Racialist vandals descend on Rome and Greece

March 1, 2021 by

[CJ Hinke comments: If the ‘critical race theory’ Dr. Padilla embraces is said to be ‘Marxist’, it does not align with Marx’ or Engel’s own views on race.]

New York Times racialist vandals descend on Rome and Greece

Sandy English

World Socialist Web Site, February 24, 2021


Earlier this month, as part of its ongoing effort to racialize every aspect of human existence, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Harpers editor Rachel Poser about the work of Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a race-obsessed professor of Classics at Princeton University (“He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?”). Padilla upholds the view that his discipline—the study of ancient Greek and Roman history and culture—is a mainstay of the conception of “whiteness” and should be done away with.

The field of classics is primarily concerned with the “Greco-Roman world,” a series of societies that spanned the millennium lasting roughly from the formation of the Greek city-states around 600 BC to the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire in the 5th century AD. The culture was instrumental in the development of modern society. For centuries it has been invoked by the ruling classes in Europe and America—as well as by those who would challenge the existing rulers.

Roman conquest, spreading from the Italian peninsula starting in the third century BC, united many of the peoples of ancient Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa, and created a dominant culture that spoke two now-extinct languages, ancient Greek (the parent of Modern Greek) and Latin (the parent of Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian). Scholars of classics normally learn to read both of these languages and to study the literature written in them, and sometimes other significant languages of the period as well, including Phoenician, Sumerian, Aramaic, and Hebrew. The field is strongly associated with the archaeology of the places where the Greeks and Romans lived, as well as the study of history, government and many expressions of religion and art—painting, sculpture, literature, epic poems, drama and comedy—for which the Greco-Roman civilization has been deservedly renowned.

Padilla, of Dominican parentage, grew up impoverished, as Poser relates in a snap biography, at one time living in a homeless shelter in New York City. He entered an elite high school on scholarship and then attended Princeton where he was one of the few blacks to study classics. As he developed an academic career, Padilla initially studied Roman slavery, but soon began to have doubts about its legitimacy. What for so many is the most liberating aspect of the study of the ancient world—its challenge to one’s conception of his or her own time and place—Padilla admits to having found unacceptably threatening. The scholar “sensed that his pursuit of classics had displaced other parts of his identity,” Poser worriedly writes.

Picking himself back up for battle, Padilla’s subsequent career has aimed to reverse the alleged “whiteness” of classics by imposing critical race theory upon it—and on academia as a whole. At Princeton, Padilla last year led a crusade that demanded racial quotas for all levels of staffing and the formation of an administrative review board that would ferret out “microaggressions” and “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research and publication.” Padilla is indifferent to the implications of such an Inquisition for academic freedom, labor rights, and even freedom of speech. “I don’t see things like free speech or the exchange of ideas as ends in themselves,” he tells Poser.

Padilla deploys similarly aggressive measures against his subject. “Dismantling structures of power,” he writes, “will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.” If the classics disagrees with him—both as a field of study and as a realm of history—it should be destroyed. Poser writes approvingly that “if classics fails his test, Padilla and others are ready to give it up.” The Times author herself thinks it is time to “get rid of the classics”—a formulation that appears three times in her article.

To be blunt, this is the rhetoric of the privileged, arrogant, and self-satisfied elite. How many recent college graduates, it may be asked, are at all familiar with Thucydides or Plutarch? In fact, the great majority of American students—regardless of their racial background—have almost no access to the study of classical antiquity. Politicians have gutted the study of the humanities in the public schools. College and universities have likewise shifted resources to “professional training” programs. Rigorous education in classics, the hallmark of the college liberal arts education of the 19th century, has vanished. Even as a potential field of study, classics exists at a diminishing number of elite colleges and universities such as Princeton, from whence the self-satisfied Padilla hurls his thunderbolts.

Deploying the typical method of the Times, Poser’s article is based on a crude, almost comical, amalgam. She observes that the field’s attempt to shed its “self-imposed reputation as an elitist subject overwhelmingly taught and studied by white men,” has gained a new “urgency” because it has supposedly been embraced by the far right. Stretching her point to the breaking point, Poser notes that some protesters at the 2017 fascist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, carried symbols of the ancient Roman state alongside anti-Semitic ones, and that the neo-Nazi website, Stormfront, has the symbol of the Athenian Parthenon on it.

Then, leaping from the far-right’s preposterous invocation of Greco-Roman heritage, Poser concludes, without any irony, the correctness of Padilla’s view “… that Classics has been instrumental to the invention of ‘whiteness’ and its continued domination.” The fascists would not disagree!

Poser’s (and Padilla’s) assumptions about the reactionary and racist character of classical studies are repeatedly shoved down the reader’s throat without evidence. Poser states, for example: “By 2015, when Padilla arrived at the Columbia Society of Fellows as a postdoctoral researcher, classicists were no longer apologists for ancient slavery.” At what time were classicists “apologists” for ancient slavery?

It is true that southern planters in the years before the Civil War used the example of Greece and Rome, both slaveholding societies, to justify their enslavement of blacks, just as they used the Bible for the same purpose. Over the centuries in Europe and America, however, there was no common agreement on this view. The planters’ conception that the Greek and Roman use of slave labor was morally superior, in any case, was smashed along with the Confederacy in 1865.

Padilla comes close to blaming the Greeks and Romans for racism—he seems angered by “distortions and gaps in the archive,” and ruminates that “[w]hen folks think of classics, I would want them to think about folks of color.” Of course, Padilla knows that no concept of biological race or color-race existed in the ancient Mediterranean. He takes a different line of attack. Joined by Poser, he insists that the subsequent history of Europe makes the study of classical literature part of a dangerous, racist tradition.

Poser points an accusing finger at the Enlightenment, the movement of thought in the 18th century that sought to level feudal absolutism and the anti-scientific authority of religion. Enlightenment thinkers such as Denis Diderot and Jean-Jacques Rosseau were those “who in France prepared men’s minds for the coming revolution,” as Friedrich Engels said. Diderot’s famous Encyclopédie has no entry for “race” and its entry for “negro” suggests that skin color may be mutable.

But for the racialists the Enlightenment was truly the worst of times. Poser and Padilla claim that it was the Enlightenment that “created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome, coded as white, on top, and everything else below.”

Poser of course is forced to acknowledge that revolutionaries, including the black revolutionaries in Haiti after 1791, found inspiration in the figures from the Greek and Roman past. “Generations of intellectuals, among them feminist, queer and Black scholars, have seen something of themselves in classical texts, flashes of recognition that held a kind of liberatory promise,” she writes.

But Poser always returns to associating the classics with race. “Classics and whiteness are the bone and sinew of the same body. They grew strong together and may have to die together,” she says, paraphrasing Padilla.

“The language that is used to describe classical antiquity,” Poser further says, “in the world today—the classical tradition, legacy or heritage—contains within it the idea of a special, quasi-genetic relationship.” This is nonsense. Scholars in the subfield of the classical tradition seek out the influence of Greece and Rome in all of world culture ranging from the Arab philosophy, where it had an enduring presence, to Tibetan poetry.

Poser’s piece, in line with the New York Times’s now-discredited 1619 Project, seeks to impose the contemporary obsession with race, and its pseudo-intellectual conceits such as “whiteness,” on the past. It is a blunt instrument aimed, in this instance, at a crucial branch of world literature, history, and philosophy.

The racialist tendency has material roots in present social conditions, particularly in the strivings of the upper-middle class for special privileges, under conditions of terrible poverty for the vast majority, of all races the world over. But it has also become possible because of the decades of the suppression of Marxism in both the working class and in literary and historical studies.

The founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, like most educated people in the 19th century, were trained in the classics. Both men were highly conversant in the history and literature of Greece and Rome. As they studied the development of class society, they were able to place the Greco-Roman world in the broader context of world history. Marx’s doctoral dissertation was on a topic of ancient philosophy, and he read the plays of Aeschylus, the founder of tragic drama, in the original Greek for pleasure. Karl Marx earned his PhD in Classics!

Because of the influence of Marxism, millions of ordinary people in the 19th and 20th centuries understood that the path for socialism was being prepared by capitalism through its creation of a world economy, the extraordinary development of the productive forces, and especially through its calling into being of an international working class. These were the immediate prerequisites for a socially equal society. But the development of capitalism had, in turn, been based on previous accomplishments.

As Engels put it, against Padilla’s forebears who moralized against slavery in the Greek and Roman worlds, “Without slavery, no Greek state, no Greek art and science, without slavery, no Roman Empire. But without the basis laid by Hellenism and the Roman Empire, also no modern Europe. We should never forget that our whole economic, political and intellectual development presupposes a state of things in which slavery was as necessary as it was universally recognized. In this sense we are entitled to say: Without the slavery of antiquity no modern socialism.”

In other words, socialism could only be constructed on the full assimilation of the accomplishments of earlier societies, not only economically, but also culturally. Capitalism had already demonstrated this. Beginning in the 14th century, in the period that later came to be known as the Renaissance, the emerging bourgeoisie had revived the technological and intellectual achievements of Greece and Rome, a recovery made possible in part owing to the preservation of those achievements by Arab scholars. The works of Dante and Milton are unthinkable without the accomplishments of the great Roman poet, Virgil, the author of the Aeneid, which both modern poets knew thoroughly, and Shakespeare’s development of a distinctly bourgeois tragedy could only have emerged after the ancient tragedy of Sophocles and Euripides.

There was a definite ideological component to this process. The rising capitalist class fortified itself against its feudal masters with the history of ancient social conflicts in Greece and Rome, including in its struggle for the abolition of monarchy and the establishment of democratic rights. The works of art, from sculpture to poetry, had an objective content in depicting reality, which helped to teach the bourgeoisie in its revolutionary phase how to think and feel and act. Bourgeois culture carried this legacy to all corners of the world, where it became a part of the foundations of world culture. The novel, for example, now written in every corner of the world to express life in artistic form, only came into existence by a complex development that included Greek and Roman models in Britain and France.

To Marxists, it has never been a matter of either celebrating or condemning the Greco-Roman world. The astonishing feats of that epoch expressed the highest material culture that could be achieved given the mode of production. Just as crucially, the fall of the Greco-Roman world demonstrated that social orders, civilizations, and indeed entire historical epochs, collapse under certain conditions. This remains a profound lesson.

The New York Times sees no value in the study of classical antiquity, besides the spoils that can be shaken down using the vulgar racialist weapons of the present. One cannot imagine a more backward and arrogant conception of human culture.

The victors and the victims

February 24, 2021 by

Human society is divided into just two classes: the victors and the victims. History is written by the victors and is, by its nature, a history of oppression. To quote Gibbon, the “crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” The victims are not only voiceless but often ililterate. They are invisible and unremembered.

