Faculty of Classics
Photo credit: Manar al-Athar photo archive
The Faculty of Classics has chosen to present an archive of documents which will show how discussions have evolved and how things are moving forward around the issues and questions of colonialism and decolonisation.
When the Oxford & Colonialism project was mooted in the spring of 2019, the Classics Faculty envisioned a response that engaged with the complicated colonial history of Classics as a discipline, especially at Oxford, and outlined some of the ways in which we had been attempting to move beyond that legacy. This was the originally intended entry:
The modern notion of Classics – based on the special importance of and relationship between Greece, Rome, and their respective languages – is a late eighteenth century phenomenon, in large part the result of the increasing importance of Greek teaching in European elite education alongside the rise of vernaculars that reduced Latin to the status of a dead language. In Britain degrees in Classics appeared for the first time in the early nineteenth century, an era also distinguished by the rise of scientific racism, anti-Semitism, and the interlinked phenomena of hierarchical imperialism and separatist nationalism, which between them brought about a new kind of ‘civilizational thinking’. Classics was seen from the beginning as a guarantee of western and even British civilization, explained and often justified by the idea that these societies form the roots of ‘our’ culture and as an unhesitatingly positive example of human society: in 1846 John Stuart Mill famously described the Athenian victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon as one of the most important events in British history.
The origins of the Oxford Classics degree are embedded in this nineteenth century colonial context. Latin and Greek go back much further in the University’s history of course: the former as the universal language of European scholarship for over a millennium, the latter as one of many languages taught at Oxford since the middle ages. When Oxford’s Old Schools Quad was built in the early seventeenth century, the Faculty of the ‘Two Tongues’ taught Greek and Hebrew. Literae Humaniores, the name the Oxford Classics degree still sports today, first appeared in the new University Examination Statute of 1800. It was then one of the constituent parts of the new Bachelor of Arts honours degree, alongside ‘the Rudiments of Religion’, and ‘the elements of the Mathematical Sciences and of Physics’. It involved Latin and Greek language, Rhetoric and Moral Philosophy as drawn from Greek and Roman writers, Aristotelian Logic, and Latin Composition. In 1830, after separate examiners had been appointed for the sciences, Modern Philosophy was added to this humanities syllabus - or rather, permission was given to “illustrate” ancient with modern authors “if need be” – alongside Ancient History, and Archaeology followed later in the century, as did full degrees in distinct Humanities subjects such as Modern History.
The colonial context of Classics at Oxford, and its debt to groups disadvantaged by the legacies of colonialism is something that we are still grappling with. This is especially clear, and concerning, in our limited success in recruiting scholars of colour, and especially black students and faculty. Its lasting legacy in our curriculum is well-illustrated in our ancient history syllabus, which still revolves around a core curriculum established in 1872. It focusses above all on Classical Athens and Late Republican Rome: both great imperialist powers, not to mention stops on the Grand Tour. The Archaic era also features strongly, especially as a period of Greek maritime colonisation – with little attention to their Phoenician predecessors – and the early Roman Principate, which vividly illustrates the problems of governing a large and fractious empire. This was pretty conservative even for the Victorians. In fact, Oxford’s own Camden Professor of Ancient History, George Rawlinson, had a very different view of what actually counted as ancient history: just three years beforehand he had published, with Oxford University Press, A manual of ancient history: from the earliest times to the fall of the Western empire, comprising the history of Chaldea, Assyria, Media, Babylonia, Lydia, Phoenicia, Syria, Judea, Egypt, Carthage, Persia, Greece, Macedonia, Rome, and Parthia.
It is still the case that very little of this can be found in his own university’s teaching. We have however added Ancient History courses in Hellenistic history, Persian Achaemenid History, Late Antiquity, and the Bronze Age Aegean, as well as a hugely popular final year course in Sexuality and Gender alongside new Literature courses in Classical Reception and Modern Greek. Many of our Classics students now arrive with no previous knowledge of Latin or Greek. Since 2002, we also offer a degree in Classical Archaeology and Ancient History that offers courses on Ancient Egypt and the Etruscan World, and requires no language study at all. And we are currently in the middle of a major Syllabus Review that is rethinking our 19th century heritage to best suit our 21st century students, and best reflect 21st century developments in research.
