“As long as they were stripping them of their gleaming weapons,
The young men who were the best and the greatest in number were following
Poulydamas and Hektor, they were especially eager to break the wall
And set fire to the ships. They were still struggling standing before the wall
When a bird went over them as they were struggling to cross it,
A high-flying eagle moving its way over the left side of the army
Holding in its talons a huge dark red snake
Still alive, breathing: it had not yet lost its fighting spirit.
For it struck back at the bird who held him in the skin along the chest
As it bent double. And the bird tossed him away to the ground
tortured with pains. It dropped the snake in the middle of the throng
But flew away on the breath of the wind, sounding out in pain.
The Trojans shivered when they saw the winding serpent
Lying there, a sign from Aegis-bearing Zeus.
Then Polydamas stood aside and addressed bold Hektor:
“Hektor, you are always threatening me in the public assemblies for some reason,
Even when I advise well, since it is not ever deemed proper
For some member of the people to advise differently, either in council
Or in war. Instead, we must always increase your strength.
But now I will tell you what seems to me to be best.
Let’s not go to fight the Danaans around their ships.
I think that it will turn out this way, if truly this bird
Came over the Trojans as we struggled to cross the wall,
A high-flying eagle moving its way over the left side of the army
Holding in its talons a huge dark red snake
Still alive. For it dropped it before it could return to its dear home
And did not complete the task of giving it to his children.
In the same way we, if we break through the gates and walls
Of the Achaeans by means of great strength and the Achaeans yield
So too we will not find the same paths in order among the ships.
We will lose many Trojans there as the Achaeans
Strike them down with bronze will defending the ships/
This is how a prophet would interpret, one who clearly understands
In his heart divine signs and one the people obey.”
“For, that which is instilled into young minds will set deep roots, and will not easily be removed by any force afterward.”
Nam quod teneris mentibus insitum est, alte radices mittit, nec facile postea divelli ulla vi potest
Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, XLIX
A few years ago, Amy Pistone emailed me during the aftermath of yet another mass shooting to ask if I knew of anything in ancient Greek literature to respond to this all-too-frequent terror. I threw together a collection of passages which didn’t really get to the heart of the issue: the absolute horror of people suddenly killing scores of others, compounded by the practically criminal failure of our public officials to respond with anything more than stock phrases and empty gestures.
I have spent a lot of my life jousting with depression, death anxiety, and the ups and downs of facing up to (and sometimes failing to meet) the challenges of everyday life. For most of my adult life—and a good portion of my formative years—I found refuge and comfort in books, poetry, music and other forms of narrative art. For the past few decades, Homeric poetry and Greek literature in general have helped me guide my life, if not save it. But no matter how much I comb through the remnants of the past looking for that perfect quotation which will unlock the secrets of the universe, nothing seems to match up to the stupidity, the craven profiteering, and the visceral wrongness of children being gunned down in their schools, families executed in their place of worship, or communities torn apart by sudden and public demonstrations of raw, unforgiving violence.
And then, a few weeks ago, Aislinn Melchior sent me a message asking if I could remember a story of “the last hero…the wrestler who pulls down the building on top of his hometown’s school children.” To be honest, I didn’t know the tale, so I did what one does and I asked #ClassicsTwitter. Within a few hours, someone sent me the first passage I posted yesterday from Pausanias. After some simple searches, I found the others. Here’s the main translation again:
“In the Olympiad before that one they say that Kleomêdês the Astupalaian killed the Epidaurian Hippos while boxing him. When he was charged by the referees with cheating and was deprived of the victory, he went out of his mind with grief and returned to Astupalaia.
There, he attacked a school there which held as many as sixty children and knocked down the pillar which supported the roof. After the roof fell on the children, the citizens threw stones at Kleomêdês and he fled into the Temple of Athena. Inside, he climbed into a chest and closed the lid over him.
The Astupalaians wore themselves out trying to open or break the chest. When they finally broke open the chest and did not find Kleomêdês there dead or alive, they send representatives to Delphi to ask what kind of thing had happened with Kleomêdês. The Pythia is said to have given the oracle that:
Kleomêdês the Astupalaian was the last of the heroes—
Honor him with sacrifices since he is no longer mortal.”
For this reason the Astupalaians have honored Kleomêdês as a hero since that time.
The story is short, simple, and strange. Yet in this brevity and strangeness it engages not just with the central problems of Greek heroism, but it also forces us to think about how narrative functions and to revisit our assumptions about this word hero. The more I have thought about these connections, the more I have come to believe that the story of Kleomêdês has something to say about what forces make a mind capable and compelled to slaughter children. To be honest, I have also been thinking about parts of this for years, in particular about the damage perpetuated by our simplistic idea of the heroic narrative. So, this might take me a few words to get through. But I’m going to try.
The Problem with Heroes: To Suffer and Cause Suffering
“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly: / For many who have been my enemy hate me.”
A starting point is that the story of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is not an exceptional heroic narrative. He flies into a fit of rage when he does not receive the portion of honor he believes his community owes him and then separates himself from that community. Subsequently, he commits an act of violence against an exposed portion of his community in order to gain vengeance for his perceived suffering. Although the community mobilizes against him, he is ultimately recompensed for his lost position through fame. Kleomêdês receives eternal rites as a hero. But—and this is important—the people of Astupalaia record that he is the final one.
While Kleomêdês appears exceptional for that last assertion, the rest of his tale resonates clearly with that of other better known heroes. Both Achilles and Odysseus separate from their communities and commit (or have committed) acts of violence in order to return and gain greater renown than before. Achilles prays for his people to die in the first book of the Iliad; Odysseus slaughters 108 of the suitors upon his return home. Both of them ultimately receive immortal kleos, despite (or perhaps because of) their complex and harmful nature.
It is the simplistic way we talk about heroism rather than anything true about ancient myth and literature that might make us surprised to realize that these two most famous of Homeric heroes could be seen as monsters who murder their own people. But the capacity to suffer or causesuffering is central to the identity of Greek heroes, as Erwin Cook argues well, and central perhaps even to the ambiguity of their names: “Achilles” has been analyzed as “woe for the people” and Odysseus’ named has been folk-etymologized since antiquity as the “hateful one” (who delivers or receives hate). The most heroic hero, Herakles, is also essentially anti-social: he murders his own wife and children and, among his labors, commits many horrors absent any kind of virtue.
When Kleomêdês is called a hero, then, it is not ironic nor is it transgressive. His murdering of children is a regular entry in the heroic CV. The overwhelming force of heroic power is matched by an overweening sense of entitlement and rage at the denial of an expected reward.
The Problem with Stories 1: The Heroic pattern and Metonymic Algorithms
“The first point is that it is not only poets who used myths, but cities and lawmakers did too for the sake of their usefulness, once they noted the native disposition of the story-oriented animal. For humans love to learn; loving stories is a prelude to this. This is why children start by listening and making a common ground in stories.”
Part of what people miss by just reading collections of myth or skimming the Iliad is that early Greek poetry is not just ambivalent about ‘heroes’, it is highly engaged with criticizing conventional heroic qualities. We labor in part with the misunderstanding of what the word hero means. And there is dangerous beneath that cornerstone of every college myth class, “the heroic pattern”, perhaps most well-known popularly in the form of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the heroic journey. The “heroic pattern” is a crass oversimplification of narrative myth and a naive perpetuation of its limitations
Now, this is probably not the right place—or time—to unpack the problems of the heroic pattern completely, but understanding the impact of two of its features influences the way I think about the modern function of myth and storytelling. First, though, the basic definition: the “heroic pattern” is a narrative plot sequence shared by many stories, from Gilgamesh and Herakles, through the Gospel’s Jesus and to more recent characters like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Authors like Joseph Campbell argue that, in a sense, the monomyth is the one true story at the base of all others while more sensitive readers like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (who certainly influenced Campbell) saw the repeated narrative pattern as evidence of human psychology from experience (Freud’s “family drama”) reflected in turn in social patterns and expectations (Jung’s “archetypes”).
