The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus – 2

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Part two: Claudius and Nero

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

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

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

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

Claudius (reigned 41 to 54)

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

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

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

Chapter 9 The Fall of Messalina

47 AD

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

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

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

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

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

48 AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10 The Mother of Nero (Agrippina)

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

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

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

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

50 AD

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

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

51 AD

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

52 AD

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

53 AD

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

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

54 AD – Murder of Claudius

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

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

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

Chapter 11 The Fall of Agrippina

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

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

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

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

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

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

55 AD – Murder of Britannicus

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

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

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

56 AD

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

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

57 AD

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

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

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

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

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

58 AD

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

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

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

59 AD – Murder of Agrippina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 12 Nero and his Helpers

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

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

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

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

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

60 AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The arrogance of the Stoics’, eh?

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

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

61 AD – Boudicca’s revolt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

62 AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 13 Eastern Settlement

63 AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 14 The Burning of Rome

64 AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 15 The Plot (65 AD)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 16 Innocent Victims

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

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

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

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

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

66 AD

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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


Credit

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

Related link

Roman reviews

The Georgics by Virgil (39 to 29 BC)

Time’s flying by, time we’ll never know again,
while we in our delighted state savour our subject bit by bit.
(Eclogue 3, lines 284 to 285)

Publius Vergilius Maro (70 to 19 BC), generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Poetic background to the Georgics

In about 39 BC Virgil became part of the circle of poets associated with Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (70 to 8 BC), close friend and political advisor to Gaius Octavius, who was to become the first Roman Emperor under the name Augustus. According to the introduction to the Peter Fallon OUP translation of the Georgics, they took Virgil seven years to write, 35 to 28 BC (Fallon p.xxxix).

There are four Georgics. If Virgil took the Greek poet Theocritus as his model for the Eclogues, in the Georgics he bases himself on the much older, ‘archaic’ Greek poet Hesiod, author of Works and Days, a miscellany of moral and religious advice mixed in with practical instruction on agriculture.

Virgil’s four long poems pretend to be giving practical advice to the traditional figure of the Roman smallholder. The word ‘georgic’ comes from the Greek word γεωργικά (geōrgika) which means ‘agricultural (things)’. But in fact the advice, although extensive, manages somehow to be very shallow and is certainly not very practical. An entire book is devoted to the care of bees but nothing about, say, goats or chickens.

Moreover, the nominal addressee, the smallholder, was a vanishing figure in Virgil’s day. Already by 73 BC Spartacus’s gladiators, marching across Italy, were amazed to discover the quaint patchwork of family farms they were expecting to find had been swept away and replaced with vast estates or latifundia worked not by cosy extended families but by armies of badly treated slaves (many of whom they recruited to their cause). The word ‘slave’ occurs nowhere in the Georgics just as the harsh economic and social realities of the Roman countryside are ignored. So what was Virgil’s real motive for writing these long and often very detailed texts?

Political background

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the Georgics translated by Cecil Day Lewis, the classicist R.O.A.M. Lyne pins everything on their historic context. The period 39 to 29 saw ongoing political instability with a barely maintained alliance between Julius Caesar’s adoptive son, Gaius Octavianus (who had renamed himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in honour of his assassinated great-uncle, and is generally referred to by historians as as Octavian) and his colleague in the so-called Second Triumvirate, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony).

In 36 Antony embarked on his ill-fated campaign to invade the Parthian Empire in the East, while Octavian led a campaign to defeat Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus’s surviving son, Sextus Pompeius, who had established a military and naval base in Sicily.

Antony lost badly and retreated to Egypt, while Octavian astutely used the Sicilian War to force the retirement of the third triumvir, Lepidus, thus making himself ruler of the central and western Mediterranean. Throughout 33 and 32 BC he promoted fierce propaganda in the senate and people’s assemblies against Antony, accusing him of going native in Egypt, transgressing all Roman values, abandoning his legal Roman wife (Octavia) and debasing himself in a slavish passion to the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.

In 32 BC Octavian manipulated the senate into depriving Antony of his executive powers and declaring war on Cleopatra. It was another genuine civil war because, despite decades of anti-Egyptian propaganda, and the record of his own scandalous misbehaviour and defeats in Parthia, a large number of the Roman ruling class still identified with Antony. On the declaration of war, both consuls, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Gaius Sosius, and a third of the senate abandoned Rome to meet Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.

Nonetheless, the decisive naval Battle of Actium in September 32 was a disaster for Antony. When he saw Cleopatra’s contingent leaving his side, he abandoned his own fleet to follow her. Octavian then led his army to Egypt and besieged the capital, Alexandria. After the Egyptian fleet sallied out only to defect to Octavian, both Antony and Cleopatra realised the game was up and committed suicide rather than be captured and dragged through the streets of Rome in a vulgar triumph.

So the Georgics were composed during yet another period of prolonged and bitter civil dispute and then open warfare between Romans. And so, Lyne suggests, their real purpose was not in the slightest to give ‘practical’ advice to that non-existent figure, the Latin smallholding farmer. Their intention was moral and religious.

In reaction to an era of chaos and destruction, Virgil wrote four works hymning the values of hard work, piety and peace.

Lyne’s overview

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press (OUP) edition, R.O.A.M. Lyne gives a précis of each of the four books and then proceeds to an overarching thesis. For him the key books are 1 and 4. Book 1 gives a tough, unsentimental description of farming as demanding unremitting effort and attention. The text is packed with instructions on what to expect and what to do at key moments throughout the year.

However, the final book is a lengthy description of bees and bee-keeping and, in Lyne’s opinion, this represents a significant shift in Virgil’s opinion. When restoring the Republic seemed an option, albeit remote, a society of rugged individuals seemed a desirable prospect. However, sometime during the decade 39 to 29 Virgil appears to have changed his view and come round to the opinion that only the suppression of individualism and the submission of individuals to the needs of the community can benefit or save society as a whole. In other words, the progress of the four books embodies Virgil’s move from Republican to Imperial thinking.

