IN 1924, as a secretary and propaganda assistant for the young Nazi Party, Heinrich Himmler was spending a great deal of time on a train as he traveled Bavaria promoting his party. He had with him a small treatise on the German race called de Origine et Situ Germanorum, or On the Origin and Situation of the Germans. The treatise was written in 98 CE by a Roman senator named Tacitus, and Himmler read it avidly, finding in it eloquent evidence of the superiority and purity of the German race. In Tacitus’s description of the tall, blond, rather savage northern tribes, Himmler saw the superior Aryan stock whose preservation and dominance motivated the Nazis. “We will return to being what we were,” he wrote in his diary, and he vowed to rediscover the “nobility of our ancestors.”
The Germania, as the treatise is commonly known, remained an important source of ideology and pride for the Nazis. Nor was it an isolated use of ancient authority: Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy both proudly and explicitly connected themselves with the ancient Romans and borrowed many of their symbols — the very name “Fascist” refers to an important Roman status marker, and the Nazi Imperial Eagle is derived from the Roman standard.
Himmler’s reading of antiquity, on that train in 1924, was extreme, but it was also the natural extension of the discipline’s origins; earlier classicists had simply been more genteel, or perhaps less proactive, in their application of white supremacy to antiquity. After World War II, classicists were all too happy to denounce explicitly racist appropriations like Himmler’s as abuses perpetrated by extremist ideologues, to sweep them under a rug in an upper chamber, and to return to what they saw as their unbiased, unspoiled, and objective engagement with antiquity. The mainstream of the field continued to do this for decades, leaving the uglier aspects of the discipline’s history largely unexamined, assuming that our dry analyses of the distant past were safely contained in our responsible hands.
In recent years, however, we have seen the danger of our complacency, as the increasing brazenness of the new and very vocal “alt-right” has been proudly asserting Greco-Roman antiquity as evidence of the superiority of what they see as their white European heritage. Groups like Identity Evropa explicitly view the white marble statues of antiquity as evidence for racial purity and the glorification of whiteness. The same people who lobby for making America a white ethno-state use Spartan slogans alongside their Confederate flags. Countless Twitter users who rail against the impending “white genocide” have some version of the iconic crested Greek helmet as their avatar. They have thoroughly and happily accepted the white-washed view of antiquity shaped, intentionally or not, by generations of scholars.
To fully understand these abuses of antiquity, it is important to put them in the context of the development of the field. It isn’t as if the discipline of classical studies arrived complete and fully formed on the desks of early scholars like Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Dionysian versus Apollonian reading of antiquity is still visible in the fabric of the field. The discipline was shaped by mostly elite European men, and their interests determined the early scope of the field. That’s why we learn Greek and Latin but not Hebrew, which was part of the field until the 18th century; it’s why the lives of women and children were largely ignored; it’s why the novels associated with the lower classes were not taken seriously as literature. It’s why Cicero and Socrates, not to mention Jesus, were cast as white, just like the scholars studying them were.
Except, of course, Cicero and Socrates were decidedly not “white.” They would have been thoroughly confused by the claim, since ancient theories of race differed greatly from modern ones, and had no category for “white.” Rather than being primarily physiognomic — that is, based on visible physical features like melanin or hair type — race in antiquity was tied to climate, geography, and even political structures; one’s race might not be easily identifiable at sight, and might even change, based on the exigencies of life, and regardless of external appearances. There was, consequently, no conception of a “white” race — what we see as whiteness did not signify racially.
But the European scholars of antiquity needed Cicero and Socrates to be white, so they were made white. Not consciously or explicitly, for the most part — we have, of course, no early draft of The Birth of Tragedy in which Nietzsche muses on how to support his assumption that the Greeks conceived of race as he did, and, importantly, were white in the same way he was. But the logical contradictions and bizarre dismissals of inconvenient evidence that went against the conception of the ancients as white, and especially of whiteness being seen as superior in antiquity as in their own day, lay bare the motivations, conscious or not.
One of the clearest examples of this is Johann Winckelmann, a German art critic active in the 18th century. Winckelmann almost single-handedly created the discipline of art history by describing and classifying ancient Greek and Roman art. One of his central arguments for the superiority of Greek art over, for instance, Egyptian? That the Greek statues were pure and white. Except, of course, that they weren’t: it is widely accepted now that the statues were far from white in antiquity, and were in fact decorated rather brightly, and were sometimes given darkened skin. The Greek historian Herodotus, active in the fifth century BCE, devotes an entire chapter of his book to describing the history and culture of the Egyptians, a people he clearly admired and a culture he saw as an ancestor of his own. He calls the Egyptians “the most exceedingly devout of all people” and marvels at their dedication to cleanliness. Yet somehow, Winckelmann found in Egyptian art evidence of a dour and slavish people, while he believed that Greco-Roman art could only have been made by a culture dedicated to liberty and in love with beauty.
Egypt was a particular problem for scholars of antiquity. It was an unchallenged premise for them that the ancient Egyptians could not have been black Africans, since they assumed black Africans could not have been responsible for so advanced a society. They clung to this belief even in the face of clear contrary evidence, like Herodotus’s mention of Egyptians’ black skin and woolly hair. At the same time, they were determined to see contemporary Egyptians as childish and savage, and argued that the formerly great race must have been degraded by contact with black Africans and Ottomans. These theories of decline through contact were also useful for explaining what they saw as the inferior natures of contemporary Greeks and southern Italians: their noble ancestors too had been sullied by generations of mixing with barbarians. Edward Gibbon, in his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, laments the ignorance of contemporary Athenians, whom he believed to be tainted by long contact with the Ottomans. Having never been to Athens himself, he writes, “Athenians walk with supine indifference among the glorious ruins of antiquity; and such is the debasement of their character, that they are incapable of admiring the genius of their predecessors.” A similar argument is still part of why the Parthenon sculptures — the so-called Elgin Marbles, after the British Lord Elgin who appropriated them — are still on display in London rather than Athens.
