March 16, 2011

Emory Profile

Judith Evans-Grubbs: Coming full circle

Judith Evans-Grubbs '78C is Betty Gage Holland Professor of Roman History.

Judith Evans-Grubbs'78C, the newly-appointed Betty Gage Holland Professor of Roman History, is fascinated with people on the margins and societies in transition.

What better case study than the economic, military and social collapse of the Roman empire in 476 A.D.? Evans-Grubbs' research focuses on the roles of women, fatherless children and slaves in ancient Roman civilization, particularly during the Imperial and Late Antique periods. 

Modern society may shed more light on the role of the family in the Roman world than the other way around, she says.

"There is an absence of good data about real families in ancient Rome," she notes.

To bridge the gap, Evans-Grubbs relies on major Roman legal texts, ancient manuscripts and Christian literary sources.

Her second book, "Women and the Law in the Roman Empire: A Sourcebook on Marriage, Divorce and Widowhood" (Routledge, 2002), discusses the legal rights and disabilities of women in classical Rome. While a woman kept her own property in marriage and had the right to divorce her husband, she could not hold public office or play any other public role.

On March 23, Evans-Grubbs will present the Betty Gage Holland Inaugural Lecture. The chair, held by Evans-Grubbs, is funded by the James M. Cox Jr. Foundation in honor of Holland, the late widow of the former Cox Enterprises chairman.  

Evans-Grubbs' talk is based on her preliminary research examining the influences of classical authors on the attitudes of Southern slaveholders in 18th and early 19th-century America. Classically trained prominent men, such as Thomas Jefferson, used Roman conceptions of slavery to justify the system's continuation, she explains.

She became interested in the topic in a previous role as assistant professor of classical studies at Sweet Briar College, a former slave plantation near Charlottesville, Va.

All in the family

Evans-Grubbs' Emory homecoming is 33 years overdue.

Raised in Atlanta, she is one of three daughters of former mathematics department chair Trevor Evans. All three sisters graduated from Emory.

Evans-Grubbs received her bachelor's degree in Greek and English in 1978. She recalls visiting her father (now deceased) in the former Thompson Hall, which also housed the small classics department.

She would take the Number 6 bus into Atlanta to visit her now-husband, Charles, at Georgia State University. (The couple's daughter, a senior international studies major at Washington University in St. Louis, is a visiting student at Emory this year.)

During Evans-Grubbs' student years, Emory was still transitioning from a regional to a nationally recognized university.

"Emory really has changed for the better," she says, noting for example, the open dialogue about its historic ties to slavery through events, such as the recent "Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies" conference.

After graduating from Emory, Evans-Grubbs completed her doctoral dissertation at Stanford University and later, her first book examining Roman Emperor Constantine's marriage legislation, which was surprisingly devoid of Christian morality.

"He was reacting to the social conditions of the day," she says, noting that Constantine criminalized "bride theft" in response to young couples essentially eloping without their parents' consent.

Her current book project examines the precarious position of fatherless children in the Roman Empire. These include children who were abandoned at birth and sold into slavery.

"The line between slavery and freedom in Roman society was often blurred," Evans-Grubbs says. "Fatherless children were particularly vulnerable to exploitation and even enslavement." 

This semester, Evans-Grubbs is teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on the decline of the Roman empire. Next year, the history department will launch a new PhD track in ancient history.

"We're excited to draw from the classics, art history, philosophy and religion, as well as history," she says.

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