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

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

Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Plutarch’s life of Lucullus

Lucius Licinius Lucullus (118 to 56)

Summary

Lucullus was a Roman general and politician during the last century of the Roman Republic, closely linked by family ties and military service with the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla both dedicated his memoirs to Lucullus and made him guardian of his son, after his death in 78 BC.

Lucullus’s adult life falls naturally into two parts. During 20 years of military and government service, he conquered a series of eastern kingdoms for Rome, specifically during the Third Mithridatic War (73 to 63 BC). The quality of his generalship impressed everyone and was widely studied by later soldiers.

However, the usual toxic Roman politics meant that, despite his achievements, Lucullus was abruptly relieved of his command and replaced by Pompey in 66 BC, whereupon he returned to Rome with fabulous wealth and devoted the last decade of his life to grandiose building projects and luxury living which shocked and amazed his contemporaries.

The life

He was tall and handsome, a power­ful speaker, and equally able in the forum and the field. (33)

(Chapter 1) Plutarch emphasises that Lucullus came from a very good family and received a very good ‘liberal’ education and was a highly literate man in both Latin and Greek. In a sense his entire public and military career was to turn out to be a detour from his earliest, literary and philosophical interests. to which he was able to return on his retirement.

(2 to 3) Sulla employed Lucullus in the Social War (91 to 87 BC) and then in his campaign against King Mithridates IV in Greece, whence he was sent on an important mission to Egypt to fetch supplies for the Roman army in Greece. He had to run the gauntlet of the enemy blockade but was welcomed in Egypt (87 BC), collected supplies before undergoing a complicated journey back to Greece which involved encountering the enemy fleet, landing at various islands and besieging their cities.

(4) Having fought Mithridates to a draw, Sulla lay a heavy bill of compensation on the cities of Greece and ‘Asia’ i.e. Greece-facing Turkey, but Lucullus won popularity by applying it lightly and fairly. He also managed to be out East when Sulla returned to Italy in 83 BC and so avoided the blood Sulla shed in his vengeful ‘proscriptions’ against the defeated supporters of Gaius Marius.

(5) In 74 Lucullus was elected consul. He wanted to return to the East and so was unhappy to be allotted Cisalpine Gaul as his province. Above everything, he wanted to assure Pompey didn’t return from Spain, where he was engaged in fighting the insurgency of Quintus Sertorius, for he knew Pompey would be assigned to the East. Therefore, when Pompey called for more resources to fight Sertorius in Spain, Lucullus enthusiastically supported him.

(6) The governorship of Cilicia became vacant. The most influential man in Rome at the time was Cethegus and he had taken a noted courtesan Praecia as mistress. Therefore Lucullus paid court to Praecia who influenced Cethegus to get Lucullus command of Cilicia. He used this governorship to resume the war with Mithridates. The only possible rivals were Sulla (dead), Metellus (retired) or Pompey (tied up in Spain).

(7) In 74 BC Lucullus crossed into Asia and took control of the Roman armies there, latterly commanded by Gaius Flavius Fimbria. After a few years of peace, Mithridates had declared war again, not least by playing on the widespread resentment of Roman tax collectors who were still mulcting the cities for the punitive war reparations imposed by Sulla (20,000 talents).

Antique map showing Turkey divided into Roman provinces in the first century BC. Note how ‘Asia’ refers only to western Turkey; Bithynia and Pontus to the south coast of the Black Sea with Amisus, the town which Lucullus besieged and was set afire, on the coast of Pontus. Cilicia, Lucullus’s official governorship, is on the south coast of Turkey opposite Cyprus. And the whole region is bordered on the east by the kingdom of Greater Armenia, ruled over by King Tigranes.

(8) Lucullus’s fellow consul, Marcus Aurelius Cotta a, thinks he can take on Mithridates alone, but is heavily defeated, losing ships and men.

(9) Mithridates marched his army to take Cyzicus, a rich port town on the south coast of the Sea of Marmaria, surrounding it by land and blockading it by sea. Lucullus followed and camped his men around Mithridates’ camps.

The inhabitants of Cyzicus are fortified by a number of supernatural signs and omens (10). Mithridates’ soldiers beginning to suffer from hunger, he took advantage of Lucullus’s brief absence to send many away to Bithynia. But Lucullus took ten cohorts of infantry and his cavalry, set off in pursuit and brought the enemy to battle at the river Rhyndacus. Lucullus won: 6,000 horses and 15,000 men were captured, besides an untold number of beasts of burden. Mithridates hastened to leave by sea, leaving his generals to lead the rest of the land army to safety, but Lucullus attacked them at the river Granicus, capturing a vast number and slaying 20,000. On this campaign, it was said that no fewer than 300,000 camp-followers and fighting men lost their lives (11).

(12) Lucullus entered Cyzicus in triumph but then had a dream in which the goddess Aphrodite told him some of Mithridates’ ships were nearby at Lemnos, so Lucullus embarked his navy, caught the enemy ships, some at sea, and some drawn up on the shore, and defeated them.

(13) Mithridates escaped by ship to Pontus despite a large storm which wrecked much of his fleet and forced him to switch from a heavy merchant ship to a light brigantine. The storm was said to be owing to the wrath of Artemis of Priapus against the men of Pontus who had plundered her shrine and pulled down her image.

(14) Lucullus pursues Mithridates into Bithynia i.e. northern Turkey. His troops criticised him from dawdling but Lucullus is given a speech saying he actively wanted to give Mithridates enough time to recruit a new army because otherwise the Romans risked forcing Mithridates either a) into the Caucasus, a labyrinth of mountains it would be impossible to flush him out of or b) worse, into the arms of Tigranes the Great of Armenia, who happened to be Mithridates’ son-in-law.

(15) In 72 BC Lucullus brings Mithridates to battle at Cabira. Mithridates wins and puts the Romans to flight. Daunted at fighting further, Lucullus finds some local Greeks who guide his army into a mountain redoubt. But some Roman stragglers got into a fight with Mithridates troops over a stag, the forces on both sides increasing till the Romans fled. At which point Lucullus refused to engage in a full scale battle, but led a small force down which rallied his fugitives, made them turn and see of Mithridates’ men, before escorting them back to the camp. But here they were assigned the traditional punishment of runaways, namely to dig a 12 foot ditch in just their tunics.

(16) A Dandarian prince named Olthacus persuades Mithridates to let him go on an assassination mission against Lucullus, and he made his way to the Roman camp with marks of disgrace, as though shamed and outcast by the king. After a probation period, Lucullus admitted this prince to his table and councils. But on the big morning when Olthacus tried to gain entrance to Lucullus’s tent the latter happened to be asleep and his chamberlain wouldn’t give entrance to Olthacus, who rode back to Mithridates in frustration.

(17) Two separate Roman legates are sent to requisition grain. When Mithridates’ forces attacked them, both times the king came off worst. He decided to move camp but the soldiers rebelled and murdered Dorylaüs the general and Hermaeus the priest. Nonetheless, Mithridates moved his army but was nearly caught when Romans gave chase, until a mule came between them and the king, which was bearing gold, so the soldiers stopped to loot the treasure and let the king get away.

(18) The Romans liberated some of Mithridates’ hostages and many women including one of Mithridates’ sisters, Nyssa. The other two sisters, along with two of his wives, had been sequestered in faraway Pharnacia and Mithridates now ordered his eunuch, Bacchides, to go there and murder them. There follows a florid, sensationalist account of how they died:

  • Monimé fastened her diadem round her neck and tried to hang herself but it broke in two so she offered her throat to Bacchides to cut it.
  • Berenicé from Chios shared a cup of poison with her mother which killed the mother but wasn’t enough for Berenicé who was such a long time that Bacchides, who was in a hurry, had her strangled.
  • Of Mithridates’ two unmarried sisters, one drank off her poison with many abusive imprecations on her brother but the other, Statira, drank it off without saying a word.

(19) Lucullus comes to the town of Amisus and, once his troops break into part of it, the rest is set aflame by its governor, Callimachus to prevent their possession. Lucullus orders his men to put out the fires but they disobey him and ransack the town while it burns to the ground, reducing Lucullus to tears of frustration. Interestingly, he is quoted as saying he wanted to be like Fortunate Sulla who successfully ordered his troops to put out the fires they’d started as they entered Athens in 86 BC, but had ended up with the reputation of Mummius, who burned Corinth to the ground in 146 BC.

(20) With a lull in the fighting Lucullus set out to reform the cities of ‘Asia’ (i.e. western Turkey), specifically lightening the yoke of debt – a massive 20,000 talents – which Sulla had imposed on them which had caused all kinds of misery and social dislocation. Unscrupulous debt collectors or publicani by manipulating interest rates, had inflated this to 120,000 talents! So Lucullus passed some practical laws, reducing interest rates to 1%, forbidding the total interest to exceed the initial loan, and punishing lenders who added interest to the loan. Within four years all debts in the province had been paid off and justice restored, despite the lobbying of the publicani back in Rome.

(21) Mithridates takes refuge at the court of King Tigranes of Armenia whose pomp and tribute kings are described. Appius Clodius is sent as ambassador to demand the handing over of Mithridates, but Tigranes is irritated that Lucullus’s letter only refers to him as king instead of King of kings, and he refuses.

(22) In fact Tigranes had been keeping Mithridates in an outlying region of his kingdom. Now he summoned him. Tigranes inadvertently lets slip that one of Mithridates’ ambassadors to him, Metrodorus, had once candidly advised Tigranes not to send Mithridates the reinforcements the latter required. As a result Mithridates has Metrodorus killed and Tigranes regrets his words.

Plutarch slips in a reference to Amphicrates, the rhetorician, who was exiled from Athens and attached himself to Cleopatra, the daughter of Mithridates and wife of Tigranes, but speedily fell into disfavour, and, being excluded from intercourse with Greeks, starved himself to death.

