Classics scholar has a long history with ancient Rome

By Melissa Beattie-Moss
August 06, 2013

When Garrett Fagan was 12 years old, his mother put him under "house arrest" for the summer in his native Dublin, Ireland, and inadvertently created a classicist.

"My parents were building a new family home," explains Fagan, who is professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies and history at Penn State. "When it wasn't ready on schedule, we had to move into the rooms above my father's dentist office. It was in a less salubrious part of town and my mother thought I might get beaten up outside for having the wrong kind of accent, so I stayed indoors a lot and I read books about ancient Rome all summer."

Since joining the University faculty in 1996, Fagan has earned a reputation as a leading expert on ancient warfare and as an engaging teacher -- a scholar who approaches classical studies in a manner that helps us reflect on our own cultural issues. For example, in his most recent book, The Lure of the Arena: Social Psychology and the Crowd at the Roman Game, he explores spectatorship at the Roman arena.

He notes that people today are often incredulous about how Romans turned out en masse to watch gladiatorial games, and regard Roman culture as especially barbaric in its supposed appreciation of violence as a form of entertainment.

"We like to believe this is something that separates us from them, that they're very alien to us," Fagan says. "That's the opposite of the truth. When you think about it, there's a persistence across cultures for violent ritual to attract large crowds, so I felt there was a question that had to be addressed about why it was that perhaps not just the Romans but people in general like to watch violence."

His extensive scholarly accomplishments in Roman history include several other books he has authored or edited, such as Bathing in Public in the Roman World and Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudo Archaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public.

Looking back at the origins of his passion for ancient Rome, Fagan recalls that he got interested in classics when he went to a Jesuit school at the age of 12 -- "the same age at which my mom kept me indoors that summer," he notes. "I had to take Latin in school, which terrified me. But I quite liked it and took to it. The ancient world was entirely new to me and I was very intrigued. I began reading a lot about the Romans and the more I read, the more I was interested. I especially liked the Roman army and gladiators, but also just generally was taken by the very sophisticated world that they lived in all those thousands of years ago."

During that summer of confinement above the dentist office, Fagan started filling copy books with information about the Romans. He wrote and illustrated two booklets of about 30 pages each, called The Romans, Volume I and II.

"I brought the booklets to school and tried to hand them in as a substitute for an English assignment," Fagan remembers with a laugh. "My English teacher said 'That's not acceptable for my class, but let me have a look at these.' He passed them around the teachers' lounge and sometime later the headmaster came into Latin class. A murmur went around the room because the headmaster usually didn't show up unless the class had done something wrong. But he said he was there to award a prize to a student in the class for excellent work -- and it was me."

Shortly after that, Fagan's father took him to Rome, a trip that set him firmly on the road that he's still on.

"We spent two weeks together, getting up at dawn to do all the ancient sites and museums," he says. "I was just blown away. I remember telling my father on that trip, 'I don't know how it is people make a living at this. But this is what I want to do.' He said, 'Sure. I'll support you in that.' I never wanted to do anything else. My first love was the Ancient World, that's what I went to college for, and I've never left."

Fagan attended Dublin's historic Trinity College and later received a doctorate from McMaster University in Canada. What came as a surprise to him early on in his studies was the fact that Rome was a vast state that covered 32 modern countries and 60 million people on three continents. For centuries it was the center of the Western world. How did all that go away?

"It's an object warning to us," he cautions. "We think the world we live in is permanent, when it is anything but. Nobody could have imagined in Roman times that there would be no Roman Empire and yet there is none."

Getting consistently high marks from both graduate and undergraduate students for his enthusiastic and accessible teaching style, Fagan especially likes helping people recognize the shared dynamics at work between our time and ancient Rome. He maintains that this recognition deepens our understanding of something important about ourselves and "some people's consistent appetite" for violent spectacles like dogfights, boxing, and executions. There's even an argument to be made, he adds, that football is the gladiator sport of our day -- "war without the killing," as media mogul Ted Turner called it.

Fagan acknowledges the absence of killing is not a minor difference. "We value individual lives and believe they all have worth," he says. "The Romans had a completely different view of human beings, which was that there were people who were worthless: there were slaves, who were the walking dead as far as the Romans were concerned."

Fagan has written and presented classes for the public such as "The History of Ancient Rome" through The Learning Company, and has served as an expert consultant and on-screen contributor for several television series, including NOVA's "Secret of Lost Empires" and The History Channel's "Rome: Rise and Fall of an Empire."

As far as the type of person who enjoys the gladiator mythos, "I'm one of them!" he admits cheerfully. "I'm a consumer of the Hollywood blockbuster gladiator movies and I even play gladiator video games." 

The 12-year-old boy who penned The Romans, Volumes I and II no doubt would approve. 

Garrett Fagan is professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies and history and can be reached at

  • Garrett Fagan at 13 visiting Rome.

    Garrett Fagan at 13 visiting Rome.

    IMAGE: Courtesy Garrett Fagan

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Last Updated July 28, 2017