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Classical antiquity

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Portrait of a Roman citizen of African ancestry from Lombardy,[1] c. 1 BCE – 1 CE[2]
Tomorrow is a mystery,
but yesterday is

Icon history.svg
Secrets of times gone by
Whoever knows only one view or one form of a view does not believe that another has ever stood in its place, or that another will ever succeed it; he neither doubts nor tests. If we extol, as we often do, the value of what is called a classical education, we can hardly maintain seriously that this results from an eight-years’ discipline of declining and conjugating. We believe, rather, that it can do us no harm to know the point of view of another eminent nation, so that we can, on occasion, put ourselves in a different position from that in which we have been brought up. The essence of classical education is historical education.
But if this is correct, we have a much too narrow idea of classical education. Not the Greeks [or Romans] alone concern us, but all the cultured people of the past.
—Ernst Mach, History and root of the principle of the conservation of energy. pp. 17-18.[3]

Classical antiquity was a period of time from the beginning of ancient Greek civilization (8th century BCE) to approximately the fall of the Western Roman Empire (5th century CE), with some scholars considering it to overlap with early Middle Ages. It is also known as the Greco-Roman world, since the Greek and Roman civilizations were overlapping. Geographically, its maximum extent was the largest reach of the Roman Empire in 117 CE.


Instruction in classical antiquity usually includes ancient Greek and Latin language lessons, and readings in history and philosophy (Socrates and Plato, especially). The instruction in language has long been in decline, when it was once common (in the Western world). Arguments about the impracticalness of such instruction was already taking place in the United States in 1828.[4] Since the decline of Latin and Greek instruction, at least one far-right journalist, Joseph Sobran (1946–2010) who wrote for the National Review, associated such teaching with racist nostalgia.[5][6]

There are certainly good reasons for studying classical antiquity (e.g., understanding history, government or philosophy), but readings of the past can either be a lens for understanding the present or a cudgel for controlling it. Why else would despots resort to book burnings?


Distorting history for one's own political purposes is nothing new. The alt-right's appropriation is just the latest incarnation. Following European intellectuals in the 19th and earlier centuries.[7][8] Nazi Germany, an antecedent for at least some of the alt-right, misrepresented antiquity in at least three ways:

  1. Referring to itself as "The Third Reich", with the implication that the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire were the first and second. 'Holy Roman Empire' itself referred back to the Roman Empire, though it was not a direct descendant.
  2. The Hitler saluteWikipedia was itself an adaptation of the Roman salute.Wikipedia The Roman salute itself though has no clear origins, as it is never described in Roman literature or shown in Roman art.[9]:2
  3. The Nazis adored and promoted neoclassical architecture and classical forms in general.[10] Classical sculptures inspired by forms from pagan times were seen as useful remedy for the lethargy of Christianity.[11]:68 Hitler admired the Colosseum and hated Gothic architecture, seeing it as too old-fashioned for contemporary Germany,[11]:60 while Albert Speer, a principal architect for Nazi Germany, found a kindred spirit in French neoclassical architect Étienne-Louis BoulléeWikipedia and his monumental and austere designs.[11]:49-50


Septimius Severus and his second, Syrian wife, Julia Domna.
A narrative of a monoethnic and monochromatic Classical world is demonstrably false and, frankly, boring.
—Rebecca Futo Kennedy[12]

The concept of whiteness likely arose with the development of the transatlantic slave trade in the 17th century, and was justified with the theory of racialism starting in the 18th century.[13] Since the 18th century, it has often been presumed that the classical world was white, but Romans in fact frequently incorporated other ethnic groups as Roman citizens, including Africans and Judeans.[12] The Roman emperor Septimius SeverusWikipedia was African born, in what is now Libya, and his paternal ancestors were Palestinians.

