What is classical studies?

Sometimes I think it can be difficult to satisfactorily explain classical studies as a subject, but it seems like the right place to start if I want to blog about classics generally.  In my opinion, classical studies is a subject which examines the culture of ancient Greece and Rome, through a multi-disciplinary approach, so incorporating the use of methodology and theories from subjects such as art history, literary analysis, linguistics, archaeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and so much more!  But this short definition doesn’t seem even remotely to cover this very broad and interesting discipline.

Maybe one of the problems in defining classical studies is that this subject encompasses such a wide boundary in terms of time and space, which is perhaps somewhat concealed by the title.  Classical antiquity is a broad area of time which runs from around the late 8th century BCE with the Homeric epics, and runs all the way to the much debated fall of the Roman Empire, around the fifth century CE.  But even this expansive time period diminishes the wider study of earlier Mediterranean culture, which may have contributed to Homeric legends, or Reception Studies, a sub-discipline which examines the receipt and re-use of classical material by later adopters, within and out of classical antiquity.  Then too comes the complication of geography, given the expanse of the Roman Empire, trade networks formed in antiquity, and even just migratory fluctuations, classical studies cannot be simply pinpointed easily to specific regions.

Classical studies feels like one of those subjects that has something for everyone, where there is something for even the most diverse of interests, but where the generalist would also feel quite at home.  The subject is also forever changing, because new interpretations based on discoveries or perspectives, keep the world of classics forever in a state of flux.  So this really is a very exciting and challenging area to study.

What I also find very interesting is that classical studies itself has a long and winding history.  The subject was incorporated (albeit somewhat differently to today’s methods!), into early European universities, where Latin was the main language of education for medieval art students who may have enjoyed reading the Latin translations of Aristotle’s works.  Most Europeans are well aware of the Renaissance revival and associated increased interest in classical literature and art, which was helped by the printing press and the greater availability of texts.

Whilst we are the fortunate benefactors of this long standing tradition and associated developments, the legacy of our predecessors can bring with it some problems.  First of all, given that classical studies in one form or another, was thought to be fundamental to a university education, and up until relatively recently only those with sufficient funds could enjoy this luxury, then the subject has become associated with the elite minority.  It is particularly disappointing that this is becoming the situation once again, given that classical studies no longer forms a part of the national curriculum, and so is not taught at most comprehensive schools.

I think that it is also very easy to approach antiquity with a degree of respect and even awe, which has perhaps been influenced by the general sense of reverence passed down to us by pre-modern admirers of antiquity.  This attitude is not always helpful for objective evaluation of a source though, and when studying classics it is important to try and be completely honest about any pre-conceptions that you may bring to the table.  Since aspects of classical antiquity continue to be re-used and re-interpreted, we each have our own interesting relationship with this historical period, and may find that our opinions are already well established before we even begin to study in earnest.

Another aspect which can be problematic, is that given the long history of the subject, it can seem as if almost every possible dimension of the ancient Graeco-Roman world has already been thoroughly researched and evaluated.  It is hard as an undergraduate to foster the courage and strength of character to critically evaluate the argument of a well-established researcher, and not much easier in the early stages of post-graduate!  But fortunately, the subjectivity of humanities implies that your opinion is as valid as any one else’s, providing that you have supported this with a well-reasoned argument, and some strong supporting evidence.

For all the potential problems there may be though, classical studies is a fascinating subject and well worth any amount of challenges.  In the case of my own studies, I have a particular interest in literature, and this is probably what retains my personal enthusiasm.  Plato drew me in as a teenager, with his Socratic dialogue and philosophical enquiry, but the range and breadth of texts available is probably the reason that I chose this subject to study with The Open University, and probably why I just can’t stop.  Aside from the pleasure of pursuing a personal interest, I think that classical studies is possibly unique in that it offers the opportunity to not just learn about antiquity, but also in doing so to learn something more of ourselves, both in terms of humanity generally, and ourselves as individuals.  It is this personal development that I think is probably one of the most important aspects of any educational endeavour, and one of the many reasons why classical studies is such an excellent and well-rounded subject.

By learning about the Greek tragedy of classical Athens for instance, we may develop increased awareness of our own motivations, or those of the people around us.  The super-sized moral dilemmas of ancient Greek mythology give us a basis for understanding fundamental character flaws.  Hybris for example, which seems to feature so frequently in Greek tragedy.  Xerxes is accused of this flaw in Aeschylus’ Persians of c.473 BCE, and ultimately pays when his armies are destroyed.  Contextualising the play offers us the perspective of studying not only the religious festival of theatre, which was so intrinsically connected to Athenian democracy, but also the difficult and complex history of the Persian wars.

This one text may offer a myriad of responses, and a myriad different ways of studying, analysing, and evaluating the production, and then all other productions which may have been generated as further responses.  Classical studies is a subject which encompasses such a variety of approaches, that students tend to acquire a very versatile range of skills, which gives them an excellent basis for either further study, or for the world of employment.

So perhaps I will try again to succinctly answer my question: what is classical studies?  Classical studies is the opportunity to enter into a long and traditional dialogue with human culture.  It is a study with no definitives, no start and no end, instead it is spectrum of possibility surrounding the Graeco-Roman world, and all that may have taken influence from it, and indeed all that may have influenced it.  Classical studies not only offers the student the possibility of developing a life-long fascination with human culture, but also the tools for personal development which will give them a lifetime of improved self-awareness.