(23) Lucullus restored the liberties of many Greek cities and blessed them with festivals and contests. As a result many celebrated festivals which they called Lucullea. But then he was summoned back to war and and laid siege to Sinopé, or rather, to the Cilicians who were occupying it. He took it and slaughtered 8,000 Cilicians.

Now Lucullus learns that Tigranes has allied with Mithridates and intends to invade Cilicia and advance on Asia. Lucullus wonders why Tigranes chose to do this now, when Mithridates is weak, rather than when he was at the peak of  his powers.

(24) When Machares, the son of Mithridates, who held the Bosporus, sends Lucullus a crown valued at a thousand pieces of gold, begging to be included in the list of Rome’s friends and allies, Lucullus realises the war in the West is over. But he insists on taking the fight to his enemies in what Plutarch calls the ‘second war’ (starting 69 BC) and marches his very reluctant army all across Turkey and Syria to the Euphrates whose waters, at full flood when he arrived, miraculously lowered themselves overnight so the army could cross. He forces his army on across the Tigris and so into the territory of Tigranes.

(25) Tigranes sends a force against Lucullus led by Mithrobarzanes. It comes across Lucullus’s army as it was still making camp so Lucullus sent Sextilius sent at the head of sixteen hundred horsemen and about as many light and heavy infantry to engage Mithrobarzanes, who the Romans defeat and kill. Tigranes abandons Tigranocerta, that great city which he had built, and withdraws beyond the Taurus  river but Murena, pressing hard on his heels, captured his baggage train and killed many of his Armenians.

(26) Lucullus commenced a siege of Tigranocerta, which was full of Greeks and other exiled peoples who Tigranes had forcibly resettled. Mithridates advised Tigranes not to engage Lucullus but Plutarch gives a long list of allies from the whole region who joined Tigranes and eventually gave him the confidence to attack.

(27) Plutarch lovingly describes the enormous array of the many allies and kings who’ve joined together to make Tigranes’ monster army. When they see Lucullus’s force divide, leaving Murena with 6,000 to maintain the siege while he, Lucullus, with 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, they burst out laughing and compete with each other to mock the Romans and offer to finish them off with just their national cohort. Tigranes is said to have uttered a ‘famous’ quote:

“If they are come as ambassadors, they are too many; if as soldiers, too few.”​

(28) In the event it was a famous Roman victory, Lucullus leading a charge against the heavily armoured  Armenian cavalry who turn to escape but, in doing so, trample over their own infantry and cause such confusion the Romans massacre them. Supposedly over 100,000 enemy infantry perish and all their cavalry to the loss of only a hundred Roman wounded and five killed. Sure.

Plutarch then draws a reflection on Lucullus’s generalship, that he used delay and slowness to wear down Mithridates for years, but in this battle deployed lightning tactics to devastate Tigranes’ army.

(29) Mithridates, assuming that Lucullus would draw the battle out, hadn’t even arrived with the main forces. Now he encountered the survivors straggling back and then Tigranes himself, with whom he condoled.

Then Lucullus completes the siege of Tigranocerta, thoroughly looting its treasures and handing out a dividend to all his soldiers. He freed actors who had been abducted by Tigranes and got them to perform in plays celebrating his victory, and sent all the Greeks inside the city who’d been forcibly moved there back to their original cities, thus garnering much gratitude and popularity.

Lucullus then reveres the memory of Zarbienus, king of the Gordyeni, who had sent to offer friendship with Rome but was informed against and murdered, along with his wife and children, by Tigranes. Now Lucullus restored his body to his city and held proper funeral rites and lit the funeral pyre himself.

(30) Lucullus received an embassy from the king of Parthia requesting friendship but then discovered he was parlaying with Mithridates and Tigranes at the same time so decided to march against him. But when he sent for the remainder of his army to join him from Pontus they refused point blank and news of this demoralised the soldiers with Lucullus.

(31) So Lucullus abandoned his plan to attack Parthia and moved against Tigranes again, besieging Artaxata. Plutarch explains that this city was sited and constructed under the supervision of the famous Hannibal after he had fled from Carthage. Tigranes drew up another combined army to stop him but Lucullus crossed the river Arsania and destroyed the royal army.

(32) Lucullus set off in pursuit but the weather became very cold, snow and ice, difficult for horses and the army began to mutiny. So he returned west, descending to a plain where he took a large city named Nsibis.

(33) Lucullus’s luck turned against him. The soldiers had endured two winters in the open rather than occupy cities because Lucullus wanted to keep the friendship of the Greek population. The usual undermining critics in Rome led by Lucius Quintus, one of the praetors, who claimed Lucullus was prolonging the war to enrich himself.

(34) The troops were subverted by Publius Clodius, Luculla’s brother-in-law, who was aggrieved because he’d been overlooked for promotion. Plutarch summarises Clodius’s speeches in which he compared the soldiers’ endless tribulations here in the East, with the nice cushy lifestyle of Pompey’s ex-soldiers from the Spanish war who had, by now, been settled and given citizenship.

(35) In 67 BC a resurgent Mithridates defeated Fimbrius’s army and then the army of Triarius who took him on without waiting for Lucullus. But when Lucullus roused his army to march on Mithridates it rebelled. Lucullus was reduced to going from tent to tent arguing with individual soldiers, but they refused to fight any more. It was all he could to do keep his army together in their summer camp while Tigranes roamed Cappadocia ravaging it at will. In 66 BC the senate appointed Pompey leader of the army in the East with the result that the soldiers refused to obey Lucullus any more while they awaited their new commander.

(36) Pompey and Lucullus met in a village in Galatia, Lucullus aged 52, Pompey aged 40, the latter much the more famous having already won two triumphs. They were polite but didn’t get on, Pompey annulling most of Lucullus’s edicts and allowing him only 1,600 soldiers to take back to Rome.

Plutarch then interjects a two Big Historical Ideas:

  1. If Lucullus had had the magic touch of inspiring love and loyalty in his troops he might have led them against the Parthian Empire which was, at this point, relatively small, and expanded Rome’s borders across Iraq to Iran. But he didn’t and left the border at the Euphrates and the Parthian Empire to grow into a redoubtable enemy.
  2. When he did finally return to Rome and hold a huge triumph (although delayed for nearly three years by his political enemies), the sight of so much wealth and treasure inflamed the Roman imagination so that a man like Marcus Licinius Crassus came to identify the East with one thing only, loot. This inspired Crassus to undertake his ill-fated attack on the Parthian Empire which led to catastrophic Roman defeat at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC and Crassus’s death soon after.

(37) Lucullus returned to Rome to find himself under attack from Gaius Memmius for prolonging the war. He was also prevented for some time from holding a triumph although when he did, it was magnificent and Plutarch describes it in detail.

(38) Lucullus divorced Clodia, who was ‘a licentious and base woman’ and married Servilia, a sister of Marcus Porcius Cato, but she turned out to be just as bad. Lucullus tolerated her immoral behaviour out of respect for Cato but eventually ‘put her away’.

The Senate hoped Lucullus would prove a political champion and oppose the growing dominance of Pompey and his clique but, maybe sensing that the political situation was too rotten, or just reckoning he’d earned retirement, Lucullus took no part in politics. Given the lamentable record of Marius and Sulla before him, you can’t help lauding his decision. Plutarch appears to agree and makes the interesting suggestion that:

a political cycle, too, has a sort of natural termination, and political no less than athletic contests are absurd, after the full vigour of life has departed.

(39) Instead Lucullus devoted the extraordinary wealth he’d amassed to the arts and luxury and fine living. He was a devotee of Latin and Greek literature and he amassed a great library in his villa. He allowed scholars to use his library and he patronised many poets and philosophers and this was imitated by other aristocratic Romans.

Lucullus was a great builder and built magnificent parks and villas, whose designs were very influential. During his campaigns in the East, the retired consul was impressed by the Persian tradition of horticulture. With his vast wealth he built a great park in the centre of Rome, that became known as the ‘Gardens of Lucullus’ and his gardens were important in the development of gardening in Europe.

He was interested in farming and introduced fruits such as the cherry into Rome and also experimented with aquaculture, especially fish ponds. Lucullus became infamous for his feasts and was a great gourmet.

Lucullus’s example inspired many members of the elite to abandon the traditional austere Republican lifestyle and to cultivate the arts, to collect manuscripts, build villas and gardens, a legacy which was to grow under the empire.

(40) His fine dining became legendary. Plutarch gives a quote from Pompey and Cato both satirising Luculla.

(41) These last chapters are taken up with tittle tattle and stories:

Once, when he was dining alone, and a modest repast of one course had been prepared for him, he was angry, and summoned the servant who had the matter in charge. The servant said that he did not suppose, since there were no guests, that he wanted anything very costly. “What sayest thou?” said the master, “dost thou not know that today Lucullus dines with Lucullus?”

Plutarch tells a story about Cicero (a good friend) and Pompey approaching Lucullus in the Forum and asking to be invited to dinner but insisting he serves only what he was going to have anyway. But Lucullus cleverly outwits them by telling his servant which room he wants to eat in and, because he has so many dining rooms and they all have a specific menu and size, the servant immediately knew what was required and so Cicero and Pompey were still staggered by the quality of the meal. Plutarch criticises this gross ostentation, comparing it with a barbarian.

(42) By contrast Plutarch praises Lucullus for assembling a huge library and throwing it open to all, in particular visiting Greek scholars. Lucullus was such a devotee of philosophy that Cicero wrote a summary of the doctrines of the Old Academy (which he favoured) put them into Lucullus’s mouth and titled the treatise Lucullus.

