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Doing Justice to the Classics

The Third Year of Pharos

by Curtis Dozier, Director of Pharos

2020 has been a year in which the increasing visibility and influence of overtly white supremacist groups in the United States continued, including those whose use of Greco-Roman antiquity Pharos documents. But it was also the year that a police officer murdered George Floyd (and many other Black people) and that the Coronavirus Pandemic took a disproportionate toll on communities of color. As the insidious and deadly operation of racism and structural inequality at the heart of mainstream American institutions and social practices received widespread attention from white people who are ordinarily sheltered from it, I wasn’t always sure whether Pharos met a need. When police officers can kill Black people with impunity, when our nation’s economy and public health system treats Black and Brown lives as disposable, the latest essay about Juvenal on an avowedly white supremacist website did not always seem worthy of attention. Our country has a huge problem with overt racism, but we have an even bigger problem with the racism embedded to the point of invisibility — if you’re white — in every aspect of our society.

It is precisely because of this invisibility, however, that documenting overt white supremacy continues to have a role in the fight against systemic racism. True, a focus on overt racism risks distracting attention from its more pervasive forms. But when overt racism finds legitimacy in a Greco-Roman cultural tradition that many people regard as foundational to our national identity and that continues to enjoy considerable prestige, we are forced (or should be) to recognize and acknowledge the historical processes that maintain systemic racial inequality in our country. Many of the claims white supremacists make about Greco-Roman antiquity, especially regarding the special qualities of “Western Civilization,” are not that different from things many of us learned in school.

In many ways I was very naive about what documenting white supremacy would entail, or how it would complicate my understanding of Classics and my place in it

My own journey working on Pharos for three years has been one that started with treating hate groups’ appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity as an interesting sub-category of Classical Reception that historical specialization could refute, to beginning to realize my own, and my discipline’s, complicity in the construction and maintenance of a white supremacist order in the United States. That’s one reason we haven’t published a “Scholars Respond” piece in several years, focusing instead on analytic documentation of examples of Greco-Roman antiquity being used in the service of white supremacy. Some of our readers may conclude from these documentations that it is only overt white supremacists who do this, but I believe that anyone who approaches the material we document with curiosity will find many disturbing echoes on white supremacist websites of things that their textbooks and teachers have told them, perhaps even of things they have told students themselves.

So during the the third year of Pharos we tried to bring attention to ways that the invocation of Greco-Roman antiquity in support of explicit white supremacy overlapped with more pervasive but less obvious racism, beginning with the discipline of Classics itself, whose historical relationship with white supremacy was the topic of a roundtable conversation at the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting that collected as many perspectives on that history as possible. As a follow-up I will be hosting a panel of papers on the use of antiquity by white supremacists, past and present, at the Society’s next meeting. We also called attention to the assumption that Classical learning is the special province of white people that was articulated in racist emails sent to faculty and administrators at Wake Forest University.

In particular we tried to highlight ways that racist interpretations of, or assumptions about, Greco-Roman antiquity have been and continue to be articulated by well-known or otherwise powerful public figures:

Actually there was more coming out of the White House that we didn’t cover but that vigilant Classicists on social media called out, such as the name “Operation Themis” being given to a military operation aimed at intimidating American citizens.

A few other posts broadened our archive, such as a collaboration with Antiquipop on a documentation of apocalyptic French nationalism, published in English and in French, and some pieces documenting the appropriation of Roman figures by white supremacists (who more usually turn to Greece as a model). These include Cicero as the avatar for both a “white history” twitter feed and for a list of Jewish people engaged in anti-racism, and an essay making Juvenal and Sallust prophets of the supposedly decline of modern civilization.

In terms of analytics, our pages have now been viewed close to a quarter of a million times in 188 countries. Our most popular article, by far, in our third year was our 2018 documentation of the use of the acronym S.P.Q.R. by white nationalists, which was viewed more than thirty-thousand times (interestingly our scholars-respond piece complicating that appropriation was only viewed one tenth as many times). This traffic driven by coverage of the campaign of Madison Cawthorn (since elected to congress in North Carolina), who owns a real estate investment firm entitled “SPQR Holdings;” before running for congress Cawthorn had said on social media that visiting Hitler’s alpine vacation home had been on his “bucket list for awhile.”

The popularity of our second most-viewed post this year was also, it seems, driven by current events: in 2018 we documented a racist line of apparel marketed to law enforcement and veterans. It was the most popular post of our second year and is still our second-most popular post (after SPQR) of all time, probably as a result of increasing public recognition of the permissive attitude of state and local governments toward connections between law enforcement officers and white supremacist groups and of the historical connections between modern policing and slave patrols in slave-holding states, and the harassment of Black and immigrant communities throughout the country.

Our most-viewed post written in 2020 was our description of the violent misogyny of the book Bronze Age Mindset, which has been favorably reviewed on a major conservative website by Michael Anton, who in 2016 wrote a xenophobic essay under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus promoting the campaign of Donald Trump.

When I launched Pharos at the end of 2017 I had no idea where it would lead. In many ways I was very naive about what documenting white supremacy would entail, or how it would complicate my understanding of Classics and my place in it. Many people helped me, and continue to help me, on that journey. To close this annual reflection I want, however, to single out Donna Zuckerberg, who recently announced that Eidolon will stop publishing new material at the end of this year. It was her idea to create a site to document these appropriations, it was her encouragement that convinced me I could take a stab at it, and it was she who gave me a platform to launch Pharos with an article in her journal. Eidolon has had (and will continue to have) a huge impact on the field of Classics and many of us in it, including me. In fact, it’s fair to say that Eidolon was literally life-changing for me: I was primarily a Latin instructor writing specialized articles about Quintilian (who still awaits a much needed reassessment!) when I wrote one of Eidolon’s first articles and now, thanks to their work, I’m doing this. Eidolon was different then, just as I was, and as Eidolon changed, it prompted me to change too, to become more aware of the politics not just of the way Greco-Roman antiquity is used but the politics of my own participation in and affiliation with this field. Their articles and mission have been a source of challenge and inspiration to me throughout my work on Pharos. This site wouldn’t exist if not for theirs. Thank you.

As always I love to hear from readers about appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity by hate groups that you’ve seen, about how you’ve used Pharos in your classes (or how we can help you use Pharos in your classes), and about any ways our site can better fulfill its mission. Our email is There’s more to come in 2021.

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