A general issue worth noting is that there is slippage here between descriptive and prescriptive treatments of the pattern. What I mean by this is that folklorists who work with similar concepts record the pattern as an observable phenomenon in the world and use the observation as part of a framework of thinking about how the stories work in the world. While psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung may start from the descriptive perspective, their treatment of human beings and communities becomes reductive and prescriptive when the pattern is used to interpret complex situations too narrowly.
The mythic pattern is already implicitly prescriptive as part of the shared narrative material that shapes our lives (or, from a post-modern perspective, discourse); but it is then made doubly prescriptive when culture salesmen like Campbell (and more recent televangelists like J. Peterson) offer it as a panacea. It becomes supercharged as a commodity: there are businesses that specialize in making sure that your movie script follows the monomyth. There is also no shortage of books to help you write the next film version of the Hero’s Journey.
Two fundamental problems that emerge from this are the monomyth’s content and form. Because the heroic pattern is reflective of latent and immanent social relationships and structures, it enforces damaging stereotypes. Women, for example, have little space to act as independent agents in its plot and heteronormative male sexuality is almost always a dominant structuring force even if it is not explicit (of course, there are multiple angles to a feminist critique of the hero’s journey.) So, the heroic pattern is simply harmful to audiences who are incapable of conforming to the external identity of the ‘hero’—it constrains who they think they can be and implicitly communicates that the best option is to work in service of someone else’s narrative.
But even for audiences who can see themselves as subjects of the hero’s journey, nearly all modern versions of it are deficient because the pattern generally says little about what happens after the hero’s return to his community. When I teach ancient myth, I emphasize that post-heroic narratives like those after the Odyssey or the stories of heroes who fail (e.g. Oedipus and Bellerophon) are critical moments in the continuation of the heroic pattern: they illustrate to their audiences that the heroic life ends and transforms. This, rather than the entertainment of an adventure tale, should be the true therapeutic goal of an exploration of the hero’s journey because it shows that there is value in putting up your sword, in joining a community, in having a family, and figuring out how to live a life of meaning once your youthful strength has gone.
Narratives that fail to explore this greater percentage of human life do us a terrible disservice. Ancient Greek myth, by focusing on what Gregory Nagy has called “the unseasonal nature of the hero,” reconciles the exceptional figure to the life cycle and the community through death and its attendant rituals. This is one reason kleos (“fame, glory”) can function as recompense for actual life lost, but the promise of fame itself distorts again the relationship between individuals and the process of life.
So far, these criticisms are about the content of the conventional heroic pattern. One might profitably suggest that by adjusting aspects of the content (say the gender or race of the participants, the emphasis on what happens after heroic deeds), one can preserve the value of the form. But I worry too that the way we talk about the form is damaging. When we talk about the heroic pattern we use, I think, a linguistic metaphor that seems to imply something discrete, concrete, and predictable. Now, while there is a difference between metaphor and reality, when we use metaphors to talk about something as ineffable and mysterious as the functioning of human minds, the metaphor can shape the development of our concepts about the things they are meant to describe.
As a metaphor, a “pattern” connotes something preset and knowable. The discrete steps and stages of the Campbellian popular version simplifies and “dilutes” the complexity of heroic narrative. But the manner of speaking and the way we treat the “pattern” has the added impact of curtailing how we think narrative and myth work. As a metaphor, the “pattern” or staged journey almost too easily slips into the language of programming. But this simplistic metaphor leads to many people thinking that storytelling and human actions are simply an issue of inputting a code and pressing “execute”.
If coding is the right metaphor for narrative—a thing which I highly doubt—it is much better to conceive of a generative and learning algorithm, one with potential codes which emerge depending on the environment and context. Here, I actually find it better to think about narrative in terms of viral DNA. Stories and narrative function much more like a living organism, with vestigial characteristics, combining and recombining and showing different traits under different epigenetic traditions. Similar narrative responses are triggered by similar contexts and environments.
But even this metaphor occludes the most important part of the way narrative and discourse work: these descriptions miss out on the fact that the audience shapes the tale and that the elements of the patterns in the complex engagement between story and audience necessarily contain their opposite. Each story and element of the story is a compact metonym which can be expanded or reduced and which will shift and evolve in response to audiences.
So, while approaches to heroic patterns from folklore through psychoanalysis to the pop-cultural hit-making of the hero’s journey understand that the pattern is attractive to audiences, they fail to acknowledge that the pattern is shaped in response to an audience whose expectations and beliefs have been shaped by the pattern. There is a perilous circuity to this process as the repetition of the pattern accentuates its extremities even while attenuating the possibility that there are other narrative moves to make.
The Problem with Stories 2: The Heroic Pattern and Toxic Masculinity
“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory / than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”
What does this have to do with the tale of Kleomêdês and the end of heroism? When I read his story now, I see both Pausanias’ and Plutarch’s accounts as showing an individual trapped into a series of actions by the stories he has heard and a community struggling to deal with the consequences of its narrative traditions. If we imagine Kleomêdês as a real person, he imitates and performs the roles he has absorbed; if we see him as fictional or a ritualized narrative, he helps the people who tell his stories to explore the the limits of the story he embodies.
Among these options is the very real possibility that ancient Greek communities understood the power of their myths to shape their lives, While this process is not as simple as a choose-your-own-adventure story, it does constrain us to certain modes of action in certain contexts. We all play social roles; our lives and senses of self are shaped by patterned assumptions about what these roles can and should do; when there is a mismatch between our expectations and our experiences, we feel a deep kind of grief, a crisis of belonging, even existential angst.
When the cultural messages we have received have not taught us humility, compromise, or to accept complexity—indeed, when they have formed us instead to expect reward, a clear place in society, and an expression of value through access to sex, adulation, and freedom to do as we wish—we are ill-fit to respond to different contexts and new information. Some people adapt and thrive; the vast majority struggle emotionally. Many fantasize about different possibilities, about breaking the system that disappointed them. A small few turn brutally, unforgivably, and irrevocably nihilistic. And this turn is embedded in heroic narrative itself: if you cannot be the avenging hero or the savior, you can still be the suffering rogue or the tragic king. One city’s savior is another’s slaughtering demon. And when there is no city to save, what remains?
I don’t mean to say anything as simple as mass murder is caused by the stories we tell, whether they appear in movies, books, video games, music etc. But there is a formative and cyclical relationship between the immanent narrative forces in our culture and the extreme actions some members of our culture take. When we flatten out narratives and don’t explore them in their entirety, we refuse to acknowledge the complexity and range of messages conveyed in even the simplest tale. Heroes are about excess: ancient Greek heroes eat excessively, reproduce excessively, suffer excessively, and, when left without recourse, kill to excess.
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell explored the influence of popular narrative on school shootings in the New Yorker (“Thresholds of Violence,” Oct. 19, 2015). In it, he uses the social economist Mark Granovetter’s work on “behavior thresholds” to explore the basic proposal that school shootings over time are akin to behavior in mob violence, that one’s limit or “threshold” for behaving extremely is lowered when surrounded by examples of extreme behavior.
I have found this idea attractive for some time insofar as it avoids pathologizing individuals and instead examines how aggregate individual choices over time can in part be understood as a function of collective identity and the common repository of possible avenues for behavior. In essence, the argument is a statistical one about marginal behavior: marginalized individuals may be more likely to engage in socially destructive behavior; if they can regain some of their lost ‘rightful’ honor or glory through it and they have observed others glorified for it, then their threshold for engaging in such behavior can drop low enough to initiate action. This, in part, helps to explain the tendency in the US for mass killers to be white and male in a certain age group. This violence is an expression of assumed privilege denied.