Although Plutarch has said Lucullus retired from political life that doesn’t seem to be strictly true. Thus Lucullus allied with Cato to prevent Pompey’s proposal for a generous distribution of lands to his soldiers, and this was one factor leading Pompey to form the alliance (or, as Plutarch puts it, ‘a conspiracy’) with Crassus and Caesar in 60 BC. Pompey filled the city with his armed soldiery and expelled from the forum the partisans of Cato and Lucullus to get this measure passed. An old man was then produced who swore that he had been hired by Lucullus to assassinate Pompey but nobody believed him and he was soon found dead, probably killed by the very people who put him up to it. Sounds like slippage back towards the bad old days of Marius and Sulla…

(43) All the more reason, then, for Lucullus to retire from increasingly poisonous public life to his library and his gardens. When Cicero was exiled in 58 BC (after a campaign led by Lucullus’s former brother-in-law Publius Clodius Pulcher), Lucullus retired completely. In his last days there were rumours that he lost his mind but Plutarch retails the story that he deteriorated due to drugs administered by his freedman, Callisthenes.

When he died in 56 BC the people lamented and wanted his body to be buried in the Campus Martius where Sulla was buried, but his brother prevailed on them to let the body be buried at Lucullus’s country estate at Tusculum.

Superstitions, prophecies and omens

When Lucullus had come within sight of the enemy and seen with amazement their multitude, he desired to refrain from battle and draw out the time. But Marius, whom Sertorius had sent to Mithridates from Spain with an army, came out to meet him, and challenged him to combat, and so he put his forces in array to fight the issue out. But presently, as they were on the point of joining battle, with no apparent change of weather, but all on a sudden, the sky burst asunder, and a huge, flame-like body was seen to fall between the two armies. In shape, it was most like a wine-jar, and in colour, like molten silver. Both sides were astonished at the sight, and separated. This marvel, as they say, occurred in Phrygia, at a place called Otryae. (8)

The importance of dreams

All the leaders profiled by Plutarch have meaningful dreams which guide or succour them.

Whenever he had secret intelligence that the enemy had made an incursion into the territory which he commanded, or were trying to bring a city to revolt from him, he would pretend that the doe had conversed with him in his dreams, bidding him hold his forces in readiness. (Sertorius 11)

Lucullus called to mind the advice of Sulla, in his memoirs, which was to think nothing so trustworthy and sure as that which is signified by dreams. (Lucullus 23)


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Roman reviews

Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe (1587)

Information about Marlowe’s plays is patchy. Dido is generally thought to be Marlowe’s first play but it is anyone’s guess when it was written, sometime between 1587 when Marlowe arrived in London from Cambridge and 1594 when it was published. The Marlowe scholar Roma Gill thinks it was probably written before Marlowe left Cambridge in 1587. The title page of the 1594 edition credits the hack writer Thomas Nashe as co-writer, though scholars query this.

The play was first performed by the Children of the Chapel Royal, a company of boy actors in London a fact – like the performance of many of Ben Jonson and Dekker’s plays by companies of boy actors, which I find gob-smacking.

Dido is based on books 1, 2 and 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid which opens with the Trojan soldier Aeneas, having fled Troy after it fell to the Greeks, sailed west across the Mediterranean and found refuge in Carthage, the city on the north coast of Africa, then ruled by Queen Dido, herself an exile.

The gods interfere, Venus using Cupid to trick Dido into falling in love with Aeneas, rather than with Iarbus, King of Gaetulia, her local suitor, who gave Dido refuge when she and her people were exiles, and expects to be rewarded with her hand in marriage.

Dido and Aeneas pledge their love to each other, but the Trojans remind Aeneas that their future is in Italy, which is also where Mercury and the other gods order Aeneas to proceed. The play ends when Aeneas leaves for Italy with the Trojans and despairing Dido setting off a triple suicide by throwing herself on a funeral pyre, followed by her despairing suitor Iarbus and then by Anna, her sister, who loved Iarbus all along.

A suitably lurid and exorbitant subject for the theatrical genius of extremity and intensity. The play, of course, features the main human characters, as you’d expect – what is surprising is the inclusion of quite so many gods and goddesses. Marlowe is not shy about putting words into the mouths of gods.

Cast

Immortals

Jupiter, king of the gods
Juno, queen of the gods
Venus, goddess of love
Mercury, messenger of the gods
Cupid, son of Venus, impish god of love
Ganymede, cup-bearer to the gods

Mortals

Aeneas, prince of Troy
Ascanius, son of Aeneas
Dido, queen of Dido
Anna, her sister
Achates, companion of Aeneas
Ilioneus
Iarbus, King of Gaetulia
Cloanthes
Sergestus

Act 1

Indeed the play opens in heaven with Jupiter ‘dandling’ Ganymede on his lap (‘that female wanton boy’) and flirting with his beloved boy (‘Come gentle Ganimede and play with me,’). Ganymede complains that Juno whacked him round the head when he was serving wine. Here, right at the beginning of his career, Marlowe’s ambition reaches to the utter heights, putting words into the mouth of the king of the gods on Olympus, and not just casual chit-chat, Zeus threatening vengeance on his bossy wife.

JUPITER: What? dares she strike the darling of my thoughts?
By Saturn’s soul, and this earth threatening air,
That shaken thrice, makes Nature’s buildings quake,
I vow, if she but once frown on thee more,
To hang her meteor like twixt heaven and earth,
And bind her hand and foot with golden cords,
As once I did for harming Hercules.

What scale! What bombast! Nature quaking and the king of the gods hanging his wife between heaven and earth – these are enormous image of vast power. Not only that but Ganymede cackles, like a spoilt catamite, at Zeus’s suggestion and says, Go on, go on, he would bring all the gods to marvel at the sight.

So right at the start of the play the tone is set of 1. world-reaching, heaven-aspiring settings 2. a kind of spoilt teenager cruelty and amorality, and 3, of course, Marlowe’s powerful sensuality:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of time,
Why are not all the Gods at thy command,
And heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine Daughters sing when thou art sad,
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face,
And Venus’ Swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed

It starts out being about Power but ends up with Venus’ swans feathering the boy’s bed, power and sensuality are amorally mingled.

Anyway, back to the plot and enter Venus berating Zeus for his frivolity and indifference when her beloved son, Aeneas, is struggling against stormy seas. More than that, she conjures a vision of the seas stirred up by Juno, queen of the gods, against Aeneas and so re-enacting a second overthrow of Troy (since Aeneas and his twenty ships carry all the survivors of the city), Aeolus god of winds summoning the waves as Agamemnon leader of the Greek army summoned his soldiers to attack.

Zeus snaps out of gay flirting mode to assure Venus that Aeneas is safe, and describes his destiny, to voyage on to Rome, to fight and defeat the native inhabitants, to found a city where, 300 years later, a priestess will be impregnated by Mars and bear the twins Romulus and Remus who will go on to found the greatest city in the world.

Ganymede and Zeus exit and Venus thanks him for saving her beautiful son, and then, next thing we know, Aeneas and some of his companions come onstage having obviously survived the storms. Venus hides so she can overhear her beamish boy. The men praise Aeneas for his leadership, and wonder where they’ve been driven ashore. Aeneas tasks them with fetching wood to make a fire to cook the meat they’ve killed.

At this point Venue steps out before them, in disguise as a native of the land. Aeneas immediately spots her for a goddess and asks what land is this. Venus explains it is the Punic shore where Sidonian Dido rules as queen. Aeneas introduces himself which gives him an opportunity to explain his backstory i.e. how he fled defeated Troy with all the survivors in 24 ships, though they’ve been battered by storms and only seven have survived to find haven here on this rocky shore. Venus assures him that all his ships have arrived safely then quickly departs, just as Aeneas realises she is his mother, the goddess Venus and laments that she never stays for them to have a proper conversation.

Act 2

Scene 1 Outside the walls of Carthage, near a temple to Juno, Aeneas laments with his friend Achates and his son Ascanius for lost Troy and her dead and momentarily mistakes a statue in the temple for old King Priam. But then Cloanthus, Sergestus, Ilioneus and others of their comrades appear, they are all joyfully reunited, and tell Aeneas they were taken in and given food, new clothes etc by Queen Dido.

Dido is introduced to Aeneas and to his son, Ascanius, who she takes a liking to. They appear to sit as for a banquet and Aeneas’s renewed laments prompt Dido to ask him to tell them all what happened when Troy fell. Which he does at length and very vividly (lines 177 to 369) how the Trojans were fooled by lying Sinon to take the wooden horse into the city walls and how that night the scheming Greeks got loose and massacred the inhabitants, how old King Priam was found at the altar of his gods by Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, who first chopped off the old man’s hands, held up in supplication, then cut him open like a fish.

Amid the mayhem, Aeneas put his father Anchises on his back, took his son Ascanius by one hand and his wife Creusa by the other and made his way out of the burning city ankle deep in blood. His wife let go his hand and was lost and he never regained her, he saw Cassandra sprawling in the street, bloodied after being raped by Ajax and, as he reached the sea and the Trojan ships, Priam’s daughter Polyxena cried out from the shore, so Aeneas saw his son and father safe onto a ship and turned to wade back for her, but as he watched Pyrrhus’s Myrmidons seized and murdered her.

Aeneas is so overcome with grief that Achates takes up the story, telling how they think Queen Hecuba was led off to slavery while Helen – the cause of all the trouble – betrayed her Trojan lover, Deïphobus, to the Greeks and so was reconciled with Menelaus.

Scene 2 Dido decides everyone needs cheering up and leads them off. The last to leave is little Ascanius and Venus and Cupid enter at just that moment, seizing his hand and Venus promises him sweets and treats to lull him, takes him in her arms and sings and… Ascanius falls asleep. They carry his sleeping body to a grove of trees where they lay him and half cover him with flowers.