Our research also now reaches far beyond the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. Faculty members work on topics such as the Greek novel, Roman provincial coinage, and connections between the Classical World and the Near East, which take them well beyond the traditional geographical and ethnic boundaries of Classics, and challenge simple divisions such as East and West. Several have participated in student-led decolonization initiatives, including Common Ground events. In Hilary Term 2017 the Classical Languages and Literature Sub-Faculty Seminar topic was Colonial and Postcolonial Voices, with papers on Greek and Roman colonial literature, the reception of Classical literatures among both colonizing and colonized peoples in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the application to postcolonial critical approaches to ancient and modern texts. In Hilary Term 2019 the Ancient History Faculty Seminar on Kingship and Statecraft covered kingdoms from Parthia to Commagene to Bithynia to Judea. In both cases graduate students as well as faculty members gave papers, and both were very well attended.
We have major Research Projects on themes including Empires of Faith, the Monumental Art of the Christian and Early Islamic East, and Gandhara Connections, as well as Research Centres centred on Byzantine and Phoenician Studies. These often challenge notions of the Classical World as the roots of a mythical ‘West’, and actively critique notions and histories of empire. We excavate in Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia, in close collaboration with local colleagues. The Manar al Athar Archive provides images for teaching and research from the areas of the Roman Empire that later came under Islamic rule, and the Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project uses satellite information to record and disseminate information about sites that are under threat. At the same time, many of our projects, from Anachronism and Antiquity to the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama (APGRD) address central questions about changing understandings of the ancient world in the modern one.
Oxford Classics also has numerous access and outreach initiatives, often targeted in particular at those who are most disadvantaged by the legacies of colonial oppression. Such initiatives are aimed at diversifying our student body, but they also aim to give the students we work with the tools, via Classics, to question the power structures around them.
We still have a long way to go in making a subject with a deeply colonial past into a discipline fit for a new era, but we are on our way.
Over the intervening period, however, concerns about the intersection of classics and colonialism emerged with a new gravity both nationally and internationally. At Oxford they found expression in a Faculty statement on racism. Two days after this statement was released, an open letter from Oxford Classics students and alumni was published, urging the faculty to more urgent action on these issues. The letter is reproduced here and, as of June 2020, there were 245 signatories:
To the Faculty of Classics at Oxford University:
We, the undersigned Classics undergraduates, graduate students, societies, and alumni, are writing to request that you set up a plan of concrete action following your preliminary ‘Statement on Racism’ issued on 10 June 2020. We appreciate the time taken to write a statement of solidarity at a time when many are silent, as well as the effort made to confront some ugly truths about the societies we study. However, we do not believe this statement goes far enough in acknowledging and correcting the role Classics itself has played in the ongoing oppression and marginalisation of Black scholars and Black lives. In fact, the statement actively avoids drawing attention to the issue of institutional racism in Classics, and in doing so has attracted international criticism and ridicule. Furthermore, the statement does not explicitly commit to anti-racist action in the future. We are therefore calling upon the Faculty to make tangible commitments toward supporting this anti-racist movement, which necessitates a reckoning with and rectifying of the institutional racism in our department and the discipline of Classics as a whole.
Thanks to the crucial work of the Christian Cole Society for Classicists of Colour, which also released a statement on 9 June 2020, it is no longer possible to ignore that Classics has a long and painful history of upholding, benefitting from, and advancing structural racism and white supremacy in Oxford and across the world. In a statement on 3 June 2020, the Society for Classical Studies wrote that it ‘recognizes and acknowledges the complicity of Classics as a field in constructing and participating in racist and anti-black educational structures and attitudes’. Oxford Classics must similarly interrogate and make reparations for its own role in proliferating these structures and attitudes, including, but not limited to, the ongoing exclusion of Black students and academics from our field as well as the misappropriation of Classics and other pre-modern fields by hate groups. Unfortunately, although action has been requested repeatedly by Black scholars and scholars of colour for years, sufficient structural changes have yet to be made.
We ask the Classics faculty to respond to this letter with direct, material actions that advance anti-racist work within the Classics community, Oxford, and beyond. During this crucial moment in history, we must leverage our extensive resources and join the fight for justice. It is not enough simply to say that Classics is here to support Black scholars and Black lives more broadly—we must back these words up with action. It is not enough to merely decry racism and say we are not racist; we have to be actively anti-racist. To quote the preliminary statement, it is time to be not only ‘more audible’ but ‘more effective’. This requires hard work, discussion, and education—all of which we believe Oxford Classics has the obligation and resources to do.
