Professor Watts and the Wonders of the Past


Madeline Park

Professor Edward Watts is a huge history buff — especially when it comes to Greek and Roman history. But his love of history stems from a deeper sense of curiosity and willingness to actively engage with the people around him.

It’s obvious that professor Edward Watts is excited about history. On top of teaching Roman, Greek, and Byzantine history, he is heavily involved in San Diego’s Greek community. During lectures, he will often pace the room and talk enthusiastically to his students, which only enhances the story-like nature of his lectures. Even his office has one wall devoted entirely to books on history, with his nearby desktop computer displaying picture after picture of his visits to Rome. Yet, this passion and love for history speak not only to Professor Watts’ academic interests but his character as well.

Watts first began his work in his undergraduate years while attending Brown University. Focusing on classics and religious studies, Watts quickly realized that his interest in history extended beyond undergraduate studies. Thus, after completing his bachelor’s degree, Watts went on to pursue his Ph.D. at Yale University, and he later worked at Indiana University and, eventually, UC San Diego. For Watts, this deepening venture into the realm of history was the perfect blend of his many interests.

“I decided to go under the history department because history departments have a lot of space for historians to do all kinds of things,” Watts said. “I was interested in economics, I was interested in literature, I was interested in archaeology, I was interested in Christianity and Judaism, I was interested in paganism, I was interested in all kinds of topics. And it just became clear to me that I would really do best in a discipline where you can do all of those things. And you can do all of those things in one project if you really wanted to. Or you can do five projects that do each of those things individually. And so for me, this was a natural place because I like to work in a whole range of things. I’m pretty naturally curious. And I like to learn what I’m curious about.”

It is at UCSD where Watts was able to cultivate this curiosity even further. Here, Watts not only continues to research and engage students in Greek and Roman history, but he also has a strong affiliation with the Greek community in San Diego. In fact, it is this very community that first drew him to work at UCSD.

“What brought me here was the opportunity to be … involved in scholarship at UCSD and research at UCSD, but also the public activities of the Greek community in San Diego,” Watts said. “And I think the combination of having this community that is really supportive, really interested in making sure that we’re able to teach about the Greek world and the Roman world to students, and really being sure that students get the best-quality background in the history of the Greek world — that’s really unique at UCSD and that’s something that really appealed to me. It’s really a wonderful opportunity. And so when that was open to me, it was very easy to make the choice to come and join this campus and join this community.”

When it comes to the Greek community, Watts holds the position of Alkiviadis Vassiliadis Endowed Chair in Byzantine History and takes part in many of the community’s events, as well as events and lectures held at UCSD through the school’s Center for Hellenic Studies. All of his involvement is for the purpose of opening up the Greek world to the public and making it more accessible and relevant to people. For Watts, this vision is something that he himself has always had. He feels that, first and foremost, the very purpose of his job is to help students and other people understand why history matters and is worth  thinking about.

Alongside his involvement in the Greek community and at UCSD, however, Watts has also written several books in the hopes of getting more people interested and invested in history. In his first book, published in 2006, Watts wrote about the differences in Christian and pagan educational culture in the cities of Athens and Alexandria. In his second book, he examined a riot that took place in late antique Alexandria. His third and fourth books center on pagan history and the life of a female philosopher in the early fifth century respectively. Most recently, his fifth book details the fall of the Roman Republic. While all of these books cover a wide range of topics in the Greek and Roman world, Watts has one underlying theme that he continually focuses on: change.

“I’m particularly interested in looking at change and understanding how people understand change — not when they look back on it, but when they live through it,” Watts said. “I think for me what’s really interesting is finding these moments where something, something changes — and then trying to understand how people make sense of it.”

It’s topics such as these that keep Watts interested in researching and writing as a part of the learning process as a whole.

“As long as I’m learning about how to answer a question, it’s very easy for me to write,” Watts remarked. “But I don’t like working on things that I’ve already worked on. I feel like if I’ve said something once, probably that’s the best I’m going to do with it.”

“We do our best, we put our ideas out there, and we see how they go. And if people later say ‘no, I don’t think that that idea worked’, okay. I think that’s fine. Scientists are completely fine with that and I think that historians should be completely fine with that as well.”

For professor Watts, history is a field that combines many of his interests and passions. As someone who is curious, has a strong desire to learn and engage with others, and understands the people and world around him, history offers him the opportunities to do what he loves.

“It’s not the easiest profession to get a job in,” Watts said. “But I think it’s great for someone like me who’s just interested in learning about things. That’s really what excites me. I have a lot of fun doing that. And so this is the kind of job where you can continually explore things and learn about things that interest you. It really rewards creativity and an interest in people. I think for someone who’s interested in that type of topic, it’s wonderful, it’s rewarding, it’s the type of thing that can sustain you for a really long time. And you’ll never get bored of your job.”

Photo courtesy of Professor Edward Watts.