The American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Meet a Member: Phil Katz

Moira Lavelle

Phil Katz is an Associate Member at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens working on a PhD in Classics at New York University. He previously received an MA in Classics from NYU and an AB in Classics at Washington University in St. Louis. 

Q: What is your particular field of interest?
A: I work on ships and ship representations, with a particular focus on those that are used not for military and economic purposes, but as symbols. What this means is I mostly study ships which are no longer being used as such-- ships that are brought onto land and used as votives, pieces of ships which are detached and used outside the water, representations of ships in literature, or the iconography of ships in vase paintings or statue bases. These symbolic vessels may not tell us much about ship construction or tactics of war, but can tell us a lot about how different individuals and communities cultivate and communicate identities and power.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?
A: I’ve always been interested in how people use symbols and ideas, but my interest in looking at ships this way really took hold in Athens. I arrived for my Regular Member year with a couple of ideas for dissertation topics, but also with the encouragement of my advisors to explore around. In the spring of that year, I received a Paul Rehak Memorial Traveling Fellowship and was able to visit Samos, Samothrace, and Delos. At the time I was working on an unrelated side project, but what really struck me was not just the small-scale maritime votives on each island, but also large monuments to house full-scale votive ships. It was while wrapping my head around these buildings that the project started, and it has grown more or less organically from there.

Q: What non-material evidence are you looking at for this project?
A: I’m really interested in the ship as an idea, and sometimes that manifests itself in literature, sometimes in iconography— in the archaic period, for instance, we see both developing simultaneously. In Greek poetry, the “ship of state” metaphor, which we still use today, really takes hold in the seventh and sixth centuries, at the same time that vase painters begin decorating sympotic vessels with images of ships. For that period in particular, I think it’s interesting to see how these trends develop in concert, and in relation to contemporary developments in naval warfare and overseas trade.

Q: When did you first come to Greece?
A: The first time was back in 2010, when I came for one of the ASCSA’s summer sessions, right after finishing undergrad. I was at the time trying to decide if I wanted to go to grad school, and to balance out my Roman-centric education, and came away smitten both with the school and with Greece. So I’ve been coming back ever since: I was here in 2012 to excavate at the Agora, then in 2014-2015 as a Regular Member, and now as an Associate. And hopefully I’ll come back more in perpetuity.

Q: You went on a little bit of one of the trips earlier this year to talk about a ship representation. What was it?
A: I went on a few days of trip 1 and was able to give part of a joint report on the Victory Monument of Octavian at Nikopolis. It’s this really massive, terraced monument-cum-sanctuary set up by Octavian at the site of his camp after his victory over Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE. What’s really interesting for me is that it represents one of our most vivid symbolic uses of ship spolia: across the front façade were installed 36 bronze rams taken from sunken enemy ships. So for my purposes, it’s an important monument for thinking about how parts of ships were used out of the water, to communicate power and control over people and territory.

Q: Do you have any personal experience with being on a ship of any kind?
A: No, one of the odd parts of this project is that I’m a landlocked Midwesterner with no experience on the water. So I’ve had to do a crash course in terminology. But since ships sailing in water is less my focus than ships on land, perhaps it’s not so bizarre.

Q: What is your favorite taverna in Athens?
A: As you know I have enough answers to this question to fill up a blog! I usually search for places that are inventive and are trying to do something different, but I think in Athens, and Greece in general, the best meals you’re going to have are at old, mom and pop places. My personal favorite at the moment is To Steki Tou Ilia. It’s the most unpretentious place in a residential neighborhood, but has the best lamb chops you’ll ever find.

Q: What is your favorite place in Athens?
A: As an adopted New Yorker, I love my hipster cafes and Demode is the best I’ve found in Greece. On any given weekday afternoon, you’re liable to find me there typing away and listening to jazzy covers of Lady Gaga. In terms of non-food places, although I rarely make it over there, I love going up the Hill of the Muses. I think it has far and away the best view of the Acropolis and is less overwhelmed with selfie-stick-wielding tourists, so you can actually enjoy the view, unlike Lykavittos.

Q: Is there anywhere in Greece you’d like to visit?
A: I’ve only briefly been to Cyprus, which is a place those of us working on the Greek world sometimes forget about. And I’m very aware that by spending time in the Aegean and not Cyprus, I am perpetuating that. Closer to home, I think my biggest itch to scratch is the Ionian islands, which have such a unique post-antique history with their Venetian occupation that I think they would be interesting to see.

Q: If you were a Greek god or goddess, which one would you be?
A: I don’t know, which Greek god is the hungriest? If you had asked “which underworld doomed soul do I most relate to,” I’d have a much easier answer: Tantalus.

Q: What do you get from your experience at the ASCSA?
A: What don’t I get? This has been a really important place for my personal and professional development for the past six years. Most of my best friends are people who’ve participated in some program or excavation at the school. The academic programs have let me develop a body of knowledge and a skillset that would probably have been impossible outside Greece. I’ve made academic connections I wouldn’t be able to make anywhere else. And at this point of writing up my dissertation, the school’s resources, intellectual community, and proximity to sites and museums really make it a perfect place.