Book Review: Glories of Classicism-NYRB


Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner

The Classical Tradition

Edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis , Belknap Press/ Harvard University Press, 1,067 pp., $49.95

The New York Review of Books: February 21, 2013


greenblatt_1-022113_jpg_470x649_q85Diego Velázquez: The Rokeby Venus, circa 1648–1651 [National Gallery, London/Bridgeman Art Library]



Over a thousand pages in length, with some five hundred articles surveying the survival, transmission, and reception of the cultures of Greek and Roman antiquity, The Classical Tradition is a low-cost Wunderkammer, a vast cabinet of curiosities. Take the entry on the asterisk: you learn that this ubiquitous critical sign, named from the Greek for “small star,” originated in Ptolemaic Alexandria, where the great textual scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium and his student Aristarchus of Samothrace used them to mark repeated lines in the Iliad and Odyssey. Several centuries later the prolific (and self-mutilated) Christian theologian Origen began to employ asterisks in a different way, to signal the omission of certain passages in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. This usage gradually spread as a sign of something missing or hidden, and hence—at the end of a complex trail that winds through classical editions, Bibles, and pornography—when you type your password on the computer, the letters and numbers often show up as a string of asterisks.

The next entry takes you to a namesake of the asterisk, the French cartoon character Astérix, and provides information about the popular comic books and all they have spawned (including a theme park and a line of potato chips), about Gaul in 50 BCE where the tales are set, and about certain characteristic interethnic and interlinguistic jokes (e.g., the repeated exclamation that the Romans are crazy—Ils sont fous ces romains!—translates in Italian as Sono pazzi questi romani! which conveniently abbreviates as SPQR, the time-honored Latin acronym for the Senate and People of Rome).

These entries, brimming with detail, are only tasty amuse-gueules, immediately surrounded as they are by massive servings of erudition on “Art History and Criticism” and “Astrology,” along with such rich, many-columned entries as “Aesthetics,” “Alexander the Great,” “Allegory,” “Architecture,” “Aristotle and Aristotelianism,” “Astronomy,” “Athens,” “Atoms and Atomism,” and “Avicenna.” And we have only been sampling the A’s. The work as a whole combines substantial essays on large-scale topics—“Humanism,” “Medicine,” “Philosophy,” “Renaissance,” “Rome,” “Sexuality,” and the like—with accounts of individual au- thors, artists, gods and heroes from myth, inventors, emperors, generals, founders of cities, priests, book hunters, philologists, translators, scholars, archaeologists, antiquarians, art historians, collectors, forgers, revolutionaries, in short, the vast ragtag host of those whose works and days reach us from the distant past, those who found their traces after long centuries, and those who devoted their lives to understanding, exploiting, dismantling, and adapting their legacy.

Are there omissions? Of course. It would be a predictable and somewhat tiresome reviewer’s game to assemble a list of these, individuals from Bartolomeo de Aragazzi to Federico Zuccaro, topics from dentistry to madness. There is a separate article on Anacreon but not Aesop; Dioscorides but not Democritus. Yet The Classical Tradition should rightly evoke not carping but gratitude. This is a book whose long, learned, and witty essay on Rome could stand alone as a surprisingly comprehensive guide to that city’s ancient relics, but that also has time for entries on Armenian Hellenism, Hunayn ibn-Ishāq, and Gandhara; carpe diem, deus ex machina, and the translatio imperii; the Society of Dilettanti, the Grand Tour, and Fascism. It is possible to get pleasantly lost in these pages, as in the internal courtyards of Pompeii, and not emerge for hours.

But though much of the pleasure of this volume derives from the swirl of curious details—the “symposium” originated not as an academic conference but as a ritualized drinking party; the word “parasite” derives from the Greek for “fellow diner”; the eleventh-century Byzantine polymath Michael Psellus wrote some 1,100 works—its ambition is far greater. With this ambition comes a set of difficult problems that may be summed up in three words: “The,” “Classical,” and “Tradition.”

“The” implies that there is a single ancient source from which Western or perhaps all of world culture springs, but the editors are rightly wary of this overweening grand narrative. They would, they write, have preferred to call their volume A Classical Tradition in acknowledgment of those other rich traditions, including Islamic, Judaic, Chinese, and Indian, that have also profoundly shaped world culture, including the culture of the West, and that have their own sets of exemplary texts, time-honored concepts, ancient plots and heroes.

