Why Classics: Antiquity Lives on in Modern Society
By Ryan Burns
Latin was a compulsory class in sixth grade, and no one was excited. “Isn’t it a dead language? What’s the point of learning Latin if we can never speak it,” my fellow students would say. I was one of these people. When we got to class, we started learning an endless list of vocabulary on body parts and animals, and next to almost every definition, we would write English derivatives. The word avis (bird), for instance, gives us words like aviary and aviation. As I looked at the list, a sense of wonder replaced my apathy. Almost every Latin word had multiple English derivatives, even though the language had been dead for centuries. Nearly 1,500 years after the western Roman empire fell, the primary language spoken by most Americans still derives over half its words from Latin. This plethora of derivatives I learned in sixth grade launched me into studying Classics.
In seventh grade, I chose Latin rather than Spanish or French, and my Latin teacher made the subject even more engaging. After that, I knew I had a future in studying Latin at a high level. Throughout high school, I engaged in extracurricular Latin at both the state and national levels, and my love for the language never died. Upon coming to college, I wanted to continue with Latin, so in my freshman fall, I took Latin Prose Composition. I loved the course so much that I considered undertaking a Classics minor.
I was never too interested in mythology or history in high school, but I decided to take Ancient Rome with Professor Cam Grey, and the class inspired me to declare a Classics major. He beautifully related Roman history to today’s world, deepening my interest in antiquity. From the ideals the Founding Fathers used to write the Declaration of Independence to the importance of voting in American government, many aspects of our modern world relate to the Classics, more so than people realize. The subject’s connection to our current government, politics, and language makes it relevant even today.
I study Classics because I love making associations between the lives of people from two millennia ago and the lives of people today. The greatest example of this interrelatedness is the Athenian democracy, which gave all the power of leadership to the people instead of one distinct person. The people voted on almost all major state decisions, including laws, wars, and foreign relations. In addition to Athenian democracy, the Roman republic was another form of government that gave power to the people. Referred to as res publica, meaning “thing of the people,” the Roman republic was a version of popular government that began in 509 BCE with the overthrow of Tarquinius Superbus and lasted until 27 BCE when Octavian received the agnomen Augustus. Whether the people actually had power is debatable, but this form of government is fascinating because of how closely it resembles the American government. Since the Romans invented a representative democracy, studying their government can reveal something about our own, including its successes and failures.
Not only are Greek and Roman ideals prevalent in American government, but their influence can also be seen in American architecture. All over Washington, D.C., monuments and buildings incorporate architecture from antiquity or are modeled on ancient Greek or Roman buildings. For example, the Jefferson Memorial’s dome shape with frontal columns resembles the design of the Pantheon in ancient Rome (pictured below). Additionally, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian column styles are an important part of both ancient and modern architecture. By including architectural styles from ancient Greece and Rome, America honors classical society and showcases the plethora of ideas that modern society borrows from antiquity.
Side-by-side comparison of the Jefferson Memorial (left) to the Pantheon (right)
So, why do I study the Classics? It’s about the beauty of the past that informs our future. It’s about a myriad of connections between antiquity and the contemporary world. The bottom line is that Classics interests me, so why wouldn’t I study it? Although Greek and Latin are “dead,” the influence of ancient Greece and Rome on our society has never been more alive.
Ryan Burns (College ’24) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies and Neuroscience.