A notable feature of Anthony Powell’s tragicomic saga of English upper-class life from the Twenties of this century through the Sixties is the near absence, in a masterpiece distinguished among other things for abundance of subtly controlled allusions to art and literature, of any reference to the literary and artistic legacy of ancient Greece. The few exceptions—a sinister title, The Kindly Ones, for example, or the disreputable Mr. Deacon’s murky canvas. The Boyhood of Cyrus—serve only to highlight the fact, true in real life as in Powell’s brilliantly created world, that the English generation which came of age during and just after the First World War viewed with indifference if not with suspicion that Greek experience which had dominated the thought and bewitched the imaginations of their Edwardian and Victorian predecessors.

Perhaps this was a reaction against the education and ideals which had promised enlightened progress and ended in the mud of Passchendaele; Rupert Brooke and many other young products of Oxford and Cambridge, as Jenkyns points out, had gone to their deaths with Homer’s lines ringing in their ears. If so, it was a classic reaction, equal and opposite, for the Victorian obsession with Greek ideals and theory had been almost maniacally complete. The Tyranny of Greece over Germany is the title of a well-known study, its dramatic claim not perhaps fully vindicated by its contents. Now Jenkyns and Turner have presented us with two lengthy and compendious examinations of the primacy of Greece in English education and intellectual controversy for most of the nineteenth century and the first fourteen years of the twentieth.

Greece had not always been such a power in the land. Ben Jonson, who sneered at Shakespeare’s “less Greek,” had none too much of it himself and Samuel Johnson, who said of the young Alexander Pope that “it was not very likely he overflowed with Greek,” spoke of the language as a rare commodity: “Greek, Sir, is like lace; every man gets as much of it as he can.” The intellectual (and political) model for eighteenth-century England was Augustan Rome; no essay in the Spectator or Rambler appeared without a quotation (untranslated) from Horace, Virgil, or Ovid as its epigraph.

The Greeks came into fashion and power with the Romantics. Keats saw a new, more “natural” Homer, stripped of Pope’s Augustan elegancies, when he first “heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.” Wolf’s influential thesis that the Homeric poems were put together in a later age from primitive, oral ballads exalted them to the majestic level of Ossian, a poet admired by Goethe and Napoleon, whose work had been translated from the (wholly imaginary) Gaelic by James Macpherson. (It was, according to Samuel Johnson, “as gross an imposition as ever the world was troubled with.”)

For Shelley and the young radicals, the Greeks were a revolutionary inspiration, Prometheus a model of heroic defiance, unmoved by the threats and tortures of Zeus-Castlereagh. “We are all Greeks,” he proclaimed in the preface to Hellas (1822). “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their roots in Greece.” At the same time the publication of Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens and the exhibition in the British Museum of the battered statues a reluctant nation had finally been shamed into buying from Lord Elgin, gave the British public new artistic models to replace the Roman copies and adaptations of the old classical canon. And the early decades of the nineteenth century saw the Greek uprising against the Turkish pashas who had misgoverned them for over three hundred years, a struggle which won the sympathy of many who saw the modern Greeks through the lyric haze of Byron’s early vision of a regenerate Greece—“when riseth Lacedaemon’s hardihood/ When Thebes Epaminondas rears again/ When Athens’ children are with hearts endued…”—rather than with the realistic eye of Byron at Missolonghi—“an intriguing, cunning and unquiet generation.”

These exciting developments ushered in a century which saw the firm imposition of Greek on the educational system of the upper classes and the result that, as Frank M. Turner puts it, “knowledge of Greek (even if rarely mastery) and a familiarity with Greek culture were characteristic of a large portion of the British political elite as well as of the leaders and clergy of the Church of England.” By 1865 “the major commentator on Homer as well as a major translator of the poet, the chief critic and historian of Greek literature, the most significant political historian of Greece and the authors of the then most extensive commentaries on Greek philosophy either were or had recently been members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.” It was not until after the First World War that Oxford and Cambridge began to admit students who had no knowledge of Greek.


