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WHAT IS CLASSICS?
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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:
Epigraphy. 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.
Papyrology. 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 (who is discussed below) 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. Thus, the rest of this guide will focus on written texts, organized by genre. This approach means that whole important areas of ancient culture, particularly art and architecture, must regretfully be omitted. For more on ancient philosophy, the reader should consult Ralph M. McInerny's volume in this series.
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.CHAPTER 2
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The earliest surviving literature of the West can be found in the two epics attributed to Homer (c. 750 B.C.) the Iliad and the Odyssey. A continuing scholarly question (the "Homeric question") centers on whether an actual person named Homer ever existed and composed the poems, or whether Homer is a fiction, the poems actually being a compilation from the oral epic tradition put together by several editors. Today most scholars attribute the poems to one or perhaps two authors.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are written in dactylic hexameters, a metrical pattern consisting of six feet of dactyls (a long syllable followed by two short ones) or spondees (two long syllables), with the fifth foot always a dactyl, and the sixth foot consisting of two syllables, the last either long or short. Originally epic was performed by a bard who had memorized thousands of traditional "formulae," whole lines or set phrases such as "long-haired Achaians [Greeks]" or "rosy-fingered dawn," which he then combined into a coherent story as he was performing. How old the oral epic tradition was by the time Homer composed his poems, whether Homer himself knew how to write or dictated to a scribe, and how much of his epics is traditional and how much invented by Homer himself are all fascinating but impossible-to-answer questions.
The subject matter of epic comprises the adventures, values, and experiences of aristocratic warriors who live in a world frequented by the gods, with whom they interact. Homer's epics are concerned with the period of the Trojan War and its aftermath (the hero's return home or nostos), i.e., the twelfth century B.C. In the modern era, archaeological discoveries have indeed confirmed that there once existed a civilization, called Mycenaean (after its most important ruins, discovered at Mycenae in central Greece) that resembled in many respects, particularly in its material culture, the world described by Homer. Yet thematically, Homer's epics reflect the period of the ninth to eighth century B.C., when the power of aristocratic clans was being challenged by the rise of the city-states and consensual governments.
The Iliad, the longer and probably the earlier of the two Homeric epics, covers a few weeks in the tenth year of the fighting at Troy. It focuses on the character of Achilles, the "best of the Achaians," who becomes enraged after a quarrel with Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition and the brother of Menelaus, whose wife Helen ran off with the Trojan Paris and started the war. Homer traces the effects of Achilles' wrath, which include the death of his best friend Patroclus and the Trojan champion Hector, whose death at Achilles' hands signals the fall of Troy.
In the course of telling this story Homer brilliantly reveals the destructive effects of the aristocratic hero's code of honor and vengeance, which in the end sacrifices the community to the hero's personal quest for glory. Homer shows us that a political community cannot exist when ideals are based on personal honor achieved through violence, that our humanity depends on the "ties that bind," or our obligations to other humans, obligations that the hero, by contrast, will sacrifice to achieve glory.
The Odyssey tells of the hero Odysseus's adventures on his return home after the fall of Troy. It is a more accessible story than the Iliad, filled with fabulous locales, seductive temptresses, and fearsome monsters. But the Odyssey also movingly details the effects on the home front of a warrior's prolonged absence. Odysseus is a much more attractive character than the brooding, egocentric idealist Achilles. For one thing Odysseus is older, with a wife and son, and he displays a practical realism and an acceptance of those tragic limitations of life against which Achilles chafes.
Besides the wily Odysseus, the Odyssey contains several remarkable female characters, particularly Odysseus's wife Penelope, whose tricky ways are the equal of her husband's. The marriage of Penelope and Odysseus, based on similarities of character, virtues, and values, demonstrates the central role social institutions play in making human identity and a stable social order possible. The natural world is a harsh and dangerous place, but humans can flourish because they have minds like Odysseus's that can think up various contrivances that allow life to be successfully navigated, and also because they live in communities whose shared values, institutions, and codes lessen the destructive effects of nature's forces and our own equally destructive appetites and passions.
In both epics Homer describes an impressive depth and range of human behavior and motivation. He also recognizes the contradictions and complexities of the soul and the tragic limitations of human existence. Finally, Homer is a fabulous storyteller whose diction, similes, imagery, precise and vivid description of action, and economy of narrative are still fresh and entertaining after twenty-seven hundred years.
After Homer other epics were composed on various subjects, including the Trojan War and its origins, the wars fought over the city of Thebes by Oedipus's sons, and the return home of various Greek heroes. The collection of these stories is called the "Epic Cycle," and it has survived only in fragments and later summaries. In the third century A.D. Quintus of Smyrna (years of birth and death unknown) picked up where Homer left off in the Iliad to tell the story of Achilles' death, the Trojan horse, and the sack of Troy, among other adventures. Another important collection of hexameter poetry once attributed to Homer and written in the epic style comprises the "Homeric Hymns," which date from the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C. These are thirty-three poems of various lengths describing the adventures and attributes of the gods. The most interesting are the second, which tells the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, who is kidnapped by Hades, king of the underworld, and the fifth, which describes Aphrodite's liaison with the mortal Anchises.
Among the Greeks, Homer's literary and cultural authority was similar to that of Shakespeare among the English-speaking peoples—he was a master impossible to imitate. Yet in the early third century B.C. Apollonius of Rhodes (years of birth and death also unknown) published amidst much controversy the Argonautica (C. 270–45 B.C.), a hexameter poem about the voyage of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. The Argonautica is on one level a reworking of Homer, repeating many of epic's conventions and stylistic elements, such as the "extended simile," a detailed comparison that goes on for several lines. Yet at the same time the Argonautica reflects more contemporary (for Apollonius) concerns, such as the psychology of sexual passion, magic and fantasy, science and geography, and a learned interest in the origins of cult and ritual. Apollonius's self-consciousness about his poem's relationship to a venerated literary tradition is part of the work's appeal and interest.
Excerpted from A Student's Guide to Classics by Bruce S. Thornton. Copyright © 2003 Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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Posted July 6, 2014