“But the familiarity of bad academic writing raises a puzzle. Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?”
Why indeed? The question has attracted answers innumerable, illegible, and incontinent (including Pinker’s own, frankly), but I have been asking myself this recently, with especial consideration of our shared discipline. I am not going to venture my own answer here, but I did form two hypotheses:
That earlier academics were, on the whole, much better writers.
That Latinists would have better prose than Hellenists.
The first hypothesis – let us be honest – was hardly long on the odds, this seems to consistent across all the humanistic disciplines: I have recently been reading C. S Lewis’ The Discarded Image and it strikes me that few could write like this now about literature or history (Classical or Medieval) and retain their ivory capped curule seats. The bet on Latinists over Hellenists may seem odd, less sure, but I think my calculated risk taking here paid off (as you will see below). I based this on the long tradition of Latin energising English poetry and prose, whereas I cannot help but find e.g the effect of Thucydides on Hobbes enervating and of Herodotus on many (Grote included) bloviating. If I could travel back in time, I would beat the shit out of Keats with a Grecian urn.
I wanted to put together a reading list for the neophyte Classicist, fresh from genuinely brilliant books such as Tom Holland’s Rubicon and Mary Beard’s SPQR and ready to start hitting the stacks and getting their fangs into academic volumes. My criteria were simple. Academic books with a capital A that you could happily find yourself reading on the beach. The lodestone was the great writers of yesteryear such as Ronald Syme (whose Roman Revolution manages to be Tacitean in outlook and in prose). No edited volumes, no disjointed volumes of the essays (the latter rule forced me to eject one of my favourites, Wiseman’s Catullus and his World from the list ☹).
To limit bias, and expand our palette, I took to twitter to crowdsource this list. This list deliberately focuses on ancient history (often the gateway), should there be interest we can repeat the experiment for archaeology, literature, and philology proper (I promise you that Meillet is a good read! Meanwhile @mattitiahu has a great resource on lexica here).
Again, this list is not a list of foundational or must-read texts, you can find them elsewhere (e.g university reading lists; G Kantor’s blog post on Roman History); my main focus was on prose. Because men like Wissowa and Mommsen and Wilamowitz and Gibbon etc etc wrote beautifully and we have lost something. This list will not render unto you mastery of any culture, period, or phenomenon. You could not construct a course from them, but you can be entertained.
Please feel free to comment and tweet, either to annotate the list or make suggestions.
Warning: I pulled these, uncorrected, from an online auto bibliographic database. Dates, publishers, place of publishing etc are wrong passim. If you happen to be a student, do not use this list to cite.
With massive thanks to @_paullay, @peter_sarris, @GMcCor, @GeorgyKantor, @Nakhthor, @ProfSimonton, @Kleisthenes2, @DrMichaelBonner, @DrPeterJMiller @sasanianshah (and others, probably, sorry).
Outside the Classical Mediterranean
(Not the original date, but that of the reprint. A multi-volume history from a more genteel time)
Bonner, M. (2020). The Last Empire of Iran. Gorgias Press.
(Conflict of interest to include? probably! But it exhibits a mixture of that older, gentlemanly style, and the incisiveness of modern academe, there are few narrative studies of the entire period. The Sassanians were important and Latinists and Late Antiquenerds should know more about them.)
Briant, P. (2002). From Cyrus to Alexander: A history of the Persian Empire. Eisenbrauns.
(Technically a translation, perhaps it does not belong on this list. But the contents therein are fascinating. Most books on the Achaemenids are absolute doggrel)
Bryce, T. (2005). The kingdom of the Hittites. Oxford University Press.
(Suspicious of this one having read his latest, but we’re going to trust @sassanianshah on this!)
Debevoise, N. C. (1969). A political history of Parthia TX.
Thapar, R. (2003). The penguin history of early India: From the origins to AD 1300. Penguin Books India.
(Thapar is a good stylist, and a brilliant historian of India. Probably the best)
Bevan, E. R. (2015). The house of Seleucus. TX: Cambridge University Press.
Bresson, A. (2015). The making of the Ancient Greek economy: Institutions, markets, and growth in the city-states. Princeton University Press.
(Have my doubts! Never seen a Classicist, or a Historian, write sensibly about Economics but ok)
Chadwick, J. (1976). The Mycenaean world. Cambridge University Press
(Material vs prose, brings this out on top. He’s essentially writing about inventory lists)
Dodds, E. R. (1956). The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press.
Dover, K. J. (1989). Greek Homosexuality.
(Do not blame him for his shitty epigones)
Green, P. (1993). Alexander to Actium: The historical evolution of the Hellenistic age. University of California Press.
