There was a young man who said ‘God

Must find it exceedingly odd

To think that the tree

Should continue to be

When there’s no one about in the quad.’


‘Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd;

I am always about in the quad.

And that’s why the tree

Will continue to be

Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.’

Classicists are like Ronald Knox’s God. Or at least they believe theirs to be a Godlike subject. From the perspective of the Western world, at least, as long as there has been history, Classics has always been about in the quad. A commitment to presentism is built into Classics because, in claiming that what they study is classical, classicists claim that it runs as lifeblood through every subsequent age of at least the world of Western civilization. Of course we are going to find today’s agendas in the world of Greece and Rome since those agendas are themselves part of the legacy from the classical world. At its broadest, this is a claim that, for the people of Europe and all who trace their cultural origins to Europe, being human today is itself so shaped by classical culture (though certainly not exclusively by classical culture) that human cultural action is always already in dialogue with the classical past.1 Classicists effectively collapse the presentist importing of understanding gained from the past into the present, stressed by Coss (p. 227 below), into the presentist determination of our agenda of historical questions by current concerns, stressed by Mitter (p. 263 below), by claiming the classical, as well as Derridean, always already.

This classical imperialism makes classicists feel good, keeps Classics in the public eye, and may not be unconnected with the relative success of Classics in the United Kingdom’s Research Excellence Framework impact assessment. But does classical presentism bring any serious intellectual rewards? Does it actually help us to understand the Greek and Roman worlds? Has it not distorted our understanding of those worlds? To all three of these questions I want to return an affirmative response.

Although those who use ‘presentism’ as a term of abuse imply that it is a peculiar and recent vice, ‘presentism’ is merely the label given to one aspect of a much more general, and unavoidable, problem of historical method. Historians of Greece and Rome, like all historians, find themselves perpetually torn between etic and emic analyses (see, further, Rubin, p. 236 below). Should they be (only) attempting to understand the Greek and Roman worlds in their own terms (and so analyse miasma, hybris and aidos, libertas and amicitia, rather than pollution, violence, shame, liberty and friendship)?2 Or should they be asking about Greek religion (for which there is notoriously no Greek word), or Greek and Roman literacy or imperialism (both in different ways, and despite their etymologies, very hard to render in Greek or Latin)?

Methodological scruples get bound up here with practical considerations: it is a lot easier to trace every use of the term aidos than to think about every situation where issues of shame might be in question — both in terms of the labour of data collection and in the possibility of making the analysis without facing up to the issue of what exactly might count as ‘shame’ (or whatever). The methodological scruples are real, however: thinking in terms of the concepts through which particular Greeks or Romans thought is essential for understanding what they wrote. But we shall never adequately understand what they wrote simply by understanding the concepts that they mobilized in their writing. Emic investigation of aidos and etic questions about shame in Greek antiquity are not either/or options: good historical work must involve both. Whatever the ‘new criticism’ of the 1950s may have tried to persuade us to believe, texts can never be adequately understood by understanding only what is happening inside them, or even between them and other texts. Texts, and cultural products generally, exist in a wider world in which the natural and cultural events that occur are not determined by, and may not be comprehensible in terms of, the concepts of the society affected. It is precisely by thinking about how a past society without our concepts dealt with what we understand using the concepts that it did not have that we come to understand that society better.

The virtues of presentism emerge strongly from what is perhaps the most famous example in twentieth-century Roman history, Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution, published on 25 September 1939 by Oxford University Press. A decade earlier a book covering what Syme himself describes as the ‘central narrative’ of his own book (the years from Caesar’s assassination to the 20s bc) had been published by Oxford University Press. This was T. Rice Holmes’s The Architect of the Roman Empire (1928). Comparison of the contents of the two books shows up very clearly what Syme had done. While Rice Holmes offers a straight narrative history, Syme’s narrative units are interspersed with analysis (for example, chapter 11, ‘Political Catchwords’). But more important still is the way in which Syme frames this central narrative: with chapters with titles like those of chapter 29, ‘The National Programme’, and chapter 30, ‘The Organization of Opinion’. Syme confesses in his preface that he has ‘been unable to escape from the influence of the historians Sallust, Pollio and Tacitus, all of them Republican in sentiment’ (itself a remarkable statement given that Pollio’s work does not survive),3 but what is obvious to the modern reader is that Syme had not been able to escape the events of his time.4 Mussolini and Hitler have equally left their mark, though Syme never names them.

