Richard Fernando Buxton has been a professor in the Classics Department at Colorado College since 2014. His classes include various topics like the ancient economy and Greek language. In the summer, Buxton travels with students across Italy to study the ancient Mediterranean.
This week, the Catalyst sits down with Buxton to discuss his time at CC and connections between classical antiquity and the contemporary world.
Interview and photo by JONATHAN TIGNOR
The Catalyst: Where is your favorite place to visit during the Crossroads of the Ancient Mediterranean course that you co-teach in Italy over the summer?
Richard Buxton: I would say Palermo because it’s at once cosmopolitan, remote, and profoundly different from everything else that we look at to the degree that it is the most—Rome aside but of course Rome has bits of every period—the most purely medieval place that we go. So it may seem bizarre that the site I like the most on the trip is the one that has the least to do with my expertise in teaching, but in a sense, it’s the one where I am the most like a student or have the most to learn from my surroundings.
TC: What is most shockingly different about students at CC compared to the other schools you’ve taught at?
RB: At a facetious level, none of them know how to spell the past tense of the verb “lead.” Everybody thinks it’s spelled l-e-a-d. I have never seen that problem in other schools, but almost to a man and woman, every single student here makes that mistake. I have no idea why. It must somehow correlate to liking the outdoors.
At a more serious level, as someone who went to a liberal arts college, the thing that I find most—unique isn’t the word— but distinct about Colorado College students is their ability (which makes perfect sense when you think about where the school is and I think it speaks well to the school’s self-knowledge about itself and the self-knowledge of the people who choose to go here) is the degree to which you combine a sort of stereotypical liberal arts disdain for the practical and social issues focused intellection with a real predilection for athleticism—not necessarily team sports, but the “outdoorsiness” of the of the student body is something that is quite unlike other liberal arts colleges, in my limited experience.
TC: How often do you go the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum, and why do you think it’s important to study?
RB: I think I take a class there at least once a year, and I make at least one or two visits there myself a year on my own time. It’s important in different ways for students of classics. I mean, there’s all sorts of things at the money museum that would be really useful for students of other topics; for instance, the curator was showing me a huge collection of Third Reich money. Which must be fascinating in terms of you know, how does currency change during wartime conditions, especially when things aren’t going well and after a giant inflation crisis? But limiting ourselves to sort of the classical period, for more general classes it’s incredibly important. Because outside of a perfectly adequate but somewhat uninspiring collection of ceramics at CU Boulder, there is no classical material in museums in Colorado. So it’s really our only opportunity (outside of study abroad or taking students as we have in the past to the Getty Villa in Los Angeles) to expose them to ancient material, to concrete ancient artifacts. And I was about to say firsthand, and I want to emphasize that because one of the really great parts is that we don’t go to the money museum to look at what’s on display. Rather, they take us into the back and pull the literally thousands of coins that they have from the ancient world out of the vault. They let us touch them and handle them, and for objects that are so small and delicate, to be able to handle them and see them, to directly touch something from the ancient world, I think it’s very significant.
Now I teach some classes that are more focused on the ancient economy and obviously, for that, it’s not just about exposure to ancient material but to the very materials that we’re studying. Just at a very superficial level, it makes concrete the various denominations that we think about pricing through and gives people a sense of the lived experience of using that currency. But it’s a fantastic collection and one that we have a very privileged access to, thanks to some very generous curators.
TC: How would you describe the way you walk?
RB: Yeah, my gait is quite odd. I had a friend in college who referred to me as a boing-boing. So. She is now a prestigious book editor in Madrid, so I think I’ll defer to her judgments. But I have always found a deep solidarity with all people who have weird walks. And it is not an affect. I just can’t think of a better way to do it.
TC: Many people disregard the study of classics under the assumption that the ancient material has no bearing on our daily lives—how would you respond to such criticism?
RB: I would almost dispute with you the characterization. I think that many people, in contrast to being indifferent towards the ancient world, are actively hostile towards it, thinking of it as the beginning of a now discredited, monolithic, hegemonic, and fundamentally negative Western culture from under which we are all attempting to crawl out. And in this regard one of my fundamental goals as an instructor in classical material is to emphasize the degree to which it is radically different from and reorienting towards our perceptions of what is Western or normative or standard. As I always joke with my students, the first thing you learn in my class is that Romans don’t have British accents as you might have thought in the past. One of my favorite parts about doing the trip in Italy and teaching the class on the broader subject of ancient Mediterranean history, which I’ve had the opportunity to do twice here so far, is to show that this is a world that is a Mediterranean world whose major capitals are as much a part of the Middle East and Northern Africa as they are continental Europe, and that that Europe is a Europe not focused on the Atlantic but focused on its southern periphery.
