Classical reception : classical influence = conversation : lecture

I’m often asked to describe Classicizing Philadelphia, and my answer usually includes three pairs of epithets:  Classicizing Philadelphia is a classical reception, digital humanities, public history project.  Then, especially if my interlocutor is from outside the fairly small world of classical scholarship, I have to explain what “classical reception” is.  Most people are familiar with the idea of “classical influence.”  In that model, ancient Greece and Rome provided patterns, models, or first examples of important things–democracy, theater, the mixed constitution, science, literature–which later societies imitated and developed.  The traffic is one-way, like a lecture:  the ancient world speaks, and later cultures take notes.

Classical reception is in some ways describing the same phenomenon, but it adds a voice.  If classical influence is our classical forebears talking to us, classical reception is us talking with them.  It’s a conversation, not a lecture.

In a conversation, both sides listen, learn, and change.  The reception model of thinking about our engagement with ancient Greece and Rome imagines that engagement as a two-way process:  we study and think about these cultures and their products, and our study and thought changes who we are and what we do; at the same time, by studying and thinking about Greece and Rome, we are creating our concept of those cultures.  Since ancient Greece and Rome exist only as concepts or mental constructions–even an ancient ruin or artifact has to have a meaning before we can think about or with it–we are in effect changing what the ancient world means as we think about it.

That process of working out what the ancient world means here and now is classical reception.  It is our conversation with Greece and Rome.  Just as lectures have their place, so the influence model of our relationship to Greece and Rome can provide valuable insights and understanding.  But many of us would rather participate in a conversation than attend a lecture.