Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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J. Albert Harrill
J. Albert Harrill
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Matthew Christ
Matthew Christ
Photo © Tyagan Miller

The New Ancient Studies

by Ryan Piurek

Friends, Hoosiers, countrymen, lend me your ears. . . . I know what you're thinking. What could be new about ancient studies?

For the answer, we need to go back, back, back to the birth of the Ancient Studies Program at Indiana University Bloomington. It was a simpler time, when Nick and Jessica were still newlyweds, Anakin Skywalker hadn't yet submitted to the dark side, and George W. Bush was attacked by a pretzel. The year was 2002.

But enough (Trojan) horsing around. It's true. One of the newest programs on the Bloomington campus really is ancient, quite forward-looking, and quickly becoming a model of new approaches to old problems.

A mere toddler in IU's 185-year-old academic playground, the Ancient Studies Program is already putting to rest old notions of traditional, Balkanized ancient studies. Much like the great Greek and Roman philosophers they study, the program's members are interested in breaking down boundaries to develop a more sophisticated and well-rounded understanding of antiquity and the ancient world.

Leading this Spartan effort to build the Ancient Studies Program is J. Albert "Bert" Harrill, an associate professor in the IUB Department of Religious Studies. After his first year as director, Harrill is modest, yet excited by how quickly the program has established itself. What began as a couple of distinguished lectures a year and an e-mail list of interested faculty has grown to include a Ph.D. minor, 23 faculty from 11 different departments and programs, and a monthly colloquium. The program will host its first major conference in fall 2007, when scholars from around the nation will discuss catastrophes and how ancient people struggled to come to terms with disaster, loss, and "the end of the world."

In his neatly organized office, surrounded by volumes of historical, religious, and philosophical texts, Harrill speaks enthusiastically about how the program has reached out to other university departments and units. Before the Ancient Studies Program started at IU, a religious studies professor such as Harrill seemed to have a better chance of running into Plato or Socrates than a colleague in, say, musicology. A meeting of various minds on campus is what is most new about ancient studies, Harrill says, and it's testing longstanding beliefs about the ancient world and all of its traditions.

"Just combining fields that are not normally combined--that's what's so new," he says. "Bringing in a classicist, let's say a classicist who's taught mythology for 20 years, and actually getting that classicist to talk with a religious historian and, for the first time, to actually look at ritual, you know? That's when one plus one actually equals three. They make associations that people didn't make when they stayed in their own departments."

Matthew Christ agrees that interdisciplinary work in ancient studies is breaking down boundaries. Christ, who served as director of the Ancient Studies Program for three years before becoming chair of the IUB Department of Classical Studies, says that "as far as our study of the ancient world, we're moving beyond--sometimes way beyond--the boundaries of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. It's enriching to bring together people from so many different departments and see their perspectives on a different problem. When you're around different people, it really stirs the pot."

The same applies for students in the program, as Harrill points out. "Students who come to talk to me don't always come from the anchor programs of classics, religious studies, or history," he says. "They come from places such as fine arts and philosophy, and they are very grateful for the Ancient Studies Program, because they would've never thought to take courses like this."

A quick glance at the areas from which the program draws its faculty reveals the changing nature of ancient studies. Anthropology. Central Eurasian studies. Classical studies. Fine arts. Geological sciences. History. History and philosophy of science. Jewish studies. Musicology. Philosophy. Religious studies. If Harrill realizes his vision for the program, these areas will expand to include Egyptology, Mayan culture, and the history of Babylon. Harrill's own academic background in New Testament studies, early Christian social history, ancient Mediterranean religions, and early Judaism further demonstrates the shift taking place. "Even the classicists in our religious studies department now are of a new generation who also are historians, who look at the rituals of religion, who are interested in philosophy. It's not just old-fashioned theology," he says.

And yet, ancient studies is still about respecting tradition and appreciating antiquity, Harrill says. He resists a "presentist" bias in university curricula which deems that, for a topic to be worthy of serious study, it has to be somehow relevant to the present. "I think that's a mistake," he says. "It's a mistake methodologically and philosophically and morally. It's dangerous not to care about what happened before we were born. Part of my obligation is to study the ancient world for its own sake, not for our sake."

That's not to say that we are not learning lessons from ancient civilizations, or that ancient studies can't offer valuable insights into current world affairs. Harrill's research into the architecture of the Roman household and the earliest arguments in support of slave labor have enabled him to dissect rhetoric being used in current political debate over issues related to family values, gender equity, and racial equality.

