BIPOC Features: Dora Gao

One of the things that I wanted to do with Notes From the Apotheke was to amplify the voices and contributions of BIPOC scholars in ancient Mediterranean studies, at all levels and from all backgrounds. BIPOC in the field are invited to reflect on what brought them to studying the ancient world, as well as offer their opinions on the future of the discipline and share any work they are especially proud of or excited about.

If you thought I’d forgotten about this series, think again!! Check out this month’s post by my friend and colleague Dora Gao for more on their journey to studying the ancient Mediterranean world and their thought-provoking and inspiring perspective on the field!

University of Michigan on Twitter: "@doraygao Congratulations! We can't  wait to welcome you ho〽️e!" / Twitter

Brief introduction

Hello! I am a PhD student at the University of Michigan in the Interdepartmental Program in Ancient History. I am broadly interested in marginalized subjectivities under Greek and Roman imperialism, specifically at the intersection of race and religion. 

These days I’m working primarily on Greco-Egyptian religion in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, but I wrote my master’s thesis on the cult of Artemis at Ephesus and its representation as a symbol of Greek identity in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon.

Beyond my schoolwork (grad student desperately trying to have a personality outside of my research here!), I enjoy hiking, cross-country skiing, photography, and playing the cello. 

I have a five year-old husky mix named Zeke who was a stray/recently laid off farmdog (?) I brought back from an archaeological dig in Romania. His hobbies include excessive napping, peanut butter, and running non-stop through snow that comes up to his tummy.

How did I get into Ancient Mediterranean Studies?

I had an unconventional path to Ancient Mediterranean studies.

(I avoid using the name “classics” where I can, because

1. “Ancient Mediterranean studies” is actually more descriptive and doesn’t assume that people automatically have the same ideas about what they consider “classics,” and

2. it puts our discipline on a level playing field with other area studies)

I started off as a full-blown STEM kid, and I entered my undergrad expecting to become a physicist.

To fulfill my humanities requirements, I intended to do a physics and philosophy double major—but the very first philosophy I took past my first year requirements, “Paradox and Infinity,” ended up being a theoretical math class in disguise. 

In a desperate attempt to flee, I signed up for one of the only humanities classes that could fit into that slot in my schedule: “Julius Caesar and the Fall of the Roman Republic,” with only a vague thought that I had really enjoyed my history classes in high school. 

It ended up being my favorite class that term, and I ended up officially adding a history double major the spring of my third year.

That said, it wasn’t until I was doing what I thought was the physics internship of my dreams at CERN in Switzerland that summer that I realized how much I loved ancient history. 

I found myself spending my evenings reading Cassius Dio after long days sitting in front of my computer writing and running (poorly-written) code—which, let’s be perfectly honest, was as much a cry for help given how miserable I was doing physics as it was an uncool ancient historian hobby. 

I resolved to go to grad school for ancient history rather than physics when I returned to the US, but found my language preparation lacking for PhD programs.

I ended up having to take some time off and work in the real world while I figured out how best to continue pursuing ancient history. 

I was incredibly fortunate to be accepted into the University of British Columbia’s Ancient Culture, Religion, and Ethnicity master’s program up in Vancouver (objectively one of the greatest cities in the world), where I managed to work my Greek and Latin up to a point where I could confidently apply for PhDs.

For a while, there was nothing more that I wanted than to not be the person I was (a person with a STEM background and, in many ways, a person of color from an immigrant family who had never heard of “classics” till halfway through college) so that I could be a better classicist. 

In many ways, I am still fighting my own internalized elitism and persistent imposter syndrome as much as I am advocating for a more diverse and equitable field of Ancient Mediterranean studies.

I have no doubt that this will be a career-long battle, but I am also seeing how the right environment and mentors have encouraged me to embrace parts of myself that I thought were incompatible with my chosen field. 

My coursework in ancient epistemology and ontology over the past two years have shown me how strict disciplinary separations between fields such as “science” and “religion” are a distinct product of modernity. 

