Skip to content Skip to navigation

Doing Justice to the Classics

When Hate Memes teach History

Land Acknowledgement: Pharos is researched, written, and published online at Vassar College, an institution situated in the homeland of the Munsee Lenape people. Please read more.

Nothing defines online communication in the twenty-first century like the meme. Perhaps surprisingly for a hypermodern medium, many memes incorporate images, myths, and themes from Greco-Roman antiquity; even the word “meme” is derived from an ancient Greek root for “imitation.” However ubiquitous and fun meme culture may be, it is far from benign. As Pharos has documented, the familiarity and prestige of Greco-Roman antiquity make it an attractive source of symbols and ideas for white nationalists to promote their racist politics. Inevitably then this appropriation extends to the realm of memes. In this post, we examine how two common meme templates have used aspects of Greco-Roman antiquity to promote white nationalist thought. 

Memes have been an important strategic tool for the white nationalist movement popularly known as the “Alt Right,” particularly during the 2016 United States Presidential race. There are two reasons for this. The first is the ease with which memes can be spread online. The second is that memes defy definitive interpretation. It is often impossible to tell whether a meme is a joke, which means that those who spread them can defend themselves from accusations of racism by passing them off as satirical. These two features are interrelated: that which can be passed off as humorous can be spread with impunity. “Pepe the Frog” is just the most well-known example of an existing meme that white nationalists appropriated and transformed into a potent symbol of hatred, but is far from the only one.  In fact, many memes, whose format requires a hierarchical relationship between superior and inferior, are ready-made for the expression of hateful ideas.

Even potentially progressive messages tend to reinscribe violence in a medium whose very structure depends on a hierarchy of "superior" vs. "inferior"

Here we consider the function that Greco-Roman antiquity plays in this digital strategy for promoting white nationalism. The ubiquity and accessibility of meme culture means that many young people will encounter the Greco-Roman world through memes before they ever set foot in a classroom to study antiquity in any formal way. What messages do such memes communicate about the significance of that past?  What views about the significance of antiquity that are already present in our culture do such memes affirm and propagate?

Methodological Note: in this post we have followed the recommendations in Whitney Phillips’ “Oxygen of Amplification” about the ethical handling of memes that promote violence and hatred. Because memes are so easily distributed online, collections of hateful memes such as this one, however critical it may be, can make it easier for racists to spread their message. Therefore we have modified all the memes discussed here with annotations that call attention to their hateful messages. The most hateful memes are not included in the post (from which they can easily be dragged and distributed) but are provided only in an attached document that is less visible to search engines and less easily distributed as a meme. The numbers given for memes described below are indexed to the annotated versions in the attached document. Thanks to Dr. Helen Roche, who introduced us to Phillips’ work at a Durham University symposium on the use of the Classical past to support and legitimise extremist, racist and heteronormative politics.

Virgin vs. Chad

The basic form of the “Virgin vs. Chad” meme is a comparison between two subjects. One, the “Chad,” is represented by an image of a muscular, flamboyantly posed figure with a bulging crotch. He is presented as the epitome of everything that is desirable or admirable: confident, unbothered, secure in himself. The other, the “Virgin,” is portrayed as a a hunched figure walking with downcast eyes. He represents the opposite of the “Chad”: undesirable, inferior, ashamed of his inability to be what the “Chad” embodies. Captions within the meme call attention to various differences between the two. Sometimes the humor derives from surprising or provocative details of a familiar comparison. Other times the absurdity or unexpectedness of the comparison produces the humor. 

An example of the form with classical content is “Virgin Roman vs. Chad Mayan” in which a downcast figure wearing an approximation of a Roman galea helmet is described as someone who “frequently got outflanked and killed by cavalry” and “can’t afford pants.” This figure is contrasted with a Chad in “colorful clothing” from a civilization whose “astronmers [were] ahead of their time.” This meme illustrates well how mimetic forms can simultaneously promote progressive and regressive politics. Consider the comparison between Mayan and Roman. Colonialist ideology has often made out the indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica to be primitive and savage by comparison to those of ancient Greece and Italy, and this meme questions and even mocks that prejudice. But alongside this revisionist message are more regressive politics inherent in the form of the meme. For example, the concept of the “Chad” originated in hateful Incel communities as a symbol of toxic masculinity. Such gender politics are only amplified in a comparison that makes the “virgin” a shameful contrast to the “Chad.” 

