A Day in the Life of a Classicist

This week, Philippa speaks to PROFESSOR CHRISTOPHER SMITH, Director of the British School at Rome.







Christopher tells Iris about the unique atmosphere at the BSR, his own Classical odyssey, and going behind the scenes of Rome.


What drew you to the position of BSR Director?


I first came to the BSR in the late 1980s when I was working on my doctorate at Oxford.  It was a transformative experience, as it has been for so many; a superb library, and an amazing group of people studying so many different things, and producing wonderful art, all in this most extraordinary city.  Since then, the BSR has only got better, and it remains to my mind one of those most precious places where the life of the mind is respected and fostered.  The chance to give something back to an institution I love was irresistible. 

Do you feel that the BSR makes a singular contribution to the pursuit of Classical scholarship?


The BSR is not just about Rome.  Our work covers Italy, North Africa, Spain and all periods from the Neolithic to the contemporary, both in research and in practice.  There is no doubt however that our access to the city of Rome, our research over the years in many areas of the city and its hinterland, and the depth which is given by an understanding of the many different phases in the discovery of Rome (Middle Ages, Renaissance, Grand Tour, 19th century and contemporary) has made us a unique contributor to classical scholarship. 

The ability to see the visible – and the hidden – ruins of Rome, to use the wonderful Library resources, and to discuss discoveries with colleagues across an enormous breadth of disciplines has fostered some terrifically exciting results.  Recent research on trade, on iconography, on urban infrastructure, on the seven hills, even on shopping in antiquity, all had their genesis in the BSR, and I am far from the only person who traces almost everything that they have achieved as a scholar back to this place.

Many Classics award holders have gone on to hold high positions (Meiggs, Brunt, Badian, and the current Camden Chair of Roman History Nicholas Purcell all had awards at the BSR), and many recent award holders are now teaching in universities across the world, for example Amy Russell in Durham, Clare Rowan in Warwick and Jane Draycott in Trinity St. David’s to name just three, but we are equally proud of the many students on our postgraduate taught courses who now teach and inspire new generations of classicists in schools across the UK.

What particular aspect of the BSR do you think most attracts its visiting students and potential award-holders?


Time and opportunity.  The time to study, without distraction or interruption.  One can get so much done here because the ethos of the BSR is to facilitate excellent research – the Library is open shelves, and accessible 24 hours a day for residents.   Breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner are all provided, so you can just immerse yourself in work then discuss your research over supper with other scholars from across the world.  And the opportunity to see things no tourist  would see. Our staff are dedicated to obtaining access for our scholars and artists to normally closed sites and archives – and where possible other residents can also go along, and hear about the sites from the experts.  One of last year’s highlights was seeing the Jewish catacombs at Vigna Randanini with Susan Walker, our Hugh Last Fellow and Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum, but that was just one of dozens of trips we took.

How would you describe the ambience at the BSR?


It is the liveliest intellectual environment I have ever known.  Every day is different, every day brings new visitors, new events, new ideas and it is an astonishing privilege to spend time in this community.  There are about 80 conferences, workshops, exhibitions and public lectures a year here, and there is always something new to learn.  Nearly 600 people come through the BSR each year, on awards, visits and courses, and not just British scholars and artists.  We have a strong Commonwealth remit and our membership is drawn from all corners of the world.  People come to work, and we do everything we can to make a productive and focused environment, but dinners and lunches offer the chance to talk, relax and learn in different ways.

What is your favourite place in Rome and why?


For me, it is the tiny area near the senate house, which was covered over in the first century BC by the black stone or Lapis Niger, because the ground level had risen so much.  The area has recently been opened up, and looking down from the Augustan level pavement, one can glimpse the remains of a 6th century altar, and the famous inscription, with its reference perhaps to a king and an assembly.  One can see the whole history of Rome from monarchy through Republic to empire in just a few metres – and recent work is showing us more of how interesting the religious activity was here and nearby.


What are you working on at the moment research-wise?


I am delighted to be working as part of a team led by Catherine Steel at Glasgow University to produce a new edition of the Fragmentary Roman Orators – to complement the Fragmentary Roman Historians which will be published later this year. 

There are lots of exciting projects with other academies in Rome – we are hosting two major conferences in the autumn, one on Tarquinius Superbus and one on the Romans’ knowledge and use of the past.  I continue to be fascinated by the way the Romans use their period of kingship as a touchstone and resource, and I hope to bring my ideas on that together over the next couple of years.  I am also continuing to work more on Varro.

How has your Classical career evolved?


I was lucky to go to a state school which taught Greek and Latin, but what I really loved was history.  I had the huge good fortune to go to Oxford, where Adrian Hollis taught me about fragments, and Peter Derow, amongst others, taught me how to think as a historian.  There were so many opportunities to engage with the very best scholarship.  The BSR was the next important step for me, and my doctorate helped me towards an increasing engagement with archaeology and material culture.  I was then lucky to follow another historian with close ties to the BSR, Geoffrey Rickman.  Geoffrey had been instrumental in creating a strong ancient history department alongside Greek and Latin at the University of St Andrews, and it was and is a marvellous place to teach.  Over the years, what is now the School of Classics has grown and evolved, and its commitment to outreach and to access is a really important part of its ethos, but also a St Andrews virtue.  When I first went there, colleagues still recalled when all St Andrews students had to take some Latin!  So I have really only worked in three places – Oxford, St Andrews and Rome, and I count myself very fortunate to have done so.

What top 3 reasons to study Classics would you give to a newcomer to the languages?


Learning any language opens the world up and the formal learning of classical languages is a good intellectual discipline. 
Studying the Classics allows access to some of the most interesting ideas and the most challenging artistic expressions; and it helps one to share and understand the intellectual background of a large part of the world from the Middle Ages on. 
Learning about the ancient world is in itself fascinating: political shenanigans, murder, celebrity culture, spies and whistle-blowers - it's all there.  But it is also an inspiration to look further afield, and this is part of the great excitement of any learning.
Would you share one of your greatest ambitions for the future? 


I hope to leave the BSR as well placed as it can be to continue the mission laid down for it over a hundred years ago “to promote knowledge of and deep engagement with all aspects of the art, history and culture of Italy by scholars and fine artists from Britain and the Commonwealth, and to foster international and interdisciplinary exchange.”  It would be foolish to deny that these are difficult times for us and for many in the public sector.  I believe that higher education in general, and Classics within that, gives opportunity to people, and helps provide the grounds on which civilized society may be built and sustained.  The current BSR buildings were opened to residents in 1916 – itself an extraordinary act of hope at a terrible time.  My ambition is that in 2016 the residence will be made fit to enter a second century of inspirational and transformative scholarship and research, as part of the rich intellectual world from archaeology to zoology and all points between which human curiosity has created.  

Favourite Greek/Latin quote? 


Varro describes scholarship as like a hunt, and although the thought is not especially original (and the translation a little adventurous), it is a good account of the unending adventure of scholarship…
Varro, On the Latin Language, 5.5
'For in the wood where we must capture the fugitive knowledge of the past, the darkness is profound; there are no trodden paths to reach the place we need to get to, and the paths are full of obstacles to hold the hunter back'.


You can follow events at the BSR on its website www.bsr.ac.uk

Also on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/British-School-at-Rome-the-BSR/373618910214) 

and Twitter (https://twitter.com/the_bsr).


Credit for image: Sophie Hay