All societies have  always had a victim class. Slaves, bonded labourers, debt-workers, feudal serfs, landless peasants and prostitutes, for example: the poor. That modern society prettifies these names, “empowers” them (WTF!) and speaks about equality does not elevate their existence, their poverty or their suffering.

The demos of Athenian democracy were not its underclasses; they were not even counted. Citizenship had to be earned, sometimes by merit not just by wealth. The histories written by oppressors are largely about wars, the clashes of titans, and never about their foot-soldiers.

How does one recount the history of the illiterate class? Their travail is lost history and the best we can do is to fill in its gaps with fiction.

Alex Haley went looking for his Roots in Africa. The holes in Kunta Kinte’s story are chinked with guesswork. That history cannot be undone by adopting African names or the religion of Muslim invaders and slaveholders themselves or Xing out a slaveholder’s surname.* It was those invaders who burned the infidels’ world’s greatest library at Timbuktu. Shall we now emulate them? 

It is obvious to all that the evolution of African culture lives on in her modernday descendants. Is it so demeaning to be embraced and celebrated for indigenous arts, dress, philosophy of life and music?

True people’s history will never be written because it went unrecorded contemporaneously and has been forgotten with the passage of time. Many traditions were oral and aural. What we are left with today are cave paintings of great hunts. The rest went around the great circle from ear to ear until it was no longer the original story.

Human society began in Africa but that does not make the thought and history of Athenian and Roman culture any less important to us modernes. Some may even call this process of “civilisation” progress but, in fact, it is merely human evolution through ingenuity. It’s what we do.

Our culture becomes our character and is further refined by writing it down. To deny the good works of slaveholders because they owned slaves is just another injustice. The injustice is not to the long-dead slaveholders but to human continuity.

The good works of the rich and tidy were of course done out of personal vanity just as are those of the billionaires of today. Slaveholders or not, their wider works benefitted society as a whole. The billionaires of today were similarly built on the backs of wage-slaves. Not a world away from the slaves who built the pyramids of Egypt.

Pulling down statues and changing honouraria will not erase history, unless Dr. Padilla prefers us to inhabit an Orwellian matrix. We need to balance that history with honesty. Therein lies human equality.

I’m sorry Dan-el feels different, if he feels stranger in a strange land, a feeling he has hidden from others most of his life. At root, the way he feels is not my fault nor yours. But bashing Archimedes will not alter spatial geometry a whit. Nothing you can do, my friend, will free Jefferson’s slaves.

Racism and misogyny are ugly. But when have the powerful ever considered the powerless before? When have the have-gots spared a thought for the have-nots? Not then, not now, not ever. 

The signers of Dr. Padilla’s “Faculty Letter” manifesto for Princeton are simply paying lip-service. Perhaps, as in apartheid South Africa, the signers should have been segregated into columns for race and religion, or at least by discipline. 

I can assure you no one, including the signers, truly wishes an academy which enforces the inequal structures proposed in the manifesto. At root, these “new” ideas are just a swing of the pendulum in a different, and no better, direction than the current system.

Although not slave nor serf, as public intellectual and social critic, I may be equally invisible to the masses. I have lived my academic life in a culture where I am tiny part of a minute minority with different priorities to the wider society in which I live. Human rights, for instance, do not occur without clear dangers to safety and freedom in my own strange land far from home.

Injustice is never solved by censorship.

A couple of millennia later, we find ourselves upon the crest of an issue that dare not be spoken lest someone takes offence. Our most important values and opinions and scholarship have been reduced to kindergarten level—we are bad people if we hurt anybody’s feelings.

By all means, change the names on those august halls of learning to honour W.E.B. DuBois and Sacagawea as you like, if it soothes you. Turn the statues around. And then get back to teaching what’s important. It’s called a discipline for a reason. Don’t steal the futures of the budding classicists of today.

There’s a root to the problem, and it’s not white privilege—it’s capitalism.** All blood is red and all sweat is salty.

How about teaching war no more?

For, in fact, we have no enemies save ourselves.

Let’s start acting—not acting, being—that way in real life.

If you believe you are not enslaved, you’re not looking deeply enough.

All we are meant to do is be steadfast and do our best to love everyone, despite our human failings. Dr. Padilla is choosing to be a victim and instead winds up a sore winner.

Virgil’s Aeneid will only be pried from my cold, dead hands.

Study the Latin, I pray thee! And leave the rest of us out of it!

CJ Hinke

Thammasat University



* e.g., Mohammed Bashir Salau, Plantation Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate, Rochester: University of Rochester, 2018.

** e.g., Rinaldo Walcott, On Property, Windsor: Biblioasis, 2021.

The hoary academic and his grapefruit spoons

February 24, 2021 by

My Mennonite neighbour, a teacher at a Christian international school, has a definition for white privilege: Do you own grapefruit spoons? (Sterling, of course. Plate suffers from acid foods. 

I come from that 1950s era of privilege and entitlement. I was born into the working-class with a silver (grapefruit) spoon in my mouth.

So along comes this yupstart from Princeton: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/02/magazine/classics-greece-rome-whiteness.html who thinks he grew some kind of racial conscience on the path to here. What I mean is, he’s young, has a long road still to tread.

I’m well aware of intolerance & injustice. Sorry, I just fail to see how (Western) classics as a discipline, anymore than study of, say, Sanskrit or Persian, rips off any person living today.

Injustice did not originate in the ancient world nor do classics perpetuate injustic today. Present-day people’s (let’s not be so precious as to call these ‘minorities’) self-image and self-value are not demeaned, insulted or devalued by the ancients or by us who are their oracles.

The purpose of education is to inform and permit evaluation in our present context. Study does not encourage or perpetuate our inherent beliefs. Hopefully, it chages them…for the better!

Studying the Nazis will not turn you antiSemitic. Studying slavery will not make you KKK. Reading Baldwin (or Catullus) is not gay. Similarly, the study of Athens and Rome will not get you to adopt anti-immigrant or pro-slavery ideas.

What the good Dr. Padilla is doing is further dividing us. That may, or may not, be his purpose; it may be an unintentional result. His 2020 “Faculty Letter”, actually a manifesto of demands rather than a civil letter, tells us bluntly that because there is an ‘us’, ergo, there is a ‘them’. 

The whole philosophy of  ‘others’…sucks. Dr. Padilla’s “manifesto won’t change anything in the human landscape. We have created a culture in which most Americans are just waiting to feel insulted, demeaned, denigrated.

The proposals of Dr.Padilla’s manifesto are neither revolutionary nor even radical. They simply make manifest an anarchic impulse to watch what chaos ensues when all the traffic lights go dark. So we must ask ourselves: Is that result something we can be proud of? Every one of us may have different nuanced answers to this question. As a citizen, I vote pollice verso

Everybody’s ancestors were enslaved. Everybody’s native countries were invaded. Is it all about numbers? Do the numbers of those enslaved, a million slaves in the Roman Empire or 12.5 million transported to the Americas, magnify injustice? Nope. Injustice is injustice.

Yeah, there’s a history of oppression of all kinds in human society forever. I fail to see that studying the history of the oppressors perpetuates oppression. In fact, the opposite. 

That study prevents evolving society from falling into the old traps. Study of classics makes all of us more equal, irrespective of colour or origin. We have an evolving capacity for humanity, compassion and conscience.

PC (or ‘woke’, if you prefer—as in waking nightmare) has run amok in the USA (not much, incidentally, in other places in these dark ages). Citizens of those other places seem to actually set the bar on issues in society worth fighting for & against a little higher.

The rot started well before expansion of the Tridentine Mass by the Second Vatican Council in 1969 to include vernacular languages. The beauty of the Mass was that the laity didn’t understand it! They just sat in the pews and absorbed God, let Him (or Her!) wash over them.

‘Critical race theory’ serves only to further divide us. Let’s start from now.

There are no amends which can be made for the past. No apologies are good enough. No Australian ‘Sorry Day’s make up for hunting Aboriginals for sport. 

How we move forward is by inclusion, not by making anybody special or different. This is precisely the attitude which perpetuates racism not cures it!

I may have lost my heirloom set of sterling grapefruit spoons, but I think efforts like Dr. Padilla’s manifesto could drive the final nail into the palm of Latin & Greek scholarship. It will serve only to polarise & divide classicists, something in our tiny numbers as a discipline, we can ill-afford. 

Does Dr. Padilla, in his ivory tower, really wish to disembowel the potential next generation of classicicists? Apparently, his philosophy hinges upon: 

“If any of you are still white, we can cure you.” *

Sure. Teach all that stuff. But as a separate discipline from Classics. That’s history, so teach it as history of Western civilization and Western oppression. As Western capitalism’s greed. Empire studies, for example. Teach Gandhi not Kipling.

I agree it’s high time we adopted a people’s history rather than a history of the powerful alone. It’s time to put the history of oppressors into a broader context.

It’s not any sort of genuine empowerment to dumb down education on the basis of colour, or gender. Equal opportunity should be based on merit, not appearance.

What did Dr.Padilla hope to gain by his explorations of the ancient world? Magic beans? An answer to the mystery of life? All he found there was, as the rest of human history, just a hill of beans.  

So a bunch of Whiteys stormed the Capitol. They thought it clever to adopt a Greek or Roman helmet or slogan. Why should that concern academic classicists, or, really, anybody? There’s an ample population of dumb-asses. So what?

Our colleague Dr. Padilla can be a superb mentor for meritorious students of any colour or origin or gender. By making sure they gain scholarships and admissions, we can contribute to the evolution of our discipline. Such students of merit will improve both their own lives & society.

Next up, will we ban Loeb Classical Library? These works were written by ancient classist slaveholders, by and large. Furthermore, those red Latin volumes are an insult to First Nations! The green to Martians of colour! 

Better the wrappers be rainbow hues or black in memoriam for cultures which are oh-s0 dead and have absolutely no relevance to our crucially-important modern lives. (“Wait, I have to take this!”)

It is remarkable that the names of these ancient authors, their writings and even their visages are remembered after two millennia. There are only a a few women poets and mystics; women in the ancient world were nearly as powerless as slaves. Almost all the authors are men—adventurers, biographers, geographers, historians, mathematicians, mythologists, philosophers, physicians, poets, politicians, playwrights, scientists, strategists.

These ancients have survived and are honoured after 2,000 years because their lives and their writings had meaning, deep underpinnings for who we all are, whether we know it or not. 

The quality of the human quality of meaning has been all but lost in the modern world. My megabytes and Dr. Padilla’s will not be remembered in 100, even by our descendents. 

We have all been exiled by fate. 

