New Internet project at York sets the PACE

How do you make events that happened in ancient times seem relevant today to the general public? How do you make people from long ago come alive? And how can you show the ways in which some old cultures were interrelated?

Those are just the sorts of questions Steve Mason, York’s Canada Research Chair in Greco-Roman Cultural Interaction, has been asking himself and others over the last few years. He has also been wondering how to provide a comprehensive data and image base about long-ago cultures, not only for the public but also for scholars wanting material for their research.

After years of consultations and out-and-out hard slogging, Mason has come up with an exciting solution to his questions. He and his colleagues have developed the Internet-based Project on Ancient Cultural Engagement (PACE) at York.

“With PACE, we aim to make the lived reality of the ancient world vivid again, both through the literary works of selected elite authors – the only ones who had the leisure to write – and through the investigation of ordinary conditions in which people lived,” said Mason, principal investigator of the project.

Right: Steve Mason talls with Prof. Annette Yoshiko Reed of McMaster University, at the launch of the new Web site

“We want to recover the ancient Mediterranean world for our time in new ways, and we’ve started by concentrating on the Roman period. By using PACE, people can probe ways in which cultures interacted in ancient times and see connections between these cultural encounters, understanding one’s own group and others, social conflict, political issues, and also wars.

“We hope that, through PACE, people will realize that those who wrote texts long ago were real human beings and that many of their texts have been in continual use, because of their value for thinking about human existence, ever since they were written. We want to bring these texts and these people to life.”

Mason said people from antiquity provided “banquet halls of food for thought on issues not very different from those we face in the 21st century: illness, death, conflict, war, human freedom, moral progress, education, citizenship, and the meaning of life itself, as well as larger social and political problems.”

As a framework for PACE, Mason settled on identifying major authors from Greco-Roman antiquity “who stand conspicuously at the confluence of cultures”. At a recent event to launch the project from its home in the TEL Building, he gave a demonstration of how the site works, using Flavius Josephus as an example – the subject of his own research.

Left: Flavius Josephus

Josephus, priest, historian and aristocrat of the first century CE, is “the most obvious candidate to choose: He wrote prolifically, came from Jerusalem, spoke Aramaic, knew Hebrew, had direct contacts with the Parthian empire and the Arab east, fought against the Romans, then moved to Rome and wrote about Judean history in the Greek language,” explained Mason. “His large and historically influential body of writing thus provides fertile ground for beginning a study of cultural representation and interaction in antiquity.”

Every reference in the commentary of Josephus’ works and others on PACE will be linked to ancient texts online elsewhere, to whatever material remains are available, and to scholarly analysis. “We provide the Greek text, with full word analysis,” said Mason. Clicking on Greek words gives their root meaning and form, while a click on the English side produces a full commentary in a window below and a range of high-level tools for further study.

While PACE’s home page looks simple, open the door and it will lead you deeper into a complex body of material, depending on the level of information you want to get. PACE will provide textual parallels of Greek and English, and eventually other languages will be available. Readers can even compare specific translations of passages within an author’s works or between two authors. Added Mason, “You can also see archeological sites and reports, scholarly articles, bibliographies, dissertations, as well as images.

“Of particular interest are animated aerial images (“flyovers”) of some 60 locations in Israel, showing ancient sites mentioned in texts. By showing the contours of the land in a way maps never can, these resources are quite effective in creating a feeling of ‘being there’.”

Left: Dove Sussman (right) with Mason

On the technical side, Mason observed that the program is the most successful cross-platform one of its kind (dealing with ancient texts), easily navigable in all common browsers on Macintosh and PC computers. It does not require special fonts, even for the Greek and Hebrew, which are embedded. He credited Dove Sussman, web consultant for the project (of XPOTUS Interactive), for his cutting-edge Web development.

Mason sees PACE as fulfilling the “new spirit in Canadian public funding, which mandates an effort at outreach to the public”. He also said the project team is cultivating formal affiliations with private and public bodies, such as Brill Academic Publishers of the Netherlands, Hendrickson Publishers of the United States, the Mediterranean and Near Eastern Studies Programme at Trinity College, Dublin, and the Institutum Judaicum Delitzschianum of Münster, Germany.

“Part of our mission is to catalyze the new graduate programs in ancient history and in humanities at York, from which we draw our research assistants and associates. We are also encouraging visits from foreign scholars, which have already begun, and we plan regular exchanges, colloquia and international graduate-student seminars.

“Our project is committed to open-access initiatives, and we’ll strive to make as much available at no charge to the user as publishing agreements allow,” he noted.

The project Web site is here, where a rich template has been set up. The Life of Josephus, translated and annotated by Mason, is the most fully developed of the texts to date (found under Crucial Texts). It provides the best example of text-based access to the site’s resources. Check out sections 114 to 115 to see some images tied to text, for example. Direct access to the tool sets is best illustrated by the Bibliography link on the main page. The other links will be filled in over weeks and months by the research team, including graduate assistants. Work will continue intensively over the summer, so that by the fall term each tool will have a considerable amount of material behind it.

About Steve Mason

Mason has long been involved in research into the life of Flavius Josephus. For more than two decades, he has been immersed in 30 volumes of material written by Josephus, whose works he describes as the most important source for Judean history (after the Bible), for the origins of Christianity in the first century CE and for relations between Rome and its eastern provinces.

Currently, Mason is leading an international team in preparing the first full commentary on what this prolific author wrote, along with a new English translation from the Greek. For more information on Mason’s research project, visit the July 29, 2003 YFile.