There is nothing inevitable about the connection between an interest in the Greco-Roman world and being a posh white manby Charlotte Higgins / January 28, 2020 / Leave a comment
Classics and class have the same root. That is, the verb clamare, to call out. “Classis” meant a group of people “called out,” for example by means of a census for military service; and in the late 2nd century AD, the Roman writer Aulus Gellius referred to the greatest authors as scriptores classici, “classic writers”—as opposed to second-rate authors, scriptores proletarii. We now have classic books, classic cars, classic films, and so on—those called out for greatness. But the classics of the classics, the top of the drawer, the best of the best, are always smugly supposed to be “the” classics: Latin and Greek, and the worlds associated with them.
In the UK, classics and class are weirdly intertwined beyond their shared derivation. From the early 18th century onwards, being a “gentleman” was associated with the acquisition of Latin and Greek. With knowledge of these arcana came cultural and social power, and access to economic power, too. (A 19th-century dean of Christ Church, Oxford, famously told his congregation that the study of Greek literature “not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument.”) And of course power is for hoarding: you don’t want to let the rabble near it. When certain posh white men spout Latin and Greek today they know exactly what they are doing.
Obviously, there is absolutely nothing natural or inevitable about the connection between an interest in the Greco-Roman world and being a posh white man. Plus, the thing about knowledge? It finds ways to seep out of the most closely guarded chambers. Classical scholars Edith Hall and Henry Stead have spent years working on their new People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland, 1689-1939. It’s a treasury of inspiring, fascinating stories of classical learning outside the old imperialist structures of public school and Oxbridge.
Classical knowledge was disseminated by all kinds of means—Pope’s versions of Homer, cheap Everyman editions of classics in translation, and bloody-minded, dogged autodidacticism. There’s the 18th-century Jedburgh -gardener’s wife, Esther Easton, who -Robert Burns said could recite Pope’s Homer “from end to end” and had studied Euclid. There’s the apprentice Buckingham tailor Robert Hill, also…