There was a time Classicists feared their subject was endangered because not enough people were taking it up. That fear has now been supplanted by anxieties over its manipulation by far-right groups and individuals with insalubrious intentions, like the white supremacist organization that employs images of the Roman gods and heroes to encourage its followers to ‘protect your heritage’.
And this is just the tip of the Zuckerberg. In Not All Dead White Men, Donna Zuckerberg examines the abuse of Classics by by those who, in the political equivalent of the perceptual choice in The Matrix, have taken the ‘Red Pill’. Zuckerberg defines Red Pillers as ‘a group of men connected by common resentments against women, immigrants, people of color, and the liberal elite’. Its members seek remedies for their present woes in the ancient past. Sometimes, they blame her brother Mark; she admits her discomfort when finding him referred to online as ‘Zuck the Cuck’.
The problem is that it’s all too often a skewed vision of the ancient world that the classical Red Pillars aspire to revive and replicate. Classicists — true Classicists — know just how susceptible Antiquity is to misinterpretation. There is a long history of the Classical world being championed for the wrong reasons. We’ve seen the Nazis praise Greek and Roman statues as the epitome of beauty, and Hitler speak of achieving progress ‘when we have not only attained beauty like this, but even, if we can, when we have surpassed it’. You wonder whether the Nazis would have been quite so enthusiastic had more of the artworks retained their the original color paint, skin tones and all.
What Classical scholars are perhaps less familiar with is the ugly underbelly of the internet, which is where people now congregate to spread reductive views of Antiquity. This is a digital world in which assumptions pass for facts. One of the most common ideas, Zuckerberg notes, is that the movers and shakers of the Greco-Roman world — and thus the ancestors of most modern Europeans —were ‘white’, an idea that would have meant nothing to the Greeks and Romans. From what I’ve read, I doubt the Red Pillers realize that the Greco-Roman world existed outside Athens and Rome. Does it know that Suetonius, the greatest Roman biographer and the source of much of what we know about the emperors, probably came from Hippo Regius in what is now Algeria? Or that Terence, one of the stars of Roman comedy, was of Libyan descent? Or even that Herodotus, the ‘Father of History’, came from Halicarnassus (Bodrum in Turkey)?
The Red Pillheads entertain equally narrow views on women. Of particular interest to Zuckerberg are ‘pickup artists’ — men who strive to become expert in getting women into bed. Their techniques, which include lowering women’s self-esteem so as to earn their gratitude, may be unoriginal, but the, they pride themselves on their lack of originality. Their hero is Ovid, their bible his Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Love’), which scandalized Rome with its sexual explicitness in the early 1st century. In its most infamous passage, Ovid advises his male readers that if a woman says no, what she really means is yes. Such is the zeal with which pickup artists have turned to this work that Zuckerberg cautions against reading it as light-hearted and humorous, as many scholars have done to date.
Is this empowering the Red Pill? Does branding the Ars Amatoria a ‘handbook on rape’, as Zuckerberg does, constitute an example of what Allan Bloom (whom she also cites) called the killing-off of classics by feminism? Not, I think, when the Red Pill’s ideas about Ancient women are so inaccurate.
It would be one thing if we could safely say that Roman women saw Ovid’s guidebook as mock-serious. My own view is that many probably did, but either way there’s a problem when modern misogynists seek to apply its advice to relationships today. Their approach to ancient literature is overly literal. With no regard for context or authorial intention, they take away from it simply that women in antiquity were voiceless, powerless, and stuck in the home — and strive to put us back there. The possibility that women were more capable than certain male Ancient authors made out does not occur to them. It’s high time the legions of the Red Pill took a closer look at Suetonius’s Lives and considered what the real qualities of the empresses might have been.
Daisy Dunn is editor of ARGO: A Hellenic Review and author of Catullus’ Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet.