“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.”