“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood.’”
This week’s anniversary of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech offers an illustration of one dimension of Why Classics Matters today – its dark side. Powell’s quotation of Vergil’s epic poem the Aeneid (6.86-7) exemplifies the practice of drawing on classical literature as a source of powerful rhetoric, often for populist or authoritarian. The reception of his speech in recent years illustrates the use of classical learning as a source of authority, especially in Britain where study of the Classics continues to be associated with upper-class superiority – Powell’s academic career, as a 25-year-old Professor of Classics at Sydney and expert on the notoriously difficult text of the ancient historian Thucydides, is cited as grounds for taking his views on other issues seriously.
Above all, the speech echoes the persistent image of the greatness of Rome as the foundation of European civilisation, brought to a violent end by an influx of foreigners and their barbaric, alien customs. The fate of Rome haunted the European empires of the nineteenth century, at the same time as they evoked its glorious reputation to justify violent conquest and colonial exploitation in the name of spreading peace and civilisation. The spectre of ‘decline and fall’ returns time and again, most recently in weaponised form to stoke hostility to immigration and Islam.
As classicists like Mary Beard and Edith Hall have pointed out, Powell’s quotation of Vergil is at best a misinterpretation or error, if not a deliberate distortion; the line is in fact spoken by a priestess of Apollo predicting conflict if the Trojan hero Aeneas seeks to found a new city in Italy – which he does, and the eventual result is the hybrid civilisation of Rome. But such scholarly concern for the truth may have little purchase on the powerful modern myths of classical antiquity – especially when classics as a discipline is tainted by its long association with colonialism, racism, sexism and classism.
I wrote Classics: Why It Matters because I don’t believe that the subject is irrevocably tainted by that association; classicists have done as much as anyone to criticise the ways in which the legacy of classical antiquity has been distorted and its image co-opted, and to broaden the scope of classical studies. But the survival of the discipline depends on confronting its problematic traditions, and combatting the urge to defend it with claims about the intrinsic superiority of Greek and Roman civilisation and/or those who study it. Classics matters in a good way insofar as it is a critical, self-critical, mongrel discipline; if not, it matters only as a problem.
Neville Morley is Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter. His new book Classics: Why it Mattersis now available from Polity.