Posts Tagged ‘Greco-Roman literature’

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)

Cicero: On Obligations

September 4, 2020

On Obligations
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh
(Oxford, 2000) [44 BC]
lx + 218 p.

After the assassination of Julius Caesar in March of 44 BC, Cicero retired from Rome to wait out the political turmoil. For the previous few years he had been writing a series of broadly philosophical works, and he used his time in the country to continue that effort. This book, De officiis, was written in the autumn of 44 BC, and is addressed to Cicero’s son (also named Marcus Tullius Cicero).

For this volume P.G. Walsh has translated the title as “On Obligations”; sometimes it is called “On Duties”. The subject is moral obligation: what actions are required of us, particularly as concerns duties to fellow citizens and to the state? He structures much of the book to follow the treatment given this same subject by a Greek Stoic called Panaetius, who had lived a few generations earlier. As usual, Cicero sees himself as a conduit through whom Greek ideas can be made available to Romans.

The central dichotomy that structures the book is that between what is honourable or virtuous, on the one hand, and what is useful or expedient, on the other. Cicero is in the tradition of both natural law (“nature is the basis of law”) and virtue ethics. By “honourable” he means consistent with the virtues of justice, prudence, magnanimity, and self-control. (Note the interesting departure from the canonical list of cardinal virtues.) He compares these virtues, discusses their application using a variety of examples, emphasises the need for our actions to be governed by reason, and prioritises those to whom we have duties — in his mind, first to the gods, then to the country, then to parents, and then to others. Oddly, considering to whom he is writing, he doesn’t talk about obligations to one’s children.

Under the banner of “the useful”, he focuses mainly on means of gaining influence with others, through gift-giving, public service, and good counsel. His main purpose is to counter the view that what is useful is in conflict with what is honourable. On the contrary, he argues that the two are properly inseparable: what is dishonourable or unvirtuous cannot be really expedient except in an inappropriately narrow sense. (Sure, cheating my rival might seem to be expedient for some reason, but by doing so I would harm my soul and put myself in peril of the law, which would not be expedient in the long term.)

The final section of the book examines cases in which virtue and expediency seem to be in conflict. Is it acceptable to conceal the defects in something you are selling? Must we always keep our promises? Throughout, consistent with his leading principle, he concludes that the usefulness of unvirtuous acts is illusory. His great exemplar of an honourable man is Regulus, who kept his word and served the interests of Rome rather than his own.

*

To my mind, De officiis seems a fairly minor work of moral philosophy. Whatever value it has in articulating the foundations of moral conduct or for explaining the virtues would seem to be eclipsed by, for example, Aristotle’s Ethics. (I do not know if Aristotle’s works were known to Cicero.) Its content is sound, and its leading idea — that what is virtuous cannot truly conflict with what is expedient — is noble, but the idea is more asserted than argued. Likewise, the important idea that a common moral framework can be based on our common human nature is simply stated, rather than defended. Moreover, the book has a somewhat rambling manner, with asides and comments to his son included in the main line of the discussion. And whatever glories the original Latin prose may possess did not survive this translation to English.

But history has judged De officiis more kindly than I have; the book has been immensely popular over the ages. Pliny the Elder apparently counseled that it should be read daily until it was committed to memory. Christian writers appropriated it, and St. Ambrose even wrote his own De officiis based on Cicero’s. It often formed part of the curriculum for medieval schoolmen, and Aquinas cites it several times in his treatise on the virtues in the Summa Theologiae. Cicero’s classification of dishonourable acts influenced Dante’s structure of hell in Inferno. During the Renaissance it was Cicero’s most widely read book; both Erasmus and Melancthon prepared editions of it, and it was the good angel to Machiavelli’s bad in The Prince. Traces of Cicero’s influence run through Hume and Kant, but in the nineteenth century the popularity of his philosophical writings faded, and the popularity of De officiis with it. I cannot say I lament its late fortunes, although its value would be markedly greater were we suddenly bereft of the tradition to which it partly gave rise. Its sons were greater than it.

Ovid: Love Poems

May 25, 2020

ovid-love1Amores
Ars Amatoria
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by Len Krisak
(U Penn Press, 2014) [16 BC, 2 AD]
232 p.

