Classics

Classics or classical studies is the study of classical antiquity. It encompasses the study of the Greco-Roman world, particularly of its languages and literature (Ancient Greek and Classical Latin) but also of Greco-Roman philosophy, history, and archaeology. Traditionally in the West, the study of the Greek and Roman classics was considered one of the cornerstones of the humanities and a fundamental element of a rounded education. The study of Classics has therefore traditionally been a cornerstone of a typical elite education. Study encompasses specifically a time-period of history from the mid-2nd millennium BC to the 6th century AD

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1. Phililogy

Philology is the study of language preserved in written sources; classical philology is thus concerned with understanding any texts from the classical period written in the classical languages of Latin and Greek. The roots of classical philology lie in the Renaissance, as humanist intellectuals attempted to return to the Latin of the classical period, especially of Cicero, and as scholars attempted to produce more accurate editions of ancient texts. Some of the principles of philology still used today developed during this period. For instance, the observation that if a manuscript could be shown to be a copy of an earlier extant manuscript, then it provides no further evidence of the original text, was made as early as 1489 by Angelo Poliziano. Other philological tools took longer to be developed: the first statement, for instance, of the principle that a more difficult reading should be preferred over a simpler one, was in 1697 by Jean Le Clerc.


  • Comparative
    The comparative linguistics branch of philology studies the relationship between languages. Similarities between Sanskrit and European languageswere first noted in the early 16th century and led to speculation of a common ancestor language from which all these descended. It is now named Proto-Indo-European. Philology's interest in ancient languages led to the study of what were, in the 18th century, "exotic" languages, for the light they could cast on problems in understanding and deciphering the origins of older texts.
  • Textual
    Philology also includes the study of texts and their history. It includes elements of textual criticism, trying to reconstruct an author's original text based on variant copies of manuscripts. This branch of research arose among Ancient scholars in the 4th century BC Greek-speaking world, who desired to establish a standard text of popular authors for the purposes of both sound interpretation and secure transmission. Since that time, the original principles of textual criticism have been improved and applied to other widely distributed texts such as the Bible. Scholars have tried to reconstruct the original readings of the Bible from the manuscript variants. This method was applied to Classical Studies and to medieval texts as a way to reconstruct the author's original work. The method produced so-called "critical editions", which provided a reconstructed text accompanied by a "critical apparatus", i.e., footnotes that listed the various manuscript variants available, enabling scholars to gain insight into the entire manuscript tradition and argue about the variants.
  • Cognitive
    Another branch of philology, cognitive philology, studies written and oral texts. Cognitive philology considers these oral texts as the results of human mental processes. This science compares the results of textual science with the results of experimental research of both psychology and artificial intelligence production systems.
  • Decipherment
    In the case of Bronze Age literature, philology includes the prior decipherment of the language under study. This has notably been the case with the Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Hittite, Ugaritic and Luwian languages. Beginning with the famous decipherment and translation of the Rosetta Stone by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, a number of individuals attempted to decipher the writing systems of the Ancient Near East and Aegean. In the case of Old Persian and Mycenaean Greek, decipherment yielded older records of languages already known from slightly more recent traditions (Middle Persian and Alphabetic Greek).

2. Classical Archaeology

Classical archaeology is the oldest branch of archaeology, with its roots going back to J.J. Winckelmann's work on Herculaneum in the 1760s. It was not until the last decades of the 19th century, however, that classical archaeology became part of the tradition of Western classical scholarship. It was included as part of Cambridge University's Classical Tripos for the first time after the reforms of the 1880s, though it did not become part of Oxford's Greats until much later.

3. Classical Art History

Some art historians focus their study on the development of art in the classical world. Indeed, the art and architecture of Ancient Rome and Greece is very well regarded and remains at the heart of much of our art today. For example, Ancient Greek architecture gave us the Classical Orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The Parthenon is still the architectural symbol of the classical world.


