What does 'Classics' mean?

Pagan Latin and (to a far lesser extent) Greek authors were read by English-speaking elites long before. But British Classics, under that title and as we know it today, was born as a discipline during the period between the Glorious Revolution and the mid-18th century. This was against the background of the Bill of Rights, the circumscription of the powers of the monarchy, the Whig and Anglican ascendancy and, in 1707, the Act of Union. This chapter traces the emergence of the label and of the closely related term class to designate a social, economic and political status. It enquires into the reasons why they emerged when they did, and explores some challenges made to the claim of the wealthier ‘gentlemen’ class, on account of the difficulty of the ancient languages and the costly leisure required to acquire them, to exclusive ownership of classical authors.1

Thomas Brown (Figure 2.1), a brilliant satirist, translator and a major influence on Swift, Addison and Steele, was also known to be a linguistic innovator.2 His Letters from the Dead to the Living, which are informed by Lucian of Samosata’s satirical Dialogues of the Dead, include one written by a fictional physician. ‘Giuseppe Hanesio, High-German Doctor and Astrologer’ records from the Underworld the many cures he had effected when he was alive. His patients had included Pope Innocent XI and the Sophy of Persia. He had also cured the Mughal emperor ‘Aurung-Zebe’ of epilepsia fanatica: ‘by my Cephalick Snuff and Tincture, I made him as clear headed a Rake as ever got drunk with Classics at the University, or expounded Horace in Will’s Coffee-House’.-’ The joke here is that the notorious religious intolerance of the fanatical Aurung-Zebe (Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad) had been deactivated by making him the opposite of clear-headed. He had been made as confused as rakish students reading classical authors at

Thomas Brown (1762—1704), from Caulfield (1819) v.l, reproduced by courtesy ofThe British Library

FIGURE 2.1 Thomas Brown (1762—1704), from Caulfield (1819) v.l, reproduced by courtesy ofThe British Library.

the university, ‘Classics’ here apparently meaning, rather than ancient authors or texts, his fellow students and perhaps tutors of Greek and Latin themselves.

Brown had an axe to grind against university teachers of ancient languages. He was born into a relatively poor Shropshire household. His father, a farmer, died when he was eight. He was only educated because his county offered free schooling at that time. By scholarships he proceeded to Christ Church, only to develop an aversion to the then-Dean, Dr. John Fell, a disciplinarian. The story goes that Brown, who loved to drink, was about to be expelled, but Fell challenged him to translate Martial 1.32. A literal translation of this poem would run, ‘I do not love you, Sabidius, and I am unable to tell you why. All I can say is this: I do not love you’.4 Brown is said to have responded,

I do not love you, Dr Fell,

But why I cannot tell;

But this I know full well,

I do not love you, Dr Fell.5

Brown, to whom the discussion will return later in this chapter, left Oxford without a degree. He eked out an income to support his libertine lifestyle, first as a schoolmaster in Kingston-upon-Thames and then as a Grub Street writer and translator. His own experience of rakishly getting drunk on or with ‘Classics’ at university surely lies behind that early instance of the term.

Less than 70 years previously, ‘classics’ could still mean ‘war trumpets’ or ‘trumpets-calls’, as the neuter noun classicum, plural classica, did in canonical ancient authors.6 In 1635 King Charles I commissioned an epic poem on his predecessor Edward Ill’s achievements from Thomas May, renowned translator of Lucan’s Civil War. In one passage May draws a comparison with the impact made by Julius Caesar’s army in France long ago,

When dreadfull Classicks in all parts were heard,

And threatning Eagles every where appear’d.7

By ‘dreadfull Classicks’ being heard in parts, May does not mean that Caesar subjected the Gauls to long recitations of ancient Greek and Latin literary works.

