The epic poetry of ancient Rome has taken Annette Baertschi to Hell and back — and she loved every minute of it.
Baertschi, the most recent addition to Bryn Mawr's Department of Greek, Latin and Classical Studies, is at work on (Re)interpreting the Underworld: Necyia Scenes in Neronian and Flavian Epic, a manuscript that examines necyiae, or encounters with the underworld, in classical epics.
"In ancient epic poetry, there is a tradition in which the hero has a kind of ultimate challenge and has to get in touch with the world of the dead by either conjuring up the ghosts of the deceased (necromancy) or going down to the underworld beyond (catabasis) in order to obtain some information that he cannot get otherwise" Baertschi says.
Such episodes are at least as old as Homer, Baertschi notes: in fact, Odysseus' encounter with the underworld is one of the most important and best-known books of the Odyssey.
"Even more famous is the catabasis episode in Vergil’s Aeneid, which is generally agreed to be one of the high points, if not the high point, of the epic. If you talk to people who aren't classicists but have read the Aeneid, they will certainly remember that scene," she says. "It's so gripping, Vergil's description of how Aeneas goes down to the underworld, what he sees there and the people he meets. In the end he meets his father, who shows him the souls of the men who will make Rome great and build its everlasting glory."
According to Baertschi, all Roman epicists after Vergil incorporated such a scene into their works; it's an enormously important tradition in classical literature.
"Necyiae are an important occasion for the poet to impart some knowledge or 'deeper truth' on his readers as well as to convey other messages essential for the understanding of his work and his view of history and of the world in general. Moreover, since the realm of the dead unites in itself the past, the present and the future, an encounter with the underworld enables the author to include perspectives on time periods later than that represented in his epic and even on his own times."
As a Ph.D. candidate at the Humboldt University of Berlin, Baertschi was surprised and, she admits, delighted to learn that there was no comprehensive study of the necyia in the classical tradition that followed Vergil — surprised because it is so important and delighted because that made it an excellent dissertation topic.
"It is fascinating to look at the intertextual negotiations between later poets and their Virgilian and Homeric antecedents," she says. "They may give it a political reading, as a commentary on contemporary events. They also use these scenes to position themselves as poets within the epic tradition."
The trip to the world of the dead is an apt metaphor, perhaps, for the study of the classical world as Baertschi sees it: a demanding and enlightening journey to the past that helps one understand the present and the future. That past is long gone and difficult to recover, but its perceptible traces in the present provide both an entrée and a basis of comparison.
"To immerse oneself in the study of classical texts is to engage a culture that is related to the present, but very different, and it gives us a valuable perspective on our own times," she declares. "Understanding a classical concept can help you achieve the distance necessary to see a modern concept in a new way."
As she revises the dissertation for publication as a monograph, Baertschi is also editing a volume of essays on the history of classical scholarship in the 19th century and planning a new study on messenger figures in Seneca's tragedies and how they were interpreted in later centuries.
The edited volume is based on two lecture series that she organized at the Humboldt.
"In my study of the messenger scenes in Senecan drama I will investigate how Seneca adopts — following the practice of Greek tragedy — narrative strategies of epic in his messenger speeches in order to enhance their dramatic impact and emotional intensity."
She loves her research, but she says it will never be enough to fill her academic life. She is eager to spread the word, to share her enthusiasm for classical literature with her students.
"I want to show my students what is challenging, interesting and beautiful about classical texts," she says.
"Watching students move through the curriculum and become excited about Latin is immensely gratifying. That's what motivated me to come to Bryn Mawr. Good teaching is appreciated here. I love the focus on individual students.
"The fact that Bryn Mawr has a highly regarded graduate program in classics made the College even more appealing," Baertschi says. "This semester, I particularly enjoyed teaching a graduate seminar on Lucan this term, for I find his epic poem on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey simply fascinating and additionally had the pleasure of teaching an exceptionally good-humored and articulate group.
"In the next term I will be teaching, in addition to elementary Latin, an undergraduate course on the Aeneid and one on ancient heroes and heroines. Both will give me a chance to read some more epic poetry and get my students excited about it," Baertschi notes.
Baertschi, who earned the equivalent of a master's degree at the University of Zurich, has studied at the University of Oxford and was introduced to the American liberal-arts system when she spent some time doing research at Columbia University. A research collaboration with a Shakespeare scholar at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich sparked an interest in reception studies that is reflected in her Seneca project.
"I was very attracted to the liberal-arts approach," she says, "not only because of the small class sizes and emphasis on teaching, but because a small academic community that aims at a very broad and general liberal-arts education for its students tends to be open-minded about cross-departmental collaboration and exchange. That's so fruitful, and it's very interesting."