In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classical Antiquity

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classics and Class
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Aestheticism and Decadence
  • Archaeology
  • Orientalism and empire
  • Theatre, Spectacle, and Visual Culture

Victorian Literature Classical Antiquity
Isobel Hurst
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0212


References to ancient Greece and Rome abound in Victorian literature and culture. Although classical studies are often associated with the elite, there is evidence in sources from textbooks to periodicals to the popular stage that Greek epic and tragedy, Roman history, and artifacts and accounts of archaeological discoveries reached a wide audience. Fascination with Greek culture developed in the Romantic period as a reaction against Augustanism and remained strong throughout the century, with cultural critics such as Matthew Arnold insisting on the relevance of Hellenism to the concerns of the present day. Victorian authors also found new significance in the Roman inheritance. Writers such as Matthew Arnold, W. M. Thackeray, Alfred Tennyson, A. H. Clough, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, and A. C. Swinburne, among others, studied Latin and Greek for years at school or university and reworked their classical learning in poetry and fiction. A distinctive feature of the Oxford Greats syllabus was that it encouraged students to compare Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, and history with the work of modern thinkers, and to comment on parallels between the ancient and modern worlds. The classical curriculum shaped public life: politicians and imperial administrators interpreted the challenges facing modern Britain in terms of Athenian or Roman examples. Largely self-taught Hellenists such as Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot achieved a remarkable degree of proficiency in Greek with little assistance, since Greek literature, philosophy, and history seemed to offer them tantalizing access to unparalleled sources of truth and knowledge. A wider readership also shared in the richness of the classical inheritance through translations and adaptations of classical literature, history, and myth. Greek epics and tragedy were appropriated by the authors of dramatic monologues, novels, and theatrical burlesques to engage with contemporary concerns about marriage and divorce, the role of women, and the idea of heroism in the modern world. The predominance of Latin and Greek in formal education was beginning to be questioned toward the end of the century, as debates about issues such as the applicability of Greek culture to education in an industrialized society stimulated controversy; in the late Victorian period classical culture was increasingly scrutinized using new approaches based on anthropology, archaeology, and sociology, which broadened the disciplinary base of classics and informed transgressive tendencies in the Hellenism of aesthetic and decadent writers.

General Overviews

Vance 2007 is an excellent starting point for a study of responses to classical antiquity in the Victorian period. Three pioneering book-length studies—Jenkyns 1980, Turner 1981, and Vance 1997—offer wide-ranging assessments of the reception of Greek and Roman antiquity by Victorian readers and writers. Goldhill 2002 focuses on moments of conflict and debate about the value of classical learning in the Victorian period, while Goldhill 2011 aims to unsettle the conservatism of earlier accounts of the classical tradition and restore a more radical understanding of classics as a discipline. Clarke 1989 includes essays on Greek influences in art, education, and culture; Edwards 1999 includes a similar range of essays relating to the influence of Rome. Hurst 2021 examines Greek and Roman influences on Victorian culture and surveys classical reception scholarship on the period.

  • Clarke, G. W., ed. Rediscovering Hellenism: The Hellenic Inheritance and the English Imagination. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Essay collection with useful introductions to Hellenism in the Victorian period, including topics such as the turn to Greece and away from Rome, Victorian painting, Hebraism and Hellenism, classical education, and cast-collecting.

  • Edwards, Catharine, ed. Roman Presences: Receptions of Rome in European Culture, 1789–1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Essays on the reception of ancient Roman culture after the French Revolution, questioning the idea that Greece was more important than Rome in shaping modern culture. Includes essays on Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, comparisons between ancient Rome and the British empire with reference to India, decadence and the subversion of empire, Simeon Solomon’s paintings, and historical novels set in the Roman empire.

  • Goldhill, Simon. Who Needs Greek? Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    Challenges the model of the classical tradition with an interdisciplinary study of the conflicted significance of Greek culture at specific historical moments. Chapter 4 poses the question “Who knows Greek?” in the context of the development of Victorian Hellenism, political attacks on classical studies at the time of the 1867 Reform Act, and the professionalization of the discipline toward the end of the century.

  • Goldhill, Simon. Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity: Art, Opera, Fiction, and the Proclamation of Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691149844.001.0001

    Argues that earlier accounts of classics as a discipline in the nineteenth century have misrepresented the subject as intrinsically conservative, obscuring more radical and revolutionary elements of classicism. Examines themes of sexuality, revolution, and democracy in art, music, and historical fiction.

  • Hurst, Isobel. “The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in the Victorian Period.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Edited by Paula Rabinowitz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021.

    Essay surveying Greek and Roman influences on Victorian life and literature, including classical education, universities, translation and adaptation, poetry, and the reception of tragedy.

  • Jenkyns, Richard. The Victorians and Ancient Greece. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.

    A wide-ranging account of the Victorian reception of Greek literature, culture, and history. Unlike more recent studies, Jenkyns’s book focuses mainly on canonical texts. Examines classical education, poetry, sculpture, and art; the reception of tragedy; Homer and Plato; and George Eliot’s fiction.

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

    An influential study of the reception of Greek literature, mythology and religion, and political thought and philosophy in the Victorian period. Examines religion and mythology; the Hellenism of Matthew Arnold; the reception of Homer, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; and competing discourses of Athenian democracy in the context of Parliamentary reforms.

  • Vance, Norman. “Victorian.” In A Companion to the Classical Tradition. Edited by Craig Kallendorf, 87–100. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

    A concise and perceptive introduction to the reception of Greece and Rome in the Victorian period. Usefully points out that such receptions are often selective or idealized interpretations of the classical past which writers and artists, statesmen, and the wider public applied to contemporaneous literature and art, politics, and the British Empire.

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

    An invaluable study of the persistent Roman presence in Victorian culture. Examines the reception of Roman authors such as Lucretius, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, and Ovid; the influence of Rome on 19th-century historiography; imperialism; and decadence.

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