Context matters

Tackling a bad-faith argument against current iconoclasm

If it’s okay for modern protestors to topple statues commemorating dubious historical figures, some argue, why shouldn’t we wipe the monuments of ancient slave-owning societies like the Romans from the face of the Earth?

Written by Josho Brouwers, Matthew Lloyd, and Joshua R. Hall on

Josho’s recent article explaining why protestors are justified in destroying statues commemorating dubious historical figures has led to a flood of responses. Most of these were positive, with people supporting the stance of this website when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some readers were disappointed that the website had “politicized” the ancient world. To that we would respond with the old chestnut that everything is political. There is a reason why, especially when it comes to Classics, there is much discussion about how the various disciplines involved in studying the ancient world suffer from an overrepresentation of white men. The only difference between “politicized” and “apolitical” approaches to the past is that the “politicized” ones admit they’re political; the “apolitical” are either ignorant of it or intentionally deceitful. The field would be richer if the people who studied the past were more diverse.

In addition, we would point out that there is no objective way to write about the ancient world. This has always been the reason why we refer to the website as a magazine and we didn’t start yet another encyclopaedia. The faux-objectivity of the latter is anathema to how we believe knowledge about the past should be created and shared. If you’re interested, Josho wrote an article long ago about how the study of the past is subjective.

Truly negative responses were mercifully limited. Some resorted to hurling insults. A few sought refuge in the right-wing argument that what Josho had to say was discredited by the way that he expressed himself. We suppose these people are fans of either the utterly miserable Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, or the two-faced UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. Oops, there we go again. Still, substance trumps form, we would argue. If you have no substantial argument in favour of your ideas, but only criticize the rhetorical methods of your opponents, then you likely have the weaker case.

Finally, a few offered a now familiar retort. How could we support protestors toppling statues commemorating, for example, a slave-trader like Edward Colston? After all, where does this end? The ancient Romans had a slave-based economy, and so did the ancient Greeks. If we are fine with protestors destroying more recently erected statues, then surely logic dictates that we need to destroy all ancient monuments, too?

This argument is disingenuous. It ignores historical context. The current protests are not simply directed at the figures whose statues are being torn down. They are emblematic of centuries of oppression, and only by removing the champions of this oppression from public places will the fight to end it be successful.

It is also a statement against the continuation of the views which led to their creation in the first place. Organizations like the so-called United Daughters of the Confederacy sought to re-fight the Civil War on ideological battlefields. This is why, in the early twentieth century, they engaged a campaign to monumentalize the Confederacy through the construction of statues and monuments to that nefarious rogue state’s heroes. Thus, the fight is against racist ideology whose origins are in the twentieth century as much as it is against the imagined and ahistorical view of a “heroic” Confederacy.

Remember that the protests have been fuelled by the recent spate in brutal police killings of Black people in the United States. This on-going crisis has been ignored for too long, a stance based in systemic racism. As Josho explained in his previous article, material culture, including statues, is not neutral. Many of these statues were put up in times of racist insecurity and were deliberately intended to foist a political message on the people, to reinforce an existing social order. That social order treated people of colour as inferior. Putting up a statue of, for example, a slave-trader like Edward Colston, nearly two centuries after his death, only serves to underscore this hateful message.

Ancient civilizations play no role in the current demonstrations. Yes, the ancient Greeks had slaves (often other Greeks). Yes, the ancient Romans had slaves (generally non-Romans). Ancient peoples certainly had their prejudices and engaged in racism, as argued, for example, by Benjamin Isaac in his article “Proto-racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity”, World Archaeology 38.1 (2006), pp. 32-47. Ancient cultures are not unproblematic and studying them does not – and should not – be equated with uncritical adoration of their accomplishments, no matter what politicians with degrees in Classics might say.

Indeed, ancient culture has been used – politicized – to reinforce racist, far-right ideologies for centuries. But ancient material culture is rarely on display in public squares, in courthouses, or gracing the vestibules of Oxford colleges. More often, these images are in museums or archaeological parks, where curators and tour guides offer contextual information that explains who or what these objects or monuments are to visitors. These are spaces where people go to explicitly engage with history. Museums and archaeological parks are also not neutral in these situations, but they offer a space in which interpretation is offered.

Like modern monuments, material culture in ancient times had political significance. A statue of a Roman emperor in conquered territory hammered home who was in charge. Monuments were not neutral in ancient times, just like they are imbued with meaning today. Iconoclasm was practiced in the past, too, and leaders who had fallen into disfavour would have their likenesses destroyed – this happened among the ancient Egyptians, and the ancient Romans did so as well (a practice referred to later as damnatio memoriae). These ancient destructions were about erasing a figure from history, as accusers say of this movement, rather than just removing them from the public sphere. But history can never be destroyed completely, which is why we still know about these figures, thanks to the efforts of historians and archaeologists.

The point that needs to be stressed is that such destruction is always a feature of its time. Geography also has a role to play here: context matters. In the United States, the protestors take aim at statues commemorating Confederate leaders, a movement that has been going on for a while. In the United Kingdom, the protestors are focused on enslavers and oppressors, as well as against individuals with hateful racist agendas. In the Netherlands and Belgium, protests are aimed mostly at figures who committed atrocities in the overseas colonies, or were otherwise complicit.

There have been instances of collateral damage, where protestors in the United States, for example, have defaced statues that commemorated abolitionists. Such instances are unavoidable, and yet ironically has resulted in more people googling and looking up what these individuals did. Thus, the protests have done more to educate people on these individuals than the statues ever did. In many ways, this is an argument that statues are better housed in museums or archival spaces rather than in public spaces, so that viewers can be given more context.

The current protests take aim at racists and oppressors, at those people who represent the problems of the current age. This explains why more recently erected statues of Confederate leaders and slave-traders are targeted by the protestors. These statues were put up in recent times with a specific ideological goal that is relevant to inequalities that exist today.

Black lives matter.