This issue at heart is posturing not social issue, pandering to the guilts of monied White men. Shall we paint the marble Greek busts black and blackface the classical authors? Think about how remarkable it is that some writings and the names of their authors mean something to us after 2,000 years. Their survival is all the more remarkable when we consider that the average lifespan in the ancient world was no more than 50 years.

Dr. Padilla’s approach of killing classics by ‘friendly’ fire, raises an elephant in the room. If he doesn’t like hoary, old white dudes (including many of us who profess), whyever did he choose classics for his field? We classicists see the underpinnings of both civilisation and beauty. What does Dan-el see when he looks in the mirror of classical antiquity?

If cultural philosopher and theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah finds we have no kinship with the ancient world, there is certainly no such affinity for Africa, either. What about that freed slave from Roman Africa, Terence, whose slave-name came from his master, Roman senator Terentius:

Terence, a freed slave whose slave-name derived from his former owner, Roman senator Terentius, described an aspiration all academics must share:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” 

(“I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”) **

Dr. Padilla tells us he “want[s] nothing to do with” classics as they are. But, undeniably, he chose the field of classics as his discipline against great odds. By this track, he is doing education itself a misguided disservice. And a disservice to himself.

I in no way mean to denigrate the brilliant and learned professor. I would far rather see him find peace and flourish. I hope he rediscovers and embraces why he chose the ancient world. Classics will not prove easy to kill, and to what purpose.

Nope, don’t buy it. I have a duty to the ancient world. Let the modern world look after itself.

CJ Hinke

Thammasat University




Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, New York: Harper & Row, 1995.

Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World: From the Srone Age to the New Millennium, London: Verso, 1999.

Dick Gregory, More Lies: The Myth and Reality of American History, New York: Perennial, 1971. 

Kwame Anthony Appiah, “There is no such thing as western civilisation”, The Guardian, November 9, 2016.

* Arthur C. Clarke, “Reunion”, Infinity #2, 1971

** Publius Terentius Afer, Heauton Timorumenos, 163 BC

Not so black and white

February 24, 2021 by

A Declaration of Independence by a Princeton Professor

Joshua T. Katz

Quillette: July 8, 2020

In Congress, on July 4th, 1776, came the “unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” Signed by 56 men, many of whom were considered national heroes just a few minutes ago, it opens with a long and elegant sentence whose first words every American child knows, or used to: “When in the Course of human events…” In Princeton, New Jersey, on July 4th, 2020, just two hours after my family and I sat around the festive table and read the Declaration aloud in celebration, a group of signatories now in the hundreds published a “Faculty Letter” to the president and other senior administrators at Princeton University. This letter begins with the following blunt sentence: “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.” One important difference between the two documents might wrongly be dismissed as merely cosmetic. In 1776 there were “united States” but there was not yet the “United States”; in these past two months, by contrast, at a time when we are increasingly un-united, “black” has become “Black” while “white” remains “white.” I am friends with many people who signed the Princeton letter, which requests and in some places demands a dizzying array of changes, and I support their right to speak as they see fit. But I am embarrassed for them. To judge from conversations with friends and all too much online scouting, there are two camps: those cheering them on and those who wouldn’t dream of being associated with such a document. No one is in the middle. If you haven’t yet read it, do so now. Be warned: it is long.

A Princeton faculty letter calls for eliminating academic freedom via a committee that would review all publications for racist thought (racist defined by the committee). It was issued on….July 4th. https://t.co/VeU9LICqbR

— Zaid Jilani (@ZaidJilani) July 6, 2020

There are four reasons why colleagues might have signed the letter.

(1) They believe in every word. I suppose this is true for a few, including, presumably, those members of the faculty who were the initial drafters.

(2) They signed without reading it. I would not ordinarily believe this, but I am aware of a similar petition, not at Princeton, that people were asked to sign—and did so!—before knowing what they were putting their name to.

(3) They felt peer pressure to sign. This is entirely believable.

(4) They agree with some of the demands and felt it was good to act as “allies” and bring up the numbers even though they do not assent to everything themselves.

I imagine that the majority fall into this last category. Indeed, plenty of ideas in the letter are ones I support. It is reasonable to “[g]ive new assistant professors summer move-in allowances on July 1” and to “make [admissions] fee waivers transparent, easy to use, and well-advertised.” “Accord[ing] greater importance to service as part of annual salary reviews” and “[i]mplement[ing] transparent annual reporting of demographic data on hiring, promotion, tenuring, and retention” seem unobjectionable. And I will cheerfully join the push for a “substantial expansion” of the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program, which encourages underrepresented minorities to enter PhD programs and strive to join the professoriate.

But then there are dozens of proposals that, if implemented, would lead to civil war on campus and erode even further public confidence in how elite institutions of higher education operate. Some examples: “Reward the invisible work done by faculty of color with course relief and summer salary” and “Faculty of color hired at the junior level should be guaranteed one additional semester of sabbatical” and “Provide additional human resources for the support of junior faculty of color.” Let’s leave aside who qualifies as “of color,” though this is not a trivial point. It boggles my mind that anyone would advocate giving people—extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors—extra perks for no reason other than their pigmentation.

“Establish a core distribution requirement focused on the history and legacy of racism in the country and on the campus.” There would be wisdom in this time of disunity in suggesting (not, in my view, requiring) that students take courses in American history and constitutionalism, both of which almost inevitably consider slavery and race, but that is not the same thing. Not incidentally, if you believe anti-blackness to be foundational, it is not a stretch to imagine that you will teach the 1619 Project as dogma.

“Commit fully to anti-racist campus iconography, beginning with the removal of the John Witherspoon statue.” Since I don’t care for this statue or its placement in front of the building in which I have my office, I would not be sad if it were moved away—but emphatically not because of Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was a major figure in Princeton and American history with a complex relationship to slavery. There is no reason for me to say more: Innumerable sensible people have commented on the impossibility that anyone can pass the Purity Test. Someone who passes today will not pass tomorrow.

“Acknowledge, credit, and incentivize anti-racist student activism. Such acknowledgment should, at a minimum, take the form of reparative action, beginning with a formal public University apology to the members of the Black Justice League and their allies.” The Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, was a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands. Recently I watched an “Instagram Live” of one of its alumni leaders, who—emboldened by recent events and egged on by over 200 supporters who were baying for blood—presided over what was effectively a Struggle Session against one of his former classmates. It was one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed, and I do not say this lightly.

“Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty… Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the [usual] set of rules and procedures.” This scares me more than anything else: For colleagues to police one another’s research and publications in this way would be outrageous. Let me be clear: Racist slurs and clear and documentable bias against someone because of skin color are reprehensible and should lead to disciplinary action, for which there is already a process. But is there anyone who doesn’t believe that this committee would be a star chamber with a low bar for cancellation, punishment, suspension, even dismissal?

A couple of weeks before the Faculty Letter, other missives to the Princeton administration were promulgated, most significantly two intemperately worded lists of demands signed by hundreds of present and former undergraduates and graduate students. The immediate consequence was the widely publicized removal of the name Woodrow Wilson from the School of Public and International Affairs and the first of the university’s six residential colleges (now blandly renamed “First College”). I mention these letters because the Faculty Letter states twice—first in connection with graduate-level requests and then again with reference to undergraduates—“We offer these recommendations in full support of theirs.” One of the demands of Princeton Graduate Students United is that public safety be defunded since (to quote the “X-Campus Statement against State Terror and Call for Termination of University-Police Ties” that was started at the University of Minnesota) “[p]olice, and their proxies, private security companies, have no place on university campuses.” I defy any of my colleagues to argue persuasively that defunding campus police is a good idea, even at idyllic Princeton. I defy anyone who signed that letter, directly or indirectly, to send his or her children to a college or university without campus security. Fantasizing that you can do without the police is the height of arrogant privilege.

Independence of thought is considered the hallmark of academia, but everyone deserves it. In the United States, thank heavens, freedom to think for oneself is still a right, not a privilege. To my colleagues who signed the Faculty Letter: If you signed it independently and thoughtfully, good for you. I hereby solemnly publish and declare my own declaration.

Joshua T. Katz is a professor of classics at Princeton.

Saving classics from ‘whiteness’

February 22, 2021 by


He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?

Dan-el Padilla Peralta thinks classicists should knock ancient Greece and Rome off their pedestal — even if that means destroying their discipline.
Rachel Poser

  • The New York Times Magazine, February 12, 2021

In the world of classics, the exchange between Dan-el Padilla Peralta and Mary Frances Williams has become known simply as “the incident.” Their back-and-forth took place at a Society of Classical Studies conference in January 2019 — the sort of academic gathering at which nothing tends to happen that would seem controversial or even interesting to those outside the discipline. But that year, the conference featured a panel on “The Future of Classics,” which, the participants agreed, was far from secure. On top of the problems facing the humanities as a whole — vanishing class sizes caused by disinvestment, declining prominence and student debt — classics was also experiencing a crisis of identity. Long revered as the foundation of “Western civilization,” the field was trying to shed its self-imposed reputation as an elitist subject overwhelmingly taught and studied by white men. Recently the effort had gained a new sense of urgency: Classics had been embraced by the far right, whose members held up the ancient Greeks and Romans as the originators of so-called white culture. Marchers in Charlottesville, Va., carried flags bearing a symbol of the Roman state; online reactionaries adopted classical pseudonyms; the white-supremacist website Stormfront displayed an image of the Parthenon alongside the tagline “Every month is white history month.”

Padilla, a leading historian of Rome who teaches at Princeton and was born in the Dominican Republic, was one of the panelists that day. For several years, he has been speaking openly about the harm caused by practitioners of classics in the two millenniums since antiquity: the classical justifications of slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism and other 20th-century fascisms. Classics was a discipline around which the modern Western university grew, and Padilla believes that it has sown racism through the entirety of higher education. Last summer, after Princeton decided to remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs, Padilla was a co-author of an open letter that pushed the university to do more. “We call upon the university to amplify its commitment to Black people,” it read, “and to become, for the first time in its history, an anti-racist institution.” Surveying the damage done by people who lay claim to the classical tradition, Padilla argues, one can only conclude that classics has been instrumental to the invention of “whiteness” and its continued domination.

In recent years, like-minded classicists have come together to dispel harmful myths about antiquity. On social media and in journal articles and blog posts, they have clarified that contrary to right-wing propaganda, the Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves “white,” and their marble sculptures, whose pale flesh has been fetishized since the 18th century, would often have been painted in antiquity. They have noted that in fifth-century-B.C. Athens, which has been celebrated as the birthplace of democracy, participation in politics was restricted to male citizens; thousands of enslaved people worked and died in silver mines south of the city, and custom dictated that upper-class women could not leave the house unless they were veiled and accompanied by a male relative. They have shown that the concept of Western civilization emerged as a euphemism for “white civilization” in the writing of men like Lothrop Stoddard, a Klansman and eugenicist. Some classicists have come around to the idea that their discipline forms part of the scaffold of white supremacy — a traumatic process one described to me as “reverse red-pilling” — but they are also starting to see an opportunity in their position. Because classics played a role in constructing whiteness, they believed, perhaps the field also had a role to play in its dismantling.

