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Boston University professor describes loss and recovery in Rome

A Boston University professor spoke about how Roman historical figures strove to recover lost information at an event sponsored by the Department of Classical Studies on Oct. 24.

Assistant Professor of Classical Studies Hannah Čulik-Baird described how the Romans’ search for lost knowledge mirrors a modern-day search for information lost after Brazil’s 200-year-old National Museum burnt down, with many historical artifacts inside. Her talk, “Loss and Recovery of Knowledge at Rome,” was about a variety of Roman texts with an audience of primarily graduate students.

Audience members were given handouts with Latin and English versions of the texts Čulik-Baird discussed during her lecture and followed along as she described several different anecdotes about recovering lost Roman knowledge.
Čulik-Baird introduced the lecture by describing the fire, calling it a tragic loss and a reminder that the loss of ancient artifacts today is possible. She described a Wikipedia campaign to partially restore the loss, where visitors of the museum could contribute their photographs of the artifacts lost.

Čulik-Baird compared the reconstruction of lost knowledge in Brazil to a similar event in Rome, where the grave of the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, was unearthed and along with it several preserved books were discovered.
The books, which were burned by the magistrate of the town where they were uncovered, became a topic of Roman scholars who hypothesized about what knowledge could have been contained in Numa’s books. Some scholars even attempted to reconstruct what was in the books.

Čulik-Baird described the story as centering on the idea of frailty—the frailty of Numa himself and especially the frailty of the information which was lost forever when the books were burned.

“There are just so many ways for ideas that have been passed not to reach us,” Čulik-Baird said. “And the tale of Numa also demonstrates that in the absence of an artifact intellectual curiosity tries to find some answers. The episode emblematizes the problem of the transmission of historical information in the Roman world, and it suggests what a Roman writer can try to do in the absence of direct evidence.”

Like the artifacts in the Brazilian museum, the books were burned and lost forever. But Čulik-Baird compared the efforts of museum-goers and Roman scholars, describing how, “a spirit of research leads to rediscovery.”
She told the story of Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman orator and philosopher, who, based on an old verse, was able to find the tomb of Archimedes in Syracuse. Though the story may or may not be true, Čulik-Baird said, it is illustrative of the drive to discover and confirm lost knowledge.

At the end of the talk, audience members asked Čulik-Baird about Cicero and how honestly Cicero portrayed himself. Čulik-Baird responded that Cicero is normally used as a source as historians have copies of his personal letters, which they believe to be more reliable.

Čulik-Baird was introduced by Joel Christenen (CLAS), an Associate Professor of Classical Studies and the chair of the Classical Studies department.

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