(Yes, yes, massively dated on art and culture but one of the best encompassing narratives around. What a writer).
GUYS LOOK HOW BARE THIS SECTION IS, THESIS VINDICATED!?
Athanassiadi, P. (1992). Julian: An intellectual biography. TX.
(Like the Memoirs of Hadrian but not made up, and with less fucking hippies)
Daube, D. (1969). Roman Law. TX.
(Seems an odd addition, but so many reviews and tweeters talk about this book as being humorous. Yes, Roman Law…)
MacMullen, R. (1992). Enemies of the Roman order: Treason, unrest, and alienation in the empire. Routledge.
(This often comes on lists. Definitely an interesting take. Does accidentally make me more pro-Roman though.)
Millar, F. (1993). The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337. Harvard University Press.
(Millar was generally a brilliant writer, I personally would have chosen his Emperor in the Roman World – which dramatically changed how I saw the office, but twitter spoke. Actually, just read all of Millar. Honestly if you make it through Weinstock’s Divus Julius you deserve to).
Syme, R. (1939). The Roman Revolution. OUP Oxford.
(This may well be the best written Roman history in the English language, excepting Gibbon. His later work was sadly not so wonderful to read.)
(It is an inevitable category)
Brown, P. (1989). The World of Late antiquity: AD 150-750. W. W. Norton.
(Brown’s name came up again, and again, and again. I found him enjoyable, though perhaps to a lesser extent).
Treadgold, W. T. (1997). A history of the Byzantine state and society. TX: Stanford University Press.
(How many narrative studies of Byzantium are there? How many are actually good? Exactly)
PM Boris Johnson saw out the year by bludgeoning a defenceless fox to death with a bat (wooden, not mammalian). Oh wait, that was someone else. Instead ire has been directed at him because he…recited the Iliad? Some time ago? It is all very bizarre, but the usual suspects are saying the usual things via the usual media.
Here is the offending clip.
In terms of rhetoric, it is obviously effective, judging by the response of the audience. As an actual performance whilst it is hardly to my taste, it is hardly poor. Lines are “missing” in line with how oral performances always work. In fact, I have previously written about alternative openings to the Iliad, truncation and expansion, etc etc here. People having to rush over to Perseus Tufts to look up the proem are hardly handing out the gotchas they think they are here.
His performance is not strictly, mechanically, metrical. One can feel the ghost of the rhythm behind it, but that is clearly not the point. The breaks and flourishes are obviously dependent on sense (to anyone who knows the poem) and the rhetorical gestures are just that – rhetorical gestures: the kind that almost certainly accompanied every performance from the mid Roman period onward when it became increasingly harder to reconstruct the classical phonology. In other words, there is nothing new here.
But the detractors aren’t making any sort of philological point, I would bet very, very, few are familiar with how we can reconstruct either the original phonology or performance styles. I say styles because there was almost certainly a multiplication of styles not long after the original composition. How many with even the barest reading of the ancient sources?
It seems to me that outrage has clustered around three main nodes. That Johnson’s performance was bad because 1) accent(uation); 2) that not only is it bad, but said paucity of quality is all the more nefarious because don’t you know that this is really, really, easy, you utter pleb? And finally; 3) this misrepresents Classics and puts people off. The latter is particularly bad, given how opening and welcoming these people claim the field has been. Right? Right?
Let’s start with (or rather, return to) point number one: accent and accentuation. This is a wonderful surprise! It turns out in every corner of twitter you can’t throw a stone without hitting someone who is not only versed in ancient Greek, but the finicky points of historical linguistics and comparative philology to boot. I am sure that when, at the close of the year, numbers are released for book sales, books such as Allen’s Vox Graeca will be edging out E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Let’s look at what these geniuses have to say.
Human babies, I am told, develop object permanence – and with it the realisation that things can change – from around six months old; I am not sure what that says about grown adults who seem to think it entirely reasonable that a language won’t change within ca. 28 centuries. Especially when they’ll have been told in school that to get Shakespeare’s metre to work, they’ll have to adopt Elizabethan pronunciation.
Also, of course it’s pigshitthick Greek diasporiots saying this. But it seems that even as Greece gets better, the diaspora insists on going backwards. Perhaps she would have been happier had Johnson pronounced it like this?
For the sake of honesty, and to ward off the inevitable idiots, I do of course admit that 90% of the time I pronounce ancient as I do modern, but in doing so I am making no pretence to accuracy and this is a choice informed by the full range of evidence. That is not the point here.
Sadly, there are a good number of Greek Classicists pointing all this out, but they inevitably shan’t be heard and they will be the ones to suffer in their professional lives from stereotypes.
The ideal, incidentally, would be something Stratakis’ rendition of the opening of the Odyssey here. Note, it too sacrifices metre for rhetorical performance, but I think that that actually hits the right note for most moderns.
I think the best summary of all this is the one found on Mary Beard’s blog, where she calls it:
“…an absurd parody of a Twitter storm: hundreds of people, whom I strongly suspect knew little or no ancient Greek, were passing judgement on the Prime Minister’s competence in Greek, in the face of a few of who did know the damn language.”
After all, in what other instance would we take “I had some experience back in high-school” as definitive on any subject?
Onto the second argument then, that this is easy anyway. Really that’s no argument at all, lots and lots of things are easy – that doesn’t make them less than worthwhile. Good manners are easy, speaking engagingly with a child or earnest youngster (despite boredom) is easy, picking up after oneself is easy. I hope you do these things regardless.
But let’s entertain this argument a moment longer. Some have argued that this feat is easy due to the metrical constraints placed upon the line. Well, I think that is the case for native speakers, which Johnson definitely is not. Anyway, his recitation is hardly strictly metrical as noted above.
Even within (quasi) native speech communities, metre isn’t the great help you might think. The oral transmission of the Rg Veda is a perfect case in point. Unlike the earliest Greek epic, which was a consistently creative tradition, the Rg Veda comes to us from a tradition that was entirely dedicated to (re)producing the text as accurately as possible. Judging by the (small) differences between the continuous oral tradition (stretching back to ca. 1200s B.C…) and the occasional MS (which overwhelmingly stem from the late medieval/early modern periods), this tradition was damn good. Michael Witzel, a famous Harvard Indologist, frequently likens the tradition to being like a tape-recorder.
The Indians have managed to do this by a) dedicating a cast to memorising the texts and; b) “regularising” the original metre and accompanying it with various gestures of hand and head (called mudra in Sanskrit).
The Greeks too in their time made some concession to the difficulties of memorisation. One of the common classical terms for an epic performer was rhapsode. The noun originates from the verb rhapsoideinῥαψῳδεῖν (to sew), with the sense of stitching songs together. This link between stitching/weaving and poetry was quite alive throughout the entirety of the Indo-European speech world, eventually within Greek it is assimilated to the word for staff, rhabdosῥάβδος, as these were used as props for the singer to maintain the beat.
Given the above, I think it wise to cut an English speaker who left university before many of us were born, some slack and exercise some forbearance.
There is this consistent assumption that Johnson can’t possibly know anything about the Classics, that this is just a façade or a party trick. Again, this isn’t the brilliant put down people seem to think it is. If you, as a professor on the sufferance of the public purse, can with a straight face tell me someone can go through a university course and still know nothing, then there is only one solution: The complete closure of every single Classics department in the country. No other discipline could countenance, let alone broadcast, such monumental failure and hope to survive.
To those who think this is utterly easy, all I can say is, where is your recording? I mean that honestly and earnestly. One of the broader trends we have been witnessing within Second-language acquisition (SLA) research is the importance of an audio component. All these brilliant amateur rhapsodes are surely doing their field, and their students, a gross disservice by not being forthcoming.
We stand in rapt attendance, the soundcloud tab pre-opened, the volume control turned up, our ears primed for the majestic tones of those who surely could give blind Homer second sight.
For those then who think Johnson simply memorised some random sounds (ignoring both his education and the marriage of meaning and movement in his performance), here is Cicero (de Oratore 2.87.357-58):
verum tamen neque tam acri memoria fere quisquam est, ut non dispositis notatisque rebus ordinem verborum aut sententiarum complectatur…
Nevertheless, hardly anybody exists with so keen a memory that he might retain the order of all the words or sentences without having arranged and noted his facts…
Finally, we reach the third of the arguments against, that this misrepresents or puts people off the Classics.
The first, and most common, iteration of this can be readily dismissed: “Don’t you know that there’s more to Classics than reciting poetry!?!?!?” they shriek. Yes. They do. It is so obvious that it hardly needs stating. Next please.
Some people are extending this to paint the performance as elitist and exclusionary. Oddly, some (many) of these people are also arguing that reciting Greek from memory is effortlessly easy. So, which is it? Either, it is so easy that it can’t be exclusionary because the merest intellectual dwarf can do it; or its quite demanding and the Prime Minister can’t be quite the idiot you are painting him as. Logic, and decency, dictates that you must choose. (The third permutation, that it is simultaneously easy but that we working-class people are so deficient in ability, I shan’t even entertain).
I don’t see how Johnson is in anyway gatekeeping or putting people off. What I do see is a large amount of people who ought to know better signalling that knowledge can’t be divorced from politics, that it does not matter what you know if you don’t satisfy some quasi-occluded character test. What can be more offputting? What can be more exclusionary? On one hand we have a bunch of sneering idiots, on the other a man taking obvious relish in his own recall of Homer.
