Routledge (2020) p/b 670pp £29.99 (ISBN 9780367432362)

The title of the book is inspired by A.L. Morton’s A People’s History of England (1938), published by the Left Book Club, which for the first time traced the fundamental outlines of English history from the perspective of its ordinary inhabitants. Hall and Stead’s extensively researched and wide-ranging A People’s History of Classics explores working class access to Greek and Roman culture (‘Classics’) in Britain and Ireland, within the limits of 1689 to 1939. Class has not featured as prominently as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, colonialism, imperialism, etc. in the modern field of ‘Classical Reception’, despite the strong evidence that class remains the single most important determinant of life chances in the UK today. A People’s History of Classics is a seminal piece of research, which is valuable in itself but which can also effectively frame some of the key issues around classics and class in modern Britain today.

As the opening chapter explains, the shape and scope of the book were conceived at a conference on the theme of ‘Classics and Class’ at the British Academy in 2010, and the bulk of the research was done in 2013-2016 when the AHRC offered a major research grant. The book started out with a literary emphasis but grew organically to encompass a much wider diversity of documentary evidence (published and unpublished in archives, museums and libraries across the UK and Ireland). In the course of their research, the authors ‘listened hardest’ to the voices of working-class people, who have routinely been excluded from previous histories of classical scholarship and pedagogy.

The book is both wide ranging and highly selective, reflecting the aesthetic and cultural interests of the two writers. They also stay true to their stated aim of avoiding theoretical metalanguage that might alienate readers other than professional academics. ‘Part I Canons, media and genres’ establishes the groundwork, defining the terms ‘classics’ and ‘class’ and outlining the methodology. Particularly important here is the production of classical books, which is crucial in the stories of the remarkable autodidacts related later in the book, since working class teachers and pupils had to get hold of reasonably priced education materials one way or another. ‘Part II Communities’ looks at education provided by ‘dissenting communities’ (e.g. Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers) in England and studies working class education in Ireland and Scotland; the section on Wales highlights performances of the juvenile operetta Caractacus and the significant effect this and similar dramatic productions of this story had on Welsh national pride until WWI period. ‘Part III Underdogs, underclasses, underworlds’ tells stories ranging from exceptional working class autodidacts who succeeded in academia (such as child labourer Joseph Wright, who, despite not learning to read until the age of 13 rose to become Professor of Comparative Philology at Oxford), to criminal classicists (such as prodigious translator of classical texts and murderer Rev. John Selby Watson), to the world of showbusiness and Eugen Sandow’s classicising body-building poses. ‘Part IV Working identities’ explores the role of classical figures and images in forming the symbolic identities of various groups amongst the labouring classes, such as miners, seamen, and potters. The individual chapters within the four parts are brilliant, illuminating, and fascinating explorations. They do not necessarily cohere tightly with one another. This seems to be a consequence of the way that the research project developed. The authors are pointing the way to a substantial range of potential ground-breaking paths that other researchers could take forward and develop. H. and S. have showcased not only a breath-taking assortment of documentary source material but also a valuable range of research methods that other scholars can productively adopt.

The book is a treasure trove of the most enthralling characters, and the stories and anecdotes are expertly narrated within the historical and cultural contexts of their times. Some of the most vibrant characters unsurprisingly come from the world of showbusiness, such as celebrity fraudster George Psalmanazar (who claimed to be a nobleman from Formosa [Taiwan] but was probably French and educated in Classics at a Jesuit school) who told Oriental tales in a mixture of ‘beautiful Latin, broken English and snippets of Formosan’. Strongwoman ‘Vulcana’, combining both strength and beauty, marketed herself in the 19th century music halls as a modern incarnation of the perfect proportions of classical female statuary. The itinerant book pedlar William Cameron, known as ‘Hawkie’ was a celebrity on the streets of Glasgow, where despite continuous intoxication he would display his classical learning to the crowds of Old Trongate. He walked with the aid of a crutch, due to a childhood leg injury, which, as with many autodidacts, protected him from hard labour and offered him more time to study. Poignant details such as this reveal the respect and empathy that the authors have for the people they write about, who faced such difficulties and whose courage and determination are skilfully brought out in the storytelling.

The book is so diverse and interesting that it is difficult to summarize. I will briefly pick out some examples that particularly interested me. The flexibility of Greek myth comes out in the figure of Hercules who had a long pedigree as a symbol of the ruling class. His defeat of the many headed hydra, for example, came to symbolize the plurality of places where rebellion could break out amongst slaves and labourers, only to be decapitated by the might of the Herculean ruling class. In time, however, the labouring Hercules came to represent the physical strength and political defiance of the working-class man in his struggle against capitalism, and this image could be seen especially on trade union banners. Another classical image that came to prominence in the trade union movement is the ‘bundle of sticks’ from Aesop’s fables, representing the concept of strength in unity. When 19th century workers without legal rights banded together against their employers and state legislation to form trade unions, Aesop was one of the few ancient authors most of them had met, since his fables were by then commonly used to teach elemental literacy.

H. and S. hope that the book can help us think about the place of the ancient Greeks and Romans within the modern curriculum today. Current discussions over the best way to give the nation’s youth access to the ancient world have been on-going for 300 years. One aspect of the debate is whether or to what extent training in the classical languages should constitute a part of the school curriculum, and who should have access to this. Latin and Greek are rarely available for British school children outside the independent sector. The cultural capital accumulated through traditional classical scholarship is demonstrated time and again throughout the book.

Another aspect of the debate is whether classical subjects should be studied at all, or whether practical science or other utilitarian subjects should take precedence in the curriculum. H. and S. have demonstrated convincingly the powerful effect that classics has had in informing some of the key thinkers in working class history. For example, in Ireland, Spartan helotage was used by the Irish as a metaphor for Irish oppression, while amongst the Anglo-Irish ruling class there was a fear that Greek and Roman histories dangerously inculcated democracy and a sense of liberty.

Few of the 93% of British children and teenagers in state-sector secondary education today are offered access to classical civilisation or ancient history, let alone Latin or Greek. H. and S. argue that understanding the ancient world can enrich not only the imagination and socio-cultural literacy, but also citizenship skills and the power of argumentation and verbal expression. They intend the book to be a rallying cry to modern Britain to support the case for the universal availability in schools of classical civilisation and ancient history.

Readers will not need reminding that Classics for All, which by 2019 had already trained nearly 2,500 teachers to introduce the classical languages, culture and history to some 55,000 schoolchildren in UK state schools, is committed to turning that rallying cry into results. 

Giles Gilbert