The Satyricon by Petronius Arbiter

‘Here you are, gifted with talents enough to make your fortunes and you still lead a life of misery, and every day you bring new torments upon yourselves, as the fruits of your own acts!’
(Eumolpus castigating Encolpius and Giton in the Satyricon, Fragment 98)

I admit I have done many wrong things. After all, I am a man…
(Encolpius in a letter to Circe, Fragment 130)

A text has come down to us in many manuscript copies, titled the Satyricon. It consists of over 100 fragments, some as short as a single sentence, most a paragraph or so long, and a handful of longer, more complete, episodes. What we have, collected together, makes about 150 pages of paperback text. Scholars think the original text had upwards of 80 chapters and would have been as long as a huge eighteenth century novel like Tom Jones, five or six hundred pages long.

Menippean satire

The work was a satirical medley, meaning it was a deliberate hodge-podge or prose and poetry, a loose narrative giving room for digressions about contemporary art and literature, interpolated folk tales (such as the ones about a werewolf and witches told during Trimalchio’s feast), traditional stories (the woman from Ephesus, Fragment 111), lots of poetic interludes of varying lengths in varying styles, and so on. The combination of humorous prose and mock poetry was known as Menippean satire.

This form was developed in ancient Greece and named after its chief practitioner, Menippus. Menippus of Gadara (3rd century BC) was a Cynic satirist. All of his works are lost but later authors described him as both an important purveyor of Cynic philosophy and a major comic influence.

According to later summarisers, Menippus discussed serious subjects in a spirit of ridicule; he particularly mocked the two main philosophical schools of Epicureans and Stoics. The translator of the Penguin edition of the Satyricon says it was the distinctive characteristic of Menippean satire that it mixed humour with philosophy (or whatever aesthetic principles the author might substitute) (Introduction, page 18).

Thus the Satyricon‘s author uses characters to criticise contemporary art, literature, rhetoric, education, poetry and – in the long chapter on Trimalchio’s feast – the behaviour, manners, vulgarity and crude display of the Roman nouveaux riches.

What makes the Satyricon distinctive is that this Menippean approach (humour mixed with occasional serious subjects) was combined with a completely different genre, the idealising and sentimental Greek romance.

This is present in the Satyricon at least two ways: one is the long-running relationship between the loved-up narrator, Encolpius, and his handsome 16-year-old boy lover or ex-slave or rent boy, Giton. They’re constantly bursting into tears and forgiving each other for their lovers’ tiffs and jealousies: ‘Come to my arms, dear Giton.’ More narrowly, it colours the sentimental romance between Encolpius and Chrysis in the final passages of the text.

The translator of the Penguin edition, J.F. Sullivan, characterises these two elements vying in the text, as the satirist and the novelist, because Petronius selects subjects common in satire – low city life, sexual decadence, vulgarity of the nouveaux riches – but he doesn’t judge them with the same moral fury that satirists from Juvenal to Swift use. He is more detached than that, interested and amused by the behaviour of his characters in themselves rather than as epitomes of the usual moral rules.

It is this combination of the satirical tone and frequent reversion to poetry (of Menippean satire) with a consistent (if episodic) narrative, and an overall lack of moral judging, which was, apparently, something quite new in Roman literature.

The adventures of Encolpius

For at its core, long and rambling with many digressions though it appears to have been intended, the Satyricon nonetheless has a simple premise: it is a first-person account of the peripatetic adventures of Encolpius, and his companion, slave and boyfriend, Giton.

The deep driver of the plot is the wrath of the god Priapus (god of procreation; guardian of gardens and vineyards; personification of the phallus) against the hero. At some point, before the narrative we have opens, Encolpius had offended Priapus (maybe by looting a temple of his?), and now the offended god dogs and frustrates his every move. This is intended as a mockingly knowing reference to the way the offended Poseidon blocks Odysseus’s return to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey and the offended Juno blocks Aeneas’s journey to Italy in the Aeneid.

(To be candid, although all the introductions make much of this alleged persecution of the hero by Priapus, when you come to read the actual text it only really crops up in the Quartilla passage at the start, and then re. his problem with impotence and encounter with the priestess of Priapus, Oenothea, towards the very end.)

The surviving sections of the novel begin with Encolpius traveling with a companion and former lover named Ascyltos, who has joined Encolpius on his adventures. They appear to be in the port town of Puteoli (not explicitly named, so scholars debate this). Meanwhile, Encolpius’s boyfriend, Giton, is back at the lodging house they’ve rented. As the text we have progresses we learn that Encolpius and Ascyltos have made some kind of pact, to undertake illegal activities together, and also to share Giton’s affections. Encolpius at one point says of himself: ‘I escaped the law, cheated the arena, killed a host.’ (Fragment 81). They also appear to have stolen gold from someone they murdered (?) and hidden it in a tunic, which Encolpius then managed to lose.

But the overall point is that the narrative takes us through a series of adventures among the middling and common people of Rome i.e. the mass of the population who we never hear about in the predominantly aristocratic literature which has come down to us.

Obscure descriptions of sex

In particular, the work describes Encolpius’s involvement in orgies: in the wider sense of riotous dinner parties (Trimalchio’s banquet), and in the narrower sense of scenes of eroticism and sexual decadence.

For a long time, throughout early modern history and into the Victorian era, this meant the book was often published in limited editions, with scandalously explicit illustrations. However, reading it nowadays, the most noticeable thing is that: a) there aren’t as many explicitly sexual scenes as you might expect, and b) they aren’t very explicitly described, in fact they are so obscurely or elliptically described that I barely noticed some of them or, when I did, was frequently puzzled by what was going on.

For example, here’s a fragment (Fragment 21) from the scene where Quartilla, her maid Psyche, and their little girl, are joined by a male prostitute in invading the lodgings of Encolpius, Ascyltus and Giton.

Finally, up came a pansy dressed in myrtle-green shaggy felt, which was tucked up under his belt. He pulled the cheeks of our bottoms apart, then he slobbered vile, greasy kisses on us, until Quartilla, carrying a whale-bone rod, with her skirts up round her, put an end to our sufferings. (p.40)

Now, I can see that this is certainly intimate what with their buttocks being pulled apart, presumably to expose their anuses. But in a standard porn narrative you’d expect the next step for them to be buggered. I don’t follow the logic of pulling someone’s buttocks apart and then…kissing them? Kissing their faces or mouths presumably involves turning them round to face you? Or are they turning their heads sideways and backwards to be kissed while the pansy buggers them? Or is the pansy meant to be kissing their anuses? I suppose it’s possible, but it’s not, I’d have thought, the obvious thing to do.

And I don’t understand at all why Quartilla is then introduced into the scene nor why she is holding a whale-bone rod? Is it to bugger them with?? Are the male prostitute’s slobbery kisses by way of lubricating their anuses in preparation for Quartilla using the rod to sodomise them? But if so, how could this be described as putting an ‘end’ to their sufferings, when it sounds very much to me as if that would be the start of their sufferings?

A lot of the sex scenes in the Satyricon are like this: something very rude and intimate is definitely going on, but the descriptions are bewilderingly at odds with any description of sexual acts I’m used to, for example in the surprisingly explicit novels of David Lodge, let alone ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’-style modern erotica.

In summary, I didn’t find any of the sex scenes in the Satyricon at all erotic; I generally found them as puzzling as a Wordle problem or a jigsaw.

Outline synopsis

There’s a fairly detailed synopsis of the work in the Wikipedia article. This is a list of key incidents:

In Puteoli

  • Argument with Agamemnon The text starts in mid-sentence with Encolpius arguing with Agamemnon the sophist against the florid Asiatic style and false taste in literature
  • Wrong directions Lost in this strange town, Encolpius asks the way of an old lady and is led to a brothel.
  • Reunion Encolpius finds his way back to the boarding house to be reunited with Ascyltos and Giton.
  • Lovers’ quarrel Later, Encolpius tries to have sex with Giton but is interrupted by Ascyltos, who assaults him after catching the two in bed. They all make up.
  • At the market The trio go to the market where they appear to discover the tunic filled with gold but there is an argument with the stallholder which threatens to escalate so they escape back to the boarding house.
  • Quartilla and the great debauch Here they are confronted by Quartilla, a priestess of the god Priapus, who condemns their eavesdropping on the cult’s secret rites (something which obviously took place before our text begins). Our three companions are overpowered by Quartilla, her maid Psyche and a gay prostitute. This leads to an orgy which is described in scattered and puzzling fragments. In the final part, Psyche suggests to Quartilla that they get the little 7-year-old girl they’ve brought with them, Pannychis, ‘married’, so they hold a little ceremony wedding her to young Giton then bundle them both into a side room to , while Quartilla spies on them through a crack in the door, dragging Encolpius down to share the view and kiss him in her excitement.

Trimalchio’s dinner

  • Trimalchio’s dinner Next day, recovering from their ‘ordeal’, Encolpius and companions are invited by one of Agamemnon’s slaves to a feast at the estate of Trimalchio, a freedman or liberti of enormous wealth. After a preliminary meeting at the town baths, the guests proceed to Trimalchio’s huge mansion where they are entertained with ostentatious and grotesque extravagance.

In this excellent blog post, author Suzette Field gives a forensic summary of all aspects of the banquet given by vulgar, bragging parvenu Trimalchio and his fat, ex-chorus girl wife, Fortunata, listing the guests, detailing the astonishing dishes, the music and entertainments (including a mock hunt), the rambling variety of conversational topics, including guests describing encounters with a werewolf (p.73) and witches (p.74).

  • The escape Sickened by the food and the vulgarity, Encolpius and his companions make their escape but only with some difficulty and after falling into a big fishpond, and after the party has made such a racket the local fire brigade are called to break it up.
  • The argument Back at the inn, next morning the trio fall out after Encolpius discovers Ascyltos in bed with Giton. He forces the boy to choose between the two men and is shocked when Giton chooses to leave with Ascyltos.
  • The soldier After two or three days sulking Encolpius sets out sword in hand to find and take revenge on Ascyltos but is disarmed by a soldier he encounters in the street.

Eumolpus the poet

  • The art gallery Wandering into a nearby art gallery Encolpius meets an old poet, Eumolpus. a) Eumolpus describes an affair with a youth in Pergamon while employed as his tutor but who wore him out with his sexual demands b) the pair discuss the inferiority of modern painters and writers to the good old days: ‘but we, besotted with drink and whoring, don’t study any arts with a tradition.’
  • Eumolpus stoned Eumolpus had ended their discussion with a long poem on the subject of the Trojan war and, comically, this prompted all the passersby to pelt him with stones. Feeling sorry for him, Encolpius invites Eumolpus to dinner (90).
  • Reunited with Giton Back at his lodgings Encolpius encounters Giton who begs him to take him back as his lover. They are reconciled. ‘I hugged him to my heart.’ Eumolpus arrives from the baths and reveals that a man there (evidently Ascyltos) was looking for someone called Giton.
  • Comedy suicides Encolpius and Eumolpus fight over Giton. Eumolpus grabs Giton, runs out the door and locks it from the outside. Encolpius is so distraught he decides to hang himself and is dangling from a belt when the pair return and hurriedly take him down. Giton in turn is distraught and grabs a razor from Eumolpus’s servant and slashes his own throat, falling to the floor. Encolpius snatches up the razor and cuts his throat only to realise it is a ‘practice’ razor for apprentice barbers to use. Farce.
  • The fight At this moment, the landlord of these seedy lodgings, Marcus Manicius, arrives and accuses our boys of being runaways slaves or preparing to abscond without paying. Eumolpius slaps him in the face, the landlord throws a pot which hits him on the head, and the two stumble out into the landing where the landlord’s slaves get involved, plus an old hag bringing up a guard dog, and the whole thing degenerates into a big fight. Encolpius enjoys watching it through a spyhole in their bedroom door. When soft-hearted Giton suggests intervening he boxes the boy on the head, so he retired crying to the bed.
  • Bargates The ‘agent for the building’ Bargates intervenes to break up the fight. He recognised Eumolpus and asks him to write a lampoon against his mistress.
  • Reward At this point a ‘cryer’ accompanied by Ascyltos and a crowd arrives announcing a reward of 1,000 sesterces for information on the whereabouts of a curly-haired boy named Giton. Encolpius tells the boy to hide under the bed. When the search party arrives at their room, Encolpius has bolted the door so the searchers have to pry it off its hinges with axes. Then Encolpius throws himself at Ascyltos’s feet and offers his neck to the axe to be killed. Ascyltos assures him he means no harm, he just wants the boy back.
  • The sneezes They don’t find Giton hiding under the bed, so leave. At this moment Eumolpus re-enters the bedroom. Encolpius lies, assuring Eumolpus that Giton has disappeared off into the streets and weepingly begging him to help find him. He’s nearly persuaded him, when Giton lets out three loud sneezes, thus revealing his position under the bed to Eumolpus. (All this is literally a bedroom farce.) Eumolpus is upset at the deception but Giton, with characteristic gentleness, treats Eumolpus’s head wound then gives the old poet his own cloak, thus winning him round. Giton laments that he should be the cause of endless fights between his two lovers (Encolpius and Ascyltos). Eumolpus castigates the threesome for failing to use their talents and instead contriving to lead a never-ending life of misery.

Ship and shipwreck

  • Boarding ship Eumolpus suggests they escape all their troubles by taking ship, so they do, along with Eumolpus’s hired servant, later named as Corax.
  • Lichas and Tryphaena Suddenly they hear two voices which strike terror into them. Eumolpus explains the ship belongs to, and is captained by, an old enemy of theirs, Lichas of Tarentum. Scholars calculate, from scattered hints, that Encolpius had a) stolen something from Lichas b) seduced his wife c) somehow publicly humiliated him in the portico of a temple to Hercules – all this must have taken place in lost passages earlier in the text. It certainly explains their horror at now finding themselves in Lichas’ power. The other voice belongs to Tryphaena, who appears to have taken a fancy to Giton, also in an earlier, lost, section.
  • Disguise They discuss plans to escape the moving ship but settle on a scheme to pretend to be Eumolpus’s slaves, shaving their hair off and having their faces printed with the formula for renegade slaves (usually this is tattooed into the skin; our heroes have it done in ink). To no avail, and Lichas and Tryphaena recognise them.
  • Fight onboard Eumolpus mounts a mock defence of the pair, which doesn’t work. Encolpius threatens Tryphaena if she tries to take possession of Giton and this escalates into a fight, with Lichas’ men taking one side, our heroes, Emolpus and his servant the other. Giton tries to stop the fighting by threatening to cut off his cock and balls (‘the cause of all our misery’) as a threat to Tryphaena, who clearly wants him for sexual purposes. In the end the navigator parlays a truce, and both parties sign a mock peace treaty (p.118).
  • Wigs Since so much appears to derive from Tryphaena’s unfulfilled love/lust for Giton, her maids take the boy belowdecks, give him a wig and paint back on his eyebrows, so he emerges looking prettier than ever (110).
  • The widow of Ephesus At first she planned to starve herself to death in her husband’s tomb, but she was seduced by a soldier guarding crucified corpses, and when one of these was stolen she offered the corpse of her husband as a replacement.
  • The storm A big storm blows up and the ship is wrecked (114). Giton ties himself to Encolpius with a belt so they’ll survive or drown together. Tryphaena is bundled into a lifeboat by her maids. Encolpius, Giton Eumolpus and the latter’s servant all get to shore safely. Here Encolpius observes Lichas’ corpse being washed ashore, triggering stock reflections about fate, Fortune, the fickleness of man’s estate etc. The build a pyre for him and Eumolpas writes an epigram.

On the road to Croton

Croton was a former Greek colony on the toe of Italy. Sullivan in his notes points out that the narrative in this section is more fantastical and less realistic than the section in Puteoli because a) Petronius was a lot less familiar with Croton, and b) the subject – the iniquity of legacy hunters – was a familiar, stock literary topic, therefore the section is more invented, literary and bookish. In fact, it has the fantastical feel of medieval allegory or Gulliver’s Travels.

  • The farmer A farmer explains that the inhabitants are notorious legacy-hunters, that anyone who has and raises children is despised, whereas childless parasites are held in the highest opinion.
  • The scam They cook up a scam that Eumolpus will pose as a man of enormous wealth who has recently lost his son, and just been shipwrecked, but owns vast estates with countless slaves in North Africa. Encolpius and Giton will pose as his slaves, alongside his servant Corax.
  • Parody of Lucan As they walk towards Croton Eumolpus delivers a serious lecture on the shortcomings of contemporary poetry, which he claims has abandoned depth of meaning, the apparatus of divine involvement in human affairs, and smooth flow in favour of shiny epigrams. He then proceeds to regale his companions (and readers) with an extended rendition (nearly 300 lines) of his own poem on the subject of the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey. This has universally been taken of criticism of, and a parody of, the Pharsalia of Petronius’s contemporary, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, known simply as Lucan. (It is notable that Sullivan deliberately echoes the Cantos of Ezra Pound in the style of his translation of this passage [see p.132] as he warned us he would in his introduction, an interesting indication of how widespread Pound’s influence still was in 1964; Pound only died in 1972. Unfortunately, Sullivan’s idiosyncratic version makes it impossible to compare with the relatively sensible translation of the Pharsalia by Anthony Kline which I’ve just finished reading.)
  • Arriving in Croton They find the legacy-hunters very willing to believe Eumolpus is an heirless millionaire, so he receives invites to multiples homes and they all compete to put their finances at his disposal (in the hope that they’ll be named heirs in his will). In other words, their scam is working.

In Croton

There is then a Big Gap in the text. When it resumes, the companions have apparently been in Crotona for some time.

  • Chrysis Encolpius, as part of his pose of being Eumolpus’s slave, has adopted the name Polyaenus. Chrysis is a maid of the beautiful Circe. The fragment opens with them talking together in some kind of public park. Chrysis describes her mistress as the type of woman who likes a bit of rough i.e. gladiators slaves. The type of woman who is aroused by kissing the whipmarks on slaves’ bodies (p.143). Whereas Chrysis explains that she aspires to more upmarket lovers. In other words, each woman is aroused by the opposite class to themselves.
  • Circe Chrysis now swiftly introduces Circe, who is breath-takingly beautiful and wants to become Encolpius’s lover. She knows about his love for Giton, and says she is willing to be Encolpius’s girlfriend alongside his boyfriend, an interesting comment on Roman tolerance in relationships and complete acceptance of bisexuality. They lie down on the grass and start snogging.
  • Encolpius’s impotence In the next fragment Circe is upset because Encolpius can’t get an erection. She asks Chryses if she smells or something about her is ugly, then runs off to a temple of Venus leaving Encolpius feeling mortified.
  • Letters Circe sends a letter hoping Encolpius will recover his ‘strength’. Encolpius sends a reply, confessing he is a terrible man, he has ‘killed a man and robbed a temple’, but he will be restored to virility if she will punish and redeem him.
  • Proselenus Next morning Chrysis brings round the wizened old crone, Proselenus, who uses crude magic (spit, dust, hot pebbles) and gives Encolpius a magnificent erection.
  • Failure and flogging However, when Encolpius goes to Circe’s house and she invites him onto her couch and after much kissing prepares to be embraced…he can’t get an erection, again. Infuriated, Circe has him whipped, assembles the entire household to spit at him, has Chrysis flogged and Proselenus thrown out. Oh well.
  • Punishing Percy Encolpius is tempted to cut off his penis but makes do with giving it a stern telling off.
  • Prayer to Priapus Encolpius goes to the temple of Priapus and delivers a long prayer from which we deduce that, earlier in the narrative, he stole something from another temple of Priapus. Now he begs forgiveness and promises lavish offerings, when he has the money…
  • Thrashing Old Proselenus appears, berates Encolpius for his failure to get an erection, leads him into a side room of the temple and delivers a sound thrashing. What I don’t understand is a) Encolpius makes no resistance even through the thrashing cuts him and b) it cuts him in the groin so she appears to be whipping his front.
  • Oenothea priestess of the temple arrives. Proselenus explains Encolpius’s impotent and Oenothea, who is also a sorceress, says she can cure him.
  • Cooking In a sentence-long fragment Oenothea lays on a bed and kisses Encolpius. But we don’t get any sex because the fragment immediately following describes her starting to cook a knackered old piece of ham and ordering him to shell some beans i.e. there’s a sizeable gap.
  • The geese Suddenly it is the old woman who is cooking, and a stool she’s standing on breaks and she knocks over the pan into the fire and gets her face covered in soot. While she goes off to clean up, Encolpius is suddenly attacked by the temple’s sacred geese. He beats one to death with a leg from the rickety stool.
  • Oenothea’s horror Encolpius hides the goose, bathes his wound in vinegar and is just about to leave the cottage when Oenothea returns. When she asks where the beans are he was meant to be shelling, he explains that a bunch of geese invaded the house and ate them but he managed to kill one and shows her. Oenothea is horrified, claiming these are holy geese sacred to Priapus. He could be crucified for this crime and she could be expelled as priestess. Encolpius desperately offers to replace the dead goose with an ostrich.
  • Cash Proselenus returns to the cottage and is equally horrified. Encolpius offers them two gold pieces as compensation.

In its last pages the text disintegrates into a series of very short, often one-sentence fragments, which give snapshots of successive scenes:

  • Oenothea opens the dead goose and uses its liver to foretell Encolpius’s future.
  • Then she cuts it up and cooks it and they all enjoy a very good meal.
  • Oenothea brings out a leather dildo, rubs it with oil, ground pepper and crushed nettle seed, and inserts it into Encolpius’s anus.
  • She mixes the juice of cress with some southern-wood, soaks his cock and balls in it, then starts whipping them with a fresh stinging nettle stalk.
  • Cut to Encolpius, presumably having fled this treatment, being pursued through the street by the two old women.
  • In one sentence, Chrysis declares her undying love for Encolpius.
  • A paragraph of Encolpius begging to be taken back into Circe’s house so he can prove himself.
  • Suddenly he is back at base with Giton, who tells him a very elegant lady came asking about him the day before.
  • Chrysis clasps him to her bosom and tells him she will love him forever.
  • One of Eumolpus’s new servants tells Encolpius that his master is furious at him for being absent for two days (presumably he was kidnapped by Proselenus and Oenothea?).

In the last substantial piece of text (one page long) we are told about an aging legacy-huntress named Philomela. Now too old to seduce rich men, she prostitutes out her son and daughter and is now proceeding to ‘place’ them with Eumolpus, ostensibly for their education.

A comic sex scene which, for once, I did understand: Eumolpus has told everyone he is a martyr to gout and other ailments in order to secure loans and favours from all the legacy hunters. Therefore he cannot have sex with the daughter in the usual athletic way. Therefore he lies on a bed, gets the girl to straddle him, and gets his servant, Corax, to lie directly underneath him, under the bed, and move his thighs and hips up and down, so that Eumolpus’s penis enters and exits the daughter’s vagina, without Eumolpus actually moving. Presumably this had Nero’s courtiers in fits of laughter when read out to them.

Encolpius finds the brother watching this performance through a spy hole.

(This is a recurrent theme of the narrative. Early on in the text, Encolpius watches Giton and the 7-year-old having some kind of sex through a crack in the door; then watches Eumolpus being beaten up through a spy hole. In his notes, Sullivan refers to this recurring theme as scopophilia which means, literally, ‘love of looking’.)

Anyway, in this fragment, despite the boy being willing, Encolpius yet again can’t get an erection, attributing it to the recurring theme of ‘divine hostility’ i.e Priapus’s enmity.

However, abruptly, in the next fragment, he can! attributing his blessed cure to Mercury. He lifts up his tunic to show Eumolpus his erection and the old poet, just to be sure, ‘held in both hands the gift of the gods.’

In the last few one-line fragments, someone is warning Eumolpus that the ships of wealth he had told everyone would soon arrive from Africa have not showed and therefore the many legacy-hunters they’ve been bilking are starting to get impatient and suspicious.

A sentence, apparently from Eumolpus’s will, promising that all his creditors will be paid but only on condition that they cut up his corpse and eat it in front of the people.

Then the implication that one, at least, of the creditors, blinded by greed, was ready to do this.

The final paragraph lists reasons for agreeing to cannibalism – pretend you’re eating something else; an hour of disgust will buy a lifetime of wealth; all meats are disgusting, that’s why we season them – and some historical examples of cannibalism in cities under siege.

And with this gruesome little fragment, the text of the Satyricon ENDS.

Petronius Arbiter

All scholars and introductions devote some time to the problem of identifying the author of the work. The manuscripts of the Satyricon ascribe the work to a ‘Petronius Arbiter’. Most scholars identify this with the young author and dandy named Petronius who flourished at the time of the emperors Claudius (41 to 54) and Nero (54 to 68). Tacitus mentions him in his Annals, telling us that Petronius had been at one time governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. On his return to Rome the young man-about-town was brought into Nero’s inner circle as its arbiter elegantiae or arbiter of taste, elegance and wit.

According to Tacitus, Petronius fell victim to ‘the jealousy of [Nero’s secretary] Tigellinus against an apparent rival, more expert in the science of pleasure than himself’, Tigellinus turned Nero against him and, as with Seneca, as with Lucan, Nero compelled him to commit suicide.

The Satyricon is one of the very few light-hearted/humorous prose works from the Roman period and helped to found the picaresque tradition. This is the tradition of prose narratives describing a young hero (or picaro, in Spanish) having a series of rambling comic adventures, generally with a sidekick and comic companion, which was, from the early modern period (1550) to become such a major thread in European literature, enduring, in some comic writers, up to the present day.

Two translations

I read two translations in tandem, the Penguin Classics version by J.P. Sullivan, first published in 1965, and the online Project Gutenberg version, which reproduces the 1922 translation by W. C. Firebaugh (with wonderfully solid illustrations by Norman Lindsay).

The style of the 1922 is cumbersomely Victorian BUT it includes passages of text which scholars now think are later forgeries by otherwise unknown authors named Nodot and Marchena, plus the readings introduced into the text by a scholar named De Salas. The point is that these much later interpolations were made to smooth out the narrative and they do, making the Victorian version a much more enjoyable and continuous read.

By contrast the translator the Penguin edition, J.P. Sullivan, takes the intellectually reputable line of sticking solely to what scholars think Petronius actually wrote – with the result that his text is much more fragmented and puzzling. The Gutenberg edition may be old fashioned, and include blatant forgeries, but it is the better read.

There’s also a 2018 translation by A.S. Kline. This is a little more lucid than the Sullivan version but, like him, excludes all the forgeries and interpolations, and so shares the same fragmentary feel.


Related links

Roman reviews

The Pharsalia by Lucan – 1: Introduction

O mighty the sacred labour of the poet! He rescues
all from fate, and grants immortality to mortal beings.
(Pharsalia Book 9, lines 980 to 981)

Lucan biography

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39 to 65 AD), generally referred to in English simply as ‘Lucan’, was a Roman poet, born in Corduba (modern-day Córdoba) in the Roman province of Hispania. Although he was ordered to kill himself by the emperor Nero at the age of just 25, Lucan is regarded as one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial Latin period, particularly for his (unfinished) epic poem, Pharsalia.

Lucan was the son of Marcus Annaeus Mela, younger brother of Seneca the Younger i.e. he was Seneca’s nephew.

Lucan’s father was wealthy, a member of the knightly class, and sent him to study rhetoric at Athens and he was probably tutored in philosophy, and especially Stoic philosophy, by his uncle (maybe by Seneca’s freedman, Cornutus, who also tutored the slightly older poet, Persius).

Lucan was a precocious talent and was welcomed into the literary and philosophical circles around the young emperor Nero, who was only two years older than him (born 37 AD). In 60 AD i.e. aged barely 21, Lucan won prizes for extemporising poems at Nero’s new Quinquennial Games. Nero rewarded him by appointing him to the office of augur, a plum position in Rome’s religious hierarchy.

Soon afterwards Lucan began circulating the first three books of what was intended to be an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (generally referred to as Pompey). This has come down to us with the title Pharsalia, or De Bello civili (‘On the civil war’) in other manuscripts. It’s titled Pharsalia because the action focuses on the decisive Battle of Pharsalus, fought on 9 August 48 BC, at which Caesar decisively defeated Pompey’s army.

At some point Nero and Lucan fell out. According to Tacitus (Annals, book 15, section 49) Nero became jealous of Lucan and ordered him to stop publishing the Pharsalia. According to Suetonius (in his brief Life of Lucan, cited in full at the end of this blog post), Nero disrupted a public reading by Lucan by leaving and calling a meeting of the senate. Lucan responded by writing insulting poems about Nero – which is always a bad thing to do against a tyrant. The grammarian Vacca mentions that one of Lucan’s works was entitled De Incendio Urbis (‘On the Burning of the City’) which presumably contained criticism of Nero’s role in the Great Fire of Rome (July 64). This is confirmed by a reference in a poem by Lucan’s younger contemporary, Publius Papinius Statius (45 to 96 AD).

As further proof, after the pro-Nero eulogy of the opening book, nearly all the subsequent references to emperors and the empire are vitriolically anti-imperial and pro-republic in tone. To take an example at random, Lucan’s biting criticism of not only Alexander the Great’s achievements, but of the cult of imperial Alexander which followed his death.

For, if the world had regained a shred of liberty
his corpse would have been retained as an object
of derision, not shown as an example to the world
of how a host of lands were subjected to one man.
He left his Macedonian obscurity, spurned Athens
that his father had conquered, and spurred on by
the power of destiny ran amok among the realms
of Asia, slaying humankind, putting every land
to the sword. He stained far-off rivers, Persia’s
Euphrates, India’s Ganges with blood; a plague
on earth, a lightning bolt that struck all peoples
alike, a fateful comet flaring over every nation.

But what ended Lucan’s life was his involvement in Gaius Calpurnius Piso’s conspiracy against Nero, uncovered in 65. Lucan was one of many conspirators revealed by torturing suspects. According to Suetonius he miserably truckled to his persecutors, giving them names of further conspirators, including even his own mother, in the vain hope of winning a pardon.

Once his guilt was established Nero ordered Lucan to commit suicide by opening a vein (the alternative being arrest, torture and public execution). According to Tacitus, as Lucan bled to death he recited some lines he had written about a wounded soldier. I wonder if they were from the passage about the 600 Caesarians who chose suicide rather than surrender to Pompey, in book 4:

how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide
(4.577)

Alternatively, according to Suetonius, Lucan in his dying minutes wrote a letter to his father containing corrections to some of his verses and, after eating heartily, offered his arms to a physician to cut his veins. Lucan’s father and both his uncles, i.e all three sons of Seneca the Elder, were also compelled to kill themselves.

(Statius wrote an elegy to Lucan, the Genethliacon Lucani, which was addressed to his widow, Polla Argentaria, on the dead man’s birthday. It was written during the reign of Domitian (81 to 96) and included in Statius’s collection, Silvae).

Themes in the Pharsalia

De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) or the Pharsalia is long and dense with themes and ideas, some of which I will now consider:

1. No gods

The traditional epic poem is packed with gods, supporting various protagonists and intervening in the events. The entire narrative of the Aeneid exists because of the enmity of the queen of the gods, Juno, to the hero, Aeneas, who she continually enters the story to block and stymy, in doing so setting herself against fellow goddess, Venus, who, for her part, does everything she can to support Aeneas (who is her son). This leads to great set-piece debates in heaven between the rival gods, adjudicated by the king of the heavens, Jupiter.

There’s none of this in Lucan. Lucan took the decision to dispense with all the divine interventions associated with traditional epic. Lucan replaces them with the more up-to-date Stoic notions of Fate and Fortune. These two forces, sometimes blurring into each other and overlapping, at other moments appear as clearly distinct entities, names for two different forces operating at different levels of the universe.

Fate, fatum or fata is Destiny – the fixed, foreordained course of events which underpins the universe. Fate is the name given to the working through of the deep plan for the world and the nations in it.

And now, as light dispersed the chill shades of night,
Destiny lit the flames of war, setting the spur to Caesar’s
wavering heart, shattering the barriers shame interposed
and driving him on to conflict. Fate worked to justify
his rebellion, and found a pretext for his use of arms.
(Book 1, lines 261 to 265)

What but the power of destiny, that tragic fate
decreed by the eternal order, drew him, doomed
to die, to that shore…Yet
Pompey yielded to fate, obeying when requested
to leave his ship, choosing to die rather than show
fear…
(8.571 ff.)

By contrast, Fortune, fortuna, is Chance, a fickle, unpredictable force, continually turning her wheel, ensuring that anyone at the peak of professional or social success, can never be certain that Fortune won’t turn her wheel and plunge them down to the pits of failure.

At a deep level, Fate determines the occurrence of a civil war and that Caesar will win. But Fortune decides the outcome of specific events and details.

