Study encompasses specifically a time-period of history from the mid-2nd millennium BC to the 6th century AD.
The word Classics is derived from the Latin adjective classicus, meaning "belonging to the highest class of citizens". The word was originally used to describe the members of the highest class in ancient Rome. By the 2nd century AD the word was used in literary criticism to describe writers of the highest quality. For example, Aulus Gellius, in his Attic Nights, contrasts "classicus" and "proletarius" writers. By the 6th century AD, the word had acquired a second meaning, referring to pupils at a school. Thus the two modern meanings of the word, referring both to literature considered to be of the highest quality, and to the standard texts used as part of a curriculum, both derive from Roman use.
In the Middle Ages, classics and education were tightly intertwined; according to Jan Ziolkowski, there is no era in history in which the link was tighter. Medieval education taught students to imitate earlier classical models, and Latin continued to be the language of scholarship and culture, despite the increasing difference between literary Latin and the vernacular languages of Europe during the period.
While Latin was hugely influential, however, Greek was barely studied, and Greek literature survived almost solely in Latin translation. The works of even major Greek authors such as Hesiod, whose names continued to be known by educated Europeans, were unavailable in the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century, the English philosopher Roger Bacon wrote that "there are not four men in Latin Christendom who are acquainted with the Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic grammars."
Along with the unavailability of Greek authors, there were other differences between the classical canon known today and the works valued in the Middle Ages. Catullus, for instance, was almost entirely unknown in the medieval period. The popularity of different authors also waxed and waned throughout the period: Lucretius, popular during the Carolingian period, was barely read in the twelfth century, while for Quintilian the reverse is true.
The Renaissance led to the increasing study of both ancient literature and ancient history, as well as a revival of classical styles of Latin. From the 14th century, first in Italy and then increasingly across Europe, Renaissance Humanism, an intellectual movement that "advocated the study and imitation of classical antiquity", developed. Humanism saw a reform in education in Europe, introducing a wider range of Latin authors as well as bringing back the study of Greek language and literature to Western Europe. This reintroduction was initiated by Petrarch (1304–1374) and Boccaccio (1313–1375) who commissioned a Calabrian scholar to translate the Homeric poems. This humanist educational reform spread from Italy, in Catholic countries as it was adopted by the Jesuits, and in countries that became Protestant such as England, Germany, and the Low Countries, in order to ensure that future clerics were able to study the New Testament in the original language.
The late 17th and 18th centuries are the period in Western European literary history which is most associated with the classical tradition, as writers consciously adapted classical models. Classical models were so highly prized that the plays of William Shakespeare were rewritten along neoclassical lines, and these "improved" versions were performed throughout the 18th century.