Two New Modules Consider the Ancient World beyond the Myth of Whiteness

By now, many classicists have begun to recognise and to think about how the study of ancient Greece and Rome has contributed to promoting and upholding structures of white supremacy and other forms of racism. Part of the discipline of Classics’ role in supporting white supremacy has been in the elevation of ancient Greece and ancient Rome above other ancient societies, as something distinctly glorious and worthy of study. By lumping the diverse societies of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds together, a myth of a White, Western civilisation took shape, allowing those invested in such a myth to draw a straight line between, for example, fifth-century BCE Athens and the twentieth-century United States of America. Such narratives also serve to exclude societies constructed as non-White or non-European from the myth of civilisation. However, challenging such narratives remains controversial. A recent episode of ‘Horrible Histories’ was accused of reinventing history when it highlighted the fact that people with dark skin have been present in Britain since prehistory and that African soldiers in the Roman army were stationed in Britain. Such controversies serve to show that there remains an urgent need for a conversation on the assumed whiteness of the ancient world.

For several decades now, academics at the University of Reading’s Classics Department have been working to unpick this side of the discipline, thinking about how Classics has been used to promote ideologies of racism and colonialism, how those subject to racist and colonialist uses of the Classics have formulated their own responses to and resisted such uses, and how the legacies of ancient Greece and ancient Rome have been felt beyond the so-called West. Relatedly, Classicists at Reading have been turning to the idea of interconnected Global Antiquities, in order to decentre ancient Greece and Rome from perspectives on the ancient world. In 2023, two new undergraduate modules bring the research of staff in this area to the undergraduate syllabus, contributing an already diverse and boundary-pushing offering of modules.

In the Spring Term of 2023, Dr Sam Agbamu introduced a third-year module on ‘Race and Ethnicity in the Ancient Greek and Roman Worlds’. Taking students from the earliest texts of the Greco-Roman literary canon right up to contemporary Classical Reception, the module focuses on how ideas of race and ethnicity took root in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and how such ideas continue to shape the worlds we live in today. One of the aims of the module is to challenge the biological reality of race, by showing just how changeable conceptions of race in the ancient world were. As well as looking at how race was thought about in antiquity, students also study how authors, artists, and scholars racialised as ‘non-white’ have encountered the constructed whiteness of classical antiquity. The module encourages students to draw on their own experiences and perceptions of race and ethnicity in order to formulate personal responses to the texts and material studied. Part of this involves creative elements of coursework, in which students can respond to module material in a medium of their choosing, whether that be a piece of visual art, creative writing, or a film. The module is running again in the 2023/2024 academic year, and will be updated to take into account the rapidly developing scholarship in the field, as well as the changing global context in which the module situates itself.

In Spring 2024 Professor Rachel Mairs will be teaching a new second-year module on Ancient Ethiopia: The Aksumite Kingdom.  This module looks at the city of Aksum, in modern Ethiopia, and its empire in the third and fourth centuries CE.  Spectacular monuments remain at Aksum today: tall stelae used to mark the graves of kings, stone inscriptions, the ruins of palaces.  All of these speak to the Aksumite kingdom’s sense of its own power and place in the world.  Aksum is mentioned in a small number of ancient Greek and Roman historical sources, but this module takes a different angle by focussing on Aksumite accounts of their own history: whether inscriptions from the period of the empire itself, or later Ethiopian and Eritrean written and oral histories which give the memory of Aksum a special place in local identities in the northern Horn of Africa.

 

Written by Sam Agbamu and Rachel Mairs

Prof. Eleanor Dickey speaks to pupils at Garth Hill College

We were thrilled to see the opening session of this years’ Garth Hill College Military History Society being led by University of Reading’s Professor Eleanor Dickey. 

The session was designed specifically for the society, and saw pupils learning how people living in Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s wall, wrote letters to each other. Pupils were able to use replica tools to write out their own letter, which they could then take home.

