Spotlight on: Jenn Finn
Dr. Jennifer Finn, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classical Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago, published her most recent book with the University of Michigan Press.
Dr. Jennifer Finn, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classical Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago, published her most recent book with the University of Michigan Press, entitled, Contested Pasts: A Determinist History of Alexander the Great. The book examines how Roman authors may have manipulated narratives about the historical figure’s campaigns to serve or achieve their own motivations.
“The College of Arts and Sciences is extremely proud of Dr. Finn and her most recent scholarly accomplishment,” said Peter J. Schraeder, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Loyola University Chicago. “Her book provides tremendous insight on how analyzing and challenging historical narratives can help us understand our current world. We are fortunate to have Dr. Finn teaching in the College and leading our Classical Studies department.”
As an ancient historian with a specialty in ancient warfare, Alexander the Great (affectionately dubbed “Alex” by Dr. Finn) has become a central figure in her studies. Although Alexander created one of the largest empires in history and is remembered as one of the most successful military commanders, Dr. Finn found that his social interactions with the people he came across in his campaigns were far more interesting than the Macedonian king’s weaponry or battle tactics. “Because most of the sources we have were written by Roman authors some 300 years or more after he died, we don’t really know what he was like at all, they could just be making it up,” said Dr. Finn.
What’s more, Alexander didn’t earn his title as “The Great” until the Roman Period. The Romans, whose empire entered a period of rapid expansion shortly after Alexander’s death, modeled much of their military strategies and tactics after Alexander’s and even gave him his famous moniker themselves. “I thought to myself,” said Dr. Finn, “maybe we should look a little closer at the sources and see how they tried to make Alexander look more like themselves so they could be seen as rightful successors to his former empire.”
In “Contested Pasts,” Dr. Finn uses five case studies in which she discusses how pivotal events in Roman history can be tied back to Alexander’s reign through the Roman sources. Through these analyses, Dr. Finn found, “It’s hard to differentiate what is true to the era and what is a Roman invention, so my book is more of a study of literature and how one culture appropriates one man for themselves as well as a study of Roman culture and how they view themselves.”
Although the book is closely focused on the relationship between Alexander the Great and the Romans, it reflects a fundamental truth of how and why history or historical figures can be appropriated to achieve contemporary political ends. For example, Dr. Finn found that Romans often crafted stories of Alexander during pivotal moments such as the establishment of new political structures. As Dr. Finn noted, “Even if he’s not doing the right thing, they still want to compare themselves to him.”
What does that mean for our collective understanding of history? “Anytime one culture writes about another culture or about an individual from the past, we have to read their interpretation within the contemporary milieu that it’s written in. There is no separation or unbiased account of something that happened in the past,” Dr. Finn said.
But, why is it important to analyze events and political environments that occurred so long ago? “Even though we’re looking 2,000 years in the past, humans are not that different today. We are always looking for something we can’t quite find and we’re always searching for happiness. But the classical world was looking for those things as well,” she said. “They were always investigating themselves and their surroundings to make sense of relationships and how things worked. We don’t do that as much anymore because information is fed to us. I think we can learn a lot from the way they went about understanding the world.”
Humans also have the same tendency to lionize individuals like the Romans did with Alexander the Great, who turned him into a giant that is still remembered and revered today. “Romans substantively changed Alex’s history so they could look more like him. It’s a disservice to the past, and it’s weaponizing the past,” she said. Evoking the timeless adage that history repeats itself, Dr. Finn explains why studying ancient history and classical civilizations is important for interpreting modern history: “Pointing out ways this has been done in the ancient world can help us better interpret the modern world and avoid those same dangers today.”
About the College of Arts and Sciences
The College of Arts and Sciences is the oldest of Loyola University Chicago’s schools, colleges, and institutes. More than 150 years since its founding, the College is home to 19 academic departments, 32 interdisciplinary programs and centers, more than 450 full-time faculty, and nearly 8,000 students. The 2,000+ classes that we offer each semester span an array of intellectual pursuits, ranging from the natural sciences and computational sciences to the humanities, the social sciences, and the fine and performing arts. Our students and faculty are engaged internationally at our campuses in Rome, Italy, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as well as at dozens of University-sponsored study abroad and research sites around the world. Home to the departments that anchor the University’s Core Curriculum, the College of Arts and Sciences seeks to prepare all of Loyola’s students to think critically, to engage the world of the 21st century at ever deepening levels, and to become caring and compassionate individuals. Our faculty, staff, and students view service to others not just as one option among many, but as a constitutive dimension of their very being. In the truest sense of the Jesuit ideal, our graduates strive to be “men and women for others.” For further information about the College of Arts and Sciences, please visit our website at www.luc.edu/cas/