Yesterday afternoon in Hamilton 503, the Classics Department kicked off its semester of Classics Colloquia in style. If you missed this one, fear not: the next colloquium is next Friday, February 2nd, at 4:10 pm in the same place; Nicholas Rynearson will be giving a talk on Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. Bwogger, noted nerd, and potential Classics major Levi Cohen attended this one, however, and discusses it below. Even if the subject matter was, to borrow from Livy, nimia obscuras — “excessively obscure” — it was still a great time.
After a brief nap following my Friday-morning Greek class, I bravely entered Hamilton Hall one last time before the weekend to attend the first of six talks being given this semester by Classics professors from Columbia—and its peer institutions—on a variety of topics. The turnout was solid, with a nice mix of undergrads, postbaccalaureates, grad students, and professors eagerly taking notes throughout the talk.
Our speaker was Hannah Čulík-Baird, a Professor of Classics at Boston University (@opietasanimi on Twitter); the talk was entitled “Vetustas pauca non deprauat, multa tollit — loss and recovery of knowledge in the late Republic.”
For those readers without any Latin, the quotation in the title is from the author Varro, and translates to: “There is little that time does not distort, much it obliterates completely.” It was a fitting header, then, for this talk, which examined a variety of sources so as to develop a picture of how Romans engaged with the concept of their own past.
Čulík-Baird began with an enthralling anecdote from Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, detailing how the burial-ground of an old Roman king was discovered; the king’s body had long since decomposed, but his books, which had been buried with him, miraculously remained intact. The astonishment regarding this event, Čulík-Baird argued, showed how fragile the physical matter of written work was in the Republic. (Of course, soon after their discovery, a Roman official ordered the books to be burnt. Out of the tomb and into the fire they went.)
Čulík-Baird then took us through a variety of passages, primarily from Cicero—the great Roman lawyer and orator, with whom Čulík-Baird evidently has great familiarity—which developed her theme of Roman engagement with the past. In particular, she interrogated the word vetustas, perhaps most easily translated as “time,” but carrying more nuance than just that word. Hearing it in a variety of quotations, it struck me as communicating the vast stretches of decades and centuries which separated the Romans from their past; caused them to debate endlessly about, for example, the chronology of consuls; led Cicero to go to Sicily on a proto-archaeological search for the grave of the scientist Archimedes.
On the topic of cutting through vetustas, there was another quote from Cicero which might serve as a thesis statement for the Classics department and the study of History as a whole: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to forever remain a child.” From Orator 120, in case anyone wants to put it in their Twitter bios.
Another interesting strand of Čulík-Baird’s talk was how Romans engaged with the texts they did have. In particular, Cicero seems to have been incredibly fond of citing Ennius, a poet, as we might cite a historian today. She shared a memorable quote of Cicero’s which defended this choice: “Why should I consider Herodotus more truthful than Ennius? Was Herodotus less able to invent stories… than Ennius?” As everyone who’s taken Lit Hum knows, Cicero isn’t wrong about the fabulation in Herodotus’ Histories, but using it as a defense of his own source was a fascinating twist on an old complaint about the “Father of History.”
There was another Ciceronian quotation which created three genres for literature to fall into: Fabula, where the narrative is untrue and could not have occurred (he quotes as an example an early Latin tragedy); Argumentum, where the narrative is untrue but could have occurred (quoting from the playwright Terence); and Historia, where the narrative is of “actual occurrences” before the time of writing—here Cicero quotes Ennius the poet (who, it should be noted, did write a famous epic poem about the founding and first years of Rome). At any rate, the historical engagement with poetry demonstrated how learned Romans attempted to engage with their past by any means necessary.
Overall, Čulík-Baird’s talk brilliantly revealed just how spotty the Roman conception of the past could be. It’s always worth reflecting on how few texts from antiquity have survived into the modern world, and this related issue—of how few texts the authors of antiquity had access to—only complicates our understanding of our foundational literature.
The talk concluded with a lively Q-and-A session. It’s always a treat to hear experts flex their knowledge and show off a little (“Cicero in the De re publica says…”, “Have you not considered…”, and so on), and the crowd didn’t hold back. The mood was largely friendly and jovial even when those asking questions disagreed with Čulík-Baird, who got a big laugh from the audience when she proclaimed, “I’m a Ciceronian who doesn’t bash Cicero.” My favorite question was from an elderly gentleman who asked whether Cicero, rather than actually struggling with finding historical sources, wasn’t merely putting up a rhetorical front: the valiant writer, collecting sources from the misty past, et cetera. If you’ve ever read Cicero, you’ll know that that’s not such a bizarre suggestion.
Afterwards, a reception was held one floor above, in the Classics Department proper. I heard that wine and nibbles were served, but I can’t confirm; I went to Lerner for a boba date with a friend.