It was great to hear how much the students enjoyed the session, and we thank Garth Hill College and of course Professor Dickey for hosting.

You can read the full bulletin from Garth Hill College here.

 

Classics and Italian Colonialism: A Three-Day Conference at the Museo delle Civiltà, Rome (22-24 June 2023)

Written by Samuel Agbamu

Rome is a city steeped in the history of empire. Few tourists will fail to visit any number of the imposing remains of the Rome of the Caesars, be it the Colosseum, Pantheon, or the Forum. Yet the imperial history of Rome did not end with the putative fall of the Western Roman Empire, whenever we might date that, nor with Charles V’s sack of Rome in 1527, nor even with the incorporation of Rome into the Kingdom of Italy in 1870. Of the major European imperial powers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Italy stands out as perhaps the least discussed, either inside or outside Italy, and one of the least understood. Because of its easy association with the Fascist regime, which held power from 1922 to 1943, and the invasion of Ethiopia launched by Mussolini in 1935, the legacy of modern Italian imperialism is frequently subsumed into the question of Fascism. Yet Italy pursued an imperial agenda almost at the same time as being unified as a nation in the 1860s, and the legacies of its colonial endeavours persisted long after the death of Mussolini, and continue to be felt in many ways today. Furthermore, Fascism is well known for adopting, adapting, and inventing ideas drawn from ancient Rome, from the so-called ‘Roman salute’ to the symbol of the Fasces itself. Yet modern Italian imperialism, prior to Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, had a long history of posing itself as ancient Rome’s successor, returning to regions that had once been part of the Roman empire.

It was with such considerations in mind that Elena Giusti (University of Warwick) and I organised a three-day conference in Rome in June 2023. When we began to put the event together, we did not know that we would be having these discussions in a country run by Georgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party. Fratelli d’Italia are the heir to Mussolini’s Fascist party, and were swept into power partly on the basis of virulent anti-migration policies. Many of the migrants who are targeted by Meloni’s xenophobic rhetoric and policies depart for Italy from the coast of North Africa, especially Libya, a former colony of Italy. Similarly, many of the migrants originate from Italy’s former east African colonies. Italy’s right-wing, anti-immigration governments have been especially vociferous in their hostility towards those crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe’s southern shores, despite the fact that Italian imperial ideology once promoted the notion that the North African coastline was Italy’s ‘Fourth Shore’, and that Libya was, in fact, a part of Italy. Such ongoing ramifications of Italy’s past imperial claims, many of which were based on selective readings of North African ancient history, made the urgency of this conference acutely felt.

Rome’s EUR district was built for the Esposizione Universale Roma 1942, which never took place due to the outbreak of the Second World War. At the end of the road is the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana or the so-called ‘Square Colosseum’. Photo by author.

The conference was hosted at the Museo delle Civiltà in Rome, in collaboration with Rosa Anna di Lella and Gaia Delpino, cultural anthropologists working at the museum. Set within the imposing EUR district of Rome, the ultimate architectonic expression of Fascism’s self-representation, the museum holds the collections of the former Museo Coloniale, inaugurated by Mussolini in 1923. Recently, the museum has been working to contextualise and expose the hidden histories of its collections, culminating with the current exhibition, Museo delle Opacità. In this context, to host the conference in the heart of an area built in Fascism’s image, but in an institution working hard to address the legacies of colonialism and Fascism from within, offered a particular poignancy to the event’s proceedings.

Over the three days of the conference, we heard from not only classicists, ancient historians, archaeologists, but also scholars of Italian history and literature, as well as North African and East African history. Papers addressed such themes as Italian archaeologists’ promotion of colonialism in the Aegean and North Africa, the legacies of intellectuals who had used ancient history to support or resist imperial ideologies, ancient history in the Fascist Italian classroom, and new methodological and theoretical perspectives on Italian imperial history. The final day involved workshops organised by the museum on their colonial collections, while the conference was closed by Angelica Pesarini with a keynote on teaching Italian colonialism in the university classroom.

