A Critique Of Today's Classicists
By William A. Percy
On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs, have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece
And the grandeur that was Rome.
Edgar Allan Poe, “To Helen” (1831)
In those memorable lines, America’s earliest literary luminary, the Southerner Edgar Allan Poe echoed the sentiments of our Founding Fathers as well as of the European elite of his own day. His binary adulation--Greece and Rome--exalted both of our classical civilizations. He reconciled the emulation of the Romans by their descendants, the speakers of the Romance languages, with the Anglo-Germanic preference for the Greeks, headed by the Dorians, whom they imagined as pure Aryans with racial as well as cultural affinities to themselves.
An excellent detective himself, Poe explained how a narrow-minded, unimaginative, self-righteous, unoriginal and basically dishonest wealthy clique of Bostonians, with connections to Harvard, ruthlessly dominated American letters during his time. The same sort of this thing continues today mutatis mutandis. Plus ça change, plus c'est la méme chose. I’m especially outraged by “experts” on Roman demography and on Greek pederasty, academic gangs at Princeton, Stanford and Chicago who control a number of presses as well as Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics. (The echt Yankee institutions Harvard, Yale, Brown and Dartmouth seem less polluted by this peculiar clique)
Widely admired in Europe especially in France for his poetry, Poe was a nomadic loner, generally unappreciated in America except for his detective stories. He ferreted out (detected) Boston literati, specifically Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow and Lowell. Labeling them “a knot of rogues and mad men”, he dubbed those eminences as “Frogpondians”, who abused literature to preach. In “America in Poetry (1845)”, he denounced “the machinations of coteries in Boston to enrich one another, conspiring with publishers and leading booksellers” to get positive reviews of each other’s writings. He denounced them as blackmailers, using a “system of petty and contemptible bribery.” Poe singled out Longfellow for plagiarism. (These remarks are summarized from Paul Lewis’ “Quoth The Detective”, in Boston Globe March 6, 2011)
In all the leading colleges and universities of the nineteenth century, the ability to master Latin and Greek set off the elite from the underprivileged, often dubbed the "great unwashed." After the Darwinian revolution, and that set off by Charles Darwin’s most influential admirer, Karl Marx, the upper classes began increasingly to neglect biblical studies (which nevertheless still required Greek and Latin) to ever more favor the classics, a trend that had reached its apex by 1914. Theodor Mommsen, the great German protagonist of Altertumswissenschaft, received the second Nobel Prize for literature in 1902, the only historian except for Winston Churchill ever to win it. His son-in-law Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff kept Berlin at the forefront of Greek Philology until the 1920's. The leading statesmen in every European nation quoted classical sources even more than the Bible. Catholics, more than Protestants, quoted the church fathers using Jacques-Paul Migne's magnificent collections, one of which translated on facing pages the Patrologia Graeca into Latin for priests too ignorant to read it in the original. History reigned supreme, particularly classical and medieval history, Mommsen's fields. Both depended on Greek and Latin, as did the British poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson. In his leisure hours the statesman William Gladstone translated Homer for his private instruction and delight. Some signs of change were apparent, though. The British classicist Jane Ellen Harrison (1855-1928) taught at Newnham College, Cambridge, Drawing upon the findings of Victorian anthropology, Harrison emphasized the role of myth and religion in Greek art and literature. Anthropology, having long been invoked as an ally, in the end proved a dangerous rival, dangerous because the newer discipline regarded all cultures as rqual, rejecting the primacy of the classical.
In 1786, Sir William Jones, a judge in the Supreme Court of Bengal, presented his findings to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta. In his paper, Jones demonstrated that Sanskrit was related to Greek and Latin as well as to the German and Celtic languages. This momentous discovery in effect annexed Sanskrit studies to the classical sphere. Yet this happy alliance was not to last, for Indic studies emerged as a power in their own right, challenging the unique authority of the classical. This independence was confirmed by the fifty-volume Sacred Books of the Eastedited by Friedrich Max Müller(1823-1900). With the first volume presenting the Upanishads, this great series was primarily devoted to the texts of India, both Hindu and Buddhist. This development set the stage for the ongoing scholarship in the field with solid results as well as for such popular offshoots as Theosophy and the New Age religions.
Before the catastrophe that began in 1914, J. B. Bury published his superb edition of Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which long reigned as the standard version. Bury was appointed editor of the eight-volume Cambridge Medieval History History of Europe, which followed Lord Acton's authoritative twelve-volume Cambridge Ancient History. Bury's optimistic monograph The Idea of Progress (1920) was conceived like Oswald Spengler's much gloomier Decline of the West (1918), before 1914. The Cambridge Modern History, also in in twelve columns, appeared between 1902 and 1907.
Until 1914, the Whig theory of history predominated along with European hegemony, yet in history, as Spengler’s signal example shows, despair was coming to the fore. Small holes were being bored in the dike by new disciplines developed by dissident mostly European elites. Anthropology, sociology, and psychology--all of which required field work, orally gathered data not available from classical, biblical and other patristic sources--challenged the dominance of the prevailing synthesis. The pioneers of these new disciplines had been themselves saturated with the classics and theology, to which they had first inclined, some at least. By the very nature of their oral interview techniques necessarily undermined traditional text-based methods.
Similar trends in all arts and letters—abstract, primitive, and folk—also challenged classical models. The new disciplines and trends spelled dispersal (polycentrism) and cultural relativism, on the one hand, and displacement—claims that China, Israel, and Egypt, were superior to Greece and Rome—on the other hand. The appeal of the three nonclassical candidates may be briefly noted. 1) Sinophilia, which goes back in Europe to the latter part of the seventeenth century, was essentially a conservative force, as it singled out China for its stability (not to say) inertia, under Confucian principles. 2) With the Hebrew prophets, the tradition of ancient Israel did have some revolutionary potential, as shown by career of Martin Luther King Jr's predecessor W. E. B. Du Bois. Still, the Old Testament, as it was then termed, retained the limitations of its tribal origins. 3) For its part, Egypt was too exotic--even with the much later advocacy (as we shall see) of Martin Bernal.
In an article in the prestigious journal Rheinisches Museum (1907), Ernst Bethe proposed that, like primitive tribes in New Guinea and some islands in Oceania, Dorian males injected their boys anally with semen so that they could physically transmit their courage and manliness to the boys, reducing Greek pederasty to a one way mechanical and primitive process. This intervention showed that classical studies could make a contribution to the understanding of sexuality. Because of the controversial nature of the subject, though, this capability was to prove, in its own way, perilous to Altertumswissenschaft. After 1933, most German classicists dropped all reference to sexuality.
We normally think of classical studies as a matter of texts, that is to say, achieving a proper understanding the original Greek and Latin writings, tracing their influence through the centuries Italian and French, as well as such English authors as Shakespeare, Milton, and Tennyson. There is, however, an important visual element as well, seen in the role of classical sculpture and architecture in forming taste and guiding contemporary art production.
