Ancient Futurists

Jennifer Wagner
February 8, 2022
Grant Parker and Lina Wang

Stanford Professor Grant Parker with his former student Lina Wang, now a teaching intern in Exeter's Classics Department.

What can Vergil, the Greek Magical Papyri of spells and King Croesus of Lydia’s visit to the Oracle of Delphi tell us about the future? A lot, says Grant Parker, a Stanford professor who led a series of student seminars in November called “RetroFutures: Ancient Perspectives on Times Ahead.”

“It was a mind-bending look at how the future looked to people in the past,” says Matt Hartnett, chair of the Classics Department. “It felt very relevant to the current moment, where there is considerable anxiety and uncertainty about what the future holds. Over the intervening millennia we have come up with different ways of divining what we think will happen in the future, but all motivated by the same desire the ancients had to try to make the unknown known.”

It’s clear Parker’s words inspired those who gathered in the Elting Room of Phillips Hall for discourse. “Most Exeter Classics students read or will read Vergil at some point, and Professor Parker’s presentations not only introduced two Vergilian texts outside of the syllabus but also gave me a new perspective on the Aeneid, which I read last year at Exeter,” says Alexandra Wang ’23, who attended three of the four seminars. “At the start of his second seminar, he quoted a writer’s complaint that ‘Vergil is history written in the future tense.’ The quip is shockingly accurate: The story of the Aeneid is propelled by prophecies, but these predicted futures are the reader’s past. ... Professor Parker’s seminars showed us that in all literary traditions, the text doesn’t change, its audience does. And each new reader is a new interaction. Each new reader grants the text a new meaning.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.