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Doing Justice to the Classics

Land Acknowledgement: Pharos is researched, written, and published online at Vassar College, an institution situated in the homeland of the Munsee Lenape people, who lived here for thousands of years before the arrival of European colonists and continue today as the Stockbridge-Munsee community in Wisconsin, the Delaware Tribe and the Delaware Nation in Oklahoma, and the Munsee Delaware Nation in Ontario. Please read more.

Pharos is a website where classical scholars, students, and the public more broadly, can learn about appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity by hate groups. In addition, we aim to help teachers incorporate this material into curricula in ways that allow students to recognize and challenge the persistence of white supremacist narratives around Greco-Roman antiquity. Since the site’s launch in 2017 or work has been profiled in various media and our site has been visited hundreds of thousands of times by readers from around the world. In 2018 Pharos won the “Public Scholarship Award” from the Women’s Classical Caucus of the Society for Classical Studies.

Pharos is the ancient Greek word for “lighthouse” and commonly refers to the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the first such beacon and the symbol of a city whose location at the crossroads between what we now call Europe and many other cultures made it for centuries the intellectual center of the Greco-Roman world.

There are three major components of Pharos:

  1. The central purpose of Pharos is to document appropriations of Greco-Roman culture by hate groups. Many people, including professional scholars of antiquity, are not aware that the cultures we study or admire are being enlisted in support of these hateful and regressive ideologies. Posts tagged “Documenting Appropriations” raise awareness about this phenomenon, and invite readers to reflect on whether their own ways of valuing the ancient world resemble those of contemporary hate groups.
  2. In addition to documenting examples, Pharos originally aimed, as we wrote in an announcement of the site’s launch in Eidolon, to “expose the fundamental weakness of [these] appropriations and provide talking points for anyone who wants to resist or complicate them.” Posts tagged “Scholars Respond” compile commentary from specialists that attempt to complicate the vision of antiquity found on the sites we document. Over time, however, we have discontinued this series for the following reason.  It is true that the appropriations Pharos documents sometimes distort or misrepresent the ancient past. Other times, however, they draw on authentic aspects of that past that are congenial to hateful politics in the present: ancient xenophobic practices, misogyny and hypermasculinity, and the violent imperialism of ancient empires. The most common distortion of the ancient past found in these appropriations is one, in fact, that they share with many mainstream representations of the Classical world (in films such as 300 or Gladiator, for example), namely that Greco-Roman antiquity was a racially “white” civilization whose accomplishments demonstrate the supposed superiority of white people, an idea that is itself often lurking behind mainstream beliefs about the distinctiveness of European or “Western Civilization.” In these cases such appropriations force us to consider how and why we value the ancient past as we do, and reveal the violence inherent in uncritical admiration for “the Classical.”
  3. As Pharos has evolved we have begun turning our attention to how the site may better serve educators who want to make students aware of the ways that traditional idealization of the Greco-Roman past overlaps with white supremacist and misogynist interpretations of that past and to foster critical engagement with the surviving remains of that past. Posts tagged “Teaching Resources” include materials for use in classroom discussion, as well as guidelines for how best to introduce this disturbing material to students. Our original announcement of these materials contains more information.

The articles on Pharos are not intended to change the minds of those who use antiquity to support their racist ideologies. They are intended, rather, to ensure that someone who turns to the web to learn about antiquity can find condemnation of the appropriations we are documenting and a critique of the complacent idealization of the Greco-Roman world that provide a foundation for those appropriations. We hope, too, that our work will nourish those who love antiquity but are uncomfortable with the traditional association of its study with elitist and oppressive politics. You are not alone.

Above all, Pharos aims to make the study of Greco-Roman antiquity better, more inclusive, and more responsive to the current political moment. We welcome your help. Find out how you can support our work and get involved.

This front page was revised in July 2021 to more accurately reflect the evolution of Pharos since its launch in 2017. The original front page of the site is available here.

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