It’s a powerful interpretation but, as Lyne points out, there’s a lot of other stuff going on the Georgics as well. Lyne ends this very political interpretation by saying that it is only one interpretation and others are possible. And also that there are long stretches which are just beautiful poetry, in the same sense that an 18th or 19th century landscape painting may have had umpteen ulterior motives (not least to gratify the landowner who paid for it) but it can also just be…beautiful – just there to be enjoyed as a sensual evocation of country life.

Packed

I don’t have a problem with Lyne’s interpretation, I get it in a flash. The real problem is in fully taking on board, processing and assimilating what are very dense poems. The Georgics are far from easy to read because they are so cluttered. And (it has to be said) badly laid out. I found them confusing. It was only by dint of reading the first one three times, and introductions to it twice, that I began to get a handle on what is going on. When you read a summary saying it describes a calendar year in terms of the many jobs that a smallholding farmer needs to do, it sounds graspable and rational, but it is much more than that.

The passage of the year is difficult to grasp because Virgil doesn’t mark it off by clearly describing the passage of the seasons let alone the months. And when he does do it, he does it via astrology i.e. the coming into dominance of various star signs. For the ancients this counted as knowledge (and is still serving that function in, for example, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 1,400 years later) but for us it obscures the dating.

Also, Virgil rarely alights on one subject, announces it clearly and describes it properly. Instead, line after line describe individual sights or features of the season, rivers flooding, leaves falling, lists of crops that need to be sown, lists of weeds that need to be hoed up, and the behaviour of domestic and wild animals.

My view is the poem is designed to be a cornucopia, a horn of plenty. It is designed not to be a clear and rational handbook, but to overflow with images. It’s not so much a depiction of country life as a feast of agricultural lore and traditions and descriptions.

Two translations

I have the Georgics in two translations. I bought the old Day Lewis translation, albeit packed in a shiny new OUP paperback, because it was the only cheap way of getting the Eclogues. However, I found Day Lewis’s verse rhythms a little unwieldy, maybe because he is closely following or ghosting the strict hexameter of Virgil’s original, or maybe it’s his 1940s style, I don’t know. I struggled through his translation of the first Georgic.

But I had also bought the OUP paperback edition of a much more recent translation, by Peter Fallon, from 2004. Oh my God, it is a totally different reading experience. Fallon appears to translate it into something approaching free verse where the length and rhythm of each line appears to vary to suit the meaning and vocabulary of each individual line. It is enormously more appealing and attractive and readable than the Day Lewis.

Georgic 1 (514 lines)

Yes, unremitting labour
And harsh necessity’s hand will master anything.
(Day Lewis, lines 145 to 146)

‘pitiful man’ (Fallon, 238)

Opening prayer to various agricultural deities (Liber/Bacchus, Ceres, Neptune, Pan, Minerva, Triptolemos, Sylvanus) and then to Augustus (‘and I address you, too, O Caesar’), with 15 lines prophesying Augustus’s divinity, his place among the stars, a new sign of the zodiac etc.

At which point Virgil plunges straight into a description of ‘the sweet o’ the year’ which I take to be spring, when streams begin to melt and clods crumble and it’s time to put the bull before ‘the deep-pointed plough’ etc. A litany of agricultural products, including ones from far flung regions of the earth (Arabia), each from its specific place as ordained by nature.

Plough the soil twice (line 48). Rotate crops. Respect the laws Nature has imposed on the soil (60). Fertilise the soil with manure (80) or spread ashes. Set fire to stubble (he speculates why this seems to work). Break the soil with hoe and mattock (95). The countryman should pray for wet summers and mild winters (100).

Then something which none of the summaries I’d read had quite prepared me for: Virgil says Jupiter has made husbandry difficult in order to prevent idleness. Honey used to fall from the trees, the crops sowed themselves, there were never storms. Jupiter overturned all this and deliberately made life hard in order to spur men’s creativity. God overturned the Golden Age in order to make men creative, come up with tools and processes. God instantiated into the world, into the way of things, a fundamental need for work, piety and order:

Hard work prevailed, hard work and pressing poverty. (146)

Because now, since God’s intervention, nature is set towards decline and fall, entropy, things fall apart, unless maintained with unremitting toil:

world forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall (200)

Like a man paddling a canoe against the current; if you stop for even a second, you are borne backwards and lose all your work.

Back to practicalities, Virgil describes the construction of the ideal plough (160 to 175). It hovers between instructions of a sort, for example, how to build a proper threshing floor (178) – and the history of agriculture i.e. who invented what under the inspiration of which god or goddess.

Work according to the sky / stars / the zodiac, with different tasks appropriate under Arcturus, the Charioteer, Draco (205), Taurus, the Dog, the Seven Sisters. At the equinox sow barley, linseed and poppies (212). But in springtime (see what I mean by the chronology jumping around a bit?) sow alfalfa and millet (215).

An extended passage on the structure of the globe, consisting of freezing zones at each pole, an uninhabitably hot zone in the middle, and two temperate zones inhabitable my ‘pitiful man’ in between. This morphs into a description of the underworld, dark and infernal, inside the earth.

So: the importance of always being aware of the seasons and the stars and the constellations (252). If it rains, there are lots of odd jobs to do indoors, which he proceeds to list (260). Some days are, traditionally, lucky and some very unlucky for different types of work, Beware the fifth!’ (276). ‘The seventeenth’s a lucky day’ (284).

This morphs into consideration of what tasks are appropriate for times of the day, with a sweet description of a countryman staying up all night by winter firelight to edge his tools, while his wife weaving and minding a boiling pot (296).

