The head of MI5 is in good company when he admits to being inspired by the classical stories, says Harry Mount.
By Harry Mount
Published: 8:14AM BST 05 Oct 2010
'Satura quidem tota nostra est" – "At least satire is completely ours," said the Roman writer Quintilian, acknowledging that the Greeks were the original geniuses behind classical comedy, tragedy and architecture.
It's the Romans, though, who wipe the floor with the Greeks when it comes to modern adaptations.
Just to name a few: Robert Harris and his thrillers based on the life of Cicero; Caroline Lawrence with her Roman Mysteries, a hit on the children's channel CBBC; or Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 children's book, The Eagle of the Ninth, revived in two Hollywood films this year (Centurion and the soon-to-be-released The Eagle).
And the king – or emperor – of them all is Robert Graves's I, Claudius, a bestseller when it came out in 1934, and another hit in 1976, when the BBC adapted it for television.
It is I, Claudius that motivated Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, to study classics at Bristol University. In an interview this week he described how, at the age of 12, he'd loved the intrigue and the characters of Graves's book. From there, he moved on to works in the original Latin – in particular to the historian Suetonius and the poet Juvenal. He also confessed that he's a fan of the Russell Crowe blockbuster Gladiator, even if he was a little unsure about its historical accuracy.
I'm right with Mr Evans there; not about Gladiator itself, which I found a bit stodgy on the old sword and sandal Quo Vadis lines – you half-expected the late, great Tony Curtis to pop up with a "Yonda is da castle of mah fadda, da emprah." No, I'm with him when it comes to liking fast and loose adaptations of Roman epics and history.
Knowing Latin is a fine thing; and what a thrill it is to read the great works of classical literature in the original language. But I also love the extraordinary adaptability of classics, from highbrow to middlebrow, and right down to the lowest of lowbrow. Only this year, there have been two heroically trashy classical adaptations: Clash of the Titans, the story of Perseus and Medea, with Ralph Fiennes playing Hades, channelling Leonard Rossiter in Rising Damp; and Spartacus: Blood and Sand, an American series about the Roman revolutionary slave, which really should have been called Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Nubile Priestesses Whipping their Togas Off.
The power of Roman history, literature and myth is so great that it will always go on being reinvented. And that reinvention didn't just start in the Thirties with I, Claudius.
Because classics was the staple diet of British and European education from around 1100AD until about 1900, it was classical thought that provided the majority of storylines in Western European literature, as well as much of the subject matter in Renaissance art and architecture. Throw in Christianity – largely disseminated through Europe in Greek and Latin – and you see how the writing mind of the Western world was, until recently, a classical mind.
Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare that he had "small Latin and less Greek", but the point was that even a man of humble origins brought up in rural Warwickshire knew a little of both – pretty unlikely these days.
Shakespeare was only one of the great European writers – including Dryden, Pope, Milton, Dante and Samuel Johnson – to use classical stories as their raw material, refashioned in new and brilliant, and pretty fast and loose, ways.
It's not just the usual suspects – Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus – that were borrowed from the ancient world. The fountain of classical tales was so powerful that even a play such as The Comedy of Errors was rooted in a – now obscure – Roman comedy, The Twin Brothers by Plautus.
The predominant influence of the classical world on English writers has only recently been extinguished. P G Wodehouse won a senior classical scholarship to Dulwich College in 1897, and packed his books with Latin references. In The Girl on the Boat (1922), Wodehouse gives a Latin lesson that wouldn't disgrace the most fastidious of classics masters: "Nothing is more curious than the myriad ways in which the reaction from an unfortunate love affair manifests itself in various men…
"Archilochum, for instance, according to the Roman writer, proprio rabies armavit iambo. It is no good pretending out of politeness that you know what that means, so I will translate.
"Rabies – his grouch – armavit – armed – Archilochum – Armilochus – iambo – with the iambic – proprio – his own invention."
"In other words, when the poet Archilochus was handed his hat by the lady of his affections, he consoled himself by going off and writing satirical verse about her in a new metre, which he had thought up immediately after leaving the house."
Wodehouse, as ever, hits the nail on the proverbial. Whether you're talking about men who have been chucked, like Archilochus, weak men (Claudius), debauched men (Caligula) or powerful men (Julius Caesar), the Romans got there first, and gave modern writers an archetype to play with.
It's no wonder that the head of MI5 also said that he had seen lots of security chiefs like Sulla (a Roman general known for his cunning), in despotic regimes across the world. Republican and Imperial Rome was seething with characters jockeying for position in the ancient city's complex military and political hierarchies.
So, want a parallel for Louise Shackleton, David Miliband's wife, incensed at her brother-in-law's decision to enter the Labour leadership race? Well, you could do worse than Livia, the ambitious power behind several imperial thrones; Augustus's third wife, mother to Tiberius, grandmother to Claudius, great-great grandmother to Nero.
Margaret Thatcher has often been compared to the British rebel queen Boadicea. And David Cameron could be any one of a dozen confident emperors, born to the purple (the colour of the toga worn by emperors, consuls and generals). Throw in the power of myth – mostly, admittedly, Greek myth, adapted by the Romans – and you can see how classical tales are so easily revived, and so memorable, particularly to the minds of children.
The battles between the gods, the Trojan horse, the endless wanderings of Odysseus, the hell of King Midas turning everything he touches to gold, the 12 Labours of Hercules… Ancient myths are beautifully structured stories. They follow peaks and troughs, just like the plot arcs of the Hollywood scriptwriter ruthlessly trained in the art of story-telling.
It means classical stories jump effortlessly from papyrus to cinema screen. And it also means that those stories have kept on jumping to cinema screens, even as the study of classics has declined in recent years (although the number of state schools doing Latin has doubled in the past decade).
Roman history and literature can survive the unthinking attacks of former education secretaries Ed Balls ("Very few businesses are asking for Latin") and Charles Clarke ("Education for education's sake is a bit dodgy"). Everyone gets Rome, because the Romans got everywhere.
Roman history is far enough in the past that you can play around with it for your own modern purposes; you can recycle it into good or trashy stuff without straining the original sources too much. But it's also recent enough that you can see the direct Roman influence on so many things – on our politics, architecture, literature and, most of all, the English language – while still being astounded by the savagery that accompanied all that civilisation.
Tell a child about lions tearing bleeding chunks out of gladiator slaves, and you've got them hooked on Rome for life. They don't need to know the pluperfect subjunctive second person plural of amo to appreciate the thrills of the Colosseum. Nice, though, if they can learn that, too.