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Ancient Languages and the Benefits of Slowness – Classical Philologist Ursula Gärtner

Prof. Ursula Gärtner. Photo: Karla Fritze.

Ursula Gärtner gets carried away when talking about Catullus’ love poems – and her passion is contagious. She talks about how the Roman poet’s use of the “narrating I” when talking about his feelings immediately spoke to his readers. Gärtner is Professor of Classical Philology at the Historical Institute of the University of Potsdam and listening to her evokes similar feelings as readers of Catullus’ poems. Sitting in her office with a view of antique-like colonnades, the researcher tells us what moves her so much about her subject. “These wonderful texts are still so vivid today. They speak to us directly yet also have the charm of being distant.” Gärtner is interested in how these ancient texts affect readers. She is especially drawn to the imagery: pictures can signify a lot – emotions, facts, or people.

When asked whether one should learn Spanish or Latin, Gärtner answers, “Our advantage is slowness.” Learning ancient languages, unlike modern ones, is not about communicating as quickly as possible but rather understanding them and their functionality from within. She also emphasizes the traditional cultural and historical orientation of her subject, which provides access to Europe’s roots. “Literary forms, such as fables, that had been shaped in ancient times were later transformed by Jean de La Fontaine and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.” European philosophy and historiography were also determined by ancient societies. Classical philology investigates not only fiction but also a variety of texts forms – for example, in philosophy, medicine, and historiography. “All texts handed down through history can be read as literature. There is no strict separation.”
Gärtner is particularly interested in the fables of Phaedrus. She believes he was a very well educated author from the upper class. That his texts address the upper crust of Roman society strongly contradicts previous research, which interpreted Phaedrus as a freedman expressing an adaptive morality in the form of fables. Gärtner believes, however, in poetological play in fables. “He is a poet very familiar with Greco-Roman poetry, continually alluding to the existing literary topoi.” He altered, for example, the poetological metaphor adopted from the Hellenistic poet Callimachus, which says that you should not walk wide roads but small paths – i.e. produce new, fine poetry. Ironically Phaedrus contradicted this metaphor:  “I have followed [Aesop] and have made the path a road.” For Gärtner, a felicitous pun: “The irony reminds me of Monty Python,” she says, laughing, “when the crowd in the movie Life of Brian shouts, ‘Yes, we are all individuals’ and one person interjects: ‘I’m not.’”

Gärtner is proficient not only in Latin and Ancient Greek but also Hebrew. She acquired the Hebraicum on her own initiative at school in a “Hebrew study group”. “Over two years, three of us met at our religion teacher’s house, where we had tea and cookies while preparing for the Hebraicum.” Her father was a professor of classical philology in Heidelberg at the time, which is why Gärtner, born in Heidelberg, went to Freiburg after high school. “I could not study under my father,” she says. In Freiburg, she initially studied classical philology and Protestant theology – not least because of her love of Hebrew in the Old Testament. After two semesters, however, she realized that she would not become a pastor. Her passion for ancient languages remained, and Gärtner finished her doctorate about similes in the work of Valerius Flaccus in only one year with a scholarship of the “Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes”.
Her first application after her habilitation in Leipzig was successful (and she was accepted): 13 years ago Gärtner came to Potsdam. She took over a young subject at the University of Potsdam. Classical Philology had only been established in 1995. “My two predecessors had laid the foundation, and we built on it,” Gärtner remembers. “The Potsdam Latin Day is my baby,” she says with a smile. When she established this event 10 years ago, only 70 people took part. Today, 500 participants attend the Latin Day lectures, which are specifically geared toward the interests of school children and teachers of Latin. “It shows that Latin is not an exotic subject but one that attracts tremendous interest,” she says. The speakers are not only Latinists and Graecists. Many visitors come from related disciplines. The Latin Day was the starting point for the project “www.BrAnD2. Wille. Würde. Wissen. Zweites Brandenburger Antike-Denkwerk”, funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung from 2014-2017. Within the framework of this project, five schools enter into a dialog with the University. In March, six months after the Latin Day, the University of Potsdam hosts a schoolchild congress, in which children present projects on a given topic. Students of classical philology support them didactically. The theme of the last conference was the concept of “the will”. One group, for example, did a role-play on the Forum Voluntatum. “Some of the schoolchildren really delved into the matter with a lot of courage and fantasy,” says the philologist.
Gärtner has helped develop a new research focus in the field: ancient imagery. The research field is highly topical, since it connects to both Visual Studies and Digital Humanities. "We investigate how certain elements in the literature evoke imagery in the mind of the reader,” says Gärtner. The imagery of similesin the ancient epic has particularly interested her since her doctorate. At that time, she had the idea to create an anthology of the similes from the ancient epic and a corresponding database. This project is now taking shape: Together with colleagues from Tufts University in the USA, Gärtner is working on a “Linked Open Dataset of Similes in Ancient Epic Poetry”. It includes datasets on numerous search criteria: ones referring to abstract forms (‘Tertium Comparationis‘) like “wrath”, comparative images of “lions”, or even people like “Achilles”. It simultaneously creates a new instrument to retrieve, link, and represent such data. “Both here in Potsdam and at Tufts University we are trying to involve students in helping us locate the similes and enter them into the database,” Gärtner says. An application for external funding has been submitted. “The project is not only interesting for classical philology but also for a variety of subjects.”
Such projects show how fruitful classical philology research can be for a broad spectrum of disciplines in the humanities. The symposium “Text Kontext Kontextualisierung” organized by Gärtner in July 2015 was also dedicated to this rudimentary, yet explosive topic in the humanities. “When we speak of contexts, we usually mean that we have found a basis for a better understanding of an object under investigation.” Experts of various disciplines presented their conception of “context”. Again, Gärtner refers back to Phaedrus. He was the first Roman author to make the fable its own literary genre. Before him, fables had traditionally been used in a text to illustrate an argument. Phaedrus created the genre of the fable, which enticed readers to contextualize and interpret for themselves.
Although Gärtner, born in Heidelberg, feels comfortable at the University of Potsdam and was “very cordially” welcomed by her colleagues 13 years ago, she has other plans for afterwards. “My husband and I dream of retiring to Vienna.” Until then, though, there is still time – the philologist still has a lot ahead of her at the University of Potsdam.

The Researcher
Prof. Ursula Gärtner has been Professor of Classical Philology at the University of Potsdam since 2002 after being an Assistant Professor at Leipzig University and Interim Professor in Potsdam und Mainz. She habilitated in 2000 about Virgil’s impact on imperial Greek literature.

Universität Potsdam
Historisches Institut
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam

Text: Jana Scholz, Translation: Susanne Voigt
Online-Editing: Matthias Zimmermann
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