As the Ford Scholar for the project “The Political History of Classicism,” under the guidance of Professor Dozier, I researched interpretations of and reactions to the Classics, predominantly by hateful groups. It’s challenging to outline one specific task or goal that’s been the central focus of these few weeks because discriminatory interpretations of antiquity are numerous and seemingly never-ending, so my tasks have been almost Sisyphean. The duties that are easiest to describe are proofreading and editing articles and bibliographic checking. Most of my time, however, was spent researching and reading sources: modern, ancient, and everything in between.
‘Classical’ antiquity has been used for centuries in conjunction with elitism and exclusionary institutions and as a result, the source material for this project dates from the first century CE, up to the present day. On the ancient end are writers and orators like Strabo, who perpetuated distinctions between Greeks and non-Greeks (barbarians, as he calls them), and Libanius, whom Montesquieu cites for evidence that Athenians put to death foreigners who attempted to vote. On the modern end, sources range from the Founding Fathers to Know Your Meme, a website with innumerable memes—many of them hateful with some using antiquity to justify that hate.
In the earlier history of the United States, ancient sources were used to justify slavery as well as imperialist expansion. Rome, an empire that had subdued, assimilated, and committed genocide against various nations and peoples, was considered a guide for expansion by American politicians. As such, Rome was an eerily fitting example for Manifest Destiny, an undertaking that resulted in the displacement (if not slaughter) of innumerable Indigenous Americans. Greco-Roman antiquity was a useful ideological tool, considering that many early Americans were raised reading Greek and Latin texts, with references to antiquity in their English materials as well.
Up to the modern day, Classical education has undeniable associations with conservatism and hateful politics. Part of my work was looking into these connections, with one Classical school in Flordia providing the location for the signing of Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Further associating Greco-Roman antiquity with his homophobic agenda, in a recent video, DeSantis’ team touted his transphobic policies inter-spliced with masculine symbols, one of which being Brad Pitt’s Achilles. Evidently, DeSantis has not only an interest in hateful politics but in history as well, with some notable exceptions for certain historical topics.
The Classics’ classist (and racist, and homophobic, and sexist…) roots continue to express themselves into the modern day, with prominent hateful figures using Greco-Roman antiquity to attack—or justify their attacks on—minority groups. This is a non-comprehensive sampling of some of the work I’ve been doing throughout the summer.
Personally, this project has provided me with skills and knowledge that I easily see influencing future thesis and graduate research. My greatest takeaway has been how information, facts, and knowledge are never apolitical, despite the desire of many to make it so. Whether that information is in the form of a meme or an ancient text, the compiler always inherently and often unintentionally carries along their own biases. Even the lack of knowledge is political, as Dan-El Padilla Peralta outlines in his work—which has stayed with me long since reading it as one of my first tasks—about epistemicide, or the destruction of knowledge systems. The Library of Alexandria is mourned by historians and non-historians alike (despite its demise being caused by largely bureaucratic and political forces), but what about the information that’s been destroyed because of Greco-Roman antiquity? Consider how much indigenous knowledge and ecology has been lost or deliberately extinguished, from that of the Gauls in ancient Europe to the First Nations of the Americas, because of the genocidal actions of the Roman Empire. In this light, the goal of this study has been to illuminate the ways knowledge of and from antiquity has been and continues to be used for oppressive purposes and to make others aware of these hateful influences.