On the morning of the panel, Padilla stood out among his colleagues, as he always did. He sat in a crisp white shirt at the front of a large conference hall at a San Diego Marriott, where most of the attendees wore muted shades of gray. Over the course of 10 minutes, Padilla laid out an indictment of his field. “If one were intentionally to design a discipline whose institutional organs and gatekeeping protocols were explicitly aimed at disavowing the legitimate status of scholars of color,” he said, “one could not do better than what classics has done.” Padilla’s vision of classics’ complicity in systemic injustice is uncompromising, even by the standards of some of his allies. He has condemned the field as “equal parts vampire and cannibal” — a dangerous force that has been used to murder, enslave and subjugate. “He’s on record as saying that he’s not sure the discipline deserves a future,” Denis Feeney, a Latinist at Princeton, told me. Padilla believes that classics is so entangled with white supremacy as to be inseparable from it. “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity,” he has written, “the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.”

When Padilla ended his talk, the audience was invited to ask questions. Williams, an independent scholar from California, was one of the first to speak. She rose from her seat in the front row and adjusted a standing microphone that had been placed in the center of the room. “I’ll probably offend all of you,” she began. Rather than kowtowing to criticism, Williams said, “maybe we should start defending our discipline.” She protested that it was imperative to stand up for the classics as the political, literary and philosophical foundation of European and American culture: “It’s Western civilization. It matters because it’s the West.” Hadn’t classics given us the concepts of liberty, equality and democracy?

One panelist tried to interject, but Williams pressed on, her voice becoming harsh and staccato as the tide in the room moved against her. “I believe in merit. I don’t look at the color of the author.” She pointed a finger in Padilla’s direction. “You may have got your job because you’re Black,” Williams said, “but I would prefer to think you got your job because of merit.”

Discordant sounds went up from the crowd. Several people stood up from their seats and hovered around Williams at the microphone, seemingly unsure of whether or how to intervene. Padilla was smiling; it was the grimace of someone who, as he told me later, had been expecting something like this all along. At last, Williams ceded the microphone, and Padilla was able to speak. “Here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you outlined,” he said. “I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”

When Padilla was a child, his parents proudly referred to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, as the “Athens of the New World” — a center of culture and learning. That idea had been fostered by Rafael Trujillo, the dictator who ruled the country from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Like other 20th-century fascists, Trujillo saw himself, and his people, as the inheritors of a grand European tradition that originated in Greece and Rome. In a 1932 speech, he praised ancient Greece as the “mistress of beauty, rendered eternal in the impeccable whiteness of its marbles.” Trujillo’s veneration of whiteness was central to his message. By invoking the classical legacy, he could portray the residents of neighboring Haiti as darker and inferior, a campaign that reached its murderous peak in 1937 with the Parsley Massacre, or El Corte (“the Cutting”) in Spanish, in which Dominican troops killed as many as 30,000 Haitians and Black Dominicans, according to some estimates.

Padilla’s family didn’t talk much about their lives under the dictatorship, but he knew that his mother’s father had been beaten after arguing with some drunken Trujillistas. That grandfather, along with the rest of his mother’s relatives, were fishermen and sailors in Puerto Plata, a city on the coast; they lived in what Padilla describes as “immiserating poverty” but benefited from a degree of privilege in Dominican society because of their lighter skin. His father’s people, on the other hand, often joked that they were “black as night.” They had lived for generations in Pimentel, a city near the mountainous northeast where enslaved Africans had set up Maroon communities in the 1600s and 1700s, counting on the difficult terrain to give them a measure of safety. Like their counterparts in the United States, slavers in the Dominican Republic sometimes bestowed classical names on their charges as a mark of their civilizing mission, so the legacy of slavery — and its entanglement with classics — remains legible in the names of many Dominicans today. “Why are there Dominicans named Temístocles?” Padilla used to wonder as a kid. “Why is Manny Ramirez’s middle name Aristides?” Trujillo’s own middle name was Leónidas, after the Spartan king who martyred himself with 300 of his soldiers at Thermopylae, and who has become an icon of the far right. But in his early life, Padilla was aware of none of this. He only knew that he was Black like his father.

When Padilla was 4, he and his parents flew to the United States so that his mother, María Elena, could receive care for pregnancy complications at a New York City hospital. But after his brother, Yando, was born, the family decided to stay; they moved into an apartment in the Bronx and quietly tried to normalize their immigration status, spending their savings in the process. Without papers, it was hard to find steady work. Some time later, Padilla’s father returned to the Dominican Republic; he had been an accountant in Santo Domingo, and he was weary of poverty in the United States, where he had been driving a cab and selling fruit in the summers. That left María Elena with the two boys in New York. Because Yando was a U.S. citizen, she received $120 in food stamps and $85 in cash each month, but it was barely enough to feed one child, let alone a family of three. Over the next few months, María Elena and her sons moved between apartments in Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens, packing up and finding a new place each time they couldn’t make rent. For about three weeks, the landlord of a building in Queens let them stay in the basement as a favor, but when a sewage pipe burst over them as they were sleeping, María Elena found her way to a homeless shelter in Chinatown.

At the shelter, “the food tasted nasty,” and “pools of urine” marred the bathroom floor, Padilla wrote in his 2015 memoir, “Undocumented.” His one place of respite was the tiny library on the shelter’s top floor. Since leaving the Dominican Republic, Padilla had grown curious about Dominican history, but he couldn’t find any books about the Caribbean on the library’s shelves. What he did find was a slim blue-and-white textbook titled “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome.” “Western civilization was formed from the union of early Greek wisdom and the highly organized legal minds of early Rome,” the book began. “The Greek belief in a person’s ability to use his powers of reason, coupled with Roman faith in military strength, produced a result that has come to us as a legacy, or gift from the past.” Thirty years later, Padilla can still recite those opening lines. “How many times have I taken an ax to this over the last decade of my career?” he said to me. “But at the moment of the initial encounter, there was something energizing about it.” Padilla took the textbook back to the room he shared with his mother and brother and never returned it to the library.

One day in the summer of 1994, a photographer named Jeff Cowen, who was teaching art at a shelter in Bushwick, where María Elena and the boys had been transferred, noticed 9-year-old Padilla tucked away by himself, reading a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. “The kids were running around like crazy on their after-lunch sugar high, and there was a boy sitting in the corner with this enormous tome,” Cowen told me. “He stood up and shook my hand like a little gentleman, speaking like he’s some kind of Ivy League professor.” Cowen was taken aback. “I was really struggling at the time. I was living in an illegal building without a toilet, so I wasn’t really looking to be a do-gooder,” he said. “But within five minutes, it was obvious that this kid deserved the best education he could get. It was a responsibility.”

Cowen became a mentor to Padilla, and then his godfather. He visited the shelter with books and brain teasers, took Padilla and Yando roller-skating in Central Park and eventually helped Padilla apply to Collegiate, one of New York City’s elite prep schools, where he was admitted with a full scholarship. María Elena, elated, photocopied his acceptance letter and passed it around to her friends at church. At Collegiate, Padilla began taking Latin and Greek and found himself overwhelmed by the emotive power of classical texts; he was captivated by the sting of Greek philosophy, the heat and action of epic. Padilla told none of his new friends that he was undocumented. “There were some conversations I simply wasn’t ready to have,” he has said in an interview. When his classmates joked about immigrants, Padilla sometimes thought of a poem he had read by the Greek lyricist Archilochus, about a soldier who throws his shield in a bush and flees the battlefield. “At least I got myself safely out,” the soldier says. “Why should I care for that shield? Let it go. Some other time I’ll find another no worse.” Don’t expose yourself, he thought. There would be other battles.

Years passed before Padilla started to question the way the textbook had presented the classical world to him. He was accepted on a full scholarship to Princeton, where he was often the only Black person in his Latin and Greek courses. “The hardest thing for me as I was making my way into the discipline as a college student was appreciating how lonely I might be,” Padilla told me. In his sophomore year, when it came time to select a major, the most forceful resistance to his choice came from his close friends, many of whom were also immigrants or the children of immigrants. They asked Padilla questions he felt unprepared to answer. What are you doing with this blanquito stuff? How is this going to help us? Padilla argued that he and others shouldn’t shun certain pursuits just because the world said they weren’t for Black and brown people. There was a special joy and vindication in upending their expectations, but he found he wasn’t completely satisfied by his own arguments. The question of classics’ utility was not a trivial one. How could he take his education in Latin and Greek and make it into something liberatory? “That became the most urgent question that guided me through my undergraduate years and beyond,” Padilla said.

After graduating as Princeton’s 2006 salutatorian, Padilla earned a master’s degree from Oxford and a doctorate from Stanford. By then, more scholars than ever were seeking to understand not only the elite men who had written the surviving works of Greek and Latin literature, but also the ancient people whose voices were mostly silent in the written record: women, the lower classes, enslaved people and immigrants. Courses on gender and race in antiquity were becoming common and proving popular with students, but it wasn’t yet clear whether their imprint on the discipline would last. “There are some in the field,” Ian Morris, an adviser of Padilla’s at Stanford, told me, “who say: ‘Yes, we agree with your critique. Now let us go back to doing exactly what we’ve been doing.’” Reformers had learned from the old debates around “Black Athena” — Martin Bernal’s trilogy positing African and Semitic influence on ancient Greek culture — just how resistant some of their colleagues were to acknowledging the field’s role in whitewashing antiquity. “Classicists generally identify as liberal,” Joel Christensen, a professor of Greek literature at Brandeis University, told me. “But we are able to do that because most of the time we’re not in spaces or with people who push us about our liberalism and what that means.”

Thinking of his family’s own history, Padilla became interested in Roman slavery. Decades of research had focused on the ability of enslaved people to transcend their status through manumission, celebrating the fact that the buying and granting of freedom was much more common in Rome than in other slaveholding societies. But there were many who stood no chance of being freed, particularly those who worked in the fields or the mines, far from centers of power. “We have so many testimonies for how profoundly degrading enslavement was,” Padilla told me. Enslaved people in ancient Rome could be tortured and crucified; forced into marriage; chained together in work gangs; made to fight gladiators or wild animals; and displayed naked in marketplaces with signs around their necks advertising their age, character and health to prospective buyers. Owners could tattoo their foreheads so they could be recognized and captured if they tried to flee. Temple excavations have uncovered clay dedications from escapees, praying for the gods to remove the disfiguring marks from their faces. Archaeologists have also found metal collars riveted around the necks of skeletons in burials of enslaved people, among them an iron ring with a bronze tag preserved in the Museo Nazionale in Rome that reads: “I have run away; hold me. When you have brought me back to my master Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.”

