Month: February 2017

Everyday Orientalism Quiz: Egypt in Tourist Guidebooks, 1847-2017


Image credit: Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-17903.

Can you guess when these guidebook descriptions of Egypt were written? All come from travel guidebooks, newspaper articles and other promotional materials designed to help western tourists plan a trip to Egypt. They date from 1847-2017. Note how the language used (‘the mysterious Orient’, ‘touts like flies’) remains remarkably constant. Answers at the foot of the article.

  1. “Papyrus sellers and would-be guides hound you at every turn.”
  1. “There is no better way to conjure the Orientalist mood than by taking a felucca ride on the Nile.”
  1. “A desert nation veiled in millenia of cultural mystery and architectural enigmas, Egypt summons images of towering pyramids, riddling sphinxes, and archaeological adventures.”
  1. Tourists “do not find it easy to resist the fascination of the picturesque oriental life in the native quarters, where it is still possible, when once the Mooski is crossed, for the imaginative traveller to realise the dreams of the Arabian Nights of his childhood.”
  1. “Touts like locusts.”
  1. “Negotiations are hedged round with and amount of ceremony that recalls the stately fashion in the Arabian Nights, when the purchase of a brass tray or an embroidered saddle-cloth was a solemn treaty.”
  1. “Egyptian peddlers have been pestering, cajoling and ‘refusing to take no for an answer’ for far longer than anyone can remember. Elaborate con tricks handed down through the generations will have you parting with your pounds without even realising how it was done. Online forums are filled with tales of bitter screaming matches and accounts of tourists being physically abused by touts if they don’t agree to a camel ride. It makes you almost nostalgic for the good old days, when all they did was overcharge people.”
  1. “A yelling crowd of donkey-boys, guides, porters, interpreters, dragomans, itinerant dealers in sham antiques, and all the rabble that live on the [tourist].”
  1. “Mena House dazzles with intricate gold decoration and air that perpetually smells of jasmine … whitewashed Moorish-style buildings with dark wood balconies, grand arcades and terraces are the European vision of the ‘Orient’ set in stone.”
  1. “Aggressive peddlers can ruin the shopping experience in Cairo.”
  1. “For millennia the iconic sights of Egypt have held visitors in their sway, from the pyramids of Giza to the dazzling colours of the Pharaoh’s tombs.”
  1. “The true Cairene’s ideas, ether good or bad, like his dress, his religion, his social customs and habits, his oddities of speech, his calm, impenetrable reserve, and his disinclination to worry – all date from the Middle Ages.”
  1. Islamic monuments are “curious specimens of the peculiarities of Oriental taste, abounding in great luxuriance of ornament.”


  1. Lonely Planet Egypt 12th edition, 2015.
  2. New York Times, 3 February 2008.
  3. Luxury travel operator Absolute Travel:, accessed 4 February 2017.
  4. Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. (1899) Cairo of To-day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and the Nile. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  5. Lonely Planet Egypt 12th edition, 2015.
  6. Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. (1899) Cairo of To-day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and the Nile. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  7. South China Morning Post, 24 September 2016.
  8. Reynolds-Ball, Eustace A. (1899) Cairo of To-day: A Practical Guide to Cairo and the Nile. London: Adam and Charles Black.
  9. Lonely Planet Egypt 12th edition, 2015.
  10. New York Times, 3 February 2008.
  11. Luxury travel operator Abercrombie and Kent:, accessed 4 February 2017.
  12. New York Times, 22 November 1902.
  13. Wilkinson, Sir Gardner (1847) Hand-Book for Travellers in Egypt. London: John Murray.

