Greece and Rome

A new model of antiquity

A research project and book

Gary Devore and Michael Shanks

Antiquity fascinates and provokes. The remains of ancient Greece and Rome are everywhere. Antiquity lives on today in the political institutions of state and government, in concepts of citizen, liberty and republic that color the hopes and ambitions of civic communities and political leaders. Antiquity fuels the global media industries of movie making, gaming, and edutainment with stories of heroes and legends, the drama of ambition and empire building, and the rise and fall of civilization itself. Many international museums since the 18th century have aspired to own collections of Greek and Roman art, and their columned halls and pedimented fronts pay homage to classical ideals inherited from Greece and Rome. 

The stories of Graeco-Roman antiquity are not merely accounts of the past, what happened from the foundations of Mediterranean city states in the 700s BCE through to the fall of the western Roman Empire in the 400s CE. The key to understanding antiquity and its ubiquity, we suggest, is to focus on the relationships between those times and now, to focus on what has been made of the past.

Graeco-Roman antiquity is still typically known as classical antiquity – classical because it offers  a model of achievement that deserves admiration and wonder. For some, Graeco-Roman antiquity remains such an example, paradigm, or reference point. Others have acknowledged, like Nietzsche, the historical significance of antiquity, but questioned its exemplary status by pointing out its darker sides. In the last few decades some have associated the celebration of classical antiquity with cultural chauvinism that holds some superior on the basis of race, ethnicity, and cultural inheritance; certainly it is the case that nineteenth century European imperialism often found inspiration and justification in antiquity.

This is how antiquity continues to provoke – as a model.  Antiquity makes us reflect on who we are and where we have come from. Antiquity forces us to question who this “we” is, and sometimes offers a warning.

How might we mitigate the tensions between the past, the present, and visions of a better future? Reject Classics altogether? Remove Classics from the university curriculum? Offer a new version, a new reception of antiquity? Raise themes and concepts of voice and power, of identity and agency? Focus on neglected aspects, the lives of minorities, of those beyond the less-than-one percent who ran the ancient empires and authored the texts that survive?

We applaud such questions that take us beyond the celebration of a grand story-for-all-time of ancient Greece and Rome. How could we not? Such questions have always been part of the study of “classical” antiquity. But we hope to begin with  a different, more basic question.

Just what actually is antiquity? Our answer is that  antiquity is and always has been a dynamic construction between the past and present, constantly remade, remodeled. It began when “antiquity” was the lifeworld that people were living – Greeks and Romans themselves constantly renegotiated what mattered to them, what was worth celebrating and preserving, what was worth retaining as legacy.

Our premise is that the past did not happen in any one particular way and is now not fixed, over-and-done-with. The Graeco-Roman world of antiquity is not given. Like memory, antiquity is alive and changing as we constantly rework it .

So our project Greece and Rome does not offer another version of antiquity, another reception, another telling of the same story. We offer a new model, not in the sense of an example or paradigm, but a celebration of

modeling as creative reworking

What is modeling? A computer model may contain all the information necessary to engineer an actual aircraft. A paper model shows how an airplane flies in air, while a detailed painted scale model shows what it looks like, and may not even fly at all. Modeling is always partial and selective, making something we can work with, handle, and use to particular ends or purposes.  The engineering model enables us to build  an aircraft; the paper dart displays the principles of flight and perhaps in an entertaining way; a scale model offers form and texture and the potential of enlargement to life size. Models are not necessarily derived from or secondary to “reality.” Modeling is active and exploratory, working with available resources, materials, skills so as to craft a model (either physical or conceptual, or both) that will work effectively as a representation, simulation, test, trial, practice run, or design prototype, for a particular purpose. Modeling is less about description or prescription and more about getting a handle on things. 

