Text of a keynote lecture given at the USC grad colloquium, “Fragmentation and Restoration in Antiquity and Beyond” (April 14th-15th 2023) . Thank you to Matteo Barbiero, Joshua Allbright, and Claire Mieher, for organizing the colloquium, and to all of the participants.
I want to begin with a recognition – and fair warning – that some of the themes in the following paper may occasionally be difficult or challenging for some to hear. As will become clear in due course: I have an increased interest in investigating how the concept of the “fragment” relates to broader processes of knowledge, but also to human life and therefore also to violence, decay, loss, and grief. While the majority of this paper takes the form of familiar critiques of philological discourses – and their tendency, in some ways, to trivialize via literalizing processes – there will also be some rawness relating both to bodily perception as well as to several kinds of epistemic and physical injustice. To be explicit and let you know what’s coming: there will be brief discussion of cultural chauvinism (especially Islamophobia), references to incomplete body with resonances of bodily harm in relation to the Venus de Milo, as well as brief mentions of sexual assault in Roman comedy.
It was about a decade ago that I here – at USC, in Los Angeles – started on my journey with fragments (and at that time, I would have called myself a Ciceronian; maybe, maybe I am now beginning to think of myself as a “fragmentologist” – although I often feel that being a quote unquote “expert” in fragments is like being an expert in nothing; or else that I am willingly entering a kind of void within which I can practice conscious untethering). And, as far as statements of preface go, I do here wish to underscore the fact of feeling as a structural and ultimately generative component to fragmentology – and, indeed, feeling/affect/desire (synonyms but also not-synonyms for “sympathy” in the broadest sense) will, again, broadly (but in multiple modalities) be the content of this keynote today, which I have so frustratingly entitled: “Sympathy for fragments?” Essentially, what happened to me was that I naively entered into a project to study the hundreds of fragments of Latin (and Greek) poetry contained, constructed, and transmitted by the Ciceronian corpus, and emerged from that project with an appetite to understand the fragment as a concept and as (again) a structural feature not only of human text but also of human life.
For what we call the “fragment” – and what we identify as the processes of “fragmentation” – find their meaning in the context of their use. (Of course.) Within the disciplinary discourses of classics and classical philology, the “fragment” has developed into a rather narrow (yet at the same time, as we shall see, rather mobile) terminological function. Here, we find a certain kind of literalness: the “fragment” (from Latin frangere, “to break”) is the “broken thing.” While it has become a trope of disciplinary discourse to identify this etymology (one which I myself also indulge in), it is so often repeated precisely because it is still meaningful to begin here: to begin with an understanding that what we call “fragment” or “fragmentum” is something that we not only characterize as “broken,” but that we also use faux- or pseudo-classical language – i.e. adopt a Latin term as an assertion of continuity – to describe the phenomenon that we are in the very act of constructing.
Yes, fragmentum is indeed a Latin word. Yes, it appears in texts from classical antiquity. In the Pro Sestio (79), for instance, Cicero reports that sometime in early 57 BCE Publius Sestius as tribune was attacked by members of Clodius’ gang in the Temple of Castor: “some attacked with swords, others attacked with fragmenta saeptorum,” i.e. “torn” or “broken off pieces of the fence.” Elsewhere, in the De Natura Deorum (2.82), Cicero’s Stoic speaker refers to the earth as a product of intellectual design and not “merely” an inert “clod of dirt” (glaeba) or “lump of stone” (fragmentum lapidis). In each case, Cicero asserts that the “broken thing” is conceptually a “bit” of irrational matter – and other Latin authors write similarly: Livy uses fragmentum to denote broken tree branches (23.24.10), blunted spear tips (32.17.14), and shards of roof tile (34.39.11); essentially products of various moments of collision and destruction.