The Yale ecologist Evelyn Hutchinson, who, when he enrolled at Emmanuel in Cambridge in 1921, was one of the generation which benefited from this dispensation, tells in his fascinating autobiography1 of an encounter between his mother and a fierce champion of the requirement, T.R. Glover of Johns’. “Mother had sat next to Glover at a dinner party on Saturday night and had a heated discussion on the value of compulsory Greek…. Next morning he was to give one of a series of Ecumenical sermons at St. Edward’s Church…so we all trooped down. Arriving (as usual) rather late, we were shown into the front pew. When the time came for the sermon, Glover leaned forward from the pulpit and announced his text: ‘And the centurion said unto Paul, Canst thou speak Greek?’ “2

This same Glover, some thirty years later, dismissed me from a lively tutorial in which I had, in Young Turk style, defended Cleon against Glover’s beloved Pericles, with the stern admonition: “Young man, you should go out and get yourself some of the benefits of organized religion.”

This bizarre combination of a zealous, muscular, and proselytizing Christianity with an unstinting, almost fanatical admiration for the pagan Greeks to whom, as Paul said, “Christ crucified” was “foolishness,” is one of the leading threads pursued by Turner in his attempt “to explore Victorian commentary on antiquity as a means of more fully understanding Victorian intellectual life itself” and by Jenkyns in his sprightly vindication of what he himself calls “the ambitious claim” that “ancient Greece preoccupied many of the finest minds of the last century, and thus, directly and indirectly…became a pervasive influence reaching even to the edges of popular culture.”

Like other aspects of the Greek experience which dominated Victorian intellectual debate, the Christian-pagan problem reflected, and influenced in its turn, the changing climates of opinion through the century, and both of these books deal with this central theme. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, it might have been expected that this text would assume a major part in the classical curriculum, but in fact it was studied mainly in divinity schools and did not appear in the influential Oxford “Greats” program, which came into being around the middle of the century. Few attempts were made to justify this embarrassing omission and those cited are vague evasions. The Bishop of Durham, for example, saw the whole of classical Greek literature, Euripides included, as “distinct stages in the preparation for Christianity.” The real reason must have been the simple pedagogical fact that students who were being trained to write the pure and elegant Attic of Plato and Demosthenes could not, without grave risk of linguistic corruption, be exposed to the Hellenistic koine, the Basic Greek of the Middle East, in which the Gospels are written.

The defense of the pagan texts as essential for an understanding of the Christian message was carried to its paradoxical extreme by no less a person than Gladstone, who found time in between serving as president of the Board of Trade, colonial secretary, chancellor of the Exchequer, and four terms as prime minister, “to write a series of articles on Homer and five books, one of them consisting of three volumes and containing more than 1700 pages.” The content of these learned works was remarkable, to say the least. Jenkyns offers a sample:

The Homeric world, he said, “stands between Paradise and the vices of later heathenism” and he meant it literally: Homer was far closer to the Garden of Eden than the classical Greeks, and Homeric religion contained memories of God’s revelation to primitive man…. It was evident, he thought, that Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto (he used the Roman names) were a memory of the Trinity. Apollo was a relic of belief in a Messiah, as can be seen from his double character as Saviour and Destroyer (a page is allotted to demonstrating that Apollo’s rape of Marpessa was “not of a sensual character”). Was Minerva the Logos or the Holy Spirit? Did Latona represent Eve or the Virgin Mary? How curious that the poems contained no mention of the Sabbath!

Eccentric as these views were, “the eccentricity,” as Jenkyns says, “consisted in pushing certain Victorian tendencies to extreme limits.” Gladstone was not one for evasions; he was as direct and forceful in his Homeric studies as in his political life. “There are still two things left for me to do,” he told Mrs. Humphry Ward in 1888. “One is to carry Home Rule—the other is to prove the intimate connection between the Hebrew and Olympian revelations.”

