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Columns

Ruzicka ’21: Debunking common misconceptions about removing Roman-style statues at Brown

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Recently, there has been a strong movement to remove Roman-style statues from Brown University’s campus. In February 2020, the group Decolonization at Brown (DAB) began their advocacy against the Public Art Committee’s (PAC) proposal to repair the arm of the Caesar Augustus statue that currently resides on Wriston Quadrangle and move the statue to the Quiet Green, where it would tower over the Slavery Memorial. As an alternative to the PAC’s proposal, DAB is calling for the statues of both Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius to be removed from campus because of their ties to colonialism. They urge the PAC to instead turn its efforts and funds to supporting local artists of color whose work critically engages with settler-colonialism and white supremacy.

Throughout conversations surrounding the removal of these statues, many misconceptions have flourished. In an effort to dispel these ideas, this is a digest of some of the most common among them and why they are misleading.

  1. These statues cannot be removed because they are artifacts from Ancient Rome.

The statues of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius were placed on campus in 1906 and 1908, respectively. They were both donated by members of the Goddard family and were specifically commissioned to exist on College Hill. These statues are bronze casts, or copies, of existing statues from antiquity. They are not original historical artifacts from Ancient Rome. As such, it is important to acknowledge that these statues are modern monuments that invoke the Roman tradition, including values and political stances that encourage colonialism and white superiority.

  1. These statues give students academic role models to emulate.

Though some may cite the philosophical or academic prowess of Ancient Rome, the Western education system’s focus on these works while overlooking their predecessors from other parts of the world intentionally draws “educated” role models from white civilizations. For instance, studies in classical literature often emphasize the work of Homer and Virgil instead of the Indian Vedas or The Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia, both of which predate The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid. If the University’s goal is to depict early academic role models, there are plenty of others to choose from outside of the Roman tradition. This selective history is often used in alignment with the European tradition of claiming genetic and intellectual descent from Ancient Rome. Institutions in the United States make this same claim to justify ongoing settler colonialism. 

Furthermore, neither the statue of Caesar Augustus nor the statue of Marcus Aurelius depicts them in the position of an academic or philosopher. The statue of Caesar Augustus shows him in armor with an intricate bronze breastplate. This Caesar is raising his hand to beckon his soldiers to war, not facilitate educational discussions. Perhaps in an even more militaristic stance, the statue of Marcus Aurelius is perched atop his horse, also with his hand out, ready to lead others into battle.

When claiming that these statues should serve as role models, it is essential to evaluate what kind of role models they depict. Certainly these statues don’t show people engaged in academia, which is the purpose of a university education. Instead, they show conquerors — military statues meant to inspire those viewing them to expand and uphold the American colonial project. Given these colonial and racist roots, the models of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius support white supremacy, and demonstrate what and who Brown values and considers important. 

  1. These statues represent our history.

The connection between the Roman empire and academics in the United States today is purely ideological. Ancient Romans never occupied the same geographical space as Brown University, the founders of the University cannot trace their lineage back to Rome and the Roman empire was certainly not a temporal contemporary to Brown University. The philosophical ties created between the University and the Roman tradition by these statues only uphold and encourage the violent, racist and colonial ideologies used by the original colonizers of North America.

These ideologies view “whiteness” and “intelligence” as equivalent and encourage violence against non-white people. When Brown was founded, only white men attended. As such, the University sought to perpetuate the notion that their students were the most elite in the world and therefore looked toward other white men for proof. The statues of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius are a continuation of this history, but it is not the history of this land or its peoples. Instead, it is the fabricated history of whiteness that is continually leveraged to fuel settler-colonialism and white supremacy.

  1. These statues should be relocated and/or recontextualized for the sake of education.

When originally erected, these statues were not meant to educate, but instead to memorialize the leaders of Ancient Rome and espouse them as the pinnacle of humanity. Put simply, relocating these monuments will only relocate the harm that they cause. In addition, the way these statues uphold white supremacy and settler-colonialism will overpower any plaque, disclaimer or other art piece with which these statues are put in conversation. The removal of these statues does not remove the history that they originated from, nor does it stop students from learning about the harms of white supremacy and colonialism. Instead, it symbolizes the University’s recognition of its legacy as an institution implicated in colonialism and white supremacy and its commitment to supporting communities of Black, Indigenous and people of color going forward.

  1. Removing these statues won’t make a difference.

Removing the statues of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius is not the only action that Brown University can take to pursue a more anti-racist and anti-colonial agenda; however, it is an important step in coming to terms with the University’s contributions to white supremacy and settler-colonialism as an institution. This may seem like a purely symbolic gesture, but the monuments that the University maintains reflect the essence of the University’s philosophy, particularly given the fact that Brown University is built on Indigenous land. Furthermore, white supremacy is rooted in the symbolism of whiteness. We cannot fight this ideology without analyzing and removing the ways in which it permeates our everyday lives.

Art on campus is the public-facing picture of Brown University. These statues not only feature prominently on University greenspaces, but they are also present in many photos of Brown University online. By continuing to be a platform for these statues, the University upholds white supremacist and settler-colonial ideologies for the world to see. Removing the statues of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius is the first of many steps that the University must take to foster a more collaborative, engaged and just future.

