Dr. Potter, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Greek and Latin at the university, has published several books on ancient themes, including "Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire," "The Roman Empire at Bay" and most recently, "The Emperors of Rome." He is currently working on yet another book on Roman history that he expects to publish in 2010.
Dr. Potter will return to Norfolk next weekend to participate in the Norfolk Library Board of Trustees and Library Associates biennial gala, Literary Liaisons, slated for May 17. The event honors contemporary American authors Ellen Feldman, Frances Fitzgerald, James Sterba, Daniel Hecht, Verlyn Klinkenborg, George Packer, Dr. Potter, Dani Shapiro and Dennis Watlington and begins with a cocktail reception for the authors and their guests at the Norfolk Library.
The reception will be followed by intimate dinners hosted by local residents. There are still a few seats left at the tables and the reception. Those wishing to attend should call co-chairmen Sally Briggs at 860-542-0060, or Libby Borden Evans at 860-542-5106.
Dr. Potter will be the literary lion ensconced at his own parents' table. "I think it will be a great deal of fun," he said in a telephone interview this week from Ann Arbor. "I love the Norfolk Library."
He added that while he was raised in New York City, his family started coming to Norfolk in the 1960s. "It's very much a second home for me. We've been in Ann Arbor for 22 years, but when the university is out, I have a tendency to head straight to Norfolk," he said.
Dr. Potter began his teaching career after earning a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and receiving his doctoral degree from Oxford University. His own academic preparations were followed by a period of research and teaching at New College, Oxford, and then as an assistant professor at Bryn Mawr and the University of Michigan. In 1991, he was named associate professor in classical studies there, and was promoted to his current position in 1996. He is currently chairman of the university faculty committee.
In a day of instant communication, rampant technology and a head-long rush into the future, one might question the relevance of classical studies for students. But Dr. Potter finds similarities and parallels between the past and present that both intrigue and stimulate his young charges. He offers, for instance, a survey course entitled "Sports and Daily Life in Ancient Rome" that contrasts the experiences of modern day American and ancient Rome.
"The students absolutely enjoy these courses," he said. "We are looking at parallel questions-What is the role of sports in the society? When a society spends so much of its money entertaining itself, what does that tell us? There are only two times in history when so much money has been spent on entertainment-between the first century B.C. and the third century A.D. and today. And a lot of the discussions held in those two eras are similar.
"The Romans discussed how much money should be spent on athletes, just as we do today. Athletes were hugely highly paid, and at one point Marcus Aurelius put a cap on gladiators' salaries. We have a text relating to one charioteer-his income over 24 years was 35 million sesterces. An average person made 1,000 sesterces a year to support a family of four, while a charioteer could make 1.5 million. By comparison, the highest salary for a major official was only about a half a million sesterces."
Romans were willing to pay fabulous sums for entertainment. "We have one wonderful moment when one emperor paid 100,000 sesterces for a single fight," Dr. Potter reported. At one point Emperor Tiberius limited the games to keep his government from going bankrupt, and top gladiators earned enough from one bout to buy their own slaves or estates.
"Gladiators, like modern professional athletes, could become little corporations," Dr. Potter observed.
With that kind of money involved, Romans were as careful of their athletes as are modern-day team owners. "Contests ended with first blood," he said. "We have a number of texts that talk about accidental deaths of gladiators. It was not a safe sport, but these guys were really expensive to train and to hire. Marcus Aurelius came up with a schedule of fees for paying gladiators, and the top run of slave gladiators were paid 15,000 sesterces to fight-you'd have to be crazier than George Steinbrenner to get them killed. In gladiatorial combat, the death rate was only about 5 percent, and that was usually through accidental injury or poor medical care. One doctor to a gladiatorial troupe in Turkey wrote that none of his athletes died."
He said the myth of the fight to the death between gladiators is a Hollywood invention, as is the Fascist salute that epic movies like to depict. "In Rome, gladiatorial events tended to be more dangerous than elsewhere," he conceded, "because there was more pressure for thrills from the crowd. It's just like television today where they will re-show and re-show and re-show when someone takes a nasty hit on the football field. The fans were driving it to be more dangerous and vicious than it was."
He sees similarities, too, in the modern-day emphasis on pseudo-reality shows and contests such as "American Idol" where the "blood lust" of the viewing audience is satisfied through the aggressive behavior of contestants and hosts alike. "In this country the Fox network even ran programs on successful animal attacks," he said, likening them to the contests between condemned prisoners and wild animals in Roman arenas.
"But the gladiators had homes and families," he said. "They didn't want to die. The vast majority we know about were free men, although some were slaves. If you paid a certain amount for a guy and he was big and strong, you might have thought, 'Maybe I can sell him as a gladiator.' There were quite a few slave gladiators, but the majority were certainly free people-but only free people who had enough money to get the training needed to not get killed."
In that, the Roman gladiator was much like a modern day inner city kid who finds the road to riches through boxing. "You needed incredible strength. You had to hire a trainer, to work out, to learn how to be a gladiator. And if you were successful in the arena you could make a pretty good living and retire," Dr. Potter said.
The names of famous gladiators adorned common household items like oil lamps. Pottery vessels were painted with images of famous bouts. Children even played with clay gladiator "action figures." "It was a culture that was obsessed with superstars," Dr. Potter said, "and the gladiator was a symbol of it." Even the Emperor Commodus wanted to be a gladiator, he added.
The fantastic sums athletes were paid is not the only comparison Dr. Potter draws for his students. He said that the antipathy between the athletic and the academic sides of society was "very relevant" in antiquity and continues today on college campuses.
As a member of Michigan's advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics, he has been in the mainstream of the university's efforts to ensure that student-athletes are required to perform both in the classroom and on the field or court. "The University of Michigan tries to help its athletes know what it is like to live in a different kind of society," he said. "Many of these athletes come from very disadvantaged homes, while the average Michigan student comes from a home with an annual income of $100,000 or more. The department spends a lot of time to get them to adjust so if they do move on to the NFL they will have fewer problems and be less likely to be involved in corruption."
Dr. Potter sees analogies between Roman life and modern America off the playing field as well. "[In the classroom] we talk about what makes an empire run," he said. "We look at how power was exercised in the Roman Empire-which lasted for 500 years. What did they do differently?"
His conclusion is that Roman leaders provided an opportunity for inclusion in the empire that subsequent conquerors have not. "Romans were quite clear that they were there [in occupied countries] for themselves, but they knew they could only stay if they incorporated the rulers of those countries into their own structures. If the English had understood that, we would have had Indian members of Parliament. The failure to do that is one of the reasons these imperial systems tend to end catastrophically."
Under the British Empire, even colonists from the mother country were denied a say in government, leading to the American Revolution. "The Romans would look at that and say, 'That is crazy,'" he concluded. Conquered people under the Roman Empire could look forward to having representatives as senators or even emperors.
He suggests that the Bush administration could benefit from the examples of the "world's great imperialists." "You have to share power," he warned.
The Romans were aware that they had a winning concept. "We have a speech by a first-century emperor who said former [conquered peoples] become members of Roman society completely," he reported. "They were very conscious of it. And there is another very interesting document written in the third century B.C. that said even freed slaves could become citizens. It was a very peculiar aspect of Rome and something that allowed it to become as powerful as it did."
It was only when the Roman leadership developed "a fundamental lack of imagination" that things began to break down. "It was not a Nero type of thing," he said. "It wasn't those guys who brought Rome down. It was the bureaucrats of the fourth and fifth centuries."
When Rome lost its tolerance for other cultures, its days were numbered. "It was really a failure of an immigration policy," said Dr. Potter. "The army was largely German and the [Germanic] Goths wanted to be assimilated. But there was a change in attitude [and the Romans] said, 'We don't like these people and we don't want them around anymore.' One law specifically says that people could no longer wear German clothing. The tolerance of outsiders breaks down, and in the fourth and fifth centuries you see powerful bureaucratic groups unwilling to share citizenship. It was an absolute change in Roman behavior toward outside people."
Dr. Potter says he hopes his students can see the relevance of such issues to their own time. "When you look at institutions that is the way comparative histories work. We can say large societies tend to have similar issues-that's the way such studies can have a useful application."