“Classics in Conversation” is a 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.
9. Does the discipline need greater globalisation, and should it do more to centre the Middle East and North Africa? Should we de-centre Greece and Rome entirely?
This is something which should definitely be addressed; many of the problems Classics faces, such as the inherent racism within the field, are exacerbated by the intense focus on Greece and Rome (and false assumptions concerning the diversity of these civilisations), without always considering that these were not isolated communities. For example, the ancient Middle East is often relegated to the archaeology department; as an undergraduate, it wasn’t until I took a Comparative Literature course that I was introduced to texts such as the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Kumarbi Cycle. Both are extremely relevant to an understanding of Greco-Roman myth, but beyond that fascinating to study within their own right. The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer are all too often regarded as the first great works of literature, but Gilgamesh was composed some thousands of years before them, and addresses many similar themes such as human mortality, friendship, and memory. Knowledge of each text aids our understanding of the development of ancient civilisations as a whole, the links between them and the shared concerns of humanity throughout history. Rather than jeopardizing it, a wider view of the ancient world would instead improve our understanding of ancient Greece and Rome, and their roles within it.
– Hazel Atkinson, MSc (Taught) History, University of Edinburgh (2021)
This question perhaps harks back to the first one posed by “Classics in Conversation” and the naming of the discipline itself. Classics, etymologically speaking, is understood to refer strictly to the study of Greece and Rome and, more specifically, their literature and languages. Of course, the Graeco-Roman world did not exist in a vacuum and neither civilisation was without contact with other territories. However, even within Classical Studies or the much broader Ancient History labels, other ancient peoples are often presented in terms of their relationship to Greece and Rome, as opposed to being the centre of their own histories. At best, this approach fails to fully engage students with the nuances of other civilisations; at worst, it perpetrates a Hellenocentric worldview which fails to acknowledge the role they had in influencing the Classical world. However, expanding the discipline is not without its own complexities. Do we attempt to shoehorn in a global ancient history which risks failing to offer in depth study of any civilisation? Or do we continue to separate Classics from Middle Eastern or African studies, but do more to acknowledge the contact between them? Perhaps the latter approach is the most pedagogically viable but one we, as students of the discipline, must be aware of. Whilst Classics may, quite rightly, continue to focus its attention on Greece and Rome, greater globalisation is no bad thing and equipping students with the tools to expand their research if they choose should also be encouraged.
– Tristan Craig, 2nd year MA (Hons) Ancient and Medieval History
I’m not sure the Classics curriculum itself needs greater globalization. But those of us who study Classics definitely need to do a better job of connecting and vocalizing its relationship to other cultures. The emphasis on Greece and Rome is technically what separates our discipline from general history and is often the justification for having separate departments. The language requirement for the discipline could probably expand to include biblical Hebrew or Akkadian, for example, to allow for a wider geographical and cultural area of emphasis. But what would we consider African studies or ancient Near-Eastern studies if languages central to those disciplines also became Classics requirements? Rather than blurring the lines further between already highly interdisciplinary disciplines, why not encourage focusing on the Classical world’s foreign relations with Egypt or Africa instead? Approaching the development of other regions through foreign relations could help draw parallels between the ancient civilizations. I think there is definitely a way to approach the traditional material from a more critical and global standpoint that doesn’t support Greco-Roman exceptionalism. I’m very open to shifting the field away from being too Eurocentric to the detriment of ourselves and other ancient cultures, and am eager to find ways to do it without sacrificing what makes our field unique.
– Lexie Henning, BA Classical Studies, University of Missouri (2018)
10. “What do you do with a BA in Classics?” What do you think the future holds for prospective Classics students, and why is the discipline worth saving?
You can do absolutely anything with a BA in Classics. Law students often double major in Classics due to the use of Latin in legal terminology. Classics is the chameleon of majors that sees students become architects, transportation engineers, writers, doctors, politicians, and game developers. Famous Classicists include Dr. Anthony Fauci, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Classics is often overlooked because it excels when blending into other disciplines. On another profitable side of humanities applications, the ever expanding, multi-billion-dollar video games industry, employs humanities majors, including Classicists. Ubisoft’s popular Assassin’s Creed franchise employed a team of dedicated historians to create their highly successful Discovery Tour mode. The current line of thinking is that humanities programs aren’t as valuable or profitable for long term growth and innovation. But while STEM fields produce individuals with specialized skillsets, but our discipline is worth saving because I believe critical thinking, good writing, and communication skills are much more important. After graduating from university, I was earned a job because my interviewer was so impressed that I could hold an intelligent conversation rather than talk about my ability to do any one task. STEM and Classics are interconnected, and going forward, we need people to study both to have an intellectually healthier and more innovative future.
– Lexie Henning
I think it’s very easy to say: ‘oh well, a Classics degree provides students with transferable skills – analysis, critical thinking, versatility etc’, in much the same way that a degree in any arts subject is often discussed. This is all true, but it still doesn’t capture the uniqueness of a discipline which is so broad that it can provide the opportunity to become proficient in the intersectional study of languages, of literature, or of multiple historical areas ranging from political history to the history of gender and sexuality. If the issues the field is currently facing are tackled effectively, then it can also equip students to confront the appropriation of Classical imagery and false-narratives by far-right groups, and work to tackle racism and inequality within and without the field. Classics students can go on to work in a countless range of jobs, but the creativity that studying what is, essentially, stories (whether history or myth) inspires is an invaluable asset to anyone. I think that the discipline is certainly worth saving, albeit in an altered and more inclusive form (as ‘Ancient History’ perhaps?), because of the greater empathy and understanding of human nature throughout our history that it can evoke. A BA in Classics has the power to alter its student’s futures not just in terms of prospective careers, but in how they move through and interact with the world.
– Hazel Atkinson
As a student who was encouraged to study STEM subjects at high school, with very little interest in pursuing a career in any related field, it does sadden me that there is a continued concern amongst young learners that they ought to enter a discipline which society deems to have viable career prospects. A quick online search reveals that the Humanities are often ranked amongst the worst degrees to hold, with the Sciences consistently ranking highly. It may not come as much of a surprise, and the controversies surrounding Classics – including the “dead white men” narrative and appropriation of Graeco-Roman culture by fascist groups – continue to pervade it, at least in the media. But let us offer a different perspective: in 2019 (pre-pandemic), the most visited tourist attraction in the UK was the British Museum, with the National Museum of Scotland ranking first in Scotland. The public continue to flock to places where they can encounter the near and ancient past, and where would these institutions be without the historians, curators and conversations that preserve them? Without the interest of new generations of Classicists and ancient historians, how would we ensure that the Colosseum and Parthenon are still standing for centuries to come? These examples focus on the most obvious career paths for anyone pursuing study in this field, but there are many alternative routes to take – directly related or otherwise. Yes, there are many transferable skills to gain from any number of degree choices, but there is no harm in studying the ancient world for the sheer wonder it evokes in many like myself.
– Tristan Craig
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).