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Classics, particularly within the Western University tradition, when used as a singular noun, means the study of the language, literature, history, art, and other aspects of Greek and Roman culture during the time frame known as classical antiquity. As a plural noun "classics" can refer to texts written in the ancient Mediterranean world. The study of classics is a primary subject for the humanities, and the people reading classics are sometimes called humanists.

Symmetrically, in the sinised world, the Chinese character 經 (jing in pinyin) refers to a set of texts written during Chinese antiquity and the study of the language, literature, history and philosophy of ancient China, mostly through this corpus of Chinese classical texts , can be described as studying classics. Chinese men of letters sharing Confucean values can also be paralleled with Western humanists.


Western Classics

The word is derived from the Latin classicus which literally means "belonging to the highest class of citizens". Furthermore, its meaning intimates "superiority, authority and even perfection". "Classicus occurs first in Aulus Gellius, a Roman author of the second century who in his miscellany Noctes Atticae (19, 8, 15) refers to classicus scriptor, non proletarius. He was ranking writers according to the classification of the Roman taxation classes.

This method was started when the Greeks were constantly ranking their cultural work. The word they used was canon; ancient Greek for a carpenter's rule. Moreover, early Christian Church Fathers used this term to classify authoritative texts of the New Testament. This rule further helped in the preservation of works since writing platforms of vellum and papyrus and methods of reproduction was not cheap. The title of canon placed on a work meant that it would be more easily preserved for future generations. In modern times, a Western canon was collated that defined the best of Western culture.

At the Alexandrian Library, the ancient scholars coined another term for canonized authors, hoi enkrithentes; "the admitted" or "the included".

Classical studies incorporate a certain type of methodology. The Rule of the classical world and of Christian culture and society was Philo's rule:

"Philo's rule dominated Greek culture, from Homer to Neo-Platonism and the Christian Fathers of late antiquity. The rule is: "μεταχαραττε το θειον νομισμα" ("metaxaratte to theion nomisma"). It is the law of strict continuity. We preserve and do not throw away words or ideas. Words and ideas may grow in meaning but must stay within the limits of the original meaning and concept that the word has."

Classical education was considered the best training for implanting the life of moral excellence arete (paideia) hence a good citizen. It furnished students with intellectual and aesthetic appreciation for "the best which has been thought and said in the world". Copleston, an Oxford classicist said that classical education "communicates to the mind...a high sense of honour, a disdain of death in a good cause, (and) a passionate devotion to the welfare of one's country". Cicero commented, "All literature, all philosophical treatises, all the voices of antiquity are full of examples for imitation, which would all lie unseen in darkness without the light of literature".

At Oxford University Classics is known as Literae Humaniores, comprising the study of Ancient Greek and Latin language and literature, history and philosophy. It is sometimes known as Greats after the nickname for the final examinations.

  • Ancient Greece
Classical definition of republic
Greek language, Greek mythology, Greek literature
Architecture of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek culture is not monolithic: it consists of two completely different strains corresponding to two different peoples: the Ionian and the Dorian.

  • Ancient Rome
Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic, Roman Empire
Roman Army
Roman mythology
Latin, Latin literature, Rhetoric
  • Post-classical scholarship

Western Classicists


  • "Nor can I do better, in conclusion, than impress upon you the study of Greek literature, which not only elevates above the vulgar herd but leads not infrequently to positions of considerable emolument."
    —Thomas Gaisford, Christmas sermon, Christ Church, Oxford.

See also


  • "Classicism in Literature", René Wellek, Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, ed. by Philip P. Wiener, Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, l968, l973.
  • The Oldest Dead White European Males, And Other Reflections on the Classics, Bernard Knox, W. W. Norton & Co., NY, London, l993.

Western Classical Reference Bibliography

  • Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, ed. by Harry Thurston Peck, Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., l962. (1701 pages)
  • The New Century Classical Handbook, ed. by Catherine B. Avery, Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., Ny, l962. (1162 pages)
  • The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, ed. by M.C. Howatson, Oxford University Press, NY, l989. (615 pages)
  • Loeb Classical Library

Misc. Bibliography

  • Brush Up Your Classics, Michael Macrone, Gramercy Books, NY, l991. (Guide to famous words, phrases and stories of Greek classics.)

Last updated: 02-06-2005 21:28:32
Last updated: 03-15-2005 09:34:27