Classics Professor and Department Chair Richard Martin has thick curly hair, a graying beard and a calm presence — you get the sense that he has some perspective on the world around him, perhaps from his deep study of Homer, Aristophanes and the rest of Greek literature.
In a way, Martin’s first introduction to the Classics came when he learned Latin to serve Mass as an altar boy. But it was listening to his grandparents mix Irish and English in a thick brogue that truly kindled his interest in the puzzles of language and technology. Their speech gave him a glimpse of the mystery of a “slightly exotic culture” and presented language as culture’s gatekeeper.
Stories and language permeated Martin’s youth in other ways as well. Among Irish-American families, he said, “there is a great emphasis on oral tradition and tradition generally.” Additionally, in Martin’s hometown of Boston, people passed the muggy summer evenings talking on their porches. As he grew up, Martin continued to study Latin, but also spent much of his free time exploring the worlds painted in fantasy novels and folk-tales.
This interest in story and culture lead Martin to study Classics and Celtic languages in college. From there he worked as a police reporter for the Boston Globe, exploring murder, assault and fire scenes, until he made his way to graduate school.
When I asked Martin about why language interests him so much, he said, “language is so completely personal — everyone with his or her own idiolect.” He went on to explain how we remember the tones, voices and phrases of friends, enemies and loved ones. He told me that he is interested in “the personal use of language” rather than its abstract study.
“It’s hard for humanities professors to say I [study one thing specifically],” he said, “there is a great holism in the humanities — you get a piece of the human experience and the rest comes with it”.
Martin’s research focuses primarily on Homeric poetry and how it existed as a performance art in Ancient Greece, as opposed to the way that we conceptualize it — as written text. He does fieldwork in modern Crete, talking to people who still memorize the traditional oral epics and recording them singing these poems.
Martin’s research led him to find a number of similarities between ancient Greek epic poetry and modern rap. He told me how both genres center on heroes who display their strength, courage and skill through their masterful articulation of language. The heroes of rap and epic poetry are “not brutes,” but “but wonderfully articulate,” Martin said.
But in Martin’s eyes, research does not stand alone; it is complementary to teaching. Each time he presents ancient Greek culture to those who don’t know it, he is “forced to reintroduce himself to it.” He gave the wonderful example of how his researching the original semantics of the word “myth” for his Greek myth class led him to an extended research project that culminated in a book.
Teaching is especially important for the Classics, Martin explained, because “if you don’t teach the new generation, [Classics as a discipline] will die.”
I asked Martin what advice he would offer the student body. He suggested first and foremost that we “explore [our] own passions and not worry if [we’re] going to get a job.” He also offered a “secret of the ancients” — find “time to do nothing.”