Asexuality in the Ancient World

by Livy Pillinger

What is Asexuality?

Asexuality is, at its simplest, the lack of sexual attraction to anyone of any gender. 

A key thing to note is that, like with every other LGBTQ+ identity, it is not a choice. It should not be confused with celibacy or abstinence. In fact, many asexual still engage in sex and physical intimacy. What makes them asexual is the lack of sexual attraction. 

Asexuality and the ancient world 

When we look at the ancient world through the lens of our modern view on sexuality and identity, it is important to remember that the terms and definitions we have now did not exist then. Of course, that does not mean that these identities did not exist, it just means that they are harder to find in the literature. 

There is very little scholarship which exists on asexuality in the ancient world, but what little there is seems to focus on the idea of the virgin goddess. This is the argument that I will be following, using my experience as an asexual to judge its validity. 

Athena 

The Athena of Velletri, Lourve.

The first virgin goddess to tackle is Athena. We all know Athena as the goddess of wisdom, war and crafts but what is not talked about is her identity as a virgin goddess.

Athena’s identity as a virgin goddess is not commonly referred to but the most famous temple – the Parthenon –  atop the acropolis in Athens, is dedicated to Parthenos Athena. Parthenos means maiden/virgin and was a frequent epithet of the goddess. Additionally, the Panathenaic festival in Athens was dedicated to Parthenos Athena.

What is important for the other two goddesses I will be discussing is the rejection of suitors, and this is not present in Athena and her surrounding mythology. Therefore, I do not think that she is asexual. Her oath of virginity seems more of a choice than something that she feels is necessary. 

Hestia

Hestia Marble Statue. State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Hestia as a goddess does not get much attention and I think that she is criminally underrated. She is goddess of the hearth and the home and, of course, is a virgin goddess. Unlike with Athena it is a key component of her identity as a goddess and the practices surrounded her worship. Additionally, Hestia is the oldest child of Kronos and Rhea, making her one of the oldest gods and Zeus’ big sister.

For example, her hearth is always tended by unmarried girls and her priestesses take an oath of virginity. Think the Vestal Virgins, which are the priestess for Hestia’s Roman counterpart.

Furthermore, her virginity was something that she asked Zeus for. There are two versions of the story of how she became a maiden goddess. The first version goes like this, she was being pursued by both Poseidon and Apollo for marriage. Hestia refused both of them and then went to Zeus and swore an oath to remain a virgin forever. The second version is that after Hestia aided in defeating the Titans, she went to Zeus and asked if she could remain a virgin forever.

The problem here is the asking for permission. Of course, once again it makes more sense within the ancient context, but it makes the problem of judging whether Hestia is asexual or not harder. I am inclined to say that she is, for two reasons. 

Firstly, she rejected the marriage proposal of two gods in the first version. This is not to say that asexuals do not want relationships or to get married but in the ancient world marriage was more about the physical aspect and the need to produce an heir. Nowadays, marriage is much more about the emotional intimacy something which many asexuals, myself included, still look for. Therefore, it seems to me at least that Hestia is rejecting the idea of sex with Poseidon and Apollo, which is more in line with the definition of asexuality established at the start.

Artemis

Artemis Statue, The Lourve. Photo by Livy Pillinger.

Artemis is perhaps most known as a virgin goddess. It is an attribute highlighted in both modern scholarship and ancient texts when she is discussed. In fact, the Homeric hymn to Artemis opens with her being called “the virgin profuse of arrows” (Hom. Hymn. Artemis 1 – 2). This is equally evident in the hymn by Callimachus who constantly refers to her as the maiden, another word for virgin.

Additionally, as with Hestia, Artemis actively rejects sexual advances, or anyone who tries to encroach on her modesty. The most famous example of this would be the story of Actaeon. The hunter who came upon Artemis bathing in the forest and decided that he would watch her. In retaliation she turned him into a stag, and he was torn apart by his own hunting dogs. This version of the myth appears both in the Hymn by Callimachus and in the Bacchae by Euripides. This is a very aggressive response to this but in the context of the asexual spectrum it seems to fit into the sex-repulsed end.

There is also the case of Orion, one of the only men that Artemis tolerated and allowed to hunt with her. There are many different versions of this myth, but the one relevant to this discussion is the one where Orion tried to violate either Artemis or one of her followers. This appears in both Apollodorus and Callimachus. Further evidence that Artemis was an asexual goddess. 

Finally, there is the idea of her followers. Unlike with Athena, and sometimes Hestia, Artemis’ devoted followers also seemingly stayed perpetual virgins. Not only where her huntresses made to take a vow of chastity, one she took very seriously as we just saw. The one problem is that there are not many mythological figures that are devout followers of Artemis. There is Orion but as mentioned he clearly did not follow this vow. However, there is also Hippolytus, whose story can be found in the eponymous tragedy by Euripides.

Hippolytus, son of Theseus and the Amazon Hippolyta, was a devout follower of Artemis who shunned the other gods and goddesses, much to his doom. Aphrodite, feeling slighted, makes the opening speech of the tragedy and explains how she will get revenge by making his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him. In doing so she says how he “shuns the bed of love and will have nothing to do with marriage” (Eur. Hipp. 13 – 14). Of course, this could just be celibacy but to me, given that love and marriage is mentioned, it makes sense to assume that Hippolytus follows Artemis in her asexuality. Why else would Aphrodite feel so angry?

I do believe that Artemis is asexual, simply for all the reasons stated above. Additionally, she fits into the sex-repulsed area of the spectrum. Personally, I have always felt a draw towards Artemis, and this is one of the many reasons. 

Did asexuality exist in the ancient world?

We will never know the answer for sure, especially as our concept of sexuality and identity is different from what there was in the ancient world. 

There are arguments that the stoics and other philosophical schools practised asexuality, but I do not believe that is the case. They chose to shun material pleasures and so they were practising celibacy or abstinence rather than being asexual.

I believe though that asexuals existed in the ancient world. There were inevitably people in the ancient world that didn’t feel sexual attraction, there was just not a term for them and so we have no empirical evidence. Instead, as I have done in this post, we interpret 

the texts in a certain way and perhaps take some liberties. 

Nevertheless, just as we exist today, I argue that asexuals were a part of the ancient world. 

Bibliography

Callimachus, “Hymn to Artemis”, in Stephens, S.A., (2015), The Hymns, Oxford.

Euripides, Bacchae; Children of Heracles; Hippolytus; Andromache; Hecuba, trans. Kovacks, D., (1995), Cambridge.

Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocrypha, lives of Homer, trans. West. M.L., (2003), Cambridge.

Hard, R., (2019), The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, London.

Mowat C., Queering Hippolytus: Asexuality and Ancient Greece

Petrovic, I., (2012), “Artemis”, in Bagnall, R.S., (2013), The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Oxford.

Stonewall article, Six ways to be an ally to asexual people

Review: “Stone Blind” by Natalie Haynes

by Jess Ketley

Stone Blind is the fourth novel by classicist Natalie Haynes, who is probably best known for her other retellings A Thousand Ships and Children of Jocasta, as well as her BBC Radio 4 show Standing Up for the Classics with Natalie Haynes. It was also the Classics Society Book Club book for December/January! It – supposedly, as we’ll get into – follows the story of Medusa from Greek myth. I read it, and as you can expect for a very opinionated classicist, I have many, many thoughts.

First of all – this really shouldn’t be advertised as a Medusa retelling. Because it’s actually a Perseus retelling, but from the side of Medusa. And by side I mean the moral side, not the perspective of Medusa. There are very few chapters actually from Medusa’s perspective and she is barely developed as a character. Since she is on the cover and the book is named after her I was expecting her to be the main character, but really she is a side character in the overall narrative. This is my biggest grief overall with the book – I feel like I misled into reading a very different book then what I expected.

However, the book is beautifully written, with excellent descriptions and gorgeous prose. There are several points of amazing descriptions which I loved. I especially appreciate how Haynes wrote combat scenes. The depiction of the Gigantomachy was easy to follow, something I normally struggle with in books. It felt fluid and I felt involved in the action.

Overall, something I noticed and appreciated was Hayne’s commitment to trying to stick to the original myths and use Greek terms in the book. As a Classicist I thoroughly enjoyed how many Greek words were used – there’s also a glossary at the back for readers who may not be familiar. Being able to see so many different myths depicted in the book was great; however, I do think it negatively impacted the pacing of the story, which often felt like we were jumping between several different narratives which were only briefly connected. I felt like some of them could have been cut without impacting the overall narrative while improving the reading experience – for example, the birth of Athena. This is also linked to the fact that there were far too many POVs, many of which are only used for one chapter, which was just confusing.

I also had issues with the ending which felt slightly out of left field, and I felt like it went against a lot of the characterisation that occurred earlier in the book. Overall, however, I felt like most of the characterisation was very lacklustre. Many of the characters felt incredibly one dimensional, even the ones who featured very prominently, like Perseus and Andromeda. The only character who really felt developed to me was Athena. I really liked the depiction of Athena in this book – she’s not presented as a girlboss feminist figure like we sometimes see in media, but rather the flawed, arrogant, but capable and intelligent figure we see if the original myths.

Another thing I really disliked the fact that Haynes continually accuses the reader of sympathising with Perseus, who is portrayed incredibly negatively in the book, to the point where it seems kind of ham-fisted. I understand that in many portrayals of the Perseus myth, he is the hero, but this is not the case in this book. If you had no prior knowledge of the myth before reading Stone Blind, you would likely not think this, however. Hayne’s narrative is very skewed against him – while I agree with the fact that Perseus kind of sucks, the fact that the narrative seems unaware of its own tone and portrayals is very frustrating.

In the end, I didn’t enjoy Stone Blind as much as I wanted to. This was a very anticipated read for me, and I felt like it did not meet my expectations; this is not so much as it missed the target, but that it was aiming for a completely different one than what the marketing of the book led me to expect. I think if it had been advertised more truthfully – namely, as a Perseus retelling – I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more.

I would love to hear your thoughts about Stone Blind! And if you’re interested in reading more mythology-based books, make sure to come along to Classics Society Book Club! We read a book based on world mythology every month – you can find more information in our Facebook group! Our next book, in anticipation of our talk with Madeline Miller on 17th March, is Circe! I hope to see you on 1st March to talk about it.

Classics Outreach in Scotland

By Dr. Alex Imrie

What even is outreach? In technical-speak, it is the term used to describe work by any group, individual or organisation to connect its ideas and values with another demographic or audience. Crucially, good outreach activity is targeted at those who otherwise lack access to said ideas or services normally; it aims to meet the receiving community on their own ground, literally reaching out to them, rather than expecting them to attend upon the provider. This is similar to but technically distinct from public engagement, which shares many of the same goals as outreach work, but is usually more focused on ways of sharing research activity with the public and gathering further data thereafter (this is a key element in many universities’ submissions to the infamous REF – the Research Excellence Framework. For more on public engagement, see www.publicengagement.ac.uk.)

Generally, universities, particularly the self-styled elite of the Russell Group, have been rather poor historically in their outreach agenda. Until relatively recently, efforts have mainly consisted of university departments dispatching scholars to deliver lectures to a small circle of largely independent schools. In outreach terms, this rather feels like preaching to the choir, since these receiving communities are already reliable citadels of Classics tuition. On the one hand, I believe that there is always value to be found in schools and universities collaborating (bringing the best of subject knowledge and pedagogical expertise together). On the other hand, however, many past efforts have felt to me – who attended a large state school with no access to Classics at all – as arguably entrenching the deep class divide at the heart of our subject, rather than mitigating it.

In a Scottish context, however, I cannot be unflinchingly hard on these rather weak past engagements. University departments in Scotland have been faced with a landscape in which Classics collapsed within the state sector throughout the 1980s and 1990s. This is one reason among many why universities such as Edinburgh are so reliant on recruiting students either from beyond Scotland’s borders or from an independent school background. Universities must speak to their primary markets and put simply, the most dependable concentration of students in Classics is to be found in the private sector. While this is understandable, the fact remains that such a course of action will inevitably result in a further marginalisation of the subject, up to an including higher education. This is a dangerous situation when university vice-chancellors have proven themselves only too willing to axe even high-performing Classics programmes.

Importantly, however, this is not an irretrievable situation. Targeted outreach work has already proven itself as a way of opening access to the discipline, enthusing new people to the subject and thereby diversifying the cohort of classicists at school and university alike. There is no easy fix or quick response to the problems faced by a discipline so old and with such ingrained power structures, but the die is not yet cast: I believe that it is a cause still worth fighting for. 

In what follows here, I will offer an insight into my own entry into Classics Outreach, give a sense of what I actually do in this area, and offer some preliminary thoughts on why I think that it is valuable. 

