The Value Of The Greek & Roman Classics

in Culture/History/Politics by

When a member of the House of Commons rises to speak on a subject in which he has a pecuniary interest, both the rules of the House and plain decency require him to declare that interest. It is a just requirement, and I propose to follow it here. My agreed title for this morning is “The Value of the Greek and Roman Classics.” I run the Centre for Ancient Studies, which provides tuition in Greek and Latin and Classics in general. I am also the author of twelve novels set in the early Byzantine Empire. Give or take the inevitable problem of converting interest into direct sales, the more people I can inspire to a love of the Ancient World, the greater my income.

This declaration being made, I do believe in the supreme value of the Greek and Roman classics. I bless the day when, as a boy of seven, I stumbled across a translation of Homer’s Iliad. It started me on a half-century course of discovery, during which I have endeavoured to learn everything I can about the history and the culture and the languages of Classical Antiquity. If I have had any personal success in life, whether as a writer or as a teacher, it is, directly or indirectly, a result of that obsession. I may, this morning, be speaking to those already converted, and who have made their own study. In which case, I freely apologise if I am now stating the obvious. At the same time, there must, in this room, be those who are only faintly interested in my subject, or who would like to be interested, but can find no compelling motive for turning potential into active interest. If that is you, I shall judge the success of my speech by the degree to which I inspire your active interest.

I will not ignore the Romans. But, though in themselves a most remarkable people, their main historic value is as imitators and preservers and transmitters of Greek civilisation. Greece does not and must not monopolise classical studies. Anyone who studies the Greeks and not the Romans will develop at best a partial view of the subject. But I will say, with as much conviction as I have in any matter, that the Greeks, between about the sixth and the third centuries before Christ, were the most remarkable people who ever lived.

Before speaking generally on this theme, let me speak particularly. If you go to any of the great museums – and I think, in my case, of the British Museum in London – you will see many grand and impressive monuments from the early civilisations of the Near East. But these are not monuments that will or should speak immediately to you. You will see Assyrian wall carvings that show military victories with piles of severed heads or heaps of foreskins harvested from the conquered. You will see Egyptian wall paintings in which the Pharaoh is three times the height of the common people depicted. You will see statues of rulers that will never persuade you that you are in the presence of an actual living being, and that will alarm you with their looks of cold disdain. So far as they represent living beings, those beings had no concern for the security or happiness of those given into their control. So far as they speak to you, what they say can be summarised by quoting from Shelley:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

And then, having looked at some length on these monuments, turn to a reading of Thucydides, who wrote the history of the long war between Athens and Sparta. He is generally considered a bleak and cynical writer – a contrast from the more chatty and approachable Herodotus, in whose birthplace we are presently gathered, and whose statue adorns the harbour of Bodrum. But take this from Book 1, Chapter I of Thucydides. He begins by discussing the greatness of the long-vanished Mycenae. He continues – in my own translation:

Let us imagine that Sparta were to pass out of existence, and all that remained of it were the ruins of its rather unimpressive public buildings and of the mean villages in which its people live. There would be a tendency in future ages to doubt that Sparta had been a great power in Greece. Yet it presently occupies two-fifths of the Peloponnese, and dominates all of it, and is undoubtedly a great power in the whole of Greece. If, on the other hand, Athens were to pass out of existence, the magnificence of its ruins would persuade any future observer that it had been twice as great as it really was.

Look on a statue of Rameses II, and be awed or repelled, or both. Read Thucydides, and you are in the presence of a man who speaks directly to you. Here is a man who, thousands of years ago, was able to step outside his own country and age, and all the affairs that consumed at least his waking life, and to imagine some vastly remote future time in which you and I would judge those affairs that consumed his waking life. No boastful invitation here to look on his works and despair – though you might well do that. You find yourself instead in conversation with a reasonable being.

For the past decade, Professor Hoppe and I have been arguing in a desultory manner whether Britain or Germany has been the greatest of modern nations. The argument is finely-balanced, and victory goes to whichever party on the day argues with more conviction. The whole truth, though, is that neither the British nor the Germans are fit to do more than kiss the dust on which the Greeks trod.

The Greeks gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer – and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer, and Homer was himself an early Greek. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. They had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the Ancient Greeks.

For the avoidance of doubt, I will not say that the Greeks were perfect. Though remarkable human beings – though the most remarkable human beings – they were still human beings, with all the vices and other failings that come with this. But, if you commit your life to staring into that flood of intense light that was Greece, you will not have lived in vain. And, though I do not despise translations, and would never discourage someone from approaching the Greeks only through translation, I will add that the light is most intense when seen directly, through the medium in which the Greeks themselves thought and spoke and wrote.