Despite its apparently ancient pedigree, the term “fragmentum” is one which emerged as a historical concept during later periods of intense intellectual interest in classical antiquity – as a result, the “fragment” is fundamentally a scholarly invention. As Glenn Most (2009: 11) argued, the “metaphor [of the “fragment”] seems not to have been invented until relatively modern times” even though “its foundation was partly laid in antiquity.” That is, even though the word fragmentum appears in antiquity – the idea of the “fragment” (developed out of an interpretation of this ancient term) is fundamentally a modern one. The “invention of the fragment” as a concept is, in my view, well captured by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2003: 2) – writing in conversation with Glenn Most and others – in his definition of one of the “powers of philology”:
“philological practice has an affinity with those historical periods that see themselves as following a greater cultural moment, a moment whose culture they deem to be more important than the cultural present”
In Gumbrecht’s conceptualization of philology we see that two points in time are needed as well as an apprehension of relative cultural value: an earlier time of high (indeed “greater”) value, and a later time during which there is an interest in deferential looking backwards. As with all discursive problems, the issue is one of perception as well as rhetoric: philological and fragmentological discourses (to the extent that these have even been distinct modes of inquiry so far) arise during – to quote Gumbrecht again – “those historical periods that see themselves as following a greater cultural moment” which “they deem to be more important.” The idea that the earlier time is a better one is – I put to you – not, in fact, naturally the case, but philological consciousness develops when it is asserted – i.e. thought of and said – that precursor cultures are inherently or innately better than the latecomer-cultures that receive (or perceive) them.
Putting aside very briefly the question of value, this definition of “philology” as an interrelationship between two points, one prior and one self-consciously “latent,” is still to some degree preferable to the narrowness of limiting the legitimacy of philological inquiry to the “successful” application of a particular set of mechanical tools. For instance, James Zetzel (2018: 3), adducing Sheldon Pollock’s (2015: 22) definition of “philology” as “the discipline of making sense of texts” in fact goes on to assert a history of philology in relation to the ideal of textual correction. Zetzel (2018: 22) writes, for instance:
“Whatever ‘editing’ [scare quotes] Lampadio (or Stilo or Varro, for that matter) did, it was not textual criticism as we understand it.”
The early history of Roman philology is here exemplified by Gaius Octavius Lampadio, who reportedly divided Naevius’ Bellum Punicum into seven books (Suet. Gramm. 2); L. Aelius Stilo (the “Pen”), Stoic and teacher of both Cicero and Varro in cultural-historical, philosophical, and textual matters (Cic. Brut. 205-206, Ac. 1.8; cf. Čulík-Baird 2022: 156-157); and indeed, Varro (often termed the “Roman Polymath”) himself. But the history is narrativized as one of deficit shaped by the establishment of a modern ideal; an interesting example of ancients failing to meet the standards supposedly originating with them but rather imposed upon them by modern subjects still seeking some form of continuity. By speaking here (in a rather extended tangent and parenthesis) upon the relationship between philology and fragmentology (again: not really distinct in the discipline – at least not yet), I am repeatedly stumbling upon the fact that we unreflectively use terms derived from antiquity to describe and enact modern discursive positions (from Cicero’s or Livy’s detritus of fragmenta to Plato’s use of “philology” or “philologist” (φιλολογία, φιλόλογος = Tht. 146a, Phdr. 236e) to mean the “love” and the “lover of argument”). In fact, even a brief and non-linear cultural history of such terms serves to verify Gumbrecht’s argument – that philology appears as a form of interrelativity between two historical points.
Early instances of the term fragmentum (on its way to the meaning of “fragment” as we now use it within the discipline) speak to an essential ambiguity of the term, an ambiguity which captures some of the essential mobility and instability of the fragment itself. For Petrarch (1304-1374), fragmentum did not mean the excerpt of text which had become dislodged from the rest of its body, but instead evoked imagination – in fact, more than imagination, but nostalgic longing and desire – in the face of loss. As Anna Carlotta Dionisotti (1997: 16-17) discussed (and this is her translation), Petrarch describes the ruins of Rome as fragmenta (Fam. 6.2):
et euntibus per moenia fractae urbis et illic sedentibus, ruinarum fragmenta sub oculis erant. quid ergo? multus de historiis sermo erat.
And as we walked around the walls of the broken city and sat there, the fragments of its ruins (ruinarum fragmenta) were before our eyes. So, of course, we talked long of its past.
In the 16th century, Alessandro Guarino reported that he had seen a “large fragment” after line 10 in Catullus poem 2 in an “ancient manuscript” (in codice antiquissimo), leading some to believe that he had seen Catullan verse which had since vanished. But – as Michael Reeve (1996: 22) noted – Guarino’s ingens fragmentum meant “a large gap” not “a large piece of text.” It is precisely this kind of vanishing act which Maurice Blanchot in The Writing of the Disaster (1995: 60) ascribed to the fragment, with its tendency “to dissolve the totality which it presupposes” as well as “to maintain itself as the energy of disappearing.”
The nature of the fragment as both emergent as well as absent notwithstanding – it was in the 16th century that the term “fragmentum” began to be used in collections of excerpts (i.e. quotations) mined out from citing sources. Anna Carlotta Dionisotti (1997: 24) suggests that one of the first editions of “fragments” preserved exclusively by quotation may have been Carlo Sigonio’s Fragmenta Ciceronis (ed. 1 = 1559), which collected ostensible pieces of the Ciceronian corpus not transmitted by independent manuscript traditions but instead by a variety of excerpting sources. (And this is an interesting case, too, because Sigonio collected “pieces” of Cicero’s De Republica – not knowing that more of it would emerge in Angelo Mai’s discovery of the Vatican palimpsest [Vat. Lat. 5757] in 1819).
At any rate, the term fragmentum as a definition for bona fide remnants of ancient texts was regularized in the 16th century and would find repeated use through the 19th century within the philological discourses of German romanticism, at which point it solidified into the scholarly terminology which still sees regular use today.
(In addition to fragmentum, the Latin term reliquiae was also used – e.g. Johannes Vahlen’s Ennianae Poesis Reliquiae (ed. 1: 1854); or Hermann Peters’ Historicorum Romanorum Reliquiae (vol. 1., ed. 1: 1870); reliquiae being a Latin word which means “remains,” but also, in ancient Rome, referred to more mundane and morbid “leavings,” such as table scraps, the remains of human bones post cremation, as well as excrement and “the (unconsumed) remains of the flesh of a sacrifice” (as reported by Lewis & Short) – in essence: guts, gore, and an unfinished meal scattered around conceptually as if upon the asarotos oikos, the “unswept floor.”)
When the term “fragment” is used in contemporary scholarship – that is, today (okay – let’s say within the last decade) – it can come with some self-reflection even while assenting to the premise or rhetoric of fragmentation. For instance, in the general introduction to the massive (the usual word is “monumental”) three-volume, multi-authored 2013 edition – The Fragments of the Roman Historians – issued under the general editorship of Timothy Cornell, the first words of the introduction perform a brief and refreshing moment of disavowal (p3):
“Only a handful of works on the history of Rome by Romans survive for us to read, as against more than a hundred attested writers whose works are lost. These are known to us only through citations and references in later authors. By a generally accepted scholarly convention the citations are known as “fragments,” some preserved in the form of direct quotations, but many paraphrases of what the original author wrote.”
Such circumspection quite naturally arises in a volume collecting historical (or rather, historiographical) fragments which honestly might be the most difficult kind of fragmentary genre. It’s either history or oratory. (Poetry at least has metrical structure – and that does keep the bits together in a more agglutinative form.) At stake here is the vexed issue of the difference between fragment and testimonium – we can talk about it, but let’s set it aside for now. The editors here say: we understand that this is a construct, but we’re using it as short hand – as well as a nod to the history of editing that we see ourselves as part of. Likewise, every introduction to oratorical fragments must unpack the difficulty of conceptualizing fragments of speech which originally took the form of an ephemeral utterance regardless of the formality of the immediate oratorical context. Gesine Manuwald (2019: xx) in the general introduction to the Fragmentary Republican Latin Loeb (Vol. 3: Oratory, Part 1) also wrote of fragments in scare quotes:
“Editing the ‘fragments’ of Roman Republican oratory is in many ways more complex than editing some of the other writers or literary genres represented in Fragmentary Republican Latin (FRL). In addition to the standard difficulties created by any fragmentary corpus (for instance, problems of transmission and attribution), the task of presenting the remains of Roman Republican oratory is confronted from the start with the essential and difficult question of whom and what to include or not to include.”
