Ancient Identities/Modern Politics

This is the final of three lectures I gave  between July 9-13, 2019 as the Onassis Lecturer at the CANE Summer Institute held at Brown University. The theme of the institute was "E Pluribus Unum".  The first lecture (on identities in the ancient Greek world) has been posted previously here. The second lecture (on Athenian anti-immigrant policies and ideas) has been posted previously here.

NOTE: there are parts of each lecture where I either did not script the text and refer to slides or simply ad libbed. As a result, in those locations, I will either post the slides or will link to previous posts that explain the point I was making. 

In the wake of the increased violence fueled by white supremacism over the last year alone, understanding the ways it underpins so much of our everyday lives and assumptions is important. And as classicists, we have played our part in popularizing, perpetuating, and embedding racism into the fabric of the US. This talk examines some of the ways we have done this, even when we don't intend to, by pointing out where those who intend it manage to make their own views the 'norm' or 'mainstream' or seemingly 'neutral'.

Over the last few lectures, I have tried to get us to think about what it meant to be ‘Greek’ in the ancient world and both the ways in which ‘Greekness’ allowed for a wide range of diversity in antiquity, but also how protecting those micro-identities led to policies and practices of discrimination based on prejudice. On the one hand, as an ancient historian, I am interested in trying to reconstruct the most accurate understanding of my subject of study. On the other hand, this matters to me--and should matter to all students of the ancient world--because there have been many modern political claims made upon ancient Greece in the name of modern identities. These modern identities frequently misrepresent-- sometimes unintentionally, but often intentionally--who the ancient Greeks were and what their connection to them may be.

What I want to talk about today as my closing lecture is some of those modern claims made on ancient identities.But, instead of focusing on the most extreme voices, my interest is in looking at those misrepresentations done by fellow academics or as part of mainstream culture.

In my first lecture and in other lectures by speakers and in classrooms at the Institute this week, we have looked at the ways in which the ancient world was a true plurality under the heading of thinking through the phrase e pluribus unum, from many one. We have, in most cases, treated this phrase as an ideal to which we as Americans can and should aspire. Remember our melting pot and salad bowl?

My own talks have discussed Greece from e pluribus plures to ex uno unum wondering what happened when ancient Athens rejected the plurality of Greekness and decided to emphasize and engineer its own exceptionalism. What I want to ask today is how these tensions between plures and unum have functioned in our own modern context and how the ancient world has been shaped by and used by those who would see classics as support for an Athenian-style rejection of the plurality that is our country and our world. We academic classicists have enabled and encouraged this in our own practices.


In the shaping of the discipline that is Classics, we have repeatedly attempted to create an unum out of the variety and diversity that is antiquity, but our discipline has never truly embraced that variety and has instead restricted it. Under the heading of ‘classics’, our modern discipline has narrowed the ancient Mediterranean world to ‘Greek’ and ‘Roman’, constrained it in time between roughly 800 BCE-500 CE (but, who are we kidding, really 200 CE), and elevated Greek and Roman cultures to an alleged 'superiority' over Egyptian, Persian, Judaic, Arabian, Kushite, Indian, Chinese, Armenian, Scyth, and many others. Those peoples appear in our discipline but only as curiosities, as exoticisms, and only in so-called‘non-traditional’ courses and scholarship.

The discipline of classics has also traditionally compressed the varieties of identities, peoples, and cultures of the Greek and Roman worlds themselves under these names of 'Greece' and ‘Rome', limiting our teaching to primarily Athens and to the city of Rome or maybe Italy. It has always struck me how on the literature side, we narrow ‘Greece” from the broad representation of the Greek world found in the so-called ‘archaic’ authors to almost exclusively Athenian voices in our so called ‘classical’ canon and then dismiss much of the variety and vibrancy of what we call the 'Hellenistic' period. We also forget that these labels--Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic--come from judgements made by art historians on the development of sculpture and painting from Greece. They are evolutionary and value judgements--archaic is considered un(der)developed (though they tend to excise Homer as his own ‘period’), ‘classical’ is the best, 'hellenistic' derivative and only ‘Greek-like', impure.

