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NEH Summer Seminar on Augustine and Perpetua: Autobiography in its Roman African Context

Welcome to the NEH Summer Seminar on Augustine and Perpetua: Autobiography in its Roman African Context set in the ancient city of Carthage.

Dear Colleague:

Thank you for your interest in the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar for College Teachers on “Augustine and Perpetua: Autobiography in its Roman African Context.” The seminar will be held in Tunis, between July 1 and August 6, 2010. I wish to invite your application to participate in this exciting project. I am looking forward to exploring the topic with a group of scholars and two graduate students with varying perspectives and from a wide range of disciplines. We will participate in a collaborative exploration of the lively intellectual world of Perpetua and of Augustine set in the context of ancient Roman Africa. I am very excited about the prospect of the seminar as this is a very rare opportunity to read these two extraordinary texts in their place of composition and to be informed by realities they experienced. I know from having directed two past seminars that we will have a lot to talk about and a chance to learn from each other’s expertise.

My intention is that our seminar will be non-prescriptive and participatory. I do not view my role as the “teacher” and you as the “student” participating in an advanced graduate seminar. Rather I see my responsibility as serving as a catalyst, joining with you as a peer engaged in collegial exploration of shared interests. I expect that you will use this seminar as a means to further your own research and to enrich your classroom teaching. I will employ the readings as a means of opening up areas of mutual interest and raising ideas that are central to your research as individuals and as members of a group who share many interests in common. In short, the success of the seminar will also depend on your contribution. I intend to invite every member to present his or her work during the course of the seminar. The schedule I have constructed will provide us a structure to work within (see Schedule). I will distribute a sign up sheet during the first week of the seminar which will inform the seminar in advance about your presentation.

What follows is a brief introduction to the seminar and to Tunisia. A longer discussion of the intellectual scope of the seminar can be found under Program/Rationale. The separate links in the web site will direct you the application, the schedule, the CV’s of the director and invited speaker, etc.

Our seminar on “Augustine and Perpetua: Autobiography in its Roman African Context” will examine in great detail two of the masterpieces of early autobiography, the Passion of Perpetua and the Confessions of St. Augustine. My plan is to study these two texts against the backdrop of Roman Africa, the material world that helped shape their imagination and inform their voice. Reading their narratives against that of their physical world is a rare opportunity to situate the narratives in the lived history. To walk into the midst of the amphitheatre where Perpetua and her five companions were killed radically immerses one in the experience of their final hours. To re-imagine Augustine’s meeting with his father in the baths sets that particular scene in its social context in a way the narrative cannot achieve alone.

Augustine’s Confessions have long been acknowledged as the earliest great masterpiece of self-examination. What has not been appreciated is that Perpetua, his fellow North African Christian, left a nuanced exploration of her psyche like none other for its time. Her prison diary was wildly popular. Augustine knew it well and his Confessions were influenced by it. His appreciation of her prison memoir is complicated, however, by his inability to imagine a woman wielding such power and authority. He sought to subordinate Perpetua’s moments of unadulterated courage by attributing it to the power of God acting in her. These two texts move us from the world of Classical Religion where ritual behavior is a measure of piety to those uncharted waters where an emerging Christianity is first exploring issues of agency, intention and self examination as the true barometers of the virtuous self.

Perpetua and Augustine were informed and shaped not only by what they read but also by what they saw, felt and tasted. The street life of ancient Carthage, with its exotic flowering of cosmopolitan influences, Punic, Latin, Greek, Jewish, sub-Saharan African and Indian, surely was instrumental in shaping their self-understanding. Indeed both of these authors, Perpetua and Augustine, have vivid pictorial imaginations, enriched by the glories of late antique monuments surrounding them.

Tunisia is beautiful land, rich in history and unique cultural monuments. The Roman antiquities are amongst the very best, and their state of preservation due to the aridity of the climate is nothing short of remarkable. Aqueducts run for miles across the landscape and ancient cities dot the landscape. The amphitheatre at El Jem is the third largest amphitheatre in the Roman world and is likely in the best state of preservation. And there are few tourists. If you think of the lines of tourist in ancient Rome and the Forum during the summer you will not believe the freedom from crowds you will find here. The sites allow careful and unimpeded viewing, and with Dr. Ben Lazreg as our guide you can be assured of a detailed on-site commentary.

The Tunisian people are hospitable and welcoming, particularly when they discover that you are interested in their culture. Tunisia is amongst the most moderate of the Muslim states and you will find, particularly in Tunis, a modern cosmopolitan capital. If you head out for the rural countryside and towards the south there the cultural traditions are still largely intact, most noticeably in the Berber communities. The Mediterranean is never far and the sea is welcoming and afternoon swims are refreshing. There will be time every week in the seminar for you to discover Tunisia.


Seminar Notes

  • None available

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Events Calendar

Events Calendar

  • July 1, 2010
    Seminar Begins
  • August 6, 2010
    Seminar Ends
various images from seminar

Contact Information

Professor Thomas J. Heffernan
NEH Seminar
Department of English & Religious Studies
310 McClung Tower
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996-0430

Office: (865) 974-6968
Fax: (865) 974-6926


National Endowment for the Humanities