Remedia Amoris
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1990)  [c.5 AD]
25 p.

It was Ovid’s love poetry, especially his metrical seduction manual, the Ars Amatoria, that got him cast into the outer darkness. Facetiousness in matters of love and sex, it seems, would get you nowhere in Augustus’ Rome, at least in the long run.

His love poetry was of three varieties: the Amores, first published in 16 BC, was a collection of short love poems; the infamous Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love) was a set of long poems instructing readers in the art and craft of winning a lover; and the Remedia Amoris (The Cures for Love) were the back slap and hot toddy administered to those coping with the aftermath of a failed affair of the heart. Taken together, they form a neat package tied up with a bow. Taken individually, they are rather less winsome. But let’s take a look.

*

Roman-ReadingThe essential political background to understanding Ovid’s love poetry is that he was writing shortly after the promulgation of Augustus’ marriage laws, which were intended to improve the morals and social stability of Rome’s upper classes. Augustus had made adultery a civic offence, and required all eligible persons to be married. This is essential to understanding Ovid because it is conspicuously absent from Ovid’s vision: instead, his poetic world is one animated by adultery, secret meetings, winks, nudges, and a general deceitful disregard of marriage vows.

His Amores touch on a number of traditional subjects: the locked-out lover, laments for departed lovers, comparisons of love and war, and avowels that love can attain immortality through poetry. But there are novel ideas introduced too. One poem denies that the poet was unfaithful with a servant girl; another admits the same. One comforts a girl whose hair has fallen out after using a toxic dye; another — which has been given a superbly bracing translation by Len Krisak in this volume — condemns a girl who procured an abortion. I particularly liked a poem in which the poet enumerates all the many varieties of feminine beauty:

She’s dowdy — I dream what would suit her better.
She’s dressed to kill — her dower’s on display.
I fall for blondes, I fall for girls who’re auburn,
A dusky beauty charms in the same way.
If dark hair dangles down a snowy shoulder,
Her sable locks were Leda’s crowning glory;
Or if they’re gold, Aurora charms with saffron;
My love adapts to every ancient story.
Youth tempts me. So do riper years. Youth’s prettier,
Yet older women’s ways have me in thrall;
Yes, every worthwhile girl in Rome’s great city,
My love’s a candidate to win them all.
(II, 4)

Ovid is writing in elegiac couplets: paired lines in which the first has six beats and the second five. This stutter-step scheme grants the poems a slightly humorous cast, giving the shortened line, when needed, the punch of a natural punch-line. Ovid himself has some fun with this idea in the first lines of the first poem in the Amores, which go like this:

Prepared for war, I set the weapon of my pen
To paper, matching meter, arms, and men
In six feet equal to the task. Then Cupid snatched
A foot away, laughing at lines mismatched.
(I, 1)

There’s a playful allusion here to Virgil’s Aenied (which had been published just three years earlier): Ovid actually begins with the same word as Virgil (“Arma”) before pivoting to highlight the difference between epic poetry and Ovid’s preferred elegy. Len Krisak does a wonderful job, here and throughout, of maintaining this metrical limp in his translation.

Tips for aspiring adulterers can occasionally be gleaned from the Amores, as when he describes how to communicate with the object of his affection without drawing the attention of unwanted (ie. husbandly) eyes:

I’ll send a wordless message with my eyebrows;
You’ll read my fingers’ words, words traced in wine.
When you recall our games of love together,
Your finger on rosy cheeks must trace a line.
If in your silent thoughts you wish to chide me,
Let your hand hold the lobe of your soft ear;
When, darling, what I do or say gives pleasure,
Keep turning to and fro the ring you wear.
(I, 4)

But this didactic element becomes the central theme in the Ars Amatoria, which was published in about 2 AD. Of its three books, the first two instruct men on how best to seduce women, and the third instructs women on the complimentary art.

