Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.09.25

Barbara E. Goff, Classics and Colonialism.   London:  Duckworth, 2005.  Pp. 166.  ISBN 0-7156-3311-2.  $27.00.  

Reviewed by Carlos Sánchez-Moreno Ellart, University of Valencia (Spain) (
Word count: 1942 words

This volume comprises the proceedings of a one-day conference on this complex subject, held at the Institute of Classical Studies in London in May 2001. In an interesting introduction, the editor, Barbara Goff, provides an insight into the essence of postcolonialism (not a concept that is very clear) and the role played by classical tradition in this context. The author draws attention to the complicated relationship that colonialism has had -- particularly in the case of the British Empire, although other cases are also worthy of consideration -- with a "political culture focused on classics".

The papers collected here deal with different aspects of how classics have been a tool of British imperialism and with the nature of the relationship of the former colonies with classics in the present and the past. I would say that all the papers deal with the subject without hiding its contradictory facets, thus avoiding a reductionist approach: we can find examples of how classics were used as an ideological weapon in favour of imperialism, but also against imperialism and, at the same time, of how classics have shaped the self-image not only of colonisers, but also of the colonised. In her introduction, Barbara Goff discusses some of the topics developed in the book. One of these, which underlies all the contributions, concerns the inclusion within the field of postcolonialism not only of the former colonies, but also of the former metropolitan countries. As Goff rightly acknowledges, postcolonialism is "an expansive and generous term", and therefore her starting point is the difference between 'imperialism' and 'colonialism' according to Edward Said. He suggests that colonialism is simply a consequence of imperialism, and defines this term as "the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory".

Goff focuses her attention on a concept of postcolonialism that essentially, albeit not exclusively, comprises cultural aspects, and she reviews classical tradition with respect to this problem. This issue is difficult to summarise, because postcolonial studies are far from being a coherent doctrinal corpus. Everyone knows for certain that the bases of postcolonial theory in all the authors that deal with this material are common ones, and that they are to be found in certain poststructuralists such as Derrida, Lacan and Foucault, but the debate about whether the backbone of postcolonialist studies is cultural or political is quite complex. I believe that the differences between some authors are perhaps greater than would appear at first sight. Goff refers to some essential works on this subject in order to focus the issue, but in my opinion, a first impression reveals that Said, for instance, is quite different from Spivak, and the same applies to the latter with relation to Bhabha or Ashcroft. The differences between their approaches are more important than the similarity of their bases, but the author makes a balanced use of each one of them.

Empire has generated a new literature and, in particular, a new way of understanding literature in which identity is a decisive aspect. In the pages that follow (5-24), Goff explains why classics are so relevant in the study of colonialism and outlines their importance in postcolonial times. In this context, she highlights the difference between the study of colonialism and the discipline generally known as "classical tradition". Evidently, this matter is closely related with our field, but in the author's opinion, the political implications of this study (i.e. "classics and colonialism") warrant a more critical understanding, because at the heart of the matter it is clear that this is not an apolitical discipline. Postcolonial studies in the field of classical tradition do not consider the "legacy" of Antiquity as a perfect object far removed from any context or any process of evaluation. This point is illustrated by two revealing examples that show how classics (and classicists) have played an important role "both in imperialist and colonialist movements and in the opposing movements of resistance" (p. 6). The first example is the famous acquisition of the Elgin marbles in the British and European context of the time; the second, the use of classics in colonial and postcolonial education in Africa, is viewed as a case that is both complicated and significant: Goff outlines the different approaches to this question, from the simplistic explanation of Moumouni (i.e. classical education as a luxury compared to practical education) and the curious case of the Kamuzi Academy in Malawi (classics as part of an elite education, imitating the British model) to more complex views that bring out "the power of empire to make connections", among various cultural aspects. I would add, and it has indeed been stressed throughout the book under review, that paradoxically these connections do not always favour the coloniser.1 The importance of Greek and Latin classics in comparison with modern language classics as a perspective in this context lies in the significant role that they have played in the education of all the European elites. In this respect, the third example concerns the relationship of the book under review with other books on this subject. Chronologically, the first is the controversial Black Athena, by Martin Bernal, which, it is significant to note, was well received by Edward Said, but not by the majority of scholars. Another interesting example mentioned in this context is Joan B. Burton's book on questions such as gender, ethnicity and social mobility in the Idylls of Theocritus.2 The third example put forward by the author is the outstanding book by Norman Vance, The Victorians and Ancient Rome (Oxford, 1997), in which many revealing observations about the ideological use of Roman classics in the Victorian Age are put forward, with an insistence, Goff asserts, on the "ambiguity" of the Roman Empire. As Imperial Britain is identified with the Roman Empire, Rome can be used "on both sides of the debate" (p. 17): Roman past means the Empire, but its decadence too; the Britons played the role of the Romans in the nineteenth century, but they were defeated by Rome in the past. As the author concludes, the Empire might come to an end and the colonised peoples might eventually overthrow the colonisers.

The papers gathered in this book, which are quite different, perceptive and interesting in a number of cases, are worthy of many observations, but I am constrained by the limits of a review. Thomas Harrison ("Through British Eyes: The Athenian Empire and Modern Historiography", pp. 25-37) writes about the assessments that historians have ventured to make of Athenian imperialism and its ideological grounds. Some of these assessments are related to the origins of Athenian imperial ambitions. This theme can still be found in recent historiography. Finley and Meiggs deal with this problem in different ways, but with some points in common: at the beginning of the last century, J. R. Seely focused the research on the idea that the British had come to acquire the empire "in a fit of absence of mind", and this approach has something to do with ideological background, since (according to Harrison) the theory of accidental imperialism "is itself an aspect of imperial ideology" (p. 39).

