And his answer was because it is the best, the richest source of fine writing.
He didn't mean that other countries don't have excellent authors, poets, and playwrights. [In my opinion, War and Peace is the greatest novel ever written.] But when you're up against Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Orwell, Austen, and company, you're dealing with the varsity team.
Where am I going with this? While sitting in the waiting room of a doctor's office recently, I was reading a book on Roman history and wondering what practical lessons could be extracted from the power games of Julius Caesar when the thought came: Which period of history is the richest source of lessons for modern life?
In the introduction of his work on the two dictators, Lord Bullock wrote, "Looking back, I cannot think of a better preparation for writing about Hitler and Stalin than a close study of Thucydides, Tacitus, and those sections of Aristotle's Politics that deal with the Greek experience of tyranny."
Is there a particular period of history from which we can glean extraordinary insight into how the world works? My initial reaction is similar to Bullock's. Roman and Greek history have timeless lessons - read today's papers and consider the strategies of Augustus Caesar - but I've met people who are convinced that the French Revolution is the richest source.
This is sort of a parlor game, akin to the "Which books would you take if you were to be stranded on a deserted island? challenge. But it can be both thought-provoking and fun.