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Roman Diversity: Aestheticizing and Commodifying Human Variety, Then and Now (The 2020–21 John B. and Mary K. McDiarmid Lecture)

Nandini Pandey (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Tuesday, January 12, 2021 - 2:30pm
Via Zoom (contact for link)

Imperial Rome presents paradoxes to historians of diversity and classicists of color. By many measures, Rome managed its remarkable ethnic variety more successfully than some modern states, particularly in its lack of legal or economic discrimination by race. On the other hand, Rome makes clear diversity's roots in violence, exploitation, and slavery. Many Romans experienced their empire's ethno-geographic variety via tokens: representative humans and goods from all over the known world, assembled within local spaces such as gardens, galleries, dining rooms, bedrooms, and circuses. In this talk, Nandini Pandey explores the literary and material remnants of Roman diversity, suggesting that the spaces in which it appeared became "heterotopias" where Romans learned to admire, manipulate, and commodify their empire's ethnic variety -- much as we do in modern spaces like universities. Her exploration of these ancient practices hopes to encourage critical reexamination of modern diversity policies.

Nandini Pandey's work focuses on Roman literature, culture, and history, their representation in contemporary media, and their potential to inform and enrich our modern lives. Her first book, The Poetics of Power in Augustan Rome: Latin Poetic Responses to Early Imperial Iconography (Cambridge 2018), argues that Roman writers and readers played a formative role in shaping the first emperor’s image from below.  She is currently writing a second book on Roman race and diversity, tentatively entitled Empire of Difference: What Rome Can Teach Us about Diversity (Princeton), supported by an ACLS fellowship, and writes regularly for Eidolon, with a special focus on race and cultural appropriation in her column “Romans Go Home.” In Spring 2021, she will be a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.