York professor makes a quantum leap

You could say that York’s Canada Research Chair in Greco-Roman Cultural Interaction, Steve Mason, is a time traveller of sorts.

Mason is the creator of a global Internet-based project that strives to make the lived reality of the ancient world come alive for scholars and researchers. Known as the Project on Ancient Cultural Engagement, or PACE, the Web site provides a portal which researchers can use to make a quantum leap back in time to study political and cultural conditions. The first of its kind in the world, the PACE site provides a multi-layered textual and visual representation of the works of two important ancient historians, Polybius of Megalopolis and Flavius Josephus .

Left: Steve Mason

“The basic idea of the site is that all of the data, which are about cultural interaction in the ancient world, have been connected with the works by a few ancient authors who in some obvious way stood at the intersection of cultures. Their identity is interesting because they were fully part of two or more cultures and try to explain one to the other,” said Mason. “The two authors we selected to begin the project are Polybius of Megalopolis, a Greek statesman from the second century BCE, and Josephus, a Jew from Jerusalem who lived in the first century CE. And while they are 200 years apart, they have a lot of parallels in their lives. In fact, Josephus used Polybius as kind of a model for his own work.”

Why the interest in first-century historians? For Mason, one of the world’s leading experts on the works of Josephus, the plethora of ideas, history, musings on issues and policies documented in writings from ancient times still have a relevance for modern culture and society. Polybius and Josephus, who were both transplanted from their homelands into Roman courts, created in their writings bridges of understanding among ancient Greece, Rome and Jerusalem.

There is value in studying these texts. “Still today, we recognize in these writings fully human situations in spite of all that has changed since then. In particular, we see deeply inside societies feeling outrage at their plight under the boot of foreign powers and the pragmatic constraints on their responses,” explained Mason.

Both authors wrote extensively on such topics as citizenship and constitutions, education, war, the meaning of life, illness, death, human freedom and moral progress. “Perhaps most relevantly, both wrote under the dominance of the superpower [Rome] and reflected at length on the problem of maintaining one’s national identity, as we would put it, under such circumstances. Polybius deeply influenced the creation of modern political constitutions and Josephus’ works continue to sell in the tens of thousands annually, as a guide to ancient Judea, even in 18th century translations.”

The project, which began in earnest in the spring of 2004, is committed to providing an open-access initiative for the world’s scholars in Greco-Roman culture. It makes a range of scholarly books and articles available free of charge. There will be no completion date for PACE because it is designed to continually evolve as new information becomes available. All of the information has been neatly packaged into a user-friendly site complete with a detailed template that offers a layering of experiences. A text-based access, a detailed bibliography and a highly sophisticated site architecture provide a vivid recreation of the works of Polybius and Josephus with logical channels for investigation.

“The way we set up the site was on the premise that the user should be able to acquire all the information they need in two ways. One approach is categorized by subject into modules. If you are interested in the places these scholars wrote about, you can go to the places module, or if you are interested in the archaeological state of the sites, you can go to that module,” said Mason. “If you want to see what scholarly studies have been done on their work, you can go there, or you can access the bibliography as a module.

Right: An early likeness of Flavius Josephus

“We also have a collection of dissertations, both complete and in abstract form, on subjects related to the work of Polybius and Josephus. You can also track the history of reception, meaning how the work of Polybius and Josephus have been used throughout history. You can also look at textual parallels contained in the works of the ancient authors. Josephus, in particular, retells stories in a number of different places, so we have presented a table that shows if a story is mentioned in more than one of his works,” said Mason.

The site also provides another route of study because it provides the text written in ancient Greek. “We have all the surviving text from Polybius and Josephus. If you select a particular work, it takes you to a page with all the original Greek text on one side with a scholarly translation on the other side of the screen. There is also a full academic commentary that presents an interpretation of the work. The commentary shows every phrase that has been commented on and it breaks down the entire text,” said Mason. “On the Greek side, when they click on the words, users can then find out what each word means, the dictionary definition, how many times the word has been used in the text and all of its uses.”

