Saturday 22 September 2012

Plebs, Proles, and Vulgar Professors

I feel for the London policeman derided as being a ‘pleb’ [allegedly]  by the government minister Andrew Mitchell.  Since Mitchell went to Rugby School, he can’t have avoided Classics, and will know that the Roman plebs were precisely distinguished from the Senatorial and Equestrian ruling classes. As someone who has inherited a large personal fortune, he will also intuitively identify with the propertied patricians against the labouring multitude.

My empathy does not result solely from my grandfather’s status as a (permanently unpromoted) London police constable. I, too, despite my impeccably bourgeois vowels and privileged profession, was last year the recipient of a class-based insult. I had submitted a proposal for funding to the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, and had made the very final committee. But one of the three anonymous referees was unenthusiastic, complaining in his/her (astonishingly un-redacted and within the AHRC widely circulated) review that I had ‘a streak of vulgarity’.

If vulgaris is traced to its Indo-European root, this snob meant that I have a streak of something connected with the common crowd or throng--the Roman vulgus was co-extensive with the plebeian class. The irony was that the project was ‘Classics and Class’, in which an affinity with the common throng might even be an advantage, since  I proposed to analyse the elitism which has historically been so endemic in Classics, and disinter the real history of working people's interest in the ancient world. The good news is that the AHRC has now changed its mind, and the project will be launched in January.

But class-based verbal abuse is rife in our so-called classless society. ‘CHAV’ is an acronym for ‘Council House Average Vermin’. We took a daughter out of a snooty school because she was bullied by the children of rich parents who referred to some of the less prosperous mothers as ‘the ferals’. When I was a student, a friend from a comprehensive school in Newcastle was derided by our Etonian peers as suffering from ‘prole displacement syndrome’.

Their horrible word ‘prole’—proletarian--is also derived from a Latin term closely related to the discipline of Classics. Servius Tullius, the sixth of the legendary kings of early Rome, divided the populace into tax-bands or classes according to their financial assets. The lowest class were the proletarii. But the propertied men in the top of his six classes were simply called the classici

The Top Men, like the millionaire Andrew Mitchell, were ‘Classics’. This is the only reason why Top Authors came to be known as ‘Classic Authors’, scriptores classici, to distinguish them from inferior or metaphorically ‘proletarian’ authors, scriptores proletarii (Aulus Gellius 19.8.15). The entanglement, historically, of the study of Greece and Rome with the maintenance of socio-economic hierarchies is thus obvious in the very term Classics

I have no great love of the police force, and the Hillsborough scandal reveals just how far the police at all levels are prepared to collude with the ruling class when their own reputations are on the line. But Andrew Mitchell, whose ideology is so out-of-date that it would suit a Roman Senator opposing the Tribune of the People’s land reforms in the second century BC, needs to be sacked immediately.


  1. The French refer to popular treatments of complex subjects - popular history books, popular science books and the like - as 'vulgarisations', but the word doesn't carry a negative connotation at all, which I rather like.

  2. The term does survive in political discourse itself, of course, as 'plebiscite'. I wonder if that says something about our presumed political representation in the meantime.

  3. A rather spiteful article Edith. It now seems the police version of events may have been less than reliable.

  4. Great post! Not vindictive in the slightest. The class system is the ruination of the UK, whether it is poor educational outcomes, low industrial productivity or a dysfunctional political system mired in the past.