How Has the Ancient World Been Appropriated in Modernity?

Nobody owns the past, but many have sought to use it to their own ends. The use, and abuse, of ancient history has been ever-present.

Persepolis Parade
Parade commemorating the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire, held amid the ruins of Persepolis. Iran, October 1971. Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images.

‘Cyrus the Great is portrayed as a religious man and a forerunner of monotheism’

Ali Ansari, Professor of History at the University of St Andrews

Some years back, while filming near Persepolis for a documentary on the Greek and Persian Wars, I was approached by an Iranian family curious to know what we were doing. When I explained that we were shooting a sequence on Xerxes for a programme about Salamis, the father shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘One of our defeats then’, before wandering off to savour the other sites. Ancient – pre-Islamic – Persia has long been a source of pride for Iranians, but I had perhaps not fully appreciated just how ingrained it had become in the popular consciousness until that moment. Something so distant, and yet so immediate.

One of the local characters whom we had persuaded to dress up quite ostentatiously as Xerxes proudly told us that he had participated in ‘The Celebration of the 2,500th Anniversary of the Founding of the Persian Empire’, the last shah’s great spectacle of Iranian history at Persepolis in 1971, where he had infamously offered a eulogy at the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the (first) Persian Empire. Though much mocked at the time, Cyrus has since come to form a central pillar of a distinctive Iranian identity, made all the more acute by the establishment of the Islamic Republic and the formal eschewing of all things non-Islamic. Despite this, Cyrus appears to have gone from strength to strength and the ‘father of the nation’ has now been co-opted by the Islamic authorities, who portray him as a religious man and a forerunner of monotheism. Factual incongruities are gently set aside at the altar of political expediency.

Uncomfortable about the extent of Cyrus’ popularity – the regime has banned mass gatherings at his tomb – it has nonetheless sought to champion ‘Persia’ internationally, formally protesting against the indignities of the 2006 film 300, though no one as yet has had the wit to protest about the running of ‘marathon’ races (another ‘defeat’). Interestingly, the other countries who share Iran’s fascination with Cyrus are the United States and Israel, which prompts a question: will this ancient king serve as a bridge builder and a peace maker in due course?


‘Toussaint Louverture openly called himself the “Black Spartacus”’

Rosa Andújar, Senior Lecturer in Liberal Arts, King’s College London

The idea of Ancient Greece and Rome has played a fundamental role in the development of modern European countries and their empires. Because the ability to win wars and subjugate enemies was integral to both the Greeks’ and Romans’ sense of themselves, from the Renaissance onwards they provided an irresistible model for the ideologies underpinning colonial expansion. Imperial projects in the Americas, Asia and across Africa were often justified with reference to antiquity: Alexander the Great, for example, or the Romans’ ‘civilising’ of barbarians.

That the connection between classical antiquity and modern imperialism should have evolved into a racialised interpretation of the ancient Greeks and Romans as an exclusively ‘white’ Western civilisation is unsurprising, but this view has recently been taken to disturbing lengths by extremist groups. In the United States white supremacists sport Greek helmets or SPQR tattoos; in Europe, the far-right European Identitarian movement has adopted lambda, the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet allegedly painted on the shields of the Spartan soldiers at Thermopylae, as its symbol.

But there is another history of Classical appropriation by prominent figures from Africa and the Black Atlantic. The Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture openly called himself the ‘Black Spartacus’, styling himself after the enslaved gladiator from Thrace who led a major slave uprising against the Romans in the Third Servile War in 73 BC. More recently, Black artists and intellectuals have appropriated Greek and Roman myth and history to reflect their own experiences. In his Bacchae (first performed in 1973) the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka links the chaotic forces of the Greek god Dionysus with those of Yoruba deities. Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros (1990) recasts the heroes of Homer’s epics as Saint Lucian fishermen (Saint Lucia, incidentally, was known as the ‘Helen of the West Indies’ during the 1700s, on account of its attractive strategic location, sought after by both Britain and France). Artistic imagination remains an essential weapon in the fight to prevent the Classical world from becoming the property only of those who would co-opt it for their narrow agendas.


‘The “Aryan invasion” myth is so vague that it can be used by anyone in any context’

Lavanya Vemsani, Professor of History and Religious Studies, Shawnee State University

One of the strangest examples of the appropriation – or misappropriation – of the ancient world comes from India. From 1879 the German-born Orientalist Max Müller published Sacred Books of the East, a 50-volume collection of English translations of religious texts from Asia. Among them were the Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scripture and the first examples of Sanskrit literature. Müller had been partly funded by the East India Company and his work helped further his theory, first proposed in the 1850s, of a ‘race of Aryans’ with two branches, eastern and western. In Müller’s theory the two branches migrated from the Caucasus, with the western branch moving into Europe and the (inferior) eastern branch invading and conquering ancient India with ease. Consequently, as the British imposed themselves and their modernity on India, its own ancient literature was used to create a historical narrative that suited the colonisers, who cast themselves as the latest in a long line of racially superior invaders.

The British used ‘Aryan invasion theory’ to divide Indian society by identifying some Indians as being of Aryan descent. This accomplished three things: it effectively erased the indigenous origins of Indian and Hindu civilisation; it split the country into low and high (or northern and southern) races; and it normalised the brutal British colonisation as just another superior race arriving from the north. These racial classifications were perpetuated in colonial textbooks and taught to Indian students, something which continued even after independence in 1947.

The misinterpreted and misappropriated ancient world of Vedic India wreaked havoc in modern India, but it also travelled west. The Ayran invasion myth is so vague and disconnected from reality that it can be retooled and used by anyone in any context. And that, of course, is exactly what happened when Adolf Hitler infused racist elements and superior race theories into the toxic ideology which eventually led to the Second World War and the Holocaust. Today, we often see the appropriation of ancient texts in the creation of art and literature; we should remember that such appropriations can also be calamitous.


‘Aristotle was invoked both for and against the enslavement of Native Americans by the Spanish’

Paul Cartledge, Emeritus A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture, Clare College, Cambridge

Rarely has Classical antiquity seemed more relevant to the politics and culture of today. Prime ministers and presidents are routinely criticised through comparison with ancient political figures, such as the Athenian statesmen Alcibiades, a controversial associate of Socrates. Critics of current Euro-American democratic politics look to the direct, participatory democracy of Athens for alternative ways of achieving civically engaged freedom and equality. At the same time, thanks to the work of classicists such as Mary Beard and Dan-el Padilla Peralta, interest in the history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome is peaking.

However, Classics has also provoked fierce controversy, as the cultural authority once granted to knowledge of classical antiquity is questioned both from within and from without. What’s new under the sun? Aristotle was invoked both for and against the enslavement of native Americans under the brutal Spanish conquest of South America and similarly so for the exploitation of Africans as slaves in the US. Today we have to contend with Alt Right ‘red pill’ appropriations along the same white supremacist lines, if in peculiarly modern forms. Both gun-lobby advocates in the US and ultra-Brexiteers in the UK have invoked the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae.

Does that mean that Classics as a discipline is mired irretrievably in racism? There are those who would say yes: followers of the late Martin Bernal, author of Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, for example, and advocates of critical race theory. Against them are Donna Zuckerberg (sister of Mark, but also a PhD graduate of Princeton’s Classics Department), author of Not All Dead White Men; or Curtis Dozier’s Pharos project, which aims to provide a forum where the public ‘can learn about appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity by hate groups’.

Is there a middle way? One route forward is through a conscientious rededication to genuinely free speech as well as improved rhetorics. The BBC radio series A Long History of Argument from Socrates to Social Media is cast from a genuinely progressive mould.