Posts Tagged ‘Greco-Roman literature’

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

May 9, 2022

Meditations
Marcus Aurelius
Adapted by George Chrystal from the 1742 Foulis translation
(Walter J. Black, 1941) [c.180]
120 p.

Marcus Aurelius, he of the golden name and the laudable reputation, has for me always had something of an aura, as it were, about him. Even the terse title of his famous book promised something sturdy and placid, something on which to sit and rest myself. I am happy to have finally made the time for it.

It is rare to have a book, especially one of this kind, written by a man of such eminence. He was Roman emperor, the most powerful man in the world he knew, yet his book is not about conquest or war or even greatness in any worldly sense. It is a book about the interior life, for the most part: about virtue, and the good life, and preparing for death, and learning to be happy. He wrote it for himself.

It is an aphoristic book. Marcus Aurelius spent much of his time as emperor on the road, in the field of battle, and it seems he jotted down his thoughts when he had a fleeting opportunity to do so. The book it most reminded me of, at least structurally, was Pascal’s Pensées. Not the least of its merits is that it stands as a reproach to those of us who think we’re “too busy” to do something worthwhile.

Because of its fractured format, it’s a good book to dip into, and a difficult one to summarize. Today my aim is simply to pluck at a few dominant ideas that I noticed, and to preserve for my own benefit some passages that struck me as especially worthy.

***

Much of the book is occupied with the question of what constitutes good character. Let’s start with an extended sketch that he gives early in his meditations when he is recounting what he learned from various mentors and exemplars:

The counsels of Maximus taught me to command myself, to judge clearly, to be of good courage in sickness and other misfortunes, to be moderate, gentle, yet serious in disposition, and to accomplish my appointed task without repining. All men believed that he spoke as he thought; and whatever he did, they knew it was done with good intent. I never found him surprised or astonished at anything. He was never in a hurry, never shrank from his purpose, was never at a loss or dejected. He was no facile smiler, but neither was he passionate or suspicious. He was ready to do good, to forgive, and to speak the truth, and gave the impression of unperverted rectitude rather than of a reformed character. No man could ever think himself despised by Maximus, and no one ever ventured to think himself his superior. He had also a good gift of humour.

There we have a winsome and compelling portrait of a good man; who would not wish to be spoken of in such a way? One of the character traits in this sketch is integrity: to be what one appears to be, to be candid and honest in one’s dealings with people, to say what one means. This is a matter that comes up frequently throughout the book, and is expressed in different ways. For instance, he tells us that we should

Never esteem aught of advantage which will oblige you to break your faith, or to desert your honour; to hate, to suspect, or to execrate any man; to play a part; or to set your mind on anything that needs to be hidden by wall or curtain. (III.7)

Or, again,

If you discharge your present duty with firm and zealous, yet kindly, observance of the laws of reason; if you regard no by-gains, but keep pure within you your immortal part, as if obliged to restore it at once to him who gave it; if you hold to this with no further desires or aversions, and be content with the natural discharge of your present task, and with the heroic sincerity of all you say or utter, you will live well. And herein no man can hinder you. (III.12)

It might be that certain jealous or envious people will cast aspersions at a man who lives thus candidly before the world, ascribing to him secret hidden motives that he does not have, but this, says Marcus, is nothing to be concerned about:

Though others may not believe that he lives thus in simplicity, modesty, and contentment, he neither takes this unbelief amiss from any one, nor quits the road which leads to the true end of life, at which he ought to arrive pure, calm, ready to take his departure, and accommodated without compulsion to his fate. (III.16)

This is appealing to me; here is something to aspire to. But I fear, on good grounds, that I would fail, as I have failed at lesser challenges. A charge open to Marcus, as it is open to anyone who sets up an ideal, is that it is unrealistic: people just aren’t that good. We are all hobbled by various weaknesses and corruptions. This side of things is muted in the book, but not absent. At one point, for instance, he offers counsel on how to resist the lure of avarice:

Dwell not on what you lack so much as on what you have already. Select the best of what you have, and consider how passionately you would have longed for it had it not been yours. Yet be watchful, lest by this joy in what you have you accustom yourself to value it too highly; so that, if it should fail, you would be distressed. (VII.27)

This is a kind of therapy for temptation and weakness of will. In another place he offers advice to those who, though trying to live in accordance with reason — a Stoic ideal — find that they have fallen into error:

Remember that to change your course, and to follow any man who can set you right is no compromise of your freedom. The act is your own, performed on your own impulse and judgment, and according to your own understanding. (VIII.16)

To be in error is a fault, but to discover an error is an opportunity to exercise both freedom and gratitude. But he goes beyond even such rosy therapies and glass-half-full ruminations once or twice:

This your suffering is well merited, for you would rather become good to-morrow than be good to-day. (VIII.22)

I would bet that St Augustine read Marcus Aurelius.

**

Marcus had to deal with difficult people — not just irritating people, but people scheming against him for something, and perhaps in the grip of a particular vice. We all have to do this from time to time, according to our state in life. Marcus has some counsel for such situations.

Say this to yourself in the morning: Today I shall have to do with meddlers, with the ungrateful, with the insolent, with the crafty, with the envious and the selfish. All these vices have beset them, because they know not what is good and what is evil. But I have considered the nature of the good, and found it beautiful: I have beheld the nature of the bad, and found it ugly. I also understand the nature of the evil-doer, and know that he is my brother, not because he shares with me the same blood or the same seed, but because he is a partaker of the same mind and of the same portion of immortality. I therefore cannot be hurt by any of these, since none of them can involve me in any baseness. I cannot be angry with my brother, or sever myself from him, for we are made by nature for mutual assistance, like the feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth. (II.1)

There are a few ideas here: evildoers don’t know what they are doing, not truly; evil committed against me cannot hurt me, not truly; my own good is consonant with, rather than opposed to, the good of others. Each is debatable, of course, but each is important to Marcus’ way of seeing things. As to the last point, for instance, he cites (or coins) a neat aphorism: “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee. (VI.54)”.

The notion that a good man cannot be harmed by others comes up again and again. At times it is expressed metaphysically:

Material things cannot touch the soul at all, nor have any access to it: neither can they bend or move it. The soul is bent or moved by itself alone, and remodels all things that present themselves from without in accordance with whatever judgment it adopts within. (V.19)

The mind can convert and change everything that impedes its activity into matter for its action; hindrance in its work becomes its real help, and every obstruction makes for its progress. (V.20)

At other times it is stated in moral terms:

Let any one say or do what he pleases, I must be a good man. It is just as gold, or emeralds, or purple might say continually: “Let men do or say what they please, I must be an emerald, and retain my lustre.” (VII.15)

Or, conversely,

The sinner sins against himself. The wrong-doer wrongs himself by making himself evil. (IX.4)

Socrates used to say something very much like this, and there is a kernel of hard truth in it. I may be made to suffer for my integrity, but so long as I’m willing to undergo that suffering, so long as I value my integrity more than I fear the suffering, I cannot be compelled to forsake it. This is a stern moralism, but attractive. Consistently, Marcus counsels us to aim, in freedom, at what is right according to justice, and accept the consequences.

In the present matter what is the soundest that can be done or said? For, whatever that may be, you are at liberty to do or say it. Make no excuses as if hindered. You will never cease from groaning until your disposition is such that what luxury is to men of pleasure, that to you is doing what is suitable to the constitution of man on every occasion that is thrown or falls in your way. You should regard as enjoyment everything which you are at liberty to do in accordance with your own proper nature; and this liberty you have everywhere. (X.33)

We are to look at what is intrinsically right, without regard to extrinsic factors like approbation, reward, or suffering. Keep your eye on the ball. He is especially keen to discount the importance of rewards for good deeds. No doubt he was surrounded by sycophants seeking an imperial back scratch for services rendered, but he would have none of it:

When you have done a kind action, another has benefited. Why do you, like the fools, require some third thing in addition—a reputation for benevolence or a return for it? (VII.73)

Instead, he sketches for us an ideal to contrast with the fool:

Some men, when they have done you a favour, are very ready to reckon up the obligation they have conferred. Others, again, are not so forward in their claims, but yet in their minds consider you their debtor, and well know the value of what they have done. A third sort seem to be unconscious of their service. They are like the vine, which produces its clusters and is satisfied when it has yielded its proper fruit. The horse when he has run his course, the hound when he has followed the track, the bee when it has made its honey, and the man when he has done good to others, make no noisy boast of it, but set out to do the same once more, as the vine in its season produces its new clusters again. “Should we, then, be among those who in a manner know not what they do?” Assuredly. (V.6)

This is a matter that I’ve often thought about. I’m a person who, on those rare occasions when I do some good for a friend, does not expect anything in return. The matter is forgotten. Likewise, when someone does me a good turn, I don’t feel any pressing obligation to return the favour. I am grateful; I say ‘thank you’; and then I move on. I don’t keep accounts, for better or for worse. This can be irritating to my wife, who is much more sensitive to the intricacies of obligation and debt. But I am in agreement with Marcus on this point; I do what I see as my duty, or as right, and why should I place another under a debt for doing so? And when I receive a good from someone, can I not receive it as a gift, or must it place me under some obligation to reciprocate? Well, it is simpler, at least, to be as the horse, the hound, and the bee.