Working in Classics Outreach

Outreach was something which I became increasingly aware of during doctorate. Without any real direction or support framework, however, my efforts were restricted to participating in as many activities during Edinburgh University’s Flexible Learning Week as I could. Following the completion of my PhD in 2015, I spent a couple years on different temporary teaching contracts before I was alerted to a potential job being offered by the Classical Association of Scotland, in conjunction with the charity Classics for All. A survey had been undertaken which identified the dire state of Classics’ survival in Scottish state schools (only 18 respondents offering any Classical Studies, with only 11 offering Latin in any form). Everyone agreed that something had to be done, and so money was ringfenced to support CAS to engage a National Outreach Co-ordinator. I was fortunate enough to secure the position in late September 2017. Since then, I have worked at the forefront of a multi-agency campaign to support and bolster the Classics community in Scotland. 

Primary Education

It was decided early that we would focus efforts in primary schools around Latin. This was for a couple reasons: firstly, Latin outreach efforts had already proven successful for Classics for All across England, and projects such as the Iris Project and Literacy through Latin had shown similar appetite for the subject in Scotland. Secondly, through discussing our ambitions with officers of Glasgow and Edinburgh city councils, it became clear that there was a natural marketing strategy for Latin as part of the Scottish Government’s Languages 1+2 policy (whereby pupils must be exposed to two additional languages before the end of their primary education). Local authorities across Scotland commonly struggle to meet the demands of this strategy, since primary teachers may not be sufficiently confident to deliver new languages even when their busy timetables allow for such classes. 

Our approach has been to assist teachers with materials and delivery. While we value highly the efforts made by voluntary programmes and new initiatives such as the St Andrews Latin Outreach Scheme, all of which add inestimable value to the Scottish educational landscape, we have sought to work on a longer-term model which empowers and trains the class teachers (the pedagogical experts, after all) to lead Latin units themselves. To this end, we initially worked with a small group of teachers in Glasgow, training them in the use of the Minimus textbook. This has grown into a programme now led by Glasgow City Council, which includes Latin as part of its CPD and twilight training programmes for teachers in that authority and those neighbouring. Where teachers with pre-existing Latin have made themselves aware to us, we have also supported them to offer classes more quickly, with a prime example being a school in Aberdeenshire which now offers Latin to over 70 pupils every year. 

This approach requires patience and a commitment to the strategic objective (rather than seeking flashy ‘soundbite’ moments), but it is steadily embedding Latin in schools across different areas, from Glasgow, through the central belt and beyond. 

More recently we have started to develop materials that teachers can ‘pick up and play’ in Classical Studies, too. While it is common for pupils in Primary Five (ages 8-9) to receive a short unit on the Romans, consultation with pupils and parents revealed the massive popularity of classical mythology. With that in mind, last year I worked with teachers from Dundee and Angus to develop Meet the Olympians: a standalone unit which can be taught over 8-10 weeks, and guides pupils through the ancient deities via fun tasks designed to address key competencies in literacy, numeracy, wellbeing and cultural awareness as required by Scotland’s (in)famous Curriculum for Excellence.

Secondary Education

Most of our efforts since late 2017 have been focused on secondary education, since this is ultimately where the subject will live or die in Scotland. It is undoubtedly the area in which there is the most potential for expansion, and yet is simultaneously beset with obstacles and problems to be overcome. 

Like our Primary approach, we decided early on to support teachers wherever we could with materials, although we are obviously more constrained with what we may innovate, since the syllabi in Latin and Classical Studies are fixed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), Scotland’s solitary exam board. My first move was to join SQA’s National Qualification Support Teams for Classical Languages and Classical Studies. These teams, comprising experienced teachers, are responsible for guiding policy on what should be taught and examined. Gaining a place on these committees was crucial to gaining a sense of what might be developed, and being able to talk more authoritatively when liaising between schools and universities (whose expectations of Latin especially have historically diverged in Scotland). 

We next sought to offer a more standardised packet of materials surrounding the Higher Classical Studies syllabus which could be disseminated across schools, to support newer teachers and build in a level of internal consistency regarding the materials on offer to schools across the country. While this was a necessary move, it did not address the stark reality of how few state secondaries offered the subject at all. Simply, we needed to start encouraging more schools to offer the subject.

