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In memoriam: Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun has died.

Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University historian and administrator whose sheer breadth of scholarship — culminating in a survey of 500 years of Western civilization — brought him renown as one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died Thursday. He was 104.

His death was announced by Gavin Parfit, his son-in-law, the Associated Press reported.

Dr. Barzun was 92 when he published what is widely regarded as his masterwork, “From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present.” Journalist David Gates spoke for a majority of critics when he wrote in Newsweek magazine that the book, which appeared in 2000, “will go down in history as one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.”

(Thanks to John J. Miller for the link.)


The Best Ancient Armies?

Right now, has a quiz called “Who boasted the best ancient armies?” if you’re interested.


In memoriam: J. Rufus Fears

J. Rufus Fears, Professor of Classics at the University of Oklahoma and widely recognized as an outstanding teacher, has died:


It is with heavy hearts that we announce that our friend and colleague, the historian of liberty J. Rufus Fears, died Saturday night. Dr. Fears was the Dr. David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow for Freedom Enhancement at OCPA and we had the distinct honor of working closely with him for the last several years.

Dr. Fears wrote many books and articles and even served as dean for the University of Oklahoma College of Arts and Sciences. But, as anyone who knew him can tell you, one word describes him best: teacher. He taught large classes. He graded students’ papers himself. He was a master storyteller who brought history to life. His students loved him. In all, he amassed more than 25 awards for teaching excellence.

University of Oklahoma president David Boren said simply: “Rufus Fears was one of the greatest teachers in the history of our state.”

There is more here:

Three-time student-selected OU Professor of the Year J. Rufus Fears died Saturday, according to a press release. He was 67. Fears was well known for his classes Freedom in Rome and the Freedom in Greece, which were two of the most popular courses on campus, according to the press release. The cause of Fears’ death was not given.

“Rufus Fears was one of the greatest teachers in the history of our state,” OU President David Boren said in a statement. “His death is not only a great loss to the university but to the future generations of students who will be deprived of learning from him in the classroom … Our hearts go out to his wife, Charlene, and their children.”

And remembrances from students here.


GapVis: Visual Interface for Reading Ancient Texts

You may know that I teach Latin in a public high school, and that my school is in the midst of a major technology push involving $2.4 million invested in MacBooks for teachers and iPads for all. Of course there’s the usual resistance — or at least disconnect — from faculty who are uncomfortable with technology. But I’ve made it a priority to find things that students can do to enrich their experience, and in my searches for iPad compatible site I was very pleasantly surprised to find GapVis.

GapVis is a product of GAP, the Google Ancient Places project, and has its roots in the HESTIA project, which focused on plotting places in Herodotus. GapVis expands on that idea by pulling texts on ancient history from Google Books and offering the reader a visualization of the places mentioned via Google Maps.

GapVis reading view

The "reading view" of the Histories of Tacitus, from GapVis.

I was so happy to find a site like this because, as any one who has read ancient history knows, without careful attention to geography, it can quickly become very difficult to follow texts with any real precision or deep understanding. Visualization is key, and is one of the reasons the Robert B. Strassler’s ‘Landmark’ series has been both so popular and so helpful.

GapVis can not yet approach what the ‘Landmark’ editions of ancient historians offer, such as carefully edited maps, scholarly appendices, and contemporary translations, but that’s not really the point. I think that what makes GapVis such a treasure is its interactive nature and its potential, even in a beta offering.

The texts are often problematic, considering the state of OCR text from scanned books that haven’t been carefully reviewed. And often places are misidentified by similarities in personal names, etc. But this can lead to productive activities for students and ensure a close reading of texts. Students may be assigned particular passages and asked to perform certain tasks, including checking the place identification and reporting problems to the GapVis team.

I think this is a tool to watch and one that has pedagogical potential even today. I’m looking forward to see where it goes.


The original Roman constitution (Mommsen 1.5)

Mommsen continues to reveal something of his personal feelings when talks about such things as nature furnishing the Romans with the perfect order for the family: the father at the head, and all others subordinate. He loves hyperbole, again and again informing us that the Romans accomplished nationhood and the family more perfectly than any other people.

His etymological games recur as well, and often make me wince. Because of a certain fixation with numbers as the basis of so much in Roman society, he wants soldiers to be the ‘thousand’ marchers, though the root may well be connected to the Sanskrit mil-, meaning ‘assemble.’ In that case, the soldiers, milites, would be those who go in formation, just as comites (companions) simply go together.

