Twitter for Classicists

In December 2016, a post appeared on the Society for Classical Studies’ blog, co-authored by myself and Dr. Hamish Cameron (@peregrinekiwi), on how to live tweet academic conferences (such as the annual meeting of the SCS) and why you might want to do so. I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect here on what I find so important and valuable about academic twitter more broadly.


The ‘twitter’ of ancient birds was associated with speech; 7th c. BCE Etruscan inkwell inscribed with the 26 letters of the Etruscan alphabet (The Met).

Every now and then an opinion piece appears online in which an academic denigrates the use of social media by other scholars. One of these pieces, which appeared in the Guardian in August 2016 – “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer” – used the unfortunate phrase “serious academic” (as in, I am a “serious academic” and therefore do not use social media), sparking the #seriousacademic hashtag on twitter, where the idea that engaging with the internet is somehow against the academic creed was immediately undercut and lampooned. (The #seriousacademic hashtag is still alive and well, by the way, still being used to publicize the joy and humour of scholars on twitter.) The most recent attack – “Quit Social Media – Your Career May Depend on It” – appeared online with the New York Times in mid November 2016. Not only did I see this piece make the rounds on twitter, it was, the next day, advertised to me on facebook (which seems like a conflict of interest for facebook). One of the arguments of this second piece is that social media services such as twitter limit your productivity.

But productivity is not the only metric by which to measure the success of your intellectual life. And “productive” intellectual life is one which is enriched by many voices. A life in which you listen as much as you broadcast. One of the aspects of twitter which has become most important to me is that it provides incitements towards plurality of perspective, and enticements towards empathy. Twitter’s strength is that it’s as much about listening as it is about speaking – as much about conversation as it is about lecture. I follow a lot of professional accounts of academics who are women, people of colour, and/or part of the LGBTQ+ community. These are the kinds of scholars – and people – who have historically been marginalized in the academic environment as well as in the world at large, but whose strength of voice has now helped to lead the humanities in more vibrant, diverse, and interesting directions than ever. One of the sentences in “Quit Social Media” reads: “Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated.” For many academics, professional success is hard and it is complicated. And it’s not a coincidence that the scholars who have historically been out of place in traditional contexts have found a home on social media. 

The internet is not a material world in the traditional sense – it’s a world of ideas, of information, of communication. The internet is increasingly where we store, organize, and discover our knowledge. We learn more about our “real” world than ever from the internet – from news outlets, from social media. And post-election, many of us are beginning to distrust news outlets, which feel monolithic, sluggish, uncritical in the face of the right wing’s ascent. The problematic state of public knowledge has reached new heights recently. On the one hand, we’ve seen the proliferation of fake news, with especially facebook’s failure to curb its spread. Hand in hand with the rise of disinformation: a rise in the inability to critically discern truth from falsehood. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article detailing a study from Stanford University which revealed that school-age students in the US have a hard time distinguishing good news sources from bad, real from fake. (One of the causes put forward by WSJ is the modern dearth of school librarians, who used to teach pupils source criticism.) On the other hand, we’ve seen a fear of experts arise in both the UK and the US, a dread of institutional authorities. The result: widespread belief in the untrue and distrust in the ostensible guardians of truth. A state of affairs which contributed to the two disastrous votes of 2016: Brexit in June and the American presidential election in November. I was in Glasgow, Manchester, Dublin in the days before and after Brexit; I was in Los Angeles when the presidential election happened – and it was twitter that helped me start to make any possible sense of these events. 

In this age of disinformation, the skills of criticism which are fundamental to academic work seem more important than ever. The current political climate in the west has seen a rupture between public and private knowledge. The internet is a wide, big place. Universities, on the other hand, are closed spaces. Academic thought is often proprietary. There are barriers that keep knowledge within walls, within heads, within books. Who gets to know things? Who gets to exert the authority of knowledge? How and when does expertise matter? These are political questions now. And the internet is the site of this struggle of different kinds of knowledge. In this context, being an academic on twitter becomes less about managing a personal brand – or “cultural shallowness” (“Quit Social Media”) –  and more about ethics. In a world where critical thought is needed more than ever, scholars should be part of the conversation. And the conversation is happening on social media. I’m not saying that we’re the only ones who should be doing this. But what I am saying is that, given the often lifelong commitments to research, to teaching, and to mentorship that are part of our profession – why are we not already part of the conversation?  

Whenever I teach – especially large GE classes, where there are up to 200 students, most of whom aren’t Classics majors or minors – I think about how I can be a role model for young women. When I started teaching, I was in my early twenties – barely older than some of my students. It was important to me then, and it’s important to me now, that young women – and men – get to see women engaged in intellectual and cultural work. Twitter is an extension of this for me – it’s a question of representation. Performing my identity as a woman and an academic, engaging with technology, engaging with an audience, being heard, being willing to listen – these, for me, are part of being a positive role model. This is important to me. Probably because I myself have always been looking for role models. I’ve been in educational environments which defaulted to the masculine. I’ve been told, at different institutions, as an undergraduate and a graduate student, to “write like a man” (!; L’ecriture feminine, anyone?).  I want to demonstrate that intellectual and creative authority is not situated in masculinity, but in dedication, passion. Twitter is one of the venues where breaking past traditional models feels closer to possibility. 

In the modern era, Classics has been fixated with the question of its “relevance”. Classics’ anxiety over communicating its relevance has been part of my experience as a classicist from the beginning. The word “relevance” has been repeated so much, that it seems to lose its meaning, to itself lose its relevance. What the question of relevance has asked of Classics is whether the field is capable of demonstrating its value in a world which does not find the value of classical education self-evident. As we change and as we grow more inclusive, we see different things in the ancient world. Different aspects of the ancient world become more important to us. Technology opens new doors (Homeric scholarship may itself be thousands of years old, but think about how new the field of papyrology is.) There’s nothing irrelevant about the study of language, art, literature, culture, history. Demonstrating and representing pluralism is not irrelevant in the face of political, social, intellectual monoliths.  What makes it harder to see the value of Classics is the decision to close off a world of learning from a broader audience. And this is where taking steps to make your knowledge public becomes ethical action. 

On twitter, I follow lots of different kinds of people. Academics from different fields, facing similar questions, using similar methodology, show me how elements of my own work run through other areas of the humanities. I’m also exposed to different questions, different methodologies. I follow classicists, medievalists, sociologists, linguists, scholars of digital humanities, librarians, archivists, etc.; I follow writers I respect from inside and outside academia. I follow accounts from all over the world – I get a sense of which issues are important in many locations, which issues are more important in specific countries. I’m from the UK but I’ve lived in the US for a number of years now; on twitter I can live in a globalized world that understands this kind of cultural straddling. And part of what twitter has encouraged in me is an embrace of all the elements of my identity that add up to the totality of being a scholar, including more personal and subjective experiences. Some of my tweets are strictly about my research (since I work on literary fragments, I especially revel in publicizing understudied material). Many of my tweets, though, are about what my life is like as an academic – my daily routines, my professional successes, sometimes even my setbacks. Other academics on twitter respond strongly to this – there’s a warm scholarly community on twitter ready to commiserate and congratulate. 


Known works of early Roman playwrights (3rd – 1st c. BCE)

Terence’s Andria – Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal MS 644 – 15th c.
Literary fragments are not easy to access, and are often difficult to make much sense of. But for those who are interested in Roman Republican literature, the majority of the works of which we know are fragmentary. In this blog post I list the known titles of the following Roman playwrights from the 3rd to 1st centuries BCE: Livius Andronicus, Gnaeus Naevius, Plautus, Caecilius Statius, Quintus Ennius, Marcus Pacuvius, Terence, Lucius Accius, Trabea, Atilius, Sextus Turpilius, Titinius, Lucius Afranius, T. Quinctius Atta.