Winter is a time of rest but there are still chores: gathering up acorns, setting traps for herons (307).

In a confusing passage he says he’s going to describe the trials of autumn (following winter) but then of spring. Since this follows vivid evocations of winter, it shows how the poem is not a neat chronology moving through the seasons of the year at all; it’s a confusing mess.

The book comes to a first climax with the description of a great storm in lines 311 to 350. He describes the sudden devastation of raging storms and rainstorms, Jupiter, ‘squire of the sky’, straddling the skies and sending down deluges and laying human hearts low in panic. For which reason, observe the stars and zodiac and make your offerings to the appropriate gods (338) in particular Ceres, and a passage describing various rituals and observances.

But this is barely done before we’re off describing the meaning of the different phases of the moon. You tell a storm at sea is coming when cormorants fly inland, herons forsake the lake and there are shooting stars (366).

Quite a long passage listing countrymen’s signs to detect the approach of rain (374 to 392). This, like many of these passages, is really beautiful. I loved the crow cawing Rain, rain and the housewife working by lamplight noticing the sputtering of the wick.

Or the signs predicting sunshine and clear weather: stars unblurred, the moon brighter. 12 lines on how ravens croak and caw to celebrate the coming of fine weather (410 to 412).

More reasons for why you need to pay attention to the sun and moon. How to interpret different appearances of the moon (427 to 437). Same for different appearances of the sun, clear, blurred, emerging from clouds, with tinges of other colours, and so on: ‘Who’d dare to question the sun’s word?’ (438 to 464).

And mention of the sun’s signs leads us into the last 40 or so lines, 2 pages of paperback text, in which Virgil lists some of the portents associated with Caesar’s assassination and the coming of the civil war. These are far more lurid and ridiculous than anything in Plutarch. According to Virgil, cattle spoke, the Alps trembled, ghosts walked abroad at night, statues wept, rivers ground to a halt, the Po flooded and devastated farmland, wells spouted blood, wolves howled all night long.

This is all very vivid but, stepping back a bit – it is all twaddle. How much of this nonsense did men like Virgil and Plutarch genuinely believe? If even a fraction, then ‘credulous fools’ would be a polite description of them.

Anyway, Virgil deliberately conflates the universal upheaval triggered by Caesar’s assassination with other signs and portents observed before the Battle of Philippi, where Octavian and Antony defeated the assassins (as depicted in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar). In fact the notes tell me something I would have never noticed, which is that Virgil also conflates it with the Battle of Pharsalus, where Caesar triumphed over Pompey, 6 years earlier in 48 BC.

He clearly does so in order to create a grand sense of wear and ruin in order to finish the book with…a second hymn to Octavian. He begs Romulus and Vesta, patrons of Rome, to stand back and allow the rise of young Octavian:

this young one who comes to save / a world in ruins (500)

In fact, it doesn’t end with the sycophantic words of praise I was expecting but with a vivid ten lines or so depicting a world run completely mad with war (lines 505 to 514), like (in a simile as vivid as the one about the rower borne back by the tide) a charioteer competing in the circus whose horses run out of control, he can’t rein them in, a world hurtling towards ruin.

Little conclusion

Pyne points out that the overall vibe of the book is negative. If we neglect the principles of hard work, fail to follow best practice, are not sufficiently alert to all the signs of nature and the gods – then we will have chaos and destruction. The harshness of Virgil’s tone reflects the very bitter experience of civil wars he has lived through. Pyne takes this to be the meaning of the ‘tumultuous’ consequences of the assassination of Caesar and it’s pretty obvious in the vision of chaos at the very end of the eclogue. Only Octavian/Augustus offers any hope of salvation.

Georgic 2 (542 lines)

Book 2 is less harsh and more attractive. It starts by hymning trees before focusing in on the vine. Its moral is that Nature is fruitful, especially in Italy.

Invocation to Bacchus, god of wine, to be with him and support him. Then a second dedication, to Maecenas, Virgil’s friend and patron.

Lesson one is about trees and how they seed themselves and grow. Many species and many varieties, oak, elm, ash, alder etc etc. Each land has trees specific to it. The medicinal attributes of citron.

A passage of praise of Italy, a passage which came to have its own name, the Laudes Italiae (lines 136 to 176): ‘Hail to thee Italy, holy mother of all that grows, mother of men ‘ (173), mixed with an address to Caesar, ‘first of all mankind’ (170). I keep thinking I must read a biography of Mussolini to see how much of this slavish praise of a dictator was revived 2,000 years later.

Different types of terrain and soil, the wooded fields and open spaces of Tarentum, the rolling plains of Mantua etc.

Black friable soil is best for corn, gravel in a hilly place, chalkland. The best soil for olives. The difference between land for corn and land for vines. Order the rows of vines like troops lined up for battle (279). Dig shallow trenches for vines, but deep holes for trees. Don’t plan a vineyard facing west.

The perils of wildfires. Don’t plough rock solid ground while north winds bare their teeth.

Best to sow vines in the spring for then the almighty father, Air, marries the earth, penetrating her body with showers. This is a beautifully sensuous passage which, apparently, is famous enough to have been given its own name, the Praises of Spring (323 to 345).

After you’ve planted your vines you need to hoe and weed them, then erect canes and supports (358). At first pluck new buds only with your fingers, don’t use metal tools.

Build hedges to keep animals out (371). Their incessant nibbling and destruction of crops, especially vines, is why a goat is sacrificed to the god Bacchus (380). An extended passage on how Virgil associates rural worship of Bacchus with the origins of theatre and the origin of sacrifices and rites they still perform.

More work: break up the clods around vines and clear away leaves (401).

