Skip to content Skip to navigation

Doing Justice to the Classics

Banner image: The National Policy Institute Logo, complete with legitimizing classical columns

Greco-Roman Antiquity, the Basis of White Identity

At the end of 2015, as the white supremacist “Alt Right” movement had begun to attract mainstream attention, one of its leaders, Richard Spencer, released a video that he wrote “expresses our fundamental values at NPI and Radix and our conception of identitarianism” (NPI is the white supremacist think tank that Spencer leads and Radix is its premier online journal). The video encourages viewers to claim and celebrate a white racial identity as a revolutionary act; a year after the release of this video Spencer summed up its message to an audience at Texas A&M University: “Have a goddamn identity…[it’s] the greatest challenge to the power structure that there is.” And the identity Spencer wants his viewers to adopt in one grounded in Classical antiquity.

The National Policy Institute Logo, complete with legitimizing classical columns

Pharos has previously documented Spencer (who likened a white ethnostate to a new Roman Empire), the NPI (which published a piece by the prominent race psuedo-scientist Richard Lynn that began with a quotation of Galen), Radix (for its essay promoting an anti-Semitic interpretation of the Saturnalia), and even his oldest platform, (for a piece claiming that “should the white west perish, the love of truth perishes with it”). In recent years Spencer has lost his prominent place in white ethnonationalist politics as his legal problems have mounted, and most (but not all) social media has deplatformed him. But Spencer’s video nevertheless epitomizes a fundamental feature of the appropriation of Greco-Roman antiquity by the modern white supremacist movement: its assumption that the ancient world serves as a source of, and inspiration for, the kind of white racial consciousness that white supremacists believe must be restored if the white race is to survive.

The characterization of white identity is one of power and accomplishment...and the most prominent imagery is from Greco-Roman antiquity

This video shows footage of lone men walking through ruined cities or surrounded by teeming, faceless crowds juxtaposed with images of Black Lives Matter marches and other such activism to argue, as Spencer’s voice-over says, that white people are “rootless” and “wanderers” in “a country in which we have become strangers.” The video exhorts its viewers to develop a white racial consciousness as an act of self-preservation — here Spencer shows footage of happy blonde, blue-eyed women and toddlers — in a supposedly anti-white world: “So long as we avoid and deny our identity — at a time when every other people is asserting its own — we will have no chance to resist our dispossession.”

Spencer’s characterization of this identity is one of power and accomplishment: the video features quick-cut montages of “great men” interspersed with images of scientific drawings, a rugged cowboy on horseback, the Wright brothers, and the launch of the space shuttle, all intended to represent the supposed superiority of white people throughout history. There are also many images drawn from the European middle ages, another favorite point of historical reference for white supremacists seeking to revive what they believe is a distinctly white warrior culture: a viking ship, the Bayeaux tapestry, various representations of crusaders, and a sword in a stone clearly meant to evoke Excalibur. But the most prominent imagery in the video is drawn from Greco-Roman Antiquity.

When Spencer describes his idea of “an identity that stretches back — and flows forwards — for centuries,” the video pans across an image of Roman portrait busts in the Vatican museum and an image of the dome of the Pantheon in Rome.

When Spencer seeks to highlight contemporary white rootlessness by stating that “our ancestors had a strong sense of identity,” images of the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, busts of Aristotle and Augustus, and the Alexander Mosaic flash across the screen.

When Spencer rejects the category “white” as “a checkbox on a census form” and defines his identity instead as “a part of the peoples, history, spirit, and civilization of Europe,” he shows an image of the Parthenon and a sculpture of the Spartan general Leonidas.

And when at the culmination of the video Spencer declares against any doubters that “nothing necessary is impossible,” Leonidas appears again, this time in Jacques-Louis David’s painting Leonidas at Thermopylae — a battle that white supremacists consider the template of white people taking a heroic stand to protect their civilization against the supposedly degenerate, totalitarian “east” — along with Thomas Ralph’s Archimedes Directing the Defenses of Syracuse, a painting that allows Spencer to combine a reference to white ingenuity (represented by Archimedes the scientist) with an example of (what Spencer considers) white people defending themselves (somewhat incoherently, however, since Syracuse was being attacked by the same Romans that Spencer claims as ancestors elsewhere in the video).

It is easy to mock this way of thinking about the ancient world as a fantasy

“What our ancestors took for granted,” Spencer says toward the end of his video, “we must discover, we must renew.” The imagery of his video makes clear that the “ancestors” he has in mind are ancient Greeks and Romans. “This legacy,” he continues, “stands before us as a gift…and a challenge.”  The “gift” of this “legacy,” for Spencer, is the knowledge that ancient people who produced a widely admired “high civilization” understood (he claims) that they were “white.” The “challenge” that he sees, in turn, is for white people to reclaim this identity for themselves.

It is easy to mock this way of thinking about the ancient world as the fantasy that it certainly is. But is the fact that Spencer and other white supremacists make so little effort to justify their claims of racial continuity from antiquity to the present day a sign of their intellectual laziness, or does it indicate that they know that most people already believe that such continuity exists and is meaningful? Or perhaps it indicates that they know that most people’s image of the Classical past is shaped by popular representations of antiquity as populated exclusively by light skinned, blond people, and an academic discipline that has, at worst, taken for granted the whiteness of antiquity, and, as Denise McCoskey argues, “by and large done almost nothing to challenge assumptions about the fundamental whiteness of the Greeks and Romans themselves.”

Anyone who rejects Spencer’s racist politics must un-become what the history of Classics prompts us to become

We would do well to consider this possibility, and what it means about our own orientations to the ancient world. Speaking to The New York Times, Dan-El Padilla Peralta described the reaction of “a certain kind of classicist” who, for example, sees classical symbols displayed by the mob that attacked the US Capitol, or watches Spencer’s video: “Oh, that’s not us.” Professor Padilla Peralta, one of the few Black professors in the discipline, has done more than anyone else to expose the ways that the study of Greco-Roman antiquity contributes to the production of whiteness, a process that is as insidious and violent as it is invisible to those who benefit from it. Commenting on the impulse some scholars feel to say “that’s not us” about the inspiration white ethnonationalists take from Greco-Roman antiquity, Padilla Peralta told his interviewer,

“What is of interest to me is why is it so imperative for classicists of a certain stripe to make this discursive move? ‘This is not us.’ Systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself. Can you take stock, can you practice the recognition of the manifold ways in which racism is a part of what you do?”

White supremacist appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity depend on many errors and distortions of the historical record. Spencer’s video, which invents a trans-historical, racially pure white identity and traces it back to distant antiquity, is no exception. Yet the core beliefs about antiquity that are encapsulated in Spencer’s video — that it is admirable, that it is timeless, and that it was “white” — correspond to many of the unexamined beliefs about the ancient world that many people, including Classical scholars, already hold.

Spencer asks his followers to “become who they are.” It’s a slogan that assumes the naturalness, the timelessness of the identity it produces. But for anyone who rejects Spencer’s racist politics, this slogan must prompt us to do the opposite, to examine whether we hold, or have been taught to hold, and of the same assumptions about the ancient world that he does, and to shed them. To un-become what the history of our discipline prompts us to become.

We have linked above to archived images of Spencer’s announcement of his video to avoid generating traffic for his sites. The video is playable at the archived link provided above, although it may take some time to load.

Sign up to be notified whenever
Pharos publishes a new article.

* indicates required