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Excavating the Global Village: Classics’ Online Legacy

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

With 1,000+ likes and 119,300+ followers, there is nothing inherently ominous about the ‘Daily Updates On The Roman Empire’ 2021 memorial for Rome’s collapse. The Facebook meme page’s exhortation to ‘celebrate the greatest Empire of all time’ despite ‘the incredible tragedy that was the fall’ certainly seems to come from a love of the classical past.

[Fig. 1: Text post by the Daily Updates on The Roman Empire Facebook page]

So why does it feel so uncomfortable? Emotional attachment to ancient history has developed a reputation as a red flag on the internet - and for good reason. Online, it is all too often a digital shorthand for neofascism and white supremacy. As direct descendants of Mussolini’s sacralised ‘Romanità’, subcultures such as ‘FashWave’ and ‘Identity Evropa’ display edits of the Prima Porta statue, Caesars, the infamous standard: appropriated harbingers of supposedly superior 'western culture’ wrapped into a .jpeg.

But the discomfort runs further. A heavily emotional relationship with the past is the root not only of many Classicists’ interests, but also of the development of Classics as a staple of Queer online culture - a far cry from the alt-right. While the ideological difference is clear, as lovers of ancient history ourselves, how is the way we actually interact with the past qualitatively different where rooted in deep emotions, not academia? The need to identify how other emotional relationships to Classics differ from that of the neofascists feels important - not only to better understand the nature of emotional connections to the past, but for personal peace of mind.

To develop the tools to distinguish between these uses of Classics online, we must first understand the underlying phenomenon that characterises the subject’s existence in the popular imagination. This in turn informs Classics’ divergent emotional functions within internet subcultures. Here, we can introduce the term ‘self-mythologisation’. This is the process by which an individual or group (cultural, political or otherwise) re-contextualises their identity in the framework of a mythologised narrative of the past to create a sense of elevation and/or legitimacy. Self-mythologisation is the fundamental emotional drive behind neofascist uses of Classics, but also its use in Queer spaces. So how can we differentiate between dangerous self-mythologisation and positive self-mythologisation of classical history? And why do we feel the need to idolise the past in the first place?

To begin with, we must examine the concept of self-mythologisation. It is useful to think of two fundamental human instincts, arguably stemming from the fear of death. The first: to mythologise and romanticise (and so elevate into something more like a principle than anything physical/perishable). The second, to connect to a long lineage as a means of legitimization (again, elevating individual experiences to become part of a grander idea that can’t expire). Self-mythologisation in the macro (national/cultural heritage) therefore boils down to this micro scale: the need to tell stories about the self to affirm identity. From Kelly’s Personal Construct Theory to Jungian Personal Myth, there is recognition of the power of personal experience to form narratives that create the ‘value of living myth’, as put by Campbell. We can see this in practice: Dr Janina Scarlet, a clinical psychologist, encourages PTSD patients to imagine their own ‘origin story’ and herself used this technique to develop her own personal mythos after experiencing the Chernobyl disaster.

While these theories compare the creation of personal myths to the function of myths in societies, as in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, they do not examine the romanticisation of history itself to inform cultural identity. Self-mythologisation can therefore be understood as Personal Myth expanded from the individual to the collective, from narrativized personal experience to mythologised cultural history. This inherently emotional motivation results in biased, reductive and uncritical views of the past: to use history for legitimacy, it requires that history to be held up uncritically as a paragon for whatever values are being promoted, with none of the rough edges and with all the smooth morals of myth.

