Harry Mount: Beckham's good but the boy Achilles is one of the Greats

Classics is everywhere - even on footballers' bodies - and a very good thing too
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The Independent Online

The irony of David Beckham having to miss out on the World Cup because of a torn Achilles tendon will not be lost on any classicist. It was because of his foot injury that Achilles didn't reach the closing stages of the Trojan War, either. His worried mother, Thetis, dipped him in the river Styx when he was an infant, meaning he was invulnerable, except in the heel by which she held him. When the Trojan Paris caught him in the heel with a lucky arrow, it was an early bath for the promising young Greek lad with the temperament problem.

That irony won't be lost on David Beckham, either. Judging by his tattoos, he's become quite a classicist in recent years. Three of his dozen tattoos are in Latin, and two of the others, "Victoria" and "Romeo", are Latin-inspired names.

On his left forearm, he has the tricky little expression, "Ut Amem et Foveam" – "That I might love and cherish" – which makes careful and correct use of the subjunctive. On his right forearm, he has the number of the football shirt he wears – 7 – although he opts for the Roman numeral, VII. Under the VII, there are the words "Perfectio in Spiritu" – "Perfection in Spirit".

Bursts of Latin and Greek, and the ancient world, crop up all over the place, not just on David Beckham's forearm. Clash of the Titans, the story of Perseus and Medusa, opens in cinemas next month. Three weeks after that it's Centurion, with Dominic West, about the Roman soldiers of the legendary Ninth Legion in Britain in AD117. There are another 10 classical films out soon.

The big reason for this resilience of the ancient world is the huge classical influence on English literature and thought: the great number of storylines taken from classical myth and history (which in turn had a vast effect on Renaissance painters and sculptors); the classical education that most educated men had in Europe from AD1100 to 1900; and the power of Christianity, mostly transmitted across Europe in Greek and Latin.

Take Shakespeare. Ben Jonson said he had "small Latin and less Greek", but even Shakespeare, a man of relatively humble origins who didn't go to university, did know a little of both.

Shakespeare's education at the King's New School in Stratford-upon-Avon would have consisted almost entirely of translating Latin into English and vice versa. His principal text book would have been William Lily's A Short Introduction of Grammar, authorised by Henry VIII as the only grammar book to be used in schools.

It's no surprise, then, that Shakespeare's plays are full of classical stories, history and references. Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus are the most obvious examples. Even The Comedy of Errors was based on a Roman comedy, Plautus's The Twin Brothers.

It goes on and on. Dante, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Samuel Johnson – Latin translations and Roman myths and histories were the wellspring of much of their work.

The influence of the classical world on English writers stretched into the last century. P G Wodehouse, educated at Dulwich School in 1897, filled Bertie Wooster's chatter with classical references: "I retired to an armchair and put my feet up, sipping the mixture with carefree enjoyment, rather like Caesar having one in his tent the day he overcame the Nervii" (Right Ho, Jeeves, 1934).

It's only in the last half-century that Latin and Greek have gradually been withdrawn from the British education system. Last week, Boris Johnson put the boot into the "intergalactic ass", Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, over the modern philistine attitude to Latin. Balls had said how often headteachers took him to see the benefits of dance, technology, or sport, adding, "No one has ever taken me to a Latin lesson to make the same point. Very few parents are pushing for it, very few pupils want to study it."

Not quite true: 500 state secondary schools have taken up Latin in the past eight years and, for the first time in decades, the number of children in comprehensive schools studying the subject has edged past the number in private schools and grammar schools.

Still, the quantity of children getting a classical education remains woefully low. But that doesn't stop the ancient world from exerting power over those who've never been taught about it, or attracting them to the latest Roman spectacular at the Odeon (the ancient Greek word for a roofed musical theatre, incidentally).

David Beckham didn't study Latin at Chingford School, Essex, in the 1980s, but he is still seduced by the power of the language. He'll know that the Latin on his forearm has echoes resonating back through the ages and through the pens of the greatest writers of all time. That's why he has the quote in Latin, and not in English or Swahili. The same desire for something old and highbrow means American zillionaires call themselves John D Rockefeller III, not John D Rockefeller 3.

This reverence for classics springs from its supposed grandness. Because classics had no practical use, it gained cachet among those who could afford to dedicate their time to fine prose, poetry and history rather than money-making disciplines such as science or engineering. That's why it flourished in Britain's public schools.

Though Beckham may be unaware of the history of classics in the British education system, he will be aware of this inherited baggage of grandness that comes with the language. He'll have noticed it in the mottos of football clubs (Arsenal's is Victoria Concordia Crescit – not "Posh Spice goes by Concorde", but "Victory grows out of harmony"). He will have noticed the classical influence behind the grouped Ionic columns that frame the pedimented porch of his mock-Queen Anne house, Beckingham Palace, in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire. He may have seen Latin, too, in dates on war memorials and in epitaphs on tombstones, and carved as inscriptions on the facades of ancient houses. Wherever Beckham has seen Latin, its setting will have been grand, or attached to the portentous things in life: birth, death, scholarship boards. The setting will also have tended to be an old one, or one that wants to conjure up connotations of oldness.

The knowledge that Latin has survived in written, if not in spoken, form for 2,500 years gives "Ut ameam et foveam" an elemental force that just isn't there in "That I might love and cherish". And so the power of the language builds and builds. Beckham may not be able to read Latin, but he will recognise it when he hears it in everyday speech: RIP (requiescat in pace); ie (id est, "that is"); per se ("I'm not moving to Los Angeles Galaxy for the money per se") and so on. We can all recognise the basic forms and endings of Latin: when the Queen decided not to mention Camilla Parker Bowles in her Christmas broadcast in 2005, The Sun came up with a dream headline in invented Latin, Snubbus Horribilis, that was immediately understandable.

Latin is, if anything, the arriviste on the grand language front, the poor and younger relation to Greek. The Muses of Pieria (as in Alexander Pope's, "A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring") were all Greek: Clio, in charge of history; Urania, astronomy; Calliope, epic poetry; Melpomene, tragedies; Euterpe, harmony; Erato, lyric and love poetry; Terpsichore, dancing; Thalia, comedy; and Polyhymnia, sacred music.

Tragedy, comedy, architecture... the Greeks got there first, and the Romans acknowledged it. Quintilian, the Roman rhetorician, said with some relief, "Satura quidem tota nostra est" – "At least satire is completely ours."

Gathered together, all those cultural divisions make for a pretty influential bunch. Even if you don't know that the Greeks invented tragedy, you are affected by their invention every time you see a modern tragedy on stage, use the phrase, "It's a Greek tragedy", or refer to hubris, the excessive pride that leads to nemesis.

Outward expressions of the classical past may only bubble up to the surface every now and then – like the latest swords and sandals epic, or Beckham's Achilles tendon. But, beneath the surface of our cultural, political, artistic and architectural modern world, the ancient world still provides the supporting skeleton.

Harry Mount's 'Amo, Amas, Amat and All That – How to Become a Latin Lover' is published by Short Books