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Glories of Classicism

The Classical Tradition

edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis
Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press, 1,067 pp., $49.95
National Gallery, London/Bridgeman Art Library
Diego Velázquez: The Rokeby Venus, circa 1648–1651


Over a thousand pages in length, with some five hundred articles surveying the survival, transmission, and reception of the cultures of Greek and Roman antiquity, The Classical Tradition is a low-cost Wunderkammer, a vast cabinet of curiosities. Take the entry on the asterisk: you learn that this ubiquitous critical sign, named from the Greek for “small star,” originated in Ptolemaic Alexandria, where the great textual scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium and his student Aristarchus of Samothrace used them to mark repeated lines in the Iliad and Odyssey. Several centuries later the prolific (and self-mutilated) Christian theologian Origen began to employ asterisks in a different way, to signal the omission of certain passages in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This usage gradually spread as a sign of something missing or hidden, and hence—at the end of a complex trail that winds through classical editions, Bibles, and pornography—when you type your password on the computer, the letters and numbers often show up as a string of asterisks.

The next entry takes you to a namesake of the asterisk, the French cartoon character Astérix, and provides information about the popular comic books and all they have spawned (including a theme park and a line of potato chips), about Gaul in 50 BCE where the tales are set, and about certain characteristic interethnic and interlinguistic jokes (e.g., the repeated exclamation that the Romans are crazy—Ils sont fous ces romains!—translates in Italian as Sono pazzi questi romani! which conveniently abbreviates as SPQR, the time-honored Latin acronym for the Senate and People of Rome).

These entries, brimming with detail, are only tasty amuse-gueules, immediately surrounded as they are by massive servings of erudition on “Art History and Criticism” and “Astrology,” along with such rich, many-columned entries as “Aesthetics,” “Alexander the Great,” “Allegory,” “Architecture,” “Aristotle and Aristotelianism,” “Astronomy,” “Athens,” “Atoms and Atomism,” and “Avicenna.” And we have only been sampling the A’s. The work as a whole combines substantial essays on large-scale topics—“Humanism,” “Medicine,” “Philosophy,” “Renaissance,” “Rome,” “Sexuality,” and the like—with accounts of individual au- thors, artists, gods and heroes from myth, inventors, emperors, generals, founders of cities, priests, book hunters, philologists, translators, scholars, archaeologists, antiquarians, art historians, collectors, forgers, revolutionaries, in short, the vast ragtag host of those whose works and days reach us from the distant past, those who found their traces after long centuries, and those who devoted their lives to understanding, exploiting, dismantling, and adapting their legacy.

Are there omissions? Of course. It would be a predictable and somewhat tiresome reviewer’s game to assemble a list of these, individuals from Bartolomeo de Aragazzi to Federico Zuccaro, topics from dentistry to madness. There is a separate article on Anacreon but not Aesop; Dioscorides but not Democritus. Yet The Classical Tradition should rightly evoke not carping but gratitude. This is a book whose long, learned, and witty essay on Rome could stand alone as a surprisingly comprehensive guide to that city’s ancient relics, but that also has time for entries on Armenian Hellenism, Hunayn ibn-Ishāq, and Gandhara; carpe diem, deus ex machina, and the translatio imperii; the Society of Dilettanti, the Grand Tour, and Fascism. It is possible to get pleasantly lost in these pages, as in the internal courtyards of Pompeii, and not emerge for hours.

But though much of the pleasure of this volume derives from the swirl of curious details—the “symposium” originated not as an academic conference but as a ritualized drinking party; the word “parasite” derives from the Greek for “fellow diner”; the eleventh-century Byzantine polymath Michael Psellus wrote some 1,100 works—its ambition is far greater. With this ambition comes a set of difficult problems that may be summed up in three words: “The,” “Classical,” and “Tradition.”

“The” implies that there is a single ancient source from which Western or perhaps all of world culture springs, but the editors are rightly wary of this overweening grand narrative. They would, they write, have preferred to call their volume A Classical Tradition in acknowledgment of those other rich traditions, including Islamic, Judaic, Chinese, and Indian, that have also profoundly shaped world culture, including the culture of the West, and that have their own sets of exemplary texts, time-honored concepts, ancient plots and heroes.

“Classical,” the editors acknowledge, can refer to spheres, such as “classical music” and “Coke Classic,” that have little or no relation to the Greco-Roman world. Moreover, even in the sphere with which they are concerned, the term is unstable and potentially misleading. A lively article on “Modernism in Art” points out all of the ways in which the painting, sculpture, and literature of the twentieth century drew upon the classics to escape from shopworn conventions and to return to elemental truths. One need only think of Picasso’s minotaurs or de Chirico’s cityscapes, Mies van der Rohe’s architectural severity or Joyce’s joyful cannibalization of the Odyssey.

