In August 2017, TV news reports were filled with images of far-right, white nationalist protesters marching through Charlottesville, Virginia. This was the so-called “Unite the Right Rally”, called to oppose the taking down of a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee.


Crowds of white supremacists marched through the streets, carrying torches and chanting “White lives matter” and “You will not replace us”. The next day they attacked counter-protesters. One murdered an anti-fascist demonstrator, Heather Heyer, by running her over in his car.

In January 2021, history seemed to repeat itself as a political demonstration with white nationalist elements in the United States again turned violent. This time, a crowd of Donald Trump supporters, arguably encouraged by the outgoing president himself, attempted to storm the Federal United States Capitol to disrupt the counting of Electoral College votes to confirm Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential election. The Congress session was suspended when rioters entered the building; politicians were locked down in offices for hours. Five people died and more than 100 were injured. It is alleged that some among the crowd aimed to assassinate the US vice-president, Mike Pence.

One parallel between these two spectacles of political violence may have eluded non-specialists. Alongside other white supremacist flags and symbols, many among the far-right demonstrators in both episodes chose to advertise their allegiance to racist and ethnonationalist values by brandishing classical insignia. A poster the organisers of “Unite the Right” produced to advertise their rally included SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus), an abbreviation associated with the Roman republic and empire but also enthusiastically revived by Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Meanwhile, a headline speaker at the rally – who subsequently ran for election to the United States Senate – goes by the name “Augustus Sol Invictus”.

To these symbols the Capitol insurrectionists added Roman costumes, Corinthian helmets and flags bearing the Greek inscription “ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ” (“come and take them”) – words supposedly spoken by the Spartan king Leonidas at the battle of Thermopylae, in response to the Persian demand that his 300 soldiers surrender their weapons. One protester even carried an image of Trump’s head superimposed onto the body of Maximus from the film Gladiator, urging Trump to copy Julius Caesar and “Cross the Rubicon” – that is, to overthrow the republic.

One banner urged Donald Trump to copy Julius Caesar and “Cross the Rubicon” – that is, to overthrow the American republic

White nationalists and neo-Fascists like those who marched in Charlottesville and Washington clearly draw inspiration from the 20th-century history of Fascist and National Socialist appropriations of Greek and Roman imagery. Adolf Hitler’s delight in the Discobolos, an iconic Greco-Roman sculpture of a discus-thrower, is well documented, while Mussolini’s regime revived the imagery of the Roman fasces (a symbol depicting a bound bundle of wooden rods and an axe) and engraved SPQR on public buildings.

But the attachment of racist thought to the classics is not just a matter of superficial symbolism; nor is it confined to the most obvious and overt, extreme, even terrorist, groups. The Pharos project, a website that tracks and contests the use of Greek and Roman material by far-right hate groups, has uncovered a thriving online community of far-right “thought leaders” who engage in detailed, pseudo-scholarly debates over questions such as the colour of Achilles’ hair as described in the Iliad, the myth of a Dorian or Aryan invasion of the Mediterranean from the north, or whether the fall of the Roman empire can indeed be attributed to immigration.

Above all, such groups are motivated by the desire to vindicate a false image of the ancient Greeks and Romans as a “white race”, who occupied the territory of Europe continuously from ancient times and whose innate, biological and psychological characteristics laid the ground for their allegedly superior culture and their natural right to dominate others.

Within these groups, a false image of the Greek and Roman world is being deployed to lay the groundwork for a politics of overt race hate. But this image of the ancient world as a white space is not confined to the fringes – and it is certainly not just a US phenomenon.

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Similar dynamics to those at work in Charlottesville were evident this side of the Atlantic in a furore over a children’s cartoon, which also came to a head in August 2017. In December 2016, the BBC had published a short, animated film on YouTube as the latest in a series of resources on “The Story of Britain”, created to support the National Curriculum in history. Titled “Life in Roman Britain”, the cartoon narrated the story of a young Roman boy, Quintus, who loses, then recovers, his father’s focale, or military scarf.

The furore arose not because of this seemingly anodyne plotline, but because of how the family was portrayed. For, while Quintus’s mother was depicted as light-skinned enough to be racially indeterminate, both he and his father – a Roman army commander – were dark-skinned Africans.

The image of a prosperous, black family with lighter-skinned household slaves prompted a public backlash. Reactions ranged from scorn to outright hostility. One prominent online figure on the far right, as well as ordinary members of the public, accused the BBC of rewriting history to serve a politically correct agenda.

