Archive for April, 2022

A Greek reading list

April 26, 2022

It was four or five years ago that I launched my little Roman reading project, and, now that that project is winding down, or up, I am beginning to plan for a similar project focused on the Greeks. Again, the guiding idea is to read primary sources in history and literature, with perhaps a few modern supplements to help with context.

I’ve put together a list of things I’d like to include, and am posting it here with an invitation for comment. Anything I should add? Anything I should delete? Following my reading intentions, I’ve done my best to arrange it chronologically.

In a number of cases — Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, some Plato, some Aristotle, the playwrights — I’ve read these books before, but I expect it to be both instructive and enjoyable to re-visit them in this chronological sequence.


Plutarch: Theseus
Plutarch: Lycurgus

Hesiod (c.750-c.650 BC)
Works and Days

Homer (c.700 BC)
The Iliad
The Odyssey

Greek Lyric Poetry (7th-5th c. BC): an anthology

Plutarch: Solon (638-558)

Sappho (c.630-c.570 BC)

Aesop (c.620-564)

Plutarch: Aristides (530-468)

Aeschylus (c.525-c.455 BC)
Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides)

Plutarch: Themistocles (c.524-459)

Pindar (c.522-c.443 BC)

Plutarch: Cimon (510-450)

Herodotus (c.484-c.425 BC)
The Histories

Sophocles (c.500-c.405 BC)
Oedipus the King
Oedipus at Colonus

Plutarch: Pericles (c.495-429)

Euripides (c.480-c.406 BC)
Medea (431)
Hippolytus (428)
Electra (420)
The Trojan Women (415)
The Bacchae (405)

Diodorus of Sicily
Library, Books 11-14 [events 480-401 BC]

Plutarch: Nicias (470-413)

Thucydides (c.460-c.400 BC)
The Peloponnesian War

Hippocrates (c.460-c.370)
On Ancient Medicine
On the Art

Plutarch: Alcibiades (450-404)
Plutarch: Lysander (d.395)

Aristophanes (c.446-c.386 BC)
The Clouds

Plutarch: Pelopidas (d.364)
Plutarch: Agesilaus (444-360)

Xenophon (c.430-354 BC)
Hellenika [events 411-362 BC]
Anabasis [c.370] — events c.400
Education of Cyrus
Socratic dialogues

Isocrates (436-338 BC)

Plato (c.425-c.350 BC)
First Alcibiades
Lesser Hippias/Greater Hippias

Plutarch: Timoleon (411-337)
Plutarch: Dion (408-354)
Plutarch: Phocion (402-318)

Demosthenes (384-322 BC)
Philippics 1

Plutarch: Demosthenes (384-322)

Aristotle (384-322 BC)
Metaphysics (gulp!)
Nicomachean Ethics

Plutarch: Eumones (362-316)

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)
Diodorus of Sicily — Library, Books 16-20 [events 382-300 BC]
Quintus Curtius Rufus — History of Alexander
Arrian — Anabasis
The Greek Alexander Romance

Plutarch: Alexander

Menander (c.340-c.290 BC)

Plutarch: Demetrius (d.283)
Plutarch: Pyrhhus (319-272)

Euclid (fl.c.300 BC)

Theocritus (c.300-after 260 BC)
Idylls (+ other poems?)

Eratosthenes (c.276-195 BC)
Constellation myths

Apollonius of Rhodes (c.275 BC)

Plutarch: Agis (fl.245)
Plutarch: Cleomenes (d.219)
Plutarch: Philopoemon (253-183)

Longinus (1st c. AD)
On the Sublime

Epictetus (c.50-135 AD)

Daphnis and Chloe (c.150 AD)



Alexander the Great
Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: a historical biography
Pressfield, The Virtues of War (novel)
Alexander the Great: historical texts in translation (ed. Heckel and Yardley)
Bosworth, Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great

D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths
Tales of the Greek Heroes — Lancelyn Green
Mythology – Edith Hamilton
Greek Myths – Robert Graves

Bury: A History of Greece
Kitto: The Greeks
Guardino: The Death of Socrates


This is going to take a while, but I’m excited about it. Again, guidance or constructive comments welcome!

Gibbon: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, III

April 21, 2022

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Volume 3
Edward Gibbon
(Modern Library, 1993)  [1776]
xix + 556 p.

