In July 1914, a cartoon called ‘Fool’s Paradise!’ appeared in Plebs Magazine. It features two pairs of contrasting male figures. In the foreground a top-hatted, round-bellied ‘Capitalist’ shakes his fist at a rugged, flat-capped worker representing the ‘Central Labour College’. The worker, his arms folded firmly against his chest, returns his opponent’s glare eyeball to eyeball. Between them, in the background, a man just as fat as the capitalist, but wearing a gown and mortar board, takes a knock-kneed, emaciated boy by the hand and encourages him to set out along the steep and winding path that ascends to a Palace of Culture: a walled and gated, curiously Orientalised citadel that floats illuminated in the sky. The man represents Oxford University: ‘Come and dwell with me, my boy,’ he says to the young Ruskin College, ‘and forget all about nasty things like wages and class struggles. They are so sordid!’
The cartoon, reproduced in Edith Hall and Henry Stead’s People’s History of Classics, encapsulates several elements of the debate about classical education at the turn of the 20th century. In Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities and Society in England, 1830-1960, published in 1998, Christopher Stray traced the rise and fall of a High Victorian conception of the study of ancient Greece and Rome as offering ‘large-scale visions of value – rules of taste and morality, images of the good life’. According to Stray, Classics was a means for both the traditional landowning and the emergent middle classes to differentiate themselves from those who could not afford to put their sons through secondary and higher education. A classical education at a public school and an ancient university was a curriculum in gentility, valued for its non-vocational character. It fashioned Tory landowning and Whig mercantile families alike into a new ruling class united by high cultural tastes and interests.
The consensus on the virtues of a classical education lasted more or less intact until around 1900, though cracks had been showing for some time. Stray shows that, from the 1870s onwards, the requirements of industrialisation and empire-building brought classical education under pressure from science, as well as from subjects such as English literature, which was beginning to construct its own canon and articulate its claims to represent the best of vernacular, national culture. Even at Oxford and Cambridge, the arrival of new notions of discipline and method (often imported from Germany with the incumbents of newly established professorial chairs) sparked quarrels between dons committed to the scholarly ideal of Classics as the historicising and multidisciplinary study of the Greek and Roman world as a whole, and those devoted to the traditional ideal of the Oxbridge college as rounding off the educational cursus honorum of the public schoolboy. Yet a classical education retained its lustre into the 20th century: Albert Mansbridge, who co-founded the Workers’ Educational Association in 1903, professed allegiance to the ideal of classical education as ‘the best instrument … in our time’ for the development of ‘a larger view of life’.
The Plebs League was founded in 1908 by working-class students at Ruskin College. Inspired by Marxism, syndicalism, and the ideas of the American industrial unionist Daniel De Leon, they rejected the WEA’s offer of educational improvement, considering it a ‘palliative’ aimed at integrating workers into the capitalist system by binding them to an eirenic, liberal-progressive view of the public good. Their call for ‘independent working-class education’ was a repudiation of establishment attempts to co-opt working-class educational initiatives, including Ruskin College, to serve capitalist interests. Rejecting Classics was part of this, but as Hall and Stead point out, the league didn’t abandon it entirely. Plebs Magazine’s editors saw the committee of Oxford dons and WEA lackeys who tried to extend the university’s influence over Ruskin College as exhorting the workers: ‘Back to Plato! Back to Aristotle!’ Yet the name of their movement was inspired by De Leon’s lectures on Roman history. Early issues of Plebs included a series of articles on Greek and Roman economic development by William Craik, a railway worker from South Wales who had enrolled at Ruskin.
Mansbridge, Craik, De Leon, the Plebs League, the WEA and Ruskin College find no place in Stray’s account. Their absence demonstrates the need for Hall and Stead’s book, which takes aim at the idea that the history of Classics in Britain and Ireland is a history of social elites. They don’t question Stray’s history of the socially exclusive uses to which Classics was put in the 19th and 20th centuries, but show that, alongside and often outside Oxbridge and the public schools, there was a wide spectrum of lively, fascinating and often unruly working-class engagements with Greek and Roman cultural material. They look at translation, vernacular poetic imitation, children’s literature, popular performances such as burlesques and puppet shows, the poses plastiques of ‘Beauty and Strength’ performers, feats of sporting prowess that invoked comparisons with Hercules and Atlas, as well as everything from classicising architecture to the iconography of trade union banners and Staffordshire pottery.
Hall and Stead’s protagonists include shoemakers, milkmaid poets, printers, booksellers, miners, dock workers, sports promoters and travelling showmen. Mary Collier, a washerwoman poet, may or may not have been a historical person, but the verse epistle published under her name is one of a series of 18th-century poems that describe working-class life and labour in a classicising form. Dic Aberdaron, an itinerant boatmaker’s son from a remote village on the Llŷn peninsula, spent much of his life on the streets of Liverpool. A linguistic prodigy, who Hall and Stead suggest may have been autistic, he was said to have mastered Aramaic, Arabic and Persian as well as Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French and Italian.
