Note from the Editor: This week, Michael Taylor joins us to present A Defense of Classics. The last decade or so has seen Classics (the study of Mediterranean antiquity or more narrowly the study of Greece and Rome) in a hard sort of quandary. On the one hand, the field faces pressure from the outside in the form of university departments being shrunk or disbanded altogether by university administrations, part of a general process I sometimes call the ‘pillaging of the humanities‘ that has afflicted nearly every humanistic discipline in the university. On the other hand, in part as a response to this pressure, Classics as a field has been trying to figure out how to reformulate and market itself in a changing present. As one might imagine, arguments within a field about what it should be often can become very tense and even shrill.
Michael has a valuable perspective in this because, as an assistant professor at SUNY Albany, he already lives in a post-Classics world. SUNY Albany disbanded its Classics department in 2010; as Michael notes here, they were hardly the last to do so (SUNY Albany still has a ‘program in Classics’ but its courses are split between several departments and involve far fewer faculty than would an actual department of Classics).
I agree with Michael here that “a detailed defense of Classics is a desideratum” (that is, ‘a thing needed’). The debates about what Classics should be are important, but they won’t matter if we settle on a definition only after we no longer have a field.
With that, over to Michael…
A Defense of the Classics
Classics, the academic study of the literature, history and archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean from roughly 1200 BC-500 AD is in a dire place right now. In March 2021, Howard University, the most prestigious HBCU1 in the nation, and alma mater 2 of Vice President Kamala Harris, announced that it was closing its Classics Department. This wasn’t even the first shocking department closure of the year, as the University of Vermont––the flagship university in perhaps the most progressive state in the country––had previously targeted its Classics Department for closure.
In an extended moment of peril, a detailed defense of Classics is a desideratum3: we need to explain to deans and trustees, donors and legislators, and parents and prospective students why the study of the ancient world still deserves a place on campus. A broad definition of Classics will not limit itself to just the Greeks and Romans. Classics should also be the study of Persians, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Celts, Germans, Jews, and the many other cultures of the Mediterranean and its continental environs. Classics is arguably the original interdisciplinary project, uniting literary studies, history, archaeology, architecture, and even social sciences like economics and demography, all in the service of understanding a millennium of human experience.
One thing that I will not do to defend the Classics is make any sort of aesthetic judgement about the quality of ancient art and literature. Here I am repudiating not just a common defense of Classics, but in fact the elitist origins of the discipline, which declared that the stuff of the ancient world was inherently excellent (the word is derived from the term classis, used to describe the wealth categories citizens were assessed into during the census). The argument that ancient literature and art is superior is not only snobbish, but inevitably subjective, and a surprisingly weak foundation to justify a discipline. I personally like a good deal of ancient art, and some ancient literature. But even when it comes to high-brow cultural products, not everything is necessarily good. Have you ever tried to read Silius Italicus’ Flavian-era epic Punica? I have, and, frankly, it stinks on hot ice. I don’t even think the Aeneid is all that good, outside of Dido’s tragic arc in Book 4, which is indeed quite good. These are, of course, my subjective judgments. But a serious defense of the Classics cannot be based on things I, or anyone, happen to merely enjoy. Mind you, if you plan to major in the Classics, you should really dig Latin poetry or Greek philosophy or Hellenistic history or Punic pottery. But a discipline should not win a place in academia simply because it has nice things. It requires an importance and relevance to make it worth our intellectual efforts and contribute to the formation of critical and educated persons.
Another caveat: in arguing for a place for Classics, I am not arguing for its hegemony. I am not suggesting that everyone should major in Classics, or that Classics should enjoy the dominance that it had in elite education in say, the 18th and 19th centuries, when young Englishmen seeking colonial posts in India had to pass Latin exams first. Furthermore, I would hope that robust Classics departments exist alongside robust Near Eastern Studies and East Asian studies departments, other units which study early civilizations that had their own extensive classical literatures. But I am arguing for Greco-Roman Classics to be an option open to all, and to have a place at any self-respecting institution of higher education. I would like to live in a world where most college educated people had a passing familiarity with the ancient world, if only from taking a survey course as freshmen, or indulging in a semester of Latin out of curiosity. So here goes, a defense of the Classics at a time when it desperately needs one.
