Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity

Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity

Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity

Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity


How did the Victorians engage with the ancient world? Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity is a brilliant exploration of how the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome influenced Victorian culture. Through Victorian art, opera, and novels, Simon Goldhill examines how sexuality and desire, the politics of culture, and the role of religion in society were considered and debated through the Victorian obsession with antiquity.

Looking at Victorian art, Goldhill demonstrates how desire and sexuality, particularly anxieties about male desire, were represented and communicated through classical imagery. Probing into operas of the period, Goldhill addresses ideas of citizenship, nationalism, and cultural politics. And through fiction--specifically nineteenth-century novels about the Roman Empire--he discusses religion and the fierce battles over the church as Christianity began to lose dominance over the progressive stance of Victorian science and investigation. Rediscovering some great forgotten works and reframing some more familiar ones, the book offers extraordinary insights into how the Victorian sense of antiquity and our sense of the Victorians came into being.

With a wide range of examples and stories, Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity demonstrates how interest in the classical past shaped nineteenth-century self-expression, giving antiquity a unique place in Victorian culture.


Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity is intended to make a contribution to three major areas of scholarship, nineteenth-century studies, Classics, and what is often called Reception Studies. a short version of the agenda will seem straightforward enough: Victorian culture was obsessed with the classical past, as nineteenth-century self-consciousness about its own moment in history combined with an idealism focused on the glories of Greece and the splendor of Rome to make classical antiquity a deeply privileged and deeply contested arena for cultural (self-)expression. This is, or should be, a fundamental area of concern for nineteenth-century scholars. Classics as a discipline has always been interested in its own development, and it has supported the history of classical scholarship as a small but lovingly tended genre within the field; and there are few centuries as important for classicists’ self-awareness as the nineteenth, whether we focus on scholarship itself or on the classicists’ complicity with imperialism, racism, and nationalism. This is, or should be, highly pertinent for working classicists, explaining how we have come to be who we currently are. Reception Studies—often called by classicists the history of the classical tradition—has become in recent years both a growth field and an area where methodological issues central to the very idea of classics are hotly debated: where better to test the waters then in the Victorian engagement with Classical Antiquity?

My dull title inevitably threatens such apparently self-evident delineations of my project’s questions. But this book also sets out to produce some new questions and new understandings in each of these areas. For example, let us think for a moment about the discipline of Classics and its place in Victorian culture.

One lasting icon of the nineteenth-century’s new organization of the discipline of Classics is Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford, instigator of the tutorial system of teaching, translator of Plato, and public intellectual who articulates as strongly as anyone the connection between university education and public life. As Classics itself took a turn away from the high and dry philological training toward political philosophy, with Plato becoming a central subject, so Jowett’s one-on-one Socratic classes . . .

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