The classical legacy: How the West used Greece and Rome to justify empire

When the western powers began their imperial expansion, they used their Graeco-Roman patrimony to justify their colonial actions, placing themselves as the defenders of civilisation against oriental barbarism.
The late Edward Said, whose work on Orientalism has been very influential. Photo by Ulf Andersen / Getty Images
The late Edward Said, whose work on Orientalism has been very influential. Photo by Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Homer’s Turk

Jerry Toner

Harvard University Press


In late 1895, Abdur Rahman, the emir of Afghanistan, ordered the conquest of a number of remote valleys north-east of Kabul that bordered British India. Their capture was fairly straightforward. Scattered in mountainous villages, the locals struggled to put up a fight. The region – then known vaguely as Kafiristan, “land of the infidels” – was swallowed by the burgeoning Afghan state within months, emerging into the 20th century irrevocably as the province of Nuristan, “land of light”.

Curiously, the fiercest resistance to the emir’s conquest took place in the salons, conference halls and editorial pages of British civil society. Newspapers in both India and Britain published accounts of the emir’s abuses, decrying British complicity in the catastrophe. Members of parliament accused the colonial government in India of deplorable inaction. Groups such as the Aborigines’ Protection Society, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the International Arbitration and Peace Association wrote up memorials and lobbied the India Office to intervene.

What prompted this outpouring of British feeling on behalf of an obscure people in the wilds of the Hindu Kush? In some measure, the intensity of the protests could be attributed to dogged Islamophobia. The inhabitants of Kafiristan were known to be non-Muslims, maintaining an idiosyncratic pantheon of deities and festivals; their conquest by Abdur Rahman would invariably lead to wholesale conversion to Islam.

In larger part, however, European concern for the plight of the Kafirs was motivated by the peculiar and widespread notion that these rugged tribesmen were, in fact, Greeks. Throughout the 19th century, travellers and colonial officials spread word of the existence of a fair-skinned, blue-eyed people in the high passes of the Hindu Kush. Many believed that these mountain-dwellers were descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great, which had swept through the region more than two millennia before. In their refuges in the Hindu Kush, the Kafirs were thought to be maintaining the ways of their Greek ancestors. Kafir-sympathisers claimed that it would be a travesty to let such kindred people lose their ancient struggle against the surrounding Muslims and be subsumed by the rapacious emir. As one London newspaper argued, if the Greeks deserved British support in their rebellion against Ottoman Turkey, so too did the Kafirs in their resistance to Kabul. Since “the nucleus of the Kafirs is more truly ancient Greek than modern Greece … the Kafirs should not be allowed to perish by an educated world”.

What’s notable here is not the question of whether the inhabitants of Kafiristan were indeed descendants of Alexander’s Macedonian invaders (they were not), but rather the overweening hold of the Greco-Roman past on the British imagination. The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush were reduced to a bookish fantasy – a people seen as a window to the days of Alexander – that nevertheless had the power to shift political opinion. They mattered to the British public not for who they actually were, but for who they were imagined to be.

In Homer’s Turk, the classicist Jerry Toner explores how the “classics” and the memory of Greco-Roman antiquity shaped the way westerners envisioned the lands of the Middle East and South Asia.

When Britons ventured into the Orient, they carried the classical world in the front of their minds. They filtered their experience of unfamiliar places through the ephemera of their expensive educations. The struggles of Homeric heroes, the feats of Alexander the Great, the achievements and failures of the Greek city states and the rise and dissolution of the Roman empire all attained new life and meaning in the British encounter with the East.

“For centuries,” Toner writes, “the classical past has helped … the English and the English-speaking world, throughout the many upheavals they have undergone, to find in their images of the East new values and identities to meet their immediate social and political needs.”

The residue of this mode of thought remains apparent today. Samuel Huntington, the controversial American scholar, rooted his theory of the “clash of civilisations” in the classical world. “The key cultural elements which define a civilisation,” he wrote, “were set forth in a classic form by the Athenians when they reassured the Spartans that they would not betray them to the Persians.”

