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Doing Justice to the Classics

The Second Year of Pharos

by Curtis Dozier, Director of Pharos

Two years ago I launched Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics in order to raise awareness about how hate groups are using Greco-Roman antiquity to legitimize their politics. Within a year it became clear that specialists in the field of Classical Studies and the public at large were interested in learning about these appropriations, and I was honored to be recognized at the beginning of 2019 by the Women’s Classical Caucus, which awarded Pharos the “Public Scholarship” award for work “geared toward non-specialist audiences” that “address[es] feminist concerns or any other concerns related to marginalized groups.” The site continued to receive coverage in the press, including Undark Magazine and The Chronicle of Higher Education. For the first time it was noticed by a major right-wing site, when Campus Reform published the response from a homophobic hate group to our documentation of their invocation of the persecution of Christians in ancient Rome in their fundraising materials. 

It is not only sites on the "fringe" of white supremacy that invoke Greco-Roman antiquity: we have found the ancient past on every one of the major sites we have investigated

Pharos‘ audience continued growing this year as well. As of this week our articles have been viewed more than 110,000 times from readers in 162 countries (more than 80% of the world!). The most-read articles on the site are:

And two articles that were also the most-read after our first year:

  • The first article in our three-part response by scholars to racist backlash against the casting of a black actor to play Achilles in the BBC/Netflix miniseries Troy: Fall of A City
  • A misogynist’s claim that feminism caused the collapse of the Roman Empire

The most popular articles that were published during the second year are:

  • A description of a classically-themed apparel-line, marketed to veterans and police officers, with coded white supremacist themes. Shortly after we published this documentation The Center For Investigative Reporting’s website Reveal published a landmark report documenting the membership of “hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers” in “Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook.”
  • Our list of examples of neo-Nazi sites using the language of “Western Civilization,” published after a United States congressman with a record of promoting white supremacists made headlines for asking how “Western Civilization” could be a “dirty word” since he “s[at] in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization,” a patent indictment of traditional, idealizing approaches to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity.
  • The “Onomasticon” of Classically Themed Pseudonyms, our ongoing project where we document examples of writers using Classical names to give their hateful views more authority.

It may not have been obvious to readers but Pharos changed and expanded its priorities somewhat during its second year. Whereas in our first year we documented appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity wherever we found them, this year we made a conscious effort to focus on sites and figures who are recognized as major players in contemporary white supremacy, which led us to document Richard Spencer (as well as the blogs affiliated with his organizations), The Daily Stormer, The Occidental Observer and The Occidental QuarterlyGates of Viennaas well as the homophobic Alliance Defending Freedom. It is not only sites on the “fringe” of white supremacy that invoke Greco-Roman antiquity: we have found the ancient past (without difficulty) on every one of the major sites we have investigated. I am particularly proud of essays that explored the implication of Greco-Roman antiquity in the recurring themes of white supremacist websites, such as the sanctity of “Western Civilization” or the conspiracy theory of “White Extinction.”

Many of the arguments we document do not really distort what is known about the ancient world

This year we also began to broaden the site’s purview. With an article (suggested by readers from Spain) on the political party VOX we looked beyond the English-speaking world, a move that also took us offline into print media for the first time, with an article about Renaud Camus’ book Le Grand Remplacement. Also new this year were a few “historical” examples of the appropriation of Greco-Roman history in support of hate: I wrote a short piece about Greco-Roman antiquity and the erasure of Native histories in the U.S., and we documented President Richard Nixon’s invocation of Roman emperors as “proof” of the threat gay people post to America. So far most of the appropriations we have documented have come from outside the field of Classics, but over the summer we published a detailed account of a Classics professor at a major university who, in the middle of the 20th century, promoted white supremacy and anti-Semitism and became an intellectual mentor to one of the most influential white supremacists in U.S. history.

Finally, we launched an ongoing project to document proponents of hate who use Classically-themed pseudonyms and avatars to attempt to give legitimacy to their views. In an effort to aid users in navigating the growing site we have begun tagging the primary type of hatred that each of our documentations exemplifies (Anti-Semitism, Homophobia, Misogyny, White Nationalism/White Supremacy, and Xenophobia/Islamophobia) plus a tag for Sparta, that favorite ancient touchstone of the far right.

