On Thursday, Oct. 8, Anna Cornel ’15 returned to the College to give a virtual talk about their postgraduate research on the ancient world. The talk was hosted by Eta Sigma Phi, a chapter of the national classical studies honor society, in conjunction with the College’s Department of Classical Studies
As a student at Wooster, Cornel’s I.S. research, titled “Escaping Definitions: A Queer Reader on Love for Students of Ancient Greek,” focused on sexuality in Ancient Greek texts. Now a doctoral candidate in classical studies at the University of Michigan, their research focuses on intersectional identities in the ancient world — whether that pertains to women, immigrants or what we would contemporarily consider sexual minorities.
The presentation that Cornel gave focused on answering the question, “What was it like to live in the ancient world?” It focused on asking experiential questions about life in the ancient world and what it would have been like to be an ordinary Athenian on a day-to-day basis — what sort of people you might meet, places you might go, how you would be perceived. Most historical records focus on the most important people and places — in essence, it’s a highlight reel. In contrast, Cornel aims to find out what the lives of those largely erased by the sands of time were like, and to give a voice to people who were silenced by both ancient and modern structural inequalities. This, as one might imagine, is a very vast topic and out of practicality. Thus, Cornel’s research relies more on specific case studies and the discipline of microhistory.
One case study introduced during the talk was that of Neaira, an Athenian immigrant. Cornel used this to explore how immigrants fit into the ancient world — whether they were considered wholly foreign, and whether or not they could fit into the fabric of Athenian society at all. Neaira, a non-citizen of Athens, was brought to court for marrying an Athenian citizen, as it was against the law at the time. While one might think that it would be an open-and-shut case followed by a quick annulment of an illegal marriage, at no point in time did her prosecutor mention her being an immigrant. Rather, criticisms of her were loosely based on her previously being a slave and rumors of her being a sex worker, which would amount to hearsay in a modern court.
Cornel asserted that this was likely because Neaira had lived in Athens for three decades and was therefore completely culturally assimilated into Athenian culture, making any criticism of her foreignness a moot point that an ancient jury would not have found convincing. This provides basis for the belief that the identity of Athenians was more complex than we might think — one could be Athenian without being a citizen, and be an insider to cultural customs and their society despite being an immigrant, all while simultaneously being discriminated against for not having citizenship. The exploration of identity and how it morphs situationally in the ancient world is central to Cornel’s research as they try to answer the question of what it really meant to be part of the ancient world— is it citizenship, birthright, assimilation or something else?
Cornel also connected their research to their experience as an international student in America and shared information about how this summer’s new I.C.E. regulations threatened to completely upturn their life. Luckily, the regulations were repealed, but Cornel had to grapple with the reality of possibly being forced to leave the United States despite living here for a decade. They pointed out that they are often perceived as being American — their accent is almost gone and time has taught them all the American customs one might ever need to know — and think of home as Michigan now, which seems contradictory to their official legal status as a non-resident. It is experiences like this that have inspired Cornel’s research and motivated them to give a voice to those mostly forgotten or marginalized by history.
After the talk officially ended, Cornel helpfully provided information about graduate school to prospective students, which the audience greatly appreciated. Organizer Dante King ’21 said, “It was an honor to host Anna. I think all of the students in attendance really benefited from the talk; not only is Anna a treasure trove of knowledge concerning ancient Mediterranean lived experience, but as someone who is currently working on a doctorate, they could also speak to academic pursuits in classics post-Wooster.” Overall, Cornel’s talk introduced their audience to a side of the ancient world often forgotten and was an excellent way to spend a Thursday night. I’m looking forward to keeping up with their research in the future.
If you have an interest in classics, Eta Sigma Phi regularly hosts virtual trivia nights and will be remotely hosting another speaker, Anthony Vivian, on Nov. 5.