What Bush owes to petty king

Classics in Progress
February 28, 2003

Seventeen scholars are gathered here to celebrate the centenary of the British Academy in 17 essays. They are all British, and the book's cover talks about showing the vitality of British scholarship. But the subject is an international one and there is no flag-waving in the book itself: more than half of the references cited in its 1,200 footnotes are to foreign publications.

Classics in Progress , despite its title, is not a survey of progress made. During the past century, it has been shown that the Mycenaeans were Greeks, the sands of Egypt have given us for the first time a play by antiquity's favourite dramatist, Menander, and excavations on Hadrian's Wall have yielded a unique cache of Roman army correspondence.

All these were major discoveries, but they are noticed scarcely or not at all. There is nothing about underwater archaeology or new techniques of archaeological dating. Our knowledge of the civilisations and cultures, particularly in the Middle East, that bordered on the Graeco-Roman world, has greatly improved and has affected the way we look at Greece and Rome, but this is mentioned only in the most general terms.

Instead, we are offered something less formal and more personal, "work in progress". The contributors each write on what seems to them most interesting, relevant or revealing in their chosen field. The result is a kind of lucky dip, a sample of academic opinion on a spectrum of topics from poetry to politics, with approaches ranging from postmodern to staid traditional.

Philip Hardie embraces (guardedly) intertextuality in Virgil, and Oliver Taplin approves (with some caveats) known poets who "translate" without knowing the original languages. Some essays make points that could have been, but were not, made 100 years ago, others delight in words and ways of using them that would have been quite unintelligible then ("big players", "elites", "agendas", "diachronic", "micro-histories" all on one page).

Michael Crawford shows how our understanding of Diocletian's anti-inflation price edict of AD302 has come into ever-sharper focus over the past 500 years, and an account by Peter Parsons of the impact of papyrology is made particularly effective because it concentrates not on headline discoveries but on small finds that have upset what was previously considered firm knowledge.

Two or three contributors are concerned with the educational use of the subject. None of them goes as far as the late Peter Levi who claimed (presumably, with his eye on the high status accorded to Latin and Greek verse composition) that, until 1800 in Europe and until 1950 in England, its primary purpose was to produce poets. Instead, they say, more prosaically, that it was to teach the art of rhetoric or public speaking: what the modern bureaucrat calls communication skills.

When pupils were being taught to compose, whether prose or verse, it was natural that the "best authors" of the "best periods" should be prescribed as models. The challenge was to go and do likewise. But now that this goal of creative writing (albeit in Latin and Greek) has been replaced by that of understanding the past, it no longer makes sense to privilege particular periods. So there is much questioning of old boundaries. Greek history, as traditionally taught, ended about 300BC. In Egypt, however, and in most of the eastern Mediterranean, that is exactly when Greek domination began. It lasted for more than a millennium, and, of course, the Greeks are still with us and still speak Greek. In fact, Greek history is a continuum. The metaphor of youth, maturity and old age makes no sense when applied to a people, and not much when applied to art and literature. In the traditional view of things the floruit of Greek literature and art came to an end in the 4th century BC, Latin in the 2nd century AD. Seen through the other end of the telescope, however, each of these moments can appear as the starting point of renewed promise. This means that the goal posts need moving, and R. R. R. Smith neatly redefines classical civilisation as the period of large public statues (600BC to AD600). Within these dates he argues for less weight to be put on unilinear development of artistic styles and more on the variety of customer taste that was possible. This gives a much richer picture and can even make ornately sculptured late-Roman sarcophagi seem interesting. For instead of being mere examples of a decadent style, their mixture of mythological subject matter becomes witness to the hopes and fears of the individual deceased. It also helps the museum visitor in another way. By narrowing the gap between "Greek original" and "Roman copy", it means we need no longer feel quite so barbarous when we fail to tell which is which.

But stereotypes can have serious consequences. Though the book was probably ready for the printers before September 11 2001, several of its contributors were already exercised by what one calls the "damaging rift" between East and West. Is it true that the twain shall never meet? The answer must depend, partly, on how the rift began. Was there always a gulf in culture and in political structures between Greek and Oriental? If not, when did differences begin to manifest themselves? Was there an abrupt cultural break when the Arabs invaded the Byzantine empire? And was the great rise of Islam the cause or the consequence of this?

