Posts Tagged ‘Greco-Roman literature’

Greek lyric poetry

December 5, 2022

Greek Lyrics
Translated from the Greek by Richmond Lattimore
(Univ. Chicago, 1960) [c.650-450 BC]
xiii + 82 p.

If ever you are happy, one way to bring yourself down is to think about the literature that has been lost to the vicissitudes of history. There are particularly agonizing cases: Aristotle’s dialogues, most of the Greek tragedies, swaths of Livy and Tacitus. But spare a tear as well for early Greek poetry, much of which has come down to us in shreds.

In this little volume, Richmond Lattimore gathers together an assortment of surviving verses from several dozen Greek poets who were writing between the seventh and fifth centuries BC. I believe we don’t have much lyric poetry from earlier times, but I don’t know why he drew the later chronological boundary where he did. He has called these poems “lyrics,” perhaps simply to distinguish them from epic. In any case, the designation does not seem a strict one; there is a huge variety here: invective, epitaph, epigram, love poem, political poem, historical poem, inscription, song, myth, and more. It’s a very difficult sort of book to size up.

We’ll look at a few examples.

Maybe the earliest of the poets represented here is Archilochus of Paros (c.680-640). He was apparently a soldier with an avocation as a poet. Based on his showing here, his poetry is among the better preserved, and we may even have some complete poems, such as this one offering counsel to a soldier:

Heart, my heart, so battered with misfortune far beyond your strength,
up, and face the men who hate us. Bare your chest to the assault
of the enemy, and fight them off. Stand fast among the beamlike spears.
Give no ground; and if you beat them, do not brag in open show,
nor, if they beat you, run home and lie down on your bed and cry.
Keep some measure in the joy you take in luck, and the degree
you give way in sorrow. All our life is up-and-down like this.

At the other chronological end is Praxilla of Sicyon (mid 5th c.), for whom Lattimore gives us a fragment from a poem about the death of Adonis, who, in his last throes, uttered these lines:

“Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon’s face,
but also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.”

It’s rather beautiful, but Lattimore remarks that this mention of cucumbers, in this context, gave rise to a Greek saying whereby one who says the wrong thing at the wrong time might be judged “sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.”

We have a number of anonymous poems, as you would expect. Most of the inscriptions are so, though the famous epitaph for the Spartans fallen at Thermopylae —

Traveler, take this word to the men of Lakedaimon :
We who lie buried here did what they told us to do.

— is a notable exception, being attributed to Simonides of Ceon. An especially intriguing sub-genre is the anonymous drinking song, like this one:

Underneath every stone there lies hidden a scorpion, dear friend.
Take care, or he will sting you. All concealment is treachery.

It probably sounds better with music.

The most famous of the poets represented here are Solon, the great Athenian reformer and lawgiver, from whom a number of poems survive, including argumentative verse in which he defends his policies; Sappho, about whom we’ll have more to say on a later occasion; and Pindar, whom we’ll also spend more time with later. To my considerable surprise, a full quarter of the book is devoted to a single poet, Bacchylides of Ceos, a contemporary of Pindar for whom a number of relatively long poems have survived. I confess these were among my least favourite of the batch, so I’ll say no more about them.

Lattimore is a renowned translator of the Greeks, prized for his dedication to retaining as much as possible the shape of the Greek verse in his English renderings. Personally, though, in my previous experience with him, I have found that I don’t especially like the result much of the time. It often feels awkward to me, and too much like prose. These poems didn’t change my mind, but they were serviceable and good enough to get the point across.

And what is the point? Why sit down with a mess of tattered pages like this? The question presses more firmly in an anthology, when we get, in most cases, barely more than a taste of individual poets, not really enough for their personalities to come through.

Often a motive for reading old books is to penetrate a way of thinking and seeing the world that differs from our own customary habits. Maybe in so doing we can see ourselves more clearly, and perhaps be startled at what we see. There’s a bit of that here, but it’s not ideal because the points of view are too numerous. Maybe the motive is the opposite: not to see our differences, but to see what we share. If we have something in common with these men and women, given all that separates us, perhaps there we are getting close to what is fundamental to human life. It is a good experiment to take one of these poems, even a couple of lines, and ask ourselves what  we recognize in them. And it is not surprising, I expect, that we find love, and hatred, and admiration of the beautiful, and fear of death, and sadness, and curiosity, and many, many more things that constitute the texture of our lives, then as now. Welcome home!

***

Pindar: “War is sweet to those who have not tried it.”

