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Septimius Severus was not black, who cares?

Septimius Severus is important because he brought the Roman Empire back from the chaos ushered in by the assassination of Commodus. He was born in 145 AD and so grew into adulthood during the later Antonine period. He remembered the tail end of the time of peace and prosperity that characterized the reigns of the rulers up until Marcus Aurelius, who had to deal with German invasions and plague.

Though Severus and his heirs did not usher in the despotic “Dominate” phase of the Roman Empire, I think it is correct that his military regime ended some of the illusions of the late Principate. During Severus’ reign, the rubber-stamp role of the Senate faded more as he nakedly asserted that his will and word were the law.

But Severus is important for another reason. He was the first “African” Emperor. More precisely, he was born in the Libyan city of Leptis Magna, near modern Tripoli.  His father was of Punic background, as Leptis Magna was once a Phoenician colony. His mother was of colonial Italian stock.

In the current era, he has become newly relevant. Challenging the whiteness of classics – remembering the Black Romans:

There is a gap here between the likely racial make-up of the Roman population and how that has been understood. This gap, I suggest, derives from a systematic erasure of Black Romans from Roman history. This erasure is similar to the “whitening” of histories and cultures, in which the presence and contribution of Black people is ignored.

Greeks and Romans didn’t think in these ways. They were aware of differences. But for Romans, White or Black were not meaningful social categories. As a result, our sources hardly ever mention skin pigmentation, since it wasn’t important to them. It is normally impossible for us to associate particular ancients with those modern racial categories. But this absence of evidence has allowed the assumption that most prominent Romans were, in our terms, White.

However, there is every reason to think that many leading Romans were, in our terms, Black.

Septimius Severus was a Roman general who became emperor in 193 CE. He was born in Leptis Magna in modern Libya. Almost all depictions of Severus are statues or on coins. They show him as having curly short hair and a beard, which is sometimes forked. Such depictions do not represent his skin pigmentation.

After centuries of interaction, it is almost impossible to imagine that there were visible differences between the citizens of Leptis and the surrounding African inhabitants. We cannot prove Severus’ skin colour, but it is wrong to assume that he was light-skinned.

Roman Africa was an economic and cultural powerhouse in the later Roman Empire. Goods from Africa circulated throughout the Roman world. One of the first Roman dramatists, Terence, came from Carthage in Tunisia and his appearance is described by the historian Suetonius as fuscus, “dark”.

The second-century CE rhetorician, philosopher and novelist Apuleius was from Madouros, modern M’Daourouch, Algeria. Saint Augustine of Hippo studied in the same town. He and Cyprian of Carthage were major figures in Christian theology. Egypt was a major centre of literary and theological innovation in the late imperial period. Why would we imagine any of these individuals as White?

The classical world is a part of our cultural traditions. Colonialism has whitened classics. Such Whitening marginalises Black people. Making Black Romans visible resists colonial mentalities. It embeds Black people in that cultural tradition.

We have a fair amount of ancient DNA from Rome. Combined with analysis of ancestry tracts in modern populations it is pretty clear that most of the Sub-Saharan African ancestry, that is, black ancestry, on the southern shores of the Mediterranean date to the Islamic period or later. Not imperial Rome.

This plot below shows consistent but usually low levels of Sub-Saharan African ancestry in southern shore Mediterranean populations today:

From the paper that that plot comes from, “We estimate that a migration of western African origin into Morocco began about 40 generations ago (approximately 1,200 ya); a migration of individuals with Nilotic ancestry into Egypt occurred about 25 generations ago (approximately 750 ya).” They look at ancestry segment lengths and fit it to a model of decay over time due to recombination. It’s not rocket science.

The upshot is that only a very small minority of the population of the Roman Empire were of black African appearance. Though as noted by the scholar above, these people were salient and notable and crop up in the literature as objects of curiosity. Septimius Severus may have had dark skin, but that does not mean he was of black African background or identity (I have dark skin, and people routinely accuse me of being a white-adjacent Asian, so it’s not like they can’t reason when given proper incentives).

I do believe it was likely Septimius Severus was culturally Punic but of mixed heritage, as colonial settlements often exhibited a level of intermarriage with the local populations (I suspect his “Italian” mother also had indigenous ancestry due to the generations elapsed). In the case of Leptis Magna, that would be the indigenous Berber Libyans. We know what these people looked like from the Greeks and the Egyptians. Below is some reconstructed wall art:

Four Libyan kings on the left

I would caution against taking the skin colors too literally, but the Egyptians describe and depict the Libyans as light-skinned like their West Asian neighbors, while the Nubians are shown to be darker in complexion. The Nubians are Sub-Saharan African, or black, while the Libyans are not.