An archaeological analysis looked at the personal names associated with place of origin of the Roman port city of Ostia Antica population in what is now central Italy. It found that one of the largest ethnic groups included people from North Africa in the provinces of Numidia and Mauretania.[14]:167

Throughout later history, the era has often been misrepresented. For example, the whiteness of ancient marble sculptures were fetishized since the 18th century with the rise of racialism,[15] but is is now known that the statues were originally painted in a variety of colors.[16] The fetishization has continued to influence modern-day white supremacists.[16] Some art critics have said that the colors likely to have been used on ancient Greek and Roman statues could be considered evidence of vulgar taste.[17][18]

United States[edit]

The original Apollo Belvedere (c. 120-140 CE): whiter than thou

In the US, the retrojection of whiteness into the classical period can be traced to Thomas Jefferson's use of neoclassical architecture in his home town of Charlottesville.[19] The idea of 'whiteness' was unknown in the classical era. Jefferson's slave owning, and the neoclassical architecture in Charlottesville were the primary reasons that Richard Spencer chose the city for the Unite the Right rally, not the threatened Robert E. Lee statue.[19] Jefferson was not simply a benign admirer of classical architecture, but in his book Notes on the State of Virginia he used the slavery that existed in the classical era as a justification for his own slave owning.[19][20]:149

In February 2020, a draft Presidential Executive Order titled "Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again" and written by the National Civic Art Society was leaked that promoted neoclassical designs for new government buildings.[21][22] The draft was in part a backlash against modern art and architecture[21] but primarily an attack on multiculturalism.[19]

The Apollo Belvedere statue of the Greek god Apollo was rediscovered in the 15th century during the Renaissance. Beginning in the 18th century, the statue began to be championed as an aesthetic ideal by early racialists such as Pieter Camper.[16][19] Camper used anthropometry to rationalize his aesthetic preferences for facial angle,[19] basically the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. Apollo Belvedere was, like other classical statues, esteemed for its whiteness,[19] but it is not known whether it was originally painted like other such statues.[16] In 2016, before the Unite the Right rally that they cosponsored, Identity Evropa began a poster campaign co-opting Apollo Belvedere and other classical statues.[19][23][24]

United Kingdom[edit]

In 2018, the BBC released an 8-part mini-series titled Troy: Fall of a City about the Trojan War. The series cast several British actors of African descent, including a key roles for David Gyasi as Achilles and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as Zeus.[25] This casting created a substantial amount of criticism by racists.[26][27] The racists in question used the cover of what they claimed was historical inaccuracy, but there are several problems with this claim:[28][29]

  • There was no concept of black and white races in ancient times. Additionally, ancient Greeks had a range of skin tones.
  • Homer's Illiad did not describe Achilles as 'white', the actual term used was 'xanthē' or 'xanthos' (which could mean ‘brown’, ‘ruddy’, ‘yellow’ or ‘golden’), and Greek color terminology does not map well into modern English color terminology.[30]
  • Odysseus is described in one translation of Homer's Odyssey as ‘black-skinned and woolly-haired’, yet there were no known complaints about English actor Joseph Mawle playing Odysseus in the series.
  • There is no contemporaneous description of the Trojan War, thus all accounts are mythological Homer's account was ana amalgamation of different versions.
  • Sophocles portrayed Zeus as 'black' in his play Inachus, using the term aithos, which is believed to be the root of the word Ethiopia.[31]
  • It is likely the case that ancient Greeks did not exclude other ethnic groups, including North Africans, from being considered Greek.[31]

Gender and sexuality[edit]

See the main articles on this topic: Gender and Sexuality
Portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife
But why does there seem to be a gender divide in who is daydreaming about ancient Rome today?
According to historians, one explanation could be that Western societies have historically overemphasized the aspects of Roman history that are associated with masculinity in the popular imagination.[32]

The preservation of gender inequality often relies on appeals to the good old days, such as Kinder, Küche, Kirche. The MRA website A Voice for Men has specifically referenced ancient and medieval laws in its argumentation,[33] yet the reality of such appeals is not as clear as they would like to represent. Plato was the first known person to put feminist arguments in writing in his Republic Book 5 (c. 375 BCE).[34]

Scholars generally agree that Roman women had more agency and freedom than in Greece. A portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife (c. 50–79 CE) was excavated in the ruins of their house in Pompeii. Terentius Neo, a middle class baker, is portrayed as a Roman citizen who was involved in public life (indicated by the toga and rotulus in his hand). His wife holds a wax tablet and stylus, indicating her equal status, her role in the operation of the family's business, and that she is educated and literate.[35]:261-263

According to historian Lewis Webb,[32]

Ancient Rome was of course patriarchal and violent. But it was also a diverse place: there were numerous forms of masculinity, women could have agency and power, and there were multiple gender expressions and identities, as well as various sexualities.

