The State of Greek History

Tom Harrison

On 25 May this year, Liverpool hosted a colloquium on the teaching - and definition - of Greek history. There were five presentations on different aspects of Greek history today: two general, attempting to frame the issues of the day (by David Fitzpatrick and myself); and three more specific, on the definition of Greek history in 19th-century Manchester (by Peter Liddel), on the realities of language learning (by Lynette Mitchell), and on the disciplinary boundaries of ancient history (by Emily Greenwood). An overall focus of the day - not entirely planned or foreseen - was the retention of students to postgraduate level and into the profession. The event was funded, very generously, by the Higher Education Academy, with a contribution to postgraduate studentships from the Hellenic Society. I should like, in particular, to thank Lorna Hardwick, Colin Brooks, and especially David Fitzpatrick (who did much of the organising of the colloquium) for all their help - and the speakers, participants, and all those with whom I corresponded, for their contributions.

The following is an attempt at an impartial, if condensed, record of the issues raised in the course of the day. It also draws on correspondence I had with a number of Greek historians and others in advance of the colloquium.

  1. Job market
  2. Language
  3. Individuals and institutional factors
  4. Definition of the subject
  5. Grounds for optimism?

Job market

One of the motivations for organising the day was the inchoate sense that the fields for Greek history posts, at least in traditional areas of Greek history, were worryingly thin (which is not to say that posts had not been filled with excellent candidates, as was made clear on the day). Views here varied: both as to whether there was indeed a problem and as to its nature. Two prestigious Oxford posts, one correspondent pointed out, had exceptionally strong shortlists (including established figures). On the other hand, another correspondent (with experience of filling two posts in a non-Oxbridge university) suggested that his experience 'would suggest that [we had] hit on a serious issue, one which needs to be addressed.' The applications they had received were largely from Roman historians, with some archaeologists and others who worked in 'the area of history of ideas'.

On the day, opinions on the seriousness of the situation varied depending on the value put on 'traditional' areas of study (there was one rousing critique of others' addiction to period-divisions). A number of important qualifications were offered to the view of a problem in Greek history. First, of course, we are dealing with (funding for) very small numbers overall within Classics - or indeed within the Humanities more generally (if the Second Sophistic is booming, it is only a blip in a wider context). Second, many of the issues that affect Greek history are clearly common, in varying degrees, to other periods of Ancient History. Third, the question was raised of whether an effect of the RAE had been to raise the threshold of 'appointability', so making the fields for jobs appear weaker. On another topic, one correspondent noted that Greek history (in his experience) was still predominantly a male field - and asked what, if anything, that signified.


There was widespread agreement that language learning was a serious issue affecting Greek history specifically, and that the current configuration of taught postgraduate degrees (supplemented by summer courses) was inadequate to bridge the gap between (most) undergraduate degrees and doctoral work. One correspondent talked trenchantly of a tendency towards self-delusion on this topic. There were differing views as to the extent to which the language shortfall mattered (or to which it was an adequate explanation of any problem in the progression of students to research in Greek history: 'if so, how do you explain the boom in, say, the second sophistic or the Greek novel?', according to one correspondent). One participant took a strong line that an ancient historian needed a high level of linguistic skill, sufficient to pick up nuances in literary texts; another felt that previous historical training was as important as linguistic ability for postgraduate work.

Opinions varied more starkly when it came to how to prepare students for doctoral work. One participant suggested that we should cherry-pick likely postgraduates at 2nd year for intensive language training (at the expense of historical work); others felt strongly that this would be impracticable (and, in many cases, that it was undesirable). Changes in the structure of postgraduate degrees, e.g. towards two-year Masters, as a result of the Bologna agreement might, it was noted, be helpful here. Finally, Colin Brooks of the Higher Education Academy offered advice from outside Classics: first, that we should take a more flexible approach towards curricular structure (rather than seeing it as a straitjacket); second, that we should not speak in terms of a 'market' and 'consumers' for languages, but instead in terms of 'access' and 'entitlement'.

Individuals and institutional factors

In a small subject area, clearly the retention of students to postgraduate level is in the hands of a small number of individuals (especially - given the dominance in postgraduate training, of the Golden Triangle - individuals in Oxbridge and London). So, according to a non-Oxbridge ancient historian, whose opinion was that there has been a dearth of Greek historians but that things may be looking up, the problem is that the 'opinion-formers', in the past at least, 'were proclaiming the superior seriousness (and sexiness) of Roman history'. 'Given different personalities', another correspondent suggested, 'I can easily imagine a British classics configured more like that of France' ('epigraphy has stifled French Roman history - in just the way it stifled British Greek History').

At the same time, more institutional causes were discussed. One participant, in particular, spoke fiercely of the clique-ridden and off-putting small-worldishness of (British) Greek History - as evidenced, for example, in the footnotes of publications - contrasting it to literary studies. There was also discussion of, as some saw it, a growing gulf in understanding between Oxbridge (especially Oxford) and provincial universities: in particular when it came to the qualifications suitable for appointees to academic posts.

