Classics

Classics

History of the Western Classics

The word “classics” is derived from the Latin adjective classicus: “belonging to the highest class of citizens”, connoting superiority, authority, and perfection. The first “Classic” writer was Aulus Gellius, a 2nd-century Roman writer who, in the miscellany Noctes Atticae (19, 8, 15), refers to a writer as a Classicus scriptor, non proletarius(“A distinguished, not a commonplace writer”). Such classification began with the Greeks’ ranking their cultural works, with the word canon (“carpenter’s rule”). Moreover, early Christian Church Fathers used canon to rank the authoritative texts of the New Testament, preserving them, given the expense of vellum and papyrus and mechanical book reproduction, thus, being comprehended in a canon ensured a book’s preservation as the best way to retain information about a civilization. Contemporarily, the Western canon defines the best of Western culture. In the ancient world, at the Alexandrian Library, scholars coined the Greek term Hoi enkrithentes (“the admitted”, “the included”) to identify the writers in the canon.
 
The method of study in the Classical World was “Philo’s Rule”: (lit.: "strike the divine coin anew")—the law of strict continuity in preserving words and ideas. Although the definitions of words and ideas might broaden, continuity (preservation) requires retention of their original arete (excellence, virtue, goodness). “Philo’s Rule” imparts intellectual and aesthetic appreciation of “the best, which has been thought and said in the world”. Oxford classicist Edward Copleston said that classical education “communicates to the mind…a high sense of honor, a disdain of death in a good cause, a passionate devotion to the welfare of one’s country”, thus concurring with Cicero that: “All literature, all philosophical treatises, all the voices of antiquity are full of examples for imitation, which would all lie unseen in darkness without the light of literature”.
 
Legacy of the Classical World
 
The Classical languages of the Ancient Mediterranean world influenced every European language, imparting to each a learned vocabulary of international application. Thus, Latin grew from a highly developed cultural product of the Golden and Silver eras of Latin literature to become the international lingua franca in matters diplomatic, scientific, philosophic and religious, until the 17th century. In turn, the Classical languages continued, Latin evolved into the Romance languages and Ancient Greek into Modern Greek and its dialects. In the specialised science and technology vocabularies, the influence of Latin and Greek is notable. Ecclesiastical Latin, the Roman Catholic Church’s official tongue, remains a living legacy of the classical world to the contemporary world.
 
Sub-disciplines within the classics
 
One of the most notable characteristics of the modern study of classics is the diversity of the field. Although traditionally focused on ancient Greece and Rome, the study now encompasses the entire ancient Mediterranean world, thus expanding their studies to Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East.
 
Philology
 
Traditionally, classics was essentially the philology of ancient texts. Although now less dominant, philology retains a central role. One definition of classical philology describes it as "the science which concerns itself with everything that has been transmitted from antiquity in the Greek or Latin language. The object of this science is thus the Graeco-Roman, or Classical, world to the extent that it has left behind monuments in a linguistic form." Before the invention of the printing press, texts were reproduced by hand and distributed haphazardly. As a result, extant versions of the same text often differ from one another. Some classical philologists, known as textual critics, seek to synthesize these defective texts to find the most accurate version.
 
Archaeology
 
Classical archaeology is the investigation of the physical remains of the great Mediterranean civilizations of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. The archaeologists’ field, laboratory, library, and documentation work make available the extant literary and linguistic cultural artefacts to the field’s sub-disciplines, such as Philology. Like-wise, archaeologists rely upon the philology of ancient literatures in establishing historic contexts among the classic-era remains of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
 
Art History
 
Some art historians focus their study of the development of art on the classical world. Indeed, the art and architecture of Ancient Rome and Greece is very well regarded and remains at the heart of much of our art today. For example, Ancient Greek architecture gave us the Classical Orders: Doric order, Ionic order, and Corinthian order. The Parthenon is still the architectural symbol of the classical world.
 
Greek sculpture is well known and we know the names of several Ancient Greek artists: for example, Phidias.
 