Syme confesses his presentism at the end of his preface. But what he notes is not that the history of the period during which he has been writing has had an effect on his view of the end of the Roman republic, but that the history of the end of the Roman republic needs to have an impact on the history of his day. He remarks of his history that ‘It has not been composed in tranquillity; and it ought to be held back for several years and rewritten. But the theme, I firmly believe, is of some importance’.5 We can see the classicist’s imperialism here, but also the unavoidable mutual implication of present and past, and the importance of changing the past if we are to change the present.6

Syme was not presentist only in the political framework into which he placed the creation of the principate; he was also presentist in methodology. Although the question of the relationship between Lewis Namier’s The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929) and Syme’s work has been debated, and Syme was critical of Namier for being insufficiently historical, there is no doubt that they shared not merely a broad method, prosopography, but also a conviction that ‘the composition of the oligarchy of government’ should be ‘the dominant theme of political history’.7 The prosopographical method of studying Roman history had been forged in Germany in the late nineteenth century, but it is no accident that it should be turned into a powerful instrument of historical analysis in just the years when the fluid composition of political groups was so much a contemporary concern.

The case of The Roman Revolution illustrates not only the virtues of presentism (real features of Roman politics becoming visible only because contemporary politics drew attention to the questions that needed to be asked; contemporary political methods becoming illuminated by comparison with ancient Rome), but also the way in which apparently etic presentism is far from incompatible with close engagement with original material. Reshaping the traditional narrative demanded more rather than less intense analysis of the ancient material. When Syme’s seventieth birthday was celebrated by dedicating to him the 1973 volume of the Journal of Roman Studies, the dedicatory preface by Fergus Millar drew attention to the way in which ‘Syme substituted for the abstractions and generalizations essential to a long-established school of Roman history an acute awareness of the language and concepts actually used in Roman society’.8

Though Syme’s prosopographical method found its imitators, and though Syme himself continued to be inclined to presentist approaches, most obviously in his Colonial Élites: Rome, Spain and the Americas (1958), The Roman Revolution did not provoke further analyses of the ancient world inspired by the rise of Fascism.9 But presentism can be held responsible for a whole new wave of classical studies inaugurated at the start of the last quarter of the twentieth century: studies of sex and gender.

Facts about women in the Greek and Roman world had been collected from time to time by scholars earlier in the twentieth century, and two great scholars of Greek literature had even stirred up significant scholarly debate about how to understand the powerful women of Greek tragedy.10 The publication in 1975 of Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves nevertheless marked a watershed.11 Pomeroy’s was not itself a classic book, but nevertheless it was grasped by those wanting to teach social history and created a demand for more and better — a demand very rapidly satisfied. Nor was the gender agenda taken up merely by historians, for in literary studies too, and in the study of classical art and archaeology, studies of women burgeoned. All of this very clearly on the back of first-wave feminism.

Where women entered, sex followed closely after. ‘Greek love’ had ensured that the sexuality of the Greeks had long attracted attention, but laws against homosexuality had kept such scholarship in the closet, with a high proportion of private publications and pseudonymity.12 That all changed in 1978 when Sir Kenneth Dover, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, who had been knighted the previous year and was incoming president of the British Academy, published his heavily illustrated Greek Homosexuality.13 Although this book grew out of Dover’s work on Plato’s Symposium, on which he published a commentary, there is little doubt that its publication was encouraged by the sexual liberation movement.14

