Vincenzo Foppa. Young Cicero Reading c.1460s. The Wallace Collection
An interesting set of events has played out over the last few days, which I would like to document here. I believe it is a fascinating case study of the power of social networking platforms to connect individuals in real time, and allow efficient collaboration and information exchange.
However, there is an important social dynamic which the academics involved have either failed to mention or perhaps do not think important. As a member of the public, and not an academic, I found this to be the most demonstrative facet of the entire experience.
What happened? In plain terms, a group of historians specialising in Ancient Greek/Roman studies, collectively explored the translation of a graffiti inscription at Pompeii. It happened quite spontaneously, and seemed to accumulate participants and observers as it went along. That I happened to get caught up in it, as a humble art history blogger, is the curious part.
Blog posts at Rogue Classicist and by Dr. Liz Gloyn will shed further light on the details of the exchange from an academic standpoint, but as a member of the public, I would like to submit this summary for the sake of clarity.
The chain of events started when Dr. Penelope Goodman, tweeted a translation of some graffiti at Pompeii that was mentioned at a talk by Professor Ray Laurence at The British Museum - "You will like Cicero, or you will be whipped" which was actually taken from an 1893 publication.
As some are aware, I have a great fondness for Cicero. Someone with an enduring legacy based on letters rather than blood and conquest is a hero in my book. Whatever his shortcomings, his ability to inspire and fuel debate is omnipresent through the ages. A wonderful example of the strength of his legacy is the story of Saint Jerome's vision, where he was accused of being more devoted to Cicero than to Christ.
Jan van Eyck's St. Jerome in his Study. c.1435. Detroit Institute of Arts
Cicero's fame seems to ebb and flow. Renaissance scholars were highly fond of his work - with authors of the era often trying to emulate his style, also feverishly translating and eventually mass printing his texts. In further exploring Cicero's history, I also discovered that he spent some time in my homeland of Cyprus, and was admired for his fairness and lack of corruption.
Hence, I found the graffiti amusing, and asked Dr. Goodman for the source of the inscription. She replied with the reference, an 1893 volume. Soon after a South African based classicist Terrence Lockyer provided the link for the reference. As it was now in the public domain, an open access copy was available at the internet archive, which is a repository of works maintained by the Library of Congress.
The page range given was quite extensive and the actual article was in Italian, a language I am not fluent in, beyond an ability to ask for a lemon gelato. Hence, plugging the provided translation into the somewhat maligned Latin translator provided by Google, I found the words VAPULUS for 'whipped'. After some minutes of searching, I was able to find the transcribed words as printed in the book:
As far as I was concerned, my aim had been accomplished, I intended to retain a copy of the image as a keepsake. What followed was an interesting series of interactions between a group of historians spanning 3 continents, with me along for the ride, observing a casual scholarly collaboration which is still not fully resolved. You can get a more detailed summary of this interaction at Rogue Classicist's post, including a summary of key tweets. The essence of this discussion was a clarification of the meaning and grammar of the inscription.
The respective locations of the 'tweeters' involved, with the Pompeii inscription as its centre
My being privy to this discussion is a brilliant illustration of the how a platform like twitter can break down barriers of time, social class and occupation. I will plainly state that as a member of the public the likelihood of me either approaching or being accepted into any sort of scholarly discussion among classicists is quite low, yet with social media, the overriding unifying factor was a common interest in a topic.
This ability to transcend barriers is lost on many who see social networking as a waste of time or an unnecessary overload of information. This purely depends on which information streams you become part of. For those that have not yet experienced twitter, or are still curious what it entails, I'd like to present this video by ANartistsinfo, featuring Katy Beale and Charlotte Frost, author of digitalcritic.org and PhD2Published. Charlotte's work is a constant source of inspiration to humanities students and professionals engaging online.
As for the quote, the current consensus seems to be along the lines of the translation provided by Laurence: "Be keen on Cicero, or get beaten up." What the original Pompeian author's intent was is less clear, though there is some speculation that it was written by a Roman equivalent of schoolmaster as a warning to students.
For an example of how twitter collaboration assisted art historical inquiries, read these earlier posts: Online collaboration in the humanities, and Giorgione, Herons and a Carpaccio Knight.
Many thanks to the classicists involved for including me in this fascinating global exercise:
Penelope J. Goodman
Butler, S. The Hand of Cicero. Routledge. 2002.
Lintott, A. Cicero as Evidence - A Historian's Companion. Oxford University Press. 2008