An interview with a classics lecturer

James Uden, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, talks us through his passion for 2000 year old poetry, ancient civilisations and dead languages.

You seem pretty young for such a title. How many years have you been a classics scholar?I started studying Latin during my first year of high school in Sydney, but I wasn't passionate about it straight away. In the final year of high school, when I was 17 or so, I read the love poetry of the sarcastic, sophisticated, fast-living poet Catullus (c.84-54 B.C.) and then I was hooked. I did a combined degree in arts/law at the University of Sydney, then a PhD in classics at Columbia University in New York, and now I'm here in Boston.

What is it about your field that is fascinating to you?Reading ancient Roman literature is so thrilling to me because it is a way of communicating with people from the past. It is exciting to hear those ancient voices, and important too, since they wrestled with many of the same political and philosophical problems that we still do today.

I hear you love Latin so much you even have a tattoo in Latin. Can you tell us about it?I do! There's a beautiful poem of Catullus which begins with the words 'odi et amo' - 'I hate and I love'. The poem comes at the end of a romantic affair. His lover has abandoned him and moved on to other men, but he is still paralyzed with his intense love for her. Yet for me this simple phrase also has a positive connotation. It's a call to a life of high emotions, lived in extremes. That's why I had it tattooed on my arm.

Did you ever consider a more conventional career? I have a law degree, so I could perhaps have become a lawyer. But I feel like I'm doing people a lot more good by teaching them to see value and significance in the world of the past.

Why did you choose the USA for your graduate studies?I had studied in the US in 2003 as an international student, on exchange in the University of Washington. Many of the professors I respected were here, and I liked the US system, with its broad emphasis on coursework and teaching. Plus, I've always been an America-phile. I love living and travelling in the USA. As you travel more, you appreciate how varied this country is in its music, cuisine, geography, dialect, religion, and so on.

What is it about the classics that means people still take the subject?If people are interested in ancient history, archaeology, the history of literature, or Christian theology, then a grounding in Latin and Greek is important. But I also teach a popular course in Boston called 'The World of Rome' for students who have no prior experience in studying the ancient world, on day-to-day life in ancient Rome. Most of my students will go on to major in science or engineering or economics, yet they also love being immersed for a time in a world so different from their own. How did Romans protect themselves from malaria? What kind of insurance did Romans have? What were Roman views on educating women? These are some of the questions my students had this semester, and they all raise fascinating issues.

Do you encounter many people who think classics is not a worthwhile pursuit? How do you respond to them?Classics is important not simply because it helps you to understand the origins of our language and culture. It also challenges you to understand the ideas and values of people distant from yourself, whom you will never get a chance to meet face-to-face. That kind of empathy and imagination is truly valuable in the 21st century world.

What was your favourite aspect of being an international student?I loved being an international student! I was so hungry for new experiences, both inside and outside school. When you're an international student, everything is unfamiliar and different, so you take nothing for granted. That's mind-opening, and I recommend the experience to anyone.

What's your advice to someone who wants to study classics overseas?Go for it, and devote 100% of your energy and passion to it! An international classics student cannot fail but be blown away by the incredible libraries and professors to be found in great universities in the UK, Europe and the US. But make sure you also take time too to immerse yourself in the culture where you're living. The best thing you can do is not to narrow down a specific field of study, but to broaden your thinking as much as possible.