The Romans surely met peoples of different skin color in their interactions between Gauls and Africans and many others. I assume that there were clear color differences back then and that the Romans noticed it. What adjectives did they use to describe those colors?

The typical words in modern English to describe the difference between the most common European and African skin colors are "white" and "black". These are not very accurate descriptions of the colors themselves — perhaps "pink" and "dark brown" might be closer — but they seem to be somewhat abstract and focus only on the difference of color. It is not clear that the Romans would approach this the same way nor that they would have a canonical choice of words of any kind, but I would be surprised if the difference was never observed in the extant literature.

This question is not about white and black skin but variation in skin color in general. I merely wanted to provide two English adjectives used to describe the differences in skin color of the people that inhabit today the area the Romans knew.


Shelley P. Haley in Be Not Afraid of the Dark treats color in the boarder context of race. The author wisely notes that we cannot assume that the Romans attached any "value to skin-color differences" despite of those skin-color differences were clearly noticed by them.

Though many times simply omitted (as the case of Dido in Aeneid), descriptions of skin colors did sometimes come up in the extant corpus, as Haley writes:

There was, in fact, a range of skin hues, and this is reflected in the skin color terminology. Albus, ater, candidus, fuscus, and niger are all used by Roman authors to describe the skin color of peoples with whom they came in contact (emp. mine)

[...] When the Romans did apply a skin color descriptor to themselves it was albus.

[...] If, then, the reference point for albus is pale-brown, not the white of a Nordic consciousness, interpretations and reading of the other skin color terminology are transformed. Ater, candidus, fuscus, and niger become degrees of brownness.

For a more detailed analysis and examples, the reader is advised to refer to Haley's paper.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.