*

Homer: Odyssey

November 21, 2022

Odyssey
Homer
Translated from the Greek by Robert Fitzgerald
(FS&G, 1998) [c.800 BC]
515 p.

…godlike in counsel,
he that in twenty years had borne such blows
in his deep heart, breaking through ranks in war
and waves on the bitter sea.
(Bk 13)

***

Theories about the authorship of the Homeric poems abound: they were the work of a solitary genius, or they were created by countless bards in a generation-spanning oral tradition, or they were adapted from an oral tradition by a solitary genius, and so on. But if you were to tell me that the (however construed) author of the Odyssey had nothing whatever to do with the author of the Iliad, I would believe you. From the first page of this poem, the world of the Iliad — the world of hard war, of bruised honour, of brandished spears and bristling helmets, of bellicosity and belligerence — all of that is gone, vanished like a dream, and we find ourselves in a domestic sphere, where slaves are wiping down tables, a fire crackles in the hearth, and a boy sits, daydreaming, when a mysterious stranger arrives at the door. The scale is intimate, and good manners are paramount. We are breathing new air.

Of course, all is not well. The home is troubled by ruffians who circle the lady of the house like wolves, and a great sorrow, a quiet, aching pain, sits stubbornly in the hearts of Penelope and her son, Telemachos, for Odysseus, the lord of the house, is absent, and may be dead. Nobody knows.

In my imagination the Odyssey survived, since I first read it many years ago, as the tale of one man, a sleek, stripped down story (especially compared to the enormous ensemble cast of the Iliad) that flew like an arrow from Troy to Ithaca, with the lion’s share of the story devoted to accounts of the numerous hardships he endured along the way. This, I am surprised to find, was actually quite wrong. The tale, as told, isn’t like a flying arrow at all, but instead like a tangled web of yarn, told us in a non-linear fashion that starts in the middle, and folds back on itself through flashbacks. Even the famous adventures of Odysseus — the cyclopes, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the bag of wind, the sacred cows, the cannibals, and so on — are confined to just four (of 24) books.

The poem is really a family drama, with Penelope and Telemachos getting a significant share of the page-time. Indeed, although we hear briefly about Odysseus at the poem’s opening, and in particular about his longing to return home —

But such desire is in him
merely to see the hearthsmoke leading upward
from his own island, that he longs to die.

— we do not actually see him until Book 5, at which time the poet strikes the same note, stressing for us his desperate desire to return to Ithaca. He has been seven years on Calypso’s island, having no means of escape, and he sits on the shore, looking out:

in his stone seat to seaward — tear on tear
brimming his eyes.

This, then, is one of the leading emotional elements of the poem: homesickness. When a man is unable to go home, his heart is out of joint, and so too his family suffers, and his whole household. And what prevents him going home is not just outlandish danger, not just the wine-dark sea, not just the wrath of Poseidon, but also Odysseus’ own heart, frail against temptation. Again and again we see him beset by seductresses: the Sirens, Circe, Calypso, even, maybe, the youthful Nausikaa. Sometimes he resists successfully, sometimes he is overcome. But, always, too, his fundamental desire to see again his wife and child reasserts itself.

We know that he does eventually get home, with the help of Athena. (And I will note in passing that here, too, in the realm of the gods, the Odyssey is a much more intimate affair than was the Iliad. Athena is Odysseus’ special patroness, and Poseidon is, or becomes, his nemesis, but beyond that the gods play a limited role in the poem. The clamouring crowd of gods that so befuddled me before is silent now, and so much the better.) In the poem’s second half we see how Odysseus conducts himself upon returning home, adopting a disguise and plotting against the confounded suitors who befoul his house with their antics and their vices. And, of course, the plotting finally leads to a bloodbath in which Odysseus and Telemachos together avenge these wrongs. It is all superbly carried off. Homer winks our way when he has the suitors struggle to prepare the bow that will, we know, soon kill them. And when Odysseus, still in disguise, provokes general astonishment by stringing the bow himself, Homer gives us one of his most striking similies, comparing the bow to a lyre and Odysseus to the musician:

like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
(Bk 21)

He begins to play upon it immediately, as the poem erupts in violence and cleansing wrath. Homer again uses a memorable image to convey the aftermath:

In blood and dust
he saw that crowd all fallen, many and many slain.
Think of a catch that fishermen haul in to a halfmoon bay
in a fine-meshed net from the white-caps of the sea:
how all are poured out on the sand, in throes for the salt sea,
twitching their cold lives away in Helios’ fiery air:
so lay the suitors heaped on one another.
(Bk 22)

Let me not be one to take joy in such carnage — and the poet, too, counsels us that “To glory over slain men is no piety.” (Bk 22) — but it would be fruitless to deny that I derived a certain satisfaction from this rough justice.

And justice it is. A central preoccupation of the poem is that there is a set of virtues proper to hosts and guests, and in such virtues the suitors are shamelessly derelict. Over and over the poem shows us contrasting examples of good hosts and bad, of good guests and bad.

Telemachos, in search of news about his father, comes to the houses of Menelaus and Nestor, and, before they know his identity, he is treated with all the honour and deference rightly due a guest. Calypso seems to be a good host, but then keeps Odysseus hostage for years. Circe seems to be a bad host, but then offers him essential aid. Odysseus finds a bad host in Polyphemus (who wants to eat him), and then himself becomes a bad guest (by injuring his host). Odysseus even protests against the cyclops’ incivility, linking it to a lack of respect for the gods:

‘We would entreat you, great Sir, have a care
for the gods’ courtesy; Zeus will avenge
the unoffending guest.’

But Polyphemus gives a belligerent reply:

‘You are a ninny,
or else you come from the other end of nowhere,
telling me, mind the gods! We Kyklopes
care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far.’

It is a matter of more than just manners, therefore. And when Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he finds a gentle and generous host in the wonderful swineherd Eumaios, who, again, not knowing his identity, treats him right. When Odysseus, in disguise, encounters first Telemachos, and then Penelope, they are distinguished by their kindness to him, in sharpest contrast to the taunts and insults hurled by the doomed suitors. The treatment of strangers reveals character.

*

For all that the story is arranged like a puzzle, it is nonetheless, when we straighten it out, the story of a homecoming. This, I think, is part of what endears it to me so strongly, for I am inordinately fond of stories in which someone returns home, or is reunited with family after an absence. It is this quality that makes the Biblical story of Joseph so affecting for me, and it is this that brings a tear to my eye in the story of the Prodigal Son. So, too, here.

As in the story of Joseph, the reunion in the Odyssey happens in an asymmetric way: one party knows it is happening, and the other does not. Odysseus adopts, at Athena’s behest, the guise of an old, itinerant codger, and he encounters both Telemachos and Penelope without their being aware of his identity. This part of the tale calls for virtues of patience and self-control that are quite unlike those Odysseus needed during his tumultuous journey home. Upon arrival, Athena counsels him:

Patience, iron patience, you must show;
so give it out to neither man nor woman
that you are back from wandering. Be silent
under all injuries, even blows from men.
(Bk 13)

I was moved most, however, by the three occasions on which his self-control fails him. Unless I am mistaken, he weeps three times: on first revealing his true identity to his son, to his wife, and to his father. These last two occur in the poem’s denouement following the slaughter of the suitors.

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms, longed for
as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
(Bk 23)

Pass the handkerchief.

I learned through background reading that the Greeks had a whole set of homecoming epics about the aftermath of the Trojan War, of which the Odyssey was just one. There was a poem about Agememnon’s return home and his murder by Clytemnestra (which would have made a great contrasting double-bill with this poem), another about Ajax’s drowning on his return journey, and yet another about the sojourn of Menealus and Helen in Egypt on their return home. All lost. Don’t put that handkerchief away just yet.

*

The bloody house cleaning finishes up in Book 22, and I’d like to reflect a moment on the two books which follow. The triumph of Odysseus over his challengers feels like the climax of the story in many ways, so what are the final two books doing?

I should first note that there is, I am told, a scholarly dispute about whether these last two books were part of the poem originally (whatever “originally” may mean in the context of an oral tradition). We need not let this detain us long, since these two books are part of the poem as we have received it, and we’re simply asking what purpose they serve, but I wanted to acknowledge the point.

These two books contain three main things: first, are the reunion scenes, or, maybe better, the revelation scenes, between Odysseus and Penelope, and then between Odysseus and his father, Laertes. I’ve already remarked on how moving I found these scenes, and they are, it seems to me, essential to the emotional arc of the poem. Without them, the homecoming would feel incomplete.