There can be an intense – some might even say, absurd – degree of precision involved in the curatorship of fragmentary editions. I defer here to one of my precursors at UCLA, Sander Goldberg in his 2013 review of the 2012 volume of the new Tragicorum Romanorum Fragmenta, edited by Markus Schauer:
“Readers experienced enough to extract that crucial information from the apparatus are clearly the target audience for TrRF, and so it may be unfair—but remains nonetheless inevitable—to wonder whether so meticulous a presentation of all these scholarly thickets is an act of great generosity or arrant pedantry.”
(In the end, he actually lands upon the former:
“When faced with a scholarly record on this order of complexity, there is much to be said for the thoroughness we sometimes call pedantry, and while this volume may on occasion make us gasp or sigh, it will continuously and rightfully earn our respect and our thanks.”)
(And remember that I began today saying that there is something fundamentally emotional about fragmentology – an edition might so affecting so as to provoke gasps or sighs! But there more emotions ahead.) In our relationship with what we have invented as the “fragment,” we might (possibly) be approaching a critical mass of deconstructive discourse – one which would fundamentally be preparatory for answering the question of what even we ought to be doing with these fragments now that we’ve found them. (Unless, of course, it is simply enough for the discipline to produce, revise – and continuously iterate – editions of fragments. Which…)
To the extent that the emergence of the “fragment” as a concept from the 16th to 19th centuries (and thereafter) has formed an object of study in its own right, such interest appears as part of a broad and often euphemistic assertion of the history of quote unquote “European” identity. In her 2022 contribution to the Res Difficiles conference series (which I – alongside Joseph Romero – annually co-organize), Chella Ward noted, for instance, that the much-celebrated 2010 volume – The Classical Tradition – edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn Most, and Salvatore Settis, laid out the mission of the book as an investment in an exclusive classicism. (This next part will touch briefly upon Islamophobia in connection to other exclusionary discourses.)
They – Grafton, Most, Settis – write (2010: vii):
“Understandings and misunderstandings of ancient Greek and Roman literature, philosophy, art, architecture, history, politics, religion, science and public and private life have shaped the cultures of medieval and modern Europe and of the nations that derived from them – and they have helped to shape other cultural traditions as well, Jewish, Islamic, and Slavic, to name only these. Every domain of post-classical life and thought has been profoundly influenced by ancient models.”
Upon this statement, Ward comments:
“These short lines attempt to pass as neutral a number of assumptions that are deeply ideological. The list of later cultures ‘classical Graeco-Roman antiquity in all its dimensions’ has shaped masquerades as a neutral description of classical influence – but in fact amounts to a carefully curated exclusion of ‘Jewish, Islamic and Slavic’ cultures from the most classically proximate group, ‘the cultures of medieval and modern Europe and of the nations that derived from them.’ To take only what Grafton, Most and Settis call ‘Islamic…cultures’ as a representative example, it is clear that their exclusion of Muslims from Europeanness in the world narrative they construct here is an Islamophobic fiction. There are multiple Muslim-majority countries in Europe and about 44 million Muslims; Islam has never been ‘other’ to Europe, except in Islamophobic and more broadly orientalising and racist discourses (nor has it, for that matter, been any less proximate to the texts and artefacts of ancient Greece and Rome).”
Given that what we call the fragment relates not only to textual partiality and – in many cases (for instance) verbal processes of enclosure (i.e. texts quoting other texts, or more broadly, speech acts quoting other speech acts) – this phenomenon is a feature of almost all human expression – globally, planetarily – and is not limited to the formations of canonicity and curation applied with such care to ancient Greece and Rome. To build upon the vector of Chella Ward’s critique: it might regularly be commented, for instance, that Islamic scholarship played a role in the preservation of Aristotelian philosophy (instantiating an example of “fragmentation” – which, after all, regularly entails translation), but there is also a broader and more important point: namely, the fact that Islamic cultures instantiate their own forms of classicism and fragmentation notwithstanding their interrelativity with what has been called the classical world or the classical fragment.
Essentially, in beginning to frame our relationship with what is called the “fragment” within global contexts and intellectual histories – outside of (principally) what I would term an oversympathetic rhetoric of loss, I follow Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s (2022) assertion in “Classicism and Other Phobias” (a lecture series which he presented at Harvard’s Hutchins Center last spring, part of which he also delivered at UCLA Classics last week):
“the discipline of classics as it comes to life in the racializing, imperializing, and settler colonialist settings of the early modern and modern Euro-Americas becomes overrepresented as the dominant and in time the only mode of classicism.”
In regards to the fragment itself, seeing that it emerges out of these “European” (and later “Euro-American”) discourses, the history of its development as a concept as – to use Alexis Shotwell’s (2016: 14) language – “coproduc[ing] the age of colonialism” still remains to be written. To speak more plainly: it is not an accident that the concept of the fragment emerged and solidified during a period of accelerating colonial accumulation hand-in-hand with what, in relation to the collections of ancient imperial archives, Dan-el Padilla Peralta (2020: 157) had previously termed the “warehousing of knowledge” as the “deracination” of knowledge. In anticipation of what might be said on this topic in the future (whether by me or someone else) minimally we may say for now that the mining out and isolation of fragments from textual “wholes” in order to exert control and order over an unruly and organic mass of textuality emerged at the same time that such imperial controls reorganized and tabulated the world as a colonial project. Since at least Hayden White’s (1987: 8-9) study of chronicles (“lists”) as a form of narrative which assert their own significance, we should be able to understand that the representation of knowledge even in formal terms – i.e. the fragment as form as it appears on the page – always makes an argument of some kind.
Indeed, if I were to be more explicit about the nature of my objection (if that is the right word) to the premise of fragmentary editions — then and now — my complaint would address the decontextualizing nature of the fragment within blank, white space. (Although I am far from the first person to notice, comment, or indeed act upon it: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2003: 7) identified a “geometrical dimension [to fragmentary editions], that is, the empty margins around the text”; Anne Carson (1992: 12) noted how scholars used typography to represent uncertainty regarding the text of Simonides as transmitted by Plato’s Protagoras; and Henry Jocelyn (1967, repr. 1969) is a famous gold standard in fragment editing for his representation of plenitude in his edition of Ennian tragedy.)
For however the fragment is made, it is made by a material holding – and the concept of breakage is to some extent, indeed, to a great extent merely conceptual. Because what we call fragmentary is always in dialogue with something else – not the “original,” no (not in a literalist sense, anyway) but also not with nothing either. In fact, we are the ones who are breaking the fragment. We are the ones who are making the fragment speak to nothing. Even in the case of an inscription or papyrus, there is materiality: substance of stone or paper in addition to earth (and when broken objects are found — they are still found in relation to other objects within archaeological assemblages, as well as in relation to soil and landscape); in the case of fragments made through quotation, there is a textual embrace (cf. Čulík-Baird 2022: 20). The tradition of separating fragment from its frame (much like the contextual void of specimens and artefacts within museum spaces behind panes of glass) is a method of divorce (wheat from chaff) that has a hierarchical function and asserts a possibility of unmediated access.
There is deep desire here – one that has a mentality of purity. It is a desire for something not as it is – and not as it was, either, but as it could be. We operate here under a metaphysical presumption that piecing together remnants might actually restore something (it conjures some kind of presence, to be sure, but is that restoration?), while that practice of bricolage tends to ignore the contextual plenitudes which bring us the pieces we so admire. Who cares about Cicero, or Aulus Gellius, Plutarch, Athenaeus – or, god forbid, Lactantius??? – when we’ve got mining to do. Yes, Gumbrecht defined philological longing as a relationship between two chronological points – but the classical tradition, mediated as it is through successive quotations of quotations of quotations filtering things in and out and in again (and out again), cannot sustain the conceptualization of a merely binary relationship. Latency is built into paths of transmission – bits and pieces appear downstream. Friends, this is not something to lament. It is simply the way of things.
