The Collector as a Growing Class

As the nineteenth century drew on, there developed a distinct type of classicist amid the growing wealth, comfort, and peace encountered by Europeans. This classicist was a character who was more Parnassus than Anti-Christ, delving deeper into the Graeco-Roman world than any since antiquity. Consumed with a deep passion to knit together all strands of the classical understanding, they are the last collectors before the cataclysm of the Great War. Whether they knew it or not, in some sense they saw the state of Europe, as it was in the years between Waterloo and the Somme, as a civilisation in peak cultural confidence and influence upon the world. To the arch-scholar, that confidence was derived from the exploration of the civilisations of Greece and Rome. Now, with Europe at its apex, they collected fervidly so as not to lose that confidence and that knowledge.

Let us think of the early men of learning through whose libraries we see the seed of the collector: Gibbon, Bentley, Porson, Mabillon, Niebuhr. All came close to having complete coverage of Greece and Rome. But to collect such a library had been hard work, only capable for an industrious and privileged few. By the late nineteenth century, this practice had become a far more achievable task. There are six reasons for the growth of ‘the collector’ from a handful of intrigued gentleman to a whole subset of European society. These are discussed in turn below.

The Library of the Early 19th Century

1. The New Branches of Exploratory Science

While it may seem for some that the growth of the sciences intruded on the scholarly power of the classics, this is not always the case. Take one Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90), who excavated Troy in 1873 and Mycenae in 1876. It was the new skills of archaeology which allowed his expeditions to be successful. Similar exploratory techniques were used in the discovery and decoding of papyri. Many fields which fused with classical knowledge – anthropology, linguistics, comparative religion to name just a few, depended heavily on the improvement of the material sciences.

2. The Scientific Method Applied to the Classics

The subjection of the classics to clinically detailed examination had the effect of ironing out inconsistencies and anomalies that had led to false representations of the Graeco-Roman epoch.

3. Centralisation and Completion

Just as Samuel Johnson had done with his Dictionary, so did the classicist with the established lexicon. Works that centralised vocabulary and understanding in studying the classics include:

  • Lidell and Scott’s Greek lexicon
  • The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae
  • Daremberg and Saglio’s Dictionnaire des antiquités classiques
  • The Pauly-Wissowa-Kroll Real-Encylopadie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft
  • The Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum (CIG)
  • The Corpus Inscriptionum Latinae (CIL)

4. Mass-Production Methods

The publication of classical texts in a standard format. Publishers included:

  • Leipzig publishing house Teubner
  • Oxford Classical Texts
  • The Didot series in France
  • The Delphin Classics in England (originally published in 17th century France as ad usum serenissimi Delphini, for the Dauphin.
  • Macmillans Classical Collection
Lexicon Emergent: Mass Publication and the 

Among the mass publication came hack word-by-word translations. The Bohn series (parodied by Kipling and Graves in Horace’s Fifth Book of Odes) helped to kill the interest of many intelligent boys in classical literature by making it appear both ugly and stupid. Its successors in this field include the Loeb series, as well as France’s Budé collection.

5. Research Techniques

The founding of many periodicals helped collect results which might otherwise have remained unpublished. These include:

  • Hermes
  • Philologus
  • Rheinisches Museum
  • The Classical Quarterly
  • The American Journal of Philology
  • La Revue de Philologie
  • Mnemosyne
  • The Neue Jahrbucher fure das klassische Altertum

6. The Founding of Societies

To meet and talk, to correspond and criticise. To discuss earnestly on common interest, most notably with classical allusions. Such societies were critical to the free exchange of knowledge between men of learning in all countries. In Highet’s time, writing immediately after the devastation of the Second World War, he doubted if such an environment would again exist in the coming centuries. Technology has opened the possibility of cultivated learning and exchange once more.


The days of free exchange of knowledge reached by the classical tradition was, in a sense, still the greatest height achieved by the classical tradition in size and scope. Europe ruled the world through its expansive empires, and the minds of the best Europeans were ruled by the Classics. Like Sidonius Apollinaris (461-67 AD), many within the throngs of the Fin de Siecle did not understand or see the barbarian incursions into their culture. For Apollinaris in the fifth century it was the raiding tribes, in the late nineteenth century it was the diplomatic stress and bourgeois materialism. Both became cataclysms which humbled great empires and apparently secure environs – in the twentieth century, the world wars and the short time preference of consumerism ate away at the the educated man’s sense of satisfaction and comfort with the society he found around him. It is arguable that ever since the age of the collector , the classicist could never consider himself as a part of such a world-wide structure of art and learning. If this was the apotheosis of classicism, what were the works that resided within this period?