Rachel Mairs

Ancient History in the Age of Trump: Time for the Media to Update their Classics

Ancient History in the Age of Trump: Time for the Media to Update their Classics

Since Donald J. Trump’s inauguration as President of the USA, several articles have appeared in mainstream media in which journalists try to make parallels between Trump’s autocratic ruling style and the ancient world, especially the Roman Empire. On January 25, the Guardian published an article of Jonathan Jones entitled « To understand Trump, we should look to the tyrants of ancient Rome ». Should this article have been a school paper, Mr Jones’ uncritical, floppy use of primary evidence would no doubt have deserved him the same as what Donald Trump would have gotten if his Black History month speech had been submitted in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 7-th grade classroom. The conclusion is a gem in itself :

The Romans did not see tyranny as a single fixed set of symptoms. Tiberiua [sic], Caligula, Nero, Commodus and the many freakish rulers thrown up by later Roman history are all different, all singular. When we look at Trump, when we try to get the measure of the world’s most powerful man, we could compare him with these odd and extremely dangerous characters. You don’t have to be a Hitler to threaten democracy and peace, a look at Roman art and history reveals: a Caligula or Commodus is equally scary.[2]

How could the Guardian publish such a mediocre, incoherent article? My colleague Roberta Mazza has already written what she thought of it, and showed that such sensationalist, elitist and, therefore, utterly simplistic uses of ancient history stem from imperialist, essentially male and white gazes and that, accordingly, they cannot be deemed historically viable anymore. I completely agree with her. As Phiroze Vasunia has recently highlighted in this blog, postcolonial and social approaches to Roman (and ancient) history are becoming increasingly normalized within our fields. Yet for some reason, and despite the efforts of Mary Beard, this academic shift has still not been properly integrated in “popular” representations of the ancient world. Thus, perhaps, the current journalistic trend.

I’m not trying to sugar coat what the ancient Roman world was about. Of course, the vast majority of the Roman Empire’s inhabitants remained non-citizens until Caracalla’s universal grant of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Empire in 212 CE (a measure that most probably stemmed from financial rather than humanist reasons). Of course the ancient world was one where slavery was a normalized fact of social life[1]. Of course episodes of religious scapegoating, racist stereotyping and misogyny abound in the written sources. Of course wars of conquest led to horrible acts of violence against non-Roman peoples that, in the case of Caesar’s Gallic wars for instance, have been qualified as genocide by some scholars. Of course we should not simply copy and paste ancient data into our current world in order to understand what’s going on and where we are heading. Of course, in sum, the Roman world was very different from ours. But provided that they are properly contextualized, these ancient « stories made of true events », to paraphrase Paul Veyne, can contribute to broader reflections on human nature, societies, and the ways in which certain sociological and geopolitical patterns tend to (re)appear. It is, I believe, in such ways that ancient history can and must contribute to current debates and actions against the rise of xenophobic, racist rhetorics of the sort that are now promoted by the ruling powers in the USA and UK, as well as by many parties and groups elsewhere in the world.

In order to lead by example, here is a short reflection that starts from the currently widespread populist discourse according to which the « greatness » of a « nation » comes from a supposed state of original demographic purity. According to this reasoning, the economic challenges encountered by this « great nation » are caused by the infiltration within the nation’s territory of « others » who, attracted by the greatness of the nation in question, are trying to move in and get their share of the cake. This trope is now being used in the USA, UK, and many other countries in order to justifiy the scapegoatings of immigrants, especially (but not exclusively) non white and muslim ones, whose containment, exclusion, or elimination is seen as the best way for the nation to find prosperity and, therefore, be « great » again. Easy peasy. Except that it couldn’t be more disconnected from human reality. And history.

In his first-century monumental work dedicated to the history of Rome, the Latin writer Livy narrates how Romulus, the founder of Rome and descendant of Trojan warrior-turned-refugee Aeneas, managed to find a male population for his new city :

In order that the enlarged city might not be empty or weak, he resorted to the time-honoured fiction of city founders that the lowly and ignoble folk they attract are children ‘sprung from the earth’. He therefore selected a sight for an asylum […]. A motley mob from the neighbouring peoples flocked to the spot, with no distinction made as to whether they were free or slave, and all eager for a new start in life. These men were the beginning of the real strength of the city. (Livy, The Early History of Rome 1.8, Luce 1998 transl.).

