Tramps, Tyrants, and Tenth Birthdays: encounters of the ‘classical reception’ kind

‘Classical reception’ is the study of the afterlife of classical literature and artefacts, in whatever medium. So it can include topics as diverse as theatre and film based on classical myths, political philosophy based on Plato and Aristotle, classicising sculpture of the Renaissance, or classicising architecture of the British empire. In Reading we currently teach reception via modules like ‘Ancient World on Film’ and ‘Transformations of Helen’. This weekend I encountered classical reception in other forms. I am on the advisory panel for the the AHRC-funded project ‘Classics and Class’, which is investigating how working-class readers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries engaged with the Greek and Roman classics, and on Friday I attended a workshop to discuss the latest findings. The principal investigators have trawled through published and unpublished archival sources in order to reconstruct the reading experience of hundreds of ordinary people who were not professional classicists, or even particularly educated, but who made the classics their own out of sheer interest and dedication. Of particular note was Dirty Dick of Aberdaron, a Welsh vagrant who knew several languages including Ancient Greek and Latin, and who hand-wrote numerous dictionaries – which were all stolen from him in the various hostels where he had to stay. The project has an extensive website,, where you can read his story as well as many others.

One member of the workshop, David Movrin from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, brought along a new publication, Classics and Communism: Greek and Latin behind the Iron Curtain (2013) ( This is a fascinating volume which outlines the careers of several mid-twentieth century classicists in former Soviet countries as they negotiated the difficulties of pursuing ‘humanist’ studies under authoritarian rule. The book has 150 pages of reproductions from Soviet archives including photographs, report cards, trial records, and hand-written poems from the labour camp where a classics professor was imprisoned for ‘contra-revolutionary propaganda’. A copy of Oedipus Tyrannus was sent to him, but it was interpreted as a slur on Stalin. These classicists were a very different set of people from the working-class readers, but they too pursued classics under impossibly hostile conditions.

On Monday I attended a less disturbing meeting, of the executive committee of the Classical Reception Studies Network. This Network brings together students and scholars of any discipline who have an interest in classical reception. It is ten years old this year, which is a source of great pride as well as a stimulus to reflection. In the relatively short space of ten years the focus on reception has transformed the field of classics, fostering connections both with other disciplines and with colleagues in other countries. Recent publications in reception include topics like Greek tragedy in prisons, Pompeii in the public imagination, Electra in film, Julius Caesar in American politics, and the Olympics in the modern world ( Very few of these subjects would have been considered part of ‘classics’ ten years ago, but they all enrich our understanding both of the ancient world and of the modern. It was an inspiring weekend.

Barbara Goff