A poster for the movie Gladiator adorns the walls of the Department of Classical Studies? Considering the film was criticized for its historical inaccuracy, the scenario might seem somewhat counterintuitive.
But the poster is there, and it reflects two things about the department's attitude: a willingness to embrace the positive (in Gladiator's case, the continuing high profile of classical themes in pop culture) and a sense of comfort with the modern world.
"For me, the relationship between classics and the modern world is very deep and multifaceted. It always surprises me when we are sitting in class discussing something, and all of the sudden I see a relationship to something I read in the paper or saw on the news," says Rachel Brewer, a classical studies senior.
Classics Professor Lewis Sussman, who has taught at UF since 1976, says many areas of classical studies enthusiastically engage modern issues on a regular basis. "People think everything was invented yesterday, including the ideas we think about and the problems that we face--terrorism, technology, problems in government organization, running a large, multi-national, multi-ethnic, multicultural state," he says. "However, the Roman Empire had every race represented and all different kinds of religion. It took a lot of energy and enterprise to get this whole thing to work, and the Romans did it quite successfully. Everyone talks about the decline of the Roman Empire. Well, it lasted 1,000 years, which is not bad!"
Right now the department is experiencing anything but a decline. The number of undergraduate classical studies majors has almost doubled during the past five years to 86, a high number compared to classics departments at other universities. "Classics programs across the country have folded because of a lack of enrollment. People in these programs do not present the material in an interesting way, or they do it in the same way that it has been done for years and years. Our department does a good job of putting together great classes," says Sussman.
Enrollments in beginning Latin classes have also grown, increasing more than a third during the last two years. Latin is now the second most popular foreign language taught at UF after Spanish. Currently, however, there is a shortage of qualified Latin teachers in secondary schools. UF is helping address the problem by creating the only distance graduate program in the US designed specifically for Latin teachers. Hans-Friedrich Mueller, who joined the classics department faculty in 2001, is the distance graduate coordinator. "The program combines distance learning courses in the fall and spring terms with intensive on-campus summer courses that allow teachers to improve skills as well as earn advanced degrees," says Mueller. Students from Florida, as well as Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Oregon, Texas and Alabama have enrolled in the program. "We're especially grateful to the Rothman family, whose generous endowment has enabled the department to commit the resources necessary for establishing the program, publicizing it and launching these inaugural courses," says Mueller.
Brewer, who hopes eventually to earn a master's degree in Latin from UF and go on to teach the language in high school, says she originally came to UF with intentions of becoming a veterinarian. "When I came to UF, I was determined to keep up my interest in classics and take at least one course from that department every semester. I loved the classes and the department so much that eventually I switched my major to classical studies and never looked back."
--Patrick Hughes & Allyson A. Beutke