White supremacists, misogynists, and anti-Semites see the ancient Mediterranean as a touchstone. Would a better sense of history change their minds?
May 27, 2019 by Jen Pinkowski
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 a Polynesian cultural product (tiki torches) to defend and assert white supremacy,” wrote one Twitter pundit. Another captioned a photo of the marchers: “Y’all, we can’t get dates on Friday night (again) so we’re fixin’ to pick up some tiki torches at Walmart & have a klan rally. Who’s in?”
But Sarah Bond, an associate professor of classics at the University of Iowa, didn’t find the jokes funny. “Something horrible is going to happen,” she remembered thinking.
For the past several years, Bond has written about “classical reception” — or how Greco-Roman culture is received and interpreted — for Forbes online, the art and culture website Hyperallergic, and Eidolon, an informal online journal devoted to the classics. Because classical thinkers, institutions, writings, and art have been portrayed as the epitome of “civilization” since the Renaissance, she’s also documented how hate groups have latched onto the perceived legitimacy of antiquity to make themselves seem more legitimate.
“Torches are very much tied to violence in antiquity,” she says. “They are meant to intimidate people. There are a number of examples from antiquity of the use of mob violence where fire and torches are specifically used prior to an assassination.” The Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, and the Golden Dawn all marched with flames.
The day after the August rally and the Twitter jokes, violence erupted between the marchers and counter-protestors, and alt-right supporter Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others. Bond, a Virginia native who’d attended undergrad at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, was upset but not surprised. “That was the tipping point where I was like, you know what? Fuck their use of antiquity.”
Bond is among a group of scholars sounding the alarm about the love that right-wing hate groups have for the classics. One effort to push back is Pharos — “lighthouse” in ancient Greek, and most associated with the famed lighthouse of Alexandria. Founded by Curtis Dozier, a professor of Greek and Roman studies at Vassar College, the site documents appropriations, errors, and distortions of Greco-Roman antiquity. Another is Eidolon — a platform for “classics without fragility” founded by Donna Zuckerberg, the author of “Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age” and sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose website recently banned white supremacists.
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 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.
The conflation of the classics and whiteness was embraced by “Nazis, British imperialism, Italian fascism, 19th-century race pseudoscience, and early anthropology,” says Dozier.
These factors are still at play today, says Padilla, with people “who are staking their identity to a claim about whiteness” essentially saying: “‘We have received and inherited the classics because they are our specific cultural legacy.’”
Bond saw this firsthand when she wrote an article for Hyperallergic noting that many classical white marble statues were originally painted, and that these statues fed into notions of white racial superiority in the 19th century. After the article was picked up by conservative media like Campus Reform and National Review, there were calls for her firing. She also received anti-Semitic harassment and violent threats.
Dozier launched Pharos in November 2017 to reach people “curious about antiquity but [who] hadn’t thought about it in political ways. I was hoping they would find us before they find the hate sites.” The Pharos audience is small but broad, with more than 75,000 page views from more than 120 countries as of May 2019.
Recent articles highlight how Spartan and Athenian eugenics — strictly-controlled reproduction that according to some ancient texts included infanticide of disabled babies — inspire white supremacists; how an anti-Semitic take on Saturnalia published on a website founded by the white supremacist Richard Spencer was based on misrepresentations of the historical record; and how ancient fables are used to “prove” to misogynists that all women are “inveterate liars and deceivers.”
Pharos also maintains a list of antiquity-inspired pseudonyms. Quintilian was a 1st-century Roman rhetorician — and is the nom de plume of a contributor to the neo-Nazi site Counter-Currents. Lysander was a Spartan commander — and is the moniker of Nathan Larson, who ran for Congress in Virginia on a platform of white supremacy, sexual slavery, and pedophilia. Carnifex — the Latin word for “executioner” — murdered two women and shot five others in a Florida yoga studio last fall. His real name was Scott Paul Beierle.
Much of the work on Pharos catalogs the most widespread — and inaccurate — idea in the alt-right web: that Greco-Roman culture was white. “This idea that the Greeks and Romans identified as ‘white’ with other people in modern-day Europe is just a complete misreading of ancient evidence,” says McCoskey. “They identified as Roman, and Roman is a kind of racial type, just as Greek is a racial type. Ethiopians are as different from [Romans] as Germans. They certainly don’t think of skin color as having this deeper meaning of marking fundamental human difference. What mattered was geography. They thought where you lived in the world was what produced fundamental human differences.”
Another common misrepresentation is the idea of a single “Western Civilization” conceived in the classical world. The concept comes from “Western Civ” class — an invention of the late 19th and early 20th centuries meant to strengthen the bond between America and Europe, says Bond. In this linear construction, “Egypt gets inherited by Greece, and then Greece gets taken by Rome, and then Rome gets taken into medieval Europe, and then from medieval Europe is the Age of Exploration, and from the Age of Exploration we get to the American West and Manifest Destiny.”
These two notions have joined forces to create a third: that white people need to defend Western Civilization, especially against what many in the white nationalists movements — and Trump — have called a foreign “invasion.”
