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Doing Justice to the Classics

Political party using antiquity to “Make Spain Great Again”

VOX is an anti-immigrant, Islamaphobic, homophobic, and misogynist political party in Spain that in 2019 won enough votes to elect twenty-four legislators to Spain’s Congress of Deputies. In a body of 350 seats this is not enough to enact a legislative agenda but they now have a voice and legitimacy that they had previously lacked. Like many far-right parties VOX’s rhetoric depends on a nostalgia for a supposedly more peaceful, more prosperous (and actually less equitable) past. Although VOX finds its inspiration primarily in Spain’s more recent, fascist, past, it also invokes the Greco-Roman world to legitimize its politics.

Pharos has focused primarily on appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity by hate groups in the English-speaking world, especially the United States and Canada, but the prestige of Greco-Roman antiquity is being used by many others espousing hateful politics across Europe. VOX in Spain is an example of this. In what follows we have translated VOX’s publications and media from Spanish into English.

VOX’s president striding through wheat fields

In 2016, VOX released a promotional video featuring the party’s current president Santiago Abascal walking through the Spanish countryside while a voiceover invites support for VOX for anyone who “always chose courage when fear challenges you, and if you do not laugh at honor because you don’t want to live between traitors.” One scene of the video is a reenactment of a famous scene from the movie Gladiator, in which the main character, played by Russell Crowe, remembers running his hands through wheat on his ancestral farm in Spain while he looks over a war-ravaged town.

“Maximus’” memory of his wheat field in Spain

The character in the film, “Maximus,” is fictional, but his portrayal allows VOX to imply an analogy between the larger political landscape of the film to contemporary Spain. The title of VOX’s video, “Un nuevo comienzo” (“A new beginning”) as well as its closing slogan, ““Hacer España Grande Otra Vez” (“Make Spain Great Again”), equates modern Spain with the decaying empire portrayed in the film and suggests that that VOX’s leadership is needed to save the country, just as Russell Crowe’s character helps to overthrow the decadent and oppressive ruler of his own time as represented by the emperor Commodus. Along these lines their “Foundational Manifesto” declares that “the time has come to undertake a profound structural reform that truly faces the defects of a political, legal, institutional and economic system that is irreversibly exhausted.”

At left, the iconic image of Russell Crowe’s hand in wheat; at right, VOX’s reference to this image

Despite its claim to promote “structural reform” a look at VOX’s political positions in more detail reveals a party committed to a regressive vision that goes far beyond their opposition to the separatist movement in the Catalonia region of Spain. VOX’s “100 steps to a living Spain” calls for the “suppression of all radical feminist subsidized institutions” and the repeal of several progressive laws, including Spain’s law on gender violence and the “Law of Historical Memory” that condemns the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain for four decades, and gives victims of that regime compensation and other legal rights. It also calls for establishing immigration quotas and barring illegal immigrants from receiving healthcare; for excluding “the teaching of Islam” from public schools, the creation of an agency to help “threatened Christian minorities, imitating Hungary’s initiative” (a reference to the xenophobic Hungarian Prime Minster Viktor Orbán); and for the passage of a homophobic law to protect “the natural family.” On the same YouTube channel containing the Gladiator-themed video there are others entitled “VOX Women Rebel Against Supremacist Feminism” and “This is How VOX Defends Life Against Abortion.” It is no surprise that former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who has exhorted nationalists in Europe to treat accusations of xenophobia and racism “as a badge of honor,” has endorsed VOX as “one of the most important and interesting political parties in Europe.”

Santiago Abascal and VOX are not the only neo-Fascists to find inspiration in the films 300 and Gladiator, but they might be the first in recent memory to wield real political power

The film Gladiator is not the only classical reference VOX has enlisted in attempting to attract those who, in the words of the promotional video described above, “long for new horizons without despising your old origins” and who “respect the history and the legacy of your elders.” The party’s very name is a Latin word, meaning “voice,” which they presumably believe conveys their traditional values better than the Spanish “voz.” And on their Instagram account VOX has included some altered classical images.

“With these memes that are moving through WhatsApp, it does not surprise us that we have all the other parties, the weasels and separatists, so scared.”

In the image above, VOX president Abascal’s face has been superimposed on the body of the ancient Spartan general Leonidas as portrayed in the movie 300As Pharos and others have documented, Sparta (and especially its portrayal in 300) is a favorite touchstone for far-right movements, especially xenophobic ones, because like many xenophobes they see contemporary immigration as a barbarian invasion that must be resisted in the same way that the Spartans resisted Persian forces at the Battle of Thermopylae. This fascination with ancient heroism should be seen as a parallel to the invocation of Gladiator, whose main character also heroically opposed an oppressive entity. In the film however, it was his own government that he resisted, not a foreign invader. In another classically-themed meme VOX finds a paralell to the oppressive entity of Gladiator in the European Union, which they nevertheless regard as “foreign” to Spain.

“The EU, Merkel, the country and Soros say that those who assault our borders come to pay us pensions. Only someone naive or malicious as Sánchez believes it.”

Here VOX uses the story of the Trojan horse to criticize Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s collaboration on immigration with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is pictured in the meme pulling a wooden horse into Spain through a door held open by Sánchez. VOX is insinuating that, just as ancient Greek soldiers were able to destroy the city of Troy by sneaking into it inside a wooden horse, Sánchez’s and Merkel’s attempt to share the burden of supporting refugees will lead to the destruction of Spain.

As Pharos has documented, Santiago Abascal and VOX are not the only neo-Fascists to find inspiration in the films 300 and Gladiator, but they might be the first in recent memory to wield real political power. As authoritarianism and right-wing populism continue to advance globally we must attend to all the ways political parties like VOX legitimize their message. References to Greco-Roman antiquity may be only one of many techniques they use, but it is not an insignificant one.

We have linked above to archived versions of VOX’s publications, including the Gladiator-themed video, in order to avoid sending traffic to their sites. The original YouTube version of the video may be seen here.

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