Wrapped up in Marcus’ counsel that we should simply do the right thing is his belief that we should not particularly care about the outcome. We do our part, he says, and the rest is not up to us.

Try to persuade men to agree with you; but whether they agree or not, pursue the course you have marked out when the principles of justice point that way. Should one oppose you by force, act with resignation, and shew not that you are hurt, use the obstruction for the exercise of some other virtue, and remember that your purpose involved the reservation that you were not to aim at impossibilities. What, after all, was your aim? To make some good effort such as this. Well, then, you have succeeded, even though your first purpose be not accomplished. (VI.50)

We encroach here on the Stoic belief that we should strive for detachment from success, fame, and wealth. Instead, we should accept, in humility and simplicity, whatever happens, be it good or bad by conventional standards of judgment. Such things — merely external things that happen to us — are of no ultimate importance:

Now death and life, glory and reproach, pain and pleasure, riches and poverty—all these happen equally to the good and to the bad. But, as they are neither honourable nor shameful, they are therefore neither good nor evil. (II.11)

When under the sway of our passions, we grow attached to things that are transitory and bound to pass away. We want things to be this way, and not that way. But this is a recipe for unhappiness, for all things are transitory, and even if we attain what we want, it will not last. Instead, we ought to receive everything that happens with a kind of detached indifference:

The healthy eye ought to look on everything visible, and not to say, “I want green,” like an eye that is diseased. Sound hearing or sense of smell ought to be ready for all that can be heard or smelt; and the healthy stomach should be equally disposed for all sorts of food, as a mill for all that it was built to grind. So also the healthy mind should be ready for all things that happen. That mind which says, “Let my children be spared, and let men applaud my every action,” is as an eye which begs for green, or as teeth which require soft food. (X.35)

Again, this way of thinking has a certain appeal. For a Christian it must be a limited appeal, for Jesus taught us to ask for our daily bread, rather than to <i>not</i> ask for it. The Christian way is to love rather than to be indifferent. And Marcus’ belief that it is better not to desire particular goods does occasionally cross the line into something that feels perverse:

You will think little of a pleasing song, a dance, or a gymnastic display, if you analyse the melody into its separate notes, and ask yourself regarding each, “Does this impress me?” You will blush to own it; and so also if you analyse the dance into its single motions and postures, and if you similarly treat the gymnastic display. In general then, except as regards virtue and virtuous action, remember to recur to the constituent parts of things, and by dissecting to despise them; and transfer this practice to life as a whole. (XI.2)

This just seems like a therapy for how not to like things: by conceptualizing them in a way that makes them not likeable.

*

A final theme of Marcus’ meditations that I’ll touch on is a familiar one: the brevity of life. This is a common enough trope in the ancient world; we saw it when we were reading Seneca a few moons ago, and it is a perpetual favourite of moralists the world over. All the same, Marcus invests the familiar tune with his own distinctive voice. He emphasizes the moral urgency that human life acquires because of its limits:

Order not your life as though you had ten thousand years to live. Fate hangs over you. While you live, while yet you may, be good. (IV.17)

And he concludes his entire set of meditations with a memorable passage on the inevitability and unpredictability of death:

You have lived, O man, as a citizen of this great city; of what consequence to you whether for five years or for three? What comes by law is fair to all. Where then is the calamity, if you are sent out of the city, by no tyrant or unjust judge, but Nature herself who at first introduced you, just as the praetor who engaged the actor again dismisses him from the stage? “But,” say you, “I have not spoken my five acts, but only three.” True, but in life three acts make up the play. For he sets the end who was responsible for its composition at the first, and for its present dissolution. You are responsible for neither. Depart then graciously; for he who dismisses you is gracious. (XII.36)

All the world’s a stage.

***

The Meditations is unquestionably a great book; it doesn’t need me to praise it. Reading as a Christian, I see its wisdom as limited in various respects, but that it contains genuine wisdom I do not doubt. Stoicism probably never found a better spokesman than Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps the thing that struck me most, as I was reading, was just how immediately it spoke to me. I would go so far as to say that for no book from the ancient world, with the notable and important exception of Augustine’s Confessions, have I felt the centuries melt away as I did with this. Marcus speaks to me as a contemporary, and that is a remarkable achievement.

***

[Aphorism]
The best revenge is not to copy him that wronged you. (VI.6)

[Aphorism]
Men will go their ways nonetheless, though you burst in protest. (VIII.4)

[Human nature and reason]
In the reasoning being to act according to nature is to act according to reason. (VII.11)

[Philosophy]
Had you at one time both a step-mother and a mother, you would respect the former, yet you would be more constantly in your mother’s company. Your court and your philosophy are step-mother and mother to you. Return then frequently to your true mother, and recreate yourself with her. Her consolation can make the court seem bearable to you, and you to it. (VI.12)

[Love those around you]
Adapt yourself to the things which your destiny has given you: love those with whom it is your lot to live, and love them with sincere affection. (VI.39)

[Choose the best]
Frankly and freely choose the best, and keep to it. The best is what is for your advantage. If now you choose what is for your spiritual advantage, hold it fast; if what is for your bodily advantage, admit that it is so chosen, and keep your choice with all modesty. Only see that you make a sure discrimination. (III.6)

[Change and transitoriness]
Consider frequently how swiftly things that exist or are coming into existence are swept by and carried away. Their substance is as a river perpetually flowing; their actions are in continual change, and their causes subject to ten thousand alterations. Scarcely anything is stable, and the vast eternities of past and future in which all things are swallowed up are close upon us on both hands. Is he not then a fool who is puffed up with success in the things of this world, or is distracted, or worried, as if he were in a time of trouble likely to endure for long. (V.23)

[Good zeal]
For what should we be zealous? For this alone, that our souls be just, our actions unselfish, our speech ever sincere, and our disposition such as may cheerfully embrace whatever happens, seeing it to be inevitable, familiar, and sprung from the same source and origin as we ourselves. (IV.34)

[Metaphysical beauty]
Whatever is beautiful at all is beautiful in itself. Its beauty ends there, and praise has no part in it. Nothing is the better or the worse for being praised; and this holds also of what is beautiful in the common estimation: of material forms and works of art. Thus true beauty needs nothing beyond itself, any more than law, or truth, or kindness, or honour. For none of these gets a single grace from praise or one blot from censure. (IV.19)

[Simplicity]
Most things you say and do are not necessary. Have done with them, and you will be more at leisure and less perturbed. On every occasion, then, ask yourself the question, Is this thing not unnecessary? And put away not only unnecessary deeds but unnecessary thoughts, for by so doing you will avoid all superfluous actions. (IV.24)

[Talking himself out of bed in the morning]
In the morning, when you find yourself unwilling to rise, have this thought at hand: I arise to the proper business of man, and shall I repine at setting about that work for which I was born and brought into the world? Am I equipped for nothing but to lie among the bed-clothes and keep warm? “But,” you say, “it is more pleasant so.” Is pleasure, then, the object of your being, and not action, and the exercise of your powers? Do you not see the smallest plants, the little sparrows, the ants, the spiders, the bees, all doing their part, and working for order in the Universe, as far as in them lies? And will you refuse the part in this design which is laid on man? Will you not pursue the course which accords with your own nature? You say, “I must have rest.” Assuredly; but nature appoints a measure for rest, just as for eating and drinking. In rest you go beyond these limits, and beyond what is enough; but in action you do not fill the measure, and remain well within your powers. You do not love yourself; if you did, you would love your nature and its purpose. (V.1)

Martial and Juvenal

January 7, 2022

Epigrams
Martial
Translated from the Latin by James Michie
(Penguin Classics, 1973) [c.70-100]
205 p.

