Robert Sobak

Affiliation: Classics
Associate Professor of Classics, Chair of Department of Classics

I was born and raised in New Mexico, but I spent most of my summers with my extended family in the farmlands of North Dakota and in the cypress swamps of Southeast Texas.  I received a B.A. in Classics from Franklin and Marshall College, where I first learned to value the residential liberal-arts model of higher education. After college I spent five years running a specialized second-hand bookstore in Albuquerque before selling it in order to return to school. I attended the Post-Baccalaureate program in Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, and then received an M.A. in Greek and Latin from the University of Georgia, where I wrote a thesis on geographical description in Tacitus. I next enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Classics at Princeton University, where I focused on Classical Greek social history and material culture. Here at Bowdoin I teach all levels of Greek and Latin language, introductory survey courses in both Greek history and Roman history, and topical seminars in Greek history, Roman history, Greek political theory, and Greek archaeology.

I am finding it increasingly more difficult to define my research profile according to traditional categories. Given the opportunities that my position here at Bowdoin provides for teaching all across the field of Classics, I trust that such broad interests are a beneficial feature, both for me and for my students. In general, I am interested in trying to figure out ways to understand better the actions, attitudes, and beliefs of individuals and groups whom ancient historical sources and approaches have tended to neglect: common people, just like us. The great labor historian E. P. Thompson once called elite-driven and elite-defined history as “the enormous condescension of posterity.” I would like to see classical scholarship more fully engaged in pushing back against this condescension: developing robust methods of reading sources against the grain, and willing to argue by necessary inference rather than hewing strictly to a narrow field of prescriptive texts. I often present this analogy to my students: We cannot “see,” nor even measure, black holes directly (nothing escapes their gravitational field). But we can learn a great deal about them by studying the effects they exert upon nearby, directly measurable matter. So too should historians be willing to enrich their examination of the historically invisible and occluded by developing more sensitive tools of inferential judgment and cross-cutting reading. Failure to do so is to be forever trapped beyond the event horizon of, in most cases, highly normative primary sources.

Out of these interests and concerns have come particular research projects, like my first two books, which both explore two sides of the same historical problem: the role and place of labor and laborers in Democratic Athens. In one book (Telling Tales Out of Work) I examine how common, anonymous artisans represented themselves and their skills in visual media such as painted figural pottery and dedicatory relief sculpture of late archaic and early classical Athens. When we study these depictions from the perspective of functionality and aesthetics, unhobbled by pre-determined, icongraphically-derived rules and categories, I think we can see stories about personal agency and group identity among formally low-status Athenians, people generally absent from the extant ancient literature. In my other book on classical Athens (Crafting the Democratic Body) I argue that everyday interactions – on the streets, in the markets, and at work – among diverse sets of people, tends to result in the emergence of a potentially powerful collective intelligence. In essence, the more diverse the population, the more cognitively potent the polity, provided cultural and institutional spaces enable and encourage the free association of as many groups and individuals as possible. This has profound implications for our own conceptions of political expertise, firm-management, and decision-making, as so many modern notions of wisdom, intelligence, and skill are deeply indebted to authors writing in the shadow of Democratic Athens. Overall, both projects stress the value of the everyday and the common.

My third book project, as well as a couple of articles in progress, reflects my interest in narratological approaches to ancient literary texts in general, and to literary descriptions of landscape and geography in particular. I find literary geography interesting because it contains so many stock, generic elements, but at the same time is used to great rhetorical effect by so many ancient authors. Thus my book project on Pindar’s Kyrenean Odes (Pythian 4, 5, and 9) traces out how Pindar’s language of travel, topographical description, and overall geographic concerns in all three poems seems to suggest a programmatic interest in presenting the Libyan polis of Kyrene as “Greek” as possible. This “placing” of Kyrene is a useful lens through which to think through issues of colonization, economic networks, and inter-state relationships during a time of cultural upheaval.

I have laid down the foundations for my book projects in three separate long-form, peer-reviewed articles, one in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, and two in Hesperia. The long-form article is a genre of scholarly communication that is, unfortunately to my mind, going the way of the dodo, as an external logic with respect to research production drives faculty in the direction of a maximum amount of least publishable units. This logic is especially pernicious in the case of classical scholarship, which depends on polylingualism, diverse primary and secondary sources, and lengthy peer-review. If you are interested in particular areas of my research please read the abstracts I have linked to in the Research tab directly below, or get in touch with me directly for drafts and off-prints.

Robert Sobak


  • PhD, Classics and Ancient History, Princeton University, 2009
  • MA, Classics and Ancient History, Princeton University, 2005
  • MA, Greek and Latin, University of Georgia, 1999
  • BA, Classics, Franklin and Marshall College, 1992