Classical Studies

Classical StudiesClassical Studies is a branch of the humanities that is primarily concerned with the ancient civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans, as well as many contemporary Mediterranean cultures, and particularly the extensive body of literature and archaeological remains that these cultures passed on to us.

Oxford Reference provides more than 50,000 concise definitions and in-depth, specialist encyclopedic entries that cover this wide-ranging and multi-faceted body of research. Our coverage comprises authoritative, highly accessible information on the very latest terminology, concepts, theories, techniques, people, and organizations relating to all areas of classical studies—from philology, archaeology, and art history, to philosophy, theology, history, and literature. Written by trusted experts for researchers at every level, entries are complemented by illustrative line drawings and maps wherever useful.

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                               The Oxford Classical Dictionary    Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World    The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization   The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature

See all the Classical Studies books available on Oxford Reference >

Sample resources

Discover Classical Studies on Oxford Reference with the below sample content:

A timeline of Ancient Athens: from becoming a surviving outpost of Mycenaean civilization to Justinian closing down the schools

An introduction to classical antiquity from The Grove Encyclopedia of Classical Art and Architecture

A biography of Cleopatra VII from the Dictionary of African Biography

An exploration of emotions from The Oxford Classical Dictionary (4th edition)

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Featured Author

Michael Gagarin

Michael Gagarin

Michael Gagarin is James R. Dougherty, Jr., Centennial Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Aeschylean Drama (1976), Drakon and Early Athenian Homicide Law (1981), Early Greek Law, and Antiphon the Athenian: Oratory, Law and Justice in the Age of the Sophists (2002), and (with Paula Perlman) The Law of Ancient Crete ca. 650-400 BCE. (OUP 2016). He is also the general editor of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome (OUP 2010). He has held many positions in the American Philological Association (now the Society for Classical Studies) including President in 2002–2003.

Author Q&A

What is the one term or concept that everyone—from students to everyday web users—should be familiar with? Why?

Democracy (Athenian style). Of course, we all know what democracy is and most people in the English speaking world approve of it. But Athenian democracy was unlike anything we know today. It was a direct, participatory democracy. All policy decisions were made by an Assembly, open to all citizens, rich and poor (as in early America, political participation was not open to women or slaves). The administration of the state was entrusted to officials selected by lot for one-year terms and to a 500-member Council, similarly selected. And the legal process was almost entirely in the hands of large juries composed of ordinary citizens. Thus, almost everyone served in some capacity for a short time, but no one acquired much power. Athenian democracy actually was, in Lincoln’s words, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

No one would argue that such a government exists today, when wealth and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. But perhaps if people knew more about Athenian democracy and the prosperity and cultural creativity it produced, we might be able to reverse the trend and move in the direction of demo-cratia (“rule of the people”).

Which historical events or figures featured in your encyclopedia have most influenced your study of your subject?

The event is the Persian Wars (in Herodotus’ telling). The figure is Socrates, at the turning point in Greek intellectual history. Of course there are many others, but these two epitomize my main interests: history and intellectual history.

In writing the history of the Persian Wars, Herodotus did two revolutionary things. First, he wrote not just about the great deeds of the Greeks and Persians, but also about the “cause” of their conflict. Understanding causes still distinguishes a work of history from a diary or chronicle. Second, he wrote about the full range of human activity, not just military and political history. He certainly writes about these, but he also describes strange customs and beliefs in many parts of the world related to the main conflict, nature and the environment (speculating for instance on the cause of the Nile’s annual flooding), and many other matters. He tells stories, some of them hilarious, some fantastical, illustrating the character of a ruler or a people. For Herodotus, everything in life is important for understanding our world and how it has come to be as it is.

Socrates is equally fascinating. First, he is an enigma: he wrote nothing himself, so everything we know (or think we know) about him comes from the writings of others, primarily Plato. Second, he dealt in enigmas, the most famous of which was that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. This paradox provides a transition point from one way of thinking about the world to another. Before Socrates, Greek intellectuals had mostly looked at the world as it was and tried to make sense of its complexity and fluidity. A few had sought one unifying substance or principle, but by Socrates’ day paradox and flux loomed largest in most intellectuals’ thinking. Socrates had one foot in this world, but his famous questions – what is friendship? what is courage? what is justice? etc. – all of which he ultimately answered “I don’t know,” pointed the way to Plato’s non-material world, the world of the Forms, a world of pure, absolute friendship, courage, justice, etc., that eventually in the form of Christianity dominated late antiquity.

What do you think is the most commonly held misconception in your subject area?

The most common misconception about the field of Classics (ancient Greece and Rome) is that it is irrelevant today and studying it is useless. A dead civilization and dead languages will not help you get a job or succeed in any other way. STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) are all that we need. This could not be more wrong. Certainly we need STEM subjects, but the Humanities, and Classics in particular, teach us about life and about people and their interactions with one another. They also teach us to think critically about our world and express ourselves clearly.

People ask me how I make my subject relevant to students. I don’t. I just let students read the works of antiquity for themselves. They understand. I think of the older woman who confided after class that she knew just how Clytemnestra felt when her ex-husband abandoned her and their small daughter. Or the young woman who came to my office visibly shaken after reading Euripides’ Bacchae; the play, she said, changed her life.

Material conditions change, of course, but human nature – our hopes and fears, loves and hatreds, and especially family relations which were so important for Greeks and Romans – these remain quite constant. Learning about these things will help one succeed no matter where one ends up in life.

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Featured blogs

The Classical World from A to Z
November 2014
Antony Spawforth, Esther Eidinow, and Simon Hornblower created an A-Z list of facts you should know about the time period, from The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization.

For more Classics & Archaeology blog posts delve in to the OUPblog archives >

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