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Falling for the Classics

The love of the text ignites this close-knit group in Manhattan

Call it love. Call it fervor. Call it an inner need that could not be quelled

If an old-style Swarthmore honors seminar was reborn in Manhattan, it could well be New York City’s Ancient Greek Reading Group.

Often gathering in a SoHo loft, members come by train from Westchester County and the Hudson Valley, by subway from Manhattan and Queens, and, for the group’s first five years, by car from Swarthmore driven by the original mentor, Gil Rose.

The small group of readers, who have met monthly for more than a decade, are drawn together by their deep respect for the ancient work and an unquenchable desire to continue to learn from it.

In the seminar tradition, they discuss text for four to five hours, with a nontraditional break for sushi, wine, and, yes, the occasional fig.

The club formed from Rose’s “The Athenian Golden Age,” a 2006 course offered in New York through Lifelong Learning at Swarthmore. A few alumni wanted to read the Greek classics in the original. Rose, the Lippincott Professor Emeritus of Modern and Classical Languages, was game.

Rose had fallen hard for ancient Greek during his senior year at Berkeley.

“It appealed to something deep inside me,” he says, noting that he even dreamed in the language, “and I attacked the first year of Greek ferociously.”

Barbara Probst Morrow ’66 majored in French at Swarthmore but came to the group with a master’s in classical Greek from Columbia. A member of the four-person editorial staff at The New York Review of Books in the ’70s and ’80s, Morrow is now on the board of the Friends of the Hastings-on-Hudson Public Library in Westchester County, N.Y., and leads ESL conversation classes at a center for new immigrants. Her motivation for taking on ancient Greek was to read the Iliad in its original language.

“The figure of Achilles deeply attracted me,” says Morrow. “More than any of the other heroes, he is able to face—to accept—his own death. I think ancient Greek language and literature resemble Achilles.

“I continue to love the clarity I find in ancient Greek, and to be exhilarated and, at times, defeated by its complexity.”

Demetri Bonaros ’97, who lives in Astoria, Queens, is one of two original members still involved in the group. The initial undertaking was “the ultimate eccentricity,” he says.

Despite having grown up in Athens, Bonaros insists his knowledge of ancient Greek was almost nonexistent. The start of the group “was entirely unexpected” for the math and theater major—“one of those serendipitous and life-changing events.” He’s gone on to co-run Eclipses Group Theater New York, a “cultural bridge between Greece and the U.S.,” promoting modern and ancient Greek performance art. The reading group was in attendance for Hercules: In Search of a Hero, Bonaros’s translation of excerpts from Euripides’s plays Alcestis and Hercules, exploring gender and heroism.

Classics major Jane Alpert ’67 still recalls her joy at Swarthmore while “hooked on the mystery and arcaneness” of ancient Greek— “the sense of being initiated into another world that others didn’t have access to.” A charter member of the reading group, she encountered some anxiety before their first session, “with the very easy assignment, just crying at my desk because I’d forgotten more than I remembered.” She persevered, though, and has been an active participant ever since.

Though grammar work is no longer assigned in the group, the session format remains the same: Members decide what major work they’d like to take on, translating 300 to 400 lines for each meeting. They may get through half that amount together—translating directly from the text, with some discussion of interpretive and grammatical issues.

The current group includes two Harvard grads and has attracted new mentors as needed—including two Rose protégés, Carolyn Jones Dewald ’68 and Rachel Kitzinger ’69. For now, the group alternates between Dewald leading them in histories and Kitzinger doing tragedies.

This spring, they completed Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War with Dewald, a professor emerita of classical studies at Bard College. With Thucydides’s primary focus an exploration of military and political power and its abuse, Dewald considers his observations and analysis about Athens in the 5th century B.C. “all too depressingly relevant today.”

Dewald was guide as the group toiled its way through Thucydides’s complex syntax and vocabulary, focusing discussions on the central issues of Greek civic culture and the way political decisions by individuals and groups had enormous consequences for Greek—and even European—history.

“Our intrepid seminar members really got it,” Dewald says—finding especially gripping the work’s depiction of the complete collapse of the Athenian democratic state.

Led by Kitzinger, professor emerita of classics at Vassar, the group is now tackling the Eumenides, the last play in Aeschylus’s great Oresteia trilogy. The works chronicle Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband, Agamemnon, for his sacrificial slaughter of their daughter, Iphigenia; Orestes’s murder of his mother to avenge the death of his father; and Orestes’s trial. On a grand scale, Kitzinger explains the trilogy as the movement from the justice of familial vengeance to the justice of the law court in a democratic state.

For Kitzinger, part of the attraction of these meetings is finding an opportunity in retirement to return to reading Greek literature for pleasure— “no grading, no papers, just the love of the text.”

Over the years, members have become close. They don’t socialize much outside their meetings, but they’ve been through major life events together. What unites the Ancient Greek Reading Group—and why members have been drawn to this group for so long—is the opportunity for reflection. To quote Plato (who is believed to be quoting Socrates):

The unexamined life is not to be lived.

“It’s an amazing piece of wisdom that comes from a small community in Greece some 2,400 years ago,” says Rose.  

Morrow agrees.

“I obviously come down firmly on the value of the humanities and classical language,” she says. “It’s beauty and it’s truth. If you have the chance to study Greek or Latin, seize it.”

All Ancient Worlds

The new classics offerings have encouraged intellectual exploration without excluding curious students who haven’t yet mastered the language, says Provost and Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton.

Even in study of antiquity, there are opportunities to evolve, says Swarthmore Chair of Classics Grace Ledbetter. A recent review of how requirements were assessed for the classics major revealed an out-of-date assumption that students must have already had a background in Greek or Latin—credits for beginning courses in those languages didn’t even count toward the major.

Soon, the department was envisioning ways to keep classics both a rigorous academic discipline and an inclusive, evolving curriculum.

“We wanted those credits to count,” says Ledbetter, “and to acknowledge that many people don’t necessarily study Greek or Latin in high school.”

And so, a new option emerged: classical studies. “The classical studies major allows students to count any language work they do in Greek or Latin, but does not require them to do work in the languages,” says Ledbetter.

Faculty added a double-credit classical studies capstone seminar with all readings in English. Greek, Latin, ancient history, and classical studies can be studied as majors or minors in either course or honors. Three of these subjects (Greek, Latin, and ancient history) require advanced work in one of the original languages; however, a major or minor in classical studies does not require, but can include, language study.

The move to offer an option that did not require language study was bold, says Ledbetter.

“The idea of having a major that didn’t require the languages appeared threatening to what we consider the center of what we do, which is to teach the ancient languages, and to teach them really well,” she says.

Initial concern stemmed from the notion that if the department offered an option that did not require language study, students might be less likely to major in Greek, Latin, or ancient history. However, “our idea, which turned out to be accurate, was that some people who might be interested in classical studies—and not the languages—might become motivated to learn the languages, which is exactly what has happened,” Ledbetter says. “We still regularly send students to the top Ph.D. programs in classics, and those students have read a staggering amount of Greek and Latin in our program—for example, the entire Odyssey in the Greek Epic honors seminar.”

The new classics offerings have encouraged intellectual exploration without excluding curious students who haven’t yet mastered the language, says Provost and Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton.

“Our extraordinary faculty have not only increased class sizes, but have reminded all of us that inclusion and accessibility reveal what a true liberal arts education offers,” she says. “From gods to ruins, odysseys to mountains, classical studies is a 21st-century program for students seeking answers to humanity’s most vexing and timeless questions.”

Other innovations have included offering classical Hebrew and new courses in Sanskrit; supporting an increasing number of students to work on archaeological digs over the summer; as well as lectures and social gatherings to foster a sense of community.

“Although it is not yet a permanent part of our program, the courses we have been able to offer in Sanskrit during the 2018–2019 year have been a huge success,” says Jeremy Lefkowitz, associate professor of classics. “Not only is the Sanskrit language as rich, beautiful, and challenging as any I have ever encountered—I have been enjoying studying it for over a year now, too—but offering Sanskrit also shifts in positive ways the demographics of who studies classics.

“Moving forward, we need to think about becoming a department invested in the study of the ancient world in all of its diversity,” he adds. “Classics has always been concerned with philology and the unearthing and re-animating of buried, silenced worlds—there is no limit to how broad and diverse our vision of antiquity can become.”

Lefkowitz hopes the next decade will reveal an even more radical evolution of the classics, both on campus and beyond.

“We must continue to broaden the boundaries and parameters of what and how we study, and seek ways to make our field more responsive to, and representative of, the diverse society of which it forms such a vital part,” he says.

To Ledbetter, the addition of classical studies was a great step forward. “These changes have expanded us,” she says. “This is the wave of the future.”