Beyond the hoi polloi? Ancient Greece and the Victorians.

Quentin J. Broughall has just completed a PhD in Classics at Maynooth University with a thesis entitled ‘Assuming the purple: the rehabilitation of ancient Rome in Victorian culture, 1837-1901’. He held a John and Pat Hume Scholarship 2007-9 and was an I.R.C.H.S.S. Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholar 2009-11. His academic interests are centred upon intersections between the historical reception of antiquity, Victorian and Edwardian culture, and the British Empire.

John Stuart Mill once claimed that ‘[t]he battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the battle of Hastings’, since ‘[t]he true ancestors of the European nations are not those from whose blood they are sprung, but those from whom they derive the richest portion of their inheritance’[1] – meaning the ancients. When I first began to explore Victorian classical reception, I imagined that ancient Greece and Rome were interpreted in similar terms by nineteenth-century society. As I delved more deeply into the subject, however, I realised that each of these faces of the ancient world had been appreciated in subtly different ways, which altered over time in the light of various trends and events. While my own research has focussed upon the contemporary reception of Roman antiquity, I believe that one cannot understand the dynamics of Rome without Greece, or vice versa. To that end, I want to provide a short introduction to the broad contours of the Victorian reception of Greek and Roman antiquity, taking the former first.

(c) Christ Church, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Gaisford (1779-1855)

One of the most well-known quotations in the study of nineteenth-century Hellenism comes from a few years before Victoria ascended the throne, when the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, Thomas Gaisford, commented in a sermon that Greek literature ‘not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument’.[2] Claiming for the study of Greek both idealistic and practical advantages, Gaisford was referring to the fact that, while Hellenism was held up as a cultural epitome, Greek scholarship also led many to gain high ecclesiastical offices in the Church of England, often as so-called ‘Greek-play bishops’.[3] In this way, Gaisford’s remark reflects something of the elitism already associated with Hellenism at the start of Victoria’s reign – though this was to grow only more pronounced as the century continued.

While the apex of British Hellenism dates roughly from the later decades of the eighteenth century to the 1830s, it remained an important cultural discourse to Victorian society.[4] Indeed, some of the defining personalities of the Victorian era were confirmed Hellenists, including figures as diverse as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Gladstone, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold and Oscar Wilde. While it naturally varied in its applications, Victorian Hellenism was predicated primarily upon the study of Greek art and mythology, alongside that of Homer and Plato, though it idealised Periclean Athens as the golden age of Greek civilisation. In particular, Athenian democracy appealed as a paradigm for those who believed in reform as the watchword of Victorian domestic politics, as well as those who supported a British colonial model of mother country and juvenile territories, like that of Magna Graecia.

From 1800, Hellenism represented one of the most prominent cultural discourses in Britain, and was manifested chiefly through the contemporary popularity of Greek Revival architecture and Romantic literary philhellenism.[5] Perhaps, most importantly, the arrival of the Elgin Marbles to Britain in the first years of the century gave the country a literal piece of ancient Greece at the heart of its capital. Reinforcing this trend, the Greek War of Independence (1821-32) drew many topical parallels between the ancient and modern Greek experience. Significantly, however, the number of Greek-inspired buildings being constructed in Britain fell off sharply in the 1830s, while, simultaneously, the Romantic Movement drew to its effective close. Instead, the momentum of Hellenism in Britain was largely transferred to major pieces of scholarship, such as Connop Thirlwall’s eight-volume History of Greece (1835-45) and George Grote’s dozen-volume History of Greece (1846-56). As a result, when Victoria took the throne, the reception of ancient Greece in Britain was in transition: moving from being a broadly popular discourse to a largely elite one.

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Phidias showing the frieze of the Parthenon to his friends (1868)

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Phidias showing the frieze of the Parthenon to his friends (1868)

Undoubtedly, the principal locus of Victorian Hellenism became the country’s elite public schools and Oxbridge colleges, which taught Greek as part of their near-exclusively classical curricula. Significantly, however, the brand of Hellenism that these institutions transmitted was one that often presented knowledge of Greek as a restricted cultural discourse that functioned, for the most part, as a means of social exclusion. At schools, boys were primarily taught to appreciate Greek literature through the study of Homer and the Greek tragedians; while, at the ancient universities, young men connected with Hellenic philosophy through Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics. In particular, the concepts of Platonic political ‘guardianship’ held broad appeal for the members of Britain’s ruling elite, with dons such as Benjamin Jowett at Balliol College, Oxford, using it to inculcate the next generation of Britain’s imperial administrators. Yet, Greek culture and language did not lend itself easily to use in official contexts, as Scrope remarked in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Endymion (1880): ‘In the last parliament we often had Latin quotations […] I have heard Greek quoted here, but that was long ago, and a great mistake. The House was quite alarmed’.[6]

One of the key obstacles to Victorian popular knowledge of Hellenic antiquity was the Greek language itself, which, owing to its non-Roman script, made it difficult for outsiders to comprehend. So, apart from rare autodidacts from the middle or lower classes, only those from the upper echelons of British society had the means and the opportunity to learn Greek.[7] Throughout the nineteenth century, there was also little or no travel to Greece itself, which remained largely inaccessible due to poor infrastructure, while the peninsula also remained prone to brigandage. Moreover, the continued association of Greek antiquity with Romanticism posited Hellenism to many as a potentially relativising discourse that Charles Kingsley feared would lead to ‘Anythingarianism’.[8] As a result, ancient Greece was, in many respects, hindered as a popular classical model by its linguistic and physical distance from Victorian Britain, as well as by its increasing association with minority cultural discourses.

