WHO CONTROLS THE PAST
How the Far Right Perverts Ancient History—And Why It Matters
It may seem silly to argue about the interpretation of events that unfolded thousands of years ago. But those ideas are having life-and-death consequences in America today.
Donald Trump famously does not read books, so it’s odd when he praises an author who normally writes about the ancient world. But there he was touting classicist Victor David Hanson, who just laid out his worldview for the New Yorker in an interview entitled The Classicist Who Sees Donald Trump as a Tragic Hero. The modern news cycle doesn’t have a lot of room for pieces addressing the ancient world, so it is upsetting to see people like Hanson dominating that discussion.
Hanson’s wildly successful 1989 book on ancient infantry combat, The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece, advanced the breathtakingly bigoted and utterly false notion that manly, honest, close-combat is the Western legacy of battle, and that perfidy, trickery, and ruse is the Eastern legacy, and that therefore the Western way has rightly come to dominate. This is the actual thesis of one of the most popular books on the subject, assigned to me again and again in college, graduate school, and as a young officer candidate earning my commission in the US Coast Guard.
The right wing’s distortion of the West’s fighting roots in the ancient world – roots that were by any measure polyglot, diverse and multicultural, resonate to the point of vibration with conservative movements that by definition lift up the past. It resonated with Adolf Hitler, who praised the supposed ancient Spartan practice of purportedly culling weak or deformed children (this practice was clearly not carried out uniformly, as the lame Agesilaus II was allowed to live long enough to become Sparta’s Eurypontid king). It resonates with Greece’s far-right nationalist party Golden Dawn, whose spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris stated in 2012,
“Those millions of illegal immigrants, racially, are the descendants of the first waves of Xerxes army. Those wretched people, with no military value, were smashed by the wall of Spartan fighters. Now their descendants, bloodlessly, have taken over an entire country and an entire people.”
It resonated with John Turano, the “Berserker of Berkeley” also known as “Based Spartan” who would violently clash with leftist protesters at rallies, wearing a muscled cuirass and crested Corinthian helmet similar to those worn by Spartan hoplites at Thermopylae. (Turano later left the alt-right movement). It resonated with former White House adviser Steve Bannon, whose computer password was “Sparta” in a nod to his admiration for the ancient warrior culture. It resonated with the main cheerleader for far-right Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who blogged support for Breivik’s numerous murders under the handle “Angus Thermopylae.”
This ‘conservative’ idea of Western martial behavior has even permeated popular culture. Hanson’s lionized interpretation of the fighting men of the ancient Mediterranean exploded with Frank Miller’s hit comic 300, which Zack Snyder made into a wildly popular film in 2007. The comic and film are both gross distortions of the actual battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans led a joint force of some 7,000 free Greeks and at least 300 helots (the Spartan slave underclass) in a futile and failed blocking maneuver that slowed the invading Persians for a mere three days before Xerxes went on to burn Athens to the ground.
The imagery in both the film and comic is a glam version of Hanson’s writing—an effete, feminine horde of brown-skinned invaders held in check by a hopelessly outnumbered force of gallant, chiseled white men. The image is tailor-made to slot into far-right terror of Islamic immigration, and the conspiracy theory of white genocide that was so potent in fueling the rise of the Tea Party, and eventually, Donald Trump.
Writing for The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor pointed out that a YouTube video posted by a user under the handle “Aryan Wisdom” depicted then-candidate Trump as Leonidas, holding back an invading tide that included Soros and Obama. At the time Tharoor published his piece in November of 2016, the video had been viewed over two million times. It’s up to five million now.
It may seem silly to argue about the interpretation of events that unfolded thousands of years ago, to fret and hand-wring over people millennia in their graves. Some may argue it is harmless for the likes of Hanson to strut his toxic revision of ancient history across the stage. Just another blowhard shouting at the ocean, after all.
But this notion is having life-and-death consequences in America today. I worked at the NYPD during and following the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA where Heather Heyer was killed and more than two dozen other people were injured. In August 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center sent us its report on the flags and symbols used during the rally, including the vexillum of the Roman Republic (SPQR for “Senātus Populusque Rōmānus,” “The Senate and the People of Rome”), the ancient sun wheels of Germanic tribes, the Greek lambda (“Λ” or “L” for “Lakedaimon,” the Spartans called themselves “Lakedaimonians”) falsely believed to have been painted on ancient Spartan shields, and now used by the far-right Identitarian movement.
Last of all was the flag of the American Guard, violent hardcore nationalists who sport crossed meat-cleavers as a rallying symbol. Above them stretched a black cannon blazoned with the clarion call of pro-gun advocates from the NRA to militia groups across the country—“Come and take it.” The phrase is from the Greek “molon labe,” (μολὼν λαβέ), Plutarch’s words put in the mouth of the Spartan king Leonidas in 480 BC, when he defied the Persian king Xerxes’ demand that he lay down his arms. Senator Ted Cruz has repeatedly invoked the same phrase.
It is heart-wrenching to see the symbols of the ancient world placed in the service of these noxious organizations.
I recall the 2017 incident where a U.S. Marine sergeant and staff sergeant were arrested for trespassing after they rolled out a banner from the roof of a building in Graham, North Carolina, during a Confederate Memorial Day event there. Beneath the Spartan lambda was scrawled a phrase from Orwell’s 1984, "He who controls the past controls the future," along with the identitarian acronym YWNRU: “You will not replace us.”
Now, more than ever, it is critical to consider who controls conversations about history, and who receives the limited access to the megaphone to disseminate that message.
We would do well to consider Herodotus’ description of the training of the young Persian warriors who fought against the Spartans at Thermopylae, the forebears of the modern-day Iranians we in the west are so quick to demonize.
“Their sons are carefully instructed from their fifth to their twentieth year,” the father of history tells us, “in three things only:
to draw the bow,
and to speak the truth.”