As a child, Yelena Baraz loved reading — especially Greek and Roman mythology. Having grown up in a large industrial city in the Soviet Union (now central Russia), she found these stories to be available to all to read and interpret freely — contrary to Russian literature.
Baraz’s family immigrated to the U.S. after her first year at Ural State University, and she transferred to Brooklyn College. She continued her study of Latin and earned a scholarship to learn Greek over the summer at the Latin/Greek Institute in Manhattan. “That’s really when I think I became a classicist, because I loved Greek, and I loved the intense, rigorous intellectual atmosphere at the institute,” says Baraz, who went on to earn her Ph.D. in classics from the University of California, Berkeley.
Baraz often focuses her research on how Latin texts are shaped by, and also contribute to, the cultural and social backgrounds in which they’re written. “I tend to be drawn to topics where there are puzzles or questions that haven’t been answered,” she says.
The Kennedy Foundation Professor of Latin Language and Literature and Professor of Classics
Time at Princeton
Cicero in Context
In graduate school, Baraz became interested in the work of Cicero, a politician who wrote Latin philosophical texts during a time in the Roman Empire when philosophy was disparaged for being Greek and considered not worthy of study. Her 2012 book, A Written Republic: Cicero’s Philosophical Politics, “is very much about how you engage and justify to a potentially hostile audience why they should invest their time into this intellectual endeavor, and how it can be meaningful personally but also beneficial to their republic.” Baraz is currently working on a short introduction to Cicero’s work that aims to make it relatable to a contemporary audience.
A New Approach to Metamorphoses
Baraz is collaborating with Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and former Princeton creative writing professor Jhumpa Lahiri on a new translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem chronicling the history of the world. “We are really working hard to make this readable to a wide audience,” Baraz says, adding: “What hopefully will be unique about this translation is the collaboration between a classical scholar and a writer. I strive to keep us close to the Latin; Jhumpa is attentive to the flow and the readability of the English that we produce. Both of us want to convey the complexity of Ovid’s text — beautiful, violent, playful, moving — and make it speak to a new generation of readers.”
Studying the Pastoral
Baraz recently finished a manuscript for a book on the work of a little-known pastoral poet named T. Calpurnius Siculus. She examines Siculus’ undated poems, which in the pastoral tradition glorify nature and the life of the shepherd, from a more literary — versus historical — perspective. “Pastoral is a genre that, because it’s formulaic, invites a lot of experimentation to establish your own novelty,” Baraz says. “How do you establish yourself as a writer? How do you relate to a tradition, and how do you create your own version of a tradition? This is a very good body of work for answering these big questions about literature in a fairly
self-contained and stripped-down way.”