The story has it that contrary to Rome’s first male settlers, women did not migrate there voluntarily. For Livy also explains how, to the peoples living in the vicinity of the newly founded Rome, and notably the Sabines, whose presence in the region was more rooted in time, Romulus’ « asylum » and its heterogeneous set of newcomers were cause for distrust and concern. Confronted by disdainful neighbours who were not willing to marry their daughters to his settlers, who were from mostly low and varied backgrounds, Romulus had no choice but to use cunning in order to abduct women from the nearby Sabines. This violent episode came to be known as the « Rape of the Sabines » (Livy Hist. 1.9-13).

Livy’s testimony, which was written at the time of Augustus, obviously contains its share of distortions, mythical elements, and historical retrojections. The last category is precisely what interests me here, for these retrojections offer us some clues as to how Livy, his sources, and his contemporaries viewed what, or rather who, Rome and its Empire were about. Beyond the violence-infused nature of Romulus’ story, which no doubt echoes the atrocities of the late Republican civil war, what is striking here is the idea that Rome was an asylum made of newcomers « with no distinction made as to whether they were free or slave, and all eager for a new start in life ». This way of peopling one’s city with refugees, poor, and vulnerable peoples of different origins corresponded, specifies Livy, to a « time-honoured fiction of city founders that the lowly and ignoble folk they attract are children ‘sprung from the earth’ ». By saying so, he shows himself aware that the notion of autochtony is nothing but a convenient foundation myth, aimed at producing a sense of shared belonging to a group of originally disparate and all-but-glamourous settlers. Given the Imperial might Rome enjoyed in Livy’s lifetime, Rome’s diverse origins appear not only as a fundamental characteristics of the city’s history itself, but also as the root for its exceptional success.

In fact, later Romans were very proud of how open the society of archaic Rome was. After all, they had been ruled by kings who were not only of Latin origin, but also Sabines, Etruscans, and even slave-born. A great testimony of this enduring pride, and of its direct impact on Roman imperial policies, can be found in the Lyon Tablet (CIL 13 1668). As its name indicates, this bronze tablet was found in emperor Claudius’ native city, Lyon (Roman Lugdunum). It contains part of the transcript of a speech given by Claudius to the Roman senate in 48 CE. During that speech, the emperor tried to convince the reluctant crowd of senators that allowing wealthy and deserving Gauls into the Senate was the good and, considering Rome’s early, multicultural history and the more recent initiatives by Augustus and Tiberius, the logical thing to do. A longer and different version of the speech is also provided by Tacitus, who has Claudius use his own family ancestry to make his point:

Of my own ancestors, the most ancient, Clausus, was of Sabine origin, but he was accepted at the same time both for Roman citizenship and for membership in the patrician families of the city. Those ancestors therefore urge me to follow the same procedure in the administration of state policy, bringing here all that is excellent anywhere else. (Tacitus, The Annals 11.24, Yardley 2008 transl.)

These words echo recent speeches by the Mayor of Boston, Martin Walsh, and the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, both of whom strongly condemned Trump’s seven-nation and refugee ban by highlighting how they themselves, like most Bostoners, New Yorkers, and Americans, come from families of migrants. In both cases, the message is the same : Diversity is strength, and integration rather than exclusion is the key to prosperity and success.

Livy’s account and Claudius’ speech also highlight one of the fundamental characteristics of the Roman State : By essence, and contrary to the Greek conception of citizenship, Roman citizenship was not a blood-based status that was, apart from a few exceptional cases, enjoyed by a close community of individuals. It was rather an inclusive mechanism, which was granted to communities, families, individuals, and eventually all free inhabitants of the Empire, for a variety of reasons, without any consideration for the gods they worshipped, the languages they spoke, the colour of their skin or the place they came from. This openness permeated the highest levels of the political and military sphere, as is testified to by the fact that Roman emperors and their families included Roman citizens from Spain, Libya, Syria, and the Balkans for whom, in some cases, Latin was not their first language, and whose dearest gods were not the members of the Capitoline triad. And if we recognize the use of the title Augusta by Palmyra’s queen Zenobia as evidence of her wish to rule the territory under her control within the Roman imperial structure of her time, Rome also had a female empress.

