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3203 SE Woodstock Blvd, Portland, OR 97202, USA

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A talk by Karen Carr (Portland State University, Emerita).

In today’s Europe and the United States, white people are far more likely to know how to swim than people of color, and African-Americans are the least likely of all. Yet in the Bronze Age, Africans were generally excellent swimmers, while Europeans hardly swam at all. Egyptian images and literature show fishermen swimming for work, women swimming for pleasure, and boys swimming to their girlfriends. In European images from the same era, anyone who falls into the water drowns. Greater interaction with first Egypt and then Carthage in the Iron Age seems to have brought swimming to Europe, along with Egyptian luxuries from stone sculpture and architecture to papyrus, glass, and linen. Swimming therefore appeared to Europeans as a sophisticated pastime for elites, a class marker separating them from hoi polloi. Odysseus swims but his crew does not; Plato uses reading and swimming to indicate social standing; Julius Caesar swims but his soldiers do not. Before Pompeii was buried, however, Romans in Italy had already begun to enslave Africans and mock African swimming. When white elites read Homer, Plato, and Caesar in the 1800s, their association of swimming with social status came into conflict with their enslavement of swimming Africans, and they forced African-Americans out of the water.

Sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America and the Reed College department of Greek, Latin, and Ancient Mediterranean Studies. Free and open to the public.

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