Complete Letters of Pliny the Younger translated by P.G. Walsh (2006)

Gaius Pliny sends greetings to his friend Septicius Clarus
“On numerous occasions you have urged me to assemble and to publish such letters as I had composed with some care. I have now assembled them without maintaining chronological sequence, for I was not compiling a history, but as each happened to come to hand.”
(Opening of the first letter in Pliny’s Collected Letters)

The letters of Cicero

The letters of Pliny the Younger (61 to around 113 AD) are as famous as those if Cicero (106 to 43 BC) but different. Cicero lived in extremely turbulent times and was right at the centre of events, a personal friend of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Brutus and other key players in the political crises which led to the civil war of 49 BC. Plus he had a highly developed interest in rhetoric, poetry and philosophy, plus he had an exuberant gregarious showman personality, all of which makes his letters a joy to read 2,000 years later.

Pliny’s career

Pliny, by contrast, was a much more sober figure. His uncle (Pliny the Elder, 23 to 79 AD) was a confidante of the emperor Vespasian and a member of the imperial council. The nephew was a lifelong civil servant and administrator, moving smoothly up the ranks of the Roman administration: thus he progressed through the posts of quaestor, plebeian tribune and praetor during the reign of the emperor Domitian (ruled 81 to 96 AD) and then, under the long, peaceful rule of Trajan (98 to 117) his career really took off.

Pliny served as prefect to the military treasury then, after Domitian was assassinated in 96, prefect of the treasury of Saturn. Then, in 100, he was made suffect consul. It was on this occasion that he delivered a speech of thanks to Trajan in the senate and this speech has survived in its entirety; he called it the Panegyricus. In 103 Pliny was appointed to the college of augurs, all the more pleased because this was a position his hero, Cicero, had held. In 104, he was appointed curator of then Tiber (responsible for protecting against flooding etc). Finally, the peak of his career came with his appointment as governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus in 109 (or 110), where he probably died in post a few years later (scholars think this because the letters abruptly cease in 113).

Pliny’s letters

Pliny’s letters are arranged into ten books. Books 1 to 9 contain 246 letters all from Pliny himself; book 10 contains 121 letters, some authored by himself, some by the emperor Trajan. All the letters were written between 97 and 112, during the principates of Nerva and Trajan.

The absolutely key fact to grasp is that, unlike Cicero’s letters, Pliny’s letters are not arranged in chronological order – instead, they have been carefully organised to display the breadth of Pliny’s interests and the wide range of recipients. In this respect the letters are a calculating form of autobiography.

(Autobiography as we understand it didn’t really appear in Latin until the Confessions of Saint Augustine in about 400 AD. Military and political figures had written commentaries on their careers and decisions – notably Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars – and Cicero had pioneered a way of making a collection of letters build up into a kind of mosaic autobiography, a self portrait from multiple angles. But no autobiography as such till the Christian saint.)

Thus Pliny’s letters are artfully grouped to show the author to best advantage, as advocate in the courts, politician in the senate, knowledgeable man of letters, as owner of numerous properties and estates, as devoted husband to his wife.

(In fact Pliny married three times: firstly, when he was about 18, to a stepdaughter of Veccius Proculus, who died at age 37; secondly to the daughter of Pompeia Celerina; and thirdly to Calpurnia. Of these three it’s Calpurnia who we have letters to, in which Pliny recorded their marriage, conveys is love for her, and his grief when she miscarried a baby.)

Topics and subjects

The editor and translator of the Oxford University Press paperback edition of the letters, Professor P.G. Walsh, groups the letters under the following headings:

Advocate

Pliny as advocate in the law courts (book 2, letter11; 2.14; 4.9; 5.20).

Politician

Pliny as politician, speaking in the senate, working with the emperor (8.14; 9.13 and book 10 throughout).

His wife

Pliny married three times but we have few references to the first two, whereas there are plenty of letters to the third, Calpurnia (4.19; 6.4; 7.5; sadness about her miscarriage 8.10).

The death or illness of friends

And the way illness prompts thoughts of suicide in some (1.12; 1.22)

Diatribes against enemies

Such as Marcus Aquilius Regulus, the noted informer under Domitian’s tyranny, ‘wealthy, leader of a faction’ (1.5; 2.20; 4.2): the cumulative effect of the letters on this topic is to remind you how utterly toxic, rivalrous and dangerous Roman political life could be; everyone prosecuted everyone else for all manner of complex political or financial reasons, and if you lost the case you were liable to exile at best, execution at worst.

Roman social life

Visits to the theatre (7.24), dinner parties, particularly promoting the high-minded atmosphere at his dinner parties compared with the vulgarity of other peoples’ (1.15; 2.6; 9.17).

Slaves

Pliny takes a liberal humanitarian view (5.6; 5.19; 8.1; 8.16; 8.19), in one letter explaining that he is keen to manumit or free as many of his educated slaves as possible in order to populate his native town (Comum, by Lake Como in north Italy) with good citizens. No question of freeing his uneducated workers, though.

Education

The Roman system of education echoed the three-part system of the Greeks:

  • primary school under a litterator till the age of 7
  • secondary school under a grammaticus until the age of 11
  • upon receipt of the toga of manhood at 14, a boy proceeded to the school of rhetoric where me would stay till 18, maybe longer. Children of the wealthy were often taught at home by tutors

Literary life

Attendance at other peoples’ readings (1.13; 6.17) and his own works which include the Panegyricus (3.18) and his poems (9.34). Pliny describes the works of half a dozen contemporary poets, describes public readings, corresponds with his friends Tacitus and Suetonius.

He defends his poetry against the accusation of vulgarity, arguing that, if some of the subject matter is coarse and the language vulgar, this is to suit the genre, claiming like Catullus, Ovid and others, that his verse may be indecent but is no reflection of his upstanding life and morals (5.3).

Tacitus, Suetonius and Martial

The letters give the immodest impression that he is on friendly terms with all the major literary figures of the day. He is especially proud of his close friendship with Tacitus (born 56, 5 years before Pliny), to whom 11 letters are addressed. They worked together as prosecutors in the trial of Marius Priscus (2.11) and his description of the eruption of Vesuvius was written as a favour for Tacitus (see below). He sends his friend details of his involvement in another prosecution in the hope that Tacitus will include it in his Histories. Their relationship is one of ‘devoted pupil to master’.

By contrast his relationship with Suetonius (born 69 i.e. 8 years younger) is one of patron to protegé. Pliny helps the younger man secure posts in the administration (3.8) or buy property (1.24). The letters track Suetonius’s rising fame, as his early works of biography are published, till we find Pliny asking the younger man advice about technique for reading poetry in public recitations (9.34). Scholars think Pliny may have found Suetonius a job on his staff as governor of Pontus. And that Suetonius was close enough to the older man to have played a role in gathering his letters for publication.

Martial was about 20 years older than Pliny (born around 41 AD). He composed an obituary when he heard of Martial’s death (3.21). From this we learn that Pliny contributed to Martial’s travelling costs when the older man retired from Rome and went back to his home town in Spain in 97.

Speeches

Pliny considered himself an orator and spent his leisure time revising his speeches, of which he is inordinately proud, for publication, a process described in now fewer than 15 letters; in the centuries-old debate between the two main styles of rhetoric – the Attic style, compressed and factual, or the Asiatic style, more flowery – he comes down on the Asiatic side, defending it for greater richness of vocabulary and figures of speech (9.26).

Pliny’s style

Some of the letters comment on what the style of an ideal letter should be. In 7.98 he suggests to a young friend looking for advice about oratory that we look to letters ‘for language which is compressed and unadorned.’ In 1.16 he describes hearing someone else’s letters read out as being like listening to Plautus or Terence without the metre. Walsh summarises Pliny appeared to believe letters should be written in a plain but educated style. This, Walsh points out, is why Pliny’s letters make better material for teaching Latin than the more ornate and stylised speeches of Cicero or history of Livy (p.xxxii).

Pliny reveres Cicero

Walsh says Cicero was Pliny’s ‘idol’ (p.xxii). Pliny refers to Cicero’s integrity and also his, by this period, legendary eloquence. He was especially gratified to be appointed to the College of Augurs in 103 because this was a position Cicero had held some 170 years earlier.

Also, of course, in compiling a collection of his letters, Pliny must have had in mind the example of Cicero’s correspondence, published by his secretary soon after his death in the 43 BC, considering what did and did not work. As it happens Cicero’s 914 letters are the earliest surviving collection we have of the genre. Walsh makes the useful point that there can be considered three types of letter:

  • the verse letter, as developed by Horace in his Epistles and by Ovid, artfully in his Heroides, and then with pathetic pleading in his Black Sea letters
  • the philosophical letter, represented by the stodgy collection of Stoic teachings written by Seneca the Younger to his friend Lucilius
  • the genuine and general letter

But there’s another element which struck me, which is boastfulness. Cicero was famously and often ludicrously self-important. I base this on a reading of his legal speeches and letters, his endless reminders in these and his philosophical writings that he single-handedly saved the Roman state against the Catiline conspiracy, and the fact that he wrote a long poem about this feat which was ridiculed by his contemporaries and later readers.

Walsh appears to take Pliny at face value when he describes himself as modest (pxxii) but, personally, I found some of the letters rather boastful, where he talks about people stopping talking when he comes into a room or his acolytes and devotees. Pace Walsh I found him quite full of himself and his views and this, in a roundabout way, is indeed a tribute to his idol Cicero who was notoriously self-promoting and boastful.

Two standout topics

So his correspondence offers a variety of subject matter and insights into the lifestyle, responsibilities and opinions of a senior official of the first century Roman Empire, but never quite the acute intensity and excitement of Cicero’s letters. There are two standout moments in the correspondence:

1. Vesuvius

Pliny’s father died when he was young and he was adopted by his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was the author, among other things, of a natural history. Young Pliny picked up an interest in the natural world from his uncle and this is demonstrated at various moments throughout the letters.

The most famous passage is his extended description of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in August 79 AD and which Pliny witnessed at first hand. I was fascinated to learn that Pliny wrote this at the request of his friend Tacitus who included it in a now-lost part of the Histories. Letter 6.16 describes how his uncle, as commander of the fleet at Micenum had ordered a galley to go close to the shore so he could observe the huge ash cloud emerging from the volcano. Here he received urgent messages for help from friends at the threatened town of Stabiae so he took the galley into port, and went to see them. With remarkable foolishness, he dined and slept the night as the condition of the volcano deteriorated. He was woken in the middle of the night to discover the state of the sea was too disordered to set sail and it was here, on the beach, that Pliny the Elder and his party of friends, bombarded with falling pumice stones, all died of asphyxiation.

Latter 6.20 reverts to the experience of Pliny himself. Just 17 years old and left at Misenum with his mother, overnight on 24-25 August they feel all the buildings shake and the lad guides his mother out of the town, accompanied by a stream of panic-stricken townspeople. When the thick black cloud descends he takes his mother to one side, so they don’t get trampled in the panic. When daylight comes they look about them at a landscape covered with ash as if by snow. At which point they trudge back into the town, to be greeted by blood-curdling prophecies of doom.

Absent from either letter is any description of the two towns famously devastated by the catastrophe, Pompeii and Herculaneum.

2. Christians

The famous exchange in a couple of letters where Pliny writes to his boss, the emperor Trajan, in his capacity as governor of Pontus, asking his advice what to do with the troublesome new sect of Christians which have begun to be noticeable in the province (Pliny’s enquiry is letter 10.96 and Trajan’s reply 10.97, introduction p.xxiii).

This raises the broader point that his correspondence with Trajan, which is gathered in the tenth and final book, is extremely illuminating for the directness and openness of their exchanges. Pliny writes to the emperor conveying his best wishes then briskly getting to the point of describing this or that problem; and we are sooo fortunate to have Trajan’s replies, which come back with equally brisk and practical advice. With regard to the Christians, this little exchange is ‘famous’ because it tends to be quoted or summarised in just about every account of early Christianity, which is a lot.

Walsh’s notes

The OUP World Classics edition strikes me as being outstanding. P.G. Walsh’s 26-page introduction is a model of clarity and thoughtful analysis. There’s a handy map of Bithynia and Pontus featuring all the places mentioned in book 10 when Pliny was governor there. There’s an up-to-date bibliography and a simple clear timeline of Pliny’s life.

But the glory of the book is its notes. The letters were arranged to offer a many-sided portrait of their author and the times he lived in. They are addressed to a very wide variety of friends, relatives, colleagues and so on and they make reference to all sorts of topics of contemporary interest, some of which are listed above. Walsh provides 80 pages of notes which give potted profiles of every one of the addresses and pick up and explicate every one of the numerous references, to people, places and events. Read slowly and carefully, Pliny’s letters and Walsh’s notes provide a fascinating overview of the man and his times.

Greek and French

Walsh explains that educated Romans frequently dropped Greek phrases or quotes from Greek classic literature (Homer or the playwrights) into their texts. It’s interesting that he chooses to replicate this by using French tags in his English translation (though obviously keeping and translating into English actual quotes from Homer et al). The interest being that French tags in English play a comparable role to Greek tags in Latin, namely to show off your education and intellectual credentials. To swank, meaning: ‘to display one’s wealth, knowledge, or achievements in a way that is intended to impress others.’


Credit

‘The Complete letters of Pliny the Younger’, translated and introduced by P.G. Walsh, was published by Oxford University Press in 2006. All references are to the OUP World Classics paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Why Seneca was wrong

In his ‘Letters to Lucilius’ Seneca expounds his version of Stoic philosophy. As I explain in my review of the letters, I think they consist more of a mix of moral exhortation and self-help advice than a fully worked-out ‘philosophy’. But on the occasions when he does set out to argue from first principles I find myself quite strongly disagreeing with just about every assertion and every argument Seneca makes. Letter 76 lays out the premises of Seneca’s philosophy with particular clarity (a ‘premise’ being defined as “a statement taken to be true and used as a basis for argument or reasoning”) from which I extract the following sequence of assertions.

Seneca’s argument

Seneca says there is a God who made the universe and created man. Wrong.

Seneca says God planted a fragment of divine Reason in man. Wrong. No God, no divine Reason.

Seneca says every created thing has one particular merit or attribute which sets it apart – the fruit of the vine, the speed of the stag, the strong back of a pack animal, the hunting dog’s sense of smell and so on. The one distinctive attribute of human beings is Reason. Wrong:

a) This notion that every thing has just one peculiar merit is primitive and childish. Quite clearly all living organisms have multiple features and qualities. Study biology.

b) To say that the One Special Thing about humans is Reason is a wild underestimate of the numberless qualities which contribute to human survival and evolution. As one example, according to my son the biologist, humans can run for longer than any other animal, not a massively important attribute but a refutation of Seneca’s claim that there is just one thing which sets humans apart from other animals. Then there’s also the small factor of the opposable thumb, which gives us the ability to manipulate tools and develop the countless inventions and technologies we have devised – far more distinctive than ‘divine Reason’.

(As an indication of how malleable this argument is, I have just read in Tacitus’s Histories the stirring speech of Gaius Julius Civilis who tells his warriors that The One Distinctive Thing About Humans is Courage [Tacitus, Histories, book 4, chapter 17]. 1,900 years later, Jean-Paul Sartre would claim the One Distinctive Thing About Humans is our existentialist Freedom. It’s a parlour game. Anyone can join in.)

c) Anyway, humans are emphatically not rational. Humans are wildly irrational. A book like Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality, which brings together a century of psychological study of how clumsily and irrationally all humans think, almost all the time, demolishes the Rationalist argument forever.

d) The entire form of this argument is tendentious because it is clearly designed to justify what follows.

Seneca says all these animals are designed to ‘reach the goal of their nature’ i.e. they aspire to maximise the distinctive attribute given to them by God. Wrong. There is no God and this one, special attribute doesn’t exist. Seneca has invented it for the sake of his argument.

Seneca says that, seeing as man’s one special attribute is Reason, and that all beings find their greatest fulfilment when they maximise their one special attribute, it follows that man will be happiest and most fulfilled when he cultivates his Reason to the max.

Well:

a) It’s wrong to say that man’s one special attribute is ‘Reason’.

b) Humans are wildly irrational.

c) Since it doesn’t exist, this ‘Reason’ can’t be developed to the max as if that implies one, widely agreed state of mind.

d) If this notion of ‘Reason’ actually existed, surely all ‘philosophers’ would agree about it, whereas anyone who’s read a bit of philosophy immediately discovers that there are hundreds of ‘philosophies’ and philosophers who completely contradict each other.

e) Far from ‘philosophy’ making its practitioners calm and content, there’s plenty of evidence that some of the greatest philosophers were deeply unhappy individuals: characters as different as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein spring to mind. There is no evidence whatsoever that someone who practices ‘philosophy’ is more happy than the general run of the population.

(By this point it should be clear that although Seneca uses philosophical-sounding arguments to support his case, he isn’t really dealing in philosophy but with lessons in mental resilience and moral uplift.)

Seneca goes on to say that when this ‘Reason’ is brought to ‘perfection’ through the study of ‘philosophy’, ‘this perfected reason is called virtue’ (Letter 76, section 10). This also is obviously wrong:

a) There is no such thing as ‘Reason’ with a capital R, instead:

i) Two and a half thousand years of philosophers can’t agree what ‘Reason’ is or how it works.

ii) According to psychologists like Sutherland, instead of One Reason humans use hundreds of different strategies for thinking and problem solving, which often overlap and contradict each other, hence the appearance of the real world we actually live in, made up of endlessly conflicting opinions and plans.

b) What is this ‘virtue’? Seneca identifies ‘virtue’ with the perfection of human ‘Reason’ but by now we can see that this is just playing with words, it’s like moving shiny counters around on a board game, it doesn’t relate to anything in the real world.

Seneca goes on to identify this maximised Reason with ‘virtue’ and ‘the good’ and ‘the honourable’. I appreciate that Seneca is engaging with the tradition of moral philosophy which is concerned with trying to define terms like ‘the good’, ‘honour’, ‘virtue’ but I believe that, mildly entertaining although these verbal games are, they have little or nothing to do with real people or the actual world we live in. Within the rules of the game called ‘moral philosophy’ these kinds of definitions and redefinitions may have meaning, but it is a niche activity with no impact on the real world.

Also, it often feels as if Seneca is using rhetorical tricks to prove that His Way is the Only Way to achieve these great goals i.e. it is less an open-ended enquiry designed to establish an objective truth than a tendentious distortion of arguments all designed to ‘prove’ a view of human nature and a way of life which he already subscribes to. It amounts to a wordy rationalisation of a personal lifestyle preference (to live a simple life and read books is best).

The counter-argument to Seneca

There is no God. The universe came about in a big bang 13.7 billion years ago. Certain laws and regularities emerge from the nature of the matter created by this cataclysm. Stars form, galaxies form,  planets form around suns. Conditions for life happened to occur on this planet as they probably have on countless others. Primitive replicating structures come about as an inevitable product of chemistry. As soon as the most primitive replicating organisms come about they are governed by evolution through natural selection, which dictates that only the most fit will replicate, thus setting in train an endless process of diversity and selection. Human beings are a random offshoot of mammals, themselves lucky to survive the last great extinction event 66 million years ago. There is no teleology or purpose or plan. Shit happens, whether it’s your valley flooding or a meteor hitting the earth, and some organisms survive to pass on their genes to their offspring. Over vast distances of time – hundreds of millions of years – fast-breeding organisms have diverged to fill every available niche in countless different ecosystems which themselves change and evolve all the time. Modern archaeology shows that there is not one human race, but that over the past few hundred thousand years, many different forms of the genus Homo have sprung up, flourished for a time, then died out. Seneca and we happen to belong to the one branch or variety which happens to have survived. Others might have; we happened to. There was no God, providence or teleology involved.

To attribute this immensely long chain of chance and accident to the providence of some creator God is psychologically appealing but factually ludicrous. If there is a God behind it then he works so completely through accident and mass extinction as to be indistinguishable from randomness.

Therefore humans do not possess some ‘divine Reason’ which can be cultivated to its maximum potential at which point it can grandly be called ‘virtue’. The exact opposite. Humans quite evidently employ hundreds, maybe thousands of different mental strategies, tricks and approaches to solve the problems thrown up by day-to-day existence, and struggle daily to implement our deep biological drives (to eat and drink, get shelter, find a mate, raise a new generation, find physical and psychological security) against the challenges of the rebarbative real world, with all kinds of florid, varied and unpredictable outcomes.

Summary

Seneca’s theistic rationalism looks for and privileges One Thing in every field: One God, One Human Race, One Reason, One Virtue, One Philosophy.

Although I can see the appeal of submitting to this One World point of view – I can see the comfort it brings to its adherents or even to modern readers who bathe in its simple-minded reassurance while they’re reading his text (and I can also see how so much of Stoicism was incorporated into the equally consoling and comforting One World Christian ideology) – nonetheless, I find it creepy, I detect in it authoritarian, even totalitarian tendencies. To genuinely believe that there is just One Way to Virtue which all people should submit themselves to…

And it also happens to be factually incorrect at every step.

By contrast, I believe in diversity, in manyness, in multitudes. In my worldview humans have evolved over a very long period to possess incredibly complex mental and physical attributes, far too complex and multifaceted to encompass in one definition, in one ‘philosophy’, in one set of magic words like ‘Reason’, ‘good’ and ‘virtue’, even in words like ‘science’ or ‘biology’. The real world continually surprises us and overflows all human attempts at neat definitions, whether in philosophy, religion, science or any other system.

People are quite obviously capable of believing all kinds of things, struggle with all kinds of problems, use all manner of beliefs and faiths and rites and rituals and traditions and cultures to get them through their days and lives. All these belief systems and practices are themselves constantly evolving, added to, improved, fossilise, dumped, revived, you name it – with the result that human cultures are mind-bogglingly rich and diverse and many-sided – far too many to summarise or encapsulate in this prescriptive One World dogma.

Conclusion

Therefore it is my view that, although I can see why, narrowly appealing and comforting though Seneca’s teachings may appear at a first reading, they are nonetheless not only a) factually incorrect at every level, at every step or his argument, but b) derive from an incredibly narrow social caste (the Roman aristocracy) during an incredibly narrow moment in history (Nero’s tyranny).

Seneca’s letters are worth reading because they give a vivid insight into the mindset of a very clever man situated very close to a terrifyingly arbitrary tyrant and working out a philosophical tradition he inherited from Greek originators to fit his very specific (and very fraught) circumstances (hence the obsessive belief in suicide as an escape from tyranny).

He circles around central Stoic beliefs, reviewing them from different angles in different contexts and this provides a very useful, panoramic view of this particular belief system – and a fascinating insight into a particular cultural moment.

