Manchester Art Gallery/Bridgeman Art Library

John William Waterhouse: Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896

From the onset of the Dark Ages down to our own time, the fraught and variegated relationship between Greek or Roman civilization and those civilizations’ heirs has never been less than significant and fascinating. Initially there was an emphasis on the survival and influence of classical literature. More recently, the range of interest has broadened to encourage closer scrutiny of the subtle way in which the classical legacy has been used—not always consciously—to manipulate latter-day politics, social problems, and religion. In these works, now known as “reception studies,” the Victorian Age of nineteenth-century Britain has been perceived, rightly, as a particularly rewarding lode to mine: during this period the classical legacy was disseminated, and discussed, more widely than ever before.

The last half-century has seen several pioneering works in this field, which between them have largely dictated the way we now look at the Victorians’ attitude toward the classics. In 1969 David J. DeLaura published Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England: Newman, Arnold, and Pater, which studied in detail, as worked out through the relationship between aesthetics, religion, and the classical humanities from Arnold onward, “one of the great recurrent and unifying ‘myths’ of European history: the conflict of Apollo and Christ, Rome and Jerusalem, intelligence and belief, the secular and the sacred impulses in society.”

In 1980 came Richard Jenkyns’s The Victorians and Ancient Greece, an elegantly witty text that extended the inquiry into politics, education, and the arts, analyzing the special Victorian concept of Greece, and pursuing classical influences on morality and the visual arts through to the watershed of the Great War. This was followed in 1981 by the late Frank M. Turner’s brilliant monograph The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain. Turner introduced—something hitherto lacking—a strong historical frame, using, for example, the running debate, pro and con, over the Athenian constitution to pinpoint conflicting Victorian opinions about democracy as such: for some, a shining civic ideal, for others, pernicious demagoguery.

Thus Simon Goldhill’s latest work, Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity, is following in, and expanding, a by now well-established tradition. He has come to reception studies comparatively late (his main area of interest is Greek drama). His new book, designed for the intelligent general reader, offers an informative introductory survey of pioneering scholarship in the field, followed by several speculative ventures of his own. While writing it he learned, ruefully, “how hard it is to do interdisciplinary work seriously, and what level of knowledge of both Classics and Victorian studies is necessary in order to make a respectable contribution.” The resultant text illustrates throughout—not always, I suspect, quite in the way he intended—the truth of that heartfelt reflection.

Whatever one feels about Goldhill’s varying success in so ambitious an undertaking, there is no denying his provocative liveliness on every page. He begins with a general introduction, entitled “Discipline and Revolution: Classics in Victorian Culture,” outlining the attitude of that culture toward the ancient world. This introduction is in large part, as Goldhill himself emphasizes more than once, a recapitulation of earlier groundbreaking scholarship (much of it by the authors discussed above: to Jenkyns and Turner he pays generous tribute); it is intended for the benefit of anyone coming to this complex and much-debated topic for the first time.

In many ways it is Goldhill’s best chapter. He brings to it a talent for crisp generalization (“Hellenism and homosexuality went together like a horse and carriage in the Victorian university”) and the ability—not always so obvious in subsequent chapters—to keep his narrative line succinct and clear. He discusses the contribution of Oxford classical studies, as manipulated by Benjamin Jowett of Balliol, to the training, and ethos, of future rulers in the power structures of empire. He considers the countertrend of Greek literature, via philhellenism, as a tool and inspiration for revolutionaries advancing democracy, and the transformed attitude toward the idea of democracy that this trend brought about. He comments on what some saw as the alarming interpenetration of classical art or literature and Victorian Christianity. Perhaps most influential of all, he explores the ways in which those dangerous sexual vistas hinted at by Plato held a peculiar allure for Victorians. Goldhill thus covers all the important bases. No one could say that he has failed to prepare the reader thoroughly for the chapters that follow.

