Ancient Languages & Classical Studies.


I never had the chance to study Classical Civilisation when I was growing up, we only ever briefly touched on it at primary school and it was non-existent at secondary school; plus had I asked as a teenager to be taught Ancient Greek or Latin, I’d probably have been laughed out of the living room. Don’t get me wrong, my family were supportive but there simply wasn’t the provision for such language tuition where I lived. As a result, I’ve come to Classical Studies later in life, but with no less passion for the subject. As I continue my studies and find myself faced with more and more ancient texts, I am angered by the fact that I did not push myself to start learning Latin or Greek earlier and with my long-term ambitions in mind, I’ve often asked myself this question:

questions-to-ask‘Can a Classicist or Historian of Ancient Greece and Rome get by in the academic world with only a fleeting acquaintance with Ancient Greek or Latin’?

Well, that’s the question I am asking in this week’s post. I’m not writing to provide a definitive answer, because as we shall see, it’s a very broad question and there are many variables that must be considered, but I do hope to continue the discussion on this topic and I value as much input on this as possible. Think of this post as an open forum where this debate can continue.

Recently I’ve asked many people this question, mainly because as I enter the second year of an MA in Classical Studies, with my sights firmly set on progressing to a PhD, it is at the forefront of my mind. Although the answers have been helpful, there seems to be a great deal of variation in the responses. The most recent sources of advice came from a series of twitter threads which proved invaluable in my pursuit of clarity, yet I’m still a little puzzled owing to the disparity in responses.

To kick this discussion off here’s a selection of posts & comments from Twitter that have attempted to address this very broad question, then, as I mentioned above, I hope that you get involved with this discussion by leaving a comment.

‘The ability of an ancient historian of the Greco-Roman world to properly assess their primary sources only in translation is highly problematic. It essentially means they always have as co-author every translator upon whom they depend and their analysis is always truncated.’

(Kennedy. R.F, 2018)

‘Of course, it depends but without knowledge of Latin and at least some Greek in your area of work, even introductions and footnotes, especially in older works can be a challenge, my main reason is that language and culture are intertwined and can never be adequately translated.’

(Chips, 2018)

‘I would definitely say that classical reception studies especially has opened up fresh horizons for non-linguists to engage with the discipline. Even a rudimentary knowledge of Greek or Latin enriches one’s scholarship, though, I find.’

(Broughall, Q, 2018a)

‘Even if someone only has a basic sense of what a classical author wrote in their original language, it changes how they might see the passage. Using translated texts should never be seen as ‘cheating’, but I guess the original carries the author’s intention more clearly’.

(Broughall, Q, 2018b)

‘The cliche is that with language we can think and feel like the ancients and get to know them better. Some may not fancy that intimacy though, preferring a more scientific approach to the past as an object of factual enquiry’.

(Cobley, L, 2018)

‘Not sure that it’s a question of intimacy vs science. I’ve never much fancied intimacy with Romans! But if attitudes & thoughts are in some way determined & formed by language, it’s very hard not to see language as important, at advanced level, without being sniffy about translations’

(Beard, M, 2018)

‘I’ve known a few people who started out in Classics with no Latin or Greek, but picked up a lot of linguistic knowledge in a narrow area (like epigraphy) as they went along. Usually, though, they identify as historians rather than classicists.’

(Knowles, C.B, 2018)

The posts and comments above are only a selection of some of the responses to the question, but it does show that this is not an easy question to answer. What I have taken from this is that it depends heavily on definitions! Some would argue that to identify as a Classicist then a thorough grounding in Latin and/or Greek is essential, but like we see above does this apply to all sub-disciplines within Classical Studies? Aren’t we always saying that as a subject Classical Studies is interdisciplinary? If so, are there areas of the subject that require no language skills whatsoever? Well, that’s another question. Then, what about Ancient Historians? Specialisms, sub-disciplines aside, I don’t think that this has really provided any clear-cut answer (although I did not claim to provide one). 

In addition to the comments above, you might be interested to look at this recent Twitter poll. Granted, it didn’t ‘break the internet’ with millions flocking to vote, it got a mere 27 engagements, but as it was ran on a thread with the hashtag #MyClassicsAdvice I like to think that those that did vote did so to engage with the debate.


(Click on the image to be directed to the Twitter feed)

From my own personal point of view, I’m embracing the language element of Classical Studies, not just because I feel that I should, but because I want to. Before I started to learn Latin I was unaware of how enriching the experience could be and now I’ve started I really won’t be stopping – Soon, I’ll be tackling some Ancient Greek.

Is the jury still out on the question?

questions-to-ask‘Can a Classicist or Historian of Ancient Greece and Rome get by in the academic world with only a fleeting acquaintance with Ancient Greek or Latin’?

Please get involved by leaving your comments below.



P.S – I haven’t provided a bibliography as I’ve embedded the Tweets referred to into the body of the post, if you want to look at them in more detail just click on them to access them via Twitter.


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