  • Pliny the Elder and ancient precedents
    The earliest surviving writing on art that can be classified as art history are the passages in Pliny the Elder's Natural History (c. AD 77-79), concerning the development of Greek sculpture and painting. From them it is possible to trace the ideas of Xenokrates of Sicyon (c. 280 BC), a Greek sculptor who was perhaps the first art historian.
  • Vasari and artists' biographies
    While personal reminiscences of art and artists have long been written and read (see Lorenzo Ghiberti Commentarii, for the best early example), it was Giorgio Vasari, the Tuscan painter, sculptor and author of the Lives of the Painters, who wrote the first true history of art
  • Winckelmann and art criticism
    Scholars such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), criticised Vasari's "cult" of artistic personality, and they argued that the real emphasis in the study of art should be the views of the learned beholder and not the unique viewpoint of the charismatic artist. Winckelmann's writings thus were the beginnings of art criticism.
  • Wölfflin and stylistic analysis
    Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945), who studied under Burckhardt in Basel, is the "father" of modern art history. Wölfflin taught at the universities of Berlin, Basel, Munich, and Zurich. A number of students went on to distinguished careers in art history, including Jakob Rosenberg and Frida Schottmuller. He introduced a scientific approach to the history of art, focusing on three concepts.
  • Riegl, Wickhoff, and the Vienna School
    Contemporaneous with Wölfflin's career, a major school of art-historical thought developed at the University of Vienna. The first generation of the Vienna School was dominated by Alois Riegland Franz Wickhoff, both students of Moritz Thausing, and was characterized by a tendency to reassess neglected or disparaged periods in the history of art. Riegl and Wickhoff both wrote extensively on the art of late antiquity, which before them had been considered as a period of decline from the classical ideal. Riegl also contributed to the revaluation of the Baroque.
  • Panofsky and iconography
    Our 21st-century understanding of the symbolic content of art comes from a group of scholars who gathered in Hamburg in the 1920s. The most prominent among them were Erwin Panofsky, Aby Warburg, and Fritz Saxl. Together they developed much of the vocabulary that continues to be used in the 21st century by art historians. "Iconography"—with roots meaning "symbols from writing" refers to subject matter of art derived from written sources—especially scripture and mythology. "Iconology" is a broader term that referred to all symbolism, whether derived from a specific text or not. Today art historians sometimes use these terms interchangeably.
  • Freud and psychoanalysis
    Heinrich Wölfflin was not the only scholar to invoke psychological theories in the study of art. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote a book on the artist Leonardo da Vinci, in which he used Leonardo's paintings to interrogate the artist's psyche and sexual orientation. Freud inferred from his analysis that Leonardo was probably homosexual.
  • Jung and archetypes
    Carl Jung also applied psychoanalytic theory to art. C.G. Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist, an influential thinker, and founder of analytical psychology. Jung's approach to psychology emphasized understanding the psyche through exploring the worlds of dreams, art, mythology, world religion and philosophy. Much of his life's work was spent exploring Eastern and Western philosophy, alchemy, astrology, sociology, as well as literature and the arts.
  • Marx and ideology
    During the mid-20th century, art historians embraced social history by using critical approaches. The goal was to show how art interacts with power structures in society. One critical approach that art historians[who?] used was Marxism. Marxist art history attempted to show how art was tied to specific classes, how images contain information about the economy, and how images can make the status quo seem natural (ideology)
  • Feminist art history
    Linda Nochlin's essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" helped to ignite feminist art history during the 1970s and remains one of the most widely read essays about female artists. This was then followed by a 1972 College Art Association Panel, chaired by Nochlin, entitled "Eroticism and the Image of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Art". Within a decade, scores of papers, articles, and essays sustained a growing momentum, fueled by the Second-wave feminist movement, of critical discourse surrounding women's interactions with the arts as both artists and subjects. 
  • Barthes and semiotics
    As opposed to iconography which seeks to identify meaning, semiotics is concerned with how meaning is created. Roland Barthes’s connoted and denoted meanings are paramount to this examination. In any particular work of art, an interpretation depends on the identification of denoted meaning—the recognition of a visual sign, and the connoted meaning—the instant cultural associations that come with recognition. The main concern of the semiotic art historian is to come up with ways to navigate and interpret connoted meaning.
  • Museum studies and collecting
    Aspects of the subject which have come to the fore in recent decades include interest in the patronage and consumption of art, including the economics of the art market, the role of collectors, the intentions and aspirations of those commissioning works, and the reactions of contemporary and later viewers and owners. Museum studies, including the history of museum collecting and display, is now a specialized field of study, as is the history of collecting.
  • New materialism
    Scientific advances have made possible much more accurate investigation of the materials and techniques used to create works, especially infra-red and x-ray photographic techniques which have allowed many underdrawings of paintings to be seen again. Proper analysis of pigments used in paint is now possible, which has upset many attributions. Dendrochronology for panel paintings and radio-carbon dating for old objects in organic materials have allowed scientific methods of dating objects to confirm or upset dates derived from stylistic analysis or documentary evidence.
  • Nationalist art history
    The making of art, the academic history of art, and the history of art museums are closely intertwined with the rise of nationalism. Art created in the modern era, in fact, has often been an attempt to generate feelings of national superiority or love of one’s country. Russian art is an especially good example of this, as the Russian avant-garde and later Soviet art were attempts to define that country’s identity.

4. Ancient History

In Ancient history, with philology, archaeology, and art history, scholars seek understanding of the history and culture of a civilization, through critical study of the extant literary and physical artifacts, in order to compose and establish a continual historic narrative of the Ancient World and its peoples. The task is difficult due to a dearth of physical evidence: for example, Sparta was a leading Greek city-state, yet little evidence of it survives to study, and what is available comes from Athens, Sparta's principal rival; likewise, the Roman Empire destroyed most evidence (cultural artefacts) of earlier, conquered civilizations, such as that of the Etruscans.


5. Ancient Philosophy

The English word "philosophy" comes from the Greek word φιλοσοφία, meaning "love of wisdom", probably coined by Pythagoras. Along with the word itself, the discipline of philosophy as we know it today has its roots in ancient Greek thought, and according to Martin West "philosophy as we understand it is a Greek creation". Ancient philosophy was traditionally divided into three branches: logic, physics, and ethics. However, not all of the works of ancient philosophers fit neatly into one of these three branches. For instance, Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poeticshave been traditionally classified in the West as "ethics", but in the Arabic world were grouped with logic; in reality, they do not fit neatly into either category.


6. Classical Reception Studies

A relatively recent new discipline within the classics is "reception studies", which developed in the 1960s at the University of Konstanz. Reception studies is concerned with how students of classical texts have understood and interpreted them. As such, reception studies is interested in a two-way interaction between reader and text, taking place within a historical context.