Tag Archives: classics

The Argument Made By The Absence: On Whiteness, Polychromy, And Diversity In Classics

It has been a few days since I published a piece on my Forbes blog regarding the perception of whiteness and statues in antiquity. I knew when I started taking notes on the subject of polychromy many months ago that this column would likely cause a stir within the field, among colleagues, and online. I had thought that I was prepared for the internet trolls. After all, I have crossed many proverbial bridges on Twitter––where they usually lurk. However, the hatred and invective I received from this post was more than anything I have ever received to date. As a result, I wanted to write a post on my personal blog in order to:

1) to provide a context for my argument through a broader bibliography on the subject of polychromy 2) to encourage the incorporation of the subject of race and art history into course syllabi and to provide an open discussion of racism in the 19th and 20th centuries to our students 3) to use these materials to recognize and then address the severe lack of diversity in the field of Classics.

My main thesis is that despite our knowledge of the prevalence of polychromy on ancient statuary, there is a predominantly neon white display of skin tone in respect to classical statues and sarcophagi. This assemblage of neon whiteness thus creates a false sense of homogeneity across the Mediterranean world. Moreover the idea that white marble is beauty is not an inherent truth of the universe; it was in part developed by influential art historians during the early modern period in Europe. This visual argument continues to be asserted and to shape what we in the West consider to be pulchritudinous.

As I pointed out in the column, a number of fantastic museum shows throughout Europe and the U.S. in recent years have addressed the issue of polychromy. Digital humanists and archaeologists played a large part in making these shows possible. Archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann in particular has applied technologies such as ultraviolet light in order to analyze the minute vestiges of paint on ancient statues and then recreate polychromy versions of them.

If you have a moment, check out the 2003 “Gods of Color” exhibit that travelled the world after its initial display both at the Glyptothek in Munich and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. Many of the photos in this post come from that exhibit––including the famed Caligula bust (Forbes column) and the Alexander Sarcophagus (above). One of my favorites is the archer from the Temple of Aphaia in Aigina (490-480 BCE). Also make sure to check out the open content and images on the Getty Portal from a show called “The Color of Life“, which was on display at the Getty Villa in 2008.


Blank marble and polychromy version of the archer from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia in Aigina (490-480 BCE). Reconstruction by Vinzenz Brinkmann.

Now that we have some background, the next question is: How can we address the problem of the lily white antiquity that exists in the public imagination? To be clear, I am not suggesting that we go back with a bucket in hand and repaint every marble statue across the country. However, I believe that better museum signage, the presentation of side-by-side 3D reconstructions, and the use of light (e.g. projections similar to the ones used on the Ara Pacis) can supplement and produce a contextual frame for understanding pieces. What a number of commenters have pointed out is that even when these statues are given color, they remain “white” and that, regardless of their color in antiquity, the restored color is simply too gauche. First, what do you even mean by “white”? I do not have the time to get into the cultural construction of whiteness and how it has changed to include Greeks and Italians in the 20th century, but please refer to historian Nell Irvin Painter‘s work on the subject and particularly to her piece in the New York Times, “What Is Whiteness?” White is not a category of analysis or identity used by those in antiquity.



The 2008 light show at the Ara Pacis museum, which sought to use color mapping to restore the polychromy to the Ara Pacis of Augustus. The image is via La Repubblica.

In doing the research for this piece and then reading Painter’s book on the subject of whiteness, I had to confront the incredible amount of racism that has shaped the ideas of scholars we continue to cite today in the field of ancient history. Art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (d. 1768) is just one example. A more current racist that is often cited by Roman economic historians is Tenney Frank. Recently, I came across Frank’s disturbing article, “Race Mixture in the Roman Empire” (The American Historical Review, 21.4 [Jul., 1916]: 689-708) while looking through an edited volume. The article was then reprinted without comment in Greek historian Donald Kagan’s collection of articles on the “fall of Rome” (published in 1962) called Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Why Did It Collapse? I am not suggesting that Prof. Kagan is or is not a racist, but I am arguing here that the essay deserved to be contextualized in his introduction to the volume and highlighted as an example of the virulent racism in Classics in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As Denise Eileen McCoskey points out in her excellent book, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, Frank’s attempt to count inscriptions in order to gauge whether “race mixing” contributed to the decline of Rome is not only untrue, it is dangerous. It also provides ammunition for white supremacists today. I am not telling you to avoid citing Frank altogether, but just like those museum placards, we must annotate, contextualize, and question the theories of these individuals closely before we use them.

