JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Seth Bernard

January 6, 2023 by Sonja Johnston

Seth Bernard (Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, 2012) is associate professor of Roman history in the Department of Classics. He works on the social and economic history of Roman Italy, and his work is characterized by its broad methodological interests in combining historical, textual, archaeological, and scientific evidence. He joins the JHI in 2022-23 as one of our Faculty Research Fellows.

JHI: What are your main research interests?

SB: I study the history of the Roman world, and I work in particular on the economic and social history of Roman Italy during the early stages of imperial state-formation, by which I mean the 5th to 3rd centuries BCE. This was when Rome first expanded its power across the peninsula. I also work on similar themes in the earlier Iron Age period, before Rome conquered the peninsula. To do this sort of work, I use both historical and archaeological methods, and much of my work moves between the fields of ancient history and archaeology. In part that movement comes out of necessity, as textual sources are either lacking, or they are mostly written from elite perspectives. Thus, the sort of subaltern and non-elite histories of Italy in this period that most interest me are often most easily reconstructed from material culture. I also just think that archaeology and allied approaches have a great deal to offer in terms of novelty—they often present a sense of discovery that is sometimes rare in the field of Roman history. I co-direct the excavation of an ancient city in Italy north of Rome, and I have another current project working with climate scientists to write an environmental history of my period. Both of these projects are turning up a lot of fresh material to consider in historical terms, and I find that kind of work really fun and rewarding.

JHI: What project(s) are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it (them)?

SB: My JHI project is a study of the emergence of Roman slavery. In global histories of labor, Rome forms the archetypal example of a slave society, where human bondage was so entrenched in the structures of the political economy that it pervaded all aspects of Roman life. I am interested in how this came about. A lot of recent work has struggled to trace the origins of Rome’s slave society in particular because the archaeological and textual evidence point to two very different formative processes. I am arguing that these narratives can be joined by a more contextualized view that understands Roman slavery not as a singular phenomenon, but as something which emerged out of wider regional patterns of slaveholding. The fact is that Rome was by no means unique as a slaveholding society in the 4th c. BCE Mediterranean, but all the various peoples Rome encountered (Etruscans, Italiote Greeks, Gauls, Carthaginians, etc.) also operated in slave-taking and slave trading. What Roman power served to do was to catalyze these interests. Once we recognize how pervasive slavery was in the Central Mediterranean world of the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, we can also read a number of different forms of evidence as somehow related to slaveholding. The result, I hope, will be a more complete picture that joins together different forms of evidence, both textual and material, to shed light on an important case study for the impact of state-formation and empire on patterns of coercive labor and human bondage.

JHI: What are you hoping to experience this year as a JHI Fellow? What are you most looking forward to?

SB: Definitely the new perspectives gained from comparison and cross-temporal or cross-cultural comparison. I have always enjoyed using the Roman world to think about wider issues. This has a sort of two-way impact of showing why it can be illuminating to study the deep past, and how ancient historians can draw insights from other periods to shed light on the early periods of history we study. In that regard, I’m really excited to think through some of the problems in my own work by way of considering how historians, anthropologists, literary scholars, and others are approaching problems in their areas. This interest in comparison extends also to the modern world: obviously, the ancient Mediterranean was a very different place from our world today. But we are, after all, humans dealing with human problems, and I think there’s sometimes more to be learned than we realize in confronting modern and ancient issues. By the same token, I hope that I can show the ancient world as a sort of laboratory for testing or developing ways of thinking that are also applicable to today’s issues. The story of Roman Italy is one of the impact of a central imperial power upon a diverse group of indigenous cultures. Certainly, I would think that history continues to hold relevance today in comparative terms.

JHI: Share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by

SB: I’ll choose a scholarly work: in preparation for this year, I’ve been reading Jan Lucassen’s monumental new The Story of Work: A New Human History. Lucassen starts in the Stone Age and runs through the modern period. It’s a startlingly ambitious book by a really talented historian, but so far I think he pulls it off really well. Scholars have spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between “labor" and “work" (I think here of Hannah Arendt, among others), with “work” being a feature of modern capitalism. To an extent that’s true, but Lucassen shows that there are social aspects of labor that extend well into the deep human past. For me thinking about my own corner of that deep past, this is a very valuable move. It’s also just sort of a fun read, as there aren’t many people out there who can pull of that sort of global, diachronic perspective.

JHI: What is a fun fact about you?

SB: When I was 18, I traveled across continental North America by bicycle, from Tacoma, Washington to Rye, New Hampshire. We camped along the way, it took two months, and I nearly wrecked one of my knees. I read John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World series that summer, some of my favourite books, and I think reading those works in that context really trained my interests to the intimate relationship between landscape and human histories.