The Three Fields

The nineteenth century sculpted three special fields in relation to the existing tradition:

  1. History
  2. Translation
  3. Education
  1. History

The history of the Graeco-Roman world was rewritten by the scholars of the nineteenth century. A forerunner among the classical historians was the Berlin professor Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776-1831). Niebuhr was fascinated with how Livy had researched his own work on early Rome. Livy was, after all, as remote from Tarquin and Horatius as we are from the wars of the Roses. This led Niebuhr to conjecture that the main evidence Livy used were ballads, handed down verbally through the generations. This was, in part, due to Niebuhr’s proximity to the Age of Revolution, from which he gained an admiration for the unspoiled peasantry. Another literary example of the power ballad over the collector reconstruction of these ballads for the nineteenth century, one need go no further than Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome.

After Niebuhr, the theory was developed by Leopold Ranke (1795-1886), though Ranke would maintain his Criticism of Modern Historians was not aimed at Niebuhr. Nevertheless, he had Niebuhr’s bust in a place of honour in his study, and Ranke was incapable of removing himself from his elder. What Niebuhr had done was to apply social evolution to antiquity, a branch of historical analysis which helped form the grand works of the twentieth century such as A.J. Toynbee’s A Study of History, Grote’s History of Greece, Arnold’s History of Rome, and Macaulay’s History of England.

Niebuhr’s credit was understood by that greatest of classical historians in the nineteenth century, one Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903). Mommsen claimed ‘all historians are Niebuhr’s pupils’, something he no doubt took to heart whilst writing his Roman History (1854-6), which covers the rise and fall of the republic. Mommsen also delved into Roman coinage and criminal law, producing valuable treatise in Roman Constitutional Law and editing the Corpus of Latin Inscriptions.

Many have been puzzled by Mommsen’s decision to stop with the republic. President Butler of Columbia University, of whom Highet was faculty, mentions on the issue,

‘Mommsen…never continued his Romische Geschichte…he had never been able to make up his mind as to what it was that brought about the collapse of the Roman Empire and the downfall of Roman civilisation

Shades of Gibbon endured. Another explanation lies in the events of Mommsen’s life. Involved deeply with the revolution of 1848, he wished for a German unifier on the Roman model. In Bismarck he found the new Caesar. But if the great man is the solution to the inherent weakness of liberalism, how to reconcile the problems of absolutism? Mommsen’s inability to deal with the great men of Rome could be seen as an indication of nineteenth century’s slide away from this absolutism. Moreover, the early empire is filled with conundrum – it is not just the greatness of Augustus, but the brilliance of Virgil. Caesar and Cicero are inextricable. Art and oratory, glory and tyranny. Imperial Rome can appear almost protean to the eye of the historian. In an age of scientific materialism such as the industrial revolution, that protean form was a problem that Mommsen was not able to solve.

Moving away from Mommsen, but still in the descending line from Niebuhr, we find a Frenchman, one Numa-Denys Fustel de Coulanges (1830-89). Whereas Mommsen emphasised the role of political institutions and individual statesmen, Fustel looked at social facts. Fustel’s magnum opus is The Ancient City, in which he claimed religion was the determinant factor in moulding institutions. He followed this with a History of the Political Institutions of Ancient France, in which he claimed Roman Gaul was not conquered. In his refutation of the theory of ‘German virtues’ regenerating the decadent French was – however pleasing to the emotions of Germans – false to the facts. The work was produced amid a cauldron of growing animosity between France and Germany – they were at war in 1870-71, and would be twice again throughout the cataclysms of the early twentieth century.

Finally among this class of historian we find Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), whose unfinished History of the Ancient World gave us the first useful history of Egypt, by appropriately removing Egypt from isolated treatment. Successors in the Meyer school are the aforementioned Toynbee, as well as Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), whose The Decline and Fall of the West tried to create a truly universal history.

2. Translations

We have already spoken on the importance of translation within the context of the Renaissance. The nineteenth created a new class of translator – the university lecturer.

Matthew Arnold’s lectures On translating Homer and his essay On translating Homer. Last Word (1861-2) is illustrative of the growing interest in translation among the erudite classes. Arnold was considering the verse translation of the Iliad by F.W. Newman (1856), using the Victorian method of attaching  a general discussion to a particular criticism. Arnold compared other translators of Homer to Newman – Chapman, Pope, Cowper. Newman was following Pope in seeing Homer as a court poet. Arnold rejected theis attempt at turning Homer into what he saw as ditty folk poetry. In his attack, Arnold was destroying the parallel of Homer and the ballads, as discussed in ‘England and the Dark Ages’. He also attacked Maginn’s Homeric Ballads and Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome in the same manner.

