The Horrors of Classical Studies

The brightest and most promising of my former students expressed her gratitude for the two years in which I taught her Latin, but simultaneously gave voice to a regret that we did not spend more time talking about the broader historical, cultural, and social implications of the texts, as well as ancient civilization more generally. As with all good criticism, this cut deep because I recognize the justice of the reproach, and have long been concerned about it in my own teaching. Unfortunately, (and I hope that this does not sound like idle excuse fabrication), the tremendous burden imposed by the rather extensive and rigorous AP Latin curriculum does not allow for broad general reading in the Classics with advanced high school students, nor does it encourage the most interesting reading. To be sure, some of the Vergil selections represent poetry at its finest, but many of the best parts of the poem are still omitted; moreover, Caesar in all of his arid insipidity seems to actively drive students away from the study of the Classics. People often associate the study of Classics with the study of the sublime, but I think that Caesar serves as an excellent case study in the utter horror that one often confronts when reading ancient authors.

Julius Caesar is simultaneously one of the most famous but deeply controversial figures in history, and his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars has long been a fixture of Latin classes. He is lauded by some for his political cunning and ability to subvert the entire Roman ruling elite to his own will, and alternatively dismissed as a monomaniacal tyrant who committed genocide before dipping his blade in his own countrymen’s blood to achieve that subversion. I will make no attempt to adjudicate this matter, which has been hashed out for nearly two-thousand years. Yet, I wonder how we are to teach this as a text in high school? Surely, there is much to be said for the repetitive and simple vocabulary, the countless examples of well-balanced tricolons, and the pedagogical continuity with previous generations when students begin to read Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Caesar gives an objective and impersonal account of a war which happened more than 2,000 years ago. This historical distance seems to mitigate the cruelty of the entire endeavor in some students’ minds. Some of my colleagues in the history department have begun to complain about the dispassionate way in which many students, unborn or still infants during 9/11, talk about the day with a certain flippancy as simply something that happened and not a horror or crisis in human history. Caesar himself, by rendering the entire account as impersonal as possible, contributes to this reception. Consider his note, after defeating the Veneti in Book III of the Gallic Wars, Itaque omni senatu necato reliquos sub corona vendidit (“And so, with the whole senate having been killed, he sold the rest into slavery.”) One cold sentence contains every fatal blow delivered to each member of a governing body as he breathed his last breath, and everything endured by the survivors in losing their rights as human beings.

Perhaps it ought not to be surprising then that these same students are able to casually read of the systematic devastation of a large part of the Gallic race. Worse still, I feel that I as a teacher have become complicit in this trivialization by casually asking students things such as, “Who’s ready to read about another round of murder today?” Yet, I find that when I think upon all of the slaughter then so dispassionately described in Caesar, and all of the slaughter so dispassionately described in the newspaper today, my very soul turns away in disgust, and I find it nearly impossible to think of each individual death brought on by violence through the ages. It is for good reason that Edward Gibbon referred to history as “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” I wonder, is it even possible to discuss these things in a totally earnest and uncynical way without simply descending into despair? And how do we discuss them with the young? Caesar’s value as a repository of clear Latin is undoubted; yet, how can we use the systematic horror recounted therein as a tool to inform our common humanity? Surely, it cannot be by retaining the same dispassionate perspective with which Caesar provides us.

Moving from slaughter to slavery, and from ancient to modern, I worry that many of our current Latin textbooks have embraced a light and playful attitude toward the topic. One need look no further than the Cambridge Latin Course and Hans Orberg’s Lingua Latina, both of which I have used in the classroom. Lingua Latina does not go too deep into anything, but the routinized punishment of slaves with violent beating is used as a gag throughout, complete with the onomatopoetic (and student-pleasing) tuxtax tuxtax to conjure up the sound of the thwacking. Students love the characters in the CLC, most notably Grumio, the somnolent kitchen slave who is depicted living a perfectly happy life in the Roman villa; there is no hint of beating, crucifixion, or torture in a trial which may await him. The course offers a historical note (not in the actual Latin) about the lives of slaves, but it is rather sanitized. Later, the paterfamilias Caecilius purchases a beautiful slave girl, and all of the students giggle as they translate Melissa Grumionem delectat with ‘Melissa pleases Grumio.’ This is all rather jocular and cartoonish, and gracefully sidesteps the serious issues here. Did Caecilius ever rape Melissa? Is that what masters did in the ancient world? If the question comes up in class, it seems rather difficult to address the issues of slavery and women’s suffering seriously after it has been turned into a recurring punchline.

