Victorian Hellenism Overviews - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Frank M. Turner (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Victorians and Greek Antiquity," in The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain, Yale University Press, 1981, pp. 1-14.

[In the following essay, Turner illustrates the pervasiveness of the Victorian fascination with classical Greece. Briefly tracing the history and breadth of that fascination, he focuses primarily on the various concepts of Greece that became most influential in British culture and stresses four concepts of history that undergirded the fascination.]

Throughout much of the European intellectual community of the last century there flourished an immense fascination for ancient Greece. From Goethe, Hegel, and Shelley to Kierkegaard, Arnold, Grote, and Fouillée, through Nietzsche, Fustel de Coulanges, and Frazer, the list of poets, critics, philosophers, historians, and scholars concerned at one time or another with the Greeks reads like an index of the major contributors to the intellectual life of the age. The results of their probing of the Greek experience were impressive on every score. Greek revival buildings came to dot the rural and urban landscape from Ireland to Russia. Ancient temples, theaters, marketplaces, palaces, and tombs buried for over two millennia were unearthed and their remains transported hundreds of miles to the west for display in museums designed to resemble Greek temples and dedicated to the modern muses of popular enlightenment. Whole fields of learning, scholarship, and teaching about Greek antiquity entered the life of European universities for the first time. New scholarly societies and schools for archaeology were established. In libraries and on private bookshelves there slowly accumulated a vast array of books and journals concerned with Greece. And in the learned imagination of Europe the ancient Hellenic achievement assumed a vitality and sense of relevance previously entertained in the minds of only a fewscore Renaissance humanists.

The extensive nineteenth-century concern with ancient Greece was essentially a novel factor in modern European intellectual life. Although Greek philosophy had influenced some Renaissance writers and Aristotelian categories still informed science and logic, until the late eighteenth century most educated Europeans regarded their culture as Roman and Christian in origin, with merely peripheral roots in Greece. Europe had a Roman past, and European civilization was congruent with Latin Christendom. Caesar had recorded the conquest of Gaul and the invasion of Britain, and Tacitus had described the life of the ancient Germans. Roman law and Roman literature, as well as the Latin church fathers, had dominated Europe's cultural experience. Roman walls, forts, bridges, baths, theaters, roads, and aqueducts could be found in Britain and across the Continent. In contrast to this visible, tangible, and pervasive Roman influence, the Greeks simply had not directly touched the life of Western Europe. Even the broad Enlightenment appeal to antiquity had concentrated on Rome.

Greek antiquity began to absorb the interest of Europeans in the second half of the eighteenth century when the values, ideas, and institutions inherited from the Roman and Christian past became problematical. The search for new cultural roots and alternative cultural patterns developed out of the need to understand and articulate the disruptive political, social, and intellectual experience that Europeans confronted in the wake of the Enlightenment and of revolution. In some cases the appeal to Greece served to foster further change, in others to combat the forces of disruption. In both cases the turn to Greece on the part of scholars, critics, and literary figures constituted an attempt to discern prescriptive signposts for the present age in the European past that predated Rome and Christianity. These writers were, of course, actually erecting new landmarks.

Greek antiquity first assumed major intellectual significance in Germany. There, from approximately 1750 on, poets, literary critics, and historians of art looked to ancient Greece as an imaginative landscape on which they might discover artistic patterns, ethical values, and concepts of human nature that could displace those of Christianity and ossified French classicism.1 The discontinuity between Greece and modern Christian Europe rendered the Greek experience all the more valuable and useful. Greece could represent almost any value or outlook that a writer wished to ascribe to it. The moral variety in Greek culture, which was fully recognized at the time, further contributed to the breadth of its perceived relevance, as in the works of Winckelmann, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, and others. Writers used the values they discerned in the Greek experience either to throw off the asceticism of the Christian tradition and the restraints of French academic rules or to find an alternative secular confirmation for modes of taste and moral experience that were normally buttressed by Christianity or modern aesthetics. Things Greek thus contributed both to the devising of new myths and to the sustaining of old values in novel guises.

Contemporary with this well-known German literary activity there arose the less familiar but ultimately perhaps more important early historical and philological scholarship of the University of Göttingen. From it developed the major critical approaches to both pagan and Christian antiquity that characterized German theological and historical endeavors for the next century and that became models for other European and American scholars.2 Following the lead of Christian Gottlieb Heyne, German scholars began to study ancient texts in a critical manner that took into consideration questions of linguistics, history, and textual integrity. The flowering of this Neue Humanismus opened fundamentally new dimensions to the understanding of the classical past and to the criticism of its literature. Those same methods held shattering implications for the study of the Bible and the historical origins of Christianity. The classical and religious studies were repeatedly to become intertwined.

A third factor independently contributing to the sense of the relevance of ancient Greece to modern Europe was the stirring of liberal democracy that began with the American Revolution. Whether the age of revolution between 1760 and 1815 was one of genuinely democratic revolution may remain a vexing question, but there can be no doubt that the revolutionary experience roused on an unprecedented scale the intensive examination of the ancient Greek democracies and particularly that of Athens. The polemical writing of Greek history began in England in the 1780s, well before the expeditions of the Philhellenes in aid of the Greek revolution. The specter of a contemporary Greek democracy fascinated and inspired the romantic liberals who went to fight in its cause, but it was the possibility for conservative polemic presented by the turbulent history of the ancient Athenian democracy that occasioned the first major studies of that subject and that often determined the framework for later studies as well.

