Three great luminaries… (or, ‘how I wrote the book’), Part II

VarroVerse, the first publication: Cultural Memory and Varro (2009-2011)

‘“῾Ρωμαίζω… ergo sum”: becoming Roman in Varro’s de Lingua Latina’. In Bommas, M. (ed.) Cultural Memory and Identity in Ancient Societies. London: Continuum, pp. 43-60.


In 2009, the Department took cultural memory* as a research theme, and I was invited to give a paper as part of the resulting scholarly activity. As you will know from my first blog post in this series, I had already started exploring Varro. Given the focus on memory as a programmatic and structural device within de Lingua Latina, this invitation seemed to be an ideal opportunity to write up some of my ideas in a format that people other than myself might be able to think through, evaluate, and hopefully find useful to work with in future.

One of the things that I try to do with every publication is to include examples of theoretical frameworks that I’m finding useful; potentially, even, introducing them afresh to new audiences, and working them through in-depth by way of case studies. Working with Varro, an additional challenge was the real dearth of Varronian scholarship engaged with critical theory, and focusing on this fascinating but also infuriating and lacunose text.

Its abandonment in the backwaters of journeyman outputs from antiquity tended to mean that even classicists’ eyes glazed over when I proposed to talk at length about de Lingua Latina.

Initially, there was no proposal to publish this seminar paper. That is to say, I had it in mind that I would try to publish it as part of my preliminary modelling of what it could mean to work on Varro (Ling.) outside of the tradition of scholarship on grammar and syntax, but I wasn’t writing a seminar paper for a particular publication context in the first instance. What I had in mind was the difficulty in finding a way into the text which would speak meaningfully and interestingly to an academic audience composed of (1) Classicists, some of whom were primarily specialists in ancient history, others of whom were primarily literary or textual experts. The audience would also comprise (2) archaeologists, (3) Egyptologists, (4) graduate students, and potentially (5) some Byzantinists.

One might think that this very eclectic audience would require particularly thorough explication of how and why Varro was relevant and interesting, but in fact I have subsequently found that in every piece I have written on de lingua Latina, a similar opening excursus justifying the interest of the material has been necessary!

Actually, when I now look back on the published version, I am startled by how little contextualising I did, or indeed was asked to do, for the final edited volume that the seminar papers turned into. Speculatively, I wonder whether this was because of the originally “in-house” context. When one is used to talking about ones ideas with colleagues, I think that there can be a risk that sufficient distance is not maintained, when considering the widest possible range of final audiences.

Thus when I look back at that piece of work now, it feels less inclusive in its opening and introductory remarks than the subsequent publications I have produced about Varro.

Taking a retrospective position on the content

Because of the theme of the seminar series and the volume, it is unsurprising that I launched straight into the question of memory, its monumentalisation and relationship with place, and how those two functions connect with society and individuals in the civic context (2011: 43-45). I find it interesting that the work of Pierre Nora is to the fore here. Nora’s hugely important work Les Lieux de Mémoire played a significant role in shaping my thinking about Roman landscape, in the book that I published in 2010 (Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity).

I was still very close to Nora’s Lieux de Mémoire model in 2009 but while Nora’s work remains important for my thinking overall, the cultural-memory context has probably drifted lower down the list of key theoretical approaches that I now pursue.

Of course in 2009 I had not yet reached the extraordinary overview position of Varro’s de Lingua Latina that I argue conclusively for in my book (I’m right now at the exciting stage of designing the cover, with the nice people from the University of Wisconsin Press…), an analysis that radically reinvents his vision but also recuperates the work as one of the most important positive articulations of the role of autocracy in consensus politics as the Republican system fully broke down.

Although I was coming out of the intellectual world of Roman Landscape, “place” was still the focus for my work on memory in this chapter. I was also starting to look in more detail at questions of phenomenology, and to interrogate the ways in which memory and tradition were simultaneously words and also possessed of symbolic value within Roman elite conceptualisation of what counted as traditional, normative, and good.

In this way, interest in Gilles Fauconnier and cognitive linguistics, which was simmering away in Roman Landscape, was starting to have a chance to step into the limelight.

In a section on “The language of Empire” (2011: 45-50), therefore, it is probably unsurprising that I brought in Varro’s interest in the relationship between political, territorial, and intellectual identity, and the specific words that make up everyday language from the deep past to the present; and Varro’s comments on the terminology of “foreigner” (Ling. 5.3) made for a useful example.

In the section called “People like us” (2011:50-55) I used Paul Ricoeur‘s work to start to think about the way in which one of the values associated with the past as a symbol is fidelity. This allowed me to think about the gaps which every narrative construction of the past embodies, and the acculturated as well as individually resonant ways in which those gaps (and the ligaments that tie them together into a satisfying memory) at once connect ‘us’ to ‘our people’ and divorce us from them unutterably. This exploration focused on Varro, Ling. 5.5, 10, 13.

My published chapter closed with a section on the relationship between idealising tropes of the Roman Republic’s politics as a collectively advisory process, rooted in strong and public civic obligations, and how memory and the etymological genealogy of language could (in the VarroVerse) help to remake republican governance as fit for purpose.

20/20 vision?

Hindsight, like human nature, tends to find patterns and meaning. I feel at my closest to Varro, in many respects, in performing this present reflective exercise addressing how my adventures in the VarroVerse began. Like so many of his contemporaries,** we believe that Varro was a self-epitomiser… My scholarly process also tends towards the re-associative. I find it boring to spend too long on one topic, and in the earliest stage of my career this was highlighted to me as likely to hinder my ultimate success. Now, some years after achieving a personal Chair in Classics at the University of Birmingham, I can conclude that this well-meaning advice was not ultimately determinative.

Perhaps that is because in Varro, I found the ideal author and foil. My interests have always been catholic, embracing language and its games, exploring the concretising power of words, diving into stories, puzzling out bricolage, interrogating the significance of place and its experience in shaping (and being shaped by) identity.

In all these enthusiasms, I find that Varro matches me like-for-like.

But of course that’s the story I would tell

* I have struggled to find anything even reasonably OA that introduces Cultural (or Collective) Memory usefully. If anyone has any suggestions for something good and interesting to link to…?

** Amazing work on the iterative quality of literary and intellectual relationships in Varro’s era has been done by Sarah Culpepper Stroup; I suggest that you read some of her work!

[my next post will look at at another publication from 2011, but this time one that explicitly brings language to the fore]

2 thoughts on “Three great luminaries… (or, ‘how I wrote the book’), Part II

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