Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Rome’

Pliny: Natural History

May 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope that his wish was granted.

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

Williams: Augustus

May 15, 2020

Augustus
John Williams
(NYRB Classics, 2014) [1971]
336 p.

I’ve whiled away the past year of my Roman reading project in the company of poets of the Augustan age: Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Tibullus, and Propertius. In this poetry the figure of Augustus is frequently present, but usually on the periphery. We hear him praised, and certain of his acts and policies impinge upon the poetry in various ways, but we do not get a strong sense of the man himself. But we do know that his reputation, in the eyes of the Roman historians, is primarily a good one: he brought stability to Rome, and moderation, even though he altered its Republican government for keeps. If he did not burn as brightly as Julius Caesar, he burned more steadily, and certainly he compared favourably with the string of cruel and even lunatic emperors who followed in his immediate wake. But he was the emperor, and so even to those who admired him he was a somewhat distant figure, not susceptible of nuanced appraisal.

In this novel John Williams takes Augustus as his subject, and attempts to imagine the man as a man, using the resources of the modern novel to humanize a figurehead. His main interests are in the man’s character and his relationships with family and close friends.

The novel is epistolary, consisting of a collection of letters exchanged between his family members, friends, and courtiers. The letters move back and forth in time, and do not always pertain directly to Augustus, but he is there in the background, and gradually, here and there, as in a pointillistic painting, a picture of his life emerges.

Many of the characters writing these letters are well-known historical figures: Marc Antony, Cleopatra, Horace, Ovid, his daughter Julia, his friend and advisor Maecenas. Others, like a tutor hired in his household, are either imagined or known only glancingly in the history books. Williams uses the epistolary structure of the novel well to give us a variety of perspectives on Augustus, and also to highlight tensions between the characters (as when he alternates letters from Cleopatra to Marc Antony with her letters to her government ministers, the former full of flattery and misdirection and the latter of hard-headed realism on the same topics).

He is also able to bring to life some of the quieter moments that we know happened, but which are normally passed over in historical accounts. What was it like, for instance, when young Octavius received news that his adoptive uncle, Julius Caesar, had been killed? Williams paints the scene for us through the eyes of a friend. What was it like for Augustus to sit with Marc Antony and Lepidus while negotiating which notable Romans would be executed? Williams brings us into the room. What would it have been like to attend one of the literary evenings at which Augustus hosted poetry readings by Virgil and Horace? Williams brings one to life.

We also learn about Octavius’ childhood, and for me the most touching letter in the book was one in which his childhood playmate and nurse, a slightly older girl, recounts how she encountered him again, by chance, in the streets of Rome when they were both elderly. It’s like that scene in the life of Joseph when he is reunited with his brothers — when people who grew up together but whose lives took very different paths meet again under drastically changed conditions, and all that accumulation of experience drops away, revealing the tenacity of the intimate human bond — and just as affecting.

The effect of the collection of letters is prismatic: the life of Augustus comes to the reader refracted through the eyes of many others. But in the last fifty pages of the book this changes: Williams gives us a long letter from Augustus himself, a reflective letter written in old age, in which he reviews and ponders the events of his life. Episodes that we saw before through the eyes of another we see again through his eyes, alongside ruminations on the advantages and disadvantages of power and influence. It is a fine way to sum up and round out the book.

This novel won the National Book Award in the year of its publication. It is well-written, thoughtfully constructed, and presents well-known historical events in an interesting way. The writing is not dazzling, but it is sound and sturdy. Augustus is not a great book, but it is a good one.

The tidal flood beneath the lunar sway…

April 20, 2020

… but in Latin.

Reading Seneca’s essay On Providence I came across a surprising passage in which, in an aside, he says:

If anyone observes how shores are laid bare as the sea withdraws into itself, and yet are covered again in the shortest of time, he will believe it is some unseen fluctuation that causes the waves now to diminish and flow inwards, now to burst forth and with a great surge reclaim their former home; but in fact the waves increase by degrees, approaching to the hour and day proportionately larger or smaller in volume as they are attracted by the star we call the moon, whose power controls the ocean’s surge.

