Kathleen M. Coleman, a member of Harvard’s faculty for a quarter-century, is a Classics professor and the Department’s former chair as well as a Senior Research Curator for the Harvard Art Museums.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
GRW: You were born and raised in what is now called Zimbabwe during a time of social, ethnic, and racial strife, and you studied there and in South Africa during your undergraduate years. Can you talk about these experiences and the influence they had on your scholarship and life?
KMC: I think one of the most formative experiences of my life — it would have been 1972, I think — I’m an undergraduate at the University of Cape Town, and some of the students, a small group of the students, were protesting for equal education for all. I wasn’t involved in that, but the police set on them. They were demonstrating on the steps of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town, and the police attacked them and placed them into the cathedral, and this mobilized the entire campus.
I remember we sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
I came down to the campus, and it was in total chaos. While I’d been off campus, the police had actually stormed the campus with dogs, and one of the people in our dorm had been attacked, and her lip was damaged, severely damaged.
My friend Jane and I were sent out to Maitland, which is sort of a blue-collar part of Cape Town. And I remember being greeted with just complete refusal to hear what we were talking about.
It was deeply inspiring to feel people being brought together in a cause like that, I’ve rarely felt that since.
GRW: What do you think is most misunderstood about Ancient Rome and the ancient world?
KMC: Obviously, the practice of gladiatorial combat is completely abhorrent to us. That goes without saying, I hope. But I think it’s just so important to try and understand why the Romans thought it was okay to do it.
It leads one into dark areas of ancient society, like this sharp distinction that was made in the ancient world between free and enslaved, and gladiators were enslaved persons, or they could take on the mantle of an enslaved person if they were freeborn and serve as a gladiator. And then, if you were an enslaved person, you were property. And as property you had no rights, including the right of any determination of your own life or death.
GRW: You have said, on the subject of gladiatorial combat, that “confronting paradox in a distant civilization may be a useful exercise in our modern, globalized world.” Can you talk about how it could be a useful exercise?
KMC: I think looking deeply into something like that should make us more sensitive to the problems in our own culture, the things that we gloss over and we think are perfectly okay, which, in 2,000 years time — if there's even a planet in 2,000 years time — may look absolutely incomprehensible.
To be able to look and see that another culture thought something was okay that we can clearly see was not okay should be able to help us be a little more humble about our own civilization.
GRW: You are currently working on a book about an 11-year-old poet, Q. Sulpicius Maximus. Can you talk about that?
KMC: Quintus Sulpicius Maximus died at the age of 11 years, five months, 12 days, having delivered an extemporary poem like a jazz improvisation that he made up out of his head at a competition presided over by the emperor Domitian. And then he died.
This poem is the only poem, I believe, we have from antiquity that we know was written by a child or composed, I should say, by a child. And so it is of huge interest for what it tells us about the educational system in antiquity, and about his parents’ ambitions for him.
They were formerly enslaved. So you can see how getting to the point of performing at a competition presided over by the emperor is a big, big deal if your parents had been former slaves. This is a story about social climbing in the ancient world, about the power of education, about the hybridity of Greek and Roman culture.
GRW: You have written extensively about the 20th-century South African poet Douglas Livingstone and the influence that the Classics had on his work. What piqued your interest in him, and why do you study his work?
KMC: Long ago, when I was living in Cape Town, we had a radio program of South African poetry on Sunday afternoons. And I used to put my transistor radio on the veranda wall while I was tidying my garden. And that’s how I first heard some of his poetry being read aloud.
And he writes these remarkable poems about the natural world in southern Africa and the animals and insects and so on. And I realized how beautiful it was.
When I started reading it for myself, I realized that he uses some classical allusions and motifs in very interesting ways. So I did a bit of research about him and discovered that he’d actually never learned Greek and Latin or had any sort of classical education, he was something of an autodidact.
If I’ve done anything to make his work more widely appreciated, I’ll be very pleased because I think he’s magnificent.
GRW: Do you have a favorite poem of his?
KMC: Yes, “Gentling a Wild Cat.”
It’s an amazing poem. I read it in my “Loss” course, but I always cry. I can’t help it.
GRW: Do you have any longtime favorite restaurants, coffee shops or other spots in Cambridge?
KMC: I still regret The Dolphin on Mass Ave, which isn’t open anymore. That was a favorite haunt of Harvard faculty, between Harvard Square and Central Square. I can be sometimes seen at Tatte, it must be confessed.
GRW: Interest in the humanities, including the Classics, has declined in the last decade. How can this trend be reversed? What would you say to students considering studying the classics?
KMC: The paradox in my subject is that almost every living person is easily fascinated by the ancient Greek and Roman world. But that’s different from coming to study them, obviously.
I think we should be fighting hard against this idea that whatever you study at college is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.
It’s true that college is preparing you for the workforce in the sense that we’re teaching people to think and express themselves, and nothing does that better than a tough course in something difficult, like a foreign language or lost culture or something like that. So I think the humanities are ideal for positioning people for the modern workforce.
GRW: The Classics have been the subject of recent political and academic controversy over a perception that its study perpetuates racist ideology. In 2021, The New York Times Magazine quoted Princeton Classics Professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta as writing that, “far from being extrinsic to the study of Greco-Roman antiquity, the production of whiteness turns on closer examination to reside in the very marrows of classics.” What do you make of this criticism?
KMC: There are many, many, many ways of looking at classical antiquity, and, undoubtedly, there are people who align the ancient world with some reprehensible aspects of modern history. And, undoubtedly, these mismatches are perpetrated. But there are so many valuable lessons to be learned from antiquity, including the lessons of looking at the things that went so severely wrong in the ancient world.
The complexity of ancient thought and of its modern reception should obviously make us just as careful not to heroize antiquity as not to demonize it in totality.
We also in the Classics Department, have introduced programs and partnered with things like the graduate school to try and expand the classics to make them accessible to and make, you know, studying them at a place like Harvard, available to underrepresented minorities and students who might otherwise not otherwise have the chance to learn Greek and Latin and can come here to learn them.
GRW: In 2018, Fifteen Minutes reported that you had written a 17,000-word memoir in the voice of your then-recently-deceased cat, Catiline, that chronicled its experiences across three continents, including the end of apartheid in South Africa. As of the publication of that article, the memoir had not found a publisher. What have you done with the memoir since then?
KMC: It lies on my computer, and, I don’t know but, when I retire, I’ll start again the effort of trying to get it published. But I let friends read it if they’d like to, and I’m gratified if they say that, by the end, they’re in tears, because it was a very affecting story.
Corrections: September 6, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Kathleen M. Coleman as the chair of the Classics Department. In fact, Coleman is the former chair.
A previous version of this article misquoted Coleman as referring to a poem that was “proposed” by a child. In fact, Coleman said the poem was “composed” by a child.
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the title of Coleman’s course as “Lost.” In fact, the course is titled “Loss.”
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Coleman’s cat, Catiline.
— Associate Magazine Editor Graham R. Weber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.