Ancient History PhD student Rodney Cross has spent the last six months soaking in the sights and sounds of Rome as part of his research into animal sounds in ancient Roman texts, which he is undertaking as the Macquarie Gale Scholarship recipient for 2019.

Could you describe your current research topic?

My PhD research focusses on the vocabulary used by ancient Roman authors (from Lucretius to Apuleius) to represent and characterise sounds in text. I compare references to animal sounds in ancient Latin literature with the sounds of animals that still exist today to improve our understanding of the acoustic, aesthetic and affective qualities denoted by these sonorous Latin terms.

What would surprise people to learn about your area of research?

The two most common responses to my thesis-elevator pitch are “are there many (if any) references to sounds in antiquity?” and “that topic sounds incredibly niche, is anyone else doing this?”

The answer to both questions is “yes, definitely!”

Ancient authors like Pliny the Elder were quite preoccupied with the sounds of animals. In books VIII to XI of Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ alone, there are (at my count) a total of 213 references to the sounds of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, birds, and insects. A major focus of my residency at the British School of Rome (BSR) was the compilation of an extensive dataset of references to animal sounds in ancient Latin texts. At present I have recorded over 1000 entries to individual sound-terms relating to animals throughout my chosen time period.

In regards to interest in the senses in antiquity, there has been a massive surge of interest in the ‘sensorium’ over the past two decades, which has swept through the Humanities. I suspect this is because we can relate to sensory experiences on a personal level, and these experiences have a way of directly connecting us to the distant past in a very physical way. This can be very exciting! Especially when you find responses to sounds that still ring true today. Seneca’s discussion ‘On Quiet and Study‘ for example, resonates with me on a very personal level, as the tree next to my apartment's window is home to a rather raucous clattering of cockatoos! The sounds of birds being both the current focus of my study and its foremost distraction is certainly, irony that I could do without.

How has being in Rome enhanced your research?

As a student of ancient Roman history, Rome was the perfect place to be! While at the BSR, I was within walking distance of many of the international academies and their research libraries, as well as Rome’s many museums and archaeological sites. Regular access to these libraries, museums and sites vastly improved my research in countless ways. As I tend to get a lot of my best work done at night, 24 hour access to the BSR library was also invaluable.

But I think the most substantial benefit to my research came through the ability to engage in thoroughly thought-provoking conversations with my fellow-award holders and visiting scholars on a daily basis. The BSR is a wonderfully bizarre melting-pot of ideas and differing views. It has an infectious air of curiosity and creativity that generally brings out the best in people. Such conversations helped me to test and temper the main arguments of my thesis with a friendly ‘home-crowd’. Chatting about my research with the artists-in-residence was also extremely beneficial, as their creative approaches would often bring entirely new and exciting angles from which to view my own research.

Has there been a particular highlight or experience that stands out?

I was lucky enough to have a room that overlooked the BSR Director’s garden, which was home to a large number of songbirds. This gave me a front row seat to listen to their ‘dawn-song’ on a semi-regular basis (I’m not really a morning person). With the assistance of a resident artist, I was even able to make some high-quality recordings of the ‘dawn-chorus’ from the roof of the school. During my six-month residency I became especially familiar with the clicks, whistles, and trills of a nearby blackbird. Being able to listen and engage with the sounds of birds that were once described by ancient Latin authors, in person, and in Rome, was a truly memorable experience.

What has been the biggest challenge during your time there?

Despite making amazing new friends during my stay at the BSR, I found being away from my fiancée and my family to be the biggest challenge. They have all been so incredibly supportive throughout my academic journey, and it was a bit tricky being in different time-zones when I was in need of emergency thesis-related chats.

Any advice for students considering applying for the gale scholarship?

First and foremost, scope out the nearest and best gelati places in the first week. Trust me on this one; a regular afternoon gelato (or espresso) break is a good excuse to get out and experience Rome between study sessions.

But on a more serious note; it’s never too early to start thinking about your application, and how being based in Rome can reinvigorate and improve your research. The Macquarie Gale Scholarship is a life-changing (and thesis-shaping) opportunity and a fantastic academic goal to work towards. I would strongly recommend applying to any doctoral student with a focus in Roman history.

About the Macquarie Gale British School at Rome Scholarship

Thanks to the generosity of Mrs Janet Gale and the late Dr Bill Gale, the Department of Ancient History offers a scholarship to travel to and reside at the British School at Rome for up to six months. The scholarship is available to postgraduate candidates (MRes or PhD) in Ancient History at Macquarie University, or to recent Macquarie University Ancient History postdoctoral scholars, within five years of award of their degree.

Find out more about the scholarship.