Goths, Huns, and Vandals are our unruly guests as we settle down once again with Gibbon, who in this volume concentrates on the period from the ascent of Theodosius to the imperial throne in 379 to the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455. It’s a period of fracture and friction as the Roman imperium begins to buckle under the pressures placed upon it.

Early on, Gibbon provides us with a convenient summary of the situation that had developed from about the reign of Decius (c.250) until the reign of Theodosius, which is worth reproducing here:

During this period, the seat of government had been transported from Rome to a new city on the banks of the Thracian Bosphorus; and the abuse of military spirit had been suppressed by an artificial system of tame and ceremonious servitude. The throne of the persecuting Decius was filled by a succession of Christian and orthodox princes, who had extirpated the fabulous gods of antiquity: and the public devotion of the age was impatient to exalt the saints and martyrs of the Catholic church, on the altars of Diana and Hercules. The union of the Roman empire was dissolved; its genius was humbled in the dust; and armies of unknown Barbarians, issuing from the frozen regions of the North, had established their victorious reign over the fairest provinces of Europe and Africa.

We have a few themes here: the rise of Christianity, the weakening of Roman defences, and growing pressure around the periphery of the empire from a variety of ambitious tribes. All of these themes continue and are augmented during the period under consideration in this volume.


Let’s look briefly at the progress of Christianity. Theodosius, emperor in the east, used his power to effect the extinction of Arianism, which had threatened the orthodox faith in the preceding century. The decline of paganism continued, after its last, unsuccessful, hurrah during the reign of Julian. Gibbon looks dolefully on the waxing enthusiasm among Christians for honouring the saints, a “pernicious innovation” that “corrupted the pure and perfect simplicity of the Christian model”. This period also coincides with the lives of several of the most important Church Fathers: St Ambrose, St Augustine, St Athanasius (for whom Gibbon has a particular disdain), and St John Chrystostom. Of the latter, Gibbon relates a humorous account of the effect of his preaching on the ruling parties in Constantinople:

When he declaimed against the peculiar vices of the rich, poverty might obtain a transient consolation from his invectives; but the guilty were still sheltered by their numbers; and the reproach itself was dignified by some ideas of superiority and enjoyment. But as the pyramid rose towards the summit, it insensibly diminished to a point; and the magistrates, the ministers, the favorite eunuchs, the ladies of the court, the empress Eudoxia herself, had a much larger share of guilt to divide among a smaller proportion of criminals.

Of the churchmen whom Gibbon admires, the foremost is probably Pope St Leo the Great, whose courage played a role, at least, in averting the sack of Rome by the Huns in the middle of the fifth century, about which more below.


Governance of the empire continued to be divided between east and west. We open with Gratian ruling in the west, and Theodosius in the east. Theodosius Gibbon considers one of the ablest of the Roman emperors (“his virtues always seemed to expand with his fortunes”), though his reign was marred by acts of cruelty (see Massacre of Thessalonica).

After his death a power struggle arose between his two sons, Arcadius and Honorius, and “the subjects of Arcadius and Honorius were instructed, by their respective masters, to view each other in a foreign, and even hostile, light; to rejoice in their mutual calamities, and to embrace, as their faithful allies, the Barbarians, whom they excited to invade the territories of their countrymen.” The predictable result was an acceleration of the trends which weakened Rome. In particular, their disputes coincided with incursions by the Visigoths, under Alaric, into Greece (396) and then Italy (400). This was a back-and-forth affair, with skirmishes and battles here and there over the course of several years, and Gibbon writes with poignancy and a certain ironic wit of the occasion on which Honorius, celebrating a minor triumph over the Goths, had a triumphal arch built in Rome, “but in less than seven years, the Gothic conquerors of Rome might read, if they were able to read, the superb inscription of that monument, which attested the total defeat and destruction of their nation”.

