Breakfast with Ovid

Biggs Residency in Classics celebrates three decades of world-class scholarship

John and Penelope Biggs in Umrath Hall. (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

“There’s a mystique about ancient Greek,” says Emeritus Trustee John H. Biggs. “It uses a different alphabet, the grammar is complex, the sentence structure can be difficult. I fell in love with the myths and stories, but I also saw it as a kind of intellectual development.”

Penelope Biggs, PhD ’74, was hooked by the Romans Cicero and Ovid. “I loved unraveling those long, winding sentences,” she says, “and then pulling them back together again.”

Over the last three decades, an international array of Greek and Latin scholars have come to Washington University in St. Louis thanks to the Biggs Family Residency in Classics. Established in 1990, the annual residency includes a week of formal lectures and presentations as well as informal interactions with students and faculty.

“There’s always something special,” says Catherine Keane, chair of Classics in Arts & Sciences. “Scholars will present something they’re working on, a paper or book-in-progress, which the group gets to discuss.

“There’s a real feeling of intimacy and community.”

John and Penelope Biggs (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)

Starting with Homer

Born and raised in Kirkwood, Missouri, John Biggs discovered Greek as a student at the Thomas Jefferson School.

“We started with Homer, which is the perfect choice for young boys,” Biggs remembers. He and a friend, armed with a stopwatch and a Greek-English lexicon, would compete to see who could translate the most lines in 15 minutes.

At Harvard, Biggs studied for two years with renowned classicist John H. Finley Jr., reading Pindar, and performed with future Biggs Resident Glen Bowersock in a Greek-language production of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. But the university’s most profound impact came at the start of his junior year, when Biggs and his roommate stood in a department hallway debating which of two courses on Catullus to take.

“Penelope walked in,” Biggs remembers with a smile. “And I thought, OK. That’s decisive.”

After graduation (John from Harvard in 1958, Penelope from Radcliffe in 1959), the couple returned to St. Louis and John ascended through the ranks at the General American Life Insurance Co. Penelope earned her master’s degree and doctorate in comparative literature from Washington University, and she published on topics such as the depiction of disease in Sophocles’ Ajax, Philoctetes and Trachiniae.

In 1977, John came to Washington University as vice chancellor for finance and administration, and in 1983, he earned a doctorate in economics. He later served as chief executive officer for the investment company TIAA-CREF. Penelope, meanwhile, joined the faculty at Lindenwood College (now University), teaching Greek mythology and Latin.

“Several students were women about my age,” she recalls with a laugh. “They liked Medea a lot.”

Catherine Keane delivers remarks in Graham Chapel during the 2016 Faculty Book Celebration. (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

Exciting scholarship

“Classics is a great place to develop all those traditional liberal arts skills: writing, presenting, discussing and close analysis,” Keane says. “Our students are ambitious and driven but also well-rounded.”

Tim Moore, the John and Penelope Biggs Distinguished Professor of Classics and director of undergraduate studies, adds that, in recent years, the field has begun to explore key questions relating to social history and the lives of ordinary people.

“Gender has emerged as a wonderfully interesting topic,” Moore says. “Feminist scholars have brought new attention to the experiences of women and explored how gender in the ancient world differed from what we might expect.

“There’s also a new intersection between literary and material culture,” Moore continues. “It used to be, one either studied ancient texts or went and dug in the dirt. Today, we talk to each other more, and that’s led to a lot of really exciting scholarship.”

Timothy Moore, the John and Penelope Biggs Distinguished Professor of Classics, leads a discussion in the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. (Photo: Mary Butkus/Washington University)

The Biggs reunion

This spring, 14 former Biggs residents will return to campus for the Biggs Family Residency Reunion.

The three-day event, which takes place April 11, 12 and 13, will feature new presentations on a wide variety of topics. Mary T. Boatwright of Duke University will investigate the standing of Imperial women under Roman law. Harvard’s Kathleen Coleman will contrast depictions of the material world in Statius’ poetry with surviving objects from the early Roman Empire.

Stanford’s Josiah Ober will discuss the origins of democracy and its resilience against both populist and elitist challenges. James G. Lennox from the University of Pittsburgh will examine the centrality of questions and answers to Aristotle’s thought. New York University’s David Konstan will explore differences between the Biblical conception of sin and the ancient Greek “hamartia,” which meant “error” or “fault,” as in Aristotle’s “tragic flaw.”

Classicist Robert Wallace (center), the 2017 Biggs Resident, chats with students. (Photo: Danny Reise/Washington University)

Other topics will range from Zeus cults and Hellenistic Jewish writers to the birth of archaeology and how aerial photography is expanding the field today.

“Scholars are always starting new conversations,” Keane says. “There’s fine, focused work on particular sites and particular texts, as well as big questions that reach back-and-forth across the disciplines. How do we interpret sources? What was Thucydides up to?

“And why does democracy matter?”

Breakfast with Ovid

Today, the poems of Pindar, which John studied with Prof. Finley at Harvard, remain part of his morning regimen. Penelope recently returned to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

“Frequently over breakfast, Penelope will say, ‘you won’t believe what Ovid did with this story,’” chuckles John. “He has all these transformations…”

“I like Ovid best when he’s being funny,” Penelope agrees. She points to the poet’s treatment of Io, one of Jupiter’s mortal lovers, whom the jealous Juno transforms into a heifer. “Io’s father goes into this lament. ‘And I was hoping for grandchildren!’”

Concludes John: “I can’t believe that Ovid’s audience didn’t smile.”

John and Penelope Biggs (Photo: James Byard/Washington University)
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