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More in this section Richard Alstonpages

Theory and History


Throughout my career I have been drawn to issues of theory. In part, coming from a background for which the study of antiquity was a decidedly eccentric choice, I have always puzzled about our relationship to antiquity. More fundamentally, I have worried about the relationship between our preconceptions and the worlds that we study. How do we cross the boundaries between past and present? Much of this work starts from a lack of understanding of ancient material. When problems don't resolve and don't make sense, I wonder why. Much of the wondering leads me to question my own assumptions about societies. Fundamentally, I am of the view that if we do not analyse our own assumptions about the social world, and do not question those things which we regard as obvious and natural, research has no point. My interests in this area have led me towards Classical reception, examining the work done by Classics in the intellectual history of the present, and to a continued and deep involvement with the geographies of power, in particular in relation to the city

Geographies of (Roman) Power

My work on geography has focused on cities in the East, particularly on Egypt and continues to involve thinking about the spatial disposition of power (see Cities and their Reception). I have argued that Strabo writes an imperial geography of Alexandria, for a particularly Jewish spatiality of Alexandria in Philo, and for a mythic (imperial) construction of the barbarous wetlands of Roman Egypt in revolt. Such studies show the geographical construction of power in antiquity and make use of much geographical theory in the reconstruction of those political-literary processes.

History, Memory, and Power

Interest in the geography of power have led to a wider engagement with the ideologies of power. In particular, I have been interested in how historical discourses construct power relations. In a study of the ruin that started from Lucan and Tacitus, I argue that imperial powers tend to organise and categorise societies according to space and time, condemning many (most) of the subjects of the imperial state to the waiting room of history, to living in past times. The article attacks notions of historical periodicity.Further work on tacitus has argued that Tacitus sees the imperial as a complete system of control over space and time, in which the imperial constructs a homogeneous world from which resistance is impossible or fultile.

In areas of reception, I have compared the historiographies of antiquity and India under the Raj, I argue for a double-helix notion of the influence of discourses in which the Roman historical worked alongside the Indian political and ethnological, and it is the complexity of the relationship between the Classical and workings of power which underpinned by research on the ideologies of the town planning movement of the early twentieth century and in particular their shift from anarchism to authoritarianism in the space of a generation. This generation idealised the Greek polis, which has continued to be regarded as an ideal form of political organisation in much contemporary political thought. Yet, moderns (led by ancient historians) have tended to ignore the political context and the ideological structuring of small city communities. Here, as elsewhere, Classical history has tended to be read as legitimating dominant elites. This work has led to a more detailed consideration of the role of the Classical in the foundation of the modern city and the modern nation. Although there is a vast body of data that could be used, I am looking at three particular cases: London in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Athens after the war of liberation, and Rome on its incorporation into Italy. 

Historiography, Theory and Gender

 I continue to be interested in issues of historical theory and practice. My interest is in particular on the workings of power in the social environment and our understanding of that process. Perhaps inevitably, I have been engaged in thinking about Foucault and have co-edited a volume on Foucault's understanding of Rome. That work continues in on-going interests in imperialism and gender and the workings of social power at a micro-level in society. 


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