There is nothing at all implausible about the cartoon’s depiction of an African commander in the Roman army. Writing tablets and inscriptions recovered from Vindolanda, a Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall, show that the soldiers stationed there hailed not just from Gaul and Spain, but also from north-west Africa and Syria, while the studies of mitochondrial DNA and dental isotopes from burials confirm that the inhabitants of Roman Britain included high-status individuals of African descent.

It’s also correct that the ancient Greek and Roman world was a multi-ethnic space. The resistance to this depiction of a Romano-British family was nevertheless so strong that when the Cambridge historian Mary Beard observed on social media that the cartoon’s depiction was perfectly possible, her comments were met with open derision.

The denial and anger that met attempts, by Beard and other experts, to assert the truth about the multi-ethnic character of Roman Britain revealed an investment to an image of the past as a white space and white possession that has affinities with the picture promoted by far-right hate groups. Public reactions to the cartoon, and to efforts at expert commentary, suggest that the problem is not just one of ignorance of the truth about the Greek and Roman worlds, but also emotional attachment to a false image of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous “white” European past. To respond to this by attempting simply to portray “the facts” about Roman Britain is to miss the point.

To understand properly what is at stake in such episodes it is necessary to examine the processes of historical myth-making that led to this false image being created, and the needs – emotional, social and political – it continues to serve today.

You will search in vain for evidence that the ancient Romans and Greeks considered themselves a “white race” to be distinguished on the basis of skin colour

I’ve already noted that the Roman empire was multi-ethnic in character. By the second century AD it stretched from Hispania (Spain) in the west to Mesopotamia in the east, encompassing all the coastal regions of the Mediterranean, Egypt and Judea. Alexander the Great’s conquests in Bactria had led to Greek communities settling as far east as modern-day Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

These were lands connected by conquest and subjugation as well as trade and diplomacy, and the Greeks and Romans certainly engaged in ethnic stereotyping of other peoples. But you will search in vain in their literary, historical and ethnographic writings for evidence that they considered themselves a “white race” to be distinguished from others on the basis of skin colour.

Material and visual sources tell the same story: figural representations from the Roman period, whether we think of Italian frescoes or Egyptian mummy portraits, show a variety of skin tones in individuals of elite status.

So, if not in the ancient world, when did the theory of racial difference in terms of “black” and “white” skin first emerge? It’s a complex issue, and a full account would need to retrace how ethnic associations were built upon notions of black and white indicating misfortune and good fortune, sin and innocence, that have roots in antiquity and the Middle Ages. One particularly important context is, however, the European colonisation of the Americas from the late 15th century, when the system of plantation slavery brought about a stratification of population among colour lines.

It is in British colonial Barbados that the first substantial evidence for the codification of this form of racial difference emerges, when the House of Assembly passed a pair of laws in 1661 that set out different legal provisions for the regulation of two groups of people. The first group was “servants” – indentured bondspeople, usually of English, Scottish or Irish ancestry, working out time-limited periods of servitude. The second was “Negroes” and “Indians” – enslaved Africans and Indigenous people, whose servitude endured in perpetuity (even extending to their children) and who had no recourse to law.

In addition to establishing different regimes of control and punishment for “Christians” and “Negros”, the Barbados codes introduced a bounty for anyone who caught and punished (by whipping) a runaway slave. This legislation opened up a social and legal divide between enslaved black people and their indentured white counterparts who worked alongside them on plantations, incentivising the latter to act in solidarity with the planter class. These legal codes were adopted, with adaptations, in the legislation of other British colonies, such as Jamaica. It was here that the Servant Act of 1681 first replaced the term “Christian” – used in Barbados to describe the free, master class – with the non-religious descriptor “white ”.

In constructing an intellectual infrastructure to support this notion of racialised difference, European and American thinkers turned to the classical tradition. Particularly useful to this end was Aristotle, whose definition of the good as eudaimonia (“happiness”) is one fundamental source for the “pursuit of happiness” when it was cited as one of three inalienable rights in the United States Declaration of Independence.

Thomas Jefferson, third American president, slave owner and author of this phrase, is invoked approvingly by some classicists today for his eloquent defence of a liberal education centred around Greek, Latin and ancient history as the ideal way to exercise and stretch the mental and moral powers of free citizens.

In the same chapter of Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) devoted to these constitutional provisions, Jefferson proposes that enslaved Africans should be emancipated, deported and replaced by white settlers, since “the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or other race”.

