This very day a long-awaited London University volume I have an essay in, co-authored with Dr Rosie Wyles, is published: The Afterlife of Plutarch. Philosopher, priest of Apollo, magistrate and ambassador, Plutarch is one of the most influential ancient Greek authors, especially via Shakespeare’s dramatisations of his lives of Caesar, Mark Antony, and Coriolanus.
Plutarch’s accounts of the Gracchi brothers who died trying to redistribute land to poorer Italians were turned into rousing plays by both French and Anglo-Irish revolutionaries, and we show how these stage works were brutally censored. If anyone wants a pdf of our article, just email me at my two names separated by a dot @kcl.ac.uk.
But Plutarch didn’t just write biographies. While lying low, finishing A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity, a Very Big Book co-authored with Dr Henry Stead, I’ve discovered the role Plutarch’s essay On Superstition played in radical politics after Peterloo.
|Wedderburn: From Plantation to Blasphemy Trial|
Julian Hibbert, an excellent Greek scholar and freethinker who published an edition of it 1828, closes his preface ‘by consigning all “Greek Scholars” to the special care of Beelzebub’. He attaches dazzlingly erudite polemics on how religion is used to sedate what Burke called ‘the swinish multitude’, and on all the individuals falsely accused of impiety from Xenophanes, Socrates and Aristotle to the 19th century.
|Leverage from Plutarch|
Hibbert was active in radical politics, as well, furnishing the arguments from Plutarch used by Robert Wedderburn, the mixed-race son of a Scottish planter in Jamaica by his African slave woman, when tried for blasphemy in May 1820. Wedderburn’s court appearance persuaded the jury to recommend ‘mercy’, resulting in a sentence of ‘only’ two years in Dorchester jail. Plutarch is cited when arguing that it is better to deny the existence of a Supreme Being than to ‘entertain degrading and dishonourable notions of him.’
|Pompey Being Kind for Once (to Tidius Sextus)|
And for a visual treat, I’ve found the beautiful engravings by the unofficial artist laureate of the late Victorian and Edwardian Left, Walter Crane, in the socialist freethinker Frederick Gould’s Children’s Plutarch (1909). Gould had taught in board schools in poor London districts from his mid-twenties to his mid-forties, and developed a programme for teaching secular ethics with the help of classical instead of Christian literature.
I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the arrival of a new calendar year, in a political climate where so many across the world feel powerless and mystified, than remembering how ancient Greek clarity of thought has helped democrats and progressives in previous epochs. And here’s a New Year’s Resolution: A People's History of Classics will be finished any day now.
Υγεία, δημοκρατία και ευτυχία