What Every Classics Major Should Know About the Discipline - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

What Every Classics Major Should Know About the Discipline

The following is excerpted from Bruce S. Thornton’s excellent little book, A Student’s Guide to Classics.

Politics, philosophy, history, epic, poetry, comedy, tragedy, rhetoric, democracy, aesthetics, science, liberty, senate, republic,judiciary, president, legislature—the terms included in this brief but impressive list have two things in common: first, their referents constitute much of the political, intellectual, and cultural infrastructure of Western civilization; second, they all derive from ancient Greek and Latin.

Classics is the discipline that studies the language, literature, history, and civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome, two cultures that bequeathed to the West the greater part of its intellectual, political, and artistic heritage. For centuries Western education comprised the study of Greek and Latin and their surviving literary monuments. A familiarity with classics provided an understanding of the roots of Western culture, the key ideals, ideas, characters, stories, images, categories, and concepts that in turn made up a liberal education, or the training of the mind to exercise the independent, critical awareness necessary for a free citizen in a free republic.

Times of course have changed, and the study of Greek and Latin no longer occupies the central place it once held in the curriculum. Classics today is a small, shrinking university discipline kept alive, where it can be afforded, more because of prestige and tradition than because of a recognition of its central role in liberal education and in teaching the foundations of Western civilization. Yet at a time when Western civilization and its values are under assault, the need for classics is as urgent today as it was in the past. And people are still interested in antiquity: translations of classical texts continue to sell well, and popular films, Gladiator for instance, testify to an enduring fascination with the ancient Greeks and Romans.

I hope that this brief introduction to classics will encourage students to study in more depth what Thomas Jefferson called a “sublime luxury,” the ancient Greek and Latin languages and literatures.

What Is Classics?

The discipline of classics actually is made up of several different areas of study, all linked by a grounding in the Greek and Latin languages, the study of which is called “philology.” The first skill a classics student must learn is to read Greek and Latin, which means mastering their vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and morphology. The study of these languages, moreover, usually proceeds through sentences adapted or taken whole from Greek and Roman authors.

Right from the start, then, classics students are learning about the great writers and works of antiquity, rather than learning how to ask for directions to the train station or the museum. Thus, even the technical study of Greek and Latin vocabulary and grammar exposes the student to some of the greatest literature, writers, and ideas in history. Here is an important difference between classics and other disciplines in the humanities: to a much greater degree classics teaches languages in a way that also introduces students to the culture, history, philosophy, and literature of Greece and Rome. But the first step remains learning the languages themselves, so that students eventually can read Greek and Latin masterpieces in their original languages.

After learning basic grammar, students begin to read ancient authors and decide in which specific area of classics they wish to concentrate. But no matter where students eventually focus, most will have first read a wide range of ancient texts in literature, history, and philosophy. This is another advantage of classics: since it is grounded in languages, students are compelled to become broadly educated in the whole culture of ancient Greece or Rome rather than just in some narrow subspecialty.

Moreover, the habits of analysis and close reading required to understand the ancient languages often carry over into other areas, lessening (but not alas eliminating) the chance that students will be attracted to, or will themselves put forth, subjective or ideologically slanted interpretations. For in the end, no matter what ideological axe you want to grind, the Greek and Latin have to be accurately read and correctly translated, and this empirical, concrete procedure makes it difficult to get away with fuzzy or interested readings.

The possible areas of concentration in classics include the whole gamut of the humanities and social sciences: history (including religious, social, and intellectual history), philosophy, art (including vases, mosaics, and sculpture), architecture, literary criticism (including metrics and poetics), grammar, rhetoric, archaeology, geography, political science, and the histories of science, medicine, engineering, war, mathematics, and geometry. Moreover, classics is a fundamental discipline for those interested in the history of Christianity, the formation and transmission of the text of the New Testament, and the early Christian theologians and their doctrines (patristics).

In addition to these concentrations there are more technical foundational disciplines:


This is the study of inscriptions engraved on stone, pottery, and sometimes wood (coins are the concern of numismatics). Thousands of inscriptions from the ancient world have survived, some intact, others badly mutilated. Once an inscription is discovered, the epigraphist must clean and decipher it. This process can be very difficult, not just because of  the often-deteriorated condition of the stone but also because usually words are not separated and there are no small letters. Also, over time the style of some letters changes or letters pick up decorative flourishes. Inscriptions are valuable for historians of all sorts, whether social, political, religious, legal, or literary, since inscriptions cover a wide range of subject matter, from political decrees to expressions of affection for a dead spouse or child.

