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Pharos

Doing Justice to the Classics

Capitol Terrorists Take Inspiration from Ancient World

On January 6, 2021 a group of domestic terrorists, encouraged by the outgoing President of the United States, attacked the U.S. Capitol Building. Capitol security offering so little resistance to white rioters attempting to enter a government building made for a striking contrast to a year of police attacking Black Lives Matter demonstrations, 93% of which involved no violence at all. The white supremacy that motivated the attackers soon became clear as well. Although most of the people and groups Pharos has documented work primarily online, the attack on the Capitol saw violent terrorists in the seat of our nation’s government displaying familiar Classical symbols. This post will attempt to collect examples of these. Many of these have already been noted and discussed in a wide-ranging essay by Spencer Alexander McDaniel on many of the symbols seen at the Capital attack (not just Classical ones). If you are aware of any examples not included here please send them to pharosclassics@vassar.edu or contact us on Twitter.

Left: Jose Luis Magana/AP; Right: The Daily Show

Several of the rioters wore replicas of an ancient Greek helmet, likely intended to invoke Spartan warriors that many white supremacists — thanks largely to the representation of Sparta in the 2006 film 300 believe saved the white race from destruction by delaying the advance of Persian forces at the Battle of Thermopylae. Such references to Sparta at the attack on the Capitol attempt to paint the 2021 attack as honorable resistance against a totalitarian force (Thanks to Spencer Alexander McDaniel and Stephen DeCasien for these images).

From the Washington Post’s Livestream

The Washington Post’s livestream of the attack showed one terrorist flying a flag displaying the ancient Greek maxim Molon Labe behind a Gadsden Flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”) that is increasingly regarded as a symbol of white nationalism. “Molon Labe,” often translated “Come and take [them],” is supposedly the response that the Spartan general Leonidas gave to Persian envoys promising that they would spare Sparta if it would surrender its weapons (it is unlikely the historical Leonidas ever said these words).  It is a favorite expression of those who believe there should be no restrictions on gun ownership in America, as well as of anti-Government groups (some of which Pharos has documented previously) frequently associated with domestic terrorism.  The man flying this flag indicated on Facebook that he attended the rally with a Tennessee Assistant District Attorney General who later attempted to remove evidence of his attendance.   (Thanks to Liv Yarrow for the image).

Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images

The flag described above gave the ancient quote in Greek, but the expression appeared in English on another flag, this one a Confederate flag with a silhouette of a rifle and the words “Come and Take It” (far right in the image above). This flag — along with the nooses the rioters hung and carried with them into the Capitol — makes explicit the racism of those who invoke this quote in connection with political activities.

Erin Schaff/New York Times

Just one hour before the attack on the Capitol, Texas Senator Ted Cruz had given a speech on the Senate floor questioning (without evidence) the integrity of the 2020 Presidential election. He is only the highest-profile congressperson of the many who used their  power within the Capitol to encourage those who attacked it…or participated in the attack themselves. When Senator Cruz arrived to deliver his speech he was wearing a mask bearing the words “Come and Take It.” Cruz’s mask does not directly refer to antiquity; it reproduces a flag from the 1835 Texas Revolution which itself took inspiration from ancient history. Nevertheless the appearance of the same phrase on Cruz’s mask — he has been photographed in many different masks throughout the pandemic and chose this one specifically for his speech — and the Confederate flag outside the Capitol indicates their similar political positions. In his speech before the Senate, Cruz called for an investigative commission like that created by the “Compromise of 1877,” which removed federal troops from the former states of the Confederacy, authorized Southern white people to terrorize Black people with impunity, and ultimately led to the disenfranchisement of Black men in southern states. (Thanks to @kaitabasis for the reference and to Christopher W. Jones for information about the Texas revolutionary flag).

C-SPAN

Not a week after Senator Cruz addressed the Senate, newly elected Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had attempted to overturn presidential election results, addressed the U.S. House of Representatives wearing her own version of a “Molon Labe” mask. She called Democrats who condemned the terrorists’ violence “hypocrites” because, according to her, they “have promoted violence, have supported it, [and]…fund it on their ActBlue fundraising platform,” accusing Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in particular of “encouraging people to donate money to bail criminals out of jail.” (Harris had tweeted an invitation to donate to bail funds for Black Lives Matter protesters).  Congresswoman Greene is best known for her racist campaign and her promotion of the “QAnon” conspiracy theory.

ADL.org

It has been widely reported that terrorists wore a variety of anti-Semitic apparel, including a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt. News outlets also circulated an image of a shirt showing an image of the Roman fasces and eagle that was used by the Nazi puppet state in Italy with the slogan “6MWE,” which stands for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough,” a blatant call for the murder of Jewish people. This shirt was not, however, seen at the Capitol attack but several weeks earlier at a rally of the Proud Boys, another white supremacist group whose interest in Greco-Roman antiquity Pharos has documented. Even though the shirt was not seen at the attack on the capital it indicates how the ancient Roman symbolism is often used to legitimize violence, including that of the Capitol terrorists.

One attendee at the gathering preceding the attack on the Capitol was photographed holding an image of President Trump’s head superimposed on the body of the “Maximus” character from Gladiator, a favorite film of white supremacists worldwide. This image also encouraged Trump to “Cross the Rubicon,” a reference to Julius Caesar’s decision to use military force to install himself as permanent ruler of Rome. In the weeks before the attack such comparisons to Caesar were also seen on the social-media Parler, the social-media platform that the terrorists used to plan the riot, as seen in the right-hand image above from a post on a a subreddit dedicated to monitoring activity on Parler.  The post calls for “military action to safeguard the Republic” and also includes the abbreviation SPQR, a favorite of white supremacists [Sarah Bond shared the left-hand image above].

Before Parler was shut down its users’ posts were archived. The content of these posts has not yet been made available but given the frequency with which Classically-themed usernames appear on white supremacist websites, it seems very likely that some of those involved in the attack employed Classical pseudonyms. Already the username “alexanderthegreat” — another favorite ancient figure for many white supremacists — has been found in a list of Parler users with moderation privileges.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Many Americans, horrified by the violence in the Capitol, said something like “this is not who we are.” But to say this is to locate these terrorists on the “fringe” of American culture rather than recognizing that they represent the white supremacist core of our society. As Brent Staples wrote, “The mob assault on the Capitol was an outgrowth of what came before,” both recently — Trump’s lies about election fraud and before that his embrace of violent anti-government groups — and in our deeper past, including the framing of the U.S. Constitution. Those who attacked the Capitol represent a mainstream dimension of white American identity.

So too with their use of Classical symbols. It is a mainstream view that classical Sparta was a paragon of military might and the savior of “Western Civilization,” even if historians increasingly recognize that this view is wrong. And it is impossible not to notice that images of the terrorists inside the Capitol showed them surrounded by Classical imagery, from the neoclassical architecture of the Capitol itself, to marble busts of American statesmen that imitate Roman sculpture, to the Latin motto inscribed above the door to the chamber of the House of Representatives. Outside the building, the bronze sculpture on the top of the Capitol dome was designed to reflect racist ideology and made, in part, by an enslaved man; the imagery inside the rotunda dome glorifies Native American death. White Supremacy was at the heart of our nation’s founding, and so was the Classical past. No surprise then that they appeared together here.

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