And many of his recommendations – shorn of their theistical underpinning – are of value, at least to the kind of reader who is already predisposed to bookish aloofness. Avoid the crowd, despise pleasure, cultivate the life of the mind, rise above the chaos of petty emotions and transient enjoyments – all this reads very well and flatters a certain kind of bookish reader who may believe that they already practice some or all of these prescriptions.

But then surely these precepts are taught by the high-minded in pretty much every major religion: surely this kind of advice can be found not only in the Christianity which incorporated so much of it, but in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Shintoism and countless other religious traditions? Or expounded by high-minded secular humanists. Ignore the trashy entertainments of the masses, despise the vulgar trappings of wealth, be content with the simple life, concentrate on acquiring wisdom.

Widespread though his conclusions may be, because they speak to a certain character type which recurs across diverse cultures, and propose a type of psychological practice which clearly speaks to a certain type of person — to focus back on the specific arguments Seneca uses to justify and underpin his philosophy – the logical sequence of arguments which I summarised at the start of this post – I have explained why I believe they are factually incorrect and intellectually untenable from start to finish.


Related links

On the diversity of belief systems

Roman reviews

Moral letters by Seneca

What do you need to be a good man? Willpower.
(Letter 80, section 4)

Whatever you do, keep death in mind.
(Letter 114, section 27)

You must embed these thoughts deep in your heart, Lucilius.
(Letter 7, section 12)

Stoicism

The thing about Stoic philosophy is how wrong its premises are and how banal its teachings.

Stoics believed there is a God, that the universe or Nature is God, or God suffuses Nature. Human beings were created by God with a spark of Divine Reason within us. Our job is to clear away all the clutter of work, society, gossip, all relationships, friends and family, all the clamour which clogs up our lives, including all our own passions and emotions, love, anger and so on – in order to cultivate this fragment of the Divine Reason in each of is and, by doing so, bring our lives into alignment with the values of the universe/God. Then, by cultivating detachment from all earthly worries and passions, by strengthening our minds, we can prepare for the worst the world has to throw at us and defuse the ultimate terror, the fear of death.

That’s it. You can vary the wording and multiply the precepts with lots of specific examples (avoid gossip, avoid crowds, eat moderately, don’t get drunk, treat everyone with respect – ponder with the worst possible outcomes so nothing surprises you, analyse every situation with detachment), but it’s that simple and, after the initial novelty has worn off, that boring.

Seneca

The Roman author, tutor, Stoic philosopher, politician and immensely rich man, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD) is called Seneca the Younger because his father (54 BC to 39 AD) – author of a collection of reminiscences about the Roman schools of rhetoric (which survives) and a history of Roman affairs from the beginning of the Civil Wars until the last years of his life (which is lost) – had the exact same name, so is known as Seneca the Elder.

Seneca the Younger, much more famous than his father, is sometimes just referred to as Seneca.

Seneca wrote a prodigious amount; later critics said too much. E.F. Watling, in his Penguin edition of Seneca’s plays, says that his best-loved works are the letters he wrote to one specific friend, Lucilius. Seneca himself titled these the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’), also known in English as the ‘Letters from a Stoic’. Seneca wrote this collection of 124 letters at the end of his life, from approximately 63 to 65 AD, after he had largely retired as tutor and adviser to the Emperor Nero, a post he’d held since 49 – sixteen years.

The letters are addressed to Lucilius Junior who was then procurator of Sicily and is known to posterity only through Seneca’s writings. (Seneca also dedicated his dialogue On Providence and his encyclopedic Natural Questions to this same Lucilius.)

Scholars fret about whether these were ‘real’ letters, and what the structure of correspondence was – did Seneca only respond to questions sent him by Lucilius? Where is Lucilius’s half of the correspondence? etc. But whether or not they were ever part of a ‘real’ correspondence, it is clear that Seneca wrote these letters with a wider readership in mind. They contain numerous carefully crafted passages obviously aimed at posterity and are structured so as to cover a wide range of subjects dear to Stoics. The 124 letters were published grouped together into 20 ‘books’.

Philosophy as therapy

The letters amount to a series of short moral lessons, designed to help Lucilius achieve the wisdom and peace of mind (‘a calm and correct state of mind,’ Letter 4) promised by Stoic doctrine. In order to do this the letters focus on the traditional themes of Stoic philosophy such as removing oneself from the crowd; cultivating a contempt of death; learning to endure the ups and downs of life; acknowledging virtue as the supreme good, and so on.

The key point which the translator of the Oxford University Press edition, Elaine Fantham, makes in her introduction, is that the letters do not amount to a systematic exposition of Stoicism. Almost the reverse. They are like a series of lessons on ad hoc, specific topics, often beginning with an everyday experience and then extracting from it an insight or type of behaviour which Seneca tells Lucilius he can adopt in order to improve himself. Each letter contains ‘a little bit of profit’ (5) – like instalments in a self-help correspondence course.

Seneca wrote the letters not to promote a complete finished system of thought: he wasn’t necessarily interested in extrapolating a comprehensive system. As Fantham says, Seneca put moral impact before intellectual debate. He ‘puts the ability to avoid fear and desire ahead of any intellectual expertise’ (note, page 298). Seneca gave the work a new type of name, Epistulae Morales, and wrote them with a moral purpose to promote moral behaviour.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds…it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done and what to be avoided. (16)

Thus Seneca instructs Lucilius not about this or that point of abstract philosophical doctrine – but over and over again tells him that he must repeat certain thoughts in order to put them into practice, to make them part of his everyday waking thoughts.

Only Philosophy will wake us up, it alone will shake off our heavy sleep, so dedicate yourself wholly to it. (53.8)

Possibly the most consistent lesson (repeated so many times it gets a little boring) is cultivating a ‘contempt’ for death. When death comes it is over; it is nothing. We need to live with the idea of our death all the time, to get accustomed to it, so as to eliminate all fear and anxiety about it:

  • Let us order our minds so that we wish for whatever circumstances demand, and especially let us think about our ends without sadness. We need to be prepared for death before we are prepared for life. (61.3)
  • The more men have accustomed themselves to hardship, the more easily they will endure it. (76.34)
  • Whatever has been long anticipated comes as a lighter blow. (78.29)
  • Everyone approaches a hazard to which he has long squared himself with more courage and resists harsh events by contemplating them in advance. (107.4)

This accustoming to death takes effort so we must ‘practice thinking this over each day’ (4.5) and ‘ensure that what is now an urge becomes a lasting disposition’ (17.6).

Virtue does not come to a mind unless it is trained and taught and brought to its highest condition by constant exercise. (90.46)

Repeat, practice, memorise. The letters are lessons in how to think, in how to live life in order to maximise calm and reason, mental or psychological exercises which must be learned through constant repetition.

  • You must persist and build up strength by constant diligence until what is now a good intention becomes a good state of mind. (16.1)
  • These are things we must learn, in fact learn by heart. (123.17)

In this respect, the OUP is a good edition because Fantham precedes every letter with a short summary of its main topics, of its time and place of composition, and how it relates to other letters on the same topic. This is extremely useful. (Mind you, the 1917 translation by Richard Mott Gummere which is available online has something the Fantham edition hasn’t, which is attributing each letter a title such as ‘On saving time’, ‘On discursiveness in reading’ and so on. I imagine these titles aren’t in the original but they are extremely useful in remembering at a glance which letter is about what.)

There is some background information about Roman society, but not as much as you’d hope for, certainly nothing like the chatty detail you get in Cicero’s wonderful letters (Seneca consciously distances himself from Cicero’s style and gossipy subject matter in letter 118).

Like all Roman writers, Seneca now and then cites famous Roman heroes or historical figures as examples of ‘virtue’ (notably Marcus Porcius Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC, as the example of fortitude in the face of death; or Gaius Mucius Cordus who unflinchingly put his hand into a fire to prove his bravery).

There is a description of the lives of the super-rich at Baiae (51), a fascinating portrait of the conditions of slaves (47), a vivid comparison of the spartan bathhouses of old with their modern luxurious equivalents (86), a description of the grand retinues of foreign slaves rich people insist on travelling with (123), a description of viticulture and grafting techniques (86). Mostly, though, the letters are disappointing from a social history point of view. Philosophy is drab.

This Oxford University Press edition does not contain all of the letters – it contains 80 out of 124 (introduction p.xxxv) – but still claims to be the largest selection available in print.

Epistolary traditions

In a throwaway remark, Fantham indicates that there were two types of letter, two epistolary traditions: the philosophical letter of advice (pioneered by Epicurus, born 341 BC, and into which these letters fall) and chatty personal correspondence (Cicero, born 106 BC). [She doesn’t mention a third type which occurs to me, which is the crafted verse epistle as epitomised by Horace’s Letters or Ovid’s Black Sea Letters.]

The problem of suicide

A major stumbling block is Seneca’s worldview, the classical Roman worldview, which promotes suicide as a noble, honourable and virtuous response to all kinds of social humiliations, setbacks, not least the threats from tyrannical power.

It is a noble thing to die honourably, prudently and bravely. (77)

Part of the reason for cultivating a contempt for death, for having death continually in your thoughts, is so that, when the moment comes, it will feel like only a small additional step to fall on your sword or open your veins in a hot bath.

How many people death has been useful to, how many it frees from torture, poverty, laments, punishment, weariness. We are not in any man’s power when death is in our power. (91.21)

The historical model Seneca invokes repeatedly is Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC two years into the civil war, when he was governor of Utica, a city in North Africa, as Julius Caesar’s army was closing in. Cato killed himself to deprive Caesar of the power of either executing him or (more likely) humiliatingly pardoning him, meaning he would ignominiously owe the rest of his existence to a tyrant.

Desiring neither option, Cato stabbed himself. In the event failed to kill himself, a doctor was called who patched up his stomach wound, gave him medicine, put him to bed. In the night Cato placed his fingers into the stomach wound, ripped it open, and proceeded to pull out his intestines until he died of shock. This is held up by Seneca as exemplary behaviour.

This makes sense within the long Roman tradition of preferring honourable suicide to dishonour, but it is just not a worldview any modern person shares and Cato is not a role model any modern person would wish to copy. Of course, this strand in Seneca’s writings is magnified by the fact that Seneca himself did something similar, committing suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero, his one-time pupil, in an exemplary fashion, calmly dictating notes about Stoic resilience as he bled to death in a hot bath.

Thus he has gone down as a hero of high-minded Stoicism but there are numerous objections to this notion. One is that plenty, thousands, of other Roman notables killed themselves over the centuries, famous examples being Anthony and Cleopatra, and they weren’t Stoic philosophers. So Seneca’s high-minded end wasn’t unique, far from it, it was a very common behaviour among the aristocratic class in the ancient world, and not only under the Empire but the Republic, too.

So a) it was far from being an act unique to ‘philosophers’ but b) it is obviously something very remote indeed from modern society. Sure, people still kill themselves. But not many people kill themselves at the command of an emperor, or to demonstrate their high-minded command over their destiny and a Stoic rising above the petty concerns of life and death. This whole worldview is so remote as to be science fiction.

There seems to me something perverse, almost creepy, about a philosophy which is constantly preparing its followers for death and for suicide. The words ‘death’ or ‘die’ recur on every page. I infinitely prefer Horace’s encouragement to enjoy life to the full while we can.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key.
(Horace Odes, book 2, poem 1)

Themes in the letters

Despise death

We start to die from the day we are born. When we die there is nothing. There was nothing before life and there will be nothing after. So be not afraid.

  • What I am recommending to you is not just a remedy for this disease but for your whole life: despise death. (78.5)
  • First free yourself from the fear of death. (80.5)

Freedom

Despising death means we are free from the threats of tyrants or society. What is the worst they can do to us if we despise the worst, consider it nothing? Nothing can harm the calm and virtuous mind. By welcoming whatever will happen, it creates its own freedom no matter what the external circumstances. With typical extremity of metaphor or rhetoric, Seneca continually contrasts freedom, not with being bogged down or caught up or hampered by obligations – such as most of us encounter in real life – but with full-on hardcore Roman slavery:

  • You ask what is liberty? To be enslaved to no object, no necessity, no chances, to reduce Fortune to a level field. (51.9)
  • We must busy ourselves with our studies and the sources of wisdom…this is how we should rescue our mind from a most wretched enslavement and restore it to liberty. (104.16)
  • We have enslaved our spirit to pleasure whose indulgence is the beginning of all evils. (110.10)

Now it makes sense that Seneca uses as metaphor the slavery which was, arguably, the central fact of Roman life. But as with the way his mind, when he wants to imagine examples of adversity, leaps straight towards images of torture and execution, it’s another example of the extremity of metaphor and argument which underpins his ‘philosophy’ and makes so much of it feel so alien to the modern mind.

True friendship

Gauge a man before making him a friend. Be cautious, test out friends. But once someone is a friend, bind them to you, share everything with them. True friends share everything, including misfortune. Seneca says you have to learn to be a friend to yourself.

Avoid crowds

‘Shun whatever pleases the common herd’ (8). One iniquitous example can adversely affect you. A crowd presents all kinds of bad examples. People are emboldened to behave badly in crowds. So withdraw into yourself and study philosophy, but not so conspicuously as to draw attention or criticism. Don’t draw attention to your retirement and quietism. Quietly disappear.

Your body

A great and cautious man separates his mind from his body and spends the better part of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Provide it only as much as needed to preserve good health. Avoid excess. Consume as much plain drink as required to quench thirst, as much plain food as to quench hunger, the minimum clothes to protect you from the elements, a house sufficient to protect you from the weather.

Devote some days to eating as little as possible. Become familiar with the bare minimum needed to keep alive and healthy (so that if exile to a bare rock or sudden incarceration befall you, your body is ready for much reduced circumstances).

Don’t exercise to excess. Do as much as needed to keep healthy. Reserve your energy for cultivating the mind.

As to physical pleasures, avoid them like the plague; they enslave the body and then the mind.

  • Uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • First of all we must reject pleasures; they make men weak and effeminate and demand too much time and effort. (104.34)

Your house

Your house should be a size and contain only as much as needed to protect you from the elements. Despise ornament and decoration.

Possessions

Have as few as possible. ‘No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions.’ (18.13) Have them, but adopt a mindset where you could happily dispense with all of them, where they are all taken from you and you don’t care a jot, because you are secure in the untroubled citadel of your mind.

Enough

Don’t overdo it: don’t mortify your body, don’t insist on eating bread and water, living in a hut, neglecting your body, like the Cynics who, following Diogenes, set out to punish their bodies. Live comfortably and sensibly, just not to excess.

  • So correct yourself, take off your burdens and shrink your desires within a healthy limit. (104.20)

How to be content

And cultivate contentment by being happy with what you’ve got.

  • I will tell you how you can recognise the healthy man: he is content with himself. (72.7)
  • This is what philosophy will guarantee you, something which nothing surpasses: you will never be dissatisfied with yourself. (115.18)

Excess

Similar to his thoughts about suicide and anger, in that it sounds reasonable of Seneca to tell his follower not live to excess, but what Seneca has in mind is Roman excess, the off-the-scale lavishness and baroque luxury of the Roman emperors and the richest in the known world (as described in the letters from the fashionable resort of Baiae, 49, 51).

  • Too many amenities make the spirit effeminate…The stricter discipline of a simpler place strengthens the mind and makes it fit for great undertakings. (51.10-11)

The general point is not so much that indulgence is morally bad in itself: but that people enslave themselves by indulging the pleasures of the senses, deform their minds, make themselves into addicts, by coming to rely on excessive behaviour, on excessive drinking, excessive eating, excessive sex, excessive gambling.

It’s not so much that moderation is good in itself but that it stops you developing addictions and so becoming enslaved to them. Moderation leaves your mind free to focus on more important, ‘higher’ things. Moderation sets you free from all the snares of the senses.

That is why:

We ought to concentrate on escaping as far as possible from the provocations to vice. One’s mind must be hardened and dragged away from the enticements of pleasure. (51.5)

Anger

Quite apart from the letters, Seneca wrote no fewer than three treatises on anger. Fantham makes a really profound point about this which depends, again, on the profound difference between us and Roman society. This is that Roman emperors had complete power over all citizens, and all citizens had complete power over huge numbers of slaves. In this society an angry citizen could order his slave to be tortured or killed, just as an angry emperor could order anyone he fancied to be exiled, thrown into gaol, tortured or executed. Therefore controlling anger was much, much more important than it is in our society. Anger is not a good emotion with us but could have catastrophic consequences in Seneca’s world.

The mind

‘Nothing deserves admiration except the mind’ (9). The mind alone is worth cultivating. No other skills, activities, pastimes are worth cultivating.

  • Control your mind so as to bring it to perfection in the most calm condition, a mind which feels neither what is taken from it nor added to it, but keeps the same disposition however affairs turn out. (36.6)
  • A great and cautious man separates his mind from the body and spends much of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Moral behaviour

Imagine the most moral, honourable person you can. Then imagine they are watching everything you say or do.

Fear, anxiety, stress

All these are caused by worry that the worst is going to happen. Well, imagine the worst has happened. Live with the worst, imaginatively – prepare yourself for the worst. Once you dispel anxiety about unnamed and exaggerated fears, you can get rid of the panic and examine the issue rationally, restoring order and calm to the mind, allowing Reason to operate unhampered by over emotions.

Philosophy

Philosophy, for Seneca, isn’t the working out of a complex system or ideology: it is a psychological or spiritual practice. It is an exercise to attain an attitude, cultivated with the sole aim of making its practitioner mentally strong and resilient against tyranny, suffering and death.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds. It is not taken up to make sure the day passes with some enjoyment, to take the boredom out of leisure; it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done or avoided; it is seated at the helm and steers the course of those adrift among treacherous shoals. Without it no man can live without fear or anxiety; countless things occur each hour that need the advice which we must seek from philosophy. (16.3)

Philosophy may include technical aspects such as types of argument and syllogism (which he consistently ridicules and dismisses for its pedantry) but, far more importantly, Seneca sees ‘philosophy’ as a kind of mental fortress, a psychological redoubt:

So withdraw into philosophy as far as you may; she will protect you in her bosom and in her shrine you will be safe. (103.4)

In doing so, it can raise us above the level of mere mortals:

This is what philosophy promises me, to make me equal to a god. (48.11)

Slavery

As you might expect Seneca admonishes Lucilius to treat his slaves as equals because they are as human as you or I:

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47.10)

But, just as predictably, Seneca doesn’t actually recommend actually freeing them. (In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Juvenal’s Satires, Peter Green says this attitude was typical of Stoics: ‘[Juvenal] attacked wanton cruelty to slaves, but did not query the concept of slavery itself (another characteristically Stoic attitude.)] Introduction, page 23)

Letter 47 is fascinating for giving an extended description of the types of functions slaves performed in an aristocratic household and the brutal punishments they were liable to for the slightest infraction.

(It is a secondary consideration that in the long letter 90, a detailed list of the technical achievements and innovations which make up civilisation, Seneca despises them all and considers all of them – agriculture and irrigation and milling grain to make bread and architecture and glass windows and all the rest of it – only worthy of slaves and freedmen [who, apparently, largely made up the artisan class of Rome] and so far beneath an aristocrat like himself and his friend Lucilius. Aristocrats needed to rise above these slave occupations in order to practice the only thing worthwhile activity for humans, to cultivate the mind, perfect reason, acquire wisdom, so as to rise above passions and fear of death. That is the primary aim of the letter, but in order to make the point what comes over is a contempt for the artisan class, for engineers and innovators and craftsmen, which makes me dislike Seneca even more. His assumption is that all the achievements of the thousands of people who had perfected all aspects of civilisation and raised it to the luxurious heights of his day only matter insofar as they allow him to perfect his wonderful mind. It’s a privileged narcissism which is, in its own arrogant way, every bit as corrupt as the decadent court of the arch-egotist Nero.)

Self-help slogans

The book is stacked with improving and inspiring thoughts of the kind which have become over-familiar in the subsequent 2,000 years, particularly the last 50 years or so of self-help books.

  • I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. (2.1)
  • The best measure of wealth is to have what is necessary and the next best, is to have enough. (2.5)
  • The man at ease should take action, and the man at action should take ease. (5)
  • Who is well born? The man well set up by nature for virtue…it is the spirit that makes one noble. (44.5)
  • Nature made us teachable and gave us an imperfect reason but one which can be perfected. (50.11)

Although Seneca’s long porridgey paragraphs have the heavy feel of ‘philosophy’, the quality of the argumentation is often weak and many of the actual injunctions feel more like daytime TV, self-help guru-talk than Hegel or Hume. Once or twice he came close to the banal catchphrase mocked in the old TV sitcom, Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em: ‘Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.’

I rejoice that you are studying with perseverance and abandoning all else for this one thing, to make yourself a better man each day. (5.1)

Critique

As with all philosophy, and especially ‘moral’ philosophy, there is no end to the debate, discussion, critique and commentary which the Letters from a Stoic have spawned over the past 2,000 years. A handful of themes struck me:

1. Simplistic values

The most obvious, for me, is the extreme difference in the social context between Seneca and us and in particular his concept of negative life events. For Seneca a bad turn of events is an ever-present threat under the tyranny of imperial rule. It is associated with prison, torture, enslavement and all the other dire possibilities of life under arbitrary Roman emperors such as Nero. Thus there is a misleading simplicity to most of his meditations. When he imagines something bad, it’s being thrown into prison or tortured or executed by the emperor. The conception of negative life events which he uses to underpin his entire Stoic system is disconcertingly simple and extreme – exile, torture, death – and so the mental lesson he is teaching is concomitantly simplistic: prepare your mind to be strong and noble under torture or the threat of death (see the harping on about torture and death in letters 67 and 70).

But not many modern readers of the letters are going to have the same concerns – that they will thrown into prison, tortured or forced to commit suicide at the whim of a Roman emperor. The worst things I can imagine happening to me are: being in a life-changing accident i.e. becoming wheelchair-bound or having a stroke; being diagnosed with a terminal or life-changing illness; something bad happening to my loved ones, especially my children. But my day-to-day worries are more humdrum, recalcitrant, fiddly, frustrating: worried about my performance at work, this or that bit of the house needs maintenance, I’m worried about money, about not being able to pay my bills – fuel bills, heating bills, food bills.

I know Stoic thought can be applied to these modern circumstances i.e. I should try to cultivate mental detachment and resilience so I am ready to face bad events and rise above them. But the extremity and the simpleness of the situations Seneca describes and which form the basis of his entire philosophy (arbitrary arrest, torture, execution) rarely if ever occur in modern Western life and so all his much-repeated lessons rarely if at all apply to me. Modern life is more complex and multi-faceted than Seneca’s philosophy allows.

Seneca’s ‘philosophy’ is worth reading as an extremely vivid insight into the mindset of the Stoic classes during the tyranny of Nero but is, in my opinion, of limited use or value to modern readers leading modern lives.