The use of self-mythologisation online should not, however, be evaluated simply by its historicity. Instead, examining the varying emotional functions it serves allows us to understand the difference between subcultures’ relationships to Classics. To do so, we must first address the underlying assumption of all self-mythologisation: that the past is an automatic source of authority. From the Imperial Cult of Augustus and Diderot’s invocation of Roman citizenship as an ideal of fraternity, to Dickens’ description of the Colosseum’s ‘awful beauty’ and Livingstone’s ‘Greek Ideals and Modern Life’, it is hard not to view Classics through the many lenses of idolisation it has accumulated. Classics’ existence in popular culture consists almost entirely of such references to ancient grandeur, either to aggrandise the present by alignment or to comment on human futility (as in Romanticism). This cultural association functions both as a dangerous weapon and a powerful tool. Ted Cruz’s video ‘The Wisdom of Cicero is Timeless’ is a prime example: within the very title, the politician constructs a superficial symbiotic relationship between the perceived authority of Cicero and that of his own unrelated political messaging. Meanwhile, this alignment with an idealised past was used as a powerful tool by Robert Kennedy on the death of Martin Luther King Jr, 1968. By imploring a divided nation to dedicate themselves to wisdom that ‘the Greeks wrote so many years ago’, he channelled the perceived authority of Aeschylus towards his own plea to ‘make gentle the life of this world’.

We can see self-mythologisation is neither inherently bad nor good, despite its reductiveness (Aeschylus, for instance, may have been a great playwright but also a terrible misogynist from a modern ethical standpoint). It should not be judged wholly by its degree of accuracy, and certainly not without an awareness of the general association of Classics with authority that informs its usage. Instead, it must be evaluated on its purpose and intended emotional function by our own ethical standards.

The emotional function of the neofascist usage of Classics in the digital landscape is characterised by manipulation of this public perception of the ancient past as grand and wise through decontextualisation. Isolated classical imagery is intended to evoke the general ideals of might, wisdom and imperialism commonly associated with the ancient past that can then be refashioned neatly into a palingenetic narrative, much like in Mussolini’s Rome. Sayre and Lowry’s suggestion that myth was the core of fascism holds fast when we evaluate Mussolini’s manipulation of urban planning to express palingenetic self-mythologisation. The prioritisation of Augustan and Trajan monuments and the demolition of others including the Meta Sudans on a random, aesthetic basis proves the desire to construct a disjointed emotional landscape rather than a historic one, as sites were chosen to exude a sense of grandeur. The fascist rejection of rationalism can even be seen literally in a bridge commemorating WWI to link the Foro Mussolini and the Colosseum - a physical connection across time, linking the two through visceral visual impact.

This cuts to the heart of its dangerous self-mythologisation: the powerful emotional need for connection to the past here exists only insofar as that past can be deformed to support the fascist myth of racial inheritance, irrespective of historical accuracy - or ethical value.

[Fig. 2: Aerial photograph of the Via dei Fori Imperiali; Bartolomei C., Ippolito A., Vizioli S.H.T. (eds) Digital Modernism Heritage Lexicon. Springer Tracts in Civil Engineering. Springer, Cham.]

In the digital landscape, ancient history is used to provide a mythologised past to afford a vague teleological vision of ‘western culture’ (quite what that is is uncertain) that, by manufactured association, mythologises their own ethnonationalism with little interest in the history itself. This almost detached self-mythologisation is not only a product of interest in Classics simply as an aesthetic for neofascist identities, but acts as a deliberate recruitment tactic. Mammone’s identification of neofascists’ aim to 'gain respectability in mainstream circles’ and Wynn’s discovery of an anonymous reddit user’s claim that ‘talking openly about an [sic] white ethnostate only leads to failure’ point to deliberately vague invocations of Classics as the suitably innocuous public face of online white supremacy. This is epitomised by the visuals of FashWave, which utilise Roman iconography in the same disjoined, emotive way as Mussolini’s fascism. ‘Fascist-Wave’ is a genre of alt-right music that slithered online in 2016 as a reaction to anti-capitalist VaporWave subculture and is known for its visuals’ inclusion of classical sculpture. As opposed to VaporWave’s use of de-contextualised classical imagery to represent a late-capitalist detachment from history, FashWave uses it to signal a vague, projected set of nationalist values. For instance, while the VaporWave images Fig. 1 and 2 pair busts with unrelated kanji, the FashWave Fig. 3 and 4 use aggressive English, as well as darker hues and violent/active statues.

