Google Maps and “The Suffragette Statue”. Or Why the Way we Map Monuments is Important

The statue - unveiled at last.
The Statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square. Artist Gillian Wearing. Source: Wikipedia.

The place where monuments are set up matters. In the fifth century BC the Athenians set up the famous statues of the so-called tyrant-killers – men who’d actually murdered the brother of a local autocratic ruler and thereby played a role in ushering in their celebrated democracy – in the middle of their agora, the city’s main public square. Next month Stephen Hawking’s ashes will be interred in Westminster Abbey near the graves of Newton and Darwin in order to acknowledge his place among the great names of British science. And that much-mocked bust of Ronaldo that did the rounds on social media last year was set up at Madeira’s airport to greet visitors and remind them that the island was the footballer’s birthplace. Monuments take a large part of their meaning from their spatial setting. At the same time monuments can reshape the meaning of their setting in a kind of conversation.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been writing an article exploring the relationship between statues and their public setting both in the ancient world and in modern culture. To illustrate some of the key issues I’ve discuss the statues of Parliament Square in London. In the process I came across some features about the way in which certain statues are labeled on Google Maps, which I found interesting and which I think have important implications. In particular these observations concern the recently unveiled statue of Millicent Fawcett, the first woman to be granted a statue on the square or “the suffragette” as Google called her.

Screenshot 2018-05-27 13.46.29
Parliament Square on Google Maps zoomed in far enough to show “The Suffragette Statue”
Screenshot 2018-05-27 13.46.29 copy
Close up of the image above large enough to be able to read the caption “The Suffragette Statue”

The unveiling of the new statue just over a month ago on 24th April this year was celebrated nationally and attended by a number of high profile politicians including the PM and the Mayor of London. But the monument has not been without its detractors. A rival group of campaigners has argued – and is still arguing – that Emmeline Pankhurst would be a more fitting recipient of the honour of being the first woman to get a statue in the square. Pankhurst already has a statue in London and not so far from Parliament Square at the southwest end of the Palace of Westminster. It was set up in 1930 and moved to its present location in 1958. I wanted to use this controversy to discuss the way that location matters. Pankhurst’s advocates don’t just care that she has a statue. They care about where she has a statue. Parliament Square with its bronze likenesses of Churchill, Lloyd George, Disraeli, Gandhi, Mandela and six other exclusively male statesmen is seen as the more prestigious, the more symbolically charged location.

The Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst Memorial. Source Wikipedia.

To make my point more precisely I thought I’d check with Google Maps just how long a walk it is between Parliament Square and the Pankhurst memorial (about 500 m) and that’s when I became interested in the way that the website subtly ranks the importance of the various statues on the square. Most of the statues aren’t shown at all – only those of Churchill, Peel, Palmerston, Gandhi and the new statue of Fawcett are marked. However, while the men were all given names, Fawcett’s monument, as already mentioned was labeled “the suffragette statue”. The implication was that this wasn’t a statue of any particular campaigner for votes for women but rather a generic representation of an anonymous suffragette. There was also something striking about the order in which the statues appeared as I zoomed in and out of the map. Zoomed right out the only statue that was marked was that of Churchill. Zooming in slightly further Peel, Gandhi and Palmerston appeared but it was only when I zoomed right in that the “statue of sufraggette” was shown at all. As mentioned the other statues weren’t marked at all but in the hierarchy of monuments that are shown Fawcett’s was the one deemed least important. Finally, while the others were all marked with symbols suggesting some kind of monument the Fawcett statue had the icon of a camera suggesting it was something someone happened to have snapped a picture of but not a real monument in the same sense as the others.

So why is any of this important?

The meanings of statues and other monuments are not fixed in stone – or bronze. Statues mean different things to different people. Their importance for a society as a whole can wax or wane over time. We can forget who they represent or we can decide that the people who were granted statues in the past don’t actually deserve them. Within a generation or two of setting up their statues of the tyrant killers the Athenians were already debating whether the murder they had committed had in fact been a public service – a political assassination – or whether it was actually the result of a lovers’ quarrel. Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square is the one shown when you zoom out furthest on Google Maps because Churchill, voted as “the Greatest Britain” of all time in 2002, is arguably our most famous leader. But he owes that status to the importance we now attach to the Second World War and there is nothing to say that with the passing of time he will continue to enjoy the same significance. Even now his statue has periodically been defaced. Whether the vandals’ grudge is actually against Churchill himself or whether his fame simply makes the statue an obvious target for venting anger is a different question. The point is that not everyone reveres the statue – its importance is contested.

