And so we come to it again. The periodic turning of the wheel wherein some academic-with-an-agenda decides that Classical Studies Must Go. It’s happened before, it shall no doubt happen again in due time. But what interests me is the reasoning being advanced this time around. You see, the ‘problem’ for Classics is its perceived ‘Whiteness’. And all that that entails.
What they mean by this is that there’s no ‘space’ for non-white faces and voices within the major canon of the Classics – except as adversaries, occasional villains, or rather literal chattels. Or, where this is not the case, there’s just little presence for these non-white groups all up.
And you know, I have some sympathy for that view. Nobody likes being reduced down to the occasional two-dimensional ‘stock filler’ caricatures of somebody else’s story, where they’re present at all. Although that doesn’t change the fact that we are unlikely to see too terribly much representation for the Chinese (for instance) amidst the canon of Classical Studies in primary text format.
It would be simple enough to suggest the obvious: “if you don’t like the fact that your particular shade of ancestors aren’t really represented within ancient Greek nor Roman history, culture, literature, architecture, etc. … maybe you would be less discomforted to instead study their equivalent spheres and your own more immediately relevant heritage instead?”
But I don’t think that’s going to satisfy anybody. Not least because, if we get right down to it, there’s a whole suite of immensely cool stuff in Classics that you really don’t have to be related to either the original enactors of those cultures nor their much more recent co-opters (and more upon that in a moment), to be able to get some enjoyment or some inspiration or guidance from.
But you can hear that kind of justification for why Classics must stay from most anywhere else – and an extensive list of the various ways in which Classical-origin conceptry has helped to seriously build and continue to inform the modern world, likewise. That is not my purpose in writing here today.
Rather, it’s to take another look at this “Whiteness” business within the Classical paradigm – and to show how these things really have been turned upon their head by everybody (not just the current crop of outrage-merchants) involved.
Now, at its core, “Whiteness” is an illusory thing. It has no intrinsic existence. It’s a socially mediated cultural construct that has seriously permeable and ever in flux boundaries. Classical Athenians and Romans are, apparently, “Whiteness” incarnate. Modern Athenians and Roman Italians are, depending upon how ‘proper’ your Old-Timey Racism, possibly not. [I disagree with this view, of course – but that is partially because I don’t think that ‘White’ is a race, but DO think that ‘Indo-European’ is one; and make jokes about how if you are being proper about such things, an Iranian is ‘white’ but a Finn isn’t. But I digress] Swedes, per Benjamin Franklin, were “Swarthy”, and there was quite a long-running judicial argument in the United States over whether various Afghan, Iranian, and Indian persons were ‘white’ in the eyes of their law [much of the time – they were. Up until the final court case upon the matter, the US Supreme Court decision in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which effectively had the Supreme Court Justices acknowledging that the evidence presented by Captain Thind, a US Army veteran who’d served in World War One, was for the purposes of science indeed ‘white’ … but that they didn’t care about the science, so in their eyes he was not].
Whiteness, therefore, is in the eyes of just about everybody, a tacit declaration that somebody or something is part of the culturo-civilizational “In-Group”. Non-Whiteness, by contrast, is what is outside of, and other to this ‘in-group’ ; and of course there is quite a broad ‘grey area’ in between the two wherein at certain times or in certain eyes, something may be one thing … and at other times or in other perspectives, it may be quite the Other. Those examples around Italians and Greeks (and, for that matter, the oft-blond Polish et co) being ‘non-White’ in various WASP eyes, are classic (if not Classical) exemplars for this ‘grey zone’ in action.
So … having established that what we’re meaning by ‘Whiteness’ appears to be the standing on the in-side of this In-Group / Out-Group distinction … this therefore leads us to consider just how that lense may be applied to the peoples of Classical antiquity. And who’s ‘In’ (and therefore ‘White’) versus ‘Out’ (and therefore ‘Non-White’) way back then – and thusly, for the purposes of the field’s modern representational metrics.
And that’s where things get, I think, rather interesting.
For you see – most of the people that are being meant, today, when one says “White”, and speaks of “Whiteness” in the academic realm … they are not the people descended directly (for the most part) from the Classical civilizations of old. No, they are people who are of Germanic stock, Celtic stock. They may indeed be the people whose own more immediately proximate ancestors of the past two to three hundred years or so made a big deal about being the ‘Inheritors of Rome’ or ‘Intellectual Heirs of Athens’ … but during the Classical Age, what we find is that these groupings are NOT the In-Group. Quite the contrary – they are the Out-Groups. The Barbarians of the Hinterland. Stock-tropes in the popular imagination of the day who have strange customs, strange manners of uncivilized dress and personal grooming (I mean really – Trousers? They’ll never catch on!) , iconically mockable accents (“Baah! Baaaaah!”), and may be easily referenced in political rhetoric as the incipient, looming threat to the centers of power and civilization ( … and you know what ? Those references might be right! Celts had sacked Rome once before, and Germanic tribes caused the mysterious disappearance of three Legions in Teutoburg as but the most famous of their many exploits in these regards ).
And, to put further point to it – these ‘outgroup’ populations also have that rather frequently encountered characteristic of the ‘Non-White’ in academic discourse: they wind up Colonized People; with all the loss of not only political and economic sovereignty (as well as life!) which that entails, but also the compulsory reshaping of customs, culture, and traditions that that engenders. [It should be noted, of course, that not ALL Celtic nor Germanic populations wound up going thus – beyond Hadrian’s Wall, and out into the mists of Germania where Legions now feared to tread … the indomitable Barbarians too ‘savage’ to be corralled, civilized, nor conquered, still lived their ‘outgroup’ ways).