Virgil makes reference to the turning of the year, the procession of the seasons, and yet his poem emphatically does NOT follow the cycle of the seasons at all. It is NOT rational, ordered or structured, but wanders all over the place, one digression after another.

More chores with vines, but he suddenly switches to consideration of olive growing (420). Olives do it by themselves, as do apple trees.

Clover must be cut for fodder. Deep in the woods pines are cut down to provide firewood.

Suddenly we are in the far distant Caucasus, home to various useful trees (440) and what tools are made from them.

Then suddenly back to Bacchus and, with no logic I can discern, into a final hymn in praise of country life (458 to 542). How lucky the lowly countryman who doesn’t live in a mansion crowded with sycophants! He has the quiet, carefree life! Pools of running water, cool grottos, naps in the shade and sweet Justice.

Then he turns to address himself and used to wish that sweet Poetry would open up to him the secrets of the earth (480). But since that appears not to be happening, maybe because of his ‘heart’s lack of feeling’, well, at least let him be satisfied with rural beauty and streams running through glens.

In line 490 he appears to envy one referred to only as ‘that man’ who is lucky enough to understand the workings of the world and escaped fear of hell and death. Even without the note I’d have guess this referred to Epicurus, whose entire materialist philosophy was designed to assuage anxiety, especially when it goes on to confirm that this man is not interested in the bitter competition for high public office which led to the downfall of the Republic.

The different types of bad rich man are enumerated in lines 495 to 512 – then compared with the simple countryman who tills his native soil and increases its wealth, who glories in the harvest, who keeps an ordered homestead with dutiful sons, who organises feasts and games for his hired hands (javelin throwing, wrestling matches). Ah, those were the virtuous activities of the old Sabines. Ah, the good old days, the Golden Age of Saturn before his son, Jupiter, overthrew him and instituted the Iron Age when everything became bloody hard work (as described at the start of Georgic 1).

Georgic 3 (566 lines)

George 3 is in two halves and mainly about animal husbandry. The first half is devoted to the selection of  good breeding stock and the breeding of horses and cattle.

The opening 39 lines are nothing whatever to do with rural life, but a poetic invocation describing his ambition to achieve things never before achieved in verse (much the same as invocations on the same theme by Ennius and Lucretius), and a vivid description of a massive festival, complete with elaborate games, he will hold in honour of Caesar. I hadn’t realised Virgil was such a thorough-going courtier and sycophant.

This segues into a secondary invocation to his patron, Maecenas, asking for his help in his self-appointed task. Revealingly, he tells us the time is not far off when he will have to gird himself to write a full account of Caesar/Octavian’s ‘hard-fought battles’ – the plan to celebrate Octavian which evolved into the Aeneid.

So there’s all this fol-de-rol before we get back to the rural tone and subject of the poem, but we’ve barely had 15 lines about horses and horse breeding before Virgil gives way to some moralising lines commiserating poor humans that we are, the best days of our lives are first to fly etc.

Then he finally gets back to the subject in hand – how to recognise good horses to breed, by their age, their colour and their behaviour – but this barely lasts 20 lines before he digresses off to talk about famous horses from mythology, the horses of Pollux, Mars, Achilles, Jupiter and so on.

There are 8 lines on how you shouldn’t choose a knackered old horse which can’t get an erection to breed from, before he’s off on another digression, this time a thrilling description of the horses in a chariot race at the Circus. And then a few lines on the man who first tamed horses and tied four to a chariot i.e. godfather to the circus chariot races (Erichthoneus).

It feels very much as if Virgil doesn’t want to write this boring manual about animal husbandry and would rather be writing a much more exciting epic poem, invoking gods and figures from history.

Anyway: how to choose and prepare the stallion; how to prepare the mares for insemination namely by lots of exercise so, when they are mounted, they will tuck the seed away deep inside; when they are pregnant don’t use them to pull carts or let them swim in rivers.

Avoid the gadfly which will drive them into a frenzy, as it did when Hera turned Io into a heifer and set it on her. Only release pregnant horses out to pasture at dawn or as evening falls.

When they foal, the best will be selected for sacrifice, some for breeding and some for farmwork. How to train young horses to bear a collar and bridge (170).

How to train a horse for warfare, to become a cavalry mount (179 to 194).

Sex

And it’s at this point that we come to the most striking passage in the poem which concerns sex. From line 209 onwards the narrator counsels horse breeders to keep male horses and cattle away from females. This is the best way of ensuring their strength. This leads into an extended set piece on the futile and destructive lengths to which sexual passion drives animals and, by implication, men. It is a wild fantastical passion, a helter-skelter of images and legends of horses and other animals (lioness, bear, boar, tiger) running completely mad with lust and sexual frenzy.

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(242 to 244)

As Pyne puts it, this isn’t a description, it’s a denunciation and Pyne links it to Epicurus’s great denunciation of irrational sexual passion in De rerum natura book 4. Certainly, this makes little or no sense as ‘practical’ advice to any farmer: it is clearly didactic moralising. Virgil is making a general point about The Good Life and asserting that passion must be eliminated in order to enable the peaceful and moral life.

Anyone familiar with the plot of his great epic poem, the Aeneid, knows that this is the thrust of the most famous narrative sequence, where prince Aeneas falls in love with Queen Dido of Carthage and is strongly tempted to settle down and be happy with her but, eventually, acknowledges his destiny, puts duty above love, and abandons her to sail for Italy. Sex, and all forms of emotion, must be renounced in order to lead The Good Life and fulfil one’s duty.

At line 284 he pivots to the second half of the book. This is devoted to the care and protection of sheep and goats and their by-products.

Death

Some very lovely lines about taking out sheep and goats to their summer pasture first thing in the morning when the dew is glistening (322).

