Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us, Ferdinand Mount, Simon and Schuster, 438pp, £20 (hardback)

I’d better confess at the start that I didn’t like this book as much as I’d hoped I would. I wanted to, I really did. I had even suggested to The London Magazine that since, in a previous incarnation, I had taught Classics at Oxford, this would be just the book for me. I always hated the overwrought, methodologically-cautious, dryly professional texts that made up the reading of the academic interested in the ancient world, and loved those books which took a fascinating idea and tried to explain it to a wider audience. And I knew who Ferdinand Mount was: he had edited the TLS, had written some fiction I had liked, and was clearly smart. But I wish he had given Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us a different title, for what I expected was not on offer here, and instead, Mount has given us an intriguing set of reflections on his feelings about the classical past, about religion, about the secularism of the modern world, about art, and indeed about himself.

This is certainly a fascinating idea for a study, and the structure is fine – comparing various facets of the ancient world, its attitudes to bathing, working-out, sex, food, art, science, religion, and celebrity, to their modern counterparts. Given the title, I was looking forward to finding out how Mount was going to make the apparently paradoxical case that the modern world was more like the classical world than those more selfconsciously classicising moments in history such as the rediscovery of classical learning in the so-called twelfth-century Renaissance, or the periods and processes we like to think of as the Italian Renaissance, or, closer to home, the Victorian attempt to pattern the education of the great Public Schools on the classics and to privilege those possessed of what was then the acme of a British university career, an Oxford degree in Literae Humaniores (‘Classics’), with access to real power both at home and in the Empire. With some ingenuity, and not a little tongue in cheek, such a case might be made.

Perhaps it might somewhere acknowledge that the ‘Classical World’ is now a pretty broad topic. There has been so much research over the last thirty years, opening up the customary view bequeathed by an educational tradition which had so lovingly taught those familiar classics of human literature and thought – from the poets such as Homer and Virgil, to historians, Herodotus and Tacitus, and philosophers, Plato and Aristotle – to show us through art, archaeology, and a wider canvas of ways of thinking about the past that the classical world was complex and varied, and that for all their centrality those great engines of classical culture, Athens, Rome and Alexandria, did not tell the whole story. Instead there are now so many places, persons, and different times that can be included under the rubric of the ‘Classical World’ that it is an easy trick to make the canon of classical literature itself look marginal and partial, ignoring the experience of a provincial in Roman Syria or the inhabitant of a small Greek city-state in the seventh century BC. I looked forward to seeing how overarching themes might be teased from the mass of differences we can now spot throughout the classical world. Perhaps Mount would focus on the comparison, say, between a modern world city such as London, jostling with languages, religions and cultures, and that prototypical ‘cosmopolis’ ancient Rome, which fostered enormous creativity but faced similar issues of race, identity, and tension between its groups – just remember the scorn in the voice of the poet Juvenal when describing how the Rome of the first century AD had become ‘flooded’ with ‘Syrians’ and compare it with the edge of fear in comments about Somalis or Afghans today.

But the opening chapter – on bathing habits – rather dampened these hopes. Bathing in large-scale public facilities was a defining feature of the Roman Empire, certainly before Christian attitudes towards the body began to change Roman public culture after Constantine the Great made Christianity the state religion. It was also one of those areas in which the dynasties founded out of the early Islamic caliphate – including the ‘Ummayads and the ‘Abbasids – were rather closer in their cultural inheritance to the classical world than many of the more self-consciously ‘Roman’ states of early modern Europe. Not for nothing does one of the few survivals of the Arab and Islamic kingdom of Mallorca happen to be a set of public baths, rather on the Roman model, in the capital city of Palma. Mount prefers, however, to take us on a journey into the Victorian world, and it is here that he identifies a vogue for bathing rather similar to that of ancient Rome. The problem is – as he tacitly acknowledges in his description of the first baths in Wiltshire for 1,500 years – that they were ‘Turkish baths’, or at least ‘that is what is carved over the entrance’. He lets himself out with the observation that ‘they are really Roman baths’, but a little more reflection would ask why when models for actual Roman baths were known to the Victorians, they should choose to go for a version with an Oriental twist. As he notes in his account of the Turkish baths at Harrogate, the eastern touch was not accidental:

‘on the wooden arch leading to the plunge, there is a
big Victorian clock flanked by the crescents of Islam
(my italics)

Whatever the public-spirited Victorian authorities were thinking, it was not straightforwardly of a Roman recreation. Something else was stirring in their imaginations at the same time. Moreover, the similarities between a culture (the ancient world) where bathing was a shared public norm for many centuries, and the fashionable vogue for Roman/Turkish bathing lasting only a few decades in the nineteenth century, would seem merely superficial. What I longed to hear more of was why Turkish baths tended to invite a certain reputation as a home for particular sexual tastes, and how this related to similar reflections on sexual practice from ancient Rome.

