Archive for the 'Book Note' Category

Old English Daniel

February 13, 2018

Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
20 p.

Continuing my reading of the poems in the Junius Manuscipt, I come to this narrative poem based on episodes in the Book of Daniel, Chapters 1-5. At roughly 700 lines, it is somewhat longer than Exodus, but it seems to me a much more straightforward poem.

The poet tells the story of the sack of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar and the captivity of the Hebrew people, Daniel among them. Daniel gains favour with the king as an able interpreter of dreams. Meanwhile the king is drunk on hubris, and we hear the story of the burning fiery furnace, and of the three Hebrew men, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, who are protected from the flames by an angel of God. The king has a second dream, and again Daniel interprets, foretelling the seven-years madness of the king. Finally we hear the tale of Belshazzar’s feast, with the strange handwriting on the wall and Daniel summoned to read it.

I noted, in comments on earlier poems in this manuscript, that the poets sought to cast the Biblical characters as warriors, mighty in their fury and dauntless, even when this was without any real warrant in the Biblical text. Interestingly, that does not happen in this poem. Instead, the poet sees Daniel as a different kind of hero: a sage, a man of knowledge who sees into mysteries. I do not know if this was a character whom the poet’s audience would have recognized as familiar.

The poem is odd, structurally. The first dream of Nebuchadnezzar is passed over rapidly, but the second is presented in great detail. Even more oddly, the final panel of the poem ends abruptly, after Daniel is summoned but before he interprets the handwriting — he is given just enough time to berate the revelers for their impiety. And of course those of us who teach catechism classes to youngsters are surprised to read a poem about Daniel that never mentions the lion’s den (though the explanation is straightforward enough: that occurs in Daniel, Chapter 6). In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson notes these peculiar features of the poem and points to a lively scholarly debate about them.

My favourite part of the poem is the song of praise which the three young men sing from the centre of the fiery furnace. The imagery is beautiful and the effect is resplendent; let me write out the whole thing:

The three bold surviviors, wise in mind,
Said to their Creator with a single voice:
“Gracious Father, let the full beauty
Of the world’s crafts, each created wonder,
The heavens and angels, the bright clear waters,
Each of your beings in its own degree,
Everything above in its glory and grandeur,
Praise your power and worship you.
Let the sun and moon, the stars in heaven,
The planets parading in the night sky,
The waters of earth and air, the dew and rain,
Praise and glorify you. Let all souls sing,
Exalting the name of almighty God.
Let burning fire and bright summer,
Night and day, land and sea,
Light and darkness, heat and cold,
Frost and dew, rain and river,
Spring-snap and winter-wonder,
Cloud-drift and snow-drift,
All weathers, all seasons, glorify God.
Let all creatures in the curve of creation
Extol your blessings, eternal Lord —
Lightning-flash and thunder-clap,
Earth-hills and summer-spills,
Salt-waves and spring-surges,
The deep thrum of whales singing,
The high drift of birds winging,
Water-flow and wind-blow,
Cattle in the field, beasts in the wild.
Let the children of men celebrate your love,
Bring you the best of their hearts’ hymns.
Let the people of Israel, your faithful servants,
Praise you, proclaiming your glory revealed
In the wealth of the world, in bright nature’s
Bountiful being, in each creatures’ song.
Your hands hold each heart’s virtue,
Each mind’s making, each soul’s yearning.
We three children of God speak out
With a singular voice rising from the flames —
Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael together.
We glorify God in the sanctity of our hearts.
We bless you forever, Lord of all nations,
Almighty Father, true Son of the Creator,
Savior of souls, Healer of hearts,
Holy Spirit, and all-knowing God.
We celebrate your vision in our way of seeing,
Your powerful truth in our best way of being.
You reign supreme in the realm of heaven,
Higher than the sun-road over the world-roof.
You are a Poet making, a Creator shaping,
The Holy Word weaving itself in the world
Moment by moment from beginning to end —
All light, all life, the soul of our seeking,
The way of our walking in every bright land.”

Admitting all of the necessary caveats about reading in translation, I hear in these lines a joyful lyricism that I’ve not encountered before in Anglo-Saxon poetry — albeit on limited exposure. At any rate, I like it.

The fourth and final poem in the Junius Manuscript is based on the New Testament. Christ and Satan will be our matter next time.

Macaulay: For the Children’s Sake

February 6, 2018

For the Children’s Sake
Foundations of Education for Home and School
Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
(Crossway, 1984)
x + 165 p.

I’ve had a middling, half-dormant interest in educational theory since I was myself a student, but becoming a parent, which includes becoming responsible for the education of new persons, not to mention becoming a de facto teacher in many respects, raises the issues afresh. Actually, it’s that the practical decisions about what school one’s children should attend become pressing, and so one begins to evaluate educational practices, and resorts to theory only in an effort to think things through clearly and consistently. It is true that people have been arguing about how best to educate the young for 3000 years, and nobody has settled the main questions yet (such as “What is the point of education?” and “Why are Teachers’ Colleges not carpet-bombed?”), but, still, perhaps the effort is not entirely worthless.

This little book introduces us, at one remove, to the thought and practices of Charlotte Mason (1842-1923), an English educator who lies outside the mainstream tradition, but whose ideas have, in the past few decades, become fairly influential in the homeschool movement in North America, largely because of this book, or so I surmise.

Mason’s starting point is disarmingly simple: children are people, and should be treated as such. Teaching is a personal encounter; so is learning. As such, each child should be allowed and encouraged to develop at his or her own rate and in his or her own way, not made to comply with an set of impersonal objectives and milestones. Writes Mason,

“We must know something about the material we are to work upon if the education we offer is not to be scrappy and superficial. We must have some measure of a child’s requirements, not based on his uses to society, nor upon the standard of the world he lives in, but upon his own capacity and needs.” (from Toward a Philosophy of Education)

This basic commitment explains why she is a marginal figure in the world of public education, for it is difficult to give a mass education model this personal touch (though, to be fair, Mason was herself a schoolteacher and developed her ideas in that context). It is equally clear, and for the same reasons, why homeschoolers have picked her up, for this approach is eminently suitable to their situation.

Mason also believed that since formal education is a preparation for life after formal education, education should be like life. It should be a matter of enjoyment and interest. Children should be encouraged to be motivated by factors intrinsic to education, like curiosity and a love of learning, not factors extrinsic, like grades. We should aim to foster a loving, joyful environment for learning, in which the pleasure of learning is taught by example.

Since students are people, part of their education consists in developing those stable habits of thought and action that will enable them to be successful students and people: the virtues. In this Charlotte Mason is consistent with the classical tradition, for which moral formation is at least as important as intellectual formation. She sought especially to encourage the scholarly virtues in her students: attention, concentration, self-control, and truthfulness.

Since children are persons and their education is our responsibility, we owe them, Mason reasons, the best we have. They should therefore be invited to experience and enjoy our best books, our finest art, our most beautiful music, and so forth. She had a word for educational material that condescends to the child’s intelligence, moral judgment, or aesthetic sensibility: “twaddle”. It’s helpful to have a word, because schools are full of the stuff. We can safely assume, with little risk of error, that all politically-motivated educational materials are twaddle. We want to avoid it:

“The person rises to understand, master, and enjoy whatever he is surrounded with in language, ideas, literature, and in appreciation of beauty. If you share with children the very best, carefully chosen to meet their needs, they will amaze everyone.”

This is actually true. In our home I’ve seen it especially with the music that the kids like. It is my practice not to play pop music at home or in the car, so they do not have much exposure to it; we listen to classical music. At the same time, they are members of a children’s choir in which they sing good sacred music: Mozart, Schubert, Handel, and Gregorian chant. There is no condescension to “children’s tastes”, and they rise to the occasion. My six-year-old son sings Latin motets to himself while building Lego. Our three-year-old’s favourite music is Vivaldi’s Gloria; he sings it in his bed at night. Children will feast on what we feed them, but they are, at first, poor judges of quality. Much of teaching consists in supplying a steady diet of good quality nourishment for their minds and hearts.