I don’t really care about his politics here. They are irrelevant. This is the Classics I want. One not dependent on PhDs that will never get read, straight jacketed and kept as the jealously guarded provender of some dragon or goblin (there’s your Harry Potter reference fellow-millennial, now fuck off), but one vivacious and rude and healthy.
Here, incidentally, is an interesting anecdote from someone who really does know a lot better than you or I:
I fail to see a man so obviously enthralled with antiquity can be a bad thing.
We have to some degree (at least within the constraints of social media), I hope, satisfied ourselves that people are basically talking nonsense. They are either speaking on topics about which they know nothing, or deliberately arguing in bad faith. The question is, why?
In 1955 the British philosopher John Austin gave the William James Lectures at Harvard, the result was a book and a breakthrough in how we think about the link between words and deeds. I am wary of summarising his ideas en passant and would encourage readers to read the first lecture or so. Like many Classicists, I encountered his work through the study of Pindar and mediated through brilliant scholars like Leslie Kurke.
But here is the gist: When we say things, we’re never really, or rarely are, just saying something. Speaking is itself an action. My go to example is saying “I do” at a wedding. On one hand, these are just words, on the other the speaker (hopefully) undergoes a transformational state.
We can, if we’re careful, and a little bit chancy, extend the same idea to all this hullaballoo. The point isn’t to assess the performance but to make a statement about oneself: “Look at me, I belong, big-hair man bad” etc etc.
This is really quite frightening and tracks with what outside observers have been saying about humanities academia for ages, that as time goes on it becomes increasingly divorced from its actual content and more and more politicised.
But I fail to see any other explanation. There’s no real basis in our current understanding either of Ancient Greek phonology, or the reception and performance of the text, for this kind of ire. There is no evidence, no logical basis, for the idea that the PM is a Greekless charlatan either. Quite the opposite. The idea that this can in anyway harm a discipline – that seems to be in constant freefall since its extirpation from schools and handing over to academics – seems to be likewise without basis in fact.
But let’s say that you really do hate it, think it poor, that you can do better. Let’s say this comes from a serious place. Honestly, as I say above, please provide a recording. It’s not just public schoolboys who memorise and recite ancient poetry, and I am sure there are hundreds of state-school pupils who could benefit greatly.
I honestly can't understand the whole "Boris Johnson recites the Iliad" thing. In Greece, any politician reciting poetry gets eyerolls, vitriolic remarks about the choice of poet and a few mentions in the media. It doesn't descend to footstamping and shouting "we hates it!".
Would that it were so here too. The Greeks are infinitely more sensible about this sort of stuff. I hope I have gone some way in explaining the rationale behind the reaction. Though I suppose a video of tribalistic monkeys throwing shit would have been just as efficacious and more elegant.
Coda, or, joining the Homeredai
So, what can you do if you want to learn to memorise and recite large chunks of ancient poetry? Sadly, none of the sinecured geniuses have deigned to tell us. What follows below is a cursory, but hopefully useful guide.
Get yourself a copy of Pharr’s Homeric Greek. A copy of the old edition may be downloaded via textkit (this is a PDF link). The lessons are short, bite-sized, and follow the entirety of the first book of the Iliad. I would strongly suggest you skip the composition exercises. Homeric Greek was an artificial, artistic, language. No prose was ever produced in it. Doing so now is a waste of time and will only hamper you if/when you move on to classical Greek proper. Use the time saved to revise or look up Monro’s A Grammar of The Homeric Dialect, which is also available online.
The Center of Hellenic Studies (not a misspelling, they are American) has a number of videos available on Youtube, including one dedicated to performance and another introducing dactylic hexameter. You may find them useful or at least entertaining. They must suffice until the super genius twitteratti are forthcoming.
Many pronunciation guides are at best inexact (“A like they pronounce what word in which country??!?”) or at worst esoteric, as if you have time to master the intricacies of IPA (not the alcoholic kind). This playlist by Kostas Katsouranis might help. If you’re not a Greek native, pinning the restored phonemes to living Greek equivalents is the smartest way forward.
Memorising poetry is a pedagogically sound, culturally worthwhile, and all-around fun activity. Doing so will neither turn you into a toff (or win you the premiership) or a pencil necked twitter-tosser. What it will do is put you directly in a long line of students who have got their Homer down, for better or worse.
Classics is many, many, things. Let’s try to remember it’s also fun.
As always, thank you for reading.
