Teaching Thursday: Syllabus Writing

There is something very rewarding about syllabus writing and while I don’t know as if it is my favorite thing to do each semester, it is certainly more interesting than many of the more mechanical aspects of academic life that the semester brings. At its best, writing a syllabus is a utopian exercise that seeks to align the requirements (and expectations) of a particular class with the students who are enrolled. 

This semester I’m teaching a lot and have a new class — Roman History — that is occupying most of my syllabus time in the break between semesters. I’m building my syllabus for this class around three key expectations.

First, while my students are history majors, most of them have precious little experience with premodern texts and the premodern world more broadly. They are unlikely to want to go on to graduate school in ancient history (or Classics) and almost as unlikely to want to continue in history. As a result, this class is not situated in a sequence which develops period specific expertise or methods. Rather the class is part of a broad humanities education with less of an emphasis on particular periods and content and more of an emphasis on reading and writing skills as well as the ability to adapt these skills to a range of texts and situations.

Second, my institution has a 16-week semester and in the spring, this means that my students get tired. When they get tired, they really struggle to learn. I’ve blogged about this here. As a result, a syllabus that requires 16 weeks to cover content, methods, or material is not a syllabus grounded in real educational outcomes, but one that is grounded in some other set of professional dictates (most plausibly the alternate reality created by accreditation standards). 

It also means that we have an obligation to find a way to mitigate the length of the semester by creating pockets of recovery time during the semester to mitigate student fatigue.

Third, my student generally take too many classes and work too many hours outside of school. This is not meant to be a criticism of student decision making, but a description of the current economic situation of most college students. They are pressured to get done as quickly and to avoid the potentially crippling burden of student loan debt as much as possible. As I’ve blogged about before, the maths simply don’t work in these situations. Students who attempt to work 20-30 hours per week outside of class time and who take 15-18 credits per semester would have to spend 50-60 per week just to keep their head above water. As a result, students are often drowning. 

These three fundamental situations has encouraged me to approach syllabus building in two ways:

First, instead of producing a syllabus that has a lots of small assignments that requires constant engagement with the class, I’m creating a syllabus with fewer larger reading and writing assignments. This should allow students to negotiate the class at a less consistent rate and to take advantage of the irregular ebbs and flows of their own schedules and complicated daily lives. 

Thus, my Roman history class will have five big readings scaffolded by five three-week modules. Students will have at very least three weeks to do the readings and each module comes with some kind of assignment the final draft of which will be due at the end of the semester. 

Second, after a productive conversation with my colleague and friend David Pettegrew yesterday, I’ve decided to build “lab days” into classes where we shift from focusing on specific content and toward more technical aspects of writing about history. Each module then, will have a lab day and I’m tempted to make them optional to give the students a little breathing room during the semester. 

I’ll post the syllabus when I’m done with it!

Teaching Thursday: Reimagining my Roman History Class

Next semester, I am going to teach Roman History for the first time since 2005 (I think). My Roman historian friends have assured me repeatedly that not much has changed. (I’m probably kidding here.) 

That said, I still need to teach the class and it is clear that the traditional lecture+discussion format of my original, early-21st century class, is no longer an acceptable (or even familiar) approach to teaching for most of our students. In other words, not only is my content woefully out of date, but so is my pedagogy when it comes to this class.

I told myself this fall that I need to have the basic organization of this class together by November 15th. It’s an artificial deadline, to be sure, but I needed something to motivate me to figure out whether I need to order some books and, as likely, read some things.

Here are my tentative learning goals for the class:

1. Become familiar broadly with Roman history and culture. 

2. Improve our capacity to read and analyze a range of unfamiliar primary and secondary sources. 

3. Continue to develop the ability to write about the past effectively.

These are sufficiently broad to allow me to approach Roman history is a wide range of ways. I have two other things on my agenda.

First, I want to be more deliberate about “workload management” in this class. As I’ve said any number of times on this blog, a 16-week semester is too damn long.

Secondly, I want the class to offer a wider range of assessments than my standard: midterm + book review + primary source paper. I’m considering, for example, a paper written collectively by the class (but perhaps turned in individually?), oral presentations on a particular source, and perhaps more creative assignments that involve engagement with news media, fiction, films, or video games. My goal is to have 5 assessments in the class, each worth 20% of the final grade. 

Finally, I want to build the class on five, five-week modules, each with a primary source, but I want the first module to introduce students to the “grand narrative” of Roman history which we will proceed to question, ignore, and subvert over the course of the rest of the class.

So here goes:


Module One

Class 1: The Roman Republic

Class 2: The Republic to Empire

Class 3: The Principate

Class 4: Late Roman World

Class 5-6: Livy, Book 1

Assessment: Rome, America, and Popular Culture: In a 1000 word essay discuss three examples of how Rome appears in popular culture and the media. Each example must be from a different medium (e.g. news, video game, feature film, television, fiction, music, and so on).


Module Two: The Fall of the Roman Republic

Class 7: The Gracchi

Class 8: Pompeii and Cicero

Class 9: Caesar and Civil War

Class 10: Octavian to Augustus

Class 11-12: Sallust, The Conspiracy of Catiline.

Optional Book: Ed Watts, The Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny. 2020.

