Posts Tagged ‘Roman reading project’

Tibullus: Elegies

October 22, 2019

Albius Tibullus
Translated from the Latin by A.M. Juster
(Oxford, 2012) [c.26 BC, 19 BC]
xxxiii + 129 p.

In the ranks of the Augustan poets, Tibullus has a lesser reputation than his contemporaries Virgil and Ovid. In fact, until recently I’d never, to my knowledge, heard of him. Nonetheless, he was an Augustan poet, he did live and write alongside Virgil and Ovid, and he has been published by Oxford World’s Classics. The time being ripe, I took a chance on him.

He left us two books of elegies before his early death, in 18 BC, when he was not yet 40 years old. The elegy was a poetic form with a distinctive metre — lines of hexameter alternating with lines of pentameter — that the Romans had adopted from the Greeks. The greatest Roman elegist before Tibullus’ time had been Catullus, who used it in his famous Lesbia poems, but both Ovid and Propertius, another of Tibullus’ contemporaries, wrote in the form.

His books show signs of careful construction as unified artistic projects. The first book, consisting of ten poems, trace the slow dissolution of his romance with a woman, Delia, and his fruitless attempts to attract a boy, Marathus. The first poems are hopeful and idealistic, describing his affection for country life and a happy family, but things do not go well. A few poems in, we find him camped out before Delia’s door, denied entrance. By the end of the first book, he has given up hope and is being conscripted, kicking and screaming, to march to war.

The second book continues the downward spiral, though this time the object of his romantic attention is Nemesis, a woman with a reputation befitting her name. The poet is still aware of those ideals he expressed before, but now he’s willing to sacrifice them to win Nemesis’ love. But to no avail: he sells his soul and wins nothing. The book of six poems ends with this malediction:

‘Madam, I pray you’re cursed. You’ll live with ample dread
if something in my prayers affects the gods.


There are some interesting nooks and crannies in these poems. For instance, in Book II, the fifth elegy, written to commemorate the ordination to the priesthood of his patron’s son — even here, he finds a way to complain about Nemesis! — includes a brief recounting of the history of Rome, a passage that put me in mind of the similar (but much more extensive) passages in Virgil’s Aeneid. The notes of this edition point out that although Tibullus died before the publication of Virgil’s epic, he might well have heard those passages read aloud by Virgil himself during the poem’s composition. Speculative, but intriguing.

Tibullus’ fortunes have occasionally waxed, but mostly waned, over the centuries. He was well enough regarded by his poet-friends that Ovid wrote a poem — Amores 3.9 — in his honour when he died. Quintilian, writing about a century later, thought him the greatest Roman elegist, but references to him gradually declined, and we know of none between the fifth century and the Renaissance, when he enjoyed a revival alongside all things antique. He was known to Herrick, Montaigne, Rabelais, Ariosto, and Tasso. But he has never had a high profile in the English-speaking world — a state of affairs that this Oxford edition is meant to help remedy.

The translator is A.M. Juster, whose work I have appreciated in the past. It is always hard to judge how much of the poetry is the poet and how much the translator, but I can say that, by and large, I enjoyed Tibullus-via-Juster considerably less than I enjoyed Horace-via-Juster. Tibullus just seems flatter, less witty, more prosaic — in both the literal and the figurative senses of that word. His poetic voice never quite captured my imagination, apart from a few striking passages (appended below). I don’t want to blame Juster for this, because I know he’s a wonderfully versatile translator, so I guess I’m stuck blaming Tibullus.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I read the book. Reading a lesser poet helps us better appreciate the greater poets. And the book is not long — fewer than 100 pages if we exclude the notes, and that includes Latin on the facing page!


[Farms and civilization]
I praise the farm and gods of farms; with them as guides,
life meant not fending hunger off with acorns.
They first taught men to join the rafters and enclose
a humble dwelling with some leafy boughs.
They say too they first taught that bulls were made for work
and placed a wheel beneath a vehicle,
then savage foods were lost, then seeds for fruit-trees sown,
then fertile gardens drank from channelled streams,
then golden grapes released their juice to stomping feet
and sober water mixed with carefree wine.
The country yields the harvest when the scorching star
of heaven strips the earth of golden tresses.
In spring swift country bees are busy bearing flowers
to the hive to fill combs with sweet honey.

[The coming of night]
Play! Night yokes horses now; a lusty choir of golden
stars pursues its mother’s chariot,
and following in silence, wrapped in gloomy wings,
comes Sleep and murky Dreams on spectral feet.

Virgil: Aeneid

September 4, 2019


Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
(Penguin Classics, 1997) [19 BC]
480 p.

Aeneid, Book VI
Translated from the Latin by Seamus Heaney
(Faber & Faber, 2016)
xiii + 53 p.

What Diomede, nor Thetis’ greater son,
A thousand ships, nor ten years’ siege, had done:
False tears and fawning words the city won.

Kierkegaard wrote The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates; Virgil might well have titled his poem Aeneid, with Constant Reference to Homer. Not only do many episodes in Homer find echoes and analogues in this poem, but the story itself is the mirror image, as it were, of the Odyssey: both launch from the sack of Troy, but whereas Homer follows the victorious Greeks as they return home, Virgil follows the defeated Trojans as they seek a new homeland in which to found a new city, great Rome itself.

We join the story in medias res, Aeneas and his men having been blown off course on their journey and landed at Carthage in North Africa. There they are feasted at the court of Dido, and the Aeneid relates, in verse that is grippingly dramatic, the backstory of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy. Sent into exile, they endure various hardships and adventures before washing up at Carthage. (One amusing episode has them land on the island of the Cyclops. A Greek comes rushing unexpectedly out to meet them, begging them to take him on board. This, it turns out, is a sailor left behind by Odysseus when he visited the island a few weeks before! (Odyssey, IX)) During the telling of this tale Dido falls in love with Aeneas, but when he insists that the gods have destined him for other things, she commits suicide. This tragic love story forms one of the more satisfying sub-plots in the poem.