Some of this preliminary matter is framed with respect to three “challenges” to what Goldhill sees as the conventional, unnuanced version of the classical tradition—the version that became a traditional perquisite of educated gentlemen, supporting them in their role as nationalist rulers, particularly over an ever-expanding empire. His first “challenge” concerns the revolutionary Hellenism connected with Byron, Shelley, and the Greek War of Independence. His second discusses the sexual breakthrough, and assault on Christian ethics, that was one of the consequences of this new Greek threat to the authoritarian reticence of the old Roman tradition. His third, similarly, concentrates on the change of attitude toward, and concept of, democracy when viewed from a Greek rather than a Roman perspective, and in particular on the importance of the fact that ancient Athenian history came to be used, most notably by George Grote in his best-selling History of Greece (1846–1856), as a tool with which to preach democracy to the contemporary world—a move predictably, and vigorously, challenged by old-style conservative historians such as William Mitford. In each case he is looking at “a political challenge to which the discipline [was] responding: political revolutionary idealism; sexual counter-culturalism; the authority of the past in service of a democratic political vision.”


The shock of these challenges to entrenched traditionalists was at least as great as the stimulus they offered to radical thinkers. Conventional wisdom, urged on by the church and the great landowners, had since the Renaissance shunned Athens’s democratic system as a pernicious threat to the established order. Now it was promoted, by Grote in particular, not only as the instrument par excellence for winning and maintaining freedom and communal stability, but also as a persuasive voice from the ancient world with which to attack a politicized Tory aristocracy and entrenched ecclesiastical conservatism.

Goldhill is well acquainted with this scene. The world he describes was one in agonizing transition, with age-old political, social, and religious certainties very much on the defensive. The Industrial Revolution was not only dirtying the landscape, but making serious inroads on hierarchical convictions. Scientific discoveries encouraged man’s belief in his ability to solve his own problems. Cheap printing, compulsory education, and the missionary urge to propagate knowledge brought literacy and independent thinking to an ever-widening segment of the population.

The debate was angry. Defensiveness encouraged dogmatic assertiveness on the part of Christians; faith was beset by honest doubt (as Matthew Arnold memorably recorded in his poem “Dover Beach”). Increasing self-knowledge led to nagging, if still no more than semiconscious, sexual fears (as Goldhill indicates in his examination of visual art). Symptoms included a running debate on the validity of miracles, between religious fundamentalists and the new historical critics such as David Strauss and Ernest Renan (who employed sophistic-style rationalism and scientific logic very effectively), and a nervous, and in the end scandalous, tiptoeing around Athenian aristocratic pederasty by Platonic idealists, the most notable being Walter Pater, working under the cover of carefully coded aesthetics.

Yet even so, much of the traditional classical legacy remained firmly set in the conservative Roman pattern. Virgil was always there to remind his countrymen, and through them the British Victorian upper classes, from an early age, that theirs were the responsibilities of colonial government: in a famous phrase, parcere subiectis et debellare superbos, “to spare the submissive and subdue the uppity.” Nor did anyone—yet—sneer at Horace for assuring the same audience that death in the pursuit of that ideal was dulce et decorum, sweet and fitting. These notions remained central to the Victorian ideal of beneficent, and profitable, empire.

Goldhill is very specific about what he is setting out to achieve. In his view, his “first contribution” is to have added to “our understanding both of the development of Classics as a subject in the nineteenth century, and of the integral and essential place of classical antiquity in Victorian culture.” Next, he is concerned with cultural myths: not only their traditions, but how much of those traditions needs to be, and is, silently forgotten in the social reconstruction of the past: what we might call revision by omission. This Goldhill sees as the essence of reception studies. He observes the way the meaning of a cultural event or artifact evolves and changes over time. “What place,” he asks, “for Classics, for narrative, for representation in a realist mode—today, in a modern aesthetics?” Thus, he concludes, “each chapter is designed to be exemplary of a version of how Classics and Victorian Studies can engage with each other.” How far, and how convincingly, is this ambitious program in fact carried out?

