Race in Late-Antique Egypt: Moses the Black and Authentic Historical Voice

Eras Journal – Noell, B.: “Race in Late-Antique Egypt: Moses the Black and Authentic Historical Voice”

Race in Late-Antique Egypt : Moses the Black and Authentic Historical Voice[1]

Brian Noell

(Yale University)

The early-sixth century collection of monastic wisdom in Greek known as The Sayings of the Desert Fathers contains the following anecdote about Moses, a black man who became a famous ascetic at Scetis in the desert of Lower Egypt :

It was said of Abba Moses that he was ordained and the ephod was placed upon him. The archbishop said to him, “See Abba Moses, now you are entirely white.” The old man said to him, “It is true of the outside, lord and father, but what about Him who sees the inside?”

The text continues:

Wishing to test him the archbishop said to the priests, “When Abba Moses comes into the sanctuary, drive him out and go with him to hear what he says.” So the old man came in and they covered him with abuse, and drove him out saying, “Outside black man (Aethiops)!” Going out he said to himself, “They have acted rightly concerning you, for your skin is as black as ashes. You are not a man, so why should you be allowed to meet men?”[2]

This account is compelling because it is a rare case in which the actual disposition of ancient people toward race seems to be revealed. On the one hand, typical attitudes appear to be reflected in the mock rejection of Moses. On the other, Moses’ apparent self-loathing based on his skin colour seems to give us a glimpse of how black people in the late-Roman Empire might have seen themselves. It is not surprising, therefore, that scholars have repeatedly noted this incident in their studies of race and racism in the late-antique Mediterranean.

Most students of the subject agree that there was no systematic discrimination against black people in the Empire. The debate focuses on the extent to which skin colour was a hindrance to Africans in their social interactions. Frank Snowden has famously argued that blacks were admired by others in the Mediterranean world and faced no limitations at all.[3] The predominant opinion, however, seems to be that, although Africans did not confront legal barriers, they suffered from the deep-seated association of their skin colour with ugliness, impurity, barbarity, and the demonic. Such associations arose long before the Christian period and predominated among intellectual elites as well as the populace at large.[4]

The tale of Abba Moses and the archbishop has been used with reason to illuminate attitudes toward blacks in Roman antiquity. However, in their analyses, scholars have been tempted to speculate about how Moses and his fellow Africans felt living in the dominant society. I wish to argue that it is methodologically dangerous to extrapolate from this story how blacks themselves saw their experience in late-Roman Egypt.

In establishing this epistemological boundary I follow Gayatri Spivak, who has been a vocal critic of attempts to draw out the experience of socially marginalised people, whom she terms ‘the subaltern’. Although such individuals in some cases make up the majority of the population, they by definition lack a voice in the culture that disseminates information about them. Their real sentiments, filtered through outside investigators or sympathetic local intellectuals, are lost in the attempt to translate them into the categories of dominant, usually literary, social discourse. Spivak urges us to acknowledge the impossibility of hearing the real voices of those who have left no record of their views expressed in their own terms. She argues that we should give up searching for their experience and instead focus on the construction of their identity by literate interpreters.[5]

The story of Moses and the archbishop is among the best evidence we possess about racial attitudes in the late antique Mediterranean, occupying a prominent place in the scholarship. Yet, like many ancient texts, it is highly problematic. The tale was written down some hundred years after Moses’ death at the hands of Berber raiders in 407 CE.[6] It was only recorded after being passed down orally for generations, doubtless crafted along the way to meet the expectations of later monks. Such alteration to fit contemporary needs can be seen in the fact that the narrative has an archbishop ordaining Moses, although the evidence suggests that there was probably no such official in the Church during his time.[7] The use of this term, then, weds the story to a later historical moment, when church power in Egypt was being consolidated by the bishop of Alexandria. The interaction between Moses, a saintly member of the fabled first generation of Scetis monks, and the archbishop legitimates the office of the latter as it affirms the sanctity of the former.

It may also be observed that the dialogue between the archbishop and the monk is formulaic. Recorded conversations from antiquity are notoriously untrustworthy as historical evidence and this dialogue is no exception. In particular, it resonates with the pronouncements of theological writers. The discussion features the notion of the black man made metaphorically white. Origen may have originated this notion when he compared Gentile converts to the bride of Solomon. Although blackened by sin, they had become white by God’s grace.[8] Jerome echoes this sentiment, saying that we are all Ethiopians, blackened by sin. But, as in the psalm, we are washed and “made white as snow”.[9]

In the minds of these and other late-antique theologians, the conversion of people of colour represented the possibility of universal redemption. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373 and near contemporary of Moses, seemingly reflected a great deal about the role of the ‘gentiles’ in the plan of salvation: a population of still unconverted Nubians lay just to the south of his sphere of influence. In his theological works he provided the intellectual justification of their worthiness, arguing that somatic signs are part of perishable nature. In the resurrection human beings will receive the original man’s oneness of form. At that time racial characteristics that distinguish black from white will no longer exist.[10] The important thing for Athanasius was not cultural heritage, but Christian faith.

