October 20, 2006


Return of the Roman: Knowledge of Latin may be in decline, but novels, films and documentaries about the Romans have never been more popular. We are still dimly, unconsciously, aware that our culture grew out of classical civilisation (Allan Massie, November 2006, Prospect)

[I]f classical studies are in decline, as they unquestionably are, there is still much interest in the ancient world. Settis is not, admittedly, impressed by this: "The spread of superficial and persistent 'classical' references (particularly apparent in advertising and the cinema) is not preventing the expulsion of classical culture from our shared cultural horizon." It depends, of course, on what you judge to be "superficial.'' Novels set in ancient Rome or Greece, for instance? A matter of opinion, certainly. As Jason Cowley wrote in last month's Prospect: "Robert Harris may be one of Britain's most popular novelists, but he remains a victim of literary snobbery, or so he thinks. Interviewed recently in the Observer, he complained that the kind of novels shortlisted for the Booker prize were as much works of genre as any other. Harris is considered to be a genre writer: a writer of the airport thriller and historical saga. As such he is never in contention for the main prizes, and his latest novel, Imperium, was predictably not among the 19 titles on this year's Man Booker longlist."

Of course, Harris's publishers may not have entered it for the prize. But if they did, the novel had two things against it. First, the proof copy came with the boast that it had a publicity budget of £400,000, information guaranteed to offend high-minded judges. Second, it is indeed genre fiction, being about the political career of Marcus Tullius Cicero. It is also written with close attention to the historical sources and is a highly intelligent political novel.

It is popular, too—number three in the bestseller list as I write. No doubt some buy it because they have enjoyed Harris's other novels. But others must do so because of their interest in the subject. Is that interest to be judged "superficial"? If so, it is likely to be deepened by a reading of the novel. At the very least the reader will close the book having learned a good deal about life and politics in the late republic.

Why are so many novelists in the modern age drawn to write about the ancient world, especially Rome but also, to a lesser extent, Greece? The line of those who have done so goes back at least to Edward Bulwer-Lytton and The Last Days of Pompeii, written at a time—the 1830s—when classical studies were central to education throughout western Europe. Some such genre novels are actually very "literary"—Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean, for example. But most, whatever their literary quality, aim to be popular, which is to say that they have a strong narrative, striking characters and richly dramatic scenes. If not bestsellers, Roman novels are certainly intended to please the "common reader." Two which did are Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis and Lew Wallace's Ben Hur, both of which had a Christian theme, not a characteristic of the modern Roman novel.

The father of the genre, in English anyway, was Robert Graves, himself a classical scholar, if an eccentric one. His two novels about the emperor Claudius have scarcely been out of print since first being published in the 1930s. They were also successfully adapted for television in the 1970s (the series was recently repeated on BBC4). Jack Lindsay, a Marxist whose Rome for Sale, about the Catiline conspiracy, would make a nice companion to Harris, actually published his first Roman novels before Graves wrote I, Claudius, but they never enjoyed the same success and his books are now mostly out of print.

Graves's success encouraged others. It was as if he had opened a door, through which novelists such as Rex Warner, Thornton Wilder, Alfred Duggan, Peter Green, Gore Vidal, Howard Fast, Colin Thubron, Ross Leckie and Conn Iggulden crowded. I myself have written six Roman novels, offering a fictionalised history of Rome from Julius Caesar to the Flavian emperors. There have also been Roman novels in other European languages, notably The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch and Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian (perhaps the finest of all). Most of these books deal with the elite—politicians, generals, emperors. More recently, however, there have been crime novels by Lindsey Davis, David Wishart and Steven Saylor, in which low-life characters mingle with the great.

Novels set in ancient Greece have been fewer, reflecting, perhaps, a lower level of interest in and knowledge of Greek history as distinct from myth and legend. Mary Renault had a big success in the 1960s with her fine novel about the Peloponnesian war, The Last of the Wine, and then with her trilogy about Alexander. Homer and the Greek tragedians have been plundered less often than one might expect. Two exceptions are Hilary Bailey's Cassandra and Barry Unsworth's The Sons of the Kings, which masterfully evokes the ethos of the Achaeans.

The list could be lengthened, but what's clear is that the classical world still holds attraction for both authors and readers. Some of this interest may be "superficial," but by no means all of it is. In any case, it is natural that there should be such interest. There is still an appreciation in our culture of the fact that our civilisation has its roots in Greece and Rome—as well, of course, as in biblical Israel—and that Greek and Roman history, legend and myth are part of our inherited culture.

Perhaps the most interesting recent instance of this attraction was Ridley Scott's Gladiator which, like his later Kingdom of Heaven, stood genuine history (the original culture) on its head in order to make it serve our own ideals (the inherited culture). The first time you watch the film (either film) the departures from the record are disorienting/annoying, assuming you know anything of it, but on subsequent viewing there's an undeniable power to the myth itself, not least because it is our own myth, rather than that of the ancients.

There's a pretty good series of books by Liam Hearn (a pseudonym), Tales of the Otori, that's set in an intentionally fictionalized version of feudal Japan and incorporates a Christian-like religious sect, The Hidden, and some supernatural elements and whatnot. The fictional treatment makes for fewer distractions, while still invoking the historical setting we know, and raises the question of whether Mr. Scott might be better off making his films more explicitly fantasies, instead of pretending they're straightforward historical epics. But maybe there's also something to be said for the conceit of co-opting classical civilization to serve our own.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 20, 2006 12:00 AM

But maybe there's also something to be said for the conceit of co-opting classical civilization to serve our own.

Which, not so ironically, is precisely what the Romans did with the Trojan War.

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit.

Posted by: Pontius at October 20, 2006 12:25 AM

I just recieved Harris' Imperium and Fatherland books, looking forward to reading even more now.
BTW, curious that there was no comment regarding the Founding Fathers, mostly, who had read Cicero in the original Latin and used his thinking in their justification for both "Rebellion" and the Constitution.

Posted by: Mike Daley at October 20, 2006 12:45 AM

The Founders were likewise influenced by Addison's co-opted Cato:


Posted by: oj at October 20, 2006 7:35 AM


Even Adler's Vergil's Empire is terrific on the topic:


Posted by: oj at October 20, 2006 7:38 AM

In the homeschooling movement there is a strong resurgance of classical education. Many are teaching their children Latin and ancient history with an emphasis on the West's classical roots (including me). I think a big part of it is the desire of parents to give their children the kind of education they wished they had received.

Posted by: Buttercup at October 20, 2006 7:59 AM

I was meaning to add: Mr. Massie may be surprised to learn that the post mortem on Latin studies is premature.

Posted by: Buttercup at October 20, 2006 8:01 AM

interesting he doesnt mention Colleen McCullough's series of books on the fall of the Republic and the rise of Caesar starting with The First Man in Rome...very gripping.

Posted by: gentle reader at October 20, 2006 9:11 AM

They're awful.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2006 9:38 AM


Deus tuis coeptis annuat!

Posted by: Pontius at October 20, 2006 12:02 PM