Wodehouse: Service with a Smile

July 16, 2021

Service with a Smile
P.G. Wodehouse
(Overlook, 2010) [1961]
256 p.

Every visit to Blandings Castle is a delight, but this is especially so when the Earl of Ickenham, known to his relations simply as Uncle Fred, is in the party. As usual, the extensive grounds of Blandings are fertile soil for young, tenacious romance, on the one hand, and pig purloining, on the other.

Difficulty and confusion are the order of the day. Poor Lord Emsworth is plagued by the stern attentions of his new secretary, Lavender Briggs; poor Bill Bailey finds his efforts to elope with an heiress millionaire thwarted by miscommunication; poor Lord Tilbury, magnate though he is, cannot find happiness until he possesses a pig capable, at least, of winning the silver medal at the Shropshire Agricultural Show; and poor Archie Gilpin has the misfortune to be engaged to two girls at once.

Into the fray, dauntless as always, ventures Uncle Fred, whose genial genius for hatching plots, setting traps, and lying through his teeth eventually, after much hilarity, brings about a happy resolution for all. But then we already knew that would happen.

Wodehouse is in good form. The Blandings novels are constructed from familiar elements — you would think that the Empress of Blandings would have a full-time security detail by now — but the light-hearted lack of stakes is part of the appeal of these effervescent performances. Wodehouse is a craftsman whose elegant creations are meant to charm the ear and delight the intellect, rather than wring the heart. Carefully constructed, yet unassuming, they are a literary equivalent of a Mozart divertimento or a particularly capering fugue by Bach. The only sadness, and it is a real one, is that this was the last of the novels about Uncle Fred, a character who was certainly, in my view, one of Wodehouse’s finest creations.


Music for Dante: The Divine Comedy II

July 9, 2021

Louis Andriessen was a Dutch composer who passed away earlier this month. News of his death caught my attention because I recently became aware of his opera, completed in 2008, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy.

La Commedia clocks in at a little under two hours, and is divided into five parts: the first three are based on the Inferno, the fourth on the Purgatorio, and the last, and longest, on the Paradiso. It is therefore a nice example of a contemporary piece inspired by the full swath of the Comedy. The libretto draws also on a number of other sources, including Dutch poets, the Song of Songs, and even Dante’s little-known Convivio.

When approaching a contemporary piece based, at least in the early going, on the torments of Hell, one braces oneself for an onslaught. It was gratifying, therefore, to find that Andriessen’s music in La Commedia — and I might mention that this is the first of his pieces that I’ve heard — is generally quite tuneful and, though it bristles and grinds at times, its general tendency is to fall fairly easily on the ear. I was pleasantly surprised. The opening moments, composed of modern street noises and sirens, are but a passing dream, and we are soon enough engulfed in music.

The entire piece is available to stream on YouTube, thanks to Nonesuch Records. Here is the first movement, based on Inferno, Cantos 8 and 9, in which Dante and Virgil cross the river Styx and approach the City of Dis.

*

The second section, entitled ‘Tale From Hell’, draws on Inferno Canto 21. Dante is in the eighth circle, and encounters the ditch of the corrupt politicians, who flounder in a pool of hot pitch, pushed beneath the surface by trident-wielding demons if they attempt to rise to the surface. It’s a rather cheering scene, really.

*

The third section is simply called “Lucifer”, and it is, of course, based on the final Canto of the Inferno, with a substantial additional text in Dutch, for which I lack a translation.

*

When we move to the Purgatorio, Andriessen focuses on Canto 8, the last canto before Dante begins his ascent, and in particular on the ominous passage in which a serpent slithers into Ante-Purgatory, only to be arraigned and chased off by angels. The music of this section veers into big-band jazz territory, which strikes me as an audacious and not entirely successful choice, but, then again, most people like jazz more than I do.

*

The final section draws liberally on many different cantos of the Paradiso. It is very lovely for the most part: ethereal and majestic. There is a long central section, however, based on Cacciaguida’s speech in Cantos 15/16, in which the text is spoken (in Dutch) over a groovy jazz rhythm. Again, others might like this more than I did.

***

Although there were some aspects of this piece that I didn’t care for, it is still an interesting and serious engagement with Dante’s poem, and I’m glad to have made its acquaintance.


Taylor: Death Comes for the Deconstructionist

June 17, 2021

Death Comes for the Deconstructionist
Daniel Taylor
(Cascade, 2014)
198 p.

First the Archbishop, and now this.

