In Memoriam: Garrett G. Fagan

In Memoriam: Garrett G. Fagan

(Submitted by Stephen Wheeler, Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, The Pennsylvania State University)

The untimely death two months ago of Garrett George Fagan (January 15, 1963 -- March 11, 2017), the Irish-American ancient historian best known for his social histories of Roman bathing and the spectacles of the Roman arena, is a great loss to the community of classical studies. A long-time member of the SCS and AIA, Garrett contributed unstintingly to the programs of the joint annual meetings and promoted a wider public understanding and appreciation of the ancient world. Fellow ancient historians have been deprived of a resourceful collaborator in research projects; students and lifelong learners, of an inspiring teacher.

Great also is the loss to the Penn State Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies (CAMS) of a highly-valued colleague. With his interests in social and political history, epigraphy, imperial Latin prose, material culture, archaeology, and Assyriology, Garrett played an integral part in a department that embraced the interdisciplinary study of the civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. During his twenty years of research, teaching, and service at Penn State, CAMS enjoyed a dynamic period of growth in majors, doctoral students, and Education Abroad students. Garrett was especially active in hosting visiting scholars and lecturers for the department and the local chapter of the AIA.

Greatest of all is Garrett's loss to his many friends and to his extended family in State College and Ireland: especially his teenaged sons, George and Emmet; his sister and brother, Linda and Mark, of Dublin; his former spouse, Katherine; and his life-partner of five years, Julia.

The cause of Garrett's death was pancreatic cancer, an aggressive and debilitating disease that evades early detection and is ruthless in its end game. In November 2016, he received the diagnosis that his cancer was late-stage and incurable. Without treatment, he would die in a matter of weeks. Or he could try chemotherapy and see whether he could prolong his life a few months. One can scarcely conceive Garrett's dismay upon hearing his death sentence, but he did not give up hope and was ready to fight the cancer with whatever weapons were available (he even added to his collection of swords a Winchester rifle). For two months, the therapy provided him with brief windows of precious time to spend with his family and friends. But the chemo also ravaged his body, causing extreme fatigue and persistent nosebleeds--adding to the discomfort of the cancer itself. Nevertheless, buoyed by the support of his family and circles of friends at home and from far and wide, Garrett kept defying expectations and reaching new milestones in his radically curtailed calendar: Christmas, New Year's Day, his 54th birthday. At the end of January to everyone's wonderment, he even satisfied the seemingly impossible desire to return to Ireland for two weeks, visiting old friends in Dublin and vacationing for the last time in Galway. When he came back to Pennsylvania, however, he learned that the chemotherapy was no longer working. Garrett commenced hospice care at home. During this time of precipitous decline, he faced the prospect of death with inner calm. He was grateful for the outpouring of sympathy and for the financial contributions in excess of $20K made to the GoFundMe campaign, which his son Emmet started to cover mounting medical costs. He made every effort to collect himself for every visitor and to make the most of his farewells, in spite of his terrible condition. Four months after his diagnosis, Garrett passed away peacefully and with dignity, thanks to palliative care, at home in the hands of his family. All the while, the malignant disease that consumed his vitality could not blot out the remembrance nor diminish the tributes to an extraordinary individual who made the most of his opportunities in life and left a lasting impression on others, both when he was hard at work and when he was the life of the party.

Garrett had a strong sense of his professional calling from his school days. To pursue his ambition, he wended his way from Dublin, Ireland, where he was born and raised, to Canada, Europe, and the U.S., before finally settling down in central Pennsylvania, where he started a family, built his first home, and became a US citizen. His career, which turned out to be more successful than he could have ever imagined, began with an unexpected swerve. It happened the summer he was twelve. As he told the story, his family had made final preparations to move into a new house, but the builders were behind schedule. There was nothing to do but wait the remaining time in makeshift quarters -- rooms conveniently located above his father's dentist office, but in a part of the city Garrett's mother deemed less than salubrious. Maire Fagan placed her Garry under a sort of house arrest to keep him from going outside. She feared that he would get beaten up by the local boys for having the wrong kind of accent. Little did she realize, she was not protecting her son from a bloody nose but giving him the reason to become a classicist. Left to his own devices, and not yet acquainted with video games, Garry spent the summer reading books about the ancient Romans and became taken with the Roman army and gladiators.

