Classics at the Mercantile

This summer, I have elected to spend much of my time at the Mercantile Library, interacting with the Classics collection. Though dusty and rarely visited, I would contend that this small section of the library is one of the most important, especially when recalling the intentions of those who founded the Mercantile Library over 175 years ago:

“We are young men. We are banded together for self-improvement. Very limited, for the most part, have been our educational advantages, yet we believe in an enlightened age – in a land of liberty – the sun of knowledge, in its meridian splendor, is beaming down upon us. The World, itself, is waking up, and shaking off the lethargy of ages. Shall we be sluggards? Nay; but let us grasp at every means of improvement within our reach; let us read, think, act, in the living present; let us strive earnestly and heartily for that dignified and ennobling self-culture, to which every end, and aim, and object of life shall converge as toward a common center – without which man is of little worth, and with which he can accomplish all things.”  1

Often, when people hear that I’m majoring in the Classics, the initial reaction is a look of bemusement, often paired with “but how will you get a job with that?” For years, I would reply with the same old trite assertions: that Classics teaches you how to think, how to read, and how to write in a cogent and persuasive manner. Though I still stand by these statements, I have recently started to consider the study of Classics differently. Upon making the decision to go to law school after finishing my undergraduate degree, it seemed at first that this four-year foray into the Classics was simply part of living out that age-old liberal arts fantasy of studying something that may be less-than-employable, or intentionally impractical, simply for the sake of becoming “well-rounded.” In other words, the pursuit of study for its own sake, an ambition that could be seen as naïve at best, and self-serving at worst. Yet surprisingly, it was not until I cast aside the idea of directly connecting the study of Classics to a career that I saw the true value of my pursuit. Classics is, at core, the study of what it is to be human, bounded only by the temporality and geography of Ancient Greece and Rome.2 And for me, this is where the true value of Classics is found. An example of this that stands out in my mind comes from the Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 BCE). Catullus was a noted writer of love poetry, and spends much of his work pining after the mysterious ‘Lesbia.’ A woman now commonly assumed to be Clodia Metelli, the brother of the infamous Clodius Pulcher.3

One of Catullus’ best known works regarding Lesbia is Carmen 5, which contains lines such as “Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus/rumoresque senum severiorum/omnes unius aestimemus assis!” of “Let us live, my Lesbia, and let us love, and let’s value the gossip of all the austere old men at just one penny!” and “Da mi basia mille, deinde centum/dein mille altera, dein secunda centum/deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum,” or “Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred, and then another thousand, then a second hundred, then yet another thousand, then a hundred.” Lines like these would resonate with anyone who has been in love, regardless of whether they lived and loved in 2017, or during the reign of Caesar. Moments like these serve as threads that link us to our human past; a past which is filled with the same emotions and streams of thought as the immediate present. After all, who hasn’t been so in love that they would dare to ask, as Catullus once did, for “a hundred kisses, and then another thousand.” Beyond simply identifying with emotions and themes from Classical works, the study of Classics can, at times, provide direct instruction on how to improve ourselves and how to live our best lives. In De Senectutia and De Amicitia, Cicero expounds on the values of old age and friendship; in the Ars Amatoria Ovid instructs on love; in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, we see the skills and morals that defined Alexander the Great of Macedon.

This distinctly humanist aspect to Classics is what gives it value beyond simply being a major that develops strong writers and readers, and is, in my opinion, the reason that it fits so well with the Mercantile Library’s founding intention of ‘self-improvement.’ It is my privilege to spend this summer at the Mercantile Library working with the Classics collection. My goal is to help in building a collection that is more accessible, more modern, and takes a broader view of the Classical world, while still preserving the original works that date back even centuries (in fact, the oldest work in the collection, from 1614, is part of the Classics collection). My summer at the library will culminate in an event on August 11, with a display of both old and new Classical works, and a screening of the 1953 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, starring Marlon Brando and James Mason. As our Classics collection expands over the summer, I invite you to stop in, take a look, and allow yourself to be swept away into a world of epic journeys, legendary battles, vicious gossip, and first-rate thought. Even in this new age of technology and mass entertainment, we must not leave the Classics behind, for if we forget the worlds from which so much of our modern culture has originated, we risk leaving behind what truly makes us human. After all, it was the venerable Marcus Tullius Cicero who once wrote that “Historia vero testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis,” or “History, truly, is the witness of the past times, the light of truth, the sentience of memory, the teacher of life, and the message of antiquity.”

— Benjamin Cail ’18, Classics, Skidmore College

  1. Robert C. Vitz, At the Center: 175 Years at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library (Cincinnati: Mercantile Library, 2010), 6-7.
  2. It is worth noting at this juncture that the boundaries of time and space are not actually as restrictive as one might expect. An example of this is the subfield of Classical reception, that is, the study of how Classics is approached over time, and especially in the modern world. Scholars that choose to specialize in this area study everything from the use of Vergil at the 9/11 memorial in New York City, to the effect of Russell Crowe’s physicality in Gladiator on modern conceptions of masculinity.
  3. Clodius Pulcher is perhaps best remembered for his role in the Bona Dea scandal of 62 BCE. The Bona Dea festival was a female-only religious event in Rome, held at the home of Rome’s chief priest, the Pontifex Maximus. In 62 BCE, the Pontifex Maximus was Julius Caesar, and the festival was held at the home lent to him for his tenure as Pontifex Maximus. In attendance at the festival was Caesar’s wife, Pompeia. Clodia Pulcher, hoping to seduce Pompeia, dressed as a woman and infiltrated the sacred rites, but was found out, an event which led to a months-long scandal in Rome, filled with wild accusations and intrigue.

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