Interview by undergraduate student Ryan Herrmann (2020). Major: history and political science.
To start, can you tell me a little about what you’re working on more specifically this year?
When we think of public space, we have a lot of modern preconceptions about democratic forms of engagement and debate and so forth. I think there’s a tendency to assume that those don’t exist in nondemocratic and ancient societies, but there were spaces in those societies that functioned in many ways that had important centralized functions.
I’m looking at those spaces in Ptolemaic Egypt, specifically the gates of temples. People assume these are purely religious spaces, not having anything to do with all the other activity that goes on in ordinary life. But in fact, there were law courts that took place there where people settled disputes according to the accepted legal norms. There were important political pronouncements made there, so decrees were posted as part of the dissemination of knowledge to the larger population. People also erected statues of important individuals who held high office. They have all kinds of things going on that went on in the Ancient Greek agora.
This is interesting for my purposes because Ptolemaic Egypt was a period when Egypt was ruled by a dynasty of mostly Macedonians who very much adapted and adopted to the Egyptian ways. So, this space takes on another layer of interest because it was the site of translations for a centralized state that was controlled by Greek-speaking Macedonians who had a very important alliance with local, indigenous, Egyptian elites. So, you have public acts of communication and the very authoritative actions of the law courts that took on this interesting role of translating between cultures as well as negotiating with a central state. That’s why this topic is interesting to me, because it’s about how politics gets translated across cultural divides and across different countries.
What was the path that brought you to this topic?
My earlier work was on cultural and intellectual exchanges between Greeks and Egyptians showing Egyptians had a very important role and voice that could be uncovered in a lot of texts that hadn’t been recognized before. This time I wanted to work more specifically on the Ptolemaic dynasty, with Greek Macedonians ruling over the indigenous Egyptian population, and think about how they developed means of communication—a kind of middle ground to translate and work out an agreed upon understanding, or misunderstanding sometimes, of what they were talking about.
The more I got into the case studies, the more they started leading back to this physical space of the temples. A lot of consequential things turned out to be taking place there. Probably the most famous example was the Rosetta Stone. I like to say it’s the most famous, least-read document in the world. Everyone kind of knows what it is and why it was important, but nobody knows what it says. In fact, it’s a decree by a group of Egyptian priests honoring one of their Ptolemaic kings. They honor him as holding all of the values of traditional, Egyptian, Pharaonic kingship in various ways, but the form of the decree is very similar to the form of decrees passed in Ancient Greek cities in earlier periods. So, they consciously adopted a Greek form of decree to praise a Greek king as being a good Egyptian Pharaoh and posted it at the gates of the temple, which is also a Greek practice being adapted to the Egyptian conceptions of public space.
What are some of the key takeaways that you’ve found in doing your research?
I think the key takeaway would be that these spaces had important political and cultural and social functions that have been misrecognized. Because it’s a monarchical state, not a so-called western state, we look at the Egyptian state and don’t expect to see something like a town square. But within these state structures there is all kinds of dialogue, room for rational discussions, law, and those kinds of activities. The other part of it is what a critical role these played in the functioning of Ptolemaic Egypt. These practices were really critical to the sustained state and sometimes disputed the state as well. At times,these public areas and temples were also sites of violence.
How has being with other fellows helped drive your project?
It has been really fantastic. I gave my workshop a couple weeks ago and got extraordinary feedback. Presenting my big ideas in kind of an introductory chapter helped me to learn how to express it to wider audiences and figure out how to answer the question you just asked me: what’s the big takeaway here and how do I get that across? You get to a certain point within your field where you know more than anyone else and it can be slightly isolating. To help pull out what’s of wider significance is really productive. The other thing is that our particular group has had a real investment in crafting arguments and narratives in a way that’s compelling and rhetorically satisfying. Some of the aesthetic dimensions of how we do work in the communities have actually come to the fore in our conversations. It’s given me license to think a little more freely about expressing this in a way that’s going to be compelling on multiple levels, on aesthetic levels, and just general human interest levels.
What is one choice you were glad you made as an undergrad?
I’m so glad I decided to study Ancient Greek. It was just a side thing but when I took my first class I thought, “Wow, this is hard.” I’m so glad I discovered something that was challenging and that made me work. I still remember the first sentence of Greek that I translated because it took me three hours. I really believe that intellectually, stretching my mind and stretching into a different way of thinking and expressing opened up all of the gateways to fields that I had no idea about. You never know when you’ll find that one thing that you suddenly develop a kind of quasi obsession with and you desire to really get into it.
What advice would you give to current undergraduates?
I would say this is your time to try as much as you can and to take a sample from the smorgasbord that you have before you, especially at a place like Michigan, where the possibilities are enormous. So, I’d split it into two forms. One, try to find a hard skill that you want to nail down. For me it was languages, but something you can identify as a skill, whether it’s a skill of writing, a skill of close-textual reading, something like that. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, the biggest ideas possible. Then, between skills and big ideas, your interests will kind of coalesce in the middle somewhere. But if you have a grounding in the real hard skills, plus some big ideas to think about, you’re gold as far as your intellectual development. Those are things that carry forward in lots of others ways and in other fields.
Last question. Why do you think undergrads should study the humanities?
I think the ability to think yourself into other times, places, cultures, and minds is an incredible social skill. From a historical perspective, having the capacity to understand that things are the product of historical development helps you often to denaturalize things that are taken as givens and start thinking about prospects for new futures rather than getting stuck in the rut of the way things are.