Quite a number of topics are covered: where to find a lover, how to recruit her maid as an ally, and advice on personal grooming:

Plain cleanliness works best, and drill-field tans don’t hurt.
Your well-cut toga should be free of dirt.
Keep shoe straps lose and buckles bright — no rust.
(But don’t forget that good fit’s still a must.)
Be sure a barber, not a butcher, cuts your hair
And trims your beard with care. Please try to wear
Nails short and clean. Be sure no ugly hair growth shows,
Sprouting from the hollows of your nose.
Don’t let your breath go sour, and you should take note:
Armpits must never smell like billy goat.
But any more than that, let wanton girls employ —
Or any man who would prefer a boy.
(I, 513-524)

But the poems don’t show us only the sunny-side of adultery. Ovid also highlights the benefits of targeting a woman “on the rebound” (“So try her when she’s rival-wounded; watch her sob, / Then see she gets revenge. Make it your job.”) and the advantages to be gained from making false promises (“Make promises! They do no harm, so who can chide us? / In promises, each man can be a Midas.”) He holds, in a way that makes him particularly relevant to us after the sexual revolution, that sex is a sport, and as such is best divorced from moral evaluation:

Don’t steal from friends, but keep your word. Show piety,
Avoid all fraud, and keep your hands blood-free.
But if you’re smart, cheat only girls and have your fun.
Allow yourself this fraud, but just this one.
Yes, cheat the cheaters; most of them are far from good.
Catch them in their own traps — it’s right you should!
(I, 641-6)

It is, then, no great surprise to find that, after counselling deception and amoral pursuit of pleasure as proper to a man’s conduct in love, we should find him justifying rape:

Some women take delight in brute assaults; they act
As if it’s quite a coup to be attacked.
And longed-for women who escape and call you cad?
Their faces fake their joy; they’re really sad.
(I, 675-8)

Of course, it is we, the readers, who are really sad here. Maybe, perhaps, there was a time and place when this — not just this apologia for rape, but this whole conception of love and sex as a flamboyant circus, an anything-goes, winner-takes-all demolition derby — was amusing, but living where and when we do, I believe we’ve had quite enough of it. I know I have. Ovid has been accused, over the years, of being superficial and essentially cheap; I resisted that conclusion when I read Metamorphoses, but here it seems perfectly apt.

*

ovid-love2The third part of his love poetry, the Remedia Amoris, addresses the sobering fallout: what to do when jilted in love, abandoned, or ignored. His advice is mostly what you’d get from a newspaper columnist: go to the country, stay active, go fishing, travel. Don’t read her letters, or visit places you went with her. Avoid alcohol. Don’t bother with witchcraft; it’s probably not going to help. It might help, he says, to think of her as critically as you can:

‘Those legs of hers’, I used to say, ‘how ugly.’
And yet in fact, to tell the truth, they weren’t.
‘Those arms of hers’, I’d say, ‘by no means pretty.’
And yet in fact, to tell the truth, they were.
‘How short she is!’ — she wasn’t. ‘How demanding!’
For those demands I chiefly hated her.

In the end, his best advice might be this Aristotelian counsel: if you need to get over her, do your best to act as if you’re over her:

Love comes by habit, habit too unlearns it;
If one can feign one’s cured, one will be cured.

*

It has been a good experience to revisit these poems, which I first read some years ago, having now a much better appreciation of the poetic tradition within which Ovid was working and a greater familiarity with his own poetry. I cannot say with hand on heart that I particularly liked these poems; they have their droll merits, of course, and love, being part of the human comedy, makes room for capering whimsy, but these poems have a cruel edge that renders them unwelcome to me. If anything I’ve read by Ovid justifies his sometime reputation as a charlatan or mincing devil, these will do. I don’t like to think of Ovid in exile, but I’d have been content to have these poems suffer that fate in his place.

Ovid: Poems of Exile

April 3, 2020

The Poems of Exile
Tristia; Black Sea Letters
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by Peter Green
(University of California, 2005) [8-14 AD]
lxxxiv + 451 p.

Ovid had for years been at the heart of Rome’s literary culture when, in 8 AD, he was exiled by Augustus, sent to the city of Tomis, on the edge of the Black Sea, on the far fringe of the Empire. It was for him a death in life, and from the depths of his misfortune he wrote these poems, first the Tristia (in 5 books, composed roughly 8-11 AD) and then the Epistulae ex Ponto (in 4 books, written roughly 11-14 AD).

