Ancient and modern

Classic Spooks

Why would Latin and Greek make you better at spying?

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

16 October 2010

12:00 AM

In a fascinating interview for the Iris magazine, Jonathan Evans, director general of MI5, talked about the value he placed on his classical education. He disclosed that he once received an important memo from a superior in ‘perfect ancient Greek’ and that his current private secretary speaks Greek and Latin, as did the man who gave him his first job in MI5. He mentioned in particular his interest in Suetonius, author of the lives of the earliest emperors, and the satirist Juvenal, both flourishing c. ad 120.

One can see why. Politics in Republican Rome had been a relatively open affair, the business of the Senate being regularly published in a sort of Hansard, the Acta Senatus. But then the Republic collapsed in bloody civil war. Julius Caesar’s nominated heir Octavian emerged as the first emperor Augustus (27 bc–ad 14), and politics took on a very different colour. Control passed from a relatively democratic system of senatorial proposals, passed into law by popular vote, to secretive imperial decision-making kept within the closed confines of the imperial court. This was an Orwellian world of informers and paranoid emperors, of rumour, scandal, intrigue and gossip, where a man (Junius Blaesus) could find himself condemned to death for going to a party while the emperor was ill. It is perfect material to capture the interest of the budding spy-master.

But there is a more important sense in which the study of a subject like classics makes demands on our capacity to understand similar to those faced by the spy-master every day. In a word, we are talking about Humint, human intelligence, defined by Nato as ‘a category of intelligence derived from information collected and provided by human sources’.

At one level, every historical subject is a study in human intelligence, using all the evidence at one’s disposal to make sense of a more or less alien world. In the case of classics, that means a number of limited, partial and often incomplete surviving documents, covering the range from extremely sophisticated high literature (Sophocles, Aristotle, Cicero) to often indecipherable inscriptions and graffiti; of artefacts, from public buildings to perfume containers and fine art (paintings, statues, intaglios, jewellery); and of records of contacts with other peoples. All of it demands the answer to the crucial questions ‘What must I do to make sense of all this?’ and ‘Have I evaluated the evidence with sufficient care to be confident of my conclusions?’ The results may well be speculative at best.


This is precisely the sort of challenge that faces the intelligence community, living with uncertainty in its dealings with contemporary but alien cultures with their alien values, people making every effort to reveal nothing about themselves or their intentions. But there is one element I have omitted, which is absolutely central to Humint work — the language. The original language.

Here, as it seems to me, a classical education has much to offer. For unlike any other school discipline (to my knowledge), it makes two powerful demands on its pupils almost from the start: first, the intensive study of language, culture and history as a single, indivisible package, on the grounds that one cannot understand any one element without the other; and second, the unconditional commitment to the study of the primary sources, in the language in which they were originally composed. That is why Latin and Greek have for years been the only foreign language subjects that demand the study of ‘set books’ in the original at GCSE. In all the others you seem to spend most of your time jou-ing au ping pong or transacting business with ticket offices.

This is not to doubt that, as long as one is going back to the original sources, one can get a great deal of intellectual stimulation and insight from the study of past worlds in one’s own language. That, after all, is what history degrees are all about, and they are rigorous disciplines. No student has to learn Arabic to study Middle Eastern history; but they will know enough not to talk, as George Bush did, about a ‘crusade’ against terrorism. Classical civilisation and ancient history in translation come under the same umbrella. Even in translation, there is something very satisfying to the emotional intelligence about Cicero’s letters to his chums and their replies.

But ultimately, understanding the original language is the only way of getting under the skin of the world with which one is dealing. One looks through a glass darkly enough anyway, without having to think away all the contemporary cultural assumptions that inevitably come with a text of Homer or Herodotus, Virgil or Tacitus expressed in English — even if one knew what it was one had to think away.

When an English translation talks of ‘god’, it sets up different expectations from a classical text talking of theos or daimôn in Greek, or deus or numen in Latin. When Greek uses the word philos (cf. philo-), our ‘loving’ or ‘friend’ gets nowhere near the range of associations it has in Greek. When Virgil talks of pius Aeneas, no one English word, let alone ‘pious’, can pin that epithet.

You do not understand a culture without understanding its assumptions and values, and to those, language is the key. And when it is a matter of life or death, as it may be with MI5, getting it right becomes quite important. As far as I can see, that sort of training is available in schools these days only in the rigorous study of the classical languages.

That does not mean that you cannot be a spy-master otherwise, nor that this is the only value classics has. What it does mean is that sensitivity to the nuances of alien languages, cultures and people, with only limited amounts of information to go on, is bred in a classicist’s bone. As a businessman has said, ‘Classicists’ training is to do with second-guessing the other person — even if he lived 2,000 years ago.’

Peter Jones’s Vote for Caesar (Orion) is in paperback. Details of the Iris Project, which gets Latin and Greek into inner-city schools, can be found at

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