BMCR 1999.01.13

Classical Bearings: Interpreting Ancient History and Culture

, Classical bearings : interpreting ancient history and culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 328 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780520208117 $18.00.

Peter Green’s Classical Bearings, first published by Thames and Hudson in 1989, has now joined Green’s The Greco-Persian Wars (= The Year of Salamis, 1970), Alexander to Actium (1990) and his novel, The Laughter of Aphrodite (1993), among the University of California Press’ paperback offerings. Classical Bearings, which is comprised largely of reviews of scholarship and exhibits, many of which had already appeared in print when Classical Bearings first appeared, may not seem an obvious candidate to receive such heroic honors. If we understand Classical Bearings as a book about contemporary trends in Classical scholarship and its reception, we are sure to decide that the book is outdated. Times change; they have changed dramatically in those places (from which Green, to his great credit, never shies) where scholarship meets popular culture and the Mediterranean antiquity meets contemporary politics. Green’s discussion of the Egyptian craze precipitated in the US by the traveling Tutankhamun exhibit predates Bernal’s famous Black Athena (1988-90) and, with it, the emergence of an alternative discourse about ancient Egypt, and his review of the exhibit on Alexander similarly missed the huge controversy surrounding the establishment of an independent Macedonia. But, if at a more glacial pace, scholarship has changed too.

Yet, even though Classical Bearings is not new, classicists owe a debt of gratitude to the University of California Press for making it available among the meager offerings in Classics sections of university books, the better chains like Borders and the dwindling number of independent bookstores. This is partly because Classical Bearings includes Green’s reviews of books that have had a lasting impression in Classics, for example, Vermeule’s Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (1972), Jenkyns’ The Victorians and Ancient Greece (1981), Turner’s The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (1981), Fontenrose’s The Delphic Oracle (1978), Ste Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (1981), Walbank’s The Hellenistic World (1981), Gruen’s The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome (1984), W.S. Anderson’ Essays on Roman Satire (1982). But there is a more important reason: when we reread his sophisticated reviews of familiar books and scholarly issues, we are watching Green carve out a perspective on literary history and ancient history that, though hardly new and whether or not we share it, represents a fundamental attempt to engage Classics as it speaks to the academic and intellectual world.

Classical Bearings is primarily a collection of reviews: we catch Green’s own ideas about “interpreting ancient history and culture” as they bounce off the works of other scholars. Green is not an ungenerous reviewer; he is never rude or trivializing and makes real efforts to engage others’ scholarship on their own terms. He proclaims himself to be an advocate of seeing the forest through the trees and he is true to his word. Whether one agrees with him, he generally cuts to the quick of the matter, and elicits the same from those who intend to respond.

An intriguing and defining feature of Green’s reviews is his persistent separation of author and ideas. He has serious problems with Fontenrose’s book, The Delphic Oracle, but he takes pains to emphasize at the start of the review that his dislike of the book does not extend to its author, and he shows extraordinary generosity in giving Fontenrose room to respond at the close of his (republished) review. We have to respect and admire Green’s “conviction … that scholarly honesty and disagreement are perfectly compatible with personal friendship” (91) but separating ideas (scholarly and otherwise) from the persons who advocate them is itself an idea as much as it is a personal (and professional) virtue. And, as an idea, it can itself be subjected to a bit of examination. Consider Green’s review of Ste Croix’s The Class Struggle, a work Green dislikes almost as much as Fontenrose’s attempt to expel much of Delphic lore from the tool chest of Archaic Greek historians. Green has the greatest respect for Ste Croix as an historian. Blame for what he sees as the excesses and omissions of this famous and huge book Green places squarely on Ste Croix’s Marxist “theology.” Ideology, for Green, perverts history. But of course this will not work. To separate Ste Croix from his Marxism is to gut the text of The Class Struggle and leave (at the most) its appendices. The faults of Ste Croix’s book are no more (or less) attributable to its Marxism than its passion and insight.

If ideology perverts history and corrupts history, so too literary theory perverts literature and any serious attempts to understand it. This is the message readers find in the chapter of Classical Bearings that they are likely to remember most vividly, “Juvenal Revisited,” which contrasts Green’s own adolescent experiences with Juvenal and perceptions about Roman satire with the direction he finds in W. S. Anderson’s Essays on Roman Satire. Green’s readers will be amused by his recollections of the British public schoolboy’s twin discoveries about the world of the sexual paranormal and the tools of philological inquiry as he chases to ground portions of Juvenal his teachers wanted to keep from him. Besides enlightening him sexually, Green insists, his early philological pursuits gave him a first taste of the real Juvenal, “a troubled and complex individual … whose work forms part of the bedrock on which European moral and social discourse still rests today.” Against this, the Satires of contemporary scholarship are, Green complains, “contrived, semi-dramatic performances, structurally exotic and wholly remote from real life, performed by a literary quick-change artist with a bundle of formal masks to hide behind” (246-7). The autobiographical excursions in Classical Bearings are never mere anecdotes (Green’s views of the ancient world are obviously inseparable from his own experiences). What Juvenal taught him (and not only about sex), Green believes we can all learn from Juvenal. Hence what Green fears is that the disappearance of Juvenal, the man, will negate the moral lessons of Roman satire (especially those Juvenal himself could not fully control). At the same time, Green dislikes anything that smacks of trivializing — his one criticism of Emily Vermeule’s Aspects of Death is its author’s forgivable (“apotropaic”) but still lamentable “unwillingness to take death seriously” (72). But does contemporary scholarship on Roman satire trivialize its moral dimension? If it does, it seems misguided to blame persona theory. A focus that complicates the relationship of author and genre, the everyday life of Romans and their literary representations does not necessarily exclude the view of Juvenal that Green wants us to have (cf. 255: “Juvenal’s complex and dramatic sense of irony failed to perceive the inherent contradiction in which he was involved”). The reality of Juvenal’s world is not forgotten, trivialized, or rendered imaginary by an intense focus on the formal structure of his art. In general, literary history is more, not less, history than it was a generation ago.

