History Today May 2010
Tom Holland assesses the state of the studies of ancient civilisations, societies and the Classics.
Like a Roman of the Dark Ages, camped out amid the ruins of a vanished order and listening to the occasional crash of falling masonry, historians of the ancient world have long had to live with a consciousness of decline and fall. Time was when a knowledge of antiquity served as the very marker of the nation’s educational elite – but no longer. Over the past half century, the study of Latin and Greek and of the cultures that spoke them has suffered a rout on the scale of Valens at Adrianople. A discipline that once enjoyed an olympian status in the curriculum has been left struggling for survival. Only three years ago the A-Level in ancient history barely survived an attempt by the exam boards to snuff it out altogether, while in the state system, where the carnage has been particularly severe, a bare 15 per cent of secondary schools currently permit students to study the languages or the civilisations of antiquity.
Nil desperandum, however. Ancient historians may resent what generations of educationalists have inflicted on their beloved discipline, but they can still, despite it all, maintain a certain imperious strut. If secondary education currently has something of the look of fifth century Gaul about it, then there remains no lack of excellent classics departments in the universities to play the role of Constantinople. The study of the ancient world, by its very nature, has a grander tradition of scholarship on which to draw than any other field of history – nor is it one that classicists are minded to squander. Achievements such as Simon Hornblower’s recently completed commentary on Thucydides or Amélie Khurt’s compendium of sources for the Achaemenid Empire are as learned and encompassing as anything to have emerged from a 19th-century German university: if not quite ‘possessions for all time’, then very nearly so. Yet while exacting rigour has always been one characteristic of the study of ancient civilisation, then so too, and not always exclusively, has been a relish for daring and originality. The discipline that inspired Freud and J.G. Frazer has still not lost its capacity to turn up surprises. Striking evidence of this is provided by James Davidson’s book, The Greeks and Greek Love (Phoenix, 2008), which pools everything from archaeological minutiae to reception theory to provide, in the words of its own subtitle, ‘a radical reappraisal of homosexuality in ancient Greece.’ There is no topic so done to death, it seems, that it cannot suddenly be made to seem startling and strange.
Or indeed, contemporary. That the ancient world can hold a mirror up to the present has been asserted ever since the time of Machiavelli, when classics as an educational discipline had its birth. Scholars nowadays are more likely to cringe before the notion than to welcome it with open arms; but some very great ones have made play with it, nevertheless. In the late 1930s, Ronald Syme saw in the rise to power of Augustus and his henchmen a ‘Roman revolution’, a prefiguring of the age of Hitler and Stalin; in 1990, Peter Green freely admitted, in the introduction to From Alexander to Actium (University of California Press), his magisterial survey of the Hellenistic era, just how frequently he had been struck while writing it ‘by an overpowering sense of déjà vu’. Similarly, it is hard not to see in the recent mania for books devoted to the collapse of the Roman Empire a response to something more than just scholarly fashion. As the age of Western dominance draws to its seeming close, so it may be that Peter Heather and Bryan Ward-Perkins are catering to a fascination with something more than just ancient history.
Unsurprisingly, however, it has been in the field of popular culture that parallels between the classical and the contemporary have been most flamboyantly drawn. No other period of history better approximates to the condition of science fiction, offering to a mass audience the sense of a world that is both utterly strange and eerily familiar; and it is this, even as the formal study of antiquity has declined, which has enabled ancient history consistently to punch above its weight. It is telling that Gladiator (2000), the film which served to spark a renewed fascination with swords and sandals on the part of the cinema-going, TV-watching, computer game-playing public, should have been directed by Ridley Scott, whose masterpiece was the futuristic thriller Blade Runner (1982). Perhaps it is not wholly a paradox that the faster the world appears to change, the more fascinated by the ancient world people seem to become. Any decade that begins with the promise of not one but two films devoted to the Ninth Legion – hardly the most familiar of topics, even among classicists – surely bodes well for the future profile of antiquity.
How will historians of the ancient world capitalise upon this? Once, perhaps, such a question would have prompted a certain patrician curling of the lip; but classicists, after decades of fighting the corner for their discipline, are now too battle-hardened and savvy simply to hug their expertise to themselves. If the past decade was notable for any one trend, it was the determination of serious-minded scholars of antiquity to communicate their passion with non-specialists. Some of these – Adrian Goldsworthy, Bettany Hughes – did so outside the university system. Others – Robin Lane-Fox, Paul Cartledge – were giants of Oxford and Cambridge respectively. Most ubiquitous of all was Mary Beard, who in her ability to make a complex subject readily accessible, not to mention her aptitude for controversy, became the closest that ancient history has to a Richard Dawkins.
Particularly significant, perhaps, was her success as a blogger for the Times Literary Supplement. The ancients, by and large, tended to shrink from technological innovation: it was the fate of a Roman who invented shatterproof glass, for instance, to be executed by an outraged Tiberius, lest the bottom drop out of the market. The high profile of Beard’s blog, however, not to mention the extraordinary range and quality of websites devoted to the ancient world across the Internet, suggests that Tiberius’s example is one that those who study classical history have no intention of adopting. After all, as they are better qualified to appreciate than anyone, fugit irreparabile tempus – ‘no one can ever stop time in its tracks’.