Systems of Knowledge in Republican Rome

Systems of Knowledge
Republican Rome

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Boston Area Roman Studies Conference (BARSC) was instituted in 1995 to promote the study of Latin literature and Roman culture, to increase the visibility of these studies in the New England scholarly community and to provide a place for area Latinists and Romanists to meet, socialize, and exchange ideas.

The BARSC is sponsored by the Department of Classical Studies and the Center for the Humanities at Boston University and is held annually in April. The conference is open to anyone interested and is free of charge, but you must pre-register to attend.

The 26th annual meeting of the Boston Area Roman Studies Conference was held on Friday, April 23, 2021 over zoom and featured presentations from:

  1. Diana Spencer (Professor and Dean of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences, University of Birmingham), ‘Strategies of Quotation in Varro’s De Lingua Latina’
  2. Hannah Čulík-Baird (Assistant Professor, Boston University), ‘Cicero on Fiction’
  3. Katharina Volk (Professor, Columbia University), ‘Necromancers in the Senate’

The event had 67 attendees from the US, UK, and Canada. Attendees included faculty, from institutions such as MIT, Princeton, and Brown; graduate and undergraduate students from BU; and high school teachers both local and throughout the United States.

The first speaker, Professor Diana Spencer, illuminated the literary and ideological complexity of a text that has typically been dismissed as a merely practical handbook of Latin etymologies, the De Lingua Latina (‘On the Latin Language’) by Varro, written in the mid first century BCE. ‘The etymologist’, she remarked, ‘must give space to prior voices’. In the choice of whom or what to include as a linguistic authority, she argued, the practice of etymology ‘is always bumping up against history’s tender spots.’

‘Fiction’ is often thought to be an anachronistic category when dealing with classical literature and rhetoric, but the second speaker, Professor Hannah Čulík-Baird, argued for its usefulness in analysis of the ancient orator and philosopher Cicero. Cicero, she argued, noted a particular distance between ‘reality and human narrativity’, but also invoked fiction examples and anecdotes as a ‘speculative, generative, literary device’.

A question after Professor Čulík-Baird’s talk asked provocatively about whether there were culturally specific ways in which ancient Romans conceptualized the ‘imagination’, and also whether the word ‘fiction’ (derived from the Latin verb that means ‘to mold’ or ‘to shape’) preserves traces of a more ‘hands-on’, materialist conception of the imagination in ancient Rome.

Professor Katharina Volk, the third speaker, gave an engaging account of the first-century BCE Roman senator, Publius Nigidius Figulus, who was famous in his own time both for writing about magic and astrology, and for performing spectacular acts of sorcery, hypnosis, and divination himself. Volk reconstructed the history of this once-dazzling figure, and used his case to challenge the scholarly generalization that the praise of Reason and Order was the primary drive of first-century Roman intellectual culture.

We thank the Boston University Center for the Humanities for their generous financial support of the conference. See you all next year!