Philology at Dinner: How I Began to Love Classics

“One should know a bit of philosophy – even at dinner!”

Oportet etiam inter cenandum philologiam nosse.

There are certain important moments or periods in one’s life – those discrimina rerum – in which one discovers a fondness for some pursuit in the world which appeals to their deepest sensibilities. When I was a young undergraduate, I fell into Classics after taking a Classical Literature in translation class. This was enough to push me down the august corridor of university learning to my Greek and Latin classes, but I don’t think that I had a conception yet of how much the study of antiquity would become a part of me. The Classics department (which has now been effaced and subsumed into a generalized ‘Humanities’ program) at my school was extremely small, and offered a course called Self-Paced Introductory Latin, which was in practice Self-Taught Introductory Latin. As I ground through declensions and conjugations, I remember hearing from my friend a story that one of the professors, Dr. Alessi, met once a night every week with a pair of retired ladies to read Latin while drinking wine and eating cheese. Perhaps because it sounded to my young ears like the pinnacle of refinement, or perhaps because it sounded so goddamn Classical, I remember feeling at that very instant the sincere wish that I were there at those meetings, those impenetrable mysteries of a cultured elite whose erudition I could aspire to but never achieve.

At the beginning of my second year in Latin, I had gone through all of Wheelock’s and even managed to read some of Seneca’s essays and a little bit of the Aeneid on my own. Because I had not really received much formal instruction at this point, I remember being shocked that the notes to the edition of Seneca were in Latin. In any event, I was qualified on this basis to sign up for a course which sent a tremor of simultaneous terror and excitement through my soul – Advanced Latin: Poetry. This was my first Latin course with Dr. Alessi, and I was one of only two students to take the course during my entire undergraduate career. (Though Johnny, who took the course with me in the fall of 2006, was only occasionally there for class during the semester, and never enrolled again.) That fall, we were set to read through selections from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which is in many ways the perfect text to keep students motivated through the early period of advanced Latin reading, involving as it does innumerable consultations of the dictionary. (I will never forget the word squama, if only because I opened the dictionary so frequently to search for the adjective squamosus, only to find that I had forgotten it every time, no matter how much I thought that I knew this word.) Any time a textual or interpretive crux would arise, I would answer Dr. Alessi’s questions with the notes found in the commentary, eliciting his reply, “Ah, that’s very nice. It looks like our editor took Dr. Alessi’s Latin poetry class!”

About halfway through the semester, I was walking with Dr. Alessi to his office, when he said, “You know, I conduct a Latin reading group with a pair of retired women. We’re reading Cicero’s Pro Roscio and doing some prose composition. You could probably do it. If you’re interested.” I hardly needed to be asked twice, and found myself around the table in the most expensive house I had ever been in, on one of the ritziest parts of town, reading Latin with a retired doctor and a retired art teacher whose interest in Latin all began with their passion for calligraphy. I was only nineteen, and the warm acceptance which I received there only served further to inflame my ardor for what seemed to me the entry point for serious erudition and refinement. As a result, I got an extra dose of formal Latin instruction every week (these meetings off campus were actually something like three-hour seminars), and began to fall in love not just with the study itself, but with all of the external trappings of it – with the reception of Classics among people who were not even professional Classicists, but saw its value as an enduring part of the history and culture of the world.

The next semester, we read Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. In the following semester, we read Propertius, who was Dr. Alessi’s favorite. As a teacher myself, I realize now that one of the chief joys of the profession is the reward of transmitting your aesthetic tastes to a new generation. So, although many of my friends who know a thing or two about Classics are either wholly indifferent or openly hostile to Propertius, he is forever enshrined in my memory and my heart as my favorite of the Augustan elegists (yes, even above Ovid). Dr. Alessi told us that once you could read Propertius, you knew that you had really arrived in Latin. One day, I showed up to our weekly meeting having translated the wrong poem, and so had to render it at sight – so here, I felt, I had arrived.

In my final semester, we read Petronius’ Satyricon. Ostensibly, this should be one of the most popular of Latin works – it is funny, erudite, written in (mostly) clear Latin, and rendered in a style which we recognize as the form of our own modern novels. Yet, perhaps because so little of it survives, few people whom I know regularly cite it as among their favorite Latin works. Outside of Classics, few people (or at least, few who are not familiar with Fellini’s film) have ever heard of it. Yet it was The Satyricon which firmly fixed my love of Latin, and of Classics more generally, into the bedrock of my soul.

Trimalchio’s dinner is the largest surviving continuous segment of the novel, and while it appears at first glance like something of a simple satire upon the distasteful decadence and gauche absurdity of the freedman Trimalchio, it is at the same time a sort of loving tribute to Classical erudition. As the narrator, Encolpius, enters Trimalchio’s home, he observes some pictures:

“I began to ask the attendant in the atrium what pictures they had in the middle there, and he said, ‘The Iliad and the Odyssey, and the gladiatorial show of Laenas.”

Interrogare ergo atriensem coepi, quas in medio picturas haberent.” Iliada et Odyssian, inquit, ac Laenatis gladiatorium munus.”

