History Summer Session to Explore Bread, Circuses, and Life in Ancient Rome

––Part of a continuing series profiling some of CMC's Summer Session offerings

In the intensive three-week course “Bread and Circuses in Ancient Rome” (May 22-June 12), CMC Assistant Professor of Roman and late Antique History Shane Bjornlie will explore various categories of Roman culture that defined both private lives and the public image of society.

Topics to be covered include wealth, patronage, gender, slavery, violence, and death. By examining a variety of primary sources–histories, poetry, letter, and urban fabric–students will better appreciate the ways in which private life in ancient Rome was a public performance.

We talked with professor Bjornlie about his favorite classical author, “Keeping up with the Janus’” in Ancient Rome, and what he does every summer at the beach.

CMC:  In what way was private life in Rome, a public performance? Was it a sort of “Keeping up with the Januses”?

Bjornlie:  Private life in ancient Rome was a public performance in the sense that Roman’s did not observe the same distinction between public and private that we do. Aspects of private life were subject to the scrutiny of a wide social and political audience. Especially for the elite classes, from whom so much of our evidence for the ancient world derives, individuals and families “performed” the semiotics of being “properly Roman” in day-to-day activities in a way that would legitimize their claim to being members of the social and political elite. Adhering to the proper definition of what it meant to be Roman required careful grooming and self-presentation not only in terms of activities associated with professional public life, but also aspects of Romans’ lives that we typically associate with the ‘private’ sphere, such as the household, sexual relations, and the choice of personal pastimes. This becomes even more complicated by the fact that Roman society was subject to the same kind of “culture wars” that animates our own society. In other words, it was never entirely clear what was “properly Roman,” although it was endlessly debated.

CMC: Who is your favorite classical Roman author, historian, or poet?

Bjornlie: My favorite Roman author is Apuleius, a Roman scholar and writer from North Africa who, in the 2nd century AD, wrote the only Latin novel to survive in complete form. Apuleius’ Metamorphosis or, as it is also known, The Golden Ass, follows the misadventures of a young Roman nobleman who is transformed into the lowest of beasts of burden. In the course of describing what happens to poor Lucius, Apuleius paints a dazzling landscape of Roman life that is filled with slaves, merchants, magistrates, charlatan priests and witches. Peering through the mythic mirage of Lucius’ transformation, however, one finds a poignant commentary on the life of the Roman slave and on spiritual salvation in the time of Roman emperors.

CMC:  Can you describe the moment when you knew you wanted to be a teacher?

Bjornlie:  When I realized that by becoming a college professor, I could make a career out of reading and talking about my favorite books!

CMC:  What is the best advice you ever received from a professor (or teacher) when you were a student?

Bjornlie:  My advisor in graduate school once told me that, “We think with the pen,” meaning that writing is not the end-product of thinking about a topic, but an integral part of the process of questioning and reasoning that enriches the conclusions that we reach. That piece of advice—to work through a historical problem by writing about it—has proven itself time and again ever since.

CMC:  Given the challenges that graduating seniors face entering a tough, global job market, what advice would you give to those students? How can they be more competitive? And, is there an advantage that a CMC education affords them?

Bjornlie:  Entry into an extremely competitive global market requires preparing to offer the market something that it couldn’t find elsewhere. CMC does this better than any other college by encouraging students to couple career-oriented academic tracks with other majors that demonstrate the diversity and flexibility of the minds trained here. Students should prepare for the global market by focusing on the foundations of a given career, but they should also allow other fields and disciplines to enrich that preparation in unexpected ways: law with the added advantage of a strong background in history, finance with philosophy, business with literature, government with religious studies, etc.

CMC:  What aspect of your summer material do you most look forward to sharing with students, or, what gets you excited?

Bjornlie:  Working with students to better understand a society (Roman society) in its own terms and to better understand that what we call “culture” is a continuous, transformative (and often contentious!) conversation between members of a society.

CMC:  What is the single favorite thing you like to do during summer?

Bjornlie: Read Apuleius (again) at the beach.