The story has the clarity of a fable: In the library of a New York homeless shelter, an immigrant boy finds a book that introduces him to the glories of ancient Greece and Rome. Years later, after navigating hardship and embracing opportunity, he grows up to teach classics at Princeton.
That story — told in Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, the 2015 memoir of Princeton professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06 — might read as an inspiring testament to the transcendent power of the oldest great books.
“Classics was a cheat code for mastering whiteness,” he writes in his contribution to a forthcoming scholarly book on race in antiquity. “Mastery of this cheat code would entail … internalization of the sense that my own personhood, and the histories that pulsed through it, had to be subordinated to a body of knowledge that radiated Western authority.”
Padilla Peralta’s public interrogation of his personal history comes at a charged moment for his discipline, as classicists undertake a parallel interrogation of their field’s problematic past and flawed present. A specialist in Roman history and religion, Padilla Peralta has become a leading voice in this struggle over how classics — historically a proudly elitist discipline built on a Eurocentric conception of intellectual inheritance — can remake itself for a changed world.
Especially among younger classicists, there is “a real energy and a real desire to transform the field into something that is avowedly anti-racist and anti-white supremacist,” says Christopher Waldo, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Washington-Seattle and co-chair of the Asian and Asian-American Classical Caucus. “This is a really interesting moment in the history of classics as a discipline, where those questions are being asked.”
Such questioning is nothing new in the academy: Scholars in such fields as history, English, anthropology, and religious studies have spent decades reorienting their research agendas and reimagining their curricula in light of contemporary understandings of race, class, and gender, a process sometimes called “decolonization.”
More than 30 years ago, classics seemed on the brink of a similar reckoning, when Martin Bernal of Cornell, a historian of modern China who had migrated to ancient studies, began publishing his three-volume Black Athena. Bernal argued that Greek civilization had African and Asiatic roots, and he analyzed the role that white supremacist ideology had played in the development of the discipline of classics in the 18th and 19th centuries. But when classicists debunked Bernal’s factual claims about the ancient past, they also tossed out his critique of the discipline’s history.
That was a mistake, some scholars now say. Bernal “may be wrong about Socrates, but he’s not wrong about the way in which the discipline was embedded in this discourse on white supremacy,” says Jackie Murray, associate professor of classics and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky at Lexington. “He was not wrong about that.”
Classics: Enshrined in the very name of the field is an unquestioned assumption that its subject matter — the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome — represents the best of human culture. But that claim, and its implicit downgrading of ancient civilizations rooted in China, India, Africa, and the Middle East, grew out of a specific historical moment, says Princeton historian Anthony Grafton, who specializes in the cultural history of the Renaissance. “From the late 18th century on, as classics began to form as a discipline, one of the things classicists began to believe was that Greece and Rome were the preeminent cultures of the ancient world,” Grafton says. “In the 16th or 17th century, there were lots of people who didn’t believe that.”
Along with the presumption of Greco-Roman superiority came a story about these civilizations’ uniquely foundational role in the development of European culture — a European culture itself conceived of as superior to the cultures of other regions, especially regions colonized by European powers. Across the British empire, men who had learned Latin and Greek in the schoolroom instituted classical curricula as part of a supposedly “civilizing” mission aimed at remaking indigenous people in the image of their colonizers.
Crucially, the ancient cultures studied by classicists, as well as the European culture those ancients were said to have founded, were understood to be white. Classics, along with Egyptology, “developed as the teaching arm of the ideology of white supremacy,” says Shelley P. Haley, a professor of classics and Africana studies at Hamilton College, who is the first Black scholar to serve as president of the Society for Classical Studies. “We need to examine the context in which classical studies grew up, and that’s what we need to dismantle.”
The racial suppositions implicit in the original conception of the discipline represented a historical distortion, scholars say. Classical historians today agree that the ancients had no concept of “whiteness” in our modern sense: Although ancient societies were hierarchically organized and sometimes oppressive, those hierarchies were not based on skin color. In the Renaissance, “scholars were perfectly aware that ancient Rome was an ethnically varied city and that people of African and Jewish and Arabian descent became Romans,” Grafton says. “In the 19th century, there was a great effort not to recognize that.”
