Features Interviews

Classics in Conversation

Pt. 2 of "Classics in Conversation" explores the extent to which young adult fiction can play a role in making the discpline more accessible, and whether it really is just the study of "dead white men".

“Classics in Conversation” is a new bi-weekly article series, in collaboration with the Classical Association of Scotland, exploring some of the most pertinent issues in the discipline today. We’ve invited current and graduate students to respond to topical questions relating to the study of the ancient world in the 21st century.


3. How can we make Classics more accessible to a wider audience; is young adult fiction the answer or a problem?

I am a staunch defender of historical fiction as a gateway to historical study, and I believe that, when done well, it can inspire great empathy and a better understanding of both the past and the present. I am well aware that my interest in early Imperial Rome is a direct product of books such as the Roman Mysteries series (Caroline Lawrence) or the works of Kate Quinn (Empress of Rome saga). In recent years, feminist ‘retellings’ of Classical myths have surged, with works emerging such as Circe (Madeleine Miller), Silence of the Girls (Pat Barker) and A Thousand Ships (Natalie Haynes) which, while not strictly ‘YA’ fiction, are certainly accessible and have proved popular with a younger generation. The Song of Achilles (Madeleine Miller), which I read in my teens, is still a firm favourite on teen book blogs. That said, clearly the contents of these books (or films, T.V shows, podcasts – however Classics is distributed within the ‘public’ realm) matter. There is frequently a tendency to both romance and white-wash the ancient world, neither of which provide a true reflection of historical reality, and which can perpetuate damaging ideas and stereotypes.

Hazel Atkinson, MSc (Taught) History, University of Edinburgh (2021)

To make Classics more accessible to a wider audience, we first have to recognize and eliminate some of the artificial barriers to entry. The biggest one being the language requirements. Requiring students to learn French and German in addition to Greek and Latin is, in my opinion, a very steep hill to ask them to climb. While the ability to read the ancient source material in its original language is a handy skill to have, it shouldn’t be essential to earning an undergraduate degree. The languages should be an optional choice for students. Students wishing to continue on to graduate programs will take the languages and those who are happy not continuing on should be able to earn the degree without the burden of needing high marks in heavily weighted language courses. The other great barrier is the accessibility of resources. Open access to books, scholarly journals, labs, and fieldwork opportunities is essential to fostering interest in the ancient disciplines. Access to media like fan fiction, films, blogs, etc. should be encouraged because engagement at any level through any medium is always welcomed. Non-scholarly source materials will primarily drive superficial engagement. Opening access to resources currently only available to scholars would go a long way to encouraging more people to enter the academic field. 

Lexie Henning, BA Classical Studies, University of Missouri (2018)

Accessibility for Classics as an academic subject can quite limited. For starters, it requires the knowledge of an ancient language, sometimes multiple, and in an ever budget-restricted education environment this is sure to destroy Classics programs. The University of Missouri recently rebranded their Classics department in 2019 to Ancient Mediterranean Studies; I am assuming this was to create a more inclusive and accepting environment of ancient history students. This might certainly be a step in the right direction for areas which may not have much access to Classical subjects. Additionally, Classics would need to be more readily available at the public education level. Increasing relevancy to students, create free quality education on crucial subjects like language, and make students aware of those learning opportunities would certainly help. As for implementing it into young adult fiction, it might be a good step, but the issue isn’t general knowledge over Classics rather the academic survival of Classics. Writing young adult fiction might cause more problems for academics of these students if the author leads people on with false, but dramatic storytelling. If an author carefully curates interesting, relevant, and accurate depictions of a Classical subject, theme, or story, then adult fiction might be an effective way to disseminate Classical appreciation.