Definition of the subject

Perhaps the topic of the most sustained discussion was the definition of the subject area of Greek history. It was noted by a number of correspondents and participants that a large number of the candidates for any Greek history or ancient history posts were likely to define themselves as cultural historians or historians of ideas, or indeed not as historians at all. As one correspondent put it, 'there were very, very few people working on the areas traditionally defined as Greek history, let's say people working on anything from the archaic period to the late Hellenistic who have good Greek and work with both literary texts and inscriptions etc. There are of course good reasons for attacking this traditional view, but it is striking that there are very few of these people around.' One correspondent noted, interestingly, a difference between Greek and Roman history here: since 'Gender, Alterité and Religion became the sort of thing doctorates were encouraged in, [he had often been struck that] they were taken up by Greek Literature rather than Latin and Roman history rather than Greek. So - if the Edith Halls went into literature while the Mary Beards went into History that might form part of your explanation.' (Conversely, the same correspondent added, 'there is something similar to be said about the differential success with which classical Archaeology advanced into social, cultural and economic fields in Greek studies while hardly at all in Roman.')

Opinions inevitably varied as to whether this greater stress on cultural history was a good thing. Some, for example, felt that the range of questions asked within (traditional) Greek history was narrow by comparison with other periods of history, and that the experience of being taught history alongside literature was too often to confirm the boundaries between areas of study rather than break them down. (This sense was reinforced by discussion of the exam papers from 19th century Manchester, which both depressed by showing the lack of any great change in approach, and impressed by their comparative approach and their focus on the regions of the Greek world.) Consequently, for some, the problem of numbers (if there is one) vanishes as soon as you change your definition - either by including a broader range of historical questions, now perhaps studied by self-styled literary scholars, or by changing the chronological goalposts (and including, e.g. the history of the Greek city under Rome). As one correspondent put it, 'there are loads of wonderful 'Hellenists' doing marvellous work out there - and the paucity is caused by the template ('what is a historian?') that we still operate with'. On the other hand concerns were expressed that 'traditional' questions and other types of evidence might be being excluded, and that this might be damaging in the long term. (Similar concern was expressed by one correspondent about the current state of Greek literary studies - now that everyone is a cultural historian, 'it would be very difficult to hire what used to be called an expert on Greek Lang. and Lit., too, who could actually tell you how to scan an iambic properly'.)

What emerged most clearly perhaps was a confusion as to the boundaries between sub-disciplines within Classics. This is not to say that the boundaries are vanishing - as some felt, indeed, they persist inevitably and insidiously - only that we are operating with a number of different distinctions simultaneously and without always being aware of it. This lack of any clear 'referential purchase' was, for some, a result of the huge span that history now claimed for itself; for others there was a difficulty as to how to integrate new approaches (from other disciplines) into a traditional discourse without a lack of focus. For some, this confusion was a cause of concern (and confusion); for others, on the contrary, a sign of health.

This confusion is reflected in a (seemingly new) diversity in approaches to teaching.[1] It was clear, in particular from discussion, that the type of course which simply bashes through the events of Greek history chronologically, with occasional apologetic diversions to take in women, slaves etc. (the 'diluted Greats' model, according to one participant) is not nearly as prevalent now as it may have been in the past. Now, for example, some courses adopt a 'skills-based' approach to the teaching of ancient history, while, significantly, some have distinct modules and courses in Ancient History and Classical Civilisation (though in practice the content of the courses is converging), while others have introduced first year modules that integrate Classical Civilisation and Ancient History, with students having the opportunity of moving between (still distinct) degrees at the end of the year. (The rationale for this, as it was put to me, was that 'ancient historical research had - become so catholic in approach - as to be indistinguishable from Classical Civilisation'). There was widespread agreement that students still needed clear orientation within a narrative framework - though this did not require an 'idiot's guide to narrative history'.

Grounds for optimism?

I was surprised, finally, in the responses I received from some Greek historians with whom I corresponded, by a persistent sense that Greek history suffered from intrinsic disadvantages (in terms of recruitment) by comparison with Roman history. Factors cited included: the lack of 'Greek villas or Greek legionary camps to visit on school trips', leading to an early pro-Roman bias; the greater accessibility of Latin; a more focussed subject-matter in Roman history; a 'greater preponderance of people and events one can relate to' in Rome; and above all, the greater quantity of sources in Roman history. As one correspondent expressed this final point, 'the paucity of sources on the Greek side makes them fear there is nothing new to say, the gap between the area where the new evidence mostly comes from (Hellenistic) and the central undergraduate teaching areas makes the subject seem static.'

Discussion on the day reflected a more positive attitude. Some expressed the feeling that Greek history is in an exciting period, with new connections being made with other disciplines, and (as mentioned above) that that the lack of any common template of history might actually be healthy. One participant expressed the view that the decline of Latin at school level might actually be responsible for an increased uptake of Greek at university (as students would not just continue with the one language of which they had experience). On the other hand, another view expressed was that we, as Greek historians, were underselling ourselves - in particular, that we should be trying harder to avoid the 'static' impression of some areas of Greek history, and to bridge any gap (in terms of areas studied) between our undergraduate courses and postgraduate research.

More generally, it is my hope that some of the issues raised at the colloquium - about the teaching of Greek history at undergraduate level, disciplinary boundaries, or the job market - might continue to be discussed in the open at similar forums. To judge from the energetic discussion on the day, I am not alone in this.

Tom Harrison
University of Liverpool

[1]See the report 'Ancient History and its Friends': For alternative approaches to assessment see

CUCD Bulletin 34 (2005)
© Tom Harrison 2005

Bulletin ContentsCUCD HomeRoyal Holloway Classics Dept