In this way, Huntington’s very idea of what constituted a civilisation sprung from a moment of opposition to the East: the mobilising of identity and difference in the face of Persian invasion. During the second Gulf War, foreign policy thinkers in the United States often raised the parallel between Roman imperium and American hegemony; as one writer, J Rufus Fears, asked: “Do we have the reserves of moral courage that the Romans did to undertake that burden of empire?”

He believed that Americans did have that imperial strength, that “of all the people who passed through the Middle East”, Americans had the best chance “to leave a legacy far more enduring and far better than that of the Romans”. As American ambitions faltered in Iraq and the wider region, the classical past found other uses.

Oliver Stone’s Hollywood blockbuster Alexander (2004) offered an ambiguous view of the American project in the Middle East, glorifying the conqueror at the same time as it dramatised the peril of imperial overstretch.

More recently, Afghanistan constantly finds itself described as the “graveyard of empires”, a stubborn place that has doggedly resisted foreign intervention ever since Alexander’s invasions more than two millennia ago. If Alexander couldn’t control the place, the reasoning goes, how on earth could we?

Such modern examples of the evocation of the Greco-Roman past are only thin echoes of that similar tendency in previous centuries. Homer’s Turk focuses on these accumulated literary and rhetorical habits that have governed British representations of the “Orient”.

Toner builds on the field of postcolonial scholarship inspired by the Palestinian academic Edward Said, whose treatise Orientalism revolutionised the study of the non-western world. While Toner seeks to add nuance to Orientalism’s often absolutist theories, he largely embraces the principles and assertions of Said’s work and maintains its fundamental tenet. The West’s eventual political dominance over the Orient was mirrored – and reinforced – by the way westerners imagined Oriental societies.

In writing about the Middle East and South Asia, British thinkers and officials constantly turned to classical sources.

At their most benign and banal, references to antiquity supplied a British writer with a familiar vocabulary to describe an unfamiliar world for his readers. As Britain flexed its muscles and grew increasingly entangled in the affairs of the Orient from the 17th century onward, classics served a more instructive purpose, providing lessons about power and its pitfalls.

By the 19th century and the ascendance of Victorian Britain’s global might, the classics instilled in Britons a sharper sense of civilisational identity (studiously opposed to the supposed barbarism of their colonial subjects) and its complement, the blinding, hubristic belief in the civilising mission of empire.

Colonial officers were far more familiar with the campaigns of Julius Caesar than the reign of Akbar. It is immensely revealing that certain early supervisors of the Indian civil service exam – the test administered in Britain to would-be agents in South Asia – wanted knowledge of Latin and Greek to count nearly five times as much as knowledge of South Asian languages. The antique past, they felt, had more to offer the present than the present itself.

Ever since the advent of Islam, Europeans referred to the classics to make sense of the strange new faith. The monk Bede, shivering in his monastery in the north of Dark Ages England, described Islam as the cult of “Venus-worshippers”. Medieval Christian writers imagined Islam as a pagan faith, beholden to the ancient ecstatic power of the gods of drunkenness, love and beauty. This stereotype of Muslims as licentious and carnal owed much to earlier classical descriptions of the peoples of the Middle East, associating the heat of the desert climate with the heat of their desires. It is a strikingly opposite view to that currently prevailing in the West, which sees Islam as a puritanical faith at odds with looser western societies.

The rise of the Ottoman empire as an influential player on the European stage made the task of comprehending Oriental peoples all the more urgent. Invariably, the classics were harnessed in the quest to demystify the Turk.

Fretting about the possibility of a Turkish invasion of Italy, the 15th-century Cardinal Bishop Basilios Bessarion compared the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II to the great enemies of ancient Rome: the Gauls, King Pyrrhus, Hannibal, the Huns and so on.