The meaning of the statuary assemblage of Parliament Square as a whole is also continually changing and being redefined as new statues are added. Where once it was the preserve of statues of Britain’s most illustrious political leaders, with statues of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela it has now become a commemorative space that transcends national boundaries and is somewhere for celebrating universal human aspirations toward equality, dignity and peace. The addition of Fawcett’s statue makes sense in this context. As the first statue of a woman in the square it is a powerful challenge to the previously exclusive maleness of the square. That was the whole point of erecting it. Labelling all the male statues on the map while referring to Fawcett simply as “the suffragette” rather undermines that point, to put it mildly.

Fawcett’s statue didn’t just happen to appear in the square. It was the end result of a campaign started by activist Caroline Criado-Perez who was frustrated that all the other statues in Parliament Square were of men. She started an online petition, which gathered nearly 85,000 signatures and the support of several high profile celebrities and politicians. Decisions were made about who the recipient of this first female statue should be, about the artist commissioned to make the work, about how the statue should be portrayed and where exactly it should stand.

The choice of Fawcett, one of the early pioneers of the cause for female suffrage in Britain, was made by Criado-Perez and the statue’s unveiling was timed to coincide with the centenary of women – or at least women over 30 – being granted the vote in 1918. The message of the statue – like all statues – is a complex one in which most of the details are significant. Above all, however, the statue is there to remind us that political equality for women was hard fought and that the struggle against discrimination is by no means over. The banner the statue holds before it proclaims “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere” – words written by Fawcett herself – and is a call to us to remain vigilant.

The importance of Fawcett’s statue will undoubtedly change over time. As the newness wears off and it becomes part of the furniture of the square it will be absorbed into the national consciousness. It will undoubtedly be joined by new statues, some of them probably – hopefully – also of women. The people honoured by statues and the things they are honoured for will create a conversation between these monuments through which their meaning will be subtly altered.

But such conversations don’t just take place within the settings where monuments stand and between the monuments themselves. They also take place in the real world – in the pages of newspapers, between families and friends and, increasingly, online. How much importance we attach to Fawcett’s statue and the meanings we attribute to it will be determined by these conversations. The way that Google Maps portrayed the monument was a contribution – albeit perhaps a small one – to this conversation and one that definitely downplayed the statue’s significance by neglecting to name her and by presenting her statue as somehow less important than those of the men.

Images of people who made a major contribution to the cause of female suffrage shown on the base of Millicent Fawcett’s statue

The plinth on which Fawcett’s statue stands is intended to challenge the vision of history, suggested by the other monuments in the square, in one more important way. On it are inscribed the names and likenesses of 55 women and 4 men who also made a significant contribution to the cause of female suffrage. This is an argument against the all too common view that history is shaped by great men, which galleries of statues usually end up reinforcing. The base of Fawcett’s statue reminds us that the struggle to obtain the vote for women was not achieved solely through the efforts of one individual. One of the names inscribed there is that of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette.

Nonetheless the figure atop the base has been chosen for a reason. This is not meant to be an anonymous statue.

There might be those who disagree with the choice but Criado-Perez chose Millicent Fawcett as the one to be immortalized in bronze because she was one of the earliest campaigners for votes for women, because of the energy she put into the cause throughout her life, and because she hadn’t previously been honored with a statue. Labeling her monument simply ‘statue of suffragette’ dismisses all of that as irrelevant and does a disservice not only to Fawcett herself but also to those who worked to have her statue erected. It also plays footloose with the facts and manages to get the history wrong, which is quite remarkable considering the label was just three words long. Fawcett, unlike Pankhurst, wasn’t a suffragette at all. She was a suffragist.

The two groups distinguished themselves primarily by the methods they used to try to achieve their aims, the suffragists pursuing a purely peaceful course, the suffragettes willing to resort to more radical methods and sometimes violence. Which group played a greater role in achieving the vote for women and their attitudes toward one another are issues that continue to be hotly debated. Such complexity is brushed aside if all of those women are simply thrown under the umbrella term “suffragette”.

