Greco-Roman Appropriation Tackled at Guest Lecture

One of the most pressing issues facing ancient Greco-Roman culture is its appropriation by modern white supremacist groups. These groups often distort the truth and use the prestige of these ancient societies to further their racist agenda. 

Curtis Dozier, an assistant professor of Greek and Roman Studies at Vassar College, documents and refutes these appropriations made by white supremacists on his website, Pharos. He presented his findings at the event “White Nationalism, Racism & the Appropriation of Ancient History,” sponsored by the New Paltz History Department.

Dozier founded Pharos in 2017, and at the time, Dozier didn’t have much experience in social justice issues.

“Before I started doing this work, I didn’t really have a background in activist work. I didn’t really know much about anti-racism or ally-ship, even,” Dozier said. “I only had a little experience writing about antiquity for a broader audience, and I was just a pretty traditionally trained classical scholar, which doesn’t mean doing this.”

Pharos initially began as a project to expose and refute the claims made by these white supremacist groups, but it soon became a source of insight about the political history in the field of antiquity studies.

“One reason the site has been useful to readers is that some people experience it as a way to learn about that history too, and so I hope tonight can be a continuation of my learning,” Dozier said. “I’m very privileged and grateful to have a panel of people with much more specialization in the political dimensions and activist dimensions. I look very forward to learning from them.”

The event continued with Dozier citing white supremacist groups and misuse of antiquity for their racist ends. One instance was the Greek “Discobolus” sculpture being used to advertise a white supremacist conference known as “Nationalist Solutions.” The examples continued on throughout the presentation, with Dozier exposing how these groups and individuals misinterpret history before refuting their racist arguments with the reality of Greco-Roman society.

The lecture was then followed by a panel featuring Dozier and other New Paltz professors, including history professor Andrea Gatzke, art history professor Keely Heuer, political science professor Jeffery Miller, Black Studies professor Blair Proctor and history professor Reynolds Scott-Childress. Scott-Childress also gave a brief presentation on the usage of the words “white supremacist” and “white nationalism” in news media and the difference between them.

Many professors noted how the enormous amount prestige placed on ancient Greece and Rome by delegating them as ‘classics’ is problematic, in that it diminishes and draws attention away from other cultures.

“We have privileged the classics in a sense…because it has ensured the survival of classics programs throughout the world. Especially as we’re facing the elimination of classical studies [in universities], there is this tendency to want to dig the fingernails in and claw our way down and ‘not give up the fight,’” Heuer said. “But at the same time, by privileging ourselves and saying that we’re so necessary… by using that kind of terminology, you are creating an inherent hierarchy.”

“When we talk about African history, often times in the Western academia it’s viewed that Africa does not have a significant history. And if it is, it’s usually in the context of European interaction with the ‘other,’” Proctor said. “When we talk about history, we can’t talk about it objectively, we have to understand that it’s very subjective, so there’s a political agenda that is at stake.”

Gatzke, the chief organizer of the event, hoped that students walked away with a better understanding of the study of ancient history and the actual nature of Greek and Roman societies.

“These were not superior cultures, there were lots of cultures that had equal impact on the history of the world, and they shouldn’t be elevated as special. They’re impressive, they do impressive things: but so does Hahn China,” Gatzke said. “I want students to come out to understand that history is complicated. Our history majors know that but a lot of students who don’t take college level history think of history as just what they learn in high school, which is very simplified and leaves you to think history is black and white.”