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What is Classics?
It is probably the Greeks and Romans that first comes to mind when one hears the term Ancient History. They are certainly a very important and interesting part of its study. However, the ancient world covers a much vaster expanse of time and space. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hittites, and I could go on, all form part of the hugely varied ancient world. Such a variety of peoples, practices, languages, and achievements present an incredibly rich field of studies. Nor should we be too ready to assume that ancient equals primitive in any way. Achievements in building, philosophy, literature, politics still make themselves felt today. I hope you will enjoy reading about some of them on Classics Rocks and be inspired to start/continue your own journey through the ancient world, whichever path you decide to take.
The sheer quantity of material that has survived from the Greeks and the Romans relative to other cultures (and plenty has still been lost) perhaps accounts in part for why studies of the ancient world for so many years have focused on Greece and Rome. That said, they have handed down to us some of the most beautiful, shocking, entertaining, and undeniably thought-provoking literature that we have ever seen. The variety is wonderful. We have philosophy on metaphysics, ethics, politics, even natural science, works on mathematics, rhetoric and oratory (see the picture of Cicero under ‘Ancient History’) geography, history of different methods and approaches, plays, both tragic and comic (which have influenced modern literature and drama (on the stage and televisual) in both genres quite impressively and considerably), and some of the most beautiful poems every written. And they all, alongside being jolly good reads, deliver a kaleidoscopic array of insights into a time so remote from, yet so close to our own.
The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and many other ancient peoples have left their physical marks on the world. We still marvel at the precision of the Pyramids, the majesty of the Parthenon, the exquisite beauty of Delphi, and I could go on. Archaeology, however, is not just about the great monuments. We can find evidence for the daily life of people such as bakers, fullers, and a much wider range of people, not just the wealthy who mostly dominate the great texts that survive. Pompeii’s burial beneath a seal of volcanic ash preserved a site that offers one of the best glimpses at a functioning Roman town. The remains of Ostia also convey the idea of a living, breathing town. Archaeology opens up another dimension of the ancient world.
Philosophy was very important in the Graeco-Roman world, and beyond, from Chinese philosopher Confucius (need more). Its speculations, theories, and debates covered a wide variety of topics: the natural world, the nature of the gods/god, astronomy, human nature, the human mind, the nature of knowledge, the existence and nature of the soul, politics, society, how people should be governed, values and what they are, and the list goes on. They were also mathematicians (Pythagoras) and even medics. We can see from this impressive list that today’s core subjects derive in large part from ancient philosophy (and not just Graeco-Roman). In addition, ancient philosophy has bequeathed us some of the finest literature. Standing in a GCSE Chemistry class learning about atoms, one might be surprised to learn that early atomic theory had been beautifully elaborated by the first century BC poet Lucretius. Atomic theory, in fact, goes back to Democritus of Abdera of the fifth century BC. Rich in their thought, limitless in their interests, ancient philosophy makes for a highly illuminating and at times sobering experience.