From the mid-Victorian era, Hellenism entered another period of transition, in which it became an even more rarefied cultural commodity; appropriated and employed, not only by the products of a public school and Oxbridge education, but also by the members of burgeoning contemporary sub-cultures, such as feminists and homosexuals. Increasing criticism of Hellenism was embodied in Richard Cobden’s remark in 1850 that a single copy of The Times contained more information than all of Thucydides.[9] Arguably, more than anything else, though, the tone for Hellenism’s more high-culture status was set by Matthew Arnold’s Culture and anarchy (1869), which posited Greek culture as a benchmark for Victorian society.[10] In his work, Arnold wrote that ‘[n]ow […] is a time to Hellenise, and to praise knowing; for we have Hebraised too much, and have over-valued doing’.[11] In this way, he idealised Hellenism as a cultural standard that could be used by England’s intellectual elite to police and protect domestic culture. Consequently, from the mid-Victorian period, Hellenism emerged as a cultural discourse primarily restricted to an increasingly narrow minority of the population.

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)

John William Waterhouse, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896)

With little popular grip, Greece’s reception was predicated mainly upon its mediation via images, objects and translations. This was in contrast to the profile of Rome, which was mostly appreciated through the more accessible Latin language and Roman history. As a result, ancient Greece was perceived by many as a select possession of Victorian Britain’s educated and wealthy, which was little altered by the foundation of professional organisations and institutions, such as the Hellenic Society in 1879 and the British School at Athens in 1886. Yet, even when it was applied in alternate contexts, it bore increasing suspicion as a mediator of dubious morals. In particular, its use in negotiating contemporary discourses relating to feminist and homosexual rights brought Hellenism under suspicion as a propagator of concerning moral values. As has been said, ancient Greece was becoming ‘no longer a great deep mine in which men could dig eagerly for unguessed riches’, but ‘a screen to hide behind, or at best the title of a sect’.[12] ‘[L]ess an active enquiry into the past and more a symbol for a certain type of aesthetic ideal’[13], Victorian Hellenism therefore represented an increasingly deficient source of cultural authority in comparison to the perceived soundness of many aspects of classical Rome as a model.[14]

So, it is clear that, during the Victorian era, ancient Greece largely functioned as an elite possession of Britain’s social and cultural elite, while being invoked increasingly in non-popular contexts that curtailed its broader influence. Limited by the opacity of its language and its physical distance from Britain, Greece was held aloft by a small number of Victorians who believed themselves alone to understand its spirit. Yet, its domination by Britain’s elite was challenged by a number of minority groups, which made it an even more questionable comparative model. In short, Victorian Hellenism proved to be an echo of antiquity little heard by Britain’s own hoi polloi; instead, being deemed chiefly for the ears of those wealthy and educated enough to hear and heed it. Moreover, as the British Empire rose to the apex of its symbolic and territorial extent, the largely unsuccessful experiment of Greek imperialism was replaced by the more effective example of the Roman Empire. Thus, while ancient Greece functioned as a useful classical model for the upper echelons of British society, for much of the later nineteenth century, and for most Victorians, all roads increasingly led to Rome.


[1] J.S. Mill, Dissertations and Discussions (London, 1867), vol. 2, 283.

[2] Quoted in W. Tuckwell, Reminiscences of Oxford (London, 1907), 124.

[3] See A. Burns and C.A. Stray, ‘The Greek-play bishop: polemic, prosopography and nineteenth-century prelates’ in Historical Journal (2011), vol. 54, no. 4, 1013-38.

[4] See R. Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford, 1980) and F.M. Turner, The Greek heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven CT, 1981).

[5] See J. Mordaunt Crook, The Greek Revival (London, 1995) and T. Webb (ed.), English Romantic Hellenism, 1700-1824 (Manchester, 1982).

[6] Endymion (London, 1880), vol, 2, 153.

[7] See R. Jenkyns, Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance (London, 1991), 155-63.

[8] Quoted in R. Faries III, Ancient Rome in the English Novel (Philadelphia PA, 1923), 44.

[9] Quoted in Morley, The Life of Richard Cobden, (London, 1881), vol, 2, 428.

[10] See V. Lambropoulas, ‘Violence and the liberal imagination: the representation of Hellenism in Matthew Arnold’ in N. Armstrong and L. Tennenhouse (eds), The violence of representation (New York, 1989), 171-96.

[11] Culture and Anarchy, (London, 1869), lviii-lix.

[12] Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece, 292-3.

[13] Ibid., 274-5.

[14] On the Victorian idealisation of Hellenism, see, for example, D. Challis, ‘“The ablest race”: the ancient Greeks in Victorian racial theory’ in M. Bradley (ed.), Classics and imperialism in the British Empire (Oxford, 2010), 94-120.

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2 responses to “Beyond the hoi polloi? Ancient Greece and the Victorians.

  1. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of August 28th | JHIBlog·

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