But I hesitate when thinking through this explanation because it seems just a little too reductive, a modern form of Plato’s insistence that poetry is dangerous because most people are just too dumb to understand that it is allegory and they extract the wrong lesson from it. This is not to say that there is no truth to the proposal that the stories we experience in the world have a paradigmatic effect on what we think is possible—indeed, if we did not grant fame to mass murderers, there would likely be fewer mass murders.
(And Gladwell’s interpretation of Granovetter’s work seems to be something of a leap from the context and intention of the original work. I have read the latter’s articles and find some of the former’s inferences a bit maddening. This is not to say the conclusions are not powerful, but that they might be better supported with discourse analysis from Durkheim on up through post-modern theory.)
The threshold explanation, however, by focusing on some of the problem ignores the complex causes that put people in a situation in which they feel compelled to choose what the commentariat can only explain as the action of the “mentally ill”. There is, I think, an essential connection between the severe individualism that desires fame so desperately and the essential ‘maleness’ of heroes and ‘the heroic pattern’. The term toxic masculinity has emerged over the past few years to describe part of this. But like the term white fragility, its ability to indicate a basically true set of phenomena is countered by the nearly violent emotive response it elicits from the very people who best exhibit its traits.
Both of these terms describe the range of irritations to paroxysms of fear and violence that ensue when the assumed place of honor granted to an individual or group is ‘threatened’ by new social realities. Now, this might seem like a bit of a digression from where I started, but I think that part of this sense of dislocation and an additional piece to the puzzle of the problem of mass killings comes from our cultural discourse about who we are combined with the stories we tell.
We have a general cultural belief in intrinsic, individual identities which remain largely unchanged through life. Even if this belief falls apart when tested, we can see how it is reflected—and projected—in our political/economic focus on individual responsibility and our political/judicial focus on punishment and incarceration over rehabilitation. The late therapist Michael White, following the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, argues that such a view of a person limits our sense of agency in the world: he calls it “internal state psychology” because it assumes that we have a specific and mostly unchanging set of characteristics which lock us into certain courses of action.
Even if this is in some sense ‘true’—or, perhaps, more true than not—the belief in such a model of personhood has deleterious effects because it makes us believe that we—and others—cannot change. This framework is a type of psychological determinism, and it limits our sense of agency in the world and insists that some paths are closed off to us. The assumption of the internal state traps us in a deterministic world view. A hero must have honor and must gain it through extreme behavior; when the promised reward is not provided, a different narrative step slides into place. A paradigmatic act of violence both performs this determinism and gives the actor the illusion of breaking with the system.
While I have written elsewhere about Michael White’s emphasis on developing an “intentional state” psychology through therapy to facilitate positive change and break destructive patterns, the concept of “internal state” psychology also demonstrates how a concrete concept of identity, dependent on external markers of esteem and ‘patterns’ of behavior, is ‘strong’ up until the moment it crumbles completely. It is a house of concrete cards: when it falls, its pieces crush everything around them.
The Last of the Heroes and the end of Toxic Myth
“It is hard for a man to be truly good, built evenly with hands, feet and mind without blame.”
Is it too much to see in the collapsing school at Astyupalaia a metaphor for the elaborate interdependence and ultimately fragility of a community built together through narrative? Perhaps, but the tale of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is one of many set at the join between history and myth to emphasize not just the end of the heroic age but to reiterate its justification. The “hero” is opposed to the community structurally (he fights them) and symbolically (he kills the future). The nameless citizens band together only after realizing the damage he has done—they are not free of blame themselves because he was part of their community. The oracle’s instruction to honor Kleomêdês with sacrifices is a type of expiation and the preservation of the memory of what happened. Where later Christian authors like Origin and Eusebius criticize the account for showing how “pagans” would make anyone into a god, I think that the rites afforded to Kleomêdês are really about preserving the social memory of the damage that heroes can do while also marking out that he was the last one.
So the narrative of Kleomêdês in part functions to put the heroic narrative to bed, to consign it to the past, and to offer its final interpretation. In the two variants we have for the oracular line “the last of the heroes”, we find both the temporal and the spatial aspects of this finality marked out. Pausanias’ temporal hustatos (ὕστατος ἡρώων) plots this experience as coming most recently; Plutarch’s spatial eskhatos (Ἔσχατος ἡρώων) puts the hero at the end of a sequence but far away. And I don’t think there is any accident in the fact that eskhatos can also describe extreme actions and the world of the dead. The oracle marks the heroic age as definitively over and leaves this last of heroes as an unambiguous cautionary tale.
Such a narrative, I suspect, is evidence of the complexity of critical thought endemic to the living performance and reception of myth in the ancient Greek world. As I stated earlier, this implicit critical treatment of what a hero is or may be is part of the point of the Iliad and the Odyssey and no less central to the tragic stage in Athens. Indeed, I think that one would be hard-pressed to find an uncritical examination of heroic figures in most of what we have received from antiquity. (Or even in the better heroic tales we consume today.)
Simplistic lessons, constrained senses of self, lost opportunities for belonging—these are all important aspects of why the heroic pattern is insufficient for the complex lives we live and why someone like Kleomêdês turns to violence against his own people. Even to this day, members of our population are raised with expectations based on incomplete or childish narrative patterns which are sharpened and weaponized by a cultural message that our value is intrinsic, individualistic, and based on what we do alone. When the paradigms we are offered let us be saviors or destroyers, how can we be anything else?
Kleomêdês’ individual response represents the internalization of cultural narratives and beliefs; cultural narratives are the structural and institutional forces that act upon individuals and emerge from them in the aggregate. When the experience of the individual clashes with the structural, it creates crisis. We can engage with narrative patterns and alter them over time. But sequestering the tools of mass violence is the most effective way to preserve lives.
And I want to emphasize here again that this is not about pathologizing individuals. This is not about anyone’s personal mental health. This is a cultural problem of dysfunction and social organization that has neither simple explanation nor simple solution. We need to change the stories we tell about ourselves and each other; we need to educate our community from birth about how our minds work and how narratives can condition us; we need to break the restriction of narrative identities and lives lived imposed by biological gender, sex identity, and physical ability; we need to think about whether or not our social organization allows people to live with meaning and a sense of belonging. But, in the meantime, let’s not build schools on single pillars; let’s not give hopeful heroes weapons of mass murder.
As I explore when I teach myth and have over time come to understand as central to the importance of epic, the ancient Greek narrative and performative context was deeply sensitive to a need for storytelling complexity and richness of thought. The long-term engagement with sophisticated ideas provided by myth and poetry invited audiences into a dialogue of generations and ideas at the center of which was their own creation of narratives about themselves and their world, that blend between the stories they heard and the ones they experienced. I deeply believe that this process was in part therapeutic and that one of the reasons Greek epic is so shifty and challenging is that it comes at the end point of generations wrangling over difficult ideas like how a person is valued in their community, how communities govern themselves, and what makes a life worth living.
Literature in its context—and even outside of it—resists simplistic patterning and reduction and provides deep and ambiguous opportunities for engagement with audiences. It does not offer a simple map of directions or a simplistic path to completion because life itself is not a linear game. While we do have milestone moments which socially mark our moves from one “level” or “stage” of life to another, these are social constructions that give us context as we move through the most dangerous stages of adolescence and transition from one family group into another.
Any narrative that does not help us conceive of what happens next, however, is potentially disastrous. The heroic pattern leaves us no paradigm for how to live life when there are no great challenges, how to navigate the world when we are not the strongest or fastest, how to age, bear children, face weakness, and live with imperfect others without killing them.
The story of Kleomêdês takes the heroic tale to what is actually a logical end: it unmasks its toxic core and may even hint at the damaging nature of kleos (epic “fame”) itself. Kleomêdês’ murder of the children is the destruction of his community and a symbolic attempt to outlive it. The fame he gains through heroic rites are forbidden to others by the Oracle at Delphi, but this doesn’t stop people from trying.
