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What Is Classics? Roger B. Ulrich The one way for us to become great . . . is to imitate the Greeks. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1775 The great German scholar who wrote those words nearly 250 years ago believed that the ancient Greeks had reached a level of perfection through their art that represented the pinnacle of human achievement.Many of us would argue today that “greatness”is achieved less by copying the accomplishments of others than through innovation and fresh ideas. If innovation and fresh ideas lead to greatness , then surely Greeks—and later the Romans—have earned the distinction of being “great.”We can still learn from them today (without having to “imitate” them!), building on their ideas to interpret the world around us.Those who devote their professional lives to understanding the cultures of Greece and Rome work in the field of classics. From the time of the Renaissance to the present day, people interested in classical civilization have studied literary works written in the two main languages of these cultures: ancient Greek and Latin. Even though most of these writings from Greece and Rome have now been translated into many modern languages—we’ll return to that development later—being able to read Greek and Latin in their original form gives us a closer understanding of ancient thought and the art of the ancient writer. By studying ancient language we can still read and hear the Greek used by Homer nearly three thousand years ago to tell the stories of the Trojan War, or the Latin spoken by Julius Caesar in his accounts of his wars against the Gauls. Why has there been such an interest in these “dead” languages (so called 84 Roger B. Ulrich because they are not spoken anymore)? And why the focus on places and events now so removed from us in time and space? Because much of the world that we experience today—especially for those of us who live in Europe or the Americas —has been shaped by the literature, art, and philosophy of ancient Greeks and Romans. In telling their stories and writing about the world around them, ancient poets,historians,playwrights,philosophers,lawyers,and architects grappled with the same issues we face today: our responsibility as citizens,the nature of religion, of good and evil, of justice, of bravery and cowardice. To explore the ancient world the modern classicist no longer focuses only on language study.The understanding of the words and thoughts of the Greeks and Romans is still the foundation of the classical education. But today the study of classics embraces a number of other disciplines.Given the breadth and complexity of the civilizations and geographical spread of Greeks and Romans (who at one time or another dominated all of Europe,Britain,the Middle East, and North Africa), modern scholars who study the classics choose a focus. In addition to the traditional field of language and literature study there are classicists who devote their energies and inquiries to history, archaeology, drama, and philosophy. Scholars in one area can work collaboratively with colleagues in other areas to form a clearer understanding of the classical world. Before we look at some of the various ways classicists study the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome it is important to remember that the fact that so many people study these cultures (and many do!) does not mean we consider them perfect or somehow superior to the world we live in today.Far from it! The great achievements of the Greeks and Romans took place in societies afflicted with many of the same problems we face in modern times. Crime, war, lack of food,and disease were all a part of ancient life—and in many cases much worse than is experienced today. For a particularly egregious example, note that most Greeks and Romans viewed slavery as a normal and useful part of their daily lives—a view that we find abhorrent today. It is also important to remember that while Greeks and Romans get the most mention,they were not the only peoples who lived along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in antiquity. It would be unfair to these other ancient civilizations (and poor historical work!) to credit only the Greeks and the Romans with all the “Greek”and “Roman”achievements we admire today. For example, the much-studied and well-known “Greek mythology”developed in part from stories of gods and heroes that had long circulated in the lands of Mesopotamia...


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