But the evasions prevailed; even Matthew Arnold, who made the famous distinction between “Hebraism” and “Hellenism” could, as Jenkyns points out, translate a passage from Oedipus Tyrannus into “a kind of scripture language” and comment: “Let St. Francis—nay, or Luther either, beat that!” Elsewhere, however, Arnold made it clear that he was trying to provide, in “culture” (which included a mammoth portion of Greek literature), a substitute for that “faith” which was now an ebbing tide, its sound a “melancholy, long, with-drawing roar.” Others were not so frank; Jowett’s eloquent translation of Plato, a minor English classic, went a long way in its “Analyses and Introduction” along the path he had once charted, in strict confidence, to a friend: “Something to be done in the way of making Christianity, whether under that or some other name, a reality….”


The established Church was not deceived; Jowett had been, early on, prosecuted (unsuccessfully) for having, in an essay on the interpretation of Scripture, “advisedly promulgated…certain erroneous and strange doctrines…contrary to and inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church of England…” (of which he was, like all Oxford dons, an ordained member). The ecclesiastical conservatives succeeded in delaying for ten years a proposal to raise his stipend as Regius Professor to the level of a living wage (a measure which the Bishop of Oxford characterized as “a deadly blow at the truth of God”). Their instinct was correct; Jowett was a sincere Christian all right, but his feelings about the Church were summed up in his advice to a young lady: “You must believe in God, my dear, despite what the clergymen say.”

By the time Jowett died in 1893 the Church had more radical Hellenists to worry about. The subtle rhetoric of Pater’s etiolated Platonic fancies cloaked a content more pagan than Christian and Swinburne was a pagan self-proclaimed—“Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath.” Symonds was obsessed by visions of a fantasy Greece, a sun-drenched, pastoral landscape full of nubile young boys, and a story (apocryphal, no doubt) about Wilde’s viva examination at Oxford—surprisingly enough it is not to be found in Jenkyns, who has a keen eye for a lively anecdote—gives a startling impression of the gulf between Christianity and the Hellenic aestheticism of the late Seventies. Wilde was given a Greek Testament and told to translate chapter 26 of Luke—the Last Supper, the agony in the garden, the betrayal, arrest, and trial of Christ. He did so with speed and elegance. “Thank you, Mr. Wilde, that will do.” “Oh,” he said. “Pray let me go on. I want to see how it ends.”

The religious question was central to the intellectual battles of the century, and both Jenkyns and Turner give it proper emphasis. In other departments, however, their paths diverge; these are two very different books.

Turner is a modern historian, with a particular interest in the nineteenth century; he is the author of a much admired book on the late Victorian reaction to the new religion of science and technology whose apostles were Huxley and Lewes.3 His new book is the product of extraordinarily wide reading in the immense flood of Victorian publication; the footnotes are rich in valuable references, some of them to unpublished archives: the Blackie papers in the National Library of Scotland, Jowett’s lecture notes in the Balliol Library. His main fields of interest are history and philosophy; the most impressive chapters are those headed: “The Debate Over the Athenian Constitution,” “Socrates and the Sophists,” and “The Victorian Platonic Revival.”

The first of these is a fascinating discussion of the way Greek history, or rather Victorian visions of Greek history, served as a polemical model for the age. The eighteenth-century historians and political theorists complemented their devotion to Rome, and the ideal of factionless order it was made to stand for, with a deep respect for Spartan stability and a sharp mistrust of Athens and its turbulent democracy.

The first major narrative history of Greece, Mitford’s, published from 1785 to 1810, carried this prejudicial attitude even farther, including Sparta in the general indictment; “the Greeks were deficient in the…science of forming that great machine which we call a government.” Mitford found good government in Greece only under monarchies, the Homeric at the beginning, and the Macedonian at the end of Greece’s existence as an independent nation. But though he criticized Sparta (the British Country Party had always denounced standing armies and Sparta was a whole state organized on military lines), his harshest criticism was reserved for democratic Athens, which, as Turner puts it,

exemplified all the follies of the democratic government that he saw being urged on Britain through calls for parliamentary reform…and being undertaken by the former colonies in America.