In the second chapter (pp. 38-64), "Greater Rome and Greater Britain", Phiroze Vasunia appraises some works by "establishment figures" from Victorian and Edwardian Britain that make the comparison between Britain and Rome, in order to legitimise the idea of the empire. Significantly, in Lenin's famous pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, the term of reference is the work of one of these figures, Sir Charles Lucas, entitled Greater Rome and Greater Britain. In this context, research into the history of Rome is also conditioned by this perspective, but essentially the ideological background of the Victorian age makes use of Roman history as a self-justification. This self-justification and the adduced relationship with the Roman Empire are different in each case: Charles W. Dilke (Greater Britain) insists on race and whiteness, as well as democratic institutions; John Robert Seely, a lecturer in Classics at Cambridge (The Expansion of England)3 outlines the good and fair rule as a legitimisation ("our Government is better than any other which has existed in India since the Muslim conquest"), while James Anthony Froude, in his biography of Julius Caesar, accepted, following Gibbon's line, that virtue and dominion are related in the same way that corruption is related to decay. These three authors serve as a starting-point for comparison between the two empires as an ideological framework in the years that followed (Lord Curzon, James Bryce). However, once again, the opposite tendency was also possible: scholars such as Gilbert Murray were quite critical on the subject of empire. It is important to point out that comparativism is also related to empire: It is no accident -- as the author affirms -- that the Comparative Method "reached its heights...when the British Empire was also reaching its greatest point of expansion" (p. 60). We should obviously remember the case of Sir William Jones but, I should add, also that of Sumner Maine.

The next two papers present studies on the subject of Classical tradition in the Caribbean area. The first ("We Speak Latin in Trinidad: Uses of Classics in Caribbean Literature"), by Emily Greenwood, concerns the way in which authors such as Sir Derek Walcott approached classics and his complex relationship with a classical background in Omeros and some of his autobiographical texts. The title of the paper alludes to an anecdote relating to the childhood of Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, when he was at Queen's Royal College. Some related subjects, such as the picturesque project of "the Athens of the Caribbean" by the aforementioned politician, or the "black history" by Marcus Garvey, who defends the black presence in the very heart of the Classical World with some inventiveness, are also covered in this article. The second paper, "The British Empire and the Neo-Latin Tradition: The Case of Francis Williams", by John Gilmore, evokes this black Jamaican poet, who in the eighteenth century dedicated a Latin ode to the British Governor of Jamaica. In this peculiar work, loyalty to the British King and local patriotism are both present.

Lorna Hardwick's contribution ("Refiguring Classical Texts: Aspects of the Postcolonial Condition", 107-117) represents, in my opinion, the best example of how complex the use of classical tradition can be, or to be more precise, how classical tradition can be interpreted in different ways. The author employs the refiguration of classical drama as a privileged perspective. This focus is more comprehensible than the simplistic focus of Ngugi Wa Thiog'o, who only considers one factor, the destruction of local culture.

The last chapter ("Greek Tragedies in West African Adaptations" 118-146), by Felix Budelmann is particularly focused on plays from the 1960s and early 1970s. He considers the reception of Greek tragedy in some African writers: Clark Bekederemo, Kamau Brathwaite, Efua Sutherland, Ola Rotimi, Jacqueline Leloup, Femi Osofisan and especially Wole Soyinka. In fact, as the author states, Greek tragedy is attractive to West African writers and so his aim is to explain the reasons of this appeal, based on the "canonical counter-discourse" against the former coloniser, according the book by Helen Gilbert and Joanne Tompkins, postcolonial Drama. Budelmann argues that African writers appropriate this "canonical paradigm as something of their own" (123).

To sum up, this book is quite useful for its balanced approach to different fields of Classical tradition and its relationship to the complex topic of postcolonialism. The papers do not emphasize dangerous ideological arguments and their conclusions are in general far from reductionist: they cite and consider the materials -- sometimes full of novelties -- in a balanced way.


1.   As a curious footnote, I would add that in the interesting autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom II, London 1994 182 ff.; 249 ff.) a couple of examples of these connections between the African environment and classics can be found, expressed from an ingenious yet discerning point of view: the first relates to Antigone, performed in jail and with Mandela playing the role of Creon; the second relates to the film Cleopatra. In the first case, the author declares: "It was Antigone who symbolised our struggle; she was, in her own way, a freedom fighter, for she defied the law on the ground that it was unjust". In the case of Mankiewicz's film, his remarks are less in accordance with reality, but quite significant nevertheless: He criticises the role being played by a violet-eyed actress, because he interprets this as a way of passing over the fact that Cleopatra was an "African woman".
2.   Due to an error which may be excused, the reference is not included in the bibliography: J. B. Burton, Theocritus' Urban Mimes. Mobility, Gender and Patronage, Berkeley 1995.
3.   It is not by chance that the origin of this book is a series of lectures intended for candidates seeking to enter the Indian Civil Service. Vasunia points out that classics were a must for successful entry into the Indian Civil Service (p. 43) and that "many of the men who administered the British Empire and overseas were trained in classics" at Oxford or Cambridge (p. 49).

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