Martial in English
Edited by J.P. Sullivan and A.J. Boyle
(Penguin Classics, 1996)
436 p.

Satires
Juvenal
Translated from the Latin by Niall Rudd
(World’s Classics, 1991) [c.110-150]
xl + 249 p.

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. My track record with Roman poets — Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Propertius, Tibullus, Statius, and Lucan — has been pretty good; I’ve enjoyed, and often greatly enjoyed, reading them. But nothing is perfect in this vale of tears, and though I had been looking forward with anticipation to both Martial and Juvenal — both entirely terra incognita for me — my hopes have been dashed. They are not, of course, wholly bad, but my experience has been, on the whole, one to evoke tears from the tenderhearted.

Martial, the great epigrammatist, the chronicler of the Roman streets, the man in the corner with the choice barb and the pithy appraisal, was, in my untutored imagination, to play a role in the annals of Roman poetry roughly similar, at least in some respects, to the place of the impressionists in the galleries of Western painting: his was a great relaxation from epic themes to simpler and more quotidian pleasures. And, in a certain sense, I was right, for his poems are simpler and more quotidian: portraits of characters, expressions of emotion, witty observations of human folly, and so forth, and few of the poems are longer than twenty lines — some are as brief as two. He is considerably more relaxed than Virgil or Statius, no doubt.

Munera qui tibi dat locupleti, Gaure, senique,
si sapis et sentis, hoc tibi ait ‘Morere’.

If you were wise as well as rich and sickly,
You’d see that every gift means, ‘Please die quickly.’

That’s pretty good, right? Brief but brutal. And there are others like it:

Nubere Paula cupit nobis, ego ducere Paulam
nolo: anus est. Vellem, si magis esset anus.

She longs for me to ‘have and hold’ her
In marriage. I’ve no mind to.
She’s old. If she were even older,
I might be half-inclined to.

That’s Miche’s translation in his volume. The Martial in English volume contains a translation of the same poem, by Peter Whigham, that is even better:

Paula would wed: I pray to be exempted.
She’s old. Were she but older, I’d be tempted.

That beautiful concision comes close, perhaps, to the deftness of the original, and its charms are undeniable.

But often, I confess, I found Martial merely coarse, merely petty, or merely dull. The ‘everydayness’ of the poems, their lack of pretense and ambition, wore on me after a while. I found myself responding to many of these poems with a casual “Meh” before they disappeared without a trace. I began to wonder why I was bothering.

When I turned from Michie’s translations, however, to the larger Penguin volume, I discovered new life. This volume is quite a marvel, actually: it is a collection of Martial’s epigrams done into English by dozens of poets over the past five centuries. Not only is it a superb education in a particular strand of our poetic tradition, but it allowed me to abstract from the substance — or lack of substance — of Martial’s poems themselves in order to indulge in comparisons of translations, which yields a certain pleasure all its own.

For instance, here is an epigram (3.43) that Michie renders as follows:

You’ve dyed your hair to mimic youth,
Laetinus. Not so long ago
You were a swan; now you’re a crow.
You can’t fool everyone. One day
Prosperpina, who knows the truth,
Will rip that actor’s wig away.

This was a “Meh” poem for me. But then look what Joseph Addison did with it:

Why should’st thou try to hide thy self in youth?
Impartial Proserpine beholds the truth,
And laughing at so fond and vain a task,
Will strip thy hoary noddle of its mask.

That bites much more fiercely than Michie’s did — and I confess an incapacity to disdain any poem that says “hoary noddle”. But then I found that a twentieth-century Welsh poet named Olive Pitt-Kethley has also translated this poem, and in this way:

You were a swan, you’re now a crow.
Laetinus, why deceive us so,
With borrowed plumage trying?
The Queen of Shades will surely know
When she strips off your mask below —
In Death there’s no more dyeing.

Yes! We get the contrast of the swan and crow, which Addison missed, and a rhyme that is more complex than Addison’s and more regular than Michie’s, and, to top all, it concludes with a triumphant pun, the highest form of humour. I love it.

There’s a fair bit of that kind of amusement in the Martial in English collection, and I would readily recommend it to anyone with an interest in Martial. Arranged chronologically, it includes poems by Donne, Jonson, Crashaw, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Coleridge, Stevenson, and Pound, along with a great crowd of less well-known names. If there was one poet in the collection who most impressed me, it was Stevenson, whose poetry I am otherwise innocent of. Here is an example: his translation of epigram 5.34, about the death of a young girl named Erotion.

Mother and sire, to you do I commend
Tiny Erotion, who must now descend,
A child, among the shadows, and appear
Before hell’s bandog and hell’s gondolier.
Of six hoar winters she had felt the cold,
But lacked six days of being six years old.
Now she must come, all playful, to that place
Where the great ancients sit with reverend face;
Now lisping, as she used, of whence she came,
Perchance she names and stumbles at my name.
O’er these so fragile bones, let there be laid
A plaything for a turf; and for that maid
That ran so lightly footed in her mirth
Upon thy breast—lie lightly, mother earth!

That, I think, is really touching, and is a good example of what I found most appealing in this sojourn with Martial and his interpreters.

*

Though, as I said, I was generally disappointed with Martial, I did find enough to enjoy to fill out the space above. Alas, I’ve less to say for Juvenal. His sixteen Satires, written in the first half of the second century AD, are, in a sense, kin to Martial’s epigrams. They are witty sallies against the excesses and follies of the Roman people of his day. Unlike Martial, Juvenal is a moralist, and a rather steely one, but the poetry didn’t suffer on that account. I simply found them wordy, over-long, shapeless, and dull. I suppose it is obligatory to mention that the English phrases “a healthy mind in a healthy body” and “bread and circuses” come from these poems, but beyond those canonical examples I found nothing noteworthy to latch onto, and I read through the entire collection without marking a single passage. Sad, but true.

*

Unless there is a surprise lying in wait, I believe this is the last poetry stop on my tour of Roman literature. An anti-climax, then, but it cannot be helped, and the journey has, on the whole, been an excellent one.

Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars

December 15, 2021

The Lives of the Twelve Caesars
Suetonius
(Modern Library, 1931) [121]
361 p.

The twelve Caesars are those who ruled Rome from 48 BC, when Julius Caesar defeated Pompey, to 96 AD, when Domitian was assassinated. Much of this ground, excluding the reigns of Julius and Augustus on the front end and the reigns of the three Flavian emperors at the back end, was covered, and covered better, by Tacitus. Suetonius is less probing and more anecdotal, which is mostly too bad but has a silver lining.

Suetonius typically begins by giving us the family history of the emperor, relates how he came to power, and gives an overview of his chief accomplishments in politics, military affairs, and religion. All of this is well and good, and would be particularly valuable to a reader coming to this history untutored. If you want Augustus’ reign in 10 pages, Suetonius is your man.

He then pivots to more personal commentary on each emperor. What sort of character did he have? What were his chief virtues and vices? Which family members did he murder? Which sexual perversions were his favourites? What entertainments did he stage in Rome? When he died, did the Roman people rejoice or weep?

This is where Suetonius really comes into his own. I know of no other historical source, for instance, that tells us that Julius Caesar had male pattern baldness, or that Augustus liked to eat cucumbers, or that Caligula operated a brothel in his own palace. He is truly the master of imperial gossip.

If Suetonius is to be believed — and it is important to stress that there is some question about this — then it is fair to say that the Roman emperors were a sick lot, mostly. Some considerably sicker than others, granted. The old nostrum about the corrupting powers of absolute power finds ample support in these pages. There are all the sexual crimes and misdemeanors: rumours swirled around Julius Caesar, who behind his back was dubbed “every woman’s man and every man’s woman”; even Augustus, the paradigm case of a good Roman emperor during this period, with a reputation for just governance, moderation, and intelligence, was apparently a Jeffrey Epstein-type who had his friends bring him young virgins to deflower; Tiberius seemed fairly level-headed and restrained at first, but when, in later years, he retired to Capri, he had his rooms painted with pornographic scenes and indulged a passion for pedophilia; Caligula, if possible, was even worse, and is best discreetly veiled. Speaking of veils, Nero wore one, along with a lovely dress, when he had himself married to another man. On and on it goes. The Flavians, starting with Vespasian, seem to have brought a measure of restraint on this front — or maybe Suetonius was still too close to them to write freely.