Now is he fast asleep, and in this grove,
Amongst green brakes I’ll lay Ascanius,
And strew him with sweet-smelling violets,
Blushing roses, purple hyacinth:
These milk-white doves shall be his centronels,
Who, if that any seek to do him hurt,
Will quickly fly to Cythereä’s fist.

They have a Cunning Plan. Cupid will impersonate Ascanius, insinuate himself into Dido’s embrace and while she is dandling him on her lap, touch her with one of his golden arrows and make her fall helplessly in love with Aeneas. Why? So that Dido will repair his ships, victual his soldiers and give him wealthy gifts.

Act 3

Scene 1 In Dido’s palace King Iarbas is trying to persuade Dido much in love with her she is, but Dido is bewitched by Cupid-disguised-as-Ascanius and confuses Iarbas with contradictory instructions, that she will listen to his love suit, then telling him to leave and never come back. Eventually, deeply upset, Iarbas does exit.

Anna, who had entered with them and watched all this, is Dido’s sister and encourages her growing love of Aeneas because she – Anna – carries a torch for Iarbas. Cupid inflames Dido with love, so that when Aeneas does enter with comrades-in-arms she is infatuated for him. When Aeneas chastely asks if she can help the Trojans rerig their ships, Dido replies they shall have all they want so long as… Aeneas stays with her.

The verse in which she describes how she will help with the ships is typical of Marlowe’s wonderful and rich descriptive ability:

I’ll give thee tackling made of riveled gold,
Wound on the barks of odoriferous trees,
Oars of massy ivory, full of holes,
Through which the water shall delight to play:
Thy anchors shall be hewed from crystal rocks,
Which, if thou lose, shall shine above the waves;
The masts, whereon thy swelling sails shall hang,
Hollow pyrámides of silver plate;
The sails of folded lawn, where shall be wrought
The wars of Troy, but not Troy’s overthrow…

As if caught out, she hastens to say she doesn’t want Aeneas to stay because she is in love with him, no no no no, she needs a general to lead her army in war against her neighbours. She emphasises she has been wooed by famous men from around the Mediterranean, in fact she has a gallery of portraits, and indeed Aeneas’s men examine these portraits and recognise many of the great men who wooed but could not win her.

To be honest, Dido’s being in two minds about her feelings seems to me clumsily done. She says he might be her lover – but then again not. She wants him to stay as her general… but maybe something more… but no, don’t think he could become her lover… and yet he might…

Scene 2 A grove near Carthage Juno comes across Ascanius laid asleep under the flowers in the grove and is minded to murder him. But as she stands pondering the deed, Venus enters, alerted by the turtle doves she set to guard over him, and furiously accuses Juno. Juno admits she has sent storms and waves to batter Aeneas’s fleet but says she now realises it is futile to battle against fixed fate and so has come round to wanting to help him. Venus believes her and is much softened, saying that if Juno will help Aeneas, she (Venus) will give Juno all the gifts of love.

Juno points out that Dido and Aeneas are now both firmly in love (thus conveying a sense of the passage of time). She thinks it best that Dido and Aeneas, Juno’s favourite and Venus’s son, are married and thus the two goddesses will be united. Venus thinks it is good but doubts that Aeneas can be deterred from his resolution to travel on to Italy.

Juno has a plan. The couple are going hunting this afternoon, accompanied by all their attendants. Juno will send s rainstorm, separate them from their followers, make them take shelter in a cave where they will finally ‘seal their union’. Venus agrees and meanwhile lifts Ascanius and will take him ff to safety on Mount Ida.

Scene 3 The woods Enter Dido, Aeneas, Anna, Iarbas, Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, and Followers. Once again Dido humiliates Iarbas in front of everyone, Aeneas joining in on her side, leaving the Gaetulian king furious.

Scene 4 A cave As Juno promised, a rainstorm has broken and Dido and Aeneas been separated from everyone else and taken shelter in a cave. It takes a while of coyness on both parts but eventually Aeneas promises to stay in Carthage and be her love and Dido is delighted and showers him with presents.

Hold; take these jewèls at thy lover’s hand,
These golden bracelets, and this wedding ring,
Wherewith my husband wooed me, yet a maid,
And be thou king of Libya by my gift.

Act 4

Scene 1 In front of the same cave Achates, Cupid as Ascanius, Iarbas, and Anna all marvel at the sudden onset of the storm which they suspect had divine origins. When they see Dido and Aeneas emerge from the cave Iarbas is consumed with envy and anger.

Scene 2 A room in Iarbas’ house Iarbas sacrifices and makes a prayer to Jove, remembering how Dido was herself a refugee on this shore and how he, Iarbas, gave her land and help to build her city and now she scorns his love in favour of this interloper, Aeneas. At which point Anna enters and asks him what he’s praying for. To get rid of Aeneas, he explains, and win Dido’s love.

Why, Anna says, doesn’t he forget Dido and think of plighting his love somewhere else. Somewhere closer to home. Take her for example. But Iarbas laughs and says his heart is set on Dido. Anna abandons all discretion and declares she loves him ‘more than heaven’, but Iarbas rejects such a ‘loathsome change’.

Scene 3 A room in Dido’s palace Aeneas declares he must leave, his destiny calls. He summons his companions. God, Marlowe has such a way with a driving cutting line of verse:

Aboard! aboard! since Fates do bid aboard,
And slice the sea with sable-coloured ships

Enter Achates, Cloanthus, Sergestus, and Ilioneus who all reinforce Aeneas’s decision, lamenting that dallying with women effeminates warriors like them. To Italy! To Italy! They exit leaving Aeneas to lament that he ought to tell Dido they’re going, but he knows she will take him in her arms, and cry tears of pearl and beg, and he will weaken.

Scene 4 Another apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Dido and Anna. Dido laments that the Trojans seem to be doing a runner without saying goodbye. At which enter Aeneas, Achates, Ilioneus, Sergestus and Carthaginan Lords. Dido accuses Aeneas of panning to leave without saying goodbye. Aeneas lies that he had merely gone down to the harbour to see his friends off: how could he depart and leave behind his son, Ascanius? Did on the spot gives him her crown and sceptre and says he is her king, she will obey him. Dido sings the praise of how kingly, how godly Aeneas looks.

Aeneas says he will never leave, if he leaves her let death be his punishment. Which is odd because we saw him a few minutes earlier pledging to leave immediately for Italy. Is this meant to be an example of the spell she holds over him? She orders Anna to prepare her horse and have Aeneas led in triumph through the city as its new king, and Aeneas tells Achates they will stay and train and raise a host with which to voyage to Greece and punish the Greeks for destroying Troy, and he and the Trojans exit.

Left to herself Dido begins to worry that he’ll leave nonetheless, and 1. orders Anna to tell the nurse to take Ascanius away into the countryside 2. to bring her all the Trojans’s ship tackle and rigging so they cannot leave. As in the scene with Iarbas and then in the cave with Aeneas, Dido gives way in successive lines to waves of doubt, sure that he loves her yet paranoid that he will leave.

Lords enter and tell her her commands have been obeyed, Ascanius has been taken into the countryside and they have brought all Aeneas’s rigging and tackle. Dido addresses the wood and spars and ropes and rigging in a wonderfully high and eloquent speech about how all these objects were going to betray her and her love, but now she will lock them up safe and sound.

Scene 5 The country Enter the nurse, with Cupid as Ascanius. the nurse tells Cupid-as-Ascanius she is going to take him to the country. As written, the scene has the same strange schizophrenia and Dido and Iarbas and Dido with Aeneas in the cave, namely that in alternate lines she on the one hand declares she is still young and frisky and ready to take a lover and in the other lines declares, no, she is old now and ripe only for the grave. Is this odd back and forth meant to be the result of Cupid maybe touching her with his love dart – was it almost comic the way Cupid touches her and makes her feel randy, then stops and she feels old and wizened again? There are no stage directions, so we can only guess. (It’s worth mentioning that all the locations described in this review are the inventions of a British scholar named Alexander Dyce in the 1870s. This man has, therefore, had a huge impact on the way all modern readers envision, imagine and conceive the play’s action.)

Act 5

Scene 1 An apartment in Dido’s palace Enter Aeneas, with a paper in his hand drawing the platform of the city, with him Achates, Cloanthus, and Ilioneus. Aeneas is drawing a map of Carthage’s walls and confidently describe to his companions how he will make the place magnificent, borrowing the river Ganges from India to form the moat, the sun from Egypt, what shall they call it? Troy? Aenea? Anchseon after his father? We, the audience, know these are bootless fantasies.

Enter Hermes carrying the real Ascanius and explains he has been kept safe by the gods while Dido has been frolicking with Cupid in disguise. In a flash Aeneas realises why Dido is so besottedly in love with him, it is the god’s influence.

Hermes tells Aeneas he is forgetting his duty to the future, he must sail for Italy. Aeneas says, ‘How can I since Dido has taken all my masts and rigging?’ At this exact moment Iarbas enters and asks Aeneas why he looks so gloomy. When Aeneas explains that Jove is ordering him to leave for Italy but he has no rigging for his ships, Iarbas enthusiastically offers to give him everything he needs. Aeneas orders his followers to go with Iarbas and collect the necessary.

Enter Dido who asks Aeneas why his ships are fully equipped and lying in the roads off the harbour as if ready to leave (that happened quickly! in theatre there is no time). He tells her straight out that Hermes brought orders for Jove that he MUST leave. That is the only reason. But you can’t be leaving. But I am. But I will die if you go. But the father of the gods orders me to go.

Dido accuses Aeneas of being selfish and using the gods as an excuse. No I want to stay. Then why don’t you stay? Because the father of the gods has ordered me to go etc.

At which point Dido pivots round to woman scorned mode, and calls down dire revenge and hate on Aeneas, calls him a serpent she has harboured in her bosom, she hopes the waves smash their ships and their lifeless bodies are thrown up on the Libyan shore where she will leave them. Is he going to go? She opens her arms wide: Stay, stay here with me. Aeneas walks away.

Dido raves, sees him changing his mind at the last minute. Anna enters and Dido orders her to make haste to the harbour and persuade Aeneas to return. The nurse enters and tells Dido that Ascanius vanished overnight as if raptured away by the gods. He was, of course, Dido’s security, her hostage to prevent Aeneas leaving. Now nothing can prevent him. Dido orders the nurse thrown in prison.

Anna returns to say she saw the Trojan fleet set sail and cried out to Aeneas to stay but he hardened his heart and went below deck so as not to see her. Dido raves that she will follow him in verse typically full of extreme images of imaginative power and fantasy.

I’ll frame me wings of wax, like Icarus,
And, o’er his ship, will soar unto the sun,
That they may melt, and I fall in his arms;
Or else, I’ll make a prayer unto the waves,
That I may swim to him, like Triton’s niece:
O Anna! fetch Arion’s harp,
That I may tice a dolphin to the shore,
And ride upon his back unto my love!

She is beside herself with grief. She orders servants to go fetch all Aeneas’ belongings. Iarbas enters and asks Dido how much longer she will humiliate herself by mourning for a lost lover. What comes over from this as from other  moments in the play, is how time is wonderfully telescoped onstage, so that Aeneas’ ships have been rigged and set sail minutes after they were unrigged and docked. Everything takes place in this imaginative zone where wishes and thoughts come true almost immediately, where key bits of the plot take place in the time it takes to describe them.

Dido bids Iarbas help her build a large fire, ostensibly to burn all Aeneas’s things, then leave her. She is left alone onstage. One by one she throws onto the all the tokens of Aeneas and her love for him, the sword he swore love on, the tunic she first clothed him in, his letters and papers, and finally requests of the gods the Aeneas and his line may never live in peace, and from her city will arise a race to plague and pester Aeneas’ lineage (as the Carthaginians were to be the chief rivals in the Western Mediterranean for centuries).

Dido throws herself onto the funeral pyre. Anne enters, sees it, shrieks for help. Iarbas comes running, sees that Dido is dead, and kills himself. Anna makes a short speech saying life isn’t worth living and also kills herself.

Footnotes

Aeneas would sail onto Italy, where he fought the local tribes, the Rutulians led by King Turnus, as described in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid. Aeneas’ son Ascanius, will be the first king of Alba Longa and his descendants will rule for 300 years.

Until Silvia, a vestal virgin, would be ravished by Mars (Ares) and give birth to the twins Romulus and Remus, the former of whom would, of course, found the city of Rome a few miles north-west of Alba Longa and where, five hundred years later, Virgil would dedicate his epic treatment of the foundation of his city to the Emperor Augustus.

And Dido’s descendants, the Carthaginians, would rise to become the main opponents of Rome in the western Mediterranean for centuries. In fact the Carthaginians were themselves recent immigrants from Phoenicia, an ancient kingdom on the coast of the Levant, whose principal cities were Tyre and Sidon. Hence Dido is sometimes referred to as Sidonian Dido or queen. They were welcomed on the north African shore of what is now Tunisia by the local king, Iarbus, which is why he is so bitter that, after everything he did for her and her people, Dido rejects him and even mocks him publicly.

For those who don’t know the ancient Romans took over Greek mythology and the Greek gods wholesale, giving them their Roman names. In what follows the Roman god is named first (because these are the names used by Virgil in his epic, and by Marlowe, following him) and the Greek name in brackets.

Ceres is the Roman goddess of crops from which we get the word cereal.

Diana (Artemis) the goddess of the hunt, was the twin sister of Apollo, the sun god (making her the sun’s bright sister). As a virgin-goddess, Diana’s woodland followers – her nymphs – were also expected to retain their maidenhoods.

Ganymede was a Trojan prince, captured by Jove (Zeus) in the shape of an eagle and carried up to Olympos to be cup-bearer at the gods’ feasts.

Hector, a cousin of Aeneas, was a Trojan prince, a son of Troy’s King Priam, and the greatest fighter on the Trojan
side. Killed in a duel by the Greeks’ great champion, Achilles.

In a single night, the Greek princess Leda both slept with her husband and was seduced by Jupiter, who had taken on
the form of a swan for this episode. The result was the birth of both Helen and her twin sister Clytemnestra, and the twin brothers Castor and Pollux.

Helen was married to Menelaus, King of Sparta in Greece, from where, on a goodwill visit, Paris son of Priam, King of Troy, abducted her. That was the proximate cause of the Trojan War. Menelaus reached out to his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and senior king among the many Greek rulers, who rounded up the other Greek leaders and assembled the fleet of a thousand ships which sailed for Troy and besieged it for ten long years.

Ulysses (Odysseus) king of Ithaca, widely described as cunning and crafty, he was credited with coming up with the scheme for a wooden horse to end the siege of Troy. The second great epic by the legendary Greek poet, Homer, the Odyssey, describes Ulysses’ ten-year-long journey home from the war, during which he had adventures with the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scilla and Charybdis and the sorceress Circe who turned his crew into pigs.

Vulcan (Hephaestus) was the god of fire and the blacksmith god. He was lame leading the other able-bodied gods to mock him. But when he discovered Mars (Ares) god of war, was having an affair with Vulcan’s wife Venus (Aphrodite) Vulcan wove a net of metal in which he caught the adulterous gods and exposed them to the ridicule of all the other gods.

Venus (Aphrodite) the goddess of beauty, was the daughter of Jupiter with the Titan goddess Dione. She was the mother of Aeneas, who got pregnant by the Trojan prince Anchises.

Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil (70 – 19 BC) was the greatest poet of the golden age of Roman poetry, as the Republic collapsed and was replaced by the Empire under its first emperor, Augustus. Virgil wrote exemplary shorter forms before creating one of the most influential epic poems in history, the Aeneid, the epic story of Aeneas’ post-Troy travels and adventures.


Related links

Dido, Queen of Carthage on the Elizabethan Drama website This excellent website gives you a choice of reading the play script unencumbered by notes, or a very comprehensively annotated text, full of fascinating facts.

Marlowe’s works

Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe

Scholarship attributes Marlowe’s poems – Hero and Leander and his translations of Ovid and Lucan – to his time at Cambridge, before he came down to London and started writing for the stage i.e. before he was 23.

Hero and Leander is incomplete. Marlowe conceived it as a miniature epic or epyllion retelling the ancient love story of Hero and Leander in rhyming couplets. He wrote two sections (of 484 and 334 lines, respectively) before breaking off. The poem takes up just 24 pages of the Penguin edition of Marlowe’s complete poetry.

After Marlowe’s death, the poem was continued and completed by fellow playwright and poet, George Chapman. Chapman’s continuation takes up 56 pages i.e. is twice as long as the original. It was Chapman who divided the ‘completed’ poem, including Marlowe’s part, into sestiads, a word he made up referring to the city of Sestos where the poem is set, on the model of The Iliad which describes the war at Ilium (as Troy was then known).

These medium-length poems on a classical subject were popular in late-Elizabethan England. Frequently taken from the works of the Roman poet Ovid, they were generally about Love, often with strong erotic or sensual overtones. They were fashionably Italian in tone and were aimed at a refined and knowledgeable audience. Shakespeare wrote something similar with his Venus and Adonis.

The legend

The first thing to get straight is that Hero is the name of the woman in the story. She is a priestess of Aphrodite who lives in a tower in Sestos, a city on the European side of the Hellespont (the narrow strip of water near modern Istanbul which separates Europe from Asia Minor.

Leander is a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait. Leander spies Hero at a festival of Adonis, on the spot falls in love with her, woos and wins her then every subsequent night swims across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lights a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him on his nightly swim.

Their meetings last a long, hot summer. But one stormy winter night, a strong wind blows out Hero’s lamp and Leander loses his way in the storm-tossed sea and drowns. When Hero sees his dead body, she throws herself from the top of her tower to join him in death.

Sestiad one (484 lines)

The tone, the register, the descriptions are from the start over the top and exorbitant, much like the style of the plays. We learn that Hero was wooed by Apollo, no less, that her dress is stained with blood for all the suitors who have died for her sake. She has soaked up so much beauty that nature wept and turned half the world black (the commentators aren’t quite sure whether this means black-haired [as opposed to radiant blonde] or to the fact that any one moment half of the earth is in darkness):

So lovely-fair was Hero, Venus’ nun,
As Nature wept, thinking she was undone,
Because she took more from her than she left,
And of such wondrous beauty her bereft:
Therefore, in sign her treasure suffer’d wrack,
Since Hero’s time hath half the world been black.

Cupid was said to have looked on her and been struck blind her beauty. Or to routinely mistake Hero for his mother, the goddess of Love. Nor is Leander any less heroically beautiful. His hair would have outshone the famous golden fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts. The moon (Cynthia) longs to be embraced by him. Zeus might have drunk from his hand.

Many commentators have pointed out that Marlowe devotes just as sensual a description to Leander as to Hero, and use this as evidence for the claim that Marlowe was gay.

