Alum blog post: From Latin, Greek, and Manuscripts to Engineering Software

Alex Simrell ’16 lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works as a software engineer for Grokker. While a student at Holy Cross, Alex spent a semester abroad in Athens, and served in his senior year as the president of the Manuscripts, Inscriptions, and Documents Club.

Classics majors are often asked, “Why are you studying a dead language?”, “What will you do with that?”, or something along those lines.  For me the answer was simple: I wanted to be a Classics teacher. 

I delayed entering the teaching profession and accepted a Fulbright research grant to work on the CroALa project, a digital collection of Croatian Neo-Latin texts.  In Croatia I became fascinated with the technical side of my research, and afterwards completed an intensive three-month “programming bootcamp.”  

Now three years into my career as a Software Engineer, I have a new appreciation for my Classics background. Computer languages are more similar to Greek and Latin than you might think.  When learning to code, the focus is primarily on reading and writing.  First you need to learn the vocabulary and rules of the language.  Then you use that knowledge to construct sentences or lines of code to state an idea.  Finally you put those ideas together to express something more complicated.  You need to balance understanding the big picture with paying attention to the smallest details (computers are not very forgiving)!

The skills I developed as a member of the Manuscripts, Inscriptions, and Documents club have been especially applicable.  Although I did learn technical skills that are very useful, the non-technical skills have been even more helpful so far.  Many people imagine programmers writing code alone in a dark room, but in reality code is written by teams.  Strong communication is crucial.  Presenting my MID research to Classics people without a technical background and technical people without a Classics background prepared me well for communicating with other software engineers as well as non-technical business people.

I believe that the point of a Classics education is not to learn specific content knowledge, but to build a foundation for future learning.  My Classics background provided me with a strong foundation for Software Engineering, and I’m so grateful for the opportunities it has given me.

Maia Lee-Chin ’21 to study the reading of the Iliad in Worcester schools as the College’s 2020-21 Fenwick Scholar

Rising senior Maia Lee-Chin ’21 has been named the 2020-21 Fenwick Scholar and will be undertaking a year-long senior thesis project titled “Classics in the Classroom: Retelling the Iliad in Worcester.” Maia, one of the Bean Scholars in the Class of 2021, is a Classics major with a minor in Education.

Maia’s proposal focuses on how Classics can engage with elementary age students’ reading motivations to read non-fiction texts. She is interested in two different perspectives: Classics and Education. In Classics, her interest lies in the lack of access for marginalized people (low-socioeconomic status and underrepresented minorities) to the study of Classics. In Education, it is the motivation of early elementary-age children to read informational texts. These two topics have never been discussed in relation to one another, and by studying both of these, schools and colleges alike can better understand the pedagogical effects that Classics has on children’s motivations to read.

Maia aims to reveal the effects of early exposure to Classics on a) the motivations of marginalized children to read and b) the volume of informational texts read. She proposes that a common solution can help to address both problems. A curriculum, aimed at ages 6-8, provides access to marginalized children and can act as a catalyst for students to begin reading more informational texts.

In the Fall 2020 semester, a randomized control study will track the students’ reading by type of text and length of reading. In the Spring 2021 semester, a curriculum centered around the Iliad will be introduced to one classroom and its effectiveness as a catalyst to read other informational texts will be measured. Maia argues that both the lack of access to Classics and the types of texts that students choose to read can be studied by introducing Classics to elementary-age students.

Her advisors for the project are Professor Lauren Capotosto from the Department of Education and Professors Mary Ebbott and Dominic Machado from the Department of Classics. They have worked with her for the past year to craft a proposal submitted to the Fenwick Scholar Committee and the Provost of the College.

Of the educational aims of the project Prof. Capotosto said, “Maia has skillfully woven together her interests in classics and education to design her project, ‘Classics in the Classroom.’ Introducing elementary students to the classics has the potential to build students’ background knowledge and enhance their engagement with reading. Her project is not only well-informed by the research literature, but also feasible for schools to implement. Maia’s work has the potential to meaningfully impact instructional practice beyond the year-long study.”

Prof. Ebbott said of Maia’s engagement with Homer, “No one I know reads the Iliad like Maia. She finds deep personal connection to the story of Achilles’ anger and the war at Troy while also casting an intensely critical eye on the poetry and the ways in which it has been received and taught. Through that combination, she asks questions that are startling and creative in the dual sense of being both imaginative and productive.”