They were a violent lot too. To some extent this came with the territory; Romans had none of the qualms we have about capital punishment, and they applied it frequently. But the worst of the emperors seem to have relished the power they wielded over the lives of others. In Tiberius’ later years, we are told, “not a day passed without an execution”. Caligula would force parents to attend the executions of their children, and had a special passion for violent spectacles:

“He burned a writer of Atellan farces alive in the middle of the arena of the amphitheater, because of a humorous line of double meaning. When a Roman Knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence, he took him out, cut off his tongue, and put him back again.”

Nero, not content with the power to order deaths, was actually accused of venturing into the streets at night to randomly accost and murder civilians: “…he used to beat men as they came home from dinner, stabbing any who resisted him and throwing them into the sewers”.

And to lust and violence we can add greed: Caligula, again, was the worst offender, for, Suetonius says, “seized with a mania for feeling the touch of money, he would often pour out huge piles of gold pieces in some open place, walk over them barefooted, and wallow in them for a long time with his whole body”. Presumably this was in the early days of his reign, because he burned through the imperial treasury in just a few short years with his extravagant living.

Like Tacitus, Suetonius completely misses the importance of Christianity’s first forays into the Roman world. Christians are mentioned once, in connection with Nero, who, Suetonius comments, persecuted this “class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” But the persecution under Domitian, which looms large in Christian history for its many Roman martyrs, gets no notice.

All in all, these are very much “feet of clay” portraits of the emperors. Admittedly, they have a certain diverting quality, like a P.T. Barnum gallery of freaks. There is a reason Suetonius has remained as popular as he has over the centuries. But even the most lurid stories can be redeemed by a touching anecdote or a telling detail. I’d have been willing to read through a good deal of salacious gossip just to learn that Julius Caesar, freshly dead, was carried through the streets of Rome, “with one arm hanging down”.

Lucan: Pharsalia

November 30, 2021

Pharsalia
Lucan
Translated from the Latin by Matthew Fox
(Penguin Classics, 2012) [c.65 AD]
lxx + 474 p.

For civil hatreds, only the sword suffices
to draw right hands down deep into Roman vitals.
(VII, 373-4)

Lucan began writing his epic poem on the Roman civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great when he was still in his early 20s — a precocious, but not precipitous, venture, for Lucan also had the misfortune to begin writing his epic poem during the reign of Nero, with this consequence: had he not begun early he’d not have begun at all. In 65 AD, when just 25 years old, Lucan was arrested for his part in a conspiracy against Nero’s life; he was forced to commit suicide, leaving his great poem incomplete.

The poem that we do have is probably a substantial part of the poem he had planned. It begins with Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC — the spark that set the forest aflame — and ends with Caesar besieging Alexandria in 47 BC. Perhaps Lucan intended to bring it down to Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC; we don’t really know. There are about 8000 lines in all. He wrote in dactylic hexameter, the metre used by Homer, Virgil, and Ovid in their epic poetry, so he was clearly swinging for the bleachers.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the poem, considering the poetic tradition within which he is clearly conscious of working, is the absence of supernatural elements. There are no gods presiding over these affairs of men, no divine interventions, no sacred groves or pious gestures. Lucan is writing history, straight up.

“The madness of war is upon us, the power of iron,
the fist, will confound all justice, and wicked crimes
will be called virtue — and this fury will continue
for many years. What use to beg the gods for an end of it?
Peace comes with a tyrant.”
(I, 712-16)

I was amused to read that in our tradition Lucan has, on these grounds, often been classed with the historians, rather than the poets. It’s not an entirely unjust view, but it does evoke a certain pang of pity for the man, who must have given himself some trouble, historical accuracy and all, to make his lines scan.

A second aspect of the poem that surprised me was its view of its two central combatants. Given that Caesar won the civil war, and given that Lucan was writing under an emperor who belonged to the Julio-Claudian line he founded, I expected Caesar to be the hero of the tale. But not so. Lucan obviously favours Pompey. More than once he is directly critical of Caesar:

“For shame,
Caesar! That you alone love wars your men condemn!”
(V, 326-7)

Pompey, on the other hand, gets handled with kid gloves. Even his flight from the field of battle at Pharsalus, which in previous accounts I’ve always seen interpreted as his lowest point, a shameful and unmanly retreat, Lucan tries to burnish into something glowing:

Success in war never saw you arrogant
nor will adversities see you broken now.
As faithless as she was to you when happy,
through three triumphs, now in misery
Fortune is beneath you. Now you depart untroubled,
your burden of fate laid down. Now you are free
to reflect on happy times. Your hopes recede,
never to be fulfilled. Now you are allowed
to know what you have been.
(VII, 793-801)

It’s not such a good thing to lose the principal battle of the civil war, of course, but at least he was freed up to reflect on happy times. It’s the slimmest of silver linings.

When, on the shores of Egypt, the end finally comes for Pompey, Lucan grants him a heroic finish:

But when the steel struck
his back and cracked against his chest, Magnus
maintained a splendid dignity and holy figure,
his face cursing the gods, his mortal end
changing nothing in the man’s appearance
or behavior — so they acknowledge who saw
his severed head.
(VIII, 814-820)

The reason for this preference of Pompey over Caesar connects to the underlying logic of the poem, which develops a critique of monarchy and concentration of power. The force of this argument increases as the poem proceeds, and I am not surprised to discover that Lucan had a gradual falling out with Nero during the period of composition. As I already mentioned, this growing animus caught up with him, and brought him down, before the poem could be finished.

Lucan has been continually read and appreciated in all the centuries between his time and ours, and he has had a huge influence on our literary tradition. Dante, Petrarch, and Chaucer, each in their own way, owe him a debt. Speaking for myself, I enjoyed reading the poem, but found that its straightforward, naturalistic approach to its subject matter prevented it from matching the high ambition and grandeur of the other epic poets. It just seemed a bit flat. Perhaps this is the translation more than the poem; it’s hard to know. But if I want to read again the history of this very dramatic and fascinating period of history, I will reach first for Caesar’s own account.

Petronius: Satyricon

October 19, 2021

Satyricon
Petronius
Translated from the Latin by William Arrowsmith
(Univ Michigan, 1960) [c.60 AD]
225 p.

The Satyricon of Petronius has a singular place in the Roman literature that survives to our time; its nearest rival would be Apelluis’ The Golden Ass, written a few generations later, which still does not manage to out-Petronius Petronius. The Satyricon is an anti-epic — a huge, sprawling, shapeless, irreverent, disgusting mess of a book that nonetheless manages to cast a different, and therefore, in its own way, valuable kind of light on Roman life in the first century.

The story, such as it is, concerns the antics of Encolpius and a few companions who wander from misadventure to misadventure in search of food and sex — both in a profuse variety limited only by the imagination of the author. The joke on Encolpius — whose name means something like “crotch” — and the running joke through the entire work, is that he is impotent. No matter what shenanigans he gets into it, no matter how careful the plotting or how tantalizing the young boy, he’s left tending naught but a wilted lettuce. Ha ha. There you have the Satyricon in brief compass.

Many readers have found in the work an attractive free spiritedness, a liveliness of invention, a fascinating window into first-century Roman sexual mores and the lives of the lower classes, a refreshing buffoonery and light-heartedness, and a diverting satirical tone that clears away the formality of the Roman poets who otherwise dominate the literature. There is something to be said for the Satyricon on these grounds.

The work, as we have it, is fragmentary. In fact, it might be better to say that we have only fragments of the work. Though it runs to a couple of hundred pages in a modern edition, I am told that scholars speculate that we might have only about one-tenth of the original whole. Weeping is not warranted, however; we have enough. A little pederasty goes a long way, and my appetite, at least, for peppered dildos shoved where the sun don’t shine is easily satisfied by the merest morsel.

If asked to speculate, I’d have guessed that the author was a ne’r-do-well from the provinces who tried to make a name for himself by scandalizing the reading public. But in fact Petronius was a notable Roman, a governor and even a consul, who held an honoured place in Nero’s court. The Satyricon, it seems, was just what passed for keen entertainment in Nero’s company. The most intriguing reading of the Satyricon I’ve yet come across holds that its anti-hero, Encolpius, may have been a subtle satire on Nero himself; if true, it would do much to redeem the nearly unfathomable scurrility of the work.

The book has been a black sheep for most of the interval between its writing and today. It made a comeback in the late nineteenth century when the Decadent movement took up its standard: J.K. Huysmans in France championed it, especially in his novel À rebours, and in the English-speaking world it made its first big splash in a pseudonymous translation by Oscar Wilde. One can surmise what attracted these writers to the book. It is worth noting, I think, that both these authors later converted to Catholicism. If enthusiasm for the Satyricon is a stepping stone in that direction, it gives us another, perhaps surprising, opportunity to affirm that nothing in this vale of tears is wholly bad.

Statius: Thebaid

August 22, 2021

Thebaid
Statius
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1992) [c.90 AD]
lv + 371 p.

You will recall that in the later stages of the ascent of Mount Purgatory, Dante and Virgil are joined by a third traveller, the poet Statius, who accompanies Dante as far as the terrestrial paradise, remaining even after Virgil has made his farewell. “Who is this Statius?” you might well ask. And I can answer: He was the screenwriter of Seven Samurai. Or rather — pardon me — he was the author of the Thebaid, an epic poem completed in Rome toward the end of the first century AD.

***

The strife of brothers and alternate reigns
Fought for in impious hatred and the guilt
Of tragic Thebes, these themes the Muses’ fire
Has kindled in my heart.
(I, l.1-4)

His poem takes us back to the early days of Greece, before the Trojan War, to a conflict between two brothers that arose in the city of Thebes. When their father, Oedipus, stepped down from the throne, Polynices and Eteocles were to share governance of the city, and they, under guidance of the gods, settled on a scheme of alternating years in power, a scheme that immediately led to strife, for Eteocles, enjoying his first year in power, refused to relinquish the throne to his brother at the appointed time.

Polynices, therefore, sent into exile, travelled around cultivating allies and building an army to help recover the throne of Thebes. He found assistance especially in the city of Argos, where he pieced together a force led by — you guessed it — seven able commanders, each with his own distinctive character: there was Tydeus, a small but immensely strong warrior prince prone to outbursts of uncontrolled wrath and capable of slaying dozens of enemy soldiers; there was Hippomedon, a valiant horseman; and Parthenopaeus, a talented but young and inexperienced archer; he recruited also Amphiaraus, a seer who provided both divine counsel and military prowess on the battlefield; there was Capanaeus, a boisterous atheist who shouted insults at the gods and killed Thebans with joyous abandon; in the background there was Adrastus, the king of Argos, who provided leadership; and, finally, of course, there was Polynices himself, the man for whom the whole pot was boiling.

**

And so, as I said, Statius really did write the screenplay for Seven Samurai — and, by extension, for Ocean’s 11, and The Avengers, and all those movies in which a cast of characters is assembled to accomplish a great feat together. Although I suppose that he himself might well have been looking backward, to Jason and the Argonauts perhaps.

Except that Statius’ vision is bleaker than just about any of his imitators, for when, in the second half of his poem, his seven great men begin their great work, they meet with defeat on defeat. A seer, foretelling the disaster to come, puts it in avian terms:

One, soaring high,
The sun’s quick blaze ignites and his high heart
Is humbled; one, attempting to keep pace
With stronger birds, his frail young wings let sink;
One falls locked in his foe’s embrace; one flees
In whirling flight and leaves his friends to fate;
One dies swathed in a rain-storm; one in death
Devours his living foe. A spray of blood
Spatters the hollow clouds. Why hide your tears?
(Book III)

One by one they fall, bloodied and beaten, until none but Polynices remains, all his efforts turned to ash. And then, in the poem’s climax, the two brothers meet on the field of battle, with predictably tragic consequences for both.

*

An interesting aspect of the poem is its attitude to the gods. As I’ve already mentioned, one of the central characters, and one of the most colourful and likeable, is a militant atheist, brash and belligerent. The poem seems to be very much on his side, treating his atheism with bemused toleration — until his death scene, which is marvellous. As Capaneus scales the walls of Thebes he is struck down — literally struck down — by a bolt of lightning hurled by Jupiter. Take that. It’s a wonderfully wry, bleakly comic moment.

Statius granted the gods a victory in that case, albeit a somewhat cheap one, but the poem as a whole seems to adopt a sceptical, and even critical, stance toward divine powers. The gods intervene in the action throughout the poem — this is normal for epic poetry — but more often than not their actions lead to disaster, either by malice or incompetence or insensibility to the sufferings of humanity. The two brothers, for instance, are ready in the beginning to share the throne of Thebes peaceably; it is Jupiter who incites jealousy between them, spurred by a grudge he nurses against their father Oedipus. Later, after Polynices sends a peace embassy to his brother, which is rebuffed (and then some), it is again Jupiter who commissions Mars to incite a lust for war in the people, so that the conflict between the two brothers will catch fire and grow into a conflagration. There is a dark vision being drawn for us, in which the troubled affairs of men are stoked by the will of the gods. It is a kind of reverse Providence.

*

Another very striking feature of the poem is its wary stance toward warfare itself. Epic poetry, in the tradition, is war poetry: the Trojan War, Odysseus’ bloody triumph, Aeneas sinking his sword hilt-deep in the chest of Turnus — and the high points of the poems of Statius’ forebears are the victories of the heroes over their adversaries. I think that’s a fair reading of the tradition, although I would not go so far as to say that there is no nuance in the attitudes of Homer and Virgil to war.

I’ve already said that in Statius’ poem there is no final military triumph. There are partial victories here and there, yes. In one of the early books Tydeus is ambushed by a group of 50 Theban assassins, and he kills them all. This is Marvel movie material, and Tydeus himself, certainly, conveys no nuances about the tragedy of violence in his angry tirade over the bodies of his adversaries. In the same vein, each of the seven united against Thebes sports some kind of military prowess, and there are plenty of passages in which spears are thrown, bodies are pierced, horses fall, arrows fly, and bodies are mutilated.

Far spread the field, a hideous expanse
Of boundless blood; abandoned there lay arms
And steeds, once proudly mounted, mangled limbs
And corpses unregarded and unpyred.
(Book X)

But, even so, Statius strikes a markedly different note from the tradition in which he is working. I was surprised at the way in which he includes in his account of the battles their effects on non-combatants. In the early going, for instance, in the aftermath of Tydeus’ heroics against the massed assassins, we are given a remarkably moving passage in which the women and elderly citizens of Thebes come to the battlefield to recover the bodies of the fallen. It goes, in part, like this:

Now from the city wives death-pale and children
And ailing parents poured by broad highways
Or pathless wastes in piteous rivalry,
All rushing to their tears, and thousands more
For solace’ sake throng too, and some were hot
To see that one man’s deeds, that night’s travails.
The road was loud with wailing and the fields
Re-echoed cries of grief. Yet when they reached
Those infamous rocks, that ghastly wood, as though
None had bewailed before, no storm of tears
Had streamed, as from a single throat there rose
A cry of utter anguish. When they saw
The bloody carnage, frenzy fired them all.
Grief, flaming fierce, with bloody raiment rent,
Stands there and beats his breast and leads along
The wives and mothers. Helmets on cold heads
They scrutinize and point to bodies found,
And over friends and strangers lean alike.
Some steep their hair in blood and some seal eyes;
Deep wounds are washed in tears, a hand withdraws
A spear, vain mercy; gently, severed arms
Are set in place and heads rejoined to necks.
(Book III)

This is both tragic and humane. “Helmets on cold heads.” And there is, later in the poem, a stirring section in which the poet describes the panic that grips the civilians of Thebes as the armies of Polynices approach the city:

The scene within was ghastly. Mars himself
Would scarce enjoy the sight. Fury and Grief
And Dread and Flight, swathed in blind darkness, rent,
With discord many-voiced, the maddened city,
Reeling in frantic horror. War, it seemed,
Had entered. Back and forth they seethed around
The citadel and clamour blocked the streets,
As everywhere they imagined fire and sword,
Imagined themselves clamped in cruel chains.
Fear feels the future now: temples and homes
Are thronged and their ungrateful altars ringed
With lamentation. Young and old alike
Were seized by the same terror. Age cried out
For death; youth burned and blanched by turns; the shrieks
Of wailing women shook the echoing halls,
And children sobbed and knew not why they sobbed,
Only afraid because their mothers wept.
(Book X)

It is a scene that must have been repeated many thousands of times in history, and he evokes the sense of panic and futility powerfully. Statius, it seems to me, is a poet who sees the human cost of war, and even though he is working with mythological material and within a tradition that celebrates, at some level, violence and victory, he finds a way to show us suffering human hearts, and in such a way that, for me at least, it was those hearts that remained in my mind when the dust settled.

