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R-MC Classics Students Create Unique Online Database

Nov 03, 2015

Fronto-1Randolph-Macon College students enrolled in an advanced Classics course are undertaking a unique and challenging project: the creation of a fully searchable online database of the work of Marcus Cornelius Fronto, a prominent orator of the Roman world. The course, Ancient Letters, is taught by Classics Professor Bartolo Natoli.

"Although Fronto was famous in antiquity, he is not well-known now because of the fact that very few texts or commentaries exist on his work," explains Natoli. "Therefore, my students are setting out to fix this and to share their findings with the entire academic field of Classics." In addition to the new database, their work will also be presented, by Natoli and his students, at a regional Classics meeting in March 2016 at The College of William & Mary, and by Natoli at an international meeting at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in April 2016.

Marcus Cornelius Fronto
Marcus Cornelius Fronto (2nd c. CE) was an orator, statesman, and rhetorician held on par with the greats from Ancient Rome: Cicero, Seneca, and Quintilian.

"We know that he gave countless speeches and wrote a good deal on oratorical topics," says Natoli. "We also know that his ideas were greatly influential in the 2nd century CE. However, as great as Fronto was, his works were entirely lost to modernity until relatively recently."

In 1815, Cardinal Angelo Mai discovered a cache of Fronto's writings in a Milanese palimpsest (manuscript). Over the next few decades, these letters were published, but rather haphazardly. As a result, scholars interested in Fronto now could read his letters; yet no one produced a full-fledged commentary until the 1990s. This commentary, says Natoli, is extremely expensive and difficult to obtain. Therefore, even though Fronto's importance is known, his works still cannot be accessed by anyone except a handful of scholars.

Open-Access Database
"The project for this class is to fix part of this problem by working through the letters of Fronto and developing a series of text-commentaries aimed at college and graduate students so that they can access Fronto," says Natoli. "These commentaries will be hosted on the open-access database, which the students also created." The database,, will be fully operational in December 2015.

The 11 students in Natoli's class are each writing text-commentaries that will be edited and uploaded to the site. One of these students, Grace McIntire '19, is assisting Natoli in writing the HTML for the web site. Another Classics major who is not in the class, John Winburne '16, is writing the code for the database.

A Valuable Resource
Madeline Monk '16 is a Latin, history, and English major. Monk says the database she and her classmates created can be a valuable resource for anyone interested in classical studies.

"The field of classical studies rarely gets new evidence—most of the research classicists do relies upon taking old evidence and turning new scholarly lenses upon it," she says. "This database will make Fronto's letters accessible to scholars and students, opening a new area of research. For a more general audience, it provides an accessible way to read Fronto's letters and discuss the social and historical issues involved." Monk, who is currently applying to graduate school for classical studies, hopes to start a Ph.D. program next fall, with the aim of eventually becoming a college professor.

In conjunction with Natoli's class, Monk wrote a paper, Ad Marcum Caesarem 3.15, which she will present at the upcoming Critical Identities in Antiquity undergraduate symposium at the University of Richmond. The paper discusses what she finds most interesting about Fronto's letters: the amatory language he and Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor best known for his philosophy of self-restraint, had while Fronto was Marcus Aurelius' tutor in rhetoric.

"Whether or not Fronto and Marcus Aurelius had a romantic relationship in the flesh, the romance that played out in their letters radically changes the image possessed by the historical Fronto and Marcus Aurelius before the discovery of these letters," says Monk. "In my paper, I discuss how their relationship often inverts the classic pederastic relationship, in which an older man introduces a younger boy into society in exchange for sexual favors."

Grace Mcintire '19 is a Latin, Greek, and mathematics major and education minor who plans on becoming a Latin teacher.

"This database of Fronto's works will help make it as important to study Fronto now as in ancient times," says Mcintire. "I feel privileged to be able to contribute to this as a freshman, and now that I've been introduced to this higher-level work so early on, I only want to learn more. I know this database will help me teach my future students about Fronto—and it will be great to point out the sections I helped contribute to."