I read recently that my old graduate program, Michigan’s Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, has changed its name, substituting ‘Ancient Mediterranean’ for ‘Classical.’ The new acronym is certainly an improvement: ‘IPCAA’ sounds like something taken to induce vomiting, whereas ‘IPAMAA’ sounds like a Quechua word for a large jungle cat. Acronyms can have a tyranny of their own, especially when an organization takes extreme measures to retain theirs, such as in the case of the American Society of Overseas Research (which sounds like it arranges educational tours for senior citizens, which in a way I suppose it does). So I am glad to see that IPCAA, er, IPAMAA, has prioritized content over form.
But what of the new name? I think it’s an improvement too, not least because ‘Classical’ is a spectacularly unhelpful term. It derives from the Latin classicus, meaning ‘belonging to a class,’ that is, the first class, akin to the English word ‘classy.’ Thus it contains a value judgment. Classical antiquity is so-called because, in the eyes of early modern Europeans anyway, it was so much better than the Middle Ages that followed it. Similarly, the Classical Period in Greece was the age of democracy (never mind that it first appeared in the Archaic Period), freedom (except of course for all the enslaved people), and great literature (true, but Homer and Hesiod aren’t too shabby, either). Of course it was also the period of Athenian imperialism, plague, and a very long and devastating war. I’m guessing the Melians didn’t think this was a very classy period. The point is that using a value judgment as the name of a historical period is stupid. Names have power, in part because they are repeated over and over again. Effectively, one has to compliment the ancient Greeks merely in order to talk about them!
Moreover, everyone has their own classics. There’s Classical Hebrew, Classical Arabic, Classical Chinese, Classical Sanskrit, to give a few salient examples. Classical Greek doesn’t even have the oldest classics. More importantly, referring to Greek and Latin literature as ‘The Classics’ without further qualification implies that they are the original and best of all the various classics. The great works of ancient Egyptian literature predate Homer by a millennium or more, as do the earliest versions of Gilgamesh and Atrahasis. And some so-called Classical literature is terrible (like Silius Italicus’ Punica). There’s simply no reason why the Greeks and Romans are any more classical than anyone else.
‘Ancient Mediterranean’ is better simply because ‘ancient’ and ‘Mediterranean’ refer to a more-or-less specific time and place. They’re not perfect terms by any means, but they’re far less judgmental. They also imply that the program deliberately includes the study of all the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean, not just the Greeks and Romans. To be fair, IPCAA has a history of supporting such research, such as my own dissertation on Achaemenid Egypt. But those of us who worked on these non-Greek and Roman topics often felt ourselves to be marginalized, and accordingly sought guidance and companionship from other departments, like Near Eastern Studies (also since renamed) and Anthropology. The program always placed Greek and Roman (especially Roman) archaeology at the center and everything else was regarded as a fringe topic.
There is a good reason for this: one of the program’s sponsoring departments is the Department of Classical Studies (not yet renamed, as far as I know). Indeed, IPAMAA very reasonably supposes that it is training people for jobs in other Classics departments. It is hard enough to find a job as a Greek archaeologist; finding work as a pre-Greek or Greek-adjacent archaeologist is nigh on impossible. Imagine, for example, an expert on Cypriot prehistory trying to convince a scholar of Ovid to hire him//her. There would likely be no overlap at all between their interests, and a huge conceptual gulf between them as to what constitutes scholarship. Even the vocabulary that each would use to describe their respective research is largely mutually unintelligible (strontium isotope analysis, anyone?). All other things being equal, the Ovid scholar would presumably feel much more in tune with someone who wrote a dissertation on a Hellenistic pit in the Athenian agora or on hairstyles on Attic red-figure pottery. The more tangential an archaeologist’s research is to that of scholars of Greek and Latin texts, the less likely he/she is to be hired by a Classics department.
Obviously I don’t expect IPAMAA to fix this on its own, and certainly not with a name change. The problem, I think, is the discipline of Classical Studies. Fundamentally, it is the study of Greek and Latin texts, as this is what the majority (I imagine) of faculty in Classics departments do. Archaeology and ancient history are part of the discipline only because they were originally studied by philologists who relied primarily on texts. Thus, what makes one a classicist is not the methodology employed, as is the case for many other disciplines, but the relevance of one’s research to these texts. This is an absurd situation. An ancient historian in a history department is judged according to the methods of the discipline. A scholar of Marxism or Apartheid, for example, is better equipped to judge a historian of the Ptolemaic economy than our hypothetical Ovid scholar is to judge our Cypriot prehistorian, even though the latter two supposedly belong to the same discipline! It would be like asking an expert on the work of Victor Hugo to judge a specialist on the cave paintings at Lascaux (they’re both French…sort of).
The solution to this problem is sufficiently drastic that I hesitate to mention it, especially in this age of university streamlining wherein the customer is always right and critical inquiry has become a privilege rather than a basic tenet of higher education. But I digress. That solution is nothing less than the dissolution of Classics as a discipline. Let me be clear: despite my professional and intellectual frustration with the field, I still love it. I first learned Latin in high school, and it made me the person I am today. I still consider myself a classicist (among many other things, naturally), and I take every opportunity to share my knowledge of that field with my students. This past fall, for example, I had the opportunity to lecture on Lucian’s A True Story at the Rabinowitz Honors College at Hofstra. This is a text I first encountered twenty years ago (back when we thought George W. Bush was the worst president imaginable), and though I had not looked at it since I was an undergraduate my enthusiasm for it was undiminished. I found that my understanding of the text had transformed in interesting ways. But for all that, I think the Classics would be a stronger field intellectually if classicists of all sorts were accountable to their methodological peers in comparative literature, history, anthropology, etc. Of course I recognize that this cure may be worse than the disease, in that it would further erode the field’s already tenuous position in American academia. Perhaps instead the Classics tent must be made larger. This has already happened at many institutions, but generally for administrative rather than intellectual reasons. And another risk of such an approach would be the training of graduate students with potentially uncategorizable degrees (like ‘Ancient Mediterranean Cultures’ or ‘Old World Studies’).
Thus, on an institutional level the problem is intractable. My only useful suggestion (and ‘useful’ is probably too generous) is for individual classicists, howsoever defined, to think differently about their field. In particular, I would like them to think of it not as studying ‘classics’ of any kind, but rather an entire ancient world. This is hardly a novel suggestion; I personally know many classicists who do this already. But I think it would be very good for the field if they all did. I mean, if we all did. (I can never decide if I’m outside the House of Classics looking in through a window, or inside but seated at the kids’ table.)
To return to IPAMAA, I applaud this decision. It was taken in conjunction with several other measures intended to make the program more accessible. I could discuss those at length, but I don’t care to at present. In fact, I’ve got a lot of grading to do, so I need to wrap up this exercise in procrastination. I hope everyone has a nice Saturnalia.