Sunday 21 February 2021

On Not Apologising for Teaching and Promoting "Classics"


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.


  1. Thanks for this. As a teacher of Classics in two northern schools, I can echo every sentiment here. Self-important and protected voices from “above” are no help whatever!

  2. Thanks for this. As a teacher of Classics in two northern schools, I can echo every sentiment here. Self-important and protected voices from “above” are no help whatever!

  3. Dear Edith, the subject of Classics was created during the European Enlightenment, and served the the purposes of that enlightenment, which were not actually soundly based on the evidence. Trying to keep it alive now isn't going to work. There is much more evidence available now about the nature of the classical period. You probably aren't aware of what is coming down the track, which is that Attica was under the control of the Assyrian Empire at a critical point in the development of Greek civilisation, and that many of its features (eponyms, archons, etc) were impositions of the Assyrians from around 700 BCE onwards. Let's just discuss ancient history, and not start off from a relatively modern qualitative judgement. Best, Thomas Yaeger.

  4. Brava, Edith! I spent a lot of time teaching Classics in a state university in the U.S., and between the Philistines in administration and the "autophagous" (a lovely word--thanks) in my own profession, I took a lot of battering. Students kept on learning about Greeks and Romans anyway. btw, I think denouncing Classics as "elitist" is ludicrous. It was once restricted to elites, like ice cream, the automobile, and divorce; but with advances in democracy (including state universities), we have made it so everybody can have them.

  5. Brava, Edith! I taught Classics for a long time at a mid-level state university in the U.S., and between the Philistines in administration and the "autophagous" folks (a lovely word--thanks) in my own profession, I got battered a lot. Students went on learning Classics anyway; some of them even liked it.

    p.s., Denouncing Classics as "elitist" is ludicrous. It was once something only the elites could have, like ice cream, the automobile, and divorce. But we have since gotten a lot more demotic about these things (thanks partly to state universities). Call it elitism for the masses.

  6. As a philosophical problem: Everything that lives -- from individuals, to families, to races, to nations, to subjects of study -- has a right to exist. The cat, the pilot, the English class, the lawyer, the squirrel, the cell phone store, the man selling newspapers, the taxi-cab driver, the waitress, the school teacher have existential claims. If existential claims are to be withdrawn, say in the case of a convicted murderer in a state with the death penalty, or the closing of a department of study in a struggling university, or putting down a horse with a broken leg, or the abortion of a human fetus in a woman who wishes not to deliver, these are grave decisions that will tax the consciences and test the moral insight of whoever takes them. Bitter controversey has errupted whenever such grave matters are taken lightly, treated as "automatic," taken for granted or assumed. Why? Because the cancellation of life is irreversible. The Classics are the original endangered species. Some of our most beloved authors exist from a single manuscript from a single library, and many authors who were known far and wide in antiquity exist no more. People who teach the Classics are inspired by the nobility of rescuing from the jaws of oblivion Catullus' forlorn plea to Lesbia, or Lucretius' heady meditations, or those of a lonely emperor on the frontier. When excavations in Egypt or Pompeii uncover a voice previously unknown, there is an existential sigh of wonder and relief that this precious moment of ancient reflection has been heard and registered thousands of years later. This rescuing of the lost and nearly lost bears the stamp of nobility in whatever field of endeavor it occurs, ours no less than among ambulance drivers who rescue gunshot victims, or animal lovers who release sea birds from plastic prisons.

  7. Thanks for this, Edith. The autophagy you refer to is more about parents feeding on their children - tenured professors undercutting the field in which their own research students will be looking for jobs. And thank you also for reminding everybody that the trench where the battle against inequality has to be fought is the school - if we start fighting in colleges or graduate programs, the battle is already lost. The study of the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean and peri-Mediterranean world is such a rich heritage for our age obsessed with boundaries and mechanisms of exclusion.