Book review: Homer’s Turk: How Classics Shaped Ideas Of The East by Jerry Toner

Power walk: The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, with the Begum of Bhopal, in 1922. Toner dissects British imperial thinking on India. Picture: PA
Power walk: The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, with the Begum of Bhopal, in 1922. Toner dissects British imperial thinking on India. Picture: PA
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EDWARD Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, despite some factual inaccuracies and rhetorical overstatements, remains one of the most significant works of postcolonial studies; and his central idea – that the “Orient” is an invention of western powers and ideologies – still maintains considerable intellectual traction.

Homer’s Turk: How Classics Shaped Ideas Of The East

by Jerry Toner

Harvard University Press, 320pp, £22.95

Modern commentators tend to add nuance to Said’s thesis: there was not one monolithic Orient, but multiple orientalisms with certain shared tropes. The imperial responses to Arabia, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, India, or China had subtle differences alongside broad similarities: the “East” was decadent, cruel, barbaric, licentious, inherently slavish, and (contradictorily) both political unstable and historically static.

Jerry Toner’s contribution expertly traces how the Greek and Roman classics were used in constructing images of the East. In keeping with the more subtle approach of the last 20 years, the classics turn out to have had a more complex and paradoxical legacy than just in reinforcing stereotypes of oriental despotism.

Toner’s coverage is wide: from the first medieval European responses to the rise of Islam; through Elizabethan writers such as Sir Anthony Sherley and George Sandys and their travels in Ottoman Turkey; Edward Gibbon’s “sociology of empire” with his 1776-88 The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire; the various responses to the “Roman Raj”, such as Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatick Society and the father of John Stuart Mill, James Mill, the author of The History of British India; imperialists and colonial adventurers such as Lord Cromer, Sir Richard Burton, Charles Doughty and TE Lawrence; and two concluding chapters on America’s adoption of the Roman mantle and various orientalisms in films as different as Carry On Cleo and 300.

Although the title refers to Homer, the most influential classical depictions of the oriental other came through works associated with the Greco-Persian Wars that culminated in the Battles of Thermopylae and Salamis. The history of Thucydides rather than Xenophon, and the depiction of the King Xerxes in the play The Persians by Aeschylus created the idea of a tyrannical and arrogant Oriental enemy, economically wealthy but philosophically impoverished, both effete and aggressive. From Herodotus, aspiring imperialists could derive images of Egypt in thrall to superstition and literally inhuman tribes.

As much as the classics provided a kind of cultural shorthand for encounters with non-western civilisations, they also allowed the British a form of imperial self-identity, derived more from Rome than Greece. Rome was both the inspirational model from a world-ruling empire and a cautionary tale. In Tacitus (especially his Germania), 19th-century British empire-builders could learn of the dangers of “uncivilised” tribes and guerrilla warfare (a lesson that went notoriously unheeded in Afghanistan); in the satires of Juvenal and Persius they could see the ways in which oriental “luxury” might infect and undermine the imperial project. A great deal of critical thought went into the extent to which the other pillar of British identity – Christianity, specifically Protestant Christianity – might temper Roman militarism and preserve the Empire in a manner different to the fall of Rome.

The Trojans represent something of a problem: although defeated by the Greeks, the Romans themselves claimed to be descended from a Trojan, Aeneas, and many of the later aetiological myths concentrate on Trojan descent (such as the idea that Aeneas’s grandson Brutus discovered Britain and London was originally Troy-novant).

The Trojans are therefore liminal figures; both oriental outsiders and Stoic survivors. Nor are the Greeks simply ideals to be admired. In terms of sexuality, and the leanings towards dictatorship expressed in both Plato and Aristotle, no Victorian gentleman could unambiguously endorse philhellene sympathies.

The chapter on the British in India is especially thorough and brings out the ambiguities of the relationship between classicism and imperialism with subtlety. Through his study of philology, William Jones was aware that Sanskrit was part of the same family of languages as Greek and Latin (what is now called Proto-Indo-European; he found parallels between the Homeric epics and works like The Ramayana.

This was countered by Mill – he condescendingly and erroneously said, “we strongly suspect that Sir William Jones never read the poem; or more of it than scraps”, and compared the Indian population with other theocratically oppressed and backward societies (such as Britain under the Druids) described by Caesar. Mill’s work was explicitly racist. He wrote, “A man who is duly qualified may obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England than he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India.” In other words, the British imperialist need not even visit the country to understand it. Any sign of “culture” Mill detected in India he ascribed to Greek influences; his India, in a profound sense, had no history prior to the East India Company’s colonisation.

But the situation is even more complex. Toner shows how the 1858 edition of Mill’s 1818 history came with additional notes by Horace Wilson, the Oxford Professor of Sanskrit, which assiduously queried and often contradicted many of the assertions made by Mill.

The extent of colonialism is eloquently shown in Toner’s analysis of Bholanauth Chunder’s Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper-India. Chunder defends Indian culture and customs either by comparing them favourably with Greek or Roman examples, or by insisting that Greeks and Romans had similar failings. Yet even in defending India he is forced to use the colonial’s frame of reference – little wonder, given that the Indian Civil Service exams, under one proposal, would give 1,500 marks to English, Latin and Greek, 1,000 to mathematics and 375 to Sanskrit or Arabic.

This study is clearly focused on British (indeed English) imperial figures. There is no discussion of how the classics were reformulated specifically by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers: Thomas Blackwood, author of An Enquiry Into The Life and Writings of Homer and Adam Ferguson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society and The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic were influential in the development of sociology, especially the transition from agrarian to feudal to modern societies, which in turn had a huge impact on how imperial governors looked at the “undeveloped” countries they subjugated.

The classics, of course, do not have the intellectual sway they once had (Toner cites one statistic, that only 0.08 per cent of American students take their degree in classics). This brisk and intelligent study shows the extent to which the classics created many of the presumptions (and prejudices) of the modern political world, and as such is a fine companion piece to a work such as Pankaj Mishra’s study of “oriental” responses to imperialism.