By the eighteenth century a system of state-supported academies had developed in all the chief European nations. Some operated branches in Rome, which retained its status as the ultimate goal for creative artists of all genres. Perched atop the Spanish Steps, the French Academy was the dominant institution of its kind. Institutes of archeology following during the nineteenth century. This activity was preceded by expeditions by James Stuart (1713-1788) and Nicholas Revett (1720-1804) which produced sketches of Greek monuments.
These institutes joined existing art schools, where the central emphasis of artists’ training was mastery of the depiction of the human figure, not an easy task. There were two means to this end: recourse to nude models and classical statuary. The latter were usually represented by casts, not originals. Architectural schools offered rigorous training in the three Greek orders, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, together with exercises grand planning after the example of imperial Rome. For centuries this formation remained the norm. The display of buildings at the World’s Columbian Exhibition, held in Chicago in 1893 demonstrated the continuing power of this tradition.
As a way of forming the taste of the privileged, the Grand Tour was an established custom, starting in the seventeenth century. The aristocrats following this path came from western and northern Europe, but the city of Rome, with its abundance of antiquities. was their goal. In Italy, study of the Renaissance and Baroque works for a long time played second fiddle to ancient works.
In the 1840s the coming of grand trunk railways made this form of cultural tourism more democratic, as Britain and Europe’s middle classes, the new culture vultures, flocked to take advantage of cheap, comfortable transportation. The influential writings of John Ruskin (1819-1900) signaled the fact that there was now more emphasis on the Renaissance, especially the quattrocento--but this cynosure also was understood primarily through the lenses of the classical aesthetic. Attention to such “primitives” as Cimabue and Giotto did little to dull the basic classical emphasis.
The appearance of photography in 1839 had several effects. At first photography was dutifully respectful of the pictorial conventions that had long ruled in painting and engravings. More generally, it reinforced the classical and Renaissance commitment to perceived reality. For their part, though, fine artists saw some of their market disappear; the competition was particularly devastating for portrait painters. By way of reaction, visual artists began to turn to qualities that were intrinsic to their own medium, disregarding the obeisance to the touchstones of classical statuary that had long been de rigueur. Painters now emphasized such matters as surface patterning (composition) and novel ways of rearranging the elements of perceived reality, yielding what hostile observers dismissed as distortion and ugliness.
Prominent figures in the rise of the new anticlassical sensibility were Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh (1853-1890) showed that the use of stark coloring and departure from the conventional means of representation--heralding what later came to be called Expressionism--could heighten the emotional intensity of his canvases. Gauguin (1848-1903) was the first major European artist to find his chief source of inspiration outside of Europe, in Egyptian and especially South Seas motifs.
After the turn of the century other artists expanded on this vein of exotic inspiration. For the Cubists, primarily Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, African sculpture was paramount; for the German Expressionists, such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluf, it was Pacific objects. Some went even farther in their iconoclasm. In Italy, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and his Futurist followers, chafing under the burden of the country’s past, proposed the destruction of all museums and the paving over of the canals of Venice. For the Futurists, only that which was absolutely new, as shaped by modern technology, must count. “A speeding automobile is more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace.”
Conservative critics decried these trumpetings, seeing them as a betrayal of the ideal of beauty itself. They were right, for all these developments constituted direct challenges to the hegemony of classical, Renaissance, and Rococo standards, which had been partly challenged by the Baroque and Romantic movements.
Section 1: Before 1914
At the outbreak of World War I, Europe had reached its apogee, dominating the entire world as never before. Following the conventions agreed upon at Berlin in 1885, the European powers had pounced on Africa, colonizing every place excepting only Ethiopia, where the French had double-crossed the Italians at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. China, too, the long-term greatest rival to European civilization, had been completely humiliated by the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, having been previously divided into spheres of influence. The French received the south, the English the lion's share in the middle, and the Japanese the north, after they defeated the Russians in 1905. Likewise, after the Venezuela boundary dispute in 1902. the two great Anglophone powers had divided Latin America into a northern sphere of the United States and southern for Britain, strengthened by the building of the Panama Canal (1914). The Anglo-Russian entente of 1907 had partitioned much of what used to be called the Middle East, assigning the south of Iran to the British and the north to Russia, effectively slicing Persia in two. The only area not still up for contention was what was then called the Near East, most of it embraced by the Ottoman Empire, the Sick Man of Europe. Austria and Russia, the only two of the eight great powers that abutted it, had long been encroaching on its Balkan provinces, but the British, French, and Italians, having made great inroads in Africa, were equally interested. The German Reich, though arguably the most powerful industrial country except for the United States, and a leader in most fields of natural science, social science, and all other fields of scholarship, had been systematically excluded from important acquisitions in almost all areas, in Africa by the Anglo-French Accord at Fashoda in 1898 and the other treaties already mentioned on other continents. With their Berlin-Bagdad Railway plan, however, the Germans marked out the Ottoman center for penetration. Only Siam, really dominated by the British and French, and Ethiopia, really a stooge of the British and French, and Iran, divided by the British and Russian spheres of influence, remained nominally independent. Like China and Iran, Siam and Ethiopia were dominated by extraterritorial capitulations so that Europeans were tried in accordance with European law and not by the barbaric laws of those backwards countries.
A clique of far-seeing intellectuals at the University of Berlin, which vaunted its status as the world’s leading intellectual center, advised the Kaiser that, by 1950, America, Russia and China would become superpowers, to be joined by France and England if only they could retain their empires. For its part, Germany, with its main allies Austria-Hungary and Italy, risked being demoted, like Japan, from great-power status. Consequently, Germany must take over the Ottoman core if it was to survive as a peer amongst the emerging superpowers of the 20th century, especially because it was oil rich, and oil was to be the major fuel by that time. All of this stoked military buildup, with the central powers opposing the Triple Entente, which encircled them, and unlike them, had significant overseas empires. The alliances set off an arms race, with not only vast expenditures on the armies, but even vaster ones on the naval race between Britain and Germany. Ironically, between 1870 and 1914, democracy was introduced to all of these countries, who simultaneously increased their imperialistic intentions and military outlays at the expense of the mostly working class due to the Yellow Press and the jingoistic enthusiasm of the masses.
Missionaries had often preceded the troops and navies overseas, just as industrialists demanded colonies to secure their needed raw materials and markets for their surplus manufactured products, but even more, bankers wanted secure overseas places to invest their surplus capital in, it being much cheaper to acquire suitable factory sites and labor overseas than at home, where they were spending billions to develop railroads and factories, not just mines and markets.
Scholarship advanced apace with incredible speed, with revolutions in mathematics, the pure sciences, physics, chemistry, and the applied sciences, medicine, engineering, architecture, etc. In law and philosophy, as well as in literature and art, the output was overwhelming. However, cracks began to appear in this towering edifice, which rested ultimately on the Greek and Roman classics, Christian theology, and nationalistic pride. Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) showed how the Pentateuch, far from being a unitary product of Moses, had been clumsily pieced together from four distinct sources called J, E, D and P. In his Quest for The Historical Jesus (1906), the Alsatian Albert Schweitzer had demolished the reliable of the Gospels. Worse, the disciples of Karl Marx had begun to undermine faith in religion, called the "opiate of the masses," as well as liberalism. In his Imperialism of 1902, John A. Hobson had foreshadowed Lenin's arguments in his own Imperialism (1916). Perhaps more jarring, at least to the fashionable salonnistes, were the exhibitions in Paris of Primitive art, together with the Fauve and Cubist breakthroughs, implicitly challenging the norms of classical art that had prevailed since J. J. Winckelmann's History of Ancient Art (1764). After 1918, le jazz hot (as French aficionados termed it), duly purloined from African Americans, challenged and undermined the reign of three B's of classical music, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms,
Critiques and contradictions threatened the magnificent but crumbling empires presided over by inept tyrants. The most senile, Franz Joseph, had assumed the crown of Austria-Hungary in 1848 at age 18, after revolutions had swept across all Europe, except Russia which was too backward and England, which was too liberal. Having driven Prince Metternich from Vienna to seek refuge in London, that Kaiser was still holding power, refusing to use telephones or automobiles. The next most bizarre figure was Tsar Nicholas II, whose main preoccupations were, like Franz Joseph's, hunting and his family, especially his only son, the hemophilic Tsarevitch, whom only the mad monk Rasputin could stop from hemorrhaging. Unfortunately, he like most of Victoria's other grandchildren, had inherited genes conferring low intelligence. His throne, as shown by the revolutions of 1905, was perhaps even shakier than Franz Joseph's. Another dim-witted grandson of Victoria, the Kaiser Wilhelm II, was more emotional than his first cousin Nicholas but had a country united behind him, except of course for the growing number of Marxists among his subjects, whom he feared as much as the other two emperors feared their multicultural ones. Like our own supermasculine Theodore Roosevelt, who engineered America's first overseas conquests, all the monarchs were fascinated by hunting, with their most prized trophies mounted on their walls. After Victoria's death in 1903, her womanizing son Edward VII at long last succeeded to her throne, but he was as much interested in playing bridge as in hunting. Uncle to both the Tsar and the Kaiser, he may have excelled both in IQ.
As with these political and social problems besetting Europe, fissures had already appeared in the still-leading scholarly disciplines of classical philology and Christian theology. A Problem in Greek Ethics, privately published in ten copies in 1878 by J. A. Symonds, had brilliantly summarized the Germanic discussions of Greek pederasty, just as Karl Marx's works had relied on the English-language treatises of Thomas Robert Malthus and David Ricardo. Like Herbert Spen Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) enthusiastically popularized Charles Darwin’s work, setting forth his controversial recapitulation theory ("ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny"), which asserted that an individual organism's biological development, or ontogeny, parallels and summarizes its species' entire evolutionary development, or phylogeny.
By 1900 the English and the Germans had come to dominate both classical philology and biblical criticism, and their scholars were rivaling each other in those and all other fields, collaborating as well as competing in a race to predominate as the leaders of the two great blocs, the Central Powers and the Entente. In fact, the work of the classicists and theologians were showing cracks and contradictions as ominous in their own sphere as those that undermined the political and economic systems that supported them.
Ranking at first as auxiliary and subordinate to mathematics, science, theology, and classics, new disciplines, the so-called social sciences, were emerging. With Edward Burnett Tyler (1832-1919) at their head, Victorian anthropologists duly classified societies in a sequence from savage to barbarian to civilized, in ascending order, reinforcing the preeminence of classical and European culture. Likewise, they and the sociologists classified religions as progressing from animism to polytheism to monotheism (notwithstanding the apparent backsliding represented by the Christian Trinity).The Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer (1844-1941) began his magnum opus, The Golden Bough in 1890. Eventually running to twelve volumes, this work offered a comparative study of many cultures from the point of view of magic and ritual. Frazer’s starting point was the ancient legend of the king of Nemi (a town in the Alban Hills near Rome), who had to face death at the hands of his successor. Psychologists in England, Henry Havlock Ellis overshadowed by Austria by Richard von Kraft-Ebing and Sigmund Freud, ahistorically and Eurocentrically analyzed only the monogamous family which prevailed only in Europe, while still resorting to classical texts to characterize sexual perversions and variations. Most of all, history and modern languages came to rival classical philology and theology as respectable areas of college majors and university doctorates, which in that period spread from Germany to the United States. France founded equivalent degrees under Napoleon I.
The Austrian capital of Vienna has a particularly complex relation with the classical past. A fortified Roman town known as Vindobona, it was for a time the headquarters of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his wars against the barbarians who were pressing in from the north.
The monumental architecture of early modern Vienna is cast in the baroque style, utilizing classical elements such as columns and aedicules, but deploying them in an exuberant nonclassical manner. In the 19th century this mode persisted in the somewhat pompous structures of the Ringstrasse boulevard surrounding the old city. Yet a new note was struck by the Austrian Parliament Building built by Theophil von Hansen in 1874-83. The Imperial Commission set up to supervise construction stipulated that the structure must be in the Greek revival style to honor the concept of democracy - a somewhat dubious claim because the Austro-Hungarian Empire was scarcely a democracy. The centerpiece of the courtyard is the Pallas Athena Fountain, honoring the goddess of wisdom. At the base are reclining statues personifying the four major rivers of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.
In 1897 a group of avant-garde artists in Vienna bolted from the official Association of Austrian Artists, forming a rebel group in its place. They chose the name of the Wiener Secession, not in honor of the Confederacy in North America, but recalling an event in the history of the Roman Republic, a kind of general strike on the part of the plebeians, who “seceded” from the state. The official magazine of the aesthetic insurgents was called Ver Sacrum (or Sacred Spring; 1898-1903), commemorating an ancient rite of the Italic peoples. It is revealing that this development, important in the history of modern art, should nonetheless be cloaked in a classical guise.
At the University of Vienna, the art historians Franz Wickhoff (1853-1909) and Alois Riegl (1858-1905) offered perceptive new approaches to the exceptionalism of Roman art. Earlier scholars, following in the Winckelmann tradition, had tended to view Roman art as simply an imitation of Greek exemplars.
The founder of psychoanalysis, the Viennese Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) received a classical education. Later in life he amassed a significant collection of Egyptian and classical artifacts which he kept on his desk for inspiration. In his book The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Freud advanced the concept of Oedipal desire as a universal psychological phenomenon that is innate. The idea, sometimes known as the Oedipus Complex, drew upon the myth powerfully embodied by Sophocles in his play Oedipus Rex.
Section 2: 1918-1945
After the self-immolation of Europeans during the Great War, and the subsequent partition of the Ottoman Empire, the last Oriental one to succumb, the “soft” social sciences grew bolder, more assertive, and much more independent. Led in the United States by the German émigré Franz Boas, together with his students Margaret Mead, and her girlfriend, Ruth Benedict, post-Victorian anthropologists dared to claim that barbarian and even savage societies were, in their own way, as good, great, just. and aesthetically exemplary as European ones. Iconoclastically, American sociologists began to question whether arts, literatures, and societies could be ranked at all. Psychologists, dominated by Freudian epigones, who fled Germany and Austria to escape Hitler, mainly to English-speaking countries, hardened their antihomosexual stereotypes, thus demeaning classical pederasty (inadvertently following Friedrich Engels in this).
