For writers: what is the Classical world about?

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Of the three grand narratives which inform Western literature, the Classical tradition is the oldest, and, in various ways informs the other two, Christianity and the Enlightenment.

Back in the old days, children at Grammar Schools in the UK were taught Latin compulsorily, and significant numbers of them also went on to do Greek. Latin is now very much a minority subject, and even introductions to Classical Civilisation are getting few and far between. If you missed Latin, Greek and Ancient History in school (or you’re still in school and there’s no sign of them turning up), then here is a whistle-stop tour of what the Greeks (and Romans) did for us.

There are basically four core narratives which we would usually see as making up the classical legacy.

From the Greeks:

  • Classical mythology
  • Greek philosophy
  • Greek art and aesthetics (drama, poetry, architecture and sculpture)

From the Romans:

  • The Roman way (propriety, Roman law, imperialism, patriotism, national destiny)

Additionally, although in many cases this is not part of the narrative, English is heavily influenced by Latin and Greek words.

The Greeks

Greek Mythology

If you wonder round the Greek sculptures at the British Museum, or any other major museum, you will see many depictions of scenes from Greek mythology, although a closer inspection will reveal that many of these are Roman or even Renaissance copies of Greek originals. For a better understanding of Greek religion, though, you would be better off looking at the much smaller votive offerings and other miniature figures. Greek religion and the Greek mythology which has come down to us are closely connected, but not identical. Particularly, the Greek mythology we know is a collection of narratives which (we imagine) were originally told orally, and then written down or referred to by poets and dramatists, and, in some cases, rewritten and reworked by Latin authors such as Ovid and Virgil. When packaged and processed for the English speaking world, these were given a further narrative reworking, such as in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, or Roger Lancelyn Green‘s Tales of the Greek Heroes[/amazon_link]. We’ll look at that narrative in a moment. Greek religion, by contrast, had a lot more to do with the cycle of ceremonies and rituals including the Olympic and other games, processions, consulting the oracles, the linkages between individual deities and the city states, and the placing of offerings. It’s important to bear that in mind, because in the Western English-language tradition, these elements have often been sanitised out, and come back shockingly when, for example, Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter in order to be given a favourable wind to sale for Troy to begin.

The mythological narrative

Essentially, the Greek narrative falls into three pieces:
  1. The creation of the world, the rebellion by Kronos and the Titans against their father Ouranos, the sky god, at the instigation of Gaia, the earth goddess, and the subsequent rebellion against the Titans by their children, the Olympians, principally the Zeus, Hades and Poseidon.
  2. The dealings of the gods — the division of the world into the heavens ruled by Zeus, the sea, ruled by Poseidon, and the underworld, ruled by Hades, in which the souls of the dead dwelled, and where the Titans and other miscreants were punished in Tartarus. The early dealings of the gods with each other, such as the kidnap of Persephone, daughter of the Demeter, by Hades, and the subsequent deal struck whereby she would spend half of the year in Hades (Winter) and half in the ordinary world (Summer). The birth of the other gods and goddesses, such as Apollo, Hephaistos, Aphrodite and Athena, and the establishment of the Olympians as a group of 12 related gods and goddesses. The creation of mankind, the rebellion by Prometheus who gives fire to mankind, and the punishment of Prometheus by Zeus. The Greek flood narrative, where only Deucalion and Pyrrha are saved.
  3. The heroes — initially fully mythological heroes, such as Heracles (Latin: Hercules) who is eventually admitted into the group of the Olympians, Perseus, Theseus, Orpheus, culminating in the Voyage of the Argo and Jason’s adventure of the Golden Fleece. Subsequently, increasingly human heroes, such as Agamemnon, Odysseus and Achilles, culminating in the Trojan War, which brings the heroic age to a close.
Interspersed with the grand mythological narrative are many minor stories, a substantial number of which involve the relations between Zeus and mortal women, a number of which involve the doings of powerful but unwise mortals, such as Midas king of Crete, and some are minor accounts of the doings of lesser deities including nymphs, satires and centaurs. A major sub-narrative is the Twelve Labours of Heracles, by which he is able to placate the queen of the gods, Hera, and is finally admitted into the ranks of the Olympians.
As well as the gods, the Greek mythological world is populated by a number of other supernatural, or at least, non-human beings: Satyrs, who largely serve or adhere to Dionysus, the god of drink; Centaurs; Nymphs; Harpies; Sirens. There are additionally a range of functionary beings, particularly the nine Muses, each responsible for a particular kind of art, the three Erinyes, whose original purpose is to pursue vengeance on those who kill their parents (or fail to avenge them); the three Fates, Klotho who spins the life of each human, Lacheisa who measures it, and Atropos who cuts it off (even Zeus fears Atropos). Further, there are still Titans at work in the world, such as Helios who drives the sun, and Atlas who holds up the sky.
Greek mythology was still evolving right into the Roman period, and dramatists especially would happily rework or even replot famous adventures for the sake of a new play. Although sanitised for a modern, and young, audience, Tales of the Greek Heroes, cited above, is probably the best introduction to the general narrative, followed by The Tale of Troy by the same author. However, it is important to understand that although the sanitised narrative that Roger Lancelyn Green gives is in many respects exactly the narrative which has come into the Western tradition, it is divorced from its original cultic roots, and it has been pruned and pared to turn it into a narrative, rather than a collection of frequently conflicting accounts.

