The Right-Wing Weaponization of Classical History
March 11, 2019 2:40 PM   Subscribe

 
"The life of the dead is set in the memory of the living."

-Cicero
posted by clavdivs at 2:55 PM on March 11 [16 favorites]


The basis for this has been around for a long time - venerating Rome as a kind of archetype for the British Empire, for example, where the rule of the world is a duty of the Great Civilizations. My favorite is the people who read the fall of the Roman Republic as a story exclusively about what happens when you extend political power to the masses and they "discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury", as in the bogus De Tocqueville quote beloved by the same kind of half-educated conservative bloviator. Greed of the wealthy class forcing you to project military power all over the Mediterranean world, requiring you to create a class of professional generals whose soldiers were loyal to them, and creating the conditions for dictatorial power struggles and purges? Never heard of it!
posted by thelonius at 3:08 PM on March 11 [28 favorites]


I ain’t taking instruction in to kalon kai to agathon from folks that don’t even know the statues were painted. You think any of these frontline MAGA fucks had the patience for amo, amas, amat back in high school, let alone taking a Greek class and handling the aorist?
posted by Countess Elena at 3:13 PM on March 11 [57 favorites]


Greed of the wealthy class forcing you to project military power all over the Mediterranean world, requiring you to create a class of professional generals whose soldiers were loyal to them, and creating the conditions for dictatorial power struggles and purges? Never heard of it!

Or the wealthy withdrawing from public life and to their country estates, avoiding taxes and impacting Rome's ability to fund their empire?

Or maybe how climate instability in the sixth century caused widespread starvation, both in the Empire and also elsewhere, driving the Huns to migrate, in turn driving the Goths into the heart of the empire?

Or how a series of plagues killed off huge swathes of the population, fracturing the webs of commerce and trade that supported the empire? (OK, so maybe this one hasn't happened yet)
posted by leotrotsky at 3:36 PM on March 11 [37 favorites]


Having read a couple of the linked articles, I'd say -- great stuff.

Not having read all of them, does anybody know why the terrible people of the internet would be into Ovid in particular? Or was that just a name picked at random to represent the classical world? Inquiring minds who have always dug Ovid want to know.
posted by edheil at 3:41 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


Don't forget slowly poisoning themselves!
posted by Nerd of the North at 4:32 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


Backing up, looking at the construction of "the West" (according to one youtuber), because I think that is the distorted glass through which the first impetus to lie about ancient greeks, etc originates. I liked the history of the phrase "The Free World" (1942 edition ) as a counterframe--I mean, if we non-classiscists are not going on with the "Revised Ancient Model," decades later, as it's too 'pedestrian' for most, we should probably be pulling in the anti-fascist direction so that rubes can settle somewhere close to accuracy, and academics can get on with their work
posted by eustatic at 4:35 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


think any of these frontline MAGA fucks had the patience for amo, amas, amat back in high school, l

I mean, conjugation aside, it's pretty clear none of those idiots ever bothered to learn the meaning of amare. reperiebant vissire cum culis; quam pedent cum oribus.
posted by sciatrix at 4:53 PM on March 11 [6 favorites]


The basis for this has been around for a long time - venerating Rome as a kind of archetype for the British Empire, for example, where the rule of the world is a duty of the Great Civilizations.

And even before that, the Persianized Turkish rulers of Anatolia, the predecessors of the Ottoman Empire (I'm not clear how direct the connection is, but it's the same place as modern Turkey) called themselves the “Sultanate of Rûm.” Alluding to Greek speakers who occupied the same land and called themselves Romans.

Something which has always fascinated me, even before finding out how much white supremacists bullshit about Greek and Roman stuff, is that the same way in which European civilization has tried to claim descent from Classical civilization, so have Middle Eastern Islamic civilizations. Except that arguably, since Alexander the Great went East, Muslims and other Middle Easterners who have made claims like these down through the centuries are more likely to actually be the descendants of pre-Classical and Classical and Hellenic Greeks and Greek-speaking Romans who Europeans would study in their gymnasia and academies.
posted by XMLicious at 4:58 PM on March 11 [12 favorites]


The basis for this has been around for a long time - venerating Rome as a kind of archetype for the British Empire, for example, where the rule of the world is a duty of the Great Civilizations.

Jacob Bacharach was recently writing about something similar, in the context of the US.