[Fig. 3 + 4: VaporWave edits, Floral Shoppe / Wallpaper Flare]

[Fig. 5 + 6: FashWave edits, / FashWave, Aesthetics Wiki]

This vague invocation of the classical past with no real indication of an understanding of the statues’ actual histories or meanings reflects the reductive use of self-mythologisation. By isolating recognisably white, marble Classical figures within the neon-edit visual language of neofascism, extremists harness Classics to generate an illusion of historical legitimacy. The emotional link to the past is founded on a disinterest in what that past actually is beyond imposed neofascist values. FashWave has experienced a renaissance in the wake of the January 6th Capitol insurrection. If it didn’t feel threatening enough, the 130+ FashWave videos uploaded to YouTube in February 2021 alone compound the fact that this problem will not be fading any time soon.

This is not a one-off: the iconography of alt-right group Identity Evropa (now the ‘American Identity Movement’) also exemplified the dangerous potential of vague, palingenetic self-mythologisation. The depiction of an assortment of sculptures with such unrelated slogans as ‘our future belongs to us’ for the Apollo Belvedere (Fig. 5) could almost be comical if it weren’t so threatening.

[Fig. 7 - 10: Greyscale statue edits with neofascist slogans, Identity Evropa]

Once again, there is no genuine interest in history: not only is there no indication of the original contexts, but they are selected at random to create an illusion of the Classical past. Among the Classically-influenced Michelangelo’s David and Coustou’s Julius Caesar (Fig. 6, Fig. 7) is a funerary sculpture from Saarlouis with no clear relevance (Fig. 8) - all the more ironic for the cemetery’s prominent Jewish section, as suggested by Ben Davis. The very irony of the white aesthetic is telling in its simple inaccuracy: ancient sculpture was painted. The classical past in online neofascist self-mythologisation is characterised, therefore, by its superficiality. With no interest beyond capitalising on Classics’ cultural currency as a generalised symbol of (European) power, inaccuracy is the product of the deliberately reductive emotional function of palingenetic self-mythologisation.

On the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, we have the emotional treatment of Classics within Queer online spaces. While the basic premise of self-mythologisation remains the same - seeking legitimacy of identity through alignment with a mythologised narrative of history - its expression is as different as the cultures themselves in historicity, tone and above all, emotional function. This is not to be seen as a direct comparison of the two; it should go without saying that they are in no way related. Instead, it is a means of understanding the different potential emotional functions of self-mythologisation. Neofascist engagement with Classics relies on vague reductiveness to allow for a mythologised narrative of a palingenesis of impersonalised nationalist values. The ‘mythologised narrative’ of Queer classical self-mythologisation is simply the existence of Queer history and its continuation to the present. This is a deeply emotional, personal act of recovery rather than depersonalised aggrandisement.

The casual integration of ancient Queer figures into social media posts indicates their use to restore a sense of cultural history. Arguably the most prominent adoptive icon is Sappho. Tags on posts such as on the blog ‘Moonsofsappho’ are telling, including ‘#pan #bi #omni #nonbinary #gay': Sappho is not only a lesbian symbol, but potentially one for many different facets of the community. The sheer range of tags, ranging from ‘#lesbian #girls who like girls' to ‘#wlw culture #wlw community’ suggest her widespread popularity online lesbian ‘culture’ and ‘community’, as well as amassing thousands of interactions. This desire for ‘a Queer inheritance’ is a necessary response to the suppression of LGBTQ+ history, including its criminalisation in the UK until 1967. Even by 2017, 81% of the top 100 films included not a single LGBT+ character, according to a study by the Annenberg Foundation. As emotively put by Clarke, ‘I ached for a history’. By contrast, ‘enjoyment of European culture is in no way impeded by the proximity of people with different skin colours or traditions’, as stated by Wynn. The emotional function of self-mythologisation therefore fundamentally differs: for the online Queer community, it is a matter of connecting with select elements of the real past or risk feeling ‘culturally temporary’. For neofascists, it is a choice to use the Classics as a more impersonal entity to support pre-existing prejudices, racism and bigotry, not simply to find community and belonging: after all, it is unsurprisingly possible to feel a connection to ancient aesthetics without also promoting white supremacy.

