James Uden looks at the Gothic genre and its relationship with antiquity.

The word ‘Gothic’ may well conjure many different images in your mind. You might think of the medieval style of architecture, of gargoyles, spires, and vaulted ceilings. Or you might remember the novels that captivated the attention of Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, sensational tales of haunted castles and sinister monks, which dominated English publishing in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Perhaps you remember the film versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, or Hammer horror movies of the 1950s and 60s. Or perhaps you think of the contemporary Goth subculture, which celebrates through fashion and music the abiding appeal of the darkly supernatural. All of these things are Gothic. Across many centuries, different movements and media have added new layers of meaning to the term. As an aesthetic idea, the Gothic is a very broad church. A haunted church, naturally.

Given that the idea has assumed so many different forms across many centuries, its history is necessarily winding and complicated. But it is possible to track the expansion of the Gothic over time, and the memory of ancient Greece and Rome is crucially intertwined with the history of the idea. At least before the twentieth century, one strand that unified its different forms is a perceived rebellion against classical authority and classicizing taste. By allusion to the Goths who legendarily destroyed Rome, the word symbolized a rejection of the legacy of Greece and Rome, a rejection lamented in some eras as a degeneration from antique glory and celebrated in other eras as a liberation from the tyranny of the past. Yet Gothic art, architecture, and literature rarely demonstrate any ‘clean break’ with antiquity. Classical motifs and ideas are often still visible, albeit in a form that is strangely deformed and fragmented. In eighteenth-century England, the emergence of the Gothic was part of a wider revision of the legacy of antiquity. Rather than the classics providing shining examples of virtue and taste for modernity to follow, increasingly the ancient world seemed more like a dark spectre, a ghost haunting modernity from its margins. In an influential literary manifesto in 1758, for example, the poet and Anglican clergyman Edward Young represented classical poets as oppressive spirits; English writers must exorcise them, he said, if they are ever to produce original work of their own. According to the Gothic vision of antiquity, the ancient world continues to possess our minds, even though its physical form has long mouldered into dust. It is not immortal, but undead.

If we wish to trace the history of the Gothic, we need to begin in the ancient world. ‘Gothic’ is a broad term for a loosely connected group of Germanic peoples, who occupied the northern and eastern parts of the Roman Empire and are attested from at least the first century AD to the beginning of the eighth. In 476, when the final Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed, the Ostrogoths became the ruling power in Italy for the next sixty years. The Goths do play an important role, then, in the so-called ‘Fall’ of Rome, but any stark opposition between Gothic barbarism and classical civilization is a later misinterpretation. The Ostrogothic court established by Theodoric in Ravenna in fact lead to a brief revival and flourishing of Latin literary culture, not to its extinction. Nonetheless, for those who treasured the memory of Greek and Roman antiquity, the ‘Goth’ became a quintessential symbol of the anticlassical, an icon of the regressive forces that brought the classical era to its end.

That memory remained alive in the Renaissance. Influentially, humanists used the word with its sense of ‘anticlassical’ to describe a mode of architecture that ran counter to Vitruvian principles of unity, balance and order. In the second edition of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568), the Italian artist and humanist Giorgio Vasari bemoaned the spread of a style he called the maniera tedesca (the ‘German style’), which was characterized by excessive ornamentation, tall and thin columns, spires and points. In a rhetorical flight of fancy, he imagined an incredible origin story for this style. When the Goths had invaded Rome, he claimed, they destroyed all their buildings, massacred their architects, and filled the place with their own debased buildings, which had spread like pollution all over Europe. Scholars debate what exactly Vasari meant by the maniera tedesca, but his contemporaries identified it with what we still to this day call ‘Gothic architecture’. The name is a misnomer since the style bears no literal connection to the ancient Goths; in fact, it originated in twelfth-century France, and was ‘Gothic’ only in the sense that it deviated from classical norms. To Vasari and other hostile critics in the Renaissance, the epithet was originally a derogatory label. But it stuck. Indeed, as the word came to be used in a more neutral sense to designate a particular architectural mode, it came increasingly to stand for medieval culture more broadly, so that the ‘Gothic’ indicated the postclassical age between antiquity and the Renaissance. The word filled in an important gap; the term ‘medieval’ is itself unattested until 1817.