It’s probably clear from the above that I’m already a fan of the new statue of Fawcett even though, living in Denmark, I haven’t yet been to see it. I think it matters that the message the statue is meant to convey does get through. However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of how we think about this particular statue at a more academic level I think this case says something interesting about how public statues are represented online through tools like Google Maps.

I’m not suggesting that Google deliberately attempts to control the way we think about these things. Far from it – much of the information in Google Maps has been entered by anonymous volunteers and the importance given to different monuments is, I assume at least in part, a factor of the interest shown in them. Nonetheless representations of monuments on such tools can feed into the conversation we have about their significance, not only reflecting the public attitude toward such monuments but also subtly shaping those attitudes.

It would be interesting to look at other cities and spaces of commemoration and consider the choices that have been made there. But first back to my article,


A coda: you might have noticed that throughout this piece in talking about Google Maps’ representation of Parliament Square I am using the past tense. When I noticed the label ‘Statue of Suffragette’ last week I posted about it on Twitter and drew it to the attention of Caroline Criado-Perez . One of her followers took it up with Google and a few days later I received this tweet from Criado-Perez: “Twitter delivers. Statue now renamed on @GoogleMaps”. And so the conversation about the meaning of our monuments goes on…

Dealing with rejections – 6 suggestions for how universities should treat unsuccessful job applicants

It’s the time of year again when adverts for university posts – some permanent, most sadly temporary – are starting to trickle into my email inbox. Fortunately I have the luxury of being able to not pay them much attention because I started a new three-year position last October. I’m only just settling into Denmark, am enjoying my work and don’t want to think about moving again just yet. However, I can’t help being reminded of this time last year when I was in a very different situation applying for a string of jobs that I was both qualified for and would love to have been appointed for, anxiously hoping for invitations to interviews and dealing with the frustration and disappointment of receiving rejections.


My Twitter feed reminds me almost every day at the moment that countless colleagues are now going through precisely the same harrowing process. Social media requires us to be relentlessly positive so the stories that get through are above all the good news stories of people gaining tenure. But we all know that for every successful appointment there will be tens of people, perhaps even a hundred or more, who’ve missed out, many of them highly qualified and suited to the position in question.

Few people tweet about rejections while they’re still trying to get hired. Recently, however, I’ve also seen a growing number of early career academics tweeting or posting blog posts about their decision to abandon the attempt and pursue an alternative career. There’s clearly a growing feeling that there’s something seriously amiss with the academic job market and it’s more than a little sad that the people who feel most able to speak up about it are those who no longer have a vested interest in it because they’ve decided to leave academia altogether. To be fair, on Twitter at least, I’ve also noticed a number of academics with tenure also expressing their dissatisfaction at the unfairness inherent in the system.

When I was in the middle of my applications last year I made up my mind that once I got a permanent position something I wanted to draw attention to is the way that universities (mis)handle the process of rejecting applicants. I’ve had many experiences of this being dealt with badly. As I said already my current job is temporary but it seems to me that if only people with tenure talk about these things nothing is going to improve. So, in the hope that this might go some small way toward changing things, I’ve decided to put my thoughts to paper (or should that be on the screen?) now.

I’m pleased to say that most universities, in my opinion, do get the rejection letter right: a short email thanking the applicant for their interest in the position, explaining that the number of qualified applicants was very high and that due to a range of considerations to do with balancing the needs of the department the application was not successful this time and wishing the applicant success in their future career. Of course I know that this is just a standard message sent out to all non-successful applicants but it says exactly what needs to be said – no more, no less. It gives the impression, at least, that the application was taken seriously and offers the applicant some form of consolation in the thought that they were up against stiff competition, something that will invariably really have been the case.

Over the course of the many applications I’ve submitted over the course of more than a decade I have, however, also encountered a frustratingly large number of universities that don’t seem able to get this simple formula right. An academic job application is almost always a major investment on the part of the applicant, in terms of time – both the time spent writing it and the time spent obsessively checking email for a response – and emotional energy; few people apply for jobs that they don’t feel they are qualified for and it can often feel as though there is an awful lot riding on an application – nothing less than a future of being able to carry on doing work that you enjoy and are good at, to say nothing of financial security, especially if the job is a permanent one. The last thing any applicant needs or deserves is a rejection that magnifies how bad they will feel anyway at being rejected.

