Antiquity for Everyone: How Classics is Misappropriated for Evil Ends

In a response to a recent post on Thomas Jefferson’s enthusiasm for Classical reading, a Twitter follower wrote:

@sentantiq probably helped justify slave ownership too

— imsodden gruit (@impossiblefruit) February 23, 2017

This is the sort of reactive comment which the character limit of Twitter fosters, but the issue here is much deeper and problematic than the 140-character limit can address. In our time, Classics is being threatened by a familiar (but resurgent) enemy: a set of dangerous reactionaries who want to read their own disturbing ideology into the Classics as a form of cultural appropriation; it is thought that Classical precedent confers legitimacy upon their thinking. For that reason, we ought to carefully examine and attempt to understand the nature of this type of cultural appropriation, and Jefferson’s views provide a perfect reference point. The relation of Jefferson’s Classical reading to his views on slavery is not so direct; nor is it true that he used the Classics to justify slavery, considering that he actually argued for eventual abolition. Yet, it is true that Jefferson’s use of Classical references helps to highlight the more racist aspects of his thought. We should consider Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia as a case study in which Jefferson misappropriates Classical models to justify his thought.

Jefferson compares the life of slaves in Augustan Rome to the life of those in America:

We know that among the Romans, about the Augustan age especially, the condition of their slaves was much more deplorable than that of the blacks on the continent of America. The two sexes were confined in separate apartments, because to raise a child cost the master more than to buy one. Cato, for a very restricted indulgence to his slaves in this particular, took from them a certain price. But in this country the slaves multiply as fast as the free inhabitants. Their situation and manners place the commerce between the two sexes almost without restraint. The same Cato, on a principle of oeconomy, always sold his sick and superannuated slaves. He gives it as a standing precept to a master visiting his farm, to sell his old oxen, old wagons, old tools, old and diseased servants, and every thing else become useless. . . . The American slaves cannot enumerate this among the injuries and insults they receive. It was the common practice to expose in the island Esculapius, in the Tyber, diseased slaves, whose cure was like to become tedious. The emperor Claudius, by an edict, gave freedom to such of them as should recover, and first declared that if any person chose to kill rather than expose them, it should be deemed homicide. The exposing them is a crime of which no instance has existed with us; and were it to be followed by death, it would be punished capitally. We are told of a certain Vedius Pollio, who, in the presence of Augustus, would have given a slave as food to his fish, for having broken a glass. With the Romans, the regular method of taking the evidence of their slaves was under torture. Here it has been thought better never to resort to their evidence. When a master was murdered, all his slaves, in the same house, or within hearing, were condemned to death. Here punishment falls on the guilty only, and as precise proof is required against him as against a freeman. Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists. They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their masters’ children. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves. But they were of the race of whites.

Here, Jefferson tries to paint a picture of slave life in Rome which is worse than that of slave life in America, but his comparison is disgusting and absurd. Setting aside the dubious notion that suffering ought to be the subject of abstract comparison, Jefferson’s factual claims about Roman slavery are not wide of the mark. Yet, where Jefferson errs is in minimizing the dreadful nature of slavery in America. Thus, Jefferson’s argument is a form of misappropriation of a Classical model, but we cannot say that his claim was in any real way justified or rooted in his Classical reading. Rather, his argument hinges upon his callous disregard of the suffering of his contemporaries, and not on his reading of Roman history; he is, in other words, misunderstanding his own time, and giving this misunderstanding a veneer of respectability with an almost burdensome load of Classical comparison. His lack of empathy was not founded on his choice of reading, and there is no reason to suppose that he would have been more enlightened or compassionate if he had avoided the Classics.

Further, Jefferson writes:

“Homer tells us it was so 2600 years ago.

‘Jove fix’d it certain, that whatever day
Makes man a slave, takes half his worth away.’

But the slaves of which Homer speaks were whites.”

Much of what Jefferson writes throughout the essay is undeniably racist, though he concludes that emancipation will and should eventually occur. Yet, it would be fallacious to suppose that Jefferson’s racism was caused by his reading in Classical literature. A majority of the nation at the time held a wide range of racist views, but it makes no more sense to ascribe this racism to the prevalent Classical education of the time than it does to ascribe it to medicinal bloodletting or the popularity of powdered wigs. Rather, it should be clear to a serious reader of Classical literature that these thinkers read racism into the Classics. Consider Jefferson’s claim that “the slaves of which Homer speaks were whites.” This is patently absurd. The traditional notion of a “white” person as being, more specifically, of Anglo-Saxon (or at any rate, Northern European) ancestry would likely preclude most of the slaves mentioned in the world which Homer depicts. Many of the slaves would have been taken from various regions in the Mediterranean, and would have possessed varying ethnic backgrounds, and I submit that we have no firm footing in trying to determine the skin color or physical characteristics of any person mentioned in the poems except in passages where these features are explicitly described. Clearly, Jefferson has made an assumption and read this assumption into Homer’s works.

The pattern of selective reading of the Classics is recurrent and widespread. At SententiaeAntiquae, we are guilty of a form of this. Quotes about tyranny seem so well suited to describe the terror we feel regarding Donald Trump, but in truth he has so far been more like Bibulus than Caesar. But we should not ignore the fact that Classics is not the only field which is misappropriated for horrific purposes: everything from arcane academic subjects to the most fashionable popular culture can be excerpted and willfully mangled to justify an agenda. Indeed, even science has throughout the ages been used in an attempt to bolster dangerous racist agendas, from segregation to eugenics programs. Yet, we do not (and should not) then dismiss science as a fundamentally racist pursuit; we should double down on our resistance to racist thought itself, and its tendency to degrade all of human life.