The reason for Ovid’s exile is not entirely understood. He says in the Tristia that “It was two offences undid me, a poem and an error”. About the “poem”, at least, there is no doubt, for he dwells on it constantly throughout these poems:

“Poetry made Caesar condemn me and my life-style
because of my Art, put out
years before: take away my pursuit, you remove my offences —
I credit my guilt to my verses. Here’s the reward
I’ve had for my care and all my sleepless labour:
a penalty set on talent. If I’d had sense
I’d have hated the Learned Sisters, and with good reason,
divinities fatal to their own
adherents.” (II, 1)

His “Art” is the Ars Amatoria, his poetic guidebook for the aspiring seducer. An important raft in Augustus’ political program was reform of marriage and family life in Rome; he passed laws requiring marriage of all Roman citizens of child-bearing years, and imposed severe penalties for adultery. Evidently Ovid’s casual indifference to this program and the moral ideals underlying it earned him Augustus’ anger, and this despite the fact that the love poetry had been written decades earlier.

As for the “error” to which Ovid alludes, we don’t know what it was. A personal affront to Augustus? Perhaps he just brought his old poems to his patron’s attention at an inopportune time? We will probably never know. It may have been something personally embarrassing to Ovid, for, unless I am mistaken, he mentions this “error” only once, a rarity made the more remarkable because of the obsessiveness with which the poems dwell on his fate.

And they are obsessive, exhaustingly so. In his notes to his translation, Peter Green sums up these poems: “Ovid is chronicling his own slow inner destruction”. The ambit of his themes is disconcertingly narrow: his misfortune, the fickleness of his friends who will not lobby on his behalf to the Imperial ear, the barbarity of his surroundings, the inadvertence of his offence, the faithfulness of his wife, praise of Augustus’ godlike power, and that’s about it. We read of how an exile’s condition is like that of a storm-tossed ship, of how his journey to exile was worse than Ulysses’ voyage from Troy, of his fair-weather friends, of his loneliness and isolation, of the rigours of life in Tormis, a “land seared by crimping frost”. As one reads through these poems, the monotony of his complaints, almost always in combination with self-justifying excuses, is wearying, and he knows it:

“Now I am out of words, I’ve asked the same thing so often;
now I feel shame for my endless, hopeless prayers.
You must all by now be bored stiff by these monotonous poems —
certainly you’ve learned by heart what I want,
and know the contents of each fresh letter already
before you break its seal.”
(BSL 3.7)

It would be reasonable to become exasperated with Ovid, but I found myself inclining more to pity. He was obviously at his wit’s end, overwhelmed by the punishment inflicted on him, and I felt that in these poems I heard the voice of Ovid the man, rather than Ovid the dazzling conjurer of tales or Ovid the irreverent huckster. Though the range of his mind in these poems is almost immeasurably narrower than in the Metamorphoses, the field of view is in clear focus: we see a tortured heart. “Who can see another’s woe, and not feel in sorrow too?”

Despite the monomaniacal intensity of these poems, there are some interesting variations here and there in which Ovid finds a new angle on his sorrow. He imagines his book of poems travelling to Rome and touring the city from which he is barred (Tr 3.1); he writes movingly of his memories of spring in Rome (Tr 3.12); he celebrates his birthday with a lament on his being separated from everyone he loves (Tr 3.13); he imagines himself and his wife aging apart (for she had stayed in Rome to argue his case before the Emperor) (BSL 1.4); he relates a vision of the god of Love, the deity who caused his exile (BSL 3.3).

The most famous of these exile poems is the tenth in Book IV of the Tristia, a long autobiographical poem in which Ovid tells us about his childhood, his family, his first efforts at poetry, the people in his poetic circle in Rome (Propertius, Horace, and, at a distance, Virgil), his fame, and finally his exile. It is a long, consistently interesting, and touching performance.

