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Are Classics Classy? The Roman View

Mary Beard
What is a “classic”? Is it simply (as Frank Kermode, I think, once put it) an old book that we still read? Or is there something a bit more sinister to the whole idea?

Aulus Gellius writing in his study, from a 1706 edition of his Attic Nights

What is a “classic”? Is it simply (as Frank Kermode, I think, once put it) an old book that we still read? Or is there something a bit more sinister to the whole idea? An old book you feel you ought to have read? Or is it more casually serendipitous: An old book you have rediscovered and want to share with the world? And what does a “classicist” (in the Greek-and-Latin sense of the word) have to contribute to the debate?

I have just taken part in a couple of events sponsored by The New York Review in England, hosted to celebrate the tenth anniversary of NYRB Classics (whose definition of classic is, I think, closest to the last that I have just mentioned…the “serendipitous rediscovery” version). In these two bookshop discussions on “what is a classic?,” I was there to speak for the ancient world, where the word classicus in Latin was first used.

The truth is that I wasn’t hugely looking forward to this. For the Latin word classicus was closely related to the hierarchy of Roman wealth. All citizens were divided into wealth classes, which—by an ingenious and extremely complicated system—managed to give much greater voting power to the rich than to the poor. The usual idea is that classicus means “of the first class”—and, when applied metaphorically to literature, it equates “the classic” with political, social and economic power. (Pretty much all Roman writers were wealthy—even those who complained how poor they were.)

My job in these discussions, in other words, would be to explain how and why the Romans saw literature in these hierarchical and ultimately conservative terms—before the other discussants went on to have fun taking that idea to pieces.

Happily, when I looked at what the Romans actually wrote about literary “classics,” I found it a good deal less obvious than I had always thought. In fact, you could argue that Roman writers were as puzzled as we are about the definition of “the classic.”

As it turns out, the Latin adjective is very rarely used. In our sense of the “classic,” the crucial author is the second-century AD academic, Aulus Gellius, who wrote a compendium of miscellaneous information and rhetorical learning, entitled the Attic Nights (the title, he claims, comes from the fact that he started to gather the information together during long winter nights he spent in Attica, the region of Greece around Athens).

Two passages of this long book are particularly relevant to the idea of the “classic” and tend to upset an idea of Roman conservative literary hierarchy. In the first (Book 6, 13), Gellius is worrying about what Marcus Cato meant, three centuries earlier by the word classicus. He was referring only to the men of the first class, Gellius insists—but, reassuringly, he observes that people do often wonder what classicus actually means. (First piece of good news: even the Romans were in a dilemma over this.)

The second passage is the famous occasion on which Aulus Gellius (for the first time, so far as we know) used the word classicus metaphorically to refer to literature (Book 19, 8). In the section of this discussion that is always quoted, Gellius defers to a “classicus or assiduus writer” (translated as “authoritative,” assiduus is another word that comes from Roman political hierarchy)—that is, he explains, “one who is not proletarius.” It looks at first sight like a fairly conclusive proof of the link between “classic” and “classy” writers.

But it is not so simple. For a start, this is the only time in “classical Latin” that the word classicus is used to refer to writing. But even more to the point, the topic at issue, for which the view of a classicus writer is sought, is a real surprise. The debate at this part of the Attic Nights is all about whether some Latin words can only be used in the plural, others only in the singular. Harena (sand), it is said, can only be used in the singular, quadrigae (chariot) only in the plural.

So far so good. But the joke is that if this (as is implied) is the view of the classicus and not proletarius writer, then the classicus is wrong—both words are reliably found in both singular and plural.

Our conclusion must be (as it so often is with these problematic terms) that the term classicus was born problematic. The Romans, just as puzzled as we are, would have joined in our debates.

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