It’s an odd sort of murder mystery that Daniel Taylor has written. There’s a dead body, for sure — that of Richard Pratt, a fast-talking literature professor who falls from a hotel balcony with a Moby Dick-themed letter opener in his chest — and there is a detective — Jon Mote, a laconic, psychologically unstable and unmotivated former graduate student in Pratt’s department who gets hired as a PI by the dead man’s wife when the police investigation goes cold — and a Watson character — Jon’s mentally disabled sister Judy, who tags along with him as he meanders from interview to interview — and a constellation of possible suspects, as there must be. So far, so good.

But what is odd is how it plays out. Our detective isn’t really that interested in solving the mystery; he goes about it in fits and starts, out of a sense of obligation more than anything. He takes a lot of breaks. (I was envious!) Most of the time he’s more preoccupied with his own psychological, and, perhaps, spiritual health than in figuring out whodunit. There’s more than a dash of noir in the novel’s tone, as Jon drops wry and self-depreciating remarks the way Sam Spade dropped cigarette butts. I generally prefer my murder mystery detectives to have some personality, but here it’s more that a personality happens to have a mystery. I liked that about it.

Given that the detective is a former graduate student, and the stiff is a professor, there’s a good deal of dark academy humour in the book, and to my mind this is the best thing about it. As a campus comedy, it works very well. Pratt is a deconstructionist, which means, effectively, that he pours acid on things, and avoids pouring acid on his own self only insofar as he can maintain a mercurial, fleet-footed dance around his subject matter, one step ahead of his path of destruction. Taylor is really very good at satirizing this sort of thing — an easy target, maybe, but not one that I’ve often seen given the treatment, and it’s really funny.

The least successful aspect of the book, for me, was the sidekick character Judy. Conveying verbal mannerisms in print is no easy task, and I was never sure how she should sound. Perhaps I’m heartless, but she was for me an awkward presence that simply got on my nerves after a while.

As all mystery novels do, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist comes to some kind of conclusion about the death of its victim. And, as almost all mystery novels do, it fizzled in the process. It is because of this fizzling that my attitude towards the genre hovers somewhere between mild interest and active dislike, so maybe don’t listen to me. If you like this sort of book, you’ll probably like the ending better than I did. But I enjoyed getting there.


Pliny: Natural History

May 30, 2021

Natural History
A Selection
Pliny the Elder
(Penguin Classics, 1991) [c.79]
450 p.

Pliny’s Naturalis Historia is one of the charming oddities of ancient literature: a vast compendium of knowledge, legend, and speculation about the natural world as seen by the Romans in the first century after Christ. Pliny was himself a successful statesman, but his avocation was as a man of apparently boundless curiosity. He did his duty during the day, and at night wrote his many books — sleep, he is reported to have said, is like death, and to be avoided as much as possible.

His Natural History was, he said, “written for the masses, for the horde of farmers and artisans”, rather than for scholars. It consists of 37 books, all of which, I believe, have survived, although the single volume under consideration here is but a sampling. Pliny himself claims to have consulted 2000 sources in compiling his book; modern scholars, I read, judge the number to have been higher still.

It is a well-organized but rather artlessly executed work. He is careful to keep his thoughts about birds or medicine separate from his remarks on metalwork or planets, but on any particular topic the subject matter ranges from lists of interesting facts to anecdotes to moral reflections. It’s the sort of book for which “hodge podge” seems the right designation — or, I suppose, hodgus podgus in this case.

He begins at the beginning: with astronomy and cosmology, which is of course quite interesting. The natural world, he tells us, is “a deity, everlasting, boundless, an entity without a beginning and one that will never end” (2.1). He knows that the earth is a sphere that rotates every 24 hours — it is interesting that one of the arguments he gives (1.164) is the same one given in St Thomas’ Summa; I think it possible that that example had by then become canonical, or perhaps it simply meant that Thomas had himself whiled away a few pleasant hours in Pliny’s company, which is a happy thought indeed. He has a basic understanding that if the earth is a sphere it relativizes our usual understandings of “up” and “down”:

Scholars assert that men are spread out all round the earth and stand with their feet pointing towards each other and that the top of the sky is alike for all of them and that their feet point down towards the centre of the earth from wherever they are. An ordinary person, however, inquires why men on the opposite side do not fall off – as if there is not an equally good reason for them wondering why we do not fall off. (1.161)

He gives the ancient estimates for the circumference of the earth; that of Eratosthenes was off by only about 15%.

About God Pliny does not have much of interest to say; he conceives of God as a super powerful being, as the Romans tended to do, of whose existence he is doubtful, and, even if God does exist, Pliny wonders why he would care for humanity.

