The Battle for the Future of the Study of the Ancient World is Bigger than Classics
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Categories: Ancient, Modern

The Battle for the Future of the Study of the Ancient World is Bigger than Classics

The execution of the Punic general Malachus who had executed his son Carthalon, in Boccaccio’s stories of the downfall of men and women. To Europeans before the 18th century, the whole ancient world was a source of examples of good and bad behaviour, pagan Carthaginians and pagan Greeks were both useful. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 229 fol. 122v

A few years ago I drafted a post about two different approaches to the study of the ancient world. I put it aside but then my mother, Stefano Costa, and Dimitri Nakassis started to talk about a recent New York Times piece on Dan-el Padilla Peralta and his argument that “Far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity, the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.” I think it is time to pull those ideas out and give my perspective as an ancient historian and orientalist who is not American or British.

In the study of the literate, urban parts of the old World west of the Takalamakan and before the rise of Christianity and Islam, some people are very focused on Athens and Rome. They tend to be text-focused scholars, because scholars can only learn a few difficult old languages each and because the best-written texts in a tradition tend to be aggressively introverted. But when their texts and art show people from other cities and nations, they often choose not to talk about them except as part of a closed literary discourse of texts playing with ideas from earlier texts. These are the kinds of people who most often talk about legacies of the Greeks and Romans and who sometimes even use confusing phrases like “western civilization.” “Classics” is a good name for this end of the community.

There is another approach interested in people from the lowliest slave to the leisured rich like Archimedes. They tend to be influenced by archaeology, because a glance at the archaeological record shows that ancient texts only describe a tiny fraction of the ancient world. Fifth-century BCE Europe was full of wars and betrayals and schemes, and we just happen to know a lot about two of the three Peloponnesian Wars and two of the three Achaemenid landings in Attica. People happened to write about those in Greek, and medieval Christians in Syria and Thessalonike chose to preserve those writings but not others. Those writers and those copyists decided what was important from their own parochial perspectives. This approach takes it for granted that studying any aspect of the ancient world requires bringing texts, art, and artifacts together. They are comparative (“how does imperialism work?”) not exceptionalist (“what did the Greeks and only the Greeks invent?”) They tend to look at ancient cultures as interesting because they are human and yet different from us, not because they have some mystical essence which makes them the same as us. “Ancient world studies” is one of the names which this end of the community uses for itself.

Neither of these approaches is new. Classics may feel like an elderly discipline dating back to the 18th century if not the 16th. But Johann Joachim Winckelmann was an art historian, and by the 1920s, the White Russian refugee Mikhail Rostoftzeff was writing the social and economic history of the Hellenistic world using archaeological evidence, documents, and inscriptions as well as passages from Great Writers. If we look back to the middle ages, scholars in western Europe saw the non-Christian ancient world as a pool of wisdom and admirable examples to draw upon. They happily retold stories about Persians or Egyptians or Judas Maccabaeus or consul Regulus because since they were old and not Latin Christians, they were all exotic. The Nazis could not decide whether the ancient Persians were proud Aryans or a misshapen oriental rabble storming the gates of Europe. L. Sprague de Camp was skewering the idea that Pericles’ Athens was a place of lofty and noble thinkers in 1952 (The Glory that Was). So to me, the conversation which Dan-el Padilla Peralta is responding to is a very old-fashioned one rooted in the USA and UK and in ideas which most people I respect gave up before my parents were born. I don’t know whether the field of classics is irrevocably married to white supremacy, but I know that the study of the ancient world west of China is not and has not been. Too many of us are just not interested in that nonsense. Canadian universities don’t teach courses in “western civ.”

