The Colosseum in Rome

The problems with Classics

What is Classics? Perhaps it is just the study of a world of temples with marble pillars, of athletes wearing laurel leaves and drenched in olive oil, of merchants in togas and tunics; a world of Greeks and Romans, of speakers of Greek and Latin, of the participants of two southern European cultures flourishing around the Mediterranean. 

But that is not what Classics really is, at least at Oxford. Indologists study India, Sinologists study China, and Hebraists study Hebrew, but Classics is more than just the study of ancient Greece and Rome. These civilisations form the core of the discipline, but its name hint at something bigger. My view is that Classics is the phantom of an intellectual perspective which is obsolete in this advanced stage of globalisation and that in any case, it was always a misleading one.

At Oxford, Classics refers to the degree formally known as Literae Humaniores, the term used for one of the three elements of the Bachelor of Arts degree as stipulated in 1800 (Walsh 2000, p.311-312). Alongside Literae Humaniores were theology and an element consisting of maths and physics. If the mathematical element had its eyes on ‘things’ and theology its eyes on God, Literae Humaniores was about ‘Man’. It required proficiency in Latin and Greek, in the “Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy” of Greek and Roman writers, and in Logic. Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, was allocated to the MA examination, which was formally abandoned in 1807. In 1830, Greek and Roman History was added to Literae Humaniores, and Oxford Classics was thus complete.

But the Isis does not flow into the Aegean, and Christ Church is, in theory, not the Colosseum. The University of Oxford emerged and grew in the land of Celts, Saxons, and Normans in a society whose religion emerged from Second Temple Judaism. Old Oxford may not have particularly needed Confucius or the Hindu epics to understand the world around it. Notwithstanding, its perspective on the very past that shaped its world was deeply flawed.

But the Isis does not flow into the Aegean, and Christ Church is, in theory, not the Colosseum

Unsurprisingly, the cultural identity of Western scholarship was more attracted to Greece and Rome than to the pagan societies which came to be Christianised. However, my attention has been drawn to the contrast between the reception of the Greco-Roman past and the gulf that existed between the Jews and the educated elite of Western Christendom. Although we cannot consider Medieval Christian antisemitism the seamless continuation of a phenomenon in Greek and Roman society, I would argue that European scholarship inherited from a particular strand of Christian thought in antiquity a certain dangerous and distorted doublethink regarding Jews and ‘Classical’ civilisation. 

The academic Henry Chadwick (1986, p.24) wrote that Christians in the Roman Empire took issue with its paganism: “Change its religion and all would be well.” The same standard does not seem to have been applied to the Jewish people. Augustine of Hippo (p.80), a major theologian of antiquity, wrote that the Romans, who “rested on earthly glory, and sought to obtain it by virtues […] conquered those who, in their great depravity, slew and rejected the giver of true glory.” The Roman state had persecuted Christians with brutality until only a few decades before Augustine’s birth, but it was in the Jews that he and his peers saw, to use the words of Garroway (2022, p.66), “a stubborn, carnal, accursed people who rejected and murdered the son of God.”

Augustine’s condemnation went beyond just the enemies of the Jewish preacher known as Jesus of Nazareth and found fault with an entire people. Augustine’s doublethink can be identified through the centuries. For example, the 15th century saw both the expulsion of the Jews from Catholic Spain and the reemergence of the originally pagan term Pontifex Maximus as a regular title for popes. Oxford’s exam statutes of 1800 certainly do not represent the violent antisemitism of medieval Christendom, but they reflect the endurance of an age-old warped perspective. The universities of Europe preferred to see their origins in Rome and Athens, not in Jerusalem. Although the Enlightenment shook up the normative thinking of Western scholarship, it did not go far enough. Post-Enlightenment intellect, books, and scholarly effort did not stop the emergence of scientific racism, for example, and it was only in 1920 that women were granted full membership at the University.

Today, undergraduates can study a variety of languages and cultures from modern Japan to ancient Babylon. However, the faculty of Philosophy only emerged from the Classics faculty in 2001, and modern philosophy is still available to undergraduate Classicists but not to Sanskritists and Arabists. Oxford is no longer situated within a European bubble. If the university wishes to be a global centre of learning and thinking in today’s world, it needs to move on from a humanities with Greece and Rome at its historic centre. The categories separating Asian and Middle Eastern languages, modern European languages, and Ancient Greek and Latin need to be removed entirely, and the courses standardised where applicable. Tradition can be a pleasant thing, and we can keep Latin graces at meals, but tradition does not justify the continued existence of a Eurocentric spectre. Perspective and not only reason are important in thinking and thought is not an indulgence but a necessity.

Image credit: Chait Goli via Pexels

Image description: the Colosseum in Rome.