The sack of Rome by Alaric’s army in 410, the first such since the Gaul’s had sacked the city about 800 years before, was one of the milestones in the slow decline of the empire, worth more symbolically, perhaps, than practically, since the city was no longer the seat of government. One might think that the event would have sent shock waves through the empire, but the emperor Honorius, at least, received the news with equanimity, as we learn from Procopius:

At that time they say that the Emperor Honorius in Ravenna received the message from one of the eunuchs, evidently a keeper of the poultry, that Roma had perished. And he cried out and said, “And yet it has just eaten from my hands!” For he had a very large cockerel, Roma by name; and the eunuch comprehending his words said that it was the city of Roma which had perished at the hands of Alaric, and the emperor with a sigh of relief answered quickly: “But I thought that my fowl Roma had perished.” So great, they say, was the folly with which this emperor was possessed.

The sack of the city was a short-lived affair — just 3 days — and Alaric withdrew into Campania. He died the following year, and his brother Athaulf, who succeeded him, ceased the offensive against Rome, having apparently conceived an admiration for its laws and government, saying, “It is now my sincere wish that the gratitude of future ages should acknowledge the merit of a stranger, who employed the sword of the Goths, not to subvert, but to restore and maintain, the prosperity of the Roman empire.” We have reports that within a few years Rome’s prosperity and security seemed to have been restored.

At about the same time, Gaul was invaded by a number of tribes in a series of migrations:

They entered, without opposition, the defenceless provinces of Gaul. This memorable passage of the Suevi, the Vandals, the Alani, and the Burgundians, who never afterwards retreated, may be considered as the fall of the Roman empire in the countries beyond the Alps.

In an attempt to shore up the western empire, Honorius attempted to introduce a form of regional self-government, but it failed due to disinterest on the part of the Romans: “The emperor Honorius expresses his surprise, that he must compel the reluctant provinces to accept a privilege which they should ardently have solicited.” This failure perhaps tells us more about the ultimate reasons for the decline of the western empire than any series of battles could do.


In the first half of the 5th century a new threat appeared on the horizon: the Huns, led by Attila. They careened through the Byzantine territories, dealing out defeats to the startled Greeks. Crossing the Rhine, they swept into Gaul, where they were met by a coalition of Romans and Visigoths led by Flavius Aetius, the western empire’s leading general. In 451, at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, Attila’s forces were bested and retreated.

The victory was not decisive, however, for the next year the Huns made an incursion into Italy — scattering, in the process, those living on the north border of the Adriatic onto a series of islands just off-shore that would, in time, become the city of Venice. Attila threatened the city of Rome, and again it was Aetius who came to the rescue: he arranged a diplomatic contingent, including among its members Pope Leo the Great, to meet with Attila; after the meeting Attila withdrew his forces, for reasons that are disputed.

For his services to the empire against the Huns, Aetius earned the adulation of the Roman people, and the envious ire of the western emperor, Valentinian III, who, in an act that shocked observers, had Aetius assassinated. One of Valentinian’s courtiers is reported to have described the act as being that of “a man who cuts off his right hand with his left”. But the fame of Aetius outlived that of the emperor nonetheless; under the Italianate version of his name, Ezio, he has been given the opera treatment by luminaries such as Handel and Gluck, and that can’t be said for everyone.


In 455 Rome suffered a further indignity at the hands of the Vandals, who had taken control of the territories around Carthage. Led by their king Genseric, they assaulted and sacked Rome. Pope St Leo the Great again met the oncoming forces as emissary, and although he wasn’t able to convince them to withdraw, he did exact a promise from Genseric that the inhabitants of Rome would not be harmed. The gates were thrown open, and for two weeks the Vandals looted the city.

Gibbon gives us a moving portrait of Rome in the aftermath of the Vandal’s sacking, putting the travails of the city into perspective. It is worth quoting at length:

The spectator who casts a mournful view over the ruins of ancient Rome, is tempted to accuse the memory of the Goths and Vandals, for the mischief which they had neither leisure, nor power, nor perhaps inclination, to perpetrate. The tempest of war might strike some lofty turrets to the ground; but the destruction which undermined the foundations of those massy fabrics was prosecuted, slowly and silently, during a period of ten centuries; and the motives of interest, that afterwards operated without shame or control, were severely checked by the taste and spirit of the emperor Majorian. The decay of the city had gradually impaired the value of the public works. The circus and theatres might still excite, but they seldom gratified, the desires of the people: the temples, which had escaped the zeal of the Christians, were no longer inhabited, either by gods or men; the diminished crowds of the Romans were lost in the immense space of their baths and porticos; and the stately libraries and halls of justice became useless to an indolent generation, whose repose was seldom disturbed, either by study or business. The monuments of consular, or Imperial, greatness were no longer revered, as the immortal glory of the capital: they were only esteemed as an inexhaustible mine of materials, cheaper, and more convenient than the distant quarry. Specious petitions were continually addressed to the easy magistrates of Rome, which stated the want of stones or bricks, for some necessary service: the fairest forms of architecture were rudely defaced, for the sake of some paltry, or pretended, repairs; and the degenerate Romans, who converted the spoil to their own emolument, demolished, with sacrilegious hands, the labors of their ancestors.

