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Was Hannibal Black?


Image ID: 1803208  Hannibal. (About 247-183 B.C.) (ca. 1922-1939)

Image ID: 1803208 Hannibal. (About 247-183 B.C.) (ca. 1922-1939)

NYPL Digital Gallery World View of Herodotus

World View of Herodotus, from The Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography by Samuel Butler, Ernest Rhys, editor (Suffolk, 1907, repr. 1908).

Public Domain. Courtesy of Maps of Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and Neighboring Lands

Question: Was Hannibal Black?

Answer: The answer does depend on what you mean by 'black', whether you equate it with African, a nuance thereof, or something else, and what you mean by Africa. Here, the focus is the Mediterranean world in antiquity -- things were different then. Hannibal came from an area we refer to as northern Africa, from a Carthaginian family. The Carthaginians were Phoenicians, which means that we would conventionally describe them as a Semitic people. The term Semitic refers to a variety of people from the ancient Near East (e.g., Assyrians, Arabs, and Hebrews), which included parts of northern Africa. [See Semitic Languages in Their Original Homelands Map.] The world view was very different.

The term Black in modern usage in the U.S. means something different from what the common Latin adjective for 'black' (niger) would mean. Frank M. Snowden explains this in his article "Misconceptions about African Blacks in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Specialists and Afrocentrists" (Frank M. Snowden Jr.; Arion Third Series, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Winter, 1997), pp. 28-50). Compared with a Mediterranean person, someone from Scythia or Ireland was noticeably white and someone from Africa was noticeably black. Generally, to depict someone we would think of as African "Black," a Roman would use the term Ethiopian to describe the appearance of a (sun) burned face -- not the nation we call Ethiopia. In Egypt, as in other areas of northern Africa, there were other colors that could be used to describe complexions. There was also a good deal of intermarriage between the lighter skinned people in northern Africa and the darker skinned people called Ethiopians or Nubians. Hannibal may have been darker skinned than a Roman, but he would not have been described as Ethiopian.

Was Hannibal black? Not according to the Romans, and it's through them that we know about Hannibal. Your answer may be different.

If you want more information on the use of color terms for describing people in the Greek and Roman world, see Racism and Anti-Racism in World Perspective, by Benjamin P. Bowser.

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