By Ms. Jeanna Cook, Classics Department Head
What’s Old is New: Changes in the Classics Department at St. Mark’s School
I know what you’re thinking, how could anything related to the Classics be new? You are right to assume that our body of evidence about the ancient world is limited to that which has survived. Fresh discoveries pulled out of the sands of Egypt or deaccessioned from a private collection are few and far between. The evolution, the excitement, and the new in Classics is in the reinterpretation of the material we have had in hand for thousands of years. Recently this reinterpretation has asked better questions about what is missing in order to form new understandings. What evidence of everyday lives in the ancient world has been passed over in favor of the historical record of Roman elites? Whose voices are missing in the historical, or written, record? How can we use the archaeological record to listen for these voices?
In response to the St. Mark’s: Actions to Be An Anti-Racist School petition and in alliance with the voices amplified by the BlackAtSM Instagram account, we introduced a new textbook, Suburani in the Classics Department over the summer. The readings in this text represent the real and imagined voices of the majority non-elite population, with numbers in the millions, who both benefited from and suffered under the dominance of Roman Imperium.
The writers of Suburani by HandsUp Education developed this textbook in response to student interest in the lives of everyday people in Roman society. Most texts written for the Latin students of the past century have relied upon the historical record to tell the experience of Roman culture from the perspective of Roman boys and men. These characters are literate, involved in the conflicts of Rome’s political sphere, and authors and consumers of the literature and philosophy of their time. In contrast, Suburani couples the limited extant record of everyday people with the artifacts of everyday life. In this text, physical clues, such as amphorae that carried olive oil from Hispania to Rome, stamped roof tiles from large apartment blocks, and graffiti inscribed on neighborhood walls, develop the stories of the individuals who left a less verbose record of their lives in the first century CE.
The main character, Sabina, is a teenaged Roman girl. She resides in the Subura, Rome’s most densely populated neighborhood, where she interacts with men, women, and children of various backgrounds. Her friends include the children of enslaved people, or vernae, a craftsman from Lusitania (modern day Portugal), and a young Roman nobleman, Lucilius. She works in a popina, a corner store snack bar, where she serves a Roman veteran who was previously stationed in Britain, but who originally hails from North Africa. While working with her aunt, she hears the story of a native British woman who started a family with a veteran and has since immigrated to Rome. By the end of the text, Sabina has set out on her own immigrant journey to the Roman province of Gallia, or modern day France. She leaves in order to escape financial disaster, a circumstance beyond her control.
To be clear, a change of textbook alone does not make for an anti-racist curriculum. There are myriad conditions, conversations, experiences, understandings, and resources required of both content and delivery in order to meet this worthy demand. Furthermore, I acknowledge that a tool is only as good as the hand that wields it. Both the teachers of this text and the students of the course will need to lean into the content Suburani presents. To make the most of this text, we will need to think critically, ask questions, empathize, and draw comparisons between the ancient and modern world. The students in my Latin I class have started some of this good work. They have remained curious about the racial and ethnic identities of the characters, empathized with the experience of enslaved humans, imagined themselves as Britons living under Roman rule, and recognized the economic and societal limitations on women and other marginalized citizens living in the Roman Empire. They are currently writing an original Latin I Play that will introduce the characters of the text to our larger school community. I hope you’ll tune in if you have the chance so that you, too, can hear words put to voices that have been silenced for millennia but still have plenty to say.
Ms. Jeanna Cook is a faculty member at St. Mark’s School and the head of the Classics Department.