Emilia Ruzicka ’21 can be reached at emilia_ruzicka@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. James Owen Ross, Ph. D. ‘86 ‘06 says:

    This is pure self aggrandized bunk. What about all the alum dead and alive who have gone before you? Have they absolutely no place in your personal agenda for Brown. I recommend transferring to a college or university that is more in line with your blinders on view of life.

    Warmly,

    Jim

    James Owen Ross, Ph. D. ‘86 ‘06

    • At this point, this whole ‘let’s remove the white supremacist Roman statues’ thing is starting to look like a big prank perpetrated by bored college kids.

    • class of '99 says:

      My Dear Dr. Ross,

      I had no idea Augustus or Marcus Aurelius were alums! In which years did they graduate, O Warm And Unblindered One?

      Thank you for the reminder that Brown has existed since the dawn of time and has such *potent* material and historical ties to Ancient Rome…One would otherwise think Brown might have other reasons to venerate these two proportionally-exemplary hunks of 20th-century metal. For a moment, I thought Brown might have these statues for the same reason as all the other Universities that litter their campuses with classically-inspired imagery: the University absolutely salivates at the thought of public-facing imagery associated with the “heritage of Western Civilization” (read: an arbitrary and indefensible concept built specifically to uphold the supremacy of white-coded “European” customs&canons over literally anything else).

      As one of the many “alum dead and alive”—ah yes, in Iuppiter speramus, wasn’t that it?—I hope you’ve said your peace, so you can now go back to your probably boring, probably stable, probably high-paying job rather than pestering the students who take on the anti-racist and decolonial work that you&yours never cared enough to do.

      Have a lovely evening, and take your blinders off,
      Alum ’99

      • Well isn’t that special! Stay woke my friends. Way to stick it to The Man, Brown University!

      • James Owen Ross, Ph D ‘86 ‘06 says:

        I beg your pardon. I have done copious work for Brown while as a student as well as alum. I’m the one who convinced former Brown President Ruth Simmons to use the basement of Manning Chapel for the on site campus Hasffenrefer Museum. See my study in 1988 in the Rock for such documentation. Beyond that, while a grad student, who worked at another university, as well as in my practice the entire time I was working on a degree from Brown, for the late Martin Martel’s Sociology 127 course entitled “Race Racism Pride and Prejudice” instead of term paper for the course, I developed a syllabus that I taught in the former Am Civ Department entitled “Colonial Roots of Regionalism in America: architecture, class, intellectual history, religion, cities, and towns”, in the academic years 1990-1991, and 1991-1992. Beyond that, for ten years I was the chair of the Brown alums in my home state who interviewed applicants to Brown. Then, I was president of the Brown Club in my home state for five years. Presently, I am chair of that group’s Book Club. Other than sit on your accesses and write slithering comments on the BDH website, what exactly have your accomplished aside from coursework? I have no blinders. You and your cohorts, however, were apparently born with them.

        Moreover, I was born to parents who had to quit school to help support their families: father quit after the 7th grade, and mother left after the 10th grade. Everything I am, though, is due their unending love. Oddly enough, I am white, too.

        Warmly,

        Dr. Ross

  2. Reading Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” while people advocate for his statue to be removed at a university is honestly quite dystopian. It sounds like something taken right out 1984.

  3. Who believes these things says:

    Why do I feel like none of these “misconceptions” are widely believed by the student population.

    I know you got into Brown but did you know that “ Ancient Romans never occupied the same geographical space as Brown University?” I too was shocked!

  4. There is a new book out: “First Principles: What America’s Founders Learned from the Greeks and Romans and How That Shaped Our Country”.

    Wait, does this mean that the US was founded on the shoulders of colonialist ideas? Seems like all the memorials to the Founders should be removed since they practiced colonialist principles.

    So while we are removing the Roman statues, lets burn all those memorials to the founders, starting with all those dollar bills with Washington’s picture.

    • They’re already doing that at George Washington University.

    • Actually, yes, exactly. The entire US is currently built to sustain itself through mechanisms of colonialism, racial and carceral capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and other entangled systems of oppression—it’s not just the founders. These students seem to have used these statues pretty effectively to identify the ubiquitous presence of these kinds of ideas even in the seemingly mundane or innocent things like classical statuary. Which is why, as you seem to understand, gradualism and reformist approaches to change will never quite cut it.

      • Yes, the cancer is everywhere. Let’s rip it all out, burn everything down, and start all over again from year zero. Вся власть Советам!

  5. Peter Mackie'59 says:

    Moving Caesar Augustus to the Front Green (the correct name for that space) would hardly result in it “towering” over the Slavery and Justice Memorial. To the contrary, the distance from Hope College to the front of Rhode Island Hall is significant,traversing the fronts of Manning , University Hall, and Slater Hall. In addition, the land slopes downward toward the south end of the Front Campus. Not exactly a towering difference, but rather just the opposite.

    • Like those facts are going to dissuade anyone blinded by ideology? Assuming, of course, that this is a real campaign and not just the great statue bamboozle of 2020, kinda like the dog park sex hoax.

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