Although the focus on Greece was a change from the previous emphasis on Rome, the reorientation was a relatively simple cultural accomplishment because it occurred within literate classes already familiar with the ancient world as a source of prescriptive values and of illustrative moral and political allusions. The inheritance of the humanist education enjoyed by the educated classes in Britain since the Renaissance made the appeal to and the use of Greek antiquity both possible and effective. In 1856 John Grote, professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge and the brother of the Greek historian, observed,

Classical study ... is a point of intellectual sympathy among men over a considerable surface of the world, for those who have forgotten their actual Greek and Latin bear still generally with them many traces of its influence, and in fact it is this which, more than anything, makes them, in common parlance, educated men. That any one subject should be thus extensively cultivated, so as to make such sympathy possible, is a most happy circumstance, supposing it simply historical and accidental. The destruction or disuse of it will destroy one bond of intellectual communion among civilized men, and will be, in this respect, a step not of improvement. And though studies more definitely useful might succeed it, there is an utility lost, and one which will hardly be considered trifling.3

That now dissipated general familiarity with the classics was once one of the distinguishing and self-defining marks of the social and intellectual elite of Europe. It had originated in thoroughly aristocratic times and endured through the first century of the liberal democratic age. To no small extent knowledge of the classical world and acquaintance with the values communicated through the vehicle of classical education informed the mind and provided much of the intellectual confidence of the ruling political classes of Europe. The great enterprises of translation undertaken during the nineteenth century in part represented attempts to preserve that frame of cultural and intellectual reference for an expanding, but not always classically trained, political elite. And the effort succeeded well until the social and political impact of the First World War thoroughly undermined the vestiges of the aristocratic life in Europe.

The structures of classical education made possible and largely sustained the study of Greek civilization and the application of that study to contemporary life. In England until after World War I a knowledge of Greek was required for admission to both Oxford and Cambridge.4 This requirement set the major pedagogical pattern for the public schools and all other secondary institutions that hoped to send students to those universities or to provide the veneer of an elite education. The examinations for the Home Civil Service, the Indian Civil Service, and the Royal Military Academy afforded considerable advantage to students who could score well in Greek. Consequently, a knowledge of Greek (even if rarely mastery) and a familiarity with Greek culture were characteristic of a large portion of the British political elite as well as of the leaders and clergy of the Church of England. So long as this educational situation prevailed, discussions of Greek history, religion, literature, and philosophy provided ready vehicles for addressing the governing classes of the country and could be expected to find in them a potentially receptive and possibly responsive audience. Indeed, in 1865 the major commentator on Homer as well as a major translator of the poet, the chief critic and historian of Greek literature, the most significant political historians of Greece, and the authors of the then most extensive commentaries on Greek philosophy either were or had recently been members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

Throughout the century the profound influence on the English educated classes of the Oxford school of Literae Humaniores reenforced the use of both Greece and Rome as points of cultural and intellectual self-reference. This deservedly famous program of study involved then, as now, the careful, detailed translation and criticism of a set list of texts—the Greats—that changed somewhat during the course of the century. The program required two different sets of examinations. The first, known as Moderations, was taken at the end of the two years and tested primarily linguistic ability and knowledge of Greek and Latin literature. The second examination, written at the end of four years, was topically oriented and covered history, ethics, metaphysics, and political philosophy. One result of the character of the latter examination was, as R. W. Livingstone observed in 1932, a "tendency to study the classics not in and for themselves, but in relation to modern thought and modern life."5

During the nineteenth century the modern thought to which the classics were related at Oxford and elsewhere changed from decade to decade. As Francis Cornford of Cambridge wrote in 1903; "The ancient classics resemble the universe. They are always there, and they are very much the same as ever. But as the philosophy of every new age puts a fresh construction on the universe, so in the classics scholarship finds a perennial object for ever fresh and original interpretation."6 Early in the century the Greeks and their philosophy were often related to the thought of Anglican theologians, such as Bishop Butler. By the thirties the patristic revival associated primarily with the Tractarian movement at Oxford stimulated interest in the relationship of Greek and Christian thought and helped to foster new approaches to the study of Plato. The same decade witnessed the major impact of German scholarship in the British universities and the publication in English in 1840 of Müller's History of Greek Literature, even before it was published in German. The scholarship of the Continent also led to a more critical tone in the writing of Greek history in Britain. At mid-century utilitarian and rationalist writers established a major claim to Greek studies with the publication of George Grote's History of Greece. The German influence reappeared in the sixties with the Aryanism of F. Max Müller's theories of myth and, more important, in the Hegelianism of Jowett's introductions to Plato. Thereafter, archaeology and anthropology began to transform Greek studies, and by the turn of the century social psychology and French sociology had begun to make themselves felt in works on Greek religion, philosophy, and politics. Throughout the century the tradition of critical editing and commentary, inherited from Richard Porson as much as anyone, continued to be influential in the publication of Greek texts that permitted new and often revisionist commentary and emendation. In this regard one thinks of James Frazer's editing of Pausanias and the latter's attention to varieties of ritual observance that would become so important for Frazer's later work.

