Anti-chronological snobbery

As an emerging Latinist who studies Late Antiquity, I am at times confronted by what I consider ‘anti-chronological snobbery.’ This is to be distinguished by the ‘chronological snobbery’ many people fond of ancient and mediaeval things observe in the world today — that newer, like wider, is better. Anti-chronological snobbery, then, is that older is better.

For example, discussing the disheartening maltreatment of mediaeval artefacts on some archaeological digs even today, a colleague once said that although she deplores such behaviour, ‘Mediaeval people are stupid.’

A couple of PhD students have recently started an Ancient Near Eastern reading group, claiming that the material they’ll cover is, ‘More classic than the classics.’ As to what makes a classic, I’ll get to later.

When I was studying Roman art in undergrad, a fellow classmate declared that the Romans never did anything. They just copied the Greeks. Indeed, this anti-Roman bias of Hellenists is an observable phenomenon; I once heard a Latin prose composition lecturer say that the only thing better would have been teaching Greek prose composition. Some Hellenists even scoff at Roman literature and art.

I recently read the short but engaging book The Elgin Marbles by B F Cook, which I picked up at the British Museum. In this book, Cook recounts the story of Richard Payne Knight misdating the marbles and saying to Lord Elgin, ‘You have lost your labour, my Lord Elgin. Your marbles are overrated: they are not Greek; they are Roman of the time of Hadrian.’ (80)

Even if Payne Knight had been right — which he was not — what would it really matter if the Elgin marbles were second-century Roman creations? Is not the beauty enough? Are they not excellent examples of the height of Classical sculpture, regardless of time period?

Furthermore, whenever people level accusations of ‘unoriginality’ against Roman art, they should be challenged with Renaissance art. Where is the originality in Michelangelo’s sculpture? Is he not merely copying the Greeks and the Romans? The answer will be that, yes, he has learned from the ancients, but it is the skill and finesse and realism and vitality of his sculptures that makes them noteworthy. They are great works of art regardless of when they were made.

So also with the Romans! Their art communicates different things from Greek art. They at times change motifs and images. Why disparage a people willing to learn from those who have a longer tradition of scupture?

Similarly for Latin literature. If Greek lyric is interesting, so should be Catullus or the Roman elegists. If Virgil plays with Theocritus and Homer, shouldn’t we see how he handles the material, what vitality is his, rather than look wistfully back to the primus inventor, to the ‘original’ masters?

It is playful invention and variation that characterises Roman appropriation of Greek arts, be it in sculpture, poetry, historiography, oratory, fresco, architecture, philosophy, mosaic. Look at it as it is, for what it is.

Just as I shun chronological snobbery, so also do I shun the anti-chronological snobbery of many Hellenists and Near Eastern specialists.


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