If Green is hardly alone in his attitudes to ideology and theory, they surely represent a smaller number of classicists than when Classical Bearings first appeared. Person and persona no longer seem quite so antithetical to most literary historians now; in general, the Berlin wall of theory has fallen (or at least lowered a bit) among classicists. (Ancient historians may wish to offer themselves as exceptions.) Rediscovering the formal and conventional elements of Roman satire (or the Delphic Oracles, for that matter) does not debunk them or remove them from history. In general, theory has become more ingrained; reverence for it, fear of it are less dominant. We are no longer perceived as rubes if we confess aloud that we find Lacan impenetrable. We also cannot happily dismiss Freud’s relevance to Classics by discovering that his theories emerged from his explorations of a neurotic middle-class of 19th century Vienna. Of course, dismissals of theory still happen. Every few years something like Who Killed Homer ? appears, but such attacks appear increasingly ad hominem, defined by animus towards the profession (without providing the real self-criticism it needs) and nostalgic in the worst sense. But as the enemy has come to encompass an increasingly larger portion of Classicists, so the audience lies largely outside Classics. Where then does Classical Bearings stand? If conservative, Classical Bearings cannot just be slipped into a Rezeptionsgeschichte of classical scholarship, dismissed as a strand of the collective history of our unconscious Classical selves, or rendered innocuous by deconstructing its hostility toward deconstruction — as if we heard nothing of what it says. Classical Bearings was a careful and intelligent book when it appeared ten years ago, and has lost nothing of this (or its sheer good fun).

Such a dismissal would be unfair to Green; but the greater loss would be ours. Whether or not we share Green’s views, we will only profit by understanding their fundamental tenets. Green’s distrust of ideology and theory reflects his determination to salvage the relationship between the classical antiquity (and its principal advocates) and the world-at-large. Sensitive to age-old complaints of the elitism of Classical education (24), he is still more concerned about the “modernist” reaction: carte blanche denials of the significance of Greek and Roman antiquity by the intellectual world-at-large, but more important still, attempts on the part of classicists themselves to demystify or professionalize it — as if to deny or debunk the privileged place it occupies (and, in Green’s view, must occupy) in our intellectual make-up. This concern underlies his strongest complaints about contemporary scholarship, his annoyance with Fontenrose’s attempts to establish precise rules for interpreting ancient evidence, his worry that Ste Croix has sold his individuality as an historian to an ideological devil and that scholars, supported by deleterious theory, are in the process of erasing Juvenal’s historical reality as a Roman and a satirist. Green is an old-fashioned humanist; his answer to the elitist pretensions of a classicism that killed its intellectual and moral vitality is to insist on an immediate, tangible relationship with the ancient world.

This aim explains Green’s distrust of theory and ideology; it seems also to determine his historical predilections. Green could not be happier that the Hellenistic centuries have been admitted as full partners in the canon of the Mediterranean antiquity, but he is leery of seeing the Hellenistic world become segmented and compartmentalized, then distributed among historians of completely different perspectives and methodological persuasions (cf. 190). Historians are not concerned enough to present the rich “vue d’ensemble” that Green feels is needed (181). This is Classical Bearings‘ complaint about Walbank’s The Hellenistic World in particular. That work, Green remarks, fails to see the “crucial third century” in “evolutionary terms.” The “concerned reader” wants “tentative answers to large social questions” (181), the sort from which Walbank stays clear. Green apparently wants historians to find coherent shifts along axes that, though not necessarily fixed, make some sense for contemporary intellectuals to understand their own historical position relative to antiquity: thus issues like the emergence of philosophical ataraxia and ruler-worship are good examples of what scholars of the Hellenistic age simply must address.

Green’s desire for narrative images of antiquity lurks beneath some of his quirkier views. His chapter on Lesbos (“Lesbos and the Genius Loci”: 45-62) shows a stubborn insistence to find parallels between literary (i.e., legendary) Greece and the archaeological record — so his discovery of an apparent “Cyclopean complex” near the Lesbian town of Vaphio: Green believes that this is Mycenean, and that makes the “tentative suggestion” that this might be “the high-gated fortress that gave Achilles so much trouble” (54). If archaeology has trouble definitively putting Philip II at Vergina (or expelling him from it), it will never establish Achilles’ presence on Lesbos. Green knows this. But he is also convinced that an historical imagination cannot (and must not) be so easily suppressed by the available evidence. Green’s determined resistance to Fontenrose’s ruthless categorization of Delphic oracles testifies to this, so too does his The Laughter of Aphrodite an exploration of Sappho’s psyche for which Green claims genuine historical value, though the novel obviously breaks free of the chains of historical evidence.

This is what is ultimately defines Classical Bearings : Green’s deep commitment to ancient history and literature is not primarily an allegiance to the rules of gathering evidence and deducing conclusions. It is instead an allegiance to a process of moral and cultural self-exploration; this process, Green elegantly insists, is our true master. To say that Green’s humanism is as much a construction of dead theories and old ideologies is perfectly true, but ultimately rather unimportant. Classical Bearings’ treatment of theory is cranky; his paradigms (largely personal) for understanding the reception of ancient authors and historical periods are too limited. But none of this diminishes the force of his insistence that classical scholarship remain focused on the intersection between antiquity and our world.