Marching through the battlefields of history

Through two directed study projects, history major Tristan Krause has delved into fascinating details of the Roman Empire’s army.

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The Wisconsin Historical Society's library is one of senior Tristan Kraus' favorite places to study on campus. (Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science)

Tristan Krause didn’t waste any time in becoming a history major.

“I think I declared the second day I was on campus,” he says with a laugh.

It’s fair to say Krause was ready. He had already spent years cultivating a passion for history, an interest that began with viewing an “old Walter Cronkite documentary on World War II that my father showed me way too young.”

The student from Phillips, Wisconsin, was also quick to find a mentor on campus. Always “the kid who would ask questions after class,” Krause found himself lingering after A History of Rome his sophomore year and going to office hours to talk with Marc Kleijwegt. The history professor who recognized Krause’s curiosity and talent and encouraged him to participate in a directed study — independent undergraduate research that’s guided by a faculty mentor.

Krause focused on the battle of Adrianople in 378, a pivotal moment for the Roman Empire — the first time Germans defeated the Roman army. Krause was fascinated to learn how scholars’ interpretations of the event have evolved over time.

“It was interesting seeing how the last generation of late-Roman scholars pointed to this battle as the catalyst for the fall of the western empire, and how the current consensus does not agree,” he says. “I tend to subscribe to the newer train of thought. While I believe the battle with the Germans may have set a dangerous precedent and was certainly significant, it cannot claim full responsibility for the fall of Rome.”

For Krause, who is also working toward certificates in Medieval, European and Classical studies and is the recipient of the Earl Johnson Scholarship awarded to high-achieving students, the directed study experience pushed his research and writing skills to new levels. 

“Even classes oriented around research and paper writing did not compare to the sheer breadth and depth of finding useful secondary and primary sources, analyzing their content and constructing an argument around my findings,” he says, adding that the 25-page paper he produced is among his greatest accomplishments to date.

"It has long been my dream to receive my graduate degree, then my doctorate, and finally go on to teach at a university."

This year, Krause is working with Kleijwegt on another directed study, one he plans to make the foundation of his senior honors thesis. He’s researching a Roman legionary cemetery in Apamea, Syria, that contains more than 100 tombstones dating from roughly 195 to 250.

The Roman military changed dramatically during the third century — a politically unstable time with more than 25 different emperors in a 50-year period — and Krause is turning to tombstone inscriptions for clues to the role the Roman legion played.

The inscriptions, written by soldiers’ wives, their generals and comrades and others, offer a unique glimpse at life then. “It’s surprising how much personality comes out of these tombstones,” Krause says.

Through his research, Krause has grown comfortable conversing with professors and teaching assistants, experiences that will help him as he pursues graduate school, with the goal of becoming a history professor himself.

“It has long been my dream to receive my graduate degree, then my doctorate, and finally go on to teach at a university,” he says. “Educating others at a university level while simultaneously researching topics I am passionate about is exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Krause is excited about the path ahead and proud of what he’s been able to accomplish in just three years.

“And it’s all because I started talking to a professor my freshman year,” he says.