Assessment: Write a critical book review of one of the four optional books.


Module Three: The Empire and its Discontents

Class 13: The High Empire

Class 14: The Provinces during the High Empire

Class 15: Roman Religion and the Second Sophistic

Class 16-17: Apuleius, Metamorphosis.

Class 18: Writing a Primary Source Paper 

Optional Book: Sarah Bond, Trade and Taboo: Disreputable Professions in the Roman Mediterranean. 2016.

Assessment: Work together to produce a primary source paper. 


Module Four: The Fall of Rome?

Class 19: The Crisis of the Third Century

Class 20: The Rise of Christianity 

Class 21: The Age of Constantine

Class 22-23: Augustine, Confessions.

Class 24: Writing Day

Optional Book: Giusto Traina, 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire. 2009.


Module Five: Rome after Rome

Class 25: The World of Late Antiquity 

Class 26: The Age of Justinian

Class 27: Christology and Controversy

Class 28: The Seventh Century

Class 29-30: Corippus, In laudem lustini Augusti minoris.

Optional Book: John Haldon, The Empire that Would not Die: the Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740. 2016.


As always, I’m open to suggestions, observations, or outright attacks on my character (hacks, somebody’s gotta put me in my place). 

Roman Climate

As I get old, one of my great weaknesses as a professional is becoming more and more apparent. As my always modest synapses have slowed down further and my limited pool of energy has gotten shallower, I find myself increasingly driven by deadlines rather than genuine curiosity about the past (or the present or the world). This summer, for example, has become a prolonged exercise in shooting the wolf closest to the sled and this is both unrewarding and exhausting.

As an antidote to this tendency, I still try to read things that capture my interest or that contribute to a broader understanding of the past. As I look at the prospects of teaching a class on the “End of the Roman Empire” (or some such thing) in the spring (alas another deadline), I’m feel an even greater sense of urgency to read and think more broadly about the past (or at least Late Antiquity).

At present, I have a “back of the napkin” idea how to organize my class on the End of the Roman World and I won’t burden this blog post with that kind of nattering, but I do want to include at least a week on Roman and Late Roman climate. The archaeology of climate, climate change, and its impact on society has long drawn my interest. The challenge, of course, for antiquity is that the paleoclimate data is hard to understand. Not only does it involve understanding the science of climate, but also a certain amount of statistics, sampling, and regional geography. 

Over the weekend, I read “Settlement, environment, and climate change in SW Anatolia: Dynamics of regional variation and the end of Antiquity” by Matthew J. Jacobson, Jordan Pickett, Alison L. Gascoigne, Dominik Fleitmann, and Hugh Elton in PLOS ONE. I was initially drawn to this piece because I noticed that the region was not only near Cyprus, but that some of the points that define this region were further from one another than they were from northwest Cyprus where I work. I’m not especially sanguine that data from southern Anatolia is likely to correlate directly to the climate conditions during Antiquity on Cyprus, and one of the authors discouraged me from thinking that way via the twitters

At the same time, this article offers some remarkable conclusions that suggest, for example, that the Roman Climate Optimum, which some scholars have treated almost as a given, might not be as obvious in the regional level climate data as big picture discussions of the Roman world have tended to assume. In fact, in this articles’ SW Anatolia study area, there was no evidence from the RCO in the climate data and it was impossible, then, to correlate the increase in agricultural activity, building, or trade during the Roman period with a milder regional climate. Indeed, this is consistent with data from across the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly. The Early Byzantine period (350-600) shows a predictable increase in settlement and a more or less continued investment in urban areas. That said, there’s little in the way of climate data from this specific region to correlate these investments and expansion of settlement with a pan-Mediterranean situation. Instead, there appears to be a regional patchwork moisture levels for example that likely contributed to the prosperity of the period, but perhaps did not represent a single transformative agent in the development of this period. 

As a result, the contraction of settlement and seeming decline in prosperity in the Middle Byzantine period does not emerge as the result of climate change, but similar to Roman and Late Roman prosperity, part of a more complex group of political, military, social, and environmental influences.

Returning to my class, this article has some real advantages for classroom use. Some advantages are clear, but go without saying, such as the robust footnoting and careful historical and archaeological contextualizing. Others are tacit, such as its open access status!

So, I’ve added it to my list! 

Ed Watts’s Mortal Empire

This weekend, I read and enjoyed Ed Watts’s Mortal Empire: How Rome Fell into Tyranny (2018). As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I retain a soft spot for Roman History as it was my first love in graduate school long before my more serious commitment to archaeology and Late Antiquity. More than that, I’ve maintained a mildly antiquated belief that the Late Roman Republic has something to teach us about our contemporary political situation (even if this isn’t a simple proposition and comparing contemporary politics to those in antiquity is always fraught).

More than that, I am an admirer of Ed Watts work in Late Antiquity and deeply impressed by anyone who makes a serious effort to write for a broad non-professional audience. Above everything else, this book is a good story, well told (as the kids say) and has the potential to introduce gripping and important story about the end of the Roman Republic to a new audiences (and to re-introduce to a prodigal scholar like myself). In fact, I assigned this book to a small undergraduate Roman History readings class that I am running this summer. I’m eager to hear what my students thought of the book! 

