From Pompeii to Cyberspace - Transcending barriers with Twitter

May 24, 2011

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 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
Juliette Harrisson
Terrence Lockyer
Liz Gloyn
David Meadows

Butler, S. The Hand of Cicero. Routledge. 2002.

Lintott, A. Cicero as Evidence - A Historian's Companion. Oxford University Press. 2008


Juliette said...

I'm still just feeling really guilty my sole contribution was to joke about Cicero!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another interesting perspective on our conversation.

I must say that my experience of Classicists is that most would be very glad to include an interested member of the public in such conversations. At events like the Classical Association conference, I see members of the public engaging on generally equal terms with the academic participants - and this is something which Classicists tend to be keen to encourage, given that we know our subject needs all the public support it can get.

But perhaps the issue is more one of logistical access than social exclusion? Classicists generally conduct conversations of this sort at conferences, in staff common rooms and so on, which members of the public do not always have easy access to. Either they are literally restricted spaces, or (in the case of conferences) they require an investment of time and money which not everyone can afford. By contrast, as you say, Twitter is a much more open-access space. I am certainly glad that it is helping to encourage dialogue both within and beyond the Classics community.

Meanwhile, to round off the story of the Cicero graffito, I popped into our library today and took a photo of the reading in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, which can now be seen in this tweet:!/pjgoodman/status/72682030982365184 It is indeed a slightly different reading from Mau's - but that's no great surprise, given how difficult ancient graffiti usually is to even see, let alone read.

Unknown said...

@Juliette - I had wondered if your particpation would have been more spirited if it was a negative quote about Cicero - you're definitely tougher on him than even Jerome's visionary tribunal! ;)

@weavingsandunpickings - Thanks for the clarification of the CIL reference - I wonder if this graffiti is still visible in Pompeii? I do indeed think Twitter is a great leveler when it comes to sharing common pursuits, a combination of logistical and social factors.

In writing this piece I wondered if that was an effect Twitter's creator Jack Dorsey had originally envisaged when he did his famous concept sketch a decade ago. He seemed to have a more corporate application in mind.

Kind Regards

Juliette said...

@H - No, nothing to do with that, I just had a very busy week and didn't have time to get into it! Fascinating discussion though.

Unknown said...

@Juliette - I know - I just found it amusing that there were similarly disaffected folks towards Cicero even back then, to prompt this graffiti in the first place!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this write-up - you're correct that the ability for 'civilians' to get involved in this sort of debate is a valuable plus. It also reinforced RC's point that there seems to be a lower 'fear boundary' for asking questions - questions from members of the general public can often be the really interesting ones, simply because they come at the material with fresh eyes. (The same is true of teaching.)

Alberti's Window said...

Isn't Twitter fantastic? Not only can you have conversations with people all over the globe, but the conversation isn't limited to a specific group. The public is welcome to join in (or just follow) the discourse.

Looks like an interesting conversation!

Anonymous said...

My thought was that this was likely the sort of thing a (former?) student of rhetoric might scribble: Roman schools were not noted for their humanitarian attitudes to discipline, after all.

But I must second the comment that at least some classicists (and I'm a classicist by training; not professionally) have been interacting online with all sorts of interested parties for years through the Classics-L, founded in the early 1990s by Linda Wright (a. k. a. Zeus) at the University of Washington, and now hosted by the University of Kentucky ( While the majority of participants there has been academic classicists, list culture in the fifteen years I've know it has always been against relying on authority (periodic suggestions that participants post qualifications or affiliation in signatures have failed to gain any traction), and if one gets involved in the back and forth, contributing positively to discussion (and by no means only on narrowly classical topics), one will not only be accepted but sometimes get extensive and quite unexpected help from fellow members.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@M- I can see Twitter having an analogous application for art historians, either collaborating or reporting conference proceedings. It was done previously at CAA but coverage wasn't widespread - plus if there is a group/panel not replete with tweeters and tech fans (like the Renaissance/Baroque crowd often are) then their proceedings wont be as strongly represented.

@Liz - thanks for the feedback - it was reassuring to know there are approachable classicisists out there - and it's great a medium such as twitter allows you to interact with others in a way that is not too burdensome on your work demands!

@tlockyer - there indeed have been means for interested groups to stay connected since the web was born, listserves IRC channels, message boards etc. Having used all preceding forms, I have to admit I find twitter to be the most efficient. I would like the ability to label, or tag tweets for review to be enabled by default - this would make it easier to follow threads of conversation without multiple @mentions or character consuming hashtags.

The other factor is of course that more of the general public are on twitter already, whereas encouraging people to lurk about on an .edu domain is more of a daunting prospect. Even I, with my relative confidence to pose questions feel less inclined to venture into spaces like Classic-L.

Kind regards

Anonymous said...

So many people involved in this conversation about one topic shows the power of social media! No matter your background, contributions to the conversation can be enjoyed on many levels.

SamsaPDX said...

'You will tweet meaningfully, or you will be whipped.' It may be easier for a haystack to pass through the eye of its own needle than for an idea of substance to enter the Kingdom of Blog, but this Luddite is learning never to say 'never.' Thanks for the reminder.

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