Joshua Vera is an Associate Member and Fulbright Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies. He is currently working on a Doctoral Dissertation in ancient Mediterranean history at the University of Chicago. He previously received a B.A. in history and in classical civilizations from the University of California, Berkeley, and a postbaccalaureate certificate in classical languages from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Q: What is your particular field of interest?
A: I study the interplay of landscape, memory, and identity. Specifically I look at this interplay within the religious structures of the marketplaces here in Athens during the Roman Period. Currently I’m here on a Fulbright Fellowship working on my dissertation. My project is looking at the urban development that occurs in and around the market place after the Romans show up, There are a lot off things that move around, political buildings that are repurposed—so I’m looking at how these things impact the religious identity of the Athenians, what the Athenians do when these changes are made to their landscape.
Q: And what methods are you using to study this?
A: I’m studying the archaeological record in the Roman-period Agora. I’m looking at structural responses from the Athenians themselves after the Romans move in temples, country temples that were just dropped here. I’m asking: “What did the Athenians do with that? What did they build up? How did they redirect traffic?” and so on. Specifically I’m looking patronage of temples, whether the Athenians still frequented these temples even though they’d been rededicated and completely transformed.
Q: How did you get interested in this topic?
A: I have always been interested in histories of religions. It’s a cliché, but I’ve always been interested in the “big story,” the overarching narratives. I double majored in classical civilization and history in undergrad at Berkley and then I did a 1 year plus baccalaureate program at UCLA in classical languages. So I dabbled in both fields and came out as what I call an interdisciplinary historian. For this project I can pull from archaeology and epigraphy
Q: And so why look at this time period?
A: In Athens we have so much literary evidence, but there’s a 200 year gap after the Romans show up until the second Sophistic. In this gap we have almost no text from the Athenians whatsoever. They love to talk about their religion, their gods and the origin of nature but there’s no text. So in studying the arc of Greek history more generally there’s a strange leap when the Romans show up. Historians have long assumed Greek religion just becomes Roman religion. But I’ve always been interested in how local identity is maintained once a power shows up and tells you how to think and believe.
Q: What specific resources will you be looking at?
A: The archaeological records of the Agora are all here between the Blegen and in the Stoa of Attalos. So I’ll be spending a good amount of time looking at the things they pulled out of the ground. They have great records at the Agora and have a good idea of what the marketplace looked like.
Q: What did the Agora look like during Roman times?
A: The Romans basically leveled the Athenian Agora and made it what they wanted. They leveled it and moved all the commercial activity down the street. The Athenians were left with this and could have built the marketplace up when they wanted to. I’m looking at the archaeological record to see what the Athenians prioritized, and what exactly they built up after the Romans came though.
A good example of this are two streets after the redevelopment of the classical Agora that were maintained through Hadrian. The two streets are developed and given colonnades— the broad street and panathenatic way. We know the Roman people built up a good chunk of that corridor between the two marketplaces to encourage traffic. But the panathenaic way is more important for the Athenians historically. It seems the Athenians waited to finish redeveloping the favored Roman road until after they could finish developing their own. Using what was finished first, and who paid for it, we can see what was prioritized.
Many of these trends we see don’t just die out. During the Christianization of Greece many other areas of the world convert much more quickly then Athens. Why didn’t Athens just want to jump on the Christian boat? And then they held out on change again during the Ottoman period. It’s interesting to me to see these trends stretching through history.
Q: What is your favorite place in Athens?
A: It’s tough obviously. I have to say Omonia Square for a few reasons. I feel it’s kind of the beating heart of modern Athens—I love the contradictions and oppositions that are apparent in the square. Tourists are advised not to go there, but there’s a lot going on in politics. You have neoclassical architecture side by sides with these brutalist structures. The landscape has been redeveloped so many times. It’s looked at as a dirty seedy place by many Athenians because many refugees frequent it, but there’s that giant Hondos Center sign that says “Welcome to Greece.” There are so many streets going there, and so many people hate going through it, but have to. I love it.
Q: What’s your favorite restaurant in Athens?
A: To Mavro Provato in Pangrati! Seriously everything they serve is the fare of the gods, and they come up with as many amazing veggie dishes as they do meat.
Q: If you were going to be a Greek god or goddess which one would you be?
A: I would have to go with Hermes: he’s witty, he’s cunning, and I’m a runner so the ability to jump around with those little winged boots would be sweet. He’s always helping humans, messing with the gods, and never gets in trouble.
Q: What do you get from your experience here at the ASCSA?
A: I have to say of course the incredible resources you can’t get anywhere else in Athens and greater Greece. But the community aspect of the school is huge. It’s more than rubbing elbows with the incredible scholars, there is a sort of culture here, it’s incredibly welcoming and really stimulating to be a part of. You feel like you’re part of something. There’s a history here and people are proud of it in a way that’s not in your face. Additionally, the recent ASCSA administration has done well on interacting with the local community—getting Greeks in here for events, talking about things that matter to both of us--that’s huge for me and not something you can get elsewhere.