Knox Students Study Ancient Rome in U.S. and Italy

April 27, 2011

by Matt McKinney '13

As the old saying goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

A group of Knox College students and faculty had the opportunity to do just that in December, when they traveled to Italy for Classics 280B, companion to the preparatory course, Classics 280A, "Visual and Literary Rome."

The course, taught by Knox classics Professor Brenda Fineberg, surveyed the social and literary history of Rome from the Etruscans through the early empire, with an emphasis on visual and material remains that students would be able to see while in Italy.

"We had spent all of fall term building a connection to these ancient sites, so it helped us get more out of the trip," said senior Priya Sharma, one of the 31 travelers. "The sites we visited actually had meaning instead of just being another set of crumbling buildings." (Photo above: The Knox College group visits the Ara Pacis, an ancient shrine in Rome.)

Prior to departing for Italy, each student gave a presentation in class on an ancient Roman site. As a result, Fineberg said, "When we were on the ground in Italy we had at least one unofficial tour guide for each site we visited."

"It was a really wonderful opportunity to take the class and have a foundation of the prominent influences from that time," said sophomore Alice Corrigan, a classics and history major from Chicago, Illinois. "Then, we were able to see the places that inspired what we had been studying."Alice Corrigan at Pompeii

The trip included visits to ancient remains in modern-day Rome, Pompeii, and Castellammare Di Stabia (translated as "the castle on the sea by Stabia").  The Villa Jovis, built on the island of Capri by Tiberius, the second Roman emperor, was among the most popular destinations on the trip -- even though getting there required an uphill trek lasting nearly an hour.

"I think that between the colorful tiles, ornate gate doors, and antiquated gardens, it was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen," Sharma, a psychology major from Burr Ridge, Illinois, said about the 2,000-year-old site.  "During such a long walk, we were able to build a bond with our professors and other students, which helped make us all a really tight group."

Although most members of the group lacked a background in the Italian language, that did not prove to be much of a barrier.

"The natives really enjoyed when you tried to speak in Italian, even if you weren't the best, and for the most part they were always willing to help you out if you asked how to say something in Italian," said senior Jackie Stillmaker, a psychology major from Des Plaines, Illinois. (Photo below: From left to right, Jackie Stillmaker, Priya Sharma, and Casey Patrick at the Colosseum in Rome.)

Knox students at ColosseumDuring the fall term, Fineberg offered optional weekly evening classes to help students learn some very basic Italian.

"There are ways to say almost anything if you know a lexicon of maybe 100 words and phrases," Fineberg said. "And the Italians are a very warm and welcoming people. If you show even the slightest interest in trying to say something, they will help you, they'll encourage you. Sometimes they will even ask what part of Italy you are from!"

While many of the Knox travelers were encountering the Italian language for the first time, some of the students also were expanding their horizons by enrolling in a Knox Classics Department course for the first time.

"I saw this class being offered and jumped at the chance to go abroad," said junior Rachel Lyman, a biology major from Raleigh, North Carolina. "I thought I would be at a disadvantage, but realized it didn't matter what my major was. This was something I was interested in, and I just became fascinated with every part of the course."

Students were encouraged to keep journals during the two-week tour, and each wrote a five-page reflection after returning from Italy.

"The students all came in expecting to be challenged and were ready to take the trip as it came," said Ryan Fowler, a visiting professor in classics. With the eager attitudes of the students and the delicious cuisine, there's not much he would change about the trip. "I mean," he added, "we were all in Italy together."

Photos by Stephen Fineberg