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Role Models in the Roman World: Identity and Assimilation

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News Release

Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-9472

October 8, 2008

New professor of art history co-edits
‘exciting’ book on Roman role models

DeKalb — What the residents of ancient Rome left behind to portray their society is replete with written and artistic visions of their role models, such as Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and the god Apollo.

But were those male heroes, real and mythical, the role models to all? To women and children? To residents of the provinces? To slaves? And what of the “events” memorialized in sculpture and story? Did everyone consider those moments of glory as their leaders did?

Sinclair Bell, a new assistant professor of art history in NIU’s School of Art, and Inge Lyse Hansen, an assistant professor of art history at John Cabot University, are the editors of a new book of essays that examine those questions.

“Role Models in the Roman World: Identity and Assimilation,” was published in August by the University of Michigan Press.

Bell and Hansen were colleagues in Rome, where he was a fellow of the American Academy and she was on the staff of the British School. Intrigued by the premise of an academic exploration of different role models for different groups, they invited 15 scholars of the ancient world to speak at conference there in March 2003.

Lured by the location, the roster of world-renowned presenters encompassed several disciplines, including art, archeology, architecture, history, literature and philosophy. They traveled from around the globe, including the United States, Australia, Britain, Germany and Italy.

Those presentations became the essays that make up the book, which is earning praise for its fresh approach to Roman scholarship.

Research into Roman role models is extensive, Bell said, but this study of disparate social and cultural groups is revolutionary. The book also makes extensive use of visual material in addition to text, he said.

“Every period – every culture – has the concept of the role model,” Bell said. “I was impressed by just how manifold this concept was in antiquity.”

Among the thought-provoking pieces is one by Suzanne Dixon, senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Queensland, which posits how ancient Romans would have considered a “celebutante” like Paris Hilton. Ancient Romans dug deeply into their past for cultural symbolism, Bell said, whereas modern generations barely scrape beyond the surface of recent times for points of reference.

“ ‘Role Models in the Roman World’ is an exciting collection, striking for the interdisciplinary range of its contributors and for their vigorous debates – indeed, strong disagreements – about ideas that are currently of fundamental importance in Roman studies,” wrote Matthew Roller, professor of classics at Johns Hopkins University, in a book review. “In framing these crucial issues, and in displaying the range and diversity of current approaches to them, this collection will be useful to every student of the Roman world.”

Bell, educated as an archeologist at the universities of Oxford, Edinburgh and Cologne, arrived at NIU in August. He was previously a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Manitoba and has taught at the University of Iowa.

For more information on “Role Models in the Roman World,” visit

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