When Huffington Post reporter Christopher Mathias confronted a group of far right activists over their Nazi salutes during a neo-Nazi rally in Georgia this April, their leader Jeff Schoep – who claims to have been a Nazi since age ten – told him something unexpected: “It’s a Roman salute.”
For the last 18 months, the commander of one of America’s larger neo-Nazi movements has been overseeing a rebrand of the hate group to appeal to a mass market. Since the election of President Trump, increased public awareness of the far right has left groups both bolder and more vulnerable, with their new power to attract members matched by louder criticism. Between attracting new support and reducing unwanted attention, a new language has sprung up, steeped in references to classical antiquity.
This appropriation of the classics ranges from comparisons between Hitler and Alexander the Great, to German fascists idolising the work of Roman historian Tacitus. The American Fascist Manifesto, by the white supremacist group Patriot Front, reminds its readers that America was founded in the image of the Roman republic, and calls for a “new Caesar to revive the American dream”.
“The hate groups in the spotlight are on the run right now,” says professor Curtis Dozier, of Vassar College in New York. “They become nostalgic for the past where they had more power. And so an idealised portion of the past, classical antiquity, is very attractive to them – especially when that period was one of a very hierarchical forms of oppression.”
Dozier leads a project called Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics, which documents and responds to the use and misuse of antiquity by the far right. They tackle everything from Roman salutes (“ahistorical”), to the notion that lax immigration policies destroyed Rome (debatable, to say the least) or the casting of a black actor to play Achilles (“I think the ancients would have liked it”).
With tens of thousands of years of world history to choose from, the adoration of ancient Greece and Rome by the far right is surprisingly consistent. Stormfront, the largest neo-Nazi forum on the internet, uses pictures of the Parthenon and the Pont du Gard aqueduct in header images to invoke “white history.” In the forums, a significant group have usernames drawn from Greek mythology or Roman history. Similarly, a headline speaker at the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, last year changed his name legally to the Latin Augustus Sol Invictus.
Elsewhere the adoption of antiquity is more targeted. The fall of Rome has been repeatedly blamed on mass immigration or supposed sexual immorality, and held up as an example of why Europe must close its borders and abandon progressive gender politics. In the so-called “manosphere”, a collection of misogynist blogs and websites, incidents of sexual violence from Roman history are taken as historical justification for victim blaming, or even as proof that women use rape claims for their own benefit. Whatever hatred is being spread, somewhere a classical reference will be found.
Of course, the connection of classics with xenophobic, imperialist or oppressive politics is not new. This April marked the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, named for its allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid and the image of the Tiber foaming with blood. Then, just as now, such references leant respectability to Powell’s beliefs.
“The name, classics, basically announces the superiority of our material to other cultures”, Dozier says. “Every form of knowledge is trying to perpetuate itself, but that attitude of idealising the classical past is so baked into the justification of classics’ existence as a discipline.”
This attitude helps to explain why classical antiquity carries such weight for groups seeking to legitimise their message. Like the misuse of genetics in scientific racism, an appeal to Plato or Cicero lends hatred a veneer of philosophical and historical credibility. Expertise, evidence and respectability – or, at least, the appearance thereof – have become valuable currency in the exchange of political ideas.
In this climate, the role of genuine expertise and scholarship is under pressure to evolve, and meet the challenges posed by such posturing. Dozier was spurred to start Pharos after a fellow scholar, Donna Zuckerberg, published an article entitled “How to be a Good Classicist under a Bad Emperor”, in reference to Trump’s presidency. “There’s a fear, and this fear has been voiced to me, that if we talk too much about this stuff nobody is going to study antiquity,” Dozier says. “But there are ways of studying antiquity that counterbalance and counteract the hateful appropriations of it. I don’t think we should feel afraid to start teaching this material in classes.”
The other role he and his colleagues at Pharos see for their project is to provide an academically rigorous response to hatred, not for the benefit of hate groups themselves, but for a wider audience. At a time when many, including Dozier, feel that the far right own the internet, accessible but academically rigorous discussions will hopefully mean that people seeking information find something other than hate.
But within classics, a greater reckoning may be needed. An exhibition at the Washington Centre for Hellenic Studies, Black Classicists, highlights the contributions made by scholars of colour, in a field still dominated by white and male voices. Without diversifying the scholarly body, diversifying scholarly opinion is an uphill struggle.
The first step forward may come simply from acknowledging the use and abuse of antiquity. In Rome, the ancient republican acronym SPQR can be found on both drain covers and skinhead groups. “If you’re a Latin teacher, you’ve probably told your students about the manhole covers. But have you told them about the skinheads?” asks Dozier? “They’re trading on that same grandeur. Let’s talk about that too.”