Monday, July 2, 2018


Grant Parker (ed.), South Africa, Greece, Rome: Classical Confrontations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xxii, 544. ISBN 9781107100817. $140.00.

Reviewed by Suzanne Sharland, University of KwaZulu-Natal (

Version at BMCR home site


Grant Parker's edited volume, South Africa, Greece, Rome: Classical Confrontations, is the most substantial work to date on the interaction of the ancient world of Classical antiquity with the southern tip of the African continent. While not exhaustive, the work is the most comprehensive and varied so far, offering, in Parker's words, a 'collage' (491-495) of different images, voices, and vying perspectives on engagement with the Classics that are all as contradictory and confrontational as the country of South Africa often is. Prior South African collections of Classical Reception Studies, such as John Hilton and Anne Gosling's co-edited Alma Parens Originalis? (2007), which looked partially but not exclusively at the South African context, and Michael Lambert's The Classics and South African Identities (2011), which examined the role that the Classics have played in forging colonial identities, have arguably inspired Parker's approach.

I find it intriguing that in the choice of his title, Parker puts South Africa first, before Greece and Rome; this could be seen as counteracting the Eurocentric conviction that the cultures of Classical antiquity should be viewed as the 'older', parental civilizations from which we colonial youngsters gratefully derive our 'civilization'. South Africa was, of course, here all the while that the civilizations of the ancient world flourished to our north around the Mediterranean Sea, even if their maps did not extend to this terra incognita (10-11). If human evolution began in Africa, perhaps even southern Africa, as the 'cradle of humankind' fossils would seem to suggest, then South Africa could arguably come first. The order of the title South Africa, Greece, Rome confirms in addition that Parker follows the paradigm of Classical Reception Studies, which emphasizes dialogue and the equal importance of the product of Classical influence as well as the source of its inspiration, rather than the older 'Classical Tradition', which privileged the Classical source over the modern adaptation. The book's subtitle Classical Confrontations is just as significant: southern Africa's dialogue with Greece and Rome, and its relation to those who dubbed themselves heirs to these cultures, has been one of bloodshed, domination and oppression. The reception of the civilizations of Greece and Rome within the southern African context took off with the arrival of Europeans and the introduction of colonialism. Colonial powers went out of their way to imitate Classical architecture, statues, painting, scholarship, signaling to onlookers that the colonizers were the true heirs of the pax Romana. And yet exposure to the Classics also ironically paved the way for liberation, for political leaders like Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani to be inspired by the universal human questions posed by ancient Greek tragedy, and, sometimes, to use this legacy to find common ground with their oppressors.

Parker's argument throughout the volume is that South Africa's links to the Classical world are varied, surprising, and often entirely unanticipated. He begins his first chapter 'The Azanian Muse: Classicism in Unexpected Places', with an astonishing anecdote about African National Congress stalwart Chris Hani and Nationalist Party minister Gerrit Viljoen meeting in February 1991, at a tense, early stage in the discussions that lead to the emergence of democracy, and finding that they had a common interest in Sophocles' Philoctetes (3-7). Hani had studied Classics at Fort Hare and Rhodes universities, and Viljoen, prominent in the apartheid regime, was a former Classics professor at the University of South Africa. Viljoen was impressed by Hani's knowledge and intelligent interrogation of the drama; onlookers were amazed at their ice-breaking interaction. Could it be that just as the Greek heroes discovered that retrieval of the isolated, injured Philoctetes and the bow of Hercules was needed to end the Trojan War, ironically a discussion of Sophocles' play of that name (and the restoration of a hero wrongfully left to languish on an island) was required to end the struggle against apartheid? Classics provided a key to our common humanity. Sadly, this story illustrates the unparalleled education enjoyed by the earlier generation of liberation leaders, prior to the apartheid regime's depriving black South Africans of this right; it would be hard to imagine Jacob Zuma or Julius Malema, for example, debating Philoctetes at a political gathering today, since neither of them, despite the provenance of Malema's first name, has much of a Classical education.

