Prelude: decline & fall

Students of the ancient classics have this in common with fishermen: they are often to be overheard lamenting the much bigger one that got away—the loss, long ago, of entire literary genres, or of once-famous masterpieces like Aeschylus’s tragic trilogy on Achilles and Patroklos, or Ennius’s thunderous epic on the history of Rome. More than the students of most other subjects, they are forced to be constantly aware of the appalling fragility of culture. There are reminders at every turn, even if one is only faced with a mutilated sentence in a poem or with a gap in a temple frieze, of how much was lost and the way it was lost, whether through indifference or ignorance or deliberate malice. Hence it seems reasonable, before speculating on the future of the classical component in the European past, to consider whe ...