Humanities in the dock
No one has ever said that Archias was a great poet, not even his poetry student, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in 62 BC was defending his teacher before a court that we might recognise today as an immigration tribunal.
Archias was a Greek poet from Syria whose job was to flatter Roman politicians. Cicero’s hope was that, in return for his efforts to secure citizenship for Archias, he too, like mighty generals and dictators, would be flattered in a few memorable poems.
Cicero’s understanding with Archias was a typical grubby little bargain of the time. The deal might have been forgotten entirely — except for one of those satisfying curiosities of history in which Cicero’s short speech, Pro Archia, probably the least well known of all the great speeches in front of me now in the Folio Society’s spectacular new edition, is the one that has played the greatest part in our still wanting to read any of them.
The Folio Cicero sits satisfyingly on the desk this morning, pale purple and with admonitory illustrations, both pertinent and elegant, by the artist, Tom Phillips.
Why read Cicero in the twenty first century? Why read any author who wrote in Latin or wanted to be written about in Greek? These are questions that book buyers can answer for themselves but universities must answer today against a mass of populist abuse and misunderstanding.
Classicists are increasingly tempted to defend themselves on utilitarian grounds — the claim that they train minds for hedge funds and our international leadership in dictionaries.
For much longer they have defended their investment of time and effort on Greeks and Romans with some version of the claim that there exists a connection, a common bond between all the arts that pertain to humane existence, omnes artes, quae ad humanitatem pertinent.
Those six words were Cicero’s own, taken from the Pro Archia, spoken after he had begged the judges’ permission to speak in Archias’s defence a little more freely than an immigration dispute might commonly justify.
Cicero’s subject was to be the study of humanity and literature itself, de studiis humanitatis ac litterarum. His case was that the life and work of Archias was a coherent benefit for civilised mankind, for young and old, in good times and in bad, at home and abroad.
This added justification, the defence of a poet’s pertinence to politics and law, the unity of education, relaxation and moral example in a single ideal of humanity, became both devastating and decisive.
The scholar who first moved the ancient defence of Archias into the modern mind was Petrarch. On a student tour of northern Europe in 1333, he rediscovered the text in Liege, copied it out in saffron-yellow ink (embarrassingly for the young man this was the only colour he could buy in a ‘fine but uncivilized town’) and encouraged all his friends to copy it themselves and circulate it too.
The young Petrarch was chafing at his own legal studies; he enthusiastically recognised the path towards a coherent idea of humanities that would eventually unite grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history and moral philosophy into a single course of study
Cicero was central to all of these individual arts; but much more important was his part, through the Pro Archia, in bringing them together.
And he never even got his poem as a reward. When the time came for Cicero to need some flattering verses on his year as consul, he had to write them, famously badly, himself.