I say all this because I want to be clear that any and all critiques that I offer below are not so much critiques of this specific book, but musings on writing for a general audience and using the Roman Republic to think about our present situation.

So, before I go further, if you have time this summer, do go and read this book!

And, here are some thoughts:

1. Writing Roman Republic. One of the great challenges facing anyone writing about the end of the Roman Republic is the work of Ronald Syme. His The Roman Revolution is not only a minor masterpiece of historical prose writing, but it also connected the rise of Augustus to the political situation in Europe in the 1930s and made a profound statement on how reading the Roman Republic could speak to contemporary events (for my failed effort to re-read The Roman Revolution last year, see here). It is no overstatement, then, that Mortal Republic is a kind of prequel to Syme’s Roman Revolution and a reader could do much worse than reading these two books for insights into both Ancient Rome and the political culture of the long 20th century.

It is worth noting that Syme’s early-20th century imitation of Tacitus remains far more stylish that Watts’s early 21st century prose. This isn’t necessary a criticism of Watts, but rather an observation that contemporary writing draws more heavily from the plain-spoken diction of journalism than “public school” class(ic)ism. One side effect of Watts’s matter-of-fact writing is that his prose struggles to carry the pace of events and to communicate tension and characters as vividly as Syme. It is more descriptive than immersive and maybe this is for the best.

2. Narrating a Republic. Both Syme and Watts understand the Roman Republic as a cabal of aristocrats operating within a system designed to keep in balance the acquisition of personal prestige, wealth, and status. Unlike, say, contemporary republics which seek (broadly) to represent the will of the governed, the Roman Republic served at least partly to preserve the public good (shared security, collective prosperity, et c.) by maintaining an equilibrium among powerful aristocratic interests who if left unchecked might jeopardize the stability of the state. 

This view of the Roman Republic, which is almost certainly an accurate one, means that most narratives of its fall emphasize the political movements of a tiny aristocratic elite set against a backdrop of roiling, but largely undifferentiated, urban and rural unrest in both Roman and Italy. The unrest only comes into focus at moments when one or another opportunistic politicians seeks to marshal the “power of the mob” to advance his political career, the risk of restive population at Rome during times of famine or danger, and the vaguely defined threats by soldiers whose interest in fighting is never articulated in ideological or political terms, but directly tied to the ability of the commander to pay them and provide them with land at the time of their discharge. 

In other words, narrating the Roman Republic and thinking about it in terms of contemporary political life, forces us to ponder the ability of ordinary people to change our situation. In this context, the result of the two decades of almost continuous civil war was not the loss of liberty for most Romans who had precious little freedom (by contemporary standards) in the Roman state prior to the rise of Augustus. Instead, it was the loss of liberty for the Roman ruling class. 

In light of this, works like Watts suggests that many of the problems in our Republic are not problems with the citizens who generally just want peace and stability (which are as good as freedom in many cases), but in the political culture of the elite whose wrangling for power rely periodically (at elections, during protests, and during ham-fisted coup attempts) on the opportunistic politicizing of ordinary citizens. This might be a rather uncharitable reading of contemporary political life in our own republic (and I might not necessarily agree with it), but, to my mind, this perspective appears to be one way of recognizing how the Roman world speaks to our own. As someone who lives in what pundits often describe as a deep red state, I often feel like the fractures between the right and left in our community are far less severe than between our political leaders.  

3. Making Ancient Rome. Watts’s book draws upon a good bit of recent scholarship (although even my outdated familiarity with trends in Roman history did not notice many fresh observations). The notes, nestled out of sight in the back of the book, offer a curious reader a nice introduction to the massive and contentious world of scholarship on the Middle and Late Roman Republic.  

I do sometimes wonder whether our desire to make the past relevant to the present obscures the way that scholars working in the present shape how we understand our past. This is particularly significant to me because some of Watts’s chapter on the Second Punic War relies heavily on the work by my old graduate school buddy Mike Fronda. This is not a criticism. Watts cites Fronda appreciatively in the notes. 

At the same time, it struck me that as much as view of the Second Punic War came from the sources, it also emerged from lengthy debates and discussions in Nate Rosenstein’s Roman History seminars at Ohio State. Fronda’s argument that Italian cities support of Hannibal against the Romans often mapped onto long-standing pre-Roman rivalries sought to expand the view of the Roman Republic from the narrow confines of aristocratic competition and locate it in a wider and more dynamic ancient world. 

In this regard, Fronda was not revolutionary, but followed a larger trends in the discipline of history toward decentering our narratives and demonstrating that affairs in Rome, the Roman-Italian dipole, and even the outcome and consequences of the Punic War only reveal part of the story of Rome’s emergence as a Mediterranean-wide power.  

When writing for a general audience, I sometimes wonder whether relegating these debates to the endnotes does our discipline a disservice because it obscures the hard work and shifting conversations that shape how we understand antiquity. In its place, we have a good story, well told, that seems to emerge from the mists of eternity full formed to speak to our contemporary situation. A more overt engagement with the contemporary conversations about the end of the Roman Republic might have gone even further to anchor the significance of fall of the Roman Republic for our contemporary world.