When we apply this to time periods in the history of the ‘Greeks’, we pass value judgments on the world they inhabited--the archaic period was a ‘developing world’ where democracy and the polis were beginning their formation, the ‘classical’ was the polis and democracy supposedly in its purest and best form, while the hellenistc world--the most diverse, the most vibrantly mobile, and with the most literary and artistic experimentation--was deemed inferior, corrupt, impure, with democracy destroyed.

Decades after the so called ’canon wars’ of the 1980s and 1990s, those of us who want to teach and study the ancient world in its infinite variety find our scholarship still often labeled ‘fringe’ or not ‘mainstream’ because it values those texts and places and peoples and approaches that some of our colleagues aren’t familiar or comfortable with or consider 'real' classics (Emily Greenwood gave a wonderful talk on the harms of this at FIEC/CA 2019 and it will hopefully be published soon).

'Classics’ is the only academic discipline that contains a value judgment in its name. We study only the ‘best’ things. And we wonder why we struggle to become an inclusive field and why our colleagues outside of classics look at us sometimes with a bit of side eye.

But we shouldn’t wonder. Because along with only studying the ‘best’ things, classics had traditionally been a discipline that also touted that it only attracted the ‘best’ people and in fact that only ‘the best’ people could be classicists--I have heard my own colleagues at numerous institutions use this language and I ave watched them single out for attention only those whom they deemed 'worthy'. Small liberal arts college (SLAC) departments are some of the worst on this front--(my own department's language in the university catalogue is jarring and I can't do anything to change it at this stage)--where 'best' means mostly ‘white people’ (or white adjacent), and really, white upper-middle class people.

Classical Whiteness

It is a known fact that classics was used as a gatekeeper to higher education against black Americans after emancipation. It was stated unequivocally by numerous leaders in academia and politics well into the 20th century that the ‘black’ mind, like the woman’s, was unable to understand and attain mastery of the classics. DuBois’s life’s work as a classicist was intended in many ways to prove this a lie and he worked to promote classical education to his ‘talented 10th’ so that through this classical education they could gain access to university education and create a professional class to serve the black communities as doctors, lawyers, etc as it became clear after Reconstruction stalled that segregation and not integration was going to be the law of the land.

And yet, in this same period, a period known as ‘Redemption’, in which white southerners reclaimed their legislatures and local governments from black Americans who had made advances under Reconstruction, sought to take their segregationist ways nation wide. They used the classics and ‘the classical’ to help do this by forging a a strong visual link between the ‘classical’ and whiteness.

As Dr. Lyra Monteiro discusses in Ch 4 of her 2012 dissertation, the connection between classics and whiteness was forged early in the US. The use of classically inspired architecture on plantations built into the fabric of the land what were 'white' spaces and which weren't.

This technique of creating white built environments was continued and nationalized (more than it had already been before) through the use of classical architecture at the US World's Expos. The Chicago expo of 1893 was the most important of these. Here, the 'White City' (they weren't even subtle) of relentless neo-classical architecture was contrasted to the Midway housing 'exotic' concessions building and displays of imported and imitated 'foreignness'. I've written about this connection in more detail on my blog, but important to mention is not only the architecture, but also the connections forged between technology/industry with whiteness and the classical. And, importantly, the identification of the classical with modernity.

The juxtapositions in the World's Expos between the classically designed and referential world of Anglo-Europeans and everyone else (presented in stereotyping, 'exotic' side shows and caricatures) made the point that northern Europeans and the US owned the classical. The Nashville Parthenon replica, made for one such expo, links classicism explicitly with the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and whiteness. If the classical was the peak of ancient civilization, then the modern US was the peak of evolution. Although it is a certainty, I am not the only person to wonder if the Sambo caricature isn't derived from or referencing the popular janiform representations of Africans from 5th century Athens.

 The forging of this link between classics and whiteness had consequences both within and without the discipline. Within the discipline, it led to the whitewashing of the ancient Greeks and Romans. They became, as our good friend Bernard Knox so proudly put it:

That the Greeks and Romans would not have any notion of 'whiteness' or even want to consider themselves 'white' (only women, people with diseases or those burned by cold were 'white'), this idea persists and has been a central core of classics since its inception as a discipline. It is a whitewashing of the ancient Mediterranean.

