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Professor and Associate Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education
Latin Literature, Classics, ancient Rome, ancient Comedy, Plautus, Terence, jokes, puns, wine, Cicero, Virgil, neo-Latin
- Latin literature of all time periods and classical Roman society. Humanism, not philology. Wine, swine, comedy, jokes, Cicero, Virgil, classical ideas about the mind, psychiatry, or mental illness.
I regularly consult on Latin for museums, institutions, dealers, and collectors. I've exposed forgery in Renaissance and Dutch Golden Age paintings, discovered the forgotten provenance of a major manuscript, and I interpret manuscripts, books, maps, and engravings of all kinds. Please email me if you need help.
In 2016 I received the Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties.
Click here for my CV. My newest projects are listed below.
1. 2019 (in time for the holidays!). John Placentius. The Pig War. Puzzled Out by Michael Phontaine. Pigtures penned by David Beck. Paideia Institute Press. I'm giving all royalties to a scholarship piggybank, so feel free to pig out!
In 1530, amid the ferment of the Reformation, the strangest poem in all of Latin literature appeared. Written by one John Placentius, it consists of 248 verses in which every word begins with the letter p. The poem—titled Pugna Porcorum—is a satirical epic telling of a conflict between the corrupt hogs, who are hogging all the privileges, and the piglets, who want in on them. It devolves into open war.
In The Pig War, Michael Fontaine offers the first critical Latin text and the first translation of the Pugna into any language, and original illustrations by David Beck bring the timeless fairytale of privilege and oppression to life. In an afterword, Fontaine explores the poem’s possible influence on Orwell’s Animal Farm, and he explains how Placentius’ ill-advised pseudonym, Publius Porcius, triggered all kinds of misidentifications, accusations, recriminations, and, in modern scholarship, at least one hilarious crackpot theory.
2. 2020 (April). Vincent Obsopoeus. How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing. Edited, translated, and introduced by Michael Fontaine. Princeton University Press.
Is there an art to drinking alcohol? Can drinking ever be a virtue? The Renaissance humanist and neoclassical poet Vincent Obsopoeus (ca. 1498–1539) thought so. In the winelands of sixteenth-century Germany, he witnessed the birth of a poisonous new culture of bingeing, hazing, peer pressure, and competitive drinking. Alarmed, and inspired by the Roman poet Ovid’s Art of Love, he wrote The Art of Drinking (De Arte Bibendi) (1536), a how-to manual for drinking with pleasure and discrimination. In How to Drink, Michael Fontaine offers the first proper English translation of Obsopoeus’s text, rendering his poetry into spirited, contemporary prose and uncorking a forgotten classic that will appeal to drinkers of all kinds and (legal) ages.
Arguing that moderation, not abstinence, is the key to lasting sobriety, and that drinking can be a virtue if it is done with rules and limits, Obsopoeus teaches us how to manage our drinking, how to win friends at social gatherings, and how to give a proper toast. But he also says that drinking to excess on occasion is okay—and he even tells us how to win drinking games, citing extensive personal experience.
Complete with the original Latin on facing pages, this sparkling work is as intoxicating today as when it was first published.
3. In progress. How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to Using Humor. (Edition and translation of Cicero's treatise on humor)
2019. "Camerarius Camelarius: A New Salt Road to the Modern World." In Thomas Baier and Tobias Dänzer (eds.) Plautus in der Frühen Neuzeit. Tübingen: Narr Francke Attempto. (On the manuscript tradition of Plautus' comedies; allegory painted by Lucy Plowe)
2019. ‘Joannes Burmeister.’ Frühe Neuzeit in Deutschland 1620–1720: Literaturwissenschaftliches Verfasserlexikon (VL17), vol. 2. Berlin: De Gruyter. Eventually online here.
2018. 'The Myth of Ovid's Exile.' Electryone (will appear elsewhere in Chinese translation.)