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. Traditionally in the West, the study of the Greek and Roman classics was considered one of the cornerstones of the humanities and a necessary part of a rounded education. The study of classics has been traditionally a cornerstone of typical elite education.

Classics is a subject that exists in the gap between us and the world of the Greeks and Romans. The aim of Classics is not only to discover or uncover the ancient world but also to define and debate our relationship to it. This complex, interactive process of reading, understanding, and debate is itself the challenge of Classics. If Classics exists in the ‘gap’ between our world and the ancient world, then Classics is defined by our experience, interests, and debates as well as by theirs. By classic, T S Eliot means a work that reflects the maturity of a culture. He argues that a classic can occur only when civilization is mature and when a language and literature are mature.

The word classic is derived from the Latin adjective classicus, meaning “belonging to the highest class of citizens”. The world was originally used to describe the members of the highest class in ancient Rome by the 2nd century AD. The word was used in literary criticism to describe writers of the highest quality. By the 6th century AD, the word had acquired a second meaning referring to pupils School does the to modern meanings of the word referring both to literature considered to be of the highest quality and to the standard text used as part of a curriculum both derived from Roman use.

In the Middle Ages, classics and education were tightly intertwined. Medieval education taught students to imitate earlier classical models and Latin continued to be the language of scholarship and culture, despite the increasing difference between literary Latin and the vernacular languages of Europe during the period. While Latin was highly influential, Greek was barely studied and Greek literature survived in Latin translation. The works of even major Greek authors such as Hesiod whose names continued to be known by educated Europeans were unavailable in the Middle Ages.

The Renaissance led to the increasing study of both ancient literature and ancient history as well as a revival of the classical style of Latin. From the 14th century, first in Italy and then increasingly across Europe, Renaissance Humanism, an intellectual movement that advocated the study and imitation of classical antiquity developed. Humanism saw a reform in education in Europe, introducing a wider range of Latin authors as well as bringing back the study of Greek language and literature to Western Europe. This reintroduction was initiated by Petrarch (1304-1374) and Boccaccio (1313-1375) who commissioned a Calabrian scholar to translate the Homeric poems.

The late 17th and 18th centuries are the period in Western European literary history, which is most associated with the classical tradition, as writers consciously adapted classical models. Classical models were so highly-priced that the plays of William Shakespeare were rewritten along new classical lines and these improved versions were performed throughout the 18th century.

From the beginning of the 18th century, the study of Greek became increasingly important relative to that of Latin. The 19th century saw the influence of the classical world and the value of a classical education decline especially in the US where the subject was often criticized for its elitism. By the 19th Century, little new literature was still been written in Latin and a command of Latin declined in importance. One of the most notable characteristics of the modern study of classics is the diversity of the field. Although traditionally focussed on ancient Greece and Rome, the study now encompasses the entire ancient Mediterranean world, thus expanding the studies to Northern Africa as well as parts of the Middle East.

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring to various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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