Recent events

Ancient Cities: Athens, Gift of Athena


What are the myths that we tell about Athens? This lecture examines the legacy of Athenian culture. In particular, it focuses on looking at the darker side of that legacy. We like to imagine the Athenians as devoted to freedom and the spirit of reason. Certainly there is much to praise about Athens, but the city could also be violent, irrational, xenophobic, misogynist, and brutally imperialist. This session explores both sides of the Athenian story.
Dr Alastair Blanshard, Department of Classics and Ancient History
7 June, 2011

Ancient Cities – Carthage: City of Memories


In 146 BC, after three protracted and bloody wars, the city of Carthage was finally captured by the Roman legions. In an infamous act of ruthless brutality Carthage was razed to the ground and a curse placed against any future attempts to settle on the site of the city. Yet just a century and half later, the emperor Augustus re-built Carthage as the new capital of the Roman province of Africa. In this session I will explore the extent to which the memory of Carthage as Rome’s greatest and most dangerous enemy continued to colour how this new Roman city was portrayed by Roman and Greek authors. As well as highlighting the ongoing influence of Carthage as an anti-type through which Romans writers could explore aspects of their political and cultural identities, such an approach also underlines the importance of physical landscapes as repositories of memory in Roman thought.
Dr Richard Miles, Department of Classics and Ancient History
23 May, 2011

The Politics of Surveillance Narratives: From Creative Visions to Experiential Reflections

Video control room

Surveillance constitutes one of contemporary society’s most pressing and perplexing concerns, but our responses to it and our understanding of it can be haphazard and ill-informed. Is it the stuff of Orwellian nightmare, or a necessary and enabling part of routine life, something without which modern civilization could barely function? This presentation provides both fictional and factual perspectives, opening up discussion on the past, present and future of surveillance. Peter Marks traces the creative representation of surveillance in literary and cinematic utopias and dystopias, exploring how these speculations offer illuminating ways of thinking about the political and moral questions and possibilities that surveillance compels us to confront. Gavin Smith considers the lived experience of surveillance as articulated by those workers entrenched in the everyday mechanics of surveillance operation. The banal and trying nature of this distinctive form of labour offers a layer of complexity to both fictional and non-fictional accounts of surveillance, and adds a politics of exploitation and alienation to conventional (simplistic) understandings of surveillance as consolidating either dystopic or utopic power.

Dr Peter Marks, Department of English, and Dr Gavin Smith Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney
10 May, 2011

Past Futures: Angkor and the debate on sustainable low-density urbanism

Angkor: map and Angkor Wat

Societies of every known socio-economic system and magnitude have used low density settlements patterns from dispersed hunter-gatherer camps to the industrial megalopolis. Between the late 1st millennium BCE and the mid 2nd millennium CE three regions in the tropics in Mesoamerica, South Asia and South-East Asia produced vast, agrarian-based, low-density urban settlements. The largest, situated in modern Cambodia, was Angkor. In the 12th and 13th C CE the urban complex of Greater Angkor covered about 1000 sq km. By the start of the 17th C it was largely abandoned and the entire former metropolitan heartland of the Khmer Empire reverted to forest and scattered village communities in an eerie repetition of the end of the Classic Maya urban societies of Yucatan in the 9th and 10th C and great Buddhist cities of northern Sri Lanka in the 12th and 13th C. The demise of tropical low density urbanism was apparently associated with serious regional decline involving the impact of severe climatic instability, extensive land clearance and dependence on massive infrastructure. After the 16th C agrarian-based, low-density urbanism largely disappeared. Only in the 20th C, following industrialisation, has low density urbanism reappeared, spectacularly represented by the East Coast Megalopolis of the USA and the rapidly expanding desakota of southern and eastern Asia. How might we gauge the implications of the profoundly different past from the unknown future of sustainable urbanism?

