On a Grecian yearn

December 3, 1999

In the first of an occasional series on the future of degree subjects, James Davidson says classics is enjoying a golden age of research - into sexuality, the body, food and even dance...

A couple of days ago, a review by the Cambridge classicist Simon Goldhill of a book by John Landels on the subject of ancient music arrived in my email inbox; it came from the United States, sent free of charge by an institution that in the short history of electronic scholarship counts as very ancient, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review (bmcr), now in its tenth year, the world's second-oldest electronic journal in the humanities.

Classics has seized the opportunity presented by the internet with a relish that has been matched by few other arts disciplines. Now, still in your pyjamas, from the comfort of your screen, you can search a papyrus database for references to sharp-nosed fish, while an Austrian impersonation of Homer singing plays through your speakers.

One immediate effect is that students are much closer to original materials. A search for Athena on the website Perseus turns up no authoritative lemma, but 577 images of the goddess and hundreds of usefully headlined passages from Herodotus and elsewhere. Exhortations to be aware of the lacunae in a newish fragment of Semonides written to honour a victory over Persia in 479 BC become suddenly more effective when you can direct students to the actual tattered papyrus text.

What can be said for sure about the impact of all this electronic communication on the future of any discipline is that it will be far-reaching and not universally considered good. But whatever its shortcomings, the web is particularly suitable for collaborative projects, such as the translation of the giant Byzantine encyclopedia known as Suda, a doubly suitable project, since it was precisely through multi-handed glossing that Suda itself came to be. The online version of Suda's vilification of Lucian ("the blasphemer") includes the phrase "the total jerk!" and it does seem as if the internet's flippancy is rubbing off on the discipline.

The bmcr, however, is not noticeably more facetious than other journals. What is most interesting about it is that it does not really do anything that a printed edition could not do. There are occasional responses from objecting authors, and a few controversial publications get more than one review, but it has no graphics or fancy features and it makes no use of links. What separates it from its hard-copy rivals is its size, accessibility and speed.

One big question that remains unanswered is whether the internet will alleviate what many perceive as classics' embarrassing problem, the decline of Latin and Greek in schools. Currently there is a compromise. Lack of languages is no barrier to candidates for classics, but it is often a requirement that students at least make a start on learning the languages once they arrive at university. After that, departments go out of their way to enable those who wish to continue.

I am slightly less anxious about teaching undergraduates without Greek about ancient Greece than the rest of my colleagues. No one frets so noisily that students without German are learning about the Holocaust or the first world war. The intensity of distress about ancient languages goes beyond a proper appreciation of exactly what students at different levels are missing; it reflects, I suspect, the flipside of a tradition in which learning Greek and Latin was presented as an exemplary feat. My father failed to get into Cambridge in the 1950s because his Latin was not up to scratch. He wanted to be an engineer.

What is depressing is not that people are no longer forced to study classics at school, but that so many who would dearly love to will never get the chance. At Birkbeck College, London, where applications to study the ancient world have been rocketing, students tell the same story. It is not that they have been suddenly attracted to antiquity by the discipline's discreet PR, but rather that a desire to study ancient civilisation, frustrated for years, is finally possible.

Where it is available, the study of the ancient world can thrive. More than 30 of us voluntarily chose to do Greek to O level at The Manchester Grammar School in 1979. The two of us who are still doing Greek were there because of our performance in the 11-plus. Eton has more students choosing to study Latin to A level than it has had for years. I do not spend too much time, however, being frustrated at what I cannot demonstrate of the flavour and rhythms of ancient languages to students who did not go to public schools; I am too busy teaching what I can. I am confident that my students will learn more about the ancient world, albeit often in less detail, than I, for all my feats of translating Times editorials into passable Latin, ever did.

This is not to denigrate my tutors nor to repudiate the privileges of my education. In many cases the basic work - on sexuality, say, or religion, art, the body or food, or, more specifically, the place of each of these in the context of ancient history and culture - simply had not been done. Now it seems very much in progress, and it is because of this general movement of contextualisation that I can say that classics is enjoying a golden age. I am vulnerable to anxiety about some excesses of theory, that the cleverest classicists sometimes squander their cleverness on work that is merely clever, and I think that the combination of epistemic relativism and inadequate data has in classics led occasionally to the fallacy that discourse is somehow an excellent substitute for fact.

But there has proved to be plenty of common ground and plenty of work being built on it that manages to be imaginative and well-founded. Moreover, it seems ungenerous not to acknowledge that this great work of contextualisation is thanks to the structuralist and poststructuralist French. Michel Foucault's contribution to contextualism is perhaps obvious, but it was not always predictable that the intractable Jacques Lacan would help to rescue ancient sculpture from art history and deliver it to the history of culture as a whole. And that brings me back to that reviewI When I opened my email I found Goldhill commending the great advances that have recently been made in the study of ancient music, but suggesting that future work will be devoted to putting music back into its cultural, social and political environment.

A recent conference on music organised by my former colleagues, Penny Murray and Peter Wilson at Warwick University, Goldhill suggested, shows the way. It was a very old-fashioned gathering, a small group of specialists from around the world, reading out papers, handing out handoutsI technology was not much in evidence. But it was an extraordinary experience to witness new areas being opened up to cultural history before your very eyes, and to dream of setting essays for students on Pindar and pilgrimage or democracy and the New Music, even, before too long, on dance.

Vast other territories are already presenting themselves: the social meaning of dress, the politics of prose style, the somatic codes of standing up and sitting down. Moreover, this great cultural historical enterprise is only part of the story. Study of the reception of the ancient world is also thriving: collecting, museology, neo-classicism, film. Enemies of classics sometimes suggest that having been for so long in so advantageous a position, we should just about be wrapping up the study of the ancient world. I feel, instead, that we are at the start, not the end of something.

There are still plenty of excellent young scholars around, but there will not, inevitably, be a sufficient supply in the future. Classics used to draw its scholars from massive enrolments in compulsory Latin, in the future they are more likely to emerge from massive but voluntary enrolments in classical studies. It is terrible to have to tell brilliant and enthusiastic students that they cannot continue their study of the ancient world unless they sacrifice a few years in their early twenties (or early thirties or late fifties), and it would be a shame if the future of the discipline continued to depend so much on the good work of dedicated teachers in expensive schools.

I do not mourn the fact that classics has been knocked off its pedestal, and I do not begrudge the encouragement given by the government to modern languages and sciences. I only hope that whatever education secretary David Blunkett requires teachers to do with the time I spent learning about Caecilius and principal parts, it is as enriching and important and useful.

For further information see:

* www.perseus.csad.ox.ac.uk/

* ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1999/1999-11-06.html

* www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Classics/syllabi.html James Davidson is anniversary reader in ancient history, Birkbeck College, London.

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