Knowledge of Latin may be in decline, but novels, films and documentaries about the Romans have never been more popular. We are still dimly, unconsciously, aware that our culture grew out of classical civilisationby Allan Massie / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
In his short book “The Future of the Classical,” Salvatore Settis, director of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, writes that “the marginalisation of classical studies in our education systems and our culture at large is a profound cultural shift that would be hard to ignore.” At the same time, he asks: “What place is there for the ancients in a world… characterised by the blending of peoples and cultures, the condemnation of imperialism, the end of ideologies, and the bold assertion of local traditions, and ethnic and national identities in the face of all forms of cultural hegemony? Why seek out common roots, if everyone is intent on distinguishing their own from those of their neighbour?”
The points are well made, the questions pertinent, though the implication is not always as cogent as Settis supposes. After all, one characteristic of the Roman world was a very similar “blending of peoples and cultures,” as eastern gods and goddesses were introduced to Rome and worshipped there, and as the emperors came more often from the provinces than from Italy, let alone Rome.
Yet if classical studies are in decline, as they unquestionably are, there is still much interest in the ancient world. Settis is not, admittedly, impressed by this: “The spread of superficial and persistent ‘classical’ references (particularly apparent in advertising and the cinema) is not preventing the expulsion of classical culture from our shared cultural horizon.” It depends, of course, on what you judge to be “superficial.” Novels set in ancient Rome or Greece, for instance? A matter of opinion, certainly. As Jason Cowley wrote in last month’s Prospect: “Robert Harris may be one of Britain’s most popular novelists, but he remains a victim of literary snobbery, or so he thinks. Interviewed recently in the Observer, he complained that the kind of novels shortlisted for the Booker prize were as much works of genre as any other. Harris is considered to be a genre writer: a writer of the airport thriller and historical saga. As such he is never in contention for the main prizes, and his latest novel, Imperium, was predictably not among the 19 titles on this year’s Man Booker longlist.”