 And reconstruct the phonology they most certainly did! See Vessella, C. (2018). Sophisticated Speakers: Atticistic pronunciation in the Atticist lexica. Berlin; Also, in this vein, see late(ish) Byzantine authors and their ability to compose very good hexameter, despite the phonological change. Too often we think of restored pronunciation as a modern Western invention rather than a proper Greek one.
 Although a family member told me an amusing anecdote this Christmas of being asked by a taxi-driver whether there were any white people left in London before going on to speak of himself as a pure blooded Doric Greek etc etc. But honestly, it has been about 10 years before I have heard anything stupid like this back in Greece.
 I actually disagree with W’s assessment. The best expounding of his views may be found in his The Development of the Vedic Canon and its Schools, available online here. (link opens in a PDF)
 Cf our own word text < Latin textus, a participle formed from texo, texere (I weave, to weave). Going further back to the proto-language, the same root also eventually (via Greek) gives us our word technique.
 Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford, Oxford U. P.
I write this – after a long absence that has no doubt seen my paltry writing skills atrophy rather than improve – having enjoyed an interesting discussion yesterday, the kind that represents the best of Classics twitter. I want to expand upon some of the short comments I earlier because I worry I came off as a bit short and terse and wish to explain myself a bit better. Besides, we rarely get to discuss such things from a British perspective (for a discussion of American treatments, click here).
Here is the initial tweet, since the original post is well worth reading – as are the discussions on Aramaic and Akkadian with attendant bibliographies.
This 👇is what I see (or perhaps, what I would *like* to see) happening in university Classics Depts in the fairly near future. pic.twitter.com/2KPqQrFYnp
My response essentially came down to a) the vision being improbable if not impossible and; b) some aspects of it unwittingly carrying the potential to offend. You’ll hopefully note I don’t disagree with any of the assertions being made, I’d quite like all of them to come true. I just don’t think any of them likely.
I think the improbability comes down simply to the fact that universities are increasingly failing to properly teach Latin and Greek. We take it, bizarrely, as read that we’re increasingly less able than our 19th and 20th century predecessors (hence the above reference to ‘19th C philology’). This isn’t just a hackneyed trope, some traditional veneratio offered to our predecessors as a way to abase ourselves with false humility whilst simultaneously claiming our place in the great academic chain of being that descends from Zenotodus and Aristarchus to Wolf, Wilamowitz, and West. It’s a sad, discomforting, fact.
Sad because there’s truly never been a better time to learn Latin or Greek. Previous generations started earlier, had more time, but we eclipse them in efficiency by orders of magnitude. Students have a phalanx of textbooks to choose from, computer generated word lists, easy access to texts, readers, and even audiotools. We should, in fact, be making our predecessors look like gentlemen dilettantes with regards to their technical skills if not their insights.
One of the original points was that…”the world needs more specialised departments based on our Classical model”. Does it? What can we truly offer, say, Sanskrit scholars? I’m choosing Sanskrit because it’s the ancillary language I know best and because it has an incredible tradition behind it (of which most Classicists are sadly completely ignorant).
Indologists may avail themselves of at least one functional tradition akin to our philology, vyakarana (something like grammar) as well as several theoretical frameworks for assessing texts (I think the most famous in the west is probably mimasa). The study of the language has been not just rejuvenated but elevated by contact with western philology. After all, it was Saussure and his laryngeals which rendered Sanskrit’s intense verbal system fully understandable, British explorers and orientalists who kick-started epigraphy and paleography while fleshing out more fully the filitation between Sanskrit and early Indian vernaculars (the so called prakrits).
This is, notably, well in the past.
Indologists, on one hand, may read their texts with the aid of utterly brilliant Sanskrit commentaries. Meanwhile in 2018 it’s possible to graduate with a Classics degree not having fully read Virgil or Homer, let alone become acquainted with Servius or Eustathius.
I suspect Classics departments no longer have the intellectual, perhaps even moral, substance to offer anybody any sort of example on how to do anything. Ironically, it was those 19th century philologists and not modern comparative literature departments which furnished the inspiration for those studying Indic or Semitic (Sino-Tibetan, Finno-Urgic, Kartvelian etc etc) philology. What can we offer other scholars? Perhaps the ability to point out when someone is dead, white, and male? To turn ‘patriarchy’ from a sociological descriptor to something akin to a taboo word?
This is what I mean by potentially offensive. The days are gone when the Classicist could casually expound the rules and sound changes of Germanic philology more adroitly than the English DPhil, for example.
Another point considered widening the temporal horizon of the discipline until the fall of the Roman Empire in 1453. In some sense, Classics has already traditionally done this. After all, textual criticism by its very nature involves delving into the work of Carolingian monks, the intellectuals of the Byzantine renaissances (under the Macedonians and Palaeologi) and the Italian humanists.
