Cicero, Cato, Ovid, and Virgil in a 17th c. jail cell

Gaudeloupean novelist Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba, black witch of Salem, first appeared in
French as Moi, Tituba, sorcière…noire de Salem in 1986. The novel is a historical fiction based on the real figure of Tituba, accused of witchcraft in the village of Salem in 1692. In an earlier work, La civilisation du bossale (The culture of the bush nigger, 1978), Condé explored the oral literature of Gaudaloupe and Martinique; in Tituba, slaves remake their worlds with folklore. Condé’s novel is a historical fiction set in the very time when the notion of “history” for a certain group of people was disrupted, suppressed.

Condé’s Tituba, a figure brought into being by a white man’s rape of a slave from Barbados, exists in a state far removed from the classical world fetishized by the white inhabitants of the West Indies and New England. Friends are identified by the fact that they speak the same language, have the same store of tales to share. In one scene, Tituba, implicated in the witch trials, finds herself sharing a prison cell with a pregnant white woman named Hester who has been charged with adultery. As the two women share their origin stories, Hester invokes the classical curriculum as part of European chauvinism:

“In the bowels of the Mayflower, the first ship to have landed on this coast, were my two ancestors, my father’s father and my mother’s father, two fervent Separatists who had come to build the kingdom of the true God. You know how dangerous such projects are. No need to describe the fanaticism in which their descendants were brought up. It produced a flock of ministers who read Cicero, Cato, Ovid, and Virgil in the original…”
“I’ve never heard of these people,” I interrupted.
She raised her eyes upward. “Thank goodness for that! I had the misfortune to belong to a family that believed in sexual equality and at the age when you normally play with dolls my father had me recite the classics!”

Reading this, I was struck by how the names of these famous Roman writers are used by each speaker. For Hester, listing the classical canon is an efficient way to quickly characterize fanaticism. Hester’s ancestral, biological line is patrilineal – her principal forebears are her father’s father, and her mother’s father. Cicero, Cato, Ovid, and Virgil are presented as another ancestral patrimony, a lineage of men begetting men.

The fact that Cicero comes first in the list is also significant. Since the Cato must be Cato the Elder, who precedes Cicero not only chronologically but in the fact that Cato was for Cicero a model of certain ideals regarding culture and writing, Cato’s postpositive position demonstrates the dominance of Ciceronian material in the educational context of the 17th century. Incidentally, it is also pretty amazing to read that these ministers are armed with the works of Ovid in their quest to build a kingdom of god given the
fact that the content of Ovid’s corpus is at best raunchy, at worst downright subversive. Hester’s classical knowledge is cast as a mark of male education. We get a perverse vision of “sexual equality”: Hester’s father’s desire to have her educated like a man separates her from the world of women, imagination, and creativity.

Tituba’s response is equally telling. Hester’s attempt to communicate by invoking the oppressive canon has failed, since Tituba does not share Hester’s experiences in the language of dominance. Tituba’s existence as a slave is communicated in different ways – in rape, assault, slaughter. Her forceful interruption and expression of ignorance is powerful: it is a refusal to become complicit in the project of empire with Hester, a refusal to hear more about figures who are symbolic of a culture of empire which makes both women suffer. What we have here in this scene is the staging of a failed classical invocation in order to situate both women on a spectrum of oppression.

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What it’s like to live tweet the SCS (San Francisco 2016)

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At the 2016 meeting of the Society for Classical Studies that took place from Jan. 6th-9th in San Francisco, CA, I live tweeted the panels which I observed. You can see the “storified” versions of these tweets here. For those of you who are unfamiliar with storify, it is a means of isolating and reordering specific tweets in order to see their cohesiveness and meaningful narrative. Read on for my thoughts on the experience of live tweeting the SCS.

Brooke Holmes, one of the scholars involved in the Postclassicisms project centred around Princeton, speaking in the SCS panel “Response and Responsibility”, said something along the following lines:

I tweeted this in a paraphrase that was intended to be representative, timely. And this itself is appropriate given that part of the purpose of “Postclassicisms” is to meditate about time, timeliness, response, and reception. What is at stake in the point represented by this tweet is, I think, the question of how to view our own involvement in the material which we study. In the face of objectivity and subjectivity – what role does our rejection or embrace of our own identities have to play in our jobs as scholars? How does our observation and critical response to the past shape our knowledge of it?

