Thursday, February 14, 2008

African History in Europe: "What Color is Your Valentine?" re-visited

Meeting of Saint Erasmus of Formiae and Saint Maurice
by Matthias Grünewald (1517-23)

One year ago today, on Valentine’s Day 2007, an historian and university professor living in the southern U.S. and who writes under the pseudonym ‘Aphra Behn’ published an excellent essay about Africans in European history. I discovered her article, “What Color is Your Valentine?” a few weeks after publication and referenced it in a post on a similar subject that I published to Jewels in March 2007. I had the honor of a visit to my blog by Aphra Behn when she stopped by to read my post and leave a comment.

Unfortunately I cannot find recent articles by Aphra Behn published to either the Daily Kos or the Progressive Historians. If she is no longer writing for the blogosphere that would be a sad loss for many of her fans as she helped to make important themes in history both fun and interesting for thousands of readers. So if you are reading this Aphra, please let us know where we can find you online and read your latest work about history.

The original article “What Color is Your Valentine?” is still available at the Daily Kos blog, one of the Top 100-ranked blogs in the world. I highly recommend that you read the original version of Aphra’s wonderful essay with accompanying graphics and links in order to enjoy the full impact of the author’s work. You can find other great articles by Aphra Behn published to the Daily Kos by visiting her archives: Aphra Behn’s Diary at dKos.

For the past 3 weeks a small group of blog authors and friends living in various parts of Europe (Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and the UK) have been quietly organizing an online workgroup for collaboration on themes in black and African History in Europe. At present our group consists of seven people and we are working together on the composition and publishing of essays, commentaries on books and book reviews and academic studies, and sharing our research sources with readers in an attempt to help raise interest and global awareness about this important but long neglected field of study. This is an effort by a multi-national group of people who are truly interested in history and literature. Two members of the group are very qualified in the field of history and education.

This initiative is the follow-up to a project for black and African history in Europe launched in February/March 2007 at Jewels in the Jungle and the Atlantic Review. We should be ready for publication of new work next week and plan to continue publishing articles on the subject throughout March 2008.

Below are the opening paragraphs from Aphra Behn’s original article. I wanted to once again draw my readers’ attention to her fine work, especially on the date when people around the world are celebrating Valentines Day, and in recognition of the month of February when people in the USA and Canada celebrate the rich heritage and legacy of their citizens of color, Black History Month. I will add additional links to external online resources at a later date in order to help clarify some of the historical names and places.

What Color is Your Valentine? Black History at dKos
by aphra behn

Wed Feb 14, 2007 at 10:45:43 AM PST

St. Valentine (depending on whom you ask) was a priest. No, he was a bishop. No he was an African martyr.... An African martyr? Ahhh, listen to the wingnut heads explode as we consider the possibility that good old St. Valentine (patron of a thousands trysts!) might not have been a blue-eyed blonde-haired European, but a Berber, a Semite, or an Ethiopian.

This Saint Valentine lived in the multi-ethnic, multi-colored world of later Imperial Rome, where Africans played key roles in the development of "Western" Civilization. Whether it’s founding monasticism, writing literature, developing theology, or sitting on the Imperial Throne of Rome itself, Africans were everywhere in this world. Join me for a joint Valentine's Day-Black History Month special, as we try to re-imagine the world of Saint all its colors.

The World of St. Valentine

Of the three men known as "Saint Valentine," the African martyr is the least well known; no romantic associations are attached to his legend, and beyond his martyrdom in what is now North Africa around the year 270, little is recorded of his life. In that year, Roman rule encompassed many provinces across the northern band of the continent, stretching from Egypt to modern-day Morocco.

In the previous centuries, northern Africa had seen waves of colonization by Semitic-speaking Phoenicians (Carthage), Greek-speaking Macedonian and Hellenes (in Libya and Egypt). These newcomers mixed with the native inhabitants, dubbed "Berbers" by the Greeks. It wasn't a compliment; the term is related to the term "barbarian" as a derogatory name for non-Greek speakers: people whose language was nonsense–"berberberberber," the approximate equivalent of "blablahblah." Today their descendents prefer "Amazigh" or "Imazighen," "free men."

By the time of St. Valentine, the entire province had come under Roman jurisdiction, adding Latins and the other peoples of the Roman Empire to the mix. Roman African consisted of several different provinces. Throw in extensive trading links to Nubia (Kush) and Ethiopia, and we can imagine those provinces as an ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse mix of peoples, languages, and goods. Kushite mercenaries mixed with Romanized Amazigh merchants, Egyptian priests of Isis, and Greek-speaking Latin administrators in the cities of Alexandria and other cities. From these provinces, Rome was well-supplied with grains, figs, grapes, beans, marble, pottery, olives, textiles, and papyrus.

