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U.Va. Students Delve into the Past to Find Explanations

Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus is a reliable source on Alexander the Great. What might Spartan-centric scholarship reveal? And why did it take North Carolina a full year to ratify the Constitution after all other states at the time had done so in 1788?

These are some of the questions and findings a trio of University of Virginia undergraduates have explored in their independent research.

Lara Morris, 21, of Charlottesville, a fourth-year history and classics double major in the College of Arts & Sciences, used a 2012 Harrison Undergraduate Research Award to look into Roman bias and distortion of a specific historical source on Alexander the Great. 

Isaac McBride, 22, of Fairfax, also a fourth-year classics and history double major in the College, used a 2012 Stull Family Research Award to explore literary and archaeological sources to uncover the origins of ancient Spartan institutions.

Thomas Howard, 22, of Richmond, a fourth-year distinguished major in history in the College, used his 2012 Finger Family Undergraduate Research Award to examine the ratification of the United States Constitution in North Carolina.

“I am looking at one of three complete extant sources on Alexander the Great, an biographical history written by Quintus Curtius Rufus,” Morris said. “Traditionally, historians have ignored this source and I am writing about its usefulness by explaining how many of the biasess/ and inconsistencies are to placate a Roman audience by portraying Alexander as a Roman-style hero as well as handle ‘issues’ brought up by Alexander’s controversial life and times.”

Morris, who is writing a thesis on the topic, said that she questions many assumptions made by previous historians on Alexander the Great.

“Historians have dismissed Curtius Rufus as biased and inaccurate and thus never really examined, discussed or researched his book very completely—they have not asked why he wrote what he did,” Morris said. “He is seen as odd and controversial because he strays from the normal or accepted Alexander narrative on a number of occasions throughout the work. He places a Roman cultural lens on his examinations of geography and foreign cultures and styles his depiction of Alexander’s authority on Roman ideals and expectations, among other items.”

Morris said her research justifies the use of Curtius Rufus as a historical source. She argues that taking that bias into account offers a new perspective on the Alexander narrative and Roman culture.

“I was drawn to Curtius Rufus’ work because it is misunderstood, but has so much information that has been untapped,” she said. “Just because a source is odd or controversial does not mean it is useless.”

Morris is pursuing, from a fresh viewpoint, issues that continue to interest all students of Alexander from the beginning, according to Elizabeth Meyer, a professor in the Corcoran Department of History.

“She is showing us where an audience would have had trouble or questions with how the story is presented in the Greek tradition,” Meyer said. “Why did he go where he did, and treat barbarians the ways he did? How did he lead, and demonstrate his authority to his men? How was power passed on after his death? What drove him to do what he did?These are questions that engaged Romans about their own leaders and affected what Curtius Rufus wrote, a connection that Lara is the first to establish.”

Morris, who said she has always been attracted to stories of Alexander the Great, said Curtius Rufus was “one of the few stones left unturned.”  She plans to continue her study of history in graduate school.

McBride used archeological records to plumb the secrets of ancient Sparta.

“I used a comparative method between sites in Crete and Sparta to help explain the similarities in society and the material record in both places,” he said. “Knowing how the Spartans developed will provide an important counterpoint to studies of early Greek city-states, which have long been dominated by Athens-centric scholarship.”

McBride said his work contributes to the field of Dark- and Archaic-Age Greek studies by linking mainland Greece to the wider Aegean. It shows the ancient Greeks were a culturally diverse people whose mainland city-states were developmentally influenced by the Aegean world.

“The Spartans entered into an internal crisis circa 560 BC, while in the midst of fighting several wars,” he said. “They turned to law as the means to fix their society. The laws they made were inspired by the institutions and laws that they obtained in many Cretan sites. The resulting Spartan society after this reform went on to become the hegemon of Greece and steer her through the Persian wars of the early Classical period.”

McBride is fascinated by the early Spartans, an area of history with few established facts. He said recent archaeology in Dark- and Archaic-Age Crete enabled him to make meaningful comparisons between the Spartans and Cretans that were previously impossible.

“Isaac McBride's work is giving life and a firm scholarly basis to an ancient tradition that Spartan institutions were changed in imitation of practices adopted earlier on the island of Crete,” Meyer said. “His work will allow us to give pride of place to one of many ancient theories about the Spartans, and will help us to understand the development of this enigmatic ancient city-state much better.”

McBride received Intermediate Honors and is a distinguished major in history; a recipient of the Anne Marye Owen Traveling Scholarship Award, which he used to study abroad in Greece and Turkey in 2011; and an intern for the University Student Legal Services.

McBride, who plans to attend the U.Va. School of Law in the fall, believes his probing into the past will benefit his future.

“The Spartans’ use of law to repair their society and shape their citizens has led me to be interested in law that is not only prohibitive, but also productive of change,” he said. “The framing of good laws comes down to balancing their restrictive aspects against their transformational aspects.”

Howard probed more recent events on the world stage, as he studied the U.S. Constitution from a North Carolina vantage point.

“North Carolina was the only state to refuse to ratify the Constitution in 1788,” Howard said. “They ultimately ratified at a second convention a year later in 1789.”

Howard said the last piece of dedicated scholarship on the subject was published in 1932, and he said since there is a renewed interest in the ratification he wanted more attention paid to North Carolina’s contribution.

“North Carolina often gets neglected because it took action on the Constitution so late in the game,” he said. “North Carolinians made several important arguments against the Constitution relating to the potential for overbearing federal power. Antifederalists believed, for example, that federal courts would progressively impinge on the jurisdiction of local courts.”

Howard, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in history, said his research has given him “valuable experience in archival research and writing that will serve me well as a historian.”

“Howard is a remarkable young person,” said Charles W. McCurdy, a professor of history and law. “He’s a real go-getter. He reads thoughtfully, thinks hard and expresses his ideas with precision. His peers like him and respect him as much as I do. So Howard has it all – intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, drive and great work habits.”

Howard received a Kenan Award for research on the Academical Village and is co-author of forthcoming book, “Society Ties: A History of the Jefferson Society.” He is a member of the Jefferson Society and founder and editor-in-chief of the Academical Heritage Review, U.Va.’s undergraduate history research journal. He is also a Lawn resident.

The Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards support students who present detailed plans for research projects that have been endorsed by a faculty mentor. A Faculty Senate committee selected the winners, who receive up to $3,000. Faculty mentors who oversee the projects receive $1,000.

More than half of U.Va.’s undergraduates are engaged in some form of research, including classroom and independent work. Students who conduct research make better candidates for fellowships, graduate and professional school admissions, and career placement, according to Katherine Walters, assistant director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence.

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