On Friday 26th April, 28 classics students from Cheney had the opportunity to attend Hertford College’s annual John Donne lecture at the Sheldonian, delivered by well-known classicist Professor Mary Beard.
Mary started her talk by reading some lines from a poem called “Autumn Journal” by a classics lecturer called Louis Macniece, which she encountered as a teenager. She quoted some lines from the poem:
” And when I think I should remember the paragons of Hellas I think instead Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists, The careless athletes and the fancy boys, The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics And the Agora, and 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. And how anyone can imagine oneself among them I do not know; It was all so unimaginably different And all so long ago.”
Mary explained how these lines had a very big impact on her as a school student. She also used these words as a springboard to explore some of the aspects of the ancient world that have been hidden from view when people are taught about the classics, as well as the ways in which classics has often been used to reinforce elitism. There has long been a politicising of classics whereby it has often been used to shore up certain ideas about identity and “Western Civilisation”. She looked at how the Alt-Right movements have often looked to classics as a way of supporting their perspectives, and pointed out that these same Alt Right groups are often fiercely defensive when scholars point out that their ideas about the ancient world are not rooted in fact. One example of this is the statues were not actually marble white but brightly painted; another is that bio-archaeologists have uncovered evidence of great ethnic diversity present in Roman Britain.
The talk also noted how classics has been used by movements on the left, such as trade union banners incorporating classical mythology and Karl Marx being a student of ancient philosophy. She noted how the Roman uprising of the plebeians has been used as an inspiration for striking, and how ancient Greek democracy has been a model for changes to some institutions.
She explained that two of the most common questions journalists ask are: which Roman emperor is Trump most like, and did immigration cause the decline of the Roman Empire. Mary was keen to point out that these questions were based on a number of mistaken assumptions, the most fundamental of which seemed to be the overstating of a relevance of the ancient world to the modern. The ancient world of Greece and Rome are in some ways familiar, because they have to some extent formed some of our cultural ideas and frames of context. But they are also alien and other in very significant ways, so the idea of saying that e.g. Trump was like a particular Roman emperor was a misleading one.
Mary also pointed out that classics lovers in any generation seem to always be anxious that it is about to die, and also always seems to think that it is their generation that have reinvented classics and brought it back into fashion. She felt that these two things were perhaps part of the reason why classics would still be around for a long time to come. She thought that it was important to remember that classics ‘belongs’ to no one, and it is not a politicised subject in itself. She felt that as long as people are still interested in knowing about all these texts and art and history from so long ago, then that was the point of classics, but to always be alert to the fact that “it was so unimaginably different, and all so long ago”.
There were a number of interesting questions from the audience, ranging from someone concerned that the ‘awe and wonder’ might be being stripped out of the study of classics by its anxiety with issues of politicising the subject, to what classicists might be able to do to stand up to the problem of ‘fake news’ and anti-intellectualism.
We are very grateful indeed to Hertford College to arranging for us to bring a group to the talk, and to Mary for delivering such a wide-ranging and very challenging lecture on the point of classics today.