There are many reasons for learning Greek. A full discussion of them would amount to an advertisement for my services, and would take longer than I have available for this speech. But I will mention three.

The first is that Greek is inherently a beautiful language, and worth studying for itself alone. There is certainly a thrill to speaking it. Take this line from Homer:

τὸν δ’ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη πολύμητις Ὀδυσσεύς
To him in answer spake the ever-resourceful Odysseus

For any number of reasons, my pronunciation is corrupt, and no Greek, ancient or modern, would think me other than a barbarian. But say these words, and you are making sounds that were first made when our own ancestors were tattooing their faces and smearing butter into their hair, before perhaps the building of Stonehenge, and when even Rome was no more than a collection of huts not far removed from the stone age.

The second main reason for learning Greek is that we know far less about the Greeks than we would like. So much has been carried away by the ravages of time. For the past six hundred years, a continuous line of scholars in Western Europe, and more recently in America, has laboured to gather and understand all that can be found about the Greeks. Every surviving Greek text has been pressed harder than olives for one of the supermarket chains to give up every possible meaning. Archaeology and all the natural sciences have been put to similar uses. In every century since the fourteenth, we have been able to say at its end that we knew more than at the beginning. But our knowledge remains imperfect. We look on the Greeks as we might on a landscape covered in mist. Here and there, the mist is absent or thinner, and we can be astonished by what we see; and we can hope to extrapolate from what we see to what remains covered.

If you come to the Greeks through translations, it is as if you are looking at that misty landscape though a sheet of coloured glass. Our word translate in Latin, and by extension in French, is traduco. This can mean translate. It can also mean dishonour, degrade or betray. Most translations, whether deliberately or by accident, do all these things to their original. Until very recently, English translators of the classics would labour to conceal the sexual tastes of the Ancients. Many translators labour still, though now to conceal the ancient taste for mood-altering substances. Even otherwise, a translation will not carry over the whole of the original meaning, but will impose on a reader the translator’s view of its meaning. Compare, if you like, my translation of Thucydides with other translations. The basic idea is the same: the choice of words and the balance and even the structure of the statement are different.

This brings me to my third main reason – and here I turn to Latin. If you take individual stories from Homer and put them into translation, they can sometimes work almost as well as they do in Greek. The story of Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus is wonderful in itself. So too the story of how Achilles tied the dead body of Hector to his chariot and dragged it about the walls of Troy, and how Priam came out to buy back the body. These stories thrilled me as a child, or moved me to tears. So they can in in any good retelling.

If we turn, however, to Vergil, any translation seems to involve a perceptible loss of impact. Last Easter, I taught some revision courses for A Level Classical Civilisation. One of the modules I covered was Vergil’s The Aeneid in several good English translations. Except for John Dryden’s version, this was my first experience of Vergil in translation. I have said that the translations used were good. They were made by men whose Latin was far better than mine. Compared with the original, however, they were disappointingly flat. Again and again, I would skim the text, looking for the equivalent of some line or phrase that had stamped itself into my memory. Again and again, I was disappointed by the mediocrity of what I made the students read aloud to me.

Where Vergil is concerned, the main hero of the epic is not so much Aeneas as the poet himself and his command of language. Vergil was doing things with Latin that no one before him had thought possible and that no one after him was able to do so well. Once you have acquired the necessary skills, you read and you marvel. You then look in vain for the marvel to be communicated in your own language.

Take the opening of Book II of The Aeneid:

Conticuere omnes intentique ora tenebant.
Inde toro pater Aeneas sic orsus ab alto:
Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai….

The room fell silent, all eyes on Aeneas,
Who from his high couch now began to speak:
“My Queen, you are asking me to relive
Unspeakable sorrow, to recall how the Greeks
Pulled down Troy, that tragic realm
With all its riches….

I am quoting from Stanley Lombardo’s translation, published in 2005. I would do it differently, though probably not much better. But, whether I do it myself, or look for any other translation, there is nothing carried across of the crisp and almost peremptory opening line, or the massive grandeur of what follows. For the Romans, Vergil stood at the summit of their poetry. All through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he was the unapproachable Master. For Tennyson, he was “wielder of the stateliest measure ever moulded by the lips of man.”

You read any English translation of Vergil, and tell me honestly that this is the impression you carry away. To appreciate Vergil, and much else of the ancient writers, even an imperfect understanding of the original is better than the best translation.

