He adds: “There is a strongly political dimension to the kind of claim I am making, and you would probably find that most people who were pushing for a very hybridised vision of the Greek world would … be naturally more left-leaning and have their own idealised view of the ancient world as a place of opportunity and hybridisation.
“There’s obviously a political parallel in the present – yet at the payday loans Springfield same time I wouldn’t want to reduce the argument, because there is new data available that shows that the ancient world was rather different from the way it was even recently understood to be. “
So what are these implications? Barbara Graziosi, professor of classics at Durham University, says: “It is getting classics out of its splendid isolation, finding intellectual common ground in antiquity. And it means working more closely with colleagues in places such as Egypt and Iraq – something that is of course made more difficult by political dichotomies.”
Indeed, argues Whitmarsh, the Roman empire was “the facilitating grid that produced Islam, in dialogue with Persia”
As Haubold argues in his new book Greece and Mesopotamia: Dialogues in Literature, it is an approach that can beckon towards the “cultivation of multilingualism, polyglossia, the arts of cultural mediation, deep intercultural understanding, and genuinely global consciousness. It can develop these things both as scholarly endeavours and as new forms of citizenship in a globalised world”.
Graziosi offers a resonant event from her life: attending a conference on classics at Cairo University following the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak. She recalls European and American colleagues’ shock that Cairo even had a classics department; in fact, it was established in 1925. To her surprise, she found a cadre of eager, revolutionary students hungry to engage with classics and to find a way of thinking about Egypt’s classical past (it was drawn into Alexander the Great’s empire and then became part of the Roman empire) that might help them develop ideas about their present.
There are three million Muslims in Britain, many of them learning an ancient language already
“The students were saying that the revolution does not mean a clean break with the past, but a search for different pasts,” she recalls. “Classics offers a way of looking at an Egyptian multilingual, multicultural past, when Greeks, Romans, Egyptians lived alongside each other.” More broadly, she says, the approach is a reminder that “it is a fiction that once upon a time cultures were pure and are now mixed”.
Graziosi also points out the diffusion of classical texts into the medieval Islamic world. With the emphasis on Greece and Rome as “the foundation of western civilisation”, it is easy to forget how important the classical world has been in the east, she argues: we owe the survival of many classical scientific and medical texts, for example, to their translation into Arabic during the golden age of Islam in Baghdad in the eighth and ninth centuries. Woolf talks too of Latin translations of the Qu’ran circulating in 12th-century Europe.
In this story of interconnectedness and hybridity, rather than isolation and exceptionalism, there lie enormous intellectual and humanist opportunities, Whitmarsh says. “What is the implication,” he asks, “for a utopian, post-imperial education system? There’s no reason why, in 50 years’ time, undergraduate courses shouldn’t be packed with people studying Arabic and Greek culture side by side. Of course, this already exists in a limited way, but it’s not a cultural phenomenon at the moment and these worlds mostly exist entirely separately, but it seems to me there’s nothing natural in that.”