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After the statues fall: decolonising Hellenic studies

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Responding to the recent excellent pieces by Nick Draper (10 June), Trevor Burnard (17 June), and Simon Szreter (22 June), I feel obliged to put an ancient-historical oar into this flood of what we might want to call (following Kenyan novelist and postcolonialist theorist Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s 1986 Decolonising the Mind) mental decolonisation. I feel especially obliged to do so, in fact, as I’ve just recently become President of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies: a professional association and friendly society founded in 1879 that is inevitably somewhat tainted as well as ennobled by its association with, indeed promotion of a discourse that takes its origin from, a world with often deeply alien values.

There seem to me to be three main axes of aptly Hellenist concern: race/slavery/whiteness; gender/sexuality; and colonialism/imperialism. It is not as though none of these has ever before been subjected to the right sort of in-depth, critical, self-reflexive examination. For conspicuous example, the late (non-Hellenist) Martin Bernal’s massively controversial ‘Black Athena’ project starting in 1987 flushed out a slew of debate over the ‘racial’ components of ancient Hellenic culture, a debate that acquired strong Afrocentrist overtones. I myself debated with him publicly on two occasions, once in Cambridge, once in Victoria, BC. If I may be even more personal, I have also myself been engaged in debates over unfreedom ever since I embarked on an Oxford doctorate on ancient Spartan history and archaeology in 1969. Feminism too, second- or third-wave, also directly affected my research, and the peculiar society of ancient Sparta afforded me plenty of scope for re-examining the quintessentially sexist view of Woman as a species purveyed by that ‘giant thinker’ (as Marx called him) Aristotle.

Colonialism-imperialism, however, although I saw myself as a kind of ethnographer of ancient Sparta, did not affect me in the same direct way, as it no doubt would have done had I been a participant-observational anthropologist of a contemporary living society. Moreover, all three of these debates have, as they say, moved on, acquiring peculiar and current salience from the Black Lives Matter movement, from resistance to the white-male supremacism peddled so perniciously since 2016’s US Presidential election, and from renewed righteous abhorrence of the clearly negative aspects of the legacy of colonialism and imperialism.

Naturally enough, such debates have been especially acute within Classics/Hellenic Studies circles on the other side of the pond, and particularly in the States. In a profoundly challenging interview with Elena Giusti, Dr Sarah Derbew (a former PhD student of Emily Greenwood at Yale) has vibrantly addressed the issue of ‘decolonizing blackness, alongside the Classics  curriculum’. She will shortly take up a position at Stanford in Classics, but significantly in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

With regard to gender/sexuality, Donna Zuckerberg (a Princeton Classics PhD) has herself published a robust response to the ‘red-pill’ masculinists who have sought to (mis)appropriate ancient Greek sexism for their own malign and reactionary purposes: Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age (2018: reviewed here); and her online journal Eidolon has recently published articles arguing for ‘decentering’ the West with regard to ancient sexuality (Jeremy LaBuff), and for tying ‘together the different strands of comparative research into a unifying movement that dislodges the Eurocentrism of Classics wholesale’ (Krishnan Ram-Prasad).

We in the UK must go and do likewise. One avenue that strikes me as having an especially strong potential for bearing more and original fruit is the peculiar association between Classics and colonialism-imperialism, already well explored in Barbara Goff’s 2005 collection Classics & Colonialism. The topics of the six essays include the modern historiography of the ancient Athenian and Roman empires; and the uses of Classics in both Caribbean and West African literature. But it’s the cover illustration of the book that I’d like to draw particular attention to. It shows what is described on the back cover as ‘One of the “Elgin Marbles”’, in fact one of the marble, high relief-sculpture metopes. The scene depicted on the metope is of a semi-bestial and wholly brutal centaur attacking a wholly human – and wholly nude – male. It thus perfectly illustrates the theme of the 2016 collective volume The Topography of Violence in the Greco-Roman World, edited by W. Riess and G.G. Fagan, in which violence against women and against slaves as well as between men on the battlefield is very thoroughly explored.

Yet even more apropos are the scare quotes around ‘Elgin Marbles’; for they are indeed scary. In fact, the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum (since 1817) are a, perhaps the classic illustration of the colonialist-imperialist complex that so disfigures that august collection today. The large fortune acquired by the Museum’s founding collector and benefactor, Dr Hans Sloane, was itself deeply mired in the slave trade, and Lord Elgin, ambassador to the Sublime Porte, was able to loot the Parthenon marbles only thanks to Britain’s being an enemy of the Ottoman Sultan’s enemy, Napoleonic France, at a time when Greece was a possession of the Ottoman Empire. Next March 25, 2021, will mark the bicentenary of the Greeks’ declaration of independence from the Ottoman yoke after a subjection of nearly 37 decades. Is it too much to hope that it will also mark a significant moment in the decolonisation of the British Museum?

Whatever the answer to that, as President of the Hellenic Society I shall be promoting intense scrutiny and reflection on the nature as well as the history of our ‘Hellenic studies’, and I invite all likeminded persons to join me in this effort of renewal, reintegration, regeneration – and maybe even redemption.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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