There is also the question of how we look at ourselves. Do we understand life so much better than our ancestors that we can look back on our past just for curiosity or entertainment, or even to congratulate ourselves that we have outgrown it? Or is it still important? Classicists, naturally, take the latter view, although they need not be as smug about it as the Oxford professor of philosophy in the 1990s who, when asked by a government assessor what techniques had been introduced by his department in the previous five years, replied, loftily, none: Socrates had already shown how the subject should be taught. More seriously, Socrates appeared on the public stage, not just the academic one, in the wake of the Vietnam war when there was a protracted debate between journalist I. F. Stone and professor Gregory Vlastos on the rights and wrongs of his trial and its relevance to democracy and law.

The debate, recounted here by Michael Schofield, shows that ancient experience can still be appealed to as a guide to conduct. This is not surprising. Our belief in the idea that reason, evidence and free argument are better ways of getting at the truth than authority and precedent harks back to the Greek city states, and ever since the Renaissance reformers have looked to classical antiquity for proof that neither monarchy nor theocracy are necessary for civilised society. The model of government proposed for imitation was either Athens or, more usually, Rome. Rome had been spectacularly successful. Though it began as a small city under a petty king, it became master of the Mediterranean world, and on the home front its history was one of ever-increasing enfranchisement. Roman vocabulary of government was used by the founders of the US when they called their federation a republic and gave it a senate that was to meet on Capitol Hill. Today, America's position as sole superpower is always compared to that of Rome.

Our image of Rome is, then, of practical interest, and it is the theme taken by the editor, Peter Wiseman, for his own contribution. Roman politics was seen by the Romans themselves, and by everybody else until the end of the 19th century, as an ongoing contest between points of view. One side was for government by an experienced ruling class; the other championed the cause of social justice instead of entrenched privileges for a few. Each side had its heroes and its martyrs, and though there could also be waverers and opportunists, nobody ever doubted that the issues were genuine.

During the 20th century, this all changed. It became the orthodoxy of every scholar who did not want to be thought of as innocent or unworldly that Roman public life was never anything but a power game played by individuals for their own advancement. Wiseman, who traces this reinterpretation back to a German scholar, Matthias Gelzer writing in 1912, clearly believes it to be both overcynical and contrary to the evidence - simultaneously bad morals and bad history.

What is more, the same cynicism has infected literary criticism. Poets who for 2,000 years have been respected for their integrity are represented as having been full-time tools of Roman government propaganda. Jasper Griffin, in an essay on Horace, is even more explicit in his distaste for this approach than Wiseman, calling it a dark a priori and dogmatic view that rules out the possibilities of hope, trust and gratitude.

Another kind of moral problem is posed by slavery in the ancient world.

Does it infect all it touches? If so, perhaps we should not touch it at all. This argument is often used to airbrush all ancient experience, especially that of Athenian democracy, out of history. One essay, by Paul Cartledge, confronts this problem, and comes to the sane conclusion that rejecting what deserves to be rejected in ancient life does not oblige us to stop admiring what deserves to be admired. One could add that the airbrushing is particularly misplaced since it was the Graeco-Roman world that first gave voice to our sentiments and arguments condemning slavery and the whole institution of it.

The trouble with a smorgasbord is that though the items on the table may be equally good, one cannot do justice to them all. So it is here. The essays I have not cited are as interesting as the ones I have. Classical scholarship in Britain clearly has as much vitality as ever it did.

Furthermore, the 17 British scholars do not exhaust the stock. It is easy to think of more than as many again who are equally expert and equally lively. Insofar as this is due to the British Academy, it can be justly proud of itself.

Maurice Pope is emeritus professor of classics, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Classics in Progress: Essays on Ancient Greece and Rome

Editor - T. P. Wiseman
ISBN - 0 19 7260 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press/ British Academy
Price - £45.00
Pages - 451

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