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Program of Study

Romans lived on a spectrum of human movement across the imperial landscape. In the half-millennium between Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161-180 CE) and Muhammad (died 632), the immense, previously stable Roman Empire experienced—and provoked—migration and invasion in all directions on a traumatic, unprecedented scale both internally and externally. The consequences for the Roman Empire were enormous, including not least the loss of its provinces in Western Europe. The peoples in movement, and the territories beyond the shrinking imperial borders, also experienced dramatic change. All this historical change still makes its impact felt today. It is also most engaging from many perspectives for teachers and their students at the college level.

In the 21st century, gaining an informed grasp of these complex developments in the Roman world has become more challenging and more exciting for several reasons:  First, old interpretations of the period as a “Migration Age” have been vigorously challenged. Second, new concerns such as climate change have gained a wholly new prominence in approaches to the migration; entirely fresh evidence, such as DNA, has been introduced into the discussion too. Third, our understanding of the phenomenon of migration in all periods of world history has grown significantly, especially through the findings of archaeologists working with prehistoric materials. Finally, the current migration crisis throughout Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the U.S. Southwest has made migration an urgent preoccupation featured daily in the media everywhere.

These developments drive us to confront the neglected fact that migration has been a driving force throughout human history. With the imperial Roman experience of migration and empire from Marcus Aurelius to Muhammad as our baseline, and with comparative case studies from other periods and cultures elsewhere on the globe, our Institute offers exceptional opportunities for questions and discussion.

Weekly Schedule

Maas and Talbert open Week 1 with a comparative overview of the Roman Empire’s regions, peoples, borderlands, and government at both the beginning and the end of the half-millennium that forms the Institute’s focus. Maas and Talbert also open group discussion of how historians (ancient and modern) have accounted for the empire’s changing condition during this period in terms of migrations. They present case studies of how Romans’ sense of status and identity changed during the third century, and of how the empire then “reinvented” itself in reaction to the disastrous onslaughts it had suffered. On Wednesday they move to considering the fundamental broad issues of how “migration” is to be characterized and defined, who migrates, where, and why. On Thursday, Mary Boatwright visits to share her expertise on the thought-patterns and the variety of means—images especially—by which Romans represent peoples they regard as foreign. Her attention to women and children among these foreigners leads into consideration by Maas about the impact of migration upon the social fabric of the communities in motion. Week 1 concludes with a panel comprising Boatwright, Maas, and Talbert to discuss with the group how different world communities in the premodern period were transformed through migration of different sorts. In addition, on Monday afternoon Talbert and specialist staff offer an orientation visit to the main campus library. Also during Week 1 each participant has an individual meeting with the co-directors to plan their own project relating to the Institute.

The program’s primary purpose in Weeks 2 and 3 is to fulfill the essential role of exploring successively the varied experience and impact of migrations in four large regions of the Roman Empire. Maas and Talbert open Week 2 by addressing the North and West, which Rome eventually abandoned in the fifth century. In addition, on Tuesday afternoon, Talbert opens group discussion of the rewards and challenges of pursuing the comparative approach in the classroom with an investigation of Roman and Inca resettlement of peoples; this will also be a session for the group to share and evaluate other teaching plans. On Wednesday afternoon, each participant outlines to the group provisionally their independent project. On Thursday, Susan Stevens visits to explore the experience of North Africa from Morocco to Libya. She accompanies the group’s visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art that afternoon. Here the curator of ancient art, Caroline Rocheleau, demonstrates object-based learning with reference to funerary artefacts from Pharaonic and Roman Egypt. Stevens and Rocheleau will both join Friday morning’s session, where Maas presents for group discussion the broadly related themes of ethnography and geographical determinism. These are seen from ancient and modern perspectives, since the role of the environment in shaping human livelihoods and lifestyles has remained a fundamental concern. At the conclusion of Week 2, a panel comprising Maas, Rocheleau, Stevens, and Talbert discusses the findings from Thursday and Friday with the group, and how best to present them in the classroom.

Extending the perspective of Maas’ presentation on Week 2 Friday, Talbert begins Week 3 by opening up a discussion of two major maps of the period (Peutinger and Madaba) and related sources. Principal concerns are to identify shifts in worldview that occurred during Late Antiquity, to account for them, and to gauge their impact. After the Independence Day holiday, the third and fourth large regions of the Roman Empire form the focus on Wednesday through Friday: Nicola Di Cosmo visits to explore the experience of the Steppes, and Thomas Parker visits to explore that of the Near East, including the Islamic conquests in the seventh century. It is beneficial to consider these regions in the same week, because the stresses of interaction between nomadic communities and settled, agrarian ones became acute in both. In addition, Di Cosmo shares with the group his expertise on the issues surrounding the impact of climate change on migrations. On Thursday afternoon, Di Cosmo, Maas, Parker, and Talbert form a panel for discussion with the group. On Friday afternoon, Maas, Parker, and Talbert form another panel, where again comparative perspectives and teaching plans are invited.

The scientific approach demonstrated by Di Cosmo is maintained at the start of Week 4 by Patrick Geary, who visits to explain the newly developed possibilities for understanding migration with the aid of genetics, in particular the barbarian invasions of our period. On Monday afternoon he leads a group seminar where the potential rewards of this approach can be balanced in discussion against the limitations that have been recognized. Geary remains through Tuesday, when in the morning Paul Roberge visits to consider the impact of migrations on languages in Europe generally and its North-West in particular. In the afternoon, Geary, Maas, Roberge, and Talbert form a panel to discuss the evidence (linguistic especially) presented by both visitors. Again in this session participants are invited to contribute comparative perspectives as well as teaching plans, including strategies for sharing genetic material with students conversant with STEM disciplines. On Wednesday morning Maas and Talbert lead a panel to discuss the impact of migrations within the empire upon cities (above all Rome and Constantinople), and the role of city populations in the breeding and spread of plague. On Friday afternoon, at the conclusion of the Institute, Maas and Talbert lead another panel for the group to sum up and assess its work, and to identify possible further outcomes. In three sessions between these two panels, all participants present the results of their independent projects.

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