The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA

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University of Rochester

The Classics Are Always in Style

By Scott Hauser

he seven students look like a last line of defense as they form a ragged, zigzag line near the front of the classroom in Meliora Hall. Surrounded by another 40 or so empty seats, the students in second-semester "Beginning Greek" could easily seem to a visitor like lone holdouts, perhaps the final seven against a modern Thebes of practical-minded undergraduates who worry more about future careers than future perfect tenses.

But the seven students are an advancing wave. Beginning Greek has not had this many students for as long as Professor Al Geier has been teaching at Rochester--about 30 years.

"This is a lot for us," Geier says as the students trek in. "I don't think we've ever had this many in second semester."

The classics--the study of the languages and literature of ancient Athens and Rome--are experiencing something of a boom at the University. Of course, much hangs on the definition of "boom," but faculty and students agree there seems to be a renewed interest in learning about the ancient underpinnings of Western civilization.

And a little marketing doesn't hurt, either, as the Department of Religion and Classics has found out. Accordingly, the River Campus took on a bit of an ancient Greek and Roman feel last spring as the department sponsored a month-long series of events called "Celebrating the Classics"--which, it turns out, you can do in diverse ways. Such as:

ven at their own departmental gathering, the classics majors are a definite minority. There are only about a half dozen declared classics majors (with another half dozen minoring in the subject), compared to an annual enrollment of 75 to 100 religion majors.

On the River Campus, the College's most popular undergraduate major is in biology and biological sciences with some 350 students. So by that standard, the classics boom is barely a blip.

But courses such as "Myth and Mysteries," "The Ancient World," "The Ideas of the Greeks," "Classical Mythology," "The Homeric Hero," and "I, Claudius" routinely fill up. Something is afoot.

Then there are the language classes, Greek and Latin. They also are seeing record numbers.

Neither is an easy language to conquer, both are decidedly dead, and the benefits are definitely in the eye of the beholder.

Even faculty--who speak of the languages with near veneration (Geier points out that "even the word 'alphabet' is Greek, 'alpha' and 'beta'")--admit that they have limited "instrumentality."

Latin may help in medical or law school, but ancient Greek has little real-world application. A student who struggles through courses in the language at Rochester would not, for example, be easily able to ask for directions to the Parthenon on the streets of Athens today. Even the Greeks speak a different Greek.

he wonderful thing about Greek is that it's not practical," says Geier as his students settle in for a lesson. "The main purpose of studying ancient Greek is to read the great works of Western civilization."

Once in place, the students launch into their translation exercises.

"Know yourself, all things are useful," Sara Mauriello '02 begins. Geier compliments her, but then points out some intricacies of Greek's different cases.

The translation is corrected: "The phrase 'Know yourself' is useful for everyone." That's closer, but not quite it either.

Another student tries, then stops. "Oh, boy," she sighs.

After 15 minutes--including participation from all seven and a detour into a discussion of the "contrary to fact" condition in Greek--the translation is unlocked: "Never mind 'Know yourself.' For lots of reasons, it would be more useful to know others"--a facetious take on the Delphic oracle by the comic poet Menander.

Before long a familiar motto pops up: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor dark of night. . . ." appears in a snippet of Herodotus. (The ancient Greek historian's writings were the source of the phrase made familiar by the U.S. Post Office.)

After class, Joan Coyle '01, a classics major, says that such surprises happen all the time.

"It's just amazing what they wrote," she says. "It's pretty cool to see that the things written centuries ago are still around."

Coyle says she decided to major in the classics after taking "Ideas of the Greeks." She had arrived at Rochester with an interest in ancient languages, and the course solidified her desire to find out more for herself.

Classmate Mauriello says she, too, has become increasingly intrigued as she has progressed through the courses in her major.

"I just think Greek is a really interesting language," she says. "The writers and the philosophers using it had a lot of intriguing things to say."

Not too long ago, the media were painting a bleak picture of the study of the classics, especially the works that form what's long been known as the canon of Western civilization. Political correctness and programs that are (often pejoratively) described as "identity studies" were, it was said, pushing Plato, Homer, Euripides, and other "dead white males" to the margins.

But the classics and their stories often bubble just below the surface of popular culture. Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules are cult hits on syndicated television, for example. And Cold Mountain, the 1997 best-selling and award-winning Civil War novel by Charles Frazier, is loosely based on The Odyssey of Homer.

Rebecca Resinski, an assistant professor of religion and classics who joined the University last fall, is credited by Geier and department chair Emil Homerin with spearheading efforts to revitalize the program.

ar from moribund, classics is a field full of possibilities, Resinski says. Many younger classicists, in particular, are bringing new techniques and new approaches to the study of ancient texts.

Resinski says many undergraduates who take courses in the classics are aware of the modern resonance of ancient Athens and Rome and want to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.

These students are not part of a backlash to political correctness, she says.

"Students feel that this is one way to understand the 20th century," Resinski says. "But what I like about their reasons for taking classics is that they are not privileging one understanding of history and culture over another. They see it as one of many perspectives.

