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John Harvard's Journal

Emma Dench

March-April 2010


“I was very morbid as a child,” says Emma Dench, professor of the classics and of history. “I liked dead things and dead people”—and when she visited the Roman baths in Bath, England, at seven, she says, “I realized the Romans were very, very dead.” Obsessed with them, she walked the 73.5-mile length of Hadrian’s Wall with her family at age 11. Today she teaches Latin writers like Livy and Cicero and history courses on the Roman empire. Dench’s father is the noted Shakespearean actor Jeffery Dench (her aunt is film star Dame Judi Dench) and her mother, Betty, was a speech therapist. (As a child, Emma played Peaseblossom in a 1968 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) The family lived near Stratford-on-Avon. Dench graduated from Wadham College, Oxford, with a double first in 1987, then taught classics for a year at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York, which proved to her that she is “a city person.” She returned to Oxford and took her D.Phil. in 1993; her dissertation, on “central Italian mountain men,” appeared as From Barbarians to New Men in 1995. (Romulus’ Asylum, on the multiethnic character of ancient Rome, came out in 2005.) Dench taught ancient history at the University of London’s Birkbeck College from 1992 until 2006, and joined the Harvard faculty in 2007. She and her husband, artist Jonathan Bowker, have a 10-year-old son, Jacob. Every summer they travel, typically in Central America. “I hate the Romans—they were violent, sexist, racist, arrogant, and not very nice to anybody who got in their way,” she says. “But I love to hate the Romans.”