And not only should children be given the best we have to give them, but they should be invited to experience and enjoy it on their terms, not ours, taking from it what they find, not what we think they should find. In real life, when we read a novel, we all do so to engage with the story we are reading, but how many of us would persist if, upon finishing each chapter, we had to answer a series of questions about it? Is it wise, then, to ask students to do this? Mason thought not, and therefore counselled against reading comprehension tests. Instead, she had her students do “narrations”, in which they would re-tell, in their own words and after their own manner, a story they had read. When you stop to think about it, this is a brilliant and beautiful idea, for everyone loves to talk about something they enjoyed reading, and, more to the point, narrating a story requires a much more thorough and nuanced and personal engagement with a book than does answering a set of specific questions. Try it.

In fact, narration is pretty much exactly what I’ve been doing on this blog all these years; I can speak from experience: it’s rewarding. Since reading this book (some months ago now), I’ve also been having my daughter give narrations of some of the things she’s been reading, and she, too, responds wonderfully to the challenge. I’m a believer.

Since we want children to engage personally with what they read and learn, another of Mason’s recommendations is that they be given real books to read, whole and complete, rather than compilations of short excerpts from longer books, because doing so puts them into sustained contact with another person — the author — with whom they then begin to develop a relationship.

Indeed, the development of relationships — with God, with the natural world, and with other people — is a key organizing principle for a Charlotte Mason-style education. A relationship with God is best developed through experiencing a faith lived joyfully, with prayer and devotion, in the home and school. A child’s understanding of the natural world she thought best fostered by direct contact with nature, through nature walks, in which close observation and full sensory immersion are encouraged. (In many Charlotte Mason homeschools, it seems that such nature walks take the place of a science textbook, at least for younger students.) Relationships with others are cultivated, as we have already said, through books, historical studies (taking care to try to understand the complexity and foreignness of the past, not interpreting everything within contemporary frameworks or judging by contemporary standards), and interactions with the teacher and with other students. And children must also get to know themselves, which was one reason why Mason believed that children’s lives should have plenty of time and space for unstructured imaginative play; I agree with her heartily on that.


Susan Schaeffer Macaulay’s purpose in this book was to rescue Charlotte Mason’s ideas from the obscurity into which they had fallen, and to present them as providing a compelling educational philosophy for today. She writes well, both about the principles and ideas of Charlotte Mason, and about her own education, which was consonant with Mason’s approach on many points. She has a gentle, thoughtful authorial voice, and, unlike many authors of popular books on education, is not garrulous. (Incidentally, I was surprised to discover, mid-way through the book, that she is the daughter of Francis Schaeffer, the guru of intellectual-leaning Evangelical Christians of a certain vintage.) Although the book is about Charlotte Mason’s approach to education, direct quotes from her are rare, and so it is a little unclear to me how much of the book’s content derives from her, and how much is Macaulay’s interpretation and elaboration.

In a book on education Roger Scruton argued that the purpose of education is not principally to benefit the student who receives it, but to ensure that the culture to which that student belongs is received and perpetuated. I found the impersonal slant of this view jarring, even as I could see the point he was making. The much more personal approach to education proposed in this book is not really inconsistent with Scruton’s concerns though; Macaulay does not propose that there be no core curriculum, or that students, though encouraged to encounter books with their own native intelligence and feeling, somehow create value in things simply by liking them. Rather, she proposes a curated education, in which children encounter what, in the judgment of their teacher, is the richest and most worthy material, whether it be literature, art, music, or what have you. In fact it seems a perfect vehicle for passing on and truly appropriating a cultural tradition, which was what Scruton was advocating.

Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle

January 30, 2018

The Voyage of the Beagle
Charles Darwin
(Penguin Classics, 1989) [1839]
432 p.

When Charles Darwin was yet in his early 20s he signed on as ship’s naturalist aboard the Beagle, bound on a circumnavigation voyage. The purpose of the journey was to chart the coastlines of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and to survey the coasts of Chile, Peru, and several Pacific islands, including the Galapagos. Of course, it turned out that this young scientist’s observations would, in time, overshadow everything else about the enterprise, but that was still several decades away. Upon returning home to England, Darwin published this charming account of the journey and the things he saw along the way.

He seems to have been a born naturalist, with a passion for knowledge of living things that few of us possess. At every opportunity he would make excursions inland, collecting specimens as he went, and reporting on them with winsome excitement: “This day I found a specimen of a curious fungus, called Hymenophallus“. He reports that during occasional bouts of illness he would nonetheless stagger from his bed to pursue his researches. And with each new discovery his wonder at the richness of it all comes shining through:

The number of minute and obscurely coloured beetles is exceedingly great. The cabinets of Europe can, as yet, boast only of the larger species from tropical climates. It is sufficient to disturb the composure of an entomologist’s mind, to look forward to the future dimensions of a complete catalogue.

He remarks also on the surprising tameness of many of the animals found on remote islands unfrequented by men. On the Galapagos islands he found that he could hunt hawks using his gun in an unorthodox fashion: “with the muzzle I push a hawk off the branch of a tree”. And on the little island of San Pedro (now called South Georgia Island) he went fox hunting:

A fox (Canis fulvipes), of a kind said to be peculiar to the island, and very rare in it, and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers, that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with my geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise, than the generality of his brethren, is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.

For most modern readers his reflections on the history and diversity of life is a principal attraction of the book. We sometimes forget that Darwin’s eventual contribution, in On the Origin of Species, would not be to argue that life on earth evolved, but to propose a particular kind of process — natural selection — as the principal means by which it did so. That species changed over time, and that the earth was of stupefying antiquity, was already well-known before he came along, and he himself is, of course, well aware of this. (He mentions Lamarck on one occasion.)

Nonetheless, he was a keen observer, and his reflections on what he saw retain their interest. He notices, for instance, “in two distant countries a similar relation between plants and insects of the same families, though the species of both are different,” and that although the species one observes change from place to place, proximate regions often have similar species occupying particular ecological niches; this was for him an important fact that deserved explanation:

The Tinochorus is closely related to some other South American birds. Two species of the genus Attagis are in almost every respect ptarmigans in their habits; one lives in Tierra del Fuego, above the limits of the forest land; and the other just beneath the snow-line on the Cordillera of Central Chile. A bird of another closely allied genus, Chionis alba, is an inhabitant of the antarctic regions; it feeds on sea-weed and shells on the tidal rocks. Although not web footed, from some unaccountable habit, it is frequently met with far out at sea. This small family of birds is one of those which, from its varied relations to other families, although at present offering only difficulties to the systematic naturalist, ultimately may assist in revealing the grand scheme, common to the present and past ages, on which organized beings have been created.

Darwin was, even at this young age, an able geologist, and he makes frequent, detailed observations about the geological formations and history that he observes. Naturally he is also interested in the fossils in the rocks. He meditates on the temporal analogue of the regional variation of species — namely, that in a particular place the life-forms have varied over time — and that this temporal variation seems to follow no evident logic. Indeed, he concludes that “no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated exterminations of its inhabitants.”

It was only when the voyage was reaching its final stages that it visited the Galapagos islands; it was, for most of the ship’s crew, something of an afterthought. But it was here that Darwin was confronted with puzzles of speciation and geography in a particularly clear way. He first noticed that although many of the species found on the Galapagos are unique to those islands, the overall impression one receives is that the creatures are similar to those found on mainland South America, rather than those found on neighbouring island formations:

It was most striking to be surrounded by new birds, new reptiles, new shells, new insects, new plants, and yet by innumerable trifling details of structure, and even by the tones of voice and plumage of the birds, to have the temperate plains of Patagonia, or rather the hot dry deserts of Northern Chile, vividly brought before my eyes.

But after visiting several of the islands in the group he noticed “the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago”, for not only were the forms of life on the islands different from those found elsewhere, but “the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings”. Each island had its own species of tortoise, of lizard, of finch, and of various plants. This he found very remarkable:

We have the truly wonderful fact, that in James Island, of the thirty-eight Galapageian plants, or those found in no other part of the world, thirty are exclusively confined to this one island; and in Albemarle Island, of the twenty-six aboriginal Galapageian plants, twenty-two are confined to this one island, that is, only four are at present known to grow in the other islands of the archipelago; and so on…

He finally described the islands of the group as “physically similar, organically distinct, yet intimately related to each other, and all related in a marked, though much lesser degree, to the great American continent”, and the effort to understand how this state of affairs might have come about would be an important influence on his writing of On the Origin of Species two decades later.


