How the TikTok generation is reinventing Classics

Amid heated debate over the future of the subject, new technologies are being used to democratise the subject

March 07, 2021
Classics, reinvented. Credit: Alamy
Classics, reinvented. Credit: Alamy

In recent years, there has been increased attention paid to some of the flaws in the traditional study of Classics. From Mussolini’s infatuation with white marble classical sculptures to the US Capitol rioters who donned clothing alluding to ancient Greece and Rome, classical civilisation has been appropriated throughout history to justify far-right narratives. All this reinforces the stereotype that Classics is for a specific kind of person—one that is white, male and privileged.  

This stereotype is particularly cemented in the UK. Classics has long been associated with British imperialism due to the Empire’s decision to adopt Rome as its model for imperial domination—Pax Britannica etc—and nowadays, state schools have largely abandoned the subject, leaving the study of Classics almost exclusively to the privately educated. People like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson (both Eton alumni) certainly haven’t helped this, having respectively taken to tweeting in Latin and reciting Homer at public events. 

The latest addition to the debate is a New York Times article published in February, in which Princeton Classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta questions the future of Classics and advocates for a new era that would completely transform the field. Peralta, a historian of Rome born in the Dominican Republic, sparked heated debate, leaving many wondering if Classics had any place in modern society. 

But while some deem Classics dead, TikTok suggests otherwise. The app, whose popularity has soared since the pandemic began has provided a platform for young Classicists who are keen to dispel the dated stereotypes.

Sabrina Bergin, a 19-year-old Classics undergraduate at the University of Oxford, began making Classics-related TikToks last year during lockdown. Bergin, who is state educated, uses the platform to show that Classics can be for anyone. To tackle misleading theories about the subject, Bergin takes “classical concepts and puts them into TikTok format” for her 6.8k followers. One of her most popular videos, with over 38,000 views, addresses the long-contested debate about the sexuality of Achilles, the flawed hero of Homer’s Iliad, in a light-hearted style typical of TikTok. She says: “Ancient texts can feel intimidating if you don’t know how to navigate them, so I’m just helping them seem more down to earth.”  

One thing Classics has been criticised for is the dominance of white men in its scholarship. Saiba Anand, a classical civilisation student at the University of Toronto, says: “I don’t think Classics itself 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 “hadn’t even really heard of Classics” before going to university but signed up for a course and “quickly fell in love with it.” For Anand, following Classics accounts on TikTok—and making the occasional video herself—creates a sense of “shared community” for students like herself who want to see changes in how Classics is consumed. “You don’t have to learn Classics in an institution anymore,” she adds. “Being able to see it from this new perspective is really exciting.” 

However, while the format might be new, more progressive interpretations of Classics are anything but. We need only look to Marx, who was influenced by Epicurus and ancient Greek materialism, or to 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 is incredibly multifaceted with a history of inspiring radical thinkers and campaigners for social justice.  

Still, Alice Yauman, an 18-year-old “Greek mythology nerd” from New York, understands why the stereotypes exist. “For a long time, it’s been considered pretentious to know about Classics,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be like that in the future.” Yauman considers TikTok the perfect tool for dismantling Classics’ elitism because “unlike the traditional Classics community,” it’s easily accessible. In one of Yauman’s videos (with over 800,000 views), she jokes that “Classicists disagree on everything—except for hating on Zeus,” and the comments section has now become an open forum for idea-sharing: “It’s really cool seeing ancient concepts discussed in modern terms.”

This recent surge in attention on Classics has also encouraged those within the discipline itself to advocate for change. “Throwing Classics away completely strikes me as retrograde,” says Tim Whitmarsh, AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. “We need to rebuild trust and convince society we have good-hearted people driving this subject. This is a moment of change and opportunity, and I think we’ll see a more sustained, focused reckoning with these issues over the next few years.”

Classics TikTok has struck a chord with the LGBT community in particular. “People forget about 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 realise. Just look at Achilles and Patroclus, or Zeus and Ganymede.”  

Modern scholarship on sexuality in antiquity can be traced back to Classicist Kenneth Dover’s seminal work Greek Homosexuality (1978). Earlier yet were English writer Mary Renault’s historical novels of the 1950s that often depicted male homosexuality in ancient Greece. But while these readings and interpretations have existed for several decades, there’s no doubt that the TikTok generation is responsible for disseminating them more widely.

The priority for the next generation of Classicists is to ensure that Classics has a safe future—in both academia and wider culture. “Our generation is more willing to talk about the issues in Classics,” Varey adds. “It obviously has its good and bad parts, but we can’t learn from it without embracing both.”