On the basis of some of my experiences then I’ve put together a list of six recommendations that I would like to see universities take account of in handling the process of rejecting job applications:

1. Send a rejection letter/email. In my opinion this is a basic courtesy and the failure to send a rejection is never acceptable under any circumstances yet surprisingly I have had applications that I’ve never heard back from. The only excuse I’ve ever heard for this is that universities are inundated with applications and don’t have the resources to answer them all. This is a poor excuse, especially nowadays. It is now standard that applications are made online through filling in forms. The information you provide includes your email address. It would be quite straightforward to set up a process by which any candidate who has not been shortlisted for interview will be notified automatically after a set date that their application has not been successful.

Not only is not getting a rejection extremely frustrating and creates the impression that your application has been dismissed out of hand, the fact that some universities don’t send rejections means that you never know with any given application whether you are still in the running for the post or not. Sometimes application processes unavoidably take a long time but if you don’t know for sure you will a university will send a rejection letter you can’t be sure whether the position you are waiting to hear about has already been filled. The certainty that you can count on a rejection letter if you are rejected would avoid weeks of wondering if the application you are waiting to hear back about has already been filled.

2. A rejection letter should not be about how wonderful the university is. The applicant already knows that and has probably spent the last couple of weeks imagining a shiny happy future in their new dream job. Over-emphasizing what a fantastic place the university would have been to work at in a rejection letter only makes the rejection more sour. Furthermore, stressing that the university is an international leader in research and teaching – which is what one of my rejection letters last year did – makes it seem rather as though the subtext is “so what on earth did you think you were doing applying here? Better luck somewhere less prestigious”. Not very nice.

3. Don’t insult the applicant. This really should go without saying and fortunately I’ve only experienced this once but from one Dutch university I actually received a rejection that took the sentiment discussed in 2 and turned it up to the max. I wish now I’d kept the email because it provided a master-class in how not to treat an applicant with respect. It read something like “There were a very high number of applicants many of whom met the requirements of the position to a far higher degree than you”.

4. If you are going to outsource the application process make sure the company you use is reliable. This is also something I’ve only experienced once but it wasn’t a reassuring experience. After completing the application form and sending my CV and letter for a job at a leading UK university last year I received an email saying “Thank you for your application to [Institution]. [Institution] will send you an email soon notifying you of the outcome”. I’m again paraphrasing here but the word “Institution” in square brackets was really there. The website was using a script that should clearly have substituted “[Institution]” with the actual name of the university in question but didn’t. Such a careless error by the company hardly inspired confidence that my application had actually been received or that, if this company was responsible for compiling the long or short list, that this would be done in a professional way.

(After a few weeks I hadn’t received an email from the university so I wrote to the relevant department to ask if my application had been received. I never received a reply. This was also one of the universities that never sent a rejection so I still have no idea if they ever saw my application.)

5. Don’t send rejection letters in the middle of the night. Again this is something that only happened once but it wasn’t a pleasant experience. For one job last year I thought that I had a particularly good chance of being shortlisted, both because I matched the job criteria to the letter and because I’d spent even more time than usual honing my application, taking on board feedback from colleagues who’d said they were impressed with my letter. Typically it takes at least a week, often longer to hear back about an application, often last thing on a Friday afternoon when the sender of rejections can rush immediately away from the office, giving the failed applicants the weekend to process the bad news in case they might feel the urge to challenge the decision (of course not a good idea in any circumstance). So imagine my surprise when only three days after submitting this application I opened my email over breakfast, safe in the knowledge that I could expect no news whatsoever about that job for a good few days, only to find that somebody had sent me a rejection letter at 2 am. The university in question was in the same time zone – the same country – as I was. Either a member of the administrative staff was so overworked that they were working through the night or else for some reason that I can’t imagine the message had been written earlier and scheduled to be sent then. In either case that was a particularly bad way to start the day. At least give people the chance to have had their first cup of coffee before sending the bad news.

