Classics in UK Universities: cui bono?

David Butterfield

The following article sets out my present thoughts on Classics in the UK university sector. Since that is not obviously a matter of interest to all, it is worth saying that the cause for relating such views here and now is that some of these arguments were advanced on a discussion panel in London earlier this week. More pointedly, since some elements of them have been reported in today’s press in a form that lacks the broader context – and in some cases the actual content – of my remarks, I am happy to set out my views more fully for proper scrutiny in the hope that it provides some stimulus for debate at least from those that still believe in that art. (28 v 22)


The piece is about Classics in the United Kingdom.


The state of Classics in UK universities can be summarised as follows: it is in general health, because the intrinsic interest of the Greeks and Romans remains universal and enduring, both among potential students who are exposed to Greco-Roman antiquity and among the public at large. To give a snapshot figure of the field in recent years, there are some 5,000 students studying Classics-related subjects at university level. Although some departments have struggled to keep the callous and often philistine administration onside – particularly in archaeology, but more recently in Classics as a whole[1] – there is no crisis of interest or uptake. This is cheering and lies behind the constructive remarks that follow.

Despite this largely self-sufficient environment, however, three dangers seem to me to loom large, each of which could have a fundamental and deleterious effect on the discipline of Classics as it has been known, even within the present generation.

The first danger is linguistic: a decline, which could be rapid, in the accessibility of learning Latin (and Greek), would defang and debase our analysis of the ancient world. The second is intellectual: a lack of faith in the value of humanities subjects on their own terms, combined with an unwillingness to acknowledge the extent of the skill-set that studying Classics in particular can give. The third is political: a steady and attritional deconstruction and destabilisation of Classics as a discipline, a process that – somewhat unusually – is driven especially by some of those securely employed within it.

The Sword of Damocles, Richard Westall, 1812 (Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, NC, USA).

Each of these three issues has the potential to damage Classics, and block entrance to it for future generations, in different ways:

  • the loss of linguistic expertise would necessarily remove depth and technical sophistication from a large swathe of Classical research, and blunt the effectiveness of future students and researchers of the subject;
  • the loss of faith in the humanities, and in the wide range of skills that Classics cannot but instil, would reduce uptake of the subject, which in the numbers-driven world of the modern university sector would soon result in the loss of full-time academic posts;
  • and the loss of confidence in Classics as a self-standing discipline would result in the formal breakdown of the subject, first being merged with others, and then steadily submerged by the inevitable weight of everything else that is accorded equal weight.

Should any of these three dangers be realised, the subject of Classics as it has survived, and for so long thrived (as it has done, in a real sense, for some two and a half millennia), would come to an end as we know it. And, to be serious – although the metaphor may seem unduly romantic to many readers – once snuffed out, the flame of Classics could not and would not be rekindled. We really are not in the game of clicking light switches.

So let’s now take a closer look at these three issues…

Apollo and the Muses, Antonio Zucchi, 1767 (Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire, UK).

1: The Centrality of Language

There are many things that we might point to as the most remarkable features of Ancient Greek and Roman culture: the intensity of their artistic activity; their philosophical sophistication; their unusually colourful and turbulent history; their advocation for free speech (at least at times), open enquiry and democratic principles; their open willingness to explore and discuss their own condition; their dogged curiosity about what had been said and done by their predecessors. But perhaps the most remarkable facet is the sheer amount of textual material that survives from their cultures.

Very few civilisations from two or three millennia ago can still be accessed through their own words, and only a small proportion have left us literature alongside formal political or religious texts. But in the extant literature of Ancient Greece and Rome we have surviving to us over 50 million words, 10 million in Latin, and the rest in Greek (the variation of precise numbers depending on where you choose to divide Byzantine culture from Ancient Greek). These figures say nothing of inscriptions, documentary papyri, private and public correspondence, graffiti and the text on crafted objects. There are hundreds of thousands of voices from the Greco-Roman worlds whose words we can hear only through reading.

Two things follow from this. The first is that there is an immense amount of Greek and Latin literature, the scholar of which can only aim at full understanding through its original language and context. This is to say nothing special or elitist about the Classical languages, but it is a fact that applies to all other fields of extant world literature. There is no university department of another species of world literature, past or present, that would seriously entertain the idea that professionals would not benefit materially from studying those works in their own language.

