This kantharos (drinking cup) depicts a woman whom the maker would have called Ethiopian.

Who were the Ethiopians?

“Ethiopian” was the name Greeks and Romans used for the people who lived south of Egypt in Africa.  The name is often theorized to derive from Greek, meaning “sunburnt face,” indicating that skin color was a primary characteristic of their grouping. Our earliest sources, including Homer, the first surviving Greek poet, provide descriptions that verge on the mythological and idealize the Ethiopians “as the most distant and most just of men…[exhibiting] innocence, love of freedom, peacefulness, moderation, longevity, handsomeness, a semi-divine tallness of stature, and a piety appropriately rewarded by divine favor.” (Thompson, 88)  From the 3rd century BCE, Greeks and Romans living in Egypt traded and interacted with the inhabitants of the Meroitic kingdom of Kush located within the borders of modern day Sudan, which they identified with Ethiopia. Despite the fact that more direct knowledge was available, the mythic stereotype persisted as the standard. 

For more information on the use of Ethiopian faces on drinking cups, see this essay by Sarah Derbew.

Additional Bibliography:

Bindman, D., H. Gates Jr, and K. Dalton, eds. 2010. The Image of the Black in Western Art: From the Pharoahs to the Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. Harvard University Press.

Snowden, Frank, 1970. Blacks in Antiquity: Ethiopians in the Greco-Roman Experience.  Harvard University Press.

Thompson, Lloyd, 1989.  Romans and Blacks. University of Oklahoma Press.