I have SPQR tattooed on my arm.
It’s amidst a colorful design of other Classical-to-Byzantine imagery that includes frescoes, mosaics, a tetradrachm with the adorable owl, a Byzantine eagle embroidery, and even a fragment of Sappho. Together, to the educated admirer, it makes sense: It’s a cohesive collection of material and literary culture, mostly floral and textile, from the time periods I study the most.
The problem is that to a deplorable subset of humanity, they’re going to think of it as an endorsement. Or worse, BIPOC individuals are going to see it as a threat.
I’ve had the half sleeve now for a while, since before this Nazi boom, when it was a different world, almost, and while I was aware of Mussolini’s revival of the SPQR, and even how it’s still used on sewer covers in modern Rome, I figured in the collection I have, where it symbolizes the Roman Republic, and not the Empire, after all, meaning “The Senate and People of Rome”, it wasn’t an issue, it’s blatantly a motto of representative democracy, right? I’m not the only historian or classicist with it inked, after all. I’d say we are legion, but that’s just a bad, bad joke.
Fortunately, we don’t see Roman culture appropriated as often for white supremacy as say, Norse culture, and honestly, it’s laughable as fuck when it is considering how ethnically diverse Rome really was, but its still out there, and we need to address this. The Proud Boys are trying to take the laurel wreath, which is a symbol of learning as well as triumph, and we have the utter ridiculousness of the “Molon Labe” crowd who would leap from a cliff had they actually read the Spartan laws of Lycurgus.
The good news is that it’s in a place that’s very easily covered by a shirt. The bad news is that I still have it, and obviously, removal or covering is extremely expensive. My best bet is to live with my choice, and use is as a teaching moment for those willing to listen. For those that don’t want to listen, however, that’s still an issue. For example, something I didn’t think about was the fact that it can come off as seriously Antisemitic. The Romans did destroy the Temple of Jerusalem and rededicate it to Jupiter, after all. I have never been asked about it in public, other than the canned, “Did it hurt?” that I get regarding all of my ink, but I’m hoping this blog post sort of works as a big fucking, “OOPS” and apology on my part.
So how do I, and others, make amends with this? Well, first and foremost, we need to push back, consistently, on the dangerous appropriation and misuse of ancient history by white supremacist groups. It won’t take the ink out of my arm, but it will make it easier to shove these assholes back under the rock they came from. I recommend Pharos, being run by Vassar College, a platform designed to help people identify appropriate and counteract it, but we need to be personally proactive as well, like what I’m doing now. I’m owning my tattoo, discussing my why, and now what I’m going to do counteract the choice I made. I don’t see many white supremacists cozying up to me. I’m short, round, fuzzy, and kinda beige looking, thanks to my Mediterranean ancestry, but hey, most of them are missing chins anyway, so who knows. I can hope that my inclusion of other imagery is beneficial, and laugh hard at my fragment of Sappho, The OG Lesbian, juxtaposed on the same arm as an acronym bigots want to steal.
So yeah, there’s my, “Well fuck” moment. I’m just gonna have to punch more Nazis for ruining my sweet ink. Or just, you know, go forward with the idea I have of having another pretty flower come down off my shoulder and obscure it. While still punching Nazis, of course, they need to stay the fuck out of my Greece and Rome.