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Racializing the Ancient World: Ancestry and Identity in the Early United States


Despite being thousands of miles from the Mediterranean Sea, the early United States was littered with the remains of classical antiquity. In creating their new country, Americans turned to the ancient language of Latin to express their sense that they were living in a novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages. They compared George Washington to the Roman soldier-farmer Cincinnatus, and they invested powers in a Senate named for the governing body of ancient Roman republic. But how do we understand the choice to build the self-consciously new country upon the ruins of an ancient empire? Could the particular challenges embodied in the aspirational slogan e pluribus unum be resolved through a concurrent and relentless invocation of individuals and events from millennia earlier? <br/> <br/> This dissertation argues that Mediterranean antiquity was mobilized in the service of organizing race in a slaveholding republic predicated on equality but erected on exclusion and difference. I focus on the period between the American Revolutionary War and the start of the Civil War (1770-1861). Previous scholars have shown how modern ideas of race were constructed during this period, but the crucial role of discourses surrounding the ancient past in creating and sustaining blackness and whiteness in the United States has generally been overlooked. When contemporary categories of difference were retrojected onto historical people and cultures, those categories took on an air of stability and “truth” that served to paper over the fact of their recent genesis. In other words, discourses of history in a racialized society are always already about race in the present.<br/> <br/> Analyzing American performances, objects, and spaces associated with the ancient Mediterranean, this study applies theoretical approaches to social memory, ethnicity, materiality, and the study of the body to investigate representations of the ancient world as sites of struggle over belonging and status in the present. Chapters address Egyptian mummies and classical sculptures in museums and medical schools; theatrical representations of ancient Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, and Egyptians; and the classicizing landscapes of southern slave plantations.<br/>
Thesis (Ph.D. -- Brown University (2012)

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Monteiro, Lyra D., "Racializing the Ancient World: Ancestry and Identity in the Early United States" (2012). Graduate Research Theses and Dissertations. Brown Digital Repository. Brown University Library.