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  • Classicism in South Africa*
  • William J. Dominik
G. Parker, (ed.), South Africa, Greece, Rome: Classical Confrontations. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 2017. Pp. 520 ISBN 978-1-107-10081-7. £110.00.

This exceptional volume edited by Grant Parker on the role of Classics and its heritage in South Africa has been in preparation for a number of years. Whatever time was necessary to produce South Africa, Greece, Rome: Classical Confrontations has shown to be well worth the wait for scholars of the classical reception and tradition.1 Parker declares that the aims of his edited volume are to examine South Africa's past in relation to classical antiquity (p. xxi), to extract specifically South African contexts of this antiquity, and to examine the 'afterlives' of classical culture in thecountry (p. 6).

Theoretical backdrop: Classical tradition, reception or heritage?

While the first part of the title South Africa, Greece, Rome: Classical Confrontations, with 'South Africa' appearing first, implicitly suggests the classical reception model,2 the latter part of the title significantly stresses, as Parker points out, 'the inequalities and tensions' involved in the 'cultural histories of both South Africa and the Classics' (p. xxi). In the volume as a whole, the issue of the classical tradition versus the classical reception is glossed over, with both terms being used broadly without a [End Page 250] close distinction being made between their definition and application (cf. p. 10). This approach is similar to the one followed by Anthony Grafton, Glenn Most, and Salvatore Settis in their recent dictionary The Classical Tradition, whose first sentence (in the preface) makes obvious the title's synonymity with 'classical reception'.3

While Parker uses both 'classical tradition' (pp. xxi, 9, 50, 53) and 'classical reception' (pp. i, 10, 42), other contributors use 'classical tradition' a couple of dozen times4 and the phrase 'classical reception' not at all. In his 'Prologue', Parker does include a note maintaining that some classicists have preferred the concept of reception to that of tradition on the basis that the latter 'implies uncritical celebration', but, as he observes, this is not entirely the case (p. 10 n. 10). Parker goes on to argue that 'it has become axiomatic, at least in the historical disciplines generally, that the notion of tradition deserves some measure of scepsis, and that the term has lost its supposed innocence.'

Indeed, one of the reasons that classicists began to favour the use of the term 'classical reception' is not just because the 'classical tradition' can imply 'uncritical celebration', but because it can also suggest other ideologically questionable positions and evoke various negative associations.5 Parker himself observes that 'the classical tradition in South Africa has been associated with colonialism' (p. 9), while Federico Freschi mentions its association with British imperialism (p. 65). The perspective of the classical tradition does have the potential to emphasize the 'influence' of classical civilization and ideas upon later periods of western civilization in such a way as to suggest the idea of the passing on eternal ideals, truths, and forms to successive generations up to the time of the present age.6 Even though the notion of a direct link between the classical and modern western worlds may be inherent in the approach, the classical tradition may also suggest an indirect link, that is, a connection to the ancient world through the intermediary of a previous engagement.7 In general, the majority of recent critics consider the classical tradition model to be more rigid ideologically than the concept of classical reception in that greater [End Page 251] emphasis is placed upon the past and what it has had to offer to a subsequent period or culture.8

The classical tradition model sometimes has been laden explicitly or implicitly with Eurocentric assumptions and values. The supposed civilizing aspect of the classical tradition and its 'influence' is a frequent theme, for example, of Gilbert Highet's study titled The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1949).9 Recent edited volumes such as Craig Kallendorf's A Companion to the Classical Tradition (2007) and James Porter's Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome (2005) avoid this overt association, as does...


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