Philosophers and Emperors

Ideas, religions, and philosophies flowed in and out along with the trade goods. Part of the wider Hellenistic (Greek) world, Alexandria in particular attracted many noted philosophers and produced its own. The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived in Alexandria around 40 CE, worked to reconcile Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy. The Athenian philosopher Antiochus of Askalon eventually settled in Alexandria, and taught a number of pupils, including Arius Didymus. Didymus, a Stoic thinker, was a friend of Emperor Octavian (Augustus); allegedly their friendship helped save Alexandria from destruction as he battled Mark Antony for control of Egypt and Rome.

Did I say friends of emperors? How about Africa as the source of emperors? In CE 193, Libyan native Lucius Severus was proclaimed emperor by his troops. Although not born into the Senatorial class, he had been made a senator by Marcus Aurelius in 172, and had made a name for himself in the army. His rule was rent by wars and financial difficulty, but he also made significant military and legal reforms in the Empire:

Severus brought many changes to the Roman military. Soldiers' pay was increased by half, they were allowed to be married while in service, and greater opportunities were provided for promotion into officer ranks and the civil service. .... The emperor created a new, larger praetorian guard out of provincial soldiers from the legions. Increases were also made to the two other security forces based in Rome: the urban cohorts, who maintained order; and the night watch, who fought fires and dealt with overnight disturbances, break-ins and other petty crime.... The emperor's position as ultimate appeals judge had brought an ever-increasing legal workload to his office. During the second century, a career path for legal experts was established, and an emperor came to rely heavily upon his consilium, an advisory panel of experienced jurists, in rendering decisions. Severus brought these jurists to even greater prominence. A diligent administrator and conscientious judge, the emperor appreciated legal reasoning and nurtured its development. His reign ushered in the golden age of Roman jurisprudence, and his court employed the talents of the three greatest Roman lawyers: Papinian, Paul and Ulpian.—Michael L. Meckler Ohio State University

The First Black Emperor?

Ok, so we've established that Severus was from Africa. Was he "black"? (This is a Black history Month diary, after all.) Frustratingly for modern North Americans, the ancient Romans did not share our view of race. Pre-darwinian in their thinking, they certainly did not categorize inheritable characteristics as 19th century racist theorists did (and as their 21st century counterparts sadly still do.) Recording physical characteristics was less important to the Romans than to us; their lines of "us and them" were drawn more firmly around notions of citizenship than race, "civility" (i.e., Hellenization) than ethnicity.

Linguistics suggest that Severus' family was Phoenician in background; portraiture suggests he may have been darker complected than his wife, who was of Latin descent. It' s probably an exaggeration to call him a "Black " emperor. But it is no exaggeration to say that many of the authors and figures we consider "Roman" were in fact not simply Latinate, but from a wide mix of peoples and "races": Germanic. Amazigh (Berber). Celtic. Egyptian. Macedonian. Germanic. And more...

An Amazigh Author

Take Lucius Apuleius of Madaurus, author of The Golden Ass and other "Roman" works. He was a follower of the Mystery religion of Isis, one of Egypt's great exports to the Hellenic World. The Golden Ass is a funny, often bawdy, yet deeply spiritual account of one initiate's travels through this religion of love, magic, and transformation. He was also the author of several philosophical treatises.

Sometime between 150 and 160, he was accused of practicing malignant magic, entrapping a wealthy older widow into marrying him. His defense, so eloquent that it was preserved, explicitly claimed his own status as a "barbarian" (Berber), and contains this impassioned, unapologetic assertion of his African identity:

About my homeland, it is situated on the border of Numidia and Gaetulia. I am part Numidian and part Gaetulian. I don’t see why I should be ashamed of this...Why did I offer this information? So that from now on, Semelianus, you may be less offended by me, and so that you may extend your good-will and forgiveness, if by some negligence, I did not select your Attic Zarat as my birthplace.

I don't know about you, but when I studied Apuleius' works in school, he was presented to me as "Roman" author, rather than an African one. While not denying that he was part of a wider Latin-speaking community and living in a Roman polity, is it not also significant that this practitioner of an African mystery religion was also proud of his African roots? It’s impossible to say if he would be seen as "black" today; modern Amazigh range in colors from what North Americans call "Black" to what they call "white," thanks to centuries of intermarriage with Europeans, Sub-Saharan Africans, Arabs, and others. But he was not perceived as entirely Roman, and it seems only right to acknowledge that.