Adam Aderman, 1st year PhD in History, Manchester Metropolitan University

Classics, as a field of study, has never been overly inviting. While in recent years the discipline has opened and expanded a bit, it is still hard to break through to it. One of the main ways classics has broken into the popular sphere is through the medium of young adult fiction. It is however neither the answer nor a problem to the accessibility of classics. Young adult fiction, like any media, is a tool that can be both beneficial and detrimental. I would be lying if I did not mention the Percy Jackson series as an early inspiration that sparked my interest in ancient history, but it is clear that those books are not always accurate to their source material. However, it is undoubtable that young adult fiction makes the literature and stories of classics much more accessible, even if the historian in me is uncomfortable when authors apply modern concepts to an ancient society or make up new gods to fit a narrative. In the end, young adult fiction works quite well in opening up the discipline of classics, although if a myth or historical figure were to catch one’s eye when reading fiction, I would implore them to try and find the classical telling, as sometimes it really is stranger and more exciting than fiction.

Luca Terry, 2nd year MA (Hons) History

Any medium that seeks to engage a new audience with ancient history is certainly one worth exploring. Whilst popular media has been guilty of presenting a problematic and highly westernised version of the past, often far removed from any historiographical foundations, it has also introduced many people to the Classical world. Young adult fiction has had a particularly important role in this since the nineteenth century and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 children’s book, A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys. The extent to which the Greek myths recounted by the narrator remain faithful to their origins is highly contentious, but the work was nonetheless significant in bringing the ancient world to a young audience. In more recent years, Rick Riordan has united Classical mythology and the fantasy genre through his Percy Jackson series, with great commercial success. However, perhaps the argument is less whether fictionalising the past for a young, impressionable audience is the issue, but rather how it can be done in a manner which caters less to a western taste and is sympathetic of ancient cultures beyond the idealised Graeco-Roman world it seemingly venerates. Removing barriers to study is an important first step in increasing accessibility, but the ‘gateway’ young adult fiction offers ought not to be disdained; instead, its ability to engage its audience with broader issues pervading Classics ought to be explored.

Tristan Craig, 2nd year MA (Hons) Ancient and Medieval History


4. Is Classics really just the study of “dead white men”? How can we reframe this narrative?

Classics is more than just “dead white men,” though the generalization of Classics seems to be that. Given the surviving evidence is largely from the upper echelons of society, modern people really only get a glimpse at what antiquity was like, and even that glimpse is a bit jaded. On the flip side, it does appear that within the last few decades, scholars have begun shifting focus on other categories of ancient peoples. The most immediate category that comes to mind is women in the ancient world, though slavery and childhood also come to mind. By looking at other categories of people, we can not only get a fuller picture of what life was like in antiquity from different perspectives, but also gain a more comprehensive understanding of ancient peoples’ cultures and social norms. Also, Classics is more than just the study of people. Classics encompasses languages, poetry, archaeology, numismatics, etc. A shift in focus from “dead white men” to “what ancient people left” can help reframe the Classical narrative. I would argue that many people are fascinated by the buildings (and ruins) left behind and nearly everyone has heard of some aspect of The Iliad or The Odyssey; these are just as much a part of Classics!

Adam Aderman

The “dead white men” designation awarded to Classics highlights the weight afforded to the elite male figures centred in the discipline. That Classics, by some contrast to Classical Studies or the more ambiguous Ancient History, gives such profound value to the literary sources penned by Graeco-Roman men, demonstrates how it has traditionally failed to bolster the voices of the underprivileged. Even within the associated disciplines, the central narrative that these works “underly western society” is incongruent with the complexities of ancient civilisations out with the Graeco-Roman sphere and their cultural impact on it. That is not to say these are works are not immensely important nor worthy of study, but that they should be acknowledged for how much they conceal and their subsequent association with dangerous contemporary movements, particularly amongst the far-right. However, scholars are beginning to take an active stance against this narrative (notably Donna Zuckerberg and her 2018 work, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age) and an increasingly interdisciplinary approach is being heralded by higher education institutions. Removing Homer and Virgil from the curriculum will achieve far less than acknowledging they are just one part in a heterogeneous ancient world.

