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Classics, the study of the languages and civilisation of ancient Greece and Rome, is usually assumed to have functioned historically as the curriculum of the British elite. This is the first substantial enquiry into the presence of ancient Greek and Roman culture in British working-class communities ever to have been conducted. It alters our understanding of the history of Classics irrevocably by examining evidence for the diverse working-class experience of the classical world between the Bill of Rights in 1689 and the outbreak of World War II. The evidence includes autobiographies, poetry, fiction, visual and material culture in museums, galleries and the civic environment, theatrical ephemera, records of Trade Union activities, self-education publications, mass-market inexpensive classic’ series, archives relating to Poor, Free, Workers’, Adult and Dissenting educational establishments and to political parties that supported the working class. This book asks how workers gained access to classical texts, ideas and materials, and how the contact affected their lives and attitudes.
Although there was a significant amount of working-class engagement with the ancient Greeks and Romans, most of which has hitherto been overlooked, it was often hard-won. The time-consuming study of the Greek and Latin languages was adopted as the core of‘Classics’, the education of the newly redefined British ‘gentleman’, at the dawn of the 18th century, whether his fees were paid by landed estates or commerce. It symbolised his fitness for a profession, a marriage into the gentry, a career in prestigious educational institutions or government, or advancement in the civil or colonial services. By the end of the second decade of the 18th century, the battle-lines which still shape debates over Classics had been drawn up. Britons who were unable or unwilling to bankroll their sons’ classical educations fought back. The Greeks and Romans could be approached by other routes which did not require years glued to grammars and dictionaries. They could increasingly be read in mother-tongue translations, by great poets like Dryden and Pope, even though this was obviously derided as a vulgar mode of access to the Classics by those who had purchased the linguistic training. The material covered in ancient authors could be enjoyed even by the completely illiterate in accessible entertainments such as fairground shows.
Part I asks what Classics-related cultural media and literary genres were accessed and in turn used as vehicles by working-class subjects. In the 18th century, some autodidacts in lowly occupations succeeded in learning classical languages against the odds, while others accessed classical authors via increasingly abundant translations. In the 19th century, widening literacy and inexpensive literature, especially the many educational publications of John Cassell, expanded access to Classics exponentially. Although Homer, Virgil and Caesar were universally popular, the authors prioritised by working-class readers differed from those read in expensive schools and elite colleges: the Greek New Testament, Aesop, Plutarch, Epictetus, Josephus, Plato, Livy and a particular canon of historians of antiquity (e.g. Rollin, Gibbon, Osborne Ward) recur on working-class reading-lists.
Labouring-class poets, both male and female, such as Stephen Duck and Mary Collier, published collections which display knowledge of classical forebears; some used it to flatter their rich patrons and others to challenge social injustice. Life-writing by workers reveals a similar gulf between those who embraced what they perceived as their escape from their natal class and those who never ceased to work in its cause; what unites many working-class autobiographies is a youthful encounter with Classics which transforms the subject’s life trajectory, whether by inspiring a programme of self-education or by proving to him (and almost all the 19th-century worker-autobiographers were male) the extent of his educational deprivation.
Until the later 19th century, a large proportion of the British working class, especially women, remained illiterate. This book explores their engagement with the visual media which informed them about classical culture—the windows of print shops, aristocratic and civic architecture and internal decoration, museums, spectacles and illustrated educational periodicals. Since drawing, painted decoration and modelling often attracted apprentices from impoverished backgrounds, the visual understanding of sites such as Pompeii and the Athenian Acropolis was often provided by originally working-class men. Theatrical performances provided another route to the classical world, although the censorship of stage plays limited the use of rousing ancient stories in plays exploring the iniquities of the class system. The case of a censored tragedy about the Gracchi produced just before and after Peterloo provides a vivid example.
Contact with Classics varied between different communities. Section II explores religious identity, adult educational groups, and the national experiences in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Dissenters of all denominations were crucial in making classical authors available to Britons across the lower end of the class spectrum. Dissenters also often led major educational initiatives offering opportunities to the working classes to study subjects including Classics:
Mutual Improvement Societies, Adult Schools, Mechanics Institutes, University Extension schemes, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and the Labour Colleges.
The relationship between the Irish and the Greco-Roman world was intense, as their literature in both Gaelic and English reveals. Competence in Latin was fostered across even some of the lowest classes by Roman Catholicism and informal education at ‘hedge schools’. But political allegiances were complicated; along with classically skilled Irish working-class Catholics, who supported Irish rebellion, some ardently opposed it. Two radical Irish classicists campaigning in the interests of the Irish working classes were Protestants; Robert Tressell, author of the Plato-influenced working-class novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914), was of mixed religious parentage. In Scotland, the proud tradition of the ‘lad o’ pairts’ boasts a longstanding reputation for good working-class education. There were indeed remarkable resources for studying and teaching the Classics in the counties around Aberdeen, which furnished hundreds of educated men to work in the furthest outposts of the British Empire; cheap and popular publishing ventures were founded by Scotsmen, especially the Chambers brothers; two of the most important books in British Labour History were Thomas Carlyle’s classically informed Past and Present and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Spartacus. Wales had a distinct Nonconformist tradition of classical education, but it also had Caractacus, the ancient British leader who, according to Tacitus, had fought against the ancient Romans in Wales and was paired in the public imagination with David Lloyd George. There was an Edwardian craze in Wales for amateur theatrical performances by school children starring Caractacus, and once World War I broke out, they became transparently connected with recruitment, morale and fund-raising for the war effort.
