Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

The latest flurry of discussion among Classicists was spurred by a New York Times Magazine article about Professor Dan-El Padilla Peralta written by Rachel Poser entitled “He Wants to Save Classics From Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” I personally found the discourse about this article deeply depressing. Not only do Classicists seem incapable of engaging with Prof. Padilla Peralta on his own terms, but the article seemed to bring back to the surface discussions that reflected how little the discourse had changed

Many in my social media feeds seemed to be drawn to this comment in the Times feature: “To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would ‘explode the canon’ and ‘overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,’ including doing away with the label ‘classics’ altogether.” One thread on the Facebook group Classics international focused on labels, with various folks advocating for ‘Ancient Studies’, global ancient studies, ‘Ancient Mediterranean Studies’, ‘Classical and Mediterranean Studies’, ‘Greek and Roman studies’, and so on. All these suggestions are well-meaning, of course, but they reminded me of the paper “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” which worries about the superficiality of decolonization in the Academy, and the severing of the decolonial project from practical action. This is presumably why Prof. Padilla Peralta speaks of overhauling Classics “from nuts to bolts”: this project is a practical one.

Many Classics departments already claim to study the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, but the reality is that most of them do not. One department of ‘Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies’, for example, offers no ancient languages other than Greek and Latin, and only one class of any kind that isn’t Greco-Roman-centric. Renaming our departments Ancient Mediterranean Studies while retaining a standard Classics curriculum is window dressing, and a not entirely unproblematic one at that: Michael Herzfeld (1984, 2001, 2005, 2014) has been writing for almost 40 years about the problems of ‘Mediterraneanism.’ 

Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE

The Classics department of which I am a member has 14 contract faculty (12 tenure-track/tenured and two full-time instructors). In terms of specialization, we could divide them (somewhat crudely and arbitrarily) as follows: 3 Greek philologists, 5 Latin philologists, 1 Greek historian, 2 Roman historians, 3 archaeologists (1 Greek prehistorian, 1 Greek, 1 Achaemenid; our Roman archaeologist recently retired). We teach classes on Egyptian archaeology and the ancient Near East, but I would not say that we really constitute a department of ancient Mediterranean studies: we cannot offer any training in languages other than Greek and Latin (even if some of our faculty know other languages), and we do not teach upper-level classes about Egypt. We cannot claim to cover much that is west of Rome or south of Sicily. We are remarkably focused on texts and Greece & Rome. 

In contrast, a real ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ department of the same size might look like this: 3 Romanists, 3 Hellenists, 3 Egyptologists, 3 Assyriologists, and 2 additional scholars to cover any major gaps that remained (such as North Africa, Iberia, and southern France). That configuration would mean shrinking the Greco-Roman core of the department from 13 to 6 (or 8). We could suppose that our new ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ departments would be much larger in size than our current Classics departments, but that seems naïve. If we are really committed to studying the ancient Mediterranean, we need to actually reform our disciplinary structures and curricula to do so. But that seems, frankly, unlikely. Much more likely is that such units will retain their Greco-Roman core, add an Egyptologist or Assyriologist, and call it a day. As Ian Morris put it in the NYT piece: “There are some in the field who say: ‘Yes, we agree with your critique. Now let us go back to doing exactly what we’ve been doing.’” An ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ department that remains mostly Greco-Roman is, to put it bluntly, a joke.

That’s why I don’t favor departments of ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’: they do too little. They seem to be an attempt to shed the term ‘Classics’ while retaining Classics. Adding a faculty member or two to the Classical mix would not, after all, entail a radical rethinking of the field, much less a radical change to the practices of the discipline. Classicists would still go to Classically-themed conferences, publish in Classical journals, train students in the same canon of Classical texts, and so on. The title of ‘ancient Mediterranean studies’ might also convince (some of) us that we have, in fact, solved the problems of Classics without actually doing any of the work required to do so. In short, the Mediterranean is not a magical solution: actually it solves almost none of our problems while committing us to others. For example, configuring ancient Egypt as Mediterranean separates it — problematically so — from its very important connections to Africa

Ancient Mediterranean Studies is not the radical reconfiguration that Prof. Padilla Peralta calls for. It’s more like Paul Zimmer pretending to be Troy Becker. There are more radical (and thus more interesting) suggestions made by others, but I’ve already written too much and the Super Bowl is about to begin, so I’ll leave those for another blog post…


4 thoughts on “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

  1. Sarah Costello

    You are so spot on. “Ancient Mediterranean” too often means Classicists who are intrigued by other regions but not willing to cede actual space to them in the form of faculty lines, or who needed a bigger program for numbers so rolled history in, but still don’t hire outside Classical history.

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