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In spring of 2002, it was Steven’s great honor to deliver the commencement address to the Department of Classics and the Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of California at Berkeley. The ceremony took place at Alumni House on the UC Berkeley campus on May 17, 2002.

This is the text of the address Steven delivered:

It is a great honor for me to be here today. After my own college graduation, more than twenty years ago, I set out on a life that was, at first, far-removed from the academic world I left behind. Yet, even at my furthest remove, I never ceased to draw sustenance from that world. In more recent years, my work and my life have taken a curious course that seems to run parallel to the academic world, only occasionally intersecting with it, as on a day such as this. More often those intersections take place in silence, indeed, almost in secrecy, as when I spend a in the main stacks at Doe Library or in the Classics reading room, taking advantage of the tremendous store of scholarship that exists on this campus.

I write books about ancient Rome, but I call myself a novelist, never a historian, and certainly not a classicist. Yet I could never do what I do without historians and without classicists. Hopefully, the relationship is not entirely one-way, perhaps even symbiotic, and the work I produce has proved to be of some reciprocal value to those who conserve, extend, and transmit our knowledge of the ancient world in institutions such as this.

So this is my chance — since I literally have a podium — to say a thank you to those who invited me, to those whose achievements are being recognized and celebrated here today, and to all that you represent. If I may paraphrase Sandra Bernhard: Without you, I’m nothing. Without the labor and insight of those who excavate, translate, interpret, and pass along to future generations the legacy of the ancients, I would have no stories to tell.

I would like to cite one very particular example. My copy of Professor Erich Gruen’s book THE LAST GENERATION OF THE ROMAN REPUBLIC has spent months at time perched precariously atop the stack of other books on my desk, much dog-eared and much-infiltrated with innumerable post-it notes. So I do have some direct professional knowledge of the very high standards of scholarship to be found at the institution from which you are about to receive your degrees. When I consider the cumulative scope and scale of the learning in this room, your own accomplishments included, I am, quite frankly, overwhelmed.

As I say, I’m greatly honored to be addressing you on this special occasion, and yet I’m also struck by an exquisite irony. Of all the lectures and addresses and speeches you have attended on this campus over the years, the address that I’ve been asked to give has a singular distinction: this is the one talk to which you are obliged to pay no attention at all. The note-taking and the test-taking are over.

I asked a few trusted friends and colleagues for advice on giving an address such as this. They were unanimous on only one point: be brief. And so I shall. I shall also be speaking from a prepared text, rather than extemporizing from scribbled notes as if my usual custom when addressing an audience, so I hope my delivery will not be unduly stiff. I mention that I’m speaking from a prepared text because apparently there are those who are made anxious by the sight and sound of pages being ever so slowly turned on a podium. I recall a most distinguished Sather lecturer who felt obliged to inform the audience of the exact number of pages he would be delivering and also of the page he was currently speaking from, as in: “There are 30 pages in all, and I am now on page 8.” My text, I promise, is considerably briefer than that.

Still, I wonder: Why am I here? What message am I uniquely positioned to deliver to you on this day? It occurs to me, after much thought, that I do occupy a somewhat unusual position in straddling two worlds, the world of scholars whose lives are wholeheartedly devoted to the study of the ancients — a world from which I draw constant inspiration and insight — and another world, the world into which you are about to be released, where a more generalized population resides outside and often oblivious of the academic world. You might say that I write from the first world, but mostly for the other. Moving back and forth between those two worlds, I have often been jarred by the chasm that exists between them. In the years to come, you, too, may find yourself puzzled, perplexed, and sometimes sorely tested by what you encounter when you venture from the dreaming spires out toward the dim, encircling horizons.

Let me give you a few examples from my own experience.

All my novels about ancient Rome are cast as murder mysteries — fortunately for me, the sources provide no shortage of murders in ancient Rome — and most often, when I speak in public, it’s to readers united by their love of a good whodunit. A few years ago I was asked to speak to a mystery reading group in San Francisco. They would all read my first novel, ROMAN BLOOD, and I would come to the meeting where we would all discuss the book together. These were readers accustomed to reading crime novels, but not necessarily historical novels, or history of any sort, and I was asked: How did you come to write a novel set in ancient Rome? What inspired you?

