BSR Online Lecture | Varro’s guide to being Roman

WEDNESDAY 28 OCTOBER, 18.00-19.30

Diana Spencer (Birmingham)

This event will take place via Zoom and requires advance registration. Please click here to reserve your place.

One of the things often used to characterise Rome’s ‘iconicity’ is its command of hydrography and, perhaps strangely, its magnificent dependence on the hidden and mostly unseen. In its pride in grand underground public works we can also see intriguing reverberations against other, perhaps more troubling or at least ambiguous encounters between upper and underworlds, and the lost sites that continue to shimmer in and out of antiquarian focus in the first century BCE. This was a time of enormous urban change with major infrastructural projects jostling with ‘private’ initiatives pushing personal and familial as well as political agenda.

My discussion is not so much about the real-world sites of Rome’s patriotic heart (the Forum, the Circus valley, the Tiber floodplain, the central hills) as it is about the estrangement that M. Terentius Varro’s gaze applies to them. Varro, one of the Republic’s great polymaths, intellectual sparring partner of Cicero and at the heart of the political set jostling for power in the first half of the first century, leaves us with tantalising glimpses of the fracturing cityscape and it morphology spelled into life in one of his great (yet only partly surviving) works, De Lingua Latina. This omnivorous study of Latin, within which etymology and grammar produce powerful and unexpected insights, touches upon Rome’s imagined, storied depths; dark places which occasionally emerge into historical time and space. Varro also sketches some of the ways in which movement through his contemporary cityscape is shaped by lost sites and echoes of  places and peoples no longer tangible but nonetheless capable of challenging contemporary understanding of what it means to be Roman, and to dwell in Rome.

Diana Spencer is Professor of Classics and Dean of Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences at the University of Birmingham. She is interested in what we think Romans thought about themselves (as reflected in texts), how they conceptualized themselves as a people, and responded to (and were shaped by) the world they lived in. This is evident in her recent monograph on Varro (Language and Authority in De Lingua Latina: Varro’s Guide to Being Roman), and informs her current interest in the expression of experience of place and materiality in metal and stone in the late Republic and Augustan Principate. She enjoys investigating how identity and cultural politics are manifest through narratives emphasising space, territory, cultivation of place, and ethos (see e.g. Roman Landscape: Culture and Identity; The Sites of Rome: Time, Space, Memory). She works on authors and texts fascinated by the built environment, but also engaged in interrogation of what “self”, “nature”, and “wild” mean, and why.