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The Consuls of Rome at Macquarie: An Interview with Tom Hillard and Lea Beness

By Luke Peloquin

How tough can it be to get permission to carry out archaeological surveys in Greece? Just what the heck is prosopography anyway? And what’s it got to do with a lethally potent aphrodisiac? Find out all that and more from Tom Hillard and Lea Beness, Professors of Roman History at Macquarie University.

Who are Lea and Tom?

Many students of Roman History at Macquarie will already be familiar with Associate Professors Lea Beness and Tom Hillard. Lea’s first-year unit, “Introduction to Roman History: The Republic in Crisis” (AHIS1220) will often be the first port of call to those going on to study the Empire and the Caesars. And although Tom is now officially retired, he was still as active as ever on campus, at least before the beginning of isolation this year. Two fellow students and I spoke with them earlier this year about their careers together in Roman History and Archaeology. Tom and Lea first met at the University of New England where they worked as tutors and started a student group, which Tom says was great fun, partly because “One of the things about the University of New England is that its got a very active set of student societies because it’s a small country town and more than most universities, the students are enrolled in colleges.”

Prosopography

Their partnership together really took off when both Lea and Tom began working on a prosopographical project at Macquarie: A Dictionary of Roman Political and Social Biography. For the uninitiated, prosopography (aside from being a Scrabble high scorer) is the study of the careers and lives of individuals, for whom there is not enough material for a full biography in their own right. Lea and Tom focus on Rome in the second century BC, which is often overlooked in favour of the first century which has captured the public interest because it is so tumultuous: “There’s so much going on in the second century because, while Rome is transforming the Mediterranean world, it is itself undergoing change in a fundamental way”.

Student Involvement

Throughout the years, the project has been incorporated into the “Republic in Crisis” unit, by tasking students with conducting their own prosopographical study on one or two of the figures in Lea and Tom’s ongoing Dictionary. Previous years have looked at Marcus Claudius Marcellus consul of 166, 155 and 152 BC, Papirius Carbo, consul of 120 BC and the consuls of 132 BC among others, with students who manage to find new material receiving a credit in the finished product. In fact, one cohort of students were able to alert Lea and Tom to the fact that the poison mentioned in an ancient source was actually an aphrodisiac by-product of the Cantharides beetle, also known as Spanish fly. Cicero (to Lucius Papirius Paetus), Letters to his Friends, 9.21.3.

Greek “Holidays”

In addition to their prosopographical work, Lea and Tom have also been carrying out an archaeological project in the Northern Greek harbour of Toroni. What was once an important harbour in the classical period is now however a swamp, and Lea colourfully describes how “We go into the swamp with our Wellingtons on, talking loudly because we’re told the vipers will move away if we’re making enough noise.” The project began as one of Tom’s passions having always said “When I grow up, I want to be an underwater archaeologist.” He found the cold winters at UNE to be the perfect season for a Mediterranean getaway and Lea eventually joined him in the wetsuit after receiving some training with Macquarie’s SCUBA diving club—the Macquanauts.

Difficulties and Delays

More recently, the project has stalled due to a run of bad weather in the excavating season. Devastating floods and early rainfall have made the work impossible to carry out and navigating the complicated issues of land ownership in rural Greece have not made matters easier. Drill-samples of the land at the site will need to be taken to carbon date microfauna and assess whether the ancient harbour was an open bay or closed lagoon. However, this cannot go ahead without the necessary permissions, which need to be secured year after year. It is certainly hoped that when international travel is again possible, the conditions will be right for the survey to go ahead.

For now, at least, both Lea and Tom are hopeful that their students have been able to take to online learning, despite the challenges. As Lea noted “I think that a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous teaching has worked pretty well though the general feedback from students is that: they would like even more virtual ‘face-to-face’ sessions with their teachers.” It was certainly a pleasure to chat with them and the passion they have for their work and teaching is evident.


Luke Peloquin

Luke Peloquin is an Ancient History student at Macquarie University. His interests are largely focused on the Roman Empire and he is currently working on the blog as a PACE student.