The End of the American Republic
In part because our Romanophile founders deliberately copied the institutional architecture of the Roman Republic, and in part because the United States is the preeminent global power of its day, ruling not just a continental empire, but a global archipelago of military outposts and client states, we often imagine our history in explicitly Roman terms—our social and economic crises as analogs for the fall of Rome. Donald Trump himself conjures the comparison when he prattles on about immigration, inevitably raising the specter of great tides of warlike foreign tribes raping and pillaging their way to the besieged but still-gleaming capital.
...
A better and more accurate metaphor for our current moment of unrest may be the more decisive transition of Rome from republic to empire—the anarchic period between the final defeat of Carthage and the Augustan settlements that would transform Rome into an autocratic imperium that stretched from the Scottish border to the Persian Gulf.

Like our own absurd present, this period in Roman history was grotty, unheroic, and very, very dumb.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 5:15 PM on March 11 [12 favorites]


Except that arguably, since Alexander the Great went East, Muslims and other Middle Easterners who have made claims like these down through the centuries are more likely to actually be the descendants of pre-Classical and Classical and Hellenic Greeks and Greek-speaking Romans who Europeans would study in their gymnasia and academies.

Also, the Renaissance was heavily dependent on the rediscovery of Classical texts through contact with the by-then Islamic world, which continued copying and circulating them throughout Europe's Medieval period.
posted by tobascodagama at 5:27 PM on March 11 [15 favorites]


Having come back to it, I have a lot of complex and sad feelings about "Black Athena, White Power: Are We Paying the Price for Classics’ Response to Bernal?" When I was an archaeology undergrad, I didn't have a real nuanced understanding of what was going on with that book. I didn't understand that there was a lot going on there that couldn't be boiled down to "the Ptolemies were Macedonian Greeks" and "the Egyptians were not sub-Saharans." I just pointed to the work of Snowden and called it a day. I should have learned to place Afrocentrism in the wider context of white supremacy in the academy.

I have a memory of seeing Lefkowitz speak when I was in high school. She argued with a passionate young man in the audience about the Black Athena theories, and I was on her side because she was technically correct. Years later, that guy was the first person I knew from high school to die -- killed in Iraq. I don't suppose this adds up to anything, but I am ashamed at remembering it. He was really going to be something, and I wish he hadn't had to feel alone in the audience.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:07 PM on March 11 [15 favorites]


does anybody know why the terrible people of the internet would be into Ovid in particular?

Pick-up-artist types have been into Ovid for awhile, dismayingly -- specifically Ars Amatoria. They evidently consider themselves his intellectual heirs. This is a patently wrong interpretation, but given we're dealing with PUAs, "patently wrong" is pretty much par for the course.

There was also a minor internet kerfuffle a few years ago, sparked over conversation at Columbia University over whether Ovid belonged in their Core Curriculum (and, if so, how professors should handle the material), which the alt-right unsurprisingly latched onto as Further Proof That Snowflakes Are Ruining Culture And Society.

honestly if these people are looking for a Classical soulmate, they need look no further than Hesiod, but admitting that truth about themselves is probably too painful for them
posted by halation at 6:25 PM on March 11 [9 favorites]






ancient history (especially non-Western) is where I like to hang out to avoid contemporary politics.
posted by jb at 7:03 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


If you want to have a certain type of fun with this sort of classical "history" fan, argue that the Spartans expected to hold Thermopylae indefinitely and became martyrs because were too stupid to guard their flank.

Off to read the articles now.
posted by mark k at 7:06 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]


The worst thing about these people is they never shut up. God forbid that you ever have to take or teach a class with one of them.
posted by edeezy at 7:25 PM on March 11 [6 favorites]


Speaking of modern interpretations of classical history, this interactive musical about Hypatia of Alexandria looks like it could be awesome. It's playing at the Caveat in Manhattan through March:

Hypatia and the Heathens: A Musical Bacchanalia
posted by homunculus at 8:44 PM on March 11


how do we get the alt-right obsessed with diogenes the cynic

no really how do we get the alt-right obsessed with diogenes the cynic

they'd be so screwed. they'd either die of exposure or get arrested for public masturbation.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:54 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


Diogenes
posted by homunculus at 10:36 PM on March 11 [1 favorite]


The best of the articles I thought was McCoskey revisiting Black Athena. The rest--well, I learned stuff but I've known about Victor Davis Hanson for a while. Heck as an 11-year old I liked Starship Troopers and Pournelle and all that military SF crap that is so pro-Sparta.