Of mankind he has a jaundiced view. “This alone is certain, namely that there is no such thing as certainty, and that nothing is more wretched or more conceited than man” (2.25). “The only thing he knows instinctively is how to weep” (7.4). He does admire the great men of Roman history, notably Caesar and Pompey, but overall sees us as pitiful creatures cruelly subject to changes of fortune and sudden deaths, tormented by the knowledge that we will die.

He takes us on a whirlwind tour of the known world, hitting the geographical and cultural highlights of Italy, Spain, Britain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Judaea, Asia Minor, China, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, and Ethiopia. In a long series of books he describes animal life, and these are among the most entertaining sections of the work: elephants (which “have qualities rarely apparent even in man, namely honesty, good sense, justice, and also respect for the stars, sun and moon” (8.1)), crocodiles, hippos, and apes, sharks, octopus (including a story about one that climbed a tree), and crabs. He takes time to rail against the “purple fish” which has fostered an unbecoming appetite for luxury among Romans (who used it to dye cloths purple). We read of eagles, ostriches, ravens, and parrots. Of insects he is most fascinated by bees, about which the Romans knew a great deal. He notes that most animals have bad breath.

On and on it goes: trees, shrubs, perfumes, metals, farming practices, making of pigments, and medicines all come up for discussion. He doesn’t think much of Roman medicine, and especially of Roman doctors (“Doctors learn by exposing us to risks, and conduct experiments at the expense of our lives. Only a doctor can kill a man with impunity” (29.18)). He does think highly of Greek artists, and makes particular note of the famous Laocoon sculpture, “a work superior to any painting or bronze”, which has survived to the present day in the Vatican collection.

Naturally not everything Pliny records is as accurate as Eratosthenes’ estimate of the circumference of the earth. He thinks earthquakes are caused by either lightning or wind. But even that speculation, wayward as it is, tells us that he’s trying to be careful — it’s either lightning or wind, he’s not sure which. And he does make an honest effort, throughout, to sift what is reliable from what is fabulous. (After noting reports of basilisks and werewolves, he says, “It is astonishing how far Greek gullibility will go. There is no occurrence so fabulously shameless that it lacks a witness” (8.82).)

There are several famous anecdotes in the book; I do not know if we know them principally through this book or not, but it is nice to read them in any case. Among my favourites is this one, about Cato and his fig:

Burning with a deadly hatred of Carthage and troubled with anxiety about the safety of his descendants, Cato used to shout at every meeting of the Senate: ‘Carthage must be destroyed!’ Now one day he brought into the Senate House an early ripe fig from Africa, showed it to his fellow senators and said: ‘I ask you, when do you think this fig was plucked from the tree?’

All agreed that it was fresh, so he said: ‘Know this, it was picked two days ago in Carthage; that’s how near the enemy are to our walls!’ Immediately they began the Third Punic War, in which Carthage was destroyed. (15.74-75)

It’s a fun book, then, though not one to read closely for long periods. It has been known and read throughout the centuries from Pliny’s day to ours. I am sure that for historians it is a gold mine of details that help them resolve questions about Roman engineering and the material conditions of life at the time. For the rest of us, it’s a cornucopia of trivia, good stories, and often amusingly refracted scientific ideas, written with a good deal of personality. It ends with this salutation:

Greetings, Nature, mother of all creation, show me your favour in that I alone of Rome’s citizens have praised you in all your aspects.

I hope that his wish was granted.

[Hangovers]
Even in the most favourable circumstances, the intoxicated never see the sunrise and so shorten their lives. This is the reason for pale faces, hanging jowls, sore eyes and trembling hands that spill the contents of full vessels; this the reason for swift retribution consisting of horrendous nightmares and for restless lust and pleasure in excess. The morning after, the breath reeks of the wine-jar and everything is forgotten – the memory is dead. This is what people call ‘enjoying life’; but while other men daily lose their yesterdays, these people also lose their tomorrows. (14.142)


von Hildebrand: Trojan Horse in the City of God

May 18, 2021

Trojan Horse in the City of God
Dietrich von Hildebrand
(Sophia Institute, 1993) [1967]
332 p.

Writing shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, von Hildebrand issues in this book a passionate critique of the changes being wrought in the Church’s life in the name of the Council. He must have been one of the earliest voices to point out the marked difference between the letter and the putative “spirit” of the Council:

It would be difficult to conceive a greater contrast than that between the official documents of Vatican II and the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.

