The Glory that was Greece, the Grandeur that was Rome

April 7, 2014

“The Antients may be considered as a rich Common, where every person who hath the smallest Tenement in Parnassus hath a free Right to fatten his Muse.”
                                                 —Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, Book XII, chapter 1

The other evening, sitting with friends, literate professional writers of my own generation, discussing boundaries between history and fiction, I made a reference to the ambiguities of Thucydides’ invention of historical speechifying. Suddenly, my table-mates looked at me as though I had sprouted a not particularly attractive horn. Thucydides! Where did that come from? A great gap seemed to yawn between what used to be called the Ancients and the Moderns, with the Ancients consigned to the “classics,” which are presumed to be in decline, and the Moderns content to talk about memoir workshops. At this point, I might be expected to bemoan the bemusement of my colleagues. But that bemusement is part of a conversation, not the end of one. There is no decline, and no lack of engagement, as Mary Beard demonstrates triumphantly in her collection of essays and reviews, Confronting the Classics (Liveright, 2013).

To put this as crisply as I can, the study of Classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves. It is not only the dialogue that we have with the culture of the classical world; it is also the dialogue that we have with those who have gone before us who were themselves in dialogue with the classical world. . . . it is we who ventriloquise, who animate what the ancients have to say.”

Reader, I am no “Classicist.”

True, I studied Latin for four years in high school, and would have continued with Greek as well, but for a byzantine administration. I continued reading Latin ever after, among other languages, translating poems now and then, and I have also continued rooting around in various historical and cultural studies more or less seriously, but as nothing more than a beachcomber on the shingles of Academe. My interest in “the Classics” — most particularly Latin literature — is pretty well summed up by Goethe: “People always talk of the study of the ancients; but what does that mean, except that it says, turn your attention to the real world, and try to express it—for that is what the ancients did” (Conversations with Eckermann, translated by John Oxenford). I have a passion for histories of all times and places. And I also indulge a general appetite for the problems and triumphs of literary translation: the Roman poets especially give me a lot to chew on.

These predilections make me an ideal customer for Mary Beard. Whatever I think I’m doing in these virtual pages, she does a hell of a lot better, and her range is far wider, deeper, and more knowledgeable than mine. “I am very pleased to remind you that each of the chapters in this book originated in an essay or review in a non-specialist literary magazine,” she writes in her afterword, “Reviewing Classics.” Those of us who don’t think of “Classics” as a fussy subset of muddleheaded and dusty academics, but rather as a living and continuing conversation about culture, are equally pleased to be so reminded.

If you have been following these “Lorem Ipsum” essays, you are Beard’s ideal customer, too. “This book is . . . about how we can engage with or challenge the classical tradition, and why even in the twenty-first century there is so much in Classics still to argue about.”

Beard knows Thucydides. She also knows Dorothy L. Sayers, Terence Rattigan, and Astérix. She has a couple of points that get reinforced in each of the essays. One is the continuing liveliness of Classical interest in the face of dire predictions of its nonexistence: “one of the hallmarks of Classics as a discipline has always been the capacity of each succeeding generation to congratulate itself on its own fresh rediscovery of classical antiquity, while simultaneously lamenting the decline of classical learning.” It seems that interest in the Classical past, like the Theater, the Novel, and several stunning ancient statues, may be constantly dying, but obstinately refuses to get dead. A second point is the nature of the questions Classicists ask of themselves and their material—for good or ill:

But that is part of the ancient-historical game: first pick your question, then demonstrate the appalling difficulty of finding an answer given the paucity of the evidence, finally triumph over that difficulty by scholarly “skill.” Prestige in this business goes to those who outwit their sources, prising unexpected answers from unexpected places, and who play clever (sometimes too clever) detective against an apparent conspiracy of ancient silence.

The collection is framed by a couple of general essays but proceeds roughly following the chronology of its material. This means moving predictably from the glory that was Greece to the grandeur that was Rome. What remains most remarkable, though, is how Beard keeps herself and her reader completely grounded in the present, or, rather, how she keeps the Classical past, all the interpretive centuries in between, and our current stances and suppositions, equally in focus.

I use the term “Classics” here as Beard does—as conventional shorthand for the history and culture dominated by Greek and Roman influences for a couple of thousand years. It’s an arbitrary division of world culture, and further complicated by our current popular inability to disentangle Greek from Roman, much less Carthaginian, Parthian, or Celtic strains. (The poet Horace reminds us in Ars poetica, “et idem / indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus,” that even Alec Trebek makes a mistake sometimes. A recent clue on Jeopardy would have “monolith” a word from Latin roots. It’s not, of course: it’s Greek.) But it’s good to be reminded that what we call “Classical” stretched not only through time, but through space, leaving specific influences in Afghanistan, India, North Africa, Central and Western Europe, as well as the Mediterranean basin. Beard is careful to keep the distinctions within her discipline even as she ranges all over the place.

And finally, Confronting the Classics is an intimate book. To confront means to meet face to face, to put our heads together—to sit together, in fact, with literate professional writers from all times and all places, conversing with Thucydides and one another.