These are modern pedagogical resources, but their treatment of slavery actually seems consciously designed to help students absorb ancient texts later. You can read many works of ancient literature with no real understanding of the experience of Roman slaves and still understand them as literature, but once the Latin student cracks open a volume of Plautus or Terence, it becomes all-important. In that sense, books like the CLC prepare students to expect slaves in scenes from everyday life, but they also pave the way for adopting the Roman attitude toward them: ‘Haha, that slave is about to get beaten! What a joke!’ I understand that the intent here is to help pave the way for students to receive and experience these works as the Romans did, but we as Classicists should admit that this is impossible. We can try our best to set aside preconceptions, and learn as much as we can about cultural context, but a Roman never had to do either of these things. We are observers and preservers of things past, and will never be ‘reborn Romans’. It also seems less than laudable to try to recapture and renew the Roman attitude toward the people whom they considered merely in the light of occasionally inconvenient property. My students often ask whether I wish that I could be transported back to ancient Greece or Rome, and I answer emphatically no. The antiquarian’s job is to decry modern civilization, but this practice itself goes back to Hesiod, and I doubt that any Classicist would actually claim that life was better in ancient Greece or Rome. These are objects for study, not revivification.

Once we have moved beyond the introductory learning phase, I am not sure what I can do to seriously address the question of slavery in class, as most of the ancient sources are obviously problematic. Sure, someone like Seneca might advise a friend to be a benevolent master, but this was supposed to be insurance against misfortune, and not a general rule of humanity. Standard curricular options like Catullus and Vergil have little to say, and Caesar presents us with the same problem of callous indifference discussed above, though I concede that reading against the grain of his indifference may be the most effective strategy. The most affecting summary of the problem that comes to my mind was not written by an ancient writer or a classicist, but by George Orwell in his Looking Back on the Spanish War:

“When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker’s name inscribed on the bottom, ‘Felix fecit’. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence.”

These horrors of war and slavery are two issues which loom large in teaching and discussing Classical literature, but even among works of pure fiction there is so much of what can only be described as horror. As an end-of-year myth unit, I went through the myths surrounding the House of Pelops all the way to the point at which Orestes kills his mother Clytemnestra. This is an exceptionally dark set of myths, but one must nevertheless concede that the themes of rape, incest, and murder loom large in much of Greek myth. Yet, the Greeks (and the Romans following them) somehow managed to confront and engage with these stories in a serious way, while not losing (but perhaps even enhancing) their sense of humanity. I should note emphatically that this sense of humanity alone did not entail morality or good deeds; Scipio is said to have wept while quoting Homer at the destruction of Carthage, but at least he felt something. One may readily ask why a body of history and literature containing so much that is awful should still be given such extensive study. To butcher Horace, mutatis nominibus, de nobis fabula narratur (change the names, and the story is about us). One may as well ask why we do not simply neglect or destroy physical relics like the Parthenon or the Pyramids, which are in their own ways monuments to forced labor, oppressive social systems, and much else that is base. Yet, it is not as though we ourselves have arrived at some Utopian pinnacle from which we can glibly talk about the manifest moral inferiority of the ancients. Do women enjoy equal rights with men the world over? Has slavery been effaced from the world? Do people not die every day in countless violent conflicts? There is much in Classical literature which is sublime and beautiful – the perfect artistic expression of humanity’s loftiest and most abiding sentiments. There is also much in Classical literature, history, and civilization which is utterly repugnant, but we ought to study it all the more for just that reason. One does not find a cure for disease by forgetting or ignoring it, and so too with the sickness of the soul: only through diligent study of all that is worst in humanity can we avert it and bring about a better world.

All of this sounds rather fine and hopeful, yet it has brought me no closer to solving the more practical problem of dealing with these issues effectively in a public high school classroom. Unlike a college lecture hall, even the most expansive high school has fairly narrow limits, beyond which the teacher treads at his peril. Similarly, even in Latin we are bound by something bordering on a mandated curriculum, which renders students far more likely to be thinking of the eleven billion uses of the ablative than, say, reading Greek philosophy in translation or really discussing issues of ancient history and society. In sum, I may simply be confessing my own failures as a teacher over the past two years, and wish that I had found a better way to step aside from grammar grinding and syllabus ploughing to really teach something. I will try my best to rectify this in the future, and I eagerly solicit any and all comments either on the theoretical or practical side of this question.

