Classics, in short, is the study of the societies of the ‘Ancient World’, and almost always the study of Ancient Rome and Greece. Society is a purposefully vague term, because it means literally everything about the lives of ancient people. If someone asked you to study modern western society where would you start? The prospect would be huge. Luckily for us Classicists though, we can only use what we have. These societies are ancient because they have fallen, and in time have been replaced, for whatever reason. What they left behind is what we use to build up our idea about their lives, and the evidence splits (roughly) into literary evidence and material evidence (pretty much anything physically found). However, it’s in Classics’ nature to focus onto certain aspects of the ancient world, which usually take form of Philosophy, History, Philology (basically linguistics and literature), Language, Art and Architecture.
So now you know in a nutshell what Classics is, if you didn’t already, but Classics has come under fire recently. It has been accused of being elitist by government and was therefore cut from mainstream education (leaving only the schools which can afford to teach it, to teach it – a prime example of the government creating a self-fulfilling prophecy). This signalled the decline of Classics in the UK, and this was reflected on how universities viewed it. It used to be that Latin was a prerequisite for the top universities in England; now that is all changed. Classics remains one of the least popular courses at university, and some argue that this is for the best. Why bother studying societies that are in the past, or even the past at all? Why not invest your time in things which can benefit mankind’s future, like being a physicist battling global warming, an engineer building a bridge, or even a politician (theoretically) trying to make their country a better place?
The answer why is rooted in how Classics has been a monumentally huge influence on our lives today. In an appropriate allegory, when looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, approximately 50% of words can trace their roots back to Latin, and a further 20% back to purely Greek (there are many words which have both languages in their history – yet only one word in the English language that takes two separate words from each language and puts them together – Television), leaving roughly 30% down to other influences. Aside from the big (and more obvious) links like Shakespeare, whose education included Classics, and whose plays are extremely heavily influenced by mostly Greek drama, Classical drama permeates into our lives heavily in our television. When Natalie Haynes was researching her book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, she found that out of the BBC scriptwriters she interviewed, they almost all had either studied Classics at university or read Aristotle’s Poetics (a manual on how to write good drama) as part of their training. Indeed, they try to include storylines from some of the great Greek tragedies as often as they can (apparently they call it ‘Greeking it up’). Time and time again they tried to include a Medea story, but it was deemed too extreme for modern viewership to have a character who, after being dumped, kills her own children to spite their father, as well as killing his new girlfriend.
But why turn back to some stuffy old Greeks with silly beards for advice? The answer is that the Greeks knew what made a good story. Look through the many plotlines of much loved soaps on TV, and you will find that so often the story revolves around families, and conflict between individual members. Or even Jeremy Kyle! This idea comes straight from antiquity; the story of the house of Atreus really was filled with inter-family feuding (in short, the father kills his daughter, goes off to war, comes back, his wife kills him, hitches up with a new man, the son and another daughter then kill the mother). Or perhaps another more disturbing saga is that of Oedipus, who tragically murders his own father (the previous king) and marries his own mother, and only finds out when he has cursed the man who killed the old king – himself, when it is too late. If you want a third example, turn to Euripides’ Bacchae, where the king’s mother tears him limb from limb when her judgement is clouded by the vindictive god Dionysus.
5th Century Athens was a huge culture boom, seeing incredible advances in many fields, started by many now famous people, including none less than the big cheese Socrates. Socrates was put to death by the state in 399 BC (and so is technically 4th century, but we will overlook that) for corrupting the youth, not believing in the gods of the city, and impiety and he revolutionised philosophy for the price of his life. He was the teacher of the much better known Plato, who would go on to teach Aristotle, and the three of them would be so influential in their ideas that their influences can be seen in both Catholic and Islamic doctrine, as well as thoughts that would go on to be discovered during the Renaissance, and influence philosophical thinkers then.
And what of literature and myth? They are included together as so much of Greek literature is inextricably connected with myth. Take the Iliad, telling the story of the war between the Greeks and Trojans over the abduction of Helen from Sparta. This is the plot on a human level, anyway. Half the book tells of the gods feuding between each other, taking sides, going behind each other’s backs to support their favourite fighters on the field. This involvement of the gods is also seen heavily in myth, which are well known in today’s society as nice stories. But they, and the first pieces of western literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are so much more than nice stories. Like any good piece of modern literature (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice) they give profound insights into human nature. Take the story of Theseus and the Labyrinth. Theseus used his wits to defeat the minotaur in the labyrinth. Could the labyrinth represent the human mind, with the beastly ferocious monster hidden deep within, that was only defeated by man’s reason and need for an ordered society?
Politics was huge in the Ancient World, as anyone who has picked up pretty much any literary source can tell you. Athens saw the birth of the world’s first democracy (albeit slightly off – no woman allowed and with some serious limitations on citizenship) (then again, Britain didn’t allow women to vote until 1918), but the principle is the important thing. After all, don’t we go to war in the name of democracy? The ancient Athenians did exactly the same thing. They even went so far as to turn the idea into a goddess, it was that important to them. The ancient’s take on politics was fundamentally their inquisition into what was the best way to live their lives, and to manage their societies. We may (at least think that we) have found the best solution, a modern democracy, but it was only through experience, which the Greeks started investigating. If they had never decided to give to the people (demos), power (kratia), who knows what our politics would be like today.
A very simple thing which many people forget is that the ancient people were people too, just like us. They were only born 2000 years earlier. Their take on everything to do with life is most interesting when put in comparison to ours, comparing both the similarities and differences, and what this tells us about human nature. How has it changed since the times of antiquity? Does it even change at all? The issues are still very prevalent today, and looking back at what the ancient’s thought can give insights into what we should do now. What can be learnt about the nature of power from the final turbulent years of the Roman Republic and the rise of Caesar? Should we fear death? What is the best way to run a hypothetical society? What is the best way to live our fleeting lives on this Earth? Should we just ‘carpe diem’, or strive to be exemplars of moral virtue? Does morality even exist, or is it a construct invented as a result of law to keep the people in order? All these questions that humans have grappled with over time are incredibly important things to consider now, as these issues are timeless. This is why Classics matters.
Article written by “Rook”