My Life: Rebecca Sinos, Professor of Classics

Interview by Gregory J. Campeau ’11


(Dead) language arts

Rebecca Sinos received her Ph.D. in classics at Johns Hopkins University in 1980 and has taught at Amherst ever since. The author, with John Howard Oakley, of The Wedding in Ancient Athens, she teaches courses in all levels of Greek, as well as in archaeology, history and mythology. She spoke recently with Amherst magazine:

On classics by way of Walden

I was a Latin major at William & Mary. I would have had a classics major but I didn’t have enough Greek credits. But once I found Greek, I was hooked. I took Latin first because of my interest in French and Spanish, and in order to understand them better I knew I needed to know this language that was fundamental to them. But it was really Thoreau who brought me back to the classics. Reading Walden: “For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man,” and so forth.

On the mother of the gods

My project for this year, since I have a sabbatical, has to do with a goddess who presided over the archives in the Agora of Athens—the central part of Athens—and in the government buildings, where the democracy functioned. She’s called, in Greek, “μήτηρ,” which means mother, or “μήτηρ θεῶν,” mother of the gods, but in literature of the time, she is equated with Cybele, who is the Eastern goddess.

That is a puzzling and interesting fact, because this is the time after the Persian Wars and the great divide they brought between East and West. Here is this goddess with Eastern connotations whose statue in the presence of these archives represented those connotations with a lion, which was the symbol of the royal family in Eastern empires. And she had a huge skin drum—what the Greeks call a tympanon—which is the instrument used to beat the rhythm for wild, Dionysiac dance. People have come up with all kinds of theories about why she’s there. It seems to me that what’s especially interesting is that the Greeks don’t seem bothered by it. We hear orators speak of her, call upon her, as “the guardian of the justice” of the documents of the city, as though this is a natural connection. And I think it’s really important for anyone who’s interested in Greek notions of justice and democracy to keep in mind that this is not something that the Greeks saw as a problem. It’s just one of those things that we think of as a contradiction that they can see connections in.

I’ve put together all sorts of pieces of this study, but bringing them all together might be the hardest part of it. It will be a lengthy study—we’ll see if it’s so lengthy as to need a book. Probably.

On impracticality

For a long time people have been predicting the demise of the liberal arts. I guess it just seems so impractical not to pursue a course which is directly aimed at getting a job, training for a job. I’m afraid, though, that now there are people who just don’t know the difference, who think that going off to post-high school study is pretty much the same whether you pursue something more specific or more general. To me, it seems that, probably, many people do perfectly well without a liberal arts education. But, for many of us, that time to actually do something impractical is very valuable. How many opportunities in life do you have to really focus on things that are not practical? Many of us need a time to think and develop our own thinking before we go into action. A liberal arts education is a wonderful opportunity for people who are prepared to take advantage of it. I can’t imagine that, in the end, a liberal arts education is going to disappear.

On her sales pitch

Now, classics, as what is perhaps thought of as one of the most impractical studies within that realm, is a special question, because people think of Greek and Latin as dead languages. Why should we learn dead languages? It seems to me that the only person who couldn’t benefit from learning Greek and Latin is the person who wants only to talk and not to listen. These are languages that have much to say to those willing to listen. They can be studied as good exercises in analysis—they will sharpen your analytic skills and make you a close observer. But the real reason to study them is that they give you access to literature whose beauty and imagination and profundity is hard to best. I think that just about anyone who’s gone to the trouble to learn Greek and Latin feels that way. And if they don’t—well, Henry Adams, for example, complained that his education had not prepared him for the modern world, yet people all around him talked about how well he coped and expressed himself and thought. So maybe it had done a better job than he thought, even though the material itself was not modern. There are things about the world that will remain important for us to think about in any era.

Rebecca Sinos with her dog Kelly in 1993. Kelly, who has since passed away, was a fixture in Sinos’ office in Grosvenor House. These days, Sinos walks on campus every day with her dog Melba, who bears a striking resemblance to Kelly.

On why it’s not ‘Greek to me’

Most people don’t know that Greek is actually the source of our alphabet. It takes no time to become familiar with it. The structure of the language is complex, but that is the very thing that makes it possible for the language to be so clearly and subtly expressive. I think that is what allows it to be so powerful for the people who go to the trouble of learning it. I’ve never met anyone here who could not learn these languages, so long as he’s willing to give the time.

And it gives people great pleasure. We have auditors in our courses from the community. People, sometimes in their retirement, find they have time to do the things they wish they had done earlier, and it’s not uncommon for people to decide late in life that they want to study Greek and Latin. Many of our students who do not go on into the field report back that they continue to read, which is wonderful. It sticks with you. You may not remember all the different categories of the genitive case, but the poetry sticks with you.

On marrying for books

Let me be perfectly clear: I married Dale [Sinos, visiting professor of classics] for his books. We met at a National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminar in Greek religion at Stanford. I noticed that Dale was a bibliophile and I soon learned something about his library—irresistible!

For the first 11 or so years of our marriage, he was living in Washington, D.C., and teaching at Howard University, and I was here. So I could only smuggle a couple books at a time! But then, I guess about seven years ago, he left his job there to come and live here in Amherst. We do miss Washington and Howard, but the plane trips we do not miss.

Our research interests do overlap. He is an expert on Homer and knows The Iliad by heart, and I draw on that expertise quite often. We ask each other questions related to our teaching. It’s nice to have a resource at home. And the books!

Campeau is a history major from California.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04 and Frank Ward