A final reason for the impact of contemporary concerns on the British evaluation of Greece was the largely undefined nature of classics as a discipline. Except for linguistic ability in Greek and Latin, the analytical tools and categories employed to examine a question or problem from Greek antiquity were almost invariably derived from other modern disciplines or modern religious and philosophical outlooks. Modern aesthetics guided the consideration of Greek sculpture. Modern religious sensibilities and anthropological theories determined the interpretation of Greek myths. Modern biblical scholarship influenced the reading of Homer. Modern political thought and anxieties were brought to bear on the Athenian democratic experience. Greek philosophers were judged before the bar of modern epistemology and political philosophy.

The overwhelmingly amateur character of the Victorian scholars who undertook the enterprise exacerbated this use of modern nonclassical disciplines for interpreting the Greek experience. Their work in the classics was almost always derivative of theological or ecclesiastical concerns or related directly to matters of current politics, morals, or aesthetics. A Hampshire squire, an Anglican bishop, and a City of London banker pioneered the study of Greek political history. A chancellor of the exchequer contributed the major mid-century study of Homer. A school inspector made "Hellenism" and "Hebraism" terms of common literary and cultural usage. These and others who wrote and commented on Greece approached their subjects less from an interest in the past for its own sake than from a firm conviction that what they said about Greece would have an impact on contemporary political, religious, philosophical, and moral discourse. The paradox of professional humanistic scholarship—a growing body of knowledge attained by precise methodology but tied to a shrinking sense of its perceived relevance—had happily not overtaken the Victorian study of Greece.

For all of these reasons the nineteenth-century exploration of Greek antiquity constantly manifested the wider intellectual life of the day and opens the latter for more complete consideration. Writing about Greece was in part a way for the Victorians to write about themselves. The most famous and perhaps still the most widely consulted book in English on nineteenth-century Hellenism bears the title of The Tyranny of Greece over Germany.7 Whatever the merits or faults of the rest of that volume, its title has fundamentally misled most subsequent consideration of the subject. What actually constituted the primary and most striking feature of Victorian Hellenism wherever it appeared was the tyranny of the ninetenth-century European experience over that of Greek antiquity. In a perceptive essay written shortly after World War II, W. H. Auden noted, "It is the unlikeness of the Greeks to ourselves, the gulf between the kind of assumptions they made, the kind of questions they asked and our own that strikes us more than anything else."8 The reaction of nineteenth-century writers to ancient Greece had been just the opposite as again and again, in the most unexpected and sometimes perverse manner, Greek subjects were made to conform to contemporary categories of thought, culture, and morality. Across the Western world Victorian authors and readers were determined to find the Greeks as much as possible like themselves and to rationalize away fundamental differences.

Although the Hellenic revival of the nineteenth century involved an international community of scholars and writers, many of whom appealed to the wisdom of Greece in terms of a universal human experience or some concept of uniform human nature, the study and interpretation of Greek antiquity nonetheless occurred within the context of national intellectual communities whose characters bore the distinctive imprints of their respective political structures, university organization, and religious confession. In each of these intellectual communities the exploration and criticism of Greek life reflected the particular political, religious, and philosophical preoccupations of the national culture. Scholars in the various European countries read each other's books and articles, but the manner in which they evaluated those ideas and incorporated them into their own work often depended on factors outside the realm of classical scholarship proper. For this reason, as well as because of the sheer mass of evidence and documentation, the present volume will be devoted exclusively to the study of Greek antiquity in nineteenth-century Britain. It may, however, also prepare the way for similar studies of other nations so that in time a comparative understanding of the role of antiquity in the intellectual life of the century may emerge.

Thus far, the words Greeks, Greek antiquity, and the classics have been used as general terms. Some important Victorian critics, such as Matthew Arnold and his disciples, did regard them in this way. Because Arnold's prose, especially portions of Culture and Anarchy, have entered the literary canon, there has been a tendency to equate his version of Hellenism—one often imperfectly understood—with the entire British and European consideration of Greece. This interest in Arnold has obscured broader, more important explorations of Greek civilization by other Victorian commentators. Most nineteenth-century scholars and critics of Greece, in contrast to Arnold, dealt with specific and well-defined areas of Greek life rather than with general phenomena or an extracted Hellenic essence. The self-generating engines of critical scholarship and political controversy assured a more differentiated portrayal of Greece than the one that flowed from the German literary Hellenists to whom Arnold was so much indebted.

To become more adequately acquainted with the Victorian use and abuse of Greek antiquity, one must perform an exegesis upon an exegesis. That is, one must look at the literature in which nineteenth-century critics, historians, editors, and commentators actually discussed Greek topics. This large body of materials includes histories of Greece, formal commentaries on Greek literature, authors and philosophers, the extensive introductions and footnotes to editions of the texts and translations of major Greek works, university lectures, textbooks, review essays, major encyclopedia articles, and discussions of archaeology, anthropology, and comparative religion. When these little-examined documents are studied, they reveal a world of Victorian discourse possessing considerable integrated unity and one replete with surprises and unexpected intellectual twists and turns. To read these now neglected and frequently dust-covered volumes is also to discover how correctly John Grote grasped the cultural and intellectual function of classical studies in his society. Discussions of Greek antiquity provided a forum wherein Victorian writers could and did debate all manner of contemporary questions of taste, morality, politics, religion, and philosophy.

