For those who study Classics, the question that begins many conversations in your first year of an undergraduate degree, “What do you study?”, can force a wry smile upon your face and a small urge to be almost apologetic. Elitist, inaccessible, eurocentric: these ideas spring to the mind of many people when they consider the study of classical antiquity. We may joke that Classics is thirty years behind other humanities subjects, but there is an underlying truth to this; its traditional image is not aided by the reticence among its academics to adopt new frameworks for engaging with the subject, seemingly due to a subtle “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Classics may not be broken, but that is no reason not to move with the times.
Since the Renaissance, there has been a re-awakening of interest in the classical past which has incorporated an increasing variety of approaches. One of these approaches is reception studies. Reception studies arose from the literary theory of reader response, which emphasises the individual interpretation of the reader in shaping the meaning of a literary work. Reader response theory is based on the premise that no text has an inherent meaning outside of the relationship between it and its reader, and that this relationship is affected by the reader’s personal experiences and background as well as the influences of their society. Reading a text is a creative act. Reception studies, building on this theory, has been incorporated into performance studies, historiography, and other disciplines. As it applies to Classics, it constitutes the exploration of how and why the literature, art, and ideas of the ancient Graeco-Roman world have been received, portrayed, and adapted throughout time. In the past twenty years, building on the pioneering work of the academic Charles Martindale, it has been accepted as a rigorous discipline by the classical community, and is developing into one of the major foci of current classical scholarship.
However, we should remember that while the theoretical study of classical reception may be relatively new, and so seen as a modernising force within the discipline, reception itself is not. In an Eidolon piece, Johanna Hanink wrote that “the ancient past is visibly interwoven in the fabric of the present moment”. Thus, when we contacted Maria Wyke, an Oxford alumna and now a professor of Latin and expert in classical reception studies at UCL, for her thoughts on the role of reception within Classics, she observed that “there is no Classics without Reception Studies”. Reception fundamentally underpins not only how we engage with the ancient past, but also our very ability to do so. For example, in reading Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin, when we might consider ourselves to have direct access to the author’s ‘original’ work, we are engaging with manifold acts of reception. The text itself has been passed down in different forms over centuries, and the version we use today has been put together using the ‘best guesses’ of editors where the manuscripts differ, which in themselves can be uncertain and contentious – as any Classics student will be able to tell you, pointing to the lengthy apparatus criticus of their Oxford Classical Text. And then, the translations, commentaries, and other scholarship that we use to interpret the text all form part of an extensive history of previous interpretations and schools of thought regarding Virgil’s work.
We can recognise that the Aeneid is a great work of art, but we need to also understand how it has been passed down to us, what has been emphasised and what has been omitted, and how it has been used to serve varied ideological agendas; in essence, the combination of embellishment and mutilation, expansion and retraction, that happens to any text over time. Without any awareness of its reception, we cannot so easily explain why it remains so resonant in the culture and thought of our society. We cannot step into the classical world through a vacuum.
And nor should we want to. The reception of the classical past is arguably what makes Classics so worthy of study, and forms an important part of why ancient ideas and works are still relevant to us today. Wyke also noted that “what makes Classics at all ‘special’ these days is no longer its association with elite cultures and elite education. Classics has been de-centred, is no longer ‘classic’ in that sense. But what makes it deserving of special attention (in contrast say to any study of modern languages & cultures) is precisely the long rich history of its transmission and reception, the frequency with which writers, artists, sculptors, dramatists, novelists etc. stake out their own space in culture by drawing on and often challenging classical culture”. The fact that classical ideas are present everywhere in popular culture, from the Percy Jackson novels to the poetry of Anne Carson, to the film Ben Hur, is evidence that people keep on wanting to reread and re-imagine these stories and ideas. Understanding why these ideas are still appealing to a contemporary global audience, and why they survived hundreds of years before that, is key in our approach to the ancient world.
Furthermore, neglecting to recognise the importance of reception in our engagement with Classics can carry consequences which are dangerous in more than an academic sense. Remaining unaware of how classical ideas have been received and failing to participate in the discourse of reception leaves the floor open for others to decide the interpretations of these ideas for us, and risks rendering ourselves uncritical of the ways in which such interpretations might be used. One instance of a particularly potent and troubling ideological interpretation of the classical past is the way in which 20th-century authoritarian regimes drew on classical ideas concerning race and colonialism, an example being Mussolini’s attempt to revive the glory of the Roman empire in modern Italy and his use of classical art and architecture in state propaganda. Mussolini replaced the socialist Labour day with the anniversary of the founding of Rome, on 21st April, in order to promote the Roman virtues of ‘work’ and ‘discipline’, in a clear example of the classical past being ‘cherry-picked’ for a means of promoting one particular ideology; ironically, Karl Marx himself was a classicist and wrote his PhD thesis on classical philosophy. The British empire too used classical precedent to legitimise imperialism, in particular drawing on the Roman empire as a model which had absorbed many different cultures under one political power, leading even to the idea that Britain would have to experience ‘Romanisation’ in order to reach its potential as an imperial force. In 1968, Enoch Powell, in his notoriously racist speech against mass immigration, quoted part of Sibyl’s prophecy in the Aeneid, giving the speech its commonly used name “Rivers of Blood”.
