How the empire struck back
As the recent surge of books about classical civilisation suggests, we seem at last to be rediscovering the thrill of the ancient world
* Tom Holland
* The Observer,
* Sunday September 28 2008
Interviews with classics professors in newspapers went out of fashion roughly around the same time as liberty bodices and national service. Yet mirabile dictu, what should have been featured some weeks ago in the Review section of The Observer if not an interview with a classics professor? To be sure, Mary Beard has always made for good copy. In her ability to make a complex subject accessible to non-specialists, not to mention her occasional aptitude for controversy, she is the closest that her discipline has to a Richard Dawkins. Even so, she is only primus inter pares
This autumn, a whole legion of books by heavyweight classicists will be advancing on bookshops. In addition to Beard’s study of Pompeii, enthusiasts for ancient history can enjoy biographies of Philip II of Macedonia, Julius Caesar and Attila. Most unexpected of all is a dense yet wholly gripping analysis by Robin Lane Fox of the Greek dark ages, a period that even specialists have always regarded as intimidatingly obscure. Something rather startling is evidently going on: publishers seem to believe that classical scholarship may actually sell.
For the practitioners of a discipline that has long been beleaguered by charges of irrelevance and snobbery, this is a heady thought. Even in the Fifties, when a knowledge of Latin and Greek was still held to be the defining mark of the nation’s educational elite, the perceived pointlessness of studying dead languages was proving toxic. In How to be Topp, one of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s tetralogy of satires about life in a Fifties prep school, the gloriously disaffected Molesworth advised that a Latin lesson could always be brought to a grinding halt by the simple expedient of asking: ‘What is the use of Latin, sir?’ He went on to describe the result. ‘Master clutches the board ruber but he knos he is beaten this one always rouses the mob.’
Molesworth was right. Over the past few decades, classicists have suffered a rout on the scale of the Roman defeat at Cannae. A discipline that once enjoyed an Olympian status in the curriculum has been struggling for survival. In the state system, where the carnage has been particularly severe, a bare 15 per cent of secondary schools offer Latin. No surprise, then, that it has ended up more thoroughly the preserve of the privately educated than it was even in Molesworth’s time. Hardly the perfect background, you might think, for a sudden explosion of interest in the ancient world.
And yet that is exactly what it has provided. The virtual eradication of classical subjects from the state system has left whole swaths of the population educationally disenfranchised: cut off from a knowledge of civilisations that remain no less the bedrock of our own, no less peopled with remarkable figures and famous names, no less fascinating, terrifying and strange than they had ever been. People are not stupid – they know when they are missing out on something interesting and important. If the education system fails to give it to them, then it can hardly be held surprising that they will look for it elsewhere, in works of popular history, perhaps, and in other media as well.
It is surely no coincidence that Gladiator, the film that effectively served to fuel the recent obsession with the ancient world, should have been released in 2000, a generation after the final collapse of classical studies in most schools. Maximus’s heroics gave people a taste of what had been lost. Nor did it take long for Gladiator to reveal a quality not normally associated with sword-and-sandal fests: prescience. Watch it again now and it seems to display something of the quality of the best science fiction, a portrait of a world that is as weirdly familiar as it is strange, as much about the future as the past. Citizens fed on dazzling entertainments; armies striking at an elusive foreign foe; the hi-tech delivery of weapons of fire. Here, as with Blade Runner, was a mirror being held up to the future.
One year on from Gladiator’s release and the American response to 9/11 ensured that the comparison of the classical superpower to the modern was transformed into a cliche. The image of George Bush wearing an imperial laurel wreath became a staple of caricatures everywhere. The rise and fall of the Roman empire began to seem not just ancient history, but a theme of pressing immediacy. Even now, with American hegemony looking more frayed than it did at the time of the Iraq War, the world of the classical past continues to cast an eerie shadow. As the critical response to the current exhibition on Hadrian at the British Museum has served to suggest, we find it hard now to look at a Roman and not identify in him something of ourselves.