For some reason shepherds from Libya occur to him, who are in constant motion because their land is so hot; and this triggers a description of the exact opposite, an extended description of the legendary people who live in the farthest north, near the pole, and endure conditions of ultimate winter (352 to 383). Structurally, a lot of the poem consists of a kind of learnèd free association.

Half a dozen lines about how to choose a breeding ram segue into a legend about Pan disguising himself as a sheep in order to seduce the moon. If you want milk, give your ewes lucerne, clover and salted grass.

Keep dogs, they will help you hunt, protect against rustlers at night or wolves.

In cattle stalls burn juniper to keep snakes at bay. Kills snakes with a big rock or stick (420). Extended description of a particularly fearsome three-tongued serpent.

At line 440 Virgil commences a new subject, the diseases which afflict livestock, with an extended description of how to treat scab. If sheep bleat for pain and have a fever, bleed them from a vein in the feet. If you see a ewe dilly-dallying or sloping off to slump under the shade of a tree, waste no time in killing it to prevent the infection spreading (468).

Just as a great storm wrecks the farmer’s work in the first Georgic, the third Georgic moves towards  an extended description of the havoc and devastation among livestock caused by an actual historical plague  which broke out in Noricum (470 to 566). (To be clear: a plague affecting only of animals, not humans.)

Animals selected for sacrifice died at the altar; entrails refuse to light; a knife slipped under the skin draws no blood; calves dropped in droves; house-trained dogs went mad; pigs’ throats welled up so they couldn’t breathe; horses fell sick; the plough ox collapsed.

Lyne interprets this to mean that the farmer must acknowledge, that even if he follows all the rules laid down in Georgic 1, is pious and hard working and true, a hellish plague may come along and ruin his life’s work. The dying ox is anthropomorphised as if it had human feelings:

All the work he did, all he contributed – and to what end? (525)

It was a universal plague: fish died on the shore; seals tried to escape upriver; vipers died in their dens; birds fell dead out of the skies. There was no cure, all the animals died and their hides and skins were worthless; anyone who tried to wear them broke out in ‘a fester of pustules’. And with that, the book abruptly ends.

In the face of overwhelming external forces of destruction, what is the reasonable man to do?

Georgic 4 (566 lines)

Georgic 4 is about bees and bee keeping. Instructions to the beekeeper. An interlude describing an old gardener, Corycian (116 to 148). Then the bee description develops into an obvious allegory.

Bee society stands for a model of ideal human society: absolute patriotism, complete concord, total subordination of the self to the common good. In line 201 the bees are even referred to as quirites, the Latin word for Roman citizens. And yet all this harmony and submission is based on service to a monarch (lines 210 onwards), an extremely unroman attitude, the precise thing all Romans have railed against for the entire history of the Republic.

His bees are also absolutely passionless (197 onwards):

bees refrain from intercourse, their bodies never
weaken into the ways of love

This is obviously picking up the denunciation of passion from Georgic 3, continuing the Epicurean attack on passion. (Just as obviously, Virgil’s entire account of bee keeping is wildly wrong and shows no understanding of how bees reproduce. Amazingly, Virgil seems to imply that bees populate their hive  by discovering their young on leaves in lovely meadows, 4.201).

The book ends with by recapitulating the end of Georgic 3, but this time with a happy ending. For, whereas human society may be ruined by a cataclysmic plague, devastated bee societies can be restored. The poem describes the method for recreating devastated bee colonies as the invention of one Aristaeus and describes it at length.

The most obvious thing about the relatively short passage giving practical advice on how to create a bee colony is it’s twaddle. Virgil describes at length how to rebuild a bee colony (4.295 to 314). Take a bull calf 2 years old. Build an enclosure with apertures facing the four directions of the wind and a tiled roof. Plug his nostrils and, despite his struggles, beat him to death, though without breaking the skin. Under his ribcage place branches of thyme and newly picked spurge laurel. Do all this before the onset of spring. The dead bull’s bones will start to ferment, and from them insects will appear: at first legless, but then with wings, eventually spilling out like rain.

Do you think that’s how modern beekeepers create a new colony?

The Aristaeus epyllion (lines 317 to 566)

After giving this absurd advice, Virgil shifts to safer ground and cuts and pastes into the end of this book a relatively long mythological poem. All the critics refer to this as an epyllion, being ‘a relatively short narrative poem (or discrete episode in a longer work) that shows formal affinities with epic but whose subject and poetic techniques are not characteristic of epic proper.’

Just to be crystal clear, the entire rationale of the previous three poems, to provide ‘practical’ advice for yeoman farmers, is simply dropped. Instead we enter a completely different imaginative realm, a sustained piece of mythological writing.

Virgil has Aristaeus lament the collapse of his farming efforts to his mother, the nymph Cyrene, living in the river Peneius, sitting spinning wool attended by her handmaidens, who are each lovingly named, leading into another passage which gives a similarly sensuous list of classical rivers.

Cyrene gives permission for Aristaeus to be wafted through the waves to her (much sensual description) and he is amazed at life under a river. Then she explains that he will have to go on a mission to capture the god Proteus in order to extract from him the reason why all his (Aristaeus’s) ventures have failed. This permits a florid description of Proteus’s legendary ability to change shape.

Cut to a lovely description of night falling over the sea and the cave where Proteus lives, surrounded by the race of mermen splashing in the briny sea while seals frolic around them. Aristaeus pounces and holds him tight, whatever shape Proteus assumes. Eventually, tired out, Proteus he admits defeat, at which point Aristaeus asks his question.

As in a chamber of mirrors, Proteus then explains that Aristaeus has undergone the punishment of his labours on the orders of Orpheus who is angry with him for the role he played in the abduction of his beloved Eurydice.

What? Where did all this come from?

