Classics Classics and the Victorians
Edmund Richardson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0283


Victorian classicism was world-bending and omnivorous. From Oxford lecture-rooms to Afghan hillsides, the ancient past shaped and transformed the present. For many Victorians, looking back to antiquity was not about withdrawing from the contemporary world, but engaging passionately with it (the ancient world appears on both sides of most big Victorian arguments, whether about the rights of women, or the wrongs of war). Prime ministers and paupers, great scholars and great con-artists, the colonizer and the colonized, the oppressor and the oppressed, made the classical their own. Even by the standards of classical reception, this was a kaleidoscopic discourse. How, then, should we tell its stories? Should an account of Victorian classicism be one of public schools and English gentlemen? Or one of opium addicts and hucksters? Should it be centered in Berlin or Bengal? Should it be dominated by men or women? These questions have been in play ever since the 19th century (there is little in 21st-century academic debate which can match the vitriol and volume of the most famous Victorian arguments over the ancient world), and the most influential recent accounts of Victorian classicism acknowledge this: not insisting on the inevitability of their narratives, but allowing space for complexity and contradiction, diversity and connection. Thus, for instance, a famous tragedienne’s production of Medea ought not to be understood in isolation, but perhaps in dialogue with its cross-dressed burlesque, a few streets away (a burlesque to which the tragedienne came, and howled with laughter at). The professor should not just be seen in his lecture-room, a fearsomely rational pillar of the establishment; we might also visit him in the séance-room to which he repaired at the end of the day, to sit in conversation with the spirits of antiquity. In this interconnected world, many of the divisions used in this bibliography are, in consequence, somewhat artificial: a study of performance reception, for instance, will inevitably engage with (and advance) questions of politics, gender, and a host of other fields. The vital importance of education and scholarship will, however, be a constant: most Victorians first came into contact with the ancient world through the education system—and classics monopolized the curriculum in Britain’s leading schools. This bibliography does not claim to be all-encompassing, but rather sets out to highlight some of the most striking and ambitious interventions in Victorian classical reception—scholarship that surprises, unsettles, and begins conversations—along with some of the latest digital research tools. Victorian classicism has always been a moving target, and lately it has been moving fast.

General Overviews

Very different pictures of Victorian classicism, and approaches to its study, emerge from these works. Jenkyns 1980 and Turner 1981 are centered around the legacy of Greece, while Edwards 1999 and Vance 1997 tell the (sometimes less familiar) story of Victorian engagements with Rome. Goldhill 2003 remains perhaps the most significant articulation of the dominant methodology in contemporary classical reception, centered around close attention to the social and political discourses within which receptions take place. Zooming out, Grafton, et al. 2010, Hardwick and Stray 2008, and Kallendorf 2013 provide overviews of the field, particularly valuable for those making their first foray into classical reception.

  • Edwards, Catharine, ed. 1999. Roman presences: Receptions of Rome in European culture, 1789–1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Collection of essays on the reception of Rome in European art, literature, and historiography, with several chapters focused on 19th-century material, from Simeon Solomon to Macaulay.

  • Goldhill, Simon. 2003. Who needs Greek?: Contests in the cultural history of Hellenism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    One of the most influential works in the field. Its insistence on the need for deep historical understanding of the context in which classical receptions take place has shaped much recent scholarship.

  • Goldhill, Simon. 2011. Victorian culture and classical Antiquity: Art, opera, fiction, and the proclamation of modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A dizzying, virtuoso ride through Victorian culture, from the paintings of Waterhouse to Wagnerian opera.

  • Grafton, Anthony, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis, eds. 2010. The classical tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A wide-ranging, dictionary-style guide to the afterlives of antiquity. With many useful entries on Victorian material, this would often be a good starting point for researching a new topic.

  • Hardwick, Lorna, and Christopher Stray, eds. 2008. A companion to classical receptions. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    While this volume contains several valuable chapters on Victorian material, such as a study of Gladstone, its real value is theoretical and methodological: many of the most respected scholars in the field, thinking aloud about how to approach classical reception.

  • Jenkyns, Richard. 1980. The Victorians and ancient Greece. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    An enduring and learned account of the Victorian fascination with ancient Greece. Symonds, Pater, Browning, and Eliot are among the protagonists.

  • Kallendorf, Craig, ed. 2013. A companion to the classical tradition. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    An overview of the field, which by necessity must at times employ a broad brush, but which has real value as an introductory work.

  • Richardson, Edmund. 2013. Classical Victorians: Scholars, scoundrels and generals in pursuit of Antiquity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139208598

    The underbelly of Victorian classicism: gin-fiends, master forgers, failed child prodigies, and homicidal schoolmasters.

  • Turner, Frank M. 1981. The Greek heritage in Victorian Britain. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Particularly valuable in the field of intellectual history: from Victorian Platonism to the debates over ancient democracy.

  • Vance, Norman. 1997. The Victorians and ancient Rome. Oxford: Blackwell.

    From empire to decadence, the enduring presence of Rome in Victorian literature and culture.

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