Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

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Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Life of Tiberius by Suetonius

‘Poor Rome, doomed to be masticated by those slow-moving jaws.’
(Augustus’s dying comment on his adoptive son and successor, Tiberius, quoted in Suetonius’s Life of Tiberius, section 21)

Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus was the second Roman emperor. He succeeded his stepfather and adopted father, the first Roman emperor, Augustus, in 14 AD. Born in 42 BC, Tiberius reigned from 14 (i.e. aged 56) until 37 AD, 23 years in total, dying at the age of 78.

Roman texts were divided into short sections, sometimes called ‘chapters’ though most are less than a page long. Suetonius’s biography of the emperor Tiberius is 76 chapters long. Like all the emperors, you can divide his biography into two parts, before he was emperor, and his reign as emperor.

The central fact about Tiberius is that he was a grumpy, unsociable and reluctant emperor who began his reign with exaggerated respect for the institutions of Rome but slowly declined until he was overseeing a reign of terror, especially as a result of encouraging unaccountable spies and informers to bring charges against eminent men.

Already, in 6 BC, while he was being groomed as first among equals in Augustus’s extended family to succeed the great man and had established himself as an effective general after leading the army in Germany, he abruptly quit public life and retired to Rhodes, where he remained for seven years.

The historian Tacitus thinks the biggest reason among many possible ones for Tiberius’s retirement was that Augustus had forced him to divorce his wife, Vipsania, who he really loved, and marry Augustus’s own daughter, Julia who a) despised Tiberius’s relatively lowly origins and b) was extremely promiscuous, taking numerous lovers and publicly humiliating Tiberius.

Suetonius covers the important political and military events of Tiberius’s life, but really comes into his own when discussing the personal quirks and gossip surrounding the second emperor. Key learnings of the opening chapters are:

The Claudian clan, which Tiberius descended from, was famous for its arrogance.

Nero became a common surname in the Claudian clan, from the Sabine tongue meaning ‘strong and valiant’.

His father was the politician Tiberius Claudius Nero and his mother was Livia Drusilla. This Nero opposed the party of Octavian and so as a boy Tiberius was always on the move as his parents moved from place to place dictated by the tribulations of the civil wars.

But once the assassins of Julius Caesar had been defeated, Nero (Tiberius’s father) returned to Rome and was reconciled with Octavian. At which point Octavian, triumphant after winning the civil wars and establishing the Second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Lepidus, forced Livia to divorce Nero and marry him, even though she was heavily pregnant by Nero at the time. This was in 38 BC. So Augustus married Livia knowing she was pregnant with another man’s child (unless, of course, it was he who had gotten her pregnant, not the husband).

The life of Tiberius: before he was emperor

Tiberius had a younger brother, Drusus Nero.

At the age of nine Tiberius delivered a eulogy of his dead father from the rostra. Just as he was reaching puberty, he accompanied the chariot of Augustus in his triumph after Actium (31 BC),​ riding the left trace-horse, while Marcellus, son of Octavia, rode the one on the right.

Tiberius presided, too, at the city festival, and took part in the game of Troy during the performances in the circus, leading the band of older boys.

Chapter 7. Between attaining manhood and ascending the throne:

  • Tiberius gave a gladiatorial show in memory of his father, and a second in honour of his grandfather Drusus, the former in the Forum and the latter in the amphitheatre
  • he also gave stage-plays, but without being present in person

Around 19 BC Tiberius married Vipsania Agrippina, daughter of Marcus Agrippa, and granddaughter of Caecilius Atticus, the Roman knight to whom Cicero’s letters are addressed.

But after she had given Tiberius a son, Drusus, Augustus forced Tiberius to divorce Vipsania and marry his (Augustus’s) daughter, Julia, in 11 BC. This greatly upset Tiberius who continued to be in love with Vipsania. His new wife, Julia, bore him a child but it died in infancy, at which point it is thought the couple ceased to have relations.

Tiberius’s brother, Drusus, died in Germany and he conveyed his body to Rome, walking before the coffin the entire way.

Chapter 8. Tiberius began his civil career by defending client kings and states. He prosecuted a noble who had conspired against Augustus.

He undertook two public commissions: to improve the grain supply to Rome and to investigate the slave-prisons​ throughout Italy, the owners of which had gained a bad reputation for kidnapping and enslaving travellers, and as havens for men seeking to evade military service.

9. Tiberius’s first military service was as tribune of the soldiers in the campaign against the Cantabrians. Then he led an army to the Orient and restored the throne of Armenia to Tigranes. For about a year he was governor of Gallia Comata which was in a state of unrest through the inroads of the barbarians and the dissensions of its chiefs. Then he conducted war with the Raeti and Vindelici, then in Pannonia, and finally in Germany. He brought 40,000 prisoners of war over into Gaul and assigned them homes near the bank of the Rhine.

For these achievements he was given an ovation in Rome, riding in a chariot and having been honoured with the triumphal regalia, a new kind of distinction never before conferred on anyone.

Tiberius proceeded quickly through the offices of quaestor, praetor, and consul, five years before the usual age limit (he was consul in 13 BC). He was made consul again in 7 BC and the following year received the tribunicial power for five years.

10. In 6 BC, while on the verge of accepting command in the East and becoming the second-most powerful man in Rome, Tiberius announced his withdrawal from politics and retired to the island of Rhodes.

Some say it was due to disgust with his wife, her mockery of him and her indiscriminate promiscuousness, which he daren’t confront, seeing as she was Augustus’s daughter. Others think that, since the children of Augustus were now of age, Tiberius voluntarily gave up the position of number two in the empire, in order to clear the way for them. At the time he simply gave the reason that he was exhausted after years of campaigning in Germany and holding public office and needed a rest.

Augustus was furious and openly criticised him in the Senate. When Augustus and Livia tried to stop him leaving Tiberius went on hunger strike for four days (!). When he was permitted to leave, he did so hugger-mugger, hardly saying goodbye to anyone. He was an odd, secretive, unhappy man.

Tiberius chose Rhodes because he’d liked it when he stopped off there on the way back from campaigning in Armenia. Once there, he settled into a modest house and adopted an unassuming manner of life, at times walking in the gymnasium without a lictor or a messenger, exchanging courtesies with the common people.

He was a constant attendant at the schools and lecture-rooms of the professors of philosophy.

In 2 BC Tiberius’s wife, Julia, was disgraced and sent into exile by Augustus. Despite disliking her, Tiberius performed the husbandly duty of sending letters to intercede with Augustus.

Then, when his tribunician period of office came to an end, and now that Augustus’s grandsons Gaius and Lucius had come of age and were clearly nominated for the succession, Tiberius wrote asking to be allowed to visit his relatives, whom he sorely missed. But Augustus rejected his appeal and told him to forget about ever seeing his family again, who he had so eagerly abandoned.

12. So Tiberius remained in Rhodes against his will. Through his mother he secured the title of envoy of Augustus, so as to conceal his disgrace. He wasn’t left in peace because every Roman official who sailed past the island felt duty bound to stop off and pay their respects

In his absence from Rome negative rumours accumulated around him. When he crossed to Samos to visit his stepson Gaius, who had been made governor of the Orient, he found him alienated due to slanders spread by Gaius’s staff. It was also claimed that Tiberius had sent messages to some centurions which possibly hinted at overthrowing Augustus. Tiberius swore it wasn’t so and asked Augustus for the appointment of someone, of any rank whatsoever, to keep watch over his actions and words to prove it.

13. Tiberius gave up his usual exercises with horses and arms and dropped the traditional costume of his people i.e. the toga, taking to the cloak and slippers of Greece – prompting criticism. There’s a story that, when his name came up at a dinner party hosted by Gaius, a man got up and assured Gaius that if he would say the word, he would at once take ship for Rhodes and bring back the head of “the exile,” as he was commonly called.

At this point Tiberius realised his life was actually at risk, so he renewed his pleas to his mother, and, as it happens, Augustus’s eldest son was at odds with Marcus Lollius, Gaius’s adviser, and so ready to oppose him on this issue (of recalling Tiberius). So, as a result of palace intrigue, Tiberius was grudgingly allowed to return to Rome, but on condition that he took no part or active interest in public affairs. So in the eighth year of his retirement Tiberius returned to Rome.

14. Since his early days Tiberius’s life had been marked by omens and predictions:

  • when Livia was pregnant with him, and was trying to divine by various omens whether she would bring forth a male, she took an egg from under a setting-hen, and when she had warmed it in her own hand and those of her attendants in turn, a cock with a fine crest was hatched
  • in his infancy the astrologer Scribonius promised him an illustrious career and even that he would one day be king, but without the crown of royalty
  • on his first campaign, when he was leading an army through Macedonia into Syria, it chanced that at Philippi the altars consecrated in bygone days by the victorious legions gleamed of their own accord with sudden fires
  • on his way to Illyricum he visited the oracle of Geryon near Patavium and drew a lot which advised him to seek an answer to his inquiries by throwing golden dice into the fount of Aponus – and then the dice which he threw showed the highest possible number (and those dice may be seen to this day, under the water)
  • a few days before his recall an eagle, a bird never before seen in Rhodes, perched on the roof of his house
  • the day before he was notified that he might return, his tunic seemed to blaze as he was changing his clothes

On the day the ship bearing Augustus’s permission came into sight, Tiberius was walking along the cliffs with his astrologer Thrasyllus, who saw it and declared that it brought good news. This was lucky for him because Tiberius had made up his mind to push the man off the cliff, believing him a false prophet because things up to that moment had all turned out contrary to his predictions. [How could anyone know the truth of this story? Only if Tiberius himself told someone, who told someone else etc.]

15. Tiberius returned to Rome in 2 AD. Here he introduced his son, Drusus Julius Caesar (born in 14 BC and so aged 16) to public life. Forbidden to take part in public life, Tiberius moved to the gardens of Maecenas on the Esquiline Hill, where he led a very retired life, merely attending to his personal affairs and exercising no public functions.

The situation was transformed when the two young heirs to the throne died in quick succession, Lucius in 2 AD, Gaius in 4. This prompted Augustus to rearrange the pieces on the chess board: he now formally adopted Tiberius as his own son and heir, compelling him, in turn, to adopt his nephew Germanicus.

From this time onwards (4 AD) nothing was left undone which could add to his prestige, especially after the disowning and banishment of Agrippa made it clear that the hope of the succession lay in him alone.

16. Augustus gave Tiberius the tribunician power for a second term of three years. He was assigned responsibility for subjugating Germany. But then a revolt broke out in the province of Illyricum, in the western Balkans, and Tiberius was transferred to take charge of quelling it.

This war lasted four years, from 6 to 9 AD. It came to be called the Bellum Batonianum and Suetonius describes it as the most serious of all foreign wars since those with Carthage (the three Punic Wars between 264 and 146 BC). Tiberius commanded fifteen legions and a corresponding force of auxiliaries, surmounting difficulties of terrain, the scattered nature of the tribal enemy and scarcity of supplies. His perseverance paid off and Tiberius completely subdued and reduced to submission the whole of Illyricum, which became a Roman province.

17. Tiberius’s exploits in Illyricum won him all the more glory because it was during this period, in 9 AD, that Quintilius Varus lost his three legions in an ambush in Germany, and no one doubted that the victorious Germans would have united with the Pannonians to foment rebellion on two fronts, had not Illyricum been subdued first.

Consequently a triumph was voted to Tiberius and many high honours. Some recommended that he be given the surname of Pannonicus, others of Invictus, others of Pius. Characteristically, Augustus vetoed these suggestions. Tiberius himself put off the triumph, because the country was in mourning for the disaster to Varus.

18. The next year Tiberius returned to Germany and, realising that the disaster to Varus was due to that general’s rashness and lack of care, he took no step without the approval of a council, having previously been a man of independent judgment and self-reliance. He ordered baggage to be kept to a minimum. Once across the Rhine he took his meals sitting on the bare turf, often passed the night without a tent, and gave all his orders for the following day in writing, for the avoidance of doubt or ambiguity. He ordered that if any officers were in doubt, they were to consult him personally, at any hour whatsoever, even in the night.

19. In Germany Tiberius insisted on the strictest discipline, reviving bygone methods of punishment. For example, he demoted the commander of a legion for sending a few soldiers across the river to accompany one of his freedmen on a hunting expedition.