There is of course a spoof on Trimalchio’s inclusion of a gladiatorial show next to images from those masterworks of literature, yet the passage nevertheless suggested to me how important the reception of these works was even in Petronius’ time. That is, it is one thing for us to think of these works as ‘classics’, yet they were classics even in the time of those whom we also regard as ‘classic.’ In a sense, this reinforced my sense that I was part of a long-continued tradition of reception and engagement with texts which had formed the backbone of a fascinating culture, whose reference points had been diffused through both space and time and maintained with relative consistency through countless generations. Trimalchio makes various blunders in his attempted display of erudition after he says that ‘one should engage in a bit of philology even at dinner,’ but it felt to me like the attempt to do so was immediately and directly appealing and worthwhile, even though Petronius mocked Trimalchio’s lack of success in it. Indeed, from the moment that Dr. Alessi first told me that Petronius’ function in Nero’s court was arbiter elegantiae, a kind of culture minister, I sensed myself transported with an enthusiasm for really making that culture a part of myself which I had not yet felt before. Until this point, Classics was an object of study and a possible career; after this, it became, for me, a life.

How different my life would now be had I not been invited to those reading dinners so many years ago! They are among my happiest memories of college life, and did so much to shape my own experience of the Classics and of my own conception of myself that I could scarcely imagine a life without them. The experience of reading The Satyricon in Latin, around a table, amply stocked with food and wine, in the company of lovely people who all got the joke and loved the culture, who happily invited me into their lives and into their home, was the pivotal point in my life which turned Classics into something far more than a set of museum busts, decaying ruins, and words not faithfully preserved in dusty tomes.

All of those days are gone now, and the feeling – the experience – could never be replicated. I am left with the joy which the memories give me, and the impact which those readings had on my life, but even my recollection of that time is hardly complete. It has become more fragmentary as I have now grown more than a decade distant from the experience, and in its fragmentation resembles the surviving text of The Satyricon itself – a series of disjointed episodes, existing only in my memory. Large chunks of that memory have perished forever, and what remains is but a loosely-organized set of recollected scraps which, though preserved for now, will one day be wholly lost to the sands of oblivion which have long since buried the rest of life’s text.”

Image result for roman dinner fresco

6 responses

  1. What a different Alessi from the one I knew!

    A great piece, as usual–but it fills me with some sadness because this kind of human connection over and through the Classics is one it is increasingly hard to actually make in or around the classroom. Imagine having to write an assessment plan for the learning outcome that one feels a deep and abiding love/appreciation for the Classics because of the sense of shared humanity we develop during post-prandial discussions of Petronius!

    (Is this a part of the living life through classics theme?)

  2. Actually, I think that the Alessi I knew differed from the Alessi which everyone else knew in some part because I was the only one for several years who ever took his Latin reading course. In the early days, it was a lot of one-on-one time with him in his office, but once we started doing the reading group, I got to see him very much at his ease. I suppose that it helped that I also kept attending even after graduation.

    One student who was on the old ten-year plan and had taken courses with him back in the 90’s (when it sounds like there was actually something of a functional department) said that he was a merciless tyrant in his heyday.

    In the reading groups I saw his passion for Classics pour forth in its purest form. He told me, when you were hired, that he had high hopes for the future of the department, and felt that he could never match your industry and energy, even in his youth. I also remember him lamenting the fact that newly-minted PhD’s were expected to have as many articles and conferences on their CV by the time they began the job search as professors of his generation were expected to have accumulated throughout their careers. Sure, that may be a *slight* exaggeration, but I think that he felt a sense of isolation from the field. Of course, I think that UTSA did much to foster that feeling, and as an institution, I think that it exhausted and embittered many people who no doubt started out with lofty aspirations and a heart full of passion. [I know that this is true of academia more generally, but I can’t think of a professor I had who ever said that they liked it there.] As a result, all of the senior faculty were sad, miserable, and cynical beyond belief. The only exception that comes to mind is Gallagher, who told me one day, “Well, it’s still a hell of a lot better than a lot of other jobs.” Since he worked outside of academia before returning to graduate school, he had a different perspective on the entire situation.

    In any event, this *is* a part of the old “Life in Classics” theme, and came about as I flipped through my copy of Petronius the other day, while simultaneously struggling with the first-week-blues as I lamented how hard it is to teach a subject which you love to students who seem wholly indifferent to it.

    • Alessi certainly was burned out and embittered by UTSA. When I think about how many people had similar experiences there.

      One of the things I really respected about him is that when he retired, he actually did that thing people say they’re going to do–he went back to reading Latin and Greek as much as he could. He was excited to get his office cleaned out so he could get to reading Thucydides. I don’t know if that will be me when I retire.

      But he did retire so early. I can think of 3 or 4 people right off the top of my head who retired right around 60. At my current institution, they might hang around until 70/75. I am glad that these colleagues could retire and had other plans for their lives; but I can’t help but think there were many students’ lives who could have been touched still.

      On the dining and discoursing on philology, you missed plutarch! https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2017/12/15/forget-pepto-bismol-how-about-some-post-prandial-philology/

  3. Thank you for your wonderful article.
    I have always felt an affinity with Latin and the Classical world. Your article has newly inspired me yto study!!! I imagine my knowledge of Italian will help!
    Mille grazie!

  4. This is just beautiful! What a storyteller you are. Reading these autobiographical essays of yours just blows me away every time. Your ability to so seemlessly permit us-your audience-to experience these snippets of the mini emotional roller coasters, which are nested within your memories, always inspires me not only to write more, but also to always pursue my passion and to never lose sight of the experiences that initially sparked it. And, what a laudable thing you’re doing – passing your baton of knowledge and inspiration down to the future generations as it was passed down to you from your predecessors and mentors. What a great piece.

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