Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Thorsten Fögen, Richard Warren (ed.), Graeco-Roman Antiquity and the Idea of Nationalism in the 19th Century: Case Studies. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. Pp. vii, 305. ISBN 9783110471786. $154.00.

Reviewed by Filippo Carlà-Uhink, University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Studies of nationalism are currently flourishing; the deaths, at short distance from each other, of Benedict Anderson and Anthony D. Smith (a contributor to this volume) have recently increased this attention. Their different approaches (Anderson as a representative of the "modernist" school, Smith of "ethno-symbolism")1 also implied diverse takes on the roles history plays in shaping modern national identities—"modernism" relies more strongly on Hobsbawm's model of the "invention of traditions", 2 while Smith, among others, insisted more on the existence of a continuity between modern nation and premodern "ethnicity". Still, the "uses of the past" in national and nationalistic discourses is a central topic in nationalism studies, and growing attention has been dedicated also to the "uses" of the ancient world, e.g. the role of the Greco-Roman heritage, or of the invasions model for Late Antiquity, in shaping "national identities", as revealed by many publications and research projects. 3

Starting with the seminal works by P. L. Kohl,4 scholarship has often concentrated on archaeological material, on how the physical remains of past societies have been used to construct the identity of a national community. This volume distances itself from that course: while the title generally refers to "Graeco-Roman Antiquity", it is the relevance of narratives, ideals and models of education that takes center-stage. But this way of framing a widely-discussed question is probably the book's biggest problem, as it would have been worth narrowing down the research questions for stronger internal cohesion. In the words of the editors, indeed, the topic of the volume is "how nationalists (and counter-nationalists) of the period used the classics and the legacy of the classical world to underpin their arguments, and as a mode of expression for them", and the questions are nothing less than "what is nationalism? […] What was the intersection of ideas of nation and empire in the nineteenth century? […] How was classical antiquity used to articulate contemporary conceptions of race, nation and empire?" (p. 12). Even one of these questions would require more than one volume, and would still get nowhere near an answer.

The introduction (pp. 1-18) firmly locates the volume within the field of Classical reception studies and Classical tradition, here explicitly indicated as overlapping and not easy to separate, and further integrated with the concept of Classical transformation. The main point of reference is Highet's work on classical tradition in literature.5 "Every age finds what it wants in the classics" wrote Highet, and this sentence concludes the introduction (p. 13). But this kind of approach postulates a 1:1 relationship between a "Classical world" and a "recipient"; it does not allow us to visualize the ways in which reception works through "chains", in which every "recipient" strongly influences the following ones, and the "Classical world", far from being a fixed reference point, is a projection and a construction, changing continuously over time. While such problems are explicitly hinted at (as on pp. 8-9), the volume does not offer a consistent and coherent answer; at the same time, the focus on nationalism obscures the ways in which such theories and debates—and the eventual uses of Classical references in them—were also acting under the impulse of other movements and theories, such as universalism. A Classical reference could indeed be a field of contested meaning that cannot be understood by looking only at the relationship with the ancient model. The book would have, all in all, strongly profited from a nearer consideration, for instance, of concepts such as "pastness", or of the dialectic between "history" and "heritage", as defined by Lowenthal.6

The subtitle of the book, "Case Studies", is very appropriate, as the single studies, sometimes very interesting and innovative, do not achieve a real integration. The aim, formulated in the introduction, to focus "on the European context considered collectively" (p. 11) is impossible to achieve, as almost every contribution focusses on one single country, and huge parts of the continent are left completely unexplored. Actually, three chapters are dedicated to Britain, which is already (as admitted by the editors) the most studied country in this sense; two focus on Germany. While it is to be applauded that there are studies on Ireland and Czechia, not so often considered in this kind of work, a reader cannot avoid noticing that Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal are missing. If the aim was such a comprehensive understanding of European nationalism, a better balance would have been advisable.

A. D. Smith's chapter, following the introduction (pp. 19-43), is a reassertion of his "ethno-symbolistic" theory about nationalism and its origins, here argued by highlighting the importance of neoclassical elements in the genesis of modern nations, meant both as the exaltation of classical virtues, and as the idea that neoclassical art and architecture were central to enhancing the nation's prestige.

A. S. Leoussi (pp. 45-70) continues her studies on the classical body as national symbol. Leoussi makes clear, in the only contribution of the volume that really crosses national boundaries, how ancient Greece was perceived as a "repository of eternal, transhistorical value", and how, in particular, the ideas of Greek freedom and of Greek physical strength and beauty were made the center of discourses of superiority of one's nation (as in Britain), or of programs of national regeneration (as in France).

France and Britain are at the center of T. Rood's chapter (pp. 71-112), too, which analyzes the letter written by Napoleon to the Prince Regent after Waterloo, in which he compared himself to Themistocles. Rood investigates the different layers of meaning of this comparison—as it is unclear whether it compared the Prince Regent with the Persian king or with the Molossian king Admetus—and convincingly argues that Napoleon intentionally did not resolve this ambiguity. Rood analyzes also the different ways in which this letter was read and commented upon in Britain, highlighting how the different readings consistently moved within the frame of comparison with Antiquity provided by Napoleon.

