An Examination of the Classical Origins of Modern Racial Thought

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Race in the ancient sense is not fully understood, but classical sources have been used for centuries to further racial agendas. Classical scholars in the past forty years have begun to analyze the effects of such uses, and theories of race and race relations perpetrated by the field. This project seeks to analyze the influence of classical works, specifically Homer’s Odyssey and Herodotus’ Histories, on exploration era travel narratives, especially the journal of Christopher Columbus (1492-1493) and letters of Amerigo Vespucci (1503 and 1504). It analyzes episodic parallels between the Odyssey and both Columbus and Vespucci which use a “civilizational framework” to describe indigenous Americans. This framework defines indigenous persons as either “civilized” or “uncivilized,” following classical categories for civilization, described by Redfield as “soft” and “hard” peoples.1 This is problematic, as the examples Columbus and Vespucci often refer to are mythical; Additionally, the people they describe are denied agency, and the exploration narratives are used to justify the subjugation of indigenous peoples.

race, Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Herodotus' Histories, Homer's Odyssey