1. Complexity. Becoming educated is basically an exercise in learning to analyze and process complex systems, a skill you will need whether you want to become an engineer or lawyer or doctor or marketing specialist or politician, etc. Indeed, no matter what your profession, you will need to be able to navigate a modern society characterized by blaring complexity. But the world has been complex for a while. And the societies of the ancient Mediterranean are among the first complex societies for which we have substantial written documentation. Not the first complex societies, mind you, as these arose thousands of years before with agriculture, cities, labor specialization of social hierarchies. And not the first societies with writing, which has been around for about five thousand years, give or take. But the rich detail of this corpus––epic poetry, theatrical scripts, histories, religious scriptures, philosophical treatises, medical handbooks, etc.––means we can reconstruct the complexity of Mediterranean societies in far greater detail than any complex society that had come before. Furthermore, many of these genres developed precisely to deal with the complexity of this world. Herodotus writes his history to explain the world not just of the Greeks, but of Persians, Scythians and Egyptians. The first philosophers were trying to not just make their own complex world legible to themselves, say through Aristotelian classifications, but also to embrace its complexity, so that a Platonic dialogue is less a focused argument than a meandering, nuanced and often quite abstract journey. The historian Polybius seeks to link up disparate political narratives in Spain, Africa, Greece and Asia, all now touched by the growing power of Rome. In ancient literature we see people trying ––and often failing –– to make sense of the complex situations around them. And in considering their flawed efforts, we train our minds to do the same with the mind-boggling complexity of the present.
2. Religion. One reason to study the past (albeit not the only reason) is to understand the shape of the present. And so much of the present, from politics in the United States of conflict in the Middle East is defined by the interaction of three religions with roots in Mediterranean antiquity: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Second Temple Judaism is the product of Achaemenid Persian imperial power. Even after the fall of the Persian empire, many Jews, including Jesus, spoke Aramaic, an Achaemenid bureaucratic language. Later Jewish texts, including the Book of Daniel are produced under the Seleucid empire, a successor dynasty that arose after the conquests of Alexander the Great. The Hanukkah story is the result of a revolt against the Seleucids. The destruction of Jerusalem, including the Temple, by Rome created the preconditions for rabbinic Judaism to develop in the diaspora. If you want to understand modern Judaism, you need a basic grounding in Mediterranean history and culture, from Cyrus the Great to Vespasian and beyond.
Of course, Christianity is perhaps the most Roman of modern religions; an eschatological response to Roman power, its central figure executed by a Roman equestrian governor. The New Testament is written in Koine Greek, the universal dialect that spread in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests. If you have any hope of learning to read the New Testament in the original Greek, then you will want to make sure there are Classics departments out there to teach this. With the emperor Constantine’s conversion in the fourth century AD, Christianity became the official Roman religion. The Nicene creed, recited every Sunday by millions of Christians, was produced when the Roman emperor brought together bishops from across the Mediterranean to hash out exactly what they believed. If you want to understand Christianity today (as either a believer exploring their own faith or non-believer trying to understand roughly three-billion contemporary Christians) you pretty quickly get to the question of Christian origins, and these are firmly rooted in ancient history, culture and society.
Islam emerges only at the very end of the ancient period, often outside of the period conventionally covered by Classics, although falling well within the purview of historians of Late Antiquity (c. A.D. 200-1000). Islam itself developed from the reception of Jewish and Christian ideology and fervor down the trade routes of the Red Sea, which connected India, Arabia and East Africa with the Mediterranean, a global trade route that doubled as an information superhighway. The rise of Islam also reshaped the ancient Near East, shrinking the still substantial Eastern Roman Empire and destroying the Sassanid Persian Empire. While the emergence of Islam in many ways heralded a new “medieval” political and religious order, the intellectual and social roots of the religion rested upon ancient religion, trade and geopolitics.
