Office Hour: Matthew Farmer

Matthew Farmer stands near his bookcase in his office

Photo: Patrick Montero

The assistant professor of classics gives us a tour of his office.

It was a course on Greek and Roman comedy that he took as a Tufts freshman that made Matthew Farmer fall in love with classics. He had plans to become a pre-med major in neuroscience and had signed up for the class only to satisfy a distribution requirement. But that course pointed him in a new direction. “I was astonished to discover that the comedies of Aristophanes seemed to speak directly to me over the gulf of centuries,” says Farmer. “They were witty, vulgar, obscene, offensive, humane, satirical, blasphemous, sophisticated; they seemed to contain the whole range of everything ugly and beautiful about human life—and they were funny.”

Farmer went on to earn a master’s degree in classical studies at Bryn Mawr and then a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining Haverford’s faculty in 2018 as an assistant professor of classics, he was an assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Ancient Mediterranean Studies at the University of Missouri. An expert on Greek comedy, Farmer has taught elementary and intermediate Latin, and last year introduced the course “Sex and Power in the Ancient World,” which was aimed, he says, at helping students “begin to understand the long history of sexuality’s role in giving some people access to power, and excluding others from it.” This fall he will teach a course on Roman comedy and will co-teach, with Associate Professor of Classics Brett Mulligan, “Culture and Crisis in the Golden Age of Athens.” Part of a curriculum called “Reacting to the Past,” the course has students researching and taking on the roles of ancient Athenians. “They act out these scenarios and give speeches and decide whether to put Socrates to death,” says Farmer. “It’s very involved and a lot of fun.”

1 Latin textbooks: We use something called the Oxford Latin Course, which focuses on reading over grammar. It’s this narrative around the character of the poet Horace that starts out like a children’s book: Horace sits at the table. Horace eats dinner. Then it builds up until they’re reading his actual poems, and by the end of the year they’ve seen him live through a lot of the big events of the end of the Roman Republic and the foundation of the empire. We also do a lot with a book of ancient Roman inscriptions and graffiti. Ordinarily none of that stuff would have survived, but the volcanic eruptions at Pompeii and Herculaneum preserved everything. We have all these graffiti messages that say “so and so loves so and so” or “that politician is corrupt,” and a lot of obscenities. It’s fun material. And they don’t give you translations, the students are expected to do it themselves.

2 Photos: That’s me with my wife, Sarah Scheckter. I did a master’s in classics at Bryn Mawr, and my wife did her Ph.D. in psychology there, and that’s where I met her. She’s a therapist with a private practice in Bryn Mawr, and she also works at the Villanova University counseling center. The photo on the right is of my three nieces. My wife’s family is very close, so we spend a lot of time with them. The oldest niece lives in central Pennsylvania, where my wife grew up, the other two are in North Carolina. Each one is hilarious and cute, and when you get the three of them together it’s out of control.

3 Black squirrel with button and cow: The cow came from a student I advised who was writing her senior thesis on the figure of Io. It’s a very dark and disturbing story. Io gets raped by Jupiter, and then his wife Juno finds out, and he turns [Io] into a cow to hide her. My student’s thesis was about using modern psychological ideas, like PTSD, to try to understand the trauma that this character goes through. We had this whole semester of very intense conversation about a surprisingly relevant topic for a poem that’s 2,000 years old, and I think she felt like we needed a little something light to wrap it up with.

The pin the squirrel is wearing came from a student whose mother is a Latin professor and got it at a conference. She gave it to me because the line is from a play by the Roman comic dramatist Terence that I made my Elementary Latin students memorize the first day of class last year. It says: “I am a human so I believe that nothing human is foreign to me.” What’s interesting is that Terence was a North African who was enslaved when he wrote that line and then later became free. People have this image in their minds of Romans as white people in togas living in white marble buildings. None of that is accurate at all.

4 Sidewalk chalk: I have the students chalk Latin around campus from time to time as homework. In fact, I had them chalk that line from Terence. I like the idea of putting a little Latin out into the world, exposing people to it, maybe provoking some curiosity. It’s chalk, so I feel like they’re not going to get in too much trouble.

5 His book, Tragedy on the Comic Stage: Tragedies and comedies were represented at the same festivals [in Ancient Greece], and so the comic poets know that jokes about tragedy are jokes that are going to land really well because the audience knows the work. So in the book I’m looking at parody, at plays where the tragic poets themselves are characters in the plays. This happens quite a bit. Most Greek comedies are set in the contemporary, real world of the audience, in a very silly, exaggerated version. So you can take somebody like [the playwright] Sophocles and make him a character, and make him run around on stage doing ridiculous things. What you learn is that ancient audiences found the same things funny that we do. It’s lots of sexual jokes, fart jokes, but juxtaposed with complicated parodies that require a pretty sophisticated literary sensibility to understand why it’s funny. It would be like if you were doing a parody of Shakespeare—you would have to know what the real line is to get the joke.

6 Souvenirs: The cups and saucers are Greek tourist kitsch that my wife bought in Philly years ago at a little old junk shop in Center City. The tray I bought in a thrift store in Missouri, and it’s got this total nonsense on the back that’s a completely wrong explanation of what it’s a reproduction of. Greece during the Second World War was very tumultuous, it was occupied by the Nazis and then had a civil war after that. But there was this period in the 1950s and ’60s when the Greeks were trying to get a lot of Americans to come, and there was this booming production of tourist souvenirs. They’re incredibly cheesy and ridiculous, but I sort of love them.