To the ancient Greeks, the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa were known collectively as Ethiopians, literally ‘those with burnt faces’. Theirs was a fabled land connected to the Greek world in myth. For example, there is the Ethiopian princess Andromeda, rescued by Perseus, and Memnon, who led the Ethiopians in the Trojan War.
King Memnon, seen here flanked by two warriors, was the leader in the Ethiopian contingent of the armies that gathered to defend Troy against the Greeks. He was the central hero of the lost epic Aethiopis, and his death is said to have been as tragic as that of Hector, slain by Achilles. Such was the grief of his mother, Eos, goddess of dawn, that the gods granted him immortality. It is a mark of how much he was respected that a Trojan ally was depicted on a Greek vase.
In real life, so-called Ethiopians were perhaps seen for the first time in the streets of Athens as mercenaries pressed into service during the invasion of Greece by Xerxes link here to Wikipedia, the great king of Persia. In time, as with all character types, the black body was absorbed into the diverse composite world of the Greeks.
The distinctively dressed figure on this bottle for scented oil is perhaps a mercenary conscripted into Xerxes’ army of invasion against Greece. He is a very different character from the mighty Memnon shown in the vase above.
The Nile and the land it watered, reaching deep into sub-Saharan Africa, was a constant source of fascination for peoples living on the Mediterranean. Both the river and the land were inhabited by fabulous beasts, of which the crocodile was one. Here, an African acrobat with his seemingly tame crocodile provides an entertaining subject, perhaps for a table ornament in a wealthy Greek household.
Some representations of Africans in Greek art tend towards caricature. This head, however, of a black girl in the form of a vessel acknowledges and captures the beauty of its subject. It belongs to the late period of Greek art when cities were more ethnically diverse in the cosmopolitan world forged by the conquests of Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC).