Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome

Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome

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by James James I. Porter

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The term "classical" is used to describe everything from the poems of Homer to entire periods of Greek and Roman antiquity. But just how did the concept evolve? This collection of essays by leading classics scholars from the United States and Europe challenges the limits of the current understanding of the term. The book seeks not to arrive at a final definition,


The term "classical" is used to describe everything from the poems of Homer to entire periods of Greek and Roman antiquity. But just how did the concept evolve? This collection of essays by leading classics scholars from the United States and Europe challenges the limits of the current understanding of the term. The book seeks not to arrive at a final definition, but rather to provide a cultural history of the concept by exploring how the meanings of "classical" have been created, recreated, and rejected over time. The book asks questions that have been nearly absent from the scholarly literature. Does "classical" refer to a specific period of history or to the artistic products of that time? How has its definition changed? Did those who lived in classical times have some understanding of what the term "classical" has meant? How coherent, consistent, or even justified is the term?

The book's introduction provides a generous theoretical and historical overview. It is followed by eleven chapters in which the contributors argue for the existence not of a single classical past, but of multiple, competing classical pasts. The essays address a broad range of topics—Homer and early Greek poetry and music, Isocrate, Hellenistic and Roman art, Cicero and Greek philosophy, the history of Latin literature, imperial Greek literature, and more. The most up-to-date and challenging treatment of the topic available, this collection will be of lasting interest to students and scholars of ancient and modern literature, art, and cultural history.

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Classical Pasts

The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-08942-3



James I. Porter

What seemed a single escalator, a perpetual recession into history, turns out, on reflection, to be a more complicated movement: Old England, settlement, the rural virtues-all these, in fact, mean different things at different times, and quite different values are being brought into question.

-Raymond Williams, The Country and the City

IN 1930 the field of classical studies experienced an insurrection. Werner Jaeger, in apostasy from his teacher and predecessor at Berlin, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, convened a conference in Naumburg called "The Problem of the Classical" ("Das Problem des Klassischen"). The apostasy was open and calculated. Thirty years earlier Wilamowitz had boasted that he helped put paid to the word classical, which he found meaningless, and in his Geschichte der Philologie from 1921 he notoriously (and audibly) omitted the time-honored epithet of his discipline. (In English the title ought to read, History of Philology. The published English and Italian translations spoil the title's symbolics by reinserting the missing word classical.) As Wilamowitz later wrote to WolfgangSchadewaldt, one of the participants in the conference and a former pupil, "Whenever I read Die Antike [Jaeger's neohumanist journal founded in 1925], a millstone starts turning in my head. But the stone grinds no meal, not for me at least.-I have an idea what classical physics is, and there is classical music. But besides that?" Das Klassische was a problem indeed, and Jaeger's conference aimed at making classics a classical discipline again, one firmly rooted in classical and humanistic values true for all time and in the tradition of Winckelmann, Humboldt, and Goethe, as against its being a compilation of dry historical data.

We have a good idea of what the conference was about because Jaeger published its proceedings a year later. But what went on behind the scenes? Luckily, in the days before tape recorders there was Alfred Körte, who offers an invaluable first-hand account of what he saw and heard: "A number of speakers in the discussion at Naumburg sharply disputed the claim that Aeschylus was a classical author of the first rank (ein Klassiker) ... As the discussion progressed, it turned out that actually none of the first-class luminaries of world literature had any rightful claim to the label classical, or at most they had only a qualified claim to it-neither Homer nor Aeschylus nor Shakespeare nor even the young Goethe. Sophocles and Virgil fitted the classical ideal best of all."

It is obvious that the scholars Jaeger surrounded himself with had painted themselves into an intellectual corner, but it does not follow from their failure that the classical should be any less of a problem today than it was in 1930. The term and the idea it names are as common as they ever were. Classicists teach in departments of Classics, they study classical literature and culture (commonly known as the classics), the books they write, and more often buy, appear on the shelves of stores and libraries under the rubric of Classical Studies, and so on. But does anyone stop to ask what these labels mean?

Rarely, and with good reason. In the first place, this kind of inquiry seems dated, and embarrassingly so. Passionate defenses of the classical were once in vogue, but consensus was never reached, and anyway there is something musty and distasteful about the question, which smacks of belletrism or of antiquarianism and a dated aesthetics. What have the concerns of a Boileau, a Goethe, or a Werner Jaeger to do with us today? The quarrels of the Ancients and Moderns are dead, and postmodern chic requires that the word classical should at most appear with a knowing nod and in inverted commas. Outside of art history, where the term still carries a strong periodizing charge and are occasionally felt to be troubling, and occasionally in Germany where das Klassische continues to evoke an important aspect of the modern German identity and so continues to find historical relevance at least, classicists for the most part are content to submit to the dictates of usage and to leave well enough alone. And no doubt wisely so, for if anything was learned from the once raging but now weary and exhausted debates of the past centuries, it is surely the conclusion that the terms formed around the idea of the classical can have no satisfactory definition. Nobody likes pressing after insolubles, and this is no exception. Faced with the premonition of failure, classicists (even of the postmodern variety) naturally shy away from analyzing the terms too closely. But there may be more practical premonitions at work here.

Even as we lurch into the twenty-first century, with its shimmering promises of strange new worlds transformed by changes in technology and in global economies, the idea of the classical has a cachet that continues to translate into cultural prestige, authority, elitist satisfactions, and economic power-less so than in the past, to be sure, but with a residual effect that is far from negligible. What is more, the idea of the classical conveys an allure that is no less powerful for being all the more indefinable. Indeed, to decide its meaning once and for all would be to surrender some of this power-a sure disincentive to looking too long and hard at the meaning of the term. On the other hand, the very fact that the terms classical, classicism, and the rest are mutually implicated, linguistically, historically, and institutionally, ensures that a quiver of uncertainty felt in any one of the terms will be felt across them all. So, quite apart from the difficulties that the notion of the classical poses at the level of diction and dictionaries, the motivation for defining this extended family of terms and ideas appears to be rather minimal, at least within the circle of classical studies. (Just try proposing a change of name in your local department of Classics and watch the reactions you will draw.) Thus, while historians of modern literature and art have shown an interest in defining, with a backward-looking regard, the nature of the classic or in analyzing the phenomenon of classicism in its modern forms, classicists are frequently the last to question the meaning of the terms that currently define, for good or ill, the entirety of their fields. One of the ironies of this situation is that simply by promoting their studies and by confirming their reach, classicists are witting or unwitting classicizers. But surely there is something odd about this conclusion. Classicists are not classical, and their writings are not classical. It is only the objects of their study that purportedly are. So what makes a classicist a classicist?


At issue in questions about classicism is plainly the very label by which we designate the cultures of Greece and Rome as classical, and so too the disciplines that seek to grasp them. The label, inherited and ubiquitous, is for the most part taken for granted rather than questioned even among those who study it. It is a fair question to ask whether the presumptive epithet classical in classical studies or classical antiquity is justified, or even what it would mean for the terms to count as justified at all. The aim of the present volume is to open an investigation into this very issue. The problem is to confront our nomenclature with our epistemologies, to measure what we say against what we know. Accordingly, the premise of Classical Pasts lies at the intersection of two related questions: First, are classicism-briefly, an awareness of and appreciation for what is classical-and the classical (however that comes to be defined) part of what we today call "the classical past," namely the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome? And second, if so, how would we recognize this sensibility? That is, by way of what, and especially by whose, criteria would we point to the existence of classicism and the classical in Greco-Roman antiquity? These two questions can be summed up by way of a third: Was classical antiquity classical?

Even judging by existing criteria, the answer to this last question cannot be an unqualified Yes. Although some classicists write on classical texts, and some classical archaeologists investigate classical sites and ruins, not all of them do. Not all of the works to survive from Greco-Roman antiquity are recognized "classics" (treatises on architecture are not, even if many of the works they describe are), and not even all of antiquity is considered equally classical. Conventionally, classical antiquity comprises not one comprehensive classical expanse but two isolated classical moments: fifth- and fourth-century Athens, and Augustan Rome. Nor are these strictly symmetrical: most of the prestige gets handed-again, conventionally-to Athens, while Roman culture, at least in the modern era, has often been felt to be a shadow or knock-off of the Greek original, when it was not seen as basking serenely in a borrowed, earlier glory. On either side of these strictly classical phenomena are the outlying extremes: preclassical Greece (Greece of the Bronze Age and the subsequent "Dark Age") and postclassical antiquity (however we choose to date this). And there are the debated middles, which are commonly thought, respectively, to lead up to, fall off from, or recapture-at least in aspiration-the glories of high classical Greece: the archaic period (ca. 800-500 B.C.E.); the diasporic Ptolemaic or Hellenistic period (323 to the first century B.C.E.); and the Second Sophistic period (ca. 50-250 C.E.), when Greeks were Romans and Romans, it often seems, sought to be like Greeks. Nor is classical Greece itself consistently classical. On the contrary, that era-or its idea-is riven into three conventional periods, mapping within itself the same rising and falling curve as the surrounding arc of history: the so-called Early Classical (480-450 B.C.E.), High Classical (450-400 B.C.E.), and Late Classical or incipiently classicizing (400-323 B.C.E.) periods. The disparities are wide indeed.

