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The Classics Cabal

22 September 2014

At her birthday lunch this Saturday, Mary Beard finished her speech triumphantly, ‘There’s never been a better moment for Classics. Don’t believe what you might read in the press.’ Although a lot of the guests were press, including Tatler’s deputy editor and the Sun’s royal correspondent, you’d be hard pressed, looking around the room, to doubt her optimism.

It’s become a banality these days to express outrage at how many former Bullingdon members stalk the halls of power or reflect wryly, especially in the light of the referendum, on the undue influence Scots wield at the BBC, Westminster and other costly public institutions. But watch out! There is another cabal in the press, politics and public life. Let’s call them a conspiracy of classicists. Can that be a new collective noun? They put Cataline to shame.

Photo by John Cairns

Even the name of the organisers of the celebration, Classics Conclave, sounds like it could be a subset of some masonic lodge. Set up in 2009, in Boston, MA, the group provides funding for teaching and research, particularly for new technologies, and is active in supporting women in Classics. It’s one of a number of organisations that have been set up recently to promote the subject. At City Hall on Thursday, a crowd of financiers, politicians, journalists and judges (forget PPE, this is the humanity that rules) gathered in aid of the charity Classics For All to listen to Boris Johnson, a patron, predict the union’s survival with the help of Tacitus and then watch a performance of Hecuba’s soliloquy while the Tower of London glittered behind.

The crowd at both events was predictably diverse – ranging from a professor of Ancient Tragedy at King’s to a banker lucky enough to have studied Book II of the Aeneid at school 30 years ago. Granted, it was hardly reflective of the general status of Classics in the rest of the country. With only 30 Latin teachers trained each year compared to the 70 or so that retire, the subject seems doomed to a death rattle so long, painful and inescapable, it makes Claudius’s exit seems merciful.

But what of Beard’s optimism? It is due in part to the passionate zeal for their subject which unites this disparate bunch. The idea that this cabal comprises only of the privileged, white and male is rubbish. More often than not, the subject attracts people who do things a little differently – not in the least women. Saturday was a joint birthday celebration for academics Joyce Reynold, Pat Easterling and Mary Beard – ‘the three muses, in front of whom Zeus trembles’, as Roger Michel, head of the Classics Conclave, put it. Easterling went from her grammar school in Blackburn to graduate from Newnham College in 1955 with first class honours and distinction. In 1994, she was named the 36th Regius Professor of Greek: the first – and so far the only – woman to hold that post since its endowment by Henry VIII. A specialist in Roman epigraphs, Joyce Reynolds, though 95, is still an active academic and fundraiser. On being prompted to give a speech at the lunch, she wavered to her feet and said simply ‘Thank you. Thank you’.

These women are the heirs of a tradition encompassing Ann Yearsley, a 19th-century poet and milkmaid, who penned the poem ‘Addressed to Ignorance: occasioned by a Gentleman’s desiring the Author never to assume a Knowledge of the Ancients’ and the anthropologist Jane Harrison. In her speech Beard said, tongue firmly in cheek, ‘Classics remains at forefront of the humanities because of the contribution of women. Among them, Jane Harrison had many of qualities which make a good classicist – she was pushy, self-promoting, very clever and also funny.’

This is no inward-looking, self-serving elite. There’s nothing a Classicist likes better than to quote Horace or debate the value of the split infinitive. The more people there are to do that with, the better. The charity Classics For All for which I volunteer is dedicated to promoting the subject in state schools with no previous history of it. Kallos, the only gallery in London devoted solely to ancient Greek antiquities, organises outreach programmes for schools at the behest of its owner, Baron Lorne Thyssen, alongside glamorous parties for collectors more likely to buy Basquiats. And disciples of the classics are themselves loyal: 77% of those surveyed in a YouGov poll who had studied classics at school or beyond said that it had benefitted or greatly benefitted their subsequent quality of life.

Classical subjects aren’t as central in the curriculum as they could or should be. There is however a definite sense at the moment, evident at both events this week, that there are many important people behind the subject. And as a classicist and a member of the press, it seems to be a wise rhetorical strategy to call attention to a subject slowly going extinct and urge for its revival. The Classics are dead! Long live the Classics!

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