Picture this: to celebrate a hundred years since the birth of Nelson Mandela this July, the BBC commissions an eight-part biopic to celebrate the life and times of the beloved anti-apartheid revolutionary. Its choice of lead? Colin Firth.
That isn't happening. However, you can see its equivalent on Troy: Fall of a City – well, at least according to furious Twitter commenters berating the BBC for casting black actors to play Achilles and Zeus.
"Ridiculous [that] Zeus, Achilles and Patriculus [are] all of African descent," read one message. "Imagine the reaction if they [had] done a doc about Nelson Mandela and cast Colin Firth". Another Twitter message replying to star David Gyasi said he was part of "the racist rewriting of the Greek culture and mythology".
Meanwhile in a video posted on YouTube, a user claimed that the BBC was "blackwashing" Greek myth to “deprive Europeans of their culture and history to make them more susceptible to their globalist aims”.
This is just a taste of the comments surrounding the BBC drama following the debuts of David Gyasi and Hakeem Kae-Kazim.
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Why are people so angry about the BBC's decision? Is there any basis to the 'blackwashing' conspiracy?
In short: absolutely not. In a bit longer: we chatted with Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge, to answer any questions you might have on the ethnicity of Troy – starting with the big one…
Were some ancient Greeks black?
“Our best estimate is that the Greeks would be a spectrum of hair colours and skin types in antiquity. I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt they were Mediterranean in skin type (lighter than some and darker than other Europeans), with a fair amount of inter-mixing,” says Whitmarsh.
Not only were the historical Greeks unlikely to be uniformly pale-skinned, but their world was also home to ‘Ethiopians’, a vague term for dark-skinned North Africans. They are mentioned in Aethiopis, the story after Homer’s Iliad (the epic poems retelling the battle of Troy), where Memnon of Ethiopia joins the fighting.
But here’s the thing: the question of whether 'black people' lived in Ancient Greece is itself flawed. The Greek world – one they saw as a circular disk surrounded by a constantly moving stream of ocean – was far more 'fluid' than our own.
“There was a lot of travel in that period – people were moving from Egypt to Greece, east to west. It was a world without borders, without national states. It was all interconnected,” says Whitmarsh.
This flux was ethnic as well as geographic, according to Whitmarsh: “The Greeks didn’t carve up the world into black and white. They didn’t see themselves in those terms. All of our categories – black and white, for instance – are formed by a very modern set of historical circumstance.”
Whitmarsh isn’t alone in this argument, either. Here’s what Dr Rachel Mairs, Associate Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Reading, said when we put the question to her: “I'm delighted that the BBC have gone for a more diverse cast. Modern racial categories aren't always helpful in looking at the ancient world, but there were certainly people we today might think of as both 'black' and 'white' in the ancient Mediterranean, and many variations of colour and identity in between"
In Troy: Fall of a City, this spectrum of skin colours isn't really portrayed. From Bella Dayne’s Helen of Troy to Jonas Armstrong’s Menelaus, the majority of the cast is pale-skinned.
“We don't definitely know what ancient Greeks would look like, but they sure as hell wouldn’t look like the 'white' actors we normally see either,” says Whitmarsh. “And that’s the real issue here: anyone who says it’s inauthentic to cast Achilles as black has to explain why it’s authentic to use an Australian actor [Louis Hunter, who plays Paris] speaking in English to represent an ancient Greek hero. That seems, to me, another powerful form of appropriation and an equally misleading depiction.”
But doesn't Homer say Achilles is white in the Iliad?
Not exactly. In the Iliad, Homer describes Achilles as having blonde hair – and that’s only a rough translation. The actual term he uses, xanthē, could mean 'golden' or a variety of words – “Greek colour terms are quite strange and don’t map out well on ours,” says Whitmarsh.
Difficult translations aside, Homer’s work don’t give us the full story of Troy. The Iliad only covers a few days in the last weeks of the war and the Odyssey deals with the aftermath of the fighting.
The definitive source on the battle? Doesn’t exist. If you want to tell the story you have to rely on scraps of poems, oral history or vase paintings – the myth is malleable.