In commenting on the significance of the project Prof. Machado said, “The work that Maia is doing and plans to do is a living embodiment of the Holy Cross mission. It considers ‘the moral character of learning and teaching’ and explicitly asks about ‘our special responsibility to the world’s poor and powerless.’ It is a work of service that seeks to share Maia’s privilege as a college student and a scholar of Classics with marginalized communities right outside our gates. Most importantly, her proposal is the result of years of contemplating the ambiguity and uncertainty that comes from being a member of an underrepresented group in an exclusionary field.”

The official announcement by Ellen Perry, Professor of Classics and the Director of College Scholar Programs, is included below.


Richard Ciolek ’20 on a summer dig in Cosa

After gesticulating with an umbrella and squalling various clucking noises in order to scare a flock of birds into the path of an oncoming Nazi warplane, Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, visibly cheerful that his shenanigans brought down the enemy, walked along the beach as the plane smoldered in the background and declared: “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne. Let my armies be the rocks and the trees; the birds in the sky.”

I was privileged enough to have a few of those “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne” moments this summer. Like Connery’s character, I don’t leave the library much save the rare occasion to obtain subsistence and attend lectures on historical languages. I, however, had the absolute privilege of digging at an archaeological site this summer at the ruins of Cosa in Italy, where I was able to gain a further understanding of material culture. It was a place, moreover, where I could connect what I had found in the earth to something I read in the classroom.

Richard ready for a day in the dirt.

Cosa, the ruins of which are in the extreme south of Tuscany and about two hours north of Rome, was a Latin colony founded around 273 BCE. The site received additional settlers around 197 BCE—perhaps, as the archaeologist Elizabeth Fentress has suggested, due to a shortage in manpower as a result of the Second Punic War. Further expansion occurred later in the second century, with the construction of a basilica, three temples, and further development around the forum. In 70 BCE, there is evidence of significant violence (such as the skeleton of a murdered man found in a cistern), which the archaeologist Frank Brown concluded was the result of a pirate raid, leading to abandonment of the site.

There was later resettlement under the emperor Augustus and a prosperous Cosa existed until the reign of Nero, when an earthquake damaged much of the town (apparently on the same day Nero put on the toga virilis). The traditional narrative holds that the site faded into obscurity in late antiquity, although there is some recent push back to this notion, as there are signs of occupation in the Late Antique period and then again during the Middle Ages.

The site itself also has a rich history of archeological excavation. Frank Brown led a dig under the auspices of the American Academy in Rome in the 1960s, the findings of which led to Cosa (sometimes mistakenly) being identified as the “ideal” republican colony. Further excavations where carried out by Russel Scott of Bryn Mawr College and later by Elisabeth Fentress with the AAR and British School at Rome. The current excavations, under the direction of Andrea di Girogi of Florida State University and Prof. Scott, are focused around the bath complex—an odd feature given the fact the site of Cosa has very little rain and few natural springs.

The daily routine of excavation essentially involves a lot of digging (who would have thought?). After donning a ridiculous outfit that resembles a cross between Indiana Jones and a cowboy, I would head out to site with a cohort of undergraduate and graduate students, all of us with differing levels of excavation experience. At site, we excavated in trenches, which are employed to observe diachronic change in a specific area, for a few hours.

The actual digging ranges from light brushing (I think what most people, myself in the past included, think archaeology is) to heavy pickaxing (I probably got too much enjoyment out of this. It really solidifies the notion that archaeology is destruction). Various factors, such as the possible presence of architectural elements or artifact dense soil, all go into the trench supervisor’s decision into what method we employ to churn the soil up. From there, we sift said soil which is usually a dull art of discerning tile and other ceramic building materials (which is measured then dumped), from pottery (which is kept, cleaned, and recorded more extensively), from deceptive rocks (which are summarily thrown away for their treachery). The documentation is meticulous; changes in soil color, consistency, frequency of artifacts, presence of new architecture and a bunch of other things that I don’t understand all call for new photos, photogrammetry, and paperwork (this is to counter that whole “archaeology is destruction” thing). The day is broken up with pottery washing, which is a nice time to chat and network with other classicists (and receive sage wisdom from the Ph.D. students).

A bronze key discovered on site.

It was during these four weeks that some pretty neat stuff was found. I myself found various bits of bronze everyday objects that truly remind you that Romans were real people that existed outside of books. A bronze hairpin and elaborate looking key were probably my favorite discoveries. Various inscriptions where found by others. Perhaps the neatest thing, at least in my opinion, was found by one of the trench supervisors. He uncovered a small marble bust of a bearded male deity. I had a bit of a “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne” moment when it was theorized to represent Dionysus and be the top of a herm. It was hard, at that point, not to recall Alcibiades’ supposed mutilation of the herms. Never before had Plutarch felt more real to me.

