Reading of Thursday’s reception for Professor of Classics Joe Day to celebrate the publication of his book, Archaic Greek Epigram And Dedication (Cambridge University Press), took me back to my video interview earlier this semester with the 25-year Wabash veteran who last year won the College’ s top award for teaching.
Our conversation was a follow-up to his winning that honor, but I’d long wanted to better understand Joe’s scholarly work, so my questions quickly took us on some unexpected tangents.
And knowing the book was coming out soon, I asked him to describe it.
He smiled, playfully held up the hot-off-the-press first copy for the camera as if we were on a talk show, and said, “I’ve been working on this book for nearly 20 years.”
I write a lot about teaching on the Web site and in Wabash Magazine, but not as often as I should about the passionate scholarship/research that inspires so much of that teaching. Joe Day’s specialty sounds about as esoteric you can find: Greek epigrams (inscriptions) from the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.E. But listening to Joe explain what he studies and why he’s drawn to it, I realized it’s not the dry cataloging of ancient inscriptions I expected (sorry—I was an English major).
And though it requires of the scholar knowledge of that “catalog” of inscriptions, it’s as creative as theater and as driven by both facts and hypotheses as the sciences.
Joe is trying to imagine the lives of people dead for more than two thousand years. How these long dead responded to these inscriptions on stone.
“I make a living off of ghosts,” is one way Joe put it. “I deal with ghosts in practically everything I do.”
It’s not unlike the way his wife, Professor Leslie Day, has imagined the lives of the people of ancient Kavousi, Crete, through her archaeological digs and studies (her acclaimed book on that subject was published earlier this year.) Or Professor Jeremy Hartnett’s studies in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
But at least Leslie has artifacts and ruins to try to envision these scenes. Joe’s trying to get there using a few words on a rock.
And the book is groundbreaking, the publisher says, in the way it reconstructs not the inscriptions, but the encounters ancient peoples had with them.
Here’s how Joe explained it:
“I got interested in [these epigrams] because they cross disciplinary boundaries. They’re religious, because they are offerings made to gods; they’re poetic, because the inscriptions are in poetic meter, and they imitate the form of established poetic genres; they are physical objects of interest to art historians and archaeologists, because typically these inscriptions are on the base of some sort of cool object.
“For example,” he said, pointing to a photo of an ancient pillar on the cover of his new book. “That column is inscribed with three lines, and on top of it stood a little statue of Athena set up on the Acropolis in Athens just about 500 B.C., before the Persian invasion.”
He begins to talk of the ancient Greeks in the present tense, and suddenly puts me in the story: “You want to make a sacrifice to Athena, so you climb the Acropolis on the first of the month to make the “New Moon’ sacrifice. [Joe had already explained that we (the ancient Greeks) have four rites of religious expression: sacrifice, prayer, libation (pouring drinks), and putting up dedications, often with epigrams carved on them.] You make your sacrifice and look around at what else is here. You see what other people have dedicated to Athena or other gods, you read some of the inscriptions that line the walkways—they’d be on higher and higher pillars. You’re somewhat impressed by that, and if you read the inscription, you read it aloud.
“So when we make these inscriptions we’re talking to the gods—this is a form of communication between humans and gods. It’s also a form of communication between people, because others were meant to see these, too.
“What I’m doing is trying to figure out what happened when people came up to look at these things. How they responded.
“This allows me to get a lens into Ancient Greek culture that crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries. I’m doing types of work that are done by epigraphers, and art historians, and archeaologists, and scholars of literature. I’m bringing all that work together, and the unifying link is religion.”
Listening to Joe Day, it’s easy to understand how the Classics department has not only inspired so many majors over the years, but how they enrich the lives of their colleagues and so many other students here—how they model the essential value of the Classics at a liberal arts college. This master teacher/scholar has been providing that richness to Wabash for 25 years. Consider dropping by on Thursday in the Detchon Reading Room at 4:15 to celebrate this book, and the nearly 20 years of scholarship and research that has informed and energized the teaching of thousands of Wabash men.
Contact Professor Day: firstname.lastname@example.org