Hildebrand saw the Council as having the potential to enrich the Church’s life by correcting imbalances that had grown up over the years since Trent. He thought that an “ossification and legalism” had come to characterize the Church in her own life and in her relationship to the world, and that the Council was trying to correct this. He saw traditional Catholic teachings on certain subjects as needing rebalancing by complementary truths: the Church stressed the value of religious life, to the relative neglect of married life; she stressed love of God, to the relative neglect of love of neighbour; she valued supernatural goods but undervalued natural goods; she practiced certain forms of Scriptural interpretation but neglected others. There were partial truths in need of completion.

Yet a partial truth is a truth, not an error, and the proper response is to add to it, not to repudiate it. He wrote because he saw in what was then already called “progressivism” a rejection of what was true in tradition in favour of the opposite half-truth: preference for married over religious life, substitution of love of neighbour for love of God, an overemphasis on natural goods, and a neglect of sound, traditional Scriptural interpretation. Above all, he saw the Church, in the name of the Council, being captured by the secular spirit of the age:

Enamored of our present epoch, blind to all its characteristic dangers, intoxicated with everything modern, many Catholics no longer ask whether something is true, whether it is good and beautiful, or whether it has intrinsic value. They ask only whether it is up-to-date, suitable to modern man and the technological age, challenging, dynamic, audacious, or progressive.

The bad fruit of this attitude was, already in 1967, beginning to become evident, and von Hildebrand surveys its many aspects. He saw traditional Catholic philosophy being abandoned in favour of philosophies, such as relativism and historicism, flatly incompatible with the Church’s teaching; he saw the evangelical imperative to present the Gospel in a manner suitable to our time and place being perversely interpreted as a requirement to change her teachings to suit the times; he saw the emphasis on religious pluralism and ecumenism betraying the Catholic commitment to religious truth; he noted a false, and characteristically modern, view of freedom disrupting the Catholic view of the moral life; he saw a turn from a transcendent to an immanent frame of reference for the Church’s life and activity; in the Church hierarchy he saw a reluctance to condemn heresies and errors as betraying either a lack of charity or a lack of faith, or both; and, perhaps above all, he saw the Church captured by a superficial optimism that the world was, somehow, bound to improve, such that whatever was happening must be good.

In 1967 the most obvious on-the-ground effect of the Council – the replacement of the Latin Mass by the new, vernacular Mass – was still in its nascent stages. Nonetheless von Hildebrand found reason enough to decry the loss of beauty and the disruption of the sacred atmosphere of the liturgy that was being pushed in parishes. He is not specific, so it is hard to know precisely what he was objecting to, but it is noteworthy, I think, that he already felt it was necessary to sound the alarm and defend the value and integrity of the Latin Mass. Little good it did us.

Against this “progressivism”, he argues, sensibly, that every age is a mixture of things better and things worse, that the newness of something has no bearing whatever on its truth, and that by denying the value of their tradition, progressives deprive themselves of the resources and advantages that those traditions provide.

He also rightly argues that “progressivism” in Catholicism, while it might, arguably, have a certain limited role to play, cannot be allowed free run of the house.

Even a man in no way conservative in temperament and in many other respects progressive must be conservative in his relation to the infallible magisterium of the Church, if he is to remain an orthodox Catholic. One can be progressive and simultaneously a Catholic, but one cannot be a progressive in one’s Catholic faith because the Church’s faith, and any true reform, is founded on unshakable faith in Christ and in the infallible magisterium of his Holy Church. It admits no possibility of change except … the explicit formulation of what was implicit in the faith of the Apostles or of what necessarily follows from it… This is simply the Catholic position, without further qualification.

*

The book is valuable not only because of when it was written – a dispatch from the front – but by whom. Von Hildebrand is normally associated with the reformers, not the embattled reactionaries. Yet here he lays out a sustained case against the principles and ambitions that have guided the “spirit of Vatican II” in the intervening decades.

Almost all of the problems he identifies are still with us. The young priests who came of age after the Council are now our senior churchmen, and, as is well known, many of them remain fond of this silly season. In some respects the battle has died down today, sometimes because issues faded in importance, and sometimes because trenches were dug and people got comfortable in them, but in other respects the conflict he describes remains timely, though the flashpoints have changed. But the book remains relevant. It would be great if the publisher would issue a new edition, because it is very hard to find.

Von Hildebrand knew Joseph Ratzinger in Germany when the latter was a young priest, and Ratzinger’s respect for him is on record. I’m not at all surprised to learn this, because the position von Hildebrand stakes out – openness to reform, love for tradition, and mistrust of sunny appraisals of modern habits of thought – reminds me in many respects of Ratzinger’s own.


