Weekend Reading: Self-Reflective Classics

It’s been a high-profile week for people in Classics, and for the discipline as a whole. There have been articles about Classics in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and today a response from Mary Beard in the TLS. All three engage, in different ways, with the nature of Classics, the definitions of Classics and questions around belonging in Classics.

The big current concern has race and racism at its root. It has become very obvious recently that some highly racist groups are drawn to Classics, both as a discipline with a history of elitism and as a subject seen as underpinning exclusionary ideals of Western Civilisation, and the articles are being prompted by this. But the concerns run much deeper.

As Mary Beard points out, questioning the composition and the mission of ‘Classics’ as a subject area is nothing new.

What is perhaps new is the urgency people are feeling about the need to address the racism issues.

As far as I can tell from the Discourse which has been raging online all week, nobody really disputes that there is a history of exclusion in the discipline of Classics, nor that that has shaped the scholarship and the assumptions which have developed over the last few centuries. The exclusion of women from the field – and the implications of that for what we study and how we study – began to be addressed several decades ago (although I think many people would agree that there’s still a long way to go); but racial exclusion and its impact has started to be considered only comparatively recently. It’s good to see that just about everybody agrees that there is work to be done, and that it’s important work (on that note, there’s a new website for the CUCD Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee which has my name on it!).

Many university departments are actively engaged in pushing back against the whiteness of Classics, of course. There’s a lot of pressure from all sides at the moment to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, and academics are coming up with all sorts of innovative ways to do this. I admit to being rather envious, in some ways, of students who are just starting out in Classics, because these decolonisation efforts are opening up the subject brilliantly, by incorporating the study of other ancient civilisations in an effort to decentre Ancient Greece and Rome. I think that’s exciting, and will ultimately produce scholars who have a much wider view of the ancient world.

However, the big debate this week is over ‘burning it down’, and there are passionate arguments on both sides. Some say that the study of Classics is a tool that can be used to highlight and address racial inequalities. In other words, we should deal with the problem from within: keep on doing what we’re doing, only more critically, and try to make Classics an agent for change. Others urge a more sweeping approach, raising the possibility that we may need to destroy Classics as a discipline entirely in order to build a field of study which is untainted by centuries of social and racial bias.

If you’re interested in these debates you should read these three articles, which showcase a few very different views and experiences. The response to them online has been, as you can imagine, strong and at time divisive, with people taking sides, particularly on the question of whether or not this is a peculiarly American problem. There’s also been a lot of debate (rightly or wrongly) about names and labels, and whether just calling the discipline something other than ‘Classics’ (‘Ancient World Studies’, perhaps…?) would make a difference.

Saving Classics from Whiteness – The New York Times Magazine

What is ‘Classics’? – A Don’s Life

Don’t yield Classics to the alt-right – The Washington Post

I don’t have the slightest intention, myself, of arguing for or against specific actions here: I prefer to keep my opinions to myself while I’m still thinking my way through a problem, and this one requires a lot of thought! Besides, I’m just a teacher at a desk in the North of England, currently wearing fluffy slippers and drinking tea out of a Temple of Heracles mug, and (thankfully!) neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post are beating down my door to ask about my views. So right now I’m content to read, and think, and share links with people – and I hope you find them helpful.

Finally this week… you might enjoy this short video that’s been produced in collaboration with various societies, as a way of explaining the possible career benefits of studying Classics. I would just like to add that studying Classics can – if you’re very lucky – result in you sitting at a desk in the North of England, wearing fluffy slippers and drinking tea out of a Temple of Heracles mug.

This week from around the Classics Internet


Excavating beach at Herculaneum – The Telegraph

New discovery in Alexandria – Daily News Egypt

The Torlonia Marbles exhibition opens – Apollo Magazine

Comment and opinion

Thumbs up/down gestures – Bad Ancient

The Classical roots of white supremacy – Learning for Justice

Showers of gold – Blogging Ancient Epigram

Roman Gardens: Annalisa Marzano – Classical Fix

(There’s also been some discussion about this book review from BMCR , which notably glosses over the issue of provenance in relation to looted papyri and the illicit purchase of Sappho fragments. )

Podcasts, video and other media

Greek and Roman Medicine – You’re Dead To Me

Ranting about Pompeii – Ancient Geek

The Partial Recap: the 460s BCE – The Partial Historians

Old Testament Warriors – The Ancients

Streaming a performance of ‘Phaedra’ – ABC7 News

 BSA Annual Open Lectures – Archaeology Wiki

Place: A Discussion – The Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion

And just in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the programme for this year’s Classical Association Conference, which will be online and free to all. I’m delighted, because I’ve never been able to attend before!

Classical Association Conference 6-8 April 2021

With global conditions too uncertain to plan for the CA’s usual conference at a UK university this year, CA2021 will be held as a free online event.  Sessions will focus on key issues facing classicists, including inclusivity, outreach and employability.  For details of the panels, presenters and timings, please see below. 

The event will include the Presidential Address by acclaimed Welsh author and classicist Mari Williams and the presentation of the CA Outreach Prize and our new Teaching Awards by broadcaster, classicist and comedian Natalie Haynes.  There is also a theatre night, featuring brand new material from three theatre companies and discussion by practitioners of the challenges and opportunities of performing classically inspired material online. 

Registration is free via the CA website here.  Once you have registered, you will be provided with links to all the sessions and can choose to attend all or any. 
Enquiries to the conference team at: CA2021@classicalassociation.org 

Tuesday 6 April

11am – 12.30pm

Inclusive Classics and Pedagogy: Teachers, Academics and Students in Conversation (A follow up to the Towards a More Inclusive Classics Workshop held 25-26 June 2020)

Dr Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis and Professor Barbara Goff 

2.00pm – 3.30pm

Accessing Classical Civilisation and Ancient History in Britain, Past and Present Perspectives (under the auspices of ACE)   

Professor Edith Hall, Dr Henry Stead, Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson and Peter Wright  

Wednesday 7 April

2:00pm – 2.45pm

Presidential Address by Mari Williams, winner of the Daniel Owen Memorial Prize at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 2018, for her novel Ysbryd yr Oes (‘Spirit of the Age’)

2.45pm – 3.30pm

Presentation of the CA Outreach Prize and the inaugural CA Teaching Awards by Natalie Haynes 

7.00pm – 8.30pm

Greek Theatre Online: An evening of classics-inspired theatre, featuring new material from three UK-based theatre groups, Out of ChaosBarefaced Greek and By Jove, followed by a Q&A chaired by Professor James Robson 

Thursday 8 April 

11am – 12 noon

Developing Classics in the Local Community: CA Branches in 2021 

Katrina Kelly (Chair of Lytham St Annes CA) and colleagues from around the regions 

2.00pm – 3.30pm

Classics in the Marketplace: Being a Classicist in Public 

Dr Liz Gloyn, Dr Jane Draycott, Dr Mai Musié and Professor Neville Morley 

2 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Self-Reflective Classics

  1. Thank you for the three links on the ‘Classics’ debate, I found them thought provoking and, although I am itching to write a few words on my ‘take’, like you, I prefer to keep my own council while I formulate my own thoughts which can take some time. It has taken me over ten years to change my stance on the Elgin Marbles!


    1. Topically Mary Beard Tweeted this only this morning:
      Lecture I did in Edinburgh,2 yrs ago, on Whiteness in Classics (for gen audience) is published in Spanish today bit.ly/2O3Q0Ze in Argentinian paper,Clarin. No English print version but video here bit.ly/39ThedC (starting with the old RomanBritain row,I warn you)

      Liked by 1 person

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