By 2015, when Padilla arrived at the Columbia Society of Fellows as a postdoctoral researcher, classicists were no longer apologists for ancient slavery, but many doubted that the inner worlds of enslaved people were recoverable, because no firsthand account of slavery had survived the centuries. That answer did not satisfy Padilla. He had begun to study the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which had shaped his mother’s mystical brand of Catholicism. María Elena moved through a world that was haunted by spirits, numinous presences who could give comfort and advice or demand sacrifice and appeasement. For a while, when Padilla was in high school, his mother invited a santero and his family to live with them at their Section 8 apartment in Harlem, where the man would conjure spirits that seethed at Padilla for his bad behavior. Padilla realized that his mother’s conception of the dead reminded him of the Romans’, which gave him an idea. In 2017, he published a paper in the journal Classical Antiquity that compared evidence from antiquity and the Black Atlantic to draw a more coherent picture of the religious life of the Roman enslaved. “It will not do merely to adopt a pose of ‘righteous indignation’ at the distortions and gaps in the archive,” he wrote. “There are tools available for the effective recovery of the religious experiences of the enslaved, provided we work with these tools carefully and honestly.”

Padilla began to feel that he had lost something in devoting himself to the classical tradition. As James Baldwin observed 35 years before, there was a price to the ticket. His earlier work on the Roman senatorial classes, which earned him a reputation as one of the best Roman historians of his generation, no longer moved him in the same way. Padilla sensed that his pursuit of classics had displaced other parts of his identity, just as classics and “Western civilization” had displaced other cultures and forms of knowledge. Recovering them would be essential to dismantling the white-supremacist framework in which both he and classics had become trapped. “I had to actively engage in the decolonization of my mind,” he told me. He revisited books by Frantz Fanon, Orlando Patterson and others working in the traditions of Afro-pessimism and psychoanalysis, Caribbean and Black studies. He also gravitated toward contemporary scholars like José Esteban Muñoz, Lorgia García Peña and Saidiya Hartman, who speak of race not as a physical fact but as a ghostly system of power relations that produces certain gestures, moods, emotions and states of being. They helped him think in more sophisticated terms about the workings of power in the ancient world, and in his own life.

Around the time that Padilla began working on the paper, Donald Trump made his first comments on the presidential campaign trail about Mexican “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” coming into the country. Padilla, who spent the previous 20 years dealing with an uncertain immigration status, had just applied for a green card after celebrating his marriage to a social worker named Missy from Sparta, N.J. Now he watched as alt-right figures like Richard Spencer, who had fantasized about creating a “white ethno-state on the North American continent” that would be “a reconstitution of the Roman Empire,” rose to national prominence. In response to rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States, Mary Beard, perhaps the most famous classicist alive, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the Romans “would have been puzzled by our modern problems with migration and asylum,” because the empire was founded on the “principles of incorporation and of the free movement of people.”

Padilla found himself frustrated by the manner in which scholars were trying to combat Trumpian rhetoric. In November 2015, he wrote an essay for Eidolon, an online classics journal, clarifying that in Rome, as in the United States, paeans to multiculturalism coexisted with hatred of foreigners. Defending a client in court, Cicero argued that “denying foreigners access to our city is patently inhumane,” but ancient authors also recount the expulsions of whole “suspect” populations, including a roundup of Jews in 139 B.C., who were not considered “suitable enough to live alongside Romans.” Padilla argues that exposing untruths about antiquity, while important, is not enough: Explaining that an almighty, lily-white Roman Empire never existed will not stop white nationalists from pining for its return. The job of classicists is not to “point out the howlers,” he said on a 2017 panel. “To simply take the position of the teacher, the qualified classicist who knows things and can point to these mistakes, is not sufficient.” Dismantling structures of power that have been shored up by the classical tradition will require more than fact-checking; it will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.

To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would “explode the canon” and “overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,” including doing away with the label “classics” altogether. Classics was happy to embrace him when he was changing the face of the discipline, but how would the field react when he asked it to change its very being? The way it breathed and moved? “Some students and some colleagues have told me this is either too depressing or it’s sort of menacing in a way,” he said. “My only rejoinder is that I’m not interested in demolition for demolition’s sake. I want to build something.”

One day last February, shortly before the pandemic ended in-person teaching, I visited Padilla at Princeton. Campus was quiet and morose, the silences quivering with early-term nerves. A storm had swept the leaves from the trees and the color from the sky, which was now the milky gray of laundry water, and the air was so heavy with mist that it seemed to be blurring the outlines of the buildings. That afternoon, Padilla was teaching a Roman-history course in one of the oldest lecture halls at the university, a grand, vaulted room with creaking floorboards and mullioned windows. The space was not designed for innovative pedagogy. Each wooden chair was bolted to the floor with a paddle-shaped extension that served as a desk but was barely big enough to hold a notebook, let alone a laptop. “This was definitely back in the day when the students didn’t even take notes,” one student said as she sat down. “Like, ‘My dad’s going to give me a job.’”

Since returning to campus as a professor in 2016, Padilla has been working to make Princeton’s classics department a more welcoming place for students like him — first-generation students and students of color. In 2018, the department secured funding for a predoctoral fellowship to help a student with less exposure to Latin and Greek enter the Ph.D. program. That initiative, and the draw of Padilla as a mentor, has contributed to making Princeton’s graduate cohort one of the most diverse in the country. Pria Jackson, a Black predoctoral fellow who is the daughter of a mortician from New Mexico, told me that before she came to Princeton, she doubted that she could square her interest in classics with her commitment to social justice. “I didn’t think that I could do classics and make a difference in the world the way that I wanted to,” she said. “My perception of what it could do has changed.”

Padilla’s Roman-history course was a standard introductory survey, something the university had been offering for decades, if not centuries, but he was not teaching it in the standard way. He was experimenting with role play in order to prompt his students to imagine what it was like to be subjects of an imperial system. The previous week, he asked them to recreate a debate that took place in the Roman Senate in A.D. 15 about a proposed waterworks project that communities in central Italy feared would change the flow of the Tiber River, destroying animal habitats and flooding old shrines. (Unlike the Senate, the Princeton undergraduates decided to let the project go ahead as planned.) Today’s situation was inspired by the crises of succession that threatened to tear the early empire apart. Out of the 80 students in the lecture, Padilla had assigned four to be young military commanders — claimants vying for the throne — and four to be wealthy Roman senators; the rest were split between the Praetorian Guard and marauding legionaries whose swords could be bought in exchange for money, land and honors. It was designed to help his students “think as capaciously as possible about the many lives, human and nonhuman, that are touched by the shift from republic to empire.”

Padilla stood calmly behind the lectern as students filed into the room, wearing rectangular-framed glasses low on his nose and a maroon sweater over a collared shirt. The stillness of his body only heightened the sense of his mind churning. “He carries a big stick without having to show it off,” Cowen, Padilla’s childhood mentor, told me. “He’s kind of soft on the outside but very hard on the inside.” Padilla speaks in the highly baroque language of the academy — a style that can seem so deliberate as to function as a kind of protective armor. It is the flinty, guarded manner of someone who has learned to code-switch, someone who has always been aware that it is not only what he says but also how he says it that carries meaning. Perhaps it is for that reason that Padilla seems most at ease while speaking to students, when his phrasing loses some of its formality and his voice takes on the incantatory cadence of poetry. “Silence,” he said once the room had quieted, “my favorite sound.”

Padilla called the claimants up to the front of the room. At first, they stood uncertainly on the dais, like adolescents auditioning for a school play. Then, slowly, they moved into the rows of wooden desks. I watched as one of them, a young man wearing an Army-green football T-shirt that said “Support Our Troops,” propositioned a group of legionaries. “I’ll take land from non-Romans and give it to you, grant you citizenship,” he promised them. As more students left their seats and began negotiating, bids and counterbids reverberated against the stone walls. Not everyone was taking it seriously. At one point, another claimant approached a blue-eyed legionary in a lacrosse sweatshirt to ask what it would take to gain his support. “I just want to defend my right to party,” he responded. “Can I get a statue erected to my mother?” someone else asked. A stocky blond student kept charging to the front of the room and proposing that they simply “kill everybody.” But Padilla seemed energized by the chaos. He moved from group to group, sowing discord. “Why let someone else take over?” he asked one student. If you are a soldier or a peasant who is unhappy with imperial governance, he told another, how do you resist? “What kinds of alliances can you broker?”

Over the next 40 minutes, there were speeches, votes, broken promises and bloody conflicts. Several people were assassinated. Eventually it seemed as though two factions were coalescing, and a count was called. The young man in the football shirt won the empire by seven votes, and Padilla returned to the lectern. “What I want to be thinking about in the next few weeks,” he told them, “is how we can be telling the story of the early Roman Empire not just through a variety of sources but through a variety of persons.” He asked the students to consider the lives behind the identities he had assigned them, and the way those lives had been shaped by the machinery of empire, which, through military conquest, enslavement and trade, creates the conditions for the large-scale movement of human beings.

Once the students had left the room, accompanied by the swish of umbrellas and waterproof synthetics, I asked Padilla why he hadn’t assigned any slave roles. Tracing his fingers along the crown of his head, he told me he had thought about it. It troubled him that he might be “re-enacting a form of silencing” by avoiding enslaved characters, given the fact that slavery was “arguably the most ubiquitous feature of the Roman imperial system.” As a historian, he knew that the assets at the disposal of the four wealthy senators — the 100 million sesterces he had given them to back one claimant over another — would have been made up in large part of the enslaved who worked in their mines and plowed the fields of their country estates. Was it harmful to encourage students to imagine themselves in roles of such comfort, status and influence, when a vast majority of people in the Roman world would never have been in a position to be a senator? But ultimately, he decided that leaving enslaved characters out of the role play was an act of care. “I’m not yet ready to turn to a student and say, ‘You are going to be a slave.’”

Even before “the incident,” Padilla was a target of right-wing anger because of the blistering language he uses and, many would say, because of the body he inhabits. In the aftermath of his exchange with Williams, which was covered in the conservative media, Padilla received a series of racist emails. “Maybe African studies would suit you better if you can’t hope with the reality of how advanced Europeans were,” one read. “You could figure out why the wheel had never made it sub-Saharan African you meathead. Lucky for you, your black, because you have little else on offer.” Breitbart ran a story accusing Padilla of “killing” classics. “If there was one area of learning guaranteed never to be hijacked by the forces of ignorance, political correctness, identity politics, social justice and dumbing down, you might have thought it would be classics,” it read. “Welcome, barbarians! The gates of Rome are wide open!”