3. Democracy and Republicanism. The city-states of the Mediterranean give us the first real insight into how government by the people might work, particularly the mechanics of the Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic. The radical democracy of Athens by the late fifth century gave the Athenian voters unprecedented control over both foreign and domestic policy through direct votes in the ekklesia, or popular assembly. The power of the Roman people during the Republic was far more constrained, funneled through the complex machinations of Roman voting assemblies and closely supervised the senate, an aristocratic council of former magistrates. Still, Roman voters elected magistrates (thereby constituting the aristocracy, dependent upon elective office for senate membership), and also approved laws through direct democracy and judged court cases. While historians debate the extent that Republican Rome counted as a “democracy” (it was certainly less democratic than Athens), the complexity of Roman voting in some ways is closer to the representative democracy we practice today, where voters periodically empower a class of politicians to govern on their behalf.
It is easy to point out fundamental moral and practical flaws in these systems, including disenfranchisement of women and the existence of massive slave populations alongside empowered free male citizens. Still, most human history is a history of monarchy, making republican and democratic systems particularly valuable to study for those who wish to live in the exceptional systems that involve popular participation. And Putin, Xi Jinping and Trump all remind us that the threat of autocracy is very real. Studying how ancient systems worked, and why they failed, is an urgent exercise as we struggle to shore up democracy in the 21st century.
4. Diversity. The ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural diversity of the Mediterranean was extraordinary, leading to encounters, conflict and syncretism. Contacts sometimes produced violence, xenophobia and hatred. But we also see trade, appropriation and coexistence. We also see the first halting ethnographic attempts, from Herodotus to Caesar, to define but also understand the “Other” through ethnographic writings. The ancient Mediterranean was a world defined at once by casual chauvinism and stark xenophobia as well as by surprisingly fluid ethnic identities. As such, the ancient Mediterranean provides an essential perspective on the diversity of our globalized world. While we can debate whether the xenophobia readily apparent in ancient thought qualifies as racism or proto-racism,4 it is certainly a world without the crude categories of scientific racism that we have inherited from Early modern thought, developed as a means of justifying the enslavement of Africans and broader European imperial activities across the globe. Imagining a world free of blunt modern census categories is in fact a rather liberating way to think about human diversity. We get folks like Lucian of Samosata, Syrian by birth, Roman by citizenship, Greek by language, who makes his career in Gaul. Mind you, Classics Departments do have to reckon with race in our own terms and using our own categories, and this is a serious consideration in administrative and pedagogical terms, in making sure hires and admissions reflect the diversity and vitality of the present.
5. War, Violence and Imperialism. The ancient world was a violent place, but that violence is also well documented in our sources. Indeed, the earliest Greek historians were all trying to understand, in their own way, the wars of their era, from Herodotus and the Persian Wars, to Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, to Polybius and the Roman conquests. Mind you, studying ancient wars is not a celebration of their violence and waste. But living in a world where war remains sadly a reality, educated people should spend some time thinking about it. We can think about how war narratives were shaped, generally self-servingly. We can analyze propaganda during conflicts and commemoration afterwards. Thucydides’ history is oftentimes viewed as the first work of international relations theory, even if it is not always read deeply or sensitively by International Relations specialists. Finally, we can think about fundamentals of military tactics, logistics and strategy, without necessarily being distracted by the whiz-bang aspects of modern military technology, which is why ancient military history is often read as part of the vocational training of military officers.
6. Wealth and Inequality. There is a growing consensus that the ancient Mediterranean was an unusually prosperous place, by pre-modern standards. It was at the nexus of global trade: tin from Britain, amber from the Baltic, pepper from India. Recent research has suggested the Roman period may have also enjoyed climatic conditions especially conducive to agriculture, which may in part help explain the prosperity and power of the Roman empire. Regardless, the ancient Mediterranean was a wealthy place, and also an obscenely unequal one, and therefore provides a useful perspective for our own world of unusual prosperity and steep inequality powered by a global economy. Studying the ancient Mediterranean, we can see how elites deploy their economic power to crush those below them, even as they produced the masterpieces of art and literature and architecture we still study today. We see every form of exploitation and enforced dependence, but most obscenely the widespread and deeply-rooted practice of chattel slavery. Indeed, the ancient Mediterranean presents us with perhaps the best documented slave societies outside of the New World, so that any comparative study of slavery, including out own urgent need to understand the vile legacies of Atlantic slavery, requires an engagement with Mediterranean slave systems.