Pressing on toward Italy, they eventually make landfall, but despite their intentions to build a new city and live in peace, their neighbours, inflamed by the ill will of Juno, march to war against them. The entire second half of the poem is devoted to this war, and the poem ends abruptly when Aeneas at last kills his rival, Turnus:

He rais’d his arm aloft, and, at the word,
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword.
The streaming blood distain’d his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing thro’ the wound.


If you have ever wondered why Dante chose Virgil as his guide through Hell and Purgatory, you need only turn to Book VI, which relates the journey of Aeneas to the underworld in search of his father. Each time I read it, my hair stands on end, and I can feel the atmosphere again of Dante’s epic, through a glass darkly. It is among my favourite parts of the poem, so I was pleased to supplement my reading of Dryden’s translation with the recent translation of Book VI which Seamus Heaney made shortly before his death. He says he undertook it partly as a way of reflecting on his own father’s death, and on the birth of his granddaughter, but also as a way of honouring his childhood Latin teacher.

Heaney’s version has not the incantatory power of Dryden’s, but I nonetheless found it very good on its own terms. He writes in blank iambic pentameter. Let’s compare a few passages.

When Aeneas makes his first entry to the underworld, Dryden writes

Obscure they went thro’ dreary shades, that led
Along the waste dominions of the dead.
Thus wander travelers in woods by night,
By the moon’s doubtful and malignant light,
When Jove in dusky clouds involves the skies,
And the faint crescent shoots by fits before their eyes.

while Heaney gives us

On they went then in darkness, through the lonely
Shadowing night, a nowhere of deserted dwellings,
Dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king —
Like following a forest path by the hovering light
Of a moon that clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim,
While the colours of the world pall in the gloom.

In this case I think I prefer Heaney; the ‘shoots by fits’ in Dryden sounds awkward, but ‘clouds and unclouds’ is a nice phrase, and I think Heaney, with his ‘darkness’, ‘shadowing’, ‘nowhere’, ‘deserted’, ‘pall’ and ‘gloom’ captures better the desolation of the place.

Moving downward, Aeneas comes upon a mysterious tree which Dryden describes in this way:

Full in the midst of this infernal road,
An elm displays her dusky arms abroad:
The God of Sleep there hides his heavy head,
And empty dreams on ev’ry leaf are spread.

and Heaney:

\; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; Right in the middle
Stands an elm, copious, darkly aflutter, old branches
Spread wide like arms, and here, it is said,
False dreams come to roost, clinger together
On the undersides of the leaves.

That ‘darkly aflutter’ is a nice touch, but I think the rhymes in Dryden add to the solemnity of the moment. Heaney, though, does tell us that the dreams are on the undersides of the leaves; I don’t know what this means, but it does seem an important detail, if indeed it is in Virgil.

For one last comparison, let’s take one of the more gruesome moments. Aeneas sees, Tityos, ‘the foster-son of Earth’, bound to the ground while a vulture of perpetual appetite perpetually consumes his liver. Writes Dryden:

There Tityus was to see, who took his birth
From heav’n, his nursing from the foodful earth.
Here his gigantic limbs, with large embrace,
Infold nine acres of infernal space.
A rav’nous vulture, in his open’d side,
Her crooked beak and cruel talons tried;
Still for the growing liver digg’d his breast;
The growing liver still supplied the feast;
Still are his entrails fruitful to their pains:
Th’ immortal hunger lasts, th’ immortal food remains.

Fantastic! And Heaney:

Tityos, his body stretching out
Over nine whole acres while a huge, horrendous
Vulture puddles forever with hooked beak
In his liver and entrails teeming with raw pain.
It burrows deep below the breastbone, feeding
And foraging without respite, for the gnawed-at
Gut and gutstrings keep renewing.

It’s good, but for me it’s simply not as good.


Toward the end of Aeneas’ underworld sojourn, the shade of his father, Anchises, foretells the future history of Rome, from the city’s founding down to the reign of the mighty and stupendous Augustus. When I have read the poem in the past, I have stumbled through this section, needing constantly to refer to the notes. But this time, rafter having spent the better part of two years reading Roman history, I read it with understanding! A nice pay-off.

To my mind the Aeneid is front-loaded with its best material. I love the story of the Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy in Book II, and the fateful romance of Dido and Aeneas in Book IV, and the journey to the underworld in Book VI, but once the Trojans make landfall in Italy and begin the long process of forming alliances and fighting battles with the locals it seems to lose its forward momentum, becoming a blur of minor characters and shifting allegiances. I feel about the first half as I feel about the Odyssey, but about the last half as I do about the Iliad.

This was my first time through the poem with Dryden; in the past I have read the Fitzgerald translation. There is no contest: Dryden prevails. His poem has the high epic tone. He carries the reader aloft. By all means, let there be other translations, but for English-speaking readers I am convinced he is essential. It is one of the few examples of a translation that stands on its own as a poetic masterpiece.

Horace: Satires

July 21, 2019

Quintus Horatius Flaccus
Translated from the Latin by A.M. Juster
(U Penn, 2008) [c.35-30 BC]
xii + 144 p.

The Satires, in two books, were Horace’s first published poems, having appeared, respectively, in about 35 BC and then 30 BC, he being then in his early 30s. The Civil War between Octavian and Mark Antony still raged, and the fortunes of the Roman Republic were, as yet, in doubt. Horace came, somehow, into the orbit of Virgil, who introduced him to Maecenas, a great artistic patron (and Octavian’s friend who, as it would eventually turn out, would be in a position to make good things happen for his stable of artists). They therefore show us Horace as he takes his first steps into the public eye, at the start of what would turn out to be a brilliant artistic life.

The title under which the poems were published is liable to mislead English readers. For us “satire” means edgy comedy, perhaps with a political or religious edge, intended to puncture and deflate pretensions with wit, or to exaggerate faults in the manner of caricature. But for Horace the word apparently meant something closer to simple gossip. The poems are intentionally informal, loose, and chatty, and though they are frequently comic and have some bite they do not bite very hard.

