On Auctoritas and Antiquity

Post id tempus auctoritate omnibus praestiti, potestatis autem nihilo amplius habui quam ceteri qui mihi quoque in magistratu conlegae fuerunt.

After that time, I exceeded all persons in auctoritas; however, I had no greater potestas than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy.

Res Gestae 34.10-12.

In his Res Gestae, Augustus noted that after 27 BCE, he exceeded all others in terms of auctoritas, even if he did not exceed them in regard to magisterial powers. For those who study Latin, auctoritas is just a word best left untranslated. Many have tried to make the later English word “authority” fit, but in reality, there is no equivalent to the term. The untranslatablity of this word can apply to the authority many give to the field of Classics in general. Like Augustus, Classics really doesn’t deserve all this auctoritas, dignitas, and potestas it has received. And yet it still carries a currency yet to be devalued.

One way to begin to flatten false cultural and racial hierarchies that prop up “Western Civilization” is to democratize the study of the ancient world; embracing a global antiquity that places everyone on par with each other. As Nell Irvin Painter demonstrated in The History of White People, it was white people making a claim on Classical culture that influenced the construction of a racial hierarchy in the first place. And thus a second approach is to amplify the largely forgotten contributions of Black classicists, demonstrating that models from antiquity were also a tool of resistance in the 19th century.

Nathaniel Jocelyn, “Sengbe Pieh” (c.1814 – c.1879) also known as Joseph Cinqué or Cinquez. Originally held by the New Haven Colony Historical Society, New Haven, CT (Image via Wikimedia).

For the penultimate class in my ancient & modern slavery seminar, we turn to the work of Margaret Malamud. Her long history of scholarship addressing slavery and reception history is unparalleled. I am particularly drawn to the chapter she did for the Ancient slavery and abolition : from Hobbes to Hollywood volume (OUP, 2011) within the Classical Presences series. It is titled “The Auctoritas of Antiquity: Debating Slavery through Classical Exempla in the Antebellum USA.” It is an essay I would suggest to anyone looking to understand how the world of ancient Greece and Rome has been quarried and then mobilized in order to legitimize, justify, and strengthen an argument.

In her chapter, Malamud looks at how enslavers in the South often preferred to look to Classical Greece and Rome to justify their thoughts on slavery through the quotation of ancient writers such as Aristotle and Augustine. However, White abolitionists and African Americans also turned to the classical world to argue against slavery. As Malamud states:

How and why African Americans mobilized knowledge of classical texts and antiquity in their fight for liberty and equality, and how, along with abolitionists, they legitimated, debated, and contested their political and cultural identity through references to Greek and Roman antiquity, is demonstrated…Knowledge of the classics extended beyond aristocratic males to the middle and working classes, women, and African Americans.

There were often few opportunities for African Americans to learn Greek and Latin directly. And so many engaged with the classical world through translations—although there are of course numerous exceptions such as William Sanders Scarborough, Sarah Jane Woodson Early, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Frederick Douglass’ rhetorical styles were compared to that of Cicero and many African Americans turned to models of resistance. We can see this in Black abolitionist David Walker’s use of Carthage and Hannibal, for instance, in order to push back on White enslavers cast as Romans.

‘Portraits of Hannibal and Cyprian, with Vignettes Illustrating African Character, and Wrongs’, anti‐slavery poster (1836) (Image via the Library of Congress).

From comparisons to Republican heroes like Cato to the championing of enslaved gladiators such as Spartacus, classical models—both literary and aesthetic—were used by Black and White abolitionists to translate their cause into the classical vernacular that southerners so often deployed in order to argue for slavery. In so doing, abolitionists could fight fire with fire; auctoritas with auctoritas.

In my earlier quests to spotlight the “abuse” of ancient history in, say, the use of SPQR or the fasces, I made the same mistake that I thought I was trying to correct: I erased the positive ways in which African Americans have connected to and deployed antiquity by only discussing how white supremacists drew on the ancient world. I stopped writing my book on white supremacy because I didn’t think I was the right person to write it, because the stress of writing about hate was getting to me, and because—ultimately—I was providing the field of Classics with an excuse to blame others rather than ourselves; to externalize rather than internalize the change that we need to see.

The work of many scholars: Paolo Asso, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Emily Greenwood, Nyasha, Junior, Patrice Rankine, Nell Irvin Painter, Margaret Malamud, Solange Ashby, Sarah Derbew, Sudhir Hazareesingh, and so many more have provided inspiration and guidance in how I am remaking my courses and my writing. To me, supporting a global antiquity going forward means looking beyond the Mediterranean, but also underscoring the widespread deployment of the classical world in the round.

Amazon.com: Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture:  9780374112660: Hazareesingh, Sudhir: Books
Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (2020).

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