It seems that Aristaeus was in love with Eurydice, too, and one day pursued her out of lust so that she stumbled across a seven-headed water snake and was bitten and died. Hence her passage to the underworld, hence Orpheus’s journey thither to reclaim her. Here’s a taste of one aspect of an epyllion’s epic style i.e. stuffing the text with exotic place names:

Then the chorus of her peers, the Dryads, filled the mountaintops with their lament,
the heights of Rhodope cried out, too, in mourning,
as did lofty Pangaea, and the land of the warring Rhesus,
and the Getae, the river Hebrus and the princess Orothyia.
(4.460 to 464)

There follows an extensive description of Orpheus venturing down into the underworld to the amazement of its denizens, his pleading with the god of hell to release his beloved, her release and their slow progress back up towards the light when, of course, in a moment of madness, Orpheus looked behind him, broke his promise and Eurydice disappeared back into the shadows.

Returned to earth, Orpheus spends ages bewailing his fate, seven months singing his lamentations, until the bacchantes, thinking themselves slighted by his obsession, tore him to pieces and distributed the pieces throughout the land. But even in death Orpheus’s head continued to cry out ‘Eurydice’ as it was carried down the river.

At which point Proteus ends his recitation of the Orpheus story and plunges back into the waves, handing the narrative back to Atraeus’s mother, Cyrene. Cyrene summarises: so that’s the reason Orpheus cursed his agricultural work. The only cure is to make an offering, and pay respect to the nymphs, and she gives instructions on how to do this:

Select four bulls and four heifers. Build four altars ‘by the tall temples of the goddesses’. Cut their throats and let the blood pour. Leave the carcasses in a leafy den. After nine days send as offerings to Orpheus soporific poppies and sacrifice a black ewe, then go back to the thicket (presumably where the 8 cattle corpses are) and worship Eurydice with a slaughtered calf.

So Aristaeus does exactly as his mummy told him and lo and behold, when he returned to the thicket nine days later…

And there they met a miracle and looked it in the face –
from those cattle’s decomposing flesh, the hum of bees,
bubbling first, then boiling over and, trailing giant veils into the trees,
they hung like grapes in bunches from the swaying branches.

In other words, this enormous digression has been by way of explaining how Aristaeus discovered that killing cattle and letting them rot, under the right conditions, triggers the creation of a colony of bees! Wow. What a round-the-houses way of doing it. As Seneca said (every commentary I’ve read mentions this opinion of Seneca) Virgil never intended his book for the instruction of anyone, let alone an actual farmer: it is an aristocratic entertainment, pure and simple.

Virgil’s conclusion

Virgil rounds out his book with a 9-line conclusion:

Such was the song that I took on to sing, about the care of crops
and stock, and trees with fruit, while he, our mighty Caesar,
was going hell for leather along the great Euphrates
adding victory to triumph, winning the war for people who appreciate his deeds,
and laying down the law – enough to earn his place in heaven.

And I, Virgil, was lying in the lap of Naples, quite at home
in studies of the arts of peace, I, who once amused myself
with rustic rhymes, and, still a callow youth,
sang of you Tityrus, as I lounged beneath the reach of one great beech.
(4. 458 to 566)

Pyne’s interpretation

Pyne largely ignores the presence of the epyllion to focus on the last piece of practical advice in the book, about how to recreate a bee colony. For Pyne the metaphor is clear: war or revolution may devastate a society, but that society may be recreated and regenerated by a saviour, a man of destiny, particularly if that man has divine parentage like… like Augustus Caesar, adoptive son of the now deified Julius.

Thus, in Pyne’s view, the poem dramatises a problem in political and moral theory: Georgic 3 shows that, no matter how hard working and pious the individual is, all his work may still be ruined by forces beyond his control. Georgic 4 offers the solution, which is to shift the focus away from the individual altogether, and see things from the perspective of the entire society.

If the individual can identify, not with his personal, highly fragile situation, but with society as a whole, in particular with a strong leader, then he can rise above the tribulations of his individual story.

Incompletion

There is another interpretation of the plonking down of this extended epyllion into the fourth Georgic (at 249 lines, it makes up nearly half the book). This is that Virgil really struggled to finish things. I’m saying this with advance knowledge that he, notoriously, failed to complete – to his own satisfaction – his epic poem, the Aeneid, and asked his literary executors to burn it (which the latter, very fortunately, refused to do).

The fourth Georgic, and therefore the book as a whole, doesn’t work its subject through in the same way the previous ones did. Instead it feels like Virgil has abandoned his subject and treatment completely – until the very end where he suddenly brings his long story back to being, rather improbably, about how the first farmer learned to recreate a bee colony.

This thought highlights in retrospect what struck me as odd in the previous books, which is Virgil’s complaints about how hard he was finding it to write the damn thing. When he invokes his patron Maecenas, more often than not it’s because he’s really struggling to write. At the start of book 1 he asks Caesar to ‘grant him an easy course’.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right,
have no second thoughts before the great adventure into which I’ve launched myself.
Not that I could ever hope to feature all things in my verses –
not even if I had a hundred mouths, as many ways of speech,
and a voice as strong as iron. Stand by me now – as we proceed along the shoreline…
(2.39 to 40)

Meanwhile we’ll trace the Dryads’ woods and virgin glades,
no little task that you’ve laid out for me, Maecenas,
for without encouragement from you, what could I amount to?
Come on! Help me shake off this lassitude…
(3.40 to 43)

Was it a task laid on him by Maecenas? And then there are the other places where Maecenas isn’t mentioned but Virgil candidly shares with the reader the sheer effort of writing this stuff, like his sigh of relief at getting to the end of book 2:

But we have covered vast tracts of matter and, besides,
it’s high time that we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.541 to 542)

And the several times in book 4 that he gets excited about the fact that he’s nearly bloody finished:

Indeed, if I were not already near the limit of my undertaking,
furling my sails and hurrying my prow to shore…
(4.116 to 117)

And his apology that he’s running out of time and space:

The like of this, however, I must forgo – time and space conspiring
to defeat me – and leave for later men to make more of.
(4.147 to 148)

Why? Why couldn’t Virgil have carried on for another year and described these things fully? No doubt it’s a familiar trope or topos to include in an extended poem, but still…it speaks to Virgil’s sense of himself as unable to finish, harassed by time but, deeper down, haunted by inadequacy and incompletion.

