How Donna Zuckerberg and other classicists resist hate groups’ use of antiquity
- Fast Company
When members of the Unite the Right rally marched through Charlottesville on August 11, 2017 in polo shirts and carrying tiki torches, Twitter went wild with jokes. “When you have to use
Both Pharos and Eidolon have become the main portals for digital public scholarship on the interest white supremacists, misogynists, anti-Semites, ethnonationalists, and xenophobes have taken in the Greco-Roman world. It’s an association that Bond and other scholars say they simply cannot abide, not least because far-right extremists have committed nearly three times as many acts of fatal terrorism in the United States over the previous 15 years as Islamist terrorists. And this rise in hate is not exclusively American: Far-right groups in Europe have used appeals to the classical world to support their militant politics, too. Among the white nationalist, anti-feminist videos posted by the British YouTube personality Carl Benjamin–better known by the pseudonym Sargon of Akkad–for example, followers will also find the occasional ancient history lesson, such as a lengthy biography of the Greek general Pyrrhus of Epirus.
As part of his unsuccessful recent bid for a seat in the European Parliament as a U.K. Independence Party candidate, Benjamin directed supporters to an online chat server called “Athens” where users posted threats against European politicians, along with messages of support for Brenton Tarrant, the white terrorist who has been charged with murdering 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15.
And while scholars find this mingling of antiquity and far-right extremism unsettling, a bigoted misreading of history is not the only issue. In some cases, hate groups do accurately convey the ideas and practices of the ancient Mediterranean. The Greeks and Romans of antiquity, after all, were hardly woke, and sexism, bigotry, slavery, violence, and oppression were widespread. And racism is hardly alien to the classics itself, which crystallized as a discipline over the 19th century. During that period, says Dan-el Padilla Peralta, an assistant professor of classics at Princeton University, there were “many signs of classicists’ racial biases and racist thought structures.”
The classics are, broadly, everything related to ancient Greece and Rome–language, history, law, art, music, archaeology–between the 8th century BCE and the 6th century CE, when the Western Roman Empire fell. In Europe, these cultures–the Greeks in particular–were largely neglected during the Medieval era except by Arab and Byzantine scholars who preserved and translated their texts. Europeans rediscovered the Greco-Roman world beginning in the Renaissance, especially through archaeological finds.
The ideals of the ancients resonated during the formation of the modern university in the 18th and 19th century, says Denise McCoskey, a classics and black world studies scholar at Miami University in Ohio and the author of Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy. In the early university, the classics collided with racial pseudoscience–and justifications for the transatlantic slave trade–as scientists created racial categories that always placed Europeans at the top.
“When people were making these charts of racial difference–which turned out to be charts of racial superiority– they often relied on the Greeks and Romans as these paradigmatic white civilizations,” McCoskey says. One notorious example contrasted the head of the Apollo Belvedere with cartoonish depictions of a black man and a chimpanzee.