Insights on past and present stream from a founding Stanford department
Classics is relevant because the developing world needs new ideas.
— Federica Carugati, PhD ’15
Stanford was abuzz in April 1902 with a new and ambitious project out of its Classics Department. Professors Augustus Taber Murray and Henry Rushton Fairclough were putting on Sophocles’ Antigone in the West Coast’s first production of a Greek-language play.
More than 120 students joined the cast, crew and 30-piece orchestra – roughly one-twelfth of the student body. Lectures, rehearsals and talks on the play’s significance filled the Stanford social calendar. Antigone, in which a resolute young woman defies her uncle the king, brought a diverse campus together in intellectual discussion much as initiatives such as Open Xchange and Three Books do today.
It was an audacious undertaking for classicists from a school surrounded by dusty foothills and only a decade old.
But Murray and Fairclough were on a mission. At a time when classical learning dominated higher education, they wanted to show that Stanford was of the first rank.
In fact, they believed The Farm was an ideal place to study the classics, its pastoral Mediterranean landscape evoking ancient Greece itself. They wanted to show that the attainment represented by classical learning was within reach of anyone willing to work hard.
The Daily conceded that “the members of the Greek department are the only ones who know very much about the opera [sic], the rest of the students having only a faint knowledge of its characteristics and possibilities.”
Still, the play was a hit, filling Stanford’s 1,500-seat Assembly Hall for two performances, then, on invitation of University of California President Benjamin Ide Wheeler, holding two more performances in Berkeley’s 3,000-seat Harmon Gym. The production then toured Southern California, its cast and crew filling two railroad cars.
The audience rose and left the place, it seemed, with much the feeling with which the Greeks must have risen on the slopes of the Acropolis, lifting their eyes to the familiar landscape once more.
— Henry Winchester Rolfe
Antigone staked out Stanford’s claim to be a leader in classics, and, by extension, in academia in general. As the century wore on, though, classics moved from dominance in higher education to one of parity among the humanities. An exhibit in Green Library through Aug. 31, 2016 traces this history.
Classical learning was still the mark of an educated person when future U.S. President Herbert Hoover, ’95, and his wife, Lou Henry, ’98, made the first English translation of Georgius Agricola’s 16th-century Latin handbook on metallurgy, De Re Metallica.
Advances in science and technology, two world wars and other changes shifted what students wanted to study as well as the economics of research universities. By 1955, Provost Frederick Terman noted in a memo that is in the Green Library exhibit that enrollment in classical languages had become “negligible. … Even ancient history courses don’t do well.” Terman urged the Classics Department “to maintain a strong place in the intellectual life of the School … through service courses” to satisfy breadth requirements.
Today, Stanford classicists collaborate with entities across the university to gain new understanding of the ancient world and its modern relevance.
Classics is becoming the study of how millions of people throughout history respond to an idea, and predicting people’s responses is a priceless skill in today’s world.
— Liam Kinney ’16, Fellow, Stanford Technology Ventures Program
Among other projects, Stanford classicists use digital tools to map the spread of lyric poetry in ancient Greece, the time and cost of transportation in ancient Rome and the opinions of 18th-century travelers who shaped much of how we view classical culture today.
Donning scuba gear, they explore ancient shipwrecks in the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project and Burgaz Harbors Project. Each wreck is a preserved moment in trade and technology that helps build a picture of how the ancient world functioned as a complex and interconnected entity.
Undergraduate majors and minors sharpen their analytical skills by studying the complexities of Greek and Latin language and history.
Meanwhile, Murray and Fairclough continue to be important today to students of Greek and Latin. More than a century later, students still read their editions of Homer, Virgil and Demosthenes in the Loeb Classical Library.
Watch Stanford classicists map Roman economics with the ORBIS tool.