The Roman use of citizenship as an integration tool is also, according to Claudius, what set Rome well above Athens and Sparta:

What else was it that spelled destruction for the Spartans and the Athenians, militarily powerful though they were, if not their segregation of conquered peoples as foreigners? By contrast, our founder Romulus showed such wisdom that he regarded numerous peoples as his enemies and then as his fellow-citizens on the very same day! (Tacitus, The Annals 11.24, Yardley 2008 transl.)

In many ways, the founding myth of the USA is rooted, like that of ancient Rome, in the idea of a population made of « numerous peoples » that had become « fellow-citizens », and historical evidence amply show that these representations reflect the very early multicultural nature of both these societies. Seen in this light, the populist, exclusivist, and racist rhetoric currently promoted by Trump, May, Le Pen and many other politicians and public figures represents a denial not only of history, but also of what humanity is fundamentally about: movement and cultural diversity.

Non-elitist and decolonized approaches to ancient history contribute way, way more to our reflections on the roots and significance of what is happening in the world these days than the Gibonnian, elitist fetichising of « good » over « bad » emperors or the simplistic reflections on the « rise » and « fall » of the Roman Empire[2]. We need more nuanced and inclusive scholarly voices to speak beyond academia. It is not only critical to current, public debates ; it is also essential to the very survival of our discipline(s)[3]. If you are one of these voices and feel like speaking up in Faces and Voices or Everyday Orientalism, feel free to send your contribution to Roberta or to me.

Katherine Blouin

I wish to thank my colleague Seth Bernard for having read through a draft of this post and provided me with much useful feedbacks.

[1] Although the grant of citizenship to descendants of freed slaves was already commented on as a strange institution by Philip II of Macedon (see IG 9.517 (SIG3 543; ILS 8763)).

[2] See for instance

[3] See for instance Edith Hall’s June 2015 article published in The Guardian, which focuses on the case of Greek history and language:

The Classics, (Post)Colonialism, and Reception Studies: An Interview with Phiroze Vasunia

The Classics, (Post)Colonialism, and Reception Studies: An Interview with Phiroze Vasunia

By Chiara Graf

Phiroze Vasunia is a professor in the Department of Greek and Latin and in the Programme for Comparative Literature at University College London. Since receiving his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1996, he has written extensively on colonialism and cross-cultural contact in Antiquity, as well as on the relationship between empire and the study of Classics. He is the author of such works as The Gift of the Nile: Hellenizing Egypt from Aeschylus to Alexander and The Classics and Colonial India, and he has co-edited numerous volumes, including Classics and National Cultures (co-edited with Susan A. Stephens). In this interview, he discusses postcolonial studies, reception studies, and the future of the study of Classics.

On Postcolonial Studies and the Classics

Chiara Graf: I thought I would start by asking you a little bit about yourself. What brought you to postcolonial studies?

Phiroze Vasunia: There are both academic and personal dimensions to your question.  In academic terms, I would say that, when I was a graduate student, I was frustrated by what I took to be the lack of sophistication in scholarship about such important, standard topics as the barbarian in Greek culture, and it seemed to me that classical scholars, with a few exceptions—Edith Hall, for example—had not really attempted to think through questions of method and approach, nor had they quite taken the trouble to look at developments in areas outside of Classical Studies. It seemed to me that there was both a need and an opening there for a scholarship that was informed by postcolonial studies and that was at the same time attuned to the particular specificities of the ancient world. It wasn’t just a question of reading Edward Said’s books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism but also of engaging with a wider current of thought in postcolonial studies, of looking at scholars such as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, who admittedly were only just starting to be accepted into the mainstream when I was in graduate school during the first half of the 1990s.  One wouldn’t want necessarily to criticize classical scholars for not engaging with that work, because that work was just beginning to take off and grab people’s attention. With Said, of course, Orientalism came out in 1978, so it had been there, in the academy, already for some time, and people were beginning to absorb its implications and its claims—and these scholars were working within the context of decolonization and other movements, which went back to the 40’s and 50’s. To me it seemed that there were opportunities to incorporate some of these works, to think about them, to improve upon them, and that Classical scholars, with a few notable exceptions, were not quite doing so.