In the late fourth-century travel chronicle The Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt, Athanasius is portrayed as someone very much interested in the conversion of the Nubians of the South. In this account, Mark, bishop of Philae, one of the last Christian outposts in Upper Egypt, asks Athanasius whether he should provide assistance to the poor, pagan Africans who sought his charity. The bishop advises him confidently to care for them, asserting that they would come to believe in God in their time. The author, Paphnutius, has Athanasius justify his views on conversion of foreigners:

He (God) said to Abraham, “Behold I have made you the father of many nations.” And again he spoke to Cornelius in the Acts (for he was a gentile). Because God is one, God sent them Peter, the great apostle. He baptised Cornelius, and God taught Peter in a vision not to regard any person as impure or unclean.[11]

Alongside similar rhetoric in the story of Abba Moses, however, lies another attitude common in the Empire, according to which Africans were despised for their blackness. Peter, Athanasius’ predecessor as bishop of Alexandria (300-311), unsubtly asserted that the Ethiopian (a generic term for black man in the antique Mediterranean) symbolised man’s fundamental fault. Interpreting Jeremiah 13:23 he stated that just like the leopard’s spots, a black man’s skin colour is a sign of his sin.[12] Another fourth-century theologian, Gregory of Elvira, admitted to being confused about Origen’s interpretation of the utterance of the bride in the Song of Songs. He wondered, “How can the Church say she is black and beautiful, whereas she who is black cannot be beautiful? How can she be black if she is beautiful or beautiful if she is black?”[13]

It should be admitted that theological speculation of this sort was based at least in part on the negative associations of the colour black itself. However, such symbolism could easily be used by elites as a pretext for prejudice against the dark complected, individuals marked physically by their transgression. The negative valuation of the colour black was also current among the masses, whose superstitions had long connected it to impurity, inauspiciousness, and evil. That such associations were transferred to black people is suggested by the prevalence of dark-skinned demons and temptresses in the visions of the desert fathers, many of whom were of humble origin.[14] It is not farfetched to assume, as does Lloyd Thompson, that negative attitudes towards black Africans were perpetuated by means of such tales, which circulated widely among the Egyptian populace.[15]

The demonisation of dark-skinned people may have also possessed a political component. Africans had sometimes been mocked or disparaged in Roman literature before the third century, but they were seldom seen as a direct threat. Their increasing association with the demonic seems to correspond to the increasing pressure on Roman Egypt from tribes from beyond the first cataract.[16] In the early centuries of the common era, Rome had cordial relations with the Meroitic kingdom, which administered the border regions of the Upper Nile, reaching a power-sharing agreement with regard to the city of Philae, whose shrine to Isis was a pilgrimage destination for Nubians and Romans alike.[17] There were diplomatic contacts between the two political entities and extensive trade. Imperial coins of this period have been found as far south as Uganda and remains of Roman-style architecture, sculpture, and ceramics are common in Meroitic archaeological sites.[18] Relations between the Empire and the peoples to the south were hindered, however, by the incursions of the nomadic Blemmyes, who began to menace Upper Egypt starting in the mid-third century. In the face of the increasing danger the Romans even strategically drew back their southern frontier in 298.[19] The evidence suggests that the Meroitic kingdom itself was overthrown by 330.[20]

Little is known about the region between this date and the mid-sixth century, when an evangelisation effort was launched by Monophysite and Orthodox missionaries.[21] However, it seems fair to assume that the situation in Upper Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries was chaotic. The evidence in The Histories of the Monks of Upper Egyptsuggests that Nubians in the vicinity were desperately poor. Such a state of affairs was doubtlessly exacerbated by Blemmeye violence and may have affected attitudes on the Roman side of the border. For example, the Historiescontain a description of the establishment of the monk Isaac in the ascetic life. His master Aaron helps him build a hermitage and leaves for several days. In the interim Isaac is abused by demons. After seeking his master and discovering him in ascetic exercises he reports, “The Nubians have been tormenting me, and I’ve come to tell you”. Aaron smiled and replied, “Truly, they are invisible Nubians, my son”.[22]

Shortly thereafter, Paphnutius tells another tale in which a crocodile seizes a Nubian’s son. Aaron intervenes and the crocodile regurgitates the boy unharmed. The man departs glorifying God and the great man who had performed the miracle.[23]

The latter story and that of Mark of Philae’s dilemma over the poor Nubians mentioned earlier illustrate, on the one hand, the extent of interaction between the Christians of Upper Egypt and the black Africans who lived in close proximity to them. On the other, Isaac’s vision while alone in the desert for several days, in which he is tormented by demons specified as Nubian, shows the trepidation for blacks that was felt, if not by Isaac himself, at least by the audience of the tale, who could conceivably associate dark skinned frontier people not only with poverty and unbelief but also with disorder and violence.

