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Doing Justice to the Classics

Banner image: Revilo Oliver's "Marxmanship in Dallas" speech

Revilo Oliver: The White Supremacist Within

Since 2017, Pharos has documented many examples of hate groups appropriating ancient Greece and Rome in support of their politics. Our articles may give the impression that it is only outsiders to the discipline of Classics who enlist that history in support of hate. But today we turn to a Classics professor who actively promoted anti-Semitism and became an influential figure to an entire generation of white supremacists in the United States: Revilo Oliver, who spent thirty years as a professor of Classics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and who, besides lending his prestige as a professor of Classics to white nationalist causes, often invoked Classical antiquity to legitimize his views. Oliver died in 1994 but remains a respected figure in anti-Semitic circles and a warning against assuming that white supremacy is only to be found “outside” of the professional field of Classics.

Revilo Oliver’s “Marxmanship in Dallas” speech

Oliver’s most notorious publication, which led to protests and Oliver being investigated by his university’s administration, was an essay entitled “Marxmanship in Dallas” arguing that President John F. Kennedy was an agent of a “Communist Conspiracy” who had “become a political liability” and was assassinated “as part of systematic preparation for a domestic take-over” that never materialized because of the incompetence of the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. This conspiracy theory may not be hateful in itself, but Oliver’s racism is evident throughout his discussion of it: he calls the Civil Rights Movement “a very vital part of the vermin’s preparations for the final take-over,” accuses “Martin Luther King and other criminals” of “inciting race war”, blames communism for “excit[ing] race hatred among certain ‘minorities’” in order to “acquire some fanatical shock-troops”, and speculates that any restrictions on gun ownership that the assassination may inspire will “reduce the occupational hazards to the Balubas, Outer Mongolians, or other beasts who may form the ‘international police force’ that is to occupy the United States and butcher its white inhabitants.” Throughout the essay Oliver also indicates in parentheses whenever any of the figures he discusses was born with a Jewish family name (e.g. for “Jack Ruby” he specifies “(Jacob Rosenstein)”).

Alongside such slurs and winking anti-Semitism are many Classical references. He compares the communists who orchestrated the assassination to “Persian satraps, such as Tissaphernes and Pharnabazus,” who “made war on one another without revolting or intending to revolt against the King of Kings.” He also likens them to the “gangsters” of the 1st century politician Publius Clodius Pulcher; compares Kennedy to the “odious and despicable” Emperor Nero; and argues that the Spartan sage Chilon, famous for saying “do not speak evil of the dead”, would not have objected to Oliver’s attack on Kennedy, since “So long as there are Americans, his [sc. Kennedy’s] memory will be cherished with execration and loathing.”

Oliver became a kind of intellectual mentor to William Pierce, one of the architects of modern white supremacy in the U.S.

“Marxmanship in Dallas” might give the impression that Oliver’s primary concern was anti-communism but his true passions were white supremacy and anti-Semitism; indeed, he broke with the anti-communist John Birch Society, which Oliver said “was run under the supervision of a committee of Jews,” because its founder refused to embrace anti-Semitism publically. He contributed many articles to the anti-Semitic magazine Liberty Bell, which the Anti-Defamation League has called “one of the largest hate propaganda mills in the United States,” and served as editorial advisor to the Holocaust-denying “Institute for Historical Review”. He did not confine his activities to writing: it seems likely that he was behind the appointment of the Spanish fascist Antonio Tovar to a professorship in his department of Classics, even though Tovar’s area of specialization was Spanish linguistics. And Oliver recorded a promotional video for the National Youth Alliance, a predecessor to the neo-Nazi National Alliance led by William L. Pierce, one of the architects of modern white supremacy in the United States.