Accordingly, despite the historical truths about the ancient world, genocidal racists and slaveholders across the centuries — from 16th-century Spanish conquistadors to Southern Confederates to Nazi leaders — found authority for their twisted racial theories in such classical writers as Aristotle, who famously argued for the existence of “natural slaves.”
Contemporary right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists similarly root their identity in an imagined lily-white classical past. In 2016, the white supremacist Identity Evropa movement began blanketing college campuses with recruitment posters bearing a picture of the second-century Roman statue known as the Apollo Belvedere. Some of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 came costumed as ancient Greek and Roman warriors. And Marjorie Taylor Greene, the conspiracist Republican congresswoman from Georgia, wears a facemask emblazoned with “Molon Labe,” an ancient Greek phrase roughly translated as “come and take them,” which has become a slogan of the gun-rights movement.
“An interest in classics is this quick signifier of a certain kind of identity politics — white male identity politics — and a signifier for a set of values,” says Donna Zuckerberg *14, an independent scholar who authored a 2018 book about the alt-right’s embrace of classics.
Indeed, contemporary white supremacists aren’t entirely misreading classical texts, says Curtis Dozier, an assistant professor of Greek and Roman studies at Vassar College who directs Pharos, a website devoted to documenting and debunking hate groups’ appropriations of the classical past. The ancients held slaves, deprived women of civil and political rights, limited the citizenship of immigrants, and glorified the violent imposition of cultural values on conquered peoples. White supremacists “didn’t really need to misrepresent antiquity to support their politics,” Dozier says. “They found in the ancient world a way of organizing society that was very congenial.”
While contemporary scholars may reject the alt-right’s embrace of classicism, presuppositions about the classical lineage of a superior Western culture still subtly permeate the discipline’s self-definition, some classicists say. “Great Books” courses start with Homer and Plato; beleaguered classics departments justify their continued existence by calling their field the foundation of Western civilization. “The whole field has been so myopic. It has been focused on Europe,” says Haley, the Society of Classical Studies president. “We can talk about India, we can talk about Syria, we can talk about China, we can talk about Numidia, Nubia, Ethiopia, Egypt — but we don’t.”
Today, those questioning the discipline tend to put scare quotes around the term “Western civilization,” arguing that the concept obscures the complex lineages of European culture and the ways that classical texts also influenced, and were influenced by, non-European societies. Ultimately, these scholars say, relying on a simplistic narrative of foundationalism carries an implicit message about whom classical texts belonged to in the past, and who should study them now — a message that Waldo, the University of Washington scholar, summarizes as, “We are Western civilization, and you people over here — even if your forefathers were also reading Aristotle and Galen in the ninth century — you aren’t.”
Over the decades, however, scholarship has changed, many classicists say. The horrors of World War II inspired serious study of Greco-Roman slavery. In the 1970s, an influx of female scholars brought new attention to the lives of women in the ancient world. More recently, classicists have studied immigration to ancient Athens and undertaken more so-called “reception studies” examining how classical texts have been used — for example, by the Britons who colonized India.
Classical historians today agree that the ancients had no concept of “whiteness” in our modern sense: Although ancient societies were hierarchically organized and sometimes oppressive, those hierarchies were not based on skin color.
To some, these changes suggest that the current critique is overblown, a response to contemporary racial concerns rather than to anything happening now in the discipline itself. Although much criticism of the field’s history is valid, “they’re points that have been made for decades, and, for the most part, dealt with for decades,” says a U.K.-based scholar who requested anonymity to avoid online vitriol. “No serious classicist thinks that you should draw a line around the Greeks and Romans.”
But the wider world’s understanding of classics hasn’t caught up to the reality in contemporary academia, and like so many aspects of American life, the debate over classics has become angry and politically polarized. Last winter, when The New York Times Magazine profiled Padilla Peralta and explored his critique of the discipline, conservative pundits reacted with outrage (“The moronic social-justice war on classics threatens our civilization,” the New York Post headlined one column), and Padilla Peralta received such alarming death threats that the University removed his email address from the classics department’s website.
