Colloquium with Sinclair Bell: 'Race in the Roman Empire: Black Africans as Subjects and Objects in Imperial Visual Culture'


Wednesday, October 23, 2019, 12:00pm



Sinclair Bell, Associate Professor of Art History, Northern Illinois University

Race in the Roman Empire: Black Africans as Subjects and Objects in Imperial Visual Culture

Sinclair Bell studied Classical Archaeology at the University of Oxford, the University of Cologne, and the University of Edinburgh, from which he received his Ph.D. in Classics in 2004. He is presently an Associate Professor of Art History at Northern Illinois University, where he teaches courses in Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art and archaeology. His research focuses on the Etruscans, sport and spectacle in the Roman Empire, and freedmen and foreigners in the Roman world. He is the author of numerous articles, book chapters, and reviews on the art and archaeology of Etruscan and Roman Italy. He is also the Editor of the Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, and has co-edited 12 books, including Free at Last! The Impact of Freed Slaves on the Roman Empire (London 2012).


Visual culture is a powerful mechanism for apprehending a society’s ideas about their perceived physical and ethnic differences from others. This book project investigates how artists and their patrons conceptualized ethnic difference in the Roman empire (c. 100 BCE-200 CE). In particular, it seeks to understand how black Africans’ social roles and status in Roman society and their perception by Romans were communicated through imperial visual culture, both large (portrait and relief sculptures) and small-scale (figurines, amulets, household artifacts such as perfume vessels) works.

Race and Representation in the Roman Empire: Black Africans in Imperial Visual Culture has three aims: first, it investigates the full range of image types and viewing contexts (where known) in order to build up a comprehensive archaeological taxonomy of the extant evidence; second, it reconciles visual depictions with other sources of available evidence (e.g., literary sources, graffiti, funerary inscriptions) in order to gauge black Africans’ presence and perception within Roman society; and third, it draws upon the critical axioms of contemporary theory, especially post-colonialism and critical race studies, in order to interrogate Roman systems of knowledge as part of the “history of perceptions of human difference” (D. McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy [Oxford 2006] 252).

ORGANIZER: Hutchins Center