"There is a rhetoric of family values that often defends traditionalism," he says, citing recent debate in Congress over the same-sex marriage amendment and President Bush's "sweeping claims" about ancient family values. The president, he says, suggests that the ancient family offers a model for today's families. But "if you look at Roman values," Harrill says, "they included slavery and the subordination of women. Those are conveniently forgotten. Also, the image of the father, the stern patriarch, is just wrong. By the time women had children, the father was usually dead, and most households were actually run by women."

Bush and other proponents of the ongoing war in Iraq and the need to democratize the entire Middle East have claimed that democracies, historically, do not fight each other. But again, Harrill says, "that's just not true in the ancient world." He believes ancient-world scholars must "educate the public, and also our students, to be critical interpreters and challenge this rhetoric. This rhetoric should be informed."

With the dramatic growth of democracy in the modern world, researchers have gone back to look at the foundations of democracy with a more critical eye. Matthew Christ studies two areas--ancient Athens and Athenian democracy--that have experienced renewed scholarly attention over the last 20 years. Christ has a particular interest in the problems and tensions of democratic Athens and how democracy often failed to live up to expectations. "It's fairly common for people to romanticize antiquity," he says, "and I think this has been true to some extent about the way people look at ancient Athens."

In his forthcoming book on the Athenian citizen, Christ contends that Athenians were not as uniformly patriotic as one might assume. "Not by a long shot," he says. "If you look at Athenians, their situations and motivations, they had good reason, at least deep in their own minds, not to perform their civic duties. They evaded the draft. They cheated on their taxes. They sometimes fled the battlefield. Which is all to say that they were human.

"Part of what we're working against in classical studies is the tendency to idealize," he continues. "It's not that I look at Athenian democracy negatively. It's more interesting and more real because we can see that real people lived under this democracy and, naturally, there were problems with it."

To uncover these unsettling dimensions of Athenian society and citizenship, Christ turned to the ancient law courts, or more specifically, to approximately 100 speeches made in court by prosecutors and defendants. "It's a pretty significant corpus," he says. "You can learn a lot about bad citizenship because these people would very frequently accuse their opponents and enemies of dodging the draft and cheating on their taxes. These claims might not have been true, but they probably reflect a culture in which some people were cheating on their taxes and dodging the draft. They're playing on popular prejudices and concerns."

Another clue, he says, is Greek comedy, such as that of Aristophanes which offers a very political brand of humor. "I juxtapose these different types of sources and say, ‘look, if they're talking about it in comedy, and they're talking about it in law court speeches, surely they're not making it up.'"

Christ's research highlights another new aspect of ancient studies: the willingness of its scholars to visit new frontiers to uncover truths about ancient civilizations and traditions. Harrill, for example, is one of thousands of scholars who study and interpret the New Testament, but unlike many New Testament scholars who specialize in a subfield such as the gospel of Mark, Harrill's research spans the texts of 1 and 2 Corinthians, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and more.

"I'm all over the map," he admits. "If I'm looking at slave traders and references to slave traders in early Christian literature, I just go where the references are. So in that sense I'm not canonical in my approach. I'm not fixed in a particular book, and I'm not asking theological questions. I'm asking social, historical questions."

In other words, you won't find him talking about the doctrine of sin or reconstructing the Greek text. Harrill contends that biblical theology, often described as a "river that runs throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation," is not the way to approach big questions such as how slavery shaped the thinking of early Christians. There aren't neat "little boxes" for Christian culture and pagan culture, he explains. The two cultures interacted on a daily basis, and Harrill says he has yet to uncover "any evidence that Christians were any different in their treatment of slaves than pagans were."

Harrill, who recently wrote Slaves in the New Testament: Literary, Social, and Moral Dimensions (Fortress Press, 2006), doesn't limit his understanding of the ancient world to laws or religious doctrine. Things aren't so simplistic, he says. "People used law as a way of defining things, but using law usually does not match social practices. It'd be like looking at the driving practices of Bloomington by looking at a driver's manual."

Much of the new ancient studies is about looking at "old questions we thought we already knew the answers to," Harrill says. "We have more inscriptions now. We're better able to understand the architecture of the ancient household. We have a much more sophisticated appreciation of how to look at rhetoric. Now that we know all of this, we really need to do the scholarship over again."

Ryan Piurek is a media relations specialist at Indiana University and a freelance writer living in Bloomington.