This video begins with a caption calling attention to Oliver’s status as a professor of Classics, a clear indication of the white supremacists’ belief that the Classical world, and the cultural prestige it enjoys, supports their hateful politics. In fact Oliver became a kind of intellectual mentor to Pierce: according to Pierce’s biographer Robert S. Griffin it was Oliver that gave Pierce the idea to write The Turner Diaries, a dystopian novel about a coming race war. At least one of Oliver’s students in Classics, too, went on to active participation in racist politics: Charles Scott Hamel, besides teaching Latin after receiving his master’s degree in Classics under Oliver, served as the first publisher of the magazine Southern Partisan, which the SPLC calls “arguably the most important neo-Confederate periodical.” Early on this journal called itself the Southern Partisan Quarterly Review, thus producing the same acronym — SPQR — that Pharos has documented white nationalists using to attach the prestige of the Roman Empire to their cause. Oliver’s own neo-Confederate sympathies are evident from his claim, in an academic article on the Roman class structure, that the original United States constitution ceased to exist in 1861 when, as he put it, “some of the states invaded, conquered, and subjugated the others and, as victors, imposed a radically new conception of the constitution on the occupied states at gun-point and on themselves through their need to find a moral justification for their ruthless treatment of the vanquished.”

Oliver declared that the United States is “the victim of some vast and evil conspiracy” whose origins can be traced back to “the great Jewish conspiracy of 117 – 118 AD.”

Oliver is commemorated on several of the white supremacist sites that Pharos has documented as “a prominent and highly respected defender of the Western heritage and the white race” (The Occidental Observer), as “surely one of racialism’s most learned spokesmen” (American Renaissance), and as a man who “at age 80 was capable of holding lengthy telephone conversions with a young fellow linguist, in which (just to show off) they would switch back and forth between German and Attic Greek” (Counter-Currents). Stormfront, one of the oldest neo-Nazi hate sites (which uses the Parthenon as one of its logos), devotes a page to reproducing Oliver’s many essays and speeches and describes him as “a scholar of international distinction” and praises him for his work in support of “the resurgence of European-Americans.” Counter-Currents, too, has republished his work, as has National Vanguard, which features a ten-part extract of his book The Jewish Strategy (renamed online “The Jewish Plague”) in which Oliver claims, among other things, that “The Jews, of course, never hesitate to promote whatever god is useful to them (e.g., Sebazius in Rome and Osiris in Egypt during the second century B.C.) in manipulating goyim [non-Jewish people], and we may suspect that they were meddling with the Babylonian religion as well as contributing in all probability to the economic depression and inflation in Nabonidus’s realm.”

Before his death in 1994 Oliver chose neo-Nazi and close associate of William Pierce Kevin Strom to be his archivist, and Strom maintains a website where Oliver’s many speeches and essays can be found (Strom lost stature in the white nationalist movement after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography in 2008). The following are examples of ways that Oliver used his authority as a professor of Classics to bolster the intellectual credentials of white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred.

