Classical 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.
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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)
What is the one term or concept that everyone—from students to everyday web users—should be familiar with?
I don't know about ‘should’, but I can think of one whole civilization whose existence might come as a pleasing revelation to some people. In Late Antiquity the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent was Syriac, a form of Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke. A Syriac-speaker could make himself understood on both sides of the international frontier between the Roman and Persian Empires, all the way from Palestine in an arc round through Syria and Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf. And the language was confined to the Near East either; there were Syriac-speaking missionaries in 7th century China and Syriac-speaking merchants in 6th century Orleans.
The Syriac-speaking world in Late Antiquity seems, in fact, to have been bursting with energy and enterprise. You can sense it in the visionary verve of the prophet Mani, founder of a religion which spread west and east as far as Rome and Central Asia—the young Augustine of Hippo was a Manichee before he was converted to Christianity. It is there, even in English translation, in the poetry of Ephrem the Syrian, and in the way that Christian holy men in Syria embraced the monastic movement, determined to live here on earth the life which the angels live in heaven, a life where they were dependent on nothing intermediate between themselves and God. Some of these holy men were distinctly exotic—S. Symeon the Stylite famously lived on top of a pillar in northern Syria, and had a reputation far and wide as a mediator and healer. Others lived out their angelic endeavour more prosaically, in solid limestone *monasteries clinging to the hillsides of Syria and northern Iraq. Some of these monasteries, for instance Qenneshre on the Euphrates, were centres of serious scholarship; to a large extent it was through Syriac that the learning of the Greek world passed into Arabic and into the culture of early mediaeval Islam. And a few, a very few have survived into our own day, for instance on the Tur 'Abdin in south-east Turkey, where monks still worship in Syriac in churches built in the 6th and 7th centuries, forming the core of Christian communities which have survived many centuries of adversity.
What do you think is the most commonly held misconception in your subject area?
The temptation, of course, is to say Decline and Fall, as discussed in this blog post, as if thebarbarian migrations into north Africa and western Europe starting in the late 4th century were the End of Civilisation everywhere, but actually I think there is a great deal of illuminating discussion of the Migration Period going on among scholars. Actually I think the phenomenon in Late Antiquity which most robustly resists modern understanding is early Christian martyrdom. It is too easy to characterize the martyrs either as plaster saints or as suicidal loonies. To some scholars it seems that no act is too irrational and self-destructive to be that of a committed Christian, while those who are at home with the legends of the Middle Ages find it deceptively easy to read martyr passions, accounts of the suffering and miracles of individual Christian martyrs, as if they were folklore, wonder-tales from some alternative reality where the severed heads of the righteous can be reunited with their necks and wicked judges spontaneously explode. The fact is that martyrdoms really did occur, Christians were fed to lions in public arenas. And this despite the fact that the authorities in the Roman Empire were in general remarkably tolerant of religious eccentricity; they might find it funny, but unless it involved political rebellion or human *sacrifice—on the whole they allowed it to carry on. Their motives need to be understood as much as those of Christians—those who avoided martyrdom as much as those who embraced it. Already only a century after the last persecution of Christians, the narratives of persecution and martyrdom were being drained of their subtle psychological reality; the poems of Prudentius, whatever their literary merits, present neatly polarized confrontations between heroic martyrs and unspeakable judges. They make good stories, certainly, but the historian needs to eschew the seductions of such later tales and consider only the evidence generated during the time when persecution was still an active threat. There is a lot of evidence for the mentality of the early Christian martyrs and their persecutors apart from the stories about individual trials and executions. I am hoping that I can apply myself to it in the near future.
Which figure in your subject’s history would you most like to invite to a dinner party?
Late Antiquity is a field full of folk, but it is often their inner lives that are the most interesting thing about them and the intimate thoughts of individuals are all too easily drowned in waves of idle chatter. So if you have no objection, I shall pass on the actual dinner party.
A day’s hunting with Nemesianus might be fun. There are not many good hunting poets and Nemesianus was a man who clearly loved his hounds, but I fear that we might fall out about what constitutes proper sporting behaviour.
I suppose I ought to consider Lactantius, ‘the Christian Cicero’, seeing I have spent 40 years writing about him. Lactantius was the author of a gloriously spiteful tract On the Deaths of the Persecutors, which recounts in gory detail God's gruesome vengeance on those who dared to persecute His Christians. His wit glitters and his Latin is elegant, and Lactantius's lost letters are certainly the first book I will order if I am allowed a reader's pass to the library in Heaven. But I fear that actually meeting him might be a disappointment—I would not wish to discover that like so many elegant writers, Lactantius turned out to be a shy person I guess a brief interview with Lactantius's employer the Emperor Constantine I would solve a number of scholarly problems—like what he thought he was doing by being the first Christian Roman emperor. But on the evidence of Constantine's voluminous surviving utterances I fear that after half an hour the emperor might become both sententious and repetitive. I should love to hear Augustine of Hippo preach, but one would surely walk away from a more personal encounter just feeling really stupid, as one might from a seminar on the finer points of Neoplatonism with the 3rd century philosopher Plotinus. So where does that leave us. What I would really like, I think, is for a long weekend to be arranged with two figures from the latter end of Late Antiquity, Theodore of Tarsus (602–90) and the Venerable Bede (c. 673–735). Both men would have interesting tales to tell, and each would bring out the best in the other. Let me explain. Theodore came from Tarsus, ‘no mean city’, built where the Pilgrim's Road that runs south and east across Asia Minor meets the Mediterranean coast. When he was a boy Persian armies occupied the place. As he grew up, he saw the Roman Empire strike back with resounding success. The Persian king was murdered by his own people; it seemed that the world was coming to an end—in a good way for Romans. And then out of the blue—or rather out of the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula —came the united armies of *Islam. The Romans retreated from the *Arab invasion behind the Taurus mountains, leaving the plains around Tarsus as a buffer zone between Christendom and the Land of Islam. Theodore fled west from the scorched earth of his homeland. He went first to Constantinople where he studied astronomy, music, and the science of chronography, and then on to Rome, where in 663 he witnessed the last visit of a Roman Emperor to the Eternal City. Five years later he was made a bishop and sent, along with a posse of monks, all the way across the world to Canterbury to be the Archbishop. He drew together the churches in the scattered kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, he organised them in a fraternal fashion at the Council of Hertford, he encouraged the performance of good church music. Here in a single individual is the whole history of the 7th century. I would love to listen to the tales he had to tell—and to hear him sing. As it is, much of what we know about Theodore comes from the Ecclesiastical History of the English People written by his much younger contemporary the Venerable Bede. Unlike Theodore, Bede never left home, he lived his whole life in Northumbria, ‘positus ultra orbem’, as he put it, placed out beyond the world, on the very edge of Ocean. Yet he became the most learned man in Europe, writing about music, poetry, and rhetoric, about astronomy and Scripture and chronography—the application of mathematical principles to the rhythms of world history. But more important than his book-learning, Bede had the greatest gifts a historian can possess: he was as shrewd as Miss Marple and as understanding as Solomon. What he has to say about the folk he wrote about is both balanced and sympathetic, not only when he is writing about his heroes such as S. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, but equally when he is recounting the activities of rebarbative characters such as S. Wilfrid of York or *Penda the last pagan king of the Mercians. To hear his gentle but penetrating questioning of Theodore of Tarsus would enlarge our fund of historical information about a formative era; more than that, it might even give one ideas about how to be a better person.
The Classical World from A to Z
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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