I come now to my final point, and I do this bearing in mind that I am addressing a broadly political gathering. When, at the age of seventeen, I came out as a libertarian, I thought of libertarianism in wholly local terms. Let me explain this with a motoring analogy. You find that your car has a flat tire. You blow the tire up, or replace it. You give no particular thought to the engine or the transmission or the brakes. You do not consider whether the underbody may be rusted through. You have a specific problem. You fix it. You turn the key in the lock, and you drive away. I believed that something should be done about inflation and taxes, and that the trade unions should be brought to a better understanding of their members’ interests. I also wanted people to be left alone in their enjoyment of drugs, pornography and kinky sex. If you had asked me for a libertarian view on music, or a libertarian view on culture in general, I might have suggested it should not be subsidised by the State. Otherwise, I would have thought your question as irrelevant as asking for a libertarian view on the speed of light.

I would have been wrong then, and my dear – and still much-lamented – friend Chris R. Tame soon brought me to a fuller understanding of the interdependence of politics and culture. I would most certainly be wrong now. In the 1970s, the Labour politicians who mattered shared my assumption that culture was and ought to be autonomous of arguments over politics and economics. Since then, we have suffered the emergence of a new-leftist or “Gramscian” hegemony that works for a transformation of political and economic management though the prior capture and transformation of culture.

I will not labour this point. I made it well enough last year, when I spoke about the failures of Margaret Thatcher. Nor am I the only person in this room who will talk about it this weekend. What I will say, though, is this:

If you look at the wider culture of England and America and those places that look to England and America, we are wholly outclassed. The Gramscian leftists have the critical mass. They control the institutions. They control the funding. Whatever we produce is, to adopt an argument from the Monophysites, as a drop of honey dissolved in the sea.

Where classical studies are concerned, we are in a better position both to fight and to win. There are fewer scholars than in the social sciences. There is less funding for the scholars to be bought and corrupted. Any leftist, no matter how plodding and illiterate, can put on the appropriate gown, and call himself a Professor of English Literature or of Sociology. To be the humblest teacher of Latin or Greek, and perhaps Ancient History too, requires linguistic and often technical skills that the present – and generally degraded – generation of leftists do not seem inclined or able to acquire.

Above all, the subject matter is non-leftist, where not anti-leftist. I tell you plainly that the ancient view of sexual relationships do not fit into our binary conceptions. At the same time, any attempt at “queering the classics” must proceed only on a systematic and, I have no doubt, a deliberate misreading of the surviving evidence. As for the feminists, their only contribution can be to denounce. When it comes to advancing a leftist agenda, the surviving classics are wholly intractable. You can deconstruct them as much as you like. What remains is a clear-sighted, if often bleak, view of the world and of the human condition within the world.

I now reach my conclusion. Again, I refer to an earlier speech I made to this gathering – in 2008, when I took issue with the Polanyi-Finley claims that modern economic analysis cannot be applied to the Ancient World. If someone tells us that the Aztecs were nature-loving vegetarians, he is lying or negligently spreading the lies of others. But who cares about the Aztecs? Who, for that matter, really cares about the Ancient Egyptians or the Assyrians? They are exotic and alien, and whatever precedents they may have set have no binding force on us. The Greeks and Romans are different. Despite the virtual disappearance of Greek and Latin from the state sector in education, The Ancients have as much command over the modern imagination as they ever had. So far as we can reach out, and make the Classics as much ours as certain areas of Economics now are and have always been, so far we shall be stepping into a battle that we have a good chance of winning, and that will be a significant step towards final victory in the culture war in which we have, since the 1960s, found ourselves, and found ourselves so far on the losing side.

All this being said, I thank you, as ever, for your kind indulgence, and give the floor to others.

Sean Gabb is the author of more than forty books and around a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals in Britain, America, Europe and Asia. From 2006 to 2017 he was Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He is currently an Honorary Vice-President of the Ludwig von Mises Centre UK, and is Director of the School of Ancient Studies. He lives in Kent with his wife and daughter.

  • Not only does the article radiate ‘higher love’ (ἀγάπη) in the best classical sense by the author of his favourite subject, it contains a first-rate definition of the totalitarian ideology which has decimated the cultural landscape of the West in the post-WWII period, rendering the ethereal achievements of Vergil a perpetual absence in the education of our students: “Since then [the 70s], we have suffered the emergence of a new-leftist or ‘Gramscian’ hegemony that works for a transformation of political and economic management though the prior capture and transformation of culture”. How impoverished we all are. If you don’t have the advantage of knowing the classics, how can you possibly satisfy the timeless Greek injunction to … “γνῶθι σεαυτόν”? Carl Kieck

Latest from Culture

Go to Top

Thanks for visiting our site! Stay in touch with us by subscribing to our newsletter. You will receive all of our latest updates, articles, endorsements, interviews, and videos direct to your inbox. 

Send this to a friend