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
due to idleness, but summoned all his forces scattered
throughout Gaul, moving every legion towards Rome.
(1.392 to 395)

Susan Braund explains all this in the introduction to her translation of the Pharsalia published by the Oxford University Press. The distinct operational levels of the two forces are sometimes made particularly clear:

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
(1.392-3)

Where Destiny is the overall force or plan but whether individual elements of the plan fall this way or that, depends on Fortune. Or:

Fate stirred the peoples and sent them as companions
to a great disaster, as a funeral train fit for Pompey’s
exequies. Even horned Ammon was not slow to send
squadrons from Africa to battle, from all parched Libya,
from Morocco in the west to Egyptian Syrtes in the east.
So that Caesar, fortune‘s favourite, might win all with
a single throw, Pharsalia brought all the world to battle.
(3.291 to 297)

The distinction is made particularly clear in the long speech by the witch Erictho in book 6, where she makes a distinction between ‘the chain of events fixed from the beginning of the world’ which nobody can change or alter, and ‘lesser decrees of fate’, which witches like her can alter. Level 1 and Level 2. (6.609 to 621)

However, at other moments I found the concepts a lot less clear cut, for example in this passage where you’d expect the Pompey’s ultimate death, the deep pattern of his life, to be described as his Fate not his Fortune.

Pompey by then, had gained the open sea, but the luck
that aided his past hunts for pirates was his no longer,
and Fortune, wearied by his triumphs, proved untrue.

And sometimes the two concepts seem interchangeable:

Greedy quicksand and spongy marshes hid the secret
Fate had placed there; yet later that aged general’s flesh
was scarred by iron fetters reduced by long vile imprisonment.
He was to die though as Fortune’s friend, as consul in a Rome
he had ruined.
(2.71 to 75)

Anyway, Lucan’s neglect of the traditional apparatus of gods and his focus on Fate and Fortune do two things for the poem:

  1. Lots of gods would have distracted attention away from what was a very human catastrophe and away from the all-too-human human protagonists.
  2. Also the gods can, in some sense, be appealed to and swayed by humans. Whereas Fate and Fortune are profoundly impersonal forces and so bring out the horror of the unstoppable nature of civil war, Fate emphasising the deep inevitability of the outcome, with Fortune standing for the many chance victims along the way.

There is a simpler explanation, which is that the introduction of the kind of gods found in Virgil was simply inappropriate – would have appeared gauche and clumsy – in a poem dealing with very events almost within living memory. Roman literature – Classical literature generally – was very concerned with what was and wasn’t appropriate for every genre, in terms of subject matter, tone and even individual words. Including the gods in a historical epic would have breached the conventions of the genre.

2. No heroes

Epic poems feature the adventures of more-than-human heroes, from Gilgamesh, through Achilles and Aeneas, to Beowulf, humans not only with superhuman power but often the progeny of the gods. Whereas a historical epic like the Pharsalia is concerned with real historical personages, many of whose relatives were still alive when Lucan wrote.

Not only that, but epics generally feature one obvious central protagonist (Gilgamesh, Achilles, Beowulf) but just as there are no gods or divine intervention in the Pharsalia, so there is no one hero or central protagonist. Instead there are three leading but not totally dominating figures:

1. Gaius Julius Caesar

Caesar is the most prominent character in the first part of the poem, active, clear-sighted, ambitious, a force of nature – but not likeable. Lucan’s Caesar approaches closest to the figure of traditional epic hero. He has no moderating feminine influence on him until right at the end, in book 10, where his encounter with Cleopatra is a meeting of two cynical players. After the climactic battle of Pharsalus, however, Caesar is depicted as becoming more ambitious and imperial.

2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

Pompey is portrayed as the opposite – vacillating, indecisive, and past his prime (‘the mere shadow of a mighty name’) but, in scenes with friends, followers and especially his wife, Cornelia, far more human than Caesar. At the end, after Pharsalus, Pompey is transformed into a stoic martyr, receiving a kind of visionary treatment as he nears his tragic death on the beach in Egypt which he meets with Stoic calm acceptance.

3. Marcus Porcius Cato

And, after the death of Pompey in book 8, Cato emerges as the strongest leader of the Republican cause, holed up with Republican legions in north Africa. Cato epitomises stern old-fashioned values. He stands for Roman patriotism and Stoic contempt for death, notably in the episode in book 9 where he scorns to consult the oracle of Ammon, saying God gave us all the knowledge we need to live a virtuous life at birth; which triggers adulation from Lucan:

Behold, the true father of his
country, a man worthy to be worshipped,
Rome, at your altars; by whom none need
blush to swear, and who, if you ever free
your neck from the yoke, shall be made a god.

In fact, in a striking episode on the march across the desert, Cato not only embodies Stoic resolution in the face of death but inspires it in others:

Alone he was present at every
death; whenever they call, he goes, and confers that
mighty benefit, more than life: the courage to die;
so that, with him as witness, any man was ashamed
to die with a groan on his lips.
(9.882)

When Cato’s first wife, Marcia, returns to him the narrative emphasises that their marriage is sexless; it symbolises his adherence to defunct, sterile values. Many critics think Lucan intended Cato to develop into the central figure of the poem, with the narrative designed to end with his famous suicide in the besieged garrison town of Utica, symbolising the moral victory of Stoic principle and Freedom against Tyranny.

There’s a case for saying the three figures are on a spectrum: Caesar is over-balanced in one direction, all energy and decision and lust (‘impetuous in everything’ 2.657); Cato stands at the other pole, arid, sexless, aloof; with Pompey standing in the middle, reasonable and given scenes of touching married love with Cornelia. As this blog shrewdly suggests, it’s as if the heroic protagonist of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas, has decomposed into three characters, none of which are heroic.

3. The gruesome and the macabre

The supernatural

If the Pharsalia doesn’t have gods, what it does have in abundance is the Supernatural – the poem is awash with visions, dreams, ghosts, magic, rituals and so on. Braund sees the supernatural as falling into two categories, ‘dreams and visions’ and ‘portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers’.

a) Dreams and visions

There are four important dream or vision sequences in the poem:

  1. Caesar’s vision of Roma as he is about to cross the Rubicon.
  2. The ghost of Julia (his beloved dead wife) appearing to Pompey (3.1 to 45)
  3. Pompey’s dream of his happy past (7.1 to 30)
  4. Caesar and his troops’ dream of battle and destruction.

All four of these dream-visions are placed strategically throughout the poem to provide structure, and to dramatise key turning points in the narrative.

b) Portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers

Lucan describes a number of portents, with two specifically oracular episodes. What is a portent? “A sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.” So, on the morning of the fateful battle:

Now Fortune too did not hesitate to reveal the future
by diverse signs. When the army made for Thessaly’s
fields, the whole sky opposed their march, hurling
meteors against them, columns of flame, whirlwinds
sucking up water and trees together, blinding their
eyes with lightning, striking crests from their helms,
melting the swords in their scabbards, tearing spears
from their grasp while fusing them, their evil blades
smoking with air-borne sulphur. The standards too
could barely be plucked from the soil, their great
weight bowing the heads of the standard-bearers;
and the standards wept real tears…
(7.151 to 162)

The central example is the necromancy which takes up half of book 6, when Pompey’s son, Sextus, goes to consult the witch Erachtho. Lucan’s description of the witch and her ritual take up half the entire book (lines 413 to 830).

All this appealed to contemporary taste for the macabre. Braund cites events in one of the tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca, his Oedipus, which contains a) a visit to the Delphic oracle, b) a gruesome description of the sacrifice and entrail examination of a bull and heifer (haruspicy), and c) the even more macabre magical rituals by which Tiresias raises the ghost of dead King Laius to accuse Oedipus of his murder.

Chaos on earth reflected in heaven

It is a central feature of the histories that war and disruption on earth must inevitably be accompanied by chaos in the heavens – just as in his uncle Seneca’s tragedies where mayhem on earth is matched and mimicked by cosmic catastrophes. In both Lucan and Seneca the entire universe often seems to be trembling on the brink of complete dissolution.

So when the fabric
of the world dissolves, in that final hour that gathers in the ages,
reverting to primal chaos, star will clash with star in confusion,
the fiery constellations will sink into the sea, and earth heaving
upwards her flat shores will throw off the ocean, the moon will
move counter to her brother, and claiming the rule of day disdain
to drive her chariot on its slanting path, and the whole discordant
frame of the shattered firmament will break free of every law.
(1.72 to 79)

This worldview, the intimate parallelism between human and supernatural affairs, is very prevalent in the biographers Plutarch and Suetonius, writing a generation later.

Haruspicy and necromancy

Along the way, Braund gives useful definitions of two key Roman practices:

  • haruspicy (haruspicies) is the art of studying animal entrails, usually the victims of ritual sacrifices
  • necromancy is the art of getting the dead to speak prophecy; necromancy is not only the general practice of this craft, but you perform a necromancy

4. Extreme rhetoric

Education for Roman aristocrats focused on rhetoric, the ability to speak eloquently and make a persuasive argument. We know from contemporary comments and satires that under the empire many of the exercises which students were given became steadily more extreme and exaggerated. This was reflected in the poetry of the age; from what survives the most extreme example might be the bloodthirsty and over-written tragedies of Seneca.

A central part of the curriculum was the suasoria, an exercise where students wrote speeches advising an historical figure on a course of action. This obviously fed into the largely invented speeches which fill Tacitus’s histories as much as Lucan’s poem.

Lucan is sometimes criticised for the extremity of his rhetoric and the luridness of scenes and imagery. But Susan Braund comes to his defence, with two arguments. One is that Lucan was a product of his times. There was a taste for melodrama and Gothic hyperbole which Lucan catered to.

More interesting is the second argument. This is to do with Virgil. Virgil was the undisputed king of Roman poets and his epic, the Aeneid, was acknowledged as a classic even as he was writing it. The problem for ambitious poets in all the succeeding generations was how to escape Virgil’s dominating influence, how to do anything new. Braund says Ovid found one way, in his Metamorphoses, which was to drop the notion of one, unified, linear narrative and instead string together hundreds of stories and episodes.

Lucan adopted another strategy which was to import into his text the ‘discourse of contemporary rhetoric’, in all its exaggeration and extremity. For there’s another aspect here, which is not to forget that a poem like this was meant to be recited aloud to audiences. Before the rule of Augustus, poetry was recited to group of like-minded friends or patrons. During Augustus’s reign it became common to recite it to larger audiences. We have accounts of Virgil reciting to the emperor and his extended family. Horace was commissioned to write odes to be declaimed at public games.

Braund argues that this trend for declamation had two consequences: it tended to promote more striking and vibrant imagery/style. And it incentivised the poet to think in terms of episodes.

5. Episodic structure

The Aeneid is very carefully constructed and susceptible to many types of structural analysis. Although critics have, of course, made a case for the existence of a deep structure in the Pharsalia (for example, a tetradic structure whereby the first four books focus on Caesar, the next four on Pompey and the final four on Cato) Braund disagrees. She thinks the narrative is far more episodic. In this respect it is like the highly episodic structure of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with one story leading to another, then another, then another – itself a strategy for escaping the highly unified and centralised narrative of the Aeneid.

Like the Metamorphoses, this lack of a single unifying narrative in the Pharsalia allows for more episodes, more adventures, more flicking between channels – episodes which contain are like mini-genres, containing their own appropriate languages, structure and style.

Lucan is fond of discontinuity. He presents his narrative as a series of discrete scenes, often without any transitional or scene-changing lines. Rather than a continuous narrative, it often feels like scenes are balanced within a book or between books, working by correspondence, similarity and difference between them.

We can imagine how well these dramatic episodes would have gone down as stand-alone recitations to a sophisticate audience of Roman aristocrats. I’m thinking of Appius’s confrontation with the priestess at Delphi or the terrific storm scene or Caesar’s speech of defiance to his mutinous troops, all in book 5.

6. Lucan and Virgil

Lucan frequently appropriates ideas from Virgil’s epic and inverts them to undermine their original, heroic purpose. Sextus’ visit to the Thracian witch Erictho in book 6 is the most obvious example, the scene and language clearly referencing Aeneas’ descent into the underworld (in Book 6 of the Aeneid), but while Virgil’s description, despite its gloomy setting, is an optimistic, nay triumphant vision of the future heroes of Rome leading up to the glories of Augustan rule, Lucan uses his scene to convey a bitter and bloody pessimism about the loss of liberty under the coming empire.

7. Epic similes

Braund and other critics emphasis the way that Lucan seeks to break free from the epic conventions, in particular the way he references Virgil in order to reverse or invert his technique and meaning. But in one respect Lucan strongly conforms with the tradition, which is in his use of epic similes. Straight-up epic similes really litter the narrative. Here’s the famous extended comparison of Pompey, larded with triumphs, to a venerable oak tree:

So some oak-tree towers in a rich grove,
hung with a nation’s ancient trophies, sacred gifts of the victors,
and though its clinging roots have lost their strength, their weight
alone holds it, spreading naked branches to the sky, casting shade
not with leaves but its trunk alone, and though it quivers, doomed
to fall at the next gale, among the host of sounder trees that rise
around it, still it alone is celebrated.
(1.137 to 143)

Or the inhabitants of towns which Caesar’s army approached were conflicted about who to support.

Though loyalty contended with the threat of danger,
they still favoured Pompey, as when a southerly rules
the waves, and all the sea is stirred by its vast power,
so that even if Aeolus’ trident opens the solid earth,
and lets an easterly loose on the mounting breakers,
the ocean, though struck by that second force, stays
true to the first, and though the sky surrenders itself
to the rain-filled easterly, the sea asserts the southerly’s
power.
(2.452 to 460)

Describing Octavius’s naval strategy:

So the hunter works,
holding back the net of coloured feathers that scares
the deer with its scent, till he can pen them all, or
quieting the noise of the swift Molossian hounds,
leashing the dogs of Crete and Sparta, till he has set
his stakes and nets, leaving one hound alone to range
the ground, it puzzling out the scent and only barking
when the prey is found, content then to point toward
the creature’s lair while tugging at the leash.
(4.436 to 444)

Or describing the way Cato’s speech in book 9 persuades the allies to remain with the anti-Caesarian army:

So, when hosts of bees
depart the hive, where their young have hatched,
they neglect the waxy cells, their wings no longer
brush one another, each takes its own way, idling,
refraining now from sipping the flowering thyme
with its bitter taste; yet if the sound of Phrygian
cymbals rises, they interrupt their flight, in alarm,
returning to the performance of their flowery task,
and their love of gathering pollen. The shepherd
in Hybla’s meadows is relieved, delighted that
his honey harvest is secured. So Cato’s speech
persuaded his men to endure the lawful conflict.
(9.282 to 293)

Nothing particularly lurid or extreme or melodramatic or supernatural about these. Very conventional epic similes.

8. Geographical descriptions

Before I started reading the poem I was impressed by Braund’s introduction and its emphasis on the macabre and bloodthirsty in Lucan. But once I began reading, I realised there were a lot of other, more low-key, less sensational elements that go to make up the text. More frequent than descriptions of battle, let alone supernatural visions, are the frequent very long passages describing the precise geography of a particular location, such as the region around Capua where Pompey first took his army or, in book 6, this very long description of Thessaly.

Mount Pelion’s ridge bounds Thessaly in the quarter where
the winter sun rises, Mount Ossa where in high summer
its shade obstructs the rays of Phoebus rising in the dawn;
while wooded Othrys dispels the flames of the southern sky,
at midsummer, opposing the brow of the all-devouring Lion;
and Mount Pindus outfacing westerlies and north-westerlies,
where daylight ebbs hastens evening on; while those who live
at the foot of Olympus never dreading the northerlies, know
nothing of the Great Bear’s stars shining a whole night long.
The low-lying lands in the region between these mountains
were once covered with endless marshes; since the plains
retained the waters, and the Vale of Tempe was insufficient
for them to reach the sea they formed continuous swampland,
and their only course was to rise. But when Hercules lifted
Ossa’s weight from Olympus, the sea felt a sudden onrush
of waters as Thessalian Pharsalos, that realm of Achilles
the hero born of a sea-goddess, rose above the surface,
a realm better drowned forever. There rose too, Phylace
whose king was first to land in the war at Troy; Pteleos;
Dorion, that laments the Muses’ anger and blind Thamyris;
Trachis; Meliboea whose Philoctetes received Hercules’
bow, for lighting that hero’s funeral pyre; Larisa, powerful
once; and the sites where the plough now passes over famed
Argos, where Echion’s Thebes once stood, to which Agave
howling bore the head of Pentheus giving it to the funeral
pyre, grieving to have carried off no other part of his flesh.
Thus the swamp was drained forming a host of rivers. From
there the Aeas, clear in its flow but of little volume, runs
westward to the Ionian Sea, the Inachus glides with no more
powerful a current (he was the river-god, father of ravished Io)
nor the Achelous (he almost won Deianeira, Oeneus’ daughter)
that silts the Echinades islands; there, the Euhenos, stained
as it is with Nessus’ blood runs through Meleager’s Calydon;
there Spercheos’ swift stream meets the Malian Gulf’s wave,
and the pure depths of the Amphrysos water those pastures
where Apollo herded cattle. There, the Asopos starts its flow,
and the Black River, and the Phoenix; there, the Anauros,
free of moist vapours, dew-drenched air, capricious breezes.
There too are the rivers which do not reach the sea themselves
but are tributaries of Peneus – the Apidanus, robbed of its flow,
the Enipeus never swift until it finds Peneus, and the Titaresos,
which alone, meeting with that river, keeps its waters intact,
glides on the surface, as though the greater river were dry land,
for legend says its stream flows from the pool of Styx, and so,
mindful of its source, scorns commingling with common water,
inspiring still that awe of its current the gods themselves feel.
Once the waters had flowed away leaving dry land, the fertile
soil was furrowed by the ploughs of the Bebryces; the labour
of Leleges drove the share deep; the ground was broken by
Aeolidae and Dolopians, by Magnesians breeders of horses,
Minyae builders of ships.
(6.398 to 416)

Long, isn’t it? A tourist’s guide to the region. I imagine the long list of not only place names but myths and legends associated with them were a) appropriate to the grandeur of the epic genre, magnifying the action b) awed Lucan’s readers or auditor’s with the poet’s impressive erudition c) made those in the aristocratic audience who had visited some or many of those sites nod with smug recognition.

9. Natural history

In his last few years, Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, composed an enormous work of natural history, the Naturales quaestiones, an encyclopedia of the natural world. A decade later, 77, Pliny the Elder published the first 10 books of his compendious Naturalis Historia (Natural History) (the largest single work to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day).

I mention these works to indicate that a taste for ‘natural history’ was obviously in the air and maybe explains the presence of the extended passages of natural history in the Pharsalia. The obvious example is the really extended passage about the snakes of Libya which takes up over 300 lines in book 9.

10. Is the Pharsalia unfinished?

Almost all scholars agree that the Pharsalia as we now have it is unfinished. Lucan was working in book 10 when Nero’s order to commit suicide came through. Book 10 breaks off with Caesar in Egypt. There are numerous theories about this as about all other aspects of the poem. Here are some:

  • Some argue that Lucan intended to end his poem with the Battle of Philippi (42 BC).
  • Some critics speculate that the narrative was intended to continue all the way to the assassination of Julius Caesar four years after the Battle of Pharsalus, in 44 BC.
  • Some even think it was meant to continue all the way to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

The latter two theories, in particular, suppose that Lucan intended to write a work many times larger than what we have. The 10-book poem we have today covers a total of 20 months i.e. roughly a book per 2 months; so the 48 months to Caesar’s assassination would imply another 24 books; the 17 years (204 month) to Actium, imply another 102 books!

Another problem with the timeline continuing as far as Caesar’s assassination is that, with both Pompey and Cato dead, Lucan would have had to embark on building up a new set of characters, in particular the leaders of Caesar’s assassination, Cassius and Brutus.

Which is why Braund ends up going with the simplest hypothesis which is that Lucan’s original intent was a 12-book poem, mirroring the length of the Aeneid. The strongest piece of evidence for Lucan consciously modelling the Pharsalia on Virgil is the way Lucan introduces an extended necromantic ritual in his sixth book that deliberately parallels and inverts many of the motifs found in Virgil’s sixth book. Thus Braund goes with the view that the poem was to be 12 books long and was heading towards the suicide of Cato (as the army of Julius Caesar approached his stronghold of Utica in North Africa) held up as a model of Stoic dignity rising above tyranny.

There are a few more scenarios: one is that the Pharsalia in in fact finished, was meant to end at the end of the tenth book, and is complete as we have it. This is the view of Classicist Jamie Masters but most other scholars disagree.

But there is one last logical possibility, which is that Lucan did in fact complete the poem but, for whatever reason, the final few books of the work were lost at some point. Braund notes that little evidence has been found one way or the other, so this question will remain a matter of speculation.

11. The Roman cult of suicide

Throughout the poem suicide is praised as a noble and dignified way to take control of your life. Nothing becomes a true Roman man so much as either a) dying in battle or b) controlling the time and place of his death, especially when faced with tyranny. Thus Afranius contemplates suicide before surrendering to Caesar (book 4), Vulteius and his men actually do commit suicide, en masse, rather than be captured:

No instant is too short for a man
to kill himself; suicide is no less glorious when death
at another’s hand approaches.
(4.480)

Even Julius Caesar unashamedly tells his mutinying soldiers that, if they lose, he will commit suicide:

I shall seek
my own salvation in suicide; whoever looks back
if the foe is unbeaten, will see me stab my breast.
(7.308)

From which Lucan draws the general lesson that suicide is the ultimate way to escape from tyranny:

Yet even after the example set
by such heroes, nations of cowards still do not comprehend
how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide; so the tyrant’s
power is feared, freedom is constrained by savage weapons,
while all remain ignorant that the sword is there to deliver
every man from slavery.

For me, the careful seeding of examples of, and praise of, and defences of, suicide, strongly suggest the poem was building up to the suicide of Cato as its climax and crowning example of resistance. Thus it is that Cato himself sternly celebrates Pompey’s death after defeat:

O happy was he, whose ending
followed on defeat, the Egyptian swords
offering the death he should have sought.
He might perhaps have lived on instead
under Caesar’s rule

Because:

the highest fate
is to know when to die, and the second
best to have such death forced upon one.

The ‘highest fate’, the best thing a man can do, the greatest achievement of human reason, is to know when to die. All the more ghoulishly ironic that Lucan himself was forced to commit suicide before he could complete the depiction of his Stoic hero committing suicide.

12. Lucan and Seneca

I finished reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic weeks after reading the Pharsalia. Reviewing my notes I realise the tremendous overlap in ‘philosophy’, namely the absolutely central role played in both texts by suicide as escape from tyranny. It is the central theme of both works. But as I point out in my review of the letters, suicide my be an acceptable theme for a poem, but not for a really long work of moral exhortation (the letters) which claim to be instructions on how to live and think. Personally, I recommend not thinking about suicide every moment of every day, as a healthier way to live.

Modern views

Since the Enlightenment the Pharsalia has commonly been considered a second rank offering, not in the same league as the king of the Roman epics, the Aeneid. But in recent decades more sophisticated literary analysis has brought out how the poem’s ‘studied artifice enacts a complex relationship between poetic fantasy and historical reality’.

His narrative of the civil war is pared down to a bare minimum; but this is overlaid with a rich and varied virtuoso display of learning which reflected contemporary interests. (Braund, Introduction, page 37)

All I can add is that I found the Pharsalia a surprisingly gripping and interesting read.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon by Adolphe Yvon (1875)


Related links

Roman reviews

Tristia by Ovid

How wretched to live among tribal natives
for him whose name was once a household word.
(Tristia book 4, poem 1, lines 67 and 68)

What I seek is not praise but pardon.
(Tristia book 1, poem 7, line 31)

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
(Tristia, book 3, poem 7, lines 43 and 44)

America-based British academic Peter Green has published an impressive number of books about the ancient world – numerous histories and essays, along with many translations from ancient Greek and Latin.

Among these are two volumes of translations of the Roman poet Ovid for Penguin books: a portmanteau volume titled The Erotic Poems of Ovid, which includes Amores, The Art of Love and The Cure for Love, and this volume, The Poems of Exile, which includes Ovid’s last two works, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’).

These fairly long works (Tristia 103 page, Letters 90 pages) were, as the title suggests, written during Ovid’s 10-year-long and miserable exile at a town called Tomis, on the Black Sea (now the coastal resort of Constanca in Romania).

(Apparently it is important to distinguish between exile (deportatio) – where the banished person lost their Roman citizenship and all their property – and Ovid’s condition, which was the lesser punishment of relegatio, whereby he retained his citizenship and his property – very important for the ongoing life of his wife and daughter back in Rome, see note p.225 among others.

Ovid’s career

Born in 43 BC Ovid was a fluent and prolific poet who made his reputation with a series of books about love, treated in a cynically witty, urbane style:

  • first there was a set of letters supposedly written by women from myth and legend (the Heroides)
  • then the stylish Amores (‘Love poems’) which followed in the line of elegiac love lyrics pioneered by Catullus and developed by Tibullus and Propertius. The Amores were published in 16 BC
  • but most successful, and scandalous, was the Ars Amoris (‘The Art of Love’) which I thought might be a philosophical-moral treatise but turns out to be an extremely cynical, worldly guide to picking up women, preferably married women, for an illicit affair, closer to the world of Tinder and modern pickup artists than Plato or Castiglione. The Ars Amoris was published around 1 BC

Around the age of 40, Ovid made a significant shift in subject matter to produce the vast Metamorphoses, an encyclopedic collection of ancient myths and legends linked by the common topic of physical transformation i.e. tales of men and women who were changed by the gods or magic or fate into flowers, trees, animals, rivers and so on.

The poem contains flattering references to the emperor Augustus (who effectively ruled Rome single handed between 27 BC and his death in 14 AD) and leads up to a description of the apotheosis (conversion into a god) of Augustus’s adoptive father, Julius Caesar and then fulsome praise of Augustus himself. Metamorphoses was published in 8 AD.

Ovid was half way through writing a work which contains even more flattering references to Augustus and his extended family, the Fasti, a long poetic account of the Roman calendar which sets out to explain the origins and aspects of Rome’s numerous religious festivals, anniversaries and important dates – when he received an angry summons to the emperor’s personal presence, was given a fierce dressing down and instructed to pack his bags because he was being sent into exile (or to be precise relegatio). He was ordered to go and live in the wretched frontier town of Tomis, in the only partly-pacified province of Moesia, on the coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Romania.

Born in 43 BC, Ovid was 51 in late 8 AD when he was sent into exile.

Ovid’s exile

Why? What had he done which was so outrageous? For the last ten years of his life (8 to 18 AD) Ovid wrote these two books – 50 or so letters in which he pleaded with all his friends back in Rome to beg the emperor to change his mind and rescind his banishment, and 50 or so poems in which he gave poetic expression to the changing moods of an exile. But although he refers to the causes of his exile quite a few times, he never specifies exactly what it was.

To be precise, Ovid attributes his exile to two causes. One was that his recklessly cynical and amoral pickup guide The Art of Love offended against the very serious efforts of Augustus to restore traditional morality among Rome’s aristocracy, particularly when it came to marriage – banning adultery and rewarding fidelity and especially the parenting of children who should be brought up in a traditional, settled married environment. The Art of Love, as a guide to how to start and maintain adulterous affairs, flew straight in the face of everything Augustus was trying to achieve.

But Ovid himself thinks Augustus’s citing of this poem as a cause for exiling him was a smokescreen for a deeper reason. This he refers to repeatedly as his error but, infuriatingly, tells us his lips are sealed and he won’t explain it. For 2,000 years scholars have been forced to speculate.

Political – maybe was present at discussions about a coup to overthrow Augustus; maybe he was a witness to a secret marriage of Julia – either way Ovid’s hints imply that he himself was never part of a conspiracy, never carried out any action: but that he witnessed something and then, apparently, failed to report it.

The Tristia are accessible and enjoyable

I really struggled with Anne and Peter Wiseman’s prose translation of Ovid’s Fasti, several times thinking I’d have to give up reading the work altogether. It was only when I switched to A.S. Kline’s online verse translation that I was able to finish wading through the often very obscure and confusing text.

By contrast Peter Green’s verse translations of the Tristia and The Letters from Pontus are a delight to read. Above all, unlike long sections of the Fasti, it’s obvious what they’re about. Whether he’s describing the long stormy journey by sea to Tomis, or sending his book back to Rome, or praising his wife for her loyalty, or castigating an old friend for abandoning him, or begging Augustus for forgiveness, or saying his frivolous love poetry didn’t deserve to bring such a harsh fate down on their author’s head – the subject matter is obvious and the development of the argument almost always easy to follow.

Peter Green’s translation

This is immensely helped by Peter Green’s fresh, zingy, accessible translation. In fact there are two very strong points about this edition. One is the translation, which has an enjoyably flexible, rolling rhythm about it. The second is Green’s notes. Wiseman’s notes for the Fasti were sensible but fairly brief, restrained, limited. By contrast Green’s notes are almost long as the texts themselves (Tristia text 103 pages, Green’s notes 90 pages).

Green is gloriously unbuttoned, chatty, opinionated, fluent, garrulous. Tristia is divided into 5 books and each book gets a page or so of introduction explaining when it was written, describing Ovid’s changing tone of voice and approach as the books progress.

Then each poem in each book gets a page introduction to itself, before we get onto notes for specific references: these introductions describe what the poem is about, how it differs from other poems or echoes or repeats certain themes, how it riffs off this or that ancient genre or trope. Green freely discusses contemporary history, Ovid’s family relationships, the climate and people of Tomis, the theories of other scholars (for example, whether the poems are arranged in careful order or are more random) and so on, in a buttonholing garrulous manner which I found immensely interesting and entertaining.

And it is all immensely helpful for understanding how the tone and approach of the books changed over the long 10 years during which they were written; at understanding the genres or rhetorical conventions of Latin poetry which they invoke, copy or modify; for understanding the complex matrix of cross references Ovid sets up between them; and, on the simplest bucket level, understanding the historical events, the real historical people or the mythical personages which the poems refer to.

Instead of a set of standalone, isolated factual explications, Green’s notes are more like one vast essay of commentary and explication. His notes are easily as interesting to read as the poems.

Book 1 (11 poems)

1.1 (128 lines)

Little book – no, I don’t begrudge it you – you’re off to the City
without me, going where your only begetter is banned!

This is the envoi to book 1 and addresses the book as a sentient being which he is sending to Rome to argue on his behalf. This was an established literary convention (used by Catullus and Horace among others) but differs from its predecessors in introducing the recurrent theme that the book will argue for forgiveness and an end to his exile.

1.2 (110 lines)

‘You gods of sea and sky’ – what’s left me now but prayer? –
‘Don’t, break up our storm-tossed ship:
don’t, I beseech you, endorse great Caesar’s fury!’

Description of the violent storms which Ovid endured on his journey by ship across the Mediterranean in December 8 AD, with some poking fun at traditional descriptions and epic conventions around describing storms at sea.

1.3 (102 lines)

Nagging reminders: the black ghost-melancholy vision
of my final night in Rome,
the night I abandoned so much I dearly treasured,
to think of it, even now, starts tears…

Ovid paints the scene of his departure from Rome, the weeping and wailing of his servants and family, especially his (third) wife. With typical irony (and mocking epic convention) he compares himself briefly to Aeneas leaving Troy. More to the point he emphasises that his error was a mistake and not a deliberate crime.

1.4 (28 lines)

Dipped now in Ocean, the She-Bear’s stellar guardian
is stirring up stormy seas: yet here am I
constrained, not by my will, to plough the Adriatic…

Another description of his stormy journey, notable for the description of the figurehead of Minerva at the prow of the ship (Roman and Greek vessels carried painted figureheads of gods, to whom the crew prayed if they got into trouble).

1.5 (84 lines)

Friend, henceforth be reckoned the foremost among my comrades,
who, above all others, made your fate your own,
who first, I recall, when the bolt struck, dared to support me
with words of comfort…

Ovid praises the handful of friends who stuck by him when most of his fairweather friends bolted as soon as Augustus’s wrath struck his home. This passage, and Ovid’s plight generally, remind me much of Oscar Wilde’s sudden, fateful reversal of fortune, from talk of the town to almost complete abandonment by all but a handful of real friends:

Before my house’s downfall
visitors thronged the place, I was à la mode
if not ambitious. The first tremor sent them running…

In the second half of the poem Ovid wittily but bitterly compares himself to Ulysses who made a long and painful journey by sea, but the poet uses the extended comparison to bring out obvious differences, namely that Ulysses was a rough tough warrior, whereas Ovid is a sensitive poet unused to rough conditions; and that Ulysses was heading home to his loving wife and family whereas Ovid is heading away from everything that he loves.