Professor Roland Fletcher, Department of Archaeology and Christophe Pottier, Ecole Française d'Extrème Orient
22 March, 2011

Cities – Shanghai: Colonialism, Cosmopolitanism and Chinese Modernity

Researchers of this panel present the city of Shanghai to the audience as they know of it from various perspectives. Professor David Goodman gives an introduction to the history, ethnography and the pre-1949 colonial conditions of Shanghai. Dr Yiyan Wang demonstrates how Shanghai’s cosmopolitan environment in the 1920s and 1930s was conducive to the emergence of Chinese modernism in literature and art. Dr Yi Zheng examines how city narratives, from travel guides to fiction to personal memoirs, as an important part of urban culture, shape and structure our knowing, feeling and understanding of the cityscape, its inhabitants and history. She focuses in particular on how Shanghai stories function as the romance of a bourgeois city.

Professor David Goodman, Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Dr Yiyan Wang and Dr Yi Zheng, School of Languages and Cultures
Thursday 30 September 2010

Cities – Sydney, Freetown and Cape Town: Convicts and Empire

Many Sydneysiders think they know all about the history of their city, but few know that its convict past links it firmly to Africa, a continent many Australians know little about. Emma Christopher and Kirsten McKenzie uncover a forgotten history of abandoned plans and lost hopes, of political objections to sending convicts to Africa and the sufferings of those who were sent there. By revealing the convict connections to Freetown, Sierra Leone and Cape Town, South Africa, they show how very nearly the stories of Africa and Australia came to taking different turns. The salon will launch Emma's new book A Merciless Place: The Lost Story of Britain's Convict Disaster in Africa and How it Led to the Settlement of Australia.

Dr Kirsten McKenzie and Dr Emma Christopher, Department of History
Thursday 9 September, 2010

Furious Faces on the Streets: Public Protests in history

Special History Week event
"Power concedes nothing without a demand," avowed Frederick Douglass in 1857, "It never did and it never will." As an escaped slave who had gone on to become a leading figure in America’s growing abolitionist movement, Douglas was no stranger to making public demands. He would become one of the many millions of people in history–most of them now forgotten–who refused to submit quietly in the face of authority. Their public actions have been one of history’s driving forces. In protests, marches, parades and rallies, ordinary people have demanded and produced social change, sometimes, but not always, for the good. In this panel, we examine the history of public protests in a range of contexts–from crowd action in post-Enlightenment Europe and America through to the nationalist struggles in India and beyond–examining their contexts, tactics, and historical impact.

Robert Aldrich, Professor of European History at the University of Sydney, specialises in the history of France and its overseas empire since the French Revolution.

Frances Clarke, a Lecturer in History at the University of Sydney, is a specialist on nineteenth-century America, especially the era of Civil War and Reconstruction. Her research interests include the history of reform and protest movements in this period.

Jim Masselos, an Honorary Reader at the University of Sydney, has spent decades reading and writing about Indian history and culture, including extensive research on Gandhian protest movements during Indian’s nationalist struggles.

Monday 6 September, 2010

Scholarship at Large


Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director, Duke University Press, Cathy N. Davidson, Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English at Duke University and Professor Iain McCalman, Department of History

How often do we hear that academics can't write? That academic prose is leaden, burdened with excessive theory? Lacking wit and narrative drive? These days, most Australian publishers run screaming from scholarly book manuscripts. Yet in the United States, Duke University Press has made academic publishing cool-and popular. Do the people at Duke know something we don't? Ken Wissoker, the editorial director at Duke, believes his press not only produces smart books, it also shapes intellectual inquiry.

But what about the future? What will happen to scholarship-and to thinking-in the age of digital technology? How do we develop new means to disseminate ideas? Cathy N. Davidson, the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English at Duke University and past president of the American Studies Association, will join Ken Wissoker in asking us to think beyond the book.

Ken and Cathy will be talking at the Sydney Humanities Salon about the prospects for academic publishing and the future of civilization with eminent and widely published historians Iain McCalman and Shane White.