Now, it is true that the translator (John Davie) does not use the word “tide” here, but that must be what he is talking about. This is fascinating to me, because I had thought that the connection between the moon and the tides was a post-Newtonian discovery.

For instance, in his defence of a heliocentric model, Galileo argued that the tides are caused by the rotation of the earth. This was wrong; I’d thought it was put forward in the absence of a better explanation. But apparently not. Fascinating.

Books briefly noted: ancient and medieval

January 31, 2020

Today, quick notes on a few books that crossed my bed-stand lately:

Making Medieval Manuscripts
Christopher de Hamel
(Bodleian, 2018)
176 p.

Here is a wonderful book for those with an interest in things medieval. I have quite a few books on or about medieval manuscripts — mostly coffee table books on illuminated manuscripts — but here is the first book I have seen devoted to explaining how those manuscripts were made. Christopher de Hamel is a Cambridge fellow with long experience working with these manuscripts, and recently won wide praise for his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts, a great, thick book that I borrowed from the library but returned unread on account of its great thickness. The present volume, however, which is a re-working of his 1992 book Scribes and Illuminators, is invitingly thin and generously ornamented with pictures. It was a quick and fascinating read.

Hamel starts at the beginning — with dead sheep — and explains the process by which parchment was made from the skins. He gives the recipes for medieval ink, and talks about the process of planning the layout of books, as well as the arduous task of actually writing or copying them. We learn a little about the economics of book production. The central section of the book is devoted to the art of illumination: how drawings were planned, how pigments were made, the order in which pictures were coloured, the process by which gold leaf was produced and laid onto the page. Finally he describes how pages were sewn together and bound into codices. The book gives one a renewed appreciation not only for the beauty of the finished books, but also simply for the many volumes which we have inherited from ancient and medieval times, each one of which was produced with great labour. Hamel writing is clear and genial, and his obvious affection for his subject is evident. The book is handsomely produced on glossy paper and filled, as already mentioned, with beautiful and instructive pictures.

***

Warfare in Medieval Manuscripts
Pamela Porter
(British Library, 2000)
128 p.

While I would stop short of claiming to have a positive desire to fight in a medieval war, I think it is still legitimate to point out that a certain romance attaches to the figure of the medieval warrior: the armour, the banners, the tents, the parlays, the horses, the valour, and the heraldry must, in justice, be considered alongside the spear in the torso and the arrow in the eye for a fully rounded picture. This little book provides a brief overview of the conditions and tactics of medieval warfare. We learn about knights and the chivalric tradition, military training, weapons and armour, siege tactics, battle formations, and, in the later middle ages, technological advances such as gun-powdered weapons that sufficiently altered military affairs that a new age of warfare could be said to have begun.

But only, by my estimate, one-quarter of the book is text. The rest is filled out with manuscript illuminations depicting one or another aspect of warfare, and these pictures are the principal attraction of the book, for they are wonderful — all the more so after reading Hamel’s book above and having, therefore, a fresh appreciation for the difficulty with which those illuminations were made. A preponderance of the pictures appear to have been taken from English and French manuscripts — at least, it is very often that the two armies depicted are the English and the French — which makes sense given that they were curated from the British Library’s collection. Although the book is not large (just 6 inches on a side, roughly) the reproductions are of high quality and the colours are vivid. Recommended to students of military history and lovers of medieval art.

***

Practical Theology
Spiritual Direction from St Thomas Aquinas
Peter Kreeft
(Ignatius, 2014)
400 p.

Kreeft had a good idea: highlight within St Thomas’ voluminous writings a set of topics that could be of interest to ordinary (non-philosopher) Christians, add commentary to explain or elaborate Thomas’ points, and then staple them all together. The book includes over 350 of these topics, typically one per page. They range from broadly pastoral topics (“Why God doesn’t give us enough grace to overcome sin”) to moral reflections (“How unbelief is a sin”; “Why wealth can’t make you happy”) to catechesis (“What the Eucharist signifies”). There is plenty of philosophy too (“Knowing God by analogy”; “The importance of reason in morality”). Each treatment is short enough that the book could serve as a kind of daily devotional reader, and this was how I approached it. St Thomas’ writings are incredibly rich, seeming sometimes to be a reservoir for the accumulated wisdom of our whole religious and cultural tradition, and Kreeft’s selections are judicious, even if the treatments are sometimes cursory.