If I give no English equivalent for a title, the title is the name of a character in a play (e.g. Andromacha = “Andromacha”, like “Hamlet”), or sometimes a place (Naevius’ Clastidium, named after the victory over the Celts at Clastidium by M. Marcellus in 222 B.C.E).

Lucius Livius Andronicus
3rd century BCE; b. 290?

Tarentum Pleiades
source: Pleiades Project

Odusia, “Odyssey,” in Saturnians. Latin translation of the Odyssey. Warmington II:24-43.

Titles of Livius Andronicus’ tragedies (10 or 11?): Achilles, Aegisthus, Ajax Mastigophorus (“Ajax the Whip-Bearer”), Andromeda, Danae, Equos Troianus (“Trojan Horse”), Hermiona, Ino, TereusTeucer (Varro LL 7.2). Warmington II:2-21. Schauer 2012.

Titles of Livius Andronicus’ comedies: Gladiolus (“The Dagger”), Ludius (“The Gamester”). Warmington II:20-21.

Continue reading “Known works of early Roman playwrights (3rd – 1st c. BCE)”

Looking at Ciceronian papyri in the John Rylands

When most people think of Cicero, they picture him speaking – standing in the open air forum of Rome, or within the closed temple of a senate meeting. When I think of Cicero, I think of him in the library with his books – both reading and writing. In other areas of the humanities, you can read the very words which were written by a certain historical figure in his or her own hand. I recently noticed that my home institution, the University of Southern California, has digitized some of the correspondence of Voltaire, including letters to and from Frederick the Great, King of Prussia from 1740-1786. The Bodleian library has digitized Mary Shelley’s draft of Frankenstein, written in her own hand with edits and revisions in notebooks from 1816.

Although we are lucky to have an incredibly large body of extant works for Cicero, our earliest texts come from manuscripts of a much later period, and we have no equivalent of – for example – the autograph letters of Voltaire. And so, unable to see our sources in their original materiality, for a long time Classicists have approached texts in a disembodied form. Recently there has been a real push towards considering ancient literature in the context of the cultures of book-making and reading, with the rise of papyrology as a discipline contributing substantially to this research.

One of the issues that we face when we want to look at manuscripts and papyri containing ancient texts is the fact that the originals are kept in all sorts of institutions all over the world, each with different policies concerning access and digitization. In order to even know where these things are takes a bit of effort, honestly. Papyrologists are usually excellent about cataloguing and sharing information, and have many online databases that help you find things. For literary papyri, you can use the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (although this also includes parchment) and Cedopal. There are Cicero papyri in at least Durham (North Carolina), Vienna, Florence, Cologne, London, Manchester, and Giessen. With such a state of affairs, digitization becomes increasingly important, although, as we shall shortly see, it comes with its own complications. Consulting a transcription of the papyrus without seeing an image is not really enough – this became clear to me when I looked at the marginalia of one of the Rylands papyri, which are hard to transcribe in a way which shows where exactly the text appears on the page. Looking at transcriptions, such as the following from Cavenaile’s Corpus Papyrorum Latinarum (CPL), gives you a very disembodied sense of what the papyri look like:

P Ryl 1.61 Cavenaile PRL p74
Transcription of Ciceronian papyrus P. Ryl. 1.61 in Cavenaile CPL p74. The full pdf of Cavenaile can be accessed online here.

