Classics – What’s In A Name?

History is neither written nor made without love or hate.

– Theodor Mommsen.

Knowing what to call something is often the first step towards understanding it, so it is interesting that the ancient world has such a fluid set of terms associated with its study. Universities in the United States, for instance, have designated their classics departments everything from the concise and seemingly definitive ‘Department of the Classics’ at Harvard University to the more expansive ‘Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations’ at Columbian College in Washington D.C. Meanwhile, other institutions often add related disciplines to their departmental titles, such as ancient history, archaeology, philosophy or religious studies. Some also refer to ‘ancient classics’ and others ‘classical studies,’ but all focus in some way upon the study of Greco-Roman history and literature. So why this lack of clarity and consistency?


Perhaps the best place to start is with the word ‘classics’ itself, which derives from ‘classicus,’ a Latin adjective meaning ‘of the first class.’ In the Roman world, the term was applied to the five-fold division of society into classes in terms of their wealth, however, rather than as a benchmark of the authority or quality of a cultural object. Indeed, surviving Latin literature only bears one instance of the term being used in this sense regarding literature, when Aulus Gellius refers in his Attic Nights to Marcus Cornelius Fronto as a ‘classicus scriptor non proletarius’ – ‘a first-rate writer, not one from the masses’ (19.8.15). Although Cicero once spoke of a certain ‘class’ of philosophers, it was only in the sixth century A.D. that the concept developed of the term being used to denote a class of students and the set of selected texts that they studied.


Hesiod – and later Ovid – spoke of mythical golden, silver and bronze ages preceding his own, so the desire to classify and rank, as well as to imagine that previous epochs were better than one’s own, was a concept as familiar to the ancients as to ourselves. Since the Renaissance, the Greek and Latin languages have also been treated in a similar fashion, with ‘Classical’ phases being defined for each that represent its arguably ‘best’ form – i.e. fifth and fourth centuries B.C. for Greek and the late-Republican and Augustan eras (c.83 B.C.-14 A.D.) for Latin. In their respective literatures, these were then followed by the ‘lesser’ respective periods of Hellenistic Greek and Silver Latin, which are suggested to represent more debased forms of the languages, eventually resulting in the allegedly ‘corrupt’ forms of medieval Greek and Latin.


Significantly, the term ‘classicus’ does not reappear with the connotation of evaluating cultural objects or eras until 1496, when the Italian humanist Filippo Beroaldo employed it in a commentary on Cicero, though it thereafter became a common and influential feature of Renaissance and early-modern discussions of ancient literature. With the use of the term ‘classical’ went connotations of ‘the best,’ which extended not only to Greek and Roman culture itself, but also to specific periods within the history and literature of each. Yet this is problematic, since it suggests that the Greco-Roman world somehow represents a unique and unchanging source of cultural authority. By focussing only upon the literally ‘classical’ past, it is possible to ignore the cultural and linguistic diversity of the ancient world beyond those who spoke Greek and Latin, as well as equally sophisticated contemporary civilisations flourishing further afield, such as those of India or China.


Of course, since the Renaissance, the words ‘classic,’ ‘classical’ and ‘classicism’ have come to be applied in numerous other contexts in Western culture, too, such as classical music – though even it has its own specifically ‘Classical’ age of c.1750-1820. Nowadays, advertisers even offer us the ‘classic’ version of various products, in order to differentiate an original product from newer alternatives. Importantly, the word ‘class’ is also derived from the same origin, which further complicates matters, since it is connected with notions of something or someone being innately ‘better’ than another in social terms. So, unlike other words that have a relatively exclusive use, classics is unhelpfully bound up with a host of other meanings unrelated to the Greco-Roman world.

In short, it is ironic that classics, a discipline which prides itself upon its precision (especially in its linguistic understandings of Greek and Latin) has preserved such a vague nomenclature for itself. For much of the twentieth century, classicists spoke of ‘classical appreciation’ and the ‘classical tradition,’ but, in recent decades, these have given way to concepts of transmission and reception that challenge previous, ahistorical notions of permanent value residing in antiquity. But the very use of the term ‘classical’ in any context seems to carry with it a set of cultural baggage that seeks to elevate the discipline above others, while claiming for it an exceptional status among the humanities. Indeed, a Greek or Roman would be perplexed to discover that they belonged to ‘classical’ civilisation – a word that would mean little to them in the sense that we employ it.

After a century during which it was downgraded, if not disestablished, from many school and university curricula, classical studies has emerged in the last few decades as a strong and thriving discipline once again. Having been marginalised and brought to the edge of extinction, it has transcended many of its obsolete, former perspectives, while engaging with new aspects, periods and disciplines, as can be seen, for instance, in the advent of classical reception studies. Consequently, the ancient world is nowadays celebrated by classical scholarship not as a static and idealised source of permanent authority, but as a diverse, complex and evolving nexus of interconnected influences. But there remains a threat to the body of knowledge from reductionist and wrong-headed appropriations of the classical world being made for political purposes.


Pursuing often extremist agendas, members of the alt-right and far-right regularly call upon certain, carefully-selected aspects of classical history and literature to buttress their points. For example, they often invoke the Roman Empire as a racially-pure, patriarchal society, which, owing to its historical status as the cradle of European civilisation, endows it with a special aura for them. Projects such as  ‘Pharos: Doing Justice to the Classics,’ run by Curtis Dozier at Vassar College, document these distorted and erroneous appropriations of the classical past online. But one wonders whether the notion of classics being perceived in the past as a somehow ‘pure’ body of knowledge that represents ‘first-rate’ historical cultures has not encouraged its adoption for these political uses in the first instance?


But, if this is the case, what might replace the term ‘classics’? I’m not sure that I can think of a better word, although I do believe that regular clarification, contextualisation and qualification of the term may help. For, if we understand the classical past to represent not some patriarchal, imperialistic idyll of monolithic value, but a world as diverse, complex and flawed as our own, we will go a long way towards maintaining a discipline that is open to all, regardless of race, gender or sexuality. In a sense, our very lack of definition of what to term the study of antiquity should therefore encourage us to see that, buried within the discipline’s sometimes blurred edges and indistinct outlines, there lies space and depth for interacting with a multiplicity of other perspectives, ancient and modern. Only by doing so will classics – for what of a better term – remain truly and deservedly in a class of its own.


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