But despite what they say – there is nobility in latency. In fact, in latency there is evidence of a continued connection; to some degree, the concept of the fragment is a direct attempt to sever the very connection we have: to sever the relationships between ancient texts out of a perception that one is more important than another. At the same time, one of the lessons that processes of fragmentation can teach us – and this point is one which I take to be a very serious one – is that we, human beings as well as the cultures we make, do not last forever. Our monuments ask for immortality – Sappho fr. 147 says: “someone will remember us in the future” (incidentally, this piece is transmitted by Dio Chrysostom 37.47) – and so far, she’s right, at least in that we remember the words and the sentiment: we aren’t capable of knowing and therefore remembering “us.” While text might be presence, it is not – I think – life. So when we look to what we call fragments, what we are seeing underneath it all is a natural process of decay, not just a process of loss around which to form a rhetoric of desire. We do lament that we have “lost” this text or that text (my rule, by the way, is starting to be: if you can quote from it, it’s not “lost”) – but: I wonder if there’s something important in realizing that we were never going to be able to hold onto everything. And, again, there is nobility in decay. The theory of the “survival of the fittest” is just a theory – and there is no fatedness to the fragment.
At its core, the fragmentological problem is also a problem of ego, or maybe more the heart – which is where (and we’re this far in now) the “sympathy” comes in. Page duBois (1995: 34) in her critique of Peter Fuller’s 1980 essay on the Venus de Milo (“The Venus and ‘Internal Objects’”) starts to get at this issue. In her engagement with Fuller, she writes that: “Fuller seems to believe…in the transparency of the [Venus de Milo] and to want to make a claim for our unmediated access to it.” She remarks upon his belief that the Venus in its present state relates an “apparent aesthetic superiority” over its “original.” Via its incomplete nature, the statue also “encourages us to complete it internally.” Finally, there is something of the fragmentation which invites the viewer to identify with it.
Without getting overburdened by (or indeed, assenting to) the weight of psychoanalysis (or its vocabulary – which here does posit the question of bodily harm), there are at least three things that I would remark upon. Firstly, there is the belief that the fragment is aesthetically pleasing or otherwise attractive precisely because it is “broken”/partial/incomplete. This theory for sure bears out elsewhere in the phenomenon known as the “touch of Sappho” – which Nora Goldschmidt (2012: 2) has also identified in the historical attitude to Ennius (the “touch of Ennius”):
“like the ‘touch of Sappho’ in Victorian England, Ennius exerts a fascination that exceeds that which he would have generated had his text survived complete.”
There is something, then, about this partiality and lack which, in fact, increases desire. We want what we can’t have. Secondly, there is the belief that the “broken”/partial/incomplete object demands completion, and not through physical restoration in this case but via a process of internal completion which entails (in the psychoanalytic terms of Melanie Klein) “internal objects,” i.e. a mental or emotional image of an external object that has been brought inside the self. Through this process, the observer casts their own idealized image onto the fragmentary object – in this case, an idealizing completion of the idealized representation of the feminized human body. An idea of what the human body ought to be like is postulated by the fragmentary object as well as by the observer. Again, without assenting to the premise of psychoanalysis, we can nonetheless note that such a process had been captured by Anne Carson’s theory of readership and desire in Eros the Bittersweet (1985: 145):
“As a lover you want ice to be ice and yet not melt in your hands. As a reader you want knowledge to be knowledge and yet lie fixed on the written page. Such wants cannot help but pain you, at least in part, because…you watch the object of your desire disappear into yourself.”
What is fragmentary appears to demand some kind of stabilizing or completing intervention – but such an intervention does not necessarily, or rather, necessarily does not arise from the object itself (which is, of course, “lacking” in this way) – and instead the act of completion comes from within the observer. This is simply (or perhaps not so simply) a good explanation for the ultimately rhetorical premise of objectivity – or say, the limits of philological discourse as a scientific endeavour. While it’s often said that textual restorations are in fact quite subjective or even creative, no one can deny – as my grad students said in seminar last week – that such restorations are nonetheless asserted as acts of authority. And yet they are fundamentally sympathetic in the sense of mutually entangled between fragmentary object and fragmenting subject – they come from within the classicist or philologist as well as from the fragment itself. We recall that reliquiae sometimes means “guts” – well, our guts are in this too. Thirdly and lastly, there is the belief that the fragment is an object of desire precisely because human beings – living with a variety of existential and epistemological partialities – see themselves as fragments too. While this is the most abstract and capacious form of sympathy, it is one which ultimately drives many of us to study the ancient world in the first place. Perhaps with the belief that we will ourselves become complete that way.
