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Fall Convocation Address, September 9, 2015

— John Bertrand Lott, Professor of Greek and Roman Studies on the Matthew Vassar, Jr. Chair and Chair of Greek and Roman Studies

Then and Now: The Memory and Memorial of a Roman Girl

I

Thank you President Hill for the invitation to speak. I want to add my own welcome to everyone here, students, staff, administrators, parents, visitors, and faculty. My faculty colleagues have already put up with me talking in front of them more than any reasonable person could be expected to endure over the past two years; A special welcome to my friends in Greek and Roman Studies, past and present. Also, to my family, Jane, Amelia—Vassar Class of 15—and Rowan—It is a very special punishment for a teenage boy to listen to his father speak in public. Welcome finally the class of 2019 and to the senior class of 2016.

It is very hot here today, even for those of you not draped in polyester and velvet.  It is supposed to cool off with rain tomorrow. I don’t want to suggest a causal relationship between my talk and an improvement in the weather, but there it is.

The title of my talk today is “Then and Now” which I have borrowed from the introductory course in Greek and Roman Studies. That class aims to introduce students to the Classical cultures of Greece and Rome by emphasizing the interconnections between past and present, then and now. To paraphrase my colleagues, it asks: “What does studying the past help you notice about the present and what does studying the present make you wonder about the past?”

The subtitle of my talk is, “Memory and Memorial of a Roman Girl.” This refers to an object I have brought today. It is a marble plaque, mostly rectangular, about 20 by 40 centimeters. There is writing on it—carved into it. Roman historians call objects like this one “inscriptions.” Inscriptions can be briefly defined as “writing on a durable surface usually for display in a public setting as part of a larger monumental or social context.” The study of such inscriptions is called epigraphy.

The inscription I have brought today was/is a commemorative marker, a memorial, a tombstone for a girl, Annia Urbica, who lived at Rome sometime in the first two centuries of the Common Era, almost 2000 years ago. The simple and short text reads: “D(is) M(anibus) Anniae Urbicae—to the Divine Shades of Annia Urbica. She lived for 2 years, 4 months, 14 days.” I hope you will all take the time to look at it on the way out; the museum has generously arranged for it to be brought here today. It is Annia’s memory and memorial, then and now, that is the topic of my talk today.  But first, I will offer a few more comments about Roman inscriptions to set the stage:

The act of writing texts on stone for display was a peculiar characteristic of Roman culture that modern scholars call the “Roman epigraphic habit.” It was so closely associated with Romans that we look to the adoption and spread of this “habit” as an indicator of the nature and degree of Roman influence, power, and culture at different times, in different places. Inscriptions can serve this purpose, in part, because they are durable. Survival to the “now” is a permanent distorting lens through which we always view the “then.”

It is challenging to study inscriptions: they are physical objects that were part of larger architectural or spatial contexts, often lost, they are cultural objects, encumbered with issues of class, gender, and identity that pervaded Roman society; they are written texts, in Latin. Normally, we investigate material objects with the tools of the art historian and archaeologist; we investigate written texts with the tools of the literary scholar, the philologist, the historian, and the textual critic. Studying inscriptions is thus an example of the kind of interdisciplinary work that we value here at Vassar and that is always required to investigate Classical antiquity.

Roughly one million inscriptions from Roman antiquity are known today. Of these, fifteen are here at the college. The memorial for Annia is one of these. I should probably get to it now.

II

Let me read the inscription again: “To the Divine Shades of Annia Urbica. She lived for 2 years, 4 months, 14 days.”

When young Annia Urbica died, her parents went to a workshop that produced grave markers like this one, probably located outside a city gate, near where they had already purchased a burial plot. They picked out a prepared stone—paid a little extra to get the one with the altar shape on the top—and provided a text. It was not a luxury product—it certainly was not made to be a museum piece. You may notice that we have it in a museum and wonder, how and why does our understanding of the piece “now” differ from that “then”?

The text is a pretty conventional Roman epitaph, but it does tell us a lot about Annia. The counting out of life to the day emphasizes the special grief of parents mourning a child, but the commemoration of young children in funeral epigraphy at this period was very uncommon. It is found mostly at Rome itself, on tombstones erected by a single group of residents: freed slaves or their immediate descendants, only one or two generations out of servitude. That is, Annia’s stone is part of the special epigraphic habit of a group of people who had been relocated to the capital, not by choice but as slaves from all over the Roman world, but who then had gained their freedom.