Despite all these rational procedures, he remained deeply superstitious, embarking on battle with greater confidence when, the night before, his lamp suddenly and without human agency died down and went out, claiming this had always been a good omen, for himself and his ancestors.

One assassination attempt was made, by a member of the Bructeri tribe who got access to Tiberius among his attendants, but was detected through his nervousness and was then tortured till he confessed.

20. After two years Tiberius returned to Rome from Germany and celebrated the triumph which he had postponed, accompanied by his generals, for whom he had obtained the triumphal regalia. Before turning to enter the Capitol, he dismounted from his chariot and fell at the knees of Augustus, who was presiding over the ceremonies.​

Tiberius sent Bato, the leader of the Pannonians, to Ravenna,​ after presenting him with rich gifts, thus showing his gratitude to him for allowing him to escape when he was trapped with his army in a dangerous place. Then he gave a banquet to the common people at a thousand tables, and distributed a largess of 300 hundred sesterces to every man. With the proceeds of his spoils from the war Tiberius restored and dedicated the temple of Concord, as well as that of Pollux and Castor, in his own name and that of his brother.

21. Tiberius was scheduled to return to Illyricum to govern it, but he was at once recalled for Augustus was entering his last illness. Tiberius spent an entire day with him in private. it is said that when Tiberius left the room after this confidential talk, Augustus was overheard by his chamberlains to say: ‘Alas for the Roman people, to be ground by jaws that crunch so slowly!’

It is said that Augustus so disapproved of Tiberius’s austere manners that he sometimes broke off his lighter conversation when Tiberius entered the room. Here comes Old Gloomy Guts.

But Augustus gave in to Livia’s pleading for her son to be made heir. It may also be that Augustus concluded that, with such a successor he himself would come to be all the more venerated and respected – although Suetonius himself can’t believe such a responsible ruler as Augustus would behave so irresponsibly.

Suetonius thinks Augustus had to make a difficult decision – all the heirs he had lined up had died and Tiberius, despite his dour manner and the black mark of his retirement to Rhodes, had proved himself an assiduous and victorious general in Illyricum, so…on balance…his merits outweighed his faults.

[Such is the weakness of an imperial or royal system of government, that it can only choose successors from a very limited pool of candidates and so, by the law of averages, is as likely to produce bad or terrible rulers as good or excellent ones, more likely in fact, since the demands of ruling an empire require more than normal abilities.]

Suetonius’s interpretation is backed up by the record, for he cites the fact that Augustus took an oath before the people that he was adopting Tiberius for the good of the country, and alludes to him in several letters as a most able general and the sole defence of the Roman people. Suetonius goes on to quote from Augustus’s correspondence where, among other epithets, Augustus calls Tiberius ‘most charming of men’ and ‘most charming and valiant of men and most conscientious of generals’.

The life of Tiberius: his rule as emperor

22. Tiberius didn’t make the death of Augustus public until the young Agrippa had been disposed of. The latter was slain by a tribune of the soldiers appointed to guard him, who received a letter with the order. It is not known whether Augustus left this letter when he died, to remove a future source of discord, or whether Livia wrote it herself in the name of her husband, or whether it was with or without the connivance of Tiberius.

Anyway, when the tribune reported that he had done his bidding, Tiberius replied that he had given no such order, and that the man must render an account to the senate, apparently trying to avoid odium at the time, for later his silence consigned the matter to oblivion.

23. When Tiberius first addressed the senate after Augustus’s death he broke off his speech with a groan, saying he was overcome with grief, wished he also was dead, handed the speech to his son Drusus to finish.

Then he had Augustus’s will read out. It began: ‘Since a cruel fate has bereft me of my sons Gaius and Lucius, be Tiberius Caesar heir to two-thirds of my estate’ – hardly a ringing endorsement, and confirming the suspicion that Augustus had named Tiberius his successor from necessity rather than from choice.

24. Though Tiberius did not hesitate at once to assume and to exercise the imperial authority, surrounding himself with a guard of soldiers, with the actual power and the outward sign of sovereignty, nonetheless he refused the title for a long time. When his friends urged him to adopt it, he upbraided them for not realising what a monster the empire was.

At last, reluctantly and complaining that a wretched and burdensome slavery was being forced upon him, Tiberius accepted the empire, but in such a way as to suggest the hope that he would one day lay it down. His own words were: ‘Until I come to the time when it may seem right to you to grant an old man some repose’ [anticipating his later retirement to Capri].

25. Tiberius described being emperor as like ‘holding a wolf by the ears’. There were plots against his life:

  • a slave of Agrippa, Clemens, had collected a band to avenge his master
  • Lucius Scribonius Libo, one of the nobles, was secretly plotting a revolution
  • a mutiny of the soldiers broke out in two places, Illyricum and Germany

Both armies demanded numerous special privileges – above all, that they should receive the same pay as the praetorians. The army in Germany was reluctant to accept an emperor who was not its own choice and vociferously preferred their general, the nephew whom Augustus had forced Tiberius to adopt, Germanicus – although the latter, with characteristic grace and propriety, refused.

Tiberius asked the Senate to appoint colleagues to share the burden of rule. He also feigned ill-health, to induce Germanicus to wait with more patience for a speedy succession, or at least for a share in the sovereignty. The mutinies were put down, and he also got Clemens into his power, outwitting him by stratagem.

Not until his second year did he finally arraign Libo in the senate, fearing to take any severe measures before his power was secure, and satisfied in the meantime merely to be on his guard. In the meantime Tiberius took precautions: thus when Libo was offering sacrifice with him among the pontiffs, he had a leaden knife substituted for the usual one; when Libo asked for a private interview, Tiberius would not grant it except with his son Drusus present, and as long as the conference lasted he held fast to Libo’s right arm, under pretence of leaning on it as they walked together [in order to stop him grabbing a knife or other weapon].

26. Tiberius at first played an unassuming​ part, almost humbler than that of a private citizen. Of many high honours he accepted only a few of the more modest. He barely consented to allow his birthday to be recognized by the addition of a single two-horse chariot to the scheduled games. He forbade the voting of temples, flamens, and priests in his honour, and even the setting up of statues and busts without his permission.

He refused to allow an oath to be taken ratifying his acts,​ nor the name Tiberius to be given to the month of September, or that of Livia to October.

He declined the forename Imperator,​ the surname of ‘Father of his Country’ and the placing of the civic crown​ at his door (as Augustus had had done). He did not even use the title of ‘Augustus’ in any letters except those to kings and potentates, although it was his by inheritance.

Tiberius held only three consul­ships after becoming emperor – one for a few days, a second for three months, and a third, during his absence from the city, until the Ides of May.

27. Tiberius so loathed flattery that he would not allow any senator to approach his litter, either to pay his respects or on business, and when an ex-consul in apologizing to him attempted to embrace his knees, he drew back in such haste that he fell over backward.

If anyone in conversation or in a set speech spoke of him in too flattering terms, Tiberius interrupted him and corrected his language on the spot. Being once called ‘Lord’, he warned the speaker not to address him again in an insulting fashion.

28. Tiberius rose above abuse, slander and lampoons of himself and his family. He said that in a free country there should be free speech and free thought.

29. Tiberius treated the Senate with exaggerated respect, openly stating that a princeps ought to be the servant of the senate, of the citizenry as a whole, and sometimes even of individuals.

30. There was no matter of public or private business so small or so great that he did not lay it before the senators, consulting them about revenues, restoring public buildings, levying and disbanding soldiers, the disposal of the legionaries and auxiliaries, about the extension of military commands and appointments to the conduct of wars, his replies to the letters of kings.

31. Tiberius was content for the Senate to vote against his expressed wishes and on one famous occasion opposed a motion so popular that he was the only man to go into the minority lobby, and not a single colleague followed him.

Tiberius revived the importance of the consuls. He had foreign delegations address themselves to the consuls, rose when they entered a room, and made way for them on the street.

32. Tiberius rebuked some ex-consuls in command of armies for addressing their reports to him and not to the Senate. To the governors who recommended burdensome taxes for his provinces, he wrote in answer that it was the part of a good shepherd to shear his flock, not skin it.

33. Tiberius intervened to prevent abuses. Sometimes he offered the magistrates his services as adviser, taking his place beside them at the tribunal. If word got around the bribery was being deployed in a court case, he would appear remind the jurors of the laws and of their oath to uphold justice.

34. Tiberius reduced the cost of the games and shows by cutting down the pay of the actors and limiting the pairs of gladiators to a fixed number. He recommended that prices in the market should be regulated each year at the discretion of the senate.

He was personally frugal. As part of his campaign against waste, he often served at formal dinners half-eaten dishes from the night before – on one occasion serving the remaining half of a boar eaten the night before, declaring that it contained all that the other half did.

He issued an edict forbidding general kissing as well as the exchange of New Year’s gifts​ after the Kalends of January.

35. Tiberius revived the custom whereby married women guilty of improprieties could be punished by a family council. Married women of good family had begun to practice as prostitutes and to escape punishment for adultery by renouncing the privileges of their class. Profligate young men voluntarily incurred degradation from their rank so as to appear on the stage and in the arena without incurring punishment. Tiberius punished all such men and women with exile.

36. Tiberius abolished foreign cults, especially the Egyptian and the Jewish rites. He compelled adherents to these religions to burn their religious vestments and all their paraphernalia. He assigned Jews of military age to provinces with unhealthy climates, ostensibly to serve in the army. Jews over the age of military service he banished from the city on pain of slavery for life.

He banished the astrologers from Rome, unless they promised to abandon their practices.

37. Tiberius safeguarded the country against banditry and lawlessness. He stationed garrisons of soldiers nearer together than before throughout Italy, while in Rome he established a camp for the barracks of the praetorian cohorts, which before that time had been quartered in isolated groups in divers lodging houses.

He took great pains to prevent city riots. When a quarrel in the theatre ended in bloodshed, he banished the leaders of the factions as well as the actors who were the cause of the dissension.

He abolished the traditional right of sanctuary throughout the empire.

After his accession to the throne, Tiberius undertook no further military campaigns. If regional kings were disaffected, he used threats and cajolery rather than military campaigns. Or he lured them to Rome with flattering promises and then kept them there.

38. For two whole years after becoming emperor he did not set foot outside the gates. After that he made promises to tour the provinces and even hired transports and food, but never managed to actually leave, leading to many jokes.

39. Both Tiberius’s sons died before him: his nephew and heir, Germanicus, who he adopted in 4 AD, died in 19, aged 33. His natural son, Drusus the younger (named after Tiberius’s brother), Tiberius’s son by his first wife, Vipsania, died in 23, aged 26.

After their deaths, Tiberius retired to Campania and it became widely believed that he would die there. In fact he nearly died in a freak accident when he was attending a luxury dinner in a grotto and some of the ceiling gave way, killing guests near him.

40. The official reason for the journey through Campania was to dedicate a temple to Capitoline Jupiter at Capua and a temple to Augustus at Nola, but when he’d done this he didn’t return to Rome but crossed to the island of Capri. Shortly afterwards he was recalled to the mainland after a disaster at an amphitheatre which had given way during a gladiatorial show, killing thousands. So he crossed to the mainland and made himself accessible to all, for a spell.

41. But then he returned to Capri and from this point onwards began to neglect all his responsibilities, for example not filling the vacancies in the decuries​ of the knights, nor changing the tribunes of the soldiers and prefects or the governors of any of his provinces. He left Spain and Syria without consular governors for several years, allowed Armenia to be overrun by the Parthians, Moesia to be laid waste by the Dacians and Sarmatians, and the Gallic provinces by the Germans, to the great dishonour and danger of the empire.

Tiberius retreated to Capri in 26 AD and never afterwards visited Rome. From this point onwards Suetonius’s account turns into a lurid account of Tiberius’s decline into moral degeneracy.

42. Tiberius had from the start of his military career been known as a heavy drinker. He had acquired the nickname of ‘Biberius Caldus Mero’, meaning ‘Drinker of hot wine with no water added’. He spent two days and a night feasting and drinking with Pomponius Flaccus and Lucius Piso, immediately afterwards making the one governor of the province of Syria and the other prefect of Rome.