1.6 (36 lines)

Not so dear was Lyde to the Clarian poet, not so truly
loved was Bittis by her singer from Cos
as you are deeply entwined, wife, in my heart…

In praise of his wife’s loyalty, including the (repeated so often as to become hackneyed) comparison with Ulysses’ loyal wife, Penelope. It ends with another theme which was to be repeated scores of times, the notion that his exile has killed off his former self, old Ovid is dead, and the old poetic exuberance borne of his high-flying social life is extinguished – but still the old dead suffering ex-poet can still squeeze out a few last lines:

Alas, my verses possess but scanty strength, your virtues
are more than my tongue can proclaim,
and the spark of creative vigour I once commanded
is extinct, killed off by my long
misfortunes. Yet in so far as our words of praise have power
you shall live through these verses for all time.

1.7 (40 lines)

Reader, if you possess a bust made in my likeness,
strip off the Bacchic ivy from its locks!
Such signs of felicity belong to fortunate poets:
on my temples a wreath is out of place.

A poem to a friend who’s stuck by Ovid, but which is really about the condition of the works Ovid leaves behind him in Rome. The poem claims that Ovid threw his copy of the Metamorphoses into the fire, and that it was unfinished, had yet to have a final revision:

…because the poem was still unfinished, still
in rough draft… it lacks my final hand:
a job snatched from me half-done, while still on the anvil,
a draft minus the last touch of the file.

1.8 (50 lines)

A poem of bitter reproach to an old friend who dumped him when trouble struck, scholars identify as the poem Macer, related to Ovid’s third wife, with whom he travelled through Greece and Asia Minor when he was a student. The poem opens with the rhetorical trope called adynaton meaning ‘impossibility’, similar to the modern saying ‘when hell freezes over’.

Back from the sea now, back to their sources shall deep rivers
flow, and the Sun, wheeling his steeds about,
run backward; earth shall bear stars, the plough cleave heaven,
fire shall give forth water, and water flames,
all things shall move contrary to the laws of nature,
no element in the world shall keep its path,
all that I swore impossible will happen now: there’s nothing left
that I can’t believe. This I prophesy after my betrayal by that person
who, I’d believed, would aid me in my distress…

1.9 (66 lines)

Reader, should you peruse this work without malice, may you
cross life’s finishing-line without a spill!

A poem to a faithful friend, notable for reminding friends who hesitate to support him that Augustus has demonstrated a capacity for clemency and respects those who stay loyal to friends and cause, even if they opposed him. Ovid says he wishes now he had never taken up the wretched art of poetry, seeing as where it’s led him. And repeats other recurring tropes: that the cynical amorality of the Ars Amatoria had nothing to do with his own private life which was chaste and faithful; and that it was a joke, a joke for God’s sake.

1.10 (50 lines)

I have (may I always keep!) blonde Minerva’s protection: my vessel
bears her painted casque, borrows her name.

In contrast to the earlier poems about storms at sea, this is a poem in praise of the good ship Minerva which brought him to a harbour in eastern Greece where they docked, Ovid unloaded and continued his journey by land, but the second half of the poem is an envisioning of the voyage back the ship will take, studded with famous placenames and historical references and calling down blessings on the good ship Minerva.

1.11 (44 lines)

Every word you’ve read in this whole book was written
during the anxious days
of my journey: scribbling lines in mid-Adriatic
while December froze the blood…

A poem highlighting the contrast between the lazy peaceful couch on which he composed his great works back in Rome, and the storm-tossed ship on which he tried to write poems on the blustery, brine-drenched journey East.

If these lines fall short – as they do –
of your hope: they were not written, as formerly, in my garden,
while I lounged on a favourite day-bed, but at sea,
in wintry light, rough-tossed by filthy weather, spindrift
spattering the paper as I write.

Book 2 (578 lines)

Book 2 stands out because instead of a set of 10 or so shorter poems it is one longer poem of 578 lines. Green cites earlier scholars who consider the poem a suasoria, meaning:

Suasoria is an exercise in rhetoric: a form of declamation in which the student makes a speech which is the soliloquy of an historical figure debating how to proceed at a critical junction in his life. (Wikipedia)

Or maybe a legal argument, to be presented in court. It consists of:

  1. the exordium – attempt to placate the judge (Augustus) (lines 1 to 26)
  2. the propositio – outlining the speaker’s aim (27 to 28)
  3. the tractatio – the handling or treatment in which the case is unfolded at length (29 to 578); this can be sub-divided into:
    1. probatio or proof of evidence (29 to 154)
    2. epilogus 1 or first conclusion, entering a plea for mitigation of sentence
    3. refutatio or rebuttal of the charge (Ovid argues that his poetry never corrupted anyone because to the pure all things are pure and to the corrupt, anything is corrupt) (207 to 572)
    4. epilogus 2 or second conclusion, again calling for clemency

In other words, even more than

Book 3 (15 poems)

These poems were composed in 9 to 10 AD. The first excitement of the journey into exile, undertaken in December 8 AD and vividly described in book 1, is over. He has spent one winter in Tomis and now knows the role freezing bitter cold is going to play in his life. And it is dawning on him that this exile isn’t for a year or so, isn’t a game which will come to an end – but is the bitter condition for the rest of his days.

3.1 (82 lines)

‘I’m an exile’s book. He sent me. I’m tired. I feel trepidation
approaching his city – kind reader, lend a hand.’

Book 3 poem 1 repeats the conceit of book 1 poem 1 in conceiving the book as envoy except that whereas in book 1 Ovid had been outside the book, sending it as the author, this poem speaks in the voice of the book itself. This allows the book itself to find its way through Rome in order to seek out readers, a library to stay in, and the palace of the great Augustus (who, for the umpteenth time, Ovid begs for forgiveness). In so doing, the poem provides an interesting and historically useful guide to the layout of the Rome of his day. He is as conscious as ever of the role the Ars Amoria plays in his personal disaster, something so well known that he has his book tell anyone encountering not to fear:

‘Have no fear: I won’t turn out an embarrassment to you:
no instructions about love, not one page,
not a syllable. So bleak my master’s misfortunes, he shouldn’t
try to camouflage them with light verse,
though that sport of his green years, that frivolous disaster
he now – too late, alas! – detests and condemns.
See what I bring you’ll find nothing here but lamentation,
verse matching its circumstances…’

The book’s tour of Rome, appropriately, at Asinius Pollio’s library

3.2 (30 lines)

So it was my destiny to travel as far as Scythia,
that land lying below the Northern pole,
and neither you, Muses, not you, Leto’s son Apollo,
cultured crowd though you are, gave any help
to your own priest…

Ovid makes the theme clear: he is a soft poet, not used to a hard life (‘an escapist, born for leisured comfort’), his erotic poetry was a joke, a pose, he was never a libertine in real life (‘my poetry’s more wanton than my life’). But now all that’s dead and gone.

The journey to Tomis was so stormy and colourful it helped to distract him from the misery of exile, even inspired him a bit. But now the hard fact of exile has hit him and his existence has settled into a monotonous drudge – it’s cold, it’s boring and it’s dangerous. Now ‘weeping is my only pleasure’. Now he yearns for death.

In the poem he knocks at the door of his own sepulchre door, which he finds stubbornly shut against him. (Green makes the typically illuminating comment that this is an inversion of the trope of the paraclausithyron, the image of the poet keeping watch morosely outside the locked door of his beloved, well established in the elegiac tradition and which Ovid had himself used in the Amores.

3.3 (88 lines)

If perhaps you’re wondering why this letter’s drafted
by another’s hand, I’ve been, am, sick,
sick, and at the unmapped world’s remotest limits,
scarce certain of my survival.

Ovid is ill and depressed. He lists the tribulations of exile: cold climate, impure water, depressing landscape, no proper housing, bad diet, no doctors to treat his illness, no friends’ conversation to distract him. He addresses his wife, swearing she’s the only woman he thinks about, he said her name during the delirium of his illness. He imagines his death. He writes his own epitaph.

3.4A (lines 1 to 46)

Ah friend, my dear care as always, though in harsh circumstances
first truly assayed, after my world’s collapse,
if you’ve any respect for the lessons experience has taught me,
live for yourself, keep far from all great names…

A poem to an unnamed friend, advising him to live a discrete, retired life, not to make grand acquaintances, not to fly too high lest, like poor Ovid, he be blasted by Jove’s thunderbolt. (The comparisons of Augustus with Jupiter, and the decision to exile Ovid falling on him like the god’s thunderbolt, appear in virtually all the poems, quickly becoming a part of their standardised litany of complaint.) He warns his friend to:

Live without rousing envy, enjoy years of undistinguished
ease and delight…

3.4B (lines 47 to 78)

A region that neighbours the polar constellations
imprisons me now, land seared by crimping frost…

The poem begins by lamenting the frozen waste he finds himself in, such that Rome and its familiar landscapes now linger on only in his memory. Next to them, his wife, whose image haunts him. And then his loyal friends. He asks them not to forget him, to do what they can to lend a hand to his cause.

3.5 (56 lines)

Our friendship was new and slight: you could have denied it
without any trouble. (You’d have not, I think,
embraced me more closely had my vessel been driven
on by a favouring wind.)

While some of his old friends have abandoned him, the (unnamed) addressee of this poem stuck by him despite being a new acquaintance. Ovid thanks and praises him, then asks that he use his eloquence to argue his cause before the emperor.

Again and again and again Ovid insists he did no wrong, he merely witnessed something and failed to report it: he committed no crime except simply having eyes. Here there’s one of the longest passages describing this, 10 lines of exculpation, emphasising that he committed an error but – as he repeats just as often – shying away from explaining the nature of this ‘error’. God, I can see why it’s driven 2,000 years of scholars mad with frustration.

3.6 (38 lines)

The bond of friendship between us, carissimo, you neither
wish to dissimulate, nor could if you so wished…

To his best friend, praising his loyalty, saying he’s shared everything with him – except the nature of the ‘offence’ which got him banished. If he’d shared it, his friend would have joined him in exile, indicating what a toxically powerful secret it must have been.

He repeats the claim that he, Ovid, didn’t do anything, merely witnessed something – so that it’s his eyes which are to blame. He says that even to hint at his crime would be ‘great risk’. He says it is better buried in deepest night. He asks his friend to help and intercede on his behalf with angry Jupiter.

3.7 (54 lines)

Go quickly, scribbled letter, my loyal mouthpiece,
and greet Perilla for me. Her you’ll find
either sitting in the company of her sweet mother
or among her books and poems…

A sweet and touching poem to his step-daughter, Perilla (his wife’s daughter by an earlier husband), now a young woman. Surprisingly, it turns out that she is a poet too, her talent spotted and nurtured by her dad. They often read their poems to each other. He praises her and tells her, if she’s worried about his fate, that she’ll be fine so long as she doesn’t set out to teach anyone about love (Ovid’s writing of The Art of Love having been given out as the official reason for his banishment).

It ends with a triumphant assertion of the supremacy and triumph of art. Age may wither her, the emperor’s punishment has blasted him – everything can be taken from them, and yet:

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
Look at me – I’ve lost my home, the two of you, my country,
they’ve stripped me of all they could take,
yet my talent remains my joy, my constant companion:
over this, Caesar could have no rights…

Caesar will die, yet so long as Rome exists, Ovid will be read. It must have been an optimistic claim, made to keep his spirits up and yet, 2,000 years later, amazingly… it’s true!

3.8 (42 lines)

Now I wish I were high aloft in the car of Triptolemus
who flung the untried seed on virgin soil…

He wishes for the paraphernalia of various mythological figures so he can fly back to Rome, then pulls himself up short. Fool! Instead of old legends he should be petitioning the real Augustus in the here and now. If not to end his exile at least to move him somewhere else. The wretched climate, the lack of all amenities and civilised companionship is sapping his spirit, making him ill. God, why didn’t Augustus just kill him outright and be done with it?

3.9 (34 lines)

Here too, then, there are – who would credit it? – Greek cities
among the wild place-names of barbary: here too
colonists, sent out from Miletus, founded Greek outposts
on Getic soil…

An aetiological poem i.e. one which explains a modern custom, practice or place name in terms of a myth or legend. In this case Ovid derives the name of his exile town, Tomis, from the old story that the witch Medea, having fled her homeland, saw the sail of the ship of her father, Aeëtes, approaching and, in panic, conceived a plan to delay him so she could make a getaway. The plan? To rip to shreds her brother and scatter his body parts about the shore, thus forcing her father to collect them together for a proper funeral pyre. In Latin the (false) etymology relates tomé, a noun meaning the act of chopping up, with Tomis.

Green’s notes tell us that a) aetiological poems were a speciality of the Hellenistic poet, Callimachus (305 to 240 BC) and b) Roman aetiological poems almost always get the etymology and derivation of words wrong. Odd that we, 2,000 years later, know more about their customs and, especially their language, than they did.

3.10 (78 lines)

If anyone there still remembers exiled Ovid, if my
name survives in the City now I’m gone,
let him know that beneath those stars that never dip in Ocean
I live now in mid-barbary, hemmed about
by wild Sarmatians, Bessi, Getae, names unworthy
of my talent!

A long vivid poem giving a rare description of what Tomis was actually like, or the landscape around it. To be precise Ovid focuses on the bitter freezing winter weather and the way the many mouths of the river Danube which enter the Black Sea close to the town freeze over. Not only that but the sea itself freezes: he knows, he’s walked on frozen waves.

But it’s worse, it’s not just that it’s cold: normally the river acts as a barrier against barbarian tribes but when it freezes they can ride over it and raid nearby villages. Some peasants flee, leaving their farms and possessions to be looted by the raiders. Some are shackled and led off to slavery. Some die in agony because the raider’s sharp arrowheads are dipped in poison. What they can’t steal, the barbarians burn to the ground.

3.11 (74 lines)

Whoever you are, vile man, who scoff at my misfortunes,
and with bloody zeal fling charges at me – you
were born from the rocks, by wild beasts’ udders nurtured
with flints, I’ll swear, in your breast…

A bitter recrimination against some (unnamed) enemy who is bad mouthing and savaging his character back in Rome. Why make a miserable man more miserable? Ovid laments the coldness, the isolation, he can’t speak the natives’ language, he suffered cruelly on the journey out, now he lives in terror of the violent tribesmen. O vile calumniator, why hit an unfortunate man when he’s down?

3.12 (54 lines)

West winds now ease the cold: at the year’s closure
a longer-than-ever winter must yield at last,
while the Ram (that bore Helle – and dropped her) now equalises
the hours of darkness and light…

March 10 AD. The first half of the poem is a vivid celebration of the sights and sounds of spring back in Rome and the Italian countryside, spring flowers, children playing in the fields, men exercising, the roar of crowds at the theatre.

Then the volta or ‘turn’ to contrast his sad isolated existence. For Ovid Spring means the very slow thaw of the ice, some water runs a bit free in the cistern. Wine left outside no longer freezes solid in the bottle. The Danube flows again and the Black Sea becomes navigable and so, once in a blue moon, a ship may arrive from Rome and Ovid will avidly question the captain for even the slightest scraps of gossip which can, for a moment, revive his link to his long-lost homeland.

3.13 (28 lines)

My birthday god’s here again, on time – and superfluous:
what good did I get from being born?
Cruel spirit, why come to increase this wretch’s years of exile?
You should rather have cut them short…

The Greeks considered the genethliakon or ‘birthday poem’ a genre in its own right, with its own rules and stock imagery. It’s here to mark Ovid’s birthday. He was born on 20 March 43 BC so, if this poem was written in 10 AD, he was 53.

But Ovid deliberately reverses all the conventions of the birthday poem. For example, he curses the birth god (the natalis) who oversaw his birth. It would have been more merciful to have let him die as a baby, or never be born at all, rather than endure this misery. Instead of the customary toga and ritual thanksgivings on his birthday, he’d prefer an altar of death.

3.14 (52 lines)

Patron and reverend guardian of men of letters, you always
befriended my talent – but what’s your attitude now?
In the days before my downfall you used to promote me –
and today?

Scholars consider the addressee of this poem to have been Caius Julius Hyginus, director of the Palatine library, patron of young poets, and a close friend in the old days back in Rome. The poem echoes the themes of books and libraries announced in poem 3.1, in other words they form bookends ti the volume.

Ovid hopes Hyginus is still supportive of his work. Books are like children, they can remain behind in the city even when the father is exiled. Ovid refers to the fact that his erotic poems (The Art of LiveThe Cure For Love) have been banned and removed from all libraries, but hopes the others are read.

Interestingly, he is at pains to emphasise that the Metamorphoses was left unfinished (a claim which consciously or unconsciously compares him with Virgil’s famously unfinished masterpiece, the Aeneid).

Then he turns to the present book, ‘a missive from the world’s end’, and asks Hyginus to be indulgent and remember the context of its writing: Ovid fears his talent has withered, he has forgotten his Latin, here in a place surrounded by barbarian tongues and threatened every day with violent attack, he worries all his stylishness has been rubbed off him. Please make allowances.

Book 4 (10 poems)

4.1 (106 lines)

Whatever defects there may be – and there will be – in these poems,
hold them excused, good reader, by the times
in which they were written. An exile, I was seeking solace,
not fame…

In the envoi to book 4 Ovid asks the reader’s indulgence, and to consider the miserable exile. His only true and steadfast companion is his Muse. He tells us how slaves, chained rowers, slave girls, manual labourers, sing songs to pass the time, as did the legendary figures Orpheus and even Achilles, sulking in his tent.

And so Ovid in exile. He ought to curse the avocation which led him to write the love guide which led to his downfall, but he can’t: he’s hooked. Writing transports him away from his miserable situation, drugs him, like the potions which numbed the lotus eaters.

What is he drugging himself from? The horrible situation of living in a walled defensive town liable to attack at any moment from barbarian tribes. He describes the way the way the alarm goes and he has to buckle on a sword although he’s 60 years old! He repeats the description of the way the raiders capture, shackle and lead off to slavery local farmers, or just shoot them with poisoned arrows and leave them to die.

Once again he laments that there is no-one at all to read his poems to who will understand them let alone appreciate them. Sometimes he waters the paper with his tears. Sometimes he crunches them up and throws them in the fire. What has survived he presents in this book and craves our indulgence.

4.2 (74 lines)

Already fierce Germany, like all the world, confronted
by the Caesars, may well have bent her knee
in surrender…

He imagines the full panoply of celebrations surrounding what he assumes must be Tiberius’s victories in Germany, including the sacrifices in temples and the great public triumphant procession through Rome, all under the guiding vision of beneficent Augustus.

The poem switches to meditate on the process of imagination itself, by which he is imagining and visualising all this, for his imagination, his mind’s eye, can go where he, alas, never again can.

4.3 (84 lines)

He asks the stars of the new constellation to turn their eyes upon his wife, ‘sweetest of wives’. He hopes she is missing him. Then addresses her directly and asks a series of rhetorical questions itemising her grief (when she looks at his untouched pillow in their marital bed, does she weep?)

Yet, to be honest, he wishes he had died. Then she would have something simple and pure to weep over, instead of his agonising shame, and the fact that he lives, but forever inaccessible to her. She supported him and was so proud of his achievements, for so long. Please don’t be ashamed of him, now. Defend him. Intercede for him.

4.4 (88 lines)

O you who with your high birth and ancestral titles
in nobility of character still outshine
your clan, whose mind mirrors your father’s brilliance
while retaining a brilliance all your own…

An appeal to Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalinus, the eldest son of Ovid’s patron (recently deceased), Messalla Corvinus. Ovid sings Valerius’s praises but as the poem proceeds it becomes clear he never really knew the boy and is trying to curry favour because of the connection with his (now dead) father.

This leads Ovid into embarrassed contortions, and apologies, before going on to the usual litany of self-exculpation (‘it wasn’t a crime, it was an error‘) before begging Valerius to intervene with Augustus to ask for his exile to be, if not revoked, that at least he be moved somewhere better, safer from raids by barbarians, hot for blood and plunder, some of whom are cannibals.

4.5 (34 lines)

A sycophantic poem addressed to Messalinus’s younger brother, Marcus Valerius Cotta Maximus although, as with all the Tristia the addressee is not explicitly named – because Ovid knew it would do nobody any good to be associated with his disgrace, his exile, his crime. This young man was loaded and well connected. Ovid politely, discreetly, begs for his help.

Do what you safely can: rejoice in your heart that I’m mindful
of you, that you’ve been loyal to me; still bend,
as now, to your oars to bring me succour…

4.6 (50 lines)

Believe me I’m failing; to judge from my physical condition
I’d say my troubles have a scant
future remaining – I lack my old strength and colour,
there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones;
yet sick though my body is, my mind is sicker
from endless contemplation of its woes…
(lines 39 to 44)

Two winters have passed (of 9 and 10 AD) so scholars think this poem was written in 11. Ovid is tired, worn down, sick in mind and body, and has one hope left – ‘that my troubles may be soon cut short by death’.

4.7 (26 lines)

Twice has the Sun approached me after the chills of icy
winter, twice rounded his journey off
through the sign of the fish.

The sign of the Fish enters the Sun in February so scholars date this poem to 11 AD. Ovid reproaches a dear old friend (unnamed like all the addressees of these poems) for not writing to him, hoping he has written, but that the letters have got lost on the long, fraught journey to the outer reaches of the empire.

4.8 (52 lines)

Already my temples are mimicking swans’ plumage,
and hoary age bleaching my once-dark hair;
already the frail years are on me, the age of inertia,
already my infirm self fins life too hard…

He has grown old. Ships, racehorses, charioteers, old soldiers, all these get to be pensioned off – why not an old poet? Why can’t an old poet be set free from his miserable exile and allowed to return?

At my time of life I shouldn’t be breathing this alien
air, or easing my thirst at Getic wells,
but dividing my days between those peaceful country gardens
I once possessed, and the pleasures of human life,
the human round…

4.9 (32 lines)

Ovid is ferociously angry with an unnamed enemy who has been bad-mouthing the powerless poet back in Rome. Ovid calls down vengeance on him – ‘then luckless sorrow will perforce take arms’ – and promises that his angry words will travel the world and last for generations to come – as they, indeed, did.

Although
I’m sequestered on this wasteland where the northern stars circle
high and dry above my gaze, nevertheless
my clarion message will go forth to countless peoples,
my complaint shall be known world-wide;
whatever I say shall be heard, across deep waters;
my lamentation shall find a mighty voice.

4.10 (132 lines)

This is the best known of all the 100 or so exilic poems for the simple reason that it is a versified autobiography, detailing Ovid’s early life and career, his decision to choose poetry and art over a career in public service, then the inevitable story of his erotic poetry – emphasising, as always, the clear distinction between his promiscuous poetry and his respectable personal life. And then on to his notorious ‘error’ and so into exile.

He dwells on the deaths of his elder brother, which left him maimed. Later the deaths of his father then mother, and he thinks them lucky to have led long blameless lives. Maybe from Elysium they can hear him when he assures them (for the umpteenth time) that his exile was caused by an error not a crime.

When a youth the older poets were like gods to him. Old Macer read him his latest poems. Propertius and he had ‘a close-binding comradeship between us’. Horace, ‘that metrical wizard’, held them spellbound to the sound of the lyre. Virgil he only saw, never spoke to. Tibullus died young, before he could make his acquaintance. He thinks of the elegiac poets as being, in chronological order, Gallus (whose entire oeuvre is lost), Tibullus, Propertius then himself (interesting that he doesn’t mention Catullus).

He lists his three marriages, the first wife ‘worthless and useless’, the second wife died young, and now his long third marriage. His daughter makes him a grandfather. He is growing old when the thunderbolt falls, and he is sent into exile.

The cause (though too familiar to everyone) of my ruin
must not be revealed through testimony of mine.

After a long and gruelling journey (again and again he compares himself to Ulysses) he arrives in his wretched place of exile and now, his only remaining solace is writing poems, when he can. Again, he repeats the idea that everything else is lost, but his talent, his gift, and the Muse which brings it, remain.

Book 5 (15 poems)

Yet another Black Sea booklet
to add to the four I’ve already sent!

The fifth and final book of Tristria is different in tone from the previous four, more resigned, more limited in ambition, with less zest and irony. More tetchy, irritated, and desperate. Only one poem is descriptive (i.e describes Tomis). The other 13 are all addressed to specific individuals, half of them to his wife (more than in the previous four books put together) begging them all to get Augustus to revoke his exile or, at least, assign him somewhere warmer, safer and closer to Rome.

His references and analogies become increasingly repetitive. In every single poem he repeats that he did nothing wrong, he committed no bloodshed, it was a simple ‘error’, he merely witnessed something by accident, by mistake.

In every poem Augustus is compared to Jupiter (reasonably enough). Ovid repeatedly compares himself to Capaneus, one of the heroes of the war against Thebes who, as he led the attack on one of the city’s gates shouted that not even Jupiter could stop him now, so Jupiter promptly zapped him with a thunderbolt.

Or to Philoctetes, suffering from a wound which would never heal, for ten long years abandoned on the inhospitable island of Lemnos.

5.1 (80 lines)

I don’t correct these poems, let them be read as written:
they’re no more barbarous than their place of birth.

He warns his reader that this is not a book of sexy, frivolous poems as by Gallus, Tibullus or Propertius. They are grim and bleak, like his circumstances: ‘A dirge best fits a living death’.

He imagines a critical reader wondering why he’s bothering to write such depressing poems, and defends it as a form of crying out in pain, an action he then defends by giving half a dozen mythological examples of legendary figures crying out in unendurable pain.

He defends his erotic poetry against the charge of immorality by pointing out the only person who ever suffered because of it was him.

(Green makes the droll point that, alone of all the Augustan poets Ovid was singled out for immorality therefore undermining Augustus’s reforming legislation about marriage; and yet, as far as we know, Ovid was the only one of the famous poets to be married: neither Virgil (gay), Horace (promiscuous bachelor), nor Propertius were.)

5.2 (78 lines)

To his wife, increasingly desperate, sick and depressed.

It’s a barbarous land that now holds me, earth’s final outpost,
a place ringed by savage foes.

He accuses his wife of not putting herself out as she should on his behalf. Has she deserted him, like everyone else? He tells her to approach the emperor directly. If she won’t then he will and at line 45 the poem changes to a hymn of praise to Augustus. All the double-edged irony and wit which you can discern in the earlier references to Augustus has evaporated. Now he is on his knees, spouting extravagantly excessive praise and openly begging.

O glory, O image of the country that flourishes through you,
O hero to match the very sphere you rule.

He says it’s not the cold, nor the lack of culture among a people none of whom speak Latin, it’s the fear of attack by uncivilised barbarians, living in a small settlement protected only by one low wall, that he’s seen fighting at close quarters, that he lives in constant anxiety and insecurity. He begs Augustus to move him to some less terrifying place of exile.

5.3 (58 lines)

A poem celebrating Bacchus, god of wine, on his feast day, the Liberalia, 17 March (described in Ovid’s poetic version of the Roman calendar, the Fasti) then asking him to intercede with Augustus.

5.4 (50 lines)

From the Black Sea’s shore I have come, a letter of Ovid’s,
wearied by sea-travel, wearied by the road.
Weeping he told me: ‘See Rome, for you it’s not forbidden –
alas, how better far your lot than mine!’

Ovid repeats the conceit of having the poem speak in the first person as a letter, all the way from the shores of the Black Sea to the (unnamed) recipient in Rome, a letter able to go where he, alas, cannot, sealed with a signet ring wet with his tears.

But he emphasises that he accepts he was wrong, accepts punishment, like a broken horse doesn’t strain against the leash. He just wishes the great god who punished him will show mercy.

The letter rehearses Ovid’s grievances and bitter experiences before going on to describe the addressee as his best friend, remembering how he stuck by him when almost everyone else abandoned him, how he visited Ovid and wept and tried to console him for his sad fate.

5.5 (64 lines)

A poem to his wife. It’s her birthday so he describes going through the rituals to celebrate a birthday, namely wearing a white toga, building an altar from turf, hanging a woven wreath, lighting a fire and sprinkling wine and incense on it. He sends her a fleet of good wishes, may she have a long untroubled life. He says she has a strength of character to match Penelope or Andromache, she is a paragon of ‘uprightness, chastity, faithfulness’.

He introduces a series of classical comparisons with the thought that all those famous women from antiquity were famous because of their husband’s suffering and their loyalty – Andromache, Penelope, Evadne (wife of the recurring figure of Capaneus, blasted by Jupiter), Alcestis, Laodamia.

But she doesn’t deserve to be famous for her husband’s suffering and her share of it, and so the poem ends with a plea to Augustus to forgive him, for his wife’s sake if not his own.

5.6 (46 lines)

Poem to an unnamed friend. Ovid recriminates the friend for dropping him, now he’s in trouble, now he’s become a ‘burden’. Ovid compares him unfavourably to a raft of mythological figures famous for their loyalty. For the umpteenth time he invokes a familiar set of similes to indicate the sheer number of woes he suffers, as numerous as reeds which soak sodden ditches, or bees on Mount Hybla (famous for its honey), or ants carrying grains to their nest, or grains of sand on the seashore, or ears of wheat in a field.

5.7A (lines 1 to 24)

A short letter to an unnamed friend in which he describes himself as wretchedly miserable and gives a rare description of the native inhabitants, great hordes of tribal nomads, Sarmatians, Getae, hogging the road on their horses, each bearing a bow and quiver full of poisoned arrows, fierce faces, harsh voices, shaggy hair and beards, quick to argue and stab each other with the knives in their belts.

These are the people Ovid lives among, the elegant esteem he won for his light love verses back in Rome long, long forgotten and irrelevant in this harsh environment and violent, illiterate society.

5.7B (lines 25 to 68)

Some scholars divide the poem in two, because this second half switches from describing the grim natives of Tomis and whirls us back to Rome where he hears that his poems are now recited and applauded on the stage (the translator, Peter Green, speculates that this is for the pantomimi where an actor declaimed verses while dancers danced; sounds like ballet).

He curses his poetry which got him into such trouble, and yet he has nothing else. Here in this windswept waste amid violent, illiterate tribals, writing poetry is the only consolation he has, the only last slender link with distant Rome and his former life.

Then about language: not a single person in Tomis speaks Latin, none. Some speak a very debased form of Greek, legacy of when the town was founded centuries ago by Greeks. But most speak only the local tribal tongues. When he talks to anyone it is in pidgen-Sarmatian. He worries not only that he’s lost his style, in the absence of Latin speakers to listen to and comment on his poems – he worries that he’s forgetting Latin. And so he spends his time conversing with himself and doing writing exercises and writing these poems, holding at bay the collapse of his language skills and talent.

Thus I drag out my life and time, thus
tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes.
Through writing I seek an anodyne to misery: if my studies
win me such a reward, that is enough.

5.8 (38 lines)

Angry poem to an unnamed person who has been spreading malicious lies about him, a ‘vile wretch’ than whom no-one is lower. Once again Ovid curses this person, then emphasises the non-criminal nature of his error, praises the emperor’s clemency (hoping against hope), and hopes for the end of his exile and recall.

The early part of the poem is an interesting invocation of the goddess Fortune, whose wheel is always turning, and Nemesis, ‘hot for revenge’. Ovid says he has certainly been brought from the pinnacle of fame to miserable exile, but what makes his unnamed critic so confident the same thing won’t happen to him?

For Ovid hopes that Augustus will apply his mercy and recall him, at which point the critic will be amazed to see his face, one day, in Rome and then Ovid knows things which will secure that his critic is sent into exile!

5.9 (38 lines)

A poem to a friend who stayed loyal, Ovid claims more or less the only friend who stayed loyal and so he wishes he could a) name him (but that is forbidden for the friend’s own safety), b) devote every poem he ever writes in future to his friend’s praise.

The poem is factually interesting because it (unconsciously) brings to the fore the thought that whatever Ovid did (his notorious error) may actually have merited death. Therefore his relegatio already exemplified Augustus’s mercy, and that this may account for why no further mercy(i.e. relenting and letting Ovid return; even moving his place of exile to somewhere less inhospitable) may have been impossible for Augustus.

Behind all this is the most common interpretation of his fate which is that it was tied to something he saw being enacted in favour of Julia and her so-called ‘party’, meaning the aide of the extended Augustan family which wanted the succession to pass to a male on her side of the family.

Tiberius had had two sons by Julia, Augustus’s daughter – Gaius and Lucius, who died in 4 and 2 AD, respectively. Agrippa Postumus, Julia’s son by her first husband, Agrippa, had been unadopted and exiled in 7 AD. Julia herself was sent into exile in 8 AD, the same year as Ovid, ostensibly for immorality and widespread adultery, though conspiracy theorists from that day to this speculate that she was involved in some kind of plan to overthrow Augustus and replace the heir apparent with someone from her side of the family, or possibly a male contender who she married in the hypothetical secret marriage that Ovid hypothetically witnessed or knew about but didn’t report.

Both the Roman historians, Cassius Dio and Suetonius refer to a series of plots in the final years of Augustus’s rule, the most serious in the spring or early summer of 8 AD. Green thinks Ovid’s error was some kind of passive involvement in one of these (note p.212).