Privately, even some sympathetic classicists worry that Padilla’s approach will only hasten the field’s decline. “I’ve spoken to undergrad majors who say that they feel ashamed to tell their friends they’re studying classics,” Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, told me. “I think it’s sad.” He noted that the classical tradition has often been put to radical and disruptive uses. Civil rights movements and marginalized groups across the world have drawn inspiration from ancient texts in their fights for equality, from African-Americans to Irish Republicans to Haitian revolutionaries, who viewed their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a Black Spartacus. The heroines of Greek tragedy — untamed, righteous, destructive women like Euripides’ Medea — became symbols of patriarchal resistance for feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, and the descriptions of same-sex love in the poetry of Sappho and in the Platonic dialogues gave hope and solace to gay writers like Oscar Wilde.

“I very much admire Dan-el’s work, and like him, I deplore the lack of diversity in the classical profession,” Mary Beard told me via email. But “to ‘condemn’ classical culture would be as simplistic as to offer it unconditional admiration.” She went on: “My line has always been that the duty of the academic is to make things seem more complicated.” In a 2019 talk, Beard argued that “although classics may become politicized, it doesn’t actually have a politics,” meaning that, like the Bible, the classical tradition is a language of authority — a vocabulary that can be used for good or ill by would-be emancipators and oppressors alike. Over the centuries, classical civilization has acted as a model for people of many backgrounds, who turned it into a matrix through which they formed and debated ideas about beauty, ethics, power, nature, selfhood, citizenship and, of course, race. Anthony Grafton, the great Renaissance scholar, put it this way in his preface to “The Classical Tradition”: “An exhaustive exposition of the ways in which the world has defined itself with regard to Greco-Roman antiquity would be nothing less than a comprehensive history of the world.”

How these two old civilizations became central to American intellectual life is a story that begins not in antiquity, and not even in the Renaissance, but in the Enlightenment. Classics as we know it today is a creation of the 18th and 19th centuries. During that period, as European universities emancipated themselves from the control of the church, the study of Greece and Rome gave the Continent its new, secular origin story. Greek and Latin writings emerged as a competitor to the Bible’s moral authority, which lent them a liberatory power. Figures like Diderot and Hume derived some of their ideas on liberty from classical texts, where they found declarations of political and personal freedoms. One of the most influential was Pericles’ funeral oration over the graves of the Athenian war dead in 431 B.C., recorded by Thucydides, in which the statesman praises his “glorious” city for ensuring “equal justice to all.” “Our government does not copy our neighbors’,” he says, “but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few.”

Admiration for the ancients took on a fantastical, unhinged quality, like a strange sort of mania. Men draped themselves in Roman togas to proclaim in public, signed their letters with the names of famous Romans and filled etiquette manuals, sermons and schoolbooks with lessons from the classical past. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German antiquarian of the 18th century, assured his countrymen that “the only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if possible, is to imitate the Greeks.” Winckelmann, who is sometimes called the “father of art history,” judged Greek marble sculpture to be the summit of human achievement — unsurpassed by any other society, ancient or modern. He wrote that the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of Athenian art reflected the “freedom” of the culture that produced it, an entanglement of artistic and moral value that would influence Hegel’s “Aesthetics” and appear again in the poetry of the Romantics. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Historians stress that such ideas cannot be separated from the discourses of nationalism, colorism and progress that were taking shape during the modern colonial period, as Europeans came into contact with other peoples and their traditions. “The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is,” Winkelmann wrote. While Renaissance scholars were fascinated by the multiplicity of cultures in the ancient world, Enlightenment thinkers created a hierarchy with Greece and Rome, coded as white, on top, and everything else below. “That exclusion was at the heart of classics as a project,” Paul Kosmin, a professor of ancient history at Harvard, told me. Among those Enlightenment thinkers were many of America’s founding fathers. Aristotle’s belief that some people were “slaves by nature” was welcomed with special zeal in the American South before the Civil War, which sought to defend slavery in the face of abolitionist critique. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson wrote that despite their condition in life, Rome’s enslaved showed themselves to be the “rarest artists” who “excelled too at science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children.” The fact that Africans had not done the same, he argued, proved that the problem was their race.

Jefferson, along with most wealthy young men of his time, studied classics at college, where students often spent half their time reading and translating Greek and Roman texts. “Next to Christianity,” writes Caroline Winterer, a historian at Stanford, “the central intellectual project in America before the late 19th century was classicism.” Of the 2.5 million people living in America in 1776, perhaps only 3,000 had gone to college, but that number included many of the founders. They saw classical civilization as uniquely educative — a “lamp of experience,” in the words of Patrick Henry, that could light the path to a more perfect union. However true it was, subsequent generations would come to believe, as Hannah Arendt wrote in “On Revolution,” that “without the classical example … none of the men of the Revolution on either side of the Atlantic would have possessed the courage for what then turned out to be unprecedented action.”

While the founding fathers chose to emulate the Roman republic, fearful of the tyranny of the majority, later generations of Americans drew inspiration from Athenian democracy, particularly after the franchise was extended to nearly all white men regardless of property ownership in the early decades of the 1800s. Comparisons between the United States and the Roman Empire became popular as the country emerged as a global power. Even after Latin and Greek were struck from college-entrance exams, the proliferation of courses on “great books” and Western civilization, in which classical texts were read in translation, helped create a coherent national story after the shocks of industrialization and global warfare. The project of much 20th-century art and literature was to forge a more complicated relationship with Greece and Rome, but even as the classics were pulled apart, laughed at and transformed, they continued to form the raw material with which many artists shaped their visions of modernity.

Over the centuries, thinkers as disparate as John Adams and Simone Weil have likened classical antiquity to a mirror. Generations of intellectuals, among them feminist, queer and Black scholars, have seen something of themselves in classical texts, flashes of recognition that held a kind of liberatory promise. Daniel Mendelsohn, a gay classicist and critic, discovered his sexuality at 12 while reading historical fiction about the life of Alexander the Great. “Until that moment,” he wrote in The New Yorker in 2013, “I had never seen my secret feelings reflected anywhere.” But the idea of classics as a mirror may be as dangerous as it is seductive. The language that is used to describe the presence of classical antiquity in the world today — the classical tradition, legacy or heritage — contains within it the idea of a special, quasi-genetic relationship. In his lecture “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilization,” Kwame Anthony Appiah (this magazine’s Ethicist columnist) mockingly describes the belief in such a kinship as the belief in a “golden nugget” of insight — a precious birthright and shimmering sign of greatness — that white Americans and Europeans imagine has been passed down to them from the ancients. That belief has been so deeply held that the philosopher John Stuart Mill could talk about the Battle of Marathon, in which the Greeks defeated the first Persian invasion in 490 B.C., as one of the most important events in “English history.”

To see classics the way Padilla sees it means breaking the mirror; it means condemning the classical legacy as one of the most harmful stories we’ve told ourselves. Padilla is wary of colleagues who cite the radical uses of classics as a way to forestall change; he believes that such examples have been outmatched by the field’s long alliance with the forces of dominance and oppression. Classics and whiteness are the bones and sinew of the same body; they grew strong together, and they may have to die together. Classics deserves to survive only if it can become “a site of contestation” for the communities who have been denigrated by it in the past. This past semester, he co-taught a course, with the Activist Graduate School, called “Rupturing Tradition,” which pairs ancient texts with critical race theory and strategies for organizing. “I think that the politics of the living are what constitute classics as a site for productive inquiry,” he told me. “When folks think of classics, I would want them to think about folks of color.” But if classics fails his test, Padilla and others are ready to give it up. “I would get rid of classics altogether,” Walter Scheidel, another of Padilla’s former advisers at Stanford, told me. “I don’t think it should exist as an academic field.”

One way to get rid of classics would be to dissolve its faculties and reassign their members to history, archaeology and language departments. But many classicists are advocating softer approaches to reforming the discipline, placing the emphasis on expanding its borders. Schools including Howard and Emory have integrated classics with Ancient Mediterranean studies, turning to look across the sea at Egypt, Anatolia, the Levant and North Africa. The change is a declaration of purpose: to leave behind the hierarchies of the Enlightenment and to move back toward the Renaissance model of the ancient world as a place of diversity and mixture. “There’s a more interesting story to be told about the history of what we call the West, the history of humanity, without valorizing particular cultures in it,” said Josephine Quinn, a professor of ancient history at Oxford. “It seems to me the really crucial mover in history is always the relationship between people, between cultures.” Ian Morris put it more bluntly. “Classics is a Euro-American foundation myth,” Morris said to me. “Do we really want that sort of thing?”

For many, inside the academy and out, the answer to that question is yes. Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, believes that society would “lose a great deal” if classics was abandoned. Feeney is 65, and after he retires this year, he says, his first desire is to sit down with Homer again. “In some moods, I feel that this is just a moment of despair, and people are trying to find significance even if it only comes from self-accusation,” he told me. “I’m not sure that there is a discipline that is exempt from the fact that it is part of the history of this country. How distinctly wicked is classics? I don’t know that it is.” Amy Richlin, a feminist scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, who helped lead the turn toward the study of women in the Roman world, laughed when I mentioned the idea of breaking up classics departments in the Ivy League. “Good luck getting rid of them,” she said. “These departments have endowments, and they’re not going to voluntarily dissolve themselves.” But when I pressed her on whether it was desirable, if not achievable, she became contemplative. Some in the discipline, particularly graduate students and untenured faculty members, worry that administrators at small colleges and public universities will simply use the changes as an excuse to cut programs. “One of the dubious successes of my generation is that it did break the canon,” Richlin told me. “I don’t think we could believe at the time that we would be putting ourselves out of business, but we did.” She added: “If they blew up the classics departments, that would really be the end.”

Padilla has said that he “cringes” when he remembers his youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition. Today he describes his discovery of the textbook at the Chinatown shelter as a sinister encounter, as though the book had been lying in wait for him. He compares the experience to a scene in one of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, when Mr. Auld, Douglass’s owner in Baltimore, chastises his wife for helping Douglass learn to read: “ ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.’” In that moment, Douglass says he understood that literacy was what separated white men from Black — “a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things.” “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing,” Douglass writes. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” Learning the secret only deepened his sense of exclusion.

Padilla, like Douglass, now sees the moment of absorption into the classical, literary tradition as simultaneous with his apprehension of racial difference; he can no longer find pride or comfort in having used it to bring himself out of poverty. He permits himself no such relief. “Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,” Padilla has said, “requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.” He refuses to “praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.”