A second element, in Book 24, takes place in Hades. We see the shades of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ajax, heroes of the Trojan War, conversing as they witness the souls of the slain suitors arriving in the underworld. At first I thought this a very odd addendum, but it does provide Homer an opportunity to sing in fulsome turn the praise of Penelope, the faithful wife. What better way than amid a parade of those unworthy suitors whom she rejected? And the praise comes from the mouth of Agamemnon, who, because of his own (let us say) marital woes has the best cause to admire a good wife:

‘O fortunate Odysseus, master mariner
and soldier, blessed son of old Laertes!
The girl you brought home made a valiant wife!
True to her husband’s honor and her own,
Penelope, Ikarios’ faithful daughter!
The very gods themselves will sing her story
for men on earth — mistress of her own heart, Penelope!’
(Bk 24)

So this, too, though it feels less essential, still fits, and puts an exclamation mark on one of the poem’s central themes.
The third and final piece feints at a return to the violence of the earlier books. The families of the slain suitors descend on Odysseus, Telemachos, and Laertes looking for revenge. But things don’t progress far before Athena interrupts, and, by her godlike power, declares peace. Though it highlights the importance of Athena to Odysseus’ affairs, a constant theme throughout, this nonetheless is, for me, the least satisfying thing about the final book. A dea ex machina is, almost by definition, artistically unsatisfying. That is how my expectations have been trained. It would be very interesting to understand whether and why it was more satisfying to an audience in ancient Greece.

***

When I read the Iliad, I kept myself alive in part by entertaining a rotating door of translators. No such problem here, so I stuck throughout with Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation. It was a happy choice. I have previously read Fagles’ somewhat later version, but I didn’t bother to make side-by-side comparisons.

***

What an encouraging experience this has been! I was so dispirited after reading the Iliad. I was tormented at night by hard questions. Am I a person who hasn’t the wherewithal to appreciate Homer? What does that say about me? Should I abandon this Greek reading project in its infancy? Should I give up reading books altogether? Maybe watch television instead? Maybe lie down on the train tracks at night? Well! The Odyssey turned all that around. I loved it. I’m a Homer man after all.

****

And now the big question arises: basking in the Odyssey‘s afterglow, is it time to pick up that long-languishing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses and read it? Has the time finally come?

Nah.

Homer: The Iliad

October 18, 2022

The Iliad
Homer
Translated from the Greek by Four Illustrious Translators
[c.800 BC]
c.500 pages. Second reading.

When first I attempted The Iliad, many years ago, it was a sad and dispiriting affair, and I struggled through it without any enjoyment. Now, with quite a few other, if lesser, ancient epics under my belt, I felt sufficiently buoyed up with hope and girt about the loins to try again. Alas! Let me not say that I fared no better, but let me also be honest: it was a sad and dispiriting affair.

The problems for me were principally two, I think. One was the diffuse structure of the poem. I understand the basic shape: the Trojans prevail in battle so long as Achilles sits in his tent, but, stirred to action, he turns the tide and triumphs in the epic confrontation with Hector. But within that basic framework the poem felt aimless to me: there were so many characters, gods and men, churning back and forth in endless succession, speechifying, throwing spears, world without end. Like a great Trojan warrior dragging the body of his foe through the dust, I was dragging my own battered self from one episode to the next, bereft of hope.

The second problem for me was all the fighting. Maybe it’s churlish to complain of fighting in a poem about war; the criticism is just. But, just as I tend to yawn and drift away in films when giant action scenes play out, so here I struggled to maintain attention through all the rock throwing and spear hurling and sword swinging. True, the gruesome deaths Homer grants certain characters reward a certain morbid fascination, but for the most part I found the sword-play immoderately tedious. This bothers me some, because I believe the poet intended those bits to be exciting, and maybe in performance they would have been, but I couldn’t maintain enthusiasm for them.

It was not that I found nothing to like. The siege of Troy, for instance, was motivated by the Greeks’ desire to recover Helen, absconded with Paris and now held securely within the city’s walls. But the poet tells us, early on, that she and Paris have grown cool to one another as the war has played out on the plain before the city, a revelation that casts a pall of pointlessness over the whole affair. This is dramatically effective. I also appreciated the evenhandedness of Homer, who is a Greek writing about a Greek triumph, but who generously grants the Trojans the same heroism and dignity that he lavishes on the Greek warriors.

As the battles raged, I was sometimes tempted to abandon the poem, but I held on in anticipation of the tale of the Trojan horse, which I expected would provide a change of pace and a straightforward storyline. Imagine my chagrin when, inching closer and closer to the end, it gradually dawned on me that the episode of the Trojan horse is not part of the Iliad after all. Ah well.

