Scholarship & Imagination: Should a Classics Curriculum include Visiting Greece and Rome?

In the many years I spent as a student of Classics, it was rare to hear a teacher suggest visiting the countries we studied, unless to look at a manuscript, a piece of art, or a dig.

I was set to thinking about this by Mary Beard’s latest blog post: “The daughter is in Rumbek in Southern Sudan. She is doing her PhD research and learning Dinka.” (The rest of the post is here.) Going to Southern Sudan for a student studying some aspect of contemporary Southern Sudan is no doubt encouraged, if not a prerequisite of university life. Going to Italy to study ancient Roman poetry or politics is not.

This kind of travel gives the student of Classics stimulation for the imagination. Imagination is difficult to evaluate, and may be intellectually misleading. It is not formally valued in a university world which, however creative and flexible, is committed to intellectual rigour. The loss in empathic understanding of the subject is great.

One of my ‘eureka moments’ in ‘understanding’ (imagining and having a sense for the reality of) ancient Italy, was sitting in the Arena at Verona, in the interval of a show (La Boehme, probably), and hearing the young water-seller make his way up and down the rows of stone steps shouting ‘*Acqua! Acqua!’

Arena at Verona

The Arena at Verona: probably not very different 1,980 years ago

(The above image is linked from the official site of the Arena.) It immediately took me back, I imagined, to a gladiatorial show of the first century AD, where a water seller, with similar look and behaviour (but no plastic bottles!) might have souted ‘Aqua! Aqua!.’ No real killing in Puccini though! The closest I came to making that real, in the imagination, was visiting the Corrida at Ronda: watch the adience go wild over a good kill, as the matador circulates the ring to accept applause, and is pelted with flowers.

Stimulating the imagination by travel as a tool for understanding the ancient world still has its place in modern literature. However, the university Classics system does not accommodate it well. And yet its value was surely well understood in the Rennaissance tradition, and represented by the Grand Tour. The reasons for this change are an interesting aspect of the history of scholarship. Examining the reasons for the decline of the Grand Tour (oddly, coinciding with the time when railways and steamers were beginning to make travel easier) is one route to understanding the loss of emphasis on developing imagination in modern university teaching. The German Wikipedia article on the Grand Tour attributes the decline of the Grand Tour in part to the retreat of aristocratic values after the French Revolution. A defining feature of aristocratic values is to be a ‘good all-rounder’ (to use a cricketing phrase). Literary skills, interpersonal skills, and intellectual ones, all count. The lack of emphasis on travel for Classics students reflects a narrower focus on intellectual skills.

Should university Classics departments do more encourage student visits to Greece and Rome, even for students whose main interest is literature or language (not art or archeology)? Certainly. Why? To stimulate the imagination. And how can this be measured? There are several ways to answer that. Not everything of value a student does at university will be measured. But the imagination drives intellectual application and intellectual creativity, and these are already measured. Beyond that, perhaps it is time to offer formal recognition to, and evaluation of, ‘creative writing’ which Classics students produce on their subject. The literary output of a Renaissance scholar might have been regarded as of central importance by his contemporaries. The literary output of a modern scholar, if it is exists, tends to be regarded as peripheral. That perception is ripe for change, and when it does change, the value of student visits to the landscape of the ancient poets and politicians they study will be obvious, and will flourish.

In a future post I will write about Raoul Schrott, who did precisely that: combined his literary imagination with some scholarship to re-locate the author of the Iliad to locations now in south-eastern Turkey. This caused such a stir in the German-speaking press that the academic community did him the honour of a conference to discuss his ideas. The conference attracted some very big names who explained why his ideas were wrong. In replying, very much alone in his views, Schrott called on the role of his literary imagination in re-interpreting the Iliad (of which he had published a verse translation). The academics were respectful in trashing his historical ideas. None engaged with, or probably even understand, his attempts to justify his work on the basis of its value for the creative poetic imagination. They saw that he was technically wrong but failed to see that culturally he may be ahead of his time.

One thought on “Scholarship & Imagination: Should a Classics Curriculum include Visiting Greece and Rome?

  1. It is true that students of Classics would benefit from visiting Classical sites. I recently was in Thessaloniki and my hotel overlooked the impressive remains of the old city walls running up the hillside. The ancient inhabitants must have expended much labour and expense in building these massive structures. They were not alone — most of the cities in the Mediterranean protected themselves in the same way. Why? Clearly to keep out aggressors, whether from within or without the Graeco-Roman world. This must have led to the development of a ‘siege mentality’ like that evident in the letters of Synesius of Cyrene, who lived in constant fear of attacks from the people of the desert. Neither Cyreneans nor their enemies were strong enough militarily to defeat each other decisively, so both lived in a state of continual anxiety, like lion and hyena. How debilitating for their economies! How exhausting and unsustainable! Both cities — Cyrene and Thessaloniki — now live, to a much greater degree, free of this mindset, as a result of the Christian and Islamic revolutions, which enabled them to assimilate those outside of the city walls. Nevertheless, we still build and demolish our own internal walls all the time.

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