Classics has been around for a while. Technically, it’s been around since Homer. As an academic discipline, it is the benchmark of Western education. Little Jimmy Caesar had to study his Homer and Herodotus too (and not in translation). Greek and Latin formed the base of universities, and right up to the modern day, were seen in some circles as fundamental or core subjects. Needless to say, there have been some heavy hitters over the years; people whose work was integral to understanding Classics, or whose work transformed the field in some way. The standard disclaimer for this type of list applies: It is purely a personal list, and not exhaustive. The fame of these people is open to disagreement, and it is in no way reflective. . . know what? Screw all that. Y’all know I’m a Pythonian and want you to think for yourselves. So here’s my list of big shots in the Classical world.
Edward Gibbon. It should come as no surprise that the author of “History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” makes the list; even if you’ve never read it, you’ve probably heard of it. The mammoth six volume work details the track of civilization from Augustus to the “fall date” of the Eastern Empire in 1453. Gibbon put effort into this thing, and even abridged versions are giant ass tomes. If you’re really hungry, Barnes and Nobles has the complete 6 volume set for sale. It’s only $1200. I know, so cheap, right?
Gibbon basically wrote the book of later Roman history. It was extremely thorough, clear, and intellectually dense, which is why it’s still known today. Gibbon gave an answer for when Rome fell, and more importantly, detailed how. He used a fairly objective viewpoint, and whenever possible, relied on primary sources rather than secondary ones—a process most of us take for granted. In using this new methodology, he helped alter the course of historiography, and some have called him the “first modern historian” as a result. Herodotus is the Father of History, Thucydides the Father of Scientific History, and Gibbon the Father of Modern Scientific History.
Theodor Mommsen. Fun fact: Advanced degrees in Classics require the student to learn German and pass a reading test. That’s right, a Ph.D in Greek and Latin requires learning German. We can thank Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen for that. 19th century Germany was a power center for Classics, and chief among them was Teddy Momo. His “History of Rome” (or “Römische Geschichte”, might as well be consistent) covered the origins of Rome through the fall of the Republic with Julius Caesar. Originally a three volume work, Mommsen went on to write two more volumes, one on Rome under the Emperors, which was never completed due to another project he was working on—more on that in a moment—and one on the Roman Provinces. Really, the first three were enough, and in 1902, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, with “History of Rome” as a cited reason.
As if that wasn’t enough, the other work I mentioned earlier was the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, the world’s first major, comprehensive collection of Latin inscriptions. The CIL still exists and is being continually expanded, under the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities. As of present, the CIL boasts 17 volumes and 180,000 Latin inscriptions, which are searchable through their website. Kinda makes you feel inadequate, don’t it? No? Just me? Ok. . . .
George Grote. An English Classicist and political radical, Grote is underappreciated by the common man. Maybe he’s more famous in the U.K? Either way, he is to Greek history what Mommsen and Gibbon are to Roman history. His “History of Greece, From the Earliest Period to the Close of the Generation Contemporary with Alexander the Great”, or just “History of Greece” for short, was a 12 volume look at the origins and originators of democracy. Like a lot of historians then and now, his politics colored his work. He ended this epic with the rise of Alexander, “the close of the history of free Hellas and Hellenism.” Needless to say, he wasn’t a fan of the Hellenistic period. As one of the first serious treatises on the Greek side of Classics, he did it so well and thoroughly, it remained as the best such treatment for a good 50 years. Even today, you’re not a real Hellenist unless you’ve read your Grote.
These three Classicists really set the stage for how Classics today is treated and studied. I could name others, certainly, but I like these three, so someone else can write the next article. The thorough dedication and completeness of their works separate them from other scholars of their day; they didn’t get paid by the word or anything.
Classicists aren’t the only ones who impacted our study in big bad ways. Obviously I could make this article just about famous Classicists, but I’m going to throw some non-Classicists in to spice things up. It’s my blog; I do what I want! So here are three influential non-Classicists to balance the scale.