2. Hypocrisy

I’ve just read Tacitus’s Annals where Seneca is described as being one of the richest men in Rome, with mansions as big as Nero’s and gardens even bigger, hundreds of servants, immense wealth in gold and assets. (In fact Seneca’s extreme wealth became proverbial to later generations: Juvenal’s tenth satire describes how Seneca, ‘grown too wealthy’ lost his magnificent gardens.) So it’s pretty ironic, knowing the man was a byword for obscene wealth, to read Seneca’s continual recommendation of the plain, simple life, eschewing pleasure and cultivating virtue. It’s easy advice for the ridiculously rich to give. The hypocrisy is summed up by a character in John Marston’s 1603 play, The Malcontent, which Watling quotes:

Out upon him! He writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure and died like an effeminate coward. (The Malcontent, Act 3, scene 1, line 28)

Not quite accurate (Seneca definitely did not die ‘like an effeminate coward’) but the first half, the epicure accusation, has force. This point was epitomised, for me, in a throwaway remark of Seneca’s in a letter which is intended to be about exercise and physical frailty:

I have just returned from my ride. I am just as tired as if I had walked as far as I have been sitting. It is an effort to be carried for a long time, and I rather think the effort is greater because riding is contrary to nature. (55.1)

It is an effort to be carried for a long time. (In a sedan chair, presumably.) Well, what about the slaves who were doing the carrying? Bet it was a bit of an effort for them, too. Seneca’s writings cannot escape from the taint of the astonishing level of privilege enjoyed by his class in general, and the extraordinarily privileged lifestyle enjoyed by him – according to Tacitus the richest man in Rome – in particular.

3. How Christians appropriated Stoic rhetoric

Many of the lessons Seneca spells out to Lucilius are very familiar from the long tradition of Western moralists, from Erasmus, through Montaigne, on into the Enlightenment and then diffused out into the broader culture by thousands of Victorian moralists.

My mum used to tell us kids, ‘Moderation in everything’. You don’t need to read Seneca to already know half of his nostrums and tags. I suggest that much of it seems so familiar because Stoic teachings were taken over wholesale by the early Christians and formed the basis of much Christian everyday morality. Obviously not the bits specific to Christian theology (the Fall, Original Sin, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection etc) but the fundamental theist worldview is often indistinguishable from Christianity:

  • No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions. (18.13)
  • God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. (41.1)
  • What is enough for God is not too little for masters. (47.18)
  • The place which God occupies in this universe is the place which mind occupies in man. (65.24)
  • God comes to men. Indeed, what is actually nearer, he comes into men. No mind is good without God. (73.16)
  • Whatever is good for us our God and father placed at hand. (110.10)

My point is that in the advice about day-to-day living, the Christians appropriated Stoic teachings so completely that the advice to Lucilius to cultivate the mind, avoid the crowd and their superficial entertainments, practice virtue, despise the knocks of Fortune and cultivate a contempt for death – all these are the familiar background hum of Christian morality, the subjects of hundreds of thousands of Sunday sermons and public lectures, recycled on radio phone-ins and daytime TV and millions of self-help columns in magazines and newspapers and books. Which explains why when we moderns come to read Seneca we are so rarely surprised and so often find his nostrums familiar and reassuring.

4. Repetition

Above all, like any good teacher, he repeats the same key points again and again, in different formulations, approached from different angles, but coming back again and again to the same fundamental idea: rise above the fortuitous events of your life; rise above all emotions and attachments; cultivate ‘philosophy’, which means a Buddhist detachment from everyone else and even from yourself; live with the idea of death so continually that it eventually presents no fears. And then you will have conquered yourself, your fear of death and you will be…free.

  • I am forcing my mind to focus on itself and not be distracted by outside events…The real calm is when a good state of mind unfolds. (56.6)
  • The wise man is full of joy, cheerful and calm, undisturbed. He lives on equal terms with the gods…The wise man’s mind is like the universe beyond the moon: there it is always fine and calm. (59.14)
  • Abandon those distractions which men have rushed to enjoy; abandon riches, which are either a danger or a burden to their possessors; leave the pleasures of body and mind, which soften and weaken you; abandon ambition, which is a bloated, hollow and windy condition with no limit. (84.11)
  • There is only one way the dawn can come: if a man takes in this knowledge of things human and divine and does not just sprinkle it over himself but but steeps himself in it; if he goes over the same things repeatedly (110.8)

But repetition is not argumentation. Despite Seneca using the word ‘philosophy’ all the time, this isn’t really philosophy at all. It is, as I’ve said, more like exhortation to a good frame of mind, moral uplift, encouragement to develop a tough attitude, therapy for the anxious, a self-help manual. And incredibly repetitive.

Unvexed by terrors and uncorrupted by pleasures we shall dread neither death nor the gods. We shall know that death is not an evil and the gods do not exist for evil. What harms us is as weak as what is harmed; the best things lack the power to harm. What awaits us, if we ever emerge from these dregs to the sublime and lofty region, is peace of mind and liberty free from the errors which have been driven out. What does that liberty consist of? Not fearing men or gods; wanting neither what is base nor excessive; having the greatest power over oneself. It is an incalculable good to become one’s own master. (75.17-18)

5. Family and friends

In nearly 300 pages of relentless insistence that we rise above all attachments and emotions, nowhere does he mention family (in just one letter, 104, he mentions his wife, Paulina).

Family was a very big thing indeed for noble Romans, so it’s a striking absence in the context of Seneca’s own time. But regarded as instructions for modern readers, his insistence on boiling your life right down to a relentless focus on cultivating your virtue and your indifference to death completely ignores the scores of relationships most people have in their lives, starting with their family.

Most modern therapy involves getting to grip with your childhood experiences and your relationship with your parents. But parents, spouses or children are completely absent from Seneca’s teachings. His Stoicism is an impressively selfish concern, in which he endlessly exhorts Lucilius to forget about everyone but himself, to focus on his own mind and anxiety of death etc, to think about no-one but me me me.

This makes his ‘philosophy’ inapplicable, in practice, to anyone who has parents, partners or children and really cares for them, is involved in their day-to-day wellbeing and, especially when it comes to children, to their little triumphs or setbacks. None of that for Stoic Seneca. He is in his study toughening up his mind by envisaging torture in every detail so as to be able to rise above it, when the time comes.

But it struck me that this deliberate ignoring of family sheds light on and helps to explain the humanistic obsession with friendship. Seneca’s letters on the importance of having one, key soulmate-level friend are one of the sources for the obsession with friendship which is a central theme of humanist writings from the 15th century onwards.

Friends know that they have everything in common…the true friendship which neither hope nor fear nor self-interest can sever, the friendship with which men die and for which they die. (6.2)

It’s possible to interpret this obsession with Perfect friendship as the Stoic replacing the messy, uncontrollable web of family relationships, with all its unpredictable ups and downs, with One Relationship with One Special Friend. To use the modern buzzword, it’s a very controlling approach. When you read the great humanist works on this subject (Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon) what comes over is that you are only going to meet one or two soulmates in your life and that you will become identical in interests and affections with this one special person. In a science fiction kind of way, you and the True Friend of humanist tradition will become one person.

So, to put it crudely, humanist teaching about friendship a) is a way of ducking the uncontrollable mess of family ties and responsibilities and b) ends up with you looking in a mirror. Solipsistic narcissism.

Horace

As Roman ‘moralists’ go, I prefer Horace. He’s lighter, funnier, his affable tone is more persuasive, more inspiring for me, than Seneca’s dour and relentless lecturing. Seneca sounds like the tutor he was:

I hereby order you to be slow in speaking. (40.14)

Whereas Horace sounds like a friend offering gentle advice:

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully…
(Horace, Odes, book 1, poem 9)

Seneca thinks of himself as embattled – quick! time is short! the enemy is at the door! focus on the essentials!

  • I am being besieged right now…the enemy is at our backs…I need a heroic spirit (49.9)
  • Fortune is waging war with me but I will not do what she orders, I will not accept the yoke. (51.8)
  • A real man prefers his sleep to be broken by a bugle than a chorus. (51.12)

This sense of the world as a battlefield, a fight, a struggle against countless enemies all trying to seduce your God-given soul, was inherited by Christianity. It dominates the letters of St Paul who wrote the most influential letters in Christendom, and used rhetoric similar to Seneca when he urged his followers to ‘fight the good fight’ (First letter to Timothy).

To understand Paul, we must grasp that he is at war, with the angels of heaven at his back. The Acts of the Apostles is, at its base, a power-struggle between Christ and Satan, wrenching whole peoples away from Satan’s grasp. (Jesus Walk Bible Studies)

In contrast to this worldview of unrelenting embattled paranoia, Horace writes a letter to a friend inviting him to come round and try the new wine they’ve just bottled on his estate. There’ll be other friends there, and they’ll stay up late together laughing and joking. Seneca’s remedy for the fickleness of human existence is to be continually, constantly thinking about death all the time.

Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable…Say to me when I lie down to sleep: ‘You may not wake again!’ And when I have waked: ‘You may not go to sleep again!’ Say to me when I go forth from my house: ‘You may not return!’ And when I return: ‘You may never go forth again!’

Well, you may win the lottery this weekend. You may run down the escalator and bump into the woman of your dreams. If you start speculating about things which may happen, the sky’s the limit. In which case – why focus only on the bad things which ‘may’ happen. Lovely things ‘may’ happen, too. Pondering Seneca’s use of the conditional to dwell only on the most extreme negative outcomes (torture, execution) makes the reader realise how much he is obsessed with the dark side of life, and so insists that we be brutally harsh with ourselves:

  • Cast out whatever desires are lacerating your heart and if they cannot be pulled out any other way then you must tear out your heart with them. In particular, uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • We believe pleasure is a moral failing…Pleasure is a shameful thing. (59.1-2)

What a stupid attitude. Horace has an equally frank acceptance of how time is limited and we are hurrying towards our deaths, but he draws the exact opposite conclusion, which is: carpe diem, enjoy the moment. Instead of considering yourself under siege from wicked temptations so that you have to harden your heart against all affection, think of life as a blessing, bless every moment it brings you, and savour the fleeting pleasures. Horace gets my vote.

Last word to Martial

Martial book 11, epigram 56, begins, in the translation by James Michie:

Because you glorify death, old Stoic,
Don’t expect me to admire you as heroic…

And ends ten lines later:

It’s easy to despise life when things go wrong;
The true hero endures much, and long.


Credit

Selected Letters of Seneca, translated and introduced by Elaine Fantham, was published as an Oxford University Press paperback in 2010. All quotes are from this edition.

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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.

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The Life of Nero by Suetonius

Executive summary

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus in 37 AD. He was the fifth Roman emperor and the final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, reigning from 54 AD until his suicide in 68, aged just 33.

He was the son of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Agrippina the Younger, one of the daughters of Germanicus and sister to the emperor Gaius (Caligula). After Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD, Germanicus’ brother Claudius – who was Agrippina’s uncle – took the throne. Claudius took his niece as his fourth wife in 49 AD.

A year later Claudius was persuaded by Agrippina to adopt her son, Lucius Domitius, and make him his heir. Nero was 13 when he was adopted. When Claudius died (in October 54) it was widely believed that Agrippina poisoned him to ensure her son succeeded to the throne before Claudius’s biological son by his third wife, Britannicus, came of age and presented a more natural successor. A year later, Nero had Britannicus murdered to secure his position.

Nero was 17 when he came to the throne. In the early years of his reign Nero was advised and guided by his mother Agrippina, his tutor Seneca the Younger, and his praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus and ruled moderately and well. But he soon sought to rule independently and to rid himself of restraining influences. His power struggle with his mother was eventually resolved when he had her murdered in 59. Both the murder of Britannicus and Agrippina have elements of farcical ineptitude (see below).

Nero was popular with the members of his Praetorian Guard and lower-class commoners in Rome and its provinces. He organised lavish games, he periodically gave money to the people, he carried out modernising building works. But he was deeply resented by the Roman aristocracy.

The historically closest sources we have – Suetonius in his Lives and Tacitus in his Annals – describe Nero as tyrannical, self-indulgent, and debauched. But then, they were all written under the aegis of the dynasty which succeeded the Julio-Claudians – the Flavians – and so, to some extent, represent propaganda for that dynasty with the aim of rubbishing the emperors which came before.

After his increasingly debauched, spendthrift and reckless rule alienated the aristocracy, Nero was declared a public enemy by the Roman Senate, and forced to flee Rome to a country estate where he committed suicide at the age of 33.

Nero’s death led to chaos as three military commanders vied for supremacy, in what came to be called the Year of Four Emperors, AD 69, the rivals being Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian.

I’ve reviewed Suetonius’s biographies of the four emperors who preceded Nero, namely Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula) and Claudius and along the way given several summaries of Suetonius’s approach. This is to give a brisk overview of his subject’s biography before moving on to look at specific areas of the emperor’s person – his appearance, family history and relationships, personality, quotes, the omens which surrounded his birth and death, and much other gossip and scandal.

Suetonius’s life of Nero is 57 (short) chapters long. It can be divided into five sections or parts:

  • the first five chapters describe Nero’s male forebears among the Ahenobarbi family
  • chapters 6 to 19 describe ‘Nero’s less atrocious acts’, many actually deserving praise
  • then, at chapter 20, Suetonius lets rip and commences a lurid account of Nero’s ‘follies and crimes’
  • chapters 40 to 49 give a long drawn-out description of his moral collapse following the revolt in Gaul, his abandonment by servants and friends, his flight from Rome and suicide
  • 50 to 57 describe his funeral and the aftermath

Suetonius’s life of Nero

The first five chapters describe Nero’s make forebears from the Ahenobarbi family:

  • Nero’s great-great-great grandfather, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, when tribune of the commons in 104 BC, was enraged at the priests for choosing someone else as pontifex maximus, so he transferred the right of filling vacancies in the priesthoods from the colleges themselves to the people in the Tribal Assembly (the law was subsequently repealed by Sulla). Having defeated the Allobroges and the Arverni in his consul­ship, he rode through the province on an elephant, attended by a throng of soldiers, in a kind of triumphal procession
  • His son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (98 to 48 BC), when consul in 54 BC, tried to deprive Caesar of the command of the armies in Gaul. The senate appointed him to succeed Caesar as governor of further Gaul and when Caesar invaded Italy in 49, he was the only one of the aristocratic party who showed any energy or courage, organising the defense of Corfinium. When Corfinium was taken Caesar characteristically granted him clemency but he rejoined the aristocratic party. He was killed at the battle of Pharsalus and is mentioned in one of Cicero’s speeches as a principled example of the old Republic.
  • He left a son, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (died 31 BC) who was beyond all question better than the rest of the family. He was condemned among those involved in Caesar’s assassination and so went to join Brutus and Cassius. Upon their defeat he surrendered the republican fleet to Mark Antony. This Ahenobarbus successively held all the highest offices including consul in 32 BC. When the civil war between Augustus and Anthony broke out, he was appointed one of Antony’s lieutenants, but defected to Octavian just a few days before the decisive battle of Actium. Although Antony was upset by this betrayal, he still sent him all his gear, his friends and his attendants. (This incident is described in Plutarch’s Life of Anthony, chapter 63.) He died just a few days later.
  • Gnaeus had a son, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (49 BC to 25 AD) who was later well known for being named in Augustus’ will as the purchaser of his goods and chattels. He won the insignia of a triumph in the war in Germany. He gave a gladiatorial games so cruel that Augustus admonished him. He married Antonia the Elder (niece of emperor Augustus) and had a son:
  • This man, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (2 BC to 41 AD) was widely hated: while on the staff of Gaius Caesar out East he murdered one of his own freedmen for refusing to drink as much as he ordered. In a village on the Appian Way, suddenly whipping up his team, he purposely ran over and killed a boy. In the Roman Forum he gouged out the eye​ of a Roman knight for being too outspoken in chiding him. When praetor he defrauded the victors in the chariot races of their prizes. Just before the death of Tiberius he was charged with treason, adultery and incest with his sister Lepida, but escaped owing to the change of rulers. Domitius married his first cousin once removed, Agrippina the Younger, Caligula’s sister, after her thirteenth birthday in 28. He was far older than her at the time. Tiberius arranged the marriage. Nine years later his son by Agrippina, Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, was born.

6. Nero was born at on 15 December 37, nine months after the death of Tiberius. When shown the baby his father is supposed to have remarked that ‘any child born to him and Agrippina was bound to have a detestable nature and become a public danger’. At the age of three Nero’s father died but his fellow heir Gaius seized all the property.

He had a troubled upbringing in this cursed family. First Gaius banished his mother so that young Domitius was brought up in relative poverty in the house of his aunt Lepida, who assigned him as tutors a dancer and a barber. But when Claudius became emperor, in 41, he restored to Nero his father’s legacy added to it, and recalled his mother from exile.

There is a widely attested legend that Claudius’s third wife, Messalina, came to regard the boy Nero as a rival to her own son, Britannicus, and so sent assassins to murder him, and that they were at the cradle when they were scared away by a snake which suddenly appeared from under his pillow. [A clear copy of the legend of Hercules strangling snakes as a baby.]

[After Claudius had Messalina executed, in 48 AD, for bigamously marrying the senator Gaius Silius and plotting against him, he proceeded to take this same Agrippina as his fourth wife, despite her being his niece, marrying her on New year’s Day 49. At this point Domitius became Claudius’s step-son and Agrippina persuaded Claudius to formally adopted him as his son and heir. This was when the boy was given an entirely new name, Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus.]

7. Domitius/Nero was ten years old when he was adopted by Claudius and assigned the senator and writer Annaeus Seneca as tutor. He almost immediately began a campaign to discredit Britannicus and his surviving relatives.

Nero entered public life aged just 14, reviewing march pasts of the army, pleading the cause of towns with cases before Claudius, appearing as a judge. When he turned 16 (in 53), Nero married Claudius’s daughter (i.e. his own step-sister), Claudia Octavia. He gave games and a beast-baiting in the Circus.

8. Nero was just 17 when the death of Claudius was announced. Most commentators think Claudius was poisoned by Agrippina because she was worried Britannicus would soon come of age and Claudius would change his mind and make his biological son heir. Nero was hailed emperor on the steps of the Palace, carried in a litter to the praetorian camp, made a brief address to the soldiers, and proceeded to the Senate House where he was awarded all manner of honours.

9. He started off with displays of filial duty, giving Claudius a magnificent funeral then paying the highest honours to the memory of his father Domitius. He left to his mother the management of all public and private business. He often rode with her through the streets in her litter. He curried favour with the Praetorian Guard, such a key player in Roman politics since it had been consolidated by Sejanus, by establishing a colony for them at Antium and building a harbour there at great expense.

10. Nero proclaimed he would model his rule on Augustus. He was conspicuously generous. He abolished some taxes and lowered others. popularity. He lowered rewards paid to informers. He distributed a largess of 400 sesterces to the commons and granted the poorest senators a salary. Like Augustus he had a good memory and greeted men of all ranks by name. Wise and popular moves.

11. Nero gave many entertainments of different kinds: the Juvenales,​ chariot races in the Circus, stage-plays and a gladiatorial show. He organised races for chariots drawn by four camels. At the Great Festival (Ludi Maximi) he organised a series of plays devoted to the eternity of the Empire.

12. At the gladiatorial show Nero had no one put to death, not even criminals. But he did compel 400 senators and 600 Roman knights, some of whom were well to do and of unblemished reputation, to fight in the arena. Some were forced to fight with the wild beasts or perform various services in the arena. He arranged a huge naval battle in salt water with sea monsters swimming about in it. And numerous dances which were a kind of ballet based on legendary themes (the life of the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus).

He inaugurated the ‘Neronia’, a festival of competitions in music, gymnastics and horsemanship, modelled on the Greek ones. Nero recited his own poetry and was unanimously awarded the prize for oratory. At the gymnastic contest, which he gave in the Saepta he shaved his chin for the first time, to the accompaniment of a great sacrifice of bullocks, and put the wispy hairs in a golden box adorned with pearls of great price, and dedicated it to the Capitoline Jupiter.

13. Suetonius describes the elaborate ceremonial surrounding the entrance of Tiridates, king of Armenia, into Rome and his obeisance before Nero on a sumptuously decorated platform and then again, in the Theatre. After which Nero to great applause closed the doors of the temple of Janus to signify that the whole empire was at peace.

14. Nero held four consul­ships.

15. Nero was secretive about deciding law cases, insisting on being given full written explanations of both sides of a case and retiring to consider them in private. He began to tamper with the constitution. He refused to admit the sons of freedmen to the senate. He began to appoint consuls for six months instead of the customary 12. He conferred the triumphal regalia even on men of the rank of quaestor, as well as on some of the knights, and sometimes for other than military services. When he sent speeches to be read to the senate he did so via consuls instead of the quaestors, as had been customary.

16. Nero introduced a new style of architecture to Rome, building porches out in front of houses and apartment blocks whose flat roofs allowed fires to be fought. He considered extending the city walls as far as the port of Ostia and to bring the sea from there to Rome by a canal.

During his reign many abuses were put down. Sumptuary laws limited private expenditures. Expensive public banquets were replaced by a distribution of grain. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition. He ended the licence afforded to chariot drivers, of being able to walk down the street cheating and robbing the people. All pantomime actors and their hangers-on were expelled from the city.

17. Nero made many legal reforms including promulgating protection against forgers, preventing will writers from adding clauses benefiting themselves, and that customers should pay a fixed and reasonable fee for the services of their lawyers.

18. Nero showed no interest in extending the bounds of the empire and considered withdrawing the army from Britain and only changed his mind because it would have diminished the memory of his adoptive father, Claudius. Two minor territorial extensions occurred when the kingdom of Pontus was ceded to Rome by its king, Polemon, and when part of the Alps reverted to Roman control on the death of its king, Cottius.

19. Nero planned two foreign tours but cancelled one to Alexandria after bad omens. He went to Greece where he proposed building a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth, going so far as to breaking ground with a mattock and to carrying off a basket­ful of earth upon his shoulders before an audience of the Praetorian Guard. He also prepared for an expedition to the Caspian Gates, after enrolling a new legion of raw recruits of Italian birth, each six feet tall, which he grandly called ‘the phalanx of Alexander the Great.’

Chapter 20 marks a dividing point in the biography. Up to this point Suetonius had listed Nero’s respectable and positive achievements, many of which deserved praise. But from this point onwards, Suetonius announces that he will catalogue Nero’s ‘follies and crimes’.

Nero the performer

20. Nero enjoyed music. As soon as he became emperor he sent for Terpnus, the greatest lyre-player of the day, made him perform over successive nights over dinner, and then began to take lessons. And perform the exercises required, namely: lying on his back with a slab of lead on his chest; using enemas and emetics to keep down his weight; refrained from eating apples and other fruits considered damaging to the health (!) Despite all this his voice remained weak and husky.

Nero made his début at Naples, where he did not cease singing until he had finished the number which he had begun, even though the theatre was shaken by a sudden earthquake. He was impressed by the rhythmical clapping of crowds from Alexandria and commissioned some knights and 5,000 commoners to be divided into groups and learn the Alexandrian styles of applause. They were divided into ‘the bees’ (who made a loud humming noise), ‘the roof-tiles’ (who clapped with hollow hands) and ‘the bricks’ (who clapped with flat palms). They were ordered to attend all Nero’s performances and applaud loudly after his performance. You could tell them by their thick hair, splendid dress, and the absence of rings on their left hands. The knights who led them were paid 400 gold pieces for each performance.

21. Nero repeated the Neronian games so he could sing at them. ​He arranged it so the crowd clamoured to hear him, dropped his name into the urn to take pot luck along with everyone else, but made sure he was called and then came forward, attended by prefects of the Praetorian Guard carrying his lyre, had an ex-consul announce him and then performed the song of Niobe until late in the afternoon.

He toyed with performing opposite professional actors in public shows. He did actually perform in tragedies, taking the parts of mortals and gods, sometimes even goddesses, wearing masks modelled on his own, or women’s masked based on his lover of the moment. He performed in ‘Canace in Childborth’, ‘Orestes the Matricide’, ‘The Blinding of Oedipus’ and the ‘Frenzy of Hercules’. There’s a story that , the last of these plays, a young recruit, seeing the emperor in rags and fetters, dashed forward to his assistance. [Like so many Roman anecdotes, a bit too good to be true.]

22. Nero was obsessed with horse racing from an early age and played with toys of chariots and horses. Once in power, he attended every race day and made no secret of his wish to have the number of races and prizes increased.

He desperately wanted to drive a chariot himself and, after practicing in the privacy of his own grounds, made a public appearance at the Circus Maximus (when one of his freedmen replaced the magistrate who usually took the job of dropping the napkin to start the race).

He went to Greece because all the cities which held musical competitions had swiftly adopted the sycophantic practice of awarding the emperor top prize. He declared that ‘the Greeks were the only ones who had an ear for music and that they alone were worthy of my efforts.’

So he took ship to Greece and immediately on arriving at Cassiope gave his first recital before the altar of Jupiter Cassius, and then went the round of all the contests.

23. During his visit to Greece Nero used his power to make the Greeks hold competitions between the usual intervals and introduced a musical competition into the Olympic Games. When his advisers told him he was needed back at Rome he angrily told them he had to remain performing in Greece until he had proved himself worthy of Nero.

No one was allowed to leave a theatre when Nero was performing. So Suetonius shares comic stories of women giving birth to children there, some secretly dropping down from the back wall, some even feigning death in order to be carried out. He sucked up to his rivals, praising them to their faces but badmouthing them behind their backs. When they were particularly good performers, he bribed them to sing badly. He addressed the judges in deferential terms but was surprisingly nervous before each performance.

24. Nero took the competitions very seriously, scrupulously observing the rules most scrupulously, never daring to clear his throat nor wipe the sweat from his brow with his arm (both actions which lost the competitor points). To obliterate the memory of all other victors in games​ he had their statues and busts taken down and placed in public lavatories.

Nero drove a chariot in many places. At Olympia he drove a ten-horse team, a novelty. He fell from the chariot, had to be helped back into it and failed to complete the course, but he received the prize just the same. The judges weren’t stupid. On his departure he presented the entire province with freedom​ and gave the judges Roman citizen­ship and money. He announced these gifts in in person during the Isthmian Games, standing in the middle of the stadium.

25. Arriving back at Naples, Nero ordered part of the wall to be razed so he could ride white horses through the gap, as was customary with victors in the sacred games.​ He entered Antium, then Albanum and finally Rome in the same manner. In Rome he rode in the same chariot which Augustus had used in his triumphs and wore a purple robe and a Greek cloak adorned with stars of gold, bearing on his head the Olympic wreath, the Pythian wreath in his right hand. Other wreaths were borne before him with placards describing where he won them, what he sang, who the competition was. He processed through the city to the cheers of the adoring crowd and the accompaniment of lavish sacrifices.

He placed the victor’s wreaths above the couches in his sleeping quarters and set up several statues of himself playing the lyre, and had a coin struck with the same image.

[What an extraordinary travesty and mockery of the military triumphs of the preceding centuries.]

In order to preserve his voice, Nero never addressed the soldiers except by letter or in a speech delivered by others, he never did anything for amusement or in earnest without a voice trainer by his side, to warn him to spare his vocal organs and hold a handkerchief to his mouth. He made friends or enemies according to how enthusiastically they applauded him.

Delinquent behaviour

26. Meanwhile, Nero performed his first acts of wantonness, lust, extravagance, avarice and cruelty in secret. Some might say boys will be boys, but this was the true Nero coming out.

When night fell, he took a cap or wig and went from tavern to tavern, roaming the streets performing pranks, but these weren’t harmless. He used to beat men as they came home from dinner, stabbing any who resisted him and throwing them into the sewers. He broke into shops then sold the loot openly in the market. After he was beaten almost to death by a senator whose wife he had maltreated, he thenceforth had a squad of tribunes follow him at a distance and unobserved.

He attended the theatre in the upper part of the proscenium. When fights broke out on stage (fighting with stones and broken benches) Nero himself threw many missiles at the people and even broke a praetor’s head.

Lavish feasts

27. Slowly Nero’s decadent behaviour became more overt and entrenched. His feasts lasted from noon till midnight with breaks for a swim in a warm bath or, if it was summer, into snow-cooled water. Sometimes he drained the artificial lakes in the Campus Martius or the Circus and held banquets there, including prostitutes and dancing girls as guests.

Whenever he cruised down the Tiber to Ostia, or sailed about the Gulf of Baiae, he had rows of temporary brothels set up along the shore, where married women, pretending to be inn-keepers, solicited him to come ashore. [This is the kind of story which seems superficially colourful but as soon as you think about the practicalities, seems wildly impractical.]

He forced his friends to hold lavish banquets: one friend spent 4 million sesterces on a banquet where everyone wore turbans were distributed, another spent even more on a rose dinner.

Sex

28. Not satisifed with seducing free-born boys and married women, Nero raped the Vestal Virgin, Rubria. Then he tried to marry the freed-woman Acte by bribing some ex-consuls to perjure themselves by swearing that she was of royal birth.

He tried to turn the boy Sporus into a girl by castrating him and then went through a marriage ceremony with him, dowry, bridal veil and all, took him back to the palace attended by a huge crowd and lived with him as man and wife. This gave rise to a joke that the world would have been a better place if Nero’s father had taken that kind of wife.

Nero dressed this Sporus in all the finery of an empress and took him everywhere with him in his litter, kissing him openly in public.

It was no secret that he lusted after his mother. it was said that only her enemies held him back, fearing that she would gain such control over him that her power would be absolute. So Nero added to his concubines a courtesan who was said to look just like Agrippina. Others said that they had incestuous relations whenever he rode in a litter with his mother; you could tell by the stains when he emerged.

29. Nero ran through every type of obscenity and invented new ones. He devised a game in which he dressed in the skin of wild animals, was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women who were bound to stakes. When he had worked himself up to a frenzy he was ‘finished off’ by his freedman Doryphorus.

In fact he got this Doryphorus to marry him, as he had married Sporus, and on their ‘wedding night’ imitated the screams and lamentations of a maiden being deflowered. Like perverts, abusers, wife beaters and misogynists everywhere, he thought all men were secretly just like him, but kept their vices hidden.

Extravagance

30. Nero believed money should be lavished on riotous extravagance. He thought it the mark of a true gentleman to waste and squander. He admired his uncle (his mother Agrippina’s brother, Gaius aka Caligula) because in less than four years he ran through the huge fortune it had taken Tiberius 30 years to amass.

He spent 8,000 gold pieces a day on King Tiridates and on his departure from Rome gave him more than a million. He gave the lyre-player Menecrates and the gladiator Spiculus houses and estates worthy of men who had celebrated triumphs. He was equally generous to the monkey-faced usurer Paneros and later on, had him buried with almost regal splendour.

Nero never wore the same garment twice. He staked 4,000 gold pieces on each throw of the dice. When he went fishing he used a golden net. It was said that he never made a journey with less than a thousand carriages. His mules were shod with silver and their drivers clad in wool from Canusium. He was attended by outriders with jingling bracelets and trappings.

Building works

31. Nero’s wastefulness was most on show in his architectural projects. He built a palace extending all the way from the Palatine to the Esquiline, which at first he called ‘The Passageway’. After it burned down, he had it rebuilt and named it the Golden House.

The entrance hall was large enough to hold a statue of himself 120 feet high. The triple-pillared colonnade ran for a mile. A huge lake was surrounded with buildings designed to represent entire cities and by a landscaped garden containing ploughed fields, vineyards, pastures and woodland, where every type of domestic animal roamed at large.

Parts of the house were inlaid with gold and studded with precious jewels. All the dining rooms had ceilings of fretted ivory. The panels could be drawn back to rain down dried flowers or perfume. The main banqueting hall was circular and its roof revolved day and night in time with the sky.

When this enormous luxury palace was completed he uttered some immortal words which can go down as the motto for every sybarite and decadent ever since: ‘Good. Now at last I can begin to live like a human being!’

He also began a covered bath, surrounded by colonnades, which stretched from Misenum to Lake Avernus. The plan was to divert all the hot springs in the Baiae region to feed it. Another grand project was to build a ship canal from Avernus all the way to Ostia, 160 miles long and wide enough for two quinqueremes to pass. Prisoners from all over the empire were to be brought in to build it.

He was led on to these wild extravagances by the promises of a Roman knight, who declared that the enormous wealth which queen Dido had taken with her in her flight from Tyre was hidden away in huge caves in Africa and could be easily recovered.

32. When this hope, inevitably, proved false, Nero found himself destitute, discovered that he didn’t even have enough money for the soldiers’ pay or veterans benefits. So he found himself forced to resort to false accusations and robbery. He increased taxes and excises. He seized the estates of anyone rich who died without leaving him enough in their will, and fined lawyers who wrote unsatisfactory wills.

Any man whose words or deeds left him exposed to accusation by an informer was accused of treason. He recalled the lavish gifts he had given to the Greek cities. He decoyed marketeers into buying amethystine or Tyrian dyes (both illegal under the sumptuary laws) then closed them all down and seized their goods. Once he spotted an aristocratic lady wearing this illegal colour at one of his recitals and had her dragged off, stripped off her clothes, but also of her estates.

When he appointed magistrates his instructions were simple: ‘You know my needs; let us leave no-one with any possessions.’ In the end he was forced to strip temples of their gifts and melted down the images of gold and silver, among them the household gods of Rome itself. (Galba, soon afterwards, had them all recast and restored).

Murdering Claudius

33. Claudius himself was the first victim of Nero’s murderous career, for even if Nero wasn’t directly involved in his uncle’s poisoning, he knew all about it, as he later admitted. For he used to mockingly praise mushrooms (the dish by which Claudius was poisoned) as ‘the food of the gods’. After the initial phase of filial duty was over, he took to openly insulting Claudius as stupid and cruel. He joked that he hoped Claudius wasn’t still ‘playing the fool’ in heaven. Nero annulled many of Claudius’s edicts on the ground that he was a doddering old idiot.

Murdering Britannicus

Nero attempted to poison Britannicus for two reasons: a) trivially, he was jealous that Britannicus’s voice was better than his b) he worried that, as he grew up, the people would come to prefer the natural son of Claudius to him, the adoptive one. The Suetonius gives what purports to be a detailed account of how Nero commissioned an arch-poisoner named Locusta to kill his half-brother and, when it didn’t work, flogged her with his own hand. He forced her to devise a stronger and stronger poison, which they tried on a goat – it took 5 hours to work, so he had her reduce it further, and try on a pig, which died on the spot.

That night at dinner Nero administered it to Britannicus who dropped dead at the very first taste. Nero assured the horrified guests that Britannicus was having an epileptic fit but the next day had him hastily buried in a pouring rainstorm, without any ceremony. He rewarded Locusta for her services with a large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils to study the art of poison.

Murdering Agrippina

34. The over-watchful, over-protective eye that his mother, Agrippina the Younger, shone on Nero eventually proved more than he could bear. At first he tried to intimidate her by threatening to retire to Rhodes (as his grandfather Tiberius had done 60 years earlier). He then deprived her of all honours, even of her Roman and German guard. He forbade her to live with him and drove her from the Palace.

He bribed men to annoy her with lawsuits while she remained in the city, and after she had retired to the country, to pass her house by land and sea and break her rest with abuse and mockery. At last, terrified by her violence and threats, he determined to have her life, and after thrice attempting it by poison and finding that she had made herself immune by antidotes, he tampered with the ceiling of her bedroom, contriving a mechanical device for loosening its panels and dropping them upon her while she slept.

When this leaked out through some of those connected with the plot, he devised a collapsible boat, to destroy her by shipwreck or by the falling in of its cabin. Then he pretended a reconciliation and invited her in a most cordial letter to come to Baiae and celebrate the feast of Minerva​ with him. He then instructed his captains to wreck the galley in which she had come, by running into it as if by accident. So she had to return to Bauli in the craft he offered her. He saw her off in high spirits, then spent the night anxiously waiting for news.

When he learned that the ship had foundered, alright, but Agrippina had escaped by swimming, he had a dagger thrown down beside her freedman who had brought the news, and ordered that he had made an attempt on his life. The freedman was promptly arrested, tortured, admitted being part of a plot to assassinate the emperor, his mother was part of it, and so she too was executed, giving out that she had tried to assassinate him but then committed suicide when she learned the plan had failed. He is said to have travelled to her house and handled her limp limbs, assessing her looks, between swigs of wine.

However, her memory haunted him and gave him bad dreams. He told confidants that he was hounded by his mother’s ghost and by the whips and blazing torches of the Furies. He even had rites performed by Persian magicians, in an effort to summon her shade and entreat it for forgiveness.

Then he murdered his aunt, Domitia Lepida. He visited her when she was confined to her bed with constipation and ordered her doctors to poison her, seizing her property before she was cold, suppressing her will, that nothing might escape him.

Nero’s wives

35. Besides Octavia Nero later took two wives, Poppaea Sabina, daughter of an ex-quaestor and married to a Roman knight, and then Statilia Messalina. To take Statilia he had to murder her husband Atticus Vestinus while he held the office of consul.

He soon grew tired of living with Octavia. He made several attempts to strangle her, then divorced her on the ground of barrenness. This was unpopular, so then he banished her. And finally he had her put to death on a charge of adultery that was so shameless and unfounded, that even when her slaves were tortured they refused to validate it.

Nero dearly loved Poppaea, whom he married twelve days after his divorce from Octavia, yet he caused her death by kicking her when she was pregnant and ill, because she had scolded him for coming home late from the races.

There is no kind of relation­ship that he did not violate in his career of crime. He put to death Antonia, daughter of Claudius, for refusing to marry him after Poppaea’s death, charging her with an attempt at revolution. He treated in the same way all others who were in any way connected with him by blood or by marriage.

Among these was the young Aulus Plautius, whom he forcibly defiled before his death, saying ‘Let my mother come now and kiss my successor,’ implying that Agrippina had loved Plautius and that this had roused him to hopes of the throne.

Rufrius Crispinus, a mere boy, his stepson and the child of Poppaea, he ordered to be drowned by the child’s own slaves while he was fishing, because it was said that he used to play at being a general and an emperor.

He banished his nurse’s son Tuscus, because when procurator in Egypt, he had bathed in some baths which were built for a visit of Nero’s.

He drove his tutor Seneca to suicide, although when the old man often pleaded to be allowed to retire and offered to give up his estates, Nero had sworn most solemnly that he was wrong to suspect him and that he would rather die than harm him.

He sent poison to Burrus, prefect of the Guard, in place of a throat medicine which he had promised him. The old and wealthy freedmen who had helped him first to his adoption and later to the throne, and aided him by their advice,​ he killed by poison, administered partly in their food and partly in their drink.

36. Two conspiracies against Nero’s life were uncovered. The earlier and more dangerous of these was that of Piso at Rome; the other was set on foot by Vinicius at Beneventum. The conspirators made their defence in fetters, some voluntarily admitting their guilt, some saying they were doing a favour to man so steeped in evil as Nero. The children of those who were condemned were banished or put to death by poison or starvation: a number are known to have been murdered all together at a single meal along with their tutors and attendants.

37. After this Nero showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whoever he pleased on any pretext whatever. Salvidienus Orfitus was charged with having let to certain states as headquarters three shops which formed part of his house near the Forum; Cassius Longinus, a blind jurist, with retaining in the old family tree of his house the mask of Gaius Cassius, the assassin of Julius Caesar; Paetus Thrasea with having a sullen expression.

To those ordered to die he never granted more than an hour’s respite, and to avoid any delay, he brought physicians who were ordered to ‘attend to’ such as lingered – that was the phrase he used for killing them by opening their veins.

Puffed up by success, Nero boasted that no prince had ever known the power he, Nero, now enjoyed. He broadly hinted that he would not spare the senate, but would one day blot out the whole order from the State and hand over the rule of the provinces and command of the armies to the Roman knights and his freedmen.

He even made vows ‘for himself and the people of Rome’, leaving the senate out of the traditional formula.

The great fire of Rome

38. Displeased with the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city. Some granaries near the Golden House, whose location he desired, were demolished and set on fire. For six days and seven nights destruction raged, while the people were driven for shelter to monuments and tombs.

An immense number of common dwellings, houses of great military leaders along with all their treasures and insignia, along with the temples of the gods, and ancient monuments of historical interest, all went up in flames. Nero watched the fire from the tower of Maecenas​, exulting in ‘the beauty of the flames’ and sang the entire ‘Sack of Ilium’ in his regular stage costume.

He set out to profit from the disaster so, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost, he allowed no one to approach the ruins of their own property so he could loot them. And he demanded such exorbitant contributions from the provinces for the rebuilding that he nearly bankrupted them.

39. Disaster was added to disaster. A plague killed 30,000. In Britain two important towns were sacked and great numbers of citizens and allies were butchered. (The towns were Camulodunum [Meldon] and Verulamium [St. Albans]. According to the historian Xiphilinus, 80,000 perished).

A Roman army was defeated in Armenia and Syria was all but lost.

The Gaulish revolt

40. After the world had put up with such a ruler for nearly fourteen years, it at last cast him off, and the first steps began in Gaul. Gaul at that time was governed by Julius Vindex as propraetor who now rose against the emperor, sending him a series of increasingly abusive messages. When he heard of the Gaul rebellion, at first Nero was delighted, thinking this would give him the opportunity to fleece the rebellious provinces. When it escalated, he did his best to ignore it.

41. At last a series of insulting edicts of Vindex prompted him to address the senate (but only by letter) to avenge him and the state. When more urgent despatches reached Antium Nero finally repaired to the capital. But here he didn’t address either the senate (in the House) or the people (in the Forum) but invited some of the leading men to his house where, after a hasty consultation about Gaul, he spent the rest of the day exhibiting a new type of water-organ.

42. But when news arrived that the Roman governor Galba was leading a revolt in Spain, Nero fainted. When he regained consciousness, Nero abandoned hope, tearing his robe, declaring that it was all over with him. But instead of taking active steps to quell the rebellions he continued his luxurious habits and whenever good news arrived from the provinces, he gave lavish feasts and composed comic songs about the leaders of the revolt.

43. At the start of the revolt Nero made wild and characteristically brutal plans. He planned to depose all army commanders and all provincial governors and have them all executed, then massacre all exiles everywhere and kill all the Gauls then present in Rome.

[What this clearly demonstrates is Nero’s inability to manage the subtlety and detail of individual men with individual grievances. Augustus and Tiberius knew their officials, knew their strengths and weaknesses and allegiances, knew how to manage them, play them off against each other, keep their ambition under control. In fact they knew that that’s what being Roman emperor consisted of – unending man management, of army leaders, provincial governors, and the jockeying factions in the Senate. Caligula and Nero didn’t understand this and had no interest in it. If anyone stood in their way they just had them killed. Which explains Nero’s blunt, sweeping and ineffective response to the revolts.]

Maybe Suetonius exaggerates when he said Nero also considered poisoning the entire senate and setting Rome on fire again. You feel the heavy hand of Flavian propaganda in such tales. Or maybe they were popular rumours. But they testify to Nero’s inability to manage specific rebel leaders and situations with anything approaching subtlety or intelligence.

Instead, Nero dismissed the two consuls and appointed himself sole consul. He left a feast leaning on the shoulders of his comrades, and declaring that all he need do was confront the rebellious army and fall to his knees weeping for them to realise they loved him and asking forgiveness. Next day he would be dancing and singing hymns of praise, so he was just off to compose a few in preparation.

44. In preparing for his campaign Nero was mainly concerned with finding enough wagons to carry all his musical instruments, and arranging for all his concubines to have male haircuts and be issued with Amazonian axes and shields.

He issued a general conscription which was largely ignored so compelled every household to contribute a certain number of slaves and part of their incomes. All tenants of private houses and apartments had to pay a year’s rent to the Treasury.

45. This aroused bad feeling against Nero which was compounded when he profited from the high cost of grain. A rumour went round that while the people were starving a ship had arrived from Alexandria, bringing sand for the court wrestlers. Graffiti, slogans and angry jokes at his expense proliferated.

46. Nero was frightened by bad dreams, auspices and omens. He dreamed:

  • that he was steering a ship in his sleep and that the helm was wrenched from his hands
  • that he was dragged by his wife Octavia into thickest darkness
  • that he was covered with a swarm of winged ants
  • that a Spanish horse he was fond of was changed into an ape
  • that the doors of the Mausoleum (built to house the dead of the royal family) flew open and a voice called him to enter
  • on the Kalends of January the city gods toppled over and in front of the assembled people the keys of the Capitol could not be found

In his last public appearance as a singer he performed ‘Oedipus in Exile’ which ends with the line:

Wife, father, mother drive me to my death.

Seeing as how he had murdered his (adoptive) father, Claudius, his own mother (Agrippina the Younger), had his first wife Octavia murdered then kicked to death Poppaea.

47. When word came that the other armies had revolted, Nero tore up the dispatches, pushed over his table, smashing his favourite ‘Homeric’ cups, ordered some poison from the arch-poisoner Locusta, to keep with him, and went into the Servilian gardens, where he tried to induce the tribunes and centurions of the Guard to accompany him in his flight. They refused.

He considered other plans: to go as a suppliant to the Parthians; or to Galba; or to appear to the people on the rostra, dressed in black, and beg for pardon for his past offences. Maybe they would allow him the prefecture of Egypt. Afterwards a speech composed for this purpose was found in his writing desk, but it is thought that he didn’t dare deliver it for fear of being torn to pieces before he could reach the Forum.

Next morning Nero awoke to discover his guard of soldiers had abandoned him. He sent for his friends but no-one replied. He roamed round the palace but doors were bolted, no-one answered his calls. Back at his rooms he found even the caretakers had absconded, taking his bed linen and the box of poison.

He called for the gladiator Spiculus​ or any other trained executioner to put an end to him, but none came and he ran out as if to throw himself into the Tiber.

48. But Nero abandoned that plan and said he needed to go somewhere quiet to gather his thoughts. His freedman Phaon suggested his villa in the suburbs, just four miles away. So Nero pulled on a faded cloak, covered his head, and set off on horseback accompanied by just four attendants, one of whom was Sporus.

The short journey was eventful, with a mild earthquake and a flash of lightning; then shouting from an army camp in favour of Galba. Then his horse took fright at the smell of a corpse which had been thrown out into the road.

They arrived at Phaon’s villa and made their way through brambles to the back door. Nero scooped water from a pool, quipping that this was ‘Nero’s own special brew.’ Once inside the villa he sank down on a couch with a common mattress, over which an old cloak had been thrown. Though suffering from hunger and renewed thirst, he refused some coarse bread which was offered him, but drank a little lukewarm water.

49. At last, as it became clear his enemies were closing in, Nero bad his servants dig a grave and assemble wood for a pyre. As he watched this being done he wept and said again and again: ‘What an artist the world is losing!’

Then a runner brought a letter from Phaon announcing that he had been declared a public enemy by the senate and that, when caught, he would be punished ‘in the ancient style’. When he asked what that meant, his servants told him it meant the criminal was stripped, fastened by the neck in a fork​ and then beaten to death with rods.

Terrified, Nero seized two daggers but couldn’t bring himself to use them. He ordered one of his slaves to set an example by killing himself, but none of them would. He reproached himself for his cowardice, lamenting that this sordid end didn’t become the great artist Nero at all.

Then they heard a troop of cavalry approaching up the road to arrest him and, with the help of his private secretary, Epaphroditus, he stabbed himself in the throat. He was all but dead when a centurion rushed in. As this centurion placed a cloak to the wound, Nero gasped: ‘Tool ate! But what loyalty!’ Then he died.

Burial

50. Nero was buried at a cost of 200,000 sesterces and laid out in white robes embroidered with gold, which he had worn on the Kalends of January. His ashes were deposited by his nurses, Egloge and Alexandria, accompanied by his mistress Acte, in the family tomb of the Domitii on the summit of the Hill of Gardens.

51. Nero was about average height, his body was marked with pimples and smelt bad. His hair was light blond, his features regular rather than attractive, his eyes blue and somewhat weak. His neck was thick and squat, his belly prominent and his legs very slender.

His health was good. For all his riotous excess he was only ill three times during the fourteen years of his reign, and even then not enough to give up wine or any of his usual habits.

He was utterly shameless in the care of his person and in his dress, always having his hair arranged in tiers of curls, and during the trip to Greece let it grow long and hang down behind.

He often gave audiences in an unbelted silk dressing gown and slippers.

52. When a boy he studied the usual liberal arts except philosophy which his mother Agrippina told him was no subject for a future ruler.

His tutor Seneca kept him from reading the early orators in order to make himself appear better to the boy, so Nero turned to poetry. He wrote poetry easily, with great facility. Some people claimed that he passed off other writer’s work as his own but “notebooks and papers have come into my possession which contain some of Nero’s best-known poems in his own handwriting. Many erasures and cancellations as well as words substituted above the lines, prove that he was neither copying nor dictating but are written just as people write when they are thinking and composing.”

[a) what an extraordinary thought, that Suetonius had before him on the table the actual notebooks of Nero; b) Have any of Nero’s poems survived?]

Nero also took more than an amateur’s interest in painting and sculpture.

53. But Nero’s dominant characteristic was his thirst for popularity and his jealousy of anyone who caught the public eye for any achievement whatsoever. Not content with singing, playing the lyre and chariot racing, he studied and practised wrestling constantly, watching contests from right next to the ring.

It is said that he planned to emulate the exploits of Hercules and had had a lion specially trained so he could safely face it naked in the amphitheatre and, in front of the whole population of Rome, kill it with a club or even strangle it with his bare hands.

54. Towards the end of his reign Nero publicly vowed that if he retained his power, he would celebrate his victory by giving a performance on the water-organ, the flute, and the bagpipes, and that on the last day he would appear as an actor and dance ‘Vergil’s Turnus’. Some claim he had the actor Paris put to death because he saw him as a dangerous rival.

55. Nero’s obsession with immortality and undying fame made him name many places and things after himself: he renamed the month of April Neroneus and was tempted to rename Rome Neropolis.

56. Nero despised all cults except that of the Syrian goddess Atagarsis but he eventually changed his mind even about her and urinated on her image. He came instead to have a superstitious belief which he kept to the end: for an unknown commoner sent him the gift of a little image of a girl as a protection against plots. As it happened a plot was revealed immediately afterwards so Nero took to worshipping this little image as if she were a powerful goddess and sacrificed to her three times a day.

57. Nero died at the age of 31, on the anniversary of the murder of Octavia. Such was the public rejoicing that the public ran through the streets wearing liberty caps​ and cheering. Yet for a long time afterwards, some secret admirers garlanded his tomb with spring and summer flowers and had statues made of him which they placed on the rostra wearing his characteristic fringed toga.

Vologaesus, king of the Parthians, when he sent envoys to the senate to renew his alliance, asked that honour be paid to the memory of Nero. In fact, Suetonius tells us that 20 years later, when he was a young man, a person of obscure origin appeared in Parthia claiming to be Nero and such was the power of his name to Parthian ears that they supported him vigorously and surrendered him to the Romans only with great reluctance.


Credit

Robert Graves’s translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was published by Penguin in 1957. A revised translation by Classicist Michael Grant, more faithful to the Latin original, was published in 1979. A further revised edition was published in 1989 with an updated bibliography.

Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

Fasti by Ovid

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

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

The word ‘fasti’

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

Astrology

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

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

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

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

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

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

The words ‘fasti’ and ‘calendar’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories

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

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

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

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

I love you Augustus.

Ovid’s research

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

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

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

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

Elegiac couplets and poetic incapacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ovid and Augustus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sycophantic attitude colours every book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of Rome more generally:

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

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

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

Much good it was to do him.

Who’s talking

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

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

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

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

The months

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

January

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

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

February

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

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

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

March

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

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

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

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

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

April

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

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

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

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

Wherefore:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19: Pallas begins to be worshipped on the Aventine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison of editions

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Roman reviews

The Year One by M.I. Finley (1968)

History tends to be the history of the winners, with the losers assigned the passive, largely unvoiced, faceless role of the people on whom the winners operated.
(‘Aspects of Antiquity’, page 189)

Notes on ‘The Year One’, a short essay included in Finley’s 1968 collection, ‘Aspects of Antiquity’.

Ancient calendars

People living through a momentous year (1066, 1789, 1939, 2000) usually know about it. The most obvious thing to say about the year 1 is nobody living through it knew about it at the time. The entire chronological framework of Western civilisation, whereby we divide years into before Christ (BC) or after Christ (in the year of the Lord, anno Domini, AD) hadn’t been invented.

Instead, all the different cultures of the ancient world kept their own calendars relating to their own cultural landmarks. The Greeks thought in terms of four year blocks or ‘Olympiads’ which began with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, so year one was the first year of the 195th Olympiad.

The Romans had, for centuries, dated events by referring to the two consuls who were in office for that year, thus ‘in the consulship of Caius Caesar, son of Augustus, and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, son of Paullus.’

Only the learned wanted to look back deeper than a few decades and, for those purposes, Roman historians had worked out the year of the legendary foundation of Rome, and dated everything AUC standing for ‘ab urbe condita’ or ‘since the founding of the city (Rome)’. Many centuries later Christian historians aligned this legendary date to 753 years before the birth of Christ. So the year one was 754 AUC. This system was devised by the Christian historian Dionysius Exiguus, a Greek-speaking monk.

The evidence of the gospels

Of the four gospels only two give details of the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke

Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s gospel includes the story of ‘the massacre of the innocents’ (chapter 2, verses 16 to 18). Herod the Great, king of Judea, is said to have heard a prophecy that his kingdom will be overthrown by a child about to be born in Bethlehem, so he ordered the execution of all male children aged two and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The Catholic Church regards them as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents’ Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents) – is celebrated on 28 December. In this story, Joseph and Mary were warned by angels about the impending massacre and so made their way secretly to Egypt, ‘The Flight to Egypt’, a journey depicted in countless paintings.

Unfortunately for the veracity of this version, Herod the Great died in 4 BC. If Matthew is literally correct, Jesus must have been born in 4 BC at the latest.

Luke’s Gospel

Luke’s story is different. He says the Romans sent out a decree that everyone had to return to their home town in order to take part in a national census of the population of Judea so they could be taxed more efficiently.

Unfortunately, the only census decreed by the Romans that we know of occurred in either 6 or 7 AD.

In 6 AD the Romans deposed Herod’s son, Archelaus, themselves took over Judea, and installed a Roman governor with instructions to conduct a census. (The northern province of Galilee remained under the rule of the Herod family; Finley says this slight inconsistency between direct and indirect rule was common in provinces on the edge of the empire.)

The Roman Empire

Was an empire in the full sense. The ‘Roman people’ i.e. citizens of Rome and central and northern Italy, ruled all the other inhabitants of the empire as subjects. The empire outside Italy was divided into provinciae. In 1 AD the Roman empire covered about 1,250,000 square miles with a population of about 60 million (population figures are deeply contested). Censuses were taken in the provinces to maximise tax revenue, but at different times in different provinces, using different methods and definitions, so…

The tax collector, along with the soldier, was the most obvious and ubiquitous link between the provinces and Rome. (p.187)

The limits of Empire

In 9 AD a Romanised German warrior chief named Arminius lured three legions into an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest and annihilated them, seizing the precious standards. Traumatised by this terrible news, the emperor Augustus ordered the remaining two legions and all Roman citizens to withdraw back across the Rhine, a decision reinforced by his successor Tiberius, which crystallised into a fiat. The Romans never attempted to conquer and colonise Germany and the north European border settled for the next four centuries along the Rhine-Danube line.

The borders finalised as England in the north-west, the Atlantic in the west, the Atlas mountains, the Sahara and the cataracts of the Nile in Africa, Judea in what is now the Middle East, and Asia i.e. half of Anatolia up to the border with Armenia.

Imperial exploitation

The Romans had no shortage of writers and propagandists (Horace, Virgil and so on) praising Augustus’ rule and, by extension, Rome’s right to rule the entire world (Virgil). The Christian European empires 1700 years later (Spain, France, Britain, Holland) made lengthy attempts to justify their imperial conquests in terms of bringing civilisation etc to barbarian lands. The Romans used the same rhetoric but were much more honest about the sheer greed and looting involved in conquest. As Finley says in his essay about slavery, Julius Caesar set out for Gaul a penniless aristocrat from a down-at-heel family and he returned 8 years later a multi-millionaire and the most powerful man in Rome. That’s what 8 years of burning and looting did for him.

Once a province had been conquered and pacified there an infrastructure was imposed designed to extract wealth, consisting of extensive taxes(in goods and services and money) for the state, but great personal income skimmed off by high officials and members of the tax farming corporations.

Rome had no mission to civilise comparable to France’s great pretension to a mission civilisatrice. Some of her propagandists later developed this idea but the reality was that, so long as they paid their taxes, Rome left her subject peoples largely to themselves, only interfering if there was disorder, rebellion etc. Over a century of conquering and administering other peoples had shown that minimal interference paid off and…was cheap to run.

This was particularly true in the East, which had well-established cultures/civilisations long before the Romans arrived. Latin was the language of the new rulers but Greek remained the language of intellectuals and the ruling classes which sat directly below the Roman governor. Educated Romans learned Greeks but Greeks rarely bothered to learn Latin, a far simpler, cruder language.

Josephus

Finley makes a pit stop to spend a page profiling Joseph ben Matthias, member of a Jewish priestly family known to history as Josephus and for the epic history of the Jewish War, an account of the 4-year rebellion of Jews against Roman rule 66 to 70 AD which led up to the Romans storming Jerusalem and destroying the Great Temple built by Herod.

Josephus was a Pharisee, a member of the elite priestly caste who identified with law and order and the Romans, so the enemies in his book are the Zealots, who he calls rebels and bandits, religious visionaries who stirred up the people to revolt by playing on their grievances, their extreme poverty and promises of a new world.

Augustus

The essay then turns to consider Augustus’s achievement, namely bringing to an end 60 odd years of chaos as the Roman Republic proved incapable of managing its empire, or, more precisely, the scale of the wealth and power pouring into Rome exacerbate the toxic rivalries among great men which had previously been contained by its republican institutions, but now boiled over into repeated civil wars by over-mighty rulers. Until Octavian put a stop to it (helped by the fact that all the eminent men of his generation had been killed in the civil wars, committed suicide or been murdered in his ‘proscriptions’, leaving him the last significant military-political figure standing).

Augustus’s titles

In 27 BC Octavian was awarded the title ‘Augustus’ by the senate. But his other titles are significant. He wanted to be known as ‘princeps’ i.e. principle figure, partly because it avoided the dreaded term rex or king. And also kept the title Imperator, originally given to victorious generals, but now awarded him a) as recognition of victorious campaigns but b) as continual reminder of where his power lay – the complete loyalty of the army.

Around the time of Christ’s birth, in 2 AD Augustus was awarded a further title, ‘Father of the Nation’, which is not as cuddly as it sounds, given the draconian authority the father of a family had over all its other members, male or female.

Augustus tries to ensure heirs

In his magisterial biography of Augustus Adrian Goldsworthy goes out of his way to emphasise that through most of his rule Augustus appears to have not wanted to create a dynasty and been succeeded by one heir. On the contrary he tried to create a cohort of experienced young men who, Goldsworthy thinks, were meant to form a small cabinet, to rule collegiately.

The two problems with this was that they all tended to come from within his own close family, so royal, monarchical, imperial logic was hard to deny – but worse, that almost all his proteges died, leaving, the grumpy, surly, graceless Tiberius as the last most obvious figure standing.

But before all this had become clear Augustus spent time and energy grooming a succession of young male relatives for rule and in doing so rode roughshod over many of the conventions of the Republic he claimed to be defending. Thus in 4 BC the Senate was prevailed upon to decree that Augustus’s two grandsons (who he had adopted to make legally his sons) Gaius and Lucius, should be designated consuls at the tender age of 15 and then awarded the actual posts, for a year, when they turned 20. Each was titled ‘Princeps of the Youth’. In the Year One Gaius was indeed ‘elected’ consul (as everyone the Princeps recommended to the voters tended to be). But then the curse struck…Lucius died in 2 AD, Gaius in 4 AD.

Augustus’s propaganda machine

Augustus had statues of himself carved and erected in cities all over the empire. Instead of realistic depictions they show an idealised, tall virile commander of men. He ensured his face was on all coinage, so even the illiterate knew who he was. He encouraged his inclusion in the ceremonies of all the religions and cults practiced across the empire. Via his unofficial minister of the arts, Maecenas, he ‘encouraged’ praise by the leading poets of the day, poets like Virgil, Horace and Ovid whose words of sycophantic praise have survived down to our time, 2,000 years later.

Augustus’s campaign for moral regeneration

Alongside a major programme of rebuilding and renovating not only Rome but all the major cities in the Empire, Augustus tried to bring about a moral revival as well. He had roughly two concerns: one was that the ancient noble families of Rome had been severely depleted by the civil wars and so he passed successive legislation promoting marriage and punishing adult men who failed to marry or have children. He gave legal and financial incentives to families with three or more children – legislation collectively known as the Leges Iuliae.

Augustus wasn’t concerned about sexual morality as such but was concerned about its impact on the stability and fecundity of the ruling class which he wanted to grow and stabilise in order to secure Rome’s future. It’s in this context that he passed legislation severely punishing adultery. He wanted more sons of the aristocracy, and that they should marry and do their military and civic duty, instead of not marrying and frittering away their family fortunes on increasing displays of opulence.

Exiling the Julias

It was in this context that in 2 BC he exiled his only biological child, his daughter Julia the Elder (39 BC to 14 AD), who he married to an unwilling Tiberius, allegedly for flagrant adultery and sexual depravity. Several men who had allegedly been her partners were also exiled. In 8 AD he similarly exiled Julia the Elder’s daughter and so Augustus’s grand-daughter, Julia the Younger, again for adultery.

On each of these occasions the ostensible reason was breaching the emperor’s own code of morality, but he also spoke about Julia the Elder being involved in some kind of plot against his life. The details remain obscure but most modern historians think there was more to both affairs than meets the eye, and that in both cases the exiled women were in some way figureheads of attempts to overthrow Augustus’s rule. Hence historians speak of a ‘Julian’ party at his court.

Although the details continue to elude us, Finley draws the central point which is that as soon as you have courts you have courtly intrigue, you have palace plotting – in the later empire this kind of conspiracy became endemic but it is instructive to note that it appears to have arisen as soon as there was a court, in the close family of the very first emperor.

Ovid is exiled

This is the view of Peter Green who devotes most of the long 80-page introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Art of Love to a forensic analysis of events and accusations surrounding the 8 AD exiling of Julia the Younger, because the poet was caught up in the same event and, with little or no warning, exiled by Augustus to the furthest border of the Roman empire, to the miserable provincial town of Tomis on the Black Sea. Ovid wrote a large number of letters to former friends and officials begging to be allowed to return, and a series of poems elaborating on the wretchedness of his fate – but to no avail. Even when Augustus died, his successor, Tiberius, renewed his exile and Ovid died miserably, far from his beloved Rome.

Frustratingly, despite writing a huge amount about his exile, Ovid never anywhere specifies the nature of his error. He insists it was minor, that he never plotted against the emperor, or planned to use poison or a knife or anything like that. Green weighs all the evidence and thinks Ovid must have seen something or been present at meetings where such plots were discussed and failed to report them to the authorities. Because he wasn’t an active plotter, Ovid’s life was spared; but because he didn’t report whatever he saw, his lack of loyalty to the emperor – and to the entire peaceful regime which Augustus had spent a lifetime creating – was called into doubt. Hence exile.

The Augustan peace

It’s easy to criticise Augustus’s early career, his cut-throat manoeuvres, his participation in the proscriptions i.e. mass murder of anyone who stood in the way of the Second Triumvirate, his hugely unpopular land redistribution away from traditional farmer and to veterans of the military campaigns leading up to the decisive Battle of Philippi. But by these expedients he secured the end of the civil wars which had lasted as long as anyone could remember, brought military, civil and social peace, order and stability. He secured the longest period of continuous peace the Mediterranean world had ever known. In this atmosphere of peace and stability business flourished and people got rich.

If the theatre was the characteristic secular building of the ancient Greeks, the amphitheatre was its Roman counterpart, and the long peace saw them built in cities all around the Central Sea.

Augustus worship

The result, especially in the East, was that people began to worship Augustus:

as Saviour, Benefactor and God Manifest (Epiphanes) just as they had deified a succession of Ptolemies, Seleucids and other rulers of the preceding centuries. (p.194)

In Rome he couldn’t be worshipped as a god while alive, only his spirit was said to be holy. But the east had no such hesitations and built temples to Augustus the god. This had nothing to do with love or respect but simple pragmatism. Most people were utterly powerless to influence events, least of all the slaves. It made simple sense to venerate and appease the mighty; that was the way of the world. Finley draws the major conclusion with huge implications for the growth of Christianity, that:

Religion became increasingly centred on salvation in the next world, whereas it had once been chiefly concerned with life in this one. (p.194)

Client kings and dependent rulers had a vested interest in encouraging the cult of Augustus as it underpinned their own authority, for most of the East was a patchwork of cults and religions which, for the most part, co-existed peacefully enough.

The Jewish Revolt

The Jews stood apart in their fierce insistence on monotheism. Jews had migrated and had communities all around the Mediterranean and in Rome (where Ovid recommends the synagogue as a good place to pick up women in The Art of Love). The Old Testament writings had been translated into Greek as far back as the third century BC as Jews in the diaspora lost touch with Hebrew.

Herod the Great, King of Judaea, had more in common with his Roman rulers than his Jewish subjects. When he introduced an amphitheatre and gladiator fights in the Roman style there were mutterings of discontent, but when he tried to impose official worship of Augustus the god there was an outcry and an assassination attempt.

The Jews’ dogged insistence on the uniqueness of their god puzzled the Romans (and their neighbours). Neither Augustus nor Tiberius took any steps against the Jews, but Roman officials in the provinces were less tolerant and insistence on conformity to Augustus worship or other religious practices led to repeated clashes. Many Jews were nervous of their masters’ lack of understanding and religious extremists – the Zealots so criticised by Josephus – played on these fears and encouraged proactive rebellion.

All these forces led to the outbreak of the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73 AD), sometimes called the Great Jewish Revolt or The Jewish War. It began in the twelfth year of the reign of Nero, with anti-taxation protests leading to attacks on Roman citizens by the Jews. The Roman governor, Gessius Florus, responded by plundering the Second Temple, claiming the money was for the Emperor, and the next day launching a raid on the city, arresting numerous senior Jewish figures. This prompted a wider, large-scale rebellion and the Roman military garrison of Judaea was quickly overrun by the rebels.

It took the Romans with all their might four full years to quell the rebellion, marked by the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the displacement of its people around the Mediterranean, followed by three years of further mopping-up operations. Most other Roman provinces suffered from extortionate taxation, harsh military rule, severe punishment for anyone who breached the peace. What made the Jews different was the involvement of fierce religious belief which shaded into millenarian visions of a Final Battle and Second Coming of the Promised One. Egypt, Greece, Britain, Spain and other equally exploited provinces had nothing like this.

The rise of Christianity

Obviously nobody alive in the Year One had a clue that it would one day, centuries later, be singled out as the start of a new dispensation on human history. If you’re not a Christian, chances are you still use the Christian system of numbering years, if only for business purposes. If you are a Christian this year marked the start of a completely new epoch of world and human history, one in which Divine Grace entered the human realm and all people were offered the chance of salvation through faith in the risen Christ.

Finley dwells on the fairly well-known textual records of early Christianity, within his realm of Roman studies, for example the famous letters of Pliny the Elder to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with the men and women being denounced to him as ‘Christians’.