As I said, Watts’s book is well worth reading, but I can’t help but thinking about how the story he tells helps us understand our own world and its changing view of the past.    

Three Things Thursday: Riding, Reading, and Teaching

The semester is winding down and I’m contemplating my summer blogging schedule. I’d like to keep it going at least four days a week, but perhaps ramping down my quick hits and varia posts on Friday? Or making them a “photography Phriday” post?

Just a thought.

For the final Thursday of the semester, here are three little things that are simmering around in my head. 

Thing the First

Over the last decade, I’ve rediscovered the joy of walking. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t walk at least 20-30 miles usually in 6 or 7 mile chunks and usually accompanied by the dogs. Because I’m a creature of habit, I tend to walk the same paths day after day and this has given me a chance to observe the subtle changes that take place both with the changing of seasons and  year after year.

This spring, I’ve started to ride my bike a bit more. I bought a gravel bike that’s a hybrid between a road bike and a mountain bike suited for light trail riding and, more importantly, sojourns on the gravel section-line roads that surround Grand Forks. This has allowed me to explore a bit more widely. At the same time, I’m finding that gravel riding takes a significant amount of concentration. The distribution of gravel on the section-line roads is uneven meaning gravel appears in pools and eddies, ridges and troughs which make it like riding in deep snow or sand. The road surfaces have washboard patches that give way to smooth, almost polished, hard-packed stretches which ride like pavement. 

What’s interesting about riding the gravel roads around my town is that they give me a greater appreciation for the local landscape much the same way as walking does, but the texture of the gravel roads always is vying for my attention with the landscape for my attention. I can’t really tell whether riding my bike, then, has expanded my view of my world or narrowed it to the smoothest paths between the ridges of gravel on the roads.

Thing the Second

Somewhere on the web, I was reminded that the Greek poet Nikos Gatsos died on May 12, 1992. It’s not a special anniversary of his death or anything (I guess next year we can recognize that it’s been 30 years). His most famous poem is Amorogos. I remember buying my copy of the Sally Purcell translation in Athens when I was working at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. You can read a bit of an earlier translation by Kimon Friar here and there on the web.

The poem was written during the Nazi occupation of Greece and combines traditional Greek poetic forms with surrealist images. For Gatsos, Amorgos (an island, according to the story, Gatsos never even visited) becomes the object for his brilliant tracing of the pain and beauty of the complicated world in which he lived.

Thing the Third

It’s the start of the summer and I’m teaching an undergraduate Roman History class to two students. Traditionally, these summer courses are taught as independent reading and usually focus on three to five books and involve a series of reviews or reflection essays.

This summer, however, I was considering focusing on maybe one or two books. I’m curious about Ed Watts’ recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic, Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny (Basic Books 2018) and Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (Princeton 2019). I’d like to add a third book to the list, but considering that Scheidel clocks in at over 700 pages and Mortal Republic at 350. That’s 1000 pages for students to read and digest, and probably enough for one semester.

That said, I’m open to a third book, if you have something in mind. These students have no background in ancient history or Roman History.

Three Things Thursday: Teaching, Narrative, and Classics (again)

As another hectic week staggers toward its inevitable close, I’m lucky enough to have so much on my plate that I can’t decide where to start. As a result, we’re going to once again take the buffet approach and offer a little three things Thursday sampler. As always, I hope to turn one of these into a full and proper blog post in the future, but it’s a bit hard to see when that might occur!

Thing the First 

I know it’s cliche these days to talk about Zoom fatigue and my disappointment with our hybrid, hy-flex, teaching model. The way it works at my institution (and I expect many places) is that I have a small group of students in class and a gaggle of students on Zoom. I then try to juggle my attention between the students in the physical classroom and those attending via Zoom. The contrast couldn’t be more stark. The students in the classroom are attentive and engaged (or at least making a sincere effort to be). The students in Zoom might be engaged and attentive and I have some evidence that at least some are, but many are just black boxes with names who appear at the start of class, remain politely muted for the duration, and then vanish once class is over. I hope that this is what they wanted from their educational experience, but I really can’t tell.

One of the ironies is that in a number of committees on campus, I’m hearing about the importance of retention to the financial and academic health of my university. Some of the funds that we are receiving from the CARES program, for example, are being used to support students in the battle for retention. One thing that is particularly difficult, however, is the lack direct contact with students. Our Zoom mediated interaction eliminates many of the simple ways that faculty connect with students. From chatting with students before and after class to reading the room and paying attention to the comportment and level of engagement from a struggling student. Whether we like it or not, face-to-face classes represent an opportunity to claim the majority of a student’s attention and to make the kind of connection that help a struggling student succeed.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint about students who are using Zoom or some kind of old-man rant about kids and their technology. I obviously understand that many students and faculty are using Zoom out of necessity in our COVID era. Instead, I’m interested in how limited our technologically mediated methods are for engaging students and making them feel welcome, supported, and encouraged in our community. We can also add to this list any number of the various digital methods designed to track student progress and  target students who are struggling. 

I’m not a Luddite, but our embrace of Zoom this semester has made me more confident than ever that current technologically mediated approaches to retention are unlikely to be successful. Human contact is key.

