Around the year 98 CE, the Roman historian and statesman Tacitus wrote a short monograph about the wild men to Rome’s north. Tacitus had likely never visited his setting, a brutish and hard area of warring tribes the Romans called Germania. Instead, he repackaged the prevailing wisdom of the time, detailing the barbarians’ prowess in war, as well as their sense of honor, fierce loyalty, and loose gambling mores. Fatefully, the Tacitus tract, the Germania, posited that Germanic tribes were somehow of the soil, descendants of earthen demigods and unmixed with other peoples.
In A Most Dangerous Book (2011), Stanford classicist Christopher B. Krebs traces the metastasis of the Germania from myth into fact. When the Roman Empire fell, copies of the work disappeared for centuries. Then one was rediscovered in Germany’s Hersfeld Abbey in the late Middle Ages. European intellectuals, and soon German demagogues of all stripes, fixated on the idea of German purity. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, was enormously fond of Tacitus’s tract, and directed his agents in Italy to chase down the Hersfeld text toward the end of World War II. Germania’s claim was foundational, Krebs argues, for the sort of ethno-nationalist myth central to Nazism.
“Ideas resemble viruses,” Krebs writes. “They depend on minds as their hosts, they replicate and mutate in content or form, and they gang up together to form ideologies.” Even though the “Germanen were not early Germans,” Krebs writes, from the fifteenth century through the twentieth, the majority of readers “studied the Germania through an ideological lens and valued it as the gateway to the German past.”
As fringe groups have lately looted the relics of Greece and Rome, classical scholars have stirred themselves to respond.
Greco-Roman antiquity has long had a powerful allure for any charlatan who would drape himself in garments of Serious Thought. Today classical references abound among white nationalists, men’s rights groups, and alt-right leaders, who are especially prone to intellectual pretension. White supremacist sites like National Vanguard and American Renaissance tout Greece and Rome as the “heritage” of the “white race.” Here are alt-right agitators wearing Spartan helmets to free speech rallies in Berkeley; there they are using antique statuary in recruitment flyers on campuses nationwide. One of the most widely cited of academic justifications for supporting Trump for president was penned by the pseudonymous “Publius Decius Mus,” a name taken from a Roman soldier who ritually sacrificed himself in battle to save the nation.
As groups further afringe have lately looted the relics of Greece and Rome, classical scholars have stirred themselves to respond. Since the fall of 2017, the classics blog Pharos has been documenting and challenging misappropriations of classical iconography, inviting classicists to qualify and contextualize claims that, say, a black actor playing Achilles is an affront to everything Homer held dear.
That controversy, over the BBC casting David Gyasi as Achilles in this year’s Troy: Fall of a City, offered a high-profile glimpse into the battle over classical representation. Grievance Politics Twitter pounced on the opportunity to decry political correctness run amok (in much more pointed terms). This May, a bevy of classicists—fifteen in all—wrote in to Pharos to discuss the questions of race in antiquity, including the vagueness in how Homer approached coloration, the attested presence of Ethiopian warriors in the Trojan war, and the idea that Greek views on race were, in fact, less yoked to color than are modern Anglo-American views.
“It was a big moment for us,” says Curtis Dozier, a professor of Greco-Roman history at Vassar and publisher of Pharos. His site had by then been documenting and responding to misappropriations of the classics for six months. Dozier launched the site, he explains, thanks to “a growing realization that all forms of knowledge are implicated in political structures in one way or another. If the people who actually have expertise in that form of knowledge are not the ones activating it politically, then someone else is going to do it for them.”
The site’s hundreds of pageviews per week hardly revolutionize the public understanding of antiquity. But its presence indicates a wider shift in the field’s orientation toward race and politics.
In the nineteenth century, the field of classical studies came under the spell of racial pseudo-science: it was the time of phrenology and human typology, ad hoc justifications for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and colonialism. Thus did the discipline get carried by the currents of its time, taking a consciously Eurocentric view of a more pan-Mediterranean story. This was the thesis, anyway, of Martin Bernal’s three-volume work Black Athena, whose first installment was published in 1987. Bernal, a British scholar of Chinese history, posited that early classicists ignored evidence of the Phoenician and Egyptian roots of early Greek cultural life. (The Phoenicians were Semitic seafarers and alphabet-toters from what is now Lebanon.) Bernal’s scholarship was sloppy, much of his specific linguistic evidence bunk. But his critique of the discipline’s history hit a nerve, exacerbated, perhaps, by his outsider status. And his thesis has continued to resonate.