*

And so, sitting here, in the settled dust, I circle around once again to the question that partly motivated my picking up the Thebaid in the first place: why did Dante give Statius such an honoured place in his poem? Unlike the case of Virgil, whose sixth book was an obvious influence on the Inferno, I can see no particular thematic or dramatic connection between the Thebaid and The Divine Comedy. Dante idolized Rome, and Virgil, as the great poet of Rome and her history, was naturally precious to him, but he had no, so far as I know, comparable attachment to Thebes.

The truth is that I don’t know the answer to my question. It may have been simply that Dante greatly admired Statius’ poetry, and why not? True, I found the poem sagged at points — there are fully two books given over to a subplot that appears to go nowhere in particular, and numerous briefer passages, particularly those reporting the minutiae of battlefield encounters, in which my attention nodded — but, then again, I do not read Latin with anywhere near sufficient competence to appreciate its literary merits, and so whatever such merits Statius possesses are lost on me, as they were not lost on Dante. So maybe that’s it, or maybe not, but I am happy to have read the Thebaid in any case: a little-known bridge between Virgil and his medieval admirers, a fascinating and instructive window into Roman attitudes to warfare in the first century, and a cracking good tale too. Somebody should make a movie.

[Night]
Now in the vault of heaven, when the sun
Had given his service, rose the queenly moon,
Borne through a silent world on dewy wheels,
The soft air limpid in her cooling balm.
Now beasts and birds are silent, slumber steals
O’er greed and grief and, nodding from the day,
Brings sweet oblivion to lives of toil.
(Book I)

[Aphorism]
To faint hearts nothing’s false.
(Book VII)

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)

Tacitus: Histories

April 11, 2021

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

**

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

Tacitus: Annals

February 14, 2021

 

Annals
Tacitus
Translated from the Latin by Church and Brodribb
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.120]
416 p.

Much of what I have related and shall have to relate, may perhaps, I am aware, seem petty trifles to record. But no one must compare my annals with the writings of those who have described Rome in old days. They told of great wars, of the storming of cities, of the defeat and capture of kings, or whenever they turned by preference to home affairs, they related, with a free scope for digression, the strifes of consuls with tribunes, land and corn-laws, and the struggles between the commons and the aristocracy. My labours are circumscribed and inglorious; peace wholly unbroken or but slightly disturbed, dismal misery in the capital, an emperor careless about the enlargement of the empire, such is my theme. Still it will not be useless to study those at first sight trifling events out of which the movements of vast changes often take their rise.
(4.32)

Such is Tacitus’ modest appraisal of his achievement in this great history of the first-century Roman empire. The period in question, covering the years from the death of Augustus in 14 AD to the death of Nero in 68 AD, was a good deal more dramatic than he lets on here, replete with power struggles, wars, murders, and a cast of characters that has fascinated the world ever since. It was for Tacitus still relatively recent history, being no further from him than the First World War is from us, but he assures us early on that he has distance enough to be frank:

The histories of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero, while they were in power, were falsified through terror, and after their death were written under the irritation of a recent hatred. Hence my purpose is to relate a few facts about Augustus—more particularly his last acts, then the reign of Tiberius, and all which follows, without either bitterness or partiality, from any motives to which I am far removed.
(1.1)

His professed purpose in writing, which I have little reason to doubt, was, like Livy’s before him, a principally moral one:

This I regard as history’s highest function, to let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.
(3.65)

Both – the worthy actions, and the evil deeds – are readily supplied by the history he unfolds for us, though rather more of the latter. Without going into too much detail, let me sketch a basic outline of the sixteen books of the Annals.

*

When Augustus died, the empire had been relatively peaceful, and free from acute succession controversies, for decades. Tiberius was nobody’s first choice – maybe not even Tiberius’ — to become emperor upon Augustus’ passing, but all of the other leading candidates had died during their grooming, and so to Tiberius it fell. The early years of his reign were complicated by rebellions in outlying provinces, but the real danger was close to home. Tacitus relates, for instance, how Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, turned his outfit, which was supposed to supply protection to the emperor, into a quiet threat, controlling not only access to the emperor, but also the emperor’s access to others. Sejanus eventually convinced Tiberius to move to the isle of Capri, where he largely, if tacitly, surrendered the power of governance to his keeper, whereupon “he plunged into every wickedness and disgrace, when fear and shame being cast off, he simply indulged his own inclinations” (6.51). Tacitus accuses Sejanus of poisoning Tiberius’ son, Drusus, and then of doing the same to others likely to succeed to the throne. But when he, a mere equestrian, proposed to marry Tiberius’ daughter-in-law, and so place himself in the line of succession, the game was up. Although the pages of Tacitus’ history narrating the fall of Sejanus are lost, we know from other sources that it was swift and brutal.

But it didn’t solve much. Sejanus’ successor, Macro, assumed a very similar role, and is actually credited by Tacitus with murdering Tiberius in 37 AD during a period of confusion about whether he was alive or not:

On the 15th of March, his breath failing, he was believed to have expired, and Caius Caesar was going forth with a numerous throng of congratulating followers to take the first possession of the empire, when suddenly news came that Tiberius was recovering his voice and sight, and calling for persons to bring him food to revive him from his faintness. Then ensued a universal panic, and while the rest fled hither and thither, every one feigning grief or ignorance, Caius Caesar, in silent stupor, passed from the highest hopes to the extremity of apprehension. Macro, nothing daunted, ordered the old emperor to be smothered under a huge heap of clothes, and all to quit the entrance-hall.
(6.50)

*

The “Caius Caesar” mentioned in this passage is known to us by his nickname, Caligula, a man with a reasonable claim to being the worst of the Roman emperors. Unfortunately, history has drilled a large hole in Tacitus’ account at this stage, with four full Books, covering the years 37-48 AD, lost. We are told only that he was “thoroughly ignorant and bred under the vilest training” (6.48).  We know from other sources that his short reign, of just four years, was one of scandal and depravity. He is, by reputation, the model of the mad tyrant. So bad did things become that in 41 AD a conspiracy formed and Caligula, just 28 years old, was stabbed to death.

*

During Caligula’s reign there had been fierce jockeying for the succession, with numerous candidates meeting untimely ends in the process. One man survived the process, largely because nobody thought he was capable of ruling; a man who had difficulty speaking, had no evident political ambitions, and seemed content to write scholarly works in retirement from public life. That man was Claudius, and he surprised everyone by becoming, in time, the best and most capable emperor since Augustus, and, in the judgment of some, one of the best and most capable of all. He quelled revolts, held a census (there were then 6 million Roman citizens), made legal reforms, and generally upheld order in public life. His private life, however, was another matter. His first wife, Agrippina, attempted a coup by publicly marrying another man and plotting to kill Claudius; she was executed. Claudius then decided to make a strategic marriage to re-unite the Julian and Claudian sides of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which involved marrying his own niece, also called Agrippina, a decision that required “reform” of Rome’s incest laws and was extremely unpopular with the Roman people. Agrippina came to the marriage with two sons of her own, and did not conceal her wish that one of them succeed as emperor. In the year 54, she poisoned Claudius and got her wish.

*

The man who came to the throne, just 16 years old, was, sadly, Nero, a ruler not quite so bad as Caligula, but getting there. Tacitus describes him as vain, intemperate, effeminate, and, as he became older and realized the power he commanded, cruel and debauched:

It was commonly reported that snakes had been seen by his cradle, which they seemed to guard, a fabulous tale invented to match the marvels of other lands. Nero, never a disparager of himself, was wont to say that but one snake, at most, had been seen in his chamber.
(11.11)

One of his first acts as emperor was to kill his step-brother, Brittanicus, who was Claudius’ natural son and therefore a threat to Nero’s power. Not long after, he ordered the execution of his own mother, Agrippina, on trumped up charges – Tacitus speculates that he objected to her attempts to prevent an unsuitable marriage. In the course of time he would also be popularly attributed with the murder of his wife and unborn child. Meanwhile, he loved to sing – a particularly degrading pastime for Roman nobility – and embarrassed the senatorial class by his ventures onto the stage. He had, in his tutor and advisor, Seneca, one of the greatest Romans of the age, but it seemed to do him little good, and he “polluted himself by every lawful or lawless indulgence, […] not omitting a single abomination which could heighten his depravity” (15.37).