2019 has been the year of the Equity and Diversity Statement in Classics. The American Classical League released two statements this year. The March statement affirmed, “We embrace ‘all people who have an interest in the ancient world from all levels of instruction, stages of life, and backgrounds.’ Then, in May, after criticism of problematic promotional materials, the American Classical League released a statement condemning racist and white supremacist ideas and listing proposed actions to make “Classics for Everyone” a reality.
In April, also in response to criticism that exam questions sanitize slavery and sexual violence, the National Latin Exam Committee also released a statement promising to create “exams with inclusive, affirming questions and passages,” and added, “We are grateful for those who have raised concerns about diversity, inclusion, and equity and welcome future dialogue regarding ways the NLE can support these values.”
Statements must be the starting point for meaningful action, not just reactive public relations moments in response to public criticism. The first meaningful action should be answering a simple question: Who takes Latin? Without this information, it is impossible to implement and measure the effectiveness of solutions for making our field more inclusive and diverse.
Unfortunately, the only information we have on the demographics of our field at the secondary level is the College Board data on Advanced Placement program participation. In 2018, only 6,409 students took the AP Latin exam; in 2019, only 6,117. We know from this data that only 3.5% of students who take the AP Latin exam are black. We also know that this percentage has not changed since 1999. While these data confirms what many of us know to be true about under-representation in Latin, they only tell us who is taking AP Latin. We do not have information about who is taking Latin outside of AP Latin programs.
There is a better source for data. In 2018, 143,952 students of all levels registered for the National Latin Exam. If NLE collected information about race and ethnicity, we would have a much clearer picture of the current state of Latin. The NLE already collects information about the types of schools participating in their exam. Including a separate question for teachers about racial/ethnic enrollment at the school could also provide information about under-representation in the field. Instead, despite statements about diversity, the ACL-sponsored NLE is not including any questions related to race and ethnicity on their 2020 exam.
As professional organizations and Classics programs at post-secondary institutions look towards the Future of Classics, the NLE would provide a valuable service to the field by collecting and publicizing this information. In response to my most recent request, I was told that the NLE Committee is concerned that answering a question about demographics would cause students of color to do poorly on the exam. This phenomenon is called a stereotype threat, and I agree that this is a problem in Classics. According to research by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson, stereotype threat is a condition of “being at risk of confirming, as a self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s social group.”
As a practical solution to this concern, the question could be moved to a pre-registration day or to the end of the exam. Moving the exam question to the end, or refusing to ask the question altogether, does not eliminate stereotype threat in the context of the exam or the field as a whole. Which scenario would trigger more anxiety about prejudice and stereotypes: Answering a question about one’s identity or surveying the testing room as the only person of color in a nearly all-white space? Steele and Aronson affirm that the stress of being the “sole representative of a social category” can inhibit memory during academic tasks.
There are many ways to mitigate and even eliminate stereotype threat that do not involve a ban on questions related to race and ethnicity on exams. For example, according to 2014 research from Toni Schmader and William Hall, increasing diversity can reduce stereotype threat. They wrote, “The impact of broader representation in educational and organizational environments is that group-based stereotypes begin to break down.” Ideally, a Latin student should be able to indicate a minority race or ethnicity on an NLE demographic question and feel pride instead of anxiety. Data will not make this scenario a reality, but it will make it possible to set goals with measurable outcomes.
The NLE’s refusal to collect data in the name of marginalized students does not protect these students; rather, it perpetuates systemic injustice by hiding under-representation in the field. Who benefits from not collecting data? Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project of UCLA explained in a book chapter on the importance of data, “Those in power may fear the consequences of data and probably are not prepared to take action to alleviate group problems because data and tools for the assessment of progress are essential parts of serious reform strategies… Denial of problems and refusal to collect or publish data on sensitive issues are typical responses of those wanting to preserve the status quo.” Not collecting data is a deliberate, political decision to maintain the status quo.
As long as the composition of the field is a secret, field-level conversations about diversity and will be theoretical at best and opportunistic at worst. With data, genuine commitment to equity and diversity can become measurable results.
Calls to Action:
The NLE should collect demographic data on the 2020 exam, and publicize that data in its 2020 report. If the answer sheet has been set, these data can be collected on a supplemental sheet for paper test-takers and can be added to the computer-based exam for other test-takers.
As a sponsor of the NLE, the ACL should encourage the NLE to collect and release this data as a service to the field.
The ACL should also continue their own efforts to “gather information about the demographics of Latin and Greek students nationwide,” as they wrote in their May 2019 statement.
Professional associations that seek to foster classical studies throughout the country and through the collegiate level (e.g. SCS, CAMWS) should encourage and support the efforts of the NLE and use their data to help support diversity, equity, and inclusion in education, outreach, and publication.
Teachers should collect data on their own programs and take steps to make their classrooms more inclusive if they do not mirror the demographics of their schools.
This looks like it has jumped to a proverb in Modern Greek which attributes it to Thucydides and changes the person of the verb, rendering it. “you sing while your homes are burning.” [«Των οικιών ημών εμπιπραμένων, ημείς άδομεν»]. I retweeted it earlier today thinking it did not sound much like the ancient historian, but just had to check for it.
So, I think this qualifies on my rating scale as Delphian Graffiti Fake: It has antiquity, but has been reassigned for authority in a new context. I mean, really, who wants to cite Aesop and his animals when we have the gravity of Thucydides. And, let’s be honest, this is a good line for any age, but especially apt for ours.
“I have composed this work about unbelievable things because rather gullible people believe everything that is said because they are unfamiliar with wisdom or knowledge—but those who are naturally sharper and concerned with many things disbelieve that anything like these things happened at all.
It seems to be that everything which has been narrated happened—for names do not develop on their own when no story exists about them, instead the fact is there first and then a story develops later—but however many shapes and notions are described and existed in the past but do not exist now, these sorts of things never existed at all. For if anything existed at some point in the past, then it also exists now and will again in the future.
And I am always praising the authors Melissos and Lamiskos of Samos who say “What there was in the beginning exists now and will be. But the poets and the storytellers twisted what happened to more unbelievable and amazing things for the sake of surprising people. But I know that if these things couldn’t have happened at all they would not be stories.”
Dimonisos, the Halkedonian island, took its name from Dimonisos, the first one who worked there; the place has mines of steel and malachite. The best from this mine commands prices comparable with gold; for it is a drug for the eyes. There is also copper to be dived for, two fathoms in the depth of the sea; from there is made the statue in the ancient temple of Apollo in Sicyon, and also those in Pheneus, called from yellow-copper. On them there’s an inscription: “Heracles, son of Amphitryon, dedicated these on capturing Elis.” He captured it under the guidance of a woman, whose father Augeas he had killed, in accordance with the oracle. Those who dig for copper become very able-sighted, and those who have no eyelashes grow them; therefore doctors also use the blossom of copper and Phrygian ash for the eyes.
Pseudo-Aristotle, de Mirabilibus Auscultationibus, 58 (Loeb)
A recent post on the blog, discussed at length (once again) the efforts of decolonization in the field of Classics, a conversation that, though not as widespread as we would like, has occupied some of us for a while. There is an ongoing debate on the use of Western civilization and its relationship to Classics—why is an area study of a rather small part of the ancient world even called classical? Is it about class?—that has indeed traveled far this year, all the way to the darkest corners of the alt-web.
But one of the main caveats in this complex, longer-than-a single-life task, has been in my opinion, the heavy reliance on Anglo-Saxon sources and discourse; I pointed this out to Rebecca Futo Kennedy about her blog post on the history of Western civ, and more recently, to that post on this blog. There’s a wealth of sources in other European languages that we can turn to, in order to understand better the symbolic violence of the Western historical discourse. So, on this occasion I want to turn your attention to an “imperialist other”, a territory (and today a national state) outside of the Western world, but yet at its very borders and part of the geography of the ancient world, to further complicate the relationship between westernization, classical culture and imperialism.
