A Conversation with Chris Trinacty
Assistant Professor of Classics Chris Trinacty on falling in love with Seneca’s tragedies, teaching the discipline through digital humanities, and his favorite Latin expressions.
What year did you begin teaching at Oberlin College?
I was here as a visiting professor back in 2010-2011 and then came on as a tenure-track faculty member in 2012.
What inspired you to pursue a career in classics?
When I was in college I was an English/classics double major. I had an abiding interest in Greek mythology and drama at that time and wanted to learn ancient Greek to really understand those stories. There were a number of classics professors at Pitzer College and Pomona College whom I looked up to for their erudition and the stories they would tell about archaeological digs in Greece or tours of Rome. I took a year off after college to figure out what I wanted to do next and found myself reading lots of Euripides and Homer. That seemed to be a pretty good indication that I should pursue classics. Graduate school involved stops at the University of Arizona (MA 2000) and then Brown University (PhD 2007) and along the way a number of jobs tutoring, teaching high school, working at book stores, etc. Ultimately, it was a lot of hard work, stick-to-itiveness, and a dash of luck that I ended up being able to pursue this career.
Your primary research revolves around the philosopher Seneca. What are some of your favorite works? Can you point to any of Seneca’s writings that are particularly relevant today?
I fell in love with Seneca’s tragedies as challenging literary expressions of fury, terror, grief, and trauma. They really expand upon and push the boundaries of what “classical” tragedy should be. Plays such as Thyestes show what can happen when tyranny is unquestioned, while Oedipus plays with the literary references in an evocative and meaningful manner. That being said, my current research is on Seneca’s Natural Questions, which attempts to explain various natural phenomena (comets, earthquakes, lightning) with an eye to the ethical ramifications for understanding such oddities of the natural world. Stoics believed you should “follow nature as a guide” but when earthquakes happen or lightning hits a temple, it caused some consternation—what type of guide is nature? How should one understand man’s place in the natural world? Physics informs ethics and vice versa. Ultimately, the Natural Questions is a very interdisciplinary sort of work and it can speak to environmentalism, political theory, geology, and the humanities broadly speaking. I think it is quite relevant today!
You also teach Latin and Greek language courses. Do you have a favorite expression in either language?
Honestly there are so many and it depends on my mood—back in college I’d say it was omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori (“love conquers all and let us yield to love”—Virgil Eclogue 10.69) but I was sappier then. Now I’ll go with virtus difficilis inventu est (“Virtue is difficult to find”—Seneca Natural Questions 3.30.8).
What are some exciting trends or developments in the field of classics that most people probably don’t know about?
There is so much more out there because of digital humanities and the digitization of information in general. You can get manuscripts from libraries around the world, search any instance of any Greek or Latin word/phrase, take a walk in a 3D GoogleEarth version of Ancient Rome. But, in general, I think the way that classics can reach out to different disciplines and cross-pollinate with philosophy, the sciences, history, etc., is a welcome trend. Books examining the classics and Toni Morrison, or the notion of the sublime, or Hippocrates and modern medicine, are all pushing classics beyond its normal boundaries. More holistic approaches between archaeology and philology are also nice to see (e.g., the graffiti at Pompeii being contextualized within the space where they are found, as well as the literary/social references they draw upon).
What are some possible career paths for students who are considering a classics major?
Our students end up doing all sorts of things—from theater to library science, from medical school to law school. There is always a need for Latin teachers in high schools and that’s an obvious possibility, but other students have had success teaching a variety of subjects (history, social studies, literature) at a number of levels (from elementary to high school). We have former majors and minors working in the publishing world, on Wall Street, and even on the Oberlin Board of Trustees!
Which courses do you enjoy teaching the most?
Some of my favorite classes are the introductory Latin courses because you can really see how much students are learning and how they can apply it in translating real Latin passages. By the end of the first year, students are reading Latin poetry and it is just great to see. Greek and Roman drama is another favorite because the material still speaks to students today, and one assignment (for students to produce creative responses to the work) has resulted in some truly exceptional work.