Emma Dench, a classical historian whose interdisciplinary approach to ancient history has provided new insights into the Roman past and its contemporary relevance, has been appointed professor of history and classics in Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), effective Jan. 1.
Dench, 43, previously a visiting professor at Harvard for the 2005-06 academic year, comes to the University from Birkbeck College of the University of London where she was a professor of ancient history.
“Professor Dench has shown a great skill in merging teaching with research, invigorating classical history and speaking to its modern relevance,” said David Cutler, FAS dean for the social sciences. “At Birkbeck College and Harvard, she has attracted a new generation of scholars to ancient history through her engaging teaching style and dynamic academic research.”
Dench has written two books and is currently working on a third. Dench’s first book, “From Barbarians to New Men: Greek, Roman, and Modern Perceptions of Peoples from the Central Apennines” (Clarendon Press, 1995), offered a specialized study of the ancient Greek and Roman perceptions of Italian mountain peoples. Throughout the book, Dench traced the evolution of these views as these groups, which were initially seen as wild, dangerous barbarians, became known as loyal, honorable soldiers and citizens. In doing so, the book provided keen insight into the ways in which Romans viewed and transformed their neighbors.
In 2004, Dench completed “Romulus’ Asylum: Roman Identities from the Age of Alexander to the Age of Augustus” (Oxford University Press). In this second book, Dench expanded her fascination with civic identity, articulated in her previous book, to study the construction of Roman identities from the death of Alexander the Great to the early second century A.D. Encompassing this large swath of time from the mid- and late republic all the way past the rise of the empire, Dench eschewed the limited chronological framework normally seen in studies of ancient history to show the ways in which Romans fashioned their identity and spread it throughout the world. Starting in Rome and showing the ripple effect created throughout Italy and the provinces, “Romulus’ Asylum” explains the way in which Roman identity was morphed and distorted by different peoples throughout the Roman Empire.
Not content to rely simply on the textual records that have preoccupied ancient historians for generations, Dench’s work is marked by a careful engagement with classical archaeology, ethnography, and anthropology. Consequently, Dench moves beyond the realm of scientifically verifiable facts to study the ways in which fictions and cultural attitudes reveal the zeitgeist of Rome.
Dench is currently working on a book titled “Roman Imperialism and Culture” for the Cambridge University Press series “Key Themes in Ancient History.” In this work, she hopes to focus on the cultural changes that accompanied Roman imperialism as well as the problems that arise in structuring a narrative around such a wide-ranging historical subject. She also hopes to explore the problems of employing comparative approach when dealing with different empires throughout history.
Dench received all of her degrees from the University of Oxford. She holds a B.A. awarded in 1987, an M.A. awarded in 1989, and a D.Phil. in ancient history awarded in 1993. She has also been a member of the School of Historical Studies at Princeton University; a Cotton Fellow of the Dr. M. Aylwin Cotton Foundation; a Hugh Last Fellow and Rome Scholar at the British School at Rome; and a Craven Fellow at the University of Oxford.