I guess the personal dimension of this would be that perhaps I was a little more sensitive to these questions because I was a foreign student in America. I came from India, and I was aware, as all foreign students are, of my own foreignness to the culture, but also to what I felt was a lack of scholarly attention to developments outside of Classical Studies. I wouldn’t dwell too much on the personal side of this: I think that one need not only be an Indian, or a Kenyan, or a Malaysian, or a Cuban to work on questions of postcolonialism. There is a whole range of scholars from a whole variety of backgrounds who write on postcolonial studies. Yet, perhaps because of the education I received when I was growing up and the people I read in school, I had a slightly different upbringing than the majority of Classical scholars who were my peers. There might be a personal side to this, which is perhaps worth acknowledging at least, even if I may not quite be doing justice to it and even if I wouldn’t want to place too much stress on it.

It also seemed to me when I was a graduate student that there was a kind of aura about the history of classical scholarship. There was not just a charm to it, but there was something almost theological that Classical scholars felt about their own history.  They looked back at the giants of the discipline with a reverence that seemed excessive in proportion to what one might see in other disciplines: to figures such as Wilamowitz, or Fraenkel, or Dodds, or, going back further, to Bentley, to Porson, to the great Renaissance scholars of Antiquity as well, Isaac Casaubon, Lorenzo Valla, and going back to the Middle Ages and beyond. So it seemed to me that that this was a subject that needed to be discussed, and was not receiving sufficient attention, at least not in the early 1990’s.

I also think that, in a way, Martin Bernal with Black Athena, for all the sensationalism of his account, put the politics of scholarship on the map, and, as anyone will tell you, the better parts of his work are the ones that deal with the history of scholarship rather than with ancient material. The first volume of Black Athena gave scholars a renewed impetus to look at developments within the field in the last two to three hundred years, but an important part that was missing from Bernal’s Black Athena was in fact the question of empire.  I thought this was missing as well from important studies such as Chris Stray’s book, Classics Transformed (which came out towards the end of the 90’s), and it seemed to me that the last 200 to 300 years of the history of the discipline could not be told without thinking or talking about empire. Bernal does mention it in passing, as does Stray, but it didn’t seem to me quite thought through as it ought to have been.

CG: Why do you think Classics had been so slow to adopt the work of Said and other postcolonial scholars? What does this say about us and our anxieties as a discipline?

PV: I would say that it was a slow process of acceptance. Postcolonial scholars are themselves very presentist in their orientation: they look to the last 50 or 100 years, but many of them haven’t looked further back, beyond the period of modern imperialism and colonialism. Postcolonial studies itself did not show an interest in long histories.  On the other hand, as I say, there was an opening here for classical scholars, because Classics as a discipline emerged about 200 years ago, and it in some ways accompanied the rise of the modern empires.  This disciplinary history could have been explored from a postcolonial perspective, but wasn’t, at least initially. But since the 90’s there has been an increase in work done by classical scholars, historians, and archaeologists who take their inspiration from postcolonial studies.  We could mention, from a longer list, and in no particular order, Edith Hall, Richard Hingley, Pierre Briant, Tom Harrison, Lorna Hardwick, Barbara Goff, Carol Dougherty, Irad Malkin, Mark Bradley, David Mattingly, and Chris Hagerman.  These are scholars who, in my view, draw on postcolonial studies in their writings even if they may not themselves identify as postcolonial scholars.  The people who run the blog [Katherine Blouin, Usama Ali Gad, and Rachel Mairs] are themselves people who have contributed to the way in which Classics might benefit from postcolonial studies.

CG: I’m interested in reactions to your work, and whether there have been different sorts of reactions to work on empire and “othering” within Antiquity, as opposed to your work on the reception of Classics and its appropriation by the British Empire. Does the scholarly community take to these iterations of postcolonial studies in different ways?

