Sylvia Plath and the milkman
Followers of the TLS blogs will have caught up by now with result of the Greeks vs Romans debate at Cheltenham. Indeed they may well be heartily sick of it (and this is the last post on the subject, promise). The truth is that, in his blog, the chair of this battle of the titans was a trifle generous to the losing side.
Almost 400 people turned up to listen to our debate about the relative merits or importance of Greece and Rome. Prof Beard had expected to start out behind and claw back a little over the course of the discussion – thereby claiming victory. In fact, as the Stothard blog delicately admits, Prof Beard started with a popular vote in favour of the Italian team, and actually lost ground by the vote at the end. A definite trouncing.
OK, lets not take all this too seriously. It was only a (sort of) balloon debate, after all -- and I have a pretty unrivalled record of losing those. I even lost when, in an architectural version of the game, I was supporting the Parthenon against the Alhambra. My pitch that a ruin was a more culturally interesting object than a standing building didn’t hack it with the audience at the London of Review of Books Bookshop.
But it still might be interesting to think why Rome didn’t win on Saturday. Well, reason number one was obviously the superior rhetorical skills of my sparring partner, Prof Hall. But there is also a question of what you can easily get people to be enthusiastic about.
When I came home, tail between legs, the husband observed that it would be almost impossible to get an average British audience to vote for the merits of Titian over Piero della Francesca. The quattrocento, with its originary simplicity, is always going to be easier to sell than the mature sophistication of the cinquecento (which we art historians, of course, prefer)
It reminded me of the words of an old (Romanist) literary friend years ago: that you could never convince the British public that a sophisticated twentieth-century poetic engagement with a passage of Dryden was ever as important as Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical account of her own encounter with the milkman.
And that’s only part of it. People come to look at Roman culture with a whole lot of convenient prejudices. What would you say, as one member of the audience asked me, about the tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent people slaughtered in the Roman amphitheatres?
Well, you don’t win too many votes by telling the questioner that they’re wrong. Actually far fewer people than we ever imagine met their end that way – but, for different reasons, it suited both Christians and Roman emperors (not to mention filmmakers and cartoonists) to claim that they did. Nor do you make friends by saying that neither the Greeks nor the Roman were “nice” in our terms. (That’s when your interlocutor sticks the knife in by saying that the Greeks only learned to be beastly from the Romans – choosing to gloss over what the Athenians did to the slaves in the silver mines)
People are also none too sympathetic to the notion that a lot of the people we call Greek were actually Roman anyway. So – take Lucian, the second century AD satirist, who may perhaps win the prize for inventing the genre of science fiction (or at least the idea of moon travel, in his satirically entitled True History). Sure, he wrote in Greek; but he came from Syria and was an inhabitant of the Roman empire. There is almost as much separating him and Pericles, as there is separating Cicero and the Venerable Bede.
So reflecting on the mature sophistication of Roman culture, we live to fight another day.