Like the ancient Roman god, classical studies looks both to the past and the future.
Clarksville, Tenn., a city of 125,000 on the Tennessee–Kentucky border, is best known for its proximity to the sprawling Fort Campbell Army Base. The town takes pride in attracting new industry and bills itself as the “Gateway to the New South.”
But Clarksville is also a place that “represents the perfect circle of classical studies,” says Professor Barbara Tsakirgis, chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of Classical Studies. “Throughout the years I’ve been at Vanderbilt, we’ve had a steady stream of high-school students come to us from Clarksville.”
What is it about Clarksville and classical studies? “There are five Latin teachers there,” Tsakirgis says, “and we trained four of them.”
One of those teachers, Ed Long, BS’88, MAT’90, estimates that about a dozen of his students alone, during the 18 years he’s taught in the Clarksville public schools, have gone on to study classics at Vanderbilt. Long’s wife, Laura Lindsey Long, and another married couple, Grady Warren (BA’68) and Kaye Phillips Warren (BA’67, MA’71, PhD’76), are the other Vanderbilt-trained Latin teachers who so often inspire students there to devote their college years—and sometimes their careers—to the ancient world.
“Grady Warren was one of the most dedicated and motivated teachers I have ever had,” says Dr. John Frattarelli, BA’89, who went on to double-major in classics and general biology at Vanderbilt, became an Army doctor, and now directs the largest in vitro-fertilization center in Hawaii.
“I think there were two other classics majors from Clarksville in my year,” says Elizabeth Brown, BA’01, “so the department should probably give Mrs. Warren and the others a recruitment fee.” Brown, a double major in classics and economics, went directly into investment banking after graduation and is now in London as the head of finance at Virgin Galactic, the company that is developing the world’s first commercial space-tourism business.
What would the ancients think about Brown, or anyone else, creating a vacation in outer space? Most of us wouldn’t know exactly, but a classics major probably would have a pretty good idea, having spent her college years trying to get inside the heads of everyone from Homer, the Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus, and philosophers Plato and Aristotle to Roman writers such as Virgil, Lucretius and Ovid.
When asked what inspired them to study the classics at university, almost everyone points to a high-school Latin teacher, explains Daniel Solomon, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Classical Studies at Vanderbilt. “Of all my high-school teachers, the Latin teacher was by far the most enthusiastic, the most dedicated. This is a teacher who would collapse and break down in tears when reading Greek tragedy or about the victims of Roman imperialism. We were just intrigued by what made this material so compelling to her,” recalls Solomon, an American who grew up in Italy.
There came a time in the 1970s when high-school Latin teachers in the United States were crying for a different reason, as society started to question the relevance of Latin in the curriculum and schools moved to replace Latin teachers with those who taught “living” languages.
“But here in the South, and especially in Tennessee, there was less of that pressure,” says Tsakirgis. “I don’t know why. Perhaps because of some conservatism among educators here. But in fact, while high-school Latin programs in some other parts of the country were reduced in size, that didn’t happen in the Southeast.”
At the university level, however, Tennessee was not immune from the winds of change. Buffeted by accusations that Greco-Roman civilization was both the root of and the justification for our own white-male-dominated world, “classics in general was in danger of disappearing in the ’70s,” says Solomon. “And since then we’ve had to claw our way back year by year.”
A Broader View
But let’s start at the beginning, a few centuries ago, when the study of the classical world was considered in the West to be the very foundation of a good education, when it was the foundation of the United States thanks to our classically trained Founding Fathers, and when, later, it was indeed the foundation of Vanderbilt University.
Vanderbilt started life in 1873 with 10 professors, two of whom were professors of classical studies. “That number, and that percentage, expressed very well how classics was regarded from the foundation of Vanderbilt and of universities across the country,” says Tsakirgis. She points to a framed photograph she keeps in her office of Milton Humphreys, a professor of Greek who was considered to be one of, if not the finest scholar among the 10.
Despite a strong start, however, the growth of classical studies did not keep pace with the growth of Vanderbilt, and by the end of World War II the department was languishing—a victim perhaps of larger forces such as the Great Depression and the war.
Then in the early 1950s, Vanderbilt brought in H. Lloyd Stow from the University of Oklahoma, basically to re-found the department. During the next two decades, Stow steadily grew the department and the faculty until, by 1969, it had six tenure-stream professors.
The secret to Stow’s success was a modern, broad view of classics. “His training at the University of Chicago made him believe that classics was not just the language and literature, as Milton and his colleague had taught, but also the history and the material culture,” explains Tsakirgis. “He hired ancient historians and the first classical archaeologist here. It’s really his vision of a broader classics department that resulted in what we are today.”
To understand the breadth of the discipline now, consider the definition of classics, which is the study of the culture, in a very broad sense, of the lands of classical antiquity. That included everywhere Greeks lived, where people worshiped the Greek gods and spoke the Greek languages—an area that stretched from parts of Spain, France and Italy to Greece, Turkey and Egypt. Ultimately, at the height of the Roman Empire, it included everywhere from Britain to North Africa and from Spain to Iraq.