***

Ancient Warfare
A Very Short Introduction
Harry Sidebottom
(Oxford, 2004)
165 p.

By ‘ancient’ is meant, for the most part, Greco-Roman. Sidebottom casts quite a wide net for a short book: war in ancient art, war as a metaphor and conceptual framework in ancient society, motives and justifications for war, and techniques for waging war. He includes an interesting though brief discussion of the development of our just war tradition: Greeks made limited contributions, but Cicero in his Republic specified basic conditions for commencing a war, while some Stoics (Epictetus and Dio Chrysostom) denied that any war could be just, even when fought in self-defence. Soldiery was frowned on by early Christians, not only because soldiers were the pointy-end of the Imperial stick wielded against them, but because soldiers were obligated to uphold the cult of the Emperor; it is telling that in early Christianity the image of the spiritual athlete predominates over that of the spiritual soldier.

The most interesting chapter to me was on the conditions of ancient warfare “on the ground”: what soldiers wore and carried, how they fought in formation, how commands were given, the basic shape of naval warfare, the techniques of siege warfare. Least interesting were the author’s occasional nods at matters in academic vogue (“war was strongly gendered in classical antiquity”). The book as a whole advances an argument about the nature of “the Western way of war”; generally I think that brief, introductory volumes meant for beginners are poor venues for proposing pet theories, but perhaps the publisher thought differently.

Caesar: The Civil War

January 13, 2019

The Civil War
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2018) [48 BC]
200 p.

Caesar’s Gallic Wars recounted his decade-long campaign to bring Gaul under the control of Rome. That tale ended in 49 BC, and is continued here, in Caesar’s first-hand account of the momentous events of the years 49-48 BC, during which Caesar and Pompey contended against one another for control of Rome itself.

Though Caesar had succeeded brilliantly in his Gallic campaign, and had been awarded multiple triumphs by the Roman Senate, and had seen his popularity rise, he had also made powerful enemies. In 49 BC, as he wrapped up his campaign abroad, those enemies, led by Pompey the Great, passed a resolution in Rome requiring him to disband his army or be declared a traitor. Caesar countered that he would do so provided that Pompey, too, would disband his army. (It was one of the marks of Rome’s political decline that an army’s first loyalty was often to its commander rather than to Rome, effectively giving powerful generals their own private armed forces.) Pompey refused, and Caesar, in turn, likewise.

Marching south from Ravenna, Caesar crossed the boundary between Cisapline Gaul and Italy proper — that is, he crossed the Rubicon — with his army intact, thereby violating Roman law and sparking the civil war. It is interesting to note that Caesar passes over this now-famous moment with hardly a comment; it was later writers — Appian, Plutarch, and others — who made much of it.

Fearing that Caesar would march on Rome, Pompey and many of the leading Romans fled south to Capua and then to Brundisium (modern Brindisi). Caesar pursued them and, rapidly building a barrier across the mouth of the harbour, very nearly succeeded in trapping Pompey then and there. But, as it happened, Pompey did escape to Greece where he began assembling an armed force to oppose Caesar.

Caesar, meanwhile, abandoning the chase, went to Rome to argue his case before the remains of the Senate, who decided that negotiations with Pompey should be attempted.

One might naively expect that the Roman civil war would be fought in and around Rome, but in fact this speech before the Senate is the only time in the war that either of the two principals was in the city. Instead, Caesar next proceeded on a course that I did not anticipate: he went north again, first to the southern coast of Gaul, where he established a siege of Marsilla (modern Marseilles), and then to Spain, where he fought a lengthy campaign for control of Ilerda. These episodes are properly parts of the civil war because these cities were loyal to Pompey. Before the year was out, both cities fell to Caesar.

