In Brief, She's Allured by Ancient Muses

UC scholar Kathryn Gutzwiller loves studying epigrams, the briefest form of Greek poetry, because they often give a more extensive glimpse into ancient life than lengthier forms of poetry that survive from early Western history.

In comparison to Homeric epics and their stories of heroes, epigrams are commonplace writings that were not studied much 25 years ago, when Gutzwiller first began developing her expertise in Hellenistic poetry. Epigrams are typically no more than several lines long. They first appeared on statues, monuments and gravestones, and eventually became a literary form of their own.

“Usually, they aren’t about heroes. They are often personal and particular, about a single object or individual and often about ordinary individuals and objects. I find them to be more typical of the period than longer forms of writing,” says Gutzwiller, the 2003 winner of UC’s George Rieveschl Jr. Award for Excellence in Scholarly Works and a professor of classics in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

Clues about a young girl’s life can be found, for example, in the following epigram - also an epitaph - that Gutzwiller read last fall on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” In addition to the reference to the poetess Sappho, the poem makes reference to girls beside the shuttle – drawing a clearer picture for the modern world of a typical day in the life of a Greek girl.

Fate took away prematurely all Nicomache’s favorite things,
her trinkets and her Sapphic conversations
with other girls beside the shuttle at dawn. That poor girl
the whole city of the Argives lamented loudly,
as a flower reared in Hera’s arms. Alas, the beds of the youths
who courted her remain cold.

Gutzwiller’s appearance on a national news program such as NPR is one clue about why she has won the Rieveschl Award. The interview resulted from a UC conference that Gutzwiller took the lead in organizing. Sixty scholars from all around the world gathered in November 2002 to discuss a new scroll of epigrams that was recovered from an Egyptian mummy, the most significant discovery of ancient Greek literature within the last 50 years.

The 2,200-year-old scroll, held at the University of Milan, contains poems written by Posidippus -- 110 new poems that were previously unknown as well as two already known to scholars. The conference attracted attention from the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and National Geographic, in addition to NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

Professor Gutzwiller

Professor Gutzwiller

The conference attendance, which drew scholars in papyrology (the study of ancient scrolls), Hellenistic and Roman literature, art history and image studies, and Ptolemaic history, stands as evidence of Gutzwiller’s stature in her field.

“In the last 20 years, she has written over 20 articles and three books on Hellenistic literature. She is now regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in that area,”

said Brian Rose, head of the UC classics department in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

Adds a fellow classicist, Peter Bing of Emory College: “…She has proven herself extraordinarily productive. She is, moreover, an intellectual force to be reckoned with, and one who has put her mark on the field.”

Gutzwiller currently is at work on an Oxford University Press volume that will publish all the presentations from the Posidippus conference. Her last volume, “Poetic Garlands: Hellenistic Epigrams in Context,” won the Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit, classical scholarship’s highest honor for a book. This work “revolutionized the study of the epigram, suggesting that these poems were published as ‘garlands’ in a series of pieces designed to be seen and appreciated in a unified setting,” says emerita professor Ann Michelini, a retired colleague. “The discovery of the Posidippus text gave support that her theories were on target.”

Her second book, “Theocritus’ Pastoral Analogies: The Formation of a Genre,” remains Michelini’s favorite of Gutzwiller’s works. It traces the development of the genre of pastoral poetry, which Theocritus invented, ranging from early Greek epic poetry through the classic and Hellenistic periods down to the early modern period. Michelini calls the book an “extraordinary tour de force.”

Gutzwiller’s next research project has taken her to Paris during the first three weeks of May, so she won’t be able to receive her Rieveschl Award in person at the May 13 All-University Faculty Meeting. She was not aware that she had even been nominated for the award when she received a letter in the mail informing her she had won. “It was a total surprise. It is very gratifying to be recognized within your own community. There are a lot of great scholars on this campus. It is a great honor in that respect to be singled out on this campus,” said Gutzwiller, who was the first member of her family to get a college degree. Raised in a small town in West Virginia, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Latin from Marshall University in 1970, intending to become a Latin teacher. Instead she continued her studies by earning a master’s at Bryn Mawr College and a PhD at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She joined the faculty of UC’s classics department in 1978 and has served visiting professorships at Case Western Reserve University and University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Although she has headed to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris for her latest research, Gutzwiller finds a rich source of material for her work right here at UC in the John Miller Burnam Classical Library. The Byzantine and modern Greek collection it contains has expanded steadily since 1930 and remains one of the finest collections of its kind in the world. The library attracts scholars from around the globe, including Italian and German scholars of epigrams who will arrive this fall. Gutzwiller is now working with early edition anthologies on epigrams dating back to 1566 and 1600, available from UC’s collections.

Her lastest research project, of course, focuses on epigrams. In addition to finding their brevity appealing, Gutzwiller continues to be intrigued about their use as a literary genre in the form of collections. Specifically, she will focus on the epigrammist Mealager, who, around 100 B.C., helped to create an anthology of early Greek epigrams. His collection helped to serve as a bridge between the Greek period and the rising new Roman Empire.

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