Apart from his observations of the flora and fauna, he also made interesting remarks on the peoples whom he encountered. I was delighted, for instance, to learn of a charming custom then current among the Catholic people of Uruguay:

On approaching the house of a stranger, it is usual to follow several little points of etiquette: riding up slowly to the door, the salutation of Ave Maria is given, and until somebody comes out and asks you to alight, it is not customary even to get off your horse: the formal answer of the owner is, “sin pecado concebida”—that is, conceived without sin.

He also experienced the amazement of less technologically advanced people at their first exposure to unfamiliar technology:

I possessed two or three articles, especially a pocket compass, which created unbounded astonishment. In every house I was asked to show the compass, and by its aid, together with a map, to point out the direction of various places. It excited the liveliest admiration that I, a perfect stranger, should know the road (for direction and road are synonymous in this open country) to places where I had never been.

At the southern tip of South America, in the region called Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle encountered a people who had little contact with the outside world and who lived what appeared to Darwin to be a life that barely provided for their material needs, with no intellectual or moral culture that he could discern. One reads his account with a kind of horrible fascination at the spectacle of a truly wild human tribe, of a kind that can probably no longer be found. Interestingly, he attributed their state in part to their lack of government or social hierarchy, remarking that “the perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization”, which is perhaps not what we, for whom “equality” is a master word, would have expected him to say. And though it might be easy to dismiss his comments on these matters as merely the prejudices of a Georgian-age gentleman, we note his fierce condemnations, elsewhere in the book, of slavery and all it stands for. He seems to have had no patience for claims of natural human inferiority (or superiority), but had no qualms about calling a spade a spade when it came to social and cultural achievements.


The voyage of the Beagle lasted about five years, and although of course much of that time was spent on the ship, Darwin took every opportunity to go ashore and explore, often under quite unpleasant conditions. He seems not to have minded. Oh sure, he complained that “a light stomach and an easy digestion are good things to talk about, but very unpleasant in practice”, and he had bad experiences, as when he was set upon by insects in his sleep:

At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over one’s body.

But as I read, I was repeatedly impressed at the hardiness of this astute young naturalist, who was happy to sleep outdoors, go without food, and walk long distances over difficult terrain in search of his treasures. And I, at least, am glad that he went to all the trouble, because even apart from its obvious interest as a prelude or an adjunct to his more famous book, The Voyage of the Beagle is a consistently enjoyable work of natural history and exploration.

Cato the Elder: On Agriculture

January 20, 2018

On Agriculture
Marcus Porcius Cato
[c.180 BC]

Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura is, I believe, the oldest complete surviving work of Latin prose, and on account of this distinction I have included it in my Latin history and literature reading project. Were it not for this accidental distinction, it is probable that I would not have read it, for it is not the sort of thing one — not this one, anyway — normally takes up for either business or pleasure. And yet I found, to my surprise, that I read it with some appreciation, both because it put me in contact with a great man in an unusual way, and because it provided a glimpse of a side of history that is not often seen by non-historians: the normal, daily life of ordinary people going about their ordinary affairs.

The great man is, of course, Cato himself; he was one of the leading Romans of his generation, serving terms as both consul (195) and censor (184) and maintaining for decades a place at the centre of Rome’s political affairs. Rome’s political leaders in this period were also her military leaders, and Cato won glory leading a successful campaign in Spain during his term as consul. But he was best known for his role in Rome’s domestic politics, in which he earned a reputation as a formidable moralist. He famously opposed the repeal of the Oppian Law, which forbade Roman women owning jewellery and fancy dress, and he likewise opposed permitting Roman women to inherit family wealth. He was the political counterweight to, and critic of, the great but unconventional Publius Scipio Africanus. These commitments, and others, have not universally endeared him to modern readers — in his Roman Women (London, 1962), J.P.V.D. Balsdon described him as “that self-confident and boorish embodiment of austere moral rectitude”, but the ancients were kinder; Livy called him “a man of acknowledged integrity and purity of conduct” (XXXII, 27), and then went on to praise him in a passage that is worth citing at length:

“So great powers of mind and energy of intellect were in this man, that no matter how lowly the position in which he was born, he appeared capable of attaining to the highest rank. No one qualification for the management of business, either public or private, was wanting to him. He was equally skilled in affairs relating to town and country. Some have been advanced to the highest honours by their knowledge of the law, others by their eloquence, some by military renown; but this man’s genius was so versatile, and so well adapted to all things, that in whatever way engaged, it might be said, that nature formed him for that alone. In war, he was most courageous, distinguishing himself highly in many remarkable battles; and, when he arrived at the highest posts, was likewise a most consummate commander. Then, in peace, if consulted on a point of law, he was the wisest counsellor; if a cause was to be pleaded, the most eloquent advocate. Nor was he one of those whose oratory was striking only during their own lives, without leaving after them any monument of it. On the contrary, his eloquence still lives, and will long live, consecrated to memory by writings of every kind. His orations are many, spoken for himself, for others, and against others; for he harassed his enemies, not only by supporting prosecutions against them, but by maintaining causes in opposition to them. Enmities in abundance gave him plenty of employment, and he never permitted them to lie dormant; nor was it easy to tell whether the nobility laboured harder to keep him down, or he to oppress the nobility. His temper, no doubt, was austere, his language bitter and unboundedly free, but his mind was never conquered by his passions, his integrity was inflexible, and he looked with contempt on popularity and riches. In spare diet, in enduring toil and danger, his body and mind were like iron; so that even old age, which brings all things to dissolution, did not break his vigour.” (XXXIX, 40)

It is extremely rare, and even singular, for Livy to grant such a lavish encomium, and it speaks to the strong impression which Cato made on his imagination nearly 200 years after his (Cato’s) death.

In the passage above, Livy praises Cato in particular for his skill in management of private affairs and his knowledge of country life, and this is pertinent to De Agricultura, which is a kind of manual for the successful management of a Roman farm.

It is a very practical guide, full of down to earth advice on procurement of farm equipment, good practices for working with cattle, advice on caring for olives and grape vines, methods for producing good wine, instructions for medicinal uses of farm crops, and recipes for a variety of things. We learn how to make a wine press, how to best fertilize the fields, and what kind of soil is best for various kinds of crops. Although we do receive counsel on buying and selling the goods the farm produces, one gets the strong impression that this farm is independent, producing and making what it needs to continue operating.

For a modern reader it is interesting to see how closely intertwined farming, and, by extension, ordinary daily life, was with religion. The practical guidance includes a good deal of instruction on the religious aspects of farming: “Make an offering of cakes to Janus, with these words,” we are told; we are reminded that the spring ploughing should be preceded by a sacred feast; the prayers and sacrificial rites to be observed prior to thinning a grove are prescribed; times when the workers should fast are noted. There seems to be no clear distinction in Cato’s mind between this kind of advice and the other kind; for him, religion is a practical matter.

Advice that sounds to us superstitious might have been, from his point of view, just “tried and true”. We are told, for instance, that “Figs, olives, apples, pears, and vines should be grafted in the dark of the moon, after noon, when the south wind is not blowing”, or that, in order to prevent chafing when travelling, we ought to “keep a small branch of Pontic wormwood under the anus” (which, on first blush, I’d have thought would have the opposite effect).

Perhaps the most endearing section of De Agricultura is that in which Cato lauds the virtues of cabbage. He notes that it promotes digestion, is an excellent laxative, can produce an effective purgative, cures colic, makes a good poultice for wounds, treats boils, dislocations, and contusions, heals headaches and eye-aches, restores health to the liver, the lungs, and the diaphragm, remedies arthritis, and cures insomnia, among many other wonders.

As I said at the top, this is not the sort of document I would normally be inclined to read in my personal time, but certainly my other readings in Roman history have been nothing at all like it, and in that sense the time has been well spent.

