Courtesy of Laura Harris

Before taking Joseph Solodow’s “Roman Dining” seminar, Anya AitSahlia ’25 had no intention of becoming a Classics major. Within weeks, she changed her mind. 

“It only took a few class sessions for me to realize I wanted nothing more than to study Classics here,” AitSahlia wrote to the News. “And, more, to study Classics with him.”

Solodow, a Latin professor in Yale’s department of Classics, died of cancer on Wednesday, Oct. 4. He was 76. 

Solodow was born on Nov. 13, 1946, in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush, a neighborhood home to many working-class Jewish families. 

At Erasmus Hall, Solodow briefly considered a career in architecture but quickly developed a love for Latin from his teachers — a feeling he would later look to recreate in his own students. He was no stranger to foreign languages at home. His father, Philip, was a Russian-American Jew who spoke Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, Polish, German and English. His mother, Yetta, spoke French, German and Latin.

Solodow spent his undergraduate years at Columbia University and earned a doctorate in Classics from Harvard University. His doctoral dissertation, “The Latin particle quidem” — which analyzed a single Latin word, “quidem” — is regarded as a “masterpiece” by Victor Bers, a professor emeritus of Classics. 

“Joe was universally admired,” Kirk Freudenburg, Classics department chair, said. “He was very interested in the mechanics of language and had this ability to really research the points of nuance and tiny details that are really the last frontier of knowing a language well.”

Among Solodow’s most popular courses were “The Greek Historians,” “Roman Comedy” and “Ovid’s Metamorphosis.” 

In his courses, Solodow offered his students the opportunity for close textual engagement both in and outside of the classroom.

“Even after I stopped taking classes with him, we frequently updated each other over email or the occasional coffee at Atticus,” AitSahlia said. “When I decided not to take a Latin class at all last semester, we made plans to read Ovid, a favorite author of ours, together.”

In addition to being a virtuoso of Latin syntax, Solodow was an expert “Ovidian” — one who studies the poetry of the Roman poet Ovid. His second book, “The World of Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” published in 1988, is still read by students in Yale’s Directed Studies program.

Solodow’s impact as an academic reached beyond just the department of Classics. William Cho ’25, a Physics major, said that every semester he considers taking a Latin course because of his memories from “Roman Dining” with Solodow. 

“I am saddened to learn of his passing,” Cho said. “Professor Solodow was the kindest professor I have ever had at Yale.”

Solodow began his teaching career as a professor of World Languages and Literatures at the Southern Connecticut State University, where he taught Spanish in addition to Latin.

He was awarded the Rome Prize Fellowship in 1980 and spent the year abroad at the American Academy in Rome. Shortly after, in 1985, he joined Yale’s department of Classics.

His broad knowledge in world languages would be reflected in his final work, “Latin Alive: The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages,” published in 2009. The book details Latin’s influence on modern French, Spanish, Italian and English.

John Matthews, a professor emeritus of Classics and Roman History, said that he remembers Solodow often connecting words across languages. 

Matthews recalled a time when Solodow pointed out that the Italian and French words for ‘eat’ derive from the Latin word ‘manduco,’ which means ‘work with the jaws,’ rather than the more common Latin verb for eating, ‘edere.’

“[Solodow] was an extraordinarily observant reader of Latin and knew a huge amount about the role of Latin in the formation of medieval Romance languages,” Matthews said.

Laura Harris, Solodow’s partner, said that outside of his academic interests, Solodow had a passion for classical music and art, particularly Renaissance and Baroque styles.

He avidly supported Music Haven, a New Haven organization with the mission of providing free music education and tutoring to local students.

He wrote multiple letters to the Connecticut Appropriations Committee after the state budget dropped its funding for Music Haven in 2019, using passionate language to demand the restoration of funding.

“Music Haven is an exceptionally inexpensive and at the same time priceless way to improve the lives of young people,” he wrote in one 2021 letter. “They ENJOY learning to perform classical music, a skill and a pleasure that will continue through their lives.”

Solodow also had a passion for the outdoors.

He had a particular liking for birds, and Harris recalled the meticulousness with which he maintained bird feeders in his garden.

“He filled those feeders so much, it got to the point where we had bears wandering around in our yard,” Harris said with a chuckle. “But he kept doing it.”

Both Harris and Solodow’s students remember him as particularly “old-fashioned.” He seldom used his iPhone, wore a jacket and tie to class and was known to celebrate the arrival of autumn by, in his words, “bringing out the tweeds!” 

He encouraged students to meet with him for coffee chats but was steadfast in his commitment to scheduling every meeting in his calendar book rather than online. 

“He wanted to get to know us personally as well as academically through the course, and as such, he led his class as a collaborative discussion instead of a simple lecture,” Henry Demarest ’25 recalls. “His enthusiasm about the ancient world brought stories, poems, and speeches to life.”

Solodow is survived by his partner, Laura, and one brother. A public memorial service will be held by the department of Classics later this fall.

BEN RAAB
Ben Raab covers faculty and academics at Yale and writes about the Yale men's basketball team. Originally from New York City, Ben is a sophomore in Pierson college pursuing a double major in history and political science.