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The Misuse of an Ancient Roman Acronym by White Nationalist Groups

SPQR initially stood for Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and Roman people), but a growing number of white supremacists have adopted the acronym to symbolize their movement.

This is an ancient marble copy of a shield called the clipeus virtutis awarded to Augustus in 27 BCE and hung in the Senate House in Rome. The central inscription notes its award by the “Senatus / Populusque Romanus” (Senate and Roman People) as a means of legitimizing the unprecedented honor using the language of the Republic. The shield is now on display in the museum in Arles (image by Carole Raddato via Flickr and used by permission).

Upon the triumphal arches, the altars, and the coins of Rome, SPQR stood for Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the Roman people). In antiquity, it was a shorthand means of signifying the entirety of the Roman state by referencing its two component parts: Rome’s Senate and her people. While today the abbreviation is used rather innocuously in most instances, recent reports have shown that a growing number of white supremacist groups have begun to adopt the ancient acronym to symbolize their movement — and use it in a militaristic mode starkly different from the ways in which the Romans actually applied it.

A July 2018 post on Pharos, a website committed to exposing the modern appropriation of classical texts and imagery by hate groups, addressed the manipulation of SPQR by white nationalist groups in the United States and consulted classical scholars about the history of the phrase. The issue was brought to the site’s attention when debate arose about a SPQR flag flown outside a student rental house in Athens, Ohio late last year. The question was whether a local activist group was justified in labeling the flag as a Nazi symbol. The Pharos site is run by Vassar College classicist Curtis Dozier, who spoke to Hyperallergic about Pharos’s extensive documentation of the use of SPQR: “The examples we documented connected the symbol to European racial and cultural purity, idealization of military power and violence, and admiration of Hitler and Nazi ideology.” But in order to understand the roots of this troubling appropriation of ancient language and iconography — and to distinguish its various uses by groups, some of whom simply wish to admire ancient Rome — we must first look back at the long history of the acronym. A historical examination accentuates the fact that SPQR underwent several visual manipulations throughout antiquity, the late middle ages, and then under the fascist regime of Mussolini, both in literature and visual art.

 Most of our literary references to “Senatus Populusque Romanus” come from the late Republican era statesman and rhetorician Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE), though Caesar, Livy, Augustus, Pliny, and many other late Latin authors used it as well. Cicero saw it as an essential compromise of power within the constitution of the republic: two groups that checked each other’s authority. The most prevalent use of the acronym for the phrase is not in texts — which allowed for expansive writing — but upon numismatic evidence (i.e. coinage) where space was limited and thus often had familiar abbreviations.

In comments to Hyperallergic, ancient historian and classical numismatist Liv Yarrow noted the absence of SPQR coins during the period of the Republic and its later use as a means of justifying autocracy while harkening back to an earlier age:

SPQR is wholly absent from the Republican [era] coins series (a fact I had to spend some time double checking). Yes, arguments from silence (or absence) are difficult to make in ancient history because of fragmentary survival rates.

A silver denarius of Augustus minted between 20 BCE-19 BCE with the obverse bearing the laureate profile of Augustus and the reverse side portraying an altar inscribed (image via the American Numismatic Society [ANS])
Yarrow is careful to note that we begin to see the shorthand SPQR minted on coins under Augustus, the originator of the Roman Principate. This was the man who ushered in the imperial period and later stood as a model for men like Mussolini:

SPQR does begin to appear on the coinage just at the moment that Augustus is trying to legitimate his own extraordinary public honors, and his claims to have “restored” the republic. Augustus built his restoration on a rhetoric of decline (“I’ll make Rome great again”). He advocated a “return” to greater religiosity and morality, but his actual reshaping of Roman society established an enduring monarchy.

Augustus would use the full phrase within his Res Gestae Divi Augusti, an epic biographical inscription listing all of his deeds, which was sent out across the provinces in both Latin and Greek. On his coinage, he shortened the legitimizing phrase to just SPQR in order to preserve the myth that the Republic still lived on.

