Misguided Models: Revisiting Costume Choices by the NJCL
The National Junior Classical League needs to consider the way its reception of Classics reinforces white supremacy and nationalism.
Recently, the National Junior Classical League (NJCL), still dealing with the controversy around the gendered and misogynistic choices for dramatic interpretation and the costume contest for the 2020 convention, made some notable changes to the wording of their costume contest. Rather than male, female, and couple options, they announced individual and pair options, seemingly an important step in the right direction. However, the missteps continued not only with once again gendering the contests’ options but also with choosing as a pair Lars Porsena and Cloelia, reaffirming their apparent stance that male domination, threats of sexual violence, and control of female bodies and actions are appropriate messages for their teen participants.
In an email some of us received on May 20th, the organization also made it seemingly apparent that this choice was made without the input of the ACL diversity task force, an unusual omission given the pushback on the choices for 2020. Following further backlash at the 2021 choices from many advocates for change within the field, the NJCL decided that it would change the choice for the pair to Mucius Scaevola or Horatius Cocles and Cloelia, opting for two Roman ‘heroes’, removing the violent power differentiation of the original pair and representing two figures who showed fierce resolve in the face of overwhelming odds. Great, right? Well, not quite.
While there are still issues around the choices of the female characters Camilla and Cloelia, who are transgressive and respected either for masculine qualities with regards to the former or rewarded with a masculine equestrian statue for her brave actions to maintain her chastity (i.e. protect the integrity of the patriarchy) with regards to the latter, it is the NJCL’s, and by extension the ACL’s and NLE’s, problematic glorifying of the Roman world that I find particularly dangerous. It has been documented elsewhere just how problematic both the song and the creed of the NJCL are, containing language eerily reminiscent of hate groups who use the ancient world to justify their white supremacist beliefs. The idea stated in the creed that “We believe an acquaintance with the civilization of Greece and Rome will help us understand and appraise this world of today, which is indebted to the ancient civilization in its government and laws, literature, language and arts” is what makes me so uncomfortable with the choices of Mucius and Cloelia especially.
It is the job of the discipline to always critically engage with that legacy and to model for students their own critical understanding of the material presented to them.
I have studied the ancient world for well over twenty years at this point, and much of my study of it in the United Kingdom reflected the idea that we are somehow better because of the legacy of Greece and Rome or that Greece and Rome are somehow exceptional in the list of empires that coexisted with or came before or after them. And I don’t deny that there is plenty of beauty produced by the populations of the Greco-Roman world — I have a quotation from Vergil’s Aeneid tattooed on my right forearm and during this pandemic, I’m buying every classically-themed mask I can find — and I greatly value the subject I teach and have studied and the wide variety of skills I have obtained from that pursuit of knowledge. Classics has led me to a greater appreciation of art and poetry; my critical thinking and problem-solving skills have been honed by many of my endeavors, linguistic, historical, and archaeological; and I find the ancient Mediterranean world to be an endless source of fascination, a world that offers a lifetime’s worth of material to devour.
But why is it that we place greater emphasis on the products of the ancient Mediterranean than on those of other global empires and cultures? Many would say that it is because it is ‘our history’ — which is code for white, European history — or because there is so much of the Classical world within our culture today from architecture to textual and visual allusion. But that is because one specific part of the ancient world has been weaponized and distorted for hundreds of years to justify white, European expansion, colonization, enslavement, and genocide.
It is the job of the discipline to always critically engage with that legacy and to model for students their own critical understanding of the material presented to them. The power dynamic of teacher and student or organization/teacher and student is such that if we do not present them with a nuanced view of the past many will not know to question it. The reverence of the ancient world by organizations such as the NJCL compounds the problem of white supremacy and its reliance on a constructed narrative of the past in the US and Europe and erases the problematic exempla of ancient individuals, as Dani Bostick has so eloquently elucidated in a recent article in the American Journal of Philology. When offering character choices, it is incumbent upon the organization that provides entertainment to its members to also make clear that these are not examples to model oneself after.
The stories of Horatius and Mucius are narratives of national pride taken to the extreme, one of individual voice being erased in favor of the state, one of violent masculine exceptionalism, and one of never questioning the authority of the fatherland.