***

My first acquaintance with the Iliad, years ago, was through the translation of Richmond Lattimore, made in the early 1950s. This is still a well-regarded translation, often chosen for courses on Homer because it attempts to follow the Greek line as closely as possible: the metre is Homer’s own dactylic hexameter, and Lattimore tried to keep each line of English more or less aligned with the corresponding line of Greek. But personally I found, and find, that the hexameter line is awkwardly long for English verse, giving the poem a baggy, sprawling feel.

This time out I wanted to explore another approach. There are literally dozens of translations available, so I had to choose.

In the 1970s Robert Fitzgerald made a translation in blank iambic pentameter, and this, too, has maintained a good reputation; I was curious to peer into it. A popular version in the past few decades has been Robert Fagles’ translation, written in an irregular metre of five or six beats and said to be vivid and exciting. I was also curious about the 18th century translation, in rhyming couplets, by Alexander Pope; it might be rude to force Homer into a mold so foreign to him, but perhaps a genius could manage it?

In the end, I decided not to decide: I read all four — Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Pope — in rotation, Book by Book. I lost the continuity of a single poetic voice, but I gained a diverting variety, and diverting variety was what I needed.

**

In fact, I found it a cheering exercise to pause occasionally to compare translations of specific passages, and I’ve chosen a few to present here. Homer is famous for his heroic similes, so I’ve picked one of those; the Iliad is famous, as I’ve already said, for its gory death scenes, so I’ve chosen one of those; and, finally, I selected a charming domestic scene involving Hector and his family, which was a personal favourite.

Let’s begin with the simile. In this one, taken from Book 13, the charging Trojan army is compared to a boulder propelled by a raging torrent. Here is how Lattimore renders it:

The Trojans came down on them in a pack, and Hektor led them
raging straight forward, like a great rolling stone from a rock face
that a river swollen with winter rain has wrenched from its socket
and with immense washing broken the hold of the unwilling rock face;
the springing boulder flies on, and the forest thunders beneath it…

I’m not sure about the “immense washing”, but I like the image of the “springing boulder” and of the forest “thundering” as the boulder crashes through.

Here is Fitzgerald:

Trojans massed and running
charged them now, with Hektor in the lead
in furious impetus, like a rolling boulder
a river high with storm has torn away
from a jutting bank by washing out what held it;
then the brute stone upon the flood
goes tossed and tumbling, and the brush gives way,
crashing before it.

I much prefer this shorter line, and I like also the alliteration of “tossed and tumbling” and the slightly oblique description of the river as “high with storm”.

Now Fagles:

Trojans pounded down on them!
Tight formations led by Hektor careening breakneck on
like a deadly rolling boulder torn from a rock face —
a river swollen with snow has wrenched it from its socket,
immense floods breaking the bank’s grip, and the reckless boulder
bounding high, flying with timber rumbling under it…

Exclamation mark! I think we get a strong sense of motion and drama in this version: “pounded down”, “breakneck”, “reckless”, “bounding”, “flying”. Too much of this could get exhausting, but it serves this particular simile quite well.

Lastly, Pope:

Thus breathing death, in terrible array,
The close compacted legions urged their way:
Fierce they drove on, impatient to destroy;
Troy charged the first, and Hector first of Troy.
As from some mountain’s craggy forehead torn,
A rock’s round fragment flies, with fury borne,
(Which from the stubborn stone a torrent rends,)
Precipitate the ponderous mass descends:
From steep to steep the rolling ruin bounds;
At every shock the crackling wood resounds.

The feeling is entirely different. I’m a sucker for rhyme, and I confess I find this translation congenial, though I can certainly see that it is least faithful from a metrical point of view. Still, it is fascinating to see how Pope is able to fit in all of the essential details, even if taking a few extra lines to do it.

**

Next let’s look at a death scene. In Book 14, the Trojan Ilioneus runs into the Greek Peneleus, and it doesn’t go well for him. Lattimore puts it this way:

This man Peneleos caught underneath the brow, at the bases
of the eye, and pushed the eyeball out, and the spear went clean through
the eye-socket and tendon of the neck, so that he went down
backward, reaching out both hands, but Peneleos drawing
his sharp sword hewed at the neck in the middle, and so dashed downward
the head, with helm upon it, while still on the point of the big spear
the eyeball stuck.

So Ilioneus’ head was first skewered, then severed, but the eyeball remained fixed firmly to the spear’s tip. Fitzgerald gives us a slightly different picture:

Peneleos drove his spearhead
into the eye-socket underneath the brow,
thrusting the eyeball out. The spearhead ran
straight through the socket and the skull behind,
and throwing out both hands he sat down backward.
Peneleos, drawing his long sword, chopped through
the nape and set the severed helmeted head
and trunk apart upon the field. The spear
remained in the eye-socket.