What is notably missing from the ancient coinage known today (searchable within the American Numismatic Society’s Mantis Coin database) and from pieces of classical art that survive from antiquity are images of SPQR imprinted on the actual military standards and vexillations carried by the Roman army. While Roman coinage sometimes have standards on them with SPQR inscribed on the edges, it is difficult to find any evidence that they were ever on military flags carried by the army. Military historians like Rosemary Moore, a professor of ancient history at the University of Iowa and a veteran herself, noted to me the complete omission of such detail by ancient authors and artists:

The absence of evidence is of course not evidence for absence. It’s not surprising that there are gaps in our knowledge of the ancient world, because much evidence has been lost. At the same time, it’s worth thinking about why some modern people would like to see SPQR on a Roman military standard — it has to do with how they imagine Rome was, or ideas, even ideologies, they want to associate with Rome.

A vexillarius holds a Roman vexillum (military flag) on a painted plaster depiction of Julius Terentius performing a Sacrifice in 239 CE from Dura Europos in Syria (image via Yale University Art Gallery)

Despite that video games, movies, and myriad modern pop culture images that associate SPQR with the Roman army of the Republic (509–31 BCE), this seems to be a modern fiction. Even normally reputable sources like the online Ancient History Encyclopedia fall prey to perpetuating the idea of the link between the army and the acronym. In an entry for Roman military standards, they note:

In the time of the Roman Republic the Standards were imprinted with the letters SPQR which was an abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus (Senate and People of Rome). The Standard, then, represented not only the legion or cohort which carried it but the citizens of Rome, and the policies the army represented.

In order to illustrate this point, the encyclopedia notably uses an artist’s rendering from Sega’s video game Rome II: Total War, which not only falsely depicts the Pantheon beside the Colosseum, but also shows a Roman standard-bearer holding the famed Roman aquila (eagle) with SPQR inscribed underneath it.

Although Constantine would use SPQR as part of his propaganda in the early 4th century CE, it fell out of favor in the period of the later Roman empire. It would resurface in the high medieval period. And just as Augustus had manipulated the iconic abbreviation for his own agenda, it would again be repurposed and reinterpreted to fit the needs of the institution and the institutor.

The only extant vexillum from a Roman standard is now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Russia. It notably does not have SPQR on it, but does have the goddess Victory holding a wreath to crown a victor (image via Wikimedia)

Professor and medieval historian Carrie E. Beneš tracked the precarious use of SPQR as “a word or image with a meaning beyond itself” for various political and cultural movements in a pivotal article for the journal Speculum. She mentions that it was used in a popular uprising in Rome in the 12th century as locals tried to reassert their ancient civic rights, and by a papal notary in the 14th century who viewed the abbreviation as referring to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. In her research, Beneš demonstrates that SPQR became a heraldic visual symbol rather than a simple abbreviation from 1100–1400 and “That cultural ambiguity meant that the symbol generally had to depend on its immediate context for its meaning and implications.” In remarks to Hyperallergic, the historian elaborated:

The acronym retained a sense of authority even as it ceased to make literal sense, and that fact was exploited in the Middle Ages by pretty much everyone who wanted to channel and lay claim to the authority of ancient Rome: the Roman commune, the papacy, the Roman emperors (who were actually German, but that didn’t stop them), and so on. That’s really the first period in which we see the symbol’s astonishing flexibility and malleability, as well as its allure for multiple people or groups wanting to evoke or lay claim to a particular vision of ancient Rome.

SPQR and this false vision of Rome continued to be a canvas upon which others could both project their own meaning while still conjuring a familiar visual connection to the bygone power of an empire. This was to become particularly true with the political movements of the early 20th century. In her study of classical reception within Italy under the reign of Mussolini, Lorna Hardwick, a professor emerita of classical studies at the Open University, noted the dictator’s appropriation of Roman symbols, buildings, and texts so as to conjure legitimacy and forward racist propaganda:

From the establishment of Mussolini’s power base in 1922 until the proclamation of the dictatorship in 1925, ancient Rome was appropriated as a model for current political and military organization and as a symbol of Italian unity. Then the image of Rome took a new direction during the invasion of Abyssinia and the declaration of an Italian empire in 1936. In the third phase in the late 1930s a climate of increasing racism was created and the Romans and the Latin language were used to define the supposed physical and spiritual and cultural superiority of the modern Italians.

Il Duce’s appropriation of the visual imagery of Rome included the rebuilding of the Senate House (the Curia Senatus) in Rome, the re-inscribing of Augustus’ aforementioned Res Gestae on a new gleaming white marble slab for his new Ara Pacis Museum, and the use of SPQR in his own propaganda. His stamps of power used the familiar Roman abbreviation. Mussolini also popularized the use of SPQR manhole covers seen across the urban landscape of the city even today, though the practice predated him by a number of years. In Nazi Germany, Rome’s eagle standard would itself later become a  symbol used by Hitler in order to unify his party under the banner of another antique symbol. Encouraging popular unity through the use of a familiar symbols of power is and was a common tactic of Fascism.

