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date: 13 June 2021


Abstract and Keywords

Roman Studies defies straightforward definition in large part because of the sheer size and depth of the footprint of the Roman Empire. Roman Studies not only cuts across conventional disciplinary boundaries but also liberally extends the notion of ‘Roman-ness’ across a variety of cultures from the Atlantic into the Middle East. Its location within Classics entails a notion of guardianship, of preserving and increasing our knowledge of cultures that owe their privileged status in the present to putatively unique traits or their putative influence on what is, in similarly loaded terms, labelled ‘Western Civilization’. The study of Latin literature and related forms of expression remained important in medieval and early modern Europe, in literary history and in diverse areas such as religion, history of thought, science, and postcolonial studies. The evolution of ‘Latin Studies’ even differs in outlook from Roman antiquarian and historical studies. This book explores the tools needed to unlock the Roman past, including the legacy of its cultural production.

Keywords: Roman Studies, Roman Empire, Western Civilization, Classics, Latin literature, Latin Studies, cultural production, literary history, religion, science

Roman Studies defies straightforward definition in large part because of the sheer size and depth of the footprint of the Roman Empire. Constantine's giant foot, pictured on the front cover and as a frontispiece, illustrates this crucial point. A marble fragment of a colossal—originally close to 10 metres tall—seated statue of the equally colossally named Imperator Constantinus, Victor, Maximus Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Pater Patriae, Proconsul, Triumphator Omnium Gentium, Restitutor Libertatis, Restitutor Totius Orbis, Germanicus Maximus, Sarmaticus Maximus, Britannicus Maximus, Persicus Maximus, Adiabenicus Maximus, Medicus Maximus, Gothicus Maximus, Carpicus Maximus, Arabicus Maximus, Armenicus Maximus, Dacicus Maximus (r. 306–37 ce) now on display at the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome, it speaks loudly of the power of the largest and most durable empire ever created in Eurasia west of Russia. But at the same time the emperor's foot symbolizes the utter ruination of Roman civilization, reduced to Ozymandian rubble. It stands for the seismic shift from universal empire to the dynamic environment of polycentrism and competition that became a hallmark of medieval and modern Europe. Belonging as it does to the first Roman ruler to embrace the expanding Christian faith, Constantine's foot straddles the divide between religious pluralism and the new monotheism, and between the image of the gargantuan god-king reaching back to the days of the Pharaohs and universal subordination to a deity who suffered no earthly rivals.

As such, it foreshadowed what has arguably become the weightiest legacy of Rome, the Constantinian turn that put a particular brand of Christianity on a path to claiming some 2 billion (effective or nominal) adherents in the world today. No (p. 2) wonder that, in 1635, Pope Urban VIII placed the imperial foot on the massive pedestal on which it has rested ever since. Yet it was a secular movement that heaved Roman civilization as a whole onto a metaphorical pedestal. In the eighteenth century, as European powers began to dominate the globe, its intellectuals came up with a radical new theory to account for this success: European superiority was derived not from Christianity but from a cultural tradition that began in ancient Greece. The Greeks invented freedom and rationality; Rome then spread these gifts across Europe. This was why only Europe had a Scientific Revolution and an Enlightenment; and why Europe was now colonizing the other continents. Anyone who wanted to understand the world had to begin with the history, literature, and art of Greece and Rome. Even if Roman Studies has in the meantime stepped down—or may still be in the process of being brought down—from this neo-humanistic pedestal, all these manifold continuities and discontinuities highlight the richness and bewildering complexity of our relationship with the Roman past: alien and distant, as the giant marble foot; broken down and finished, as the authority and specious permanence of the Roman Empire; but at the same time still very much with us, through the many ways in which what took place in the Mediterranean fifty or a hundred generations ago continues to shape the present.

