Magazine article The Spectator

At War with the Greeks

Magazine article The Spectator

At War with the Greeks

Article excerpt

America's love of the ancient republics has had military consequences in the present

If you're 40 or older and I ask you to think back to the worst moments of your life as a schoolchild, memory will probably take you straight to Latin class. Remember how it was taught by a wizened old beak in a faded gown, who favoured merciless drilling, responded to grammatical errors with a rap of the cane, and squeezed the fun out of even the most heroic Roman tales? Latin has largely disappeared from English schools and I dare say that 19 out of every 20 among you don't miss it.

By contrast, it is thriving on the other side of the Atlantic. Eager young teachers offer Greek and Latin classes in a growing number of schools, public and private. The kids make cheery Latin videos, playing the parts of centurion, plebe, senator and slave. At weekend and summer camp meetings of the Junior Classical League they dress up in togas, reenact Socrates' colloquies in the agora, hold debates in Latin, run seminars on the Spartans' battlefield tactics, cook tasty Roman treats, and relive the last days of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Americans have always been keen on the classics. George Washington modelled himself after one of the great Roman heroes, Cincinnatus, who was called from the plough when the republic was in danger, won a great victory over the Volscians, then returned to his farm. Washington was proudest of his own conduct in surrendering power, first when he gave up command of the Continental army at the end of the Revolutionary war and later, in 1796, when he gave up the presidency.

Washington also staged Addison's Cato (1713) for his troops in their winter quarters at Valley Forge. Seeing themselves as libertyloving republicans, fighting for their lives and freedoms against King George, they loved it.

Cato follows the last hero of the Roman republic, incorruptible, facing certain defeat at the hands of the tyrant Julius Caesar. It also includes several lines made famous by other Americans, such as Patrick Henry's 'Give me liberty, or give me death' and Nathan Hale's 'I regret that I have but one life to give for my country'.

As the United States became more explicitly democratic in the early 19th century, it developed a new enthusiasm for ancient Athens, which in turn prompted a Greek revival in architecture. Benjamin Latrobe, the 'father of American architecture', favoured Greek models. Hundreds of churches and synagogues built between the 1820s and the 1850s borrowed the pillars, pediments, friezes and other characteristics of Greek architecture.

Stroll down the Washington Mall, between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, and you'll find yourself surrounded by Greek and Roman temples.

Classical enthusiasms have not abated even in our own day. Think of Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy (2004), Gerard Butler as King Leonidas in 300 (2007), and Liam Neeson as Zeus in Clash of the Titans (2010), three Hollywood versions of the ancient world that spice up those tales with state-of-the-art special effects.

Who could argue with keeping alive the memory of the men and women whom we honour as the founders of Western civilisation? But do the classics provide us with useful guidance on contemporary dilemmas? Some of the most energetic advocates of an aggressive American foreign policy say yes. Donald Kagan, a professor of classics and ancient history at Yale University, argues that war is the normal human condition and that peace, a rare achievement, is the anomaly that has to be explained. …

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