Greek, Rome, and the East

The panel of speakers at the Classics Symposium.
Photo by Ian Findling.

Monday evening, students and staff gathered in the Warch Campus Center’s Kraemer Conference Room to witness a series of brilliant mini lectures presented by professors and faculty stemming from various academic departments. Of these, the following gave presentations: Associate Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life Rev. Terra Winston, Assistant Professor of History Brigid Vance, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Martyn Smith, Assistant Professor of Art History Nancy Lin and Associate Professor of Russian Studies Peter John Thomas.

The symposium kicked off with an introduction by Professor of Classical Studies Randall McNeill, explaining its purpose and motivating question: most, if not all, civilizations believed themselves to be the focal point of the world — what happens if that logic is displaced? With a focus on Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Han Dynasty China and Edo period Japan, the speakers began their presentations.

The first speaker was Winston. Her presentation discussed the three major Jewish-Roman wars, with a focus on the Third Jewish War otherwise known as the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-136 CE). Winston detailed the severe implications this war had both in the second century and on the Jewish people of the present day, describing it as “one of the most important wars you’ve never heard of.”

The second speaker was Vance, whose topic of discussion followed how the Han Dynasty during the first century CE understood and viewed the Roman Empire. Her presentation detailed the extent to which the Han Dynasty pursued contact with the Roman Empire and the process through which this effort took place. After analyzing a series of Han Dynasty texts from that era which explain the Han Dynasty’s perception of the Roman Empire as a “mirror empire to the West,” Vance gave a warm closing statement, saying, “For the Han Dynasty, the way ‘the other’ was framed was actually as the self.”

Smith took the stage next with a presentation regarding Mithraism in Roman-Era London. Smith brought photos self-taken from his visceral experience within the London Mithraeum, giving insight into the fascination — both ancient and in present day — Londoners have with the London during the Roman Empire. Smith’s slideshow explored the ancient Roman Temple of Mithras — excavated in 1954 and since decorated into an enormous, 1.6-billion-dollar museum — as well as the history of the mysterious “lost religion” of Mithraism. 

Lin stepped forth to discuss how the people of Edo Japan (1603-1868 CE) would have imagined the Roman Empire though the filtered lens of the West. Lin began with an explanation of the state of a flourishing Japan during the Edo period and how, once contacted by the Dutch in 1600 CE, their image of the Roman Empire, through drawings, paintings and texts received from the Dutch, existed not as the territory it was in 1600, but as it had over a millennium before. 

Lin gave the Colossus of Rhodes as an example that, although an earthquake destroyed it in the third century BC, the Japanese looked upon illustrations of the monument and believed it to still exist. This “delay of time” shaped the Japanese peoples’ perception of the West in a way that few other societies experienced.

The final speaker was Thomas, whose discussion explored Russian identity in the 19th Century as captured by philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. Thomas — who claimed Solovyov to be “one of (if not the) most important philosophers of the Russian tradition” — brought Solovyov’s beautiful poem “Ex Oriente Lux” to stage, in which Solovyov defines Russia as “the East” and debates what kind of “East” it is to be. The inherent dilemma was this: to be an East of war or an East of love. Thomas concluded, grimly, that the path Russia would take would be one of war. 

Finally, once all the speakers had presented, questions were taken from the audience. McNeill responded with a plethora of intriguing questions and observations. After a healthy applause from the thirty-or-so staff and students in attendance, the symposium concluded.