The Epistles of Horace book 2

If only my powers matched my yearning…
(Epistles Book 2, number 1)

The ancient Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (universally referred to as ‘Horace’ in the English-speaking world) wrote two books of epistles.

The first one, published in 21 BC, contains 20 shortish poems on a variety of subjects. The second one, published some ten years later in 11 BC, differs in two ways. First, it contains just three poems, but they’re long ones: whereas epistle 1.8 is 17 lines long and 1.9 is just 13 lines, the first two epistles in book 2 are 270 lines and 216 lines long, respectively, and the third one is nearly as long as the two preceding ones put together (476 lines). The second difference is that, whereas the 20 odes in Book 1 are varied in subject matter, the three longer poems in Book 2 are all very much on the same subject – poetry.

Epistle 1 (270 lines)

This poem is addressed personally to Augustus and is a defence of modern poetry.

Horace opens with a panegyric to Augustus and his achievements (bringing peace, re-establishing the rule of law etc) and says that, unlike earlier heroes of Rome, Augustus hasn’t had to wait till he’s dead to be worshipped: the population realises his importance while he’s still alive.

But then it turns out he’s said all this to make the point that when it comes to poetry, the Romans take a very different view from how they regard their leader. Instead of valuing the new for its achievements they obsessively worship the old and fusty, using age alone as a measure of quality. He lists the first Roman writers, from Ennius in epic to Terence in comedy, and says these are the writers the Roman population venerate as if they could never be improved upon. But they’re wrong. Many of those pioneering works are crude and clumsy but people persist in venerating them and rubbishing much better work, purely because it’s new.

It makes me annoyed that a thing should be faulted, not for being
crudely or clumsily made but simply for being recent.

People venerate and defend the old works because it’s what they grew up with and understand, which leads them to frown on new works because they don’t properly understand them.

What if the Greeks had only venerated the old and stifled innovation? We wouldn’t have most of the works we now enjoy and which the Romans can copy so freely.

Then Horace changes tack somewhat and laments the fact that Rome is undergoing a craze for writing poetry; everyone’s at it, even he, who had sworn to pack it in, is up before dawn calling for pen and parchment. But they’re all amateurs! You wouldn’t take medicine from someone who wasn’t a doctor or ask someone who wasn’t an experienced sailor to take the helm of your yacht: so why should you read verses by a complete amateur?

On the upside, one thing that can be said for proper poets is they live very modestly. Horace never cheats, fights, causes social strife –, on the contrary, he is content to sit quietly, reading and scribbling, living off pulses and second-rate bread. Here is how the poet serves his country:

The poet shapes the tender faltering speech of a child,
already turning the ear away from coarse expressions.
Later he moulds the disposition by kindly maxims,
using his voice to correct cruelty, envy and temper.
He recounts noble actions, equips the new generation
with old examples, and brings relief to the poor and sick.
Where would innocent boys and girls who are still unmarried
have learnt their prayers if the Muse had not vouchsafed them a poet?
The choir asks for aid and feels the deities’ presence;
by the poet’s prayers it coaxes heaven to send us showers;
it averts disease and drives away appalling dangers;
it gains the gift of peace and a tear of bumper harvests.
Song is what soothes the gods above and the spirits below.

I’ve quoted this passage at such length for two reasons. One is to refute Horace’s optimistic claim for the poet, that:

He recounts noble actions, equips the new generation
with old examples

Is that true of Catullus, with his spiteful lampoons of helpless victims, with his hate poems against Lesbia after she dumped him? No. It’s not even true of Horace himself, whose 104 odes I have just read and which are about drinking, parties, the joys of the countryside, advice to friends about affairs, poems of longing for beautiful young boys, and so on.

To claim his own poetry is full of noble actions designed to instruct the next generation is ludicrous. A lot of it is just tittle-tattle and gossip, entertaining but hardly educational. In other words, this is the kind of stock, boilerplate excuse poets trot out to justify their profession to the public when the reality of what they write is often wildly different.

But the second reason is sociological. It would be easy to end the quote at the word poet, as if writing poetry were a solitary activity to be enjoyed by solitary readers. It certainly is this, but the final five lines are interesting because they put the act of poetry in a much more public context. Remember that Augustus commissioned Horace to write a hymn to be sung by a choir at the opening of the Secular Games, which Augustus revived in 17 BC. By a choir! Learning his words and learning to sing them to (presumably) an ancient melody.

And what could a public hymn to be sung by a choir in front of an audience of hundreds of thousands of Roman citizens possibly be about but an invocation of the gods and plea for peace and plenty? So I included this latter half of the quote to show the intensely public and social side of the poet’s role in ancient Rome. (I was going to write ‘very unlike our own times’ when I remembered the stunning performance by poet Amanda Gorman at Joe Biden’s inauguration as president in January 2021.)

Horace changes tack again to give a brief history of Roman poetry. The native Roman tradition began with coarse rural songs sung at country festivals of marriage or harvest. These became so wild and often abusive that they eventually had to be reined in and restricted by laws. Only late in their history did the Romans become aware of the centuries-old tradition of Greek poetry, overflowing with sophistication, a wide variety of metres, a number of well worked-out genres and conventions. Only after the final Punic War and crushing of Carthage in 146 BC did educated Romans think of imitating the sophisticated Greeks, and even then moments of ‘farmyard’ vulgarity still came through.

This morphs into contempt for current Roman taste. Horace thinks Plautus’s comedies were feeble with poor characterisation of his various stock types (I genuinely enjoyed Plautus’s comedies). But he is appalled by the modern theatre which doesn’t even stage plays any more so much as pageants and spectacles, featuring bears or boxers – a cross between pantomime and the circus. Nonetheless, Horace is full of admiration for playwrights who write proper plays and evoke genuine deep emotions: that’s something he could never do.

Then he switches tack again and brings Augustus back to the poet who writes not for a fickle audience but for the individual reader. Now it’s true that poets are sometimes their own worst enemies, and he gives an interesting list of the ways they can screw up:

  • thrusting a book on Augustus when he is tired or worried with important concerns of state
  • being oversensitive to criticism of even a single line
  • when, in a reading, they repeat a favourite section without being asked
  • when they moan that their excellence goes unrecognised
  • when they arrogantly assume that as soon as Augustus hears they’re writing something, he’ll immediately summon them to court and make them a gift to relieve their financial worries

Nonetheless, it is important to choose the right poet, qualified and able poets, to celebrate your successes. A long paragraph tells the story of Alexander who patronised a third rate poet, Choerilus, and so, alas, was never immortalised in verse. Horace then flatters Augustus for his excellent choice of chief poets, namely Virgil and Varius.

Horace draws to a close by wishing that he, too, could write epic poetry about Augustus’s achievements, describing ‘the Parthian foe overawed by your imperial Rome’ but alas, he is not talented enough: ‘If only my powers matched my yearning’. But he would be rash to embark on a task so far beyond his abilities.

I don’t understand the final 11 lines. I think the general idea is that it is better to have no lines at all written about you than to be remembered for being memorialised in hilariously bad verse. It would be embarrassing and might even be fatal!

All this I take to be yet another grovelling apology to Augustus for not writing him some grand, noble and dignified Poem, and instead offering short, ad hoc poems which play to Horace’s talent for moral sermons and gossipy odes.

Epistle 2 (216 lines)

Is addressed to Julius Florus and is a long apology by Horace for not writing lyric poetry.