In order to genuinely support Black scholars and scholars of colour, to honour this historic movement for Black lives, and to move forward in the long and continuing process of redressing Classics’ institutional racism, we ask that the Faculty implement at least the following action items:
- As requested above, the Faculty of Classics must issue a plan of action, effective academic year 2020–21, clarifying their position on the Black Lives Matter movement and what they intend to do regarding the institutional racism of Classics. In this statement, the Faculty of Classics must acknowledge explicitly its own role in the proliferation of racist, colonialist, and white supremacist attitudes, and also outline a clear strategy for how it plans to deal with systemic racism in Oxford and the discipline at large. Statements of this kind have already been issued by The Faculty of English, The Faculty of Modern Languages, and, as mentioned above, The Christian Cole Society for Classicists of Colour, all of which refer explicitly to the importance of ‘diversifying and decolonising their fields’, including the re-examination of their curricula, retention rates, and hiring practices. The Faculty of Classics must issue similar commitments, and, even better, outline how these commitments will be honoured in practice. It is also our understanding that specific members of our Faculty have reached out to their own colleges and students to begin discussing issues of race and racism in Classics. This should be standard across the University. We request that the Faculty respond urgently, both acknowledging this list of action items and providing a prospective date for their plan of action, by the beginning of next week.
- The Faculty of Classics must immediately hire an Outreach Officer with a specialist knowledge of anti-racist work and equality in higher education. Since Qasim Alli left this post in Michaelmas 2019, we have lacked a centralised officer for several months, which is an unacceptable refusal to engage with the University’s targeted approach to outreach work, as set out in the Access and Participation Plan. This role must include a focus on rectifying the under-representation of BAME students across the collegiate system, much like it has focused on that of state school students and other disadvantaged demographic groups.
- The Faculty of Classics must regularly publish transparent data that sheds a light on undergraduate and graduate admissions and disparities in participation. This should also include data on the severe participation gap at the graduate level and within faculty. Where such data is already published (e.g. in the Undergraduate and Graduate Annual Admissions Statistical Reports) it should be regularly discussed publicly within the faculty, and addressed with a specific focus on the severe under-representation of Black students and academics in Classics. This responsibility could sit with the Outreach Officer.
- The Faculty will need to address under-representation of certain groups not simply by expanding outreach efforts, but by adopting critical ways of thinking about the relationship between privilege and potential, and reforming the admissions process so as to account for the ways in which advantage and disadvantage play a role in the assessment of potential (including influencing attainment at school / sixth form college, opportunities for super-curricular learning etc.). With the new contextualised data score, Worcester College (for example) was able to adopt a fairer method of assessing potential in the admissions process. We invite the Faculty to explore these possibilities.
- The Faculty must commit, in accordance with an open letter published on 6 June 2020 addressing Oxford’s systemic racism, to banning all-white shortlists for staff appointments and to providing greater transparency in hiring policies at every level. In order to do so, the Faculty must place pressure on the Head of the Humanities division and Heads of House, who are already obligated to better fulfill the recommendations outlined in Oxford’s Race Equality Charter. A working group must be formed to monitor the Faculty’s actions in compliance with the Race Equality Charter, similarly to what is already in place for Athena SWAN; this group must include student representation.
- The Faculty of Classics must clarify available channels for financial support and streamline BAME scholars’ access to them, in conjunction with the fundraising and donation initiatives for scholarships for Black students announced on 10 June 2020 in an open letter from the Vice-Chancellor and Heads of House. The various kinds of funding channels available to students appear to us to be unclear, and in many cases this prevents those who are most marginalised from seeking access to them.
- To meet the standards outlined in the open letter mentioned above regarding mental health counselling and reduction of workload, we urge the Faculty to privilege the mental health of Black students not only in this time, but from now on. The Faculty must work to streamline and advertise existing counselling resources, namely the Peer Support Programme and University Counselling, as well as normalise discussion of these services among all academic staff, especially tutors. In addition to finding these existing resources inaccessible at present, BAME students have expressed feeling unheard, dismissed, or even ridiculed when they try to involve the Faculty in advocating for their mental health.
