Dr. Scott McGill is professor of Classical Studies at Rice University. We welcome him to WIH in his upcoming class “Masterpieces of Ancient Greece and Rome” that begins Monday, March 25. We spoke with Professor McGill to learn why it’s important to study what people did and said 2000 years ago or more.
WIH Reporter: We all know that Ancient Greece and Rome are foundational to western civilization. But, why? What does this really mean?
McGill: Ancient Greece and Rome are foundational because the literature, politics, and art of antiquity have had an incalculable influence on western culture over the past two millennia. To take one notable example, the American system of divided government and of checks and balances is designed on the ancient model. In literature, figures like Oedipus, Ulysses, and Achilles, and events like the Trojan War, have been a central part of the west’s collective imagination really since antiquity. And in art, well, you can’t have the neoclassical without the classical! And so much subject matter in art comes from antiquity.
WIH Reporter: The speed of today’s technology means that we’re used to things becoming obsolete within a few years, if not months or days. In this context, why is it all the more important to step back and take a wider perspective through the study of these lasting influences?
McGill: To understand where we are in history, it is absolutely crucial to know our history. This includes knowing the classical roots of our civilization and the ways that the classical past anticipates our history. To give an example: wealth inequality is a major issue in America and Europe today. This is not just a modern problem. Ancient Rome struggled with the issue, and the historian Livy writes about it in his monumental history of Rome. To see how the matter played out in Rome can give us perspective on our own situation. I also think that the study of the past creates good habits of mind – it inculcates a certain humility, because one sees that one’s own historical moment is not necessarily unique or central in the span of history.
WIH Reporter: What will be the emphasis of your class? Will the main focus be on literature?
McGill: The class will focus on literature. Specifically, we will read excerpts from Homer, Sophocles’ Oedipus tragedies, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and more. It’s really a greatest hits of Greco-Roman antiquity.
WIH Reporter: Who of these greats is your favorite author and why?
McGill: Well, my favorite remains Virgil, whose Aeneid has been central to my research. Virgil has such a finely tuned sense of the human struggle for meaning and community, and his poetry is filled with exquisite melancholy. Virgil also understands capital “H” History in human terms and sensitively registers how that history affects the humans that make it and are a part of it. But really, you can’t go wrong with any of the authors we will read. Homer and Sophocles are incredibly profound and moving authors, and Ovid is one of the most clever and witty poets the West has known.
“Masterpieces of Ancient Greece and Rome” meets on Mondays for 6 weeks beginning March 25.