And “performance” might be the right word for many of these poems. Despite the directness with which they speak, there is reason to think that a certain amount of artifice is at work. He writes, after all, with a purpose which Peter Green says can be summed up in just five words: “Get Me Out Of Here”. He begs his friends to speak on his behalf to Augustus, and he begs Augustus to relent, to rescind his exile, or at least to allow him exile in a more hospitable place. To this end, we are subjected to a good deal of self-abasing praise of the munificence and wisdom of Augustus:

Spare me, my hero, whose virtues eclipse the boundless
cosmos, rein in your vengeance, just though it be!
Spare me, imperishable glory of our era, through your
own devoted care, lord of the world!
(BSL 2.8)

Such cringing gives no pleasure to the reader, and if it brought any pleasure to Augustus it was nonetheless not enough. When Augustus died in 14, Ovid was still in exile, and he died there a few years later, a great talent brought to a sad end.

It doesn’t seem quite apt to describe a collection of poems of this heft as a “pendant”, but that does roughly describe the place of these poems in Ovid’s oeuvre. If his whole body of work is like a symphony, with the love poetry being a scherzo and the Metamorphoses a long and elaborate fantasia, then these exile poems are a stately andante in a minor key, gradually winding down and fading away into silence. They are not going to bring anyone joy, but, for their disarming portrait of a man sundered from home and all he loved best, I am grateful to have read them.

Ovid: Metamorphoses

March 17, 2020

Metamorphoses
Ovid
Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1987) [8 AD]
xxxvii + 480 p. Second reading.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the literary marvels of the ancient world: a roiling riot of tales clipped from the ripened Greco-Roman crop. It is a virtuosic performance in which Ovid revisits the ground previously plowed by Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil, adding his own distinctive touches, not excepting the extra energy of wit.

The poem is about 12000 lines long, and includes a staggering 250 different tales, and hundreds of characters, woven together into one long narrative tapestry. Sometimes the thread is strained almost to the point of breaking, and sometimes he lingers to delve his narration several layers deep — tales within tales within tales — but always emerging again, winking, sure of his direction, even if the reader is somewhat dazed.

The principal organizing feature of this melange is right there in the title: transformations. In each of the tales, a character undergoes some sort of change, usually a miraculous change of shape: into a bird, into a fountain, into a monster, into a tree, into a bird (again), into a bear, into stone, or into a bird (for good measure). This is the golden thread that runs from start to finish. Often this gives Ovid’s tales a folky flavour inasmuch as the transformation serves also as an origin story: this is how a certain flower came to be, or how a certain river was first made, or how (surprise!) a certain bird was created.

His commitment to this idea sometimes leads to idiosyncratic treatment of stories, as when he glosses over the Fall of Troy in a few lines in order to focus on the tragic tale of Hecuba, the Trojan queen, but more often it delights. We begin each tale in a state of expectation, knowing that something, anything, might happen, and this helps to sustain the reader through what might otherwise seem merely an interminable series of short tales. To a reader encountering Ovid for the first time, there can indeed seem to be little reason to his rhyme, even granting the main recurring feature of metamorphoses, but a larger scale structure becomes apparent if we step back. The Metamorphoses begins with the creation of the world and tales of gods (roughly Books I-VI), transitions to tales involving gods and men (roughly Books VI-XI), and concludes with historical, or quasi-historical, tales of Greeks and Romans, culminating in treatments of Julius Caesar and, Ovid’s own patron, Caesar Augustus, here made to appear — and appear might be just the right word, given Ovid’s impish playfulness — to be the man at whom all of history had been pointing.

Anyone who claimed to know all of the stories in the Metamorphoses should be viewed with suspicion, for it is a buzzing, swirling conglobulation seemingly calculated to confound even the most diligent student, and Ovid seems to delight to show off his learning. In this he was joined by other Roman poets, like Virgil and Propertius, though with Ovid the learning is worn lightly. But the point to stress is that so many of the stories are wonderful! Ovid gives us memorable versions of the stories of Apollo and Daphne, of Echo and Narcissus, of Pyramus and Thisbe, of Phaethon, of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Midas. Some of the tales are sweet, as in the hilarious story of how the cyclops Polyphemus fell in love with the girl Galatea, and some are gruesome, as in the horrific story of Procne and Philomela, which features [redacted]. Ovid’s virtuosity is flexible: grave or facetious or winsome, he can apparently do anything, and he doesn’t mind if we know it.

