"My relationship with Classics has been short, fraught, and something I’ve not yet attempted to sift through"Olivia Lisle, Instagram: @livcollage

It’s summer, and the backroom window is open, letting in a gulp of fresh air and rare Manchester sunshine. I’m staring at my laptop screen, wondering how long I can linger, hovering over the link to the Zoom meeting that started two, three minutes ago. A notification pops up. An email, asking if I’m having trouble getting into the call and I think, yes, but not in the way you think. I take a deep breath and click ‘Join’.

This conversation has been a long time coming. When the call ends, psychologically if not yet in writing, I’ll no longer be a Classicist. My relationship with Classics has been short, fraught, and something I’ve not yet attempted to sift through. This is what I want to do now: sort the fragments, categorize.

Up until Sixth Form, my only opportunity to interact with the Ancient World had been through a much-coveted young adult series (no points for guessing which.) I was one of those kids with a weird fascination with the Ancient Egyptians; who watched The Lord of the Rings a few too many times – the Classical Civilisation course I took at sixth-form was a revelation. It seemed as though all of my broad-ranging, niche interests had converged into one course. We started on the Odyssey, and I was enchanted.

I’m wary of over-romanticising; I know what the fetishization of the brutal Ancient World can yield (salve, incels). Historically limited to a Eurocentric field of study, Classics is rife with symbolism now synonymous with colonialism and fascism. But there was another side – that of warrior women, dread goddesses and tragic heroines. And there was the potential for queer theoretical analysis, so intrinsic to the sexual and social cultures of Greece and Rome that this was no longer a marginal approach, but a well-tread and accepted one.

“I’m left to ponder what could have been different to allow me to still be there now, enjoying the subject I miss every day.”

I didn’t consider myself an Oxbridge candidate. Despite being shoved into various high achievers’ groups I never felt I could match my academically gifted peers, whip-smart students who delighted in their ability to stand toe-to-toe with the teacher. By the time they were embroiled in these classroom debates I’d barely finished chewing my way through the text and deciding what I thought about it. The fear of being called on in class made me sick – I felt like a fraud cowering behind my ability to write a good essay, an imposter who would expose herself as lacking all original thought once called to speak.

And then came my invitation to join a Sutton Trust summer school in Cambridge. Any lingering feelings of intimidation slipped away unnoticed as our small group huddled in a break room with tea and biscuits, pitting our favourite heroes against one another as if playing a game of mythological Match Attax. At the end of the week, I sat in the back of the car clutching my parting gift (a group signed copy of Tacitus’ Annals) and felt that I was leaving something precious behind.

By the time the university application process rolled around, I’d started to think I had a chance of making it to Cambridge. There was no time to stop and ask myself if this was what I really wanted. Visiting the Faculty had allowed me to envision myself in that environment, just like my Sixth Form teachers had wanted, and that was good enough.

A stressful results day filled with uncertainty resulted in the loss of the place I’d earned at Pembroke after interviewing there. But, a few days later, I received an offer to study at Fitzwilliam.

On paper, my first year actually went quite well. I was back in the Faculty that felt so much like home. Our task, to achieve A-level standard Latin and a good foundation in Greek, was actually one of Herculean proportions, but it didn’t always feel like that (except I still sometimes wake up in a cold sweat after nightmares in which I’m forced to locate the verb in a Ciceronian sentence.) But throughout an entire year of managing just fine, there were these tiny, persistent drops of actually-not-fine… Old feelings of inadequacy would resurface in the form of supervision anxiety that left my mind foggy and my words slow, as if my tongue had grown two sizes. When it came to the parts of Classics that weren’t art or literature I felt a lack of interest that gave way to huge waves of guilt (you’re supposed to enjoy your subject, you know). I tried to convince myself that these were teething problems that would eventually go away if I ignored them and stopped forgetting to take my Sertraline in the morning.

“But throughout an entire year of managing just fine, there were these tiny, persistent drops of actually-not-fine…”

The thing about erosion is that you can never see the damage as it’s happening; it was in locked-down Easter term that I realised how much I’d been worn down. We were dealing with family bereavement, so I’d tried to hold the floodgate on the storm that was brewing for the sake of everyone else’s sanity. It resulted in me looking up from an excerpt of Reading Greek and bursting into tears. Sorry, Mum.

A few emails, Zoom talks and stress-walks later, and I was an English student.


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And it’s two terms into this new identity that I sit writing this, still not knowing if I’ve made the right decision. I know two others who quit Classics, and I’m sure there have been many more, but this hasn’t fully eased my guilt. My subject defined me, and now I feel indefinable. I’m no longer a Classicist. But I don’t feel like an English student. I’m a second-year, but I’m also a Fresher again. I still feel two steps behind in my classes.

I’m left to ponder what could have been different to allow me to still be there now, enjoying the subject I miss every day. I don’t know how else the Faculty could even the playing-field; perhaps the gap between those who already have Latin and Greek and those who don’t is just too big to bridge without losing a few along the way. Maybe the problem is with me; perhaps my academic confidence is so shattered now that there’s just no coming back from it.

I just don’t know.

My relationship with Classics has been changed forever, but that fondness for the Ancient World will never leave me, fractured as it is. When the dust settles, it’ll be there: missing a few pieces, perhaps, but just like marble and bronze, permanent.