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Op-eds, Opinions

Bhaskar ’21: Brown should not remove statues of Roman emperors from campus. Here’s why.

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Sunday, October 18, 2020

In late September, a group of Brown University students, faculty and administrators held a virtual town-hall to discuss the implications and future treatment of several monuments that currently occupy Brown’s campus. On Oct. 13, the Undergraduate Council of Students began to discuss and vote on possibly endorsing an initiative to eliminate and replace Roman statues on campus. The initiative, led by the student group Decolonization at Brown, primarily focuses on the removal of two statues: Caesar Augustus, located in front of the Sharpe Refectory, and Marcus Aurelius, located in Ruth J. Simmons Quadrangle. The rationale for the removal of these statues reflected concerns that the statues promote the colonial “imperialism” advocated by the Roman Empire and extol Roman “virtues” of white supremacy, imperial domination and elitism intrinsic to the University.

In light of nationwide decisions to remove monuments that uphold legacies of white supremacy and slavery, it is unsurprising that the University has received an outcry of support to follow suit with controversial art on campus. However, the failure to recognize the complex ontologies of these pieces, as well as their immense potential as means for confronting the evolution and redefinition of past scholarship is a gross oversight and merits redress. As an educational institution founded upon the ideas of intellectual discourse and the unrestricted exchange of ideas, the University should not endorse the removal of perspectives, art or legacies pertaining to darker aspects of University history, simply to cater to dominant ideals at the cost of discounting academic dialogue.

Retaining opportunities for students to differ in opinions regarding artistic installments, publication and University policies are critical to maintaining a university-level commitment to academic conversation. Art must be judged on quality and impact. Any resultant discomfort from scrutinizing art is necessary for facilitating discourse and unveiling the complex ramifications intrinsic to most pieces of material culture. Removing or refusing to restore certain historical statues on Brown’s campus, purely based on the grounds that these artifacts reflect outdated ideals and are potentially problematic to the current viewpoints promoted by the University, is tantamount to censorship. These actions belie students the opportunity to engage with the lasting influences of the past upon current scholarship and from confronting both the constructive and unsavoury realities of the University’s history. 

Explicit removal of these statues could set a dangerously restrictive precedent for guiding future endeavours to study any nuanced subjects surrounding historically elitist, Eurocentric or colonial topics. Censoring works of art that may be upsetting to a group of students is a short cry away from the expulsion of similar “troubling” but relevant content from academic syllabi. As a compromise to the elimination of these monuments, re-labelling and transporting the statues near the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World (as was initially outlined), or to a similar museological atmosphere will facilitate contextualization in a more explicitly educational environment, while preserving the opportunity for dialogue. 

The statues of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius provide opportunities to access, contextualize and confront past avenues of knowledge and to use material relics to recognize that human legacies and artistic representation can almost never be ascribed a binary label of “good” or “bad,” but must be engaged with to reveal the many layers and perspectives present. Both Marcus Aurelius and Caesar Augustus were influential men in their own right whose legacies were grounded in interdisciplinary learning and originality in the fields of history, philosophy and the classics — several of the fields that the University prioritizes. The portrayal of influential Roman figures within the United States serves as a nod to institutions within American society such as campaigns, legal systems, foreign policies and government that were influenced by our fledgling nation’s entanglements with Mediterranean scholarship.

However, the presence of these statues on campus may serve as a physical reminder of the negative vestiges of inequality, slavery and colonialism that were also entrenched within the United States and the University. Like many elite universities, Brown University has a legacy rooted strongly in slavery: several early benefactors of the University made their fortunes from participating in the slave trade and University Hall was partially constructed through slave labor. Preserving monuments that contextualize the values and reflections of these early periods in University history can foster conversation and consideration of the changing representations of the classics and the measures that still must be taken to include a more diverse array of perspectives into University curricula. These statues serve as instruments for understanding the evolution of academic learning and allow individuals from all backgrounds to learn about, discuss and reclaim the Mediterranean ideals and classical canon that were foundational to shaping the trajectory of academia worldwide. Intentionality in promoting informed discourse around the statues will allow us to reconcile the multiple legacies of the statues and reward engagement with history and public art around campus, rather than immediately shunning perspectives that spark controversy.

