Why have a Classics Library in 21st Century America?

Quod nemo novit paene non fit -- What no one knows almost does not happen

Apuleius, Metamorphoses 10.3


Learning about classical antiquity matters as the arts and sciences and our laws and political institutions are grounded in the civilizations of the Near East and ancient Egypt, and especially in those of ancient Greece and Rome. As we live in a time of not only seemingly growing ignorance of the past but also deliberate distortion and appropriation, forged through social media and political forces, being informed and willing to dig deep have rarely seemed more urgent. Knowing about and understanding our past help us realize connections, recognize fact from fiction, and find solutions to contemporary challenges. 

Did you know that:

  • More than 35% of English words originate in Latin and another 5% in ancient Greek (from Latin, e(xempli).g(ratia)., corona virus, cure, immunity, vaccine, republic, populist, patriotism, liberal, conservative, progressive; from Greek, e.g., pandemic, tyrannt, oligarchy, democracy, "Cassandra effect", "narcissist"). In addition, 40% of words in English comes from French, which in turn comes from Latin; studying these languages will help you understand and learn virtually all modern western languages, including English, not only their vocabulary but also their grammar and syntax;
  • studying Greek and Latin is especially helpful to science, medical, and law students since much terminology in those fields comes from Greek and Latin;
  • studying Greek and Latin increases your chances to do well on the SAT and GRE exams;  
  • the Founding Fathers did not only know Greek and Latin, but also borrowed many of their ideas from ancient Athenian democracy and its political institutions. The concept of Civil Rights has its origin in Athenian democracy. Even though slavery was a fact, it was not based on race, but on geography and conquest, such as prisoners of war, and slaves could be freed or purchase their own freedom and subsequently attain equal rights to freeborn citizens;
  • architects modeled the White House and the Capitol and many other buildings throughout America and Europe after Greek and Roman temples and other ancient architecture;
  • European medieval and Renaissance and American neoclassical art imitated classical art;
  • bridges and aqueducts and other structural engineering accomplishments come from the ancient Romans;
  • many principles of mathematics are derived from ancient scientists like Pythagoras, Archimedes, Euclid, Hypatia, and medicine from Hippocrates and Galen, cartography from individuals like Ptolemy, philosophy and natural science from Greeks like Thales, Parmenides, Heracleitus, Democritus, Anaximenes, Anaximander, Empedocles, Plato, and Aristotle;
  • theater, musicals, opera, and operetta developed from Greek drama and playwrights like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Roman Plautus;
  • lyric poetry originated in ancient Greece with poets like Sappho, Corinna, and Pindar;
  • many instruments such as the flute, oboe, guitar, and harp have their origin in antiquity;
  • the Olympic Games and many of its sports originated in ancient Greece;
  • modern law is rooted in Roman law;
  • the women's rights movement has taken much inspiration from classical antiquity where the status of women was far from monolithic. Women in Sparta and parts of Asia Minor seemingly had equal rights to men. Athenian women did not have the right to vote, but had leading roles in the area of religion. Pythagoras and Socrates had several female followers and some of the most famous poets were women. In plays like Medea, Antigone, Hecuba, and Lysistrata women are the strong protagonists and express views that even today seem radical. By the way, the latter play, Lysistrata, has also been a source of inspiration for the peace movement throughout generations and globally;
  • the animal rights movement has many roots in classical antiquity whether in the high status of animals in ancient Egypt or in Pythagorean and Orphic movements or in the writings of later thinkers such as Plutarch, Theophrastus, and Porphyry. Unlike most modern Western diets, ancient Greek and Roman cooking was mostly plant-based. Meat was eaten only on special occasions in connection with sacrificing an animal to the gods. Everyday offerings to the gods consisted of seeds, grains, fruits, and libations of water, olive oil, and wine;
  • the modern gay and lesbian movements have been inspired by ancient Greece. The word lesbian is derived from the ancient Greek island of Lesbos, the home of the poet Sappho and her female companions.  Male homosexuality was celebrated in the writings of the Greek poet Archilochus and philosopher Plato.  

A visit to the Classics Library, to browse the collections and read the books may transform your understanding of the present and at the same time enrich your life in countless ways.

Palaeography Room with students and faculty

UC classics professors Daniel Marković and Kathryn Gutzwiller and graduate students Carina Moss and Simone Agrimonti examine a manuscript facsimile of Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius' work On the Nature of Things in the new John Miller Burnam Palaeography Reading Room ("the Scriptorium").