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The Development of the Classical Tradition in Africa: Theoretical Considerations and Interpretive Consequences

William Dominik

University of Otago, New Zealand / Federal University of Bahia, Brazil

This presentation examines the development of the classical tradition in Africa and how Classics has been used for various social, cultural and political purposes. The first part of this paper highlights theoretical considerations regarding the classical tradition on the African subcontinent. The classical tradition model tends to emphasize the influence of classical ideas upon later periods of western civilization. This model sometimes is laden explicitly or implicitly with Eurocentric assumptions and values; for example, the civilizing aspect of the classical tradition, which is a frequent theme of Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition (1949), formed a part of elite education in colonial Africa, where, for example, knowledge of Latin was considered to be a social marker of being educated and “civilized.” The classical reception model, which constitutes a critical response to the approach of the classical tradition, attempts to examine how modern writers and other figures have appropriated and adapted classical themes to suggest continuity with the past or to challenge its perspective.

The second part of this presentation discusses how and when classical ideas and texts reached and extended into Africa and the main areas that constitute the classical tradition on the subcontinent (cf. Dominik 2007). From the sixteenth century writers and poets have written various texts in Latin and used classical references in their prose, poetic, and dramatic works. The most visible influence of classical antiquity upon Africa, though, is in the area of colonial architecture.

The third part of this paper presents brief case studies in two of the aforementioned areas—drama and architecture—to illustrate some of the interpretive consequences of using the model of the classical tradition as opposed to that of the classical reception. The first case study involves the figure of Antigone, who has featured in numerous dramatic productions as a heroic figure. Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona’s The Island (1974) features a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone as part of the plot. The model of the classical tradition has focused inter alia on the themes of Sophocles’ Antigone concerning the conflict between the state and individual and the distinction between human law and divine justice. Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona’s play broadly resonates with these timeless themes, but their recontextualization produces a set of political issues particularly relevant to a modern context. Read through the lens of the classical reception, The Island becomes primarily a political drama that has appropriated and adapted a classical form to explore the human costs of apartheid.

The second case study deals with the adaptation of classical architecture and art, specifically the Voortrekker Monument (1949) in Pretoria. This building, which used a number of Roman architectural forms and motifs (Evans 2007), is dedicated to Afrikaner nationalism and culture. The Monument is connected with Rome through a number of architectural features, including the interior freeze that specifically brings to mind the ideological program of the Altar of Augustan Peace and various scenes on the Columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. Viewed partly from the perspective of the classical tradition model, the Voortrekker Monument is an overtly nationalistic monument that celebrates the courage and moral fortitude of the Afrikaners and their cultural achievements. The model of the classical reception produces a range of other responses to the Voortrekker Monument, however, consistent with its status as a symbol of the ideology of apartheid and of the oppression of black South Africans.

The investigation of how classical ideas and texts reached Africa and influenced its development in a range of areas is complementary with the examination of how indigenous Africans and European settlers and their ancestors appropriated and adapted these ideas and texts. Considering the elements of the classical tradition along with those of the classical reception helps to provide a broader view of the ways in which classics has helped to shape different African societies and their cultures from the perspectives of both the European colonizers and indigenous peoples.

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Global Classical Traditions

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