*

So the Metamorphoses is a brawl, a kind of circus, an anthology, a clamour. Does it have depth? Critical opinion has been divided on this question over the centuries.

Ovid’s talent was recognized by his contemporaries, and he was among the choice circle commissioned by Augustus to write an epic (ie. the Metamorphoses), but his reputation suffered as the Augustan age passed away. A century later Quintillian thought him lively but shallow; Seneca (the Elder) considered he had wasted his rhetorical talents in poetry. The early Christians generally viewed him warily, as being flashy and seductive but immoral and trivial, and this has been, if you want, one of the enduring poles of Ovidian reception: he was a trickster, a showman, an endlessly inventive and rhetorically gifted storyteller who nonetheless lacked profundity, a man without a chest, whose poems were mere clouds which a gust of strong Virgilian wind would disperse.  It was, as I’ve said, a common enough view in the ancient world, and it was the dominant view of Ovid from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century.

This judgment is not easily dismissed; there is something to it. If we stop to ask ourselves, “What did Ovid believe?”, or “What did Ovid love?”, we find answers hard to come by. For instance, in the early Books of the Metamorphoses Ovid tells us about the creation of the world: how there was a primordial chaos, and how divine powers shaped the world and then created man as the pinnacle. If there were ever a theme for sobriety and grandeur and confidence, this was it. But Ovid treats the whole affair quite casually, giving several different, contradictory versions of what might have happened, being quite nonspecific about exactly which god it was who did this great work, and then shrugging it off. And this basic orientation to his subject matter persists: Ovid may seem to be, here and there, in earnest, but then he pivots on a denarius and the mood is gone. He is like a curator of a museum who sets his artifacts in place, but then disappears, scrupulously avoiding any effort to tell us how to interpret what we see. For many readers down the ages this diffidence on Ovid’s part has been taken as evidence of superficiality.

Yet there is another school too. Ovid’s time bore certain resemblances to our modern world: as the Roman republic crumbled and then collapsed Roman culture experienced a loss of faith in traditions and its institutions became unstable; at the same time it underwent a major economic expansion and enjoyed new prosperity; and of course the Roman Empire was a vast geographical space in which cultures began to mix, with a corresponding loss of confidence in local cults and customs. All of these factors influenced Ovid, and have led some readers to see him as a particularly modern, or even post-modern, figure. To this way of thinking, Ovid is an antifoundational, non-dogmatic empty shirt who relativizes hierarchies of value and undermines meta-narratives.  This school of thought agrees with the previous one insofar as it sees Ovid as having no fixed positions, no doctrine, and no point-of-view, but it differs by thinking this good rather than bad.

The third major branch of Ovidian readers were those who dominated the high medieval and early modern periods. To them, Ovid was again not exactly a personality, but rather a portal. He was the great story-teller, the captivating conjurer through whom the whole tumult of ancient myth came tumbling into our world. From the multifariousness of his tales they concluded not that everything was relative or that nothing mattered — the pessimistic conclusions that have tempted modern lost souls — but that stories could be their own worlds, and that life was rich with possibility, and that a story could be enjoyed for its own sake. Ovid dazzled them with an excess of truth, rather than draining it away. And but for this strand of Ovid’s readers, our literature would have been immeasureably impoverished, for it would be that much harder to imagine Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Rabelais, to name only those who come first to mind.

I suppose it is obvious that my sympathies are with the latter group — Ovid is a great storyteller, and I am inclined to appreciate him simply on those grounds — although I feel a temptation from the first school as well, for the Metamorphoses does linger in the mind as a work whose parts are greater than the whole. All the same, it has been great to again grapple with it after an absence of some years. It makes a good wrestling partner.

Propertius: Poems

December 7, 2019

Poems
Sextus Propertius
Translated from the Latin by Guy Lee
(Oxford World’s Classics, 1994) [c.30-15 BC]
xxv + 205 p.

