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Doing Justice to the Classics

Racist Commemoration of Greco-Roman History as White History

“Today in White History” is a Twitter account that commemorates technological, scientific, athletic, and artistic accomplishments of people that the account’s curator regards as “white,” occasionally adding racist commentary or a  “White Live Matter” hashtag to its descriptions. The account intends to provide daily evidence for one of the fundamental beliefs of white supremacy, namely that white people have made more significant contributions to human history than other kinds of people. And just as many white supremacists regard the histories of ancient Greece and Rome to be exclusively “white” histories, “Today in White History” not only includes Greco-Roman history in its feed but gives the Classical special prominence by using an image of the Roman orator Cicero as its avatar.

Events from Greco-Roman history that “Today in White History” has commemorated include:

Some of these figures are favorites of white supremacists. Augustus was an important model for the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini and, more recently, for contemporary white nationalists and conspiracy theorists. The feed praises Trajan because “under his rule, the empire reached its greatest territorial reach via conquests in the east;” Neo-Nazis often look to Rome as a model for an expansionist imperial power. Similarly the feed praises Ovid because “his poetry decisively influenced European art and literature and remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology.” He also used his poetic skill to aestheticize rape (many of his translators reproduce this in English) and is admired by contemporary misogynists. The feed has also retweeted a popular “Roman History” feed’s post commemorating Vespasian’s conquest of Jericho. White Supremacists admire Vespasian and his son Titus for the campaign they waged against Jewish people living under Roman rule, culminating in the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem.

It takes a white supremacist to insist that white identity is something that is stable and unchanging throughout time

Other entries erase the difficulty of reconstructing the ancient past. Euripides’ birthday (and even birth year) is not, in fact known; some ancient sources say he was born on the same day as the battle of Salamis (the date of which in September 480 BCE is also unknown) but the Parian Chronicle puts his birth several years later.  This, of course, is a minor error, but other such distortions are more telling of the ways that designating ancient history as “white” history can only strain the evidence.

For example, “Today in White History” does not indicate what the discovery of the Venus de Milo has to do with “white” history. From other art-themed posts it may be intended to celebrate the creation of a masterpiece of sculpture by someone the author assumes was white, even though the ancient Greeks did not employ racial categories such as “white” that were invented in the 19th century. Even the designation “masterpiece,” can be shown to be political rather than essential to the statue: France promoted it as a replacement for the Medici Venus that they had recently repatriated to Italy. Indeed, the French wanted the sculpture to be the work of the famous Praxiteles so much that they suppressed evidence that it may in fact have been by Alexander of Antioch. So while “Today in White History” implies that the Venus de Milo is the work of a “white” person, this is not a category that Alexander of Antioch, born in what we now call Syria and what the Greeks called Asia, would have been placed in by any of his contemporaries.  This even more true of the emperor Elagabalus, who (besides becoming an icon for transgender people) was a priest of a Semitic god before becoming Emperor.

Similarly, some historians and astronomers are skeptical that Thales actually predicted an eclipse, since the claim that he did comes from later sources and gives no indication of how he accomplished this. Those that do think he predicted it say he could only have done so with the aid of Mesopotamian astronomical knowledge that it is unlikely even “Today in White History” could characterize as “white.” Anyone can mix up Euripides’ birthday, but it takes a white supremacist to insist that white identity is something that is stable and unchanging throughout time, as Pharos has documented again and again and again and again.

The assumptions behind its racialized narrative of history are commonly accepted and have been for a long time

But you don’t need to know the details of Elagabalus’ biography or the history of the attribution of the Venus de Milo to recognize “Today in White History” as a white supremacist account. It has tweeted claims that black people are more violent than white people; written of Black Lives Matter protests taking place on the day that NASA launched a rocket that “white men sent a rocket into space this week…while the blacks burned down our cities and twerked on the ruins;” retweeted white supremacists (including those that Pharos has documented), and paraphrased the white supremacist mantra known as the “14 words” by writing “Securing the existence of your people and a future for your children does not make you a ‘supremacist,’ it makes you human.”

An account like “Today in White History” is obviously racist. Its use of Greco-Roman antiquity is obviously racist. And yet the assumptions behind its racialized narrative of history — however much this narrative is patently the product of colonial powers’ need to justify conquest, however much this narrative erases the indebtedness of so-called “Western Civilization” to other civilizations — are commonly accepted and have been for a long time. The feed has tweeted something almost every day since 2012. It has 8,000 followers and counting. Eurocentrism is alive and well and accounts like this are its fruits.

We have linked above only to archived images of “Today in White History’s” tweets.

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