“Classical,” the editors acknowledge, can refer to spheres, such as “classical music” and “Coke Classic,” that have little or no relation to the Greco-Roman world. Moreover, even in the sphere with which they are concerned, the term is unstable and potentially misleading. A lively article on “Modernism in Art” points out all of the ways in which the painting, sculpture, and literature of the twentieth century drew upon the classics to escape from shopworn conventions and to return to elemental truths. One need only think of Picasso’s minotaurs or de Chirico’s cityscapes, Mies van der Rohe’s architectural severity or Joyce’s joyful cannibalization of the Odyssey.

But the term “classical” (like the related “neoclassical”) has so wide a range of associations—aesthetic, political, and social—as to make it almost useless as an analytical term. If at moments it seems the ally of all things modern, it can in an instant be the archenemy. And this lability is not only true for the twentieth century. “I, too, used to like modern buildings, but when I began to appreciate classical ones, I came to be disgusted with the former.” These are the words of the Italian architect and sculptor Antonio Filarete, writing in the 1460s. By “modern,” Filarete is referring to the style we would call Gothic.*

The term “tradition” poses no less a problem, and the editors do not even attempt to define it. Does it mean, as its etymology suggests, something handed down from generation to generation? Certain texts (a few works by Plato and Aristotle, a small number of plays and poems) have been literally handed down, copied, and read almost without interruption from antiquity to the present, and some works of art (celebrated buildings like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, along with certain sculptures and jewels) have remained continuously visible and even, like Diocletian’s palace in Croatia’s Split, habitable.

But these constitute only a modest fragment of what is included in this volume under the rubric of “tradition.” Much more was defaced, dismantled, interred, forgotten, and then, only after a hiatus of centuries or even millennia, returned to view. What is to be made of the radical discontinuities and ruptures, the suppressions and recoveries that characterize much of the cultural inheritance of Greece and Rome? Those who uncovered a neglected trace of the past often did not recognize what they had found as their “tradition” at all. If they were able to make use of what they had come upon, it was only by inventing it anew (to “invent,” after all, means literally “to come upon”).

If each of the governing terms in this immense project poses a difficult problem, the editors assert nonetheless that “every domain of post-classical life and thought has been profoundly influenced” by the Greco-Roman antiquity that is their subject. The stakes therefore are high: nothing less than an understanding of the way our civilization came to assume the particular forms that shape our lives. These forms include the languages we speak, the social structures we inhabit and the laws that regulate them, the size and configuration of our dwellings, the cities in which we dwell, the ways we bury and commemorate our dead, our characteristic ways of organizing, preserving, and transmitting knowledge, the songs and stories that give us pleasure, the images we fashion of ourselves and our world, the body types that produce desire or revulsion, our ideas of freedom and enslavement, our dreams of the good and our nightmares of evil.

There are several major obstacles to the realization of this wildly ambitious program. The first is linguistic. Greek never fully recovered the cultural currency it had enjoyed among the ancient Roman educated class, and Latin has by now decisively lost the central position it once held. For centuries the learning of Latin had served, as Walter Ong observed, as a “puberty rite” (often accompanied by savage beatings) for all educated males. Shakespeare’s “whining schoolboy” was “creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school” in order to be drilled into minimal competence in the ancient language, and with good reason: virtually all advanced learning, from theology and law to physics and medicine, was conducted in Latin. (The technical terms for flowers and diseases are among the last wispy traces of this bygone world.)

The Latin-centered educational system remained largely intact well into the twentieth century. Its downfall in the United States may be symbolically dated to 1931, when Yale University—quickly followed by other institutions—decided to abolish the Latin requirement for all secondary school applicants. With it vanished a shared linguistic possession that had been handed down, at least among the entire educated elite, since ancient times.