[Virtues of farmers]
It is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come, their calling is most highly respected, their livelihood is most assured and is looked on with the least hostility, and those who are engaged in that pursuit are least inclined to be disaffected.

[Waste not, want not]
Remember that a farm is like a man — however great the income, if there is extravagance but little is left.

Livy V: Rome’s Mediterranean Empire

December 15, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XLI-XLV
Rome’s Mediterranean Empire
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by Jane D. Chaplin
(Oxford, 2007) [c.20 BC]
xxxiii + 386 p.

Perils of time and circumstance have destroyed most of the books of the ancient world. The fate of Livy’s great Roman history is a poignant case in point: of its 142 original books — one of the literary wonders of the ancient world — only 35 have survived in more than fragmentary form. The five books under discussion today, numbers 41 through 45, came down to us by the skin of their teeth, for they survived in a single manuscript, and they bear the marks of their narrow escape, for all but Book 42 are missing at least a few pages.

When last we sat with Livy, we heard of the Roman expansion east into Macedonia and Greece, and of the conflicts with Philip of Macedon and Antiochus of Syria. By the year 180 BC, the powers of Macedon, the fading remnants of Alexander the Great’s empire, had been pushed from Greece, and Antiochus had been forced to retreat to the eastern edge of the Mediterranean.

It was in that same year, 180, that Philip of Macedon died, leaving the subdued kingdom to his son Perseus. The succession was peaceful, but only because the violence had already, by that date, taken place. Philip had had two sons, Perseus and Demetrius, and prior to their defeat at Roman hands they had quarrelled over who would inherit the kingdom. Perseus, a man of considerable guile, convinced his father to consent to the murder of Demetrius, on the grounds that he was friendly with Rome and favoured an alliance. This was done, to the great regret of his father, and Perseus therefore took the throne uncontested upon his father’s death.

The principal narrative of these five Books, then, relates how Perseus governed Macedonia, how he provoked conflict with Rome (in what is now called the Third Macedonian War), and of how that conflict brought about the end of the Macedonian kingdom.

Initially Perseus concluded a treaty with Rome, but rumours soon began to spread that he was consulting with Carthage and had resumed harassment of the Greeks, who were now under Roman protection. In response, in 171 BC Rome declared war on Perseus and marched an army into Macedonia. But the territory proved difficult for the Romans; the Macedonians were experienced soldiers who knew how to choose their battles well. Perseus himself was a competent commander who more than once handed the Romans a defeat.

After a few years of haphazard, ineffective action, plagued by failure in the field and corruption and incompetence at home, Rome elected as consul a man who promised to act decisively. Lucius Aemilius Paullus was elected in 169 and immediately set out to achieve victory for Rome. He first lured Perseus out of a fortified position, and then met him in open conflict at the Battle of Pydna. The battle had a memorable prelude: on the day prior there was a lunar eclipse, and though the Romans predicted it beforehand, and therefore took its occurrence as a sign of Roman superiority, it took the Macedonians by surprise, and they took it as an ill omen. The Roman advantage in confidence carried over into the battle itself, and the Macedonians were decisively defeated. Perseus and his two sons were captured.

This marked the final destruction of the Macedonian empire, which had been a world power under Alexander the Great just 150 years before. Perseus was brought back to Rome in chains, and Paullus, after some political wrangling against jealous rivals, enjoyed a triumphal parade through the city that lasted a full 3 days. He was to be remembered by Roman citizens as one of the last great men of Republican Rome. (Plutarch included him in his Lives.)

Meanwhile Rome brought Macedonia under her own governance, lowering taxes and promulgating new laws. Diplomatic parties from across the region streamed to Rome to pay respects to the apparently unstoppable power of the still-burgeoning Roman Republic.


We might wonder what became of the Seleucid kingdom in the east, which Rome had chased out of Greece in the previous few Books. When Antiochus III died, he was succeeded by his son, Antiochus IV, who proved an erratic and colourful figure. Initially his people called him Epiphanes (“Rising Star”), but soon altered it to Epimanes (“mad one”) on account of his antics. We don’t hear a great deal about him from Livy, other than that when he besieged Ptolemy and Cleopatra (not that Cleopatra, obviously) in Egypt, Rome send ambassadors instructing him to cease. At first he temporized, saying that he’d consider what to do, whereupon the Roman ambassador drew a circle around him on the ground and told him to give an answer before leaving it, whereupon Antiochus relented. It’s a good story, and it showed that Roman power, even unofficial, now extended throughout the Mediterranean basin.


As usual, Livy focuses in these Books on military history; this was evidently what most interested him or his readers. But from time to time we get a glimpse of the goings-on back home in Rome, and it is almost always interesting.

We learn, for instance, that there was a fire in the Forum that burned down the Temple of Vesta and caused the sacred flame tended by the Vestal Virgins to be extinguished. The prescribed punishment for this offence was scourging; despite the extenuating circumstances, the scourging was carried out on this occasion as well.

Later there was a law proposed whereby no woman would be allowed to inherit property or money. Our old friend Cato, never one to shrink from eloquent defence of a controversial measure, supported it.


Livy’s main historical source for this period was Polybius, who was writing roughly contemporaneously with the events. Although for us the events treated in these 5 Books are, perhaps, of limited interest — few, I think, regard the Third Macedonian War as a conflict of enduring fascination — for Livy this was an important period in Rome’s moral development, when it endured and then overcame lax discipline and corruption to re-establish the preeminence of Roman virtue. His hero, Lucius Aemelius Paullus, embodied those virtues to an exemplary degree.


As I mentioned at the outset, although this by no means marked the end of Livy’s history, it does mark the end of the history that has survived to our day. What we have, however, in place of Livy’s full work, are the Periochae, fourth-century abridgements of each of Livy’s 142 Books. They are included in this Oxford edition, and I plan to consult them as my Roman reading project moves forward. The next historian I intend to read is Appian, who treated the civil wars that erupted as the Roman Republican bonds began to strain, but before that I believe I’ll take a few trips to the theatre, to read the plays of Terence. Until then, ave atque vale.

Read: Night’s Bright Darkness

December 7, 2017

Night’s Bright Darkness
Sally Read
(Ignatius, 2016)
152 p.

Not long ago I wrote about Robert Hugh Benson’s memoir of his conversion to Catholicism. As in most such stories, there was in that book a more-or-less clear thread that one could follow as he moved toward the Church: certain questions rankled, particular insights were had, specific errors were rejected or certain truths embraced. At the end, one could understand, largely if not entirely, how it came about that he became a Catholic.

Sally Read’s conversion memoir is, rather amazingly, not like that. She begins as a cradle atheist, brought up by parents who conscientiously inoculated her against any kind of religious faith, and she ends up a Catholic, almost an instinctive Catholic, and, having read the book, it’s very difficult to say how it came about. The drama of her conversion seems to have happened just below the level of apprehension, and I have the feeling that she’s nearly as mystified about it as we are. But the book is still wonderful to read, and strangely edifying.

If we’re looking for a particular moment, we have to look for something innocuous. Imagine, for instance, that she sits down one evening to read Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a book grown familiar over many previous readings, but this time something is different:

This time I put the book down when I read the vicar’s assessment of religion: “(Religion) is an art, the greatest one; an extension of the communion all the other arts attempt.” The conversation goes on, by the fire, over Madeira, the rain beating down outside. God, says the vicar, is “merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.”

It wouldn’t pass muster in a catechism class, but from this humble beginning, so far as I can tell, the life of faith began to grow in her. She was particularly struck by the thought that a religion could be a form of art, to be appreciated and experienced like a work of art. She was (and is) herself a poet, and the sudden connection between art and religion, like a spark, suddenly altered her understanding of both her own relationship to faith and her own artistic ambitions:

Why, after so many years of reading, thinking, arguing, would this truth penetrate me now? It was as if the tin roof of the sky peeled away. My desperate yearning to write the line, to make the poem, to nail the truth was illuminated. It wasn’t for editors, prizes, readers or myself that I sought so earnestly to harness reality. It was for communion with God, who knows already, who has the metaphor, the poem, already in hand, who is already writing, and already written, the ultimate poem. It was to try to touch that poem.