The reason I give these off-the-cuff etymologies (cp. my derivation of Latium as ‘wetland’ from *lat-) is to show the lack of real authority for his guesses (even if I do find mine more convincing). His attempt to connect populus (people) and popla (butcher) is also unfortunate.

The real value of the chapter is what he has to say about the essential foundation of Roman society and the distinction between one’s place in his family, under the pater familias, and within the community under the law.

Law was Mommsen’s real area of expertise, and it shows, keeping in mind that the whole picture is an idealized distillation of the facts intended to give a picture of the Roman constitution at its earliest stage.

This may a good point to remind ourselves that the theoretical, conjectural, and background work should largely be done by the end of volume one, and then we’ll be on to history proper. Stickit out. I think the payoff will be worth it.


List of Significant Scholars

Nearly four years ago I compiled this list, though the reasons are beyond me. I’m not sure why I called it the ‘List of Significant Scholars.’ I have a vague sense that I was thinking of scholars whose work was either personally important to me, or else a major figure in terms of published work in an area with broad appeal. Looking over it now there are many omissions.

At any rate, I’m only posting this as a trial of a Google Docs feature, which allows you to publish documents on the web. It would be fun, though, to compile a list like this and pit scholars against one another in brackets. Maybe we can set that up in a few months and have our own March Madness to see who stands in the end as the most significant  scholar in Classics (unscientifical as it may be). So without further ado, my ‘List of Significant Scholars’, compiled for some reason in February, 2007:

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Classical Geek

This is just a note of thanks to all of those who supported us while our former vendor let us down.

We’d also like to announce our partnership with a new t-shirt shop. Check out our new store, Classical Geek, either here at the CAMPVS or on You’ll also find them in our sidebar.


Who owns the Latin language?

NB: We have ended our partnership with Zazzle. Please visit our new store, Classical Geek.

You’ll notice that the link to the Zazzle store has left our sidebar, but you won’t believe why. I’m not supporting the site until they come to their senses and restore our ILLO MODO VOLVO t-shirt, which has been been pulled because of an erroneous intellectual property claim.

Here’s the first notice I received:
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B.M.W. Knox, R.I.P.

A personal favorite has passed:

Bernard Knox, 95, Classics Scholar, Dies

Bernard M. W. Knox, an authority on the works of Sophocles, a prolific scholar and the founding director of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, died July 22 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 95.

The cause was a heart attack, said his son, MacGregor.

An American born and raised in Britain, Bernard Knox led a life as richly textured as the classics he interpreted for modern readers. After studying classics at Cambridge, he fought with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. While serving in the United States Army during World War II, he parachuted into France to work with the resistance and went on to join the partisans in Italy.

Returning to the United States with a Bronze Star and the Croix de Guerre, he resumed his study of the classics at Yale, where he earned a doctorate in 1948 and taught, becoming a full professor in 1959. In 1961, he was asked to lead the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, a Harvard affiliate, whose directorship he held until 1985.

His first book, which established his reputation, was “Oedipus at Thebes: Sophocles’ Tragic Hero and His Time.” Originally published in 1957 by Yale University Press, it remains in print in a new 1998 edition, as do several of his other books.

Notable among those is a landmark anthology he edited with college students as well as general readers in mind, “The Norton Book of Classical Literature” (1993).

He also wrote introductions for Robert Fagles’s new translations of Homer’s “Iliad” (1990) and “Odyssey” (1996) and Virgil’s “Aeneid” (2006).

Professor Knox was admired for the clear and powerful prose he brought to his essays, many of them published in general-interest magazines like The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

They remain required reading in college courses on Greek and Roman literature and were collected in “The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy” (1964), “Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater” (1980), “Essays Ancient and Modern” (1989), “The Oldest Dead White European Males and Other Reflections on the Classics” (1993) and “Backing Into the Future: The Classical Tradition and Its Renewal” (1994).

Bernard MacGregor Walker Knox was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, on Nov. 24, 1914. He studied classics at St. John’s College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1936. Spurred by the rise of Mussolini and Hitler, he had committed himself to the political left well before that.