And as part of this whitewashing, not only did our ancient Greeks and Romans become themselves avatars of modern white supremacism, but the discipline itself dismissed as lesser than and irrelevant the interconnected cultures of the ancient Mediterranean and created the narrow field we know today, with its almost exclusive focus on the Greek and Latin languages and canon of select, ‘golden age’ texts.

More important than the loss to the discipline--something we can reverse and change by opening our minds and stretching ourselves out of our comfort zones, by committing to changing our teaching and disciplinary lenses--is the situation of classics as a ‘white’ discipline by positing Greece and Rome at the heart of and foundation of this thing we call ‘western civilization’ that is, for better or worse, a term used to mean white, elite, christian, civilization.

I am not going to go into this in detail--I’ve laid out the pre-WW2 data on this on my blog and if you are interested, please read Alastair Bonnet’s The Idea of the West from 2004. For Classics, the real period of development of this concept and its strong ties to classics takes place in the Cold War. At some point in the future, I will be writing my research up, but later this fall, I should have a guest post on the blog from a German scholar who is writing on the Russian engagement with the concept of ‘western civilization’--it will be quite interesting. I will point to now only as a segue into the next section of the talk to uses of this idea by contemporary politicians and, for better or worse, white nationalist terrorists that connect western civilization and the connection to Greece and Rome to a genetic or hereditary type of heritage. The Pharos website keeps a running tally of these uses.

This is a tricky connection--the idea being that there is something in our DNA that makes those of us of European descent the ‘true’ inheritors of Greek (and to a lesser extent Roman) civilizations. This idea has made its way into mainstream genetics publications and is leading is some ways to a re-emergence of scientific racism that we thought had been at least discredited by the scientific horrors of World War II.

One thing that has become clear in recent years is that there is a bit of an obsession with trying to identify 'who are the ancient Greeks' and to lay claim to direct descent from them. This isn't innocent as it was an obsession of the Nazis and other race scientists. When geneticists do it now, they are linking themselves to a long tradition of conflating culture with .1% of the human genome, with specific physical features, and with white supremacism.


Geneticists have an obsession with ancient Greek DNA. Why not Rome? Maybe its because rome has always been viewed as a true cultural mosaic, which some see as a plus, but others see as a detriment, like those who still consider Tenney Frank's idea on 'race mixture' as the cause for the fall of the western Roman empire (which you can read more about here):

Of course, Frank and his theory cold not be tested back when he wrote his article and everyone, now assuming that the Romans are a ‘mongrel’ people, they aren’t really worth studying in order to find ‘pure’ peoples--which seems to be the goal of some (too many) geneticist. They keep searching for a time and place where they can find a ‘pure’ European or ‘pure’ African or ‘pure’ Asian DNA sequence. As even David Reich, perhaps the most well known geneticist working on aDNA, admits, there is no ‘pure’ DNA anywhere. It is all admixture. I’ll explain why this matters and why the Greeks matter here so much.

BACKGROUND: So, the Human Genome Project went from 1990-2003 and had the goal of mapping the entirety of human DNA through what are called nucleotides of which we all have over 3 billion within the haploid reference genome. The project could not sequence any individual because all individuals have unique combinations of genes, but they were able to make a composite map of all human DNA. With all humans having basically 99.9% of their genes in common (though with some variation in how much if any Neanderthal or Denisovian or whatnot might appear and in infinite combinations), scientists who are interested in trying to understand human physiological differences can focus in on trying to extract meaningful differences, but mostly, scientists have decided that what they want to understand is what the differences can help us make a distinction between someone whose ancestors are from Europe vs. those whose ancestors are from Africa, with a specific emphasis on hair texture and skin color And Greek ancient DNA is a key in many of these studies.

In 2017, a series of studies were published on the DNA of ‘Greeks’. One, perhaps the most well known, was led by Iosif Lazaridis, a geneticist at Harvard and focused on the aDNA of 19 skeletons found in mainland Greece, Crete, and Anatolia, and then compared them with DNA of 30 living Greeks. The lead author of the second study, George Stamatoyannopoulos, also participated in the first.

