BY J. TROY SAMUELS, Ph.D. student, University of Michigan Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology
As a student in the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology moving from the coursework phase of my time at U of M toward the dissertation-writing phase, I had the opportunity this summer for preliminary research in my dissertation topic: non-elites in Republican central Italy. Archaeology has long been a discipline associated with the material of elite lifestyle. It has often been far easier to attract interest with a fancy temple or golden ornament than with the potentially mundane trappings of non-elite life. Because of this, non-elites in the ancient world have, in general, received considerably less attention than their elite compatriots. While this imbalance has been changing over the past half century, there is still (thankfully for me) much work to be done.
My current research focuses on a major lacuna for studies of this important group: the early and middle Republican period (roughly speaking, the early 4th century through the early 1st century BCE) in central Italy. Non-elites are not the only poorly understood topic for this period; this has always been a bit of an archaeological terra incognita (the typical example for this lack of information being mid-Republican Rome itself, where Augustan and later Imperial building projects have largely obscured the city’s “teenage” years). However, new research has begun to expand our understanding of life during this formative phase of the Roman state. The University of Michigan excavations at Gabii have been leading the way in these discoveries, uncovering Republican habitation on a scale hitherto unseen (for more, see my earlier blog post/associated links). However, as much of this activity is elite in appearance, the non-elites at Gabii remain enigmatic.
This past summer, while excavating at Gabii, I have made a conscious effort to promote the study of the city’s non-elite population. This has taken both a research-based and a pedagogical form. It is important to question what exactly we mean by elite: is it a value judgment based on the quality of material or craftsmanship? Is it based on our assumptions about life in Republican Italy? While I do not have (nor do I believe there is) an easy answer to this question, it has been productive reformulating this in as many ways as possible. It has also, I hope, been productive in challenging the students working at Gabii, making them question the material they are excavating. In doing so, they can begin to consider the less visible, possibly non-elite, individuals involved in the production, consumption, and distribution of the artifacts we discovered. This summer has proved highly productive, and I hope that my continuing research will help problematize and further bring to the forefront these sometimes invisible yet crucially important participants in Roman life.