The Far Right, Antisemitism & the Ancient Roman World
14 July 2023
Written by CST's Information Officer Keith Feldman.
The world of Ancient Rome has always been a fertile landscape to feed the dark imaginings of the extreme right-wing nationalist mindset. It supposedly offers the model of a white monoculture where supreme order and military prowess were all, where a whole host of ‘inferior’ peoples were subjugated, enslaved, or extinguished and where great swathes of the world’s territories would be conquered. The symbolism and imagery derived from it influenced the Nazis: their ‘sieg heil’ salute was supposed erroneously to be the continuation of how ancient Romans greeted each other.  In Mussolini’s Italy, the very name ‘fascist’ derived from the ‘fasces’, the bundle of branches wound round an axe which were carried by the lictors, officials of ancient Roman magistrates. 
This fixation with the ancient Roman world continues amongst today’s white supremacists, especially in the US. On 12 August 2017, a great number of these assembled in Charlottesville, Virginia for the “Unite the Right Rally” to ostensibly protest the proposed removal of the statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederate general.  There were some tragic consequences. At one point, a neo-Nazi, James Alex Fields Jr deliberately drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors leading to the death of one of them, Heather Heyer.  Two state police officers were also accidentally killed in a helicopter accident while patrolling the event.  One of the headline speakers there went by the name of “Augustus Sol Invictus”.  This grand-sounding title conjures up references to three Roman emperors: Augustus, the very first, emperor; Elegabalus who was a sun worshipper; Aurelian who created a cult for ‘Sol Invictus’ (the ‘unconquered sun’). It’s quite a change from his original name, plain old Austin Gillespie, from Florida, sometime luminary of the alt-right Libertarian party. 
When supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in January 2021, visible call-backs to the Roman world were also on show.  Some insurrectionists wore Roman costumes. There was one protestor who bore a banner of Trump’s head superimposed onto the body of Maximus, the character played by Russell Crowe in the film Gladiator with the words “Cross the Rubicon” emblazoned on it. The crossing of the Rubicon by Julius Caesar in 49 BCE began a chain of events which led to the fall of the Roman republic, so the implication here is that Trump is being urged to collapse the American state.
Such unsubtle allusions to the ancient Roman past give to those who use them on the far right a veneer of respectability, a way of claiming that age as their own when their views prevailed. And when that space is portrayed in a way they don’t agree with, they will lash out. In December 2016, the BBC released on YouTube a short animation entitled ‘Life in Roman Britain’, part of an 11-part historical series charting the history of Britain.  The main characters are a soldier, his wife and two young children. The family are Black. This enraged certain quarters of the far right. One of them was Paul Joseph Watson, editor -at-large at Infowars, the website set up by Alex Jones  which actively promotes conspiracy theories. In July 2017, alongside an image of the Roman family from the BBC cartoon, Watson tweeted: “Thank God the BBC is portraying Roman Britain as ethnically diverse. I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?”  He then posted: “Some North African Roman soldiers may have been stationed on Hadrian’s Wall, therefore Roman Britain was ethnically diverse. Logic Fail.” 
For him, the cartoon had clearly struck a nerve. He accused the BBC of rewriting history to serve a politically correct agenda, encroaching on the wildly held view among the far right that Roman Britain was a ‘white space’. A viewpoint held despite wide-ranging archaeological evidence showing that some soldiers serving on Hadrian’s Wall hailed from north-west Africa and Syria. 
If in the far-right mindset, the Roman world should be regarded as an exemplar of racial purity, it is also perceived as a place where Jews were universally and justifiably despised. On 22 March 2015, The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website run by Andrew Anglin, published an article called ‘The Roman Empire’s Jewish Problem.’  This claimed that “the Jews have been a consistent and irreconcilable problem for all peoples” and that the “Ancient Romans in particular had a mortal Jewish problem, just as we do today”. The article then goes on to quote a whole range of antisemitic statements by ancient writers, both pagan and Christian, from the historian Tacitus, who wrote in his Histories that Jewish people have “an attitude of hostility and hatred towards all others” to St John Chrysostom, the Early Church father, who in one of his sermons stated that Jews “are…fit for slaughter.” There is no context or analysis given for any of this. The implication is if these great writers and thinkers thought all this back then, then we should promote the same ideas today.
When those on the far right start digging deeper into the Roman past, it just allows for greater opportunity to vent their conspiracism regarding Jews. On 9 November 2020, Tom Sunic director of the far-right American Freedom Party, wrote an article on the Occidental Observer website entitled “Who will guard the guards? Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Mail-in Voter Fraud and Repercussions for Europe.”  In this, he talks about the emperor Hadrian’s wars against Jews in what was then the Roman province of Judea in the 130s CE. Their defeat by him left “an indelible anti-European grudge in the Jewish collective memory.” This grudge in turn was responsible for Donald Trump’s electoral defeat in 2020, a loss which “will be the end not just of the people and culture of traditional America but of the entire West.” In other words, Sunic is pushing the conspiracy theory that Jewish people want to bring about the destruction of white civilization.
