Books Reviews

A People’s History of Classics

Professor Edith Hall and Dr Henry Stead’s new book A People’s History of Classics explores how ordinary people interacted with classical topics and themes

One of the more peculiar trends of Eighteenth Century Britain was the popularity of educated animals. One-well attested contest was between a French and English dog. (The French dog was a smartly coiffed poodle and the English dog was a Border Collie). The French dog could understand English and French, but the English dog could understand Greek!

A little later, troupes of sapient pigs would travel the pubs of England offering advice and wisdom to people. The most famous, Toby, even wrote a well received autobiography.

He was particularly fond of Plutarch and may have been drawn to Dr Grunter, the philosophical pig who debated Odysseus and Circe.

At this time the pig also became a metaphor for the lower classes. The classicist Richard Porson, himself from a working class background and the writer of a Greek epigram dedicated to Toby, wrote a satirical response to Edward Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke had written that learning was “trodden down under the hoofs of the swinish multitude” (alluding to Matthew 7:6).

Porson’s response A New Catechism for the Swinish Multitude  is written from the point of view of pigs who are trodden down by the hog drivers. It is is the form of a dialogue:

Did God make you a hog?

No: God made me man in his own image; the Right Honourable SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL made me a swine.

The class system is not intrinsically natural but human made. The Reference to Burke’s Sublime and the Beautiful, makes it clear he is the intended target of this work. Porson argues that people of Burke’s class had created a dehumanizing class system. The classics and more broadly cultural capital are both parts of the privilege withheld by the upper-classes but also part of the barriers put up to keep the working class in their place.

The pigs complain that they cannot understand the words of the hog drivers because it’s written in Hog Latin. But some pigs can understand. When asked how, the pig’s foreman replies:

‘From a learned pig’, of which they are ‘many; and the number daily increases’.

Contemporary readers might have also picked up on the religious allusions. In Mark 5, Jesus heals a possessed man by transferring the demons into a herd of pigs who rush into the sea. Before casting the demons out of the man, Jesus asks his name:

And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion: for we are many.”

Mark 5:9

Education is a powerful thing. In the right hands it could even turn things round completely.

Were the pigs alone in learning about latin?

Professor Edith Hall and Dr Henry Stead’s new book A People’s History of Classics explores how ordinary people interacted with classical topics and themes in the broadest possible terms.

They define the classics as:

 “the whole subject-area constituted by the texts, artefacts and archaeological remains produced by people who spoke Greek and Latin between the late Bronze Age and the Christian closure of pagan temples in the late 4th century CE”. 

The book covers the period 1689-1939, which can be taken as the period when capital was dominant. These years saw the development of constitutional monarchy, the stock market, industrialised economies and the growth of colonial exploitation and the slave trade.  

Working classy and dilettanti 

This period also saw the development or spread of education to wider swathes of society. 

Several of the figures covered in the book were auto-didacts, enthusiasts for education and self improvement who saw in classical subjects a way to think about current politics, to learn more about religion (mostly Christianity) and as a route to social progression. 

Auto-didactism seemed to have been an important driving force in the lives of many prominent dissenters- both religious and political, of different classes.

John Wesley recommended that ministers read six hours a day and suggested a broad range of topics.

In the Eighteenth Century, only male adherents of the Church of England were able to attend Oxford and Cambridge. The Dissenting Academies provided alternative higher education to Non-Conformist Christians which was sometimes better than that of Oxbridge and covered subjects not covered in those medieval institutions, such as Science. Students were often middle class and relatively well to do. Several important figures were students at these institutions such as William Godwin and William Hazlitt.

From around 1800, ‘Adult Schools’ were also set up by non-conformists with the aim to teach people to read the Bible. The working class people who attended were dedicated. One school in Sheffield gave classes at 6 AM before the students went to work. 

Mutual Improvement Societies also supported adult education with the aim of political education. It is hard to know what was taught in these institutions but it can be suspected that the classics formed part of their curriculum. They were also widespread. The author Samuel Smiles claimed that most towns in the West Riding of Yorkshire had at least one such society. 

These unofficial organisations not only supported and encouraged working class people to read but also gave them a space to debate, think and organise. It also offered dignity.


The period covered by the book also saw the emergence of cheaper editions and a second hand market. Several budding philologists were able to access books this way, building small but well chosen libraries.

Self-made man James Lackington was a voracious reader, a conscientious Methodist and a born businessman. At 10 he put the local pie-man out of business by observing his techniques and improving them. He also lived a frugal life. In his 20s he lived on bread and tea. He opened the Temple of the Muses in London- a massive bookstore which claimed to be “the cheapest booksellers in the world”.

A study of the reading habits of working class people reveals a lot about the cultural values of the time. Writers such as Gibbon, Macaulay and Morris were popular. Morris was of course an important figure in the Labour movement. Cassell’s Popular Educator was an important resource for working class audio-didacts including David Lloyd-George. The Everyman Classics series edited by Ernest Rhys was also an important source. Within 50 years, 1,000 books were published in the series covering many classical topics. These books were relatively cheap and opened up the Great Books to a wider readership.

