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Scholars Seek Evidence of Classics In Chicago

‘Classicizing Chicago Project’ catalogues examples of Greek and Roman influence

  • Researchers explore why Chicagoans used Greek and Roman sources for inspiration
  • New, searchable database of Greek, Roman drama on Chicago stages from 1840
  • Digital archive maps vibrant presence of classics in Chicago
  • Classics engage public: Scores of Homer fans attend overnight reading of “The Iliad”

EVANSTON, Ill. --- In a herculean effort to learn from the past, Northwestern University’s department of classics is documenting the pervasive -- but often overlooked -- influence of Greek and Roman history throughout the Chicago area.

The ambitious digital humanities effort, called the Classicizing Chicago Project, includes two open-access Web-based resources -- The Bosher Collection and ATLAS -- that are designed both for scholars and the general public. 

The Bosher Collection is a searchable digital database of records related to the history of Greek and Roman drama performances on Chicago-area stages dating back to 1840. The website also helps visitors find upcoming classics-related theater performances in the Chicago area. 

Named for Kathryn Bosher, an historian of ancient theater and assistant professor of classics at Northwestern who died in 2013 at the age of 38, The Bosher Collection includes historical data, images and memorabilia and will be updated and augmented regularly.

The newly launched ATLAS, a work in progress, is a digital archive designed to illuminate the vibrant presence of the classical past in all areas of Chicago culture.  Submissions from the public are welcome; illustrated records can include a story, person, political moment or movement, park monument, poem, artwork, event, theater performance and more. Walking tours and videos are also planned. 

Both digital efforts are part of a larger movement among Northwestern scholars to bring the classics to masses. Earlier this year, more than 350 people packed an auditorium to watch the one-man show “Socrates Now,” the theatrical recreation of Socrates’ defense speech at his trial. Last summer, more than 100 Homer fans turned out for an overnight marathon reading of “The Iliad” held along the shore of Lake Michigan. 

“We want people to think about why Chicagoans, at particular moments in history, turned to these sources, adapted them for their own purposes and made them exciting and useful,” said Sara Monoson, who oversees the Classicizing Chicago Project.

“Fascination with classical antiquity is not just the purview of the elite,” added Monoson, a professor of political science and classics at the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences.  “There’s a long record showing how people from all walks of life have found Greek and Roman history, literature and art to be rich resources for developing their own ventures.” 

One fairly well known example, the White City at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, was “an extravaganza of neoclassical architecture and summoned fantastical ideas of ancient Greece and Rome,” Monoson said. “We see its legacy in the Museum of Science and Industry and The Field Museum.”

Some also turned to the example of classical antiquity to celebrate Chicago’s modernist skyscrapers of the 1920s, “suggesting they put the city on track to be a beacon of cultural achievement on a global scale,” Monoson said. “It was said Chicago would be vertically classic, Greece built high on steel.” 

ATLAS currently includes an image of the Chicago boxer Klondike, who was billed as “the Black Hercules” and a story about Mike Royko’s classic 1971 biography “Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago” which shows the mayor as “a metropolis-molding tyrant of Caesarian proportions.”

Bosher, a beloved classics professor at Weinberg, launched an initial version of Classicizing Chicago Project in 2010. She had plans for several scholarly databases and had established a digital presence. But for a year after her death, friends and colleagues found it too painful to think about how to move the project forward.

Finally, working with colleagues in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and digital scholarship librarians at University Library, Monoson refocused the project by building up a single database that incorporated Bosher’s research and creating ATLAS, a lively public humanities resource.

“Knowledge is supposed to be enduring,” said Monoson. “This project honors the work that Kate began and that she hoped would live a long time.”

The websites will include content developed by Northwestern undergraduates, such as those enrolled in “Ancient Rome in Chicago,” a new course taught by senior lecturer Francesca Tataranni.

Sponsors of the Classicizing Chicago Project include Northwestern’s Chabraja Center for Historical Studies, and the Research Workshop in Classical Receptions at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities in collaboration with the Humanities Without Walls/Global Midwest Initiative of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.


Submissions to ATLAS are limited to classic-related influences in Chicago and can be emailed to Website editors will also consider 250 to 600 word essays on classical receptions in Chicago. Go to the Classicizing Chicago website to see the ATLAS essay format. Please include a 1-2 sentence biography and at least one image, ideally in the public domain and with source information.

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