Class Dismissed

Entering the ivory tower to investigate the ‘class’ in ‘Classics’.

Southwark Fair, 1734. William Hogarth. The sign on the clock tower reads 'The Siege of Troy is Here'. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Classics have never escaped the tyranny of their name. Originally used by the Roman antiquarian Aulus Gellius to refer to the best grouping (classis) of Latin authors, ‘classical’ literature has always flaunted supreme confidence in its canon. While most societies unashamedly classify their writers, it is the curious legacy of the Greco-Roman Classics to have retained pre-eminence long after those cultures vanished. Their path from antiquity to the present has been carefully paved and continually policed by the dominant powers of the day. For more than a millennium, Latin was the incorruptible gatekeeper to elite knowledge and professional success: in the Church, the universities and the establishment at large. Combine that language’s notorious complexity with the absence of native speakers, and a formal education becomes the only route in and up. 

Histories of the Classics in Britain typically pursue one of two courses, either charting the progress of ivory-towered scholarship, or combing English literature for explicit engagement with classical models. As suggested by its loaded title, A People’s History of Classics seeks instead to unearth engagement with Greek and Roman culture in other fields, placing focus on the ‘social class of the agents involved’. Although the book is limited to the curiously canonical period 1689 to 1939, the scope of its material is massive and unwieldy. It ranges through poetry, drama, memoirs, art, architecture, photography and political activism to unearth the classical affairs of dissenting ministers, renegade hacks and eccentric outcasts, of miners, potters, cobblers and criminals.

Twenty-five chapters have been stitched together by two professional classicists, both hardy labourers in the amorphous discipline of ‘classical reception’. Among the colourful vignettes they sketch we see the atheistic radical Richard Carlile weaponising classical mythology to avenge the Peterloo Massacre. We find David Lloyd-George using the hoary legend of Caratacus to recruit waves of Welsh soldiers. We watch Joseph Wright, the arch-autodidact philologist, make his way from bobbin doffing in Bradford to tutoring Tolkien at Oxford. 

The volume of fresh material is prodigious. Yet, for all its verve and variety, the book struggles to be more than the sum of its parts. Its temporal range rests on the unsubstantiated claims that the term ‘Classics’ gained a new currency in the late 17th century and that attitudes to a classical education somehow shifted. Earlier Englishmen, such as Roger Ascham, John Brinsley and John Milton, may fairly wonder why. While the effort required would be titanic, the book fails to take proper stock of more influential media: newspapers, popular prints, introductory textbooks, serialised fiction. And while The Penny Magazine (1832-45) and Cassell’s Popular Educator (1852-5) find their rightful place, the 19th century turned out a dizzying array of books expediting entry into the mysteries of the Classics.

More problematically, A People’s History finds no space for grammar schools, literally founded to propagate Latin. And yet these schools – many of which exempted poor locals from paying any fees – provided for centuries the most successful conduit for large-scale access to the classical world. Wade through centuries of Oxbridge scholars and it will soon become clear how many came from a background that boded little hope – before the grammar school. When, in 1855, Robert Potts summarised the endowments available in British schools for poor pupils he could fill more than 500 pages.

It is unusual that a book so concerned with class gives short shrift to one of the most remarkable tales of social mobility. The rise of Richard Porson – from a labourer’s cottage in rural Norfolk to the Regius Chair of Greek at Cambridge – is an astounding case of individual merit winning a first-rate education through local philanthropy. And yet one of Britain’s most important classicists – who battled financial insecurity, alcoholism and being wheeled out in high society like a performing monkey – wins only three pages.

This is an ambitious, if awkward book. Its rich and varied pickings, however haphazardly arranged, have much to teach and inspire. Both authors reveal a quixotic enthusiasm for the socialist and communist ‘heroes’ who crop up in their researches. While despairing at ‘class-ridden’ Britain, neither Stead nor Hall finds space to confess or critique the advantages of a private school education. The pair close by declaring that their book ‘alters our understanding of the history of Classics irrevocably’. Unless this is merely an authorial admission, readers will not be sure exactly how.

A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689-1939
Edited by Edith Hall and Henry Stead
Routledge 592pp £29.99

David Butterfield is Senior Lecturer in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge.