A **classical field theory** is a physical theory that predicts how one or more fields in physics interact with matter through **field equations**, without considering effects of quantization; theories that incorporate quantum mechanics are called quantum field theories. In most contexts, 'classical field theory' is specifically intended to describe electromagnetism and gravitation, two of the fundamental forces of nature.

A physical field can be thought of as the assignment of a physical quantity at each point of space and time. For example, in a weather forecast, the wind velocity during a day over a country is described by assigning a vector to each point in space. Each vector represents the direction of the movement of air at that point, so the set of all wind vectors in an area at a given point in time constitutes a vector field. As the day progresses, the directions in which the vectors point change as the directions of the wind change.

The first field theories, Newtonian gravitation and Maxwell's equations of electromagnetic fields were developed in classical physics before the advent of relativity theory in 1905, and had to be revised to be consistent with that theory. Consequently, classical field theories are usually categorized as *non-relativistic* and *relativistic*. Modern field theories are usually expressed using the mathematics of tensor calculus. A more recent alternative mathematical formalism describes classical fields as sections of mathematical objects called fiber bundles.

Some of the simplest physical fields are vector force fields. Historically, the first time that fields were taken seriously was with Faraday's lines of force when describing the electric field. The gravitational field was then similarly described.

The first field theory of gravity was Newton's theory of gravitation in which the mutual interaction between two masses obeys an inverse square law. This was very useful for predicting the motion of planets around the Sun.

Any massive body *M* has a gravitational field **g** which describes its influence on other massive bodies. The gravitational field of *M* at a point **r** in space is found by determining the force **F** that *M* exerts on a small test mass *m* located at **r**, and then dividing by *m*:^{[1]}

Stipulating that

According to Newton's law of universal gravitation, **F**(**r**) is given by^{[1]}

where is a unit vector pointing along the line from

The experimental observation that inertial mass and gravitational mass are equal to unprecedented levels of accuracy leads to the identification of the gravitational field strength as identical to the acceleration experienced by a particle. This is the starting point of the equivalence principle, which leads to general relativity.

For a discrete collection of masses, *M _{i}*, located at points,

If we have a continuous mass distribution *ρ* instead, the sum is replaced by an integral,

Note that the direction of the field points from the position **r** to the position of the masses **r**_{i}; this is ensured by the minus sign. In a nutshell, this means all masses attract.

In the integral form Gauss's law for gravity is

while in differential form it is

Therefore, the gravitational field **g** can be written in terms of the gradient of a gravitational potential *φ*(**r**):

This is a consequence of the gravitational force

Main article: Electrostatics |

A charged test particle with charge *q* experiences a force **F** based solely on its charge. We can similarly describe the electric field **E** generated by the source charge *Q* so that **F** = *q***E**:

Using this and Coulomb's law the electric field due to a single charged particle is

The electric field is conservative, and hence is given by the gradient of a scalar potential, *V*(**r**)

Gauss's law for electricity is in integral form

while in differential form

Main article: Magnetostatics |

A steady current *I* flowing along a path *ℓ* will exert a force on nearby charged particles that is quantitatively different from the electric field force described above. The force exerted by *I* on a nearby charge *q* with velocity **v** is

where

The magnetic field is not conservative in general, and hence cannot usually be written in terms of a scalar potential. However, it can be written in terms of a vector potential, **A**(**r**):

Gauss's law for magnetism in integral form is

while in differential form it is

The physical interpretation is that there are no magnetic monopoles.

Main article: Electrodynamics |

In general, in the presence of both a charge density *ρ*(**r**, *t*) and current density **J**(**r**, *t*), there will be both an electric and a magnetic field, and both will vary in time. They are determined by Maxwell's equations, a set of differential equations which directly relate **E** and **B** to the electric charge density (charge per unit volume) *ρ* and current density (electric current per unit area) **J**.^{[2]}

Alternatively, one can describe the system in terms of its scalar and vector potentials *V* and **A**. A set of integral equations known as *retarded potentials* allow one to calculate *V* and **A** from ρ and **J**,^{[note 1]} and from there the electric and magnetic fields are determined via the relations^{[3]}

Main article: Fluid dynamics |

Fluid dynamics has fields of pressure, density, and flow rate that are connected by conservation laws for energy and momentum. The mass continuity equation is a continuity equation, representing the conservation of mass

and the Navier–Stokes equations represent the conservation of momentum in the fluid, found from Newton's laws applied to the fluid,

if the density ρ, pressure p, deviatoric stress tensor

In 1839, James MacCullagh presented field equations to describe reflection and refraction in "An essay toward a dynamical theory of crystalline reflection and refraction".^{[4]}

The term "potential theory" arises from the fact that, in 19th century physics, the fundamental forces of nature were believed to be derived from scalar potentials which satisfied Laplace's equation. Poisson addressed the question of the stability of the planetary orbits, which had already been settled by Lagrange to the first degree of approximation from the perturbation forces, and derived the Poisson's equation, named after him. The general form of this equation is

where *σ* is a source function (as a density, a quantity per unit volume) and ø the scalar potential to solve for.

In Newtonian gravitation; masses are the sources of the field so that field lines terminate at objects that have mass. Similarly, charges are the sources and sinks of electrostatic fields: positive charges emanate electric field lines, and field lines terminate at negative charges. These field concepts are also illustrated in the general divergence theorem, specifically Gauss's law's for gravity and electricity. For the cases of time-independent gravity and electromagnetism, the fields are gradients of corresponding potentials

so substituting these into Gauss' law for each case obtains

where *ρ _{g}* is the mass density,

Incidentally, this similarity arises from the similarity between Newton's law of gravitation and Coulomb's law.

In the case where there is no source term (e.g. vacuum, or paired charges), these potentials obey Laplace's equation:

For a distribution of mass (or charge), the potential can be expanded in a series of spherical harmonics, and the *n*th term in the series can be viewed as a potential arising from the 2^{n}-moments (see multipole expansion). For many purposes only the monopole, dipole, and quadrupole terms are needed in calculations.

Main article: Covariant classical field theory |

Modern formulations of classical field theories generally require Lorentz covariance as this is now recognised as a fundamental aspect of nature. A field theory tends to be expressed mathematically by using Lagrangians. This is a function that, when subjected to an action principle, gives rise to the field equations and a conservation law for the theory. The action is a Lorentz scalar, from which the field equations and symmetries can be readily derived.

Throughout we use units such that the speed of light in vacuum is 1, i.e. *c* = 1.^{[note 2]}

Main article: Lagrangian (field theory) |

Given a field tensor , a scalar called the Lagrangian density

can be constructed from and its derivatives.
From this density, the action functional can be constructed by integrating over spacetime,

Where is the volume form in curved spacetime.

Therefore, the Lagrangian itself is equal to the integral of the Lagrangian density over all space.

Then by enforcing the action principle, the Euler–Lagrange equations are obtained

Two of the most well-known Lorentz-covariant classical field theories are now described.

Main articles: Electromagnetic field and Electromagnetism |

Historically, the first (classical) field theories were those describing the electric and magnetic fields (separately). After numerous experiments, it was found that these two fields were related, or, in fact, two aspects of the same field: the electromagnetic field. Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism describes the interaction of charged matter with the electromagnetic field. The first formulation of this field theory used vector fields to describe the electric and magnetic fields. With the advent of special relativity, a more complete formulation using tensor fields was found. Instead of using two vector fields describing the electric and magnetic fields, a tensor field representing these two fields together is used.

The electromagnetic four-potential is defined to be *A _{a}* = (−

To obtain the dynamics for this field, we try and construct a scalar from the field. In the vacuum, we have

We can use gauge field theory to get the interaction term, and this gives us

To obtain the field equations, the electromagnetic tensor in the Lagrangian density needs to be replaced by its definition in terms of the 4-potential *A*, and it's this potential which enters the Euler-Lagrange equations. The EM field *F* is not varied in the EL equations. Therefore,

Evaluating the derivative of the Lagrangian density with respect to the field components

and the derivatives of the field components

obtains Maxwell's equations in vacuum. The source equations (Gauss' law for electricity and the Maxwell-Ampère law) are

while the other two (Gauss' law for magnetism and Faraday's law) are obtained from the fact that

where the comma indicates a partial derivative.

Main article: Gravitation |

Further information: General Relativity and Einstein field equation |

After Newtonian gravitation was found to be inconsistent with special relativity, Albert Einstein formulated a new theory of gravitation called general relativity. This treats gravitation as a geometric phenomenon ('curved spacetime') caused by masses and represents the gravitational field mathematically by a tensor field called the metric tensor. The Einstein field equations describe how this curvature is produced. Newtonian gravitation is now superseded by Einstein's theory of general relativity, in which gravitation is thought of as being due to a curved spacetime, caused by masses. The Einstein field equations,

describe how this curvature is produced by matter and radiation, where

written in terms of the Ricci tensor

can be derived by varying the Einstein–Hilbert action,

with respect to the metric, where

Further examples of Lorentz-covariant classical field theories are

- Klein-Gordon theory for real or complex scalar fields
- Dirac theory for a Dirac spinor field
- Yang–Mills theory for a non-abelian gauge field

Main article: Classical unified field theories |

Attempts to create a unified field theory based on classical physics are classical unified field theories. During the years between the two World Wars, the idea of unification of gravity with electromagnetism was actively pursued by several mathematicians and physicists like Albert Einstein, Theodor Kaluza,^{[6]} Hermann Weyl,^{[7]} Arthur Eddington,^{[8]} Gustav Mie^{[9]} and Ernst Reichenbacher.^{[10]}

Early attempts to create such theory were based on incorporation of electromagnetic fields into the geometry of general relativity. In 1918, the case for the first geometrization of the electromagnetic field was proposed in 1918 by Hermann Weyl.^{[11]}
In 1919, the idea of a five-dimensional approach was suggested by Theodor Kaluza.^{[11]} From that, a theory called Kaluza-Klein Theory was developed. It attempts to unify gravitation and electromagnetism, in a five-dimensional space-time.
There are several ways of extending the representational framework for a unified field theory which have been considered by Einstein and other researchers. These extensions in general are based in two options.^{[11]} The first option is based in relaxing the conditions imposed on the original formulation, and the second is based in introducing other mathematical objects into the theory.^{[11]} An example of the first option is relaxing the restrictions to four-dimensional space-time by considering higher-dimensional representations.^{[11]} That is used in Kaluza-Klein Theory. For the second, the most prominent example arises from the concept of the affine connection that was introduced into the theory of general relativity mainly through the work of Tullio Levi-Civita and Hermann Weyl.^{[11]}

Further development of quantum field theory changed the focus of searching for unified field theory from classical to quantum description. Because of that, many theoretical physicists gave up looking for a classical unified field theory.^{[11]} Quantum field theory would include unification of two other fundamental forces of nature, the strong and weak nuclear force which act on the subatomic level.^{[12]}^{[13]}