Session 2 What is Classics.doc
Method and Theory in Classics
Session 2: What is Classics?
Some useful introductions, especially (but not only) for those relatively new to
Mary Beard and John Henderson, Classics: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 1995)
Robin Osborne, Greek History (Routledge 2004)
Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2006)
Beyond the obvious ‘study of ancient Greek and Roman civilisation’ defining the
field of Classics can be surprisingly difficult.
In practice most attempted definitions include references to chronological
scope; geographic scope; and disciplinary scope. All are problematic and tend to
•Chronological scope. The usual focus is on ‘Classical’ Greece (roughly
the 5th and 4th centuries BCE), and later Republican and early Imperial
Rome (roughly the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE). However, the
field is usually taken to include much earlier and later material.
oFor Greece, goes back at least to 8th century BCE and start of the
‘Archaic’ period; frequently also to c.1200 BCE (approximate
conventional end of the Bronze Age in the Aegean) to include the
‘Dark Age’, more usually now referred to as the ‘Iron Age’.
Sometimes study of the preceding Bronze Age civilisations of the
Minoans and Mycenaeans (so back to at least c.2000BCE in the case
of the former) is included. Looking ahead, usually includes the
‘Hellenistic’ period, which conventionally starts in 323 BCE (with the
death of Alexander the Great); when it ends is muddied by the
overlap with the Roman world, but a common date is 31 BCE.
oFor Rome, the traditional date for the founding of the city is also in
the 8th century BCE. Rome becomes a Republic traditionally in 509
BCE; the end of the Republic is often (not always) taken also to be in
31 BCE. The following period is often loosely referred to as that of
the Roman empire, though since Rome had had an empire for some
time by this point the term ‘Principate’ is also used for the period
c.30 BCE to 284 CE. (The following period used to be referred to as
the ‘Dominate’, and you will sometimes still see this term used).
When the Roman empire ‘falls’ or ends is an endless source of
debate. Rome is sacked in 410 CE; the last emperor in the West is
deposed in 476 CE , but neither of these events in themselves has
much more than symbolic importance. The eastern capital of
Constantinople carries on until well into the second millennium CE,
with its final conquest by the Ottomans coming only in 1453. In
practice, the period after c.300 CE is generally considered different
from what had gone before; though the fourth to seventh centuries
CE can be considered ‘Late Antiquity’ or the ‘Early Middle Ages’
depending on your point of view.
•Geographically the field can be anywhere anyone was using Greek
and/or Latin in the time periods above. Large changes took place over
time, however. The Mycenaean world was essentially the southern Balkan
peninsula and the southern Aegean; from the 8th century BCE Greeks
found new settlements all around the Mediterranean and then up into the
Black Sea; later Alexander the Great’s conquests take Greek culture
further afield still. The Romans eventually conquer the entire
Mediterranean world and territories beyond.
•In terms of academic disciplines, there is an obvious split between
Hellenists and Romanists (or Latinists). Beyond that:
oGreek and Latin literature are at the heart of the field, but there is
oAncient History, with most of the usual sub-disciplines of history in
other periods (political, social, economic, military, and so on)
oClassical Archaeology and Art History
These boundaries are not rigid; for example, historians rely a great deal on
literary texts; they will also use the results of archaeological excavations.
Furthermore, not all historians, archaeologists or philosophers who work
on ancient Greece and Rome consider themselves classicists. Even more
obviously and importantly, not all (or even most) of the people who value
and study Greek and Roman civilisation are in academic institutions.
See further Mary Beard’s article ‘Do the Classics have a future’ in the New York
Review of Books (59.1, January 12th 2012):
“...But the question still remains: what do we mean by “the classics”? [...]
Sometimes I have been talking about Latin and Greek, sometimes about a
subject studied by people who self-describe as classicists, sometimes about a
much more general cultural property (the stuff of movies, novels, and poetry).
Now definitions are often false friends. The smartest and most appealing tend to
exclude too much; the most judicious and broadest are so judicious as to be
unhelpfully dull. (One recent attempt to define the classics runs: “the study of
the culture, in the widest sense, of any population using Greek and Latin, from
the beginning to (say) the Islamic invasions of the seventh century AD.” True,
but...) [...] I think that we have to go beyond the superficially plausible idea
(embedded in the definition I’ve just quoted) that the classics are – or are about
– the literature, art, culture, history, philosophy and language of the ancient
world [...] [T]he study of the classics is the study of what happens in the
gap between antiquity and ourselves.”
Nick Lowe, Royal Holloway College, University of London, in Interzone 230 (Sept-
Oct 2010), on the often close links between science fiction and classics:
“It’s all one disorder. Classicists often end up in [SF] fandom and fans often end
up as classicists; it’s the joy of sadness. There’s a sense of ownership of a
vast but clearly bounded databank of mind-exploding narrative that
makes the horizons of direct experience seem impossibly tiny by