Objectivity is a topic that has plagued the study of classics from its inception as a field of academic enquiry. Can a scholar be truly objective in the analysis of the past? Or are too many contemporary factors involved in the formulation of opinion? We must attempt to strip away the years of misinterpretation and base discussion purely on the classical receptions and the material evidence that we have in front of us. Anything else is merely inference and so turns any academic enquiry into a philosophical discussion of ‘how abouts’ and ‘what ifs’. I am of the belief that by discussing this core predicament we will be able to answer the question: is class a legitimate concept of study in classical antiquity?
When starting an enquiry it is important to identify the definitions between the words used and the realistic perceptions of those words. The Oxford English Dictionary categorises ‘class’ as ‘1. Rank or order of society (lower, middle, upper, working, professional etc., class or classes); existence of such classes as a social factor; any sets of persons or things differentiated, esp. by quality, from others.’ It is with this definition that the first problem arises – is this what class actually is in the classical world? It can surely be demonstrated that there were immense social divisions on classical Greek and Roman culture but does this mean that those who were experiencing the divisions first hand also shared the contemporary connotations that we have associated with term ‘class’? Contemporary sociologists use the word ‘class’ as a tool to describe the differences in economic status and especially those that are ingrained within the ownership of property, which can be more readily labeled as ‘social divisions’. If there is such a problem within modern sociological analysis of class then how can we possibly use the term in reference to classical antiquity?
There are several characters within classical literature that can and have been commonly manipulated through a variety of different contemporary restraints to add weight to specific sides of an argument. Class can be used consciously and unconsciously to support a particular political vantage point. It has been said that in modern societies traditional views of class divisions have shown that there is an increased likelihood that this is being decoupled from collective action. The theory works on the assumption that class and the actions of the class are facilitated by each class’s culture. From this assumption it follows that the more defined the different group behaviours are within a society, the more weight there is behind the argument that class divisions actually exist. Now although this may not be the case in modern class structures in the classical texts that we do have left this theory doesn’t hold water.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the character of Eumaeus is shown to be a loyal and hardworking servant of his master Odysseus. Stock epithets are used in abundance for all of the characters within the epic and say a lot about the authors’ intentions and visions for the audience’s perception of the characters. E. V. Rieu footnotes an opinion that Homer ‘really loved Eumaeus, this character he had created, and here, instead of writing about him, he felt impelled to speak to him directly as if reminding him of the story.’ All of these positive characteristics are directly contravening Eumaeus’ status as a low ranking individual in Ithaca. A high ranking slave in charge of other subordinate slaves he may be, but nevertheless still a slave. In The Odyssey it is expected that the aristocratic heroes will be championed and the slaves abused, as is in line with the logic of a contemporary readership. This however is not the case. The characters presented are real and although their attributes are caricatured in order to emphasise the particular narrative goals of the author, there are positive and negative characteristic traits displayed for all levels of possible class structure. We have already established that Eumaeus the slave is ultimately good, but his counterpart Melanthius the goatherd is the total opposite - rude, vicious, bitter and disloyal to Odysseus. In these two characters alone we can see the spectrum of characteristics within the slave populace of Homer’s Ithaca. The same wide-ranging personality traits can be found in other class divisions within The Odyssey. Within the court of Alcinous, King of the Phaecians, all members welcome Odysseus warmly and treat him with the customary dignity and respect that comes with xenia. The Suitors in Ithaca are also aristocratic and conversely have nothing but disdain and contempt for all that dare to present themselves before them. An argument has been presented to say that societies do not perform their functions based on some twisted sense of loyalty to ones class (as the term class implies) but instead group behaviours are enacted based on cultural norms that develop independently of class structure. This is perfectly demonstrated in Homer’s spectrum of behaviours offered by the variety of ‘classes’ in The Odyssey.
But there is more to say that the contemporary audience may be misled in their reception of ‘class’ in Homer. As well as the perceptions of class behaviours being significantly different, there is also evidence to suggest that a modern audience infers class status based on the behaviour of characters in a given text. I am of course referring to the character of Thersites in Homer’s Iliad.