As a target for social research, it is clear, the Victorian Age’s involvement with antiquity offers a virtually inexhaustible mine to quarry. Goldhill “aims to explore desire, cultural politics, and religion, through art, opera, and fiction.” He does this in three major sections, comprising seven chapters in all. The first, “Art and Desire,” investigates the historical school of Victorian painting for its treatment of the sexual drive, expressed or repressed (one very useful feature of Goldhill’s book is the group of excellent color plates provided to illustrate this chapter). The second section, “Music and Cultural Politics,” examines the works, and changing reputations, of Christoph Gluck and Richard Wagner. The third, “Fiction: Victorian Novels of Ancient Rome,” seeks to explain the lasting attraction of such famous romances as Ben Hur and The Last Days of Pompeii, again through a close study of their readers’ social, and particularly their religious, assumptions. By thus concentrating throughout on phenomena that attracted large middle-class audiences, rather than on intellectually cutting-edge figures—no Manet or early Picasso here, no Stravinsky, no Henry James—Goldhill provides himself with socially widespread, and easily documentable, trends for the period that he has chosen to study.


Desire, as the sexual urge, suppressed, symbolized, and in conflict with patriarchal convention, is a fairly constant factor in Goldhill’s presentation. We are reminded that “from Freud to Foucault, Classics has been central to modern sexual revolutions.” Cultural politics Goldhill treats as a kind of holdall that lets him explore the nuances of the view “that Victorian classicists were racist, imperialist, and sexist.” As for religion, Goldhill declares himself particularly interested in what he sees as the progressive erosion of Christianity in Victorian Britain, described as “a much under-researched and under-appreciated topic” (DeLaura’s crucial work, surprisingly, is absent from Goldhill’s extensive bibliography). This interest, of course, lets him scrutinize the new critical rationalism in Victorian historical and biblical scholarship: what Mrs. Humphry Ward famously called “the education of the historic sense,” most closely connected for classicists with the name of B.G. Niebuhr, and regarded as a scientific tool even more dangerous to Christian faith than Darwinism.

Engraving of Pauline Viardot in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, from Musical Quarterly, 1916

Goldhill is interested, as we have seen, in what he calls “the role of cultural forgetting,” which turns out in fact to be not all that far from the familiar, if complex, business of changing fashions. What, in sum, concerns him is “the messy business of how meaning or significance—and specifically the various responses of Victorian culture to classical antiquity—takes shape in society, over time, and between genres.”

The first of his three main investigations is into selected items from the artistic repertoire of J.W. Waterhouse and Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Both of these artists were history painters active in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, with a strong interest in subjects from Greco-Roman antiquity. Both were much influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. Both were highly successful, critically and financially. Both were very much establishment figures. Waterhouse became a full Academician; Alma-Tadema got a knighthood and the Order of Merit. What they produced, Goldhill writes, was what officialdom approved, and the aspiring middle classes enjoyed and were comfortable with. Their art, so eager to achieve archaeological exactitude, had a powerful, and lasting, influence on the background and iconography of Hollywood sword-and-sandal blockbusters, while today reproductions of their better-known works (e.g., Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs or Alma-Tadema’s Sappho and Alcaeus, both discussed by Goldhill) continue to have steady sales as poster art.

What these historical painters offered was a highly imaginary, and psychologically suggestive, realization of the new antiquity being revealed by archaeologists. There is no real physical violence, no overt sexual implications beyond the occasional artistic license to depict young nubile breasts. What their eager audience wanted, above all, was to be reassured, and perhaps gently titillated; certainly not to be worried. Goldhill, however, aims to get below the surface to what he sees as the suppressed erotic driving force there. Sex is what he is after, and sex he is determined to find. His aim is “to look at how paintings depicting the classical past became a way of talking about—or not talking about—sexual desire.” He claims that in artists such as Waterhouse and Alma-Tadema “the relation between desire, classical imagery, and nineteenth-century projections is paramount.” He refers, approvingly, to twenty-first-century descriptions of Waterhouse’s “representation of female figures as sexually available teenagers, dreamily exposing their underdeveloped bodies through flimsy silks.”

