Quinn puts you there, but can’t carry it off — the eruption on Santorini

When classicists attack classics

Sanskrit isn’t the only ancient language to be affected by academic imperialism

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

Research into the ancient world has a serious problem with imperialism. The best introduction to this subject is Rajiv Malhotra’s 2016 book The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive? Malhotra, a devout Hindu, opposes the efforts of American university academics, and specifically “postmodern Orientalists”, to impose their secular values on ancient Hindu traditions and sacred literature. He regards such Americans as smug, passive-aggressive and laughably hypocritical.

Malhotra claims that too many scholars have latterly been co-opted into academic projects that serve American imperial interests whilst helping various scholars assuage their sense of “white guilt”.

Professionally insecure young people are easily talked into advancing their careers by spitting in the faces of their ancestors, claiming that (for example) exploitation was built into the very fabric of traditional Hindu society and Sanskrit holy texts. They end up selling their dignity in exchange for a pathetic academic salary. This is modern-day intellectual colonialism at its most degrading and humiliating.

It turns out that Sanskrit isn’t the only ancient language to be affected by academic imperialism. Josephine Quinn’s new book How The World Made The West begins with the curious note:

I use BCE and CE rather than BC and AD through training and habit, and in order to avoid the partisan phrase anno Domini [‘in the Year of Our Lord’]; I also insist that this notation system still refers not to a truly “Common” but to a “Christian” era.

How is “in the Year of Our Lord” a “partisan” phrase? This is precisely the sort of fake neutrality that Malhotra warns against. Christianity is only a secondary target here: the real aim here is to supplant something called “civilisational thinking”; the way to do this, Quinn tells us, is to remove conventional ideas of Classical Athens and Rome from the study of the ancient world.

How The World Made The West: A 4,000 Year History, Josephine Quinn (Bloomsbury, £30)

Quinn is frustrated by the fact that core courses for Oxford undergraduates in Greek history focus on 776 to 336 BC, whilst Roman history runs from 264 BC to AD 54. This is a curious complaint for an Oxford professor of ancient history; even so, one of the aims of How The World Made The West is to move as far away as possible from Latin and Greek texts. Instead, it would focus on archaeology and “material culture”, to develop a picture of cultural interaction throughout the Mediterranean, and demonstrate that the Ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t as innovative or sui generis as the Victorians thought they were.

Quinn is at war with the Victorians throughout this book, for whatever reason. It isn’t wholly clear what she’s doing, although it takes her 30 chapters and over 400 pages to do it (plus another hundred-odd pages of notes). But evidently she got something right: there was an eleven-way auction for How The World Made The West. Michael Fishwick, the publishing director of Bloomsbury, told The Bookseller:

Josephine’s proposal was one of the most exciting I’ve seen, opening up long-forgotten lands of fable and glory, promising a book that will appeal to the imagination as much as the intellect … I ended up feeling that if one read this book one would know everything you need to know about the ancient world.

The American rights were sold for a six-figure sum. Someone somewhere was clearly impressed.

Most chapters in How The World Made The West begin with attempts at evocative scene-setting that aim to make the reader feel like he’s right there, in Aleppo in 1349, or Crimea in 67 BC, or on the island of Santorini when a volcano erupted in 1560 BC.

It takes a novelist’s skill to bring such material to life; alas, Quinn hasn’t got it. Still, there is potential in the first third of the volume especially for any number of good books, on the civilisations of ancient Crete, archaic Mycenae and the culture of the Cyclades. If only we could read one of those instead.

The problem with this book begins with its fundamental concepts. Quinn fails to articulate any sophisticated notion of what people are, what human society is, how culture is created or how communities develop. This becomes painfully evident very early on, when there is no clear account of how complex civilisations evolved, in Babylon, Egypt or anywhere else.

Throughout the volume there is a great deal of material on trade routes and networks of exchange, without much thinking about how these got there in the first place. One might as well read the Book of Genesis for illumination on the subject.

The Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun, celebrated for his love of philosophy, poetry and science

Too much of Quinn’s narrative relies on scholarship that she is not necessarily in a position to evaluate. Chapter 26, for example, focuses on scholarly culture in Baghdad in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Abbasid caliphs sponsored a programme of translating learned books from a wide range of languages, including Ancient Greek.

It seems that Quinn hoped to explore the ways in which Arab scholars helped preserve classical learning that would otherwise have been lost; then she did a little reading, found out that this was very rarely the case, but didn’t want all those notes to go to waste, so wrote this chapter anyway, even though it is largely irrelevant to the story she is trying to tell.

The classical elements in How The World Made The West are less disappointing than bewildering. Of course, Quinn has every right to be provocative, and some will consider her position on ancient Athenian democracy to be bracingly iconoclastic. Still, to trash the winners of the Persian Wars, dismiss their heroism and military prowess, and ignore just how badly they humiliated King Xerxes the Great when he invaded mainland Greece, seems a little odd.

Until, that is, you see the real reason for all the sneering: apparently the Athenian democracy wasn’t adequately feminist. According to this book, autocratic tyranny is fine, as long as a few rich women are allowed to wield power here and there. (As an aside, Quinn is the daughter of Baroness Crawley, who served as Labour Party Whip in the House of Lords between 2002 and 2008.)

Quinn is surprisingly weak on Greek and Roman figures including Homer, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and the emperor Diocletian. When discussing the storytelling device of the “frame tale”, she forgets that this predates One Thousand and One Nights by at least a millennium, and can be found in Ovid’s epic The Metamorphoses, Apuleius’s Latin novel The Metamorphoses, and Homer’s Odyssey (the second major poem in the Western tradition), to name only a few classical texts. Yet it is the sections of the book dealing with the Greco-Roman world (as commonly understood) that are arguably the strongest.

It is to be hoped that at least some of the more significant mistakes in How The World Made The West will be corrected in the second edition, beginning with the description of the Ancient Greek “Linear B” writing system as “a tool of privilege if not subjection”. According to the last line in the book, “It is time to find new ways to organise our common world.”

Who will do this for us? Perhaps Quinn is thinking of her own protégés, who are responsible for a collection of essays entitled Critical Ancient World Studies: The Case for Forgetting Classics. Apparently this volume owes its existence to her advice.

Critical Ancient World Studies: The Case for Forgetting Classics, edited by Mathura Umachandran and Marchella Ward (Routledge, £35.99)

Critical Ancient World Studies features essays by two tenured academics; otherwise this is the work of PhD students and junior lecturers who were involved in the “Rhodes Must Fall” and “Decolonise the Curriculum” movements. This collection spells out aims that Quinn preferred to leave implicit.

Critical Ancient World Studies articulates a methodology for Classics that seeks to reject: universalism; the idea that anything “white” or “European” is “universal”; any axiomatic connection between “so-called Classics and cultural value”; “positivism”; and, above all the centrality of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Three papers in this volume surpass Quinn’s book in quality. Kiran Pizarro Mansukhani’s “The Anti-Radical Classicism of Karl Marx’s Dissertation” is outstanding as intellectual history; even those who disagree with its assumptions will learn from it. Krishnan Ram-Prasad writes exceptionally well, and his paper is a pleasure to read, despite the fact that it is under-researched, confused in its aims and incoherent except in individual paragraphs.

From a purely literary point of view, Ashley Lance’s “Epistemic Justice in the Classical Classroom” is especially valuable, and it ought to be transformed into a full-length memoir. Otherwise, the rest of these rank somewhere between a Goodreads review and a Reddit post.

So much for activism. Traditional Classics stands unchallenged, even by those who carry water like Kipling’s Gunga Din for their colonial masters in American universities.

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