Skip to Main Content

Hartnett Sees History Face-to-Face

Classics Professor Jeremy Hartnett ’96 says you can learn much about a place’s history by looking at faces. That was certainly true in the College’s Salter Hall Friday afternoon as he prepared to deliver the 32nd Annual LaFollette Lecture in the Humanities.

There was the smiling face of his mentor, Professor of Classics Emeritus John Fischer H’70, making a rare return to campus from Louisville to watch his former student deliver the College’s most prestigious lecture.

There was Kathe Hartnett, Jeremy’s mother—former administrative assistant for another of Jeremy’s mentors, Professor Bill Cook ’66—beaming alongside her husband, Dale, here from Geneseo, New York, and Jeremy’s brother Dan ’99, and his wife, Laura, in from Kenyon College.

There was Hartnett’s former student Mitchelll Brown ’10, feeling fortunate to have presented a lunch talk on the same day his former teacher receiving this honor.

As Hartnett stepped to the podium, you could learn something about the bond of teaching and learning just by watching their expressions—not to mention those of the professors in the audience who taught Jeremy when he was a student here.

Then there were the faces on the screen as the archaeologist began his presentation, the portraits of people who lived about 2,000 years ago when the Roman Empire extended to Egypt, where these images were made.

“When we think of the Romans, images of giant buildings and great leaders are easy to conjure in our mind’s eye, and you can be sure the Romans intended to leave these impressions. But another type of image, more fragile and more personal, has haunted me over the decades,” Hartnett said as faces from antiquity were projected on the screen. “These are the so-called Fayum portraits, and they shape how I try to do social history of the broader populace.”

“I do not study Roman art because it is seductively gorgeous; with rare exceptions, it is not handsome. But these images of individual Romans I find singularly affecting. The portraits seem to capture the subjects’ personalities… and the way that the subjects’ humanity leaps off the wood panel has led me to choose these paintings as my topic today, even though I don’t study them directly in my research.”

For Hartnett, the portraits—which were painted on wooden panels attached to mummies from the Coptic period at a time Rome occupied Egypt—demonstrate the complexity and richness art and imagination bring to the study of ancient history.

“The Fayum portraits offer a rich cultural mélange,” Hartnett said as summarized some of the theories concerning the more than 900 portraits. “Their deeply personal portrayals encourage nuanced and textured reading of history. They defy easy categorization.”

“They remind of us of the dangers of applying labels when we try to write history. Life is messy; culture is complicated; and all-encompassing explanations rarely satisfy.”

After describing scholars interpretations of two of the portraits—theories that have proven flawed—Hartnett asked: “How often do we, in the humanities or in liberal arts endeavors more broadly, shape our inquiries by putting ourselves, our categories, and our attitudes first, rather than re-imagining our investigation from the perspective of the people we are studying?”

The task becomes even more difficult when scholars attempt to understand the lives of the less wealthy and powerful in ancient societies. The detailed study of inscriptions and artifacts have provided stockpiles of data to be analyzed—an approach Hartnett referred to as “history from 1,000 feet."

“But there’s something unsatisfying about considering Roman society from 1,000 feet," Hartnett said. "Such approaches threaten to obscure personal agency and reduce individuals to data points. While we might make out contours of populations and inhabitation patterns from on-high, we can’t see discrete and distinct people. We see lots of heads in the crowd, but no faces.”

“We need both analysis and imagination,” Hartnett added. “And that’s why I have the Fayum portraits on my mind when I’m writing about Roman antiquity. They put us face-to-face with individuals, pushing us to recognize their full humanity and to imagine their lives in all their complexities.

“When we look at these portraits, we don’t treat Romans as a chorus singing in unison, but as a seething and somewhat discordant mass of particular personalities, hopes and dreams, loves and losses. Thinking or writing about these individuals sometimes means chocking our claims full of “might’s and “may’s, but history written in the subjunctive isn’t all that bad. 

“When we give ourselves some latitude, we trigger an empathetic view of our subjects; leaving behind our own world momentarily, we envision theirs with its own rules and struggles; we consider our subject’s sentiments, motivations, and tactics.

As the screen went dark, the ancient faces disappeared from the screen, and the house lights shone on the faces in the Salter Hall audience, Hartnett concluded: “When we re-emerge into our own time and place—as when we set down a moving book, step out of a great movie, or clear customs after returning from abroad—we might see our world not as something we’ve always known, but somehow anew.”