It appears that the appeal of the Roman world gives to the far right both a veneer of bogus respectability when they’re able to draw on such a rich multitude of antisemitic quotations from assorted luminaries, as well as a supposedly deep scholarly wellspring to explain treacherous Jewish behaviour in the modern world. And one ancient personality they’ve enlisted more than any other in their pursuit of racist ideology, is none other than Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE-43 BCE), the politician, lawyer, writer and orator from the time of the late Roman Republic. After his contemporary, Julius Caesar, he is possibly one of the most famous and iconic figures from Ancient Rome. One of his more memorable phrases ‘O tempora, O mores’ (‘Oh the times! Oh the customs!’) became the title of the newsletter of American Renaissance, the white supremacist group.  His very image was co-opted to front a notorious antisemitic account on Telegram, ‘The Noticer’. This account, which once existed on Twitter as ‘@TheEuropeanMan1’ before it was banned, collected screenshots of anti-racist tweets of Jewish people so as to intimidate them and make them targets for racist harassment. The way Cicero’s image has been doctored is significant-his bust now has glowing laser-like eyes, as if to say, ‘he’s watching you Jews, he’s going to get you!’
Another doctored image of Cicero doing the rounds of Telegram depicts him in even more sinister form. The laser eyes are supplemented by him wearing a lower-face skull-mask. Such an adornment is popular among the far right and was in fact worn by some of the Capitol insurrectionists.  Alongside Cicero is the quotation: “The Jews belong to a dark and repulsive force. One knows how numerous this clique is, how they stick together and what power they exercise through their unions. They are a nation of rascals and deceivers.”
This antisemitic statement can be found all over social media. An easy signifier to express that one of the greatest personalities of the Roman world really hated Jews! However, Cicero didn’t actually say it, and it is mostly a fabrication. It is purportedly an excerpt from a speech, ‘Pro Flacco’ which Cicero delivered in Rome in 59 BCE. He was defending Gaius Valerius Flaccus, the former governor of the province of Asia (what is part of Turkey now) against a range of corruption charges. One of these was that he had misappropriated gold collected by the Jewish community to be sent as tribute to Jerusalem and had forbidden the export of it.  In the section where the alleged quotation comes from, Cicero is talking to the court about Jews in the context of these charges. What he says is: “You know how vast a throng it is, how close-knit, and what influence it can have in public meetings. I will speak in a whisper like-this-, just loud enough for the jury to hear, for there is no shortage of men to incite this crowd against me and all the best men, but I shall not help them by making it easier for them…” 
This statement is not particularly complimentary about Jews-it could be interpreted that he is referring to a ‘Jewish lobby’ -but it is of an entirely different nature to what is put out on Telegram and elsewhere. As David Levene, now a Professor of Classics at New York University , pointed out, Cicero is appealing to his jury’s xenophobia to get his client off the hook.  This was typical of trials in this period, when all non-Roman subjects could be denigrated. Cicero also makes racial remarks against Greeks in this speech and on other occasions does down Gauls and Sardinians. Another thing to consider is that Flaccus’ actions were not particularly unusual nor just confined to Jews. Corruption by governors was rife in this period . In 70 BCE, Cicero attempted to prosecute Verres, the former governor of Sicily, who had bled his provincial subjects dry for the sake of his personal enrichment.  The Romans were truly equal opportunity exploiters.
So Cicero, who never said some of the things he was supposed to say, has been made a ‘poster boy’ for racist hate spouted by some far-right commentators. Just to reference him, gives a gloss of bogus scholarly cachet. He certainly held xenophobic and antisemitic views, but these were very much of his times, and not to the virulent and genocidal level held by some extremists today. And there is something else to consider. One of Cicero’s great political rivals was Lucius Sergius Catalina. In the historian Sallust’s ‘Bellum Catalinae’, an account of an attempted coup by the latter, Catalina calls Cicero in the Senate an ‘inquilinus’.  The usual translation of this word from Latin is “immigrant” or “alien”. Catalina is having a dig here at Cicero being a ‘novus homo’ (a ‘new man’) not born in Rome or descended from any of its great families, but from the small town of Arpinum (now Arpino) miles away. In other words, Cicero used now to promote racism and hatred, was in fact a victim of racism himself.
Current Classicists are not unaware about the ongoing abuse of ancient history for racist ends. In the US after the death of George Floyd in May 2020, the Society for Classical Studies issued a statement in which they acknowledged that “white supremacist and nationalist groups have misappropriated Classics and other pre-modern fields for their own hateful agendas.”  There has also been some fight back. In 2017, Vassar College in New York set up the Pharos website. It is where “classical scholars, students and the public more broadly, can learn about the appropriations of Greco-Roman antiquity” and it enables students “to recognize and challenge the persistence of white supremacist narratives around Greco-Roman antiquity”.  The site contains numerous articles on the many areas of antiquity impinged upon and hijacked by the far right, providing sober and scholarly ripostes. Pharos was a famous lighthouse in Alexandria, and the site continues to act as a beacon, shining a light on the endless racist distortions and misconceptions spewed out about the ancient world. But these show no sign of stopping.
 C. Macdonald (tr), Cicero, Volume 10, Loeb Classical Library, (Harvard/Heinemann, 1976) p. 426
 As above, p.515
 C. Macdonald (tr), Cicero, Volume 10, Loeb Classical Library, (Harvard/Heinemann, 1976) p. 425