I answered at length, explaining that when I grew up, in the 1960s, the popular culture, especially the movies, was saturated with glamorous images and racy stories from the ancient world — CLEOPATRA, BEN-HUR, SPARTACUS and so on. I explained how a boyhood fascination grew into a scholarly pursuit when I attended university, but did not really blossom until a truly seminal event — my first trip to Rome and that unforgettable moment, dazed and indeed almost hallucinating from jet-lag, when I first laid eyes on the Roman Forum.

I told those mystery readers, with all the passion I could muster, how that experience changed my life. To actually set foot in the Roman Forum, to walk in Caesar’s footsteps, to touch the stones of antiquity, was, for me, an electrifying experience. Longing to return to Rome from the moment I left it, I did the next best thing: I returned there in my waking dreams by writing a novel, the first, it turned out, of a series of novels.

Afterwards, one of the women in the group — whom I knew to be person of some accomplishment and ambition, an avid reader and an enterprising businesswoman — expressed a certain consternation. She said to me: “You know, when you talk about Rome that way, I don’t really get it. I mean, I’ve been to Rome. I’ve seen the Forum. But all I saw was a bunch of old bricks.”

As you are groaning now, so I groaned, inwardly. I told her that perhaps my books were not ideal for her. That moment was a watershed for me, the moment when I truly realized that for all the passion I might feel for the past, I was destined to meet perfectly well-meaning people who did not and never would share that passion, or even remotely understand it.

A few years later, I wrote a short story about a kidnapping, in which the characters had occasion to refer to the real-life abduction in his youth of Julius Caesar by pirates. My kidnapped character, a young boy, was something of a budding tyrant himself, and by way of making a multiple pun, I titled the story, “Little Caesar and the Pirates. ” When my publisher gathered my short stories into a book, the copy editor — the person responsible for catching any errors in continuity, grammar, and so forth —felt obliged to flag the manuscript with an urgent query: The post-it note read: “Is author aware that ‘Little Caesar’ is the name of a pizza restaurant?” I am afraid the copy editor had never heard of Edward G. Robinson or a movie called “Little Caesar”; I cannot be certain that he had ever heard of Julius Caesar. In this new millennium, we cannot take for granted that a copy editor at a major New York publishing house will know anything about American popular culture of the last century, much less anything about the ancient Romans.

I’m afraid that the situation is no different across the water. The most jarring moment of all such moments came from my publisher in London.

On occasion, I use the word “lemur” in my books — the singular form, in English, of the Latin word for the restless spirits of the dead. The word occurs twice in my novel called LAST SEEN IN MASSILIA. First, when my narrator experiences a disturbing presentiment of his own death. He thinks: “What is it to be a lemur, after all, but to be written out of the world’s story, to become a name spoken in the past tense, to mutely watch from the shadows while others carry on the tale of the living. ”

Later, my narrator, anticipating the death of another, considers “the first hours after his death, when his restless lemur might yet stalk the earth.”

That was how the text appeared in the US edition of the book. But in England the entire book has to be combed over once again for all sort of spelling changes — adding the U in “labour,” and so forth. I’m not quite sure how this procedure is carried out by my British publisher — I suspect an automatic spell-check program is used at some point — but somehow, in the published book, a single letter was altered, and so my narrator, anticipating the death of another, considers “the first hours after his death, when his restless femur might yet stalk the earth.”

And contemplating his own death, he thinks: “What is it to be a femur, after all….”

As my friend who discovered these errors wryly noted, “Alas, those two lemurs have turned into a couple of howlers.” The fact that he could make light of the error was of little consolation to me; no typos in any text have ever caused me more excruciating pain. We strive and strive to create the perfect text, and yet, thwarted by unseen forces from unexpected quarters, the perfect text eludes us.

Out in the wider world, there are even more excruciating encounters with that chasm between Aristotelian ideal and workaday reality. At a place called Caesar’s Palace in a city called Las Vegas, which is about as far toward the dim horizon as you can travel from these dreaming spires, I searched in vain for some shred of authenticity or inspiration amid the breezy bric-a-brac that pretends to celebrate the ancient world. In the sprawling Via-Something-or-Other which passes for a Roman street but is actually just a glorified shopping mall, I came upon the local branch of the Warner Brothers Studio Store. But in keeping with the Caesar’s Palace theme, it had been rechristened: “Warnerus Fraternus Studius Storus.”

But not all forays into the wide world are so problematic. Sometimes we encounter not chasms, but bridges.

It’s a paradox: that the more you travel and the more you experience, the smaller the world becomes, even as it grows ever more complex and mysterious. Links will appear in the most remote places, at the unlikeliest times. I offer one final anecdote — in fact, I am on page 7, with only 2 pages to go.

When I was young, growing up in a small Texas town, and books literally meant the world to me, the two most important authors in my life were J.R.R. Tolkien, the Oxford philologist who also, in his spare time, happened to write THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and Mary Renault, the wartime nurse who left that calling to write much-praised, phenomenally successful novels about the ancient Greeks and especially about Alexander the Great. The worlds of fantasy and history those two authors created transported me far away from the cattle ranchers and Dairy Queens of Goldthwaite, Texas.

Many years later, I found myself on a train from London to Oxford, reading a biography of Mary Renault to pass the time. I learned that Renault had been among the very first female students admitted to Oxford in the 1920s. I also learned, much to my surprise, that Tolkien, one of the select group of Oxford dons who would consent to teach women, had been one of Renault’s tutors. What a small world, I thought, never suspecting that the world was about to become even smaller. When I arrived in Oxford, I walked directly to Blackwell’s Bookshop, where I would be giving a talk and signing books later that evening. The front door is flanked by two large display windows. In the left-hand window were all the books of J.R.R. Tolkien. In the right-hand window were all of my books. To a boy who grew up in a small town in Texas, reading Tolkien and Mary Renault, how amazingly compact the world seemed at that moment, linking and looping back on itself.

I have something of that same feeling today, standing here before you.

And where will your life take you in this world so rife with hope and error and unexpected linkages? No one can foresee the future. Some of you will pursue further studies, or teach, or write books, or translate ancient texts, or dig up ruins, or reconstruct ancient cities in virtual reality. Some of you will find yourselves drawn to careers far removed from the study of the ancient world. But all of you all will continue to learn. Your attraction to the disciplines of language and history and archaeology means that you love to learn, and your presence here today means that you have learned how to learn, and in the scores of years ahead of you, no one can anticipate the fields of interest that will call out to you and ignite your curiosity. Seminal experiences await you, events that will electrify you, as I was electrified by that first jet-lagged glimpse of the Forum. Unexpected moments of sublime linkage await you, like the moment I felt standing in front of the display windows at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. What those events will be, how they will shape you, and how you will shape the world in return, only time will tell.

I said that no one can foresee the future, but I’ll risk one prophecy nonetheless. From this day forward, and increasing from year to year, one quality will set you apart from many of those around you: a sense of context that grows larger and larger the longer you live and learn. You will know who Caesar was, when others do not. You will be unable to look at current events — whether it’s the latest scandal from Washington, or the country’s latest murder trial obsession, or something as mundane as a meeting of the local city council — without considering a wider context that goes back thousands of years. You’ll be unable to read the latest bestseller, or even watch a television drama, without seeing their antecedents in the literature of the ancients. You will, in short, be unable to skim the surface of things. You will find that this is both a blessing and a curse.

And one day, you will meet that woman who visited the Roman Forum and saw only bricks — or someone exactly like her. You will sense the chasm between you. And you will face a choice — to let the chasm remain; to put up a wall on your side of the chasm; or, if you can find a way, or to build a bridge across it.

Thanks you, congratulations, and good luck!


© copyright 2002 by Steven Saylor

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