Rome: a “white colonial occupation”?

[Updated April 27]

On  April 15, Holy Saturday, the Twitter hashtag of the day was “WhatWouldMillenialJesusDo.” The results were interesting; much of it forgettable, much of it clever (cleverness and forgettable-ness go together on Twitter), some of it worth thinking about. Among the tweets was this one, which caught my attention:

I don’t know who Anthony Oliveira is, aside from what his Twitter bio tells me, though the name is vaguely familiar; but he has thousands of followers and seems to be one of those academic celebrity Twitter types. The subsequent thread, which you can read if you wish to lose time you’ll never get back, is a mixture of people saying “The Jews did it!” and Oliveira going on about Pilate (not all incorrectly, though Kevin Williamson’s Easter column is better), at one point telling one of his trolls “I invite you to read a book.”

I retweeted him, since the core point is a good one. Had Jesus of Nazareth appeared today, He most likely would have appeared in one of the countries of the (de)colonized second or third world and would have fallen afoul of the power structures there in ways that most Americans wouldn’t recognize as deserving reverence, let alone worship. It’s a thought experiment that helps remind us of the geographic origins of the Christian religion, and also reminds us why, as St. Paul says, it was “to the Greeks foolishness”–it was not “of” Europa. Or, as Peter Frankopan has more recently pointed out, Rome looked east for everything from silk to religion. [1] Put simply, Jesus wasn’t “white.”

But, and this is a crucial point, neither were the Romans. At least not in any way that makes sense if you are trying to use the past as a sound platform for drawing conclusions about the present (unless you’re saying the old racist articles from the AHR in 1916 or Hereditas in 1921) are, well, based on sound historical observation). And yet Oliveira, by using this one word, transformed his tweet into a perniciously wrong historical argument in front of a large audience. The Roman Empire absolutely functioned as a colonial occupation, and they absolutely had ideas about race and ethnicity that put themselves on the top of the heap, but–notwithstanding the generations of white British actors who’ve portrayed them on screen, and notwithstanding the white sculptures that greet us in museums, as Sarah Bond writes–they were not “white.” [2] They did not “racialize” themselves in the way we do today, they did not write of themselves or others that way, nor did others write so of them, and, perhaps most importantly, they did not behave toward other peoples in ways that constituted “performative whiteness.” Were they (somewhat) pale-skinned? Sure–but so were many of the peoples whom they colonized, exploited, oppressed, and exterminated, far worse, I may add, than what happened to the Jews until Bar Kochba’s revolt in 132 AD. [3]

Dacian heads on pikes while Romans build camp, on Trajan’s Column, 113 AD.

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