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classics n : study of the literary works of ancient Greece and Rome

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  1. Plural of classic

Extensive Definition

"Classical literature" redirects here. For literature in classical languages outside the Graeco-Roman sphere, see ancient literature.
Classics or Classical Studies is the branch of the Humanities dealing with the languages, literature, history, art, and other aspects of the ancient Mediterranean world; especially Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome during the time known as classical antiquity, roughly spanning from the Ancient Greek Bronze Age in 1000 BC to the Dark Ages circa AD 500. The study of the Classics was the initial field of study in the humanities. The word "Classics" also refers to the literature of that period.
Traditionally, the focus of classics was tightly centered on ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Egypt was thought to be beyond the discipline. Today, classicists study a subject more broadly defined as that pertaining to the Ancient Mediterranean World. Those scholars focusing upon the landward side of the eastern Mediterranean—the ancient Persian Empire and the kingdoms of ancient India—are termed Orientalists.

History of the western classics

The word "classics" is derived from the Latin adjective classicus meaning "belonging to the highest class of citizens," and has further connotations of superiority, authority, and perfection. Its first recorded application to a writer was by Aulus Gellius, a second century Roman author who, in his miscellany Noctes Atticae (19, 8, 15), refers to classicus scriptor, non proletarius ("a distinguished, not a commonplace writer").
This method was started when the Greeks were constantly ranking their cultural work. The word they used was canon; ancient Greek for a carpenter's rule. Moreover, early Christian Church Fathers used this term to classify authoritative texts of the New Testament. This rule further helped in the preservation of works since writing platforms of vellum and papyrus and methods of reproduction were not cheap. The title of canon placed on a work meant that it would be more easily preserved for future generations. In modern times, a Western canon was collated that defined the best of Western culture.
At the Alexandrian Library, the ancient scholars coined another term for canonized authors, hoi enkrithentes; "the admitted" or "the included."
Classical studies incorporate a certain type of methodology. The rule of the classical world and of Christian culture and society was Philo's rule: The rule is: "μεταχάραττε τὸ θεῖον νόμισμα" ("metacharatte to theion nomisma"). It is the law of strict continuity. We preserve and do not throw away words or ideas. Words and ideas may grow in meaning but must stay within the limits of the original meaning and concept that the word has." arete, hence a good citizen. It furnished students with intellectual and aesthetic appreciation for "the best which has been thought and said in the world." Edward Copleston, an Oxford classicist, said that classical education "communicates to the mind...a high sense of honour, a disdain of death in a good cause, (and) a passionate devotion to the welfare of one's country." Cicero commented, "All literature, all philosophical treatises, all the voices of antiquity are full of examples for imitation, which would all lie unseen in darkness without the light of literature."

Legacy of the Classical World

The Classical languages have been immensely influential on all western European languages, bestowing on them an international learned vocabulary. Until the 17th century, the Latin language itself was used as the international medium of communication in diplomatic, scientific, philosophical and religious matters.
Latin itself evolved into The Romance languages. Ancient Greek can be seen in Modern Greek and the Griko languages.
The Latin influence on English is most prominent in technical vocabulary; in a similar way, so is the Greek influence on English.
The Ecclesiastical Latin dialect of Latin is still used by the Catholic Church.

Sub-disciplines within the classics

One of the most notable characteristics of the modern study of classics is the diversity of the field. Although traditionally focused on ancient Greece and Rome, the study now encompasses the entire ancient Mediterranean world, thus expanding their studies to Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Forebears of the Classical World

The Classical civilization did not develop in isolation; the ancient Greeks were partially indebted to their geographical proximity to much older cultures. But their originality and achievements are undeniable.


Traditionally, classics was essentially the philology of ancient texts. Although now less dominant, philology retains a central role. One definition of classical philology describes it as "the science which concerns itself with everything that has been transmitted from antiquity in the Greek or Latin language. The object of this science is thus the Graeco-Roman, or Classical, world to the extent that it has left behind monuments in a linguistic form." Of course, classicists also concern themselves with other languages than Classical Greek and Latin including Linear A, Linear B, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Oscan, Etruscan, and many more. Before the invention of the printing press, texts were reproduced by hand and distributed haphazardly. As a result, extant versions of the same text often differ from one another. Some classical philologists, known as textual critics, seek to synthesize these defective texts to find the most accurate version.


Thanks to popular culture, such as the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, classical archaeology is often seen as very exciting.The truth is that archaeology is more lab and library work than adventure. Field work is performed in controlled, scientific manner and must be well documented. Philologists rely on archaeological excavation, so that they may study the literary and linguistic culture of the ancient world. Likewise, archaeologists may rely on the philological study of literature in order to contextualize the excavated remains of the classical civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The artifacts they find are key to all the other sub-disciplines and help provide new evidence for the understanding of the ancient world.

Art history

Some art historians focus their study of the development of art on 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 order, Ionic order, and Corinthian order. The Parthenon is still the architectural symbol of the classical world.
Greek sculpture is well known and we know the names of several Ancient Greek artists: for example, Phidias.

Civilization and history

Some classicists use the information gathered through philology, archaeology, and art history to seek an understanding of the history, culture, and civilization. They critically use the literary and physical artifacts to create and refine a narrative of the ancient world. Unfortunately, imbalances in the evidence available often leave a huge vacuum of information about certain classes of people. Thus, classicists are now working to fill in these gaps as much as possible to get an understanding of the lives of ancient women, slaves, and the lower classes. Other problems include the under-representation in the evidence of entire cultures. For example, Sparta was one of the leading city-states of Greece, but little evidence of it has survived for classicists to study. That which has survived has generally come from their key rival, Athens. Likewise, the domination and the expansion of the Roman Empire reduced much of the evidence of earlier civilizations like the Etruscans.