This is arguably the most important and yet one of the most difficult aspects of Classics outreach in Scotland. The problem we face is that there has been no provider of teacher training in Classics based in Scotland for over a decade. This has made it very difficult to make the case for Classics as a standalone option in schools currently. I was therefore required to investigate an alternative route to augmenting the number of schools in Scotland offering Classics. 

My solution for now has been to focus on teachers who are already qualified in other humanities subjects (primarily History, Modern Studies, Religious & Moral Education, and English) and encourage them to seek dual qualification status with the General Teaching Council of Scotland (since while the subject has no training avenue locally, the GTCS continues to recognise and certify teachers who possess the requisite training and credits). I therefore negotiated a unique support plan with Classics for All to support around half of all training costs accrued by teachers in seeking dual qualification. Starting in early 2019 with this scheme, we have since seen around five teachers achieve dual qualification status. 

This approach is not without its flaws: it is a slow process which requires the teacher to acquire any missing credits in Classics from institutions such as the Open University, a process which can take anywhere from a couple months to a whole year. It furthermore places a great personal load onto the teachers involved, since they must undertake this alongside their regular employment. The benefit of this approach, however, is that school leadership teams are more enthusiastic about supporting the scheme (since this means being able to offer Classics at no additional cost to the schools’ annual budgets). It is also highly sustainable. The teachers who have followed this scheme with us have uniformly made a success of their Classics offering and have proselytised colleagues, moreover. Once again, the landscape in Scottish education has required an approach which demands patience, but which leads to the creation of Classics departments which are hard to shift.

Underpinning all these efforts is something which is integral to effective outreach: community building. When I began work with CAS, there was a small network of predominantly independent school teachers who worked to keep the flame of Classics burning in their realms of influence. After talking with the chair of that group, we agreed to expand to include teachers who offered any form of Latin and/or Classical Studies at bi-annual meetings. This was a moment where my zeal for the subject needed to be tempered with humility. Given the universities’ apparent disinterest in school teaching, I should not have been surprised to be met with no small suspicion and cynicism at the first gathering. ‘Nice to meet you, but universities couldn’t give a shit about what we do in schools’ was the parting shot from one such member… As much as this might have caused me to bristle, it demonstrates that the discipline was, even in 2018, divided in a way which was to everybody’s detriment. Nevertheless, over the course of the last couple years, our network has grown from a couple dozen to over sixty members who either teach classical subjects actively, or who are interested in doing so. 

I cannot claim any special secret or answer here, much of our network’s later success and expansion rests on the shoulders of the same teachers who sustained it for years. I believe my primary achievement here has been to bring school and university professionals together, and thus break down some of the mental barriers which exist in our profession: university academics’ cluelessness about school provision and schoolteachers’ feeling of being ignored by institutions with the wealth and power to assist them. This is not a fait accompli, there is still much to be done, but I believe it shows the value in persistence and consistency as an outreach operative: building personal relationships and then bringing those connections together. 

Other Work

Schools outreach is only part of my varied work as outreach co-ordinator with CAS, with the rest of my time devoted to wider initiatives, designed to foster a general community of classicists in Scotland and beyond. Two key examples stand out for me.

Firstly, I have tried to use my work with schools as a springboard into developing relationships with heritage organisations such as the National Museums of Scotland. We have collaborated in producing videos based on the current collections now available on the CAS YouTube Channel. We hope that this will be the first of many collaborations with institutions across the country, highlighting that Classics and ancient artefacts can be accessed by communities all over Scotland. 

The most significant community project that I have been involved with to date has undoubtedly been the Ancient Voices programme. This began life as an attempt to re-build a Scottish-based languages summer school; there had been Greek & Latin schools in Edinburgh and elsewhere historically, but these slowly died over a number of years. Conscious that Scottish-based learners (whether students, teachers or general enthusiasts) had to travel hundreds of miles to access the nearest summer school, a colleague at University of Aberdeen and I offered the inaugural CAS Summer School in 2019. This was a modest success but hosting any summer initiative in Edinburgh in the immediate prelude of the Festival was always going to be a logistical challenge. We therefore planned for alternative venues in 2020, only to be halted by the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. This proved to be a blessing in disguise. We realised that by offering fully online units, structured to avoid imposing excessively on work/personal schedules, we could offer people a much more accessible experience. 