Tiberius attended had a dinner given him by Cestius Gallus, a lustful and prodigal old man, who had once been degraded by Augustus, but ensured he kept his usual custom of having the serving girls naked.

43. On Capri Tiberius indulged his sexual fantasies. He built a sexual sporting house as the setting for orgies. He selected men and women from across the empire to engage in acts of deviant sex for his stimulation. The bedrooms were decorated with erotic paintings and sculptures. He had an erotic library, in case a performer needed an illustration of what was required. In Capri’s woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks where boys and girls, dressed as Pans and nymphs, prostituted themselves outside bowers and grottoes.

44. Suetonius goes on to list grosser allegations made against him, for example:

  • that he trained little boys, who he called his ‘minnows’, that when he went swimming they swam between his thighs to lick and nibble his genitals
  • that he put unweaned babies to his penis for them to suckle
  • that he owned a painting by Parrhasius depicting Atalanta fellating Meleager

45. Tiberius terrorised women of high birth. When a certain Mallonia refused to submit to his lust he had her informed on and taken to trial, with the result that she went home, delivered a tirade against ‘that filthy-mouthed, hairy, stinky old man’ and stabbed herself to death.

46. He was tight-fisted to the extent of miserliness.

47. In striking contrast to Augustus, Tiberius constructed no magnificent public works. He undertook only two, the temple of Augustus and the restoration of Pompey’s theatre, but both were left unfinished at the end of his reign. He gave no public shows at all and very seldom attended those given by others.

48. Tiberius showed generosity to the public only twice: once when he offered to lend a hundred million sesterces without interest for a period of three years in response to a widespread financial crisis; and then when he made good the losses of some owners of blocks of houses on the Caelian mount, which had burned down.

He acted generously to the army once, doubling the legacies provided for in the will of Augustus, but thereafter never gave gifts to the soldiers, with the exception of a thousand denarii to each of the praetorians for not taking sides with Sejanus during the latter’s attempted coup.

He did not relieve the provinces by any act of liberality, except Asia, when some cities were destroyed by an earthquake.

49. As the years went by Tiberius’s stinginess turned to rapacity. He drove Gnaeus Lentulus Augur to make Tiberius his heir, then kill himself. He confiscated the property of leading men of the Spanish and Gallic provinces, as well as of Syria and Greece. He deprived many states and individuals of immunities of long standing meaning that he collected their revenues.

Tiberius persuaded Vonones, king of the Parthians, after he’d been dethroned by his subjects and taken refuge at Antioch with a vast treasure, to put himself under the protection of the Roman people, then had him treacherously put to death.

50. One by one Tiberius turned against his own family. When his brother Drusus wrote a letter suggesting they band together to force Augustus to restore the Republic, Tiberius snitched on his brother to Augustus in order to blacken his name.

Tiberius so hated his banished second wife, Julia, that, when he came to power he intensified her exile not just to one town, but to one house, and deprived her of her allowance​.

Tiberius was very touchy about accusations that his mother Livia influenced him or shared his rule. He refused to let her be awarded the title ‘Parent of her Country’ or any other public honour.

[Livia died in 29, aged 87 i.e. Tiberius had to put up with her overbearing presence for the first 15 years of his rule.]

51. During an argument Livia is said to have produced letters from Augustus complaining about Tiberius’s sour character. This suggested such a deep and long-held enmity towards him that some say this was the reason for his retreat to Capri.

In the last three years of Livia’s life, Tiberius is said to have visited her only once, for a few hours, and didn’t visit her at all when she was ill.

After Livia’s death, Tiberius forbade her deification. He ignored the provisions of her will, and within a short time caused the downfall of all her friends and intimates, even those she had commended to his care. He had one of them, a man of equestrian rank, condemned to the treadmill.

52. Tiberius had a father’s affection neither for his own son Drusus (d. 19 AD) nor his adopted son Germanicus (d. 23 AD). After Drusus died he barely waited for the traditional period of mourning to end before resuming his usual routine.

Germanicus was handsome, successful, charming (remember how Ovid placed all his hopes for clemency in him, in his Black Sea Letters). According to Tacitus, many Romans considered Germanicus to be their equivalent to Alexander the Great, and believed that he would have easily surpassed the achievements of Alexander had he become emperor. But Tiberius mocked his achievements and openly complained to the Senate about him.

It was widely believed that Tiberius arranged to have Germanicus poisoned while on active service in Syria at the hands of Gnaeus Piso, governor of Syria. When Piso was tried on that charge, it was rumoured that he was about to produce Tiberius’s written instructions to him, so Tiberius had him quickly poisoned. As a result the slogan ‘Give us back Germanicus,’ was posted around Rome.

Tiberius then confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions by cruelly abusing Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina, and their children.

53. Tiberius embarked on a campaign to blacken the name of Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina. He stage-managed a dinner where he offered her an apple which she refused to take, assuming it was poisoned. He accused her of not trusting him. He falsely accused her of trying to flee, seeking sanctuary with the statue of Augustus or fleeing to the army. So he exiled her to Pandataria and, when she complained, had her beaten by a centurion until one of her eyes was destroyed.

Agrippina decided to starve herself to death in which, although he had her mouth forced open and food crammed into it, she succeeded. After Agrippina’s death Tiberius slandered her, persuading the senate to add her birthday to the days of ill omen and claiming credit for not having her publicly executed and thrown onto the Stairs of Mourning.

54. By Germanicus Tiberius had three grandsons, Nero, Drusus and Gaius (the future emperor Caligula), and by Drusus one, called Tiberius. Tiberius recommended Nero and Drusus to the senate and celebrated the day when each of them came to his majority. But almost immediately he began criticising and undermining them. When they complained about him he had witnesses stationed nearby and accumulated enough instances to have them pronounced public enemies and starved to death, Nero on the island of Pontia and Drusus in a lower room of the Imperial Palace. Drusus was said to be so tortured by hunger that he tried to eat the stuffing of his mattress.

55. Tiberius asked the Senate to select 20 leading men to form a council of state. Only 2 or 3 of them died natural deaths. He promoted Aelius Sejanus in order to use his cunning and services to destroy the children of Germanicus and secure the succession for his own grandson, the child of his son Drusus.

56. Tiberius was cruel to his Greek companions, banishing one, forcing another to commit suicide.

57. Even at the start of his reign, when he was still courting popularity by a show of moderation, Tiberius occasionally burst out with vengeful acts, executing people who offended him or questioned him.

58. Tiberius began to enforce laws for lèse-majesty regarding Augustus, which slowly escalated in triviality and severity. Eventually people could be tried beating a slave near a statue of Augustus carrying a ring or coin stamped with Augustus’s image into a privy or a brothel. Finally, a man was put to death merely for allowing an honour to be voted him in his native town on the same day that honours had previously been voted to Augustus.

59. Slowly, more and more cruel and savage deeds were carried out under the guise of the improvement of the public morals but in reality to gratify Tiberius’s pleasure in seeing suffering.

60. Cruelty: A few days after he reached Capri a fisherman appeared unexpectedly and offered him a huge mullet. Tiberius was so freaked out by the man’s appearance out of nowhere that he had his face rubbed raw with the fish’s scales.

When the litter he was being carried in was blocked by brambles, he had the centurion responsible for scouting the path stretched out on the ground and flogged half to death.

61. The 20s AD saw the creation of an atmosphere of fear in Roman noble and administrative circles with the expansion of treason trials and the widespread use of delatores or informers. Informers were always believed and could betray people for a few mildly critical words. All sentences became death sentences. Not a day passed without an execution.

Eventually, this degenerated into carnage. On some days 20 people were killed. Entire families, women and children too. Since it was illegal to execute virgins, the public executioners raped them first, then executed them. Corpses were dragged to the Tiber with hooks.

Many thought that Sejanus, as his henchman, egged him on, but after Sejanus’s fall the cruelty only got more ferocious.

62. Upon discovering that his own son, Drusus, had not died from his dissipated lifestyle but been poisoned by his wife Livilla and Sejanus, Tiberius went mad and spared none from torment and death, devoting all his time to unmasking what he saw as endless conspiracy, submitting random strangers to torture and execution.

On Capri people still point out the cliff Tiberius had his victims thrown off into the sea. If the tide was out a crew of marines waited below and broke their bones with boathooks and oars.

He devised a form of torture whereby he tricked men into drinking copious draughts of wine, and then had their genitals tightly bound so they couldn’t pee.

The soothsayer Thrasyllus is said to have saved many lives by telling Tiberius he would live a long life and so had plenty of time to torture and execute as many as he wanted. Tiberius even hated his own grandsons, Gaius and Tiberius the Younger.

63. He prevented ex-consuls taking up governorships in their provinces, because he didn’t trust them.

64. After the exile of his daughter-in‑law and grandchildren, Tiberius never moved them anywhere except in fetters and in a tightly closed litter, while a guard of soldiers kept any who met them on the road from looking at them or even from stopping as they went by.

65. Tiberius realised that his henchman Sejanus was plotting revolution, that he was being celebrated back in Rome and statues erected to him, so he embarked on a complicated strategy to discredit and overthrow him. This began by having Sejanus appointed consul with Tiberius, in 31 AD.

66. Public disgust at Tiberius broke out in a hundred ways, in lampoons and graffiti and slogans and jokes about his grotesque cruelty. Artabanus, king of the Parthians, sent a long letter detailing his crimes against the state and his own family, and telling him to commit suicide.

67. Suetonius makes the interesting point that Tiberius appears to have anticipated that his own wretched character would come to the fore. Soon after his accession the Senate had grovellingly offered him the title of ‘Father of his Country’ and an even more sycophantic gesture that anything he had said or done or would say or do would be honoured. Suetonius quotes Tiberius’s letters of reply to these offers in which he turns them down on the basis that, despite themselves, men change their character – almost as if he knew that, once granted supreme power, his worst nature would come to the fore.

68. Tiberius’s physique. He was above average height and strong (unlike short, weedy Augustus). He could crack someone’s skull with a single punch. He had blonde hair which he wore long at the back, concealing his neck. He was handsome but liable to pimples. He had large eyes. He enjoyed excellent health till the end of his life.

69. He didn’t venerate the gods as Augustus had done, but he was addicted to astrology. He was immoderately afraid of thunder. Whenever the sky darkened he wore a laurel wreath because it was said that that kind of leaf was not blasted by lightning.

70. Tiberius was greatly devoted to Greek and Roman literature. He wrote poetry in Greek. His specialist interest was Greek mythology and he cultivated the company of historians and grammarians who he asked teasingly obscure questions (Who was Hecuba’s mother? What was the name of Achilles when he hid among the girls of King Lycomedes’ court?)

71. Tiberius spoke Greek fluently yet he insisted on Latin being used on formal, political and legal occasions.

72. After his retirement to Capri, Tiberius made two attempts to return to Rome, once up the river Tiber, once by road, but both times turned back, afraid, it is said, of the mob. It was on the second attempt that he fell ill and, on the journey back to Capri, tried to conceal it by staying up late feasting at all the waystations, thus exacerbating the condition.

73. Reading that people named by informers were now being released without trial, Tiberius exclaimed this was treason and vowed to return to his safe place, Capri. But he became increasingly unwell and died in the villa of Lucullus, aged 78, in the 23rd year of his reign.

Some believe he was poisoned by Gaius (Caligula). Others that during convalescence from a fever, food was refused him when he asked for it. Some say that a pillow was put over his face to smother him. Seneca writes that, conscious of his approaching end, Tiberius took off his signet ring as if to give it to someone but couldn’t bring himself to part with it and, eventually, slipped it back on his finger. Having been unconscious with illness, he woke, called for attendants and, when no-one came, got up but his strength failed him and he fell dead near his couch.

74. The Romans really loved stories about omens. No biography is complete without them. Thus:

  • on his last birthday he dreamt that the huge statue of Apollo he had brought to adorn the library of the Temple of Augustus, came to him and announced he would not be dedicated by Tiberius
  • a few days before his death the lighthouse at Capri was wrecked by an earthquake

75. Tiberius’s death prompted celebrations around Rome. He was survived by one last atrocity. Hearing he was ill, the Senate declared all executions should be delayed by 10 days. Tiberius died on that tenth day but, since there was no-one in authority to extend the period or sign remittances, the executioners went ahead and strangled all the condemned, so that it was said his cruelty lived on after his death. Thus many called for there to be no funeral or his body to be only half cremated as an insult.

In the end his body was taken to Rome by the soldiers and cremated in the approved way.

76. Tiberius’s will named his grandsons, Gaius, son of Germanicus, and Gemellus, son of Drusus, heirs to equal shares of his estate. He gave legacies to several to the Vestal Virgins, with a bounty for every serving soldier and every member of the commons of Rome.

[Tiberius was succeeded by Gaius, more generally known as Caligula, son of Germanicus, and Tiberius’s great-nephew. Caligula was the only one of Germanicus’s children to survive Tiberius’s persecution. He adopted Caligula and took him to live with him in his debauched retirement on Capri. In Suetonius’s Life of Caligula, Tiberius is quoted as saying that he was ‘nursing a viper in Rome’s bosom.’ It was widely believed that Gaius had his very old great-uncle murdered, possibly himself smothering him with a pillow. After a promising beginning, Caligula’s reign swiftly descended into four years of chaotic misrule.]

Thoughts

Tiberius’s life divides very much into two halves, the dutiful imperial servant and the disgraceful debauchee. Tiberius’s military service in Germany and particularly Illyricum inspire respect. Compared to the military ‘service’ of his successors (Caligula, Claudius, Nero), he is a truly impressive figure.

But once he had settled into power, and begun to indulge his personal tastes for torture and debauchery, what a sickening contrast to his adoptive father, Augustus, who worked tirelessly for the improvement of Rome and the fair administration of justice right to the end of his long life.

Suetonius reports that some people wondered if Augustus chose Tiberius as his heir because he knew what a monster he’d turn out to be and that Tiberius’s rule would probably make his (Augustus’s) reputation all the more glorious.

Tiberius’s life shows what absolute power does to dissolute or depraved characters.

During the republican era Roman propagandists prided themselves that the rule of law and their complex constitutional procedures set them apart from the oriental despotisms of the East. By the turn of the first century BC Rome had imported a number of Eastern religions and rites, notably the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis. You could say that the reign of Tiberius marked the full arrival in Rome of the political traditions of oriental despotism – namely, palace intrigue and public terror.


Credit

Robert Graves’s translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was published by Penguin in 1957. A revised translation by Classicist Michael Grant, more faithful to the Latin original, was published in 1979. A further revised edition was published in 1989 with an updated bibliography. I read the Penguin version in parallel with the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation which is available online.

Related links

Roman reviews

Tristia by Ovid

How wretched to live among tribal natives
for him whose name was once a household word.
(Tristia book 4, poem 1, lines 67 and 68)

What I seek is not praise but pardon.
(Tristia book 1, poem 7, line 31)

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
(Tristia, book 3, poem 7, lines 43 and 44)

America-based British academic Peter Green has published an impressive number of books about the ancient world – numerous histories and essays, along with many translations from ancient Greek and Latin.

Among these are two volumes of translations of the Roman poet Ovid for Penguin books: a portmanteau volume titled The Erotic Poems of Ovid, which includes Amores, The Art of Love and The Cure for Love, and this volume, The Poems of Exile, which includes Ovid’s last two works, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’).

These fairly long works (Tristia 103 page, Letters 90 pages) were, as the title suggests, written during Ovid’s 10-year-long and miserable exile at a town called Tomis, on the Black Sea (now the coastal resort of Constanca in Romania).

(Apparently it is important to distinguish between exile (deportatio) – where the banished person lost their Roman citizenship and all their property – and Ovid’s condition, which was the lesser punishment of relegatio, whereby he retained his citizenship and his property – very important for the ongoing life of his wife and daughter back in Rome, see note p.225 among others.

Ovid’s career

Born in 43 BC Ovid was a fluent and prolific poet who made his reputation with a series of books about love, treated in a cynically witty, urbane style:

  • first there was a set of letters supposedly written by women from myth and legend (the Heroides)
  • then the stylish Amores (‘Love poems’) which followed in the line of elegiac love lyrics pioneered by Catullus and developed by Tibullus and Propertius. The Amores were published in 16 BC
  • but most successful, and scandalous, was the Ars Amoris (‘The Art of Love’) which I thought might be a philosophical-moral treatise but turns out to be an extremely cynical, worldly guide to picking up women, preferably married women, for an illicit affair, closer to the world of Tinder and modern pickup artists than Plato or Castiglione. The Ars Amoris was published around 1 BC

Around the age of 40, Ovid made a significant shift in subject matter to produce the vast Metamorphoses, an encyclopedic collection of ancient myths and legends linked by the common topic of physical transformation i.e. tales of men and women who were changed by the gods or magic or fate into flowers, trees, animals, rivers and so on.

The poem contains flattering references to the emperor Augustus (who effectively ruled Rome single handed between 27 BC and his death in 14 AD) and leads up to a description of the apotheosis (conversion into a god) of Augustus’s adoptive father, Julius Caesar and then fulsome praise of Augustus himself. Metamorphoses was published in 8 AD.

Ovid was half way through writing a work which contains even more flattering references to Augustus and his extended family, the Fasti, a long poetic account of the Roman calendar which sets out to explain the origins and aspects of Rome’s numerous religious festivals, anniversaries and important dates – when he received an angry summons to the emperor’s personal presence, was given a fierce dressing down and instructed to pack his bags because he was being sent into exile (or to be precise relegatio). He was ordered to go and live in the wretched frontier town of Tomis, in the only partly-pacified province of Moesia, on the coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Romania.

Born in 43 BC, Ovid was 51 in late 8 AD when he was sent into exile.

Ovid’s exile

Why? What had he done which was so outrageous? For the last ten years of his life (8 to 18 AD) Ovid wrote these two books – 50 or so letters in which he pleaded with all his friends back in Rome to beg the emperor to change his mind and rescind his banishment, and 50 or so poems in which he gave poetic expression to the changing moods of an exile. But although he refers to the causes of his exile quite a few times, he never specifies exactly what it was.

To be precise, Ovid attributes his exile to two causes. One was that his recklessly cynical and amoral pickup guide The Art of Love offended against the very serious efforts of Augustus to restore traditional morality among Rome’s aristocracy, particularly when it came to marriage – banning adultery and rewarding fidelity and especially the parenting of children who should be brought up in a traditional, settled married environment. The Art of Love, as a guide to how to start and maintain adulterous affairs, flew straight in the face of everything Augustus was trying to achieve.

But Ovid himself thinks Augustus’s citing of this poem as a cause for exiling him was a smokescreen for a deeper reason. This he refers to repeatedly as his error but, infuriatingly, tells us his lips are sealed and he won’t explain it. For 2,000 years scholars have been forced to speculate.

Political – maybe was present at discussions about a coup to overthrow Augustus; maybe he was a witness to a secret marriage of Julia – either way Ovid’s hints imply that he himself was never part of a conspiracy, never carried out any action: but that he witnessed something and then, apparently, failed to report it.

The Tristia are accessible and enjoyable

I really struggled with Anne and Peter Wiseman’s prose translation of Ovid’s Fasti, several times thinking I’d have to give up reading the work altogether. It was only when I switched to A.S. Kline’s online verse translation that I was able to finish wading through the often very obscure and confusing text.

By contrast Peter Green’s verse translations of the Tristia and The Letters from Pontus are a delight to read. Above all, unlike long sections of the Fasti, it’s obvious what they’re about. Whether he’s describing the long stormy journey by sea to Tomis, or sending his book back to Rome, or praising his wife for her loyalty, or castigating an old friend for abandoning him, or begging Augustus for forgiveness, or saying his frivolous love poetry didn’t deserve to bring such a harsh fate down on their author’s head – the subject matter is obvious and the development of the argument almost always easy to follow.

Peter Green’s translation

This is immensely helped by Peter Green’s fresh, zingy, accessible translation. In fact there are two very strong points about this edition. One is the translation, which has an enjoyably flexible, rolling rhythm about it. The second is Green’s notes. Wiseman’s notes for the Fasti were sensible but fairly brief, restrained, limited. By contrast Green’s notes are almost long as the texts themselves (Tristia text 103 pages, Green’s notes 90 pages).

Green is gloriously unbuttoned, chatty, opinionated, fluent, garrulous. Tristia is divided into 5 books and each book gets a page or so of introduction explaining when it was written, describing Ovid’s changing tone of voice and approach as the books progress.

Then each poem in each book gets a page introduction to itself, before we get onto notes for specific references: these introductions describe what the poem is about, how it differs from other poems or echoes or repeats certain themes, how it riffs off this or that ancient genre or trope. Green freely discusses contemporary history, Ovid’s family relationships, the climate and people of Tomis, the theories of other scholars (for example, whether the poems are arranged in careful order or are more random) and so on, in a buttonholing garrulous manner which I found immensely interesting and entertaining.

And it is all immensely helpful for understanding how the tone and approach of the books changed over the long 10 years during which they were written; at understanding the genres or rhetorical conventions of Latin poetry which they invoke, copy or modify; for understanding the complex matrix of cross references Ovid sets up between them; and, on the simplest bucket level, understanding the historical events, the real historical people or the mythical personages which the poems refer to.

Instead of a set of standalone, isolated factual explications, Green’s notes are more like one vast essay of commentary and explication. His notes are easily as interesting to read as the poems.

Book 1 (11 poems)

1.1 (128 lines)

Little book – no, I don’t begrudge it you – you’re off to the City
without me, going where your only begetter is banned!

This is the envoi to book 1 and addresses the book as a sentient being which he is sending to Rome to argue on his behalf. This was an established literary convention (used by Catullus and Horace among others) but differs from its predecessors in introducing the recurrent theme that the book will argue for forgiveness and an end to his exile.

1.2 (110 lines)

‘You gods of sea and sky’ – what’s left me now but prayer? –
‘Don’t, break up our storm-tossed ship:
don’t, I beseech you, endorse great Caesar’s fury!’

Description of the violent storms which Ovid endured on his journey by ship across the Mediterranean in December 8 AD, with some poking fun at traditional descriptions and epic conventions around describing storms at sea.

1.3 (102 lines)

Nagging reminders: the black ghost-melancholy vision
of my final night in Rome,
the night I abandoned so much I dearly treasured,
to think of it, even now, starts tears…

Ovid paints the scene of his departure from Rome, the weeping and wailing of his servants and family, especially his (third) wife. With typical irony (and mocking epic convention) he compares himself briefly to Aeneas leaving Troy. More to the point he emphasises that his error was a mistake and not a deliberate crime.

1.4 (28 lines)

Dipped now in Ocean, the She-Bear’s stellar guardian
is stirring up stormy seas: yet here am I
constrained, not by my will, to plough the Adriatic…

Another description of his stormy journey, notable for the description of the figurehead of Minerva at the prow of the ship (Roman and Greek vessels carried painted figureheads of gods, to whom the crew prayed if they got into trouble).

1.5 (84 lines)

Friend, henceforth be reckoned the foremost among my comrades,
who, above all others, made your fate your own,
who first, I recall, when the bolt struck, dared to support me
with words of comfort…

Ovid praises the handful of friends who stuck by him when most of his fairweather friends bolted as soon as Augustus’s wrath struck his home. This passage, and Ovid’s plight generally, remind me much of Oscar Wilde’s sudden, fateful reversal of fortune, from talk of the town to almost complete abandonment by all but a handful of real friends:

Before my house’s downfall
visitors thronged the place, I was à la mode
if not ambitious. The first tremor sent them running…

In the second half of the poem Ovid wittily but bitterly compares himself to Ulysses who made a long and painful journey by sea, but the poet uses the extended comparison to bring out obvious differences, namely that Ulysses was a rough tough warrior, whereas Ovid is a sensitive poet unused to rough conditions; and that Ulysses was heading home to his loving wife and family whereas Ovid is heading away from everything that he loves.