A fascinating example of epigraphical sleuthing involves the Colosseum in Rome. An inscription still visible today concerning repairs made in the fifth century A.D. is covered with holes in which were once anchored the metal letters of an earlier inscription. In 1995 Géza Alföldy of Heidelberg reconstructed the original inscription by analyzing the hole patterns. The reconstructed inscription dated to the time of the emperor Vespasian and specifically to the completion of a phase of construction of the Colosseum around a.d. 79.

What we learn from this inscription is that the Colosseum was built “from the spoils” of a war; the only war that could have provided the necessary riches was the Jewish Revolt of a.d. 66–70, which ended with the destruction of the Temple and the removal of all its treasures. In other words, the plundered treasures of the Temple in Jerusalem financed the building of the Colosseum.


Ancient writing was predominantly recorded on papyrus, a kind of paper made from a reed that grows mainly in Egypt. Papyrus deteriorates in damp climates, but the arid climes of Egypt and the Middle East, where many Greeks and then Romans lived for centuries, have allowed many papyrus documents to survive. Papyrology is the study of writing on papyrus and also fragments of pottery (ostraca) and wooden tablets, if discovered at the same site. Up to now about thirty thousand papyrus texts have been published, and many more remain in collections around the world.

A papyrologist must decipher various styles of handwriting and then transcribe the writing, accounting for errors, misspellings, etc. A papyrus document is frequently damaged, with holes or torn-off sections, and so the text must be filled in with conjectures or simply left incomplete.

Many great works of ancient Greek literature have survived only on papyrus. These include portions of several comedies by Menander, significant extracts from prose narratives, and philosophical works like the fourth-century B.C. Constitution of Athens—a discussion of Athenian government—along with numerous social documents such as letters, edicts, petitions, contracts, and receipts. Like epigraphists, papyrologists provide original sources for historians of literature, philosophy, politics, law, religion, and daily life.

A subdiscipline of papyrology is paleography, the study of how words and letters are written on papyrus. Paleography concerns the reading of ancient scripts and the history of their development and changes, which helps in dating documents, as well as the study of materials used in writing such as papyrus and inks.

Textual Criticism.

Textual critics try to establish as correct a version of an ancient text as possible based on all surviving versions, including manuscripts, quotations in other authors, and fragments found on papyrus or ostraca. Most versions of ancient texts are the result of copies of copies over generations, and so errors by scribes frequently creep in. The modern textual critic must weigh all the surviving versions, determine which version is more reliable, reconstruct omissions, identify and correct scribal errors, and detect inconsistencies of authorial style, meter, or genre, all in an attempt to provide a text as close to the original as possible.

The typical Greek or Latin text published today will provide at the bottom of each page a “critical apparatus,” a list of all the variants and corrections (“emendations”).

Knowledge of textual variants frequently is necessary when interpreting ancient literature. For example, a poem by the Roman poet Catullus is addressed to his friend Caelius and concerns a woman called Lesbia, with whom Catullus had a passionate affair but who now is seeing Caelius. In one variant of the text, he calls her “our Lesbia,” which suggests that Caelius and Catullus are both seeing Lesbia. In the other variant, he calls her “your Lesbia,” which implies that Catullus is through with her. One’s interpretation of this poem and the speaker’s attitude to Lesbia will necessarily be influenced by which variant is followed.

It should be obvious that all these technical disciplines overlap somewhat and interconnect very closely. Most classicists have a basic knowledge of all these skills and will call on all or many of them when working with specific ancient texts or areas of research. Someone interested in the Colosseum, for example, will need to be knowledgeable about architecture, engineering, and epigraphy, but also will have to be familiar with the texts and manuscript traditions of works such as Martial’s description of the opening games held in the Colosseum, or Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars.

More importantly, however, the scholars doing this technical work provide the foundational material—especially the texts—upon which every classical scholar depends whether he or she is studying history, art, literary criticism, philosophy, or social history.

The primary experience of most people with the field of classics, however, will come with texts, the great surviving masterpieces that have influenced Western civilization for roughly twenty-five hundred years. And that experience in turn will most likely be with translations.

A few other points should be kept in mind.

First, while today we experience literature mostly by reading books silently by ourselves, in the ancient world literature was much more an oral and public experience. Thus, literature was necessarily social and political, rather than just a private taste or pastime. In other words, literature was taken much more seriously, its moral, political, and social implications more clearly accepted and recognized.

Second, we possess only a fraction of all the ancient Greek and Latin literature that once existed, and much of what we do have exists only in fragmentary form. To see how much has been lost, consider tragedy. We have thirty-three complete Greek plays from three playwrights. But in roughly a century of tragic performances (about 500–400 b.c.) there were probably a thousand plays produced, written by scores of poets. They exist now only as names and snippets of text, sometimes a mere few words long. Our generalizations about ancient literature, then, must always recognize that they apply in the main only to those works that have survived.

Bruce S. Thornton is an American classicist at California State University, Fresno, and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

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