I guess there is a theme to my blog posts this week. Over on Live Science there is an interesting article on the cultural debate that arose after the BBC aired a documentary alleging that the terra cotta warriors unearthed near the tomb of China’s first emperor were the work of a Greek artisan, or produced under the influence of Greek sculpture. One of the archaeologists involved, Li Xiuzhen immediately backtracked in the face of criticism, distancing herself from art historian Luckas Nickel, who made the claim that the sculptures were directly created by Greek artisans or by Chinese workers under a Greek supervisor. Li alleged that the BBC had misrepresented her and made her out to be a believer in the Greek origin of Chinese sculpture. “The terracotta warriors may be inspired by Western culture, but were uniquely made by the Chinese,” she said. Other Chinese scholars were even more dismissive, with the official in charge of the emperor’s tomb, Zhang Weixing, bluntly stating that there was no evidence for contact with Greece at all.
There is, so far as I know, no archaeological evidence to connect the terra cotta warriors with Greek sculptors, and the argument is, so far, entirely stylistic, and, to my mind, not terribly convincing. However, because the sculptures show similarity to the Greco-Buddhist art of the Hellenistic Greek kingdoms of India, it is a possibility, though how direct the influence was, if there was any, is eminently debatable in the absence of evidence. What is interesting, though, is that the debate over the claim has focused far more on cultural tensions between East and West than about facts and evidence.
The authors of the Live Science article (which first ran in The Conversation), Johanna Hanink and Felipe Rojas Silva, provided an overview of the Western tendency to attribute all non-Western culture to white people from Europe or the lands of the Bible. They cited examples like Great Zimbabwe, which was wrongly declared to be the work of the Queen of Sheba, or Phoenicians, or a lost white race, right down to the fall of the white minority government of Rhodesia in 1981. And then they say this:
Art historian Michael Falser has recently shown how the concept of Greco-Buddhist art, or Buddhist art with a Greek "essence," is really a colonial notion that originated during British rule in India. In the West, examples of this art (represented largely by sculptures of Buddha), have since been largely interpreted as the result of Greek influence – and thus, implicitly, as an early example of successful European attempts to civilize the East.
Falser’s paper from last December is interesting, but it represents one of the problems with the extreme ends of historical scholarship, namely that the urge to use history for political and social ends tends to prioritize the feelings of modern populations. In this case, Falser has minimized the impact of Greek art on the subcontinent (and thus the areas influenced by it) by prioritizing scholarly engagement with early Buddhist art over the art itself. For him, Greco-Buddhist art is simply too rich a phenomenon to tease out its distinctively Greek component. He calls it “a discursive hybrid with local, regional, national, international, and global components alike.” In this reading, our understanding of art is really only engagement with the politics of the art historians: if early scholars were Eurocentric racists, then their conclusions must be the product of imperialist and colonialist attitudes and can be rejected. Similarly, he says modern critics are “politically correct” in using art to craft a narrative of cooperation and peace. To what degree, then, does our frame of reference govern our very ability to perceive historical facts?
This logic is a little too postmodern for my taste, though, because Graeco-Buddhist art is not solely a fantasy imagined by colonial Europeans in India, no matter their reason for promoting its relative importance. The fact of the matter is that there was a Greek kingdom in India, and it produced art, and others took influence from that style. It’s difficult to argue that a Buddhist monument containing a Greek-style sculpture of Atlas holding up the heavens was made through sheer coincidence, or that the Corinthian capitals on the columns at Gandhara emerged in a vacuum. Surely, the early exponents of Greco-Buddhist art were racists who overemphasized its power and prevalence, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It would be like trying to deny (as Eurocentric historians tried in the past—and even in recent times) to deny the influence of Mesopotamian, Levantine, and Egyptian art and literature on that of early Greece. As recently as twenty years ago, it was still controversial to suggest that Homer’s Odyssey contained Mesopotamian motifs and influence.
As with all things, when the pendulum swings, it tends to overcorrect. Where past generations wanted to subsume the world beneath Western civilization, today many scholars are too quick to dismiss Western civilization altogether in their race to empower historically disadvantaged groups. This is one reason that I found an argument made this week about white nationalism and the Classics to be simultaneously enlightening and frustrating.