19 August, 2010
A co-presentation with Sydney Ideas Open

Cities: Digging up Sydney


A conversation between the disciplines of History and Archaeology on ways of researching Sydney's past.

Beneath the streetscapes and parklands of Sydney lie the fragments and material traces of both the Indigenous and Colonial/Settler past. All of us probably consider the history of Sydney to be familiar and well-documented, yet archaeological research across the Sydney Basin constantly brings to the surface surprising discoveries that challenge and contest the existing historical narratives about our city. In this Salon four archaeologists will present aspects of their research that challenge the received histories of the city in a conversation with pre-eminent Sydney historian Dr Grace Karskens.

Archaeology, courtesy of the Time Team and other television programs, is understood by most people as being about digging. The image of the slightly dishevelled, bearded archaeologist standing on some ancient structure below the ground-surface, waving a trowel at layers, features and finds, is enduring and pervasive. Archaeology, as practised beyond the plasma screen however, uses a whole range of methods and concepts to understand and interrogate the material past. This Salon will present some of the diversity of approaches used by archaeologists to analyse and interpret the various histories of Sydney. Unlike the majority of Humanities disciplines contemporary archaeology is predominantly practised beyond the academy. In Sydney most archaeological research is carried out by professional archaeologists through projects associated with urban development, governed by the requirements and strictures of legislation and policy. The nexus between research and development creates its own set of challenges for the presentation and conservation of the material past that presents another topic for conversation about the dissonances and synergies between archaeology and history.

  • Mary Casey is a Director, Casey & Lowe, archaeology and heritage consultants, and a research associate, Dept of Archaeology.
  • Annie Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and convenes the Heritage Studies Program.
  • Martin Gibbs is Senior lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sydney.
  • Grace Karskens teaches Australian history and public history in the School of History and Philosophy at the University of New South Wales.
  • Paul Irish is an archaeologist and Principal Consultant with Mary Dallas Consulting Archaeologists.

17 June 2010
A co-presentation with Sydney Ideas Open

Cities: Harlem, the black capital of the world


Shane White, Stephen Robertson and Stephen Garton are part of a collaborative team working on everyday life in Harlem in the 1920s, when the neighbourhood became the black capital of the world. Their award-winning web site maps everything from street speakers to parades, traffic accidents to basketball games, house fires to arrests for numbers – the form of gambling invented in Harlem that became its largest black business, and the subject of the team’s recently published book – to recreate what it was like to live in this ‘black metropolis.’ One finding of this research was that Harlem was not the segregated place it has been long thought, but a neighbourhood in which whites remained a significant, influential presence.

  • Stephen Garton is Professor of History and Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sydney. He is the author of four books and over sixty articles, chapters and encyclopaedia and historical dictionary entries in such areas as the history of madness, psychiatry, crime, incarceration, masculinity, eugenics, social policy, poverty, returned soldiers, masculinity and sexuality.
  • Stephen Robertson is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. His research areas are twentieth-century United States, history of sexuality, law and society, New York and digital history.
  • Shane White is Challis Professor of History and an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow at the University of Sydney. His main research interests are in African American history and in the history of New York City.

Thursday 10 June, 2010, 6-7:30pm
A co-presentation with Sydney Ideas Open

Out of Iran: Professor Dan Potts (Archaeology) on Tol-e Nurabad

Dan Potts is co-director of an ARC-funded excavation, called Tol-e Nurabad, which is located in the Mamasani district of the Fars province in Iran. Tol-e Nurabad was occupied from c. 6000 BC to the time of Christ, and Dan’s team are currently excavating in the earliest levels dating to the first Neolithic occupation at the site in c. 6000 BC. Dan will speak about what it's like being in Iran in the current political climate, what it's like to work there and about Iran's significance in the modern and ancient worlds.

