The head of MI5 had admitted he was attracted by "the intrigue" of I, Claudius as a boy as he disclosed the details of his classical education background.
By Andy Bloxham
Published: 6:30AM BST 04 Oct 2010
Jonathan Evans, director-general of the Security Service, went on to study classics at Bristol University where he said his intellect was further stimulated by the bawdier satires of Juvenal and Aristophanes.
He said: "I really ought to say Homer, Virgil and Sophocles but actually I preferred the less elevated writers."
He criticised state schools for not teaching more Latin and Greek and said learning the ancient languages developed the kinds of skills needed by would-be spies. Mr Evans, 51, is the grandson of a London bus driver who attended Sevenoaks School, Kent, before assuming one of the most important security roles in the country. His enthusiasm for the classics does not entirely square with his reputation as a moderniser who rose through the ranks of the security service on merit. He rarely gives interviews but offered intriguing insights into his personality in a conversation with Martha Kearney, the broadcaster, for Iris magazine. He recalled reading Robert Graves' novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God as a 12-year-old schoolboy and said: "I loved the intrigue and the characters." He said: "My housemaster at school spoke good Latin because he had spent some time as a novice monk and had studied at the Vatican where he had used Latin as an everyday working language." He moved on to Suetonius, who wrote biographies of 12 Roman rulers and, after rejecting the idea of studying English, he decided to read classics at Bristol and became one of only three undergraduates on the new course. After university, Mr Evans joined MI5 and eventually succeeded Baroness Manningham-Buller as director-general in April 2007. He had been in charge of monitoring al-Qaeda and its sympathisers in Britain since 2001 and took on that role only 10 days before the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Despite his love of the classics, he said the Greek which he had picked up quickly at university had now mostly deserted him "through non-use". Knowledge of the ancient world can helpfully inform our understanding of current events, he said. "I think that Sulla [a Roman general renowned for his cunning] would have found a soulmate in some of the security chiefs I have met from despotic regimes elsewhere in the world." Juvenal, it is interesting to note, was concerned with the idea of state security and how to ensure it is properly policed, during which he wrote the phrase "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes" or "Who watches the watchmen?".
He also disclosed, rather surprisingly perhaps, that he is a fan of the Russell Crowe blockbuster film Gladiator but added: "I am not sure about its historical accuracy." Mr Evans also said the classics were a good grounding for any would-be MI5 officer, saying the service required people with "good intellectual skills, the ability to spot connections, and the ability to absorb and assess a variety of material" which were "natural ground for a classicist". It was "wrong to deny most of our children" the opportunity to study the ancient world, he added.
MI5, however, remains a bastion for classics scholars, Mr Evans said, disclosing that he once received an important memo from a superior in "perfect ancient Greek". He added that his current private secretary speaks Greek and Latin, as did the man who gave him his first job in MI5 and encouraged more state schools to offer the classics. He said: "It is important. Not only is it interesting and fun in its own right, but the classical world is so central to the development of western civilisation that it is wrong to deny most of our children access to it. "My own children had the opportunity to study classics at state schools and really benefited from it.
"Classics should not be an elitist ghetto."
Latin and Greek have cropped up regularly in spying, both in fiction and reality: in the Bond film The World Is Not Enough, 007 claims the same phrase in Latin (Orbis non sufficit) as his family motto; while Donald Maclean, who spied for the Soviet Union after being recruited at Cambridge, held the codename Homer.
Earlier this year, Boris Johnson, the London mayor, pleaded for the preservation of the teaching of Latin in state schools, although few ministers have appeared keen to promote the subject. As Schools Minister, Ed Balls said: "Very few businesses are asking for it." While the former Education Secretary Charles Clarke said: "Education for education's sake is a bit dodgy."
According to research from the University of Cambridge released in August, 692 state schools currently offer Latin. That represents about one in five state schools compared to the roughly three in five independent schools which teach it.
Jonathan Evans was speaking to Martha Kearney for Iris magazine, which promotes the teaching of Latin in state schools. The interview features in the autumn edition which is currently in distribution.
MI5 chief on ancient authors
Suetonius - Roman historian born c.70AD - wrote The Lives of the Twelve Caesars - "scurrilous, entertaining and very human"
Juvenal - Roman poet born c.100AD - wrote the Satires - "scathing satire - an original grumpy old man"
Aristophanes - Greek playwright born c.446BC - "less elevated"