A labour of love

We are all historians of our own here and now


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The history of history is often derided, even by historians, as mere prolegomenon to the study of the past. And yet it supplies the key to unlock the mystery of why where we come from matters to us at all. Superficially, Oswyn Murray is the archetypal Oxford don, with the progressive baggage that being a Fellow of Balliol implies. When Boris Johnson became prime minister, his old Classics tutor Murray told the Guardian that he was “probably the worst scholar Eton ever sent us — a buffoon and an idler”. 

If Murray had really despised Boris as an undergraduate, why would he have renounced their friendship by sending his former pupil a formal renuntiatio amicitiae — “an invitation to exile or suicide”? One cannot renounce a non-existent friendship, unless one’s rage about Brexit demands a pointless gesture, the kind that gave Oxford its name as the home of lost causes.

The Muse of History: The Ancient Greeks From the Enlightenment to the Present, Oswyn Murray (Allen Lane, £30)

Yet I forgive Murray everything for the sake of The Muse of History. It is rare that one wants to ascribe beauty to a book by an academic, but this is no academic book (despite being a product of deep scholarship). It is the work of a true lover of his subject, an uomo universale who deserves to speak on behalf of a great cause that is constantly endangered but must never be lost: the cosmopolitan Republic of Letters. 

Murray begins in that Republic’s golden age, the Englightenment, charting the historiography of Greece (and to a lesser extent Rome). He shows how the age of French philosophes and érudits, dominated by the debate between Athens and Sparta, was eventually supplanted: first came romantics and Philhellenes, then the era of “radical history”. 

Murray ignores familiar figures such as Winckelmann and Gibbon in favour of forgotten virtuosi, such as the Irishman John Gast. To this descendant of Huguenots belongs the honour of writing the first critical History of Greece, which Murray has resurrected from obscurity.

More enduring in its impact was a similarly titled book by the Benthamite banker George Grote. Murray shows that its idealisation of Athenian democracy had been anticipated by the literary dandy Henry Bulwer-Lytton — a better historian than he was a novelist. 

Benthamite banker George Grote

Like his Radical friend John Stuart Mill, Grote was a fierce campaigner for parliamentary reform — but his History only appeared in 1846-56 after much of the battle for democracy had been won.

Then came the “triumph” of German classical scholarship. Murray explains the key role of the pioneer B.G. Niebuhr in creating a paradigm for historical scholarship, the emergence of mythology as a serious subject and the impact of David Friedrich Strauss and Heinrich Graetz, who broke down barriers between Classics and the history of Christianity and the Jews.

Two of the richest chapters in what is necessarily a tour d’horizon are devoted to the Swiss sage Jacob Burckhardt. In my first term at Oxford I was examined on his famous Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, the book that inaugurated cultural history. Murray shows how his Griechische Kulturgeschichte, posthumously published against his will and excoriated by the academy, remains unsurpassed to this day.

The epoch of world wars shattered the Republic of Letters, as scholars mirrored its nationalist imperatives. The most popular classicist of the day, Gilbert Murray, rallied the intellectual elite to denounce German “frightfulness” in a letter to The Times, pitting him against the author’s great grandfather, James Murray, who founded the Oxford English Dictionary. Gilbert Murray’s lifelong repentance for his chauvinism ought to give pause to academics who sign open letters on Gaza.

Irishman John Gast

The climax of the story comes in 1940, when an unknown Italian Jewish refugee from fascism, Arnaldo Momigliano, delivers a series of lectures on “Peace and Liberty in the Ancient World” to a tiny Cambridge audience. This marks the opening up of the Continental history of ideas in England, a process that still had far to go 45 years later when I arrived in Oxford, where I glimpsed the great man once.

Murray quotes an after-dinner speech by Momigliano, who became his teacher and hero, at the end of his life: “The historian can explain everything, but he cannot explain why it is that he has become a historian.” Momigliano was right and Murray, in this enthralling investigation into the modern historiography of the classical world, shows and tells us why. 

The past is an inescapable dimension of the present; hence we are all historians of our own here and now. 

As the ancients understood, history in this universal sense is integral to our humanity; it confers meaning upon life. 

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