The second thing is that, leaving aside the literature that has given us the very name of ‘Classics’, there is an immense amount of historical and legal and political and economic and religious evidence surviving in texts which requires precise linguistic knowledge for proper technical analysis. So, if we wish to get as close as we can to the Greeks and Romans it is a necessary and unavoidable process to learn the languages in which they operated.[2] It is not an exclusive or ‘bonus’ feature of Classics that Latin and Greek should be known by some, nor are they in fact appreciably harder to handle than some other ancient languages. Instead, it is a fact of history that studying the Greeks and Romans requires dealing with their literary remains left to us as best we can on their own terms.

Roman relief of three pupils and a teacher, AD 180s, from Neumagen near Trier (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier, Germany; photograph of cast in Pushkin Museum, Moscow, Russia).

It is therefore essential that routes be available for learning Latin and Greek. In an ideal world this would be done through the school curriculum – but that has all manner of problems and challenges. Excellent work is going on in both the independent and the state sectors, but it is in the latter that growth will be essential to broaden access to Latin far and wide – for this is something that should be the educational right of any pupil. In the shorter term, progress can be made more tangibly in higher education. At my own university, Cambridge, we not only teach the majority of our students Ancient Greek from scratch, a feature the Faculty of Classics introduced 50 years ago, but for the last 20 years we have taken in a steadily growing cohort of students who learn Latin from scratch in a first, language-intensive year, before they enter the typical three-year course; similar approaches can be found at other universities, and it is the best fix we currently have.

This is all excellent – and our university sector produces brilliant results despite so many logistical challenges. But a big danger comes in letting the teaching of the ancient languages be passed over and up entirely to the university sector, which is very much the current direction of travel. Were this process to complete itself, undergraduate degrees would inevitably involve reading less Latin or Greek, and/or operate partly in translation; linguistic precision could only be achieved by graduate level; but many would have not read widely or deeply enough by that point for doctoral research (in text-driven subjects) to be possible at the level it is. So either we would move to an American system of PhDs taking a half-decade or more, which is not obviously in anyone’s best interests, or the very quality of research, and the teaching that follows from it, would decrease. So, in order to avoid the danger of linguistic knowledge becoming generally debased, or siloed off to a few undoubtedly privileged actors, it is important to preserve and propagate the teaching of languages in the school sector.

We live in a world rife with ironies, of course. One of the few positive events in educational politics, at least in my own lifetime, was announced in the UK last year – namely that 40 schools in England would be involved in the roll-out of Latin to GCSE, on the successful model of Mandarin. If we can look beyond the politics of which particular government announced this, it could be a moment really to rekindle the presence of Latin within school curricula in the state sector. Yet to judge from how many departments have pointedly not expressed an interest in the project, this particular gift horse is having unusual difficulty finding a stable.

The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c.1563 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria).

2: The Value of the Humanities

The second danger is a little more complex to explain. It springs from what I see as an artificial binary in much of the discussion about Classics at present, at least in the Anglophone world. First of all, there are those who rightly lament that the arts and humanities are being over-instrumentalised – that in a world of higher tuition fees, where students are encouraged to view their degree as a direct route to the job that will expedite the paying off of their eye-watering student loan as quickly as possible, Classics degrees must sing for their supper in the sense of skills conferred. Our regulator, the Office for Students, is explicit about appraising both the average salary of degree-leavers as well as the rate and speed that leavers find employment. Faced with this officious oversight, many have expressed disdain at the box-ticking talk of “transferrable skills”, on the assumption that this only does the bidding of future employers and does little to advance the cause of the subject. Certainly it is true that to focus on such outcomes inevitably overlooks what may be the greatest advantages of studying the Greeks and Romans.

