Niall W. Slater, Classics


Once upon a time there was a young man named Lucius who journeyed far and wide seeking adventure and magic. Then, one day, he met a witch. Impressed by her powers, he decided to try to imitate her. He cast a spell and accidentally turned himself into a donkey. In that form he was forced to wander the world, suffering, learning and observing human nature, until one day the goddess Isis appeared and told him to eat some roses. He did, and immediately was transformed back into a human being.

This is the wonderfully irreverent plot of The Golden Ass, a second-century Latin novel by Apuleius. It is also the subject of a new study by Niall Slater, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Latin and Greek. Through an innovative exercise in reception-oriented criticism, which explores how readers respond to a given story or drama, Slater is exploring how ancient readers imagined the world of Apuleius's novel.

Slater is particularly interested in the visual imaginations of Apuleius's Roman readers. "Each person reads texts with the help of visual imagination," he says. An author can use language that triggers or catalyzes that imagination, but each reader will conjure a unique picture of subjects described in a tale — whether the author has described a landscape, a character, or an activity. In his research, Slater explores how Apuleius used words to tap into his readers' visual imaginations. "I think Apuleius was particularly interested in theories of vision, or in the power of words to describe and circumscribe the visible," he says. Slater argues that Apuleius called on readers to maximize their "visual repertoire," a strategy that has given his stories an enduring appeal through the centuries.

Slater's research also examines similarities and differences between the ancient and modern visual imagination. This kind of work has him roaming the corridors of several fields, including art history, cartography, and archaeology. Using different perspectives, Slater is trying to piece together how the ancient Romans "saw" landscapes and cityscapes — a task that requires stepping outside modern-day photographic paradigms. "Today we think in terms of a bird's-eye view or a map," he says. "But many classical stories take their readers on a journey that is conceived as an itinerary, almost like a AAA Triptik: the hero moves from one stop to the next, with intermediate stops along the way before reaching a final destination." How did an ancient reader envision that kind of passage? The ways in which modern people imagine cities and landscapes do not exhaust the possibilities, Slater says.

Such inquiries get at the heart of what it means to be a classicist. In some ways, he maintains, classics is the original interdisciplinary field. Because the subject matter of the classicist is the entire ancient world, scholars do not divide or narrow their work into subfields. They may cross back and forth between history, law, literature, theatre, medicine, philosophy, and science. Slater has been passionate about this expansive area of study since he began studying Latin in junior high school. "I am an accidental classicist," he says. "I wanted to take German, but they didn't offer it. So I took Latin and became hooked. It wasn't just the language. It was also the fact that Latin is the key into an entire world."

He brings the same enthusiasm into the classroom. He recently co-taught a freshman seminar, "The Knowledge Economy of Greece and Rome," with Philippa Lang, which introduced freshmen to the ways in which systems of knowledge come into being and differentiate themselves. He gives the example of ancient medicine, which appears strange and unscientific in modern eyes, but is revealed to be a fascinating and internally coherent system once students understand how to think within the paradigm.

Slater has been inviting students to participate in the classical world throughout his 18 years at Emory. Though his major area of interest is ancient theater and ancient prose fiction, especially comedy, he teaches widely on classical subjects that interest Emory undergraduates. He sees his work in the undergraduate classroom as crucial to his research. "Undergraduates ask incredible questions," he says. "They are not the same questions that all of the professionals are asking."

For Slater, the real value of classics lies in the enduring power of ancient texts to shape and form young readers. "My mission is not to create another generation of classicists, although I hope my students will fall in love with the material," he says. "My mission is to help them adopt habits of mind, of analysis, of synthesis, and of questioning, that will equip them to become critical thinkers in any field." Studying the classics at Emory means embarking on a unique kind of educational journey. A classical imagination, Slater suggests, can illuminate the way to many destinations.