I would like to think the Classics Departments of Florida State University and Bryn Mawr College for giving me and other undergraduates such a wonderful opportunity. More information about the Cosa Excavations, including the sponsoring institutions, can be found here. Special thanks are also due to Prof. Smith and Prof. Joseph of Holy Cross for their support in my application to Cosa and for applications to various methods of funding

In case you missed it: links about HC Classics from earlier this year

*CBS news aired a feature story on departmental alum Anthony Fauci ’62 and his work on the AIDS epidemic

*Departmental alum Tabitha Lord ’93 published her second novel, titled Infinity.

*The Holy Cross website included profiles of retiring faculty, including Prof. Blaise Nagy of the Department of Classics.

*Jason Steranko ’17 blogged over the summer about his collection of Ancient Greek black-out poetry, titled Melasmos.

*The article “Citation and Alignment: Scholarship Outside & Inside the Codex” in the journal Manuscript Studies, written by Christine Roughan ’14, Prof. Neel Smith, and Christopher Blackwell, was made available through open access.

*Prof. Mary Ebbott’s essay “Seeking Odysseus’ Sister” appeared in Michigan Quarterly.

*Plans for the College’s new Center for Arts and Creativity will include a studio theater named after the late Kenneth Happe ’58, an associate professor emeritus of Classics.

Students share research on the Iliad at international conference in Heidelberg

By Charlie Schufreider ’17 and Melody Wauke ’17


On May 12 and 13 we had the opportunity to attend “Digital Classics III: Re-thinking Text Analysis,” a conference held at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Heidelberg, Germany. For those as uninformed as we were before this trip, Heidelberg is an incredibly beautiful city.

Melody on the banks of the Neckar River.

The conference allowed us to present many of the results from our respective senior theses. Melody’s thesis is titled, “Alexandrian editors and the scholia of the Venetus A” while Charlie’s thesis is titled “On the format of the scholia to the Iliad in the Venetus A.”

Both of us were working on applying digital tools in order to analyze patterns of language within the scholia (or scholarly commentary) to the Iliad in the tenth-century Venetus A manuscript. In addition to our research, we also discussed more generally the methodology of the Homer Multitext project. This portion of the talk was prepared and developed by our thesis advisor, Professor Neel Smith; however, he was ultimately unable to attend the conference.

Beyond our own presentation, we were also able to listen to talks from several digital Classicists. From their presentations and the discussions which followed, we learned a great deal about different ways to analyze Classical texts using digital technologies. We were particularly interested by the couple of talks which detailed automated analyzes of the language in Greek tragedy. For example, Francesco Mambrini of the German Archaeological Institute was able to show how the Paedagogus from Sophocles’ tragedy Electra speaks in a manner most similar to the choruses of Sophocles’ plays. (Click here for a link to the full conference program.)

Melody and Charlie at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. They were joined on the conference program by faculty from the University of Leipzig, the University of Paris, Oxford University, and other institutions around Europe.

However, attending the conference was only one part of this trip. There was ample time for us to explore the culture and history of Heidelberg. Sausages with sauerkraut were a mainstay of almost every meal, but the real highlight was getting to explore the large Heidelberg Castle along with its gardens. Due to our early morning arrival in the city, the castle was largely devoid of tourists, making the sights all the more enjoyable. The crown jewel of the castle was its surprising collection of increasingly large barrels, the biggest of which is shown below.

In the end, we are extremely thankful to the Ignite Fund for covering the expenses necessary for this trip. We were able not only to visit this incredible city but also to grow more experienced as scholars of Digital Classics.

Charlie and the largest barrel of all.

Advanced Archaeology Course Explores “Time and Cosmos” Exhibit in NYC

By Kelsey Littlefield ‘17

On Saturday, February 25, fourteen students from Professor Neel Smith’s “Archaeology and Time” course explored the “Time and Cosmos in Greco-Roman Antiquity” exhibit, curated by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, an affiliate of New York University (NYU).

Christine Roughan ’14 (front left) welcomes the class to the “Time and Kosmos” exhibit.

Christine Roughan ’14, a Classics major and physics minor while at the College and currently a Ph.D. candidate at NYU, gave Prof. Smith’s class a private docent tour upon arrival. The exhibit allowed students to connect their previous knowledge of timekeeping methods garnered from the course with practical, technologically advanced possessions from antiquity. Some featured objects in the exhibit included numerous public and portable sundials (a way for the ancients to calculate the passage of time by observing the shadows cast by the sun); the Roman calendar, or fasti, carved in marble; surveying instruments; and other tools for timekeeping.

On the tour Roughan highlighted the importance of astrology and the zodiac symbols that we know in modernity as a way for ancient Greeks and Romans to reflect on time and the universe’s dual partnership that had the power to shape the environment and destiny.

“Archaeology and Time” is an advanced archaeology course that aims to understand what kinds of evidence and reasoning lie behind chronological claims about events, such as Xerxes invading Greece in 480 B.C. and Mount Vesuvius erupting precisely on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, by means of literary/historical sources and other dating methods. In addition, the course allows students to blend theoretical reasoning with hands-on research that will culminate in a research project that assesses and seeks to explain a chronological problem through the use of primary evidence.

Hanna Seariac ’20 dishes up food for thought at Mass. JCL Classics Day

By Hanna Seariac ’20

On December 1 I presented at Boston University for the Massachusetts Junior Classical League Classics Day, attended by over 850 high school students and teachers. I was there as one of a handful of college undergraduates, known as Senior Classical Leaguers. My presentation, titled “Wine and Dine in Ancient Rome,” considered the culinary and dining customs in ancient Greece and, especially, ancient Rome.

In the presentation I moved from sharing what would happen at a convivium, symposium, and every day dining to representations of food in literature, using Plautus, Horace, Juvenal, Catullus, and Plato as key examples. I discussed how certain literary features originate from ancient uses of different foods, citing, for example, Emily Gowers’ interpretation of the Atellan farce character “Maccus” as being connected to the name of a mashed cereal dish.

Hanna at the podium at Boston University
Hanna at the podium at Boston University

Furthering this point, I began to discuss my own interpretation of “false Epicureanism” in Juvenal and Horace, asserting that the idea of luxury that they each bring up in their satires by including Falernian wine and other expensive dining items parallels the attitude of real Epicureans, despite the fact that it conflicts with their own ideals.

Moving forward to Catullus’ thirteenth poem, I discussed the cena, or dinner party, as a way to advance politically, but also in a metaphorical sense. I considered how the modern film interpretation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays a dinner scene between Tom and Daisy where no food is eaten. In Catullus 13, Catullus invites Fabullus over for dinner without having any food on the table. Furthermore, at the dinner scene in The Great Gatsby, Tom and Daisy spend their time “conspiring” as Tom promises to make Daisy happy. Catullus wants to spend his time “conspiring” as he promises to give Fabullus true friendship. Cena and convivium in both instances come to represent more than just a meal, but also the idea of a communion – or conspiring – over food.

My presentation was followed by a brief question and answer session, mostly focused on what I thought about the use of words such as sal as having a double meaning, “salt” and “wit.” To this I said “Well, look at our use of the word ‘salty.’”

HC students use podcasts to offer a modern take on the ancient environment

Heroes battling rivers, eagles predicting the future, temples located on spectacular mountain peaks! The natural world played a central role in so many aspects of the lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and this semester a group of Holy Cross students in Prof. Aaron Seider’s new course “Nature in the Classical World” will be sharing their ideas on these topics and more in a series of eleven Podcast episodes.

So, if you’re intrigued by the notion of exploring what the Greeks and Romans thought about topics like nature and spirituality, reincarnation and the universe, or humans and animals, then I’d encourage you to subscribe: You’ll be fascinated by what you hear.

Discoveries in the Dirt at Poggio del Molino

By Allyn Waller ’18

This past summer, I had the privilege and the pleasure of working on an archaeological excavation at Poggio del Molino in central Italy. Along with two other Holy Cross students, Amanda Kondek ’17 and Eric Fox ’18, I spent several weeks kneeling on rocks, scraping dirt off of other dirt, discovering how much rock looks like pottery, and vice-versa.

A Day in the Life

On a typical day, we would get up early in the morning, eat breakfast, pack lunches and head to the dig site. Five minutes down a dirt road in between fields of grapes and we arrived at the site. After digging for a few hours, painstakingly scraping the dirt up one layer at a time, checking each object for archeological significance and brushing up the dust, we took a coffee break. After half an hour or so sitting in the shade, it was back to work again.

Preparing to dig are (L to R) Alena, a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Arizona; Allyn Waller ’18 (the author of this piece); Martina, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bologna; and Amber Groves, who recently completed her Master’s in Archaeology at the University of Indiana. (Photo by Amanda Kondek ’17)

When we found something in the layer we were removing, we would carefully remove the dirt around it to determine if it was fully contained in the layer. If it was, we removed it and placed it in a bag for later cleaning and labeling. Unless, of course, it was actually a rock. Determining whether something was a rock or pottery sherd, however, was not always easy. “Is this rock or pottery?” was a constant refrain for the first few days, at least until one of the grad students at the site explained that we could always lick it and find out. (Apparently, since pottery is porous, it will stick to your tongue if you lick it.)