Thus the speculation engendered by Ovid’s frustrating failure, in over 100 poems of exile, to spell out what his offence was.

If it was a secret marriage, or a vow, or some kind of ceremony binding the Julia party, this explains the unremitting opposition to Ovid of the man who emerged during these years as the (reluctant) heir apparent, Tiberius, and of his scheming mother, Augustus’s second wife, Livia.

If Ovid’s error had somehow proved him sympathetic to the Julia party then not only was this the reason for his relegatio but explains why Livia made quite sure that Augustus, even if he contemplated mercy, never enacted it. And that when Tiberius came to power in 14 AD, Ovid stood no chance.

It explains why Ovid never mentions Tiberius in any of the 100 exile poems, but does mention Germanicus and Drusus, heirs in the Julian line. (Indeed, in exile Ovid reworked the first book of the unfinished Fasti to introduce a new dedication to Germanicus, Tiberius’s nephew, who Augustus had forced him to adopt in 4 AD – presumably in the hope that he would intercede with Augustus.)

It explains something which comes over in the notes – though not explicitly in the poems – which is that his friends back in Rome, in varying degrees, saw the way the wind was blowing, saw that Tiberius’s rise to power was becoming unstoppable, and so shifted allegiance to the coming man.

For all his contacts back in Rome, then, defending Ovid not only risked angering the old and visibly ailing emperor Augustus, but alienating the new master.

5.10 (52 lines)

Ovid tells his addressee he’s been in Tomis for 3 winters, watching the Danube freeze over. He ponders time: has time in general slowed down or is it only for him? In which case, is time subjective? (Well, the experience of it obviously is).

Once again he laments his location and, above all, the endless threat from marauding tribes whose only language is rape and pillage and the feeble defences (a good defensive site and a low wall) which is all that stands between Tomis and violent death. Their poisoned arrows litter the streets. Farmers dare not farm for they will be raided at any moment. Over half the population of the town are tribals, their chest-length hair, their shaggy bears, their trousers, fill him with loathing.

He knows that the townspeople regard him as the outsider, the oddity, with his soft hands and strange foreign language. Here he is the barbarian. OK, he admits, maybe it was right for him to be exiled…but to a place like this? It is cruel.

5.11 (30 lines)

The poem starts out feeling terribly sorry for his wife who, he’s learned, has been called ‘the wife of an exile’ as a deliberate insult. He grieves at the shame he’s brought upon her and tells her to be steadfast.

Then he switches, for the umpteenth time, to consider his fate. He does this to try and console his wife by making a fine legal distinction, namely that the emperor could have had him a) executed or b) fully exiled (deportatio), deprived of all rights and Roman citizenship. Instead Ovid was c) given the milder punishment of relegatio and so has retained life and estates and civil rights; to that extent, the emperor showed clemency, a punishment fitting his error, not a crime. To that extent the bastard who called his wife ‘the wife of an exile’ was wrong. So there! Little comfort, the modern reader might feel, to his lonely, distant wife.

Then in a move which feels pitifully grovelling, Ovid turns to praising the emperor, claiming his decision was just and mild, and that is why he devotes his poems to praising him:

Rightly then, Caesar, and to the very best of their powers
my poems (such as they are) proclaim your praise…

But if the interpretation that Ovid had seen something (as he repeatedly says, he didn’t do anything, his error was simply to witness, to see something) which somehow linked him with the Julia party, implicated him in a secret marriage or plan or collaboration which, in effect, was a conspiracy against the emperor and his chosen successor, Tiberius – if this was the case then it’s sadly obvious to the reader that absolutely no amount of grovellingly sycophantic hymns to Augustus would ever change Ovid’s plight. And they didn’t

5.12 (68 lines)

Reply to a friend who appears to have told him to buck up and write poems. Ovid sullenly replies there are two kinds of poems, the best ones, the real ones, require happiness and peace of mind to emerge, as inspiration (a commonplace of Roman poetry also mentioned by Horace, Tacitus, Juvenal among others). Here, in the grim outback, surrounded by barbarian tribesmen, the best he can do is squeeze out these exile elegies which are, in reality, mere vehicles for his complaints and grievances.

As to cheering up, should Priam have had fun fresh from his son’s funeral, should Niobe have held a party after all her children were killed?

Chief among the Forces undermining the peace of mind needed for composition are fear, constant fear of attack and violent death. Beside, long rusting has eaten away his talent. He is a field that’s been long unploughed and returned to stones and weeds. He is a rowboat kept out of the water that has cracked and rotting. So that explains the poor quality of the poems he now sends to Rome, such as this one itself.

Finally, a young poet is fired by ambition for renown, to be famous, numbered among the immortals. Now all that has soured to nothing. Now he wishes to be unknown, never to have been famous. His poems got him into this mess. He bitterly blames the Muses for ever inspiring him.

No-one in his remote outpost, a place of savage jabber and animal outcry’, even understands Latin, let alone the wonderful refinements and tricks he brought to it. Lastly, he admits his inspiration does still drive him to write – but he still has his standards and most of it ends up in the fire. Only ‘scraps of my efforts’, such as this very poem, survive because they have a practical purpose.

[What, 2,000 years of fans and scholars have wondered, were those poems he consigned to the flames about and how good were they? Unless this is another trope, developed solely for literary purposes, to illustrate his feelings of disgust and failure, just as he claims to have consigned his own draft of the Metamorphoses to the flames in 1.7. (note p.214)]

5.13 (34 lines)

Of all the Tristia poems this one is most like a letter in format, starting with the standard salutation (‘Good health and greetings from Ovid in his outback’) ending with the standard ‘Farewell’. In between the short poem addresses a loyal friend, possessed of ‘oak-touch loyalty’, complaining that:

  • he’s sick, the mental illness has penetrated his body, to give him a searing pain in his side (Green and scholars suspect pleurisy, triggered by the freezing climate)
  • this friend doesn’t send him enough letters to alleviate his bleak isolation

Ovid hopes the friend has not forgotten him, it’s merely the errancy of the postal service not delivering the letters. He remembers their many happy conversations, talking late into the night. Now letters between them can recreate that intimacy and intelligence. Please write.

5.14 (46 lines)

The final poem in the volume is to his wife, ‘dearer to me than myself’. It’s odd because it defines her, praises her, for sharing his suffering; it is this, her role as wife to a famous poet and tragic figure, which will make her immortal, just like Penelope, Andromache and Alcestis, Evadne and Laodameia.

To be good when there are no tribulations is easy; but to be faithful, as she has been, after the wreck of a god’s thunderbolts, ‘that is true married love/that’s loyalty indeed.’

He praises her continually and now – the poem veers in subject matter – wants her to return his devotion by appealing on his behalf. It is a sincere love poem, and that he ends the entire book with it is moving – even though a modern critic, particularly feminist, may find it objectionable, the extent to which he defines his wife solely in relationship to him. But then, he was in a dire situation.

Terms of rhetoric

Green is chatty, loquacious, garrulous, sprinkling his introductions and notes with foreign phrases (not just Latin – French and the like), references to modern poets (T.S Eliot crops up a lot [pages 217, 220, 224], so we can deduce he is an influence on Green’s translating style) and mention of ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical devices. These always interest me but I have a terrible memory for them. So here’s an (incomplete) list:

  • adynaton – a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility: ‘pigs will fly’ (note p.216)
  • apologia – a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct
  • chiasmus – (‘to shape like the letter Χ’) reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses – but no repetition of words: ‘By day the frolic, and the dance by night’
  • circumlocution – the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea; in ancient poetry it refers to poets’ habit of referring to people in terms of their relationships to someone else (‘the son of…’, ‘the wife of…’ etc) or to a place (‘the Phrygian hero’); this can often make ancient poetry difficult to read – it’s particularly common in Ovid’s Fasti which is why I found it such a demanding read (note p.219)
  • genethliakon – a poem in honour of a birthday in association with a gift or standing alone. Callim.
  • hysteron proteron – a figure of speech consisting of the reversal of a natural or rational order: ‘putting the cart before the horse’ (note p.218)
  • laudatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in praise or commendation of someone or something
  • propemptikon – a poem that wishes a departing friend or relative all the best for a prosperous trip overseas, such as 1.1
  • recusatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in which the poet says he is unable or disinclined to write the type of poem which he originally intended to, and instead writes in a different style; the Hellenistic poet Callimachus introduced the trope of saying his poetic gift was too modest to attempt great epics, so he would write frivolous love poems instead, and this trope was copied in Augustan Rome by Virgil, Horace, Propertius and Ovid
  • synkrisis – the juxtaposition of people or things with the aim of comparing them: a famous exampe is the juxtaposition of the long speeches by Caesar then Cato in Sallust’s account of the Catiline conspiracy
  • variatio – varying a theme with digressions, examples and so on
  • zeugma – (note p.220) any case of parallelism and ellipsis working together so that a single word governs two or more other parts of a sentence: ‘She filed her nails and then a complaint against her boss’

Conclusion

After struggling through both the Metamorphoses and especially the FastiTristia came as a welcome relief. Although a hundred pages long in the Penguin translation, it’s made up of short, discrete poems which you can pick up and read in a few minutes. You can immediately grasp what they’re about, what he’s saying, and immediately empathise with his feelings.

All this is hugely helped by Peter Green’s easy-going, demotic translations and his free approach to rhythm and metre which means you barely notice you’re reading poetry, in the best sense, meaning each poem flows smoothly, seems well phrased and expresses its meaning, conveys its purpose, easily and enjoyably. Surprisingly accessible and enjoyable.

And strongly helped by the fact that the editorial apparatus around the poems is so ample and informative. Not only the introduction to the entire volume, but the extremely useful introductions to each individual poem accompanied by useful notes, but also a long Glossary of named individuals and places. Altogether it makes for a full and thorough and rich and informative experience. Other translations are available, but this is one of the best, most compendious, most enjoyable volumes of Roman literature that I’ve read.


Credit

Peter Green’s translation of Tristia by Ovid was published by Penguin books in 1994. All references are to this 1994 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Fasti by Ovid

I’ll speak of divisions of time throughout the Roman year,
Their origins, and the stars that set beneath the earth and rise.
(Book 1, opening lines in the A.S. Kline verse translation)

Times and their reasons, arranged in order through the Latin year, and constellations sunk beneath the earth and risen, I shall sing.
(Anne and Peter Wiseman’s prose translation)

The word ‘fasti’

The Roman poet, Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō, generally known simply as Ovid was half-way through writing the Fasti when, in 8 AD, he was abruptly sent into exile. The Fasti was intended to be a longish poem about the Roman calendar. This is more colourful than it sounds because the Roman calendar was packed with feast days and festivals and anniversaries of great battles or constitutional landmarks, plus the dies comitiales or dates assigned for the numerous elections to the various magistracies. All of these elements had customs and traditions and legends associated with them and it was these that Ovid set out to investigate and set down in chronological order.

Astrology

Not forgetting the signs of the Zodiac. Speaking of venerable experts on astrology, Ovid says:

Following these masters I too will measure out the skies,
And attribute the wheeling signs to their proper dates.

The Romans took study of the stars very seriously. The stars themselves were arranged in constellations thought to depict various gods and heroes and monsters who had been immortalised in the sky, so you have a whole set of stories to tell right there. And the stars were also meant to exert a concealed influence on human affairs, and understanding how this worked was a special science known only to soothsayers and priests. More stories and explanations.

Unfortunately, the most striking thing about the astrological references is that they made no sense to me whatsoever. They were the most notable among many aspects of the poem which were obscure or downright incomprehensible. Thus, the entry for 23 January reads:

When the seventh rising sun from here has plunged himself into the waves, there will now be no Lyre shining anywhere in the sky. On the night coming after this star, the fire that gleams in the middle of Lion‘s chest will have been submerged. (p.17)

What’s odd is that, although the Oxford University Press (OUP) edition I set out to read (translation by Ann and Peter Wiseman) is festooned with notes, there are no notes to explain this little passage. The OUP edition has an impressively long Index of Names, from which I learn that the Lyre and the Lion are constellations, which I think I could have worked out for myself – but nothing explaining what this passage refers to, in astrological or mythological terms. It’s an odd omission and the same goes for all the other astrological passages – meaning they all remained obscure and enigmatic to me from start to finish.

The words ‘fasti’ and ‘calendar’

Originally the word ‘fasti’ meant something like legitimate or legal. Rome’s college of priests declared some days legitimate to do business (dies fasti) and other days not legitimate (dies nefasti). Slowly, by association, the word fasti came to mean list of significant or important dates.

So the poem was intended to be in 12 books, one for each month, with each month containing an introduction (and explanation of the etymology of the month’s name) before moving on to zero in on the 10 or 12 key dates in each month.

In fact the word we use, ‘calendar’, is also Latin, from kalendae, the plural of kalends. This word referred to the first day of the Roman month when debts fell due and accounts were reckoned. Kalends itself derived from the Latin verb calare meaning ‘to announce solemnly, to call out’, as the Roman priests did when they proclaimed the new moon that marked the kalends.

In Rome new moons were not calculated mathematically but observed by the priests from the Capitol. When they saw it, they would ‘declare’ the number of days till the nones (five or seven, depending on the month; the Romans didn’t number the days of the month like we do, but defined days as a certain number of days before or after key days in each month, namely the nones – 5 or 7 days into the new months – and the ides – 15 days in i.e. the middle of the month). To be more precise:

Ides – the 13th day of the month except in March, May, July and October, when the ides fell on the 15th.

Nones – nine days before the ides and so the fifth day of the month, except in March, May, July and October when it was the 7th.

Like so much Roman culture, the word calendae was directly incorporated into the early Church which replaced the pagan gods’ name days and feast days with their Christian equivalents. ‘Calendar’ kept its meaning of a list of significant days throughout the Middle Ages and only came to be regarded as an entirely neutral list of all the dates in a month and year, relatively recently.

Stories

Ovid set out to work through the year in chronological order, a book per month, stopping at significant days to explain anything interesting about them: a religious festival, name date of a god, association with this or that mythical story, and so on.

Looked at one way, this format was a peg or pretext or theme on which to hang a lot of popular stores, rather as physical transformation was the theme by which he organised the vast compendium of myths and legends in the Metamorphoses. Thus each of the books contains summaries of well-known legends or historical stories, often to explain place names within Rome itself, the names of altars or temples, or, more widely, famous stories about Rome’s founding era.

There is, inevitably, a lot about the legendary founder Romulus, and Ovid loses no opportunity to associate the emperor Augustus with him, generally pointing out how the current princeps outdoes and excels the founder.

Romulus you will give way. This man makes your walls great by defending them. You had given them to Remus to leap across. Tatius and little Cures and Caenina were aware of you; under this man’s leadership both sides of the sun are Roman. You had some small area of conquered ground; whatever there is beneath high Jupiter, Caesar has. You snatched wives; this man bids them be chaste under his leadership. You receive guilt in your grove; he has repelled it. To you violence was welcome; under Caesar the laws flourish. You had the name of master; he has the name of princeps. Remus accuses you; he has given pardon to enemies. Your father made you a god; he made his father one. (2. 1333 to 144)

I love you Augustus.

Ovid’s research

Ovid frequently and candidly shares with us the difficulty he had establishing this or that fact, rummaging through scrolls in libraries or questioning the priests. Sometimes drawing a blank:

Three or four times I went through the calendars that mark the dates and found no Sowing Day… (1.656)

I’ve set forth the custom: I must still tell of its origin:
But many explanations cause me doubt, and hold me back.
(4.783 to 784)

The reason for this month’s name’s also doubtful:
Choose the one you please from those I offer.
(6.1 to 2)

Elegiac couplets and poetic incapacity

The poem is in elegiac couplets i.e. the first line a hexameter, the second line a pentameter, the same metre Ovid had used for his Amores. This is because he still felt himself unable to write a Grand Epic (which would have to have been written in the epic metre i.e. continuous hexameters.) But book 2 opens with a recognition that he is infusing elegiacs, previously used for his frivolous love poems, with new seriousness:

Now for the first time, elegiacs, you are going under more ample sails. Recently, I remember, you were a minor work [i.e. the love poems of himself and his predecessors, Tibullus, Propertius et al].

I myself used you as ready assistants in love, when my early youth played with its appropriate metre. I am the same, but now I sing of sacred things and the times marked out in the calendar…

Characteristically, this passage goes on to emphasise Ovid’s personal brand of patriotism and then onto one of the many passages which appeal directly to Augustus:

This is my military service; we bear what arms we can, and our right hand is not exempt from every duty. If I don’t hurl javelins with powerful arm, or put my weight on the back of a warrior horse, or cover my head with a helmet, or belt on a sharp sword… – yet, Caesar, with zealous heart I follow up your names and advance through your titles. Be with me, then, and with gentle face look on my services just a little, if you have any respite from pacifying the enemy. (2.2 to 18)

The theme of his inadequacy as a poet to sing mighty matters recurs in every book:

My talent is inadequate. What presses me is greater than my strength. This is a day I must sing with exceptional strength. (2.125)

At the start of book 6 there’s an interesting moment when the queen of the gods, Juno addresses Ovid directly, describing him as:

‘O poet, singer of the Roman year,
Who dares to tell great things in slender measures…’

An interesting description of the anxiety he felt about the way elegiacs are a slender measure, and the notion that describing gods and heroes in them is a daring thing to do.

Mind you, if anyone questions his bona fides, Ovid is ready claim the special privilege of being a poet:

I’ve a special right to see the faces of the gods,
Being a bard, or by singing of sacred things.
(6.8)

Poets were thought of as sacred – the word for poet, vates, was also the word for prophet and seer – a belief echoed in Tibullus and Horace.

Ovid and Augustus

In 8 AD Augustus exiled his own daughter, Julia, when he discovered what a dissolute, adulterous life she was leading. Ovid had been part of her circle, a star of the bright young things, famed for his witty love poems and then for the scandalously successful Art of Love (published around 1 AD), which is an extended guide to picking up women and engaging in cynical affairs, preferably with married women i.e. diametrical opposite of the new stricter morality Augustus was trying to impose on the Roman aristocracy. As the translators of the Oxford University Press edition write, Ovid was tempting fate and living on borrowed time.

That said, his next work was the much more respectable Metamorphoses (published around 8 AD), a huge compendium of Greek myths and legends. And this long book leads up to an extended passage at the end, at its chronological climax, which sings the praises of Julius Caesar and Augustus. These final pages describe the wicked conspiracy to murder Julius, and then his apotheosis, his transformation into a god – a fate, the poet says in the most fulsome terms possible, which we can all confidently expect of the Great Leader Augustus as well. But first he wishes him long, long life and wise rule.

Now, in terms of Augustus’s policy of moral revival, you could argue that much of the content of the Metamorphoses is corrupting – lashings of sex and violence (and incest and torture). But a) Ovid was inheriting well-established traditional subject matter and b) the long paean to Caesar at the end was an unmistakable attempt to curry favour with the regime.

Same here, with knobs on. The Fasti opens by acknowledging Augustus’s power and that Ovid is aware that Augustus wanted epic poems celebrating his victories. Ovid goes out of his way to excuse himself and explain why he thinks himself not capable of such a high task (see the quote, above), but has nonetheless written something to praise Augustus and the regime.

Let others sing Caesar’s wars: I’ll sing his altars,
And those days that he added to the sacred rites. (1.13 to 14)

And the very third line of the poem addresses Germanicus, the handsome, brilliant and popular son of the elder Drusus, grandson of Antony, adopted son of Tiberius, and therefore grandson of Augustus. Scholars think Ovid reworked the first book in exile in order to curry favour with popular Germanicus (who had himself turned his hand to poetry when he wasn’t on military campaign in Germany) – maybe, but the rest of the poem is laced with adulation of Augustus, the great leader who has brought peace and prosperity. The entry for 13 January starts:

On the Ides in the temple of great Jupiter the chaste priest offers to the flames the entrails of a half-male ram. Every province was restored to our people [a reference to Octavius handing back authority to the people at the end of the civil wars in 27 BC, at which point the Senate awarded him the honorific ‘Augustus’] and your [i.e. Germanicus’s] grandfather was called by the name Augustus. Read through the wax images displayed throughout the noble halls: no man has achieved so great a name

Our fathers call sacred things ‘august’, ‘august’ is what temples are called when they have been duly consecrated by the hand of the priests. Augury too is derived from this word’s origin, and whatever Jupiter augments with his power. May he [Jupiter] augment our leader’s rule, may he augment his year, and may the crown of oak leaves protect your doors. [The civic crown of oak leave, granted for saving the lives of Roman citizens, was bestowed on Augustus in 27 BC and hung over the door of his house on the Palatine.]

And under the gods’ auspices, may the inheritor of so great a name, with the same omen as his father [Julius Caesar] undertake the burden of the world.

This sycophantic attitude colours every book:

The far-sighted care of our hallowed leader has seen to it that the rest of the temples should not suffer the same collapse and ruin; under him the shrines do not feel their advancing years. It isn’t enough to bind men with his favours; he binds gods as well. (2.59 to 63)

And now, when damp night induces peaceful slumbers, as you are about to pray, take a generous wine-cup in your hand and say: ‘Blessings on your gods, and blessings on you, best Caesar, father of the homeland.’ The wine once poured, let the words be well-omened. (2.635)

Long live the laurels of the Palatine: long live that house
Decked with branches of oak [i.e. Augustus’s house]
(4.953)

I’ve just realised I can give you a link to Kline’s not about Augustus, which lists every reference in the poem:

Alongside worship of Augustus and his family are recurring boomerish references to Rome’s destiny to rule the world, is a continual thread of passages promoting basic Roman patriotism in the manner pioneered by Horace and Virgil of the ‘Rome justly rules the world’ style:

Both nearest and furthest, let the world dread Aeneas’ descendants. (1. 717)

The city of Rome’s extent is the same as the world’s. (2.684)

Here Ovid has Romulus, founder, elaborately laying out the foundations for the walls of his new city and calling on the gods:

‘Let my work be done beneath your auspices.
May it last long, and rule a conquered world,
All subject, from the rising to the setting day.’ (4.830)

And of Rome more generally:

A City arose, destined (who’d have believed it then?)
To plant its victorious foot upon all the lands.
Rule all, and be ever subject to mighty Caesar,
And may you often own to many of that name:
And as long as you stand, sublime, in a conquered world,
May all others fail to reach your shoulders. (4.857 to 862)

In introductions and Wikipedia pages I’ve read that Ovid provoked the regime with his outrageous love poetry: maybe so, but reading the Metamorphoses and the Fasti makes it obvious that by 1 AD he had realised which way the wind was blowing and so packs both poems with North Korean levels of subservience to Augustus, the Great Leader, Father of his Country, the Wise Helmsman, even more so than the slavish Augustus-worship found in the Aeneid of Virgil or the Odes of Horace.

If Caesar was to take his titles from the defeated
He would need as many names as tribes on earth.

Much good it was to do him.

Who’s talking

One of the appeals of reading old or ancient literature is its oddity. If at moments the interest in sex or violence strikes us as utterly contemporary, other aspects of old literature often reveal a yawning gap between us and them; in social attitudes, in definitions of what is important or relevant or funny or tragic; and sometimes in the bare bones of storytelling.

Re. the latter, Fasti is pleasingly odd in containing a host of voices. First of all the poet addresses Germanicus in his opening dedication before going onto frequently address the reader as ‘you’, buttonholing us, telling us not only stories about gods and feasts but all about his research, how he found information in old libraries or by interviewing the priests.

But, a little more unexpectedly, the text also contains what purport to be the voices of gods themselves. Thus as early as book 1 line 100 the god Janus appears in Ovid’s study and talks to him directly. Subsequently, numerous other gods appear and speak to Ovid directly, and even submit to questioning from him about odd customs and traditions.

But there are passages where, despite the limpid OUP translation by Anne and Peter Wiseman, I had no idea who was talking.

The months

Originally the Romans had 10 months. In book 3 Ovid speculates this night be because we have ten fingers, count to ten and then start again (i.e. the decimal system) or because women give birth in the tenth month. Originally March and April started the year, followed by May and June and the remaining months were numbers – quintilis, sextilis, September, October etc – where quint means five, sext means six, sept means seven, oct means eight etc. At some point January and February were added at the start of the year to bring it up to 12 months.

January

Ianua is the Latin for door. Janus was the primeval Roman god of doorways, entrances, ends and beginnings. So it makes perfect sense that they named the first month of the year after him. Janus makes an appearance in the poem, answering a series of the poet’s questions about his origins, the nature of the calendar and more. Stories:

  • after the Romans have stolen their women, the revenge assault by the Sabines led by Titus Tatius on the Palatine hill, which they seize through the treachery of the young woman, Tarpeia, who they then crush to death with their shields
  • Priapus’s attempts to rape the nymph Lotis
  • the story of Evander sailing to Latium and his mother’s prophecy of the rise of Rome – Evander was the son of Carmentis (one of the Camenae or prophetic nymphs) and Mercury. They lived in Arcadia, in Greece, before sailing to Italy and founding the city of Pallantium, before the Trojan war, before Rome was dreamed of. He brought his Arcadian gods to Italy.
  • Hercules, en route back from Spain, having his cattle stolen by Cacus, finding them and killing Cacus – explaining the origin of the ara maxima altar dedicated to Hercules, in the middle of Rome

February

The Romans came to writing history (and other literary genres) late, copying their first efforts directly from the Greeks who were centuries ahead of them. One result of this was great uncertainty about the origins of Roman traditions, customs, festivals, landmarks, even names. So on one level the poem is an antiquarian investigation.

Ovid knows his Roman forefathers called the means of purification februa and pieces of wool used in rituals are called februa and the branch which covers a priest’s brow in a ritual. Stories:

  • the story of Arion, a legendary Greek poet, who’s captured by pirates, jumps overboard and is rescued by dolphins
  • 11 February: the story of Callisto, turned into a bear by Diana for getting pregnant by Jupiter who, years later, encounters her son out hunting who is about to kill her with bow and arrow (she is a bear) when Jupiter turns them both into constellations (Ovid told this story in Metamorphoses 2)
  • the battle between the Fabii (followers of Remus) and the Veii (followers of Romulus
  • why the constellations of the Raven, the Snake and the Bowl are together in the sky
  • why the runners in the festival of the Lupercal run naked round Rome
  • the comic tale of Faunus’s attempt to rape Omphale, Queen of Lydia and (here) mistress of Hercules
  • why the cave on the hill is called ‘Lupercal’ i.e. the story of the Vestal virgin Silvia, who was made pregnant by Mars and ordered by her scandalised uncle to abandon her newborn twins in a boat on the flooded Tiber; this comes to rest in a tree and the twins are miraculously suckled by a she-wolf
  • February 14: the myth of Corvus, Crater and Hydra
  • the origin of the worship of Lucina, goddess of childbirth
  • February 17: the apotheosis of Romulus (Ovid told this story in Metamorphoses 14); once deified, Romulus was renamed Quirinus, which caused me a lot of confusion till a note in Kline explained it (similarly confused that Quirites was the name of an ancient Italian tribe, the origin of the Romans, so frequently used as an alternative name for them)
  • origin of the so-called ‘fools’ festival’
  • story of the naiad Lara who went blabbing about one of Jupiter’s lady loves, so Jupiter had her tongue torn out and her exiled to the underworld, but Mercury raped her on the way and she gave birth to the twin Lares who guard crossroads
  • 21 February: End of the Parentalia, the Festival of the Dead
  • 27 February: The Equirria or Horse Races
  • rites and traditions surround the god of limits and borders, Terminus
  • February 24: An extended version (lines 685 to 853) of the events leading up to the expulsion of the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud: Tarquin’s son, Sextus, raped Lucretia, the wife of a friend of his, who, next day, confessed that she’d been raped to her husband and father before killing herself – hence rage against the Tarquin family, expulsion, Rome becomes a republic. (Sexual transgression is profoundly woven into the origin stories of Rome – the rape of the Sabine women, the rape of Lucretia).

March

The month of Mars derives from the Latin ‘Martius mensis’, ‘month of Mars’, the genitive of Mars being Martis. March was originally the first month of the Roman year, a number of customs mark a new beginning in March, plus the months are numbered as if starting from March (March, April, May, June, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December).

It wasn’t until Julius Caesar undertook serious research into the calendar that he enforced a fundamental revision, giving it 12 lunar months and making a year last 365 days, with an additional day every 4 years i.e. pretty much the system we use today.

  • an extended description of Romulus, starting with the scene by the riverside when the vestal virgin Sylvia falls asleep and is raped by Mars, becomes pregnant, her angry uncle Amulius king of Alba insists she leaves the twin boys exposed to die, the she wolf, the building of Rome etc etc – once triumphant, Romulus promises to make March the first month of the Roman year
  • the story of the shield that fell from heaven
  • the story of Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, she is rescued by Bacchus, called by his Roman name Liber (son of Semele); but when Liber goes to India, he returns with a new lover; so the story is about Ariadne’s recriminations (‘Let no woman trust a man!’) which guilt Liber into setting her among the stars (this soliloquy of a wrong woman reminds me of the Heroides and the same kinds of soliloquies in the Metamorphoses)
  • origin of the festival of Anna Perrenna – Ovid derives it from Dido’s sister, who has a series of colourful adventurers after Aeneas leaves and Dido kills herself, before fetching up on the shore of Latium, where she’s greeted and welcomed by Aeneas but his wife, Lavinia, suspects he’s having an affair, so a vision appears telling Anna to flee before Lavinia can take revenge and Anna flees and is swept away by the river Numicius
  • OR Anna Perenna is derived from the time the plebs seceded from Rome, set up on a hill but were running out of food, but an lady named Anna kept them supplied with bread. Mars asks her to help him seduce Minerva and Anna keeps promising to help him but herself turns up in his bedroom. This, apparently, is why bawdy stories are told at the festival of Anna Perenna – see what I mean by confusing? Obscure?
  • brief mention that it was on the Ides of March (i.e. the 15th) that Julius Caesar was murdered: his adopted son was revenged on the assassins at Philippi and other battles
  • the reason why cakes are sold on the festival of Bacchus, namely the comic story of Silenus searching for honey and getting stung
  • origin of the Quinquatrus, the five-day festival of Minerva celebrated from 19 to 23 March
  • 23 March: the Tubilustria, the festival of the purification (lustrum) of trumpets
  • 30 March: Romana Salus, the personification of the Health and Safety of Rome

Mars himself speaks to Ovid (as Janus had in book 1) giving a brief review of Rape of the Sabine Women i.e. local tribes wouldn’t intermarry with the nascent Roman (male) community so Romulus invited them to the Consualia games then abducted their marriageable women. Like all the stories it is told in a tangential way, key bits are omitted or treated as if they’ve happened without being narrated. I think the Wiseman translation is very literal, gives much of the text in Ovid’s original present tense, and this also contributes to the sense of dislocation and broken narrative.

Indeed, the focus of the Sabine Women narrative is not the rape, or the marriages or impregnations, it is the moment a year or so later when the tribes come in arms to reclaim their women and the moment when the women stand between new husbands and outraged fathers and brothers, holding up their babies and asking for peace.

April

The later Roman months are formed by adding the suffix -ilis (as in Quintilis, Sextilis), so Ovid derives the Latin word for this month, Aprilis, from the first syllable of the Greek name of Venus i.e. Aphrodite = Apr + ilis. But it could also derive from the Latin verb to open, aperire, this being the time when buds and blossoms first open.

Just as other gods appear to Ovid, here Venus appears for some light banter while Ovid explains (yet again) that in his young youth he wrote lightly of love, but now has turned his attention to more serious subjects.

Ovid explains how Venus made all beings love their mates. No Venus, no reproduction, no life on earth.

She gave the crops and trees their first roots:
She brought the crude minds of men together,
And taught them each to associate with a partner.
What but sweet pleasure creates all the race of birds?
Cattle wouldn’t mate, if gentle love were absent.
The wild ram butts the males with his horn,
But won’t hurt the brow of his beloved ewe.
The bull, that the woods and pastures fear,
Puts off his fierceness and follows the heifer.
The same force preserves whatever lives in the deep,
And fills the waters with innumerable fish.
That force first stripped man of his wild apparel:
From it he learned refinement and elegance.

Wherefore:

Goddess most fair, look always with a kindly face on the descendants of Aeneas, and protect your young wives, so numerous.

Of course Julius Caesar claimed his family, the Julii, derived from Venus: Venus bore Aeneas, whose son, Ascanius, was also known as Iuli; Iuli fathered the line that led to the Vestal Virgin Ilia, who was impregnated by Mars to give birth to Romulus and Remus. So Romulus managed to have Venus and Mars as progenitors – and Ovid gives a thorough description of both lineages.