He wrote in hexameter, a metre most associated with Greek epic; the effect was not so much to make the poems grand in an epic style, but rather grandiose, the high form making a comedic contrast with the quotidian and sometimes vulgar subject matter.

I have read the poems in the translations of A.M. Juster, who chose to render the poems in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. In a sense, this works well, because the metre is for us what hexameter was for Horace: a verse form associated with our high poetry. But I was, at least initially, less convinced by his determination to rhyme. Horace’s poems do not rhyme, and other translators (like David Ferry) have made a pretty convincing case that the poetry in Horace’s poetry, if I can put it that way, is a subtle thing, woven into the rhythms and the diction, art concealed by art. Horace himself makes the argument in these Satires:

Come listen to a bit of my reply:
to start with, I do not identify
myself as a real poet. You’d opine
that it is not enough to write a line
in meter, and a person such as me
who writes a chatty sort of poetry
could never be regarded in your eyes
as a real poet. You would recognize
a person who is brilliant, with a mind
that is far more inspired and the kind
of voice that resonates. Based on that thought,
some doubted whether comic verses ought
to count as verse because they can’t convey
great force and energy in what they say
or how they say it. Though arranged in feet
(unlike prose) that incessantly repeat,
it’s still just prose.
(I, 4; ll.58-73)

He intends, it seems, his poems to read something like musical prose, whereas rhyming couplets are about the most obvious kind of poetry there could be, and tend to divide the verse into regular segments rather than mimicking the supple variations of the original.

However, I discovered that Juster is awfully good, and not a little subtle, at penning rhyming couplets. The passage above is a good example, and here is another, plucked more or less at random. A character is describing the food at a lavish, not to say grossly extravagant, dinner party, and says:

“This was caught while pregnant, since the meat
degrades as soon as spawning is complete.
The sauce’s recipe was: oil (first-pressed)
from the Venafran cellar that’s the best;
fermented Spanish fishgut sauce; a wine
that’s five years old and nurtured on a vine
from native shores — but only with some heat
(when warmed up, Chian wine just can’t be beat!);
white pepper, vinegar that comes from spoiling
of Methymnean grapes. I taught the boiling
of green rocket with sharp elecampane
in sauce before those others. In that vein,
Curtillus used unwashed sea-urchin juice
because brine fails to match what shells produce.”
(II, 8; ll.68-82)

This is quite funny, of course; the vices of the gourmand are ever ancient, ever new. But, as to the metre, I think Juster has succeeded, to a large extent, in downplaying the regular rhymes by frequent use of enjambed lines. He does this quite consistently throughout, and has some other tricks up his sleeve too. Take, for example, this case, in which the narrator quotes a fragment of a song:

Why lose your money and deceive yourself
when merchandise is not yet on the shelf?
The playboy sings,
\; \; \; \; \; \;“The hunter tracks down hares /
through blinding snow, / but he no longer cares /
once they’re brought low,”
\; \; \; \; \; \; and then analogizes:
“My passion is quite similar; it rises
above the easy prey to chase the birds
in flight.”
(I, 2; ll.145-52)

I love this. The song maintains the regularity of the rhyming couplets, but introduces additional rhymes on the half-lines, making for a kind of syncopated beat — quite suitable for a song! Juster’s own rationale for using rhymed couplets is that they serve the humorous tone of the poems, creating in the reader an expectation that amplifies a joke’s punchline. Maybe so, although the number of outright jokes in the poems is rather small. Nonetheless, I found that the rhyme scheme did not at all interfere with my enjoyment — quite the opposite, in fact, as, all other things being equal, I’d much rather read rhyming poetry than not.

And what of the poems themselves? There are 18 in total, between the two Books, and the subject matter is wide: some moralize in a manner familiar to me from his Epistles, against riches and covetousness, or against lust; more than one orbit around dinner parties and other social events; one, the longest (Book II, 3), seems to be a kind of catalogue of forms of madness; one is written from the point of view of a piece of wood taken from a tree and carved into the likeness of a god; one describes a diplomatic mission from Rome to Brundisium; in one Horace is hounded through town by a man who wants something and will not leave him alone; in another his slave criticizes Horace for being himself a slave to passions. The fable of the city mouse and country mouse is told in one (Book II, 6), but perhaps the most entertaining is the dialogue in the underworld (Book II, 5), a witty spoof on Homer in which Teresias advises Ulysses how to make some money and get ahead.

In certain cases it is obvious that Horace is adopting a persona — all of the poems in Book II are explicitly dialogues, some of which have a character called Horace, some not — but here and there one feels that the real Horace is coming quite close to the surface, as, for example, in this autobiographical passage in which he describes his first meeting with Maecenas, who was to become his life-long patron, with winsome modesty:

\; \; \; \; \; \; I cannot say
that I was fortunate that happenstance
made you my friend because it was not chance
that put you in my path. Some time ago,
supremely gifted Virgil let you know
about me; Varius then did the same.
When we met face-to-face, my childish shame
led me to choke on words and lose my train
of thought before I went on to explain
just who I was, that I was not the son
of a distinguished father, and not one
who used his Saturean nag to ride
around his houses in the countryside.
(I, 6; ll.76-88)

The charm of moments like this are what I have most enjoyed about reading Horace. Reading poetry in translation, I have said before, can be quixotic, as one can never be quite sure how much of the translator’s poetry was in the original, nor how much of the original’s poetry is in the translator’s. Here, in these Satires, I am in the same quandary, but I can at least testify that I enjoyed the poems, and the fine translation, on their own terms.

Horace: Epistles

June 26, 2019

Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(Farrar, Strauss, Giroux; 2001) [20, 10 BC]
xviii + 203 p.

