"Classics": What is it, Who studies it, Why we do it?

 I was asked to give opening remarks for the evening General Assembly on Day 2 of the Ohio Junior Classical League convention on March 6, 2021. Here is the text. There are many links I could add, but since it was an oral presentation, there are no citations. Apologies!

Hello, everyone! I am Rebecca Futo Kennedy and I am a professor of ancient Greek and Roman studies at Denison University here in Ohio. I am pleased to have this opportunity to address you all today, especially since this is the THIRD attempt for me to do so--the first time, I came down with the flu and couldn’t be there in person, last year, the convention was, of course, cancelled due to COVID. So, third time seems to be the charm. 

I’ll start with a confession: I did not know what the Junior Classical League was until a few years ago. That is kind of amazing, if you think about it, since I got my PhD in 2003 and have been a professor since then. We didn’t have Latin or Greek in my high school. The only ancient Greek or Roman text I’d ever read until college was selections from Homer’s Odyssey. We didn’t have any Greek or Roman history at any stage. All my knowledge of myth and history came from films and TV. 

I was a first generation college student who took ancient Greek because I wanted to understand the history of the early Christian church and ancient Judaism. I became a “Classical Studies” major because I slept through a final exam in one of my required history courses and was too ashamed to ask the professor for a make up exam. I tell you this because the fact that I am zooming into you now as a tenured professor and published scholar is kind of amazing. Because one of the things I learned starting in graduate school was that "Classics" was not really for people like me. It wasn’t until grad school that I also realized that it didn’t seem to be for non-White people either. As I have moved along my career, these two statements seemed to be reaffirmed as more and more true. 

As some of you may be aware, “Classics” has been in the news a lot lately. The New York Times Magazine did an article on my colleague Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a strong voice for those of us in the discipline who re working to make it this thing we call “Classics” more inclusive of ethnically and economically diverse students and professionals as well as opening up what we mean when we say "Classics” so that what we study more accurately reflects what the ancient Greek and Roman worlds were like. 

So, in light of this, what I want to do today is provide a bit of a provocation, something for us to think with--whether we are students or teachers or family members of this thing we call “Classics”: 

I want us to consider three interconnected questions: What is “Classics”? Who is “Classics” for? Why do we study it? 


Image of Jewish grave marker from Rome. Text is Greek, includes images of menorah and shofar
Grave marker for Jewish woman named Faustina from Rome.

What is it: Some people think that "Classics” starts and ends with the study of the Greek and Latin languages. We learn the language so that we can read a few select canonical texts like Homer or tragedies and Virgil and Caesar--mostly literature from 5th century Athens and Late Republican and Augustan Rome. Some people recognize that there is a lot more out there that is worth reading, whether for fun or for understanding Greek and Roman culture. So, they expand the canon to include more--maybe some Plautus and Juvenal and Martial, too. Maybe some myth, often via Ovid and Homer. Some of us lean more towards history and so we assume Classics includes not just the languages and culture of Greece and Rome, but also social, political, and economic history. Some of us can’t depend on literary texts in ancient Greek or Latin to understand history or culture and look instead to material evidence-vases, sculptures, architecture, inscriptions, even bones. One of the things that becomes super clear as you learn more about the ancient Greeks and Romans is that “Classics” is a lot more than the languages and a few select texts. 

This thing we call Classics, in fact, is made up of rich and complex intertwined worlds that criss-cross the Mediterranean and interact with peoples well beyond that sea. Those people we call Greeks and Romans lived on three continents. They came in wide ranges of skin colors from the palest “white” to brown to the darkest “black”. We know this because they tell us and show us. And because speaking Greek and writing Greek and, at some stage even calling oneself Greek ceased to be about whether your ancestors  came originally from the cities of Athens or Sparta or Corinth, but about your cultural investments. Lucian, the great satirist was Syrian, even though he was also Greek. Herodotus came from a town settled by both Greeks and a local Asian people called the Carians. Greek philosophy was developed by Greeks living in the Persian empire, they borrowed many forms of mathematics and science from those in Babylon and Egypt. Many of our most important Greek documents come from Egypt and, though in Greek, were written by and record the lives of people who thought of themselves as Greek and Egyptian and Roman--all at the same time. Because they were--we often forget that!  

To be Roman was even less about being from a specific location in Europe (Italy) than being ‘Greek’ in antiquity was. Roman, by the middle of the 1st century BCE was a name given to a political group with citizenship, whether they came from Italy, from Greece, from north Africa, or Gaul. The freedperson also become a citizen no matter where they came from--and we know that the enslaved men and women who became Roman citizens this way came to Rome from as far away as modern Ukraine, Sudan, Ghana, India and more. 

Our 2019 Summer Class at Aegina, Greece. 

