Antiquity Matters
Frederic Raphael
Yale University Press
Hardback, £20/$26

The barbarians will always be with us, but what about the Greeks and Romans? In 1940, when nine-year-old Frederic Raphael first encountered Kennedy's Latin Primer, both private and grammar school curricula were designed to inculcate a working knowledge of Classical history, and a Loeb-enhanced familiarity with either or both Latin and Greek. Today, in a culture at risk of entertaining itself to death, and with most British school-leavers unable to communicate in a living foreign language, the study of Classics has returned to its 18th-century form, a hobby for the elite, minus the 18th-century rigour.

Raphael started to learn Greek at 11, then worked his way up to a Classics scholarship at St John's, Cambridge, but instead of an academic career he chose the freelance life of the writer. The author of 22 novels, including The Glittering Prizes (1976) and an Oscar-winning screenplay for Darling, (1976); and a prolific, often barbed journalist, Raphael, now 86, remains an underrated ornament of English letters. Antiquity Matters is a sharp, instructive and utterly entertaining testament to Raphael's lifelong pursuit of Classics, and how learning about the past leads to understanding the present, and to self-understanding.

As a personal view, Antiquity Matters is 'more of a montage than any kind of textbook'. The newcomer in search of a clear narrative and chronology should probably look elsewhere – and then take up Antiquity Matters as an interpretation and stimulus. For we hold up the ancients as a mirror to the modern, and the image we see is, as the subtitle of Paul Cartledge's The Greeks has it, 'a portrait of self and others'. The pleasures of Antiquity Matters are idiosyncratic, digressive and, like Distant Intimacy, the published online correspondence between Raphael and his friend, the American critic Joseph Epstein, highly acute and a little bit curmudgeonly.

The past, and especially the Athens of the Golden Age, is always with us, but the eternal outlines of human nature are disguised by the quick changes of historical costume. Xanthias, the servant in Aristophanes' Frogs, is 'the prototype of the savvy servant who culminated in Beaumarchais and Mozart's Figaro, if not in PG Wodehouse's Jeeves'. The fate of Gaius Cassius Longinus, exiled for advocating 'the values of the old Republic' in the age of empire, recurs in the fall of Enoch Powell, 'ostracised by his own party' after stating 'Delphic apprehensions' about post-imperial immigration. Cicero, vesting 'sentimental hopes in what he took to be the innate qualities of the Old Families', and called 'father of the country' by patricians even though he was 'never quite one of them', appears in Victorian Britain as Benjamin Disraeli, 'another arriviste of rare eloquence and even greater panache' who 'did the hard work' for the Tory grandees.

Some motifs are carried directly from myth to the modern age. A reference to Odysseus' prolonged homeward journey leads to the observation that Cavafy's evocation of 'the delights of delay and deviation' in Ithaca (1911) are anticipated by Tennyson's Ulysses (1842). Euripides' Medea is traced forward to Jean Anouilh's 1946 play Medée, and Pasolini's 1969 film, starring Maria Callas.

Many other footnotes delight through deviation alone, into free-associative comparisons reminiscent of another Classically-minded novelist, Robert Graves. Draco, the 'primordial' legislator of Athens, punished 'any serious crime' by death. So, Raphael notes, did the Paraguayan dictator Velasco (1766–1840). The reader must guess whether Velasco was inspired by Draco, or whether the consistent viciousness of human nature produces similar results across time and space. That guess, Raphael insists, is the reader's prerogative. Instead of trusting 'academics on the make', and the 'petty treason' and 'inapposite erudition' of weak translation and misleading interpretation, we should seek direct contact with Classical texts. Antiquity Matters proves this case in the inimitable Raphael style.
Dominic Green