Prof. Matthew Sears – As a political and military historian, my work tends to focus on the deeds of great individuals and the grand sweep of key historical events. On previous trips to Rome I have paused over monuments such as Trajan’s Column, depicting that emperor’s glorious military conquest of Dacia, or the Arch of Titus, showing the spoils taken in AD 70 from the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem. These magnificent structures are crucial to our understanding of how the Romans waged war and how the leaders of Rome conveyed their greatness to the masses. This trip to Rome, however, was much different.
My colleague, Professor Hartnett, is a social historian, concerned above all with understanding the everyday lives of the Roman people. Far removed from the power-brokers described in the histories of Livy, Suetonius, and Tacitus, the non-elites of the ancient Roman world belong to a class of individuals historians have dubbed “the people without history.” Because they are largely silent in the literary masterpieces passed down from the ancient world, the common people can only be understood through what they have left behind in the archaeological record – everything from electoral graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii, to the remains of their upstairs apartments in Ostia, and to the names inscribed on their grave-markers.
I encountered one of these grave-markers in the exquisite Epigraphical Museum of Rome, housed in what was once the grand edifice of the Baths of Diocletian. The stone is small and simple, containing a short, three-word inscription: Helena Lucretia Obstetrix. But this meager monument forced me to confront what was once a real, living person. Helena Lucretia – most likely a rich family’s slave or freedwoman, based on her grave’s location among the burials of a great noble house of the Late Republic – was a midwife, obstetrix in Latin. From literary and other sources we know a fair amount about the duties of midwives, but we know practically nothing about individual midwives themselves. Helena Lucretia, with her mixture of Greek and Roman names, was probably of non-Italian origin, or at least born to non-Italian parents. She seems to have worked her whole life for one of Rome’s wealthiest families, among whose members she was buried. She was proud enough of her profession, by no means the lowliest of servile tasks, to include it on her tombstone. Did she grow to love the family she served? Was she loved in turn? Her resting place, among the family she had attended her entire life while aiding the birth of each new child, suggests that both are true.
Following my encounter with Helena Lucretia, I was led around the museum by three of the students, Josh Jones, Wes Adams, and Alex Gillham, each pausing over an inscription that spoke to the themes they had selected for their respective papers. I have been continually impressed and surprised by how seriously Wabash students take their studies, and I was not disappointed in Italy. Approaching the material with fresh eyes, the students offered insights on how the Romans lived their lives that several times made me rethink what I thought I knew about the ancient world. In the Epigraphical Museum the students shared their perspectives on the graves of gladiators, the mysterious cult of the Eastern figure of Mithras, and a wealthy woman who advertised the expensive repairs she had made to a theatre. Demonstrating an admirable grasp of the course material, each student taught me something genuinely new.
Though I have been to Rome several times, eaten its food, gazed at its temples, and pondered its history, this time, with the help of Dr. Hartnett and Wabash’s excellent students, I feel that I encountered real ancient Romans.