The Lazaridis study was published in Nature (one of the top journals) and written up in Science, an immensely popular science magazine, with the click-bait title “The Greeks really do have near-mythical origins, ancient DNA reveals”. The authors themselves were a bit more circumspect in their publication, but the Science popularization of the article played to the crowds:

The study emphasized continuities between the Mycenaeans, Minoans, and modern Greeks. The study was criticized by many archaeologists for its small sample size, lack of randomization and for its use of a ‘likelihood’ model of reconstruction when they were unable to get certain information from the samples. Importantly for us, they claim in the paper that they were expecting to find more variation in the genes than they did:

The continuity between the Mycenaeans and living people is “particularly striking given that the Aegean has been a crossroads of civilizations for thousands of years,” says co-author George Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington in Seattle. (Science Aug. 2017).

They ‘expected’ to find more genetic variation, but by careful selection of samples and likelihood modeling, they were able to show it wasn’t. Hmmm.

I offered the study to my own students majoring in biology who were able to point out numerous flaws in the data, including the fact that the samples were carefully selected, they pre-determined what they were looking for and how they would classify it, the small sample size, and the fact that they ‘filled in’ according to their own models data that was unable to be extracted. They also could have done additional tests, like stable isotope analysis on the teeth to try to discover if they bodies they sampled were themselves potentially from the regions other than where they were excavated.

My friend and colleague Dimitri Nakassis, a bronze age archaeologist, wrote up on his own blog a response to this study where he questioned the methodology. Responses to his post and also to other posts of the article on the internet elicited something interesting, which gives us an idea of the political dimensions of such a study within a US context, particularly how such a study can be used to support white supremacism. In each of the responses, they honed in on the fact that, while the 11 bodies from Bronze Age Crete and the 4 bodies from Bronze Age Peloponnese shared almost 70% of the genetic markers they examined (not all of them), there was a range from 4-16% of ‘northern European DNA’ in the 4 bodies from the Peloponnese, while it was non-existent in the 11 Cretan bodies.

 To these white supremacists, this was evidence of the truth of the so-called Dorian Invasion and that the ‘Glory that was Greece’ and the Spartan military machine specifically was of ‘Aryan’ extraction.

The study seems to have been intended to show that modern Greeks were indeed descended from ancient Greeks and that Crete was also Greece. There are nationalistic reasons for wanting such data, but this study, at least, was coy about any such motivations.

The other study, led by Prof. Stamatoyannopoulos, is a bit different and is far more explicit. It’s stated goal is to prove statements by 19th century German historian Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer wrong when he claimed that modern Greeks were NOT descended from the ancient Greeks, but had been replaced by Armenians, Turks, and others in the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. I believe a direct quotation of Fallmeyer is something like “Not the slightest drop of undiluted Hellenic blood flows in the veins of the Christian population of present-day Greece.” Fallmeyer’s sentiment was accompanied by a conviction that northern Europeans were the true inheritors of the ‘Glory that was Greece’, something shared by later people like Madison Grant, author of The Passing of the Great Race, who posited ‘Nordic’ origins for all ancient ‘civilizations’ (Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, etc) which ended, he claimed because of miscegenation with non-Nordics. American eugenicists and the Nazis loved this idea.

So, here is the introduction to the study meant to disprove Falmeyer:

The citations for this introduction come from no scholarship dated after roughly the 1970s and the evidence for the Dorian invasion--yes--the Dorian invasion--is Herodotus. They have not read a single discussion by historians of it. In fact, historians are dismissed as ‘ideological’, while this study, with this framing is ‘objective’ SCIENCE. But look at the language.

As with many a historical myth about the origins of various Greek cultures, this one has a source in Herodotus and was an attempt by mostly German scholars (at first, it seems) to explain the changes in language from non-Hellenic to Hellenic. The mysterious Pelasgians appear as a 'native' substrate of possibly Anatolian origin (except the Athenians, who were indigenous but 'became Greek' by changing languages..maybe..Herodotus is a bit dodgy on this one), while the Dorians--those vigorously masculine Greeks best represented by the Spartans, as you can see from the map above--from a pre-Nazi text--those Dorians came from Germany!