Donna Zuckerberg, the editor of Eidolon and a Classicist, decried the use of the Classics among white nationalists, the so-called alt-right, to give a gloss of intellectual respectability to their prejudices. She rightly noted that those who use the Classics uncritically fail to understand that the literature we inherited from Greece and Rome is not a fair representation of the entirety of Classical culture, but rather a representation of the viewpoints and disagreements of elite men. She also worries that the enthusiasm of white nationalists will lead to a renaissance of Classical studies for the wrong reasons, much as fascist support of Classicism perverted Classical Studies in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. There is, after all, a reason that both Mussolini and Hitler built oversized Neoclassical buildings as a way to resurrect their countries’ past glories in the face of “decadent” modernism.
Zuckerberg notes that alt-right proponents of the Classics make extreme forms of two key arguments for the study of the Classics: First, that the Classics are the foundation of Western civilization, and second, that understanding Classical Antiquity can help to prevent repetition of ancient political and military mistakes. She then makes an excellent point that it is the duty of those who actually know things about Classical Antiquity to point out when racists, misogynists, xenophobes, and general-issue hate-mongers misuse history for political ends:
It is time for Classics as a discipline to say to these men: we will not give you more fodder for your ludicrous theory that white men are morally and intellectually superior to all other races and genders. We do not support your myopic vision of “Western Civilization.” Your version of antiquity is shallow, poorly contextualized, and unnuanced. When you use the classics to support your hateful ideas, we will push back by exposing just how weak your understanding is, how much you have invested in something about which you know so little.
But then Zuckerberg tries to stake out a different claim for the Classics, mainly that they should be decoupled from Western civilization and that the foundations on which the West was formed should be undone in service of modern political concerns about race, class, and gender. She proposes an action plan for Classicists that would see them actively reject those who wish to understand Western civilization through the story of Greece and Rome:
When you hear someone —be they a student, a colleague, or an amateur — say that they are interested in Classics because of “the Greek miracle” or because Classics is “the foundation of Western civilization and culture,” challenge that viewpoint respectfully but forcefully. Engage them on their assumed definitions of “foundation,” “Western,” “civilization,” and “culture.” Point out that such ideas are a slippery slope to white supremacy. Seek better reasons for studying Classics.
She added that Classicists should avoid research into “elite white men” and privilege research into race, class, and gender issues over those of politics, international relations, or military history. To that end, she is starting a project to document alt-right use of the Classics and is publishing a book next year called Not All Dead White Men to explore diversity in the Classics.
Here is where her argument rubs me the wrong way. I think that in her right and righteous zeal to ensure that the Classics do not become the handmaiden of hate, as the Nazis happily used Tacitus’ Germania, Zuckerberg has let the pendulum swing too far in the direction of denying what the Classics actually are. Greece and Rome are the foundation of Western civilization, whether one likes that fact or not, and whether one supports that legacy or wishes to change it. Our political institutions, religious institutions, language, science, history, and culture are an outgrowth of the structures that built, sustained, and destroyed Rome. It is not much of a stretch to see the formational period of modern Western civilization in the Middle Ages as an argument between those who looked back to Rome and those who wanted to transform that inherited legacy into something new. Every European monarch for a thousand years aped the style of the Roman emperors, and less than 100 years ago there were still two monarchs in Europe—the Czar of Russia and the Austrian Kaiser—who traced not just their Caesarian titles but their imperial authority back to Rome, the Czar in what was allegedly a transmission of Eastern Roman authority to the Third Rome in Moscow, and the Kaiser through inheriting the power and glory of the defunct Holy Roman Empire in a transmission of the last vestiges of Roman glory. The Founders of the United States explicitly cited Roman precedent in establishing the Constitution, and when Napoleon promulgated his famous legal code, the basis for modern European jurisprudence, it took its form and inspiration from Justinian’s codification of Roman law.
It does not diminish the struggles of race, class, or gender to recognize the debt that the West owes to the elites who reigned in Greece and Rome, nor to acknowledge that not everyone wants to devote his or her life to social justice issues. Some people are genuinely interested in issues of power and privilege, of military campaigns and political disputes. These should not be delegitimized in a rush to man the barricades against rightwing extremists. Indeed, it plays right into their hands.
It is not possible to understand the political and even social history of Europe and therefore America without understanding the long shadow of Rome. (A recent history of the Dark Ages was even entitled The inheritance of Rome!) But understanding is not endorsement, and as Zuckerberg correctly notes, no one who loves the Classics should hesitate from acknowledging their biases, omissions, and failures. Yet to pretend they should speak primarily to the social justice issues of modern America is to make these texts into the same kind of political football that alt-right propagandists wish to do from the opposite direction.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.