Thing the Second  

Earlier in the week, I posted on Kim Bowes’s remarkable new article on the Roman economy. One of the points that she makes is that the recent (re)turn to cliometrics has accompanied a turn to big books, filled with big arguments and offering big conclusions. In many cases, the narratives found in these big books retrace well-trod paths of rise and fall and seek monocausal explanations to understand political, military, economic, social, and cultural change. 

I wanted to suggest that the attraction of these big books and their big ideas might well reflect our recent interest in big stories. From the resurgence of Star Wars, to Larry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the various epic Marvel films, and Game of Thrones, there is a recent fascination with stories set in brilliantly constructed immersive environments. Not only do these big stories share the kinds of narrative arcs present in big books—with rise and fall being only the most obvious—these narratives also support and almost infinite number of interlocking (and usually monetized) story lines which follow similar narrative profiles. Even as Star Wars, for example, has sought to “think smaller” with stories like the Mandalorian, the writers cannot resist entangling their story with both major narrative arcs (the rise and decline of the Empire) and also tracing similar narrative trajectories in their own smaller stories. These kinds of stories reduce even complex imagined worlds to plodding, monocausal narratives that serve to entertain, but rarely enlighten.

It goes without saying that this same kind of thinking is characteristic of the rise of conspiracy theories that often rely on darkly cinematic narratives that revolve around contests between good and evil that determine the rise or fall of this or that political entity. Moreover, these conspiracy theories, however misguided, appear to rely on the same kind of massive aggregation of related data points that the most expansive historical and archaeological seek to trace and reveal. 

It’s hardly surprising, then, considering the nature of our media consumption that our historical arguments and conspiracy theories share many of the same elements. It does make me wonder whether diversifying our media diet and reading more small stories filled with greater ambiguity, that avoid easy resolutions, and that cannot be reconciled as part of a recognizable whole. These kinds of small stories are often more challenging, they’re rarely commercial, and they often encourage us to view our world as a place filled with difficult contradictions, uneasy juxtapositions, and overwhelming and irreducible complexity.

Thing the Third

I want to draw some attention to an intriguing blog post over at Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s Classics at the Intersections blog. She and her partner outline the situation at their small Classics department at a small liberal arts college. The post is interesting mostly because it offers a perspective on the “Crisis of Classics” that isn’t situated at the level of PhD granting institutions invested in both reproducing the discipline and preserving or growing their departments, but rather at a place committed to preserving a version of Classics that is relevant to students who will likely major in something else.

This got me thinking (once again) what a similar essay would read like that focused on institutions like my own where Classics isn’t a department but a program in languages that is supported by a loose cluster of related classes across history, English, religion, languages, and art. As I’ve noted before, I suspect that the future of Classics will look a lot more like with RFK described on her blog or what I experienced at UND than how the discipline is currently structured in elite departments.   

Roman and Early Christian Cyprus

This weekend I read the latest in a spate of edited volumes on the history and archaeology of Cyprus: From Roman to Early Christian Cyprus: Studies in Religion and Archaeology edited by Laura Nasrallah, AnneMarie Luijendijk, and Charalambos Bakirtzis. The book continues in a tradition begun by the late Helmut Koester by bringing together historians, art historians, and archaeologists to discuss the context for Early Christianity in a particular locale. As the title of this book suggests, the volume considers Cyprus.

A quick skim of the table of contents reveals that this volume has brought together an impressive group of senior scholars who represent a wide range of approaches to Roman, Late Roman, and Early Christian Cyprus. They do a nice job of approaching a rather limited body of material from the island in new and intriguing ways. In other words, if you’re familiar with the archaeology and history of Cyprus, you won’t encounter new evidence in this volume, but quite possibly some interesting new interpretations.

The Laura Nasrallah’s and Henry Maguire’s discussion of the well-known inscriptions from the House of Eustolius at Kourion, for example, reminded me of just how complicated these texts are as testimony for the place of Christianity in the life of 5th-centuy Kourion. Drew Wilburn’s article on the ritual specialists and Demetrios Michaelides contribution on mosaic workshops unpack the relationship between the productive and ritual economies. Athanasios Papageorghiou and Nikolas Bakirtzis, Stephanos Efthymiadis, and Marina Solomidou-Ieronymidou and Giorgos Philotheou discuss hagiography, art, and archaeology. Andrew Jacobs and Young Richard Kim discuss Epiphanius. And so on.

The insights of these thoughtful scholars make the volume worth reading and every article contains some worthwhile insight. At times, however, I wished that the contributors spoke to one another in a bit more of a sustained way. For example, it would be intriguing to understand whether the diversity of church forms on the island followed any recognizable patterns of theological, economic, or cultural diversity (although I suspect that the answer is… not that we can discern).

More interesting still is that most of the papers focus on Salamis, Paphos, and Kourion without only brief detours to other cities on the island (although Charalambos Bakirtzis’s update on the site of Ay. Georgios tis Peyeias was worthwhile). Polis is barely mentioned at all and Kition garnered very little attention. I suppose this is consistent with a view of both the Christianity as an urban religion and Roman Cyprus as an urban place. Of course, we also know that Cyprus featured a “busy countryside” with ex-urban places such as Alassa, Koutsopetria, Ay. Georgios, and Ay. Kononas on the Akamas (and, in fact, David Pettegrew and I were discussing this very thing this past week). These places made me wonder whether the Christianity that appeared in our texts would be different if we assumed that there were at least as many rural Christians as urban ones.