A modern manhole cover near St Peter’s Square in Rome (image by Martin Cooper via Flickr)

In part due to Mussolini’s reawakening of Roman military standards and iconography, these remixed symbols have seeped into American culture as well. Historical fiction, TV shows, and videogames focused on ancient Rome have all perpetuated the use of SPQR as symbolic of the Roman military, which may have influenced white nationalist groups to adopt it as well. Their use of tattoos, t-shirts, and flags that provide an aesthetic rallying point and the visual equivalent of a dog whistle has not gone unnoticed by Dozier and others attempting to translate the icons of the alt-right. As the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) first documented in a guide to the use of hate symbols and flags following the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in August of 2017, SPQR is often iconographically synthesized with the use of the fasces — a bundle of sticks symbolic of Roman magisterial power that was also reused by Mussolini — and the Roman military eagle as a symbol of Western white male supremacy.

Historians are quick to point out that Roman antiquity is not the only historical period that white nationalists have appropriated or borrowed from. Cord Whitaker, a professor of English at Wellesley College, noted:

Along with the adaptation of Mussolini-era uses of SPQR, the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and other racist groups have taken up the writings of Italian philosopher and pseudo-medievalist Julius Evola. Evola, especially in his Revolt Against the Modern World, invokes the Knights Templar to argue for a kind of spiritual knighthood that supersedes what he calls “exoteric devotional Christianity” with a more mystical chivalry. Evola’s thought was influential for Mussolini and informs alt-right arguments for the superiority of the Greco-Roman world, modern white claims to Greco-Roman heritage, and the belief that the European Middle Ages present an idyllic and homogeneously white time and place that, according to adherents, should be used as a model for the US’s conversion into a white ethno-state.

A late 15th-century copy of Roman writer Valerius Maximus originally made in France has a heraldic use of SPQR in the illuminations (image via the British Library).

Other historians have also pointed out the penchant for ignoring the factual history of the abbreviation and seizing upon their own fiction of the past. One of them is Dame Mary Beard, who has herself waded into discussions of race and ethnicity with some success, but who has also been criticized for colonialist language. She has written extensively on SPQR’s antique usage. In comments to Hyperallergic, she remarked that she suspected white nationalists didn’t find much to agree with in her 2015 bestseller S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome:

If they actually read a few pages of my book, they found it wasn’t backing up their cause. So I don’t believe I got conscripted. In some ways it is a slogan that is very hard to pin down (which I rather like) … and the fact that it is still all over the place in modern Rome helps that un-pin-down-ability.

Still, Beard believes the appropriation is perhaps more prevalent in the U.S. and Italy than in the UK: “In general, the right-wing reaction to SPQR (the book) has been to deride it as modernist multiculturalism, or even more to tell me off for not appreciating Roman military genius.”

As Pharos and others have documented, a skinhead group within Rome has adopted the name SPQR.

The key to understanding the use and abuse of SPQR for over two millennia is perhaps flexibility. As Beard and Beneš have, Dozier similarly notes the ability of the symbol or text to be used in multiple ways.

[SPQR] is interesting because it’s so polyvalent (and the Beneš article shows that it has a long history of being polyvalent), and in a sense, is so contested (even though I think most tourists [or] historians etc. who use it don’t realize it’s also a hate symbol) … those of us who love antiquity, love SPQR, love Rome, need to be aware that it can be used as a hate symbol and also to be vigilant that those connotations aren’t allowed to become the predominant ones.

While not all applications of SPQR are meant to reference white supremacist ideals, the current work of classicists, medievalists, and modern historians to isolate, translate, and then underscore its current abuse has been heartening to many who wish to understand how the past has become distorted in the lens of the alt-right. Yarrow perhaps put the concerns of ancient historians best: “That SPQR should reappear in our current political climate is concerning, not only because it seeks to use history to legitimate racist agendas, but because historically the phrase was used to justify autocratic, authoritarian rule.” Recognizing the shades of difference between the Senatus Populusque Romanus of the republic and the SPQR of Augustus and Mussolini means first understanding the fine line between upholding a republic that represents multiple voices rather than supporting an autocracy that allows for only one.

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