The three most important paintings he discusses from this viewpoint are Waterhouse’s St. Eulalia and Hylas and the Nymphs, along with Alma-Tadema’s Sappho and Alcaeus. The first portrays the martyrdom (a popular Victorian religious theme) of Eulalia, a twelve-year-old girl tortured and thrown out dead in the snow, breasts and torso torn and slashed (says the fourth-century Christian poet Prudentius) by the executioner. Like the Daily Telegraph critic at the 2009 Royal Academy exhibition of Waterhouse’s work, Goldhill detects a sexual element in this painting, and his instinct may well be right. If so, the sex is of a prohibitively frigid nature (suggestive of the numerous sex crimes committed by frigid, isolated individuals).

Waterhouse not only omits all signs of torture from Eulalia’s prone figure (a wonderful exercise in foreshortening), but with cold light and chilling snow, both brilliantly painted, makes the whole picture, including Eulalia’s pitiable corpse, forever now virgo intacta, symbolic, in every sense, of frozen desire: an all-too-appropriate, and probably unconscious, summation of the Victorian erotic-religious impasse that Goldhill finds reflected in the art and literature of the period.

Hylas and the Nymphs shows something of the same conflict. This famous painting represents the well-known classical myth of young Hylas’ seduction by naiads: here the sexual theme is explicit. Goldhill claims that, for the viewer, these girls are ready to commit abduction and rape, and speaks of “looming sexual violence,” even though Hylas is above them, and Theocritus, the myth’s main source, describes the nymphs as comforting the weeping boy on their laps, more like mothers than rapists. There may be a reason for this, connected with the desire, already noted among these popular painters, not to worry their middle-class viewers. Waterhouse painted this picture in 1896, a year after Oscar Wilde’s trial, something still uncomfortably present in the public mind. It is hardly surprising, then, that any reminder of Hylas’ pederastic relationship with Heracles, whose agonized grief figures so largely in our ancient sources, has been wholly suppressed, while his nymphs, shy virginal teenagers—and unlikely rapists, I’d have thought—their cold white flesh in stark contrast to the murk, keep the viewer’s attention safely fixed on the dangers of heterosexuality.

Finally, in Alma-Tadema’s Sappho and Alcaeus, which shows Sappho and her girls as audience to a recital (presumably of his own work) by the rival poet Alcaeus, we are encouraged to see all manner of underlying erotic currents as passing between the two main characters. The names of Sappho’s girl-friends are prominently inscribed on the marble seating, and might be interpreted, Goldhill suggests, as a warning-off sign, to the presumptuous male eyeing his audience, that these girls are lesbians by inclination no less than by habitat. But the mise-en-scène in fact makes it clear that Sappho is simply listening to Alcaeus’ performance with close attention, as one ambitious artist to the performance of another, and that this is the painting’s primary theme. Goldhill does not explain why we should not take the picture in this more obvious sense, or indeed see it as Alma-Tadema’s testimony to the emergence of women poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and an acknowledgment of their ancestry in the classical tradition.

With Goldhill’s two musical examples, those of Gluck and Wagner, we are given instances of his thesis of “cultural forgetting” in action. In the case of Gluck this alludes to the numerous changes made to his operas over the years in response to different audiences, and their supposed “reinvention” by Berlioz. But such modifications never really seem predicated on anything other than the normal, if complex, historical phenomenon of changing fashion: Does Goldhill’s thesis really amount to much more than the aperçu that what’s culturally passé tends to be forgotten? I am no musicologist; still, I do know that Gluck was a successful composer who revolutionized opera buffa by redirecting it toward serious drama (in which he was to influence Wagner), but ended up as a moderate conservative—a not uncommon progress in music as in other fields.

The case of Wagner is different. The chief trouble with him, as an example for Goldhill, is how profoundly unclassical he looks to the common observer, and indeed for the most part was. He did have a passion for his own crackpot interpretation of Aeschylean Hellenism, filtered through German commentaries; but this, like all his other passions, ended up incorporated, and virtually unrecognizable, in his ur-Germanic mythologizing. Goldhill invites us to contrast Wagner’s own first production of the Ring cycle in 1876 with that in 1951 by his grandson Wieland, and, once again, to find “cultural forgetting” at work in the latter case. In the 1951 production, Goldhill sees Hellenism (though indissolubly bound up, he argues, with Wagnerian nationalism) being used to sanitize the embarrassing legacy that the original production, unchanged, could well have produced postwar, given the opera’s anti-Semitic and Nazi associations (Wagner was, after all, Hitler’s favorite composer).