The Epistles of Horace, in two books, are loosely conversational, wide-ranging poems, their artifice subtly submerged beneath a genial surface. Of their epistolary nature there is, however, no subterfuge: each is addressed to a particular recipient, sometimes a friend, sometimes his great patron Maecenas, and sometimes even Augustus himself. The first book, consisting of 20 epistles, was published when Horace was in his mid-40s; the second book, containing just 3 longer epistles, appeared a decade later.

It is difficult to state briefly what sort of thing these poems are. They consist of personal reflections, a good deal of moral counsel, comments on the art of poetry and the life of a poet, short fables, and occasional sallies at mythological subjects, all woven together with an unassuming rhetorical style. We know that there is considerable art here — writing in hexameter, every syllable counts — but the poems feel artless. In the last of these epistles, the most famous one which goes under the title “Ars Poetica”, Horace confirms this impression:

My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if it was easy as could be
For anybody to do it (although he’d sweat
And strain and work his head off, all in vain).
Such is the power of judgment, of knowing what
It means to put the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.

I have been reading the poems in David Ferry’s translation, and although I was initially a little disappointed with his reliance on blank iambic pentameter, which lacks the obvious poetry of, say, heroic couplets, as I continued to read I came to appreciate the suitability of this style for these poems. Horace, too, does not rhyme; instead, his poetry is in the word choices, and the arrangement of subjects, and in the rhythms of the language. Whether Ferry manages to capture adequately those elements of Horace’s art I cannot judge, but the overall impression is, I think, at least leaning in the right direction.

Horace’s persona in these poems is urbane and rational. There are no passionate outbursts, no hearts on sleeves. He muses, offers advice, and renders judgments, literary and otherwise. He often assumes the mantle of sensible moralist:

If the sickness is in your soul, why put it off?
Get yourself going and you’ll be halfway there;
Dare to be wise; get started. The man who puts off
The time to start living right is like the hayseed
Who wants to cross the river and so he sits there
Waiting for the river to run out of water,
And the river flows by, and it flows on by, forever.
(i, 2)

There is a good deal in these poems about poetry. This is especially true, naturally, of “Ars Poetica”, which is by a comfortable margin the longest of the epistles, but remarks on poems and poets turn up regularly: he considers what makes a literary classic, why we admire the ancient poets but sneer at the modern (the phrase “Homer nods” — dormitat Homerus — in reference to lapses in the quality of the ancient poets comes from these epistles), why people want to write poetry, whether a poet should seek the approval of his audience, how to capture the interest of readers (the description of one tactic, to commence in medias res, is another famous coinage from these poems), the value of Greek models, boundaries of good taste, and the purpose of poetry (again, famously, Horace answered: “to delight and instruct”) are all topics that he treats in one way or another.

As to Horace’s appraisal of the value of his own poetry, he is the master of the graceful sidestep. On one hand, he is self-deprecating, averring (as in the Odes) that his style is not suitable for great matters, and even that his poems will, most likely, be used to wrap fish; but, on the other hand, he advises young poets to carefully revise and polish their poems before making them public, and I think we can assume he followed his own advice. The last poem in Book I, addressed “To His Book”, is especially touching in this respect, as the poet lets his poems go with a benediction before offering a delicate self-portrait:

But when the day is nearly done, and people
Are sitting around you, taking the evening air,
Please tell them who I was: son of a freedman,
In humble circumstances, my wings too strong
For the nest I was born in. What your tale subtracts
Because of my birth may it add because of my merit —
The foremost men of Rome, in peace and war,
Were pleased with me and what I was able to do;
A little man, and prematurely gray,
A lover of the sun; easily angered,
But easily pacified. If anyone asks,
I was forty-four years old in that December
When Lollius chose Lepidus as his partner.
(i, 20)

Horace: Odes

May 27, 2019

Quintus Horatius Flaccus
(Wordsworth Classics, 1997) [23-13 BC]
lvii + 282 p.

Horace is one of the authors whom I’ve most looked forward to reading during the Roman reading project in which I’m engaged. I have known him only by reputation; to my knowledge, before taking up this volume I’d never read a line of his poetry.

The Odes are his most famous poems, admired for their graceful artistry. Horace was the master of the polished miniature; the elegant turn of phrase; the marriage of form and content; the personal touch. There are four books, published between 23 and 13 BC, comprising about 100 poems altogether.

Each ode is, as a rule (occasionally broken), addressed to a particular individual: to a friend returned from war, or to a friend who has fallen in love with his servant-girl, or to someone writing a book, or mourning a death, or to an unfaithful beauty. One is addressed to a lute. The subject matter is as wide as the heavens: love, friendship, the vanity of riches and power, the fleetingness of life, the virtues of wine. The tone is largely whimsical and tender, poetry on a small, domestic scale, but not a hint of rusticity. Horace professes a love for the countryside, but his own personality, it seems, was gently urbane.

This is personal poetry, then, far from the high style of epic, akin in some ways to Catullus, but more guarded, using meticulous poetic construction to put a little distance between the finished poem and the poet.


Let’s look at a few examples. This volume of Horace that I have been reading is an anthology in which the work of many different translators are combined. Therefore where I quote lines I shall indicate in brackets the name and date of the translator.

A recurring theme is the small ambition of Horace the poet, who is content with a simple, domestic sphere, and whose style is not fit for great matters like war and affairs of state:

Small wits, small themes! I know my humble place,
Nor would the Muse of my unwarlike lyre
Suffer my verse with ineffectual fire
Your fame or Caesar’s to disgrace.
(I, 6) [Edward Marsh; 1941]


And as for Caesar — you in your great prose
Will tell his battles better, and display
Proud kings with necks enchained, his vanquished foes,
Led captive down the Sacred Way.

