Graham Oliver has been fascinated with ancient Greek and Roman history since he was a little boy growing up in the United Kingdom. “I would research different sites and tell my parents where we should go over the summer holidays,” the new professor of classics recalls.
One site that captured his imagination was Chedworth Roman Villa in Gloucestershire, a wealthy second-century estate with an elaborate Roman bath system. “I wanted to know how people lived at the time, and that included the practical details of their daily existence,” Oliver says. He began learning ancient Latin at age 12, Greek from 13, and went on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in classics at Oxford University (B.A., 1989; Ph.D., 1996). Oliver taught at the University of Liverpool before accepting the position at Brown.
But while his classical training has been highly traditional, his background is unusual and his interests “magpie,” he says.
“I was an anomaly in my family because I was the first one to go to university, let alone to Oxford to study classics,” says Oliver, adding that his parents both left school at the age of 16. He recently married Mary Keaney-Oliver, the new academic department manager in Hispanic Studies, whom he affectionately describes as a “scouser” (someone born and raised in Liverpool).
While many classicists are language and literature oriented, Oliver specializes in the economic and social history of Athens, focusing on the late classical or Hellenistic period, when Greece was in decline as a world power and facing the dominance of Rome in the Mediterranean. Although not as well explored as the fifth century B.C.E. — the “Age of Pericles” or the “Golden Age of Athens” — it is a very rich period nonetheless, says Oliver.
“The city of Athens and its population coped with a lot of turmoil at the end of the fourth and during the third centuries B.C.E. I am interested in how the Athenian people adapted to the changing environment — how they responded to the pressures of warfare, how the city ensured a food supply and paid for it, how it kept its population safe.” His curiosity resulted in his first monograph, War, Food and Politics in Early Hellenistic Athens (Oxford University Press, 2007).
Oliver has since expanded his study of the city’s ancient economy, collaborating with a group of University of Liverpool scholars who have produced three volumes, starting with a work on Hellenistic economies that he co-edited (Routledge, 2001). He is currently completing a study of the economy and society of Athens in the late fourth to first century B.C.E., which he hopes to send out to publishers next year.
“Over the last 20 years, there has been a change in how we have analyzed ancient economies. Historians used to believe that the profit motive was not a part of the ancient psyche, but the historical evidence shows that many wealthy Greeks were not just using their profits for the good of the community,” says Oliver. “This scholarly shift comes at a time when the economic crisis is forcing us to reexamine our own long-held economic ethics and values. The ancient world gives us a fantastic opportunity to look at the effect of economic values on societies over a very long period of time.”
Since there are few literary sources and histories from the late classical period, it poses a methodological challenge to historians, he says. Oliver has solved the problem by becoming an epigrapher (someone who studies inscriptions on hard surfaces like bronze or stone). In Athens, public decisions — to fix a wall, announce an alliance, bestow honor on someone — were inscribed on pillars (stelai) and displayed in public places like the agora and the Acropolis. The excavated remains of these inscriptions provide historical evidence for what happened in Athens during this time, he says.
“Unlike scrolls, which would have gone into an archive, the inscriptions served a special public purpose, such as honoring certain people and encouraging others to emulate their actions,” Oliver says. “They are windows onto the identity of the entire community. They are the closest you can get to the voice of the people, to their immediate concerns and their values.”
Supported by grants from a group of international institutions, Oliver is one of a team of scholars carrying on the work of the Inscriptiones Graecae, a project dating from the 19th century that seeks to transcribe, annotate, and publish these inscriptions in a standard edition. He is in the midst of editing his allotted 270 fragments, dating from 321-301 B.C.E, which will comprise one of the volumes in the new standard edition. Only two other editions of inscriptions from this period in Athens have been published since the early 19th century.
Besides ancient socio-economic history and epigraphy, Oliver’s interests include Greek revivalism in the long 18th-century and 19th- and 20th- century memorials. He recently co-edited a collection of essays, Cultures of Commemoration; War Memorials, Ancient and Modern (Oxford University Press, 2012), which examines commemorative practices in Western culture, from the fifth century B.C.E., through the World Wars, and to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Oliver is excited to get to know Brown colleagues in different disciplines who share his passion for ancient epigraphy. MacArthur Fellow Stephen Houston, the Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and professor of anthropology, studies Mayan epigraphy; James Allen analyzes Egyptian inscriptions; and fellow classicist John Bodel specializes in Roman epigraphy. “I would like to start thinking about comparative cultures of early writing, just the kind of exciting interdisciplinary project Brown enables,” he says.
Oliver also hopes to develop a network of scholars interested in comparing ancient economies in North America and elsewhere. “There is a big debate about how much these economies resemble those of early modern societies. It is a very exciting topic.”
At Brown, he says, “I am free to think outside the box, collaborate with others, and teach classes in my diverse areas of interest. This is the ethos of the University.”