When we move to the next stage in the Gothic story, we see the word undergo a revaluation. In England, Gothic history and identity came to be prized precisely because they symbolized rebellion against Rome. As early as Bede in the eighth century, antiquarians had posited an historical link between the Saxons and the Goths. As Samuel Kliger traced in his study The Goths in England (1952), the idea that the English could trace their origins through the Saxons to the Goths surfaces periodically over the course of a millennium, but enters the mainstream of English cultural self-definition in the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century. From selective reading of Tacitus’ Germania (and by identifying the Goths with the Germans), English writers idealised the Goths as a people of hardy stock and rugged virtue. Since, it was thought, the ancient Goths had lacked a king and had never surrendered to the control of decadent Rome, they were imagined as a people instinctively averse to monarchical excess. That made them a convenient (if mythical) lineage for English writers to embrace – especially those who, after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, sought to entrench a reverence for Parliament at the heart of English identity.

It was not until a very singular figure in the mid-eighteenth century, though, that all these senses of the word Gothic came together. Horace Walpole, the son of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, was an eccentric aristocrat who devoted his time and money to constructing and furnishing his own elaborate, artificial world. He bought a small house on a large block of land in Twickenham, southwest of London, renamed it Strawberry Hill, and went about renovating it into an extraordinarily elaborate Gothic castle.

Exterior of Strawberry Hill (photo by Jacqueline Banerjee, downloaded from this website: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/strawberryhill/1.html)

Interior of Strawberry Hill ( photo by the author)

You can still visit Strawberry Hill and see the medieval suit of armour atop the giant staircase, the gargoyles, and the stained glass. But the House is much emptier than it once was, since in Walpole’s lifetime it was also stocked with a vast and heterogeneous collection of precious books, statues, and ancient and modern artifacts, some of which are now preserved in the Lewis Walpole Library in Connecticut, but many of which were sold after his death. In 1764, Walpole published his one and only novel, The Castle of Otranto, a ghost story set in medieval Italy but transparently based on the design and atmosphere (the ‘gloomth’, to use his word) of his own Gothic castle. Initially, Walpole published the work under a pseudonym and pretended that it was a translation of a medieval Italian manuscript. But in its second edition in 1765, he attached his name to the novel, and gave it a subtitle: ‘A Gothic Story’. By the early nineteenth century, the name ‘Gothic novels’ attached to fictional tales of terror, a genre that Walpole had unwittingly inaugurated.

Walpole’s attitude towards the classical world was ambivalent. He was openly contemptuous of contemporaries who attempted to ennoble themselves by representing themselves in Roman dress or in classicizing portraits. He thought Virgil was a bore. To puncture the pretensions of those who appealed to classical virtues, he proposed in one of his works (the Hieroglyphic Tales) that he would forge manuscripts to ‘prove’ that Rome’s great military heroes were frauds. Yet he was also fascinated by aspects of the ancient world that matched his taste for the grotesque. The Latin poet that resonated most with him was Lucan. In his youth, he wrote an imitation of the opening of book one of the Pharsalia, and later in life, he published a deluxe edition of the full Latin text of the Pharsalia at his own private press, with notes by the famous critic Richard Bentley no less. (Bentley had already died by that point, but his son was part of Walpole’s interior design team at Strawberry Hill). While on his Grand Tour with the poet Thomas Gray, Walpole had also been one of the very first English travellers to see the rediscovered town of Herculaneum, and he continued throughout his life to acquire Roman objects. His friend Horace Mann sent him a bronze bust of Caligula, supposedly found at Herculaneum, which Walpole declared the favourite object in his collection. He told Mann that he gazed at the silver eyes of the tyrant ‘from morning to night’. Walpole, then, does not abandon or ignore the classical. But he does undermine an excessive reverence towards the legacy of Greece and Rome by training attention on those aspects of antiquity that were already sinister or grotesque. He saw a classical world that was already proto-Gothic.

The Castle of Otranto was, then, the first example of a trend that would come to dominate English publishing at the end of the eighteenth century: the Gothic novel. Some of these novels were set in England, and extended the patriotic project of imagining a ‘Gothic’ (that is, medieval) prehistory for modern English identity. Most, however, aimed merely to thrill, and were set in Europe at some point between antiquity and Enlightenment. They generally took place in a world of crumbling castles and sinister monks, and allowed a largely Protestant readership to imagine the continent as a place of grave moral danger, of Catholic ‘superstition’ and fanatical reverence for tradition. According to one calculation, close to 40% of all novels published at the genre’s high point in 1795 had some connection to the Gothic, and the fashion for supernatural gloom can be seen also in the era’s art, poetry, and drama. When Edmund Burke inveighed against the French Revolution, his rhetoric naturally cast the Terror as manifestations of a fervid and contemporary Gothic imagination. Indeed, the Gothic novel, according to the Marquis de Sade, best captured the moral involutions of the age.

