“The themes — the human pain, suffering, passions and desires that we have in our world — are the very same ones that the ancient Greek and Romans had,” Professor Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow (CLAS) explained in an interview with the Justice. As the chair of the Classical Studies Department at Brandeis, where she has worked for over 30 years, Koloski-Ostrow’s passion for the subject runs deep. She believes that there is a lot to be learned from examining the ancient world and encourages her students to engage in open discourse when learning about the past. 

On Jan. 6, Koloski-Ostrow, known fondly by her students as Professor AOK-O, will travel to San Francisco to accept the Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). The AIA is an organization dedicated to the study of archaeology and the advancement of knowledge of the past. At the AIA’s annual meeting, awards are presented to outstanding scholars in the field of archaeology. The award that Koloski-Ostrow will receive is partially determined through nomination; students and professionals of archaeology can submit dossiers in support of professors. 

“It is definitely an award that goes to Brandeis as much as to me,” Koloski-Ostrow asserted. “I was surprised, and I love surprises, so, like any wonderful surprise — I’m humbled and shocked … There’s something about Brandeis and our community and the way we care about each other here that just is right for me and makes me happy to be here.” 

Koloski-Ostrow grew up in a small town in the Berkshires, where going to college was something most of her neighbors and peers weren’t thinking about, yet she chose to continue her education, and she found her passion in the study of ancient civilizations. Within her work, Koloski-Ostrow focuses heavily on the daily lives of Roman citizens, as well as ancient urban infrastructure. She claims that her childhood experiences with two of her uncles sparked this interest. 

Her Uncle Ted worked as a plumber in Boston. “When I visited Uncle Ted, he would take me under the beautiful Victorian homes around Boston, and we’d climb in the cellars, and I’d see the copper pipes and how it all fit together,” Koloski-Ostrow explained. “It was fascinating to me how a big house connected to the public sewer system, and when I started studying archaeology, I remembered my lessons from Uncle Ted and wondered, How did Romans make cities function?”

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BEYOND THE CLASSROOM: Prof.Ann Olga Koloski-Ostrow (CLAS) with her students from Daily Life in Ancient Rome at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on a field trip.

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All SMILES: Prof. Koloski-Ostrow (back) with (left to right) Stephen Guerriero M.A. ’15 and Hannah Lents M.A. ’15 at an Archaeological Institute of America workshop.

Her other uncle lived in New York City, where he worked as a garbage collector. Koloski-Ostrow recalled driving around in his truck, collecting garbage from Radio City Music Hall, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s. “So we would go under the guts [of the city]. I knew a side of New York that nobody else knew,” Koloski-Ostrow explained. “I think Uncle Nick and Uncle Ted in their way, influenced my trajectory [within the archaeological field].” Her interest in cities and the infrastructure behind them has focused her research a great deal, and she has published several books analyzing Roman cities, including “Water Use and Hydraulics in the Roman City” and “The Sarno Bath Complex at Pompeii.” 

“We all want to study the great works of the classical world … but what about how people lived in everyday life? Where did they sleep? Where did they go to the bathroom? What did they eat? Why did they die so young?” Koloski-Ostrow asked. 

She is currently working on what will be her fourth book, “Pompeii and Herculaneum: Daily Life in the Shadow of Vesuvius.” This book will focus on the daily lives of Roman citizens and address important questions about Roman entertainment, rituals and gender parity. 

“My research and my teaching often go very close in hand. I use my classes to try out ideas, to pursue ideas, to get ideas from students. So it’ll be fun to use some unpublished parts of my new book on Roman daily life in Pompeii and Herculaneum … [in] class,” Koloski-Ostrow said.

This semester, she is teaching “Greece, Rome, Myth, and the Movies” as well as “Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Greek and Roman Art and Text.” Both courses are cross-listed in other departments, something that Koloski-Ostrow believes is crucial. 

“I feel that every one of you needs a least one course in classical studies before you graduate. It’s part of what a liberal arts education is all about. So I’ve spent my 30+ years at Brandeis trying to convince the administration that the department of classical studies needs to be here, and needs to be strong, and needs to be interconnected with pretty much every other department on campus,” she explained. 

From her time in the field, during which she has traveled to sites throughout Northern Africa and the Mediterranean, Koloski-Ostrow has been able to see firsthand the massive influential impact ancient civilizations have had on the world. She believes that by studying these civilizations, students will be able to achieve a firmer grasp on the modern world. 

“I know I sound like a broken record of passion for classical studies, but I just feel my reason for being is to bring my excitement for classical studies to all students no matter what your major is,” Koloski-Ostrow said. “I will find something for you to do in a class of mine that feeds into your own passion. I’m not trying to turn you all into classical studies majors. I just want you to experience them and realize that you can be a doctor, but you will be a better doctor if you know something about the classical world. You can be a lawyer, but if you know Roman law, you’re going to be a better lawyer.”

In her classes, Koloski-Ostrow keeps a strict attendance policy. She believes students owe it to themselves to fully engage in classes. “You’re paying so much to go to this school, it’s criminal to you not to be there,” Koloski-Ostrow said. “I mean, I hope that … [students realize] something is going to happen in that hour and 20 minutes of class that is worth [their] time. And that’s why I stay up way too late, no matter how many times I’ve taught the course, to be sure that there’ll be something in that hour and 20 minutes that makes it worth your while.”

Koloski-Ostrow believes fully that her students are responsible for cultivating her passion for teaching. “They just really make it happy for me to get up in the morning and come here to go to work. I don’t get up and say, ‘Oh God, I have to teach today’. I get up and say, ‘I’m teaching today! This is a good day. Let’s get there and let’s get started.’”