It was also interesting that for all the deserved attention to Barnabas and Epiphanius, there was little discussion of the status of Lazarus who at least according to tradition was the Bishop of Larnaka and had his relics translated to Constantinople in the 9th century. In some ways, he suggests a possible rival to Salamis-Constantia’s claim to Barnabas’s Apostolic primacy on the island perhaps associated with Kition? While there are few sources for Late Roman Kition and the story of Lazarus my well be post-antique, it still got me curious about how these stories (and buildings such as Ay. Lazarus in Larnaka) might reveal tensions that are not entirely visible in the more mainstream sources.

The same could be said about things like the architecture of churches on the island which seems to suggest relationships between communities, builders (or architects), and liturgies both on the island and off the island. Of course, these relationships can’t be traced precisely in most cases and the chronologies are fuzzy, and many of these buildings have no been excavated or published to the most rigorous standards, but they still present some potential narratives that complicate the more unified or islandwide perspectives.

That being said, it was great to read a book that sought to contextualize Early Christianity (and to some extent, Late Antiquity) in the transition from the Roman to the Late Roman period. As I noted last week, this was a version of the “long late antiquity” that I missed at the conference I attended two weeks ago. This isn’t so much a critique of that conference, but more a thought about how the period of Late Antiquity might free itself from a view antiquity that stressed or expects continuity, say, in economic activity and urbanism. By emphasizing religious change and the emergence of Christianity provides another lens to complicate the endless debates concerning continuity and change at the end of antiquity. 

Roman Seas

Over the weekend, I read Justin Leidwanger’s new book, Roman Seas: A Maritime Archaeology of Eastern Mediterranean Economies (2020). It’s a pretty good book that brings ship wreck data to bear on long-standing questions of regional and inter-regional trade in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Leidwanger’s focus on the Cilician coast and Cyprus make the book particularly useful for my work on that island and it was gratifying to see the work that I did with David Pettegrew and Scott Moore cited in footnotes! While other can quibble with our interpretation of the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, it’s harder to dismiss the data that our project produced and its contribution to the growing corpus of well-documented Late Roman sites in the Eastern Mediterranean and Levant. Leidwanger’s interest in similarly well-documented shipwrecks, including some that he documented himself, provides a offshore (or at very least near-shore) analog to expanding body of intensive survey data and well published (and quantifiable) excavation data from Cyprus, Cilicia, and the northeastern Levant. Whether this ever becomes “big data” of the kind that other social scientists have invested with such attention, remains hard to know especially considering the significant variation in methods and typologies across the region. That being said, there’s no doubt that evidence is piling up and almost begging for the kind of thoughtful interpretation offered in this book.

The book will reward some re-reading over the next few months and I try to come to terms with the scope of Leidwanger’s argument. For now, I’ll offer a few quick observations. 

The first few chapters of the book offers little new, but does provide a usual interpretative summary of the recent interest in regional analysis in the Eastern Mediterranean, the basic elements of Roman and Late Roman maritime technology, and the various ways in which terrestrial landscapes and maritime seascapes interact to produce distinct interpretative units. I have little doubt that these chapters will be see more than their share of citations among scholars interested in understanding the relationship between coastal sites, the sea, and connectivity. Leidwanger’s observations would be been very useful when I was muddling my way through my “Is Cyprus an Island?” paper last fall!

The heart of the book comes in the last 100 or so pages when Leidwanger introduces a corpus of 67 well documented shipwrecks from the Datça peninsula and the southern coast of Cyprus. These wrecks date to the Roman and Late Roman periods and appear to be representative of both a wider body of wrecks from well dated wrecks in the Eastern Mediterranean and present little to contradict trends in less carefully dated shipwreck sites in the same region.

This representative and relatively well documented assemblage of sites allows Leidwanger to produce a range of thoughtful arguments about regional and interregional connections. Leidwanger applies a two-level network analysis to these ships cargoes which largely consisted of amphora. One level of network analysis concentrates on the origins of the cargoes and the other incorporates the locations of the wrecks themselves. These two levels of analysis suggest shifts in the economic networks between the Romana and Late Roman period with the former centered on the Aegean and including greater connections to the Adriatic than the latter which centers on Cyprus and Cilicia and involves few ties to points further west. This coincides with Leidwangers interpretation of terrestrial finds from the central southern coast of Cyprus and the Datça peninsula in western Turkey and reinforces the idea that the links between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean weaken in the Late Roman period.

Leidwanger also contends that in the Late Roman period economic networks become more regional in general with smaller ships, smaller cargoes, and closer connections between ports. He argues that this reflects the increasingly “busy countryside” of Late Antiquity and the “gravitational pull” of larger regional centers and, in particular, the capital in Constantinople. The large-scale state influence over interregional exchange provided energy and connections to smaller-scale interregional exchange through processes that are not entirely clear.

