That is not what I see when I look at my mirror, and I’ve been a Classicist for nearly two decades. As the perennially exhausted mother of two small children in a pandemic, both tweed and dapperness have long ago given way to sweatpants. My students don’t fawn, and I am happy to report that as of my last merit review, my CV is clear of any criminal misdemeanors.
And yet, a review of recent films and novels reveals that the popular image of the Classicist. Indeed, the academic remains decidedly male and often despicable — a spin on the recent fashion trend of “dark academia.” Gone are the swashbuckling, Nazi-fighting adventures of Indiana Jones. These days, we can only look up to Sandra Oh’s The Chair, whose English department at least struggles, however unwillingly, with issues of race, age, and gender discrimination. Classics departments, by contrast, produce outright villains. Benedict Cumberbatch’s bullying character in Jane Campion’s critically acclaimed The Power of the Dog (2021) studied Greek and Latin at Yale, and in the 2019 horror film Black Christmas, Classicist Dr. Gelson, played by Cary Elwes, not only refuses to teach books written by female authors, but also arranges the murders of female undergraduates by a vengeful frat. O tempora, o mores!
What deeper truths do these popular images convey? For members of the profession, the stakes of the question are high. Like many humanities disciplines, Classics is floundering, beset by falling enrollments, budget cuts, and outright closures. Within the discipline, however, reinvention is underway, led by a coalition that resembles these donnish images even less than I do: precarious faculty, Classicists of color, people of every gender expression, disabled scholars, first-generation college students, and many who sit at the intersection of these manifold identities. But what good is all of this reforming energy when public perceptions of the field remain the same year after year?
And yet two recent novels, Alex Michaelides’s The Maidens and Mark Prins’s The Latinist, expose and interrogate what still remains the dominant public perception of Classics, and how far we are from rehabilitating the old images of the Classicist as mysterious, white, and deeply toxic. Propulsive thrillers both, they offer a path to seeing through this popular imaginary, ultimately raising a much more troubling question: if we are not criminals, what are we?
The Maidens opens with an outright verdict: “Edward Fosca was a murderer. This was a fact.” Fosca is professor of Greek in the fictional St. Christopher’s College, Cambridge, where he is also convenor of an exclusive, all-female seminar group who call themselves the Maidens. When members of the group start turning up murdered, a London psychiatrist named Mariana Andros is summoned to Cambridge by her niece, Zoe, who is terrified after the first dead body is identified as her best friend, Tara. Mariana is an alum of the college, and a recent widow still struggling with the trauma of loss. Very soon after her arrival in Cambridge, she decides Fosca is the murderer, and what follows is her attempt to prove his guilt and come to terms with her own grief, played out against the backdrop of the college where she and her late husband fell in love.
Fosca, as it turns out, is not the murderer. (This is not the reveal it might seem to be, and in fact the police spend the whole novel insisting Fosca is innocent.) But Mariana’s professional radar is not entirely off the mark. The real problem with Edward Fosca is that he is, to be perfectly blunt, a creep, grooming his female students, and, as it turns out, sleeping with them. As many predators do, he masks his Title IX violations in feminist rhetoric: “Some of the best minds are female,” he says. But what makes these specific minds “best” is not competence or erudition, but willingness to elevate him to cult-like status. At Tara’s funeral, the Maidens form a guard of honor, dressed in long, flowing white dresses — not for their murdered friend, but for their professor, who wallows in their adoration.
Being the center of a much younger woman’s attention is of a piece with Fosca’s other weaknesses: he wants to belong, but is a perpetual outsider. A working-class American who ascended the ivory tower, he feels British academia will never forgive him for not being “one of them.” The obsession with feeling superior spills over into his teaching. Fosca is also obsessed with the rites at Eleusis, in which groups of initiates were shown the secrets of life, death, and resurrection — special knowledge for special people. The rites were held in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, also known as Kore, or the Maiden. And Fosca leads his Maidens in making and consuming homemade versions of the Greek kykeion, a hallucinogenic thought to be used in the rites. But if they are the Maidens, where does that leave Fosca? Is he a Hades, predatory god of the underworld, abducting them for six months of shadowy death? Or is he the initiating priest at the mysteries, rescuing them from the limiting confines of the mortal mind? As a metaphor for education, neither much appeals.
Prins’s The Latinist takes the same ideas — a need for superiority superimposed on inappropriate sexual advances — and transposes them to the intense atmosphere of graduate school. Where The Maidens is a murder mystery that happens to take place in a college, this is a campus novel turned psychological thriller. Its protagonists are both so immersed in campus life and office politics that a real death is required for them to tear themselves away. The novel is loosely inspired by the myth of Apollo and Daphne, most famously told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Apollo pursues a lovely nymph who evades him only by transforming into a laurel tree. Even then, she cannot entirely escape her would-be rapist: Apollo wreaths his head with her leaves, and the laurel remains associated to this day with the god and with poetry.
