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Using Juvenal’s Satires to Examine Questions of Racism

Ian Lockey

Friends Select School

In order to align my teaching more closely with the Quaker mission of my school, my upper-level courses focus on issues of gender, power, and race and the ways in which the reception of antiquity has been used to justify sexist and racist power structures in the modern world. During this year’s online celebration of Rome’s birthday, and it is this legacy of racist cultural exceptionalism that my students and I work to refute in classes. My Latin V class, in particular, is entitled Race and Ethnicity in the Ancient World and during the course of the school year, we have examined a number of issues around race, ethnicity, and changing attitudes to foreigners in the ancient world and today. In order to prepare the students for questions we would be examining throughout the school year, we started by reading Juvenal Satire III.58-113, in which Umbricius attacks the Greek population in Rome. I chose this text because it allows students to grapple with constructions of race, how we define race and racism today, and whether those terms can be applied to the past. Although labelled as a satirist, the polemics within Juvenal’s work have been used as justification for sexist and racist ideas among white supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups and for their support of sexist and racist policies. As students of the Classics, I encourage my students to think about the reception of texts within their original cultural context but also within modern contexts in a world shaped around Eurocentric identities and Greco-Roman moral and intellectual superiority.

Much of the language used by the character of Umbricius in Satire III sounds familiar to many of us to the racist language used in modern social and political discourse about immigrants in the United States. I wanted students, however, to think critically about what terms such as racism and prejudice mean and whether we can reflect back those ideas onto the ancient world. We discussed in class how we define racism versus prejudice, and I introduced students to Isaac’s concept of proto-racism. Students were asked to write a reflection on whether or not ‘Umbricius’ could be called racist for his comments. After we discussed these reflections, students were assigned “Is There a ‘Race’ or ‘Ethnicity’ in Greco-Roman Antiquity?” from Classics at the Intersection, and then revisited the question of labelling Juvenal/Umbricius as racist. In my paper, I will share this unit of my course, the responses from my students, and how their ideas developed as they were introduced to new scholarship. I will also share how these discussions formed the basis for future discussions during the course and for our group reading of Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist to end the course and to think about what we as white educators and students can do to create a new vision of a discipline that has been marred by bigotry and elitism since its inception.

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