In the first Fragments session (affectionately named #fragfest by the panel’s moderator, Ayelet Lushkov, @Dr_AHL), Catherine Steel remarked on this very issue in the ancient world: when it comes to the extant snippets of Roman Republican orators, our sources seem not to be quoting from the text of the orations but from intermediaries; what at first glance seems to be a representation of a speech by a Roman orator turns out to be (or likely be) an excerpt from a historiographical text which dramatized the speech act.

One of the things which became clear to me early on is that my tweets were motivated by a desire to document, record what was happening. By doing this I implicated myself in the project of the SCS. Part of my desire to document was encouraged by the fact that my tweets were read by those who were not at the meeting, and who were very glad to have a window into its proceedings. At the Presidential Panel on Thursday night (“The Spring from the Year”: Contingent Faculty and the Future of Classics), several of the speakers mentioned the fact that contingent personnel often can’t afford to come to the annual meeting, which is actually one of the both ironies and strengths of speaking on the topic in front of an audience of tenured faculty. To these we can add the scholars living and working all around the world, who have an interest and stake in the classical community, but who don’t have a compelling reason to spend time and money on international travel. At any rate, I received an incredibly positive response on twitter from the absent participants, especially from the UK. In the “Cicero across Genres” panel, Francesco Ginelli discussed Cicero’s application of rhetorical theory as epistolary theory, citing Fam. 2.4: the purpose of a letter is to update someone who is spatially or chronologically distant – someone you haven’t seen or heard from for a long time and/or someone far away. In fact this passage returns to one of the issues at stake in the “Postclassicisms” panel – the idea that antiquity is a guest among us (Phiroze Vasunia), that we are in a dialogic relationship with our material.

Users of twitter engaged with me as well as each other over the content I was representing. This is exactly the power of twitter when it is used well – it is a real time, invisible annotation; a meta-armature which exists all around the physicality of the meeting, but one that is widely accessible. The annotating and enriching function of twitter becomes clear in the following cases: while Brooke Holmes was speaking, she invoked and meditated upon Donna Haraway‘s 1988 article, Situated Knowledge: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective – while I was tweeting her talk, I also found and tweeted a link to the article. In the panel on Herculaneum, Richard Janko, speaking ex tempore during the question and answer session following his (excellent, truly) talk on his methods of papyrological editing, referred to the story of Verginius Rufus, who fell and broke his hip when he dropped a papyrus book roll and it began to unravel on the ground (and as we heard in that talk, extant papyrus rolls are long – 15m, 23m, 28m). I quickly found that the source for this anecdote is Pliny (Ep. 2.1.5), and tweeted it. When my colleague, Tom Sapsford, gave his paper on cinaedi at the Roman dance panel, demonstrating that cinaedi aren’t just bogey men but represent a real professional category, I tweeted the link to his 2015 Eugesta article on the topic, which is accessible to everyone. And one of my followers let me know that they were reading the article as I was live tweeting Tom’s talk.

In many ways the problem of twitter reflects the themes of fragments and genre treated in certain panels at this year’s SCS. Prof. Sander Goldberg during #fragfest discussed the issue of fragment contextualization. (This is of great importance to me in my work on Cicero’s quotations of Latin verse.) Consider the following “fragment” from Ennius’ Annales (Skutsch 154-155):

Septingenti sunt, paulo plus aut minus, anni
Augusto augurio postquam incluta condita Roma est

Some scholars, Goldberg said, refer to the speaker of these lines as Camillus, connecting the verses to Camillus’ famous speech in Livy 5.51-4. But, Goldberg says, the attribution of these lines to Camillus was conjecturally made by Skutsch (1985:314), and if we’re really honest with ourselves we have to say that the speaker of the lines is Varro, since it is Varro alone – as the cover text – who quotes the lines (RR 3.1.2f.). I could add to this that Varro describes the verses as having been written by Ennius (Ennius docet scribens) – he’s not at that moment imagining Ennius’ words to reflect a historico-fictive speech act by a legendary Roman. In the ancient world we find that writers are not always interested in referring to their source clearly – quite often this seems to come from the fact that they are more interested in the gnomic, universal quality of the statement, rather than engaging in what we might call “responsible” citational practices. Casual (i.e. non-scholarly) users of twitter very often tweet gnomic maxims or “pretty pictures” without giving attributions for (and perhaps knowing) their origin; they are interested in an interesting snippet, and in passing it along. A scholarly user of twitter really ought to be held to a higher standard.

The issue is that the things which I tweeted during the SCS aren’t my work or intellectual property, but my investment in the questions at stake means that between the point where I hear the arguments made and the point where I relay them to the internet, there has been some kind of intervention on my part. Sarah Bond (@SarahEBond), who has crowdsourced and made available a wonderful set of guidelines for tweeting scholarly conferences, notes that a tweeter has to be willing to remove or delete content if the original author is uncomfortable.

