All posts filed under: Classics

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire—A Review

A review of The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper, Princeton University Press, 417 pages (October 2017) Why did the Roman Empire fall? The classic answer is given by Edward Gibbon (1737 — 1794), in chapter 38 of the third volume of The History of the Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire (1776 — 1789): The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. Kyle Harper, Senior Vice President and Provost of the University of Oklahoma, seeks to complement Gibbon’s account by emphasising the role of nature, and specifically climate change and infectious disease, in the fall of Rome in his provocative, exceptionally well-written book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire. Is Harper correct? Were plagues and …

Making Homer and Vergil Optional at Oxford Won’t ‘Diversify’ Classics

When I was in sixth grade, the English teachers at my New York all-girls’ school started revamping the decades-old curriculum. First, they cut The Catcher in the Rye (too masculine), then they cut Jane Eyre (too feminine), and finally, much to my dismay, they cut Homer. I had been looking forward to reading the Odyssey in class for years and begged my teachers to reconsider. “Don’t worry,” they said, “you’ll all read Homer in college, anyway.” This response, of course, was laughable. My high-school classmates went on to study such subjects as Mechanical Engineering and Media Studies, and if they read any literature in college, it wasn’t, alas, Homer. Knowledge of Homer is no longer expected in our technocratic and multicultural society. Although I believe everyone would benefit from reading the works that form the basis of our inherited tradition, the absence of Homer in particular from school curricula does not bother me all that much. My passion is ancient philosophy, and if it were up to me, I would make everyone read Plato. But …

Why We Should Read Machiavelli

In the mid-1990s, film critic David Denby wrote Great Books, in which he recounted a year spent at Columbia University taking two core courses in the humanities that focused on “Western classics” written by so-called “Dead White European Males.” It was “thirty years after [Denby entered] Columbia University for the first time,” when “[n]o one…could possibly have imagined that in the following decades the courses would be alternatively reviled as an iniquitous oppression and adored as a bulwark of the West.” Indeed, a prevalent critique was (and still is) that the classics were written by white men relevant primarily in connection to a regime of power that exerted cultural and political hegemony over large parts of the world. “Dead white males” had had their time in the sun. One of the most recognizable “dead white males” was Niccolo Machiavelli. Famous for having written the how-to book on power politics, Machiavelli might seem to have deserved special censure for writing about power at the dawn of the age of exploration which preceded European imperialism. Fortunately, however, …

How I was Kicked Out of the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting

I am a Classics Ph.D. who recently attended the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS—formerly the American Philological Association), a yearly conference that provides papers on classical subjects and interviews for academic positions. I now regret doing so since some remarks I made at the conference led to me being branded a “racist” and the loss of my editing job with the Association of Ancient Historians. I don’t usually attend because of the expense—I’m an independent scholar and cannot rely on universities for reimbursement. But it seemed like a good idea to go since the weather is always nice in San Diego. A bonus was the USS Midway, now a floating museum. The Midway, a World War II-era aircraft carrier that served as the command center for the bombing of Bagdad during the Gulf War, is well worth visiting. On January 5 I decided to attend panel #45, a “Sesquicentennial Workshop”—it was the 150th anniversary of the SCS—titled “The Future of Classics.” It was described in the meeting program as “an …

Are the Classics Complicit in White Supremacy?

Editor’s note: This is the final instalment in a four-part series on the Classics. As I’ve said before, for me, the debate about whether “Western Civ” should still be taught always comes back round to the situation facing my own field, classics. And in recent years, the progressive classics website Eidolon has published a number of pieces suggesting that the idea of studying the Western classics in anything like a traditional way isn’t just ill-advised, but positively dangerous. Donna Zuckerberg, the editor of Eidolon, has warned that “Western Civ” is a slippery slope to white supremacy, for example, and Rebecca Kennedy has gone one further, arguing that classics as a field is in fact already complicit in white supremacy. I have no reason to believe that these scholars are motivated by anything other than a sincere belief that they are working for the good of their field and of society as a whole. But it’s my own sincere belief that their way of looking at this issue is fundamentally flawed, and that the kind of …

Is Western Civilization Uniquely Bad?

This is part three of a four-part series on the Classics.  Even if the concept of Western civilization isn’t inherently incoherent, some would argue that we should still be extremely cautious of it, or maybe even avoid it altogether, because of the way Western nations have engaged in various sorts of racism, war-mongering, and imperialistic exploitation. On this view, the legacy of the West is irredeemably tainted, and we should either steer clear of it altogether, or, if we have to teach it, we should teach it in an openly and self-consciously critical way. Now, it’s impossible to deny that Western nations have done some terrible things. From the Spanish looting of the Inca Empire, to the British massacre of Indian civilians at Amritsar, the list of Western depredations is long. Violence within the West, and among Western nations, has been just as horrific, from the eight million or so deaths caused by the Thirty Years’ War to the 60 or 70 million fatalities of World War II. The problem is, though, that if we …

The Future of Our Ancient Past

This is part one of a four part series on the Classics. Part two will be published tomorrow. Australian National University’s decision to reject a large donation from the Ramsay Centre has brought the topic of Western civilization to the forefront once again. For me, the most pressing question is about the future of classics, the discipline that has long claimed to deal with the foundations of Western civilizations. I’ve previously helped teach a course called “Origins of Political Thought,” and I’m preparing to teach another with the title “Foundations of Western Political Thought” next year. But should anyone still be teaching courses on “Western Civ”? My answer, in a word, is yes. There’s nothing wrong with teaching Western Civilization or the Western classics alongside other cultural traditions. At the same time, the way Classics used to be taught is gone for good. In many ways, that’s a good thing: the traditional classical education was astonishingly narrow, and often gave the impression that the tradition it dealt with was the only game in town. Luckily, …