Where Lattimore had the head “dashed downward”, Fitzgerald has it more gently “set apart”. I notice also that for Fitzgerald the spear remains in the eye-socket, rather than directly in the eye-ball, which strikes me as more plausible. In any case, here is Fagles:

… the one Peneleous lanced beneath the brows,
down to the eyes’ roots and scooped an eyeball out —
the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape
and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide
as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword,
hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head
and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all.
But the big spear’s point still stuck in the eye-socket —

I like the “lanced” and “lopped” and “tumbled”, and I note with approval the spear-transfixed eye-socket again. Finally, Pope:

Full in the eye the weapon chanced to fall,
And from the fibres scoop’d the rooted ball,
Drove through the neck, and hurl’d him to the plain;
He lifts his miserable arms in vain!
Swift his broad falchion fierce Peneleus spread,
And from the sprouting shoulders struck his head;
To earth at once the head and helmet fly;
The lance, yet sticking through the bleeding eye,
The victor seized…

It is interesting that Fagles echoed Pope’s “scoop”, which seems an odd verb to describe a spear’s action. Again, I rather like this rendering, though I acknowledge that certain details, like the weapon that merely “chanced” to find its mark, or the “sprouting shoulders”, aren’t quite apt.

**

Lastly, let’s take a peek at Hector at home as he plays with his son, little Hectorides. This is from Book 6, and is one of the few passages in the poem not actively flexing its muscles. We’ll take the translators in the same order, beginning with Lattimore:

So speaking glorious Hektor held out his arms to his baby,
who shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse’s bosom
screaming, and frightened at the aspect of his own father,
terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse-hair,
nodding dreadfully, as he thought, from the peak of the helmet.
Then his beloved father laughed out, and his honored mother,
and at once glorious Hektor lifted from his head the helmet
and laid it in all its shining upon the ground.

The helmet in question, I guess, might have been something like this, and who would blame the child for being a little frightened at it? Next, Fitzgerald:

As he said this, Hektor held out his arms
to take the baby. But the child squirmed round
on the nurse’s bosom and began to wail,
terrified by his father’s great war helm —
the flashing bronze, the crest with horsehair plume
tossed like a living thing at every nod.
His father began laughing, and his mother
laughed as well. Then from his handsome head
Hektor lifted off his helm and bent
to place it, bright with sunlight, on the ground…

I like that “bright with sunlight”, and I find the verse, in this metre, has an appealing poise and stability. Now Fagles:

In the same breath, shining Hektor reached down
for his son — but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror —
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight…

I find this a little too intense: “recoiled”, “cringing”, “screaming”, “terrified”. Poor kid. But “fiery in the sunlight” is good. Finally, Pope:

Thus having spoke, the illustrious chief of Troy
Stretch’d his fond arms to clasp the lovely boy.
The babe clung crying to his nurse’s breast,
Scared at the dazzling helm, and nodding crest.
With secret pleasure each fond parent smiled,
And Hector hasted to relieve his child,
The glittering terrors from his brows unbound,
And placed the beaming helmet on the ground.

This is a model of brevity, while still capturing the details we find in the others. I would hazard a bet, also, that little Hectorides would prefer the rhymes.

*

In the end, my first choice among these translations is Fitzgerald’s. His metre is a good one for an epic in English, giving the verse a noble sense, and his version felt sturdy and steady. Lattimore I thought too spindly and diffuse, and Fagles felt too emotionally volatile after a while. My second favourite was actually Pope, despite the obvious deviations from Homer’s style; the rhymes provided a steady beat that kept me moving forward, and I actually felt that the going was easiest when reading his version.

It’s disappointing, of course, to struggle, again, to appreciate such a great poem. I’d like to have had a more substantial encounter this time out, but it was what it was. I expect to have a better time with the Odyssey, and I’m looking forward to it.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations

May 9, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Or, again,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I would bet that St Augustine read Marcus Aurelius.

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

At other times it is stated in moral terms:

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

Or, conversely,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

All the world’s a stage.

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martial and Juvenal

January 7, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

*

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

Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars

December 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucan: Pharsalia

November 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Petronius: Satyricon

October 19, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statius: Thebaid

August 22, 2021

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

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

***

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Pliny: Natural History

May 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope that his wish was granted.

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