And according to historian Hannah Cornwell, noting that the Roman Empire had some female gladiators,[32]

Even when you get to some of the emperors, they’re doing weird and wacky things by modern conceptions of what a man is. The Romans do have a clear sense of what is masculine and feminine, but within that there is an awful lot of flexibility. Which sometimes we often forget about.

Cornwell has also noted that there has been a longstanding reliance on "elite, masculine" written sources about the Roman Empire, creating a selection bias for interpreting the Empire.[32]

One notable similarity between the modern-day Manosphere and elite males in the Roman Empire of around the 1st and 2nd centuries CE is the great fear of the emancipation of women with regard to money, freedom of movement and sex.[35]:163-164

Praetorian Guard[edit]

Often Greco-Roman antiquity seems to function as a respectable veneer over hateful ideologies. However, in the case of the “First Amendment Praetorians” the link to ancient Rome actually serves to clarify the group’s commitment, despite their claims to defend democracy, to a violent and totalitarian agenda.
—Curtis Dozier[36]

The Praetorian Guard were a Roman Army and intelligence gathering unit intended to protect Roman emperors. The discordantly-named 1st Amendment Praetorian is a militia group associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory and Michael Flynn.[37] 1st Amendment Praetorian may also have been associated Trump's 2021 coup attempt.[37][38] This militia calling themselves "Praetorian" makes some perverted sense insofar as QAnoners having the "God Emperor Trump" delusion.[39] However, while Roman citizens did have rights,[40] they did not overlap at all with the First Amendment (freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition).

Roman wreath[edit]

The laurel wreath was a symbol of military triumph used in ancient Rome.[41] The Proud Boys initially adopted the Fred Perry polo shirt as their official uniform, likely in part because the wreath on the shirt resembled the Roman wreath.[41] The Fred Perry clothing label logo had been based upon the Wimbleton Tennis Championships logo and not directly based upon the Roman wreath. After the Fred Perry company found out about the Proud Boys co-opatation of their logo, they withdrew the polo shirt from production.[42] The Proud Boys continued to use the wreath on their own clothing brand(s).[43]

Latin abuse[edit]

Lost Causers in front of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington: Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur.

The statement "Victrix causa deis placuit sed victa Catoni." appears on the base of the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. The statement originally appeared in Lucan's epic poem from 61 CE De Bello CiviliWikipedia ("On the Civil War") about the Roman civil war of 48 BCE between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate. The statement translates literally as, "The victorious cause pleased the gods, but Cato was conquered." but has been translated as "The victorious cause pleased the gods, but the conquered one [pleased] Cato."[44] 'Conquered' has also been translated as losing side or losing cause in direct reference to the Confederate Memorial.[45] Cato here refers here to Cato the Younger,Wikipedia who opposed corruption and Julius Caesar's monarchialism. In contrast to Lucan's intent, referring to this Latin phrase in the context of the Confederate States of America erroneously implies that the primary cause of the American Civil War was for states' rights (republicanism in the American sense rather than the Roman sense) rather than preservation of slavery (the Lost Cause of the South).

Sic semper tyrannis, a Latin phrase meaning "always to tyrants", was a favorite of the Oklahoma City Federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh. He even was wearing the shirt for his mugshot that quoted John Wilkes Booth using it after assassinating Abraham Lincoln.[46] Both men violently tried to subvert democracy, the opposite of the meaning of the phrase, that dictators should have bad outcomes.

Name co-optation[edit]

Several names from antiquity have been co-opted as pseudonyms within the alt-right:[47][48][49]

