Altertumswissenschaft: The Science of Antiquity

By Tyler Travillian

After millenniums of sex and centuries of poetry, the love poem as understood by Shakespeare and Donne, and by Oxford undergraduates – the true-life confessions of the poet in love, immortalizing the mistress, who is actually the cause of the poemthat was invented in Rome…

The Invention of Love, Act 1, Tom Stoppard

A History of Classics

Classics is horizontal where other disciplines are vertical.

All disciplines in the university give their students foundational knowledge and methodologies necessary to discuss contemporary problems of interest to that discipline and contribute to their solution.  How that plays out, however, depends on each discipline’s focus.  English, for example, may ask students to become familiar with the literature of a particular time and place and how “critical traditions critical traditions frame our approaches to texts and define the issues that keep them meaningful and relevant in our lives.”  A student of History may focus on the “continuity in human society over time” by “evaluating evidence, organizing information, clarifying and structuring concepts, and writing narratives and expositions,” or a student of Physics may study the material universe in a specific time and place (say, atoms, black holes, or super-conductors).

Classics, however, rather than covering a single discipline at a single time and place covers all human activity in the Mediterranean world from the Bronze Age (approximately 1600 BCE) to the Middle Ages (around 500 CE).  The reasons for this are historical.  In the early centuries CE, global climate change drove many new peoples into the Eastern and then Western Roman empires.  This influx eventually brought enough instability that the Western Empire – Europe – shattered into many small, unstable kingdoms.  They never forgot the grandeur of the Roman Empire, even as they lost the skill to build grandiose monuments, to write hair-raising literature, and to enforce social order.  As stability returned in the Middle Ages and then growth in the Renaissance, this memory of Rome became the basis for education:  the ideal citizen mastered what the old empire had bequeathed.  In fact, the first universities based their curricula around the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) as outlined by Plato and Cicero.  The Early Modern, or Neo-Classical, period adopted Classical models even more closely, but with a spirit of invention that gave us Shakespeare, Molière, Racine, and Goethe.  As universities added new fields of study, the earlier university curriculum came to be seen as its own discipline, termed Altertumswissenschaft, the “Science of the Antiquity,” in the 19th century.

The result is a uniquely interdisciplinary field.  Classics, the Humanistic Science, is the study of the language, literature, culture, history, philosophy, geography, archeology, intellectual accomplishments, science, religion, and enduring legacy of the Greco-Roman world throughout the Mediterranean.  This is a grand ambition.  Every Classicist must master Greek and Latin, the dominant languages of the Mediterranean, learn the literature and history of those people, from 800 BCE to 400 CE, be familiar with each of the subfields, and then focus in depth on one or two.  This includes learning to read scholarship in at least two modern European languages beyond English.

Classics is a broad field that embraces the foundations of – and remains uniquely engaged with – all the disciplines in the modern university.  Literature, Philosophy, and History may be obvious connections, but the Western study of Physics, Psychology, Biology, and Medicine all originate in the Classical world, and in some cases – surgical tools – for example, remain unchanged.  Classics also remains relevant to many disciplines because the assumptions and evidence upon which these foundational claims were once made have vastly changed because of new evidence and new ways of understanding. Classics continues to contribute to all these disciplines by reshaping and sometimes redefining long-held assumptions about antiquity and humanity.  And the Classics’s methodologies are also innovative:  Classics has been a pioneering discipline in the Digital Humanities and computational linguistics, for example, the Perseus Project, the Packard Humanities Institute, and various 3D reconstructions of Roman architecture.

Classics at PLU

Classics at PLU allows for a breadth and flexibility not often found at other universities.  Our small program offers two majors in Classical Languages and Classical Studies. In addition to the foundational courses in Latin, Greek, Greek and Roman civilization and Mythology, we offer Introduction to Egyptology, A History of Medicine, and Women and Gender in the Ancient World, Masterpieces of European Literature, and study-away courses in Greece and Italy.  Because of the breadth of Classics, we also accept courses on the ancient world taught in other departments, including Art, English, IHON, History, Philosophy, Religion, and history of science courses.

Since many students have multiple interests and goals, we have designed our majors to be flexible.  Most Classical Studies majors at PLU go on to double major, whether in another language, English, Religion, or Philosophy, or in a Natural or Social Science like Biology, Chemistry, or History.

PLU Classics majors have gone on to occupations as varied as Classics itself:  archeologists, screenwriters, CEOs, lawyers, teachers, seminarians, and professors.  For even more success stories, see