A similarly ambivalent note can be detected in a “Virgin vs. Chad” meme that mocks neofascists for wearing  “uncomfortable and ugly jackboots” and praises the Romans for their different choice in footwear: “comfortable and fashionable sandals.” It’s a humorous comparison but the meme also praises the Romans for “dying with honor while killing swarms of barbarians.” It’s an odd way to denigrate neofascists when Roman military violence is something they seek to emulate.

These mixed political messages are inevitable in a medium whose very structure depends on a hierarchy of “superior” vs. “inferior” elements. Even potentially progressive ones like those described above nevertheless tend to reinscribe violence. And those that more explicitly present homophobic, misogynist, and even white supremacist ideals are right at home in the form. 

Sometimes these ideals are presented obliquely, such as in a meme entitled “Virgin Modernism vs. Chad Classicism.” The contrast between a “strong and powerful” Classical temple with a “bent and weak” parody of modernist architecture “designed by a bunch of architects circle jerking over Corbusier” echoes some of the assumptions of the Trump-era executive order prescribing Classical architecture for federal buildings. A “Virgin Alexander vs. Chad Caesar” meme praises Caesar for “completely ignor[ing] all his religious duties” after being elected Pontifex Maximus and for “fight[ing] every kind of enemy, from Gauls to Germans to other Romans.”  This sounds a lot like the admiration for ancient toxic masculinity found in the work of Bronze Age Pervert: a meme need not contain contemporary elements to legitimize hateful and violent mentalities in the present.

This format can also promote more explicit racism, as in a meme that criticizes the European Union by compariing the “Virgin Unionist” to the “Chad Republican,” who, clothed in a toga with an SPQR sash, is clearly meant to evoke the Roman Empire (Meme #1 in attached document). Some of the elements strike a humorous note, such as the comparison between the “generic dark suit” and lack of facial hair of the Unionist with the “appealing light-colored robe” and “mighty beard” of the Roman. These jokey elements, however, are textbook examples of the way internet-savvy white nationalists use humor and irony to make racist messages palatable. The meme also promotes antisemitic conspiracy theories and canards, describing “The Virgin Unionist” as “the Rothschild’s [sic] bitch” who “opens borders to invaders,” “thinks that women should be allowed to vote,” and “is either secular or Jewish.” Meanwhile nazi occultism, antisemitism, and violence against women abound in the captions for the “Chad Republican” who “runs a civilization similar to Atlantis,” “cucks Jews,” and “probably impregnated many of the finest women captured from the conquered areas.”

This kind of celebration of rape is only one example of how memes with Classical content often reproduce familiar attitudes toward Greco-Roman antiquity — such as the idea that Roman imperialism was beneficial because it “civilized” the barbarians — that sanitize and idealize violence and hateful ideologies. Other examples include:

  • A meme comparing the “Virgin Minoans” with the “Chad Dorians” (#2) elevates the Dorian identity to special status and thus indulges in the myth of the Dorian invasion that white nationalists have long used to racialize the ancient Greeks as white.
  • A meme comparing “Virgin Greeks” to “Chad Illyrians” (#3) perpetuates the belief that the Persian wars represented a racial conflict by calling the Greeks “racially ambiguous Persian rape babies;” this is a belief that lurks behind the claims of many of those who believe the modern “West” continues to be engaged in a neverending “Clash of Civilizations” with the rest of the world. Such a perspective justifies violence against Muslims and Asia more generally because it assumes such violence is inevitable. 
  • A meme comparing the Virgin Greek to the Chad Roman minimizes the violence of Roman imperialism by listing the scale of Roman conquest as an admirable Roman trait and portrays Greek sexuality in homophobic terms (#4).
  • And a comparison between the Virgin Cato and the Chad Ceasar (#5) praises Caesar for “committing genocide for publicity points,” implying that the imperial violence of the Roman Empire was somehow justified or valorous.

Meme-style is marked by endless variation and recombination, resulting in some comparisons that may on first glance be surprising but that ultimately tend to reinforce white nationalist ideas. One example is a comparison between the Chad “Mediterraneans” — represented by a bearded figure wearing a laurel-wreath — and the virgin “Nordcuck,” a pock-marked figure with pale skin, an overbite, and stringy blonde hair whose name combines “Nordic” with one of the distinctive slurs of online misogynists (#6). Such a meme may seem to upend the  white supremacist fetishization of the “Nordic” as the epitome of whiteness, but the meme itself, besides including the N word, quickly reveals itself as an expression of contemporary xenophobia provoked by Germany’s (successful) refugee resettlement programs: the “Nordcuck” is said to “ruin Europe with immigration and degeneracy” whereas the “Mediterranean” is claimed to be a “defender of Europe and western values.”