But the principal scandal of Nero’s reign centered on the Great Fire of Rome. It happened in 64 AD, and damaged or destroyed much of Rome, including a large swathe of the city centre. Tacitus tells us that Nero was away from the city at the time, and that upon his return he dispensed funds to those who had suffered damages. But rumours circulated that when he had learned that the city was aflame he had taken the opportunity to sing of the destruction of Troy, and this hardened the hearts of the Romans. Adding insult to injury, Nero seized upon Rome’s blasted centre to realize one of his grandiose architectural dreams: an immense palace for himself, the Domus Aurea, built on the ruins of the fire.

Rumours then went from bad to worse, and stories circulated that Nero had himself ordered the fire. At this point, Nero himself, says Tacitus, commissioned a counter-rumour in which he tried to pin the fire on a group widely despised in the city: the Christians.

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.
(15.44)

This is one of the earliest non-Christian sources to mention Christianity, and it already tells us quite a bit: there were enough Christians in Rome for them to have been recognized as a distinct group, and they were roundly disliked. It also provides independent confirmation of details of the Biblical accounts of Christ’s crucifixion, such as it having taken place under the watch of Pontius Pilate. Both St Peter and St Paul were in Rome at the time of the fire, and both were martyred in the bloody aftermath of Nero’s slander, in which many Christians lost their lives – so many, and so brutally, Tacitus tells us, that the Roman people were moved to pity:

Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.
(15.44)

It wasn’t enough to save Nero, either. He survived a few more years, discovered an extensive conspiracy against his life, continued to fall in the public’s estimation, and, finally, awoke one night in his Domus Aurea to find his guard had abandoned him. The game was up, and he committed suicide. He had no heir, and his death marked the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had begun a little over a century earlier with Julius Caesar. It was not obvious who would next wear the laurels, and the next year of Roman life – 69 AD – is known to history as “the year of four emperors”, as a violent, high-stakes battle for power in Rome played out. But that is the story of Tacitus’ Histories, and that is a story for another time.

*

We don’t actually learn of Nero’s suicide from Tacitus, because the pages covering the final two years of his reign are lost. This problem has come up a few times above; altogether, roughly one-quarter of the work has been lost, which is a pity. It is sobering to consider that portions of The Annals that we do have survived into the present in a single manuscript! Books 11-16 were preserved in Monte Cassino Abbey, and Books 1-6 at Corvey Abbey. The work has a remarkable history.

*

Tacitus appears to be writing self-consciously in the tradition of Livy. Like Livy, his history is annalistic – hence its name, of course – covering events on a year-by-year basis. Like Livy, he has a particular interest in military affairs, but, given that his period offered relatively little on that front, he dwells mostly on the politics of the imperial court. He also takes time each year to recount local gossip: notorious crimes, scandalous affairs, important trials, ominous portents, and notable deaths. His consistency in this regard gives his work a comforting rhythm.

*

I cited above his wish, as historian, “to let no worthy action be uncommemorated”, and sadly his subject matter provided few occasions. But there was one man whose story satisfied the need: Germanicus. Born in about 15 BC, he was the nephew of Tiberius. When Tiberius came to power Germanicus was about 30 years old, and he was sent to Germany to handle the Germanic tribes who were giving trouble to the Romans. A few years previously the Romans had suffered as their hands one of the worst defeats in their history at the Battle of Teutoberg Forest, in which three Roman legions had been ambushed and slaughtered by forces led by one Arminius, a Germanic prince raised in Rome, who had attained Roman citizenship and even achieved equestrian status, before betraying Rome and handing her a humiliating defeat.

Tactius describes movingly the arrival of Germanicus at Teutoberg Forest, now 5 or 6 years after the defeat, and the grisly discoveries he made:

In the centre of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near, lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
(1.61)

The Romans gathered the remains of their countrymen to give them honourable rites, and then prepared to fight the Germans again. On the night before the attack, Tacitus gives us this marvellous account of Germanicus’ doings:

At nightfall, leaving his tent of augury by a secret exit, unknown to the sentries, with one companion, his shoulders covered with a wild beast’s skin, he visited the camp streets, stood by the tents, and enjoyed the men’s talk about himself, as one extolled his noble rank, another, his handsome person, nearly all of them, his endurance, his gracious manner and the evenness of his temper, whether he was jesting or was serious, while they acknowledged that they ought to repay him with their gratitude in battle, and at the same time sacrifice to a glorious vengeance the perfidious violators of peace.
(2.13)

If that doesn’t send a thrill down your spine, I don’t know what to say. It’s Henry V at Agincourt! There can’t be any doubt about it.

Germanicus was an able general – a quality always beloved by the Roman people – and Tacitus has nothing but good to say of him, painting him as brave and eloquent and capable and good-natured: “He was indeed a young man of unaspiring temper, and of wonderful kindliness” (1.33).

Returning in triumph from Germany, he was sent to manage complicated diplomatic and military matters in the east, and then to Egypt. His popularity grew greatly – too much, in fact – and in 19 AD he died suddenly, a suspected poisoning. Tacitus blames Tiberius and his circle for ordering the murder in an attempt to ward off a challenge from a too-beloved rival to power. Disgusted by this turn of events, Tacitus gives Germanicus this final encomium, comparing him to none other than Alexander the Great:

Germanicus was gracious to his friends, temperate in his pleasures, the husband of one wife, with only legitimate children. He was too no less a warrior, though rashness he had none, and, though after having cowed Germany by his many victories, he was hindered from crushing it into subjection. Had he had the sole control of affairs, had he possessed the power and title of a king, he would have attained military glory as much more easily as he had excelled Alexander in clemency, in self-restraint, and in all other virtues.
(2.73)

He is the hero of this tale.

*

There are other aspects of this great work that I could mention – the potted history of Roman law (3.26-29), the difficulties the Romans had with the tribes in far-off Brittania (Book 14), the farcical attempt to drain the malaria-ridden Fucine Lake (12.56-57), for example. But I grow weary in my toils, and this seems a not inappropriate time to draw to a close.

After more than a year of loitering with the Roman poets of the Golden Age, it has been good to resume the historical narrative, and Tacitus has been a splendid guide. I’ll be turning next to his Histories, which cover the years immediately after the death of Nero.

***

[Laws and virtue]
Laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt. (3.27)

[Changes, for good and ill]
Possibly there is in all things a kind of cycle, and there may be moral revolutions just as there are changes of seasons. Nor was everything better in the past, but our own age too has produced many specimens of excellence and culture for posterity to imitate. May we still keep up with our ancestors a rivalry in all that is honourable! (3.55)

[Can a gift be given?]
For benefits received are a delight to us as long as we think we can requite them; when that possibility is far exceeded, they are repaid with hatred instead of gratitude. (4.18)

[Point of no return]
Harmless measures were for the innocent. Crime once exposed had no refuge but in audacity. (11.26)

Seneca: Dialogues and Essays

January 31, 2021

Dialogues and Essays
Seneca
(Oxford World’s Classics, 2007) [c.60]
xxxiv + 263 p.

In a previous episode we looked at Seneca’s tragedies for the stage, in which the Stoic philosophy is presented, as it were, in the negative – this is how the world looks if the wisdom of Stoicism is unheeded – but in this collection we get the positive case, as Seneca draws on his Stoic principles to give counsel to those standing in need of it.

There is a nice variety of texts. There are two “consolations”, one written to a grieving mother whose son has died, and another to his own mother on the occasion of his exile to Corsica. There are several moral reflections, on anger, on peace of mind, and on mercy. And there are several essays of a more philosophical slant in which Seneca reflects on providence, on the causes of human happiness, and on the shortness of life. The final selection, drawn from a scientific work on earthquakes, finds Seneca ruminating on the fear of death.

*

The closest point of intersection with the tragedies comes in the essay On Anger, in which he warns against the perils of giving rein to fury:

There is not a single useful quality to be found in this monstrous and dangerous passion, but on the contrary every sort of evil, fire and sword. Trampling shame underfoot, it defiles men’s hands with murder, casts wide the limbs of children, and leaves no place free from crime, disregarding fame and unafraid of disgrace, beyond remedy once it has hardened from anger to hate.