The flowering of his classical interests in the summer of 1975 may appear accidental, and perhaps it was, but as Lucretius would say--not an author Garrett was in the habit of quoting (he preferred the epigrams of Martial), nothing comes from nothing. The seeds had already been planted in his first year of Latin at the renowned secondary school Belvedere College, S.J., in Dublin. Belvedere is proud of its commitment to the tradition of a liberal education, which it advertises, with a touch of irony, in a blurb about its Classics program: "when the Jesuits were unable to obtain the services of a lay Catholic teacher to teach the Classics in the 1830s, they took the unusual step of employing a Protestant teacher to do so, so earnestly did they wish to maintain Latin and Ancient Greek." The experience of taking Latin (from Jesuits?) had initially terrified the young Garry, but he quite liked it and took to it. By the end of his summer under his mother's lock and key, he had filled countless copy books with notes and written and illustrated his own history in two booklets, thirty pages each, called The Romans, Volume I and II (source 1, 2, 3, 4). After summer vacation, the teaching staff at Belvedere College became aware of Garry's opus aestivum when he attempted to hand in the booklets instead of a required English essay. His attempt to gain credit for work not done did not quite work out the way he expected. Credit was denied by the English teacher, and subsequently Garry's Latin class received an ominous visit from the headmaster, an event usually associated with punishment for some misbehavior. The headmaster reassured the murmuring class that he was there to award a prize, a prize to recognize a student in the class for excellent work in the Classics. To Garry's astonishment, it was he who received the prize. On his next vacation, his father took him to Rome, a trip that confirmed his calling. They spent two weeks together, getting up at dawn to do all the ancient sites and museums. Garry was blown away and told his father on that trip, "I don't know how it is people make a living at this. But this is what I want to do." Cecil Fagan said, "Sure. I'll support you in that."

Garry went on to Trinity College, Dublin, to earn an honors B.A. (1985) in the areas of Ancient History and Archaeology and Biblical Studies, and qualified for an M.Litt. in Classics (1987) with a thesis on "The Roman Imperial Succession Under the Julian-Claudians" -- a subject that engaged his historical imagination throughout his life and was the focus of his last book project The Political Purge: Origins, Mechanics, and Aftermath, which he was writing under contract for Johns Hopkins Press before he received his diagnosis. At the age of 24, twelve years after the summer spent over his father's offices, Garrett left his patria to enter the Ph.D. program in Roman Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His supervisor was Richard Talbert, who oversaw the production of a patiently researched dissertation on a hitherto unexplored area: the origins, growth, and social aspects of Roman public bathing. Talbert also facilitated a year's research visit by Garrett to UNC at Chapel Hill, where he made contacts with classicists and ancient historians in the U.S. Garrett completed his McMaster doctorate in 1993 and was appointed a visiting professor at Davidson College (1993-1994). He then received a Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of British Columbia for the year 1995-1996. Penn State offered Garrett a visiting appointment in 1996 and the following year a tenure-track position as an assistant professor. Garrett's promotion to associate professor with tenure came in 2002; he became full professor in 2011 and assumed the title Professor of Ancient History. During his tenure at Penn State, Garrett also spent two years abroad: he held an Alexander-von-Humboldt Fellowship at the University of Cologne (2003-2004) and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor-in-Charge at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies. (2015-2016).

Garrett made and secured his name as a Roman social historian through two substantial and influential monographs: Bathing in Public in the Roman World (University of Michigan Press, 1999; reprinted in a corrected paperback edition in 2002), and The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Games (Cambridge University Press, 2011).  He also co-authored with Paul Murgatroyd the textbook From Augustus to Nero: An Intermediate Latin Reader (Cambridge University Press, 2006).  Throughout his career, he was active in multiple networks of scholars and profited from working work collaboratively with his contacts at home and abroad. He especially liked being involved in the program of the joint annual meetings of the APA and AIA (in the case of the latter, he was a member and chair of the program committee for a number of years). He had a knack for parleying the joint APA/AIA sessions he proposed and organized into book publications, especially when the annual meeting took place in San Diego every sixth year from 1995 to 2007. In 1995, he made his inaugural splash in San Diego by organizing the joint APA/AIA session, "Roman Baths and Bathing Culture," at which he shared the dais with the most eminent scholars of his subfield and aired material from his dissertation that was destined for publication in his first monograph. Six years later, in 2001, San Diego was again the site for Garrett's next self-organized mega- joint APA/AIA session "Interpreting Roman Spectacles," which was a preliminary to the publication of his second monograph a decade later. Six years later, at the 2007 San Diego meeting, Garrett mounted his third joint APA/AIA session, "New Perspectives in Ancient Warfare," which became the volume of the same title he co-edited with Matthew Trundle for Brill's Ancient Warfare Series (2010). Six years later, in 2013, the APA/AIA did not meet in San Diego, but coasted up to Seattle. For this occasion, Garrett varied his modus operandi: he co-organized with Paul Christesen the APA Outreach Panel "Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World," which was a preview of A Companion to Sport and Spectacle in Greek and Roman Antiquity, edited by Paul Christesen and Donald Kyle (Wiley, 2014), to which he contributed a chapter on gladiatorial combat.