“Immigration is positioned as the enemy,” says Zuckerberg. “Both the Muslim ban and the border wall are active responses to what is seen as a threat to Western Civilization.”
Over the past few years, this idea has moved from the alt-right to the mainstream, both in politics and academia. Iowa Republican Steve King, who last year was elected to a ninth term in the U.S. House of Representatives, recently told The New York Times he didn’t understand why the term “white nationalist” was problematic: “Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”
As for academia, some within the field of classics — which is overwhelmingly white — agree with the need for defense. In January, at the Society for Classical Studies conference in San Diego, Mary Frances Williams, an independent scholar from California, urged classicists to defend Western Civilization — and also insinuated that Padilla was hired at Princeton because he is black (though she preferred, she said, to think he got the job on “merit”). Padilla later wrote about his anger that her comments diverted attention from the topic of the paper he’d just given: the low rate of scholars of color published in classics journals. Meanwhile, the criticism journal The New Criterion viewed the resulting outcry against Williams — but not the slur against Padilla — as the “decline and fall” of the classics.
That classics scholars have a responsibility to push back against the hate groups that would make the classical world their own — and acknowledge that some within the field hold uncomfortably similar ideas — is a point Zuckerberg argued shortly after the 2016 presidential election in a piece on Eidolon called “How to Be a Good Classicist Under a Bad Emperor” — a call to arms that inspired Dozier to launch Pharos.
“The next four years are going to be a very difficult time for many people. But if we’re not careful, it could be a dangerously easy time for those who study ancient Greece and Rome,” she wrote. “Classics, supported by the worst men on the internet, could experience a renaissance and be propelled to a position of ultimate prestige within the humanities during the Trump administration, as it was in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Classics made great again.”
Zuckerberg had spent the previous year researching “the worst men on the Internet” for “Not All Dead White Men,” an account of how the classics are used in far-right online communities. She says she watched as “the red-pill community” — misogynistic men with a name inspired by the movie “The Matrix” — “went from being primarily anti-feminist to being a place where people were openly anti-Semitic and then openly white supremacist.”
Zuckerberg conceived of Eidolon, which recently passed 1.5 million views, as a modern engagement with the classical world. It isn’t peer-reviewed; a team of editors fact-check and consult with advisors if they feel they need help evaluating an argument. “There are kinds of writing that I think are not as possible within the peer-review structure, especially dealing with present-day political concerns in a timely manner,” she says.
Those political concerns are reflected in its top 10 articles of 2018: Three are on gender and sexuality, two race (one of those, on the controversial work “Black Athena,” is by McCoskey), and three others address “Hobby Lobby’s lies, American imperialism, and the alt-right’s romance with Sparta” — the last penned by Bond.
Zuckerberg got a lot of pushback from other scholars for her call to arms in her 2016 Eidolon article, accused of being “hysterical and hyperbolic and alarmist,” she says. “And definitely I turned the rhetoric up to 11 in that piece. Time has really proven me out, I think.”
Documenting distortions of the ancient world is one thing. But hate groups are not always wrong about elements of Greco-Roman culture. Institutional oppression, misogyny, bigotry, and violence abounded. Few women held authority over their own lives. Slavery was widespread. Athenians greatly limited who could be a citizen. Spartans likely practiced eugenics. The classical world is “not immune from some of these things that people are using it for — some of the abuses of power,” says McCoskey. “I’m not going to pretend that they are misreading everything, because they’re not.”
“Some of the texts that they are talking about, for example, are really misogynistic,” Zuckerberg notes. (Aristotle wrote that women are deformed males, and inferior to them — but above slaves.)
While Dozier has found many articles that are “cherry-picking evidence or sometimes just being outright wrong or even lying,” he says, “a lot of the sites are not really distorting antiquity very much. The problem is that they are saying because Greco-Roman antiquity is admirable and the ‘height of civilization,’ we should model our world on their world.”
One favored model is the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta — hypermasculine, hypermilitarized, with xenophobic policies on immigration, marriage, and reproduction, and a vast slave class called helots whose labor made the endless battle training of Spartan soldiers possible. According to Julia Jones, Steve Bannon’s long-time writing partner and friend, the former White House chief strategist used Sparta as a computer password.
The scholars Undark spoke to are under no illusions that they’re going to change the minds of ideologues committed to finding a framework that justifies their bigotries. But a broader audience — intellectually curious people Dozier hopes to engage — is within reach. Bond’s articles have collectively garnered more than half a million hits, and her work on statuary was recently featured on the political comedy show “Full Frontal.”
“Just based on the hit numbers and people’s feedback to me, and the interest from other people, I think that [the work] has had an impact,” she says. “Regular people who I meet on the streets or who come to my talks tell me that they’ve read my work, and that they’ve read other people’s work, and that they know a lot more about how the ancient world is being reused and abused.”
Jen Pinkowski is a science journalist based in NYC who has reported around the world for The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Mental Floss, Al Jazeera, Archaeology, and Time, among other publications.