The vanishing is not a matter of language alone: Latin was traditionally taught by means of ancient literary texts. This means that virtually all educated men (and women, as soon as they could gain access to what had been a male privilege) were steeped in the same books. When Shakespeare went to the King’s Grammar School in Stratford in the 1570s, he read Plautus and Terence, Virgil and Ovid, and this core curriculum remained more or less the same for centuries, through Isaac Newton and John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson. In the latter half of the twentieth century this whole structure collapsed. As anyone who has recently set foot in a college or university knows, few students arrive with even a fragmentary knowledge of ancient literature and culture, and, what is more, only a small number of these same students graduate with any more knowledge of the classics than they brought with them.

The Classical Tradition was compiled in full awareness of this collapse. Consequently, its articles are constrained to do multiple tasks at once. They must provide at least some basic information about the individual figures and topics, as if this were an encyclopedia of the ancient world. Hence we are told that Orpheus was a “hero of Greek myth, poet and musician, supposed founder of a mystery religion and writer of ‘Orphic’ verse”; Cato the Younger “earned renown for his dedication to the Republic, unwavering morality, and strict Stoicism”; the toga was “the traditional costume of the Roman male citizen”; etc.

The contributors to The Classical Tradition all scramble to fill in what they know will be for many people a succession of blanks. They do not have the space to offer more than the barest minimum, and, consequently, this aspect of the volume, though necessary, is its weakest feature, all the more so since it is not in fact an encyclopedia and cannot pretend to provide comprehensive coverage of the ancient world.

The emphasis instead is on those aspects of the ancient world that, in the opinion of the editors, figure most prominently in the present. The entry to Sophocles begins “Greek tragedian (ca. 496–406/405 BCE)” and then wends its way toward the cineplex: “References to Sophocles have erupted disconcertingly in films by Woody Allen, such as Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Match Point (2005).” The ancient arguments on censorship in Plato and Aristotle in the fourth century BCE turn up in conflicts over “various media such as video games and the Internet.” “When George W. Bush’s handlers wished to prepare the press and the public for what they believed would be Senator John Kerry’s victories in the 2004 presidential debates, they explained that Kerry was another Cicero.”

greenblatt_2-022113_jpg_470x711_q85A Greek vase depicting Odysseus tied to the mast as his ship passes the Sirens, circa 480 BCE [British Museum, London/Werner Forman Archive/Bridgeman Art Library]

On occasion, often with a distinct twinge of disappointment, the contributors note instances when the classical tradition has evidently failed to reach the present in robust health. The Roman poet Statius was hugely important in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. As if he could not bear to consign him to Hell, Dante imagined that he had converted to Christianity and therefore gave him a ledge in Purgatory; Chaucer enshrines “Stace” next to Homer. But since the eighteenth century the appetite for an English version of Statius’ blood-soaked epic, the Thebaid, has been “sluggish.” (His nightmarish vision of why societies sink into civil war may be due for a revival.) The powerful sexual god Cupid is now “found for the most part on Valentine’s Day cards and gifts as a banal symbol of love.” And though Sirens could still live powerfully in the imagination of Joyce, Rilke, and Kafka, they are now reduced to the Starbucks logo, “a design that concealed first the breasts and abdomen and then the fish tail, leaving the Siren as little more than a pretty face framed by a graphic pattern of repeating waves.”

These are among the setbacks, but the overall insistence of The Classical Tradition is on the ways in which the Greek and Roman heritage, despite innumerable catastrophes, managed to survive. Accounting for how it did so is—alongside the encyclopedic rehearsal of the basic facts and the impressionistic rehearsal of the contemporary relevance—the major task of this volume. And it is here, in discussions of Byzantine grammarians and Arabic philosophers, of monastic librarians and humanist book hunters, of Renaissance antiquarians and Lutheran educational theorists, of modern philologists, translators, archaeologists, and historians, that the articles are most richly informative and alive. For what comes across is not so much the weight of the immense classical legacy but its contingency.

Take, for example, the literary figure in whom the entire classical tradition in the West is encapsulated, Homer. The Iliad and the Odyssey seem to date from the middle of the ninth century BCE, emerging from a culture of oral epics. It was only in the second century BCE that more or less normative texts were established in the Hellenistic world, and it is these texts that dominated the subsequent manuscript traditions and that served in Byzantine schoolrooms. Jews were at least in principle permitted to share in this interest: “According to the Mishnah, Homer’s works could be read by Jews if they did not take into consideration their religious and ethical ideas.”