April 4: The Megalesian Festival of Cybele, the ‘Idaean Mother’ from her original holy place, Mount Ida. Ovid asks questions about her rites and customs which are answered by one of her grand-daughters, Erato, the Muse of (erotic) poetry, thus:

  • why is the feast of Cybele accompanied by rattling music, beating shields with sticks etc? Because it commemorates the distracting din kept up by the Curetes who protected baby Jupiter from his vengeful father, Saturn

The story of Attis, a handsome youth who pledged his love to Cybele but then fell in love with someone else; Cybele turned her rival into a tree and Attis, in self-disgust, cut off his penis as do his followers.

The story of how a statue of the Great Mother (Cybele) probably a meteorite, was brought from Greece to Rome and enshrined in the centre of the city.

The story of Claudia Quinta, reputed a loose woman who disproves it by single-handedly pulling the rope and freeing the ship carrying the statue of Cybele from being run aground in the Tiber.

Erato explains that the Megalesia are the first games because Cybele gave birth to the gods and she was given the honour of precedence.

April 12: The Games of Ceres, celebrating the invention of agriculture

Ceres delights in peace: pray, you farmers,
Pray for endless peace and a peace-loving leader.

Ovid tells the story of Persephone being abducted by Dis and taken off to the underworld – which he had told in Metamorphoses book 5 – but gives it a twist by describing at great length the experience of the grieving mother (Ceres) searching everywhere for her daughter until taken in by a poor old mortal couple, then being told she has been abducted and married to Dis

April 15: The Fordicidia – the origin of the festival during which pregnant heifers are killed and sacrificed: it all stems back to an agricultural crisis during the time of Numa Pompilius and a prophecy that sacrificing pregnant heifers would end it

April 19: The Cerialia – the festival and games of Ceres; foxes are loosed carrying burning torches on their backs in memory of a legendary farmer who tried to burn a fox but it escape and carried the flames into his fields.

April 21: The Parilia – the Festival of Pales. Pales was the pre-Roman goddess of shepherds. Rome was founded on the day of her festival, the Parilia, so Ovid wonders what the customs associated with the feast (washing hands in dew and leaping over lines of wheat set on fire) can have with the founding.

April 23: The Vinalia – a wine-festival, dedicated to Jupiter and to Venus. Ovid derives it from the time of Aeneas, when Turnus, in order to win mighty Mezentius to his side, pledged half his wine harvest; Aeneas, to win the support of Jupiter, pledged to the god the wine from his vines: so it is a festival of wine dedicated to Jupiter.

April 25: The Robigalia – the festival of the goddess Mildew (robigo) personified. Ovid learns from a priest why they sacrifice the entrails of a sheep and of a dog.

April 28: The Floralia – the feast and rites of Flora, celebrated on into May.

May

Ovid confesses to being unclear about the derivation of ‘May’. He asks the Muses to help. (In case it’s slipped your mind, the nine Muses are the virgin daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne (Memory). They are the patronesses of the arts, being: Clio (History), Melpomene (Tragedy), Thalia (Comedy), Euterpe (Lyric Poetry), Terpsichore (Dance), Calliope (Epic Poetry), Erato (Love Poetry), Urania (Astronomy), and Polyhymnia (Sacred Song)). He gets three possible explanations:

1. Polyhymnia, the Muse of Sacred Song, gives a brief recap of the creation of the universe from the four elements (water, earth, wind, fire) and goes on to derive May (Maius) from Majesty (Maiestas), who is the daughter of Honour and Reverence. How Jupiter repelled the rebellion of the Giants against heaven, and so preserved Majesty who, ever since, attends him, and attends great men on earth, such as Numa and Romulus.

2. Then Urania the Muse of Astronomy takes over. She explains the possible origin of the month May (maius) from the City elders or ancestors (maiores). On this theory, the following month, June, would be named for young men (iuvenes).

3. Then Calliope, muse of Epic Poetry, gives a grander explanation, linking the month to Maia, one of the Pleiads. (The Pleiads, also known as the Seven Sisters, were the daughters of Atlas the Titan and Pleione the naiad.) Maia slept with Jupiter and bore him Mercury. May is named in honour of Maia.

Flora, the goddess of Spring and of flowering and blossoming plants, explains the origin of her festival of the Floralia which starts on 28 April and continues to 3 May: how she was raped by Zephyrus – a long description of her powers, and her role helping Juno become pregnant with Mars. She plays the same role as Janus in book 1 and Venus in book 4 i.e. appears to the poet and answers his questions about ancient festivals and place names in Rome. Her festival is associated with prostitutes and lights in the evening, joy, colour, fecundity.

May 3: story of Hercules visiting Chiron on Mount Pelion, and the accident whereby one of his poisoned darts killed the centaur, much to the distress of Achilles, his ward – because on this night the constellation of Chiron appears.

May 9: The Lemuria – the festival of the wandering spirits of the dead, called lemures, who visited their old homes, and were placated by offerings of black beans signifying the living. Ovid summons Mercury to explain, who (a typical story within a story) then relates how the ghost of Remus appeared to haunt the old couple who cared for Romulus and Remus (Faustulus and Acca). When the couple told Romulus about this ghostly appearance he named the day after his brother, the Remuria – Ovid suggesting this was also a basis for the Lemuria.

May 11: Jupiter, Neptune and Mercury are wandering the earth disguised as mortals. An old man, Hyrieus, takes them in and offers them his meagre hospitality. They offer him a wish. His wife is dead but he wants to be a father. Ovid (frustratingly) skips over the key moment but I think the story goes the three gods peed on an ox-hide in the old man’s hut which became pregnant and 9 months later gave birth to Orion. (The significance of the pee is that Ovid says Orion’s original name was Urion, connected to ‘urine’; in other words, it is a folk etymology). Orion grew into a mighty hunter and protector of Latona (mother of Apollo and Diana by Jupiter). After various adventures, Orion tries to protect Latona against a giant scorpion: both are killed and set among the constellations.

May 12: Mars descends to heaven to admire the temple built to him by Augustus – this segues into praise of Augustus for recovering the legionary standards lost by Crassus to the Parthians.

May 14: The day before the ides is marked by the rise of the star sign Taurus which Ovid associates with the myth of Jupiter changing himself into a bull in order to abduct Europa from the seashore where she was dancing with her attendants. Some say the star sign is the shape of that bull; others says it is the sign of Io, who Jupiter raped then turned into a heifer to conceal from angry Juno.

May 14: On this day Romans throw effigies of humans into the Tiber. Why? Ovid gives one explanation, that Jupiter ordered the Romans’ ancestors to throw two people into the river each year as tribute to Saturn; until Hercules his son arrived and instructed the Romans to throw effigies, not real people, into the river. Ovid gives another interpretation, that young men used to throw old men into the river to steal their votes. So he asks the river Tiber itself to explain, and the river himself appears (as does Janus, Venus, the Muses et al) and gives a variation on the story: that after Hercules was returning through Italy and killed Cacus (for stealing his cattle) many of his companions refused to continue on the long journey back to Greece. When one of them died he asked for his body to be thrown into the Tiber to carry his spirit back to his homeland. But his son disliked the idea, buried his body properly, and threw an effigy made of dried rushes into the river instead. Which founded the modern ritual. Such is the river Tiber’s version at any rate.

May 15: the Ides – the day the temple of Mercury (messenger of the gods, patron of shopkeepers and thieves) facing the Circus was founded, in 495 BC. His were among the rites brought from Greek Arcadia to Latium by the legendary king Evander. Ovid gives a satirical ‘prayer of the shopkeeper’, taking water from Mercury’s fountain, sprinkling his goods with it and hoping to cheat all his customers!

May 20: Ovid asks Mercury to explain to him the origin of the constellation of the twins, Castor and Pollux, also known as the Gemini – because on this day the sun enters that constellation.

May 23: The Tubilustrium, the festival of the purification (lustrum) of trumpets (tubae). On this day the trumpets Vulcan is ultimately said to have made are ritually cleansed.

June

As with May, Ovid puts forward several theories for the name of this month:

1. Queen of the gods Juno, appears to him to propose the theory it is named after her, goes on to explain Mars consigned ‘his’ city to her care. This explains why there are a hundred shrines to her throughout Rome.

2. Hebe, wife of Hercules, claims the month derives from when Romulus divided the population of Rome into elders (maiores) to whom the previous month (May) is devoted, and young men (iuvenes) for whom June is named.

3. The goddess Concord explains that when Romulus made peace with Tatius, king of the Sabines (after stealing his young women) the two peoples were united (iunctus) and that’s where the name comes from.

June 1: Kalends – the legend of Proca, future king of Latium, attacked by screech owls as an infant five days old, saved by the magic of the nymph Cranaë

June 8: A sanctuary to the goddess Mind or Courage was vowed by the Senate after the defeat by the Carthaginians at Lake Trasimene in 217 BC.

June 9: The Vestalia – festival of Vesta, daughter of Saturn, the goddess of fire, the ‘shining one’ also identified with the earth. Every hearth had its Vesta, and she presided over the preparation of meals and was offered first food and drink. She was served by the Vestal Virgins, six priestesses devoted to her service. The Virgins took a strict vow of chastity and served for thirty years. They enjoyed enormous prestige, and were preceded by a lictor when in public. Breaking of their vow resulted in whipping and death. There were twenty recorded instances in eleven centuries.

The comic story of how Priapus tries to rape the sleeping Vesta but at the crucial moment she is woken by a braying donkey.

The legend of how an image of Pallas Athena (Minerva in Roman mythology), the palladium, fell to earth near Troy and was preserved in their central temple and Troy could never fall while it remained there; so that in a famous escapade, it was stolen by the two Greek heroes Ulysses and Diomedes. However, a parallel and contradictory legend had it that the palladium was brought from Troy to Rome by Aeneas and is now stored in the temple of Vesta.

For reasons I didn’t understand Ovid tacks on the fact of Crassus losing the famous standards in Parthia, a story only worth telling to, once again, praise Super Augustus:

Crassus, near the Euphrates, lost the eagles, his army,
And his son, and at the end himself as well.
The goddess said: ‘Parthians, why exult? You’ll send
The standards back, a Caesar will avenge Crassus’ death.’

June 11: The Matralia, the Festival of Mater Matuta, also known as the festival of good mothers. Ovid identifies Matuta with Ino and tells a string of legends around Ino, and then a sequence of semi-historical events which explain various landmarks in Rome, none of which I understood.

June 13: Ides – and festival of the Lesser Quinquatrus. Minerva, in the form of Tritonia (from her origins near Lake Triton in Libya) explains aspects of this festival to her, in particular and long and convoluted story about why the festival is accompanied by flute playing

June 15: The sweepings of the shrine of Vesta are thrown into the Tiber and washed to the sea

June 19: Pallas begins to be worshipped on the Aventine

June 21: The myth of Hippolytus, dragged to his death by his enraged chariot horses. Ovid tells it because dead Hippolytus was revived by the founder of medicine, Aesculapius, who Jupiter zapped for resurrecting the dead; Apollo insisted his dead son be made a deity, and so he was set among the stars, with the name Ophiucus; and this is the day that constellation rises

June 22: Bad luck: on this day Flaminius defied the oracles in 217 BC and was defeated by the Carthaginians at Lake Trasimene

June 23: Good luck: on this day Hasdrubal, Hannibal’s brother, fell at the battle of Metaurus in 207 BC

June 24: The festival of Fors Fortuna, ancient pre-Roman goddess of Fate. A comprehensible passage:

Quirites [i.e. Romans], come celebrate the goddess Fors, with joy:
She has her royal show on Tiber’s banks.
Hurry on foot, and others in swift boats:
It’s no shame to return home tipsy.
Garlanded barges, carry your bands of youths,
Let them drink deep of the wine, mid-stream.
The people worship her, because they say the founder
Of her shrine was one of them, and rose from humble rank,
To the throne, and her worship suits slaves, because Servius
Was slave-born, who built the nearby shrines of the fatal goddess.

Servius Tullius being the legendary sixth king of Rome, son of Vulcan and Ocresia of Corniculum. The Roman historian Livy depicts Servius’ mother as a captured Latin princess enslaved by the Romans; her child is chosen as Rome’s future king after a ring of fire is seen around his head (Livy 1.39). Killed by his son-in-law Tarquin the Proud.

June 30: The final entry in the text we have has Ovid have the muse of history, Clio, address us and praise Lucius Marcius Philippus for restoring the temple of Hercules Musaeum (of the Muses) in the reign of Augustus. This Philippus had a daughter, Marcia, who became the wife of Paullus Fabius Maximus, from whose household Ovid’s own third wife came and who was a friend and patron of Ovid. Ovid has Clio say that Marcia’s:

beauty equals her nobility.
In her, form matches spirit: in her
Lineage, beauty and intellect meet.

And then point out that Augustus’s aunt (his mother’s sister) was married to that Philip:

‘O ornament, O lady worthy of that sacred house!’

And with this final act of sycophancy, the Fasti, as we have it, in its unfinished form, ends.

Comparison of editions

About half way through I got very fed up with the OUP prose translation by Anne and Peter Wiseman: the lack of explanations and good notes made much of the poem incomprehensible. One of the problems with the poem is that each month is divided into sections. The section breaks for each separate day are clearly marked in the Wiseman, but not the breaks, within the days, into different subjects or stories.

Therefore I strongly recommend the verse translation by A.S. Kline. Kline does divide each book into sections with big headings telling you what the hell is going on. I found this invaluable. Even more usefully, Kline has an interactive Index of Names, so you can simply click on them as they occur in the text to go to a clear explanation of an individual or the many festivals and customs mentioned. A useful aspect of this is Kline lists in this Index all the places where a character (or festival) occurs, with a few phrases indicating how it’s referred to or what its relevance is at each of these mentions. This helps the reader develop an understanding of the matrix of references which tie the poem together.

Breaking point came as I struggled to understand what was going on in the 15 March entry for book 3 of the Wiseman version. Even reading all their notes I couldn’t figure it out. Whereas one click of the Kline version took me to a note explaining that:

Anna Perenna is a personification of the eternal year and a manifestation of the Great Goddess. Her feast was celebrated at the first milestone on the Flaminian Way, where there was a sacred grove. Her worship began in March. Ovid derives her from Anna the sister of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and tells the background story.

There. See how useful that is. Now I totally understood what I was reading about. The Wiseman edition has notes but each one is isolated, small and specific. Ultimately, I found them useless. The Kline ones are marvellously clear and full, and they interlink with each other to build up a network of references and explanations so very quickly you can find out everything you need to know to understand and enjoy the poem. No comparison.

Conclusion

I found this the least interesting or rewarding of Ovid’s books: the astrological stuff is largely incomprehensible and goes completely unexplained by either Wiseman or Kline. Even one diagram of the night sky and Zodiac would have gone a long way to explaining the location of the various star signs.

Some of the shorter entries about Roman customs are likewise so obscure as to be incomprehensible. The mythological stories in each month are, on the whole, told less effectively than in the Metamorphoses and they are often told in a tangential way which makes them oddly unsatisfying, Ovid deliberately skipping central aspects of the story. (Two exceptions are the sorrowful wanderings and lamentations of three women, Anna, Ariadne and Ceres: as we saw in the Heroides and Metamorphoses, Ovid had a sympathetic understanding of the sadness of women.)

But I found Ovid’s entire manner and approach confusing. I like clarity of layout and presentation and so was continually put off by Ovid’s rambling approach, the lack of logic in the linking of disparate elements, and then the obscurity in presentation of the facts. You have to work really hard, and check the Wiseman notes and the Kline notes, and reread entire passages, to really get a handle on what’s going on.

Ovid’s grammar is often obscure. Time and again I found myself reading pages where ‘he’ or ‘she’ was doing or saying something and realised I had no idea who ‘he’ or ‘she’ was and had to track carefully back through the text to try and identify this new protagonist.

This obscurity isn’t helped by Ovid’s habit of referring to key figures as the son or daughter of so-and-so: when he writes ‘and the daughter of Semele spoke’ you have to find the nearest note to remind yourself just who the daughter of Semele is and why she’s relevant to the month we’re supposedly learning about and what she’s doing in the particular story you think you’re reading about. This happens multiple times on every page and eventually becomes very wearing. It’s hard work.

For me the most vivid theme in the poem was Ovid’s shameless brown-nosing to the Great Leader Augustus, which comes over as so craven and arse-licking as to be unintentionally funny. A handful of stories aside, this slavish obsequiousness is my enduring memory of the Fasti.


Credit

Ovid’s Fasti, translated by Anne and Peter Wiseman, was published by Oxford University Press in 2011 (originally under the title Ovid: Times and Reasons). Prose quotes are from the 2013 OUP paperback edition. Verse quotes are from the 2004 verse translation by A.S. Kline.

Related links

Roman reviews

Metamorphoses by Ovid – 2

‘The heavens and everything which lies below them change their shape, as does the earth and all that it contains.’
(Pythagoras in his great discourse about mutability in book 15 of the Metamorphoses)

(This is the second of two notes-and-summaries of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically of books 8 to 15. Read my previous blog post for notes on the first seven books of the poem.)

Book 8

King Minos of Crete arrives on the Greek mainland and attacks the town of Algathous whose king is Nisus. The town’s security is guaranteed by a purple lock in his hair. His daughter, Scylla, falls hopelessly in love with manly, handsome Minos as she watches him fighting from the town’s battlements. She wants to marry him. Eventually her crush leads her to betray her father and town by cutting off the purple lock while he’s asleep, then taking it through the enemy ranks to present to Minos. Minos accepts it and the fall of the town but recoils at Scylla’s treachery, sacks the town and sails away without her. Enraged, Scylla throws herself off the cliffs into the sea but half way down is transformed into a bird called a shearer; so it is another ‘etymological myth’, working back from a name which happens to be cognate with a meaningful word to invent a story to explain it.

What’s interesting is how much Ovid enters Scylla’s thought process, giving us full access to the series of arguments leading up to her decision to betray her father. Very much like the extended soliloquy of Medea deciding to betray her father for handsome Jason. Both very like the extended argumentation of the Heroides, and a new thing – not present in the first 7 or so books.

Minor returns to Crete and Ovid spends far less time (half a page) dealing with the entire story of the Minotaur, Daedelus constructing the labyrinth in which to hide it, and how Theseus killed it and found his way out using the thread provided by Ariadne (another maiden who betrays her father out of love for a handsome warrior).

Ovid goes into more detail about Daedalus making the wings of feathers for himself and his son and flying away from Crete. I’d forgotten that Ovid includes a passage which anticipates the opening of Auden’s famous poem about Daedalus, not the precise details, but the idea that it was observed by ordinary peasants. Ovid 6 AD:

Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of them as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment…(book 8, p.185)

Auden 1938 AD:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;

Icarus crashes and dies, his father recovers his body from the sea, builds a tomb, settles in Sicily. What struck me about this long-ish account is it isn’t really a metamorphosis at all. Clipping on fake wings is not changing your essential nature.

Back in Athens Theseus is greeted as a hero, having killed the Minotaur. He then gets involved in the great hunt of the Calydonian Boar. This beast was loosed on Calydon after King Oeneus made the bad mistake of giving offerings to all the other gods except Diana – who plagued his land with a giant boar.

An immense troop of heroes assembles, led by Meleager and featuring a rare female warrior, Atalanta. Many are injured, some killed as they corner the boar, but Atalanta draws first blood then Meleager finishes it off. Smitten, he hands Atalanta the spoils, being the head and skin. But his uncles, Plexippus, and Toxeus, are outraged at giving spoils to a woman and overrule him. Blind with anger Meleager kills both his uncles. When his mother (and their sister) Althaea hears of this she fills the city with her weeping and wailing etc, then takes out the old log which soothsayers said would match Meleager’s life and throws it on the fire. Back in the forest Meleager feels a burning sensation and, inexplicably finds himself consumed to ashes. Althaea then kills herself.

Two things: once again, this isn’t a metamorphosis at all and b) Ovid, once again, devotes his creative energy to Althaea’s soliloquy in which she agonises over whether to avenge her brothers and kill her own son. These anguished moral debates by female figures obviously fascinate him.

Meleager’s sisters bemoan his death and in pity Diana gives them feathers and transforms them into birds (guinea fowl).

On the way back to Athens Theseus and his companions are blocked by a swollen river, the River Acheloüs, which advises them to wait till his waters have dropped. He invites them to a feast then tells the story of how he turned nymphs who didn’t worship him into islands, especially the nymph he seduced (or raped?), Perimele, whose outraged father threw her into the sea but Achelous persuaded Neptune to change into an island.

A very rare heart-warming story: Philemon and Baucis. As part of the same scene after the meal given by River Acheloüs, Ixion’s son Pirithoüs mocks the notion of the gods intervening in mortal lives. Which prompts Lelexto tell the story of how Jupiter and Mercury toured a region of Phrygia looking for good people to take them in. They were spurned by all the households until they came to the poorest of all, owned by Philemon and Baucis who took them in and shared all their food. Impressed by their goodness, the god makes them climb a hill and watch the area be flooded and everyone drowned and their own house turned into a temple. Then Jupiter offers them a wish, and they decide they want to tend his temple for as long as they may, and then both die at the same time. And so it comes to pass and when their time comes they are transformed into an oak tree and a lime tree.

The river then mentions Proteus, capable of changing into any number of shapes. And goes on to tell the story of Erysichthon. This was an impious man who got his men to chop down a huge oak tree sacred to Ceres. As they chop it they hear the voice of the dying dryad inside prophesying that he will be punished.

The other dryads beg Ceres to take revenge so Ceres sends an oread (mountain spirit) in her chariot all the way to the Caucasus to meet Hunger in her lair and order her to haunt Erysichthon. Sure enough Hunger comes by night and embraces him, breathing her spirit into his soul. As soon as he wakes he calls for feast after feast but can never slake his hunger. He eats his way through his entire fortune then sells his daughter, Mestra, for more money for food.

Mestra, sold into slavery, begs help and Neptune takes pity. As she is walking along the shore before her master, Neptune changed her into a fisherman. When the master asks whether she/he has seen a girl she denies it and he goes off puzzled – at which Neptune changes her back.

This ability to change at will is now permanently hers and her father sells her again and again to different masters and she assumes a shape and escapes. But eventually even the money brought in from selling and reselling his daughter isn’t enough to slake his invincible hunger and Erysichthon ends up eating himself!

Book 9

Achelous tells his guests about the time he wrestled with Hercules for the hand of Deianira, transforming himself into a snake then a bull. Hercules rips off one of his horns, thus mutilating his forehead permanently, but otherwise unscathed and now river nymphs decorate his head with willow leaves so that no one notices. Next morning Theseus and companions leave his cave.

Segue to the story of Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira i.e. Nessus the centaur offers to carry Deianira over a flooded river but then goes to carry her off so Hercules downs him with a single arrow. As he dies Nessus soaks his blood into his shirt and tells Deianira, standing nearby in horror, that his blood is a love potion (lying, as he knows it is a fierce poison). Hercules rescues Deianira and takes her off. Some time later Deianira hears that Hercules is having an affair with Iole (daughter of Eurytus) and is going to being her back to their house. She agonises about how to win back her husband, remembers the shirt soaked in Nessus’s dried blood and gets a servant, Lichas, to take it to Hercules as a token of her love. He puts it on and the toxic blood immediately starts burning him. He tries to tear it off but it rips his skin, bellowing in agony. He throws the cowering servant, Lichas, into the sea, who is turned to stone so that a stone in human sometimes appears in the Euboean Gulf at low tide and sailors call it Lichas to this day.

Eventually Jupiter takes pity on his son, sloughs off his human part and translates his immortal part into the heavens.

Cut to Hercules’s mother, Alcmena, telling Iole about the hero’s birth, namely how Juno, hating Hercules even before his birth, orders the goddess of birth Lucina to squat outside Alcmena’s house with her arms and legs crossed which, magically, effected Alcmena’s womb and prevented the child’s birth. Until Alcmena’s loyal servant Galanthis fools Lucina by telling her the baby’s already been born. Surprised, Lucina uncrosses her legs and the baby Hercules then can be born. Furious, Lucina grabbed Galanthis by the hair and dragged her head down to the ground and the loyal servant was changed into a weasel.

Continuing this conversation, Iole then tells a story to Alcmena, about her half sister, Dryope. She ‘suffered the assault’ of Apollo i.e. was raped, but then respectably married off to a mortal man. One day she came to a lovely pool with her one-year-old son and innocently picked some flowers from a lotus tree, only for it to bleed. She learned the tree was the nymph Lotis fleeing the sexual advances of Priapus (sometimes the narrative feels like one rape after another). At which point Dryope is transformed into a tree. She pleads she has done nothing to justify such a sad fate, and her sister (Iole, the narrator the tale) tries to intervene, but nothing can prevent her sad fate.

They are surprised by the arrival of Iolaüs, Hercules’s nephew and companion, who has been rejuvenated, made young again. At this all the gods complain and demand similar rejuvenation for their mortal partners, lovers or children.

Even the gods are subordinate to Fate

However, Jupiter replies with an important statement about the limits of his powers, about his own subservience to the unseeable dictates of Fate, which echoes the same thought found in the Aeneid.

l Jupiter opened his mouth and said: ‘O, if you have any respect for me, where do you think all this talk is heading? Do any of you think you can overcome fate as well? Through fate Iolaüs’s past years were restored. Through fate Callirhoë’s children must prematurely become men, not through ambition or warfare. Even you, and I, too, fate rules, if that also makes you feel better. If I had power to alter fate, these late years would not bow down my pious Aeacus. Just Rhadamanthus would always possess youth’s flower, and my Minos, who is scorned because of the bitter weight of old age, and no longer orders the kingdom in the way he did before.’

‘You and I, too, fate rules.’ A profound vision of the world, where even the gods are, in the end, subservient, to darker powers.

Mention of Minos links to his rival Miletus who left their kingdom and founded his own city on the shore of Asia Minor, married Cyanee, and fathered twins, Byblis and her brother Caunus. This story is about Cyanee, the daughter of Maeander, whose stream so often curves back on itself, when she was Byblis’s incestuous love for her brother Caunus. As with Medea and Scylla, Ovid gives us another long soliloquy by a female character agonising about what to do in light of her passionate love. In the end she sets down her thoughts in a long letter declaring her love for her brother which she gets a slave to deliver. Alas, he doesn’t reciprocate but is shocked and then furious, throwing away the tablets the letter is written on.

But Byblis continues her suit, becoming more passionate, until Caunus flees, setting up his own city in Asia Minor. Byblis goes mad, roaming the hills and plains, until she falls to the ground endlessly weeping, and the naiads turn her into a fountain.

But another miraculous transformation happened around that time in Crete. Ligdus was married to Telethusa. When she gets pregnant he tells her it had better be a boy child; if a girl, they’ll expose it to die. In a dream the goddess Isis comes to Telethusa and says she will protect her. In the event she gives birth to a girl but swears all the servants to pretend it is a boy. And so Iphis is raised as a boy.

When Iphis turns 13 her father betroths her to the 13-year-old daughter of a neighbour. Iphis loves this other girl, but as a lesbian. Ovid gives another prolonged female soliloquy, this time of Iphis begging the gods for a way out of her dilemma. Telethusa prays some more and, the night before the wedding is due, Isis changes Iphis into a boy.

Book 10

Orpheus and Eurydice are married. She steps on a poisonous snake, dies and goes to the underworld. Orpheus follows her and sings a lament to Dis and Persephone which moves them to release Eurydice, on the condition Orpheus doesn’t look back at her on their long walk back to earth. Of course he does and she slips through his fingers back into the underworld, for good this time.

Devastated, Orpheus shuns the company of women and prefers to love boys, during the brief period of their first flowering.

On a flat hilltop there is a gathering of all the trees who come to listen to Orpheus’s wonderful songs (another List). The cypress tree was made when the fair youth Cyparissus accidentally speared a noble stag he had long loved. He wept and pined and was turned into the cypress.

Amid this assembly of trees Orpheus sings tales of transformation. All the rest of book 10 is Orpheus’s songs:

  • Ganymede: Jupiter temporarily turns himself into an eagle to abduct this boy
  • Hyacinth: Apollo went everywhere with this young man till one time they were having a competition to throw the discus, Apollo threw it a mighty distance, Hyacinthus ran forward to collect it but it bounded up into his face and killed him and the boy was turned into the purple flower
  • The Cerustae men murder all who stay with them as guests. For this impiety Venus turned them into bullocks.
  • The Propoetides denied Venus and were the first women to prostitute themselves in public. So Venus turned them into flints.
  • Pygmalion shuns women and makes a statue of one which he falls in love with until, during the festival of Venus, he asks the god to make his beloved statue real and she does.
  • longer than all the other stories put together is the story of Myrrha who conceives an illegal love for her own father, Cinyras. She tries to hang herself, her nurse interrupts, saves her, learns her shameful secret, and then helps disguise her so she can sleep with her father which she does, repeatedly, until he discovers the scandal, runs to get his sword, she fled the palace and wandered in the wild, until the compassionate gods changed her into the myrrh tree.
  • She was pregnant when she transformed and the boy is born of her tree trunk and raised by nymphs to become gorgeous Adonis. Venus is pricked by her son, Cupid’s, arrow and falls in love with him.
    • Story within a story within a story: Orpheus tells the story of Venus who one day, as they are lying in a glade, tells Adonis the story of Atalanta who refused to marry, challenging all her suitors to a running race and the losers are put to death. Hippomenes asks Venus for her help and the goddess gives him three apples. During the race he throws each of them to the side of the track and each time Atalanta detours to pick them up, so that Hippomenes wins. But when the victorious young man fails to thank and praise her the fickle goddess turns against him. She puts it in their minds to make love in a sacred cave, thus defiling it and Juno, offended, turns them into lions. In time Cybele tamed them and now they pull her chariot.
  • Back up a level, Orpheus goes on to describe how Adonis foolishly hunts a fierce boar which gores and kills him. Mourning Venus institutes an annual festival in his name and turns him into the anemone.

Book 11

The frenzied Ciconian women aka the Bacchantes aka the Maenads, kill Orpheus and tear his body to pieces which they throw in a river which carries it to the sea. His soul goes down to Hades and is reunited with his beloved Eurydice. Bacchus turns the Maenads who killed Orpheus into oak trees.

Bacchus’s tutor, Silenus, is captured by the Lydians and taken to King Midas. After ten days of partying the kind returns the drunk old man to Bacchus who grants him a wish and Midas chooses the golden touch. Then the standard account of how his delight turns to horror as even his food and wine turn to gold. In this version, he doesn’t touch his daughter and turn her to gold; he begs Bacchus to take back the gift, so Bacchus tells him to go bathe in the river by great Sardis.

Pan challenges Apollo to a competition as to who is best musician. They choose the god of the mountain of Tmolus as judge. Both play and Tmolus judges Apollo the better performer. Since his misfortune with the gold, Midas has wandered the fields and mountains. He happens to be at this competition and demurs, saying Pan was better. Apollo gives him ass’s ears.

Apollo flies over to watch the first building of Troy, by Laomedon and Neptune. When the king refused the promised payment Neptune flooded the land.

Jupiter gives Thetis to Peleus after Proteus predicts she will give birth to a son greater than her father. In fact Peleus comes across Thetis naked on the seashore and tries to rape her but she transforms through a series of shapes. Proteus advises holding her tight till she gives in so Peleus seizes her in her seashore cave and holds her through even more transformations till she gives in at which point he inseminates her with Achilles.

Earlier in his life Peleus had been expelled from his homeland for killing his brother and fetched up in the kingdom of Trachis whose king, Ceyx, tells him the story of Daedalion. This starts with the gods Apollo and Mercury both seeing and falling love with the Chione, the 14-year-old daughter of Daedalion. Both cast magic spells on her and raped her, Mercury by day, Apollo by night.

Nine months later this daughter gave birth to twins, Autolycus, crafty and Philammon, skilled the with lyre. Unfortunately, Chione boasted about this achievement, vaunting herself above the goddess Diana who promptly shot her dead with an arrow. Her distraught father Daedalion tried to hurl himself onto her funeral pyre, was restrained, but later threw himself off a cliff. Taking pity, Apollo turned him into a hawk who takes out his savage anger on other birds and small animals.

Ceyx has only just finished telling this story when Peleus’s herdsman comes running up and tells him a huge wolf is devastating his herd. Peleus realises it’s punishment for him killing his half-brother and prays the half-brother’s mother, Psamathe, to relent. Thetis intercedes on his behalf and the goddess changes the wolf to marble.

Despite the warnings of his loving wife, Alcyone, Ceyx goes on a journey by sea to consult the oracle of Apollo, at Claros. There is a bravura passage giving a terrific description of a storm at sea. He drowns. Not knowing this Alcyone goes daily to Juno’s shrine to pray for his safety. Taking pity, Juno sends Iris to the House of Sleep which is given a full and brilliant description. In the Kline translation:

There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.

