Saving Classics at Royal Holloway

In the relatively small and spread-out world of Classical scholarship, conferences provide opportunities for Classicists from different fields, backgrounds and countries to get to know one another. Attending a conference can often mean looking out for people you know, as well as those you would like to know - there is the academic who always asks provocative questions after a talk;

there is the author of one’s favourite book; there are the popular historians, who advise television shows and write columns in the culture section of the newspaper. Indeed, a Classics conference can, for the young graduate student, turn frequently into a celebrity-spotting affair.

 The ‘Save Classics’ symposium organised by Royal Holloway in mid-September added a new twist to this game: everybody was to come dressed in purple. All the way from Victoria Station to the Friends’ Meeting House at Euston, I was on the look out for lilac scarves, violet skirts, the occasional, brave purple tie.

 But why purple? And why ‘Save Classics’? And what did either of these have to do with the programme of the day, which began with biographies of famous Classicists from Royal Holloway, included a rendition of Euripides’ Bacchae, and was matched by two ‘Save Classics (Message from Planet Classics)’ videos on YouTube?

 ‘Save Classics’ was both a celebration of Classics, and a protest against the proposal to close the Classics department at Royal Holloway University, on account of its lack of financial profit. As speakers such as Edith Hall and Oliver Taplin pointed out, this threat is about more than one department at one university: at stake is the very idea that education should be about profit at all.

 The first half of the ‘Save Classics’ symposium focused on famous alumni of Royal Holloway and Bedford College (the first college for women in the UK, which merged with Royal Holloway in 1985), including novelists, suffragettes, philosophers, poets and political activists. What was pronounced in this series of snapshot biographies was precisely that an education in Classics had not so much brought profit to these figures as enriched their imaginative capabilities and understanding of human society, opening up horizons into the past so that they could look more clearly at the present. This was a point brought home by the surprise appearance of the actor and writer Steven Berkoff, who talked to us about the importance of Greek tragedy in modern theatre, as a way of representing human behaviour outside of one’s immediate culture and environment.

 A ten-minute version of Euripides’ Bacchae demonstrated his point: ostensibly about the arrival of the god Bacchus in Thebes, this drama demonstrates the tragedy that follows the suspicious rejection of a new, but powerful deity. When the king bans worship of Bacchus, the god gets his revenge by driving mad the women of the city and inspiring them to pursue and murder the king, as if he is a mountain lion or a stag. In this interpretation, the king became the powers-that-be – the university council that has proposed the closure of the Classics department – while Bacchus became Classics itself, the exotic, exuberant outsider, rejected from an academic world increasingly focused on developing management skills and making profit.

 These were, in part, the messages of the command to wear purple: extravagance and playfulness, the exoticism and allure of the past. In ancient Rome, purple was the colour of emperors and kings, its dye taken from murex shells and imported by Phoenician merchants from the east (hence it was known as Tyrian purple, after the Phoenician city of Tyre). And perhaps it was also a nod to Jenny Smith’s notorious poem: When I am an old woman I shall wear purple – a witty reflection on the paradox of wisdom and eccentricity associated with becoming old. Classics is old, and indeed eccentric, as a discipline and in its subject matter, but it is not – as the ‘Save Classics’ conference demonstrated – afraid to wear purple.