Maximus Planudes
8 min readJul 27, 2020


Can the Classics escape the grip of their past?

“There is no racism in Classics, White Cambridge Professor asserts.”

In a fair trial, the onus of proof lies with the prosecution, but their evidence is yet to be presented. Scour as I may 21st-century Classics, I read no racism, I hear no praise of ‘whiteness’, and I find no colleague denouncing non-westerners as uncivilised barbarians.

We are urged to reject the existence of western culture, on the grounds that it is impossible to define with geographical, temporal or cultural precision. This is a sophistic absurdity.

It’s fashionable to insist that all societies, in all places and all times, are equally profound and informative.

If students really want to be shielded from cultures that offend them, it’s true, a degree in Classics is a rather awkward choice.

If students in the UK, living on land the Romans once ruled, choose to study classical antiquity ahead of Tang-Dynasty China or Aztec Mexico, what of it?

If British students feel more drawn to the Classics than to non-European cultures, are they indulging some racist urge? Are they to be told that their feelings of cultural proximity are vacuous or supremacist?

But the language, like the ancient world, can enthral anyone: I have taught Latin to groups of 20 primary-school children, all from a non-white background, who relish its challenges. Their thoughts are not about how Latin has been the language of historic imperialism, Roman or Victorian. They simply find themselves caught up in a new and fascinating world.

The decolonising charge against the Classics is thus oddly anachronistic: because racist classicists once repurposed the racist Classics to their racist ends — be it war, slavery or eugenics — those now studying those same Classics are similarly suspect.

Are humanities students imprisoned by their ‘lived experience’? Are they incapable of producing any work that attains objectivity?

Once the leap is made that certain scholars, by virtue of their identity, have privileged access to certain aspects of history, the threads of any academic discipline start to fray. When only some can teach, only some examine, only some understand, the university forgoes its universality.



Maximus Planudes

The online pseudonym of the other online pseudonym Leopold “Poldy” Bloom. Really, tho, who I am doesn’t matter.