In the Turkish Republic (1923-present), classical culture never played the same kind of pivotal role that it plays in European public life, but its emergence in the early days of the republic (and subsequent eclipse) provides an idea of the depth of interactions between modernization, westernization, archaeology, classical culture and nationalism that shaped the world between the world wars.
As the Turkish Republic emerged from a War of Independence in the course of which the Christian minorities of Anatolia (including its Greek speakers, dating back to the archaic period) were forcibly deported or murdered with the nodding approval of the Western powers wishing to draw a new map of the post-Ottoman Middle East (Muslims, on the other direction, were also murdered and deported in a series of population exchanges between Turkey and Greece), the Greek presence in Anatolia came to an abrupt end. At the same time, however, that the young republic was looking West and not to the “Middle East” (considered backward, ‘Arab’, Islamic) in order to disavow its Ottoman heritage. Modernization is in full force for Turkey to join the community of European nations, and many reforms in the field of education, language and heritage take place. Soon we will find out what Classics has to do with this.
In what follows I will share some anecdotes, documents and sources that are more or less scattered, as the research is still very preliminary, and since Classics and Turkish modern history (not exactly my field) are not necessarily contiguous, I am venturing here into unknown territory; but it will be enough to give an idea of a process that needs to be studied more closely (I wonder for example about the modern reception of Classics in Israel, or the Arab world). I apologize in advance for my incomplete ideas.
As a resident of the Princes Islands, Istanbul’s most remote neighborhood in the Marmara Sea, a group of nine islands known to be inhabited by Greek-speaking population since at least the 4th century BCE (attested in a pseudo-Aristotle), and still one of the very last pockets of a ghostly Greek presence in Anatolia, it has become almost a matter of necessity to dig out these submerged histories, to see if they can shed some light on the absurdities of the present. As the ‘Rums’—the Romans or Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire—were being driven out (see the novel ‘Farewell, Anatolia!’ by Dido Sotiriou, a moving but by no means objective account of this period), Turks would travel far back in history, seeking for a new mythology once the owl of Minerva had flown away.
Greek during the Ottoman Empire
It is traditionally argued that the end of the Byzantine Empire translated into a death sentence for Greek culture in the Near East, but this was hardly the case. As many historical studies show, though Greeks were a minority, they were ubiquitous throughout the new empire, and adapted rapidly to the sloppy, chaotic and often inefficient Ottoman rule.
We don’t know so much about the Greek educational institutions of the early Ottoman empire, but some schools are thought to have transitioned from one rule to another and survived, and the Phanar Greek School, for example, was founded in 1454. A number of Greek libraries were founded under Ottoman rule, but most remarkable was the library of the Holy Trinity monastery of Halki (our island, known in Turkish as Heybeliada) founded by Metrophanes III in the early 16th century with the donation of 300 books, to be found today in the library of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A French research project is centered on the history of the library and a critical edition of the manuscripts of the library has been published in French just last month. The Greek scholarship of this long period is rich and vibrant, and most literature of importance written in Greek in this period was written outside of Greece: Istanbul, Venice, Alexandria, Smyrna.
Knowledge of Ottoman would be handy here, but we know from the writer and translator Yasmine Seale’s piece on the reception and translation of Homer in Turkey that the first translation of the Iliad into Ottoman Turkish was done in 1886 by Naim Frashëri. A relatively recent text on the history of classical philology in Turkey (Turkish) puts us in the context of what took place in Istanbul University (founded in 1453) in the 19th century: With the reforms of 1869, arrived in the university courses in Greek, Latin, archaeology, numismatics and Roman law, and then followed by more offerings in Greek and Latin literature, mythology and archaeology in 1874.
This wasn’t haphazard: As the colonial powers began their journey into the collapsing empire through technology and education, German professors of classics arrived in Istanbul University at the same time that authorized European excavations in all the Ottoman lands would begin a frenzy of looting and exporting that not only would enable some of the most groundbreaking discoveries in Near Eastern studies, but would also solidify the modern Western museum, where vast holdings from the region still sit today. The redistribution as appropriation began with the past, and then expanded to the denizens of the present.
The Turkish History Thesis and the Early Republic
The early history of the Turkish Republic presents a picture of confusion. Being a late comer in a world of (already fading) nation states, it was necessary to produce not only a myth that could unify them but also a grand(iose) narrative that would smooth out any gaps, and it is here that archaeology proves useful. As Turkish scholar Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir argues, “archaeological knowledge was used to create citizens out of subjects of the fallen Ottoman Empire. […] Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic, the intelligentsia of this newly formed Turkish nation embarked on a quest to discover its ancient history.”
This discovery, known as the Turkish History Thesis and the basis of official historiographical ideology, would of course inevitably lead back to the Hittites: “According to the thesis, the Turks were believed to be the direct ancestors of the Hittites and the Sumerians, and were also thought to have influenced native peoples living in the Aegean Basin, this contributing significantly to the development of Greek civilization. This theory allowed the Turks to claim to be the legitimate heirs (and indeed, practically the progenitors) of all civilizations that had existed previously on the soil of the new Turkish Republic.” (Tanyeri-Erdemir)
It would be of course impossible to travel back into the 2nd millennium BCE without a fair amount of conspiracy. Pan-Turanism, appears in the 19th century as a theory, largely discredited, that all Turkic and Uralic peoples descend from a pre-historic common ancestor in Turkestan, who in the modified republican version, migrated to Anatolia in the 2nd millennium. The typology is interesting because of a detail highlighted by Tanyeri-Erdemir: Between the first and second Turkish historical congress (attended by Atatürk) there’s a shift in mood and audience, from nationalistic archaeology to professional archaeology. In the years between these meetings, there was also a language congress during which Turkish linguists presented the Sun-Language Theory, with the thesis that many languages descended from Turkish after a series of migrations from Central Asia, and their mythical proto-language was severely criticized by the international audience.
The relationship with the Turkish History Thesis is here crystal clear, and though the focus moved to archaeology’s modernization, the discourse had already penetrated the Turkish historiographical consciousness. The thesis of the Altaic languages, encompassing Turkic, Mongolian and Manchu-Tungus, has also been discredited since then.
Another Turkish scholar, Can Erimtan, has written an incredible account (and I strongly advise you to read all of it) of the propaganda tract “Pontus Meselesi” (1922), by Ağaoğlu Ahmet Bey, a Turkish politician and publicist of Azeri background, dealing with the (argument against) establishment of a Greek state in the Pontus region, combined with nationalist propaganda about the grand narrative of the Turkish presence in Anatolia, as follows: “[Anatolia] has been the Turk’s home country, the Turk’s homeland for thousands of years. […] As a matter of fact, the Turks did not arrive in Anatolia with Ertugrul Gazi or even with those who constituted the Seljuk governments. The Turkish race has been present in Anatolia since the oldest and most unknown of times. As has been illustrated by history the first inhabitants of Anatolia were Turanians.”
There’s so much one would like to say here. Archaeology is deeply embedded in the political geography of Turkey, but the readings are currently ambiguous. There’s still a large apparatus of scholarship on Near Eastern studies in the Turkish language, particularly in Hittite. Nazif Aydin published in 2017 a Hammurabi lexicon and a book by Assyriologist Muazzez İlmiye Çığ, “Ataturk and the Sumerians”, was published as late as 2012.
Classical Philology in Turkey
The nationalist narrative obviously couldn’t easily disassociate between Classical Greece, the Greece of Anatolia and the newly emptied out and newly mythical Anatolia. According to Bedia Dirimiş‘s text (Turkish) on the history of classical philology in Istanbul University, Classics is defined as such: “The main purpose of classical philology is Ancient Greek and Roman civilization, paleography, grammar and rhetoric. On the basis of reinterpreting ancient texts from a linguistic and literary point of view, there is a perfect reconstruction of these texts.”
