Ancients on the fringe

A review of Classics in Extremis

Classics in Extremis (2019), edited by Edmund Richardson, looks to the “margins” to better understand classical receptions.

Written by Joshua R. Hall on

Who gets to comment on the ancient world and whose opinions on the subject matter? For much of modern history the answer to both of these has been the scholars of prominent universities, often shut away from the “real world”. Fortunately for all of us, and for “Classics” itself, this has changed, or more precisely is in the process of changing. This is thanks to a broadened academic mindset that acknowledges that the unique experiences of every individual colours their interpretation of literature, art, and the world around them.

The forgotten voices of past generations, whose reception of classical antiquity has typically gone unnoticed and unstudied by the academy, are the primary subject of the book here under review: Classics in Extremis: The Edges of Classical Reception (2019), edited by Edmund Richardson. It opens with an interesting introduction by the editor to both the volume and to classical reception as a subject.

Importantly, he addresses the issue of the classical reception scholar’s own subjectivity in attempting an objectivist study of past receptions, a conundrum which I think still needs further exploration and discussion. Richardson eruditely confesses, though, that a “decentred” approach “acknowledges the limits of all attempts to claim authority over the past, including our own, and the time-bound nature of all accounts of the ancient world, including our own” (p. 11).

The introduction shows the intellectual depth of the ever-emerging field of classical reception and provides good reason to take it seriously. This volume, though, attempts to live up to its name and “to challenge the way you write and experience classical reception – the voices you listen out for, and the ways you respond to them”. In short, “this is a classics which listens to different voices, however alarming; which understands the ways in which unfamiliar perspectives may yield profound insights” (p. 12).

Classics on the margins

Lorna Hardwick’s chapter explores classical reception in practice and the places of classics on the margins. She reaches a number of conclusions about their importance, including their ability to “redefine the edge” of the centre and their potential to be used “as agents of restorative understanding” (p. 24). This essay reminds us of the problematic contents and contexts of the classical texts themselves, qualities which make them extremely valuable in exploring similar problems faced by our contemporary world.

Aphra Behn’s poem “To the Unknown Daphnis on His Excellent Translation of Lucretius” is the topic of the third chapter. It was printed in the 1683 edition of Thomas Creech’s English translation of De rerum natura. In the poem, she praises him for making this text accessible to women who were, at the time, forbidden to learn the classical languages. Amanda Klause’s discussion shows Behn’s deep engagement with the classics was not quite from the margin but also not from the centre, which at the time was exclusively male. She makes the case that through the poem, the author usurped the voice of the translator, providing readers of the salutatory verse the foundation to reinterpret Creech’s Lucretius.

The next chapter looks at non-elite engagement with Greek vases in the Ottoman Empire. Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis surveys the nature of the evidence, emphasizing that while architectural ruins and ancient sculptures were ever-present in day-to-day life, pottery was more obscure. The nature of its preservation and its perceived minimal value are considered and the fact that they were generally sought after by (typically wealthy) foreigners may have influenced patterns of discovery and preservation. My impression is that vases themselves could be seen as a marginal voice in the first third of the nineteenth century. Petsalis-Diomidis importantly explores a range of people who interacted with Greek vases, which included Greeks, Armenians, and Jews.

Edmund Richardson’s chapter looks at the use of the ancient world by infamous occult conman Daniel Dunglas Home. The Victorian appetite for all things classical made it an appealing tool. As he notes, “Home calculated that classical ghosts […] would be fly-paper” for the high-society. This reception was certainly a form of classics in extremis, as pointed out by the author. It was such an impactful engagement, in fact, that Richardson concludes that “if antiquity haunts modernity, Home haunts both” (p. 71).

Of all the types of media in which people have engaged with the classics, photography may be the most intriguing. The limitations of the format, being a reflection of what is physically in front of the camera, mean that practitioners of the art must construct their creations in multiple levels. Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) was a pioneer of photographic practice and known for creating themed images. Some of these were inspired by ancient myths and characters.

These were staged and posed for by models wearing period-inspired dress, giving them a theatrical quality. Jennifer Wallace astutely observes that for Cameron “the camera could create a portrait with the nobility of epic heroism or a tableau with literary sophistication and allusiveness” (p. 78). All of this was done within an acknowledged amateurism, making the results all the more striking to a modern critical viewer.

Pornography is a big business today. But in the Victorian era its production was more contentious, especially content which went against mainstream sexual mores. Within some of this, though, is an important vignette into classical reception on the margins. Jennifer Ingleheart looks specifically at the reception of ancient “homosexuality” in a work of Victorian literary pornography, with the intention of examining the intersection of its reception in this piece and in mainstream culture.

The Sins of the Cities of the Plain seems like an interesting book, especially because it was accompanied at its end by three essays on Roman same-sex sexual conduct. The influence of contemporary mainstream classical receptions is highlighted even here, though, such as the preoccupation on ties between empire and urbanism and the emergence of more visible homosexual culture. Ingleheart points to this work’s engagement with Roman sexual ideology, not just the “nitty gritty” (i.e. the fucking) as being groundbreaking.

Rosa Adújar’s chapter discusses early twentieth-century intellectual Pedro Henríquez Ureña (b. 1884). Born in the Dominican Republic and active throughout the Spanish-speaking Americas, Henríquez Ureña brought Greek literature and philosophy to the region. Andújar makes it clear in her introduction that he operated “at the margins of the Western world” but that we cannot also say that he and his peers were “extreme” or “marginal” readers. Indeed, they engaged with contemporary studies of the classics. His immediate circle, el Ateneo de la Juventud, consisted of prominent young thinkers based in Mexico City. Andújar presents a history of innovative engagement with ancient Hellenism by these men. Of the outputs created in this environment was Henríquez Ureña’s El Nacimiento, a tragedy about the birth of Dionysus, which eschewed ancient metre as it does not fit in modern Spanish.

