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RACISM IN CLASSICS: BLACK LIVES MATTER


My energy over the last week or so hasn’t been focused on The Queer Classicist, but instead on the horrific killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter campaign and protests. A few days ago however Donald Trump announced that he was prepared to forcefully break up these protests using the military and National Guard. The operation name? Themis – a Greek goddess of Divine Justice. Hence why I’m back here. While I in no way want to detract from the much larger and more important issue of police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement, we all need to be calling out racism wherever we see it. It’s a well-established fact that Classics has been repeatedly adopted by right wing hate groups – just take a look at how much the Nazis loved it. If you don’t have the mental energy to read about yet another field with intrinsic racist views that’s okay! Focus on Black Lives Matter and the hugely important work they’re doing. But if you do want to learn about the weaponisation of ancient Greek and Rome by alt-right hate groups, and how intrinsically it is linked to Classics, then stick with me. We’re diving in deep.



So let’s start at the beginning – with the birth of Classics in all its bloody glory. We started studying ancient Greece and Rome as historic societies (instead of just their languages) in the Renaissance, but it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that things really kicked off. Immediately, we run into some problems. The discovery of ancient sculptures in all their naked, beautiful glory led to an idea of the ‘perfect’ Graeco-Roman, a lithe muscular form, and significantly – white. See Greek sculptures actually didn’t used to be white, they were incredibly colourful, but the paint’s just rubbed off. Nevertheless, the idea of these perfect white bodies led neatly to their use in racist ideology, where the proportions of different statues’ heads were measured to find the ‘ideal skull’. These ratios were later used by the Nazis, and plenty of other racist academics and scientists, to support their ideals of white supremacy. Alongside this, Britain was busy working on its colonialist empire, and so the idea of an ancient European empire that they could model themselves after was a pretty perfect find. Just like that, the Romans became the ideal white conquerors whose legacy us Brits would courageously continue. You can see evidence of this in the political cartoons of the British empire’s heyday, where traditional depictions of Romans were used in order to embody Britannia, as the white hero bringing civilisation to the barbarians of the world.



Udo Keppler, Puck, Aug. 8, 1900. (Library of Congress)

As the British used the Roman Empire in order to justify their own colonialism, so came a rise in scholars trying to figure out why the Roman Empire fell, figuring that if they got the cause nailed down, they could avoid the same fate. Unfortunately, a lot of what followed supported the racist ideology that the Brits were embodying. A scholar called Tenney Frank jumped on board with this, writing a paper called “Race Mixture in the Roman Empire”, in which he used different inscriptions of Roman names in order to discover whether it was the immigration and assimilation of people of non-Roman heritage which caused Rome’s fall – a false and racist theory.

Unfortunately this theory, while definitively untrue, has stuck around in the public consciousness. In 2018, one of the primary funders of the Brexit campaign group Leave.EU, and major UKIP donor Arron Banks openly contributed to this, when he falsely stated that the fall of the Roman empire was caused by foreign immigrants (an argument swiftly refuted by Professor of Classics Mary Beard). But if we know this statement is inaccurate, why is it still present in public opinion? A large part of it comes down to the idea of Greece and Rome being exclusively white – a narrative that classicists, whether deliberately or otherwise, have arguably contributed to.


When scholars are asked whether Cleopatra was Black (a common discussion in popular Classics), the common response is “no actually, she was Greek” – presumably intended to be followed by “and therefore must have been white”. We’ve created this false idea that to be Greek or Roman was to be white, suggesting an ancient community full of civilised, exclusively Caucasian people that has proved overwhelmingly inviting to Nazis and white supremacists. Just look at the responses to the BBC’s 2018 ‘Troy: Fall of a City’, in which the actor David Gyasi was cast as Achilles. Immediately, incensed viewers flocked to the internet to criticise a black actor playing the fictional Achilles, who apparently must’ve been a white skinned, golden haired, wonder boy (sounding a bit nazi-ish? I’d agree.). When their complaints were treated as racist however, these critics fell back on that old excuse of “Woah hold on a sec! It’s not racism, it’s historical accuracy!”. Well just to clear this up, there were black people in ancient Greece and Rome – the playwright Sophocles actually identified Zeus (the ‘king’ of the gods) as black in his play Inachus. But honestly, its unsurprising that popular culture doesn’t recognise this, and arguably a big part of that is down to Classics as a field.