That night, I barely apprehended this. What I thought was just one word: possibility, and the sibilance of that word seemed like the distant yet all-encompassing black sea that I perceived God to be. A sound like the amniotic roar of traffic in London or the simmer of sea in Santa Marinella that natives unlearn how to hear. I had begun to learn how to listen.

It reminds me of that passage in Augustine (which, naturally, I cannot find) in which he says that each of us,  when we earnestly seek what is good, or true, or beautiful, when we long for that rich and true happiness that will come with the possession of whatever is the deepest and truest good that we pursue — then we are truly searching for God. Everything that rises, as the saying goes, must converge.

But at this point she knew next to nothing about any religion, and had no particular interest in Christianity. But she moved to Rome with her Italian (and agnostic) husband, and, when taking care of her young daughter, fell in with a group of Catholic mothers, and, through them (if memory serves) struck up a friendship with a Byzantine-rite Catholic priest, a good and intelligent man. Before long, she was reading Simone Weil, Josef Pieper, T.S. Eliot, St John of the Cross, and the Gospels, and she was well launched.

There are twists and turns in her story, but always one has the sense that her way has been prepared, that in her progress toward faith, as rapid as it is, she is nonetheless outpaced. Despite the rocky terrain she must cover — she begins as a well-catechized secularist and holds all the traditional pieties on matters like abortion, marriage, and sex — she seems not to stumble, never to find herself on the horns of a dilemma; her difficulties melt away, or are silently displaced. This, I think, is very unusual.

She returns often to her experience of Catholicism as having an aesthetic dimension. The Eucharist she sees as a kind of enfleshed poem:

…to get close to Christ I had to let him into me — not solely through mental prayer and actions, but by physically taking him into my body. There is nothing empty in God’s poetry; nothing is mere metaphor.

Even the hierarchical nature of the Church has for her a poetic effect, for it is “God’s poem — the transformative instrument of the chaos of the everyday.” That’s more suggestive than precise, but it gets one thinking, and this is true of much of her writing, which, true to her calling as a poet, is evocative, sometimes oblique, and often beautiful, just like the story she has to tell.

All this took place just a few years ago. “What do you want me to do?” was her persistent prayer through the whole process, and this memoir is, in part, part of the answer:

God’s revelation to me that spring was already a poem. I only needed to write it down and not attempt to explain its mystery. It is, in a sense, unfinished. It takes the unhesitating energy of that wave at its breaking point; it’s a love letter in response to love.

Old English Exodus

November 26, 2017

Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
19 p.

After reading Genesis it’s natural to move on to Exodus, and in the Junius Manuscript we do just that. This poem, which runs a brief 590 lines in the original Old English, begins with the terrible tenth plague striking Egypt and ends with the triumph of the children of Israel on the far side of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers so much flotsam and jetsam. The poet has therefore focused his attention on the central episodes in the story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from their bondage, though, as we’ll see, he had other things on his mind as well.

This is a particularly vivid poem, I found, with much striking imagery. Much of it is violent. I remarked in my notes on Genesis that the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons coloured their telling of the Biblical story, and the same is very much true in this poem.

When the angel of death descends on Egypt, for instance, the poet gives us a passage that reminded me of Grendel stalking toward Heorot in the black of night:

“The hall-joys were drained —
The last, lonely song was a cry of suffering,
Of peril and pain. In the middle of the night
God cruelly struck down the Egyptian oppressors,
The many first-born sons. Death stalked the land —
Terror and torment piled up corpses —
Killing was king of that ravaged realm.” (ll.33-9)

When once they have left Egypt, the miraculous guidance of the pillar of cloud and the column of fire excite the poet’s admiration for a lengthy stretch. He remembers, too, the life of Joseph, whose coming to Egypt as a slave was the remote cause of the enslavement from which the Israelites are now being delivered.

The approach of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit spreads fear through the people, and the description of the approaching forces is wonderfully evocative:

“Then the mood of the Israelites grew desperate;
Their hearts lost hope as they saw Pharaoh’s army
Surging from the south, sweeping over the land
With shields gleaming, battle-swords swinging,
Boar-spears thrusting, trumpets ringing,
Banners waving, the cavalry-storm coming.
Dark death-birds circled the strand,
Carrion crows hungry for corpses,
Screeching like hellions for a bloody meal.
Wild wolves sang a hideous evening-song,
Frantic for a feast of flesh and bone.
The beasts of battle held no pity
For any people, Egyptians or Israelites.
They howled for carnage, sang for slaughter.
Those bloodlust guardians of the border lands,
Wilderness-wanderers, bayed through the night,
Spooking the souls of the men of Moses,
Who hunkered down in despair and doom.” (ll.162-79)

I note with interest how the poet pivots from a description of the menace of the Egyptian soldiers — imagined very much after the manner of his contemporary warriors — to a description of the menace of the natural world: the wolves, and the hungry crows, all arrayed against the people of God. One could imagine him taking the opposite tack, depicting the animals, which are God’s creatures, as friends of the children of Israel, but instead he makes them amoral, prowling on the borders and circling overhead, awaiting their chance. There seems no reason for hope.

In response to this threat the Israelites arm for battle, but Moses gathers them together and delivers a stirring speech, reminding them to put their trust in God’s protection:

“They will no longer live to scourge us
With torment and terror, making our lives
A mesh of misery, a web of woe.
There’s no need to fear dead warriors,
Doomed bodies — their day is done.
God’s counsel has been lifted from your hearts.
Remember his covenant and keep it always.
Worship your God, pray for his grace,
His promise and protection, shield and salvation,
His gift of victory in a time of triumph.
He is the God of Abraham, the Lord of creation,
Our eternal Maker of unmeasured might.
He holds our army in his guardian hands. (ll. 280-92)

The staff is stretched out over the waters, and they part, making a way of escape. Interestingly, even as they march across, away from their foes, they do so as if to war, and the poet underlines their ferocity:

As the noblest of people walked through the water,
They raised a banner high over their shields
With a sacred sign, the gold lion of Judah,
The bravest of beasts. The loyal warriors
Would never suffer insult or injury
As long as their lord and leader lived
And they could lift swords, thrust spears
Bravely in conflict with any bold nation.
The soldiers of Judah would always respond
To the call of battle with hard hand-play,
Sword-swipe, spear-stab, shield-thrust,
Blood-wound, body-woe, the cruel crush
Of hard helmets, carnage and corpses.” (ll.338-50)

I wonder if in a warrior culture this crossing of the Red Sea, fleeing from danger rather than confronting it, would have been considered shameful. The poet seems to be taking great care to reassure us that they had lost none of their courage and capacity for destruction.

At this point, as it nears its finish, the poem begins to become more complicated. We leave the Israelites and return to Noah, and then to Abraham, and then jump ahead to Solomon. Perhaps the poet is here calling to mind God’s enduring covenant with the children of Israel, which is here, at the crossing of the Red Sea and the decisive deliverance from bondage, being honoured and fulfilled.

The crossing complete, the path through the waters collapses upon the pursuing Egyptian forces in a scene of carnage:

“The arrogant Egyptians could not hinder his hand
Or escape his doom, the sea’s fierce fury —
He destroyed them all in shrieking horror.
The seas slid up, the bodies slid down;
Dread fears rose, death-dreams plunged;
Fresh wounds wept, bloody tears tumbled
Into the ocean’s embrace. The Lord of the flood
Ravaged the ramparts with an ancient sword
Of storm-winds and wave-walls. Troops perished.
Hordes of the sinful headed toward the bottom,
Where they lost their souls in endless sleep.” (ll.518-28)

And here, at the climactic moment of the poem, before describing the victory song and the joyous dancing of the Israelites, the poet introduces another apparent digression, but one which, it seems to me, is a key to interpreting the whole poem. He inserts a meditation on the pilgrimage of each soul through this earthly life:

“It’s true that our present worldly pleasures
Are transient. Time unravels them all.
Desire and delight fade, touched and twisted
By inevitable sorrow — an exile’s inheritance.
We wander the world pursued by woe,
Our homeless hearts mired in misery.
The day of reckoning, the hour of doom,
Draws near, a moment of might and glory,
When all our deeds will be judged by God,
And he will lead the steadfast, righteous souls
From their exile on earth to a homeland in heaven,
The light and life of the Lord’s blessing,
Where everyone in that company of joy
Will sing hymns, glorious hosannas,
To the Kind of hosts for all eternity.” (ll.566-587)

The poet is therefore encouraging us to read the story of the Exodus as a metaphor for the deliverance of each soul from the bondage of sin and death, “an allegory of the soul, or of the Church of militant souls, marching under the hand of God, pursued by the powers of darkness, until it attains to the promised land of Heaven”. (So says Tolkien.) This is a common theme in Christian theology, of course, but it is here expressed in a particularly artful and powerful way.

