Against Classics


Dr. Jo Quinn, Associate Professor of Ancient History at Oxford, gave a keynote talk at our AGM in April which asked us to consider what precisely our curriculum is covering. We are delighted that she has written up her thoughts in this blog post. You can find her on Twitter at @josephinequinn.

Despite all the efforts made in recent years to increase the diversity of Classicists by organisations like Classics for All and now the WCC as well as by university departments, it is no secret that our student body is still dominated by those from privileged backgrounds, that our secure and senior faculty are disproportionately male, and that BME scholars are disproportionately absent at all levels. I want to suggest here that ‘Classics’ itself is part of the problem: that we stack the odds against diversity by the way we describe and conceptualise our subject.

Classics is not after all a neutral term. For one thing, this eighteenth century coinage privileges language and literature: the “classics” concerned are Greek and Roman texts. It comes from an era when most of the available evidence was indeed textual, but it does not represent the breadth of the subject as we teach it today. It also dictates a focus on elites, on men, and on people we now at least perceive as white – not only because the writers of these texts overwhelmingly fit this description, but because the people they wrote about do too.

And even if we are okay with a primary focus on texts over history, archaeology, linguistics, and so on, do we really believe that the Greek and Latin texts we teach are the only ‘classics’ of world, or even western, literature? The extended usage in ‘Classical Civilization’ raises similar questions: why are (only) Greece and Rome ‘classical’?

This raises another question: why do we limit ourselves to Greece and Rome anyway? As researchers, of course, we often don’t. The WCC’s definition of Classics as “the study of the ancient Mediterranean world and its reception” isn’t controversial among practitioners. But our teaching curriculum is still based around the Greeks and Romans, and this is the way we usually present Classics degrees to prospective students – at Oxford, for instance, “Classics is the study of the languages, culture, history and thought of the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome”, and similar sentiments can be found at (just to take a few more examples) Durham, Exeter, Reading, and Liverpool. Even where courses on other places and people are on offer, and where faculty research interests are much broader, these aren’t what our websites sell as ‘Classics’.

If Greek and Roman studies is really what we are teaching, why not just call it that? One reason is that our explicit focus solely on societies associated with the two languages that characterize a widespread stereotype of elite education in the UK already limits the diversity of our applicants – and the fact that even in elite schools those languages are taught for longer and more intensively to boys means that women are always going to have a harder time reaching the top of the profession. Another, more positive reason to rethink the narrow geographical and cultural confines of our courses is that curriculum diversity of all kinds is a powerful tool in attracting and engaging more diverse students, who will then become more diverse faculty.

The problem is that we are trying to diversify a subject whose borders we have intentionally constrained – and so however much we try to change the game, the rules by which we play ensure that the status quo prevails. If we really want diversity, we need to relinquish our nineteenth-century disciplinary framework.

One option would be to split Classics up into its component parts: there’s already a trend for separate degrees in ancient history and/or classical archaeology, and for ancient history to be grouped institutionally with history, classical archaeology with archaeology.

A risk with generalizing this approach, however, is that even fewer students from schools that don’t teach Greek and Latin have the opportunity to learn the languages that will give them a direct encounter with the words and ideas of the people they study, as well as a good chance of a research career. Another, from the perspective of language and literature specialists, is that the parlous position of modern languages in the UK and elsewhere does not offer an encouraging example of going it alone.

Better I think would be to do the opposite: join forces with neighouring departments with a focus on antiquity such as Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology, if not at departmental level then at least in terms of our degree courses. We could start by simply counting each other’s courses towards our own degrees. And we could require all our students to learn at least one ancient language from scratch at university, abolishing the ridiculous unfairness whereby Classics students who have had the unusual privilege of learning Greek and Latin at school get a pass on basic language training at university, luxuriating in the further fields of subjects they have studied for years while their less-expensively educated peers battle with one or both languages as well as with a whole new world.