The trouble is that this time the facts were so recent, so appallingly memorable, that forgetting, cultural or other, was out of the question. In any case, Wieland’s 1951 production, carefully minimalist in its sets and costumes, had no noticeably Hellenic themes either. “By 1953,” Goldhill writes, “the action became ‘ever more Attic,’” and Wotan and Brünnhilde, among others, wore “simple Greek dress.” Classicism in this case, then, is neither an abetter of anti-Semitism nor, through Wieland’s production, as Goldhill would have it, an effective attempt to “depoliticize” Bayreuth for those deeply concerned about the composer’s prejudices.

Goldhill’s third group of “challenges” to Victorian conservatism examines popular historical novels that anatomized the relationship between imperial Rome and early Christianity, among them old warhorses ranging from The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) to Ben Hur (1880) and Marie Corelli’s Barabbas (1893). Here Goldhill’s interface between Victorian creativity and its public involves religion, politics, and education, about the last of which in particular he is at once commonsensical and well-read. He sees, clearly, that these vastly popular novels were “part of a religious ‘battle for hearts and minds,’” mediating, through what was, in effect, dramatized religious propaganda, “between high-level intellectual, theological, university-led argument, and popular culture.” Yes indeed.

This was not only, as Goldhill sees, a matter of arguing over belief in miracles. The sectarian struggles between Anglicanism and an aggressive Catholic resurgence meant that education became an integral part of the mix, and in it classical antiquity (above all, as we have seen, the Roman tradition) remained fundamental. Historical novels, no less than the scholarship on which they relied, presented their broad audience with the latest facts, often not even as fiction. As Goldhill says, “these are novels with footnotes.” But while Roman tradition was used to bolster imperial nationalism and, by extension, Anglican Protestantism viewed as a national creed, the critical study of ancient texts (biblical at least as much as classical) had long, in the hands of historicizing scholars such as Niebuhr or Strauss, been undermining ecclesiastical authority.

The resulting moral conflict was both polarizing and without any easy solution. Walter Pater’s novel Marius the Epicurean (discussed too briefly by Goldhill), in dramatizing the irreconcilable claims of Christianity and a classical world portrayed as both rational and humane, was also meant to evoke the Victorian reader’s own parallel dilemma of faith versus science. Such a subtext (not to mention the orgies, chariot races, slave-driving, and torture) intensified the already powerful attraction of novels such as Ben Hur. Goldhill also notes the relationship of this kind of fiction to the visual tradition: scene after scene is set up as a kind of tableau vivant that could almost be a description of a painting. As moviemakers have always been well aware, fictional Christians, not least the downtrodden, invariably must compete for the attention of viewers with the official upholders of Roman law and order, who are generally shown as both efficient and authoritative. After Goldhill’s brilliantly pointillist chapters, no one is ever going to look at Edward Bulwer-Lytton, or even Marie Corelli, in quite the same way again.

For me, Goldhill’s best portrait in this section is that of Charles Kingsley, author of novels such as Westward Ho!, Hypatia, and The Water Babies, a Christian socialist seething with allegories, moral earnestness, and fantasies of salvation through sex, a violent jingoist, the unlikeliest Regius Professor of History that Cambridge ever had, a man who “saw his commitment to home and country as a continuum that supported Anglicanism, Britishness, and anti-Catholicism as mutually reinforcing values.” Try any of the three familiar novels named above with all this in mind, and you may well end, as I did, with the feeling that you had never really read them before. That alone would make Goldhill’s new book—so rich in ideas for all its evidence of overhasty writing—well worth careful study. But (as I hope to have shown) Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity, like the teeming, conflicted world it probes, is a regular cornucopia of fascinating matter. Goldhill may not have all the answers, but he does demonstrate an unusually imaginative talent for asking pertinent (and, sometimes, agreeably impertinent) questions.