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt

20 thoughts on “The Horrors of Classical Studies

  1. thanks for this careful and honest piece. You know I have struggled with some of the same topics over the years and fallen into the trap of making jokes and making light of things. The culture shift that has focused on trigger warnings and the like really made me think more deeply about the content of a myth class so much of which is not just about rape, violence and the marginalization of all differently abled peoples, but which is also complicit in communicating and reinforcing harmful structures.

    I think there are some useful conversations going on about this (e.g. but I worry that no matter how much we talk about it we still do some damage. So, for instance, I fear that the Homeric epics are so strongly and structurally misogynistic that teaching them without pointing this out only reifies pre-existing gendered structures. (I also worry about what it means about me that I love Homer so much…)

    But I think that it is our duty and a step in the right direction to try to paint antiquity as honestly and as starkly as possible while also indicating the way antiquity can be misused. This is hard with high school students; but we can still work on it. It is part of good pedagogy, inviting students to feel empowered to engage in a critical dialogue.

    But the other problem you point to, the casualization of things like slavery and misogyny in elementary texts is hard to battle. My first Latin sentence? Puer servum pulsat.

    thanks for this. You know that thinking and talking about this is a critical step in a better direction.

    • I don’t know whether it means anything bad in particular about the fact that we enjoy the Homeric epics; I would conjecture that almost any text out there can be legitimately problematized in similar ways, because it is only comparatively recently that a sort of broad and sweeping sensitivity to many of these issues has occupied substantial intellectual real estate. Again, it seems to me that recognizing these shortcomings and engaging with them critically is one of the essential values that can be mined from them. There is plenty in Homer which is sensitive, humane, and profoundly beautiful, not because but in spite of problems such as structural misogyny.

      I think that the biggest obstacle lies in the attempt to deal with these issues in an introductory setting. It may be unfortunate, but the only reason that we can engage these texts critically is because we were at least equipped with the intellectual furniture (i.e. general knowledge of antiquity, myth, some experience with works of classical reception) to understand and appreciate them uncritically first; only after some initial period of pure enjoyment did these become objects of self-conscious study. I want my students to love ancient literature, but it seems much harder to instill that initial love for something which you present, from the outset, as problematic or flawed. Though, I suppose that the more advanced students would appreciate the honest confrontation.

      • Just read this again and I appreciate it more. Your students are lucky to have someone who is so thoughtful and dedicated in the classroom.

        Now, don’t burn yourself out, find some di*ck jokes in the Suda or something…

  2. I admire this post a lot. It might help to say, as a young college student said the other day, “remember that we do not all think the same about this.” “We”, in this case, referring to human beings.
    I love that your student challenged you to allow the conversations to open up. It might also help for you to realize and trust that once conversations are opened, a young person might take years to consider the questions posed. If you don’t elicit “closure” on the question of whether it’s OK to make jokes about slavery and rape, etc., that is to be expected. You can open doors in the mind, and then trust that experience and maturity will enter through those doors, even a decade later.

    • Thank you both for the praise and the insightful suggestions. Your suggestion that these explorations need not terminate in a moment of closure seems spot-on to me; I should, perhaps, take a cue from Plato, and leave many of my dialogues with students largely inconclusive. Indeed, I suppose that 17/18 is hardly the age at which they should be coming to strong conclusions anyway.

  3. Caesar gives an objective and impersonal account of a war which happened more than 2,000 years ago. This historical distance seems to mitigate the cruelty of the entire endeavor in some students’ minds.
    The passage of time may not mitigate the cruelty of the events as they in fact occurred, but it is not morally outrageous to think of events that happened a long, long time ago as having less of a claim on our moral sympathies. For example, it would border on monstrous to consider (i) the death of King Tutankhamun 3000+ years ago at the tender age of 19 and (ii) the death of your neighbor’s college-aged son as having equal claims on your empathy.
    There are perhaps two distinct issues here:
    1) What legitimate claim does the suffering of people who lived and died a long time ago have on our moral sympathies? Perhaps that claim is minimal. On the other hand, it is a purpose of studying the classics is to try to have human encounters with people who lived a long time ago.
    2) How can we talk about morally fraught subjects in ancient times appropriately in light of the persistence of some of those evils (slavery, misogyny, war crimes) into our own day?
    In any event this is a very fine piece and I benefited from reading it. Lots to think about.