Concurrently (in August of 49) one of Caesar’s deputies, Curio, was commissioned to lead a force against Pompey’s allies in Numidia (modern Tunisia). This ended in disaster for Caesar: there was a clever ruse on the African side, in which they faked a retreat, lured Curio out of his fortifications and into an open plain, where he was surrounded and his army slaughtered. It was the most significant victory for Pompey’s side to that point in the conflict.

With the coming of the year 48, a more direct conflict between Caesar and Pompey was looming. Caesar succeeded in crossing to Greece from Brundisium, and established a camp across a river from Pompey’s camp. A cunning attempt at a flanking manoeuvre by Caesar eventually settled down to a peculiar stand-off: both armies built semi-circular fortifications beginning and ending on the sea, with Pompey’s being entirely enclosed within Caesar’s (like this). It was peculiar because it resembled a siege, but the besieged — Pompey — had ready access to supplies from the sea, and therefore could, it seemed, hold out indefinitely.

But several things happened to break the stand-off. One was that two of Caesar’s senior officers were arraigned for corruption, and in response defected to Pompey’s side, taking with them valuable intelligence, on the strength of which Pompey mounted an attack on a weak point in Caesar’s fortifications, resulting in the deaths of many of Caesar’s men. Caesar’s side was weakened but not defeated. The second thing was that a variety of factors, especially a lack of fresh water, led to Pompey’s being forced to break his army out of the siege and flee, which he did.

Caesar again pursued, and the armies squared off again in August near Pharsalus. Caesar was outnumbered by a factor of two, and his cavalry was barely a tenth as large as Pompey’s. Pompey planned to use his superior cavalry to flank Caesar, but Caesar, anticipating this, placed a specially selected line of infantry to defend that same flank. When the battle began, this anticipation proved decisive; while the main lines fought, Pompey’s flanking manoeuvre failed and, instead, Caesar’s defenders moved around and flanked Pompey, causing the latter’s army to turn and flee for their lives. It was a rout: Caesar reports (how accurately is hard to tell) that he lost just 200 men in the day’s fighting, while Pompey lost 15000.

Pompey, for his part, failed to embody the noble Roman virtues in defeat. He first — before the battle was ended — retired to his tent, apparently stunned, and then, rousing himself, fled. He boarded a vessel and began a circuit of the Mediterraean. As news spread of Caesar’s victory, the tide turned against Pompey, and he was denied entrance at several ports. Eventually he decided to go to Egypt, counting on the support of the young ruler, Ptolomy, and his regents. But the Egyptians, too, could tell which way the wind was blowing, and Pompey was murdered at Ptolomy’s command while coming ashore. His was a sad and ignoble end.

**

The main contours of this story were familiar to me already, most recently from reading Appian, but it was a pleasure to go over them again, in more detail, and straight from the horse’s mouth.

I’ve already remarked that it was a sign of Rome’s immense power that the Roman civil war was fought, not in Rome, nor even much in Italy, but in Gaul, Spain, and Greece.

It is also worth noting a marked difference between Caesar and Pompey in the exercise of power. Pompey took the view that “He who is not for me is against me”; a lack of explicit support was taken as opposition and treated as such. But Caesar’s rule was “He who is not against me is for me”; cities that withheld support for Pompey were, in his judgement, on his side, and he treated them as such. The result was that people who were not sure which way the conflict would eventually resolve — which was most everyone — were more likely to favour Caesar. By not forcing them to take sides, Caesar didn’t create unnecessary resistance.

Another thing that emerges from this account, as from the Gallic Wars, is Caesar’s brilliance as a general. Again and again he wins by out-thinking his opponent, anticipating their plans or luring them into traps. Even taking into account the fact that it is Caesar himself telling us about his victories, it is hard not to be impressed by his superior tactics.

As was the case in the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s writing is always clear and well-organized. His focus is very much on military tactics and strategy, with occasional feints at politics. I have been reading from The Landmark Julius Caesar, an edition whose many virtues I have sung before. Simply put, I do not believe there is an English-language edition of Caesar’s writings to compare with it.

Accounts of Caesar’s subsequent military campaigns, in Alexandria, in Africa, and again in Spain, have also come down to us, though not by Caesar’s own hand. They are nonetheless included in this Landmark volume, and I think I will tackle them soon.