"It's different from earlier generations, when the classics were often seen as the only way to understand the 20th century," she adds. "Students today are a little more sophisticated than that."

Meghan Brown '00, a double major in classics and geology, agrees. At the Roman birthday party, she joined a four-person chorus to read, in Latin, a poem by Ovid telling the story of the city's founding.

"More people are realizing that Greece and Rome are cool, and so are all these other cultures," she says.

"If the classics are the heart of Western Civilization," she adds, "it's important to study them just because they have had so many influences on our culture. There are so many vestiges in our society still."

Ben Mueller '02 says he decided to major in the classics, in part, because his father taught Latin as a high school teacher, giving him an early introduction to the language and culture.

"I find the mythology and the history fascinating," he says. "There's something mysterious, even mystical, about them that I really enjoy."

On the other hand, the ancient stories have a peculiarly modern feel at times, with plots that could have been lifted from today's soaps and tabloids. At the birthday party, students in the advanced Latin class read Livy's account of the founding of Rome describing the fraternal squabbles of Romulus and Remus and their disloyalties and schemes to kill their father. (In another instance of familial dysfunction, the two founders of the Eternal City were famously suckled by a she-wolf as infants.)

onder, if you will, a culture whose founding myth is based on rape, brigandage, fratricide, regicide, and everything else," joked John Arnold, a visiting professor of classics who organized the reading.

Classics students and faculty also teamed up with Rare Books and Special Collections at Rush Rhees to research some of the history of ancient texts. At the library, they found a treasure trove: Latin texts from the 1400s, a Bible from the 1600s, a copy of The Odyssey from the late 17th century.

With their hieroglyphs from different languages, the works are a concrete example of the classics' enduring legacy and their influence on generations of scholars.

Commenting on a 1640 edition of the works of Seneca, one student observed: "The original book is in Latin, and there are notes added in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. It's neat to see the three languages handwritten so close together."

Like most American universities founded in ante-bellum America, Rochester's early curricula relied heavily on the study of Latin and Greek.

Students today have considerably more freedom to choose what to study, which makes renewed interest in the classics all the more notable, many say.

"There actually has been a revival of the study of the classics under the new curriculum, and that basically means that students really want to study them," says Provost Charles Phelps, referring to the Rochester Curriculum, adopted three years ago, that lifts the traditional foreign-language requirement.

Homerin, who took over as department chair in 1997, says the classics major had fallen on rocky times as a result of faculty turnover in the last few years. But he says student interest has been rebounding as the program gets revitalized.

A Sesquicentennial Moment

When the University was founded in 1850, the faculty of eight professors included three who would today be considered part of the Department of Religion and Classics. The founding faculty included one professor each in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew language and literature. The other professors taught history, natural sciences, philosophy, mathematics, and modern languages.

The faculty now is working to strengthen connections between the classics and the religion components of the department. A course on New Testament Greek (that section of the Bible was originally written in the ancient language that lies at the heart of the classics) has been added. And Anne Merideth, an instructor in the department who specializes in the history of ancient Christianity, teaches a course on the New Testament as well as a popular offering, "Magic and Medicine in the Ancient World."

The faculty also is reaching out across disciplines. This fall Geier is teaming up with a professor of mathematics to teach a course on "The Infinite."

And in another good sign, study in the classics has begun attracting Take Five Scholars--participants in the tuition-free, fifth-year program for students looking to broaden their undergraduate education beyond the degree requirements.

The Greeks and their gifts, it seems, are back in style.

Scott Hauser, the Review's associate editor, reports that the classics remain in style in his own household. His dog answers to "Percy," short for "Persephone."

Fifty-seven classics lovers read aloud from The Odyssey in a daylong marathon.

By Scott Hauser

The rosy fingers of dawn had long disappeared behind clouds by the time Rebecca Resinski invoked the Muse to help her sing of the exploits of Odysseus. As the assistant professor of religion and classics recited the first lines of Book I of The Odyssey, the five devotees of Homer who had gathered in the Welles-Brown Room of Rush Rhees Library were hoping a little of the Muse would brush off on them as well. At least I was.

We five, the opening audience, were setting sail on an adventure of an academic and social sort. We were part of an army of 57 people--students, faculty, and staff--who had volunteered to read Homer's epic in a marathon recitation from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. that day.

Resinski, who joined the faculty in 1998, had organized the reading as part of a month-long series of events to highlight the study of the art and culture of ancient Greece and Rome.

She had few expectations for the debut of Homer "live," but was encouraged when she filled all the time slots within three days of requesting volunteers.

"If people want to stay and listen for two hours, that's great; if they want to stay 10 minutes, fine," Resinski said. "As long as Homer is there, I'm happy."

She tried to put those of us whose acquaintance with Homer was--dare we say?--ancient, at ease. What about pronouncing the names, a fellow reader asked. Odysseus and Penelope were easy enough, but what about Telémakhos, Antínoös, Eur´ykleia, Aigísthos, Aíakhos, and Neoptólemos?

