Magazine article History Today

The Ancient World

Magazine article History Today

The Ancient World

Article excerpt

Like a Roman of the Dark Ages, camped out amid the ruins of a vanished order and listening to the occasional crash of falling masonry, historians of the ancient world have long had to live with a consciousness of decline and fall. Time was when a knowledge of antiquity served as the very marker of the nation's educational elite--but no longer. Over the past half century, the study of Latin and Greek and of the cultures that spoke them has suffered a rout on the scale of Valens at Adrianople. A discipline that once enjoyed an olympian status in the curriculum has been left struggling for survival. Only three years ago the A-Level in ancient history barely survived an attempt by the exam boards to snuff it out altogether, while in the state system, where the carnage has been particularly severe, a bare 15 per cent of secondary schools currently permit students to study the languages or the civilisations of antiquity.

Nil desperandum, however. Ancient historians may resent what generations of educationalists have inflicted on their beloved discipline, but they can still, despite it all, maintain a certain imperious strut. If secondary education currently has something of the look of fifth century Gaul about it, then there remains no lack of excellent classics departments in the universities to play the role of Constantinople. The study of the ancient world, by its very nature, has a grander tradition of scholarship on which to draw than any other field of history--nor is it one that classicists are minded to squander. Achievements such as Simon Hornblower's recently completed commentary on Thucydides or Amelie Khurt's compendium of sources for the Achaemenid Empire are as learned and encompassing as anything to have emerged from a 19th-century German university: if not quite 'possessions for all time', then very nearly so. Yet while exacting rigour has always been one characteristic of the study of ancient civilisation, then so too, and not always exclusively, has been a relish for daring and originality. The discipline that inspired Freud and J.G. Frazer has still not lost its capacity to turn up surprises. Striking evidence of this is provided by James Davidson's book, The Greeks and Greek Love (Phoenix, 2008), which pools everything from archaeological minutiae to reception theory to provide, in the words of its own subtitle, 'a radical reappraisal of homosexuality in ancient Greece'. There is no topic so done to death, it seems, that it cannot suddenly be made to seem startling and strange.

Or indeed, contemporary. That the ancient world can hold a mirror up to the present has been asserted ever since the time of Machiavelli, when classics as an educational discipline had its birth. Scholars nowadays are more likely to cringe before the notion than to welcome it with open arms; but some very great ones have made play with it, nevertheless. In the late 1930s, Ronald Syme saw in the rise to power of Augustus and his henchmen a 'Roman revolution', a prefiguring of the age of Hitler and Stalin; in 1990, Peter Green freely admitted, in the introduction to From Alexander to Actium (University of California Press), his magisterial survey of the Hellenistic era, just how frequently he had been struck while writing it 'by an overpowering sense of deja vu'. …

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