Propertius is one of the lesser-known poets of the Latin Golden Age. Born in about 50 BC, he was just a young lad when Caesar was assassinated, and was about 20 years old when Octavian finally defeated Marc Antony to bring the civil war to a conclusion. He was brought under the patronage of Maecenas, and so moved in the same circles as Virgil and Horace. While in his 20s he published three books of poetry that, as we’ll see, constitute something like a single artistic project, and then, in about 15 BC, he completed a fourth book of poems. We know little about his later life; a reference to him in a poem of Ovid, dated around 1 BC, implies that he had by then died.

Propertius was primarily a love poet, and his first three books all focus on his love for a particular woman, Cynthia. Who she was, or even whether she was a real person, we do not really know, but Propertius’ obsession with her gives his poems an intensity and a unity that make them very accessible and engaging. It is passionate poetry, much after the manner of Catullus’ great Lesbia poems.

Just as the course of true love never does run smooth, so also the course of ill-fated, inconstant, unhealthy, and uncertain love can be a rough ride. Propertius’ experience with Cynthia has convinced him that love is mad and painful, a “wound”:

Whoever he was who painted Love a child
Don’t you think he had marvellous hands?
First he saw that lovers live senselessly
And that light passions lose great goods.

Nor was he mistaken in adding flighty wings
And making him a god who flies from human hearts;
For we are tossed about on alternating waves
And the breeze, for us, keeps changing direction.

Rightly too is Love’s hand armed with barbed arrows
And a Cretan quiver hangs down from each shoulder:
For he strikes while we’re off guard, before we see the foe,
And after that wound no one is well. (II, 11)

He has moments when he is inspired by the glory of love, when he professes his unfailing faithfulness to Cynthia, and imagines her echoing the same to him:

There let them come in troops, the beautiful heroines
Picked by Argives from the spoils of Troy,
No beauty of theirs for me could match yours, Cynthia —
Indeed (may Mother Earth in justice grant it)
Though fate remand you to a long old age,
Yet to my tears will your bones be dear.

If only the living you could feel this for my ashes,
Then death, wherever, for me would have no sting.
Ah Cynthia, how I fear that love’s iniquity
Scorning the tomb may drag you from my dust
And force you, though loth, to dry the falling tears;
A faithful girl can be bent by constant threats.
So while we may let us delight in loving;
No love is ever long enough. (I, 19)

But it is telling that he can imagine Cynthia faithful only to his bones and ashes, for in life she gave him little enough satisfaction. The poems relate how she absconded with a rich rival suitor, went away on holiday without him, failed to visit when he was ill, tormented him with false promises, locked the door against him, and generally treated him like rubbish. His hapless love for her remains, however:

Happy the man who could weep in his girl’s presence
(Love can enjoy the sprinkling of tears)
Or who, when scorned, could redirect his ardour
(There is also joy in bondage transferred).
My fate is neither to love another nor break with her:
Cynthia was first and Cynthia shall be last. (I, 12)

He suffers fierce bouts of jealousy, issuing warnings to other men who come within her orbit:

She’ll prove no flighty girl in the encounter;
You’ll find her anger is no joke.
Even if she’s not resistant to your prayers,
She’ll still bring you troubles — by the thousand.
You’ll sleep no more. Her image will not leave you.
Her moods make proud men puppets. (I, 5)

Bereft of her affections, he comes to cherish her abuse and anger as a sign, he hopes, of concealed love:

Sweet for me was the fight by yesterday’s lamplight
And all the manic abuse you voiced
When, mad with wine, you overturned the table and flung
Full wine-cups at me in your fury.
Come on then, don’t be afraid, attack my hair
And scratch my face with those beautiful nails.
Bring fire and threaten to burn my eyes out.
Rip my tunic, strip my chest bare.
Naturally I diagnose true passion; no girl
Not deeply in love is so upset. (III, 8)

But at times when even these slender hopes desert him, his thoughts turn startlingly dark and violent:

But you shall not escape; you have to die with me.
The blood of both shall drip from this same blade.
Though such a death for me will be dishonourable,
I’ll die dishonoured to make sure you die. (II, 8)