Historically, when scholars have attempted to bring light to and identify the roots of racism in Classics they have faced backlash from the field. Take Black Athena, a three-part book series by Martin Bernal which aimed to identify and challenge the innate racial bias in Classical scholarship. Bernal argued that nineteenth century academics deliberately used ancient sources in order to justify the slavery, colonialism, and racism which they undoubtably benefited from. This was executed by the erasure of the traditional Graeco-Roman history which claimed they adopted aspects of culture from their predecessors in the Levant and Northern Africa, in favour of the Aryan model – which basically alleged that the Greeks came up with everything all by themselves.


The repercussions of Black Athena’s publication were enormous. Bernarl’s approaches were attacked, and his conclusions refuted – literally everyone in Classics was talking about it. Unlike typical controlled responses to a new theory however, some classicists immediately responded with pretty defensive arguments, while others refused to even engage, suggesting that the debates became too “angry and irrational”. And I understand why people got defensive. It’s that shame of being called out, because as Classicists, Black Athena suggested we were all complicit. But the problem with overwhelming scholarship arguing against any African or Semitic influence in ancient Greece is that, intentionally or not, to the outside world, it looked like Classicists were stating that there was no way Greece was ever anything but white. That white people came up with everything we celebrate about Greece, and there definitely weren’t any people of colour involved. Now I’m not suggesting at all that this was what scholars of Classics intended to do, but it is how their response could be interpreted.

This idea of Greece and Rome being the exclusively white creators of so-called democracy, and ‘western civilisation’, while defending their order from the barbarians surrounding them has become a regular motif in popular media. Indeed, the media has often depicted a problematic narrative of civilised white societies, who bravely defended themselves from barbaric people of colour. Just take a look at the 2006 film ‘The 300’, where you’re supposed to side with the white Spartan soldiers who courageously fight against the odds to protect western culture from barbaric foreigners. This idea of the ancient ‘plucky white man’, fending off attacks by people of colour to preserve western civilisation is rampant in alt-right groups, and even in more mainstream politics. On Neo-Nazi pages across the web, white supremacists adopt Greek and Roman names such as Quintilian, Lysander, and Carnifex, while certain white nationalists include the occasional lecture on Greek generals within their alt-right YouTube channels. And now let’s return to the US President Donald Trump, whose appropriation of the Greek goddess Themis is being used in order to attack crowds of largely African-American populations, in direct and violent opposition to the anti-racism protests. Trump's use of the embodiment of Greek divine justice (suggesting his decisions are supported by God?) in order to openly attack Black Lives Matter campaigners, is a blatant continuation of the appropriation of Classics by white supremacists.

So what can we all do to prevent this? In my opinion there are three beginning steps. Firstly, we must amplify Black and Minority Ethnicity voices in Classical Scholarship. Research has shown that Classicists of colour find it harder to get published in academic journals, and make up less than five per cent of Classics scholars. Working to amplify their voices will both diversify the field, and bring vital insights that will both energise and improve our community. Secondly, we must work to raise the awareness of the diversity of race in the ancient world. This may be through’ public support of casting people of colour in popular media adaptations regarding the ancient world, or publications on the subject, in order to challenge the adoption of Classics by white supremacists. Thirdly, I believe that the actions of publications like Eidolon in encouraging public awareness and participation in Classics is vital to creating an increasingly inclusive field. By improving the accessibility of knowledge regarding ancient history, we can begin to unravel the exclusivity of the field, which contributes to so much of the implicit racism and elitism within Classics.

As this post comes to a close, I want to take the opportunity to highlight some more resources which expertly tackle this issue. Professor Shelley P. Haley’s chapter “Black Feminist Thought and Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re-empowering” in the book Feminist Theory and the Classics I found particularly enlightening, alongside Professor Patrice D. Rankine’s article “The Classics, Race, and Community-Engaged or Public Scholarship”. Additionally, the website Pharos is doing incredible work to identify and challenge the use of Classics by white supremacist organisations, while I highly recommend Eidolon as a resource for learning more about the relevance of the ancient world to modern culture.

Just like in our modern world, ancient Greece and Rome contained people of all ethnicities, whose societal integration improved their culture through new scientific, artistic, and technological understandings. Historically, academics of Classics have, deliberately or otherwise, been remiss in allowing this diversity to go unseen, contributing to the white-washing of Classics, and its subsequent adoption by neo-Nazis and far-right hate groups. But no more, the academics are fighting back, and exposing the true diversity of the ancient world. The history of ancient Greece and Rome is not just a history of white people. The divine Greek goddess of Justice would not have supported the murder of innocent Black civilians, and Trump’s evoking of her demonstrates his racist ideologies.


As Sophocles’ Zeus would undoubtedly shout: Black Lives Matter.

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