1.6 (36 lines)

Not so dear was Lyde to the Clarian poet, not so truly
loved was Bittis by her singer from Cos
as you are deeply entwined, wife, in my heart…

In praise of his wife’s loyalty, including the (repeated so often as to become hackneyed) comparison with Ulysses’ loyal wife, Penelope. It ends with another theme which was to be repeated scores of times, the notion that his exile has killed off his former self, old Ovid is dead, and the old poetic exuberance borne of his high-flying social life is extinguished – but still the old dead suffering ex-poet can still squeeze out a few last lines:

Alas, my verses possess but scanty strength, your virtues
are more than my tongue can proclaim,
and the spark of creative vigour I once commanded
is extinct, killed off by my long
misfortunes. Yet in so far as our words of praise have power
you shall live through these verses for all time.

1.7 (40 lines)

Reader, if you possess a bust made in my likeness,
strip off the Bacchic ivy from its locks!
Such signs of felicity belong to fortunate poets:
on my temples a wreath is out of place.

A poem to a friend who’s stuck by Ovid, but which is really about the condition of the works Ovid leaves behind him in Rome. The poem claims that Ovid threw his copy of the Metamorphoses into the fire, and that it was unfinished, had yet to have a final revision:

…because the poem was still unfinished, still
in rough draft… it lacks my final hand:
a job snatched from me half-done, while still on the anvil,
a draft minus the last touch of the file.

1.8 (50 lines)

A poem of bitter reproach to an old friend who dumped him when trouble struck, scholars identify as the poem Macer, related to Ovid’s third wife, with whom he travelled through Greece and Asia Minor when he was a student. The poem opens with the rhetorical trope called adynaton meaning ‘impossibility’, similar to the modern saying ‘when hell freezes over’.

Back from the sea now, back to their sources shall deep rivers
flow, and the Sun, wheeling his steeds about,
run backward; earth shall bear stars, the plough cleave heaven,
fire shall give forth water, and water flames,
all things shall move contrary to the laws of nature,
no element in the world shall keep its path,
all that I swore impossible will happen now: there’s nothing left
that I can’t believe. This I prophesy after my betrayal by that person
who, I’d believed, would aid me in my distress…

1.9 (66 lines)

Reader, should you peruse this work without malice, may you
cross life’s finishing-line without a spill!

A poem to a faithful friend, notable for reminding friends who hesitate to support him that Augustus has demonstrated a capacity for clemency and respects those who stay loyal to friends and cause, even if they opposed him. Ovid says he wishes now he had never taken up the wretched art of poetry, seeing as where it’s led him. And repeats other recurring tropes: that the cynical amorality of the Ars Amatoria had nothing to do with his own private life which was chaste and faithful; and that it was a joke, a joke for God’s sake.

1.10 (50 lines)

I have (may I always keep!) blonde Minerva’s protection: my vessel
bears her painted casque, borrows her name.

In contrast to the earlier poems about storms at sea, this is a poem in praise of the good ship Minerva which brought him to a harbour in eastern Greece where they docked, Ovid unloaded and continued his journey by land, but the second half of the poem is an envisioning of the voyage back the ship will take, studded with famous placenames and historical references and calling down blessings on the good ship Minerva.

1.11 (44 lines)

Every word you’ve read in this whole book was written
during the anxious days
of my journey: scribbling lines in mid-Adriatic
while December froze the blood…

A poem highlighting the contrast between the lazy peaceful couch on which he composed his great works back in Rome, and the storm-tossed ship on which he tried to write poems on the blustery, brine-drenched journey East.

If these lines fall short – as they do –
of your hope: they were not written, as formerly, in my garden,
while I lounged on a favourite day-bed, but at sea,
in wintry light, rough-tossed by filthy weather, spindrift
spattering the paper as I write.

Book 2 (578 lines)

Book 2 stands out because instead of a set of 10 or so shorter poems it is one longer poem of 578 lines. Green cites earlier scholars who consider the poem a suasoria, meaning:

Suasoria is an exercise in rhetoric: a form of declamation in which the student makes a speech which is the soliloquy of an historical figure debating how to proceed at a critical junction in his life. (Wikipedia)

Or maybe a legal argument, to be presented in court. It consists of:

  1. the exordium – attempt to placate the judge (Augustus) (lines 1 to 26)
  2. the propositio – outlining the speaker’s aim (27 to 28)
  3. the tractatio – the handling or treatment in which the case is unfolded at length (29 to 578); this can be sub-divided into:
    1. probatio or proof of evidence (29 to 154)
    2. epilogus 1 or first conclusion, entering a plea for mitigation of sentence
    3. refutatio or rebuttal of the charge (Ovid argues that his poetry never corrupted anyone because to the pure all things are pure and to the corrupt, anything is corrupt) (207 to 572)
    4. epilogus 2 or second conclusion, again calling for clemency

In other words, even more than

Book 3 (15 poems)

These poems were composed in 9 to 10 AD. The first excitement of the journey into exile, undertaken in December 8 AD and vividly described in book 1, is over. He has spent one winter in Tomis and now knows the role freezing bitter cold is going to play in his life. And it is dawning on him that this exile isn’t for a year or so, isn’t a game which will come to an end – but is the bitter condition for the rest of his days.

3.1 (82 lines)

‘I’m an exile’s book. He sent me. I’m tired. I feel trepidation
approaching his city – kind reader, lend a hand.’

Book 3 poem 1 repeats the conceit of book 1 poem 1 in conceiving the book as envoy except that whereas in book 1 Ovid had been outside the book, sending it as the author, this poem speaks in the voice of the book itself. This allows the book itself to find its way through Rome in order to seek out readers, a library to stay in, and the palace of the great Augustus (who, for the umpteenth time, Ovid begs for forgiveness). In so doing, the poem provides an interesting and historically useful guide to the layout of the Rome of his day. He is as conscious as ever of the role the Ars Amoria plays in his personal disaster, something so well known that he has his book tell anyone encountering not to fear:

‘Have no fear: I won’t turn out an embarrassment to you:
no instructions about love, not one page,
not a syllable. So bleak my master’s misfortunes, he shouldn’t
try to camouflage them with light verse,
though that sport of his green years, that frivolous disaster
he now – too late, alas! – detests and condemns.
See what I bring you’ll find nothing here but lamentation,
verse matching its circumstances…’

The book’s tour of Rome, appropriately, at Asinius Pollio’s library

3.2 (30 lines)

So it was my destiny to travel as far as Scythia,
that land lying below the Northern pole,
and neither you, Muses, not you, Leto’s son Apollo,
cultured crowd though you are, gave any help
to your own priest…

Ovid makes the theme clear: he is a soft poet, not used to a hard life (‘an escapist, born for leisured comfort’), his erotic poetry was a joke, a pose, he was never a libertine in real life (‘my poetry’s more wanton than my life’). But now all that’s dead and gone.

The journey to Tomis was so stormy and colourful it helped to distract him from the misery of exile, even inspired him a bit. But now the hard fact of exile has hit him and his existence has settled into a monotonous drudge – it’s cold, it’s boring and it’s dangerous. Now ‘weeping is my only pleasure’. Now he yearns for death.

In the poem he knocks at the door of his own sepulchre door, which he finds stubbornly shut against him. (Green makes the typically illuminating comment that this is an inversion of the trope of the paraclausithyron, the image of the poet keeping watch morosely outside the locked door of his beloved, well established in the elegiac tradition and which Ovid had himself used in the Amores.

3.3 (88 lines)

If perhaps you’re wondering why this letter’s drafted
by another’s hand, I’ve been, am, sick,
sick, and at the unmapped world’s remotest limits,
scarce certain of my survival.

Ovid is ill and depressed. He lists the tribulations of exile: cold climate, impure water, depressing landscape, no proper housing, bad diet, no doctors to treat his illness, no friends’ conversation to distract him. He addresses his wife, swearing she’s the only woman he thinks about, he said her name during the delirium of his illness. He imagines his death. He writes his own epitaph.

3.4A (lines 1 to 46)

Ah friend, my dear care as always, though in harsh circumstances
first truly assayed, after my world’s collapse,
if you’ve any respect for the lessons experience has taught me,
live for yourself, keep far from all great names…

A poem to an unnamed friend, advising him to live a discrete, retired life, not to make grand acquaintances, not to fly too high lest, like poor Ovid, he be blasted by Jove’s thunderbolt. (The comparisons of Augustus with Jupiter, and the decision to exile Ovid falling on him like the god’s thunderbolt, appear in virtually all the poems, quickly becoming a part of their standardised litany of complaint.) He warns his friend to:

Live without rousing envy, enjoy years of undistinguished
ease and delight…

3.4B (lines 47 to 78)

A region that neighbours the polar constellations
imprisons me now, land seared by crimping frost…

The poem begins by lamenting the frozen waste he finds himself in, such that Rome and its familiar landscapes now linger on only in his memory. Next to them, his wife, whose image haunts him. And then his loyal friends. He asks them not to forget him, to do what they can to lend a hand to his cause.

3.5 (56 lines)

Our friendship was new and slight: you could have denied it
without any trouble. (You’d have not, I think,
embraced me more closely had my vessel been driven
on by a favouring wind.)

While some of his old friends have abandoned him, the (unnamed) addressee of this poem stuck by him despite being a new acquaintance. Ovid thanks and praises him, then asks that he use his eloquence to argue his cause before the emperor.

Again and again and again Ovid insists he did no wrong, he merely witnessed something and failed to report it: he committed no crime except simply having eyes. Here there’s one of the longest passages describing this, 10 lines of exculpation, emphasising that he committed an error but – as he repeats just as often – shying away from explaining the nature of this ‘error’. God, I can see why it’s driven 2,000 years of scholars mad with frustration.

3.6 (38 lines)

The bond of friendship between us, carissimo, you neither
wish to dissimulate, nor could if you so wished…

To his best friend, praising his loyalty, saying he’s shared everything with him – except the nature of the ‘offence’ which got him banished. If he’d shared it, his friend would have joined him in exile, indicating what a toxically powerful secret it must have been.

He repeats the claim that he, Ovid, didn’t do anything, merely witnessed something – so that it’s his eyes which are to blame. He says that even to hint at his crime would be ‘great risk’. He says it is better buried in deepest night. He asks his friend to help and intercede on his behalf with angry Jupiter.

3.7 (54 lines)

Go quickly, scribbled letter, my loyal mouthpiece,
and greet Perilla for me. Her you’ll find
either sitting in the company of her sweet mother
or among her books and poems…

A sweet and touching poem to his step-daughter, Perilla (his wife’s daughter by an earlier husband), now a young woman. Surprisingly, it turns out that she is a poet too, her talent spotted and nurtured by her dad. They often read their poems to each other. He praises her and tells her, if she’s worried about his fate, that she’ll be fine so long as she doesn’t set out to teach anyone about love (Ovid’s writing of The Art of Love having been given out as the official reason for his banishment).

It ends with a triumphant assertion of the supremacy and triumph of art. Age may wither her, the emperor’s punishment has blasted him – everything can be taken from them, and yet:

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
Look at me – I’ve lost my home, the two of you, my country,
they’ve stripped me of all they could take,
yet my talent remains my joy, my constant companion:
over this, Caesar could have no rights…

Caesar will die, yet so long as Rome exists, Ovid will be read. It must have been an optimistic claim, made to keep his spirits up and yet, 2,000 years later, amazingly… it’s true!

3.8 (42 lines)

Now I wish I were high aloft in the car of Triptolemus
who flung the untried seed on virgin soil…

He wishes for the paraphernalia of various mythological figures so he can fly back to Rome, then pulls himself up short. Fool! Instead of old legends he should be petitioning the real Augustus in the here and now. If not to end his exile at least to move him somewhere else. The wretched climate, the lack of all amenities and civilised companionship is sapping his spirit, making him ill. God, why didn’t Augustus just kill him outright and be done with it?

3.9 (34 lines)

Here too, then, there are – who would credit it? – Greek cities
among the wild place-names of barbary: here too
colonists, sent out from Miletus, founded Greek outposts
on Getic soil…

An aetiological poem i.e. one which explains a modern custom, practice or place name in terms of a myth or legend. In this case Ovid derives the name of his exile town, Tomis, from the old story that the witch Medea, having fled her homeland, saw the sail of the ship of her father, Aeëtes, approaching and, in panic, conceived a plan to delay him so she could make a getaway. The plan? To rip to shreds her brother and scatter his body parts about the shore, thus forcing her father to collect them together for a proper funeral pyre. In Latin the (false) etymology relates tomé, a noun meaning the act of chopping up, with Tomis.

