The Ghost of Classics Yet to Come

Stephen Fry

Latin is dead dead dead. Quod lingua Latina mortua, mortua, mortua est. Even my damned computer agrees. 

Ammo alas amity… 

… is how autocorrect renders:

Amo, amas amat.

Is further proof needed that the game is up for Classics? Alea iacta est, as Caesar put it, the die is cast, or – as autocorrect prefers – Ales Oscar eat.

Go back a hundred and fifty years or so and the idea of defending or justifying the study of the Classics would have seemed absurd. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was interloper disciplines like Economics and English Literature that required defence and justification. The study of Greek and Latin language, literature, history and philosophy was the one central, unquestioned pillar of education around the English-speaking world (and in many other lands too).

Professional subjects like Law and Medicine were mere satellites – legal primers and medical textbooks contained almost as much Latin and Greek as they did any living tongue. Nor could Natural and Moral Philosophy be mastered without a knowledge of those ancient languages. Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica (as you might guess) was not written in English; Leibniz too wrote in Latin. (Galileo’s first publications were in Latin but he changed to Italian after those initial papers were rejected). Theology and History of course required complete familiarity with classical languages and references. The Fine Arts, inasmuch as they were considered studies, could not be pursued without a thorough grounding in Greek and Roman art and architecture and their later Renaissance. 

This isn’t the time or place to go into the reasons for the incredible speed with which that central pillar cracked, causing the whole edifice to crumble and collapse like the Philistine temple at Gaza. No single Samson pulled it down, but perhaps we can look for causes in a combination of Universal Education, the First World War and the general disintegration of Empire, hierarchy and certainty in the world. Classics very quickly became associated with the Old Guard, the ancien régime, Them, the chinless, gutless, clueless ones who got us bogged down in Flanders, who supervised mass unemployment, who callously broke strikes and stomped on rights and who, when they thought of warfare, pictured Horatio defending Rome or hoplites chasing Persians to the sea, and who were cheap, snobbish and shallow enough to think that an idea quoted in Latin had more value and authority than one spoken in English or any other living language. 

The enduring image of the Victorian classroom.

After the Second World War, with the rise of Utopian social democracy, the Welfare State, National Health, comprehensive education and the New Universities a wholly different Britain was being constructed, quite consciously. There was little room for Classics in this new age, partly because something on the curriculum had to make way for the even more new-fangled and technical courses than Economics and Eng. Lit. that were being introduced, and partly because of the inimical association of classical studies with public and grammar schools, masters and mistresses in academic gowns, and wood-panelled form-rooms where busts of Cicero and Aristotle gazed sightlessly down through the chalk dust on unhappy schoolchildren who could now be more pleasurably and profitably encountering Nuffield Science, New Maths, ‘living languages’ and social history in sunlit classrooms gaily decorated with colour posters. The Four Rs had primacy: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and – the greatest R of them all – Relevance. If you couldn’t prove relevance, down the order of priority you went until almost the only institutions willing to offer courses in the Classics were those self-same grammar and public schools whose values, history and influence so many thinking people had been decrying. And thus the vicious cycle narrowed its gyre and the study of the Classical civilizations became even more of a minority sport, even more niche or – to use today’s most damning adjective – even more elitist

How to break the cycle, that has been the pressing question asked by all of us who love, treasure and thrill to the endless delights of studying classical antiquity. How to dispel the ghastly images of those Victorian classrooms? It is what I call the Pipe Problem. A young man smoking a pipe cannot do so without looking like a pompous dick (I should know, I used to be just such a young man), and Classics finds itself in a similar quandary. No one can quote or use Latin in company without sounding like the worst kind of absolute tosser. You might as well wear a three-piece suit with a watch chain and call yourself Jacob. Or there is the option of buying a two-piece suit that doesn’t fit and jumping up and down on it till it’s creased to hell. Then you could put it on backwards, muss up your hair and call yourself Boris. 

Talk about the worst of all possible worlds. Even though it’s deeply unfashionable to know any Latin and Greek, it still seems like the worst kind of showing off to make any public use of it. Classical music faces the same challenges. All who love it know that it is of and for the people, that it speaks directly to our hearts in ways that are inexpressibly powerful, liberating and exciting, yet it is associated with elitism and snobbery. 

Routine abuse for poor Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer (1888).

Even back in its heyday those who truly heard the voice of Ancient Greece and Rome were keenly aware of the Great Classical Irony, videlicet: the preponderance of the English middle and upper-middle classes spent at least ten years of their childhoods exposed to Latin and/or Greek, reciting it, parsing it, construing it, conjugating and declining its verbs and nouns, and yet the meaning of it all, the impulses, instincts, thoughts, dreams and achievements of Greek and Roman civilization, seemed entirely to escape them. A few acknowledgements of the cleverness of Roman architecture and street planning, the superiority of the legions, the efficiency of the sewers and aqueducts (think the ‘What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?’ scene in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian) but otherwise those expensive and compendious classical educations seem to have been wasted on the lumpen product that pooped out of the public school pug mill. They knew the principal parts of tango and sequor but of what “burning Sappho loved and sang”, the shadows in Plato’s cave or the poetic depths to be found in Lbia’s sparrow and Corinna’s parrot… these made little impression. The best bits of the Greek Anthology were banned from the schoolroom, so much Mediterranean light and wonder, so much sass and sex, so much fun was banished that in truth we should not look back at the days when Classics held sway with much regret after all. 