Which brings me to Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola — Cloelia and Camilla will be dealt with elsewhere. The stories of Horatius and Mucius are narratives of national pride taken to the extreme, one of individual voice being erased in favor of the state, one of violent masculine exceptionalism, and one of never questioning the authority of the fatherland. There are echoes in this story of other nationalistic creeds, such as those of the Nazi party. Given the rise of nationalism at present in this country and narratives of a president who has supreme authority and of people willing to risk their lives to reopen a country suffering under a pandemic in the name of ‘American liberty,’ the choices of Horatius and Mucius as a costume support a white supremacist narrative currently thriving in our mainstream given the current state of our social and political culture. By offering up these two male figures as the heroes who inspired Cloelia (presumably chosen in some complete misunderstanding of powerful female role models) and, very importantly, by providing no critical interpretation of the story, which presumably the students will read in preparation for the contest, the NJCL promotes a damaging narrative and once again sends a dangerous message to its audience.
Horatius Cocles, according to Livy AUC II.10, saved the city of Rome from being overrun by the forces of Lars Porsena. When first introduced, Livy writes that the fortune of Rome had him as a defense on that day (id munimentum illo die fortuna urbis Romanae habuit), comparing this one soldier to an inanimate fortification, not an individual but a piece of equipment the city relied upon in such situations. This comparison is, of course, intended as something positive, but the sacrifice of individuality and blind dedication to the state is a positive message Livy presents multiple times in these two stories. Cocles is held up as an exemplum precisely because while other nameless soldiers flee, their cowardice erasing their honor of having a place in the history books, he without second thought rushes into danger and intimidates the enemy with his daring (ipso miraculo audaciae obstupefecit hostes). This act of bravery is rewarded not just with a statue and land (statue in comitio posita; agri quantum uno die circumaravit, datum), but most importantly with divine protection as he swam back across the Tiber fully armed (tum Cocles “Tiberine pater” inquit, “te sancte precor, haec arma et hunc militem propitio flumine accipias.”). This narrative was particularly important in the Augustan period as the first emperor attempted to promote a narrative of dedication to Rome as paramount to deflect from his seizing of absolute power. To be a good Roman you had to fulfill your duty to the res publica and support Augustus in refounding Roman greatness after the unrest of the late Republic. A similar narrative is attested in the Mucius story.
According to Livy AUC II.13, Mucius, during Lars Porsena’s siege, showed great bravery in entering the enemy camp, but, apparently, his motivation was not specifically to save his city, but rather actually to avenge the disgrace that his city was currently being besieged by an enemy it had previously defeated (itaque magno audacique aliquo facinore eam indignitatem vindicandam ratus). The glory of the state was, to Mucius and others, more important than the state itself. When captured and brought before the king, he gave a speech that professed total dedication to the state at the expense of even his own life. He even supersedes his own name with a statement of his citizenship, Romanus being the first word of his speech. In fact, just the simple word Romanus is enough, civis postponed until after the verbs sum and inquit. Romanitas surpasses all other identities and hangs over the whole speech, reinforcing the importance of the state over the individual. Mucius is so committed to maintaining the reputation of Rome, he is willing to die to do so (nec ad mortem minus animi est, quam fuit ad caedem). He goes on to discuss the state of being Roman (Romanum est), homogenizing the group, one cohesive mass with one cohesive identity. And Mucius is just one among many who are willing to behave as he has done. In a final display of sacrifice to the Roman state he cries out that the body is merely a vessel and the glory to die on behalf of the fatherland is of greater import (“en tibi” inquit, “ut sentias quam vile corpus sit iis qui magnam gloriam vident”) as he thrusts his right hand into the fire and stands unflinching despite obvious pain (quam cum velut alienato ab sensu torreret).
The message of these narratives must be taken seriously both by the organization and by teachers who promote participation in Junior Classical League events and in the national convention. In response to two articles written by my students recently about the horrific misogyny at work in the gendered choices for the 2020 convention’s contests, many people in comments on social media dismayingly cried “But what about the positive experience of the convention?” erasing the damaging effects of the convention’s messaging to young minds. Certainly, the experience is important, and creating community around something you love is important. But when the body that creates such a community reinforces white supremacism and blind adoration of a destructive imperial force that created objects of beauty on the backs of enslaved individuals and conquered nations, we must speak out and demand not just surface-level change, not just lip service to social justice, but structural change.
Surely it’s not that hard to pick costumes that are unproblematic? The NJCL can and must do better. Classics is almost unique among disciplines for hosting a convention of this sort with contests in oratory and costuming designed to promote the subject as foundational to our (white) lives, as the creed and song of the NJCL show, and the selection of Horatius Cocles and Mucius as alternatives to Lars Porsena indicate that the NJCL has a long way to go to correct their history of dangerous messaging.