What have military trumpets to do with either class or Classics? When the Romans heard their Latin noun classis, from which was derived that word for trumpet, classicum, it contained a resonance that we do not hear when we say either Classics or class: deriving from the same root as the verb clamare (‘call out’), a classis consisted of a group of people ‘called out’ or ‘summoned’ together by trumpets. It could be the men in a meeting, or in an army or the ships in a fleet. The word has always been associated with Servius Tullius, the sixth of the legendary kings of early Rome, who was thought to have held the first census in order to find out, for the purposes of military planning, what assets his people possessed (Livy I.42-.4). This explains the ancient association of the term class with an audible call to arms. Yet, by not long into the 18th century, the term was adopted in order to distinguish different strata within English society: in 1796 the radical democrat John Thelwall refers to the treatment of the different ‘classes’ by Servius Tullius when trying to arouse the British working class to imitate the French revolutionaries.8 (Figure 2.2) The working poor of England began to be called members of ‘the lower classes’ rather than just ‘the poor’ or members of ‘the lower orders’. The word ‘poor’ was too imprecise; the notion of hierarchical ‘orders’ too inflexible and too infused with medieval and feudal notions of birth-rank to accommodate the unprecedented new levels of social mobility.

The language of ‘rank’ lingered in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), written at the precise moment when ‘Classics’ was being invented as a subject label: ‘that most to be taken Care of is the Gentleman’s Calling. For if those of that rank are once set right, they will quickly bring the rest into order’.9 A new definition of the ‘Gentleman’ can be seen at work here (see below, pp. 29-33), but alongside the old term ‘rank’, the term class, which (like its ancient prototype) implied a status with an economic basis rather than an inherited rank, was a result of the incipient erosion, during the early industrial revolution, of the transparent and relatively stable hierarchical ranking system which had earlier governed the English social structure.10 The French

‘Copenhagen House’, A drawing by James Gillray ofJohnThelwall speaking at a Corresponding Society Meeting at Spa Fields in London (1795). Public Domain

FIGURE 2.2 ‘Copenhagen House’, A drawing by James Gillray ofJohnThelwall speaking at a Corresponding Society Meeting at Spa Fields in London (1795). Public Domain.

and German languages soon imitated the English one, often replacing the terms etat and Stand with classe and Klasse. Nevertheless, for most of the 18th century the labouring and artisanal classes were often spoken of as a mass of ‘commoners’ or ‘common people’. The term ‘working classes’, in the plural as a category including workers in industry, agriculture, craft, itinerant trade and domestic service, as well as unemployed people who could only hope to find work in those spheres, first appears at the time of the French Revolution.11 By 1815 the now-familiar double-barrelled terms ‘middle classes’ and ‘working classes’ had become accepted parlance.12 The more modern socio-economic usage emerged when writers such as Robert Owen began to employ the formulation ‘working class/es’ within widely read essays and journals in the second decade of the 19th century.13 The plural the Classics, meanwhile, had been used in English by 1679, as we shall see, to designate the corpus of Greek and Latin literature.

It is to the legendary first census that there must also be traced the origins of the term Classics. In Servius’ scheme, the men in the top of his six classes—the men with the most money and property—were called the classici. The ‘Top Men’ were ‘Classics’. This is why the late 2nd-century ce Roman miscellanist Aulus Gellius, could, by metaphorical extension, call the Top Authors ‘Classic Authors’, scriptores classici. This was to distinguish them from inferior or metaphorically proletarian’ authors, scriptores proletarii (Nodes Attici XIX.8.15). Gellius recalls Cornelius Fronto exhorting him and another author that, when they were in doubt whether a noun should be singular or plural, to do as follows:

Ite ergo nunc et, quando forte erit otium, quaerite an ‘quadrigam’ et ‘hare-nas’ dixerit e cohorte ilia dumtaxat antiquiore vel oratorum aliquis vel poetarum, id est classicus adsiduusque aliquis scriptor, non proletarius.

So go now and investigate, when you happen to have spare time, whether any more antique orator or poet has used quadriga or harenae, provided that he is a writer of class and substance, not a proletarian one.

