Scheuer Family Chair of Humanities
Department Chair, Classics
I studied classics in college because of an amazing teacher, the late James Day of Vassar College, who taught me how much fun Greek literature and Ancient History could be. I got a taste of how exciting scholarship could be from Kenneth Dover, who lectured on Thucydides at St. Andrews University. And I decided to go to graduate school in classics because of a brilliant and exciting book, Augustine of Hippo, by Peter Brown; it was a revelation to me that that classical culture was interesting not just for its own sake, but because of its pervasive influence, directly or indirectly, on so much of our own thinking.
In graduate school, at Toronto and Cambridge, I set out to become a specialist in Late Antiquity, the period in which the Roman empire was falling apart, and when classical thought was transformed by the rise of Christianity. My research focused on one aspect of this: the evidence of the great Roman law codes, which themselves had enormous influence on our intellectual tradition. But my more general interest in the transformation and influence of the classical world has remained an abiding interest in my teaching and, slowly, in my research. For more than a decade I have been working on two of the central figures of Latin literature, the historian Tacitus and the poet Horace. Horace is simply one of the great pleasures of western literature, and I try in my modest way to make those pleasures better understood. Tacitus, however ponderous it may sound to say it, is one of the most profoundly moral writers I know.
In my teaching I try to be sensitive to the later influence and even contemporary relevance of the classical texts. Inevitably, however, the focus is often on more fundamental skills; getting close to the ancient authors means reading them carefully and thoughtfully. For classes in Greek and Latin I am always looking for texts for which it matters that we have read them in the original languages: this is obvious in the case of poetry, but is true even for philosophical and historical writers, where nuances of language can have important consequences. For classes in English translation, which for me are usually classes in Greek or Roman history, I try to provide a reasonable facsimile of the same experience; these courses emphasize the original sources in translation rather than modern narratives, and some of the most fundamental questions are about the complicated relationship between the ancient authors and our modern assumptions about them.