If you care about which of these approaches becomes more influential, then you need to know about the wider context in which this argument is occurring. The study of the ancient and medieval world at the university is under threat, particularly in the United States. Many universities have financial problems, and its easier to pick away at small unfashionable departments than pick a fight with the big boys like mathematics, English, or engineering. Often, this is framed in financial terms, but when we show that our departments is a net revenue generator (teaching history is much cheaper than teaching nursing and collects the same fees) the administration changes its terms to something irrelevant like number of majors. They would never try the same trick with those other departments, because if they criticized the math department for teaching more computer science, physics, and psychology students than mathematics majors, the large number of voting faculty members in the math department would go tell them to go make like an asymptote and approach zero. When resources are limited or shrinking, its hard to build something new, because the resources for that have to come out of those which are already supporting someone. If you want an ancient world studies or a global middle ages, you need to pay for more people who read Middle Egyptian and Syriac and medieval Czech. In Canada, most departments which study ancient Greece and Rome call themselves Greek and Roman Studies because they do not have the staff to cover more cultures.

The financial situation would be survivable but it comes at the same time as a rejection of the idea that studying other cultures because you are curious about them is good in itself (bona in se) and not just good for something (bona per se). When someone like Alex Usher says something as bleakly hillarious as “without an interest in (economic) growth, there is really no reason for any government to treat post-secondary education as something to invest in,” they are undermining a good three quarters of the modern university, which is built on the premise that a few years of rigorous, curiosity-driven inquiry and exposure to different ways of thinking brings all kinds of goods to students and teachers and the rest of society. This idea is widespread amongst the kind of people who write opinion columns and run for provincial or federal office, and occasionally it infects would-be university administrators and consultants. It also leads to the widespread belief in the United States that people with some undergraduate degrees are unemployable burger-flippers, whereas in Canada incomes five or ten years after graduating are actually similar regardless of what someone got a bachelor’s degree in. An Art History major probably won’t earn as much as a Petroleum Engineering major, but they still earn more than the average person with no degree at all (and about as much as someone with a degree in Biology).

Because many Anglos studying the ancient world feel under attack, I think some of them turned a blind idea to colleagues who said things in public which have not been defensible for 50 years. I think some of them felt that if an exciting book on Xerxes’ invasion of Greece or Athenian democracy got people outside the university interested, it did not matter that these books were wrong about some very important things. The pundit-classicists and the ‘big idea’ classicists in the USA and UK get much more mainstream attention than their careful counterparts. But I think that tying ourselves to the bloated hulks of these ideas is bad strategy. As our student bodies and peers look more like a random sample of the world and less like rural Bavaria, we need to appeal to the world and not just to people who identify as “white” or “western.” Greek texts are part of the cultural heritage from India to Ireland, and presenting them that way expands our audience rather than shrinking it. Cuneiform and Jewish texts spread even wider. Studying people anywhere teaches us about human beings right here, just like Horace tells us.

I also think that some of us have taken council of our fears and not spoken up against what these famous, influential people in our departments were saying about the kind of society they wanted to create. They could hurt our careers or summon a barrage of angry letters and phone calls, safer to ignore those parts of their writing in public and gossip about them in private. And some texts, like Who Killed Homer? (1998: review), brandish the weak position of the study of the ancient world as a weapon in faction fights within the field. There is a case right now in the UK where an administration appears to be using “decolonizing the curriculum” as an excuse to lay off people teaching ancient and medieval literature.

If you care about the future of the study of the ancient world, then you need to push your elected representatives to fund it and your local universities to support departments for it. Just look at the relative states of Greek and Roman Studies and Medieval Studies in Canada: the former has its own departments and is holding its own, the latter is usually cobbled together from one or two people from each of the modern language departments, History, and Art History. Its much harder to get an education in Medieval Studies than in the Greco-Roman world in Canada because outside Toronto the library books and courses in the former just are not there. People are interested in the ancient world but feeding that curiosity is a full-time job.

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Further Reading: I think L. Sprague de Camp’s title alludes to John Clarke Stobart’s The Glory that was Greece: A Survey of Hellenic Culture and Civilisation from 1911 which looks like a wiser book than many of its successors

Jozef Wiesehöfer in Kiel wrote an article on Nazi use of the Achaemenid empire for the Achaemenid History series.

Edit 2024-05-21: added header image, link to an earlier post

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