I would love for this to happen to some degree, but again the basis for this has to be a sound grasp of the languages. Lorenzo Valla’s study of the false DonatioConstantini is one of the highpoints of our subject, but like all humanists his Latin can be difficult. The Greek of Laonikos Chalkokondyles is entertaining and electrifying but not for the faint of heart anymore than his subject matter.
As an aside there’s recently been a very interested guest post on Sententiae Antiquae on the merits of including post classical Latin as part of our curricula, which I link here. Unfortunately I can’t think of any similar post on reading post second sophistic Greek to link.
Can we ever engender a return to philology? On one hand I recall the resurgence of philologia propria in China after the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Under the Ming dynasty, critique and interpretation of texts and history had become dogmatically Neo-Confucian. Subsequently, disenchanted scholars found themselves eventually turning to more traditional methods in order to actually try and comprehend the past. Who knows? Maybe McKenna is right to be optimistic. I don’t think so. Out of the academy, none of my colleagues with similar backgrounds also working in black-letter professions (commercial law, finance, and I guess we should include the bloody consultants) seem to think so either. Nor do our bosses who have long since dampened their enthusiasm for hiring people with Classics degrees. Ah well.
The original post ended with an emphatic assertion that “there must be brilliant stuff out there” and I absolutely agree. In fact I’m going to end this blog post by recommending something, the Heike Monogatori. This epic, based on the struggle for dominance between two 12th century Japanese clans, has a strong claim for the best opening lines in world literature. Moreover, its compositional history make it a must read for any Classicist. It is, I hope you’ll agree, brilliant stuff.
The sound of the Gion Shōja bells echoes the impermanence of all things; the color of the sāla flowers reveals the truth that the prosperous must decline. The proud do not endure, they are like a dream on a spring night; the mighty fall at last, they are as dust before the wind. — Chapter 1.1, Helen Craig McCullough’s translation
In an ideal world, I’d go back and re-work the above post, citing and commenting upon the below articles and books in order to strengthen points and provide more entertaining reading. Please accept my apologies and this slightly annotated bibliography instead.
Much the best scholar writing on this questions is Sanskrit Professor Sheldon Pollock. His 2014 article ‘Future Philology’ has been incredibly influential and his shorter 2015 article ‘Liberating Philology’ is at once precis and expansion. For a broader, more multicultural, understanding of what’s at stake see the 2015 edited volume World Philology.
For the Byzantine Renaissances see Cyril Mango’s own contributed to the 2002 edited volume The Oxford History of Byzantium.
For an introduction on the (potential) similarities between Japanese and Greek epic see Naoko Yamagata’s article in Greece & Rome Vol. 40, No. 1 (Apr., 1993). I myself am partial to the Tyler and Watson translation.
I have made at least two cack-handed allusions herein. I have cheekily titled this post after Wilamowitz’s famous tirade, an English translation of which may be found here. Secondly, I alluded to Said’s article “Return to Philology” which can be found here.
A blog by nature is ephemeral (this one more than most) so it doesn’t hurt to provide some content for my ramblings. I had a rare free Saturday morning, and was reading through Manutius’ prefaces to Greek and Latin texts, when I remembered twitter still existed. Logging on, I found an interesting article by a Theology student on what value they’ve gained studying a classical language (in this case Latin).
I’m linking it here since it’s worth reading, if only to catch something of the evident pleasure this student gets from studying Latin. In all these discussions about Ovid and rape culture, or how apparently white statues make scholars racist, it’s a nice reminder that more than anything else these languages are interesting.
I found the article, as I find so many interesting classical nugatae lately, in the twitter feed of Olivia Thompson. OT, as always, had her own interesting take and wrote about the application of classical languages to the historian:
Compare that with the bewildering entitlement displayed in another article by a fledgling student, this time from Columbia, doing the rounds a few weeks ago. I will, of course, link the entire thing here.
This post isn’t going to convince anybody as to the worth of studying Latin and Greek – though Ironically I’ve had an easier time of doing that without the university than within – but do let’s look briefly at three small questions on offer here. Are classical languages interesting? are they in anyway useful? and (vis a vis the article above) are they, well, elitist?
Now, I think the fact that myself and many other alumni still read Greek and Latin without the Damoclean deadlines of university exams hanging over us speaks to delight and joy these languages can bring. Indeed, I spoke of classical languages – not just Latin and Greek, because there’s something about the discipline which inculcates a need to ferret out other ancient languages: I was considered unusually multilingual by my tutors at Oxford, but I know so much more now. It is the same with my course-mates, I know a non-negligible number who have gone on to pick Arabic, Classical Chinese, even native American languages.