But I had barely got going before, once again, as so often in Roman literature, I stumbled over the slavery issue. Epistle 2.2 opens with 20 lines describing the imagined sales patter of a slave trader, describing the merits of a young man he’s selling. It’s obviously designed to be comic in the way a modern comedian impersonating the bluster of a second-hand car trader could be done for comic effect. Horace has his slave trader make his sales pitch a bit more plausible by admitting that, ok, the slave for sale isn’t perfect: once or twice he dodged his work and hid under the stairs ‘for fear of the strap on the wall’ i.e. of being whipped (which was the standard punishment for slaves, in Republican Rome in the 20s BC as in European sugar plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries).

The point of this elaborate analogy is that Horace tells Florus that the slave trader of the anecdote was being honest about his merchandise’s flaws – and that, in the same way, he, Horace, was being open and honest when he told Florus, as he was leaving for duty in the army abroad, that he, Horace, is lazy and was unlikely to send letters as often as Florus demanded, and also was unlikely to send him as many poems as he hoped.

He, Horace, was quite frank about this, so why is Florus now upbraiding him? That’s the point of the opening anecdote…But I’m thinking about the slave boy cowering under the stairs, waiting for the master to come after him with the blood-stained whip…

If slavery matters, it matters everywhere, at any time, and to all peoples who have been enslaved.

Forcing myself back into the ‘civilised’ ‘cultured’ world of Horace’s poetry, the epistle now cuts away from this anecdote to give us another vignette, this time about one of Lucullus’s poor soldiers who’d saved up a nice sum of money. One night someone stole it. Next day, bubbling with rage, the aggrieved soldier flung himself at the enemy and dislodged them from a well-defended position. For this act of bravery he was acclaimed, decorated and given money. At which point he stopped being angry. So that when the general came to him a few days later to ask him to lead a similar assault on another fort, the soldier refused. If you want someone to lead a suicidal attack, the yokel told the general – find someone who’s just been robbed.

Horace then cuts away again, this time to a passage of autobiography: He tells us he was raised in Rome, went for further education in Athens, but was caught up in the civil wars and recruited into Brutus’s army (which was based in Greece) and found himself commanding a legion at the Battle of Philippi, where he saw the line break and be massacred, so flung away his shield and ignominiously legged it (as he had already described in ode 2.7. All this is by way of saying that when he finally fetched up back in Rome, discovering his father was dead and his land confiscated, he wangled a minor job in the Treasury and took to writing verses, inspired by ‘Lady Poverty’.

The point of this digression being that Horace is like the soldier who had his wallet stolen. When he was poor, he was highly motivated and turned out verse at speed. But now he is successful and well enough off to suit his needs, like the soldier once he’d made his pile, he doesn’t need to return to the fray.

He takes another tack at justifying the same thing, saying his slowing down in writing poems is due to age. Age strips away all our pleasures, fun, sex, parties and sport. Now it’s denuding him of his ability to write poems.

The poem is turning into a litany of excuses. His next excuse is that, even if Horace did write some new verse, it’s impossible to please everyone: take three guys and the chances are one will like lyric poetry, one iambics and one ‘the tangy wit of Bion’s homilies’. So, what kind of poem should Horace write or avoid?

He then changes tack to make another excuse: How can Florus expect him to write poems while living amid ‘the storms of city life’ in Rome? There are two types of distraction: people, who endlessly demand attention, want him to be their patron, do business with him or are ill and demand visits. The second is the sheer racket: building works, wailing funeral processions, lumbering carts, mad dog barking, how can a man concentrate on writing verse?

He changes the subject again to mock the literary world, full of writers lavishing extravagant praise on each other, and in particular of poets, ‘that hypersensitive species’. He recalls putting up with recitals from terrible poets and replying tactfully. But now he breathes a sigh of relief that that period is over, his work is done, and he doesn’t have to listen to another word.

Too many modern poets praise their own work, regarding each line as sacred. Horace, by contrast, says the true poet is as stern as a censor, cutting any word ‘deficient in lustre or lacking solidity’ or which he deems unworthy of honour. He will revive worthy old words from the time of Cato, which have fallen into disuse and he will adapt new ones, where needed. Thus his work will flow strong and clear like an unpolluted river, enriching the land with his wit and the wealth of his language.

But then, it’s best to abandon verse altogether. It’s a children’s activity. Instead seek the good life:

instead of hunting for words to set to the lyre’s music
to practice setting one’s life to the tune and rhythms of truth.

I don’t fully understand the next 30 lines or so but I think they are a version of Horace’s core moral message, which is that we should be content with what we need and not be greedy, not hanker after unnecessary wealth or luxury.

I shall enjoy what I have and draw on my modest supplies
as needed…

We shouldn’t waste our lives scheming to make money and then splashing it around wastefully. Instead we should:

make the most of the short and beautiful time

What started in a tone of abject apology to Florus for not having kept up his side of the correspondence or sent the poems he promised, has somehow turned right around to become quite a harsh criticism of his friend. Quite rudely, he says possessing a thicker wallet doesn’t appear to have made Florus any the wiser. Florus claims he isn’t a miser, but Horace rather accusingly asks whether he’s banished the other vices, related to miserliness. Is his heart no longer obsessed with futile ambition, or with fear of death? Does he treat dreams and prophecies as the jokes they are, or live in superstitious fear of them? Florus should be improving his mind and morals, living sensibly. In a brutal last few lines, Horace concludes:

If you can’t live as you ought, give way to those that can.

Epistle 3 – The Art of Poetry

Epistle 3 has a special place in literary history as it is clearly quite different in length and ambition from the other epistles and quite early on was extracted and published by itself with the title Ars Poetica or The Art of Poetry.

The epistle is addressed to Horace’s friend Lucius Calpurnius Piso (a Roman senator and consul) and his two sons and forms a long and wide-ranging meditation on the rules and conventions applying not only to the kind of lyric poetry Horace himself wrote, but, above all, to plays.

What struck me most was the structurelessness of it. There’s no introduction or explanation or laying out of the themes. Instead Horace launches right in, in the conversational tone, and rather haphazard structure, of the epistles rather than the academic tone of a treatise.

Horace kicks off by explaining the importance of unity and simplicity by imagining the case of a painter who painted a human head on a horse’s body, a body which was itself covered in feathers and ended in a fish’s tail. How absurd everyone would find that. Well, that’s because an artist should observe decorum and restraint. Don’t just tack beautiful passages about temples or rainbows onto a work if it’s about something else.

Make what you like, provided the thing is a unified whole.

Horace himself tries to be brief and smooth, though he admits often failing at both.

Writers must give thought to what subject and format suits their powers, rather than attempt something they’re incapable of. If you choose a theme within your scope, the rest should follow. It should become obvious what to leave in and what to leave out.

Do not be afraid of simple and obvious words. Often they are best. Invent new words reluctantly. New terms imported from Greek are acceptable if kept to a minimum. Language is like trees. The old leaves (words) wither and fall, to be replaced by new ones. In the long run, our entire civilisation will crumble and fall, so how can we keep our language from changing and evolving?

Usage is king. Usage determines the meaning and validity of words. Use the language the men of your time use.

Horace briefly explains the advent of different metres for the various kinds of poetry: epic, elegiac, dramatic, and lyric.

Everything has its appropriate place and ought to stay there.

So the first job of the poet is to learn about the different genres, their histories, the appropriate subject matter for each, their format in terms of metres, their diction.

But correctness is only the beginning. A poem must be attractive, it must evoke the listener’s emotions. It must match the words to the emotion being portrayed or the audience will burst out laughing.

Follow the tradition regarding well known characters, for example the heroes of the Trojan war or the gods. If you dare to innovate a character, making him or her consistent. ‘You’d be well advised to spin your plays from the songs of Troy’ i.e. rely on tried and trusted characters from legend.

My Roman friends, I urge you:
get hold of your Greek models and study them day and night.

The good writer doesn’t start with bombastic invocations and promises. Chances are you won’t be able to live up to it. The mountains will labour and give birth to a mouse! The good writer hurries the reader into the middle of things (in media res) as though they are quite familiar.

Horace gives an entertaining review of the ages of man, entertaining in that classical sense of pleasingly reiterating obvious clichés and stereotypes. The old man is:

morose and a grumbler, he is always praising the years gone by
when he was a boy, scolding and blaming ‘the youth of today’…

So attribute behaviour and views to characters which are appropriate for their stage and situation in life.

Some actions should be presented onstage, for things seen make much more of an impression than things merely described. However, there are events which shouldn’t be described but must take place offstage and be reported, for example Medea killing her own children or Atreus killing, cooking and serving up his brother’s sons to him at dinner. (Hannibal Lecter has been on my mind and this line reminds me of how modern American culture deliberately, consciously, drives a coach and horses through norms of restraint and decorum.)

He then gives very strict rules about plays. All plays should contain exactly five acts. Do not let a god intervene. You can have a fourth character but they should not speak (thus following very strictly the convention of ancient Greek theatre.) The chorus should take the place of an actor, sing between the acts, but only of subjects which are tightly relevant to the plot. The chorus should side with the good and give them advice, and try to restrain the bad.

Horace gives in to his own stereotype of the ‘grumpy old man’ and laments the good old days and simplicity of Greek drama. Back then the ‘pipe’ then was a simple instrument which performed simple ditties because the theatre was relatively small and not packed, and the audience had ‘honest hearts, decent and modest.’

But victories brought wealth which encouraged (presumably he’s talking solely about Athens here) the Athenians to allow drinking in daytime, allowing greater liberty in tunes and tempos, encouraged actors to dress up in more and more sumptuous costumes and ‘mince’ across the stage, the tunes of the lyre became more complex and the delivery of moral homilies became more complex and obscure.

Horace attributes the word ‘tragedy’ to the Greek tragos, meaning goat, and ‘satire’ to the mythical figure of the half-goat satyr.

In Greek theatre three tragedies were performed in succession, and were followed by a comic to lighten the mood and lead into festival and celebration. This satyric drama was not the same as comedy and had its rules and restraints. Horace warns against having gods or heroes who feature in the tragedies dragged onstage and mocked in the satyr play.

If he ever wrote a satyr drama, it would mix high and low, blending ‘familiar ingredients’. The artifice would be in creating seamless joins, ‘such is the power of linkage and joinery’. But don’t be crude: cultured ‘knights’ i.e. semi-aristocracy, are repelled by jokes from the streets and back alleys.

Horace turns to (briefly) consider specific metres, considering ‘feet’ such as the iamb (da-dum) and the spondee (dum-dum).

Not for long, though because he moves on to give a brisk history of the origin of the dramatic genres. Thespis invented tragedy and was followed by Aeschylus who elaborated it. This was followed by Old Comedy which became, however, too abusive and violent and so had to be reined in by law.

Roman playwrights have copied the Greeks and left nothing untried; they have often been at their best when they’ve departed from Greek models. But their weakness is carelessness. A good work should be like fingernails, trimmed and filed to a perfect shape. Some writings have encouraged writers to believe that the true poet is mad and so they’ve cultivated eccentricity instead of studying.

Horace sees himself as a grindstone which sharpens the steel but takes no part in its creation. Hence this epistle of advice. At bottom, the fundamental basis for writing is Good Moral Sense.

Moral sense is the fountain and source of proper writing.

The Greeks had this. Study Socrates. Be clear on what is due to your country and friends; what is involved in loving a parent, brother or guest; what is the conduct required of a judge or senator; what are the duties of a general. This way you will know the correct sentiments and speech to give to these kinds of characters when you present them. The playwright should look to real life for examples of behaviour and speech.

A play with attractive moral comments and credible characters may work onstage even if it lacks finish and polish and style. The basic subject matter wins assent.

One problem is that, unlike the Greeks, the Romans are a money-grubbing nation, and he gives a little vignette of children being taught their fractions.

The aim of the poet should be to instruct and delight. To do so: keep it brief. Old people in the audience want morals; young dandies appreciate style. To please both, make your work useful and sweet (utile et dulce), blending help and delight.

That said everyone makes mistakes, and he can forgive blots of style in an otherwise good-hearted work. Even Homer nods.

The raison d’etre for a poem is to please the mind. It’s alright to have average lawyers or generals. But a poem, in order to justify its existence, should be as excellent as possible. Therefore, read your works to good critics, to Horace himself if you can, but then…sit on it for 9 years. Then take it out and reread it and edit and trim it coming it to cold and mature.

You can always delete what hasn’t been published; a word let loose is gone forever.

A brisk summary of the founding of civilisation by Orpheus, Amphitryon and so on. The establishment of laws and boundaries. Homer inspired to battle. Song was the medium for oracles. Poems sought a king’s favour, or celebrated the end of a season’s work. Therefore, don’t be ashamed to study the tradition.

Is it a gift or craft which makes good poetry? Both. Olympic athletes train hard for their supremacy. So do musicians. Why is it only poetry where any amateur can put forward shoddy offerings and claim himself to be a genius?

Quite a funny passage describing the rich man surrounded by flatterers who announces he has written some verses, does anyone want to hear them? Of course the flatters jump to attention and turn pale with emotion, weep, or laugh and cheer, as required by the verse. Doesn’t mean it’s any good. Beware of flatterers.

He remembers how honest his friend Quinctilius was. If you read him your verses he’d honestly tell you  which bits to amend. If you swore you’d tried already, he’d recommend you go back to the drawing board and try to express it some other way. An honest friend honestly points out your errors and so saves you from being laughed at if you publish rubbish.

After all this description of sense and hard work and clarity of thought, Horace ends, very incongruously, with 20 or so lines describing the ‘madness’ of the poet, who wanders the fields, head in the air, reciting his lines, and if he happens to fall into a deep well, who’s to say he didn’t do so on purpose! Consider Empedocles, so irrational he threw himself into the volcano of Mount Etna.

So why is a wretched poet condemned to write poetry? Is it punishment for some gross act of sacrilege like ‘pissing on his father’s ashes’. Did he profane a holy place?

All this seemed very out of place with Horace’s usual calm, even tone, and I began to suspect it was comic hyperbole, when, in the last few lines, he claims that a poet is like a wild bear which has smashed the bars of its cage and scattered everyone, cultured or not, by the threat of reciting. The wild poet threatens to grab anyone who comes within reach, in a fatal bear hug, and then read them to death!

Yes. I think this entire final passage is intended to be ironic, a satire on the popular stereotype of the poet – which is completely unlike the careful, studious, hard-working figure the preceding 450 lines had gone to such lengths to describe.


Niall Rudd’s translation of the Epistles of Horace was published by Penguin books in 1979. All references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

An introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps (1969)

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind’)
(Aeneid Book 1, line 462)

The Aeneid’s structure

The first six books describe wandering, the second six books describe war.

The first six books are set on or near the sea, the second six books are set on land.

The first six books copy a lot from Homer’s Odyssey, the second six books copy a lot from Homer’s Iliad.