Despite the rhetoric of theologians who asserted the equality of all under Christ, at least some of the Egyptian public associated darker people in their midst with social undesirability. These negative attitudes are reflected in the mock expulsion of Moses from the church in the story from the Sayings. The tale recounts how the archbishop, though aware of theological speculation on human parity, plays on attitudes that were comprehensible to the people who might witness, read, or hear about this public spectacle.

The anecdote of Abba Moses and the archbishop can be justifiably used to explicate attitudes prevalent in Egypt during Late Antiquity. However, some scholars have gone on to employ it as a means of speculating about the experience of blacks themselves. Indeed, the story encourages such interpretation by using Moses’ blackness as a device to point to the subjective experience of humility. Although he lived a blessed life and was clothed with the white garment of a priest, Moses still felt himself unworthy. This was symbolised by the unchanging shade of his skin. A similar effect is also achieved in the next stage of the story in which the archbishop tests Moses further by instructing his clergy to hurl slurs at him and drive him from the church. Moses’ response, disparaging his skin colour as symbolic of his inner unworthiness, also illustrates the extent of his humility.

Responding to the anecdote in his influential book, Blacks in Antiquity, Frank Snowden writes:

Father Moses, an Ethiopian, applies to himself the well-known Christian symbolism of spiritual blackness and whiteness which had its roots in pagan writers. This usage is an interesting application of the Christian imagery and suggests that it was accepted by Ethiopians who found it inoffensive to their blackness.[24]

That is, Moses did not mind the use of white/black rhetoric. In fact he found it appropriate to his own feelings about himself.

Lloyd Thompson takes issue with Snowden, saying that there was a “very strong probability that the implicit disparagement of negritude in such sentiments may have had an unwholesome effect on the psychological condition of some blacks in a society where preference for the somatic norm could find unabashed and public expression in the mocking of blacks by whites”.[25] He later states:

Evidently mocking of blacks was sometimes of the deliberately hurtful sort, the effect of which on the victim was an inner sense of ‘hurt’ and shame at his or her own physiognomy. That feeling must sometimes have developed into the feeling of insecurity that Lucan calls micropsychia(‘pettiness of mind’ or, in effect, an inferiority complex), and even into self hate.[26]

Despite coming to the opposite conclusions about the implications of this story, both Thompson and Snowden presume to speculate about how blacks like Moses must have felt when they were insulted. Such an approach is also taken by Phillip Mayerson in his article “Anti-black Sentiment in the Vitae Patrum“. He speaks thus of our anecdote: “The demoralising effect that this treatment had upon Abba Moses understandably results in his denigrating appraisal of himself”.[27] Mayerson’s comment suggests even greater credulity than that exhibited by Thompson and Snowden. He seems to take the statement attributed to Moses as something the monk actually said, ignoring the fact that he is analysing a literary artefact, crafted by retelling and written down generations after the person who it describes had died.

The assumption that the portrayal of Moses in the story reveals the character’s disposition was challenged in a 1992 article by Vincent Wimbush.[28] He examined the tale in the context of other stories written about Abba Moses, including those in Palladius’ Lausiac History (c.420), Sozomen’s Ecclesiastical History (c.443-8), and a tenth-centuryvita .[29] He concludes that all the stories, including that in the Sayings, use Moses’ blackness as a literary device to show the transformation of an inferior, base nature to a perfect one. The authors are not concerned with Moses as a personality. Rather, the fact that he was a black man enables them to emphasise the radical change wrought in the individual by the conversion to asceticism.[30]

Wimbush argues, correctly, that the identity of the real Abba Moses is obscured by literary artifice in all of these texts.[31] However, he fails to note the seductiveness of our story in comparison to the more stereotypical characterisations in the other sources. The charm of this account lies in its sympathy for the protagonist, even characterising his personal feelings. This unusual quality has lured modern scholars to make suppositions about the subjective experience of a black African living in the ancient Mediterranean.

