The Case For The Classics

Three books offer fresh and enchanting views on the ancient past and how it can still live

Classicists tend to be defensive about their subject, far more so than historians or artists of theirs. I used to work for an education charity dedicated to supporting and reviving the teaching of Classics in schools. We printed thousands of leaflets for teachers to display at parents’ evenings, emblazoned with quotes on the merits of learning Latin and Greek from Tom Stoppard, Mary Beard and Jonathan Evans, the former Director of MI5. Although immense progress has been made in liberating Classics from its crusty reputation over the last decade or so, I still faced a battle. You’d be amazed by how many people consider Latin a punishment to be imposed on posh schoolboys. There is no use for it, I have been told; it is elitist, and the memory of learning it in the 1960s is reason enough for a parent to protect his daughter from its torture—but thanks anyway.

The fact that Latin is commonly referred to as a “dead language” doesn’t help its case. One suspects that exasperation with popular misconceptions of its status today has been a driving force behind Jürgen Leonhardt’s book, Latin: Story of a World Language, which opens with a debate about how dead Latin actually is. True, it is no longer anyone’s mother tongue. But for as long as there are people who use it, Leonhardt counters, Latin will live.

Here lies the Classicist’s problem. Latin, and indeed Classical Greek, must be nursed like heirlooms for our children to inherit or (Jupiter forbid!) trade in for something new. Classicists may speak defensively of them, but there is no disguising the fact that heirlooms are burdensome responsibilities, which few willingly take on with any pleasure.

One solution is to release Latin from its status as a strange relic, which Leonhardt makes a valiant attempt at doing. His book is a highly readable tour of the language, from antiquity, through the Renaissance, to its use in reports for the Council of the European Union in 2006. If that sounds like just another affirmation of Latin’s heritage, then the psychology of the book is quite different. Some of what Leonhardt advocates is, frankly, bizarre, such as the re-establishment of Latin as a spoken language to bring history to life, as if in historical re-enactment. But he does a good job of attaching meaning to the heirloom. He knows that we struggle to throw something away when we understand precisely what has been invested in it, what it means, and most importantly, what might yet come out of it. If Latin is to be a living language, it needs to be treated as such. Which is an excellent attitude towards Classics and historical subjects more generally.

People who love history and ancient languages do so not because they feel responsibility towards them, but because they feel emotionally invested in the stories, objects, and words of different cultures. The main risk that accompanies years of close study is to their ability to communicate the excitement they felt at the very beginning of their careers. One of the joys of passing a subject such as Latin on to the next generation is that young people, particularly schoolchildren, are struck at once by the strangeness of it, the myths, the sounds the words make. They see things the expert forgets, and bring new life to it in that way.

Not to say that it is childlike, but Richard Jenkyns’s new book offers so fresh and enchanted an overview of Classical Literature that one could be forgiven for thinking that he has only just stumbled upon it like a schoolboy. Jenkyns is, in fact, an eminent Professor of Classics at Oxford. His book is lively, combining authority with a readily discernible awe for the wonders of the ancient world. It is an excellent blueprint for what Classicists must do if they are to keep their subject alive today by making it appeal to a fresh audience.

As he moves chronologically down the centuries of literature, from Homer and Hesiod to the Latin writers of the early second century AD, Jenkyns delights in the fine details. Achilles is an unexpected aesthete, he reminds us, the only musician in Homer’s Iliad to be shown rehearsing songs. Elegy was never just intended for poetry; the Athenian statesman Solon employed it for his political statements in the sixth century BC. In the same period, an elegist named Xenophanes noted wryly that the Germans’ gods must be blond, because the Germans were blond. By the same logic, he followed, if horses had gods, their gods would naturally be horses.

Jenkyns is quick to point out firsts: the first association of sex with death, in a seventh-century BC Spartan poem; the first attempt to give an accurate representation of childhood in Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, a biography of the Persian king; the first playwright—Sophocles—to use three actors on stage at once.

His tastes are for fast and dramatic episodes. He seeks drama in practically everything. Xenophon’s portrait of King Cyrus is, as far as he is concerned, rather flat because, “truth to tell, the boy Cyrus is too purely virtuous for the depiction to get far, and the adult Cyrus is so perfect a pattern of kingship that he cannot interest us much.” Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the most influential Latin poems ever written, “can be overrated”, because, in Jenkyns’s view, his passages of natural description lack imagination, and there is less variety of tone than there might have been. In truth, Ovid’s descriptions of nature, all weathered rocks, crumbling arches, and streams which ripple with sexual tension, seem to me to be rather more imaginative than Jenkyns remembers.
Not everyone will share Jenkyns’s likes and dislikes. I, for one, rather enjoy finding the more mundane details in ancient history books. On a dull day of errands, it is comforting to be reminded that life wasn’t just one great flurry of adventure then, either. I found Jenkyns a likeable guide nonetheless.

Echoing Jenkyns and Leonhardt, Edith Hall has concerns about Classics today. She opens her marvellous book, Introducing the Ancient Greeks, by looking at a recent trend among scholars for undervaluing Hellenic achievements. Did the Greeks invent anything at all? Or have generations of scholars simply been celebrating the “Oldest Dead White European Males” at the expense of the real innovators?

Many Greek achievements have parallels in other cultures, including Pythagoras’s Theorem, which was known to the Babylonians hundreds of years before Pythagoras was born. But there was something special about the Greeks. Hall pinpoints ten characteristics which she believes informed the ancient Greek mindset, including inquisitiveness and suspicion of authority. Characteristics associated with their openness were perhaps the most important. The Greeks’ eagerness to soak up the ideas of other peoples made them particularly enamoured of the sea, their conduit. 

Wide-ranging and endlessly fascinating, Hall’s book navigates across the sea-loving Mycenaeans of the Bronze Age, the Ionians, Classical Athenians (the Greekest Greeks, according to Hall’s recipe for Greekness), and beyond. It is a fitting tribute to history that ought to be preserved, not for the sake of doing so, because it would, at the very least, enrich our conversation and range of comparison with events today. It would be nice, for example, if Boris Johnson weren’t the only public figure who made a habit of quoting Pericles, the great Athenian statesman. Pericles’s famous words, which Hall quotes in her book, could certainly lend themselves well to current debates on immigration: “We [Athenians] throw open our city to the world, and never expel a foreigner or prevent him from seeing or learning anything.”

We must not be too pessimistic. Although there is work to be done, the ancient world is more fashionable today than it has been for half a century or more. As Leonhardt says of Latin in his book, the ancient past can live so long as people are willing to keep writing or talking about it, releasing it from its status as a relic of the past. If it is the pleasure of teachers and writers to set the process in motion, then it should be the pleasure of students and readers to welcome their words with all the open-mindedness that characterised the ancient Greeks. It was their inquisitiveness that made them great.  

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