The aim of this volume, 'to excavate distinctly South African contexts of classical antiquity' (6), is well illustrated by the variety of chapters on different aspects of Classical reception, interaction and dialogue undertaken by those who were born or spent a large part of their lives in South Africa. Many of the contributors are well-known South African academic Classicists, but a number of outsiders to the field—experts on law, art, architecture, literature, drama—have also enriched the collection considerably. Classical influences are detected not only among the educated elite, but can also be seen in commonplace settings, an indirect approach Parker calls 'Vernacular Classicism' (51-52). Classical influences can be seen in the kitsch exterior of an over-the-top mansion in the affluent suburbs of Johannesburg (see chapter two 'Poetry in Pidgin' by Federico Freschi, 55-87) and in many structural elements as well as the frieze adorning the inner walls of the Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria (see chapter five on 'Classical Ideals and Afrikaner Ideologies at the Voortrekker Monument' by Rankin and Schneider, 141-212).

Apart from Parker's introduction (chapter 1) and conclusion (chapter 18), the book comprises sixteen contributions from seventeen authors. The volume has seven parts, into each of which two to four chapters are grouped thematically, following a more-or-less chronological path through the early colonial period to the post-apartheid era. Deciding which chapter goes where is always difficult, and the arrangement works generally well. However, the two chapters specifically on Cecil John Rhodes could have been placed side by side: there is a connection between Rhodes' classically-inspired imperialism (discussed in chapter 3 by John Hilton, 88-113), and his interest in commissioning English translations of all the Classical works mentioned in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which resulted in the Groote Schuur Collection (elaborated by David Wardle in chapter 11, 336-350). There may have been a way to make Hilton's chapter the final one of one section ('Conceiving Empire'), and Wardle's chapter the initial one in the section on classical collections ('Cultures of Collecting') without splitting the colossus (see Figure 4.2 on 124).

However, Rhodes is a figure who reappears throughout the collection in several studies; he is the ultimate symbol of Roman/British imperialism in southern Africa, as witnessed recently by the 2015-16 #RhodesMustFall student protests on South African campuses (see Parker's discussion of this, xxi). Another figure who pops up repeatedly is the author Mary Renault, pen-name of the British writer Mary Challans, who lived quietly with her female life partner in 'Mediterranean' Cape Town and there wrote several novels set in ancient Greece (see chapter 14, 'Athens and Apartheid' by Nikolai Endres, 395-409). Renault was a member of the Black Sash, part of the anti-apartheid movement, but many have found fault with her for failing to tackle apartheid directly in her writing. Renault herself, and in particular her thespian-themed novel The Mask of Apollo, appear again as a profound influence on the play director Roy Sargeant (pictured in his youth with Renault in Figure 14.1 on 408), who reflects on his experiments in putting on ancient Greek drama in contemporary Cape Town (see chapter 16, 'Bacchus at Kirstenbosch', 445-466).

Much of the volume emphasizes the prevalence of collecting and displaying as part of the legacy of the Classics. In chapter 9, 'Museum Space and Displacement: Collecting Classical Antiquities in South Africa' (283-315), Samantha Masters undertakes a review of the history, fate and transformation of the known public collections of classical antiquities in South Africa. She focuses specifically on two collections, namely the Iziko Collection in the city of Cape Town, and the collection belonging to the Museum of Classical Antiquities in the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Durban (284). Such collections have been under considerable pressure in recent years as South Africa has struggled to redefine its understanding and ways of presenting the past, and issues of space related to changes in cultural emphasis have sometimes displaced Classical displays. Masters stresses the importance of the UKZN collection of classical antiquities, which is the only collection in South Africa still used for teaching and which was still growing at the time of writing (314).

A more misguided, infelicitous and under-appreciated collection, however, was the Beit donation of classical statuary to the city of Cape Town (discussed in chapter 10, 'Antique Casts for a Colonial Gallery' by Anna Tietze, 316-335). This collection of copies of famous classical statues was acquired in terms of the will of Sir Alfred Beit and was presented with the good intention of enhancing the educational needs of Cape Town; however, after a century, the neglected collection has largely disappeared (316). Although deemed valuable by its donors, the casts of ancient Greek nudes were treated with embarrassment by conservative South African curators, were later devalued in favor of original antiquities, or simply were not viewed as interesting as the Zeitgeist and the focus of fine art-teaching changed; more often than not, they were used as props for satirical purposes. One of the few remaining casts has found a home in the University of Cape Town (see Figure 10.2 on 334), and another may be lurking in the photo of Mary Renault, Roy Sargeant and Michael Atkinson (see Figure 14.1 on 408).

