“The School of Athens” (1509-1511) fresco by Raphael. Credit: History.com
By Olivia Wells
When people ask me what I’m studying, I often find that they don’t understand what I mean by “classics,” and in the rare case that they do, they sometimes can’t wrap their head around why I’d want to major in it.
Sadly, it’s not hard to see why I, as well as other classics majors, often find ourselves defending our discipline. Once regarded as a foundational precept of humanities, classical studies has since seen a decline in popularity over the past century. According to the Society for Classical Studies, in recent years, more and more high schools – especially public schools – have removed their once-widespread Greek and Latin requirements, with many schools cutting the course offerings entirely. Now, if a secondary school boasts classes in Greek, Latin, or ancient history, they are often offered as electives, not requirements, making it difficult for many high school students to catch even a mere glimpse into the ancient world.
When someone I meet gives me a quizzical look and asks – “Why classics?” – I, like many of my peers, have a go-to response at the ready. But since joining the staff of Discentes last fall and meeting more undergraduates from Penn’s classical studies community, I’ve begun to wonder how my friends and classmates would answer the same question. Although our Department of Classical Studies here may be one of the smaller departments on campus, the passion, spirit, and curiosity we have for what we do is robust – whether you’re sliding into the last seat of Professor McInerney’s ancient Greek history class or walking through the Greek and Roman galleries of the Penn Museum, it is hard to miss our department’s energy.
To take a closer look at this enthusiasm for the ancient world, I turned to my fellow classmates, asking them to tell me in just one sentence – “Why classics?” – I found myself facing a range of responses, including answers from each undergraduate class and each Classical Studies major track – Classical Civilizations, Classical Languages and Literature, and Mediterranean Archaeology.
Several students voiced their appreciation for our department’s expert faculty and wide range of semesterly course offerings: “I love how interdisciplinary the field is – I’ve greatly enjoyed the range of courses [Classical Studies] is able to offer, having taken some on archaeology, language, and literature!” shared an anonymous classmate. Joshua Rose ‘23, a Classical Civilizations concentrator, agreed, writing, “The department has some of the most interesting courses on campus with a group of fantastic, and very supportive faculty.”
Other classmates shared their love for ancient myth and epic: “I’m incredibly fascinated with immersing myself in the world of the ancients – especially through mythology! – while bringing my own modern perspectives into the picture alongside it,” said Lauren Davis ‘24, who is concentrating in Classical Languages and Literature. “I’m in love with classics because of two works: Homer’s Iliad, and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, Vols. I and II,” recent Classical Civilizations graduate Kate Kelly ‘21 wrote. When I asked her to share more about her two favorite titles, she added, “I was enthralled by the characters in the Iliad, especially Hector – he’s stalwart and heroic without any self-entitlement, and is the complete opposite of his brother, Paris. [Reading about Hector] prompted me to search for a collection of mythology so that I could read the story of Paris and the Golden Apple, which led me to Graves’ two-volume collection. The captivating way that Graves narrates the fictional yet complex universe of Greek mythology – a whole world layered on top of the actual ancient civilization – is the reason I became a classicist.”
Several majors expressed their interest in looking at the past through a present-day lens. Alicia Lopez ‘23, a Classical Languages and Literature concentrator and Discentes Articles editor, wrote,“Studying the classical world allows us to better understand modern art, language, and literature; through studying classics, we learn more about our present day.” Directly addressing his concentration in Mediterranean Archaeology, Jack Clark ‘22 answered that “Archaeology provides us a means by which to reclaim and rediscover human culture of the past.” Sara Chopra ‘22, Discentes Editor-in-Chief, summed up her reason for choosing classics: “It’s amazing how by taking a look at the past, we can understand antiquity, explain the present, and unpack everything in between.” When I asked her to tell me more about her experience as a Classical Languages and Literature concentrator, she answered, “When I initially entertained the idea of exploring classics in college, I thought that classical studies was strictly about studying the ancient world. However, my time in our department has shown me that our discipline is much more than that. Whether by presenting me with two thousand year-old love letters that read like they could have been written yesterday, or encouraging me to juxtapose ancient Mediterranean societies with contemporary America, classics constantly invites me to view the world of then and the world of now in parallel. Deepening my understanding of the past has inspired me to take on new perspectives and explore new curiosities of mine in the present.”
Finally, Olivia Lee ‘24, a Classical Languages and Literature concentrator, added a sentiment that many other classmates likely share: “[Classics is] something that makes me happy and keeps me interested in learning.”
As you can see, while many Classical Studies majors at Penn chose classics for similar overarching reasons, each one of us is inspired and engaged by a different facet of the discipline – whether we’re going on archaeological digs, translating ancient mythology, comparing classical and contemporary societies, or doing a mix of it all, every one of us has our own niche, our own story, and our own perspective. As we head back to campus this fall, returning to Claudia Cohen Hall and welcoming new students to our department, I’m excited to continue exploring our discipline and find even more “whys” along the way.
Olivia Wells ’22 (she/her) is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies with an emphasis on Mediterranean Archaeology and minoring in History and French.
 “An Undergraduate Degree in the Classics,” Careers for Classicists, Society for Classical Studies. https://classicalstudies.org/education/careers-for-classicists/an-undergraduate-degree-in-the-classics