The roots of Western philosophy lie in the study of the classics. The very word philosophy is Greek in origin—a term coined by Pythagoras to describe the "love of wisdom." It is not surprising, then, that many classicists study the wealth of philosophical works surviving from Roman and Greek philosophy. Among the most formidable and lasting of these thinkers are Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.

Classical Greece

Classical Rome

Famous Classicists

Throughout the history of the Western world, many classicists have gone on to gain acknowledgement outside the field.

Modern Quotations About

  • "Nor can I do better, in conclusion, than impress upon you the study of Greek literature, which not only elevates above the vulgar herd but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument."—Thomas Gaisford, Christmas sermon, Christ Church, Oxford.
  • "I would make them all learn English: and then I would let the clever ones learn Latin as an honour, and Greek as a treat."—Sir Winston Churchill, Roving Commission: My Early Life
  • "He studied Latin like the violin, because he liked it."—Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man
  • "I enquire now as to the genesis of a philologist and assert the following: 1. A young man cannot possibly know what the Greeks and Romans are. 2. He does not know whether he is suited for finding out about them."—Friedrich Nietzsche, Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen
  • "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." —Mark Twain, The Disappearance of Literature.
  • "I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried out without corporal punishment." —George Orwell
  • "It's economically illiterate. A degree in Classics or Philosophy can be as valuable as anything else."—Boris Johnson


* Biographical Dictionary of North American Classicists by Ward W. Briggs, Jr. (editor). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994 (hardcover, ISBN 0-313-24560-6).
  • Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia (Garland Reference Library of the Humanities) by Ward W. Briggs and William M. Calder III (editors). New York: Taylor & Francis, 1990 (hardcover, ISBN 0-8240-8448-9).
  • Dictionary of British classicists, 1500–1960 by Richard B. Todd (General editor). Bristol: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004 (ISBN 1-85506-997-0).
  • An Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology, edited by Nancy Thomson de Grummond. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996 (hardcover, ISBN 0-313-22066-2; ISBN 0-313-30204-9 (A–K); ISBN 0-313-30205-7 (L–Z)).
  • Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, ed. by Harry Thurston Peck. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1896; 2nd ed., 1897; New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1965.
  • Medwid, Linda M. The Makers of Classical Archaeology: A Reference Work. New York: Humanity Books, 2000 (hardcover, ISBN 1-57392-826-7).
  • The New Century Classical Handbook, ed. by Catherine B. Avery. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1962.
  • The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, revised 3rd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003 (ISBN 0-19-860641-9).
  • The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ed. by M.C. Howatson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Beard, Mary; Henderson, John. Classics: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995 (paperback, ISBN 0-19-285313-9); 2000 (new edition, paperback, ISBN 0-19-285385-6).
  • Briggs, Ward W.; Calder, III, William M. Classical scholarship: A biographical encyclopedia (Garland reference library of the humanities). London: Taylor & Francis, 1990 (ISBN 0-8240-8448-9).
  • Forum: Class and Classics:
    • Krevans, Nita. "Class and Classics: A Historical Perspective," The Classical Journal, Vol. 96, No. 3. (2001), p. 293.
    • Moroney, Siobhan. "Latin, Greek and the American Schoolboy: Ancient Languages and Class Determinism in the Early Republic," The Classical Journal, Vol. 96, No. 3. (2001), pp. 295–307.
    • Harrington Becker, Trudy. "Broadening Access to a Classical Education: State Universities in Virginia in the Nineteenth Century," The Classical Journal, Vol. 96, No. 3. (2001), pp. 309–322.
    • Bryce, Jackson. "Teaching the Classics," The Classical Journal, Vol. 96, No. 3. (2001), pp. 323–334.
  • Knox, Bernard. The Oldest Dead White European Males, And Other Reflections on the Classics. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993.
  • Macrone, Michael. Brush Up Your Classics. New York: Gramercy Books, 1991. (Guide to famous words, phrases and stories of Greek classics.)
  • Nagy, Péter Tibor. "The meanings and functions of classical studies in Hungary in the 18th–20th century", in The social and political history of Hungarian education (ISBN 963-200-511-2).
  • Wellek, René. "Classicism in Literature," in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, ed. by Philip P. Wiener. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968.
  • Winterer, Caroline. The Mirror of Antiquity: American Women and the Classical Tradition, 1750–1900. Ithaca, NY; London: Cornell University Press, 2007 (hardcover, ISBN 978-0-8014-4163-9).

Online resources

sisterlinks Classics


classics in Breton: Klasoù
classics in Catalan: Clàssic
classics in Danish: Oldtidskundskab
classics in German: Klassische Altertumswissenschaft
classics in Spanish: Filología Clásica
classics in Persian: کلاسیک‌ها
classics in French: Littérature antique
classics in Croatian: Klasična filologija
classics in Icelandic: Fornfræði
classics in Hebrew: לימודים קלאסיים
classics in Kirghiz: Классиктер
classics in Dutch: De klassieken
classics in Japanese: 西洋古典学
classics in Norwegian: Klassisk
classics in Russian: Антиковедение
classics in Serbo-Croatian: Klasična filologija
classics in Finnish: Antiikintutkimus
classics in Swedish: Klassisk
classics in Tagalog: Klasikos
classics in Ukrainian: Антична література
classics in Urdu: کلاسک
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