Dan Potts is an Australian Research Council Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology
29 April 2010

Lucan’s epic masterpiece: New works on Lucan’s Civil War

Frances Muecke and Paul Roche discuss the brilliant young poet of Nero’s court, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan), in light of two new publications on his epic poem, De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’): Paul Roche’s Lucan, De Bello Civili Book 1: A Commentary (Oxford University Press 2009), and Charles Tesoriero, Frances Muecke, and Tamara Neal’s co-edited Oxford Readings in Lucan (Oxford University Press 2009). Both of these books are products and indexes of a major critical re-awakening to Lucan’s epic meditation on the civil war which took place from 49-45 BCE between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Lucan’s viewpoint was informed by the aesthetic and iconoclastic cultural atmosphere of the emperor Nero (54-68 CE), with whom he was a friend and against whom he later died conspiring to assassinate.

Once condemned as histrionic, unhistorical, and rhetorical, Lucan’s narrative is now acknowledged as a seminally important, self-conscious masterpiece. It recasts this key event in Roman history as an epic encounter; it draws upon and challenges both the energy and the cultural authority of Vergil’s national epic, the Aeneid, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Oxford Readings in Lucan brings together key moments of Lucan scholarship from the twentieth century, and tracks the evolution of his dramatic re-evaluation. Lucan, De Bello Civili Book 1: A Commentary offers a sustained, line by line examination of the language and allusions in Lucan’s opening book, as well as the cultural and historical contexts informing it. It is the first full-scale commentary on Lucan’s epic overture in 70 years.

  • Paul Roche is lecturer in Latin at the University of Sydney.
  • Frances Muecke (FAHA) is senior lecturer in Latin at the University of Sydney.

8 April, 2010, 6-7:30pm

A panel on Violence in Modern Aboriginal History

The panel members were:

  • Professor Gordon Briscoe AO, author of his just released autobiography, Racial Folley A twentieth-century Aboriginal family
  • Jackie Huggins, Former Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia, and a Queensland commissioner for the Bringing Them Home enquiry
  • The Hon Bob Debus MP, former Attorney-General, State Government in NSW
  • Professor Peter Read, author of the recently released Tripping Over Feathers. Scenes in the Life of Joy Janaka Wiradjuri Williams
  • Julie-Anne Williams, daughter of Joy Williams

Julie-Anne Williams, Gordon Briscoe and Joy Williams were deeply affected by the policy of separating Aboriginal children from their parents and communities. Bob Debus and Peter Read have been closely associated with the violence affecting Aboriginal Affairs for many years, violence towards to children, on the streets, to young adults, to settlements and missions, and in the cities.

The panel discussion concluded with the launch of the two books, by Jackie Huggins and Bob Debus
Peter Read is Professorial Research Fellow in the Department of History
12 March, 2010, 6-7:30pm

Inaugural event: The Virtues of Mendacity: On lying in politics

Martin Jay, University of California, Berkeley in conversation with Dirk Moses, University of Sydney

When Michael Dukakis accused George H. W. Bush of being the "Joe Isuzu of American Politics" during the 1988 presidential campaign, he asserted in a particularly American tenor the near-ancient idea that lying and politics (and perhaps advertising, too) are inseparable, or at least intertwined. Our response to this phenomenon, writes the renowned intellectual historian Martin Jay, tends to vacillate-often impotently-between moral outrage and amoral realism. In The Virtues of Mendacity, Jay resolves to avoid this conventional framing of the debate over lying and politics by examining what has been said in support of, and opposition to, political lying from Plato and St. Augustine to Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. Jay proceeds to show that each philosopher's argument corresponds to a particular conception of the political realm, which decisively shapes his or her attitude toward political mendacity. He then applies this insight to a variety of contexts and questions about lying and politics. Surprisingly, he concludes by asking if lying in politics is really all that bad. The political hypocrisy that Americans in particular periodically decry may be, in Jay's view, the best alternative to the violence justified by those who claim to know the truth.

Dirk Moses is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History
Monday 1 March, 2010, 6-7:30pm