It is this process of creative (re)making that we emphasize, what might be told of the past-in-the-present, working with what remains, and without claiming to be a definitive rendering or representation of the way things were in antiquity

So what does our project involve? What does our book look like and contain through such creative modeling?

familiar stories put to one side

We put to one side the old tropes of the rise and spread of Greek civilization, democracy, the Roman republic, the growth and expansion of empire, the changing character of autocracy, etc. Instead, we divide antiquity into generations, running from 700 BCE. We define a generation as 70 years, the time it might take for first hand experiences to slip from living memory. Dividing antiquity into a series of generation time blocks puts the old stories to one side, without denying them. The concept of generation is an organizing and compositional conceit, device or algorithm that  allows us to more readily frame and focus on people’s experiences.

lived experiences

For each generation we offer character sketches, personae and scenarios delivered through some creative textual experiment.  We explore antiquity through the life experiences of a series of characters both humble and powerful, ordinary farmers and charismatic leaders, soldiers, slaves, citizens. 

Our model is of a complex lifeworld of many experiences, some that intersected, others that didn’t, some that were told and retold, and others that have left little or no trace. It is a model of lived experience as many-voiced performance, marked by dramaturgies, scripted and improvised, scenographies, stagings, and the choreography of people and goods. We explore how people performed, renegotiated , and owned  their identities. Along with the famous, we are eager to meet the Greek  trader making good in an Etruscan city far from home, the soldier  in the  Roman outpost at the edge of empire, the senator and the druid sitting down for dinner in Rome, and those whom  the Greeks called barbarians at the heart of what would be known as  Europe.

Using different sources, written and archaeological, we  explore the textures of experience, hand, heart, and mind. An annotated visual portfolio of sites and artifacts (texts included) accompany the main text, as well as themed composite images, diagrams, and assemblages.

topic and focus – body politic

We have chosen membership within the body politic as the lens through which we view antiquity. We define body politic broadly, encompassing literally the corporeal experiences of membership of civic and corporate bodies, their rights and responsibilities, and the options and opportunities of both insiders and outsiders. We take particular note of the different capacities to act collectively and individually, to shape history.

In zooming out to take in this big picture of body politic, we go back to track the genealogy of city life from the early farmers in the Near East.  It is within the princely societies of Bronze Age Europe where the city-states of the Mediterranean developed in the second quarter of the first millennium BCE. The Greeks and the Romans fused European principles of community membership with  the administrative bureaucracies of the Near East which often lacked a sense of civic membership. 

continuity and change

Our long-term genealogical perspective allows us to sidestep the old frameworks of innovation and change and focus instead on continuity and discontinuity.  People in the past always worked with antecedents and legacies to build their own lifeworlds. Did the Greeks invent democracy and philosophy? We might ask instead, what were the conditions under which some members of the citizen communities on the coast of Asia Minor took up old traditions of temple scholarship, transforming them into secular discussion in new kinds of urban public space. The civic spaces of the bodies politic established in and around the Mediterranean in the middle of the first millennium offered opportunities for new kinds of performance of debate, learning, and indeed theater, knowledge practices long associated with the temple administrations of Near Eastern city states and empires.

source criticism and social modeling

Witnessing polyvocality and the diversity of experiences in antiquity requires that we are mindful of the different status and scope of the sources. Virtually all the texts we possess were written and read by a tiny privileged minority. They were very conscious of making  particular cases for themselves and for others. Most ancient historians were writing long after the events they were describing and usingg  dubious sources. We particularly rely on archaeological data, and above all on building a scaffold for our model using social and archaeological theory.

customizing antiquity, then and now

The emphasis we place on modeling, and on active and creative reworking, means we hope to show how we all may work in our own way with what remains of antiquity. By definition, the field of classical studies is exclusive, that is focused upon definitions of the Greek and of the Roman. However,  antiquity has constantly been in question and dispute, refusing to be pinned down. In giving primacy to actuality, to the living relationships of past-present that make of antiquity an irreducible multiplicity, in explicit acknowledgement of the construction of the past, in modeling, we see an opportunity for inclusivity – a celebration of different voices, past and present. 

Nicolas Poussin: Et in Arcadia Ego (1637-8)