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Classics

About the Department

The Department of Classical Languages and Literatures instructs students in the languages and literatures of Ancient Greece and Rome at the highest level that students can sustain. The study of Greek and Latin provides students with superb intellectual training: the intricate structures of the languages require a level of linguistic analysis, evaluation and "decoding" that challenges students to the utmost. Constant attention to complex syntactical structures, varying styles of translation and the role of Greek and Latin in the formation of English deepen students' appreciation of the subtlety, beauty and expressive power of language. In addition, we practice this deep study of language on texts—literary, historical and philosophical—that we admire for the directness and vigor with which they confront central issues of the human condition: love and death, freedom and tyranny, justice and injustice, piety and impiety. This sustained confrontation with classical texts not only heightens a student's sensitivity to literature but also involves her in a kind of cultural odyssey, for she must confront cultures that differ vastly from her own yet are preoccupied with many of the same universal human concerns. That experience of confronting both what is reassuringly familiar and what is disturbingly different builds a student's fund of common humanity.

Although our principal focus is on work in the original languages, we are committed to bringing the classics to as many students as possible through courses in translation, both in our department and in the Program in Comparative Literature. We think that the classics in translation should provide as wide an audience as possible with a foundation in the Western literary tradition and, more broadly speaking, in Western intellectual history. But there is much in the classical world that is decidedly non-Western, for the ancient Mediterranean teemed with an astonishing diversity of cultures. There is no pressing contemporary issue for which the ancient world does not offer an interesting case study in cultural alternatives, and we believe that a classics department should explore issues of contemporary concern through courses in translation.

As we move into the 21st century, our department must, like the god Janus, gaze both backward and forward simultaneously. We should, on the one hand, gaze backward, mindful of our role as guardians of the classical tradition and of our responsibility to maintain the rigorous standards established in the "heroic age" of our discipline. But we must also look forward, constantly re-evaluating how we teach our students and reconsidering what issues from the ancient world can best help our students understand themselves and their contemporary world.