His dangling tresses, that were never shorn,
Had they been cut, and unto Colchos borne,
Would have allur’d the venturous youth of Greece
To hazard more than for the golden fleece.
Fair Cynthia wished his arms might be her Sphere;
Grief makes her pale, because she moves not there.
His body was as straight as Circe’s wand;
Jove might have sipt out nectar from his hand.
Even as delicious meat is to the tast,
So was his neck in touching, and surpast
The white of Pelops’ shoulder: I could tell ye,
How smooth his breast was, and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back; but my rude pen
Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men,
Much less of powerful gods: let it suffice
That my slack Muse sings of Leander’s eyes;
Those orient cheeks and lips, exceeding his
That leapt into the water for a kiss [Narcissus]
Of his own shadow, and, despising many,
Died ere he could enjoy the love of any.
Had wild Hippolytus Leander seen,
Enamour’d of his beauty had he been:
His presence made the rudest peasant melt,
That in the vast uplandish country dwelt;
The barbarous Thracian soldier, mov’d with nought,
Was mov’d with him, and for his favour sought.
Some swore he was a maid in man’s attire,
For in his looks were all that men desire,—
A pleasant-smiling cheek, a speaking eye,
A brow for love to banquet royally;
And such as knew he was a man, would say,
‘Leander, thou art made for amorous play:
Why art thou not in love, and loved of all?
Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own thrall.’

So, yes, possibly, you might claim some of these lines as proving that Marlowe was gay or had a gay sensibility – although, rereading the factual information about him, I now realise the evidence for this is actually very slender, based on hearsay and the written evidence of spies and liars.

The real point, for me, of a passage like this is surely how easy it is to read, easy and stylish and confident, brash, verging on the bombastic. Zeus would have drunk out of his hand! Because the poem starts in this high tone it’s easy to overlook how absurdly overblown a lot of its descriptions and claims are. Here is the description of Venus’ temple where Hero is a ‘nun’:

The walls were of discolour’d jasper-stone,
Wherein was Proteus carved; and over-head
A lively vine of green sea-agate spread,
Where by one hand light-headed Bacchus hung,
And with the other wine from grapes out-wrung.
Of crystal shining fair the pavement was;
The town of Sestos call’d it Venus’ glass:
There might you see the gods, in sundry shapes,
Committing heady riots, incests, rapes;

The vigour, the energy of the conception is captured in the riots, incests and rapes of the disgraceful gods (which he goes on to summarise for another ten lines). Power. Energy. Dynamism. This is what Ben Jonson meant when he referred to Marlowe’s ‘mighty line’.

The lion’s share of the first sestiad (lines 199 to 340) is devoted to a long section of Leander pleading with Hero to have sex with him, ‘his worthy love-suit’. Leander lines up a battery of arguments, cast in the pseudo-philosophical form popular at the time, to persuade Hero out of her priestly virginity and into loving and sleeping with him. In fluent succession he argues:

  • why does Hero worship Venus when she surpasses her so much in beauty
  • he vows to excel all others in her service
  • women must be used like musical instruments or metal jars, both of which go off and tarnish without use
  • lone women are like empty houses, which collapse and decline
  • women need men to validate them:

One is no number; maids are nothing, then,
Without the sweet society of men.

  • women are like raw gold which needs to be stamped with the owner’s imprimatur to gain value
  • virginity is nothing, has no reality, you can’t point to it or weigh it – therefore it means nothing

This idol, which you term virginity,
Is neither essence subject to the eye,
No, nor to any one exterior sense,
Nor hath it any place of residence,
Nor is’t of earth or mould celestial,
Or capable of any form at all.
Of that which hath no being, do not boast;
Things that are not at all, are never lost.

  • how can virginity be called virtuous when we are born with it – only that can be virtuous which we strive for and achieve
  • she is so beautiful that if she lives alone, people won’t think she is virtuous, they’ll think she is being maintained by some rich man as his mistress
  • Venus likes banquets, Doric music, midnight revel, plays and masks – by rejecting all this life and human interaction for the life of the cloister Hero is ‘a holy idiot’ (line 333) in fact she is committing a sin against her goddess
  • she will most resemble Venus when she carries out ‘Venus’ sweet rites’ i.e. sex
  • rich corn dies if it is no reaped – beauty in solitude is lost

Who cares whether any of this is true or not (or sexist or misogynist) – the point is the roll, the rise, the rhythm of Marlowe’s arguments, breaking over Hero’s poor bowed head like the waves of the sea.

In fact Hero had long ago given in to his arguments, to his good looks and to Cupid’s arrow, though, as he reaches to embrace her, she eludes him. Instead she explains that she lives in a high tower on the coast, attended by ‘a dwarfish beldam’ who keeps her company with chatter and ‘apish merriment’. Before she knows it she’s said ‘Come thither’ but is immediately ashamed, regrets her boldness, casts her hands up to heaven – but Cupid beats down her prayers, turning her tears to pearls.

The digression about Hermes and the Destinies

At this point the entire narrative shifts scene and the last hundred lines (377 – 484) go off at a strange tangent, describing a peculiar story using Greek characters but, apparently made up by Marlowe himself. In this digression, Hermes messenger of the gods, on the same day he laid Argus asleep, spied a country maid and pursues and woos her and tumbles her to the ground, but as he’s undressing her she suddenly starts up and runs off shouting, so Hermes follows her, wooing her with stories and these make her stop to listen. At length she asks him to bring him a cup of the ‘flowing nectar’ on which the gods feast, and so Hermes pops up to heaven and steals some off Hebe, handmaiden to the gods and returns to earth to hand it to his shepherdess-lover.

Zeus discovers this theft and is more angry than he was when Prometheus stole the fire (everything is more than, the best, the toppermost). Zeus banishes Hermes from heaven and the sad god goes wandering up and down the earth till he bumps into Cupid and tells his tale of woe. This is all the prompting Cupid needs to take revenge on Zeus, and he shoots the ‘adamantine Destinies’ with his golden darts so they fall in love with Hermes and will do anything he asks.

Hermes goes way over the top and commands the Destinies to topple Zeus from his throne and replace him with his father, Saturn, who Zeus had overthrown. But barely was Saturn upon the throne and Zeus incarcerated in hell than Hermes stopped paying court to the Destinies, they noticed this and felt scorned, forswore Love and him, and promptly restored Zeus back to his throne.

Hermes nearly ended up locked in hell except that learning will always overcome all obstacles and rise to heaven and so Hermes, as the patron god of learning, eventually regained his place.

Yet, as a punishment, they added this,
That he and Poverty should always kiss;
And to this day is every scholar poor:

And explains why rich fools always seem to lord it over the Muses’ sons, well-educated wits, and the ‘lofty servile clown’ ‘keep learning down’. In other words, why deserving poets like Marlowe are always short of money and dependent on aristocratic fools.

It has the neatness of a fable, the folk tale origin of a proverb. Except that it is easy to overlook the fact that Marlowe just described the overthrow of the king of the gods by the keepers of the universe. He is, on other words, a poet whose imagination is always soaring off into the uttermost extremities of enormity.

Sestiad two (334 lines)

It’s a bit of an effort to click back to the original story, and find Hero playing hard to get, skipping off from Leander’s clutches, but turning round and eyeing him coyly, dropping her fan oops. She seems to make it home because the next thing we know Leander sends her a love letter, she replies telling him to come to her tower, and he arrives to find the front door wide open, and her room strewed with roses. He asked, she gave ‘and nothing was denied’. Marlowe is a very sexy writer:

Look how their hands, so were their hearts united,
And what he did, she willingly requited.
(Sweet are the kisses, the embracements sweet,
When like desires and like affections meet;)

Then she is overcome with guilt and shame and then fear that she has given herself too easily and he will tire of her, so she goes to him again, throwing herself on his bosom, making her body a sacrifice to her own anger at herself.

Leander, meanwhile, is a relatively naive and innocent lover and he is nagged by a suspicion that he hasn’t done enough or isn’t doing it right, and so he clasps her to him even more and suddenly finds his ardour rising again and the pleasing heat revived ‘Which taught him all that elder lovers know’. And yet she fled, keen to maintain ‘her maidenhead’ (in which case, all the shenanigans the poet has been describing must be merely foreplay).

Dawn comes, deliberately slowing her pace to let the two lovers take a long, drawn-out farewell. Hero gives Leander a myrtle to wear in his bonnet, a purple ribbon round his arm and the ring wherewith she had pledged her devotion to Venus. He is so liberally festooned with love’s tokens that Leander has barely got back to Abydos before everyone in both cities knows all about their love.

But Leander burns with love, flames for Hero’s absence. Leander’s father notices and pooh-poohs his love which only makes Leander burst out even more passionately like a wild horse that tamers try to restrain.

Sitting on a rock looking across the Hellespont to Hero’s tower, Leander’s love overcomes him, he tears off his clothes and leaps into the sea. But Poseidon god of the ocean, is convinced by his beauty that the legendary Ganymede has entered his element, and grasps Leander.

Leander strived; the waves about him wound,
And pull’d him to the bottom, where the ground
Was strewed with pearl, and in low coral groves
Sweet-singing mermaids sported with their loves
On heaps of heavy gold, and took great pleasure
To spurn in careless sort the shipwreck treasure;

It’s brilliantly vivid and colourful. Poseidon at first embraces Leander but our hero wriggles free of his grasp and, realising he is not Ganymede, Poseidon drops his lustful intent and turns to sporting with Leander. He fixes Helle’s bracelet on his arm so the sea can’t harm him and then frolics, as Leander strides through the water towards Hero, Poseidon swims between his strong arms and kisses him.

He watched his arms, and, as they open’d wide
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
And, as he turn’d, cast many a lustful glance,
And throw him gaudy toys to please his eye,
And dive into the water, and there pry
Upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb,
And up again, and close beside him swim,
And talk of love. Leander made reply,
‘You are deceiv’d; I am no woman, I.’

Hm, many people seem to be mistaking Leander for a woman. Is this sexy? Is it gay? Or is it more a kind of imaginative exuberance, a super-sexed hyperbole which transcends love or sex or gender, reaching for a kind of super-human vivacity and energy.

Poseidon starts telling a story about a shepherd who dotes on a boy so beautiful, who played with

a boy so lovely-fair and kind,
As for his love both earth and heaven pin’d;

(OK, maybe it is gay) but Leander is in a hurry to get across the strait and pulls ahead of Poseidon lamenting he is going so slow. Angered, Poseidon throws his mace at Leander but immediately regrets the decision and calls it back, where it hits his hand with such violence it draws blood. Leander sees it and is sorry, and Poseidon’s heart is softened by the lad’s kind heart.

Leander finally staggers ashore and runs to Hero’s tower. She hears knocking at the door and runs to it naked but seeing a rough dirty naked man in the doorway, screams and runs off to hide in her dark room. But here Leander follows her, spying her white skin in the gloom, she slips into her bed, Leander sits on it, exhausted, and speaks these lovely lines:

‘If not for love, yet, love, for pity-sake,
Me in thy bed and maiden bosom take;
At least vouchsafe these arms some little room,
Who, hoping to embrace thee, cheerly swoom:
This head was beat with many a churlish billow,
And therefore let it rest upon thy pillow.’

She wriggles down inside her bed, making a sort of tent of the sheets, while Leander whispers and entreats to her, and reaches in and begs and she is tempted but resists and is finally, at length, won like a town taken by storm,

Leander now, like Theban Hercules,
Enter’d the orchard of th’ Hesperides;
Whose fruit none rightly can describe, but he
That pulls or shakes it from the golden tree.

He appears to take her virginity:

she knew not how to frame her look,
Or speak to him, who in a moment took
That which so long, so charily she kept;

But I made the mistake of thinking they were having sex earlier, when it was only foreplay and here, again, what happens is obscure because next thing we know Hero slips out of the bed like a mermaid and stands and a kind of twilight breaks from her, and Leander beholds her naked for the first time. And at this moment Apollo’s golden harp sounds out music to the ocean and the morning star arises, driving night down into hell.

And it is there that the poem breaks off.

Famous quote

The poem contains one of Marlowe’s two most famous lines. Early in the first sestiad Hero is stooping down to a silver altar within the temple of Venus with her eyes closed. As she rises she opens her eyes and Cupid shoots a gold-tipped arrow through Leander’s heart, and Marlowe breaks off for a little digression on the nature of Love:

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-rul’d by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win;
And one especially do we affect
Of two gold ingots, like in each respect:
The reason no man knows, let it suffice,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight:
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?

We know not what we do – or we have no idea why we like one thing instead of another, even when they’re indistinguishable like two identical gold ingots. We can’t explain why we love one thing instead of another just like it. It is fate.

Footnotes

Just some of the scores of Greek myths Marlowe refers to. Notice how many of them are about sex.

  • Before the advent of carpets, rooms in houses rich and poor, were strewn with rushes i.e. dried grasses.
  • Actaeon a fair youth, out hunting he accidentally saw the goddess Artemis bathing naked and as punishment she drove his hunting hounds into a wild frenzy so that they tore him to pieces.
  • Argus was a hundred-eyed monster sent by Hera to watch over beautiful maid Io and prevent Zeus sleeping with her, so Zeus sends Hermes to slay Io.
  • Cupid’s arrows According to Ovid, Cupid has two types of arrow, gold-tipped to kindle love and lead-tipped to extinguish it (Metamorphoses I, lines 470-471).
  • Ganymedea beautiful youth carried off by Zeus in the shape of an eagle and brought to heaven to be the cupbearer of the gods. The Latin for Ganymede is Catamitus which is the origin of the English word ‘catamite’ denoting a pubescent boy in a pederastic relationship with an older man, or the receiver of anal intercourse.
  • Ixion was the treacherous king of Thessaly who murdered his father-in-law. Zeus took pity on him and brought him to Olympus where Ixion promptly repaid his kindness by trying to seduce Hera. Learning about this, Zeus created a fake model of Hera out of clouds and sent it to Ixion. The fruit of their union was the race of centaurs. Ixion was punished for his hubris by being bound to a wheel perpetually turning in hell.
  • Pelops was killed by his father Tantalus, cut up, cooked, and served at a dinner of the gods. Only Demeter actually ate anything, though, unknowingly eating Pelops’ shoulder. When Hermes was subsequently tasked with reconstituting Pelops, he gave him a shoulder made of ivory. The story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, VI, l.403-11.
  • Phaëthon was a son of Apollo, the sun god. He undertook to drive the chariot of the sun but lost control of the horses and was destroyed by Zeus to prevent him setting fire to the world (Metamorphoses II, 30)
  • Proteus the sea god, a byword for continual continual change.
  • Salmacis was a nymph who loved the fair youth Hermaphroditus who ignored her. But she embraced him and begged the gods that they never be parted, the gods granted her wish and transformed them into one being with the attributes of a man and a woman (Metamorphoses, IV, 285ff)
  • Tantalus was King of Lydia and a son of Zeus. He stole nectar from the gods to give to men and was consigned to hell where he suffered permanent thirst and hunger with goblets of water and plates full of rich food just out of reach.

Sources

An ancient work, The Double Heroides, is attributed to Ovid and, among other fictional letters, it contains an exchange of verse letters between Hero and Leander. In that text Leander has been unable to swim across to Hero in her tower because of bad weather and her summons to him to make the effort will prove fatal to her lover.

But research has shown that most of the details in Hero and Leander are taken from the much later 340 line-poem by the 6th century Byzantine poet Musaeus, who is actually namechecked in Marlowe’s poem (although Marlowe makes the error, common in his time, of mistakenly thinking Musaeus was a contemporary of Homer).


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Marlowe’s works

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art @ British Museum

‘To the ancient Greeks the body was a thing of beauty and a bearer of meaning.’

When the people in front of me opened the big swing doors into the first room of this exhibition, I couldn’t help exclaiming ‘Wow!’ Four stunning life-size Greek statues, dramatically spotlit in a darkened room, appear as if in a temple, a cave, a magician’s treasury. (They are Lely’s Venus crouching; the river god Ilissos, by the greatest ancient Greek sculptor, Phidias; the Townley Discobolus, a Roman copy of the lost original by Myron; and Georg Römer’s reconstruction of the Doryphoros by Polykleitos.)

This is a wonderfully uplifting and insightful show, full of objects which can make you marvel at human creativity.

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discobolus: Marble statue of a discus-thrower (discobolus) by Myron. Roman copy of a bronze Greek original of the 5th century BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition’s approach

Greek art and its importance in the tradition of Western Art is a vast, a never-ending and potentially exhausting subject, so this exhibition comes as a relief in several ways: it is not chronological (there are a few handy maps but no chronology) and it does not set out to be exhaustive (two sides of the same approach). (Not being chronological it admittedly doesn’t have the drama, the excitement, of following the evolution of statuary (and what painting survives) through the ancient Egyptians, the other empires of the East, via the primitive art of the Cyclades, and into the sudden efflorescence of the Body Beautiful in 5th century Athens.)

Instead, the show is a) based on themes and b) very selective, showcasing a relatively small number of perfect works, each chosen to demonstrate aspects of the themes, surrounded by a number of lesser pieces designed to give context.

The exhibition doesn’t in fact define beauty: it quotes some of the many Greek thinkers’ words about beauty, and invokes various ideas in the wall signs and the audio-commentary. But these are all fragments, angles, approaches. Helpful, but not definitive. You are left to ponder.

The human body as embodiment of social values

For me the biggest new thing I learned was the notion that the Greeks used the human body to make sense of the world. The human form embodied their values, and the quest for the Perfect and perfectly balanced, rational, harmonious human body, embodied the search for those moral, political and philosophical values.

The human body as embodiment of the universe

I sort of knew the above, but I had never explicitly encountered the related idea, that the human form embodies the Greeks’ sense of destiny and fate and of the forces of the universe.

It is through the human body that we understand the major events in human life (there is a gallery devoted to rites of passage, depictions of birth, marriage and death as, obviously enough, depicted by the body because these are obviously bodily events) but also the forces external to us, the forces of nature, the fierceness of the sun, the fury of storms, and so on.

It was through the human body that they thought about not only human perfection, but human destinies, and the impersonal forces which act on all of us. The body was like a tool for thinking about the world with.

So, for example, the basic human urge to anthropomorphise everything around us (to lend them human attributes, to assign motive and agency to a tree, a key, a car, the kettle, particularly to anything which resists or obstructs us) results, for the Greeks, in myths and legends where human bodies epitomise those forces – where human bodies change shape into animals and other elements of nature.

At a stroke this attitude – the human body as a vehicle for explaining of the world – made sense of all those many Greek stories of metamorphosis, where a young man or woman turns into a reed or a flower or a bull or a tree.

Perfection and power

There is a hierarchy of the universe with humans near its peak and the gods-who-take-human-shape at its apex. But these gods aren’t invisible and unknowable like the Jewish god, or crude warriors as in Near Eastern religion, they are people like you and me except of perfect power; and this power is expressed in their perfect bodies. The two are inextricably blended. Bodily perfection is a kind of power.

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Marble statue of a naked Aphrodite crouching at her bath, also known as Lely’s Venus. Roman copy of a Greek original, 2nd century AD. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The commentary dwelt on the fact that these images of Aphrodite are extraordinary for the ancient world. No other culture showed its women naked and, of course, real Greek women were kept covered in swathes of cloth and locked up at home. But such was their love of the Perfect Body that depictions of the goddesses breached all social etiquette and showed them stark naked but powerful. Mortals (men, generally) who offended against the purity of their nudity always died harrowing deaths. We should be frightened of their perfection.

Why here?

