Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Current Dissertation Projects

Ben Abbott

Forging the Anchor: Antiochus I and the Creation of the Seleucid Empire

Ben’s dissertation focuses on the Seleucid empire and reexamines the formation of the empire under its first kings. His project focuses primarily on the reign of the second Seleucid king, Antiochus I. Most work on the early Seleucid period has been aimed at the titular founder of the empire, Seleucus I. Seleucus’ son, Antiochus I, has received surprisingly little scholarly attention, despite the fact that he ruled the Seleucid empire in some capacity for over thirty years, a duration only matched by Seleucus I and Antiochus III. Utilizing a diverse and increasingly available array of classical and Near Eastern sources including literary, epigraphic, numismatic, and archaeological evidence, his dissertation demonstrates that the reign of Antiochus was one of firsts. Among the many innovations made during his reign, Antiochus I was the first Seleucid king to define the bounds of Seleucid territory, the first to establish the Seleucid Era, the first to explicitly adopt Apollo as the primary patron god of the dynasty, and he was the first to explicitly and consistently put his own image on Seleucid coinage. While the actions of Seleucus I made many of these innovations possible, many of these traits that would become distinctive features of Seleucid rule were first truly established by Antiochus I.

The secondary aim of Ben’s dissertation is to challenge the perception of the Seleucids as Mediterranean-oriented kings of Syria. Rather, he argues that we should understand the physical and conceptual Seleucid center to be further east, oriented as much around their large city foundations in Mesopotamia, the Iranian plateau, and Central Asia as around their lands nearest to the eastern Mediterranean.

As the first in-depth study of the reign of Antiochus I, Ben’s dissertation rethinks the creation and formation of the Hellenistic world’s largest and most culturally diverse empire. The innovations made by Antiochus I were crucial to the development of the Seleucid dynasty and the ways in which it would rule its empire for the ensuing centuries.



Gavin Blasdel

Honors, Politics, and Community in Roman Athens, 31 BCE - 267 CE

Inscribed honorific portrait monuments dominated the civic and sacred spaces of Roman Athens. They clustered to form dense forests on the Acropolis and in the Agora, they lined the city’s major thoroughfares, and they even stood or sat amongst the spectators at the Theater of Dionysus. This phenomenon was not confined to the city center – they appeared, too, in the demes, from the port of Piraeus to as far afield as Rhamnous, and above all at Eleusis, whose sanctuary was home to the largest concentration of such monuments in Attica. While erecting honorific monuments was part and parcel of polis life everywhere, it seems to have held particular significance at Athens, where the total extant evidence, chiefly in the form of many hundreds of inscriptions, by far outstrips that of any other Greek city in the Roman period. The bulk of these monuments were dedicated or sanctioned by Athenian civic institutions – in other words, on many occasions throughout the year the people met in the city’s deliberative bodies (the Areopagus boule, the boule, and the ekklesia, amongst many other civic and private associations) to debate and vote on the award of honors to worthy individuals, who were usually their fellow Athenian citizens. Despite the prominence of the Athenian monuments in civic life and space, they have never been studied systematically in their own right.

My dissertation examines how these honors structured relationships within the political and social community of Roman Athens and argues that they were ultimately bound up with the question of what it meant to be Athenian, both as individuals and as a civic community, within the context of Rome’s empire. My argument employs a historical pragmatics perspective to demonstrate the performative quality of honorific inscriptions, whose language presents the polis as a collective institution in and of action. At Athens, the process of awarding honorific monuments involved significant citizen participation and investment, just as the wide range of honorands were recognized primarily for their public service to the community, not for expensive construction projects, often seen by scholars as the euergetic act par excellence. An Athenian “bouleutic class” based on the model of the Roman senate did not simply vote or extract honors for themselves – rather, the awarding of honors was variously marked by cooperation, competition, and even conflict amongst citizens in institutionalized settings. We get glimpses, sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit, of the stakes involved in the wording, form, placement of the monuments, and their “life cycles,” which could be surprisingly short. For this reason, my dissertation not only collects all the epigraphic evidence for honorific monuments in Roman Attica from the first century BCE to the third century CE, but also integrates material and archaeological evidence. The monuments were physical objects of various components and formats that were configured in specific physical spaces. To highlight these aspects, my dissertation offers several case studies of the assemblages of particular viewing contexts, such as the the Theater of Dionysus, Diogeneion Gymnasion, and the temple of Nemesis at Rhamnous.