The thing about Black Athena for me personally relates to my non-SF introduction to the Greeks. I was a white Catholic kid who went to Methodist private high school for two years, because my mother taught there and I got free tuition. We had a classics class that used Hellas by CE Robinson, written I think in the late '40s. The first chapter was a really tedious explanation about how the Greeks were so much better than the Egyptians, as they (the Egyptians) were a superstitious lot who worshiped cows and not at all rational like the Greeks with their human looking gods. It really made no sense to me why someone would spend time saying "these other people are not worth studying."

Reading about Bernal's argument, that classicists traditionally went out of their way to try and pretend the Greeks had little to do with the Asian and African civilizations, totally made it click. These people needed to the Greeks to be not the intellectual offspring of the Phoenicians but the intellectual progenitors of the Etonians.

To be clear, at the time I believed (and McCoskey seems to agree) that the scholarship in Black Athena itself wasn't anything to write home about but the criticisms themselves seem fair.
posted by mark k at 10:46 PM on March 11 [4 favorites]



At age 27, listening to a Roman history podcast, learning about Constantine and the Eastern Roman Empire, I suddenly realized ... a bunch of things that add up to "Eastern Europe is Western Asia". And "Africa is a short sail away from Europe." And I felt like I had never learned any history before at all.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 10:53 PM on March 11 [5 favorites]


How timely, the AskHistorians Podcast just featured charming professor of Ancient Greek Warfare, Roel Konijnendijk, talking about VDH's descent from respected historian to far right crank.
posted by Panjandrum at 11:39 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]


The summer of misreading Thucydides (SL The Atlantic)

BTW the Athenians weren't all that great either, unfortunately.
posted by nikoniko at 12:22 AM on March 12 [3 favorites]


My ex wrote her PhD dissertation on the uses and distortion of the iconography Central American antiquity in the service of building and justifying the US imperial project in the early 20th c. - fascists, it seems, always need glorious pasts as a foundation for their chiseling moral squalor.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:19 AM on March 12 [2 favorites]


The first thing that I thought of when I saw this FPP was Frank Miller's 300. It was not only, as the article says, wildly popular, but is probably the most successful thing that he's done in the last twenty or so years, with the arguable exception of the Sin City movie, which made money but nowhere near 300's numbers. Probably Miller's most notorious other work in that time was Holy Terror, which started out as a Batman-fights-terrorists comic but was de-Batmanized by Miller; Miller was also notorious for the awful All-Star Batman & Robin, which featured the deathless line, "I'm the goddamn Batman." His version of Thermopylae had Ephialtes, the notorious traitor of the battle, as a disabled Spartan who was bitter because he couldn't fight with the big boys; Ephialtes was really a local who was in it for the money. Also, Miller's Xerxes had a lot of piercings.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:58 AM on March 12 [5 favorites]


To be clear, at the time I believed (and McCoskey seems to agree) that the scholarship in Black Athena itself wasn't anything to write home about but the criticisms themselves seem fair.

It really wasn't great. I wrote a paper on it in a grad course about 15 years ago (I have an MA Classical Archaeology) and although I question myself a lot NOW about my reading of it and my biases, coming from a very different place in terms of understanding intersectionality than I was then and barely having looked at Classics-related stuff since graduating, Bernal might have had a point but the way he presented it did not help him demonstrate that point. He had a tendency to use endnotes to make it seem like he was citing a source for a claim he was making, which worked great if you don't consult end notes, but if you actually looked at what his endnote was he was often just extrapolating further on his point in it rather than showing some support and tended to refer to archaeological objects that were obscure and he never showed images of to demonstrate his point. But even in my paper with my lens of white scholarship, I argued that he did have a point and that it was a conversation we should be having and that it was an important look at the historiography of Classics.

It also led to a hilarious joke among my grad school colleagues when one of our classmates claimed that the Minoans were largely responsible for the building of the pyramids (erasing the Egyptians from the equation!) because of some Minoan pottery found nearby - we nicknamed her White Isis.
posted by urbanlenny at 7:27 AM on March 12 [4 favorites]


To be clear, at the time I believed (and McCoskey seems to agree) that the scholarship in Black Athena itself wasn't anything to write home about but the criticisms themselves seem fair.

I got to hear--and read--quite a bit about this controversy, as my father was one of Bernal's regular interlocutors (he's name-checked in the comments to McCoskey's essay). One of Dad's frequent points was that there was actually much more evidence for Bernal's critique of nineteenth-century historiography than Bernal actually understood--for example, Bernal knew surprisingly little about nineteenth-century theories of race. The other point was that responses to Bernal tended to subdivide pretty strongly along disciplinary lines: the ancient historians like my father tended to think about history in terms of cultural contact, mutual influence and exchange, and so forth, whereas the literary scholars like Lefkowitz were much more invested in cultural boundaries. So Bernal would show up at history conferences and wonder why the historians were so friendly...
posted by thomas j wise at 7:47 AM on March 12 [4 favorites]


> the Greeks were so much better than the Egyptians, as they (the Egyptians) were a superstitious lot who worshiped cows and not at all rational like the Greeks with their human looking gods.

