Jacob Mackey: A Queens College Classicist’s Unconventional Odyssey

“I am interested in just about everything about the ancient world,” observes Jacob L. Mackey. the Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languagesprofessor from Texas who joined Queens College this fall, is intrigued by ancient religions, with a soft spot for Epicureanism and an eye on cognitive science.

As a lad, Mackey spent months each year in south India, where his mother pursued her interest in Eastern religions. For most of his high school years he was home-schooled. He then spent 10 years as a wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods Market and during that time, at age 27, enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, where his father was a beloved philosophy professor.

“My random, dilettantish explorations through poetry finally led to really discovering in a big way an infatuation with the ancient world,” relates Mackey. “When I got to college, I was discouraged about my ability to learn, convinced I was terrible at languages. It was a real eye-opener to take Latin and realize I had a knack for it.” He also dove into ancient Greek, French, and German, and in grad school picked up a reading knowledge of Italian. Mackey earned a master’s degree at Christ Church, Oxford, and a PhD at Princeton University (2009). As a grad student he taught at Princeton, and as a post-doc he taught at a great books program at Stanford University.

Having been a non-traditional student who “faced the fears,” Mackey says, “has really made me empathize with people who are coming to school later in life, or who might have some anxieties. I have a real feel for their desire to go for something else, to break out of a comfortable but not fully satisfying life, to take a risk.”

On leave next semester, during which time he will be based at the University of Notre Dame, Mackey will complete his book on Roman religion. The classicist takes issue with the “common cliché” that the Romans merely performed religious rituals and that “Christians invented belief.”

If he could time-travel back to one classical period, it would be to become “an objective witness” to the fall of the Roman republic, to observe how its 500 years of grandeur unraveled. “There are always a million historical puzzles to solve,” says Mackey.

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