The collection explores new developments in the classics that are reshaping our understanding of the ancient world – and its relevance to today
Fascination with Greco-Roman culture continues to drive academic curricula and popular interest, in spite of recent data signaling a decline in the study of the humanities. New developments in the study of the ancient world – integrating methodological, philosophical, and technological advances – have, in some cases, revolutionized our understanding of the past, opening up a new realm of classical studies for the twenty-first century.
|Jean-Joseph Taillasson (France, 1745–1809), Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia (1787)|
This period of discovery is due in large part to a new generation of classicists who are reshaping our access to and understanding of Greco-Roman culture. Innovative, multidisciplinary approaches, often applying cutting-edge science and technology to the study of the ancient world, are yielding new questions and altering our engagement with the past. For example, not only have novel technologies enabled the discovery of new literary papyri, but methodological changes have altered which texts scholars might use to piece together ancient worldviews. This “new science of antiquity” – including multispectral imaging, 3D laser scanning, and bioarchaeology – is enabling researchers to reconstruct previously inaccessible data and documents, revealing, for example, mysteries about ancient ecosystems and deciphering papyri carbonized during the eruption of Vesuvius.
In the Spring 2016 issue of Dædalus, guest editor Matthew S. Santirocco (New York University) has curated a series of essays that explore the notion that “the past is still very much alive in the present.”
In the introduction “Reassessing Greece & Rome,” Matthew S. Santirocco notes how recent developments in the study of the ancient world have dramatically altered our understanding of the past. His overture to the issue introduces some of these methodological, philosophical, and technological advances, and argues that twenty-first-century classicists – being an increasingly multidisciplinary and interconnected group of scholars – are reshaping our interactions with Greco-Roman culture.
In “Tragedy in the Crosshairs of the Present,” Brooke Holmes (Princeton University) explores how at the same time that Greek literary studies have broken down boundaries of canon and genre, opening up for analysis previously ignored families of texts, the rise of reception studies has raised new questions about how our present cultural and historical position shapes our interpretations of ancient literature. She explores these developments through the case study of Greek tragedy.
In “Roman Literature: Translation, Metaphor & Empire,” Shadi Bartsch (University of Chicago) notes how having adopted as their own the literature of a conquered empire, the Roman elite self-consciously sought to translate the Greek canon into a thoroughly Roman form of expression, leaving behind the pleasurable, poetic, and sensual language of the Greeks. Could the Romans protect their militaristic and masculine integrity in this transference, or did the Greeks get their revenge, ultimately “conquering” Rome through literary influence?
Emily Greenwood (Yale University), in “Reception Studies: The Cultural Mobility of Classics,” considers how classicists have turned to reception studies to understand the unique encounters that various historical audiences have had with Greek and Roman literature. She explores the cultural mobility of the classics through a Malawian reception of Sophocles’s Antigone.
In “On Translating Homer’s Iliad,” Caroline Alexander (Author and Journalist), who published her celebrated English translation of the Iliad in 2015, reflects on the process (and challenges) of rendering a modern translation of Homer. She analyzes her work, and that of previous translators, using the principles outlined by the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold.
Phillip Mitsis (New York University), in “Philosophy & Its Classical Past,” argues that although some recent philosophical schools have rejected their classical past, attempting to set their arguments on wholly new foundations, a renewed philosophical engagement between the old and the new has elsewhere initiated major new debates. Focusing on the philosophy of death, he shows how ancient philosophy both inspires new ideas and new modes of public discourse and criticism.
In “The Matter of Classical Art History,” Verity Platt (Cornell University) presents a new lens with which Greco-Roman art may be studied. Though Greco-Roman visual art is often isolated within the larger discipline of art history, which focuses increasingly on the modern and non-Western, Platt explores how recent scholarship has built on archaeological and literary studies to situate Greco-Roman visual art within the dynamic contexts that produced them. Using Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, she raises questions about the artist’s relationship with his materials, models of perception, and “the slippage between medium and representation.”
Roger S. Bagnall (New York University), in “Materializing Ancient Documents,” discusses how texts written on stone and metal (including coins), ostraca (potsherds), wooden tablets, and papyri have become critical documents for twenty-first-century historical researchers of the ancient world. Two “materializing revolutions” have signaled this shift in papyrology, moving from predominantly literary and philological approaches toward a broader cultural history of the ancient world built on collaboration with archaeological methodology.
In “Memory, Commemoration & Identity in an Ancient City: The Case of Aphrodisias,” Angelos Chaniotis (Institute for Advanced Study) uses the case study of the ancient city of Aphrodisias in modern-day Turkey to explore how civic, religious, and social identities competed and overlapped in ancient Greece. By analyzing the content, context, and changing uses of stone inscriptions in Aphrodisias, he constructs a centuries-long narrative of shifting identities, concluding in the mid-seventh century CE, when the “City of Aphrodite” was rechristened as Stauropolis, the “City of the Cross.”
In “The Environmental Fall of the Roman Empire,” Kyle Harper (University of Oklahoma) uses new scientific data and approaches to argue that a cascade of environmental disasters, more than any single event, pushed Rome’s resilient economy and agricultural system to the breaking point. The effects of climate change – including food crises in Egypt resulting from the Nile’s failure to flood, as well as the devastating Antonine Plague and Plague of Cyprian – were, in a sense, “the revenge of [Rome’s] giant imperial ecology.”
In “What is Ancient History?” Ian Morris (Stanford University) and Walter Scheidel (Stanford University) offer two competing models of ancient history that have defined academic discourse for the last three centuries: the classical model, which regards ancient Greece and Rome as the beginning of human history that “matters,” and the evolutionary model, which is global in outlook and goes back to the origins of humanity. They propose that the new evidence and methods available to scholars today may allow these two schools of thought to engage with each other with renewed coherence, in turn offering comprehensive new models of ancient history.
Peter T. Struck (University of Pennsylvania), in “Classics: Curriculum & Profession,” probes what the classics offer prospective students who are increasingly pursuing vocational studies.
While the field’s experimentation and diversity of thought (literary, historical, philosophical, archaeological) remain its strengths, by disseminating knowledge of the past through popular media and online courses, Struck argues, the classics can reach a broader public and make classical teaching a public good.
In “Greco-Roman Studies in a Digital Age,” Gregory Crane (Tufts University) reflects on the responsibility classicists have to share their research with the general public. He considers the role of classics in modern society, and looks to the future by way of the transformative power of technology, the “extent to which the shift from print to a digital space changes how the classics can contribute to society as a whole.”
Additional contributions to this issue of Dædalus include:
- The New “Brothers Poem” by Sappho by Rachel Hadas (Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey – Newark)
- Explicating Catullus by Michael C. J. Putnam (Brown University)
- The Scientific Study of Antiquity by Malcolm H. Wiener (Institute for Aegean Prehistory)
Members may access an electronic copy of this Dædalus issue by logging into the Academy’s website. For more information about Dædalus, or to order additional print and Kindle copies of “What’s New About the Old,” please visit http://www.amacad.org/daedalus.