The university-educated and other widely read classes of Great Britain often felt that a profoundly intimate relationship existed between themselves and the ancient Greeks. In a typical statement of that sentiment J. P. Mahaffy, an Anglo-Irish scholar of Trinity College, Dublin, wrote in 1874:

Every thinking man who becomes acquainted with the masterpieces of Greek writing, must see plainly that they stand to us in a far closer relation than the other remains of antiquity. They are not mere objects of curiosity to the archaeologist, not mere treasure-houses of roots and forms to be sought out by comparative grammarians. They are the writings of men of like culture with ourselves, who argue with the same logic, who reflect with kindred feelings. They have worked out social and moral problems like ourselves, they have expressed them in such language as we should desire to use. In a word, they are thoroughly modern, more modern than the epochs quite proximate to our own.

A few paragraphs later Mahaffy continued in the same vein.

If one of us were transported to Periclean Athens, provided he were a man of high culture, he would find life and manners strangely like our own, strangely modern, as he might term it. The thoughts and feelings of modern life would be there without the appliances, and the high standard of general culture would more than counter balance sundry wants of material comfort.... Some of the problems which are still agitating our minds were settled by the Greeks, others, if not settled, were at least discussed with a freedom and acuteness now unattainable. Others, again, were solved in strange violation of our notions of morals and good taste; and when such a people as the Greeks stand opposed to us, even in vital principles, we cannot reject their verdict without weighing their reasons.9

What is of particular significance about Mahaffy's statement and what can be replicated from scores of other writers was the conviction that the Greeks had been like the Victorians and that the historical situations of the two civilizations were essentially similar. Although this attitude did not survive much beyond the first quarter of the twentieth century, it was fundamental to Victorian intellectual life and determined the outlook of much Victorian scholarship, criticism, and commentary on the Greeks.

The appeal to the affinity between the Victorian and the Greek experience was rarely made in a casual manner. There almost always existed a particular motivation for drawing the direct relationship. There was, however, no single motivating interest but rather a cluster of them, many of which were quite unrelated. Furthermore, writers convinced of one set of relationships often remained unconvinced by other approaches and uninfluenced by the authors who pursued them. For example, numerous Victorian commentators sought in one way or another to relate Greek antiquity to Christianity. They had virtually no impact on other scholars whose concerns lay with the implications of Athenian democracy for modern politics. Yet both groups were part of the larger picture of the Victorians and Greek culture. Because of the diverse approaches of the nineteenth century to the study of ancient Greece, two questions repeatedly present themselves: Why the Greeks? and Which Greeks?

The question Why the Greeks? has a fairly straightforward answer. The political parallel between ancient democracy and modern democracy established in English writing by 1790 was of major significance, as was the possibility of contrasting the ideal of Greek heroism and the Greek appreciation for beauty with bourgeois humdrum and philistinism. But authors who made these uses of Greek culture and those who appealed to Greek antiquity for other polemical purposes usually believed their analysis appropriate because of one of four general philosophical approaches to the past. These concepts of history gave them the confidence to draw the parallels. From the viewpoint of Christian providential history, the Greeks had played an important linguistic and philosophical role in preparing the world for the Gospel. Christian writers also often regarded the Greeks as having displayed the highest moral character that human nature could assume without the light of the Gospel. The second theory, which informed several significant discussions, was a version of Viconian cycles in which certain ages of Greek history (usually the fifth century B.C.) were seen as analogous to certain periods of modern history—and thus subject to the drawing of relevant parallels. This view was particularly attractive to liberal Anglicans about the middle of the century. A third idea that defined the Victorians' approach to the Greeks was Auguste Comte's law of the three stages of intellectual development. Adherents to this theory, or to a modified version thereof, tended to conceive Greek religious and philosophical life as a microcosm of the Comtean pattern of development. These writers invariably favored positivistic epistemology and chose their intellectual heroes among the Greeks according to that standard. Finally, Hegel's concept of the historical development of Greek philosophy also suggested that Greek thought and culture held particular relevance for the Victorian experience. Nineteenth-century writers who accepted his view of the passage from Sittlichkeit to Moralität in Greek civilization discerned a similar development in their own time.

These several philosophies of history did not function in hermetically sealed compartments. For example, Benjamin Jowett seems to have found the Hegelian pattern operative because he also accepted the Viconian concept of analogous ages. Some writers adhered to the connection between Greece and Britain without a specific understanding of the theory of history from which their views derived or that informed the thought of another scholar upon whose thought they drew. Yet, however construed or misconstrued, these theories provided the major framework by means of which Victorian writers sustained their belief that the experience of Greece was directly significant for their own culture.

