Scholars Respond to SPQR and White Nationalism

SPQR is an abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome,” which was used in antiquity to represent the Roman state. In the modern world the phrase and abbreviation is a symbol of the city of Rome, where it emphasizes that city’s status as the “eternal” city (perhaps most famously on their manhole covers). The hashtag #spqr is used joyfully by tourists, history buffs, and anyone who loves Italy and Italian culture. There is, however, a darker side to the way the abbreviation is used: as Pharos has documented, white nationalists in the United States and Europe have adopted it as a symbol. As such SPQR engages both of Pharos’ core goals: to raise awareness of the ways that Greco-Roman antiquity is being used in support of hate, but also to defend, where possible, that past from distortions, omissions, and misunderstandings that, in this case, threaten to poison a symbol that is a beloved source of identity, celebration of history, and pleasure for so many.

[Update: Prof. Sarah Bond has written an excellent article about SPQR that expands upon many of our points]

We invited scholars to comment on white nationalists’ appropriation of the ancient abbreviation.

  • The white nationalists documented by Pharos all associate SPQR with the Roman military. For them the abbreviation evokes Rome as the preeminent historical example of imperial power, which fits with their fetishization of military strength. This association is reinforced by various popular representations of SPQR in the Roman army: for example, the soldier-hero of the film Gladiator has an SPQR tattoo (which he cuts off in order to renounce his loyalty to Rome), and various educational sites, including an uncited claim on Wikipedia, say that SPQR appeared on the flags of the Roman legions. “Reproductions” of such flags, with SPQR on them, are widely available for sale online.
  • There is, however, no ancient evidence that the abbreviation SPQR appeared on any military insignia or was in any way associated with the Roman army. For example, none of the ancient representations of military flags collected in Domaszewski‘s Flags of the Roman Army (in German, 1885) show the abbreviation. There are a few examples of text appearing on these flags, but no evidence for SPQR: a slab used to mark progress in the construction of the Antonine wall shows a flag marked by the company’s number and cohort, a design also described by a late antique treatise on the Roman army, and the historian Tacitus tells us that the emperor Vitellius’ army used flags bearing his name. The phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus did, however, appear in inscriptions, and the abbreviation SPQR appeared on coins.
  • The phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus was associated with the civic sphere and not the military one. By combining the Roman Senate (Senatus) and the citizens of Rome more broadly (Populus), it originally symbolized a Roman Republican ideal of inclusive governance shared between the people and elites and, correspondingly, an absence of arbitrary or tyrannical exercises of power. This ideal is deeply at odds with that promoted by white nationalist movements, which tend to favor authoritarian rule.
  • The association of SPQR with the military and totalitarian forms of government admired by white nationalists probably goes back to the fascist dictator Mussolini’s deployment of SPQR throughout the city of Rome in order to represent his own regime as a restoration of the Roman Empire. This version of SPQR is meant to convey military success, domination, and rule without end (in space and time) and to give historical authority and respectability to whoever uses it.
  • Already in antiquity there was a gap between the ideal symbolized by SPQR and its use. The oligarchic hierarchy of the Roman Republic meant that the senate in fact had much more power than the people, so the equality implied by “The Senate and People of Rome” was to a great extent imaginary. The first Roman emperor Augustus also laid the foundation for an association between SPQR and authoritarianism when he continued to use the phrase after the collapse of the Republic in order to claim that he had preserved the Republic’s nominally democratic system even as he had replaced it with one-man rule.
  • Despite the similarity between Augustus’ and Mussolini’s appropriation of SPQR, the phrase’s ancient meaning ceased to be understood many centuries before the rise of Italian Fascism. With the decline of the prestige and significance of the Roman Senate in late antiquity the phrase fell out of use. It was revived in the 12th century by citizens of the city of Rome as a symbol in their revolution against the authority of the church. In this revolution SPQR had a liberatory and anti-authoritarian meaning, unlike that which the modern fascists imposed on it.
  • The 12th century revolution “reestablished” a Roman Senate, so the phrase’s ancient meaning was apposite in that case, but throughout the rest of the Middle Ages SPQR came to symbolize simply the city of Rome without particular reference to the senate, eventually becoming a heraldic symbol of Rome and even other places in Italy.
  • The flexibility of the symbol’s meaning may be one of the things that attracts white nationalists to it. These groups are fond of brief, opaque abbreviations and symbols, such as the number 88 (which symbolizes “Heil Hitler,” H being the eighth letter of the Roman alphabet) and “ZOG.” Such symbols may be unrecognizable to those outside their movements but create solidarity between insiders who recognize it. Or, as is the case with “88” or the alt-right meme “Pepe the Frog,” a symbol’s flexibility may provide deniability in the face of accusations of hate.
  • As noted above, plenty of people who are not white nationalists or neo-Fascists use SPQR. Just as a tattoo of the Parthenon can show support for the football club Panathinaikos FC Athens and not necessarily for white supremacists who use that symbol, Rome’s football club AS Roma has used SPQR as a symbol, to the annoyance of its rival SS Lazio.
  • Still, the mixed history of SPQR, and along with it the mixed history of Rome itself as a source of culture and “civilization” that were spread through imperialist violence, raises troubling questions for those of us who use and celebrate the abbreviation and the past it symbolizes. Are Rome’s SPQR manhole covers an expression of pride in its ancient past or are they a marker of the persistence of fascist leanings in Italy? If someone gets an SPQR tattoo because he loves Roman history, is this just like a fan of AS Roma supporting his club or does he run the risk of unwittingly aligning himself with neo-Fascist movements? (And should he examine the extent to which his admiration for Rome maps on to admiration for violent imperialism and totalitarian rule?)
  • The swastika is an example of a symbol that has become so synonymous with hate that it can have no other meaning. This does not seem to have happened yet in the case of SPQR, but those who love ancient Rome, or the modern city of Rome, must be vigilant against its use by hate groups. SPQR has the potential to represent an inclusive vision of society, one that brings together everyone — the populus — with elected leaders to work together toward the common good. It is this version of SPQR that we should be promoting over those who would make it a symbol of violence and exclusion.