Removing Roman statues on Brown’s campus is not a true solution, but represents a performative and poorly executed attempt to publicize the University’s spuriously “progressive” concessions to the vacuous objections regarding these statues. Genuine efforts at decolonizing Brown must work to address vested, often intangible, issues within the University and its place within the Providence community. Maintaining a commitment to an anti-racist curriculum, providing access to diverse perspectives within academia — especially through sharing scholarship from Indigenous and non-white authors and retaining courses and concentration tracks that center on expanding non-dominant and historically disenfranchised narratives, such as within the field of development studies — represent tangible measures to pioneer progress in the creation of an education that prioritizes authentic dialogue and recognizes nuanced and diverse perspectives. 

In addition, incorporating installments made by Indigenous artists or artists of colour would be a welcome means of supplementing these efforts and promoting diversity within Brown’s artistic scape. But it cannot be used to replace existing historical and artistic relics, which offer ample opportunities for the exchange of ideas and reflection on past scholarship.

Now, more than ever, the world needs graduates and scholars who are able to recognize the many intricacies and layers of the past and who can use this multifaceted knowledge to consume historical and artistic vestiges of the past with intentionality and a capacity to use such lessons to guide progress. The University must move beyond tendencies to censor “uncomfortable” or “controversial” topics that fail to echo the outspoken post-modernist and left-leaning images associated with Brown in favour of upholding the tenets of free inquiry and the preservation of nuance within the exploration of historical relics. Outlining tangible steps for creating robust anti-racist curricula, while equipping students with the patience, wisdom, and skill-set to grapple with uncomfortable realities and relics of the past, is crucial for the University to uphold its mission of “communicating and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry.”

Nidhi Bhaskar ’21 can be reached at nidhi_bhaskar@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. This argument is a fatuous response to the decolonization proposal. The first half of it is kind of amusing: if the question is our national legacy of “Mediterranean scholarship,” you could use this to argue for replacing the statue of Marcus Aurelius with a statue of Socrates, which I personally would approve of, but which does not follow into your second half about the need for us to be reminded of the dumb ideas that people had a century ago as we walk around campus. Furthermore this second half of your argument is adaptable to any statue at all, so you could use this line of reasoning to argue for keeping a statue of a Confederate general at a Southern university, which would clearly be inappropriate. The decolonizers’ argument is not bulletproof but at least they stick to the question of what these statues were meant to evoke when they landed on the Brown campus. By all means, let us have some beautiful public art on our campus. I personally love the poetry on the campus gates. But each individual work of art presents its own question of whether it achieves our desires for the campus. My question to the decolonizers is not whether they understand the weight of the “Mediterranean” legacy, it is: are they sure we can do better?

    • you’re flawed in your thoughts of “what these statues were meant to evoke when they landed on the Brown campus”. The “dumb ideas” you refer to were actually the foundations of philosophy and so many other things. Reminding people of these ideas on campus is a good thing, and shouldn’t be taken away because some people decide to absurdly simplify the legacies and history that has been preserved from this time to something they weren’t.
      Not the same as the case with confederate statues.

      • As I said, it would be a great idea to replace Marcus Aurelius or Caesar Augustus with a statue of Socrates. Why were these particular figures chosen? For this, the decolonizers have presented evidence which I find hard to dispute. You can see it here.

        • It is a terrible idea to remove statue of Marcus Aurelius. His life philosophy, his life, his attitude relative his responsibilities is a great example for all, especially for future leaders ( and to some current …) I suggest all participants in this discussion taking a class on history of ancient Rome – just to really understand who Marcus Aurelius was.

          • It’s Brown man, no one is required to take a class in anything. Besides we need to decolonize, so we can’t be taking classes on ancient Rome – that’s just so white supremacy. Studying the narratives of oppressed peoples is where it’s at man.

  2. Couldn’t agree more with leaving these statues in place. When does the process stop? We are talking about events nearly two thousand years ago. To transfer one view of society today to that time is naive and shortsighted. Universities are about open mindedness not narrow, inflexible and “I am the only one who’s opinion counts” attitudes.