The answer to the question Which Greeks? is more difficult and elusive. In 1939 George Boas noted, "Every age of European culture, like every individual of the intellectual classes, has gone back to the Greeks for inspiration ever since there were any Greeks to go back to. But what Greeks they selected as The Greeks, ' and what ideas and manners and standards they chose as typically Hellenic have varied from age to age and from individual to individual."10 Boas's claim to the timeless appeal of the Greeks is much exaggerated but not his assertion about the variety of human experience they have been used to illustrate. Which Greeks a Victorian writer intended to denote frequently depended on which secondary authors he had read as much as upon his familiarity with the ancient Greek literary sources. The image projected upon the Hellenes also changed with the discovery of new evidence and with the application of new conceptual frameworks. The Greeks of Matthew Arnold were simply not those of James Frazer.

Victorian and Edwardian commentators were generally aware of these changing perceptions. In 1897, looking back over the past century of British and continental Greek studies, Gilbert Murray commented:

The "serene and classical" Greek of Winckelmann and Goethe did good service to the world in his day, though we now feel him to be mainly a phantom. He has been succeeded, especially in the works of painters and poets, by an aesthetic and fleshly Greek in fine raiment, an abstract Pagan who lives to be contrasted with an equally abstract early Christian or Puritan, and to be glorified or mishandled according to the sentiments of his critics. He is a phantom too, as unreal as those marble palaces in which he habitually takes his ease. . . . There is more flesh and blood in the Greek of the anthropologist, the foster-brother of Kaffirs and Hairy Ainos. He is at least human and simple and emotional, and free from irrelevant trappings. His fault, of course, is that he is not the man we want, but only the raw material out of which that man was formed; a Hellene without beauty, without the spiritual life, without the Hellenism. Many other abstract Greeks are about us, no one perhaps greatly better than another; yet each has served to correct and complement his predecessor; and in the long-run there can be little doubt that our conceptions have become more adequate.11

There had not been and there could not have been a single Victorian image of Greece and the Greeks. Considerable variety was inherent in the Greek experience itself. The several Victorian concepts of Greek culture represented appeals to different portions of that experience and the assimilation of new evidence, but they also embodied transformations in Victorian moral and religious sensibilities that permitted a new appreciation for evidence previously available. The Victorians' conceptions of what the Greeks had been or should have been changed as their own comprehension of the physical world, of history, and of human nature changed; and as educated Victorians began to understand themselves in more complex terms, they came to ascribe a similar complexity to the Greeks.


1 Henry Hatfield, Aesthetic Paganism in German Literature from Winckelmann to the Death of Goethe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964); Walter Rehm, Griechentum und Goethezeit (Bern: Francke Verlage, 1952); Humphrey Trevelyan, Goethe and the Greeks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952); Martin Vogel, Apollinisch und Dionysisch: Geschichte eines genialen Irrtums (Regensburg: Bustav Bosse Verlag, 1966), pp. 37-94.

2 Herbert Butterfield, Man on His Past: The Study of the History of Historical Scholarship (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), pp. 32-61; Christian Hartlich and Walter Sachs, Der Ursprung des Mythosbegriffes in der Modernen Bibelwissenschaft (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1952); Carl Diehl, Americans and German Scholarship, 1770-1870, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 6-48.

3 John Grote, 'Old Studies and New," in Cambridge Essays: 1856 (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1856), p. 114.

4 See "Memorandum of the Council of the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies on the Place of Greek in Education," Journal of Hellenic Studies 36 (1916): lxix-lxxii.

5 Richard W. Livingstone, "The Position and Function of Classical Studies in Modern English Education," Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg (1930-31), p. 258.

6 Francis Macdonald Cornford, The Cambridge Classical Course: An Essay in Anticipation of Further Reform (Cambridge: W.H. Heffer & Sons, 1903), p. 19.

7 Eliza Marian Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958; first published, 1935).

8 W.H. Auden, "Introduction," W.H. Auden, ed., The Portable Greek Reader (1948; reprint ed., New York: The Viking Press, 1955), p. 16.

9 John Pentland Mahaffy, Social Life in Greece from Homer to Menander (London: Macmillan and Co., 1874), pp. 1,2-3.

10 George Boas, "Preface," George Boas, ed., The Greek Tradition (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1939), p. v.

11 Gilbert Murray, A History of Ancient Greek Literature (London: William Heinemann, 1897), pp. xiv-xv.

Frank M. Turner (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Why the Greeks and Not the Romans in Victorian Britain?," in Rediscovering Hellenism: The Hellenic Inheritance and the English Imagination, edited by G. W. Clarke, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 61-81.

[In the essay that follows, Turner contrasts the nineteenth-century enthusiasm for classical Greece with preceding eras ' valorization of all things Roman in order to demonstrate significant Victorian differences in self-perception. Asserting that Victorians sought a mirror in the distant past so as to distinguish themselves from their immediate history, and from that era's identification with Rome, he stresses a central change in political and class values.]

The event I wish to examine here—and for which I hope to suggest a series of explanations—is the emergence within the intellectual life of nineteenth-century Britain of a predominating concern with Greek over Roman antiquity. In 1903 Francis Cornford declared, "The ancient classics resemble the universe. They are always there, and they are very much the same as ever. But as the philosophy of every new age puts a fresh construction on the universe, so in the classics scholarship finds a perennial object for ever fresh and original interpretation."1 Around the close of the eighteenth century British scholars not only came to reinterpret that classical universe, but they sharply shifted their field of interest from Rome to Greece. This development was not inevitable; nor was it, in 1750, even predictable: it is an event within intellectual history that begs for an explanation.