The idea that books can help develop readers is an important idea. Sir John Lubbock, the Principle of the Working Man’s College in 1886 shared a list of 100 books “which on the whole are perhaps best worth reading”. This was 20 years before Charles W Eliot, President of Harvard, said that you could get all the elements of a liberal education from five feet shelf space of essential reading. Eliot later published this list as the Harvard Classics.

Working Class readers could also access books through libraries. For example Wanlockhead Miners Library opened in 1756 went on to house 3,000 books by 1925.

Books were not the only way that working class people could access the classics. Its imagery was everywhere from the luxury ceramics produced by workers in the Potteries to the statement buildings of the growing cities. Classical themes were also popular on the stage, including the classically tinged peep shows of Victorian London.

A greater conquest

Why then did people read classics?

The reasons people engaged with the classics are varied. Some did it simply as their job such as the artists employed in the ceramics factories, the workers employed in the building trades and the performers who acted in classic dramas.

Classics was also a route to social development. Perhaps this was not always the intention but many self-educated people found doors opened to them in the Victorian period and after.

Many people driven by a desire to learn engaged with classics as a necessary end towards education in other fields such as religion or  science. Timothy Claxton, who founded the first Mechanics Institute of London, wrote in his biography  “pneumatics, Hydrodynamics, Aerostation etc. […] they were all Latin to me”.

Education was (and is) an important part of the development of working class politics. Many of the union leaders of the Victorian period gained their education through self-directed learning or at institutions for working adults. The classics proved to be a good way to think through and express contemporary concerns. It was also a lingua franca between classes. The ruling classes, then as now, were illiterate to the suffering they perpetrated on their fellow humans but could understand a Latin or Greek phrase.

The final reason is perhaps passion.

Thomas Cooper, a notable Chartist, taught himself to read Latin. He would read it in the early mornings before work. On reading Caesar he said:

“I have made a greater conquest, without the aid of a living teacher, than the proudest warrior ever made – for I have conquered and entered into the possession of a new mind”.

This is a sentiment many auto-didacts might feel even now. 

Ragged trousered Philogists

The most moving part of the book is the chapter detailing the lives of the classicists who didn’t make it.

Andrew Donaldson, “the Fanatic of Fife”, walked the streets of Dunfermline with flowing white locks and a staff, which he sometimes replaced with an iron rod. He was a capable classicist but was not able to make a living from teaching Greek and Latin. 

Richard Robert Jones, known as Dic of Aberdaron or Dirty Dick, taught himself several languages and compiled a Welsh, Greek and Hebrew dictionary which was never published.

Although we should not post-diagnose, it is perhaps possible that these two men had neurodiverse traits and without either class privilege or the support which should be more widely available today did not benefit from social mobilit. They were also part of an unnumbered group of classicists “who retained a preference for a lifestyle too coarse to allow them to qualify as gentlemen”. 

The most famous of such figures is of course Jude the Obscure, the protagonist from Thomas Hardy’s novel. His ghost haunts the book. From a young age, Jude Fawley seeks to become a scholar at Christminster, based on Oxford. He teaches himself Greek and Latin and is even better than some of the more privileged students. Written in the final decade of Victoria’s reign it still feels relevant today, even as university education in the UK is more widely accessible.


A People’s History of Classics is an exhaustive study of the field and will form new paradigms of thinking about Western Classicism. It will also be the starting point for further research or other works for many years. I would like to learn more about how race, gender, ability and class affected people’s opportunities and agency to engage with the classics during these years, or even a second volume taking the work to the present day.

It was hard for me to read this book without reflecting on my own personal experience of the field and recognising similarities in the life stories of others from centuries again. My interest was ignited by what I can call with hindsight self-directed learning; reading books from the local library, in particular comics of Asterix and Horrible Histories, before moving on to more “serious books” later. But it was made clear at school that this subject wasn’t for the likes of me. I’ve carried on studies part-time, and know many other people who do the same. Opportunities have greatly expanded but the field still remains exclusive at all levels. There is nevertheless a sizeable group who continue to engage beyond the Christchurch clique.

On a wider level, the book is extremely pertinent to today. Currently in the UK, the Tory party are creating a culture war in which academics and historians are presented as the opposing side of a struggle against common sense ordinary people who are defending History. Alongside an incompetent and racist Prime Minister uses classics to justify and lend credence to himself. This book is a reminder that non-elite people have always engaged with history and classics, as intellectual equals. Implicit is the sense that an understanding of history is a radical act which gives people a sense of how things have come about and perhaps how things might change for the better.

The Tories are scared the pigs will get too clever for them.

A People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain and Ireland 1689 to 1939 by Edith Hall, Henry Stead is published by Routledge. Buy direct from the Publisher.

Photo references

Toby Learning Latin grammar, a caricature by John Leech, 1840s. Public Domain

John Wesley portrait by George Romney (National Portrait Gallery) Public Domain

Portrait of James Lackington (1746-1815) Public Domain

Thomas Cooper Engraving by John Cochran Public Domain

Book Cover used under Fair Use as part of review.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics