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Jan. 18, 2008

History Professor Wins Distinguished
Achievement Award from Mellon Foundation

William V. Harris, the William R. Shepherd Professor of History, is one of three scholars selected this year by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to receive its Distinguished Achievement Award, bestowed annually to individuals who have made significant contributions to humanistic inquiry.

William V. Harris
William V. Harris

Harris will receive a three-year grant of $1.5 million—the largest the Mellon Foundation gives to recipients of the Distinguished Achievement Award.

An expert in classical civilizations, Harris is “a scholar of the highest distinction,” whose “command of the technical aspects of studies of ancient Rome and Greece is impeccable,” according to a press release from the Mellon Foundation.

“William Harris is a remarkably wide-ranging historian who has repeatedly transformed his subject by asking big, difficult questions and offering provocative answers that have generated significant debates well beyond the confines of his discipline,” said Heinrich von Staden, head of the selection panel and an eminent scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J.

“The Distinguished Achievement Award is recognized as among the highest distinctions a scholar in the humanities can attain,” added Brett de Bary, director of the Society for the Humanities, in Ithaca, N.Y., noting that recipients are selected for “a lifetime’s contribution” to the field.

Harris’s research covers a large swath of the ancient Greek and Roman periods, addressing such far-ranging subjects as war and imperialism, literacy, and economic and psychological history. His most recent book, Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity, which deconstructs the difference between anger during the ancient period and now, has amassed laudatory critical reviews and was called “groundbreaking” by London Review of Books.

“History is full of strong emotions, but historians have not until recently paid an awful lot of focused attention to how emotions work and how people keep them under wraps,” said Harris, who has spent his entire career at Columbia. “Since the Greeks and Roman talked about anger a great deal, I thought it would be worth asking why, and with what effect.”

Harris’s upcoming book, Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity, scheduled for publication this year, explores the ancient Greek and Roman practice of allowing nightly dreams to inform daily life.

Harris says he will invest a significant portion of his grant money for research in Italy, where he has worked extensively throughout his career as a visiting professor, resident scholar and conference organizer. He also intends to write a book on “power in the Roman world,” launch a study addressing mental dysfunction during the classical era and recruit to the University at least two distinguished historians to conduct research and possibly teach courses.

Harris also will inject Mellon funds into the Columbia Center for the Ancient Mediterranean, a cross-disciplinary research organization uniting archaeologists, intellectual historians and social historians to explore significant ideas about the ancient world. Founded and directed by Harris, the center will send a group of students to Turkey this summer to participate in an archaeological field trip stretching from Istanbul to Antalya.

The Mellon Foundation began bestowing its Distinguished Achievement Award in 2001 to pay tribute to the role of the humanities in intellectual life. Harris’s recognition marks the second time a Columbia scholar has received the award. In 2003, Roger S. Bagnall, the Jay Professor Emeritus of Greek and Latin Languages and professor emeritus of history, took the honor.

“Awards such as these affirm our department’s standing as one of the premier history programs in the country,” said department chair and Associate Professor Adam Kosto. “More importantly, however, the particular terms of the Mellon grants allow our students to benefit directly through the programming innovations that they support.”

- Photos courtesy of Harvard University Press, Copyright 2001 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.