Jefferson grappled with the issue of slavery, and his arguments for gradual emancipation should make it clear that, although he was a racist, he was not necessarily an ardent enthusiast for slavery. He justified his thoughts on this subject by reference to Classical exempla because those formed the basis of his entire education, not because they contain some germ of racist thought. Any educated person of the time would have shared Classical references as a cultural touchstone, and I have little doubt that, regardless of what position a person may have argued for, and regardless of what the topic was, the cache of the argument would have been enhanced by reference to Classical exempla. It is said that the difference between Hamilton’s Federalism and Jefferson’s Republicanism is brought out clearly in an incident in which Jefferson was horrified at Hamilton’s claim that Julius Caesar was the greatest man who ever lived. Here, Caesar served as a common reference point, but each man read into Caesar’s biography his own ideas concerning statecraft. Where Hamilton saw a strong and enlightened central authority, Jefferson saw a disturbing threat to human liberty. As an even more salient example of the use of Classical exempla in the late 18th century, consider Phillis Wheatley, the African American poet contemporary with Jefferson, who wrote in her poem To Maecenas,

The happier Terence all the choir inspir’d,
His soul replenish’d, and his bosom fir’d;
But say, ye Muses, why this partial grace,
To one alone of Afric’s sable race;
From age to age transmitting thus his name
With the finest glory in the rolls of fame?

Many of Phillis Wheatley’s poems are imbued with the Classical spirit, and are very much engaged with a response to Classical models, yet she here employs her Classical knowledge to open a discussion about African achievement throughout history. Where Jefferson drew on Classical exempla to discuss the nature and experience of slavery, Wheatley drew on a Classical exemplum to note the profound influence of one of Antiquity’s most popular African authors. It is this same Terence whom John Adams so forcefully recommends to his son (Letter, Feb 12, 1781):

“Terence is remarkable, for good morals, good taste, and good Latin… His language has simplicity and an elegance that make him proper to be accurately studied as a model.”

Classical literature is particularly susceptible to misappropriation precisely because of its universality and trans-cultural appeal. The literature, history, and exempla of the Classics can hardly be considered exclusively Greek and Italian property, and it would be even more absurd to suggest that the remote peoples of Northern Europe could claim them. Classical Antiquity is a possession for all humans; it is a common cultural artifact which everyone can and should have access to. Indeed, recent work by The HistoryMakers has served to highlight the way in which prominent African American leaders have drawn on Classical education in the fight for social justice. In making the facile observation that Classical references were used in justifying racism, we run the risk of abandoning Antiquity entirely to the unsavory elements who would want to weaponize it for racial and class warfare. To a racist, everything justifies racism; their core ideology should be resisted, and not the exempla by which they attempt to provide a retroactive apologia for their thinking. We should instead look to the Classics for models of how to create a better pluralistic society, and remember the words of Terence: homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. (I am a human, and consider nothing human foreign to me.)


9 thoughts on “Antiquity for Everyone: How Classics is Misappropriated for Evil Ends

    1. I wish I knew how to fix the problem of twitter! Interestingly, it seems like the post is receiving some well-considered responses:

      Nevertheless, the topic is sensitive. A Classicist of color took issue with the apparently uncritical presentation of Jefferson on the earlier “Presidential Advice” post.

      I am proud of my friend and partner Palaiophron for writing such a thoughtful post. We all need to keep thinking and pushing ourselves (our colleagues, our students) to reexamine not just the reception of classical works but our assumptions about their ‘original’ meanings.

  1. Very interesting discussion. I’m struck by the admittedly tangential issue of Jefferson’s actual knowledge of Roman slavery, at least as presented here, which is patchy and a little tendentious even for his time; wholly reliant on Cato for villa slavery, supplemented with a few lurid anecdotes from Suetonius and the like; no hint of Varro, nor or Columella. Where does he get “to raise a child cost the master more than to buy one” from? Maybe that was communis opinio in late C18, but trend in scholarship has been to emphasise importance of home-bred slaves for the maintenance of supply.

    1. Jefferson must have had access to a great library, but I don’t know if he had Varro or Columella. He had a good sense for Latin and Greek, but he was certainly not on the level of the European philologists of the time. US Philology really didn’t catch up for a while longer…

      I do think that this line of inquiry is fruitful for an intellectual history and cultural history. And, if we want to think about Classicism and race, slavery, it certainly must be important that the “Classicism” practiced by 18th century American Statesmen is far from identical with that practiced in the 21st century.

      The problem is, of course, that such inquiries defy the simplistic categories and labels we wish to use. In public, we want to claim a classical education for our forefathers while still distancing ourselves and our disciplines from the choices and values they made which we find repugnant. This requires subtlety and precision–two things not at home in our current public discourse(s)!

  2. Totally true! The hint is always finding the situation that prompted any person in the past to write what they wrote, and how this situation could relate to us now. Classics, in any case, is much more than a set of boring “citata” about morals… it is everyday contemplation! Well written…

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