While my core research remains in Greek and Roman slavery my key interest is in the techniques by which we attempt to reconstruct the past and the limits of those techniques. This leads on to important questions about how we understand the world around us and the nature of ‘rational’ thought, which may actually be less rational than it appears.
After an undergraduate degree in History (Ancient, Medieval and Modern) at Manchester I took a PhD at Pembroke College Cambridge. I taught at the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, Swansea and Edinburgh before coming to Birmingham in 1994.
Aims: I expect few of my students will ever be asked after graduation about the details of Alexander the Great’s life. I do, however, expect them to reflect three types of skills crucial to my teaching. (1) Communication skills. Being able to mount an argument clearly and concisely both orally and on paper is crucial to success in any degree involving history. (2) Analysis skills. How does one make decisions when faced with less than full and biased evidence? We face this constantly in everyday life (though we may not always recognise it): ancient history provides a rewarding area in which to hone the skills needed to deal with this problem. (3) Empathetic skills. We spend too little time trying to understand those whose views are different from our own. This doesn’t mean agreeing with them – it means seeking to follow the logic of their position. Ancient Greek and Romans have left a body of (translated) evidence which allows us to get very close to their often quite alien societies.
Areas: At undergraduate level my current teaching covers ancient Greek social and political history of the archaic and classical periods (especially between c450 and c300B.C.), the Hellenistic world (encompassing the ancient Near East from Alexander the Great to the beginnings of the Roman conquest, c350BC to 200BC), Greek and Roman slavery, and ‘Catastrophes’ in the ancient world. At postgraduate level I have contributed to courses on the History of Christianity and individual and society in the literature of the Roman Empire. I have supervised PhD projects in areas as diverse as Tacitus and Roman agriculture.
My period of research interest currently falls between 1300BC and 600AD and concentrates on three major areas.
I have a strong interest in social life in general, with the bulk of my current publications (including my monograph The Invention of Ancient Slavery?) focussing on how far we can reconstruct the lives of slaves and ex-slaves from the time of Homer (c700BC) through to the later Roman empire (c400AD). I am particularly interested in the way in which different types of writers (from history writers through playwrights to philosophers, legal writers, poets and novelists) provide us with subtly different ways of looking at ancient slavery. What are the differences between them, and what might explain those differences? How far can these different views be combined to produce a coherent whole? What does our success or failure in creating a global picture imply about the process of investigating the past in general?
I have a growing interest in what historians and archaeologists understand by ‘catastrophe’ and the way in which the concept has been used to explain major social change, from the collapse of the Mycenaeans (c1200BC) through to the impact of the so-called ‘plague of Justinian’ (c550BC).
Finally I have worked on Greek medicine, especially Hippocratic medicine (c450-150BC). Whilst the subject is often studied in so far as it lay the foundation for or anticipated modern medicine, I am also interested in the extent to which social and intellectual ideas of their time affected the way they viewed the human body and disease.
Throughout all of these themes are a number of guiding questions. How can the historian overcome the problems facing them in reconstructing the past? Have we always been honest enough with our readers in acknowledging the full scale of those problems? What is academic history-writing for ?
2011 ‘Ancient Slavery’ in G.Heumann (ed.) The Routledge History of Slavery, London ch.1
2011 ‘Resistance among chattel slaves in the classical Greek world’ in P.Cartledge and K.R.Bradley (eds.) The Cambridge World History of World Slavery, Cambridge, 153-75
2010 ‘Inventing Ancient Slaveries: Switching the Argument’ in H.Heinen (ed) Antike Sklaverei: Rückblick und Ausblick Stuttgart ch.2
2007 The Invention of Ancient Slavery? London
2007 ‘The Sound of John Henderson Laughing: Pliny 3.14 and Roman Slaveowners’ fear of their slaves’ in A.Seghidou (ed.), Fear of Slaves – Fear of Enslavement, Besançon 265-79
2007 ‘Had they no shame? Martial, Statius and Roman sexual attitudes towards their slave children’ in S.Crawford and G.Shepherd (eds.), Slavery, Childhood and Society. Oxford 57-62
2002 McKeown, N. ‘The Hippocratic Patient: Or an archaeology of the Greek medical mind’ 53-67 in Robert Arnott (ed.), The Archaeology of Medicine, Oxford, Archaeopress, British Archaeological Reports, pp.53-67
2002 McKeown, N. ‘Seeing things: examining the body of the slave in Greek medicine’ in Slavery and Abolition 23.1, pp.29-40
2002 McKeown, N. ‘History vs Classics: An introduction to some introductions’ in Classics Ireland 9, pp.62-8