Green’s notes tell us that a) aetiological poems were a speciality of the Hellenistic poet, Callimachus (305 to 240 BC) and b) Roman aetiological poems almost always get the etymology and derivation of words wrong. Odd that we, 2,000 years later, know more about their customs and, especially their language, than they did.

3.10 (78 lines)

If anyone there still remembers exiled Ovid, if my
name survives in the City now I’m gone,
let him know that beneath those stars that never dip in Ocean
I live now in mid-barbary, hemmed about
by wild Sarmatians, Bessi, Getae, names unworthy
of my talent!

A long vivid poem giving a rare description of what Tomis was actually like, or the landscape around it. To be precise Ovid focuses on the bitter freezing winter weather and the way the many mouths of the river Danube which enter the Black Sea close to the town freeze over. Not only that but the sea itself freezes: he knows, he’s walked on frozen waves.

But it’s worse, it’s not just that it’s cold: normally the river acts as a barrier against barbarian tribes but when it freezes they can ride over it and raid nearby villages. Some peasants flee, leaving their farms and possessions to be looted by the raiders. Some are shackled and led off to slavery. Some die in agony because the raider’s sharp arrowheads are dipped in poison. What they can’t steal, the barbarians burn to the ground.

3.11 (74 lines)

Whoever you are, vile man, who scoff at my misfortunes,
and with bloody zeal fling charges at me – you
were born from the rocks, by wild beasts’ udders nurtured
with flints, I’ll swear, in your breast…

A bitter recrimination against some (unnamed) enemy who is bad mouthing and savaging his character back in Rome. Why make a miserable man more miserable? Ovid laments the coldness, the isolation, he can’t speak the natives’ language, he suffered cruelly on the journey out, now he lives in terror of the violent tribesmen. O vile calumniator, why hit an unfortunate man when he’s down?

3.12 (54 lines)

West winds now ease the cold: at the year’s closure
a longer-than-ever winter must yield at last,
while the Ram (that bore Helle – and dropped her) now equalises
the hours of darkness and light…

March 10 AD. The first half of the poem is a vivid celebration of the sights and sounds of spring back in Rome and the Italian countryside, spring flowers, children playing in the fields, men exercising, the roar of crowds at the theatre.

Then the volta or ‘turn’ to contrast his sad isolated existence. For Ovid Spring means the very slow thaw of the ice, some water runs a bit free in the cistern. Wine left outside no longer freezes solid in the bottle. The Danube flows again and the Black Sea becomes navigable and so, once in a blue moon, a ship may arrive from Rome and Ovid will avidly question the captain for even the slightest scraps of gossip which can, for a moment, revive his link to his long-lost homeland.

3.13 (28 lines)

My birthday god’s here again, on time – and superfluous:
what good did I get from being born?
Cruel spirit, why come to increase this wretch’s years of exile?
You should rather have cut them short…

The Greeks considered the genethliakon or ‘birthday poem’ a genre in its own right, with its own rules and stock imagery. It’s here to mark Ovid’s birthday. He was born on 20 March 43 BC so, if this poem was written in 10 AD, he was 53.

But Ovid deliberately reverses all the conventions of the birthday poem. For example, he curses the birth god (the natalis) who oversaw his birth. It would have been more merciful to have let him die as a baby, or never be born at all, rather than endure this misery. Instead of the customary toga and ritual thanksgivings on his birthday, he’d prefer an altar of death.

3.14 (52 lines)

Patron and reverend guardian of men of letters, you always
befriended my talent – but what’s your attitude now?
In the days before my downfall you used to promote me –
and today?

Scholars consider the addressee of this poem to have been Caius Julius Hyginus, director of the Palatine library, patron of young poets, and a close friend in the old days back in Rome. The poem echoes the themes of books and libraries announced in poem 3.1, in other words they form bookends ti the volume.

Ovid hopes Hyginus is still supportive of his work. Books are like children, they can remain behind in the city even when the father is exiled. Ovid refers to the fact that his erotic poems (The Art of LiveThe Cure For Love) have been banned and removed from all libraries, but hopes the others are read.

Interestingly, he is at pains to emphasise that the Metamorphoses was left unfinished (a claim which consciously or unconsciously compares him with Virgil’s famously unfinished masterpiece, the Aeneid).

Then he turns to the present book, ‘a missive from the world’s end’, and asks Hyginus to be indulgent and remember the context of its writing: Ovid fears his talent has withered, he has forgotten his Latin, here in a place surrounded by barbarian tongues and threatened every day with violent attack, he worries all his stylishness has been rubbed off him. Please make allowances.

Book 4 (10 poems)

4.1 (106 lines)

Whatever defects there may be – and there will be – in these poems,
hold them excused, good reader, by the times
in which they were written. An exile, I was seeking solace,
not fame…

In the envoi to book 4 Ovid asks the reader’s indulgence, and to consider the miserable exile. His only true and steadfast companion is his Muse. He tells us how slaves, chained rowers, slave girls, manual labourers, sing songs to pass the time, as did the legendary figures Orpheus and even Achilles, sulking in his tent.

And so Ovid in exile. He ought to curse the avocation which led him to write the love guide which led to his downfall, but he can’t: he’s hooked. Writing transports him away from his miserable situation, drugs him, like the potions which numbed the lotus eaters.

What is he drugging himself from? The horrible situation of living in a walled defensive town liable to attack at any moment from barbarian tribes. He describes the way the way the alarm goes and he has to buckle on a sword although he’s 60 years old! He repeats the description of the way the raiders capture, shackle and lead off to slavery local farmers, or just shoot them with poisoned arrows and leave them to die.

Once again he laments that there is no-one at all to read his poems to who will understand them let alone appreciate them. Sometimes he waters the paper with his tears. Sometimes he crunches them up and throws them in the fire. What has survived he presents in this book and craves our indulgence.

4.2 (74 lines)

Already fierce Germany, like all the world, confronted
by the Caesars, may well have bent her knee
in surrender…

He imagines the full panoply of celebrations surrounding what he assumes must be Tiberius’s victories in Germany, including the sacrifices in temples and the great public triumphant procession through Rome, all under the guiding vision of beneficent Augustus.

The poem switches to meditate on the process of imagination itself, by which he is imagining and visualising all this, for his imagination, his mind’s eye, can go where he, alas, never again can.

4.3 (84 lines)

He asks the stars of the new constellation to turn their eyes upon his wife, ‘sweetest of wives’. He hopes she is missing him. Then addresses her directly and asks a series of rhetorical questions itemising her grief (when she looks at his untouched pillow in their marital bed, does she weep?)

Yet, to be honest, he wishes he had died. Then she would have something simple and pure to weep over, instead of his agonising shame, and the fact that he lives, but forever inaccessible to her. She supported him and was so proud of his achievements, for so long. Please don’t be ashamed of him, now. Defend him. Intercede for him.

4.4 (88 lines)

O you who with your high birth and ancestral titles
in nobility of character still outshine
your clan, whose mind mirrors your father’s brilliance
while retaining a brilliance all your own…

An appeal to Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalinus, the eldest son of Ovid’s patron (recently deceased), Messalla Corvinus. Ovid sings Valerius’s praises but as the poem proceeds it becomes clear he never really knew the boy and is trying to curry favour because of the connection with his (now dead) father.

This leads Ovid into embarrassed contortions, and apologies, before going on to the usual litany of self-exculpation (‘it wasn’t a crime, it was an error‘) before begging Valerius to intervene with Augustus to ask for his exile to be, if not revoked, that at least he be moved somewhere better, safer from raids by barbarians, hot for blood and plunder, some of whom are cannibals.

4.5 (34 lines)

A sycophantic poem addressed to Messalinus’s younger brother, Marcus Valerius Cotta Maximus although, as with all the Tristia the addressee is not explicitly named – because Ovid knew it would do nobody any good to be associated with his disgrace, his exile, his crime. This young man was loaded and well connected. Ovid politely, discreetly, begs for his help.

Do what you safely can: rejoice in your heart that I’m mindful
of you, that you’ve been loyal to me; still bend,
as now, to your oars to bring me succour…

4.6 (50 lines)

Believe me I’m failing; to judge from my physical condition
I’d say my troubles have a scant
future remaining – I lack my old strength and colour,
there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones;
yet sick though my body is, my mind is sicker
from endless contemplation of its woes…
(lines 39 to 44)

Two winters have passed (of 9 and 10 AD) so scholars think this poem was written in 11. Ovid is tired, worn down, sick in mind and body, and has one hope left – ‘that my troubles may be soon cut short by death’.

4.7 (26 lines)

Twice has the Sun approached me after the chills of icy
winter, twice rounded his journey off
through the sign of the fish.

The sign of the Fish enters the Sun in February so scholars date this poem to 11 AD. Ovid reproaches a dear old friend (unnamed like all the addressees of these poems) for not writing to him, hoping he has written, but that the letters have got lost on the long, fraught journey to the outer reaches of the empire.

4.8 (52 lines)

Already my temples are mimicking swans’ plumage,
and hoary age bleaching my once-dark hair;
already the frail years are on me, the age of inertia,
already my infirm self fins life too hard…

He has grown old. Ships, racehorses, charioteers, old soldiers, all these get to be pensioned off – why not an old poet? Why can’t an old poet be set free from his miserable exile and allowed to return?

At my time of life I shouldn’t be breathing this alien
air, or easing my thirst at Getic wells,
but dividing my days between those peaceful country gardens
I once possessed, and the pleasures of human life,
the human round…

4.9 (32 lines)

Ovid is ferociously angry with an unnamed enemy who has been bad-mouthing the powerless poet back in Rome. Ovid calls down vengeance on him – ‘then luckless sorrow will perforce take arms’ – and promises that his angry words will travel the world and last for generations to come – as they, indeed, did.

Although
I’m sequestered on this wasteland where the northern stars circle
high and dry above my gaze, nevertheless
my clarion message will go forth to countless peoples,
my complaint shall be known world-wide;
whatever I say shall be heard, across deep waters;
my lamentation shall find a mighty voice.

4.10 (132 lines)

This is the best known of all the 100 or so exilic poems for the simple reason that it is a versified autobiography, detailing Ovid’s early life and career, his decision to choose poetry and art over a career in public service, then the inevitable story of his erotic poetry – emphasising, as always, the clear distinction between his promiscuous poetry and his respectable personal life. And then on to his notorious ‘error’ and so into exile.

He dwells on the deaths of his elder brother, which left him maimed. Later the deaths of his father then mother, and he thinks them lucky to have led long blameless lives. Maybe from Elysium they can hear him when he assures them (for the umpteenth time) that his exile was caused by an error not a crime.

When a youth the older poets were like gods to him. Old Macer read him his latest poems. Propertius and he had ‘a close-binding comradeship between us’. Horace, ‘that metrical wizard’, held them spellbound to the sound of the lyre. Virgil he only saw, never spoke to. Tibullus died young, before he could make his acquaintance. He thinks of the elegiac poets as being, in chronological order, Gallus (whose entire oeuvre is lost), Tibullus, Propertius then himself (interesting that he doesn’t mention Catullus).

He lists his three marriages, the first wife ‘worthless and useless’, the second wife died young, and now his long third marriage. His daughter makes him a grandfather. He is growing old when the thunderbolt falls, and he is sent into exile.

The cause (though too familiar to everyone) of my ruin
must not be revealed through testimony of mine.

After a long and gruelling journey (again and again he compares himself to Ulysses) he arrives in his wretched place of exile and now, his only remaining solace is writing poems, when he can. Again, he repeats the idea that everything else is lost, but his talent, his gift, and the Muse which brings it, remain.

Book 5 (15 poems)

Yet another Black Sea booklet
to add to the four I’ve already sent!

The fifth and final book of Tristria is different in tone from the previous four, more resigned, more limited in ambition, with less zest and irony. More tetchy, irritated, and desperate. Only one poem is descriptive (i.e describes Tomis). The other 13 are all addressed to specific individuals, half of them to his wife (more than in the previous four books put together) begging them all to get Augustus to revoke his exile or, at least, assign him somewhere warmer, safer and closer to Rome.

