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Classics Professor Brings Latin to Life in Class and Research


Matthew McGowan, Ph.D., is working on a history of dictionary writing in ancient Rome.
Photo by Patrick Verel

Latin is often referred to as a dead language, but for Matthew McGowan, Ph.D., assistant professor of classics at Rose Hill, it is still very much alive.

Since coming to Fordham in 2007, McGowan has been leading field trips in Latin to the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), Morgan Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art. For McGowan, the trips provide a way to deepen students’ knowledge of the language and to embrace Fordham’s motto: “New York is my campus. Fordham is my school.”

There is perhaps no better example of this than the iter botanicum, McGowan’s Latin tour of the Botanical Garden. When scientists discover new plant species, they often turn to McGowan’s friend and fellow Latin enthusiast Robbin Moran, Ph.D., the NYBG curator of botany, to give the species an appropriate name and description in Latin. Botany, McGowan noted, is one of the only academic disciplines in which Latin is used on a regular basis.

“Through these trips, students can see Latin working as a viable mode of communication and not just a collection of letters on dusty pages,” McGowan said. “They have a very immediate experience with the long, rich history of science being conducted in Latin.”

Likewise, the classical tours of the Metropolitan Museum of Art offer students the opportunity to view objects going back three millennia or more. On the Latin trip to the Morgan Library, moreover, students actually have the chance to handle ancient papyri from the second century B.C. and to leaf through manuscripts on vellum and paper from the fifth through 15th centuries A.D.

“Because of the often-abstract nature of our work in classics, it’s important for students to get a vivid image of the progression of ideas—and even of the texts—from antiquity to our own time,” he said.

The ancient world is one in which McGowan, who said he knew at 13 that he wanted to teach Latin, spends a lot of time. In his first book, Ovid in Exile: Power and Poetic Redress in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (Brill, 2009), he considers the subject of exile in a series of epistolary poems that Ovid wrote after Emperor Augustus banished him from Rome in 8 A.D.

Aside from capturing the physical and mental anguish that Ovid suffered after being exiled to Tomis on the western coast of the Black Sea in what is now Romania, McGowan said the poet’s works also reflect pivotal changes occurring in Rome.

“Ovid’s exile poetry arrives during a fascinating period of transition in Rome from republic to empire. We can observe here the transfer of power from the rule of a few well-born nobles to the hands of a single individual. The Roman emperor effectively appropriates to himself many forms of discourse previously distributed among a variety of different people and institutions,” he said.

“I read the actual banishment of the poet as a metaphor for the displacement of the art of poetry generally by the emperor, who sought to control, for example, the conduct of Roman religion and law, and—quite remarkably—even Latin poetry.”

The subtitle of the book—power and poetic redress—refers to the notion developed fully by the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, that although Ovid’s banishment effectively sentenced him to death, he achieved a measure of redress through his verses, which lived on long after the emperor died.

“As early as Aristotle, we see poetry set over against history. History captured what actually happened, according to Aristotle, whereas poetry presented what universally could have happened. This is a fundamental lesson of Aristotle’s Poetics,” McGowan said, “that applies readily to what Ovid appears to be doing in the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto.”

Continuing his close analysis of language and how words work, McGowan has recently begun work on his next book, titled Latin Lexicography: The Art of Dictionary Writing in Ancient Rome. The project has its roots in a 2002 fellowship from the American Philological Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities that enabled McGowan to travel to Munich. There, he wrote definitions of words in Latin for the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the most important and definitive dictionary of its kind that dates back to the late-19th century.

“I learned a great deal, not only about Latin and its literature, but also about how to frame the presentation of a word through its life’s history, or what the Germans call Lebensgeschichte. I became very interested in trying to understand how the Romans themselves did that, and I discovered that while there had been some tangential treatments of the subject—mostly in German—there had never been a wholesale history of the art of dictionary writing in ancient Rome.”

“I decided that the scholarly community and interested people everywhere would be well served by an extended treatment of the subject, so I took as my starting point the second century B.C., when the Romans start making word lists and defining their own language in terms of Greek.

“I intend to take the project to the final epitome of Festus’ Lexicon at the court of Charlemagne in the late eighth centuty A.D., thus covering about a millennium of Latin lexicography in the process.

“When I say that I’m an historian of texts, that involves not only the creation of a given text at a particular time, but the transmission of that text over time and its reception, essentially, up to the present day,” he said.

“It’s been a natural progression for me to move from the close analysis of highly literary texts—in particular, poetic diction and rhetorical tropes as in my Ovid book—to the analysis of individual words through history as in the lexicography project.”


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