The influence of Lucretius

As soon as I learned that Georgic 3 ends with an extended description of a plague I immediately thought of the powerful but odd way that Lucretius’s long didactic poem describing Epicurean belief, De rerum natura, also ends in a devastating plague, of Athens (albeit it’s important to emphasise that Lucretius’s plague afflicts humans whereas Virgil’s one decimates only animals).

Epicurus had already made an appearance in Georgic 2 in the passage towards the end which describes a great man who both understands how the universe works and is divinely detached from the strife-ridden competition for political office which has wrecked Rome.

Pyne emphasises Lucretius’s influence by pointing out the several places where Virgil insists on the absence of passion as being a crucial prerequisite for happiness which, of course, evoke Lucretius’s Good Life of divinely passionless detachment. Pyne doesn’t fully explore the Lucretius connection so I might as well quote Wikipedia on the subject:

The philosophical text with the greatest influence on the Georgics as a whole was Lucretius’ Epicurean epic De rerum natura. G. B. Conte notes that ‘the basic impulse for the Georgics came from a dialogue with Lucretius.’ David West states that Virgil is ‘saturated with the poetry of Lucretius, and its words, phrases, thought and rhythms have merged in his mind, and become transmuted into an original work of poetic art.’

I found this very interesting because, as I know from my reading of Cicero’s De rerum deorum, Cicero strongly criticised Epicureanism, principally because it counselled withdrawal from the public realm, whereas Cicero espoused Stoicism, which was more suitable to his model of the responsible Republican citizen throwing himself into the permanent civil strife which is what Republican politics consisted of.

Stoicism = political involvement = messy Republican democracy = Cicero

Epicureanism = political detachment = submission to the princeps = Virgil

Invocations

Worth reminding myself how many invocations there are in the poem. These are (it seems to me) of three types.

1. Virgil tends to start each book with an extended appeal to one or more gods, chosen to be appropriate to the subject matter, calling on them to assist him in his task or organising the right material and help his eloquence.

2. As mentioned above, he also appeals to his worldly patron, Maecenas, friend and cultural fixer for Augustus.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right…
(2.39 to 40)

Lend kind ears to this part, my lord Maecenas (4.2)

3. Lastly, there are the direct addresses to Octavian/Caesar/Augustus himself, or references to his greatness:

and I address you too, O Caesar, although none knows the gathering of gods
in which you soon will be accommodated…
(1.24 to 25)

Long, long ago since heaven’s royal estate
begrudged you first your place among us, Caesar…
(1. 502 to 503)

…and you yourself, Caesar, first of all mankind,
you who, already champion of Asia’s furthest bounds,
rebuffs the craven Indian from the arched portals of the capital…
(2.170 to 173)

These addresses are often very extravagant, witness the 18 lines at the start of book 1 (1.24 to 42) extravagantly wondering whether Caesar will be gathered among the gods, whether the wide world will worship him as begetter of the harvest or master of the seasons, or whether he will become ‘lord of the endless sea’, worshipped by sailors, or becomes a new sign of the zodiac. Whatever the details, his power will reach to the ends of the earth and everyone will bow down to him.

These are quite extravagantly oriental obeisances before a Great Ruler, worthy of the emperors of Babylon or Assyria. In Georgic 3 Virgil dreams of erecting a marble temple in his home town of Mantua, by the banks of the river Mincius and:

At its centre I’ll place Caesar, master of the shrine,
and in his honour – the day being mine – resplendent in my purple robes,
I’ll drive five score of teams-of-four up and down along the bank.
(3.16 to 19)

But the thing is… Virgil was right. Augustus did usher in a new golden age of peace and prosperity and he was worshipped as a god (in the superstitious East, anyway), had a month named after him and any number of other imperial honours.

Fallon fantastic

Spring it is, spring that’s good to the core of the wood, to the leaves of groves,
spring that reawakens soil and coaxes seeds to fruitfulness.
(1.323)

The Peter Fallon translation of the Georgics is absolutely brilliant. Rather than sticking to any defined metre, his lines feel wonderfully free, each line free to have the rhythm and shape its content suggests. That means there is no monotony of rhythm but a continual cascade of surprises. Here’s his translation of Virgil’s (oblique) description of Epicurus:

That man has all the luck who can understand what makes the world
tick, who has crushed underfoot his fears about
what’s laid out in store for him and stilled the roar of Hell’s esurient river.
(2.400 to 402)

The tone is relaxed (‘what makes the world tick’), the rhythm is deliberately playful (holding ‘tick’ over till the second line), there are rhymes but not at each line end, instead dotted artfully within the line (‘about/out’ and ‘store/roar’) and then a surprise at the end where he allows himself the unusual word, the Latinate word ‘esurient’ (meaning hungry or greedy), gently reminding us that this is a translation from another language: the low tone (tick) for us, the high tone (esurient) reminding us of the much more formalised, aristocratic Roman origins of the work.

The free verse allows a free attitude. It allows his lines to be hugely varied and inventive, jewelled with occasional recherché vocabulary (hasky 1.453; smigs 3.311; violaceous 3.372; exscinding 3.468; mastic 4.39, eft 4.242, clabber 4.478, paludal 4.493) and effects subtle or obvious, ever-interesting and accessible. Take the entertaining alliteration, distantly echoing the organising principle of Anglo-Saxon verse:

Now tell me about the tools and tackle unflagging farmers had to have…
(1.160)

I’ll waste none of your time with made-up rhymes,
or riddles, or prolonged preambles.
(2.45 to 46)

It’s high time we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.542)

First find a site and station for the bees
far from the ways of the wind…
(4.8 to 9)

a swarming tone that brings to mind the broken blast of a bugle-horn
(4.72)

the Curetes’
songlike sounds, their shields clashing like cymbals.
(4.150 to 151)

on the Nile
whose flowing waters form floodpools
(4.289)

already she was making her stiff way across the Styx
(4.506)

In fact once I started to look for alliteration I found it everywhere: it’s a key component of Fallon’s style. He combines it with internal rhymes for greater effect:

and, though enraptured by such strange delight, they mind
their nestlings and newborn, seed and breed of them.
(4.54 to 56)

the way a troubled sea shrieks and creaks at ebb-tide
(4.262)

He can be intensely lyrical:

Come the sweet o’ the year, when streams begin to melt and tumble down the hoary hills
and clods to crumble underneath the current of west winds…
(1.43 to 44)

Oh for the open countryside
along the Spercheus, or the mountains of Taygetus, its horde of Spartan maidens
ripe for picking! Oh, for the one who’d lay me down to rest
in cool valleys of the Haemus range and mind me in the shade of mighty branches!
(2.486 to 489)

Come night, the youngsters haul themselves back home, exhausted,
leg-baskets loaded down with thyme; they pick randomly on wild strawberry,
the blue-grey willow, spunge laurel (that’s the bee plant), blushing saffron,
and a luxury of limes and lindens and lilies tinted rust.
(4.180 to 184)

Fallon is sometimes demotic i.e. uses everyday turns of phrase:

you might as well get on with it (1.230)

and no let up and no let off, they’re kicking up such a storm (3.110)

The Lapiths, all the way from Pelion, bequeathed us bits and bridles
and – riders astride – the lunging ring, and taught the cavalry
to hit the ground running
(3.115 to 117)

and spare no end of trouble to flesh him out and fatten him up
(3.124)

You see, that’s why they banish horses to the back of beyond
(3.212)

There’s nothing that can snaffle them when they’re in season
(3.269)

at the mercy of the worst those east winds have to offer
(3.383)

…all this
in case an east wind occurred to sprinkle them [bees]
while they were dawdling, or dunked them head first in the drink.
(4.28 to 30)

and on their beaks they hone their stings; they are limbering up
(4.73)

going to no end of bother
(4.265)

And uses short phrases of command in the many places where Virgil tells us to sit up and pay attention, in phrases which are presumably as short and imperative in the original Latin as in this translation:

So pay close attention (1.187)

Keep all this in mind. (2.259)

Listen. Here’s how you’ll tell the sort of soil you’re dealing with. (2.226)

So spare no efforts to shield them from the bite of frosts and icy winds (3.318)

So listen now, while I outline the qualities bestowed on bees by Jupiter…(4.149)

Listen. I’ll tell you all… (4.286)

Mostly, it hovers around a combination of the above with a sort of semi-hieratic, not-too-elevated form of translationese i.e. not language any ordinary English speaker would write, which registers the heightened tone of the original, but without heaviness or portentousness, acknowledging the folk wisdom and maybe proverbial basis of a lot of the content:

For that’s the way it is –
World forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall
(1.199 to 200)

At moments dipping into Shakespearian phraseology:

And it was he that felt for Rome that time that Caesar fell…
(1.466)

In a slightly different mood I might have complained about this unevenness of tone, except that it’s carried out with such style and charm. You like Fallon for his cheek and tricks and twists and endless invention. It’s a mashup of registers and tones, which matches his mashup of rhythms. There are hundreds of precise and evocative moments. I love his descriptions of birds, especially the crow:

Then a crow, strutting the deserted shore,
proclaims in its mean caw, Rain, rain, and then more rain.
(1.387 to 390)

This is up there with Rolfe Humphrey’s translation of Epicurus as maybe the best two verse translations I’ve ever read.

And that’s a fact

Fallon’s translation has frequent repetition of the phrase ‘that’s a fact’ and ‘it’s a fact and true’ (2.48 and 61), ‘as a matter of true fact’ (4.221).

a) I wonder why Virgil felt the need to keep telling his readers that what he’s telling them is true.

b) It automatically raises the doubt that the opposite is the case. I planted seven trees in my garden this spring, dug over two separate borders, forked in manure and compost, and planted bushes and flowers for bees and insects. I didn’t find a single sentence in all these 2,188 lines of hexameter verse which was remotely useful or even rang a vague bell.

I wonder if any of Virgil’s advice is true. I have no doubt he conscientiously gathered tips and folklore on the widest range of agriculture available to him (and the notes point out his abundant borrowings from all available previous writers on these subjects). I have no doubt that he crammed in as many relevant myths and legends as he could, plus the usual tall tales about remote peoples and their fantastical habits (most memorable is the absolute winter passage in Georgic 3). But I wonder if any of it is true.

What would be interesting to read is an assessment of the book by an agricultural expert, going through line by line, and assessing whether anything he tells us about planting vines or trees (2.290) or nipping buds off new vines (2.366), or how to select the best breeding stallion or ram, or how to ensure a good yield of milk from your sheep – whether any of it is the slightest use.

‘Take my word’ he says (4.279). Should we?


Credit

Georgics by Virgil, translated by Peter Fallon, was first published by The Gallery Press in 2004. I read the 2009 Oxford University Press edition, with an excellent introduction and notes by Elaine Fantham.

Roman reviews

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