He advises the reader to avoid becoming angry – by keeping in mind the many faults of those who act from anger, by avoiding curiosity about what others think of you – and provides guidance on how to calm anger in yourself and in others. A keen moral insight is that we can be tempted to persist in anger precisely because we recognize how unreasonable it is:

We persist in our anger, so we may not give the impression of having had no reason for our initial loss of temper, and, most unjustly of all, the injustice of our anger makes us stubborn; for we hold on to it and foster it, as if the intensity of our anger were proof of its justice.

*

The basic shape of Stoicism is on good display in the first essay, On Providence. Stoics believed that we live under the dominion of fate, and that all one can profitably do in the face of adversity is to master one’s response to it:

Whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end; it is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it.

In a kind of echo of Socrates, he argues that external circumstances, however dire, cannot harm a good man, for the soul is sustained by virtue: “Nothing bad can happen to a good man”. In fact, he argues, providence sends particular adversities to good men in order to strengthen them in virtue, likening fate to a conscientious father training his son to succeed in the world. “A man needs to be put to the test if he is to gain self-knowledge; only by trying does he learn what his capacities are.” Or, again, “Never is the proof of virtue mild.” By sending rain on the just and the unjust, God is also teaching us what is truly valuable and important, for when he ensures that wealth and honour are not granted mainly to the virtuous, God casts doubt on the value of those false gods:

In no way can God better cast doubt on what we desire than by awarding those things to the most disreputable men and denying them to the best.

*

This vein of moral counsel sounds better, I think, when directed at oneself than when given to others. Maybe the “stiff upper lip” attitude really is the best, but when offered to one in mourning or serious affliction, it can sound simply unfeeling, or obtuse. This is easy to parody, but there are times when Seneca himself edges up to justifying the joke:

What greater folly is there than fearing the swaying of the earth or the sudden collapse of mountains or the incursions of the sea as it is cast beyond the shore, when death is present on all sides and rushes upon us from every quarter, and nothing is too insignificant in size to have enough strength to bring destruction on the human race?  (On Earthquakes)

At other times, though, the manly poise of Stoicism is attractive. A counsel that recurs through these essays is that we ought to anticipate what evils might befall us, for by anticipation we reduce their power to harm us: “The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.” (Consolation to Marcia, 9) “Takes away” is too strong, but cultivating a lively sense of the perils that might befall us is, I think, a means by which we can prepare ourselves to suffer them. Even more valuable is the counsel to pursue true happiness by cultivating personal virtue; it is the health of our soul that is of ultimate value. Of the attractions of pleasure, he warns that pursuit of pleasure will lead to the loss of both virtue and pleasure, whereas pursuit of virtue first will yield both virtue and, in a more cultivated sense, pleasure.

Seneca also frequently avers to the importance of making Nature the standard of one’s conduct. “Two most beautiful things will follow us wherever we go, universal Nature and our own virtue.” (Consolation to Helvia, 8) “Nature is the guide I choose; wisdom lies in not wandering from her path and in moulding oneself in accordance with her law and example. (On the Happy Life, 3). However, it is not clear to me from these essays just what is meant. It might be that we have here, in nascent form, the natural law tradition, in which “nature” – that is, the kind of creature that we are – teaches us what we need to truly flourish. But Seneca does not expound.

If we should pursue virtue first, then by implication we should not pursue wealth, or power, or fame first. Seneca has often been accused of hypocrisy on this account, for he, advisor to emperors, was wealthy, powerful, and famous. I recently came across amusing evidence of this bad reputation when I was reading John Marston’s seventeeth-century play The Malcontent, in which one of the characters actually talks about Seneca, saying:

Out upon him! he writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure, and died like an effeminate coward. (III.1)

The same or similar charges were laid at his feet in his own lifetime, and in his essay On the Happy Life he offers a defence. First, to a truly virtuous man these advantages are matters of indifference, so that they can be surrendered, or retained, without any fault. But, more than that, he acknowledges that his moral advice is not to be confused with his own habitual way of life:

I speak of virtue, not of myself, and my abuse is directed at vices, especially at my own. (18)

Essentially, he admits the justice of the critique, but without yielding his commitment to pursue virtue as best he can. I, for one, am satisfied.

*

The finest of these essays, in my judgment, is On the Shortness of Human Life, a thoughtful reflection on the transience of our affairs that will, I predict, bear re-reading. We believe that life is too short, he argues, because we forget that we are mortal: “You live as though you were going to live forever.” But we will not, and as we busy ourselves with this and that, our life is silently passing away:

No one will restore your years, no one will restore you once more to yourself. Your life will pursue the path it started on, and will no more check than reverse its course; it will create no uproar, give no warning of its speed: silently it will glide on its way. No further will it extend its course at the command of a king, or because of the people’s approval; just as its path was set from your first day, so will it run, nowhere deviating, nowhere delaying. What will the outcome be? You have busied yourself, life hurries on: death meanwhile will arrive, and for it you must find time, whether you wish it or not. (8)

If we cultivate awareness of the brevity of life, we will be motivated to spend our time wisely: “Life is sufficiently long, and has been granted with enough generosity for us to accomplish the greatest things, provided that in its entirety it is well invested.” Of greatest importance is that we not attempt too much, avoid merely being busy, and clear away time for interior recollection:

It is generally agreed that no activity can be properly undertaken by a man who is busy with many things — not eloquence, and not the liberal arts… An untroubled and calm mind can visit all parts of its life: the minds of those who are busy with other things, as if they are under the yoke, cannot turn around, bend, and look back. Therefore their life disappears into an abyss, and as there is no benefit in pouring in any amount of water, if a vessel has no bottom to contain it, so it makes no difference how much time is given, if there is no place for it to lodge, it passes out through the cracks and chinks of the mind. (7, 10)

I have always known this to be true in my own life – that being too busy spells the death-knell for spiritual and intellectual life – and finding it echoed here in Seneca is sobering, considering how just obligations in my life certainly do keep me appallingly busy. But perhaps we are running up, here, against the limitations of Stoicism. Christianity teaches that I find my life not by withdrawal from the press and burly of events, but by pouring myself out in love for those around me. This, I am hoping, is true, as one who is carried forward by a swift current hopes that it goes somewhere good. But, then again, even Jesus withdrew to a quiet place to pray…

*

I’m happy to have read these essays. Seneca must have been a remarkable man. I find much to admire in him: moral seriousness, high achievement, literary range. It is sad to think that, in the end, he committed suicide. (By the way, there is a good deal of hearty exhortation in these essays on the nobility of killing oneself. Another limitation of Stoicism.) But, somewhat to my surprise, I find that, having read this volume, my plans to follow it up by reading a selection of Seneca’s letters is not alluring. I think that I’ll take my leave of Seneca for now, and pick up instead this hefty volume marked ‘Tacitus’.

***

[Know your limits]
Whenever you attempt something, measure yourself  and at the same time what you are attempting, both the thing you intend and that for which you are intended; for if you fail in the task, the regret this causes will make you bitter. It makes a difference whether a man is of a fiery nature or a cold and docile one: defeat will drive a man of spirit to anger, but induce sadness in one whose nature is sluggish and passive. Accordingly let our activities be neither trivial nor bold and overambitious, let us keep our hopes within sensible bounds, and let us attempt nothing to make us wonder later at our success, even should we succeed. (On Anger, 7)

[Examen]
When the lamp has been removed from my sight, and my wife, no stranger now to my habit, has fallen silent, I examine the whole of my day and retrace my actions and words; I hide nothing from myself, pass over nothing. For why should I be afraid of any of my mistakes, when I can say: ‘Beware of doing that again, and this time I pardon you.’ (On Anger, 36)

[Exhortation]
If you are a man, look up with admiration at those who attempt great things, even if they fall. This is the sign of a noble heart — to aim at high things.” (On the Happy Life, 20)

[Being prepared for death]
We occupy a stage decorated with various properties that are on loan and must be restored to their owners; some of these will remain until the final curtain. And so we have no grounds for self-admiration, as though we were surrounded by our own possessions; they have been loaned to us. We may use and enjoy them, but the one who allotted his gift decides how long we are to be tenants; our duty is to keep ready the gifts we have been given for an indefinite time and to return them when called upon, making no complaint: it is a sorry debtor who abuses his creditor. (Consolation to Marcia, 10)