The Athens of Example: The Classical World in British International Thought, 1900-1939

  • Liam Stowell

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the deep interconnections between classical learning and modern international relations among three early-twentieth-century British internationalists, Gilbert Murray, Arnold J. Toynbee and Alfred Zimmern. These intellectuals began their careers as classical scholars before becoming some of Britain's foremost academic experts and public commentators on world politics after the First World War. The classics, especially the ancient Greek heritage, continued to exert an enormous influence over the way that they understood and theorised international relations. References to classical literature and political thought or to episodes from ancient history permeated all of their published writings and reflected a continuing, consistent and pervasive interest in the classical world and an underlying faith in the constructive value that classical ideas held in the present. Murray, Toynbee and Zimmern are termed the 'classicising internationalists', and the way that they conceptualised world politics is 'classicising internationalism'. The ways that they imagined modern international relations grew out of their admiration for the institutions and civic ideals of the fifth-century Athenian polis. They desired to transfer the moral cohesion and civic spirit they read onto ancient Athens to the realm of modern international politics by proposing an internationalised formulation of the polis as an organisational model for a civic international order. This was intertwined with an educational ideal that sought to expand civic identities into the global political sphere and create a politically engaged and internationally minded public in the mould of the Athenian citizen. For Toynbee, this internationalist project was linked to a need to theorise the dynamics of world history. By foregrounding the importance of the classical imaginary in these figures' internationalist writings, the thesis develops a more rounded understanding of the intellectual and disciplinary history of international relations, one that emphasises the wider intellectual influences on the discipline's foundational theorists. Classical antiquity was a crucial tool as Murray, Toynbee and Zimmern sought to make sense of international politics during the turbulent interwar years.
Date of Award31 Dec 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorStuart Jones (Supervisor) & Andrew Fear (Supervisor)


  • history of international thought
  • international history
  • British imperialism
  • Gilbert Murray
  • Arnold J. Toynbee
  • history of political thought
  • classical civilisation
  • Alfred Zimmern
  • League of Nations
  • classical inheritance
  • liberal internationalism
  • classicising internationalism
  • international relations
  • intellectual history
  • classical reception
  • world order
  • interwar Britain
  • ancient Greece

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