Not You

Mary Beard

  • Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship edited by J.P. Hallett and T. van Nortwick
    Routledge, 196 pp, £42.50, November 1996, ISBN 0 415 14284 9

For more than two thousand years, classical culture – as a set of institutions and as a way of life – has been lamenting its own imminent extinction. By inventing the idea of ‘barbarity’ to be the antitype of their own ‘civilised’ values, the ancient Greeks prompted the fear that those barbarians (real or, for the most part, imaginary) would sooner or later triumph. And, eventually, the more interesting ancient intellectuals (notably the Romans) went one step further: to speculate on the inner corruption of classical civilisation as they knew it, and to play with the awful paradox that real barbarity lay in their own midst, while the savages at their margins were the true inheritors of civilised classical values. When Tacitus wrote his study of the tribes of Germany at the end of the first century CE, he was using the noble barbarians as a stick with which to beat the decadence of his fellow Romans.

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