The Departure of Memnon: A Black Hero of the Trojan War
From the heroic age of Homer until the more clearly documented time of the historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C., Aethiopia was more a vast, vaguely conceived zone at the southern edge of the world than a place understood through direct experience. The origin of the name is rooted in Greek words for fire and light. Memnon’s home generally was held to be in the East, often in ancient Persia. As a consequence, the hero was thought of as perhaps darker than the Greeks themselves, but definitely not black.
By the late sixth century B.C., however, about the time this vase was made, the philosopher Xenophanes had characterized Aethiopians more specifically as black Africans. Half a century later, Herodotus, who actually traveled up the Nile, described ancient Aethiopia as roughly equivalent to the modern region of Nubia, lying to the south of Egypt. He writes that it is a land inhabited by black people, of sunburnt complexions, where “the men are taller, handsomer and longer lived than anywhere else.” Nubian bowmen were also renowned for their deadly accuracy, and it is likely in reference to this skill that Memnon is shown on the vase as an archer rather than equipped with the more standard spear and shield.
From the depiction of a mythological black figure, it was a logical jump for Greek artists to focus on black people of the everyday world. The representation of blacks of all types, both humble and exalted, became an enduring feature throughout the centuries-long course of Greco-Roman civilization. Although the complete absence of color prejudice in antiquity may be open to discussion, the representation of black people during this vibrant period indicates a degree of acceptance regrettably uncommon in other historical periods.