Stead Abstract

In terms of cultural importance, there were few more famous international celebrities than Eugen Sandow in the early twentieth century. His was a household name on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. He wrote, or co-wrote, a number of best-selling books and set up physical culture academies in London and other major British cities and personally trained royalty.

In his purportedly impoverished Prussian youth, Sandow tells us that he made his living for a short time as a traveling wrestler. In 1893 in the US, however, he tells a journalist – on learning that he could make $40,000 in a single fight in the ring – that although this would be an easy way for him to make money: ‘it is impossible to be a prize-fighter and a gentleman’. The body-builder who identified with Hercules, created entertainment out the classical hero’s labours, and wanted to be a gentleman.

Hence, Sandow’s enigmatic cultural presence in the early twentieth century serves as an illuminating introduction to the conceptual contradiction with which an investigation of the relationship between classics and social class in Britain presents us: the contested nature of ancient Greece and Rome in terms of the definition and enhancement of cultural value because of their role as one of the most conspicuous forms of cultural and intellectual capital. There was a working-class Hercules, who adorned Trade Union banners, but there was also an aristocratic Hercules at a moral crossroads with whom the builders of sumptuous Palladian palaces strongly identified. Classical culture in Britain has been fought over in the sphere of ideology, and that contestation is colourfully incarnated in the conflicted, paradoxical figure of Sandow, the gentleman-bodybuilder.

In this chapter I present the twelve ‘labours’ of the class-conscious historian of British classics, illustrating each labour in relation to the case-study presented by Sandow: 1) the definition of ‘class’ as a category of social analysis; 2) the important differences between the study of Classics and ‘popular’ culture and the study of Classics’ implication in the maintenance of economic and political lines of class exclusion; 3) the problem of subjectively perceived class ‘identity’ and its incommensurability with ‘objective’ socio-economic position; 4) the definition of ‘Classics’, whether as institution, curriculum, or cultural property; 5) the ‘ownership’ of cultural property; 6) the eroticization of classical visual culture and its hazy relationship with the sex industry; 7) in gender terms, the pervasive identification of ‘working-class’ with heterosexual masculinity; 8) the contradiction between the interests of the British working class and the subjects of the British Empire who laboured elsewhere, especially in India, Africa and the Caribbean; 9) the association between some working-class activists and racialist, eugenic and Aryanist ideas; 10) the impact of industrialization on the recreational life of the poorest Britons, and 11) class mobility (in both directions).

But the twelfth and most challenging labour must be the circumvention of the awkward problem that many of our sources just aren’t telling us the truth. Sandow almost certainly fabricated much of his early history, in order to enhance the story of his stupendous rise owing to natural ability and dedication. Our need to ‘read between the lines’ when dealing with sources surrounding the uses and abuses of classics in the class system is underscored by the mystery surrounding his origins and education. We have already come across other individuals who were certainly imposters, frauds or at best adventurers, and ladled spoonfuls of classics into their self-fabrication, as well as those who genuinely did make giant leaps up the socio-economic totem pole by acquiring some sheen of classical allure.

Provisional content for Hercules Performed