More familiar figures are seen in a new light. Richard Porson, a student and, briefly, fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge before becoming the Regius Professor of Greek in 1792, was praised for his editions of Greek tragedies and his contribution to the study of tragic metre. His habitual drunkenness and slovenliness, which earned him the disapproval of contemporaries such as Byron, were also often noted. Hall and Stead relate his uncouth behaviour, speculatively but plausibly, to the discomfort he may have felt – as the son of a Norfolk weaver – in the gentlemanly surroundings of Cambridge. They also draw attention to his political views in the revolutionary 1790s: he is probably the author of A New Catechism for the Use of the Swinish Multitude, Necessary to Be Had in All Sties, a satirical pamphlet attacking the social and educational conservatism of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Hall and Stead also examine the role of classical knowledge in the ‘hedge schools’ of Catholic Ireland and ‘adventure schools’ of rural Scotland – unofficial and often clandestine institutions that offered an alternative to Anglican or Presbyterian educational provision – as well as the colliery libraries of South Wales and County Durham. This rich and diverse panorama expands the boundaries of classical knowledge in Britain and Ireland far beyond the linguistic mastery at the heart of elite curricula. Since 2017, Hall has been the director of Advocating Classics Education, a campaign to expand and embed the study of Classics in translation in state schools. She and Stead declare themselves to be ‘politically and emotionally committed to the provision of excellent educational opportunities to everybody in the world’. They present their book as ‘a rallying cry for modern Britain to support the case for the universal availability in schools of classical civilisation and ancient history’ by providing ‘a systematically class-conscious avenue … into the history of Classics’, and ‘refute wholesale the argument that classical education must be intrinsically elitist or reactionary’. I have my doubts as to how far the book supports this mission.
One puzzle about Hall and Stead’s claim to provide a class-conscious history of Classics is that they never quite tell us what they mean by it. ‘Class’, as they recognise, is a slippery concept. The Marxist dyad of proletarian and bourgeois, founded on opposing relationships to the means of economic production, was challenged by Weber’s account of social stratification as determined by occupational class, social status and power. The authors of recent empirical studies such as The Great British Class Survey have built on Weber and Bourdieu to analyse class in terms of the ways in which various types of capital are enjoyed: economic (disposable income and asset wealth), cultural (educational attainment, taste and other preferences) and social (professional and personal networks). Hall and Stead’s discussion suggests it’s their subjects’ occupational status – or rather, that of their families – that defines a ‘working-class’ engagement with the Classics. Mansbridge gets his place as the son of a carpenter; Porson as the son of a weaver and grandson of a cobbler. The book tends not to ask how, if at all, classical knowledge was wielded in the service of the collective interests of the working class. Did hard-won classical education serve the class as a whole, or was it – along the lines of the Plebs League’s criticism of the WEA – just the means of their assimilation?
A People’s History of Classics is, ultimately, an account of the field of classical knowledge by writers who are already convinced of the improving character of a classical education. Hall and Stead show in loving and fascinating detail that a variety of working-class people engaged with ancient Greek and Roman material. That such encounters ‘improved’ or ‘emancipated’ them is often taken for granted. This leads to an absorbing and innovative yet also curiously stable conception of ‘Classics’. Their understanding of it as ‘the whole subject-area constituted by the texts, artefacts and archaeological remains produced by people who spoke Greek and Latin between the late Bronze Age and the Christian closure of pagan temples in the late fourth century’ is essentially the position reached at the end of the 19th century by the adherents of new ideas of Classics as ‘method’ and ‘discipline’. It would be accepted by most academics who study and teach Classics in Britain today, though some (then as now) would be horrified by its decentring of Greek and Latin language learning, just as others would lament the exclusion of other ancient civilisations, such as those of Anatolia, Egypt and Persia.
The meanings of Classics are just as slippery as those of class, and classicists today still operate between the contested conceptions that Stray identified in British society more than a century ago. Depending on occasion and audience, we present our subject as variously a specialised and objective ‘discipline’; a value-inspired ‘culture’ (‘the foundation of Western civilisation’, ‘the best that has been thought and done’); or as having to do with the origins of ‘progressive’ institutions and values (democracy, secularism and free thought, science, constitutionalism, multiculturalism). These multiple meanings explain why classicists often seem to be talking at cross purposes, bewildered by voices inside and outside the discipline who say we are refusing to confront its elitism, yet embarrassed that one of its most prominent contemporary products is a 56-year-old public schoolboy who also happens to be the prime minister, his claims to intellectual prowess resting on his knowing the beginning of the Iliad off by heart along with Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’.
Classical researchers who understand their subject to encompass the language, literature, history, culture, art, archaeology and thought not just of ancient Greece and Rome, but also of Ancient Egypt, the Near East and Byzantium, may feel entitled to disavow the image of it embodied by Boris Johnson. Yet he is testament to the enduring symbolic power of a bastardised version of the High Victorian ideal of classical ‘culture’, often employed in the marketing materials produced by universities as part of the ever more ferocious competition for new audiences and students. Hall and Stead persuasively show that people outside the elite have long found ancient Greek and Roman material beguiling, exciting, conducive to professional advancement or otherwise life-enhancing. But pointing out that engagement with Classics has not always been a middle and upper-class preserve won’t answer those who object to the way the elite still deploy it as a mechanism of class-based solidarity and exclusion.