Civilization and History
 
With philology, archæology, and art history, scholars seek understanding of the history and culture of a civilisation, through critical study of the extant literary and physical artefacts, in order to compose and establish a continual historic narrative of the Ancient World and its peoples. The task is difficult, given the dearth of physical evidence; for example, Sparta was a leading Greek city-state, yet little evidence of it survives to study, and what is available comes from Athens, Sparta’s principal rival; like-wise, the Roman Empire destroyed most evidence (cultural artefacts) of earlier, conquered civilizations, such as that of the Etruscans.
 
Philosophy
 
Pythagoras coined the word philosophy (“love of wisdom”), the work of the “Philosopher” who seeks understanding of the world as it is, thus, most classics scholars recognize that the roots of Western philosophy originate in Greek philosophy, the works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.
 
Classical Greece
 
Ancient Greece is the civilization belonging to the period of Greek history lasting from the Archaic period of the 8th to 6th centuries BC to 146 BC and the Roman conquest of Greece after the Battle of Corinth. At the center of this time period is Classical Greece, which flourished during the 5th to 4th centuries BC, at first under Athenian leadership successfully repelling the military threat of Persian invasion. The Athenian Golden Age ends with the defeat of Athens at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC.
 
Classical Greek culture had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire, which carried a version of it to many parts of the Mediterranean region and Europe, for which reason Classical Greece is generally considered to be the seminal culture which provided the foundation of Western civilization.
 
Language in ancient Greece
 
Ancient Greek is the historical stage in the development of the Greek language spanning the Archaic (c. 9th–6th centuries BC), Classical (c. 5th–4th centuries BC), and Hellenistic (c. 3rd century BC – 6th century AD) periods of ancient Greece and the ancient world. It is predated in the 2nd millennium BC by Mycenaean Greek. Its Hellenistic phase is known as Koine ("common") or Biblical Greek, and its late period mutates imperceptibly into Medieval Greek. Koine is regarded as a separate historical stage of its own, although in its earlier form it closely resembles Classical Greek. Prior to the Koine period, Greek of the classic and earlier periods included several regional dialects.
 
Ancient Greek was the language of Homer and of classical Athenian historians, playwrights, and philosophers. It has contributed many words to English vocabulary and has been a standard subject of study in Western educational institutions since the Renaissance. Latinized forms of Ancient Greek roots are used in many of the scientific names of species and in scientific terminology.
 
Ancient Greek literature
 
Alfred North Whitehead once claimed that all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato. To suggest that all of Western literature is no more than a footnote to the writings of ancient Greece is an exaggeration, but it is nevertheless true that the Greek world of thought was so far-ranging that there is scarcely an idea discussed today not already debated by the ancient writers. At the beginning of Greek literature stand the two monumental works of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greeks invented the epic and lyric forms of tragedy and used them skillfully. They also invented drama and produced masterpieces that are still reckoned as drama's crowning achievement. Like tragedy, comedy arose from a ritual in honor of Dionysus, but in this case the plays were full of frank obscenity, abuse, and insult. At Athens the comedies became an official part of the festival celebration in 486 BC, and prizes were offered for the best productions.
 
Two of the most famous historians who have ever written flourished during Greece's classical age: Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus is commonly called the father of history, and his "History" contains the first truly literary use of prose in Western literature. Of the two, Thucydides was the more careful historian. His critical use of sources, inclusion of documents, and laborious research made his History of the Peloponnesian War a significant influence on later generations of historians. The greatest achievement of the 4th century was in philosophy. There were many Greek philosophers, but three names tower above the rest: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It is impossible to calculate the enormous influence these thinkers have had on Western society .
 
Greek mythology and religion
 
Greek mythology is the body of myths and legends belonging to the ancient Greeks concerning their gods and heroes, the nature of the world, and the origins and significance of their own cult and ritual practices. They were a part of religion in ancient Greece. Modern scholars refer to the myths and study them in an attempt to throw light on the religious and political institutions of Ancient Greece, its civilization, and to gain understanding of the nature of myth-making itself.
 
