Fifty years ago, Latin and Greek learning was expected as part of a gentleman’s education. Harold Macmillan could claim that he played the Greece to America’s Rome and expect this to instantly resonate among the public. But as Britain’s imperial power declined, the Classics diminished too. They were seen as an outmoded relic, an embarrassing tool that had once been used to justify imperial conquer. Fast forward to the early twenty-first century, and while classical education has indeed diminished, there remains a stubborn core of Latin and Greek learning, though mostly confined to the well-to-do public schools. More to the point, classical literature and history is thriving. In the last decade, we’ve had the blockbusters Gladiator, Troy, 300 and Clash of The Titans. It speaks of a continuing public interest in the myths and legends of ancient civilisation, so much that pretty much any sporting match has someone yelling “Spartans! What is your profession?”
How have Classics survived then? How have they thrown off their stuffy straitjacket? The first, most obvious point is accessibility. Before the Second World War, no edition for the purpose of general reading existed. Anyone who’s ever used a literal translation to help with a set text will understand how a dry translation can utterly sap interest. E.V Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey, the first book published from the now-Juggernaut that is Penguin Classics, sold over three million copies. Since then, major translations of the Classics have placed readability and strong, direct language over literality. Impressive translations have been done following Rieu by Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage, Robert Fagles and Christopher Logue and have been awarded prestigious awards far and wide, finding themselves on the wish-lists of critics as well as the general public. When we hear Aphrodite insulting another goddess’ “gobstopper nipples” it’s a far cry from Homeric epithets and hexameters but it captures the capriciousness and pettiness of the Olympic Gods in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in Mean Girls. Perfect for our modern age.
Instead of Cicero’s law speeches of the Roman Republic, or Demosthenes’ rhetoric about the democratic Athenian state, what are most popular at the moment are the Greek myths of fighting and derring-do. They capture not only us, surrounded in a world that increasingly seems unsafe, but also, as the semi-divine hero, epitomise the people we wish we could be. It is no accident that Antigone, the Greek tragic play about the conflict of identity between family and the state, has been staged multiple times in a Northern Ireland riven by sectarianism.
Far from being the one-dimensional symbols used in other mythologies, the characters articulate fully their despair of a world run seemingly by uncaring Gods. Oedipus finds out, horrifically, the limits of rational scientific enquiry can only extend so far. The Iliad shows the brutal inevitability of death in war; men do not die valiantly, shouting pithy one-liners, but screaming as their prestigious background and heroism is snuffed out, a feature more than relevant today as British soldiers die in wars they, like Homer’ s Thersites, question the value of.
Such is the breadth and depth of classical literature, a span of time that covers over a millennium, that many other problems faced by classical writers have their parallels in the modern age. Euripides’ Medea speaks of the problems of an immigrant, brought to a land by a husband who now disowns her, being alone. Petronius in the Satyricon shows the vacuous dinner party of the Roman noveau riche who’s bragging and insolence is a constant theme of satire even today (see Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party). Juvenal complains of a political class that has grown fat and corrupt; in a time where the expenses scandal still rumbles on, it is impossible not to feel some sort of similarity. Shorn of their imperial purposes, the classics still have much to offer a British culture, in their mix of hedonism, love, politics, satire, and above all, their versatility.