Throughout the entire episode concerning Thersites in Iliad 2, there are several highlights that work against the social perceptions of his character that potentially manipulate the audience’s judgment of the situation. As Athena persuades Odysseus that he must stop the Greek army from fleeing Troy, Odysseus first makes a beeline for Agamemnon to ‘borrow from him his indestructible ancestral scepter.’ After proclaiming to several high ranking soldiers that he will not threaten them and then proceeding to woo them into submission to Agamemnon, Odysseus then takes an entirely different tact with any other ‘ordinary soldier’ who is encouraging the dissent and strikes them with the sceptre of power. Odysseus’ tone in the segment that follows in addressing these soldiers shows a hierarchy within the Greek military that is still in existence in modern military structures today. It can be said that the differences in rankings in the British military (for example) can largely reflect the socio-economic status of the individuals, but it is possible for talented recruits to rise in the ranks regardless of personal background. The military structure is ingrained for no other reason than to preserve the chain of command in order to facilitate an efficient force of order. Odysseus demonstrates this in his address to the two ranks; to the higher he is respectful and diplomatic, to the lower he is dictatorial and controlling but his reasons for being so are cited as being simply to prevent mob rule in a situation that demands intellectual coercion.
When Thersites starts talking (2.212-346) Rieu chooses to translate several of the phrases used to describe him negatively. Thersites has a ‘large store of insulting language at his disposal’ which he used ‘gratuitously and offensively to needle his masters… to raise a laugh amongst the troops.’ In the text this reads as Thersites insulting his military leaders to improve his status in the ‘group dynamic’. However, I would argue that he is providing a vital satirical service – similar to a modern satirist. Are we to seriously believe that the derisive comedy of Aristophanes was not popular in Classical Greece? It is quite probable that the rank and file soldier would entertain many a night around the fire by impersonating and mocking their leaders. Thersites can therefore be seen as attempting to boost the morale of a de-energised army. Translator bias is an area of literature that is laden with the authors own reactions to the text and the assumptions that they are forced to make based on their perceived context of the scene. Perceived context changes everything, even Thersites’ name which when translated can have positive connotations can also have negative, and it is this perception that I believe contributes to potentially damaging the study of classical antiquity.
The English historian E. P. Thompson writes that ‘class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences… feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from…theirs.’ With this in mind, the perception of the incident changes. If Thersites is seen to be articulating the ordinary soldiers’ interests and are portraying them to the military leadership then he is automatically characterised as an ordinary soldier in the audiences mind. But there is no evidence to suggest this in the text. If we forgo translator bias for now, the text shows Thersites orating to an incredibly large audience that would never have been attempted by an ordinary soldier. Odysseus, who obviously outranks him in terms of military power, may have savagely beaten him but Thersites must have known that this was a likely outcome of his speaking. From Iliad 2.198-9 we know that there was a precedent already set for outspokenness (especially of the anti-Agamemnon variety) being punished by Odysseus. Did Thersites feel that it was his duty to vocalise the discontentment? He is criticised in the text for having limited oratorical skill, but this implies that he does have some, which potentially infers some form of formal education. Nowhere does it say that Thersites is an ordinary soldier, but from his actions and the way that he is treated it can be deduced that although he is not a high ranking military leader he is equally likely to not be a ‘coward and a weakling that counts for nothing.’
Class analysis has been argued to be a reductionist way of viewing the limited evidence that we have. It is impossible to study any field of academic enquiry without restricting what it is that you are examining. If you become open to any and all possibilities then no theory would ever be resolved – but by reducing the texts to their constituent parts we could be damaging the results. When baking a cake you mix a variety of ingredients in order to get the end result, once the cake is baked it is impossible to return back to the cakes constituent parts. The same can be said for analysing any form of classical text, Konstan is of the opinion that class in not a legitimate form of analysis as even in class-conscious art forms that it can be reductive and prejudiced to one viewpoint. Extreme class critics will go so far as to announce that class structures do not exist at all and instead claim that it is a historical phenomenon that humanity has, for some reason, decided to label in order to gain a better understanding of itself. Labeling is cited as being a human flaw that ultimately restricts the development of a civilised society by connecting a series of seemingly unconnected events. Thompson believes that class is not even a ‘structure’ or a ‘category’ but that it is merely a labeled product of human relationships.
My views are not this extreme. From my analysis of the evidence I believe that the main flaw in using class as a base of study in classical antiquity is the inevitable assumptions that come with the reception of a contemporary audience. We have observed history and been influenced by it. The end of the Apartheid in South Africa; the Civil Rights Movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and only in the past week Barrack Obama has been elected to the post of ‘leader of the free world’. Class related historic events alongside our upbringing and personal political beliefs are strongly influenced by the media that control how we receive our information. It is impossible for our prejudices on class structures not to be laden with subliminal messages. Whenever Homer refers to slaves in The Odyssey we cannot help but makes mental associations between this and the perceptions of slavery that we have experienced; whether they are in line with bronze age Greek assumptions of slavery or not. These inevitably bias our interpretations of the evidence. It is not easy to disassociate our academic selves from our contemporary self – who we are is a combination of many different factors. In order to truly understand the views and the nature of classical sources we must try our hardest to be objective in our analysis.