His references and analogies become increasingly repetitive. In every single poem he repeats that he did nothing wrong, he committed no bloodshed, it was a simple ‘error’, he merely witnessed something by accident, by mistake.

In every poem Augustus is compared to Jupiter (reasonably enough). Ovid repeatedly compares himself to Capaneus, one of the heroes of the war against Thebes who, as he led the attack on one of the city’s gates shouted that not even Jupiter could stop him now, so Jupiter promptly zapped him with a thunderbolt.

Or to Philoctetes, suffering from a wound which would never heal, for ten long years abandoned on the inhospitable island of Lemnos.

5.1 (80 lines)

I don’t correct these poems, let them be read as written:
they’re no more barbarous than their place of birth.

He warns his reader that this is not a book of sexy, frivolous poems as by Gallus, Tibullus or Propertius. They are grim and bleak, like his circumstances: ‘A dirge best fits a living death’.

He imagines a critical reader wondering why he’s bothering to write such depressing poems, and defends it as a form of crying out in pain, an action he then defends by giving half a dozen mythological examples of legendary figures crying out in unendurable pain.

He defends his erotic poetry against the charge of immorality by pointing out the only person who ever suffered because of it was him.

(Green makes the droll point that, alone of all the Augustan poets Ovid was singled out for immorality therefore undermining Augustus’s reforming legislation about marriage; and yet, as far as we know, Ovid was the only one of the famous poets to be married: neither Virgil (gay), Horace (promiscuous bachelor), nor Propertius were.)

5.2 (78 lines)

To his wife, increasingly desperate, sick and depressed.

It’s a barbarous land that now holds me, earth’s final outpost,
a place ringed by savage foes.

He accuses his wife of not putting herself out as she should on his behalf. Has she deserted him, like everyone else? He tells her to approach the emperor directly. If she won’t then he will and at line 45 the poem changes to a hymn of praise to Augustus. All the double-edged irony and wit which you can discern in the earlier references to Augustus has evaporated. Now he is on his knees, spouting extravagantly excessive praise and openly begging.

O glory, O image of the country that flourishes through you,
O hero to match the very sphere you rule.

He says it’s not the cold, nor the lack of culture among a people none of whom speak Latin, it’s the fear of attack by uncivilised barbarians, living in a small settlement protected only by one low wall, that he’s seen fighting at close quarters, that he lives in constant anxiety and insecurity. He begs Augustus to move him to some less terrifying place of exile.

5.3 (58 lines)

A poem celebrating Bacchus, god of wine, on his feast day, the Liberalia, 17 March (described in Ovid’s poetic version of the Roman calendar, the Fasti) then asking him to intercede with Augustus.

5.4 (50 lines)

From the Black Sea’s shore I have come, a letter of Ovid’s,
wearied by sea-travel, wearied by the road.
Weeping he told me: ‘See Rome, for you it’s not forbidden –
alas, how better far your lot than mine!’

Ovid repeats the conceit of having the poem speak in the first person as a letter, all the way from the shores of the Black Sea to the (unnamed) recipient in Rome, a letter able to go where he, alas, cannot, sealed with a signet ring wet with his tears.

But he emphasises that he accepts he was wrong, accepts punishment, like a broken horse doesn’t strain against the leash. He just wishes the great god who punished him will show mercy.

The letter rehearses Ovid’s grievances and bitter experiences before going on to describe the addressee as his best friend, remembering how he stuck by him when almost everyone else abandoned him, how he visited Ovid and wept and tried to console him for his sad fate.

5.5 (64 lines)

A poem to his wife. It’s her birthday so he describes going through the rituals to celebrate a birthday, namely wearing a white toga, building an altar from turf, hanging a woven wreath, lighting a fire and sprinkling wine and incense on it. He sends her a fleet of good wishes, may she have a long untroubled life. He says she has a strength of character to match Penelope or Andromache, she is a paragon of ‘uprightness, chastity, faithfulness’.

He introduces a series of classical comparisons with the thought that all those famous women from antiquity were famous because of their husband’s suffering and their loyalty – Andromache, Penelope, Evadne (wife of the recurring figure of Capaneus, blasted by Jupiter), Alcestis, Laodamia.

But she doesn’t deserve to be famous for her husband’s suffering and her share of it, and so the poem ends with a plea to Augustus to forgive him, for his wife’s sake if not his own.

5.6 (46 lines)

Poem to an unnamed friend. Ovid recriminates the friend for dropping him, now he’s in trouble, now he’s become a ‘burden’. Ovid compares him unfavourably to a raft of mythological figures famous for their loyalty. For the umpteenth time he invokes a familiar set of similes to indicate the sheer number of woes he suffers, as numerous as reeds which soak sodden ditches, or bees on Mount Hybla (famous for its honey), or ants carrying grains to their nest, or grains of sand on the seashore, or ears of wheat in a field.

5.7A (lines 1 to 24)

A short letter to an unnamed friend in which he describes himself as wretchedly miserable and gives a rare description of the native inhabitants, great hordes of tribal nomads, Sarmatians, Getae, hogging the road on their horses, each bearing a bow and quiver full of poisoned arrows, fierce faces, harsh voices, shaggy hair and beards, quick to argue and stab each other with the knives in their belts.

These are the people Ovid lives among, the elegant esteem he won for his light love verses back in Rome long, long forgotten and irrelevant in this harsh environment and violent, illiterate society.

5.7B (lines 25 to 68)

Some scholars divide the poem in two, because this second half switches from describing the grim natives of Tomis and whirls us back to Rome where he hears that his poems are now recited and applauded on the stage (the translator, Peter Green, speculates that this is for the pantomimi where an actor declaimed verses while dancers danced; sounds like ballet).

He curses his poetry which got him into such trouble, and yet he has nothing else. Here in this windswept waste amid violent, illiterate tribals, writing poetry is the only consolation he has, the only last slender link with distant Rome and his former life.

Then about language: not a single person in Tomis speaks Latin, none. Some speak a very debased form of Greek, legacy of when the town was founded centuries ago by Greeks. But most speak only the local tribal tongues. When he talks to anyone it is in pidgen-Sarmatian. He worries not only that he’s lost his style, in the absence of Latin speakers to listen to and comment on his poems – he worries that he’s forgetting Latin. And so he spends his time conversing with himself and doing writing exercises and writing these poems, holding at bay the collapse of his language skills and talent.

Thus I drag out my life and time, thus
tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes.
Through writing I seek an anodyne to misery: if my studies
win me such a reward, that is enough.

5.8 (38 lines)

Angry poem to an unnamed person who has been spreading malicious lies about him, a ‘vile wretch’ than whom no-one is lower. Once again Ovid curses this person, then emphasises the non-criminal nature of his error, praises the emperor’s clemency (hoping against hope), and hopes for the end of his exile and recall.

The early part of the poem is an interesting invocation of the goddess Fortune, whose wheel is always turning, and Nemesis, ‘hot for revenge’. Ovid says he has certainly been brought from the pinnacle of fame to miserable exile, but what makes his unnamed critic so confident the same thing won’t happen to him?

For Ovid hopes that Augustus will apply his mercy and recall him, at which point the critic will be amazed to see his face, one day, in Rome and then Ovid knows things which will secure that his critic is sent into exile!

5.9 (38 lines)

A poem to a friend who stayed loyal, Ovid claims more or less the only friend who stayed loyal and so he wishes he could a) name him (but that is forbidden for the friend’s own safety), b) devote every poem he ever writes in future to his friend’s praise.

The poem is factually interesting because it (unconsciously) brings to the fore the thought that whatever Ovid did (his notorious error) may actually have merited death. Therefore his relegatio already exemplified Augustus’s mercy, and that this may account for why no further mercy(i.e. relenting and letting Ovid return; even moving his place of exile to somewhere less inhospitable) may have been impossible for Augustus.

Behind all this is the most common interpretation of his fate which is that it was tied to something he saw being enacted in favour of Julia and her so-called ‘party’, meaning the aide of the extended Augustan family which wanted the succession to pass to a male on her side of the family.

Tiberius had had two sons by Julia, Augustus’s daughter – Gaius and Lucius, who died in 4 and 2 AD, respectively. Agrippa Postumus, Julia’s son by her first husband, Agrippa, had been unadopted and exiled in 7 AD. Julia herself was sent into exile in 8 AD, the same year as Ovid, ostensibly for immorality and widespread adultery, though conspiracy theorists from that day to this speculate that she was involved in some kind of plan to overthrow Augustus and replace the heir apparent with someone from her side of the family, or possibly a male contender who she married in the hypothetical secret marriage that Ovid hypothetically witnessed or knew about but didn’t report.

Both the Roman historians, Cassius Dio and Suetonius refer to a series of plots in the final years of Augustus’s rule, the most serious in the spring or early summer of 8 AD. Green thinks Ovid’s error was some kind of passive involvement in one of these (note p.212).

Thus the speculation engendered by Ovid’s frustrating failure, in over 100 poems of exile, to spell out what his offence was.

If it was a secret marriage, or a vow, or some kind of ceremony binding the Julia party, this explains the unremitting opposition to Ovid of the man who emerged during these years as the (reluctant) heir apparent, Tiberius, and of his scheming mother, Augustus’s second wife, Livia.

If Ovid’s error had somehow proved him sympathetic to the Julia party then not only was this the reason for his relegatio but explains why Livia made quite sure that Augustus, even if he contemplated mercy, never enacted it. And that when Tiberius came to power in 14 AD, Ovid stood no chance.

It explains why Ovid never mentions Tiberius in any of the 100 exile poems, but does mention Germanicus and Drusus, heirs in the Julian line. (Indeed, in exile Ovid reworked the first book of the unfinished Fasti to introduce a new dedication to Germanicus, Tiberius’s nephew, who Augustus had forced him to adopt in 4 AD – presumably in the hope that he would intercede with Augustus.)

It explains something which comes over in the notes – though not explicitly in the poems – which is that his friends back in Rome, in varying degrees, saw the way the wind was blowing, saw that Tiberius’s rise to power was becoming unstoppable, and so shifted allegiance to the coming man.

For all his contacts back in Rome, then, defending Ovid not only risked angering the old and visibly ailing emperor Augustus, but alienating the new master.

5.10 (52 lines)

Ovid tells his addressee he’s been in Tomis for 3 winters, watching the Danube freeze over. He ponders time: has time in general slowed down or is it only for him? In which case, is time subjective? (Well, the experience of it obviously is).

Once again he laments his location and, above all, the endless threat from marauding tribes whose only language is rape and pillage and the feeble defences (a good defensive site and a low wall) which is all that stands between Tomis and violent death. Their poisoned arrows litter the streets. Farmers dare not farm for they will be raided at any moment. Over half the population of the town are tribals, their chest-length hair, their shaggy bears, their trousers, fill him with loathing.

He knows that the townspeople regard him as the outsider, the oddity, with his soft hands and strange foreign language. Here he is the barbarian. OK, he admits, maybe it was right for him to be exiled…but to a place like this? It is cruel.

5.11 (30 lines)

The poem starts out feeling terribly sorry for his wife who, he’s learned, has been called ‘the wife of an exile’ as a deliberate insult. He grieves at the shame he’s brought upon her and tells her to be steadfast.

Then he switches, for the umpteenth time, to consider his fate. He does this to try and console his wife by making a fine legal distinction, namely that the emperor could have had him a) executed or b) fully exiled (deportatio), deprived of all rights and Roman citizenship. Instead Ovid was c) given the milder punishment of relegatio and so has retained life and estates and civil rights; to that extent, the emperor showed clemency, a punishment fitting his error, not a crime. To that extent the bastard who called his wife ‘the wife of an exile’ was wrong. So there! Little comfort, the modern reader might feel, to his lonely, distant wife.