The conference confirmed that the relationship between Classics and colonialism in Italian contexts remains an important and still underdeveloped field of research. This remains the case despite a recent profusion of publications, including forthcoming monographs from Sergio Brillante and myself.  There especially remains much work to be done on this topic from an avowedly anti-/decolonial perspective . Elena Giusti and I plan to publish an edited volume with De Gruyter including contributions from the conference.

More information about the conference, including the full programme and paper abstracts can be found here.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Institute of Classical Studies, the Past and Present Society, the University of Warwick Connecting Cultures funding scheme, and the Museo delle Civiltà in Rome.

Developments in Ancient Language Pedagogy

The following blog has been written by Jackie Baines, who organised a workshop on ‘Developments in Ancient Language Pedagogy’ held in the Department on Friday 19th May 2023. We would like to thank Jackie and all those involved for running such a successful event!

Steven Hunt – Edward Ross – Maiken Mosleth King – James Robson – Jackie Baines

On the 19th May I ran an international blended workshop on the topic of advances in ancient language pedagogy. The workshop came about as part of my research leave which, as a teaching intensive lecturer, has given me the opportunity to look at ways in which I might refresh my pedagogical ideas and practices. I am indebted to Edward Ross who assisted me with many aspects of the organisation of this event. The rationale for the workshop and the choice of talks and speakers came about as a result of experiences and observations over a number of years teaching Latin here at the University of Reading, which include the following:

Choice of Textbooks

For many years we used Jones and Sidwell Reading Latin as the main textbook with all its quirks and difficulties for complete beginners.  After looking at the suitability of many possible alternatives we subsequently moved to using Taylor’s Latin to GCSE which is very much more approachable in its presentation of grammar and its layout for 21st century students but has many drawbacks for moving on with speed and full understanding, to higher levels of Latin. 

Teaching Spoken Latin

This academic year (2022 – 2023) I am grateful to my colleague Professor Eleanor Dickey who organised weekly sessions of spoken Latin for colleagues, run by teachers from Oxford Latinitas. It was a revelation in a number of ways, principally, that there are definite advantages to learning to use a language, now considered ‘dead’ by many, as languages are normally used – that is to speak.  Latin was indeed taught orally until relatively recently, so why aren’t we doing more of it?  A subsidiary lesson for me was being returned to the position of student, at times most alarming and stressful when using a language I know well, but in a totally unfamiliar way.  I have set up a student focus group using Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata. I am impressed by the speed of vocabulary acquisition and grammatical understanding gained by reading and speaking using only (mostly!) Latin.

Online learning in the post-pandemic world

The pandemic has made us realise the possibilities of online tools for additional learning support.  The rise of AI, in particular Chat GPT is opening up a myriad of opportunities and unnerving problems, both for teachers and for the students themselves who need to have enough understanding to use such tools appropriately. Edward A.S. Ross has recently published an article discussing this further here. Edward and I are delighted to be able to announce that since the workshop we have been awarded Teaching and Learning Enhancement Projects funding by the University of Reading to investigate and trial ChatGPT as a conversational language study tool by codifying and standardising methods for using conversational Artificial Intelligence (AI) models in ancient language classes.

Workshop talks

In the workshop we were treated to six stimulating and thought-provoking talks, listed below with abstracts available here. Speakers reflected on past practices and perceptions of ancient languages and how they have been taught along with learning how the emergence of new technologies and their use can be used to enhance our teaching. Thanks to all speakers for their contributions.

