Classics, Race and Me

“The Classics are objects for study, not for revivification.”

— Erik Robinson

When I decided to undertake a Bachelor of Classical Studies at ANU, it was the surest I had been about anything in my young life. The Classics are a complex and interesting area of study and research, and with my deep love of Ancient Greek history, the degree basically held me captive. Often when discussing my choice of degree many people cannot reconcile how I, someone who has a Chinese cultural background and identifies as a Woman of Colour, could study a subject area that is typically seen as entrenched in racist ideologies and often trotted out as the basis of ‘Western Civilisation’. Joshua Kam a Malaysian-Chinese Classics student from Michigan, wrote about how Classics appeals to him. As a third-culture kid, he explained how his family “are descendents of Odysseys”, a sentiment that reflects my own family’s journeys and histories. While, like Josh Kam, I believe my interest in Classics has stemmed from my own cultural background, Classics in and of itself has been co-opted into less than favourable circumstances.

Recently, an article penned by Sarah E Bond caused vitriolic stir when she noted that white marble statues were originally painted and may indicate that people from different races had some impact on the Ancient Greek and Roman world. She writes that many marble statues were painted — in colours that I can only describe as gaudy and Vegas-like — but that scholars such as Max Hollein pioneered the idea of “pure, marble-white antiquity”, bringing emphasis to the eugenics-like nature of the terminology. Yet since the eight century BC various ethnic groups of Greeks migrated and colonised areas such as Turkey and Sicily, never mind that much later the Romans went as far as Africa and the Middle East. Bond ends her article with a mention on how the racial makeup of Classicists skews heavily on racial groups that can be classified as ‘white’.

A similar incident occurred when an educational cartoon about Roman Britain featured animated black characters. Much of this criticism was directed towards Professor Mary Beard, and in my opinion, there seemed to be a very gendered theme towards much of this disagreement. That being said, while discussing modern concepts of race in the ancient world is seen as some sort of political agenda of the left, Rebecca Futo Kennedy notes that the Greeks and the Romans had their own sets of words for race and ethnicity. She gives examples such as ethnos, genos, phyla, gens and natio — and unsurprisingly, our own terms, such as ethnicity and nation, came from these Greek and Latin roots. The Romans actively attempted to incorporate those from Syria, Judea and Ethiopia into Roman citizenship. The Athenians at one stage attempted to exclude non-Athenians with Perikles’ Athenian Citizenship Law, which dictated that your mother and father had to be Athenian citizens. Although somewhat ironically Perikles’ own son, by his foreign companion Aspasia, was granted citizenship contravening the legal precedent.

With the rise of groups such as the alt-right, Classics is gradually being co-opted into dangerous territory. After the Trump election, people belonging to the alt-right used terms such as Rubicon and Olympus, in conjunction with Nazi-Era salutes. In addition, well-known alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulos’ Twitter handle was “@nero”. The association of the alt-right with Classics means that much of the backlash against discussing race in the ancient world comes from white men. Donna Zuckerberg’s main concern with Classics is the use of the discipline by white men who believe they are “morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders.” While many Classics scholars are much more liberal than this, there are undeniably scholarly works that can be used to further this agenda. A well-known book by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath, Who Killed Homer, presents a much subtler assertion that ‘political correctness’, such as the dismissal of a Eurocentric conception of Classics as integral to any educational syllabus, is contrary to Ancient Greek wisdom. These are the sort of ideas that greatly concern me. At Stanford University in California there was recent backlash against a push to reintroduce the ‘Western Civilization’ class as a humanities requirement. I think such a class should not be dismissed, but placed within a broader curriculum involving the study of literature, history and philosophy from all over the globe.  Within our own local scope, some were concerned when education minister Christopher Pyne included Latin as one of the language subjects given additional funding, with many seeing such a proposal as extremely outdated. While the notion of Classics as a needed aspect of alt-right ideologies is ever-present, there are ways this view is changing.

If you were to ask me which television show best portrayed ancient Rome, my answer would be a toss up between HBO’s Rome and ITV2’s Plebs. The latter is a modern television show that mixes humour and history and has been described as Ancient Rome meets The Inbetweeners. In Plebs, there is a character named Stylax played by mixed-race actor Joel Fry (Hizdahr zo Loraq in Game of Thrones). The show often shows people of colour as recurring or appearing characters, and even includes people of colour in the background, realistically reflecting the racial makeup of Rome itself. The show often uses music from reggae and first wave ska — genres associated with black musicians.

Moreover, Classics has been adapted for modern productions and many of these are themed by the plights of Women of Colour. Some examples include two productions of Euripides’ Trojan Women: The Women of Owu and Queens of Syria. The former is set in Yorubaland, located in modern Nigeria, and uses the basis of the Trojan Women to tell the tale of tribal conflict. The latter is a production of Trojan Women with Syrian refugee women in Jordan. During the play, they spoke of their own experiences of being exiled from their homeland. There is a documentary based on the play with the same title and interviews the women performers.

It is of my opinion that the push against this alt-right and deeply politicised Classics agenda seems to be led by women. Women are putting their scholarly reputations and personal safety on the line in order to show that studying Classics and diversity are not mutually exclusive. It is Women of Colour using the Classics to tell their own stories, such as the women in Queens of Syria, which demonstrates that Classics can and should be accessible for all. Personally, I chose to write this piece because, as a Woman of Colour who studies Classics, I often feel I have to assure myself of my place in the discipline. This feeling, shared by many, demonstrates that my identity is unmistakeably highly politicised, and I won’t let the discipline I love suffer the same unfortunate fate.