What needs refuting is not the accuracy of hate goups’ history but the way they idealize it

We also stopped doing some things in our second year. I originally founded Pharos not only to document hateful appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity but also to provide a forum where scholars could contribute to responses to those appropriations. We have not, however, published any “Scholars Respond” pieces for some time. This is partly because our database of appropriations that I felt warranted documentation had grown so large that I decided just to focus on that aspect of the project for a while, and partly because of the dawning realization that many of the arguments we document do not really distort what is known about the ancient world.

When a misogynist offers tendentious translations of Latin fables in order to vilify women, we point that out, but they don’t have to distort Cato’s words to make him a spokesman for misogyny. It’s true that The Daily Stormer kicks off its list of anti-Semitic quotations from ancient authors with a fake quote supposedly from Cicero, but the rest of the quotes listed are authentic. Richard Spencer’s claim that the Roman Empire should serve as a model for a white ethnostate will strike historians as bizarre, but elsewhere on his site there’s an anti-Semitic interpretation of the Saturnalia that draws on a passage of the historian Tacitus that does express prejudice against Jewish people. In our first year we pointed out problems in hate groups’ appropriations of Sparta; in the case of their appropriation of Athens the problem lies not in any of their facts about that city’s history but in the way our need to have Athens as a prototype for democratic ideals can blind us to its exclusionary, nativist, and oppressive dimensions. Indeed, as we have documented more and more appropriations of antiquity by hate groups, it has become clear to me that what needs refuting is not the accuracy of their history but the way they idealize it. And this is a much more difficult problem to respond to, not least because our discipline, to say nothing of my job as a professor of Greek and Roman Studies, exists in large part because of that idealization.

Specialized expertise does still have an important role to play in the work of combating hateful appropriations of the past — I think especially of how lacking in nuance and complexity are the many instances we’ve found of the so-called Fall of the Roman Empire being cited as a xenophobic warning — and I hope to return soon to “Scholars Respond” essays.

I write this annual post to celebrate the success of Pharos and reflect on the development of the project over the past year, but as I do so I am conscious that this same year exposed in a very public way that the Classically-informed racism documented on Pharos is not limited to people “outside” the field but in fact shows itself even at the annual meeting of the United States’ Society for Classical Studies. The racism on display at that meeting has prompted many valuable reflections on the state of our discipline, including, most recently, one articulating how even these conversations may sometimes minimize the racism of the field. The year has, to be sure, also seen welcome signs of progress: the removal of the name of Basil Gildersleeve, who was an apologist for slavery, from the cover of one of the top Classics journals in the U.S., as well as from the prize it awards a contributor each year; greater institutional investment in bringing the study of antiquity to marginalized communities; and the election of the first African American President of the Society for Classical Studies. Taken together — both the current and historic racism of the field and the model set by those working to change that —  it has all prompted me to wonder about the role of Pharos in the field of Classics. The appropriations I document are not harmful to me in the way they are to those they target. My position as a white man allowed me to approach Pharos as an interesting take on Classical reception. Much more is at stake for others. My site claims to be “doing justice to the Classics,” but is justice really being done?

The challenge for Pharos’ third year is the same one facing any Classical scholar who cares about justice and inclusivity in our field

Several years ago Dan-El Padilla Peralta proposed “a few guiding questions, intended as prompts for reflection and self-assessment” for those who seek to “confront [the] multi-dimensional record of structural violence threading through Classics and the humanities.” One of these questions asks us to reflect on “what steps am I taking to counter and reverse forms of appropriation that hitch Greco-Roman antiquity to claims about white supremacy?” To this task I feel I can say Pharos makes a good faith contribution. But I am less confident regarding Prof. Padilla Peralta’s other three questions: does Pharos promote “a vigorously polyvocal and pluralistic conception of Greco-Roman antiquity,” does it “ensure that students from underrepresented backgrounds see themselves in Classics,” and does it “promote productive and meaningful dialogue between academic classicists and advocates for a fully inclusive vision of social justice”? There are aspects of the site that contribute to each but I and my site have some ways to go before I can really answer “yes.” Thus the challenge for Pharos‘ third year is the same one facing any Classical scholar who cares about justice and inclusivity in our field: to find ways to contribute not just to the intellectual work of decolonization but to the actual, real-world reinvention of the discipline.

As always, I love to hear from readers by email at or on social media @pharosclassics. Send your thoughts on the site, send us examples of Greco-Roman antiquity being used in support of hatred, let us know what happened when you used our articles in your classes. And click “Follow” at the bottom of this or any of our articles to sign up to get an email any time we publish new content.

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