Dover’s book proved a landmark for more than simply the study of Greek homosexuality. It attracted the attention of Michel Foucault: without it there would have been no Use of Pleasure, and The History of Sexuality would have looked quite different.15 Through Foucault, Dover’s book, which had in any case been widely noticed, came to influence the way in which ideas of and attitudes to sexuality developed. For better or worse, ideas about the Greeks that come from Dover’s work came to shape contemporary attitudes. Work on ancient sexuality remains closely entangled with current debates in sexuality, with the desire to justify or critique contemporary sexual attitudes and practices by finding or denying precedents in Greek antiquity manifest in much work.16

It is impossible to deny that the presentism that turned classical scholars’ attention to gender and sexuality has enormously enriched our understanding of the Greek and Roman world. The scope of ancient history has been massively enlarged, the dynamics of social relations have been brought back into the reading of classical texts, and the range of ways of seeing considered in the study of classical art has grown very much wider. Comparison of courses taught in university departments of Classics in the 1960s with those taught in the 1990s shows a sea change — a sea change made possible by the burst of differently focused publications produced in the 1970s and 1980s. These publications also enabled a change in teaching patterns: by greatly enlarging the field open to exploration by undergraduates they made it realistic to offer final-year students the chance to write dissertations and engage in independent research of their own. We might even wonder whether the pattern of closure of Classics departments in the United Kingdom that marked the early 1980s would have been reversed but for this expansion of the scope — and the attractions — of classical studies.

So what’s not to like about presentism? The value of coming to the past with the questions of the present lies in the way in which those questions shed an oblique light. Contours are revealed that we did not suspect existed, minor features loom large, and traces of buried structures can be detected. But, at the same time, large shadows are cast that obscure much of the landscape.

The way in which the Roman elite changed their allegiances and formed and broke alliances was an important part of the descent of the Roman republic into political chaos. But this was not the whole story, and the raking light of presentism that shows up these important contours caused other important features to go unnoticed. So, too, the prosopographical method that proved so helpful in describing Syme’s Roman Revolution proved, when used in other areas of republican politics, to obfuscate rather than to reveal the dynamics of Roman politics.17 Nor was the distribution of pamphlets and poems, upon which Syme concentrated his gaze, the only way in which opinion was organized by Octavian–Augustus. It took nearly half a century before attention was properly drawn to the fact that Syme’s ‘fascinating chapter on “The Organization of Opinion” takes no account of the role of art and architecture’ when Paul Zanker published his The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus.18 Zanker’s was itself a presentist book, reflecting both the sensitivity of Germans of his generation (Zanker was born in 1937) with the application of the term ‘propaganda’ to periods before the Nazis, and the rising awareness in the 1970s and 1980s, above all because of modern advertising, of the role of the visual in shaping attitudes.19

In the case of the turn to issues of sex and gender, and more generally to issues derived from contemporary social mores, the distortions to our understanding of the Greek and Roman world have been of a different kind. There had been good reasons why studies of sexuality and of gender issues had not been prominent among historians before the 1970s, and why, when they had been treated, that treatment was antiquarian. For issues of sex and gender are rather rarely discussed by historians writing in antiquity, and as a result our evidence for them comes predominantly from literary sources (Greek and Roman tragedy and comedy; Greek and Latin elegiac and lyric poetry and pastoral; Roman epic and satire; the ancient novel; and so on), or from texts that are arguing a position (whether in a forensic or a medical or philosophical context) or making claims about sexual practices a source of abuse. Particular claimed practices can be documented in antiquarian fashion, but writing a history of sex and gender demanded attention to more sources, and more attention to those sources, than historians had been inclined to give before the beginning of the literary turn. Not surprisingly, awareness of the way in which gender and sexuality are discursively constituted in Greek and Roman antiquity went closely with awareness of the way in which gender and sexuality are discursively constituted in the modern world, but the ancient discourse proved often not easy to reconstruct given the partiality of the evidence and the difficulty of establishing the context in which discourse is taking place.

Much of the modern scholarship on sex and gender has, indeed, been insufficiently sensitive to issues of discursive context which observers tend instinctively to adjust for in contemporary society. Persuasive definitions offered by Greek and Roman orators in the law-courts have been taken as norms, and whole categories of person defined by their sexuality have been created. A prime example here is the cinaedus/kinaidos, where a term of abuse, in the Greek case one used rather infrequently, has been constructed both into a whole class of people (‘those who liked to be sexually penetrated by other men’) and into the reference pole around which assessments of proper and improper sexual behaviour were hung.20 In this particular case Amy Richlin’s insistence on the concrete existence of the Roman cinaedus was not casual: she argues against John Winkler’s treatment of the Athenian kinaidos as discursive construction. But both Winkler and Richlin assume that one can construct either the reference point of a society’s discourse or the existence of a whole class of people identified through their sexual behaviour on the basis of adding together a very limited number of context-specific uses of a term by literary authors.21 What Winkler takes for granted and Richlin consciously asserts is approaches to the literary and material evidence widely repeated across work on sexuality and gender. The subtle interplay in and beyond very different literary genres of very different voices within Greek and Roman societies has thereby been lost.22

That presentist concerns pose challenges of historical methodology, and that these challenges have often been inadequately appreciated, is no reason to eschew presentism. There is plenty of insensitive use of ancient evidence among those whose concerns are not obviously presentist. It is, indeed, one of the most valuable challenges of presentism that the questions we want to ask are not questions that the evidence from the past was created to answer. But the same could be said of the present: the most telling questions asked of contemporary society are often those which the categories of data being currently collected are not well suited to answer. Just as it is the constant presence of ‘God’ that keeps Bishop Berkeley’s tree alive, so historians need to be constantly aware of the present, in a strong sense, if they are to press the awkward questions posed by the past. As long as we continue to believe that the world of the past is continuous with the world of the present — and classicists consider that there is very strong reason to believe that — presentism is not only inevitable, it is highly desirable.