4 thoughts on “What is classical studies?

  1. Ataraxia Alpha

    Hi Sarah,

    Nice article, I often wonder to myself what it is exactly that I’m doing studying all this! You’re right that it is attractive to a wide range of people as it’s essentially studying an entire culture (or two). You’ve done well to avoid the usual cliches that make me grimace like “the foundations of western culture” how often have we heard that one being trotted out? As you said its all human culture, which is for everybody. Classics is diversifying and adapting to the skill sets required in an ever changing world and that is the only way any discipline can survive. There’s a lot of exciting new research being done by young classicists.

    A lot of classicists in previous generations made the mistake of glorifying their subject rather than critically examining it. Students these days are not so easily convinced by these old fashioned methods of attracting potential learners and as such may shy away from the subject. It may be more difficult for some of us to get past the idealised notions of Greece and Rome, but the subject is far more interesting when we recognise that these were also deeply flawed societies (like all) and that there is more to them than a fount of wisdom to be uncritically revered. We actually learn a lot more from them this way.

    I’ve never really felt comfortable with the title “classics” either. As if its somehow more worthwhile studying these cultures than Ancient China or Peru. I’d prefer to call it what it is, namely Ancient Greek or Roman culture. Even the lumping together of Greek and Roman is problematic as our cliched notion of the Greeks is very much filtered through Romanised ideas about them.

    Someone may object saying, “if China or the Incas are equally interesting, why are we not studying them as well (or instead)?” My answer to that would follow what you said above, that as I am mainly focused on literary studies, cultures with a lot of diverse surviving texts are the ones to go for. If I were primarily interested in archaeology, there would be no reason to focus on only these cultures. We can all appreciate the architectural wonders of the world from Angkor Wat to Teotihuacan, but for language studies a lot of time and effort has to be invested in learning to read the texts, so it makes sense to go for the ones with a higher pay off. I would love to learn Ancient Egyptian or Quechua for example, but I see it as an enormous effort with a smaller pay off as there isn’t as much literature that has survived. My focus is on Greek not because I see it as “my” culture but because we can read vast amounts of science, poetry, history , philosophy, religion, drama etc. I could spend the rest of my life reading this body of literature! It just happens to have the highest pay off for the effort involved in learning it.

    Thanks for the article. It helps to reflect, from time to time, on what it is exactly that we are spending so much of our time (and money) on!

    By the way, good example with Hubris. It’s a word we could really do with having in English!

    1. Sarah Burke Post author

      Hi Ataraxia,

      Many thanks for your very interesting comments. I think that you’re quite right about the “the foundations of western culture” argument that is often used to justify/encourage the study of antiquity. (I’m certain that I’ve used it myself.) It feels like now more than ever is the time to emphasise our shared origins and collective history, rather than focus on imagined boundaries.

      You make a very good point about the title ‘classics’ and ‘classical studies’, where the very word ‘classical’ implies something of a higher status, something prestigious. I think that this in itself is off putting for many people, who might otherwise find the subject fascinating, and not at all as expected. Maybe a name change would breathe new life into the field?

      There are so many fascinating subjects to immerse ourselves in, and unfortunately so little time. One of the things that I love about classical studies is the somewhat blurred definitions, and the way that research soon diverges into other areas. I think that this is a great reminder that groups of people rarely exist entirely in isolation. We are all very much dependent on one another. Citizens of the world, perhaps?

      Thanks again.

  2. Ataraxia Alpha

    Yes, it’s difficult to come up with a name that encompasses everything we study. I would stick with “Graeco-Roman Studies” personally as its clear which cultures we’re talking about. I am quite pleasantly surprised at the diversity of the MA, as I come from a background in the fine arts (another elitist sounding name… what’s so fine about them?) I had expected to be a bit unprepared, but at my very first tutorial (with Gina) we were thrown into a close reading of vase paintings. All my interests in myth, art and history suddenly came together!

    I have to admit I have also been susceptible to the “foundation of western culture” fallacy! If I reflect on why and when I use it, it’s usually when I’m feeling a bit lazy and can’t be bothered to get into a long conversation. The last time I remember was when I was buying a (probably classics) book at Oxfam a couple of years ago. When the lady in the shop questioned me (Socrates style!) I was quite rightly shot down for my slack reasoning, and she had a far better explanation for the importance of keeping a collective historical memory than I did.

    I would never want to downgrade ‘classics’ as special, everything preserved from our past is precious. I just think that some classicists could learn to appreciate less familiar cultures a bit more as well.

    1. Sarah Burke Post author

      Liking the ‘Graeco-Roman Studies’ Ataraxia, certainly much more explanatory! It’s very interesting to hear that you’ve come from a Fine Arts background –it’s great to have people from different backgrounds with different perspectives, and I think that this is further evidence of the breadth of the subject.

      It’s an interesting comment that you make there about appreciating less familiar cultures, and I think that you’re quite right. Classical studies tends to reinforce a Eurocentric sort of ideology and approach, which in my opinion should be treated with a degree of caution. That said, I completed a BA in classical studies, and then headed straight into the MA. Loving it, warts and all.

      Thanks again for the comments Ataraxia, much appreciated.


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