Matthew Arnold: 
The Archetype Victorian Classicist

Arnold’s point was this:

  1. Homer is rapid
  2. Homer is plain and direct in language
  3. Homer is plain and direct in thought
  4. Homer is noble

How, then, to convey in English verse, the extremely complex impression we receive when reading Homer? For all its splendour, the language is sometimes odd and obscure. What was wrong with Newman’s version, and with his principles, was that he omitted beauty. Arnold had taste; Newman had none. It is important to recall that the Iliad was, by the time of classical Greece, already odd and antique. This oddity on the ear lent to its appeal. Greeks would learn it childhood and become familiar with it. In this sense it is more like the King James Bible than a ballad. It is not all understood, nor is it meant to be. The Bible speaks of Anathema Maran-atha, the mark of the beast, and the poor in spirit. Are these all well understood by us today?

What of Arnold’s own translations? Toward the end of his lecture he attempts a translations of part of Iliad 6, justifying his choice of words by citing the Bible, and recommended Homeric translators to take Cruden’s Concordance to the Holy Scriptures for a guide in difficulties of language. This solution was adopted by Andrew Lang (1844-1912) in his Odyssey in 1879 and the Iliad in 1883. The problem was they were in prose. A prose translation of Homer is akin to hearing a single pianist, however gifted, playing a version of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Some of the magic is inevitably lost. Matthew Arnold grew to understand this, abandoning experiments in hexameter translations. Instead, Arnold would write his own heroic poems: Balder Dead and Sohrab and Rustum. Neither would be classical in origin. Balder Dead comes from Norse; Sohrab and Rustum from Persian legend. Yet they are Greek in their fragmentary structure, or epyllia, and endure better than Arnold’s imitation of Sophocles, Merope. Nor are they particularly Homeric in style. Indeed, Sohrab and Rustum contains much of Virgil. Arnold, for all his meticulous precision in the study of Homer, was not in the same plain. Arnold is the breeze in the valley, Homer the air among the peaks.

Iliad, Book 6: Arnold could not match its mastery

Arnold was not alone in struggling to translate Homer successfully into English. Tennyson emphasised Arnold’s failure, in a note in 1863 Cornhill, saying that it had ‘gone far to prove the impossibility’ of using hexameters in English. Tennyson was a fan of the blank verse approach, and his Arthurian poems contain many ‘faint Homeric echoes’, even if they are also more Virgilian in composition, with Tennyson’s duty to Arthur akin to Virgil’s debt to Octavian Augustus.

3. Education

Failed as Arnold’s translations ultimately were, what was interesting was the lecture environment where he critiqued and composed. The astute classical professor is an image twinned with that of dusty corridors in elite institutions of learning. These are the arch-collectors, catacombed from the 19th century’s rapidly changing industrial landscape and growing materialism. Yet there were still developments. How were the classics to be taught to the burgeoning middle class? What did this triumphal Europe think of the classics which had moulded it?

Arnold had abolished the conception that Homer was a ballad-monger, lending scope for likes Samuel Butler (1835-1902) to question Homer’s sincerity in his telling of the fall of Troy, as he did in his The Humour of Homer (1892). Butler maintained that there was an element of Homer poking fun at the event, particularly as the gods are presented as ‘human, all too human’. This was the beginning of allowing the classics to be criticised as if they were a modern novel. And Butler was not done, writing in The Authoress of the Odyssey (1897) that ‘no man could have written this’, and that it had in fact been written by Nausicaa, the young princess of Od. 6, that she lived in 1050 B.C. Sicily, and that it was the feminine counterblast to the masculine Iliad. Butler published popular translations of the Iliad (1898) and the Odyssey (1900). As he did so he distanced himself from earlier ‘antique’ translations of Butcher and Lang. Here, in Butler, was the translator of the Edwardian flavour.

Odysseus meets Nausicaa

T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) followed Butler’s model. Lawrence was under the impression that the author of the Odyssey was something resembling a Walter Scott figure – a muddled antiquary of early Greece. Thinking of Homer as an antiquarian, Lawrence produced a translation much like his more famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom. What Lawrence, and Butler before him, were missing over Homer was the power of tradition over the early authors. They consider him far too self-conscious than how the early epics were truly sculpted. Homer is not a muddled antiquarian, but a reverent for tradition.