Roman Studies does not represent an established academic discipline in the way that philology, history, or archaeology have developed into discrete fields with their own departments and degrees. When the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies was first set up in London a century ago, it sought ‘to promote the study of the history, archaeology, and art of Italy and the Roman Empire, from the earliest times down to about A.D. 700’.1 As such, Roman Studies not only cuts across conventional disciplinary boundaries but also liberally extends the notion of ‘Roman-ness’ across a variety of cultures from the Atlantic into the Middle East. From this perspective, Roman Studies becomes the study of everything once covered by the Roman state, nothing less than perhaps a quarter of humanity during the first few centuries ce.

In his inaugural address delivered at the first annual meeting of the newly founded Society on 11 May 1911, Francis Haverfield, the Camden Professor of Ancient History at Oxford and an expert on the Roman remains of Britain, emphasized the need for professional training to support research into all aspects of the history and material culture of the Roman Empire that had thus far been overshadowed by a preoccupation with Greek and Latin language and literature. This broadening in scope was bound to reveal more of the complexity of the Roman past and consequently required greater efforts to come to terms with it: Haverfield's judgement that, ‘if the study has grown harder, the rewards for the (p. 3) student have become immensely more abundant’, seems as true today as it was then.2

And yet, what are these rewards? To paraphrase a famous exchange from the 1979 comedy movie Monty Python's Life of Brian, what has Roman Studies ever done for us? It was tempting for Haverfield to consider it ‘at the present day the most instructive of all histories’. After all, did the constitution of the Roman Republic not offer ‘the one true analogy to the seeming waywardness of our own English constitution’; or did the Roman imperial system not ‘light up our own Empire, for example in India, at every turn’; and did not ‘the forces which laid the Roman empire low concern the modern world very nearly, more nearly indeed than do the reasons for the downfall of any other empire about which we have full knowledge’? Sweeping analogies that rediscover the past in the present and the present in the past may seem quaint today, as academic professionalization and the intellectual detachment it encourages has made the Roman world seem more remote, exotic, and thus more different than it may have appeared to previous generations of observers.3

At the same time, this process has by no means resulted in the creation of a single, hegemonic approach to Roman Studies. Instead, the Anglo-Saxon tradition of ‘Classics’—the study of all aspects of the Greco-Roman world under the umbrella of a single academic programme or department—continues to uphold a claim for the exclusive character of this endeavour, an exclusivity that is implicit not merely in the very term ‘classic(al)’ but also in this field's separation from the study of more recent periods that is conventionally divided among different disciplines such as Archaeology, Art History, Comparative Literature, History, Modern Languages, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. (In this respect, Classics has long foreshadowed recent transdisciplinary trends in ever-expanding fields such as English and Cultural Studies.) The location of Roman Studies within Classics entails a notion of guardianship, of preserving and increasing our knowledge of cultures that owe their privileged status in the present to putatively unique traits or their putative influence on what is in similarly loaded terms labelled ‘Western Civilization’. Alternatively, Roman Studies might be considered an early specimen of the transdisciplinary institution of ‘Area Studies’, devoid of preferential treatment but intellectually useful in coordinating and contextualizing the efforts of archaeologists, historians, linguists, and literary critics—and indeed anthropologists, artists, botanists, climatologists, economists, geologists, philosophers, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, zoologists, and many (p. 4) others—who share an interest in the period and territory circumscribed by the Roman Empire, in the legacy of its cultural production, and in our engagement with this legacy. Returning once more to the question of ‘rewards’, this approach yields benefits more diffuse than those envisaged by Haverfield, in the most general sense by adding to and refining our understanding of human behaviour through the study of the past, an objective that—amongst fellow humans—should require no further justification.