Almost all of the Ciceronian papyri come from significantly later than his own lifetime (106-43 BCE). We’re dealing with Ciceronian texts which were used in contexts and formats subsequent to late Republican usage. The majority come from the 4th and 5th c. CE, with one (in Giessen) coming from the 1st c. CE. The two papyri which I saw are dated to the 5th c. CE – P. Ryl. 1.61, a Latin to Greek vocabulary list which corresponds to In Catilinam 2.14-15, and P. Ryl. 3.477, containing Divinatio in Caecilium 34-37, 44-46 with both Greek and Latin marginal comments on the text. Both of these papyri came from Egypt, and both were codices rather than book rolls. All of the extant Cicero papyri are oratorical, with many containing the Catilinarians and the Verrines; all of the Ciceronian papyri contain works which are more fully represented in medieval manuscripts. P. Ryl. 1.61 was used by a Greek speaker who was learning Latin with Cicero’s Catilinarians; P. Ryl. 3.477 was used by someone interested in the legal issues underlying Cicero’s case against Verres. P. Ryl. 3.477 contains the longest extant marginal note on papyrus (McNamee). The Cicero papyri are also of interest to us since they demonstrate bilingualism by inhabitants of the Empire during Late Antiquity; we get the sense that even in 5th c. CE Egypt, there was something of value in Latin for non-Romans (Sánchez-Ostiz).


The John Rylands Library in Manchester contains a number of important ancient materials, including a Greek papyrus fragment from the Gospel of John (pictured above). The library was founded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her husband John Rylands. My guide at the library told me that on International Women’s Day, all of the male statues in the historic reading room (also pictured) were covered over with the statue of Enriqueta remaining visible in order to highlight her agency in creating an imposing intellectual space.


Greek papyrus 61 John Rylands Cicero In Catilinam vocab list papyrus codex verso
P. Ryl. 1.61 containing a Greek-Latin vocab list to Cicero’s Catilinarians, digitized by the John Rylands.
Greek papyrus 477 John Rylands Divinatio in Caecilium recto
P. Ryl. 3.477 containing Cicero’s Divination in Caecilium, digitized by the John Rylands.

It was raining heavily on the day in late June when I visited the John Rylands Library. Special Collections – a series of desks with book cradles and power outlets – was mostly empty, but there was a lively buzz of activity. Pairs of researchers and scholars spoke rapidly to their partners in low tones, and the staff whispered to one another. My inspection of materials was punctuated by a man behind me muttering “five pounds five shillings” – “June 22nd 1916” – “London”. I had to document myself – present a passport, proof of address – and then the papyri I had summoned were signed out to me. The John Rylands allows photography for personal use but forbids their promulgation. I took many personal photos, but the ones you see in this blog post are those which are officially released by the John Rylands. The two papyri which I looked at had already been digitized by the library, and can be accessed online for free. Most of the other patrons in the Special Collections were using materials which they could handle directly, but the Ciceronian papyri are mounted to glass. Each papyrus, encased in glass, is given to the reader on a foam tray, so that you can flip it and observe both sides.When the librarian handed me the first fragment, I asked about the conditions in which the glazed papyri were kept; one, the smaller of the two, was kept in a flight case (P. Ryl. 1.61); the other was kept in a paper box. Both were stored in a secure room which could have the oxygen removed from it in case of a fire. As I took close-up pictures of the different elements of the papyri, I appreciated one reason why the library would forbid private photographs to be disseminated – the surface of the glass means that details were obscured by the glare of the overhead lights, and by my reflection. As I looked at the papyri, I had the transcription from Cavenaile (CPL) open on my laptop so that I could orient myself in the text, and I also looked at the digitized images from the John Rylands website. Since the photo image of P. Ryl. 3.477, containing the Divinatio in Caecilium, was produced, the papyrus has been rearranged in its glass frame; and you can also see by comparing the original with its digital copy that parts of the papyrus which were once one piece have started to come apart. I noticed that the colour of the papyrus itself was darker in the photograph; as it turns out, the papyri at the Rylands have recently been through certain processes of conservation, which have left them a lighter colour. The papyrus itself, then, looks different from its image, and it is only this image that most people will ever be able to see. This is one of the interesting issues when dealing with ancient materials – they continue to have a life even after they have been made static by reproduction.

