The Way We Teach Latin Has Consequences
Let’s save the cosplay for fandoms and grapple instead with what we want this field to be.
It’s all fun and games until someone gets shot.
I almost never report posts on Facebook. In fact, I try to avoid Facebook as much as possible. But a couple of years ago, in the Latin Teacher Idea Exchange group, someone posted a meme featuring a drawing of men beating another naked and bloody man with the caption “Only one in ten will get this,” a reference to the Roman practice of decimation. In this practice, cohorts that were to be punished were divided up into groups of ten, and then after lots were drawn, nine of the ten in each group were forced to beat the comrade who drew the shortest straw to death. It is this feature of Classics — the reduction to entertainment and jokes of a violent, imperialist empire responsible for genocide, rape, and devastation with an assumed divinely-granted backing (imperium sine fine dedi) — that I find so perplexing. This brutal practice was posted by an educator for other educators to laugh at. And the reactions to the post showed most people found it totally acceptable. Of the 132 reactions, 66 liked it, 60 laughed at it, one person even loved it, and only three people posted a sad face, one a shocked face, and one an angry face. The post generated a lot of discussion, as might be expected, although most of the comments were about how funny it was and how people did not understand why others would be offended by what they considered an innocuous joke. It is disheartening that so many educators defended the humor of the image and decried the political correctness and tone policing of those who were horrified by it.
Until we start critically engaging with the horrific realities of Classical reception, questioning what we mean by Classical outreach, questioning why we don’t teach history and culture from so much of the rest of the world in the same depth to the same age range, and asking what messaging is being presented to impressionable minds around gender, race, and power, our subject will continue to be fodder for extremists.
There is undoubtedly a great deal to be admired in the ancient world. I have spent almost my entire life studying the rich cultural tapestry of the Roman Empire and those it came into contact with, the beauty of much of the surviving literature and art, the architectural marvels created by the Romans (especially after the invention of concrete) that still survive today in numerous places in three continents. I even have two Classical tattoos with plans for more. But the ancient world, for all that it produced, was a society that thrived because of enslavement and conquest for resources, a society that, as Dr. Dan-El Padilla Peralta points out, brought about the destruction of so many knowledge systems as a result of its violent spread, a society with a mythology punctuated with stories of rape, murder, and war, a society with huge economic disparities, a society founded upon toxic national pride. Does that sound familiar? While many of us critique the same qualities in the modern United States and its history, the atrocities of the ancient world tend to get a pass.
And there is a disturbing reason for this. People far more qualified than I have written things far more eloquent than I ever could about the ways in which Classics has been used to justify slavery, support colonialism, frame and bolster white supremacy, and create an idea of ‘western civilization’ where white European history has taken center stage in international knowledge systems. As a result of this, the Greco-Roman past has been glorified as the peak of ancient human systems. In our late-stage capitalist world those in power have decided that culture is only valuable based upon its geographical location and continued visibility in modern spaces. Whereas the value of other world cultures is judged by white people through the selective artifacts held in museums, the Greco-Roman past is blanketly assumed to be worthy of our admiration.
While the racist hacks of The History Channel’s Ancient Aliens have for now 16 seasons pedaled their white supremacist nonsense that world cultures outside of Europe could never have produced anything sophisticated without the help from more advanced extra-terrestrials, our culture stands in awe of the great minds of the ancient world and their superior skills in philosophy, politics, engineering, and architecture. We learn almost nothing in our curricula about the great minds at work anywhere else in the world or even of their contributions to the ancient world and its reception and assume, given our industrialist, capitalist lens, that cultures who do and did not produce monumental architecture and realistic stone sculpture are somehow uncivilized and in need of white saviors.
