Our Stories

Classics Prof is a Classic

Ortwin Knorr grew up among the cobblestone streets and spires of Bremen, Germany, a city with 1,000 years of history, so perhaps it wasn't odd that he became intrigued with old languages and secret codes. As a boy, he read enough J.R.R. Tolkien to write in "Runish," and when he took up Latin, it was just another code to decipher.

Knorr studied Latin, English and Greek at the Altes Gymnasium, a 478-year-old high school where teachers still believed that a well-rounded education included classical languages. When he had to choose advanced placement courses, Knorr hedged his bets and signed up for a practical subject -- math -- along with his beloved Greek. It took him only two weeks to drop AP math for AP Latin.

The high schooler fell under the spell of the ancient Roman poets, especially Catullus, who had been sent as a teenager to study in Rome. Once there, Catullus became infatuated with a young married socialite. "His passion inspired him to write some of the most beautiful love poems in the world," Knorr says. "When you're 17, that is most impressive, especially when you're sitting next to a girl you like."

Even a 15-month stint as a draftee in the German army didn't deter Knorr from his pursuit of languages. When Italian classes were offered, he squeezed them in, between cleaning guns, lubricating truck brakes and doing guard duty. "I still wasn't sure what to do with the rest of my life, but I decided I might as well go with what I loved," he says. "I went on to study classics without any hope of being employed in the field, which is something Germans don't normally do." Once he wrote his first paper -- on Catullus -- and realized he had something original to say, he knew he had found his vocation.

Happily Ever After
At Willamette, Knorr introduces students to ancient Greek and Latin, ancient epic poetry and theater, and the everyday life of Roman women. "People in antiquity thought about the same issues we face today," he says. Women had abortions and men agonized over going to war. In Homer's Iliad, for example, the Trojan hero Hector wonders, "Do you follow your duty even though the war you fight is a lost cause?"

In his ancient drama course, Knorr asks his students to analyze Greek and Roman comedies and compare the plot structures and jokes with Hollywood movies. "Students like the boy-gets-girl stories of Roman comedy," he says. "They're like modern romantic comedies with fairy tale endings. The young complain how much they're in love and that they have no money, and the endings are completely unrealistic."

A typical story might be: Boy falls in love with girl. His miserly old dad is against the relationship because she is either poor or seems to be a prostitute. In the end, the girl turns out to be the long-lost daughter of the fabulously rich neighbor, and so they get married and live happily every after.

Roman Laughter
"In Greco-Roman comedy there aren't any lawyer jokes, but there are mother-in-law jokes," Knorr says, just like today.

Sexual humor was an important component in plays, which were performed on religious holidays. Taboos were set aside, much like modern carnival. Outside of the theater, the same jokes were considered to be in bad taste. "Like us moderns, ancient Greeks and Romans were conflicted about sexuality," Knorr says.

The lower classes -- slaves, farmers, peasants and prostitutes -- received the brunt of Roman humor. The more highbrow tragedies featured mythical kings, queens and semi-divine heroes. "It wasn't until the 18th century that writers dared to portray lower-class troubles as tragic rather than laughable," Knorr says.

Other Roman writers, like Horace in his Satires, used humor to expose people's follies and to encourage good moral behavior. "Horace said that many people are not happy, even though they're wealthy," Knorr says. "They end up wanting more and more, and never use what they have. Our culture has similar faults. We live as foolishly as the Romans."

Hitting the Books
Knorr spends his days surrounded by Roman deities and Latin lovers. He admires Latin poets for overcoming the limits of a language he perceives as somewhat harsh and inflexible. "One of my high-school teachers told me that Latin is a language of farmers, soldiers and accountants," he says. "It didn't initially possess a capacity for poetry."

In high school, Knorr was more attracted to the urban chattiness and self-irony of the Greek language, but now he concentrates most of his energy on Latin authors. He has written a book on Horace's Satires and published articles on the comedies of Terence, the writings of Greek Church fathers, and the Satires and Odes of Horace.

A recent article offers a new interpretation of one of Horace's most famous poems, the Ship of State Ode. Knorr argues that the Ode has nothing to do with politics or the Ship of State. Rather, the ship is a metaphor for a young woman who must choose between a young lover and a mature lover. Will the young woman choose the potentially stormy sea (her passionate young lover) or the safe harbor (her older, calmer lover)? The poet-speaker, disguised as an older lover, warns the woman of the violence and unpredictability of his younger rival.

Studying classics is not without extraordinary demands. Classics is an international field, with 50 percent of the secondary literature not written in English, and so scholars need at least a rudimentary knowledge of several modern languages. At a recent conference Knorr attended, sessions were held in German, Italian and English.

Knorr's knowledge of ancient languages means that he receives frequent requests for help with translation. He has been asked to write an epitaph for a much-loved Latin teacher in Salem, to compose a Latin inscription for a donated piano at a Medford nursing home, to find a Latin name for a lawyer's race horse and, most recently, to translate verses based on the biblical Book of Revelations into Latin for the 2006 remake of the 1976 horror film, "The Omen."

Knorr chairs the Classical Studies Program at Willamette. He also serves as program coordinator of the Salem branch of the Archaeological Institute of America and is helping coordinate an international conference on cultural heritage management, to be held at Willamette in October 2006.