Just this past term, I added a Science, Technology, and Society (STS) certificate to my degree precisely because such a separation did not exist in the ancient world, and as the only ancient history grad student in the certificate program, I look forward to blurring those boundaries for my colleagues working in more modern periods as well. 

Similarly, I have become more and more emboldened to actively incorporate my own personal experience of growing up as a child of immigrants in the late stages of the U.S. empire into my scholarship. 

Lewis Hyde has described immigrant children as liminal subjects of “two worlds,” and suggested that

both at home and at school she may be enchanted by the local mythology, but on the road between the two she is briefly free to discard and retain parts of each world. […] She assembles from the fragments of her experience a story […] that combines what is of use from each world into a new world.” (1)

Although I recognize the vast distance between my own experiences and those of my subjects in the ancient world, I am fundamentally motivated in my research by the ways that people throughout time have navigated cultural and racial difference, often under broad power dynamics and structures they were powerless to change, by constructing their own worlds that serve their purposes and allowed them to find their own forms of belonging.

What do I think the future of Ancient Mediterranean studies is?

The most meaningful moments of my PhD thus far have been at the intersection of disciplines.

One of my favorite courses I have taken thus far was the required introductory methods course for all history PhD students, in which I read scholarship not usually assigned in traditional Ancient Mediterranean studies courses. These included Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts” on the method of critical fabulation; Robin D. G. Kelley’s “We Are Not What We Seem” on everyday acts of resistance by the Black working-class in the Jim Crow South; Lisa Brooks’ Our Beloved Kin as a new history of King Philip’s War; and Zeb Tortorici’s Sins Against Nature on the prosecution of sex acts in colonial New Spain. 

This course opened my eyes to the myriad ways that scholars can do history in more meaningful and self-reflexive ways, and these articles and books taught me that scholarship can and in some cases must be fundamentally activist. 

A reorientation towards radical activism, I believe, is necessary for Ancient Mediterranean studies to confront its long history of racism, imperialism, elitism, and other forms of oppression and gatekeeping. 

It isn’t enough for university departments simply to form DEI committees or diversify the required list of ancient authors; we have to embrace and commit ourselves to using Ancient Mediterranean studies as an epistemological tool for transformative justice.

I look at the potential of Ancient Mediterranean studies and I see so much possibility for meaningful change. 

When we move beyond the particularities of grammar and syntax that our field has so long been tunnel-visioned upon, a world of diversity, weirdness, and what C. Michael Chin has termed “historical radiance” lies before us. (2) 

Even though I didn’t know what “classics” was when I was growing up, one of my favorite books that I returned to time and again was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Those stories formed the basis of my understanding of the world as much as any other form of contemporary pop culture did (Avengers comics, looking at you)—but what if I had imagined those Greek deities and characters not as my majority white classmates and friends, but people who looked like me? 

What if, instead of forcing all students of Ancient Mediterranean studies to read the same texts and focus upon the same philological peculiarities, we encouraged them to find elements of the distant past that resonated most deeply with who they were? 

What if we allowed the past to be a source of restoration and healing rather than a continuous historical re-traumatization? 

As Chin writes,

allowing the past to be radiant to us includes a refusal to assimilate it to ourselves […] it is a mental habit of making room for others in the world.” (3) 

By drawing upon the radiance of the ancient world, by emphasizing all the ways in which it is not the birthplace of modern American democracy, the precursor to rational Enlightened European philosophy, or the imperial standard to which all modern empires ought to aspire, we can allow its particularities and its weirdness to empower rather than oppress those who are different. 

Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?

One horse-sized duck. How is this still a debate? Have y’all seen how awkward ducks are on land? A horse-sized duck would be far easier to maneuver around than 100 duck-sized courses kicking at your ankles!


1. Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 160–161.

2. Catherine Chin, “Marvelous Things Heard: On Finding Historical Radiance,” The Massachusetts Review 58, 3 (2017): 478­–491.

3. Chin, 484–485.

Leave a Reply