Crossing the Rubicon into Classics Research


Richard Saller will always remember the reception his early research received at Harvard.

Newly arrived to the U.S. from Cambridge, Saller had been invited to speak about Roman history before an audience of Harvard faculty. After his lecture, Saller was standing in the elevator when a chairman next to him spoke up.

“Well, we’ve never heard anything like that before,” the Harvard chair said. He didn’t mean it in a good way.

But it was Saller and his peers who were ahead of the times in ancient history. “I don’t think [the chairman] had any idea what I was talking about,” Saller remarked.

Photography courtesy of the School of Humanities & Sciences

The path that Richard P. Saller, Dean of the Humanities and Sciences, has taken in his pursuit of history has been anything but conventional. At Cambridge, he studied under renowned historian Moses Finley, accused of communism in the United States. He has written several books and conducted a plethora of research on Roman history. Now he is dean of the largest school at Stanford University.

Originally an engineering major, he stumbled upon ancient history in an introductory class on Rome. An undergraduate student during the Vietnam War, Saller found himself drawn to the study of Roman imperialism as a lens for understanding America’s own projection of military force worldwide. The die was cast: Saller began studying classics.

In retrospect, Saller realized his decision to switch majors was “ill-considered.”

“I don’t think I ever really seriously thought about whether I would have a job doing this,” he said, “but I focused on it and continued.”

Initially, the topics that sparked his interest were political. While he delved deeper into the “motivations of the political actors” in ancient history, he also began studying the literature and languages of classical civilization. Saller graduated from the University of Illinois with degrees in Greek and History.

Then, a few years later at Cambridge, Saller first met Moses Finley. A widely-renowned historian and well-versed economist, Finley was also a politically-controversial figure, who pled the fifth amendment upon charges of communism from the U.S. government. Moreover, by Saller’s account, “He was the central figure in British classics, who took classics from being as kind of elite-schoolboy exercise…to what I would regard as a more serious historical study of the past.”

To Saller, a Cambridge PhD student, Finley was “intimidating.” Finley was also just the person he wanted for a mentor.

Saller vaguely recalled their first interaction at a drop-in meeting. “I remember the office-hour visit being pretty brusque, matter-of-fact, to the point – and I was out of the office,” he said. “He wasn’t going to sit and chat with me.”

Over time, however, the two scholars warmed to each other. Ultimately, Finley’s example – his bold presentation of ideas, and his ability to see implications in the past for the present – would have a great influence on Saller. During his time at Cambridge, Saller became determined to pursue “questions that [were] interesting, that nobody’s bothered to ask before.”

For Saller, these questions would involve the social sciences: how society and economics functioned for the Romans.

Socioscientific issues were abnormal topics to pursue in 1980’s classics academia. Popular subjects for 1980’s ancient historians were literature and military history, topics that reflected the post-war generation’s sentiments. Most PhD students wrote their theses on specific ancient writings or abstruse literary themes, not broader questions of family structure, patronage, and economics.

However, Saller forewent a traditional research focus to pursue topics he found more novel and intriguing. “In reinterpreting Thucydides for the hundredth time,” he concluded, “I was unlikely to have anything original to say.”

Finding information on ancient economics and patronage was difficult, especially because social sciences did not even exist as concepts 2000 years ago. “No Roman wrote a work on social history,” Saller said. “They didn’t even have a concept of economic history as such.”

Saller learned to scour vast amounts of resources, to find each rare piece of relevant material: “often just paragraphs, or maybe a letter of Pliny.” He used computer simulation technology to acquire data, employing digital humanities “before the phrase was ever invented.”

Saller also studied language use. He combed through texts to locate every usage of certain Latin keywords related to the topic at hand. When researching Roman patronage, he focused on words like patronus (patron), cliens (client), beneficium (favor), officium (obligation or service), and gratia (gratitude). Peter Garnsey, an adviser at Cambridge, told him, “You need to start from understanding the vocabulary that the ancient authors use.” Saller did just that.

“Because I started Latin and Greek much later in life, I didn’t take it for granted that I knew what these words meant,” he said. “And as a result of this systematic study, I was able to…propel an argument that was different from what people had said before.”

Via this approach, Saller and his peers found themselves “close to the leading edge” of ancient historical research. “And then I think [we] became sort-of standard-bearers” – the aquiliferi – “for opening up the field of family history.”

After leaving Cambridge and forging a unique line of research, Saller has since departed from the aggressive, polemical style and methods of his mentor Finley. However, he does not forget the “huge” impact Finley had on his career. In fact, it was Finley who reassured Saller’s wife about his prospects as a historian: “He apparently told her that she shouldn’t worry about me, because when he was a young scholar my age, he was even brasher…than I was.”

Ultimately, Finley left Saller with something more than his example and advice. Shortly before his death in 1986, Finley gave Saller a keepsake: an old bound notebook, containing Finley’s own Roman law notes from school at Columbia University. The notes have no “biographical or intellectual value,” but Saller still treasures them.


“In the end, I was very touched. I’m not quite sure why he did this,” Saller said. “I still have that [notebook], and I prize that…At some point I need to deposit it in his collection at Cambridge, but I haven’t been willing to give it up.”