Faculty Spotlight: Jessica Clark

| Tue, 09/05/23
This is a photo of Jessica Clark smiling.
Associate professor of classics Jessica Clark. Photo by Devin Bittner.

Jessica Clark is an associate professor in Florida State University’s Department of Classics, part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Her research interests include the history and literature of the Roman Republic, Roman military history, and women and gender studies. Clark’s current research centers on Roman war and military service, as represented in Latin literature of the second and first centuries B.C. She earned her bachelor’s degree in classics and archaeology in 2002 from Connecticut’s Wesleyan University before earning both her master’s and doctoral degrees in classics at Princeton University, New Jersey, in 2006 and 2008.

Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to FSU.

I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and went to a public school where Latin was required from seventh grade until graduation. While I can’t say that Julius Caesar’s battle narratives particularly resonated with my fourteen-year-old self, by the time we got to poetry like Vergil’s “Aeneid,” I was hooked. I studied classics and archaeology throughout college, then went on to earn my doctoral degree. I spent a lovely five years as an assistant professor of history at California State University – Chico, but when the FSU classics department advertised a Roman history position in 2013, there was no question that I had to apply. I was fortunate enough to be offered the job, so my husband and I packed up our Toyota Corolla and drove to Tallahassee with our two-month-old son in the backseat. Since then, the classics department at FSU has been as great a place to work as I imagined it might be.

Can you break down your areas of academic interest for us?

What interests me most about ancient history is not what we know but how we know it. While I’m a Roman military historian, I focus my research on what Romans wrote about their wars and why they presented their own past in the ways they did. My early work dealt primarily with Roman military defeats, which led me to the study of Roman military culture more broadly. Alongside that, I began asking questions about historical representations of gender and political power in the Roman Republic.

What makes you passionate about your topics of research?

Researching ancient history can feel like detective work — looking for evidence and following where it leads — and it’s tremendous fun. However, the most interesting part for me is investigating the choices writers made when they created a particular historical narrative. This involves studying ancient authors but also questioning the assumptions and motives of historians working in the 19th and 20th centuries. Earlier scholarship is invaluable, but it can also be constrained by many authors’ preconceptions or expectations about antiquity. It’s important for new generations of students to re-examine this historical evidence.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why are your topics important?

There is so much more to ancient Rome than is often represented. For example, my current book project is on women in Roman history and politics. There is an astonishing amount of evidence beyond the information that is included in general studies of this time. There is an excerpt of a speech by Cato the Elder from the early second century B.C. where he tells a story about a rumor started by a mischievous youth, which spread like wildfire among married Roman women. He claimed that the senate was debating whether women should have two husbands or men should have two wives. The wives, according to Cato, came en masse to dramatically petition the senate that they be allowed two husbands, which of course confused the senators terribly, as they didn’t know what prompted this demonstration. Cato told this story as part of a discussion as to why underage boys weren’t allowed to listen in on senate meetings anymore. However, it is fascinating to consider the nuances in a little anecdote like this — how it entertained Roman men to imagine what could motivate Roman women’s collective action and to spin out such tales to enliven their own understandings of political procedure and precedent. It often seems like women only show up in modern accounts of Roman history as victims or villains, but that is partly the result of modern choices. Roman men had more to say.

What is your favorite part of your job? What is the most challenging part of your job?

My favorite part is probably the most challenging: Teaching larger, general-education classes with students who may only take one course in Greek or Roman antiquity during their time at FSU. It has been more than 20 years since I was in college, and I can’t pretend to understand everything that our current students must balance as they work towards their degrees. It’s my job to hopefully give them, in 15 weeks, the best of what the ancient Mediterranean world can offer to equip them for their futures. I love it, but I sometime lie awake at night wondering if I should have used more adjectives to describe Hannibal’s march across the Alps.

What is your best memory so far from working at FSU?

My proudest moment so far was when my first doctoral student, Eva Carrara, completed her degree last May. We held a departmental hooding ceremony, and it was very meaningful to celebrate all she had accomplished alongside her family and friends. She is now an assistant professor of ancient history at James Madison University in Virginia!

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that) what would you hope it to be?

Don’t carve your name in the Colosseum.