By embracing a fully online posture, we were able to realise more fully our ambition of democratising access to our tuition geographically. Not only did we engage a more diverse domestic audience, but we found that we tapped into pockets of interest globally for whom prolonged study of Classics was less accessible or practical. It was particularly gratifying to see strong representation from across the Global South, leading to truly interesting discussions about language learning amongst our student cohort. Our 2022 iteration of the programme attracted more than 100 registrations (no mean feat, given the size of our operation and its newness compared to other, more established programmes). 

Final Thoughts

In closing, it goes without saying that the work of an outreach ‘professional’ is nothing if not diverse. On any given day I might be organising materials for a primary school; arranging mentoring for a secondary teacher to offer a Classics Club; organising further education programmes; gathering data on pupil numbers and retention; travelling 200 miles to help a school host a launch event for Classical Studies; participating in committees on the direction of Classics teaching; or liaising with representatives of local government regarding their educational priorities. There is often no established practice (and sometimes not even any precedent) for you to follow, so a willingness to think laterally around a problem is essential. This kind of variety is something that, at least to me, is an appeal of the job. 

There are drawbacks to working as an outreach officer just now too, though. Firstly is that, outside one or two university departments, there are simply no steady jobs that are supported and protected by an institution. My own position with CAS is ultimately as a freelancer, reliant on rolling funding from Classics for All, subject to satisfactory job performance and school recruitment. I have to make peace with the fact that the money may one day dry up. If you loathe the idea of doing your own taxes, then you may also have pause for thought… 

Another potential drawback concerns distance from frontline teaching. It has been my experience that the majority of classicists engaged in outreach work are themselves passionate about teaching. When a large portion of the outreach job is concerned more with advocacy work, administration and ultimately salesmanship, however, this can prove a source of frustration at times, stemming from a feeling of detachment from the subject which inspires you to want to share it in the first place!

Beyond the practical and the monetary, it is a fact that outreach work, especially in areas of particular need, can be quite an isolating experience, since you are having to build up your own community around you. This is especially true currently in Scotland since, even with the continual support of colleagues down south, there is only so much value and information that I may extract from collaboration with them. Everything they produce or pilot must be translated, at some point, to fit the Scottish curriculum and vice versa. 

I do not include these points to deter people from pursuing outreach work, but so that they can come to more informed decisions about how much time and energy they want to devote to it. Returning to the positive, I believe that outreach has been some of the most rewarding work that I have done as a classicist. One of the most important things to me about my professional work is that it ‘makes a difference’ in some way. Whether it is changing the way someone thinks about something through my research, helping students understand complex sources via my teaching or bringing the subject anew to diverse communities through my outreach, this value is a primary driver in my professional life. 

The most enjoyable aspect of my outreach work here is that the value I bring via my efforts is tangible. Pupils are offered the opportunity to study subjects that they would never have been exposed to previously, teachers are trained and equipped with skills and subject matter which changes the curricular provision of their school. It is a long road which demands patience and persistence, but it is no understatement to say that we are slowly changing the educational landscape in Scotland for the better by enriching it with a subject once common but now lost, and democratising access for a new generation of young learners.

Dr. Alex Imrie is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh with a special interest on the Roman emperor Caracalla, the process of refashioning the Severan dynasty that occurred during his reign, and the power relationship between the emperor and his elites on the eve of the military crisis of the third century. He is also interested in: ancient historiography, especially Cassius Dio’s Roman History; Roman propaganda; Greek culture under Rome; civil warfare and conflicts during the Principate; and Roman imperial numismatics.

Change will not come from above

By George Connor

Image of a teacher, lecturing a group of boys, with them taking notes. 

The teacher is an old man sitting at the front, in a blue robe, with white hair and a cane. 

The boys are taking notes on papyri.
 
There is a man on the floor hunched over, as though he is cleaning it. He is thought to be a slave in this depiction.

Classics in state schools in Scotland is in the middle of a changing landscape. For so long in the doldrums, and allowed to vanish from the majority of school curricula, there seems to be signs of a turning tide. This is not to say it is vigorous good health, but perhaps we’re going in a different – and improving – direction. 

My school began offering Classical Studies in 2016/17. A small group of S6 pupils gilding their CVs with some unit assessments (not the full-blown examination course). The following year we offered full National 5, and two years later Higher became available. If there was more than one of me, by now we would offer Advanced Higher, too. I’ll explain. 