Probably not rocks. (Photo by Allyn Waller ’18)

Eventually, it was time for lunch. (That is, if you weren’t full from licking rocks all morning.) During lunch, we had the opportunity to talk to the other people who were working on the site with us. Each week, there was a different group working with us on the dig. One week, it was a group of Italian high school students who were spending their summer trying out different jobs a week at a time, getting a feel for what they wanted to do. Another, it was a group of students from all over Europe and North America as part of a summer program in archaeology. For two weeks, we had a group of restoration experts working on the mosaics of the baths and bedrooms.


But Poggio del Molino was more than just a rich Roman’s mosaicked country retreat. It began, in fact, with pirates. The earliest structures we have evidence of at Poggio del Molino are three towers designed for defending the nearby Etruscan settlement of Populonia from pirates. Later, after the Roman republic controlled the area and mitigated the threat of piracy, the site became a factory for producing garum, a sauce made from pickling fish intestines.

During the Empire, as it became cheaper to produce garum in newly-acquired territories like North Africa, it was turned into a country villa for some wealthy Roman family. Sometime in Late Antiquity, the bedrooms of the villa were reconstructed into a small church by knocking all interior walls down and walling up the doorways.

Cool Finds

Due to this varied history, there were lots of really interesting things to be found at our site. Several bronze coins, ranging in size and preservation from a small speck just half the size of a pinky nail up to an inch-wide disc with legible writing and a clear profile were found in and around the area we worked in. We found evidence of iron-mongering operations, including leftover iron slag, hematite ore, and the burns left by furnaces on the floor. I found a small block of lead, which I thankfully recognized before anyone licked it. We found both bronze and iron nails, as well as some larger, but mostly unrecognizable, iron pieces.

When the same site is used for hundreds of years, sometimes you get walls in between other walls. (Photo by Allyn Waller ’18)

We found pottery, of course. Most of it was fairly coarse cooking ware or simple dining or storage pottery, but I did find a fancy painted black-slipware piece from the fourth century BCE. Of course, the excitement from finding it was slightly marred by the fact that it should not have been there. I found it in the uppermost layer of soil, the humus, under the roots of a big pine tree. Chronologically, we should have been finding cassette tapes and floppy disks, not pottery pushing 2500 years.

That strangely located piece, however, has to contend with another for the best find of the summer: The Italian high school students working the room next to ours found a completely intact clay lamp! It looked as if it had just been pulled out from behind the glass in a museum display. It was absolutely incredible, although my expectations might have been slightly lowered by 87,492 things I had found that day that weren’t pottery, much less intact.

Of course, it wasn’t all kneeling on rocks and scraping dirt out of tree roots. On weekends we were free to take trips to various cities around Italy, so we saw a lot of museums (and gelaterias). To me, though, the most exciting museum was the one in the modern-day town of Populonia, where most of the collection came from Poggio del Molino. I like knowing that the things I excavated could end up in a museum someday, informing future Classicists. Increasing our knowledge about the world of around two thousand years ago is worth a little dirt-scraping and root-kneeling. But maybe not rock-licking.

Allyn, from Atlanta, Georgia, is a Classics major with a minor in Computer Science. He is also completing the Teacher Education Program at Holy Cross.

ICYMI: Holy Cross Classics links from Summer 2016

Click on the hyperlinks in bold to proceed to the pieces:

*In May Gabe Weaver ’04 was named the first-ever Herman M. Dieckamp Post-Doctoral Fellow by the Information Trust Institute (ITI) at the University of Illinois.

*In June the new crime novel Brighton by Michael Harvey ’84 was published by HarperCollins.

*In June Kevin Spinale ’00 was ordained into the Society of Jesus.

*Luis Perez ’17 reflected on his experience in the Maymester program “Rome in History and Imagination.”

*Daniel Cavoli ’80, Latin teacher at St. Edward’s High School in Rocky River, OH, was honored with the Kraft Award for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching for 2015-16, given out by the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS).

*In July Brian Clark ’15, Claude Hanley ’18, Stephanie Lindeborg ’13, Melody Wauke ’17, and Prof. Neel Smith presented research at the Digital Humanities 2016 conference in Krakow, Poland.

*In July Prof. Tom Martin’s new book Pericles: A Biography in Context was published by Cambridge University Press.

*In August Christine Bannan ’14, a third-year student at the University of Notre Dame Law School, wrote about the threat of the “Internet of Things” for the journal Tech Crunch. Christine is the winner of the 2016 Edelson PC Consumer Privacy Scholarship.

*In August Prof. Martin spoke with about the “Games of Hera,” a series of footraces among female athletes described by Pausanias.