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23 June 2021

Why the right loves ancient Rome

How the classics have been used to justify centuries of Western bigotry. 

By Rachel Cunliffe

Why is the far right so fond of ancient Greece and Rome? This is the question Katherine Harloe, a professor at the University of Reading, sets out to answer in Detoxifying the Classics (22 June, 11am). Harloe and her guests highlight the 2017 Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, advertised with posters featuring a Roman flag, and the 2021 storming of the US Capitol, where Greek and Roman helmets were worn by some alt-right demonstrators. But they also chart how the classics have been used to justify centuries of Western bigotry: from British colonisers of India quoting Virgil’s Aeneid as proof that empire was a “civilising force”, to American slavers leaning on Aristotle’s claim that some people are “slaves by nature”, to Mussolini branding fascist Italy the “third Rome”.

It makes for uncomfortable listening, especially for those who love classics. Perhaps, the documentary suggests, we might want to rethink our veneration of cultures that delighted in conquering and enslaving others, and question whether they really were the height of civilisation. But Harloe also argues the problems don’t just lie with these cultures themselves – equally important is “the deep attachment people feel to a false image of the ancient world as exclusively white”.

Modern scholars – and casting directors – have a lot to answer for. We associate Greece and Rome with the “gleaming white figures” of classical sculpture, conveniently ignoring that these statues would originally have been garishly painted. We forget that the Roman empire extended into North Africa and across Asia, and that Rome had a black emperor. We let cinematic epics like 300 and Ben-Hur sell us a distorted vision of white antiquity.

It is up to classicists, Harloe says, to push back. Fighting for a more diverse picture of classical society – such as depicting a mixed-race Roman family stationed at Hadrian’s Wall, as the BBC did in an animation in 2017 that sparked fierce debate – is not slapping a lens of “wokery” on to ancient culture, or rewriting history. It is correcting inaccuracies that fuel racist far-right ideologies. In other words, it’s not time to cancel classics just yet.

Detoxifying the Classics 

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This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us