Universities increasingly dropped Greek after World War I and Latin after World War II as entrance requirements. Consequently, classical philology and biblical studies declined because they required those tongues. Majors and Ph.D.s became common in all of the social sciences, including economics and archaeology, which shifted from the concentration on classical and preclassical remains to embrace the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, even Australian and New Zealand aboriginal societies. Likewise, as scions of the middle bourgeoisie gained entrance, the requirements in mathematics were reduced or even eliminated, so that there was hardly any basis for logical thought, which had formally been instilled in math and classical languages. The United States led in this democratization of the universities because the agricultural and mechanical colleges established by the Morrill Act of 1864 specialized in practical subjects, from home economics and agriculture to civil engineering and business, but conferred university degrees. Then even the liberal arts colleges of such universities were sabotaged by the removal of the mathematics, as well as the modern language and history requirements. One could major in business or political science, which increasingly meant deemphasizing Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. Without any knowledge of classics, professors routinely proclaimed that Egyptian or Chinese contributions to society matched or even exceeded those of the Greeks and Romans. Others announced that the Mayans had excelled in mathematics (though, of course, their proficiency in mathematics did not survive their decline). The Americanists admired the Aztecs, whose great pyramid, completed in 1478, exceeded that of even of Cheops at Giza, while denying that they were cannibalistic.
Some relevant figures tell their own story. "The classical languages . . . have continued the decline that began in the late nineteenth century. For a while, Latin held its own in the high schools. In 1915 Latin still accounted for the largest enrollments of any subject besides English, history, and algebra, and nearly every public high school and private academy offered Latin. (By contrast, Greek ranked twenty-eighth in popularity in the list of thirty subjects offered by high schools in 1915.)" (Winterer, 2002, p. 180). At least Greek was still sometimes taught in those days.
“By the 1960s, however, Latin was beginning a sharp decline in the high schools, from nearly 7 percent of enrollments in 1960 to just 1 percent in 1978. In colleges, enrollments in Latin shrank over the same period from about 0.7 percent to 0.2 percent. The number of college majors in classics likewise declined by 30 percent in the two decades after 1971. One observer has estimated that of the 1 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1994 only 600 were awarded in classics.” (Winterer, 2002, p. 181).
Nothing was sacred. In the interwar years, socialism, fascism, bolshevism, and even Nazism, were proclaimed as advances on the liberalism so dominant before 1914. The idea of progress was debunked, notwithstanding ever more spectacular advances in mathematics and all the hard sciences, as well as in law, medicine, and engineering. The so called Whig view of history was attacked by the French annalistes. Even history was to be done from the bottom up, and all canons of literature and art were challenged. With their relativistic theories, the so called New Critics, allying themselves with the modernist poets Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, drove Matthew Arnold out of fashion. No orthodoxies survived in modern literature or history, much less in classical philology or religious studies.
As Europe emerged from the Great War in 1918, the situation in the arts was quite complex. Somewhat surprisingly, there was a revival of classical principles, now termed Neo-Classicism. The reason, as expressed in the bible of the movement, Jean Cocteau’s Rappel à l’ordre (1923), was a sense that Europe needed to reground itself after the turmoil and nihilism of four years of horrendous conflict. Identifying with Orpheus, Cocteau himself produced striking adaptations of classical Greek plays, including Antigone (1922), Orphée (1927), La Machine infernale (1934), and Oedipe-Roi (1937). In 1928, even T. S. Eliot, the author of the arch-modernist poem “The Waste Land,” shocked his followers by declaring “I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature and a royalist in politics.
In 1931 Eliot published a two-part poem “Coriolan,” referencing ancient Roman history as well as Shakespeare’s play “Coriolanus.” Yet the outstanding evocation of classical themes in those years was James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), in which each chapter tracks a section of Homer’s Iliad.
The American playwright Eugene O’Neill is not usually linked with classicism. Yet he modeled his 1931 masterpiece “Mourning Becomes Electra” on Aeschylus’ Oresteia, resetting the story in New England in the aftermath of the Civil War. So complete is O’Neill’s assimilation of the theme that audiences can enjoy the play without any knowledge of the ancient Greek source.
In Hamburg the Warburg Institute was founded for the study of the history of the classical tradition; later it moved to London. In music this trend yielded Sergey Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (with its premiere in 1918), as well as several works by his fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky. Even Pablo Picasso began producing graceful work that was influenced by Pompeian frescoes.
In architecture a kind of stripped classicism (sometimes termed "Greco-Deco") prevailed in many prominent monuments, especially in the 1930s. Transcending political differences, this classicizing architectural Esperanto dominated public buildings in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, and Roosevelt’s America. A good example is the austere West Building of Washington’s National Gallery of Art (designed by John Russell Pope and completed in 1941), contrasting with its later modernist complement, the East Building of I. M. Pei (1978). Even Le Corbusier proclaimed his admiration for the Parthenon.
Stigmatized by modernist zealots, these stirrings of renewed interest in classical norms were scarcely the full story of the interwar period. In fact, Neo-Classicism encountered a powerful countervailing force with the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919. Under the leadership of the architect Walter Gropius, and with Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky as leading teachers, this innovative art school sought to transform all the arts from top to bottom according to rigorous modernist principles. Although the rise of Nazism forced the Bauhaus to close in 1933, the school bequeathed a pedagogical model that has spread throughout the world. Almost as a matter of course, the new art pedagogy discarded classical models, preferring to work instead from archetypal principles of design and composition.
During the 1920s a different form of anticlassicism took root in literature and painting: Surrealism. Following the teachings of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to explore the Unconscious through such devices as automatic writing and collocation according to chance. As inspiration, the Surrealist painters were attracted to all sorts of primitive art, including work from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Other artists, following the lead of Piet Mondrian, Robert and Sonja Delaunay, František Kupka, and others, practiced pure abstraction.
Benito Mussolini’s effort to recreate the Roman Empire enjoyed only very limited success. Taking power in 1922, he inherited the Italian possessions in Libya and the Dodecanese. Yet his aspiration to acquire Corsica, Nice, and Savoy was firmly rejected by the French. With their interest in the Suez Canal, the British also took a dim view of his effort to expand in the Mediterranean.
Nonetheless, the fascist government sought to exploit the Roman connection symbolically, as seen in vast 1937 exhibition, the Mostra Augustea della Romanità, commemorating the 2000th anniversary of the birth of the Emperor Augustus. In the field of architecture, some of the Italian dictator’s grandiose projects sought to emulate ancient Roman structures. The Second World War brought an end to these pretensions, even though in their day they may have inflicted some damage on the classical ideal.
