How the TikTok era is reinventing Classics

Classic, reinvented. Credit: Alamy

In recent years, more attention has been paid to some of the shortcomings of traditional study of the classics. From Mussolini’s infatuation with classic white marble sculptures to the U.S. Capitol rioters donning clothes alluding to ancient Greece and Rome, classical civilization has been appropriated throughout history to warrant far-right narratives. All of this reinforces the stereotype that Classics is for a certain type of person – one who is white, masculine, and privileged.

This stereotype is particularly cemented in the UK. Classics have long been associated with British imperialism as the empire decided to adopt Rome as the model for imperial rule – Pax Britannica etc – and these days state schools have largely given up the subject and the study of the classics almost exclusively for the privately educated left. People like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson (both Eton alumni) certainly didn’t help this as they each tweeted in Latin and recited Homer at public events.

The latest addition to the debate is a February New York Times article in which Princeton classic Dan-el Padilla Peralta questions the future of classics and advocates a new era that would completely change the field. Peralta, a Roman historian born in the Dominican Republic, sparked heated debates, and many wondered whether classics had a place in modern society.

But while some consider the classics dead, TikTok suggests something else. The app, whose popularity has risen sharply since the beginning of the pandemic, offers a platform for young classics who want to dispel the outdated stereotypes.

Sabrina Bergin, a 19-year-old Classics student at Oxford University, started making Classics-related TikToks during the lockdown last year. Bergin, who is state-trained, uses the platform to show that classics are suitable for everyone. In order to tackle misleading theories on this topic, Bergin takes “classic concepts and puts them in the TikTok format” for her 6.8,000 followers. One of her most popular videos, with over 38,000 views, takes a long-term view of the long-contested debate about the sexuality of Achilles, the flawed hero of Homer’s Iliad, in a TikTok carefree style. She says, “Old texts can be intimidating if you don’t know how to navigate them. So I’m just helping them look more down-to-earth.”

One thing that Classics has been criticized for is the dominance of white men in their science. Saiba Anand, a Classical Civilization student at the University of Toronto, says, “I don’t think Classics is inherently racist. But the names on my reading lists are almost all white, wealthy, upper-class men. “Anand, who is of South Asian descent, says she” didn’t even really hear about classics “before going to university, but signed up for a class and” quickly fell in love with him. ” For Anand, keeping track of Classics accounts on TikTok – and the occasional creation of videos themselves – creates a sense of “community” for students like her who want to see changes in the way Classics is consumed. “You don’t have to learn classics in an institution,” she adds. “It’s really exciting to be able to see it from this new perspective.”

While the format may be new, more progressive interpretations of the classics are far from. We just have to look at Marx, who was influenced by Epicurus and ancient Greek materialism, or Martin Luther King Jr., who taught Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to students at Morehouse College in 1962, to see that classics are incredibly diverse with a Story of inspiring radical thinkers and social justice activists.

Nevertheless, Alice Yauman, an 18-year-old “Greek mythology nerd” from New York, understands why the stereotypes exist. “For a long time it was considered challenging to know something about classics,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be like that in the future.” Yauman considers TikTok to be the perfect tool to break down the elitism of Classics, as it is easily accessible “unlike the traditional Classics community”. In one of Yauman’s videos (over 800,000 views), she jokes that “classics disagree on anything – except hating Zeus,” and the comments section is now an open forum for exchanging ideas: “It’s really cool to be old concepts too see discussed in modern terms. ”

This recent surge in attention to classics has also encouraged those within the discipline itself to advocate change. “Throwing away classics seems to me to be completely in decline,” says Tim Whitmarsh, Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge at AG Leventis. “We need to rebuild trust and convince society that we have good-hearted people driving this issue forward. This is a moment of change and opportunity, and I think we will see more sustainable and targeted accounting with these issues over the next few years. ”

The classic TikTok was particularly popular with the LGBT community. “People forget the queer representation in classics,” says Abigail Varey, a 19-year-old classics student at the University of Edinburgh, herself an LGBT TikTok creator. “The idea of ​​sexuality back then was more fluid than people think. Just look at Achilles and Patroclus or Zeus and Ganymede. ”

The modern science of sexuality in antiquity can be traced back to Kenneth Dover’s seminal work Greek Homosexuality (1978). Even earlier were the historical novels by English writer Mary Renault from the 1950s, which in ancient Greece often depicted male homosexuality. Although these readings and interpretations have existed for several decades, there is no doubt that the TikTok generation is responsible for spreading them further.

The priority for the next generation of classics is to ensure that classics have a secure future – both in science and in culture at large. “Our generation is more willing to talk about the subjects of the classics,” adds Varey. “It obviously has its good and bad sides, but we can’t learn from it without accepting both of them.”

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