In all the other cultures anywhere in the world at the time (5th, 4th, 3rd centuries BC) various types of limited and stylised images of the human body sufficed for their purposes (religion, political power). Of all the cultures of the world, it was only the ancient Greeks who invented a naturalistic account of the human body, depicting it as it actually appears (albeit in an idealised and perfect form). Why? Ancient Greece was the only culture in the ancient world to depict its gods nude and the only culture to depict full nudity at all. Why? Why this extraordinary achievement?

The Ideal

Greek philosophy is awash with the notion of the Ideal. Plato’s writings about Socrates show him developing the idea that behind this fallen world lies a world of Perfect Forms, created by a Perfect Being. The entire practice of Greek art didn’t stem from his philosophy, the reverse: his philosophy derived from a culture seeking perfection of mind and body. A culture which sought the Ideal, perfection, in all areas of life – in politics, in philosophy, in morality, in warfare, in everyday behaviour.

Contrapposto to display harmony

Balance. Pythagoras and his school expounded the importance of the Golden Mean. Aristotle said the chief forms of beauty are order, symmetry and clear delineation. This idea is embodied in the pose which Italian critics 1,500 years later named Contrapposto – a pose where all the weight of a body is placed on one foot and leg, thus allowing the other leg and hip and the torso to be turned, to appear to be moving, yet poised. The contrapposto position is a vast distance in sophistication and technical achievement from the fixed, hieratical posture of Egyptian statuary. The commentary suggested it is the embodiment of the rational self-contained man, moving through three dimensions yet self-knowing, controlled, ideal.

The old saying goes that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato; this exhibition suggests that all Western art – and maybe our entire attitude to the human body – is footnotes to the Greek achievement.

The ideal man – a young warrior

Though we like to think of them as the fons et origo of Reason, the ancient Greeks were in fact in a state of almost continual warfare: hence the cultural fascination with the ideal young male body, the body of the athlete and warrior. (Note the contrapposto pose.)

Reconstruction, by Georg Roemer, of the 3rd century BC Greek bronze Doryphoros, or ‘Spear bearer’, of Polykeitos of Argos. 1920-21. © DAI German Archaeological Institute

Reconstruction, by Georg Roemer, of the 3rd century BC Greek bronze Doryphoros, or ‘Spear bearer’, of Polykeitos of Argos. 1920-21. © DAI German Archaeological Institute

Though Greeks wore clothes in everyday life, their athletes trained naked, demonstrating to themselves, their instructors and onlookers their fitness. But not only physical fitness; that fitness was achieved to support an ideal, to be a warrior for the city. Physical fitness – outward physical perfection – reflected internal moral virtue.

I went to the gym the evening before visiting the exhibition and had in my mind the men in the weights room working out for themselves, for the cameraderie of the activity and continually checking how they look – I’ve always thought the most important piece of equipment in a gym is the mirror. There is a tremendous self-consciousness in the Greek cultivation of the Body in art and life which is echoed today.

Arete was the ancient Greek word for youthful excellence, and kouros the name for the perfect young man. God, there were some beautiful, gorgeous male bodies on display, illustrating the ideals of balance and proportion. And I realised they were making me aspire. I know I can’t look like them but I wanted to reach out and touch these perfect images, to stroke the cold stone. Was that a permissible feeling in Greek times? Or would it have been blasphemy punished by madness and death, as in so many of the myths?

Physical challenge

The audio-commentary featured a (woman) journalist from the magazine Men’s Health who brought up the importance of challenge to men, to young men, of physical challenge, activity which tests us: from army training to triathlons. This (presumably deep biological urge) is strongly present in Greek art, and there is a section dedicated to a selection of Greek vases illustrating its embodiment in the legend of the Twelve Labours of Herakles.

Statues of the ancestors

Statuary had a strong moral and social meaning: the halls of Roman houses contained rows of statues of the family ancestors looking down and judging and guarding. I had the same sensation walking past a bust of Herakles positioned on a column a few feet above head level, staring out and down with an eerily imperious blankness. Watching. Judging from his position of youthful physical perfection, the shabby elderly crowd shuffling past his gaze.

Colour

Always comes as a shock to the unwary that the statues were vividly painted. One room is devoted to the different ways they were decorated, copper or bronze statues obviously having the colour of their material but often with different metal inserts to create contrast. The marble statues we see in their cool white perfection, were in fact always colourfully painted and sometimes draped in lifelike fabrics.

A vivid example is given of the Lycian archer – for centuries thought to be a wonderful example of plain white marble statuary and only in recent times conclusively shown to have been highly decorated in a harlequin-like design of blue, red and green lozenges on his arms, legs and quiver.

The threat of chaos

If the Ideal was one of Balance and Reason, then that Ideal is continually threatened in real life by the Irrational, the Violent, the Anarchic. And since the Greeks translated meaning into bodies, morality into human shape – the Greeks embodied the irrational and anarchic as satyrs and maenads, centaurs, and innumerable monsters, the Minotaur or Cyclops or Harpies. Because this exhibition partly exists to highlight items from the British Museum’s collection, it was an opportunity to demonstrate this with the metopes decorating the south wall of the Parthenon, part of the collection notoriously known as the Elgin Marbles. These metopes, the panels lining the greatest architectural achievement of their civilisation, depict in great detail an embodiment of just this struggle – the legendary battle between the Lapiths (a human tribe) and the centaurs (half man, half horse), after the drinking at a wedding party got disastrously out of hand. An embodiment of the forces of Unreason and Anarchy which are always lurking in the universe and in human society.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (South metope XXXI). The South metopes in the British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Marble metope from the Parthenon (South metope XXXI). The South metopes in the British Museum show the battle between Centaurs and Lapiths at the marriage-feast of Peirithoos. Designed by Phidias, Athens, Greece, 438BC-432BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Small penises

I’ve always wondered about the relatively small penises of so many of the classic statues, odd in artefacts devoted to Perfection. This exhibition explained what I should have known years ago, that the genitals are small to downplay the (disruptive) erotic power of the image and to promote the moral aspect of having a fine body. Same goes for the women’s breasts, which are notably different from the plump peardrop shape we are fed by modern media in countless newspapers, magazines and movies, and are smaller and more like symmetrical and perfectly round hillocks.

Oversexed

Talking of sex, there was a conversation on the audio-commentary where the main narrator mentioned the genitals bulging out from the loose folds of a man being hacked down in a frieze selected to demonstrate the importance of clothes and nudity in depictions of battle. Interestingly, the expert he was interviewing gently suggested that the comment was a mite ‘oversexed’. As I found at the Goya exhibition, it is all too easy to make sexual interpretations of images from the past, living as we do in a sex-obsessed, 50 Shades of Grey society, and therefore often failing to take account of the relative unimportance of sex for other and earlier cultures, and the far more dominating ethics of religious belief, social conformity, ancestral values, folk practice and contemporary (and now largely vanished) references.

Blank faces to the invention of ‘character’

The pursuit of the Ideal meant blank faces. It is striking how many statues have coldly perfect, impassive features. The interest in character, at first shown through the development of stock ‘types’, is a later development, only really flourishing in Roman statuary from the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Thus, this characterful statue of Socrates, is late, Hellenistic (ie from the broadly-based Greek culture which spread around the Mediterranean basin after the death of Alexander 323 BC.)

Marble statuette of Socrates. A Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC, or a Roman copy, Alexandria, Egypt. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Marble statuette of Socrates. A Hellenistic original of the 2nd century BC, or a Roman copy, Alexandria, Egypt. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Alexander understood the power of the image, had busts of himself done all over his Empire, a strategy copied by the Roman emperors and pretty much every Western ruler ever since, from Charlemagne to Charles de Gaulle.

The legacy

Most ancient Greek statues of the human body were destroyed – most of our knowledge about them comes from numerous Roman copies. These were discovered, rescued and preserved during the Renaissance, which enshrined the Greek idea of the perfect body at the heart of Western art and culture.

The exhibition ends with two of the greatest hits from the Greek tradition which have had a seismic affect on Western Art: the Belvedere Torso and Dionysos from the Parthenon. These enormous fragments of superhumanly muscled men were described and praised by Michelangelo, widely seen as the peak and acme of the Renaissance, who thought the torso the finest fragment of classical sculpture that could be seen in his day. It’s certainly the most Michelangelesque.

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Vatican, Museo, Pio-Clementino. © 2015. Photo Scala, Florence

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Vatican, Museo, Pio-Clementino. © 2015. Photo Scala, Florence

The semi-ruined nature of these big blocks of stone has two results:

  • It makes them more abstract – 100 years after the birth of Modernism we can see the lines of the breasts, the mid line between the ribs, the crease along the top of the diaphragm as almost cubist explorations of planes and forms, abstract squares and rectangles, allowing us to see the abstract buried in the flesh.
  • Their ruined state allows us in – encourages the viewer to complete the image, to remake it ourselves and this enables us to inhabit the work of art, to identify with it. There is no doubt these fragments, although intimidatingly large, are not intimidatingly perfect. They don’t have the icy perfection of the Aphrodites form earlier in the show. They will not kill us with a glance.

By not taking the chronological and didactic route, this exhibition successfully sheds light on and opens up new ideas about the great artists who shaped the way we think about what it is to be human, what it is to inhabit a body, to this day. It doesn’t really explain what beauty is – I suspect that is a vast and impossible task. Many details of what is ‘beautiful’ have changed over the centuries and our ideal body shapes today are not quite the same as these, as noted above.

What it does do is explain the power and importance of the notion of the Beautiful Body, the reason why we find the perfect form so haunting, so dominating in our thinking about ourselves.

For the first time I really understand what it means to say these statues give form to thought. They are not just bodies. They are ideas. The most perfect, balanced and rational ideas humanity has ever had. And that is why the importance of body shapes endures: it is central to our civilisation and impossible to escape.

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