Bah. The Egyptians had beer-brewing hippos, which is the apotheosis of cool.
posted by homunculus at 9:32 AM on March 12 [4 favorites]


The first thing that I thought of when I saw this FPP was Frank Miller's 300. It was not only, as the article says, wildly popular, but is probably the most successful thing that he's done in the last twenty or so years

If memory serves me correctly, Miller cites Victor Davis Hanson and the old sword-and-sandals movie The 300 Spartans (which I like way better than the movie of 300, but I digress) as more or less co-equal inspirations.
posted by Gelatin at 11:04 AM on March 13 [1 favorite]


The Future of Classics, From “Below”
What is the future of Classics? During the Future of Classics Panel at the SCS-AIA annual meeting, Joy Connolly presented a dire picture. “We’ve got to decide what we want our field to be, because the field as it is is not attracting sufficient students to justify our continued existence.”

The future of Classics depends on a more expansive “we” that extends beyond the traditional boundaries of post-secondary institutions and includes classicists in a position to identify and remedy longstanding problems in the field. At the Future of Classics Panel, an audience member brought up this exact point, “There’s an elephant in the room that we’ve barely talked about. And that is the future of Latin in the high schools and the schools of our country. And I think it’s indicative of us as college professors that we really haven’t talked about this. We’re in our ivory tower. The real challenge is in the schools.”
posted by homunculus at 3:01 PM on March 15 [3 favorites]




In recognition of yesterday having been the Ides of March, here's a completely accurate historical re-enactment of the assassination of Julius Caesar.
posted by homunculus at 12:44 PM on March 16 [1 favorite]


> Pick-up-artist types have been into Ovid for awhile, dismayingly -- specifically Ars Amatoria. They evidently consider themselves his intellectual heirs. This is a patently wrong interpretation, but given we're dealing with PUAs, "patently wrong" is pretty much par for the course.

And apparently some in the alt-right have become infatuated with stoicism lately. Here's Donna Zuckerberg on the subject (she also mentions Ovid):
One of the most insidious and disturbing examples of classical appropriation by the alt-right is its embrace of Stoicism, a philosophical school that began with Zeno of Citium around 300 B.C. Today, the adjective “stoic” is most commonly used to describe people who don’t show what they’re feeling, instead keeping their emotions under tight control. Ancient Stoics, though, were less interested in the display of emotions than in understanding what causes them. The Stoics aspired to live rationally, which meant accepting that each person could exert complete control over their own behavior. Emotions, they thought, were usually a result of irrationally believing that somebody else’s actions, or other outside forces, determined one’s psychological reaction. The Stoic thinker Epictetus wrote in his “Discourses” that the appropriate response to the death of your child is to say to yourself, “I knew I had fathered a mortal.” Anger was particularly anathema to the Stoics: The Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca the Younger wrote an entire treatise about anger’s destructive force: “De Ira” (“About Anger”).

It may seem strange that the alt-right, of all groups, would embrace a philosophy hostile to anger — think of the images from last summer’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville of young white men holding tiki torches, their faces contorted with rage. Online, however, many influential alt-right writers profess to be devotees of Stoicism. Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” and Epictetus’s “Enchiridion” appear on lists of recommended texts on the Red Pill subreddit.
Here's a recent thread on Stoicism. I wish I'd known more about this when I posted it.
posted by homunculus at 2:01 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]


Classics and the Alt-Right Conundrum
Existential fears of “losing” what is seen as “Western Civilization” have animated many within what is considered the alt-right. However, the valorization of “western civilization” is often rooted in romanticized notions of ancient Greece and Rome, which alt-right groups have appropriated and promoted in recent propaganda. Why and how do nationalists in Europe and the U.S. draw contemporary connections to ancient Greece and Rome? What are the consequences of this for our understandings of the ancient era? And what should scholars in the Classics and History do about it? On this episode of History Talk, hosts Jessica Viñas-Nelson and Brenna Miller speak with three classists to discuss the alt-right’s appropriation of classical history: Denise Eileen McCoskey, Donna Zuckerberg, and Curtis Dozier.
Via
posted by homunculus at 7:00 PM on March 19 [1 favorite]














« Older 2+2=5   |   CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments