Hellenic holy ground

May 13 2008

Disadvantages of a classical education

The writer of this Study had to confess that he himself had been a life-long addict to [the] sentiment for Hellenic ground. It had led him to make the traditional Modern Western Humanist’s pilgrimage to “classical lands” as soon as he had finished his studies at home, in partibus Barbarorum, at the Medieval Western Christian University of Oxford, and he had been confirmed in his devotion to this profanely sacred soil by the inexhaustible benefits that he had found himself deriving, ever after, from a ten-months’ stay, first in Rome and then in Greece, in A.D. 1911-12. He could never forget his feelings on the 30th September, 1911, when, for the first time, he had made the journey from Genoa to Rome by the coastal railway. After returning, with indifference, the stare of a Leaning Tower of Pisa, which had peered in at him through his railway-carriage window looking just as it had always looked in the pictures of it, he was thrilled to find himself crossing the Arno into territory that had lain within the frontiers of the Roman Commonwealth since before the outbreak of the First Romano-Punic War. “Henceforth”, he found on the 20th May, 1950, that he had entered in his ephemerides for the 30th September, 1911, “I know every stage of the way, and can always tell where we are by the look of the country. Cecina, with distant Volterra mountains to the left … O pulcherrima Maritima Tusciae – haec vera Italia, non Ligures neque Taurini.” [Toynbee’s words. The Ligures and Taurini were ancient north Italian peoples.] At that moment he had the strange experience of setting eyes on his spiritual home for the first time in his life when he was in his twenty-third year; and the effect was heightened when, on the 20th November, 1911, he found his ship travelling up the Gulf of Corinth, threading its way through an isthmian canal, and breaking out into the Saronic Gulf of the Aegean Sea, to confront the pilgrim dramatically with the converging view of serried classic sites closing in round him at point-blank range: Salamis, Aegina, Methana, Megara, Cithaeron, Peiraeus, Lycabettus, Hymettus, Laurium. This was the spectacle that had overwhelmed Servius Sulpicius Rufus one day in the year 45 B.C. when he had run into it from the opposite direction (see his letter to Cicero (Ad Familiares, iv, 5) quoted in IV. iv. 315).

The present writer had also to confess that, in his neglect of a “post-classical” Italy, he had gone to farther extremes than Goethe’s worst extravagances. Goethe had at least set foot in Assisi, whereas the writer, down to the 13th August, 1952, had been content with a Pisgah sight of Assisi caught from Spello on the 30th October, 1911. Moreover, though he had three times been shunted into and out of Venice by train en route between Calais and Constantinople, he had not set foot in Venice till the third of these occasions – on the 30th April, 1923, between the hours of 5.0 and 6.0 A.M. – and had then failed to advance farther than the pair of Late Roman Emperors in porphyry who embrace one another on the threshold of St. Mark’s. His third offence against his native Western cultural past was that he had always so far deliberately refused to break any journey in Tuscany, for fear that the siren charms of a Medieval and Early Modern Italy might detain him from pressing on into Hellenic holy ground in a “Roman Italy”, a Greece, and a Turkey that had been the goal of his pilgrimages up to date.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

2 Responses to “Hellenic holy ground”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    August 13 1952 and also the “date” referred to at the end seem to mean the date of writing. In which case he had he still not visited Assisi, or properly visited Venice or Tuscany.


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