I’ve held off posting about my new module, Italy Before Rome, for two reasons. Most importantly, I’ve been extremely busy writing and teaching it! But I’ve also held back because, although I had a vision for what I wanted the module to be like, and the ideas I wanted to get across, I didn’t know at the beginning of term exactly what we’d be covering. But four(ish) weeks into the course, I wanted to share and reflect on how the module is going so far.
I knew before I started teaching this module that I wanted to foreground sources that were made or written by the people of Italy themselves – sources such as coinage, votive statues, tomb paintings, inscriptions and buildings. Looking to Livy or Strabo or Dionysius of Halicarnassus for context is fine, and we’ve done that a lot too, but I wanted to stress the local or regional perspective. Partly, I wanted to dispel some myths about the Etruscans being ‘mysterious’ or Italians being barbarians with no culture, because if you reject those myths you can find a lot of fascinating things. Partly I wanted to see how students responded from being taken out of their comfort zone a little, even in the first and second year.
Part of what has made this module so much fun for me is that it combines teaching stuff I know a lot about and already have at my fingertips (Oscan-speaking Italy! the spread of the alphabet! early Latin inscriptions!) with things that I WISH I knew a lot about (Etruscans! Greek settlements!). I’ve learned a huge amount in the first few weeks of this module – I particularly enjoyed reading about the famous and influential Greeks of Italy, such as the poet Nossis and the philosophers Parmenides and Zeno, who I’d known by name but whose work I hadn’t really engaged with previously. I’ve also got very into some of the coins and red-figure vases from the south of Italy – trying to keep it interesting for those who don’t love inscriptions as much as I do. These images give us such a wealth of information about life in ancient Italy, but also about things such as the staging and plots of many lost Attic tragedies – something which we rarely get from ceramics made in Athens itself.
So, what have the students enjoyed about the course so far? Well, they’ve really engaged with the idea of using sources that come directly from Etruscan, Samnite and Italiote culture, rather than always relying chronologically and geographically distant Greco-Roman sources. Some of the reading we’ve enjoyed so far includes recent books on Greek foundation myths by Naoise Mac Sweeny, migrants and migration by Elena Isayev and ancient Samnium by Rafael Scopacasa. These books really get into the idea of using sources to talk about the construction of identities and the presentation of competing ideas and ideologies – concepts we’ve been getting to grips with throughout the course. We’ve also read a lot of blog posts from, well, me – but also from the CREWS project blog, Pompeian Connections and the Votives Project.
This module has really brought home to me, though, the need for an accessible book which introduces all these Oscan and Etruscan sources in English, and which can be used by students as well as professional historians and linguists. So many of the up-to-date introductions to basic things like the Etruscan alphabet are inaccessible to my students. Many of the best reading is found in blogs and online articles, but there’s also a large amount of misinformation out there on the internet, so that can be a major problem if you don’t know the field well. I’ve already been developing a book proposal based on this module – and teaching it has convinced me just how helpful that book would be!
As I did last year for the Roman Death module, I’ve been tagging various things related to this course with the hashtag #ItalyBeforeRome on twitter. If you have any comments or things to contribute, feel free to chime in over there.