The volume teems with boundary-crossers and trail-blazers. Chapter 12 by Jo-Marie Claassen looks in detail at the life of the black academic D.D.T. Jabavu, a Classicist and inspiring teacher who was one of the founders of the University of Fort Hare and who himself taught many of the future leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle, including Chris Hani and Z.K. Matthews. Chapter 13 by John Atkinson investigates the Cape Town sojourn of Irish nationalist and sometime communist Benjamin Farrington. In chapter 15 ('Antiquity's Undertone', 410-442), Kathleen Coleman looks at the 'classical resonances' in the poetry of Douglas Livingstone (1932-96), who was recognized in his lifetime as South Africa's premier poet who wrote in English. Despite the 'overwhelming African' atmosphere of Livingstone's poetry (410), Coleman argues that engagement with Greek and Roman antiquity is evident throughout this very original poet's oeuvre, usually in a very subtle, nuanced way. Sometimes only a single word or a phrase or two in one of Livingstone's poems evokes the Classics, but Coleman, in contrast to previous scholars who have brushed aside these references as irrelevant, shows that awareness of subtle Classical allusions is often able to transform our readings of the poems profoundly. The innovative Livingstone often demonstrates a clashing encounter between antiquity and modernity; he never idealizes the Classical, but transforms it.

Most of the contributors to Parker's volume are at the peak of their careers as professionals and have assembled a degree of expertise about their subject matter that is not manufactured overnight. What is missing from this volume are young black voices. All of the contributors (apart from Parker himself) are, to the best of my knowledge, white. The closest the volume comes to exploring the interrelationship between ancient Greek tragedy and indigenous South African cultures is chapter 17, 'The Reception of the Electra Myth in YaĆ«l Farber's Molora' (467-484) by Elke Steinmeyer. To be fair, this is part of a far larger problem for Classics in South Africa: either the discipline has too much of a 'Colonial' association for many black students or else the majority are unaware of the potential of this field. Ironically, many aspects of traditional African culture have more in common with the ancient world than does the contemporary Western world. Parker's book is part of an ongoing project in collaboration with the University of Stellenbosch that may draw in more black South African students to postgraduate study. Many Classics programs, including my own, are working hard to attract more Nguni- language speaking black students to study the ancient world, looking especially at the interface between Latin and isiZulu. Unless this situation is rectified, South Africa's dalliances with the Classics will eventually be nothing more than a post- Colonial curiosity. Yet South Africa, as terra incognita, is full of surprises, as likely to breed miracles as to spawn monsters. In the words of Douglas Livingstone, both scientist and poet, and the subject of chapter 15: 'South Africa is the world's laboratory: it represents the world's nations and preoccupations in microcosm. If it fails… there is no hope for humanity at large' (440).

Table of Contents

The Azanian muse: classicism in unexpected places / Grant Parker
Conceiving empire
'Poetry in pidgin': notes on the persistence of classicism in the architecture of Johannesburg / Federico Freschi
Cecil John Rhodes, the classics, and imperialism / John Hilton
The 'Mediterranean' cape: reconstructing an ethos / Peter Merrington
Conceiving the nation
'Copy nothing': classical ideals and Afrikaner ideologies at the Voortrekker monument / Elizabeth Rankin and Rolf Michael Schneider
Greeks, Romans, and volks-education in the Afrikaner kinderensiklopedie / Philip R. Bosman
Law, virtue and truth-telling
A competing discourse on empire / Jonathan Allen
After Cicero: legal thought from antiquity to the new constitution / Deon H. van Zyl
Cultures of collecting
Museum space and displacement: collecting classical antiquities in South Africa / Samantha Masters
Antique casts for a colonial gallery: the Beit bequest of classical statuary to Cape Town / Anna Tietze
Cecil Rhodes as a reader of the classics: the Groote Schuur Collection / David Wardle
Boundary crossers
'You are people like these Romans were!': D. D. T. Jabavu of Fort Hare / Jo-Marie Claassen
Benjamin Farrington and the science of the swerve / John Atkinson
Athens and apartheid: Mary Renault and classics in South Africa / Nikolai Endres
Antiquity's undertone: classical resonances in the poetry of Douglas Livingstone / Kathleen M. Coleman
After apartheid
Bacchus at Kirstenbosch: reflections of a play director / Roy Sargeant
The reception of the Electra myth in Yael Farber's Molora / Elke Steinmeyer
Classical heritage? : by way of an afterword / Grant Parker.

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