Although it must be said, the tables rather turn in some of the high Classical Greek conceptry – various texts detailing the Persian Wars, for instance. There, there are a rather large quotient of prominent figures who are ‘out-group’, and who would probably even meet the modern academic definition for ‘people of colour’ as well (although that, too, is a seriously moving target dependent upon the writer and the needs of the situation). Except the major thrust of them constitute an armed, well-organized and quite literally imperialist effort looking to colonize the Greeks as they have already colonized and subjugated just about everywhere else. As Zizek pointed out – this reconstrues some of the Greek materials (or, for that matter, the modern film The 300) taking quite a negative view against these Persian invaders, as being an anti-colonial struggle. Something that is additionally rather interesting given how, I am pretty sure, the cosmopolitan Achaemenid Empire would be a darn sign closer to a modern multi-cultural ethos than the famously parochial Greek city-states that literally gave us the concept of “Xenophobia”.
The perceptions are not all negative, though – the Scythians, in Herodotus’ presentation, come across as rather amazing, almost mythic figures in their own right. There are an array of caricatures and tropes deployed about Scythians in various texts, of course (and as a point of interest, Aristophanes’ presentation of a ‘stereotype’ Scythian accent in one of his plays has provided an intriguing resource for the reconstruction of Scythian language as a result), but then, the Greeks did that about everybody, in a manner that might perhaps be compared to how we have modern-day dramatic affectations to demonstrate a character is a Scot or a Texan (I’m attempting to keep things within the ‘White’ sphere for comparatives – I am not sure if a Scot counts as ‘white’ these days, or for that matter, a Texan, however).
There is a legitimate question, I think, as to whether the Scythians really ‘count as’ ‘People of Colour’ in any meaningful sense aside from their out-group-ery (they are, after all, well-renowned for having red or blond hair, we know that they’re often R1B, and they’re literally a direct continuation of the Urheimat in so many important, vital ways); but they are also Iranic, also utilized as an ‘other’ by Herodotus to set up a yardstick for comparison of the Greek customs in particular those of the Black Sea colonists – so in that light, the fact that various of them get pretty neat deeds and prominent speaking parts, I think, may matter for the purposes of this analysis.
All things considered, it is not hard to see how if your yardstick for the worth of a humanities subject is “are we in this” – then Classics must seem a dry and inhospitable mental terrain. Except this presents us with a bit of a paradox. As in a very real sense, if our mechanism for assessing whether we’re “in this” is whether our direct ancestors were represented at the heart of the thing – then the loudest voices championing the continuance of the Classics are similarly on the outer. If you are Germanic, then the major way you are encountered in the Classical texts is as a figure of fear – or as something to be civilized … an object to be acted upon or reacted to, we might say. Similarly for the Celtic peoples – when one is reading Caesar’s Gallic Wars (as is still the case for high school students learning Latin, I believe), you are engaging with the perspective of somebody who is imperializing those whom you may be more immediately related to. When I did Latin at high school myself, we made use of Cambridge textbooks which took as their setting the Roman province of Britain post-Conquest. Or, phrased another way – you have the descendants of the colonized in that instance, making fairly active use of the conceptry of the colonizer in their own latter-day education some two millennia later.
And that, I think, is why we still study Classics today. Not because there is an extreme amount of seriously cool stuff contained therein (although it is also that). But because the Classics, however you choose to slice it (and I am now remembering just how many verbs for “to kill” we learned in secondary school Latin), are very much at the root of the modern world. Which means that it is much more difficult to endeavour to understand and to navigate its intricacies without them. Not impossible, mind – and Anacharsis the Scythian managing to significantly impress the whole of Athens even despite his ‘barbaric’ Scythian origins to the point that they bestowed upon him the unprecedented honour of Citizenship, shows how even somebody with very little backgrounding in the milieu in question might seemingly do so. So you can certainly make a decent fist of negotiating a political landscape without having read a word of Caesar or Pericles; and you can rail against property developers buying their way into politics (or, for that matter, slum-landlordism) without ever having heard of Crassus. But it is most definitely a leg up.
And that is because – to reference, obliquely, the Pirates of Penzance – it is not so much whose ancestors, whose heritage they were … as whose heritage they are now.
We, the descendants of the Barbarians upon the periphery, and those stock-characters of Imperial propaganda and lurid literary travelogue fiction .. have in some ways most successfully appropriated the Classical milieu. We have made it our own. And, curiously enough, we have ensured that it survives even amidst these other climes as a result.
Now if you want to study something other than the Classics – if you want to instead pour your mental effort and the sculpting of your head-space into different fields, different heritages, different pasts-which-yet-might-be … then that is OK. I, personally, am across quite an array of different backgrounds precisely because i recognize that there is worth and validity to be found in all of them – particularly in cross-comparison with one another.
But the risk we are running with some of these demands that Rome and Athens succumb to become the Carthage that must Delenda Est … is that instead of removing a compulsion for somebody who really doesn’t see the point in engaging with Classics – we abjure even the option for those who do wish to do so, instead. Probably, I suspect rather darkly, because a people cut off from these sorts of grand ideas and nexes of heritage are more easily pliable – as the lessons of the past are made ever more remote, arcane, and abstruse via comparison to accountancy or something.
In any case, and speaking of archaic wisdom … I shall close with a few lines from Aristophanes’ ‘The Wasps’ (a play about the dangers of political demagoguery, warmongering, and angry old white men in the judiciary …gosh, and who said Classics was irrelevant to today!) that have stuck with me since I encountered them in 6th form, near a decade and a half ago now. I feel they rather do sum up the circumstance in which we now find ourselves upon these matters:
“Yes, we may be poor old crocks,
But the whiteness of our locks
Does the City better credit, I would say,
Than the ringlets and the fashions
And the pederastic passions
Of the namby-pamby youngsters of today.”