- The Faculty of Classics must commit to providing at least one anti-racist training workshop for academic staff (i.e., any person in the faculty conducting teaching, including graduate students) each term and to establishing and implementing inclusive teaching guidelines. The Faculty should integrate this anti-racist training into the PLTO training programme for MILC and tutorial teaching, by offering at least one mandatory workshop with this focus every year. Importantly, the Faculty must financially compensate any BAME scholars (including undergraduates) who contribute to creating and running such events, or providing consultations of any kind. This request is in line again with the open letter addressing Oxford’s systemic racism. It is exploitative that the work to provide these resources (for instance, the work done to establish the Critical Classics seminar by the Christian Cole Society for Classicists of Colour) has primarily been done by unpaid classicists of colour.
- The Faculty of Classics must implement a critical curriculum that openly discusses and recognises the material legacy of systemic racism (for example, the Eurocentrism in Classics curricula, white supremacist notions of a privileged relationship between Greece and Rome and Britain/the West, etc.) in our discipline at every level of teaching, including in public venues. We also expect these changes to be explicitly incorporated into the proposals for the Honours Moderation reform for Literae Humaniores which is currently under discussion. As starting points for a critical curriculum:
- Following the example of initiatives like Racing the Classics at Princeton University, we seek the creation of a public annual lecture and a recurring workshop on race and Classics. These initiatives should provide financially subsidised opportunities for BAME scholars and scholars from disadvantaged backgrounds. Such an endeavour is similar to the existing work done by the Christian Cole Society for Classicists of Colour, which must be both acknowledged and properly resourced, and does not replace the need to diversify the scholars who make up the Faculty’s teaching staff.
- We ask for a critical approach to all teaching materials used throughout the Faculty. For instance, we reject the unqualified use of Gildersleeve and Lodge as the ‘standard’ for undergraduate language teaching, namely in MILC Latin classes, and thus all teachers should openly note Basil Gildersleeve’s pro-slavery views. The names and influence of the many blatant racists who populate our field’s history and pedagogy can no longer be enshrined without comment.
- We ask that texts such as Caesar's De Bello Gallico, which depict actions that constitute and glorify organised mass murder, always be accompanied by a critical discussion within the undergraduate curriculum, with explicit acknowledgment of these texts’ social and historical consequences both in the immediate context and their reception by later scholars.
- We demand the removal of uncontextualised references to slavery, genocide, imperialism, ‘barbarians’, rape, and misogyny from language exercises, and an attention throughout language training to inclusive pedagogies. The Faculty of Classics must prepare students and educators to have robust discussions about the cultural-historical context of Greco-Roman vocabulary: consider the word βάρβαρος, whose ‘literal’ translation misses the gravity of this word’s full meaning in antiquity. If we continue to prize ‘accurate’ translations which take nothing away from the original, as is often the case in examinations, there must always be an accompanying discussion about Greco-Roman xenophobia, misogyny, etc., rather than conflation of these ancient categories with modern ones, or a quiet acceptance of their horrific implications. We can only teach difficult material effectively if we do so consciously, with context, and with a critical attention to what is at stake in different translation processes (an example of this is Emily Wilson’s discussion of misogyny in seemingly ‘literal’ translations of epic vocabulary in the introduction to her recent translation of the Odyssey). While we do appreciate that many individual tutors adopt and teach the above approach toward many of these issues already, especially in reference to the Texts and Contexts Mods paper (which we expect to remain in the curriculum, or be replaced by a functional equivalent, after the Mods reform), we request that the Faculty formalize this approach so that all Classics students and educators can engage in these essential discussions.
- We request that skills for thinking critically about Classics be embedded into all levels of the Classics curriculum; both by their inclusion within already existing modules, and through the creation of a module focussed on critical approaches to the ancient world (and its legacies). For instance, these might focus on the enslavement of people, or the impact of Greek and Roman imperialism in the ancient Mediterranean (and the later uses of this imperialism to justify European colonialism). In the context of art history and archaeology, this could expand to discussions of the role of the UK (and specifically that of Oxford) in the systematic looting of ancient artefacts. In the context of reception, it could expand to the misappropriation of Classics for racist ends in both scholarship and popular culture. Each module of this sort must discuss and critically examine the historical and contemporary use of Classics in support of white supremacist ideology and revisionist, white-washed conceptions of ‘Western Civilisation’. Of course, we demand for these conversations to extend beyond only these modules, and to apply to all conversations which engage with the aforementioned phenomena. In addition, we must require a compulsory workshop / seminar series confronting canon formation for first-year students at all levels. Meeting this requirement will involve completing one module addressing the kinds of critical conversations of the sort listed above, or any module in an area of non-Greco-Roman antiquity. This implementation cannot simply be a check-box to fill in. Rather, the proposed requirements aim to set up a lasting conversation about interrogating Classics’ disciplinary formulation throughout one’s entire Oxford career and beyond. Again, we note that students of colour have been crucial in devising their own means to have these conversations, through the establishment of the ‘Let’s Be Critical About Classics’ seminars led by the Christian Cole Society for Classicists of Colour.