And so, there is desire at the heart of the discipline. To some degree, Petrarch’s longing among the “ruins” of Rome was later echoed by Enrica Malcovati (1930: viii) whose Latin preface to the fragments of Roman oratory is here translated by another esteemed UCLA precursor, Amy Richlin (2013: 115):
… cum … ex his quamvis laceris fragmentis, eorum temporum quasi imaginem vitae exprimentibus, et plebis in comitiis fremitum et iudiciorum tumultus atque senatus disceptationum sonitum audire viderer.
…when, from these fragments that depict, no matter how tattered they may be, a sort of image of the life of their times, I seemed to hear the hubbub of the populace in their assemblies and the shouting of the courtrooms and the boom of the debates in the senate.
It’s a nice thought – that fragments open up a kind of human hum. What I like most about it, though, is the indication that reading fragments might give you a general or aggregate impression of a culture without also giving you anything particularly specific. And, of course, it is true that sustained engagement with fragmentary materials will expand everyone’s vision of antiquity beyond the overinflated dominance of the “full” canonical texts which take up most of our discursive bandwidth. But there’s more to this, I think. In general, I myself now find such sentiments – permeated with the rhetoric of loss and the sympathy for the fragment to be rather cloying. And beyond my own emotional reaction to the repeated expression of “would that we had more,” I also begin to ask myself what we are missing by epistemologically rooting our intellectual inquiry in such sympathy. For if the purpose of the fragment is simply to be found – and to be appreciated as found – then the fragment is definitionally foreclosed to an analysis of power. In particular, I am compelled by the kind of fragment that contains – and here comes some increased rawness – evidence of domination, power, or exploitation in antiquity but which is in fact sanitized by the processes of quotation which preserve it as well as by the scholarly structures which serve it.
In seeking out evidence of power in our texts – I of course take inspiration from Amy Richlin’s sustained study of enslaved subjectivities within the Plautine corpus in Slave Theater in the Roman Republic (2017). Among the fragments of Naevius’ Bellum Punicum, for instance, we find the following (and here I am excerpting from the text and translation of the 2022 Loebs by Robert Maltby and Niall Slater):
Some remarks, then (and some demonstration, at last, of fragmentological praxis – at least in the fine grain). The excerpting author Aelius Donatus (4th c. CE) commenting on Terence’s Andria (55), remarks upon the fact that the first two words are an “archaism” and adduces a line of Naevius as another example. Maltby and Slater in their note suggest that the verse – plerique omnes subiguntur sub unum iudicium, “almost all are brought under a single judgement” – is “possibly describing the outcome of a council of war or meeting of the senate.” Possibly! In cases such as these there really aren’t sure answers (and, of course, it is deeply vulnerable to write translations of fragmentary texts) – but I do have some doubts.
For one thing, the Latin verb subigo can mean something much more forceful, namely: conquer, subjugate, and subdue – and, indeed, this very verse is adduced in Lewis & Short as part of the verb’s definition of dominance. Yes, iudicium rather broadly means “judgement” – but doesn’t this comparison in Livy (36.39.3) describing the process of Roman conquest, where subigo and iudicium appear together, make a compelling case for something more violent? The Rhetorica ad Herennium (1.14), a Roman handbook designed to teach orators the basic components of their craft, quotes verses from a now unknown Latin comedy (Ribbeck inc. inc. 3-4) as an example of what not to do; orators should not repeat themselves (and: warning here of the language of sexual assault so prevalent within Roman comedy – indeed a set of verses which benefit from Amy Richlin’s vector of analysis). Text and translation is Harry Caplan’s 1954 Loeb:
The author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium is only interested in these verses of Roman comedy for their perceived oratorical fault – i.e. for the repetition: Megaram advenit, advenit Megaram; insidias fecit, insidias fecit – but, of course, has no issue with the sexual politics of the verses themselves. Insofar as this set of verses has received scholarly attention, it has either been merely to assent to the Rhetorica’s interpretation (i.e. “these verses are repetitive” – obviously, the repetition is a deliberate poetic effect!!), to speculate regarding their position in the original play, or else simply to attribute them to an “anonymous” poet (for Ribbeck this concept was denoted by incerta incertorum).
