Professor Diana Spencer BA, MA, PhD, PGCLTHE

Professor Diana Spencer

Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology
Professor of Classics
Dean of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences (2014-2018; 2019-)

Contact details

+ 44 (0)121 41 47967
View my research portal
Department of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology
Arts Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

I am primarily interested in what we think Romans thought about themselves (as reflected in texts), how they conceptualized themselves as a people, and responded to (and were shaped by) the world they lived in.

I enjoy investigating how identity and cultural politics are manifest through narratives emphasising space, territory, cultivation of place, and ethos. I research authors and texts fascinated by the built environment, but also engaged in interrogation of what “self”, “nature”, and “wild” mean, and why.


  • PGCert in Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, University of Birmingham, 2003
  • PhD in Classics, University of Cambridge, 1997
  • MA in Late Antique and early Byzantine Studies, University of London, 1992
  • BA (Hons) in Modern English and Classical Civilization, Trinity College Dublin, 1991


History and literature play a vital, sometimes disturbing role in the Irish psyche. I went to TCD curious about Classics and passionate about English. I left, with a BA, as a cheerleader for antiquity and in love with Latin. Study abroad helped me to understand more about how Classics developed its edges, and I enjoyed a year of Byzantine explorations at Royal Holloway before returning to Latin authors (Q. Curtius Rufus), and Classics, at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

These diverse studies focused my interests around questions of who people think they are, and why this matters. Rather than going home after completing doctoral study, I found myself happily employed as a Lecturer in Classics at the University of Birmingham; in subsequent years I have enjoyed teaching many cohorts of sparky students both in Classics and more recently, in our Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences programme suite.

My research has always progressed in tandem with my teaching; ideally the two are complementary. I have in this way benefitted not only from running undergraduate lecture courses and seminars on Latin prose and poetry (in tandem with publications on e.g. Horace, Propertius, Statius, Lucan, Livy, Valerius Maximus, Q. Curtius Rufus, Cicero, Seneca the Younger, Vitruvius, Cicero, Varro), but also thematic courses, entwined with publications on e.g. identity, landscape, aesthetics, urbanism, translation, embodiment.

Working with outstanding students, undergraduate and postgraduate, continues to enrich my understanding of Classics and scholarship, to generate new research ideas, and to enable me to fit my intellectual development with my work on interdisciplinary structures (learning and research) through the University’s BA/Sc in Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences.


As Dean of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, and with a sabbatical leave year in 2018-2019, I have no regular teaching portfolio at present, but I have recently taught “The Age of Cicero”, and other topics in Latin literature and in interdisciplinary thematic areas.

Postgraduate supervision

I welcome proposals dealing with any of the following:

Latin literature and cultural identity (first centuries BCE/CE)
The city of Rome in ancient and modern literature and culture
Translation in ancient Rome, and translation of Latin texts
Reception of Rome in historical fiction
Current and most recent postgraduates

Miriam Bay (co-supervised with David Hemsoll) – Cultivating Myth and Composing Landscape at the Villa d’Este, Tivoli
Elizabeth Crump (co-supervised with Gareth Sears) – The Discourse of Autocracy in Julio-Claudian Literature
Simon Matravers (co-supervised with Gareth Sears) – Commentary on Valerius Maximus Book IX.1-10. A Discourse on vitia: An Apotreptic Approach (completed 2017)
Anna Thorogood (co-supervised with Gareth Sears) – Translating Troy: Trojan Mythology under the Emperor Nero
Jessica Venner (co-supervised with Gareth Sears) – Subsistence and commercial production in the private gardens of the Roman Empire
Through the Midlands4Cities AHRC Doctoral Training Programme, I also co-supervise students based at partner organizations:

Rebecca Batty – Rivers, Rulers and Romans: How do rivers in Augustan literature reflect the relationship between power and environment? (University of Nottingham)
Benjamin White – The Roman 'porticus': promenading from Republic to Empire (University of Nottingham)

Find out more - our PhD Classics and Ancient History  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


Varro and the late Roman Republic

The first-century BCE polymath Marcus Terentius Varro (intellectual, sparring partner of Cicero, satirist, politician, and more) has been a central focus for my research since 2011, and has produced multiple presentations at conferences, invited lectures, and short publications. The culmination of this project is the monograph Language and Authority in De Lingua Latina: Varro’s Guide to Bring Roman.