Juno has tasked Iris with asking Sleep to send one of his shape-shifting sons in a dream to tell Alcyone the bad news. Sleep despatches Morpheus, expert at assuming people’s likenesses, who appears to Alcyone in a dream as her husband and tells her he is dead. Next day she goes down to the seashore to mourn and Ceyx’s corpse is washed ashore. Alcyone jumps up onto a breakwater to see better and keeps on flying, her arms turning into wings her mouth into a beak. In fact both wife and dead husband are transformed into ‘halcyons’. It is said that they mate once a year and make a nest on the sea and after she has laid the eggs, Aeolus god of the winds delivers 7 days of complete calm on the sea. Hence the expression halcyon days.

In a breath-takingly casual link, Ovid says an old man was standing nearby who added another story, telling the ill-fated love of Aesacus, Hector’s half-brother, for the nymph Hesperie. One day, chasing her (as men chase all women in these stories) she trod on a snake, was bitten and died. Despairing, Aesacus threw himself off a cliff but Tethys caught him and transformed him into the long-necked bird which repeatedly dives into the sea, and is called a ‘diver’ (the genus Mergus).

Book 12 The Trojan War

In book 12 Ovid retells the stories of the Greek siege of Troy, but focusing on moments of transformation.

The House of Rumour

Rumour of them precedes the coming Greeks and Ovid has another page-long description of an allegorical figure, Rumour (compare previous extended descriptions of the Houses of Hunger and of Sleep).

Iphigenia and Cycnus

As to the transformations:

  • when Agamemnon is about to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, she is replaced by a deer
  • Achilles fiercely attacks Cycnus who, at the moment of death, is changed into a swan

Nestor’s tales

An extended sequence is devoted to tales told by Nestor one evening after the Greek leaders have feasted.

1. Nestor tells the story of Caenis, a young woman walking the seashore who is raped by Neptune. Afterwards he asks if she wants any gift and she asks to be turned into a man so she can never be raped again, and so Neptune turns her into the man Caeneus and makes him invulnerable to weapons.

2. Nestor gives an extended description of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous to Hippodame (pages 273 to 282). The Lapiths are a group of legendary people in Greek mythology, whose home was in Thessaly. They held a wedding feast and invited the centaurs who proceeded to get drunk and attempt to abduct the Lapiths’ women. The resulting battle is one of the most enduring of Greek legends.

Maybe placing it here is Ovid’s way of showing he can do anatomically detailed and gory descriptions of fighting in the approved epic manner, but without infringing on the actual fighting at Troy which Homer and Virgil (among many others) had already done so well.

In Ovid’s account the battles leads up the centaurs fighting the invulnerable human, Caeneus and, since no weapons can harm him, deciding to pile trees on top of him. Thus buried under torn-up trees, No one knows what happened to Caeneus in the end but some saw a bird with tawny wings fly out from the middle of the pile.

3. Tlepolemus asks Nestor why he hasn’t mentioned Hercules and Nestor explains that he loathes the man because he killed 11 of his brothers, even Periclymenus who Neptune gave the gift of being able to change shape, and who changes into an eagle to escape the massacre but Hercules kills him, nonetheless, with bow and arrow. And that is the end of Nestor’s storytelling.

The death of Achilles

Jump forward ten years to the climax of the siege of Troy. Ovid deals with the death of Achilles in an odd way. He starts by describing how Neptune, who helped to build Troy and fought on the Trojan side, resented the success of Achilles but is forbidden to confront him directly, and so goes to his nephew, Apollo, also fighting on the Trojan side, and asks whether he is not angry at man-killing Achilles and whether he’ll use his mighty bow and arrow to stop him. Apollo agrees and so seeks out Paris fighting ineffectually in the middle of the day’s battle, tells him to shoot at Achilles and he will guide his arrow. Which he does, and that is the death of Achilles.

It’s odd that Ovid doesn’t even mention the central aspect of Achilles’ death which is the vulnerability of his heel, which is where Paris’s poisoned arrow is said to have struck him. And there’s no transformation involved to justify its inclusion in the poem at all. But then his treatment of the entire war is odd, digressing into the battle of the Lapiths and avoiding describing all the famous incidents of the war itself.

Instead Ovid skips to immediately after the funeral of Achilles when argument arises about which of the surviving heroes will inherit the mighty shield of Achilles. The Greek leaders agree to hold a formal debate which begins in book 13.

Book 13

Debate between Ajax and Ulysses

Again, Ovid takes an odd, peripheral approach to the great subject. He describes in detail the set-piece debate about who should claim the arms of dead Achilles. Ajax, arguably the Greeks’ biggest strongest warrior, argues for a full 4 pages, describing his own merits (grandson of Jupiter, only Greek who can stand up to Hector) but mainly rubbishing Ulysses, describing him as a coward and a sneak who never fights in the light of day but cooks up secret midnight tricks. Then Ulysses speaks for 7 pages, defending himself.

The whole extended passage is a bravura demonstration of Ovid’s skill at staging a debate, reminding us that his parents and the emperor himself originally expected him to make a career in public life.

Anyway, Ulysses wins the debate, is awarded the arms of Achilles, and Ajax kills himself out of rage and chagrin. Ovid points out that out of his blood grew the hyacinth but it’s a pretty tangential reference to the poem’s theme. Any reaction by the other leaders is ignored.

Ulysses fetches Philoctetes

Instead Ulysses sails off to the isle of Lemnos to see Philoctetes, without whose bow and arrow, prophets said, Troy could not fall. There are umpteen versions of this story; Ovid short circuits all of them, says Philoctetes returned and Troy fell boom boom.

The deaths of Polyxena, Polydorus and transformation of Hecuba

King Priam sends his youngest son Polydorus away from Troy when the war begins, to the court of king Polymestor. But he sent a load of gold with him, too, and impious Polymestor stabbed the boy to death and threw him over a cliff into the sea.

Troy is captured, sacked, all the men killed and all the women dragged off into captivity including miserable Hecuba who tries to grab the ashes of her beloved son, Hector. The ghost of Achilles appears before the Greek leaders and tells them they will get no favourable wind for their ships unless they sacrifice one of Hecuba’s daughters, Polyxena, so the Greeks agree to do this.

Polyxena makes a noble speech, another one of the long closely-reasoned speeches Ovid writes for his female characters, then offers her breast to the priest at the altar. Like everyone else he is moved to tears by her speech but stabs her to death anyway.

Hecuba witnesses all this, herself making an extended soliloquy of misery, then goes running along the seashore mad with grief, but trying to console herself that at least she has her son to console her. That’s when she sees the corpse of Polydorus floating across the waves towards her, his wounds bleached and gaping.

Somehow, with the logic of a fairy tale not history, Hecuba with her attendants makes her way to the court of the treacherous King Polymestor, and asks for a private audience where she will tell him about more treasure. Polymestor agrees and when they are alone, swears he’ll hand the treasure on to his ward. Hecuba, knows he has murdered his ward and so knows he is swearing lying oaths. She stabs him in the eyes with her sharp fingernails and then smashes his eye sockets.

Then the Thracian people try to stone Hecuba and her Trojan women but she chases the stones, snapping at them and is turned into a dog. Even vengeful Juno is moved to say Hecuba didn’t deserve this fate but then that is the overwhelming moral of these stores: life is howlingly, outrageously cruel and unfair.

Memnon

During the war Memon had been killed by Achilles. His mother, Aurora, goddess of the dawn, goes to be Jupiter for some recognition of her grief and his achievement. Jupiter arranges for his body on the funeral pyre to give rise to a flight of birds which divide into two parties, fight each other and all die. They are called the Memnonides and celebrated at an annual feast. Meanwhile, every morning the dawn weeps tears for her dead son, what we mortals call the dew.

The pilgrimage of Aeneas

Aeneas flees Troy with his father, son, followers and household gods. First stop is Delos where king Anius tells the sad story of how his daughters, who had magic gifts for turning everything they touched into food and wine, were kidnapped by Greek forces but pleaded with the god Bacchus who gave them their skills and were transformed into white doves.

Next day they attend the oracle of Apollo for Anius is not only king but high priest, and the god tells them to seek the bones of their mother which Aeneas, falsely, takes to mean Crete. They exchange gifts with king Anius including a cup engraved with the story of Orion’s daughters, and set sail.

What follows is a very brief summary of Aeneas’s journeys i.e. he rejects Crete and heads north towards Italy, landed in the harbour of the Strophades, were terrified by the harpy, Aëllo, and a shopping list of other ancient islands and cities they sailed past on their way to Sicily, stopping at Epirus to have their futures read by Helenus, through the straits of Messina past the perils of Scylla and Charybdis.

Obviously this was all dealt with in detail in Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid. Presumably Ovid had to mention Aeneas as a kind of link between the Trojan War and later myths/history, but did he also feel obliged to namecheck it so as to incorporate/supersede Virgil in his own, eccentric epic?

Acis and Galatea

Back before Scylla was turned into a grotesque monster she combs Galatea the sea nymph ‘s hair (underwater) while the latter tells her about her love for 16-year-old mortal boy, Acis. Unfortunately, the Cyclops Polyphemus is in love with her and Ovid devotes a couple hundred lines to a rather moving love song he sings to her, like so many of these soliloquies making a case, in this instance all the reasons Galatea ought to love him e.g. he’s big, he owns lots of sheep and so on.

Then Polyphemus spots the lovers lying in each other’s arms and comes storming towards them. Galatea dives into the sea leaving Acis to run but not fast enough. Polyphemus throws a huge chunk of mountainside which crushes the boy. Galatea changes Acis into a river (and accompanying river god).

Scylla and Glaucus

After this tale Scylla returns to the land where she roams naked. She is startled by the attentions of Glaucus who used to be mortal but was turned into a merman. Glaucus tells the story of how he was transformed (by eating magic grass) but Scylla slips off, leaving him frustrated.

Book 14

Scylla and Glaucus continued

Glaucus swims across the sea to the land of Circe and begs her to concoct a potion to make Scylla fall in love with him. Circe advises him to forget Scylla and fall in love with her. Glaucus rejects her and swims off. This infuriates Circe with Scylla and so she concocts an evil potion, swims over to Scylla’s island and pours it into the pool where Scylla loves to bathe. When Scylla slips in up to her waits the region below is transformed into barking monster dogs. Glaucus is distraught. Scylla becomes curdled with hatred and takes to living on one side of the Strait, reaching out and capturing sailors of ships passing by e.g. Ulysses in his wandering or Aeneas, a little later.

More Aeneas

Which brings us back to Aeneas. Ovid briefly describes the storm which blows his fleet onto the north African coast where he, of course, encounters Dido. Their love affair barely rates a sentence before Aeneas is off again, sailing north, back to Sicily then past the isle of the Sirens, the loss of Palinurus. It’s like the Aeneid on fast forward.

A super-brief reference to the fact that Jupiter, hating the lying and deceit of the Cercopes, turned them into monkeys.

A very rushed account of Aeneas anchoring at Cumae, seeing the Sybil, plucking the golden bough and going to the underworld where he meets the spirit of his dead father, Anchises.

The Sibyl’s story

On the way back up from the underworld Aeneas offers to build a temple to the Sibyl but she corrects him; she is no god but a mortal woman. Apollo fancied her and offered her eternal life if she would sleep with him. She said no but he gave her eternal life and the gift of prophecy – but not eternal youth; in the years to come she will shrivel and shrink with age.

Macareus and Achaemenides

In a rather contorted segue Ovid says a Greek had settled in Cumae, named Macareus. This Macareus now recognises among the Trojans a fellow Greek named Achaemenides who had got left behind on Sicily in the realm of Polyphemus. Achaemenides describes the Cyclops rage at being blinded and tricked and how he threw whole mountains after Ulysses’s departing ship.

Then Macareus tells Achaemenides what happened after they escaped Sicily, namely: a) how they used the winds put into a bag by Aeolus, b) how they docked at the city of Lamus, of the Laestrygonians, whose treacherous king Antiphates led an attack on them and killed and ate some of their shipmates before they could escape.

The island of Circe

How they next arrived the island of Circe and Macareus drew a lot to go to the palace. Pushing through flocks of wild animals (a thousand wolves, and mixed with the wolves, she-bears and lionesses) they entered the chamber where Circe’s servants were separating out her herbs and medicines. She offered them food and win then touched them with her wand and turned them into pigs. One of the party makes it back to Ulysses, tells him what happened. Ulysses has the herb moly which protects him from Circe’s magic, so when he goes up to her palace he pushes aside her wand and master her, taking her as wife. In bed he demands that his men are turned back from animals to men.

They stayed on Circe’s island for a year. Macareus tells some stories about things he saw there:

Picus and Canens and Circe

Picus, the son of Saturn, was king in the land of Ausonia and a very handsome man. All the nymphs and nerieds threw themselves at him but he wooed and wed Canens who sang beautifully. One day he went hunting in the countryside and was seen by Circe who fell madly in love with him. She conjured a phantom boar for him to chase into the depths of the forest where the cast spells and confronted him and offered him her love. But Picus rejected Circe, saying he was loyal to his wife Canens. So Circe changed him into a woodpecker. When his fellow hunters confront her, she changes them into wild beasts, too. Canens waits in vain for her husband to return, lies down beside the river Tiber and turns into nothing. The place is called Canens to this day.

Now, this story of forests and magic feels much more like Ovid’s speciality and much more like the subject of this poem than either the Troy or the Aeneas subject matter. They both feel too historical. They lack real magic. They lack the strange and unexpected. It doesn’t make chronological sense to say this, but the best of his tales have a kind of medieval feel, feel like the strange fables and magical happenings which fill Boccaccio or Chaucer.

Aeneas reaches Latium, war with Turnus

Macareus ends his tale by saying that after a year Aeneas rounded up his crew and they left Circe’s island. Again, Ovid gives a super-compressed account of Aeneas’s arrival in Latium and the war with Turnus which follows, all for the hand of Lavinia.

How Diomede lost his men

Looking for allies, Turnus sends Venulus to Diomede, a Greek in exile. Diomede can spare no men because, after long suffering, troubled journey back from Troy, one of his men, Acmon, insulted the goddess Venus who turned them all into birds a bit like swans.

En route back to Turnus Venulus passes a spot where a rude shepherd once terrorised some nymphs. He was changed into the bitter olive tree.

The Trojan ships are turned to dolphins

Turnus storms the Trojan ships and sets them alight. But the goddess Cybele remembers they’re made from trees which grew on Mount Ida which is sacred to her so she sent a thunderstorm to extinguish the fires, but then snapped their cables and sank them. Underwater, the ships were turned into dolphins.

Eventually Turnus is killed in battle and his army defeated. The city of Ardea was conquered and burned and from its midst rose a heron.

Venus asks Jupiter for permission to make Aeneas a god. His body is washed and purified by the river Numicius, then she touches his lips with nectar and ambrosia, and he becomes a god with temples where he’s worshipped.

Ovid then lists the succession of kings following Aeneas, starting with his son Ascanius and briefly describing a dozen or so until he comes to the story of Pomona.

Pomona and Vertumnis

Pomona is a skilful wood nymph wooed by many men, by Pan and Silenus. She hides herself away. But she is desperately loved by Vertumnus, god of the seasons and their produce. He disguises himself as an old woman to gain entrance to her sanctuary and there speaks eloquently in favour of Vertumnus. This pretend old lady then tells Pomona the story of Iphis, a commoner, who falls in love with the princess Anaxerete. But she is hard-hearted, refuses and mocks him. Iphis hangs around outside her locked door, sleeping on the step, hanging garlands on it (as does the stock figure of the lover in the elegiac poems, the Amores). Eventually he hangs himself from the lintel. The servants take him down and carry his body to his mother who organises his funeral procession. Anaxerete hurries up to the top floor room and leans out to watch the procession and is turned to stone as hard as her heart.

Frustrated, Vertumnus reveals himself in his glory as a handsome young man and, luckily, Pomona falls in love at first sight.

Romulus

What happens next is odd: Ovid introduces the character of Romulus but without mentioning any of the usual stuff, about the vestal virgin Ilia being impregnated by Mars, bearing twins Romulus and Remus, their being abandoned but suckled by a she-wolf, their agreeing to found settlements but Remus laughing at Romulus and the latter angrily killing his brother.

None of that at all. Ovid cuts to war with the Sabine tribe which ends in a peace whereby the Sabines’ king Tatius co-rules with Romulus. In the next sentence Tatius is dead, Romulus is ruling alone and then Mars goes to see Jupiter and asks for his son to be turned into a god (exactly as per Aeneas). And so Mars spirits Romulus – completely alive and in the middle of administering justice – into the sky.

His widow, Hersilie, receives a visit from Iris, female messenger of the gods, is told to go to the Quirinal hill, where a shooting star falls from heaven, sets fire to her hair, and she is whirled up into heaven to be reunited with Romulus. He renames her Hora, the name under which she has a temple on the Quirinal Hill.

Book 15

Cut to the figure of Numa, the second king of Rome (after Romulus) who is ambitious to understand the universe who travels to Crotona and there hears the legend of its foundation i.e. how Myscelus, the son of Alemon of Argos, was ordered in a dream to leave his home town, travel over the seas to found it.

The doctrines of Pythagoras

Turns out we’ve come to Crotona because this is where Pythagoras lived and, unexpectedly, Ovid now describes in some detail the teachings of Pythagoras.

‘I delight in journeying among the distant stars: I delight in leaving earth and its dull spaces, to ride the clouds; to stand on the shoulders of mighty Atlas, looking down from far off on men, wandering here and there, devoid of knowledge, anxious, fearing death; to read the book of fate, and to give them this encouragement!’

He has Pythagoras deliver a speech of 404 lines, roughly half the length of the book, touching on a set of Pythagorean concerns:

Polemical vegetarianism – in the Golden Age there was no hunting and killing of animals. ‘When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.’

Metempsychosis – be not afraid of death for no soul dies: ‘Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms.’

Is this why this long Pythagoras section is included? Because the belief in metempsychosis is a kind of belief in universal metamorphosis, posits a world of continual metamorphoses?

Eternal Flux – of nature, of all life forms, of human beings which grow from the womb, ever-changing.

The Four Ages of Man – in the womb, helpless baby, playful toddler, young man, mature man, ageing man etc.

The four elements – being earth, water, air and fire, endlessly intermingling, changing combinations.

Geologic changes – seashells are found on mountaintops, deserts were once pasture, islands become joined to the mainland, parts of the mainland slip under the sea. The magic properties of many rivers, some of them turn you to stone, some into birds. If the earth is an animal, volcanoes like Etna are outlets for her fires.

Animals – brief references to well-known folk stories, like buried dead bulls give rise to bees, frogs are born from mud. A buried war horse gives rise to hornets. Bury a dead crab and it will change into a scorpion. Twaddle. The legend of the phoenix. Lynxes can change their sex. Coral is wavy below water but becomes stone on contact with the air. Twaddle.

Cities rise and fall: Thebes, Mycenae, Sparta. Troy was once mighty and is now ruins. This allows Pythagoras/Ovid to mention rumours of a new city, Rome, rising by Tiber’s banks. Pythagoras recalls Helenus’s prophecy for Rome:

Helenus, son of Priam, said to a weeping Aeneas, who was unsure of his future: “Son of the goddess, if you take careful heed, of what my mind prophesies, Troy will not wholly perish while you live! Fire and sword will give way before you: you will go, as one man, catching up, and bearing away Pergama, till you find a foreign land, kinder to you and Troy, than your fatherland. I see, even now, a city, destined for Phrygian descendants, than which none is greater, or shall be, or has been, in past ages. Other leaders will make her powerful, through the long centuries, but one, born of the blood of Iülus, will make her mistress of the world. When earth has benefited from him, the celestial regions will enjoy him, and heaven will be his goal.”

Surely this is all hugely channelling Virgil and his vision of the rise of Rome portrayed in the Aeneid.

Most odd. It’s a crashing example of Ovid’s love of tricks and games and poetic tours de force to include a big passage of philosophy in a supposedly epic poem, or poem about love and transformations. It’s almost a deliberate provocation, to rank alongside his odd jumping over big aspects of the Trojan War and of the life of Romulus. Is it intended to be a serious exposition of Pythagoras’s teachings on the lines of Lucretius’s vast exposition of Epicurus’s philosophy in De Rerum Natura? Or is it an elaborate joke? Was he just constitutionally incapable of taking anything seriously?

Numa listens to this great discourse and takes Pythagoras’s teachings back to Rome where he spreads them before dying of old age. His wife, Egeria, goes lamenting through the country but is confronted by Hippolytus, son of Theseus. He tells his story, namely how his father’s wife, Phaedra, fell in love and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she accused him of trying to rape her to her husband, Hippolytus’s father. He was sent into exile but when crossing the Gulf of Corinth a vast wave filled with the roars of bulls spooked his horses who galloped off dragging him behind them till he was flayed. He goes down to the Underworld but is healed by Asclepius and given a disguise by Diana.

But Egeria continues lamenting her husband til Diana turns her into a pool of water. Romulus is amazed to see his spear turn into a tree. Cipus acquires horns.

The long-winded story of how Asclepius in the form of a snake saved Rome from a plague.

Caesar and Augustus

Then the poem reaches its climax with unstinting praise of the emperor Augustus:

Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor. Is it a greater thing to have conquered the sea-going Britons; to have led his victorious ships up the seven-mouthed flood of the papyrus-bearing Nile; to have brought the rebellious Numidians, under Juba of Cinyps, and Pontus, swollen with the name of Mithridates, under the people of Quirinus; to have earned many triumphs and celebrated few; than to have sponsored such a man, with whom, as ruler of all, you gods have richly favoured the human race?

Venus warns all the gods of the conspiracy she can see against her descendant, Julius Caesar, but in another important statement of the limits of the gods powers:

It was in vain that Venus anxiously voiced these complaints all over the sky, trying to stir the sympathies of the gods. They could not break the iron decrees of the ancient sisters. (p.355)

Still Ovid enjoys devoting half a page to all the signs and portents which anticipated the assassination of Julius Caesar, as lovingly reproduced in Shakespeare’s play on the subject. And Jupiter delivers another, longer lecture on the unavoidability of fate.

Then Jupiter, the father, spoke: ‘Alone, do you think you will move the immoveable fates, daughter? You are allowed yourself to enter the house of the three: there you will see all things written, a vast labour, in bronze and solid iron, that, eternal and secure, does not fear the clashing of the skies, the lightning’s anger, or any forces of destruction. There you will find the fate of your descendants cut in everlasting adamant.

Which turns into Jupiter praising Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, worth quoting in full seeing as what happened to Ovid soon after:

‘This descendant of yours you suffer over, Cytherean, has fulfilled his time, and the years he owes to earth are done. You, and Augustus, his ‘son’, will ensure that he ascends to heaven as a god, and is worshipped in the temples. Augustus, as heir to his name, will carry the burden placed upon him alone, and will have us with him, in battle, as the most courageous avenger of his father’s murder. Under his command, the conquered walls of besieged Mutina will sue for peace; Pharsalia will know him; Macedonian Philippi twice flow with blood; and the one who holds Pompey’s great name, will be defeated in Sicilian waters; and a Roman general’s Egyptian consort, trusting, to her cost, in their marriage, will fall, her threat that our Capitol would bow to her city of Canopus, proved vain.

‘Why enumerate foreign countries, for you or the nations living on either ocean shore? Wherever earth contains habitable land, it will be his: and even the sea will serve him!

‘When the world is at peace, he will turn his mind to the civil code, and, as the most just of legislators, make law. He will direct morality by his own example, and, looking to the future ages and coming generations, he will order a son, Tiberius, born of his virtuous wife, to take his name, and his responsibilities. He will not attain his heavenly home, and the stars, his kindred, until he is old, and his years equal his merits.’

Julius looks down on his son who has superseded his achievements and the poem ends with a prolonged and serious vow, invoking all the gods, that Augustus live to a ripe old age.

You gods, the friends of Aeneas, to whom fire and sword gave way; you deities of Italy; and Romulus, founder of our city; and Mars, father of Romulus; Vesta, Diana, sacred among Caesar’s ancestral gods, and you, Phoebus, sharing the temple with Caesar’s Vesta; you, Jupiter who hold the high Tarpeian citadel; and all you other gods, whom it is fitting and holy for a poet to invoke, I beg that the day be slow to arrive, and beyond our own lifetimes, when Augustus shall rise to heaven, leaving the world he rules, and there, far off, shall listen, with favour, to our prayers!

It could hardly be more fulsome.

In a sense the entire theme of miraculous transformation can be seen as a kind of artistic validation or evidence base or literary justification for the belief that Julius Caesar really was transformed into a god at his death and that his adopted son will follow in his path. The poem dramatises the ideology which underpins Augustus’s power. In their way – a subtle, playful, colourful way – the Metamorphoses suck up to Augustus just as much as Virgil’s Aeneid does, until the sucking up becomes as overt as it could possibly be in the last few pages.

Long female soliloquies about love

As mentioned, some passages are very similar to the Heroides in that women are given long soliloquies in which they make a case, argue and discuss issues with themselves (always about illicit love).

  • Medea (book 7)
  • Scylla (book 8)
  • Byblis (book 9)
  • Myrrha (book 10)
  • Iphigeneia (book 12)
  • Hecuba (book 13)

Allegorical figures

Mostly the narrative concerns itself with mortals and gods whose attributes and abilities are only briefly mentioned, as it’s relevant to the story. But a couple of times the narrative introduces grand allegorical figures who are given the full treatment, with a description of their dwelling place, physical appearance, accoutrements and so on. Although I know they’re common in medieval literature and later, they remind me of the allegorical figures found in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and, later, in Paradise Lost (I’m thinking of Sin and Death who Satan encounters in book 2).

  • Hunger (book 8)
  • Sleep (book 11)
  • Rumour (book 12)

Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The elegies of Tibullus translated by A.M. Juster (2012)

But if you’re slow you shall be lost! How fast the time
escapes – the days don’t linger or return!
How fast the earth relinquishes its purple hues!
How fast tall poplars lose their gorgeous leaves!
(Book 1, elegy 4)

The Oxford University Press edition of the elegies of Tibullus is a lovely artefact to hold and own. It’s beautifully produced, with a stylish line drawing of a woman in Victorian dress adorning the white cover, and the print quality and page layout on the inside feels just as light and clear and stylish.

Three authors

The text is the product of three authors.

1. Albius Tibullus himself was one of the leading writers of ‘elegiacs’ as the Roman republic turned into the Roman empire under the rule of Augustus. We have no certain evidence for either of his dates, but scholars guesstimate he was born between 55 and 49 BC and died soon after 19 BC, so at an early age of between 30 and 35.

Tibullus was a member of the equestrian class and so well-off, despite the conventional claims of ‘poverty’ made in his poems. All these poets claimed ‘poverty’ because it was one of the conventions of the genre; it didn’t mean what we think of as poverty so much as indicate their moral probity, putting them on the side of simple, traditional, rural values against the luxury and decadence of the city rich.

Tibullus is mentioned in some of the poems of his contemporaries Horace (65 to 8 BC) and Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD). Tibullus published just 2 books of elegies amounting to just 16 poems in all (book 1, 10 elegies, book 2, 6 elegies). This edition contains the full Latin texts of all 16.

(In fact, the state of Tibullus’s poems is messier than this simple layout suggests; a third and fourth book of elegies survives from antiquity but most scholars think they are not his work, while some of the canonical 16 have issues of order and logic which suggest they may have been tampered with. All this is discussed in the introduction but, as it were, buried in the crisp, clear formal layout of the text itself.)

2. This edition also contains an admirably to-the-point introduction and thorough and useful notes by Tibullus scholar Robert Maltby. We learn that these are taken from Maltby’s own larger, more scholarly edition of Tibullus, cut down and focused for this OUP paperback. Many notes for classic texts are obvious and trite, for example telling you who Julius Caesar or Mars were. Maltby’s notes are outstanding, clarifying all the unusual references in each poem, and consistently going deeper than the obvious, telling us fascinating things about Roman social practices and delving deep into the origins of the gods or the stories of the many figures from myth and legend who Tibullus mentions.

3. And the third author is the translator of the poems themselves, award-winning American poet, translator and essayist A.M. Juster.

What is an elegy?

The modern sense of ‘elegy’ as a lament for the dead only crystallised during the 16th century. 2,000 years ago, in the ancient Greeks and Romans the word had a much wider definition – elegies could cover a wide range of subject matter (death, love, war).

The defining feature of them is that they were written in elegiac couplets or ‘elegiacs’, which consist of a dactylic hexameter verse followed by a dactylic pentameter verse i.e. six ‘feet’ in the first line, five in the second. Juster repeats this format fairly precisely, producing couplets whose first line has six beats, the second line, five beats. 6 then 5.

My girl is now held hostage by a surly guard
and her stout door is shut and bolted tight.

I’ve often tried to banish pains of love with wine,
but sorrow turned the uncut wine to tears.

The effect was to create a kind of dying fall, hence its attraction for poets who wanted to write an elegy in our sense and the elegiac couplet was in fact the metre used for writing funeral inscriptions and sometimes these found their way into elegiac poems (Tibullus includes a few in his poems). However, the most famous of the Roman elegists copied the way that late Greek or Hellenistic poets had used it to express personal and often amatory subject matter.

Elegiac couplets were felt to be appropriate for the expression of ‘direct and immediate concerns’, by contrast with the hexameter which was felt to be the metre for continuous narrative, as in Homer’s epics.

Catullus was the first Roman poet to co-opt the form from the Greek Hellenistic poets and adapt it to Latin. He was followed by Tibullus (in his elegies), Propertius (in his elegies) and Ovid (in the Amores, Heroides, Tristia and Letters from Pontus).

Elegiac couplets were also used for actual funeral inscriptions on gravestones,

Love poems

The classic Roman elegists used the form to write love poems, often (apparently) surprisingly candid about their own love affairs. The convention quickly arose of devoting some or all of the poems to a beloved mistress, who receives the poet’s devotion despite being often capricious or antagonistic.

Catullus can be said to have invented many aspects of this convention in his poems to Lesbia, universally taken as a pseudonym for the Roman aristocrat Clodia Metelli with whom he (if the poems are to be believed) had a passionate affair and then an equally emotional falling out. Tibullus’s contemporary, Propertius, addresses his elegies to the figure of ‘Cynthia’. A little later, Ovid addresses a figure named ‘Corinna’, though there is widespread agreement that she probably didn’t exist but was a poetic convention.

Tibullus’s lovers

Tibullus for his part, addresses three figures in his short collection: Book 1 addresses a figure called called Delia (the later Roman writer claimed, Apuleius, claimed that her real name was Plania). The poems are in no logical order so don’t portray a clear narrative. Sometimes she is referred to as single, sometimes as married. Some of the poems imply their relationship began when her husband was away serving with the army in Cilicia. At some point the poet discovers that Delia has another lover. When her husband returns, the poet now has two rivals!

Meanwhile, some of the poems in book 1 also address a boy, Marathus. The three poems centred on Marathus constitute the longest poetic project in Roman literature having homosexual love as theme, being 1.4, 1.8 and 1.9.

In the second book the place of Delia is taken by ‘Nemesis‘, who appears in 2.3, 2.4 and 2.6. Nemesis is clearly a pseudonym, given that it is the name of a famous goddess. This person was probably a high-class courtesan and appears to have had other admirers besides Tibullus. In the Nemesis poems Tibullus complains bitterly of his bondage, and of her rapacity and hard-heartedness. In spite of all, however, she seems to have retained her hold on him until his death.

Tibullus’s patron

Tibullus’s patron was the statesman and general, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. The introduction tells us that Corvinus was patron of a circle of poets which included Propertius and the young Ovid, and was himself an author of poetry. He was ‘a stickler for purity of style in Latin’, which may go some way to explaining the elegance of Latin diction which Tibullus is noted for.

Although an old school republican, Corvinus allied himself with the new regime and served as co-consul with Augustus in 31 BC. Seen from this perspective, Tibullus’s praise of rural values, respect for the traditional gods, support of his patron and his son, all fall into line with the tendency of Augustan propaganda. Doesn’t exactly explain, but makes sense of, the extended passage in 2.5 where Tibullus gives a compressed account of the ancient origins of Rome – the odyssey of Aeneas, the war with Turnus, the prophecies of the Sibyl and so on – which echo or parallel the themes of the Aeneid by Virgil, who Tibullus certainly knew.

That said, Tibullus nowhere actually mentions Octavius/Augustus (unlike the numerous praising references found in Virgil and Horace) and his positive references to Egypt and its religion (Isis, Osiris) in elegy 1.7 also run counter to Augustan propaganda, which was vehemently anti-Egyptian.

The poems

I propose to summarise the content of each poem, then, because they are stuffed with references to myth and legend alongside details of Roman social life, to note any bits of social history which interest me. At the end I’ll discuss Juster’s translation.