Section 3: After 1945; and worse after the 1960s
Almost unbelievably as it seemed at the time, the cataclysm of World War II dwarfed the destruction of World War I. Although the Japanese Empire fell, the main destruction occurred in Europe, whose suicidal attempt was much more successful than its try in World War I. All of the European overseas empires collapsed between the independence of Ethiopia and Libya before 1945, and most significantly of India, the crown jewel of the British Empire in 1947, to be followed by all of the African and Asian empires ending, ironically, with the final extirpation of the Portuguese empire, which was the first to begin, in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia (starting during the 1970s) Angola and Mozambique after bitter struggles, Goa and Macao, the latter annexed not long after Hong Kong’s return to the motherland. After 1945, with Europe in shambles, the U.S. remained sole possessor of the atomic bomb, with all other nations indebted to us, standing tall. Stalin may have had a bigger army, but we stopped his overseas expansion with our containment policy.
Conceived during the trial of Captain Dreyfus in the late 1890s, by the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, Zionism was the last of nationalisms to originate in Europe, and was unlike all others. Totally bereft of a homeland of their own, and no longer really independent since Nebuchadnezzar (587) and suffering the devastation by Titus and Hadrian, they were the last of all Europeans to become nationalistic. Until World War 1, only a tiny minority of the assimilated European Jews adhered to Zionism first launched in 1897. Loyal to their home countries, few assimilated Jews adhered to it, but in 1917, some members of the Rothschild family who belatedly joined the movement persuaded Lord Balfour to declare, in return for extra loans to the hard-pressed British Exchequer, that after the war, the British would help establish a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. Only, however, after the persecutions by Hitler, did the majority of the European Jews and those living in Anglophonic countries rally to Zionism. With the help of President Harry Truman, the Zionists established a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948, but it was only after their amazing triumph in 1967 against the armies of their united Arab foes that Zionists worldwide developed a total superiority complex and began the systematic apartheid oppression of the Palestinian Arabs whom they had displaced and overrun.
Whether a tribe, a race, a religion heretofore, Jewish nationalism originated with Zionism. Almost stillborn, yet after a sickly childhood, it was resuscitated by the Balfour Declaration, a sort of miracle drug, only to struggle to adulthood with the triumph of Hitler and with Truman's aid, and greatly to prosper in the War of 1967 that followed--a catastrophe to the Palestinians. Ninety percent of Jews worldwide became Zionists and decided to reclaim the grand Kingdom of Solomon, a realm that never had really existed, but was imagined in the Jewish scriptures.
The most outstanding Jewish intellectuals who escaped from Hitler’s Europe had taken refuge at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, at New York University and the New School in nearby Manhattan, and at Brandeis, the first Jewish university ever to exist outside Israel. Others established colonies in Los Angeles and at Berkeley. Before 1967, all of these refugees, trained in the Old World, had basically supported the discipline of classics, in which most had been trained, with many making outstanding contributions. Without question, they approved of the great achievements of the Greeks and Romans. In fact, taking humanistic perspectives, such as those in Greco-Roman culture, they had often attacked and demeaned all superstitions and religions.
Leo Strauss (1889-1973) was a scholar of German-Jewish origin who made a major impact through his teaching at the University of Chicago. As a political philosopher, Strauss anchored himself in ancient Greek thought. He was the author of monographs featuring close readings of Plato and Xenophon, as well as such early modern thinkers as Machiavelli and Hobbes. Some of Strauss’s leading followers learned classical languages in order to contribute to the kind of close-grained analysis he demanded. While Strauss’s work remains controversial because of some of the political consequences that some have derived from it, no one can deny the seriousness of his mission to interpret the classics. He held that only by rigorously assessing them in their own terms could we appreciate their value to the present.
After 1967, Jewish professors, even those trained in classics, became Zionists in theory if not in practice Zionism, which had been the last of the European nationalisms to emerge, under pressure from Orthodox Jews, now embraced a large proportion of the population in Palestine. In due course the Israelis began to abandon the earlier socialist underpinnings of Zionism to accommodate extreme religious views, becoming extreme nationalists. Larry Summers, before his removal as President of Harvard, before which he had served as Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton and now functioning as a top economic advisor to President Obama, dared to proclaim that anyone who criticized Israel was anti-Semitic. And of course, the pagan Greeks and Romans had a long history of persecuting the Jews in Palestine and Alexandria long before they converted to Christianity, when the persecution greatly increased. Thus, since 1967, many Jewish scholars, imbued with Zionist enthusiasm, have attacked the Greco-Roman culture. Cyrus Gordon (1908-2001), the archeologist, had already claimed that Greek culture was primarily derived from the Semites and Michael Astour (1916-2004) had continued that line of argument.
Martin Bernal was half Jewish, and grandson of one of the greatest Egyptologists, Sir Alan Gardiner, his own father, John Desmond Bernal, was a world-class mathematician. Although a professor of Chinese political science at Cornell, Bernal published his popular volumes entitled Black Athena (1987, 1991, 2006), insisting that the Greeks got most of their high culture from Egypt. He even went so far as to claim that during their Middle Kingdom, 2100-1700, the Egyptians had actually colonized Greece. Enthusiastically embracing the Bernal thesis, Afrocentrists proceeded to assert that Egypt had gotten most of its techniques from sub-Saharan Africa. Mary Lefkowitz, professor at Wellesley, but married to the homophobic Lloyd Jones (retired as Regis Professor at Oxford), intervened, seeking to devastate Bernal's claims. In her view, the great knowledge we had acquired about Egypt after the decipherment of hieroglyphics beginning in the 1820s, substantially disproved the assertions of the Greeks themselves that they had learned much from Egyptians, and therefore disproved European scholars writing before the 1830s who had agreed with certain Greek sources about Greek cultural debts to the Egyptians. This is what Bernal had called the "Ancient Model” before imperialistic motives had led European scholars to downgrade the contributions of Semitic and Hamitic cultures to Greek learning. Bernal himself, though had had promised me in a telephone phone conversation to discuss pedagogical pederasty, athletic nudity, and delayed marriages in a subsequent volume, has failed to do do. For her part, Lefkowitz, who triumphantly exclaimed to me at my first meeting with her, "We're winning, we're winning" (over Bernal), has so far failed to mention any of those essential and unique ingredients to Greek culture, either because of her feminism or her late husband's homophobia.
Sir Moses Finley, a Jewish historian who emphasized economics, was driven out of the United States during the McCarthy era. From his perch at Oxford University, Finley attacked the Greeks and Romans because of their heavy reliance on slavery, while not castigating the Egyptians or the Semites for their total obeisance to living gods like the pharoahs or absolute tyrants like the Semitic ones, receiving their orders from cruel and irrational gods. Ernst Badian, the brilliant refugee who fled from Vienna, going to New Zealand as a teenager, achieved the status of preeminent classical historian at Harvard--Badian compared Alexander the Great to the power-mad Hitler. Conversely, W. W. Tarn, the great English expert of the previous generation, had described how Alexander had spread knowledge, humanism, art and progress to the whole of the Middle East. Tarn was aware of how the Greeks and the Romans later persecuted the Jews – who of course had little art of note, because their scriptures forbade them to portray human or animal forms – belittled classical culture from art to philosophy.
