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Martijn Icks, assistant professor in Ancient History

“Antiquity is much more relevant and interesting than students often realise,” Martijn begins. The Ancient Studies programme sports lectures and teaching methods that are anything but stale and traditional, and that pay specific attention to the way Antiquity impacted the time periods that succeeded it.

The many sides of Antiquity

In the course Classics Beyond Antiquity, students learn that Antiquity is given new meaning throughout the ages, Martijn explains. “For instance, we investigate the Dutch Republic in the Golden Age and its Batavian past. The course is very multifaceted and I find that very appealing. I also think that students find this aspect very inspiring.”

This approach is typical for the Bachelor’s in Ancient Studies at the UvA: rather than getting stuck in Antiquity as a historical time period, you get to look beyond Antiquity, Martijn says. “How does Antiquity live on in our own culture? Why do old buildings in Washington D.C. look like they originated in Ancient Greece and Rome? Why do we find ourselves returning time and again to Greek myths, and in which way do they play a role in various Netflix shows? In the courses Canon 1 and 2, for example, we investigate why certain people, works of art or texts are put on a pedestal. Why do they end up becoming a kind of benchmark within our culture that we keep revisiting and giving new meaning to?”

Is an approach like this, which applies such a large scope to one period in history, something that distinguishes this programme from other Ancient Studies programmes in the Netherlands?

 “Yes,” Martijn says. “It is indeed intended to be something that is unique to us and is not found elsewhere in the same shape or form.”

Emperor Elagabalus and the phenomenon of character assassination

The continuing impact of Antiquity is also an important part of Martijn’s own research. “It is something I started investigating a long time ago. I wrote my thesis on the not very well-known Roman emperor Elagabalus, who reigned in the third century. He came into power when he was fourteen and when he was eighteen, he was murdered and thrown into the Tiber. All sorts of crazy stories regarding his reign circulated in Antiquity, too, and my thesis dealt with the historical figure on the one hand – why did it all go so horribly wrong in those four years – but on the other hand, it also concerned the impact this emperor had on art and literature, in which Elagabalus was mainly portrayed negatively. Only recently has a more positive spin been put on his legacy. This is rather interesting: the Antique sources often reproached the emperor for being effeminate and of reversing sexual norms, etcetera. In Antiquity, this was considered taboo, but nowadays he is seen as a sort of idol by the LGBTQ+ community.”

Martijn’s current research also features the question of how people are depicted. “An important research interest of mine is what we call character assassination – the deliberate vilification of people – and how this can be understood as a historical phenomenon. In my case, I focus on this topic within the world of Antiquity. Emperor Elagabalus is a prime example of someone who without doubt was not a brilliant emperor, but who has also been extensively vilified in the ancient sources. This has a continuing impact to the present day. How does something like this actually work? A fair amount of research is done to investigate how people gain a positive image – image building, propaganda, etc. – but only little to systematically investigate the reverse. Although this is not exactly a friendly topic, it is something that happens continuously, even now.” Martijn confirms this is a highly relevant issue in today’s political world: “A very clear link between past and present can be seen there. This makes Antiquity very topical.”

Inspiring environment

The Ancient Studies programme not only allows you to focus on the continuing impact of Antiquity in later periods, but also offers an exceptional range of specialisations to choose from. “As a result of the collaboration between the UvA and the VU in the fields of Ancient History, Archaeology and Classics, a group of around fifty scholars and lecturers are gathered here.” This forms what is basically an expertise hub. “You cannot find this anywhere else in the Netherlands at this scale,” Martijn adds.

A partnership like this also results in an inspiring environment to work in. “I am learning a lot myself, too, from being a part of this team,” Martijn explains. “I consider myself a historian, but an archaeologist has a very different method of working and will ask questions of a different nature. It also comes with a challenge, because everyone must learn to look beyond the borders of their own field, which is not always easy.”

When asked what his favourite thing is when it comes to the contact he has with his students, he instantly replies enthusiastically: “The discussions and the conversations. There are a lot of things I enjoy about teaching. I also really enjoy giving lectures, and of course, I also ask the students questions during my lectures. There is always some kind of interaction. But the nice thing about a seminar, for example, is seeing which kind of ideas the students bring to the table when we exchange thoughts about a certain text or source that everyone has read or viewed. People sometimes come up with things that had not crossed my mind yet at all. That might just be the most inspiring thing about my job.

The course I enjoy teaching the most is Classics Beyond Antiquity, because it really transports you through the ages. Students make their own video essays, which is always a great success. We even invite a professional vlogger who explains how to record videos with your phone and how to edit them." 

Martijn Icks is coordinator of the Ancient Studies Bachelor’s programme and assistant professor in Ancient History. His specialism mainly comprises the Roman Empire, but he also enjoys investigating something that is a central part of the programme: the role played by Antiquity after Antiquity.