Guest post from Ben Earley, PhD student at Bristol.
One of the perennial problems facing classicists and ancient historians at the moment is the communication of the ‘relevance’ of their subject to other disciplines. It is no longer enough to simply claim that the civilisations of Greco–Roman antiquity form the foundation of Western Civilisation and are therefore worthy of study in themselves. The rise of China has bought into sharp focus the relative instability (and perhaps insignificance?) of western culture, whilst current government funding priorities on the natural, physical, and social sciences suggests that the humanities in general and the study of ancient texts in particular is far from integral to the current university project. Pondering this question, I have begun to wonder whether the study of the reception of the classics might offer a convenient way for us to argue for the intellectual value of our subject. I have recently returned from an excellent conference in Nijmegen on Framing Classical Reception Studies. The governing mantra of the conference was that ‘reception studies provide an excellent way for classicists to make themselves more visible, not only to other disciplines within the humanities, but also to a larger audience.’ Classical reception through its focus on the way ancient texts were read and interpreted, demonstrated (it was argued) the continuing relevance of the Classics in both traditional academic subjects such as History or English Literature and to the general public.
All this leads to the inevitable conclusion that classical reception studies provide a promising route for researchers looking for ‘impact factor,’ a nebulous concept that aims to measure the usefulness or presence of research in academia and beyond. Impact is now demanded by UK funding bodies who want to see more bang for the tax payers buck but it has been a particularly difficult concept for classical researchers to encapsulate. Leaving aside the issue of how Classics might be felt in the lives of the general public (there are already projects promoting the study of Latin, frequent BBC Four documentaries, and excellent exhibitions at the British Museum) it has been difficult for classicists to argue for the continuing relevance of their particular methodological traditions.
The conference ended on a deservedly optimistic note. There is no doubt that classical reception has transformed the discipline in a positive way. The traditions of reading, studying, and interpreting classical texts have become a legitimate topic of study, not least amongst the funding bodies. However, I left with a worry in the back of my mind. It was not at all clear to me why anyone in other disciplines (let alone amongst the general public) should care about how Hobbes read Thucydides over, say, a history of the influence of Thucydides’ thought in the early modern England? This distinction is a crucial one. Classical reception after all is a methodology that aims to study how classical texts were read by later thinkers. It remains to be seen how this study of reading the classics might be useful to other disciplines. The study of the ‘influence’ of classical texts is a different matter. For the last fifty years scholars from across the humanities have been interested in the influence of the classics on later thought, for example in R. R. Bolgar edited volumes on the influence of classical texts in western thought. The question I am left pondering is do we, as classicists and ancient historians, need a reception methodology in order to point out the interest and relevance of our work or might such a methodology simply become a distraction?