Benjamin Isaac in his book The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity provides a prime example of scientific racism in ancient Greece:

The idea that dark people are cowards, and light people courageous fighters, is found already in Airs, Waters, Places.

Airs, Waters, Places is a treatise by Hippokrates of Kos that deals with the effects of the physical environment on living organisms over an extended period of time, and the exact quote Isaac has in mind is:

And with regard to the pusillanimity and cowardice of the inhabitants, the principal reason the Asiatics are more unwarlike and of gentler disposition than the Europeans is, the nature of the seasons, which do not undergo any great changes either to heat or cold, or the like; for there is neither excitement of the understanding nor any strong change of the body whereby the temper might be ruffled and they be roused to inconsiderate emotion and passion, rather than living as they do always in the state. It is changes of all kinds which arouse understanding of mankind, and do not allow them to get into a torpid condition. For these reasons, it appears to me, the Asiatic race is feeble, and further, owing to their laws; for monarchy prevails in the greater part of Asia, and where men are not their own masters nor independent, but are the slaves of others, it is not a matter of consideration with them how they may acquire military discipline, but how they may seem not to be warlike, for the dangers are not equally shared, since they must serve as soldiers, perhaps endure fatigue, and die for their masters, far from their children, their wives, and other friends; and whatever noble and manly actions they may perform lead only to the aggrandizement of their masters, whilst the fruits which they reap are dangers and death; and, in addition to all this, the lands of such persons must be laid waste by the enemy and want of culture. Thus, then, if any one be naturally warlike and courageous, his disposition will be changed by the institutions. As a strong proof of all this, such Greeks or barbarians in Asia as are not under a despotic form of government, but are independent, and enjoy the fruits of their own labors, are of all others the most warlike; for these encounter dangers on their own account, bear the prizes of their own valor, and in like manner endure the punishment of their own cowardice. And you will find the Asiatics differing from one another, for some are better and others more dastardly; of these differences, as I stated before, the changes of the seasons are the cause. Thus it is with Asia.

Source: On Airs, Waters, and Places, by Hippocrates. Translated by Francis Adams, provided by The Internet Classics Archive.

I've found several other sources that discuss scientific racism in ancient Greece, however they either revolve around the aforementioned quote, or don't provide any references at all. Are there any other prominent examples of scientific racism in ancient Greece?

I'd appreciate answers with references to scientific writings of the time, and if possible by authors we know were influential during their lifetime (e.g. Aristotle, Plato, etc).

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    I would be strongly interested in Benjamin Isaac's theoretical categories of "racism" and "science" since they're not the ones that I commonly interact with and he seems to be using them idiosyncratically. Commented Dec 1, 2013 at 21:14
  • 1
    I would rename "scientific racism" in the title into "anthropology".
    – Michael
    Commented Dec 2, 2013 at 17:29
  • I remember a quote from Herodotus in which he says northern barbarians have lots of energy but don't take the time to think (or can't do so) so they are constantly at war, while easterners are great thinkers but lack the energy so they are ruled by tyrants. Greeks are in the perfect middle and have the ability to do both. I've been trying to find it on Google but no succes so far.
    – Jeroen K
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 22:31
  • This translation seems very doubtful. 1. For the ancient Greeks, "Europe", "Asia" and "Libya" were just sides of the Mediterranean, it was NEVER used as a continent, much less race/ethnic. This practice was common in antiquity, Mesopotamians, Semites, Turks and Chinese also named lands according to cardinal directions. 2. This only referred to the Mediterranean world, modern "Europeans" were referred to by Greeks as barbarians (as a synonym for savage and not a synonym for non-Greek speaker) and they were very racist against them.
    – Sorb
    Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 3:21
  • 3. Greeks saw the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent as a model, so the Greek culture is completely descended from Phoenician, Egyptian and indirectly Mesopotamian culture. 4. These statements could only make sense if he was referring to the Celts, who invaded and colonized Anatolia for a certain period.
    – Sorb
    Commented Sep 28, 2020 at 3:21

2 Answers 2


I believe Benjamin Isaac's interpretation of the quote as racism is horse manure. The quote itself, as presented in your OP, is clearly an argument that the climate and laws prevalent in Asia at the time make for a cowardly and torpid culture, not the race of those individuals. This is bolstered by this point made with vigour by the author (my emphasis):

As a strong proof of all this, such Greeks or barbarians in Asia as are not under a despotic form of government, but are independent, and enjoy the fruits of their own labors, are of all others the most warlike; for these encounter dangers on their own account, bear the prizes of their own valor, and in like manner endure the punishment of their own cowardice.

