Classics, The Original Academic Department

The study of Greek and Latin was once the heart of Amherst College and academia at large, from coursework to fraternities to the theater, even before the Amherst classics department came into existence.

These ancient languages also dictated who enrolled at  Amherst, as when the College first opened in 1821, there was no standardized test or application process. Instead, prospective students in the 19th century were given examinations in a variety of subjects. The game Would You Get Into Amherst in 1842? uses Greek and Latin exercises from the period to simulate these examinations.  

Photo of scrapbook of William Belcher Whitney, class of 1887, showing he passed his Latin exams

William Belcher Whitney, class of 1887, passed the “examination for entrance to Amherst College” in subjects including Greek and Latin grammar and composition, Homer’s Iliad, Xenophon’s Anabasis and Cicero’s Orations

The Department is Formed

The Departments of Greek and Latin were two of the first departments at the College after its curriculum was reorganized in 1884. Until the 1933-34 academic year, all students were required to study Latin prior to graduation. This required knowledge of ancient languages led to a greater sense of commonality, as this knowledge was used in commencement addresses, fraternal organizations and the theater. Staged readings or performances in Greek were performed across campus as late as the 1970s, and small class sizes often resulted in close relationships with professors.

However, the study of ancient languages is traditionally associated with elitism and privilege, and this sense of commonality was fostered through the exclusion of students who had not studied the ancient languages. As Harold Wade ’68 wrote in the 1976 book Black Men of Amherst, “few blacks had a background in the classics,” leading to a prevailing sense of whiteness within the College. In the academic year 1945-46, the College dropped the ancient language entrance requirement, but many of these sentiments remained. 

Photo A page from William Belcher Whitney’s scrapbook

A page from William Belcher Whitney’s scrapbook. His invitation to the Greek Club hosted by Professor Richard Mather is on the bottom left of the right page. The club sought to “gain a comprehensive insight into the life, country and manners of the Greeks, together with some knowledge of the influences and surroundings that caused their wonderful development in literature, art, and thought.” (Student Nov. 13, 1886)

Classics in the 20th Century

Though students were required to know both ancient languages, until 1930, they could not major in both Greek and Latin. In the 1930-31 academic year, students “who ha[d] satisfied the requirements for honors” in either Greek or Latin and received grades of at least B in two courses of the other language were eligible for “honors in Classics.” Two years later, the College dropped the Latin requirement for graduation. The updated section in the course catalog reads: “The degree Bachelor of Arts is awarded to candidates who complete twenty year-courses which include one year of ancient language or one year of mathematics.”

The 1947-48 course catalog marks the first appearance of the classics department, which merged the Greek and Latin departments, likely as a result of decreasing resources. However, separate majors in Greek and Latin were still offered, in addition to the combined classics major.

Even after students were no longer required to study the ancient languages, some courses saw great interest. Classics 23 and 24, focusing on Greek and Roman civilization, respectively, regularly saw enrollments of over 100 students in the 1980s. According to Professor Frederick T. Griffiths, “there was a longstanding custom of easy-and-fun courses about antiquity.”

Classics Today and a New Major

Though the ancient languages once formed the core of higher education, Amherst is now one of fewer than 300 U.S. colleges and universities with classics departments. Greek and Latin may appear to some an outdated vestige of the Amherst curriculum. However, the department has worked to move away from its elitist origins in recent years. The course material has seen a growing focus on race, gender and sexuality over the last 50 years, especially with regard to “the methods and concerns of Second Wave Feminism,” and courses are frequently cross-listed with the Department Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies. 

In the 2017-18 academic year, the department added a fourth major in classical civilization, “designed to afford access to the achievements of at least one of the two primary cultural groups of Greco-Roman antiquity through significant coursework in one language and a core group of courses in classical civilization.” More significantly, the new major also aims to welcome students from a range of backgrounds, as, according to Professor Griffiths, “it was felt that the other three more language-based majors tended to shut out students who hadn’t taken Latin or Greek in high school, or got a later start in the area at the College.” 

While this represents a fairly recent and ongoing commitment to diversity, some Amherst alumni began working to diversify the ancient languages much earlier. Wiley Lane, class of 1879, became the first Black professor of Greek at Howard University in 1883 and used the knowledge of Greek and Latin he gained at Amherst to help other Black students attend Amherst and become classicists in their own right. 

A photo of an undated sign used in the Geological Cabinet to warn against touching specimens, in Latin

 The ancient languages permeated every aspect of student life in Amherst’s first century. This undated stamped text from about 1847-1856 was used in the Geological Cabinet to warn against touching specimens or objects. The Latin text, a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid, reads: “PHILOSOPHIE SANCTUM SANCTORUM: Procul, O procul este profani! Touch not, handle not.”