What would Herodotus say? (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

February 25, 2021   5 mins

Classics was already having a bad month when Sir Antony Gormley intervened. After building a career on erecting casts of his naked body around the globe, the artist decided to rail against the British Museum and its “obsession with the classical world”. To those familiar with Gormley’s work and its visual debt to the antique — one that was recently explored through its display among the ancient Greek ruins of Delos — his disapproval felt particularly rich.

But it was also rather timely; in the past weeks, Classics has endured quite a hammering. At the beginning of the month, Dan-el Padilla Peralta — a Dominican-born, New York-raised professor of Classics at Princeton — gave an explosive interview to the New York Times Magazine in which he expressed his desire to do away with “Classics” as a term and “explode the canon”, on the basis of it being appropriated by xenophobes and white-supremacists. For Padilla, it’s an endemic problem: “The production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of Classics.”

What does this mean in practice? For Walter Scheidel, a professor of Classics at Stanford University who was also interviewed for the NYTM piece, we should simply get “get rid of” Classics altogether: “I don’t think it should exist as an academic field”. Which may seem like an odd thing for a Classicist to say, but it’s a view that’s becoming increasingly widespread, and even institutionalised. Already, some departments in the US have embedded Classics within courses such as “Ancient Mediterranean Studies”. (Such rethinks are, of course, unlikely to be a universal solution; Gormley, for one, is particularly upset about the British Museum’s supposed fixation with the Mediterranean.)

Tensions over the value and ethics of studying Classics have been simmering for some years. Indeed, it is hard to think of another subject that has required its devotees to defend their field of study with such frequency. We’re told that it’s the study of useless “dead languages”; that it’s the preserve of public schoolboys, such as our Pericles-loving Prime Minister; even worse, that it needs to burn because it’s an inspiration for far-Right extremists in the US.

The latest battle over Classics is a culmination of all the above. The fact that it remains a relatively marginal and unstudied subject in the educational system has made it an easy target in today’s culture wars. It means, for example, that Classics can be dismissed as simply the “history of Greece and Rome” — even though North Africa, Asia Minor, Gaul, the Russian steppe and many other territories also form part of it.

This cognitive blindness is made all the more peculiar when you consider how broadminded and enquiring Herodotus, Tacitus and many ancient historians could be about their fellow citizens. Although they were mostly interested in questions of national identity, when they did write on matters such as skin colour, they tended to do so with more curiosity than judgement, attempting — albeit mostly without success — to explain difference through factors such as climate and geography.

This meant that for Herodotus, the Ethiopians were dark-skinned on account of their proximity to the sun, while the inhabitants of colder territories were paler as they were further away from it. For Tacitus, the climate of Germany was such as to render its people naturally resistant to cold and hunger. It’s all nonsense, of course. But as Padilla himself has conceded, the Greeks and Romans “would have not really understood our racial categories”. One could be a Roman regardless of where you originated or what you looked like.

More importantly, these sources constitute the classicist’s raw materials; they are what lie at the heart of Classics as a field. Why is it, then, that in the debate that is now raging over the future of the subject and its right to exist, they barely get a look in? One would have thought that the actual texts and archaeological finds used by classicists today would be the first things to be considered in any reappraisal of the subject.

Those who wish to banish Classics instead emphasise what has been done with these sources. They point to entitled Grand Tourists trundling over the ancient sites and pocketing things at will; to the likes of Winckelmann, the German art historian who idealised the whiteness of ancient statues despite the fact that they were once painted in bright hues; to the tendency of today’s far-Right to draw upon Classical imagery. Meanwhile, under the Third Reich the writings of Plato and others were mined and distorted so that they would appear to endorse Nazi eugenics.

But such a history of Classics, one which highlights only the ways the discipline has been used to incite racism and prejudice, is strikingly selective. Indeed, if the main argument against Classics resides, as it appears to, in its development as a discipline and reception in the modern world — more than in the ancient material itself — then the other side of this journey ought to be told, too. For example, it would be easier to refute claims of Classics’s Eurocentrism if attention were paid to things such the transmission of texts; if it wasn’t for the scholars of places such as Baghdad in the eighth and ninth centuries, who painstakingly translated and copied ancient manuscripts, the corpus of literature studied by classicists today would be considerably poorer.

More importantly, for every account of the abuse of classical material, there is another of inspiration. Take the growth in recent decades of “Classical Reception”, a relatively new field through which classicists engage with ancient material through the lens of more contemporary writers and artists. This specialism has helped to broaden the horizon of Classics by revealing some of the positive or at least enriching ways antiquity has permeated the modern world. The works of writers who have drawn legitimately and powerfully on ancient sources — whether it’s William Shakespeare, the St Lucian poet Derek Walcott or Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka – surely form a more meaningful aspect of the story of Classics than the misquotations extremists upload to online forum. Even Antony Gormley’s engagement with the classical tradition has inspired a number of academic papers in this area.

If anything, the abuse of Classics ought to be used as an argument for saving it. For the alternative, abandoning it, would be to hand it over to those very groups Padilla and others identify as ransacking it. The field does not deserve to be razed because of the way it has been tended in certain quarters. If a study of Classics teaches us anything, it is how much easier it is to knock down than rebuild. As the so-called Liberators of Rome discovered to their regret, assassinating Julius Caesar, rather than what came after, was the easy part. Demolish Classics — and then what?

No one is denying that aspects of the ancient world and its reception are ugly — this is true of all cultures and periods — but that is no reason to abandon Classics itself. There is no call to study the ancient material through the eyes of Nazis. The arguments of Winckelmann can be read to be disregarded. The so-called Classics of white supremacist organisations such as Identity Evropa can be disregarded — they do not deserve the airtime.

The current climate, in which individuals cherry-pick classical quotations to their own ends, ought to be a summons to the original sources that form the heart of Classics. They ought to provide the impetus to return to Classics’ roots, to read old texts anew with our own eyes, to look at art that crossed the globe knowing no borders, to read legitimate engagements with the classical past, to think for ourselves. As Heraclitus wrote: “our eyes are more accurate witnesses than our ears”. So let’s not be afraid of using them.

Daisy Dunn is a classicist and critic. Her latest book is In the Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny