Juvenal Satires

Juvenal wrote just 16 satires but they are considered among the best and most influential in Western literature. Tackling them now, for the first time, I discover that his poems are considerably more strange, gnarly and uneven than that reputation suggests, and also that the man himself is something of a mystery.

Potted biography

Decimus Junius Juvenal was probably born around 55 AD, the son of a well-off freedman who had settled in Aquinum near Monte Cassino, 80 miles south-east of Rome. According to two stone inscriptions found in the area, in 78 a ‘Junius Juvenal’ was appointed commander of a cohort and served in Britain under Julius Agricola (father-in-law of Tacitus the historian). The supposition is that this is the same Juvenal as our author, but scholars disagree. The satires contain a number of surprisingly detailed references to life in Britain which seem to reinforce this view, but…Nothing conclusive. (Introduction, pages 16 to 18)

The same inscription describes the return of this Junius Juvenal to Rome in 80, when he was made a priest of the deified Vespasian. A year later, in 81, Domitian became emperor and it is likely that Juvenal cultivated his position in society, writing verses. But in 93 a lampoon he’d written caused offence and he was exiled to Egypt (at least that’s what some scholars believe; Introduction p.18 to 20).

After Domitian’s assassination in 96, it seems that he was allowed back to Rome. Another decade passed and then, in 110-112 he published his first book of satires, containing satires 1 to 5.

  • Book 2 (published around 116 AD) consists of the long sixth satire against women.
  • Book 3 (around 120) consists of satires 7 to 9.
  • Book 4 (around 124) contains satires 10, 11, 12.
  • Book 5 (around 130) contains satires 13 to 16.

The dates of these publications are deduced from what seem to be contemporary references in some of the poems and are themselves the subject of fierce debate.

Unlike the satires of his predecessors in the genre, Horace and Statius, Juvenal’s satires contain no autobiographical information. They are hard, external, objective.

Contemporary references to Juvenal are few and far between. Martial’s epigrams contain three references to a ‘Juvenal’, the longest being epigram 18 in book 12 where Martial writes to someone named Juvenal, as to an old friend, gloating that while his friend is still living in noisy, stinky Rome, he (Martial) has retired to a beautifully quiet farm back in his native Spain. Scholars assume this is the same Juvenal, though there is no proof beyond the text itself.

The earliest satires are bitter and angry. In the later ones a change of tone is noticeable. Scholars assume this is because he went from being an utterly penniless poet, dependent on the good will of patrons handing out dinner invitations or a small portula or ‘dole’, to somehow acquiring a moderate ‘competency’. We learn from these later poems that he owned a small farm at Tivoli (satire 11) and a house in Rome where he entertained modestly. How did he acquire these? Did a grateful emperor gift them to him, as Augustus gave Horace a farm and a pension? We don’t know.

Scholars estimate that books 4 and 5 appeared in 123-5 and 128-30. It is likely that he survived the emperor Hadrian to die around 140, having lived a very long life. (Green refers to him as ‘the bitter old man from Aquinum’, p.10).

Soon after his death sometime in the late 130s, Juvenal’s work disappears and isn’t mentioned by anyone until the 4th century when he begins to be cited by Christian writers. Lactantius established the tradition of regarding Juvenal as a pagan moralist with a gift for pithy phrases, whose scathing contempt for corrupt pagan and secular society could be usefully quoted in order to contrast with the high-minded moral behaviour of the Christian believer – a tradition which was to hold true for the next 1,500 years.

Peter Green’s introduction

If you’ve read my notes on Peter Green’s translations of Ovid you’ll know that I’m a big fan of his. Born in 1924, Green is still alive, a British classical scholar and novelist who’s had a long and lively career, latterly teaching in America. Green’s translations of Ovid are characterised by a) long, chatty, informative, opinionated notes and b) rangy, freeflowing, stylish translations. Same here.

At 320 pages long, the Penguin edition of the Green translation feels like a bumper volume. This is because, with characteristic discursiveness, it starts with a 54-page introduction, which summarises all scholarly knowledge about, and interpretations of, the satires. And then each of the satires are immediately followed by 6, 7 or 8 pages of interesting, chatty notes.

I found Green’s introduction fascinating, as usual. He develops a wonderfully deep, complex and rewarding interpretation of Juvenal and first century Rome. It all starts with an explanation of the economic, social and cultural outlook of the rentier class.

Rentier ideology

At its most basic a rentier is ‘a person living on income from property or investments’. In our day and age these are most closely associated with the large number of unloved buy-to-let landlords. In ancient Rome the class system went, from the top:

  1. the emperor, his family and circle
  2. the senatorial class and their family and clan relatives
  3. beneath them sat the eques, the equestrian or knightly class

To belong to the senatorial class required a net worth of at least a million sesterces. To belong to the equestrian order required at least 400,000 sesterces.

Beneath these or attached to them, was the class Juvenal belonged to – educated, from a reputable family with maybe roots in the regional administrative class, who had come to Rome, rejected a career in the administration or the law courts, preferred to live by their wits, often taking advantage of the extensive networks of patrons and clients. Both Martial and Juvenal appear to have chosen to live like this. They weren’t rentiers in the strict sense of living off ‘income from property or investments’; but they were rentiers in the sense of not working for a living, not having a profession or trade or position in the administration.

Thus their livelihood depended on the existing framework of society remaining the same. Their income, clothes, property etc , all derived from finding wealthy patrons from the classes above them who endorsed the old Roman value and lived up to aristocratic notions of noblesse oblige i.e. with great wealth and position comes the responsibility to look after men of merit who have fallen on bad luck or don’t share your advantages i.e. supporting scroungers like Martial and Juvenal.

What Juvenal’s satires promote, or sometimes clamour for, is the continuation of the old Roman social structures and the endurance of the good old Roman (republican) virtues.

His approach to any social problem is, basically, one of static conservatism. (Introduction, p.23)

Green sums up the characteristic beliefs of the rentier class as:

  • lofty contempt for trade and ignorance of business
  • indifference to practical skills
  • intense political conservatism, with a corresponding fear of change or revolution
  • complete ignorance of the economic realities underpinning his existence
  • a tendency, therefore, to see all social problems in over-simplified moral terms (p.26)

The rentier believes that, because they are ‘good’ and uphold the ‘old values’ and traditional religion and so on, that they deserve to be rewarded with the old privileges and perks. They cannot process the basic reality of life that just being good, won’t make you rich.

And so the enemy of this entire worldview, of all its traditional values and relationships, is change, and especially economic change.

For in the century leading up to Juvenal’s time, Rome had not only transitioned from being a republic to becoming a full-blown empire but had also undergone sweeping economic changes. The old family farm, which was already a nostalgic fantasy in the time of Virgil and Horace, had long been obliterated by vast latifundia worked by huge gangs of shackled slaves.

But far more importantly, there had arisen an ever-changing and ever-growing class of entrepreneurs, businessmen, merchants, loan sharks, import-export buffs, hustlers and innovators who swarmed through the capital city, the regions and provinces. Sustained peace (apart from the disruption of the bad year, 69) had brought undreamed of wealth. Money, affluence, luxury was no longer restricted to the emperor, his family and the better-off senatorial classes, but had helped to create large numbers of nouveaux-riches. And these people and their obsession with money, money, money seemed to have infiltrated every aspect of Roman society.

It is this which incenses Juvenal and drives him to paroxysms of bile. He wants social relations in Rome to stay the same, ideally to revert to what they were in the fabled Golden Age, before money ruined everything. It is these floods of unprincipled money and the luxury, corruption and loss of traditional values which they bring in their wake, which obsess Juvenal. It expresses itself in different ways:

Money

Money is the root of all evil. It corrupts all social relationships.

Patron and client

Applied to Juvenal’s specific social position as an educated dinner-scrounger, parasite and hanger-on, he is incensed that the Grand and Noble Tradition of patron and client, which he likes to think applied some time back in the Golden Age, has now been corrupted and brought low by a flood of unworthy parasites among the clients, and the loss of all noble and aristocratic feeling among the patrons.

One of his recurring targets is the decadent aristocrat who has betrayed the upper-class code, whose money-mad, sexually profligate behaviour – adultery, gay sex, appearing on stage or in the gladiatorial arena – undermines all the old values Juvenal believes in.

Business

Green makes the excellent point that very often writers who find themselves in this position, dependent on charity from patrons, don’t understand how money is actually made. They’ve never run a business, let alone an international import-export business, so have only the vaguest sense of what qualities of character and responsibility and decision-making are required. This explains why Juvenal’s portraits of the nouveaux riches are so spiteful but also generalised. Somehow these ghastly people have become filthy rich and he just doesn’t understand how. With no understanding of the effort involved, of the changes in the Mediterranean economy or transport and storage or markets which are involved, all Juvenal has to resort to is abuse. The most hurtful spiteful sort of abuse is to attack someone’s sex life.

Sex

The thought of other people having sex is, for many, either disgusting or hilarious. Sex has always been an easy target for satirists. Conservatives like Juvenal, concentrate all their disgust at the wider ‘collapse of traditional values’ onto revulsion at any form of sex which doesn’t conform to traditional values (the missionary position between a married heterosexual couple). Hence the astonishing vituperation levelled at the vast orgy of deviant sex which Juvenal thinks Rome has become. He singles out a) deviant sex practiced by straight people, such as fellatio and cunnilingus; b) homosexual sex and in particular the stories of men and boys getting married: the way these couples (allegedly) dress up in the traditional garb of bride and groom, use the same priests reciting the traditional wedding ceremony etc, drives him to paroxysms of fury.

As so often with angry men, Juvenal’s vituperation is especially focused on the sexual behaviour of women, and indeed Book 2 consists of just one satire, the unusually long sixth satire against women. As Green points out, the focus of Juvenal’s fury is not women in general but aristocratic women for falling so far short of the noble values they should be upholding. What drives Juvenal mad is that their sexual liaisons are with men from the lower classes such as gladiators or actors. He contrasts their irresponsible promiscuity with the behaviour of women of lower classes who actually bear children instead of having endless abortions, and would never dream of performing on the stage or in the arena. There is a great deal of misogyny in the sixth satire but Green suggests that it is driven, like all his other anger, not quite by woman-hating alone but by the failure to preserve traditional values.

Immigrants

As mentioned several times, Rome saw an ‘invasion’ of new money and entrepreneurial rich. What gets Juvenal’s goat is how many of them are foreigners, bloody foreigners, coming over here, buying up our grand old houses, buying their way into the equestrian class, even running for public office, bringing their bloody foreign religions. A virulent strain of xenophobia runs alongside all Juvenal’s other rages and hates, in particular hatred of Egyptians who he particularly loathes. A recurrent hate figure is Crispinus (‘that Delta-bred house slave’, p.66) who, despite originating as a fish-hawker from Egypt, had risen to become commander of the Praetorian Guard!

Freedmen

Alongside loathing of the newly rich and foreigners goes hatred of freedmen, jumped-up social climbers who come from slave families or who were once slaves themselves! My God! What is the city coming to when ex-slaves rise to not only swanky houses on Rome’s grandest hills, but even become advisers to emperors (as Claudius, reigned 41 to 54, had notoriously let state affairs be run by a small coterie of freedmen.) Unhampered by the dignified self-restraint and lofty morality of the old Romans, these base-born parvenus often acquired immense fortunes and thrust themselves into positions of great political power.

This, of course, is precisely the type who Petronius nails with his extended description of the grossly luxurious dinner party of the upstart arriviste Trimalchio, in his Satyricon.

It was not just economic and social power: Juvenal raged against the fact that he and his shabby-genteel friends were kept out of the seats reserved for Knights at the theatre and the games, while the same seats were filled with the sons of pimps, auctioneers and gladiators! They were everywhere, taking over everything! What could any decent person do, he argues in satire 1, except write bilious anathemas of these crooks and careerists and corrupters?

Bad literature

I find it the most predictable and least amusing thread in the satires, but it is a recurring theme that literature itself has been debauched by the collapse of these values. Somehow the old world of mythology, ancient myths and legends, all the twee genres of pastoral and idyll which accompanied them, none of these are appropriate for the current moronic inferno which faces the poet.

All this is entertainingly expressed in Satire 1 which is a justification of his approach i.e. rejecting all those knackered old mythological tropes and forms (idyll, epic, what-have-you) because these are all forms of escapism, in order to write blistering broadsides against the actual real world which he saw all around him.

In other words, wherever he looked, from the details of his own day-to-day livelihood to the counsels of the highest in the land, to the private lives of pretty much every citizen of note, Juvenal was aghast that a tide of money and corruption had tainted every aspect of Roman society, destroying the old aristocratic values, undermining traditional religion, destroying family values, turning the place into an Oriental bazaar run by foreigners who have imported their filthy decadent sexual practices.

Solutions?

Do Juvenal’s 16 satires offer a solution or alternative to this sorry state of affairs? Of course not. The satirist’s job is to flay abuses not fix them. Insofar as a solution is implied by the 16 satires, it is a return to traditional old Roman values and virtues. But as with so much satire, the pleasure comes not from hopes of solutions and improvements, but from sharing the sadistic glee of the demolition. He is a caricaturist, creating a rogues’ gallery of outrageous portraits.

Juvenal does not work out a coherent critique of institutions or individuals: he simply hangs a series of moral portraits on the wall and forces us to look at them. (p.43)

Philosophy

In a similar vein, Green points out that, at moments the poems appear briefly to espouse formulas from one or other of the three main philosophies popular in Rome at the time (Stoicism, Epicureanism and Cynicism), but never enough make you think he understands or cares for them. Generally they’re referred to in order to mock and ridicule their practitioners, as in the extended passage in Satire 3 which accepts the conventional view that most philosophers are homosexual and then exaggerates this idea for comic effect.

An unstructured torrent of bile

Juvenal’s lack of any theory of society or economics, any understanding of business, his lack of any coherent philosophical framework, all these go to explain the lack of structure which critics have always lamented in the satires.

Instead of coherent argument, Juvenal is notorious for bombarding the reader with powerful, vitriolic, scabrous images in paragraphs or couplets which often bear little relation to each other. Each satire has a broad subject but, within it, Juvenal’s ‘thought’ jumps all over the place. Juvenal:

picked a theme and then proceeded to drive it home into his reader’s mind by a vivid and often haphazard accumulation of examples. He is full of abrupt jumps…and splendidly irrelevant digressions. (p.44)

He obtains his effects by the piling up of visual images, paradoxical juxtapositions rather than step-by-step development. (p.46)

A principle of random selection at work, a train of thought which proceeds from one enticing image to another like a man leaping from tussock to tussock across a bog. (p.47)

Green points out that, in addition, although we have many manuscripts of the satires, all of them contain textual problems and issues – at some points there appear to be gaps in the logic of sentences or paragraphs, some passages or lines seem to be in the wrong place.

This has made Juvenal’s satires, over the centuries, a happy hunting ground for generations of editors, who have freely cut and pasted lines and passages from where they sit in the manuscript to other places where editors think they make more sense. Editors have even made up sentences to connect two passages which contain abrupt jumps. Green in his introduction laments that this is so, but himself does it quite freely, with interesting notes explaining each of his edits.

The point is that the problematic nature of all the manuscripts only exacerbate the issue which was always there, which is that Juvenal’s poems lack the kind of logical discursive narrative you find (up to a point) in ‘architectonic’ poets such as Horace or Ovid. Instead they generally consist of illogical but fantastically angry, vivid bombardments of bile and imagery.

The best attitude in a reader, then, is not to look for cool, considered argument, which simply isn’t there; it’s to sit back and enjoy the fireworks. The pleasure is in watching a clever, learnèd man, with advanced skills in writing verse, exploding with anger and bile.

Juvenal’s style

Green mentions ‘Juvenal’s technical virtuosity; his subtle control of rhythm and sound effects, his dense, hard, verbal brilliance.’ (p.7) According to Green few Roman poets can equal his absolute control over the pace, tone and texture of a hexameter, and no translator can hope to capture the condensed force of Juvenal’s enjambed hexameters, his skilful rhythmic variations, his dazzling displays of alliteration and assonance and onomatopoeia (p.59).

He goes on to elaborate that Juvenal’s use of Latin was ‘distilled, refined, crystallised.’ Of the 4,790 words used in the satires now fewer than 2,130 occur here once only and nowhere else. His entire lifetime’s work amounts to barely 4,000 lines. Rarely has a writer’s oeuvre had less spare fat. This helps to explain the number of Juvenal’s pithy phrases which went on to become well-known Latin tags:

  • quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (satire 6) = ‘who will guard the guards themselves?’, also translated as ‘who watches the watchers?’. The original context dealt with ensuring marital fidelity by setting watchers to guard an unfaithful wife, but the phrase is now used to refer to the problem of controlling the actions of persons in positions of power
  • panem et circenses (satire 10) = ‘bread and circuses’, meaning to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or policy but by diversion, distraction, by satisfying the basest requirements of a population
  • mens sana in corpore sano (satire 10) = ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, the phrase is now widely used in sporting and educational contexts to express that physical exercise is an important part of mental and psychological well-being

The 16 satires

Book 1

Satire 1: A justification for satire (171 lines)

He’s sick to death of rubbish poets declaiming the same exhausted stories about old mythology. He too has cranked out suasoria in the school of rhetoric. Why is he writing satire in the mode of old Lucilius? With Rome overrun by money and vulgarity, what else is there to do? Then gives a long list of types of social climber, frauds, embezzlers, men who rise by screwing rich old women, or pimp out their own wives, forgers carried round in litters, chiselling advocates, sneaky informers, the young buck who squandered his inheritance on horses, the lowly barber who used to shave Juvenal but is now as rich as any aristocrat, the distinguished old lady who’s an expert in poisoning. Everyone praises honesty, but it’s crime that pays.

Why, then, it is harder not to write satires, for who
Can endure this monstrous city and swallow his wrath?

Since the days of the flood has there ever been
Such a rich crop of vices? When has the purse
Of greed yawned wider?…Today every vice
Has reached its ruinous zenith…

Though talent be wanting, yet
Indignation will drive me to verse, such as I or any scribbler
May still command. All human endeavours, men’s prayers,
Fears, angers, pleasures, joys and pursuits, these make
The mixed mash of my verse.

An extended lament on the corruption of the relationship of patron and client, and all the thrusting crooks who now join the morning scrum outside a patron’s house for the ‘dole’, including many who are actually wealthy, but still scrounge for scraps. Describes the typical day of a client i.e. hanger-on, trudging round Rome after their patron, getting hot and sweaty and hungry. He rages against the greedy patron who feeds his cadgers scraps while he gorges on roast boar and peacock. One day he’ll have a heart attack but nobody will care.

He ends by saying Lucilius in his day felt confident of shared civil values to name the guilty men; in Juvenal’s day, naming an imperial favourite or anyone with pull could end you up as a burning torch illuminating the games. Better not name names, better restrict himself to using only the names of the dead, safer that way.

Satire 2: Against homosexuals and particularly gay marriage (170 lines)

The hypocrisy of bogus moralists, people who quote the great philosophers, who fill their halls with busts of the great thinkers, but don’t understand a word. Most philosophers are effete fairies. He prefers the eunuch priest of the Mother goddess, at least he’s open about it. Just recently Domitian was reviving laws about public morality while all the time tupping his niece; he forced her to have an abortion which killed her.

He has a courtesan address one such manicured, perfumed moralist for his hypocrisy, going on to say men are far worse than women; women wouldn’t dream of licking each other’s parts; accuses men of pleasuring their boy lovers ‘both ways’. She laments how most women, when they marry, have to take second place to a favoured boy or freedman.

He describes the scandalous advocate who prosecuted a case before the public wearing see-through chiffon, ‘a walking transparency’. It’s a slippery slope which leads to involvement in the secret rites of the Mother Goddess, for men only, who wear elaborate make-up, wear women’s clothing, use women’s oaths and ‘shrill, affected voices’. Throws in an insulting comparison to ‘that fag of an emperor, Otho’ who fussed over his armour in front of a mirror.

What about the young heir who went through a wedding ceremony with a trumpeter? Or the once-honourable priest of Mars who dresses up in ‘bridal frills’.

O Father of our city,
What brought your simple shepherd people to such a pitch
Of blasphemous perversion?

When men marry men why doesn’t great Mars intervene? What’s the point of worshipping him if he lets such things happen? Mind you, they can’t have children, so can’t preserve the family name (and, Juvenal appears to suggest, do try magic remedies so that the passive homosexual can get pregnant. Can that possibly be true, can ancient Romans have really thought a man can get pregnant?)

Juvenal goes on that what’s worse than holding a wedding ceremony to marry another man was that this blue-blooded aristocrat then took up a trident and net to fight in gladiatorial games. This really seems to be the most outrageous blasphemy of all, to Juvenal.

A digression to claim that nobody in Rome now believes in the ancient religion, Hades, Charon the ferryman and all that. But if they did wouldn’t the noble dead, fallen in so many battles to make Rome great, be scandalised to welcome such a degenerate aristocrat into their midst? Wouldn’t Hades itself need to be purified?

Yes, even among the dead Rome stands dishonoured.

Even the barbarians at Rome’s borders are not so debauched; although if we bring them as prisoners to Rome, they soon learn our decadent, effeminate ways and, when released, take our corruption back to their native lands.

Satire 3: Unbricius’ monologue on leaving Rome (322 lines)

His friend Umbricius is leaving Rome to go and live in Cumae. He’s jealous. He gives Umbricius a long speech in which he says he leaves Rome to fraudulent developers, astrologers, will-fixers, magicians, the go-betweens of adulterous lovers, corrupt governors, conspirators. Above all he hates Greeks, actually Syrians with their awful language, flutes and tambourines and whores. Sly slick dexterous Greeks from the islands can turn their hand to anything. These are the people who now wear the purple, precede him at dinner parties, officiate at manumissions. They can blag anyone, which explains why they’re such great actors, especially in women’s roles. Mind you, no woman is safe from a Greek man in the house, ‘he’ll cheerfully lay his best friend’s grandmother.’

This morphs into the misery of the client or hanger-on to dismissive rich men. He describes being kicked out of a prime seat at the theatre to make way for a pimp’s son, an auctioneer’s offspring or the son of a gladiator because they have more money. A plain white cloak is fine for the provinces, but here in Rome we must beggar ourselves to keep up with the latest decadent fashions.

And the misery of living in apartment blocks which are falling down or liable to fire at any moment. (Umbricius implies he lives on the third floor, as Martial does in one of his epigrams.) If your block goes up you lose everything, compared to the rich man; if his house burns down he is flooded with presents and financial aid to rebuild it from clients and flatterers and connections.

No, Umbricius advises to buy the freehold on a nice place in the country rather than a rented hovel in Rome. The worst of it is the noise at night from all the wagons wending through the winding alleyways. Insomnia’s causes more deaths among Roman invalids than any other cause. He gives a vivid description of the muddy, jostling misery of trying to get through Rome’s packed streets without being involved in some gruesome accident.

Walking at night is even worse, with the risk of being brained by a falling roof tile or drenched in slops chucked out the window by a housewife. And then the possibility of being beaten up by some bored, drunk bully. Or the burglars. Or some ‘street apache’ who’ll end your life with a knife.

So farewell Rome, he begs the author won’t forget him and, when he goes back to his home town for a break, will invite him round to celebrate a country festival.

Satire 4: A mock epic of the turbot (154 lines)

Starts off by ridiculing Crispinus for buying a red mullet for the ludicrous price of 60 gold pieces. Then morphs into a mock epic celebrating a fisherman in the Adriatic who catches an enormous giant turbot and carries it all the way to Rome to present to the emperor. This 100 lines of mock epic poetry contains a mock invocation to the Muses, extended epic similes etc. Then – and this appears to be the real point of the poem – it turns into a list of the emperor Domitian’s privy councillors, each one a crook or sadist or nark or creep.

Satire 5: Trebius the dinner-cadger (173 lines)

Is dinner worth every insult which you pay for it?

In the miserable figure of Trebius Juvenal lists the humiliations the ‘client’ must undergo in order to wain a grudging, poor quality ‘dinner’ from his patron (here called Virro), at which he will be offered the worst wine, rocky bread and humiliated by sneering slaves, served half an egg with boiled cabbage while the patron eats a huge crayfish with asparagus garnish.

Now if you had money, if you got yourself promoted to the Equestrian Order, then at a stroke you’d become Virro’s best friend and be lavished with the finest food. As it is, he serves you the worst of everything out of spite, to amuse himself. He wants to reduce you to tears of anger and frustration.

Don’t fool yourself that you are his ‘friend’. There is none of the honour of the old Republican relationship of patron and client. He simply wants to reduce his clients to the level of a buffoon, the stupidus of Roman pantomime who has his head shaved and is always being kicked or slapped by his smarter colleagues. He wants to make you an abject punchbag.

Book 2

Satire 6: Don’t marry (661 lines)

Postumus, are you really taking a wife?
You used to be sane…

Wouldn’t it be quicker to commit suicide by jumping out of a high building or off a bridge? Surely boys are better: at least they don’t nag you during sex or demand endless gifts or criticise your lack of passion.

Juvenal gives a funny account of the Golden Age, when humans lived in cave and women were hairier than their menfolk, their big breasts giving suck to tough babies. But long ago Chastity withdrew to heaven and now infidelity and adultery are well-established traditions.

Fidelity in a woman! It’s be easier to persuade her to have an eye out than keep faithful to one man! Posh women are mad for actors and entertainers. If he marries his wife will make some flute player or guitarist or gladiator father to his children.

He profiles Eppia the senator’s wife who ran off to Egypt with a gladiator, abandoning her children and her country. Then a searing portrait of Messalina, the nymphomaniac wife of Claudius, who snuck off to a brothel where, wearing a blonde wig and gilded nipples, she let herself be fucked by all-comers, all night long. A profile of Bibula who has her husband in thrall and goes on monster shopping sprees which morphs into a dig at Queen Berenice who lived for many years in an incestuous union with her brother, Agrippa of Judaea.

What point a beautiful wife if she is proud and haughty. Juvenal cites Niobe who was so vain she called down disaster on herself and her 12 children.

Modern girls doll themselves up like the bloody Greeks and express themselves with Greek language which (apparently) reeks of the bedroom.

Our provincial dollies ape Athenian fashion, it’s smart
To chatter away in Greek – though what should make them blush
Is their slipshod Latin. All their emotions – fear,
Anger, happiness, anxiety, every inmost
Secret thought – find expression in Greek, they even
Make love Greek-style.

It may be alright for schoolgirls to act this way, but Roman women in their eighties!

A flurry of sexist stereotypes: Women want money money money. They’ll take control of household spending, veto your business plans, control your friendships. She’ll force you to include her lover’s in your will.

Yet another shocking insight into Roman’s and their slaves when it’s played for laughs that a husband will order ‘crucify that slave’ and Juvenal paints it as typically feminine of a wife to want to know why, what the slave has done, before they’re hustled off to be crucified.

And the mother-in-law! She’ll egg her daughter on to every sin, adultery, spending all your money. Women are behind virtually all law suits, and insist on defending or prosecuting. And what about women athletes! And women fencers! And women who want to fight in the ring, ‘helmeted hoydens’, gladiatresses!

But bed is the place where wives are at their worst, endlessly bitching, about your boyfriends or imaginary mistresses, all the time hiding letters from her lover or making plans to visit her mother as an excuse to meet her lover. Bursting into tears if you accuse her, but quick to insist it was always an open marriage if you find her out.

What triggered all this corruption? In the good old days of relative poverty wives were too busy working, cooking, cleaning, darning to play the whore. All this wickedness is the result of a ‘too-long peace’. The world Rome conquered takes its revenge by afflicting Rome with Luxury, from which all vices spring, money – filthy lucre – leading to ‘shameless self-indulgence’.

He accuses religious festivals: the Floralia which celebrates fertility with phallus images and prostitutes; the worship of Venus; the mysteries of the Great Goddess whose frenzied worship makes women wet between the thighs, get drunk, bump and grind – then they call in the slaves to fuck them and if there aren’t any slaves, a donkey will do. The shrine of Isis might as well be called the brothel of Isis.

Gladiator trainers keep the gay ones segregated from the straight, but in a rich woman’s house queers are encouraged, man with kohl-ringed eyes, see-though clothes and hairnets. Mind you, half of them turn out to be straight after all, and well able to give your wife a good stuffing.

Juvenal accuses a specific fag of being a straight man in disguise. His friends tell him it’s best to lock up a wife and bar the doors. And here comes one of Juvenile’s most famous quotes. Yes, by all means lock up your wife and put a guard on the doors but will keep guard on the guards? ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ They, also, will be bribed by your whore wife to turn the other eye when her lover calls. Or will screw her themselves.

He profiles a generic aristocratic woman, Ogulna, who’s mad about the games and attends with a big expensive entourage, example of women who spend everything you have then get you into debt.

Then the wives who love eunuchs, if they’ve been neutered the right way they still can get erections and no worries about abortions! Especially the big bull black ones!

Women will lavish your money on music, musicians and musical instruments. The temples are packed with woman asking the gods to favour this or that performer or actor or gladiator or whatnot.

But they’re not as bad as the flat-chested busybody, who runs round town, buttonholing men, interrupting their conversations, an expert on every subject under the sun. overflowing with gossip about politics or military campaigns. Then goes off to the baths after dark, works out with weights, has a massage from an expert who oils her and makes her climax. Making her guests wait till she arrives late and proceeds to drink gallons on an empty stomach then spew it up all over the dining room tiles.

Worse is the bluestocking who holds forth about literature at dinner, comparing Virgil and Homer. God how he hates a female pedant and grammarian, always correcting your speech, ‘a husband should be allowed his solecisms in peace’.

Juvenal gives a description of the elaborate process of an upper class woman putting her make-up on, looking ridiculous in face-pack and thick creams at home, reserving her ugliness for her husband. The kind of woman who has her wool-maid or cosmetician or litter bearers flogged till they bleed while she fusses about her eye make-up or the hem of a gown.

God, the number of helpers and assistants required just to do her hair till it stands up like a ridiculous pomade.

Then a passage ridiculing the absurd requirements of foreign religious cults and superstitions, Bellona, Cybele, requiring total immersion in the Tiber, crawling across the field of Mars on your hands and knees, going a pilgrimage to Egypt. Or admires the shaven-headed devotees of the dog god Anubis who run through the streets wailing for dead Osiris. Or a palsied Jewess arrives ready to interpret the secret laws of Jerusalem.

Then the fortune tellers, Armenians and Syrians, or the Chaldean astrologers, all knowing they’ll get a credulous hearing from the rich woman of the house, the kind of woman who won’t make any decision, who won’t accompany or agree with her husband unless her astrologer says it’s written in the starts, or the augur tells her it’s written in the entrails of some chicken or pigeon or puppy.

Poor women go to the races to consult palmists or phrenologists, but at least they actually bear children, keep their pregnancies to full term. Not like rich women with their drugs to be made sterile or prompt abortions. Well, it could be worse, you could find yourself ‘father’ to a black child, obviously not yours, obviously fathered by a slave or gladiator.

If you start forgetting things, chances are you’re being poisoned by your wife. After all, emperors’ wives have poisoned their husbands and so set an example to us all! Beware step-mothers, scheming to kill the biological son and promote their boy. He cites the example of Pontia, daughter of Petronius, who is said to have poisoned her own two sons.

He doesn’t mind the old myths about women who murdered in a white hot frenzy; what he loathes is modern matrons who cold-bloodedly scheme to do away with husbands or stepsons and care about their lives less than they do about their lapdogs.

Book 3

Satire 7: The misery of a writer’s, but especially a teacher’s, life (243 lines)

Modern poets in Juvenal’s day would make a better living opening a bakery or becoming an auctioneer. The emperor (probably Hadrian who came to power in 118) has let it be known he’s looking for poets to patronise, but the run-of-the-mill writer looking for a decent patron, forget it! The modern patron begrudges funding even a small recital in an out of town hall. After all, he’s probably a poet himself and ranks his work higher than yours!

It’s a very contrast between the lofty diction the modern poet aspires to and the sordid reality of his own life, forced to pawn his coat and dishes for his next meal. Horace on the old days, and Lucan more recently, could write magnificent verse because they weren’t hungry.

He gives an interesting sketch of the poet Publius Papinius Statius and how popular his public recitals were of his great epic, the Thebaid, reeled off in his mellifluous voice. But even has to make a living by flogging libretti to the head of the ballet company. Because:

Today the age
Of the private patron is over; Maecenas and co.
Have no successors.

Does the historian make any more, slaving away in his library, covering thousands of pages? No.

What about lawyers, huffing and puffing and promoting their skills? Look closely and you’ll see a hundred lawyers make less than one successful jockey. He profiles an aristocratic advocate, Tongilus, ‘such a bore at the baths’, who is carried about in a litter by 8 stout Thracian slaves. For what’s valued in a court of law is a dirty great ring, flash clothes and a bevy of retainers. Eloquence is dead. Juries associate justice with a flashy appearance. Cicero wouldn’t stand a chance.

What about teachers of rhetoric, wasting their lives getting boys to rehash tired old topics in stale old catchphrases. Better to drop logic and rhetoric and become a singer, they get paid a fortune.

Juvenal profiles a typical nouveau riche building private baths and a cloister to ride his pampered horses round and a banqueting hall with the best marble and ready to cough up for a first class chef and a butler. But a teacher of rhetoric for his son? Here’s a tenner, take it or leave it.

Really it’s down to luck or Fortune as the ancients called her, ‘the miraculous occult forces of Fate’. Luck makes a first class speaker or javelin thrower, if Fortune favours you can rise from teacher to consul.

In the olden days teachers were respected, even Achilles still feared the rod of his tutor Chiron as he turned man; but nowadays pupils are likely to beat up their teachers who go in fear. God, why be a teacher stuck in some hell-hole cellar before dawn, working by the light of filthy oil lamps, trying to knock sense into pupils who answer back, and all for a pittance, from which you have to give a cut to the boy’s attendant to make sure he even attends lessons?

And if the pupils are awful, what about the parents? Expecting each teacher to be a 100% expert in all knowledge, buttonholing him on the way to the baths and firing off all kinds of impossible questions. All for a pittance which, nine times out of ten, you’ll have to go to court for just to get paid.

Satire 8: Family trees and ‘nobility’ are worth nothing next to personal virtue (275 lines)

What good are family trees?

What good is tracing your family back through venerable ancestors if your own life is a public disgrace?

You may line your whole hall with waxen busts, but virtue,
And virtue alone, remains the one true nobility.

And:

Prove that your life
Is stainless, that you always abide by what is just
In word and deed – and then I’ll acknowledge your noble status.

Unlike the other satires which are often strings of abuse and comic caricatures, this one has a thread of argument and logic and is addressed to a named individual, Ponticus who is depicted as preening himself on his ‘fine breeding’..

Juvenal claims nobility is as nobility does. A racehorse may come from the noblest ancestry imaginable but if it doesn’t win races it’s pensioned off to work a mill-wheel. Just so, claiming respect for having been born to a particular family is ludicrous. Instead, show us one good deed in order to merit our respect.

Lots of the most useful work in the empire, from soldiers on the frontier to the really effective lawyers in the city, are done by ‘commoners’. He is surprisingly programmatic and non-ironic in listing the virtues:

  • be a good soldier
  • be a faithful guardian
  • be an honest witness in law cases
  • be a good governor:
    • set a limit on your greed and pity the destitute locals
    • have staff that are upright and honest (not some corrupt long-haired catamite)
    • have a wife above suspicion not a rapacious harpy
  • observe the law
  • respect the senate’s decrees

This leads into a lament for the way Rome used to govern its colonies wisely, but then came ‘the conquistadors’, the looters, Anthony and his generation, and its been rapacity, greed and illegal confiscations ever since.