When I (Bill Percy) arrived in New Orleans in 1962 to assume my first full-time teaching post, I soon became mesmerized by the cosmopolitan brilliance of Henry Friedlander. Within the year, Henry had replaced Emile Karafiol who as a 16-year-old had dazzled me as a freshman during my first year at Princeton. Emile became the first to graduate in only three years since World War II veterans, but unlike Henry, his Jewish parents just barely escaped the Holocaust. Yet neither of them talked much about it. Even in 1962, there was very little being said or written about the Holocaust. Henry remained my most influential friend until about 1985, by which time he and his second wife, Cybil Milton, had become joint editors of the Simon Wiesenthal Annual; she was soon to be appointed chief historian at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Together, they edited several volumes of memoirs about the Holocaust. Henry persuaded me to write in my western civilization text (accepted but not published by Prentice-Hall because my co-author Edward Fox didn't finish volume two) that the Kingdom of Solomon had been even larger than Israel became, even when it still occupied the Sinai. Having published Euthanasia, Prelude to Genocide, Henry, who had been a secular socialist by inclination with profound admiration for the Roman Republic, ended up a fervent Zionist, teaching in the Jewish Studies department at Brooklyn College. What a transformation from 1962!
The learned, assimilated Jews, has at first supported classicists. Some of them began to desert it when Zionism arose. They realized that the ancient Greeks and Romans had, in fact, persecuted the Jews. The trials of Captain Dryfus, which inspired Theodore Herzl, virtually coincided with those of Oscar Wilde that inspired Magnus Hirschfeld to found the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the first homosexual rights group in 1897. That same year also saw the convening of the first Zionist conference. Incidentally, the Zionist project coincided with the Imperialist penetration of the Ottoman Empire by the Germans, French, and English. Ironically, Richard Strauss adapted Oscar Wilde's play Salomé, an evil Jewish princess, for his opera of the same name, and he became Hitler's favorite living composer.
Following World War II, and more so during and after the 1960s, the American underclass, demanding equality and seeking fraternity, overwhelmed our institutions of higher learning with the GI Bill, which fueled a feeling of entitlement by veterans and minorities. With open admissions, affirmative action, and policies of retention, semieducated barbarians not only entered the gates but took ever our universities. By 2000, not even history or modern languages were required even for a for a liberal arts degree. Classics departments only survived by courses in translation and etymological courses for medical students; mathematics survived by remedial courses, with the abolition of any requirement for calculus, and also precalculus, for a degree. At my own institution, University of Massachsetts at Boston, physical education and public service and administration, for which one can get up to two years' credit for "life experiences," attract far more majors than classics or mathematics. Its two most famous graduates were Joseph Kennedy 3rd, who had survived his older brother's death by narcotics, and Thomas "Mumbles" Menino, the former blue-collar mayor of Boston, who has served longer than any previous mayor but still can't speak proper English.
Feelings and enthusiasm--just express your own opinion, no matter how ignorant and uninformed--those things are what is taught. All are on an equal plane, from the most illiterate freshman to the most senior professors.
New groups hostile to the classics and to Christian theology have taken over. Now a majority of undergraduates, women, led by feminists, denounce both as patriarchal and misogynistic, failing to acknowledge that other societies were more so in both ways, Zionists, a category that includes the vast majority of Jews for the first time now, beginning in World War II, denounce both, without bothering to learn Greek or Latin. Racial minorities, led by Black Studies, which has embraced Martin Bernal's Black Athena (3 volumes: 1987, 1991, 1996) to argue that everything significant originated in not only in Egypt, but in sub-Saharan Africa, Amerindians and Asians of various nations, who also benefit from affirmative action, decry Western civilization, as well as classics and Christian theology, without knowing anything about them at all. Latinos, who have now surpassed African-Americans as a percentage of the total U. S. population, though some are whiter than I am, demand exaggerated attention to their own cultures, which have contributed little to the advance of mathematics and science, very little indeed.
The 1970s saw a tremendous upsurge of political correctness (PC), in America and throughout the Western world. Greece and Rome, together with the Renaissance, were assaulted as redoubts of the dreaded DWEMS (dead white European males; Knox, 1993). Let us unpack this acronym. If the elements so indicated must be deplored, what are their desirable opposites? In sum, who are the good folks as distinct from the bad folks? First, those whose allegiance is to the present (“the living”) are always better than those who live in the past. This view is scarcely new, since it goes back to the seventeenth-century French conflict of the “ancients vs. the moderns.” Secondly, white people must always abase themselves, donning sack cloth and ashes to acknowledge their revolting crimes against people of color. The latter are by definition better. As Susan Sontag opined in an unguarded moment, “white people are the cancer of the human race.” For its part [the third letter of the DWEM slogan], Europe--a mere peninsula projecting from Asia--is vastly overrated. Fourth and scarcely least, the male element rears its ugly head in all its vileness. Males, the accursed sex, are responsible for endless wars and crimes. Replacement of male domination (“phallocracy”) by matriarchy will benefit everyone. In fact that salutary change is overdue.
Such was the litany of revolt.
Even gays and lesbians, dominated by feminists and their allies, have denigrated Greek pederasty. Those who are aware of such issues, insist that Roman married later than they did, in order to be politically correct, not realizing that the Greeks were better to girls, who married later than anywhere else, and the Romans to matrons, who were more empowered than anywhere else. And finally, most of all, the opponents of elitism, who encompass most of the above, attack classics and even Christianity as being hierarchical and slave-using, disdaining logic in favor of emotion. Allowing students to take courses online for credit towards university degrees, where there are few verifiable checks of who is doing the writing or other course work, can be seen as the latest stride towards complete abandonment of academic rigor and integrity.
Some of the worst models are Sir Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality (1980), originally intended as a collaboration with the Hungarian Jewish ethnopsychoanalyst George Devereux, who demeaned the Greeks as perpetual adolescents mired in "pseudo-homosexuality." In what is still in some misguided circles claimed to be the authoritative work on the subject, we are asked to believe that the erastai (the adult lovers) only lusted after the eromenoi (their youthful partners), never seeking to educate or inspire them.
Another major complaint is the attempts by today's classicists to contradict the facts in order to free both the Greeks and the Romans from the now greatest sin of pedophilia, confusingly conflated with pederasty, that is love of post pubescent teenager. The Romanists Saller, Shaw, and Scheidel, by misinterpreting Latin epitaphs, have claimed that Roman males on average married at 28 to females of 19, contradicting the established and correct dates of about 19 and 15. Likewise, without even resorting to misinterpreting any evidence (because there's none at all to substantiate his argument), James Davidson has claimed that erastai waited until their eromenoi reached 18 before having sex with them. Both of these ridiculous claims have not been contradicted sufficiently by any classicists, so incompetent, cowardly and small are the cliques that now dominate that profession from authors to editors to publishers. Perhaps even more outrageously, Bernard Sergent in two books (Homosexuality in Greek Myth, 1986), and its sequel L'homosexualité initiatique dans l'Europe ancienne)--misapplying Georges Dumézil's outmoded theories of trifunctionalism, common he thought to Indo-Europeans--even claimed that a pan-Indo-European pederasty flourished across Eurasia until it succumbed to changing religious and social developments in every region except Greece. Greece remained a hold-out. With its vague anthropological inspiration, this trend had a baneful effect on classical scholarship.
