Signs of the Times: Ancient Symbols Reused by Hate Groups

For the past year and half, I have written extensively about the appropriation of ancient symbols, texts, and material culture as a rallying point for hate and marginalization within the U.S. and Europe. I wanted to take a moment to aggregate this work, to address how and why ancient historians are working to record this abuse, and to amplify the research of others studying the semiotics of hate groups:

1. The fasces: My latest for Hyperallergic addresses the connection between corporal violence and the fasces, a bundle of rods often accompanied by an axe that was carried by lictors serving certain Roman magistrates. The fasces has always been tied to ideas of legitimate force through political power, which is why it was an attractive symbol to French Revolutionaries and to Italian Fascists before being appropriatied for the shields at the “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. Below you will see some stunning photos of Fascist-era fasces from Rome taken by Prof. Sophie Hay. 

2. The Torch: In August of 2017, only a few days after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, I wrote in Forbes about the long history of using torches as a means of intimidation.  In antiquity, a torch was often termed a fax’ and it could often be used not only to light the way, but also as an intimidation tactic during rioting and revolution.

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A 3rdC CE relief depicting a Mithraic scene where a bull is being slaughtered shows a torch bearer providing light during the ritual. The relief with polychromy is now at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome (Image by Sarah E. Bond).

As I noted in the piece, the use of the torch took on new  meaning in the Nazi era, but retained its ability to threaten violence: “Torches used as statements of power and racial superiority were even more prominent in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. On August 1, 1936, a new tradition was introduced to the modern Olympic Games: the use of a torch relay wherein individual runners brought the Olympic flame from Greece to Berlin–connecting the ancient world to Germany. The ancient Greeks had indeed used torches in athletics, but the Nazis appropriated the torch as a symbol of both athletic and racial supremacy.”

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The torchlight procession in honor of the new Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler moves through the Wilhelmstraße in Berlin on the evening of 30 January 1933 (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE).

Are torches–even tiki torches bought at Wal-Mart–innocuous symbols? No, they are not. Like the fasces, they are tied to the insinuation of violence.

3. SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus): In August of this year, I published a long essay in Hyperallergic discussing the appropriation of SPQR by hate groups.  The post was originally inspired by one at Pharos, written by Prof. Curtis Dozier.  Much like the fasces, the use of SPQR came back into vogue in the 1930s thanks in large part to its reuse by Mussolini. While Mussolini did not invent the use of SPQR on Rome’s various manhole covers, he did expand and amplify the iconic chiusino throughout the city.

The piece also deconstructs the popular myth that SPQR was emblazoned on Roman standard flags called vexilla. This is a myth that appears largely in the high middle ages that has then been picked up on and perpetuated in video games, movies, and television. It is this tie to military imperium which is often accentuated in its use by hate groups today.

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A YouTube still from the videogame “Rome: Total War” that has a purple SPQR vexillum with a Roman military aquila (“eagle”) on a standard.

4. Molon Labe: In an essay for Eidolon called “This is Not Sparta,” I gave an overview of how Steve Bannon, white nationalists, and other groups within the U.S. have misappropriated Sparta. As I noted in the piece, “The re-inscribing of nationalism over cosmopolitanism; militant conformity over uniqueness has greatly appealed to the Alt-Right.” In particular, there is an affinity for the phrase “Molon Labe,” which is today also a rallying cry for second amendment advocates:

“The phrase comes from an ancient quote given to us by the (much) later historian Plutarch, who lived ca. 46–120 CE. Writing about the famed 300 Spartans at Thermopylae and Leonidas’ refusal to surrender, he wrote: “When Xerxes wrote again, ‘Hand over your arms,’ he wrote in reply, ‘Come and take them’ (molôn labe).” (Note that another important article on this is by Ishaan Tharoor over at the Washington Post).

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The 1955 Leonidas Monument in bronze by Vasos Falireas at Thermopylae. The statue has “Molon Labe” inscribed on the base (CC-BY-SA 3.0).

Just like people who celebrate SPQR, love of Sparta alone does not mean you are part of a hate group: “Should we then classify all lovers of Spartan culture as members of the Alt-Right? Of course not! But we can and should complicate that romance. When Classicists use their knowledge of the classical world to point out the cultural and political flaws in Spartan culture — e.g. their use of enslaved labor and eugenics—when they point out to students and the public that their championing of Sparta is coexistent with (or sometimes originating from) movements in Nazi Germany and modern hate groups, and when they engage with the fact that praise for Sparta has become a dog-whistle for signaling beliefs in European exceptionalism, they are providing important nuance to the conversation.”

5. White Beauty and the DiscobolusThrough an examination of Discoboloi (statues of the Discobolos or Discobolus), this Hyperallergic essay accentuated the fact that constructs of beauty can themselves be rallying points for ideas of racial superiority. Western ideas of whiteness and athletic beauty were, to Hitler’s mind, epitomized by the Discobolus, which is why he worked so hard to acquire the famed statue. Such constructs of beauty are dangerous in that they can work to marginalize those who do not fit the ideal and to uphold those who do as superior.

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Adolf Hitler next to the Discobolus in the Munich Glyptothek (Image via Consuming Greek Antiquity)

It should be recognized that I am one of many people doing work to decode the symbols of hate by white nationalist groups. This blogpost is in no way a comprehensive overview of the issue, I simply wanted to bring together all the work I have done over the past year and a half in one space.

If you’d like to read more, visit Pharos , Eidolon, or Medievalists of Color. For medieval studies in particular, note that a new piece at the Christian Science Monitor highlights the work of medievalists Cord Whitaker, Dorothy Kim, Matthew Gabriele, Matthew Simmons, and many more in reclaiming the Middle Ages. I was also impressed by this essay by Amir Khadem on “Barbarism as Civilization: White Afghanistan and the Alt-Right.” 

Why is understanding the historical use of symbols so important to ancient and medieval historians today? We can perhaps look to the great Umberto Eco for some answers and explanation: “Thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used ‘to tell’ at all” (Umberto Eco, in Trattato di semiotica generale [1975], translated as A Theory of Semiotics [1976]). We are addressing the “theory of the lie” not only to counter it, but in hopes of making it impotent.

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Roman soldier, fresco of the empty tomb in the sacristy of S. Croce, Florence (Niccolo di Pietro Gerini, fl. c. 1370-1414) (Original Pinterest pin by Prof. Carrie Beneš). 

2 comments

  1. i am very surprised the swastika isn’t included here, having for centuries been a sign of luck in many asian cultures before nazi appropriation.

    • I only posted essays I have written. The history of the swastika is broadly known and published on. I was trying to address lesser known symbols, though you are right this is an important symbol to deconstruct and understand in terms of its reuse and abuse.

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