A few weeks back the Australian National University (ANU) rejected an enormous endowment from the Ramsay Foundation to financially back a new degree in Western Civilisation run by the Ramsay Centre within ANU. Humanities in Australia's universities are grossly underfunded so the decision to say "thanks but no thanks" is something no vice chancellor would do without weighing their options. The reason for the decision was that the Ramsay Centre wanted a say in which academics would be employed. ANU stated that this was a deal-breaker. Added to this was the the poorly thought out decision of a member of the Ramsay Centre to write in an opinion piece for the right-wing magazine Quadrant that the Ramsay Centre was “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it". As any historian could tell you, that is an admission of bias. I am an historian and I am not in favour of bias.
However, this brouhaha has gotten me to think about what people think about when terms such as "Western civilisation" or "classical antiquity" are discussed. There have been numerous concerns about the appropriation of the past by far-right groups, and discussions about how the lack of paint surviving on ancient sculptures has influenced how we see the past, but I have now come to recognise that the availability of texts from the past have also played a huge role in our view of antiquity. I have a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica's Great Books of the Western World sitting on my shelves. They are meant to reflect the works which have shaped the Western world, and I am a little intrigued by how those texts were decided upon instead of others.
It seems to me that the stereotype of what constituted the standard view of the ancient past has been curated by collections such as these and those texts which over centuries have been dictated as worthy of study. While the term "reception studies" today tends to focus more on history via film or pop culture, I do think that much of our nebulous view of antiquity is another example of reception and the result of a curated set of texts and topics which have been deemed suitable. When we add this process to the now acknowledged problematic racist past of classical studies, I think this "standard" view of the past is quite problematic.
Thanks to Monty Python, we all know "what did the Romans ever do for us", but the question what did classical antiquity ever do for us illustrates this problem. We tend to focus on science, philosophy, democracy, history, the sorts of things which the creators of the Great Books of the Western World deemed good and proper, but that is not all antiquity was.
I am fascinated by obscure and under-utilised ancient texts. In my work with students and the broader community at The University of Queensland I try to share this passion. Earlier this year I had a student ask me why I devoted so much energy towards this and I answered something like this:
"Because they show that the ancient world was much more weird, nuanced, and richer than most people realise."
I take pleasure in seeing that so many more texts have survived than those which are commonly set in undergraduate courses because they are cheap and accessible, often in paperback. But why are some works translated again and again, and studied over and over, while others haven't been republished in over a hundred years and have never been translated into something other than Greek or Latin? When you consider that these texts have been curated over centuries by people who sought to shape our view of the past, this seems a little sinister.
Trends in social approaches to the study of ancient history have sought to address this effect, but I cannot remember anyone ever suggesting to me that the texts we study are the result of curation. The closest to this I have heard was the suggestion made that the Latin inscriptions held in Italian museums might have been the result of curation, and that was in a paper a little over a month ago. Could it be that the texts that have captured my imagination were found wanting by some group of people long ago? They were considered well enough before hand for people to copy the texts and maintain them in libraries, so they had been thought to have had value in the past, but someone or some people decided against them.
Because I am currently working on a translation and commentary on the medical text which derived a lot of its material from what was originally folklore (the Medicina Plinii) most of these works recently have included medical magic. Given the idea of the scientific past of the classical world that is frequently promoted, I can't help but wonder if that was the crime against taste of which these works were guilty. Add this to the fact that as little as forty years ago students were warned against the study of ancient magic or occultism as an act of career suicide, I do think that this might have been an element.
So how does this to perceptions of antiquity and the Ramsay Centre?
Despite the fact that texts are ancient, their use continued beyond antiquity, past the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Ancient forms of magic were being used and legislated against following the tenth century CE in Constantinople. A magical spell form which came from a Greek tradition was recorded in an 11th century CE Anglo-Saxon medical text. Cyranides, a text about which I have blogged before, was being used and secretively translated in the 17th Century CE. And Isaac Newton, to whom many look to as an example of a great enlightenment scientific figure, was making notes relating to his alchemical experiments. I strongly doubt that the academics the Ramsay Foundation would like to employ even know about this, let alone study and teach about it. The works from antiquity most accessible today especially through translation provide a skewed, if not biased, view of the ancient world. The culture of the Graeco-Roman world is not wholly reflected in the texts most commonly translated or even studied. It is far more textured and conflicting, and in that way more like culture today. It doesn't fit into some cookie-cutter picture of the past seen by the likes of Tony Abbott and the Ramsay Foundation.
I think that those of us who have the ability to make those texts which have never been translated from Greek or Latin ought to make an effort to translate these texts, because it is only by making them accessible to the broader public can the broader public get a truer vision of antiquity.
As for some of the texts I am referring to, the include the works of Demigeron, Orphic Stones, Marcellus Empiricus, Gargilius Martialis but these are just a few. They haven't been looked at academically for so long, the most recent publications of these texts are often digitised.