Denise McCoskey, professor of classics at Miami University of Ohio and author of Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, believes the aftershocks of Athena still brace the discipline. “When I got my degree in the ’90s, no one wanted to use the word race,” she recalls. “So it just disappeared. In my opinion, even though people don’t really talk about Black Athena a lot, it really still haunts this whole moment. It was an opportunity for classics to become fundamentally different. And it never really did. You know, talk about the return of the repressed.”
Early classicists traced out a story of antiquity with Europe in a near-solo starring role, and Greece—Athens, particularly—as the starting point of what would become Western Civilization. “But the idea that somehow everything sprung out of the head of Greece, like Athena from the head of Zeus—we know now, we should know, that all civilizations learn from each other,” says Gregson Davis, a professor at Duke. (Davis is a longtime colleague of my mother, herself a historian of classical Rome.) “The Greeks thought that the Egyptians were the source of great wisdom. They didn’t think they invented civilization, by any means. So all the people who have appropriated Greece, you know, have completely distorted the narrative.”
“For people who want to cloak themselves in the Greeks and Romans, I think it’s important to say, ‘they would not recognize you.’”
The idea of an unmixed Europe still holds sway. Steve Bannon has pivoted from American domestic politics to whip up white resentment and resistance to immigration throughout Europe. A year ago, a BBC cartoon that included a dark-skinned man in Roman Britain stirred up a minor firestorm on social media, despite classicists’ support of the historical facts at hand. In envisioning the ancient world, even the color of statuary has an impact, argues Sarah Bond, classics professor at the University of Iowa. In a 2017 essay for the arts publication Hyperallergic, Bond suggests that the popular presentation of Greek and Roman statuary as white marble, rather than in its original polychrome, allows for its use as ammunition by white supremacists who celebrate the blanched marble statuary as “the quintessence of beauty” and “a symbol of white male superiority.” Perhaps predictably, she was mocked and then threatened online, even as Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group, used those statues in recruitment flyers.
But seeing the ancient Mediterranean in full color is far from historical revisionism, says McCoskey of Miami University—not least because Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves white. “From the Romans’ point of view,” she says, “the Germans as people who live in the north are as racially different as the Ethiopians, who live in the south.” The Romans and Greeks, meanwhile, were from the middle of their particular world, and came in an assortment of hues appropriate for their sunny environs.
“For people who want to cloak themselves in the Greeks and Romans, I think it’s important to say, ‘they would not recognize you,’” McCoskey says. “They would not acknowledge that they are anything like you, despite your deep desire to affiliate with them. That doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about them, or think about them, but it does mean that the connection you’re forging is one-way. Because they’re not anticipating you.”
That one-way connection can be built on unlikely foundations. Dozier, Pharos’s publisher, cites Return of Kings, a site that started as a forum for pick-up artists and has edged into white nationalism. “What it says to me is that the white supremacists are always on the lookout for anyone who feels kind of disaffected for any reason, and they see those people as their natural allies,” he says. “They figure out a way to relate whatever local prejudice is there to some kind of racial animus.”
For lost boys in the digital wilderness, disaffection and resentment can offer the bridge into a white supremacist reading of history. Certainty feels good, and rootedness grants a sense of historical place. McCoskey notes, with some trepidation, that this yearning for connection to deep histories is common across groups. Her efforts to disentangle the way that Greeks and Romans thought about race—with no such idea as “whiteness,” and with less emphasis on skin color—from current views are sometimes received by students as a claim that “blackness doesn’t matter today,” she says. “To me, if there’s one part of the project I struggle with the most—one of the figures that I’ve written about is Cleopatra. That’s where a lot of that comes out. Because there are a lot of black women in particular who are deeply invested in a black Cleopatra. For me to say ‘well, she’s racially different from the Romans sometimes, but never for skin color’—that can come across as extremely callous. When you try to rewrite things, you also really have to be careful not to make students think none of it matters.”