The metaphors are even more specific than that: classicus adsiduusque, here translated ‘of class and substance’, could equally well be translated ‘of the taxpaying class’, one specific meaning of the term adsiduus.

Every tradition of writing, art, music and sport—English Literature, Dutch painting, Jazz, motorcycles, horse races—now claims its own ‘Classics’, and in the case of English Literature, this custom began in the early 18th century not long after it was applied to texts in ancient Greek and Latin.14 But the most venerated Classics amongst all others have always been the authors of Greece and Home—the supposed primi inter pares or ‘first amongst equals’ when compared with all the cultural Classici produced in world history. In its earliest instances, there is an additional definite article the prefixed to the term Classics, enacting a final sub-division by which the most elite texts of all can be identified by the few refined individuals supposedly able to appreciate them. The unit at Harvard University which studies these Greek and Roman ‘Hyper-Classics’ still styles itself ‘The Department of the Classics’.

The involvement, historically, of the study of Greece and Rome in the maintenance of socio-economic hierarchies is thus obvious in the very title Classics. Over the last three decades some scholars have considered abandoning it altogether, and replacing it with a label such as ‘Study of the ancient Mediterranean’ or ‘Study of Greek and Roman antiquity’ or even, in jest, ‘Ancientry’.1’ Their motive has been to expand the study of the ancient communities where Greek and Latin were spoken to include all the other languages and peoples who shared this world, from Sumerians, Nubians, Phoenicians and Carthaginians to Gauls, Batavians and Etruscans. But surely the class connotation of the nomenclature Classics is ideologically just as objectionable as the ethnic one that privileges Greek and Latin over other ancient tongues.

The Attic Nights was a favourite Renaissance and Early Modern text, first printed in 1469.16 By 1602, the adjective classic, variously spelt classick, classicke and classique, is found occasionally, if only in scholarly contexts, to describe a canonical author or text of any era: William Perkins writes in a theological work written in 1602, ‘Neither Plinie (who writ after Paul) nor any other ancient classique author, doth make mention of Phrigia’.17 He needs to distinguish between

‘ancient’ classic authors and more recent ones, and seems to include St. Paul’s epistles amongst ‘classical’ works. Amongst scholarly writers, we find the term classic qualifying ‘folio’ in 1628,18 and a ‘word’ in the Latin language in 1646.19 By 1645, with the circulation in European circles of the Greek treatise On the Sublime attributed to Longinus (the first English translation, by John Hall, was published in 1652), Sir Dudley North fuses the idea of a top literary class derived from Aulus Gellius with the new interest in sublimity: ‘Farre more sublime and better Authours have discovered as little order, and as much repetition; witnesse the Collections of Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustines Confessions, and some of a higher Classe’.20 By 1694, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Willian Sancroft can be praised posthumously by another divine for having been ‘an admirable Critic in all the Antient and Classic Knowledge, both among the Greeks and Romans’, although here, too, the words ‘Antient and Classic’ probably include biblical literature.21

The inclusion of biblical literature and patristic writers in the category of ‘classic’ authors persisted in some quarters for decades. Anthony Blackwall, the author of an influential 1718 An Introduction to the Classics; Containing a Short Discourse on their Excellencies and Directions how to Study them to Advantage, felt impelled to correct any impression that he was disrespecting Christian texts with a long essay on the subject seven years later in 1725. Its title is The Sacred Classics Defended and Illustrated; or, An Essay Humbly offer’d towards proving the Purity, Propriety, and true Eloquence of the Writers of the New Testament. The title page further eleborates the arguments: in the first part, ‘those Divine Writers are vindicated against the Charge of barbarous Language, false Greek, and Solecisms’. The second part shows

that all the Excellencies of Style, and sublime Beauties of Language and genuine Eloquence to abound in the Sacred Writers of the New Testament, With an Account of their Style and Character, and a Representation of their Superority, in several instances, to the best Classics of Greece and Rome.

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