Greek philosophy

Alfred North Whitehead pointed out that the whole of the history of Western Philosophy is little more than a set of footnotes to Plato. Plato himself is really recording (or inventing, opinions vary) the argumentative and philosophical style of his tutor Socrates. It is probably fair to say that the kind of philosophy which we today call philosophy is entirely in the Platonic tradition as Whitehead points out, being concerned with epistemology, ontology and logic. The Greeks, though, were altogether more concerned with the questions of ethics and living a good and fulfilling life. Greek philosophical schools which strongly influence the Western literary tradition include the Stoics (active acceptance of what life brings along), the Epicureans (actively pursuing pleasure), the Cynics (living a life of virtue in accordance with nature). Of much more influence throughout the middle ages, and thus also the Renaissance where much Western literary thought was established, was the writings of Aristotle. Many of Aristotle’s views — he insisted that slavery was essential for an ordered society — would be rejected today, but our underlying framework of political philosophy, literary criticism and logical discourse owe themselves to Aristotle.

Greek art

Greek art is brought to us largely by the Romans, who considered it superior to their own and exported it across the known world. Greek art was principally in poetry, drama, music, sculpture and architecture, though the influence of Greek music on the modern world is limited to the naming of the modes which preceded the Western concepts of major and minor keys.
The impact in terms of poetry is probably the greatest: Latin poetry, it could be argued, is merely Greek poetry written in Latin, and Latin poetry had an enormous influence on all English poetry right up to the start of the 20th century.
The impact of drama would be just as great, if it were not for Shakespeare. Greek tragedy, focused around an individual’s single fatal flaw, and the way in which Nemesis (destruction) follows Hubris (pride, or, more exactly, insolence before the gods), retains  powerful influence over modern writing, but most writers would still look to Shakespeare for the great models of both tragedy and comedy.
Classical Greek sculpture, with life-like, full-sized representations of living people, gods, or imaginary people, essentially defined the genre up to the 20th century, where non-naturalistic sculpture became the norm in modernism. Public subscription sculptures, especially those commemorating famous people or events, are nonetheless still largely in the Greek style. Interestingly, some of the earlier Greek sculpture is much more stylised, and has a great deal to offer modern and post-modern visual artists searching for a new way to represent the human body.
Greek architecture, as such, is a style which is still imitated from time to time, and crops up in the pseudo-Greek columns which appear in people’s back gardens. The Greek temple style was enormously influential in the 19th century, inspiring much architecture in Paris, and also more homely (though not humble) works such as Birmingham Town Hall. It is also frequently seen in the façades of buildings. Many principles, such as the Golden Mean, have been identified in Greek architecture, though there is still some controversy as to whether the architects were mathematically aware of them.
Taken together, Greek culture’s influence on the modern world is more powerful than any one element. Ultimately, it is the ‘golden age’ to which the artists of the Renaissance aspired to return. Their name for their own age, Renaissance, meaning Rebirth, was made to represent the notion that the time between classical civilisation and their own was the Dark Ages, and they were now rediscovering true art and culture.