This is not to say that Queer self-mythologisation cannot be reductive. Applying modern labels to classical Queer figures, such as Tumblr user Equestrianhistorian’s description of Hadrian as ‘Mr sad gay emperor’, quietly enforces present categories of sexuality onto the past. Ancient constructions of attraction were governed by gendered hierarchies that are largely incompatible with sexuality as defined today. This is especially problematic given misogyny’s starring role, most infamously including the rigidity of the positions of older erastes and younger eromenos in pederasty (which is itself its own problem).

The development of a subcultural canon of mischaracterisations of Classical figures can also be read as reductive. Again, Sappho is front and centre: she is repeatedly presented in a deliberately ironic way, such as a fictional fragment reading ‘....f your[e] readi...]is you're ga[y’, posted by Thoodeloo. However, that’s just what this presentation is: ironic. The self-awareness that permeates the merging of modern registers with ancient culture is evidently humorous in tone, from Hadrian as ‘Mr sad gay emperor’ to Sappho as internet-savvy agony aunt. This is reflected in tags, such as ‘#hadrian lore’, recognising its own mythologisation. This tongue-in-cheek approach actually lends a crucial sense of humanisation to the Queer past. The one-sided interactions with visions of a Sappho or Hadrian who could tell a joke or understand a meme even somewhat resemble a parasocial relationship. User ‘Butt-of-achilles’ dramatically exclaims ‘help me mother Sappho’, while Bluegiulia created an entire Spotify playlist named ‘aunt Sappho would be proud of us’. The ‘aunt’ is key: this is about an emotional relationship with Queer history on an intensely personal level. And so, the difference in the emotional relationships between ClassicsClassics and neofascists and Queer online subcultures can be pinpointed as the degree to which they allow the ancient past to be humanised. While neofascists’ decontextualised statues and symbols reduce Classical figures to abstract values, Queer internet users’ interest in figures such as Sappho relies entirely on their humanisation. Through recognising a degree of genuine shared experience as non-heterosexuals, a relationship with lived history is reclaimed, even through otherwise reductive mythologisation.

Self-mythologisation is an inherently emotional, largely reductive act. From Kennedy to Mussolini, the relationships it has been used to forge between ancient past and present identity are emotional and often reductive, too. The phenomenon is no different online, moving from alterations of the physical landscape and rhetoric to visual edits and textposts. The inherent bias carried in this usage lends itself to a chronic lack of historical accuracy. It is not, however, inherently dehumanising. Here we find the fundamental difference between the emotional relationships held by different online subcultures with Classics - as far removed as Queer spaces and FashWave. While neofascists isolate Classical imagery to evoke the common conceptualisation of Rome and Greece as glorious (and aggressively European), ancient Queer figures are actively humanised to demonstrate the continuity of Queer lived experience. Neofascists characterise themselves as a palingenetic rebirth of vague, projected nationalist values; Queer communities characterise ancient figures as reflecting their experiences, from universal heartache to modern meme culture. It is a difference between conceptualising ancient figures as entirely symbolic or relatable. While it can be tempting to evaluate these uses of Classics based on historicity, the discipline must not, to quote Vonnegut, ‘disappear up its own asshole’. Instead, it is these distinctions within (by-and-large reductive) classical reception that not only allow us to understand how emotional relationships with the past can be levied as either dangerous weapons or powerful tools, but also that it is our own ethical standards that must determine their value, not the measure of their reductiveness.

Jem Wickham is a first class Classics graduate of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge and was awarded the Vernon English Prize. She is interested in the past’s role in constructing self-perception, from third generation immigrant identities to Classical reception. She is also a magical realism enthusiast and budding bass player.

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