The rehabilitation of Athenian democracy and its presentation as a model for a modern (imperial) democracy—a model imperfect in some respects (slavery, for example) but in others, especially literature and the arts, hard to surpass or even equal—were the work of an amateur scholar who had been neither to Oxford nor to Cambridge, a banker and liberal reform politician, George Grote. A follower of Bentham and Mill, he took a leading part in the fight for parliamentary reform, before retiring from political life to write his great ten-volume history of Greece, in which Periclean democracy emerged as an enlightened, egalitarian form of government, comparable in many ways (and in some superior) to the parliamentary democracy of Victorian England.

This view of Athens was to retain its hold on the English-speaking world until quite recent times—Alfred Zimmern’s influential Greek Commonwealth (1911) proclaims, with suitable modifications of Grote’s more extreme claims, essentially the same position; it is only with the modern critique of the economic base, slavery and empire, that the splendid eloquence of Pericles’ Funeral Speech has lost some of its power to enchant. (Mitford, incidentally, was ahead of his time in this respect: his “sensitivity to the evil of ancient slavery,” says Turner, “set him far ahead of the nineteenth-century liberal historians of Greece who turned their eyes from slavery in Greece as they did from the plight of the contemporary poor.”

Turner’s analysis of exactly what Grote did is one of the most remarkable sections of this closely argued and impressive book.

Grote portrayed the reforms of Cleisthenes as having in effect vindicated the wisdom of the kind of radical reform program that he had proposed in 1831…. Previous antidemocratic writers, such as Mitford, had argued that a modern liberal democratic state would resemble lawless Athens. Reversing the analogy, Grote presented ancient democratic Athens as almost a mirror image of the stable, liberal mid-Victorian polity…. Grote’s transformation of the character of the Athenian assembly was the single most stunning example of Victorian domestication of Greek life and in large measure accounted for the profound sense of intimacy that later writers perceived between Athens and Britain…. Grote described Pericles as the “prime minister” and he portrayed the Assembly as divided between “the party of movement against that of resistance, or of reformers against conservatives.”

Grote even managed to present the demagogue and hardline imperialist democrat Cleon as a sort of leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. But though his readers “admired Athens for the resemblance Grote had convinced them the ancient city bore to their own national polity,” Grote was in fact the champion of a democracy that, as Turner says, “had no precedent, past or present. His model was the community that under better circumstances Athens might have become after the reforms of Cleisthenes and that Britain might still achieve.”

Grote appears in other chapters, too; both in his History and his later Plato, and the Other Companions of Socrates (1865) he presented a vigorous case for the Sophists whom the antidemocratic historians (and Plato) had targeted as the destroyers of personal and political morality. Grote (agreeing with Hegel, whom, however, he had not read when he published his first discussion of the subject in the History), portrayed the Sophists as the teachers “who immeasurably helped to create a viable democratic culture in the city” and as a force for the stability of the democratic regime, which relied on persuasion, an art of which the Sophists were acknowledged masters.

Not content with this rehabilitation of figures who were blamed by the great German historians of philosophy—Ritter, Brandis, Zeller—as the cause of Athens’ decay, Grote included Socrates in their number, on the grounds that he had “awakened ‘the analytical consciousness’ of his fellow citizens to encourage effective social and political action and he had carried that skill into the study of ethics in the manner normally associated with Bentham.”

Grote also appears in Turner’s chapter on mythology and religion, for in this field too his work was important; “he performed for Greek history the task that Niebuhr had performed for Roman…,” contending “that no satisfactory empirical evidence existed in the mythical narratives to say anything about the history of Greece before 776 BC, the year of the first Olympiad.” He thus “broke the link between Greek myths and Greek history that his most learned British and European predecessors had been unwilling to sever.” Schliemann’s discoveries, of course, followed by those of Evans, revived belief in the historicity of the myths, but the euphoria of the days which saw the Minotaur’s labyrinth in Evans’s reconstruction at Knossos and the face of Agamemnon in the gold mask at Mycenae has evaporated long since, and to most historically-minded scholars Grote’s thesis looks better with the passing of each year.