Me the sage Muse assigns an apter part,
To praise your fair Licymnia’s radiant eyes,
Her thrilling voice that lifts you to the skies,
The treasure of her faithful heart;

How all she does becomes her, the swift play
Of parrying wit, the dance of frolic grace
When with the bright-robed girls she takes her place
To hymn Diana’s festal day.
(II, 12) [Edward Marsh; 1941]

Yet this modesty is a subterfuge of sorts, for he does occasionally turn his pen to Caesar’s advantage:

Come then, auspicious prince, and bring
To thy long gloomy country light,
For in thy countenance the spring
Shines forth to cheer thy people’s sight;
Then hasten thy return for, thou away,
Nor lustre has the sun, nor joy the day.
(IV, 5) [Philip Francis; 1746]

This was consistent with his social position; though the son of a freedman, and so not part of the Roman aristocratic circles, his talent earned him a place among the powerful in Roman society. His special artistic patron was Maecenas, Augustus’ adviser and confidant.

In any case, it is equally clear that his quaint subject matter is but a vehicle to greatness of another sort:

Restrain your tears and cease your cries,
Nor grace with fading flowers my hearse;
I without funeral elegies
Shall live forever in my verse.
(II, 20) [Dr Johnson; 1726]

This poetic conceit — that the poet’s immortality, or that of his subject, is assured because of the poetry itself — is familiar from Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I wonder (but do not know) if Shakespeare inherited it from Horace.

The shortness of life is another theme that comes up again and again. It ought to spur us, says Horace, to live each day with determination to wring from it all that it can yield:

Tomorrow and its works defy;
Lay hold upon the present hour,
And snatch the pleasures passing by
To put them out of Fortune’s power;
Nor love nor love’s delights disdain –
Whate’er thou getts’t today, is gain.

Secure those golden early joys
That youth unsoured with sorrow bears,
Ere with’ring time the taste destroys
With sickness and unwieldy years.
For active sports, for pleasing rest.
This is the time to be posesst;
The best is but in season best.
(I, 9) [Dryden; 1685]

Or, again, in an ode addressed to Virgil, he argues that the brevity of life should encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously, but to enjoy levity and folly:

Then leave delays, and gain’s desire,
And mindful of black funeral fire,
Short folly mix with counsels best:
‘Tis sweet sometimes to be in jest.
(IV, 12) [Sir Thomas Hawkins; 1625)

All of this, of course, under the shadow of death, which loomed over all:

One end awaits us all. Our fate
Is fixed. The ferry-boat is sent
To carry all men, soon or late,
To their perpetual banishment.
(II, 3) [John Gielgud; 1951]


The indifferent earth, an equal friend,
As willingly opens her wide womb
For beggar’s grave as prince’s tomb.
(II, 18) [Thomas Hawkins; 1625]


I enjoyed these poems a good deal. Reading poetry in translation — especially non-narrative poetry — is something of a fool’s game. I cannot name a single poem which has achieved eminence or widespread admiration in the English speaking world that was not originally written in English. Translations, however talented the translator, somehow fail to really take wing. Yet there are wonderfully talented poets in this volume, Dryden and Milton being the most eminent. The reader, if innocent of the original tongue, is unsure whether whatever elegance or artistry they perceive in the translation is a reflection of something present in the original, or not. As such, it is difficult to form any precise view of, in this case, Horace the poet from reading the poems.

Why bother then? In part, I think, because of the personal tone of the poetry, which comes through quite clearly despite the mediating voices. There is a man behind the lines whom we can, in some measure, get to know, whether that man is Horace himself or his artful public persona. The point is that there is a “character” there, who speaks to us across the centuries with a startlingly immediate voice.

Another reason would be simply to appreciate, in some measure, a poet whose influence over subsequent European poetry, and English poetry specifically, has been great. If the translations in this volume are representative (and they are consistent with what I found in the even more extensive collection Horace in English), an interest in re-expressing Horace’s poetry in English forms began in roughly the sixteenth century and has extended up to the present. This is not the same thing, of course, as saying that an interest in Horace began then; educated readers before the twentieth century could, and did, read him in the original, and he has been considered one of the great poets of our tradition since antiquity. Wikipedia has a nice potted history of his reception in European cultures.


[Complicated love]
No sooner hast thou, with false vows,
Provoked the powers above;
But thou art fairer than before
And we are more in love.
Thus Heaven and Earth seem to declare
They pardon falsehood in the fair.
(II, 8) [Sir Charles Sedley; 1701]

[The glory of the past]
Time sensibly all things impairs;
Our fathers have been worse than theirs;
And we than ours; next age will see
A race more profligate than we,
With all the pains we take, have skill enough to be.
(III, 6) [Wentworth Dillon; 1684]

[Against riches]
We barbarously call those bless’d
Who are of largest tenements possess’d,
Whilst swelling coffers break their owner’s rest.
More truly happy those, who can
Govern the little empire, man.
(IV, 9) [George Stepney; 1689]

Virgil: Georgics

April 25, 2019

Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
(FSG, 2005) [c.29 BC]
xx + 202 p.

Virgil wrote the Georgics a few years after his Eclogues and the two sets of poems share common ground, especially an admiration for rural life. Whereas the Eclogues were structured around rustic characters, the Georgics are much more interested in the nuts and bolts — or, I suppose it would be better to say, the grapes and olives — of farm life, and could be fairly described as outright didactic poems. I was reminded, more than once, of Cato the Elder’s “De agricultura”, not on account of the form, of course, for Virgil is infinitely more elegant, but of the subject matter.

There are four poems, or, it may be better to say, four divisions of one poem. The first is about agriculture: the sowing of crops, anticipation of storms, harvesting. The second is concerned with tree husbandry: types of trees, planting of trees, types of soil, grafting, and harvesting of fruit. The third transitions to the care and breeding of farm animals, both the nobler kind (horses and cows) and the more ignoble (goats, sheep), with an extended section on plague and diseases that can beset herds and flocks. The fourth, and for me the most enjoyable, is about bee-keeping.

