By: Kelly Garrett ’22 (she/her)
In 2016, Iraq War veteran Nathan Damigo founded Identity Evropa, a group that would soon become influential in recruiting white, college-aged men to spread white nationalist ideology. For several months afterward, Identity Evropa posters popped up on college campuses across the country, emblazoned with disturbing “Protect Your Heritage” and “Let’s Become Great Again” taglines printed over stark-white classical statues.
This is not the first time classics has been used in tandem with white supremacist ideology, and it certainly will not be the last. Political leaders, academia, and other powerful institutions have used the field of study to justify systems of elitism, exclusion, and racial power for hundreds of years. The narrative of white, western European superiority in classics is pervasive. When someone dares take it to task, bitter conflict is a guarantee.
Take Dr. Sarah Bond, Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa, for example. She authored an article about the “irrefutable truth” that classical statues were originally painted featuring a wide array of skin tones and colorful garments that reflected the ethnic diversity at the time. Not long after, flaming criticism and even death threats began flooding her inbox.
Similarly, the renowned British classicist Dr. Mary Beard faced a barrage of attacks after the BBC premiered a cartoon about Roman Britain that featured a black Roman governor originally from what is now Algeria.
To see the conflict for yourself, take a trip to a classic Google rabbit hole. Type, “Was Achilles black?” into the search bar and see the drama unfold before your eyes.
As flames of racial unrest continue to rage across America, experts are turning a critical eye on classics and beginning to take ownership of the racial injustice that the field has perpetuated. Dr. Keyne Cheshire and Dr. Jeanne Neumann, two tenured classics professors at Davidson College, are among those experts who have explored how race intersects with classics in light of its misappropriation by harmful groups.
When asked how classics might be useful in navigating modern racial tensions, Dr. Cheshire was matter-of-fact with his answer. “The social mores of our day just don’t map well onto ancient culture,” he said, adding, “there’s a kind of anachronism.”
Most anachronistic about today’s social conflicts is, perhaps surprisingly, our conception of race.
“Race is not something you really find references to in antiquity,” Dr. Cheshire said. “You get references to gentes in Latin, for example, ethnos in Greek, which suggest something like ‘family’ or ‘nation’ or ‘culture’, but not ‘race’ in the sense of a people defined by physical traits. What we have in modern America is very much a ‘gift’ that’s been given to us by the 15th century.”
Dr. Neumann expressed a similar sentiment. “Race was a product of a much later time, when people began buying and selling other human beings,” she said. “The world got racialized because it was economically beneficial to do that.”
In the same breath, however, she offered a word of caution. “It is true that the ancients were not ‘racist’ in our modern sense of the word, but a lot of people want to use that to erase culpability.” Indeed, we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that Greco-Roman cultures were supremely ethnocentrist, and “as Europeans, showed a preference for Europeans.”
“Elitism and exclusion,” Dr. Neumann continued, “that’s kind of the way the world has always worked. It’s a part of human nature.”
If Greco-Roman cultures didn’t conceptualize race, how have groups like Identity Evropa come to use classics to justify their racial prejudices? Dr. Neumann said that most often, those groups “take something that they can root in ancient texts, like ethnocentrism and the superiority of Europeans, but then connect that superiority with being white. And that’s something that’s not in ancient texts.”
Dr. Cheshire states that these hate groups draw on the “Western European tradition of hearkening back to antiquity to create that as the foundation of their identity.” For him, the “question of heritage” is really fundamental to the issue of classical misappropriation. For years, Western civilizations have tried to define their history as “the product or culmination of a continuum” stemming directly from Greco-Roman antiquity. According to Dr. Cheshire, this is “really artificial” given how far-removed modern Western Europe and America are from these ancient civilizations. The Western world often idealizes classical societies and inappropriately confers superiority on them, which “can also be used in a circular manner to justify actions that were ancient and not at all deemed appropriate for modern times. That’s exactly what happens,” he continued. “Powers go back to the classics to justify their own hegemonies, picking and choosing what elements of antiquity to celebrate.”
