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In 1943 the world was on fire. The campus, too, burned with change — while a little booklet taught students the genteel manners of courtship.
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Classics Professor David Potter teaches students about sports in ancient Rome, and how to think like a historian.
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Faculty at work
David Potter: Do as the Romans did?
February 12, 2008
One of David Potter's favorite teaching moments occurred outside of the classroom, when he ran into a student who'd recently taken his popular survey course, Sports and Daily Life in Ancient Rome. Potter, who is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Greek and Latin, told his former student that he was indeed teaching it again this year, but it had changed quite a bit.
"Huh," the student replied. "I never really realized that history changes."
That was about ten years ago. "And at that point," Potter says, laughing, "we began to intensify the work we do on the dialogue of history."
The dialogue of history begins with certain fundamental questions: What is the evidence? What does it mean? What conclusions can be drawn from it? What are the implications of those findings?
Class assignments now require students to engage these questions, which means reading the surviving, sometimes contradictory evidence, and then analyzing and making decisions about it. "We give them these assignments that drive them crazy, asking them to think about perspectives. For example, how would a particular account be different if it were written by a woman or a slave? Because we don't hear from women or slaves very often in antiquity."
Potter constantly integrates new archeological findings into the class, so that the syllabus changes along with history. He often doesn't have to go far to locate them. There's the Internet, of course, and across the corridor in Angell Hall are two archeologists and a papyrologist. "There's a constant dialogue going on. It's a very lively department."
Archeology isn't Potter's only source for his interpretation of Roman sport. He gestures in the direction of The Big House, smiles wryly, and says, "Michigan is a unique institution." His relationship with the athletic department—he serves on the Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics—informs the questions he asks when approaching the evidence about ancient Rome and its sporting culture, which he refers to as an "entertainment system."
Not many classicists have the opportunity to spend a Saturday afternoon with "111,000 of their closest friends, watching people beat the crap out of each other, with a band playing," Potter points out. Nor have they taught students who have played, and indeed been injured, on such a field, as he has. He adds, "The Romans always had a band playing when the gladiators were fighting."
Recently, Potter has been focusing on the contemporary discussion about what goes wrong with imperial states, a discussion that invariably refers back to Rome, as it has since 1776 when Gibbon published Volume I of "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
"People do draw analogies with the past," he says, "and it's not a good thing when they're false analogies."
According to Potter, "The constant lesson of the Roman Empire is constantly missed by imperialists of the modern age." The Romans did more than conquer the barbarians, and make them behave like Romans; they allowed the barbarians to rule Rome, as Senators, and even as Emperors. "The English imperialists," Potter says, "would have died rather than let a man from India be a member of Parliament or prime minister."
Potter applies this analogy to the war in Iraq, and finds the Bush administration's strategy wanting. "If your plan is to tell the Iraqi people to have an American style democracy, and walk away, what do you give them? If we were to offer people in Iraq the chance to be members of Congress, I think you'd find that the trouble in Iraq would dissipate rather more rapidly. But we're unwilling to be open to the message of the world's greatest imperialists"—that is, the Romans—"which is that you've got to share power."
In a series of erudite letters to the editor of the Financial Times he has elaborated upon these views; one of these letters sparked the ire of a real estate agent from upstate New York, who sent Potter an e-mail. "He said he desperately hoped my house would be blown up." The carefully-worded message didn't constitute a criminal offense—a hope is not a threat, and according to Potter the authorities weren't the least bit concerned.
Potter himself seems to have found the episode more fun than frightening, if only because it confirms the relevance of the Roman Empire to the ongoing conversation about how governments, ours in particular, wield their power in the world.
And Potter relishes any conversation about the ancient world, whether it starts with contemporary politics or sports, or with popular depictions of antiquity, such as "Gladiator," which he applauds as "the first movie that gets people to cheer for the Romans as if they were Romans", or "300," which he says is "terrible history, overtly east vs. west."
Nonetheless, he'll be talking about it next semester in his course on ancient warfare. "Anything that gets people interested," he says, "is worth having."
"Faculty at Work" writer Lynne Raughley lives in Ann Arbor Michigan with her husband and their three-year-old son.