Saint Valentine and the African Martyrs

And what about poor St. Valentine? I haven't forgotten him. Frankly, we don't know if he was what we would identify in North America as "black"–nor do we have this information for most of the North African Christians who were later revered as saints. Three early Popes (or Bishops of Rome) hailed from Africa. Pope Saint Victor I, the first of these, was born while the writer Apuleius was still alive, and served as Pope from 186 CE until 197. We know frustratingly little of his life (or complexion), but it's interesting to compare the picture of him drawn by European Christians (Note: see original article at Daily Kos for image) with that of modern American Catholics (found at this link and not reproduced because of copyright—but please go check out this beautiful icon.)

Certainly, as Christianity spread through the empire, it attracted many adherents in Africa–of all of its varied ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. One of the earliest texts written by a Christian woman is from African Carthage–the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, written in part by Perpetua herself, a 22 year-old-mother awaiting martyrdom along with her heavily pregnant servant, Felicitas. Revered in Christian martyrologies for centuries hence, they were favourite subjects of medieval European martyrologies, often presented as, well, European:

Read more of "What Color is Your Valentine?" at the Daily Kos
Read more about the 3rd Century Christian martyr Saint Maurice, a leader and highly venerated patron saint of the legendary Roman Theban Legion.

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José said...

Hi Bill,

It was delightful to read this post. In a world where general culture is disregarded in comparison to knowledge towards money and power, reading about all that interaction between different people made me wish that todays knowledge could be used to approach people around the world.
Your blog has great quality.

Kind regards,


BRE said...

Thank you José for your visit and your kind words.

What is very interesting as one does research on the history of Africans in Europe is the important role that art and artists played in depicting blacks in their work down through the centuries.

One example of this is the 1521 painting by Matthias Grünewald of the meeting between St. Erasmus and St. Maurice. Grünewald used Cardinal Albert of Hohenzollern (16th Century Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg) as a model for St. Erasmus, but who served as the model for St. Maurice?

Were there black Africans living in Germany during the early 16th Century that among other tasks posed for great artists, or did Grünewald use earlier artwork of black Africans to get the features and colors right in his painting?

Koluki said...

Hello Bill,

I've just cross-posted your article on my blog.
Loooved it!
Sorry for being so late for Valentine's Day though...


Development Crossing said...

Hi Bill,

Great post, it was a pleasure reading it.

If you're interested, we recently put up a network focused on international development and corporate social responsibility at Development Crossing.

On the site you can create profiles for free to network, discuss, and share ideas and resources around sustainable development.

We look forward to you joining us!

Kind regards,

The Development Crossing Team

BRE said...

Message for Joao Craveirinha:

Dear Joao,

I have received your message here at Jewels in the Jungle and have moved the text to our Black History in Europe online workgroup. Either Ana or I will be contacting you very soon so as to invite you into our project workspace for easier communication and collaboration.

I have also successfully downloaded your presentation from the Paris conference for further examination. Once you have joined us in the workspace we can discuss your contribution to the project in greater detail.

We are honored to have your participation and contributions for this project, and I am certain that our readers worldwide will both enjoy and learn from your article(s) on black history in Europe.

The writer Joao Craveirinha laidies and gentlemen! Now we have two project members who can help us with the history of Africans in Portugal and Spain.

Josephine Cameron said...

Hi Bill.
Fascinating article on St. Valentine. I remember this from last year & it was worth revisiting. Thanks for stopping by Please Come Flying...I would *love* to see any new info on Valaida Snow! Please point me in the right direction if you have a spare moment. My email is jcinfo*at*josephinecameron*dot*com.
Take care,

SGP said...

Hi Bill,

I read about your blog in the Atlantic Review's segment on Black History Month in Germany.

You offer fascinating information. I really enjoyed reading about Blacks in Germany and St. Valentine. Thank you.

I would like to extend an invitation to you to visit us at the Black German Cultural Society (BGCS), an International Social Network for Black Gemans and individuals who are interested in the Black German Community.

On-line Community:
Official Web-site:

Warm regards,
VP & Co-founder

BRE said...

Hello Shirley,

Thank you for your visit and your kind words. I actually had taken note of your organization BGCS a few months ago, and upon visiting your social network website today I see that interest in the network is growing. That's great and I am very happy that you were pleased with our short series about black history in Europe. We started an online workgroup to continue collaborative research and writing about this important subject and you are more than welcome to join us in this effort.

I'm working on a follow-up post about Southeast Asia (Laos) but when I have finished with that task I will be getting in touch with you about the history workgroup. In the meantime all the best and good luck with your work at BGCS.