The publication of the first volume of Martin Bernal’s Black Athena in 1987 shook the very foundations of the classical world to its historical and archaeological underpinnings. In both this book and in a second volume, published in 1991, Bernal, a professor of political science and an expert on China, uses a wide range of arguments to call into question not only generally accepted views on the origins of Greek civilization but also the very methodological assumptions of the discipline. Bernal’s position, in brief, is that ancient Greece was colonized in the second millennium b.c.e. by Egyptians and Phoenicians and that ancient Greek culture was essentially Levantine, a mixture of Egyptian and Semitic influences. In support of this thesis, Bernal cites the witness of ancient Greeks themselves, especially the fifth century historian Herodotus, as well as Greek myths in which the Egyptian Danaus and the Phoenician Cadmus settle in Greece. Bernal ties these myths of colonization with hypothetical invasions of Greece, not only by the seventeenth century b.c.e. Hyksos rulers of Egypt, but also by the earlier, twelfth dynasty Egyptian pharaoh Senwosret I (1959-1914 b.c.e.), whom Bernal identifies with the Egyptian ruler Sesostris I reported by Herodotus to have led a major expedition as far north as the Black Sea. Bernal modifies this “Ancient Model” only to acknowledge an invasion of Greece by Indo- European speakers in the fourth or third millennium b.c.e.
In the “Revised Ancient Model” of Black Athena, Bernal emphasizes an Egyptian and Phoenician presence in Greece and argues that a significant portion of the ancient Greek language is Semitic or Egyptian in origin and that the sources for most of Greek culture can be traced to the Egyptians and Phoenicians. As suggested by both the title of Black Athena, as well as its subtitleThe Afroasiatic Roots of Greek Civilization, Bernal’s view of Greek culture is essentially an externalist one which weighs contributions from the Near East and Egypt more heavily than those of the Indo-Europeans. Much of the archaeological and documentary evidence for this “Revised Ancient Model” appears in the second volume of Black Athena, where Bernal cites irrigation works around Lake Kopais in Boeotia and a pyramid-like hill in Thebes as proof of an Egyptian presence in Greece in the third millennium b.c.e. A third volume on linguistic evidence and an unspecified fourth volume are promised by the author.
Bernal’s quest for external sources for Greek civilization is not entirely new. Scholars have long acknowledged foreign, especially orientalizing, influences on Greek culture, and recent archaeological and historical work has provided increasing confirmation that Greek civilization developed in the midst of dynamic trade and cultural exchange in the eastern Mediterranean. Such widely accepted scholarly explanations often differ from Bernal’s only in emphasis. Where Bernal tends to see invasions and colonizations, other scholars acknowledge no more than trading contacts, but the interaction of various Mediterranean cultures, including Greek, Mesopotamian, Phoenician, and Egyptian, has rarely been doubted. For scholars of the ancient world, the question has not been so much whether Greek civilization was influenced from the outside, but how these influences took place and from what part(s) of the Mediterranean. Were they based upon conquest, as Bernal suggests, or were they part of extended and broad cultural exchange? Did this influence go only in one direction or did the Greeks leave their marks on other early cultures?
If Bernal had only dealt with these historical questions, the reaction to his work would have been much more muted. However, in the first volume of Black Athena, aptly subtitled The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, Bernal broadens the debate to include historiography. He wounds the pride and questions the professionalism of scholars of the ancient Mediterranean by tying his “Revised Ancient Model” to suggestions that the historical methodology of modern European scholarship, especially its objective and scientific analysis of the ancient evidence, has been flawed for centuries by racial bigotry and anti-Semitic assumptions. Bernal argues that the original “Ancient Model,” unchallenged by Europeans until the eighteenth century, was displaced in the nineteenth century by an “Aryan” one centered on the Indo-Europeans in order to avoid sharing any of the glory that was Greece and the splendor of Western civilization with a “black” Egypt or a Semitic Near East.
Scholarly and public reaction to Black Athena has been swift and loud. In 1989 Bernal defended his thesis at a colloquium sponsored by the American Philological Association. Some of the papers read at this colloquium were published in the same year as The Challenge of “Black Athena,” edited by M. M. Levine...
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