At the same time, we also can observe social mobility, including literature’s most famous parvenu, Trimalchio, a freed slave turned millionaire in Petronius (the explicit inspiration for Jay Gatsby). We can also observe negotiations between mass and elite throughout ancient history, as elites must provide concessions in exchange for military service, labor, votes, etc. And we also see attempts towards redistribution, from the agrarian reforms of the brothers Gracchi (and the brutal violence mobilized against them) to the grain dole in Rome, which once established in the Late Republic endured for centuries, a redistributive scheme that allowed Rome to achieve its peak population of one million people, and the complex economic and cultural dynamics that came with such urban mass.
7. Language: Classics requires at least some study of Greek and Latin, although some programs, most notably Princeton, are reforming to allow students to focus on other ancient languages such as Assyrian. Still, the study of Latin and Greek is one reason for having a Classics department, which can offer intensive language training, rather than portioning out classicists among history, literature and art history departments.
Both ancient Greek and Latin are dead languages, now rarely used even for liturgical or ceremonial purposes (although my college diploma was written in Latin)5. There are nonetheless real rewards for studying these languages. Greek and Latin are some of the best attested early Indo-European languages, a family of languages ancestrally spoken from India to Ireland, and today across the globe. Hindi, English, Spanish, Farsi, are all IE languages.
Studying Greek and Latin immerses you in this language family at an early date. We have written Greek from around 3500 years ago (with administrative documents in Mycenaean Linear B script), although the corpus of Greek literature begins around 700 BC (with the poetry of Homer and Hesiod). Latin literature survives in large quantities from around 200 BC, with written Latin attested around three centuries earlier in scattered inscriptions. Roman imperialism subsequently carried Latin across Western Europe, so that Spanish, French, Portuguese and Romanian––the Romance languages––are directly descended from Latin. In studying Greek and Latin, you are engaging an early incarnation of a massively important language tradition, and the study will give you insight into the grammar and vocabulary of modern Indo-European languages. Incidentally, the Indo-European language family was discovered when Classically trained scholars started reading Sanskrit, and realized it was very similar to Greek and Latin. English itself has a vast number of Latin derived words, some borrowed through French, and some coined directly from Latin during the Renaissance, when scholars invented thousands of new words based on Latin just to sound fancy. For better or worse, a great deal of the technical, legal, medical and scientific vocabulary in the English language is derived from Latin––which means if you know Latin, it will be far easier for you to navigate these professions (and here Classics has some real vocational impact if you want to be a middle-class professional). Learn Latin and Greek, and you will improve your English vocabulary as a practical matter.
8. Gender and Sexuality: The ancient world is not necessarily always an edifying place to study, and perhaps never less so than when it comes to the status of ancient women, particularly Greek women, who generally suffered from a low status in both law and the culture at large. Women in Rome enjoyed somewhat better status in terms of law (being able to initiate divorce and own property), but remained decidedly subordinate politically and socially, for example not being able to vote, and requiring a male relative to sign off on certain economic transactions (a somewhat lighter version of Brittany Spears’ conservatorship, but automatic for all women).
The demographic realities of the ancient world––including devastating infant and child mortality, placed an extraordinary burden on women to reproduce the population, requiring from them early marriage, constant pregnancy, dangerous childbirth and the chronic grief of lost children. The benefit to examining women in the ancient world is often less because their situation was good or edifying, but precisely because we are forced to encounter human beings in such radically different circumstances from the 21st century west: facing real oppression, often ignored by male generated literary sources, and yet also finding ways to make religious, cultural, economic, and even political contributions, even in societies so often run for men by men.
