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Report of the 2017-2018 Pearson Fellow

            Setting foot in Cambridge for the first time is like slipping into a castled sylvan paradise, replete with unfurling pastures and meandering streams, quaint storefronts and gothic marvels inlaid with mahogany and velvet. This was, at least, my bright-eyed diagnosis when I first entered the spired town, luggage in tow, and strolled through the looming, palatial courtyards of Trinity College. The surreality of the place only intensified that evening, when I found myself gown-clad and nursing a wine at a classicists’ reception tucked cozily, and absurdly, behind the giant clock face of Trinity’s Great Court. 

Surreal, too, were my first visits to the Classics Faculty, where I met my fellow MPhils – as convivial as they are diverse – and introduced myself to professors whose names used to line my shelves in college. During our preliminary days in the department, we shuffled between library tours and research seminars and wine receptions, while attempting to craft feasible schedules out of the plethora of courses – numismatics, Linear B, introductory German – on offer to us throughout the university.

The fairytale luster of the university faded a little with time, punctured occasionally by household frustrations with 16th-century facilities (devoid of internet) or food (devoid of seasoning) or portraiture (devoid of women), but whatever faults it possessed were invariably outweighed by the sheer wonderfulness of its people. I became fast friends with the classicists in my cohort, with whom I swapped first drafts in the common room and research grievances at the pub. In seminars, we grappled with the ancients (and each other) with equal parts candor and acuity, and settled into debates so lively that they sometimes followed us out the door, to be continued on walks home or at the Granta pub down the road. 

The self-directed nature of the MPhil, which consists primarily of independent research, also meant that I turned often for feedback and guidance to my supervisor, Mary Beard, who had the uncanny ability to lift me out of any intellectual mire with unwavering kindness and wit. Indeed, many of my fondest memories of Cambridge are of the supervisions I attended at Mary’s kitchen table, where we chatted (my comments blustering, hers always astute) about all things ancient about politics, and all things political about the ancients – typically with the aid of either espresso or wine.

I wrote three papers and a dissertation over the year, all under Mary’s supervision. My first essay dealt with the term moderatioas it appears in the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone Patre; my second, with the transactionalist rhetoric of citizenship in speeches of Cicero and Claudius; and my third, with the appropriation of classical antiquity by far-right political groups. My studies also took me beyond the classroom. With financial support from the department and my college, I travelled to Edinburgh for a conference on multiculturalism in the Roman empire, and arranged (also with Mary’s help) a trip to Waddesdon Manor to see the Aldobrandini Tazze, a stunning set of Renaissance silvers engraved with meticulous scenes from Suetonius’ Lives

The discretion we were afforded as MPhil students to design our own academic ventures proved both challenging in its open-endedness and deeply formative to my skills as a researcher. Between supervisions and in the niches of various libraries, I learned to read widely, to finesse meaningful academic questions out of free-floating observations, and to draw up arguments with clarity and precision. Such lessons came especially in handy during my final term, when I began to work in earnest on a dissertation about myths of the Golden Age and their influence on Roman ethnographic writing, a subject as delightful to research as it was difficult to contain.

            Any time that I didn’t spend in alcoves of the Classics Faculty was spent in the happy company of my second family at Trinity College, a group of scholars whose allegiance to their chosen fields was surpassed only by their commitment to each other. It was in the presence of these friends, the kind of people who gave everything willingly and with no expectation of return, that I learned by example how to be a better human, and with them, too, that I immersed myself in that impossible Cantabrigian idyll in between stretches of research: learning to taste wine in wood-paneled back rooms, rowing on the river Cam beneath rosy daybreaks, reading Auerbach in meadows brimming with daffodils.

            These days, I’ve swapped such ethereal scenes for the decidedly less romantic world of contemporary American politics, where I hope to put my newly sharpened research and analytical skills to good reformative use. The lessons I learned in that spired university town, however – about conscientious research, or friendship, or British parlance – are never far from my mind, where I suspect they will remain for many years to come. For that, and for what has been a genuinely formative year in Cambridge, I give my thanks to the SCS and Pearson Fellowship Committee, whose generosity I will never be able to repay.  

Peggy Xu

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