But in the Christian Latin West there is little evidence throughout the Middle Ages of a serious interest in Homer. An early-first-century Latin Iliad, much reduced in size, is occasionally mentioned in school curricula, but it does not seem to have awakened much attention. When Petrarch in the fourteenth century began to unearth classical Latin authors and read them with passionate interest, he realized that those authors were virtually obsessed with Homer, but neither he nor his contemporaries had linguistic access to either of the great epics. In 1360 he tried to get a Greek-speaking Calabrian, Leonato Pilato, to teach him Greek and to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey, but both Pilato’s pedagogy and his word-for-word rendering were failures. It was not until the fifteenth century that the great Florentine humanists Leonardo Bruni and Lorenzo Valla, inspired by the cultural flame that Petrarch had lit, turned to the task in earnest. Vernacular translations come still later: it was only in the seventeenth century that George Chapman brought forth a Homer in English.

Homer now seems so obviously essential to whatever we mean by the classical tradition that it is difficult to grasp that in Western Europe for almost a thousand years the great epic poems that bear his name were not part of anyone’s account of the most significant relics of antiquity. With the exception of the Timaeus, the works of Plato had similarly dropped from view, along with so much else. The enduring presence throughout the Middle Ages of significant architectural traces—bridges, roads, arches, tombs, and buildings in various states of preservation—helps to create the illusion of the long continuance of the classical past, but in fact most of it had disappeared, as decisively and seemingly as permanently as the paintings that had once adorned the walls of the ancient villas. At the heart of The Classical Tradition is not a story of historical continuity but rather of rupture repaired by spectacular feats of imagination and scholarship.

Yet though even Homer’s survival was surprisingly uncertain, these texts so move us that they seem necessary to culture as we know it. That few now read Latin and fewer still Greek may threaten such survivals, yet the classical tradition—and herein lies its uncanny status—still seems timeless and alive. An entry in The Classical Tradition that captures beautifully this staying power is the one on Freud. That Freud should have a special entry is hardly self-evident, but this only adds to the suspense as we learn how the father of psychoanalysis, more than anyone, made the classical tradition “a living necessity of the modern world.” In concepts like the Oedipus complex, Freud made understanding the classical tradition vital to understanding oneself.


Among the visual arts, painting’s rebirth came first. Writing after Petrarch’s revival of letters, Boccaccio praised Giotto for having “restored to light this art [painting] which for many centuries had been buried.” But what made Giotto supreme was not that he imitated classical examples. He couldn’t have, because almost no antique painting survived. Giotto’s greatness rested in how well he imitated nature. Naturalism, and not classicism, was Renaissance painting’s first distinguishing mark, as Erwin Panofsky argued. Only a century later was Giotto praised for rediscovering an ancient doctrine of proportions.

Architecture’s classicism is a special case among the visual arts. Roman buildings, tremendous even in their ruined state, still stood in Europe, especially in Italy. Because of them, new achievements in architecture could be measured—directly—against antique ones. Brunelleschi was called a second Giotto, but unlike the painter the architect was praised for resuscitating a “classical way of building,” as Filarete put it. Writing on architecture became the first to construct a complete historical scheme. Filarete writes that after Rome’s destruction by barbarians, architecture declined. What took its place were “customs and traditions from north of the Alps, imported not by real architects but by painters, stonemasons and, particularly, goldsmiths” who created buildings as if they were “tabernacles and censers.” For Filarete, real architecture thus occurred only in two eras: in antiquity and in the Renaissance, which is to say, in the modern era.

The entry on “Architecture” in The Classical Tradition runs to fourteen columns, compared to twelve for “Poetics,” eight for “Music,” and seven for “Sculpture.” (“Painting” gets no separate entry.) Its opening sentence indicates architecture’s special path: “Classical architecture in its broadest sense refers to any buildings inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome from the 6th century BCE to the present.” From the sixth century BCE to the present: Brunelleschi’s fifteenth-century invocation of the classical tradition in architecture repeated earlier invocations centuries before. When the Roman emperor Augustus tried to model his rule on Pericles’ governance of Athens, he built in a deliberately Greek style: his then was a classical instance of the classical tradition.