I like this approach because on the one hand, it destabilizes a triumphalist Western centric view of the West’s own tradition; on the other hand, it does make those who believe that non-Westernness as tantamount to virtue take seriously the degree to which there is no solid line between the two. And everything from Semitic to Islamic culture in the Middle East has had a profound and deep commingling with Greek and Roman culture.
TC: What lures you to dead languages like Greek and Latin as opposed to languages that are still spoken?
RB: Well, I grew up with two modern languages and I have enough problems with those two, so I guess the immediate attraction of dead languages is fewer problems. Honestly though, what I love about the study of dead languages, and what really attracted me to them in college, is the focus on the languages as a vehicle to access literature as opposed to a vehicle for travel and communication. I became interested not in Greek but in Homer, who I wanted to read in Greek. At the same time, Greek and Latin in particular—to the degree to which they had so deeply formed our vocabulary and categorical apparatus—is an education in your own language, which I think is a factor that maybe high school SAT coaches understand but is oftentimes missed.
And I’m very very pleased by the degree of people in the natural sciences who become interested in Greek, in particular, for its vocabulary building possibilities and then fall in love with the language itself. I think in part because learning to read as opposed to speak, we look at it primarily in analytical terms and that chimes with the way that they in the sciences look at material, so they feel comfortable in the humanities in a way that they’re often not in other courses.
I always joke that people who take Begining Greek, if they’re science people they say “it was like a lot of other classes although they’ve taken ones that are harder,” and humanities students always invariably say “that was the most difficult class I ever took at CC.”
TC: Have you ever doubted your path in academia? What attracted you to academia in the first place?
RB: Let me find a pithy response to this: to the degree I had trouble finding work, I doubted my path in academia. To the degree I have found work, I have not doubted that path, and I think most people in most fields (unless they are tremendously self-confident, which I am not) will find a similar correlation.
I think there’s two things there [reasons why I was drawn to academia]. At the personal, hedonistic level, it’s the study and close reading of ancient texts and the ability to think about them with an ever-larger array of data, it just gives me a tremendous amount of pleasure. It’s an activity that builds on itself and whose rewards are compound. So that’s the solitary study aspect of it. What I was incredibly pleased to find when I began teaching in graduate school was that classroom instruction was such a complimentary pleasure to that. Like all of the faculty here who I interact with, there is a real—there may not be a desire to grade 15 papers over the weekend—but there is always a desire to see what students are thinking, to spend time with them, and to have that kind of exciting intimacy that the classroom presents. And it’s something that is there when you’re talking to a roomful of 200 people, but is especially present in a small room full of very motivated individuals. And those two areas of activity interact with each other, there’s a dynamic relationship to them. Whenever you teach something that you notionally already know, it’s a great opportunity to realize all of the parts of it you don’t quite understand well, and that in turn is a tremendous stimulus to finding new ways into your subject matter. And again, the more input you have from students and the more time you have to pursue questions and to clear things up, the more that dynamic has accelerated. So that’s one of the real pleasures of teaching here.
TC: If you were able to teach your dream class at CC, what would it be?
RB: The classes that I teach now but with papers that grade themselves. At a more serious level, it’s not so much a class as I would love to be able to keep students around for eight years so that their Greek could get really really really good, and we could go more in-depth with a broader array of texts over a longer period of time.
But beyond that I’m tremendously happy with the classes that I’ve been able to develop here. The one that I would love to have a chance to look at in the future because it’s something that I think would interest people (and I don’t know enough about it and would like to), I would love to do a class about Roman law. But that’s a big undertaking.
TC: What is the most recent project you’ve been working on, or one you’re most excited about?
RB: This fall I finished the last publication project related to my dissertation research. So this is interestingly a moment where I’m sort of branching out into a whole new area. Not a “whole new” area, but into a new phase of my research that I’m quite excited about, which has to do with the correlation between the military roles that citizens in an ancient Greek city state performed and the degree of political power they either believed they were entitled to or could physically coerce to be handed over to them. It’s a field that a lot of people have thought around but have perhaps not exclusively thought within, and I’m very interested to explore this question of, how does a community perceive that it has no choice but to give power to a certain group of people? To what degree must there actually be a physical monopolization of violence, that is to say who has the armor, who has the spears, and to what degree is it a question of perception.
TC: In the past, you’ve written several non-academic articles about various topics, including Star Wars and the Velvet Underground—what is different about writing for pleasure as opposed to writing professionally?
RB: Less documentation. But in a sense, they’re all part of the same thing. The nicest compliment that I ever received about the writing I’ve done about music or movies, was a colleague here at CC who said a piece that I wrote about the guitarist Sterling Morrison (The Velvet Underground) was just a close reading of the way that he played, which I think is exactly right.
If nothing else, those pieces are a way of practicing my own claim in classes that the habits of rigorous critical analysis are completely transferable, or at least transferable from one completely obscure realm of art to another.