A heart for the Ancients

Patchwork families and single-parent households in Classical Rome: Sabine Huebner, an assistant professor in Ancient History in Basel, has been investigating everyday life in the ancient world. By Pascale Hofmeier

(From "Horizons" no. 109 June 2016)​​​

It happened one spring day on the Via Appia. Sabine Huebner was 12 years old when she went walking with her parents along the cobblestones of this old Roman highway. "The history of the place so gripped me that from this moment on I wanted to study the ancient Romans". Her childhood enthusiasm led to studies of Ancient Greek, Latin and ancient history – and a smooth career trajectory. After studying in Münster and Rome she took her doctorate in Jena. She also spent five years researching in the USA, including time spent at the University of California, Berkeley and at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. After taking her postdoctoral habilitation in Ancient History at the Free University of Berlin, she was appointed a Heisenberg Fellow of the German Research Foundation in Paris and Rome. She's 39 years old now. "I never doubted wanting to stay in academia", she says. The University of Basel is her "dream destination".

Family and career

Huebner sits, relaxed, in her well-organised office. There's a computer, a table and two full bookshelves, one of which is full of historical reference works including the great texts of the Ancients. However, it's not Cicero, Homer or the life of the emperors that are the focus of Huebner's academic work. Instead, she's interested in the lives of 'normal' people.

Huebner's comprehensive list of publications and editions also makes it evident that she's most passionate about the everyday life of ancient times. Many of her works are on the social, economic and religious history of the 'little people' and their family lives. "A considerable number of children in the ancient world grew up without a father". Men married later than women and often died before their children had grown up. "In times of high mortality and divorce rates, patchwork families and single-parent households were normal", says Huebner, who draws a comparison with our own times: "When we talk about families we often mean what was considered ideal in the 1950s – but that state of affairs had never existed at any other time".

Huebner is both an academic and a mother of two children – soon to be three – and she herself brings up her own family situation. She's always being asked how she manages to combine an academic career with having a family. This pressure to justify herself sometimes gets on her nerves. "I always just ask in return: 'Would you ask the same of a man who is a professor and a father?'". When Huebner had to move from one country to another because of her academic career, her family always went with her. "The mobility demanded of young academics is something I have always seen as a great opportunity, not a burden". She also finds the time to go jogging every day and it doesn't stress her out when she has to reply to e-mails at weekends. "I think I'm just very efficient".

Her doctoral supervisor Walter Ameling can attest to that. These days he's a professor of Ancient History in Cologne. "Yes, that's the best description for her", he says. She had a doctoral scholarship in Jena that lasted for three years. "But unlike many other scholarship holders, she kept to her schedule". And another characteristic of hers became evident during her doctoral studies: independence. "Right from the start she wanted to stay in academia. She chose her topics herself and sorted out how to finance her work".

Everyday matters and fish sauce

It would be easy to confuse her determination with the somewhat proverbial, ruthless German trait of efficiency. But this is not how Sabine Huebner comes across, nor is it how others experience her. "She's not the pushy type. Her door is always open and working with her is a real act of collaboration", says one of her colleagues on her current project, which aims to make the Basel papyrus collection accessible to the public. Papyri are important sources for the social history of the ancient world. "They offer us insights into the lives and everyday concerns of normal people, and the direct, personal information they offer makes them an especially fascinating type of text", explains Huebner. Simple farmers, artisans, shepherds, their wives and children and other socially weak groups speak to each other and to us through these papyri – groups of people that we would otherwise never encounter in the literature of the ancient world.

This collection lay forgotten in Basel for 100 years. It had been bought by the University in the late 19th century, when international research institutes were competing for the best items on offer.

Until now, there was only an old-fashioned, incomplete edition of the roughly 65 texts in the collection. The greater number of them are everyday documents such as contracts, letters and receipts, written in Ancient Greek, Latin, Coptic and Hieratic. But there is also a copy of Homer's Iliad among them. And then there is a private letter from the early third century AD in which a man called Arrian and his brother Paul exchange everyday pleasantries, including a discussion of fish sauce. The letter is a minor sensation because the two men were Christians. "It was only recently that we were able to prove that this is the oldest surviving private correspondence on papyrus between Christians, dating back to the first half of the third century". That's more than 50 years earlier than all other extant documents of a comparable nature. Huebner believes that this can provide us with new information about the Christianisation of Egypt – and thus also new information about processes of societal change.

The planned edition of the Basel papyrus collection is also intended to be shown to the Basel public in an exhibition in early 2017. Huebner is convinced that "the dialogue between academia and the public is important – new findings about the ancient world can still fascinate a broad spectrum of people today". She regrets that ancient history is slowly disappearing from our schoolrooms: "History doesn't just begin in the mediaeval period", says Huebner, and offers compelling examples as to why ancient history is still important in our own times: "Greek philosophy, the Athenian concept of democracy, Roman law and the ancient ideal of beauty are all things that still have a major impact on European culture to the present day".

Pascale Hofmeier is a science editor at the SNSF.

Single minded

Sabine Huebner (39) grew up near Münster in Germany, the eldest of three daughters to parents who were both teachers. She lives today in a house in Alsace in France together with her husband, the French writer Stéphane Piatzszek, and their two children aged five and two (with a third on the way). She studied Ancient Greek, Latin and ancient history in Münster, Berlin and Rome. In 2005 she completed her doctorate in ancient history in Jena with a thesis on the organisation of the church in late antiquity. In 2010 she completed her postdoctoral habilitation at the Free University of Berlin with the thesis 'The Family in Roman Egypt'. Since 2014 she has been an assistant professor in Basel, where she heads the Department of Ancient History.