Ancient Greece in the Nineteenth Century

By Lynne Meloccaro, University of Rochester

Written for the concert Mythology: Homer’s Odyssey in Music, performed on Nov 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“We are all Greeks,” said Percy Shelley. While historians may question whether, in the idealized cultural vision of Shelley’s day, even the Greeks were ever really Greeks, the poet nevertheless expresses a powerful conceit, and one that provides an important context for the subject of Max Bruch’s oratorio. That modern civilization considers many of its greatest achievements to be refinements of classical culture is evident in the markers of historical continuity that surround us still–the architecture of educational and governmental institutions, the language of medicine, the use of myths like Oedipus through which we explain ourselves. Indeed, our reverence for Greek accomplishment is so embedded in our current experience and education, that we might easily forget that the idea of Greece as the birthplace of civilization is really only about two hundred years old. The notion was developed through the course of the nineteenth century, when circumstances in Europe determined the need for an appropriate history and genealogy.

This is not to say that classical culture was not always a fertile imaginative archetype in European thought. Aristotelian philosophy dominated the Roman Church for centuries, and when Europe discovered classical art and literature already known to the Arabs, it sparked a movement known as the Renaissance. An education in ancient literatures and languages was standard for the princes of Europe throughout the sixteenth century and seventeenth centuries, and shortly after that, the Baroque era was ushered in by the so-called “neoclassicists,” who believed their historical mission to be the reinvention in orderly fashion of the best social and artistic elements of the ancient world.

But it was not until after the French Revolution effectively ended the Baroque era that an eruption occurred–sometimes referred to as “Hellenomania”–when the shade of Greece began to materialize into its present embodiment as cultural fountainhead. At this point, just when Europeans were anxiously pondering their future, a series of events occurred that inflamed their imaginations about their genealogical past. Not the least of these were the advancements made in the understanding of Greek philology and art. For the first time, linguists were able to clarify the relation of ancient Greek to modern European languages. This was particularly interesting to the Germans, who immediately noticed specific similarities between Greek and their own language. Earlier, the sculptor Johann Joachim Winckelmann, influenced by the English Lord Shaftesbury, had written an influential treatise reevaluating Greek art, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, which was followed by a famous essay of his student, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, entitled Laocon. Additionally, in 1807, Lord Elgin brought the friezes of the Parthenon to England, where multitudes of Europeans marveled at them. And, as interest mounted in this ancient culture, the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, striking a blow for the ancients against the “degenerative influence” of the “Orientals.”

It should not surprise us that the first important thinkers to embrace the new Hellenism were the German and English Romantics. We are sometimes prone to think that, in their rejection of the works of the previous age, which they saw as mired in slavish adulation of the classics, the Romantics rejected classicism in favor of nature. But it is far more accurate to say that they rejected the Latinate imitations of eighteenth-century artists as a corruption of Greek principles. For them, the recovery of Greek culture unadorned with Augustan frills was firmly associated with a sloughing off of the old ways–the initial optimism of revolutionary times. The shift from Roman reason to Greek sentiment is reflected in the shifting attitudes toward the perceived father of Greek literature, Homer. Pope translated Homer’s epics, but considered Virgil and Horace far superior to the crude Greek. Goethe, however, declared Homer his favorite author, and while touring classical sites, contemplated (but never wrote) a play about Odysseus. Keats’s admiration for Homer and the Greeks is evident throughout his work, including two of his most famous poems, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Shelley planned to travel to the land of Homer but was prevented by his untimely death. Byron did travel there, and met his own untimely death on his way to fight for the Greeks.

For the Romantics, then, Greek culture symbolized beauty, liberty, and republicanism. As a symbol, Greece did not impart such notions as much as become invested with them by nineteenth-century thinkers. Ancient Greece, in other words, was appropriated and variously interpreted to serve contemporary ends. This is apparent in what happened to the image of the Greeks later in the century. Disillusionment with the French Revolution by no means lessened the Europeans’ fervor for all things Greek. Instead, Europe merely refashioned the Greeks to suit the changing times. For the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt, ancient Greece represented anything but revolution. As Minister of Education, he established the Altertumswissenshaft, the Science of Antiquity (or as its English counterpart was called, the discipline of Classics). Humboldt saw the study of classics as a means of educational reform and social unification that avoided both the destruction of revolution and the oppressive domination of the Roman church. It was a secular alternative that appealed to the Germans, who already felt a special connection to the Greeks linguistically. Humboldt extended this relation to encompass culture: “Our study of Greek history is therefore a matter quite different from our other historical studies. For us the Greeks step out of the circle of history. Knowledge of the Greeks is not merely pleasant, useful or necessary to us–no, in the Greeks alone we find the ideal of that which we should like to be and to produce.” To small fragmented states rapidly industrializing, where economic unity was becoming a necessity, Humboldt offered a wondrous vision of a Germany culturally united as heir apparent to the Greeks, ensuring the succession of the glory of the ancients. For the Romantics, the primary figure of Greek lore was Prometheus, the suffering genius bringing fire to the common people. In the latter part of the century, another figure predominated–the wandering, exiled king, the rightful ruler who puts his house in order: Odysseus.

What the eminently adaptable image of ancient Greece offered nineteenth-century Europe, then, was an identity, a means by which Europeans could interpret their past, evaluate their present, and propose their destiny. The Greeks afforded Europe a prolific source of cultural definition. Wagner may have looked north for such definition, but Bruch looked south, and he was not alone. For the Germans, the achievements of Greek culture was a powerful model for their own national identity–regardless of actual circumstances. In 1871, Bismarck succeeded in his plan of uniting Germany, though the unification was more a result of Prussian domination than mutual agreement. By 1873, optimism concerning the unification had vanished in the wake of a devastating market crash. But that year also saw two other events: the premiere of Bruch’s Odysseus, and Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the site of ancient Troy. “We are all Greeks,” said Shelley, but perhaps Bruch might have added, “especially Germans.”