Emerging at the end of the 1940s, Abstract Expressionism was the most important and original art movement ever to appear in America. Leading members were Willem De Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko. Abjuring representation, abstract art (whose origins stem from ca. 1910) has no room for classical, or indeed any other subject matter.
Yet all the Abstract Expressionist artists had their years of apprenticeship in which they produced representational work. During this phase two of them, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970), executed canvases featuring classical Greek and Roman themes. The reason for this choice is that they subscribed to the then-popular idea (encouraged by Jungian psychology) that classical mythology offered a window into archetypal experience. In other words, exploration of such subject matter was conceived as a form of psychotherapy. Pollock’s “The She-Wolf” (1943) is a highly expressive evocation of the animal who nourished Romulus and Remus. Rothko's vision of myth, especially Greek, as a replenishing resource in an era of spiritual emptiness, was determined by his reading of Carl Gustav Jung, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann, among others. These ideas took concrete form in such canvases as “Antigone” (1939-40), “Iphigenia and the Sea” (1943), and "Tantalus” (1944).
In the 1960s, the arrival of Pop Art signaled a return to representation. Yet the works of leading figures of the trend, with Andy Warhol at the head, had no room for anything classical. The problematic role to which the classical had been reduced is illustrated by the work of Cy Twombly (b. 1928), who resided for many years in Rome. An assiduous reader of ancient Greek and Latin works, Twombly sometimes incorporates classical quotations written in a kind of scrawl on his paintings. Yet the style itself, with its ghostly, disembodied shapes, admits of nothing classical. There is classical content, of a sort, but no classical form. Somehow, the artist could not bring himself to take that step. Examples from Twombly’s oeuvre are “Apollo and the Artist,” “Phaedrus,” and the “Virgil” series.
Section 4: Conclusion: A Summary Critique of Today's Classicists
From the eighteenth to as late as the early twentieth century, Greek and Latin were required even for entrance and normally also in the curriculum of most of the major universities. With such training, many majored in Classics and Religious Studies, especially Biblical and Patristic Studies, proficient as they were in the required languages and because those studies were then on the cutting edge. They attracted many of the finest minds of those times. And classicists often became the top intelligence officers and code breakers during the First and Second World War.
But after the First and even more the Second World War, these requirements were dropped, as ability and interest in those fields diminished. Classical, Biblical and Patristic Studies attracted fewer majors and fewer doctoral candidates and very few first-class minds entered those fields after the 1950s. Inhabiting backwaters, they have been reduced to small cliques that attract very few of the best and brightest.
Now, the discipline of classics has deteriorated to such a point that hegemonic cabals overwhelmed by the “publish or perish” mentality pour out their new half-baked theories for the sake of raises and promotions. Arrogantly and rudely, they neglect and willfully contradict the profound analyses of their great predecessors who understood the the totality of Altertumswissenschaft. Knowing only bits and pieces of the overarching field, these new, overly specialized arrivistes fill the journals and university presses with mostly worthless gibberish that few care to read. They ignore and suppress valid criticism of their all-too-often simplistic, trendy theories and innovations. Having lost interest in the field and no longer linguistically equipped to evaluate it anyway, the great educated public has let these insipid, disrespectful insiders get away with their devastating cronyism. They review and praise each other’s rubbish, sycophantically currying favor with their superiors hoping to advance their careers.
I hereby call for searching critical review and opening up of this closed area by probing inspection and frank criticism. Having resorted in desperation to teaching movies and even comic books about their subject, today’s classicists can still hardly fill their classes and when they do, they don’t produce properly trained Greek and Latin scholars, but only scribblers and babblers in their own image.
Science is the Queen of the Intellect today, and rightly so. And most students cannot be expected to master both Greek and higher mathematics. In this discouraging situation, our only hope is to see classics survive as a smaller discipline.
Classicists saved themselves in the short run in the eighteenth century by stressing their association with religious studies—and by the same token, they damned themselves over time. Our scientific age has outgrown religion (though it rules ever more tightly the mind of the masses), and thrown out the classics baby with the bath water.
Apart from the deterioration of a discipline that has become a mere pygmy of academia, there are more general factors at work here. Publish or perish and the tenure system have corrupted even more disciplines. The American tenure system enshrines cronyism just as surely as the college of cardinals. Philosophy, for example, has become the same kind of picky, dogmatic logic chopping of just one school of thought (in England and the U.S. it is the Analytic trend) as it was in the medieval scholasticism.
Critical thinking is sorely needed, but this situation will not really improve unless the tenure system is replaced by due process. Those who decide must be required to read and discuss candidates’ publications and teaching reviews. As it stands now, the publications in these fields are as environmentally unfriendly because they waste trees to make worthless paper--a situation not unlike the excess of babies being conceived. Perhaps it is not too late even now. All those who contribute to this impending catastrophe should be severely reprimanded, if not punished, be they scribblers or breeders.
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Bolgar, R. R. The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries: from the Carolingian Age to the End of the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1954.
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Knox, Bernard. The Oldest Dead White Males and Other Reflections on the Classics. New York: Norton, 1993.
Lefkowitz, Mary. Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History. New York: Basic Books, 1996,
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Momigliano, Arnaldo. Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977.
Settis, Salvatore. The Future of the Classical. Cambridge, Eng.: Polity, 2006.
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Stocking, George W., Jr. Victorian Anthropology. New York: Free Press, 1987.
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The following unpublished letters to the editors show the dismal state of today's classicists:
From William A. Percy
To the Editors:
Paul Cartledge of Cambridge University in his review for International Historical Review (19, 1997) of my Pederasty and Pedagogy in Ancient Greece (1996) wrote that I was the first to try to go beyond K. J. Dover’s scholarship on sexuality in Ancient Greece. I thus have some perspective on G. W. Bowersock’s dual review of James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World and Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella’s Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty: Boys Were Their God (“Men and Boys.” NYR, Sept. 24). The review contains some questionable judgments and a number of startling lacunae. Bowersock asserts that K. J. Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (1978) “was as clear as it was thorough,” that “[n]one of the longer books that have been published on Greek homosexuality in the thirty years after Dover comes close to his lucid, concise, and scholarly exposition,” and that “Dover’s book set the gold standard for the entire subject of Greek homosexuality[.]”
But as Charley Shively noted when reviewing Greek Homosexuality shortly after Harvard University Press published it, the book is primarily a commentary on a tedious fourth-century speech (Aeschines’ denunciation of Timarchus) and also includes a misinterpretation of cartoons on pots (Dover concluded that most male-male sex in ancient Greece was “intercrural”; although a majority of the erotic vase paintings from the period do indeed depict between-the-thighs intercourse, literary evidence suggests that this was euphemistic, not a reflection of actual practice).
