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Classics Symposium

February 24, 2009 at 2:16 pm
By Margaret Taylor '10

You may not hear about the Classics department that often.  They’re one of the tiniest at Carleton: this year, they will be graduating a grand total of two senior majors.  And what’s with people who believe anything that took place after 476 A.D. is irrelevant?

Really, Classics majors are a vibrant part of Carleton’s intellectual community.  Plus, they know how to party like it’s 99.  Sixth weekend, they held a symposium for the two seniors to give their comps presentations.

This year the symposium was held in the Athenaeum, which seemed appropriate given the Greco-Roman nature of the event.  Though a pair of Classics majors came dressed in togas, sadly the refreshments were cookies and juice, not olives and feta cheese.  However, the exciting and informative talks about ancient history lived up to expectations.  The two seniors were given a theme, “Colonialism: Postmodern Perspectives on an Ancient Phenomenon” to work off of when conducting their original research.  Eric Ryan ’09 was up first, with “A Tale of Two (Ancient Greek) Cities: the Samnite Occupations of Paestum and Cumae.”

Eric informed all of us in the audience that the ancient Greeks used to hold colonies on the Italian peninsula.  This goes to show my ancient history is spotty; I’d thought it worked mostly the other way around.  Gradually the Greeks lost their toehold, however, as Samnites (a group of native Italian people) reconquered the colonial cities.  The commonly accepted belief among ancient historians is that the re-takeover was violent, sudden, and resulted in a total eradication of Greek culture.  Eric examined this belief in a critical light, focusing on two case studies: the cities of Paestum and Cumae.

He drew on the archaeological evidence to argue for the continuation of Greek culture.  One piece of evidence he pointed to was a temple to Hera at Paestum that had its roof damaged about the time of that city’s takeover, which historians typically use to show how violent the conquest really was.  But there are signs of repair on the temple, which would only have happened if the temple had remained in use.  Eric also brought up a wealth of tomb art from the period that shows a continuation of Greek themes long after the takeover.

“There is no clear archaeological evidence of a hostile occupation,” he said.  Instead, he proposed that the influx of Samnite culture was an addition rather than a replacement, and that for many years Paestum was a syncretic city.  Samnites “took over” the city simply by moving there in large numbers.

In Cumae, it is a lot more likely that there was hostility (aptly illustrated by the snapshot of marauding Orcs on the PowerPoint).  The Campanians, a tribe of Samnite, dispersed the city’s original inhabitants after they attacked, but Eric challenges the received notion that they moved in to fill the vacuum right away.  For thirty years Cumae may have been inhabited by squatters, as the only artifacts from that period are rough clay pottery.  And even if the Greeks lost their city, their culture was not utterly wiped out: Samnite art from this period took Greek aesthetic ideas and executed them in an entirely Italian way.  Certain clay votives to Hera had a “Greek inspiration and native interpretation.”

Can we really rely on the accounts of the ancient historians who describe these events?  Writers such as Strabo would seem to work under a bias, as he tended to view this period of Samnite control as not very important anyway; all that really mattered was that later, the cities were Roman.  We should take our readings of the historians with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that “Acculturation did not equate to Hellenization, and occupation did not imply nativization,” as Eric aptly put it at the conclusion of his presentation.