Frank M. Snowden Jr., a Howard University classicist whose research into blacks in ancient Greece and Rome opened a new field of study, died Feb. 18 at an assisted-living home in Washington, D.C. He was 95 and had congestive heart failure.
As a black man, Snowden was a rarity in classics, but ancient history consumed him since his youth as a prize-winning student at Boston Latin School and later Harvard University. His body of work led to a National Humanities Medal in 2003, a top government honor for scholars, writers, actors and artists.
Much of his scholarship centered on one point: that blacks in the ancient world seemed to have been spared the virulent racism common to later Western civilization. “The onus of intense color prejudice cannot be placed upon the shoulders of the ancients,” he wrote.
Snowden’s most notable books are “Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience” (1970) and “Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks” (1983). Both were published by Harvard University Press.
Using evidence he found in literature and art, he showed that blacks were able not only to coexist with Greeks and Romans but also were often revered as charioteers, fighters and actors.
Because Romans and Greeks first encountered blacks as soldiers and mercenaries and not slaves or “savages,” they did not classify them as inferior and seek ways to rationalize their enslavement, he said.
William Harris, a Columbia University professor who specializes in Greek and Roman history, said Snowden was the first person to write in a serious way about blacks in antiquity, and his books influenced other scholars, including George M. Fredrickson (“Racism: A Short History”) and Martin Bernal (“Black Athena”).
However, Harris said: “Snowden really wanted to find a world in antiquity which was without the plague that inflicted America throughout its history, and he pushed the evidence too far to find an ideal pre-modern, pre-medieval world. There was undoubtedly some racism in antiquity, but he talked it down to being minimal.... He was right, to a point.”
Frank Martin Snowden Jr. was born July 17, 1911, in York County, Va. He was reared in Boston, where his father was a businessman.
Snowden graduated from Harvard University in 1932, and earned a master’s degree in classics from Harvard in 1933 and a doctorate there in 1944. His doctoral dissertation on slavery and freedom in Pompeii formed the basis of his later scholarship.
After early teaching jobs in Virginia and Georgia, he joined the Howard faculty in 1942 and spent many years as classics department chairman. From 1956 to 1968, Snowden was dean of Howard’s College of Liberal Arts, overseeing all undergraduate programs. He helped start the school’s honors program.
Snowden was fluent in Latin, Greek, German, French and Italian. He first visited Italy in 1938, when he won a Rosenwald fellowship, and went back a decade later as a Fulbright scholar. A frequent lecturer abroad on State Department-sponsored tours, he was named a cultural attache at the U.S. Embassy to Rome in 1953.
Snowden was married to the former Elaine Hill from 1935 until her death in 2005. He is survived by two children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.