For someone who wants to study ancient Greece, there are two academic options: ancient history or Classics. By training, I am both a Classicist and an ancient historian, with degrees from both departments, but there IS a distinction, and today I was reminded by my students why it matters to me.
I am currently a doctoral student in ancient history, and so my primary teaching appointment is in the Department of History, where I am serving this semester as a TA for a large survey course in ancient Greek history. Today’s class discussion was about the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote a contemporary history of the great war that took place in the 5th century BC between Athens and Sparta, and it resulted in undergraduates speaking intelligently about such topics as the Cold War, Iran, the legality of American foreign policy, the ongoing revolution in Egypt, and the modern debate over the death penalty. They observed with a casual easiness that the democratic Athenians chose to support an oligarchic government, a form of rule they did not endorse, in the Greek island state of Lesbos, because that government was friendly to their own Athenian empire. And they noted that when a subsequent democratic revolution in Lesbos altered the status quo and turned the Athenians against the oligarchs, their former allies, that this resembled the United States’ strained relationships with Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak.
Understanding history is about making connections, and these are just the sorts of connections I want to see them contemplating. History is relevant. Everything has a context and a set of influencing factors. Human behavior has not altered as much as each new generation wants to believe. Our students are learning to think critically about the past and to use their knowledge of the present to understand it, and it is our ultimate goal as historians to help them eventually use their knowledge of the past to understand the present and to think critically about the world around them today.
I am passionate about the Classical tradition and its preservation, and I value and appreciate the work that Classics professors and TAs do in teaching students Greek and Latin language, literature, art history and civilization, but today, I am reminded that the remnants of the past do not exist simply to be pondered for their own sake. Today, I am an ancient historian.