Individual working-class subjects teetering on or below the edge of respectability are put at the centre of the radar in section III. Between the French revolution and the collapse of the Chartist movement, diverse British radicals— republican revolutionaries of the 1790s, men incarcerated for sedition in the aftermath of Peterloo, Chartists, workplace organisers and freethinkers, some working-class and some from more prosperous backgrounds—were motivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. They used Classics to enliven their journalism, inform arguments at the trials, and explore religious questions that took them far beyond the limits of Anglican theology. A few outstanding autodidacts harnessed Classics to assist a meteoric rise to university chairs, where most of them relinquished class anger to become quietist professionals. The attempts of other extraordinary working-class boys to escape poverty by self-education never quite got off the ground; some ended their days as itinerants, alcoholics or suffering from acute mental disorders.
The aura surrounding the ancient cultures did not signify gentlemanliness and financial security everywhere. Alongside the gentry enjoying their Palladian mansions and expensive school curriculums, there always existed more commercial, demotic, subterranean and secretive groups in British society who used imagery from the Greek and Roman worlds to communicate and self-identify: salesmen, imposters, criminals, prostitutes, circus and fairground performers, showgirls, libertines, madmen and participants in recreational activities ranging from the merely vulgar to the illegal. Ancient Greek appeared in a variety of recherche contexts such as accusations of witchcraft, caricatures of Jesuits, the slang dialects of the criminal underclass, the display of prodigiously intellectual dogs and pigs, fairground freaks including satyrs and centaurs, the lives of notoriously uncouth Scotsmen, Welsh dream divination and down-market pharmaceuticals and sex manuals. A few classicists unambiguously joined the underclass in being convicted of violent crimes and/or confined in asylums. Most beauty and strength performers in the long 19th century—dancers, actresses, strongmen, contortionists, strongwomen, wrestlers, boxers, novelty performers, artists’ models and posers of all kinds—used draped fabric, leather straps and bared flesh to identify their acts with Greco-Roman antiquity. They almost always came from working-class families.
The final Part, IV, examines the presence of classical material in other working lives. The figures from antiquity with whom the working classes identified, or were identified with by others, were male martyrs, rebels, slaves and labourers, largely distinct from the heroes and gods instrumentalised by those higher up the social scale, such as Alexander, Aeneas, Augustus, Jove and Juno, Leto, Apollo, Diana, Venus and Mars. Sources including workers’ newspapers and Trade Union art show that workers identified with Aesop, both Brutuses, the Gracchi, Solon, Caractacus, Boadicea, Spartacus, Prometheus, Vulcan, Hercules’ labours, Atlas, the Cyclopes and Neptune. Hercules and Atlas were violently contested, being used to symbolise both ruling-class/imperial dominion and the physical power of the proletariat. Shoemakers, often radical Nonconformists, although sometimes espousing conservative views, were well-read and conversant with classical authors, inspired by the examples of learned cobblers they found in ancient sources. Pottery workers were familiar with ancient artefacts and with books visually reproducing and discussing them. Miners, especially in Scotland and Wales, enjoyed some of the best workers’ libraries, well stocked with Classics, in the nation.
As working-class activism increased with the rise of the Labour Movement, classically self-educated professional politicians rose from the working classes, and their cause was espoused by newly university-trained socialist women, the academic Classicists who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and classically trained fulltime activists and intellectuals such as Christopher Caudwell and Jack Lindsay. Accessing the experience of working-class soldiers is exceptionally difficult, but one War Poet, David Jones, was not of officer rank. His neglected epic prose poem In Parenthesis (1937) forged a radically new Classicism, Modernist form and demotic language for the representation of the common soldier’s subjective experience of the trenches, which are prefigured by the frontier walls of the Roman empire. A People’s History of Classics closes with the classconscious and sophisticated classical theatre pioneered by Theatre Workshop, founded by the working-class communist theatre-makers Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl, who used Greek drama to fight the cultural wars of the 1930s for the rights of the working classes.
The British working classes were almost universally excluded from institutionalised Classics, and from study of ancient languages, but a few overcame the obstacles; many more engaged with the ancient Greeks and Romans in myriad creative ways. The classical world aided their careers, expanded their horizons, improved their rhetoric, informed their politics, alleviated their boredom, inspired them to read, write, paint, draw, sculpt, act, perform, teach, publish, organize Trade Unions, join debating societies, read the Gospels in the original or question the existence of God altogether. They used Classics to prove their intellectual calibre, to express their plight and signal their consciousness of the class system; they also used it to subvert and undermine the authority of the classes that ruled them and to entertain themselves during leisure hours.
The heroes of People’s Classics we have met were gardeners, stonemasons, circus acrobats, factory operatives, engravers, cutlers, domestic servants, brewers, weavers, tramps, beggars, prisoners, thieves, inmates of mental hospitals, plasterers, painter-decorators, cabin-boys, milkmaids, washerwomen, wool-sorters, drummers, butchers, grocers, mechanics, carpenters, errand-boys, tailors, pillsellers, janitors, porters, dockers, hatters, fishermen, sailors, comb-makers, bakers, bricklayers, navvies, shepherds, threshers and grave-diggers. They deserve honoured places in the gallery of People’s Classics simply because they struggled so hard to get access to the ancient world. But they also offer us a new ancestral backstory for a discipline sorely in need of a democratic makeover.