The most public art, one tied to wealth and power, architecture projects the will of its patrons, who lay claim to status through their buildings. Classicism expresses authority and order. It legitimates sovereignty symbolically, particularly when rule begins under exceptional circumstances, like assassination, revolution, and civil war. The appeal is based “on the accretion of associations evoked by classical architecture from Periclean Athens” through to the present. But the appeal also rests on something about architecture beyond its historical associations—what the entry calls “the regularity of the architectural forms and compositions.” The classical harbors a will to transcend historical allusion, a desire to become something like a universal norm.

With architecture, it is especially hard to tell when the classical tradition ought to begin. Consider Vitruvius, the author in the first century BCE of the most famous ancient treatise on architecture. Dedicated to Augustus, the work rejected the architecture of its time, complaining that it licentiously mixed different orders and preferred the most ornate ones. Vitruvius looked for guidance to Greek practice and theory. And what he found—his classical tradition—was a culture already looking back to something earlier and more elemental: a primeval building in wood. Originally (Vitruvius reports) men built shelters by “putting up unsquared timbers and interweaving them with branches.”

For Vitruvius, real architecture endured by keeping its basic element, the column. Columns come from tree trunks, hence their fluting and tapering toward the top. Columns are also human in form: different types correspond to different peoples: the Doric column is a helmeted soldier; the Ionic, a woman with curling hair. In the Parthenon, these types reached their “classic” forms. Architects consciously constructed canonical versions of traditional columns and labeled them Vitruvian. And that’s why the entry on “Architecture” can say that sixth-century BCE architects were “inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece.” Theirs was already a renaissance of a more ancient ancient Greece. When it came to the Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries CE, Vitruvius’ principles were much revised for the buildings of the time.


The question of when the classical era ends and the “classical tradition” begins invites us to step back from the welter of details and try to grasp some larger picture. Though they didn’t refer to it as “classical,” people in ancient Greece and Rome already understood themselves to be part of a tradition, which they constituted and reaffirmed through rituals of collective memory and through continuities in the production of cultural artifacts and institutions. Homer evoked earlier Greek history and ancient bards; Virgil evoked Homer for Rome; Greek sculpture was imitated, emulated, and copied by Roman craftsmen. Tradition was also theorized, as when Aristotle in the Poetics looked back on Greek tragedy, or when, later, Vitruvius in his treatise looked back on Greek architecture.

But the classical tradition, as evoked by most of the entries in this enormous volume, implies not continuity but rather a break, the break upon which the whole idea of the Renaissance was constructed. Petrarch pictured an intervening dark ages between his degraded present and the glorious ancient past. Occurring against a backdrop of rupture, scholars and artists inspired by Petrarch painstakingly recovered something lost or damaged. The Classical Tradition is principally a guide to this collective effort at recovery, though many readers will mistake it for a guide to the classics themselves.

The Renaissance was poised between a ritual of mourning and an act of resurrection. On the one hand, Petrarch wept over the corpse of the ancient world, its shattered ruins testifying to an irrevocable loss. On the other hand, even as he wept, he launched a passionate attempt to recover the moral and aesthetic standards of the classical past and to celebrate those values that remained eternally valid, untouched by time and indifferent to history. The understanding of ancient culture as the product of a particular historical period is in tension with the dream of rebirth. Even the great modern champions of historical awareness remain vexed by the normative nature of the classical tradition as a source of truth and beauty. Marx understood ancient Greece as the model childhood of humanity. For Nietzsche, a failure to seize hold of the rejuvenating power of antiquity is an abuse of history.

The Classical Tradition is an elegy both for the historical obsession with Greek and Roman antiquity and for the dream of its eternal validity. It is a “last book.” Its editors know that huge collections of this kind will henceforth find their place, if anywhere, on the Web. And they know still more, that today’s humanities students prefer subjects no older than themselves.

  • *
    Ancora a me soleuano pia cere questi moderni; ma poi, ch’io commenciai a gustare questi antichi, mi sono venuti in odio quelli moderni ”; in Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (London: Paladin, 1970), p. 20. Filarete uses the term “ antichi ” rather than “classical”—the latter term came into wide use only in the seventeenth century to describe the most prestigious literary texts of Greek and Roman antiquity and still later to describe architecture and sculpture.

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