The emperor Majorian, mentioned in this passage, who reigned briefly from 457-461, is, for Gibbon, one of the most splendid figures of the age, a “man of great and heroic character, such as sometimes arise, in a degenerate age, to vindicate the honour of the human species”. He was an able general and won several significant victories in Gaul and Iberia, and was able to arrest for a time, though not reverse, the political dissolutions that eroded the cohesion of the empire. Gibbon relates a marvellous anecdote about him:

Anxious to explore, with his own eyes, the state of the Vandals, he ventured, after disguising the color of his hair, to visit Carthage, in the character of his own ambassador: and Genseric was afterwards mortified by the discovery, that he had entertained and dismissed the emperor of the Romans.

Adding that “Such an anecdote may be rejected as an improbable fiction; but it is a fiction which would not have been imagined, unless in the life of a hero.” Somebody, it seems to me, ought to have written an opera or two about him as well.


But the glory of Majorian was a last hurrah. This volume peters out with a litany of short-lived emperors who together constitute a portrait of ignominy, violence, and desperation. Presiding over them, providing these twilight years with a certain kind of unity, looms the knife-wielding shadow of Ricimer, whom Gibbon credits with having assassinated at least three, and possibly four, emperors. Let us have a few more operas!


The end of this volume marks the approximate mid-point of Gibbon’s great history, and effectively concludes his account of the decline and fall of the western empire. When we think of the empire having “completed” its decline, it was not the case, of course, that it was reduced to dust and ashes. Life continued, and a contemporary might have been surprised to be told that the empire’s decline was complete. Gibbon resists the temptation to draw a bright line at any particular year as marking “the end”.

In the three remaining volumes the focus will be primarily on the eastern empire, though we will also see how the decline of the western empire allowed room for new political forces to emerge, and how those forces eventually began to again affect the political fortunes of the eastern empire. I’m looking forward to it.

“The disregard of custom and decency always betrays a weak and ill-regulated mind.”

Our Singing Strength

April 19, 2022

Yesterday we had a spring snowstorm where I live, and I was reminded of this poem by Robert Frost, which I like quite a bit. I group it with Frost’s “snow poems”; “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is the most famous, but actually there are quite a number that I, a snow-burdened Canadian, appreciate. In this poem, I admire the construction from rhyming couplets, but enjambed in such a way that it doesn’t break neatly into two-line groups.

It is the first stanza that I mostly thought of yesterday. I did not see any birds.

Our Singing Strength

It snowed in spring on earth so dry and warm
The flakes could find no landing place to form.
Hordes spent themselves to make it wet and cold,
And still they failed of any lasting hold.
They made no white impression on the black.
They disappeared as if earth sent them back.
Not till from separate flakes they changed at night
To almost strips and tapes of ragged white
Did grass and garden ground confess it snowed,
And all go back to winter but the road.
Next day the scene was piled and puffed and dead.
The grass lay flattened under one great tread.
Borne down until the end almost took root,
The rangey bough anticipated fruit
With snowball cupped in every opening bud.
The road alone maintained itself in mud,
Whatever its secret was of greater heat
From inward fires or brush of passing feet.

In spring more mortal singers than belong
To any one place cover us with song.
Thrush, bluebird, blackbird, sparrow, and robin throng;
Some to go further north to Hudson’s Bay,
Some that have come too far north back away,
Really a very few to build and stay.
Now was seen how these liked belated snow.
the field had nowhere left for them to go;
They’d soon exhausted all there was in flying;
The trees they’d had enough of with once trying
And setting off their heavy powder load.
They could find nothing open but the road.
So there they let their lives be narrowed in
By thousands the bad weather made akin.
The road became a channel running flocks
Of glossy birds like ripples over rocks.
I drove them under foot in bits of flight
That kept the ground, almost disputing right
Of way with me from apathy of wing,
A talking twitter all they had to sing.
A few I must have driven to despair
Made quick asides, but having done in air
A whir among white branches great and small
As in some too much carven marble hall
Where one false wing beat would have brought down all,
Came tamely back in front of me, the Drover,
To suffer the same driven nightmare over.
One such storm in a lifetime couldn’t teach them
That back behind pursuit it couldn’t reach them;
None flew behind me to be left alone.