Last June, as racial-justice protests unfolded across the nation, Padilla turned his attention to arenas beyond classics. He and his co-authors — the astrophysicist Jenny Greene, the literary theorist Andrew Cole and the poet Tracy K. Smith — began writing their open letter to Princeton with 48 proposals for reform. “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America,” the letter began. “Indifference to the effects of racism on this campus has allowed legitimate demands for institutional support and redress in the face of microaggression and outright racist incidents to go long unmet.” Signed by more than 300 members of the faculty, the letter was released publicly on the Fourth of July. In response, Joshua Katz, a prominent Princeton classicist, published an op-ed in the online magazine Quillette in which he referred to the Black Justice League, a student group, as a “terrorist organization” and warned that certain proposals in the faculty letter would “lead to civil war on campus.”

Few in the academy cared to defend Katz’s choice of words, but he was far from the only person who worried that some of the proposals were unwise, if not dangerous. Most controversial was the idea of establishing a committee that would “oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research and publication” — a body that many viewed as a threat to free academic discourse. “I’m concerned about how you define what racist research is,” one professor told me. “That’s a line that’s constantly moving. Punishing people for doing research that other people think is racist just does not seem like the right response.” But Padilla believes that the uproar over free speech is misguided. “I don’t see things like free speech or the exchange of ideas as ends in themselves,” he told me. “I have to be honest about that. I see them as a means to the end of human flourishing.”

On Jan. 6, Padilla turned on the television minutes after the windows of the Capitol were broken. In the crowd, he saw a man in a Greek helmet with TRUMP 2020 painted in white. He saw flags embroidered with the phrase that Leonidas is said to have uttered when the Persian king ordered him to lay down his arms: Molon labe, classical Greek for “Come and take them,” which has become a slogan of American gun rights activists. A week after the riot, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, a newly elected Republican from Georgia who has liked posts on social media that call for killing Democrats, wore a mask stitched with the phrase when she voted against impeachment on the House floor.

“There is a certain kind of classicist who will look on what transpired and say, ‘Oh, that’s not us,’” Padilla said when we spoke recently. “What is of interest to me is why is it so imperative for classicists of a certain stripe to make this discursive move? ‘This is not us.’ Systemic racism is foundational to those institutions that incubate classics and classics as a field itself. Can you take stock, can you practice the recognition of the manifold ways in which racism is a part of what you do? What the demands of the current political moment mean?”

Padilla suspects that he will one day need to leave classics and the academy in order to push harder for the changes he wants to see in the world. He has even considered entering politics. “I would never have thought the position I hold now to be attainable to me as a kid,” he said. “But the fact that this is a minor miracle does not displace my deep sense that this is temporary too.” His influence on the field may be more permanent than his presence in it. “Dan-el has galvanized a lot of people,” Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a professor at Denison University, told me. Joel Christensen, the Brandeis professor, now feels that it is his “moral and ethical and intellectual responsibility” to teach classics in a way that exposes its racist history. “Otherwise we’re just participating in propaganda,” he said. Christensen, who is 42, was in graduate school before he had his “crisis of faith,” and he understands the fear that many classicists may experience at being asked to rewrite the narrative of their life’s work. But, he warned, “that future is coming, with or without Dan-el.”

Correction:Feb. 12, 2021

An earlier version of this article included an erroneous reference to a T-shirt with an anti-Semitic acronym. The man wearing that T-shirt was at a rally in December; he was not at the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6.

Rachel Poser is the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her writing, which often focuses on the relationship between past and present, has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Mother Jones and elsewhere.

A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 7, 2021, Page 38 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: “The Iconoclast”.

The Classical Wizard: Georgius Van Buren 1948-2017

September 24, 2017 by

The Classical Wizard, Georgius Van Buren, died July 30, 2017 in Poughkeepsie, New York. He was 69.

George was a devoted member of The International Wizard of Oz Club for over three decades. He was well-known for his Oz pastiches which appeared at annual Club conventions and in print in Oziana.

George was justly famous for relying on his dyslexia to explain why he was a Luddite in the tech age. He refused computers and even typewriters, which led to long, and sometimes heated, handwritten postal correspondence in several colours of George’s hand, red pen for Latin, green for Greek, just like the volumes of the Loeb Classical Library. He may have been the world’s only person for whom Latin was his first language.

This was how we came to translate The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into Latin. George would translate a chapter in Poughkeepsie and mail it to me in Tofino, British Columbia. I’d correct it and type it up and translate the next chapter to mail to him. It took us more than two years to translate the book this way. It was published in 1987 by Scolar Press in Berkeley as The Classical Wizard / Magus Mirabilis in Oz.

I recently came to transcribe George’s last story for Oziana. We had been planning a full-Denslowcolour facsimile edition of The Classical Wizard for the last year and revising the Latin text. In that time, George also devoted himself to advising a Latin translation of Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs by our editor at the University of Warsaw, Dr. Konrad Kokoszkiewicz.

I am so sorry he did not live to see his magnum opus printed in its full glory. But GVB, the classical wizard, gave his last energy to its completion. If the Land of Oz is the next life, I’m sure George can be found conversing with the ancients on his own terms!

Thus, mortui vivos docent, the dead teach the living, the next generation of Latin students. Rust in peace, my friend—big heart, like Lignator Stanneus.

Mortui vivos docent,
manibus date lilia plenis
(Aeneid VI.883)

Ferruginat in pace… 

Georgius Van Buren 1948-2017

C.J. Hinke

Capto et in fossa!

September 24, 2017 by

Nuper eram in itinere Americae Latinae habita, et non habeo quod poenitet me et non magis Latinam in schola studere ut posset loqui cum illis populo.

– Dan Quayle, Proconsul Minor, FCA, MCMLXXXIX.


Capto et in fossa. – Donald Trump, Imperator, FCA, MMXVI.

“Human Life Is Punishment,” and Other Pleasures of Studying Latin – The Paris Review

September 24, 2017 by

Frankie Thomas

The Paris Review: September 21, 2017



The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I am currently enrolled, doesn’t require you to do much of anything. Time is largely unstructured here; as long as your writing gets done, you barely have to get out of bed for two years. When I first realized this, I panicked, and then I registered for an undergraduate course in elementary Latin. I don’t even get academic credit for it.

I just wanted something in my life, amidst the subjective muck of the creative process, that I could be objectively good at—the occasional dopamine rush of a check mark, an A grade, a scribbled Great job! from an authority figure—and I remembered being good at Latin.

It had been almost two decades since I last looked at a Latin textbook, but I was optimistic that I’d retained a lot. My seventh-grade Latin textbook left a vivid impression on me. It followed the fictionalized adventures of a real-life Pompeian household (vocab words for the final chapter included volcano, to erupt, smoke, ashes, in despair), and to this day, I remember the whole cast of characters: Caecilius, a banker; Metella, his wife; Grumio, their cook; and Cerberus, the dog, who stays by his master’s side to the very end (RIP, little buddy). I’ll never forget the passage in which Melissa, a newly purchased slave girl, is first presented to the household: my translation was “Melissa pleases CaeciliusMelissa pleases Grumio. Uh-oh—Melissa does not please Metella!” It was pretty juicy material, by seventh-grade standards. (I just Googled these names, so I can tell you that the book was The Cambridge Latin Course: Book 1, and that it has a surprisingly robust fandom on Tumblr.)

My middle school required two years of Latin, and the worse I did socially, the better I did at Latin. At the social nadir of my seventh-grade year, on the heels of my thirteenth birthday and my parents’ divorce, my best friend unexpectedly dumped me dramatically in a crowded school hallway. “You’re a BITCH from HELL,” she shouted in my face, “so FUCK OFF!” I had never had such language directed at me before, and over the following weeks, as I reeled from the shock of the incident, I found myself thinking about it in Latin. The verb vituperare, which can be translated as “to yell at,” “to find fault with,” “to reproach,” “to castigate,” et cetera, summed it all up in a way that no English word could. Amelia me vituperavit, I whispered to myself on the subway, in the crowded school hallway, in the cafeteria where I now ate lunch alone. O Amelia, cur me vituperavisti?


This obsession continued to the point where I eventually composed an entire Latin paragraph asking Amelia why, indeed, she had me vituperavit. Playfully, I coined the word Cerbera, a feminized form of Cerberus: literally, “female dog from hell”. Idne est verum? Num Cerbera sum? In Latin, I was more vulnerable than I allowed myself to be in English, and though I was angry, at the end of the passage, I surprised myself by asking Amelia to be my friend again. The process was very therapeutic.

Then I emailed her the whole thing over AOL.

I don’t know what I had expected, but I was crushed when she wrote back informing me that there was no way she was going to translate all that (somehow, I had lost sight of the fact that she would have to), and that, furthermore, I was “so weird.” We never spoke again.

At the end of that year, I scored 110 percent on the Latin final. Even the teacher, a kind, soft-spoken man named Kai Ashante Wilson, seemed concerned by the fervor with which I’d thrown myself into this dead language. He never played favorites, but on the last day of school, he took me aside and gave me a special present: an illustrated Latin guide for kids, so that I could study Latin on my own over the summer. I was moved almost to tears. But when I got home and opened the book, I realized it was a poorly edited entry in a cheap series designed to teach non-dead languages. Each chapter contained increasingly surreal instructions for achieving oral fluency: visit Latin-speaking communities, the book suggested, and practice conversation with native Latin speakers. I’d make Latin-speaking friends in no time!

I decided not to continue studying Latin in high school. It met at the same time as chorus, and of the two, Latin seemed more dangerous—a seductively solitary pursuit that could, like drugs, swallow up anyone who enjoyed it too much.

The University of Iowa uses a different textbook, Wheelock’s Latin, for the beginner classes. I miss Caecilius and Metella and the whole doomed Pompeian gang, but Wheelock (as we chummily personify the text) has his own pleasures, especially for those of us who spent the bulk of our academic careers studying living languages. Here are some sentences you’re likely to encounter in beginner French or Spanish:

I would like a salad.

This is a pencil.

Where is the library?

Here are some actual sentences that appear, context-free, in the first few chapters of Wheelock:

You are in great danger.

Few men have true friends, and few are deserving of them.

Human life is punishment.

Our translation exercises are epic, portentous, full of grandeur and violence. Wheelock is particularly preoccupied with the idiom poenas dare, which he translates as “to pay the penalty.” People in Wheelock are always paying the penalty for their anger, their greed, their foolishness. “You are all to blame, thunders one sentence, “and tomorrow you will pay the penalty. As with all of Wheelock’s sentences, you can easily imagine it delivered by a Hollywood super villain. Seize him, you fools!


My class meets for an hour at ten thirty every morning, and as I labor to decipher our daily Wheelockian pronouncements, I remember why I loved Latin to begin with. Each sentence is a little puzzle, a Rubik’s Cube of words to be rearranged into their proper order based on arcane rules and hidden clues. There’s a creative thrill, too, in the task of transforming Latin into English, the miniature power trip of deciding whether to translate superare as “to rise above,” “to overcome,” “to conquer,” or even—if I’m feeling saucy—“to fucking crush.” The relative sparseness of Latin vocabulary makes me savor the richness of English all the more.

