University College Tilburg

University College Tilburg biedt de mulitdisciplinaire opleiding Liberal Arts and Sciences. In een state-of-the art locatie in het hart van de campus van Tilburg University ontwikkelen internationale studenten zich tot kritische denkers en toekomstige leiders.

Paleoleucophilia, or Dreaming of a White Isthmus

What’s wrong with this picture?

Forum voor Democratie

Hint: it’s not the fact that it’s the logo of Forum voor Democratie, the political party founded and headed by Thierry Baudet, a former postdoc at Tilburg University. Baudet is known to regularly reference – with varying degrees of accuracy and felicity – classical culture as the foundation of Western civilization, which he deems to be under a wide array of threats. In this respect, an ancient Greek temple is not a bad choice, although the circular shape and maroon background do make the logo look rather like a traffic sign, with a message that would seem contrary to Baudet’s intentions: “No classic civilization allowed.” Who said referencing the ancients is easy?

What is wrong with this picture is what’s missing on the temple: colors. Archaeological research has established beyond doubt that classical Greek and Roman buildings, friezes and even statues were painted in a great variety of colors, and with painstaking eye for detail. However, the paint did not survive the ages, and ever since the predominant image of classical architecture has been that of balanced and majestic white marble, the material expression of what the eighteenth-century classicist Wilhelm Winckelmann famously called antiquity’s “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” (edle Einfalt und stille Größe). This view still largely informs our own perception, as is evinced by the FvD logo and Baudet’s rhetoric.

However, even if science has shown that classical buildings were anything but simple and anything but quiet, many are unwilling to accept this. Archaeologists and classicists who are working to restore color to antiquity have been targeted by those who want their classical civilization noble, quiet and, most importantly, white. Traditional conservatives as well as alt-right groups have advocated loudly against every attempt to present a more colorful, more diverse, more complex and more accurate picture of antiquity. Oxford classicist Mary Beard was attacked for pointing out that one of the governors of Roman Britain was a Berber from Algeria (so, by the way, was Augustine of Hippo, now better known as theologian, church father and saint). The Netflix series Troy: Fall of a City was excoriated for choosing non-white actors to play the heroes Achilles and Aeneas, as well as the deities Athena and Zeus, even though we know that the population of ancient Greece sported a variety of hues, but certainly not pristine white.

Even though their vehemence may appear unprecedented, the attacks are nothing new: throughout human history, feelings of fear and powerlessness at the complexity and uncertainty of the present have made us construct, cling to, and fiercely defend a simpler and more stable past that never existed. If it’s any comfort to paleoleucophiles (lovers of white antiquity), even the oldest known classic did it. In Homer’s Iliad, Nestor (the epic’s grandpa Simpson) never ceases to point out to the young Greek heroes that previous generations were bigger, better, nobler and stronger (though not whiter), and that the present generation fails to live up to their shining example. And isn’t Homeric epic as such the quintessential example of large-scale glorification of the past?

Not quite - there’s something wrong with that picture as well, and Homer almost tells us as much. In the Odyssey, when Nestor has tried the patience of his audience with another overly long story, the goddess Athena, disguised as a young man, responds:

“Old man, all you have said is fitting. But come, now cut the tongues and mix the wine, so that when we have poured an offering to Poseidon and the other immortals, we can think about going to bed.” (Odyssey, Book 3, lines 331-334)

The tongues mentioned here would seem to be those of the animals to be sacrificed to Poseidon. However, the Greek text is decidedly ambiguous: Athena – the goddess of wisdom – is also thinking of another tongue. As Homer gently indicates, Nestor – and every laudator temporis acti (“praiser of times past”) – inevitably presents a distorted picture, and this is not without danger: the desire to dwell in the fantasy of a simple and better past may become so overwhelming, and its spell so charming, that it prevents us from properly addressing present needs and challenges.

In this way, Homeric irony deftly undercuts and pokes fun at the Homeric glorification of the heroic past: similarly, of the great hero Odysseus it is said that he “was more reverend when sitting down” (Iliad, Book 3, line 211). It never fails to put a smile of critical awareness on the reader, and it adds vital color to the epic, much like the paint on classic buildings and statues. For understanding and enjoying ancient literature, no less ancient architecture and sculpture, polychromy is the antidote to paleoleucophilia. And yes, that’s another story.

Resources:

  • https://jalta.nl/geschiedenis/fvd-het-parthenon-en-vrouwen-opofferen/
  • https://hyperallergic.com/383776/why-we-need-to-start-seeing-the-classical-world-in-color/
  • http://www.liebieghaus.de/de/ausstellungen/bunte-goetter
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xZxAQjn_lA
  • https://www.the-tls.co.uk/roman-britain-black-white/
  • https://aeon.co/essays/when-homer-envisioned-achilles-did-he-see-a-black-man
  • https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2018-06-06/troy-fall-of-a-city-blackwashing-casting-black-actors-greek-myth/
  • G. Dimock, The Unity of the Odyssey, University of Massachusetts Press, 1989