Max Dietrich

Greek Perspectives on Roman Civil War 

Max’s dissertation explores Greek historiography on the Roman civil wars of the 1st c. BCE. His work focuses on authors who were writing during the wars or within the following decades. He is interested in how these Greek elites received and understood the Roman civil wars, how their narratives defined and codified the cultural memory of these conflicts, and how their approaches may have informed later historiography in Greek and Latin.


Irene Elias

Power and Identity in the Late Symposium
Irene's dissertation approaches Greek sympotic literature of the first two centuries CE as a reflection of a unique branch of the sympotic tradition, rather than as a tool to learn about the classical symposium or contemporary Roman dining practices. She argues that the symposium was an integral elite institution at this time as well, with an acknowledgment of deep traditional roots but filled with fascinating new innovations, beliefs, and practices. The dissertation questions how the Greek elites of the early Roman empire used the symposium to their advantage, and why each element was beneficial for the banqueters. This analysis reveals multiple ways in which Greek elites positioned themselves and affirmed their identities relative to each other, to the lower classes, to elites of other communities, and to their own past. The use of food, drink, sexuality, and entertainment (music, philosophy, etc.) at the symposium all provide insight to the values upheld by these elites, and reflect on their anxieties about luxury, equality, piety, education, and above all, the sociability required to live in harmony in a world with such complicated social networks and power dynamics.


Danielle Perry

North African Identity under the Roman Empire  

Danielle’s project looks at material culture and textual sources to explore how North Africans responded to Roman power during the Late Republic and Imperial periods. By investigating phenomena such as religion, social structures, and naming customs she argues for a nuanced understanding of Roman-North African relations during this period and a reimagining of the traditional narrative around provincial assimilation into Roman society. This dissertation also takes seriously North African identity as separate from, though undoubtedly influenced by, Roman imperialism and thus engages with Punic-language sources from the region as well as any relevant Greek or Latin evidence. Ultimately, North Africa served as a landscape of colonialism and the people who lived there developed their own techniques for preserving their local cultures while being subjects of an empire.


Kyle West

Disability in the World of Cicero

Kyle’s dissertation uses the writings of Cicero as a case study to argue that disability is an important, but so far understudied, category for understanding Roman thought and culture. His project sits at the intersection of intellectual, cultural, and social history. Drawing on recent debates within Disability Studies, he makes the case that while ancient historians of the past twenty years have been correct to move away from a simplistic, traditional notion of disability in the ancient world, which painted a very Hobbesian picture of the lives of people with disabilities – nasty, brutish, short, and often defined by infant exposure – the alternative approaches have left much to be desired.

Because they have been inadequately theorized, previous studies of disability in the Classical world have failed to speak clearly about disability as a complex interaction between biological, psychological, and socio-cultural factors. What matters is not only the specific impairments an individual may have, but the layers of cultural meaning through which those impairments are interpreted, the social environment in which an individual is expected (or not) to function, and the psychological outlook through which a person assesses their own impairments or those of others. For this reason, disability can manifest in dramatically different ways in different contexts. Because all societies have to confront the reality of impairments, it is therefore better to say that Roman disability looked different from its modern analogues, rather than to say either that disability is a strictly modern invention, or that ancient disability was an unqualified source of misery.

Cicero provides excellent ground for field-testing this new theoretical framework. Because the circumstances of his life and the purpose and scope of his writings were rich and varied, it is possible to see his rhetoric or “mental landscape” of disability undergoing many different permutations. Because of his outsized cultural influence, it is worth examining the particular part he plays in constructing disability overall. Of special interest are philosophical and didactic reflections on the vulnerable body, the use of impairment in rhetorical invective, and Cicero’s deployment of impairment language and metaphor to depict the psychology of his own struggles, especially in the Letters. Ultimately Cicero is presented as only one possible window onto a more nuanced ancient disability history. It is Kyle’s aspiration that this proof of concept will open the way for other perspectives on ancient disability to be explored.