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Delenda est servitudo

When abolitionists quoted the classics

Why would nineteenth-century abolitionists be attracted to the work of slave-owning leaders in ancient Greece and Rome? The answer shows us how using difficult histories can help fuel moral movements.

Written by Grace Spiewak on

One day in 1839 while working in a rice field in Sierra Leone, Singbe Pieh was captured by Spanish slave traders (U.S. National Park Service n.d.). While sailing to Cuba on a ship called Amistad, Pieh led a revolt that eventually resulted in the freeing of the slaves in the United States and their return to Africa.

To commemorate this remarkable story, abolitionist Nathaniel Jocelyn painted a portrait of Pieh, depicting him holding a staff and dressed in a Roman-style toga (Malamud 2015, p. 58). It is odd to picture – honoring a man who fought for freedom as a member of a civilization that thrived on slavery. Yet, Jocelyn’s stylistic choice reflects a tradition of invoking the classics to propel the abolition movement.

Many abolitionists employed classical references in speeches and enabled the study of classics in African American schools. This movement was not just a strategy of demonstrating their intellectual equality to white peers – many found solidarity in figures like Cato and Cicero who also fought for freedom, albeit from Caesar’s political oppression rather than slavery.

Scholar and Union Army Colored Infantry veteran Joseph Thomas Wilson coined the name “the black phalanx” for the Black factions of the Union army in his 1887 book of the same name, equating them to the glorified hoplite phalanx of ancient Greece (Strauss 2005, p. 39). The hoplite phalanx was regarded as the epitome of a successful battle formation in ancient Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta.

In his book, Wilson never discusses the fact that slavery was commonplace in ancient Greece. Rather, he celebrates Greece and Rome as societies that delivered justice to their people (Strauss 2005, p. 44). Wilson finds the theme of emancipation evident in both groups, and his choice to honor these soldiers as “the black phalanx” claims ownership of this history.


Wilson’s work follows a tradition of classics and humanities studies in African American communities. From the 1820s to 1840s, Black scholars and students in northern urban areas established schools and literary, historical, and debating societies that included classical curriculums.

Schools such as the Demosthenian Institute in Philadelphia featured lectures, discussion groups, libraries, and opportunities for members to practice oratory and debate. Common texts used for their training included translations of Demosthenes and Cicero, as well as John Ward’s System of Oratory, Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, and John Quincy Adams’ Lectures on Rhetoric and Oratory, all of which employed the classics (Malamud 2015, p. 78).

This education also allowed abolitionists to spar with their pro-slavery rivals in oratory and writing. In response to a pro-slavery slogan adapted from Cato that read delenda est abolitio – “abolition must be destroyed” – the abolitionist newspaper Liberator published their own: delenda est servitudo – “slavery must be destroyed” (Malamud 2015, p. 63).

The rhetoric of Frederick Douglass further demonstrates the role of classical studies in successful activism. At age 12, Douglass purchased a copy of The Columbian Orator, studying the rhetorical styles of speakers like Cato and George Washington. Shortly after Douglass escaped from slavery, he also joined a debate club at the Baltimore Mental Improvement Society.

The imprints of these studies materialize in his use of classical rhetorical devices, such as addressing opponents without directly attacking them and exercising emotional appeal. In his July 5, 1852 speech What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?, Douglass renders the descendants of America’s Founding Fathers a “degenerate offspring” who live in hypocrisy by permitting slavery. The speech bears evident resemblance to Cato’s address in the Roman Senate as recorded in Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae (Malamud 2015, p. 80). In the speech, Cato also condemns his contemporaries for neglecting the virtues of their ancestors.

Why would abolitionists have an interest in a culture that, like their Confederate opponents, empowered a slave society? In truth, not all abolitionists shared the same zeal for this discipline. Some viewed the study of the classics as a ploy to seek approval from whites.

A nineteenth century African American song makes fun of those who studied Greek and Latin so they could become “mo’ like white folks” (Strauss 2005, p. 49). Booker T. Washington and early abolitionist Martin D. Delany likewise did not encourage classical studies, as Delany stated it was “a recipe for perpetual dependence that diverted blacks from attaining economic emancipation” (Fikes 2002, 120).


This disagreement among nineteenth century Black scholars and activists solidifies the merit of the classics in the abolition movement. Both sides of the argument prove the same idea – that the classics are a tool that can be used to achieve an agenda, regardless if one views that agenda as progress or regression. Many abolitionists viewed the classics as a tool for growth, claiming ownership of the history they had been denied.

Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” The challenge of learning Latin or Greek and the thrill of oratory fuel the endurance of classical studies, not simply the intellectual currency it provides.

The history of abolitionists and the classics may seem surprising and counterintuitive, especially in today’s political climate where it can be deemed morally wrong to honor the merits of historical figures who participated in slavery. These abolitionists’ concern was not to conceal the slavery in Greco-Roman history or to find good in its evil, but to repurpose the classics to achieve their goals.

Doing so allowed them to take their place in classical scholarship, initiating a path for future scholars and promoting intellectual equality. They employed the classics to advocate against slavery, explore intellectual pursuits, and advance educational opportunities for their communities.

Abolitionists’ treatment of the classics illustrates that an innovative use of difficult history can aid the execution of agendas for justice and equality.

Further reading

Suggestions for further reading are listed below:

  • Robert Fikes, “African-American scholars of Greco-Roman culture”, Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 35, pp. 120-124.
  • Margaret Malamud, 2015, “‘A kind of moral gladiatorship’: abolitionist use of the classics”, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 23.2, pp. 57–90.
  • Michele Valerie Ronnick 2004, “Twelve Black classicists”, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 11.3, pp. 85-102.
  • Barry Strauss 2005, “The Black Phalanx: African-Americans and the classics after the Civil War”, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics 12.3, pp. 39-63.
  • U.S. National Park Service, “Sengbe Pieh (Joseph Cinque)” (no date); accessed 1 December 2020.
  • Joseph T. Wilson, The Black Phalanx (no date); accessed 14 December 2020.

Think we needed to include something else in this list? Let us know.