The first half focuses on Carthage, leading to the death of Dido, the second half focuses on Latium, leading to the death of Turnus. (In fact, it’s not quite as neat as that because Dido dies at the end of book 4, leaving book 5 to describe the funeral games for Anchises and book 6 the journey to the underworld, so the deaths of Dido and Turnus don’t perfectly bookend each half.)

Historical background

Virgil lived through stormy and decisive political times. He was born in 70 BC only 15 or so years after the end of the Social War, a 4-year-long bitter and needless fight between Rome and various tribes and peoples of Italy who demanded full Roman citizenship. In the end Rome acquiesced and gave it them. The precise relationship between Rome and the other local tribes is implicit in the whole idea of Aeneas coming as an immigrant and stirring up a huge ruinous war between its existing inhabitants, and then is specifically addressed right at the end of the Aeneid when Juno demands equal rights for the Latins vis-à-vis the newcomers from her husband Jupiter, as a condition of giving up her vicious vendetta against the Trojans.

Then Virgil was 21 when civil war broke out in 49 BC between Caesar and Pompey. He saw what it was like for the Roman ruling class to be split right down the middle and many men die pointlessly, as, arguably, all the terrible deaths in the second half of the Aeneid are, ultimately, pointless and unnecessary.

Then Virgil was 26 when Caesar was assassinated and Rome plunged into a further 15 years of instability and recurring civil wars, before Octavian finally brought peace by defeating Antony in 31 BC, as Virgil turned 40.

The price of peace

Virgil composed the Aeneid over the 10 or so years from 29 BC to his premature death in 19 BC. After a life lived against a backdrop of unending civil strife you can see why Virgil would desperately have wanted peace and order to be restored and pinned his hopes for that outcome on the new rule of Augustus. But you can also see why one of the Aeneid‘s main themes is the price that has to be paid for the final arrival of peace and order, and it is a very, very high price in tragedy and bloodshed. Hecatombs of the dead. So many brave young lives cut short. Aeneas wins his place in the promised land of Hesperia, but my God what a trail of death and destruction he leaves behind him.

Aspects of patriotism

All elements in the poem are multi-levelled and dense with allusiveness. Thus the poem’s patriotism is plain for everyone to see, and yet is effective because it works at so many levels. Central is the plot itself, Aeneas’s journey to Italy to found a new city and new people. The gods repeatedly reassure him of the future greatness of the Roman people. He sees a procession of eminent Romans in the underworld at the end of book 6. The figure of Augustus appears here, and as the central figure on the shield his mother gives him at the end of book 8, as well as being invoked several other times, crystallising the hopes of the world.

But it also works in a host of other ways. Most poignantly and hauntingly when we discover that King Evander’s little township is built on the site of the future Rome and that he and Aeneas are walking through the landmarks of the greatness that is to come. But also in the mention throughout the poem of beliefs and customs which first came with the Trojans or, conversely, are already practiced by the Arcadians or the Latins:

  • they Latins are referred to as ‘the people of the Roman gown’
  • the Roman custom of covering the head at sacrifice is enjoined on Aeneas by the seer Helenus before his arrival in Italy (3.403)
  • the exhibition of horse drill known to the Romans as lusus Troiae is demonstrated by Ascanius and the young horsemen during the funeral games for Anchises (5.596)
  • Aeneas promises to inaugurate the tradition of the Sibylline Books (6.71)
  • the practice of opening or closing the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war already exists in Latium (7.601)
  • the worship of Hercules at the great altar in the cattle market which existed in Virgil’s time is said to already exist when Aeneas arrives in Latium (8.268)

So the poem’s patriotism is shouted from the rooftops in the shape of the plot and in the multiple predictions but also threaded subtly into a fabric of hints and allusions.

A political poem?

Camps surprises me by claiming the Aeneid is not a political poem. He deploys the kind of sentimental humanism found throughout post-war Anglophone literary criticism, deflecting analysis off into fancy fondling about morality or spirituality:

The Aeneid is in no sense political propaganda, for it is not in its nature a political poem. The Rome that is its inspiration is not conceived in terms of a political system; and the background against which the humans in the story act and suffer is provided not by contrasting political ideas but by the working of the historical process and the conflict of spiritual powers. (p.2)

This is plain wrong, isn’t it? It’s as if someone who wrote a long poem in praise of Nazi rule over occupied Europe claimed that it wasn’t a political poem because the Nazi rule it praises ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system’. Well, it doesn’t need to be. If politics in the broadest sense is defined as how a society chooses to run itself, then this poem explicitly says that Rome will reach its height when it is ruled by the enlightened dictator Augustus, and that the Roman people are destined to rule the entire known world – and are justified in doing so because of their unique skill at ruling justly.

Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.
(6.1,151 to 1,154)

This prophecy of Anchises is only the most famous of several passages which justify Roman conquest and rule over the entire world. The Aeneid is a hymn to Roman hegemony. Nothing could be more political. Claiming it is ‘not in its nature a political poem’ because it doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of the constitution or describe any particular ‘political system’ or discuss political parties is being disingenuous or naive. Try telling any of the peoples Rome had conquered, whose towns they had destroyed and populations they’d sold into slavery (read Caesar’s Gallic Wars) that writing an elaborate poem justifying Rome’s eternal rule over the entire known world was not a political statement and watch them laugh in your face.

Clearly your answer to the question, ‘Is the Aeneid a political poem?’ depends on how you define ‘politics’, but there’s also another level or type of definition of politics in play here: this is the issue of taking sides during a civil war. This, also, is a glaring ‘political issue’: whether one is on the side of, say, the nationalists or the republicans during the Spanish Civil War could hardly be a more political and politicised decision.

Well, in the civil war with Antony, Virgil hugely comes down on the side of Augustus and writes it into his poem. In the epic scene where Vulcan forges a mighty shield for Aeneas he depicts on it the Battle of Actium where Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and the narrator throws in criticisms of the doomed lovers. And the shield then goes on to celebrate Augustus’s unprecedented three triumphs over his political and military opponents.

It beggars belief that Camps thinks that this hugely committed work of propaganda is ‘in no sense political propaganda’ solely because it ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system.’ As I’ve been writing this I’ve realised I myself am missing another way to argue against him, which is to point out that he is wrong even on his own terms: that the entire poem is ‘conceived in terms of a political system’, namely – the imperial rule of Augustus. Rule by an emperor emphatically is a political system and this poem consistently and repeatedly predicts and celebrates this political system.

Copying the Greeks

Virgil wrote three great works. In each of them he copied Greek originals. The Eclogues copy the Idylls of Theocritus, the Georgics copy the Work and Days of Hesiod, the Aeneid very closely copies the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Camps claims Virgil is not stealing – he is reconciling the two cultures.