English is constantly on my mind in Latin class. Unlike non-dead languages, Latin places no pressure on the beginner student to outgrow the training wheels of one’s native language. Spontaneous conversation is not the goal, and thank the gods for that. Even at the highest levels, all Latin study is undertaken with an eye toward translation. In this respect, it hardly qualifies as “learning a language” at all; it has more in common with my mother’s addiction to those maddening cryptic crosswords in The Nation. Or, for that matter, her fondness for the crime novels of Walter Mosley and Michael Connelly. Every Latin sentence is a mystery to be solved, and the joy of translation, as with all detective fiction, is the promise that life can be untangled and reorganized into something neat and orderly.

More than anything, though, I love Latin because it has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with anything in my life. Classics evangelists who argue for the practical utility of Latin, its historical significance and English vocabulary-building potential, are profoundly missing the point: Latin is fun because all its native speakers are dead and will never have to meet you. Even if you could communicate with them through space and time, and even if your Latin skills were up to the task, what could you possibly say that would mean anything to them? You, personally, have no place in Latin. As far as Latin is concerned, you don’t matter; you don’t even exist. Studying Latin is an exercise in ego death.

I’m realizing now that this must have been what drew me to Latin in the seventh grade, when I wanted nothing more than to flee my own existence. Today, at the age of thirty, I enjoy my existence much more, but there’s still something to be said for starting every day with an hour of structured self-annihilation, especially when one is meant to spend the rest of the day working on a novel. I suspect that Kai Ashante Wilson, my gentle Latin teacher from middle school, would agree: I just Googled him and discovered that he is now a Hugo- and Nebula Award–nominated science-fiction author.

Seeing this news, I laughed with delight—who’d have guessed it?—and felt a new appreciation for the best part of Latin: not studying it, but leaving it behind. At the end of every class, when I pack up Wheelock and step into the bright light of an Iowa City morning, I am ready to inhabit the world again. I am ready to superare it all. I might even be ready to write about it.


Frankie Thomas is the author of The Showrunner, which received special mention in the 2013 Pushcart Prize Anthology. Her writing has also appeared in The Toast, The Hairpin, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. She is currently studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Roman Roads – Sasha Trubetskoy

September 24, 2017 by

June 3, 2017


If you think this would make a cool poster, follow this link and send me a few bucks. I’ll email you a crisp PDF for printing!

It’s finally done. A subway-style diagram of the major Roman roads, based on the Empire of ca. 125 AD.

Creating this required far more research than I had expected—there is not a single consistent source that was particularly good for this. Huge shoutout to: Stanford’s ORBIS model, The Pelagios Project, and the Antonine Itinerary (found a full PDF online but lost the url).

The lines are a combination of actual, named roads (like the Via Appia or Via Militaris) as well as roads that do not have a known historic name (in which case I creatively invented some names). Skip to the “Creative liberties taken” section for specifics.

How long would it actually take to travel this network?

That depends a lot on what method of transport you are using, which depends on how much money you have. Another big factor is the season – each time of year poses its own challenges. In the summer, it would take you about two months to walk on foot from Rome to Byzantium. If you had a horse, it would only take you a month.

However, no sane Roman would use only roads where sea travel is available. Sailing was much cheaper and faster – a combination of horse and sailboat would get you from Rome to Byzantium in about 25 days, Rome to Carthage in 4-5 days. Check out ORBIS if you want to play around with a “Google Maps” for Ancient Rome. I decided not to include maritime routes on the map for simplicity’s sake.

Creative liberties taken

The biggest creative element was choosing which roads and cities to include, and which to exclude. There is no way I could include every Roman road, these are only the main ones. I tried to include cities with larger populations, or cities that were provincial capitals around the 2nd century.

Obviously to travel from Petra to Gaza you would take a more or less direct road, rather than going to Damascus and “transferring” to the Via Maris. The way we travel on roads is very different from rail, which is a slight flaw in the concept of the map. But I think it’s still aesthetically pleasing and informative.

Here’s a list of the roads that have authentic names and paths:

  • Via Appia
  • Via Augusta
  • Via Aurelia
  • Via Delapidata
  • Via Domitia
  • Via Egnatia
  • Via Flaminia
  • Via Flavia (I, II, III)
  • Via Julia Augusta
  • Via Lusitanorum
  • Via Militaris
  • Via Popilia
  • Via Portumia
  • Via Salaria
  • Via Tiburtina
  • Via Traiana
  • Via Traiana Nova

Some roads have real names but were modified somewhat:

  • The Via Latina I combined with the Via Popilia. In reality the Popilia ended at Capua, and the Latina went from Capua to Rome.
  • Via Aquitania only referred to the road from Burdigala (Bordeaux) to Narbo (Narbonne).
  • Via Asturica Burdigalam similarly only refers to the Astrurica-Burdigala section.
  • “Via Claudia” is not a real name, but refers to a real continuous road built by Claudius.
  • Via Hadriana was a real road in Egypt, but it refers to a slightly different section than the green route.
  • The name “Via Maris” is considered to be a modern creation, referring to real ancient trade road whose real name has been lost to history.
  • Via Valeria only referred to a section of the yellow Sicilian loop.
  • The roads around Pisae, Luna and Genua had several names for different sections, including Via Aemilia Scauri. Sometimes “Via Aurelia” referred to the entire road from Rome to Arelate.
  • Via Sucinaria is the Latin name for the Amber Road, a trade route from the Baltic region to Italy that carried amber as a valuable good. It probably was not used to refer to a single literal road.
  • Via Gemina and Via Claudia Augusta are real names that referred to small parts of the routes marked on the map.

The other roads have relatively uncreative names that I invented, usually based on a place that they pass through. I have never formally studied Latin and I’ll admit that I am somewhat confused by the distinction between -a and -ensis endings, so there’s a chance I may have messed that up.


A Fantasy Subway Map of Ancient Roman Roads – The Atlantic

September 24, 2017 by

If the Roman Empire had managed build a continents-spanning transit system for its empire, it might have looked like this.

John Metcalfe @citycalfe

The Atlantic: June 8, 2017


Sasha Trubetskoy

They say all roads lead to Rome, but they also lead outward to a number of intriguing places. There’s Antinoopolis in northern Africa, Londinium in what we now know as the U.K., and—should funding from the mighty Emperor Hadrian arrive—the yet-built Panticapaeum station along the Pontus Euxinus, or Black Sea.

Or so says this wonderfully thought-out fantasy transit map from Sasha Trubetskoy, showing the major thoroughfares of the Roman Empire circa 125 A.D. as dozens of stops along multicolored subway lines.

Trubetskoy, who when not dabbling in history has explored the judgmental cartography of the Bay Area, started poking into the idea after noticing there was a dearth of good maps of Rome’s old road network, let alone train-themed ones. So he decided to go for it, pouring about 50 hours of research and design work into his sprawling “Roman Roads.”

“I enjoy reading about history, though I’m not a huge classics buff,” says Trubetskoy, a 20-year-old statistics major at the University of Chicago. “But there’s something alluring about Rome’s ability to carve out such a huge and advanced empire, with a legacy that lasts today.”

Note: This is only a portion of the larger map. (Sasha Trubetskoy)

Trubetskoy’s primary points of historical reference were the Peutinger Table, sort of a gas-station highway map of Rome dating from ancient times, and the Antonine Itinerary, an atlas of thousands of places in the empire with estimated distances calculated among them. He also used Stanford University’s ORBIS tool and the Pelagios Project from Sweden’s Johan Åhlfeldt, which he describes as “kind of like Google Maps for Ancient Rome.”

Trubetskoy didn’t try to represent every single road and town in the empire, going instead for major routes and large-population cities to mark some “stations.” In certain cases he mapped routes with real titles—the famous Via Appia, for example, the first major road in Rome. When the historical name didn’t exist or was unknown, he chose creative nomenclatures like the Via Claudia for a road built under Emperor Claudius and the Via Sucinaria (or the Amber Road) to mark an old trade route running from Italy to northern Europe.

“I thought of myself as a Roman government official designing a map that people would actually be using—how do I make it effortless to look at?” he says. “I also had to make sure things were evenly spaced, colors were distinct, and the labels were unambiguous. I started from scratch at least five times before I arrived at the current design.”

So how’s it work? Well, if Emperor Aurelian wanted to send troops from Rome to the front during the Battle of Immae—a third-century conflict against rebels in the east led by Queen Zenobia—they’d have to get on the yellow Via Flaminia, two stops later transfer to the green Via Sucinaria, make additional transfers at Carnuntum, Sirmium, Singidunum, and then switch a whole hell of a lot more among orange/blue/purple lines until arriving at the Palmyra stop in modern-day Syria.

If that sounds exhausting and a nice way to cultivate a galaxy of blisters, it is—making such a journey on foot would take roughly 121 days covering 2,235 miles, according to Stanford’s distance calculator. Of course, back in the day travelers sliced a lot of mileage by using waterways—sailing through rivers and over seas. There was also a nifty Roman method for getting messages and property around quickly that relied on a network of horse-riding couriers. “They had a system called the cursus publicus, kind of like a mail service,” says Trubetskoy. “Forts and stations were spread at even intervals, each with stallions ready to go at a moment’s notice. It could relay messages from Rome to Constantinople in a handful of days, while normal travel would take nearly a month.”

Look closely and you’ll notice a few clever twists. Like most modern transit maps, dotted lines delineate routes planned for the future. ”I stuck to the spirit of the subway map and made them look like ‘proposed lines/stations,’” he says. “These were areas like Crimea, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Nubia that Rome had conquered at some point, but didn’t hang onto for very long or didn’t exercise full control over them.”

To truly complete the effect, Trubetskoy also created snappy-looking modern logos for the ancient empire, like a stylized SPQR emblem of the Roman Republic (it stands for Senatus Populus Que Romanus or the “Senate and the People of Rome”). In the middle there’s a wreath of laurels, a Roman symbol of power, and Quattuoviri Viarum Curandarum, a reference to an infrastructure-strengthening organization formed under Augustus. “It’s sort of like a Roman DOT,” Trubetskoy says. “Literally the name means, ‘Four officials who care for the roads,’ although it grew to more than four officials.”

(Sasha Trubetskoy)

The text in that last box is an inside joke for Latin-speaking cartographers: “The final one is an inscription that says, ‘The Emperor, Caesar Augustus, Supreme Bridge Builder, created this map with a computer program,’” Trubetskoy says. “The meaning is silly, but it echoes plaques that were found all around Roman roads.”