Grote’s “name and achievement,” as Turner justly says, “figure more prominently in the Victorian history of Greek studies in Britain than those of any other single author.” Grote is discussed in Jenkyns’s book, too, but neither as extensively nor as analytically. In fact, analysis is not Jenkyns’s strong point; one has the impression that he has read as widely as Turner but not as deeply. His book covers an immense amount of ground and has a wealth of apt quotations (many of them surprising, some hilarious), but his material is organized in rather haphazard fashion (the chapter headed “Homer and the Homeric Ideal,” for example, abandons its main line for a discussion of Victorian and Greek athletics), and sometimes, especially when measured against the purposeful economy of Turner’s quotations, gives the impression that it is being piled up for its own sake.

Its own sake, I hasten to add, is not to be sneered at. The dust cover reproduces a typically lush Victorian painting on a Greek theme—Hylas being lured into the water by bare-breasted nymphs who look remarkably like English schoolgirls; it promises delights, and the book lives up to the promise. It is a consistently entertaining tour through Victorian Greece, conducted by a guide who has an eye for significant detail, a graceful narrative style, and a polished wit.

The difference between the two books may be in part a difference in emphasis: Jenkyns explores the same territory as Turner but his main interest is not so much intellectual history as art and literature. His most distinguished chapter is the one on George Eliot (who earns only a brief and incidental mention in Turner). Jenkyns demonstrates that time and again what seem like casual allusions to Greek authors in her novels are actually pointers to the fact that she is using ancient myths and plots as a profound commentary on the lives and actions of her modern characters. His discussion of the use she makes of Greek tragedy in Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Felix Holt, Middlemarch, and Daniel Deronda is an important contribution to the understanding of these novels.

Another Victorian writer who is treated at length and with sympathetic understanding is Ruskin, a figure in whom Jenkyns’s two guiding themes, art and literature, combine. Art is the subject of the book’s opening chapter but it is in “Classical Art in the Later Nineteenth Century” that he hits his full stride. Here they all are, those painters of the hairless Greek female nudes that ruined Ruskin’s wedding night, those creators of the chocolate-box canvasses that hang in English provincial museums and that, in countless reproductions, imposed on schoolboys a vision of Greece as a place where the sun shone eternally on naked women and not-quite-so-naked men. Here is Crane, whose female nudes had something vaguely wrong with them; his wife would not let him use female models, so “he was obliged to employ a young Italian male, making some rather unconvincing adjustments afterwards. “Why,” said Leighton, when he saw Crane’s Renaissance of Venus, “that’s Alessandro.”

Here is Leighton, whose “studies for the ‘Captive Andromache’ show that he began by painting the figures in the nude. Then, as though pouring treacle over them, he overlaid these slender bodies with a thick, shapeless layer of something that he was eventually to work up into the form of clothing.” (Jenkyns reproduces photographs of Captive Andromache before and after.) Here is Alma-Tadema, whose titles defy parody (Fredegonda at the Death-Bed of Praetextatus) and whose pictures of ladies in various states of titillating undress were dignified by such classical technicalities as An Apodyterium, The Frigidarium, and In the Tepidarium, this last “a luscious nude lying with parted lips on a couch and holding up a provocative pair of feathers to cover the last vestige of her modesty.”

One reason for this insistence on fake classical themes (or the equally spurious medieval subjects of Burne-Jones and Rosetti) must have been the overpowering ugliness of the Victorian industrial landscape and the appalling conditions in which most people lived. Until after the Second World War the soft-coal fires in London houses turned the winter mists into choking fogs so impenetrable that they stopped all traffic, so poisonous that if you breathed through a handkerchief it turned an oily black after a few breaths. The vast expansion of working-class housing in London and the industrial towns of the North produced a nightmare of congested brickwork which Gustave Doré sketched in an unforgettable illustration for his London: A Pilgrimage (1872), and which is given a humorous commentary in a music hall song I remember from my boyhood: “With a ladder and some glasses/ You could see to ‘Ackney Marshes/ If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between.” William Morris in the preface to his Earthly Paradise advised his readers to:

Forget six counties overhung with smoke
Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke
Forget the spreading of the hideous town.4

And one way to do so was to dream about Theocritus (a poet who, for reasons unfathomable, came to be associated with homosexual daydreams) and gaze on Alma-Tadema’s fancy-dress Greeks lying on sunlit marble. It was better than looking out over the rain-soaked grey-slate roofs of Crewe, which stretched in compact rows as far as the eye could see from the longest railway platform in the kingdom.

