Memnon was one of several protégés of the wealthy Athenian businessman and philosopher Herodes Atticus. His name was probably inspired by Memnon, the Ethiopian ally of Troy as described in Homer’s Iliad. Although few details of his life are known, his origins as a black African are established by a surviving portrait head. This, as well as his connections with Greek philosophy, attest to the high intellectual status sometimes achieved by Africans in the ancient Mediterranean world.
In Greek mythology, Memnon (Greek: Mέμνων) was an Ethiopian king and son of Tithonus and Eos. As a warrior he was considered to be almost Achilles’ equal in skill. During the Trojan War, he brought an army to Troy’s defense. The death of Memnon echoes that of Hector, another defender of Troy whom Achilles also killed out of revenge for a fallen comrade, Patroclus. After Memnon’s death, Zeus was moved by Eos’ tears and granted him immortality. Memnon’s death is related at length in the lost epic Aethiopis, composed after The Iliad circa the 7th century BC. Quintus of Smyrna records Memnon’s death in Posthomerica.
Literary accounts of the Trojan war, as well as numerous Roman authors, consistently describe Memnon with African characteristics as an Ethiopian from Sudan and Egypt.