Love of the ancient world: Virginia McClatchey (C’21) on Sappho, Dr. Holmes, and everything in between

Virginia McClatchey (C’21) enjoys an afternoon at Stirling’s Coffee House. Photo by Hannah Keller (C’20).

By Hannah Keller
Contributing Writer

There is something transcendent about the study of morality, justice, and the art of rhetoric as it relates to the ancient world. Perhaps it comes in the form of our reckoning how much we have in common with the people of 2,500 years in the past.

One glance at the classics department’s information page is all it takes for some students to shy away from the demands of such a rigorous course of study. Others, like Virginia McClatchey (C’21), are ready to step up to the challenge in pursuit of their love for histories and languages that have been seemingly dead for centuries.

McClatchey grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where she spent elementary school in a homeschooling program. “My mother was shooting for a classical education,” she said, during an interview with The Purple.

“I began learning Latin at seven years old and, while I didn’t love the language initially, I found myself called to it years later,” she explained. “When choosing which class I wanted to take in order to fulfill Sewanee’s language requirement, I decided to go with the language that most interested me: Greek. As the semester continued, I discovered my passion for Latin; it had existed all along.”

When prompted about her favorite authors, McClatchey instantly lit up. She explained how she became increasingly interested in Sappho over the years, and often jokes about wishing she could use a time machine to go back and collect Sappho’s work before it was destroyed by the medieval church, so that she could translate it into completion herself. 

“One of the major reasons I am interested in the classics,” she said, “is that if I’m reading a translation, then I’m reading somebody else’s words, and it may have lost the author’s intent.”

One Christmas, McClatchey’s brother surprised her with a book of Sappho’s literature. “As I read, I felt as though Sappho were someone quite familiar to me; I felt like she was speaking to me personally. There is something very special about reading the work of a queer woman from 2500 years ago, and being able to see myself, a queer woman, represented in the past,” she reflected. 

McClatchey currently lives in the Queer and Ally House (Q&A).

“I’ve thought about incorporating literature and historical evidence of what we, today, would call ‘queer people’ in my involvement with the Q&A House,” said McClatchey. I have found that it is comforting for queer people to see that there were always people like them.”

The Sewanee classics department plays no small role in Virginia’s love for all things related to the ancient world. 

“Dr. McCarter’s ‘sex and sexuality in classical antiquity’ class was one of my favorite classes that I have ever taken. We studied a range of things that I am personally interested in, such as art, poetry, and fictional literature of the ancient Mediterranean.”

She goes on to talk about her love for Dr. McCarter and her husband, Dr. Holmes, both of whom are professors in the classics department.

Of Dr. Holmes, McClatchey says, “His understanding of Greek culture on an interpersonal level is outstanding. He even has a dictionary of Greek euphemisms and an ancient Greek joke book in his office, which I find endlessly amusing.”

Virginia explained that she is not entirely sure what she wants to do after graduation. She does not currently have a definite career in mind, but shared a few ideas that she entertains.

“I really enjoy drawing and doing art, so I think it would be really fulfilling to make illustrations for Greek and Latin textbooks,” said McClatchey. If the opportunity presented itself, I would love to make a graphic novel using Greek and Latin texts commonly used by students.”

Virginia believes that combining art and classical antiquity could be an effective way to encourage more people to take an interest in the classics. 

“Over time, I have felt called to it for some inexplicable reason,” she reflects. “It’s a compulsion, there is nothing else that I want to do.”