There is nothing new about this. In the Renaissance, when classics as an educational discipline had its birth, Machiavelli had no doubts as to the abiding relevance of the lessons of the Greek and Roman past. ‘Prudent men are wont to say,’ he wrote, ‘and this not rashly or without good ground, that he who would foresee what has to be should reflect on what has been, for everything that happens in the world at any time has a genuine resemblance to what happened in ancient times.’ Such a claim, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, might have appeared outlandish, but now, with the Cold War ended and long-suppressed identities and hatreds emerging from the melting permafrost, it appears a good deal less so.
Whether in the Balkans or Georgia, not to mention in the former Roman province of Judaea, the origins of modern conflicts often have very ancient roots indeed. Even in Britain, where the increasingly diverse nature of our society has prompted endless tortured musings on the nature of ‘British values’, the political and moral ambiguities of classical history suddenly seem possessed of a wholly new relevance. Issues of citizenship, after all – for good and bad – lay at the very heart of the Greek and Roman experience. As in the Renaissance, so now: classical scholarship is coming to seem bizarrely cutting edge.
All of which serves to raise a tantalising possibility: that the very devastation to which the discipline has been subjected might end up providing the necessary context for its revival. Perhaps, like any outmoded brand, classics needed to go through a decontamination process. Certainly, it seems now to have purged itself of many of its more rebarbative associations: the fust of chalkdust, the hint of canes and cold showers.
Molesworth, describing the desperate flannelling of a classics teacher put on the spot, imagined him protesting: ‘Er latin gives you not only the history of Rome but er [hapy inspiration] its culture, it er tells you about interesting men like J Caesar, hannibal, livy, Romulus remus and er lars porsena of clusium.’ To Molesworth’s classmates, such names would have been a reminder of ink-spattered textbooks and lectures on the vital importance of a stiff upper lip; children today are likeliest to have heard of them from computer games or glossy TV dramas.
And if that does inspire some students to contemplate the study of a dead language at school, then at least they will no longer find the educational establishment standing in their way. As Will Griffiths, the director of the Cambridge School Classics Project, puts it: ‘When we talk to schools about the possibility of offering Latin, we encounter interest and excitement, not hostility.’
Perhaps, then, just perhaps, the rash of books on classical subjects currently appearing in the review pages is indeed the reflection of a broader trend. Certainly, the discipline does appear to have stopped flat-lining. In 2000, there were a mere 150 non-selective state schools in England offering Latin; now there are more than 500.
All of which may be so much whistling in the wind. Enthusiasts for classics, like supporters of the England football team, are forever hailing new dawns and invariably end up disappointed. Nevertheless, like a phalanx of scarred and combat-hardened hoplites, classicists remain, at the very least, on the field of battle. Later this year, for instance, an £8m appeal, ‘Classics for All’, will be launched, with the stated ambition of making classics ‘available and sustainable in all state schools’. What prospect there is of raising such a sum in the teeth of a recession remains to be seen, but the organisers of the appeal are no more likely to be daunted by that reflection than the Athenians were by the sight of the enemy on the plain of Marathon. ‘Ignis aurum probat’: ‘It is fire that truly puts gold to the test’.
Five to read: new classical titles
Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard (Profile)
Whirlwind tour of the lost town, punctuated with cheerful myth-busting by the provocative Beard.
Travelling Heroes by Robin Lane Fox (Allen Lane)
Engaging guide to the lives of the Greeks in 800BC, the age of Homer.
Philip II of Macedonia by Ian Worthington (Yale)
Biography of formidable military commander, better known as Alexander the Great’s father.
Attila the Hun by Christopher Kelly (Bodley Head)
Keenly argued account of the rapacious warlord’s assault on the Roman Empire.
Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman (JR Books)
Caesar’s life was lived on epic scale, as this detailed biography reveals.
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