A classicizing view of classical antiquity is objectionable on a number of counts. It is known and occasionally acknowledged that not even all of mid-fifth-century Athens at its zenith is equally classical. Everyday banausic artifacts-products of the so-called minor arts-bear none of the traits of so-called classical objects, which reminds us of an ascending ladder of values in any cultural paradigm. Foreign influences like Orientalism and Egyptianism as well as various forms of hybridity impinge upon all presumptions about cultural purism, ancient and modern, qualifying them if not also throwing them into question (see especially Elsner, this volume). And there are countless internal challenges to the idea, or ideal, of a hegemonic classical Athenian or Roman culture, starting with the questionable applicability of the label, which is in essence an aesthetic rubric, to the diverse domains of these two cultures. Can we truly identify the classical in intellectual and political life, in social relations, or in religious practices? Is Gorgias, the devious sophist, a classical thinker just by virtue of being a rough contemporary of Phidias? Or the atomist Democritus, for that matter? To assume a positive answer in any of these cases is to underestimate the inherent difficulties of the term classical, the uneven distribution of patterns and perceptions within and not only across various domains of culture, and the likelihood of their mutual untranslatability. The only other genuine alternative, inserting ancient Greece and Rome into the contact cultures of the wider Mediterranean world in an area-studies approach, is in the decided minority, and for the same reasons. Western culture remains predominantly under the spell of Hellenism.

The conventional and still dominant view of Greek and Roman classicism is, in a word, Hellenocentric. Its epicenter is Athens from the end of the Persian War in the early fifth century down to its collapse at the hands of Philip of Macedon in the fourth. All of which is to say that classical antiquity is divided, not unified, by claims to its classicism, at the very least by the presence of two classical periods inhabiting it from within, and by a series of contenders for the title which, for the most part, are considered to be either losers or nonstarters (the "pre-" or "post-" classical eras, from the Bronze Age to later antiquity). And because classical antiquity has been treated as divided from within, the study of classical antiquity has had to be divided from within as well. The consequences for this view of Greek and Roman antiquity have been vast, from the highest reaches of the art world and its markets, where the culture of copies and originals looms large, to the most mundane details of the classroom, where textbooks, translations, editions, and curricula have all been affected in both selection and availability. And while the view of classical culture as an organic entity that rises and falls along a sweeping parabola has been contested, the main points of reference and the picture as a whole remain pretty much intact, even as the cracks and divisions are everywhere to be felt and seen.

Classical antiquity is not consistently classical primarily because it has not been felt to be so in the past, but also because opinions about the question of where particular classical values are to be sought and found have varied. Thus, while consensus seems to cluster around Athenocentric values, the consensus splinters around particular instances (as the Naumburg discussion showed). Examples of debated items from Greece alone have historically included Homer, Euripides, and the Parthenon. Are these more or less classical than the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine, the Augustus of Prima Porta, or Hadrian's classical theme park at Tivoli? We can point to facts about symmetry and proportionality in architecture and to standards of decorum and clarity (or the demands for both) in literature and in criticism. But do these facts point to a classical sensibility? What justifies the assumption that they do? Pressed to this kind of extreme, the label classical seems more of an encumbrance than a convenience.


Excerpted from Classical Pasts Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Allesandro Barchiesi
This is an appealing and innovative book that will make a difference and attract considerable attention from all the sub-fields of what is conventionally known as Classics.
Allesandro Barchiesi, Stanford University and the University of Siena, author of "Speaking Volumes"
Mark Fullerton
In addition to his own outstanding introduction and essay, Professor Porter presents here works by true luminaries in the wide variety of fields that are touched by the issue of classicism in its many forms. The result is a highly significant work.
Mark Fullerton, Ohio State University, author of "Ancient Art and Its Historiography"

Meet the Author

James I. Porter is Professor of Greek, Latin, and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He is the author of "Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future" and "The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on the Birth of Tragedy".

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