That fits with the thrust of Pharos’s project: deconstructing the narratives of white nationalists and men’s-rights groups without throwing out lucid classical scholarship. Readings too explicitly beholden to contemporary concerns can smack of presentism, a heavy-handed application of modern politics onto ancient affairs. Dozier recognizes a certain irony in his site’s self-consciously progressive responses: “I think it can look like what we’re doing is the opposite version of what the white supremacists are doing. I’m actually okay with that. I think there’s some truth to that. It’s probably true of any history, but especially a fragmentary history like ours can be made to mean whatever you want it to mean.”
Yet not all appropriations are created equal. Pharos recently documented white nationalists calling homosexuality in ancient Greece a “myth,” for example—an enormous distortion of settled history. “My appropriations, or Pharos’s appropriations of antiquity, fit better with the evidence and the current state-of-the-art way of interpreting the evidence than the white supremacists’ do,” Dozier says. “From a scholarly or academic point of view, our appropriations are better than theirs. They’re politically better, but they also rely much less on distortions, omissions, and inaccuracies than the ones that you find from the hate groups.”
While Pharos works to counter online misinformation from the digital right-wing, other scholars are following in Bernal’s footsteps and reckoning with the history of the discipline itself. That is a chief aim of Donna Zuckerberg, founder of the progressive journal Eidolon, which writes about classics in a tone accessible to laymen. Dozier recalls dreaming up Pharos after reading a post-election call to action by Zuckerberg, “How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor.” In the essay, she exhorts classicists to think critically about the political implications of their work on ancient Greece and Rome, since poorly contextualized classical scholarship can become, she writes, “fodder for [the] ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders.”
Greco-Roman antiquity’s influence extends well beyond the political realm, of course: classical literature and thought remain powerful touchstones for artists and thinkers the world over.
Patrice Rankine, dean of the school of arts and sciences at University of Richmond, proposes that this is because classical texts are “good to think with.” For example, “Ralph Ellison is looking for ways of dealing with lynching, and he comes upon the Dionysus myth, myth of dismemberment, myth of fragmentation, myth of consumption. He has that Bacchic theme as a way into lynching in our society. Not because he wants to impress anyone, but because it makes sense.”
“Years after he writes that, you have sociologist Orlando Patterson saying lynching is a Christ-like ritual of consumption that is very much like a Dionysus myth. Because here are the lynch mobs burning the body of the lynch victim, and eating barbeque at the smell of that flesh.”
Davis, of Duke, sees a recent focus on “receptions,” or how modern audiences are engaging with older work, as a positive development in the discipline: more attention on “how, say, Greek tragedy, Homeric epic, and all of these great literary works have been received in what we used to call the Third World, and other places—Nelson Mandela in a South African prison reading Sophocles’ Antigone.”
Ralph Ellison looked to the Dionysus myth, with its ritual dismemberment, as a way to understand lynching in American society.
Davis’s particular focus is the interaction of Caribbean writers with Greco-Roman texts. “You have people who are writing, and saying not just ‘we worship these texts and they embody all the wisdom there is,’ but appropriating them and rewriting them. Classicists are now much less chauvinistic, and nobody is making huge claims anymore, thank goodness. That’s not totally the case, but it’s a huge difference since the time I’ve been in the profession.”
This softer approach holds classical antiquity worthy of study not because any extant group is directly descended from ancient Greeks or Romans—population migrations in the last two millennia make that a complicated question, even in modern Greece and Rome themselves—but because the classical record and its secondary scholarship offer a rich body for analysis and reference, one with centuries of Talmudic commentary alongside.
Of course, white nationalists and misogynists have their own classical receptions. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary, for prime example, of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. In it, Powell, a British classicist and conservative politician, prophesied that unfettered immigration to the UK would be the death of it. The name came from an in-speech reference to Virgil’s Aeneid. The idea that Rome fell thanks to excessive immigration continues to weigh on the popular imagination, offering a rich rhetorical vein for xenophobes on both sides of the Atlantic.
Pharos means that receptions in this vein, even those much less prominent than Powell’s, are met with scholarly response, and that they become an occasion for classicists to speak among themselves and with the public to color in overly simplistic histories. Pharos’s initial goal of giving the classics a progressive spin has moderated into working for a fuller view of the classics, de-haloed, which sounds, more than anything, like responsible scholarship.
“I have this faith that we keep doing the work, we keep documenting, we keep doing the responses when we can, and, you know, little by little we’ll build the case,” says Dozier. “I have institutional support that can last as long as we want to keep doing this. So we don’t have to save the discipline this summer.”