Such manumitted slaves became Roman citizens, but they occupied a precarious social position as “freedmen.” They had no ancestors to certify that they belonged in Rome; only by having freeborn children could they hope to separate their family from their own servile past. We can imagine, though we can’t be sure, that Annia was in the first generation of her family born free at Rome. By commemorating her in a new family tomb, her parents laid public claim to their own freedom. Thus the public display of this inscription at Annia’s tomb claimed for them what, in better circumstances, she would have provided for them in life. In general, funeral epigraphy provided an opportunity and a language for re-negotiating social status, for redefining or reinscribing social relations among the living. In light of this, you might think tombstones today, which you probably ignore, deserve a closer look.

What do I mean about memory and memorial? Romans, without a developed concept of “life after death,” understood immortality—which they did want—as being remembered by the living. It was a kind of fragile immortality that required renewal generation after generation. For Roman elites, this immortality through memory was accomplished by doing “great deeds” and, thus, becoming the subject of lasting historical accounts. Roman authors, mostly themselves of elite status, countered that they achieved equal or more lasting immortality by writing the accounts. But neither of these privileged routes to memory was available to most Romans. Thus people of Annia’s social status placed special value in physical monumenta, monuments, memorials.

With this small stone, Annia’s parents provided for her memory. It has become unstuck from its original location, but it retains its ability to create and to maintain the memory of Annia, if only of her name. Thus, Annia, thanks to us, has more successfully achieved immortality than many Roman writers or doers of great deeds, whose memory has vanished along with the fragile works by or about them.   

III

In the now, inscriptions are not all relics from the past. You can probably all name examples of modern inscriptions, although you probably don’t give them much notice. Now we have twitter, chat, Instagram and such, which all, interestingly, impose, by design, a kind of cryptic brevity that is very much like the language of Roman inscriptions, themselves abbreviated, short, and symbolic because of the difficulty and expense of writing on stone. The only words spelled out on Annia’s tombstone were her names, Annia Urbica. So it is reasonable to wonder, “what does Snapchat make me notice about ancient inscriptions? What can reading ancient inscriptions teach me about how I’m using the phone, that I probably have with me today?”

We do also still use stone inscriptions in ways directly adapted from the Romans: If you look at the front of Main building, you will see four inscribed plaques. Together they read: plaque 1:Vassar; plaque 2: College; plaque 3: Erected 1861; plaque 4: Matthew Vassar ,Founder.

Two quick points: this does sound like a text or snapchat, with the building as the picture. However, unlike Snapchat, it is easy to believe such a monumental inscribed text to be permanent—literally “written in stone” and to judge it as “objective,” less subject to the biases we expect in other writing. But inscriptions are not so objective or permanent as you might think. Originally in 1861 there were five plaques on the front of Main. The first three read: plaque 1:Vassar; plaque 2, Female; Plaque 3: College.”

Romans sometimes erased or removed parts of public inscriptions as an intentional sanction against memory. Changing an inscription changed the memory it created or supported, purposefully adjusting the “then” in light of a later “now”. Ironically this was most powerful when the change was obvious, and Romans left them so. If you look at Main, you can see where the fifth plaque that said “female” was. You probably hadn’t noticed the change; a Roman, I expect, would have immediately seen and questioned it. We know, thanks to the work of Betty Daniels, that the word Female was removed from the front of Main building by a vote of the trustees in 1867; the reason for this sanction is not clear. You might wonder how studying Roman sanctions against memory might help you understand the removal of a word, Female, that seems so central to the history of the college.

Getting back to Annia’s memorial.  “Now” it is here; far from where it was “then”.  How did it move from Rome 2000 years ago to the chapel at Vassar College in 2015?

The land around Rome where Annia’s memorial was placed changed over time into agricultural land. In the 18th and 19th centuries, portions of this land came to be owned by a clan of up and coming commodities merchants, the Merolli family. In the late 19th century, Pietro Merolli, decorated a new house in the center of Rome with Roman funerary inscriptions that had turned up on his land, in order to showcase his rising status.

It is here that Annia’s memorial enters the “now.”  In the 1860s, scholars producing a volume of Latin inscriptions went to Pietro’s house. There they saw and copied down his collection, which included Annia’s stone. The collection and house were both later sold to an insurance company in the 1920s. Eventually, a successor conglomerate used the collection as the core of a new educational museum in the Piazza Venenzia in Rome.  You can visit it there today.

But wait, this can’t be the story of Annia’s memorial—the stone is here not in Rome.

