Greco-Roman societies, Western civilisation and whiteness – we need to redesign the classics

Ancient Greece and Rome are endlessly fascinating societies, collectively called Greco-Roman antiquity. The Classics, as they are commonly known, are taught in universities across the English-speaking nations. Greco-Roman societies, their philosophy, literature, art and class structures, provide lessons and parallels with contemporary communities. Studying them on their own merits is great – but do not learn about them to construct an imagined community of whiteness called ‘Western civilisation‘.

Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Associate Professor of Classics at Denison University, makes the following point:

An important point to emphasize: one can have histories of antiquity, of Europe, of the US, without recourse to the imaginary identity of ‘western civilization’. There are more programs in the US today (classics and history) that don’t use the term ‘western civilization’ than do and still teach the histories of these regions and people. And the histories are still fascinating. What removing the language of western civilization does is allows these histories to exist more so on their own terms than tied to an artificial justification of white superiority.

The study of Greco-Roman antiquity has taken a battering in our neoliberal age. Corporatised universities have been cutting funding for the Classics, and shunting students into supposedly more lucrative areas, such as business and languages. The Classics usually gets derided as a fast track to unemployment and irrelevance, and classical scholars have long lamented the decline of their profession, stressing the contemporary relevance of Classics subjects.

However, the popularity of the Classics has not waned, but in fact increased, among one particularly telling group – the Alternative Right, which is a euphemism for the ultranationalist white Right. We will examine the reasons for their Classics advocacy in a moment, but for now let’s make one important observation. The Alternative Right’s obsessive preoccupation with Greco-Roman societies is not unique or original, but derives from the mainstream scholarly concern of “Western civilisation.”

The concept of a “Western civilisation” is an imagined community, a constructed continuity from specifically Greco-Roman civilisations right down to today’s white majoritarian societies, namely Britain and the United States, but also Western European nations (to a lesser extent). Indeed, the term ‘western civilisation’ was created by mainstream scholars for the precise reason of lassoing the Greco-Roman antiquity into a historically-cemented identity of whiteness.

The narrative of ‘western civilisation’, while grounded in mainstream conservative endeavours, appeals to the ultranationalist white Right. Interpreting ancient history through the retroactive prism of whiteness, the Alt-Right’s partisans have found philosophical rationalisation of their bigotry and misogyny. Quoting the works of Homer and Ovid, modern-day white supremacists have found ancient writers a source of historical ‘authority’ for their modern political prejudices.

By making Greco-Roman antiquity the ground zero starting point – and tracing all our philosophical and scientific achievements from there – we are necessarily excluding the accomplishments of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern civilisations that do not neatly fit into a monoracial lily-white version of history. The Roman Empire, long considered the pinnacle of cultural-scientific success by the partisans of the British empire, was very multicultural. In fact, Greco-Roman societies lacked any conception of race as an exclusionary characteristic.

There were numerous ancient civilisations whose scientific and philosophical legacies reverberate down the ages, and to whom we owe an enormous debt – Babylonians, Sumerians, Assyrians, Mesopotamia, Persians – no need to go on. While we are all familiar with the story of Alexander III of Macedon – popularly known as ‘the Great’, how many of us are familiar with the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, who rebuilt Babylon after its liberation from Assyrian rule?

When Professor Mary Beard, an expert on Roman history, described a BBC illustration of a black soldier fathering a family in Roman Britain, she faced a torrent of online abuse, insults and attacks. Apparently accepting black persons – in this case, North African (Numidian) as being part of Britain’s ancestry caused enormous consternation in conservative circles.

The outrage over this BBC cartoon reflects the deeply-held notion of ‘whiteness’ as a key defining factor of those societies that see themselves as part of ‘western civilisation.’ Conservative commentators have heavily invested their respectable academic careers in this imagined community. This is in line with the modern right wing agenda to downplay – and repudiate – the contributions of nonwhite minorities to Anglo majoritarian nations.

Earlier we mentioned Alexander the Great, the King of Macedon (and the united Greek city-states) who conquered the formidable Persian empire. In his wake, he brought the culture of Hellenism. However, the Persians remember him, not as a ‘great’ figure, but a cultural and religious vandal. His forces destroyed Zoroastrian temples and artefacts – then the religion of Persia. While Alexander’s military genius has been admired in our universities, his destruction of the ancient city of Persepolis remains forgotten.

The empire that Alexander conquered was one of the largest, successful and culturally enriched civilisations, arguably the greatest prior to its conquest by Hellenic forces. The soldiers of Alexander despised Persia, but were also envious of its remarkable cultural accomplishments.

The purpose of redesigning the Classics is not to censor every single ‘dead white man‘ – by no means. It is not intended to demolish the entire profession, or dismiss the importance of Greco-Roman antiquity. The goal is to reclaim the Classics for the people, repudiate the embedded white supremacy, and make the study of ancient Mediterranean societies accessible, inclusionary and enjoyable for everyone.

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