Mercifully this dark fantasy remains only a fantasy, but the third book concludes the cycle of Cynthia poems with a vicious farewell curse:

Farewell now to the doorstep that sheds tears at my words
And the door I never smashed despite my anger.
But you — may age and the years you’ve hidden weigh you down
And wrinkles come to spoil your beauty!
May your desire then be to root out the white hairs,
While the mirror, alas, accuses you of wrinkles.
Excluded in your turn may you suffer pride’s disdain,
A crone complaining you’re done by as you did!
These curses my prophetic page has sung for you;
So learn to dread your beauty’s aftermath! (III, 25)

*

This is good stuff: high drama, wrenching passion, flights of fancy, bitter disappointment! His preoccupation with Cynthia, examining their affair from this angle and then from that, gives the whole collection a cohesiveness that makes the poems read something like a diary. I really enjoyed them.

The fourth book, in which he moves on to other subjects (although Cynthia does show up a few times, a memory and ghostly presence), was less attractive to me. The poems are on mythological or historical subjects (including one about Octavian’s victory over Marc Antony at Actium), or spoken in the voice of imagined characters rather than his own, and I found them markedly less interesting.

*

Like Horace, Propertius has a talent for personal, small scale poetry. In one amusing poem he imagines himself setting out to write an epic poem on an important subject, but just as he stoops to drink from that noble stream of inspiration he is interrupted by Apollo:

‘Idiot, what right have you to such a stream? And who
Told you to turn your hand to epic?
There’s not a hope of fame, Propertius, for you here;
Your little wheels must groove soft meadows.
Let your slim volume be displayed on bedside tables
And ready by lonely girls waiting for their lovers.
Why has your page diverged from its appointed round?
You must not overload the rowboat of your wit.
With one oar feather water, with the other sand,
And you’ll be safe. Most flounder in mid-ocean.’ (III, 3)

In other words, he knew his own limits. The introductory essay to this volume discusses the political side of his poetry, which is not entirely absent. (Anyone moving in Augustus’ circle was writing politically charged poetry whether they wanted to or not. Propertius seems to have navigated those treacherous waters adeptly.) His ambitions were not to be great, as some measure greatness, but to be a great poet who would be remembered:

Yet what the envious crowd withholds from me in life
Honour will pay me after death at double interest.
Everything after death is magnified by age:
A name beyond the grave sounds better in the mouth. (III, 1)

Poignant words, considering that he was largely forgotten for a long time, cast into the shadow of his great contemporaries. Renaissance scholars took some interest in his work after long neglect, and the poetry of Petrarch and Goethe was influenced to some modest extent by him. Ezra Pound wrote a cycle of poems in “homage” to him, and he has received a number of English translations in recent decades. Still, it is hard to think that this flagging and marginal fame was what he hoped for.

Let’s do our small part to remember him by reading one poem in its entirety, a poem in which he celebrates the immortality to be hoped for in poetry:

Let us return meanwhile to our song’s familiar round —
To touch and delight a girl with its music.

Orpheus, they say, bewitched wild animals and held
Back rushing rivers with his Thracian lyre.
Cithaeron’s rocks, hustled to Thebes by music’s art,
Of their own accord combined to bond a wall.
Yes, and below wild Etna Galatea turned
Her spray-drenched steeds toward Polyphemus’ songs.
What wonder, by the grace of Bacchus and Apollo,
If girls in plenty worship my words?

Though my house is not supported on Taenarian columns
And has no ivory room with gilded beams,
Nor do my fruit-trees match the orchards of Phaeacia
Nor artificial grot drip Marcian waters,
Still the Muses befriend me, my songs are dear to readers
And Calliope unwearied by my dances.
Lucky the girl who is celebrated in my book;
Each song will be a reminder of her beauty.

Neither the expense of Pyramids reared to the stars
Nor Jove’s Elean home copying heaven
Nor rich gold fortune of the Mausoleum
Escape the extreme necessity of death.
Or flame or rain will dispossess their honour, or
They’ll fall by thrust of years and their own weight.
But age will not destroy the name achieved by talent;
Talent’s glory stands — immortal. (III, 2)