Caltanissetta, Sicily. (Photography by Giampaolo Macorig, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you

Classics professor Peter White on the upcoming alumni trip to Sicily.

This September Peter White, Herman C. Bernick Family Professor of Classics and in the College, will lead an alumni trip to Sicily. One lucky alum who makes an annual gift before Sunday, March 29, will get to go on the trip with a guest for free.

White, who has never been to Sicily before, told the Magazine about what he plans to teach and what he hopes to learn.

Which part of the tour excites you the most as a classicist?

The visit to Syracuse. I love Thucydides. And two books of his History [of the Peloponnesian War] are about the expedition of the Athenians to Sicily. He views it as a big political turnaround. Athens was riding high in its struggle with the other Greek city-states until they made the mistake of overextending themselves in Sicily. 

Are you looking forward to other aspects of the tour, outside your expertise?

Oh, yes. The other places I’ve been—Florence, Siena, Venice, Milan—existed during the Roman period, which is the period I know best, but very little is known about their history as part of Rome’s dominion. They don’t begin to have a visible history until in most cases the Renaissance. 

For example, in Florence, you can see the configuration of the old Roman town very clearly on the map. It’s a rectangle. But there’s virtually no monument or structure from the Roman period. Florence is a self-creation of the Renaissance.

But in Sicily, there are visible monuments from very early on, and a range of surviving monuments representing very different cultures. Sicily was ruled by the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Normans. The range of things to see is unparalleled. 

Are you nervous about leading a trip to a place you’ve never been?

I always feel nervous when I enter a class for the first time, even though I have been teaching for almost 50 years.

What books will you read to prepare?

Moses Finley, a great American ancient historian, wrote a three-volume history of Sicily from the earliest times to the Baroque period. That three-volume history has been condensed into one volume [A History of Sicily: Ancient Sicily to the Arab Conquest, 1968], and it’s still in print. He’s very thought provoking.

I remember liking The Leopard, both as a novel [by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958] and as a movie [by Luchino Visconti, 1963]. It was one of Burt Lancaster’s good movies. I will probably Netflix the movie or read the novel. 

Will you bring anything to read on the trip?

I might read some magazines to improve my Italian. I won’t try to learn the Sicilian dialect. I would never understand the pronunciation. 

Are you going on the fun expeditions of the trip—pizza making, the tour of the lemon farm? 

Yes. I love these features.

When we were first married and had a family, pizza used to be one of our standard rotation meals. But gradually my wife and my daughter decided they didn’t think these pizzas were as good as Edwardo’s or wherever. So I said, well, that’s it. It’s out of the rotation. They said it was kind of soggy. Maybe I’ll finally find the secret of pizza in Sicily.

You’re planning to give a lecture on Roman literature about Mount Aetna, an active volcano. Could we get a preview?

The Romans were impressed by Aetna for obvious reasons. There’s a 600-line poem that is presented in the manuscript tradition as a work of Virgil. I don’t think anybody really thinks it’s a work of Virgil, but it’s still an interesting poem.

When the reign of the emperors began, one notices in the literature a concern with cosmic phenomena—earthquakes, volcanic eruptions. It’s probably related to the concern with this very potent form of government which sometimes goes very badly wrong—crazy emperors like Caligula, cruel emperors like Nero. In a period when the Romans begin to reflect on the consequences of unchecked political power, they also are interested in natural phenomena. 

One lucky alum who makes an annual gift will get to go on this trip—with a guest—for free. What would the Romans have thought of that?

The Romans had no problem with organizing things by lottery. Juries were selected from a big list of names on a lottery basis.

The Athenians were much more thorough in the use of the lot. It’s right there at the heart of Greek politics and, to a lesser extent, Roman politics. 

Is there a Latin epigram that this trip makes you think of?

My favorite Latin poet is Horace. A quote I always think about when I travel is

Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt. People who dash off across the sea change the sky, not their mind-set.

He probably means two things by that. One is that you bring with you what you are. You’re not immersed in a totally new experience; you’re filtering it according to what you know.

The other thing it means—more importantly to Horace—is you’re not going to escape yourself. Hes writing in a period when upper-class Romans were feeling restless and at loose ends.  Hes telling them, Settle down. Youre not going to solve any problems by going somewhere else.” But maybe that advice is antithetical to the spirit of alumni tours.