The word classical has several meanings. In general, these meanings refer to some past time, works of that era or later works influenced by that time. Classical things are often seen as ordered and part of high culture or a golden age, and contrasted to earlier or later things which may be seen as chaotic, elaborate or emotional.



The word classical comes from the Latin word classicus, which is similar in meaning to the English phrase first class. The word seldom has this precise meaning in modern English, as illustrated by the examples below.

Classical antiquity

Classical antiquity is a long period of history centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the interlocking civilizations of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. This period is conventionally taken to stretch from roughly the 7th or 8th century BC to the 5th century AD. It is often seen as a golden age of Western civilisation, preceding the Dark Ages of the early medieval period.

The word classical can refer to something from classical antiquity. For example:

  • A Classical scholar is someone who studies the Classics - the language and culture of classical antiquity, particularly its literature.
  • Classical philosophy
  • Classical mythology
  • Classical Latin is the form of the Latin language used by the ancient Romans in what is usually regarded as classical Latin literature. It is distinct from both vulgar Latin and medieval Latin. This distinction from vulgar Latin is in keeping with the meaning of the Latin word classicus given above.
  • Classical architecture
    • Classical order - one of the ancient styles of building design in the classical tradition. Originally Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, these were added to and modified by the Romans.
  • High classical refers to Greek art associated mainly with Athens and the works atop the Acropolis
  • A classical education normally means an education in the classics, including learning Latin and ancient Greek. However, it can refer to the Classical education movement.


In the arts, Classicism refers to a high regard for classical antiquity. Classicism is a force which has been repeatedly present in post-medieval Western culture. It was particularly strong during the Renaissance and from the mid 18th into the 19th century. Classicist art movements in this later period are often called neoclassical. In the context of classicism, the word classical can also refer to:

Classical music

The term classical music is used colloquially to describe a variety of Western musical styles from the 9th century to the present. However, the classical period in music is a specific time from 1750 to 1825, which roughly corresponds to a period of increased interest in classicism throughout European arts.

Other classical cultures

The word classical can also be used to refer to other cultures, by analogy with classical antiquity and classical music. Examples of this usage include:

  • Classical language, a dead or archaic language comparable to classical Latin. This normally means it has a literature that is considered classical, it is associated with a golden age, it was spoken by high-status people or it is considered to be ordered. Examples illustrating this are given below:
    • Classical Arabic is the Arabic language in which the Qur'an is written
    • Classical Nahuatl is the language spoken by Aztec nobles in the Valley of Mexico at the time of the 16th-century Spanish conquest
    • Classical French is the French language as systematised in the 17th and 18th centuries
  • Four Great Classical Novels, considered to be the greatest and most influential in Chinese fiction
  • The list of classical music styles gives many styles of music considered classical.

Classical ways of thinking and doing

Similarly, many ways of thinking or doing are thought of as classical. In general, these are ways which have been superseded but which are still appreciated by some, often for their relative simplicity. For example:

  • Classical physics, the study of physics based on principles developed before the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics
    • Classical mechanics is Newtonian physics. It is describes the motion of macroscopic objects.
    • Classical electrodynamics, as formalized by Maxwell in the 19th century.
  • Classical thermodynamics, a branch of physics developed in the early 19th century. It was superseded by statistical thermodynamics in the late 19th century and hence became classical before the rest of physics.
  • Semiclassical physics, an approximation that combines aspects of classical physics with quantum mechanics.
  • Classical logic, a class of formal logics that have been most intensively studied and most widely used.
  • Classical mathematics, mathematics constructed and proved on the basis of classical logic and set theory. It is the mainstream way of looking at mathematics for academic pure mathematicians.
  • Classical control theory applies control theory to analogue systems. Based on methods such as Laplace transforms and calculus. It is contrasted to modern control theory, which deals with digital control systems with methods such as the z transform.
  • Classical economics is the school of economics developed by Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus in the late 18th and early 19th century.
  • Neoclassical economics refers to the further development of classical economics from around 1870.
  • Classical liberalism is the strain of thought coming from the fusion of economic liberalism with political liberalism of the late 18th and 19th centuries
  • Classical conditioning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning.
  • A classical guitar is a common type of acoustic guitar. It is not directly related to classical music.
  • Classical dance, in a Western context, normally means ballet
  • Classical Indian dance is a relatively new umbrella term for various codified art forms whose theory can be traced back to 400 BC.

Golden age

There is a considerable overlap between the terms Classical and golden age. The period which produced works considered Classical is often also reckoned to have been a golden age of that country, culture or field. For example, Classical Hollywood cinema and Golden Age of Hollywood are interchangeable terms referring to essentially the same thing.

See also

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  • classical — [klas′i kəl] adj. 1. CLASSIC (senses 1 & 3) 2. of the art, literature, and culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans, or their writers, artists, etc. 3. characteristic of or derived from the literary and artistic standards, principles, and methods …   English World dictionary

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  • classical — ► ADJECTIVE 1) relating to ancient Greek or Latin literature, art, or culture. 2) (of a form of art or a language) representing an exemplary standard within a long established form. 3) (of music) of long established form or style or (more… …   English terms dictionary

  • classical — index conventional, traditional Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • classical — [[t]klæ̱sɪk(ə)l[/t]] ♦♦♦ 1) ADJ: usu ADJ n You use classical to describe something that is traditional in form, style, or content. Fokine did not change the steps of classical ballet; instead he found new ways of using them. ...the scientific… …   English dictionary

  • classical — classicality, classicalness, n. classically, adv. /klas i keuhl/, adj. 1. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Greek and Roman antiquity: classical literature; classical languages. 2. conforming to ancient Greek and Roman models in literature… …   Universalium

  • classical — clas|si|cal W3 [ˈklæsıkəl] adj [Date: 1500 1600; : Latin; Origin: classicus; CLASSIC1] 1.) belonging to a traditional style or set of ideas classical ballet/dance etc ▪ the classical theory of relativity 2.) relating to music that is considered… …   Dictionary of contemporary English

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