    • It was the students of a hundred years ago that transferred a two-thousand-year-old view of society to their own time, which I agree was a narrow and short sighted thing to do. The students of today are trying to decide what to do to correct that mistake.

  3. Leave the statues alone. This is insane and removing a statue does not change history or thinking.

    • Going by the reactions to their removal, these statues can absolutey change how students, alums, faculty, staff, the public think about the past and Brown’s relationship to it. It does not sound like they are trying to change history, rather work to ensure particular violent histories are not glorified. There is a difference between engaging with some of Brown’s unsavory legacies and intentionally celebrating them with large, dominating statues that define campus space. We should keep working to remember and be critical of Brown’s colonal past, but this does not need to be in the literal shadow of these monuments.

  4. archaeologist says:

    I find it extremely odd—and frankly, pretty disturbing—to read the argument that “re-labelling and transporting the statues near the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World (as was initially outlined)” or moving them “to a similar museological atmosphere will facilitate contextualization in a more explicitly educational environment, while preserving the opportunity for dialogue.” (emphasis my own) This, first of all, is not a “compromise to the elimination of these monuments”: it is quite literally the exact original proposal to which students are responding with a call to remove them. And, secondly, an attempt to “museumify” these statues is at best an attempt to relegate the present conditions of colonialism to some unconsequential past. I suspect that many archaeologists at the Joukowsky Institute, and most people working in museums on and around campus, would feel quite misrepresented by the claim in this piece that things somehow become apolitical conversation starters once moved to museum contexts.

  5. Hm. I am still sorting through my thoughts on what precisely should happen to the statues, but I do think the student organizers behind this campaign have done a pretty exceptional job of arguing against Quiet Green (by the Joukowsky Institute) as a “neutral” or “museological” place for these statues. Especially since that is the current location of the Slavery Memorial (and because it was the original location of the Augustus statue, where archival materials reveal some pretty racist intent). I would take a look at this piece they published; it’s pretty damning to any attempt to simply “relocate” or “contextualize” the statues. http://blognonian.com/2020/10/17/all-roads-lead-to-removal-replacing-two-statues-and-redefining-campus-space-at-brown/

    In their words:

    “Contextualization is not enough. Moving it only relocates harm…By choosing to stand by “older traditions” of white virtue and classical education manifest in the statue of Caesar Augustus, Brown materially affirms these embedded ideologies. In effect, relocating the statues would do nothing more than to relocate harm…Beyond the harm of the statue itself, the proposal seeks to place the Caesar Augustus statue in relation to the Slavery Memorial. This would directly undermine the purpose of the Slavery Memorial. One work remembers Brown’s past and present relationships to racial slavery in the U.S., perpetuated through colonialism; the other glorifies a symbol of white supremacy and white civilization. Ultimately, this relocation would compromise the intent of the Slavery Memorial, allowing a symbol of white domination to tower over a memorial to the suffering dealt by white supremacy.”

    • I’ll do you one better. Let’s take down the statues and replace them with a giant memorial to Ruth Simmons and when all the white supremacists who dominate life at Brown return to campus they will cower in fear at the awesome likeness of such an independent, successful and powerful black lady!

      • former grad says:

        This is a fantastic idea, and I hope the students organizing against the statues see your comment. A monument for Ruth Simmons on the quad bearing her name would be a powerful statement indeed.

        • I am all for putting up a statue of Ruth Simmons since she actually served as president of the university. Of course, one wonders whether anyone will object given her role on Goldman Sachs’ compensation committee and whether there will be any plaques to ‘contextualize’ the profit she gained from being a Goldman Sachs’ shareholder.’ Or if anyone who made out badly after the 2008 financial crisis will be “pained” by seeing her likeness on campus. I suspect it will probably be crickets because god forbid we say anything bad about her.

  6. “relegate the present conditions of colonialism”…huh? what present conditions of colonialism? Rhode Island, and the United States, are still colonies of the British Empire? What does that statement even mean?