Lastly, we might look to Cicero, who transmits not only fragments of poetry but fragments of his own oratorical corpus. In the Orator (232), Cicero quotes from his own Pro Cornelio – the defense of C. Cornelius, tribune of 67 BCE – in order to execute a rhythmic analysis. That the actual content of (what now constitutes) the oratorical fragment matters less than its technical execution is not only argued by Cicero in his self-citation and analysis, but by, for instance, the Loeb (Hendrickson and Hubbell 1938), who put their translation in a footnote – privileging the rhythmic information with their own annotation. The fragment says (Loeb translation):
Since Ciceronian oratory as hegemonic text is replete with rhetoric of civilizationialism – the full effect of this statement might fly under the radar for many, but it’s not neutral. Orientalizing contrast between stalwart but ultimately corruptible ancestors and outside forces from Syria and Egypt capable of their moral destruction asserts a position of Roman power in relation to the rest of the mediterranean via the potency of ethnic or, indeed, racial stereotyping. And this example is particularly sharp: this is the only extant use in the Ciceronian corpus of the Latin word eunuchus – which, at the minimum, asserts and constructs a dominant sexual morality of idealized Roman masculinity against an orientalist trope.
Via this brief examination of Latin fragments – their transmission but also their scholarly curation – we start to get a sense of how limited our tools are when it comes to understanding ancient texts as archives of power. In reframing the textual evidence of antiquity as an “archive,” I of course here follow Saidiya Hartman, whose influential Scenes of Subjection (originally published in 1997) was reissued last year. She writes (2022: 13):
“I attend to the cultivated silence, exclusions, and forms of violence and domination that engender the official accounts and listen for other sounds, the ways of knowing disguised as jargon and non-sense. The documents, fragments, and accounts considered here, although retrieved for purposes divergent from those for which they were gathered, nonetheless remain entangled with the violence of racial slavery and its afterlife.”
In identifying that her reading of the archive is motivated by a purpose “divergent from those from which they were gathered,” Hartman shows that we do not have to – indeed, in many cases should not – simply assent to the rhetoric of the texts we study, and, in fact, that to do so is to become complicit with the politics of the text. Within the discipline of classics, Emily Greenwood (2022: 353) – in the “Special Issue: Diversifying Philology, Vol. 1” of the American Journal of Philology, which she also edited – warns classicists and philologists not to be merely stenographers of the texts:
“As philologists we are not stenographers taking down what is in the texts; instead, we should think of ourselves as doing language.”
With “doing language” a citation of Toni Morrison’s (2019: 106, citing her 1993 Nobel Lecture) own exhortation: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” Instead, classicists as “philologists” are trapped in the cycles of influence of influence, rhetoric of rhetoric – and within this closed system of sacralization any critique or attempt to leave complicity with the ancient source is framed as an inflammatory call to “burn it down.” It was under the stenographer’s impulse that Enrica Malcovati gathered and examined the fragments of Roman orators and became moved at the emergent hum of their voices – but the pleasure of that resurfacing presence, as well as sympathy for its persistence, to some extent numbs the senses to the broader histories – often archives of pain – which still remain to be told. By virtue of the metaphysical implications of restoration as internal completion, or of mirroring personal experience in perceptions of fragmentation, our guts are now all tied up in the ancient reliquiae. But I put it to you that this kind of mutual entanglement does place us in a challenging position in relation to our deeper understanding of antiquity – one which goes beyond pleasure or sympathy and towards a holistic apprehension of broader structural processes written in the archives of power. THANK YOU