Then Juvenal goes on to flay aristocratic wasters, dissipating their fortunes with love of horseracing and gambling, to be found among the lowest possible company down at the docks; or reduced to acting on the stage (clearly one of the most degraded types of behaviour Juvenal can imagine). Or – absolute lowest of the low – appear in the gladiator fights and he names a member of the noble Gracchii clan who shamefully appeared as a retiarius.

This leads to a profile of the most scandalously debased of leaders, Nero, with his insistence on performing as a musician and singer onstage, not only in Rome but at festivals across Greece. Super-noble ancestry (membership of the gens Sergii) didn’t stop Lucius Sergius Catilina planning to burn Rome to the ground and overthrow the state. It was an upstart provincial, Cicero, who saved Rome. Or Marius, man of the people, who saved Rome from invasion by Germanic tribes in 102 and 101 BC.

Achievement is what counts, not family. Juvenal ends with a surprising general point, which is that the very first settlement of Rome was carried out by Romulus who then invited men to join him, men who, according to the Roman historian Livy, were either shepherds, or escaped convicts and criminals. Ultimately, no matter how much they swank, all the ‘great and noble’ Roman families are derived from this very ignoble stock.

Satire 9: Dialogue with Naevolus the unemployed gay gigolo (150 lines)

According to green some scholars think this was an early work, added in to bulk out the book. This is one explanation of why it is, unlike any of the other poems, in dialogue form. A character named Juvenal swaps dialogue with a character named Naevolus.

Juvenal starts by asking why Naevolus, previously a smart man-about-town, a pick-up artists who shagged women by the score (and their husbands too, sometimes) is now so long-in-the-mouth, pale, thin and unkempt.

Naevolus explains that his time as a gigolo has ground to an end and brought him few returns, specially since he was working for a very tight-fisted gay patron, Virro (presumably the same dinner party host who enjoyed humiliating his hangers-on in satire 5). Virro seems to have got bored of him and dumped him.

There is an extremely graphic moment when Naevolus describes how difficult it was having to stuff his hard cock up Virro’s anus, till he was ‘stopped by last night’s supper.’ Yuk.

The dialogue becomes a dialogue-within-a-dialogue as Naevolus imagines a reproachful conversation with Virro. Why does he, Naevolus, have to send his rich patron gifts on his birthday? What’s Virro going to do with his huge estates when he dies, will Naevolus get even a little cottage?

As it is Naevolus doesn’t have enough to clothe and feed his one lousy slave. Naevolus reproaches Virro that he not only had to service the fat man but his wife too!

I sired you a son and a daughter: doesn’t that mean
Anything to you at all, you ungrateful bastard?

(In the Roman context this means Naevolus has only provided Virro with heirs, but with the legal advantages of being a father.) So Juvenal interrupts to ask what Virro says in his own defence. Nothing, apparently, he’s too busy looking for Naevolus’s replacement, a mere ‘two-legged donkey’. Suddenly Naevolus gets nervous. He begs Juvenal not to whisper a word of all this, or Virro will have him bumped off, knifed or poisoned, or his house burned down.

Juvenal mocks the idea that a master can keep any secret from his slaves who will, in turn, blab to everyone they meet. There’s no such thing as secrecy in a slave society.

So Naevolus asks what Juvenal advises him to do. Juvenal replies a) there’ll always be more customers for him, b) ‘chew colewort; it’s a fine aphrodisiac.’

the poem ends with Naevolus saying he doesn’t want much, but then – surprisingly – including in his list of modest requirements a pair of brawny Bulgarian porters to carry him in a chair, a silver engraver and a portraitist, all of which seem wildly extravagant and commentators have worried about for the past 1,900 years.

Book 4

Satire 10: The vanity of human wishes (366 lines)

This is the comprehensive overview of the futility of human ambition which formed the basis for the 18th century English author, Samuel Johnson’s great poem, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated‘.

Mankind is gripped by a self-destructive urge. What man was ever guided by Reason? Any man with belongings is the toy of Fate. He invokes Democritus the laughing philosopher and Heraclitus the weeping philosopher and goes on to mockingly describe the progress of a modern consul through the streets preceded by his lictors. Democritus thought the worries of the people as absurd as their joys, the gods listen to neither. So what should we ask the gods for?

He gives Sejanus as an example, not only of Fortune turning her wheel to bring the second highest figure in the land down into the gutter, but at the fickleness of the change, since there was no legal process involved, it all resulted from one single letter from Tiberius in Capri to the Senate. And the mob? They don’t care for proof or law, they just cheer the victors and jeer the losers. They all rushed to kick Sejanus’s corpse or pull down his statues, but if Tiberius had dropped dead of a heart attack, the same mob would have been cheering Sejanus to the rafters as the new emperor. Fickle.

In the olden days, when their votes were vital for the election of consuls, praetors, governors and so on, the public took an interest in public affairs. But in 14 AD Tiberius transferred the election of magistrates from the popular assemblies to the senate, with the far-reaching consequences that Juvenal describes. After nearly a century of non-involvement, now the catchphrase is ‘who cares?’ Now there’s only two things that interest the people: bread and the games. (Another famous tag, panem et circenses in the Latin.)

No, he’d rather be the small-time governor of some sleepy backwater, with no glory but no risk, than rise to the giddy heights of a Sejanus only to be be dragged to his death. Same goes for the first triumvirate, Pompey and Crassus and Julius Caesar – lust for ultimate power took them to giddy heights and then…catastrophic fall, miserable murder.

Setting off on a tangent, Juvenal claims what everyone seeks is eloquence, the gift of swaying crowds, but look what happened to the two greatest orators of all time, Cicero was beheaded at the insistence of his arch enemy Anthony, and the great Demosthenes was forced to commit suicide.

How many national leaders thirst for glory, for the spoils of victory, for triumphs and a triumphal arch.

The thirst for glory by far outstrips the pursuit of virtue.

Vladimir Putin thinks murdering thousands of men, women and children is a price well worth paying for restoring Ukraine to the Russian motherland. Killing pregnant women is worth it to get a place in the history books. ‘The thirst for glory by far outstrips the pursuit of virtue.’

Yet countries have come to ruin
Not once but many times, through the vainglory of a few
Who lusted for power, who wanted a title that would cling
To the stones set over their ashes…

Or take Hannibal, one-time conqueror of the Mediterranean, vaingloriously vowing to capture Rome but, in the end, routed from Italy, then defeated in Africa and forced into exile to become the humiliated hanger-on of ‘a petty Eastern despot’ eventually, when his extradition was demanded by Rome, committing suicide by poison.

Same with Alexander the Great, at one point commanding the entire known world, next moment filling a coffin in Babylon. Or Xerxes whose exorbitant feats of engineering (a bridge across the Hellespont, a canal through the peninsula of Mount Athos) all led up to complete military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC and Xerxes’ miserable return to Persia.

Juvenal makes one of his jump cuts to a completely different theme, the triumph of old age over all of us. Men start out full of hope and individuality and all end up looking the same, senile sexless old dodderers. All your senses weaken, you can no longer appreciate music, you fall prey to all kinds of illnesses.

And senility. Old men forget the names of their servants, their hosts at dinner, eventually their own families, and end up disinheriting their children and leaving everything to a whore whose expert mouth has supplied senile orgasms.

But if you live to a ripe old age, as so many people wish, chances are you’ll witness the deaths of everyone you loved, your wife, your siblings, maybe your own children. ‘Perpetual grief’ is the reward of old age. Examples from legend: Nestor outliving everyone he loved; Peleus mourning his son; if only Priam had died in his prime he wouldn’t have seen all his sons killed and his city destroyed. And Mithridates, and Croesus.

Then he turns to specific Roman examples: if only Marius had died after his triumph for defeating the Teutons instead of going on to humiliation and then tyranny; if only Pompey had died at the peak of his powers instead of being miserably murdered in Egypt.

Then the theme of beauty. Mothers wish their daughters to be beautiful and their sons handsome but beauty brings great risks and he cites Lucretia raped and Virginia murdered by her own father to keep her ‘honour’. Then handsome young men generally go to the bad, become promiscuous, sleep around, and then risk falling foul of jealous husbands. Even if he stays pure and virginal, chances are he’ll fall foul of some middle-aged woman’s lust, just look at Hippolytus and Phaedra.

Or take the case of Gaius Silius, consul designate, who Claudius’s third wife, Messalina was so obsessed with she insisted they have a public wedding, even though she was already married to Claudius, precursor to a coup. With the inevitable result that when Claudius found out he sent the Praetorian Guard to execute both Silius and Messalina. (The story is told in Tacitus’s Annals 11.12 and 26.)

Juvenal concludes the poem by answering the question he asked at the start of it, what should we pray to the gods for? Answer: nothing. Leave it to them to guide our destinies without our intervention. The gods give us what we need, not what we want. Humans are led by irrational impulses and blind desires so it follows that most of our prayers are as irrational as our desires. But if you must insist on making silly sacrifices and praying for something, let your requirements be basic and practical. Ask for:

a sound mind in a sound body, a valiant heart
Without fear of death, that reckons longevity
The least among Nature’s gifts, that’s strong to endure
All kinds of toil, that’s untainted by lust and anger…
…There’s one
Path and one path only to a life of peace – through virtue.
Fortune has no divinity, could we but see it; it’s we,
We ourselves, who make her a goddess, and set her in the heavens.

So that’s the context of another of Juvenal’s most famous quotes or tags, mens sana in corpore sano – it comes at the end of an enormous long list of the futilities of seeking long life or wealth or power or glory. It is the first and central part of Juvenal’s stripped-down, bare minimum rules for living.

Satire 11: Invitation to dinner at Juvenal’s modest place in the country (208 lines)

This starts out as a diatribe against spendthrifts, against the young heirs who take out big loans and blow it all on luxurious foods. If you’re going to host a dinner, make sure you can afford it.

This leads into an actual dinner party invitation Juvenal is giving to his friend Persicus. He lists the menu and assures him it’s all ‘home-grown produce’: a plump tender kid ‘from my farmstead at Tivoli’; mountain asparagus; eggs still warm from the nest; chicken; grapes, baskets of Syrian pears and Italian bergamots, and apples.

[This mention of the farmstead is what makes Green and other commentators deduce that Juvenal had, by this point, ceased to be the impoverished and consequently very angry satirist of the earlier works, has somehow acquired a ‘competence’ and so his tone is more mellow.]

Juvenal says even this relatively modest menu would have appeared luxury in the good old republican days, and lists various high-minded old Roman heroes (Fabius, Cato, Scaurus, Fabricius) and the tough old Roman legionaries they led, uncorrupted by luxury and money, who ate their porridge off earthenware bowls. Those were the days.

The gods were closer back then, their images made of humble baked clay, not gold, and so they warned us e.g. of the approaching Gauls.

How changed is contemporary Rome whose aristocrats demand obscene levels of luxury in food and ornamentation. Nothing like that for Persicus when he comes round, there won’t be a pupil of Trypherus’s famous school of cuisine where students are taught the correct way to carve antelope, gazelle and flamingo!

His slaves, likewise, are honest lads dressed practically for warmth, a shepherd’s son and a ploughman’s son, not smooth imported Asiatics who can’t speak Latin and prance around in the baths flaunting their ‘oversized members’.

[Green notes that the Roman historian Livy dates the introduction of foreign luxuries to the defeat of the Asiatic Gauls in 187 BC. Whereas Sallust thought the introduction of corrupt luxury dated from Sulla’s campaign in Asia Minor in the 80s BC. Whatever the precise date, the point is the author always thinks things started to go to hell a few generations before their own time.]

And don’t expect any fancy entertainment like the Spanish dancers who wiggle their bums to arouse the flagging passions of middle-aged couples, no such obscene entertainment in his modest home, no, instead he’ll have a recitation of Homer or Virgil.

Like Horace, Juvenal tells his guest to relax. Discussion of business is banned. He won’t be allowed to confide his suspicions of his wife who stays out till all hours, or the ingratitude of friends. ‘Just forget all your troubles the minute you cross my threshold.’

Let all Rome (the Colosseum seated 300,000 spectators) go to the Megalesian Games (4 to 10 April) and cheer the Blues and the greens (chariot racing teams) and sweat all day in an uncomfortable toga. Juvenal prefers to let his ‘wrinkled old skin’ soak up the mild spring sunshine at his nice place in the country.

Satire 12: A storm at sea (130 lines)

The first 20 or so lines describe to a friend a series of sacrifices Juvenal is going to make, and the even bigger ones he wishes he had the money to make. Why? To celebrate the safe arrival in harbour of a dear friend of his, Catullus (not the famous poet, who died 170 years earlier, in 54 BC).

Juvenal gives a vivid description of a storm at sea, ending with the sailors seeing ‘that lofty peak so dear to Ascanius’ in diction which evokes Virgil’s Aeneid with no irony or mocking. And he’s just as sincere when he returns to describing how he’ll burnish his household gods, make oblations to Jupiter, burn incense and so on.

Up to this point this combination of devout piety and picturesque description are very much not the viciously angry Juvenal of the Roman streets that we are used to. But in the final 30 or so lines Mr Angry reappears a bit, to make the distinction between his genuine, devout sacrifices and those of legacy hunters and it turns into a stock diatribe against this class of parasites who seek out the wealthy but childless and do anything, including making extravagant sacrifices for them when they’re ill, in the hope of being included in their wills. May all their tricks and scams work but ‘May they love no man and be loved by none.’

[Incidentally, this last section has a passage about elephants, saying the legacy-hunters would sacrifice elephants if they could but none live naturally in Italy except for those of the emperor’s personal herd, near modern Anzio. Elephants are mentioned in quite a few Juvenal poems. At some level they fascinated him, maybe because they’re the biggest animal and so attracted a poet interested in extremity and exaggeration.]

Book 5

Satire 13: The futility of revenge, the pangs of a guilty conscience (249 lines)

On putting up with life’s vicissitudes. Juvenal reproaches someone called Calvinus for making a big fuss and going to court about a loan not being repaid. Doesn’t he realise the age he’s living in? Honour long since departed. It’s not like it was back in the good old days, in the Golden Age when there were only a handful of gods who dined modestly, back in those days youth respected the elderly, everyone was upstanding and dishonesty was vanishingly rare. The decent god-fearing man is a freak like the sky raining stones or a river issuing in milk.

While guilty people, whether they believe in the gods or not, tell themselves they’ll be OK, the gods won’t get round to punishing them yet and so on. In fact many make a histrionic appeal to the gods to vouchsafe their honesty, banking on ‘brazen audacity’.

Juvenal mentions the three philosophies current in his day, Cynicism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, only to dismiss them all. Instead he mocks Calvinus for making such a fuss about such a common, everyday bit of dishonesty and goes into a list of far worse crimes starting with the temple robbers who steal devoted statues or plate and melt them down or sell them off. Think of arsonists or poisoners or parricides. If you want to find the truth about human nature you should visit a courtroom.

Many unusual things are taken for granted in the appropriate context, for example big breasted women in Upper Egypt or blonde, blue-eyed men in Germany, or pygmies in Africa. Well, so does this kind of embezzlement or fraud feel completely at home in its natural setting, Rome. What’s the point of pursuing his legal vendetta. Rise above it.

Benign
Philosophy, by degrees, peels away our follies and most
Of our vices, gives us a grounding in what’s right or wrong.

[This is surprisingly reflective and thoughtful of Juvenal, supporting the thesis that the poems are in chronological order and the later ones reflect middle-age and having come into some property and generally stopped being so vitriolically angry at the world.]

He goes on to say that paying off scores is for the small-minded. Anyway, people who break laws and commit crimes are often punished most of all in their own minds, by their own guilt. ‘The mind is its best own torturer.’ He gives examples of people who suffered the pangs of conscience but what’s striking is:

  1. how didactic he’s become; instead of depicting bad behaviour with satirical glee, now he’s lecturing the reader on good behaviour
  2. how much he sounds at moments like a Christian, preaching about the power of conscience; when he says that he who meditates a crime is as guilty as he who commits one, he sounds like Christ (‘I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Matthew 5. verses 27 to 28)

The guilty man is wracked with conscience, can’t eat or drink or sleep. In fact it turns into a vivid proto-Christian depiction of the miseries of Guilt, interpreting the weather as signs from God, the slightest setback as punishment, the slightest physical ailment as payback.

Satire 14: The disastrous impact of bad parenting (331 lines)

Again this satire has a direct addressee, Fuscinus. Juvenal takes the theme that parents hugely influence their children, generally for the worse. ‘Bad examples are catching.’ By the time he’s seven a boy’s character is fixed for life. He gives examples of terrible parents starting with ‘Rutilus’ who is a sadistic brute to his slaves.

[As with so much Roman literature, the examples of brutality to slaves tend to eclipse all the subtler argumentation: here, Rutilus is described as ordering a slave to be branded with a red-hot iron for stealing a couple of towels.]

Or the girl who’s brought up into a life of adultery and sexual intrigues by her mother. We are all corrupted by examples of vice in the home. This is a spur to good behaviour – that our bad behaviour is quickly copied by our children.

All this turns into a surprisingly preachy lists of dos and don’ts and turns into almost a harangue of bad parents, telling them to set better examples.

For some reason this leads into a short passage about the Jews who Juvenal sees as handing on ridiculously restrictive practices, circumcision and avoiding certain foods, along with taking every seventh day off for idleness, to their children. So Judaism is taken as an example of parents handing down bad practices to their children in an endless succession.

Then a passage attacking misers, characterising them especially by their recycling scraps of leftover food at revolting meals. And insatiable greed for more land, the kind of men who won’t rest till they’ve bought up an estate as the entire area cultivated by the first Romans. Compare and contrast with pensioned off Roman legionaries who are lucky to receive 2 acres of land to support themselves and their families.

then he invokes the old mountain peasants and the wisdom of living simply and plainly on what a small parcel of land provides. [This strikes me as straight down the line, entry level, the good old days of the Golden Age clichés, such as centuries of Roman writers had been peddling.]

The logical corollary of praising the simple lives and virtues of his farming forefathers, is dislike and contempt for the vices of luxury which are attributed to foreigners, especially from the exotic East.

[I always thought Edward Said, in his lengthy diatribe against ‘Orientalism’, should have started not in the 18th century, but 2,000 years earlier, with the ancient Greeks writing pejoratively about oriental despotism (with Persia in mind), a discursive tradition which was handed on to the Romans who also associated decadence and luxury with the East (Cleopatra of Egypt, Mithridates of Pontus and so on), centuries of stereotyping and anathematising the East and the Oriental to which Juvenal adds his own contribution and which was merely revived, like so much other ancient learning, in the Europe of early modernity – xenophobic clichés and stereotypes which were dusted off and reapplied to the Ottoman Empire.]

Juvenal then gives an interesting portrait of the ambitious father of a modern youth, recommending all the ways he can get on and rise in the world, studying to become a lawyer, or aiming for a career in the army, or becoming a merchant. Juvenal reprimands this made-up figure, telling him to lay off inculcating greed and deceit quite so early; his kids will learn it all by themselves in good time. ‘But’, claims the made-up father, ‘I never taught my son his criminal ways!’ Yes, replies Juvenal, but you taught him the principles of greed at an early age, and all the rest follows. You set the spark, now watch the forest fire rage out of control.

And you’ll have created a peril for your own life. For such a greedy offspring will grow impatient to see his parent snuff it so he can inherit his patrimony.

In the final passage he compares the life of a merchant with that of a tightrope walker at the circus and says watching greedy merchants trying to juggle their many deals is far more entertaining. He mocks harbours packed with huge merchant ships, prepared to go to the ends of the earth and beyond to make a profit.

Juvenal goes so far as to say these far-trading merchants are mad, as mad as mad Ajax at Troy, mad to risk his life and fortune and for what? Little silver coins printed with someone else’s head. One minute he’s at the prow of his mighty ship, laden with precious cargo; next moment it’s sunk in a storm and he’s clinging to the wreckage. Only a madman would commit his life and wealth to capricious Fortune and then…he’s a beggar in the streets, waving an artist’s impression of the storm which ruined him at passersby. Right at the end he cites Diogenes the Cynic, who abandoned all earthly possessions in order to have a calm mind. Compared to the merchant who risks losing everything and even drowning at sea:

The tub of the naked Cynic
Diogenes never caught fire: if it broke, he could pick up another
The following day – or put some lead clamps in an old one.
Alexander perceived, on seeing the tub and its famous
Occupant, how much happier was the man who desired nothing
Than he whose ambitions encompassed the world, who would yet
Suffer perils as great as all his present achievements.

And he concludes with another straight, unironic recommendation of the bare minimum required by philosophers and the old Roman tradition, in phrasing very similar to the barebones advice at the end of satire 10.

If anyone asks me
Where we’re to draw the line, how much is sufficient, I’d say:
Enough to meet the requirements of cold and thirst and hunger
As much as Epicurus derived from that little garden,
Or Socrates, earlier still, possessed in his frugal home.

Satire 15: In praise of kindness (174 lines)

Addressed to Volusius of whom we know nothing. The poem opens by reviewing the fantastical beliefs of the Egyptians in their animal gods, then takes a comic view of Odysseus’s telling of his adventures at the court of King Alcinous whose guests, if they had any sense, would dismiss such a pack of lies.

The point of this introduction is to contrast fantastical myths and legends with what Juvenal now intends to tell us about which is a real-life atrocity which happened in the recent past. In fact, Peter Green in a note tells us it took place in 127AD. Juvenal goes on to describe the rancorous feud which broke out between the neighbouring towns of Ombi and Tentyra (real neighbouring towns in ancient Egypt).

the fighting becomes savage, involving thousands. One of the leading Ombites stumbled, fell and was immediately seized by the Tentyrans who tore him to pieces and ate every morsel. This gives rise to a digression about cannibalism practiced by the Spanish in the besieged town of Calagurris who were reduced by starvation to eating human flesh. Then onto the Tauri in Crimea who worshipped Artemis by making human sacrifices of travellers who fell into their hands.

But the Tauri don’t actually eat the victims they kill and the Spaniards had the excuse of starvation. nothing excused the horror of contemporary men tearing each other to pieces and eating each other’s raw bodies. It triggers an outburst of virulent xenophobia.

And then, to our complete surprise, Juvenal turns mushy. Describing these horrors turn out to have been preparation for a hymn to tenderness and kindness.

When nature
Gave teas to mankind, she proclaimed that tenderness was endemic
In the human heart: of all our impulses, this
Is the highest and best.

We weep at funerals of children, or to see adolescents in court cases. ‘What good man…thinks any human ills outside his concern?’

It’s this
That sets us apart from the dumb brutes, it’s why we alone
Have a soul that’s worthy of reverence, why we’re imbued
With a divine potential, the skill to acquire and practice
All manner of arts…

Who are you, O wise Stoic teacher, and what have you done with the angry, fire-breathing Juvenal?

When the world was still new, our common Creator granted
The breath of life alone, but on us he further bestowed
Sovereign reason, the impulse to aid one another…

Juvenal identifies this God-given sovereign reason with everything noble and altruistic in man, proof of his difference from the animals and that he has a soul. This makes him a Stoic, doesn’t it?

Then, right at the end, the poem returns to the disgusting story of the Egyptian torn apart and eaten raw, and laments that man, blessed with all these gifts, creates swords and spears, man alone of the animals, goes out of his way to kill and massacre his own kind.

Satire 16: The military life (60 lines; incomplete)

The final satire in the series is incomplete. It is addressed to one Gallius, about whom nothing is known. Were all Juvenal’s addressees fictional or real people? No-one knows.

the poem obviously set out to ironically praise the great advantages of the soldier’s life. First is that you can beat up anyone you like and either be too intimidated to take legal action against them or, if you do, you’ll end up in a military court where the judge and jury will find for the soldier and you’ll end up being beaten up a second time.

Next advantage is that, whereas most people caught up in law suits have to endure endless delays and adjournments, a soldier will get his case seen straightaway. Plus, if you earn money as a soldier it is exempt from control by your father (which other earnings aren’t). The reverse; doddering old fathers court their sons to get a cut of their pay…

Here the poem simply breaks off. Scholars speculate that Juvenal died before he completed it. or maybe the emperor Hadrian censored this mocking of the Roman army. But Green sides with the Juvenal expert, Gilbert Highet, who thinks the earliest version of the manuscript, from which all surviving manuscript copies derive, early on lost its final few pages.

Common tropes

1. Juvenal’s position really is based on a profound belief that the olden days were best, the Golden Age of Saturn, when Rome’s ancestors lived in mud huts and farmed small allotments, and lived frugally, and taught honour and respect to their sons and daughters.

Mankind was on the decline while Homer
Still lived; and today the earth breeds a race of degenerate
Weaklings, who stir high heaven to laughter and loathing.
(Satire 15)

2. The logical corollary of thinking his primitive ancestors knew best is Juvenal’s virulent xenophobia, blaming Rome’s decline into luxury and decadence on the corrupting wealth and example of foreigners, especially the tyrannies of the East (note p.238).

3. As usual, I am left reeling by the casual way he describes the brutal, savage, sadistic treatment meted out to Roman slaves. Branded with a red-hot iron for stealing a few towels, crucified for speaking out of turn, horse-whipped for trivial mistakes serving dinner. What a brutal, cruel, inhumane society. ‘Cato, in his Res Rustica, recommends the dumping of worn-out horses’ harnesses and worn-out slaves in the same breath,’ (p.276)

Thoughts

Very simply, Juvenal is the Lionel Messi of satirists, producing high-octane, intense, bitterly angry and often very funny masterpieces of the genre.

Second thought is that Augustus had Ovid exiled, supposedly for the amorality of his ‘Art of Love’ which is a guide for pick-up artists. How things had changed a hundred years later when Juvenal not only mentions the places to hang out if you want to pick up women (or boys) but goes way, way beyond Ovid in his depiction of a pungently promiscuous society with, apparently, no consequences from the powers that be.

Summary

Final thought is that this is another brilliant volume from Peter Green, containing not just a zingy, stylish translation from the Latin but also long and fascinating introduction, and then encyclopedic notes which are full of fascinating titbits of information, opinion and insight. Of course most editions of ancient texts have notes, but Green’s are distinguished by their length and engaging chattiness. Here’s a random selection of brief but typical nuggets:

  • Women swore by Juno. (page 83)
  • After the sack of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD many Jews made their way to Rome and eked out a living as fortune tellers or beggars. (99)
  • No wheeled traffic was allowed in Rome for ten hours after dawn, so the city was incredibly noisy all through the night as farmers and merchants drove their carts through the narrow cobbled streets. (102)
  • Any of the (six) vestal virgin caught having sex was buried alive. (111)
  • Nine days after a funeral, offerings of eggs, salt and lentils were left on the grave of the deceased. (125)
  • It is hard to realise the influence which the Roman ballet (or pantomimus) exerted on Roman citizens. It was not only immensely popular but formed a centre for violent factions like those of the chariot races and sometimes led to riots and bloodshed. (153)
  • The secret rites of the Bona Dea were held at the home of one of the consuls. It was attended by women only. The house owner and all male slaves had to leave the premises. Even statues or images of men were covered up to protect the secret ceremonies. (156)
  • Eclipses of the moon were said to be caused by witchcraft. Beating pots and pans was said to put the witches off their wicked spells. (158)
  • A lawyer who won a case could advertise the fact by hanging palm branches outside his door.
  • People who survived a shipwreck often commissioned a painting of the event either to hang in a temple as an offering or to display to passersby in the street, if they were begging. (246)
  • the emperor kept a herd of elephants on a ranch at Laurentum, near Ardea. (248)

Among his many fascinating comments, one theme stood out for me:

Useless natural history

It’s odd that 2,000 years of writers or scholars in the humanities continue to quote, praise or base their writings on the literature or philosophy of the ancient world, when the ancients’ knowledge of the natural world, the world around them, its geology, and geography, and weather, and all the life forms we share the planet with, was fantastically ignorant.

As Green points out in a note, it is staggering that all the ancient authors whose writings have survived held ludicrous and absurd beliefs about animals and nature which you’d have thought the slightest actual observation by any rational adult would have disproved in a moment (note, page 238).

No, elephants do not get rid of their over-heavy tusks by thrusting them in the ground (satire 11). No, sparrows are not more highly sexed than other birds (satire 9). No, cranes flying south do not engage in pitched battles with pygmies in Ethiopia (satire 13). No, stags do not live to over 900 years old (satire 14).

‘A collector of natural history fallacies would do quite well out of Juvenal’ (note, page 291).

It is testament, maybe, to the way their culture preferred book learning to even the slightest amount of actual observation. And on a par with their credulous belief in no end of signs, omens and portents. Not only are these reported in all the histories as preceding momentous occasions but most official ceremonies in Rome, including whether to do battle or not, depended on the reading of the weather or flight of birds or entrails of sacrificed animals. It was an astonishingly credulous culture.

Only with Francis Bacon in the 1600s do we have an author who bravely declares that we ought to throw away most ancient ‘learning’ and make our own scientific observations about the phenomena around us. Such a long, long time it took for genuinely rational scientific method to slowly extract itself from deadening layers of absurd and nonsensical ‘learning’.


Credit

Sixteen Satires by Juvenal, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Classics in 1967, then reprinted with revisions in 1973. Page references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus – 2

Introduction

In the first of these two reviews of Tacitus’s Annals I briefly explained the background to the Annals and the development of ‘history’ as a genre up to Tacitus’s time, then went on to summarise Tacitus’s account of the reign of Tiberius, 14 to 37 AD.

Frustratingly, the manuscript we have of the Annals breaks off at the death of Tiberius and omits the four-year rule of Gaius (Caligula) from 37 to 41 AD, and the first six years of Gaius’s successor and uncle, Claudius i.e. from 41 to 47. Gaius’s reign is colourfully depicted in Suetonius’s Life of Caligula but Tacitus is invaluable because he embeds the scandal which Suetonius focuses on into a much more sober, year-by-year account of the humdrum legal and administrative acts of each emperor. They complement each other perfectly, which makes it all the more vexing that there’s such a big lacuna for the vital years of these key emperors.

To summarise the missing early part of Claudius, which we know from other sources: In 38 or early 39 AD, Claudius had married a third wife, Valeria Messalina, who was his first cousin once removed. Soon afterwards she gave birth to a daughter, Claudia Octavia. A son, initially named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, and later known as Britannicus, was born just after Claudius’s accession in 41.

The translator of the Penguin edition of the Annals, Michael Grant, divides his text into two big parts, separated by this huge gap in the original text. Within each part he groups clumps of annals, or individual years, into long ‘chapters’, and gives these informative, dramatic titles. Grant’s divisions over-write Tacitus’s division of his work into 16 books and specific years. Grant’s chapters are as follows. (My previous review summarised part one of Grant’s text. This review addresses part two.)

Part two: Claudius and Nero

  1. The fall of Messalina (book 11)
  2. The Mother of Nero (book 12)
  3. The fall of Agrippina (book 13 to book 14 section 13)
  4. Nero and his helpers (book 14 sections 14 to 65)
  5. Eastern settlement (book 14 sections 1 to 32)
  6. The burning of Rome (book 15, sections 32 to 47)
  7. The plot (book 15, sections 48 to 74)
  8. Innocent victims (book 16)

As I described in my previous post, on a careful rereading of the text I think it would have been better to have divided the text up by year rather than chapter, as Grant does. Starting a new section/chapter for each new year would reflect Tacitus’s intention, of producing a year-by-year ‘chronological sequence of events’, in Tacitus’s own words (p.269).

The annalistic approach is very formulaic: the account of each year starts with the announcement of who were the two consuls for that year (still, despite decades of imperial rule, very important figures, not least as the Romans’ main way of dating events). Then each year ends with a short list of notable Romans who died during that year. In between the two, Tacitus lists key events of that year in foreign policy and military campaigns, its notable laws and prosecutions, fires, food shortages and so on. That is the basic annalistic scaffold on which Tacitus then hangs his longer, more flowing descriptions of the activities of the emperors and royal family, along with (generally scathing) comments on their characters.

There is another, distinct strand to Tacitus’s work, which is his interest in foreign affairs i.e. the management of the Roman provinces (the appointment of new governors, the impeachment of existing governors for corruption). This covers the numerous tribal rebellions and wars on the borders, be they on the Rhine with the Germans, in the Middle East against the Parthians, or elsewhere. Tacitus devotes a lot of space to these, giving detailed accounts of diplomatic manoeuvrings, envoys to Rome etc, as well as vivid accounts of military campaigns and battles. Notable is the section about Britain under Claudius, including Caractacus’s noble plea for mercy when he was led in triumph through Rome (pages 264 to 269). But this whole area is so complex that (with the exception of Boudicca’s revolt) I’ve omitted it from my summary.

Claudius (reigned 41 to 54)

Historians nowadays consider Claudius to have been a ‘painstaking and bold administrator and reformer’ but, in Tacitus’s hands, the most memorable aspects of his reign are the portraits of his scheming and amoral third and fourth wives, Messalina and Agrippina.

(Just a reminder: these chapter titles are not in Tacitus, they are Michael Grant’s additions. And the years I give are also not in the text. The system of dating by BC or AD wasn’t invented until 500 years later, and wasn’t widely adopted till the Middle Ages. See M.I. Finley’s essay on the subject.)

In the summary that follows, the chapter titles in Heading 2 are Michael Grant’s. Sitting under them, in heading 3, are the years which Tacitus covers. I’ve made these. They are not clearly indicated in Grant’s text, or the original Tacitus. (Remember, Tacitus didn’t use the BC/AD system, he dated every year by the two consuls who served during it; whereas I have just used the year as per our Christian calendar). Where the year is notable for something important, such as the murder of Claudius or the revolt of Boudicca, I’ve added these into my year headings.

Chapter 9 The Fall of Messalina

47 AD

The big gap in Tacitus’s text resumes in 47 AD, in the middle of hectic events, as Claudius’s third wife, Messalina, takes aim at a rival, Poppaea Sabina.

Chronologers reckoned it was the 800th year since the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 BC) and so Claudius held Secular Games. Prominent in them were Claudius’s son, Britannicus, who was six years old (b.41) and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who was 10 (b.37) who would soon be adopted as Claudius’s son and heir.

(Nero’s mother was Agrippina the Younger, who was herself the daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. So Nero was popular with the mob for being the only surviving male descendant – the grandson – of the hugely popular Germanicus. Agrippina was also one of three sisters to Gaius, who had ruled as the emperor Caligula from 37 till he was assassinated in 41. Gaius was said to have had incestuous relations with all three of his sisters. Agrippina managed to survive Gaius’s short reign and lived on into Claudius’s, when she became one of the many targets of Claudius’s malevolent third wife, Messalina. However, Agrippina not only survived Messalina but, after the latter’s downfall and execution, replaced her as Claudius’s fourth and final wife.)

At about this time Messalina became infatuated with the best-looking man in Rome, Gaius Silius. She forced him to divorce his wife, Julia Silana, and host her at not particularly concealed assignations. They carried on their affair openly while the obtuse Claudius pursued his responsibilities as Censor.

Tacitus portrays Claudius as responsible and sensible: he carries out the census, he commands the building of a new aqueduct, he suggests three new letters are added to the Roman alphabet, he proposes to the senate the creation of a Board to support the art of soothsaying. In foreign policy Claudius forbade further aggression against the Germans and ordered Roman troops – who were building camps in recently occupied German territory – back across to the west bank of the Rhine.

48 AD

Claudius makes his famous intervention in a debate in the senate about whether Gauls, by now Roman citizens for three or four generations, should be allowed to run for office in Rome. Claudius argued strongly that they should, pointing out how Rome’s strength derived from its policy of assimilating neighbouring towns and tribe and then entire regions, turning enemies into loyal citizens. (This speech is regularly cited by historians as exemplifying the core secret of Rome’s success, which was assimilating territories and peoples into the empire.)

Claudius promoted senators of long standing to patrician rank as many patrician families had died out. He concluded his census which showed a citizen body of 5,984,072 (which presumably included all men, women and children; neither Tacitus nor Grant clarify whether this included slaves or not).

Meanwhile, Messalina pursued her affair, and while Claudius was busy at Ostia, she openly and bigamously married Silius. It might seem incredible that a consul designate and the emperor’s wife should marry:

But I am not inventing marvels. What I have told, and shall tell, is the truth. Older men heard and recorded it. (p.246)

According to Grant the reign of Claudius saw a great increase in the power of the secretaries of state, often ex-slaves, and three of these now informed Claudius, not only that his wife had bigamously remarried but had, in legal terms, divorced him – and that this opened the way for her new husband, Silius, to seize power.

The commander of ‘the Guard’ was summoned, confirmed the story and said Claudius must move fast to retain their loyalty. Claudius was panicking thinking this was a real coup attempt. Command was taken by Narcissus, ex-slave and secretary general. He it was who lined up a series of witnesses to testify to Messalina’s promiscuity, many affairs, degenerate behaviour, and now this bigamous marriage. Tacitus describes a bloodbath of officials who had helped or slept with Messalina and then how, at dinner that evening Claudius began to soften against his (absent) wife and so Narcissus moved quickly, instructing another slave to go to her house where he found her wretched, weeping on the ground beside her mother, and quickly run her through with a sword. The senate ordered all statues and public memorials to her name to be removed. Claudius never referred to her again.

This two or three pages of breathless narrative are rightly considered among Tacitus’s greatest passages, by which scholars mean it has the immediacy, pace and bloody inevitability of a thriller.

Chapter 10 The Mother of Nero (Agrippina)

Central to Tacitus’s critique is that Claudius was in thrall to the advice of his secretaries who were all freedmen, namely Narcissus who took the lead in getting rid of Messalina. Now they all proposed to Claudius various candidates for his next wife. But Agrippina took advantage of being Claudius’s niece and so often being in his company, plus being allowed to give him caresses and kisses. She seduced him and won the competition. Weak and easily led, Claudius asked the senate to pass a law allowing an uncle to marry his niece (Claudius was brother of the long-dead Germanicus, whose daughter Agrippina was.)

Tacitus describes how Lucius Vitellius worked his way into Agrippina’s good books by a) managing to derail the marriage of Claudius’s daughter, Octavia, to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus by falsely accusing the latter and having him dismissed – thus making Octavia available to be engaged to Agrippina’s son; and b) making a big speech in the senate asking for the law to be changed to allow uncles to marry nieces and for the senate to give Agrippina to Claudius as a kind of national gift.

Once in post Agrippina sought power in every way she could. This included recalling Lucius Annaeus Seneca, from exile. He had been banished by Claudius for adultery with Germanicus’s daughter, Julia Livilla. Now Agrippa recalled him (earning his gratitude) and made him tutor to her son. She enforced the suicide of one of her rivals, Lollia Paulina. Another lady whom the emperor casually praised, Calpurnia, was struck down.

Claudius decided to extend the boundaries of Rome, leading Tacitus into an interesting digression about the various sets of boundary markers (p.262).

50 AD

Responding to pressure from Agrippina’s agents Claudius adopted her son, Lucius Domitius, as his own. It was at this moment that the boy, previously a member of the Ahenobarbus clan, was awarded a name which ran in the Claudian clan, ‘Nero’, marking his entry into the prestigious (haughty and arrogant) gens Claudii. At the same time Agrippina was given the honorific ‘Augusta’.

In this year Tacitus gives detailed description of uprisings and wars in Britain.

51 AD

On the basis of a supposedly trivial incident – when Britannicus and Nero met and Nero greeted the other by his name but Britannicus greeted Nero as ‘Domitius’ – Agrippina claimed this was a alight against the decision of the senate and people of Rome and persuaded Claudius to banish or execute all Britannicus’s tutors. His guards and slaves loyal to him were dismissed. Some of the Guard commanders were loyal to Britannicus so they were replaced by Sextus Afranius Burrus, who knew who his boss was: Agrippina.

52 AD

Senators who couldn’t comply with the House’s financial requirements were expelled. Lucius Arruntius Furius Scribonianus was exiled for enquiring from astrologers about the emperor’s death. Claudius suggested a law that any woman marrying a slave should herself be enslaved. A tunnel was built linking the Fucine lake and the river Liris. Claudius held naval games on the lake to celebrate. Rebellion broke out in Judaea.

53 AD

Nero, now aged 16, married the emperor’s daughter, Claudia Octavia, born in 40 and so aged 12 or 13. This was arranged by Agrippina to solidify Nero’s position as the heir apparent. Agrippina continued her power-hungry and aggressive behaviour. She coveted the gardens of Titus Statilius Taurus and so got his deputy as governor of Africa to accuse and discredit him in the senate. Titus committed suicide. Agrippina got his gardens.

Claudius handed over sweeping powers to the order of knights, the issue at the heart of the civil war between Marius and Sulla back in the 80s BC. He exempted the island of Cos from taxation. The city of Byzantium pleaded for a remission of their taxes and this was granted.

54 AD – Murder of Claudius

Bad omens. Bees landed on the Capitol. Deformed animals were born. Agrippina decided to dispose of Domitia Lepida, her cousin once removed and Nero’s aunt, mother to Claudius’s previous wife, Messalina. She manoeuvred Claudius into having her executed (p.282).

Britannicus was now approaching his 14th birthday, traditionally the age when a Roman aristocrat began to play a part in public life. Agrippina began to worry that Claudius was beginning to regret adopting Nero and coming round to preferring his own son as successor so she moved quickly to poison her husband. She had poison supplied by the arch-poisoner, Locusta, and administered by the emperor’s taster, Halotus. She blocked anyone coming to see the body, giving out a story that the emperor was alive but ill, while she organised the smooth accession of Nero.

On 13 October 54 the palace doors were opened, and Nero appeared accompanied by a battalion of the palace guard and their commander, Sextus Afranius Burrus (who owed his position to Agrippina). Nero was carried in a litter to the Guards’ camp where he was acclaimed emperor, a decision quickly ratified by the senate and then the provinces.

Chapter 11 The Fall of Agrippina

The final section of the Annals is devoted to the reign of Nero. It is quite substantial (70 pages in the Penguin translation). Grant divides it into five chapters:

  1. Nero and his helpers (book 14 sections 14 to 65)
  2. Eastern settlement (book 14 sections 1 to 32)
  3. The burning of Rome (book 15, sections 32 to 47)
  4. The plot (book 15, sections 48 to 74)
  5. Innocent victims (book 16)

The Nero chapters are notable for the kind of melodramatic set-pieces which Tacitus excelled at, in this case describing the Great Fire of Rome or Agrippina’s murder. At moments like this you can very much see how, for the ancients, no amount of dedication to the ‘historical truth’ or the moralising urge to judge and assess, can trump the more basic aim of inflaming awe and wonder with dramatic effects.

Nero’s reign opened with a flurry of murders. Agrippina got agents to poison governor of Asia Marcus Junius Silanus because he was brother to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus, whose engagement with Octavia she had broken and forced to commit suicide, and because Marcus was a descendant of Augustus. Then she secured the imprisonment and suicide of Narcissus, freedman and secretary to Claudius, the central figure in the downfall of Messalina.

Tactitus notes the restraining effect of two key figures, the commander of the Guard Sextus Afranius Burrus, and Nero’s tutor Lucius Annaeus Sextus. Burrus was all soldierly efficiency and seriousness of character; Agrippina had appointed Seneca Nero’s tutor in which role he taught the teenager Stoic principles and public speaking.

It was Seneca who wrote the funeral oration for Claudius which Nero delivered. Nero went on to insist the senate would reassert its ancient rights and decisions. Nero’s first acts were all leniency and forgiveness.

55 AD – Murder of Britannicus

Quite quickly Nero fell in love with a former slave girl, Acte, and became slowly alienated from the virtuous wife, Claudia Octavia, who Agrippina had engineered his marriage to. Agrippina was infuriated at Nero’s love for a common slave girl and tried to ban it. Division grew between mother and son. Nero next deposed the freedman Pallas, who had virtually run the empire for Claudius and been instrumental in Claudius choosing Agrippina as his fourth wife.

Tacitus gives a vivid almost farcical account of the florid events surrounding Nero’s decision to poison his rival, Claudius’s biological son, Britannicus (p.290). Britannicus was the last male heir of the Claudian clan whereas Nero was a Claudian only by adoption.

Realising her position was now seriously threatened, Agrippina made common cause with Nero’s spurned wife Octavia, and cast around for supporters. To isolate Agrippina, Nero withdrew her guard and expelled her from the imperial palace. Then her rival, Junia Silana, had a spy report to Nero that Agrippina was conspiring with one Rubellius Plautus to overthrow and replace him. Nero was terrified, but spared Plautus, for the time being. Tacitus tells us one of his sources claims Seneca restrained the emperor, and also from executing Burrus as being somehow implicated. The plot rebounded and Junia Silana was exiled, her accomplices executed.

56 AD

Echoing Suetonius, Tacitus claims Nero dressed up and went about the streets, from tavern to brothel, beating up passersby, stealing stuff from shops. The emperor’s example emboldened other criminals. ‘Rome at night came to resemble a conquered city.’ A senator who beat up Nero when he assaulted him, apologised when he realised his identity but was forced to commit suicide.

Nero egged on disputes among rival gangs of ballet dancers, encouraging them to degenerate into real gang fights. Tacitus devotes a page to a debate in the senate about whether misbehaving freed slaves should be re-enslaved.

57 AD

Tacitus takes the opportunity to differentiate his kind of history from mere almanacs. Talking of the completion of a huge amphitheatre in the Field of Mars, he says:

But that is material for official gazettes, whereas it has traditionally been judged fitting to Rome’s grandeur that its histories should contain only important events. (p.298)

An interesting indication of the way that history was conceived as a literary genre, with appropriate tone and subject matter; lofty subject matter; important events and imperial players.

A law was passed that provincial officials were banned from giving gladiator or animal shows. These a) cost provincials a fortune b) were used as cover by governors to hide their irregularities.

Another law decreed that if a man was murdered by a slave, not only all the slaves, but all the freed slaves in his household would be executed as punishment.

58 AD

The endless war between Rome and Parthia for possession of the kingdom of Armenia heated up.

A detailed account of how Nero was introduced by his fellow libertine, Otho, to his lover Poppaea, how she then seduced Nero and eclipsed Acte as his chief concubine. As a result Nero fell out with Otho, eventually consigning him to Lusitania as governor. (This Otho was to return and seize power in the Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, following Nero’s death, events Tacitus describes in detail in his ‘Histories’.)

Various cities (Puteoli, Syracuse) petitioned Rome for favours. Persistent complaints about tax farmers led Nero to contemplate scrapping all indirect taxes. Rebellious tribes in Germany fought the Romans or each other.

59 AD – Murder of Agrippina

Tacitus puts Nero’s decision to finally eliminate his mother down to the taunts of his new lover Poppaea. Agrippina tried to counter this by appearing before Nero in lascivious clothes and seduced him to incest. Seneca commissioned Acte to re-enter his life and warm him that such sacrilege would alienate the Guards on whom his power rested. Interestingly, Tacitus openly states various versions of these stories attributed to other historians (whose works are now lost).

Tacitus openly states in several places that when the sources agree he won’t mention them; but where they disagree he will cite them and the disagreements and let the reader decide.

The death of Agrippina takes 6 pages to describe and is semi-farcical. After rejecting poison and the dagger, Nero settled on the madcap scheme of getting Agrippina onto a ship with a collapsible section which would fall on her. And this is what he did, inviting her to a long friendly banquet at Baiae, then seeing her off in a beautifully appointed ship whose ceiling, at a signal, caved in. This killed Agrippina’s attendant and when another cried out that she was the emperor’s mother, she was beaten to death by the crew, so Agrippina disguised herself. Then the galley slaves all went to one side of the ship in order to capsize it, but Agrippina managed to get free and swim to safety. This sounds like a fairy story.

Nero was waiting for news and was appalled to learn it hadn’t worked. So he called in his most senior advisers, Seneca and Burrus. Burrus declared the Guard would not touch a member of the imperial family and descendant of Germanicus. So they conceived a plot whereby Nero would drop a sword by the feet of the servant Agrippina had sent to tell Nero she had survived this terrible accident – and then claim he was an assassin sent by Agrippina.

This is as farcical and laughable as the collapsible boat gambit.

Nero promptly had a freedman, Anicetus, take soldiers and surround Agrippina’s house. Slaves fled. Anicetus, a naval captain and lieutenant then beat and stabbed Agrippina to death. Her body was quickly cremated with no ceremony.

Nero cringed in fear all night long until Burrus got colonels and captains of the Guard to come and congratulate him on escaping the conspiracy, at which he recovered his spirits. Nero then sent a long letter to be read out in the senate justifying his actions with a long list of Agrippina’s incriminating behaviour leading up to the supposed ‘conspiracy’. This was written by Seneca and reflected badly on him.

Many bad omens. And Nero was scared of the public response. But there was much thanksgiving for his safety and he returned to Rome amid cheering crowds as at a triumph.

Chapter 12 Nero and his Helpers

With Agrippina out of the way, Nero finally let rip. ‘There was no stopping him.’ (p.320) Tacitus describes Nero’s addiction to singing to his own accompaniment on the lyre, and chariot racing. He goes into less detail than Suetonius but is much more damning. When Nero institutes the ‘Youth Games’ and:

In the wood which Augustus had planted around his Naval Lake, places of assignation and taverns were built, and every stimulus to vice was displayed for sale…Promiscuity and degradation throve…Never was there so favourable a climate for debauchery as among this filthy crowd. (p.321)

Nero performed for the crowd on the lyre. He formed a corp of young knights known as the Augustiani, to maintain ‘a din of applause day and night’. He fancied himself a poet and sat around at dinner parties extemporising verses with cronies.

This method is apparent from Nero’s poems themselves which lack vigour, inspiration and homogeneity.

Tacitus, like Suetonius, had copies of these poems, all now lost to us. Meanwhile, back in the annalistic list of political events: the senate settled a riot which had broken out between citizens of Pompeii and Nuceria. Cyrene secured the expulsion of a governor. Two famous men died (Cnaeus Domitius Afer and Marcus Servilius Nonianus). It’s Tacitus’s listing of these kinds of humdrum events which provide the scaffolding or background hum of his year-by-year annals.

60 AD

Nero institutes 5-yearly games on the Greek model. Tacitus stages a set-piece debate between its critics who thought games should only be held in temporary buildings put up for the events, and that permanent buildings were an incitement to sloth and vice; and its proponents who thought they had to change with the times and permanent buildings saved money in the long run. (p.323).

It’s worth mentioning that ‘ballet dancers’, in all these ancient accounts, are closely associated with booing, hissing, throwing chairs and rioting. In a note, Grant explains that:

These were the highly popular, sophisticated dances of the pantomimi who danced traditional themes in dumb-show, with music and chorus. These performances were first seen in Rome under Augustus. (p.402)

Many bad omens and portents. A comet, which was universally taken as the sign of a change of emperors. Much talk that Nero’s successor would be Rubellius Plautus. Rumour spread that a bolt of lightning had hit and split a table at which Nero was sitting (!). Nero, with notable restraint, didn’t have Plautus killed, simply told him to move with his family to their estate in Asia. According to his Wikipedia article:

Plautus appears to have been a follower of Stoicism. According to Tacitus, Tigellinus wrote to Nero: ‘Plautus again, with his great wealth, does not so much as affect a love of repose, but he flaunts before us his imitations of the old Romans, and assumes the self-consciousness of the Stoics along with a philosophy, which makes men restless, and eager for a busy life.’ When he was exiled from Rome by Nero, Plautus was accompanied by the famous Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus. He was associated with a group of Stoics who criticized the perceived tyranny and autocratic rule of certain emperors, referred to today as the Stoic Opposition.

What interest me about this passage is the idea that Stoicism, as well as being a reputable philosophy, was also a fashionable pose and allowed its proponents to swank and pride themselves on maintaining the values of ‘the old Romans’. So I noticed when, later on, the corrupt head of the Guard, Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, in calumniating Plautus, says:

Plautus is rich and does not pretend to like retirement. He parades an admiration of the ancient Romans but he has the arrogance of the Stoics, who breed sedition and intrigue. (p.339)

‘The arrogance of the Stoics’, eh?

More about the never-ending war in Armenia, prosecuted by Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo. The ancient town of Puteoli was given the status of a Roman settlement and named after Nero. Tacitus describes the challenge of keeping colonies of Roman soldiers consistently populated since many didn’t marry or have children, and many came from different regiments and were even different nationalities.

Nero sorts out a squabble about who’s elected praetor (15 men apply for 12 places). A knight called Vibius Secundus was convicted for extortion when governor of Mauretania and expelled from Italy.

61 AD – Boudicca’s revolt

Disaster in Britain. The ambitious new governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, appointed in 58, continued his predecessor’s policy of aggressively subduing the tribes of modern Wales, and was successful for his first two years in the post. Tacitus gives a vivid description of his amphibious assault on the island of Mona (modern-day Anglesey), its shores lined with the enemy, shrieking women and spooky druids. The Romans conquer the island and chop down the groves sacred to the Druids, who conducted human sacrifices there.

But while he was Paullinus was subduing Anglesey rebellion broke out on the other side of the province. Since this is a legendary part of our history it’s worth citing at length:

Prasutagus, king of the Icenii, after a life of long and renowned prosperity, had made the emperor co-heir with his two daughters. Prasutagus hoped by this submissiveness to preserve his kingdom and household from attack. But it turned out otherwise. Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves. As a start his widow, Boudicca, was flogged and their two daughters raped. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if the Romans had been given the entire country. The king’s own relatives were treated like slaves.