What I mean by this is that, because we can get so close to these peoples, and because their cultural output was so broad and rich, we are given a kaleidoscope of insights into the human condition, at its extremes of success and failure, power and impotence, freedom and servitude, and beyond. For those pursuing a humanities degree, who seek to understand what can be taken as universal human values (and to discover those that cannot), the sheer material available from the Greeks and Romans is of immense evidential value. This can only be put in grandiose terms, of course, but exploring Classics holistically – combining literature, history, philosophy, archaeology, art, linguistics, sociology, and anything else that can help – forces one to consider, on an almost unimaginably broad canvas, the biggest questions about life and about the world. These may prove to be abstract and perhaps insoluble questions, but that does nothing to deprive them of their central importance to researching humanities subjects.

Banquet scene on a wall at Pompeii, AD 1st cent. (National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy).

None the less, it seems that many of those teaching and researching the humanities have lost confidence in the wider value of their studies, or have at least lost the confidence in thinking that they can voice such a belief to the world at large. Academics are not helped by a funding appraisal body (the “Research Excellence Framework”!) that distils our research agenda in the crucible of its public ‘impact’ – something that is meant to be tangible enough to be countered on the fingers and backed up with polaroid pictures. The effect of immersing yourself in other cultures, of great diversity and sophistication, is often difficult to verbalise, let alone evidence with quantitative data.

All of that said, however, it is no less wrong to deny that because Classics covers an immense range – in time, in space, in precise analysis, in media, and in the various disciplinary approaches that can be adduced – it is immensely rewarding and educative undertaking to study these cultures properly. The discipline prepares one for all manner of challenges in the modern world – some of which can fairly be described as challenges of the (non-academic) workplace. It’s a great lesson to study another culture – especially one separated by both time and space from your present context – and to be confronted by a beguiling mix of both the other and the same.

So there is in fact a significant practical dividend from studying Classics, and it does the subject harm to deny its existence to students, administrators and future employers, just as it does harm to claim that Classics is no different from any other vocational degree that can train up its students for a life in the wider world. Nor should we be scared of acknowledging that the subject is difficult in many ways: for any student to surmount these harder hurdles is an enriching intellectual achievement and one that society at large can understand and admire.

To treat these two poles of humanities education – the intellectually enriching and the multifariously practical – as a binary which the purist can only defend on one side against the other does the subject no favours. In fact, it distorts the truth of what we in Classics spend our days, and often nights, doing: we walk in the shade of the middle ground.

The Calumny of Apelles, Sandro Botticelli, 1494/5 (Uffizi, Florence, Italy).

3: Political Positioning and Posturing

Between these two hard-line approaches that justify the humanities from different directions, ample space is left for a third cause to come into prominence as the motivating factor for Classicists. This is the phenomenon of activist scholarship, where teaching and learning are hypothecated to delivering societal justice and political change.

Now, to be clear on this point, I do not mean to say either that a scholar must not take an explicitly political position in their work, nor that a student cannot use their studies to inform their personal political outlook in ways that seem and interesting and useful to them. But this posture, if part of the teaching process, needs to be carried out in the open and in moderation, with a clear sense of the distortion that such an approach inevitably causes. Rather more seriously, if a particular political lens comes to frame what we must all be expected to conclude about a particular aspect of historical enquiry, the intellectual culture of academic research becomes hamstrung by advancing and abetting the morally “right” answers ahead of all else. Degrees would, in turn, not test knowledge and argument but rather rank candidates by their commitment to prevailing political orthodoxy.

As things stand, this third, political danger seems to be the most significant for Classics. For there has in recent years been a significant, and quite frankly bizarre, destabilisation of the discipline of Classics by some of its paid-up practitioners. Most Antigone readers will know that the relationship between antiquity and the present day has become particularly fraught in recent years. Under pressure from debates – if that is not too generous a term to use[3] – that flare up periodically in North America, the sense has grown in parts of the Anglophone world that Classics as a discipline is inherently vicious. It has committed sins in the past and needs not only to atone for its past but to be reconstructed anew in a fresh form. To those at the vanguard of this movement, we find the language of “burning Classics down” to the ground, and “smashing up” the subject’s structures as we know it. What alarms me most here is not just the false premises that appear to motivate the self-described activists’ bewilderingly violent approach, but their remarkable unwillingness to discuss and explore the issues that are actually at stake. Academic institutions exist to challenge and debate issues of exactly this kind and to test the strength of the claims made; yet these ‘activist’ scholars seem not to think that their claims need undergo any subjection to debate. Those who are infra dig. enough to ask questions of them and their reasoning find either an awkward silence or a depersonalised wall of collective dissent.[4]

Bronze statue of a girl reading, Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, AD 1st cent. (Cabinet des Médailles, Paris, France).

