Staff Q&A: Alan Ross

Today, we have another interview, this time with Dr Alan Ross.
History at Southampton: How would you describe yourself as a historian?
Alan Ross: I tend to think of myself as a traditional Classicist: I use detailed linguistic and textual interrogation of ancient authors to answer literary, philosophical, and historical questions.

History at Southampton: What do you research?
AR: I work mostly on political literature of the later Roman Empire from the 4th Century AD, a time of rapid political, social, and religious change, and one of the most important periods of Latin literary history. The subject of my doctorate and first book was the greatest historian of Late Antiquity, Ammianus Marcellinus, a Greek who wrote the first large-scale historical work in Latin for more than two hundred years. I studied his depiction of the last pagan emperor, Julian (often called ‘the Apostate’), who usurped the throne, passed legislation against Christians, and died at the head of his army when invading Persia. I was interested in how Ammianus reshaped contemporary responses to Julian and fitted them within the generic confines of this traditional form of historical writing. I’m now working on political speeches of praise (‘panegyrics’), which were addressed to Julian’s predecessor, Constantius II. They offer a fascinating mix of philosophical theorizing on the nature of kingship, advice to the emperor, and dissemination of his propaganda.
History at Southampton: What sorts of questions are you interested in answering?
AR: The majority of our written sources for the ancient world are highly literary, and are shaped by long-standing, though fluid generic conventions. I’m always interested in questioning how literary form and expectation influenced the Romans’ presentation of their past, and how in turn we should use their texts as ‘sources’ to understand their society.
History at Southampton: What subjects do you teach? How would you describe your approach to teaching?
AR: I teach Roman History. At the moment I’m teaching a first-year module on the Emperor Augustus, the revolutionary first emperor of Rome, who overthrew the (somewhat) democratic Republic and instituted a monarchical system that was to endure, at least in the East, until the fifteenth century. Next semester I’ll be teaching a new module on the representations of emperors throughout the Roman imperial period, which will examine how ancient authors depict emperors in works of history and biography, and when and how it’s safe for them to criticise the monarch. Along the way we’ll encounter some of those great villains of imperial history: Nero, who sang when Rome burned, and Caligula who slept with his sisters and made his horse consul.

I tend to believe that spirited debate and fruitful discussion are the best ways to foster learning; a critical task for me as a teacher, then, is to know how to ask the right questions that will spark such debates and lead them in a productive direction. Otherwise I hope I create a relaxed and supportive atmosphere in my classes that enables everyone to feel able and confident to contribute.
History at Southampton: Why did you become a historian?
AR: I was fortunate to study both Latin and Greek at school—to begin with I enjoyed them solely as linguistic exercises, and was initially frustrated that our teachers expected us to go beyond mere translation and use the texts we read as the basis for literary and historical criticism. But the tables soon turned and I found the interplay of several different skills—linguistic, literary, and historical—very rewarding, as I have done ever since. As an undergraduate reading Classics I was drawn to ancient historiography, and the idea of studying literature as history and history from literature; it remained my focus throughout my graduate work. Needless to say, several dedicated and inspiring teachers helped along the way, and the idea of combining research with teaching in a career has been very appealing. I’ve done both independently, spending eighteen months as a Classics teacher in Berkshire, and three years as a research fellow in South Africa and Ireland; combing the two now at Southampton is an exciting prospect.
Students, have a think about taking Alan’s second-year module, ‘Roman Emperors and Imperial Lives: Between Biography and History, Praise and Blame’

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