Some thoughts after Prof Edith Hall’s excellent Gaisford Lecture

I thought I would share my responses to Professor Edith Hall’s Gaisford Lecture, the text of which is available on The Guardian website. I couldn’t attend the lecture as I am no longer in Oxford, or the UK, primarily as a result of the UK’s atrocious spousal visa regulations, so my response is based on the text in The Guardian. Hall has also provided the text on her blog, with an introduction. Hall’s blog is worth browsing for its own sake, too.

First things first: My background. I attended a (Roman) Catholic state secondary school from 1997 to 2004, which shared a sixth form with the neighbouring Anglican school and the girl’s grammar school on the far side. While the classes for all the subjects offered in the Catholic and Anglican schools were mixed, the girl’s school offered spaces to students from the other schools on specific courses which they did not offer (Classical Civilisation), while the others did the same for students from the girl’s grammar (Theatre Studies; Physical Education). The girl’s school offered Latin and Classical Civilisation, the latter of which I took for A Level; due to a conflict in scheduling I also ended up doing History there, too – apparently good fortune on my part. The girl’s school was selective entry, but not fee-paying. When a number of students from my school were invited to visit the Oxford College Lady Margaret Hall, on the basis of encouraging applicants from under-represented schools, I attended; I applied to LMH in 2003 to study Literae Humaniores Course II:A (Latin), was accepted, and matriculated in 2004. It turns out that I am quite bad at Latin; I was offered the opportunity to change course to Classical Archaeology and Ancient History in my third year, which I (foolishly) declined. To anyone else in my position, I would wholeheartedly recommend CAAH over LitHum, unless you are particularly interested in literature and languages. The relief of not having to study Latin any more may explain why I enjoyed my Master of Studies in Classical Archaeology so much; I submitted my DPhil in Archaeology in January 2014, passed my viva in March the same year, and will almost certainly graduate at some point, when I can bring my partner back into the UK. I have taught undergraduates in both LitHum and CAAH; those students had a tendency to either get first class degrees, or for the paper I taught to be one of their best.

As I hope is clear from my background, I wholeheartedly agree with most of what Hall says in her lecture. Classical Civilisation is a brilliant course (or it was in 2002-2004), which shaped the direction of my life. ClassCiv teaches students not only about the literature of the ancient world, but the art, the architecture, and the life. I say “the ancient world”, but I suppose I mean ancient Greece. And when I say “ancient Greece”, I largely mean “ancient Athens”.

The emphasis on ancient Athens when we talk about the ancient Greeks is hardly a surprise, as it is Athenian literature which has largely been preserved throughout the millennia. It’s not entirely true, particularly of the Archaic Period, but the big names – Aristotle, Plato, Euripides – and not-so-big-names-but-truly-massive-corpuses – the perpetually sad Xenophon – are Athenian. When we think of archaeology we might think of the Parthenon before all else, although Olympia and Delphi might crop up for a few people; even if we think of Epidauros we think of Athenian plays performed there.

In April, as a response to one of the many programmes on ancient Greece the BBC have produced this year, Prof. Mary Beard quoted Moses Finley asking the question “which Greeks? when?” When Hall talks about the attempts of some scholars playing down the “specialness” of the ancient Greeks I think of this quote – were all the Greeks “special”? Or was there something distinct about their culture which allowed “special” people to speak up and be heard? My personal approach is to emphasise the position of Greece as part of a distinct Mediterranean network, in which there were “Greeks” everywhere from Egypt to Iberia, but similarly other people – and ideas – moving around and influencing them. The particular importance of the Greeks is that they had a literary culture through which such writing could survive; one thinks of the Etruscans, and the broad destruction of their literary legacy by the Roman Empire, and wonders if other cultures might not have had more to say.

Hall encourages the teaching of Greek civilisation because their ideas equip people to defend their liberty. As someone for whom archaeology comes a lot more easily than language (if not necessarily literary criticism), I value modern ideas more than those of the ancient Greeks. The value I see in the routine study of the ancient Greeks is the opportunity to approach a subject in which certain ideas have been established, and to show how taking a variety of perspectives and different evidential categories give us numerous narratives and challenge dominant paradigms. When I taught students to question the evidence for certain narrative ideas surrounding Greek colonisation, the spread and development of the alphabet, and early trade, I hope that they would be able to apply such thinking to all arguments – to question the perspective of a writer, to look for the evidence to back that up, and – particularly important in archaeology – to question the processes through which that evidence has been interpreted.

On this last point, Hall makes a number of points which I do not recall her explicitly relating to the study of Classical reception, but which really ought to be. Hall’s “Classics and Class” project challenges the idea that we should think of Classics as the preserve of posh, public school idiots like certain mayors of London, but that the subject has a long history of inspiring others to promote liberty and even rebellion. I think that reception is one of the most important aspects of the study of classics, particularly literature, as it is essential to understand how the texts through which we encounter the ancient world have largely survived not through accident, but by design. There is also a long history of value attached to specific texts – I linked earlier to http://xenophonissad.tumblr.com/, a project dedicated to showing the bias against the writings of Xenophon which persists in the study of Classics. I don’t know much about Xenophon myself, except that his Greek is by far the easiest I’ve been able to read, but I know that institutional bias needs to be addressed and corrected. If we can learn how to do so through examining the neglect of a particularly prolific Classical author, perhaps we can apply this process to the contemporary world and start to understand how long-held beliefs affect our approaches and interactions with modern life.

In archaeology, things survive for many different reasons. The easiest way for something to survive is for it to be buried intentionally, particularly if the burial itself has certain significance and protection – like a grave. The objects buried tend to be of particular importance, and those which do not tarnish, like gold, tend to have higher value (although “value” itself is a culturally contextual concept). Thus the survival of objects relates to their material worth and the likelihood of their burial – as the creation of the written word relies on the literacy of the author, its survival on the perceived importance of the author, the richness of the textual history on the broad acceptance of the author by those preserving texts. The ideas from ancient Greece belong to a particular set of privileged individuals whose works and ideas survived. Understanding that privilege and what it means should, I believe, help us to understand how certain people and ideas are privileged in the modern world

Learning about the ancient world, from Classical Civilisation to Literae Humaniores to archaeology, has taught me perspectives on the modern world, the way in which ideas proliferate, and to question the authority of assertions and arguments. It’s not the only way to learn these skills, but it is a good one, and one I tried to pass on to my students. Hall believes that we should learn about the ideas of the Greeks and the ways in which they have had impact on the continuing history of the human race; I do not disagree with this approach. My thoughts and approach here are, I believe, largely complimentary. Classics for all, indeed.

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