The U.S. military's dedication to an all-volunteer force, since the debacle of the Vietnam War, is the result of a realization that many of the problems encountered during that conflict were the result of the high percentage of unwilling conscripted soldiers present. They learned that a highly-trained volunteer arm is vastly more effective than a large unwilling conscripted one. How is this any different from what Hippocrates of Kos is saying above?

I believe the following statement (from here) is crap, but I include it below as an example of the extreme rationalization Benjamin Isaac engages in to argue his point:

If, however, we read that people are stupid and courageous because they live in a cold climate, then it can be argued that this is a form of proto-racism, since there is an implicit assumption that these people are stupid through physical factors beyond their control. Their descendants will remain stupid, because the climate of their country will not change and thus their bodies will remain the same. Moreover, each individual belonging to such people will be assumed to have the characteristics ascribed to his group, whether inherited, or caused by the environment. This is to the point because, as we shall see, the distinction between heredity and characteristics acquired through external influences was not considered significant in Graeco-Roman antiquity.

By this logic, as the extreme lead pollution of Mexico City is inescapable by its poor citizens, acknowledging the consequent measured loss of IQ (estimated to be 20 points last I read) by their children is racism.

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    The quote certainly doesn't seem like a great example of scientific racism, which is what prompted me to look for other examples in the first place. I avoided adding my own criticisms in the question because a) those belong on an answer that I don't have time to write right now (and probably won't, as yours covers me) and b) I wanted the question to be as neutral as possible, to avoid yet another never ending comment discussion. However, the core question remains: Are there any examples of scientific racism in the ancient Greek world?
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 1, 2013 at 18:49
  • 2
    @YannisRizos: It's hard to prove something doesn't exist. The inability to rapidly find such evidence, however, must be noteworthy. Commented Dec 1, 2013 at 19:51

I searched and found this document about Ancient GR racism, not sure about the scientic studdy. A little bit beyond me


Here is an abstract from the first page

Tribalism & Racism among the Ancient Greeks

A Weberian Perspective


Michael Bakaoukas, Ptychion (Phil.), M.Sc. (Phil.), Doctorate (Phil.) The University of Piraeus, Greece

Abstract Were the ancients Greeks “racists” in the modern sense of the term “racist”? The terms ancient Greek “proto-racism”, tribalism (and/or racism) are used here to denote the abstract, narcissistic notion that not only the non-Greek barbarians, but also certain ancient Greek tribes (like the Macedonians, the Boeoteans etc.) should be excluded from the Hellenic community, for they were considered to be inferior compared with the general Hellenic civilization.The present paper analyses comparatively the social phenomena of ancient Greek tribalism and modern racism in order to answer the following question: “what distinguishes the ancient Greek racism from the modern one?”. The basic philosophical and sociological question to be answered, running through the whole paper, is the following: “Could modern scientific, biological racism have evolved in ancient Greece?”. Scholars are right in rejecting such a possibility. However, we will see that, following ancient Greek racial thought, the interpretive model of modern racism could successfully be applied to ancient Greece. In other words, we make use of the Weberian “idealtypus” of modern racism. However, one has to cut it loose from the connotations of modern-day racism and analyse ancient Greek racism within the framework of the cultural, religious and political conditions of Antiquity. This is exactly the method that has been followed in the present study, in an effort to present in a critical spirit ancient Greek racial thought.


"... I wish all of you now that the wars are coming to an end, to live happily in peace. All mortals from now on shall live like one people, united and peacefully working forwards a common prosperity. You should regard the whole world as your country - a country where the best govern-, with common laws and no racial distinctions. I do not separate people as many narrow minded others do, into Greeks and Barbarians. I’m not interested in the origin or race of citizens. I only distinguish them on the basis of their virtue. For me each good foreigner is a Greek and each bad Greek is a barbarian. If ever there appear differences among you, you must not resolve them by taking to arms; you should resolve them in peace. If need be, I shall act as your negotiator. You must not think of God as an authoritarian ruler, but you should consider him as common father, so that your conduct resembles the uniform behavior of brothers who belong to the same family. For my part I consider all -whether they be white or black-, equal, and I would like you to be not only the subjects of my common-wealth, but also participants and partners. Within my powers I shall endeavor to fulfill all my promises. You should regard the oath we have taken tonight as a symbol of love..."


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