On the Spot: Shadi Bartsch

‘Classics is the playing field for some very important questions.’

Alexander at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, 1796. Art Institute of Chicago.

Why are you a Classicist?

I want to understand the conceptual roots of the way I think.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you? 

That when it repeats itself, no one notices. 

Which history book has had greatest influence on you?

A History of Science in World Cultures by Scott Montgomery.

What book in your field should everyone read?

Virgil and the Moderns by Theodore Ziolkowski.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?

None look too good to me as a woman.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?

Herodotus, for showing the cultural side of morality.

Which person in history would you most like to have met? 

Paul of Tarsus, so I could steer him off the road to Damascus.

How many languages do you have?

Too many; when I speak Italian, Chinese comes out.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?

The reign of Cyrus the Great. 

Which genre of history do you like least?

Anything with teleology baked in. 

What’s the most exciting field in history today?

Classics, because it’s the playing field for some very important questions.

Is there an important historical text you have not read?

I humbly confess, there are thousands. 

What is the most common misconception about your field?

That it is inherently guilty of the ways in which it has been used.

What’s your favourite archive? 

The Web of Science, if that counts.

What’s the best museum?

The National Museum of China in Beijing.

What technology has changed the world the most?


The Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean?

The Indian Ocean; it deserves every bit as much attention as the Mediterranean has received.

Historical drama or documentary?

Documentary. Resuscitations of the Emperor Nero give me heartburn.

Parthenon or Machu Picchu?

Borobudur, for escaping the fate of a cliche.

What will future generations judge us most harshly for?

The mass confinement in factory farms, the abuse and slaughter of animals for food we don’t need.


Shadi Bartsch is Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago. Her latest book is The Aeneid – Vergil: a New Translation (Profile, 2020).