Helen, they beauty is to me

Like those Nicean barks of yore,

That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,

The weary, wayworn wanderer bore

To his own native shore.


On desperate seas long wont to roam

Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,

Thy Naiad airs have brought me home

To the glory that was Greece

An the grandeur that was Rome

Why turn to Rome and Greece at all? What is it that is held within these ancient civilizations that has a particular hold on Europe’s imagination? The meaning is in the answering. It is the sense of untapped glory to the burgeoning mind, the search of guidance. We look to its heroes for strength of character, to its aesthetic and literature for the foundation of graceful expression. Greece is the well of interesting stories. Rome the onslaught of trenchant ideas. Emulating them may ultimately prove to be a Sisyphean task, yet we are pulled toward the mission nonetheless. Within their orbit fall many fields, literature being chief among them.

Seeing the modern world as a continuation of the world of Greece and Rome is an outlook many have ceased to maintain, specifically in light of the explosion of industry. Yet such technology remains, for now, a tool. A tool to utilise resources. Seeing the technology as the resource is a mistake, and can lead to a narrowing of a worldview, particularly in the temporal sphere. For true breadth and depth of what it takes to be in a civilisation, we must turn to Greece and Rome. Without it, our civilisaiton would not merely be different. It would be thinner, more fragmentary, less thoughtful, more materialistic. Its wealth and wars won would be less worthy, its inventions less ingenious, its achievements less great.

Another important idea of how one thinks of our civilisation as a continuance of Greece and Rome is as an indirect continuance. Barbarism did encroach upon it, and silted over its greatness, covering Europe in an age of brutish savagery. Yet the artifacts did not become fossils. The fossil is lifeless and cannot reproduce itself. This reminds us of two traits in man:

  1. His ability to rediscover and re-emerge, even from centuries-long hibernation
  2. His trenchant barbarism. His capacity to destroy. To injure beauty and burn majesty.
Pnnini Rome
Immortal inspiration: Roman ruins in the 18th Century

Two or three generations of war and pestilence and revolution destroy culture with appalling rapidity. An indication of the fall of man in the dark ages can be deemed from the fact the writing of runes – old alphabet writings on stone from Northern Europe. The etymology of the word rune comes from secret. They believed words to be magic, and not something to be dispersed widely. How barbarous can a people be to believe the purpose of writing was to keep a thing a secret? The renaissance dug down through the silt and secrecy, finding the lost beauties worthy of imitation or emulation. That work was continued and enhanced by the succeeding centuries. Then the twentieth century brought to Europe unbridled war and revolution. Yet we emerged from these without a prolonged pestilence. This has left a strange imprint on the current European character, a sense of detachment amid abundance. This series will be an attempt to heal that sense of civilisational isolation.

Let us briefly cast our mind back to the true Dark Ages, and think of the channels of survival that Greece and Rome used during these times. The first is language. We often forget the power Greek had as an international language in the near east. The new testament was, after all, written in Greek. Greek also became the language of the upper echelons of Rome, the last words of Julius Caesar, at the moment of his murder being Greek. Later we find the emperor Marcus Aurelius keeping his private spiritual diary in Greek. Latin survived through modern dialects and languages. Latin also survived in the Catholic Church. This leads us to the second channel of survival: the emerging Christian churches.

The churches, Catholic and Orthodox, are split along the lines of division of the Roman Empire in 364AD. The west to Valentinian with a Milanese capital; the east to Valens with the capital in Constantinople. The Catholics used Latin and the Latin alphabet. The Orthodox Greek and the Greek alphabet. Hence the division of the similar Polish and Russian languages by these alphabets: one being a Catholic country, the other an Orthodox country.

Through the church were likely to survive certain ancient teachers. This depended on how they fit the moral narrative of the church. Moral critics were likely to survive, but immoralists not: so Juvenal the satirist survived, and Horace survived chiefly as a satirist, but Catullus reaches us through only one manuscript, preserved in his home town of Verona, and Petronius was, practically, lost for ever. Another aspect of ancient literature that could survive was the ability of its writer to fit into the chronological narrative of the church. The miraculous birth of the baby who is to announce a new age of peace and happiness was a dream of men all over the Mediterranean world in the last centuries of the pagan era. It appeared in an early work of Virgil some forty years before the birth of Jesus. Hence, Virgil was encouraged reading within the church. The third passageway for an ancient figure to be was to have been directly admired by an eminent churchman. St Augustine, in his autobiography, says it was Cicero’s introduction to philosophy, Hortensius, that turned his own mind towards religion, and Christianity. Hence Cicero is an example of this third means of transmission through the church.

The church, as an institution of power, also saved the Roman political sense more widely. Through Catholicism Rome remained the heart of a civilizational structure. St Paul, as Spengler points out in his Decline of the West, headed not to Edessa and Ctesiphon, but to Corinth, Athens, and Rome. The church is the spiritual descendant of the empire. Successors to St Paul in this tradition include St Augustine through his City of God, and later Dante. The continuation of Rome as a pivotal institutional centre also protected certain areas from lapsing into the total loss of historical perspective witnessed in Northern Europe. A perfect example of this loss is seen by means of the Franks Casket. The Franks Casket is an Anglo-Saxon box carved of whalebone about the eighth century AD. The pictures on it show six different heroic scenes from at least three very distant ages:

  1. Romulus, Remus, and two wolves (c.800BC?)
  2. The Adoration of the Wisemen (1AD)
  3. The Capture of Jerusalem by the Romans (70AD)
  4. The story of Weland and Beadohild (c.400AD?)
  5. An unknown myth, as well as an inscription about the whale itself

One cannot escape the geographical and temporal confusion that seems to be behind the understanding of these events by the engraver.

Franks Casket
Confused Chronology: The Franks Casket

Much of the progress out the dark age was educational. Middle ages, a distinct mark of improvement came with the re-emergence of Greek as something

Poggio Brocciolini
Poggio Bracciolini: Renaissance Collector-in-Cheif

more than just a few islands of spoken. The Renaissance represented a rapid expansion on the clerical-oriented Universities established throughout the middle ages. Geographical discoveries enlarged the world, the human body was beginning to be explored by anatomists, and most importantly to literature, forgotten and hitherto lost manuscripts were rediscovered by men such as Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459). At last, men began to understand and sympathize with the ancients in manner that had been neglected for centuries

The expanse of literature in the east, and particularly Russia, at this point went down a different path at this point, and will largely be ignored for the purposes of the literary study held within this series. The split was largely due to the Turkish conquest of Byzantium, which served as the literary source to Russian and eastern European expanses the way Rome and Italy was to the West. It was a serious set-back for Russian literature, which would not significantly ignite until the time of Pushkin. Until the reign of Peter the Great printing in Russia remained confined to the print constrained press.

The focus shall then be on the west, where the Renaissance became much more than simply the addition of books to the library. Books were printed for the chief purpose of giving aesthetic pleasure, not simply the expounding of a trite moral story. (Though the latter was never entirely abandoned). It involved an expansion in the powers and resources of all the arts – sculpture, architecture, painting, music – and a closer, more fruitful alliance between them. All the arts stimulated and strengthened one another.

The beauty and spirit of the Renaissance is one of the greatest achievements of the spirit of Greece and Rome, and so the first half of the series shall be focused around the build-up, and implementation of, its ideas in the field of literature. The remaining chapters shall take us through the reaction and interpretation of Graeco-Roman literary inspiration in the age of Baroque and the Enlightenment, into the belly of revolutionary thought of the late 18th century and beyond, to the industrial expanse of the nineteenth century, and the cataclysms of the twentieth.