Further reading: “Cicero” in Texts and Transmission, ed. Reynolds (1983); McNamee, Annotations in Greek and Latin texts from Egypt (2007); Sánchez-Ostiz, Cicero Graecus: Notes on Ciceronian Papyri from Egypt, ZPE 187, 2013 pp144-153; many chapters of interest in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Bagnall (2009).




Notes from the classroom: Cicero and the genre of biography

I have mixed feelings about the genre of biography. I read recently that as a boy Napoleon used to hide away in the library of the Royal Military school of Brienne-le-Château and read the ancient biographers (Roberts 2015:12). His favourites were Plutarch’s Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. This is not exactly a surprising thing to read about Napoleon – his early obssession with Caesar never left him. In March of 1790, for example, as Napoleon was writing his own history of Corsica, he spent his evenings rereading passages of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum, and committing pages of it to memory (ibid: 31).

It is precisely the image of Napoleon obsessing over Caesar that makes me uncomfortable about biography. Biography seems to me to generate a feeling of either veneration or voyeurism in its readers, and I find it hard to reconcile this with a scholarly mindset. In certain places and times, the lives of famous men were written precisely to be emulated. But I want to believe that we’ve made it past the need to study “great men” precisely because of their “greatness”, which usually has more than something to do with imperialism, colonialism, or cultural chauvinism. But the fact is that these texts which we use were made by people with personalities and lives – and there’s something to be said for trying to find a satisfying way of discussing that fact without falling into fanaticism.

So when a colleague of mine asked if I would come and speak to her Ancient Lives class about Cicero, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to think through these ideas with her students. This particular class had been asked to read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero, specifically Rex Warner’s 1958 translation with Penguin, given notes and introduction by Robin Seager in 1972. As it happened, the students in this class had never really encountered Cicero before, and their first exposure to him was through Plutarch’s biography. The idea of encountering a figure like Cicero for the first time through an intermediary was interesting to me. We have so much extant Cicero that Cicero usually speaks for himself. When Shackleton-Bailey wrote his biography of Cicero in 1970, he chose essentially to allow Cicero to speak for himself by quoting huge swathes of text from Cicero’s letters, interspersing these translated passages with the biographical narrative. Since at least John Dugan’s Making a New Man (2005), Ciceronians and classicists generally have been pretty comfortable with the idea of rhetorical “self-fashioning” – that is to say, we know that Cicero was always reworking his image in his literary publications, and as a result we know that we have to be careful at taking certain things which Cicero says about himself at face value.

And so, given the size and complexity of the Ciceronian corpus, it’s interesting to have an ancient account that makes Cicero a singularity using the sources which we still have, as well as the ones which we will never even know we’ve lost. But although Plutarch puts Cicero in the state of being an object, objectivity is not really the aim of biography, nor is it the outcome. With Plutarch, we get an ancient opportunity to reflect on Cicero’s self-representation and how that representation was received by an audience which is already historically removed. We have something in common with Plutarch, in that he also only had Cicero in a textual form. I asked the students to consider Petrarch’s shock at uncovering Cicero’s letters in 1345 and his inability to reconcile the spirit of philosophy with the grimy reality of his being a human person. “It is true, Cicero,…that you did live as a man, you did speak as an orator, you did write as a philosopher. It was your life with which I found fault,” (De rebus familiaribus 24.4). This is a nice example of the disjuncture which biographical knowledge (if you can call it knowledge) introduces; that faith can be rescinded from an author whose text is venerated due to his biography begs for an assessment of what one should be doing with the text in the first place. I asked the students also to consider Theodor Mommsen’s 19th c. criticism of Cicero as cowardly and constitutionally indifferent for his execution of the Catilinarians. Both Petrarch and Mommsen were reacting against Cicero in worlds where the lives of the ancients were to be venerated and taught as examples – their disappointments and disgust in Cicero were still essentially rooted in a biographical view of this figure, even if that view was still developing.