Written only in 2009, this reveals the European bias of the discipline, not only as an apparatus of knowledge, but one strictly separated from the historical continuity of Anatolia. In her account, classical philology as a department appears in Turkey with the university reform of 1933, overseen by Atatürk himself (just like the history and linguistics conference, he’s always at the helm of historiographical ideology), after his first visit on January 15, 1930. Here the young republic’s leader reveals the extent to which the history of the region had been permeated by the question of Anatolia’s past. Atatürk asked a question (recorded in the writings of Mehmet Uysal, 1981): Why is it important to study classical philology in Turkey?
After he wasn’t satisfied with the answer, he asked a different question: Who are the first people of the Aegean, the bearers of the Aegean civilization? Fazil Nazmi Bey (probably a teacher in the department) answered the question with a legend. Atatürk replied: “History is based on the findings of archaeology, paleography, and philology, not myths. I think history shows that the first Aegean people, the bearers of the Aegean civilization came from Anatolia to the Aegean islands.”
With this, the agenda for classical philology in Turkey was set, so that Dirimiş reports in her brief history that as late as 2005, in an academic conference, a professor confirmed this thesis by means of philological and paleographic evidence. And here comes the bomb: “Since the Tanzimat, we have adopted Western civilization as the basis of humanism, human beings at the center of the world, rather than merely imitating the discipline of classical philology.” It has been a long way from pre-historic Turan, to humanism. The humanism of the Enlightenment that whitewashed the ancient world, and provided ample legal justification for the plunder of the earth, so that all universal treasures are kept in one place, for all the universals to see, except when you’re not universal enough.
It is also hard to assess the larger meaning of civilization in a country such as Turkey, living in the no-longer-and-not-yet of globalization, and adopting a postcolonial identity while at the same time remaining an expansionist state, actively engaged in soft power and economic colonization. The depoliticization of the Greek tradition (and the Romans, almost accidentally) is only matched by the hyper-politicization of remote antiquity, from a time when Hittite hadn’t been more fully deciphered, therefore it was possible to make all kind of questionable speculations.
The classical philology, however, that Dirimiş posits as “an education that provides an awareness of the process of spiritual evolution through its history”, is however no longer a part of the grand narrative of the republic. In what follows in her history, there’s a long list of professors, from the first German appointees (including Jews who sought refuge in Turkey during the war and later returned to Europe; this is also discussed in Seale‘s account) through the later Turkification of the department as they received training from earlier teachers. Seale also speaks about Azra Erhat, an early republican translator of Homer, whose life seems fascinating and about whom I haven’t been able to dig anything but vague references. It is also interesting to notice that at least one academic employed by Ankara University was also an instructor of Latin at the Atatürk Lise (high school) during the early republic but I have no evidence at the moment of when this began or ended, or whether it also took place in other public high schools.
Decolonization of Classical Greek in Turkey
A question needs to be posed before it can be answered. Broadly speaking, Turkish academia is not thinking about decolonization of Classics. Still, there are some interesting examples of decolonization practices happening outside of the academia. The Theological School of Halki, an Orthodox seminary shut down by the Turkish state in 1970s (this has been long disputed and is a frequent topic of Turkish-Greek relations) but it still houses the library founded by Metrophanes III (although the original 300 manuscripts are elsewhere in Istanbul), that is open to researchers and contains thousands of volumes in philosophy, history and theology, mostly in Greek but also in other languages.
Despite the enforced closure, the building (located also in Heybeliada) hosts events and academic conferences regularly. The Greek-language publishing house Istos, founded in 2012 in Istanbul (as the local Greek newspaper was disappearing) and the first Greek-language publisher in Turkey in half a century, publishes books in Greek and Turkish, including history books dealing with the history of Greeks in Anatolia and books aimed for a younger audience introducing them to classical Greek literature in Turkish. Recently Istos published an English translation of Skarlatios Byzantios 19th century book, “Constantinople”, topographical, historical and archaeological description of the city.
Greek-Armenian artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, herself an islander, has been engaged in decolonization throughout her practice. In her work, largely informed by Classical and Byzantine eras, she has used visual compelling storytelling, iconography, and deep memory-time and traces, to parse fragile moments in the history of the region and reveal the continuity between text and image, past and present, in different contexts that go beyond the boundaries of the city: an aqueduct in Naples, a cave in Athens, or bringing metaphorically the city of Bergama to an exhibition space Berlin, questioning the Pergamon museum, engaged in extended contemporary readings of Greek (and other languages) across eras.
In an exhibition from 2014, “The Land Across the Blind”, the artist creates a magical journey between the Princes Islands—traditionally places of exile— and the San Lazzaro degli Armeni in Venice (another island), traveling between centuries of displacements. The land across the blind is Byzantion, the city founded by Byzas of Megara, lying across from Khalkedon, the place that Persian general Megabazos is recorded to have said that they had to be blind to settle there: “Must we not be blind not to see this? This is the land across the blind. This place that we see every day is the point at which Byzas begins to see!” (Buyuktasciyan)
The Greek-Armenian artist is also responsible for the programming of the Galata Greek Primary School in the central district of Beyoglu, a building now empty as the student population disappeared already decades ago, now being used as cultural institution hosting exhibitions and cultural events; a last attempt to keep alive the faint memory of the long Greek presence in Istanbul. Most recently, Buyuktasciyan opened an exhibition at the IFA Gallerie in Berlin, “Neither on the Ground nor in the Sky”, making reference to the mosaic of an Alexandrine parakeet from Pergamon, held at the museum in Berlin. In the exhibition, the artist created a historical bridge between different historical periods, from the famous Library of Pergamon once at the Acropolis, to the final exile of the Anatolian Greeks. As a part of the public program of the exhibition I gave a lecture/performance in April in Berlin, during which I read poetry of Seferis in both Modern Greek and English, in reference to ruins and the life of stones.
Classical culture does have its representatives in Turkey, for example the very active department of Classics at Istanbul University regularly hosting events and talks, the Twitter account of a young classics lecturer, Cengiz Cevik, tweeting in Turkish about classical literature and ancient philosophy, or the Ancient Greek/Latin recitation competition held at Koc University. All of the above of course deeply embedded in the paradigm of white European humanism. The cultural programming of Türkiye Bankasi, includes a series devoted to translations of classical literature into Turkish, but with a very small pool of translators and a large yearly output, it still remains to be seen if the quality matches the expectations.
And the future isn’t quite looking bright. As the Turkish state turns more and more erratic and isolationist, recently the use of Greek or “Rum” as an insult has reappeared in public life in light of the convoluted Istanbul election, as the opposition candidate has been labelled a Pontus Greek in a propaganda effort to smear his name. A journey through the country’s provincial archaeological museums reveals the dismal picture of the current state of antiquities (where there’s any left, that is), and the neglect of Turkey’s Byzantine and Early Modern Greek heritage, crumbling in front of your eyes, like the Greek Orthodox Orphanage on the island of Büyükada, the largest wood structure in Europe and now at risk of collapse. The most apt metaphor I could find is that of a ruined ruin, based on a fragment of a poem by Seferis:
These stones that sink into the years, how far will they
drag me with them?
The sea, the sea, who can ever drain it dry?(*)
G. Seferis, Mythistorima, XX. (*) the poet translates into Modern Greek line 958 of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, spoken to Clytemnestra as she lures her husband to death. (R. Beaton, 2016)
Αυτές οι πέτρες που βουλιάζουν μέσα χρόνια ως που
θα με παρασύρουν;
Τη θάλασσα τη θάλασσα, ποιος θα μπορέσει να την εξαν-
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based on the Princes Islands of Istanbul. He is interested in the Greek heritage of the Asia Minor and the relationship between (pseudo)archaeology and nationalism in the Eastern Mediterranean. He’s also tweeting about Classics, Byzantium, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.