The following scholars contributed to this post:

Ben Angell (University of Oxford)

Carrie E. Beneš (New College of Florida)

Michelle Berenfeld (Pitzer College/ American Academy in Rome)

Joel Christensen (Brandeis University)

Al Duncan (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Research Fellow, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa)

Bruce Frier (University of Michigan)

Thomas McGinn (Vanderbilt University)

Charles Pazdernik (Grand Valley State University)

Jonathan Roth (San José State University)

Nadejda Williams (University of West Georgia)

Susan Wood (Oakland University)

Donna Zuckerberg (Eidolon)

This post is a composite of scholars’ responses and it should not be assumed that every contributor agrees with every point made above.

We also consulted the following scholarship in preparing this series of responses:

Beneš, Carrie E. “Whose SPQR?: Sovereignty and Semiotics in Medieval Rome,” Speculum, Vol. 84, No. 4. 2009. pp. 874-904

Cyrino, Monica, S. “Gladiator and Contemporary American Society,” in Gladiator: Film and History, edited by Martin M. Winkler. Blackwell, 2004

Domaszewski, Alfred. Die Fahnen im römischen Heere. 1885 [“Flags in the Roman Army”]

Mitchell, Bonner. “The S.P.Q.R. in Two Roman Festivals of the Early and Mid-Cinquecento,” The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 9, No. 4. 1978. pp. 94-102

Ricatti, Francesco . “La Roma: Soccer and Identity in Rome,” Annali d’Italianistica, Vol. 28. 2010. pp. 217-236

Southern, Pat. The Roman Army: A Social and Institutional History. ABC-CLIO, 2006

Southern, Pat. Dixon, Karen, R. The Late Roman Army. Yale University Press, 1996

 

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