PACE is linked to other global sites set up by scholars and its matrix presents a full and rich understanding of the works of both authors. “If you are reading a passage, and you decide that you want to know what other scholars are saying about a particular work, we present a list of those bibliographic entries that are context sensitive. You can click on the item and get the full break down of the record on the passage,” explained Mason.

The site is not limited to text. Mason has incorporated numerous visuals and videos which serve to add depth and dimension to any scholarly enquiry. “When Josephus mentions some places, a scholar can see photographs or videos of recent archaelogical finds in each location. Any place that turns up in the text itself or in the commentary will have a description and we also provide images of all these places. There are over a thousand images incorporated into the site,” said Mason. “A lot of information has been integrated into each module. The concept of this project was to only work with major collections and add information gradually to create a virtual reconstruction of each author’s work. It is meant to be vivid and colourful.”

Right: Polybius

An unusual feature of PACE, reflecting Mason’s roots in humanities and history, is the reception of the works of both authors in history. Mason’s graduate assistants have compiled a comprehensive cross-reference of later works which draw from Polybius and Josephus. Mason’s particular research emphasis is on Josephus. “The writings of Josephus tell us much about how the ancients handled intercultural conflict and negotiation, in their analysis of relations between the superpower of the day and smaller subject states such as Judea,” said Mason.

To conquer the extensive work on Polybius, Mason turned to British historian Frank William Walbank, the world expert on the writings of Polybius. Walbank studied Classics at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and from 1951 to 1977 was Rathbone Professor of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at the University of Liverpool. He is currently professor emeritus at Liverpool and an Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse. Mason was able to secure an agreement from Walbank to incorporate his work into the PACE site thereby creating a full virtual recreation of Polybius.

A crucial and unique feature of PACE offers membership in the site’s team to qualified scholars from around the world. Once accepted, they can, for incorporation into the site, offer their findings through a set of module-specific forms that make submission and review easy. For new scholars, PACE is of particular importance because it provides a platform to present their work. For established scholars, the site is a valuable teaching, learning and research tool that is, with its continual updates, never out of date or stale.

Mason worked with Hamilton-based Open Sky Solutions to develop the intricate Web architecture needed to support the site. He hopes that the kind of structure incorporated into the PACE project will serve as a model for future sites that may be created to provide a time travel portal into the important works created by other ancient scholars. Open Sky, said Mason, is willing to incorporate other, similarly multi-faceted databases on antiquity into the same template, so that related projects may becom affiliates of the PACE at York.

Mason travels in our world too. This summer he has presented invited lectures in Oxford and Durham in the UK, Aarhus, Denmark, and in Goettingen, Germany. He also gave the evening keynote lecture for an international symposium on Josephus in Greifswald on Germany’s Baltic coast.

A historian in the Division of Humanities at York and an eminent scholar in the field, Mason has recently been a Killam Research Fellow and visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford. He has written the following books: Josephus on the Pharisees (E.J. Brill, 1991); Josephus and the New Testament (Hendrickson, 1992; second edition, 2003, which was translated into several languages); and the Early Christian Reader (Hendrickson, 2003, with T. Robinson). He has edited Understanding Josephus: Seven Perspectives (Sheffield AP, 1998) and each volume of a new Josephus translation and commentary from Brill. He is currently writing a commentary to Josephus’ Judean War, Book 2.

For more information on the PACE project, click here.

More about Polybius and Flavius Josephus

Polybius was an influential Greek politician who lived much of his adult life as a hostage in Rome. He wrote his 40-volume Universial History (only parts of which survive), covering the period 220 to 146BCE, as a political guide for other statesmen. In it, he described the Punic Wars and the fall of Carthage and Rome. Polybius reflected often on questions of politics and ethics, as well as historical method.

Flavius Josephus, a priest, scholar, historian and soldier, lived in the first century CE. His work is more widely referenced than any other ancient text except the Bible, partly because he was a prolific chronicler of the time. He spoke Aramaic, knew Hebrew and wrote in Greek while living in imperial Rome. He laid down, in exquisite detail, the history of the first century and was an eye-witness to a critical point in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Western civilization. Although his works have been used mainly for other purposes, like Polybius, he offers abundant material on cultural confrontation, domestic and foreign politics.