In memoriam: Robert C. Knapp

September 19, 2023


12 February 1946-17 September 2023

On 17 September 2023, Robert Knapp, Professor Emeritus of Classics and of Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology, died at his home in Oakland after a recent diagnosis of cancer of the pancreas.

Raised in Mt. Pleasant, in central Michigan, Robert attended his hometown university, Central Michigan University, from which he received bachelor’s degrees in History and in Spanish in 1968; he was named as a valedictorian of his graduating class. In the following years he was in Philadelphia pursuing a PhD in ancient history at the University of Pennsylvania, which he was awarded in 1973 for his dissertation written under the direction of R. E. A. Palmer, “Aspects of the Roman Experience in the Spanish Peninsula, 218-100 BC.”

After a semester of teaching at Colby College in Waterville, ME, in the spring of 1973, Robert served for a year as assistant professor of History at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City before accepting a position as assistant professor of Classics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he remained, becoming successively associate professor, then professor, until his retirement, and assumption of the title of emeritus professor, in 2006.

At Berkeley, Robert was throughout his career a generous, effective, and tireless servant of his department and of the campus. In 1981-82, he was Assistant, and from 1983-87 Associate, Dean of the College of Letters and Science. From 1988-92 he served as Dean of Undergraduate Services in that College. In 1998-99, he was Interim Chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, and from 2000-2004 Chair of the Department of Classics. He also served as Director of the Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology in 1981, 1996, and 1998. The culmination of his campus service came in 2003-2004 and 2004-2005, when he was successively Vice-Chair, then Chair, of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. In the year of his service as chair of the Senate, Robert also championed the establishment of Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology as a research center within the Department of Classics. He was the key figure in the determination of the new center’s shape, the securing of its funding, and the recruitment of its first director. He served as the chair of the Center’s advisory committee for more than a decade, long into his retirement, and remained a member of that committee for the rest of his life.

Both as an administrator and as a teacher, Robert was a champion of the educational mission of the university, and a leader in the transformation of the undergraduate programs of the Department of Classics. His excellence and devotion as an advisor of undergraduates earned him the 2002 Outstanding Undergraduate Advising Award of the College of Letters and Science. His drive to enhance the quality of the language curriculum resulted in his co-authoring, with Pamela Vaughn, the intermediate Latin textbook Finis Rei Publicae: Eyewitnesses to the End of the Roman Republic. He was also a crucial supporter of the development of a summer archaeological field school in Greece under the auspices of of the Nemea Center. As a mentor of graduate students, he served on many dissertation committees in AHMA and Classics, primarily on Roman historical subjects, and chaired three dissertations.

His exceptional contributions to the campus were recognized upon his retirement with the award of the Berkeley Citation.

By the time of his death, Robert had written a number of books. He had become if anything more prolific upon his retirement, and his publications left a mark in at least four areas: the study of Roman Spain, Roman social history, numismatics, and the local history of central Michigan.

Robert’s PhD dissertation formed the basis for his first book, Aspects of the Roman Experience in Iberia, 206-100 BC (1977). It investigated the military contexts in which the institutions of Roman territorial control were established in the Mediterranean and southern regions of the Iberian peninsula and then traced the subsequent histories of those institutions in the slow making of the Roman provinces of Nearer and Further Spain. Robert followed this up with an urban history, Roman Córdoba (1983), the first monograph in English on this major Roman city. The capital of the new province of Baetica, Córdoba was famous for its forum, for its temples, and, as the home city of the Senecas and Lucan, for its Latin poetry. The main achievement of Robert’s book was to assemble the evidence for this remarkable city and bring it to life for anglophone readers.

Many of the detailed arguments in his first two books depended on the evidence from Latin inscriptions. In light of his widely acknowledged expertise in this documentary material, Robert was invited to prepare a fascicle of inscriptions from central Spain for the second edition of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum for the Iberian peninsula—a substantial assignment, given the unparalleled explosion of new epigraphic publications in Spain following the death of Franco in 1975. This project eventually grew into a standalone study, Latin Inscriptions from Central Spain (1992), which is still the standard reference work for these important epigraphic texts. His expertise in the geography of Roman Spain also led to his service as the area editor for the Iberian peninsula for the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (2000).

Robert’s work on Roman Spain was detailed, rigorous, and empirically rich. And his interest in provincial history was ahead of the curve. Indeed, when he began his work in the 1970s, the anglophone scholarship in Roman history was dominated by narrative histories and text-based studies of military and political events, especially in Rome. His early and longstanding interest in the social, economic, and administrative histories of Rome’s provinces—where so much of the current interest in Roman history lies—set him apart from many of his contemporaries and signaled his independence as a scholar.

