Great paintings, murals, architecture, and statues: the ancient world had all of these and more. We admire and revere the ancients. Even now in the modern world, there are many ties back to the ancient world, affecting the way we see the world and interact with it. Our beliefs and ideals have been derived from our ancestors, and racism and prejudice are one aspect of our lives that we believe we take from the ancient world. Thinking the Greeks and Romans were racist therefore justifies our own racism. We see the statues, paintings, and sculptures that only depict white people. We believe what white scientists and white teachers have told us. From time immemorial race has been around. It has always been a weight on people of color’s shoulders. Racism is a way to create white privilege and supremacy. The world is full of racism, but why is racism connected to the ancient world? How have we assumed things about the Romans because of statues and paintings, and how white-supremacist groups have used the Romans as ways to legitimize their ideas and beliefs.
People are made to think that all Romans were white because the great Roman statues were made of marble or any white material. This is not true; many famous statues and sculptures were of what we call now people of color. These stones were painted, but because of time, the color has been rubbed away. People are more comfortable believing the ancient world was racist, for this makes them believe that they are going forward in stopping racism. To find out 2021 has more racism than 21 AD is upsetting for some. It seems to bring out “white guilt,” something a lot of white people feel after knowing all of the things their ancestors have done. Guilt is not a feeling that many people enjoy. To quench their “white guilt” they create justifying ideals.
Greeks and Romans did not have the same concept of race that is now prominent. They put more importance on where you were born than the color of your skin. Rebecca Futo Kennedy wrote that “One of the things that our ancient sources seem to make clear is that frequently they did not separate biological descent from cultural or “national” identity. Nor should we use ethnicity as a “safe” way to avoid talking about race in antiquity.”1 The ancient world was used once again to justify racism and the escape of racism.
Another thing that people may have assumed showed the race of a statue outside of its color, is its hair. In statues, the hair is either very straight or curly., which is a trait countless white people share. They believe that because the hair is straight or curly it is white. Even if a vase had what seemed to be a black person, many would just say that they used a different glaze, making it seem as if the person was black. This is simply not true; the Greeks and Romans loved using color on their statues. They wanted to show their muses’ dynamic spirit and personality. They would even add hints of silver and gold. They colored their statues with purpose. They even used color to show someone’s gender. Women in ancient Greece were inside and were normally very pale, while men were tan from being outside. Therefore in paintings and vases, the men are dark-colored and the women lighter-colored. This does not represent the actual color of the men and women. Taking conclusions from ancient sculptures that we do not fully understand and using that to create bias and prejudice is illogical.
ost of Rome and Greece were not just what we call white, but people of color. There were people of color in places of power. People assume that everyone in places of power was white. This is not true. Lucius Septimius Severus was named the first African Roman emperor in AD 193 (citation). He expanded the borders of the empire and founded a dynasty. He was known for his militarization of the government and the advancement of civil law. There were also African warriors among the ranks of the Romans. A famous example is the soldiers at the Hadrian wall in the modern-day UK. Battle-tested North Africans who fought for the Romans ran the Hadrian wall. During the reign of Septimius Severus, there were numerous African officers. An idea that there were no people of color in power, many leaders and governments have believed that only white people should be in power since the Roman empire was prosperous and they supposedly had only white commanders, once again rationalizing white power due to false conceptions of the ancient world.
Supremacists and hate groups also use the ancient world for many hate crimes. For example, white supremacist groups use the acronym SPQR. The actual meaning is “Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the Roman people).”3 In the ancient world it was a phrase meant to signify the entirety of Rome, referring to the Roman senate and its people. White supremacists and nationalists have used it as a sign of connecting the “symbol to European racial and cultural purity, idealization of military power and violence, and admiration of Hitler and Nazi ideology.”4 These groups are using a saying to talk about the Roman Empire in a whole to show adoration to Nazis and Hitler. This extreme misuse of the acronym is troubling. SPQR was used on coins when Augustus Caesar wanted to legitimize his honor. His catchphrase was “I’ll make Rome great again.” This is alarmingly similar to a slogan that former president Donald Trump used, “Make America great again.”
White supremacists justify slavery by saying that the ancient Romans practiced it as well. In classics classes, the curriculum likes to whitewash the Romans’ idea of race, making it sound like the Romans enslaved only Africans as America did. They also perpetually act as if every master was nice to their slaves so slavery was okay. We are also taught the ways masters would sell their slaves to the highest bidder, making it sound like the slaves were just servants, who could do whatever they wanted. In many curriculums, schools also like to focus on the fact some slaves were sent free. These freed slaves were called freedmen, but in fact, this seldom happened. Many slaves either were sold off or died as slaves. Another way the ancient world has been used to justify actions.
Groups such as neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and misogynists love ancient Greece and Rome believing that they are their modern-day counterparts. They have latched onto the ancient world trying to legitimize themselves–since ancient Greece and Rome were racist and had slaves, they could too. After all, they were believed to be the peak of civilization. Hate groups believe that the ancient Greeks and Romans were the peak of white people. In pictures of rallies of these hate groups, you can see people wearing ancient Roman helmets and shields. Articles talk about “Spartan and Athenian strictly-controlled reproduction according to some ancient texts included infanticide of disabled babies”5. Hate groups are inspired by these texts and use them as their basis for violence. The ancient world has been used in many different ways but many scientists claim all Romans were what we call white. There are those who say that the Romans were racist and people got the idea of racism from the ancient world, or go even further to claim that even if there were people of color in Rome they had no power. An argument by supremacist groups is that because the greatest empire of all time was white, that means only white people should lead. Supremacist groups use acronyms and phrases to showcase their hatred and use the idea of the white Roman conservative life as the epitome of life. This is all in an attempt to try to authorize white authority. The ancient world has been used for far too long to further hatred and racism. How would the ancient world citizens feel to know they were used to create animosity and malice?