Emergent pedagogies in classical languages teaching in UK schools: Steven Hunt (University of Cambridge)

Capturing the Classroom: A Snapshot of Approaches to Latin Teaching in UK Universities: Mair E. Lloyd (Open University and University of Cambridge); James Robson (Open University)

Using Simple Grammar Videos to Flip the Classroom: Antonia Ruppel (Institute of Indology and Tibetology, LMU Munich)

Digital software as a pedagogical aid in teaching ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs: Maiken Mosleth King (University of Bristol)

A New Frontier: AI and Ancient Language Pedagogy: Edward A. S. Ross (University of Reading)

Living Latin in the Classroom: benefits and challenges of communicative approaches: Mair E. Lloyd (Open University and University of Cambridge)

 

Written by Jackie Baines

Postgraduate Colloquium 2023

On the 25th and 26th of May 2023, the Department of Classics at the University of Reading held its annual postgraduate colloquium. The colloquium is a chance for Masters and PhD students to share an aspect of their research with colleagues from the department in the form of a brief presentation. Students were able to present their research in a friendly and positive environment, with space for respectful and informative discussion. This year saw a fantastic mix of thought-provoking topics being presented from all corners of the classical world, triggering lots of interesting questions from the audience.

After the two day event, some of the students and staff from the department visited Park House for a well-earned celebratory drink. Here they are enjoying the sunshine!

Thank you to all of our staff and students from the department who took part in the colloquium, both those presenting and those sitting in the audience. We hope for an equally successful colloquium in 2024!

Two months in Paris

When the Greek department of the Sorbonne University invited me to spend a term in Paris as visiting professor, my first instinct was to refuse. Owing to having been assaulted and insulted in equal measure there in my younger days I’d vowed never to set foot in France again – in fact I’d made that vow twice, having imprudently given France a second chance once before. But then again, can one really turn down an offer from the Sorbonne? The chance to teach some of the world’s top students, and to do it in French? Working with top scholars, using some of the world’s best libraries? So in the end I nervously accepted.

Stained glass panel in the Musée de Cluny

I needn’t have worried; perhaps France has changed, or maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten older and less attractive, but in two months there I was not attacked once. In fact, everyone was lovely to me (even the supervisor of the apartment building – previously I had never even heard of a nice super), and I had a great time. The library was amazing, and the students were terrific. A group of them worked together with me to make an edition and translation of an unpublished text: deciphering something that probably hadn’t been read in centuries, comparing the manuscripts to work out how they are related and which readings are more likely to be original, making an apparatus criticus, translating the text, tracking down quotations and historical references to figure out when and where it was first written, etc. Of course this process couldn’t be fully finished in two months, particularly as a sharp-eyed student found more manuscripts of our text just before I left Paris, but that means that we’re still working on it remotely, which is also fun. I can’t tell you quite what the text is, because we still don’t entirely know, but part of it consists of letters between a (probably fictional) fifteenth-century university student and his family. The family accuses the student of wasting time and money, and he assures them that he is studying very hard and never ever goes to parties, except for the ones that all the students attend …

I also gave lectures summarising my forthcoming book on Latin loanwords in ancient Greek. The book itself put a bit of a damper on my Paris visit, because the second proofs arrived while I was there. They were better than the first proofs, which had blighted my existence from September to January, but still problematic enough to put strict limits on the amount of sightseeing I could do during the four weeks for which I had them. However, when I managed to stop thinking about the problems in the proofs turning the book into French lectures was great fun. One lecture on which Latin words the Greeks chose to borrow and why, one on when and where they borrowed Latin words, one on what happened to the ancient loanwords in Byzantine and modern Greek, and one on what the evidence is for all this, how borrowing worked, and why the relationship between English and French is uncannily similar to that between Latin and Greek … I was in clover.

Nevertheless, in some respects teaching in Paris has given me an enhanced appreciation of Reading. Paris seems to be constantly full of demonstrations, protests, and occasionally riots; the main issue of contention while I was there was that people did not want the retirement age to be raised from 62 to 64, but there were also protests about many other issues, some completely beyond my comprehension. The French seem to take to the streets at the level of concern that would cause a British person to sign an online petition. And the Sorbonne is so afraid of being invaded and looted by protesters that every time there is the slightest danger, the whole university closes down and all classes are held on Zoom. One day when no big demonstrations were planned the Sorbonne nevertheless closed because there were about three students standing in front of one entrance to the main building and ‘blocking’ it with a little pile of wheelie bins and e-scooters. The door could have been unblocked in under 10 minutes by one not very strong individual, or we could just have used the other doors, but no – the whole university shut down, even departments in completely separate buildings. I found it very entertaining, though the amusement clearly wears off when one deals with this kind of thing on a regular basis.

