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Being There: 2011 Summer Program Brings Ancient Roman World to Life

Students in the 2011 program.

In summer 2011 the Department of Classical Studies sponsored for the second consecutive year an intensive three-week program in Ancient Roman Studies in Rome and the Bay of Naples. Under the direction of Professor John Donahue, seven students, including four Classical Studies majors and one minor, visited a wide range of archaeological sites and studied monuments and works of art in their original settings.

As part of the program, students kept journal entries of their experiences and what they learned.  Some excerpts follow:

Amanda Chan '13

Traveling to Rome was without a doubt the best way to learn about the ancient city . . . It only does so much to look at pictures in a textbook. If I had just been thumbing through a book, I would not, for example, have understood the monumental scale on which all of these structures were built. The more I think about it, the less meaning “monumental” actually has: the only way to understand how huge these buildings were, and what an accomplishment it was to construct them, is to be standing in front of them, head tilted backward, looking skyward . . . I was completely blown away, not only by the Colosseum but also by the emperors' palaces, the Circus Maximus, the Imperial Fora . . . the list goes on and on.  Nothing was as I expected it to be at all!

Bird graffito: Being there in person allows students to perceive all the details of a site, rather than just the highlights featured in museums or scholarly books. This bird graffito, thought to have been drawn by a child, stands in stark contrast to the remarkable frescoes found elsewhere in the villae at the wealthy resort town of Stabiae.

On site, students can actually place themselves into the spatial arrangements and interrelationships of the built environment. The Arch of Constantine, seen here from the Colosseum, is a good example of how the Romans located important celebratory structures alongside popular public venues in order to reinforce certain political and social values among the people.

At the Temple of Hera II at Paestum, W&M students are dwarfed by the sheer size and scale – a reality intended to convey a certain kind of meaning and power, and best understood by experiencing such monuments first-hand.

J.T. Fales '12

A month ago, the Romans were to me a distant civilization of the past – a lost empire, a legend, and a ruin. Today, the Roman are my neighbors; they are the friends-of-friends whom I have never had the honor of meeting, but about whom I have heard so much as to feel I already know them. As I walk through modern Rome, I see echoes of the Italians’ ancestors: I notice that the buildings today retain the same set-up as in ancient times, with storefronts on the bottom and apartments on the top. I notice that Italians have fierce pride for their Roman heritage, erecting stages at impressive Roman sites and plastering T-shirts with images of Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf.

Kelly Field '12

Overall, I was not expecting any changes in my view of Rome; I felt that I had a good enough grasp on the basic facts of Roman history that nothing I saw would be a surprise . . . Contrary to my expectations, however, my previous study of Rome was not enough to prepare me for the scale, color, and cultural variety I encountered during those three weeks . . . The Ancient City course succeeded in making me aware of the large gaps in my understanding, and gave me a great deal to consider, and it helped me realize how much I have yet to learn about the people and history of Rome.

Jacque Miles '12

By climbing up and down the large hill at the Vesuvian Institute, eating typical Roman meals of meat, cheese and bread, and dealing with the hot Italian sun, I gained a better appreciation of the difficulties ancient Romans went through every day. Through actually walking around the ancient streets of Pompeii and the Via Appia, I could visualize a much more accurate portrayal of how all Romans too must have walked along the same roads. This is an invaluable experience, and my future study of Roman life will be much more vivid and informed as a result of the solid foundation I have gained on this trip.

Elaine Oestreich '13

Originally, I had never heard of many of the areas we saw, such as the Greek settlements . . . I was also surprised at the unusual details I learned, like how to distinguish the time period based on the bricks used in building or the style of painting on the walls. As we went to more and more museums, I was excited to find that I could recognize some of the emperors more readily, having seen so many depictions and having learned so much about them . . . I found the experience to be invaluable, as I could never have absorbed so much information in three weeks from books as I could from visiting the real places.

Zara Stasi '12

As I look back, I can see how I slowly became more comfortable in Italy: using phrases, hearing Italian, traveling on my own, and balancing academics with exploration. I grew as a student and as a world traveler during this trip, and I am so grateful for this experience, where I not only saw the sites I was studying but also took classes as they surrounded me. The small size of this group made my experience that much more enjoyable. I loved how we were able to educate each other through our on-site presentations. 

Jessica Stayton '12

I’ve studied Latin since the eighth grade. Bits of Roman history and mythology came in ninth [grade].  By the end of high school, I was translating ancient poetry – Vergil, Martial, Catullus, and Ovid. Throughout college, my studies broadened to include Greek language and history, Roman art and literature, and in-depth history with ancient sources, as well as religion, politics, and philosophy. Half of my scholastic career has been spent on Rome. None of it however actually prepared me for the experience of being there . . . I quickly learned that studying a culture is very different from being there and being immersed in it!

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