As we gathered around the scale model of the Forum of Augustus, our esteemed program director, Dr. Bucher, posed a question that was not covered in the reading: “What is this? A forum for ants!?” This was the first of many models which culminated in the aptly dubbed “museum for ants” the Museo della Civilta Romana. But museums and models and lines from Zoolander were only part of the fun.
Being a student at the American Academy in Rome’s Classical Summer School, as the recipient of Eta Sigma Phi’s American Academy in Rome Scholarship, one begins to feel rather insane. We set out to travel through about 1100 years of Rome’s history (mostly on foot), combining visits to archaeological sites with museum and church trips. We not only studied past scholarship but were given the chance to interact with current scholars. The course was structured chronologically and while this made the information more comprehensible and orderly, it had a couple of bizarre repercussions. The first of these was that, since I had never been to Rome, I was excited by everything. I wanted to know what everything was the moment I saw it. On our first day we went to the Palatine hill to see the remains of archaic huts. As we marched past the Palace of Domitian and the house of the Griffin and other intriguing sites, in my mind I kept saying “Wait! What’s that? That looks neat! Let’s go talk about that!” This was something I had to get over—especially in the Roman Forum which we visited on at least eight separate occasions. It was, however, a challenging exercise in make-believe, attempting to see Rome as it was at a single moment in time, all the while imagining away everything else.
The second repercussion was that weeks began inevitably to have themes. First there were huts. Huts became a theme for the whole course, actually. Then it was manubial temples. Suddenly they were everywhere! Where did all these manubial temples come from? And what exactly does ‘manubial’ mean? [Manubial comes from the Latin ‘ex manubiis’ and refers to a structure built from war spoils. These manubial temples in particular were vowed to a deity on the battle-field in return for victory.] We saw manubial temples that are now cat sanctuaries, manubial temples that were excuses to build theaters, manubial temples that were consecrated to who-knows-whatgod (though we’d hear all the possibilities anyway). Later, fora became the thing to do and even later churches became just as prevalent as the temples.
In addition to learning hosts of new words—manubial, peripteral (columns on all sides), revetment (any type of protective facing, such as marble or stone) etc.—the course was challenging in ways I did not expect. Having only studied the literature and history of Rome, I was a Tiro in this new world of scholarship. I was a bit overwhelmed being thrust into the archaeology and art history of this culture I thought I knew so much about. Luckily, one of the goals of the course was not only to make us more educated in the interpretations of the material remains but also to train us to interpret them for ourselves.
After visiting sites for a few weeks, hearing Dr. Bucher and others discern loads of information from the partial remains of tabernae or a small section of a once gargantuan temple, we were expected to do the same. Going through the process myself, it was exhilarating to realize the quantity of material I had learned and my new capability of engaging with an ancient site. What once would have been a series of mosaic floors and a roof with high windows was now an entire bath complex with clerestory lighting. It was thrilling how much I could learn from a few rocks and a column base once I knew what to look for.
Each student also had the chance to research and present on a piece of art, statue, building, or anything else we would see during the course. I presented on the Aldobrandini Wedding fresco, a 1st century A.D. wall painting now kept in the Vatican Museum. Despite my lack of familiarity with art history, I tried to learn as much about this painting as possible and was so excited to see it in person. Unfortunately, the Vatican had other plans for me. Two days before our visit to the museum, Dr. Bucher informed me that we were granted access to every room he wanted us to see, except the Aldobrandini room. Nevertheless, I found this presentation to be one of the most rewarding aspects of the course.
Students could tailor their experiences in a way that suited their needs, whether academic, personal, or professional. With such a diverse group which included Latin teachers, graduate students, undergraduates, and me (who didn’t quite fit into any of the three categories) we were all able to get something different out of the program. A single site could, for one student, be the basis of a lesson about Roman triumphs, while another might use what was learned there in a master’s thesis, and yet another could discover a niche within classics to pursue further.
The course was also, surprisingly, an introduction to particular quirks of Italian culture. Often our access to certain sites or restricted areas was dependent on a certain person with keys. If we stopped in a small town outside of Rome for fifteen minutes or so, it wasn’t for a bathroom break (although we gladly used it as such) but a necessary stop to meet up with the one guy who held the key to our adventure that day. We also had to adapt to eating a traditional three course Italian dinner. The first course, which was always pasta or risotto, most of us mistook as the entire meal. In addition we got used to the cooks persistently encouraging us to try lots of foods and being thrilled when we wanted to eat more. It wasn’t until I returned to the United States that I realized how accustomed I had become to things I wouldn’t be able to take back with me, like porcini mushroom pizza and being a short bus ride away from the Museo Capitolini.
Although my immediate feelings leaving Rome concerned what I could not take away, how much I have taken away becomes more and more evident as time goes on. After learning about the Roman Empire and seeing how fascinating this period of Roman history is, I decided to take a course on Tacitus’ Annals in order to understand it better. I am finding that not only does what I learned this summer connect to the content of the course, but my summer in Rome makes me feel closer to the people and events described in the history. I am also looking forward to the ways in which these experiences will make me a stronger teacher. I am grateful to everyone in Rome who made this course happen: Dr. Bucher, Lauren Kinnee, the staff at the American Academy and the Centro, and many guest lecturers we met. Finally, I would like to thank Eta Sigma Phi, without whose generous support my participation in this program would not have been possible.