🔼The name Niger in the Bible
The name Niger occurs only once in the Bible, namely as either the surname or the epithet of Simeon of Antioch. And even though Simeon Niger is mentioned among Biblical luminaries such as Paul, Barnabas and even Manaen, nothing further is known about this man.
🔼Etymology of the name Niger
The name Niger is obviously the same as the Latin word niger, meaning black, but despite the certainty of some Biblical commentaries, this name does not at all confirm that Simeon was a Negro (which is the same word).
In the first century AD, the Levant and southern Anatolia (modern Turkey, where Antioch was situated) was a thoroughly international affair (Acts 2:9-11), and it's without doubt that black Africans were then as common as now. However, if there was a cultural stereotype about black people (which is probable) it was most likely based on the vast wealth of ancient African nations. The official of Candace of Nubia, whom Philip met on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:27), was most probably black and most probably loaded — scrolls were very expensive and Isaiah was probably the biggest and dearest one available (and the official was obviously not sitting alone in a buggy, as per popular image, but travelled with a substantial envoy and hefty security).
Jewish communities had been common all over the Nile area from the time of David on, so it would not at all be a striking coincidence to find a black man named Simeon in Antioch. But perhaps Simeon was not dubbed The Negro because of his skin tone, but rather because he owned half the town. If this was indeed the case, Simeon The Negro of Antioch would probably have been called Simeon The Arab in Chicago.
🔼The name Niger in Rome
The Latin word niger did not only describe a striking physical feature (the word "negro", albeit somewhat politically incorrect in some cultures, is on an exact par with descriptive words like "red-head" or "big guy") but also described a glum mood, a sullen character or bad luck. More importantly: it personified death. Of the scorching south wind called Auster it was said that she "blackened," and certain poison receptacles where referred to as "black cups".
The Stoic author Seneca the Younger even referred to Pluto, the god of Hades, as the "black Jupiter" (Hercules Oetaeus.1705), which is doubly cute because even though some scholars doubt that Seneca wrote Hercules Oetaeus, Seneca's elder brother Lucius Gallio, who interrogated Paul (Acts 18:12), had the same first name as the other mystery man named among the Antiochian teachers.
Even more striking is the origin of the name Pluto (Πλουτων, Plouton), which is the verb πλουτεω (plouteo), meaning to be or become rich (Luke 1:53, 1 Timothy 6:9, 1 Corinthians 4:8), and that's also the root of our English word "plutocracy" (a government by the rich).
Niger was a fairly common name in the Latin world. Sextius Niger was a Roman medical author from the time of Caesar Augustus (and thus a contemporary of Paul and Simeon Niger), who wrote on pharmacology (the effects of drugs and poisons). Sextius Niger may have been the same as Quintus Sextius, the philosopher.
Another famous Niger is Pescennius Niger, who in 193 AD claimed Rome's imperial throne after the murder of emperor Pertinax and the auctioning off of the imperial title. Unfortunately for Pescennius Niger, a man named Septimus Severus did so too, and Severus had control over more legions than did Pescennius Niger. The latter was forced to retreat, and in 194 AD he was finally arrested and beheaded in Antioch or all places.
The name Niger literally means Black, but it signifies distinction and opulence. It may even have originated as epithet for the god Pluto, whose personal name means Rich Guy.