What, then, are the best of the translations, and how should Homer be taught? The perfect answer will forever remain elusive. Scholarship and literature; knowledge and taste. Such is the effect of the classics on so many over millennia that faultlessness is an unachievable ideal. Professor Gilbert Murray’s Greek tragedies are a good late-nineteenth century translation but found later criticism from the likes of T.S. Eliot. For all their endeavours, the professors in their works created an unintended killing touch. Pursuit of perfection produced strange, dull output which confused and bored students looking to branch off into more new and exciting fields which nineteenth century learning had to offer. The likes of Sir William Osler described learning the classics in the nineteenth century as ‘to climb Parnassus in a fog!’. Such was the mood in the generations which precipitated the decline of classical studies. Osler would instead look to build on the Renaissance humanists and physicians such as Browne and Linacre, eventually becoming Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford. Later American educators such as Nicholas Murray Butler and William Lyon Phelps shared a similar distaste to the stifling atmosphere of classical learning in this time. E.F Benson, who adored Greek literature, could not but convey his dismay in what he perceived to be a dismal system in his As We Were (1930).

Dust Gathers, Storm Gathers

The regulations prescribing Latin as a necessary qualification for admittance to a university were relaxed or abandoned. Some considered it a sign of Progress. Others saw it as precipitating a new age of mass vulgarity and ‘Gothic ignorance’, like that described by Pope at the end of the Dunciad. Whatever the case, it truly was the Fin de Siecle, in the classical tradition as much if not more so than in other walks of European life. Science, industrialism, international trade – here was the future. The world was changing too rapidly for the classics to play any major part in what people perceived to be the new universal education. It was as impractical to teach the masses in the classics as to have them all paint or play the violin. The popular masses, imbued with growing self-confidence in an industrial world which became more and more recognisable as one they, not the old aristocracy, created. They turned against the old élites. Many still clung to teaching Latin and Greek but, if they were taught at all, they were badly taught.

Only that which is inactive can wither. There had always been bad teachers, Gibbon famously gave up on his early morning tutorials, Byron and Hugo both reacted violently to it; but the over-emphasis on precision in the fin de siècle tutors created a stale atmosphere that did not cause reaction. It caused disinterest. That ethos which had defined the nineteenth century – discipline, system, flogging, hard work – was not working on the latest batch. The problem encountered by the tutor was his inability to see the classics required a new tact. They had got this before – first in the renaissance, later in the age of revolution. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that research at universities were leading professors into stranger and more specialised fields, further alienating them from the budding crop. Oxford and Cambridge would try to alleviate this strain between professor and student with the tutorial system, but it was not enough to stem the tide.

Other attempts of reform were made, usually with frustrating results in the eyes of the students. One of the chief errors of the time was to teach Greek and Latin studies as if it were a science, comparable to geology. A.E. Housman, often a fine and sensitive poet, taught, or rather failed to teach, in this scientific method. He failed to explain why anyone should choose to study Greek and Latin literature rather than the Calypso songs of Trinidad and the hymns of the Tibetan monasteries. Would he have refused to admit that the writings of the Greeks and Romans are relevant to us, who are at some removes their spiritual descendants? Housman would lecture on Horace to his students without looking at them. Only at the final class in the final semester in May did he read out an ode aloud, concluding that he regarded it ‘as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature’ before walking quickly out of the room. The classics cannot be anything other than art, one that has been cultivated throughout the ages of civilisation. Housman loved, but did not teach others to love. This is a chief trait of the collectors: an obligation in themselves to extend knowledge rather than disseminate it.

Housman: Contemplating his failure

The writing of scholarly books on classical subjects will never match the ancient texts themselves. Yet the collectors had a strange fixation on secondary commentaries and dry compendiums, the Germans especially guilty. Chief example of this is Pauly-Wissowa-Kroll’s Reeal-Encyclopadie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft. Even publication had the effect of Juvenal and Euripides appear as if a medical book – another result of the false parallel with science. In Germany the collectors’ prize became the completion of the Quellenforschung, or search for sources. They looked to find the source of everything in a work that must be derived from earlier writers. It is a typical scientific assumption that everything can be explained by synthesis, but it omits the essential artistic fact of creation. The scholar has a responsibility to society, the collector felt he did not. Both have a duty to know the truth, but only the scholar feels the duty to make that truth known. Only by spreading the value and light of Greece and Rome to those untouched by it can a civilisation overcome the repeated attacks of materialism and barbarism. The collectors ultimately failed in this duty. The fin de siècle was instead filled with those who forsook the classics for materialism. The submission to that attack did not at first seem to devastate European civilisation in the eyes of the public. But malaise encourages malaise. When you slip away from Greece and Rome, barbarism is never far around the corner. Coupled with modern industrial might, this barbarism would take the form of two horrific world wars, and Europe would have its cataclysm.