What is Classics?

Some say Greek and Latin, some say the apparatus criticus,
others praise the Latin introduction as the most elegant
prose on the dark earth, but I say it is whatever approach to antiquity
 you love the best. ( Maximus Sapphicus frag. 3 West)

Recently on the Society for Classical Studies Facebook page (20 Feb, 2019), which shared an important post by Dimitri Nakassis, it was revealed once again that some believe that the field called (annoyingly, but apparently unavoidably) Classics is defined by Latin and Greek. The following quotation is an example:

If you’re not proficient in both Latin and Ancient Greek then you are not a “Classicist”. End of. You can still be a good archaeologist — a good classical archaeologist, indeed — without Latin or Greek, but you won’t ever be a “Classicist”.

This idea gets repeated (languages = Classics), often in apocalyptic tones, warning of the impending collapse of the civilized order if the centrality of Greek and Latin are challenged (e.g. article published today in an unnamed and unlinked ideologically reactionary magazine). Language teaching in the US and elsewhere has been struggling for decades, often because of structural changes in education, but that is not the story Ι am after. Because I am a philologist, I’m hunting my typical game: words!

It will come as a surprise to absolutely no one who has tried to explain Classics to non-specialists that the term “Classics” does not have a stable meaning; it is a label whose referents shift. Nevertheless, you will not have to look far to find people willing, eager even, to make authoritative pronouncements about its obvious and eternal meaning.

A competing conception of Classics, which I strongly advocate for, was articulated by Dimitri himself in the same Facebook post. The following is an excerpt:

it’s a mistake to define the discipline in exclusive ways …I’d rather focus on a future for Classics that isn’t predicated on specific core competencies or the mastery of specific sets of knowledge, but is rather based on shared interests and approaches, and a sense of a shared mission.

It appeals to me because it is inclusive enough to encompass Classical Philology, Classical Archeology, Classical History, Classical Philosophy, Classical Art History, etc. The immediate reason for Dimitri’s post is Latin and Greek in the educational priorities of Archaeology training. The issue goes deeper, however, and affects the whole field fundamentally. It is also difficult because it involves powerfully entrenched disciplinary hierarchies as well as deeply held professional identities (and, in some cases, animosities). I’ll state my underlying claim concretely: knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages should not define Classics as a field. The degree to which this claim seems apocalyptic to you probably has a lot to do with your disciplinary commitments and educational background.

For anyone still reading, let me say that in my view knowledge of Greek and Latin define Classical Philology. It is unfortunate that a narrow conception of philology defines the whole field. My desire to fight this narrow conception does not stem from my hatred of the languages (I love languages!). I have for years worked on the assumption that what binds the whole field together is not the classical languages but the desire to understand the ancient Mediterranean, by whatever tools are best suited to the particular questions asked.

My previous attempts to articulate this have not, I admit, met with success, whether in 2007, when I first tried, or just a few weeks ago. Fortunately, the usual reaction is simply to dismiss me as unserious or out of touch. Fair enough, I have never held a tenure-track job and am a marginal member of the field (#adjunct-life). Yet I think that disciplinary disputes can be productive, especially if they can be set into larger contexts. Two such contexts are what I want to provide here. This post will be rather long and with a footnote (gasp!)* because explaining my view requires at least two stories, one starting from a moment in the field’s history and one that is autobiographical.


I will start in the most obvious way possible for a Classics story: Once upon a time, Wilamowitz.

Philology (which still gets the adjective “classical” even if it no longer claims the superiority the designation implies) is defined by its subject matter: Graeco-Roman civilization (Kultur) in its essence and in every facet of its existence. This civilization (Kultur) is a unity, though we are unable to state precisely when it began and ended; and the task of scholarship is to bring that dead world to life by the power of science. (…) Because the life we strive to fathom is a single whole, our science too is a single whole. Its division into the separate disciplines of language and literature, archaeology, ancient history, epigraphy, numismatics and, latterly, papyrology can be justified only as a concession to the limitations fo human capacity and must not be allowed to stifle awareness of the whole, even in the specialist. (Translation from Allan Harris 1982, adapted rather heavily in the opening)

This passage, from the opening of the Geschichte der Philologie is fascinating for so many reasons. I want to stress here that Wilamowitz defines the field by shared interests and approaches, a sense of a shared mission. I like to imagine that if I suggested this definition of “philology” anonymously on Famae Volent, it would be roundly mocked. Obviously, Wilamowitz’s use of the word “philology” looks like what we might call a historically based Kulturwissenschaft in the widest possible sense. Something of the breadth of his idea can be found is a passage written 30 years earlier:

“The particle ἄν and the teleology of Aristotle, the sacred caves of Apollo and the idol Besas, the poetry of Sappho and the sermon of St. Thecla, Pindar’s meter and the weights and measures of Pompeii, the grimaces on the Diplyon vase and the baths of Caracalla, the official documents of the Abderan magistrates and the acts of the divine Augustus, the conic sections of Apollonius and the astrology of Petosiris: all of it, every bit, belong to Philology. This is because it belongs to the object that it tries to understand and not one of them can be left out.”
Wilamowitz does not approve of the classical

Although much of Wilamowitz work was philological-historical in the modern sense, he clearly had a strong respect for archaeology, if the dedication to A. Furtwänger in his Pindar book is any indication. Yes, Wilamowitz remarks, it is important to read scholiasts in the quiet of the library and to read poetry aloud (otherwise metrics is just measurement), but “archaeology has the lead. I want to thank Archaeology by dedicating this book to the memory of A. Furtwängler, in whom archeology lived most powerfully. We scarcely knew each other but were always in friendly contact, and with increasing admiration and increasing understanding I always learned from him.”