In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson highlights the poem’s “deliberate ambiguities and allusions, its concealed figurations and fulfillments, and its textual and narrative difficulties”, which initially made me think I was about to read an Old English Prufrock. It didn’t turn out that way, but, nonetheless, there is something to what Williamson says; this is a complex, and quite beautiful, poem. At least some of the textual difficulties may have been mitigated by Williamson’s thoughtful translation, which is about 10% longer than the original. At any rate, I enjoyed reading it, and I’m looking forward to the next poem in the Junius Manuscript — which is, mercifully, not based on Leviticus, but on the story of Daniel.

Plautus: Four Comedies

November 19, 2017

Four Comedies
Titus Maccius Plautus
Translated from the Latin by Erich Segal
(Oxford, 1996) [c.200 BC]
xlvi + 242 p.

Plautus is the earliest extant Roman literary figure; he was the author of about 130 plays, of which 20 survive in whole or significant part. Writing at a time when Rome was expanding in power and coming into contact with other major powers in the Mediterranean, his period of success overlaps with the Second Punic War (218-201 BC); Rome was under the greatest existential threat she’d yet known, and so, naturally, Plautus wrote raucous and diverting comedies. Rome was also moving more into the Greek sphere of influence, and this was decisive for Plautus; many of his plays are adapted from Greek originals, even retaining a Greek setting and making frequent jests about Greeks.

On the evidence collected here, his plays are works of quick wit, rapidly developing plot, wordplay, and delightful farce. His characters are not richly developed, but then the plays are not really about the characters; they are comedies of circumstance and situation. This Oxford edition calls Plautus “the single greatest influence on Western comedy”, and his manner does feel familiar (more so than does, for instance, Aristophanes). The characters crack jokes, make frequent asides, and even address the audience. They are unbuttoned affairs in which, it seems, anything might happen.


The Braggart Soldier is the longest of the plays in this volume (about 1400 lines), and it illustrates well the attractions of Plautus’ writing. The situation involves a conspiracy among the household slaves to allow the mistress of the house to abscond with a handsome young man, and a boastful husband who is duped into trading her for her non-existent twin sister. It is great fun, and Segal’s translation is part of the pleasure: there is a long sequence in the middle in which he sustains page after page of lines with internal rhymes, and it is quite a delight.


The Brothers Menaechmus is about twin brothers, separated as children, who find themselves, many years later, unbeknownst to themselves or anyone else, in the same city at the same time. It’s a delightful little comedy featuring a long string of hilarious instances of mistaken identity. I was quite taken with Segal’s translation, which, though it introduces elements (such as occasional rhyme) not present in the original, is wonderfully witty and engaging.

The play is best known to English speakers as being the play Shakespeare adapted into The Comedy of Errors, and it is on account of this adaptation that English speakers have a motive, and an understandable one, not to get to know the original. The truth is that Shakespeare’s version is incomparably superior, not only in its verbal wit but in its plot construction, for by adding a second pair of twins (the Dromios) as the servants of the twin brothers, Shakespeare exponentially expanded the play’s scope for confusion and comedy. It’s no contest. But presumably Shakespeare chose to adapt Plautus’ play because he saw some merit in it, and he was right so to see. It would be fun to read the two plays in close conjunction. But read Plautus first, to avoid disappointment.


Although I anticipated that The Haunted House might have a supernatural angle, in fact the house in question is just one that emits noises because a wayward son and his many drunk friends are inside, hiding from the father, who has returned unexpectedly from a long journey. Meanwhile, outside, a clever household slave concocts a series of comedic diversions to prevent the father from entering. It’s an entertaining play that I imagine would work very well on stage.


The last play in this volume is The Pot of Gold, about a miserly father who obsessively guards a pot of gold — that is, not a pot full of gold, but an actual gold pot, though the distinction hardly matters for the play’s purposes. He is one of the best rendered characters I’ve encountered in this set of plays, coming closest to having something like a realistic, albeit exaggerated, psychology. Meanwhile his daughter, soon to be married, is about to give birth — though she is apparently not great with child, for the father is entirely unaware of her condition — having been “ravished” (or, to speak plainly, raped) at a city festival by a relation of her fiancé. In the principal comic scene this “ravisher” approaches her father to confess his crime and ask for her hand in marriage, but her father misconstrues his confession as an admission that he has stolen the precious pot of gold. This is comedy, yes, but dark; the man’s greed corrupts even his closest relationships and, indeed, his whole experience. The play breaks off before the conclusion, but the notes indicate that “most scholars” believe it ends with the father giving the pot of gold as a dowry gift — a redemption story.

Molière was impressed enough by this play to take it as the model for his L’Avare (The Miser); he retained many of the comedic elements from Plautus, including the discomforting humour of the daughter/pot-of-gold confusion, but infused all of the characters with more realism and, in my mind, brought out the interior corruption of the central character with even greater force.


I’ve enjoyed each of these plays. In his introductory notes to this volume, Erich Segal makes a distinction between “great drama” and “great theatre”; with his stock characters, loony situations, and comedic high-jinx, Plautus may not qualify as the former, but he might very well deliver the latter. Should I ever have the opportunity to see one of his plays on the stage, I would not readily turn it down.

Livy IV: Dawn of the Roman Empire

November 13, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XXXI-XL
The Dawn of the Roman Empire
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by J.C. Yardley
(Oxford, 2000) [c.20 BC]
xxxvi + 612 p.

The previous volume in this edition of Livy’s Roman history had ended with the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio Africanus and the consequent end of the Second Punic War. It was Rome’s first victory over a major regional power, and it was a signal to the other political powers in the Mediterranean basin that the Romans were a force to be reckoned with.

An ally of the Carthaginians during that conflict had been Philip V of Macedon, a ruler a few generations removed from Alexander the Great, presiding over a much-reduced but still extensive territory to the east of the Adriatic. In Books 31-40, which are the topic for today, the Romans go to war against Philip and other Mediterranean powers, especially King Antiochus of Syria. They eventually emerge victorious, thus establishing themselves not only as a European and African power, but an Asian one as well, and in consequence the territory later generations would know as “the Roman Empire” began to take on recognizable shape.

The particular conflicts described in this sequence of books are known to historians as the Second Macedonian War and the Roman-Seleucid War. The period covered is 201-180 BC.


Livy remarks at the outset that his task seems to be becoming unmanageable:

“I plainly perceive that, like those who, tempted by the shallows near the shore, walk into the sea, the farther I advance, I am carried, as it were, into a greater depth and abyss; and that my work almost increases on my hands which seemed to be diminished by the completion of each of its earlier portions.”

It is beginning to become unmanageable for the reader too, or at least for this reader, not because of its length but on account of its complexity; when the Romans moved into Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor they encountered a bewildering variety of small kingdoms, with alliances and enmities already formed, and then broken and re-formed in response to the Roman threat, and the course of events by which the Romas eventually came to dominate fits no neat narrative the way the conflict with Carthage and Hannibal had. One hardly knows where to look for the main story. Nonetheless, a few significant events can be picked out.

It is worth noting that when the Romans first came into Greece they did so, publicly, as liberators, to free the Greek peoples from submission to Philip of Macedon. And Livy leaves open the question, so far as I can tell, whether this cry of liberation was genuine or merely a front for Roman imperialism. Certainly there were those in Rome who thought it foolhardy to start another war so soon after the victory against Hannibal had been concluded, and it is not obvious that there was a widely shared appetite for expansion of the Roman sphere of influence.