The big question of this novel is who is who: who chases and who flees. Tessa Templeton is an academic overachiever, so dedicated to her studies that she skips a family funeral to give a keynote speech at a conference. Her obsessiveness is matched by that of her supervisor, Christopher Eccles, who hacks Tessa’s email account and torpedoes her job search in hopes of keeping her at Oxford and under his influence for one more desperate year. When the secret comes out, Tessa flees to Italy, where she miraculously finds the grave (and remains!) of an obscure Latin poet, a discovery that both launches her career and allows her to destroy Eccles’s.
The Latinist derives its impact from the sheer meanness of everyone involved; this is a very petty novel. Both Eccles and Tessa are the worst kind of humans, and their moral failings spread to their working lives as well. One of the cringiest moments in the novel comes when Tessa asks a senior archeologist if she is familiar with the CIL, a monumental collection of Latin inscriptions that is one of the tools of the trade. With Italian sprezzatura, Lucrezia puts Tessa in her place, but the exchange is a microcosm of the worst attitudes Tessa embodies: myopic, solipsistic, and painfully casual in its assumption of superiority to other people. Eccles matches his student pace for pace: digital stalking aside, Eccles is the kind of professor who plays favorites, who neglects the administrative responsibilities he does not care for, who deliberately (twice!) sabotages his student’s work, and, of course, who ends up sleeping with her, too. While I doubt many Classicists know a Fosca, we all know an Eccles, and we all know a Tessa, too — the kind who will literally step on bodies on her way to the top.
To reveal the actual murderer would be to spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that the deed is done with a replica of Bernini’s statue of Apollo and Daphne — yet another instance in which the fleeing nymph cannot escape her pursuer. The Latinist makes heavy symbolic use of this myth — it is the subject of Tessa’s dissertation, for instance — but it is very much focused on the moment of transformation (the “tree-ing,” as one of Tessa’s students puts it), the moment when Daphne must lose her humanity to avoid being raped.
The novel invites us to see Tessa as Daphne, manipulated by but ultimately escaping Eccles’s Apollo, yet it also asks us: what happens to her humanity along the way? The idea of the instructor as a divine figure, capable of exercising great power to help or to harm, certainly speaks to real-world academic abuses of power. But Tessa as Daphne is neither innocent nor particularly repelled by the idea of giving in, and her ethics are dubious throughout. Why shouldn’t they be? She is a star student, internalizing from her supervisor not only his finesse with Latin poetry but also his moral compass, or lack thereof. The deeper truth about Classics in this novel concerns generational trauma, the matching up of one generation’s ethical compromises with the next generation’s harm, proceeding in a never-ending cycle. Edward Fosca is a creep and a predator, and his students end up dead; Eccles is much the same, but he has also made his star student in his own image.
Leafing through these novels, one sometimes feels like the field of Classics — which includes both philology and archeology, along with a host of other methods and approaches — exists under an ancestral curse, much like the House of Atreus, doomed to repeat in every generation the crimes of their ancestors. Both The Maidens and The Latinist descend, in different ways, from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, in which a Classics professor gathers an exclusive seminar of students who turn murderers when trying to enact his teachings. Much like Tartt, Michaelides and Prins show us the direct impact professors can have on their students’ ambitions, futures, and personalities. Tessa Templeton is an appalling human being following directly in her supervisor’s footsteps. The Maidens are pretentious mean girls, but they owe their existence as a club to Fosca’s mentorship; it is he who channels their desire for superiority to feed his own. Ironically, what breaks the curse of the House of Atreus is a trial for murder: Orestes is found not guilty of the crime of matricide. These two novels also offer us a trial of sorts, as they capture what behaviors, words, and morals make up the image of a monster. But can the curse be broken?
The answer must be an emphatic yes. The tools of our salvation belong to antiquity itself. The ancient Romans organized their thinking by exempla: models for imitation, yielding the English word “example.” These models worked both positively and negatively; good examples to follow, bad ones to avoid. These fictional Classicists are all decidedly bad exempla, but also suggest, in reverse, what good exempla might look like. If these professors are mysterious, it is partly, perhaps, because what Classics is and what Classicists do remains unclear to the public. If they promote the exclusivity of the seminar, it is because Classics is still seen as the preserve of elitism and elite education. If these professors mistrust their acceptance into the ranks of elite institutions, it is because the kind of access we offer does little to level the playing field for students from underrepresented communities. If Eccles and Fosca are men, we need greater gender diversity; and if the women don’t come out that well either, it would be worth asking whom they, in turn, imitate. Nobody in these novels is a person of color, which unfortunately still reflects the reality of our white-dominated field.
On the other hand, I would still like to believe there is nothing inherent in Classics that tends toward evil. There is simply what we practice and what we teach, the choices we make, the voices we choose to hear and amplify and those we choose to ignore or minimize. The world used to hold Classics up as an example of all that was moral and good, when moral and good still tolerated slavery, misogyny, colonialism, and exploitation. It is time now to make Classics into a new kind of example, write a new page in the study of antiquity, and let another discipline make the best kind of villains. We’ve had our turn already.
Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is an associate professor of Classics at UT-Austin. She is interested in Roman historiography, political narratives, and the modern reception of classical antiquity from cricket to Game of Thrones.