The people I just listed and the many others who work alongside them face conflict on multiple sides. There is the fight of the field against this racist appropriation; but there is also a fight for the field that I think we are still trying to make sense of. We are constrained both by the disciplines we trained in and the way the history of these disciplines is entwined with structural and institutional racism.
Oh, boy. Do we need another post on this topic? And—this is certainly a fair question—do we need another post on this topic from me? I don’t work specifically on race in the modern world or antiquity. I don’t have any specialized academic training apart from a handful of undergraduate courses and professional training over the years. The fact is, it is really easy for me not to write this.
But, like many of us, I do teach students who see the world differently than I do; and I do train students in disciplines that are steeped in historical problems. Furthermore, I am in the position of trying to lead people who do this with me. I also somehow have helped create a space where some things might be heard. For each of these reasons, I think it is irresponsible not to engage with these issues and not to examine how deeply they go.
“Are you actually saying that describing certain odors as foul is misogynistic? and You are a tenured professor? hahahahhahahhaha!
btw, How is your quickly collapsing civilization at the hands of a swelling muslim horde going? At least when it’s all razed to smouldering embers and muslim men are raping, impregnating or beheading your wives and daughters you can have the satisfaction of saying you weren’t racist or a misogynist.”
Now, this is a typical troll-technique in an attempt to elicit an aggressive response: first, belittle and mock the credentials of the addressee; second, cut to the chase and try to inspire fear by painting a picture of the cultural apocalypse to come. I am pretty good at not taking the bait of the first move, because, hey, sometimes it is surprising that I am a professor and tenured—not only because I will never shake off the old imposter syndrome, but also because I have known plenty of smarter and better people who for some reason did not make it at every level. For the second, well, all I said was the truth: a good part of my family is Muslim. It is pretty hard to fear a murderous, rapacious horde, when you’ve shared their tables, prayed alongside them, and love them.
“He commits a second crime, who is not ashamed of his first”
geminat peccatum, quem delicti non pudet Publilius Syrus, Sent. G11
“Your introduction sounds like you are in favour of the ongoing white genocide – bizarre from someone who would appear to admire white culture and civlization. Or perhaps you are a Jewish Supremacist? Personally I’m with Apion, Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, Manetho, Cicero, Juvenal, Horace etc – letting Jews control the discourse is never a good thing.”
(I am going to sidestep the anti-Semitism here except to say that the comment is clearly made by someone deeply indoctrinated in hate. This is repulsive but unsurprising. Indeed, I have been the target of anti-Semitic comments online on several occasions. I suspect this is because of where I teach. I block Nazis as soon as they announce themselves.)
This was not the last time I was accused of being in favor of white genocide (I have also been called a race traitor). The thing is, well, complicated. First, we can say that white genocide is an insane piece of nonsense sourced locally in South Africa and embraced by certifiable nutballs in Europe, Australia and the United States, as charted out in Harper’s.
“We call those studies ‘liberal’ which are worthy of a free person”
Liberalia igitur studia vocamus, quae sunt homine libero digna, Vergerio de ing. Mor. 23
So, if one were to insist to me that there is a white race—and not a bunch of people with various degrees of comparatively paler skin who come from a variety of different linguistic and religious groups but largely speak dialects of English in the US, UK, and Australia—I would probably be in favor of ending the concept because it exists as a weapon of exclusion. This, in such deranged logic, makes me a race traitor. (Among other things, of course: my family is multiracial).
Now, it may seem like there is only a twisted path from the destructive and demeaning construction of whiteness and our problems with Classics, but let me get back to the point. It has become de rigeur for ‘intellectuals’ with certain affinities who rave about the rise of ‘identity politics’ and post-modernism to lament the collapse of Classical Education and the loss of some kind of shared culture. This concept of a ‘shared culture’ is as chimerical as whiteness. But it is no less damaging.
Indeed, when I wrote a thread in response to Roger Kimball’s paint-by-numbers indictment of the modern academy, our account was unfollowed by someone who felt we were insufficiently championing “our” culture.
My friend, this cultured response is not innocent; it may be ignorant, but it remains an expression of an ethnonationalism that is merely a reflex of white supremacy. (It is also absurd: no one invents a culture. (1) I cannot see how it is ever logical to claim any credit for actions performed by others before you were born. (2) And if you claim the credits, you also owe the debts.) When one person frets over threats to “our” culture, another chants “you will not replace us” with a burning tiki torch.
“For it is not easy to take a false belief from them, not even if someone should refute it completely”
οὐ γάρ ἐστι ῥᾴδιον τούτων ἀφελέσθαι τὴν δόξαν, οὐδ’ ἂν πάνυ τις ἐξελέγχῃ, Dio Chrysostom Orat. 11
There are many kinds of exclusionary approaches. Some are clearly racist (ethnonationalists so proudly wave their black, white and red banners). Others are intellectually decorous, but amount to the same. When Erik exposed the counterfeit claims of modern conservative intellectualism, one respondent chortled (if one can describe a tweet that way) and offered up the example of T.S. Eliot.
When my colleague emailed me, rather than brag about all the smart and insightful people I know who are leading the fight against this racist nonsense, I sputtered, and meandered, talking about how much more there is to do in recognizing that exclusion and, yes, racism, have been central to the disciplines we call Classics not just for a few generations, but for most of the history of the discipline.
Here’s the thing. This is not just about misappropriation. This is about the nature and history of the field itself. Yes, we need to stand against the use of antiquity for hateful and destructive ends; but we also need to work to examine how our discipline has been shaped by these forces. As the kids say, racism is a feature not a bug of Classics as a field. And this gets straight to a conversation I have been having with myself and others since I posted about my myth class earlier in the year: How do you decolonize something that is has developed hand-in-glove with essential exclusionary, colonialist, and racist discourse?
(I am avoiding here the claim that that the material treated by Classical studies is necessarily racist. Much of it is ideological driven and used for racist ends, but I do think we need to be careful to separate material from use.)
“Humanity thinks only about temporary seeds, / Its pledge is nothing more than the shadow of smoke”
Already, I know heads are spinning, but let me just sketch out without supporting evidence the areas of inquiry available to explore how exclusionism has shaped our field and how and when this went from ideology to bigotry and violence. For ease, I will break it into stages:
Pre-Archaic Greece to Hellenistic Period: The material preserved by most forces communicates Aristocratic values with a strong structural misogyny. Ableism is assumed. Much of the early material is, indeed, plurivocal, but the process of selection by later, elitist editors, exacerbates the nature of our evidence. Post-Persian wars the dichotomy of Greek and Barbarian develops. Almost no representation of women and lower classes. Mass enslavement.
Hellenistic period: Less stuff about barbarians! But even more of a skew toward elite culture and the literary remains of a few traditions from Greece proper. Poetry and oral culture did not perish, but it was not preserved to the same extent our already canonized tragedy, lyric, and epic were. Voices of women, lower classes, and non-Greek groups were largely excluded from the record keeping at this time. Flirtation with trans-linguistic cosmopolitanism. Mass Enslavement.
Roman Period: Willful occlusion of pre-Roman and non-Roman cultural groups; adoption of a Hellenistic veneer; Primarily recorded voices are those of male aristocrats. Some use Latin; some use Greek. People can become Roman by speaking Latin and Greek. Growth of empire means even greater occlusion of local and diverse perspectives. Mass enslavement.
Early Christian Period: Burgeoning of anti-Semitism. Perpetuation of much of the Hellenistic canon. Erasure of pagan cultures. Breaking of the Empire into Greek and Roman sides. Roman side preserved Latin Culture; Greek Side preserved Greek culture. Continued ableism. Misogyny. Enslavement.