In the annals of the AIA, it will also be remembered that Garrett organized for the 2002 meeting in Philadelphia a workshop on the controversial subject of pseudoarchaeology, in which he gathered archaeological authorities to think about pseudoscience as a social phenomenon. This event resulted in his edited collection of papers Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public (Routledge, 2006). In retrospect, this book turned out to be prescient of the hegemony of alternate facts in a post-truth era.

At the end of 2013, Garrett was invited to be a guest blogger when the APA rebranded itself SCS; his brief was to comment as a classicist on contemporary issues. He wrote three blog-pieces that are still relevant:

·      Bombing Syria and the “Logic of Empire" (11/5/2013)

·      Classics and the "Crisis" in the Humanities (12/12/2013)

·      Climate Change and the End of Civilization(s) (1/27/2014)

Garrett's most recent research project was to co-edit with Werner Riess The Topography of Violence in Classical Antiquity (University of Michigan Press, 2016), for which he wrote two chapters, one on urban violence, the other on the manipulation of space in the arena.  At the time of his death, he was carrying out his duties as co-editor of The Cambridge World History of Violence, taking responsibility for vol. 1: Prehistory and the Ancient World.

Garrett's skills as a public lecturer were always much in demand. He was an expert consultant and on-screen contributor for several television series, including NOVA's "Secret of Lost Empires" and The History Channel's "Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire." He also recorded 108 video lectures for three series in "The Great Courses" program.  He had also been a national speaker for the AIA since 2007 (and long-standing President of its Central Pennsylvania chapter). Nowhere, however, was he in better form as a presenter of antiquity than at an archaeological site in the Mediterranean. He was a co-founder of Penn State's education abroad program in Rome and a veteran of its Athens program. He also enjoyed accompanying and guiding passengers of Mediterranean cruises on their port calls to the rich remains of classical antiquity.

At Penn State, Garrett taught Latin at all levels (his favorite author was Tacitus), Roman history and civilization, and signature courses such as "Ancient Warfare" in the ancient Mediterranean world, which students filled to capacity. He was also the doctoral supervisor of Andrea Gatzke, whose dissertation "Language and Identity in Roman Anatolia: A Study in the Use and Role of Latin in Asia Minor," was approved in 2013. She accepted a tenure-track position in History at SUNY-New Paltz in the same year.

In sketching the life and achievements of Garrett G. Fagan by way of tribute, I cannot but feel inadequate to the task, knowing how much there was of him that I cannot capture in words.  Some will be better able to assess the significance of his scholarly work that began by extending Roman social history into the bathing complexes described by classical archaeology; and that continued more recently by applying psychological and sociological theory to his historical interpretation of spectacles of violence.  Others will appreciate his gift of making the ancient world more accessible and relevant to the present:

To learn about the people of antiquity is to examine the foundations of how we live today. They are at once alien and familiar, an image of ourselves glimpsed in a distant mirror. (source)

Garrett's scholarship, teaching, and career was never about himself, but about sharing the experience of contemplating the past with colleagues and students. This meant that he did not indulge in obscurantism or "mind-numbing overspecialization," as my Assyriologist-colleague, Gonzalo Rubio, observes elsewhere. Garrett was a breath of fresh air not only in the current academic climate, but also thirty years ago at a time when the air had been sucked out of the room by the last generation of traditionalists. Given Garrett's conviction about recovering the past, one may wonder what image he glimpsed of himself in the distant mirror of the Romans. To judge from his actions in his professional life, he recognized the benefits of hard work (industria) and the importance of mutual trust (fides) in friendship, politics, and battle.  Like the Romans, Garrett also observed the strict division of the day and week into time for business (negotium) and time for play (otium). He managed his day efficiently so that he enjoyed both. What he did or said in his leisure never impinged on what he did or said when he worked. Public and private life were completely separate. The joy of Garrett's life was that his negotium was another kind of otium.  Every day he got up and, with the assent of his father, aptly named after Caecilius, he went to work with the Romans.

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(Photo: "Candle" by Shawn Carpenter, licensed under CC BY 2.0)   

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