Greek religion encompasses the collection of beliefs and rituals practiced in ancient Greece in the form of both popular public religion and cult practices. These different groups varied enough for it to be possible to speak of Greek religions or "cults" in the plural, though most of them shared similarities. Also, the Greek religion extended out of Greece and out to other islands.
 
Many Greek people recognized the major gods and goddesses: Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Ares, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Athena, Hermes, Demeter, Hestia and Hera though philosophies such as Stoicism and some forms of Platonism used language that seems to posit a transcendent single deity. Different cities often worshipped the same deities, sometimes with epithets that distinguished them and specified their local nature.
 
Ancient Greek philosophy
 
Ancient Greek philosophy arose in the 6th century BCE and continued through the Hellenistic period, at which point Ancient Greece was incorporated in the Roman Empire. It dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including political philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, ontology, logic, biology, rhetoric, and aesthetics.
 
Many philosophers today concede that Greek philosophy has shaped the entire Western thought since its inception. Clear, unbroken lines of influence lead from ancient Greek and Hellenistic philosophers, to medieval Islamic philosophers, to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment.
 
Technology of ancient Greece
 
Ancient Greek technology developed at an unprecedented speed during the 5th century BC, continuing up to and including the Roman period, and beyond. Inventions that are credited to the ancient Greeks such as the gear, screw, rotary mills, screw press, bronze casting techniques, water clock, water organ, torsion catapult and the use of steam to operate some experimental machines and toys and a chart to find prime numbers. Many of these inventions occurred late in the Greek period, often inspired by the need to improve weapons and tactics in war. However, peaceful uses are shown by their early development of the watermill, a device which pointed to further exploitation on a large scale under the Romans. They developed surveying and mathematics to an advanced state, and many of their technical advances were published by philosophers such as Archimedes and Hero.
 
Famous classicists
 
Throughout the history of the Western world, many classicists have gone on to gain acknowledgement outside the field.
 
  • John Milton, author of Paradise Lost and English Civil War figure; studied, like many educated people of the time, Latin and Greek texts, which influenced Paradise Lost.
  • George Berkeley, philosopher, read Classics at Trinity College, Dublin, where he was also Junior Lecturer in Greek.
  • Edward Gibbon, English historian and Member of Parliament who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • William Ewart Gladstone, 19th century British Prime Minister, studied classics at Oxford University
  • Theodor Mommsen, author of History of Rome and works on Roman law; German politician, delegate in the Reichstag during the German Empire period
  • Karl Marx, philosopher and political thinker, studied Latin and Greek and received a Ph.D. for a dissertation on ancient Greek philosophy, entitled "The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature." His classical background is reflected in his philosophies—indeed the term "proletariat" which he coined came from that Latin word referring to the lowest class of citizen.
  • Søren Kierkegaard, philosopher, theologian, and social critic, studied classical philosophy and received a Master of Arts for a dissertation on Socratic thought, entitled On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates. Kierkegaard spent much of his philosophical career studying and refining his views of Socrates.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, philosopher; became Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Basel in Switzerland aged only 24. His most famous books on the subject are The Birth of Tragedy and Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks.
  • Sir James George Frazer, poet and anthropologist
  • Oscar Wilde, nineteenth-century playwright and poet; studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford
  • A.E. Housman, best known to the public as a poet and the author of A Shropshire Lad, was the most accomplished (and feared) textual critic of his generation and held the Kennedy Professorship of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1911 until his death in 1936.
  • John Buchan, writer and politician, who served as Governor General of Canada.
  • P.G. Wodehouse, writer, playwright, lyricist and creator of Jeeves; studied classics at Dulwich College
  • Enoch Powell, British Conservative and later Ulster Unionist politician; wrote and edited texts on Herodotus
  • Boris Johnson, British Conservative politician and current Mayor of London; studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford.
Most other pre-twentieth century Oxbridge playwrights, poets and English scholars studied classics before English studies became a course in its own right. Also many civil servants, politicians, etc. studied classics at Oxford University, by taking a course in Greats, up till the 1920s, when Modern Greats started to become more influential.
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