IT DOES not take much to initiate another battle in the culture wars. In late 2016, a short BBC educational cartoon featuring a Roman soldier with dark skin, Quintus, managed to enrage a constituency who interpreted it as a not-so-subtle justification of mass immigration. Ancient history, Professor Katherine Harloe argues in Detoxifying the Classics (Radio 4 FM, Tuesday of last week), is not ancient at all: it reflects our own cultural bias, and must therefore be reimagined.
It is quite possible that Quintus, or his real-life counterpart, was non-white: the Empire drew its military resources from North Africa and Syria, just as it did from Europe. Blockbuster films set in classical Greece and Rome are largely populated by white actors; and the plain white statuary that we find in museums was, in its day, colourfully painted. All these examples, and more besides, suggest that there was a “fluidity of identity” in the classical world which we are programmed to overlook.
At the same time, antiquity provides us with emphatic representations of power exercised in the service of “civilisation”. Alexander disseminates all the goodness of Hellenism at the point of a sword. Far-right groups invoke the Spartans as models of implacable resistance. We should not venerate the ancient world, Professor Harloe says; we should understand it as it was.
Yet, for all the references, it was not clear that our perception of classical Antiquity is any more skewed than any other. And those engaged in the business of teaching Classics, several levels below that of a university professor, will cringe at her call to “knock Classics from its pedestal”. Unless the strategy is to find for Classics, by whatever means possible, some visibility in the clamorous, chaotic culture wars.
In contrast, last week’s Early Music Show (Radio 3, Sunday), which headlined its profile of the 16th-century Vicente Lusitano with his being “the first published black composer”, expended just a couple of minutes on this aspect of the musician’s life. Indeed, as the musician Joseph McHardy acknowledged, there are large holes in our understanding of his biography, and what we do know suggests that Lusitano’s mixed-race parentage had little effect on his career.
That left a good deal more time to celebrate yet again the expansion of repertorial horizons. With specially recorded extracts from his 1551 Book of Motets, the programme introduced us to a composer of prodigious ambition and chutzpah.
Only the World Service could boast of a listenership of 44. Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast (World Service, Monday of last week) is an annual event, in which the loved ones of those few stationed in such bleak outposts as King Edward Point and Bird Island, are given air time to send messages of encouragement. And that is it. Listening in felt like an intrusion on a strange, evocative ritual.