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‘Classics is elitist!’ 'Oh no it isn’t!’

With panto season almost upon us, come Classics fans, 'Oh no it isn’t!’

There are several strands that have lead to this image.

  1. The hijacking of Classics in support of imperialist and colonialist ideas and slavery.

  2. As a result of number 1, Classical education came to be seen as the property of the elite, who would be sent out in high positions to govern and oversee the 'empire’.

  3. Such ideals were also seen in ancient societies: Athens and Rome, being the prime examples and thus one also finds the notion that it was education about the elite for the elite. In Rome, for example, learning Greek, oratorical training, were the preserve of the wealthy, who would be looking to enter political life.

  4. The hijacking of Classics also became the rhetoric of power, both verbally and architecturally of individual rulers. Peter the Great of Russia, Frederick the Great of Brandenburg Prussia, Mussolini all exploited the Classical veneer, I shall call it, to convey their power, greatness, and authority. Flourishing imperial Athens had its Acropolis, Imperial Rome was left made of marble by Augustus (well, so he claimed), and both influenced the image of the leaders mentioned above.

All this has led to the view, and understandably, that Classics is elitist. However, this view is to confuse a narrow exploitation of Classics with the study of the subject itself and, therefore, misses the subject’s richness, its value in promoting critical thinking and a variety of other skills, and the depth of ancient thought in all its forms, poetic, historiographical, philosophical, even scientific. Then, there is much illumination to be found and reflection to be prompted by a comparative study. They seem so remote, but were they so different?

Classics is not intrinsically elitist. The attitude of some towards it is. So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water because of some who have used the Classics to justify their unsavoury and malign conduct.

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