“A lot of us are saying, ‘Look, all our scholarship since the 1970s has been moving in this direction of trying to reflect more accurately what’s happening in the ancient world. Why don’t our departments and our hiring and the classes we teach reflect this?’ ” says Rebecca Futo Kennedy, an associate professor of classical studies, environmental studies, and women and gender studies at Denison University. “But when you put that out into the public, and you say, ‘This is who we actually are; this is who we’ve been for decades,’ all those people who have this vision of classics as supportive of elite, white, Christian Western civilization see that as an assault on the Euro-American identity of whiteness.”
Although some scholars believe that the discipline’s problematic history gives today’s classicists a unique anti-racist responsibility, not everyone agrees. “Academic subjects do not exist outside the culture in which they’re studied,” Mary Beard, the Cambridge University scholar who is perhaps the best-known living classicist, told The New York Times Magazine last spring. “So of course classics have a toxic history. Nuclear physics has a toxic history. Anthropology has a toxic history. It’s extremely important to look at it and face up to it, but classics wasn’t responsible for fascism.”
But such formulations oversimplify the nature of the challenge facing the field today, say Padilla Peralta and others: Just because contemporary classicists no longer cite Aristotle to justify slavery doesn’t mean they have fully embraced the contributions of scholars of color. Accurate data on the profession’s demographics are hard to come by, but classicists agree that their ranks are overwhelmingly white. In the past few years, two successive online message boards where classicists shared information about the difficult academic job market shut down after anonymous commenters repeatedly attacked fellow scholars, especially women and people of color. And when Padilla Peralta examined the articles published in three leading classics journals between 1997 and 2017, he found that more than 90 percent were by white authors.
That kind of imbalance hurts the field, he says. “The identities you inhabit have a very powerful effect on the kinds of questions you ask, or choose to ask, about the materials you study,” Padilla Peralta says. “The most richly imagined fabrics of the past are those that involve the greatest number of people from as many different view- and vantage points as possible, and anything short of that is intellectually impoverished.”
Historically, the discipline of classics has prided itself on its exclusivity: Classicists, masters of two complex dead languages and an array of difficult texts, often saw themselves as the most brilliant minds teaching the toughest material to the best students. But today many classicists view that reputation for exclusivity as a burden — even a threat to the field’s continued survival.
Although classics once lay at the heart of the Western university curriculum, it is now a small field, even among the embattled disciplines of the humanities. A 2017 survey of four-year institutions, conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, found an estimated 269 classical studies departments nationwide, with an average of seven faculty members and eight graduating majors apiece. By contrast, the same survey found an estimated 1,062 English departments, with an average of 23 faculty members and 31 majors, and 921 history departments, with an average of 17 faculty members and 26 majors.
Princeton’s classics department, with 19 faculty members, is far larger than the national average but graduates about the same number of undergraduate majors — eight in 2021. Two years ago, in an effort to diversify the ranks of its graduate program, the department began offering a predoctoral year of funding to promising students who need extra time to prepare for advanced study. Four students have been admitted under the program, Princeton classics professor Joshua Billings says, and other universities have followed Princeton’s lead and set up similar programs.
But a more recent initiative has been far more controversial. Last spring, the classics department announced that, in an effort to attract a larger and more diverse cadre of students, it would no longer require undergraduate concentrators to study Latin or Greek. Although the department is still offering the same number of language classes, the move drew fire, with online critics arguing that eliminating the requirement represented either a retreat from rigor or a patronizing suggestion that students of color couldn’t master difficult languages.
In fact, says Billings, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, the change is a way of ensuring that talented students won’t be discouraged from studying classics because they lack high school preparation in ancient languages. A 2017 study of foreign-language education, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department, found that about 210,000 high school students were enrolled in Latin courses nationwide, compared with 7.3 million studying Spanish and 1.2 million taking French. Although the study did not parse its data by school sector, classicists say it is common knowledge that private schools are far likelier than public ones to offer Latin and Greek. For students who arrived at Princeton without a background in either language, the mandatory four semesters of language study, on top of the concentration’s other requirements, were “really a barrier to our recruitment of students,” Billings says.
