Students standing in front of a shuttered kiosk in Rome, Italy, near the train station. Spray painted on the cover is a Latin phrase meaning “Let’s eat, drink, and be happy. First comes life, then philosophy."

Classics is about learning Latin and Greek

Neither language is spoken today, but hundreds of world-historical masterpieces were written in those two languages. Ancient Greek is the key that unlocks Homer, philosophy, tragedy, comedy, history, particle physics, and half the Bible. Latin is the key that unlocks epic poetry, stage drama, fables, rhetoric, law, and the reawakening of the West in the Renaissance. The two languages together allow you to observe, like a firsthand witness, the downhill slide of Rome’s thousand-year civilization from an American-style democracy to an authoritarian empire. Studying them, and the voices of the women and men who spoke them, reveals more than just the mindset of a people that built the Coliseum and the catacombs. Those voices also reveal the foundations of the modern world order—from secular humanism to religious orthodoxy. They’re also a lot of fun!

Picture of Jeffrey S. Rusten.

Jeffrey S Rusten,  Professor

I've never felt that classical Athens was a place to look back to for parallels, but the reverse – its writings, theater, politics and society compel me forward to test them against those of the other times and places, and especially today.

Installation of our broken cast of the Laocoön in Cornell’s Weinhold Chilled Water Plant, as part of the exhibition “Firing the Canon: The Cornell Casts and their Discontents.”

Classics beyond the classroom

Classics doesn’t just involve learning your Latin principal parts (important though they are!). Our students and faculty engage with the Greco-Roman world in multiple ways, whether speaking “living Latin” in Rome, taking part in archaeological digs or traveling seminars to Europe, curating exhibitions, or putting on performances of ancient plays. From experiments with ancient technology to the use of myth in contemporary art, we celebrate and explore the enduring relevance and reinvention of the Classical past within the 21st century.