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Winter 2001
Classics never go out of style

by Paula Holzman '01

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Ro-ma, Ro-ma, RO-MA, RO-MA. The chant echoes through the late fall air along with the muffled clump of sword against wooden shield. Twelve men clad in sandals, cloaks and burnished armor march in formation, their chant increasing in intensity until it dissolves into a single yell. They surge forward, swords extended in front of them, straight toward the Steinman College Center.

A ring of spectators braves the blustery cold to watch the Romans demonstrate various troop maneuvers. Children wearing miniature cloaks and carrying tinfoil shields and pila (spears) hover on the edges of the crowd, while their parents snap Polaroids of marching men in chain mail and Marvin the Martian-type hats boldly charging down the cement sidewalk. "Mommy, what are they doing?" asks one small voice.

What, indeed?

Call it the Classical West meets the Wild West. These latter-day "Romans" are members of Legio XXIV, a troupe of Roman re-enactors from Central Pennsylvania. "Defending the Frontiers of Ancient Rome in the Mid-Atlantic Province of North America" reads the gray-marbled brochure the men are handing out.

The re-enactment raises more questions, of course. Why does F&M devote an entire department to studying a few groups of people who lived thousands of years ago? Why do students spend hours learning so-called dead languages like Latin and Ancient Greek and poring over books whose authors were reduced to dust eons ago? Why study classics at all?

A certain allure Professor Michael Flower is frustrated. As head of the classics department, he has to field the same questions over and over again. "There's always been a certain objection to the relevance of classics," he explains.

"I tell parents your children should study what interests them. The subject doesn't matter."

But Flower is also quick to point out that majoring in classics does have its practical applications. He ticks off the more conventional justifications: Greek is useful for medical school and Latin for law school. Analyzing text is good practice for the rigors of law school. But there is more beyond these explanations, Flower says.

Ancient civilizations have a certain allure that has been preserved in modern culture. Rome is everywhere you look--from government buildings in Washington, D.C., to casinos such as Caesar's Palace, to movies such as Disney's Hercules and last summer's blockbluster, Gladiator.

At F&M, there's been a boom in Latin enrollment: Introductory Latin and Roman history classes have swelled to an unheard-of 38 students, and the waiting list for Roman history has at times been more than 100 people long.

Popularity for the classics, says Flower, goes in cycles, but the classics never go out of style.

The classics department is divided into three sections: Latin, Greek, and classical archaeology and ancient history. Beyond staples such as Greek, Latin and history, students may take courses such as "Ancient Laughter," which focuses on ancient comic drama, or spend an entire semester studying the works of Herodotus, Livy or Euripides.

"One appeal is the quality of the writing: Homer, the tragedians, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle--the quality in and of itself is a great draw," Flower says.

The study of classics has long been one of the foundations of a liberal arts education. The curricula of both Franklin and Marshall colleges as well as early F&M were all based in Latin, Greek and philosophy.

A freshman at Marshall College in 1837 could expect to study Cicero's Select Orations, ancient geography, ancient history, Horace's Odes and Homer's Iliad during his first year. At Franklin College, in 1848, students took Latin grammar during their first year.

Then, as now, classics had its detractors and defenders. Lewis H. Steiner, librarian of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, gave an address titled "The College and The Old College Curriculum" at F&M's centennial celebration in 1887.

"The age is one of steam and electricity. Our teachers [believe they] must present nothing to our children that will make them pause and cast a longing look at the past! We want none of the so-called culture of the dead languages. Teach us only things that are practical!" he lamented.

But "Latin and Greek, instead of being dead, are really manifesting a perennial life throughout the literature of all countries, because they are the custodians of thought and beauty that belonged to the human mind, when it was untrammeled by traditions and reveled in close contact with truths of nature," he concluded, arguing that an education in classics truly did prepare young graduates for the coming 20th century.

   

For the full text of the article, please see the print version of the magazine.

Related Links

Legion XXIV MA Homepage
Defending the Frontiers of Ancient Rome in the Mid-Atlantic Province of North¾ America.

The Encyclopedia Mythica
Browse this encyclopedia on mythology, folklore, legends, and more.

The Perseus Project
Look through a massive library of ancient art objects, sites, and buildings put together by Tufts University.

Roman Bath
Spend a day at the baths by visiting this companion site to the PBS NOVA series, Secrets of Lost Empires.

       
   

 

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