Who Can Study it? So, “Classics” for many of us, if it means the study of ancient Greeks and Romans and their languages, literature, history, art and archaeology, means the study of this whole vast world. In the past, however, and, in some ways even still, who can study it is limited--either by economic inequalities or, in the united states, by racial and ethnic boundaries that often (but not always) fall along economic lines. I mentioned that we didn’t have Latin in my high school. I went to school in San Diego. The schools there that were mostly White and wealthier had Latin. My school was over 50% Asian-Pacific Islander and had a lot of military families. We could take Spanish or French.

Because I didn’t have access to Latin in high school, it is likely that, if I applied to graduate school in Classics today, I would not get in. If I had tried even just to go to college before World War 2, I likely would have been rejected from most places because I didn’t have access to Latin. If it had been the 19th century, even if my school had Latin, I wouldn’t have gotten into college because I didn’t have ancient Greek. Being a woman, of course, would have made all this even harder. Being Black in America would have made it near impossible (though, in both cases, of course, there were exceptions--exceptions don’t erase the rule). 

These historical exclusions were intentional and meant to keep the study of Classics and access to college restricted to elite White men. The impacts of those exclusions are still with us in who we see studying and then teaching and researching Classics--it is still not unusual to enter a “Classics” conference, classroom, or other space and see only a handful of non-White students or teachers or even none. In some cases, who studies Classics is linked to what we consider Classics. if Classics is just the Latin and Greek languages and a small canon of texts, it limits who might find it interesting and who might be able to enter into Classics or feel welcome in our classes.  

Tomb of the metic ('immigrant') woman
Phanostrate. 4th c BCE Athens.
Why Study Classics
: But it goes somewhat deeper than this: it also is a matter of why we study Classics. And here, I want to introduce you all to the notion of "Critical ‘Classics” or, as some of my friends and colleagues call it “Critical Ancient World Studies.”

In the past in the United States (and in the UK and elsewhere), ancient Greece and Rome were presented to us in idealized form: the Roman Republic was the model for our constitution and the Founding Fathers promoted it as, and we still often assume that is was, an inherent good. Ancient Athens was the “first Democracy” and we call ourselves a democracy and are good and so Athens’ democracy must have been good. Both the Roman Republic and the Athenian democracy are often presented to us in textbooks and TV and films as the homes of values like “freedom” and “justice” and “equality”. We were told to study them because they are ideal models for our modern world and because our society is founded upon those ancient ones. 

But this is a rosy colored picture that does a disservice both to the realities of antiquity and to the realities of our relationship to them. Critical Classics is about not promoting antiquity as idealized models to underpin modern American exceptionalism, but instead, encourages us to look to the broader realities of that past (warts and all) and to the various ways that past has been used and has influenced our present--not because we are the “natural” heirs of ancient Greece and Rome, but because we chose to build some of our political and social (and scientific) assumptions and practices upon parts of antiquity we liked. 

Unfortunately, some of the most acclaimed and widely read ancient texts, like Aristotle’s Politics or Plato’s Republic or the writings of Hippocratic doctors, or Caesar’s Gallic Wars or, in some interpretations, Virgil’s Aeneid, were used to promote and justify enslavement, scientific racism, sexism, genocide, eugenics, economic class disparities, white supremacism. It is important for those of us who study and teach Classics to reckon with our past and the ends to which we have used the Greeks and Romans. Critical Classics--the stuff you see being represented in the popular press these days as “Cancelling Cicero”--actually  helps with that reckoning. 

But Critical classics isn’t just a negative thing that seeks to dismantle our past complicities and, in fact, isn’t about “Cancelling Cicero” at all. We just want to expand what “Classics” means to encompass more people and to be more than learning how to translate the Catilinarian speeches. In fact, Critical Classics is what helps us learn about all that rich and complex variety of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. It opens up new avenues of inquiry, new materials to enjoy and evidence upon which to help us understand the past. My research and teaching has for many years now focused on immigrant groups in ancient Athens and the broader Greek world. I track them using tombstones and then try to reconstruct their lives based on courtroom speeches and inscriptions. Their lives were often difficult and their treatment harsh, but they were real people and to get to know them even in the small ways our evidence allows feels like an honor to me.

I also teach and study how the ancient Greeks and Romans understood race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality by looking at how they talk about these things in texts spanning over 800 years and in images on vases, or in sculptural form, and other material arts. Because we take critical approaches to the past, the ancient world has become for me an endless pool of possibilities to learn about and understand the people we group together as Greeks and Romans. I don’t think of them as people to emulate or their ways of life a model for my own. But they are endlessly fascinating to me and reflecting on how they ordered their worlds help me be more cognizant and reflective on how we order our own. 

And so, I’d like to end today by provoking you to reflect upon what it means to really study the ancient world, why we do it, who can do it and what limitations we put on who, how, what, and why. Our world keeps changing. Classics should too. And I hope that you all will be that better future of Classics.

Thank you.