20 AUGUST 1948, Page 7



To. read some of the newspaper comments on the joint meeting that has just been held for a week in Oxford by the Roman Society, the Hellenic Society and the Classical Association, one would suppose that the principal preoccupation of those present was how to maintain or extend classical studies in the school and university, how to popularise and " modernise " the form of education which so long had a monopoly in Western Europe and which now has often to fight for its existence. What was in fact striking about the meeting was that these preoccupations took second place. The five hundred men and women attending were primarily inspired with the pleasure of hearing distinguished scholars describe their discoveries —whether of field archaeology or of the study—and attempting in the light of the latest knowledge once more to draw a little nearer to this or that public man, artist, poet or historian of the past. It was this common pleasure that bound the meeting together, and the exhilarating vitality of this pleasure which made it impossible to believe that the study of classical antiquity is condemned to become the obscure business of a few specialists.

Five centuries ago, in the golden years of the Renaissance, the Greek and Roman past had such a glow about it that the slightest contact with it seemed to exalt mankind. Men basked in the warmth and light of the rediscovered past and tried to communicate it to their own age by artificial means, even using the language of the dead for their love poetry. Today the attraction of the Greco-Roman world is probably no less for those who have access to it, but that access is used differently. The effort of scholars is not so much to divinise the present by treating it as if it was part of the past, as to humanise the past by trying more completely to see it as it must have appeared to the men who were living in it ; to trace the thought of our great predecessors as it approaches our own, and not td suppose it identical with ours ; to understand artistic and literary creation in relation to the material circumstances in which it flourished ; to treat the past in fact as no less human and no less novel than the future.

Professor Last was the one speaker to come near suggesting that there was a direct leAon for us in classical studies when he argued that today the strongest resistance to totalitarianism—defined as the entire subordination of the individual to the society of which he is a part, so that he possesses no moral value or claims to consideration in himself—was to be found in those nations or parts of nations which through experience of Roman rule or continual study of the works of Greeks and Romans had closest contact with Greco-Roman thought. This seductive thesis presents many difficulties, though none could deny that contact with freely questioning minds must provoke free questioning. What was remarkable, however, was that only this one speaker should have felt it necessary to justify classical studies in this way. For all others, and no doubt for Professor Last also, the mere experience of increasing intimacy with the ancient world and of the constant enrichment it gives seemed to be assumed as an irrefutable justification.

This is not to say that the atmosphere of the meeting was in any way one of specialists in ivory towers. First of all the degree of specialisation in any one branch of classical knowledge is now so great that classical scholars when they meet are forced to speak not in the language of their own speciality but in that of all their colleagues if their peculiar contribution is to enter the common stream. Casual visitors would have been surprised to find how little technical were most of the papers read. Further, as Professor Mynors pointed out in his paper on The Farmers' Tools, one speciality which has sprung up almost entirely in the last century, namely archaeology, has immensely increased the emphasis on the purely practical aspects of life in the past. The interpretation of the vast mass of broken fragments dug up requires the imaginative reconstruction of daily life in its most domestic details (perhaps one, though only one, reason for the increasing importance of women in the archaeological field) before it in turn can cast light on all aspects of the vanished civilisation which is being examined. But in proportion as archaeology fills in the background of daily life of the past, it will, Professor Mynors argued, help to reduce one valid reproach to the effects of classical education on those who receive it, namely that it has rendered more difficult contacts between them and those with- out it, whom they have been inclined in past centuries to treat as "base mechanicals." This is an example of how classical scholarship justifies itself best when seeking its own ends.

The general effect, then, of the meeting in Oxford was to draw closer the links with the men of the ancient world and to enrich one's experience with theirs. It was not for nothing that Professor Beazley called the opening paper The World of the Etruscan Mirror, for in examining what at first sight seemed a rather obscure corner of ancient art, namely the Etruscan speciality of pictures engraved on the bronze backs of mirrors, he made his hearers enter the society of one of the peoples of the ancient world, whose language even can- not be understood, but who still communicate with us through the pleasure we share with them in the Greek myths which they illus- trated so much oftener than their own stories. Professor Walbank, by discussing the geographic notions of Polybius, succeeded in paint- ing the whole man, this practical-minded Arcadian squire, with his scepticism about the science of his age, his fundamentalist reverence for Homer, and his private vision of himself as the Odysseus of his age. Mr. D. W. Lucas showed us how truly a pioneer in psychology and moral thought was Euripides, since the ideas that we find it natural to suppose we share with the poet were so novel to him that he scarcely fiad words for them. Mr. N. G. Hammond made Solon and his problems seem contemporary, not by attempting any facile comparisons but by describing them in such simple and direct terms that his achievement in replacing a regime of clans and guilds by an effective State capable of transcending class conflicts became luminously clear. Mr. Ronald Syme described a Tacitus forming his judgement of Galba and the other participants in the crisis that followed the death of Nero by his own observation, from a high place in the State, of the narrowly averted disasters of the reign of Nerva thirty years later, after the murder of another tyrant, Domitian.

Mr. Homer Thompson, the director of the American School of Athens, not only showed some fine pieces of recently discovered sculpture of the end of the fifth century B.C., including a nereid of admirable movement that probably once stood on the corner of the roof of the Theseion, but built up an essential part of the back- ground of Athens, both as free republic and as university town, by his account of his school's discoveries in the Agora. Mr. J. M. Cook, of the British School of Athens, excited his hearers by an account of his first reconnaissance of the site of old Ionian Smyrna, which has remained unbuilt upon since the Lydians of King Alyattes captured and sacked it half a century before the shadow of Cyrus had fallen across Asia Minor. Here for the first time scholars will be able to study the lives of those Ionians who gave us Homer, philosophy and science. Professor Wace proved that sites like Mycenae have still secrets to yield, for he has found there a small sculptured group not five inches high which is probably the oldest known representa- tion of Demeter, Persephone and Triptolemus, dating from about 1200 B.C.

Other speakers threw wide the bounds of space. Dr. Jakobsthal showed that the archaic Greece of the Dorians (in the so-called Dark Ages of geometric pottery from rroo to 800 "Lc.) formed part of a cultural area extending as far north as Bohemia. Professor Seysig, of the French Institute of Archaeology in Beirut, demon- strated how much closer was the resemblance of the civilisation of Palmyra to that of the Greco-Italian cities on the Indus (with which Palmyrene merchants traded in their own ships from ports in the Persian Gulf) than to that of neighbouring Antioch. The latter was part of the Mediterranean cultural world dominated directly by Greece, while from Palmyra to the Indus and the Oxus extended the civilisation sprung from Alexander's marriage of East and West, a civilisation to endure centuries and then apparently disappear. Only apparently, however, for eastwards it produced Greco- Buddhist art with its profound influence, not only on India, but on China, Korea, Japan, while westwards it became a most powerful influence in the art of the Byzantine Empire.

Thus if modern scholarship is bringing us nearer to the individuals of past civilisations, it is also expanding our vision of those who are to be accounted their heirs. Recent discoveries of a Greco- Roman trading station near Pondicherry, a find of Roman coins in Indo-China, excavations in Afghanistan, are no doubt only the first of a long series of pointers in this direction.

The gift of the Oxford meeting to those privileged to attend it was an enhanced sense of organic contact with the life, the thought, the art of the past, almost as much our own treasure as is our personal experience, and containing, even more than our memories when we come to dig in them, hidden wealth that a careless mankind has mislaid but not always irremediably lost.