Will Hutton: Ancient Rome is where our heart is

Ancient Rome is where our heart is

As the classics die out in our schools, we should remember the debt we owe those civilisations

Will Hutton
Sunday January 7, 2007
The Observer

The Rubicon is being approached. The study of classics looks soon to cease in Britain. It is a trend that is more than a generation old, but if it continues, no state school will be teaching Greek within five years and within 10, Latin will have virtually died out. Only a few doughty private schools will continue the tradition, but even their candidates for Latin and Greek GCSEs are falling in numbers.

The question is whether we should care. Unlike the closure of university physics and geography departments that attracts so much criticism or the self-evidently disastrous collapse in the number of schoolchildren studying modern languages, the classics have no obvious contemporary resonance or usage. They are dead languages from a dead culture. Nobody in Britain studies rhetoric any longer as once they did in the Middle Ages. The world moves on and sometimes subjects just disappear for want of viability.

That has not prevented a passionate debate among classicists who naturally want to preserve a subject close to their hearts. Last week, Bob Lister, former director of the Cambridge Schools Classics Project, trailed his forthcoming book, Changing Classics in Schools by insisting that the classics must be more accessible and easier to assimilate. Today's students do not need to master the rigours of Latin grammar.

Yes, they do, counters former Westminster schoolboy, fogey and journalist Harry Mount, author of Amo, Amas, Amat… . He thinks that teachers must hold the line and that the discipline of Latin is the point of learning it. Teachers must get smarter at teaching a tough subject because therein lies not only its value but why students come to love it.

His book engagingly and amusingly spells this out how, even if he ignores some basic issues, such as timetabling and the impact of the national curriculum, that so concern Lister.

But this is a debate that has little appeal for most people today. The reason why classics were so central in British educational life throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th is not because declining verbs represented a powerful means of grooming young minds. It was that the British keenly felt that the Greek and Roman civilisations informed their own.

They could see, in a way that we do not, how the values of Greece and Rome came through the Renaissance and Enlightenment into the experience, culture and aspirations of Victorian Britain. These were not dead words from a dead culture, but the fountainhead of what the British (and the West) should be. They should be studied and venerated as part of our account about ourselves.

It was Julius Caesar, for example, who coined the phrase 'the die is cast' and the brilliant Roman poet Ovid who in one line summed up the practical scepticism with which most of us approach religion: 'It is convenient that there be gods and, as it is convenient, let us believe there are.'

Reading Ovid as I researched this column, I could see why both Chaucer and Shakespeare were such devotees. It is poetry that understands and celebrates the frailty of the human condition with a humanity and insight that is breathtaking – and it is 2,000 years old. Everybody understands that the biology of their parents and grandparents is important in understanding how their own bodies are likely to work. There is no such readiness to want to get to grips with our past when it comes to culture, politics and values.

Yet the establishment of republican Rome in 509BC, its rise to dominate most of Europe, Asia Minor and the near Middle East, its transmutation into an imperial system in 27BC, its collapse in the West in 476AD and in the East, with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, is at the heart of the story of the West. The Chinese rightly boast about the antecedents of their civilisation, going back to 1030BC; part of Mao's political success was his knowledge of China's good and bad emperors, what had worked and had not and his capacity to relate it all to communism. Europeans and Americans have just as much to boast about. The reason they don't is ignorance.

The chief explanation for Rome's phenomenal rise and greatness is that it was a vibrant republican democracy. To stand today in the ruins of Rome's republican forum is an awesome experience; this is where Roman citizens came to hear the speeches of their senators and tribunes pitching for their votes, at a time when the rest of the world's political organisation was based on primitive, authoritarian, divinely ordained monarchs like China's.

There are many explanations for Rome's subsequent decline and fall – overstretch, disease, the embrace of the unmartial values of Christianity, the unstoppable rise of the German tribes in the north and Persia in the east – but essentially I am with Arnold Toynbee. The transmutation of Rome from republic to empire was progressively to undermine the civic dynamism and, within its terms, commitment to liberty, political and social progress that had made Rome great. Republican Rome could trounce Carthage; late imperial Rome had no such energy.

Rome's debates – and earlier debates by the Greeks – about the best form of political organisation, about ethics and morality, about love and human relationships made us what we are. Without republican Rome, there would have been no Magna Carta, no tradition of civil scrutiny of government, no Shakespeare, no Christianity, no liberalism and no republicanism.

China's weakness I argue in my new book (see the extract here) is that it has too fragile traditions on which to build the institutions of accountability and scrutiny necessary for successful capitalism. The West has, for which it has to thank Rome. Until recently, this was understood by our politicians, intellectuals and educators. There will only be a renaissance in Latin and Greek – and in the inspiration with which it is taught – when this is understood again.