Medieval Period: Even before crusaders sacked Byzantium, the largely Roman Catholic histories and focus from Rome (and wherever the Papacy moved) discredited, dehumanized, and dislocated the contributions of “easterners” (this, despite the fact that most people who have studied the time period would likely prefer to live in Byzantium to Rome). Christian readings and tending of the canon altered our tradition even more; most intellectual training in Western Europe during this period was theological in focus. As Stephanie Frampton has taught me, the term Classici emerges in the Medieval period to mark off scholars of a certain Class or Rank. This is, in part, about aesthetic judgment; but it is also a continuation of the process of selection and exclusion that began in the Hellenistic Period. Our field’s title, Classical Studies, is therefore implicitly—if not explicitly—exclusionary.
This period also saw the steady narrowing of whose perspective and contribution on Classical Studies is valued: non-Christians (e.g. Muslims, Jews, and even those farther afield) have had their scholarly histories expunged. This continued into the modern era in Europe where Protestants in the North (and England) undervalued and marginalized Catholics.
Rebirth of Philology: From Luther’s theses to the translation of the King James Bible and the religious conflicts prior to the Enlightenment, the seeds of Philology were sewn. Biblical and Classical philology—which first influenced each other in Hellenistic libraries like the one at Alexandria—were odd step-siblings united by basic assumptions about the search for authority and truth and the perfectability of the word of God by man. Anti-Semitism, explicit and not, excluded many voices from these conversations; a majority of the scholars who worked on texts and traditions were upper class; almost all were men; almost all were ‘white’ in the modern, unreflective sense. Mass enslavement in the US and British Empire. Classical ideas and philosophy are used to defend and advocate for colonialism, slavery, and genocide.
German Philhellenism: The rise of European nationalism saw many different types of identities emerge, but one of the more consequential was the German one. Among the intellectual class, there is a deep and confounding correspondence between German national pride and scholarly Philhellenism. Most Classicists acknowledge that our very concept of our field today owes much to 18th Century German Altertumswissenschaft, but few of us as readily acknowledge that one of the central concepts—the uniqueness of the Greeks and their language—was the method by which that very uniqueness could be claimed as a heritage for Germans. The impact of this is clear in German philosophy and in Nazi-adjacent authors like Martin Heidegger.
“Indeed, ignorance is a kind of weakness, but the detestation of knowledge is the sign of a depraved will.”
nescire siquidem infirmitatis est, scientiam vero detestari, pravae voluntatis Hugo St. Victor, Didascalion, Preface 1
There is more to be said about the rise of Classicism in the US and UK following German norms, but I will leave that for others. It is fairly safe to say that the majority of the voices within Classics complaining about the opening up of the field hew to ‘regimens’ and ‘standards’ developed prior to WWII.
The way we train our students, the languages we think are important, the books we think we should read, and the arguments we think are worth making are all shaped in some way by the intellectual and disciplinary prejudices we have acquired over a thousand years. Now, we can take a certain pride in claiming a heritage that is so old, but here again, the credit must be accounted with the debt.
There will be many objections to this periodization, but that is part of the point, it is an invitation to a discussion. But we still live with many of the consequences in our scholarship. For instance, in N. G Wilson’s From Byzantium to Italy—which represents what most Classicists seem to think happened during the Renaissance—the author spends a precious few pages talking about the work of Byzantine scholars. (Although, as has been pointed out to me, Wilson dedicates considerable space to Byzantine scholars in another book. The separation, which was likely not his choice, represents the way most people in Classics think about the transmission of ancient culture.)
The story that is typically told about the Renaissance is usually of how Italian scholars “rediscovered Greece”. This is a patent falsehood. Byzantine scholars from before the 6th century advanced the work of the Hellenistic period to a point not rivalled until after the Enlightenment (even if then). But northern European scholars denigrate and marginalize their contributions to this day (much as in the English speaking world we pretty much ignore the scholarship of modern Greeks.) Such designed ‘oversight’ emerges in every history of Classical Scholarship (Pfeiffer and Sandys are the worst for this). By continuing to tell this story, we reinforce an erroneous notion that centers Rome and Northern Europe as the inheritors of some virtuous past.
“For one who is falling cannot lift others; one who is ignorant cannot teach”
But, really, the entire notion of the “Greek Genius” or the “Greek Miracle” is built on a willful racist denial of the influence of Ancient Near Eastern peoples on Greece (and others) and rooted in an ignorance of the deep cultural and trading networks that connected the Ancient Mediterranean. Diogenes Laertius can claim that Greek philosophy came from Egypt; we ignore him as a naïve mythologos, while we reserve our most forceful mobilization for the Western de-centering work ofBlack Athena. Few people have the expertise to move from Hittites and Hurrians to Gilgamesh and Egyptians. Even when we can get them together, we still have evidence largely of upper classes. There is new work being done on the Bronze Age all over the Mediterranean, but our disciplinary and institutional boundaries have trouble funding and housing the scholars who do it.
And where we draw disciplinary boundaries is only part of the problem. Our field is still demonstrably hostile to women and people of color. Our professorships and placements in top PhD programs still go predominantly to people of the highest classes. Our journals still publish mostly work from white men.
Now, please do not misunderstand me, historians and archaeologists over the past century have used a range of tools to recuperate the voices and experiences of non-elites in Ancient Greece and Rome, but the impact of the evidence they generate is constrained by the conventions and assumptions of the fields they try to change.
The voices of fear and protest that worry over the loss of “our culture” are mostly unaware of what a fantastic confabulation “our culture” is. Instead of worrying about what we risk, we should celebrate what is to be gained from the admission of different voices. In brief, our understanding of the past has been transformed over the past few generations by women’s voices and by those less mutilated by heteronormative culture. Historians from different classes and backgrounds have looked for evidence of past peoples whose lives were never even imagined. Scholars of varied abilities and perspectives on gender and sexuality have helped us understand that the stories we received about the Ancient World were wrong. But there is more work to be done: consider how much of digital classics material is actual accessible? How many of our conferences and conference panels are hostile to women, non-binary scholars, and those of different abilities?
“So, I did not want to write what the unlearned could not understand or what the learned would not care to.”
itaque ea nolui scribere quae nec indocti intellegere possent nec docti legere curaren, Cicero Academica 1.4
A few years back another internet troll told me I was not a real Classicist because a real classicist™ wants to emulate the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Others have called me out for dedicated my life to something I clearly hate. This is, as with most internet trollery, unrefined horseshit. What an impoverished definition of love one must have to think that you can only appreciate something you think is perfect? I have spent the past 20 years of my life reading, learning, and teaching Homer and Ancient Greek out of love and enchantment, but not with blind eye to the cruelty and the pain these things can represent and still effect in the world.
To study the past—to study the humanities—is to engage in inquiry about what it means to be human. To love the human race does not mean we need to deny its imperfections—to me it means that we learn the contours of our weakness as much as our strength so we may help with one and support the other. If I am not a Classicist because I do not emulate the Classical world, perhaps I can be a humanist because I aemulate it in the strictest Latin sense—I strive with it, I struggle to understand it, and I wear myself out trying to improve it.
This is what we need to do in our field. We need to root out and understand what has shaped us and improve upon it for the generations to come.
A Few Updates:
In response to Dr. Ben Cartlidge’s very reasonable response on twitter, I softened the language about N. G. Wilson’s work on Byzantine scholarship. I unfairly used him as a straw man and may have misrepresented his work.
I received a great email from Dr. Lara Fabian who noted that much of what I have written is conditioned by Anglo-American chauvinism and isolationism and, as she rightly points out, is evidence of a type of privilege of English-language scholarship. She has some fascinating and enlightening things to say about the development of Classical Scholarship in Russia and I think I have persuaded her to write some blog posts.
If anyone has responses or work that can help correct/adjust/improve this conversation, please do let me know.
More evidence of my cultural blindspots and fascinating avenues for investigation:
I'm personally working on Turkey & scholarship on Classics (& Near East, Hittites part of national mythology) after 1930s since Turkey is an imperialist other. Classics was meant to connect Turks to "European past" but not to modern Greeks who had just been massacred. @sentantiq