Marble and alabaster bust of Aristotle
American slavers used the writings of Aristotle to justify the bondage of black people (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini via Getty Images)

Jefferson’s mention of “the real distinctions which nature has made” hints at a distinction outlined by Aristotle in one of his canonical works. In the first book of his Politics, the revered fourth-century BC philosopher asserted that slavery was an institution that existed “by nature”, since nature (physis) has distinguished humankind into ruler or master (despotes) and slave (doulos).

Aristotle admitted that circumstances such as the taking of prisoners of war might result in those who possess innate nobility (eugeneia) being enslaved. He was also troubled by the impossibility of distinguishing “natural” slaves from “natural” masters by physical signs. But these equivocations did not prevent pro-slavery advocates in the antebellum United States from invoking his authority for a racialised distinction between the free and the enslaved.

Aristotle’s definition of a slave as “a piece of property possessing a soul” – and his arguments about the justice of enslaving those whose reasoning faculties were, allegedly, by nature deficient – provided American planters with a conveniently authoritative justification for the institution of chattel slavery.

The doctrine of the “physical and moral” causes, as Jefferson phrased it, that distinguished black and white people played a fundamental role in classical art theory and the study of art history in the 18th century. Among the supposed physical and behavioural traits that distinguished those of European and those of African descent, he singled out the “flowing hair” and “more elegant symmetry of form” of white people as indications of their superiority. Black people were characterised by, besides skin colour, “a very strong and disagreeable odour”, a greater tolerance of heat and of hard labour, and reflective, rational and imaginative capacities judged to be deficient by comparison with those of their white counterparts.

Such comparisons, the stock-in-trade of natural history of the time, had also been applied in the study of classical art history to furnish explanations of the alleged superiority of ancient Greek culture over that of other peoples. In the writings of the 18th-century archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the supposed cultural and intellectual achievements of different ancient peoples are attributed to a complicated mixture of environmental, social and intellectual characteristics, and correlated with behavioural and physical characteristics, including the shape of the faces and eyes.

In the “Greek” profile of heads represented on ancient coins, as well as some of the most famous extant Greco-Roman statues, Winckelmann saw an example of the highest ideal of humanity, casting physical beauty as a reflection or echo of a civilisational superiority. Here is an attempt, literally, to read mental, intellectual and moral capacities from a face.

Winckelmann’s analyses of art and the cultural suppositions that underlay them were taken up and developed by the proponents of fully fledged “scientific” racism of the 19th century. The Edinburgh surgeon Robert Knox incorporated analysis of Greek sculpture into his popular travelling lecture series, in which he propounded a hierarchy of European racial types, with the ancient Greeks and Saxons at the top and the “Russ” (roughly Slavic peoples inhabiting areas of Russia and the Balkans) at the bottom.

Knox’s arguments relied on a combination of ethnographic reporting, visual analysis of material culture and of facial/head shape, and even exhibited non-European people as living props to his lectures. Apparent in his lectures, too, was a troubling tendency to interpret political conflicts between different groups in racial terms, treating the nationalist struggle in Ireland, or the colonisation of Africa, as ineliminable racial conflicts between “Saxons” and lesser races, which can only end in one race exterminating the other.

Knox’s ideas were contested publicly by critics in his own time. Today we can easily recognise them as the progenitors of genocidal racial thought, but they entered the mainstream of European thinking and remain a potent combination. White supremacist groups sometimes appeal directly to these traditions of scholarship.

Echoes of pseudoscientific racial thinking can also still be caught in some people’s self-description as “Caucasian” – a term coined by the anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752–1840) to define the skull and facial shape of Europeans, whom he considered the “most handsome and becoming” of humankind. They are also evident in concerns about racial and cultural mixing, the claim that the “fall” of the
Roman empire was attributable to immigration, or the notion of fifth-century Athens being the site of a “Greek miracle” – a society that, thanks to its sublime art and commitment to democracy, witnessed a political and cultural flowering that laid the foundations for a continuous “western civilisation”.

Few scholars working in classics and ancient history today would profess these doctrines in their own research and writings. But we are sometimes more acquiescent than we ought to be in the face of their circulation in public culture, fearing perhaps that counteracting the longstanding veneration of the Greek and Roman past will weaken our subject’s popularity.

However, these false ideas have serious real-world consequences. While presenting the Greek and Roman past in its full complexity will always be insufficient to counter hate, it is the least part of our responsibility as historians to do so.

Katherine Harloe is a professor of classics at the University of Reading. You can listen to her BBC Radio 4 documentary Detoxifying the Classics at BBC Sounds


This content first appeared in the September 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine