As an undergraduate at Oxford, Hannah Čulík-Baird became fascinated with the works of Roman orator, statesman, and intellectual Marcus Tullius Cicero. “I always wanted to work on Cicero and when I came to grad school I knew that. I wanted to use Cicero to get at something about Rome, rather than study him for his own sake,” she said. During a graduate seminar on Roman tragedy, she noticed that many of the fragments of the early tragedians were preserved because they had been quoted by Cicero. Because the works of early Latin poets like Ennius, Accius, and Pacuvius have not survived in their entirety into modern times, these excerpts are all that remains of their work. Hannah wrote her dissertation on poetic fragments, the transmission of texts, and the culture of quotation in the late Republic. She’s now an Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University, specializing in Roman literature, culture, and intellectual life of the 1st century BCE.
In her dissertation, Hannah examined fragments of Latin poets from the 2nd century BCE that were only preserved through quotation by Cicero. She was interested in what the fragments tell us 2nd century drama, epic, and poetry as well as what the 1st century Romans were doing with them. For example, patterns of fragments and quotations can tell us something about Roman education. Certain poems or plays that are quoted more than others—such as Ennius’ national epic the Annales or his tragedy Medea—must have had a place in the school curriculum. In other cases, we get a window into book use in the 1st century BCE despite the fact that no physical books survived from this time. Although classicists know that Romans had a more oral culture and frequently memorized texts, some written works are so rich and dense with quotation that they must be copied from secondary sources.
“People like to say that Latin literature begins with Greek culture,” Hannah explains. “But I want to pay closer attention to the Latin intellectual traditions, which are difficult to get at because of the nature of the evidence.” In the future, she would like to write a cultural history of Rome in the 2nd century BCE, connecting together the fragments of the early Latin historians, tragedians, and poets. “Even though it is fragmentary, we can see some consistent themes. It shines a light on the fact that Romans had their own culture. While connected to Greece, it’s still independently creative in its own right,” Hannah adds.
Classics is a discipline that is intensely connected to the past and consequently, its relevance in the 21st century is frequently questioned. Social media platforms like Twitter are one tool that scholars can (and Hannah would argue should) use to bring the ancient world into the digital age. “I really think that in the academic sense of it, there’s a moral imperative for scholars to be active in the project that is the internet. The internet is where we keep all of our information, and our job is supposed to be the curation, discovery, and broadcasting of information. So, we should be there participating, generating, and curating knowledge,” she explains. She’s an enthusiastic tweeter herself @opietasanimi (her handle is—of course—a fragment of Ennius preserved though quotation by Cicero). She also notes that the mere presence of academics of different backgrounds on Twitter can advance issues such as representation. As the image of the Classical scholar has traditionally been that of the older white man, there is value in showing that millennial women, people of colour, and undocumented immigrants (among others) are also part of the field. The presence of a variety of Classicists on the internet helps shape the expectations of students, and the public more broadly, of what a scholar can and should be.
To this end, Hannah is involved in the organization of the Classics and Social Justice group, and runs its blog, where scholars can write about their social justice work and collect resources. The Classics and Social Justice group aims to bring classics to people who have historically been marginalized in society and academia, as well as to draw their voices into the field. The group brings together Classical scholars who are working to address inequalities through their work and academic lives. Some scholars, for example, teach Classics in prisons while others use Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to help veterans reintegrate into society. While Hannah’s research is not related to issues of equality, she still wants to enact best practices in her teaching and daily scholarly life. “It is a conservative field, of course, but I feel optimistic that it’s developing in these various different ways to allow for plurality of perspective within the group of individuals who do academic work.”