Book 1 contains 10 poems just as Horace’s first book of satires does and Virgil’s 10 eclogues. Publication allowed a poet to arrange poems very much not in chronological order, but thematically.

1.1 (78 lines)

May someone else assemble wealth of gleaming gold
and hold vast plots of cultivated land,
one who would fear the constant toil of lurking foes,
one whose sleep flees when Mars’ trumpets blare.
May poverty provide me with an idle life
while steady fire burns within my hearth…

First poems in collections set out the themes and announce the tone. Tibullus’s describes his longing for the simple life on a rural farm, planting fruit trees and vines himself and piously worshipping the country gods. This is contrasted with the ambition for glory of his patron, Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus, himself an orator and poet as well as a statesman and military commander. Only at line 57 is Delia introduced, at whose door the poet waits. He imagines his own funeral where she weeps for him.

1.2 (100 lines)

Pour more unwatered wine, and let it overcome
fresh grief so sleep controls my weary eyes
and, when my brow is Bacchus-bludgeoned, may no man
awaken me as barren passion rests.
My girl is now held hostage by a surly guard
and her stout door is shut and bolted tight…

The ancient Greeks were great for categorising everything, particularly in the arts. So they had a name for the type of poem describing a lovelorn lover struck outside the locked door of his beloved. It was called a paraklausithyron (melos) meaning ‘(a song) at the locked door’. Propertius wrote one (where the door itself speaks) and Ovid, too (where he addresses the doorkeeper).

Delia has been put under lock and key by her husband. The poet says he’ll get drunk to drown his sorrows, appeals to the door to let him in, then Delia to come and open it. He describes the many ways Venus helps illicit lovers. Then tells us he’s paid a witch to help his affair and describes here (awesome) powers. Unlike his rival who went off to win glory in war, all the poet wants is a quiet rural idyll with his Delia.

Historical notes: everyone else seems to ignore it but I am brought up short by the ubiquity of slavery in ancient Rome. Some Roman householders kept a door slave chained to their front door, to greet visitors and manage its opening and closing.

1.3 (94 lines)

Messalla, you will sail Aegean seas without me.
O that your staff and you remember me!
Phaeacia confines me, sick, in foreign lands;
grim Death, please keep your greedy hands away!

The poet has fallen ill at the island of Corfu, while accompanying his patron, Messalla, on official business to the East. The poem links together a number of reflections on this situation. He bids farewell to Messalla, who’s sailing on without him. He remembers parting from Delia in Rome, which leads him to ask Delia’s favourite deity, Isis, for a cure. He expresses his own preference for the good old traditional Roman gods, and then to contrast the Golden Age of Saturn with the present Age of Iron, with its endless wars. He imagines dying and being led by Venus to the Elysium reserved for devoted lovers, as opposed to the Tartarus or hell reserved for those who scorn love. Finally he imagines arriving back in Rome and his loving reception by Delia.

Note: the cult of Isis spread from the East to Rome during the first century BC and became popular among women of Delia’s class: the mistresses of both Propertius and Ovid were said to be devotees. Isis was worshipped twice a day, once before sunrise, once in the afternoon. At religious ceremonies women untied their hair, which was usually bound and braided. Isis’s male priests had completely shaven heads. Isis demanded of her female devotees periods of sexual abstinence, often ten days in duration which rankled with the sex-obsessed male elegists.

1.4 (84 lines)

‘Priapus, so a shady cover may be yours
and neither sun nor snowfall hard your head,
how does your guile enthrall the gorgeous boys?’

We’ve only had three poems mentioning Tibullus’s passionate love for Delia before the sequence is interrupted by a completely unexpected hymn to pederasty i.e. adult male love for adolescent boys. This is one of the three poems on the subject of Tibullus’s love for the boy Marathus. Homosexual love was fairly frequent in the Greek tradition but was avoided by the Romans (although it appears in some of Virgil’s Eclogues and Virgil is reported as having been gay).

The poem takes the form of an address to Priapus, the god of fertility. Tibullus invokes the god who then takes over the poem and delivers a mock lecture on the art of loving boys, which comes in 6 sections:

  • beware the attractions of boys ‘who will always offer grounds for love’
  • be patient, ‘his neck will bit by bit accept a yoke’
  • do not hesitate to use false oaths, for the Father forgives oaths sworn ‘in lust’
  • do not delay too long
  • do whatever your boy wishes, ‘love wins most by subservience’
  • Priapus laments the current fallen times when youths value money more than love and poetry!

Only at this point do we learn the lecture is meant to be passed on by Tibullus to his friend Titius, but Titius’s wife won’t allow him to make use of it and so Tibullus himself will, reluctantly, have to become ‘a teacher of love.’

May those deceived by tricks
of cunning lads proclaim me as the expert!
To each his source of pride! For me it’s counselling
spurned lovers.

The notion of a ‘love teacher’ was common in Greek New Comedy and so crops up in the plays of Plautus, who pinched the plots of all his plays from the Greeks. Soon after Tibullus, it was to form the basis of Ovid’s humorous poems, The Art of Love and The Remedy For Love.

Note: at their initiation the priests of the Mother goddess, Cybele, castrated themselves in a frenzy to the sound of Phrygian flutes (and, you would imagine, screams of pain).

1.5 (76 lines)

I claimed I took the break-up well, and I was tough,
but my persistent pride is now long gone,
since, like a top with string, I move on level ground
while whirled by talents of a skilful lad…

The second paraklausithyron or ‘locked outside the lover’s door’ poem. The narrator thought he could bear a separation from his beloved, but he can’t. His devotion helped restore her to health when she was ill by performing various magic rites; but now she has taken another lover. He had dreamed of an idyllic life in the country with her but now these dreams are scattered like winds across perfumed Armenia. He’s tried to forget her through wine and other women, who blame his impotence on her witchcraft, but really it’s her beauty which has bewitched him. A bawd or madam has introduced her to a rich lover. The poet delivers an extravagant curse of this ‘witch’. The poet pleads the true love of the poor lover (i.e. himself) but alas, doors only open for cash now.

The poem is structurally interesting because it mentions many of the points described in 1.2 and shows how each one has deteriorated.

Notes: burning and branding were typical punishments for slaves. The Romans had a word for slaves born into a household, a verna. Such slaves appear to have been treated more indulgently and so were more likely to chat and confide than slaves bought from outside.

The ‘curse poem’ was a full-blown literary genre in Hellenistic Greek poetry.

1.6 (86 lines)

You always flatter me, Love, so I’m snared, though later,
to my sorrow, you are harsh and sad.
Why are you so cruel to me? Or is there special glory
when a god has set a human trap?

The final Delia poem. Even more disillusioned than in 1.5, the poet realises Delia didn’t have a new lover forced on her by the bawd who he so extravagantly cursed in 1.5 but has, of her own free will, taken a new lover. He starts off attacking the god of love, Amor. He addresses Delia’s husband, itemising all the tricks whereby they deceived him then makes the outrageous suggestion that the husband give Delia to him (the poet) to protect. A spooky description of a priestess of the war goddess, Bellona, prophesying that anyone who touches a girl under love’s protection will lose his wealth should be a warning to her rich lover. He admits Delia is not to blame and should not be harmed, not least on account of her mother, who helped the couple in their affair. The poem ends with an appeal to Delia to be faithful and a description of the miserable old age of the faithless woman.

The irony throughout the poem is that Tibullus has been undone by his own tricks being performed, now, by another lover. Only in the notes to this poem does it become clear that Delia doesn’t have a ‘husband’ in the legal sense. So is she the kept courtesan of a rich man who, when he was away, took Tibullus as a lover and now has taken another? This version add pity to the vision of her as a widow without any legal rights and having to make a pitiful living by weaving which the poem ends on.

It’s impressive how there have only been five poems about Delia and yet it feels like I’ve read an entire novel about their affair, packed with emotions and vivid details.

Notes: In his description of his ‘enslavement’ to Delia, the poet says he is ready to accept ‘the cruel stripes and the shackles’ which are reserved for slaves.

1.7 (64 lines)

While spinning threads of fate a god cannot unwind,
the Parcae prophesied about this day,
this one that would disperse the tribes of Aquitaine,
that made the bravely conquered Atur tremble…

A song of pretty sycophantic praise to his patron, Messalla, on the latter’s birthday, celebrating his achievements, namely his victory over the Aquitanians in Gaul, the triumph he was awarded on 25 September 27 BC, his successful mission to the East, and his repair of the Via Latina (the kind of restoration work Augustus required of the well-off). The central section, describing his mission to the East, includes a hymn to the Egyptian god Osiris, who is identified with the Greek god, Bacchus, and a digression into how Bacchus invented cultivation of the vine.

In a typically useful note Maltby points out that this poem was written relatively soon after Augustus’s defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium (31 BC) and the couple’s suicide in 30 BC, BUT it departs from the usual fiercely negative tone of Augustan propaganda (compare it with the negative references to the ill-fated couple in the Aeneid). Maltby interprets this as calling for the peaceful integration of Egypt into the Roman imperium.

Notes: Slaves worked the fields of the Roman aristocracy chained together in chain gangs. Tibullus has the heart to call them ‘mortals in distress’ (41).

Each Roman had a guardian spirit watching over him called his Genius, who was born with him and protected him during his lifetime.

1.8 (78 lines)

There is no hiding from me what dome tender words
in whispers and a lover’s nod convey.
For me there are no lots, no livers linked to gods,
no songbirds that predict events for me…

Opens with Tibullus assuming the role of teacher of love, telling the poem’s addressee to admit to being in love, warning that cosmetics don’t work, comparing the addressee with a girl who never uses make-up but looks great. Old age is the time for make-up. What enchants is physical presence, thigh pressed against thigh. Only at line 23 do we learn that he is addressing a boy. It emerges that Tibullus is in love with a boy who is in love with the pretty girl mentioned earlier. Tibullus now tells the girl not to beg presents from the boy, but only from old admirers who can afford them. Quick now, while you are young, there’s time enough for make-up when you’re old.

No gems and pearls delight a girl who sleeps alone
and cold, and is desired by no man.

He tells her not to be tough on the boy and only now do we learn his identity, Marathus, the same boy as in 1.4, and we realise Tibullus is addressing them both as if they’re there, together, in front of him. We learn the girl is called Pholoe. He tells her to relent, pointing out that Marathus once enjoyed playing hard to get to older lovers; now the boot’s on the other foot and he himself is suffering agonises form being rejected by Pholoe.

It is a very dramatised poem, with Tibullus first addressing the boy and girl as if they’re in front of him, then handing over the narrative to Marathus. But then we’ve seen the high degree of dramatisation and multiple voices in Horace’s epistles and odes.

1.9 (84 lines)

If you were going to abuse my wretched love,
why make vows by the gods profaned in private?
O wretch, though broken oaths can be concealed at first,
the punishment still comes on muffled feet…

Closely related to 1.8, this also features Tibullus addressing lovers, in this case a boy who Tibullus is in love with (presumably the same Marathus) and an old married man who has bought the boy’s love with gifts (a recurring trope in all these love poems, the buying of love). Tibullus starts by cursing the boy for selling out to a rich lover, then kicks himself for having helped the boy so actively in his pursuit of the girl, holding a torch for him on midnight assignations, persuading the girl to come to her door to speak to the boy, and so on. He marvels that he was so naive (‘I should have been more wary of your traps’), and wrote love poems. Now he wishes Vulcan to come and burn those poems to ash.

At line 53 the narrator turns to the old married man who’s pinched him, and hopes his wife has umpteen affairs, surpassing even the licentiousness of his sister. He doesn’t realise his debauched sister taught his wife all his sexy tricks. The poet wishes the aroma of all his wife’s lovers will linger in their marital bed.

Then returns to the boy, asking him how he could sleep with such a monster, with his ‘vile, gouty flesh and elderly embraces’. The poem closes by ending the Marathus affair (‘Just get lost, you who only want to sell your looks’), saying he will take a new lover, and rejoice in the boy’s ‘torment’, and dedicate a palm to Venus in thanks for his escape. The final couplet is an actual dedication to the goddess, elegiac metre being used for real-life inscriptions.

It belongs to a recognised type in the ancient world, the ‘end of the affair’ poem (surprising that the Greeks don’t have a handy term for it).

Notes: slaves could be punished by being whipped ‘with a twisted whip’, lashing their shoulders, or branded. I am by now realising that the theme of slavery, as transposed to the trope of ‘love’s slave’ and ‘the slavery of love’, features in every poem. It is a stock trope to go alongside the conceit of love’s ‘wars’. The poet may be a warrior for love, a soldier of love, a casualty of love’s wars, or a slave for love etc.

1.10 (lines)

Who was the first to make horrific two-edged swords?
How ired and truly iron that man was!
First murder of the human race, then war was born,
then quicker ways to grisly death were opened…

Having rejected gay and straight love, the poet returns to the Roman ideal of a stable marriage. This is the last poem in the and it book picks up themes adumbrated in the first, such as rejecting war and greed in favour of the simple rural life. But now the poet finds himself being dragged off to war (we don’t know which war or when) and wishes for the lost Golden Age before war or greed were heard of. Oh how he loved scampering about under the gaze of the simple wooden household gods of his childhood! Oh let him live a simple life and dedicate simple sacrifices to the gods and let someone else ‘lay hostile leaders low’!

Half way through the poem switches to a vision of the dead in Hades, scratching their faces by the river Styx, waiting for Charon the filthy ferryman. Instead let us praise a simple farmer, such as he wants to be. There is a confusing passage when war and (apparently) sex or rape (?) intrude, before the last couplet invokes Peace, again.

So come to us while holding cornstalks, fertile Peace,
and may fruit spring from your resplendent breast.

2.1 (90 lines)

Be quiet, everyone! We’re cleansing crop and fields,
a rite still done as forebears passed it on.
Come Bacchus, and from your horns let sweet grapes hang
and, Ceres, wreath your brow with stalks of corn…

Book 2 opens with a dramatisation of a country festival. Procession to the altar of the sacred lambs, prayer to the ancestral gods, confirmation that the omens are good, toast to his patron, Messalla (‘pride of bearded ancestors’) in his absence, who he then asks to help him with the rest of the poem (as Virgil repeatedly asks Maecenas for help with his Georgics).

Then Tibullus sings a 30-line hymn in praise of the rustic gods and then the early farmers who developed the arts of agriculture. This segues into the final passage about Cupid, who was born among the beasts of the fields but quickly learned to ply his trade among humans, ah he causes much pain and sorrow. Which is why Tibullus enjoins him to lay down his bow & arrow and join the feast.

Notes: statues of the gods were often painted red, specially during festivals.

Tragic actors were awarded a goat, tragos in Greek, as a prize for their songs, which were performed in honour of Bacchus.

‘The gods are pleased by abstinence.’ Sexual abstinence was required before religious festivals.

2.2 (22 lines)

Let’s speak with joyous words; Birth-Spirit nears the altar.
Those present, male or female, hold your tongue!
Let hearths burn holy incense; let them burn perfumes
some gentle Arab sends from fruitful lands…

The shortest of the 16 elegies, this is addressed to Tibullus’s friend, Cornutus, on his birthday. Tibullus addresses Cornutus’s ‘Genius’, which probably means a statue or bust of him, brought from his house for the purpose. He (rhetorically) asks the absent Cornutus what gift he would like, then imagines Cornutus’s image nodding assent. Tibullus bets he will be praying for a wife’s true love, at which Tibullus asks Amor to come flying down and bring with him the bonds of a stable marriage. He asks the Birthday Spirit to provide Cornutus with healthy offspring.

It’s very brief and much more like a kind of fantasia or dream than the rather laboured discourses of the other elegies.

2.3 (86 lines)

Cornutus, farms and villas occupy my girl.
Alas, he who can stay in town is iron!
Venus herself has moved on now to open fields
and Love is learning rustic slang of farmers…

First of the short ‘sequence’ devoted to the new, ‘dark’ mistress, codenamed ‘Nemesis’. Whereas an idealised vision of the country is where Tibullus imagined his love for Delia, Nemesis is very much a woman of the city. The very wealth he had rejected in book 1, he now accepts if it helps him win his new, mercenary mistress.

The poem opens by addressing Cornutus. It is, in effect, a long moan to his friend. Tibullus laments that his mistress is being delayed in the country; Tibullus would do hard labour to release her; even Apollo underwent labours for his love, Admetus (11 to 36). Inevitably, he has a rival for her affections and attack on him leads into an attack on the greed of the present age (‘Our iron age applauds not love but loot of war’) and a series of lines condemning the lust for loot and the violence it motivates. And women are all too often lured by money – ‘Alas, I see that girls are thrilled by riches now.’

Only now, at line 57, do we discover the name of his mistress, ‘Nemesis’, the Greek word for retribution. Tibullus uses this technique of delaying the identity of the beloved in his poems about Delia and Marathus, obviously a stock technique to raise tension/introduce drama.

He is disgusted that his rival, her other lover, appears to be an ex-slave, one who ‘was often forced/to drag chalked feet upon a foreign scaffold’ – because (as Maltby’s excellent notes inform us) slaves on sale from abroad had their feet coated with chalk and were displayed in front of potential buyers on a temporary wooden scaffold.

Then the poem reverts to the rural setting, as he delivers 2-line curses of Ceres and Bacchus, the 2 deities most associated with the countryside, for keeping his beloved there. And he pines, not for the first time, for the Golden Age when men led simple lives, ate simple food, made love freely out of doors. The last line is a defiant claim that he will ‘never shrink from chains and lashes’ i.e. is prepared to become a slave for her sake.

2.4 (60 lines)

I see that I have gained both bondage and a mistress!
Farewell to native freedoms now for me!
Still, sadly, service is imposed and I’m in chains,
and for a wretch Love never loosens bonds,
and whether I have earned it or not sinned, it burns…

Picks up the slavery theme where 1.3 left off. The poet realises that, in acquiring a new mistress, he has put himself in bondage. He burns! He wishes he was unfeeling stone, was a cliff beaten by the sea. Poetry is useless; his mistress wants expensive gifts! If he’s not to be left whining outside her locked door he must forget poetry. Through verse he asks for access to his girl, a frequently repeated trope of the elegists – but it doesn’t work. It’s Venus’s fault, so he’ll profane her shrine. He curses the manufacturers of luxury goods for spoiling girls. He’s locked out of her house while any fool with money can bribe their way in. Then a passage bitterly cursing his beloved: may her house burn down, may she die unmourned. But then he relapses back into hopelessness: if she insists he sell his ancestral home, he’ll do it, yes and drink potions prepared by Circe or Medea, even drink the piss from a mare in heat, he’ll do it for his love!

2.5 (122 lines)

Phoebus, protect the novice entering your shrine;
come quickly to perform with song and lyre…

Tibullus’s longest poem. It is an invocation of the god Apollo in celebration of the induction of the son of his patron, Marcus Valerius Messalla Messallinus, into Apollo’s priesthood. (This took place about 19 BC i.e. not very long before scholars think Tibullus himself died.) The opening couplets describing Apollo’s powers are very evocative, as is his vision of Rome before it was settled, when it was merely a few idyllic villages.

What makes the poem so long is it swiftly moves on to mention the Sibylline books (which the priests of Apollo guarded) and then retells many of the prophecies of the ancient Sibyl about:

a) the founding of Rome by Aeneas (the subject of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid), quick vignettes of Ilia and Romulus, mentions of Lavinia and Turnus, focus of the second half of the Aeneid
b) events surrounding the assassination of Caesar and the subsequent civil wars – quite extensive subjects

The poem ends with an extended description of a rural festival, in its final lines introducing the figure of Cupid who has wounded the poet who now suffers from the pangs of love. Tibullus asks mercy of Nemesis (for it is she) so that he has the strength to celebrate the great achievements of young Messalinus, envisioned as driving through conquered towns.

The notes point out that by expanding the range of subject matter of the elegy, Tibullus paved the way for Propertius to do likewise, in his book 4, and Ovid in his Fasti.

Notes: there were three types of divination in ancient Rome: augury (observation of the flight and call of birds), sortilege (casting lots) and haruspicy (examining the liver and entrails of sacrificed animals).

2.6 (54 lines)

Macer is called up. What will come of tender Love?
Be friends and bravely lug gear on his neck?

Another ‘locked out’ poem. It starts by describing the fact that this ‘Macer’ is being called up (much scholarly debate about who this is ‘Macer’ is) and is off to the wars. The poet extends a brief description of a young man off to the wars into his own situation, an embattled man in love, who cannot keep away from his beloved’s locked door.

If only love’s weapons could be destroyed. He’d have killed himself now if only cruel Hope did not assure him Nemesis will relent. He prays at the grave of Nemesis’s dead sister, that she will pity him. He blames Nemesis’s bawd or madam, named as Phryne, for locking him out, and curses her. (Shifting the blame from the beloved to her ‘bawd’ and bad advisor was a traditional trope in ‘locked out’ poems).

Greek poetry had traditionally opposed Hope and Nemesis, which adds resonance to their binary opposition here.

The last couplet of Tibullus’s last poem curses this bawd or madam, calling down the retribution of the gods on an old woman.

Juster’s translation

Juster’s translation is efficient but it doesn’t zing, not like Rolfe Humphrey’s dazzling translation of Lucretius or Peter Fallon’s brilliant translation of Virgil’s Georgics. Again and again I read couplets which I thought even I could have phrased a bit more smoothly. It’s not as baggy as Cecil Day Lewis’s translation of the Eclogues, but there’s… no… pzazz. No magic.

I swore so often not to go back to her door
yet when I swore, my wilful feet returned. (2.6)

I imagine Juster is conveying the sense accurately, and he keeps very closely to the elegiac format i.e. 6 beats in the first line of each couplet, 5 in the second, throughout. But without the roll and rise:

Whichever god gave beauty to a greedy girl,
alas, he brought much evil with the good,
and so the sobs and brawls resound; in short, it’s why
Love is a god who’s disrespected now. (2.4)

Close, but no cigar.

I praise the farm and gods of farms; with them as guides
life meant not fending hunger off with acorns. (2.1)

Accurate, efficient but…none of the surprise and joy of really wonderful poetry.

Summary

I know I’m meant to be paying attention to Tibullus’s achievement as an elegiac poet, noting his expansion of the genre, his three (tiny) sequences of poems to Delia, Nemesis and Marathus, noting the sexual fluidity of ancient Rome, noting his expansion of the genre to include the paean to his patron’s son and so on.

But it’s hard to take his descriptions of rural idyll seriously, when you know that a) he was actually a well-off aristocrat and city boy and b) from history books, that the friendly family farm described by him and Virgil and Horace had largely disappeared to be replaced by vast latifundia worked by shackled slaves.

Hard to take his complaints about this or that high-class courtesan or pretty boy playing hard to get or demanding expensive gifts, when that was the convention of the time. Hard to take his complaints against luxury very seriously, when historians tell us the 1st century BC saw unprecedented wealth pour into Rome and the lifestyles of the rich meet dizzy heights, and we know he himself was a member of the wealthy equites class.

In other words, almost all the substance of the poems is sophisticated pose and artifice. And, as so often, what I most noted was the references in every poem to slavery, to chains and shackle, to the punishments of whipping and branding (!), to the description of newly imported slaves being lined up on a wooden scaffold and auctioned off. That image, that idea, that suffering, vastly outweighs Tibullus’s fake descriptions of his own stereotyped emotions.

I take the point that there was an entire genre of poems called ‘at the door’ poems or paraklausithyrai. But whenever I think of The Door I can’t help remembering the note which says many doors of the rich had a slave shackled to them, to guard them, to prevent admission to undesirables, to call a senior servant to vet visitors, and that if this slave slipped in his duty or spoke out of turn he could be whipped, branded, beaten and, in extreme cases, have his legs broken or be crucified.


Credit

Tibullus elegies, translated by A.M Juster with notes and introduction by Robert Maltby, was published by Oxford University Press in 2012. All references are to the 2013 paperback edition.

Related link

Roman reviews

Virgil and the Christian World by T.S. Eliot (1951)

T.S. Eliot: a potted biography

The great Anglo-American poet, playwright and critic T.S. Eliot (1888 to 1965) came from America to England just before the First World War, published a small number of sensuous, ‘modernist’ poems displaying a sensibility in debt to French Symbolism. Soon after the Great War ended he published the seminal modernist poem, The Waste Land (1922), but also established a reputation as a deeply insightful and intelligent critic of much earlier English literature, particularly the Jacobean playwrights and metaphysical poets of the early 1600s.

His reputation was enhanced and his influence steadily spread, especially among the younger generation of writers and critics, due to his editorship of a literary and philosophical magazine, The Criterion, which he edited from 1922 to 1939. Readers of The Criterion came to realise that, far from being a youthful revolutionary who was set on overturning literary values, and despite the radical format of The Waste Land (collage, fragments, quotes from multiple foreign languages), Eliot was, in fact, a profoundly conservative thinker.

This was made explicit when in 1928, in the foreword to a book of essays titled ‘For Lancelot Andrewes’ (the Jacobean bishop and writer) Eliot ‘came out’, declaring himself ‘a classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion,’ committing himself to hierarchy and order in all three fields.

He had already taken British citizenship. In the later 1930s he attempted to revive the verse drama of the Elizabethans which he had spent so much time analysing, on the modern stage, writing a series of plays in verse, starting with Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

During the Second World War Eliot worked as a reader for the publishers Faber & Faber during the day and a fire warden at night. The masterpiece of his maturity was the set of four longer poems collectively titled the Four Quartets (Burnt Norton, 1936, then East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, published in 1940, 1941 and 1942, respectively).

After the war, Eliot settled into the position of Grand Old Man of Poetry, with a leading role at the leading publisher of poetry, Faber. He continued to write essays and make broadcasts on the radio. With his public conversion to Anglicanism he had achieved an ideological and psychological stability.

Having lived through two ruinous world wars, a lot of Eliot’s effort was now devoted towards helping to define and preserve the best of European civilisation. His early essays had been offshoots of a poet working through his own problems and interests; the later essays are a conscious effort to establish a canon of classic literature, trying to formulate universal categories to define and preserve it.

It is in this spirit that in 1951 he delivered a lecture on BBC radio titled ‘Virgil and the Christian World’, which was then printed in The Listener magazine and collected in the volume On Poetry and Poets.

Virgil and the Christian World

As befits radio this is not an address to a specialist audience of literary scholars but a more broad brush approach for a general audience. Eliot explains that he is not setting out to assert Virgil’s special value as a poet or moralist, but to pay attention to ‘those characteristics of Virgil which render him peculiarly sympathetic to the Christian mind’.

Straight away he addresses the notorious issue of the Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. This, the fourth and final of Virgil’s set of lengthy poems about the countryside or ‘eclogues’, contains extravagant praise of the forthcoming birth of a special child, who, the poet claims, will bring a new golden age, the return of Saturn and the Virgin, the gift of divine life etc.

As early Christianity established itself, early Christian apologists ransacked all available texts, from old Jewish scriptures to the entire literature of the ancient world, looking for proofs and prophecies, any text anywhere which could be made to prefigure and predict the arrival of their messiah.

Thus the Fourth Eclogue was quickly adopted by these apologists and Virgil was made an honorary Christian before the fact because Christians claimed he had been gifted with spiritual prophecy to foresee the coming of the Christ. Throughout the entire Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance scholars and theologians genuinely believed that Virgil had predicted the coming of the Christ child.

Eliot makes clear right at the start that he in now way thinks that Virgil foresaw the birth of Christ (some 19 years after he himself died). Rather, Eliot thinks the Fourth Eclogue was written to a friend of his, Pollio, whose wife was expecting a baby.

[In fact, the notes to the OUP edition of the Eclogues which I recently read, suggest that this passage of the Fourth Eclogue was describing the hoped-for son of the recent marriage of Antony and Octavius’s sister, Octavia (in 40 BC), because contemporaries devoutly hoped that their union would usher in a final end to Rome’s endless civil wars.]

Eliot then ponders the meaning of the words prophet, prophecy and predict. He himself has no doubt that Virgil had no inkling of the coming of Christ. On the other hand, he suggests that if the word ‘inspiration’ means writing something the poet himself does not completely understand, and which he or she may themselves misinterpret once the ‘inspiration’ has passed, the maybe Virgil was ‘inspired’.

This is by way of preparing the way for some autobiography, for Eliot then paints an obvious portrait of himself and how his most famous poem, The Waste Land, which arose out of his purely private concerns, amazed him by going on to become the rallying cry for an entire generation of writers.

A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression both of their own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation.

A poet need not know what his poetry will come to mean for others just as a prophet need not understand the meaning of their prophetic utterance. Thus there may be any number of secular, historical explanations for the Fourth Eclogue; but he repeats his definition of ‘inspiration’ as tapping into a force which defies all historical research.

Anyway the point is that the existence of the Fourth Eclogue which so many Christians mistakenly thought was divinely inspired, gave Virgil and his writing a kind of free pass into the new Christian order, opening ‘the way for his influence in the Christian world’, something mostly denied to other explicitly ‘pagan’ authors. On the face of it this is a lucky accident but Eliot doesn’t believe it was an ‘accident’.

Eliot anticipates Jackson Knight’s view, expressed in his Penguin translation of the Aeneid from a few years later (1956), that Virgil was the poet of the gateway, looking both back to the pagan world and forwards to the Christian dispensation.

So after these preliminaries, Eliot gets to the meat of his essay: In what way did Virgil anticipate the Christian West? Eliot tells us that, to answer his question, he is going to rely on a book by a German scholar, Theodor Haecker, titled Virgil: The Father of the West.

Before he gets started though, Eliot rather surprisingly devotes a page to autobiography, telling us that as a boy learning the Classics he much preferred Greek to Latin (and still does). However he found himself immediately more drawn to Virgil than Homer. The main reason was that the gods in Homer are so capricious, selfish and immoral and all the so-called ‘heroes’ are in fact coarse ruffians. The only decent character in the entire book is Hector.

Nowadays, if forced to explain his preference, he’d say he prefers the world of Virgil to the world of Homer: it was ‘a more civilised world of dignity, reason and order’. Eliot goes on to compare the Greek and Roman worlds, saying the culture of Athens was much superior in the arts, philosophy and pure science. Virgil made of Roman culture something better than it was. Then he quietly makes a very big leap in the argument, claiming that Virgil’s ‘sensibility was more nearly Christian than any other Roman or Greek poet’. How so?

He says he is going to follow Haeckel’s procedure of examining key words in the poem and highlights laborpietas and fatum. However, he immediately drops this plan and veers off into a consideration of the Georgics. What Virgil really intended the Georgics for remains a bit of a mystery: they’re not particularly useful as a handbook to farming, and they contain many digressions completely extraneous to their ostensible subject matter. After pondering Virgil’s motivation, Eliot concludes that Virgil intended to affirm the dignity of agricultural labour and the importance of the cultivation of the soil for the wellbeing of the state, both materially and spiritually.

The Greeks may have perfected the notion that the highest type of life is the contemplative life (Plato et al) but they tended to look down on manual labour. For Eliot the Georgics affirm the importance of manual labour on the land. Then he makes a leap to talk about the monastic movement which grew up within medieval Christendom and how the monastic orders combined both aspects, combining a life of contemplation with quite arduous labour, as both being essential for the life of the complete man.

It may be that the monks who read and copied Virgil’s manuscripts recognised their spirit in the Georgics.

Now onto the Aeneid. Eliot says this epic poem is:

concerned with the imperium romanum, with the extension and justification of imperial rule.

(quite unlike W.A. Camps with his silly claim that the Aeneid is not a work of propaganda.) But Eliot claims that Virgil’s ‘ideal of empire’ was founded on a devotion to the land, to the region, village, and family within the village. This brief explanation is his discussion of labor because Eliot now turns to the more important concept of pietas.

In English someone is called ‘pious’ if they make a great show of their religious faith. Eliot says that pietas for Virgil had much wider associations: it implies a respectful attitude to the individual, the family, the region, and towards ‘the imperial destiny of Rome’. Aeneas is also ‘pious’ in his respect towards the gods and punctilious observance of rites and offerings.

Eliot delves further into the meanings of the word. Piety to a father can, for example, mean not only affection for an individual but acceptance of a bond which one has not chosen. Piety towards the father is also an acceptance of the correct order of things, and so, obliquely, respect of the gods. After some shilly-shallying Eliot gets to the point he wants to make: all these forms of piety involve some form of humility and humility is a professedly Christian virtue. Aeneas is, in this respect, the polar opposite of Achilles or Odysseus, who have not a shred of humility about them.

[Interestingly, given the date of the essay, written soon after the end of the Second World War, Eliot describes Aeneas as the original Displaced Person, a fugitive from a ruined city and an obliterated society.]

Odysseus endures ten years of exile but eventually returns to his home hearth, to a loyal wife, a dutiful son, his slaves and faithful dog. Whereas Aeneas can’t go home: he is a man on a mission and accomplishing that mission, the poem makes repeatedly clear, is only the very beginning of the long history of Roman origins and rise. Odysseus’s story ends when he gets home (and kills the suitors); Aeneas’s entire journey is itself only an episode in the much larger history of Rome.

