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I’m A Female Classicist, Get Me Out Of Here!: Why Classicists Deserve More Credit

Most Classicists can attest to receiving a wide variation of responses to ‘I study Classics.’ Some nod politely, wondering what that actually means (same honey, same), some congratulate me on doing the OG Oxford degree (why that is I’m not really sure). But my personal favourite has been ‘Oh, so what are you going to transfer to?’ because, of course, Classics is an easy way into Oxford and you must actually want to do something else, right?

Safe to say that in my first year, I’ve experienced a fair bit of teasing over how practically useful my degree is. I’m still tempted to wander into a bar and order vinum. Even my own mother enjoys ribbing me about the great contribution I’m making to society and bemoans the fact I’m still useless at University Challenge. I have a feeling that’s never going to change (sorry Mum).

And yes, okay, it’s not the most immediately useful degree, but Classicists do deserve more credit. Many Classicists are capable of turning perhaps the least practically useful degree into fascinating day jobs. Take Emma Walmsley, current CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, who has an MA in Classics and Modern Languages from Oxford, or Sir Anthony James Leggett – winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics – whose first undergraduate degree was a BA in Literae Humaniores (aka Classics) from Oxford. Even Chris Martin, lead singer of Coldplay, studied Classics at Bristol. So, I think it’s safe to say that us Classicists are nothing if not versatile.

Maybe you already know that Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States since 1984, has a BA in Classics with a pre-med track from the College of the Holy Cross – just in case we needed more evidence of how amazing he is. Mr Fauci’s background in Classics also perhaps explains how he is so good at tolerating a petulant ruler; ‘Nero fiddled while Rome burned’ comes to mind. Yet I can’t quite put my finger on who reminds me of Nero or work out why Trump Tower reminds me of the Domus Aurea, the giant golden house Nero built for himself (at least he splashed out for more than a golden loo.)

Anyway, the point is, Classicists have gone on to do really cool things.

Female classicists deserve an extra pat on the back in my book, and this isn’t just me barking up my own tree, I promise. We exist in a pretty male world – you need only read Cicero’s Pro Caelio to discover that slut shaming was a credible legal defence back in the day. It’s important to remember though that the societies we study are not our own, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less tempting to tell Cicero where he can stick his opinions about Clodia. Partly, that’s because slut shaming continues to be a very real part of the modern world.

In fact, sometimes it’s pretty alarming how little attitudes towards women have changed in 2000 odd years. Let’s not forget about women like Sappho though, badasses who laughed in the face of the boxes their societies tried to put them in and garnered respect for it to boot. Despite the fact that we almost exclusively read men’s opinions and hear women’s narratives through men’s eyes, it never ceases to amaze me just how applicable Classics is to modern life, from the do’s and don’ts of drinking to how to live a happy life. On the off chance I haven’t put you off just yet, come back next week (pretty pretty please) to discover how to apply this serious and respectable degree to the highs and lows of dating. 

Before I leave you, let me conclude with this; Classicists deserve some credit because, whilst the information we learn might not seem so useful to the untrained eye, the skills that underpin it are. After all, how many people can say the words ‘unnaturally large erect phallus’ to a world leading professor with a straight face? For context, google ‘satyrs on Greek vases.’ (I promise that’s how we have to describe them – aren’t we lucky.) 

Alannah Burdess

Alannah Burdess is going in to her second year, studying Classics at Trinity College. She writes a weekly column inspired by the anecdotes she tells in tutorials to procrastinate actual academic work.