Returning to borders, Finley points out that this same emperor Trajan conquered ‘Dacia’, roughly modern Transylvania, and embarked on a foolhardy campaign against the Parthians (graveyard of the ambitions of Crassus and Anthony to name but two) but Hadrian, who succeeded him, gave up the Parthian gains and settled the borders of the empire for good. Thus, give or take a few small provinces and the elimination of a few client-kingdoms, such as Judaea, the frontiers established by Augustus in the Year One were not far from being the final, definitive borders of the Empire.

Trade

One of the consistent surprises when reading about pre-modern history is the extent and complexity of pre-modern trade routes. It was one of the big messages of the British Museum’s great Vikings exhibition, showing just how far-flung Viking exploration and trade was. Whether considering the trading networks of ancient China or the early explorations of the Portuguese or the vast extent of the Mongol conquests, the message is always the same: pre-modern trading networks were always more wide-reaching than you would have thought.

Same here: Finley points out that the Romans bought silk from as far afield as China (via middlemen in Chinese Turkestan), and more directly with China and Ceylon. Indo-Roman trading stations existed as far away as Pondicherry. ‘There was a drain of Roman coins to India and further East’. Yet references to India were thin and misleading. In the works of the elegiac poets India is usually just linked as a name alongside Parthia to represent the furtherst ends of the earth.

Similarly, there was trans-Sahara trade, especially for ivory, but almost total ignorance of the African continent below the desert. (p.198)

In a way the northern border was more intriguing. After the catastrophe of the Teutoburg Forest (described in vivid detail by Goldsworthy in his biography of Augustus) Augustus withdrew all legions, merchants and settlers in Germany back south of the Rhine and the Rhine-Danube became de facto the northern border of the empire for the next four centuries.

Despite interacting with them extensively, despite making treaties with chieftains, trading with them, understanding something about their societies, in a sense the Romans never got to grips with the Germans. Finley explains part of this was because the Germans were illiterate so had no texts for the Romans to study; no history, art, no architecture.

Also, the Germans were made up of loose and constantly changing tribal confederations. The Parthians had an emperor, the Armenians a great king and so on: you knew who you were dealing with and what they had to offer and how to bargain. None of this worked with the Germans.

(He makes the interesting point that, in their relative ignorance, the Germans relied on ‘primitive agricultural techniques’ which rapidly exhausted what agricultural land they created by forest clearance, and this was a factor in their constant migrations. That and the periodic arrival of entire peoples from further east, which pushed the nearby Germans over the Rhine, often for safety.)

Lastly, he makes a quick point that despite trade with far-flung places outside the empire, most of the cultural and especially religious innovation came from within the empire.

The great matrix of religion innovation was within the empire, in its eastern regions: Egypt, Syria and Palestine, Asia Minor. And, of course, in the end the triumphant contribution from that area in this period was Christianity. (p.198)

East and West

He concludes with the Big Idea that the whole notion of Western Europe in a sense owes its existence to the Augustan settlement which secured Italy, Spain, France and Britain for Roman rule for centuries to come, bequeathing them a common culture, no matter how far it decayed during the Dark Ages.

The East, with far deeper cultural roots of its own, was not ‘Romanised’ to anything like the same extent, retaining a cultural independence which was expressed, first through the survival of the Byzantine Empire for another 1,000 years, and then through its conquest by another Eastern religion, Islam, tearing the Middle East and North Africa out of the Roman Christian family of nations, setting up a profound geographical and cultural divide which lasts to this day.


Credit

‘The Year One’ was included in a collection of essays by M.I. Finley titled Aspects of Antiquity, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley (1965)

Obviously the issues of women, gender, sexuality, ‘the body’ and so on have come to dominate academic discourse in the humanities over the last 30 years or so. Before it was fashionable, 60 years ago, the classicist M.I. Finley wrote a thoughtful essay on the role of women in ancient Rome, which must have seemed fairly radical in its time but has itself come to be criticised by modern feminist historians.

M.I. Finley

Finley himself is an interesting character. He was born in 1912 in New York City to Nathan Finkelstein and Anna Katzenellenbogen, so was Jewish. Young Finkelstein was precociously intelligent and graduated from Syracuse University at the age of 15, and took another degree at Columbia University. He then taught at Columbia and City College of New York, where he was influenced by members of the Marxist Frankfurt School who had fled Nazi Germany and were working in exile in America. About 1945 he changed his name to Finley, nobody seems to know why, maybe to forestall antisemitism.

Finley was teaching at Rutgers University when, in 1951, he was named by a witness before the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a communist. He was then summoned before the committee and, when asked whether he was a communist, took the Fifth Amendment, like many other fellow travellers. J. Edgar Hoover leaned on Rutgers and, after the affair had dragged on for 3 years, Finley was eventually dismissed.

So he emigrated to Britain where he was quickly appointed university lecturer in classics at Cambridge, elected to a fellowship at Jesus College, and eventually rose through the hierarchy to become Master of Darwin College (1976 to 1982). He was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971 and knighted in 1979, becoming Sir Moses Israel Finley. He died in 1986.

The silent women of Rome

Finley’s essay has a straightforward aim: to lament the passive, repressed, largely voiceless role of aristocratic women in ancient Rome, using a number of examples, laws and situations to do so.

To start with he says that not many names of Roman-era women are remembered: the most famous woman from the period, Cleopatra was neither Roman nor Egyptian but Greek. As to Roman women, how many of them are remembered? Messalina, Agrippina, Catullus’s Lesbia, some legendary women such as Lucretia or, going way back, Dido.

[This is obviously a weak way to begin, with purely anecdotal summary of ‘famous women’ and no actual evidence.]

Obviously, most societies have been patriarchal and suppressed women but Finley asserts it’s hard to think of any other great civilised state ‘without a single really important woman writer or poet, with no truly regal queen…no patron of the arts.’

He then moves on to a more careful consideration of the evidence which he places under five headings:

  1. through the erotic and satirical poetry of the late Republic and empire, ‘all written by men’
  2. through the historians and biographers, ‘all men’ and attracted to salacious scandal
  3. through the letter writers and philosophers, ‘all men’
  4. through painting and sculpture, inscribed tombstones and religious monuments
  5. through innumerable legal texts

So Finley, with his left-wing credentials, is fully aware of the patriarchal slant of his sources and that they record ideals and stereotypes ‘formulated and imposed by middle- and upper-class Roman males.’ For his day (1965) this feels like a full-on, left-wing, feminist mindset, and you’d have thought he anticipated a million feminist plaints by lamenting that what will always be missing from histories of Rome is the voices of women themselves.

For a start, until late in Roman history, women didn’t have individual names. The names they were given were the family name with an ‘a’ added, so that a daughter of the Claudii gens was named Claudia, of the Julii gens, Julia, and so on. In this spirit sisters were given the same name and only distinguished by the addition of ‘elder’ and ‘younger’, or ‘first’, ‘second’ etc. In the case of marriage between paternal cousins, mother and daughter could easily end up with the same names. For example, Augustus’s daughter was named Julia because he and she came of the Julii clan, and her daughter (Augustus’s grand daughter) was also named Julia.

This in itself is a staggering fact, really worth stopping to take onboard. Roman women didn’t have individual names. As Finley goes on to say, it’s as if Roman society as a whole wished to emphasise that girls and women were not genuine individuals but only offshoots of male-dominated families.

In fact he goes on to point out that although the word familia is Latin it never meant to Romans what it does to us nowadays. Familia either meant all the persons under the authority of the head of the household, or all the descendants from a common ancestor, or all one’s property, or all one’s servants – never our modern notion of the small nuclear family. ‘The stress was on a power structure, rather than on biology or intimacy.’

The Roman paterfamilias need not even be a father; the term was a legal one and applied to any head of a household. Biological children were excluded if illegitimate, whereas the practice of legal adoption was very common (two famous examples being Publius Clodius Pulcher having himself adopted by a plebeian family; and Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew Octavius).

Theoretically a paterfamilias’s power over his wife, sons and daughters and son’s wives and children, over all his slaves and property, was absolute. In law it was the power of life or death. A Roman woman was rarely if ever, at any point in her life, not in the legal power of a man.

Roman legislators and lawyers devoted a lot of space to precise definitions of the status of all possible permutations of family members (in the extended sense). This was because the family, in this extended sense, was the basic building block, the foundation, of their society. Not just women had highly defined places, but children, sons, heirs, and so on. Finley explains that strict rules were enacted prohibiting certain kinds of marriage: between a Roman citizen and a non-citizen; or between a Roman of the senatorial class and a citizen who had risen from the class of freemen (former slaves).

We miss the full picture if we concentrate only on women. The Roman state sought to regulate and control all social relationships.

Finley’s essay then uses the complex family life of Octavian/Augustus to demonstrate the absolute power of the paterfamilias at arranging the lives and marriages of all those in his power; but this strikes me as not a useful example because the greatest, longest-serving emperor is just about the least representative example you can imagine, and it’s all available in any life of Augustus, anyway.

Finley then goes back a bit in time to guesstimate that the submissive role of women in the Roman state was very ancient, and certainly by the time Hannibal was defeated (about 200 BC) all the elements were in place of the social situation Augustus tried to manage.

Male infidelity was widely accepted. Husbands could have mistresses, multiple partners and illegitimate children. ‘There was no puritanism in the Roman concept of morality.’ When you think about it this follows naturally from the central axiom that all that concerned the state was the efficient management of family legal matters; beyond carrying out their legal functions and duties towards the state, what people got up to in their ‘private lives’ was their own affair.

Throughout his long rule Augustus wasn’t concerned with reforming what we, the heirs to Christianity, think of ‘morality’, so much as social order. Above all he was concerned that not enough upper-class citizens were getting married and having children. Childlessness was an abrogation of responsibilities to the state. The licentious living he saw becoming more common around him wasn’t completely reprehensible in itself, but to be criticised insofar as it indicated a dereliction of duty to the state which he saw it as his responsibility to protect and maintain. Augustus disapproved of the Roman aristocracy living debauched lives because they were spending money on themselves which they should have been investing in their children and The Future of Rome.

There was nothing at all holy about marriage, as the chopping and changing of Augustus’s own marital career and of umpteen aristocrats amply demonstrated. This explains why divorce was easy and commonplace. It was a purely legal transaction. Marriage was important because:

  • it ensured the creation of the next generation of citizens
  • it ensured the smooth transition of property from one generation to the next
  • the entire social hierarchy depended on cleanly defined lineage and descent within families, which themselves needed to be clearly defined as patrician or plebeian or knightly in order to take their place in the systems of political management and control

So marriage was really important in ancient Rome from a social, economic, political and legal point of view. But hardly at all from a moral or emotional point of view, the two ways in which we have been increasingly taught to view it over the past 200 years, maybe since the so-called Romantic revolution around 1800 began to change a lot of attitudes in favour of the primacy of personality and emotion over duty and sacrifice.

Finley has a digression about the laws of marriage governing soldiers. These kept changing, as soldiers’ terms of service were themselves changed and developed, eventually becoming so complicated it resulted in an entire specialised area of Roman law.

Having discussed the aristocracy at some length, Finley then goes on to speculate about the condition of women in the working class. We know next to nothing about them but the chances are they were a lot more free of the social codes and restrictions imposed on aristocratic women because a) they had to work, and probably helped their husbands in a wide variety of trades and b) the rapid expansion of the slave trade and the slave population after the destruction of Carthage (146 BC), along with the surprisingly generous Roman habit of freeing slaves, meant that an ever-increasing proportion of the free population was directly descended from slaves, almost certainly giving them a drastically different notions about marriage norms than the aristocracy.

Mortality was higher among women than men. It is estimated that of the population which reached the age of 15 (i.e. evaded the high infant mortality) more than half the women were dead by forty, in some places, by 35. Women were a lot more likely to die due to a) multiple childbirths without any modern medicine b) sheer exhaustion of bearing children, rearing them, and working.

Divorce was easy and men often remarried. You can see how this would enormously complicate the legal situation around heirs, property, citizenship and so on. Hence the jungle of legislation.

And yet (Finley says, swinging his train of thought into a new groove), there is evidence that aristocratic Roman enjoyed some autonomy. They attended dinner parties and certainly the many festivals and games. Many Roman writers report the stimulating conversation of educated women in mixed company. Ovid in The Art of Love gives extensive advice on how to make the best of themselves, advising women of this class to dress and primp properly, to sweeten their breath, to walk gracefully and dance well, to cultivate the best poetry. This makes them sound quite free and independent in their behaviour.

Finley comes to his final thought: How did respectable Roman women of the level of education implied by Ovid and others find outlets for their repressed energies?

1. Religion

Roman religion was very patriarchal. Traditional Roman religion was based on the household gods and public rituals and men controlled both. There was a handful of female cults, such as the women-only Bona Dea, but all religious festivals were led by men and even the famous Vestal Virgins were under the direct supervision of a man, the pontifex maximus.

A big change came with the solidification of the empire and the great influx into Rome of eastern mystery cults, many of them carrying the entirely unroman concepts of personal communion with the god and personal salvation. Although some of these gods were completely closed to women (such as the military cult of Mithras) others offered women status and agency like they’d never had before.

The most notable example of these was the cult of Isis, who subsumed a world of other goddesses and cults (and which Ovid complains about in some of his poems). One of the hymns to Isis says: ‘You gave women equal power with men.’ This explains why the cult of Isis was one of the most obstinately resistant to the rise of the new cult of Christ as the latter spread  around the Mediterranean during the later first century AD.

Christianity itself was a very mixed blessing for women. Women played a crucial role in the life of Jesus. His mother, Mary, quickly assumed cult status. Jesus was genuinely open-handed about the role of women. Take the woman her community is about to stone for adultery. Jesus saves her and shames the vengeful men.

Women quickly held office in the early church, not in ultimate power but as assistants, deacons and sacristans, assisting in ceremonies as well as taking a lead in charitable works. It was the Empress Helena who ‘found’ the true cross in Palestine and brought it back to Rome. A good proportion of the early martyrs were women i.e. women were allowed to be memorialised as martyrs, to be remembered as saints, and their relics worked just as many miracles, as men did. Here was a true holy equality.

But then, alas, St Paul. Paul thrashed out the theology of Christianity but at the expense of embedding it deeply back into the traditional Jewish teachings which Jesus had seemed to escape. In chapter 14 of his first letter to the congregation at Corinth he says:

‘Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.’

From the floating repertoire of ancient documents indicated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the early Christians selected the ones which they thought best bolstered their case, assembling them into a library which eventually came to be called The Old Testament. Much of it was a reversion to a harsher, Jewish concept of the deity than Jesus seemed at many moments to believe. Over coming generations the strange and ominous legend of Adam and Eve came to assume the severity of doctrine, and became an irrefutable accusation with which hundreds of generations of misogynists could bad-mouth and shut down women.

One unintended consequence of Pauline thought was the new emphasis it put on virginity. In our times we think the obsessive importance assigned by generations of Christians to the virginity of a bride ludicrously repressive and bigoted. But if you think about it from the point of view of a 12, 13 or 14 year old girl in a Roman household, who knows she is doomed to be married off to someone she might never have met, who might be four times her age, purely as a business and legal transaction – then a new cult which rejects this bartering of women, and declares that the holiest thing a woman can do is devote her life to Jesus and eternal virginity, maybe in a community of like-minded women – you can see how in many cases this might have been experienced as a wonderful liberation from patriarchal tyranny. An escape route.

Convents began to be set up soon after the first monasteries and offered a way for women to walk out of the entire male-dominated society in a way they hadn’t been able to since Rome was founded. A huge subject but Finley’s brief discussion is suggestive.

2. Entertainments

Much smaller in conceptual terms, but still significant, was the way women were allowed to be spectators in theatres and at games. Finley tells us that gladiators became ‘pin-ups’ for Roman women, ‘especially in the upper classes’. It would be good to see the evidence for this.

3. Imperial women

Finley rather spoils the effect with his third area of female agency, by reverting to the anecdotal level of the opening of his essay, and telling us that many of the women at the top of the next few hundred years of Roman Empire ‘revealed a ferocity and sadism’ that were not often matched by their menfolk. They never held direct power, but they pulled many of the strings for their husbands and sons, brothers and lovers. Well, if feminists want strong independent women, here are some of the most ferociously strong and determined women we have any record of.

Finley tries to interpret the behaviour of this handful of bloodthirsty women as a ‘rebellion’ against the suppression of almost all women almost all the time. Unfortunately, it comes over more as a certain type of sexist stereotyping without any consideration of the fact that strong women everywhere have been subjected to poisonous character assassination. I.e. that much of what male society and its male historians wrote about them may be vicious rumours or simply untrue.

Shame. Finley was very ‘on message’ and sympathetic to Rome’s repressed women up to this very last point.

Thoughts

This is a deeply intelligent, very interesting, well-written essay. It has an elegantly arresting introductory remark about Cleopatra and then moves with a steady, fluent logic through a series of highly interesting points. Agree or disagree with his thesis, it is beautifully written.

It is very persuasive about the topics it addresses. But it can be seen that, at various points, it veers away from a strict consideration of its title; the passage on the marriage laws for Roman soldiers feels some distance from ‘the silent women of Rome’, the extended passage about Augustus and his women is interesting but can hardly be taken as representative of Roman society at large.

The anti-Finley debate

A few minutes surfing on the internet turns up the fact that Finley’s essay was contested by feminists.

The Reverend Dr. J. Dorcas Gordon of Knox College, Canada, in her book ‘Sister or Wife? 1 Corinthians 7 and Cultural Anthropology’, gives a summary of the feminist responses to Finley’s essay, which she calls ‘controversial’.

According to her, there is a relatively straightforward spectrum of views, with one school holding that women in Rome lived passive repressed lives in the shadows of their fathers or husbands (the Finley view), but quite a few more modern revisionists insisting the exact opposite.

These latter are represented by Sarah Pomeroy who, in her pioneering 1975 feminist book, ‘Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity’, argued that changes in Hellenistic society produced many emancipated but respected upper-class women. She argues that Roman matrons had a much bigger range of choices in their roles and lifestyles, as well as more of an influence on the cultural and political life of their society, than Finley allows.

Gordon goes on to produce pages of evidence showing women having more agency in the ancient world than the Finley side of the debate claims, evidence including history, moral anecdote and exempla, slander, funerary inscriptions.

In Hellenistic Egypt we know that women bought and sold real estate as well as movable property. We know from Cicero’s abundant correspondence that his wife, Terentia, had considerable freedom of action in the areas of finance, politics and matchmaking.

There is evidence that women, despite an explicit ban, argued their cases in the law courts, namely Afrania, wife of a senator and Hortensia delivering a speech before the triumvirs. Servilia was the long-time mistress of Julius Caesar and mother of Brutus and all her contemporaries took her political influence of for granted. Cicero depicts a woman friend, Caerellia, as independently wealthy and a noted intellectual. Everyone was intimidated by Augustus’s formidable wife, Livia.

An inscription from Corinth recognises Junia Theodora who bestowed gifts of money on the city and citizens. More surprisingly an inscription speaks of a certain Hedea racing a chariot and winning at the Isthmean Games of 43 AD. Inscriptions from Asia Minor memorialise wealthy Greek women who civic and federal magistracies and priesthoods. Women with estates and all sorts of businesses were attested at Pompeii.

And so, considerably, on.

The major engine for new historical interpretations

In the end, Dorcas suggests, it depends how you interpret the evidence. Obviously that is true, but I’d go a step further to point out something obvious, to me at any rate, which is: the outcome of many debates in the humanities depends not so much on how you interpret the evidence, but on what evidence you consider; on what evidence you admit to the field of debate.

Time after time, when reading modern history books which claim to be ‘overturning conventional wisdom’ or ‘subverting established beliefs’ blah blah, it turns out that they’re not doing so by presenting startling new evidence; more often than not they are using evidence which has always been known about by scholars, but not previously considered part of the debate; things the experts knew about but nobody had considered including in the body of evidence used in this particular debate.

If the complete corpus of historical evidence can be likened to a landscape, the landscape itself rarely changes – what changes, and sometimes drastically, is which features of the landscape historians choose to pay attention to; which bits of evidence we include and prioritise.

Since you and I can never hope to acquire total mastery of all the evidence from the ancient world on this or any number of other issues (the experiences of slaves, the experiences of gladiators, the experiences of the working classes, the experience of farmers, the experiences of business men) we are, in effect, at the mercy of scholars and their changing interests. Our knowledge of ‘history’ is restricted by the ever-changing fashions for this or that kind of evidence among the historians we read.

Now almost contemporary historians are convinced that we need to be more inclusive, need to pay attention to the lives of women, or black people, or other previously excluded groups. While fine and admirable in itself, this attitude can also be seen as just the latest wave, the latest refocusing of attention and evidence which will, itself, be eclipsed by further waves in the decades to come.

In other words, nothing like a ‘true’ understanding of history is ever possible. Because the study of history covers such a huge area, and historians for decades have been expanding the fields of evidence to include previously ignored groups, any modern read is doing well if they can get a grasp on the history of a period as it is generally understood today i.e. as it is interpreted and conceived for our times by the congeries of historians of our day.

But even if you could wriggle free of the preconceptions and assumptions of our age, penetrating through the veil of how events are presented by contemporary writers is virtually impossible, because as you go further back in time you don’t encourage any kind of truth, all you encounter is previous generations of historians interpreting events in terms of the ideologies, moral values, social needs of their times, biased by all their preconceptions and prejudices.

The thing itself – the objective, ‘true’ and definitive account of events – can it ever be reached, does it even exist? I don’t think so. It’s bias, interpretation and ideology all the way back to the original sources and documents which, themselves, are (fairly obviously) biased and limited. From ever-changing mosaics of evidence historians create narratives which are acceptable to us and our concerns.


Credit

The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley was published in 1965. It was included in a collection of essays by him titled Aspects of Antiquity, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Roman reviews

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt @ the British Museum

Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty (1855 to 1808 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is a major exhibition held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the year 1822 when French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs which had been puzzling scholars for the best part of 1,500 years.

At its heart is the eerily beautiful and hugely important Rosetta Stone, discovered by French troops in Egypt in 1799. The central part of the exhibition summarises the genuinely exciting narrative of the great Race To Decipher hieroglyphics, as it developed into a rivalry between Great Britain – represented by antiquarian Thomas Young (1773 to 1829) – and France – represented by the ambitious young scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 to 1832).

The exhibition brings together a rather staggering 250 artefacts, many (as usual) on loan from foreign museums. As such it provides a unique opportunity to see so much high quality Egyptiana in one place – all presented in a beautifully designed and laid out exhibition space. If the sheer scale sounds daunting, maybe the crucial thing to grasp is that the exhibition is divided into three main areas or parts.