Well, something for a snowstorm to have shown
The country’s singing strength thus brought together,
That though repressed and moody with the weather
Was none the less there ready to be freed
And sing the wildflowers up from root and seed.

Easter Sunday, 2022

April 17, 2022

I got me flowers to straw thy way;
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sunne arising in the East,
Though he give light, & th’ East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred, but we misse:
There is but one, and that one ever.

– George Herbert (1633)

Happy Easter!

Josquin: Prolation canon

April 12, 2022

Among the many delights of the ars perfecta music that prevailed prior to the seventeenth century in Europe is the intricacy and mathematical subtlety of the counterpoint composers created. A particularly impressive sub-genre was the prolation canon, in which a specific musical idea was reproduced at different pitches and different tempos, but in such a way that it continued to harmonize beautifully.

If we conceive of a musical line as a set of ordered pitch relationships and a rhythmic pattern, then we have the freedom to play the “same” musical line at different starting pitches and different speeds. When these variations on the “same” music are played simultaneously, we have a prolation canon.

Johannes Ockeghem wrote an entire Mass using this virtuosic idea, but today I’d like to illustrate it using a section of the “Agnus Dei” from Josquin’s Missa L’homme armé. It is a three-part prolation canon, and this video shows the idea very clearly using the notation of Josquin’s time before switching to modern notation. Fascinating!

(Hat-tip: The Music Salon)

Newby: A Small Place in Italy

April 7, 2022

A Small Place in Italy
Eric Newby
(HarperCollins, 1994)
215 p.

My visits to Italy have all been urban affairs, but I have sometimes thought it would be instructive, and of course enjoyable, to spend some time in the countryside, and were this fond dream ever to be realized, I think, since a man can dream, that I would look first to some lovely Tuscan villa perched on a hillside.

Eric Newby’s memoir casts a harsh but humorous light on this idyll of mine. His house, in the Apennines near the northern border of Tuscany (the nearest large-ish city appears to have been Lucca), was, in the beginning, the opposite of everything you’d expect from a lovely Italian villa: it was leaking, filthy, broken, infested with scarafaggi, and scarcely livable:

“I felt that one of us would only have to emit one really hefty sneeze to bring the whole lot, beams, floorboards, joists, roof tiles and all, down about our ears.”

But he wanted the house because it was located in an area which he had first come to know during World War II when, as an escaped POW, he had found refuge in the homes of the people living there. Looking back on those months as a sheltered fugitive, he was grateful, and intrigued by what he had seen:

“I found myself in a little world inhabited by mountain people whose way of life was of another century. A world in which there were few roads, scarcely any machinery of a labour-saving kind, one in which everything connected with working the land was accomplished with the aid of mules, cows, and bullocks.”

Several decades after the war, when he was travel editor for the Observer in London, he and his wife decided to buy a house, called I Castagni, in this area, and they lived there each summer for 25 years, from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s.

It was still a rustic region in the 1970s; people rarely travelled more than a village or two away, there was no television, families milked the family cow, and carried on with customs of long standing. Part of the pleasure of the book, apart from the entertaining accounts of how they slowly resurrected I Castagni and rendered it safe for human habitation, is in his affectionate portrayals of these disappearing ways of life, and his portraits, both for good and for ill, of the people who lived them.

Over the course of the book, we witness the annual olive harvest, urgent mushroom hunts after a heavy rain, the charm and colour of the local markets, the religious festivals, the funerals, and, in a long central chapter which serves in some ways as the heart of the book, the grape harvest and wine-making.

I imagine that a travel editor for a major newspaper would have opportunities to travel hither and yon, so it is telling that he made I Castagni his second home, returning again and again, presumably in search of something that he couldn’t find elsewhere. The book is obviously a work of love, and well worth reading.