“Homer’s poems are merely one version and the Greeks themselves understood the story could change,” explains Whitmarsh. “There’s never been an authentic retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey – they’ve always been fluid texts. They’re not designed to be set in stone and it’s not blasphemous to change them.
“All the way through antiquity people updated it, changed the angle and brought in people that weren’t in Homer's original. For instance, the Romans got interested in the story because they thought they were the descendants of the Trojans. And in their version, [spoilers ahead] the Trojans win the war instead of losing.”
Even if you ignore the ever-changing nature of myth and still think it would be inaccurate for Gyasi to play Achilles, then how about this: at one point Homer describes Odysseus – played by Joseph Mawle in Fall of a City and Sean Bean in the 2004 Troy film – as dark-skinned.
“In the Odyssey, Odysseus is said to be ‘black-skinned and woolly-haired’ – at one point we’re told that Athena makes him beautiful by restoring his natural black skin colour [see, Odyssey 16.175],” says Whitmarsh.
“Modern readers will think, 'Is he black or not?’ It’s an interesting question, but it’s probably the wrong one. Homer isn’t trying to put Odysseus in a black or white category. It’s not a race thing. He's not saying that Odysseus is in a group of people that are all united by a skin colour.”
Like Achilles' 'blonde' hair, it's difficult for modern readers to understand exactly what Homer meant by Odysseus's 'black' skin. However, it's telling that while some viewers have been quick to argue that a black actor could never play a blonde Achilles, nothing has been said about a white actor playing a 'black-skinned' Odysseus. In the month before Fall of a City was released there were a number of tweets and YouTube comments expressing outrage at Gyasi's casting. Odysseus? Not a single person raised the issue.
What about Zeus?
Zeus, King of the Gods, is... well... a God. “And the thing about the Gods,” explains Whitmarsh, “is that when they reveal themselves to people they have to take on a different form.”
This form could be anything: a swan, a bull, an eagle, a shower of horny gold rain, or even that of actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim, as seen in Fall of a City.
So, why couldn't the show portray the Gods in their 'true' form? Slightly problematic: Zeus’s is a lightning bolt. And, as Semele – one of the few characters in Greek mythology to witness this form – found out, it's not too friendly: "She was immediately consumed by flames and was incinerated," says Whitmarsh.
As Whitmarsh says: “Asking if a thunderbolt is a white thunderbolt or a black thunderbolt might be taking this too far.”
Why are the Greeks white in art then?
For a few reasons. Firstly, the 'white' Greek marble statues that fill up our museums were actually originally painted different colours. The paint didn't survive the test of time: the marble did.
The second reason? That’s much more interesting: it’s the same reason that can explain why Jesus tends to be a European in Western people’s minds, and why Cleopatra has been played by Elizabeth Taylor and Achilles by Brad Pitt.
“People tend to like the past to look like a mirror image of themselves,” says Whitmarsh. “Since the 18th and 19th century onwards there has been a 'whitening' of the Greeks and Romans – an appropriation by European powers. For instance, the Germans in the 1800s were adamant that the Greeks were actually Germans who had wandered down the peninsula.”
As for British and American audiences, “The transatlantic slave trade made it so black and white are the categories in which we see people," argues Whitmarsh. "The Greeks had a concept of people being different skin colours, but they wouldn’t put black people on one side and white people on another.”
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The slave trade drew a line between slavers and slaves, black and white. And to make sure they were on the 'right' side of this dividing line, Europeans began to see themselves as 'whiter'. This also meant depicting the Greeks – perceived as the ancestors of modern European civilisation – as white too.
To put it another way, we see the world through certain lenses. And that's not necessarily a bad thing: they help to focus and make sense of everything. But occasionally we need to encounter something that makes us realise there's another way of seeing.
“At least the representation of Achilles and Zeus as 'black' is going to shake up people a bit,” says Whitmarsh. “There’s value disrupting the narrative in this way and making us think again what people would look like.”
Originally published 24 February 2018