“If you broaden your focus, you’re looking at men and women, young and old, free and enslaved, and at all the people in the lands that the Greeks and Romans came in contact with.” – Professor Barbara Tsakirgis
These civilizations—which lasted from the eighth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. before gradually giving way to the Middle Ages—are studied through their written culture; through the massive body of literature, philosophy, drama and science that survives them; and, nowadays, through their material culture, the art and architecture, as well as objects of everyday life.
“If you view classical antiquity solely through the lens of what was written down,” says Tsakirgis, “you’re talking about [elite, male Greeks and Romans]. But if you broaden your focus, you’re looking at men and women, young and old, free and enslaved, and at all the people in the lands that the Greeks and Romans came in contact with.”
Comparisons among various types of evidence allow you to get a sense, says Solomon, “not only of how the intellectual elite lived, but how the other 99 percent of Greek and Roman society fared, of what was going through their minds.”
As a classical archaeologist, Tsakirgis spends her summers sifting through material culture at the houses around the Agora, the town square of ancient Athens, on a site that Americans first started digging in 1931.
“I’m interested in the way that people lived in antiquity,” says Tsakirgis. “I have been looking at Greek houses across all the lands where the Greeks lived, considering how they built and lived in their houses. While I’ll grant that temples are wonderful, I think houses ultimately are more valuable for informing us about daily life—in particular about the lives of women, who don’t get much of a voice in literature.”
Abigail Humphrey, BA’03, a double major in classics and French, cites Tsakirgis’ class in Egyptian art and architecture as one reason she was particularly drawn to art history, and to the multidisciplinary aspect of the classics major. “My first course in classics went straight to the heart of my intellectual curiosity for the big picture,” she says. “I decided rather quickly afterward to major in it, as it offered me the opportunity to learn about the philosophies, artistic movements, historical moments, languages, and even the sciences and economic trends that were all great contributors to the centuries that followed, even to how we think today.”
New Answers to Old Questions
While classical studies had begun to reinvent itself, its biggest challenge was yet to come. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as students began to question authority and tradition with a vengeance, classics became a particular target.
It was a reaction against 2,000 years, but especially against 200 or 300 years, of colonial teaching of the classics, says Solomon. The British, in particular, used the classical world to prop up their own empire, to justify their exploitation of their colonies. Many believed that Americans were starting to do that, too, in the 20th century. And the reaction against the inherited American tradition translated into a reaction against the classical tradition, which was largely seen as responsible for many of these international abuses as well as for inequalities in American society.
So classical studies was pushed further toward the precipice and further toward reinvention. “The crisis in which classics found itself was something of a godsend for us,” argues Solomon, “because it really prompted our entire profession to question ourselves and reevaluate not just how we went about our jobs but what classics meant to us. For the first time in 2,000 years, we were giving new answers to those questions.”
For Kathy Gaca, associate professor of classics and director of graduate studies in the Department of Classical Studies, the change couldn’t come fast enough. “I found classics rather overly focused on dead white males when I was an undergraduate and graduate student,” she says. “I stayed in the field partly because I saw great opportunities for reshaping our awareness of women’s history by staying in classics and retrieving women’s experience in antiquity.”
In this effort Gaca got more than she bargained for, as she started studying the impact of warfare on women and children (and girls in particular) in antiquity. “A lot of evidence indicates that they were specifically targeted for exploitation.
“One still has to deal with lots of dead white males to elicit this parallel universe,” she says. “One of my brothers gave me a picture he put together of a woman sitting and looking bemused partly on top of and in the midst of a collage of a bunch of Greek male statues. It’s on my office desk. I’m her!”
Beginning in the 1980s, enrollment in classical studies gradually recovered and grew each year at Vanderbilt. Yet as goes the zeitgeist, by the 1990s there was a growing backlash. Pundits and politicos—mostly conservative though occasionally liberal—lamented the broad, multicultural approach, arguing that universities had gone too far in marginalizing the canon, the writings that are the pillars of Western culture.
Solomon himself agrees with that assessment—to a point. “Most teachers in the last 30 years have gone too far in the opposite direction. Most have taken it upon themselves to emphasize the more destructive aspects of classical civilization, particularly of Roman civilization.
“I think this was necessary at the time to balance, to redress the inequities, in classical education previously. But now, a generation later, I think we’re in a better position to take a more nuanced view. My understanding is that most younger professors in particular are more open to the idea of weighing up the pros and cons.”
Solomon promises in his own Roman Civilization course description that “throughout this semester we will try to abstain from passing value judgments, whether on the excesses of Roman cruelty or on the benefits of Roman empire.”
As for Gaca, “I think there is a creative tension between the two approaches [traditional vs. broad],” she says, “and classics is the stronger for it.”
One for the Parents, One for the Heart
For years Romans had been portrayed as the bad guys in Hollywood movies. But classical studies got a boost from pop culture in 2000, when the more sympathetic portrayal of them in the film Gladiator sent students rushing to Latin classes and pushed up enrollment in Roman Civilization at Vanderbilt by 50 percent.
