Around the beginning of the 18th century,
the study of the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the languages they
spoke began to be called ‘Classics’. The texts and artefacts under the ‘Classics’
umbrella have been used in the name of countless deplorable causes from the defence
of slavery and the elevation of whiteness to the justification of imperialism
and the oppression of women. They have also been used in countless admirable
ones from the abolition of slavery and anti-colonialism to gay rights, female
suffrage and the Trade Union movement.
The very term Classics has class connotations,
since it comes from the same root as the term for the top ancient Roman tax
band and metaphorically designates the most ‘upper-class’ cultural phenomena. The title could do with revisiting, but one reason
for retaining it is as a permanent reminder to discuss the historical and potential role of Classics in the
creation and maintenance of social inequities.
The discipline has all too often excluded other
ancient languages and cultures, even those in intimate relationships with
people whose primary language was Latin or Greek, and needs to attend to this
urgently. The inclusion of ancient Achaemenid Persian sources on the A Level Classical Civilisation
module ‘Invention of the Barbarian’ in the UK has been a resounding success, as
have courses on epic which include Gilgamesh.
There have been criticisms levelled against Classics
since its inception, on grounds from its
elitism to its irrelevance and atavism. There is a huge amount to be done to modernize
Classics, especially in terms of critical examination of the subject’s history,
and deliberate recruitment to its ranks of paid promulgators from ethnic minorities and the economically deprived. This is essential if ministries
of education, university managements, research funders, school children and the
general public are to be convinced that investigating the ancient Greeks and
Romans and their neighbours, and the world-altering results of the constant ethnic
interactions around and beyond the ancient Mediterranean and Black Sea, will always be worthwhile.
But it is also essential if those of us who do not apologise
for being specialists trained in what—deep breath—I do regard as some
of the most intellectually challenging and pleasurable literature, history,
thought and material culture homines sapientes have ever produced are to be able to continue
doing what we do.
There has been a recent spate of attacks on Classics
from within the field, often voiced by self-appointed policepersons of
what is and is not appropriate educational subject-matter for the human race in
the 21st century. These individuals tend to have tenured posts at elite
universities. But how do such
autophagous attacks from inside the field feel to those in less well-fed positions?
This week I have spoken to a schoolteacher struggling
to persuade her managers to expand classical civilization and ancient history
provision in a northern state school, as well as a precariat lecturer whose
small provincial Classics department is under even more threat than it was
before Covid. These tireless educators are at their wits’ end. If they can’t
rely on the ‘Securitat’ with permanent jobs in Tertiary Education to watch
their back, and defend their mission to open up intellectual horizons, then they are going to feel lost indeed.