Part One: The end of hieroglyphics, the revival of interest

Part one briefly covers the end of the millennia-long tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs in the years after the Greek conquest of Egypt in 320 BC. The Greek dynasty of the Ptolemy family kept up all the Egyptian traditions, but it was the advent of Roman rule from 30 BC (when the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide) which signalled the slow decline of hieroglyphic writing. It was the imposition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius in 391, and the order to close down all pagan temples, which spelled the end of the tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates from 394. Byzantine rule of the province continued for centuries until swept away by the great Arab Conquest of the 640s AD.

Intellectual energy in the centuries following the Muslim conquest went into elaborating aspects of Islamic religion and philosophy, as well as preserving and commenting on survivals from antiquity, especially Greek texts. There was only scattered interest in the pictorial language carved into the huge stone monuments all across Egypt.

Some Muslim scholars are namechecked, but for us in Europe it was only the revival of learning from the 1400s onwards, the period which came to be called the Renaissance, which saw sustained scholarly activity to decipher the hieroglyphs. A negative key factor was that there had been some scholarly enquiry during ancient times, with Roman scholars writing books about the hieroglyphs – but that these were often seriously wrong and misleading but were considered indisputable evidence throughout the Renaissance.

Interestingly, study of ancient Egyptian artifacts centred on Rome itself for the simple reason that victorious generals from Julius Caesar onwards had a fondness for stealing and shipping back to Rome impressive numbers of obelisks, stelae, statues, inscriptions and so on (a stela is an inscribed stone or wooden slab) – many of which were still standing 1,400 years later when the revival of interest in old texts (be they ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian, Egyptian and so on) gathered pace.

The most significant figure was a German Jesuit and polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602 to 1680). Working with Arabic grammars and dictionaries of Coptic acquired in Egypt by an Italian traveller, Kircher produced flawed but pioneering translations and grammars of the language in the 1640s and 1650s, leading up to his masterwork, the ‘Oedipus Aegyptiacus’ of 1652.

Unfortunately, Kircher brought to his studies a deep belief in mystic practices and magic. As a Jesuit he believed Egyptian religion must have foreshadowed the One True Religion i.e. Christianity, and so all his interpretations were coloured by a wish to find mystical meanings in even brief sets of symbols. In his hands even short texts of only a few hieroglyphic characters were translated into lengthy sentences describing mystical religious ideas.

But Kircher was only one of hundreds of scholars and commentators, including many of the early Muslim scholars, who were convinced the hieroglyphs represented ancient magic or the secrets of ‘alchemy’, and that true knowledge would allow modern practitioners to revive magical spells and incantations.

The Enchanted Basin

This belief that the hieroglyphs contained ancient magic is represented here by ‘the enchanted basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BC, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. Devotees believed that bathing in the basin (accompanied by the appropriate rituals and spells) could offer relief from the torments of love.

‘The Enchanted Basin’ aka the sarcophagus of Hapmen, Egypt, 26th Dynasty (600 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’ – and has been identified as simply a sarcophagus – for Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Exhibition design 1

This first part of the exhibition is presented in the usual glass cases etc but against a backdrop of jet black walls themselves covered in silver hieroglyphic scripts which shimmer and capture the eye as you walk through them – evoking a world of black magic and mystery. Most wall panels relate to specific exhibits but the curators have also had the bright idea of creating standalone panels devoted to specific glyphs, explaining what they are and what they mean. This is one of several aspects designed, I think to appeal to children and school visits, and a charming idea.

One of the panels for schoolchildren in ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’

Part Two: The Rivalry

The second section declares its change of focus with a complete change of design, layout and atmosphere. No longer black, the gallery walls are lighter and the room is dominated by three long wooden benches, with wooden chairs set in front of them (which I think visitors are encouraged to sit at so as to study the artifacts on offer).

The dominance of stained wood reminds me of the British Museum’s extensive Enlightenment Gallery on the ground floor and is, I assume, intended to convey a sense of 18th and 19th century scholarship taking place in the civilised, wood-panelled rooms of Royal Societies and the private collections of rich European travellers across Enlightenment Europe.

This woody, benchy room is the setting for the gripping story of The Race To Decipher Hieroglyphs between the two men who are presented as rivals in scholarship and representatives of their respective nations, Thomas Young of Great Britain and Jean-François Champollion of France.

The Rosetta Stone

In fact the transition from part 1 to part 2 of the exhibition takes you past the famous Rosetta Stone itself, which was the clue to the whole thing and is a story, or several stories, in itself.

The Rosetta Stone, Rasid, Egypt (Ptolemaic, 196 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

History of the discovery

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led an invasion of Egypt with 40,000 troops. By this stage revolutionary France had been at war with Great Britain for five years and the Egyptian strategy was designed to cut off Britain’s lucrative trade with her greatest colony, India. But, being French and priding himself on being a man of the Enlightenment, Napoleon took with him 200 scholars, engineers, antiquarians and so on. Over the next few years these experts made numerous drawings, descriptions and maps of the antiquities of Egypt which were later published in the multi-volume Description de l’Égypte (1809 to 1829).

The following year, in 1799, French forces were rebuilding an old fort in the coastal town of Rashid, when they dug up this large fragment of stone covered in writing. Realising its importance the officer in charge sent it to Napoleon’s headquarters. It was taken into possession of the lead scientist in Napoleon’s force but events were about to take a significant twist. In August 1798 the Royal Navy defeated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile.

A treaty (the Capitulation of Alexandria) was then negotiated (in 1801) between the victorious British and the French by which the victors took possession of most of the artefacts, findings and notes created by the French antiquarians. Discussions were detailed and became heated, but to cut a long story short, the British seized the Rosetta Stone and shipped it back to London, where it was presented to the king who in turn passed it onto the fledgling British Museum. It went on public display in 1802, has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously and is its most visited object.

Almost immediately the British Society of Antiquarians made plaster copies of the stone and printed reproductions of the text and distributed them to other institutions across Europe.

It is called the Rosetta Stone because Rosette was the name Europeans gave to the town Arabs called Rashid and the name stuck.

What I took from all this was that this breakthrough in Egyptology and understanding of the ancient world came about almost entirely because of war between the great powers.

All down the line, from the first officer to see it, through the experts on Napoleon’s staff, through to the British officers in charge of the peace negotiation, through to the king’s advisors and officials at the British Museum, everyone recognised the stone’s immense importance.

Why is the Rosetta Stone important?

Because it was the first artifact found anywhere in Egypt which contained several languages or scripts in parallel. At a glance you can see that the top part of the stone contains rows of hieroglyphics, the next section contains lines of text in another script, and the lower third of the stone contains text in yet another script, which scholars quickly recognised as Greek.

To be precise, from top to bottom, the top two scripts are in Ancient Egyptian, the top one using hieroglyphic and the second one ‘Demotic’ script, while the bottom one is in Ancient Greek.

What is ‘Demotic’? We now know that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs on their official monuments, but on administrative and religious life used a form of cursive script which was easier to write and read. This cursive script changed and evolved over the thousands of years of Egyptian history:

  • the oldest form is called ‘hieratic’ from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC
  • the so-called Demotic form of the language developed and then held sway from about 650 BC to the 5th century AD
  • and was replaced by the third major form, Coptic, the final development of the Egyptian language, spoken by the common people from around the third-century AD through till the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Coptic has no native speakers today, although it is preserved and still recited by priests of the Coptic church

So what the Rosetta stone presents is a text in classical hieroglyphs, a text in ‘Demotic’ i.e. the common form of written Egyptian of the day, and then a text in ancient Greek.

Scholars immediately realised that, if the three sets of script represented the same text in three different languages, then they should be able to use the Greek at the bottom to read the hieroglyphs at the top and, in so doing, identify what words or sounds individual hieroglyphs stand for and so crack the code, decipher the language of hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone as it appears in the exhibition. Note the animated timeline of the Race To Decipher in the right background, and blown-up reproductions of scholarly texts hanging from the ceiling

Unexpected delay

In my ignorance I thought the discovery of the stone meant we had the key to the door, the job was done, and we could start deciphering hieroglyphs immediately.

Not at all. Turns out there was still a lot of work to be done, not least because there was disagreement on fundamental facts. For example, not all scholars agreed the three scripts contained the same text. And the stone at first presented more puzzles than solutions because antiquarians could no more read demotic than hieroglyphs. So at first sight the stone presented double the problem, two challenges – of aligning the ancient Greek (readable) with the demotic and hieroglyphs (unreadable).

It took a surprising amount of scholarly guesswork, trial and error, devising and testing different theories for knowledge to inch forward. This room – the wooden table room- presents a year-by-year account of the 20 or so years between the stone going on public display and Champollion’s breakthrough in 1822. You might think all this is a fairly niche subject, but think again; there’s an impressive number of books on the subject:

Major landmarks in the decoding included recognition that:

  • 1799: the stone shows three versions of the same text
  • 1802: the demotic text uses phonetic characters to spell foreign names
  • 1814: the hieroglyphic text uses phonetic characters as well, and so has numerous similarities to the demotic
  • 1822: phonetic characters were used to spell not just foreign names but native Egyptian words

The breakthrough 1822

Scripts for languages can be either:

  • ideographic – symbols are used for words or concepts
  • syllabic – symbols are used to convey the sounds of syllables which make up words
  • alphabetic – a symbol is assigned to individual elements out of which words are built

The latter two are examples of phonetic languages i.e:

You can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it. Or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

The ancient Romans had queered the pitch and misled centuries of scholars by claiming that all hieroglyphs were symbols, one glyph directly standing for one idea or concept. Hundreds of scholars wasted their lives trying to figure out what each hieroglyph ‘stood for’.

As I understand it, Champollion’s big breakthrough was realising that Demotic and hieroglyphic i.e. ancient Egyptian language as a whole, was a combination of ideographic and phonetic. He realised this after seeing another scholar’s decipherment of foreign names as phonetic sounds in the hieroglyphs. This was the actual key – that the names of foreign (generally Greek) rulers, were spelled phonetically.

Rather than try to explain further, I’ll quote Wikipedia:

In 1822, Champollion saw copies of brief hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions taken from an obelisk found at Philae, on which William John Bankes had tentatively noted the names “Ptolemaios” and “Kleopatra” in both languages. From this, Champollion identified the phonetic characters ‘k l e o p a t r a’. On the basis of this and the foreign names on the Rosetta Stone, he quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, completing his work on 14 September and announcing it publicly on 27 September in a lecture to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. On the same day he wrote the famous “Lettre à M. Dacier” to Bon-Joseph Dacier, secretary of the Académie, detailing his discovery. In the postscript Champollion notes that similar phonetic characters seemed to occur in both Greek and Egyptian names, a hypothesis confirmed in 1823, when he identified the names of pharaohs Ramesses and Thutmose written in cartouches at Abu Simbel.

1824 Champollion published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs.

In 1829, he travelled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

In 1832 Champollion died from illnesses brought on by travel in Egypt.

1838 his Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously. But if you thought that was the end of the affair, you’d be wrong, for Champollion erroneously assumed that the hieroglyphs could be read directly in Coptic script, whereas in fact they represented a much older stage of the language which differs in many ways from Coptic.

It took scholars the rest of the century to work through all the details of ancient Egyptian and work is still ongoing because it turns out to have developed in more forms and variations and dialects than initially thought.

What does the Rosetta Stone actually say?

At the end of all that, what does the Rosetta Stone text actually say? Each of the 3 languages records a priestly decree of 196 BC issued by a council of Egyptian priests from the city of Memphis during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (i.e. ironically, it’s a text about a Greek ruler and not one of the classic ancient Egyptian pharaohs). The text praises the righteous acts of the king and lists the honours bestowed on him by the priests.

So no magic spells or alchemical procedures, much more banal than that. Interestingly, this kind of decree wasn’t even an Egyptian tradition, but hailed from Greece, a type of inscription imported along with the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

Part Three: Modern Egyptology

Design 3: Airy design and huge videos

Struggling to process the complexities of this story, the visitor walks from wood-lined part two of the exhibition through an Egyptian archway into a completely different space.

Here the walls are white and the ceiling is high, creating a sense of light and clarity. On the wall on the right is a video projection of part of an ancient wall with birds flying by – but this is dwarfed by the end wall onto which is projected a huge landscape video of the River Nile itself, a long band of rippling blue water, above which sits the fabulously fertile green riverbank – all reeds, grasses and palm trees – and then the deep blue of the Egyptian sky.

So, in terms of design, the visitor has progressed from pitch black walls at the start, though the gentlemen’s-club brown wood panelling of the second part, and now arrives in the kind of bright light space typical of modern art galleries. I guess this is also symbolic of passing from ignorance, through purblind scholarship and study, into the modern age of research and understanding.

Egyptian social history

This final part of the exhibition could almost be staged in its own right, for it is a fascinating overview of Egyptian social history, social life, in all its many aspects.

If you want the history of ancient Egypt – the political history of all those pharaohs, their wars, their dynasties, maps of their territory etc – that is already available in the vast series of rooms which, as it happens, you exit into after the exhibition space, the long gallery called Room 4. This isn’t that.

Instead this third part of the exhibition presents a careful selection of objects which illustrate the modern understanding of all aspects of Egyptian society, which Champollion’s discovery (much elaborated and built on by later scholars) allowed. It is a collection of choice artifacts which shed unparalleled insight into the lives, not of kings and pharaohs, but of ordinary people – their lives, loves, marriages, divorces, financial affairs, loans and mortgages, the stories they told each other, the poems and hymns they recited, their religious beliefs and practices, maths textbooks, guides to the interpretation of dreams, their calendar and how they structured the year, the months, the weeks, the days, even shopping lists and tax returns.

For example, a papyrus from about 1200 BC explains that the Egyptian year was divided into 12 months of 30 days. Their week lasted 10 days, and the year had three seasons – Akhet (flooding), Peret (growing) and Shemu (harvest).

Or take the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word and includes ritual spells. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet (papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs.

A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

Royal cubit rod of Amenemope (18th Dynasty) Torino, Museo Egizio

The cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25 to 30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

Cartonnage of the lady Baketenhor (late 22nd Dynasty, between 945 and 715 BC) Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Image © Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums

Prayers to Hathor, the goddess of love and music, were often accompanied by the sistrum, a musical instrument used in dances and religious ceremonies. When shaken, the sistrum produced a soft clink or a loud jangle which had power to appease the gods. Note the face at the top of the handle.

Ancient Egyptian sistrum (747 to 332 BC)

(There are references to a sistrum – ‘the sacred rattle… the jingling bronze of the sistrum…’ – being used in worship of Isis, book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and it’s also referred to in the thirteenth satire of Juvenal.)

On a much more humble level, a papyrus from 1100 BC records the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener and tells us that he supported her for three years after the divorce. The reasons for the divorce aren’t stated but we know from other sources that the wife probably kept the possessions she brought to the marriage.

Papyrus from 1100 BC recording the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener

We now know the ancient Egyptians had over 90 recipes for the treatment of eye problems. Black and green kohl had antibacterial properties and could be carried around in pots to be used as eye liner.

There’s a book helping with the interpretation of dreams, a perennial topic in the ancient world. This one belonged to a certain Qenherkhepshef and contains the following useful advice:

If a man sees himself in a dream looking after monkeys: bad – a change awaits him!

And hundreds more.

I also noticed the way a number of wall labels featured quotes all attributed to ‘Voices from Rashid’. What is this? The British Museum interviewed schoolchildren from the town of Rashid (modern day Rosetta) about the stone and ancient Egyptian life and these quotes are the opinions of the schoolchildren on aspects of Egyptian history, the hieroglyphics, the stone and so on, sprinkled on panels throughout the exhibition.

Statue of a scribe (6th Dynasty) Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

This exhibition is fascinating, inspiring, beautifully designed and laid out. In the section about the Race To Decipher, it is surprisingly gripping. And the wide-ranging final section brings you closer to the concerns of ordinary ancient Egyptian men and women than you would have thought possible.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

The odes of Horace

The gods watch over me; a heart
That’s reverent and the poets art
Please them.
(Horace Book 1, ode 17, in James Michie’s translation)

Come, learn this air
And sing it to delight me.
A good song can repair
The ravages inflicted by black care.
(Book 4, ode 11)

Horace’s works

Scholars broadly agree the following dates for Horace’s body of poetry:

Horace’s odes

Horace published 104 odes. They are divided into 4 books. He published the first 3 books of odes in 23 BC, containing 88 carmina or songs. He prided himself on the skill with which he adapted a wide variety of Greek metres to suit Latin, which is a more concise, pithy and sententious language than Greek.

I shall be renowned
As one who, poor-born, rose and pioneered
A way to fit Greek rhythms to our tongue… (3.30)

Horace aimed to create interest by varying the metre as much as possible, using over a dozen different verse formats. He was particularly indebted to metres associated with two Greek poets, Alcaeus and Sappho. Of the 104 odes, 37 are in Alcaics and 26 in Sapphics i.e. over half.

The precise definition of these forms is highly technical, so I refer you to the Wikipedia articles for Alcaics and Sapphics.

Despite all this skillful adaptation, the odes were not greeted with the acclaim Horace hoped for, which may explain why he seems to have abandoned ode writing and returned to the hexameters in which he had written the satires. Using this he now proceeded to write two books of epistles, ‘elegant and witty reflections on literature and morality,’ according to James Michie, which scholars think were published in 20 and 12 BC, respectively.

In 17 BC Augustus commissioned Horace to write an ode to be sung at the start of the Secular Games which he had reinstated as part of his policy of reviving traditional Roman festivals, customs and religious ceremonies. Soon afterwards, Augustus asked Horace to write odes on the military victories of his grandsons Drusus and Tiberius. Whether these commissions renewed an interest in the form or spurred him to assemble works he’d been writing in the interim we don’t know but in about 11 BC Horace published his fourth, final and shortest book of odes, containing just 15 poems.

What is an ode?

The following is adapted from the Wikipedia definition:

An ode (from Ancient Greek: ᾠδή, romanized: ōdḗ) is a sub-type of lyrical poem. An ode generally praises or glorifies an event or individual. Whereas a pure lyric uses impassioned and emotional language, and a satire uses harsh and demotic language, an ode – insofar as it is an address to a named individual, whether friend, emperor or god – generally has a dignified and sincere tone (although part of Horace’s practice was experimenting with and varying that tone).

Greek odes were originally poetic pieces performed with musical accompaniment. As time passed they gradually became known as personal lyrical compositions whether sung (with or without musical instruments) or merely recited (always with accompaniment). The primary instruments used were the aulos and the lyre. There are three typical forms of odes: the Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular.

  • The typical Pindaric ode was structured into three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. However, Horace’s odes do not follow this pattern.
  • Horatian odes do not have the three-part structure of Pindaric odes. They tend to be written as continuous blocks of verse, or, more often, are divided into four-line stanzas. It’s in this division into neat 4-line stanzas that they most imitate Greek lyricists such as Alcaeus and Anacreon.
  • Irregular odes use rhyme but not the three-part form of the Pindaric ode, nor the two- or four-line stanza of the Horatian ode.

An ode is short. I’ve recently read the Eclogues of Virgil which are fairly long and the Georgics which felt very long: Horace’s odes are the opposite. Some are as short as 8 lines, for example book 1 ode 30 and 4.10.

Subject matter

Horace was praised by critics for not just adapting the Greek forms of Alcaeus and Sappho to Latin, but filling them with details of the social life of Rome in the age of Augustus. He broadened the subject matter to cover a much wider range of subjects including love and jealousy, friendship and mourning, hymns to various gods, addresses to the all-powerful emperor Augustus, reflections on mortality, promotion of the golden mean and patriotic criticism of excess luxury and calls for society to return to the sterner, abstemious values of their Roman ancestors. There are several poems consisting entirely of eulogy to Augustus, describing him as a blessing to the nation, the only man who could bring peace and wishing him success in his military campaigns in the East. I enjoy John Dryden’s description of Horace as “a well-mannered court slave”. It doesn’t feel that when you read all his other poems, but when you read the Augustus ones, you immediately get what Dryden was saying. The word ‘poet’ is only one letter away from ‘pet’.

Underlying all the poems, and appearing them as either passing references or the central subject, are two ‘philosophical’ themes: the uncertainty and transience of life, and the need to observe moderation in all things, what Aristotle had defined as ‘the golden mean’ between extremes:

All who love safety make their prize
The golden mean and hate extremes… (2.10)

James Michie

Greek and Latin poets did not use rhyme to structure their poetry, they used the counting of syllables in each line according to a variety of patterns established by various ancient Greek poets and copied and adapted by the Romans.

English poets by contrast, since the Middle Ages, use beats or emphasis instead of counting syllables, and have used rhyme. Not exclusively, witness the reams of blank verse used in the dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries or in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but certainly in short lyrics and Horace’s odes are short lyrics. All 104 of Horace’s odes fit onto just 114 pages of English verse.

This explains the decision of James Michie, translator of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of the complete odes of Horace, to cast them into predominantly rhymed verse.

The Penguin edition is interesting and/or useful because it features the Latin on one page, with Michie’s English translation on the page opposite. I did Latin GCSE and so, with a bit of effort, can correlate the English words to the original Latin phrases, though I don’t have anything like enough Latin to appreciate Horace’s style.

Book 1 is the longest, containing 38 odes. Book 2 has 20. Book 3 has 30, and the final, short one, book 4, has 15.

Themes

Direct address to gods

Any summary of Horace as the poet of friendship and conviviality has to take account that about one in six of the poems are straight religious hymns to named deities. Michie’s (admirably brief) introduction explains that the poems give no evidence about how sincerely Horace felt these religious sentiments. Probably he was religious in the same way most educated Romans of his time were, as Cicero was: viewing religion and the old festivals and ceremonies as important for the social cohesion of Rome.

In this view the correct ceremonies had to be carried out on the correct occasions to the correct deities in order to ensure the state’s security and future. Whether an individual ‘believed’ in the gods or not was irrelevant: correct action was all. The importance of internal, psychological ‘belief’ only became an issue with the slow arrival of Christianity well over a hundred years later. In the meantime, correct invocations of the gods could be seen as part of civic and patriotic duty, especially for Augustus, who in so many ways tried to restore the old ceremonies, rites and festivals of Republican Rome.

1.10 To Mercury

You are the one my poem sings –
The lyre’s inventor; he who brings
Heaven’s messages; the witty
Adventurer who takes delight
In slyly stowing out of sight
Anything he finds pretty.

1.21 To Diana

Virgin maidens, praise Diana.
Young men, sing a like hosanna

1.30 Prayer to Venus

O Queen of Cnidos, Paphos,
Come, leave, though dearly thine,
Cyprus; for here’s thick incense,
And Glycera calls divine
Venus to her new shrine.

1.31 Prayer to Apollo

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine request?

Incidentally, note the slight complexity of this long sentence. It took me a few readings to realise it is:

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet (as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine) request?

We’ll come back to this issue, the sometimes grammatically challenging nature of Michie’s translation.