More often, European writers claimed that the Turks traced their ancestry to the Trojans of Homeric times. Driven into exile after defeat by the Greeks, the Trojans had nursed their wounds in the wilderness, regained their strength, and returned for retribution. In this way, the 15th-century Italian writer Mario Filelfo could describe the Ottoman conquest of Greece as the latest chapter of the Trojan War; finally, the Trojans had got their revenge.

Depicting the Turks in these terms also had the effect of taming the otherwise ominous prospect of Ottoman power. However mighty the Trojans, however accomplished the foes of Rome, they were all beaten. Casting the Turks in the shadow of Troy burnished their classical pedigree, but it also scripted their demise.

English writers took an increasing interest in the Ottoman empire in the 17th century, at the same time as England began to project its own international aspirations.

The Ottoman empire dwarfed other contemporary European states. It provided observers with an example of a truly continental polity and served as a source for lessons on the function of grand power. In trying to understand the Ottomans, Europeans turned once more to the classics, “[drawing] heavily on the ancient empires to provide comparative insight”. The 17th-century English traveller George Sandys likened the institution of slavery within the Ottoman world to its Roman counterpart, and saw within both the same fundamental moral failure. Imperial societies tended towards corruption, sycophancy and general subservience. Paul Rycaut, a secretary of the English ambassador to the sultan, argued that Turks were “disposed to servitude” – Englishmen had no need for such masters. A despot may have won the loyalty of the Romans and the Turks, but he would fare poorly on the sceptred isle.

To British observes like Rycaut, the contemporary Ottoman and the ancient Roman empires proved the calamitous truth that power corrupts, leading to decadence and venality. He berated the Turks for their habit of selling offices, quoting the Roman historian Tacitus’s critique of an imperial bureaucracy sustained by greed: “Think then … what oppression, what rapine and violence must be exercised to satisfy the appetite of these men, who come famished with immense desires.”

By the 18th century and the time of “Enlightenment” in Europe, the example of ancient Rome was used to highlight the radical difference – not similarity – between western antiquity and the eastern world.

Europeans held up the philosophers and statesmen of ancient Greece and Rome as the foundation of Europe’s achievements in the present. They drew a direct line from antiquity to their burgeoning scientific knowledge and international power. According to Toner, many Europeans “saw thinkers in the classical world take the first steps on the very path of progress along which western society was striding with confidence. The Orient in this view had long since been left behind by western creativity and its natural propensity for critical thinking and the acquisition of knowledge.” “Progress” was the Greco-Roman legacy bestowed upon Europe, a glowing heritage that had escaped the peoples of the east.

When 19th-century British colonists arrived in South Asia and the Middle East, they often saw themselves as agents of a new Rome. The Victorian writer T Roger Smith compared the experience of a Roman governor in the provinces to that of a British officer in the colonies. “The Roman governor of a province in Gaul or Britain continued to be as intensely Roman in his exile as the English collector [district officer] remains British to the backbone in the heart of India.” If British imperial endeavours resembled Roman efforts, it was because the former were built on the achievements of the latter. The classical past was increasingly seen as the bedrock of British success.

The British historian James Mill believed that this Greco-Roman heritage elevated the coloniser above his barbarous colonial subjects. Mill’s copious writings on the subcontinent proved indelible in shaping the British view of South Asia, even though Mill himself never visited India. (He compared himself to the Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote about Germany without ever travelling there, and claimed that an armchair perspective on the world was superior to life in the field: “A man who is duly qualified may obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England than he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India.”)

According to Mill, Oriental societies changed little over time. “The Hindus, at the time of Alexander’s invasion,” he wrote, “were in a state of manners, society and knowledge exactly the same with that in which they were discovered by the nations of modern Europe.”

