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Glories of Classicism

British Museum, London/Werner Forman Archive/Bridgeman Art Library
A Greek vase depicting Odysseus tied to the mast as his ship passes the Sirens, circa 480 BCE

On occasion, often with a distinct twinge of disappointment, the contributors note instances when the classical tradition has evidently failed to reach the present in robust health. The Roman poet Statius was hugely important in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. As if he could not bear to consign him to Hell, Dante imagined that he had converted to Christianity and therefore gave him a ledge in Purgatory; Chaucer enshrines “Stace” next to Homer. But since the eighteenth century the appetite for an English version of Statius’ blood-soaked epic, the Thebaid, has been “sluggish.” (His nightmarish vision of why societies sink into civil war may be due for a revival.) The powerful sexual god Cupid is now “found for the most part on Valentine’s Day cards and gifts as a banal symbol of love.” And though Sirens could still live powerfully in the imagination of Joyce, Rilke, and Kafka, they are now reduced to the Starbucks logo, “a design that concealed first the breasts and abdomen and then the fish tail, leaving the Siren as little more than a pretty face framed by a graphic pattern of repeating waves.”

These are among the setbacks, but the overall insistence of The Classical Tradition is on the ways in which the Greek and Roman heritage, despite innumerable catastrophes, managed to survive. Accounting for how it did so is—alongside the encyclopedic rehearsal of the basic facts and the impressionistic rehearsal of the contemporary relevance—the major task of this volume. And it is here, in discussions of Byzantine grammarians and Arabic philosophers, of monastic librarians and humanist book hunters, of Renaissance antiquarians and Lutheran educational theorists, of modern philologists, translators, archaeologists, and historians, that the articles are most richly informative and alive. For what comes across is not so much the weight of the immense classical legacy but its contingency.

Take, for example, the literary figure in whom the entire classical tradition in the West is encapsulated, Homer. The Iliad and the Odyssey seem to date from the middle of the ninth century BCE, emerging from a culture of oral epics. It was only in the second century BCE that more or less normative texts were established in the Hellenistic world, and it is these texts that dominated the subsequent manuscript traditions and that served in Byzantine schoolrooms. Jews were at least in principle permitted to share in this interest: “According to the Mishnah, Homer’s works could be read by Jews if they did not take into consideration their religious and ethical ideas.”

But in the Christian Latin West there is little evidence throughout the Middle Ages of a serious interest in Homer. An early-first-century Latin Iliad, much reduced in size, is occasionally mentioned in school curricula, but it does not seem to have awakened much attention. When Petrarch in the fourteenth century began to unearth classical Latin authors and read them with passionate interest, he realized that those authors were virtually obsessed with Homer, but neither he nor his contemporaries had linguistic access to either of the great epics. In 1360 he tried to get a Greek-speaking Calabrian, Leonato Pilato, to teach him Greek and to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey, but both Pilato’s pedagogy and his word-for-word rendering were failures. It was not until the fifteenth century that the great Florentine humanists Leonardo Bruni and Lorenzo Valla, inspired by the cultural flame that Petrarch had lit, turned to the task in earnest. Vernacular translations come still later: it was only in the seventeenth century that George Chapman brought forth a Homer in English.

Homer now seems so obviously essential to whatever we mean by the classical tradition that it is difficult to grasp that in Western Europe for almost a thousand years the great epic poems that bear his name were not part of anyone’s account of the most significant relics of antiquity. With the exception of the Timaeus, the works of Plato had similarly dropped from view, along with so much else. The enduring presence throughout the Middle Ages of significant architectural traces—bridges, roads, arches, tombs, and buildings in various states of preservation—helps to create the illusion of the long continuance of the classical past, but in fact most of it had disappeared, as decisively and seemingly as permanently as the paintings that had once adorned the walls of the ancient villas. At the heart of The Classical Tradition is not a story of historical continuity but rather of rupture repaired by spectacular feats of imagination and scholarship.

Yet though even Homer’s survival was surprisingly uncertain, these texts so move us that they seem necessary to culture as we know it. That few now read Latin and fewer still Greek may threaten such survivals, yet the classical tradition—and herein lies its uncanny status—still seems timeless and alive. An entry in The Classical Tradition that captures beautifully this staying power is the one on Freud. That Freud should have a special entry is hardly self-evident, but this only adds to the suspense as we learn how the father of psychoanalysis, more than anyone, made the classical tradition “a living necessity of the modern world.” In concepts like the Oedipus complex, Freud made understanding the classical tradition vital to understanding oneself.


Among the visual arts, painting’s rebirth came first. Writing after Petrarch’s revival of letters, Boccaccio praised Giotto for having “restored to light this art [painting] which for many centuries had been buried.” But what made Giotto supreme was not that he imitated classical examples. He couldn’t have, because almost no antique painting survived. Giotto’s greatness rested in how well he imitated nature. Naturalism, and not classicism, was Renaissance painting’s first distinguishing mark, as Erwin Panofsky argued. Only a century later was Giotto praised for rediscovering an ancient doctrine of proportions.