6. Provide feedback (at least to people who’ve made it to the shortlist). Last year the chair of the selection committee of a position I was interviewed for told me that they could only give feedback to people who’d had an interview because the number of applicants for positions was just too high. That seems perfectly reasonable to me and I was very grateful for the useful feedback that I did receive after the interview. However, for another position I was interviewed for I sent an email asking for feedback and then never received a reply. To be honest that did make me feel a little better that I hadn’t ended up working in that department. On a more positive note, for another application the chair of the department took the trouble of writing me a very friendly and encouraging rejection message offering feedback even though I had only been long listed for the position in question. That really did help in cushioning the blow and made me feel that even if we weren’t going to be direct colleagues – at least in the immediate future – I was respected as a colleague working within the same field of academia.

As I said most of the rejection letters I’ve received over the years have been perfectly reasonable. It is good that most universities are getting this right but surely there shouldn’t be any need at all to raise any of the issues I’ve raised here. If – WHEN – in the future I find myself on an academic hiring committee I’m determined to make sure that unsuccessful applicants are treated with the courtesy and respect they deserve. If anybody reading this is in a member of a selection committee or will be in the near future I really hope they’ll take note of these points and make sure they do the same. If any readers have other experiences of how universities handled the rejection process badly (or perhaps how they’ve handled it exceptionally well) I would be very glad if you would share them – please leave a comment below.

And if anyone from [Institution] is reading, cancel your contract with that HR management company. They’re taking you for a ride.

Is new scholarship always better?

Some old books on Greek archaeology

This is something I’ve been asking myself for a few weeks now, ever since I read something someone I am following on Twitter – a university lecturer – had posted about the instructions they give their students concerning searching for reading for assignments: is new scholarship always (to be fair to the tweeter I should probably say ‘usually’ but that would make a less punchy title) better than old?

I’ve lost the original tweet so I am paraphrasing but it was something along the lines of: students are allowed to use only one title from before I (the lecturer) was born, one from between the year I was born and the year they were born and everything else must have been published more recently. The idea, of course, is to encourage students not to dredge up old work that has now become redundant. That certainly sounds like a good thing and, sure enough, the post had received lots of approving replies, retweets and “likes”.

In my own work, however, I’ve often felt that the very opposite problem exists – that we are far too often inclined to assume that the most recent opinion on any given subject must be the best and that anything written decades ago might as well be left on the shelf to gather dust. Or worse. I recently saw another tweet in which an archaeologist was defending his decision not to take the repeated advice of his colleagues and throw out all his old theory books.

In my own research I’ve encountered countless instances where negative assumptions about old research were definitely misplaced but let me give a concrete example:

My PhD was about changes in the uses of Greek agoras (public squares) in Hellenistic and Roman times – roughly the 500 years or so after the heyday of Greek culture in the Classical period. A lot of the literature I read was about how the buildings that have been excavated on the agoras of various cities had been interpreted. Because the evidence is often so patchy questions of interpretation are often highly contentious: was building X a theatre or a council house? was such and such a temple dedicated to Apollo or Poseidon? And so on…….

Often the debate revolves around trying to match references to particular buildings in surviving literary sources or inscriptions to the remains unearthed by archaeologists. This is especially true for the city of Athens where a relative abundance of literary sources survive even if for the post-Classical periods this evidence is still in truth rather limited. Athenian topography – working out how the city fitted together and where different monuments were to be found – has produced so much scholarship it might almost be thought of as a subdiscipline of Classical studies. It’s certainly an issue that plenty of people have any opinion on.

An excellent reconstruction of the mid 2nd Century BC “South Square” from the north, facing southeast – by

A particular controversy relating to my own work is the interpretation of the so-called South Square on the Agora. Around the middle of the 2nd Century BC a large stoa that lined the south of the square since the late 5th century BC (called South Stoa I because we don’t know its ancient name) was demolished and replaced with an (almost – see the picture) enclosed square created by the new South Stoa II, the East Building and the Middle Stoa (the names again are an indication of how uncertain we are about many public buildings even for one of the most well-known ancient Greek cities).

Since it was excavated in the first half of the twentieth century various theories have been proposed as to what the function of the “South Square” might have been: a gymnasium (the 2nd century travel writer Pausanias mentions a gymnasium near the agora – might he have been talking about this complex?), a commercial marketplace (lots of cities by this time had two agoras, one for politics, one for commerce, was this an attempt to bring the centre of Athens up to date?) or an administrative complex housing, among other things, the city’s law courts (an older building on the north of the agora thought to have housed the courts was demolished around the same time the South Square was built and the way access to the complex was tightly controlled would have suited that function).

This is probably not an issue ever can be resolved conclusively. However recent opinion has tended toward the ‘commercial market’ interpretation. This is the view of the current director of the Agora excavations Professor John Camp. From my reading and from talking to other scholars this view now seems to have become something of a consensus. If anybody needs a citation to back it up they can always refer to Camp’s fairly recent and excellent book The Archaeology of Athens published in 2004. It would be easy to think that there’s little point in considering anything written about the subject before that time. However, although Professor Camp has put that opinion in print he’s never systematically set out a case for that interpretation of the square and neither has anybody else. So even if his interpretation is right there isn’t really much to explain why this interpretation has now become the preferred one except that it’s probably the most recent thing that most people have read on the subject or heard about from colleagues.

In my research I went back and read the various older theories that had been put proposed and decided on balance that I feel that the interpretation that the complex housed the law courts was the most convincing one. The case that had been set out by Richard Earnest Wycherley and Homer Thompson (a former director of the excavations) in a publication of 1972 consisted of an intricately detailed argument which I found consistent with the impression I’d gained from various other pieces of evidence that in the second century BC the main agora remained a heart of politics and administration while commerce, or at least trade in foodstuffs, was concentrated about 80m to the east where the so-called Roman Agora would later be built.

I don’t want to go into any more depth here but the point is that in this case far from being redundant I found this piece of scholarship, published near half a century ago to be extremely useful. Anybody wanting to decide on the function of the square now should at least take account of Thompson and Wycherley’s arguments and cannot afford to assume that they must have got things wrong just because somebody else has argued something different more recently.

So where does this idea that the most recent scholarship is the only thing worth reading come from? On the one hand I suspect it is an assumption that has filtered through to the humanities from the hard sciences where new discoveries really can make old knowledge redundant. At the same time it surely has to do with the exponential increase in the number of people working in the humanities. I’ve written elsewhere about the impossibility of staying-up-to date with everything published to do with the ancient world. With thousands of people publishing on relevant subjects we’re forced to take it on trust that the most recent research has got something right that older works got wrong.

At the same time it is probably also has to do with our modern culture’s impossible race to keep up with everything that’s new – whether it’s people constantly upgrading perfectly functioning smartphones, social media awash with uncontrolled excitement at the release of the latest Marvel superheroes film or those infuriating “best of the year” lists of films, books, TV-series that appear in the national newspapers every December. For the record I bought my first and only smartphone last year, haven’t yet made it past Iron Man 2 and feel woefully unqualified to say which books etc. of 2017 were best because at most I must have watched/read two or three that came out then. I console myself with the sneaking suspicion that the same is true for most of the people contributing to the lists.

But what’s wrong with thinking that the newest scholarship must be superior to the old? Well, for one thing, as my example was meant to illustrate, it means that valid and useful contributions to particularly thorny scholarly problems can end up unfairly brushed aside. For another it creates the very real risk that as each scholarly generation succeeds the next we are going to lose sight of where some of the ideas that we all take for granted originate. It is now all to easy – particularly with resources like Google Scholar permanently at our finger tips, particularly for students who’ve never known a world without superfast internet – to cite the very latest article on, for example, how hoplite warfare might have been laid the foundations for the development of Greek democracy without even asking who it was who first came up with the idea many decades ago. As generations of scholars pass if each one only cites the work of the preceding one there’s a very real danger of thinking that we’re continually reinventing the wheel actually all we’re really doing is just spinning it around.

I’m curious now how other people working in the humanities, whether in Classics, Ancient History, Archaeology or unrelated disciplines feel about this. The limited amount of evidence we have to work with in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology is both a curse and a blessing – on the negative side it means there are things about the ancient world we sadly will never know but on the positive side it also means we have the luxury of being able to debate and reconsider every piece of that evidence and every interpretation of it in minute detail. The tweet that sparked off my thoughts on all this was by a historian of the 19th C and I can well imagine that in that field literature may well age faster than it does in mine. I still wonder, however, whether even for more recent subjects it might not be just as big a problem that people are ignoring older literature than that they’re reading too much of it.

But whether you agree or disagree with me or are able to offer another perspective from a different field I would be really keen to hear how other people think about this. To return to the question “Is new scholarship always better?” I’d love to hear your answer…



The Roman Agora at Athens and the problem of public space

Most of us, I’m sure, if we were asked to conjure up an image of life in a Roman town would think first of public spaces like the forum, the amphitheatre, or bathhouses, possibly lined with marble columns and statues. Anybody who has visited an ancient Roman city whether in the eastern Mediterranean, in Italy, North Africa or Britain will have seen the remains of such  buildings that have been unearthed by archaeologists.

Public spaces  have been excavated at hundreds of sites for well over a century and a half so it would be a reasonable assumption that we by now understand almost as much as we possibly can about what they were used for and what public life in Roman towns was like. You might then be surprised to hear that I think that the nature of Roman public space is actually something that is very poorly understood and that my new research project is all about trying to find ways of using archaeology to understand it better.

Inside the Roman Agora at Athens

To illustrate some of the things that I think we have got wrong both in thinking about  ancient public spaces I’d like to talk a bit here about one of the better known Roman period public buildings to have survived at Athens  – the so-called Roman agora. To put in a shameless plug, this is a much condensed version of an argument I’ve made in my book about the changing use of Greek agoras in Hellenistic and Roman times that was published last year.

The Roman Agora was constructed about 80m to the east of the old Classical agora, which had served as the heart of Athenian public life since at least the fifth century BC. We know that the Roman Agora was paid for by funds given to the city by Julius Caesar and then, presumably because the money had run out, by the first Roman emperor Augustus, because an inscription on the still standing western gateway tells us so. This was a period in which Rome was consolidating its hold on the Greek world and was itself undergoing a political crisis as the Republic came to an end and one man took up a position of supreme power. Bestowing benefactions on a city like Athens, which was famous for its illustrious and rich cultural heritage, was one way of assuring Greek loyalty to the new regime.

The western propylon of the Roman Agora – the inscription is hard to make out on the photo but it is there on the plain row of blocks above the top of the columns

The Roman agora consisted of a fully-enclosed courtyard surrounded on all four sides by Ionic columns, with rows of shops and a second entrance on the eastern side. We can be fairly confident that the building served as a food market for various reasons: a decree inscribed just inside the east entrance from the time of Hadrian (2nd Century AD) had to do with the sale of olive oil, weights and measures for ensuring fair trade were found within the building, a number of inscriptions set up by “agoranomoi” (market inspectors) were found nearby. Graffiti has also been found scratched into parts of the colonnade which have been interpreted as ancient traders staking a claim to particular spots where they were allowed to ply their wares. Part of the complex lies underneath modern buildings but substantial areas have been excavated in the course of various campaigns since the late 19th century.

When it comes to interpretations about the building’s impact on the public life of the city some large leaps of reasoning have been made. It has been widely accepted that the creation of the Roman Agora meant that the old Classical agora now lost its commercial function. The development has been linked to a supposed infilling of the old square by various new buildings at around the same time and has been presented as evidence of the civic decline of Athens under the Roman Empire. Calling the building the ‘Roman Agora’ reinforces the idea that this new building in some way took over something of the function of the old agora. Indeed I’ve often heard people – visitors to Athens, but also historians and archaeologists –  talk as though the agora in Roman times had moved to a new location.

I see some serious problems with this way of looking at things.

For a start we don’t know at all what the Roman Agora was called in antiquity. I think it probably was thought of as an agora but it is highly unlikely anybody called it the ‘ROMAN agora’. Both squares continued in use so there is no reason to think that the Roman period Athenians thought of it as taking over as the main public square of the city. It was quite common by this time for cities to have more than one agora and although one usually had a more political, the other a more commercial function, the distinction between the two was rarely absolute.

There is also actually very little evidence that the Roman Agora took away any trading activity from the old square let alone that it took away all commerce. There was still plenty of room on the Classical Agora, in among the new buildings, for a crowd of tens of thousands of people to have gathered so there’s no reason to think that temporary market stalls couldn’t have been erected there. The magnificent Stoa of Attalos constructed to line the eastern side of that square in the mid 2nd century BC was most likely a grand shopping arcade and it carried on being used in Roman times. Admittedly it probably wasn’t where lowly goods like grain, meat and vegetables were sold – it was more likely for luxury products that needed to be stored behind lock and key within its shops – but it was a commercial premises nonetheless.


