The Ancient World

Tom Holland assesses the state of the studies of ancient civilisations.

Like a Roman of the Dark Ages, camped out amid the ruins of a vanished order and listening to the occasional crash of falling masonry, historians of the ancient world have long had to live with a consciousness of decline and fall. Time was when a knowledge of antiquity served as the very marker of the nation’s educational elite – but no longer. Over the past half century, the study of Latin and Greek and of the cultures that spoke them has suffered a rout on the scale of Valens at Adrianople. A discipline that once enjoyed an olympian status in the curriculum has been left struggling for survival. Only three years ago the A-Level in ancient history barely survived an attempt by the exam boards to snuff it out altogether, while in the state system, where the carnage has been particularly severe, a bare 15 per cent of secondary schools currently permit students to study the languages or the civilisations of antiquity.

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