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The statues must go: Brown should not celebrate colonialism

You may have heard that Decolonization at Brown (DAB) is trying to remove some statues. Decolonization at Brown is a student group committed to reimagining Brown by decolonizing our academics, spaces and relationships. One of our current initiatives is to remove and replace the two copies of Roman statues, those of Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius, on Brown’s campus. In this piece, we hope to outline our reasons for this effort. Specifically, we are calling for the statues’ removal because they celebrate ongoing colonialism in the United States and idealize white, Western civilization — both of which continue to cause harm at Brown today. 

In order to understand the role of these statues at Brown, we must first recognize the way colonialism works in the United States. The United States was, and continues to be, grounded in settler colonialism. As a nation, it is founded upon the violent displacement and occupation of Native communities and land by Europeans and others. The 13 original colonies were created by European settlers through the killing of Native peoples and the systematic dispossession of Native land. These settlers did not leave following the Revolutionary War. Instead, they remained on Native land, claiming it as their own. Today, Americans continue to perpetuate this process. The 13 colonies have expanded to 50 states and many territories — an expansion made possible by further displacement, genocide and the continued denial of Native rights. This is what we mean when we refer to colonialism in the United States. Native American communities have been, and continue to be, actively harmed by settlers from other places. Racial enslavement has also been foundational to colonialism in the United States, but we will not be addressing this directly here

Within this broader context, the two Roman-style statues at Brown are harmful because they celebrate the ongoing occupation of Native land by the United States and replace Native histories with monuments to white, Western civilization. 

These statues are one part of a broader colonial project. The Europeans who began colonization in North America cited Ancient Rome as a guiding example for their colonial mission on Native American lands. Later, the founders of the United States would do the same, claiming Ancient Rome as part of a lineage of European civilization. This idea of a shared Western civilization led European settlers and their descendants to set up replicas of Roman statues across the United States. The statues claim the United States as a part of Western civilization — even though it is outside of Europe. This claim is only possible because of colonial violence and occupation of Native communities in North America. To see Roman-style statues on Native land is to know who has power and who does not ― that is, to know that “Westerners” are in power and Native peoples are not. The Roman statues on Brown’s campus directly invoke and embody this power dynamic, celebrating the continued domination of Native land and peoples by the West.  

Another key part of colonialism in the United States is the attempted replacement of Native cultures and histories with those of Western civilization, rooted specifically in Ancient Rome. European settlers imposed this narrative on Native nations through genocide, forced reeducation and violent assimilation of surviving Native peoples. At the same time, descendants of Europeans were raised to believe they were the inheritors of Roman civilization in America. As early as 1725, children in the 13 colonies were taught that, like Julius Caesar, they needed to fight and civilize “savage” people — in this case, Native Americans. American schools today continue to teach entire generations that a white, Western history is the natural story of America.

Copies of Roman statues are one part of this process of replacing Native histories with the idea of Western civilization. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, American settlers returned from Europe with hundreds of replicas of Roman statues to display in universities, museums and public spaces across the country. The Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius statues at Brown, brought to campus in 1906 and 1908, are part of this broader movement, in which copies of Roman monuments create geographic and historical ties between the United States and Western civilization. The presence of these kinds of statues on Native land is actively harmful, denying Indigenous histories to legitimize occupation.

In addition to their role in celebrating colonial conquest and replacing Indigenous histories, the two copies of Roman statues at Brown also uphold the supposed superiority of white, Western civilization. These monuments were brought to campus for a particular kind of university, one that was built on Native land and had a student body and faculty that were almost entirely white. During the unveiling of these statues, professors and administrators extolled the virtues, superiority and perfection of Western civilization, personified in these depictions of Roman emperors. 

Then-President William Faunce (class of 1880) remarked about the Caesar Augustus statue that “it serves to remind us of the great Augustan age of art and literature, an age when both were at their best." Later, following the same logic, Philosophy Professor Walter Everett (class of 1885) declared that it was Marcus Aurelius’ “glory to have held that banner so high that through the centuries it has been a shining mark of human perfection.” Importantly, these ideas of the superiority of Roman civilization, culture and philosophy directly uphold the claim that Western civilization is the pinnacle of all human achievement.

More than that, these statues at Brown also send the message that non-white people should aspire to be a part of this civilization. Then-Art History Professor William Poland (class of 1868) proclaimed that those gathered at Brown to celebrate the Marcus Aurelius statue were “thrilled by the revelation of this imperial figure of the monarch, the great conqueror, the lawgiver, the philosopher.” The significance of this monument, however, was only for those “men of culture who have appreciated it.” These statements argue that perfection, virtue and greatness reside in the "classical civilization" of Ancient Rome. 

However, these statues are not just about upholding Western heritage. They are also about whiteness. When those unveiling the statues said, "we celebrate," "we remember" and "our stern moralist," they were addressing an audience almost entirely made up of white students, white faculty and white staff. There was no one else in that collective "we" except white people. As inheritors of this history, and the “gifts” of Western conquest, law, philosophy and virtue, they were the ones considered cultured, educated and civilized. Non-European people were and are intentionally excluded from this narrative, in particular the Native communities on whose land these ceremonies took place. Instead, the statues signify that those communities should learn from the value of Western conquest, Western philosophy and Western virtue that made the United States “civilized” and “cultured.” The statues’ presence shapes space at Brown and forces students to interact with monuments to colonialism and whiteness.

We do not think that monuments at Brown today should honor ongoing occupation and genocide, particularly through the public celebration of colonialism in the United States. The idealization of colonialism and whiteness embedded within these kinds of statues was and is harmful. Black, Indigenous and other students of color have to grapple with the ongoing supremacy of Western knowledge in classes and curricula every day ―  to say nothing about the way colonialism literally shapes all of our lives. Removing these statues is not about removing “history” or the discomfort of dealing with Brown’s history. It is impossible to forget a history that has never ended. Instead, our initiative aims to remove the public celebration of colonial occupation and white superiority within the monuments of our landscape. 

This is a necessary step in broader decolonial movements at Brown today. We will continue to critically engage with Brown’s past and present long after these statues are removed, this time without monuments honoring colonialism and the “superiority” of white, Western civilization. With all of this at stake, we, members of Decolonization at Brown, call for the removal of these memorials to colonial domination. We view this call as an opportunity for the transformation of public spaces and public art at Brown. To remove these statues is to move towards a campus that does not honor colonial occupation, but instead actively works to confront this reality. 

Decolonization at Brown can be reached for comment at For a list of endorsements, see here. To endorse our proposal, please click here. Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

Clarification: To make clear that 1880, 1885 and 1868 refer to class years for three quoted individuals rather than to the years the quotes were said, "class of" was added in front of each year in parentheses.


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