PV: In terms of the work that I’ve done looking at questions of empire and colonialism, I don’t think it’s been all that controversial. Generally, perhaps because of all the recent work that I was talking about, people don’t seem all that surprised now to know that there has been a connection between Classics on the one hand and colonialism on the other. There seems to be some kind of willingness to acknowledge the sorts of questions that I, and other scholars, have been raising.

There’ve been a few instances when I’ve given papers at conferences or seminars and have been criticized pretty sharply by people, but criticism arose in those cases when I suggested that the history of Classics and colonialism has a genealogy that continues to the present moment. Classical scholars seem to be unprepared to accept that claim, but I would in many ways stand by that claim still today: there is a residue–more than a residue– of empire in our scholarship, and Classics could still do with a healthy dose of decolonization, even in 2017.

As for ancient Orientalism, I’ve written mainly about Egypt and Iran, and worked also with the ideas and writings that classical scholars have themselves put forward, and used these in conjunction with work outside of Classics in postcolonial studies. I think there are some people who think that what I say about Orientalism and imperialism may be more applicable to the modern period rather than the ancient period. So perhaps you’re right; perhaps the implication of your question might be, “Are people more reluctant to accept charges of Orientalism and of colonialism in antiquity than in the present?” There might be something to that suggestion.

If I could add one related point, I think that reception studies itself has not been slow to take up questions of empire, of colonialism, of Orientalism. Far from resisting these types of questions, scholars of classical reception have actually taken up these topics and explored them with quite a heavy degree of intensity and scholarship and detail and rigor.

CG: In your work, you reject a stark binary of self and other. What do we lose when we simplify things to that binary?

PV: Clearly, we’re all complicated human beings, and things have been complicated for thousands of years, so binaries are not going to tell us a lot about the state of culture, civilization, human interaction, artistic endeavor, et cetera. Human beings tend to have multiple allegiances, and we might be partly rational, partly irrational, partly prejudiced by one thing in one part of life and quite unprejudiced in other parts of life: there might be some colonialists who were sympathetic to the people they ruled over, in however complicated a fashion, and there might have been colonial subjects who may have aspired to become as oppressive and violent as some of their colonial overlords. I’d also say that introducing issues of sympathy, for example, in these discussions is not necessarily always a sound scholarly procedure. So, if you are already sympathetic to someone who is colonized, as at least I would be instinctively drawn to be, you are in a way prejudicing your own thought in advance. And Gayatri Spivak has written about this quite extensively, that one needs to understand what one is doing and what one’s own emotional investment is in these sorts of questions, for example, when one divides up the world into colonizer and colonized and says, “I sympathize with the colonized! I think the colonizer is a brute!”– if you approach Antiquity with that attitude you are going to blind yourself to a whole range of cultural, historical, and intellectual complexities. But this is a big subject, and this does not mean that one can justify colonialism, or slavery—that’s clearly not the argument here. The argument is more about arriving at a position that’s thoughtful and self-aware and rigorous.


On Reception Studies

CG: How did you become interested in reception studies?

PV: In some ways, I think I’ve touched on that question: partly, I was of the view that the history of classical scholarship, which in some ways can be seen as a branch of reception studies, had not sufficiently dealt with imperialism and colonialism. But secondly, it also seemed to me that the practitioners of the subject, today, 50 years ago, and maybe even 100 years ago, had a sense of this specialness that ancient Greece and Rome seemed to be imbued with. And it was attempting to understand this charisma coming from classical Greek and Roman Antiquity, trying to understand why Greek and Roman Antiquity still had this powerful hold, within especially elite but also non-elite cultures in Western Europe and North America, that seemed to me a subject worth studying. And also trying to understand my own reaction to this force, this attraction that I felt emanating from Antiquity. And it seemed to me that it wasn’t just true of the present but it was true of Edwardian England, it was true of Victorian England, it was true of 19th century Germany, France, Spain, Italy, modern Greece, the cultures of Eastern Europe. There was this powerful hold that Greek and Roman Antiquity had on thinkers, writers, intellectuals, critics, artists, scholars, and even though I was a student at a time when a disenchantment with Antiquity seemed to be taking root, it seemed to me that there were still traces of this powerful valuation. And so, I think I wanted to understand that better.

