Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ethiopians or Nubians: Athenian-style pottery depictions of darker-skinned subjects (sixth-fifth centuries BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 3, 2023, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=7975.
Attic black-figure globular oil-flask in the form of the head of a youth, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (late sixth century BCE; Athens inv. 11725):
Attic black-figure globular oil-flask from Eretria in Greece, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens (late sixth century BCE; inv. 2385):
Attic red-figure terracotta jug of a man’s head with tall spout from Athens, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (ca. 480 BCE; inv. 00.11.1):
Attic red-figure two-faced drinking cup depicting women, from Aiane necropolis, Macedonia, now in the Archaeological Museum of Aiani (early fifth century BCE; inv. 9701):
Attic red-figure two-faced drinking cup with heads of two women, found at Thespiai in Boiotia, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (ca. 490 BCE; Athens, inv. 2056):
Attic red-figure two-faced drinking-cup with head of satyr and an old man with beard, from Athens, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art (ca. 470-460 BCE, inv. 1979.69):
Attic red-figure vessel for oil depicting an Ethiopian (?) warrior, found at Thebes in Boiotia, now in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (early fifth century BCE; inv. 422; part of Beazley’s so-called “Group of Negro Alabastra”):
Comments: Darker-skinned subjects who may be taken to represent a Greek perception of “Ethiopians” (literally “burnt-faced” people), Nubians or others (from what we call the continent of Africa) make an appearance on Attic or Athenian vase-ware, especially in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Quite common were the “janiform” (i.e. two-faced) drinking cups which were decorated with a lighter-skinned face on one side and a darker-skinned face on the other. Viewing these figures within the context of a banquet or drinking-party may have been just about the only place where most Greeks would come face to face with the people they designated “burnt-faced.”
It is very difficult to evaluate what exactly these depictions mean, however. With the janiform vases there is little to distinguish between the lighter and darker faces in terms of how the artist or drinkers would be evaluating Ethiopians, beyond the apparent exaggeration of certain facial features such as lips and nose. In other words, we do not know whether or not these depictions of “Ethiopians” are intended to be derogatory or whether they are merely exoticizing.
Works consulted: Sarah F. Derbew, Untangling Blackness in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2022).
Source of images: Photos by Dan Diffendale (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), except side-view of tall-spouted jug of a man’s head by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain) and drinking-cup with satyr and an old man with beard by Cleveland Museum of Art (public domain).