See Michael Silk, Ingo Gildenhard and Rosemary Barrow, The Classical Tradition: Art, Literature, Thought (Chichester, 2014).
See R. C. T. Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford, 1983); N. R. E. Fisher, Hybris: A Study in the Values of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greece (Warminster, 1992); Douglas Cairns, Aidōs: The Psychology and Ethics of Honour and Shame in Ancient Greek Literature (Oxford, 1993); Chaim Wirszubski, Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome during the Late Republic and Early Principate (Cambridge, 1951); P. J. Brunt, ‘Amicitia in the Late Roman Republic’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, xi (1965). On the fallacy that linguistic consistency implies conceptual consistency, see Rubin, p. 236 below, aptly quoting Marc Bloch.
Thirteen fragments, comprising just four sides of text, are assigned to Pollio in The Fragments of the Roman Historians, ed. T. J. Cornell, 3 vols. (Oxford, 2013), ii, 860–7.
Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939), p. vii.
Ibid., p. ix.
See, further, Mitter, p. 263 below.
Syme, Roman Revolution, p. vii; Lewis Namier, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (London, 1929).
Journal of Roman Studies, lxiii (1973), p. xi.
Ronald Syme, Colonial Élites: Roman, Spain and the Americas (London, 1958).
For collections of evidence, see Charles Seltman, Women in Antiquity (London, 1956); J. P. V. D. Balsdon, Roman Women: Their History and Habits (London, 1962). For debate on women in tragedy, see A. W. Gomme, ‘The Position of Women in Athens in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries’, Classical Philology, xx (1925), repr. in A. W. Gomme, Essays in Greek History and Literature (Oxford, 1937); H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks (Harmondsworth, 1951), 219–36.
Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York, 1975). In 1973 the journal Arethusa had devoted an issue to women in antiquity, the presentism of which is indicated by the first sentence of John Sullivan’s editorial: ‘Like most things involving the liberation of women this issue of Arethusa comes late’: Arethusa, special issue, Women in Antiquity, vi, 1 (1973), 5. Roger Just published his ‘Conceptions of Women in Classical Athens’ in the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, vi, 3 (1975), and John Gould had delivered his classic paper ‘Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens’ to a meeting of the Hellenic Society in June 1974, although it was published only in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, c (1980).
So, for instance, Hans Licht [Paul Brandt], Die Homoerotik in der griechischen Literatur (Bonn, 1921); Hans Licht [Paul Brandt], Sexual Life in Ancient Greece, trans. J. H. Freese (London, 1932); Arthur Lyon Raile [Edward Perry Warren], A Defence of Uranian Love, 3 vols. (London, privately printed [just fifty copies], 1928–30), new edn, 3 vols. in 1, ed. Michael Matthew Kaylor, trans. Mark Robert Miner (Kansas City, 2009).
K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (London, 1978). Dover had published a paper entitled ‘Classical Greek Attitudes to Sexual Behaviour’ in the special issue of Arethusa, Women in Antiquity, vi, 1 (1973).
Plato, Symposium, ed. K. J. Dover (Cambridge, 1980). Dover’s commentary on Aristophanes’ Clouds (Oxford, 1968) had already given much more detailed attention to sexual matters than was usual in classical commentaries. In his very explicit autobiography, Dover records that his intention to write a book on Greek homosexuality took shape in the early 1970s and that he and George Devereux were in 1972 thinking of collaborating on this book: K. J. Dover, Marginal Comment: A Memoir (London, 1994), 115, 123.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, ii, The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley (New York, 1985). See James Davidson, ‘Dover, Foucault and Greek Homosexuality: Penetration and the Truth of Sex’, Past and Present, no. 170 (Feb. 2001), repr. in Robin Osborne (ed.), Studies in Ancient Greek and Roman Society (Cambridge, 2004).
Two contrasting examples would be Catherine Johns, Sex or Symbol: Erotic Images of Greece and Rome (London, 1982), with its celebration of claimed Greek sexual liberalism, and James Davidson, The Greeks and Greek Love: A Radical Reappraisal of Homosexuality in Ancient Greece (London, 2007), with its insistence that love and not just sexual intercourse were at issue in homoerotic relationships in Greek antiquity.
So, most notoriously, in E. Badian, Foreign Clientelae, 264–70 bc (Oxford, 1958), deriving from a dissertation supervised by Syme.
Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, trans. Alan Shapiro (Ann Arbor, 1988); the quotation is from the preface, p. v.
On propaganda, see Evonne Levy, Propaganda and the Jesuit Baroque (Berkeley, 2004), 64–5. As Andrew Wallace-Hadrill pointed out in his review of Zanker’s book, Shapiro’s translation cut out Zanker’s explicit reference to Nazi Baupolitik as a parallel from which we could imagine the emotional effect of Augustan building activity: Paul Zanker, Augustus und die Macht der Bilder (Munich, 1987), 159; Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, ‘Rome’s Cultural Revolution’, Journal of Roman Studies, lxxix (1989), 157–8. Zanker’s book appeared just a year before David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago, 1989).
On the Greek side, see John J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece (London, 1990), ch. 2. On the Roman side, see Amy Richlin, ‘Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, iii (1993); the definition of the cinaedus is quoted from p. 524.
Winkler realizes the problem, but presses on: ‘Aiskhines’ alternatives — hoplites sound in mind and body or kinaidoi like you, Demosthenes — are not very common expressions in Athenian public speaking but they pinpoint the boundary conditions within which ordinary public discourse and behaviour always took place’: Constraints of Desire, 47. ‘Not very common’ here means ‘only found in this passage’. Consciousness of the issue can be seen in the way in which Craig A. Williams formulates what he says in successive editions of his Roman Homosexuality (Oxford, 1999, 2010). In the first edition he writes, ‘I argue that a particular class of adult non-men who were marked as deviant — whom I, following other scholars, will refer to with the ancient word cinaedi — were certainly endowed with an identity’ (p. 161); in the second, he writes, ‘I claim that a specific type of man thought to be not fully masculine (liable to being insulted as a cinaedus) could be assigned a deviant identity’ (p. 177).
The most engaging demonstration of the problems with the ways in which the formation, boundaries, negotiations and contestations of Greek and Roman sexual discourse have been discussed is Simon Goldhill, Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality (Cambridge, 1995).

Author notes

I am grateful to Caroline Vout for discussion and for comments on an earlier draft of this article.