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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.