Therefore, Eliot asserts (with a bit of a stretch, in my view) Aeneas is ‘the prototype of a Chistian hero’. He accepts the duty laid on him by the gods regardless of the price to himself. He subjugates his own will and desires to his god-given task.

This brings Eliot to fatum (so, OK, we are proceeding via the key word process). There is an excess of words to cover this concept. Eliot says maybe the best translation is ‘destiny’ but then makes the polemical point that you cannot have ‘destiny’ in a purely mechanical universe.

Eliot then tries to give a Christian interpretation to Aeneas’s ‘destiny’. It is a burden and a responsibility rather than a reason for self glorification. It happens to some men and not others because some have the gifts and the responsibility but they did not make these; something external made these and the humble man accepts the gifts and the responsibility. Who made them? Not the anthropomorphised pagan gods who behave so selfishly and vulgarly in the poem. Some power much deeper.

He zeroes in on the entire Dido episode (book 4) in particular Aeneas’s shame at abandoning Dido, shame which is revived when he meets her shade in the underworld in book 6 and she refuses to look at him or speak. This, for Eliot, more than personal shame, symbolises how much Aeneas suffered to carry out his god-given destiny. Making his point completely explicit, he says: ‘it is a very heavy cross to bear.’

Eliot can think of no other pagan poet who could have created this situation with its emotional, psychological and philosophical subtlety.

What does this ‘destiny’ mean? For Virgil’s conscious mind, and his contemporary readers, not least the all-powerful Augustus, there’s no doubt it means the imperium romanum. But Eliot then makes some dubious and sweeping generalisations. He claims that Virgil proposed for his contemporaries a noble ideal of empire – personally, I don’t see that in the poem. There are Anchises’ lines reminding Romans they must rule well and there’s praise of Augustus for bringing peace and order, but that’s about it. Eliot stretches it by claiming that Virgil’s work proposed ‘the highest ideal’ for any secular empire. Personally, I just don’t see that. In my view what the Aeneid praises is military conquest, might and power. There might be a strong thread of regret and sadness running through it, but that is the poem’s overt message.

Eliot proceeds to claim that ‘we are all, so far as we inherit the civilisation of Europe, still citizens of the Roman Empire’. Is that true? I can see strong points on either side of the argument.

But he then goes on to claim that the Roman Empire Virgil imagined was ‘greater’ than the actual one of generals and proconsuls and businessmen. Eliot claims that Virgil invented this ideal and ‘passed [it] on to Christianity to develop and to cherish.’ I disagree on a number of levels.

First, I find the actual process of creating empire, as described in the Aeneid, to be hyper-violent and destructive, flagrantly contrary all Christian morality.

Second, part of the ideal which Eliot is describing must include the idealisation of the first Roman emperor Augustus. I can see why Virgil a) pinned his hopes for peace on b) sucked up to, the most powerful man in Rome, but in the end the entire poem amounts to the propagandistic adulation of a mass murderer, a man who achieved supreme power by liquidating all his enemies and then ensuring nobody could threaten his unique rule for the next 40 years. The Aeneid defends a military dictator.

So I just don’t agree when Eliot claims that it passed onto its Christian heirs any kind of noble model for how to run a spiritual empire. The exact opposite.

Eliot reiterates his claim that we are all still citizens the Roman Empire. Well, there are arguments both ways but ultimately I think he is incorrect. The state we inhabit in England in 2022 owes more to the non-Roman traditions of the pagan Danes and Anglo-Saxons and feudal Normans who each conquered this country, than to the Roman civilisation which they eclipsed. Our democracy owes nothing to Rome; it developed out of medieval feudalism, itself an import from Normandy, itself a colony of Vikings.

I think Eliot’s vision of a total European civilisation is erroneous and that his claim that this civilisation was in part inspired by Virgil is wrong.

Moreover, there is a blindingly obvious problem here, which is that Eliot is defending empire as an ideal form of government. Obviously this was considerably easier to do in 1951 than it would be nowadays. Millions of inhabitants of the former British Empire have immigrated to Britain and their children, in politics, in culture and in academia, have enthusiastically set about damning the British Empire, rubbishing any claim that it ever had anything positive about it. So just the sound of Eliot defending empire as a ‘noble ideal’ sounds badly in our time.

As to whether Virgil’s ideal of a suprahuman noble empire actually did inspire church authorities in the Middle Ages, I think you’d need a book examining the impact of the Virgilian ‘ideal’ on theologians, political thinkers, churchmen and statesmen throughout the Middle Ages and that would be a vast undertaking. I bet one exists, though. I’d love to read it.

This was, after all, only a half-hour radio lecture. Eliot’s sensitivity and insight and intellect bring out all kinds of aspects of Virgil’s achievement. And his thesis – that Virgil’s achievement of creating the notion of an ideal empire was to haunt the European imagination – is one of those ideas which is itself so big and vague that you can’t really prove or disprove it. But it’s an interesting perspective to add to the hundreds of other perspectives with which we can view Virgil’s epic poem.

Eliot concludes his essay with a page about a word which is missing from Virgil which is ‘love’. Amor does crop up, especially in the story of Dido and Aeneas. But it has nowhere near the force and central importance that it has for a Christian poet like Dante. It never has:

the same significance as a principle of order in the human soul, in society and in the universe that pietas is given.

Thus Eliot agrees (no surprise) with Dante’s positioning of Virgil in the Divine Comedy as an inspired teacher and guide right up to the barrier of belief, which he is not allowed to cross. In Eliot’s view Virgil mapped out a universe which in many ways anticipated the Christian universe, and handed many of its values onto later generations of Christian thinkers (and poets). But there is a line and Virgil doesn’t cross over into being a Christian. He can’t.

Instead, Virgil was limited by his position in history: the highest value he can conceive of, the value which underpins so much of the character and action of the Aeneid, was pietas, respect for father, family and fatherland.

But the highest value for the Christian poet Dante was love, the love which has created the entire universe and moves the sun and the stars and which we can all aspire to. Next to the gorgeous rose of Dante’s universe of love, Virgil’s pietas is a hard, iron sword, the colour of Roman imperialism.


Other Eliot reviews

Roman reviews

Introductions to the Aeneid – 3. David West

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1970 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

This is the last of three blog posts giving detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. This one looks at David West’s introduction to his 1991 translation. It also gives examples of each of the translators’ work, first their renderings of the Aeneid’s opening 12 lines, then of the final few lines.

1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

Unlike the vapouring spiritualist Jackson Knight, and the namedropping Vietnam War protestor Mandelbaum, West is wonderfully unpretentious and to the point. In his introduction’s brisk 6 pages he bluntly says the Aeneid is about a man who lived 3,000 years ago in Asia Minor so – why should we care?

1. The origins of Rome

He gives a fantastically compressed précis of the plot before going on to say that, 300 years after Aeneas’ legendary death, the city of Rome was founded by his descendants. So that’s one reason to read the Aeneid: because it is the foundation story of the most important city in European history, the state that underpins modern Europe.

2. Aeneas an emblem of the refugee from war

Another reason is because it is a great poem. Part of this is down to it being about a very human figure,  Prince Aeneas, a man who knew defeat and exile, love and the loss of love, who maintained his sense of duty to family and country through thick and thin, who knew war and hated it but was capable of fighting with hatred.

At the end of the twentieth century the world is full of such people.

If West was writing in 1990, then he was about to witness the First Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prolonged civil wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide and the Great War of Africa, followed by 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq. Yes. War and the bitterness of war, and exile and grief and lost love, these are eternal fixtures of the human condition. I am writing this on day 201 of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The gods have changed but for the men there is not much difference.

3. Virgil’s humanity

But the Aeneid is not only about The Human Condition but is full of individual human touches, insights  and moments which make the poem a deeply rewarding read:

  • Dido putting the Trojans at their easy 1.567-578
  • the grief of Andromache meeting a Trojan youth who is the same age as her murdered son would have been 3.305
  • Acestes and Aeneas shaming an old champion into fighting in their games 5.389
  • the throwaway remark of Ascanius which has such momentous consequences 7.116
  • old King Evander enjoying looking upon his old friend’s son 8.152
  • the native’s abuse of foreigners 9.598
  • the glorious death of Mezentius and his horse at 10.858
  • the fussing of the doctor as he fails to treat Aeneas’s arrow wound 12.387

The Aeneid presents a ‘heroic’ view of life i.e. all the characters are super-lifesize – but it is also full of these realistic human moments. So its depiction of timeless themes of human suffering, combined with these insights into human nature mean that, even after 2,000 years, it is still not out of date.

Virgil and Augustus

West then devotes a zippy two-thirds of a page to summarising Virgil’s life and career. For me the strong part is the confiscation of his family’s land by Octavius (unlike, Mandelbaum West doesn’t mention Virgil’s trip to Rome to beg for it to be returned) but West adds a new fact: to qualify to be a member of the Senate a Roman citizen needed to be very wealthy; when Virgil died, he had property worth ten times this wealth requirement. Being Augustus’s top poet made Virgil rich. It would be fashionably easy to despise Virgil for sucking up to Augustus, in the Aeneid as in the Eclogues and Georgics, but this would be wrong because:

  1. After a century of violence and civil war, Augustus’s hard-won victories promised peace and moral regeneration. There was every reason to believe a genuine Golden Age was at hand. Virgil’s friend, Horace, believed just as fervently. It is reasonable enough to praise the peace-bringer.
  2. Virgil was no superficial tyrant-pleaser. He had a deep appreciation of the countryside and traditions of a much wider definition of Italy (his upbringing on a farm outside Mantua). He knew it had taken hard fighting to secure peace and would take hard work to create this Golden Age. I like the way West says Virgil didn’t have the answers to these questions and he didn’t even pose the questions. He told an exciting story and lets the story raise, at numerous points, thoughts and questions about love of country, love of family, and what it means to fight for peace. The critique is buried deeply within the narrative.
  3. West draws a distinction between praise and flattery. The Aeneid praises Augustus in two ways: first, it tells the story of his heroic ancestor, in such a way as to reflect well on the emperor. The second way is the direct references to Augustus at key moments of prophecy and prediction.

West’s approach to translation

Finally, a page about the translation itself. Interestingly, West says that up to his time the W.F. Jackson Knight translation (whose introduction I have considered at length) had been the gold standard English translation of the Aeneid. However, it suffers from two weaknesses and that is why it is now being replaced: 1. The prose is old fashioned 2. It follows the original Latin very slavishly, often to the detriment of good sense.

So West is setting out to right the balance, to try and capture some of the allusive, changing poetry of the original – but never at the expense of – and while always writing –good, muscular, rhythmic, expressive English prose. In my opinion, he succeeds very well (see examples, below).

As you can tell, West’s introduction is far and away the best of the three for its complete absence of swank and bullshit, for its brevity, for telling you just enough to warm you up – and then pitching the reader straight into the narrative.

I enjoyed his translation more than the others for the same reason. It is straight-talking, clear and to the point. But it also, despite being in prose, includes subtle effects of alliteration, assonance and rhythm.

Disagreement

Blazing with rage, he plunged the blade full into his enemy’s breast….(Book 12)

But even with West I disagree. He says the poem is a vision of ‘a search for peace and order for Rome and humanity’. Is it, though? The Aeneid portrays a universe of anger and death and ends with a brutal act of murder. All three of these translators, in their introductions, are inexplicably drawn to praise the humanism and sweet sadness of Virgil’s poem. I know what they mean, the sadness is there and is sometimes a very dominant mood. But the narrative is also splattered with blood, the blood of hundreds of men hacked to pieces in battle, the ravening fury of Juno and her agents, screeching harpies, the foul dira, and the stink of the hundreds which are barbarously slaughtered at altars, their hot blood spurting out onto the hungry earth.

Yes, there’s a gentle tone of sweet sadness but, for my money, all three of these translators inexplicably underplay the centrality of war and anger and death and bloodshed which run alongside and, in my opinion, overwhelm the poem’s sweet humanism.

The fact that such diametrically opposite views can be held about it makes me wonder whether, deep down, even Virgil himself knew what his great poem is actually about? What it is really saying? Despite his conscious intentions, did his poem, once he had stitched it all together, end up saying much more, and give a different impression, than he originally intended?


Samples of the translations

Which of the three translations do you prefer?

The Aeneid book 1, lines 1 to 12

Jackson Knight translation:

This is a tale of arms and of a man. Fated to be an exile, he was the first to sail from the land of Troy and reach Italy, at the Lavinian shore. He met many tribulations on his way both by land and on the ocean; high heaven willed it, for Juno was ruthless and could not forget her anger. And he had also to endure great suffering in warfare. But at last he succeeded in founding his city, and installing the gods of his race in the Latin land: and that was the origin of the Latin nation, the Lords of Alba, and the proud battlements of Rome.

Mandelbaum translation:

I sing of arms and of a man: his fate
had made him fugitive; he was the first
to journey from the coasts of Troy as far
as Italy and the Lavinian shores.
Across the lands and waters he was battered
beneath the violence of the High Ones, for
the savage Juno’s unforgetting anger;
and many sufferings were his in war–
until he brought a city into being
and carried in his gods to Latium;
from this have come the Latin race, the lords
of Alba, and the ramparts of high Rome.

West translation:

I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile, who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy to the shores of Lavinium; and a great pounding he took by land and sea at the hands of the heavenly gods because of the fierce and unforgetting anger of Juno. Great too were his sufferings in war before he could found his city and carry his gods into Latium. This was the beginning of the Latin race, the Alban fathers and the high walls of Rome.

The Aeneid, book 12, lines

Jackson Knight translation:

Aeneas stood motionless, a fierce figure in his armour; but his eyes were restless, and he checked the fall of his right arm. And now at any moment the pleas of Turnus, already working in his mind, might have prevailed on his hesitation, when suddenly, there before him, he saw slung over his shoulder the accursed baldric of Pallas and his belt, inset with the glittering rivets, which he had known of old when they belonged to his young friend whom Turnus had brought low with a wound, and overcome. This Baldric Turnus was wearing now over his own shoulder, and the trophy was fatal to him. Aeneas’ eyes drank in the sight of the spoils which revived the memory of his own vengeful bitterness. His fury kindled and, terrible in his rage, he said: ‘Are you to be stolen hence out of my grasp, you who wear spoils taken from one whom I loved? It is Pallas, only Pallas, who by this wound which I now deal makes sacrifice of you; he exacts this retribution, you criminal, from your blood.’ Saying this and boiling with rage he buried his blade full in Turnus’ breast. His limbs relaxed and chilled; and the life fled, moaning, resentful, to the Shades.

Mandelbaum translation:

Aeneas stood, ferocious in his armour;
his eyes were restless and he stayed his hand;
and as he hesitated, Turnus’s words
began to move him more and more – until
high on the Latin’s shoulder he made out
the luckless belt of Pallas, of the boy
whom Turnus had defeated, wounded, stretched
upon the battlefield, from whom he took
this fatal sign to wear upon his back,
this girls glittering with familiar studs.
And when his eyes drank in this plunder, this
memorial of brutal grief, Aeneas,
aflame with rage – his wrath was terrible –
cried: ‘How can you who wear the spoils of my
dear comrade now escape me? It is Pallas
who strikes, who sacrifices you, who takes
this payment from your shameless blood.’ Relentless,
he sinks his sword into the chest of Turnus.
His limbs fell slack with chill, and with a moan
his life, resentful, fled to Shades below.

West translation:

There stood Aeneas, deadly in his armour, rolling his eyes, but he checked his hand, hesitating more and more as the words of Turnus began to move him, when suddenly his eyes caught the fatal baldric of the boy Pallas high on Turnus’s shoulder with the glittering studs he knew so well. Turnus had defeated and wounded him and then killed him, and now he was wearing his belt on his shoulder as a battle honour taken from an enemy. Aeneas feasted his eyes on the sight of this spoil, this reminder of his own wild grief, then burning with mad passion and terrible in his wrath, he cried: ‘Are you to escape me now, wearing the spoils stripped from the body of those I loved? By this wound which I now give, it is Pallas who makes sacrifice of you. It is Pallas who exacts the penalty of your guilty blood.’ Blazing with rage, he plunged the blade full into his enemy’s breast. The limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades.


Roman reviews

Introductions to the Aeneid – 2. Allen Mandelbaum

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1970 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

This is the middle of three blog posts giving detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. This one looks at Allen Mandelbaum’s introduction to his 1970 translation. (The third blog post, about David West’s introduction, includes examples of each of the translators’ actual translations, including Mandelbaum’s.)

1970 introduction by Allen Mandelbaum

Allen Mandelbaum (1926 to 2011) was a Jewish-American professor of literature and the humanities, poet, and translator from Classical Greek, Latin and Italian. After going to live for decades in Italy he returned to the States and taught English and comparative literature at the City University of New York from 1966 to 1986. His translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1980 to 1984) won him Italy’s highest award, the Presidential Cross of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity. Impressive. This translation of the Aeneid won the 1973 National Book Award in the translation category. The preface to it, which am now going to summarise, was published in 1970.

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Before we even get to Mandelbaum’s introduction, the blurb on the inside cover about Virgil is interesting. It says that as part of Octavius’s sweeping land reallocation to retired soldiers after the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), he confiscated Virgil’s parents’ extensive farmlands around Mantua. It says Virgil travelled to Rome to argue for its return, and this certainly chimes with the accounts in several of the Virgil’s eclogues of land confiscation and of the shepherd who has travelled to Rome and seen the young prince i.e. Octavius to try and get his land back.

The blurb goes on to say it was as a result of Virgil’s pleading that he became friends with Octavius and was handed over to be managed by his arts minister, Maecenas. This close relationship between patron and poet leads the blurb writer to say that it was at Augustus’s express command that Virgil’s request to burn the draft of the Aeneid was overruled, and that it was Augustus who handed it to the scholars Varius and Tucca with specific instructions to edit only the obvious errors and repetitions, but to add nothing new to it, and to publish the result, which they did in 16 BC.

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Mandelbaum’s introduction is only 8 pages long but it’s packed. He gets stuck in right away by saying he came to Virgil late because he was put off him by three judgements. First was a quip by the American critic Mark Van Doren (1894 to 1972) that ‘Homer is a world; Virgil, a style’. Mandelbaum associated this comment with Coleridge’s similarly negative judgement that ‘If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?’ So these two adverse opinion come under the heading of ‘Homer is the Great Original, Virgil is a Poor Copy’.

Mandelbaum goes on to mentions the judgement of the great Marxist critic, György Lukács (whose thoughts on Kafka I’ve reviewed). György boy who wrote in his Theory of the Novel that: ‘The heroes of Virgil live the cool and limited existence of shadows, nourished by the blood of noble zeal, blood that has been sacrificed in order to recall what has forever disappeared.’

Lukács was a swine but I still enjoy this kind of class-based Marxist criticism, ancient though it now feels; after all, we still live in a heavily class-based society where privately educated ministers hand out multi-million pound contracts to their friends and wives while northern proles queue at foodbanks, where gas and energy prices makes billions in profits while old age pensioners freeze to death in their flats.

Anyway, Lukács’s implication is that Virgil’s characters are contemptible because they harbour a utopian hankering for what has irredeemably disappeared, namely a nostalgic memory of a land of small family-owned farms, which had mostly been swept away by vast estates worked by slaves by the time Virgil wrote.

Anyway, Lukács’s criticism, as well as being vague and impressionistic, seems wrong to me. To me the Aeneid reads as a poem very much of the harsh present, reeking with the blood of animals slaughtered at the altar and men being stabbed, eviscerated and burned to ashes in a very perilous present.

(In case you needed to know, the third dismissal came in Concetto Marchesi’s History of Latin Literature which deprecated Virgil in favour of Lucretius.)

It is when Mandelbaum goes on to describe the personal importance to him of the English poet John Milton that the reader begins to realise that this is not going to be a scholarly introduction, but the personal musings of Mandelbaum the poet (for in addition to his prizewinning translations, Mandelbaum also published several volumes of his own poetry, as the preface now proceeds to tell us). This introduction is going to be a description of his own personal odyssey from these boyhood influences who put him off Virgil, to his late-flowering realisation of Virgil’s brilliance.

Central to Mandelbaum’s conversion were the poems of Giusseppe Ungaretti (1888 to 1970). Mandelbaum was deeply involved in translating Ungaretti’s Italian poems into English as he wrote them, and helped get them published in America throughout the 1950s. And many of Ungaretti’s poems invoked characters or themes from Virgil. So Mandelbaum first really discovered Virgilian themes through the lens of Ungaretti. He quotes a florid passage of Ungaretti’s:

Aeneas is beauty, youth, ingenuousness ever in search of a promised land, where, in the contemplated, fleeting beauty, his own beauty smiles and enchants.

Personally I’d have thought nothing could be further from a true picture of Aeneas, the careworn early-middle-aged son of decrepit Anchises and anxious father of young Ascanius, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, stumbling from one disaster to another, his hands red with blood.

As so often with ‘criticism’ by writers or poets, this isn’t objective analysis but a deliberate, and I’d say knowing, teasing, rewriting of Virgil’s character entirely to suit Ungaretti’s own poetic preoccupations. Heavily misleading, in other words. Mandelbaum goes on to quote an even more overripe slice of tripe:

Dido came to represent the experience of one who, in late autumn, is about to pass beyond it; the hour in which living is about to become barren; the hour of one from whom the horrible, tremendous, final tremor of youth is about to depart. Dido is the experience of nature as against the moral experience.

This may be a fine expression of Ungaretti’s (mimsy, impressionist) concerns but strikes me as having nothing whatsoever to do with the Dido who features in the Aeneid. All this is a worrying indication that Mandelbaum’s response to Virgil is going to be hugely contaminated by his embroilment in Ungaretti’s highly ‘poetic’ prose, all ‘tremors of youth’ and ‘the moral experience’ and fuck-all to do with the Dido who calls down the vengeance of the gods on Aeneas and makes her people swear eternal enmity with Rome.

Reminiscing about those happy times in Italy in the 1950s you can almost hear Mandelbaum relaxing the sinews of his mind and slipping into an odoriferous bath of fine feelings, claiming that Ungaretti helped him to see:

the underground denial – by consciousness and longing – of the total claims of the state and history.

I think he means the persistence in the poem of numerous threads which oppose or undermine the overt worship of Rome, of Roman patriotism, of obeisance to the predictions of Rome’s rise to world-dominating empire, which occur throughout it on a surface level.

But like so many other aesthetes what comes over strongly is the way Mandelbaum wants to reject the overt meaning of the text in front of him, preferring to project his own bourgeois fantasies of rebellion and subversion onto Virgil – very much as W.F. Jackson Knight projected his fantasies about spiritualism and universal truth onto the poor Roman in his introduction to his translation.

So much literary criticism from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century consists of this kind of whipping-up meringues made of knowing references and stylish allusions, like a conjuror pulling a string of multi-coloured flags out of his mouth, designed to impress us with the author’s wide reading and fine feelings, but leaving behind no tangible insights or ideas.

Next, Mandelbaum shows off by telling us how he loves a passage by Mark Van Doren, which uses a ‘brilliant suggestion’ by Jacob Klein to use a passage from Plato’s text The Statesman to shed light on the episode in Aeneid book 6 where Anchises is explaining to Aeneas how the souls of the dead are made to forget their past lives before being reincarnated in new bodies back on earth.

It feels like a competition to see how many names he can drop in a single passage.

Van Doren claims this passage is evidence that Virgil believed in the reassuring and ‘lulling myth of cycles’, and the hope that peace would come about by magic. Mandelbaum cites all this in order to disagree with it. He points out that far from finding the creation of new generations ‘lulling’, Virgil had demonstrated in the Georgics the sheer amount of hard physical labour which goes into producing the basics of civilisation.

With this much, I can agree, although Mandelbaum then goes on to equate the hard physical manual labour of maintaining the land depicted in the Georgics with the 11 years of dedicated mental labour involved in writing the Aeneid.

Contrary to all this talk of lulling cycles, Mandelbaum asserts that Virgil believed in power, dominion and the rule of law. As the Sibyl predicts to Aeneas:

yours will be the rulership of nations;
remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer
to spare defeated peoples, spare the proud
(6. 1,134 to 1,137)

But Virgil was aware of the price to be paid in the triumph of positive law over natural law. King Evander explains to Aeneas how his people originally lived at peace and plenty under the rule of exiled Saturn when humans needed no laws or rules. But then an Age of Iron came, violence increased, and laws became vital. All this is an accurate summary of this part of the Aeneid.

But then Mandelbaum is back to Ungaretti, telling us that he was, apparently, ‘a true Petrarchan’. I can’t see any relevance whatsoever of this random observation in a supposed introduction to Virgil. It just feels like another example of Mandelbaum’s compulsive name-dropping and/or personal reminiscence. Develop the idea, man! What are you trying to say?

But the thought isn’t developed or even explained properly. Instead, Mandelbaum switches to tell us that his other route into Virgil was via a long-lasting engagement with Dante, whose Divine Comedy he has also translated. Having lived with the Inferno, in particular, for years, he knew that Dante learned not from the style of Virgil but the styles of Virgil.

Mandelbaum quotes a passage from the English critic Donald Davie who distinguishes poets into two classes (how many critics, over how many centuries, have taken this simple-minded approach of dividing the thing under consideration into just Two Types?)

Davie says the first type of poet revels in words, that Shakespeare would have ended up using every word in the language if he’d enough time. The second type of poet is one who carefully employs a narrower selection of words, consciously excluding ones which don’t fit, in order to create a style, a verbal world.

On this reading Dante is a Shakespearian, with a very wide lexis while Virgil is the second type, with a much more limited vocabulary.

Now Mandelbaum explains what Dante learned from Virgil: he quotes the ancient grammarian Macrobius who says Virgil’s style was ‘now brief, now full, now dry, now rich, now easy, now impetuous’ to suggest that what Dante learned from Virgil was variety of tone.

Also he learned a free approach to the line, the free use of enjambment and runover.

And lastly, the free mixing up of time, the ‘rapid shifts of tenses’ which are, indeed, very noticeable in the Aeneid as Virgil mixes up the past and present, sometimes in the same sentence.

Only as he approaches the end of this brief but packed introduction does Mandelbaum explain his aims as a translator. He has tried to ‘impress’ on his translation ‘the grave tread’ but also ‘the speed and angularity’ of Virgil, ‘the asymmetrical thrust of a mind on the move’. This is fair enough, an interestingly impressionistic description of something which maybe can’t be fully put into words.

But then Mandelbaum goes into full late 60s mystical mode:

The other part of the self brings me to the last way, the unmediated one. The way is the path that opens when the guides, for whom one has been grateful, fall away or say: ‘I crown and mitre you over yourself.’

Mandelbaum doesn’t tell us, because his technique is one of flashy meringue-making, that this last phrase is in fact a quote from Dante’s Paradiso canto 27. I suspected as much though I had to Google it to confirm my hunch.

Veering off in another direction, Mandelbaum then overshares with us the personal fact that he left Italy after many years and embarked on his translation of Virgil ‘at a time of much personal discontent’. He had long thought poetry shouldn’t be used for consolation (why?) but now his experience of ‘personal discontent’ changed his mind.

And now, abruptly and dramatically, he casts a vivid slash across his entire preface when he suddenly starts talking about the Vietnam War!

The Vietnam War has, he claims, as of 1970, made it impossible to talk about American ‘society’ any more – he insists we have to use the harsher word, ‘state’. In Vietnam, the American ‘state’ ‘has wrought the unthinkable, the abominable’.

Wow. With one flash you get the full colour of Mandelbaum’s mindset. In this book, in this translation, in this introduction, it is 1970, America is just starting to withdraw its forces from Vietnam after a shameful military debacle, and Allen Mandelbaum is applying the atmosphere of these times to his thinking about power and dominion as described by a poet from 2,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, instead of drawing any kind of analogy between America’s intervention in Vietnam and Aeneas’s intervention in Italy – which would be unexpected but potentially very illuminating – Mandelbaum’s mind once again veers off into impressionistic mush and hero worship. It is frustrating that he thus raises but fails to address the key political aspect of the Aeneid, which is Virgil’s attitude towards Augustus, his violent conquests and domestic tyranny.

I take the point that the expression of these political themes in the poem is complex and multi-levelled but Mandelbaum’s entire analysis of this huge subject amounts to the following:

Virgil is not free of the taint of the proconsular; but he speaks from time to time of peace achieved, and no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost.

Two points. 1. See how he mentioned Virgil’s complicity in Augustus’s regime in just ten words, ten words expressed in the pompous and evasive phraseology of a nineteenth century politician (‘not free of the taint…’). Mandelbaum avoids the issue; he tries to gloss over it by saying that although Virgil might have been complicit with the crimes of the regime, it’s alright because he was so sensitive to the suffering of ‘the defeated and the lost’ and so that redeems him. But does it?

Second point is the rather offensive hyperbole of claiming that ‘no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost’. Really? No man? Ever? Primo Levi describing the damned in Auschwitz? Solzhenitsyn describing the defeated millions in the gulags? Even if those authors are not directly comparable with Virgil, Mandelbaum’s claim is still wildly hyperbolic, symptomatic of the way hero worship replaces analysis.

At regular moments throughout the poem the text may express what might be Virgil’s feelings about the pity of war, the pity of loss and death and grief. BUT. At the centre of the poem is the brute fact of Aeneas as a huge man-killing machine, raging like Mars across the battlefield, slaughtering hecatombs of men to achieve his God-given destiny. And his last action, the memorable last image of the poem which is left squelching in the mind’s eye – is of Aeneas thrusting his sword right up to the hilt into the chest of a man begging for mercy.

Both Jackson Knight and Mandelbaum have spent years with the Aeneid but, in their respective introductions, repress or ignore the off-the-scale levels of toxic, masculine hyper-violence which runs through it in rivers of blood, preferring to write willowy tripe about universal values and deep feelings.

Instead of analysis, Mandelbaum has namedropping combined with hero worship:

And if the relative weights of the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Pythagorean in him are often hard to assess, his humanity is constant.

Is it, though, Allen? I didn’t find it so. I find the Aeneid very uneven, manufactured from hundreds of strands and themes and tones which often sit very uncomfortably together, and all of it drenched in psychopathic anger and rivers of gore. You can pick out the moment of sad sympathy with suffering humanity, stitch them together and claim this is the ‘real’ Virgil. But what about the far greater number of passages of brutal animal sacrifice? Or passages describing insensate fury? Or the many many passages describing slaughter and massacre? Or the frequent passages expressing slavish sycophancy to the great Augustus. All of these and numerous other topics and tones need to be incorporated into an proper assessment of the ‘real’ Virgil.

Instead of addressing all this, Mandelbaum thanks Virgil for not being ‘shrill’, and then brings in yet another unnecessarily personal angle:

and when, with the goad of public despair, my own poetic voice has had to struggle often with shrillness, the work on this translation has been most welcome.

So, if I read this correctly, we are to be grateful to Virgil for helping Allen Mandelbaum to overcome the tone of shrill invective which his protests against the Vietnam War and the evil American state often led him into. No doubt this is useful if you are a big Allen Mandelbaum fan, but if you’re mainly interested in understanding Virgil, maybe not so much.

Finally, Mandelbaum returns to the notion raised in the comparison with Dante, of Virgil’s limits. In Mandelbaum’s view Virgil does not swarm with the really full variety of a Homer or Dante or Shakespeare. He is not as exhaustive as they are. His is a world, not the world. He is more selective and less objective than the other three greats. At which point, as he reaches the conclusion of his preface, Mandelbaum becomes quite hard to understand:

Virgil is ‘sustained’ and is not ‘of the young’ (though for them, and for the aged, too, of Plato’s Laws); and none of his selection and imagination seems to involve what I think of as premature stripping, where the other world of poetry takes over before this world is known: Virgil selects after his knowing this world. For this he is a name-giver whose letters and syllables seem to imitate not what Lukács called ‘the cool and limited existence of shadows’ but ‘the real nature of each thing’.

After repeated reading I think the second half of this proposition indicates that Virgil is a poet who described the real world, selecting descriptions of the world as experienced and not reaching out to describe the world of shadows beyond this one, which Mandelbaum appears to think the superior approach. But if this is what Mandelbaum means, why doesn’t he say so? Surely a teacher is paid to teach.

Mandelbaum’s short introduction flashes insights like a striptease artist, momentary promises of insights which he never delivers on. One or two of his ideas hove into view, make sense, but then are smothered by his autobiographical reminiscences or detour into namedropping allusions. It’s maybe worth reading for these moments but, on the whole, Mandelbaum’s introduction is not very helpful as any kind of guide to reading the huge, magnificent and appalling epic poem the reader is about to embark on.


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