  • In an anti-Semitic article Oliver claims that the Jewish Holocaust is a “Holohoax” by which Jewish people “extort billions of dollars from Germany, the United States, Britain, and almost every nation of the White world” as part of “their offensive against our civilization and race.” Like other white supremacists Pharos has documented, Oliver views Christianity as an insidious Jewish plot, saying that its rise marked a “moral decline” from “the established religions of the Graeco-Roman world and the cults of the Norse gods that prevailed among our own ancestors before they invaded the Roman Empire and were overawed by the very ruins that had survived the Christians.”
  • Elsewhere Oliver declared that the United States is “the victim of some vast and evil conspiracy” whose origins can be traced back to “the great Jewish conspiracy of 117 – 118 AD.”
  • Similarly, Oliver calls the “Christian myths” in the New Testament “a sheaf of inconsistent narratives that represent the doctrines of the Jewish Essenes as modified by elements introduced to make them acceptable to goyim and to cover up their racial exclusiveness.” Ancient Rome, for Oliver, serves as a warning of unchecked Jewish influence: by “179 B.C. the Jews had become so numerous in Rome and so active in spreading corruption and crime that P. Cornelius Scipio Hispalus, when he was Urban Pretor, tried to expel all of the Jews who had neglected to acquire Roman citizenship, but it is likely that for every one that he threw out of the front door, two crawled over the back fence.” Oliver then cites the Roman satirist Juvenal’s xenophobic rant against immigrants from the east as a parallel for the threat he claims Jewish people posed to Rome: “the mud that was drained out of Syria had polluted the Tiber; Rome had ceased to be Roman even in his time.” Juvenal remains a favorite ancient author of hate groups.
  • Oliver’s anti-Semitic hand-wringing about Jewish influence places him alongside other white supremacists who promote the fear of “white extinction”. In an article about abortion Oliver declares that “Aryans must decide, and decide promptly, whether their race is worth perpetuating to sustain the great civilization that it created” lest they be “exterminated, as the Jews intend.” Perhaps surprisingly, Oliver criticizes anti-abortion laws as unnecessary for “Aryans” and warns that such laws can easily be as ineffective as “the laws by which Augustus vainly tried to halt race-suicide among the upper classes of Rome.”
  • For Oliver homosexuality is an “epidemic sexual perversion that has brought us to the verge of moral imbecility.” He “proves” this with a discussion of antiquity, where, he claims, “homosexuality appears to have been an alien corruption” among “the Greeks, the extraordinarily gifted people who were the real creators of our civilization.” Of the Romans, “who we owe more to than the Greeks,” he claims that they “felt Western man’s natural abhorrence of homosexuality” and accuses “progressive educators” of attempting to teach children to be like Nero, whose “marriages” to other men Oliver recounts in lurid detail.
  • Oliver was especially admired by other white supremacists for his book reviews, such as that he wrote for Imperium: The Philosophy of History and Politics by Francis Parker Yockey, a well-known white supremacist, anti-Semite, neo-Fascist, and Nazi sympathizer. Oliver did not agree with Yockey’s pessimism about the decline of the “West” but he nevertheless provides a Classical basis for Yockey’s stance. Oliver claims that the “death” of Greece and Rome was brought about “by imperialism and the resulting, inevitable backwash of conquered peoples and races into the heartland, bringing exotic religions, different philosophies; in a word … cultural anarchy.”
Even after the publication of "Marxmanship in Dallas" many Classical scholars continued to correspond with Oliver on friendly terms

At the same time Oliver was active as a Classical scholar, he won Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships early in his career and participated in the annual meeting of the professional society of Classical scholars, the American Philological Association, by serving as a “teller” (elections officer) in 1952 and by reading a memorial for Stanley Barney Smith in 1962. These positions and honors came before Oliver’s anti-Semitism and racism attracted national attention, but even after the publication of “Marxmanship in Dallas” in 1964 many Classical scholars continued to correspond with Oliver on friendly terms. It may not be surprising that the German medieval historian Karl Bosl, who had been a member of the Nazi party and in any case might not have been up to date on Oliver’s political activities, could write in the early 70s that it would be “a great pleasure and an honor” to include Oliver’s article on “Interpolated Lines in Ovid” in a volume that Bosl was editing (more surprising is that this volume was published in honor of Luitpold Wallach, a German Jewish rabbi and Classical scholar who fled Germany and was one of Oliver’s colleagues at the University of Illinois). But Oliver’s correspondence contains many examples of American Classical scholars for whom Oliver’s hateful politics did not present an impediment to their professional relationship.

For example, R. T. Bruere, professor of Classics at the University of Chicago and for twenty-three years editor of Classical Philology wrote that he read Oliver’s article on “Lucan’s Naval Battle” (which appeared in a volume honoring the Spanish fascist Antonio Tovar) “with intense interest and admiration”; Lloyd Daly, professor of Classics and Dean of the College at the University of Pennsylvania, ended a 1968 letter about possible candidates for a position at Illinois with the friendly salutation “Betty joins me in the best to both of you;” George Goold, a president of the American Philological Association and for twenty-five years the editor of the Loeb Classical Library accepted an invitation from Oliver to speak at the University of Illinois in 1970 and later, in 1974, wrote to Oliver in Latin, addressing him as vir illustrissimus, “a very distinguished man” and vir doctissimus, “a very learned man”, and saying that “your [sc. Oliver’s] letter brought me the greatest pleasure” (voluptatem mihi maximam attulerunt litterae tuae). It is possible these professors were unaware of Oliver’s political views, although Oliver was an important enough voice to be included in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (2006). It is also possible they naively considered his views irrelevant to his stature as a Classical scholar. The former speaks to the need for projects like Pharos, that raise awareness about how antiquity can be used in support of hatred. The latter speaks to the danger of the belief that scholarship is apolitical.