The irony that characterizes memes means that their politics are often self-contradictory. A single meme can criticize the “Virgin Spartans” for enslaving helots while admiring how the “Chad Roman” “own slaves and he knows it.” A comparison of the “Virgin Spartans” and the “Chad Macedonians” can condemn the islamophobia of the film 300 and celebrate the multicultural population of Alexander’s empire even as it ignores the violence that attended the creation of that empire. But even these muddled or incomplete comparisons reinforce the same idealized interpretations of the Greco-Roman past to which white nationalists routinely turn, such as that the violence of the Roman Empire or Alexander’s Empire were justified by their “civilizing” mission. 

Annotated versions of the hateful “Virgin vs. Chad” memes described above can be found here.

Soy vs. Chad

A later evolution of the “Virgin vs. Chad” meme is the “Soy vs. Chad” comparison. In this form, a figure drawn amateurishly in black and white, known as a “Soyjack,” is shown face to face with a figure, usually in profile and portrayed in a more polished style with a calm expression, known as a “Yes Chad.” This “Chad” differs visually from the “Chad” in the “Virgin vs. Chad” memes but corresponds to it conceptually because it articulates a point of view that is at least implicitly praised or accepted. By contrast, the “Soy,” who often grimaces or weeps, articulates a point of view that the meme as a whole mocks or dismisses. The humor of the meme derives from the way that the Chad deflates the outrage of the soy by affirming what the soy has criticized. In the meme’s most simple form, the Chad does this simply by saying “Yes.” Hence the term “Yes Chad.”

An example of this format that includes Classical material recreates the story, reported in several sources, that Diogenes remained calm when a man whom he had enslaved, named Manes, escaped. In the meme a bearded, weeping Soy shouts at Diogenes that he “should be angry” that his slave has escaped. Diogenes, represented by the “Mediterranean Chad,” responds as ancient sources say Diogenes did: “If Manes can live without Diogenes, why not Diogenes without Manes?” The soy assumes that an enslaver should feel righteous anger in this situation, but the meme celebrates the equanimity of Diogenes (who tradition holds had been enslaved himself). 

Such a meme seems to disparaage the largely unquestioned practice of enslavement in ancient Greece. Memes with Classical elements can similarly mock the way neofascists claim Greeks and Romans as racial ancestors (#1) or project modern racial categories onto the ancient world (#2). But just like with the “Virgin vs. Chad” form, the inherently hierarchical nature of the “Soy vs. Chad” form lends itself to the expression of white nationalist ideas. 

Lurking behind the "Yes Chad" meme is the figure’s original, racially coded identity as a "Nordic Gamer" 

This is the case in a meme contrasting two soys arguing about whether Julius Caesar was “bad” with two Yes Chads calmly discussing, and admiring, the the Roman general’s enslavement and mass murder of the Germans and Gauls (#3). The same idealization of imperial violence can be found in a meme in which a “withered wojak,” representing hopelessness, apologizes for the history of colonialism to an “Art Hoe” wojack, which represents a parody of progressive political views. In a different panel, an “Art Hoe” who is weeping like a conventional Soy, describes the Roman empire as a “genocidal and pro-slavery society” to which a “Gigachad” wearing a classizing tunic responds by defending Roman imperialism as a civilizing force (#4). The “gigachad,” which appeared in a transphobic campaign advertisement that Pharos documented, represents the supposed pinnacle of masculinity. His presence in the meme marks the progressive position occupied by the “Art Hoe” as effeminate and weak, and his endorsement of imperial violence reproduces an idealization of empire similar to that promoted by neofascists.

Lurking behind the “Yes Chad” meme is the figure’s original, racially coded identity as a “Nordic Gamer.” This dimension of the figure’s identity is explicitly embraced in a meme that promotes the white nationalist idea that the collapse of Roman political power can be attributed to a loss of racial purity among the Romans themselves. It illustrates this supposedly racial decline with a gallery of Roman emperors in which those from Augustus to Commodus are represented by the blonde Yes Chad, those from Pertinax to Decius by the dark-haired “Mediterranean Yes Chad,” and those following Decius by increasingly grotesque profiles, culminating with several incorporating racist stereotypes of Africans (#5).  A similar meme represents all the emperors as Soys except for Augustus, who appears as a blonde-haired Yes Chad (#6). Don’t be deceived by the meme’s playful representation of many emperors, such as its choice of a “teenage trad wife” wojack for the queer icon Elagabalus. The meme marks Augustus for special admiration in imitation of neofascist idolization of him.

