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What Have the Romans Done For Us?

New classical studies professor Alicia Jimenez studies lesser-studies corner of Roman Empire

Classical Studies Professor Alicia Jimenez. Photo by Robert Zimmerman.
Classical Studies Professor Alicia Jimenez. Photo by Robert Zimmerman.

In 1985, a new Spanish law decreed that any historically significant land targeted for development must first be explored by an archaeologist.

This meant little at the time to Alicia Jiménez, then a schoolgirl in Madrid. But it means quite a lot to her today.

Jiménez, a new assistant professor of classical studies at Duke, has already carved out a niche studying archaeology in Spain, in the western edge of the Roman Empire. Though the law created new opportunities for scholars, many from North America have been slow to dig there, intimidated perhaps by a language barrier or drawn instead to more mainstream Roman sites in Greece and Italy.

For Jiménez, who hopes to start her own dig site soon, Spain’s Roman history bears almost infinite promise.

“There is a lot of opportunity in Spain,” says Jiménez, who arrived on campus in August. “There are so many layers of civilization there, sometimes the problem is deciding where to stop and which layers should be preserved or not in an excavation in order to fully investigate what is underneath. You might find a Roman phase covering an Iron Age phase and then a prehistoric phase, one atop the other.”

Jiménez came to Duke from Brown University, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in archaeology. She earned her PhD from the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and has done archaeology and anthropology research at the Spanish National Research Council, University College London and Glasgow University.

In the spring, Jiménez will teach two courses, one on Roman archaeology, the other on the archaeology of death. The latter will explore how cultures honored their dead through funeral and other rituals.

And she hopes to soon establish her own dig site in Spain, a country where Duke archaeologists have not yet worked.

“Duke has sent a lot of students to Spain for various reasons, but we have not had an excavation there,” says Mary T. Boatwright, chair of the classical studies department. “But students love archaeology; you’re using your brain and your brawn at the same time! So opening up archaeology in Spain to our students would be terrific.”

The Thrill of the Dig

The love of the humanities came early for Jiménez, whose father taught philosophy at a Madrid university and mother worked as a newspaper journalist. Her home was filled with books, and a trip to the National Museum of Archaeology at age 13 gave her an early introduction to archaeology, an itch she’s had since.

When she was 17, prior to college, Jiménez volunteered for an archaeology dig in southern Madrid. That was the first time she actually unearthed something, an ancient piece of tile dug from the soil.

“That was it for me,” she recalls. “There were fingerprint impressions from the artisan that made the tile in Roman times. I liked the thrill of seeing that piece of ceramic. You can actually re-trace the impressions of fingers in it, and almost touch a person that lived 2,000 years ago.”

Jiménez’ research focuses on archaeological theory and Roman visual and material culture. She targets the western and central Mediterranean region in the 218 B.C. – 200 A.D. time period – during which Rome dramatically expanded his control of territories outside the Italian peninsula and established colonies in remote lands.

This is a region she believes is largely overlooked by North American archaeologists who focus instead on ancient metropolis such as Athens in Greece and Rome in Italy.

“I’m studying in the “wild west” of the Roman Empire,” she says. “It’s exotic to people here in North America who usually focus in the central and eastern half of the Roman world. It’s new and expanding and there are a lot of opportunities for field work.”

Jiménez believes there’s plenty still to be learned about the Roman Empire, which is why she always shows her students a popular, old video clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. It’s a brief scene in which rebels attempt to drum up opposition to the empire by asking “What have the Romans Ever Done For Us?” It backfires when audience members rattle off a long list – aqueducts, public safety, public baths, roads, sanitation, education, a fresh water system, and, of course, wine.

“It’s a very smart joke,” Jiménez says of the slapstick comedy clip. “But it’s also a wonderfully sarcastic remark about why colonialism is “good for you”. It’s a great starting point to questioning what we know about the Roman Empire, and exploring how material culture can help us to learn about a past that sometimes differs from what the Roman writers tell us about the benefits of the conquest for the conquered.”