An important take-away from this chapter is the answer to why Henríquez Ureña and his fellows immersed themselves in the ancient Greeks. Unlike in much of Europe and Anglophone North America, this was done not in the pursuit of upper-class assimilation, but rather because of “the potential of ancient Greek culture to change their present and shape the future” (p. 114).

No horror before it likely rivalled the slaughter of the trenches on the Western Front. Countless expressions of its impact on the individual were produced in the aftermath of the First World War. All of these should be seen as having been created in extremis. The epic poem “In Parenthesis”, by David James, is the extreme topic of Edith Hall’s contribution. It reflected many of James’ actual experiences from the war. Within the poem are references to and influences from both the classical and medieval worlds. Hall shows that these were seen through a truly “Modernist lens” (p. 133). The purpose of this intersection is multivariant, though I cannot help but think it helped Jones contextualize his own war-time experiences within the wider experiences of humanity.

Henry Stead shifts our attention to British miners and mining communities. We hear of figures such as Sid Chaplin who worked in the mines and whose poetry is coloured by classical references. But individual people are not the only objects of study in this chapter, and Stead describes a number of educational initiatives which were directed at those people who lived in the pit communities. Those such as the program offered by the University of Durham included courses in Roman poetry, ancient drama, and ancient history.

Much earlier than this, however, the children of Wanlockhead, a small lead-mining town in Scotland, were learning Latin and reading Virgil at their community school. The importance of the ancient world to all figures discussed is obvious, and well-used in their artistic expressions. As Stead concedes, though, general conclusions about classical receptions in British mining communities is very difficult. Nevertheless, he takes the reader on an informative journey into a neglected aspect of Britain’s history.

In the penultimate chapter, Laura Jansen looks at the classics and Jorge Luis Borges, a twentieth-century Argentine author. These intersections run from his use of Homer as the focus of 1960’s “The Maker,” to more intellectual encounters. As Jansen puts it, “his classical ontologies disclose the highly complex texture that past culture acquires as it becomes increasingly fragmentary, lost, forgotten, eclipsed and, on rare occasions, invisibly present” (p. 166). Borge’s engagement with the classics is convincingly argued to oscillate between marginality and centrelessness.

The concluding chapter is a study of classics and conservative politics, especially in the public realm. Maarten De Porcq begins with a discussion of the reappearance of the political dandy in the past decade and their use of classical allusion to claim that modern society is one of (aesthetic) decline. The idea of “memory wars” is also explored, highlighting events such as when “Identitäre Bewegung” interrupted an Austrian performance of a play about the plights of refugees throughout Europe, based on Aeschylus’ Suppliants. Their use of a lambda on their flags and shouting of a phrase from the movie 300 are two of many examples of the far-right appropriation of antiquity, or at least their vision of it.

The largest section of the chapter focuses on Belgian politician Bart de Wever’s apparent obsession with Rome and Julius Caesar, although he may see himself as a Cicero figure. De Pourcq hits on an important aspect of conservative politicians’ use of the classics, which is that it gives them a connection to their peers in other countries.

Closing thoughts

This volume has been thought-provoking, as I believe was its intention. As the contributors wanted to, they have enlivened “marginal” voices upon whose winged-words were the Greeks and Romans. The range of these voices is proof that “Classics” has never truly been the exclusive realm of the elite male, despite attempts by the latter to make it so. There is no doubt that a wealth of knowledge about the ancient world can be found within this untapped well of thought. However, this brings to the surface a number of its own problems.

The first is one of scale. Despite being the subject of systematic study since the dawn of scholarship, we still do not know all that we can about the ancient texts themselves. Trying to fully explore the marginalized voices which have engaged with the classical world will be an insurmountable task. And as this type of reception is ongoing, the body of evidence will only cease with the end of humanity.

The second problem that I think this book raises is in the choice of “marginalized” voices. This is acknowledged by the editor in his introduction, but still makes me think that certain voices will remain marginal. At the same time, I am given hope of the “recovery” of a diverse cast by this book, especially by Rosa Andújar’s chapter. As a cosmopolitan Oregonian I take for granted that Central and South America are within the “Western world,” but her chapter was a reminder that my perspective is certainly shaped by my personal history and that it has not been the majority view.

I also found myself wondering to what extent some figures discussed in the book would view themselves as “marginal.” The basic core-periphery (phrased here as centre-margin) concept is problematic in that for one culture (person) to be within either category requires mutual agreement on what is the “core” and what is the “periphery.” It is a problem that I have with the concept within my own work on the development of the globalized Mediterranean of the first millennium BC. Thus, while some papers in the volume under review acknowledge that the voices they are analysing may not have seen themselves as marginal, the authors do. Within this they establish the paradigm that “ivory tower” academia is the centre and everything else is at the margin, to varying degrees.

This is almost certainly the prevailing opinion of in-post academics (at least from my experiences), but I think that there is considerable variation in opinion. As someone who works on ancient warfare, I have perhaps had more contact and interaction with re-enactors than many colleagues. For these groups, lofty academics are as much in the periphery as some voices in Classics in Extremis. I often wonder to what extent efforts like ours here at Ancient World Magazine is seen as being on the margins of classics discourse, given that none of the three editors are in academic posts, despite all holding doctorates. Does our distance from the academy marginalize our voice, or does our wider appeal to the general public create in us a new core, however much smaller than that of traditional scholarly publications?

Of course, this digression is not meant to take away from my opinion of this book and its contents. Classics in Extremis is an excellent and timely addition to the contemporary scholarly zeitgeist.