Camps lists some of the major plot devices he is indebted to Homer for:

  • an extended sea journey packed with adventures – the Odyssey
  • enmity of a god who hates the hero drawing out the journey to extended length – the Odyssey
  • councils of the gods in heaven – both Odyssey and Iliad
  • descent to the underworld – the Odyssey
  • funeral games – the Iliad
  • massive, sustained war featuring a siege and many detailed battle scenes – the Iliad
  • the aristeia in which a warrior reaches the peak of their excellence before being cut down – the Iliad
  • the blacksmith god creating a suit of armour and a shield decorated with emblematic events for the hero – the Iliad
  • strong female warrior (Camilla) – the Iliad
  • a foray into the enemy camp by night – the Iliad
  • retirement of the protagonist in whose absence the other army comes right up to the allies’ base and threatens to storm it and win the war – the Iliad
  • hero’s beautiful young friend killed by the main antagonist, a loss which drives the hero to psychopathic vengeance – the Iliad
  • climactic single combat between two epic heroes – the Iliad

(Camps gives a much longer list of direct copying on page 81.) Camps says that Virgil used Homer to supply ‘a deficiency in the possibilities of his own imagination’ (p.9) but it’s bigger than that: the Aeneid doesn’t borrow elements from Homer’s epics, it couldn’t have existed without them. They provide the entire historical background, the entire worldview of gods interfering in the lives of mortals, the entire concept of a long poem focusing on an epic hero, and almost all the significant events. ‘Borrowing’ or ‘copying’ aren’t adequate enough words for the wholesale reincarnation of Homer’s epics in Virgil’s work, and in a later chapter Camps seems to acknowledge this:

To a very large extent the story told in the Aeneid is made by remoulding Homeric materials, as well as owing to Homer the broad motifs which govern its design. (p.82)

The process of composition

Camps devotes an appendix to describing some of the short biographies of Virgil which were written after his death. Suetonius wrote one, now, unfortunately, lost. The best early one which survives is by Aelius Donatus and Camps presents a translation of the full text (6 pages long).

Donatus and fragments from other biographies tell us that Virgil’s method in composing poetry was to make a complete prose summary of the entire story before he began writing any verse. Donatus says that every morning Virgil dictated some verses to a secretary for as long as inspiration lasted, then, after lunch, spent the afternoon working over what he had dictated, sometimes whittling a mass of verses down to just a handful of lines, sometimes just one. Apparently, Virgil compared the process to the ancient folklore notion that a mother bear gave birth to formless lumps of life and then literally licked them into shape (p.117).

(In fact, Donatus describes this as Virgil’s method in writing the Georgics but everyone has silently agreed that this is probably how he composed the Aeneid as well.)

Crucially, Donatus says that Virgil did not compose the poem by starting at the beginning and working through. Instead, he was inspired to versify particular ad hoc scenes as the inspiration took him, sometimes composing later scenes years before earlier ones. This explains all sorts of discrepancies which a close reading of the poem brings to light, notably the lack of linking and smoothing passages, for example the abrupt ending of the famous book 6, and the even more abrupt ending of the entire poem.

Moreover, Donatus tells us that the poem contains many lines of poor quality, as well as lines which are metrically incomplete which Virgil deliberately left in because he needed the padding and structure to get onto the more finished sections, but would have returned to improve had he lived.

The violence

I think my view of the poem has been very strongly skewed by the hyper violence of the second part of the poem. The orgies of testosterone-fuelled slaughter which it describes with such relish strongly affect my impression of the first half, so that I remember mainly the violence – for example, the extended description of the fighting at the sack of Troy. Camps wants us to feel soft and sentimental about the book-long love affair with Dido but what I mainly remember from book 4 is:

  • the murder of Dido’s husband and the unhappiness of his ghost
  • the self slaughter of Dido, who does it in the Roman way, falling on her sword
  • Dido’s extended curse on the Romans and getting her people to swear eternal enmity, an enmity which will lead to three ruinous wars and then the eventual sack of Carthage, the killing of tens of thousands of soldiers and the selling of her entire people into slavery

Similarly, I take the point that the journey to the underworld is genuinely weird and spooky, and Aeneas encounters many strange sights, that his pity for suffering humanity especially aroused by the sight of the pitiful shades waiting to be ferried across the river Styx and then his doleful reunion with the shade of his father.

But for me this all tends to be eclipsed by the shiny vision of the procession of his Roman descendants and, when you look at this list of Great Romans, what are they famous for? What all Romans are famous for, their military victories. David West in his 1991 Penguin edition has a handy little appendix which lists the figures Aeneas sees in the procession of Great Romans:

  • Silvius the warrior king
  • Brutus, famous for expelling the last kings and executing his two sons when they tried to restore them
  • the Decii, father and son, famous for giving their lives to win victory in two wars
  • Torquatus, led an army against the Gauls and executed his own son for disobeying orders
  • Lucius Mummius who not only sacked Corinth in 146 but utterly destroyed it as an example of Roman power
  • Aemilius Paullus credited with the conquest of Greece for defeating Pyrrhus king of Epirus
  • Cornelius Cossus defeated a foreign king in single combat
  • Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, the reforming tribunes, both of whom were murdered in the streets of Rome along, in the latter case, with thousands of their supporters
  • Scipio Africanus Maior defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama
  • Scipio Africanus Minor leading the army which sacked, utterly destroyed Carthage and sold its 50,000 inhabitants into slavery
  • Fabricius who led an army against Pyrrhus
  • Fabius Maximus Cunctator, the general who delayed and delayed confronting Hannibal in Italy
  • M. Claudius Marcellus killed a Gaulish chieftain in single combat

This is (not quite all) the people who feature in Aeneas’s vision of his glorious descendants, and what do they all have in common? Violence and killing. Slaughter. Rome was hyper-violent state, engaged in almost non-stop war (the Gallic Wars) and when they weren’t destroying other peoples’ cities (Corinth, Carthage, Gaul) they fought with terrible ferocity among themselves (Pharsalis, Philippi, Actium).

If any contemporary Roman set out a pageant of their glorious history, what would it consist of? Except a litany of wars and battles. It was a phenomenally militaristic state. Even the humanist’s favourite, Cicero, not only went to serve as governor on Cilicia but led his army in a siege and battles. Even the sternly principled Cato sided with Pompey in the civil war and was made governor of north Africa where he managed the military campaigns. Holding a senior magistracy at any time in Roman history almost inevitably entailed leading a Roman army.

Camps’s attempts at a moral interpretation undermined by the violence

Maybe I’m getting this way wrong, but I read Camps’s introduction from end to end and I think it gives a deeply misleading impression of the Aeneid. He devotes a chapter to Aeneas, then one to Dido and Turnus, and these overflow with sensitive empathy for their sufferings and the deeply ‘moral’ choices which they face.

But the poem I read venerates power, might, military strength, masculinity, supreme ability in battle and its centre stand two awesome killing machines, terminator-figures, Aeneas and Turnus who rampage across the battlefield beheading, belimbing, skewering and butchering anyone who stands in their way.

This is one of the reasons I dislike the moralising tone of humanist literary criticism, because it distorts the facts, it deceives and lies. You can read Camps’s book from end to end and get no sense of the piles of bodies, bloody gore and funeral pyres which clot the poem, and end up thinking it’s a Henry James novel making sensitive discriminations about moral scruples. It really isn’t.

At the end of Camps’s chapter about Aeneas, he does, eventually, concede, that there is a bit of fighting, and, OK, Aeneas is a bit brutal. He lists some examples. On the battlefield at the height of his rage Aeneas taunts a victim with the thought that his body will lie unburied; he consigns some of the prisoners they’ve taken to be executed in cold blood to adorn Pallas’s funeral.

There’s more like this but Camps deliberately omits it. Instead he goes out of his way to exonerate his vision of a caring, sharing, sensitive hero, these brutalities:

are altogether at variance with the hero’s usual humanity, and indeed with the standards of the poet’s civilised contemporaries.

