Alternate Colors

I am fortunate in my online experience. Not only am I generally identified as a white man, but I have a curated existence and small footprint. I am nevertheless exhausted just as a spectator to the maelstrom. This week the storm again struck the corner of the internet inhabited by ancient history.

Here’s what happened: Dr. Sarah Bond, a professor at the University of Iowa and probably the public historian of the ancient world with the greatest breadth of subjects, published a piece for hyperallergic titled “Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color.” In the article, Bond introduces the readers to the issue of polychromy—the idea that the naked marble of the surviving statues was once garishly painted (not to mention literally dressed and armed). She then transitions to how the naked marble came to represent the classical ideal and explores how this standard allows modern prejudices concerning race to be channeled onto the ancient world.

(Not for nothing, but I am reminded of the Carbon Leaf song “The War Was In Color” about remembering wars from black and white pictures.)

Bond’s article is an excellent introduction to this issue and there was some excited conversation on ancient Twitter about the legacy of the controversial Black Athena and a variety of other issues. I was absolutely delighted to see the article (for reasons I will get into below), and driving discussion of this sort is exactly what it should do. Nobody challenged its fundamental assumptions because the ancient Mediterranean was a variegated quilt of cultures and peoples. How these colors were created and looked may be disputed—I once heard a scholar suggest that the fabled Spartan crimson was actually bright pink based on modern efforts to recreate ancient pigment—but the existence of colors is not.

Outside this conversation there were death threats.

People are so committed to their preconceptions that they would rather threaten the life of an academic in an effort to bully and silence her rather than face fundamental truths. But I am not here to “defend” Bond or to chide the bullies, even leaving alone the willful misreadings of her piece. I planned to write this post before reading about the backlash.

One issue with teaching history is that it runs the risk of presenting the past either as something teleological in an endless progressive march to the present or something static. Since there are political agendas that want ancient Greece to be the self-referential origin for western civilization, it is particular susceptible to these caricatures. And yet, even in antiquity, the definitions of “Europe” and “Greece” were constantly in flux. Ionia, the subject of my dissertation, for instance, consisted of communities that were Greek, but were not in Europe. Ancient orators such as Isocrates tended to gloss issues like this when giving speeches, but the seeming dissonance has cast a long shadow, with historians of colossal stature like Rostovtzeff describing them as “fragments of the western world on the fringe of the eastern.” In point of fact, much of Greek “civilization” developed in communication with the Near East and Egypt.

Similarly, scholars have tied themselves in knots trying to explain Alexander the Great’s behavior in terms of race. At issue were his decisions (personally, and with regard to his men) about marriage and whether marrying Greek men with eastern women, either in a simple east-west binary or in a more complicated and totally anachronistic distinction between Indo-European and Semitic populations.

In both examples, the history of these academic debates was driven by or responding to racially-motivated agendas. As Bond makes clear in her article, not all of the scholars were racist but, intentionally or not, their scholarship worked in tandem to support these agendas. The end result is that the statues became marble-white and Greece became singularly European.

Ancient Greece, ranging far beyond the modern national borders, was deeply enmeshed in the ancient Mediterranean and would have had many different shades, not lease because of the historical movement of people and ideas. The variations became even more pronounced after Alexander’s conquests when there were people who were culturally Greek as far east as central Asia. Redefining Greece is nothing new and was, in fact, a fairly standard feature of diplomacy in the ancient world, including one instance when the Judean kingdom claimed kinship with Sparta. The result was successive layers of definitions that bore only a loose connection to history. These were, and are, political agendas.

To come full circle, then, I want to echo Bond’s core point: the ancient world was awash in color, most of which was not white. Art history is not my wheelhouse, but many of the same forces are at work in scholarship on other issues. Greece was not European adjacent to, but separate from, the Mediterranean. Greece was Mediterranean and shaped by continuous movement of people and ideas in trickles and waves, with all of the colors that go along with that.

Privilege and Deportation

A headline caught my attention today: Germany Deports Native-Born Terrorism Suspects. The article explains there were two men born in Germany, but of African descent, who were alleged radicalized and suspected of plotting a terrorist attack. (A raid on their apartment turned up, among other things replica flint-lock pistols.) German authorities decided to deport the two men and a judge rejected their appeal.

I have a few very incomplete thoughts about the specifics of this case, including an American bias native born citizenship, and therefore do not want to talk about the particulars. Instead, I will work through why the headline caught my attention. The kernel of this thought is this: deportation in the modern world is a privilege derived from European imperialism.

Sovereignty, defined in part by the right to govern domestic affairs, is one of the principles of the Westphalian nation-state system. By extension, sovereignty necessarily includes the right to protect and regulate the country’s borders and control the bodies of people who pose a threat to its security. It is possible to construe these terms broadly and I don’t entirely disagree with the sentiments. At the same time, though, the process of deportation amounts to labeling the people being deported undesirable, dangerous, or both and pushing that responsibility for those people onto another country. In this case, the matter is further complicated because the men do not have clear personal relationships to the countries where they are being deported and their indefinite ban on a return to Germany indicates an indifference to where they go, just so long as they are no longer in Germany.

The thousand-foot view reveals much the same relationship with other deportations. There is a general tendency to send the people back to their country of origin, but the point is actually just to put them somewhere other than the country doing the deporting. One assumes that here is a modicum of international cooperation, but, nonetheless, this is where I was struck by the unique privilege European countries (and the United States) get in dictating the movement of peoples, a legacy of an imperial age and histories of immigration controls. The fact that other countries occasionally get to follow the same processes is merely incidental.