Even when the university is open, teaching at the Sorbonne is not without difficulty. All classes are hybrid, but the IT is unreliable. You start off a class and then have to stop after 5 minutes because the online audience can’t see the slides, or because they can’t hear, or because the technician that you booked for an hour beforehand to solve these issues has finally showed up only after the start of the class. Then the technician takes a quarter of an hour of class time trying and failing to make the IT work, so not only do you have to abandon the online audience, but by the time he leaves everyone in the room has forgotten what happened in the first 5 minutes and you have to start over.

So despite how much fun Paris was, it’s also nice to be back here – and I am so glad that Reading decided against hybrid teaching!

L-R: Alessandro Garcea, Frederique Biville, Eleanor Dickey, Philomen Probert

Written by Professor Eleanor Dickey

Edward Gregory elected as RUSU president 2023/24

Congratulations to Classics student Edward Gregory, who has been elected as President in this year’s Reading University Students’ Union Leadership Elections. This is wonderful news, and we are excited to see Classics brought to the centre of University of Reading student community.

Congratulations also to Leah Logan and Nayib Fux Heras, who have been elected as Senior Reps for Humanities. We wish them all good luck in their roles!

The full announcement can be found here: https://www.rusu.co.uk/news/article/rusu/Leadership-Election-Results-202324/

 

Summer Term 2023 Reading Classics Research Seminars

We are pleased to announce the launch of our Reading Classics Seminar Series for Summer Term 2023, which will boost our Wednesday afternoons with constructive and stimulating lectures and discussions on various aspects of Classics research!

In this series of lectures, starting on 3 May, we welcome a diverse group of speakers from both the UK and abroad in our Departmental seminars. Our Spring seminar series will explore a variety of topics and periods of Classical studies. All seminars will be livestreamed on MS Teams; tune in every Wednesday at 4pm! Attendance is free and open to all! To attend please follow this link: bit.ly/3Lyq4R4! Below you can find a poster with all titles.

Full list of titles

3 May

Erica Bexley, Durham, Looking for Octavia: history and reception

10 May

Alba Boscà Cuquerella, Salamanca/Bristol, How to apologise if you are a woman: some remarks on the use of gnomai by Euripidean female characters

17 May

Joe Watson, Warwick, Ciris’ progress: genre, metapoetry and philosophic ascent in the Ciris 

24 May

Diana Rodríguez Pérez, Oxford, Ancient repairs on Athenian pottery: preliminary thoughts – and a cup

31 May

Julie Doroszewska, Warsaw, Thinking of thinking: conceptual metaphors of cognition in the Plutarchian corpus

 

Classics goes Forensic

This week, PhD student Summer Courts will be collaborating with Dr Sophie Beckett and Cranfield University’s Forensic Institute to continue her research on the two Early Medieval individuals from Lowbury Hill. These two people, one male and one female, have had vastly different stories told about them. The man, who was buried under a mound with a variety of weapons and other grave goods has been interpreted as an Anglo-Saxon warrior, as displayed in the Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock. Conversely, the woman who was buried in the line of the Roman-period enclosure wall on the site has been viewed as a human sacrifice or a victim of facial mutilation.

