The study of classical antiquity always seemed so serene, secluded from the noise of modern life. I pictured scholars bent over tomes of Aristotle, archeologists brushing dirt from marble, professors reciting epic poetry. But raiders from the alt-right have invaded the sanctuary, laying claim to the ancient memes.
Classics is hot—and not in a good way. Earlier this month, a leading historian of Rome, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, was featured in The New York Times Magazine accusing classicists of helping to invent the very construct of “Whiteness”—that slippery idea that means so much less than it seems to—and thus bolstering White supremacism. Even the phrase “Western civilization” is code, he says, because it implies that the only civilization that matters is White with Greco-Roman roots.
Remember all those Latin mottos on tees and tats in the video footage January 6? And the guys wearing ancient Greek helmets, and the flags that waved Molon labe, a phrase that means “Come and take them”? It was thrown about during the Texas Revolution and is now a slogan of the gun rights movement, but it comes from Herodotus, historian of ancient Greece. He has Leonidas, king of Greece, say “Molon labe” in brazen defiance when Xerxes, king of Persia, demands that the Greeks lay down their weapons.
“It’s Greeks versus Persians, so that fits the East-West dichotomy,” points out Kathryn Wilson, a lecturer in classics at Washington University. “And it’s from this moment that is depicted in 300, a film and graphic novel that really plays up the racial distinction and makes the Persians pointedly nonwhite and effeminate. That movie was really popular with a lot of young White guys.”
Wilson has watched such references increase over the past decade. There is even a new affection for SPQR, a Latin acronym for the senate and people of the Roman state: “It was stamped on everything they built, and now I see it on Twitter bios and tattoos.” The Proud Boys describe themselves as Western Chauvinists and cite Hercules and Theseus as images of strength. The White supremacist site called Stormfront uses a picture of the Parthenon to illustrate its tagline, “Every month is white history month.” A few years ago, NASA discovered a new object orbiting the sun, the farthest yet documented, and decided to name it Thule—an island, maybe mythological, maybe Greenland, that the Greeks thought of as a very distant place. Perfect—except that a neo-Nazi band had already taken Thule as its name.
“So much about antiquity has now been coopted by these people,” Wilson exclaims. “It’s almost impossible to use a classical reference in a pop-culture way without bumping into the alt-right.” She waits a beat, then adds dryly, “It’s a real problem for our field when enthusiasm for our subject matter is a signal that you are a neo-Nazi.”
Back in junior high, she remembers hearing “this story about the inexorable western progression of civilization: from the Greeks to the Romans, then the Europeans, now the U.S. They taught us that as though it were a real thing, as though one automatically lead to the next.” A convenient omission; there were entire centuries when the most dominant political power was located outside that trajectory. But no matter; the linear trajectory lets England and Anglophone countries claim Greece and Rome as their intellectual ancestors.
That claim might seem a harmless, erudite bit of flattery. All those Grecian urns and aphorisms from Cicero, the frothy Corinthian columns that make our entrances stately, the roots of democracy itself—who would want to toss all that away? The Enlightenment thinkers in Europe were a refreshing change from heavy religiosity, and their clean secularism schooled this country’s founders. Surely a sense of connection to what you find admirable is a good thing?
“Anyone has a right to say, ‘I’m inspired by a previous civilization,’” Wilson replies. “But it gets built into this idea that we are of the same people as they are, and it ultimately ends up being about Whiteness. By saying they are our ancestors, we are making them into White people.” Which is a neat bit of reverse engineering, given that race is a fairly modern construct, and “White” would have meant nothing to them.
When Wilson’s students ask, “But were the Greeks White?” she says, “That’s not something that can be answered. Besides, it’s not going to tell you about their race in the way you want it to. This is a civilization with a number of small cities all around the Mediterranean, some in Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, France, Spain—and they are all constantly mixing.” She is careful not to sanitize the ancients—“they certainly noticed differences in how people looked, and there was a lot of xenophobia, and they had their own bigotry, but it was not the same. When we decide that they are White, we are just coopting them.
Skin color is not even the dominant trait they use to define difference, she adds. The Greeks took their own skin color as the default, so anyone with skin lighter or darker was “other.” White skin was not prized. It did get culturally coded, but along gender lines: Women were depicted with white skin because they worked indoors, and men were shown with black skin because they work outdoors. “So there’s sense of white skin being more effeminate,” Wilson says. “There’s also a slang for men who have sex with other men—the more active partner is called the Greek word for ‘black,’ and the more passive is called the word for ‘white.’”
Tell that to the neo-Nazis.
“There’s also an issue with translation,” she continues. “They don’t have a term for a White person or a Black person, and sometimes they use a word to describe the entire person when they might just be describing their hair color,” the way we would speak of “a blonde.” “So when someone is described as dark, generally that’s been translated as dark-haired, but it could mean their skin is dark.”
Why, then, would people obsessed with race choose classical antiquity as a proving ground?
“They are very invested in the idea of this Western civilization that goes from Greece to Rome to Europe,” she reminds me. Ah, yes, Western civ. I have swum in that goldfish bowl for so long, I rarely think about what defines it. Wilson lists off the hallmarks: “democracy, freedom of speech, individualism, objectivity, and a rational, scientific way of looking at the earth.” Granted, she adds, the history of that scientific approach “skips over the period when most scientific developments were happening in the Middle East.”
Because we can trace a line on a map that connects us to Europe and Rome and Greece (leaving out the indigenous American Indians, as usual), geography itself makes the progression seem destined. But even geography, though, depends on where you draw the borders. “The ancient Greeks and Romans did not see themselves as having an affinity with other people who lived in Europe’s land mass,” Wilson points out. “They were thinking about themselves in the Mediterranean world. They had no concept of a ‘European’; that’s not where they would draw the line.”
Dan-El Padilla Peralta thinks it is too late for classicists to correct the narrative; the folks who have co-opted their field are not interested in messy complexity. The story needs to be rewritten altogether, he says, and even the name “classics” thrown away. But most classicists would rather yank their baby away before all that bathwater drains out. The question, says Wilson, is how to rebuild the field so it is explicitly not about those narratives. Her faculty colleagues draw on the full diversity of the ancient world, refusing to equate classicism with Whiteness. But such a switch is hard to popularize off campus, she sighs. “People are looking at how antiquity gets depicted in the broader culture, not at how classics defines itself.”
Wilson chooses her words to me carefully, afraid of implying a giant game of tug-of-war, the alt-right versus the classicists. “Classics has been complicit in these narratives from the beginning,” she says, “and the reason they were able to take hold—even if the Nazis do get some details wrong—is because they were consensus views in the field for a long time. Subconsciously and sometimes consciously, Classics has traded on the affiliation with Western civ. Now it’s all coming to a head, with the alt-right claiming these symbols just as we’re starting to have a real conversation about our narratives.”
Even I, who rebelled against taking Latin (“I’m not studying a dead language!” I yelled at my mother) and watch an occasional archaeology doc as the outer limit of my expertise, know that the premise behind the alt-right claim is flat-out wrong. Cultures all over the world can trace an intellectual lineage to Greece and Rome. The West is not the exception it thinks it is. No special ancestral powers of rationality, White purity, and patriarchal strength were passed down an imagined line to Americans.
“A lot of the stuff they assume is easily refuted if they would just go to a classroom and listen,” Wilson says. “But no one listens to us!”
Easier to steal your material and repurpose it.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.