Utility – ah utility! You capering nymph never to be seized! you shy little boat drifting always just off the jetty! – Yeah,I’m not going to even try to tackle that properly. You’re welcome to go down that rabbit hole without me. Here’s Boris Johnson. Here’s someone championing Latin for literacy. Here is the inestimable Mary Beard giving a more level headed and engaging view. Have fun, Dominus vobiscum.
Instead let’s take utility in the narrow sense implied (or at least I infer it) by the first article I cited and Thompson’s response. Do the languages offer utility outside their directly immediate areas of study?
I think we have something of an answer from the young student of Theology. Thompson’s tweet (above) does that beautifully for history. My model for a historian in this sense has always been John Ma who is probably the most impressive Greek historian you’ve never read.
Ancient history, divorced from strict linguistic study, is often heralded as a great equaliser. I think the truth is that all it does is impoverish student and discipline alike. Which leads me to the third point of consideration and the one raised by the second linked article. Are these languages elitist? Is it too much to expect students from certain background to learn them?
As counter intuitive it may seem, I would argue quite the opposite. There is no doubt that students from private schools have an advantage when it comes to becoming Classicists. These advantages are, in some part, the kind of reasons that cause parents to spend large amounts of money on educating their brood. That students from these backgrounds all but monopolise positions in the academy is another problem all together and more to do with the incestuous nature of British universities. None the less, let’s point out the obvious that, yes, little Tristan and Isabella who have years of Latin and Greek (or Arabic, or Russian, or Mandarin…) will have an easier job of getting good at Latin and Greek in the three or four years they are at university.
Let us also make it clear that little Wayne or Jodie, who may not even have taken French, will have a more difficult time. But that difficulty exists up to a point. Universities like Oxford administer aptitude exams meant to be (haha, oh god we still claim this, haha) subject agnostic. The point of tertiary study is that you’re in a specialised environment with time and resources on your side to master whatever esoterica comes your way, and last – but not by any means least – you have like minded friends. The latter I think can make more of a difference than even the most well-meaning lecturer.
Study and mastery over these languages also helped to provide something like an objective yard-stick. Others more perceptive than I have pointed out how the movement to reception and classics in the modern world replaces core competencies (textual criticism, papyrology etc) with softer class distinguishers.
Coming from a working-class background, there have been a few impediments to my studying Classics. The languages certainly were not one of them. If anything, growing up multilingual and in a multi-ethnic area where I constantly heard other languages, I took to them rapidly. I think the complete lack of cultural baggage meant I never developed any fear of them. Sure, ‘smart people’ knew Latin but Maths and Science were also meant to be very difficult and as everyone tells you, anyone can learn their lessons if they try hard enough.
I worry, I really do, when people start moving their politics and personal tastes (in terms of the books and films they enjoy) into the curriculum and start grading on them. A working-class kid from Birmingham or Hounslow is never going to have quite the same performative version of feminism as you do, is never going to have read or watched the same things, hasn’t had the kind of experience which would engender the same politics.
It is, moreover, insanely unfair to expect us to. That is not social contract we signed up to on matriculation. But a verb is a verb and Osthoff’s law or Lectio difficilior potior remain equally valid in estuary English or brogue. Objectivity’ isn’t much more definable than ‘utility’ when it comes to marking and comparing students, but there are grades of fairness.
Why must we be guardians of Latin and Greek? Well that’s a grandiose way of putting things but I can’t help but think that when we guard them, they guard the discipline.
Links scattered throughout will be alphabetised and appended here when I can be bothered. I’ll also add some links of interest, not cited, as per usual. Meanwhile enjoy the Daily Mail (who else?) on ‘chav’ names here and the Tatleron posh baby names.
For the first time in weeks I’ve found the time to do a little writing. I’m in the midst of writing a series of posts on Classics and the East and so naturally this means I need to check Twitter, where I came across an interesting conversation on an article by Paul Lay. The article may be found here. It concerns the lamentable poverty of our language learning here in the UK and the affect that this has on history as a discipline.
Do languages help the would be historian? The answer should be a resounding ‘yes’ but I’m having a little trouble seeing that they do. Even as my fingers hit the keys, I know that to be a heretical statement but I can’t help but feel its one leaden with reality. There is a far cry between the prescriptive and descriptive reality of that statement!
My take on this is slightly tongue in cheek, completely ensconced with Classics as a discipline (hence the ancient focus), and a little bit of this:
On one hand, of course languages ought to be a serious boon to any would be historian. From a research perspective they magnify what you’re able to access. I really could not imagine studying Homer without German or French. That’s not to say the English material isn’t absolutely wonderful but German, for example, has opened up a wealth of technical resources (such as the LfgrE) and differing point of views (I quite like the stronger neo-analytical tint to German scholarship. Sshh! don’t tell anyone!).