CG: Yeah, I’m really interested in that attraction, too, and I wonder, do scholars feel drawn to Antiquity solely out of identification, or do you think there’s any Orientalizing of Antiquity itself that brings some fascination with it?

PV: Yes, it would seem that there are both of those things going on in some ways. We tend to put Antiquity up on a pedestal, we tend to exoticize it, we tend to treat it as if it’s “desperately foreign,” to use that expression, and as a result of that kind of exoticism we feel drawn to whatever construction we are ourselves putting on the ancient world. And part of that invention is clearly a projection of our own fantasies and desires and psychological urges. But I wouldn’t say it’s just that; I think that that’s part of it, and there are many ways in which that fetishizing happens. The fetishism could be connected with nationalism, or with questions of class, questions of civility, questions of gender, education, elitism, as well as personal psychology. So, the Orientalism, to use that word very broadly now, would be very complicated, it wouldn’t just be a simple phenomenon. But I think thanks to the work of the last 20 to 25 years we’ve begun to understand that kind of mystification a little bit better, in our own work and in the writings of earlier scholars. That can be a healthy thing, in two ways: one is that it’s a spur to further thought and scholarly activity, and secondly, it’s also good to say that Antiquity is different from modernity. We wouldn’t want to be surrounded by people who say there is no difference between the ancients and moderns; that would be a very troubling position. So in some ways I think the exoticism is even necessary.


On the Present and Future of Classics

CG: What do you think we can do to ensure that Classics doesn’t continue to either reinforce imperial aims or be appropriated for those aims?

PV: I think any scholar who is self-aware and brings a degree of methodological self-consciousness to his or her work is already doing what he or she can do to avoid being called colonialist, or presentist, or Eurocentric, or elitist. So, a critical engagement with Antiquity, one that is self-aware, one that is rigorous, one that is methodologically scrupulous, is the best that we can hope for. But it’s what a lot of the best practitioners already offer.  Also, being a little more aware of the history of the discipline over the last 200 to 300 years would not be a bad thing for classical scholars. Whatever they’re dealing with– questions about the Roman Empire, or Romanization, or questions of minority cultures, or the Greek-Barbarian issue, or whether they’re dealing with other questions, archaeological, anthropological– I think understanding the circumstances in which these questions have arisen and taken hold and then been pursued can only be a good thing.

CG: Lastly, I’m curious about your prognosis of the field. It sounds like you think we’re moving in the right direction. Do you think we have to continue moving in that direction in order to stay relevant? Do you think there will always be a holdout of people who are resistant to these ideas?

PV: Yes, there probably will always be people who are resistant to questions of colonialism and empire. And I don’t expect everyone in the field necessarily to be writing about these questions either all the time; that would be silly. But yes, I think that as a variety of people come into the discipline from a variety of different backgrounds, and as the subject itself is studied more and more outside of North America and Europe, in countries such as China, or in South and Central America– the more that happens, the healthier will the field be. I also think that if we accept that there is a range of classicisms in the world, not just Greek and Roman but also Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arabic, and if we attempt to understand how these classicisms are similar and different, and not just see Greco-Roman as somehow unique, then I think we’ll arrive at a deeper understanding of the particular classical culture that we at least spend our time studying. So yes, I think, as you say, that things are moving in the right direction, and, with any luck, will continue to move in that direction, and I also think that some of the scholarship from the 80s and 90s and the early part of the 21st century has actually trickled down and been assimilated and absorbed by teachers and students. And it’s practiced by scholars and others without their having to justify the entire scholarly apparatus or scholarly history that others might have had to explain in earlier times. It’s already more a part of the discipline than it was.

Chiara Graf is a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Toronto