We have tried to imagine at least three specific categories of readers who will find something of interest in this collection: the first is made up, quite obviously, of students and scholars in their formative stages. A successful career often depends on a highly personal and individual approach, and people are drawn towards the study of antiquity for a wide variety of reasons; after the initial impulse they are also encouraged to specialize quickly. At some stage, during the learning process or the first research experiments, it can be helpful to glance at the entire panorama of what has been done or attempted with the past. The second category is the ‘good neighbour’; fortunately for the profession of Classics, a substantial number of neighbouring disciplines maintain an interest in developments in the study of Roman civilization. This book intends to offer updated points of access for many intellectual trajectories of enquiry that are concerned with the modern world, or different ‘antiquities’, or even science. The third category is ourselves—not the two of us as individuals, but as scholars and teachers of Roman matters in general: in the process of editing this group of essays we have been surprised by the number and range of questions that can be asked about Roman antiquity and remain out of sight for us while we engage in our daily work or cultural practice.

This feeling of disconnectedness is particularly strong across the divide that has (quite literally) been papered over by our choice to produce a handbook of ‘Roman Studies’: that between the literary and the historical, between approaches to philology and material culture.4 While most of the authors of chapters on history, society, law, and the arts would be happy, we presume, to identify themselves as ‘Romanists’ (on top of being ‘historians’, ‘archaeologists’, and so on), an expert on Latin texts from the Roman age is and remains a ‘Latinist’. The term carries ideological baggage: it reminds us of a language that—whilst hardly counting as ‘alive’—has nevertheless refused to ‘die’ like many other pre-modern languages. The study of Latin literature and related forms of expression remained important in medieval and early modern Europe, in literary history and in diverse areas such as religion, history of thought, science, and postcolonial studies. The evolution of ‘Latin Studies’ even differs in outlook from Roman antiquarian and historical studies. It is rooted in early modern Europe, not in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as is the case with professional history and (p. 5) antiquarianism, and has a strong formalist and textual aspect. Of course, as so often, form is just a different name for politics. Debates on ‘Latinity’ in Italian Humanism, for example, were enmeshed in power structures, social distinction, and religious politics. Textual criticism began, with scholars such as Politian and Valla, at a time when disenfranchised intellectuals enjoyed growing influence. Later on the advent of national systems of education in Europe became the crucial factor: ‘Latin’ was turned into a massive, yet also elitist, educational practice. (We regret not having a separate chapter on modern education: this is perhaps the most glaring gap in our line-up.)

As a result, the Latinist has long been a specialist of form, grammar, and style. This tradition still loomed large when the founders of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies surveyed their resources back in 1911. Initially, they chose to ignore literature, and with reason. Their initiative was propelled by (at least) three driving forces, all of them of significance in the competitive environment of the early 1900s: the accelerating pace of archaeological discovery; the increasing importance of ‘territorial’ knowledge and national heritage; and the spectacular success of Mommsen and his German ‘science of antiquity’. In many ways the study of Latin literature and philology had been lagging behind. Germany was home to the leading academic community of the late nineteenth century, and Latin studies in that country had long nurtured an inferiority complex towards Hellenists. The decisive impulse for serious ‘Latin studies’ at the university level came from a generation slightly later than that of the foundational scholars of ancient history, philosophy, or Greek literature: the breakthrough came too late for the ‘Roman Studies’ meeting of 1911, and was felt outside Germany only after World War I. The work of Friedrich Leo, Richard Heinze, Eduard Norden, and later Eduard Fraenkel was based on two principles: taking the typical Roman practices of imitation and Hellenization as a serious topic of research, and applying a rigorous historicizing model. This model was intellectually superior to other European traditions, but the decisive factor for its dissemination was the diaspora of Jewish and other German-speaking intellectuals from Nazi Germany to Britain, the United States, and other destinations.