The spell cast on young readers by the Harry Potter series hasn’t hurt, either. As The New York Times suggested last October in an article titled “Latin Returns from the Dead,” “The resurgence of a language once rejected as outdated and irrelevant is reflected across the country as Latin is embraced by a new generation of students … who seek to increase SAT scores or stand out from their friends, or simply harbor a fascination for the ancient language after reading Harry Potter’s Latin-based chanting spells.” American students are signing up to take the National Latin Exam in increasing numbers.
That trend is reflected at Vanderbilt, which has increased the number of upper-level Latin courses each of the past three semesters. The department is also in the process of adding a new tenured position—the first since 1969—which will bring the faculty total to seven tenure-track professors and one senior lecturer.
“I found classics rather overly focused on dead white males when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. I stayed in the field partly because I saw great opportunities for reshaping our awareness of women’s history.” – Associate Professor Kathy Gaca
The department now has an average of 30 to 35 majors and four to seven master’s students each year. The vast majority of undergraduate students are double majors—“One major they do to keep the parents happy; the other is for the heart,” says Solomon.
Professors describe the typical classics major as a self-aware, mature student who takes a long-range view of his or her education. No one comes to classics as the easy option, as Vanderbilt expects classics majors to read both Greek and Latin at the intermediate level in order to be able to investigate these ancient cultures on their own terms.
In fact, a few years ago when the department added a third major (along with classics and classical languages) with less stringent language requirements, they expected mass defections from language classes. But it didn’t happen. “I give full credit to Vanderbilt students,” says Solomon. “They made the choice, and they didn’t want to be shortchanged.”
Most classics majors do go on to further study, many to law or medicine, realizing there aren’t necessarily jobs available for them to teach Latin at the high school or college level, says Tsakirgis.
Clarksville Latin teacher Ed Long was not the only person interviewed for this article who said his parents were a bit disappointed at first when he decided to major in classics, wishing he had chosen something more marketable. They have since told him repeatedly that they are proud of his career choice.
“I love it,” he says. “I can’t see myself doing anything else. And as a bonus, I get to take students to Italy and Greece every two or three years to show them where it all began.”
Marilyn Reinhardt, BA’71, MAT’73, teaches Latin at Memphis University School, a prep school with three Latin teachers and more than 150 members in the Latin Club. Reinhardt says she originally had planned to be an English teacher, but had such a great professor at Vanderbilt, John Zarker, that she changed her mind.
She also calls her semester abroad in Rome at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies—to which Vanderbilt encourages all majors to apply—“one of the best experiences of my life.”
At least one student majoring in classics went on to graduate work at Vanderbilt and classics teaching positions at the university level before switching tracks: Lynne Ballew, BA’68, MA’74, PhD’75, who now runs a hotel for the homeless in Anchorage, Alaska.
Many majors admit they have no intention of a career in classics. “I just studied it for the enjoyment and intellectual challenge,” says space-tourism pioneer Elizabeth Brown. She says this background has paid off more than expected in the world of British high finance.
“It helps to counteract some negative stereotypes about Americans from the South,” she says. “You don’t expect a redneck to like Cicero!”
Thomas Greener, BA’86, who majored in classical studies and minored in religious studies, is now the minister of a 1,000-member United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C. “Classical studies teaches the most foundational elements of thinking in Western civilization, and those broad themes still influence us today,” Greener says. “It’s hard to watch the current financial collapse and not think about Greek tragedy and hubris in its truest sense. It’s hard to listen to various speakers and not hear echoes of Cicero and Plato.”
“The 21st century is not the first time humans have experienced an explosion of communication, trade, environmental degradation, resource shortage or ideological conflict,” notes Richard Davis Jr., BA’96, who teaches Latin and Greek at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn. “I hope my students learn some sense of how to encounter other cultures inquisitively, respectfully and critically. And I hope they come away with a critical mass of knowledge, as I did, that informs everything else they do—from recognizing a mythological reference in a commercial to reading literature to rhetorically dissecting an inaugural address.”
That is exactly what the Vanderbilt Department of Classical Studies strives for. It trains students to be excellent researchers and writers—which is invaluable in almost any career—but most of all, it trains them to be critical thinkers.
For example, those who have taken Solomon’s classes may find themselves turning to his teachings in Epicurean philosophy during these trying times precipitated by greed and excess.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus and his followers were not addicted to luxury, as often has been the interpretation through the millennia, but were instead concerned with maximizing pleasure in life without becoming either addicted or inured to it. They taught that you should never lose sight of why something is giving you pleasure in the first place.
“The idea is to first begin a complete self-evaluation from top to bottom,” says Solomon. “Rethink everything anyone has ever told you, question every single one of your authority figures. And once you have a better sense of who you are, then you can re-relate to the outside world.”
Not a bad prescription for our times, straight from the classical world.
About this article
Janus rising was written by Taylor Holliday and is ©2009 Vanderbilt University – Originally published in Vanderbilt Magazine in their Spring 2009 issue, the article was republished here with permission| Photo credit(s): Daniel Dubois, Steve Green