The Roman Way

The Romans, having conquered the Greeks, proceeded to import and Romanize a large part of their culture. This is really unprecedented and unrepeated in history: that a large, confident imperial power would do so much to adopt the culture of a conquered nation. We can try different ways to relativise this and suggest that it was not quite as extreme as it appears, but, once all efforts are concluded, it is still the case that the Romans imitated Greek poetry, Greek drama (especially comedy), Greek philosophy, Greek sculpture, Greek architecture, and, to a wholesale extent, adopted the Greek mythology as their own with the change only of the names. Zeus becomes Jupiter 1, Hades becomes Pluto, Poseidon becomes Neptune, Hera becomes Juno, Athena becomes Minerva, Aphrodite becomes Venus, Hephaestos becomes Vulcan, Ares becomes Mars, Apollon becomes Apollo, Artemis becomes Diana, Dionysus becomes Bacchus, although he is replaced by Vesta (for Greek Hestia), goddess of the hearth and home, Hermes becomes Mercury, and Demeter becomes Ceres. Aside from a very few indigenous Roman myths, mainly concerning the adventures of Aeneas after the Trojan War and the founding of Rome, the Romans adopted Greek mythology wholesale, though their practice of religion was rather more Roman, with a tightly organised state control of the temples and sacrifices.
Likewise, the Romans paid enormous respect to Greek philosophy, and, in fairness, it is hard to think of a Roman philosopher who did more than repackage Greek thought — Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s notion of the philosopher-king is taken straight from Plato.
What the Romans did bring to the Western tradition is the notion of Rome itself — an empire with a manifest destiny. The Roman narrative is expressed with overwhelming clarity in Virgil’s Aeneid, which follows the good man Aeneas from the gates of the fallen Troy, through the arms of Dido Queen of Carthage to the fulfilment of his destiny in founding Rome. Virgil was not merely writing to please himself: it was written to establish the legitimacy of the reign of Augustus, and set out Rome’s destiny to rule the world. This confidence and pride in the patria — the father land — is expressed vividly by the poet Horace in his lines Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, ‘it is sweet and right to die for one’s father land’, themselves bitterly repeated by 1st World War poet Wilfred Owen in his own poem ‘Dulce et Decorum’. Pride of this nature is fundamentally foreign to the Christian tradition, which values humility and meekness, and would have worried the Greeks, for whom the ever present Nemesis was ready to follow Hubris.
Along with the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace which forced conquered nations to live and work together, the Romans brought a vast network of roads and towns to their empire, introducing and standardising many of the innovations of civilisation, such as bathing, which were not repopularised until the 20th century. In continental Europe, codified ‘Roman’ law remains the basis for law, although in English speaking nations there tends to be a synthesis of Anglo-Saxon ‘common’ law based on precedent and Roman jurisprudence.
Romans also took the notion of propriety very seriously. In the lines from Horace above, I translated ‘decorum’ as ‘right’, which it seems to me gives the force of what Horace was saying. But in terms of the detail, ‘decorum’ is quite similar to our word decorum, and means ‘proper’. Modern English speakers find it very hard to get excited about propriety in the way that the Romans were, but the notion of  ‘decorum’ has had an enormous impact on British civilisation, especially between 1715 and 1900.

Lasting Impact

Latin was the world language for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire. By that time, of course, Christianity had become the official Roman religion (albeit in a syncretised format), and Latin continued principally as the language of the Roman church. However, since intellectual life continued after the fall of Rome large through the monasteries, the same language which was used to communicate church doctrine was also used to preserved classical learning. The leaders of the Renaissance seized upon previously little-known classical texts, exploiting printing to make them available far and wide, both in translation and in their originals. When we talk about Renaissance Humanism, we are really talking, not about the modern notion of Humanism as a secular alternative to Christianity, but as the rediscovery of the Classical world, largely cut adrift from its religious roots which had not survived, as a world of philosophy, art, learning and culture. Mythological themes made their way quickly back into Renaissance art and literature, and remained with us into the 20th century.
How this narrative will survive the death of Latin as a language regularly taught in secondary schools is another question. This article is not presented to argue for the revival of Latin teaching (reviving the teaching of French, German and Spanish in British schools would already be something). However, among those who write and read, it seems unlikely that the Classical narrative is anywhere near its end.

Show 1 footnote

  1. though the accusative form of Zeus in Greek is Dia Pitar — father of gods (and men)

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