The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World
The ancient primacy of the Greeks and Romans in the educational system of the West was still flourishing, in many elite educational establishments, in the 1950s, and indeed in the 1960s and beyond. It was a special and privileged position, but of a very curious kind. In literature, Greece and Rome provided “the classics,” and in some sense set the standard by which later writers were judged; the brightest boys and, latterly, the brightest girls were expected to study them.
That did not imply, as perhaps might have been expected, a keen interest in the lives of the ancients, their world, its history and environment. What it did mean was scrupulous attention to the grammar of two highly complex languages, and meticulous imitation of the styles in which certain ancient writers wrote. The really serious business of the week, at a traditional school, was the translation of pieces of English poetry into Greek iambic verse, in the manner (we fondly hoped) of Sophocles, or into Latin verse, in the manner of Virgil (hexameters), or of Ovid (elegiac couplets).
The rules governing those meters are so exigent that at first the exercise feels like trying to knit with barbed wire. By contrast with this most arduous activity, such subjects as history or the visual arts were regarded as soft options, not difficult enough, not worthy to be taken with full seriousness. As for geography, the etiquette in the sixth (highest) form at my own school was to reply to our keen young ancient history teacher, when he asked where a place actually was, with some such carefully Philistine formula as “Oh, Sir, it’s about halfway down on the left-hand side.”
The change has been complete. No longer are eighteen-year-olds laboring to turn Shakespeare’s sonnets into the manner of Ovid, or the oratory of Macaulay and Lincoln into the idiom of Demosthenes. There has been a price to pay, and we see it in the uncouthness of much modern academic writing, and in the low standard of most contemporary political rhetoric. No longer have our leaders, or even our critics, been through that exacting stylistic training, which insisted that every word had to be scrupulously weighed and savored. Instead, what is found most interesting about the ancient world tends to be the visual arts and economic and social history. Religion, trade, medicine, town planning, women, slaves: these are the sorts of subjects which nowadays dominate.
It has followed that students and teachers have felt the need for new reference works that are more helpful in these matters than the old stylistic manuals. That need has become especially acute in the case of reliable and accurate maps of the ancient world. In the last hundred years it has been very hard to get hold of any. The labor involved in producing good maps is very great, the expense very great also. Excavation and aerial surveys have enormously increased our knowledge. Some ambitious plans have come to nothing at all, like the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.