Yet discussion is exceptionally important for any discipline that actually believes in what it does. For starters, we are faced with the moral problems posed by the Ancient Greek and Roman civilisations. This is something about which productive and careful conversations could yield interesting and important findings – but not on the terms currently offered from certain quarters. Is a scholar of this period somehow implicated in the moral character of that culture? Surely not, we can agree. Well then, is some sort of apologia required by all who study it, showing at every turn how their personal stance (whether actively felt or passively imposed) differs, as they tend (of course) towards tip-top contemporary virtue? If so, needless to say, the great majority of scholars worldwide have not operated on such a strange (mis)understanding of academic history.

A second issue emerges when it comes to disciplinary history: what are Classicists to do if, in the mind-meltingly long history of the subject, aspects of Greek and Roman culture have been deployed to support historic acts or institutions that we today find morally repugnant? For instance, there were indeed figures active in British or European imperialist agendas, or in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, who could alight upon aspects of Greco-Roman thought to give what they took to be intellectual support to their deeds. Whether they did so cynically, or in the genuine belief that this gave them some moral clearance, is debatable in each case. More pertinently, does a Classicist inherit past guilt from these events and the need to atone for the wrong turns of history? Does the scholar of Christianity in late-antique Rome inherit – by virtue of subsequent crimes carried out in the name of that religion – some sort of disciplinary guilt for, say, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, or the Salem Witch Trials? If he or she does, we deserve to understand why, and to be told what follows from that.

The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, François Dubois, 1572-84 (Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, Switzerland).

The arguments that Classics in and of itself is ‘problematic’, or that to study the Greeks and Romans in tandem is artificial, just do not stack up for me. Nor does the notion that modern Classical scholarship is somehow implicated in a shadowy, ill-defined cabal of far-right extremists: this claim has proved impossible to evidence materially, or so trivial in its examples adduced as to be almost self-parodic. Nor do I accept the vague but fervent assertion that Classics as a discipline can be meaningfully ‘decolonised’, whether it be studied in countries that have or have not had their own colonial pasts. And yet these claims continue to be advanced by a strange mix of permanently employed academics, usually aged over 50, whose own jobs tend not to be under any real threat, and graduate students who are rightly frustrated that their own employment prospects are not quite as rosy as they had been led to believe by smiling supervisors. Their anger is real, and deserves a sympathetic hearing, but the self-devouring nature of the strains of activism we now see pose a collective danger to the health of Classics as a whole. Where now? I suggest that only open and honest discussion which offers productive routes forward can diffuse the tensions, even if – as so often in academia – agreement proves impossible.

But unidirectional ad hominem abuse is far easier (the louder the better) than engaging in the difficult work of meaningful dialogue that searches for credible solutions. “White supremacy” is the slur of the day. This sounds genuinely shocking and awful until you realise that the term does not mean racism about skin colour, nor even some outdated cultural jingoism for western civilisation over all else the world has to offer. No, the term can now be applied to anyone who wishes to defend the validity of studying the Greco-Roman world on its own terms, as a geographically, temporally, culturally separate period for disciplinary focus; or it can be used of anyone who believes in the very existence of ‘western civilisation’; or it can describe anyone who resists Classics becoming merged as an indistinct part of some amorphous megadiscipline of world history, where no discipline is given resources ahead of any other. The merging of subjects may seem like a welcome victory for interdisciplinary approaches – which are very properly at the heart of so much work in the humanities – but in practice it would soon involve the cost-cutting administration transferring lectureships into other disciplines, and then finding ways to trim that number. In most cases such synthetic processes end up revealing the grim truth that 2+2 does not equal 4, or even 5, but in fact 3.

Diogenes the Cynic, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1873 (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, France).

