Classics in Conversation

“Classics in Conversation” is a new bi-weekly article series, in collaboration with the Classical Association of Scotland, exploring some of the most pertinent issues in the discipline today. We’ve invited current and graduate students to respond to topical questions relating to the study of the ancient world in the 21st century.

5. Do Classicists have a duty to censure the appropriation of ancient symbols by white supremacists and how might we educate the general public on their origins? 

As images emerged from the storming of the US Capitol in January of this year, there were a startling number of rioters coopting Graeco-Roman imagery, such as the laurel wreath as an idiomatic symbol of victory, and crude replicas of the Corinthian helmet, seemingly evoking Spartan warriors. Likewise, SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus or ‘the Senate and the People of Rome’) has been appropriated by white nationalist groups as a means of propagating their racist agenda through the misaligned belief that Roman imperialism was the height of white civilization and military power. Of course, Rome’s empire was one built through conquest and enslavement, and Roman citizenship comprised an incredibly ethnically diverse peoples. The obsession of far-right groups with images of warfare not only subverts the ancient context of the iconography used, but perpetrates the notion that the Classical world was one built upon “white” nationalism. Classicists most certainly have a duty to address this issue which can be done at an institutional level through increased Classical reception in the classroom. As for the wider public, I believe making Classics more accessible in general, through engaging events and discussion (of which there are a number of fantastic organisations, such as Classics for All, already doing brilliant work), will allow more individuals to think critically about such news stories and drown out fascist voices. Educating those individuals who uphold such ideals will require much greater work, but we all have a role to play in getting that information out there.

Tristan Craig, 2nd year MA (Hons) Ancient and Medieval History

If Classicists don’t take it upon ourselves to educate people about the misappropriation of ancient Classical symbols, then who will? There are various arguments to be made about how venturing into politics and forms of censure can hurt one’s professional and academic credentials but I believe that take is a form of cowardice. Educating people about the misuse of ancient symbols is can be done tactfully without revealing one’s political beliefs if done impartially in the name of education. Getting the knowledge out in the public arena is where it becomes more challenging. I believe Pharos, the site already dedicated to documenting the use of ancient cultures/symbols by hate groups is a really good resource. It not only educates by documenting history, but it also teaches people how to respectfully educate their peers. Promoting Pharos and other sites like it would be a great place to start. Expanding this education into classrooms is a goal, but currently we as a society, aren’t ready for that.

Lexie Henning, BA Classical Studies, University of Missouri (2018)

Classicists most certainly have a duty to uphold the integrity of classical history, especially when it has been so distorted and used for such vile means. The ideal is to educate people when they are young, so you don’t have to try and reinforce a different concept to an adult when they have had years to formulate their minds, opinions, and beliefs. Educate students on the truth behind these symbols and motifs so they understand the symbols (and how wrongly they are interpreted) when they are young and just starting to form their own opinions of the world. Modern media (discussed below) can play a positive role, if utilized correctly, but educators of ancient history (or any historian), of any level of education, should look at the relevance outside the classroom (the modern connection to students). Take note of when you see these symbols being used improperly and apply these to a lesson (or lessons) in the classroom. It could be a mini-lesson, a bell-ringer, a whatever you want to make it or however big you want to make it but find the relevancy to students and they are more inclined to pay attention and retain the information.

Adam Aderman, 1st year PhD in History, Manchester Metropolitan University

6. Are we guilty of over-romanticising the brutality of the ancient world in popular culture? Does the media do more harm than good in how it fictionalises the classical world?

I believe we do over-romanticise the brutality of the ancient world. The most prominent facet that comes to mind are battles, where we give some description of the battle, followed by the number dead, and then we move on. Sometimes there were thousands of lives lost, but because we are so distant in time to these dead, we just see a number and suddenly, 5,000 dead soldiers are cool and exciting. Additionally, modern media is a double-edged sword; it has certainly helped gain a following of ancient history, but they also reinforce (or can reinforce) negative and racist stereotypes (see the previous question). I think Hollywood needs to be held to a higher standard because so much fictionalization of antiquity happens for entertainment purposes; suddenly the truth (from what surviving evidence we have) is sacrificed for profit. The media could most certainly do better when creating ancient historical accounts, especially regarding docu-dramas (period pieces, etc.). They tend to whitewash, over-dramatize, over-romanticize, and bend information to suit their own stories. I have seen, in more recent years, progressive steps forward to be more historically accurate and tackle the negative stereotypes, but there is still a long way to go.

Adam Aderman

The film industry has done a great deal over the years to bring the ancient world to the big screen through high-budget Hollywood blockbusters, but the way in which they depict it has been incredibly problematic. I will preface this by saying I don’t believe that fictionalising the past is inherently harmful and that many films – most notably, Zack Synder’s adaption of Frank Miller’s 300 – are purposely stylised. However, when this is the only interaction many individuals have with the ancient past, it can lead to a warped perspective of the diversity and complex nature of identity in the ancient world. White washing remains a pressing issue in contemporary media and historical films are no exception (note the predominantly white casting of Exodus: Gods and Kings, Gods of Egypt and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to play Middle Eastern and African characters). Likewise, 300 received strong backlash from the Iranian government for its representation of Xerses and the east/west dichotomy that pervades the film. Whilst warfare was an ever-present aspect of the ancient world, we need to be mindful of how we portray that, particular when we purposely posit ancient civilisations in a manner that is palatable to a white, western audience. Films can be a fantastic entry point into the Classical world but if we take a step back from high-budget action films, perhaps we can find a better balance between the fantastical and the real. This may also remove some of the ammunition from far-right groups who continue to cling to militaristic ideology, far removed from the world they appropriate.

Tristan Craig

In the past, we’ve certainly over-romanticised the ancient world. The idea of the elegant decay of a simple ancient existence isn’t new. We like to think about the ancient world in simpler terms because they didn’t have the technology, education, and troubles that we deal with today. If tv/film only stayed true to historical accuracy, there would be so much infanticide, incest, war, and death that it would probably turn casual observers away from seriously studying history. It’s a delicate balancing act. Entertainment is here to create “edutainment”, which is basically a starting point, meant to draw people into a subject and highlighting things that would interest us. I don’t believe that a highly fictionalized representation of the ancient world in media does more harm than good. While some may cling to a romantic version of the past, contemporary society is well aware of the fallibility of our ancient ancestors. But we need to make sure that media doesn’t cross a line into idolization leading to a rise in a nationalist and propagandized version of revisionist history.

Lexie Henning


Adam Aderman is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University and graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Ancient History.

Tristan Craig (Twitter: @TristanMCraig) is a 2nd year MA (Hons) Ancient and Medieval History student at the University of Edinburgh and Deputy Editor/Secretary of Retrospect Journal.

Lexie Henning (Twitter: @lexie_henning / Instagram: @lexie_henning) graduated from the University of Missouri in 2018 with a BA in Classical Studies. Lexie founded The Ozymandias Project which aims to make Classics more accessible through a bi-monthly podcast and Archaeogaming events (Twitter: @TheOzymandiasP1 / Instagram: @theozymandiasprojectpodcast / Facebook: The Ozymandias Project).

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