But if eliminating language requirements is a controversial approach to modernizing the discipline, alternative reform strategies — sometimes promoted with rousing rhetoric about “burning down” classics to build it back better — also have their critics.
Perhaps the least radical suggestion amounts to rebranding: Replace the elitist label “classics” with a more neutral designation, such as “ancient Greco-Roman studies” or, ideally, “ancient Mediterranean studies,” to reflect a more inclusive approach to the subject matter.
Padilla Peralta embraces this proposal — to a point. “I am for renaming because I think it’s a good idea to be more honest in advertising,” he says. But renaming “is usually understood as a way of heading off more comprehensive, and potentially much more intrusive, readjustments to the scope of departmental practice,” he says. “It is for me important not to let that stand as lip service to transformation.”
More radical is the suggestion that existing interdisciplinary classics departments should be eliminated entirely, with their faculty members redistributed to more specialized departments — literature, history, philosophy, archaeology. “There are many things worth studying that the Greeks and Romans have produced,” says Walter Scheidel, a professor of classics and history at Stanford. “It’s just not obvious that it should be configured the way it was set up 200 years ago, as a separate field that has its own very exclusionary requirements.”
Such suggestions alarm classicists at institutions with less money and prestige, where a confluence of forces — from administrative cost-cutting to student demand for vocational preparation — is already squeezing humanities disciplines. Earlier this year, Howard University announced plans to disband its venerable classics department, the only one among the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.
“It can be grating for people at smaller universities to hear all this language of dismantling, because that’s exactly what the higher-ups want to do. They’d love to dismantle us. They just want an excuse,” says James Kierstead, a senior lecturer in classics at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington. “You can have that burn-it-down-build-it-up conversation at Princeton, but the burn-it-down conversation at Victoria University of Wellington just looks like smoldering ashes, and then they do more engineering.”
Other classicists want a different approach, a way of placing one of the oldest university disciplines at the center of contemporary conversations about the socially constructed nature of racial categories. A reconceptualized classics could give students a way of examining “how structures of inequality and oppression in the modern world have come into existence, and how they feed themselves, and simultaneously how long they’ve existed and yet how arbitrary they are,” says Dozier, of Vassar.
“The tendency to dominate other groups is something that is one of the human dilemmas,” says Murray, of the University of Kentucky. “The reason why I was interested in studying the classics was because it’s another world, where other people have different solutions. The point is to look at the past as another window onto the human condition, instead of looking at the past as a place to justify current economic and political and ideological points of view.”
For Padilla Peralta, even that reconceptualization may not be enough to rescue classics from its entrenchment in systems of privilege — the socioeconomic privilege that enabled so many classicists to study ancient languages in the first place, and the Eurocentric intellectual privilege that adjudicates which kinds of inquiries count as legitimate modes of academic study, and which do not.
“How are you going to keep this knowledge practice alive in ways that are more inclusive, that are more dynamically open?” Padilla Peralta asks. “What would you have to do? What kinds of redistribution would have to take place?”
Padilla Peralta’s engagement with such issues stretches beyond the bounds of his discipline: In the summer of 2020, he co-authored an open letter to Princeton’s administration calling for wholesale changes — to curriculum, hiring, training, and recruitment — aimed at making the University “for the first time in its history, an anti-racist institution.” The debate over classics, he suggests, implies another, deeper question: What role should extraordinarily wealthy universities like Princeton play in a radically unequal world?
“The fact that I had to latch onto this Greek and Roman business in order to get out of the ’hood — this is not something to be happy about,” Padilla Peralta says. “What it speaks to is the inherent precarity of the lives of those folks for whom these kinds of opportunities are never, ever going to materialize.”
Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in Princeton Junction, New Jersey.
Editor’s note: This story has been slightly revised since its print publication.