Literary Roman landscapes

My interest in the city of Rome in texts inspired me, with Prof. David Larmour (Texas Tech) to develop a volume on the Roman cityscape as a site of knowledge, myth, movement, and satire, where history lies – and lies deeply (The Sites of Rome: Time, Space, Memory). Subsequently, as my interests moved from primarily built to natural topographies, I wrote a book on Roman Landscape. This research strand continues to be lively: it emerges in parts of my work on Varro, and has recently generated a chapter on literary Rome in the Blackwell Companion to the City of Rome.

Language and identities

Language and genre have a strongly placial quality in Latin literary culture, and in ancient studies of memory. I am interested in language structures, vocabulary, and etymology, and while my work on Varro (de Lingua Latina) is the most obvious expression of this interest, I have also written on Horace as a translator, and on genre and identity-politics in Statius. Through approaches such as ecolinguistics, cognitive linguistics, and neurolinguistics I am continuing to explore how language shapes and is shaped by experience, memory, and environment.

*All three of these research strands feed into my current project, Out of Place.


Current projects

Out of place

My current research investigates what made particular places significant in relation to the bodies (human and other) that defined, occupied, inhabited, and dwelt in them. This means digging into their qualities of lived experience, and the expressions of understanding, emotion, sensation, and knowledge that made certain sites iconic and real in the words of Roman authors of the first centuries BCE and CE.

This enquiry, building on my research expertise, takes shape through a range of disciplinary approaches; it unites (e.g.) ecolinguistics, neuroscience, social geography, discourse analysis, literary criticism, aesthetics (art and architecture, as well as environmental) and history. I am also interested in exploring what constitutes embodied experience in different eras, how and why it is recounted in particular ways in different contexts, and its impact upon those who describe and write down its qualities as well as their impact on audiences.

In forthcoming publications I am already testing some examples, and trying out a range of methodologies. This exploratory work will result in additional case-studies and eventually, a monograph (Out of Place). I will also blog aspects of this research, so that insights into how, where, and why some key sights, featured in ancient texts, can continue to resonate in the real-world experience of visitors and travellers now. 

Other activities

  • Adviser on cases for tenure and promotion to Professor at universities in the UK and USA.
  • AHRC Peer Review College member (2009-2013)
  • BBC’s ‘In Our Time’ expert speaker (Alexander the Great)
  • British School at Rome, Ambassador (2016-2019)
  • Classical Association Council member (2006-2010)
  • Council of University Classics Departments committee member (2000-2004)
  • Disciplinary reviewer for Research Quality Review (RQR) Ireland (2014-2015)
  • External examiner for PhDs at the University of London, the University of Reading, Bristol University, the University of Nottingham, and the University of Cape Town
  • External examiner for UG programmes in Classics and Liberal Arts and Sciences (Open University, University of Durham, University of Reading)
  • Journal editorial board member:
    • American Journal of Philology (2014-)
    • Classical Association Journals Board (2018-)
    • Intertexts (2017-).
  • Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) Advisory Panel for History, Classics & Archaeology (2002-2005)
  • Peer reviewer for major presses and journals, e.g. (journals) Antichthon, Acta Classica, American Journal of Philology, Hesperia, European Review of History, Transactions of the American Philological Association; (presses) Blackwell, Cambridge University Press, Sage, University of Oklahoma Press, Oxford University Press, Routledge, Sage, University of Toronto Press, Brill.
  • Social media:
    • twitter: @dianajspencer
    • blog


Recent publications


Spencer, D 2019, Language and Authority in de Lingua Latina: Varro's Guide to Being Roman . Wisconsin Studies in Classics, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.


Spencer, D 2024, '‘Piantare una scena’ nelle Georgiche di Virgilio', Scienze dell’Antichità, vol. 30, no. 1.

Chapter (peer-reviewed)

Spencer, D 2024, Litterae aureae: Reading Monuments and Materiality in Augustan Rome. in E Betts & J Vetch (eds), City of Senses. RomeScapes, Edizioni Quasar, Rome.

Spencer, D 2024, Total immersion tropes: Environmental materiality and Roman world-formation. in EK Cole (ed.), Experiencing Immersion in Antiquity and Modernity: From Narrative to Virtual Reality. Bloomsbury Academic, London.

Spencer, D 2023, Heroic mettle and Roman thought: Cyprian Venus and foundational bronze. in K Karvounis, A Gavrielatos, G Karla & A Papathomas (eds), Cyprus in Texts from Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Mnemosyne, Supplements, vol. 467, Brill, pp. 125-154. <>

Spencer, D 2023, Language, life and metamorphosis in Ovid’s Roman backstory. in G Sissa & F Martelli (eds), Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Environmental Imagination. 1st edn, Ancient Environments, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, pp. 183-199.

Spencer, D 2020, Emotional volume and the little things that make Latin place. in A Anguissola, M Iadanza & R Olivitto (eds), Paesaggi domestici. L’esperienza della natura nelle case e nelle ville romane – Pompei, Ercolano e l’area vesuviana. Studi e ricerche del Parco archeologico di Pompei, vol. 42, L'Erma di Bretschneider, pp. 4-18.

Spencer, D 2018, Varro’s Roman Way: Metastasis and Etymology. in W Fitzgerald & E Spentzou (eds), The Production of Space in Latin Literature. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 45-68.

Spencer, D 2018, Written Rome: Ancient Literary responses. in A Claridge & C Holleran (eds), A Companion to the City of Rome. Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World, vol. 101, Wiley-Blackwell.

Spencer, D 2017, Aesthetic, sociological and exploitative attitudes to landscape in Greco-Roman literature, art and culture. in G Williams (ed.), Oxford Handbooks Online: Scholarly Research Reviews. Oxford University Press.

Spencer, D 2015, Authority, allusion and Rome-speak in Varro’s De lingua Latina. in D Butterfield (ed.), Varro Varius: The Polymath of the Roman World. Cambridge Classical Journal Supplements, vol. 39, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 73-92.

Spencer, D 2015, Urban flux: Varro’s Rome-in-progress. in I Östenberg, S Malmberg & J Bjørnebye (eds), The Moving City: Processions, Passages and Promenades in Ancient Rome. Bloomsbury Academic, London, pp. 99-110.

Spencer, D 2015, Vitruvius, Landscape and Heterotopias: How ‘otherspaces’ enrich Roman identity. in R Kennedy & M Jones-Lewis (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Identity and the Environment in the Classical and Early Medieval Worlds. Routledge, London, pp. 171-191.

Book/Film/Article review

Spencer, D 2019, 'REVIEW: Andrew McClellan, Abused Bodies in Roman Epic', Times Literary Supplement.

Spencer, D 2014, 'Review of Rutledge, S. H. (2012). Ancient Rome as a museum: power, identity, and the culture of collecting. Oxford studies in ancient culture and representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.', The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 104, pp. 253-255.

View all publications in research portal


Cultural responses to the fall of the Roman Republic; the development of autocracy at Rome in the wake of Julius Caesar; cultural imperialism in antiquity (including propagandist reception of Alexander the Great in Rome); the city of Rome in antiquity, especially as an ideological vehicle; reception of Rome in western civilisation; Latin authors and texts, first centuries BCE/CE, especially Varro.


Cultural responses to the fall of the Roman Republic; the development of autocracy at Rome in the wake of Julius Caesar; cultural imperialism in antiquity (including propagandist reception of Alexander the Great in Rome); the city of Rome in antiquity, especially as an ideological vehicle; reception of Rome in western civilisation; Latin authors and texts, first centuries BCE/CE, especially Varro.