a wider response to Herodotus. We’d like to believe that he shared our perspectives on the darker side of ancient culture, that he supported women’s rights (after all, he gives as an example of the justice of the Issedones – a distant northern people – that their women had ‘equal power’ with the men), and that he was kind to his slaves.

The truth is probably less palatable. Herodotus cannot and should not be reduced just to being a typical representative of his time and place – something I’ll come back to – but, equally, he cannot be divorced from that wider context: if we judge ancient Greek culture racist, then Herodotus should probably be lumped in with that judgement. But can we apply the term ‘racist’ to the Greeks, in the first place? The usual response here is to say ‘no’. ‘Racism’, the argument goes, depends upon a pseudo-scientific ideology underpinning it, something which is the product of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Greeks may have expressed pejorative views of foreign peoples, but they did not (or, at least, they did not so consistently) focus, in doing so, on differences in skin colour or physiognomy – on immutable characteristics. Greek culture may have been ‘xenophobic’ or ‘chauvinist’, then, but not ‘racist’.

These are all reasonable arguments. But these kinds of distinctions might also make us uncomfortable. A lot is at stake, it seems, in keeping the Greeks safely incomparable. And terms like ‘chauvinism’ somehow reduce the force of negative Greek views of foreign peoples, suggesting that they were merely abstract, that there were no victims. The institution of slavery gives the lie to this, in my view. Even if Greeks also enslaved fellow-Greeks (and this seems to have become less common over time), there was a powerful association of slavery with foreign peoples. When comic playwrights looked for a name for a slave character, they typically used ‘ethnics’ like ‘Syrian’ or ‘Thracian’ or stereotypically foreign names.

Is there any evidence specifically to tie Herodotus to all of this? I’ve argued elsewhere that his ethnographies of foreign peoples reflect a wider Greek discourse on the differences between peoples rooted in the trade in slaves. The Thracians sell their own children, we are told, for example. The fact that life is so cheap amongst the Thracians seems, in effect, to exonerate the Greeks who then took them on as slaves. It is important to say, however, that this ‘message’ of ethnography is an implicit one, and not specifically Herodotus’ own. In general, Herodotus resists caricatured portraits of different foreign peoples, let alone any notion of the inferiority of ‘barbarians’ as a whole. Distant peoples like the Ethiopians are characterised in idealised form as exceptionally tall and beautiful, speaking truth to the power of the Persian King. Herodotus also highlights how foreign peoples themselves cast others as barbarians.

None of this, however, gets Herodotus or the Greeks off the hook. Positive, idealised representations of foreign peoples don’t simply negate, but work in parallel with, pejorative stereotypes. In the end, then, the question of whether Herodotus was ‘[a] racist’ is one to which it is very hard to give a definitive answer. And probably more important in the end than that narrow question is the job of really wrestling with his (and the Greeks’) portrait of non-Greek peoples in all its complexity.


The fullest account of the evidence for ancient racism is Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (2004); he prefers the term ‘proto-racism’, in fact, although he regrets this a little in a later essay in an edited collection, The Origins of Racism in the West. A very well-made argument against the use of ‘racism’ is Christopher Tuplin’s, available freely online; and Erich Gruen’s influential book Rethinking the Other gives very strong emphasis to the positive portrayal of foreign peoples. You can read my counter-argument in this article on the Greek idea of the ‘barbarian’; a fuller defence of the use of the term ‘Greek racism’ is forthcoming in a volume, Identities in Antiquity, edited by V. Manolopoulou, J. Skinner and C. Tsouparopoulou.

There is a wealth of good material on Herodotus’ portrait of foreign peoples specifically. Particularly valuable, in so far as they focus on Herodotus’ underlying models (rather than just totting up positive and negative portrayals) are James Redfield’s essay ‘Herodotus the Tourist’ and Rosaria Munson’s Telling Wonders. (You can hear her talk about her book on the Helpline YouTube channel.)