Music for Dante: The Divine Comedy I

May 10, 2021

This post is the first in what I hope will be a series devoted to music inspired, in one way or another, by the poetry of Dante — principally, of course, by The Divine Comedy. There has been quite a lot of music written under his influence over the centuries, some of it fairly well-known, but most of it not, and I’m looking forward to exploring it.

I thought it would make sense to start with music inspired by the Comedy as a whole, and then later to focus on pieces written for particular panels of the triptych, and it probably also makes sense to start with the composer whom I most associate with Dante: Franz Liszt.

Liszt’s largest scale “Dante music” is the Dante Symphony, which premiered in 1857. It is a choral symphony written in two large movements; the first pertains to Inferno and the second to Purgatorio. (Perhaps at this stage in his life Liszt wasn’t much interested in Paradise.) The symphony doesn’t have a great reputation — but neither, for that matter, does any of Liszt’s orchestral music (or choral music!), most of which could be somewhat uncharitably described as lugubrious bombast. Still, it’s a big piece by a major composer, and it’s about Dante, so let’s have a listen. Here is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Peter Eotvos:

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The Dante music by Liszt with the best reputation is his Dante Sonata for piano, also called by its full title, Après une lecture du Dante. I always thought Liszt must have written it after hearing a lecture about Dante, but apparently the French actually means “after reading Dante”. The sonata was inspired mainly by Inferno, though some of the music in the middle of the sonata may be attempting to evoke Beatrice. As with much nineteenth-century programme music, it’s pretty hard to say unless someone tells you. But it’s a wonderful sonata. Here is Arcadi Volodos performing the piece live:

**


Middleton: The Revenger’s Tragedy

April 27, 2021

The Revenger’s Tragedy
Thomas Middleton
(Oxford, 2007) [c.1606]
50 p.

In his 1908 study of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Charles Swinburne calls The Revenger’s Tragedy “the most perfect and most terrible incarnation of the idea of retribution impersonate and concentrated revenge that ever haunted the dreams of a tragic poet or the vigils of a future tyrannicide”. It is indeed a bracing play, propelled by a long-simmering animosity now brought to boil, and it moves nimbly and surely through its scenes toward the vengeance for which it hungers.

At the play’s center is Vindice, a man whose beloved had been poisoned by the Duke nine years previously; in the interim he has been watching, waiting, and plotting his revenge. When an opportunity arises to offer a service to the Duke, he seizes on it, relishing the chance to get close to his target. As the play spools out, he gets his wish — the nine-years-gone poisoning returning in macabre echo — and more than his wish. The play ends, as such plays do, with bodies littering the stage.

We are in the hands of a dark poet. This is a play in which a man tries to convince his sister to play the prostitute to the Duke; in which the stake in a case of mistaken identity is whether a man is beheaded; in which heads swing in burlap sacks and lascivious men unwittingly kiss skulls. But it is also a play with a “profound and noble reverence for goodness” (Swinburne again), a goodness embodied with memorable strength by Castiza, a woman whose adamantine resistance to temptation burns white hot and casts a bright light in the darkness.

The verse of the play is excellent throughout. Swinburne works himself up into quite a sweat in his enthusiasm, waxing eloquent about “the fiery jet of his molten verse, the rush of its radiant and rhythmic lava”. This is not my style, but his love is understandable. Consider this passage, from the first scene, in which Vindice addresses the skull of his beloved, which he has kept with him since she died:

Thou sallow picture of my poisoned love,
My study’s ornament, thou shell of death,
Once the bright face of my betrothed lady,
When life and beauty naturally filled out
These ragged imperfections;
When two heaven-pointed diamonds were set
In these unsightly rings;—then ’twas a face
So far beyond the artificial shine
Of any woman’s bought complexion
That the uprightest man (if such there be,
That sin but seven times a day) broke custom
And made up eight with looking after her.

The introductory essay in my Oxford edition of Middleton suggests that the presiding spirit of the play is that of Yorick, and it is in passages like this that the claim is most convincing.

In general Middleton doesn’t give his characters long speeches — the above is one of the longest — and while this allows the story to move on briskly, it also limits his ability to really develop and unfold his characters. This becomes a problem at the very end of the play when Vindice, his revenge finally achieved, does something that was to me surprising and incongruous: he, who had nursed his anger in secret for so many years, suddenly and most imprudently boasts of his vengeance, to his death. I am tempted to call this a simple, though significant, fault. It is possible, perhaps, that a good actor could find a character arc that makes it plausible, but the text of the play really doesn’t lead us to expect it.

