Director Series, History & Classics, Interviews
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Interview with Professor Greg Woolf

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We talk to the director of the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS) about how to bring the latest research to the public’s attention, and why it’s worth studying classics for the same reason we send probes beyond Pluto and sequence Neanderthal DNA, because we are curious about who we are and how we got here.

Professsor Greg Woolf, an authority on the history of the Roman Empire who has lectured all over the world as well as holding fellowships in various Oxford and Cambridge colleges, took up the ICS directorship in 2015. His many historical publications include Becoming Roman. The origins of provincial civilization in Gaul, Et tu Bruté? The murder of Caesar and political assassination, Tales of the Barbarians. Ethnography and empire in the Roman west and Rome. An Empire’s Story.

What does a typical day involve as director of the Institute of Classical Studies?There are no typical days! I might be helping organise a new publication, meeting the organisers of one our seven standing seminar series, or attending a conference on anything from Bronze Age burials to Roman antiquarianism. During my first six months I must have visited every café between Euston and the Strand trying to meet as many London classicists as possible. Going behind the scenes at the British Museum and the British Library were special treats.

You joined SAS from St Andrews University; how does the life of an academic there compare to SAS?
St Andrews is a remarkable place, fantastically strong academically, quite intimate socially. The town has around 17,000 inhabitants and less than 8,000 students so there are some differences from working in central London. SAS itself is even smaller of course, but it is a humanities hub at the heart of one of the most intensive academic environments on the planet and connected to all sorts of national and international networks. At St Andrews the classicists all gathered in one room each week for our research seminar, which might be on any classical subject at all. No one person could attend a fraction of all the classical events the ICS is involved in…but I am trying to sample as much as I can.

Are there any particular initiatives or projects you are keen to push forward?
The ICS has been around since 1953 growing up around a world-class library we continue to run in partnership with two learned societies, the Hellenic and Roman Societies. We run a long established seminar series that attract speakers from all over the world. It is vital to preserve all that and to make it available to a global community that consumes and produces more and more scholarship in digital forms. We also need to reach out in other ways. Classics enjoys phenomenal public support, but we don’t always do enough to let the public know about the very latest research. Finally we need to do more at the cutting-edge of the discipline, not just where classics meets critical theory and reception studies but where it encounters the social and even the life sciences.

What was your own experience of being a student like?
Very happy and very varied. I started out on the most traditional classics course in the world, reading Homer and Virgil and great chunks of the canon. I then specialised in ancient and mediaeval history, and by the end of my doctorate was working with prehistorians and archaeological theorists. I had wonderful teachers at every stage, who saw what I was curious about and helped me find my own path, rather than imposing a pre-packaged learning experience on me.

What’s the focus of your current research?
Like most researchers I have several projects on the go. Together with a group of colleagues in Germany I am leading a project on how ancient sanctuaries shaped religious experience in the past. I have been writing a series of papers on human mobility and migration – a very topical subject. But I have also been writing a book about the naturalness of living in cities. The enormous range of classics was one of the things that first attracted me to the discipline, and I am not bored yet.

Why do you think classical studies remains relevant to today?
Classics does not have any special claim for importance beyond that of other humanities subjects. But there are not many humanities disciplines that can manage without classics. Classics is the original interdisciplinary field and it connects to history and philosophy, art and mathematics, literature and anthropology. Classical references are also ubiquitous in modern culture from the National Gallery to science fiction. Fundamentally, however, it is worth studying classics for the same reason we send probes beyond Pluto and sequence Neanderthal DNA, because we are curious about who we are and how we got here.

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