However, sympathetic portrayals of marginalised people are no more trustworthy than formulaic ones. Just as Palladius and Sozeman were writing to meet the expectations of an audience in the wider Greek speaking world, the monk who recorded our story for other monks in the Egyptian desert had to design his portrayal so that it would be comprehensible to his community. All the literate interpreters of Moses depended on a deep current of thought about the symbolism of blackness. All used it to effect in their tales. The experience of the real Moses, then, is no more to be found in the forthright account than in the more stylised one. We may conclude, regrettably, that the voice of Moses of Scetis is irrecoverable. Scholars speculate at their peril about how he must have felt about his treatment as a black man in late-Roman Egypt.

Write a response to this paper

(the email you send to eras@arts.monash.edu.au will be read by the Eras editorial committee and published on the “Discussion” page)


[1] I would like to express my gratitude to Andy Keniston for hours of discussion on this topic and to Bentley Layton for expert guidance and astute critique. Back

[2] Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1975, p. 139. Back

[3] Frank Snowden, Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience, Belknap Press, Cambridge, 1970, p. 217. Back

[4] See Lloyd Thompson, Romans and Blacks, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1989, and Jean Marie Cortès,”The Theme of ‘Ethiopia’ and ‘Ethiopians’ in Patristic Literature”, in Jean Devisse (ed.), The Image of the Black in Western Art, vol. 2, Morrow, New York, 1979, pp. 9-32. See also Christian Delacampagne, L’invention du racisme: Antiquité et Moyen Age, Fayard, Paris, 1983; Peter Frost,”Attitudes toward Blacks in the Early Christian Era”, Second Century, vol. 8, 1991, pp. 1-11; Phillip Mayerson, “Anti-Black Sentiment in the Vitae Patrum“, Harvard Theological Review, vol. 71, 1978, pp. 304-311. A provocative new treatment of ancient racial attitudes, although with little reference to negritude, is Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, Princeton University Press, Princeton , 2004.Back

[5] Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture , University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1988, p. 294. See also John Beverley, Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory, Duke University Press, Durham, 1999. Back

[6] Kathleen O’Brien Wicker, “Ethiopian Moses (Collected Sources)”, in Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1990, p. 332. Back

[7] The first known reference to an archbishop in the Egyptian literature is in the second half of the fifth century. See Roger Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1993, p. 285. Back

[8] Frost, “Attitudes toward Blacks”, pp. 3-4. Back

[9] Courtès, “The Theme of ‘Ethiopia’”, p. 27. Back

[10] Courtès, “The Theme of ‘Ethiopia’”, p. 11, Thompson, Romans and Blacks , p. 122. Back

[11] Paphnutius, The Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt , trans. Tim Vivian, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1993, p. 104. Back

[12] Courtès, “The Theme of ‘Ethiopia’”, p. 26. Back

[13] Courtès, “The Theme of ‘Ethiopia’”, p. 31. Back

[14] For examples see Mayerson,”Anti-Black Sentiment in the Vitae Patrum “, pp. 307-11 and Frost,”Attitudes toward Blacks”, pp. 4-11. Back

[15] Thompson, Romans and Blacks, p. 113. Back

[16] Thompson, Romans and Blacks, p. 97. Back

[17] Tim Vivian, “Introduction”, in Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt,p. 59. Back

[18] Jean Desanges, “L’Afrique noire et le monde méditerranéen dans l‘Antiquité (Éthiopiens et Gréco-Romans)”,Revue française d’histoire d’outre-mer, vol. 63, 1975, p. 406.Back

[19] Desanges, “L’Afrique noire”, p. 406. Back

[20] J. Leclant, “The Empire of Kush: Napata and Meroe”, in G. Mokhtar (ed.), General History of Africa II, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1981, pp. 292-3. Back

[21] Leclant, “The Empire of Kush”, p. 295. See also K. Michalowski, “The Spreading of Christianity in Nubia”, inGeneral History of Africa II, pp. 326-31. Back

[22] Paphnutius, Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt , p. 118. Back

[23] Paphnutius, Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt, pp. 120-1. Back

[24] Snowden, Blacks in Antiquity, p. 211. Back

[25] Thompson, Romans and Blacks, p. 45. Back

[26] Thompson, Romans and Blacks, p. 47. Back

[27] Mayerson, “Anti-Black Sentiment in the Vitae Patrum“, p. 307. Back

[28] Vincent Wimbush, “Ascetic Behavior and Color-ful Language: Stories about Ethiopian Moses”,Semeia, vol. 58, 1992, pp. 81-94. Back

[29] These three texts along with stories about Moses from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are translated by Kathleen O’Brien Wicker in Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity . See note 5. Back

[30] Wimbush, “Ascetic Behavior and Color-ful Language”, p. 86. Back

[31] Wimbush, “Ascetic Behavior and Color-ful Language”, p. 89. Back