Back in 1911, even the Roman Society felt the need to accommodate Latin letters. This task, an afterthought, fell to the Labourite politician and enlightened Classicist John William Mackail, who two years later tackled the problem of establishing the importance of Latin authors within the new project. In ‘Virgil and Roman Studies’ he claimed that, ‘Year by year, almost day by day, we are getting more into touch with the ancient world, as something alive and solid’: our appreciation of a classical author such as Virgil had to be revised accordingly. Mackail's public address was marked by enthusiasm about new archaeological discoveries: it ended with a visionary parallel between Virgil's exploring the labyrinth at Cumae and reports of a spooky Cretan night spent by Manolis Akumianakis, the foreman (p. 6) of Sir Arthur Evans, at Knossos.5 Latin studies, however, were never fully harmonized with these novel concerns. The historicizing turn typical of Leo's generation had strong motivations: it was a basic requirement of a new professionalism (an unavoidable trend in the new system of research-based institutions of knowledge), and offered a clean break with centuries of dilettanti and school grammarians. Artificial grammatical study abated (at least to some extent); textual criticism was retooled; literary studies acquired a promising perspective on Rome's cultural hybridity. The only breaking-point of this tradition was the increasing need to imagine historicism as a foreclosing of modern perspectives. It was one thing to issue a clarion call towards readings of Latin literature within a Roman cultural and social context; yet another actively to discourage questions that could not be framed in ‘Latinized’ terms of reference. That way, historicism became its own worst enemy, and revived a recurring temptation of studies of Latinitas, that of obsessive formalism. A reopening of the literary field was necessary, and for many of us is still ongoing. But the question, then as now, remains which competing approaches to history are leading ‘Roman Studies’, and what kind of approach to the textual material is more suited to a dialogue between historians and literary scholars, or to a productive disagreement? It is too early for us to say whether a dialogue between ‘Latinists’ and ‘Romanists’ will continue and how, or indeed whether, such labels will retain any validity, but in the meantime we have been experimenting with cohabitation between two book covers.

For all these reasons it is hard for a handbook to do justice to the sweep and intricacies of Roman—and Latin—Studies.6 Loosely grouped into five sections focusing on the tools needed to unlock the Roman past, on theoretical approaches, literary genres, historical change over time, and key elements of cognition, all these fifty-five chapters can hope to do is convey a taste of what this field has to offer. By combining factual information with suggestive ideas, their authors seek to shape as well as describe and interpret scholarly practice. Emphasis on one or the other varies from chapter to chapter, reflecting therein the different traditions and expectations that a diverse set of scholars has brought to this collaborative project. Reinforced by the transnational character of pertinent scholarship, this eclecticism is very much an inevitable consequence of the lack of a single ‘party line’, of a fully ‘disciplined’ academic field of Roman Studies. Often more of an ideal than established practice, Roman Studies will—and indeed ought to—continue to mean different things to different practitioners and audiences. Orientation, therefore, is our main goal.7


(1) ‘Memorandum of Association of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies’, Journal of Roman Studies, 1 (1911), 249.

(2) F. Haverfield, ‘An Inaugural Address Delivered Before the First Annual General Meeting of the Society, 11th May, 1911’, Journal of Roman Studies, 1 (1911), pp. xi–xx.

(3) To be sure, this shift must not be exaggerated: witness the flood of recent publications likening the United States to the Roman Empire, one of them by blithely asking, Are We Rome? Vaclav Smil's forthcoming book Why America is Not a New Rome gives the right answer.

(4) For a Hellenic reconciliation, cf. now R. P. Martin, ‘Words Alone Are Certain Good(s): Philology and Greek Material Culture’, Transactions of the American Philological Association, 138 (2008), 313–49.

(5) J. W. Mackail, ‘Virgil and Roman Studies’, Journal of Roman Studies, 3 (1913), 1–24.

(6) For overlapping and complementary surveys, see now especially G. Boys-Stones, B. Graziosi, and P. Vasunia (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Hellenic Studies (Oxford, 2009); S. A. Harvey and D. Hunter (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (Oxford, 2008); and E. Jeffreys, J. Haldon, and R. Cormack (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies (Oxford, 2008).

(7) Abbreviations in the text are generally those used in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edn., ed. S. Hornblower and A. Spawforth (Oxford, 2003).