Before going up to university myself (to read English Literature, I’m afraid) I taught Latin and a little Greek at a school for a year, but since that time my only connection with Classical studies was (until recently) from a distance. Like so many of my education and generation, I found myself ageing into one of those sentimental old twazzocks for whom lines of Horace and half-remembered scraps of Euripides played in the memory like fleeting scenes from a long-ago schoolboy game of cricket. 

Then five years ago, at a dinner with some friends, the subject of the Olympian gods arose for some reason or other. I said something about the castration of Ouranos (Uranus) and everyone stared at me, baffled but intrigued. So I retold the story to the best of my memory, regurgitating a combination of school lessons, Robert Graves, L.S. Hyde and Edith Hamilton. It went so well (“Gosh, how come I never knew that?”, “Why wasn’t I taught this at school?” etc. etc.) that when I got home I wrote out that night, before going to bed, a plan to retell the story of the birth of the titans and gods, Pandora, Prometheus, the rise of Mankind and some of the Metamorphoses stories. In due course they emerged as a book called Mythos, which happily found enough of an enthusiastic readership to encourage me to write two successors, Heroes and Troy, with a fourth – chronicling the voyages home from the Trojan War of Agamemnon, Menelaus and Odysseus – in the works. 

Maybe it is morphic resonance or some other zeitgeisty phenomenon, but in that time there has been a very pleasing resurgence of popular writing around classical myth, culture and history. Emily Wilson’s superb new translation of The Odyssey, thrilling works by the classicists Natalie Haynes and Bettany Hughes, brilliant reimaginings of myth from Madeline Miller (Song of Achilles and Circe), Pat Barker (The Silence of the Girls) and Colm Tóibín (House of Names and Pale Sister) are just a few of the successful and rightly praised reworkings of Greek myth to have emerged recently. Meanwhile, across the Adriatic, Mary Beard, Tom Holland, Robert Harris and others have lit up Ancient Rome in lively, insightful and popular ways too. Meanwhile, Classics for All has been working incredibly hard to spread engagement with Latin and Greek in schools across the UK.

And now there is Antigone, encouraging and enabling the exchange of ideas and enthusiasms with a special welcome for those who have not wrestled with Greek particles or sat in obedient rows chanting “Ammo, AlasAmity.

What Ho? Hubert Burge and George Charles Bell, the Head Masters of Winchester and Marlborough College, depicted by Spy (Sir Leslie Ward) for Vanity Fair (1902–3).

So maybe the work or restoration has been done? Classics has been washed clean of sadistic hand-caning (“pareo takes the dative, Fry!” – swish!) and Victorian schoolroom chalk, it has also had a welcome cleansing (or at least a putting in proper proportion) of the worst elements of patriarchal virility and warrior violence that were so off-putting to some. Classical studies may still be more niche than once they were, but that surely is an advantage? Those who are drawn to the Ancient Greeks and Romans and their world learn the languages and bury themselves in the culture and lore out of desire and curiosity, not syllabus and necessity, there is no drudgery and suffering in Classical studies these days, only delight. 

There remains the question of access. How many children grow up without any introduction to the classical world? To retrofit Thomas Gray, “some village Bowra… some mute inglorious Porson” might be “born to blush unseen and waste their sweetness on the desert air.” In other words, think how many great untried Hellenists and Latinists, how many potentially joyful lovers of the Classics have lived and died without ever having been exposed to Ancient Greece and Rome?

Devotees of English cricket have similar conversations. It’s only the private schools that have the equipment, the grounds, the nets and the professional coaching staff to teach cricketing skills, and only these schools have the space in the syllabus to make something of these facilities. Unless more children have access the game will die. Cricket lovers, like Classics lovers, are trying their best to do something to turn this around. 

Community cricket (Lode village school, Cambridgeshire, 1934).

For we are living at a time of fundamental cultural transformation. So much that once was natural, endemic and unquestioned is being doubted, refashioned, mocked or junked. Which forces us to articulate what we value. When it comes to Classics, in opening up the field to all we are drawing back a Victorian curtain on the ancient world to reveal living people and stories that are filled with enough juice, joy, sex, blood, laughter, ambiguity, intellect, art, violence and poetry for everyone. What will save cricket is the passionate enthusiasm that a great series of matches played to the highest quality (such as we have in fact seen lately) engenders for boys and girls and men and women everywhere. “Oh this is cricket, is it? I thought it wasn’t for me, I find it is!” What will save classics is a similar resurgence (such as we have in fact seen lately). “Oh this is what the classics are? I thought they weren’t for me, I find they are!” 

I believe it is the artists, poets, novelists and playwrights who are currently retelling and reimagining the Greek and Roman worlds with such vigour and imagination who will light those fires in the minds of the young. And once they are lit, a service like Antigone for them to turn to will be the equivalent of having a cricket pitch and nets just round the corner… Which is my way of saying how pleased I am that Antigone has come into being and how very delighted I am to be have been asked to write these few words and stand as a proud supporter of everything that Antigone represents.

Stephen Fry is an actor, comedian and writer.

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