  • Alexander the Great, king of ancient Macedonia
  • Atlas: punished by the the gods for starting a war among them, his name was appropriated on the men's rights movement blog Return of Kings
  • Marcus Aurelius: Roman emperor, appropriated on
  • Boethius: a favored ancient philosopher in the neoreactionary movement, his name was appropriated on as an antifeminist
  • Cato the Elder: a xenophobic Roman, his name has been used as a pseudonym on
  • Cicero: Roman orator, appropriated as the antisemitic meme "The Noticer" and on a Telegram channel
  • Diomedes: king of Argos
  • Domitius Corbulo,a Roman general; his name has been used as a pseudonym on the white nationalist Occidental Quarterly
  • Hadrian: a Roman emperor, his name has been used as a pseudonym on the Neo-Confederate IdentityDixie
  • Hannibal: Carthaginian general[note 1]
  • Hippocrates, the Greek father of medicine, appropriated in the "The Galton Report" column on the white nationalist American Renaissance
  • Lysander: a Spartan admiral, appropriated by pedophile misogynist Nathan Larson
  • "Maximus" — a fictional character in the film Gladiator
  • Musonius Rufus: a Roman Stoic philosopher, appropriated by the founder of
  • Plato
  • Quintilian: a Roman rhetorician, appropriated on the neo-Nazi site Counter-Currents
  • Sargon of Akkad: first ruler of the Akkadian Empire (24th-23rd centuries BCE), appropriated by Carl Benjamin[note 2]
  • Socrates
  • Titus Quinctius Flamininus: a Roman consul, appropriated as "Titus Quintus" on Counter-Currents
  • Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Younger: an orator and philosopher respectively, appropriated by "Seneca III" on the Islamophobic blog Gates of Vienna
  • Virgil: a major Latin poet, appropriated on Breitbart
  • Zeus


See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Carthaginians were Phoenician, a Semitic ethnic group closely related to those dreaded Hebrews. White nationalists self-own so often a drinking game could be made out it.
  2. This is especially hilarious because Sargon was Akkadian, a Semitic-speaking ethnicity indigenous to the Middle East.


