Sententia Cotidiana XV: The Hijacking of Latin and Classics

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

"A man walks into a library looking menacing with a very large Greek lexicon under his arm. He stands threatening by the librarian brandishing his hefty tome and says, 'just gimme all your Homer!'"


Okay, now it's time to get serious. If you read my article 'An Apology for Latin and Classics', you will remember that one of my arguments as to why Latin had come to be viewed as elitist was that it had been 'HIJACKED' by groups and individuals who possessed views now viewed as unacceptable and wrong, for example, slavery, imperialism, and fascism. In some cases, these interpretations reflected the education or political mindset of the time, not that this makes them any more correct or acceptable, although cultural mis-appropriation may be a more accurate term in these cases. But more aggressive hijacking and twisting of the Classics can also be found to justify misogynistic and supremacist views.


I will be starting an article series on cultural hijacking soon, exploring different examples from throughout history and looking also at why Classics came to define a rhetoric of power.


But today, I am going to recommend to you a book on this very matter. Alarming, very well researched, and powerfully argued, I should like to introduce you to Donna Zuckerberg's very important tome, Not Only Dead White Men.


Her focus is particularly on social media, where certain groups have 'hijacked' the Classical world to justify their extreme views. Even more alarming is, as she says: 'This use of Classical imagery to promote a white, nationalist agenda is far from an isolated occurrence,' (p.3). It is not just white supremacy, but also male supremacy. Her exploration is thorough and her findings shocking. However, Zuckerberg does not use this to argue against studying the Classics, far from it.


I will end today, by offering my thoughts on tackling this dreadful abuse of Classics, which has undoubtedly fuelled its 'elitist' label. It is actually Classics itself that offers the tools to fight this label. The Iliad includes differences between the customs of the Greeks and Trojans, for example, the Trojan king Priam is polygamous, unlike the Greeks. However, the Greeks have no compunction about lying with their slave-girl prizes. It is not implied that the Trojans are inferior. Far from it. A touching scene of mutual identification based on common humanity crowns the poem, even if Achilles only shows his ounce of compassion briefly. He feels greatly for Priam as the old king kneels sadly, but respectfully' before him saying, 'I have just kissed the hands of the man who slayed my son'. He sees his old father Peleus in him. Priam has lost his son, Peleus will lose his. The identification and admiration in this emotional meeting does not last long. But the beautiful and painful reminder of their humanity and parallel suffering surely should make us stop and think. We are not so different.

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