The good news here is that I am a scholar and I know my responsibilities when it comes to proper citation. And yet I don’t, and can’t, tweet everything that I hear, and I also don’t care equally about all arguments or even talks, so certain things won’t be passed on by me. This is where the tweeter exerts control – we hear the whole (although we may not always understand the whole), but we tweet only snippets. We have a certain power of censorship, in the sense which we read in Gumbrecht’s the Powers of Philology (2003:14):

…we presuppose, for any fragment deserving of this name, a violent intervention that has caused the difference between the text (or more generally, the form) intended by the author and the text that has come down to us. Such violence may come from an intention that conflicts with the author’s intention and has at its disposal, in addition, superior power to impose itself. It is obvious that this second case of fragmentation includes and illustrates what we call “censorship.” We take fragmentation through censorship to imply, first, that the censor is clearly aware of what he wants to eliminate and, second, that he usually wants the censored text not to appear fragmented. This means that it may turn out to be particularly difficult to identify such a text as a fragment, but also that, once the censor and his intentions are identified, we have a particularly rich orientation for our task of imagining the complete text.

(By the way, this Gumbrecht citation comes from me, not from any talk I heard at the SCS.) There’s also a question of expertise – I feel pretty comfortable with Cicero and with fragments, but when I was at the Herculaneum panel, I found that Virginia Campbell (@campbell798), who took over the twitter feed for the Herculaneum Graffiti Project (@HercGraffProj), did a far better job than me, precisely because of her expertise. Incidentally – the Ancient Graffiti Project is incredible: they have created a topographical search engine, where you can search for graffiti from Herculaneum and Pompeii by specific location:

Although twitter has potential for widening the audience of academic work, there is still something kind of insular about its use at the SCS. The hashtag #aiascs is probably inscrutable to the majority of the twitterverse, and of course as academics generally and classicists particularly we have our own language in which we talk about our ideas, which is a fellowship of knowledge for us, but can be particularly frustrating to a broader audience. As I was checking in with the other panels on the #aiascs hashtag whose topics are not as well known to me personally, I felt myself alienated sometimes – cf. this impressive slide regarding sieges in Thucydides via Hamish Cameron (@peregrinekiwi):

I’m sure I also did my fair share of alienating. Many noted that Cicero was well represented at this year’s meeting – one might even say, overrepresented. You might find this a shock coming from me, a Ciceronian, but although I enjoyed most of the Cicero papers I heard – and was particularly happy at the “Cicero across Genres panel” (organized by Isabel Köster, @iota_subscript, and Caroline Bishop), I can sympathize with this reaction. When Cicero dominated the #aiascs hashtag, there was some annoyance at this (although I think this is founded in the current fashion of Cicero-bashing which I don’t endorse):

It is satisfying to be in a room where you are not the only one tweeting – there’s a sense of camaraderie to it, and also a sense of curiosity as you try to figure out who the other tweeter is, e.g. when Vanessa Rose Phin (@wordfey) and I both wrongly thought that the other was a person sitting between us who was looking down into her lap a lot. This level of participation is one that helps cut across the isolation that can be felt at the SCS. The well known twitter powerhouse, Patrick Burns (@diyclassics), spotted me at the WCC/LCC opening night party and introduced himself, and our paths continued to cross throughout the meeting. A colleague who observed Patrick and me sitting next to each other, each furiously live tweeting the presidential panel, remarked that it was like being in the journalist room at the White House. I found myself being able to talk to a wider range of people because of this digital engagement, including Joseph Howley (@hashtagoras), another twitter powerhouse, and Virginia Campbell (@campbell798) at the end of the Herculaneum panel.

Essentially, I found live tweeting the SCS satisfying. I myself was engaged with the content on a level that I hadn’t experienced at the meeting in previous years, and my social interactions were greatly enriched in a number of ways. My way in to live tweeting was actually eased by the increased interest which the august society itself has in the use of social media – a stance evinced by the fact that the hashtag #aiascs was on our name tags. The final aspect to this which I’ll remark upon is the usefulness of twitter in letting the presenting participants of the SCS know that their effort is appreciated: voices from twitter expressing interest in the topic at hand means that there is an audience out there, an audience that is willing to listen, to appreciate, and to speak back.

On eclipses and human terror

Annie Dillard’s essay Total Eclipse was first published in 1982 in the journal, Anteaus. It was reprinted in the same year in a collection of Dillard’s essays entitled Teaching a Stone to Talk, which is where I read it.