Jenkyns ends on a somber note; his final chapter is entitled “The Empire and the War.” It is a brilliant and moving account of the mood, inspired by Pericles’ Funeral Speech, memories of Herodotus’ Spartans and, above all, a strangely one-sided reading of Homer’s Iliad, in which the upper-class youth of England went to their deaths on the Somme and, in sight of Troy, at Gallipoli. “The war,” Jenkyns sums up, “…destroyed the Homeric ideal and social changes were destroying the way of life which had brought that ideal to birth.” He concludes by quoting Matthew Arnold’s hope for the future: “If the instinct for beauty is served by Greek literature and art as it is served by no other literature and art, we may trust to the instinct of self-preservation in humanity for keeping Greek as part of our culture.” But that hope Jenkyns sees as vain—in Yeats’s phrase, “mere dreams.”

This is a premature judgment. After reading these books, one can see why the generation whose history is traced in Powell’s Music of Time lost interest in Greece; they had had a belly full. Yet toward the end of that saga the Greekboy paintings of Mr. Deacon are beginning to rise in value; the Greeks are making a comeback. And it is remarkable how they have returned to the center of the stage in the debates and discussions of the years since the Second World War. We do not have a Homeric scholar for president or a Greek historian for secretary of state but Robert Kennedy once astonished the impresario of a talk show by saying that his favorite reading was Greek tragedy; and no less an authority than George Catlett Marshall remarked that no one could understand World War II who had not read Thucydides.

He was speaking also of the Cold War, and Thucydides has become as basic a text for discussion of that uneasy confrontation as he once was for the Victorian discussion of the problems faced by an imperial democracy. The armed forces, at any rate, took Marshall at his word; in the last few years I have been invited to speak on Thucydides for the opening sessions of the strategy course at the Navy, National, and Air Force War Colleges. Greek tragedy has never been so much performed, in translation, on stage and screen. Euripides’ Trojan Women and Iphigenia in Aulis were produced as protests against the Vietnam War (and the Trojan Women in France as a protest against the war in Algeria); the Bacchae as Dionysus in 69 and in many another iconoclastic version served to voice the outrage of the young radicals of the Sixties; the Medea is a sacred text of the women’s liberation movement. Modern adaptations of Greek tragedy have been even more in the public eye; both Anouilh and Brecht have produced their own versions of Sophocles’ Antigone.

History plays ironical tricks; in 1853 Matthew Arnold wrote that it was “no longer…possible that we should feel a deep interest” in “the conflict between the heroine’s duty to her brother’s corpse and that to the laws of her country.”5 To the Victorians such barbaric practices as exposing the corpse of an enemy seemed “no longer” possible. But Anouilh had lived in Paris under the German occupation army, which exhibited the corpses of executed resistance fighters as a deterrent, and Brecht’s Antigone begins with a prologue—Berlin, April 1945—in which two sisters discover, hanging from a meat hook, the corpse of their brother, a deserter from the front executed by the SS.

Rieu’s Penguin translation of the Odyssey was one of the greatest best-sellers of all time and Lattimore’s Iliad has gone through countless printings. Plato is as controversial as ever. Karl Popper’s attack on him started a running argument, and in this country Eric Havelock’s The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics,6 which developed and broadened Grote’s defense of the Sophists by connecting them with materialist and “liberal” elements in pre-Socratic thought, provoked a fifty-page blast of furious condemnation from the late Leo Strauss, which appeared, of all places in this world, in the Journal of Metaphysics.7

But it is not to be wondered at. Shelley was right: we are all Greeks. We are the inheritors of their virtues and vices—their fierce competitive spirit, their intellectual curiosity, their will to action. It is this heritage which defines us, makes us a people different from those who have grown up in the religious faiths and philosophies of the East; it is, for better or worse, the driving force of that civilization we call Western.

This Issue

June 11, 1981