Black Athena Revisited

by Mary R. Lefkowitz

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Black Athena Revisited is a work of nonfiction. It is focused on the history of classical scholarship, an area sometimes known by such terms as "reception studies," "historiography," or "classical tradition." In other words, it is primarily concerned not with establishing a central thesis about an ancient phenomenon, but rather with analyzing the ways in which subsequent scholars have come to certain knowledges or understandings about antiquity. This means that the characters or people discussed in the books include ancient historical and mythological figures, ancient writers who serve as sources for how people understand antiquity, and modern classical scholars.

Martin Gardiner Bernal

Black Athena Revisited was written as a response to Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, by Martin Bernal. Martin Gardiner Bernal was a British scholar who taught at Cornell University and specialized in modern Chinese political history. In the 1970s, Bernal became convinced that ancient Greek accounts of Egyptian influences on early Greek development (considered by most scholars to be fictional origin myths) were grounded in fact, and he wrote Black Athena to prove that Greek culture, rather than being uniquely original or evolving out of Mesopotamian influences, was instead directly descended from Egyptian and Phoenician models. Lefkowitz and the contributors to Black Athena Revisited cogently critique Bernal's arguments as factually inaccurate and argue that his work is based on a misreading of ancient sources.


Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian. Although Herodotus is known as "the father of history" and made an exemplary effort to collect first person accounts of the Persian Wars, his work, especially concerning earlier periods, is problematic. Bernal relies on Herodotus's accounts of Egyptian interaction with Bronze Age Greece to make his case, despite a general scholarly consensus that much of Herodotus's account of early Egyptian history is unreliable. Herodotus was as much an oral entertainer, in the tradition of bards and rhapsodes, as he was a historian, and his work contains many dramatic stories that were intended to grab the attention of audiences and of which there is little evidence to support. Herodotus often signals such stories by mentioning that he heard them from a specific person, but there are no other reliable sources that support these accounts.

Diogenes Laërtius

Diogenes Laërtius was the author of Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers. The opening chapters of this work emphasize the influence of Egyptian and other "barbarian" thinkers on Greek philosophy. Again, Bernal tends to read and accept uncritically many of the accounts in Diogenes. Most scholars note, however, that Diogenes is what might be described as a literary "hoarder"—collecting and transcribing everything he can find on various topics with little heed to the quality of the information or sources. While his work is uniquely valuable, providing important information about otherwise unknown thinkers and quotations from works otherwise lost to history, his work is very uneven and must be checked for internal contradictions and collated with independent sources.

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