In fact, Dover was neither clear nor thorough. As James Davidson pointed out in an excellent earlier article, “Dover, Foucault, and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex” (Past and Present 170, 2001), Dover’s homophobia distorted not only his own assessment of Greek pederasty, but also that of his disciple, Michel Foucault, and in turn that of Foucault’s disciple, David Halperin, who summed up Greek sexuality as a matter of dominant males penetrating whomever they wished. Dover refused to acknowledge that male-male Greek love provided pedagogical and mentoring benefits to the younger partner; he saw it as purely a question of the older partner gratifying his sexual lust. Bowersock entirely misses this central point. He also overlooks two serious errors that Davidson makes: the preposterous notion that Greeks didn’t reach puberty until about the age of eighteen, and the claim that the older “lover” waited until then before initiating carnal relations with the younger “beloved.” To let these gaffes slide bespeaks either ignorance or squeamishness about the subject.
As to Dover’s thoroughness, Bowersock overlooks the fact that he refused to cite any sources written after 323 BC, the end of Greece’s Classical era. Consideration of Greek homosexuality requires discussion of Plutarch, Lucian, and Athenaeus, prime commentators on sexual practices in Classical Greece; they wrote about it as historians during the Second Sophistic (which happens to be Bowersock’s very own specialty). If Bowersock has no problem with Dover ignoring post-Classical sources, it is, then, a bit peculiar that he should chastise Lear & Cantarella for their exclusive focus on the Classical period. But since those scholars deal with sexual iconography on painted pots, which doesn’t pertain to post-Classical Greece because very few such pots were produced during that time, Bowersock’s criticism seems a tad misplaced. He in particular upbraids Lear & Cantarella for not discussing the silver Warren cup, dated by some scholars to the mid-first century AD, and a bronze unguent vase depicting four philosophers engaged in serious deliberation in one frame, and in another sodomizing male youths. Well, yes, Lear & Cantarella could have analyzed these metallic artifacts. But they had reason to confine themselves to the iconographics of ceramic-mediated sexual ideology; it’s the richest surviving body of work. That cannot be said of the sources that Dover used.
Bowersock’s deference to Dover raises questions about how well he knows scholarship on homosexuality. He is informed enough to cite the work of Karl Muller (1824), Moritz Meier (1837), Erich Bethe (1907), and A. E. Housman (1931), but doesn’t mention John Addington Symonds’ pioneering A Problem in Greek Ethics. Symonds first published ten copies for private circulation in 1883, all of which have now been lost. It was republished in German in 1897, and a pirated edition of 100 copies appeared in England in 1901; today the work endures as a component of Male Love: A Problem in Greek Ethics and Other Writings, published by Pagan Press (1983). Bowersack also omits the masterful work of Hans Licht (pseudonym of Paul Brandt, three volumes, 1925–1928), the English translation of which remains unsurpassed. Edward Warren’s A Defence of Uranian Love (three volumes, 1928-30) also provided a landmark study; Bowersock’s failure to cite this work is very odd, given his championing of the cup that Warren acquired and which came to bear his name. Michael Kaylor edited and recently reissued it with 100 pages of scholarly apparatus that includes a Preface by me (Valancourt Press, 2009). Finally, Bowersock seems utterly incognizant of Félix Buffière, whose Eros adolescente (1980) offers by many reckonings a more comprehensive and balanced work than Dover had produced two years earlier.
To be sure, Dover made an enormous splash in the Anglophone world, and to this day many non-specialists have the impression that he was the first scholar writing in English to analyze comprehensively the controversial subject of pederasty in Ancient Greece. Bowersock does not correct this misunderstanding (he does, to his credit, mention the contribution of A. E. Housman; however, as Bowersock notes, the timidity of British editors forced Housman to publish in a German journal). By extension, Bowersock fails to identify the reason Dover has gotten so much credit: Symonds and Warren, both unabashed Uranians with Symonds the greatest of them all, portrayed Greek pederasty in positive terms. They therefore have been largely hidden from history, erased from memory, even in the learned pages of NYR.
Dover’s legacy has left a decidedly constricted view of Greek pederasty, one that Bowersock echoes. Indeed, he compares it to sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy in our own era. The Greeks’ open embrace of age-differentiated male-male love bore little resemblance to the covert sexual coercion that the clergy scandal unmasked.
In response to Glen Bowersock in the NYRB 9/24/09:
Readers of Professor Bowersock’s review can be grateful for his learned tour of older, esp. 19th century German, scholarship on Greek pederasty, but it was unclear to me that he lavished the same kind of attention on the two books actually under review, The Greeks and Greek Love: A Bold New Exploration of the Ancient World by James Davidson and Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty: Boys Were Their Gods by Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella.
For instance, he highlights the fact that we modern Westerners would class Greek pederasty as child abuse (with the now inevitable digs at Catholic priests). That is undoubtedly true, but one of Davidson's principal arguments is that the eromenos in Greek pederastic relations was supposed to be at least 18. I have doubts about this claim, but it seems to me misleading in a review of Davidson's book to fail to mention this fact, since it leaves the impression that Davidson’s argument against viewing Greek pederasty as child abuse is unseemly in a way clearly not intended by the author.
By the same token, Bowersock makes the dismissive claim that Lear’s and Cantarella’s principal contribution is merely to publish what they found in Keith DeVries' list and he then chides them for limiting their discussion to Archaic and Classical vase-painting. But, of course, not all of his readers will be in a position to know that De Vries’ list concerns only Archaic and Classical; and this complaint also squares rather poorly with his praise, earlier in the review, of Sir Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, which also only considers Archaic and Classical material.
Bowersock then makes rather heavy weather of his complaint against Lear and Cantarella that they fail to consider a large amount of later material. It is true, of course, that there is much later textual material, but it is simply untrue that there is a large quantity of later Greek visual evidence. John Clarke in Looking at Lovemaking lists three Hellenistic works, one of which he argues may have been made at Rome for a Roman patron by a Greek artist. The material Bowersock refers to later in his review also derives from Roman contexts (although again probably made by Greek artists). In his penultimate paragraph, he mentions the fact that Greek and Roman attitudes toward pederasty (or practices of man-boy relations) were different, but he oddly considers it a great flaw in a book about Greek pederasty that Cantarella and Lear do not include Roman material. So, for example, on the Warren cup, a slave is watching one of the sex scenes. The presence of slaves was typical of Roman lovemaking, but as far as we know, not of Greek.
Finally, in a review that concentrates so heavily on the Warren cup, it would seem appropriate to mention the fact that many scholars (such as Caroline Vout, in Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome) consider it a fake. I don't happen to agree, but why should Cantarella and Lear muddy the waters in a book about Greek pederasty by discussing a possibly fake Atticizing work from Augustan Rome?
Moreover, Bowersock spends most of his time complaining about the fact that they focus exclusively on Archaic/Classical Athenian vase-painting. One might think they did so for good reason, however, as there are over 1000 vases from this time and place to consider and very little material from elsewhere. Of course, it is perhaps a plausible criticism that their title implies that they will examine evidence beyond this. To spend the bulk of his actual discussion of their book on this secondary point, however, while making absolutely no effort to judge whether they competently choose, describe, explain etc. the 113 vase-paintings they actually do discuss suggests to me that Professor Bowersock’s attention must somehow have been distracted from the actual job at hand, reviewing the books.