In the tumultuous climate of 2022, those who refuse to accept the vague demands of “anti-racist decolonising” colleagues are pushed into this absurd terminological fraud. Plainly, for most fair-minded people, this won’t do. Studying the Greeks and Romans is, in and of itself, a morally and politically neutral act: being interested in certain periods and places of history says nothing about you, per se, nor anything about your political views. If someone, consciously or unconsciously, brings particular outlooks to their studies, that is perfectly understandable, but it is the job of university academics to bring these explicitly into the process of academic scrutiny, and not to place independent value (positive or negative) on them. After all, there is no more tragic position to hold than believing that “everything is political”.

So, in 2022, with university curricula and pedagogy under unprecedented scrutiny, and with periodic protests about the subject, its nature and its future, it is necessary to try to speak over the campus hubbub and to the world at large. This is very much the mindset of Antigone, which seeks to be, the slogan runs, an “open forum for Classics”. The site has aimed to be as diverse as resources allow: it has now published 200 articles on all aspects of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and their complex receptions over the last 2,000 years. Although the content is limited to English, the site has pulled in lots of writers, readers and supporters from around the world. As anyone who reads Antigone articles will see, the writers have no collective agenda beyond the intellectual endeavour of understanding the past, and those who do hold strong political views certainly do not see eye to eye on the bigger issues. The editors of Antigone have no interest in building a community of (counter-)activists, or in throwing down the gauntlet in a culture-war free-for-all. Instead, their website seeks to provide the bridge into the ancient world that so many people instinctively want to cross, owing to feelings of pure fascination, curiosity and fun.

Snow storm: steam-boat off a harbour’s mouth making signals in shallow water, and going by the lead, J.M.W. Turner, 1842 (Tate Britain, London).

For those of us in the UK, and indeed most of Europe, two facts remain incontrovertible, whether we like them or not. First, that the Romans occupied much of these lands and their physical remains form a tangible part of our shared cultural history. Second, and much more importantly, the Romans directly and indirectly influenced the development of what Europe has subsequently called ‘the West’, a zone within which it continues to exist: that present reality cannot be fully understood without understanding the Romans and their subsequent influence, nor can the Romans be fully understood without understanding the Greeks and their subsequent reception in Italy.[5] These facts are immutable and interesting.

Against the trio of dangers I’ve outlined above there is in fact a good deal that those of us involved in the subject can do. Most importantly, Classicists worthy of the name should be driven by a passion for keeping the subject alive ahead of any desire to earn their activism stripes. Since we are employed to be custodians of these cultures in the modern age, we have an intellectual obligation to make a public, cogent case for how the subject has raw appeal globally. We also have a moral duty not to squander the preservation of all that has been so painstakingly entrusted to us when faced with the transient claims of any given ideological movement – especially as such movements will seem not so self-evidently impeccable when they in turn face the scrutiny of future historians.

David Butterfield is a Fellow in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge. He has written previously for Antigone on metre, football, accents, Latin nonsense, and social mobility.


1 Roehampton Classics is unjustly under the cosh at present, and all readers who wish to support its cause are encouraged to sign this petition. Update: the petition failed.
2 Of course, large parts of the Greco-Roman world, for large periods of time, used other languages than Latin and Greek. The more that university departments are able to support the study of these other languages and, as and when appropriate, their separate cultures, the more open the educative experience for students can be. My argument here is only that Greek and Latin should be considered as being at the heart of Greco-Roman studies.
3 It is incredible to say, but we are in a world where many academics proudly follow this thought process: “my argument is not just correct but morally virtuous, therefore my opponent is not only incorrect but also morally vicious, therefore I have no duty to engage with someone who is knowingly evil, therefore I have no duty to defend my position openly in the pointless exercise of “debate”, therefore anyone even asking me to do so can be told that, for all their specious claims of intellectual integrity, they are not acting in good faith.” This is one of the most alarming and destructive developments in what we continue to call academia.
4 I can still count on one hand the number of people who have made contact with me to critique, rather than commend, the views I expressed along similar lines almost two years ago. While a lot of people manifestly expressed their disagreement to one another, very few sought to talk to me about how and why they saw things differently. I say only this as a placeholder.
5 This of course does not mean that the Classics are “for” one geographical region more than any other, but it does explain why the interest in the Greeks and Romans continues to thrive in the UK.