Memes such as these are not racist abuses of the form but an inevitable result of the proliferation of a form of comparison that, like the virgin vs. chad format, is inherently hierarchical. And the long tradition of putting Greco-Roman antiquity on a pedestal as a means of justifying violence and oppression makes the Classical world a particularly fertile source of material for denigrating comparisons. 

The "Yes, Chad" meme provides the same perverse thrill that explains the appeal of the increasingly explicit nativism of conservative politics in the United States 

This is true even without needing to reproduce the biased interpretations of outdated scholarship: one soy vs. chad meme is structured around a quotation from the pseudo-Aristotelian Physiognomics that describes dark-skinned and excessively pale-skinned people as cowardly (#8). It’s a text and a set of ideas that are foundational to scientific racism. The meme’s quotation of the text reestablishes the credibility of this idea by informing viewers of its Classical origins alongside unflattering and stereotyped Wojacks representing the groups that the ancient text named: Egyptians for the dark skinned people and the “Nordcuck” for the pale-skinned women. This adds a misogynistic twist to the xenophobic associations of the caricature that were detailed above. 

Much more explicitly racist examples of this meme can be found, such as one in which an antisemitic caricature of a soy accuses a gallery of various chads of being “transpobic, antifeminist, anti-immigration, and angtigay.” This gallery several ancient-themed chads, including the “Greek King Chad” and a “Chad Roman” along with various others representing Celts, Vikings, and Spanish conquistadores. Their response to this accusation, in keeping with the meme’s format, is “yes.” (#7)

Besides perpetuating the canard that Jewish people are racial aliens in Europe, this example illustrates how the structure of the “Yes, Chad” meme lends itself to hateful politics. The “Yes, Chad” format derives its humor from its the Chad’s blasé affirmation of something the Soy believes is shameful or insulting for the Chad. The meme thus provides the same perverse thrill that commentators argue explains the appeal of the increasingly explicit nativism of conservative politics in the United States. In the example above, the “Yes Chads” positively embrace transphobia, antisemitism, and the like. The “Yes Chad” glorifies those who continue to insist that such hatred is justified. It invites those who see it to be one of those people. And it tells you that, if you do, you can be proud to be like the racially coded “Yes, Chads” it portrays, including those from Greco-Roman antiquity.

Annotated versions of the hateful “Yes Chad” memes described above can be found here.

The Stakes of Hateful Memecraft 

In one sense, this post was obsolete before it was published. The “visual language” of memes is continually evolving as it combines and modifies components into new forms in a neverending quest to go viral. According to search interest in Virgin vs. Chad peaked in 2019, and interest in Yes Chads peaked in 2020. But even if these forms are no longer on the front lines of meme culture wars, it seems safe to say that no matter what meme format may reign at any one time, the classical will be available to it as a source of hateful messages. 

The power of memes to shape one’s worldview is, in fact, a popular theme for meme-makers. One that is particularly relevant to our analysis of white nationalism in Classical memes uses a template in which Wrestling Promoter Vince McMahon shows increasing levels of excitement from panel to panel. This version begins with McMahon expressing mild interest in “learning about Rome in school.” He becomes more intrigued at “Learning about Rome through my Personal Readings.” But his highest level of amazement is reserved for “Learning about Rome through Memes on Twitter.” (

The message of memes is: what you learn in school won’t be interesting. What you find online will blow your mind. 

It is tempting to dismiss the world of memes as ephemeral, superficial, or trivial. This is all the more true when they deal in crudely racist stereotypes and interpretations of ancient material that professional scholars have long since abandoned. But they deserve the attention of anyone concerned with the entanglement of Greco-Roman antiquity in white nationalist politics. This is because it is likely that most young people first encounter political interpretations of the Classical past through the medium of the meme. 

This is the message that many people have encountered before they even set foot in a history class. What you learn there won’t be interesting; it’s what you find online in memes that will really blow your mind. And when one turns to memes to learn history, even if the memes don’t explicitly promote racism, are a set of idealizing tropes about the ancient world that make it a model for contemporary white supremacy: that the Roman empire “civilized” the “barbarians;” that Europe is “white” because the ancient Greeks were “white;” that immigration caused the fall of the Classical world. It’s bad enough that these ideas can be found even in modern textbooks. But our students have already learned them online before we ever see them. It’s a site of Classical education that we ignore at our peril.

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

* indicates required