But the term “classical” (like the related “neoclassical”) has so wide a range of associations—aesthetic, political, and social—as to make it almost useless as an analytical term. If at moments it seems the ally of all things modern, it can in an instant be the archenemy. And this lability is not only true for the twentieth century. “I, too, used to like modern buildings, but when I began to appreciate classical ones, I came to be disgusted with the former.” These are the words of the Italian architect and sculptor Antonio Filarete, writing in the 1460s. By “modern,” Filarete is referring to the style we would call Gothic.*

The term “tradition” poses no less a problem, and the editors do not even attempt to define it. Does it mean, as its etymology suggests, something handed down from generation to generation? Certain texts (a few works by Plato and Aristotle, a small number of plays and poems) have been literally handed down, copied, and read almost without interruption from antiquity to the present, and some works of art (celebrated buildings like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, along with certain sculptures and jewels) have remained continuously visible and even, like Diocletian’s palace in Croatia’s Split, habitable.

But these constitute only a modest fragment of what is included in this volume under the rubric of “tradition.” Much more was defaced, dismantled, interred, forgotten, and then, only after a hiatus of centuries or even millennia, returned to view. What is to be made of the radical discontinuities and ruptures, the suppressions and recoveries that characterize much of the cultural inheritance of Greece and Rome? Those who uncovered a neglected trace of the past often did not recognize what they had found as their “tradition” at all. If they were able to make use of what they had come upon, it was only by inventing it anew (to “invent,” after all, means literally “to come upon”).

If each of the governing terms in this immense project poses a difficult problem, the editors assert nonetheless that “every domain of post-classical life and thought has been profoundly influenced” by the Greco-Roman antiquity that is their subject. The stakes therefore are high: nothing less than an understanding of the way our civilization came to assume the particular forms that shape our lives. These forms include the languages we speak, the social structures we inhabit and the laws that regulate them, the size and configuration of our dwellings, the cities in which we dwell, the ways we bury and commemorate our dead, our characteristic ways of organizing, preserving, and transmitting knowledge, the songs and stories that give us pleasure, the images we fashion of ourselves and our world, the body types that produce desire or revulsion, our ideas of freedom and enslavement, our dreams of the good and our nightmares of evil.

There are several major obstacles to the realization of this wildly ambitious program. The first is linguistic. Greek never fully recovered the cultural currency it had enjoyed among the ancient Roman educated class, and Latin has by now decisively lost the central position it once held. For centuries the learning of Latin had served, as Walter Ong observed, as a “puberty rite” (often accompanied by savage beatings) for all educated males. Shakespeare’s “whining schoolboy” was “creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school” in order to be drilled into minimal competence in the ancient language, and with good reason: virtually all advanced learning, from theology and law to physics and medicine, was conducted in Latin. (The technical terms for flowers and diseases are among the last wispy traces of this bygone world.)

The Latin-centered educational system remained largely intact well into the twentieth century. Its downfall in the United States may be symbolically dated to 1931, when Yale University—quickly followed by other institutions—decided to abolish the Latin requirement for all secondary school applicants. With it vanished a shared linguistic possession that had been handed down, at least among the entire educated elite, since ancient times.

The vanishing is not a matter of language alone: Latin was traditionally taught by means of ancient literary texts. This means that virtually all educated men (and women, as soon as they could gain access to what had been a male privilege) were steeped in the same books. When Shakespeare went to the King’s Grammar School in Stratford in the 1570s, he read Plautus and Terence, Virgil and Ovid, and this core curriculum remained more or less the same for centuries, through Isaac Newton and John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. In the latter half of the twentieth century this whole structure collapsed. As anyone who has recently set foot in a college or university knows, few students arrive with even a fragmentary knowledge of ancient literature and culture, and, what is more, only a small number of these same students graduate with any more knowledge of the classics than they brought with them.

The Classical Tradition was compiled in full awareness of this collapse. Consequently, its articles are constrained to do multiple tasks at once. They must provide at least some basic information about the individual figures and topics, as if this were an encyclopedia of the ancient world. Hence we are told that Orpheus was a “hero of Greek myth, poet and musician, supposed founder of a mystery religion and writer of ‘Orphic’ verse”; Cato the Younger “earned renown for his dedication to the Republic, unwavering morality, and strict Stoicism”; the toga was “the traditional costume of the Roman male citizen”; etc.

The contributors to The Classical Tradition all scramble to fill in what they know will be for many people a succession of blanks. They do not have the space to offer more than the barest minimum, and, consequently, this aspect of the volume, though necessary, is its weakest feature, all the more so since it is not in fact an encyclopedia and cannot pretend to provide comprehensive coverage of the ancient world.

The emphasis instead is on those aspects of the ancient world that, in the opinion of the editors, figure most prominently in the present. The entry to Sophocles begins “Greek tragedian (ca. 496–406/405 BCE)” and then wends its way toward the cineplex: “References to Sophocles have erupted disconcertingly in films by Woody Allen, such as Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Match Point (2005).” The ancient arguments on censorship in Plato and Aristotle in the fourth century BCE turn up in conflicts over “various media such as video games and the Internet.” “When George W. Bush’s handlers wished to prepare the press and the public for what they believed would be Senator John Kerry’s victories in the 2004 presidential debates, they explained that Kerry was another Cicero.”

  1. *

    Ancora a me soleuano pia cere questi moderni; ma poi, ch’io commenciai a gustare questi antichi, mi sono venuti in odio quelli moderni ”; in Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (London: Paladin, 1970), p. 20. Filarete uses the term “ antichi ” rather than “classical”—the latter term came into wide use only in the seventeenth century to describe the most prestigious literary texts of Greek and Roman antiquity and still later to describe architecture and sculpture. 

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