    • You raise a legitimate point about the relative weight of claims on our empathy, and although I would hardly expect anyone to react to ancient atrocity with the same visceral feeling which any recent calamity would provoke, I still think that there is something to be said for feeling *something* when we read these accounts. For years, I myself casually read over notes like, ‘Caesar killed somewhere between 700,000 and 1,000,000 Gauls by the war’s end’ with a certain unmoved apathy, as though it were a mere statistic. Yet, it seems to me that the humanizing influence of the humanities cannot be brought about by the texts alone; we ought to attempt to draw a line directly from our feeling about some recent calamity to the sufferings of the past, and realize the common thread of human experience and suffering which links them.

  4. Actually, I think the study of a time so far removed from us enables us to discuss the horrors of life. Death, rape, the loss of a parent, suicide are all difficult topics to treat, especially perhaps for schoolchildren, so discussing them in a mythological or distant-historical context can actually be a way to open us up to the subjects, I think.

    Also, you’re completely right about topics like entrenched misogyny and classism (for want of a better term). It’s definitely something to confront head-on. Are all women in the Odyssey a threat? Is Lysistrata really a feminist piece of literature? Can you sympathise with Medea? These are all things that I teach – but I’m lucky to have the time to. (NB I teach them within Classical Civilisation, so it’s read in English. In my Latin/Greek classes we don’t have so much time, just like your situation.)

    • You make an excellent point; this is where I have fallen short as a teacher, by not using the dispassionate attitude taken toward ancient atrocity as a way to discuss it in a mature and reflective (and not reactive) way. I have had conversations with individual students on these subjects, but have not done enough to really make these discussions a focal point in class.

  5. Perhaps using the Pauline epistles as an alternative view of what slavery should be in antiquity might be helpful. They would indicate that not everyone thought that slaves should be treated like objects in antiquity.

    • I have been considering compiling a collection of ancient sources (in translation) to assemble as a reading packet for all of the various cultural topics in antiquity, as an alternative to the trivial pabulum which is offered to students in standard high-school texts. This is an excellent suggestion.

  6. This article is a bit silly. Heaps of slave names are left over. Just read books based on epigraphy, e.g. Heikki Solin, Die Sklavennamen, etc…Foolish comment about ‘no slave names remaining’. There are hundreds of thousands of slave names remaining.

    • It is not clear to me that Orwell meant that the actual names of slaves are *unrecorded* – he seems in his own case to be considering only those slaves whom he can recall from memory, and about whom he knows at least some definite detail. Simply pointing to the fact that we have records of slave names from antiquity is no more helpful than Mitt Romney’s claim that he had “binders full of women”; it does little to palliate the sadness of reflecting upon how much human suffering is recorded as a simple statistic or list of names, while actual narrative is reserved for the big-shots.

  7. Beautiful indeed! (Greetings from São Paulo, Brazil, a country unfortunately firmy based on slaughter and slavery of autochthonous and African people. And where history doesn’t present once those centuries of suffering as actual human suffering). PS: by the way why must we name our continent according to some Italian? I preferência calling It ‘Pacha’ (from quíchua ‘earth’)

  8. I also found this to be a very thought provoking article which raised very legitimate concerns about the cultural assumptions of elementary Latin programs (I have not yet seen how the CLC 5th edition has addressed its rather outdated gender portrayal). I have approached this difficulty in a similar way to EB. I think the Classical world can be used as a safely distant space in which to explore very difficult topics which confront the world today. I find that pupils are far more comfortable exploring and refining their thoughts about things like slavery, gender and sexuality in a Classical context. As this is a world which is distant in many respects, they feel as though statements they make are not ‘nailing their colours to the mast’ in a modern context. I think this allows a chance for honest exploration and development of opinions on difficult topics without the the danger of opprobrium which might arise from an ill thought through comment in modern context.

  9. Very thought provoking. Thank you. Don’t underestimate the power of teaching an ancient language. Studying the civilization, framing the issues properly for the age group and maintaining a serious, objective interrogation of human history is also important, but the language itself contains the building blocks of the culture if you look closely enough. Latin is not a dead language, it is a discovered language. We might as well have found preserved bodies of our human precursors in a melting glacier with complete strands of DNA.

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