We all know Virgil as the author of Aeneid. I must say that few things seem more unlikely than that he, our great epic poet, should, apart from that monumental achievement, be known for writing humble farm poems. It is as though a scriptwriter for a television nature program should then write “Hamlet”. Yet it is apparently so. Probably I am underselling Virgil’s accomplishments in these earlier poems, which I expect are exquisite in the Latin, and in which there is more going on than mere exposition, but, nonetheless, the contrast between this and that is striking.

Further to that point: my handy little Student’s Guide to Classics argues that the Georgics are actually comparable to the Aeneid in their exploration of “optimism about man’s ability to create order and pessimism about the disorder caused by his passions and appetites”. I would concur, at least, with the judgment that the creation of order is a major preoccupation of the poems. I’m unconvinced that the poems are especially focused on “passions and appetites” as sources of disorder; to my mind, they represent disorder as inherent in the natural world, from which order must be wrested.

A feature of these poems that particularly attracted my attention was the interplay in them of the quotidian and the sacred. Virgil may be describing something quite concrete and ordinary, like pruning a vine, but an attending god is rarely far off. Throughout the poems, tales from Greek and Roman mythology are interwoven with technical descriptions of farm management. The effect of this is, of course, to elevate the dignity of the farmer’s work, presided over so attentively by the gods, and also to convert the poems themselves into a celebration of Roman greatness in and through the primary Roman virtues, which since at least the time of Cincinnatus had been rooted in rural exemplars.

The presence of gods and heroes in these poems is especially striking in the fourth Georgic, which contains a long section relating the tale of Aristaeus (the Roman god of bee-keeping) and Proteus, during the course of which Proteus tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. It was here, in what is a very beautiful interlude, that I heard for the first time in these Georgics the voice of Virgil the epic poet. For all I know, it may have been on the strength of this very section that Virgil was chosen by Augustus to write the Aeneid.

Speaking of Augustus, he is everywhere in these poems. They open and close with references to him, whom Virgil portrays as the great patron of peace, and numerous deferential and laudatory remarks are made about him throughout. Thus the poems have a political dimension that sometimes feels merely sycophantic — emperors will be praised, after all — but sometimes seems more. The fourth Georgic, again, is interesting from this angle: in it, the bees are governed not by a queen but by a king, which makes me wonder whether we are to read this paean to the virtues of the hive as an allegory of the Roman empire? Or could it simply be that Augustan-age melittology was wayward in certain respects?


Virgil’s principal influences in these poems are Hesiod and Lucretius, both admired for their careful descriptions of natural phenomena. The Georgics have been read regularly between Virgil’s time and ours, albeit much less widely than has Aeneid. The first English translation was John Dryden’s, in 1697, and the poems enjoyed a heyday (or maybe a hay-day) of popularity in the eighteenth-century, with over 20 English translations published in that century alone. They inspired a modest echo in an English tradition of agricultural poetry, now dead, and were an influence on agrarian political and social movements at around the time of the American founding. The Wikipedia page is quite good at tracing the influence they have had.

It would have been nice to read Dryden’s translation, but for years I’ve had this David Ferry translation on my shelves and I decided the time was ripe to finally take it down. Ferry has rendered the poems into iambic pentameter, giving them a stately feel, and, like the Latin original, does not bother with rhymes. His English, however, is a good deal more verbose than the Latin (which in this edition is printed on the facing page), often running to at least 50% more lines. But this, I believe, is common in translations from Latin, and not counted a fault. I found Ferry quite good, in general, and excellent in the fourth poem, where his lines took on an aptly honey-golden sheen.

Virgil: Eclogues

March 25, 2019

Publius Virgilius Maro
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
[c.40 BC] Second reading.

When I first read Virgil’s Eclogues, more than a decade ago, I confess that I was disappointed by them. I had expected more from the great poet of the Latin golden age than these, apparently, slight and inconsequential poems about shepherds and rustics. Now, revisiting them, it would be fair to say that I appreciate them more, but still an exaggeration to say they stir enthusiasm in my breast. It would be fair to say that I am still having trouble hearing the music in this Muse.


There are ten Eclogues, none very long, and, as advertised, they are mostly about shepherds and rustics. Half are dialogues (I, III, V, VII, IX); in a few, the characters play games of poetic one-upmanship, composing songs on cue. Others relate the joys or woes, often romantic, of their characters.

I am told that there are political subtexts to some of the poems; all were written during the reign of Octavian/Augustus, one of whose initiatives was the confiscation of lands in order that he could bestow them on the many soldiers he wished to retire from service. In many of the poems this ill treatment — from the shepherds’ perspective — is discernible in the background. This is the case, for instance, in the first eclogue. However, the overall impression is not a political one, at least if the poems are taken at face value.

Virgil was to become most famous for the Aeneid, and though it would be tendentious to argue without firmer grounds that that great epic was already gestating in his imagination, he does at one point himself suggest that his first instincts as a poet were not for the pastoral:

I first transferred to Rome Sicilian strains;
Nor blushed the Doric Muse to dwell on Mantuan plains.
But when I tried her tender voice, too young,
And fighting kings and bloody battles sung,
Apollo checked my pride, and bade me feed
My fattening flocks, nor dare beyond the reed.
(VI, 1-6)

Whether this, in itself, tells us anything about the quality of this bucolic poetry is doubtful, but I found it interesting.

The most famous of the Eclogues is the fourth, which celebrates the birth of a boy who brings a miraculous peace to a world in conflict:

The jarring nations he in peace shall bind,
And with paternal virtues rule mankind.
Unbidden earth shall wreathing ivy bring,
And fragrant herbs, (the promises of spring,)
As her first offerings to her infant king.

These marvels Virgil partly adapted from a Sibylline prophecy, and they were widely interpreted by Christian readers as making reference to the birth of Christ (though I know of none who thought that Virgil so intended them). The frequently beautiful imagery of this poem reminds a Christian reader of Isaiah’s prophecies:

The goats with strutting dugs shall homeward speed,
And lowing herds secure from lions feed.
His cradle shall with rising flowers be crowned:
The serpent’s brood shall die; the sacred ground
Shall weeds and poisonous plants refuse to bear;
Each common bush shall Syrian roses wear.


