Joy Connolly speaks on Greek influence in Roman literature and culture

Written by Remi Boleky, CAS communications intern

photo of Joy ConnollyOn April 9, provost and senior vice president at the CUNY Graduate Center Joy Connolly visited Miami to give a lecture entitled "Displacement and Dual Voices: Roman Writing in the Late Republic."

Connolly was previously the dean for the humanities and professor of classics at New York University. Her lecture was sponsored by Miami's Department of Classics, the Humanities Center, the Department of Political Science, and the Western Program.

Connolly began her lecture expressing hope that the audience would gain a new way of thinking about the historical conditions of ancient Roman writers and how they thought about Roman literature, specifically during the period of the late Republic at around the beginning of the first century B.C.

A crucial question she posed revolved around the idea of cultural appropriation and the themes of oppression and imperialism that come from a dominant culture imitating another culture.

"When members imitate another culture, what's at stake ethically?" she said.

Connolly encouraged audience members to think and analyze the specific process of cultural appropriation by which the Romans formed their own culture (literary, religious, architecture) in close conversation with that of the Greeks. Yet, even as they remained reliant on the Greeks, the Romans also promoted a notion of Roman exceptionalism: the idea that no other society was as "extraordinary" as they were.

"Throughout history, this is a highly unusual move for a culture to make," she explained.

Along with the imitation practiced by Roman society, Rome vastly expanded its control over cultural and social institutions throughout Europe. Connolly explained that this is another unique quality that relates to Roman exceptionalism.

In a time with limited means of mass communication, she asked, how did being "Roman" come to be something that was available and of value to people in such a big imperialistic space?

"How did a sense of shared interests and identification as 'Roman' deepen people's political and social consciousness?" Connolly said.

With mass migration going on at the time, everyone wanted to be labeled as a "Roman." This migration also led to a mass displacement of people, with nearly ⅓ of the population of the Roman Empire not born as Romans. People from surrounding regions were constantly trying to find their way in.

Beginning in the late second century BCE, the Greeks were well-respected. Romans thought of themselves as restoring Greek culture by becoming part of it even as it became part of them. The Romans saw themselves as Greek, which meant the same as being human.

Connolly related this idea to fan fiction, with the Greeks being the sort of fantasy space.

"To be a member of a fan culture is to be speaking in a language that is not your own and living in more worlds than one," she said.

Connolly concluded her talk by relating this back to Roman literature, warning the audience that they must be conscious of the layers below the surface of each work. The act of Roman writing, presence of the Greek model, the process of conquest, and the desire of identity are all important cultural implications to keep in mind, she said.

Geology major Sarah Eick thought that it was interesting to examine the past with this lens.

"I enjoyed being able to compare the past and modern societies and see how they repeat themselves over time," she said.

Denise McCoskey, professor of classics, noted the influence Connolly's work has had in encouraging classical scholars to examine more closely the relevance of ancient political thought today.

"While we tend to think of the Romans in simplistic terms as 'Roman,' Connolly's work reminds us that questions of citizenship and belonging were every bit as much a contested process in antiquity as they are today," McCoskey said. "They took place against the backdrop of phenomena that still define our own world, such as cultural appropriation and massive migration."

The Department of Classics also hosted a lecture on April 23 entitled "A Possession for All Time: Podcasting Greek History in the Digital Age," in which Ryan Stitt, producer of the popular podcast "The History of Ancient Greece," discussed the development of his podcast, which has now been downloaded over 1.5 million times.