ATROPOS is the Fate who cuts the lifeline once your time is up; she would seem to have her shears out for the study of classical (Ancient) Greek. Once, with Latin, the staple of a civilised education, it is now flickering on the sidelines.
At first sight, the statistics are positively wine-dark. As part of school education, countries may maintain it in theory but rarely in practice. Portuguese pupils have it as an option in their final year; in Sweden fewer than 100 schoolchildren study it, in Belgium around 800. In Britain, of a mere 241 entrants for Greek A-level (typically taken at 18) in 2007, fully 226 were from independent (private) schools.
The problem for Greek is that snobbery does not trounce pragmatism. Latin, once seemingly moribund, is on the rise again in Britain and America. It is not just useful: in a competitive system, it sends a coded message about the nature of the school, and the kind of pupils it attracts. But finding the time and teachers to teach even one dead language properly is hard enough. A second imposes near-intolerable strains on the timetable.
Yet mingle with the 300-plus participants from Britain, Europe, America, Hong Kong and elsewhere indulging in frantic pedagogy at the Hellenists’ version of Woodstock (an annual summer school at Bryanston in southern England) and a different picture emerges. Monopod classicists add Greek to their existing Latin, covering a semester’s-worth of study in a fortnight. For relaxation, they can listen to the world’s academic authorities disputing the pronunciation of Homer and illuminating the knotty wordplay of Plato’s “Republic”.
The rosy fingers are touching universities too. Though some classics departments in the United States have had to close or merge, the number of students enrolled in Greek has been going up since the 1990s. In 2006 fully 22,849 took some Greek (32,191 studied Latin). Applications for classics courses at top British universities are healthy too.
Logos and Theos
Christianity, rather than the glories of Athens and the horrors of Sparta, may be proving the biggest draw. Though some fundamentalists appear to believe that the Bible was written in English, for the more thoughtful (or pious) Christian, serious study of the New Testament or the early Christian church is impossible without first knowing alpha from omega. In America, Greek and Hebrew are standard parts of a Master of Divinity degree—necessary to become a minister in most respectable Protestant denominations. That does not match the now fast-reviving use of Latin in the Roman Catholic liturgy. But it helps. While the koineGreek current in the eastern Mediterranean in the 1st century AD is different from the Attic, Ionian or Homeric dialects used in the greatest works of classical literature, it is also considerably easier. (For the austere classicists of St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, a touch of koine is regarded as a “Christmas treat”.)
In practice, few classes bond quite as tightly as the six students featured in Donna Tartt’s bestselling novel “The Secret History” (in a pastiche of Euripides’s “Bacchae”, they commit and conceal two vicious murders). But such references highlight the subject as something exotic and therefore desirable, at least to those with time and brainpower to engage in it. The cryptic difficulties of Greek (alphabet, accents, moods, particles and tenses) repel Οί Πολλοί (hoi polloi) but attract devotees. Intellectual elitism, as much as an appreciation of Aristophanes’s bawdy humour, is the glue that binds Hellenists together—stoked, in some schools, by a feeling of official neglect or hostility from peers.
The real threat is not modernity, but globalisation. Europe’s glorious past is one of many: when those seeking to understand China start studying Confucius’s “Analects” with the same attention that past generations have paid to Pericles, the intricacies of the aorist optative may finally lose their charms. But not just yet.