GRAECO-ROMAN ANTIQUITY AND THE IDEA OF NATIONALISM IN THE 19TH CENTURY: Case Studies

Edited by Thorsten Fögen and Richard Warren

De Gruyter (2016) 305pp £82.99 (ISBN 9783110471786)

We live in times of ostensibly shallow and ignorant nationalisms, and turning to a collection of papers on educated uses of classical paradigms to the service of nationalist politics can be an especially useful exercise. The subtitle of this collection (‘Case Studies’) makes clear right away that no claim to exhaustiveness is being made. The focus is on developments north of the Alps: the richness of this set of studies may readily satisfy even those who would have welcomed a broader geographical (and therefore thematic) focus.

In the Introduction F-W give a helpful inventory of the recent historiographical debates on nationalism, also paying its dues to the contribution of Gilbert Highet to the study of the classical tradition (not an uncontroversial term, but one that may be used with good reason: cf. p. 9) and its political dimension. Anyone wishing to teach a class on an even loosely related topic will find generous bibliographical guidance here.

Anthony Smith has made a major contribution to the current debate on nationalism, and his chapter gives a valuable overview of the role that classical references played in ideological nation-building efforts from the XVIII century onwards. His discussion of the role of neoclassical architecture is especially valuable. Athena Leoussi further deepens our theoretical appreciation of the problem, building on the distinction between civic and ethnic nation, and charting modern attempts of appropriation of the Greek ideal of physical beauty in Germany, France, and Britain.

The following essays turn to the study of specific national case studies. Tim Rood offers a masterful piece on the analogy to which Napoleon resorted in handing himself to the British in July 1815: ‘I come like Themistocles’. The extraordinary contemporary impact of that statement and of the letter in which it was made receive close attention, as well as the layers of meaning of the classical allusion, which Rood shows was not to Themistocles’s sojourn at the Persian court (Plut. Them. 28.2-4), but to his visit as a suppliant to Admetus (Them. 24.2-4). Rood’s discussion is an example of lucidity and learning, deftly ranging across textual and visual evidence, and a splendid illustration of what the study of the classical tradition can offer to the exploration of major problems in modern history. Edmund Richardson keeps us in Napoleonic territory with an enjoyable piece on the contemporary reception of the History of Julius Caesar published under the name of Napoleon III. He elegantly shows that the considerable, if rather short-lived, impact of that work was not quite commensurate with the ambition of its author to make a mark on the political culture of his time, in France and beyond. It is interesting to see that such an instructive study could be produced without resorting to a single piece of French-speaking scholarship; B. Hemmerdinger, Quaderni di storia 25 (1987), 5-22, however, remains the necessary starting point for any detailed investigation of Napoleon III’s historiographical foray.

A cluster of papers on XIX century Britain, all focusing on visual evidence, follows. The late Rosemary Barrow offers an insightful reading of Edward Poynter’s painting Faithful unto Death (1865) as a powerful reflection on military obedience in an age of empire. Richard Hingley explores Victorian and Edwardian representations of Roman fortifications, from Hadrian’s Wall to the Fort at Mancenion. Richard Warren focuses on one specific piece, the (now lost) drawing that H. Courtney Sehous submitted in 1843 to a competition for a fresco in the newly rebuilt Palace of Westminster. Sehous did not get the commission, nor did his drawing make any discernible impact on British art, but the intellectual background of his depiction of the British queen receives thoughtful discussion here.

The following trio of essays takes us to Germany and Mitteleuropa. Christopher Krebs comes back to the reception of Tacitus’ Germania in XIX century Germany (cf. his A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’ Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, 2012), and focuses on the central contribution of the formidable Friedrich Kohrausch (1780-1867) to the teaching and understanding of that text, at a crucial time in the construction of the German nation. Michael Sommer has a terse discussion of two monuments of Arminius/Hermann, the one at Detmold, in Germany (to which Simon Schama devoted a splendid, if not uncontroversial discussion in Landscape and Memory, 1995, 75-134, not quoted here), and the far lesser known Hermann Heights monument at New Ulm, Minnesota, a major focus of identity for German migrants to the US and a powerful reflection on American identity in its own right (M. Winkler, Arminius the Liberator, 2016, must have appeared too late to be taken into account). Indeed, Arminius/Hermann could prove a valuable icon of freedom beyond Germany, as the painting of Joseph Berger and the engraving by Alphonse Mahe, analysed in detail by Richard Warren, show for XIX century Bohemia. The classicising depictions of the Cheruscan leader, in a context that is neither preoccupied with Germany nor with Rome, are a stark illustration of the potential afforded by the examples drawn from the classical past in a number of national contexts.

The final chapter takes us back from images to text, and to a very different context, that of XIX century Ireland. Laurie O’Higgins makes a well-argued case for the strong connection of Irish literary culture with Greek poetry, from which a fuller appreciation of the potential of Irish poetic language can unfold: the work of Nicholas O’Kearney is a valuable case in point.

If one needed confirmation that the study of both nationalism and the classical tradition can be conducted only through an international dimension, this book offers just that, in a powerful and welcome fashion. It also has the merit of making a range of evidence available in the English-speaking classroom: many avenues of further reading and research are opened up. We need to take nationalism more seriously than ever, and this collection offers valuable insights into how our discipline can contribute to that effort of collective understanding.

Federico Santangelo—Newcastle University

 

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