A historian’s view

At a meeting of the Canford Classics Group in March 2009, the guest speaker was Dr Giles Mercer, historian, mediaeval specialist and, more recently, biographer. Some of his talk reads with ironic relevance ten years later, and the following paragraphs are extracted from it with his permission.

Classical studies and the traditions of Greece and Rome have for most of the last two and half thousand years shaped western culture and beyond, through language, law, philosophy, political thought and practice, the visual arts, architecture, drama, poetry, engineering, techniques of warfare, and the arts of civil administration and government.

There is continuity and development in all these areas. Just read Kenneth Clark’s masterpiece, The Nude, which shows the evolution, as it were, from Praxiteles to Picasso and Henry Moore. Who thinks about the fact that European Union directives and regulations are cast in the spirit of Roman Law from Ulpian to Justinian? Use the principles, top-down, and then apply them and find the exceptions—this is how law works in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Scotland.  The rest of us in the UK have a different tradition of common law, a kind of bottom-up, case-by-case approach, and I believe this is one of the causes of tension and misunderstanding. Couldn’t our diplomats and politicians benefit from a day’s discussion with classics and jurisprudence dons in Oxford?  Who knows, for example, that international law today in most countries can trace its development via Grotius in seventeenth-century Holland back to the Stoics?

Church architecture has largely taken over models of the public buildings of Rome (in turn influenced by Greece).  Just look at Prior Park Chapel, a perfect Roman basilica. The Orthodox Churches of the East, and especially the imperial control by the Russian Tsars and their successors over the Church, owe much to the Caesaro-papism of the Eastern Roman emperors in Constantinople until 1453. In that Roman-Byzantine empire, there was a strong and vocal body of educated laity, unlike the position in most of the old Western empire, which helps to explain a good deal about the divergence of the Christian traditions in the two parts of Europe.

The politics of the ancient world, of course, profoundly influenced the founding fathers of the United States in the 18th century and, indeed, several of the leaders of the French revolution, well versed in the classics at their Jesuit colleges. Some of the leaders of the British Empire were equally well versed and were equally able to shape their classical knowledge in ways that best served their interests.

The art of classical rhetoric is not dead. The spirit and principles of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian live on, not much in this country, except perhaps at honorary degree ceremonies at Oxford and certainly not in Parliament, but in the law courts of Italy and, perhaps, above all, in American public speech-making, from Lincoln through to Kennedy and Martin Luther King  and Obama. I don’t know who Obama’s speech writers are but they have absorbed many of the principles of classical rhetoric. I suggest you download copies of his inaugural address and set it alongside Cicero’s De Oratore or Quintilian’s Institutes.

All this thrives in a country whose political governing classes from the outset espoused the civic virtues of republican Rome, created a Senate and a Capitol and designed most of their public buildings and many of their grander private ones along the lines of Vitruvius.