And this ideological weaponising of Classics is not an ugly habit of the past to be neatly tucked away out of our consciousness. Donna Zuckerberg, in her book Not All Dead White Men, discusses “the fascination with ancient Stoicism” on the websites of the ‘Red Pill’ or ‘incel’ alt-right online community, in which members “use Stoicism to justify their belief that women and people of colour are not just angrier and more emotional than men, but morally inferior as well”. But we must bear in mind that we are not powerless. Classical works are not a slate clean of ideological smudges, for us to hold up and passively admire. And who would want to stare at a blank canvas anyway? We must commit ourselves to actively engaging with the past and how it has been variously interpreted, and then interpret it for ourselves. After all, as Mary Beard points out in Confronting the Classics, “Aeschylus has over the years been performed both as Nazi propaganda and to support the liberation movements in sub-Saharan Africa”. There is no one correct interpretation of a classical work, and we should not stand idly by while others push theirs to the fore. We should add our colours to the canvas.
Despite all this, reception studies remain a frustratingly small element of Oxford’s undergraduate Classics degree. Instead of merely rattling through the canonical texts, the course should emphasise equipping students with important tools for engaging with the Classics. Reception studies’ very limited inclusion in the undergraduate degree means that Classics students are missing exposure to a whole field of study which is currently transforming the way that Classics is studied and will be studied in the future. It therefore seems that we are not being adequately equipped to be at the forefront of the field upon graduation. Even though the Faculty has recognised the need for reform of its traditional emphases (there is an ongoing project to reform Mods, the first half of the course), current plans still make no mention of reception studies. It continues to be wrongly being treated as an optional extra, when in fact it ought to underpin the way we engage with Classics.
Incorporating reception into the study of Classics would diversify access to a course deeply steeped in elitism and counter some of the negative ways in which Classics is often perceived. Few state school students are given the opportunity to study classical subjects at the secondary school level, particularly Greek and Latin. Edith Hall, in her article on the teaching of Classics in secondary schools Citizens’ Classics for the 21st century, notes “the role that training in the ancient languages, as opposed to ancient ideas, plays in dividing social and economic classes”. In 2013, 1305 candidates took Latin A level, of whom 940 attended private schools, while Greek A level was taken by 260 candidates, of whom 223 were at private schools – while only 7% of the country’s students are privately educated according to a government report from 2019. State school pupils can be deterred from applying to study Classics because they feel that they would be thrown into the deep end relative to their private school peers with seven years of Latin under their belt, and perhaps with the knowledge of Greek as well.
This deep inequality has been partially addressed by the Classics faculty by dividing the course into a variety of streams based on the level of prior attainment in Latin and Greek. However, seeing inequality purely in terms of language attainment is only part of the picture; as Hall observes, exposure to ancient ideas through other means can be just as good a springboard into Classics. The Classics faculty may not have much control over the national curriculum, but highlighting the way in which the topics more familiar to sixth formers can be linked to their classical roots would be a judicious step to widen interest and accessibility. If the Classics faculty were to take reception studies seriously, it could integrate the study of classical texts and culture with an exploration of how they have been interpreted by, for example, Renaissance thinkers, or influenced Italian ‘Hercules’ cinema of the late fifties and early sixties. Then, sixth formers with little exposure to the traditional classical canon might be more inclined to consider Classics as a serious option, rather than an esoteric relic from the past.
Classics is becoming revitalised through the introduction of more critical approaches, such as critical race and gender studies. However, again the undergraduate Classics course at Oxford has been slow on the uptake of these new frameworks for engaging with the material – for example, there is currently only one paper available at Greats (the second half of the course) on sex and gender, and nothing at Mods (the first part of the course). As a result, students are having to fill the blatant gaps in the course themselves. This year, undergraduate student Andi Burton-Marsh at Balliol established the Christian Cole Society for Classicists of Colour and organised the highly successful Decolonising Classics lecture series, which has brought a refreshing new perspective for many students. There is a danger in studying Classics that we may see the prevalent traditionalism and inflexibility as inevitable by the very nature of the subject, but there is no reason why engaging with ancient material must involve out-of-date methodology. In fact, in examining material which has already been studied for thousands of years, it is even more necessary to bring a fresh approach. This is one reason why reception studies are such a valuable tool for classicists.
It is a remarkable irony that the Classics Faculty at the University of Oxford is actually a centre for reception studies globally, with its academics leading the field. Its website acknowledges “the great expansion of interest in the reception of classical culture, in which Oxford has played a significant role”. A prominent example is the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD), a research project led by Professor Fiona Macintosh of St Hilda’s, which examines the performance of classical texts from the ancient world up to the modern-day. Its work, along with Edith Hall’s, has highlighted the significance of the performance of Greek tragedy in various post-colonial contexts – one example of an important new area of inquiry in Classics closely tied to reception studies. This project has been running for over 15 years and has become world-renowned as a research centre for classical reception studies. Why, then, is the Oxford undergraduate degree squandering the potential of the Classics faculty’s world experts in reception studies by not making engagement with classical reception its forte?
As Donna Zuckerberg readily admitted in her article ‘The Authorial Lie’, “when you study a discipline like Classics, in the eyes of the rest of the world you are constantly teetering on the edge of irrelevance”. Classicists are generally very touchy about accusations of irrelevance and will go to great lengths to refute them – but why not explore those accusations instead? Perhaps, as Zuckerberg suggests, we should stop pretending at possessing some heightened level of objective insight into the distant past. If instead, we engage with our subject through a self-confidently modern lens, using classical reception as a powerful tool to do so, it might dispel the feelings of irrelevance, and make us better classicists at the same time.
Image credit: Emma Hewlett