The example of Revilo Oliver stands as evidence of the current of white supremacy and other forms of hatred that runs through the discipline of Classics

Certainly Oliver was not above bringing politics into his scholarly work. According to the bibliographic database of Classical scholarship, Oliver published twenty-nine books and articles, some of which betray (albeit in somewhat coded form) his white nationalist beliefs, such as an article on Latin prose composition in The Classical Weekly that is addressed “only to those who find in faith or reason some basis for a hope that the return of the Neanderthal is not yet a decisive victory, and that Occidental civilization in Europe and America will somehow survive the attacks of both its foreign and its domestic enemies.” In another essay (again advocating prose composition!) he complains that “the records of Oriental and other civilizations” are no longer being “relegat[ed] to a kind of limbo…as alien and extraneous to our history” and compares “the hordes of barbarians led by [the progressive educational theorist] John Dewey” to the forces of Alaric, the Visigoth who attacked Rome. Even the misogyny that was characteristic of the age in which Oliver wrote is tinged with white supremacy: in an essay for Classical Philology about a poem from Ovid’s Amores Oliver endorses Ovid’s wish “to touch the breasts of my mistress” (Amores II.15.11) as “what every lover (among Indo-Europeans) naturally wants to do,” making even sexual assault the special province of Oliver’s supposed master race.

Many Classical scholars are aware that Basil Gildersleeve, one of the founders of our discipline in the United States and who died in 1924, was an apologist for slavery. Dr. Rebecca Futo Kennedy has catalogued how many white supremacist websites reprint the ancient historian Tenney Frank’s 1916 article arguing that “race mixture” contributed to the “fall” of the Roman Empire. Oliver reminds us that the political association of the study of Greco-Roman antiquity that these men articulated cannot be said to be an artifact from a bygone era, even if he never attained anything like the stature of Gildersleeve, who was elected president of the professional association of Classical scholars and remains to this day the namesake of two chairs in Classics at major universities and, until it was renamed in 2019, of an annual prize for the best article published in the American Journal of Philology, which Gildersleeve founded. Oliver used his position as a member of the academy and as a professor of Classics in particular to legitimize his hateful politics up until his death in 1994, maintained professional correspondence with many distinguished scholars throughout the period of his most virulent political activism, and published in the most prestigious journals in Classics, including The American Journal of Philology of 1977 and Classical Quarterly of 1979. To this day, as  Dr. Dan-El Padilla Peralta’s analysis shows, many of our most respected journals remain “whites-only neighborhood[s]”. When Padilla Peralta was subjected to racist abuse at our annual meeting by a member of our professional association, many regarded the abuser as an isolated crank. But the example of Revilo Oliver stands, with Gildersleeve, Frank, and others, as evidence of the current of white supremacy and other forms of hatred that runs through the discipline of Classics, right up to the present day. We may never cleanse the study of Greco-Roman antiquity of all association with oppressive politics, but reckoning with our own history is a necessary step.

For its part, the present-day University of Illinois Department of Classics bears no resemblance to the department as it was in Oliver’s day. According to the Head of the Department of Classics, Antony Augoustakis, “the Department has been totally rebuilt, following a period of many retirements after 2008. There are now 12 faculty members, with an equal spread at all levels. The diversity of the faculty’s research and teaching interests is a testament to the changed environment in the Department from earlier decades. The Department has also endorsed the SCS statement condemning the appropriation and exploitation of the Classics by racist ideologies (bottom of The Department is proud to offer a welcoming and friendly environment where the study of Classics is thriving.”

We have linked above to archived versions of all the hate sites in order to avoid generating traffic for them. Kevin Strom’s site of Revilo Oliver’s speeches and essays can be found here.

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