Tristan Craig

The reputation of Classics as the study of dead white man is quite deserved. Not only are the majority of the writers of classical texts dead white men, but the field overall has historically been dominated by old white men. Due to the nature of the field of classics being moderately tied to the time of imperialism and empire, it is hard to escape the overdominance of upper-class white men. As much as some of our predecessors would object, this view of classics is both outdated and oppressively narrow-minded. In saying this, the way we interpret the past changes as our society does, and this has led to multiple new ways of examining old texts. While in my opinion, it has not gone quite far enough, and plenty of education is still grounded in the so-called great man theory of history, advances are being made to reexamine the outdated narrative of classics to more accurately represent the people of the ancient world. While many of our textual sources may come from dead white men, the ancient world obviously had people beyond that group, and by focusing only on these dead white men we can never hope to fully understand it. 

Luca Terry

Unlike most fields of study, Classics isn’t just a single subject like microbiology, finance, or sociology. It can be whatever the scholar chooses it to be, potentially encompassing multiple facets of Greek and Roman culture. While the most popular courses of study are primarily language, philosophy, archaeology, art history, and poetry, we have the freedom to study some of the more obscure subjects. Women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded and the narrative was almost always written by rich male aristocrats. The issue when studying ancient source material is that it’s inherently biased, so we are, sadly, a little hamstrung by the lack of diversity in ancient source material. Yet, we have the power to combat the perception that we only study the lives of the rich and powerful by actively choosing to study subjects that attempt to be more inclusive. By choosing to study the daily lives of Roman women or the Athenian eromenos/erastes relationship, you can quite literally transform the perception of studying “old white men” into the study of ancient women or ancient queer relationships. Only by giving voice to the voiceless, can we begin to build better narratives, gain a more comprehensive picture of the ancient world, and make our studies relevant and applicable to contemporary society.

Lexie Henning

Anyone studying Classics today is well aware that the discipline can (and should!) offer far more than the study of ‘dead white men’, but all too frequently it is the Julius Caesars and Alexander the Greats whose lives attract the most attention. We have ample evidence, from the famous Syrian soldier’s grave at South Shields, to the poetry of Sappho or Sempronia, of the diversity and movement within the ancient world. It is therefore testament to the entrenched racism within modern society and its perception of Classics, that whenever this is articulated, there is an ‘outraged’ backlash from sections of the general public. In some ways we can trace this prejudice back to the Ancients themselves. The Greek and Roman ‘othering’ of the Ancient Near East, for example, is reflected in the centring of Greece and Rome within most modern curriculums. 

Recent scholarship has begun to distance itself from the ‘great (white) men’ narrative, calling for a focus on those who have traditionally been marginalised, such as women, or the enslaved population whose labour held up entire societies. Perhaps more effective in terms of changing popular perception would be to address the ways in which the ancient world is portrayed in media – it is essential that we move away from the all-white casting which has hitherto been the norm. The racist responses to David Gyasi’s performance as Achilles in ‘Troy: Fall of a City’ (2018) is just one example which demonstrates the urgency of this.

Hazel Atkinson


Contributors

Adam Aderman is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University and graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MSc in Ancient History.

Hazel Atkinson is a MSc (Taught) History student at the University of Edinburgh. She is also a Columnist for Retrospect Journal and more of her work can be read here.

Tristan Craig (Twitter: @TristanMCraig) is a 2nd year MA (Hons) Ancient and Medieval History student at the University of Edinburgh and Deputy Editor/Secretary of Retrospect Journal.

Lexie Henning (Twitter: @lexie_henning / Instagram: @lexie_henning) graduated from the University of Missouri in 2018 with a BA in Classical Studies. Lexie founded The Ozymandias Project which aims to make Classics more accessible through a bi-monthly podcast and Archaeogaming events (Twitter: @TheOzymandiasP1 / Instagram: @theozymandiasprojectpodcast / Facebook: The Ozymandias Project).

Luca Terry is a 2nd year MA (Hons) History student at the University of Edinburgh.


Please note that the opinions shared in this article do not reflect the views of Retrospect Journal or the Classical Association of Scotland, and are the contributors own.

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