My better experience on this reading of the Eclogues is at least partly attributable to my choosing the Dryden translation, rather than (as before) the Guy Lee translation (from Penguin Classics). True, Virgil wrote in dactylic hexameter, whereas Dryden wrote in iambic pentameter, but if the goal was to match one high poetic style with another, Dryden succeeded. Lee’s Alexandrine verse (basically iambic hexameter) lacks the punch. Let’s compare a randomly chosen passage in the two translations. Here are the opening lines of the Eclogue VIII as rendered by Dryden:

The mournful muse of two despairing swains,
The love rejected, and the lovers’ pains;
To which the savage lynxes listening stood,
The rivers stood on heaps, and stopped the running flood;
The hungry herd the needful food refuse—
Of two despairing swains, I sing the mournful muse.

And here is Lee:

Muse of the shepherds Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Rivals, at whom the heifer marvelling forgot
Her pasture, by whose singing lynxes were enthralled
And running rivers, altering their courses, stilled,
We’ll tell of Damon’s and Alphesiboeus’ Muse.

To give Lee his due: he is much more careful to follow Virgil’s lead, taking fewer liberties. His five lines match Virgil’s five, whereas Dryden takes six, and still neglects to tell us the names of the two swains. But I still prefer Dryden’s stout eloquence over Lee’s sprawling lines.


Virgil inherited the tradition of pastoral poetry principally from the Greek Theocritus, even to the point of basing several of these poems on Theocritic originals. He cannot, therefore, be said, with complete accuracy, to be the “fount” of pastoral poetry in the West, but his reputation in the West so far outstrips that of his predecessor that we may, de facto, take these Eclogues as the spring from which sprang, in time, the Forest of Arden, the passionate Marlovian shepherd, and Beethoven’s sixth symphony. It is a rich heritage indeed, in which

Our woods, with juniper and chestnuts crowned,
With falling fruits and berries paint the ground;
And lavish Nature laughs, and strows her stores around.

Roman Civil War histories

March 10, 2019

Alexandrian War
African War
Spanish War
(Landmark, 2017) [c.45 BC]
150 p.

At the conclusion of his own account of the civil war, which brought the story up to the autumn of 48, Caesar had triumphed over Pompey at Pharsalus and, chasing him to Alexandria, had found him dead. Not content to rest on his laurels, Caesar had occupied the Alexandrian harbour and taken Ptolemy, the young Egyptian ruler, into custody.

We have no more history from Caesar’s pen, but we do have these three anonymous works — each by a different author — which relate Caesar’s consolidation of power in the years 48-45.


The most substantial of them is the Alexandrian War, which picks up where Caesar left off. We read about Caesar’s tactics, about his decision to permit Ptolemy to return to the Egyptian side as an ally, Ptolemy’s betrayal of Caesar, and the culminating battle at which Ptolemy was killed. In compliance with Ptolemy’s will, Caesar installed his sister Cleopatra in power. (Interestingly, the author says nothing about the romantic intrigues between the two.) Altogether, the Alexandrian campaign took about five months, ending in March 47.

The author then backs up and tells us what was happening elsewhere during the same time period: how Caesar’s deputy Domitius was defeated by Pharnaces in Asia Minor; how Caesar’s forces were triumphant in Illyricum; how Caesar’s men defeated the allies of Pompey the Younger (Gnaeus Pompeius) in Spain; and, finally, how Caesar, leaving Alexandria, went to Asia Minor and gave Pharnaces his comeuppance. The author is very well informed, and has largely succeeded in matching the quality of Caesar’s own historical books.


Late in 47 Caesar set sail for the northern African coast, where a trio of leaders loyal to Pompey — one of Caesar’s former lieutenants in Gaul, Titus Labienus; the Numidian King Juba; and the senator Metellus Scipio — remained at large with considerable forces at their command. The African War tells us what happened: how Caesar, in a series of brilliant strategic and tactical moves, emerged victorious over all three. The author, who demonstrates personal knowledge of Caesar and an understanding of his strategic decision-making, was probably a high-ranking officer under Caesar’s command. He does a good job of showing how Caesar gradually improved his position relative to his opponents, and how he responded in moments of crisis. (At the Battle of Ruspina, for instance, which took place on 4 January 46, Caesar was badly outnumbered and eventually completely encircled by Labienus, but improvised a new troop formation that allowed him to defend on all sides while simultaneously breaking the encircling ring at one point to permit escape.)

Interestingly, some of this activity took place during a period with no dates; Caesar had initiated calendar reform, including the insertion of an intercalary period to which no standard dates can be assigned.


Having returned to Rome in July 46 — the month of July, incidentally, was then still called Quintilus; it would not be named after Caesar until after his death a few years hence — Caesar again set out late in the year for Spain, where Gnaeus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, remained at the head of an armed force opposed to Caesar. It is difficult to discern the shape of the campaign from the Spanish War, for not only is the text corrupted in many places, but the author has not the qualifications of those we’ve seen thus far; he may have been a low-ranking officer, and is more interested in army gossip — who was defecting, what happened in minor skirmishes, where camps were moved — than in the overall arc of the conflict. What is clear is that the forces of Pompey and Caesar established opposed camps near Corduba (modern Cordova), and finally met in a decisive battle near Munda (the location of which is disputed today) on 17 March 45, nearly a year to the day before Caesar’s final mortal reckoning. It was a massive battle, with over 100000 men on the field, and the fighting was fierce. (Caesar said of the battle, “I fought not for victory, but for my life.”) Caesar’s army was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, yet he emerged victorious. Pompey escaped, but was discovered a few weeks later in a cave, and died fighting. This battle may be said to mark the end of Caesar’s civil wars. His enemies in the field were vanquished — though his enemies back in Rome were alive and well.


