William Morris and the Classical Tradition

Authored by: William Whitla

The Routledge Companion to William Morris

Print publication date:  October  2020
Online publication date:  October  2020

Print ISBN: 9780415347433
eBook ISBN: 9781315229416
Adobe ISBN:


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William Morris identified himself as one who “loathe[s] so all Classical art and literature” (Socialist Diary, 26 January 1887) because “the highly cultivated Greek citizen … was mostly a prig … [and] the energetic public-spirited Roman … was mainly a jailer. … Roman civilised society had come to be composed in the main of a privileged class of very rich men … of their hangers-on forming a vast parasitical army; of a huge population of miserable slaves; and of another population of free men (so-called) kept alive by doles of food, and … theatrical and gladiatorial shows” (Commonweal 26 July, 1890). 1 Nevertheless, in his list of “100 Best Books” submitted to the Pall Mall Gazette (2 February 1886), Morris includes the Homeric epics, Hesiod, and Herodotus as “Bibles,” as having “grown up from the very hearts of the people.” He also includes Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Theocritus, Lucretius, and Catullus, as well as Plutarch, amongst the ancients. Most of the Latin (that is, Roman) writers he calls “sham classics,” perhaps because of their imitation of Greek precedents, while admitting Virgil and Ovid for their “archaeological value.” It is clear from such passages—and there are many more that analyze chattel-slavery in ancient cultures—that a large part of Morris’s dislike for the literature, art, and architecture of Greece and Rome came from his antipathy to the social conditions in which it flourished.

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