What’s the point of this? Most of you know this? Well, a Ph.D. geneticist who isn’t even particularly woke pointed me to the article about Septimius Severus being black as if it wasn’t a farce. The lie has become true, even if you laugh it off.

What’s going on? Since 2020 and the “racial reckoning” white scholars have been engaging in political activism. The classicist above understands the “need” for racial representation, so is making the best case in a lawyerly manner.

Though the Greco-Romans didn’t have our racial classifications and understandings, they were not ignorant and even distinguished between the physical appearance of North and South Indians, correctly observing that South Indians resemble “Aethiopians” in color but differ in having straighter hair. The ancients were also aware that Mediterranean people differed in complexion, with Egyptians being darker in complexion than Thracians, and individuals had color terms in their names such as Albinus and Niger.

The Roman-era Egyptian portraits probably correctly depict the range in complexion in northern Africa, from relatively fair to medium-brown, with most people being brunette white or light brown. Without a deeper investigation, it is reasonable that Septimius Severus had darker skin than the average Italian, but it is also reasonable that his subjects did not perceive him to be black, or more accurately for the time “Ethiopian.” Instead, he was a provincial from Libya. Part of the problem with classicists trying to concoct a black identity and appearance for Septimius of Severus, Augustine of Hippo and Terence is that they are engaging in what is now fashionably called “erasure.” The history, achievements, and identity of the Afro-Asiatic people of North Africa, from the Maghreb to Egypt, are co-opted to make the case for black representation in antiquity because during this period the Sahara was far less penetrable than it became under Islamic states deploying camel caravans. It is one thing when Afrocentrist ideologues engage in this, but when intellectuals and scholars do so, it is very alarming.

The job of scholars in the modern West is, to tell the truth and represent facts as they are. They may miss the mark often, but they should aim as best as they can. The problem with classicists over the last few years is they temporize, equivocate, and intentionally mislead their audiences when they very well know that the North African people that suggest “may have been black” were likely no more black than the typical West Asian. This is not to say they were “white” (though many people from the MENA do identify as such today and did in the past), but scholars should have the courage to admit that the past was not black and white, and it does not always easily fit in our narratives, whether we are 19th-century Victorian white supremacists or 21st-century anti-racists.

I write this in 2022 with the clear understanding that the lie will likely become the truth. But some of you will remember the truth, and the more I write and talk about this, the more the truth shall not die. The will come when the darkness will end, and we or our descendants should be prepared to remember the world as it was rather than only have the understanding of priests who preach how it should have been.

23 thoughts on “Septimius Severus was not black, who cares?

  1. I don’t know who this so-called professor is more: a hypocrite or a useful idiot? But now this is not the main thing, because the fate of the Western world is now being decided in the East of Europe, and its new Reneissance will take place from there: Baltic countries, Poland, Czech, Slovakia, maybe Scandinavian countries and of course Ukraine is a future of Western civilization.

  2. It’s a real pity the term “negro” was cancelled. It provides a great deal more clarity than “African”, or even “sub-Saharan African”.

  3. Those countries have neither the demographics, economy, military etc. to be a replacement for Western Europe. The goal should be to reclaim “lost” territories rather than being satisfied with ever shrinking territories.

    Same problem with the American right. They are like, “so what if we lost New York, California, Washington, media, big business, national security apparatus, education, basically everything of any importance. We will maintain the Western civilization in our NoOneCaresTown, Pop: 20.”

    Imagine if the Spanish Christians in 722 AD were like “it’s fine that we lost all of Hispania, we can maintain Christian civilization in the valleys of Asturias”. That’s the attitude of American right.

  4. What a time we live in where “Romans were not black” is the secret knowledge passed from generation to generation.

  5. It’s dumb that they’re trying to pin it on particular prominent figures, like how Italian-Americans fixated on Columbus. They could have just said that there were probably folks we would recognize as “black Africans” in the Roman Empire, although they weren’t great in number and would have mostly been concentrated near its southern periphery.

    Or they could have just pointed to Kush and later Aksum, mostly friendly neighbors of the Roman Empire (relative to the Parthians and their successors, at least).

  6. What a time we live in where “Romans were not black” is the secret knowledge passed from generation to generation.

    also secret: queen charlotte of mecklenburg-strelitz was not black.

  7. “The job of scholars in the modern West is, to tell the truth and represent facts as they are.”

    No, in the modern west that will get you fired in a lot of instances. Roland Fryer?

    One might be optimistic about the situation if one is a patriarchal white cis male who cares about evil things like factualness though. I know that is a UK university so maybe it’s different there, but in the US, the number of humanities majors, like history or philosophy is plummeting, and not because they aren’t directly practical, but because what you have to learn to acquire a degree is largely not true, and that is becoming common knowledge outside the academy. Someone with such a degree isn’t thought to know something useless, but to know less than nothing at all, so to speak, about whatever it is that one majored in and calling them ‘educated’ just doesn’t fly.

    Given modern info tech too, if universities were to go full dark age, which they have, how much knowledge would actually be lost in the interval? Probably not that much.

  8. The will come when the darkness will end, and we or our descendants should be prepared to remember the world as it was

    Well, you better be educating your own descendants then! Homeschool?

    And how will this “darkness” end? I don’t think it will end itself.


    Here is a modification of my Minoan(substratum)-Yamnaya(minority) model for South Italians. I have divided Minoan into aggregates of Lasithi, Odigitria, Petras, and the new sample from Zakros. As well as an aggregate for Yamnaya. The fit is good.

  10. What goes around comes around. Butt hurt pint sized shrimp White wimps have been claiming that Chinghis Khan was White and his portrayal was purposely misrepresented by the Chinese painter.

    In fact if you type “Genghis Khan was” into google, “White” will be autocompleted.

    Also many South Asians hold a view that the medieval Mongols were not Mongoloids and modern day Mongols are actually Chinese. Even some “professors” say this, I was told. The average Indians dismiss the idea that Mughals descend from Mongols as ludicrous and those “professors” who know better try to cop-out by imagining as above.

    Indian bigotry against East Asians is quite intense, especially toward their “Northeast minority”, ethnically akin to Southeast Asians. Razib once said that they even extend it to Bengali because Bengali are deemed to have mixed with East Asians “too much”.

  11. Also many South Asians hold a view that the medieval Mongols were not Mongoloids and modern day Mongols are actually Chinese. Even some “professors” say this, I was told. The average Indians dismiss the idea that Mughals descend from Mongols as ludicrous and those “professors” who know better try to cop-out by imagining as above.

    babur and akbhar are both described as having an e. asian aspect to their appearance. this is also clear in some of the paintings/representations (others make them look more Iranian or south asian)

  12. Indian bigotry against East Asians is quite intense, especially toward their “Northeast minority”, ethnically akin to Southeast Asians.

    I don’t know if I would use the term bigotry, but sexual harassment against northeastern looking women is common I hear. but this indicates that they don’t necessarily *dislike* east asians and tbh it’s pretty a lot of south asian guys like east asian women just like white guys do. (contrast with the racism against people of African origin in the subcontinent)

  13. Indian bigotry against East Asians is quite intense

    And East Asians totally don’t have any bigotry against South Asians (or blacks, for that matter).

    Have you ever been to a department store in Tokyo, Seoul, or Shanghai with a dark-skinned person?

  14. “Have you ever been to a department store in Tokyo, Seoul, or Shanghai with a dark-skinned person?”

    At least they don’t beat them up or sexually harass them. Social Justice always looks funny when it comes from a Korean.

    Many years ago there were a group of Indians who were furious at Korea because Korea demanded documentation for their entry while Japan went far easier. The Korean press made a big issue out of this to make it a sort of moment of reflection, self-criticism and ultimately penitence. Apparently the Indians thought , since grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat Japan treated them nicely, puny Korea had no right but to treat them like royalty because… uh yeah, India is an ancient culture that Korea should respect no matter what.

    Korea is a land of shallow Political Correctness. Feminism is at its most extreme. Commenting on a woman’s appearance can land you in jail. Seriously.

    Koreans have no understanding of things like freedom of speech or academic freedom. For them the West is Good and emulating the West should be done at all cost. Curiously that includes White Guilt. Koreans want to share White Guilt even though they had no fun when White men had a lot of it, killing and raping native populations all over the world. Whites however don’t appreciate any of this and see this as a stupid attempt by Koreans to join the White race.

    Razib would be in jail if he were Korean because he said something about Blacks, IQ and genetics.

    Korea is run by dictatorship of Political Correctness and you are a very typical Korean.

    And… don’t get too worked up. I am not Chinese.

  15. “Worked up”? Don’t project. Yours are just jumbles of inane, low intelligence words.

    My point, which you elided, was rather simple – go to a department store or a shop with a dark-skinned person (Indian, black, take a pick) in Tokyo, Seoul, or Shanghai. See what happens.

    That’s not “social justice.” It’s just what happens in those countries. Notwithstanding the political correctness that reigns in East Asian media, ordinary East Asians are pretty prejudiced against dark-skinned foreigners. That’s just the reality.

    My intent wasn’t so much to single out East Asians. It was rather to point out that racial prejudice is rather common all over the world outside the West. Globally, it’s the norm rather than the exception, so any alleged Indian prejudice toward East Asians wouldn’t be unusual and is amply reciprocated.

    That said, there are some differences among East Asians. Since you seem obsessed with Koreans, I’ll drop this little nugget. They are a lot more “anti-Semitic” (quotations marks intended) than the Japanese and the Chinese:

    Strange, huh, for being “a land of shallow Political Correctness.”

    BTW, it’s amusing you think I am “a typical Korean,” whatever that means. I’ve heard a lot of descriptions of me over the years, but none of it ever contained “typical.” Try “yellow hillbilly.”

  16. My point, which you don’t get because you are too phony, woke and slow, is that the Northeastern tribes of India will probably be happy if they are just made fun of, instead of being raped and murdered by Indians. The same for Asians – Blacks relation in the US(Blacks are the bad guys), Nigerians against Asians and Europeans in Nigeria(Nigerians are the bad guys) etc.

    I am not going in the direction of the childish art of showing who are more racist but it says a lot that Indians go so far as to fabricate history and deny that Mughals were Mongols. It says a lot about India’s national psyche that outsiders are totally unaware of because Indians are always seen as victims of racism, never perpetuators of it. It is about a deep national obsession rather than casual racism that is seen everywhere in the world.

    As for the stupid anti-Semitism survey I answered yes to 1-9 but I don’t hate Jews. I don’t love them but I don’t hate them either. It is a typical sob-story survey.

    The low scores among Japan, China and even Muslim SE Asian countries are probably due to indifference/ignorance than true love for Jewish people. The high score among Koreans probably reflects the PC nature of Korean mentality. It is also due to antagonism toward radical Korean evangelical Christians who are extremely pro-Israel.

    10 years ago Koreans were at least politically very pro-Black. The events of the last 3 years changed that but the PC majority, especially radical feminists, still love them. The same thing will happen to the Korean attitude toward Arabs. Koreans see Arabs as an ally against Jews but they will soon realize that Arabs are just as racist as, if not worse, than Jews.
    Arabs initiated and helped the process by beheading a Korean(gloating about it too) and controlling sports organizations(like AFC, FIFA and almost every sports body in Asia) and their insipid, corrupt referees.

  17. My usage of “woke” is somewhat different from others’. I apply the term to those with a self-imbued sense of holy mission to educate the world. Right or left in the political spectrum does not matter.

    “Don’t we, all?” is such a cliché that I did not even honor to reply to it directly.(It is like saying Hitler was a good man because “aren’t we all racist at some level?”)

    There is a term “claptrap”. The modern day usage has it(probably semantic mutation) as “pretentious nonsense” but I am sure that originally it was meant as “speech cleverly designed to draw applauds from audience”. Twinkie does it very often. That is why I call him phony. “cliché wisdom” is the term I applied to him a few months ago.

    The prime example of “claptrap” would be something like the trope “Religion and science can coexist in harmony and should complement each other”. That is BS but both religious and scientific community will find it acceptable. It will draw deep nods and loud applauds from both communities. Many scientists disagree with it but they will just pretend to agree because they do not want to be seen as trouble-seeking radicals.

    While we are at it, I say that a modern technologically advanced countries should tolerate religion, not guarantee or encourage it but just tolerate it.

    Twinkie probably wants to see Koreans as conservative, no non-sense taking tough guys. That is why he linked the survey to show Koreans are anti-Jews, thus not PC.
    But PC means different things for different target audiences. Noam Chomsky type of PCness would be anti-Jewish. For mainstream academia it is pro-Jew.

    Koreans happened to be the former because the PC majority is also the new Moonies, supporters of the former president Moon. They are also called Moon-Guards(similar to PRC’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in terms of being radical and fanatical) or Moon-Be worms(similar to Il-Be which are conservative pro-Japanese ass holes. They are at opposite ends of the political spectrum but they behave exactly the same.).

    These new Moonies are an outgrowth of Kkaeshimin(literally translates into “woke citizens”). I am sure that the term “woke” derives from kkaeshimin because chronologically it was earlier and there is someone(or two) who is actually credited to for using that term first with a very reasonable etymology.(He was saying “you guys should get some sleep”)
    Or maybe it is just an amazing coincidence.

  18. twinkie is many things but you calling him woke means you are getting hysterical

    My bad. I shouldn’t engage with people who seem to have some kind of mental illness and/or are on psych meds.

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