Don't worry, Resinski said. The Robert Fitzgerald translation we were using spelled the names nearly phonetically with diacritical marks for pronunciation clues.

Besides, she said, the point was to celebrate Homer, not to win an Oscar for best performance.

When students study The Odyssey and its Homeric companion, The Iliad, one of the first things they are taught is that the poems were composed as oral stories. They were meant to be heard.

Fifth-century B.C.E. Athenians would have gathered at sumptuous banquets--sometimes lasting days, marathon events in themselves--and would have been entertained as orators recited the great foundation poems of Attic society.

The 1999 "banquet" was a more modest spread of bagels and cream cheese (and, becaus0 CUR.END:664 Scan.U WR: O.N:30 a separate table of kosher-for-Passover cake). But the enthusiasm for epic poetry was just as strong.

One of the first readers, John Mill, a graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences, leaned over the podium as he read. His right hand held his place and his left started to wave as Odysseus's son berated the suitors who had taken over the hero's house.

Mill's primary research interest is the acquisition of inflectional language. But, he said, The Odyssey appealed to his former life as an actor: "I couldn't resist," he said. "When I read those stories, I really feel them."

Shirley Ricker '73, '77 (Mas), a reference librarian and bibliographer for the Department of Religion and Classics, had a somewhat less dramatic style, but the former classics major's love of ancient literature was heartfelt.

She had read some of Homer in Greek when she was a student.

"Getting back into it still moves me very deeply," she said. "The beauty, the glory, of Homer is still there."

By noon, readers were well into Book VII of the story's 24 chapters. Throughout the morning, the audience hovered between a half-dozen and a dozen, almost all of them volunteers.

A few more-casual listeners drifted in as the afternoon began. While "a kingly bed, with purple rugs / piled up, and sheets outspread, and fleecy / coverlets in an eastern colonnade" was prepared for Odysseus, a woman in a long-sleeve T-shirt with "Rochester" written on the sleeves slept on a couch.

Odysseus is lashed to the mast to save him from the temptation of the Sirens. The illustration is from a 1669 volume held in Rush Rhees Library.

Soda pop had been added to the banquet table as Provost Charles Phelps read from Book VIII, recounting the fall of Troy and the beginning of Odysseus's travails on his return to Ithaca.

"The story of Odysseus is great fun," Phelps said after handing off the book. "I stepped up as Troy had been sacked and Odysseus started telling the story. I really lucked out."

Erin Zahradnik '02, a freshman majoring in comparative literature, said reading the poem aloud was a different experience from reading the words silently. "It seems more epic," she said. "It sounds more dramatic because it's a poem, and poems sound better when they're read out loud."

At 1:55 p.m., Odysseus was approaching hell. I was at the podium.

The hero had sailed to the edge of the earth, where the shades of the dead came forward to talk to him. Out came Agamemnon, a leader of the Greek army that besieged Troy. He was slain by his wife, Clytemnestra, when he got home. He was not a happy ghost.

"But that woman, / plotting a thing so low, defiled herself / and all her sex, all women yet to come, / even those few who may be virtuous," he told Odysseus.

A few giggles escaped into the room. I took that as a good sign: At least people were listening closely enough to hear the histrionics.

I could only plow on, like a guest at a dinner party who's blurted out that he doesn't really like the pot roast.

"Let it be a warning / even to you. Indulge a woman never, / and never tell her all you know. Some things / a man may tell, some he should cover up."

Could there be a hope in Hades that Agamemnon would say something positive before I had to sit down?

Nope. My five minutes were up and the story moved on.

A few readers later, Douglas Brooks, a professor of religion and classics, would have taken the Oscar (if one were available) for his dramatic reading of one of the poem's most famous sections. As Odysseus commanded his sailors to lash him to the mast so they can sail past the Sirens, and then sail between Charybdis and Scylla, the audience swelled to its peak of some 35 people.

Several listeners left as Brooks handed over the reading duties.

"I would've stayed if he had read the whole thing," said Christina Hong '01, an economics major. She had stopped by because her friend, religion major Melanie Shui '99, had suggested they listen for a few minutes.

Rebecca Green '00, a religion and psychology major, also stopped in for an "hour of entertainment."

"I think it's a great idea," she said. "I liked hearing the different voices."

By 4:50 p.m., Odysseus was back in Ithaca, disguised as a beggar and making plans to oust the suitors from his palace.

The late afternoon sun was slanting in the windows, the banquet table had become a plate of cookies, and the last volunteer finished reading Book XVII.

There were still VII books to go. Time was quickly running out.

"We've gotten Odysseus home, which is a good thing," Resinski said as she took the podium.

But, she went on, to make a long story short, Odysseus eventually defeats the suitors and civil war threatens. The goddess Athena intervenes, telling everyone to put aside their differences and live in peace.

Resinski finished by reading the last few lines of the story, in Greek. The last word of the poem, Resinski pointed out, translates to the word "voice."

As the remaining listeners straggled out, Resinski said she was happy with the day.

"Nobody was ever reading to no one," she said. "That Homer's words were said for eight hours straight, I think is wonderful."

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