Class is therefore probably not the best term for the purpose of analysis. Everyone’s definition of class is different, so it is not hard to concede that our collective definition is nowhere near the same as the classical worlds. Slave societies based on a tradition and a culture of slavery would not have thought the abstract concept of class even existed! Social divisions occur naturally within all kinds of animalistic groups; the negative connotations associated with class forged through years of so called ‘class wars’ should be stripped away for the word to be acceptable in academia. I do not think they can, and so believe that class, in its current guise, cannot be a legitimate concept in the study of classical antiquity.
Eder, K (1993) The New Politics of Class: Social Movements and Cultural Dynamics
in Advanced Societies, Sage Publications, London.
Hall, E. (2008) Thersites and His Reception Part 1 – Homer to Lucian, Royal
Holloway University of London Lecture [9/10/2008]
Konstan, D. (1986) Slavery and class Analysis in the Ancient World. A review article.
Comparative studies in Society and History, 28, 754-766.
Lockwood, D (1981) The weakest link in the chain? Some comments on the Marxist
theory of action. Research in the Sociology of work, 1, 435-81. JAI Press, Greenwich.
Pakulski, J. & Waters, M (1996) The Death of Class, SAGE publications, London.
Rieu, E. V. (1950) Homer – The Illiad, Penguin Classics, London.
Rieu, E. V. (1991) Homer – The Odyssey, Penguin Classics, London.
Scott, J. (2006) Class and Stratification in Social Divisions (ed. Payne, G.), Palgrave
Sykes, J. B. (1983) The Pocket Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 6th Ed., Oxford,
Thompson, E. (1980), The Making of an English Working Class (2nd Ed.) Penguin,
 Sykes, J. B. (1983)
 Scott, J. (2006) p. 26
 Eder, K (1993) p. 1
 Eder, Klaus (1993) p. 1 ‘The traditional idea has been that culture is the result of the social interaction of individuals. Thus it could be assumed that the more such interactions take place in a society marked by well-defined class markers, the more action becomes class-specific.’
 Modern sociologists (e.g. Lockwood, 1981) are under the impression that modern class structures do not exist in the same way as was classically viewed. Modern interpretations and individual experiences in ones culture influence their perceptions of class structures unilaterally. If this is the case then we must establish the classical definition of class. I will return to this later.
 Rieu, E. V. (1991) p. 182
 Rieu, E. V. (1991) 15.301-309 ‘In the hut Odysseus and the honest swineherd, with the farmhands for company…I intend to leave you in the morning and go to the town to beg, so as not to be a burden to you and your men’
 Eder, K (1993) p. 2 ‘Modern society is characterized by a paradoxical developmental logic. Whereas its class structure develops more and more along complex but clear-cut line, closing society for its members, culture has developed independently of class toward a system of symbolic orders with another logic (poststructuralism)… The usage of culture is dependant upon a social logic, which is less and less a mere transmitter of social differences into conflictual collective action.’
 Rieu, E. V. (1950) lines 185-187
 Rieu, E. V. (1950) line 190 ‘You there, it is not right to threaten you: you are no coward.’
 Rieu, E. V. (1950) lines ‘You there, get back to your seat and wait for orders from your superiors! Coward and weakling, you count for nothing in battle or council. We cannot all be leaders here; and mob rule is a bad thing. Let there be one commander only, one ruler, who is given the scepter of power and the right to rule by Zeus, son of sickle-wielding Cronus.’
 Hall, E. (2008) ‘The name Thersites shares its root with the word thersos or tharsos used of a warrior’s ‘boldness’ but also the (more negative) ‘boldness’ of the blame poet (e.g. Hipponax, Simonides).’
 Thompson, E. (1980) page 8-9
 See footnote 11.
 Or ‘ordinary soldier’. See footnote 11.
 Konstan, D. (1986)
 Thompson, E. (1980) pg 8-9 ‘By class I understand a historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that it is a historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a ‘structure’, nor even as a ‘category’, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.’
 Pakulski & Waters (1996) pages 3-4 ‘Historically there have been numerous examples of non-class societies. We embrace the convention that societies based on slave labour, such as ancient Rome and Greece, the estate societies of feudal Europe and modern state-socialist societies are non-class societies. In none of these societies are property and market relations the skeleton of the social structure or the predominant grid of social power. They are all unequal, stratified and conflictual but not made so predominantly by class. Class and class society are, in our vocabulary, distinctly modern phenomena inseparably linked to the market and its institutionalisation within the early and mature forms of industrial capitalism’