Left to themselves, Mill thought, the inhabitants of the Orient would carry on living in their backward ways. Whatever their understandings of their own past, they lacked the inspiration that classical Greece and Rome offered Europe. It was up to the British to instil in moribund Oriental cultures the dynamism necessary for progress and advancement. Predictably, Latin and Greek were compulsory subjects in the universities set up by the British in 19th-century India.

The classical tradition was central to the European justification of empire and its imagined sense of moral purpose. “It came to be seen as part of a civilising mission,” Toner writes, “which brought active benefits to the colonised … The result was a new type of discourse that sought to justify colonisation and imperialism and legitimate the western powers’ acquisition of non-European spaces for these purposes.”

For some imperialists, antiquity was not simply a source of inspiration, but a standard to be surpassed. Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer, consul-general of Egypt from 1883 to 1907, was both a prominent colonial officer and a classicist. A lifetime in the service of empire confirmed his belief that the classics were the base of a good education.

It was essential to study “the most thoughtful nation which the world has ever known. That nation is Greece.” He wrote essays on what Britain could learn from various systems of Roman government and described Virgil, the composer of the Aeneid, as “an enthusiastic Imperialist”. Cromer was similarly enthusiastic about imperialism, strongly supporting the methods and effects of British forays overseas.

Just as Mill saw India as a timeless society, Cromer thought the same of Egypt, which he believed had “not very much changed in 2,000 years”. British rule in Egypt, he claimed, had finally sparked the country into motion for the overall benefit of its people. Here, Cromer perceived a great gulf between Britain and its Roman ancestors. Where only “a few faint traces of the modern spirit of humanitarianism [are] to be found in Roman historical methods”, British imperialism was motivated by benevolence and the desire to lift up the benighted peoples of the world. This high-minded purpose separated Britain from both its classical forebears and its Oriental contemporaries. “No such intention ever animated the Imperialists of Ancient Rome, or, in more modern times, the indigenous rulers of Asiatic States.” After receiving “the cultural baton from Rome”, Britain’s imperial means were driven towards a noble end.

Mill derided eastern societies for being uninterested in history and besotted with mythology. According to Toner, India’s tenuous understanding of its remote antiquity became “a sign of barbarity and lack of development, whereas for Europeans the connection with the classical past showed just how firm were the foundations on which its progress was based”.

This was not simply an academic notion, but a visceral and emotional belief. One of the striking recurring motifs in Toner’s book is the British lament for the state of Greek or Roman ruins in Oriental lands. Their righteous indignation was hardly innocent. It implicitly questioned the right of Oriental peoples to the inheritance of their lands. As early as the 16th century, travellers bemoaned the desecration of classical sites by the Turks, the pillaging of ancient Roman buildings for the construction of mosques. The famous 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon accused Arabs of “lazy ignorance” when they ruled over the former territories of the Roman empire and of Alexander the Great. According to Gibbon, Arabs had no interest in the classical past, allowing the glories of antiquity to be “buried in oblivion” (never mind that medieval Arab civilisation reintroduced the ideas of the classical world to western Europe). The early 20th-century tourist Gertrude Bell resented the “encroaching civilisation” that cluttered an ancient Roman fort in Egypt.

Much as in the case of the Kafirs, the reality of the Middle East and South Asia was subservient to the priorities of the western imagination. For Europeans entranced by the supposed grandeur of the classical world, modern encrustations of Oriental life merely amounted to rude debris that needed to be swept away. They pined so much for the classical past that the eastern present invariably proved disappointing.

The study of the classics in the West has declined precipitously in the last century. In 2008, only 0.08 per cent of university degrees collected in the United States were in the classics. Knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek is no longer a signal of elite upbringing and pedigree; instead, it is increasingly the preserve of obscurantists. But though classical learning may not hold the same sway over western societies as it once did, Toner shows how its legacy has been indelible. The West still struggles to imagine the East without the prism of the classical past.

Kanishk Tharoor is a “Writer in Public Schools” fellow at New York University.


Published: June 21, 2013 04:00 AM


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