Semantics and Semantic Constructs in Cultural Comparison: The Case of Late Antiquity

Timothy Hill (New York University)

Institute of Classical Studies Digital Seminar 2011

Friday July 8th at 16:30, in Court Room, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

Over the past two years, relatively widespread adoption of Linked Data standards appears at long last to have pushed Semantic Web technologies past their “tipping point”. The uses to which these technologies have been put, however, has often been very different from that originally envisaged by Tim Berners-Lee and other Semantic Web advocates.

Classicists and historians are unlikely to form exception to this general pattern, insofar as, (a) they stand to benefit from the application of some semantic technologies to their datastores; and (b), the manner in which they use these technologies is likely to be distinctive.

As in other disciplines, increasing volumes of Classical and historical data are being made available online every year, and the desirability of being able to formulate queries across these datastores is largely self-evident.

Consideration of the nature of much historical enquiry, however, would seem to indicate that it often falls outside conventionally envisioned Semantic Web use cases. In particular, the use of such apparently foundational semantic constructs as <a sameAs b> and <b differentFrom c> will probably prove distinctive.

For the purposes of this talk, discussion is restricted to the difficulties of arriving at a data model adequate to describe the changes that took place in the Roman Empire between the years 284 and 363, in the three related areas of religion ¬(the Christianisation of the empire), philosophy (the decline of Hellenistic philosophies), and political institutions (the increasing centralization of administration on the person of the Emperor).

In each case the problem is the same: strong continuities are, as one might expect, evident in all three areas. However, attempts at straightforward mapping between the terms and characteristics most in evidence prior to 282 and those after 363 often result in what might be termed semantic “side-effects” – as in equating, for the purposes of a query, a Christian bishop of the post-Constantinian era with either a pagan religious or civic official. On the one hand, the bishop incontrovertibly does fulfill a religious and civic role; on the other, he will possess a number of other attributes, and lack still others, that will serve to call into question the legitimacy of this mapping, often in unpredictable ways.

The result is a degree of reflexivity between the result set returned and the mappings or categories used to create this result set. Mappings and categories must unavoidably be posited in order to yield a result set; but it is precisely the characteristics of this result set that reveal the extent to which these can be considered valid or usable for the period in question. Insofar as these equivalences and categories can be held to reflect historical realities, such a journey-as-destination approach to datastore mediation will at the very least serve to orient researchers in their explorations of the historiographic domain; while in the case of particularly large and complex schemata, such explorations may potentially constitute a form of research in their own right.


The seminar will be followed by wine and refreshments.

Audio recording of seminar (MP3)

Presentation (PDF)