The field of Classics has been perceived at moments through modern history to have been under threat, but its intricate ties to white power have ensured that it has survived to further support white power at every turn. After emancipation, with the rise of brilliant Black scholars of Greco-Roman antiquity, white power began its program of limiting access to education for emancipated individuals and their descendants, as is still at work today. With Latin and Greek no longer required for entrance to universities, academics created the Great Books courses that privileged literature from the Greco-Roman world and its reception in later works. Trump’s federal architecture order reinvigorated the idea of a clear connection between Mediterranean antiquity and (white) American power. But, and bear with me here, perhaps the most insidious way of maintaining Classical supremacy and thereby white supremacy was by making it fun and kid-friendly. For centuries, Latin and Greek were studied rigorously because knowledge of those languages and cultures was considered a mark of sophistication, and the messages tied up in the texts were considered aspirational for (male) participants in colonial politics. But it was not the source of Classics days and outreach. Instead, it was a key part of a humanistic education that helped teach boys how to be men and political animals. And, don’t get me wrong, that was incredibly destructive.
And this is what concerns me: that children who partake in all of this are raised surrounded by messaging of male dominance and female subservience, of military glory and its intrinsic links to national pride, of a superpower’s divine right to not only exist but to impose itself upon others because it is inherently better than other places politically, morally, and militarily.
In the twentieth century, however, there was a new movement of Classics outreach that is still celebrated and rewarded today by various organizations. Classical associations appeared internationally for younger students to partake in reenactments and workshops inspired by the ancient world. Books about Greek myths were written for children of all ages. Classics is, almost uniquely, a discipline that does this with especial vigor. A student of mine recently made fun of the notion of Classics conventions for students pointing out that there aren’t similar conventions for other subjects and asking what makes Classics so special. I would argue that a sense of connection to a supposed white, European past makes Classics seem so special to so many as it has since its inception, even if we don’t consciously recognize that. Please, take a moment and think about just how unnerving all of this celebration of the European past is when other subject areas of no lesser value either don’t choose to do it or simply aren’t given the opportunity.
Nowadays many of our students grow up fascinated by the retelling of Greek myths that are in fact brutal narratives. Even a video of the horrifying tale of Pygmalion and his statue made for children can’t fully hide how despicable and misogynistic the story is. And why are we teaching young children about the rape of Persephone by her own uncle after permission was granted by her own father? These stories are taught to students as engrossing, while at the same time talking about Roman slavery is considered too difficult a topic for young minds to deal with if it hasn’t already been presented as more benign than other types of slavery (seriously, can we please stop ranking types of slavery?). And this is what concerns me: that children who partake in all of this are raised surrounded by messaging of male dominance and female subservience, of military glory and its intrinsic links to national pride, of a superpower’s divine right to not only exist but to impose itself upon others because it is inherently better than other places politically, morally, and militarily. Having women demonstrate ancient weaving, holding slave auctions as fundraisers, encouraging white students to reenact scenes of military domination, or making jokes about decimation exacerbates toxic associations already abundantly present in the world of American patriarchal exceptionalism. This has previously been well documented in JCL events here in the United States, but outreach from plenty of groups shows paternalistic concerns about the benefit of Classics for all, without critical thinking about the language it uses and the material it teaches. The language of western superiority and heritage is a dog whistle for white supremacy, even if the intention of the group is seemingly benign.
By sanitizing and promoting Classics to children without recognizing the damaging effects of the whitewashing of the ancient world and the glorifying of Roman practices and by linking knowledge of the languages with intellectual potential or achievement, our discipline continues to nod to white supremacy in ways that are much more subliminal but no less damaging than in earlier centuries. Until we start critically engaging with the horrific realities of Classical reception, questioning what we mean by Classical outreach, questioning why we don’t teach history and culture from so much of the rest of the world in the same depth to the same age range, and asking what messaging is being presented to impressionable minds around gender, race, and power, our subject will continue to be fodder for extremists. It is no coincidence that the violent domestic terrorists who descended upon the nation’s capital on January 6th invoked Classical imagery in what they considered to be their justified crusade to exact bloody vengeance on those who opposed our outgoing president and that they had fun doing so.
Let’s save the cosplay for fandoms and grapple instead with what we want this field to be.