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Ancient history - modern lessons: Can a new wave of Classics scholars save the world?

Michael Scott
Professor Michael Scott wants to dispense with one of the greatest misnomers about the study of the ancient world – that it is a subject which is no longer relevant.

“There is a misconception that these cultures which existed thousands of years ago are all dead and gone,” says Scott, Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We still marvel at their works of art and architecture. Their cityscapes and road systems still influence our cities and transport networks. Even more importantly, the ideas created and debated by these ancient civilisations not only have influenced generations of societies since antiquity, but also are particularly vibrant and important right now in the 21st century. Given our current global politics, ancient ideas about democracy, empire, just rule and what makes a good life are centre stage once again.”

New technologies

This is an incredibly exciting time to study the ancient world Scott argues. Because now new technologies are enabling the advance of research and teaching techniques in classics and ancient history and the subject is shooting off into exciting new areas of study and ways of understanding the people of the ancient world.

He explains: “The digital revolution allows us to explore these worlds in more depth or in ways we hadn’t imagined before. Virtual reality brings places and situations to life for us, if we can’t get there in person. 3D printing allows us to recreate artefacts and from there we can recreate scenes from ancient history.”

Professor Scott does just this with his students at Warwick. “We may be studying the most ancient material but we are regularly using the most cutting edge technology and exciting teaching methods,” he says. Recently his first year students enjoyed recreating an ancient Greek symposium, a drinking party, complete with replica vessels.

“Getting students into the mindset of ancient people means these cultures come alive. This not only improves the student experience and learning but it triggers new research questions. It was an exciting moment when we put the replica psykter – used for cooling the wine, inside our krater – used for storing the wine, and it started to spin. This immediately sent me out to find experts on fluid dynamics to shed light on the process. And now testing out what is going on here will be the subject of a student project in the Engineering department in 2019-20.

“When we recreated the ancient Greek symposium, with the various vessels used for storing, cooling and then drinking the wine we didn’t expect to see anything new. But we did – and these observations could never have been made by looking at 2D images. We often think of research-led teaching, but this was an example of teaching-led research.”

Taking the subject to all

Another myth Professor Scott is busily busting is that the study of classics is not for everyone.

“Classics has traditionally been thought of as a subject for the select few. But these ancient worlds speak to us all,” he says. “It’s our job to make sure that everyone gets the chance to engage with them.

“That’s why I am so enthusiastic about taking our work outside the university. New technology is certainly helping us do this.

“I went to Greece for the first time when I was 17 and I spent my 17th birthday at the ancient site of Olympia. That was my magic moment - being in those sites surrounded by the remains of temples and shrines really caught my imagination and I have never looked back. Now students can get a taste of what that was like without leaving their classroom. I was involved in a project recently in which a local school in Coventry used our Virtual Reality headsets to engage with the worlds of ancient Greece and Egypt– and the children were hooked.

The ancient world is a global subject

“Within the study of ancient history, when we speak of ‘the ancient world’, too often what we mean is just the ancient Mediterranean,” continues Professor Scott.

“But the Greek and Roman worlds did not exist in splendid isolation. There was a connectivity and interdependency with the wider ancient world and the major powers of Asia, India and China. Not only did cultures change as a result of their interaction with others, but in some cases only achieved what they did because of it. Roman trade with Indian grew six fold in the 1st centuries BCE-CE, coinciding (thanks to the tax the Roman government collected on this trade) with one of its biggest eras of expansion and monumentalisation.

“We should be encouraging our students to look outside the boundaries inherent in our subject – and this is why I have run this academic year the only module on Ancient Global History in any classics or history degree in any university in the UK. The module has been packed and students have left me speechless with their thirst and interest to discover the wider ancient world, and to tackle head on issues that are just as familiar and important to us today as they were in antiquity: cultural diversity, global integration; war; the spread of ideas; trade; migration; disease; and community identity.”

Ancient truths

Professor Scott believes Classicists and historians have a responsibility to make sure the ancient world is understood and its story told properly.

“There is growing wave of organisations speaking of the purity and importance of Western culture and civilisation, and using stories from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds to normalise a spectrum of misogynist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic ideas and beliefs,” he says. “Equally when politicians with much more mainstream and liberal views ask us to remember and respect the values of democracy, they can forget the original ancient Athenian system of democracy was based on slavery, women did not have a vote and you were asked to swear allegiance to the idea of democracy above all other values and ties, and kill anyone who did not do the same.

“So we, as the new wave of Classicists and ancient historians, have a duty to challenge how the stories of ancient worlds are used; to highlight both the similarities and the differences between us and them; as well as to keep pushing back the boundaries so that everyone can learn from the past.”

 

Michael ScottMichael Scott is Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His principal research interests lie in the intersection of ancient history and archaeology within the Mediterranean and more widely across the ancient world.

He believes passionately in making the ancient world as accessible as possible to a wider audience. He regularly talks in schools around the country, writes books intended for the popular market as well as articles for national and international newspapers and magazines, takes part in radio programmes, and has written and presented several TV series about the ancient world for History Channel, National Geographic, BBC and ITV.

For further information on his work, visit: www.michaelscottweb.com

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