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Cicero said what now?

How the alt-right twisted the classics into something it isn’t
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JENNIFER AYOW/THE VARSITY
JENNIFER AYOW/THE VARSITY

Content warning: discussions of the alt-right, racism, and misogyny.

It was a bright, brisk March day when my peers and I entered the spacious Brennan Hall. Despite the nice weather, the topic of the day for my classical archaeology course was rather grim: the appropriation of the classics by the alt-right. In the previous semester this was only touched upon briefly in another class of mine when an impassioned peer inquired about what was being done to dismantle the white supremacist nature of the classics. 

At the time, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. Despite being immersed in the classics, I hadn’t heard much about the discourse around the classics being used to fuel misogynistic hate groups focused on preserving ‘white society.’ That soon changed. 

We are living in a period of history where we are beginning to see the reemergence of fascism and alt-right ideology, so it is crucial that we see the tools that certain groups use to push these ideologies. With that in mind, I began to research the alt-right’s use of the classics in its rhetoric and as a basis for its ideology. 

Appropriation of classics

One classicist who has written extensively on the alt-right’s use of the classics is Donna Zuckerberg — yes, she’s related to tech mogul Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg remarked to Sean Illing of Vox that the alt-right sees “ancient Greece and Rome as a starting point for this imagined idea of Western Civilization.” The alt-right views the classics as a starting point for a wholly white, patriarchal society that aligns with their fringe values.

She goes on to highlight how the alt-right characterizes both ancient Greek and Roman societies as the foundations for the entirety of Western civilization, which they conflate with white culture and civilization. The alt-right then cherry picks its examples from those societies to support its hate-fueled ideology.

One such example in alt-right rhetoric involving the classics is the assertion that Greek and Roman societies were wholly white. Zuckerberg herself remarks that “race as we know it is a fairly recent category” and was not used often in ancient Greece and Rome. That assertion by the alt-right ignores that both ancient Greek and Roman societies were multicultural. 

For example, ancient Athens had a distinct group called ‘metics,’ who were foreigners living and working in the city with some citizen rights. Moreover, during the era of empire in ancient Rome, many legionaries were from different provinces across North Africa, Spain, Anatolia, and countless others that made up the Roman empire. Legionnaires that served for a set time period could then gain Roman citizenship. These two examples alone help illustrate that both ancient Greek and Roman societies were not the wholly white groups that the alt-right portrays them to be. 

Membership in political groups held a lot of importance in Greek and Roman society; citizenship was especially important to a community’s identity. Referring again to ancient Athens, only those who held citizenship — exclusively men — could vote in the assembly or run for the archonship. In Rome it was the same; only men could hold citizenship and office. 

The alt-right’s rhetoric that incorporates the classics fails to acknowledge any of this. Sure, the fact that only men held citizenship serves to support the alt-right’s value of a patriarchal society, but that fact still does nothing to serve their concept of a fully white patriarchal society. 

Zuckerberg addresses the alt-right’s misinterpretations of Greek and Roman history by highlighting how the alt-right reads classical texts for praises of “whiteness and masculinity,” which feeds into the alt-right’s desire for “traditional” gender norms — which would lead to the establishment of a patriarchal society — and the desire to paint the strength of those societies as having come from being white. Yet it could be said that the strength of ancient Rome and Greece came from their multicultural facets. 

So what do we gain from studying ancient civilizations?

If you made it this far, you might be wondering why the hell any of this matters. So what if the alt-right is taking the words of some dead Greek or Roman guy from two thousand years ago and using it to justify their ideology — looking at you, Aristotle, and your idea of natural slavery. Doesn’t everyone use some dead guy’s work to justify themselves? 

Ding! 

You hit the nail on the head. Yes, every ideology takes something from the past and applies it to the present. But it’s important that we understand the whole context of the culture we are appropriating and why we must cherry pick from it. If we only take a single aspect of a culture and portray it as the whole thing, then it completely ignores the other lessons we can learn from that culture. Even worse is using an idealized or mythologized version of the culture you are appropriating. 

The alt-right conveniently ignores the fact that the classical world was incredibly multicultural. They also ignore the fact that Rome practiced a form of imperialism that did not have a policy of cultural or political assimilation. The Roman Empire often forcibly took over their provinces but left all the distinct cultural and administrative aspects of the society in place while demanding the residents there pay taxes to Rome. 

Though this is still imperialism, it contributed to the multicultural character of the Roman Empire as it allowed new ideas to spread throughout the empire. This is unlike the British model of imperialism, which focused on forced cultural and political assimilation, as seen in India. 

By gaining at least a little understanding of the whole of Roman multiculturalism through imperialism, we as a society can better cherry pick from their history. We can see how the Romans allowed, to some extent, co-existence with other cultures that were not their own and what tools they used to maintain that existence. 

Moreover, we can see how both Roman culture and the culture it absorbed adopted different practices from each other. One example comes from the emergence of the cult of Isis — the Egyptian goddess of magic — as a popular religious group in the empire. 

But this trend of cherry picking without understanding the whole scenario — and, even worse, while misrepresenting it — leads to a poorer understanding of the history of a society. This in turn, leads certain modern-day groups to adopt practices that weren’t actually dominant back then. 

The alt-right’s cherry picking from the classics is further augmented by its choice to take from an idealized and mythologized Greece and Rome. The alt-right glorifies the xenophobic and patriachal aspects of those societies and then exploits the wider population’s lack of knowledge of the classics to portray its interpretation as holistic and correct. 

Ultimately, this practice damages the study of classics because it misrepresents what those societies actually practiced. The over emphasis on patriarchal elements — whether in the works of classical philosophers or in literary texts — ignores the works of Sappho and the Lysistrata, the former being a famous Greek woman poet and the latter a play depicting women using sex to control incompetent men. The neglect of one side of a society sullies its entire reputation. 

Even though we should cherry pick which historical practices we choose to carry on, we should also know their context and be wary of those who try to justify their choices through idealization or misrepresent the whole through a few parts. Consequently, we will gain a deeper appreciation of what led past cultures to develop in such a way. That understanding can then allow us to mold our own future by mixing different elements from past cultures while using our modern sense of morality. 

In the end, the alt-right’s appropriation damages the study of the classics and the process by which we apply that history to the present. Without understanding the whole history of a culture in an effort to better ourselves, we cannot gorge ourselves on the best cherries they have to offer us.