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Aithiopia and Athens: Linking Two Ancient Societies

September 13, 2016

Sarah Derbew (Classics) is spending the semester as a visiting researcher at University College London (UCL), working on “The Metatheater of Blackness: Looking at and through black Africa in ancient Greek literature and art.”

In her dissertation, Derbew explores issues of race and cultural identity in the Mediterranean region from the fifth century BCE to the third century CE.  She analyzes “the ways in which black skin color serves as an identity marker” in ancient Greek cultures across different genres (classical Athenian drama, the Greek novel, and Greek ethnography) and media (Greek pottery and vase-painting). Her mentor at UCL is Phiroze Vasunia, a professor of Greek who has done groundbreaking work on the links between ancient India and Greece. Derbew takes a similar look at Aithiopia, a region north of modern-day Ethiopia that “many ancient writers liken to ancient India,” she says. “Interactions were mainly based around the Red Sea travel network which linked third century BCE Greece to Arabia and India. It is difficult to determine exactly how much cultural exchange occurred, but it is clear that both cultures were aware of each other,” she says.

Derbew is Ethiopian American, born to immigrant parents and raised in New York City. Her interest in Greek and Roman Classics was sparked when she read about Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. Dido was the founding queen of the city of Carthage in North Africa. “As an Ethiopian young woman, I was inspired by this surprising discovery of a powerful  African woman in a seminal Latin text.”

She majored in Latin at Haverford College, and came to Yale to work with Professor Emily Greenwood. “Her exploration of the appropriation of Classics as a form of cultural resistance in the Caribbean resonated with me, as it spoke to the power of education as a tool for change,” Derbew says.

Derbew has been an active member of the Yale community. She co-chaired the Black Graduate Network for two years, was a Diversity Fellow in the Office of Graduate Student Development and Diversity for two years, and served as a graduate student representative on the Yale University Dean Search committee for a semester. In addition, Derbew was a member of the Afro American Cultural Center Advisory Board, a sophomore academic adviser, a graduate student affiliate for the Yale World Fellows Program, and her department’s representative in the Graduate Student Assembly.

Last winter, Derbew organized “Continents in Conversation: A Literary Festival,” (, featuring six world-renowned writers in lively round-table discussions about African literature. During the spring semester, she and her colleague Ben Jerue (PhD 2016, Classics) organized an interdisciplinary reading group, “Contested Receptions,” which explored the Classics in Africa and the African diaspora. Her review of Justine McConnell’s Black Odysseys: The Homeric Odyssey in the African Diaspora was published in Phoenix, a journal of the Classical Association of Canada. She was inducted into the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society in 2016.

When not writing her dissertation, organizing academic programs, or serving on committees, she enjoys West African dance classes at the Afro American Cultural Center. And despite all these activities, she says she still gets eight hours of sleep a night.