The huge temple to the god Claudius could be seen from everywhere, symbolising their oppression, and its priests used their power to bleed households dry with taxes and levies. The greed of the Roman agent, Catus Decianus, had driven the entire province to rebellion.

So the Iceni rebelled and raised neighbouring tribes. They stormed the Roman settlement of Camulodonum. Omens were, of course, seen everywhere. The empty theatre echoed with shrieks. At the mouth of the Thames a phantom settlement was seen in ruins. The sea turned blood red and left human corpses on the ebb tide. The garrison and a small cohort of reinforcements sent from London were massacred.

Suetonius marched his army all the way back from Wales to London. Interestingly:

Londinium did not rank as a Roman settlement, but was an important centre for business men and merchandise.

Nonetheless Suetonius realised he couldn’t hold it against massed tribes, so abandoned it. When Boudicca’s forces stormed into it all the men were killed and all the women raped. Same happened at St Albans (Verulamium). Tacitus says 70,000 perished, for the Britons did not take prisoners with a view to exchanges:

They could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn and crucify, as though avenging in advance, the retribution which was on its way. (p.329)

Tacitus gives us a typical rhetorical set-piece: first he gives Boudicca a genuinely inspiring speech as she rouses her troops to face the Roman army, which has followed and now set up opposite them. Then he gives verbatim what he claims is the pre-battle speech of Suetonius. Both are effective in their different ways. It was a massacre. The Romans killed all the Britons and their camp followers. Boudicca poisoned herself.

However, the Romans then fell out among themselves. The newly arrived imperial agent didn’t like Suetonius and briefed against him. A former imperial slave, Polyclitus, was sent to assess the situation. Suetonius was relieved of duty and his replacement took a softly-softly approach. Peace of a sort returned to the province.

Tacitus returns to his annalistic approach with notes on two noteworthy trials. What strikes me is that, despite existing for hundreds of years, the Romans were continually finding loopholes or omissions in their laws, which the senate patched up and emperors approved or modified.

The City Prefect, Lucius Pedianus Secundus, was murdered by one of his slaves. The traditional punishment was that every other slave in the household would be executed. Popular sentiment protested against this, rioting began and the senate house was surrounded. Tacitus uses this to give us another of his verbatim speeches, this time by Gaius Cassius Longinus in favour of enforcing the traditional law. The speech reveals that Pedianus had 400 slaves. His peroration is striking:

Our ancestors distrusted their slaves. Yet slaves were then born on the same estates, in the same homes, as their masters, who had treated them kindly from birth. But nowadays our huge households are international. They include every alien religion – or none at all. The only way to keep down this scum is by intimidation…Exemplary punishment always contains an element of injustice. But individual wrongs are outweighed by the advantage of the community. (p.334)

Many argued to spare the innocent, or the women slaves, but Cassius’s view prevailed, and the emperor Nero backed it up, lining with troops the route along which those condemned for execution were taken.

Bithynia secured the condemnation of its governor. In Gaul a census was carried out. The noble Publius Memmius Regulus passed away. Nero dedicated a new gymnasium.

62 AD

Big fuss about an ex-praetor who read out verses satirising Nero at a dinner party. He is condemned by the senate and Tacitus summarises the positions of various senators to show how the politics of the time worked, with some arguing for execution, others for exile. The senate referred their decision for leniency to Nero who was cross but accepted it. Another aristocrat included in a so-called will insults against senators and priests. Nero ordered him exiled from Italy and his writings burned.

Commander of the Guard Burrus died, probably of a throat tumour, though maybe poisoned by Nero. He was replaced by two commanders, one responsible, the other a crony of Nero’s private debaucheries.

Burrus’s death weakened Seneca’s position. One mentor is less powerful than two. His critics queued up to bad-mouth him to the emperor, attacking:

  1. his wealth, enormous and excessive for any subject
  2. the grandeur of his mansions and beauty of his gardens, which exceeded the emperors (!)
  3. his alleged bids for popularity

Nero listened to Seneca’s detractors and began distancing himself from him. This is the opportunity for Tacitus to put into Seneca’s mouth a noble and persuasive speech, asking to be allowed to retire (he was now 64 years old and had been tutor to Nero for 14 years) and happily handing most of his property over to Nero. Tacitus then has Nero reply with a speech even more eloquent and organised. Nero refuses to take back his gifts lest it reflect badly on him. But Seneca withdrew from Rome, terminated his large receptions and dismissed his entourage, in a bid to deflect criticism.

Tigellinus achieves sole command of the palace Guard and plays on Nero’s fears. As a result of his calumnies, Nero orders the killing of two exiles, Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix at Massilia. When his head is brought to Nero the emperor jokes that he’s gone grey. More elaborate are the measures taken to kill Plautus, in exile in Asia, but he too was killed and decapitated. When Nero was given his head, he is said to have exclaimed: ‘Nero! How could a man with such a long nose have frightened you!’

Nero wrote a letter to the senate denouncing Plautus and Sulla as traitors at which the senate voted him a thanksgiving. This occasioned disgust among freethinking men and led Nero to believe he could do anything. So he divorced his wife, Octavia and married Poppaea. The new wife swiftly set about disposing of the old one, concocting an accusation that Octavia was guilty of adultery and getting her exiled to Campania. (As usual, it’s the fact that Octavia’s slaves were tortured to extract false confessions, which I find so upsetting.) But this set off protests among the people who clamoured for Octavia’s return, overturning new statues of Poppaea. For a while Nero appeared to cave in – wild rejoicing – but then returned to his former stance – protests and rioting.

Poppaea is beside herself and renews her please to be rid of Octavia. So Nero concocts a second adultery confession, this time persuading admiral of the fleet Anicetus (who had played a leading role in dispatching Agrippina) to admit to adultery with Octavia. He was rewarded with peaceful retirement in Sardinia. Octavia was banished to the island of Pandateria. Much sympathy for another innocent royal woman exiled cf Julia the Elder, the Younger, Agrippina the Elder and Julia Livila.

Within days she was ordered dead. Soldiers arrived and forced the opening of veins all over her body in a hot bath. She was just 20. The senate ordered another thanksgiving and Tacitus breaks cover to record how disgustingly sycophantic that body had become.

Chapter 13 Eastern Settlement

63 AD

Latest episode of the war with Parthia over Armenia. Corn ships are destroyed by fire or storm, and some has rotted. Some people were adopting ‘children’ in order to count as fathers and so gain advantage in elections for posts where fatherhood gave an advantage (ever since Augustus’s laws designed to increase the population). Then, once elected, they repealed the adoptions. The senate decreed that these fictitious adoptions should carry no weight.

Prosecution of a governor of Crete who suggested his power was above the senate. At Nero’s prompting a decree was passed forbidding votes of thanks to governors at provincial assemblies. I’m including stuff like this to show what the nuts and bolts of ruling the empire really consisted of.

The Gymnasium was struck by lightning and burned down. A statue of Nero inside was melted into a shapeless mass. An earthquake demolished Pompeii (not the famous volcanic eruption of 79 AD).

Poppaea gave Nero a daughter. Both were awarded the honorific ‘Augusta’, according to the law of inflation of titles (at first rare and precious, eventually standard and ordinary). The senate voted a thanksgiving (of course), Nero instituted some games. Four months later the baby died, but the sycophancy continued. The dead baby was declared a goddess and a temple and priest created.

Latest episode of the war against the Parthians, also known as The Armenian Question. The figure to emerge most clearly from this is the Roman general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, now awarded plenary powers comparable to those awarded to Pompey to fight the pirate menace in 67 BC. Corbulo brings off an honourable truce with the Parthian prince Tiridates.

Back in Italy, Latin rights are awarded to the tribes of the Maritime Alps. Magnificent gladiatorial displays but Tacitus deprecates the number of women and senators ‘disgracing themselves in the arena.’

Chapter 14 The Burning of Rome

64 AD

Frustrated at giving only private performances of his singing and lyre playing, Nero now vows to take part in public performances. First one is Naples then he crosses to Greece. In the event Nero abruptly cancelled his trip to Greece, and another one to Egypt. Maybe he was scared. he gave it out that he couldn’t let the people of Rome be without him.

Tacitus describes a typical public banquet. Nero gave magnificent ones but the most extravagant was given by his creature, Tigellinus. It was held on a raft in the middle of a lake. On the shore were brothels populated by aristocratic women, opposite them naked women posing. Tigellinus had collected birds and animals from remote countries.

Nero went through a public wedding with one of his pervert cronies named Pythagoras, in which Nero wore a bridal dress, and then marriage night sex was performed in view of the invited guests.

Then the Great Fire of Rome, ten days in July 64. When it was finally brought under control two-thirds of Rome had been destroyed. Nero was at Antium when it started. He took steps: he threw open the Field of Mars and his own gardens and constructed emergency accommodation for the homeless. He reduced the price of corn.

Of Rome’s 14 districts only 4 remained intact. Three were completely destroyed. The other seven were reduced to a few mangled ruins. Nero determined to build back better. He had a huge new palace built full of extravagance. New streets were built on an orderly plan. Houses had a height limit. Nero sagely offered to pay for the building of many of these and to ensure builders rubble was cleared away before houses were occupied.

Sensible fire provisions were put into place: a fixed proportion of each house was to be of stone; guards were appointed to ensure a better water supply; each building had to keep firefighting equipment.

But old timers remembered the huge number of ancient shrines and temples and treasures from the earliest times which had been consumed. And thought the old plan was healthier because the winding narrow alleys provided many bits of shade whereas the new more open streets were more exposed.

Nonetheless, despite all Nero’s wise ordinances, his reputation still suffered. It was said that while the city burned he took to his private stage and performed a song about the Fall of Troy. Others said he had actively started the fire because he wanted to rebuild the city and name it after himself. To distract attention away from himself he blamed the Christians. This is so important I quote at length:

To suppress this rumour [that he started the fire] Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. (All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.)

First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned – not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies apparently the original Latin could also be translated ‘because the human race detested them’].

Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled with the crowd – or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest. (15.44)

Meanwhile Italy was ransacked for funds and all the provinces ruined by exactions to pay for the rebuilding of Rome. Gold statues and offerings were stolen and melted down. Agents were sent out to plunder Greece and Asia, emptying temples of all their valuables.

Seneca tried to avoid the unpopularity of being involved in any of this policy by asking leave to go to his country retreat. When this was forbidden he very publicly kept to his house, feigning illness. Rumour had it that a slave was despatched to poison him but Seneca forestalled all such efforts by living on fruit and running water.

A group of gladiators revolted at Praenaste and there was a naval disaster, caused by Nero ordering the fleet to return on a set date, when a storm drove it ashore at Cumae, destroying many ships. Many omens portended mighty changes!

Chapter 15 The Plot (65 AD)

Gaius Calpurnius Piso had going for him that he was a member of the aristocratic gens Calpurnii with an extensive network of influential connections; he was popular, he defended his fellow citizens in court; he was a loyal friend, affable to all including strangers; and he was tall and handsome. On the downside, he lacked seriousness and self control, was superficial, ostentatious and sometimes dissolute. But then, as Tacitus remarks in a telling comment:

Many people are fascinated by depravity and disinclined for austere morals on the throne.

Maybe the common people, then as now, enjoy royal gossip and identify with ‘bad’ behaviour. As Tacitus himself remarks at several points – people enjoy gossip and scandal (‘Discreditable versions are always popular’, p.376).

Tacitus describes in detail the growth of the conspiracy to assassinate Nero and replace him with Piso, the Pisonian Consipracy, listing the recruitment of the main conspirators, but then the problems: delay while they squabbled about where the murder should take place, and Piso’s fears that several equally well-qualified alternatives might replace him (accurately anticipating the anarchy of 69).

They decided to kill Nero at some games, in front of the crowd, but the night before, the lead conspirator, Flavius Scaevinus, had a banquet, freed all his favourite slaves, made his will and ordered a freedman, Milichus, to take his dagger to the sharpeners. This Milichus saw all these signs and nerved himself to go, next morning, to Nero’s gardens and ask for an interview with the emperor’s freedman and secretary.

After initial scepticism, Nero was persuaded, and suspects were brought in who, under terrible torture, implicated each other. The conspiracy unravelled. Men implicated their family and friends. One strand was the implication of Seneca, who probably wasn’t in the conspiracy, but Nero had wanted to get rid of for some time. On flimsy evidence an officer was sent to execute him. Seneca had time to address his household and tell them to follow his Stoic philosophy and staunch their tears. His wife insisted on dying with him and they both cut open the veins in their arms.

Seneca took some time to die, his blood flowing weakly, he ordered veins to also be opened at his ankles and behind his knees. He had time to dictate a dissertation (!). Seeing as he was not dying, he asked for poison (hemlock) to be administered, but this didn’t work, either. Then he was placed in a bath of warm water, which didn’t work. And then into ‘a vapour-bath, where he suffocated’. What is a vapour-bath?

Nero ordered Seneca’s wife’s wounds to be bound and she lived on for several years. Tacitus lists all the conspirators and their ends. The most famous one to posterity, beside Seneca, was Seneca’s nephew, the poet Lucan, who was just 25 and had joined the conspiracy because he was angry at Nero for blocking his career.

At least 41 individuals were accused, 19 senators, seven knights, 11 soldiers, and four women. 20 were executed or forced to commit suicide, 13 were sent into exile.

There was an outbreak of sycophancy with various senators calling for a thanksgiving, a Triumph, creation of a temple specifically to thank the gods for Nero’s survival and lots of other bum kissing.

Chapter 16 Innocent Victims

Nero believed the fantasies of a Carthaginian, Caesellius Bassus, who swore he had discovered the ancient treasure of Dido on his land and would give it to Nero. This encouraged the emperor to even more spendthrift behaviour, digging the nation deeper into debt.

Nero presided over the second five-yearly games and insisted on competing as a singer and lyre player. Tacitus echoes the claim made in Suetonius that audiences weren’t allowed to leave the theatre during Nero’s performances, and some fell sick and died, others were killed in the crush. He adds that Guards were stationed throughout the audience to cuff anyone who didn’t cheer loudly enough. Aristocrats such as Vespasian were reported for not cheering enthusiastically enough, but he was destined to survive and become emperor himself in 69.

Poppaea died. She was pregnant. In Tacitus’s account Nero, in a fit of anger, kicked her just once and that was enough (Suetonius gives the impression that Nero kicked her to death). Tacitus thinks it was an accident because a) he genuinely loved her b) he was desperate for a son and she was pregnant. Nero read her eulogy. She was buried in the Mausoleum Augustus built.

Nero continues enforcing the deaths of those he suspects, forcing the senate to denounce some of its own members. The gruesome triple suicide of Lucius Antistius Vetus, his daughter Antistia Pollitta and mother-in-law Sextia. Bum-licking toadyism reached new heights: one Servius Cornelius Orfitus suggested the names of the months should be changed to celebrate Nero’s family, so that April became ‘Neroneus’, May ‘Claudius’ and June ‘Germanicus’.

Campania was hit by a hurricane. Rome was hit by a plague. A disastrous fire at Lugdunum (modern Lyons) was alleviated when Nero assigned 4 million sesterces to its reconstruction (the same amount its people had contributed to Rome’s rebuilding after the fire). This kind of incident gives a welcome break from the hothouse, blood-soaked atmosphere of imperial politics, but also remind us that a lot of the political events were of sublime indifference to the 60 million or so citizens who just got on with their day-to-day lives, working, shopping, trading, eating, teaching children, managing households, across the vast expanse of the huge empire.

66 AD

A sordid conspiracy by banished Antistius Sosianus to alleviate his punishment by incriminating Publius Anteius and Marcus Ostorius Scapula, who paranoid Nero suspected, both of whom were forced to commit suicide. If this succession of worthy citizens who are snitched on by informers who pandered to Nero’s paranoia and jealousy of anyone richer than him gets a little wearing, Tacitus agrees:

Even if I were describing foreign wars and patriotic deaths, this monotonous series of events would have become tedious both for me and for my readers. For I should expect them to feel as surfeited as myself by the tragic sequence of citizen deaths – even if they had been honourable deaths. but this slavish passivity, this torrent of wasted bloodshed far from active service, wearies, depresses and paralyses the mind. (p.388; book 16, section 14).

Tacitus goes onto lament the death of the author, Petronius, devoting a page to his unconventional life, his dissipation, and witty popularity. Without trying Petronius was admitted to Nero’s inner circle and became his arbiter of taste. However, this inflamed Nero’s chief crony, Tigellinus, against him, and Tigellinus concocted the usual accusations, which easily triggered Nero to order his court arbiter’s death. Petronius opened his veins but continued attending a banquet and listening to light verse as he expired. Then he dictated a letter detailing all Nero’s sexual partners and perversions which he had sent to the emperor, who was shaken to see how much was known about him.

The final passage of the Annals describes yet another indictment of a good man, Thrasea, and his family, by the sycophantic toadies in the senate, inspired by Nero. Then the manuscript breaks off.

The missing portion of the work described the visit of King Tiridates to Rome, the start of the Jewish Revolt, Nero’s visit to Greece, the revolt of military commander Gaius Julius Vindex in Gaul, which triggers a general revolt against Nero and the selection by the senate of Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania, to replace Nero. Nero fled to the villa of a freed slave, Phaon, and there got slaves to help him commit suicide.

Thoughts

Suetonius’s Life of Nero is a more enjoyable read than the Tacitus. It’s shorter and more to the point. It goes into more detail about Nero’s addiction to singing, playing the lyre and chariot racing than Tacitus does, and presents a more coherent and persuasive profile of the emperor. Tacitus embeds all this in annals which report all the important events of each year so that the sheer welter of events becomes tiring and, as Tacitus himself concedes, towards the end, really wearing.

I suppose the Annals is a great work, but probably best read in chapters or sections: the cumulative effect of so many cruel murders, villainous informers, of so much slavish sycophancy to the emperor and the suicides of so many aristocrats, eventually becomes numbing.


Credit

Michael Grant’s fluent, energetic translation of Tacitus’s Annals was published by Penguin Books in 1956. References are to the revised 1971 edition, as reprinted in 1988.

Related link

Roman reviews

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful full scale and in the flesh.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness at all.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

And it is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other. There are some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together pieces from across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure had been covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is documenting the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists from the period handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, probably the locus classicus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be hoped for or feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of of other subjects which provided an opportunity for nudity, such as Christ being scourged or crucified, or the large number of Last Judgements with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the entire show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The Fall of The Damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the fact that the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to torture and even eat. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was a well-established intellectual practice by the early 1500s.

Initially, humanism focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of the classical mythology which informed them. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. It’s relatively small, but this little drawing is among the most ravishing works in the exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round the exhibition, I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ do not appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, which began to seem increasingly odd to me because some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of naked human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

It may come over as a bit paranoid but looking closely at picture after picture which are obviously about sex, which display sexy young people cavorting sexily, and yet listening to the audioguide and reading all the wall labels, you can’t help noticing the complete absence of the blunt Anglo-Saxon word ‘sex’ in any form.You get the strong impression that it is banned, swept under the carpet. You get the equally strong impression that art scholars prefer to use the vague and willowy term ‘desire’, and you also get the strong impression that ‘same-sex desire’ is the optimum form of this, especially when it comes to men, presumably it is ‘desire’ not targeted at women who have, in recent years, become increasingly touchy about being seen in any kind of sexy context.

Eventually, the banishment of the term ‘sex’ and the failure to point out the sexiness of pretty obviously sexy images led me to believe that male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Not just in this exhibition, but in any other you attend nowadays, any way in which a straight man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but I was struck how they are all banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history. Do you see how the sexy or horny male has been quietly and subtly elided from the picture.

I don’t even really disagree with this view, as such; fine for empowering women, bully for same-sex male desire! It’s more the narrowness of perception I’m complaining about, the sheer tedium of having the same narrow interpretations and carefully limited vocabulary crop up in every art exhibition. For me art opens up, expands broadens my perceptions and ideas and emotions. The repetitive use of just a handful of approved ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters for the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men, often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich sugar daddy? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and Bronzino’s show-off depiction of the red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made by Renaissance artists copying newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and sometimes dismissed as rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artists’ workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion created by Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy (in the example below, of a man’s shoulder).

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated. The founding motif in this subject in the Western tradition is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with a spear as per the Gospel accounts of his interrogation, torture and execution.

There is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. If you can ignore the half naked man being scourged within an inch of his life at the centre, the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were (according to Christian legend) executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on ‘desire’ and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s desire or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives which exist out here in the real world. The universal use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses for the same kind of thing, is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and whippings on display in this room. They were crystallised by this image, which was the first one to make me really disagree with the curators’ interpretations.

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned into the unlikely context of even this dark image.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

Anyway, the curators’ interpretation is so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one

Is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed. The fact that the curators completely miss the religious threat and complexities of the picture in order to focus on the ‘power’ of naked women typifies everything about the shallowness , body obsession and unimaginativeness of their worldview.

Number two

The nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. Surely the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is it just a cooked animal or something worse (i.e. a human body part)? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of smothering investigation and analysis under a blanket of tired clichés and corporate buzz words.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them was a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Netherlandish painter, Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons or bulging musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back towards the little bridge.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti, you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – in my opinion – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming, but I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are. There is something a bit rotten about the Italian paintings, they have the official dullness of those packs of Medici Christmas cards you get in charity shops. Sterile. Dead.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity: they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography, the way the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross was deliberately echoed in depictions of the almost-nudity of countless saints who are shown being tortured to death.

The curators discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (often the belovèd of the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel that it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning – and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy – and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony – and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story – but also key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity – but also incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age – and celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men… or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs… or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400 to 1530.

The opposite: by the end the exhibition has suggested that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and significances which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their many-minded patrons, and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.
  • In fact one of the several medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress a bit to reveal some of her thighs. That’s not nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not, in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between total nudity and the various forms of dress and bodily covering to be found in the pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, each of these statuses drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and their requirement to assert that this period saw The Rise of the Daring Naughty Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world (in its iconography) which often achieved a lovely delicacy and innocence.

This late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny, illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, we learn, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way the artist shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in these books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Yes but note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses as they fall down her back.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of a classic Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists’ workshops, the kind of thing you can nowadays find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker. I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull. The triumph of soulless perfectionism.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen @ the National Gallery

The National Gallery uses room 1 to focus on particular works. (To get there go into the main Trafalgar Square entrance of the gallery, then turn immediate left up the steps, and left again at the landing). These exhibitions, small and thoughtful, are always free.

At the moment they’re displaying one of the world’s best-known animal paintings, Edwin Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, alongside fourteen other paintings and drawings, to set the picture in the context of Landseer’s own technical and psychological development, showing how he developed his distinctive approach to the representation of the stag as hero.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The double doors take up most on one wall so there are in effect three walls in the room:

  • the left-hand wall indicates some of the intellectual and artistic preparation
  • straight ahead is the monarch himself, magnificent, flanked by two other Landseer oil paintings of stags
  • the right-hand wall is devoted to the lion sculptures in Trafalgar Square

1. Preparation

Landseer (1802-73) was one of the most famous and successful artists of his time. Immense painterly talent, charm and good looks helped Landseer achieve early success and he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1850. I didn’t know that, even this young, he was struggling with alcoholism and mental illness.

Landseer had a deep knowledge of earlier painters, such as Rubens, and experimented with large scale complex compositions in the style of the Old Master.

The half dozen drawings and paintings here include a copy of the head of Christ on the Cross, taken from a painting by Rubens. In 1840 Landseer had had a breakdown, and, for his recovery, his doctors suggested a change of scene, so he went on the tour of Europe. He made this very evocative copy on a visit to Antwerp. We know that Rubens compositions lay behind some of Landseer’s earliest representations of horses and dogs, but the head of Christ powerfully introduces the idea of nobility and sacrifice. More, the Rubens Christ suggests a vision of a lone animal struggling against a hostile universe.

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Christ on the Cross after Rubens (1840s) by Edwin Landseer. Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Unexpectedly, there’s a drawing by George Stubbs, with a story behind it. Stubbs (1724-1806) was of course the great painter of horses. In the 1750s he made hundreds of detailed anatomical drawings of horses for his revolutionary book, The Anatomy of Horses, published in 1766. Amazingly, Landseer acquired the entire collection in around 1817 (i.e. still a boy) and they provided crucial inspiration for the young Landseer’s own studies of animal anatomy.

Next to it is a detailed (and rather gruesome) study by Landseer of the flayed leg of a dog. This kind of detailed study of the weaving of muscle and tendon over bone was and is still referred to as an écorché. This is just one of countless écorchés which Landseer made the better to understand the anatomy of the animals he wanted to pain.

Nearby a pencil study of a dead stag combines some of these themes, Landseer’s staggering draughtmanship, based on detailed study of anatomy, underpinned by profound pathos at the fate of a noble animal cruelly, tragically struck down.

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

A Dead Stag by Edwin Landseer. Black and white chalk on paper © National Galleries of Scotland

2. Monarch and other stags

The Monarch of the Glen is hung on the wall facing the visitor, flanked by two other paintings featuring stags. It is by far Landseer’s most famous painting and one of the most famous paintings of an animal in the world.

It was undertaken for the Parliamentary Fine Arts Commission as one of three paintings showing ‘the chase’ i.e. hunting deer. It was originally commissioned to hang above panelling in the dining room of the House of Lords. What a grand location, a constant reminder to the Lords of their nobility and the striking scenery of one of the constituent parts of Great Britain! However, in a typically British fashion, when the time came to pay, the House of Commons refused to grant the £150 promised for the commission, and so the painting went on public sale in the National Gallery and was sold to a private owner. Since then it has passed through about ten sets of hands before the Scottish National Gallery successfully ran a public campaign to buy it for £4 million from the British multinational alcoholic beverages company, Diageo.

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Monarch of the Glen (1851) by Edwin Landseer © National Galleries of Scotland

It was intended to be hung above head height. In other words we are looking up, while the stag is painted serenely looking over our heads into an imagined distance.

Knowing what we now do about Landseer’s mental problems and having Rubens’ Christ fresh in our minds we at least understand Landseer’s intention, if it is in practice difficult to put into words, of conveying the idea of nobility, the idea of a kind of superior spirituality which retains its dignity even in a hostile world.

The commentary points out how Landseer gives tints of light to the tips of the stag’s antlers. This subtly conveys the idea of a band of sunlight breaking through clouds to reflect on the antlers, which we cannot see but which the stag can. It sees the view our backs to. It sees – and knows something which we cannot.

There’s a lot more to be said, about the fantastic painting of the deer’s skin and pelt and fur, the way Landseer captures its variations and shimmer – and of course about the violet colouring of the distant crags, a bringing to perfection of the romantic vision of the Scottish Highlands which was to become iconic.

It comes, then, as an amusing surprise to discover that Landseer painted the entire picture in his studio in St John’s Wood where he kept an extensive menagerie, including deer. And he had, of course, been undertaking regular trips to Scotland, sketching and painting, since 1824,

3. Lions

In 1858 Landseer accepted a presitigious commission to create four sculptures of lions to flank Nelson’s column, directly outside the National Gallery, in Trafalgar Square, completing William Railton’s original design for the monument. Landseer’s appointment proved controversial because he was not a sculptor, however his widespread fame as a painter of animals outweighed reservations.

Landseer prepared by, among other things, spending several years doing detailed drawings of the lions at London Zoo. This all contains four drawings and oil sketches, plus a portrait of Landseer working on the actual sculptures in his studio. This is one of two large oil sketches that Landseer made at the London Zoological Gardens which wonderfully captures the menace and power of a pacing lion.

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

Study of a Lion (about 1862) by Edwin Landseer © Tate, London

There are several more sketches and the painting of him working on one of the clay sculptures which were then cast in bronze, done by John Ballantyne.

it was not immediately obvious why four pictures of lions were in an exhibition devoted to the Monarch of the Glen, except that they are further proof of Landseer’s stunning skill at painting animals and the even simpler fact that the results are there for all visitors to go and visit, after they’ve exited the gallery into the square outside.

Curators talk

I really praise the National Gallery for not only hosting extended talks or lectures or discussions about their exhibitions, but for going to the trouble of filming them and posting them on YouTube.

If you have the time, this is a really good way to enter the world of the art or exhibition being discussed.

Here are Susan Foister, curator of Landseer’s The Monarch of the Glen, and Daniel F. Herrmann, National Gallery curator, discussing the Landseer display.


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Mantegna and Bellini @ the National Gallery

This is a rich, complex and demanding exhibition in all kinds of ways. For a start it was packed out. I took the ticket lady’s advice to go see the 18-minute long film introduction to the show, off in the auditorium to one side of the Sainsbury Gallery, but this meant I didn’t enter the exhibition proper till 10.30, by which time it was so packed that it was difficult to move around and you had to queue to see many of the paintings.

Secondly, it requires you to listen to a daunting amount of art history and scholarship. The art history is central for this is an exhibition which traces the development of the two painters, pointing out with minute attention to detail their differing interests, styles, areas of expertise and actual careers i.e. the cities they lived in, the courtly patrons they worked for, and so on.

In addition there are quite a few paintings and drawings whose accreditation has until recently, or is still, disputed i.e. you are looking at works which may or may not be by either Mantegna or Bellini, and find yourself listening to learned arguments about who, when and why this or that drawing or painting was made.

Biographies

Giovanni Bellini (1435?–1516) and Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) were two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance.

In the 1440s the Bellini family ran the most established and successful artistic workshop in Venice. It was overseen by Giovanni’s father, Jacopo Bellini, one of the greatest artistic inventors of his day, pioneering new visual and intellectual ideas in his influential drawing books.

So Giovanni Bellini was born into what was in effect artistic royalty, and given every possibly chance of a good start in his career. By contrast, Andrea Mantegna was born the son of a humble carpenter, and was an entirely self-made man. Born near Padua his prodigious talent brought him into the workshop of Francesco Squarcione – who in fact adopted him as his own son – and inspired in him a lifelong love of the art and architecture of the antique world.

News of the up-and-coming prodigy reached Jacopo Bellini, who made the entirely practical business move of marrying his daughter Nicolosia to the budding genius in 1453. Bellini and Mantegna were now brothers-in-law, and spent the rest of their lives in contact, in artistic rivalry, borrowing ideas, themes and details from each other’s works right to the end of their lives.

For a decade or so they worked in close physical proximity and the exhibition pairs their paintings on the same subjects, showing how they exchanged motifs and techniques – ways of handling figures, animals, elements of landscape – until, in 1460, Mantegna left to spend the rest of his life working for the Gonzaga family which ruled Mantua.

Two styles

Throughout its six rooms the exhibition brings together major works by both artists, from Britain and abroad, paintings as well as rare sketches and drawings and sculptures and friezes – which allow you to trace a) their similarities and differences b) their individual evolutions c) their lasting influence on later art.

You can get a quick understanding of the two approaches by comparing two depictions of Christ’s agony in the garden. Apparently the notion of depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane waiting, while the apostles slept, for Judas to come and betray him, probably derived from the inventive drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, but it is fascinating to have the two artists’ treatments of the identical subject hanging side by side and the audio-commentary gives a detailed comparison.

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

In Mantegna’s version you notice:

  • the architectural feel of the composition, with very detailed rocks creating a claustrophobic, full feel to the composition and tightly framing the sleeping apostles
  • the foreshortening of the body of the sleeping apostle – Mantegna was one of the first artists in the West to systematically experiment with painting foreshortened figures in perspective: he was so proud of this that he signed the painting in the rocks directly above the sleepers
  • the tightness of the way the road curves from the sleepers round the rocks to the crowd of soldiers and citizens being led by Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus
  • the architectural details of the city of Jerusalem in the background which, when you look closely, has been done with great precision, including a campanile and a copy of the Roman Colosseum
  • there are some rabbits in the road next to one of the apostle’s feet; there are lots of rabbits in Mantegna’s works

No contrast with Bellini’s treatment of the same subject.

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

Whereas Mantegna’s is packed and stacked with lines and planes – of the busy terraces of rocks and road and distant buildings – Bellini’s composition is much more open, and the central slope Christ is praying on is surprisingly bland and smooth. The audio-commentary points out that Bellini had a go at a Mantegna-style foreshortened figure in the centre, but hasn’t brought it off as well as the Paduan.

Instead, the audio-commentary points to the clouds. They are a surprisingly realistic depiction of the pinkness of dawn, drawing on contemporary Flemish landscape painting. The clouds are not just part of the background as in the Mantegna, but carefully crafted in order to create an atmosphere. Same with the city on the hill to the left. If you look closely (and the joy of visiting exhibitions is that you can look really closely at all these wonderful paintings) you see that the buildings lack detail (windows or doors) and are soft and hazy – much as you would actually see buildings in the far distance in sunny Italy.

This comparison brings out the way that Mantegna is interested in architectural detail and framing, of not only buildings but of people. His works have great clarity and are often full of learned details – he is an intellectual painter – but can also feel harsh and forbidding.

By comparison all Bellini’s works have a softness about them. Whereas Mantegna is interested in line and content, Bellini is interested in tone and atmosphere.

Mantegna = compositional innovation
Bellini = atmospheric, natural landscapes

Mantegna versus Bellini

By and large, whenever I saw a painting from a distance, before I could read the label, I could tell the two artists apart: Bellini’s always have soft outlines, Mantegna’s always have much more defined, sometimes almost cartoon-clear outlines.

By and large I much preferred the Mantegna. Wherever possible the exhibition places paintings on similar subjects by the pair together, so you can compare and contrast, for example their contemporaneous depictions of Saint Jerome in the Desert. Mantegna’s Jerome is set among characteristically lined, striated, and precise rock and is packed with detail – Bellini’s image is much sparer and softer and the composition is emptier, less busy, more atmospheric.

Really looking at these, again, I think I prefer the Mantegna because it is more medieval: he is interested in the saint’s flat-brimmed red hat, in his wooden sandals, in the wooden rack hanging from nails in his cave, in the owl – presumably signifying wisdom – perching at the top of the cave, and so on. I find these details interesting, diverting, charming – and so find the Bellini empty and bland and so you are left solely to concentrate on the bad draughtsmanship of both man and lion.

Similarly, there are direct comparisons between their treatments of Christ’s descent into hell, and the presentation of the infant Christ at the Temple.

Here’s an early Mantegna which shows his love of classical architecture and the way he uses it to frame his compositions. You can look at this painting for quite a long time, enjoying the use of the pillar and broken arch to support the punctured saint. The detailing of the frieze on the stonework is exquisite, as it is in the rubble at his feet or the faces in the broken frieze behind him. The more you look, the more breath-taking the detail becomes. And that’s before you begin to investigate the background, where you can see the three archers who have just done Sebastian to death, strolling casually along the road to the left on their way back to the city across the river, which is itself painted in tiny finicky detail. But it’s the architectural solidity of the composition which is dominant.

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The future of painting

I preferred Mantegna all the way through until we came to the last few rooms. Here, suddenly, Bellini metamorphosed into the Future of Painting and Mantegna suddenly looked old and wooden. Suddenly Bellini was making paintings of Greek mythical subjects which had a softness and haziness, a kind of sweetness about them, which looks like Titian, which looks forward to the next hundred years.

In my ignorance, when I saw this across a crowded room, I thought the bucolic setting and very bright colours meant it was by Poussin. It is in fact still a Bellini, but worlds away from the stilted drawing of Jerome. That was 1460. Now it is nearly fifty years later and Bellini has made extraordinary strides in the art of composition and colouring. Instead of an empty desert he gives us a lazy relaxed pagan landscape in which a whole host of Greek mythical characters are lounging and flirting.

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The commentary tells us that Titian (1488-1576) was much influenced by Bellini whose workshop he trained in from 1507, and that Titian almost certainly ‘refined’ and ‘improved’ this work by Bellini. You can feel one master handing on the baton to Titian, who will have a transformative effect on Western art. Suddenly, in late Bellini, you feel like you are confronting the future of Western art.

On the opposite wall of this, the fourth and largest room in the exhibition, are hanging three enormous, absolutely huge (2.66 x 2.78 m) paintings depicting the Triumph of Caesar. Mantegna originally created nine of these monster paintings between 1484 and 1492 for the Gonzaga Ducal Palace in Mantua. Acknowledged from the time of Mantegna as his greatest masterpiece, they remain the most complete pictorial representation of a Roman triumph ever attempted.

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on canvas.  Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The structured nature of the composition is awesome. You can feel the intelligence and care which has gone into positioning every element, and Mantegna’s unparalleled knowledge of every element of classical life, which he had spent a lifetime studying.

Still, placed next to the Bellini gods, it feels stagey, and it feels dated. In them Mantegan reaches a kind of peak of magnificence of the architectural composition which he pioneered, and this kind of grand historical painting will go on to be perfected by artists like Veronese. But a glance at the softer, subtler shapes of the Bellini feast tells you that it is his style which will go on to dominate future art.

To see what I mean compare these portraits from the final room of the exhibition. Here is Mantegna demonstrating, as throughout his career, an interest in line and composition. Note the amazing detail on the fabric of the Madonna, and the gauntly ‘realistic’ expressions of the faces of her parents.

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

Now compare with a Virgin and child (with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene thrown in for good measure) by Bellini.

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

This reproduction doesn’t do it any justice. In the flesh this is a quite hauntingly, atmospheric painting. The way the softly painted women emerge from the Stygian background is quite magical.

The commentary emphasises that Mantegna’s portraits were often painted with egg tempera or using glue, a technique which resulted in an often dull matt finish, a finish which brought out the line and composition he considered so important.

By sharp contrast, by his later years, Bellini has mastered the use of oil paint to create works of tremendous atmosphere and depth. Although the figures in this painting are not exactly naturalistic, the use of oil joins them together with a real psychological power. Plus Bellini has become a real master of painting details in oil. I marvelled at the exquisite detailing of the pearls and jewels lining the cloaks of Catherine and the Magdalene. This reproduction doesn’t begin to convey what an intense and powerful painting this is in the flesh.

Bellini wins

If this was a football match I’d have said Mantegna was leading 1-0 until the 89th minute and then Bellini stole up and won it with a late equaliser and a winning goal in extra time.

All the way through I had preferred Mantegna’s statuesque line figures and his use of classical architecture and symbolism to adorn paintings historical and mythological. Then, in the last couple of rooms, in  his full maturity, Bellini seems to soar to an entirely new place in terms of technique.

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

This reproduction also doesn’t do justice to the original. You could stand for hours just marvelling in Bellini’s use of oil paint in this large portrait, especially in the unbelievable detailing of the Doge’s gown.

The commentary makes the subtle point that the left side of his mouth, in sunlight, is firm and set, whereas the right side, in relative shade, bears the hint of a smile. This can be taken as an allegory of the character required to be leader of a city, a mixture of light (justice) with shade (forgiveness and humour).

In these last few works you can see why the curators claims that without these works imbued with their creativity and innovation, Renaissance art by the likes of Titian, Correggio, and Veronese, would not exist as it does today.

There is much, much more to see at this terrific exhibition, much which repays really intense historical, scholarly, intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s an effort, but the rewards are tremendous.

Room by room

One – Beginnings

Introduces the cultural environments of the two cities that shaped Mantegna and Bellini – Padua and Venice. Shows how the tastes of dominant patrons and their working environments (including the family-run workshop) played a role in the development of the artists. Highlight: ‘The Jacopo Bellini album’ on loan from the British Museum (which has lent 18 works to the exhibition). Jacopo’s sketchbook is a key starting point for ‘Mantegna and Bellini.’

Room two – Explorations

Examines the mutual impact of each artist on the other during the years of their closest creative exchange, around the time of the marriage that made them brothers-in-law. A number of juxtapositions compare and contrast their approach to near identical compositions e.g. ‘The Descent into Limbo’ and ‘The Crucifixion’.

Room Three – Pietà

Focuses on the origins and development of a distinctive new type of image in Christian art, the Dead Christ supported by Angels. Works include sculptural reliefs (such as Mantegna’s ‘Grablegung Christ’) as well as works on paper (Mantegna’s Pietà, 1456–9) and Bellini’s tempera on panel ‘Pietà’ from the Uffizi Gallery.

Room Four – Landscape

Explores the enormous importance of Bellini’s particular contribution to the history of art – the depiction of beautifully observed landscape, natural light, and atmosphere as a key element of the composition and meaning of religious works, including Bellini’s ‘Resurrection of Christ’

Highlight: first chance to see the newly restored National Gallery work, ‘The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr’ (about 1507).

A number of pairings will reveal the differences in approach to landscape between the two artists – and also reveal the ways in which Bellini’s exceptional talent had a lasting effect on Mantegna (such as in his astonishingly accurate view of Mantua in his ‘Death of the Virgin’, 1462).

Room five – Devotional Paintings and Portraits

A focused insight into a particular contribution to Italian Renaissance art – the development of the ‘sacra conversazione’ in which the seated Virgin and Child appear in the company of saints (‘in conversation’) as if occupying the same space and breathing the same air.

Mantegna’s ‘Holy Family’ (1495-1500) and ‘Madonna and Child’ (1455–60) will be placed next to Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with two Saints’ and ‘The Virgin and Child’ (about 1475).

Room six – Antiquity

Features some of the largest and most spectacular loans, which showcase Mantegna’s particular brilliance in the use of antique models and subjects to drive innovation in his art.

Highlight: three of his great ‘Triumphs of Caesar’ (The Bearers of Standards and ‘Siege Equipment’, ‘The Vase-Bearers’, and ‘The Elephants’, c.1484–92) , monumental tempera on canvas works measuring almost three metres square, lent by Her Majesty The Queen.

Contrasted with these will be sculptural monochromes by Bellini, including ‘An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio’ (about 1506) and ‘Two men in antique dress’, along with one of his final paintings, ‘The Drunkenness of Noah’ (about 1515).

In case you need any more persuading, Dr Caroline Campbell, Director of Collections and Research at the National Gallery and curator of ‘Mantegna and Bellini’, says:

Exhibitions focusing on 15th-century art are rare as the works involved are often fragile and so cannot travel very often – therefore ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore the relationship and work of these two artists who played such a pivotal role in the history of art.

Curator’s introduction


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Living with gods @ the British Museum

There are two major exhibition spaces in the British Museum, the big Sainsbury Gallery at the back of the main court where they hold blockbuster shows like The Vikings or The Celts; and the more intimate semi-circular space up the stairs on the first floor of the central rotunda.

The setting

This latter location is where Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond is currently showing.

The space is divided into ‘rooms’ or sections by translucent white linen curtains, on which the shadows of exhibits and visitors are cast. At floor level hidden lights project shimmering patterns onto the wall. Low-key ambient noises – strange rustlings, breathings, the rattling of unknown instruments – fill the air.

All this sets the scene and creates a mood, because this is an exhibition not of religious beliefs, but of religious objects, designed to tell the story of the relationship between human beings and their gods, or – more abstractly – their sense of the supernatural, through rare and precious religious artefacts from around the world.

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo, 20th century This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy pople from initiation ceremonies for yound men. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Terror mask Pende, Republic of Congo (20th century) This mask is worn to frighten away women and nosy people from initiation ceremonies for young men © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Themes

The objects are grouped by ‘theme’, namely:

  • Light, water, fire
  • Sensing other worlds
  • Sacred places and spaces
  • Prayer
  • Festivals
  • The cycle of life
  • Sacrifice
  • Coexistence

There are brief wall labels introducing each theme. Personally, I found these rather weak and obvious but then it’s a tricky task to summarise humanity’s entire history and relationship with, say, Prayer, in just four sentences.

Very often these texts are forced to state pretty empty truisms. One tells us that ‘Water is essential to life, but also brings chaos and death’. OK.

Another that ‘Religions shape the way people perceive the world by engaging all their senses.’ Alright. Fine as far as they go, but not really that illuminating.

Wonder toad China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Wonder toad from China © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Individual information

The labels of individual exhibits are more specific and so more interesting. But here again, because artefacts from different cultures, geographical locations, religions and periods are placed next to each other, it is difficult, if not impossible, to get any real sense of context.

It may well be that:

Seeing out the old year in Tibet requires a purifying dance or cham. These lively masked and costumed dances are performed by Buddhist monks to rid the world of evil and bring in compassion.

Or that:

On 31 October every year, Mexicans remember the dead by staying at the graves of loved ones through the night. Theatrical processions symbolise fears and fantasies of the world of the dead. Judas, who denounced Christ to the Roman authorities, is displayed as a devil. Judas figures are also paraded and exploded on Easter Saturday.

But by the time you’re reading the tenth or fifteenth such snippet of information, it’s gotten quite hard to contain or process all this information. The whole world of religious artefacts for all known human religions is, well… a big subject.

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judas-devil figure, Mexico City © The Trustees of the British Museum

So the weaknesses of the exhibition are its lack:

  • of intellectual depth – none of the room labels tell you anything you didn’t already know about the importance of light or water in religious belief
  • and of conceptual coherence – just giving each section a ‘theme’ and a few explanatory sentences isn’t, in the end, enough

Best objects

On the plus side, Living with gods is a rich collection of fascinating, evocative and sometimes very beautiful objects from all round the world. Because they’re so varied – from prayer mats to medieval reliquaries, from the tunics which Muslim pilgrims to Mecca wear to Inuit figures made of fur, from a statue of Buddha to a wooden model of a Hindu chariot – there’s something for every taste.

I had two favourite moments. One was the display case of African masks. I love African tribal art, it has a finish, a completeness, and a tremendous pagan primitive power, combined with high skill at metal working, which I find thrilling.

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right)

Installation view of Living with gods showing African masks (left) and the Mexican Judas figure (right) In the background is a painted model of a Hindu temple vehicle.

The other was a modern piece by Syrian-born artist Issam Kourbaj, called Dark Water, Burning World, a set of model boats made out of refashioned bicycle mudguards, filled with burnt-out matches, representing the refugee crisis. How simple. How elegant. How poignant. How effective.

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

Dark Water, Burning World by Issam Kourbaj

I don’t quite understand how this latter is a religious artefact. It strikes me as being probably more a work of art than a religious object.

The show as a whole goes heavy on artefacts from the obvious world religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Daoism, Shintoism – as well as the ancient beliefs of the Persians, Assyrians and so on, plus sacred objects produced by non-literate tribal peoples such as the Yupik of Alaska or Siberian tribes. It is nothing if not global and all-encompassing.

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Shiva Nataraja Chennai, India (1800-1900) As Nataraja, Hindu deity Shiva performs a perpetual dance of creation and destruction. © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Static

Although the exhibition claims to ‘explore the practice and expression of religious beliefs in the lives of individuals and communities around the world and through time’, it doesn’t.

Most religions are expressed by actions and rituals, dances, prayers, blessings, festivals, processions and so on. A moment’s reflection would suggest that the best way to convey this – in fact the only way to really convey these events and activities – would be through a series of films or videos.

Downstairs in the African galleries of the British Museum there are, for example, videos of tribal masks being worn by witch doctors and shamen performing dances, exorcisms and so on, which give a vivid (and terrifying) sense of how the head dresses, masks and implements are meant to be used in religious rituals, how they’re still being used to this day.

There is none of that here. Nothing moves. No words are spoken, in blessing or benediction. It is a gallimaufrey of static artefacts – all interesting, some very beautiful – but all hermetically sealed in their display cases. I found the lack of movement of any kind a little… antiseptic. Dry.

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine, 1600–1700 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Bethlehem, Palestine (1600–1700) The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of the holiest places of Christianity and attracts many pilgrims. Souvenir models of the church are bought and taken all over the world. © The Trustees of the British Museum

BBC radio series

The exhibition was planned to coincide with a series of 30 15-minute radio programmes made by BBC Radio 4 and presented by the former Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor.

MacGregor scored a massive hit with his wonderful radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, broadcast in 2010. The 30 programmes in the Living with the gods series were broadcast in the autumn of 2017. Quite probably the best thing to do would have been to listen to the series and then come to look at the objects he mentioned. Or to have downloaded the programmes to a phone or Ipod and listened to them as you studied each object.

You can still listen to them free on the BBC website.

MacGregor is a star because he is so intelligent. Without any tricks or gimmicks he gets straight down to business, describing and explaining each of the objects and confidently placing them in the context of their times and places, within their systems of belief, and in the wider context of the development of the human mind and imagination. Just by listening to him you can feel yourself getting smarter.

I recommend episode 4, Here comes the sun, as one of the most awe-inspiring.

The radio programmes score over the actual exhibition because, at fifteen minutes per theme, there are many more words available in which to contextualise, explain and ponder meanings and implications, than the two or three sentences which is all the space the exhibition labels can provide.

The individual fire-related items are fairly interesting to look at in the exhibition. But MacGregor can weave an entire narrative together which links the perpetual fire in the Temple of Vesta in Rome, the worship of Ahura-Mazda in Sassanian Persia, the great Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and the Flame of the Nation which burns beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

His words bring to life exhibits which I found remained stubbornly lifeless in this hushed and sterile environment.

Religious belief as tame anthropology, drained of threat

Above all I bridled a little at the touchy-feely, high mindedness of the show, with its tone of hushed reverence and for its equation of all religious into the same category of cute Antiques Roadshow curiosities.

The commentary goes long on human beings’ capacity for ‘symbolising our thoughts in stories and images’, on our capacity for ‘love and sorrow’, on how ‘powerful, mystical ideas govern personal lives as well as defining cultural identities and social bonds’, and so on.

The commentary wistfully wonders whether human beings, rather than being labelled Homo sapiens shouldn’t be recategorised as Homo religiosus. Here as at numerous points in the commentary, I think you are meant to heave a sensitive sigh. It all felt a bit like a creative writing workshop where everyone is respecting everyone else’s sensibilities.

None of this is exactly untrue but I felt it overlooks the way that, insofar as religious beliefs have been intrinsic to specific cultures and societies over the millennia, they have also been inextricably linked with power and conquest.

To put it simply:

  • human history has included a shocking number of religious wars and crusades
  • religious belief and practice in most places have reinforced hierarchies of control and power

Rather than Homo religiosus, an unillusioned knowledge of human history suggests that, if man is anything, he is Homo interfector.

There is ample evidence that religion provides a way for believers to control and manage their fear and anxiety of powers completely beyond their control, the primal events of birth and death, natural disasters, the rotation of the seasons, the vital necessity of animals to hunt and kill and crops to grow and eat.

Central to any psychological study of religion is the way it provides comfort against the terror of death, with its various promises of a happy afterlife; and also the role it plays in defining and policing our sexual drives. Finding answers to the imponderable problems of sex and death have been time-honoured functions of religious belief.

On a social level, religion hasn’t only been a way to control our fears and emotions – it also has a long track record as a means to channel internal emotions into externalised aggression. You can’t have a history of Christianity without taking into account the early internecine violence between sects and heretics, which broke out anew with the 150 years of Religious War following the Reformation; without taking into account its violent conquests of pagan Europe which only ground to a halt in the 13th century or recognising the crusades to the Holy Land, or admitting to the anti-Semitism which is built deep into Christianity’s DNA. For every Saint Francis who wrote songs to the birds there is a man like Cistercian abbot Arnaud Amalric who told his troops to massacre the entire population of Béziers in 1209, claiming that God would sort out the good from the bad. ‘Kill them all. God will know his own.’

The history of Islam  may well be a history of religious sages and philosophers, but it is also a history of military conquest. The Aztecs and the Incas practiced really horrifying human sacrifices. As did the Celts And bloodily so on.

My point is summarised by the great English poet, Geoffrey Hill, who wrote back in 1953:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold
To ravage and redeem the world:
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

(Genesis by Geoffrey Hill)

‘There is no bloodless myth will hold’.

Christianity is represented here by processional crosses and rosary beads and a beautiful golden prayer book. The other religions are represented by similarly well-crafted and beautiful objects.

But my point is that Christianity is based on the story of a man who was tortured to death to please an angry God. Blood drips from his pierced hands and feet. The early theologian Tertullian wrote, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’ Shiah Muslims flagellate themselves every Muḥarram (I watched them doing it in the mountains of Pakistan. The hotel owner told me to stay indoors in case one of the inflamed believers attacked me.) As I write some 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced from their homes by Buddhist populations.

My point is that religion isn’t all uplifting sentiments and beautiful works of art.

Religion does not show us what we all share in common: that is a pious liberal wish. Much more often it is used to define and police difference, between genders, castes and races.

Religion is just as much about conquest and massacre. And I’m not particularly knocking religion; I’m saying that human beings are as much about massacre and murder as they are about poetry and painting. And that poetry, painting and exhibitions like this which lose sight of the intrinsic violence, the state sponsored pogroms and the religious massacres which are a key part of human history give a misleading – a deceptively gentle and reassuring – view of the world.

Tibetan New Year dance mask Tibet © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

Tibetan New Year dance mask © Religionskundliche Sammlung der Universität Marburg, Germany

I’m one of the few people I know who has read the entire Bible. Certain themes recur but not the kind of highbrow sentiments you might hope for. I was struck by the number of time it is written in both the Old Testament and the New Testament that:

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10)

There are many very beautiful and very interesting objects in this exhibition but I felt that they were presented in an atmosphere of bloodless, New Age, multicultural spirituality. Put bluntly: there wasn’t enough fear and blood.

Some videos

Promotional video

Exhibition tour


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

%d bloggers like this: