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Aristocracy: A Very Short Introduction

Peter Jones relishes a trip through upper class history

Published: March 16, 2011 at 8:32 am
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Reviewed by: Peter Jones
Author: William Doyle
Publisher: OUP
Price (RRP): £7.99


From Homer onwards, ‘hoi aristoi’ (‘the best, manliest’) have justified their standing in society by claiming their blood-line endowed them with special status – moral, social, cultural – that earned them their privileged position.

The aristo-hating Roman consul-general Marius (certainly not the first non-noble consul, as Doyle claims, and consul in 107 not 111 BC) turned this argument upside down by arguing that nobility did not guarantee manly virtue at all.

Only manly virtue itself could do that, not by book-learning but by one’s own merits demonstrated in the field – the germs of Thomas Paine’s ‘no-ability’ nobility.

In this excellent introduction to the subject, clearly structured and packed with telling examples, the emeritus professor of history at Bristol points out that, whatever hereditary rights, privileges and obligations these hierarchical elites, British and European, have traditionally been endowed with, their own story about themselves has played the major part in keeping them at the top of the heap.

For example, they have always claimed to be of ancient descent, and that their superiority was in their genes rather than their money, especially their land holdings.

Having a reputation for leisured idleness, they were generally keen to earn their spurs fighting for king and country, or in manly activities like jousting and hunting. Displays of wealth, taste and educational achievement further reinforced their image, though they rarely remembered the Latin they had learned: it was enough merely to have done it.

Though aristocrats were regularly criticised for not living up to their own image, it took the American and French revolutions of the 18th century to mark the huge cultural shift in attitude which, Doyle argues, means the aristocracy is now on its last legs.

Arguments about money and privilege, however – the real root of the problem – are surely not.


Peter Jones is the author of Vote for Caesar (Orion, 2009)


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