Robert’s immense pedagogic talents and his sure hand as a storyteller came together in the first of his two books devoted to what he calls ‘ordinary’ Romans. His book Invisible Romans (2011), directed at a broad audience, weaves together inscriptions and coins with a broad range of often understudied written sources into a vivid tapestry that examines those who did not belong to Rome’s 1%. Focusing on a range of people, from those who could barely subsist to those who had enough to entertain themselves and others, he recreated the “mind worlds” and the daily lives of “ordinary” men and women, slaves and freed persons, farmers and soldiers, but also that of pirates, gladiators, bandits and those involved in the sex trade. The result is a rich, varied, stimulating and highly readable book with wonderful illustrations that opened another Rome, whose inhabitants had indeed a mind of their own, as Paul Veyne suspected, but Robert demonstrated with lasting effect, as attested by the translations into German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese.

In a follow-up book, The Dawn of Christianity: People and Gods in a Time of Magic and Miracles (2017), Robert returned to the “mind world” of the ordinary Romans, but from a different perspective. Here, he focused on ways in which Jewish and polytheist communities interacted with the divine, and how these mind-sets and practices did or did not influence the eventual emergence of Christianity. Once again, his very readable and wonderfully illustrated book focuses on primary sources, now from the first century BCE to the end of the first century CE. Here, he expertly illustrates the common ground shared by all communities mentioned (he intentionally uses polytheist throughout), populated by multiple deities, divinities, demons, and replete with a variety of shared divinatory practices, including thaumaturgy, witchcraft, and miracles. As a result, Robert highlights in vivid detail why Christianity was very much part of the ordinary, far more so than some of his readers might have assumed.

Robert’s expertise in numismatics, on constant display in his other work, was put to additional important use in his publication, with John Mac Isaac, of Nemea III: The Coins (2004) a volume presenting the classical coins discovered during the history of excavations at Nemea; in this work, Robert was responsible for the part of the volume that catalogued and discussed the Classical, Hellenistic, Roman Provincial, and Roman finds. This volume forms an essential part of the program of publication of the results of excavations at Nemea. Less public but no less expert was Robert’s work in compiling a catalogue of the collection of ancient coins held by Berkeley’s Department of Classics.

To the end of his life, Robert maintained a close connection to the region of Michigan that had been the scene of his early years. He worked, when he could spare the time, on a labor of love, the restoration of his great-grandfather’s log cabin in Clare, MI. His hometown loved him back: in 2012, in recognition of his achievements as a scholar, he was named the Distinguished Alumnus of the Year by his alma mater, Central Michigan University. This connection to Michigan was also reflected in his efforts as a researcher and author over a period of more than a decade before his passing. In 2012, Robert began to publish a series of volumes on the history of Clare and of Michigan. Clare 1865-1940 (2012) is a history of the region of Clare from the end of the Civil War to its prominence in the oil industry of Michigan. Mystery Man: Gangsters, Oil, and Murder in Michigan (2014)unites his interests in local history and in crime, which became a theme of his work on the history of Michigan, as shown in Small-Town Citizen Minion of the Mob. Sam Garfield's Two Lives--Purple Gangsters, Meyer Lansky, and Life in Clare, Michigan (2018) and by Gangsters Up North: Mobsters, Mafia, and Racketeers in Michigan's Vacationlands (2020). In Community of Learning History and Memories: The Laboratory School Central Michigan University 1895-1970 (2021), he turned to the history of the on-campus teacher training school that he had himself attended from 1950-1958. Most recently, he had been at work on a history of McEwan Street, the main street of Clare.

The world has been fortunate to know further dimensions of Robert’s devotion, and of his service. He was an active member of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Oakland, where he was senior warden in the 1990's, served on numerous committees, and edited the church newsletter for many years. From 2008 onwards, Robert was part of the leadership of  Friends of El Salvador, a group that focuses its efforts on helping the small rural community of Miramar, and particularly Guajoyo School.

Robert is survived by his widow, Carolyn Knapp;  their daughters, Abigail Cruz and Hannah Knapp; and their grandchildren, Ava Cruz and Gilbert and Henry Evans.

A memorial event for the campus is planned for Friday, February 2, 2024 t 3pm in the Heyns Room of the Faculty Club.

Presented with contributions by Susanna Elm, Erich Gruen, Carolyn Knapp, Emily Mackil, Carlos Noreña, Dylan Sailor, and Kim Shelton

Photograph of Robert Knapp

Professor Robert Knapp