The nineteenth-century interest in things Greek did not, of course, preclude concern for Roman culture. Schoolboys continued to study Caesar, Cicero, Virgil and Horace, though rather to the exclusion of Ovid. But in most respects the continuing interest in things Roman was a vestige of both the previous century and the Renaissance programme of humanist education. Late in the Victorian age W.Y. Sellar wrote, "Familiarity with Latin literature is probably not less common relatively to familiarity with the older [Greek] literature. The attraction of the latter has been greater from its novelty, its originality, its higher intrinsic excellence, its profounder relation to the heart and mind of man."2 This observation illustrates the remarkable character of the shift to Greece as well as its intensity: to appeal to Rome was to draw upon a line of continuous cultural influence within Europe; to appeal to Greece was to appropriate and domesticate a culture of the past with which there had been, particularly in Britain, a discontinuous relationship. And that very discontinuity may have been part of the attraction for nineteenth-century writers who regarded much of their own experience as discontinuous with the recent past.

Three broad examples will illustrate the character and the extent of the rise of Greek and the decline of Roman concerns. The first is in the area of narrative history.

Between the 1690s and 1780s there were published numerous Roman histories including works by Laurence Echard, Thomas Middleton, Nathaniel Hooke, Thomas Blackwell, Oliver Goldsmith, Adam Ferguson and, of course, Edward Gibbon. There were, in addition, numerous political pamphlets by writers such as Swift and Bolingbroke, in which the Roman example was related to modern British politics. Allusions to ancient Roman history, especially that of the Republic, were frequent in both Britain and in the North American colonies.3

If one turns to the nineteenth century, a startling change has occurred. Between the publication of the revised edition of Ferguson's history of the Republic in 1799 and the appearance of William Heitland's three-volume history in 1902, no other major study of the Roman Republic appeared in Britain—George Long's being only a non-interpretive paraphrase of ancient sources. Furthermore, the Victorian age produced no successor to Gibbon's history. The only major Victorian history of Rome was Charles Merivale's History of the Romans under the Empire (1850-64) in eight volumes. It covered the period of the late Republic through the point where Gibbon's narrative commenced. Thomas Arnold had begun a history of Rome in the late 1830s, but the work was not taken up by another writer after Arnold's death in 1842.

This paucity of Roman history contrasts with the ever expanding bookshelf of Greek history. William Mitford had begun to publish his ten-volume history of Greece in 1784. It was republished several times, the last being in 1835. Mitford's work was followed in the nineteenth century by the eight volumes of Connop Thirlwall, the two volumes of Bulwer-Lytton, the twelve volumes of George Grote, the three volumes of Evelyn Abbott, and the several volumes of E.B. Grundy after the turn of the century, as well as by a large number of one-volume histories.

The same pattern emerges in nineteenth-century writing devoted to Roman and Greek literature and philosophy. In the eighteenth century Virgil and Horace served as prescriptive literary models, and Cicero was regarded by many (though certainly not by all) as a sound philosopher of public life and a sober religious thinker. But already in the eighteenth century Homeric studies had begun to generate broad interest, and the next hundred years might be considered Homer's century. The Greek tragedies also came into their own during the Victorian age. Cicero fell by the wayside in the wake of the multifaceted Platonic revival of the mid nineteenth century and the emergence of Aristotle's Ethics as a key Oxford University text. Plato came to be translated into English as never before.

A third indication of the predominant stature of Greek studies is the public and scholarly distinction of the persons conducting them. One need only mention the names of Connop Thirlwall, George Grote, William Gladstone, Matthew Arnold, Benjamin Jowett, John Ruskin, Alexander Grant, Walter Pater, Samuel Butler, Edward Caird, John Burnet, A.E. Taylor and Alfred Zimmern to establish the eminence of the coterie of Victorian Hellenists. All of them knew that the pursuit of Hellenism held forth the possibility of influencing their contemporaries in a manner in which Roman studies did not.

The reason why intellectuals and persons in public life were interested in classics in the first place derives from the educational system of the British elite. For better or worse the undergraduate education at the two ancient universities was centred on training in the classics. The system worked in two directions. First, the language requirements for admission to Oxford and Cambridge meant that the public and grammar schools dedicated to sending students to Oxbridge weighted their curricula toward the classics. This training continued to serve students well after their university years, because from mid century onward the civil service examinations which led to government posts favoured persons well trained in the ancient languages. Consequently, the relatively small educated British elite, which was largely coterminous with the social and political elite, shared as a cultural trait familiarity with the ancient world. The importance of this fact cannot be overemphasized. As John Grote wrote in 1856:

Classical study ... is a point of intellectual sympathy among men over a considerable surface of the world, for those who have forgotten their actual Greek and Latin bear still generally with them many traces of its influence, and in fact it is this which, more than anything, makes them, in common parlance, educated men.