I am contracted to my authority as an English teacher. Each year my school creates a timetable for which it has enough staff to offer its various courses. The basic tension is thus: if I teach one class of Classical Studies, that is one class of English I cannot teach. Consequently, the school needs to find staff who can take that English class. This year I have four Classical Studies classes and two of English. This division is decided by a number of factors: how much the school values Classical Studies; how many pupils want Classical Studies; how much capacity there is in the English department staff; how the various classes fit together on the timetable. 

This may be dull, but it is the real meat of why Classical Studies is where it is today in Scottish state schools. 

My school has benefitted from having senior staff who see the value of Classical Studies, and are willing to be flexible with the allocation of their finite staffing resources. This is not to say that providing Classical Studies is an act of charity to a dying subject. The school benefits in numerous ways. 

If – for example – the school has 200 pupils selecting History at National 5, but only has the staff to cover classes for 150, then either the school needs to hire more History staff, or those pupils will need an alternative choice of subject. Classical Studies, step forward. 

The more subjects a school can offer using its existing staff provides a greater range of options for pupils, and greater flexibility for timetabling. If having Classical Studies means fewer staff need to be taken on, it will also save the school money. 

Classical Studies serves this overspill problem well for English, History, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Modern Studies (yes, really) and others, being a complementary subject, and thus is coming to be seen as a valuable asset for schools.  

This is not to diminish the inherent value which senior leaders and classroom teachers see in the subject in its own right. Many had Classical Studies when they were at school themselves, and understand the way in which it can inspire pupils, and combine disciplines to develop a huge range of skills.  

Of course, for a long time – arguably for forty years – Classical Studies has declined and then plateaued in terms of pupil uptake. In 2017 only 284 pupils across Scottish state schools sat Higher Classical Studies. In Latin, only 185 did. That’s for the whole of Scotland. 

However, since then, numbers in Classical Studies have started to show signs of increase. In 2021, 371 pupils sat Higher Classical Studies – an increase of nearly 100 in four years. I don’t have the latest data to hand, but based on an SQA meeting I attended last week, we have even more schools offering this year. Word seems to be out in secondary-schools that Classical Studies can benefit school-administrators while increasing options for pupils. It also provides a deep and enriching CPD opportunity for classroom teachers who – like me – see no attraction in promoted positions. 

Because most of these new Classical Studies teachers are not trained Classical Studies teachers. Indeed, it seems Moray House in Edinburgh – where Scottish Classics teacher training was previously done – no longer offers the course. Currently, you cannot train to teach Classical Studies or Latin or Classical Greek in Scotland. 

The new teachers of Classical Studies are English teachers, History teachers, RMPS teachers, Modern Studies teachers, Drama teachers… Teachers who want to offer something new to their pupils, while also stretching themselves. These are seasoned and able classroom teachers; intelligent people capable of learning as they go. Most start with National 5 and build their course knowledge from there. In the absence of official training, it is the only practical solution. 

The story is less cheerful for Latin because, understandably, this represents a very different skillset for teachers. A History teacher teaching about Athenian democracy is one thing; teaching the imperfect subjunctive is quite another. The numbers reflect this, with state school Latinists remaining more or less stable between 150 and 180 per year. (For a subject that was formerly a central part of Scottish education, this is extremely low.) I personally worry for its future. When numbers for Classical Greek tailed off, the SQA discontinued the course. No Scottish state school pupils have the option to study Homer or Sophocles in the original language now. Bearing in mind the retirement rates for Latin teachers, plans need to be put in place to encourage more staff in that direction. 

Classics is in a mixed state in the state sector. There are signs of growth in Classical Studies, and it is to be hoped that this will encourage more schools to take it on. At a time when school budgets are so stretched, it is an excellent – and progressive – way to make the most of staff capacity while enriching curricula. But the absence of official teacher training in these subjects is a worry, and one that must be addressed at a higher level. While Latin numbers are currently stable, the long-term health of the subject is still under a question mark. 

George Connor is a teacher of English and Classical Studies at Monifieth High School. In his spare time, he also runs Working Classicists, where you can find information on classics within the state sector, and a very cool community of Working Classicists online! Find the page here : https://www.workingclassicists.com/