The book should, instead, be read as a rich portrait of a fascinating and intellectually curious mind. Mount chooses to begin his description of the pre-Socratics with a recollection of his schooldays: that the foremost British scholar of the Pre-Socratics, E. L. Hussey, was the smartest boy in the class. He omits, however, what is probably obvious – that the school was Eton. It is a curiously old-fashioned view of the classical world, characteristic of that taught until a generation ago in a few of our best schools, which sits behind the whole work. The other area where biography might inform us of the book’s true direction is Christianity. Time and again Mount examines key moments of modern English Christian identity, specifically from what seems to be a scholarly Anglican perspective, for instance looking at the Oxford Movement in which that pre-eminent Anglican convert to Catholicism, John Henry Newman, first explored his religious identity, but also those much earlier thinkers whose work remains at the heart of orthodox doctrine, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome and Gregory. In touching on various texts now regarded as key to exploring the modern view of sex, not least D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he bravely reads this through the lens of modern Christian teaching, noting how ‘desacralising sex cannot help downgrading it a little’.

Mount’s real purpose in this book is not an explication of how modern, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Europe – pulled simultaneously between the poles of secularism (the ‘dogmatic and domineering intolerance’ of Christianity that he associates with Richard Dawkins, A. C. Grayling and Christopher Hitchens) and the growth of religious systems (such as Islam) not afflicted by the intellectual dismantling of the Enlightenment – is in any way like Greece or Rome. Rather, it is the same lament for a secular Britain that is not only losing its Christian heritage, but also in parts becoming actively hostile to it, which formed so powerful a part of Pope Benedict VI’s message on his September 2010 trip to the U. K. So, in a section of the book ostensibly devoted to examining the similarities between the intellectual achievements of those sixth century BC philosophers – the so-called Pre-Socratics, born in the milieu of the eastern Greek colonies of Ionia, cities of what is now modern Turkey that retained a Hellenic culture until the tragedy of the 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange – and of modern science and philosophy, after a few pages we segue quickly into a discussion of militant atheism. In curiously patrician terms, Mount then bemoans that it is the ‘poor’ who have lost out the most in Britain because of the disappearance of the ‘old package’ of Christian belief, and with it the ‘well from which we went drawing our morals and our myths’.

Perhaps the most interesting of the intellectual claims is to see in the atheist message of the Roman Lucretius in his De Rerum Natura (‘How Things Are’) a foreshadowing of this modern atheism. But again, Lucretius stands out in Roman society as something of a lone voice. Even if we can find parallels for those ideas drawn from Epicurean thought throughout the Empire – for instance the now famous inscription of Diogenes, a second century AD inhabitant of the city of Oenoanda in Asia Minor, who paid for the erection of a remarkable massive inscription on a wall around eighty metres long detailing Epicurus’s teachings – these ideas never became the norm. They were always a challenge to the predominantly polytheistic society in which they were immersed.

Superficially Mount’s chapter on the profusion of New Age cults in the modern world, with its amused scorn for charlatans such as the Serbian ‘healer’ Dragan Dabic (who turned out to be indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic) and for the pretensions of those offering ‘crystals’ or the ‘magic pendant, known as a Bioelectric Shield’ worn by Cherie Blair, tries to point up a similarity between the hocus-pocus of modern gurus and the widespread practice of astrology and divination in the ancient world. The comparison is an uneasy one since, even now to speak of such ‘cults’ is to invite derision, whereas divination in all its different forms was a central part of ancient religious practice, from the signs and portents at the opening of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, to the figure of the haruspex, an entirely regular Roman priestly official charged with examining the entrails of animals for significant signs of the future. Indeed Mount’s surprise that Cherie Blair – ‘a practising Roman Catholic’, as he notes parenthetically, but surely not in passing – should be involved in such nonsense, indicates the real target of this chapter, a despair at the shallowness of much of modern culture. So, to return to the Baths, Mount’s humorous account of a visit to the Thermal Spa in Bath, the recipient of £7.78 million of Lottery money, ends with his disappointment, first, that no one has any interest in the amazing view, but, second, that the whole experience signifies a spiritual emptiness, ‘the worship of the body’s equivalent to the Elevation of the Host’.

For those interested in actually learning something about the ancient world this is one of the better parts of the book. Although we learn nothing systematic about ancient religion, there are some rich anecdotes that give us a sense of why ancient religion remains so puzzling to modern tastes, particularly by describing the openness of the Romans to a variety of novel cults which they liked to describe as ‘Oriental’, though often this was more in the eye of the (Roman) beholder than reality. But for my taste, at least, too much of the book was too light on the ancient world, and too focused on one aspect of the ancient world (Christianity) which, though it eventually came to dominate Rome, was for much of its early life a quirky, marginal cult with a difficult relationship to the acknowledged religion of the Jewish people, and an even more difficult relationship with the authorities of the Roman Empire. It can hardly stand as pars pro toto for the rest of classical civilisation.

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