Nineteenth-century advances in linguistics, especially those related to the Indo-European family, gave northern European nations like France, Germany, and England (and, by extension, Anglophone America) the concrete connections they needed to affirm their status as inheritors of the venerated ancient Greek and Roman empires. The discovery of linguistic families, for instance, enabled the French to assert their direct ties to Rome through the Latin origins of French. Evolutionary models were applied to language, and highly inflected languages — like German, Latin, and Greek — were presumed by some (mostly Germans) to be more developed and mature, and the speakers of such languages correspondingly of superior intellect. Sanskrit complicated the matter somewhat, as it was demonstrably older than Greek and Latin but had its home in the Indian subcontinent. Again, migration theories came in handy, and several related theories were proposed that posited an ancient and superior northern European race immigrating to the Asian subcontinent thousands of years earlier, founding the ancient Indic cultures, and then returning to Europe to build the West, with modern Europeans being their descendants. (A similar migration theory, incidentally, is why the Caucasus gives its name to whiteness in America today.)
One of the most powerful and influential tools for promoting the superiority of Europeans over other peoples was provided by the racial science of the day. Race was highly theorized in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly after Darwin made the case for evolution, and it was frequently used to justify the brutalities of colonization. Scholars eagerly used these racial theories to demonstrate that, in spite of differences in language and shifts in geography, northern Europeans were the true heirs of Greco-Roman culture. This was often quite explicit: for instance, Frederick Douglas (not that one), in an 1813 essay entitled “An Essay on Certain Points of Resemblance Between the Ancient and Modern Greeks,” wrote of contemporary Greece: “[I]n such a nation we cannot expect to find a Leonidas, and we are tempted to leave them to have recourse to their saints, for the restoration they so little deserve.” More importantly, perceiving a cultural continuity between northern Europe and the ancient Mediterranean — what Stephen Slemon describes as antiquity “being contiguous to the European present” — made it easy to perceive Greeks and Romans as white in the same way that the British and Germans were white.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were as beset by prejudice and racial bias as any other culture, of course. But their prejudices did not align with, and so do not support, contemporary racisms. They did not see themselves as white, so they were not anti-black — the primary poison of contemporary American and European racism. And they were not ethno-states: the Greeks had a thriving colony in northern Africa by the seventh century BCE, Alexandria at its height was a truly cosmopolitan and international city, and some of Rome’s most important figures were undeniably African. (Certain people will quibble about what “kind” of African, mostly to object to the possibility of them being sub-Saharan black African, but African they certainly were.) Because of how the field was constructed, however, those nuances were largely elided, and Greeks and Romans came to be seen as white.
It could have been a relatively minor elision of social complexity outside of the field if Nazis and other white supremacist groups had not latched onto it as evidence for their claims of racial purity, cultural continuity, and authority. Instead, however, antiquity has become a contested site, with white supremacists pushing one interpretation of the evidence, and expert classicists insisting on distinguishing modern racial categories from ancient ones, and thus modern biases from ancient ones. Crucially, these corrections are not without teeth in the real world. Sarah Bond, a classicist who regularly writes a column on the ancient world for Forbes, published a number of articles explaining that the supposedly serene white marble of antiquity was actually garishly painted, and received death threats for her trouble. Mary Beard, a prolific Cambridge classicist, has been abused and publicly reviled for years for pointing out that ancient Rome was full of Africans, Middle Easterners, and South Asians (not to mention women), and was far from being a white empire. The white supremacists’ hostility to accurate interpretations of the evidence of antiquity is no small part of why classicists must actively commit themselves to correcting the public impression of our field.
And we have begun to: the Women’s Classical Caucus and Lambda Classical Caucus, which lobby for feminist and LGBTQIA+ representation respectively, have both committed themselves to promoting images and stories of diversity in antiquity as well as in the modern field. The primary learned society of the field, the Society for Classical Studies, has taken to holding sessions at their annual meeting dedicated to combating racist uses of the ancient world. And, increasingly, classics departments are running courses pointedly addressed at helping students understand not only the diversity of antiquity, but also the legacy of using antiquity to promote white supremacy; even in more traditional classes, many instructors now go out of their way to present a fuller and more realistic picture of the ancient world, with all its many colors.
It is an unlikely front line, perhaps, since classicists are almost paradigmatically the out-of-touch professor poring over dusty books in an upper room of an ivory tower, but it is an important one: white supremacist groups have long recruited on college campuses. This means we should expect that many of our students have come into at least passive contact with such ideologies and their twisted claims on classical antiquity. The Proud Boys won’t be defeated in a classroom, of course — as the German White Rose, an anti-Nazi resistance group, wrote in their second leaflet in 1942, “[i]t is impossible to engage in intellectual discourse with National Socialist Philosophy,” and that remains true of today’s alt-right. The leaflet goes on: “Now it is our task to find one another again, to spread information from person to person, to keep a steady purpose, and to allow ourselves no rest until the last man is persuaded of the urgent need of his struggle against this system.” We as classicists are best positioned for this particular battle, and it is well past time that we make our stand.