This bond "of intellectual communion among civilized men" allowed the classics to provide a frame of cultural reference for discussion and debate.4 It was more useful and self-limiting than the Christian heritage, which extended over class lines and stirred profound contemporary divisiveness. In that respect debate over the classics provided a relatively safe forum wherein the educated elite could in a more or less exclusive manner explore potentially disruptive modern public topics that were carefully concealed in the garb of the ancients.

To be more specific, a topic from antiquity genuinely engaged a Victorian writer only if it was perceived as more or less immediately relevant to his own day. Usually one of three reasons accounted for this perception of relevance. First, the classical subject or question might have a simple and direct polemical application. Such was the case of the ongoing nineteenth-century debate over Athenian democracy.

Second, in a more subtle and indirect fashion, disagreement in the ancient sources themselves could invite the attention of a commentator because a particular interpretation might support his views of a particular modern problem. This was the situation in regard to discrepancies about Socrates in the testimony of Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes and Aristotle. Depending upon which source one most highly valued, Socrates could be drawn into either the idealist or positivist camp. Furthermore, the problems of the four accounts of the historical Socrates suggested ways for scholars to extricate themselves from the troubling issues surrounding the four Gospels and the problem of the historical Jesus.

Finally, an issue drawn from antiquity could become unexpectedly relevant because of the stature of the modern writer who first broached the subject. Such was clearly the situation created by Hegel's interpretation of Socrates, Grote's discussion of Athens, Benjamin Jowett's rendering of Plato, and physicist John Tyndall's comments on Lucretius.5 In each case the eminence of the writer and the contemporary school or philosophy with which he was associated evoked criticism and debate over the classical subject he had discussed.

During the nineteenth century these factors of direct perception of relevance, the problematic character of documents, and the distinction of the scholars engaged in classical studies all shifted the balance of interest away from the Romans and toward the Greeks. This change may be seen in regard to the writing of political history, the evaluation of ancient epic poetry, and the appreciation of Roman and Greek philosophy and religion.

Political history

Throughout the eighteenth century commentators on British politics and historians of ancient Rome perceived a very close affinity between the ancient Roman Republic and the modern British polity since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. An essayist in the Monthly Review of 1764 succinctly stated the assumptions that informed such consideration of the Republic:

It is certain, that a thorough acquaintance with the Roman government, must afford the most useful information to the subjects of a free State, and more especially to our own: for there is undoubtedly a very strong resemblance between the general forms of each: both being of a mixed nature, compounded of royalty, aristocracy, and democracy, though the respective powers of these three orders were, in each constitution, blended together in very different proportions. The fundamental principles in each, however, being so nearly similar, many profitable conclusions may be drawn from a comparison between the Roman State and our own; and from the fatal effects of party zeal, public corruption, and popular licentiousness in the one, we may form probable conjectures with regard to the consequences which the same circumstances must produce in the other.6

The perceived analogy between the two nations stemmed from the allegedly mixed constitution of each. Ancient political philosophers had written extensively about mixed polities consisting of elements of monarchy, oligarchy and democracy. Polybius had specifically analysed the Roman republican constitution in those terms. Then Renaissance civic humanists, particularly Machiavelli, had drawn the ancient concept of the mixed polity into modern political thought. From at least the middle of the seventeenth century English political thinkers—often indebted to Machiavelli—had discussed English political structures in terms of a mixed constitution. By the early eighteenth century the metaphors of the mixed and balanced constitution had become central to British political discourse.

In the wake of the events of 1688 and the Revolution Settlement, some English political commentators saw a clear resemblance between early republican Rome liberated from its tyrannical kings and modern England freed from the absolutism of the Stuarts. Like republican Rome, modern Britain enjoyed a mixed constitution guarded by wise aristocrats in Parliament. During the first half of the century several major political pamphlets explored the character of the Roman Senate and made explicit comparison with the composition of Parliament and in particular the House of Lords.

The interpretation of Roman history informing all these speculations was that of Machiavelli's Discourses with its moral explanation of the collapse of ancient Roman republican liberty. Machiavelli, like the ancient sources upon which he drew, had ascribed the loss of Roman freedom to the impact of luxury following the victory over Carthage. Luxury had fostered individual selfishness and had thereby displaced patriotic virtue. Those moral developments in turn had fostered the establishment of personally independent military commanders no longer obedient to the Senate. Consequently the later Roman Republic lacked the political balance that Polybius had perceived to function so wisely and efficaciously in an earlier age.

The British context for establishing the analogy between the fate of the Roman Republic and that of modern Britain in these Machiavellian terms was the country-party critique of the court—Whig political supermacy under the leadership of Robert Walpole.7 The spokesmen for the country-party ideology were Tories proscribed from office by Walpole and Whigs more radical than he. These pamphleteers urged that the proper balance of the British constitution (and thus the essential guarantee of liberty) had been undermined since the settlement of 1688, first by William and his ministers, then by the Whigs of the court of Queen Anne, and finally (and most despicably) by Walpole under the first two Hanoverians. The indications of this corruption and of the betrayal of liberty were excessive commercialism, a large national debt, a standing army, placemen in Parliament and an overly strong central executive authority sustained by patronage and novel financial structures. The new forms of commercial wealth and crown monetary resources were overwhelming the political influence of the genuinely independent men of landed wealth in Parliament and thereby the balance of the British polity.