Ancient sexuality was too often driven by the brute mechanics of power; rape in time of war and coerced sex between masters and slaves. Yet a key aspect of ancient sexuality–the Greek practice of homosexual pederasty, has played a significant role in LGBT liberation in the 20th century. Certainly modern gay activists did not seek to emulate the particular social mechanics of Greek homosexuality, in which an older male lover (erastes) penetrated a passive, and usually adolescent beloved (eromenos) as part of a broader program of aristocratic mentorship and homosocial bonding. Rather, the fact that ancient literature normalized same-sex desire––bisexuality is often treated as the baseline orientation in ancient literature––was mobilized as powerful evidence that the strident homophobia in the Western Christian tradition was itself a cultural construct. Indeed, there has been much vigorous study into how views of Christian sexuality themselves originated in the context of the Late Roman Empire, as the paradigm shifted from one which emphasized sexual reproduction as a civic responsibility to one which places sexual abnegation at the pinnacle of Christian spirituality.6 Ultimately, the perspectives ancient sexuality provide are starkly bifurcated: on one hand the “sex positivity” in a great deal of ancient literature and art has been an inspiration for modern notions of sexual liberation. At the same time, sex positive ancient literature and art also tended to be notoriously rape-positive (especially rape as a routine motif in myth), and the contemporary tension between sexual liberation and exploitation is certainly one we continue to grapple with in the #MeToo era.
9. Reception: Whether or not one likes classical literature or history, the fact that so many later people have looked to the Classics for inspiration makes understanding the Mediterranean important for understanding later periods in European, American and world history. If you like Shakespeare, you will want to read the Roman comedies and tragedies that inspired the Bard and his cohort. And you might also want to read the Greek models that inspired these Roman works, to see the chain of influence. Admittedly, the influence of Classics has been strongest in Europe, mainly because Latin and Greek remained liturgical languages for Christianity, allowing for the preservation of manuscripts by monks alongside religious texts, although Islamic interest in Greek medicine ensured that many Greek medical treatises now only survive in Arabic translation.
The Renaissance only accelerated the focus in Western Europe on Classical texts and aesthetics. But that means that one cannot understand a great deal of later European or American culture and thought without at least some background in Classics.
This applies to history and literature, as well as to aesthetics like sculpture and architecture, given the importance of the Grand Tour for the development of European taste.
From a strictly US perspective, the founding generation does not make sense unless you have some background in Classics––because they sure did! It mattered a great deal to their self-presentation: George Washington’s favorite play was about Cato the Younger (a strident opponent of Caesar), and he studiously modeled his own conduct on the Roman myth of Cincinnatus.7 If you just want to study the American Revolution, you quickly find you need to brush up on your Classics just to keep up.
You cannot understand Phillis Wheatley unless you have a background in classics: “To Maecenas” is a poem full of allusions, in which she compares herself to Terence, a Roman poet born in North Africa, possibly a former slave. Wheatley is saying, “I’m in the club too!”(she could read Latin, Greek and Hebrew). If you lack the Classics, the work of the first published female African American poet is gibberish; you need the background to navigate her complex web of erudition.
I could go on, of course. Not every college student should major in Classics. Only very, very few people should go to graduate school in Classics. But I hope the defense I offer paints a plausible reason why every college student pursuing a four-year degree should have the option of taking courses in the Classics and pursuing a concentration in it. All said, Classics is a pretty cheap department to fund. It does not need expensive labs, nor the extravagant salaries commanded by professors of Law, Medicine, and Business. It just needs professors, and a small collection of books. And for a modest price, Classics Departments produce students who can read closely and think critically, the sort of skills our economy––and society––desperately needs.
Michael Taylor is assistant professor of History at the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY Albany). He has his PhD from UC: Berkeley and is the author of numerous scholarly articles on the Roman military in the Middle Republic. His first book, Soldiers & Silver: Mobilizing Resources in the Age of Roman Conquest (2020) is a study of the costs in cash and manpower of Rome’s great wars of expansion in the third and second centuries BC; I reviewed it with a hearty recommendation here. You can (and should!) find Michael on twitter at @DrMichaelJTayl1 .
- Editor: HBCU stands for ‘Historically Black College and University’
- A Latin phrase that means literally “foster mother,” a typical bit of Latin embedded in the English language.
- Editor: another of those Latin phrases, meaning ‘a thing desired or needed.’
- Thus Benjamin Issac, The Invention of Racism in Antiquity (Princeton 2004), although see Erich Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (Princeton 2010) for a counterpoint.
- Editor.: mine too!
- Most notably Peter Brown. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Colombia, 1988).
- See Gary Wills, Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (Doubleday 1984).