I see no reason to disagree with Leidwanger’s arguments for Late Antique Cyprus. Indeed, the coastal site of Pyla-Koutsopetria seems to reached its peak economically during the 6th and early 7th century when imperial influence over large-scale exchange on Cyprus was at its peak. It is likewise intriguing to wonder whether the warehouses at the site of Dreamer’s Bay on the Akrotiri peninsula and at the site of Ay. Yiorgios-Peyias reflected the intensification of shorter distance regional trade or accommodations for longer distance interregional trade stimulated by the quaestura exercitus or the annona shipments to Constantinople. We argued that the massive quantity of Late Roman 1 amphora at Pyla-Koutsopetria may have reflected the use of this port as depot for the quaestura exercitus which did not necessarily flow through the major urban ports on Cyprus (e.g. Paphos, Salamis, or Kition). In our view, then, the long distance, administrative trade of the imperial command economy operated outside the typical routes of long-distance trade concentrated at major ports. This may reflect imperial efforts to develop unique infrastructure of warehouses and perhaps even agents and services designed to facilitate the movement of agricultural goods to the capital. 

This, of course, is all rather speculative on our part and does little to undermine Leidwanger’s broader observation that administrative trade on the interregional level shaped intraregional trade networks as ships acquired good at various ports on either their return journeys or as part of the process of moving good to regional entrepôts.

Leidwanger’s focus on transport amphora necessarily dictated his interest in agricultural goods. This undoubted constituted the bulk of ancient trade. It would be interesting, however, to compare, say, the distribution of Late Roman table wares in his case study regions. The persistence of African Red slip, for example, in certain areas of Cyprus well into Late Antiquity indicates that connections with the West were not entirely absent. It would have also been interesting to compare the relationship between economic zones and, say, ecclesiastic architecture to determine if the movement of bulk goods paralleled connections between construction crews, architects, or religious communities. If the connection between “microregions” often developed as forms of social insurance between communities whether other forms of social and cultural contact followed these routes and either made economic ties possible or reinforced them.

In short, Leidwanger’s book is a compelling body of evidence in support of a series of recent research questions focused on the relationships between Mediterranean “small places” over time. It’s a short, easy read that summarizes a good bit of specialized literature that might not be on every scholar’s regular reading list. It’s a good book and well worth the read.

Three Things Thursday: Survey Archaeology, Western Literature, and Poetry from a Former Student

My body is gallantly fighting off a cold the week, so I don’t quite have the energy for a long involved post. So, instead, I’ll offer a little “Three Thing Thursday” as I try to keep the balls in the area down the stretch run of the week.

First Thing.

A colleague shared this article with me over the weekend: Kimberly Bowes et al. “Peasant agricultural strategies in southern Tuscany: Convertible agriculture and the importance of pasture” from The Economic Integration of Rural Italy. Rural Communities in a Globalizing World, ed. G. Tol and T. de Haas. (Brill 2017): 165-194. The article uses examples from her Roman Peasant Project to explore the interplay rural land use and the interplay between pastoralism and more settled agriculture. This team of scholars excavates five sites known from intensive survey archaeology from small ceramic scatters. Two were small seasonal or short-duration “work huts” and combining the modest architecture with botanical, palynological, and faunal material collected from the excavations, they were able to suggest that these structures served land that was likely used as pasture. Pasture plays a key role in strategies associated with ley agriculture which allowed fields to go fallow for years in order to restore the soil and stabilize yields. These small structures (and the small ceramic scatters), then, which a survey might have suggested represented the intensification of conventional agriculture, may, in fact, represent a less intensive strategy associated with ley farming.

Among the more interesting observations from this article are a two sites identified by low-density artifact scatters which produced no structures, but did reveal field drains dating to antiquity and probably the Roman period. These field drains consisted of cobble filled trenches. This is exciting to me both because I was unaware that field drains were used in the Roman period, but more importantly, there is relatively few publications that discuss drain building practices in the Roman period. The use of cobbles to slow the flow of water and to prevent the drains from carving deep channels in the fields offers some evidence for why the builders of the “South Basilica” at Polis may have created a “French drain” on the uphill, south side of the church to keep the rush of water down a natural drainage from undercutting the south wall of the basilica. It’s not a perfect analogy but suggests that my argument may not be entirely wrong.

Second Thing.

I’ve been reading John Beck’s Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature (Nebraska 2009). I really like the book. Whatever it’s academic merits (and I’m not really qualified to judge that), it has intrigued me. Beck uses literature to explore the character of the post-war, Cold War Western landscape through an emphasis on Japanese internment, the militarization of the landscape (and the Mexican border), the use of the west as a dumping ground for toxic, nuclear, and otherwise unpleasant waste, and the almost simultaneous emergence of the suburban ideal (cf. J.B. Jackson’s “The Westward Moving House”). Beck makes clear that works like Cormack McCarthy’s Blood Meridian while situated in the past (in this case, the mid-19th century) nevertheless speak to the present situation in a Western landscape shaped by Cold War militarism and its consequences. Elsewhere he weaves together the critiques of Rebecca Solnit, Ellen Meloy, and Terry Tempest Williams which emphasize the role of industry in the refashioning of the Western landscape. While I am embarrassed not to know these works well, I can’t help but wondering whether they influenced somehow my own effort at a similar critique in my The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscape. Don’t be surprised to see these works appear in the ole bloggeroo over the next few weeks. Solnit and Meloy remain priorities for my weekend reading list.

