Section: Features

O muse, tell us of Greek and Latin inscriptions on campus

O muse, tell us of Greek and Latin inscriptions on campus

Serfass and his student collaborators have catalogued a number of ancient inscriptions. | COURTESY OF ADAM SERFASS

Sigillum Collegii Kenyonensis — while many students may not encounter ancient languages outside of the College’s ubiquitous seal, a Bicentennial project headed by Professor of Classics Adam Serfass aims to elucidate the many Greek and Latin inscriptions found around campus. The project, titled “In Memoriam,” will catalog these inscriptions and culminate in walking tours on special days in the College’s calendar next fall, giving everyone from aspiring classicists to casual readers of the Percy Jackson series something to get excited about.

For Serfass, the idea for the project had been in the works for a long time. “I’ve been here over 20 years, and I think, partly, I’ve just noticed the inscriptions — especially the ones above the College Gates,” he said in an interview with the Collegian. “I was curious about how they got there, so it was kind of percolating in the back of my mind for a long time, and eventually, it seemed to me that this would make a great Bicentennial project.” In his proposal to the Bicentennial Committee, Serfass highlighted that inscriptions can be found all over Kenyon’s campus, on everything from the College Gates (more commonly referred to as the Gates of Hell) to a classroom wall to a gravestone in the cemetery. In the present day, fewer students and professors are familiar with Latin and Greek. By cataloging inscriptions in those languages, Serfass hopes to “enable them to speak again, to tell us what they have to say about Kenyon’s 200-year history,” as he wrote in his proposal. 

Serfass and his two student collaborators, Chiara Nevard ’25 and Ellis Copley ’25, have begun by dividing the inscriptions between them and embarking on what he referred to as “the research phase.” This involves translation as well as extensive historical digging to understand the context of each inscription, like the WWII memorial in the chapel: “On this one in particular, there are 41 names — 41 people who died in the war — which struck me as not a particularly large number, until you remember how small the College was,” Serfass said. 

The research phase has required Serfass, Nevard and Copley to delve into Kenyon’s archives, revealing some surprises regarding some of the campus’ most integral parts. Regarding the plaques on the Gates of Hell, Serfass said, “I had sort of assumed that the bronze plaques had been there from the beginning and that the [Middle] Path had been there since Philander Chase, but this is not true. The path was actually done in the 1840s, and the plaques were not put on until the Centennial.” On the left pillar, the inscription names David Bates Douglass, the third College president who designed Middle Path. On the right, George Wharton Marriott, one of Chase’s early benefactors, is credited with creating the inscription for the gates. “What really surprised me was, how does someone in 1924 know that [Marriott] did this? And so this is the fun archive stuff,” Serfass said. “I found the letter from 1827, in which Marriott tells Chase that this would be a great inscription.” The inscription in question is a quote from Virgil’s Eclogues, a book of bucolic poetry befitting Kenyon’s rural surroundings, and references a path for singing together.

For Nevard, the inscription on the wall of the Campbell Meeker Room in Ascension Hall has proven to be a favorite. “It is a beautiful excerpt from Virgil’s Aeneid, my favorite Latin work, and a father had it dedicated as a memorial for his late son, which I think is tragic yet touching,” she wrote in an email to the Collegian. Serfass explained further: “It’s about a student who died in the 1920s, who graduated in 1917. He fought in WWI and then died in the next decade from a heart attack related to complications from his fighting. And his father, who was a very prominent politician and investor, [was] the person who paneled the room and put this inscription up there.” The lines from the Aeneid reference the death of Pallas, a young Roman whom Aeneas felt a fatherly connection with. 

Not all of the inscriptions found around campus feature the correct grammar, to the chagrin of Classics professors everywhere. On a plaque in Old Kenyon Residence Hall denoting the room where President Rutherford B. Hayes (Class of 1846) lived during his time as a student, the Latin article qui is replaced by the French oui. “The original inscription was destroyed in the fire,” Serfass said. “And after the fact, they put the inscription back up, indicating ‘this is a reconstruction of what it says.’” Despite the poor grammar, Serfass believes the plaque should remain as it is: “It’s better to have it as an object example there. I think it’s quite nice.” 

Serfass hopes the project will “shed new light on under-studied aspects of Kenyon’s history.” He explained that becoming familiar with the inscriptions allows the community to honor the memories of those who put them there in the first place. Nevard concurred: “I hope that through this project the community can learn more about the school’s history (I’ve been learning so much interesting stuff already!) and maybe have a newfound appreciation for the Latin and Greek around campus and the importance of the Classics to the school’s history.” Serfass, Nevard and Copley will compile their findings in a database, to be called ‘CLICK’ (Corpus Latinarum Inscriptionum Collegii Kenyonensis). In the proposal, Serfass clarified “We’ll include Greek inscriptions, too, but adding the word Graecarum would ruin the acronym.” When the research phase comes to a close, the team will produce a bilingual pamphlet of the inscriptions, modeled on those of the Loeb Classical Library, and lead their long-awaited walking tours to mark events including Family Weekend and Founders’ Day. 

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