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Tenney Frank, “Race Mixture in the Roman Empire” The American Historical Review, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Jul., 1916): 689-708. This article was then reprinted without comment in Donald Kagan’s collection of essays on the “fall of Rome” (1962) called Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Why Did It Collapse.

The last thing I wish to argue for in this post is a moment of reflection that endures. When we ask ourselves, as classicists, why we are such a non-diverse field we must consider whether we make it easy for people of color to want to study the ancient world. Do they see themselves in the ancient landscape that we present to them? Because they should. Moreover, discussing the shifting idea of what whiteness is remains important. Notably, I am a pretty white-looking lady, though I became less so in the eyes of internet trolls who this week found a blog post I wrote earlier in my life, wherein I discussed the fact that my maternal grandmother was indeed Jewish. Thanks for the parentheses treatment, guys, but I am quite okay with my heritage.

The dearth of people of color in media depicting the ancient world is a pivotal issue. Until I played Ryse: Son of Rome with my friend and colleague Hannah Scates Kettler, I didn’t realize how extreme this was. Hannah is a digital librarian and an ancient art historian, but she is also a woman of color. As she remarked to me, she does not see herself when watching movies or playing video games set in antiquity. I am not suggesting that we can change this fact over night, but I am telling you that 70% of my students tell me that these very video games and the watching of movies like Gladiator (which has a man from New Zealand playing the Spaniard Maximus) and the 300 (which has xenophobic depictions of Persians and predominantly northern European people playing Spartans) led them to take my course. If we want to see more diversity in Classics, we have to work harder as public historians to change the narrative, to talk to filmmakers, to write pop articles, and to do more outreach that emphasizes the vast palette of skin tones in the ancient Mediterranean. We do have the power to return the technicolor to the ancient world, but it does start with us.

Hail, Caesar: A Classicist’s Movie Review


George Clooney takes it easy on a lawn chair after being kidnapped in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (Photo via Indiewire)

It is about 43 minutes since we got out of seeing ‘Hail, Caesar!’, the Coen brothers’ new movie about a Tinseltown film studio during the 1950s. I enjoyed the film immensely, and, well, I have some frayed, butter stained theater napkin notes about the multiple classical allusions in the film.

Before we get to the allusions, let’s talk about the writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen–and their Classics bona fides. Everyone who has seen ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ (2000) knows that the Coen brothers have a love for classical antiquity. The film was later based off of Homer’s Odyssey, although the directors have previously revealed that the script did not begin as a re-imagination of the poet’s tale. It only later became a mix of Homer and ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ The brothers are the children of academics (an art history professor for a mother and an economics professor for a father) and Ethan was also a philosophy major at Princeton. 

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As ‘Big Dan’, John Goodman gives a nod to the cyclops, Polyphemus in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ (2000).

I was in a supermarket in Milwaukee in 2013 when I first heard this Fresh Air interview with the Coen brothers. In it, they mentioned that their future project was based on “sword and sandal” movies popular in the 1950s and 60s. I had visited Rome’s legendary film studio, Cinecittà, just a few months prior, and was excited to see the Coen brothers’ take on this period of film history.


An extra dressed as a Roman soldier at Rome’s Cinecittà in 1959 (Image via Bibliolab).

To begin (and end with), this film has a ring composition. It starts and concludes with a confessional. As humans, we love symmetry, and so ring composition is a quite satisfying mode of storytelling that dates back to classical antiquity. Actually, it is a very Homeric approach to narration. In this opening scene, we are introduced to Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, who is the managing executive of Capitol Pictures Studio, a film studio currently filming a number of movies on a large studio lot. Certainly the name of the film studio itself is meant to reference the movie’s theme of capitalism versus communism, but it may also be an allusion to Rome’s Capitoline hill. The collis Capitolinus was arguably the most important of the seven hills, and contained the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus as well as the Temple of Juno Moneta–where Rome’s mint produced coinage.

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Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ The Studio lot map behind him looks strongly like a Roman army camp plan.

