Interview Spotlight: Christopher Smith, Professor of Ancient History, University of St Andrews

Interview Spotlight: Christopher Smith, Professor of Ancient History, University of St Andrews

Professor Christopher Smith MAE shares his most noteworthy professional experiences, explains how his research relates to modern society and tells us more about ‘Sovereignty: a global perspective’ which is taking place in April 2019.

About Christopher Smith MAE

Christopher Smith MAE is Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews. His fields of scholarship include the history and archaeology of Early Rome, Roman oratory and topography of Rome and Italy. He was elected to the Academia Europaea in 2019.

The interview

Could you give us an overview of your most significant professional experiences?

“I joined the University of St Andrews in 1992, after a doctorate at the University of Oxford on the economy and society of central Italy from 1000 to 500 BC, during which I spent long periods in Rome. I was trained as a classicist, but included archaeology in my doctoral studies, and had the good fortune of working with colleagues in a number of disciplines, including International Relations. I was Dean of Arts too, and I learnt a huge amount about what was exciting in humanities and social sciences.

In 2009, I was able to return to Italy as Director of the British School at Rome, Britain’s leading humanities research centre abroad, and a focus for interdisciplinary work across humanities, social sciences and fine arts. This was an extraordinary privilege, and led to my being able to work with scholars and artists from the many other foreign academies in Rome – I was also President of the Union of these institutions. Working in the heart of an intensely international and creative intellectual landscape was a thrilling experience.

In 2017, at the end of my time in Rome, I was awarded a Major Research Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust. This generous award has allowed me to continue to work across international boundaries – last year in the Max Weber Kolleg in Erfurt, and in the university of Otago, and this year in Pavia, Milan and Siena.

I am extremely honoured to be a member of the Academia Europaea, which holds the values of interdisciplinary excellence and international exchange that are so important to me.”

How do you think your research relates to modern society?

“There is a serious purpose to this globetrotting! My research is on what might seem the remote topic of the early kings of Rome, from Romulus to the wicked king Tarquin, whose expulsion led to the beginning of the Roman Republic.

Much of this is a political myth, but it’s not just that. It’s a way of telling a story about Rome as a community, about its values and its way of organising itself. The dialogue between the reality of a growing commercial and military power, and the stories which the Romans came to tell and retell about their origins, has always fascinated me.

Interestingly, fashions in scholarship follow strongly nationalistic lines. The German tradition has tended to look very hard at the legal basis of power, whereas French scholarship has focused on potential comparative mythological analysis. Italian research has recently been focused on the material remains, whilst in the Anglophone world, the construction of the historiographical account has long been at the heart of the debate. Trying to bring these distinct traditions together is part of the task I have set myself.

There are few questions more important than how and why we permit others to have power over us, and how that power if limited and constrained. What I think emerges is that the Romans developed a very rich account of the nature, limits and consequences of power. And what is additionally interesting is how important the Roman example has been from the Renaissance onwards. Machiavelli wrote one of his most important works, the Discourses, precisely on the early development of Rome. Moreover, the Roman model underpins late 19th and early 20th century theories of political science (Engels) and social anthropology (Frazer). So this was a hugely influential account of how power came into being, and I am hoping to recover some of that relevance, partly through a conference which the Academia Europaea has generously funded.”

You are organising a conference called ‘Sovereignty: a global perspective’ which is taking place at St Andrews University on 29-30 April next year. What will those attending gain from the event?

Part of the problem of power is locating the balance between coercion and consensus. Because consensus can be difficult to gain and onerous to renew, especially in large societies, political scientists have produced various theories to give a more stable platform for power. One is the social contract, and another is sovereignty.

Versions of the social contract date back to classical antiquity, but sovereignty has been regarded as a peculiarly modern phenomenon. By looking at what stands for sovereignty across a long time span and over a global context, we intend this conference to offer a new approach to this notion, which in the context of popular nationalism in a number of countries has become something of a shibboleth.

We hope to find a better way to understand the historical specificity of sovereignty, the work the idea can legitimately be asked to do, and its limitations in a global context.  I hope the outcome will be that we recover the complexity of discourse on the nature of legitimate power that the Romans developed through their analysis of their earlier history.

‘Sovereignty: a global perspective’ is part of the 2019 programme of British Academy Conference, and is also the 2019 Annual Conference of the St Andrews Institute of Legal and Constitutional Research. The conference has been generously supported by the Academia Europaea.”

20th November 2018. For further information please contact Juliet Davies, Executive Officer

Interview Spotlight Series

Interview Spotlight Series

Read our series of interviews with Members of Academia Europaea connected with the Cardiff Knowledge Hub. Our members share their career highlights and their views on key issues in research.


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