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Why I chose to study classics

The death of classics has been predicted for centuries—but the field is constantly reshaped, opened out, and rethought

Classics in the culture at large continues to find a ready audience: one thinks of the popularity of Madeline Miller’s novels, Mary Beard’s history books and television programmes, and Emily Wilson’s brilliant Odyssey translation. Image: Aeneas beim Festmahl der Dido, Gerard de Lairesse

In my final Classical Musing column, I wanted to try to set down what it is about classics that I find worthwhile. In my day job, I am a writer on the Guardian. Journalism is, by definition, about the events of the day, which rush past at a bewildering speed. The literature of the deep past offers a respite and, to an extent, an escape. This was certainly true on a personal level in the early months of the pandemic, when I was on leave, immersed in writing a book of retellings of stories from the Greek myths.  

Disappearing into the world of Arachne, Penelope and Medea offered a defence against the anxieties of the moment. But classics also offers a new perspective on the modern world; a different lens through which to see our own times. Encountering the literature of the past is a dynamic process. When we read, we cannot leave behind our contemporary baggage; we see ourselves reflected back in those old books. In turn, reading ancient texts can cast light on our own moment. You can understand a lot about power in the time of an epidemic by reading Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus; you can get an intriguing perspective on modern patriarchy by reading Aeschylus’s The Kindly Ones

I’m often asked why I chose to study classics. It was mostly because I fell in love with the stories. The world of Catullus and Euripides was so familiar and yet so thrillingly alien, so hard to decode. I have also come to realise, though, that it was also because I wanted to escape having to compete intellectually with my father and brothers, who were all gifted in the sciences. Honesty is required: I also liked classics partly because Latin and Greek sounded impressive, especially to my parents, neither of whom were from the kind of background where Greek epigrams ran in the veins. These days, I would put it in terms of cultural capital. Classics held lots of traditional cachet, and I wanted to partake of it. 

This cachet, of course, was unfairly bestowed. The discipline is currently beginning to face up to its historical role in shaping a damaging worldview that put the Graeco-Roman world at the centre of a rhetoric of white European and north American exceptionalism and superiority. But this history does not mean classics should be abandoned—or written off by the left, as it sometimes is, as “elitist”. (It’s always worth remembering that Karl Marx was a classicist, and that his PhD in Greek materialist philosophy palpably shaped his theories of historical materialism.) It means, rather, that classics should constantly be reshaped, opened out, rethought—and some really exciting scholarship in the field is doing exactly that. 

The death of classics has been predicted for centuries. It is indeed suffering setbacks. As I sat down to write this column, I heard that an attempt to reintroduce a route for trainee teachers to qualify in Latin in Scotland has been unsuccessful. This kind of knockback is being energetically fought by educators and organisations such as Advocating Classics Education. Classics in the culture at large continues to find a ready audience: one thinks of the popularity of Madeline Miller’s novels, Mary Beard’s history books and television programmes, and Emily Wilson’s brilliant Odyssey translation. Classics generates creativity—I think not just of writers and poets, but the work of artists such as Chris Ofili. People still want to think about and think with the classics. And I can promise you, it is absolutely worth it. 

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