The country-party Roman polemic appeared in numerous political pamphlets, but most extensively in Nathaniel Hooke's The Roman History from the Building of Rome to the Ruin of the Commonwealth (4 vols., 1738-71). Although a Tory, Hooke took the side of all the major republican heroes who had challenged the corrupt Senate of the late Republic. It was essential to his purposes that an opposition critical of a senatorial order that claimed to protect liberty be given legitimacy. He praised the Gracchi for having attempted to create a stabilizing class of small landowners, and he described the senators who had crushed the two brothers as 'the oppressors of their country, men determined to enslave Rome'. He heaped contempt on the ancient senatorial order for having illicitly used the word liberty to describe a state in which "the bulk of the people have neither property, nor the privilege of living by their labour". He also argued that from the time of Sulla's restoration onward "the Freedom of the Roman People . . . was surely, at best, no better than the freedom of outlaws and banditti". By the closing years of the Republic Pompey and Caesar had stepped forth to lead respectively "the two permanent and distinct parties in the Republic, the Aristocracy and the People".8 Once triumphant from the civil wars, Caesar had ruled wisely and benevolently and without monarchical ambition. In Hooke's narrative Caesar stood as one of those heroic figures of the Renaissance civic humanist tradition of political thought who possess the capacity, if permitted to exercise it, of restoring a state to its original principles. The most familiar eighteenth-century version of this ideal was Bolingbroke's Patriot King.

Court-oriented writers found themselves compelled to answer these country-party charges. The major spokesmen for the court were Conyers Middleton in The History of the Life of Marcus Tullius Cicero (2 vols., 1741); Thomas Blackwell in Memoirs of the Court of Augustus (3 vols., 1753-63); and Adam Ferguson in The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (4 vols., 1783: 5 vols., 1799). The general strategy of these court-oriented histories was to attack those Romans who had challenged the authority of the Senate and to praise those (most particularly Cicero) who had tried to protect the structures of the Republic and to defend traditional republican liberty. For example, Middleton's biography of Cicero established a close parallel between the Cicero who had attempted to protect the Republic against the wiles of Catiline, Caesar and Octavian and the Walpole attempting to preserve English liberty against the plots of the Jacobites, disaffected Tories and radical Whigs. Blackwell drew a strong and sharply hostile parallel between Caesar and the Stuart Pretender.9

Ferguson's history was the most reasoned of the court-oriented works. He criticized the Gracchi for not having understood the function of property in a free state and for having attempted to impose inappropriate political structures. He praised Sulla for having rescued Rome from the "scene of wild devastation, attended with murders, rapes, and every species of outrage" that had prevailed under Marius. Sulla's restoration of order might have saved Roman liberty "if the spirit of legal monarchy could at once have been infused into every part of the commonwealth; or if, without further pangs or convulsions, the authority of a Prince, tempered with that of a Senate, had been firmly established".10 In other words, republican liberty might have been preserved had its ancient aristocracy been wise enough to establish the kind of political structure that Britain enjoyed under the Hanoverians.

Instead, what the Roman Republic experienced was a contest among self-aggrandizing aristocratic leaders. The evil genius behind that tumult was, of course, Caesar. In Ferguson's view, Caesar had rejected alliances with his own social class and had chosen to court "the populace in preference to the Senate or better sort of the People". He had decided to make himself "the chief among those who, being abandoned to every vice, saw the remains of virtue in their country with distaste and aversion". Capable of receiving public honour equal to Cato's, Cicero's or the Scipios", he had "preferred being a superior among profligate men, the leader of soldiers of fortune".11

Ferguson's characterization of Caesar begins to explain why the Roman example would cease to be useful for later British commentators. Whereas previous writers had equated Caesar with the Stuart Pretender, Ferguson's Caesar bore a close resemblance to the late eighteenth-century members of the aristocracy, gentry or respectable commercial classes who had made common cause with the lower social order to challenge the authority of the Hanoverian monarchy and the British Parliament during the Wilkesite protests, the American Revolution, the Yorkshire Association Movement, the Irish troubles and the Gordon riots. This shift in polemical emphasis and target was not accidental. From the 1760s through to the 1780s the country party's ideology, identified earlier in the century with Tories seeking position, place and patronage, had been appropriated by more radical political groups in both Britain and America.12 The radicals of the later part of the century pointed to the alleged corruption of the British government and particularly of Parliament as a basis, not for replacing one group of aristocrats with another, but for direct appeals to the authority of the people and the recognition of popular leaders.

The Roman example adduced by the early eighteenth-century writers in the name of a balanced constitution was stolen by genuine modern republicans, first in the American colonies and then in France. Early in the century the Roman Republic had functioned as an ideal of balance and restraint: but the reality of modern republicanism in America and France, and then the emergence of Napoleonic Caesarism, turned all forms of republicanism ancient or modern into a terrifying spectre. The history of the Roman Republic was no longer useful even as a warning, because the forces of tumult and military monarchy had triumphed, and the old senatorial order had either perished or become politically impotent.

The appeal to the Roman Republic had been possible because it occurred in the context of the country-party ideology...

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