A Q&A with Dr. Bronwen Wickkiser, Classics professor and 42nd Annual LaFollette Lecturer

If you could talk to someone from Ancient Greece, who would it be?

I may be taking the easy route here, but I would love to talk to an ancient physician, Galen of Pergamon, someone I will also refer to in my talk tomorrow. And although we have a lot of his writings, I’d like to sit down and have a conversation with him about his own life. He had a very interesting life: he worked for the Emperor of Rome and treated the Roman army and even the enslaved people. He’s just a fascinating guy.

What is an idea that interests and inspires you? How will this incorporate in tomorrow’s lecture?

Bodies. The bodies of people, the bodies of worshipers, and the embodied experience of religion and antiquity. So, there’s going to be a theme of bodies that runs throughout it. Particularly, my talk will focus on health care. Healthcare is clearly about bodies. And I will also talk about the work of this physician Galen, talk about a particular text tomorrow and the light it sheds on healthcare for A Q&A with Dr. Bronwen Wickkiser, Classics professor and 42nd Annual LaFollette Lecturerus. It’s also about my own body and what it’s like to be in the field of classics. Classics is still a very male-dominated discipline. Being a female in it is, I think, interesting to think about too. So, bodies in very different ways. Oh, I should also say, I’m thinking about the bodies of data that I draw.

Since your talk is about Bodies, and also the intersection of Medicine and Culture, what is your take on the current legislature on Abortion Laws?

I’ll touch on this too in my talk too. I would just say it’s just very striking to me. I’ll make this very point that in Greek and Roman antiquity, there were no laws against abortion, certainly not through the time period that I’ll be talking about in my lecture, which is the second century AD. And to me, it’s really sobering to think that women in Greek and Roman antiquity had more legal autonomy over their reproductive health today than we do in parts of the United States today. That to me is so stark and sobering and troubling.

If you were trapped on an island with one book, which book would it be?

A funny coincidence is that I am going to talk a little bit about islands tomorrow! If I were stuck with one book, it would be either the Iliad or the Odyssey. I teach both a lot, the Iliad and the Odyssey. And every time I read them, I see new things every single time. They’re long enough that you get a lot out of them. They touch on many aspects of the human condition that I just think are so essential to human life, they touch on humanity, and what it really means to be human. And the idea of struggle is so important to the Greek, so if I were stuck on an island, and wanted a little solace, to think about people who have also faced adversity, those texts you can’t do better. In a way, I would be just like Odysseus, stuck on an island!

What is the greatest lesson that Greek Classics and Literature had taught you?

In Greek Classics, there’s a sense of the importance of humility. The word humility and the word humanity come from the same root. It is a thing in Greek culture that you don’t want to become too comfortable, especially in the moments when the cycle of fortune is in your favor. Another thing, and I’ll make a point of this in my lecture, is that bodies are a locus of justice and injustice. And I think that’s important. To remember in our modern world, especially in the United States, as we are facing a moment of lots of division in our democracy. Lots of gun violence, ridiculous rates in which prisons are growing, the legacy of racism, slavery and all of that. To me, an important lesson from antiquity is thus that bodies are a place where justice and injustice play out.

We talked about Galen before.What would you ask him if you could actually time travel?

Well, and again, I will talk about this tomorrow, one of the challenges of studying the ancient world, especially Greek and Roman antiquity is that we only have a small subset of all the data. So, we’re making pretty large assumptions based on not much data. So, I’d ask, are we even close?