One of the reasons that Beck has excited me so much is that he has pushed me from thinking about archaeology of the contemporary world as a historical and social scientific window onto the contemporary American experience, toward thinking about the archaeology of the contemporary world as a distinctly cultural engagement with late-20th and early-21st century American life. This isn’t meant to deprecate the important work done by people like Jason DeLeon or Shannon Lee Dowdy or Bill Rathje, but to reframe their interventions as much as part of a much larger current of cultural critique. Instead of archaeology treating the contemporary experience as the object of study, archaeology of the contemporary world is (or at, very least, represents) the American experience. If we prioritize the notion of contemporaneity and suggest that it subverts the most common forms of disciplinary and historical detachment, then it makes sense that we can’t study or locate archaeology outside of American culture in the present. This, of course, remains a work in progress.

Third Thing.

I’m very excited to redirect your attention to the North Dakota Quarterly blog this morning. The blog features a poem from Amalia Dillin. Our hardworking poetry editor, Paul Worley, selected this poem for publication without knowing that Amalia was one of my former students at UND where she majored, I think, in Classics but also took history classes. She’s put those classes (and a bunch of her own hard work) to good use as a writer. You can check out her stuff here (although it’s very different from her poem)!

Go read the poem, it’s pretty great and I think summarizes neatly the anxiety that many of use feel in our media saturated lives. 

Plague and the End of Antiquity

This weekend, I read Kyle Harper’s new-ish book on plague, climate change, and the end of the Roman Empire: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017). I have to admit that I was skeptical before I read the book. The idea that plague contributed to the end of the Roman Empire isn’t particularly novel and the plagues of the 2nd and 3rd century have sometimes been clumsily associated with the rise of Christianity. Our growing understanding of ancient diseases and the physical condition of individuals and communities in Late Antiquity clearly has something to offer the historian, but linking the patchy evidence to Mediterranean wide geopolitics always seemed like a stretch. Finally, as readers of this blog probably discern, I’m intrigued by the recent “environmental turn” in Mediterranean archaeology, but also have lingering concerns that our interest in the ancient and modern climate has pushed us toward a new kind of environmental determinism

Despite this skepticism, Harper’s book was really good and compelling. First, this book is far from a single cause argument (as one might expect it would be considering Harper’s other work and reputation). The plague is set against a careful reading of climate change over the course of the first millennium and the political, economic, and demographic developments of the Roman world. Second, the plagues unleashed in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries were not simply more virulent versions of illnesses that had long existed in the human population, but new diseases – small pox and bubonic plague – whose impact on the Roman world depended upon both the political organization of the connected Mediterranean and the emergence of a more variable and challenging late Holocene climate regime. Finally, the book is really well written and, in turn, evocative and clearly argued, descriptive and analytical, illuminated by literary sources and grounded in archaeological evidence. 

I do wonder, though, whether framing the book as a conflict between humans and nature creates a view of the world that seems to challenge the books basic argument that the rise of the Roman mega-state was partly the result of the auspicious middle Holocene climate. It seems to me a more compelling way to discuss humans, climate, their environment, and the microbial world of bacteria and viruses that shaped the human experience in the ancient Mediterranean would be as deeply enmeshed and entangled. In fact, the helplessness articulated by so many ancient authors when faced with draught, plague, floods, and cold, speaks less to a view of existence as a battle with the forces of nature and more to an understanding of humans and nature as parallel manifestations the same cosmic and divine forces. The changes to the environment, the appearance of plagues, and unpredictable and unexpected weather formed part of the same universe that preserved the Roman Empire, the structured religion and belief, and that defined the physical health of individual bodies. For example, the end of the world was seen as the world growing old and drying out – quite literally with the arrival of droughts in some places – and it had a clear parallel in the view of old age that saw it as the drying out of the body.

That being said, the view of the human world as separate and in conflict with nature gave the book its tragic arc. Harper makes no attempt to hide his view that the Roman Empire was more than simply an administrative unit, but the fundamental framework for life in the first century Mediterranean. As a result, the collapse of the Roman state – particularly in the western Mediterranean, but ultimately in the east as well – marked more than just a political disruption, but a fundamental social and cultural one as well. The experience of individuals, then, paralleled the larger political narrative. This is compelling when the book documents the personal and community trauma associated with the plague.

It’s less compelling, though, in dealing with ragged edges of how communities experienced the Roman Mediterranean. For example, it’s become increasingly apparent that in the Eastern Mediterranean communities continued to enjoy connections that defied changing political boundaries. In other words, social and economic bonds persisted for centuries in some cases after the political life of the Roman Empire collapsed. It would appear, in these cases, that the Roman state – with its political, military, and economic challenges brought on by changes in the climate and plague – was more fragile than the centuries old social, religious, and cultural bonds between communities around the Mediterranean littoral. The persistence of these bonds played a key role in understanding the end of antiquity as a transformation rather than a decline or fall. 

This critique is, in the end, fairly minor and probably can be categorized as “I’d write a different book,” and shouldn’t detract from the larger value of this book. Works like this demonstrate the incredible potential of the environmental turn for revising even the most traditional narratives in our field.