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Hagen stresses relevance of classics in modern world

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Like many of the papers that Monmouth College classics professor Adrienne Hagen wrote in graduate school, a goat is going to make an appearance in this story.

Hagen said the common farm animal helped her determine her primary research focus in her field.

“When I first started grad school, my focus was on gender and sexuality in the ancient world,” said Hagen, who joined Monmouth’s faculty last fall after two years as a visiting assistant professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. “But every paper I wrote for the first three years had a goat in it.”

Hagen realized her heart was more into studying nature and the environment in the ancient world. She is teaching a Monmouth class on that topic this semester.

“We talk a lot about pollution and erosion in that era,” she said. “They used a lot of lead, and a hotly debated question is to what extent they were poisoning themselves. We have a record in ice caps by drilling into the core that lets us see the amount of lead present back then.”

Ancient Romans were also concerned about deforestation, due in part to the great amount of wood that was burned to heat the large public baths that were so prevalent.

“We think of pre-industrial times leaving a very small footprint on the earth, but that’s not always the case,” said Hagen.

Hagen has also studied how Romans mourned their pets. She presented a talk on that subject at the recent Illinois Classical Conference.

“One of the examples is a woman living in what is now Turkey during the Roman period,” she said. “She had a tiny sarcophagus for her dog. That’s the kind of detail that helps personalize people who lived millennia ago.”

Connecting the classics to the modern

Bringing ancient times to life is an essential part of Hagen’s teaching philosophy.

“When I teach classics, it’s important for me to help people understand how relevant it is,” she said. “I try to tie things into contemporary issues as much as I can. Art, religion, philosophy, science – anything you want to do, you can apply it to the ancient world.”

Another way she ties the eras together is through language.

“I’ll focus on the origin of a word to its Latin roots, or point out phrases that are still in use,” she said. “On the first day of class, for example, I used ‘I came, I saw, I conquered,’” the phrase popularly attributed to Julius Caesar more than 2,000 years ago that is still spoken today.

“I enjoy teaching students about the broad scope of history and how connected we are,” she said.

Monmouth’s Classics Day – brought to campus by department chair Bob Simmons – is another way to bridge the gap between millennia. Hagen performed a weaving demonstration at the 2018 event.

“Bob and I are both interested in getting as many hands-on experiences for our students as possible,” she said.

Discovering Latin

A strong student when she was in high school in Virginia, Hagen caught the bug for Latin and the classics when she decided to challenge herself with a Latin course.

“It has that reputation, that respect, of being a serious course,” she said. “But I learned that the fundamentals of the language are actually a lot more straightforward than the Spanish I was already studying. It was a nice surprise to learn that Latin was so accessible.”

Hagen completed her undergraduate studies in classics with a concentration in Latin at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. She then earned master’s and doctoral degrees in classics from the University of Wisconsin.

“I was part of the Center for Culture, History and the Environment at Wisconsin,” she said. “I was the only classics student involved with the center,” which investigates environmental and cultural change in the full sweep of human history. “That really solidified my research focus.”

Arriving in Illinois last year, Hagen and her husband, Craig Dietz, set up house in the country on a farm north of Galesburg.

“We’re still developing a plan for what to do with it,” she said. “Maybe animals, maybe fruit trees. Goats might show up again.”