One passage of Dillard’s essay in particular caught my attention:

The Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus, looks, through binoculars, like a smoke ring. It is a star in the process of exploding. Light from its explosion first reached the earth in 1054; it was a supernova then, and so bright it shone in the daytime. It expands at the rate of seventy million miles a day. It is interesting to look through binoculars at something expanding seventy million miles a day. It does not budge. Its apparent size does not increase. Photographs of the Crab Nebula taken fifteen years ago seem identical to photographs of it taken yesterday. Some lichens are similar. Botanists have measured some ordinary lichens twice, at fifty-year intervals, without detecting any growth at all. And yet their cells divide; they live.

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The Crab Nebula. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester, A Loll (ASU)

One of the messages of Dillard’s essay is the disjunction between intellectual knowledge of an event and its phenomenological effect on the perceiver. Knowledge that the sun is occulted by the moon is itself eclipsed by the experience of the event. “If I had not read that it was the moon, I could have seen the sight a hundred times and never thought of the moon once.” Dillard notes that her reaction could have been like the Emperor Louis of Bavaria in 840, who “simply died of fright on the spot.” Famous passages from the ancient world attest to a similar epistemological horror at the sight of solar eclipses. From Herodotus (7.37-38), we have the eclipse of 480 BCE which is immediately interpreted by mediterranean earth-dwellers to foreshadow a successful Persian incursion into Greece.

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Total solar eclipse, 11th July 2010. Image credit: Williams College Eclipse Expedition
total lunar
Total lunar eclipse, 15th April 2014. Image credit: NASA Ames Research Center/Brian Day

In Cicero’s hexameter poem, On the Consulship (of which only 78 lines are extant, due to their embedding in his philosophical work, On Divination, 44 BCE), we hear of a lunar eclipse that took place on 3rd May 63 BCE (Div. 1.18, Ewbank p75), as well as a possible reference to a solar eclipse of 18th May 63. Of the 78 lines, these correspond to lines 19-22:

cum claram speciem concreto lumine luna
abdidit et subito stellanti nocte perempta est.
quid vero Phoebi fax, tristis nuntia belli,
quae magnum ad columen flammato ardore volabat,
praecipitis caeli partis obitusque petessens?

“…when the moon hid its clear shape with dulled light
and was suddenly removed from the starry sky.
What means the torch of Phoebus, the herald of bitter war,
which was climbing towards its zenith with blazing heat,
while longing for the western parts of heaven and its setting?” (trans. Wardle)

The “torch of Phoebus” (Phoebi fax) here can be interpreted to refer to a partial solar eclipse, a comet, or a meteor (cf. Wardle p149). Both phenomena form part of a long list of horrific astronomical and cosmological events which are pressed into service as portents of the Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 BCE. Alongside these terrors are listed the fact that a “citizen” was struck by lightning (lines 23-24), and ghostly shades were seen at night (lines 26-27).

Another of the focuses of Dillard’s essay is the effect of a solar eclipse on an observer; it so subverts the normal experience of human life, is so overwhelming, that it comes to lack significance. Seeing a solar eclipse is like seeing a mushroom cloud on the horizon:

The meaning of the sight overwhelmed its fascination. It obliterated meaning itself. If you were to glance out one day and see a row of mushroom clouds rising on the horizon, you would know at once what you were seeing, remarkable as it was, was intrinsically not worth remarking. No use running to tell anyone. Significant as it was, it did not matter a whit. For what is its significance? It is significance for people. No people, no significance.

Dillard’s essay on the power of an insensate solar eclipse to instill in an observer a sense of mortal catastrophe circles around several issues that face a modern commentator on the ancient world. For one thing, we find that Dillard is careful to describe her horror at the instant of observation, and simultaneously careful to trace the impact of cosmological events on the human record: e.g. the fact that the explosion of the Crab Nebula was visible on earth in 1054, the fact that an eclipse of 840 terrified a monarch to death. We are invited to meditate upon the notion that human terror is just as iterative as the events which precipitate them, and that, despite our intellectual or technological advancement, the synchronisation of the human record of time with the cosmos, serves as a reminder of our own internal disjunction in the face of rational events which we are still not fully capable of rationalizing.

Further reading: Annie Dillard’s essay, Total Eclipse, can be read online. For Cicero’s On the Consulship, see Ewbank (1933 repr. 1997) The Poems of Cicero, for the Latin and a commentary (no translation). We owe the survival of this 78 line fragment to its embedding in Cicero’s On Divination; see the commentaries of Pease (1955) and Wardle (2006).