I was once informed by a guide at the oldest black church in Savannah, Georgia, that African slaves arrived there speaking ancient Greek. My surprise was not shared by other members of the party. Our guide clearly believed it. The elders of the church must have believed it or the guide wouldn’t have said it. And the rest were clearly happy to go along with it. This book makes no reference to the story of African slaves speaking ancient Greek, but it does smuggle outsiders into our traditional understanding of who comprehended the classics. For most of the period covered by this book, the vast majority of British people were not taught English, let alone Latin and Greek. When Tony Harrison, a ravenous scholarship boy, was taught ancient languages at Leeds Grammar School, his father, a baker (‘only our silence made us seem a pair’), wondered aloud why they were filling his son’s head with crap. Right into the 1970s, you had to have an O level in Latin if you wanted to read history at Oxford and then, a barbarian at the gate, you had to fight your way through Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. I have two friends who still bear the scars.
And yet, for all that, Edith Hall and Henry Stead find hundreds of working-class men and some women who managed to learn the history and (less often) the languages of antiquity, not in order to pass an examination but in order to find joy and wisdom and even, in some