1.35 Hymn to Fortuna

O goddess ruling over favoured Antium,
With power to raise our perishable bodies
From low degree or turn
The pomp of triumph into funeral,

Thee the poor farmer with his worried prayer
Propitiates…

To women

The poems of heterosexual men are often about difficulties with relationships. Horace has poems directly addressing women, lovers, more often ex-lovers; or addressing women who are messing with his friends’ emotions; or poems to male friends offering advice about their relationships with women. I can see how a feminist critic might object to Horace’s basic stance and to much of the detail of what he says. For me the main effect is to create a sense of the extended social circle the poet inhabits.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key. (2.1)

Horace plays at being jealous, while never achieving the emotional intensity of Catullus. And this is because his ‘love’ poems, such as 1.13, often turn out to be really promoting his philosophy of life, namely moderation in all things, wine, women, politics and poetry.

1.13 To Lydia

Happy are they alone whom affections hold
Inseparable united; those who stay
Friends without quarrels, and who cannot be torn away
From each other’s arms until their dying day.

1.16 is addressed to an unnamed women who he has, apparently, infuriated by writing a witty lampoon about her. Horace apologises unreservedly for upsetting her. But the poem is really about the emotion of anger, how ruinous it is for individuals and nations, how it must be avoided at all costs. Moments like this accumulate to make you suspect that even Horace’s most ‘passionate’ poems are clever artifice. It is hard to imagine the poet who promoted moderation and sensible restraint at every opportunity ever losing his head over anyone, no matter how he poses.

1.19 The Poet’s Love for Glycera

The Mother of the Loves, unkindly
Goddess, and Semele’s son combine
With wild abandon to remind me
That though I had thought desire
Dead, it still burns. The fire

Is Glycera.

1.23 To Chloe

This is such fun I’ll quote it in its entirety. Whether it reflects any real situation, I doubt. It feels more like a witty exercise, in the manner of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. To understand it you need to realise the first line means ‘Chloe, why won’t you venture near ME’, but Michie cannot quite say that in order to preserve his tight rhyme scheme. And to know that ‘dam’ is an archaic poetic word for ‘mother’. So that the majority of the poem is treating this young woman, Chloe, as if she is as timorous and scared as Bambi.

Chloe, you will not venture near,
Just like a lost young mountain deer
Seeking her frantic dam; for her each
Gust in the trees is a needless fear.

Whether the spring-announcing breeze
Shudders the light leaves or she sees
The brambles twitched by a green lizard,
Panic sets racing her heart and knees.

Am I a fierce Gaetulian
Lion or some tiger with a plan
To seize and maul you? Come, now, leave your
Mother: you’re ready to know a man.

So, in fact, this middle-aged man is preparing ‘to seize and maul’ this timorous young woman. If we attribute the speaking voice to 40-something Horace, it is inappropriate. But if it is a song to be sung by any young man, less so.

Here he is gently mocking a friend (in fact a fellow poet, Tibullus) because his girlfriend’s dumped him:

Tibullus, give up this extravagant grieving
For a sweetheart turned sour. ‘Why was she deceiving?’
You ask, and then whimper long elegies on
The theme of the older man being outshone… (1.33)

In praise of booze

Horace is surprisingly insistent on the blessings of wine and the vine, with a number of poems recommending it as the appropriate accompaniment to all sorts of situations, from cheering up a doleful lover to consoling a parent for the loss of a child, celebrating an old friend having his citizenship restored or safely returned from a long journey (1.36), or just a way to forget sorrows and anxieties and be sociable (2.11). In ancient Rome wine was never drunk neat, but always diluted with water:

Come, boy, look sharp. Let the healths rip!
To midnight! The new moon! The augurship
Of our Murena! Mix the bowls – diluted
With three or nine parts wine: tastes must be suited.
The poet, who loves the Muses’ number, nine,
Inspired, demands that measure of pure wine. (3.19)

Above all wine was shared. In ancient Rome wine was drunk in social situations, among friends and with slaves to open the bottles and mix them correctly. In Horace’s day, men who got together to hold a convivial evening elected one of their number ‘president’ by rolling dice to see who got the highest score, and the president then selected which wines were to be drunk, in which order, to command the slaves, and institute topics of conversation or games.

Who’ll win the right to be
Lord of the revelry
By dicing highest? (2.7)

In other words, ‘wine’ symbolises not just a drink but a much deeper concept of sociability and conviviality. And importantly, this sociability was the cure for anxiety, depression and grief. So ‘wine’ isn’t at all about seeking intoxication or oblivion; quite the opposite: ‘wine’ symbolises the moderation and sociable common sense which Horace is always promoting. Even when he appears to be promoting booze, it’s really this idea he’s promoting.

Let Damalis, the girl we crown
Champion drinker, be put down
By Bassus at the game of sinking
A whole cup without breath or blinking. (1.36)

And, as with almost all aspects of Roman life, there was a ‘religious’ aspect in the sense that the Romans thanked the gods for all their blessings (just as they attributed all disasters to the malign influence of Fortune). It was ‘fitting’ to thank the gods, and often this was done with ‘libations’ i.e. pouring part of each bottle of wine onto the ground as an offering to the gods, as thanks for blessings received, as hope for blessings continued.

Pay Jove his feast, then. In my laurel’s shade
Stretch out the bones that long campaigns have made
Weary. Your wine’s been waiting
For years: no hesitating! (2.7)

In the following extract the ‘fast-greying tops’ means the greying heads of hair of Horace and his friend, Quinctilius, who he’s trying to persuade to stop being so anxious about life.

Futurity is infinite:
Why tax the brain with plans for it?
Better by this tall plane or pine
To sprawl and while we may, drink wine
And grace with Syrian balsam drops
And roses these fast-greying tops.
Bacchus shoos off the wolves of worry. (2.11)

1.11 carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

Horace’s attitude overlaps with the modern notion of mindfulness. According to this website, ‘Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. As he tells Maecenas:

Be a plain citizen for once – you fret
Too much about the people’s sufferings.
Relax. Take what the hour gives, gladly. Let
Others attend the graver side of things. (3.8)

The shame of recent Roman history i.e. the civil wars

This attitude is not bourgeois complacency (‘Hey slave, bring us more booze!’). Well, OK, it is – but it is given more bite by the historical background. Rome had just emerged from about 13 years of civil war (Antony and Octavian against Caesar’s assassins) or a very uneasy peace leading to another civil war (Octavian against Antony). Unlike most bourgeois Horace had led a legion in a major battle (Philippi), seen men hacked to pieces around him, and seen his cause completely crushed. What good had the assassination of Julius Caesar and then Brutus and Cassius’s war against Octavian and Antony achieved? Nothing. Absolutely nothing except tens of thousands of Roman dead and devastation of entire provinces.

And he refers to it repeatedly, the utter pointlessness and futility of war.

Alas, the shameful past – our scars, our crimes, our
Fratricides! This hardened generation
Has winced at nothing, left
No horror unexplored… (1.35)

Our fields are rich with Roman
Dead and not one lacks graves to speak against our
Impious battles. Even
Parthia can hear the ruin of the West. (2.1)

So Horace’s is not the complacent attitude of a pampered aristocrat who has never known trouble, but of a self-made man who has seen a whole lot of trouble and therefore knows the true value of peace. Although he wears it lightly, it is a hard-won philosophy. And he refers to it, repeatedly.

Greek mythology

Horace is so identified in my mind with Rome, with Augustus, with the golden age of Roman literature, that it comes as a shock to see just how much of the subject matter is Greek. Take 1.15 which is a dramatic address to Paris as he abducts Helen by the sea goddess Nereus, foreseeing the long siege and destruction of Troy. 2.4 is about inappropriate love but stuffed with examples from Troy. But all of the poems contain references to Greek mythology and require a good working knowledge of its complex family trees: just who is son of Latona, who is Semele’s son? Who are:

Yet how could mighty Mimas or Typhoeus
Or Rhoetus or Porphyrion for all hid
Colossal rage or fierce
Enceladus who tore up trees for darts

Succeed? (3.4)

Or take the long poem 3.27 which contains a rather moving soliloquy by the maid Europa who, in a fit of madness, let herself be raped by a bull, a sophisticated poem full of unexpected compassion for the miserable young woman who is, of course, Jupiter in disguise. The poem contains a twist in the tail, for Venus has been standing by all through the girl’s frantic speech, enjoying the scene with that detached cruelty typical of the gods and only at the end reveals the bull in question was none other than Jupiter in disguise, hence explaining the girl’s powerlessness to resist.

False modesty

That said, there is another repeated trope which, as it were, modifies the Hellenic influence and this is Horace’s stock protestations that his muse and lyre and skill aren’t up to epic or serious verse, are instead designed for more homely, lowly subject matter. He turns this into a joke on a couple of occasions when he’s getting carried away invoking the Mighty Warriors of the Trojan War and suddenly realises what he’s doing, back pedals and dials it down.

Where are you rambling, Muse? This theme’s beyond your
Light-hearted lyre. End now. Absurd presumption
To tell tales of the gods
And mar high matters with your reedy voice! (3.3)

Maybe 1.6 is the best expression of this repeated trope of inadequacy. To understand it you need to know that Varius is a rival Roman poet, famous for his high-flown tragedies, and that the poem is directly addressed to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the Roman general who Augustus relied on to win his battles.

That eagle of Homeric wing,
Varius, will in due course sing
Your courage and your conquests, every deed
Of daring that our forces,
Riding on ships or horses
Accomplish with Agrippa in the lead.

But I’m not strong enough to try
Such epic flights. For themes as high
As iron Achilles in his savage pique,
Crafty Ulysses homing
After long ocean-roaming,
Or Pelops’ house of blood, my wings feel weak.

And both my modesty and my Muse,
Who tunes her lyre to peace, refuse
To let her tarnish in the laureate’s part
Our glorious Augustus’
Or your own battle-lustres
With my imperfect and unpolished art…

Feasts, and the war where girls’ trimmed nails
Scratch fiercely at besieging males –
These are the subjects that appeal to me,
Flippant, as is my fashion,
Whether the flame of passion
Has scorched me or has left me fancy-free.

As usual, the translation is fluent and clever, but I stumbled over the grammar of ‘Augustus” and it took me a few goes to realise he’s saying ‘my muse refuses to tarnish either Augustus’s, or your, battle-lustres’. Maybe you got it first time, but at quite a few places, Michie’s ingenuity in rhyming results in phrases which made me stumble. Anyway, here is Horace again, protesting the modesty of his poetic aims and means:

The history of the long Numantian war;
Iron Hannibal; the sea incarnadined
Off Sicily with Carthaginian gore;
Wild Lapiths fighting blind-

Drunk Centaurs; or the Giants who made the bright
Halls of old Saturn reel till Hercules
Tame them – you’d find my gentle lyre too slight
An instrument for these

Magnificent themes, Maecenas… (2.12)

Friends

The majority of the poems address a named individual, buttonholing and badgering them, and the number of these addressed poems, added to the variety of subject matter, creates a sense of great sociability, of a buzzing circle of friends. Horace comes over as a very sociable man with a word of advice for all his many friends, something which really struck me in the run of poems at the start of book 2:

Sallustius Crispus, you’re no friend of metal
Unless it’s made to gleam with healthy motion… (2.2)

Maintain and unmoved poise in adversity;
Likewise in luck, one free of extravagant
Joy. Bear in mind my admonition,
Dellius… (2.3)

Dear Phocian Xanthias, don’t feel ashamed
Of loving a servant… (2.4)

Septimius, my beloved friend,
Who’d go with me to the world’s end… (2.6)

Pompeius, chief of all my friends, with whom
I often ventured to the edge of doom
When Brutus led our line… (2.7)

Barine, if for perjured truth
Some punishment had ever hurt you –
One blemished nail or blackened tooth –
I might believe this show of virtue… (2.7)

The clouds disgorge a flood
Of rain; fields are churned mud;
The Caspian seas
Are persecuted by the pouncing blasts;
But, Valgius, my friend, no weather lasts
For ever… (2.9)

Licinius, to live wisely shun
The deep sea; on the other hand,
Straining to dodge the storm don’t run
Too close in to the jagged land… (2.10)

‘Is warlike Spain hatching a plot?’
You ask me anxiously. ‘And what
Of Scythia?’ My dear Quinctius
There’s a whole ocean guarding us.
Stop fretting… (2.11)

Male friends he addresses poems to include: Maecenas his patron and ‘inseperable friend’ (2.17), Virgil, Sestius, Plancus, Thaliarchus, Leuconoe, Tyndaris, Aristius Fuscus, Megilla of Opus, Iccius, Tibullus, Plotius Numida, Asinius Pollio, Sallustius Crispus, Quintus Dellius, Xanthias Phoceus, Septimius, Pompeius Varus, C. Valgius Rufus, Lucius Licinius Murena, Quinctius Hirpinus, Postumus, Aelius Lama, Telephus, Phidyle, Ligurinus, Julus, Torquatus, Caius Marcius Censorinus and Lollius.

The women he addresses include: Pyrrha, Lydia (who appears in 4 poems 1.8, 1.13, 1.25, 3.9), the unnamed lady of 1.16, Glycera (twice 1.19, 1.30, 1.33), Chloe, Barine, Asterie, Lyce, Chloris, Galatea and Phyllis.

All go to create the sense of a thriving active social life, an extended circle of friends and acquaintances which is very…urbane. Civilised, indulgent, luxurious:

Boy, fetch me wreaths, bring perfume, pour
Wine from a jar that can recall
Memories of the Marsian war… (3.14)

The predominant tone is of friendship and fondness and frank advice:

Then go, my Galatea, and, wherever
You choose, live happily… (3.27)

But the reader is left to wonder whether any of these people (apart from Maecenas and Virgil, and maybe one or two others) ever actually existed, or whether they are characters in the play of his imaginarium.

The simple life

Again and again Horace contrasts the anxious life of high officials in Rome with the simplicity of life on his farm out in the country, and the even simpler pleasures of life the peasants who live on it. The theme is elaborated at greatest length in one of the longest poems, 3.29, where Horace invites careworn Maecenas to come and stay on his farm, yet another excuse to repeat his injunction to Live in the Present, for nobody knows what the future holds.

Call him happy
And master of his own soul who every evening
Can say, ‘Today I have lived…’

Homosexuality

As long as a Roman citizen of the upper class married, sired male children and performed his religious and family duties, the details of his sexuality weren’t important, or might have prompted waspish gossip, but weren’t illegal. Homosexuality isn’t as prominent in Horace’s poetry as it is in Virgil’s, but it’s here as part of his urbane mockery of his own love life and one poem in particular, 4.1, is a passionate and surprisingly moving poem of unrequited love for a youth named Ligurinus.

Why then,
My Ligurinus, why
Should the reluctant-flowing tears surprise these dry
Cheeks, and my fluent tongue
Stumble in unbecoming silences among
Syllable? In dreams at night
I hold you in my arms, or toil behind your flight
Across the Martian Field,
Or chase through yielding waves the boy who will not yield.

This Ligurinus is (apparently) a pre-pubescent boy because another entire poem, 4.10, is devoted to him, pointing out that one day soon he’ll sprout a beard, his peaches and cream complexion will roughen, and he’ll no longer be the hairless beauty he is now.

It is very striking indeed that earlier in book 4 Horace writes a series of poems lamenting the decline and fall in Roman social standards, singling out greed and luxury, and also adultery which, of course, makes it difficult to determine the real father of a child – and yet this flagrantly homosexual and, possibly, if the boy is under 16 which seems pretty certain, pederastic poem, passes without comment and presents no obstacle to the poet’s earlier harsh moralising.

Sucking up to Augustus

As is fitting, the first poem in book 1 addresses his patron (and friend) Augustus’s minister for the arts, Maecenas. And the second poem addresses the boss man himself, Augustus, unquestioned supreme ruler of Rome and its empire, who is subsequently addressed at regular intervals throughout the series of poems. Here is Horace, addressing Jupiter king of the gods but describing Augustus (referred to here by the name of his adoptive great-uncle, Caesar, by which he was widely known, before the title ‘Augustus’ was bestowed in 27 BC):

Thou son of Saturn, father and protector
Of humankind, to thee Fate has entrusted
Care of great Caesar; govern, then, while Caesar
Holds the lieutenancy.

He, whether leading in entitled triumph
The Parthians now darkening Rome’s horizon,
The Indian or the Chinese peoples huddled
Close to the rising sun,

Shall, as thy right hand, deal the broad earth justice. (1.12)

Here Horace is asking the fickle goddess Fortune to protect Augustus and the Roman armies engaged in battle:

Guard Caesar bound for Britain at the world’s end,
Guard our young swarm of warriors on the wing now
To spread the fear of Rome
Into Arabia and the Red Sea coasts. (1.35)

1.37 includes a brief description of Octavian’s historic victory over the fleets of Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Thunder in heaven confirms our faith – Jove rules there;
But here on earth Augustus shall be hailed as
God also, when he makes
New subjects of the Briton and the dour

Parthian. (3.5)

Incidentally, I don’t know why there are so many references to conquering Britain. In his long reign Augustus never sent armies to invade Britain, that was left to his great-nephew, the emperor Claudius, in 43 AD.

Book 4 contains noticeably more praise of Augustus (‘O shield of Italy and her imperial metropolis’) than the previous books: was it clearer than ever that the new regime was here to stay? Had Horace got closer to Augustus? Was it a shrewd political move to butter up the big man?

We know that Horace had been personally commissioned to write the two odes in praise of Drusus (4.4) and Tiberius (4.14) which overflow with slavish praise of their stepfather, Augustus, and the book includes a poem calling on Apollo to help him write the Centennial Hymn which Augustus commissioned (4.6). So this book contains more lickspittle emperor-worship than the previous 3 books combined.

How shall a zealous parliament or people
With due emolument and ample honours
Immortalise thy name
By inscription and commemorative page,

Augustus, O pre-eminent of princes
Wherever sunlight makes inhabitable
The earth? (4.14)

And the final ode in the entire series, 4.15, is another extended hymn of praise to Augustus’s peerless achievements.

Book 4

In his edition of Horace’s satires, Professor Nial Rudd points out that book 4, published about 12 years after books 1 to 3, has a definite autumnal feeling. Virgil is dead (19 BC) and Horace’s patron, Maecenas, no longer plays the central role he had done a decade earlier. The odes to Tiberius and Drusus highlight that a new young generation is coming up, and Horace refers to his own grey hair and age. Had Maecenas previously formed a buffer between him and the emperor, and, with his declining influence, has the emperor become more demanding of direct praise?

Famous phrases

It’s difficult for a non-Latinist to really be sure of but all the scholars and translators assure us that Horace had a way with a phrase and that this meant he coined numerous quotations used by later generations.

Probably the three most famous are ‘carpe diem’ and ‘nunc est bibendum’ and ‘dulce et decorum est’, from 1.11, 1.37 and 3.2, respectively. Here’s the source Latin and Michie’s translations of each instance:

Carmen 1.11 (complete)

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare 5
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Don’t ask (we may not know), Leuconie,
What the gods plan for you and me.
Leave the Chaldees to parse
The sentence of the stars.

Better to bear the outcome, good or bad,
Whether Jove purposes to add
Fresh winters to the past
Or to make this the last

Which now tires out the Tuscan sea and mocks
Its strength with barricades of rocks.
Be wise, strain clear the wine
And prune the rambling vine

Of expectation. Life’s short. Even while
We talk, Time, hateful, runs a mile.
Don’t trust tomorrow’s bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.

Carmen 1.37 (opening stanza)

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero
pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus
ornare pulvinar deorum
tempus erat dapibus, sodales…

Today is the day to drink and dance on. Dance, then,
Merrily, friends, till the earth shakes. Now let us
Rival the priests of Mars
With feasts to deck the couches of the gods…

3.2 comes from the series of 6 poems which open book 3, which are longer than usual and adopt quite a strict scolding tone, instructing Romans of his day to abandon luxury and return to the noble warrior values of their ancestors. It needs to be read in that context:

Carmen 3.2 (Opening only)

Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta

vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. Illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo

suspiret, eheu, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo…

Disciplined in the school of hard campaigning,
Let the young Roman study how to bear
Rigorous difficulties without complaining,
And camp with danger in the open air,

And with his horse and lance become the scourge of
Wild Parthians. From the ramparts of the town
Of the warring king, the princess on the verge of
Womanhood with her mother shall look down

And sigh, ‘Ah, royal lover, still a stranger
To battle, do not recklessly excite
That lion, savage to touch, whom murderous anger
Drives headlong through the thickest of the fight.’

The glorious and the decent way of dying
Is for one’s country. Run, and death will seize
You no less surely. The young coward, flying,
Gets his quietus in his back and knees…

Two points. One, quite obviously ancient Rome was an extremely militarised society with all its politicians expected to have served in the army or, as consuls, be sent off in command of armies in umpteen foreign campaigns. Two, with this in mind it’s worth pointing out that the poem goes on to contrast the glory won by death in battle with the vulgar world of democratic politics and elections.

Unconscious of mere loss of votes and shining
With honours that the mob’s breath cannot dim,
True worth is not found raising or resigning
The fasces at the wind of popular whim…

The fasces being the bundle of wooden rods, sometimes bound around an axe with its blade emerging, which was carried by the lictors who accompanied a consul everywhere during his term of office and which symbolised a magistrate’s power and jurisdiction.

Summary

Michie is very proficient indeed at rhyming. More than that, he enjoys showing off his skill:

Boys, give Tempe praise meanwhile and
Delos, the god’s birthday island. (1.21)

A cheap hag haunting alley places
On moonless nights when the wind from Thrace is
Rising and raging… (1.25)

When the brigade of Giants
In impious defiance… (2.19)

But I think the cumulative effect of so much dazzling ingenuity is that sometimes  the poems reek more of cleverness for its own sake than the kind of dignified tone which the Latinists describe as having. At times the cleverness of his rhyming overshadows the sense.

Boy, I detest the Persian style
Of elaboration. Garlands bore me
Laced up with lime-bark. Don’t run a mile
To find the last rose of summer for me. (1.38)

Throughout the book, in pretty much every poem, although I could read the words, I struggled to understand what the poem was about. I had to read most of them 2 or 3 times to understand what was going on. Half way through, I stumbled upon the one-sentence summaries of each ode given on the Wikipedia page about the Odes. This was a lifesaver, a game changer. From that point on, I read the one-sentence summary of each poem to find out who it was addressed to and what it was about – and so was freed to enjoy how it was constructed, and the slickness of Michie’s translations.

Bless this life

Above all, be happy. Life is short. Count each day as a blessing.

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully… (1.9)

You can see why all the translators, scholars and commentators on Horace describe him as a friendly, reassuring presence. A poet to take down off your shelves and read whenever you need to feel sensible and grounded.


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