So I see a continuity between what Dimitri outlines and what Wilamowitz says about the nature of the field. And both occur in moments of change. Wilamowitz was writing as the Altertumswissenschaft approach was being replaced, in no small part by the man who held his chair, Werner Jaeger. Jaeger reveals this in his assessment of his predecessor: “In his heart, two spirits constantly wrestle with each other: the spirit of the historian, who wants only to know the reality of the past and the spirit of the humanist and philologist, who worships and proclaims what was great and eternal”. So Wilamowitz was a classicist whose heart was divided between a desire for a neutral historicizing approach and whatever the hell we call that “worshiping” stuff.

Albert Henrichs, on the other hand, considers Wilamowitz’ idea illusory, particularly the idea that antiquity is a unity. Furthermore, it is aspirational, I think, to imagine that any one person could be aware of the whole; we are all specialists in this broad conception. But before we reject it, we should think about what would take its place. Does the idea, current today, that a “general classicist” is defined by knowledge of Greek and Latin, really serve the whole field well?

One more thing on Wilamowitz’s text: the title. Wilamowitz was criticized for leaving the adjective “classical” off his title and his first sentence explains in part why he did so. I had to modify in the translation to make the point clear, because the English translation, which first appeared 60 years after the original in 1982, the title was translated as History of Classical Scholarship. There is a good reason for it: as Lloyd-Jones points out, the word philology is not used today as Wilamowitz used it. But like classics, the term “philology” has not been stable (a relatively recent history is this book by James Turner). There is no small irony, however, in the return of the classical in the English translation (the Italian translation also returned the classical, it was titled storia della filologia classica (Torino, 1967).

The irony is that Wilamowitz rejected “classical” explicitly: he wrote to Schadewalt: “I could never do anything with the word “classical” (I abhor that word) and so I don’t expect that others can do anything with it.” Irony and a remarkable symmetry, then, with the change of the name of the American Philological Association to the Society for Classical Studies. The idea of philology as the core of Classics did not change with the name, since for many, Classical Studies simply is Classical Philology. For the record, I did not vote for the name change, despite agreeing that Philology as currently understood did not define the field (though Philology as Wilamowitz defined it comes a lot closer, which I made the mistake of pointing out at the time). Classical Studies as a name would not, I reasoned, change anything and would raise its own new problems. Here I wish I had a solution to the problem of the classical. I don’t.


NOW for a confession: when I was in school, I only cared about languages and literature. An accomplished Greek historian once told me that he waited a long time before visiting Greece, believing there would not be much value in it for him. After he went, he realized he was completely wrong. Equally influential was the Latinist who spoke about the places mentioned in Latin poetry with the familiarity of a long time resident. I wanted that same sense of place to inform my reading, but my family and financial situation made it impossible for me to visit the Mediterranean until the last year of graduate school.

A friend from our archaeology school suggested to me that we develop a course, modeled on the Centro’s City Course, that we would teach together, her as a material culture specialist and me bringing philological tools. I ended up being more of a student than a help, I’m afraid. But she taught me so much about material culture that it would be fair to say that the years we spent teaching together were the most formative experience for the way I teach classics and conceptualize the field. It wasn’t just that I needed a sense of place; I had failed to learn from a vast and rich part of my field. In short, I was a crappy classicist.

I am still trying to improve — more than a decade after my Ph.D., I participated in the ASCSA summer school. Again, I learned so much, collected a huge bibliography, and discovered how much more I need to learn in Greece. I’ll be back to Greece this summer (say hi if you are at ouzo hour at the American School!), working on an idea I had during one of our Agora visits.

Although the awareness of the whole field is not possible for most of us, I would propose a more modest goal. To be a classicist, whatever your tools of research, means being able to talk to other classicists about your work. Here I can only say that, although the inverse does not seem to be true, classical archaeologists and art historians have been uniformly welcoming to me, a philologist. For example, a few years ago I asked a colleague who runs a dig in Greece if he would let me and my partner visit for a week and work with his team, in whatever capacity would do the least harm. He welcomed us warmly. Another colleague, the wonderful Barbara Tsakirgis, whom I miss terribly, took time off from her work to take us around the Agora to show us her work on greek houses. Just two examples.

These experiences have convinced me of at least two things: (1) teaching on-site best focuses on material culture and integrates the contemporary context. I will not take students to ancient sites just to read literary texts at them. (2) classics as a field is defined by its interest in the ancient Mediterranean world.

I know that my research is in libraries, focusing on texts; but as a field, classics is found in the trench, in the archives, in museums, drinking ouzo in the summer twilight of Athens. If our goal is anything like what Wilamowitz envisioned, bringing to life the ancient world of the Mediterranean, then it will have to be a collective endeavor, where many classists use every tool at their disposal to contribute to that knowledge.

  • NOTE: My references and material cited in this post come from Albert Henrich’s informative Afterward to the Teubner reprint of 1998, the English translation by Harris with the introduction by Lloyd-Jones of 1982, and with help from Momigliano’s essay “New Paths of Classicism in the 19C”.

Postscript: I can’t show a picture of Wilamowitz without a picture of his father-in-law.

Mommsen is not impressed by your productivity