The myth of the Dorian/Aryan/Nordic invasion begins, in many ways, as a failure of methodology, specifically, as a result of historical positivism. Historian Jonathan Hall once described historical positivism as a mode of seeing in "myths of ethnic origins a hazy and refracted recollection of genuine population movements" in the Bronze Age. Variants of these myths were "pathological aberrations from a 'real' historical memory" (Hall, Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity, 41). Unfortunately, these "pathological aberrations" became bound to ideological positions that became linked to political parties and movements and race science.

And now, they are being published as facts in top scientific journals by teams of geneticists who are dismissive of social sciences and humanities, who present their work as silver bullets to solve all the great mysteries of antiquity and who neither do their research, nor have large enough sample sizes to make the grand pronouncements they make.

Why does this matter to us as classicists? It matters because, as archaeologist Susanne Hakenbeck writes in a new article on archeogenetics, many of these studies, far from reading the data neutrally, instead use the data to affirm 19th century racist theories of northern migrations (like the Dorian invasion) as true events of population replacement--in other words, aDNA is being used to write histories that return to models anew that erroneously suggest that all Mediterranean civilizations are the products of European, typically northern European aggression. Even when the archaeology does not support this, SCIENCE is claiming to provide ‘objective’ evidence that ‘speaks for itself’ to support these racist narratives.

And this is exactly what is happening with these studies, which are being popularized so quickly and without context or nuance and which are being published by geneticists with their own political agendas and with no input from archaeologists and historians.  As Hakenbeck’s research shows, the far right nationalist groups, including neo-Nazi groups, are using these studies in their political campaigns and to promote hate and violence on their web platforms. Golden Dawn in Greece, while currently on the outs again in terms of political representation in parliament thanks to the recent election July 7 2019, uses these studies to fuel their own nationalist ends.

Perhaps closer to home, however, these studies are being used by scientists like David Reich to demonstrate mass migrations and replacement of populations through war and violence (something that a few dozen DNA samples simply cannot show). This fuels contemporary fears by white supremacist groups that such ‘replacements’ are real and that ‘race genocide’ is real.

Some of us work on college campuses where white nationalist groups have hung posters either to recruit new members or to impact campus climate an intimidate those who speak out against them.

If you recall anything about the reports of the Charlottesville raly from 2 years ago, the chant being uttered was “Jews will not replace us” and, in the above poster from Daily Stormer, the book ‘The Great Replacement’ is in the hands of the New Zealand killer--the book refers to a 1978 novel of the same name by a French nationalist and is a dystopian fiction about mass immigration of north Africans into France that literally overnight replaces the entire population. Now imagine this book being promoted during the current refugee crisis as not a work of fiction but as a prophecy for the disappearance of ‘white Europe’

And if we think that this is just fringe groups, remember our 'friend' Steve King, who has repeatedly retweeted white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers (and he is not the only one in our Congress who thinks this, just the only one who says it openly):

Another person who also adheres to these views is Victor Davis Hansen, who publishes them under a blog and then talks about them on a podcast called ‘The Classicist”. 

When you put all of these things together, you can see that aDNA studies of the Bronze Age that are searching for the ‘origins’ of the Greeks or other ancient groups in the Mediterranean aren’t innocent or objective. They are part of an ongoing political climate promoted by white supremacism and colonialism and are used to promote fear of diversity, fear of decline. And they are part of the long tradition of centering the classics and the Greeks as the foundation of a ‘white’ 'western’ and ‘christian’ civilization. They try to make that cultural heritage a GENETIC inheritance that only certain people are entitled to. They want to say that some people have 'civilization' in their DNA.


Our discipline was built to exclude. It continues to be used to craft and promote exclusions. I look around this room today and I see a sea of whiteness, just like we see at every conference and still too often in our classrooms. If we want to change that, we have to work for it--it won’t just happen on its own. And that means, making ourselves uncomfortable, studying and working to understand and mitigate our biases and prejudices busting open the canon, being creative in our pedagogies, taking chances with new types of evidence and methods, collaborating with our colleagues outside of our departments and programs, seeing our own teaching as continual opportunities for learning, analyzing the institutions we are part of and seeing where we can push back against the status quo, looking around our classrooms and conferences and not trying to figure out who the ‘real’ classicists are or may be, but truly embracing a ‘classics for all’ mentality and way of acting, and understanding that ‘classics’ doesn’t have to be an ex uno unum--it is and should be an e pluribus unum.