Denis Feeney


Denis Feeney, the Giger Professor of Latin and professor of classics, will transfer to emeritus status on July 1, 2022, after twenty-two years of distinguished teaching and service as a faculty member in the Department of Classics. Without doubt, Denis is the preeminent Latinist of his generation. His four paradigm-shifting books and some fifty articles span the fields of Latin prose and verse, Roman religion, and Roman history. Such breadth is unusual in a classical scholar, but far more unusual is the fact that every one of his publications, from the longest to the briefest, has altered our understanding of both Latin literature and of Roman culture more generally. 

Denis was born in New Zealand, where, despite initially intending to major in French, he graduated from the University of Auckland with a bachelor of arts in classics (1974), a master of arts in Latin (first-class honors, 1975), and a master of arts in Greek (first-class honors, 1976). He then attended Oxford University (1977-82), where he received his doctorate After he served a stint as a junior fellow in the Harvard University Society of Fellows (1982-84), his teaching career took him to Bristol; Cambridge; Edinburgh; Madison, Wisconsin; Oxford; and finally to Princeton in 2000. Despite subsequently being offered the professorship of Latin at both Oxford and Cambridge in the very same year (an unprecedented honor), Denis, to our good fortune, determined to spend the rest of his career at Princeton. 

It was at Cambridge that he began his long friendship and intellectual partnership with the Latinist Stephen Hinds, with whom he edited the highly influential Cambridge University Press Series Roman Literature and its Contexts. Together they brilliantly implemented the aim of this series, which was to put the dominant modes of study of Roman literature in touch with current research in other areas of the classics, and the humanities at large. Denis’ own contribution was Literature and Religion at Rome (1998), a book whose brevity belies the immensity of its impact. In The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1991), he had already explored the problems involved in understanding Roman religion in its literary manifestations. Literature and Religion at Rome, although far shorter, was a more systematic enquiry into Roman religion and its reception in modern scholarship, one that has had a deep and fruitful influence on subsequent research on Roman religion. 

Arguably the jewel in his crown is his delivery of the prestigious Sather Lectures at the University of California-Berkeley, which is a much-coveted honor among classical scholars. Denis took the bold step of venturing into a wholly new and very complex topic, delivering his lectures on the subject of Roman concepts of time. The resulting book, Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History, was published by University of California Press in May 2007. This ambitious book tackles the large theme of time as a way of opening up concerns central to Roman thought — their place in the past and contemporary Mediterranean world, their apprehension of their empire’s future, and their sense of the individual’s relationship to the rhythms of the state and of the natural world. It was a hugely ambitious project to undertake, one which only someone with Denis’ vast knowledge of both Greek and Roman history and culture could have brought to such a successful completion. 

His most recent book, Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature (Harvard University Press, 2016), once again broke new ground. This magisterial work traces the emergence of Latin literature, beginning with Roman stage productions of plays that represented the first translations of Greek literary texts into another language. In the modern world translating foreign-language literature into one’s own tongue seems perfectly normal, but in the ancient Mediterranean world, literary translation was unusual if not unprecedented. Denis shows how it allowed the Romans to systematically take over Greek forms of tragedy, comedy, and epic, making them their own and giving birth to what we now call Latin literature. He further argues that this process, although retrospectively seeming to be inevitable, was in fact highly contingent. 

In 2021, Cambridge University Press published Denis’ collected papers in two volumes under the title Explorations in Latin Literature. The range of inquiry on display in his books and articles makes it abundantly clear that Denis has never been a recycler. One reason why a nearly complete reprint of his articles can stand as a collection, without any need to winnow out duplicates, is that each piece does in fact do something different and distinctive. Every article in this collection is a finely cut gem that is both aesthetically beautiful and unique in its scholarly contribution. Most of Denis’ intellectual pursuits are on full display in these two volumes. One of his career-long fascinations has been the complex relationship between fiction and representation. This fascination led him to obtain a mastery of contemporary theoretical approaches in the study of literature as well as in anthropology and comparative religion. At the same time, Denis has always been ahead of most critics of Roman verse in his understanding of the rules of historical analysis and the nature of religious thought and practice. Hence his collected essays not only treat issues of literary criticism per se, but also engage with topics that lie at the intersections of literature, religion, historiography, and history in a way that is uniquely his own. 

Not surprisingly, Denis has been the recipient of many awards and honors. These include the Sather Professorship of Classical Literature, University of California-Berkeley (2004); Guggenheim and American Council of Learned Societies fellowships (both 2010); the Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities, Princeton University (2011); presidency of the American Philological Association (2013-14; now the Society for Classical Studies); and election as fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and corresponding fellow of the British Academy (both 2016). 

But there is much more to Denis than mere brilliance with a pen. He is no less accomplished as a teacher and communicator. Both in the classroom and, more unusually, at academic conferences, he invariably performs without a script, lecturing in perfect periods that form precisely structured arguments. He writes very much as he speaks, with eloquence and clarity. No one is as adept at taking a class through a text and demonstrating by example the art of close reading. It is no wonder then that Denis has been much in demand as a supervisor by graduate students and undergraduates alike. His dedicated mentorship and unstinting generosity with his time has had a profound impact not only on each of his students, but on his colleagues as well. If there is an exception to the commonplace sentiment that no one person is indispensable, then students and colleagues would agree that the exception is Denis Feeney. He will be long and greatly missed. 

Written by members of the Department of Classics faculty.