Cotsen Institute Welcomes Greg Woolf

In his studies, all roads may have led to Rome for Greg Woolf, the newest member of the core faculty of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. When teaching, the road covered the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil, France, Spain, Italy, and now southern California.

A Roman historian and archaeologist, Woolf joined the History Department at UCLA in September 2021, as the Ronald J. Mellor Distinguished Professor of Ancient History. Currently, he is also an honorary professor of archaeology at University College London. Prior to coming to UCLA, he was professor of classics and director of the Institute of Classical Studies at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. He spent nearly two decades as professor of ancient history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, as well as lecturer and fellow at Oxford. He received his PhD from Cambridge. His elected fellowships include member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, fellow of the British Academy, member of Academia Europe, fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Woolf has visited the United States many times and thought about crossing the Atlantic Ocean more permanently before. Not until after he had directed the Institute of Classical Studies for six years and his kids were finishing college, however, did he finally have the chance to make the move. “I was ready for something new,” he said. “The first year you run an institute is great because you spend a lot of time fixing what’s broken. Then the second year, you spend a lot of time fixing the things you broke yourself when you didn’t realize how things were working. As time goes by, it all gets a little less exciting and interesting.” While director, he kept his hand in teaching with some graduate classes at the University of London. “Then this opportunity arose, and I was delighted to come.” He had only visited California for conferences, one memorable one in an off-season Disneyland hotel in Anaheim, and “a couple in the grand setting of the Getty Villa,” he added.

As a member of the History Department, he says, “my interests are going to coincide with people in different parts of the University. I did teach a graduate seminar last fall and had some students from the Cotsen Institute, as well as some from both classics and history. I think that the future is probably going to be increasing interconnections between these three areas.” He added that he cannot do his research without archaeology and archaeological evidence and observed that UCLA is “a very easy place to stretch beyond one’s home department in a way that isn’t always true in the United Kingdom, and certainly isn’t true in other parts of the world. I’m looking forward to those permeable boundaries.”

During his undergraduate and graduate degree studies, he was “fortunate to study classical literature, history, prehistory, and classical archaeology. My research interests continue to lead me back and forth across these fields within the very broadly conceived study of antiquity. If I had to choose a label, it might be ‘cultural historian of classical antiquity,’ but in practice, labels—like disciplinary boundaries— limit more than they enable,” he explained. He notes that he was very aware of the Cotsen Institute before being asked to join. In addition, while he was running the Institute of Classical Studies, there was a huge library that had many publications on archaeology, classical and otherwise. “The Cotsen Institute Press publications are very much on the radar,” he pointed out.

Woolf enthusiastically describes some of what he will be teaching in the upcoming quarters: a course that presents an outline of Roman history and a capstone seminar on environmental history in the ancient world. “People have been writing about pandemics as if they are going out of fashion; but sadly, they are not.” His course deals with “lots of interesting information about urban resilience and disaster management; the kind of risk-buffering strategies people developed in the ancient Mediterranean world. If you have a positive mindset, you think about resilience,” he explained. “If you’re more negative, you think about disaster and how disasters are created out of a combination of human activities and social structure; vulnerabilities, outside forces.”

These civilizations were “dealing with frequent famine or crop failure, as well as with living on a tectonically volatile zone. And you’ve got plenty of plague. There are also quite interesting positive dimensions to thinking about how well-adapted they were to these particular conditions,” he explained. He noted that “in the last major book that I wrote (The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History), I tried to explain why ancient Mediterranean cities were so different from those created in many other parts of the world.”

Woolf has a long-standing interest in the culture of empire in the ancient world. He has worked on the formation of provincial cultures, often using archaeological materials, and on the cosmopolitan culture of the metropolis. Much of his work considers the Roman world in a global perspective. He has written on literacy, on knowledge cultures and libraries, on ethnography, on the Roman economy, on gendered Roman history, and on the emergence of religions. Currently he is working on a book on migration and mobility, as well as urban resilience as one aspect of the environmental history of antiquity.

Next fall he will give the Sather Classical Lectures at UC Berkeley. His provisional theme is seasonality as a structuring force in Roman and Mediterranean society. According to the University of California Press, the Jane Sather Professorship of Classical Literature “has become the most prestigious of all English-language annual professorships on a classical subject.” Woolf modestly suggests that the speakers usually come from around the world, and that “they might never have invited me if I had already been part of the University of California at the time. From a distance, I appear more exotic.”

He explained some of the similarities and differences between the graduate programs in the United Kingdom and those in the United States. “Graduates are always excellent students; they are really motivated, and they always work too hard,” he offered. But it is a very different structure of graduate studies in the United Kingdom where “you do your doctorate quite quickly, in about four years,” he explained. He feels there are pros and cons to both systems. “When you finish your doctorate in the United Kingdom, you haven’t had as much training. And you haven’t had the chance to acquire all the necessary skills. On the other hand, you’re a bit younger and a bit less in debt.”

Woolf still has a house in Scotland, and people keep sending him pictures of fallen trees and crashing waves. A self-described “keen swimmer” with experience in the North Sea, the only waves he is interested in now are those on the beach near his apartment in Santa Monica.

Published on March 18, 2022.