There is also, in this play, the problem that afflicts so many action movies: the drama is engaging until the action begins, and then it slackens and drains. There are many characters who must die before the play ends, and Middleton opts to pack most of them into one scene — the “action scene”, if you wish — in which daggers fly and bodies drop, but in such quick succession that the audience isn’t given time to absorb it; I found it dramatically unsuccessful.

All the same, I found this a ferociously good play, one that would be well worth revisiting. I’ll give the last word to Swinburne, as I gave the first:

There never was such a thunder-storm of a play: it quickens and exhilarates the sense of the reader as the sense of a healthy man or boy is quickened and exhilarated by the rolling music of a tempest and the leaping exultation of its flames.


Lecture nights: Austen on film

April 24, 2021

About a month ago Hillsdale College hosted a series of lectures on Jane Austen and the movies.

In the first, James Bowman gives an overview of the history of Austen adaptations for the screen. He is a longtime critic at The New Criterion, and though I’ve enjoyed his writing for many years, I’d never before heard him speak. He is as judicious and perceptive a critic as you could hope to find. If you take the time to watch, don’t abandon it before you hear his opinion of Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Emma!

In a second lecture, Peter Leithart speaks on ‘Jane Austen and Morality’. Although Leithart is a good judge of cinema (his book on Malick’s The Tree of Life is very worthwhile), his remarks apply as much to the books as to any film adaptations.

A final lecture brings us Whit Stillman speaking on his own experiences adapting Jane Austen for the screen. His is a more diffuse and, if you want, rambling approach, but I found it interesting to hear some stories about the creation of his marvellous Austen adaptation Love & Friendship (which I picked as one of my favourite films of the 2010s), not to mention the ways in which Austen’s books influenced his other films. Recommended especially to admirers of Stillman.

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There was also a fourth lecture in the series, in which Lorraine Murphy spoke on “The Life and Work of Jane Austen”. It sounded to me like an introductory lecture, so I skipped it, but, to judge by those I did see, I may have missed something good by doing so.

***

For the record, I think the best screen adaptations of Austen are, roughly in order, the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, the Sense and Sensibility adapted by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson, the 1996 Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow, and, coming last simply because it adapts a minor work, Whit Stillman’s aforementioned Love & Friendship. And I am right.


Tacitus: Histories

April 11, 2021

The Histories
Tacitus
Translated from the Latin by Church and Brodribb
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]
250 p.

Though written first, Tacitus’ Histories begins where his Annals ended: 69 AD. Originally consisting of more than a dozen Books and covering the years up to the death of Domitian in 96, we unfortunately have only the first third or so, which treats just two years: 69-70. They were, however, years rich in incident, stuffed to bursting with short-lived emperors, a time, says Tacitus, “rich in disasters, frightened in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.” (1.2)

*

Nero’s death in 68 had brought an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had ruled Rome since the time of Julius Caesar more than a century earlier. It was unclear who would rise to the imperial throne, and, as is common enough in such circumstances, there were multiple claimants, and a threat of civil war. In four parts of the empire, four men gathered support: on the Iberian peninsula, Galba, a governor with a fairly distinguished track record of civil service; in modern Portugal, Otho, an ambitious governor; in the north, patrolling the Rhine, Vitellius, a popular general; and in the east, Vespasian, a general currently preoccupied with putting down a rebellion in Judaea. The history of these first Books of Tacitus’ Histories is the history of how these four men contended for power.

It was Galba who occupied the throne first. He came to power in the middle of 68 with the support of the Praetorian Guard. He had gained their support because his assistant had bribed the soldiers with the promise of a big payout in return – a bribe Galba knew nothing about, and which, when once he had been named emperor, he felt no need to honour. For this reason, by January 69, when Tacitus’ history begins, Galba was strongly disliked by the Praetorian Guard, a perilous position for any emperor since Tiberius. He was also increasingly hated for his evident cruelty – toward Rome’s soldiers for his revival of the practice of decimation, and by the senatorial and equestrian classes in Rome for his policy of purging not only his enemies, but their families as well.

The camel’s back, in other words, was already quite heavily loaded when Galba made an important announcement on 10 January 69. To ensure a smooth transition in power at the end of his reign, he said, he was adopting as his son, and successor, one Lucius Calpurnius Piso. This news greatly offended and angered Otho, who had had a long relationship with Galba and had expected that he would be named heir. Otho moved quickly, and on 15 January Galba was murdered in the Roman Forum:

“About the actual murderer nothing is clearly known. Some have recorded the name of Terentius, an enrolled pensioner, others that of Lecanius; but it is the current report that one Camurius, a soldier of the 15th legion, completely severed his throat by treading his sword down upon it. The rest of the soldiers foully mutilated his arms and legs, for his breast was protected, and in their savage ferocity inflicted many wounds even on the headless trunk.” (1.41)

Piso, the heir-apparent, was also targeted for assassination. He took refuge in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, but the soldiers were not pious: they dragged him out and killed him on the steps. The grisly scene was the stage for Otho’s triumphant arrival:

“The Forum yet streamed with blood, when he was borne in a litter over heaps of dead to the Capitol” (1.47)

Of Galba’s character and success as emperor Tacitus makes this judicious appraisal:

“His character was of an average kind, rather free from vices, than distinguished by virtues… He seemed greater than a subject while he was yet in a subject’s rank, and by common consent would have been pronounced equal to empire, had he never been emperor.” (1.49)

**

Otho, however, fared no better than Galba. Already the legions in Germany had rallied behind Vitellius and were marching on Rome. That the emperor was now Otho and not Galba mattered little to them; the sticking point was that the emperor ought to be Vitellius. A confrontation was inevitable, and Otho directed the legions around Rome to prepare and march north. Outright civil war had arrived.

The armies clashed in northern Italy, near modern Genoa. There were skirmishes and sieges, but the decisive battle occurred at Bedriacum on 14 April. Vitellius’ forces were victorious. When the news arrived in Rome, Otho was philosophical. Though he was urged to continue the fight, he decided to cede power to Vitellius rather than sacrifice more lives to his personal ambition:

“By this let posterity judge of Otho. Vitellius is welcome to his brother, his wife, his children. I need neither revenge nor consolation. Others may have held the throne for a longer time, but no one can have left it with such fortitude. Shall I suffer so large a portion of the youth of Rome and so many noble armies to be again laid low and to be lost to the State? Let this thought go with me, that you were willing to die for me. But live, and let us no longer delay, lest I interfere with your safety, you with my firmness. To say too much about one’s end is a mark of cowardice. Take as the strongest proof of my determination the fact that I complain of no one. To accuse either gods or men is only for him who wishes to live.” (1.47)

On 16 April he committed suicide, having been emperor for just three months. Vitellius was proclaimed the new emperor.

*

Vitellius arrived in Rome, accompanied by his rough and wild soldiers from the German frontier, many of whom had never seen Rome before. He was a man, Tacitus tells us, of “shamelessness, indolence, and profligacy,” and under his leadership the city quickly descended into decadence:

“The sole road to power was to glut the insatiable appetites of Vitellius by prodigal entertainments, extravagance, and riot. The Emperor himself, thinking it enough to enjoy the present, and without a thought for the future, is believed to have squandered nine hundred million sesterces in a very few months.” (2.95)

Rumours began to reach Rome that far off, in Judaea, support was rising for Vespasian as a rival to imperial power, but Vitellius seems to have preferred to enjoy, rather than defend, himself:

“Buried in the shades of his gardens, like those sluggish animals which, if you supply them with food, lie motionless and torpid, he had dismissed with the same forgetfulness the past, the present, and the future.” (3.36)

Urged by his advisors, he did finally order an army to march north to protect Italy against Vespasian. Meanwhile, Vespasian’s brother, who lived in Rome, tried to begin negotiations with Vitellius. But he was attacked and took refuge on the Capitoline Hill. Vitellius’ men continued their assault and, in the process, burned the Temple of Jupiter to the ground — a great sacrilege, for the temple was one of the oldest and most sacred sites for Romans:

“This was the most deplorable and disgraceful event that had happened to the Commonwealth of Rome since the foundation of the city; for now, assailed by no foreign enemy, with Heaven ready to be propitious, had our vices only allowed, the seat of Jupiter Supremely Good and Great, founded by our ancestors with solemn auspices to be the pledge of Empire, the seat, which neither Porsenna, when the city was surrendered, nor the Gauls, when it was captured, had been able to violate, was destroyed by the madness of our Emperors” (3.72)

Vespasian’s brother was captured and executed, which effectively cut off all hope of negotiation with Vespasian. Although Vespasian himself was still in Egypt, generals loyal to him arrived in northern Italy and encountered Vitellius’ armies. The city of Cremona, which had been established as a defensive bulwark against Hannibal during the days of the Punic wars, centuries earlier, was destroyed. The emperor’s forces were failing, but Vitellius was indolent:

“The Emperor’s ears were so formed, that all profitable counsels were offensive to him, and that he would hear nothing but what would please and ruin.” (3.56)

