Salutatorian finds keys to the present in classic texts

Bensch Shaus

Classics major Amelia Bensch-Schaus, the salutatorian of the Class of 2013, will continue the tradition of giving a speech in Latin at the Commencement ceremony.

Photo by Denise Applewhite

It might have been the well-worn copy of the children's classic "D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths," passed down from her brother, that jumpstarted Princeton senior Amelia Bensch-Schaus' passion for classics — but it also could have been the cats.

"I grew up with lots of cats, and they were all named after characters in Greek mythology, a family tradition," Bensch-Schaus said. "In addition to Persephone, there was Orpheus and Herculana — first named Hercules until it was discovered he was, in fact, a she."

Bensch-Schaus' deep dedication to the study of classics at Princeton as well as her exceptional scholarship — she received the Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence in 2010 — led to her being named salutatorian for the Class of 2013. Bensch-Schaus will continue the University tradition of delivering a speech in Latin at Commencement on Tuesday, June 4. Princeton's first Commencement, held in 1748, was conducted entirely in Latin.

Bensch-Schaus' parents instilled in her a love of reading, and the Swarthmore, Pa., native often visited Princeton as a child when her mother took her to the Cotsen Children's Library at Firestone Library.

Bensch-Schaus studied Latin for six years at the Westtown School, where she said her interest in Greek mythology moved from the D'Aulaires' picture book to the "literary historical perspectives" of Cicero and Seneca as well as Ovid's "witty and playful Latin" in "Metamorphoses."

Russell Leo III, an assistant professor of English, said Bensch-Schaus' "sharp, thoughtful" scholarship was evident as soon as she arrived at Princeton.

"Amelia took a freshman seminar with me, on witchcraft and early modern political theology, and her work was inspired, even then," Leo said. "This semester she took 'Milton' with me, where she wrote insightful and sophisticated papers informed by her advanced knowledge of classical languages and cultures."

Bensch-Schaus decided to take the Milton course halfway into writing her senior thesis, which explores language surrounding the concept of fate in "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." She said that studying how thinkers such as Milton looked back at the classics helped shape her approach and offered "a great key to interpreting the classics and seeing what's really at stake."

Her thesis adviser, Michael Flower, a senior research scholar and lecturer with the rank of professor in classics, said: "Amelia has that rare gift of reading texts, even the most famous texts in the Western literary canon, with fresh eyes. By carefully analyzing the various words used to express 'fate,' she develops an overall, and original, theory for how these words contribute to the meanings of the two epics." He also praised her dedication to "meticulous and comprehensive research."

Bensch-Schaus provided all of her own translations of the ancient Greek for her thesis. While at Princeton she has also tackled modern languages. With funding from the Department of Classics, for three consecutive summers starting after her freshman year, she studied French in an immersion program at Middlebury College, spoken Latin in Rome and German in Berlin.

Exploring 'the familiar and the strange'

Bensch-Schaus said one reason she is drawn to reading original texts is their blend of the familiar and the strange. "When I come across things that are completely different and that I can't relate to, it challenges me to really look at my fundamental beliefs: I think about myself and culture and literature and history and the purpose of all these things."

Bensch-Schaus noted two courses she took this year that helped her explore these juxtapositions: "Roman Elegy from Catullus to Ovid" in the fall semester and "Roman Literature: Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'" in the spring semester, both taught by Denis Feeney, the Giger Professor of Latin and a professor of classics.

"These courses covered a lot of ground, and Amelia made herself at home in the weird world of love elegy as well as the even weirder world of the 'Metamorphoses,'" Feeney said. "She is a terrific Latinist, having both excellent language skills and incisive critical ability."

As part of a class presentation, Feeney said that Bensch-Schaus made connections between Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and illustrated her point with a film clip. "Amelia's presentation opened up new aspects of Shakespeare's wit and gave us a great test case for the ongoing power of Ovid's masterpiece," Feeney said. "She has the skills, acumen and originality of a true budding scholar."

Bensch-Schaus spent her junior year studying classics at the University of Cambridge. While she relished the intensive focus on classics there, she said the experience helped her appreciate the mix of academic interests among students in her classes at Princeton. She has enjoyed working with students from other majors in her classics courses, and took the opportunity to go beyond her discipline as well, such as learning about Sufism and taking introductory courses in the sciences.

After graduation, Bensch-Schaus will teach Latin for a year at the Sherborne School in Dorset, the United Kingdom, before beginning graduate school. "I consider teaching experience to be vital to my pursuit of classics," she said.

Bensch-Schaus dipped her toes into teaching this year, as a tutor in her residential college Forbes and at Princeton High School, where she conducted a lesson on scansion, the analysis of the metrical structure of verse. "It was fun and also very challenging," she said.

"People generally study Latin because they really like it, and it's important to be able to inspire high school students to study it more," Bensch-Schaus said.

Leo already thinks of Bensch-Schaus as a colleague. "I have learned much from her, reading Milton's Latin together and discussing his abilities and interests in antiquity," he said.

Added Leo: "Her love for antiquity reminds me of the great Renaissance humanists, and I can easily imagine Amelia chatting in Latin with Erasmus or Thomas More about the greatness of Ovid. And I can just as easily imagine Erasmus and More learning something from her!"