In many UK universities Classics courses (study/research of the history and culture of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations) are singled out and presented distinct from History courses. They even might be provided by a different department or college at the university - for instance, History courses might be provided by a Department of Social Studies whereas Classic courses by a Department of Arts.

I assume that Classics have their own set of study/research methods and practices but this could be applied with fair amount of legibility to virtually any other historical subject (Ancient Middle East, Middle Ages, Early Modern period etc.)

I have seen that some universities also have distinct programs on Middle ages and perhaps also on other historical periods but Classics are almost always put into its own category. So what makes Classics to stand out that much?

  • That is the way they choose to do it. As long as people find the course they want to study it is not a problem. Are you wanting to provide a “standard” course specification that all universities have to use?
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 12:21
  • @SolarMike, no I am not. But there must be some logic for such education structure Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 12:41
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    Perhaps it comes with the "history" of the university - some have been around a long time, some in the UK were in existence long before some of the countries who "wave" their history like a large flag...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 12:43
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    @SolarMike - rather, perhaps, that the study of Greek and Latin, and their civilizations, has been a large part of all the 'old' universities. Those upstarts wanting to study the history of lesser times were shunted off to their own so as not to sully the purity of the Classics. (And I say that lovingly as a long-time student of Latin and all the great literature one can read in it.)
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 13:00
  • For what it's worth, this is also common in the US (presumably descended directly from British academic traditions). Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 13:46

2 Answers 2


The simple reason is that the study of Classics has been part of the UK education system for much longer than general "history". Oxford and Cambridge were both founded in the 11th century, a time period where Latin was the language used in the church and legal system in England. For that reason alone, its study would have been essential.

As to why the study of Classics as separate to history has continued, I expect the reason is twofold. One is simply tradition, and the fact that Classics departments are probably older than history departments. The same applies to why Cambridge teaches "Natural Sciences" rather than having explicit physics and chemistry degrees: the university and the course predate modern thinking on the division of those subjects.

As for the second reason, my gut feeling as an English person is that it's also very tied up with social class (as is everything else in the UK). Classics, Greats and PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) have long been the subjects of choice for wealthy, upper class men who are funnelled from private schools (i.e. those for which you have to pay a fee to attend, often exceeding £40,000 a year) to the upper echelons of government and business via Oxford and Cambridge. As long as these schools continue to teach the subjects, there will be a demand for classics courses in the UK's top universities.

The fact that these schools teach classics themselves is a hangover from 19th century attitudes to education, in which those subjects were considered an essential part of a boy's education. I can only speculate, but I think they were (and still are, by some) considered essential as they are a hallmark of wealth and social privilege, necessary currency for anyone wanting to get ahead in politics or business. Any schmuck can learn French or maths at school, but if you know Ancient Greek or Latin, that's a sign that you had an expensive education.

So, in summary, Classics departments in universities are a result of the age of the institutions coupled with the fact that these subjects were and still are taught in (private) schools as distinct subjects.

  • It is all about having the correct "tie"...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 14:02
  • Thanks! I am not aware - what is "Greats" that you've mentioned along Classics and PPE? Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 15:22
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    It's basically classics with additional philosophy or religious studies. I thought it was a generic term, but on Googling I just discovered the term is actually only used at Oxford. Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 17:17
  • Interesting and informative. Is this division also present outside Oxbridge? And you may have caused weeping an gnashing of teeth among some mathematicians at Cambridge.
    – Buffy
    Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 17:33
  • @astronat, thank you, got it Commented Apr 20, 2020 at 20:12

Classics is an interdisciplinary subject, including not just the history of Rome and Greece (and sometimes other ancient civilizations), but also their literature (and sometimes their anthropology).

One doesn't include reading and analyzing Shakespeare as part of History, but reading and analyzing Sophocles is certainly part of studying Classics.

In fact, historically, Classics departments were primarily literature departments, and having a substantial amount of ancient history is a relatively recent development.

The reason that Rome and Greece is frequently separated out from other ancient near east civilizations is that Rome and Greece left a comparatively much larger body of literature.

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