Why study the ancient world?

I often get asked why I study the ancient world. Everyone you ask this question will have a different answer. I thought I’d start this blog off with my answer to that so common question.

My story starts, as I’m sure most do, with my mother. When I was a child, she would tell stories about the Roman emperors, gleaned from her tattered copy of Suetonius Lives, that she read in high school. This inspired not only an interest in history, but a love of stories. When I finally went to university myself, the first in my family to do so, this interest led me straight to the Classics department, where I found so many more stories to explore.

My current research focuses on Livia Drusilla, the wife of Augustus Caesar. I don’t know how old I was when my mother and I watched I, Claudius together for the first time – too young to really understand the nuance of the show, to be sure. From the first appearance of Siân Philips as Livia, I was hooked. Here was a powerful woman, who was highly intelligent, using her position to benefit her family.

Studying the imperial consort during my degree, I was struck by how different she appeared in the work of different authors. I wanted to understand how we came to her characterisation in I, Claudius. What influences shaped our modern understanding of such a woman? How is our view, as modern readers, with all of our assumptions and values, filtered through the literature of the intervening years? My research looks for portrayals of Livia in literature in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, to identify those influences.

The more interpretations of Livia I read, the more I realise the character of this great woman is lost to time. Faint echoes are all we have left – and yet her story is that of so many women – modern, ancient, medieval – overshadowed by the men in their lives, dedicated to their families and working within their context, often facing barriers, to demonstrate, over and over, the amazing things they can achieve.