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Eras Journal - Noell, B.: Abstract

Abstract of Noell, B. "Race in Late-Antique Egypt: Moses the Black and Authentic Historical Voice".

The early sixth-century Sayings of the Desert Fathers contains a fascinating anecdote about a black man who lived as a monk in Lower Egypt one hundred years earlier. The tale of Moses of Scetis is distinct among late-antique sources in that it seems to indicate not only the attitude of Greco-Roman society toward Africans but also the sentiments of those individuals themselves. Historians have made ample use of the story to discuss race in Late Antiquity and, based on its authority, have been tempted to speculate about the emotional disposition of people of color living in the Empire. This article argues, however, that the account was crafted to accord with theological and political, if not racial, assumptions of the dominant society. The need to make Moses comprehensible in these terms has obliterated any traces of the protagonist's historical identity. The story cannot inform us, then, about what it was like to be a black man in Roman Egypt. On the other hand, it can be employed to explore the literary construction of the African in the late-antique world.

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