Illustration: Kate Hazell

Forget Boris Johnson—the classics are for the working classes too

There is nothing inevitable about the connection between an interest in the Greco-Roman world and being a posh white man
January 28, 2020

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 from the 18th century, who got his hands on a battered Latin grammar and a three-quarters complete dictionary, and took seven years to learn the language. And there’s the man in Peebles who read the whole town excerpts from Josephus’s The Jewish War, captivating everyone as if they were watching a Netflix cliffhanger.

This lively cultural history ought to serve as a corrective to the awful, wrongheaded idea that classics is somehow only for posh people—a notion one hears on the left as well as the right. I once argued vainly with a Labour cabinet minister about his hurling-around of the word “Latin” as if it were some kind of venereal disease. But I can’t help feeling that if Britain really were to get over its classics-class problem it would be through making it more available to kids. In state secondary schools now, there’s a dearth of access to classical civilisation, Latin, let alone Greek—despite the incredible efforts of committed teachers. Just over the sea in Belgium, where Latin is a perfectly ordinary part of the school diet, it’s just another subject, to be enjoyed or not as tastes allow. And that’s how it should be.