Further reading: Ironically, my readings on Napoleon come from an (excellent) biography of Napoleon by Andrew Roberts. This irony accounts for my initial comment about having mixed feelings regarding biography. As for responses to Cicero in the Renaissance and the 19th c., there are good chapters by David Marsh and Nicholas Cole in the 2013 Cambridge Companion to Cicero.

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

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.

crab nebula
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.

total solar
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).

Writing Cicero’s “Aratea” in the 17th c.


When I was doing research for a chapter on the extensive (“self”-)quotation of Cicero’s Aratea in his philosophical work On the Nature of the Gods (45 BCE), I found myself reckoning with Hugo Grotius’ Syntagma Arateorum published in 1600. The Aratea is Cicero’s Latin translation of a Greek astronomical poem by Aratus of Soli, the Phaenomena (c. 275 BCE), which is sometimes translated as “Appearances” in English. Aratus’ poem reads like a map of the night sky in the form of a poem; the idea is that if you read, or memorize, the Phaenomena, then you will be able to “read” the constellations in the sky. Knowledge of the stars allows you to recognize changes of season, to anticipate weather changes, and to navigate through space. If we can believe what is said in On the Nature of the Gods, then Cicero translated this Greek poem into Latin as a young man, which would place its date of composition in the mid 80s BCE. Several other Latin translations subsequently appear within a century, including one by Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the future Emperor Tiberius.

Harley 647 f2v
Harley 647 f.2v depicting Aries ©British Library

At the very beginning of the 17th century the Dutch Hugo Grotius (Hugo, Huigh or Hugeianus de Groot), who had been a student of Scaliger at Leiden, produced an edition of Aratus, Cicero, and Germanicus. This, the Syntagma Arateorum (“A collection of Arateas”), can be viewed online through google books.

One of the interesting things about this work is that Grotius had to deal with the fact that Cicero’s Aratea only survived in pieces. We have Aratus’ Phaenomena in full, but Cicero’s Aratea is in a fragmentary condition. There is an incredible independent manuscript transmission of Cicero’s Aratea which comes with illustrations of the described constellations, such as Harley 647 (see above), which can also be viewed online, but the text isn’t complete. We also get about 90 verses of Cicero’s Aratea from his On the Nature of the Gods. Because Cicero’s Aratea is a translation of the Phaenomena, Grotius had a basis for the missing material, so he decided to provide the missing parts from Cicero’s Aratea by translating the equivalent Greek himself. Consider the following page:

Grotius p4


The actual verses of Cicero here are lines 96-101 (Arctophylax…Virgo), and 116 (Malebant tenui contenti vivere cultu). Everything else, in italics, is Grotius’ own Latin translation of Aratus. To my mind, this is an incredible response to a fragmentary text – to supply what you don’t have by doing the translation yourself. Grotius was giving himself a lesson in how to write Ciceronian verse. Another remarkable aspect of this is that Grotius, born in 1583, was 17 years old when he published the Syntagma. I wonder whether Grotius was inspired by Cicero’s note that he himself was just a young man when he translated the Aratea (admodum adulescentulus, On the Nature of the Gods 2.104). There may be some shared idea between them that dealing with the Greek hexameters of Aratus’ Phaenomena is a kind of intellectual rite of passage. Grotius is a fascinating figure – one anecdote that you hear about him is that he escaped prison by hiding in a trunk that was supposed to be filled with books…

Further reading: More on Hugo Grotius. English text of Aratus’ Phaenomena, based on the 1921 Loeb. Emma Gee has an excellent book – Ovid, Aratus and Augustus (2000, Cambridge) – which deals especially well with the idea of astronomical writing and the control of time. The Oxford World’s Classics series very recently brought out an English translation of Aratus’ Phaenomena accompanied by the astronomical commentaries of Eratosthenes and Hyginus (Eratosthenes and Hyginus: Constellation Myths, with Aratus’ Phaenomenatranslated by Robin Hard, 2015).