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Black people in ancient Roman history.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Grottoes of Catullus.
  3. Mach, E., 1911. History and Root of the Principle of the Conservation of Energy. Open Court Publishing.
  4. Classical Education in America by Daniel Walker Howe (Spring 2011) The Wilson Quarterly.
  5. A Champion for Classics… and Racism by Curtis Dozier (December 13, 2019) Pharos.
  6. The Death of a 'Holocaust Skeptic' by Jeffrey Goldberg (October 12, 2010) The Atlantic.
  7. Mahindra Lecture: Classical Athens and Contemporary White Ethnonationalism by Curtis Dozier (May 19, 2021) Pharos.
  8. Curtis Dozier Mahindra Lecture: Classical Athens and Contemporary White Ethnonationalism (video) (May 14, 2021) Department of the Classics, Harvard University.
  9. The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology by Martin M. Winkler (2009)Ohio State University Press. ISBN 0814208649.
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Nazi architecture.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 The Nationalization of the Masses: Political Symbolism and Mass Movements in Germany from the Napoleonic Wars and through the Third Reich by George Mosse (1975) Plume. ISBN 0452004640.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Why I Teach About Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World by Rebecca Futo Kennedy (Sep 11, 2017) Eidolon.
  13. The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea: Before the 17th century, people did not think of themselves as belonging to something called the white race. But once the idea was invented, it quickly began to reshape the modern world by Robert P. Baird (20 Apr 2021 01.00 EDT) The Guardian.
  14. "The Population of Ostia: Composition and Working Activities, an Analysis of Inscriptions" by Antonio Licordari (2020) In: Life and Death in a Multicultural Harbour City: Ostia Antica From the Republic Through Late Antiquity, edited by Arja Karivieri. Institutum Romanum Finlandiae, pages 165-171.
  15. He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive? Dan-el Padilla Peralta thinks classicists should knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline. by Rachel Poser (Feb. 2, 2021) The New York Times.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color: The equation of white marble with beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe; it's a dangerous construct that continues to influence white supremacist ideas today. by Sarah E. Bond (June 7, 2017) Hyperallergic.
  17. What if the ancient Greeks and Romans actually had terrible taste? Antiquities reproduced in vivid color, now on view in ‘Chroma’ exhibition at the Met, may look garish to modern eyes by Philip Kennicott (August 11, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. EDT) The Washington Post.
  18. The Met’s New Show Dispels the Myth of White Greek Sculpture in a Blaze of Color by Tessa Solomon (July 25, 2022 1:17pm) ARTnews.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 19.6 19.7 19.8 Power Structures: White Columns, White Marble, White Supremacy by Lyra D. Monteiro (Oct 27, 2020) Medium.
  20. Notes on the state of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (1832) Lilly and Wait.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Trump’s Beautiful Proposal for Federal Architecture: The classicists hope to address a problem that the architecture establishment does not see as a problem. by Andrew Ferguson (February 21, 2020) The Atlantic.
  22. Make federal buildings ‘beautiful again?’ Trump declares war on modern architecture (Feb 5, 2020, 7:07pm CST) Chicago Sun-Times.
  23. The New White Nationalism’s Sloppy Use of Art History, Decoded: Identity Evropa has been terrorizing campuses across the country. by Ben Davis (March 7, 2017) Artnet.
  24. Classics and the Alt-Right: Historicizing Visual Rhetorics of White Supremacy by Heidi Morse (February 15, 2018) Learn Speak Act, University of Michigan.
  25. Troy: Fall of a City (2018–): Full Cast & Crew IMDb.
  26. Racist reaction to David Gyasi playing Achilles in BBC/Netflix “Troy” Miniseries by Curtis Dozier (January 11, 2018) Pharos.
  27. Further racist backlash against “Black Achilles” by Curtis Dozier (April 6, 2018) Pharos.
  28. No, the BBC is not ‘blackwashing’ Troy: Fall of a City: Why has the casting of David Gyasi and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as Achilles and Zeus proved so controversial? by Thomas Ling (24 February 2018) RadioTimes.
  29. Black Achilles: The Greeks didn’t have modern ideas of race. Did they see themselves as white, black – or as something else altogether? by Tim Whitmarsh (9 May 2018) Aeon.
  30. Scholars Respond to Racist Backlash against Black Achilles, Part 2: What did Achilles look like? by Curtis Dozier (May 18, 2018) Pharos.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Scholars Respond to Racist Backlash against Black Achilles, Part 1: Ancient Greek Attitudes toward Africans by Curtis Dozier (May 11, 2018) Pharos.
  32. 32.0 32.1 32.2 32.3 How often do men think about ancient Rome? Quite frequently, it seems. by Leo Sands (September 14, 2023) The Washington Post.
  33. Limit to gender justice: lessons of ancient & medieval sumptuary laws by Douglas Galbi (November 21, 2021) A Voice for Men (archived from November 21, 2021).
  34. Plato's "Republic" and Feminism by Julia Annas (1976) Philosophy 51(197):307-321.
  35. 35.0 35.1 Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315 by John R Clarke (2003) University of California Press. ISBN 9780520248151.
  36. “Praetorian Guard” protecting the Freedom to Undermine Democracy by Curtis Dozier (June 18, 2021) Pharos.
  37. 37.0 37.1 The 1st Amendment Praetorian group has become an on-call security and intelligence team for the most extreme and esoteric of Trumpists. by William Bredderman & Will Sommer (Updated Jun. 11, 2021 3:48AM ET / Published Jun. 10, 2021 4:53AM ET) The Daily Beast.
  38. House Jan. 6 committee issues subpoenas to Proud Boys, Oath Keepers by Jacqueline Aleman (November 23, 2021).
  39. God Emperor Trump Know Your Meme.
  40. See the Wikipedia article on Roman citizenship.
  41. 41.0 41.1 The Proud Boys and Greco-Roman Masculinity by Curtis Dozier (October 1, 2020) Pharos.
  42. Fred Perry withdraws polo shirt adopted by far-right Proud Boys: Company distances itself from US fascist group as it halts sales of garment in North America by Priya Elan (28 Sep 2020 10.31 EDT) The Guardian.
  43. Did the Proud Boys’ flag change? Its meaning and symbols explained by Samantha McGarry (October 1, 2020) The Focus.
  44. Inscriptions on Arlington Confederate Monument by Mrs. Cabell Smith (1920) Confederate Veteran 20:123
  45. Address delivered on 6 June 1999 at Arlington National Cemetery by Fr. Alister C. Anderson, SCV Chaplain-in-Chief Arlington National Cemetery.
  46. Timothy James McVeigh Imago (archived from 15 Apr 2022 15:40:31 UTC).
  47. Onomasticon of Classical Pseudonyms and Avatars (May 27th, 2020) Pharos.
  48. How Classics Made its Way into the “Freedom Convoy” (April 15, 2022) Pharos.
  49. “Gladiator” calls for New Roman Legion to save “the West” (October 26, 2018) Pharos.
  50. Types of Mankind: or, Ethnological researches, based upon the ancient monuments, paintings, sculptures, and crania of races, and upon their natural, geographical, philological and Biblical history by Josiah C Nott & George R Gliddon (1854) Lippincott, Grambo.
  51. The first statue removed from the Capitol: George Washington in a toga by Ronald G. Shafer (January 22, 2023 at 7:00 a.m. EST) The Washington Post.