  1. Bert van der Spek

    I cannot agree more with this article. I have fought my entire life for telling classicists what the importance of of the Near East is, not only for the understanding of an important object of study per se, but also for the understanding of Greek civilization. Many classicists still think that they hardly need to study the Persian empire (THE world power in the ‘classical’ age) and that some information from Herodotus suffices; authors who write books on the Hellenistic period without shame tell that they cannot read non-Greek sources and hence neglect them; there are still classicists who teach Homer, but did not read the Gilgamesh epic. Etc. etc. At the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam I tried to solve this by starting “Ancient Studies” as a discipline, where one could combine e.g. the study of Akkadian with Greek instead of Latin and Greek), but it has remained a struggle all the time. There is some progress, of course. In conferences we see more often orientalists and classicists work together. And people learn more from anthropology and economic history. But the Dutch research program “Anchoring Innovation” is still a closed bulwark of classicist where applicants from outside this small world are refused to enter.

    1. Jo Quinn

      Let’s talk! Perhaps we need a new research program… We’re just starting an Achaemenid Persia option at Oxford, but sadly very few students take the one degree (‘Classics and Oriental Studies’) where they can study Gilgamesh and Homer.

  2. Huw Davis

    This all sounds well and good, if you’re a classicist. Perhaps I’m being picky, but seeing as I’m not a classicist, this looks to me more like a call for Classicists to subordinate if possible, and erase if not, the existing fields of scholarship of non-classical antiquity.

    Bert van der Spek talks about teaching Homer but not teaching Gilgamesh, but as with a recent post in the US Society for Classical Studies website about teaching Persian, this still privileges Homer over Gilgamesh, with Gilgamesh reduced to a series of footnotes to Homer, unworthy of study in its own right.

    Unless this is a call for Graeco-Roman studies to take its place with and among the other fields which study antiquity and archaeology, it will continue to look like a piece of colonialism/erasure, as the use of the term “Ancient History” does. If this is what is being called for here, I suggest renaming your field to Graeco-Roman studies, and dumping the references to “Ancient History”, too.

    1. Jo Quinn

      Good points Huw. I actually had to cut that very point about ‘Ancient History’ from my post to keep to the set length! My call is exactly as you say, for those Graeco-Roman studies to renounce their current privileged position as the ‘Classics’, and for ancient historians (among others) to get together across the traditional divides of (eg) ‘Classics’, ‘Oriental Studies’ and ideally all the other disciplines that study antiquity and work together, supporting not subordinating each other – as I think Bert is suggesting above too. But as he says, the greatest resistance, understandably enough, often comes from ‘Classicists’….

      1. Huw Davis

        Dear Jo,

        I have only just seen your response, and I am sorry not to have replied sooner. I was not ignoring it, and I am grateful for the time and trouble you have taken in your thoughtful and generous reply.

        I hope I was not too negative in my initial comment, but there can be a fear in smaller fields of being ‘swamped’. ‘Classics’ has such a cultural weight attached to it, that it can often be difficult to get around its ‘long tail’, if you will.

        I was reading a recent generalist introduction to classical literature (published 2015), and was astonished on opening the chapter on the Roman Republic, to be informed that Greek culture was so attractive, other states adopted it willingly (!), and that there was no evidence for literature in the eastern Mediterranean, and that there had never been any, except for those works in ancient Hebrew (!!). I was only marginally more flabbergasted by Boris Johnson’s claim, when debating Mary Beard, that the Greeks invented mathematics.

        I sometimes look at reviews, etc., from the 1950s or so, and wonder if the gaps between our fields haven’t widened in recent decades. Perhaps part of the problem has been the loss in many universities of the kinds of spaces (like common rooms) where this kind of discussion could take place at an informal level.

        Perhaps more pertinently, on reading a reply to your blog elsewhere, I was struck by an apparent divide in views of what the “Classics” is (are?): that is, whether it is a field of active investigation, motivated by asking what it meant to live in particular cultures and time periods, or whether it is a teaching field in essence, existing primarily to transmit uninterrupted ancient wisdom and splendid literary works to the present age.

  3. Pingback:Add/Drop/Keep: a Classics Conversation” – SENTENTIAE ANTIQUAE

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