Michel Foucault. You probably can’t name too many academic subjects the French philosopher didn’t influence. Classics is no different. I have yet to see a single recent work discussing ancient Greco-Roman gender or sexuality that does not cite Foucault’s “History of Sexuality”. In a big way Foucault set up how Classicists approached gender studies, and his thesis of power, language, ethics, and epistemology continue to get argued. His works are so influential to the study of Classical antiquity, studying Foucault’s impact on Classics has itself become a topic within Classics. I rest my case.
Charles Darwin. What does the founder of modern biology and the theory of natural selection have to do with ancient history? Surprisingly, a fair bit. Prior to the whole natural selection paradigm, science was a bit less scientific, and a bit more bullshit. Enter “antiquarianism”. Before modern theories of archaeology, they were basically Indiana Jones; a lot of pillaging. . . . and Nazis. Evolution got tied to everything, including history. So historians and archaeologists adopted a “cultural evolution” view; they thought civilizations followed a pattern of growth. Every society develops basically the same way, and can be categorized in stages. Namely, stages like Bronze Age, Stone Age, Iron Age, etc. Not terribly scientific. Natural selection, Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism, proposes small changes over time, which can result in drastic differences as animals adapt to their environments. This was a big deal, and helped influence the Culture-Historical theory of archaeology. Archaeologists following this theory sought to categorize societies and cultures by their artifacts (their cultural history). Rather than blanket statements and amateurs simply digging to grow private collections, a more professional cadre of scholars using and developing scientific methods began to emerge. We’ve come a long way since Schliemann used dynamite.
J.M. Foley. John Miles Foley is somewhat of a cheat. While he has specialties in Slavic languages, a Ph.D in English literature, and has worked on oral poetry and tradition across a variety of fields, he did do some Classics work, and even held positions in Classics departments. Foley was the result of work started by Milman Parry and Albert Lord on oral tradition—how people shared history and stories orally, rather than through writing. If you’ve taken a class on Homer, you might have heard things like “formula”, “ring composition”, and “type scenes”. People questioned how bards could memorize massive epics like the Homeric poems, and how accurate they could really be. Parry, Lord, and Foley answered those questions.
Primarily doing fieldwork in Yugoslavia on Serbian epic poetry, Parry and Lord came up with a theory of “Oral-Formulaic Composition”. Foley confirmed and expanded that work. He studied Beowulf, Homer, and Serbian epics. But the real genius was he wrote the “how to” books, and created the methodology still used to examine oral traditions. The effects of this are pretty widespread. This not only revolutionized Homeric studies, but also Biblical studies, English literature, and basically created an entire field of oral tradition studies. Hell, he founded the journal for oral tradition, very conveniently called “Oral Tradition”, as well as the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri.
Bonus: Robert Strassler. In my mind, he is the greatest non-Classicist Classicist of the 20th century. He is virtually unknown by name, but his books are highly regarded, and used as standard textbooks on college campuses throughout the country. Where his real impact shines is in what is now being regarded as another branch of Classics, namely “Classical Reception”—the study of how people interact with the field.
His best known work is the Landmark Thucydides. Now all the Classicists are like, “oh, yeah”. Combining maps, notes, an excellent translation, and references galore, the Landmark is so complete, many professors will assign it as the text for studying Thucydides, Greek history, or the Peloponnesian War. What is perhaps most impressive is that Strassler is not a Classicist. Now, his best-selling Landmark series of books are introducing people to the ancient authors.
The story behind the creation of Landmark Thucydides is likewise remarkable. Strassler wanted to create a text that was more accessible to a larger audience. Professors resisted, and didn’t want to help him. So he did it on his own, being a fairly successful businessman, and paid for maps, publishing costs, and the like. Finally, it came out. Then it sold 80,000 copies. Strassler put it best, “These people would rather write about how the letter sigma changed over 200 years. That’s what you get points for. Then they cry in their beer that no one reads the classics anymore”.
After 100,000+ copies sold, numbers professors couldn’t even dream of with their own books, some started to come around on the whole “lay” audience thing. “Popular” books, outreach, blogs, and other projects are increasingly prevalent as more faculty are seeing a value in reaching a larger audience. Strassler is one of the inspirations for this blog, and that’s reason enough to add him to the list.