  7. indiana jones says:

    ok but saying the entire legacy of one of the “good emperors” should be seen as white supremacy and imperialism while ignoring his impact on stoicism/philosophy (google/ click the link on aurelius) etc etc is so stupid. only at Brown.

    • Well, actually not only at Brown. The mob is going after statues everywhere these days. However, at Brown there aren’t that many statues on campus and there aren’t any statues of Thomas Jefferson or any building named after John C Calhoun or of any alumni who were captains of the Confederacy. And it’s not like Brown is a hotbed of Trump supporters. But the mob needs something to go after otherwise the revolution can’t continue. So it’s on to the Roman Emperors. After they’re done with that they’ll find something else to go after — maybe the Bear statues will be next. Unless, this whole thing is just a prank. Ages ago I hear the tradition at Brown was to try to climb up a greased pole and steal a flag. Now the tradition is to close down lectures and take down statues. Because you can’t outwoke Brown men (and womyn)!

  8. Peter Mackie '59 says:

    These statues are part of the campus memories held by generations of alumni . The alumni cohort are stakeholders in any discussion and decision about removal .

  9. As an alum, I could not be more excited about students today removing these statues. They are working to build a campus space reflective of its current students, and the future they are imagining for Brown. These statues represent an ideology they no longer find acceptable, one that celebrates colonial violence and involves larger-than-life Roman figures dominating the places they walk, eat, hang out, attend class, and more.

    • You’re right! Let’s keep it up! Next step… Brown University shall be renamed! Patrice Lumumba University it shall be!

      • Brown student says:

        Could not agree more with changing the name. Since the Brown family were slaveholders and earned much of their wealth through the slave trade, in addition to actively fighting abolition in Providence and entrenching Rhode Island in the financial support of slavery through the production of “slave textiles” for decades, the University does need to be renamed.

        • Get cracking on that one right away! Make sure that the Corporation puts that topic on the agenda for its next meeting.

  10. Marcus Aurelius stands for stoicism, a beautiful and admirable philosophy. The statue and its history, far from representing white supremacy, represents grit, rationality, strength, persistence, “amor fati”, and many other stoic qualities. His notes, Meditations (now compiled into a book), are superb. I can’t see how anyone who’s read his work as a philosopher could want his statue to be removed. The fact that he was white, or that people who decided the statue should be in Brown’s campus were white, should be irrelevant. I understand and sympathize with DAB’s goals, but not everything boils down to race, eurocentrism, colonialism, or imperialism.

    • So true! Thank you! Let’s value ( and admire) a person for who he was. Not what other people may had in mind when putting statue in place. This really of no significance now.

  11. Statues burden us.
    They make past permanent.
    Smash history now.

    • What happens after you smash history, tear down statues, and ship everyone you disagree with to reeducation camps? Utopia? Socialism killed 100M in Russia, China, Cambodia, etc and yet our “best and brightest” still virtue signal about it.

  12. In assessing whether Brown should do away with the Roman empire figure statutes, it would suffice to note that all empires of the past 20,000 years have been built on blood. Starting with Atlantis itself, then Egyptian Kemet, Persian, Roman, British, American empire are built on imperiliasm. For empires anywhere in the world, there first goal is to grow, then advance, and then project their hegemony. And that started with Kemet first pharaoh Menes, who had to go to war to unite lower and upper Nile Valley Egypt, and created the first nobility class out of this.

    http://www.africa54.co.ke

  13. Removing statues, particularly ones that represent beautiful philosophies is inane – at this rate, any statue celebrating anything good will be torn down. It’s also strange that “the only right interpretation” of the statue is one that requires people to know about when it was put up (which is not necessarily a negative and even if it is, should not force our interpretation now), something that I would argue most people passing by the statues do not actually know about.

    More than anything, if we get rid of these statues, we’ll be left only with art with no meaning such as Blueno and Rock-tree, which also look bad too.

  14. Brown students show they are bigots. Rome had nothing to do with white supremacy. It wasnt a race based society.
    Its the students who are the bigots. They dont like Caesar simply because of his skin color. This is left wing racism

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