The Roman Republic fell apart in 44 BCE. The Roman Empire (the part that spoke Latin) fell apart in 476 CE. However, it lives on in the minds of nerds, historians, and white supremacists. If you scroll through the annals of the white supremacist sectors of the internet, you’ll find countless references to Ancient Rome. They are almost always references to the Roman Empire, and they are almost always wrong. Essentially, fascists, white nationalists, and white supremacists have the mistaken notion that Rome was some porcelain white utopia. Firstly, Rome was far from a utopia. Ancient Rome in the 1st century BCE was arguably one of the worst times/places to ever live. Also, it wasn’t very white.
Rome In The World
Rome conquered the “known world.” In the ancient world, that meant everything within a few weeks of the Mediterranean, as the legion marches. The city of Rome itself is about 350 miles away from the coast of Africa in Tunisia. Rome is about 800 miles from the coast of Great Britain. Granted, one has to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Rome from Africa, but it stands to reason that Africans were at least as likely to reach Rome as Britons.
Furthermore, the Roman Empire at its height encompassed Spain, France, Italy, The Balkans, and the northern coast of Africa. Citizens of far-flung areas such as the Balkans and the north African coast were much more likely to be foederati, a class of Roman clients who were very likely to join the Roman legions. By the late Western Roman Empire, most of the legions were made up of soldiers from provinces at the edge of the empire. That definitely includes north Africa. Furthermore, Julius Caesar and later Mark Antony cemented Egypt as a Roman client state.
So, we’ve established that the Roman Empire was made up of many north Africans, many of whom were not what we would understand as “White” in the 21st Century. But were there Black people the way a 21st century American would understand someone to be Black. Not just African but could they justifiably drop the n-word? Were there any Romans darker than Drake? Were there any Romans whom Republicans would try to keep from voting?
To oversimplify, Ancient Romans divided the African continent into Africa and Aethiopia. “Africa” referred to mostly northeastern Africa (the part closest to Rome). “Aethiopia” referred to basically everything south of that but specifically, subsaharan Africa (where Black folks come from).
Africans with black skin were known as “Aethiopes.” There are a few references in the written record of Aethiopes living in Ancient Rome. By all accounts, skin color was not a factor in how people were treated in the Roman Republic or Empire. There was a fairly strict class system, but it was not race-based. The system was based largely on whether someone was from the city of Rome or one of the provinces. Furthermore, the system inside of Rome was based on some incredibly byzantine (pun intended) family lineages separating patricians from plebeians.
There aren’t many great written resources about the presence of Aethiopes in Rome; however, they have been attested in the written record for almost every period of Rome’s existence. Furthermore, archaeologists have discovered fossilized remains of Aethiopes in Great Britain and Roman provinces of North Africa.
Obviously, if Aethiopes were as far from Africa as Great Britain, they were likely spread throughout the Roman Republic and Empire. They were also likely prevalent throughout North Africa, a Roman province. Most striking is the simple fact that Black Romans were largely unremarked upon. That is because the presence of Black Romans was, quite literally, unremarkable. They were members of the fabric of Rome just like Dacians, Gauls, and Celts; less than a Roman citizen, but not less because of their skin color.