The "other" Napoleon, the Third, is the protagonist of E. Richardson's study of the History of Julius Caesar (1865) and its reception in France, in Britain, and in America. The last part of the chapter is dedicated to what the author calls "the most revolutionary—and the most enduring—reading of this debate", to wit, Karl Marx's Der achtzehnte Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte. As Marx's work was published in 1852, i.e. thirteen years before Napoleon's work on Caesar, this appears a quite flawed argument; and while Richardson's arguments about the reasons why Marx would disagree with Napoleon are surely right, Marx did not (and could not!) consider and respond to the Emperor's historical work—even if he might have known the recently born concept of "Caesarism", which appeared for the first time in 1846.

With R. Barrow's "Faithful unto Death" (pp. 131-151) begins a section dedicated to the reception of ancient Rome in imperial Britain; while the ambiguous relationship between the English national and imperial identity and ancient Rome has been very thoroughly studied, Barrow concentrates on one specific—and wrongly interpreted—archaeological find, a skeleton from Pompeii, and on the ways it was romanticized in Britain, in novel as in painting, as the "normal" soldier who died because he did not abandon his post. Barrow shows how this narrative constructed a model of "militaristic masculinity" that went hand-in-hand with a contemporaneous "revolution" in the perception and portrayal of the British soldiers, particularly during and after the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny. Barrow's chapter, in the opinion of this reviewer the best of the volume, is a perfect example of how the analysis of an apparently narrow topic—the reception of one single episode—can be brought, with the right methodology, to illuminate important social and cultural change, how the references to the past are a central component in operating, through narration, these shifts, and a central marker for us to reconstruct them.

British art is also the topic of the next two contributions: R. Hingley (pp. 153-174) investigates four images, dated between 1857 and 1911, representing the construction of Roman fortifications. He highlights how the ways in which the Romans and the indigenous population are represented are a clear litmus of the shifting ways in which the British people felt about their nation and their Empire. Indeed, as already hinted at, Rome is a problematic model for imperial Britain: while the British Empire is often, and positively, compared to the Roman Empire, the British nation has very often drawn its origin from the ancient Britons, conquered by the Romans, and has strongly idealized the figure of Boudica, the queen of the Iceni who rebelled against Rome. She is the object of a cartoon by H. Courtney Selous (1843), whose analysis forms the bulk of R. Warren's first contribution (pp. 175-198), which analyzes this work within its artistic context, and the context of the special occasion for which it was created, a competition for the decoration of the Palace of Westminster.

From Britain the volume moves to Germany. C. B. Krebs' "A Nation Finds Its People" focuses on the relevance of Tacitus' Germania in the construction of German nationalism from a particular point of view: that of history education. Krebs investigates how Tacitus' work was appropriated in schools and in schoolbooks, showing the influence this ancient work had in creating and shaping the idea of a Germanic race. Another well studied topic, Arminius and his role in German national identity, is here dealt with by M. Sommer (219-233), who provides a precise and useful synthesis of the way Arminius became a "national hero", of the problematic construction of his monument in Detmold, and also of his importance in shaping the "cultural memory" of New Ulm, in Minnesota. It is a pity that the author, probably because of its recent date, could not use the monograph that M. Winkler has now dedicated to Arminus' reception.7

Arminius is the topic also of Warren's second contribution (pp. 235-268), which investigates the reception of this figure in Czech art, on the basis of two paintings from the beginning and end of the 19th century, by Bergler and by Mucha, and reading them against the background of the developing Czech nationalism (and independentism) within the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Finally, the last chapter by L. O'Higgins moves to Ireland (pp. 269-288), and investigates how, throughout the 19th century, the "rediscovery" of Irish as a literary language, and of old Irish texts, was accompanied by a keen interest in Classical literature, and in translation of ancient texts into Irish as a way of negotiating national identity.

As is often the case with collective volumes, the book is a bit lacking in structure, and does not move beyond the collection of case studies; the introduction does not manage to develop a background that can hold together such a diverse set of contributions. But still, this is an interesting volume that enriches a quickly growing field of scholarship, and will therefore surely be widely used and cited in the future. The volume is completed by useful indices and—it is worth mentioning—shows great editorial care.


1.   For this classification, see e.g. A. Ichijo and G. Uzelas (ed.), When is the Nation? Towards an Understanding of Theories of Nationalism, London – New York 2005.
2.   E. Hobsbawm, "Introduction: Inventing Traditions", in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (ed.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1983, 1-14.
3.   It is impossible to give here an overview even of the most recent publications; I will mention only one current research project, "Antiquity, Nationalism and Complex Identities in Western Historiography", based at the Universidad del País Vasco Proyecto Aniho-Aniweh Project (ANIHO).
4.   Mostly P. L. Kohl – C. Fawcett (Eds.), Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology, Cambridge 1995.
5.   G. Highet, The Classical Tradition. Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, Oxford 1949.
6.   D. Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, Cambridge 1996.
7.   M. Winkler, Arminius the Liberator. Myth and Ideology, Oxford; New York 2015.

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