Architecture’s classicism is a special case among the visual arts. Roman buildings, tremendous even in their ruined state, still stood in Europe, especially in Italy. Because of them, new achievements in architecture could be measured—directly—against antique ones. Brunelleschi was called a second Giotto, but unlike the painter the architect was praised for resuscitating a “classical way of building,” as Filarete put it. Writing on architecture became the first to construct a complete historical scheme. Filarete writes that after Rome’s destruction by barbarians, architecture declined. What took its place were “customs and traditions from north of the Alps, imported not by real architects but by painters, stonemasons and, particularly, goldsmiths” who created buildings as if they were “tabernacles and censers.” For Filarete, real architecture thus occurred only in two eras: in antiquity and in the Renaissance, which is to say, in the modern era.

The entry on “Architecture” in The Classical Tradition runs to fourteen columns, compared to twelve for “Poetics,” eight for “Music,” and seven for “Sculpture.” (“Painting” gets no separate entry.) Its opening sentence indicates architecture’s special path: “Classical architecture in its broadest sense refers to any buildings inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome from the 6th century BCE to the present.” From the sixth century BCE to the present: Brunelleschi’s fifteenth-century invocation of the classical tradition in architecture repeated earlier invocations centuries before. When the Roman emperor Augustus tried to model his rule on Pericles’ governance of Athens, he built in a deliberately Greek style: his then was a classical instance of the classical tradition.

The most public art, one tied to wealth and power, architecture projects the will of its patrons, who lay claim to status through their buildings. Classicism expresses authority and order. It legitimates sovereignty symbolically, particularly when rule begins under exceptional circumstances, like assassination, revolution, and civil war. The appeal is based “on the accretion of associations evoked by classical architecture from Periclean Athens” through to the present. But the appeal also rests on something about architecture beyond its historical associations—what the entry calls “the regularity of the architectural forms and compositions.” The classical harbors a will to transcend historical allusion, a desire to become something like a universal norm.

With architecture, it is especially hard to tell when the classical tradition ought to begin. Consider Vitruvius, the author in the first century BCE of the most famous ancient treatise on architecture. Dedicated to Augustus, the work rejected the architecture of its time, complaining that it licentiously mixed different orders and preferred the most ornate ones. Vitruvius looked for guidance to Greek practice and theory. And what he found—his classical tradition—was a culture already looking back to something earlier and more elemental: a primeval building in wood. Originally (Vitruvius reports) men built shelters by “putting up unsquared timbers and interweaving them with branches.”

For Vitruvius, real architecture endured by keeping its basic element, the column. Columns come from tree trunks, hence their fluting and tapering toward the top. Columns are also human in form: different types correspond to different peoples: the Doric column is a helmeted soldier; the Ionic, a woman with curling hair. In the Parthenon, these types reached their “classic” forms. Architects consciously constructed canonical versions of traditional columns and labeled them Vitruvian. And that’s why the entry on “Architecture” can say that sixth-century BCE architects were “inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece.” Theirs was already a renaissance of a more ancient ancient Greece. When it came to the Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries CE, Vitruvius’ principles were much revised for the buildings of the time.


The question of when the classical era ends and the “classical tradition” begins invites us to step back from the welter of details and try to grasp some larger picture. Though they didn’t refer to it as “classical,” people in ancient Greece and Rome already understood themselves to be part of a tradition, which they constituted and reaffirmed through rituals of collective memory and through continuities in the production of cultural artifacts and institutions. Homer evoked earlier Greek history and ancient bards; Virgil evoked Homer for Rome; Greek sculpture was imitated, emulated, and copied by Roman craftsmen. Tradition was also theorized, as when Aristotle in the Poetics looked back on Greek tragedy, or when, later, Vitruvius in his treatise looked back on Greek architecture.

But the classical tradition, as evoked by most of the entries in this enormous volume, implies not continuity but rather a break, the break upon which the whole idea of the Renaissance was constructed. Petrarch pictured an intervening dark ages between his degraded present and the glorious ancient past. Occurring against a backdrop of rupture, scholars and artists inspired by Petrarch painstakingly recovered something lost or damaged. The Classical Tradition is principally a guide to this collective effort at recovery, though many readers will mistake it for a guide to the classics themselves.

The Renaissance was poised between a ritual of mourning and an act of resurrection. On the one hand, Petrarch wept over the corpse of the ancient world, its shattered ruins testifying to an irrevocable loss. On the other hand, even as he wept, he launched a passionate attempt to recover the moral and aesthetic standards of the classical past and to celebrate those values that remained eternally valid, untouched by time and indifferent to history. The understanding of ancient culture as the product of a particular historical period is in tension with the dream of rebirth. Even the great modern champions of historical awareness remain vexed by the normative nature of the classical tradition as a source of truth and beauty. Marx understood ancient Greece as the model childhood of humanity. For Nietzsche, a failure to seize hold of the rejuvenating power of antiquity is an abuse of history.

The Classical Tradition is an elegy both for the historical obsession with Greek and Roman antiquity and for the dream of its eternal validity. It is a “last book.” Its editors know that huge collections of this kind will henceforth find their place, if anywhere, on the Web. And they know still more, that today’s humanities students prefer subjects no older than themselves.

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