Rubbish. A quick checklist of Augustus’ behaviour refutes this, not to mention a scan of Caesar’s record in Gaul, Roman behaviour in Carthage or Corinth or in the Wild East of Asia Minor. Camps limply goes on to concede that ‘the Roman world was not a gentle one’ [sic], and then devotes a paragraph to trying to justify Aeneas’s brutal, bloody execution of an unarmed prisoner on his knees at the end of the poem. He claims that this execution ‘would seem to Virgil’s readers poetically just’. Right at the end of his introduction, he returns to the fact that the entire poem builds up to this ominous and disturbing conclusion, the enraged murder of Turnus, and finds it:

strangely discordant with the normally disciplined humanity of Aeneas (p.142)

But reading Camps’s efforts to explain away this glaring, brutal event I thought: ‘But what if…what if the brutal killing, maiming and taunting, the sending for execution and murderous mayhem Aeneas enacts at the end of the Aeneid is NOT the temporary aberration Camps tries to explain away? What if it is the real Aeneas coming through and showing his “civilised contemporaries” what the real Rome is really like and it is – a killing machine?’

To be really crude, Camps is an apologist for a poem glorifying a mass killer and a violent empire.

The animal sacrifices

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be disgusted by the vast number of animals who are ritually slaughtered on almost every page of the Aeneid, led to the place of sacrifice and having their throats cut so their hot blood splashes over the altar by the gallon. Thousands and thousands of animals are butchered in the name of religion, in fact, in practical terms, animal butchery is their religion, both Trojans and Latins.

You know the line they’ve been putting on movie credits for decades, ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this movie’? Well, thousands of animals were slaughtered, had their throats slashed while they were alive and fully conscious, in the making of this poem.

Two points. 1. Again, this is the kind of really obvious in-your-face aspect of the text which a ‘moralising’ critic like Camps completely ignores. It’s just not there for him, because his ideology that literature must be about humanistic morality and sensibility simply prevents him from registering what is in front of him. As soon as I see a critic (of literature or art or film or whatever) mention the words ‘moral’, ‘morality’, ‘moral choices’ etc I know they are going to give a distorted and inaccurate account of the work under consideration, because their obsession with ‘moral values’ restricts them to just one narrow aspect of the characters and the text and blinds them, like the blinkers on a carthorse, to everything else which is going on around them, to the totality of the work.

Anyway, Camps doesn’t have the ‘moral’ awareness to even register that the cruel slaughter of thousands of sentient animals might be wrong.

But 2. The relentless animal slaughter plays a really important role in the fabric of the poem by making the human slaughter seem natural. It desensitises you. If you’ve already waded through lakes of animal blood, spurting from slashed throats, it makes the butchery of human beings just that bit more assimilable. The entire poem becomes a welter of blood and gore.

As I said, I’m aware that this is also a biased and partial view and that there are plenty of passages of delightful description, Aeneas’s sensitivity and sea nymphs frolicking in the waves etc. I am just pointing out what Camps’s supposedly thorough introduction to the poem completely omits from its account.

Virgil’s multi-levelled and holey theology

Christian theology has spent 2,000 years trying to reconcile the paradox that, while on the one hand God is all-knowing and so knows the future as well as the past, on the other hand, the theology of reward and punishment only makes sense if humans have free will. If everything is foreordained, then I have no free will, and therefore cannot be guilty or innocent of my actions. Therefore cannot be sent to hell or heaven. Whereas Christian theologians and hierarchies and organisations, very much do want to emphasise our free will precisely in order to threaten us with punishment in the afterlife and keep us in line.

Now the same problem is raised by the Aeneid only in a much more intense form because at every step of the way, at almost every decisive moment, it is the gods’ intervention which makes things happen. Venus makes Dido fall in love with Aeneas, going to some lengths to do so, luring Aeneas’s son into a copse where she puts him asleep and replacing him at Dido’s reception feast for Aeneas with her other son, Eros god of love, assuming the form of Eros entirely to soften her spinsterhood and make her fall for the Trojan. And then it is Venus who, at the end of their affair, comes to Aeneas in a dream and tells him he must get up and rouse his companions and load his ships and leave Carthage right now.

Similarly, the entire action of the second half of the book, the entire war between the Trojans and the Latins, with the enormous destruction and loss of life on both sides, only takes place solely because Juno makes it happen, commissioning the Fury Allecto to fire up the Latins against the peace treaty with the Trojans.

And yet, throughout the poem, the narrator also assigns praise and blame to individual actors, and they themselves debate their guilt and responsibility. For example, Aeneas tells Dido it is not his fault that he is running off and abandoning her: sed me iusa deum – the nasty god made me do it.

It would be interesting to read a clever analysis which explained what we know of Roman theology and sets Virgil’s depiction of the issue within that framework of belief. Camps sketches out the issues in his chapter 5 but doesn’t tell us anything which wasn’t already obvious from the poem.

For me the key to thinking about this problem is suggested by something Camps explains at the start of his book, which is to do with Virgil’s method of composition. Namely, it was episodic. (Camps uses the Latin word particulatim which means ‘piecemeal’, p.125). According to Donatus’s Life of Virgil, the poet first wrote out a prose version of his story but then chose not to work through it in order, but to work up particular ad hoc scenes from different parts of the narrative into verse.

And in doing so, he focused on producing as intense and vivid a scene as possible for the scene’s sake and we know that this sometimes led to discrepancies between episodes; characters behave inconsistently or say one thing in one scene, another in another; characters are introduced who we have already met and so on.

(Camps mentions the two apparently different deaths of Palinurus, who, at the end of book 5, plunges down into the sea, drowning, but in book 6 is said to have swim to shore, p.125. Or there are the two completely different versions of how Helen reacts to the sacking of Troy a) hiding in terror 2.567, or b) out confidently leading the Greeks around the city in book 6. He gives more examples of this kind of contradiction in appendix 4.)

Well, Virgil’s theology can be thought about in the same way as his method of composition, namely that he is not expounding a consistent and thought-through theology in the manner of Tertullian or Augustine; rather he is writing a dramatic poem and all that matters is the intensity of particular episodes. The momentary impact is the thing. Therefore it creates a great dramatic effect to show Juno or Venus interfering almost all the way through the narrative. But at other moments, on the human plane, mortals may discuss their decisions and implications in human terms of agency and responsibility. And because Virgil is concerned with creating whatever is most effective at any particular point, he isn’t concerned with trying to reconcile the theological contradictions thrown up by these different approaches.

In fact there are at least three levels at work in the poem, because above the continual interfering of the gods, which is continually described, sits another force – this is the power of fate or the Fates. This isn’t described but referred to at various points, mainly by the gods themselves. Nothing at all, not even Jupiter, can change what is destined and fated. He and the other gods can only interfere with what, in the end, are details, but the overall Fate and Destiny of everyone is fixed and unalterable.

Thus Juno herself is made to admit that she cannot change Aeneas’s ultimate destiny to settle in Italy and found the Roman race; she can only delay it. Which she does, at the cost of thousands of needless deaths including, ironically, that of her own favourite, Turnus.

On this view, you can pray to the gods, and the gods are depicted answering some (though not all) prayers (mortals can never be sure which ones will be answered and which ones won’t). But no prayers can alter the fixed outlines of Fate.

Fate has built the matrix with bands of steel. Nothing can change or alter them. But within the matrix, individual gods are free to mess about with details, to delay, to alter, to bend – but never to change the fundamental ends.

It’s in this context that Camps makes the shrewd point that the gods themselves pursue their own ends. The gods are as selfish as mortals, maybe more so. Only Jupiter rises above their endless squabbles and tries to adjudicate fairly but, as many readers have observed, he is only an intermittent presence in the poem: Juno and Venus are much more prominent, Juno most of all. The Aeneid could accurately be called the Book of Juno, or The Book of Juno’s Anger.