Let me back up.  When the same editors I mentioned returned to the house ten years later in the 1870s, Annia’s memorial and 16 others were gone. How they passed out of the collection is unknown.  But by the earliest years of the 20th century Annia’s stone was here in Poughkeepsie. Professor of Latin Leveritt Moore reveals in the department annual report of 1908 how the college came to have it along with a substantial collection of antiquities. In his report Professor Moore tells President James Taylor how he had expended money granted him by the college to purchase antiquities during his sabbatical in Rome. He notes in a list of the items he acquired,  “11 funerary inscriptions”. So that accounts for 11 of our 15, probably including Annia’s.

In 1938, Professor Elizabeth Hazelton Haight opened a new Classical Museum in Avery Hall to house the collection. Avery was the building that originally stood where the Vogelstein Center is now. Professor Haight wrote an enthusiastic introduction of the museum for the Vassar Magazine, which says that the first object seen upon entering was “the tombstone of a little girl, Annia Urbica.” The inscriptions were embedded into the wall of the museum. We decorated our museum like Pietro did his house.

In 1968 the museum folded into the Vassar College Art Gallery, which became the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in 1993. The collection moved, except for the inscriptions built into the wall in the old space. They were left in what became a classroom. On the eve of the demolition of Avery Hall in 2003 the inscriptions were saved from destruction and transferred to the Loeb Art Center. There is still plaster on several of them, a sign of their time in Avery not antiquity.

In 2013, encouraged by James Mundy, Joann Potter and Elizabeth Nogrady and with great support from everyone at the museum, I took up the investigation Vassar’s 15 inscriptions. I did this by offering a Latin seminar in which students had the opportunity to be the first editors to go to these sources. That semester students examined, researched, edited, and commented on the inscriptions. Then every student chose one stone and produced the first edition of it. The work is now being included in the US Epigraphy Project, a principal scholarly resource for Greek and Latin inscriptions in the United States. Last spring, the inscriptions were exhibited for the first time since the closing of the Classical Museum.

I joined with the class in this work, and as you may guess from this talk, I chose Annia’s memorial for my own stone. As you can also tell from this talk, working on Annia’s memorial turned out to involve thinking about the “now” and Vassar as well as investigating the Roman past.

IV

I want, then, to return in conclusion to the general topic of then and now. It is not hard to hear commentary that is critical of the value of studying the past, especially the more distant past—even here at Vassar. The “then” is often, casually, and sadly disregarded in favor of the “now.”  I will not rehearse this commentary, which is always some version of “what’s the point?” The point is that we, you, Vassar cannot choose  “then” or “now.” Each is an un-removable lens through which we must—must—view and experience the other. Disregarding the “then” unavoidably clouds our vision of the present in harmful ways. On the other hand, the present always provides the framework for considering the past; its effect is not always so blatant or purposeful as “sanctioning memory”, but it is inescapable.

Humans and human societies are inherently historical—in every moment we/you rely on memory and past experience, on culture, and technology developed in the past to function in the present. Thus, connecting the links between “then” and “now” is a basic requirement for participating in human society. To not do so is impoverishing. Time does not keep slipping into the future, with apologies to the Steve Miller Band; it keeps slipping into the past. The present moment is always part of the longer term, unfolding into the past.

Finally, knowing the past is not just necessary to knowing yourself but to coming to understand what is unfamiliar about others and to avoiding alienation in the present. In the Smiths a song “when is now” Morrissey sings,  “when you say it’s going to happen now; well, what exactly do you mean?” “What is now?” is a philosophical problem that goes back to Aristotle, but I will stick with the Smiths, following the lead of Medieval Historian Carolyn Dinshaw. In the song, Morrissey, who is responding to his friend’s assertion that he will find love now, fears that his now and the now of his friend are not the same and that he cannot believe or trust him because of this. The worry is understandable, but Morissey asks the wrong question, focusing on the now rather than the then. To find a mutual understanding of “what is now” requires a shared engagement with—not agreement about but engagement with—the past, yours and others. Without this engagement, we/you risk different “thens” leading to dangerously estranging and alienating “nows.”

This is not an abstract point: we live in a society that views the past with contradictory lenses; that struggles to integrate the various  “thens” that emerge; and that must reconcile the diverging “nows” that result. We need “then and now” more than ever.

So I will close with two brief admonitions: First, I tell you that the study of the past is, as Thoreau wrote, “worth the expense of youthful days and costly hours.” And second, I ask you to remember Annia Urbica with me. Her memorial is here so that we don’t forget.

Thank you again Cappy for the invitation to speak today and thank you all very, very much for listening.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, September 9, 2015