Vanished Kingdoms – Norman Davies

My final non-fiction read of 2016 was another large book that has been on my list for quite some time. Norman Davies Vanished Kingdoms is a weighty tome that purports to investigate the rise and fall of states. In my opinion, Davies falls short of this stated objective, but the book as a whole is nevertheless worth reading.

Each chapter of Vanished Kingdoms is dedicated to a different European “kingdom” that a) came into being after the fall of the Roman Empire b) has somehow shaped the modern European landscape and c) no longer exists. The studies are arranged in rough chronological order, starting with the Visigothic kingdom of Tolosa and concluding with the Soviet Union (albeit focussed on Estonia). Each chapter is divided into three parts. First, there is a synopsis of the modern region, second is a synopsis of the titular state of the chapter, and finally there is an analysis of how that state collapsed. Some chapters are more comprehensive than others; for instance, the chapter on Byzantium is littered with comments about how this short chapter is inadequate to give anything other than a passing impression. The unevenness was usually not a major problem, except in the case of Byzantium, which seemed like a chapter that a reviewer asked to be added to the book rather than one that really fit with the rest of the text.

Davies returns to themes of language, culture, and religion over and over again, and with good reason. His approach highlights that the largely stable borders of European nation-states were deeply fragmented as little as a century and a half ago and liable to change because of elite marriages. Vanished Kingdoms does an excellent job of explaining many of the independence movements in, for instance Catalonia, without trying to be a Grand Narrative of Europe. I also particularly liked Davies’ approach to European nationalism, which is not to push national identity per se into the past, but to ascribe weight to historical developments in terms of the the development of modern nationalism—and starting this narrative in the shadow of Rome was defensible for seeking these roots.

I liked Vanished Kingdoms quite a bit, particularly enjoying the chapters on Alt Clud (northern England), Litvia, Borussia, and Aragon, but, as noted above, think that framing the book as a study of how states die is misleading. The final chapter is a historiographical epilogue that engages with the literature on how states fail, infused with observations and conclusions from the fifteen studies in the book. This chapter was fine, but I found the frame limiting, particularly in that this is a Eurocentric book. Instead, I thought the stronger parts of the book engaged with the wrinkles of European Nationalism, something that is tangentially related to how states collapse, but actually examining how states survive—not in terms of political strategy, but in terms of the formations that currently exist.

Donald Trump and some assumptions about ISIS

In general my policy here has been to avoid politics because politics online usually results in unwanted headaches, but the latest round of sparring between Pope Francis and Donald Trump touched on something bigger that has been festering. To set this up, though there needs to be the context. Speaking in Mexico, Pope Francis questioned Trump’s Christianity if he were to deport immigrants and build a wall along the border. Not for the first time, these comments incited an outcry of hypocrisy! from right-wing sources who are quick to point out that the Pope lives in the Vatican City, itself surrounded by walls. Of course this is a questionable line of rebuttal because Francis had nothing to do with building those walls, the earliest of which were more than a thousand years old and were built when Vatican City was in fact under attack by marauders. However, Trump directly responded to the Pope on a more contemporary tact:

If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.

There is no need to investigate this particularly statement with reference to Trump–the target of Trump and ISIS are going to be interchangeable in this sort of invective. Nor is there any point in examining the legitimacy of the statement, which is a topic for foreign policy wonks and strategists. It speaks, however, a broader preoccupation about ISIS targeting Christianity, which I think emerges both from a corruption of history and a good bit of narcissism.

The underlying assumption of Trump’s statement is that ISIS is waging a religiously-motivated war to exterminate Christianity and, by extension, European-American civilization. [Note already how nebulous this concept gets in peddling a vague sense of doom.] Certainly some of the ISIS propaganda calls for attacks on Europe and America and bin Laden made such pronouncements. In the latter case, though, those attacks were retaliatory and, in general, the war between Christianity and Islam comes from the point of view of the Christians, at least in the last thousand years or so. This is not to say that there has not been fighting or attacks by Muslims against Christians, and religion is ever a convenient excuse, but much of the capability for waging such wars come the other direction. Wars in the Middle East targeting Europeans far more frequently had other motivations, such as opposition to colonialism.

This brings me to the ultimate point about the assumptions in Trump’s statement. He declares, whether he believes it or not, that “everyone knows” that Vatican City would be the “ultimate trophy” for ISIS. This is not something that “everyone knows,” it is something that many people might nod their heads about because, the Vatican City (or Rome, more generally) is synonymous with Christianity—even though this is not true for every denomination. There is a reason that most of the Crusades went from Europe to the Middle East rather than the other way around. A curious interlocutor might ask why Jerusalem or Mecca and Medina, or even Damascus, Baghdad or Istanbul would not be a more apt trophy should ISIS be genuinely interested in reestablishing the Caliphate. But this is an arena where facts don’t matter and flying in the face of globalism is a potent clash of civilizations narrative that is constantly being revivified. In this case ISIS is the backward east, Christianity is western civilization and Rome [or Vatican City] is Christianity. Thus distilled, naturally Vatican City is the ultimate trophy for ISIS, and if ISIS buys into these core assumptions they might even think the same way. The irony, of course, is that there is nothing inherent about Vatican City that would make it the ultimate trophy other than the very narratives currently being abused.