As the audience gets to know our main character, Eddie Mannix, we are introduced to the fact that he is defined by a (seemingly) devout Catholic faith and is currently mulling over a competing job offer from Lockheed Martin. Both of these things–Mannix’s religious and his financial duties in life–provide both the protagonist’s struggle and the larger themes of the film. In the words of the headhunter hired to lure Mannix from his film studio job, Lockheed is the stable future and movies are the past. After all, soon everyone will have a television! One couldn’t help but think of insanity of the late Republic in the first century BCE as it transitioned to the more stable empire under the emperor Augustus. The metaphoric transition between Republic and Empire seemed obvious to me, though the film is more directly referencing the tension between democracy and communism in the U.S. during the beginning of the Cold War. It seemed to me that the map of the studio in Mannix’s office was actually a plan of a Roman army camp. This would make Mannix an imperator torn between the past and the (apparent) future.

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Plan of a typical Roman army camp. Mannix’s ‘troops’ are his zany actors, directors, and writers.

Early on, we are told that Capitol Pictures is filming a movie about the death of Christ from the perspective of a Roman centurion, played by George Clooney. The film’s name is ‘Hail, Caesar!’, though this is not Julius Caesar. It takes place during the middle of the reign of Tiberius (I calculated it at 26 CE). If we put aside the fact that Clooney says he wants to head to the Baths of Caracalla (which did not yet exist!) and focus instead on the purpose of showing us these film snippets, the intent seems to be to harken back to the period of sword and sandal movies that gave us ‘Ben-Hur’ [1959] and ‘Spartacus’ [1960].


Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in the 1960 film Spartacus. This is the famous “I am Spartacus!” moment later satirized rather crudely by Pepsi.

Both ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Spartacus’ had ethical and religious overtones that were often quite heavy handed. Spartacus is also widely cited for breaking the Hollywood blacklist by using Dalton Trumbo as its screenwriter. Similarly, ‘Hail, Caesar’ alludes to this conflict by having Clooney be kidnapped by a bunch of communist writers who long for a safe harbor of equality and communism amid the rough seas of Hollywood capitalism. In this context, we can see Capitol Pictures as also referencing Marx’s communist manifesto Das Kapital. A running theme in the movie is certainly whether belief and faith (both in God and in politics) are acted parts: Are these simply affectations or integral to the way one should live?

There are certainly myriad classical names and references to be had–a gossip columnist named Thessaly who has a twin sister named Thora–both of whom reminded me of the fact that rumor and gossip are personified by the Greek goddess Φήμη and the Roman goddess Fama. There are also mentions of the rise of “new men”, which will make any lover of Cicero think of the ascent of the novus homo during the late Republic. However, I was most fascinated by the theme of being caught in between, as it were, in a liminal space. As any historian will tell you, the most interesting parts of history come at its junctures. It is why the transition from the Republic to the Principate draws our students in, but it is also why the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation remain enthralling periods to study.


Tilda Swinton plays both Thora and Thessaly in the film, twin gossip columnists ostensibly based off of notorious 1930s gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, but also very reminiscent of the goddess Pheme and Fama–the original gossip columnists.

I won’t tell you the decision that Mannix ultimately makes about that job offer, but his comments to the priest in the confessional at the end of the movie outline a question that men, women, and whole nations have had to grapple with: Is it better to do a hard job that you feel worthwhile, or should you do the easier job that seems to be more progressive?

The Roman historian Tacitus couches the decision to accept imperial rule in much the same way in the beginning of his Annals. To Tacitus, the Res Publica is a hot mess, but it is better than becoming enslaved follower-sycophants to an emperor. The irony here is that while Mannix fights for tradition, those communist writers view themselves as slaves on the plantation of Capitol Studio Pictures. So the Republic ain’t perfect either. It is all about perception, and ‘Hail, Caesar!’ leave the audience without a lot of moralizing ends. As the camera pans out in the final scene, the water tower at Capitol Studio reads, simply: ‘Behold.’ In my head, all I could hear was the shout of ‘Ecce homo!–‘Behold, the man.’ Famously, these are the words said (in the Vulgate) by Pontius Pilate as he presented Jesus to the Jews (John 19: 15). ‘Hail, Caesar!’ places its audience into the middle of a religious, political, and social world at a crossroads in the 1950s, but it is a world not dissimilar to the Republic in 49 BCE or Palestine in ca. 26 CE.

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The ‘Ecce Homo’ moment of the Passion of Christ, as depicted by Andrea Mantegna, 1500.