Yet, be that as it may, in 200 they commenced hostilities against Philip, and, after a series of convoluted developments, came to a decisive battle with him in 197 at Cynoscephalae, a battle in which they were victorious, in the aftermath of which the consul Flamininus declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. A few years later the Romans were again victorious against Nabis, the “tyrant of Sparta”, and again declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. For later generations this pronouncement acquired an ironic tone, for whatever their intentions at the time, the Romans never did relinquish influence over these areas, and eventually, some decades later, annexed them as Roman territories, the liberators having become the masters.

Sensing a power vacuum with the ousting of Philip, the Seleucid king Antiochus III, who ruled over a large territory to the north and (primarily) east of the Mediterranean, entered Greece in 192 with an army intent on expanding the Seleucid Empire. Whereupon several Greek cities appealed to the Romans for help, which they very obligingly did.

In fact, this venture by Antiochus occasioned one of the most memorable events of this period of Roman history: another face-to-face meeting of Scipio Africanus and Hannibal. It happened in this way: in the aftermath of the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio, Hannibal had temporarily fled Carthage, but when he returned the Carthaginian authorities saw him as a liability likely to inflame Roman wrath, and they forced him out. He fled to the court of Antiochus III, where he began to encourage Antiochus to take up arms against Rome. Antiochus was convinced; he sent his troops across the Hellespont into Greece, bringing about the Greek appeal for Rome’s assistance that I mentioned above. Opening with a diplomatic move, Rome sent Scipio Africanus to meet with Antiochus for discussions, and Antiochus, with a flair for the dramatic, hosted a dinner and invited them both to attend.

A memorable conversation is reported to have taken place. Scipio, perhaps seeking to tweak Hannibal’s ego, asked him, “Who is the greatest general?”

Hannibal answered, “Alexander, king of Macedonia; because, with a small band, he defeated armies whose numbers were beyond reckoning; and because he had overrun the remotest regions, the merely visiting of which was a thing above human aspiration.”

Scipio then asked, “To whom do you give the second place?” and he replied, “To Pyrrhus; for he first taught the method of encamping; and besides, no one ever showed more exquisite judgment, in choosing his ground, and disposing his posts; while he also possessed the art of conciliating mankind to himself to such a degree, that the nations of Italy wished him, though a foreign prince, to hold the sovereignty among them, rather than the Roman people, who had so long possessed the dominion of that part of the world.”

On his proceeding to ask, “Whom do you esteem the third?” Hannibal replied, “Myself, beyond doubt.”

On this Scipio laughed, and added, “What would you have said if you had conquered me?” “Then,” replied the other, “I would have placed Hannibal, not only before Alexander and Pyrrhus, but before all other commanders.”

This answer, turned with Punic dexterity, and conveying an unexpected kind of flattery, was highly grateful to Scipio, as it set him apart from the crowd of commanders, as one of incomparable eminence.

It’s a great story.

The diplomatic route went nowhere, so Rome went to war against Antiochus. This conflict was not so convoluted as that against the Macedonians, but it was not straightforward either. An important battle took place at Thermopylae, where Leonidas and the Spartans had, centuries earlier, attempted to defend Greece against the Persians. Antiochus chose the ground, thinking it would give him at advantage, but it was not enough; the Romans flanked him and he was routed. There followed a sea battle; the Romans triumphed again. Finally, the Romans, led by Lucius Cornelius Scipio (brother of Scipio Africanus), crossed the Hellespont and forced Antiochus to accept terms. This was important not so much because Antiochus was defeated, but because it marked the first time a Roman army had crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor. They would find that they rather liked it there, and would be disinclined to leave.

One of the conditions the Roman consul, Flamininus, imposed on Antiochus as part of the peace negotiations was that Hannibal be turned over to the Roman authorities. He was their greatest opponent, and it rankled that he was still at large. Hannibal, of course, was unwilling to go peacefully, and fled to the court of Prusias, king of Bithynia, where, however, the Romans caught up with him. He chose death before dishonour. Livy gives us an account of Hannibal’s end that is worth quoting at length:

“The Carthaginian had always foreseen some such end of his life; for he knew the implacable hatred which the Romans bore him, and placed little confidence in the faith of kings. Besides, he had experienced the fickle temper of Prusias, and had, for some time, dreaded the arrival of Flamininus, as an event fatal to him. Encircled by enemies on every side, in order to have always some path open for flight, he had made seven passages from his house, of which some were concealed, lest they might be invested by a guard. But the imperious government of kings suffers nothing to remain secret which they choose to discover. They surrounded the circuit of the entire house with guards in such a manner, that no one could escape from it. Hannibal, on being told that some of the king’s soldiers were in the porch, endeavoured to escape through a back door, which was the most private, and from which the passage was most secret; but, perceiving that to be guarded by a body of soldiers, and every avenue round to be blocked up by the guards that were posted, he called for poison, which he had long kept in readiness to meet such an event, and said, “Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since they think it too long to wait for the death of an old man. Flamininus will gain no very great or memorable victory over one unarmed and betrayed. What an alteration has taken place in the behaviour of the Roman people, this day affords abundant proof. Their fathers gave warning to Pyrrhus, their armed foe, then heading an army against them in Italy, to beware of poison. The present generation have sent an ambassador, of consular rank, to persuade Prusias villanously to murder his guest.” Then imprecating curses on the head of Prusias, and on his kingdom, and calling on the gods who presided over hospitality, and were witnesses of his breach of faith, he drank off the contents of the cup. This was the end of the life of Hannibal.” (XXXIX, 51)

Hannibal was not the only major figure to pass from the scene in these years. Scipio Africanus had died as well, a few years earlier, and Philip of Macedon died shortly afterward, in 180. The time of giants was passed, it seemed.


The great majority of Livy’s attention in these books is focused on military affairs. I have not even begun to try to convey the immense complexity of the story, which took place not only in Greece and Macedonia and Asia Minor, but also in Spain, and in Gaul, and in Liguria, a region that still retains the same name today, near Genoa. (Livy quips of the Ligurians: “This enemy seemed born for the purpose of preserving military discipline among the Romans, during the intervals between important wars.”) Yet from time to time we get a glimpse of domestic politics in Rome, and these glimpses are quite enjoyable.

Livy tells us, for instance, about a controversy that arose when it was proposed that the Oppian Law be repealed. This law, a war-time measure, had forbade Roman women to buy or wear ostentatious clothing or jewelry; they could show no signs of luxury while the men were in harm’s way and the public coffers were empty. However, with the coming of peace a move was made to remove the law. A drama arose when Marcus Porcius Cato (viz. Cato the Elder), one of the chief statesmen of his day, opposed the repeal. Livy gives us his splendid speech, in which he argued, in effect, that though the need for the law had been occasioned by the war, its effects had been, on the whole, beneficial, as tending to maintain an honourable austerity and suspicion of luxury, and that it should therefore be retained in perpetuity. The restrictions had been put in place to combat a real problem. Although Cato’s conservatism has irked some modern commentators — with one calling him a “self-confident and boorish embodiment of austere moral rectitude” — Livy admires him immensely.

About 10 years later (c.183) we read about a controversy which arose over the introduction of the Bacchanalia in Rome. These religious rites were an import from Greece, and were an occasion of scandal when the nature of the rites (drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, mixing of classes) and the extent to which they had infiltrated Roman society were made known. How much of Livy’s reporting of these matters is faithful, I am not sure, but in his telling the response of Rome’s civil leaders was swift and brutal, and the rites were suppressed.

Another religious controversy arose when some books, purporting to date from the reign of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, were discovered on the Janiculum Hill. The religious authorities found the books to be unsound inasmuch as they would tend to cast doubt on Roman religious practices. They were, accordingly, burned. Unfortunately Livy does not explain what was objectionable in them, but his brief account nonetheless exposes to view, like a crack in the foundation stone, the vulnerability of Roman religion.

