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Joseph L. Rife

Associate Professor of Classical and Mediterranean Studies

I am a classicist and a social historian who combines texts and materials to explore the structure and ideology of ancient society. While my teaching has covered many periods, regions, and traditions in the ancient Mediterranean world, my research has concentrated on Greece and Asia Minor from the Roman Empire to the Early Byzantine period (first-seventh centuries CE). This period of Greek history furnishes abundant literary, epigraphic, archaeological, and biological sources for understanding society and culture in urban and rural landscapes.

My intellectual program is framed by a theoretical perspective grounded in contemporary cultural criticism and influenced by my background in anthropology and structuralist historiography. I imagine materials, spaces, behaviors and texts to be fluid symbolic media for the expression and contestation of various identities—class, age, gender, ethnicity, religious orientation, political or professional affinities—within a social context fixed in place and time. Beyond my work on ancient literature and material culture, I maintain a longstanding interest in physical anthropology through research on skeletal remains from archaeological contexts and on the history of biological populations.

My first book, Isthmia IX: The Roman and Byzantine Graves and Humans Remains (Princeton: American School 2012), addresses the historical, archaeological, and osteological evidence for life and death during the transition from Classical Antiquity to the Byzantine Middle Ages in the Corinthian countryside, with a focus on the Isthmian Sanctuary and Fortress. My second book, which is in preparation, will investigate the uses of funerary rituals, burial space, and mortuary commemoration to construct elite and non-elite identities in the Greek world during the Roman Empire. My other recent and ongoing studies explore the historical setting of late Greek literature, especially fiction and biography; inscriptions as material components of self-presentation; the ancient practice of cremation; Christianity and Late Antique urbanism; Mediterranean ports as nodes of transitivity in regional networks; settlement patterns in the Byzantine world; and food and diet in Greek communities over time.

After my graduate education and teaching at the University of Michigan, I taught at Cornell University and Macalester College before joining the Vanderbilt faculty in 2008. I have held fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., and I have been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I have also been the recipient or co-recipient of major grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation, the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, and the International Catacomb Society. During 2009-2012 I served by gubernatorial appointment on the Tennessee Archaeological Advisory Council.

In 2002-2006 I directed the Kenchreai Cemetery Project under the auspices of the American School and with the permission of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. This was an interdisciplinary study of a vast cemetery of Roman date near the ancient harbor of Kenchreai, the eastern port of Corinth, in southern Greece. In 2007 I began a second phase of exploration at Kenchreai in collaboration with Elena Korka, then head of the Directorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities for the Ministry. The new Greek-American Excavations at Kenchreai are studying the northeastern periphery and residential quarter of the ancient port-town, immediately north of the ancient harbor. In 2011 I was appointed director of record for the major excavations conducted in the 1960s by the American School around the harbor at Kenchreai. My work at Kenchreai aims to explore social structure, cultural diversity, ritual behavior, and their landscapes in a small but prosperous provincial port.