About 75 people filed into the amphitheater of the Rackham Graduate School on Wednesday afternoon to hear a presentation on the induction of Nicola Terrenato as the new Esther B. Van Deman Collegiate Professor of Roman Studies.
LSA Dean Andrew D. Martin began the presentation by acknowledging family members of Terrenato and Van Deman in the audience before speaking briefly about the eponym of the professorship, Van Deman, a prominent archaeologist of the 20th century. He emphasized her connections to the University of Michigan — she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1891 and a master’s in 1892 — as well as her role as a woman in archeology.
“In an age where few women received a secondary education, Professor Van Deman earned a Ph.D.,” Martin said. “She came from a rural background and went on to become a leading archeology scholar, with many firsts associated with her name.”
He then introduced Katherine Geffcken, a professor emerita at Wellesley College, to provide more insight into the role of Van Deman in the field of Roman archeology. Geffcken described why Van Deman was so important in the field: as an archeologist, as well as a woman who had to work against the norms of the field she was a part of. Geffcken used the example of Van Deman’s series of photos of Roman architecture, which have since become fixtures across exhibitions.
According to Geffcken, these groundbreaking series of photos demonstrate her effect on the field.
“She began her observation of careful observation, measuring — this involves her famous measuring tapes — taking endless notes and photographs,” she said. “It’s a remarkable indication of Van Deman’s fortitude that she accomplished so much and earned such universal recognition in her day,” Geffcken said.
Geffcken then concluded by emphasizing that Van Deman was aware of her status as a pioneer from the University. Martin thanked her for her contributions before introducing the new Esther B. Van Deman Professor of Roman Studies, Nicola Terrenato.
Terrenato began his presentation by talking about his love of Roman culture. As an Italian, he was exposed to a framing of Roman history and culture that has persisted throughout history: one of imperialists conquering and absorbing other cultures, acting as a precursor for more modern imperialist empires. As evidence, he looked at our modern perceptions of Rome.
“If you were to get out your phones and do a Google image search on the Romans now, you would be looking at a bunch of legionaries ready to go to war,” Terrenato said. “Our Romans are all free adult males who spend most of their time in sconce and banded armor. This one-sided perception has become so deeply imbedded in our culture that it does not stand out like it really should — we take it as a given, and it influences scholars as much as it does children and everything in between.”
To Terrenato, this kind of framing of Roman history, and especially Roman expansion, is not one that matches up with his experience in the field. Where he expected to find uniform Roman fortifications, he found the same kinds of small-scale farms that existed before the Romans, especially at sites like Gabii in northern Tuscany. He has found that the Roman conquest was something that was always more centered around politics than ethnicity, and that familial groups would often accept Roman authority with the eventual possibility of acting as senators within the power of Rome. This shift in perspectives on expansion becomes particularly relevant in modern dialogues of colonization.
In today’s conversations about European colonization, the narrative is often that of Europeans colonizing another ethnic group and extracting resources from them. According to Terrenato, this narrative is not one that fits with the Roman history of expansion, which instead emphasized political power over any kind of focus on ethnicity. To him, this helps break down the parallel some have drawn between Romans and modern capitalist expansion.
“Liberating the Romans from their metal corsets presents further cultural advantages; it helps break down the false equation between them (the Romans) and modern capitalist societies,” Terrenato said. “The Romans are not our ancestors, and this is from someone who is actually born in Rome, nor can they be our role models. Their colonies are not our colonies, their slavery is not our slavery, their violence is not our violence.”