Can classics be of any use for navigating the racial tensions we face in the 21st century? For Dr. Neumann, classics offers valuable insight into how power structures are built and maintained.
“The question for antiquity was not race, it was power… but the whole racial thing is a question of power,” she said. “What are people worried about? They’re worried about black and brown people outnumbering white people and what that’s going to mean for power.”
Dr. Cheshire finds that classics is useful for developing cultural perspective. “I’m really interested in seeing the ‘other’ in whatever cultures and literatures we are studying.” He continues, “the more you understand the differences between particular groups within a culture, the better you understand that culture and the more you’re tempted to recognize the differences within your own.” Pausing to think for a moment, he says, “There are very few places on earth to which I could travel and immerse myself today that are as different as the experience of reading ancient texts… So classics can really challenge your worldview if you let it!”
Dr. Neumann agrees that there is value in viewing Greco-Roman culture as an ‘other,’ especially when it comes to evaluating texts about politics and power that our modern structures are still very much rooted in. “Because it’s ‘other’ and ‘ancient,’” she said, “we don’t get as attached to it and we can look at it much more critically.” However, Dr. Neumann also deviated slightly from this sentiment. “The ancient world is culturally ‘other,’ but it also has left its tendrils in our world as well,” she asserted. “I think it’s useful for students to see that not much has changed. People are still misogynist, people are still power-hungry, people still want to degrade those people they want to separate themselves from.”
The next step for classicists is to move toward a future for the field that is inclusive, diverse, and accessible. Dr. Cheshire proposed a route for classics that focuses on encouraging people to study Greco-Roman civilizations as culturally ‘other,’ while still recognizing them as “part of human heritage.” When asked if he thought emphasizing the ‘otherness’ of Greco-Roman culture could have a role in teaching tolerance, he pointed out that “classics has been really helpful for teaching intolerance, too.” As groups like Identity Evropa have shown, confirmation bias is an ever-present, slippery slope in classics. He continued, “I think it really has to do with the way one approaches classics, with their lens and perspective, and it has to do with asking the right kinds of questions.” Dr. Cheshire and Dr. Neumann both agreed that in the end, classics is what you make of it.
Dr. Neumann concluded with a sentiment about how marginalized communities can still find meaning in classics, despite its weaponization against them.
“One thing I think about a lot, personally, is how can I study this as a woman? Because it’s so misogynistic and so dreadful. And the thing is, they may be talking to men, but that doesn’t mean I can’t listen. I can’t speak for individuals of color, but my guess is that it would be a similar thing.”
In the end, there will always be individuals who misappropriate classics to justify and perpetuate harmful racial hegemonies. However, the ranks of classicists fighting back and looking toward a brighter future for the field are growing. Individual scholars like Dr. Sarah Bond and Dr. Mary Beard continue to fight for historical truth even when it challenges popular belief. Pharos, a collaborative online platform for scholars and the general public alike, has been hugely successful in documenting and responding to misuses of Greco-Roman culture by hate groups. Bryn Mawr College and the associated group Students Promoting Equity in Archaeology and Classics (SPEAC) will be hosting the first ever conference centered around amplifying academically marginalized and underrepresented communities in classics in March 2021, entitled “Now and Then: (In)equity and Marginalization in Ancient Mediterranean Studies.” Even outside of academia, authors like Lilliam Rivera, who recently published an Afro-Latinx retelling of the famous Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice entitled “Never Look Back,” are making strides toward accessibility and representation.
The misappropriation of Greco-Roman culture to justify harmful racial prejudices leaves the classics community with its fair share of battles to fight when it comes to diversity, inclusivity, and accessibility. However, the field is at a turning point. Increasing numbers of experts are showing that classics may be the study of the ancient past, but that does not mean it cannot be a vehicle for progress in the future.