Walpole’s desire to fragment and rearrange aspects of classical antiquity is amply reflected in many of Gothic novels that followed Otranto. Matthew Lewis’ outrageous novel The Monk (1796), for example, begins with Lewis’ own imaginative adaptation of Horace’s Epistles 1.20, the poet’s address to his book. Lewis replaces Horace’s humble autobiographical sketch (lines 24-5) with a much more dramatic evocation of a fearsome figure ‘extreme in hating and in love’, a figure reminiscent of Lewis’ own melodramatic self-image and also of his novel’s hubristic central character, Ambrosio. The most influential of the early American Gothic novels, Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), describes a man obsessive in his desire to imitate his classical idol, Cicero. Already grotesquely pious towards his beloved Roman orator, to whom he builds a shrine in rural Pennsylvania, he is manipulated into a murderous mania over the course of the novel by the wiles of an itinerant ventriloquist. The writer who created the most lasting hybrid of Gothic and classical was undoubtedly Mary Shelley, and a recent essay collection (reviewed on Classics for All: https://classicsforall.org.uk/book-reviews/frankenstein-and-its-classics-the-modern-prometheus-from-antiquity-to-science-fiction/) does a wonderful job of illuminating Shelley’s reanimation of tropes from classical literature in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Yet the same attention could be given to any number of Shelley’s works. Living in Italy in the period after Frankenstein, for example, she wrote a short story, ‘Valerius: the Reanimated Roman’ (1819), which imagined the miraculous rebirth of a man from Republican Rome. She also composed a melancholic verse drama entitled Proserpine (1820), which found in the classical myth of Proserpina the recognizable outlines of a typical Gothic story: the innocent heroine abducted and imprisoned by the machinations of the villainous Pluto.

Frontispiece to Frankenstein (1818) (Wikimedia commons)

Nonetheless, while we can certainly trace classical elements in Gothic novels, part of the thrill of these hybrids is that they were synthesizing elements that were still widely seen as antithetical. To mix the Gothic and the classical was like mixing oil and water. These writers suspend aesthetic opposites in a state of creative tension. By contrast, when we look back today at the ancient world, many features of antiquity seem naturally ‘Gothic’, at least in the now-dominant sense of the word to mean ‘darkly supernatural’. Think, for example, of the witches of Horace or Ovid; of the megalomaniacal villains of Seneca; or of the fascination with magic and sexual transgression in Petronius or Apuleius. We regularly draw attention to aspects of the Ancient Greece and Rome that refute any simplistic notion of antiquity as a haven of rationality, symmetry and form. Gothic authors of the eighteenth century were also highly aware of aspects of antiquity that violated ‘classicizing’ notions of decorum and taste. Clara Reeve, for example, the author of an important Gothic novel (The Old English Baron: A Gothic Story, 1778), argued in her Progress of Romance (1785) that the true originator of the literary romance was not Cervantes or the authors of the Arabian Nights Entertainment but Homer, since his epics were just as populated by fantastical monsters and heroes as later literary works. Only prejudice, she charged, leads readers to accord great value to classical epic and little respect to novels or ballads, and yet their plot machinery is very similar.

The Gothic trend in England also has its origins, as we have seen, in an attempt to lay claim to a distinctively English narrative of history and identity. Authors who celebrated political and artistic liberties tended to view the influence of the Greek and Roman world as an oppressive force, an antiquated source of cultural authority inhibiting a modern striving towards the new. This is a different but equally Gothic view of the classical world: the classical legacy as a giant spectre, a powerful force from the past. Today, we are used to speaking of the ‘reception’ of the ancient world. To receive something or someone suggests an active process of engagement. It seems willing and benign. By contrast, Gothic authors offer a quite different metaphor for understanding the lingering permanence of classical antiquity. In Gothic literature, the past is a ghostly force that haunts, and even possesses, the present. It rises up again. If our goal is to celebrate the virtues and achievements of the classical world, then the Gothic metaphor of a spectral antiquity might have little appeal. But if we sense that modern institutions and identities have continued to be shaped by the forces of an ancient past in ways that are unconscious and outside of our control, then we too might feel as though our society has been haunted – possessed, even still, by the spectres of antiquity.


James Uden is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, USA. Spectres of Antiquity: Classical Literature and the Gothic, 1740-1830 will be published by Oxford University Press in 2020.


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