To the astonishment of the Roman people, on 18 December 69 Vitellius abdicated the throne in an official announcement, but then, instead of retiring to private life, returned to live in the imperial palace. With little taste for ambiguity, Vespasian’s forces arrived in Rome a few days later, seized Vitellius, and executed him in the Roman Forum. Vespasian, though absent, was declared emperor, the fourth in less than 12 months. There followed a frenzy of violence in the city that surpassed anything the Romans had seen in many years:

“When Vitellius was dead, the war had indeed come to an end, but peace had yet to begin. Sword in hand, throughout the capital, the conquerors hunted down the conquered with merciless hatred. The streets were choked with carnage, the squares and temples reeked with blood, for men were massacred everywhere as chance threw them in the way. Soon, as their license increased, they began to search for and drag forth hidden foes. Whenever they saw a man tall and young they cut him down, making no distinction between soldiers and civilians. But the ferocity, which in the first impulse of hatred could be gratified only by blood, soon passed into the greed of gain. They let nothing be kept secret, nothing be closed; Vitellianists, they pretended, might be thus concealed. Here was the first step to breaking open private houses; here, if resistance were made, a pretext for slaughter. The most needy of the populace and the most worthless of the slaves did not fail to come forward and betray their wealthy masters; others were denounced by friends. Everywhere were lamentations, and wailings, and all the miseries of a captured city, till the license of the Vitellianist and Othonianist soldiery, once so odious, was remembered with regret. The leaders of the party, so energetic in kindling civil strife, were incapable of checking the abuse of victory. In stirring up tumult and strife the worst men can do the most, but peace and quiet cannot be established without virtue.” (4.1)

When Vespasian did finally arrive in the city, he re-established law and order. Tacitus describes him in this way:

“Vespasian was an energetic soldier; he could march at the head of his army, choose the place for his camp, and bring by night and day his skill, or, if the occasion required, his personal courage to oppose the foe. His food was such as chance offered; his dress and appearance hardly distinguished him from the common soldier; in short, but for his avarice, he was equal to the generals of old.” (2.5)

The Romans always loved a ruler with a distinguished military record, and Vespasian fit the bill. He was comparatively moderate in his governance. Purges of enemies were common in Roman history following transfers of power, and Vespasian, too, “cleaned house,” but he did so more on the basis of character than of political allegiance. Those whom he considered to have acted faithfully and honestly, regardless of which side they had taken in the civil war, he elevated; those whom he deemed unreliable or malicious were exiled or executed. He undertook major building projects in the city, rebuilding the Temple of Jupiter, and, down the road, beginning construction on an amphitheatre that would become one of the most famous buildings in the world. And his policies seem to have been largely successful, for he remained in power for a decade, and, through his two sons, Titus and Domitian, established a new imperial dynasty that was to rule Rome until 96 AD.

**

A year before he became emperor, Vespasian had been in Judaea attempting to put an end to a rebellion among the Jews. When he departed for Rome, he left his son Titus in charge of the operation. Tacitus gives us some background on the conflict, and, in a fascinating section (5.2-5), provides a brief anthropological introduction to the Jewish people. This must be taken with some reservations, for it is obvious that he dislikes them intensely, but it is still interesting. He notes their Sabbath observance, use of unleavened bread, circumcision, and, of course, monotheism, which was a continual source of friction between the Jews and Rome. He sees their unwillingness to pay worship to the emperor as an impiety, a determination “to despise all gods, to disown their country”, and he finds their conception of God peculiar:

“The Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples. This flattery is not paid to their kings, nor this honour to our Emperors.”

Early in Book 5 he describes how Titus drew up his forces and began a siege of Jerusalem, but unfortunately that is where it ends, for the rest of the Histories is lost. We know what happened, of course: the city was taken, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world, an event of incalculable importance to world history.

**

So ends my voyage through the principal historical works of Tacitus. He is a fine historian, with a blunt and manly style, a commitment to sifting truth from fiction, and a talent for forthright moral judgment. It is true that the most important events that occurred in the Empire during the period he covered – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the founding of the Christian religion – were almost entirely missed, and he certainly did not appreciate their importance for Rome and for the world. Nonetheless, as an imperial historian of the first century, though he has rivals, he has no betters, and I have greatly enjoyed reading him.


Feast of the Annunciation, 2021

March 25, 2021

With the Annunciation this year in such close proximity to Holy Week, let’s hear a beautiful pre-Reformation poem on the Seven Last Words of Christ, which begins “Mary, full of virtue, pity and grace…”. The full text can be read here. This musical setting is by Robert Fayrfax, an astonishingly great composer whose 500th anniversary we are marking this year; the score can be read here. The ensemble in this video is the Tallis Scholars.

A happy and blessed feast to all!