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What’s Old is New: Changes in the Classics Department at St. Mark’s School

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.