He spent vacations in Paris, staying in cheap hotels, becoming fluent in French and befriending fellow students marching against fascism for the Popular Front. When civil war broke out in Spain, he joined a machine-gun unit of the French Battalion of the 11th International Brigade, fighting on the northwest sector of the Madrid front. He described his experiences in “Premature Anti-Fascist,” a lecture delivered in 1998 at New York University.

In 1939, he married Betty Baur, an American he had met in Cambridge, and began teaching Latin at a private school in Greenwich, Conn. His wife died in 2006. In addition to his son, MacGregor, of London, he is survived by a sister, Elizabeth L. Campbell of Chapel Hill, N.C., and two grandchildren.

Soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army, where he trained as an aircraft armorer and, after attending officer training school, returned to Britain in 1943 as an air defense officer at a B-17 bomber base.

He found the duty boring and approached the Office of Strategic Services, which took note of his fluent French and assigned him to an operations unit, despite his history with the international brigades in Spain.

After training as a parachutist, he fought with a special force organized by the O.S.S., the British and the Free French to coordinate elements of the French Resistance with advancing Allied troops after the Normandy invasion. He also instructed members of the French Maquis in the use of explosives.

The O.S.S. later sent him into northern Italy for an equally dangerous mission with the Italian underground, and it was there that he rekindled his passion for the classics. Holed up in an abandoned villa, he discovered a bound copy of Virgil and opened it to a section of the first Georgic that begins, “Here right and wrong are reversed; so many wars in the world, so many faces of evil.”

Professor Knox recalled, in “Essays Ancient and Modern,” “These lines, written some 30 years before the birth of Christ, expressed, more directly and passionately than any modern statement I knew of, the reality of the world I was living in: the shell-pocked, mine-infested fields, the shattered cities and the starving population of that Italy Virgil so loved, the misery of the whole world at war.”

He continued, “As we ran and crawled through the rubble I thought to myself: ‘If I ever get out of this, I’m going back to the classics and study them seriously.’ ”

Professor Knox’s many honorary degrees and distinctions included the George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism in 1977, given for a review-essay in The New York Review of Books on Andrei Serban’s production of “Agamemnon” at Lincoln Center; the Charles Frankel Prize of the National Endowment of the Humanities, in 1990; and the Jefferson Medal of the Philosophical Society of America in 2004.

The Frankel Prize, awarded for contributing to the public’s understanding of the humanities, cited his books on Greek culture written for a general audience. In 1992, the National Council on the Humanities chose Professor Knox to deliver its yearly Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

In his later years, he found himself defending classical learning against the champions of multiculturalism.

“There is a sort of general feeling among radicals that the whole of the Western tradition — and the Greeks are the heart of that tradition — is something that has to be repudiated,” he told The Washington Post in 1992. “I feel appalled. God knows what the world would be like if we were all brought up on the stuff they’d like us to read.”

William Grimes contributed reporting.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 19, 2010

An obituary on Tuesday about the classics scholar Bernard Knox misstated the publication dates of two books for which he wrote introductions. Robert Fagles’s translation of the “Iliad” was published in 1990, not 1991, and his translation of the “Odyssey” was published in 1996, not 2002.


Ecce infans!

Sarah and I went to the hospital on Monday, and our son managed to snag a pretty nifty birthday (unless you’re outside the States): 8/9/10.

Here he is:

He was born by c-section, and we were half-tempted to call him Caesar.

We’re calling him Ash from his initials (Alexander Sage, plus my wife’s surname, which begins with an H). We’ve also taken to calling him Ἀλέξανδρος ὁ Μικρός: Alexander the Small.

We liked Alexander because it’s a great classical name that will give lots of possible nicknames. We were torn between Alexander and one of its Gaelic forms (Alasdair or Alastar), but when he was fresh from the womb and Sarah was still being sutured, she soothed him by reciting the opening of the Iliad. That settled the matter (and no, we don’t expect him to be anything like Homer’s Alexander, AKA Paris).

The middle name Sage is a nod to the great Carl Sagan. Though it’s not etymologically connected, we liked the sound of Sage as an echo of Sagan, and of the fact that we could also link it by separate derivations to Latin roots meaning both’wise’ (VLat *sapius, cf. sapere, sapiens) and ‘well, sound’ (Lat salvus).

Thanks for your support, and rest assured that this will not become a blog about how cool our baby is.

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