They form a modest pendant to Caesar’s military chronicles, but nonetheless I appreciated the chance to read these shorter works, which fill in important gaps and are engaging on a number of levels. They are included in The Landmark Julius Caesar, which I have been praising at every opportunity, and continue to praise at this one. If you’re at all interested in this history, and cannot read Latin, this is the edition to get.

Caesar: The Civil War

January 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods

November 22, 2018

On the Nature of the Gods
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh
(Oxford, 1998) [44 BC]
lv + 230 p.

When Cicero was in his 60s he embarked on an ambitious project to write a series of philosophical works. Though he, when a young man, had studied with several of the leading philosophers in Athens and Rhodes, he was by profession a lawyer and politician, not an original philosopher, which he knew quite well, but he did his contemporaries a service by translating Greek ideas into elegant Latin prose, and summarizing the views of various philosophical schools, often in a dialogue format.

Such is the case with De Natura Deorum, which explores the views of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics as to the nature of the gods. There are four characters in the dialogue, each of them, interestingly, based on a real person: Velleius presents the Epicurean view; Balbus defends the Stoic tradition; Cotta is an Academic; and Cicero himself is an interested listener. The principal school missing from the dialogue is the Aristotelian.

Though formally a dialogue, the give and take familiar from Plato’s dialogues, for instance, is mostly absent. Instead, Cicero gives us a series of set speeches in which individual characters present, at length, their views on the question, or rebut the views of others. In the seams between these monologues there is some back-and-forth, but little more.


The dialogue opens with Velleius presenting the Epicurean view. As we recall from reading Lucretius, the Epicureans were materialists who believed that everything is made of indivisible and eternal atoms. Lucretius himself didn’t discuss the gods, apart from a few references here and there, and the present dialogue is actually our best surviving source for what the Epicureans thought about these matters. For them, the gods were akin to material beings (they are said in this translation to have “quasi-bodies”) having human form, but living a life of idleness and bliss — which does, indeed, sound divine. They held that the gods pay no heed to human affairs.

Cotta, the Academic, then steps forward with a critique. He ridicules the anthropomorphism of the Epicurean gods, the ad hoc quasi-materialism, and wonders why we should bother to reverence these beings who care not for us. He contests Velleius’ simple argument that we know the gods exist from common consent.

In the next stage of the dialogue Balbus presents the Stoic case. The Stoics, too, defended the existence of the gods on the grounds that belief in their existence is nearly universal, but added other arguments too: from design of the world, from divine interventions, and from religious practices like divination. Balbus then proceeds to construct something like an ontological argument: God (or a god) is the greatest being, and therefore possesses every good, including reason, sensation, and even sphericity; and, since the universe as a whole is the greatest being possible, the universe itself must be this divine being. In this way, the Stoics arrived at something like a pantheist theology. Against the Epicureans, the Stoics maintained that the gods providentially ordered the world, and that therefore religious practices were right and salutary.

But this view, too, is subjected to an Academic critique by Cotta, who contests essentially every point in the Stoic case apart from the bare existence of the gods. The arguments offered for their existence he finds weak. He rebuts the ontological argument by deducing from it absurdities, such as that if the universe possesses every good then it must be adept at reading, writing, and flute-playing. In one interesting section he even challenges the premise that reason is a good thing, arguing to the contrary that reason makes men cunning in their evil-doing. “That Providence of yours is blame-worthy for bestowing reason on those who she knew would use it unreasonably and wickedly.” He catalogues inconsistencies in stories about individual gods, and concludes that, in the end, we cannot trust much of what the religious tradition has handed down about the nature of the gods. Likewise the pious belief in divine providence is misguided, for if the gods took care for the affairs of men then the good would prosper and the wicked suffer, contrary to fact.

At the conclusion of this critique the dialogue draws to a close. Cotta, who has been the principal critic, never does present his own positive case, if he has one. (He may not; the Academics were largely skeptics.) He only states that he has offered his criticisms out of simple honesty, though he “longs to be refuted”. As the interlocutors disband, Cicero remarks, rather unexpectedly, that his sympathies are with the Stoics, perhaps because this was the school that sought to preserve the rationale for the state’s religious practices, which Cicero was, as a public figure, responsible for upholding and observing.


It is striking that the gods in this dialogue are seen simply as “superior beings”. They are better than us, but not transcendent. They are corporeal, existing alongside us as beings in the world, akin to the “flying spaghetti monster” beloved by modern armchair atheists. Nowhere in the dialogue does the conversation turn to what it could mean to conceive of a high god (i.e. God) as the origin of the being of all else. Had Cicero seen fit to include Aristotelian natural theology in the dialogue this problem could have been partly addressed. As it is, however, the rudimentary metaphysics of these philosophers is in high contrast to what Christian and Islamic philosophers would produce in centuries to come.


Its shortcomings notwithstanding, this dialogue has enjoyed a long tradition of influence in the West. Parts of it (especially the critique of the stories of the Roman gods) were cited by early Christian apologists against paganism. Augustine himself references or quotes from this dialogue more than a dozen times in The City of God. It was also read by the great medieval philosophical schools, and we find citations from it in Abelard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon. It was even more important to Renaissance thinkers, for whom Cicero was a touchstone: it was a favourite of Petrarch, and Montaigne cited it nearly 50 times in his writings. The skepticism of Cotta was especially influential in this period.

Among early modern thinkers, Locke and Hobbes both knew it, and Hume gave his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion the same structure and cast of characters (though with different names). Voltaire, with a characteristic lack of temperance, saw fit to describe it as “le meilleur livre puet-être de toute l’antiquité”, but this, it seems, had the nature of a last hurrah, for in the nineteenth century its influence declined along with the prevailing appraisal of Cicero’s value as a philosopher.

Today it is not widely read, and I would argue that its value as an historical document, describing the leading arguments in theology at the time, eclipses its value as a living source of reflection on the questions it poses. But I am, nonetheless, pleased to have read it.