Also, a note about domestic politics in Rome: in the early days of the republic the most important political posts had been those of the two consuls, and in this period the consuls remained important but were joined by six praetors and one censor. The praetors, like the consuls, were also military leaders, and were each assigned a theatre of conflict to manage, but the role of the censor is less clear from Livy’s account. What we do learn is that the censor had at least two roles in Roman life: he counted the number of Roman citizens (hence, our modern “census”) and he oversaw maintenance of Roman public morals (hence, our modern “censor”). It’s just interesting to see how these two quite different ideas came to bear the same name for us because they were originally conjoined in one Roman office.


This volume of Livy’s history was, for me, the most challenging thus far, principally on account of the tangled, disjoint, multi-faceted military history it has to tell, which I found difficult to follow. But the overall picture is clear enough: Rome expanded her sphere of influence into Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Syria, and the Roman Empire, or something very like it, was born. The next volume in this edition, which contains the last books of Livy to survive (Books 41-45), treats of a renewed challenge to Rome that arose in Macedonia after the death of Philip. Sometimes, it seems, a victory has to be won more than once before it takes.

“Of all blessings none is more grateful to the multitude than liberty.” (XXXIII, 32)

“No personalities are as susceptible to jealousy as those of men whose strength of character does not measure up to their pedigree or status, because these people hate quality and merit in another.” (XXXVIII, 43)

[Reactionary politics]
“As diseases must necessarily be known before their remedies, so passions come into being before the laws which prescribe limits to them.” (XXXIV, 4)

Morton: A Traveller in Rome

November 5, 2017

A Traveller in Rome
H.V. Morton
(Methuen & Co., 1957)
432 p. Second reading.

I first read this book shortly after my first visit to Rome, in 2001. Having returned to the city four times in the intervening years, and having come to know it much better in consequence, I decided to revisit the book, both in order to return to the Eternal City in my imagination once more, and also to see how the book stands up. I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

H.V. Morton was a British travel writer who wrote a shelf-full of books over the course of several decades, finding his first success in the 1920s and continuing to publish until his death in the late 1970s. I have a half-dozen of his books on my shelves, but as yet this is the only one I’ve read. My tardiness in this regard has to be attributed to culpable neglect or honest incapacity, because, on the basis of the evidence I have, he’s a fine and judicious guide, generous in judgement, discerning and articulate, and I’ve every reason to believe that those other books of his would be rewarding.

But the theme for today is Rome, a city that one walks, as Gibbon said, “with a lofty step”, surrounded on all sides by beauty and history, a great clamour in one’s ears and a great fullness in one’s heart. It was Garibaldi who called her “a dethroned queen”, adding that “from her ruins, immense, sublime, gigantic, there emerges a luminous spectre — the memory of all that was great in the past…”; and this is quite true. She is sublime, and she is gigantic. I’ll not forget the morning, a few years ago, when I entered the Borghese Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore for the early morning Mass, having flown to Rome late the night before for a weekend’s sojourn, and I stared, stupefied, at the thick marble columns, gilded angels, and hovering frescoes, and knew that I could be nowhere but Rome, sublime and gigantic.

Morton takes the reader through the city, exploring the famous monuments and some lesser-known sites as well, filling in the history with genial exactitude, giving us some notion of how the city has changed over the centuries, relating tales of memorable events and people, and also giving us a portrait of modern Rome — Rome of the 1950s, that is — and its citizens. I laughed in recognition at his account of a taxi ride through the city streets:

The driver of this car was a mild looking Italian until he settled himself behind the wheel, when he became aggressive, if not actually homicidal. We shot round the Piazza Barberini, weaving our way in and out at great speed, missing by an inch or so a man on a bicycle loaded with carnations, braking violently to avoid another car, shooting ahead to overtake it, for he was one of those drivers who consider it dishonourable to be passed, and darting up narrow Renaissance streets hooting insanely until the passers-by dashed for shelter.

‘In one year,’ he said, turning to me and accelerating, ‘I have nine accidents…’

As if this had not sunk into my mind, he took both hands off the wheel and shouted, ‘Nine!’

I will not try to summarize the contents of the book; if there’s something about Rome that particularly interests you, the probability is high that it is mentioned somewhere. He visits the Forum, the major basilicas and many minor churches, the Vatican, the principal fountains, the gardens; he makes side-trips to the catacombs and even to Castel Gandalfo (where I, alas, still have not been!).

Let me highlight a few my favourite passages.

On the overall plan of the city:

Rome has no centre. There is no part of the city which you can say at once is definitely the one and only heart of Rome… Instead of one great forum, Rome has innumerable piazze scattered all over the city, and the stranger cannot decide which is the most important. There seems little to choose between the Piazza Colonna, the Piazza Barberini, the Piazza di Spagna, the Piazza dell’Esedra, and all the other piazze; and even the famous Piazza Venezia, with its adjacent monument to Victor Emanuel, is more a landmark and a beacon to the stranger than a civic centre.

On the characteristic architecture of Rome:

The landscape of Rome is itself declamatory. Upon the roofline stand hundreds of gesticulating saints, their garments tossed about in a baroque breeze, their fingers admonishing, pointing and blessing. The undulating architecture with which the Church in the seventeenth century expressed its satisfaction with the Counter Reformation is itself a gay, inspiring background for gesticulation. It is a stage upon which a Puritan with modest, downcast eyes would be an impossibility: it is the Church flamboyant, the Church resurgent, the Church so sure of itself that it can be quite humorous at times.

On the sense of discovery one feels:

It is the singular charm of Rome that, turning a corner, one comes suddenly face to face with something beautiful and unexpected which was placed there centuries ago, apparently in the most casual fashion. Rome is a city of magic round the corner, of masterpieces dumped, as it were, by the wayside, which lends to the shortest walk the excitement of a treasure hunt.


Insofar as I can tell, Morton was not a Catholic, but he seems to have appreciated the Church, and he writes with knowledge and understanding about her prominent place in Roman history. Of the many religious pilgrims who visit the city every day, whom he calls “the original visitors to Rome”, he writes that “they may be strangers, but they are at home”, and this, too, captures something of the uniqueness of the city.

Most interesting to me was what he had to say about Pope Pius XII, who was pontiff at the time. For the past several decades, since the production of Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy” in 1963, Pius XII has been criticized from various quarters for, at best, inaction in the face of the Nazi’s final solution, and, at worst, collaboration in its aims. Naturally the question of what Pius did or did not do to help the Jews in their darkest hour is a valid and valuable one, but Hochhuth’s charges owed more to imagination than any historical discovery — if they were not actually engineered by the KGB — and the least subtle of Pius’ detractors seem to have gone down to defeat.

In any case, Morton was writing before the controversy arose, and so the book gives us a window into what an informed non-Catholic thought of the Pope at the time. He says that “There probably has never been a Pope who is more certain to be canonized than Pius XII”, and then proceeds to tell how he first saw him during the praying of the Angelus at St Peter’s:

It may be a strange thing to say of a small figure in white on a distant balcony, but I was aware that this man was radiating to us all an extraordinary sense of peace and tranquillity; of holiness, for there is no other word.

Later he was granted a brief personal audience, about which he wrote:

When my turn came, I made my reverence and found myself looking with interest at the most beautifully made red velvet shoes I have ever seen. There was a small gold cross embroidered on the toe. The shoes looked comfortable, and the Pope’s foot was small, narrow, and aristocratic. I rose and found myself gazing into a pair of dark eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. I felt I was in the presence of a beautifully dressed hermit… Everything about him was fastidious. He had spoken French to the Arab, now he spoke in English with a strong accent, and when I answered his questions, he drew a beautiful cross in the air and passed on. And I knew that I had spoken to a holy man.

The interest in the shoes is consistent with Morton’s slightly aristocratic temperament, but it is clear that he admired the Pope greatly, and this, I believe, was a fairly common judgment at the time.


A book about Rome could never be a substitute for the real thing, but, as books go, this is a worthy one. I would recommend it most highly to readers who have already been to the city at least once; someone reading it sight-unseen would not, I think, reap so great a reward. This makes it rather peculiar as a guide book, but then again it is not really a guide book in that sense, but rather a memoir of one man’s experience of the city, and a testimony that

To seek out good thoughts and to reverence them is the privilege of those who have lived for no matter how brief a time in the mother city of the western world.