Classical studies refers to the collection, translation, and analysis of the work of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, historians, poets, and other writers. Renaissance* scholars were the first to group Greek and Roman literature together in this way, believing that the writings of these two ancient cultures far surpassed any that had been produced since. In fact, our word for this literature—“classics”—is derived from the Latin word classicus, the ancient Roman term for the highest tax bracket and a popular Roman expression that meant “of the highest class.” The study of classical literature began with the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves. As early as the 500s B.C., the Greeks were analyzing passages of Homer’s poetry. During the Hellenistic* age, scholars at the great libraries at Alexandria (in Egypt) and Pergamum (in Asia Minor) collected and edited the manuscripts of Greek poets and philosophers. Early Roman writers translated these works into their language, Latin, while at the same time producing their own literature in imitation of the Greeks. The Roman poet Vergil, for instance, wrote his masterpiece, the Aeneid, in the epic* style of Homer. Later, Roman scholars adapted the skills acquired from their study of Greek texts to the analysis of Latin writings.
* Renaissance period of the rebirth of interest in classical art, literature, and learning that occurred in Europe from the late 1300s through the 1500s
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
By the end of the Roman Empire, the quality of scholarship had declined. Nevertheless, both Christians and pagans* wrote epitomes, or summaries, of Greek and Roman writings, which helped preserve the thought of the ancients until the Middle Ages. Around A.D. 400, St. Augustine, the early church leader, attempted to summarize classical knowledge from a Christian point of view. Boethius, who worked in the early A.D. 500s, set about to translate all the works of Aristotle and Plato into Latin. His contemporary, Cassiodorus, compiled his Introduction to Divine and Human Readings for the instruction of the monks in the monastery he had founded. Also important for the survival of classical literature after the fall of the Roman Empire was the continued use of the Greek and Latin languages. In the Byzantine Empire, affairs of state and religion were carried out in classical Greek, while in the West, Latin remained the official language of the western Catholic Church. Latin was promoted at the court of Charlemagne in the late A.D. 700s, where scholars collected and copied ancient Roman manuscripts. At the same time, monks in Ireland and Italy painstakingly preserved in Latin the works of both Christian and pagan authors.
After a period of some decline, a renewed interest in ancient literature in the A.D. 1100s spurred the study of Latin writers, as well as the translation of some ancient Greek literature. This interest reached its peak during the Renaissance in western Europe with the Italian poet Petrarch, who argued that the study of the classics provided the best possible education. Petrarch and his followers collected and analyzed numerous ancient Greek and Latin writings, many of which had been thought lost. He and other scholars interested in reviving ancient learning modeled their own writings on the Latin of the Romans, especially that of Cicero. By 1600, most surviving classical writings had been printed, many in the vernacular*, and European scholars now had at their disposal much of the written material produced by the ancients.
For much of the next 200 years, classical studies dominated European education and became part of “the education of a gentleman.” Students in England, for instance, were expected to translate a passage from their own language into Latin or Greek. This education stressed patience, hard work, and accuracy—qualities that were admired during the Industrial Revolution as indicators of a person’s success later in professional life.
The ideals expressed by the classical writers of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic* inspired many statesmen of the 1700s and 1800s, including the leaders of the American and French revolutions. At the same time, there was a surge in interest in the life of ancient Greece, as many people studied and copied Greek art, fashion, and literature (particularly the works of Homer).
By the early 1900s, education in the classics decreased in importance relative to natural science and modern languages. However, the notion of “scholarship” has generally included a knowledge of the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In addition, the classical writers have continued to inspire 20th-century artists. Eugene O’Neill (Mourning Becomes Electro), Jean Giraudoux (Tiger at the Gates), and Jean-Paul Sartre (The Flies), are only a few of many modern playwrights who have incorporated the stories or themes of ancient writers into their works. (See also Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Education and Rhetoric, Roman; Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic; Philosophy, Roman.)
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian
* vernacular language or dialect native to a region; everyday, informal speech
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials