The Classics Faculty has modernised its approach to the ancient world

Peter Brown

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Tempora mutantur

Volume 15 Number 2, Hilary 2003

When Heraclitus said that all was in flux, he clearly foresaw the development of Classics at Oxford, which has changed almost beyond recognition since I began teaching here in 1968. This is not surprising, since so much has changed outside Oxford. Fewer schools now teach the classical languages, and none teaches them as thoroughly as they used to - they spend more time encouraging their pupils to respond to the works written in Greek and Latin and introducing them to wider aspects of the ancient world. On the research front, new discoveries, new techniques and new approaches have influenced the directions in which the subject has developed. Oxford has taken a lead in exploiting the opportunities offered by all these changes, and the subject thrives as much as ever: we have recently been awarded the highest possible grades in external assessments of both our research and our teaching, the numbers applying to take our courses increase every year, and the range of schools from which we recruit our undergraduates continues to widen.

One notable change is the variety of undergraduate courses now available. There are nearly 500 undergraduates reading Mods and Greats (or Literae Humaniores, to give the course its official title), but there are in addition more than 150 reading other Classics courses, none of which existed in 1968: Classics and Modern Languages, Classics and English, Ancient and Modern History and (the course most recently introduced, now in its second year) Classical Archaeology and Ancient History (CAAH). It is also now possible to combine Classics with Oriental Studies. CAAH is proving particularly popular in attracting those with a strong interest in the ancient world whose main interest is not in the languages or literature but in the history and material culture. These developments reflect the wide spectrum of subjects covered by the term 'Classics' (which includes some of the greatest and most influential works of literature, history, philosophy and art the world has ever seen), and also a growing interest in exploring its relations with other cultures. For Literae Humaniores, 1968 was a watershed year: those who came up to read Mods then were the first generation to have the opportunity to study Greek and Latin Literature for Greats as an alternative to Ancient History or Philosophy (which until then had been the only branches of study available in Finals). Since then, the syllabus has undergone a constant process of revision and adaptation in the light of changes in the school curriculum. In the early 1970s we introduced the option to learn Ancient Greek from scratch, and about half of the Mods intake now follow this course (including one who this year won a Fellowship at All Souls). More recently, we made it possible to do the same with Latin, at the same time introducing a special version of Mods for those who have previously studied neither Latin nor Greek; the number of applicants who fall into this category, particularly from state schools, grows every year. In addition, the structure of the syllabus now allows for a much more flexible combination of subjects than used to be possible: options range from 'Greek and Roman Comedy' to 'The Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein'; from 'General Linguistics and Comparative Philology' to 'Sexuality and Gender in Greece and Rome'; from 'The Greeks and the Mediterranean World c.950 bc to 500 bc' to 'The Reception of Greece and Rome in British Literature, 1830-1900'. Another particularly prominent development has been the institution of a centrally organised language teaching programme. Thanks in large part to the generosity of our alumni, we are now able to employ four people to give classes to both undergraduates and graduates, both to beginners and at a more advanced level. Language classes are now an essential part of our provision, and we hope to develop them further in the years ahead.

Yet another big change has been in the number of graduate students: we now have about 150 in residence, many of them studying for one- or two-year taught courses on which they acquire a range of skills to equip them to embark on a doctoral thesis. At the end of the process, the best theses are rewritten for publication in the Oxford Classical Monographs, a flourishing series that publishes about five volumes every year. Anything from Flesh and Spirit in the Songs of Homer to Medical Latin in the Roman Empire can find itself published here, and books on warfare and on the Roman army have sold particularly well. Some graduates are involved in the collaboration between Oxford and Princeton on a project called 'Culture and Religions of the Eastern Mediterranean', which also includes Byzantine studies, Syriac studies, Jewish studies, religious studies, medieval and modern Greek, and Islamic studies.

At post-doctoral level, the face of advanced study has been altered by the presence of research projects. The traditional picture of research in Classics is of scholars working alone in a library; a great deal of such research continues to take place, of course, but alongside this, collaborative projects are opening up fresh areas of study and making possible a new range of international contacts. Classics has many more such projects than any other humanities faculty (15, at the last count), and they cover a wide range of archaeological, artistic, historical, linguistic and literary subjects. A number of postholders now find themselves responsible for submitting applications for funding to such bodies as the Arts and Humanities Research Board and for directing the work of the research assistants funded by those bodies. Research in the sciences has long been conducted on this basis; researchers in the humanities are only gradually discovering its delights and its anxieties, and Classics at Oxford is one of the leaders in this process of discovery. I have space here for only a couple of examples.

The Beazley Archive of Classical Archaeology and Art began as the personal research material of Sir John Beazley, Lincoln Professor of Classical Archaeology and Art from 1925 to 1956, and has been much enlarged through gifts and purchases since his death in 1970: it now includes (among other things) some 500,000 notes, 250,000 photographs and 50,000 gem impressions. Alongside the 'paper archive', an electronic archive is being created, as more and more of the material is scanned and put on the World Wide Web. The Lexicon of Greek Personal Names has compiled about 400,000 records of the evidence for Greek names (in literary and documentary sources of all kinds) and is publishing the results in volumes, each covering a different region of the ancient Greek world, as well as storing them in an electronic database. There is also the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, described in more detail in a separate inset to this article.

Some of the projects are housed in our new Classics Centre, two interconnected buildings at the southern end of St Giles', excellently situated for the Ashmolean Museum, the Institute of Archaeology, the Cast Gallery, the new Sackler Library (opened in September 2001) and the Oriental Institute. For a great many years we were the only major arts subject at Oxford without its own centre, and we began fundraising for this purpose in the late 1980s. Factors beyond our control have delayed bringing our plans to fruition, but we have gradually acquired more and more rooms in these two buildings, and this phase in the growth of the Centre was completed in the summer of 2002. The next stage is to develop the site behind the two buildings to create a larger Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies. A feasibility study has been commissioned, and continued fundraising for this building is a top priority for the University. We look forward to the day when we shall at last have a faculty building worthy of our national and international standing, and we are grateful to all those whose generosity has enabled us to progress as far as we have.

Finally, even the name of the Faculty has changed: 'Literae Humaniores' survives as the name of a Final Honour School, but the Faculty of Literae Humaniores was split into two separate Faculties of Classics and Philosophy in 2001. We remain on friendly terms, but the split gave formal recognition of the fact that the subjects have developed in rather different directions.

Some essential things have not changed: our undergraduates are as intelligent and hard-working as they ever were, and tutorials still lie at the heart of their learning experience; they are still eminently employable, and they still go into an astonishing variety of jobs (even if they do not dominate the Civil Service as much as they are alleged to have done in the past). But the new developments I have mentioned open up many new possibilities, for us as well as for our students, and for graduates as well as for undergraduates. Nor do we ever sit still: for instance, a further major scrutiny of Mods and Greats is under way and is expected to lead to a substantially revised syllabus. Classics is a subject rooted in the past but constantly looking ahead to the future.