To anyone who takes this mirage, ‘morality’, seriously, the gods in Virgil are quite demonstrably monsters of immorality, cruel, thoughtless, heartless, irresponsible – like children. Any real consideration of the pagan gods of antiquity eventually suggests why they had to be superseded by the Christian god. They were just not worthy of serious intellectual consideration. And they are fundamentally indifferent to human life, breath-takingly callous. Serious consideration of the pagan gods led philosophers to sets of beliefs like Epicureanism or Stoicism, very different ideologies but alike in their aim of trying to eliminate the role of the gods in human life. Paganism tends towards a brutal indifference to human existence.

Compare and contrast that with the intense feeling of personal salvation which Christianity offered its believers. As Camps puts it, ‘the promise of the new kind of religion is evidence of the terrors of the old’ (p.49).

Anyway, the existence of these three levels of action allows Virgil to switch between them as it suits his narrative ends. Jupiter apologises to Juno, saying his hands are tied by Fate. Aeneas apologises to Dido, saying his hands are tied by the gods, and so on.

How are humans meant to know what the devil is going on? Via the welter of omens, signs and prophecies which the text is full of. These are the channel of communication between the three levels.

Sometimes a god personally explains something to Aeneas, but far more often it is the shade of a dead mortal (Hector or Anchises) who can explain things up to a point but not the full picture. This up-to-a-pointness is really striking: ghosts and spirits are continually telling Aeneas just so much of his future and, when he wants to know more, fading into smoke.

At other times it is the mute symbolism of some sign or portent like a comet in the skies or a swarm of bees or the eagle carrying off a swan who is beaten off by all the other birds – in other words, portents which mortals are forced to interpret and guess at.

My position is that none of this amounts to a worked-out theology on the analogy of Christian theologies. The opposite. Although these elements fill the text to bursting, they don’t indicate a coherent worldview, but one that is cheerfully incoherent: one which is ragged and flexible enough for the characters and narrator to switch between at least 3 levels of belief: belief in a Fixed and Unchangeable Fate, belief in the continual intervention of the gods, and belief in man’s free will which is sufficient to allow him to carry out free actions which can, accordingly, be judged within a ‘moral’ framework.

The overlap and interplay of the different systems is one of the things which keeps the poem dynamic and varied, keeps the reader in a continual sense of flux and uncertainty.


Alongside the multiple levels of destiny, goes a kind of dualistic theory of human nature. Dido and Turnus have two modes of being: their ‘normal’ selves and themselves possessed. In their states of possession they are associated with a range of frenetic adjectives, to wit: amens, turbidus, fervidus, ardens, furens, trepidans, in a state of inania, furor and violentia.

Furor in particular is applied to Dido a dozen times and Turnus half a dozen times. And Aeneas, after the death of Pallas, becomes a man ‘possessed’ on the battlefield. If you felt so inclined you could read the entire poem through the vector of frenzied possession just as much as by Camps’s limp metric of ‘morality’.

The poetry

It’s difficult to follow Camps’s chapter about the verse itself (chapter 7) unless you can not only read Latin but have a good feel for it as a medium of expression. I did Latin GCSE but have nowhere near the ability to judge it as poetry. Some key points which come over from Camps’s account are:

Vocabulary Virgil used a consciously ‘poetic’ diction, on the model of Milton in Paradise Lost or Tennyson in Idylls of the King, with a sprinkling of words from earlier poetry and archaic forms to give it sonority and authority.

Syntax Flexible, sometimes an adjective whose meaning attaches to one noun is grammatically attached to another; two nouns related by a verb have their normal relationship inverted; a phrase is compressed by omitting a term of meaning, letting the reader supply it; sometimes grammar as well as meaning is understated or omitted and the reader needs to supply it, too. These and other tactics create:

  • flexibility in writing lines and passages
  • compactness

But Camps says that, more distinctive than either of these is Virgil’s coining of highly expressive original phrases out of very basic words. Alongside their power goes a certain ambiguity. This has meant that many phrases of Virgil’s can be extracted from their original context and acquire new, more powerful meanings. Take lacrimae rerum.

Aeneas has been washed up on the coast of Africa and welcomed into the new city of Carthage and now he is looking at a mural in a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Juno that depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. He is moved to tears and says ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

Apparently, even in the original Latin, this phrase is grammatically ambiguous and can equally mean, ‘There are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind’ or, ‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind.’

Either way, the phrase went on to have a tremendous afterlife, being widely quoted in later writers as pithily summing up the sadness of human existence. Then, in the early twentieth century, it began to be used on Great War memorials, thus entering wider consciousness. It’s one example of the way Virgil’s just-so selection of very ordinary words was done in such a way as to pack an eerily powerful – and enduring – punch.


The single most striking thing in Camps’s book is not by him but is in Aelius Donatus’s short Life of Virgil which Camps includes in its entirety in an appendix. In the early section about his appearance and nature, Donatus writes:

He was somewhat inclined to pederasty, [his particular favourites being Cebes and Alexander, whom he calls Alexis in the second Eclogue. Alexander was given to him by Asinius Pollio. Both of them were well-educated and Cebes wrote poetry himself.] (p.115)

Donatus then goes on to report the rumour that Virgil had a relationship with an apparently notable woman named Plotia Hieria, but that she denied it in later life. Apart from that ‘his conduct and demeanour were so respectable’ that at Naples he acquired the nickname Parthenias, an adjective applied to Athena and meaning chaste and virginal.

Three points. 1. This entirely chimes with several of the Eclogues which describe passionate love between  some of the poems’ idealised young shepherds and are plainly homoerotic. 2. The fact that ‘Alexander’ was a gift shows that the young men in question were slaves. Virgil had gay relationships with his male slaves. Slavery.

3. It’s interesting how Donatus’s description moves easily from describing his fondness for male slaves to his rumoured affair with a Roman matron. I.e. the homosexuality had the same kind of value or scandal value as a rumoured ‘straight’ affair i.e. merited a sentence or two, but not worth making any fuss over.

It’s a demonstration of the point made in M.I. Finley’s essay about women and marriage in ancient Rome, that what mattered more than anything else was the legal integrity of the official family, and in particular the legal status of sons and daughters to ensure the efficient heritance of property, titles and lineage. As long as these legal forms were observed, then there was considerable leeway in how citizens (mostly men) (mis)behaved.


An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps was published by Oxford University Press in 1969. All references are to the 1984 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 7. The empire

If you’re looking for a chronological history of the Roman Empire, or an account of the military campaigns and battles which led to its territorial expansion, or an account of the organisation and administration of the Roman army, during either the republican or imperial eras, forget it. None of that is in this book.

Beard’s interest is in exploring themes or aspects of Roman social, cultural and political history. Hence, although the final chapter in SPQR is devoted to ‘Rome Outside Rome’ i.e. the wider Roman empire, it is nothing like a chronological history of the empire, or of the wars of conquest and putting down of rebellions which consolidated it, or a really thorough examination of Rome’s administrative bureaucracy. Instead it is an entertainingly meandering essay which considers some selected aspects of Roman rule beyond Italy. Beard starts the chapter, as usual, with a flurry of academic questions:

  • how were the cultural differences across the empire debated?
  • how ‘Roman’ did the empire’s inhabitants outside Rome and Italy become?
  • how did people in the provinces relate their traditions, religions, languages and literatures to those of imperial Rome, and vice versa?

Beard uses biographies of Roman administrators such as Pliny the Younger (61 to 113 AD), touches on the Roman attitude to religion – especially the troublesome new religion of Christianity – uses Hadrian’s Wall as an example of the limits of empire, and generally delves into other topics which take her fancy.

So, as a reader, as soon as you abandon any hope of getting a thorough or even basic chronological overview of the main events of the wider Roman empire, and settle down for a chatty meander through  some selected aspects of a fascinating subject, then Beard is an enjoyable and informative guide.

The limits of imperial expansion

Augustus called a halt to the expansion of imperial Rome following the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD in which Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions massacred by barbarian Germans led by Arminius (p.480). Fascinatingly, Beard tells us that Augustus had fully intended to extend Roman power into Germany, and had begun construction of a town at Waldgirmes, 60 miles east of the Rhine, complete with forum, statue of the emperor and all the trimmings. After Teutoburg he ordered all building work abandoned and withdrawal of all Roman forces to the Rhine and in his will instructed his successors not to extend the empire.

But they did. Claudius sent legions to conquer Britannia, which they’d seized enough of by 44 AD to justify Claudius awarding himself a triumph, although the Romans took a long time to extend their power right up to the border with Hibernia. In the east, in 101 to 102 Trajan conquered Dacia, part of what is now Romania and in 114 to 117 invaded Mesopotamia to the borders of modern Iran.

Emperors less competitive than consuls

But overall the pace of territorial acquisition slowed right down. Beard makes the interesting point that this was at least in part because under the Republic you had two consuls who competed with each other for military glory, rising to the epic rivalry between Julius Caesar, busy making a name for himself conquering Gaul in the West, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English as Pompey, redrawing the map of the Roman East.

By contrast, the emperors had no rivals and no-one to beat. Their only rivals were the previous emperors so they could take their time, make a few strategic ‘conquests’, award themselves a nice triumph and relax. Most of the wars of the first 200 years of empire were against internal rebellions or border skirmishes.

Governor Pliny in Bithynia

Slowly the focus of administrators and emperors switched from conquest to good administration. It’s to examine this that Beard gives the example of Pliny the Younger who in 109 was sent to become governor of the province of Bithynia along the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Next to Cicero Pliny is one of the most knowable ancient Romans because of the 100 or so letters he sent directly to the emperor Trajan, reporting back on all aspects of Roman administration, from taxes to statues, to the nitty gritty of local legal cases.

What the Romans wanted was peaceful administration, avoidance of flagrant examples of corruption, good regular supplies of taxes. They made little or no attempt to impose their own cultural norms or eradicate local traditions. Instead the East, in particular, remained a mostly Greek-speaking fantasia of different religions, gods, festivals, dress, traditions and so on.

Small number of imperial administrators

In a striking similarity to the British Empire, Beard tells us the number of imperial administrators was vanishingly small: across the empire at any one time there were probably fewer than 200 elite Roman administrators running an empire of more than 50 million subjects (p.490). So how was the empire managed?

1. The most obvious answer is the substantial Roman legions posted around the borders of the empire and Beard mentions the insight we have into one such garrison from the amazing discoveries which have been made at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall.

2. Building new settlements was another strategy. In the north and west in particular the building of Roman settlements on the classic, standardised Roman town layout was one of the most enduring legacies of empire. Roman policy resulted in ‘urbanisation on an unprecedented scale’ (p.492).

3. Also, just like the British, French and other European empires 1,800 years later, the Romans co-opted the local elites. Local rulers who came over to Rome were awarded formal titles, new Roman names, rights and privileges. They took to wearing the toga, they sent their children to Roman schools to learn Latin, rhetoric and civics. Over generations these became embedded and Romanised elites did the work of ensuring peace and lack of rebellions among their subjects.

The 1st century efflorescence of Greek literature

In the East, the Greeks didn’t need to take any lessons in ‘civilisation’ from the Romans and no Roman would have dared suggest it. Nonetheless, Beard points out that the early imperial period saw an extraordinary florescence of Greek literature, much of it addressing, skirting, questioning the impact of Roman hegemony on the Greek world. In a striking example, she tells us that the output of just one Greek writer of this period, biographer and philosopher Plutarch (46 to 119 AD) fills as many modern pages as all the surviving literature from the 5th century BC put together, from the tragedies of Aeschylus to the histories of Thucydides (p.500).

Three typical rebellions

Surprisingly, maybe, there were only a handful of major rebellions against Roman rule in the first century (although it may be that these were under-reported, as both regional governors and emperors weren’t keen to record dissent).

Anyway, Beard makes the interesting point that the three major rebellions we know about weren’t standalone nationalist uprisings of the kind we’re familiar with from the end of the modern European empires. In the three biggest instances they were not popular uprisings but rebellions by members of the collaborating class felt they had, for one reason or another, been badly treated by their Roman allies.

1. Thus the leader of the German forces in the Teutoburg Forest, Arminius, was a solid ally of Rome and personal friend of the general whose forces he massacred. Modern thinking has it that Arminius was a rival for leadership of his tribe, the Cherusci, with his brother, Segeste. When a revolt began among the auxiliary troops for an unknown reason, it may be that Arminius thought he stood more chance of becoming paramount leader of his people by betraying his Roman allies (and brother) and it seems to have worked.

2. In Britannia, Queen Boadicea or Boudicca rebelled after terrible treatment by the Romans. When her husband Prasutagus died he left half his tribal kingdom to the empire and half to his daughters. But when Roman forces moved in to take their territory they ran amok among the Britons, plundering the king’s property, raping  his daughters and flogging Boudicca. Hence her armed revolt, and you can see why her tribe would rally to her standard, whose first steps were to burn to the ground the nearest three Roman towns, murdering all their inhabitants, before the governor of the province, 250 miles away on the border of Wales, heard the news, marched across country to East Anglia, and exterminated the British forces (p.514).

3. The First Jewish War or Great Jewish Revolt (66 to 73 AD) is also attributable to bad behaviour by the occupying Romans. The middle classes protested against heavy Roman taxation and there were some random attacks on Roman citizens. In response the Roman governor, Gessius Florus, raided the Second Temple (where no non-Jew was allowed to enter) for back payment of the taxes, then arrested senior Jewish figures some of whom he had crucified for disobedience. Bad idea. The rebellion spread like wildfire and pinned down Roman legions in Palestine for the next seven years.

Free movement of goods and people

Another massive effect of the Roman Empire was the free movement of goods and people on an unprecedented scale. Among the ruins of Pompeii has been found an ivory figurine from India, the soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall were buying pepper brought all the way from the Far East. Vast amounts of olive oil (20 million litres per year) were imported to Rome from southern Spain and the province of Africa became the breadbasket for the capital (250,000 tonnes of grain).

Not only goods but people moved vast distances, making lives and careers for themselves thousands of miles from their birthplaces in a way that was unprecedented for most of world history before. Beard exemplifies this astonishing freedom of movement in the story of Barates who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century AD, and built a memorial to his wife who predeceased him and came from just north of London. The point is that Barates himself, as his memorial  records, originally hailed from Syria, 4,000 miles away.

Trade and administration, imports and exports, sending soldiers and administrators to the ends of the known world, involved a huge amount of bureaucracy and organisation, many fragments of which have survived to build up a picture of the empire’s multi-levelled commercial and administrative complexity.

The people, group or ideology this free movement around the entire Mediterranean basin was ultimately to benefit most were the Christians. Familiarity with the life of St Paul shows just how free they were to travel freely and to spread their word to the ‘godfearers’, the groups who attached themselves to Jewish synagogues but couldn’t become full Jews because of their lack of circumcision and/or the food and ritual restrictions, so who were an enthusiastic audience for the non-ethnic, universalising tendency of  the new religion.

It is this principle of openness and assimilation, which characterised Rome from the earliest times when Romulus incorporated members of neighbouring tribes into his nascent settlement, that I briefly describe in the next blog post.


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

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