One of my favorite scholars of the ancient world and old graduate school crony, Mike Fronda, has a brilliant little piece in this fall’s McGill University’s Classical Studies Newsletter.
Mike talks about his visit to the home town of his grandmother, Caulonia, in Calabria. This town fit into Mike’s recent research on the Italiote League as ancient Kaulonia was the capital of the league. Today, the site is mostly known for the foundations of a Doric Temple.
Mike’s short essay, however, focuses on the intersection of the ancient and the modern in the methods he used to search for his grandmother’s birth date. The essay deserves to be read in total here, but here’s a teaser:
Caulonia has a personal resonance for me: thousands of Cauloniesi emigrated to the US in the 1910s and 1920s, among them my grandmother Carmela Maiolo. I decided to visit the historic center to learn more about my origins. Around the central piazza, I found several placards memorializing the five days in 1945 when the townsfolk declared an independent, communist “Red Republic of Caulonia,” before allied forces suppressed the movement. At last I came to the civic registry office, where I was invited by the director to search through the birth records, organized by decade, to find information on my ancestors.
Quickly we found entries for my great-grandparents and my grandmother’s seven siblings, but nothing on my grandmother, who was born (according to family lore) in 1902. I immediately began to develop theories: was my grandmother adopted? Did she lie about her name? Did she lie about her age? So I asked the director to look in the records for 1890-1899. She was skeptical and asked, “Does your grandmother have a grave?” “Yes,” I answered. “What is written on the stone?” “1902,” I answered. “So there,” she said. “But,” I explained, “when she died, no one in the family knew for sure when she was born.” The director looked dubious but relented, and within in minutes, we found the missing birth record in 1899!
As a scholar in ancient history, this experience struck me deeply. The director assumed that the tombstone inscription was an indisputable fact, and indeed ancient historians often put great faith in epigraphic evidence without considering that they are subject to the same distortions, inaccuracies and fabrications found in, for instance, literary sources.