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Opinion: Learning about the Classics can disarm reactionary use of it

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

David Flanagan

Opinions editor

Content warning: discussion of white supremacist violence

When Neo-Nazis and white supremacists of all stripes marched at the University of Virginia in 2017, the past of white supremacy touched its present. The protestors marched under the shadow of the Rotunda, a building modeled after the Pantheon in Rome and designed by university founder Thomas Jefferson himself. As Sarah Teets, then a graduate student in Classical Studies at the university, lays out in detail, the history of the University of Virginia is mired in white supremacy that is [backed up by pseudo-historical misunderstandings] of ancient Greek and Roman thought. Cherry- picked passages from ancient authors were deployed to justify the brutal treatment of slaves under a veil of erudition by Jefferson and other slaveholders.

The use of Greco-Roman imagery to lend credence to reactionary and conservative arguments isn’t new. The 1936 Berlin Olympics under Nazi rule was the first in history to include a [symbolic passing of the Olympic Torch] from Greece directly to the heart of Nazi Germany. The laconic phrase ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ - “Come and take (them)” - supposedly uttered by the Spartan Leonidas during the fateful battle at Thermopylae [has gained traction] in the world of pro-gun anti-government bumper stickers and Facebook postings. A Holocaust-denying Floridian politician who has explicit ties to the alt-right has swapped his birth name for that of a Roman solar deity, [Sol Invictus] (“Unconquered Sun.”) And the list goes on and on.

But what’s so appealing about connecting one’s fascist movement to the ancient Greeks and Romans? For the modern alt-right, the use of the phrase “Western civilization” has become more or less synonymous with whiteness. Because it’s so far in the past—and because it has centuries of scholarship around it—Greece and Rome are convenient starting points if you harken back to societies with “[traditional values,]” whatever that implies for your argument. Classics Professor Mary Bachvarova connected our modern obsession with the ancient Greeks’ use of the very same tactics to peoples that came before them: “People are always trying to use the most ancient materials possible to justify whatever it is they want to believe in… it’s not about that (Greek and Roman) culture, it’s about a fascination with using the most remote past to insist that it’s always been naturally so.” It’s easy to see this as similar impulse to any other kind of essentialism, be it social (“it’s just human nature to go to war”) or biological (“chromosomal makeup determines gender.”)

In the wake of recent misappropriations, some in the field of Classics have called for a critical reexamination of what exactly the discipline should do. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a professor of Classics at Princeton, has recently called for a decolonization of the field, believing that white supremacy is so enmeshed in the field that the two [cannot be separated]. While his argument has merit, and his extensive experience in the field cannot be understated, disavowing Classical Studies in its current form and reorienting it to an aggressively anti-colonial discipline is only one solution, or a part of one. Another is for more students to learn about the real history and literature and use it to dispel the narrative of the Greco-Roman world as an unquestionable beacon of goodness and reason and see it for what it truly was: a chaotic period full of flawed, complicated people that has tremendously influenced us in the modern day.

For every claim that the stark beauty of Greece is represented in its pristine marble statues, there’s widespread evidence that their sculptures were painted [in vivid, living color]. For every fascist claiming that back in the day, “men were men and women were women,” there are myths about [prophets switching sexes] to settle bets, not to mention more homoeroticism that you could shake a gladius at. Ancient views on barbarians, colonialism and sexuality are fascinating and contradictory topics that play into our language and worldviews to this day. Professor of History and Classics Robert Chenault noted that, “In a strange way, Classics is especially relevant right now because it’s incumbent on practitioners in the field to help highlight the ways in which mal-intentioned actors seek to draw justification for their ideas from this appropriation of Classical texts.” The truth of the field is far more interesting than the shallow symbology being used to promote the ideals of white supremacist organizations.

To keep the study of ancient Greece and Rome as a guarded secret is to keep powerful knowledge in as few hands as possible. Instead, we must engage with authentic texts in a variety of interpretations. Yes, the study of Classics—even the term “Classics” itself—is founded on centuries of European elitism and white supremacy. There’s no denying it. Perhaps Padilla Peralta’s ultimatum will lead to revolution in the discipline or reformation in the way scholars work to decolonize their worldviews. Perhaps more schools will adopt programs like Willamette’s upcoming “Classical Civilizations” major, which will focus less on learning Latin and Greek and more on interpreting texts and cultures using more modern paradigms. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: arming ourselves with knowledge of the ancient world is the best way to combat the abuse of it.

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