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The Bumpy Path to Classics

by  Erich Gruen

What put me on the path to Classics? No single event, no flash of lightning, no sudden illumination. Nor was it a gradual move, an increasing affection for a subject that slowly grew on me as I matured, a route that became more distinct and compelling as years passed. It is easy to construct such a smooth course toward an inevitable outcome in retrospect. But that is not how it happened.

Like so many others, I was exposed as a child to the myths and legends of ancient gods and heroes. But the pretty stories, however entertaining and diverting, had no lasting effect. At least not consciously (I can’t speak for the sub-conscious). I did study Latin for six years in Middle School (we called it junior high in those days) and High School - - but not for any admirable reason. Taking Latin meant that one could appear to be among the intellectual elite at school, and superior to the hoi polloi. Hardly a laudable motive, and certainly not one that pointed to a future career. I did enjoy the good fortune (not that I welcomed it then) of having a stern and rigorous teacher who put students thoroughly through their paces- - and also thoroughly terrified them. Nothing was more crushing than to have Mrs. Cantrell say “Erich, will you translate this passage,” and then, after offering some inadequate rendition, to hear her say, “Mary, would you translate that same passage.” I managed to survive with some lasting scars, but never dreamed that I would look at another Latin text again.

When I entered Columbia University as an undergraduate, I had no clear academic direction. But I had definitely come to the right place. Columbia had just instituted a new, experimental system for undergraduates. They eliminated the requirement of declaring a major.  The idea was to present a smorgasbord of offerings and let students pick and choose whatever they liked. (There was, to be sure, a common core in the first two years, in which Columbia was a pioneer and which, in essence, remains to this day. And a “breadth requirement.” But there was no need to specialize). The only limitation imposed was that of a certain number of advanced courses in whatever areas the student selected - - to assure that one did not take only elementary courses in every discipline for four years. Those were what some administrator brilliantly termed “maturity credits.” In any case, it was tailor-made for someone like me who had no desire to specialize and who reveled in taking courses all over the map. Or not altogether all over the map. I gave science and math a wide berth. But I enrolled in whatever would fit on the program in History, English, Classics, Philosophy, Political Science, and Art History. I should note in passing that, after I graduated, Columbia terminated that experiment. Whether my exploitation of the system helped to speed that decision I cannot say.

I certainly took full advantage while I could. As a naïve eighteen year old, I saw four years stretching ahead of me as an endless span of time in which to sample everything, at least in the Humanities. The study of history was among the prime attractions. With so many courses on the docket and so many years available, I felt that I could do it all. It seemed only reasonable to do it chronologically, and to begin at the beginning. That proved to be fateful. I took a couple of courses in ancient history as a sophomore, and the prospect of proceeding through the centuries to the present suddenly seemed less urgent.

One of the mentors I had the great good fortune to encounter in those courses was Martin Ostwald. It was a turning point. Not a sudden flash of inspiration but a thoughtful contemplation of what the future might hold. I came to know Martin in that class. His humaneness and generosity encouraged undergraduates to visit him in his office, which I did on several occasions. Martin was a man of broad learning, wide-ranging intellect - - and deep humanity. Undergraduates, of course, are largely unaware of any differences among Assistant Professors, Associate Professors, and Full Professors. To me, Martin Ostwald was already an august figure, profoundly erudite, a man with an aura of authority, worthy of great esteem. It was only much later that I realized that he was only thirty-three years old at the time! (Many of my graduate students are older than that now). Martin’s kindly and welcoming manner induced me, after the course ended, to seek him out again in his office and to ask his advice on something more than the Cleisthenic constitution. I told him that I was still somewhat rudderless and asked him for suggestions on what direction I might take. He answered immediately: “Why not become an ancient historian?” The idea had, of course, never occurred to me. It would be a bit simplistic to say “the rest is history.” There were twists and turns to come. But Martin Ostwald’s proposal, coming as it did from a man whom I held in such awe, had a telling resonance. I resumed my Latin in the following year and plunged resolutely into Greek.

I do not want to suggest that Martin alone was a formative influence, though he was a formidable one. Some challenges lay ahead for which the assistance of others proved to be instrumental. I entered Oxford to contend with its arduous and intimidating curriculum in Literae Humaniores. The authorities in that venerable institution allowed me to enter its portals, but not without issuing a dire warning. Study any subject you wish, they advised, but not Literae Humaniores. My Greek would not be up to it. I would be competing with students who had been studying the language since the age of eight, and I had only been grappling with it for a couple of years. That sowed some pretty serious doubts. When I struggled with the tortuous Greek of Thucydides, I saw that the doubters had a very strong case. That case was reinforced by one of my fellow students Jasper Griffin who, it seems, had already memorized every line of Homer. (He has subsequently become a life-long friend). There were numerous occasions when I was prepared to jettison the whole enterprise. But my tutors in Oxford professed to find my labored essays at least acceptable, perhaps even promising. The lectures I attended in Greek and Roman history by impressive figures like Geoffrey de Ste Croix, George Cawkwell, and Ronald Syme rekindled excitement in the subject. And the stimulus of first-class contemporaries like Fergus Millar and Glen Bowersock (also life-long friends) offered reassurance that this might indeed be the proper path.  

The years at Harvard that followed also presented some pitfalls. Sterling Dow for whom I had great respect and from whom I learned an immense amount, had the habit of doling out dissertation topics to his PhD students in the form of unpublished inscriptions. That practice had much appeal: it assured an original piece of work, and it pretty well guaranteed publication. Somehow it left me cold. I preferred to select my own topic. And I wondered again about whether I had chosen the right track, even briefly pondered veering off once more. It was a little too late, to be sure. Fortunately I had the option of turning to other mentors, like Mason Hammond and Herbert Bloch, kind and gentle masters who encouraged me to choose my own subject, but who also proved to be exacting and most demanding readers of my work. And one other person needs to be mentioned, not an official mentor, not at my university, not yet even a friend, though he became one for nearly fifty years: Ernst Badian. He was a ferocious critic, as everyone knows - - and he certainly did not spare me. Badian took an interest in my dissertation, read drafts of it with scrupulous care, filled the margins with detailed comments, and mercilessly pointed out every flaw and defect. It was a painful process. But sparring with Ernst (and at least coming out alive) meant that every future trial in the profession would seem a piece of cake. The bumpy road had indeed been smoothed.

As is clear, there was no single moment of insight that showed the way, nor a gradual and steady progress toward a well-defined goal.  But a series of mentors and friends proved invaluable in helping me to negotiate the byways and detours, and to put me back on the right track.


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