Classics’ colonial and racist legacy will perennially hang over Oxford and over our discipline as a whole. To meaningfully engage with this legacy—and our complicity in its sanitisation—we must progress beyond words and take concrete actions, such as those listed above. However, this list is by no means exhaustive, and meeting these demands constitutes the barest minimum. In this key moment in history, Oxford and the Classics Faculty have the opportunity to be a leader. They should be at the forefront of change in making Classics an equitable and just discipline. To do this work will involve not only these curricular or epistemic orientations, but also a commitment to fairer admissions processes at all levels, and to prioritising the recruitment of academic staff of colour.
We hope you will take this moment to respond swiftly, creatively, and decisively in support of this critical movement. To all undergraduate and graduate students who have yet to sign: using this form, we invite you to add your name in support.
The Undersigned Undergraduates, Graduate Students, Societies, and Alumni [names removed for privacy purposes]
In response, the Faculty Board published a document outlining areas in which initial action would be taken:
Dear Classics graduates and undergraduates,
This message follows-up on the communication of 24 June. It is intended as a brief update on the Faculty’s ongoing commitment to opposing racism, but also extends an invitation to all students to a virtual Town Hall meeting (below).
We held a special meeting of the Joint Sub-Faculties on Friday 3 July, which lasted slightly over 2 hours and was attended by over 60 individuals. The discussion was both wide-ranging and very positive. As part of the discussion, a set of proposals was brought to the meeting by the Chairs of the Sub-Faculties. These proposals were explicitly presented as initial steps to be adopted in relation to the curriculum, and in broad summary include:
- A new lecture series to be launched in MT 2020
- Creation of a Canvas container for new readings and materials
- Revision of Faculty bibliographies
- Revision of Course handbooks
- Revision of the Faculty website
- Consideration of how to build self-reflective engagement with the subject of Classics more explicitly and overtly into undergraduate tutorials, classes, and lectures
- Reconsideration of undergraduate assessment
- Review of PGT programmes
- Review of research seminars
The Joint Sub-Faculties voted nem. con. to support these proposals. Some of these, such as the lecture series, are already being prepared and will be completed over the summer. Others will now be worked up in more detail by members of the Faculty for consideration in the coming academic year. It should be emphasised that the discussions at the meeting were however more wide-ranging than these proposals alone, and a number of other initiatives can be expected to follow. We would also note the growing range of University-wide initiatives, detailed e.g. in the open letter from the Vice Chancellor and Heads of Houses, in which the Faculty will of course participate.
The question of student engagement was also discussed at the meeting, and the view has been expressed both by members of the Faculty and in student correspondence with the Faculty that it would be helpful to have the opportunity of a (virtual) Town Hall meeting sooner rather than later. To that end, we wish to invite all members of the undergraduate and graduate community to participate in an open Town Hall meeting, via MS Teams, on Friday 24 July at 10 a.m. (a link will be circulated early next week). There is no formal agenda for this meeting; it is rather an opportunity for members of the undergraduate and graduate student body to express their views. Members of the Faculty Board will be present, but they will neither attempt to direct the meeting nor respond in the meeting. We propose to group the discussion under four broad headings (curriculum, representation, research, environment at Oxford).
The meeting will be followed by an anonymous survey over the summer, to allow all members of the undergraduate, graduate, and Faculty communities to share their views and ideas.
One immediate initiative was the creation of a new lecture series, Critical Approaches to Classics, which engages critically with the discipline of Classics. The first lecture in the series addressed the diverse history of Classics at Oxford.
Our purpose now is to use this site to document further actions as they are implemented.
Selected images from the Gandhara Connections (collaboration with Victoria & Albert Museum):