If She’s Black, So What?

Asclepiades 5.210 (Greek Anthology)

Didyme has captured me with her eyes,
Alas! And I melt like wax before a flame
When I behold her beauty.
And if she’s black, so what?
Coals are too, and yet when we heat them
They glow like rose petals.

Τὠφθαλμῷ Διδύμη με συνήρπασεν: ὤμοι, ἐγὼ δὲ
τήκομαι, ὡς κηρὸς πὰρ πυρί, κάλλος ὁρῶν.
εἰ δὲ μέλαινα, τί τοῦτο; καὶ ἄνθρακες: ἀλλ᾽ὅτε κείνους
θάλψωμεν, λάμπους᾽ ὡς ῥόδεαι κάλυκες.

This epigram owes its fame chiefly to its eroticization of what, based on her/ name and her color, is presumed to be an African woman. But in a poem that is almost wholly conventional, the racialized woman, and the speaker’s justification of her, are poetic conventions too. If anything does distinguish the poem, it might be it’s prurience. 

Most of the epigram’s conventional elements are easily identified: the eyes as instruments of bewitchment (Ibycus Fr.287); the lover’s liquefaction in the presence of desire (Alcman Fr.59a and Sappho Fr.112); eroticizing of skin color, albeit white skin (Rufinus 5.60 and Dioscorides 5.56 in the Greek Anthology [GA]); and the lover as inflaming the beloved (Rufinus 5.87 GA), when not the other way around.   

Conventional also, though less obviously so, is the beloved’s roseate glow. In 2 epigrams about sexual intercourse (5.54 and 5.55 GA), Dioscorides describes a woman’s buttocks as “rose-like” in color. Rufinus describes the vagina as rose-like in its glow (5.36 GA) and uses “rose” as a euphemism for vagina (5.36 GA). So when Asclepiades suggests that the stimulated woman–and stimulation is what “heat them” references–glows red, the change in coloration is not to her skin in general, but to her sex organs. 

What about her African name and dark skin? Scholars have pointed out that the name Didyme was quite common for Egyptian women in the period, and so we can read its use here as stereotypical (i.e., conventional). And as for Didyme’s dark skin, consider these lines by Philodemus (5.132 GA) who worked after Asclepiades: 

If she’s Opician, and named Flora, and doesn’t sing Sappho’s songs,
No matter, even Perseus desired Indian Andromeda.

The English might not convey the extent to which the form of these lines–an objection and an answer to the objection–is nearly identical to “And if she’s black, so what? / Coals are too.” What structures the couplet in both Philodemus and Asclepiades is εἰ δὲ . . . καὶ (“and if . . . even”, or translated differently, “and if . . . also”). “If she’s Opician” (from Opicia, the area around Naples) is modeled on “if she’s black” in Asclepiades. “Even Perseus” (or “Perseus too”) is modeled on “coals too” (or “even coals”) in Asclepiades. Perseus’ lover is marked as non-Greek and presumably brown just  Asclepiades’ lover is non-Greek and black. If Asclepiades ‘invented’ the use of this form for racialized erotic content, then the tradition absorbed it and made it conventional, just as he himself had absorbed the tradition’s conventions.

Fayum mummy portrait. c.100 C.E.
Royal Ontario Museum.
ROM 918.20.1.

Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.

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