That spectre of the end of classical learning is one that is probably familiar to most readers. With some trepidation, I want to try to get a new angle on the question, to go beyond the usual gloomy clichés, and (with the help in part of Terence Rattigan) to take a fresh look at what we think we mean by 'Classics'. But let us first remember what recent discussion of the current state of Classics, never mind their future, tends to stress.
The basic message is a gloomy one. Literally hundreds of books, articles, reviews, and op-ed pieces have appeared over the last ten years or so, with titles like 'The Classics in Crisis', 'Can the Classics Survive?', 'Who Killed Homer?', 'Why America Needs the Classical Tradition', and 'Saving the Classics from Conservatives'. All of these in their different ways lament the death of Classics, conduct an autopsy upon them, or recommend some rather belated life-saving procedures. The litany of gloomy facts and figures paraded in these contributions, and their tone, are in broad terms familiar. Often headlined is the decline of Latin and Greek languages in schools (in recent years fewer than three hundred young people in England and Wales have taken classical Greek as one of their A' levels, and those overwhelmingly from independent schools) or the closure of university departments of Classics all over the world.
In fact, in November 2011 an international petition was formally launched to ask UNESCO — in the light of the increasing marginalisation of the classical languages — to declare Latin and Greek a specially protected 'intangible heritage of humanity'. I am not sure what I think about treating classical languages as if they were an endangered species or a precious ruin, but I am fairly confident that it was not great politics, at this moment, to suggest (as the petition does) that their preservation should be made the particular responsibility of the Italian government (as if it did not have rather too much on its plate already).
What has caused this decline attracts a variety of answers. Some argue that the supporters of Classics have only themselves to blame. It's a 'Dead White European Male' sort of subject that has far too often acted as a convenient alibi for a whole range of cultural and political sins, from imperialism and Eurocentrism to social snobbery and the most mind-numbing form of pedagogy. The British dominated their Empire with Cicero in hand; Goebbels chose Greek tragedy for his bedside reading (and, if you believe Martin Bernal, he would have found confirmation for his crazed views of Aryan supremacy in the traditions of classical scholarship itself). Chickens have come home to roost, it is sometimes said, for Classics in the new multicultural world. Not to mention the fact that, in England at least, the learning of the Latin language was for generations the gatekeeper of rigid class privilege and social exclusivity — albeit at a terrible cost to its apparent beneficiaries. It gave you access to a narrow elite, that's for sure, but committed your childhood years to the narrowest educational curriculum imaginable: nothing much else but translation into and out of Latin (and when you got a little older, Greek). In the movie of The Browning Version we find Crocker-Harris making his pupils translate into Latin the first four stanzas of Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott': an exercise as pointless as it was prestigious.
Others claim that Classics have failed within the politics of the modern academy. If you were to follow Victor Davis Hanson and his colleagues, you would in fact lay the blame for the general demise of the subject firmly at the door of careerist Ivy League, and no doubt Oxbridge, academics who (in the pursuit of large salaries and long sabbaticals) have wandered down some self-regarding postmodern cul-de-sac, when ordinary students and the 'folks out there' really want to hear about Homer and the other great paragons of Greece and Rome. To which the retort is: maybe it is precisely because professors of Classics have refused to engage with modern theory and persisted in viewing the ancient world through rose-tinted spectacles (as if it was a culture to be admired) that the subject is in imminent danger of turning into an antiquarian backwater.
The voices insisting that we should be facing up to the squalor, the slavery, the misogyny, the irrationality of antiquity go back through Moses Finley and the Irish poet and classicist Louis MacNeice to my own illustrious nineteenth-century predecessor in Cambridge, Jane Ellen Harrison. When I should be remembering the glories of Greece, wrote MacNeice memorably in his Autumn Journal,
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys ...
... the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
Of course, not everything written on the current state of Classics is irredeemably gloomy. Some breezy optimists point, for example, to a new interest among the public in the ancient world. Witness the success of movies like Gladiator or Stacy Schiff's biography of Cleopatra or the continuing stream of literary tributes to, or engagements with, Classics (including at least three major fictional or poetic re-workings of Homer in 2011 alone). And against the baleful examples of Goebbels and British imperialism, you can parade a repertoire of more radical heroes of the classical tradition — as varied as Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx (whose Ph.D. thesis was on classical philosophy), and the American Founding Fathers.
As for Latin itself, a range of different stories is told in the post-Crocker-Harris world. Where the teaching of the language has not been abolished altogether, you are now likely to read of how Latin, freed of the old-fashioned grammar grind, can make a huge impact on intellectual and linguistic development: whether that's based on the studies from schools in the Bronx that claim to show that learning Latin increases children's IQ scores or on those common assertions that knowing Latin is a tremendous help if you want to learn French, Italian, Spanish, or any other Indo-European language you care to name.
But there's a problem here. Some of the optimists' objections do hit home. The classical past has never been co-opted by only one political tendency: Classics have probably legitimated as many revolutions as they have legitimated conservative dictatorships (and Aeschylus has over the years been performed both as Nazi propaganda and to support liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa). Some of the counterclaims, though, are plain misleading. The success of Gladiator was absolutely nothing new; think of Ben-Hur, Spartacus, The Sign of the Cross, and any number of versions of The Last Days of Pompeii right back almost to the very beginning of cinema. Nor is the success of popular classical biography; countless people of my generation were introduced to antiquity through the biographies by Michael Grant, now largely forgotten.
And I am afraid that many of the arguments now used to justify the learning of Latin are perilous too. Latin certainly teaches you about language and how language works, and the fact that it is 'dead' can be quite liberating: I am forever grateful that you don't have to learn how to ask for a pizza in it, or the directions to the cathedral. But honestly, if you want to learn French, you would frankly be better off doing that, not starting with some other language first. There is really only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it.
From Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard. Copyright 2013 by Mary Beard. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.