Student Spotlight: Maria Gaki

Written by Chris Pasion, graduate assistant to The Graduate School.

The infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which took place in 79 AD, devasted many a civilization along the Gulf of Naples, laying waste to entire Roman cities all down the coast. Our understanding of the history and culture of these civilizations is fragmentary at best, with many of the texts they created now existing in tattered, ruined condition (if they even survived the blast at all). Luckily, with the help of modern technology, these texts, which detail a long-buried society, are finally able to be read and studied. Maria Gaki, a PhD student in the classics department’s classical philology program, is one such scholar.

A portrait of Maria Gaki in a coffee shop.

Maria’s dissertation is, in her own words, “about is the role of sound – particularly sweet sound, called euphony – in the ancient literary theory of the Hellenistic period.” The Hellenistic period, which began in the 3rdcentury BC, is important because it is one of the earliest known examples of organized literary theory and criticism. Scholars were compiling texts to be studied in the Great Library of Alexandria, in Egypt, for the first time. “They were the first that made catalogues of works to try to preserve and interpret them to provide some first commentary,” Maria says. The text that is at the heart of Maria’s dissertation was noticeably absent from the stacks. With her dissertation, she hopes to finally fill in the gaps.

The ancient Greek philosopher Philodemus wrote On Poems,which was discovered in the 19thcentury and is the primary focus ofMaria’s dissertation. The text became accessible only recently, as people have tried and failed for millennia to try and open up the manuscripts and see what this extinct population was writing about. “Back then there wasn’t the appropriate technology to properly unroll them,” Maria says, “sometimes they were destroyed by the process of trying to open them.” Maria is interested in On Poems because it could help better explain the primary mode of entertainment for the pre-Hellenistic period: poetry. 

People during the pre­-Hellenistic period used the performance of poetry as a means of expression; it was not until later that poetry was read on paper, in prose. “Poetry was written for the purpose of performance,” Maria says. “Even in private, any occasion would be an occasion to recite and perform poetry.” 

Maria Gaki speaking with an interviewer about her research.

On Poems is a document of early literary criticism on poetry, specifically on the way that poetry sounded when presented orally, as was the practice then. Philodemus was focused on the sound of the poetry itself; rather than place importance on the content of the words, Philodemus argued that a poem should be judged primarily on its euphony, the sweet sounds that “tickle the ear,” as Maria describes. Maria explores Philodemus’ understanding of poetry and plans to challenge it by putting his theories to the test against the works of actual poets from those days. Doing so will help to form a better understanding of the early forms of literary criticism and shed light on a culture which we still know little about. 

Maria, who was recently awarded the Graduate School Dean’s Dissertation Completion Fellowship for the 2020-21 academic year, has had an interest in ancient texts for a long time. Her early experiences learning ancient Greek and Latin in high school helped her form a passion for classical literature. “We were reading a lot of ancient texts,” she says. “I liked it a lot, so I decided that’s what I wanted to do. It was a decision I made very early in my life and I never regretted it.” Maria completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, prior to coming to the states to pursue her doctoral degree.

Maria notes one primary distinction between her education in Greece compared to UC. “We focus a lot more on the languages there, like ancient Greek and Latin,” she says. “Coming here was different because the department here is much more interdisciplinary.” UC’s classics department has given Maria experience in not only philology, but archaeology and history as well, an approach that has encouraged her to be more “expressive and confident with what I believe in.” Maria plans to publish her dissertation into a book after her doctorate is all said and done, further uncovering a culture that was once buried in ash and soot.