The Stoa of Attalos at Athens, lining the eastern edge of the Classical Agora. This Hellenistic building was reconstructed in modern times to house to museum of the excavations

Even more importantly there are some very good reasons for thinking that the place where the Roman Agora was built was already the location for a commercial market before that time. A row of butcher’s shops, or taverns that predated the Roman agora were found just to the west of it. In addition, the famous Tower of the Winds, like the Stoa of Attalos constructed in the mid 2nd Century BC, stood just to the east of where the Roman Agora was built, was a public clock and weather station. The obvious place to have set up such a building would have been in a public market space. So, far from taking commerce away from the old Classical agora it seems rather more likely that what the construction of the Roman Agora actually did was to provide grander premises for a function that was taking place on exactly the same spot, for at least the preceding century, perhaps for much, much longer.

The Tower of the Winds – a Hellenistic clock/weather station that stands just outside the Roman Agora

The consensus view of the impact of the Roman Agora on Athenian life turns out then to depend on some rather bold assumptions that don’t stand up to closer scrutiny. It is certainly far too simplistic to see the building as evidence of civic decline.

For cities throughout the Roman Empire conclusions about the nature of public space often rest on similar ‘common sense’ assumptions and archaeological evidence is often used in a similar way to reinforce preconceived ideas about social and cultural life. The Roman Agora at Athens is just the tip of a very large iceberg of things about Roman public space that we don’t understand as well as we think we do.

I some upcoming posts I’m planning to pursue this subject further, to cast more darkness over things we thought we already knew and, hopefully, to offer some light in the form of suggestions for new directions might take in investigating the subject.

In the meantime if you have any comments on what you’ve read here I’d be glad to hear them.

Welcome to the Fourth Sophistic

For a while I wrote a blog that was mainly about my research into the archaeology and history of Greece in the Roman period ( But for various reasons, not least of which was the upheaval of moving to Denmark last autumn to start a new job, I fell out of the habit. Now, wanting to start blogging again I realised that the old blog title didn’t really give me the scope to write about the things I want to write about. For one thing my research now isn’t just about Greece but about the wider Roman Empire (I plan to write a post about that soon). For another I don’t want to confine myself to writing only about the ancient world but want to be able to write about whatever else I happen to find interesting or important. So I’ve started a new site.

Why “The Fourth Sophistic”?  Ancient historians use the term Second Sophistic to describe a revival of Greek culture – primarily literary culture – at the high point of the Roman Empire in the late 1st to the early 3rd centuries. The term was coined by the 3rd century author Philostratus who wrote a group biography of some of the leading lights of this movement, a group of men who travelled around the cities of the Greek-speaking eastern Mediterranean delivering speeches to captivated audiences in theatres and council houses. These men could command exorbitant fees as teachers of rhetoric and some of them even had the ear of Philhellene emperors such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius. Philostratus saw the “Second Sophistic” as a sequel to the first flourishing of Greek oratory in the hey day of the Classical period in the 5th-4th centuries BC.

The “Second Sophistic” was a decidedly backward looking movement: orators sought to emulate the literary style of  Classical forebears like Demosthenes and gave erudite speeches on topics of historic interest such as the Persian Wars. In other orations, however, they addressed the issues of the day and gave advice on matters of political and social importance. They were also not averse to giving more more humorous speeches – for example, praising trivial subjects as insects, parrots or human hair – as a way to showcase their formidable rhetorical skills. Almost all of the writings of these men are now lost but authors whose works do survive, such as the wandering political sage Dio Chrysostom, the humorist Lucian or -probably best known – the biographer and moralist Plutarch, can be thought of as operating on the fringes of the movement.

In their fascination – bordering on obsession – for the distant past and in their striving for topical relevance, to say nothing of their literary pretensions, these sophists come close to what I’d like this blog to be.

Historians of the Byzantine period have already coined the term “Third Sophistic” to refer to a still later revival of ancient Greek culture so welcome to the Fourth Sophistic – a blog about ancient history, archaeology, modern culture and politics. More to come soon….