During a previous visit to Cranfield, Summer studied the bones of the Lowbury Lady in order to create a biological profile (sex, age, stature, and health assessment) and investigate claims surrounding her death. Careful analysis revealed that the Lowbury Lady may not have been as old as initially reported, with several aging methods revealing an age between 30 and 45-years-old. Additionally, we learned that the woman would have stood between 5’ 3’’ and 5’ 5’’ tall. Examination of skull revealed no traces of a violent death, but did show that many of the fractures to her cranial bones would have occurred after death due to the compressive force of the earth beneath which she was buried. This is evidenced by the angle of the fractures and the staining of the bone exposed by the breaks, which is the same colour as the external bone surface. Fresh breaks are usually lighter in colour than the external bone surface and peri-mortem fractures have a different appearance than older fractures.

The Lowbury Lady’s cranium showing fractures and repairs. Photo: Summer Courts

This week will see Summer continue her work on the Lowbury Lady by selecting samples for destructive analysis. Samples from the woman’s teeth will be sent to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasgow for strontium and oxygen isotope analyses which will reveal where she grew up and answer questions about whether or not she was local to the area around Lowbury Hill, Oxfordshire. Summer will also send bone samples for carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis to gain insight into the types of food the woman was eating. Finally, the Lowbury Lady’s temporal bone (the part of the skull near the ear) will be sent to Germany for a DNA analysis in collaboration with Dr Stephan Schiffels at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology  so that we can find out more about her ancestry and any diseases she may have had.

Over the next week Summer will also be selecting samples from the Lowbury Man for destructive analysis. Previous analysis by Cranfield University MSc student Harriet Bryant-Buck has shown that Lowbury Man was 45+ years of age at death, stood between 5’ 5’’ and 5’ 10’’ and grew up in Western Cornwall or the somewhere along the western coast of Ireland. Summer will also be sending a portion of the Lowbury Man’s temporal bone (the part of the skull near the ear) to Germany for aDNA analysis. The temporal bone has been selected for sampling as the bone that forms the petrous portion of the temporal is extremely dense and is more likely to retain traces of DNA than other, less dense bones.

This research, which has been generously funded by the AHRC via the South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership, will give us a wealth of new information about the Lowbury duo and will begin to allow us to tell their stories in a more holistic and nuanced way than before, providing a window on the real lives of these two individuals from our early medieval past.

Reading Classics at the AIA-SCS 2023 Annual Meeting in New Orleans

I returned from the AIA-SCS 2023 Annual Meeting in New Orleans (a.k.a. NOLA), just in time for the new term, glad to have seen old friends, learned new things, and enthused about the future of our academic field. This is the Joint Meeting of North America’s big professional organisations for (old world) archaeology—Archaeological Institute of America—and Classics—Society for Classical Studies.

 

Jessie Feito and Prof. Amy Smith

This annual meeting traditionally hosts up to 3000 scholars, teachers & others, from across the world. The numbers were hard to judge this year because it was a blended meeting, with all papers accessed online whether or not they were delivered ‘in the flesh’. Reading’s Classics department chose both options, with Prof. Aston & me each delivering papers, Aston’s online, in Insiders and Outsiders in Ancient Thessaly’ (no surprises there!) and mine in person, in a double-session, Phenomenology and the Painted Vase. One of our recently minted PhDs, Jessie Feito, spoke on the results her postdoctoral project, with Koç University—’Fields of Gold: Lydian Diet at Sardis’—in a session on the Social Life of Landscapes. They also caught up with Signe Barfoed, who has just finished her Norwegian Research Council postdoctoral fellowship with Classics@Reading but is now in Oslo.

 

‘Joan of Arc’ at the parade

In between academic meetings participants had to dodge contestants in the Miss Universe contest, with which we shared the hotel, and of course their photographers! NOLA treated us to four days of perfect sunny weather and amazing food (once we escaped the hotel). Our former colleague and friend Katherine Harloe (now Director of the Institute of Classical Studies) beckoned us to an award-winning Trinidadian restaurant and I even escaped long enough to attend NOLA’s first parade of the year, the ‘Maid of Orleans’ Parade celebrating Joan of Arc’s 611th birthday, on 12th Night! It is clear in any case that NOLA is a great place to meet and think about lessons from the past!

Written by Professor Amy Smith.