There’s also the human element to additional languages. Since graduating, some of the more memorable classical conversations I’ve had have been in Greek (Spartan law and culture) and French (the formation of the aorist). Think back to the second world war and the refugee scholars flocking to the UK from Germany. How much poorer scholarship would be without that commingling of different linguistic traditions. (Incidentally, these scholars are the subject of a wonderful edited volume).
In any historical discipline, it’s important to be aware of one’s biases and social conditioning and being able to draw on resources in other languages helps with that. (Note: there are caveats, we’re not discussing these here though).
What about primary sources? Familiar ground for those defending language as part of historical study. After all how can you study a period if you don’t at least know its language? Interpretation of a foreign culture is hard enough as it is, why add another layer of imperceptibility between you and your sources?
Classicists, however, shudder at the simple primary/secondary dichotomy (I’ll leave to what degree we might call Cassius Dio or Aurelius Victor, for example, primary sources to some Historical Crocodile) and even the idea of an ‘original’ text can cause consternation. Reading ‘original’ texts is tied up with specialist directors, grammars, classes on palaeography and editorial technique.
I’m going to, in a move that would infuriate textual critics, quote West quoting Fraenkel who was writing an introduction to Leo to illustrate this:
As West surmises ‘textual criticism is not the be-all and end-all of classical scholarship….But it is an indefensible part of it’. When we pour through manuscripts and try to find out whether someone wrote δε or τε, or which line is an interpolation, or whether the o in subito keeps its natural length in this instance what we’re really asking is “what did x really write?” which is actually a separate issue altogether from “what did x want his audience to hear” and “how was this received?”.
Readers, all three of them, will have noticed that nothing I’ve said so far supports the idea that languages aren’t important to Classicists. If anything, all I’ve done is give some mean preview to just how important languages are to the discipline. After all Classics is essentially Classical Philology which by its very nature is focused on language and its usage. Epigraphy, palaeography, textual emendation etc, all these stem from the same vital skills which begin when learning how to conjugate amare. If anything, language is much more important to us than other disciplines.
Well, whip out your handbooks of classical rhetoric if you can’t see what’s coming. I did say there is a difference between the reality of the statement ‘language is important to history’ and its actual, pragmatic, reality.
What if you wish to become an historian? (in this case pro historian lege classicist) how useful are languages then? There’s a social dictum against speaking like this about academe, at least amongst the middle classes: Academic jobs are meant to be seen as callings, not subject to the same criteria as others. On the other hand, I’m a working class lad and work in a brusque no nonsense sector. I’m hardly above such questions.
Moreover, ‘historian’ is more or less an academic position nowadays unless you possess a near wondrous mix of skill and luck. Seriously, find a friend in publishing and ask them about the Nielsen ratings for the vast majority of history books….ouch….
Simply reviewing the products of the last handful of generations of scholars shows a serious reduction in the breadth of languages engaged with. Hebrew was the first casualty as the bible has lost its previous vaunted position amongst us. One would think that languages of areal importance (e.g Akkadian, Aramaic etc) or genetic affiliation (Sanskrit stands out) wield some impact in the Classics but…not really. Sure, there was a brief flourishing of interest but nowadays outside of UCLA or, to some degree Harvard, Classicists have moved away from Indo-European studies.
This isn’t all bad, a lot of comparative work was pretty outrageously general and tepid in its applicability. The focus of the Classics department must absolutely remain on Greek and Latin. We’re not a world philology department. Such a goal is unattainable and undesirable (though you should watch this regardless).
We’re long past the days of Classicists glibly commenting on the Mahabharata or how thinly drawn characters are in Akkadian literature. That’s a good thing. But we’ve lost the ability to use these comparanda to better understand the context of what we study. One would hope that this reduction in scope would bring with it a renewed, tighter, focus on Greek and Latin but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
If you look at recent monographs, articles,or theses recently submitted or in progress, work requiring a broad variety of ancient languages is out. Work requiring detailed mastery of Latin and Greek is also, by and large, out. You’re much better off focusing on something with ‘reception’, ‘environment’ or ‘feminist’ in the title. A ‘plea for polyglots’? That hardly seems to be the case. The trend has been a steady reduction in philological rigour towards more theoretical projects.
Whether this trend is something good or ill I leave to you to decide, I’m not willing to comment. Perhaps its too early to tell. By some ironic twist of fate it’s the more linguistically dexterous Classicists I know who ended up outside the academy. It’s an intellectually fulfilling past time and helps one engage with the ancient world. It’s just not very likely to help you become an historian…