Then in a move which feels pitifully grovelling, Ovid turns to praising the emperor, claiming his decision was just and mild, and that is why he devotes his poems to praising him:

Rightly then, Caesar, and to the very best of their powers
my poems (such as they are) proclaim your praise…

But if the interpretation that Ovid had seen something (as he repeatedly says, he didn’t do anything, his error was simply to witness, to see something) which somehow linked him with the Julia party, implicated him in a secret marriage or plan or collaboration which, in effect, was a conspiracy against the emperor and his chosen successor, Tiberius – if this was the case then it’s sadly obvious to the reader that absolutely no amount of grovellingly sycophantic hymns to Augustus would ever change Ovid’s plight. And they didn’t

5.12 (68 lines)

Reply to a friend who appears to have told him to buck up and write poems. Ovid sullenly replies there are two kinds of poems, the best ones, the real ones, require happiness and peace of mind to emerge, as inspiration (a commonplace of Roman poetry also mentioned by Horace, Tacitus, Juvenal among others). Here, in the grim outback, surrounded by barbarian tribesmen, the best he can do is squeeze out these exile elegies which are, in reality, mere vehicles for his complaints and grievances.

As to cheering up, should Priam have had fun fresh from his son’s funeral, should Niobe have held a party after all her children were killed?

Chief among the Forces undermining the peace of mind needed for composition are fear, constant fear of attack and violent death. Beside, long rusting has eaten away his talent. He is a field that’s been long unploughed and returned to stones and weeds. He is a rowboat kept out of the water that has cracked and rotting. So that explains the poor quality of the poems he now sends to Rome, such as this one itself.

Finally, a young poet is fired by ambition for renown, to be famous, numbered among the immortals. Now all that has soured to nothing. Now he wishes to be unknown, never to have been famous. His poems got him into this mess. He bitterly blames the Muses for ever inspiring him.

No-one in his remote outpost, a place of savage jabber and animal outcry’, even understands Latin, let alone the wonderful refinements and tricks he brought to it. Lastly, he admits his inspiration does still drive him to write – but he still has his standards and most of it ends up in the fire. Only ‘scraps of my efforts’, such as this very poem, survive because they have a practical purpose.

[What, 2,000 years of fans and scholars have wondered, were those poems he consigned to the flames about and how good were they? Unless this is another trope, developed solely for literary purposes, to illustrate his feelings of disgust and failure, just as he claims to have consigned his own draft of the Metamorphoses to the flames in 1.7. (note p.214)]

5.13 (34 lines)

Of all the Tristia poems this one is most like a letter in format, starting with the standard salutation (‘Good health and greetings from Ovid in his outback’) ending with the standard ‘Farewell’. In between the short poem addresses a loyal friend, possessed of ‘oak-touch loyalty’, complaining that:

  • he’s sick, the mental illness has penetrated his body, to give him a searing pain in his side (Green and scholars suspect pleurisy, triggered by the freezing climate)
  • this friend doesn’t send him enough letters to alleviate his bleak isolation

Ovid hopes the friend has not forgotten him, it’s merely the errancy of the postal service not delivering the letters. He remembers their many happy conversations, talking late into the night. Now letters between them can recreate that intimacy and intelligence. Please write.

5.14 (46 lines)

The final poem in the volume is to his wife, ‘dearer to me than myself’. It’s odd because it defines her, praises her, for sharing his suffering; it is this, her role as wife to a famous poet and tragic figure, which will make her immortal, just like Penelope, Andromache and Alcestis, Evadne and Laodameia.

To be good when there are no tribulations is easy; but to be faithful, as she has been, after the wreck of a god’s thunderbolts, ‘that is true married love/that’s loyalty indeed.’

He praises her continually and now – the poem veers in subject matter – wants her to return his devotion by appealing on his behalf. It is a sincere love poem, and that he ends the entire book with it is moving – even though a modern critic, particularly feminist, may find it objectionable, the extent to which he defines his wife solely in relationship to him. But then, he was in a dire situation.

Terms of rhetoric

Green is chatty, loquacious, garrulous, sprinkling his introductions and notes with foreign phrases (not just Latin – French and the like), references to modern poets (T.S Eliot crops up a lot [pages 217, 220, 224], so we can deduce he is an influence on Green’s translating style) and mention of ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical devices. These always interest me but I have a terrible memory for them. So here’s an (incomplete) list:

  • adynaton – a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility: ‘pigs will fly’ (note p.216)
  • apologia – a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct
  • chiasmus – (‘to shape like the letter Χ’) reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses – but no repetition of words: ‘By day the frolic, and the dance by night’
  • circumlocution – the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea; in ancient poetry it refers to poets’ habit of referring to people in terms of their relationships to someone else (‘the son of…’, ‘the wife of…’ etc) or to a place (‘the Phrygian hero’); this can often make ancient poetry difficult to read – it’s particularly common in Ovid’s Fasti which is why I found it such a demanding read (note p.219)
  • genethliakon – a poem in honour of a birthday in association with a gift or standing alone. Callim.
  • hysteron proteron – a figure of speech consisting of the reversal of a natural or rational order: ‘putting the cart before the horse’ (note p.218)
  • laudatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in praise or commendation of someone or something
  • propemptikon – a poem that wishes a departing friend or relative all the best for a prosperous trip overseas, such as 1.1
  • recusatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in which the poet says he is unable or disinclined to write the type of poem which he originally intended to, and instead writes in a different style; the Hellenistic poet Callimachus introduced the trope of saying his poetic gift was too modest to attempt great epics, so he would write frivolous love poems instead, and this trope was copied in Augustan Rome by Virgil, Horace, Propertius and Ovid
  • synkrisis – the juxtaposition of people or things with the aim of comparing them: a famous exampe is the juxtaposition of the long speeches by Caesar then Cato in Sallust’s account of the Catiline conspiracy
  • variatio – varying a theme with digressions, examples and so on
  • zeugma – (note p.220) any case of parallelism and ellipsis working together so that a single word governs two or more other parts of a sentence: ‘She filed her nails and then a complaint against her boss’

Conclusion

After struggling through both the Metamorphoses and especially the FastiTristia came as a welcome relief. Although a hundred pages long in the Penguin translation, it’s made up of short, discrete poems which you can pick up and read in a few minutes. You can immediately grasp what they’re about, what he’s saying, and immediately empathise with his feelings.

All this is hugely helped by Peter Green’s easy-going, demotic translations and his free approach to rhythm and metre which means you barely notice you’re reading poetry, in the best sense, meaning each poem flows smoothly, seems well phrased and expresses its meaning, conveys its purpose, easily and enjoyably. Surprisingly accessible and enjoyable.

And strongly helped by the fact that the editorial apparatus around the poems is so ample and informative. Not only the introduction to the entire volume, but the extremely useful introductions to each individual poem accompanied by useful notes, but also a long Glossary of named individuals and places. Altogether it makes for a full and thorough and rich and informative experience. Other translations are available, but this is one of the best, most compendious, most enjoyable volumes of Roman literature that I’ve read.


Credit

Peter Green’s translation of Tristia by Ovid was published by Penguin books in 1994. All references are to this 1994 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Fasti by Ovid

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

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

The word ‘fasti’

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

Astrology

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

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

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

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

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

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

The words ‘fasti’ and ‘calendar’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories

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

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

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

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

I love you Augustus.

Ovid’s research

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

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

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

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

Elegiac couplets and poetic incapacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ovid and Augustus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sycophantic attitude colours every book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of Rome more generally:

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

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

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

Much good it was to do him.

Who’s talking

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

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

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

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

The months

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

January

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

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

February

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

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

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

March

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

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

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

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

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

April

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

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

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

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

Wherefore:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 19: Pallas begins to be worshipped on the Aventine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison of editions

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Roman reviews

Metamorphoses by Ovid – 2

‘The heavens and everything which lies below them change their shape, as does the earth and all that it contains.’
(Pythagoras in his great discourse about mutability in book 15 of the Metamorphoses)

(This is the second of two notes-and-summaries of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically of books 8 to 15. Read my previous blog post for notes on the first seven books of the poem.)

Book 8

King Minos of Crete arrives on the Greek mainland and attacks the town of Algathous whose king is Nisus. The town’s security is guaranteed by a purple lock in his hair. His daughter, Scylla, falls hopelessly in love with manly, handsome Minos as she watches him fighting from the town’s battlements. She wants to marry him. Eventually her crush leads her to betray her father and town by cutting off the purple lock while he’s asleep, then taking it through the enemy ranks to present to Minos. Minos accepts it and the fall of the town but recoils at Scylla’s treachery, sacks the town and sails away without her. Enraged, Scylla throws herself off the cliffs into the sea but half way down is transformed into a bird called a shearer; so it is another ‘etymological myth’, working back from a name which happens to be cognate with a meaningful word to invent a story to explain it.

What’s interesting is how much Ovid enters Scylla’s thought process, giving us full access to the series of arguments leading up to her decision to betray her father. Very much like the extended soliloquy of Medea deciding to betray her father for handsome Jason. Both very like the extended argumentation of the Heroides, and a new thing – not present in the first 7 or so books.

Minor returns to Crete and Ovid spends far less time (half a page) dealing with the entire story of the Minotaur, Daedelus constructing the labyrinth in which to hide it, and how Theseus killed it and found his way out using the thread provided by Ariadne (another maiden who betrays her father out of love for a handsome warrior).

Ovid goes into more detail about Daedalus making the wings of feathers for himself and his son and flying away from Crete. I’d forgotten that Ovid includes a passage which anticipates the opening of Auden’s famous poem about Daedalus, not the precise details, but the idea that it was observed by ordinary peasants. Ovid 6 AD:

Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of them as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment…(book 8, p.185)

Auden 1938 AD:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;

Icarus crashes and dies, his father recovers his body from the sea, builds a tomb, settles in Sicily. What struck me about this long-ish account is it isn’t really a metamorphosis at all. Clipping on fake wings is not changing your essential nature.

Back in Athens Theseus is greeted as a hero, having killed the Minotaur. He then gets involved in the great hunt of the Calydonian Boar. This beast was loosed on Calydon after King Oeneus made the bad mistake of giving offerings to all the other gods except Diana – who plagued his land with a giant boar.

An immense troop of heroes assembles, led by Meleager and featuring a rare female warrior, Atalanta. Many are injured, some killed as they corner the boar, but Atalanta draws first blood then Meleager finishes it off. Smitten, he hands Atalanta the spoils, being the head and skin. But his uncles, Plexippus, and Toxeus, are outraged at giving spoils to a woman and overrule him. Blind with anger Meleager kills both his uncles. When his mother (and their sister) Althaea hears of this she fills the city with her weeping and wailing etc, then takes out the old log which soothsayers said would match Meleager’s life and throws it on the fire. Back in the forest Meleager feels a burning sensation and, inexplicably finds himself consumed to ashes. Althaea then kills herself.

Two things: once again, this isn’t a metamorphosis at all and b) Ovid, once again, devotes his creative energy to Althaea’s soliloquy in which she agonises over whether to avenge her brothers and kill her own son. These anguished moral debates by female figures obviously fascinate him.

Meleager’s sisters bemoan his death and in pity Diana gives them feathers and transforms them into birds (guinea fowl).

On the way back to Athens Theseus and his companions are blocked by a swollen river, the River Acheloüs, which advises them to wait till his waters have dropped. He invites them to a feast then tells the story of how he turned nymphs who didn’t worship him into islands, especially the nymph he seduced (or raped?), Perimele, whose outraged father threw her into the sea but Achelous persuaded Neptune to change into an island.

A very rare heart-warming story: Philemon and Baucis. As part of the same scene after the meal given by River Acheloüs, Ixion’s son Pirithoüs mocks the notion of the gods intervening in mortal lives. Which prompts Lelexto tell the story of how Jupiter and Mercury toured a region of Phrygia looking for good people to take them in. They were spurned by all the households until they came to the poorest of all, owned by Philemon and Baucis who took them in and shared all their food. Impressed by their goodness, the god makes them climb a hill and watch the area be flooded and everyone drowned and their own house turned into a temple. Then Jupiter offers them a wish, and they decide they want to tend his temple for as long as they may, and then both die at the same time. And so it comes to pass and when their time comes they are transformed into an oak tree and a lime tree.

The river then mentions Proteus, capable of changing into any number of shapes. And goes on to tell the story of Erysichthon. This was an impious man who got his men to chop down a huge oak tree sacred to Ceres. As they chop it they hear the voice of the dying dryad inside prophesying that he will be punished.

The other dryads beg Ceres to take revenge so Ceres sends an oread (mountain spirit) in her chariot all the way to the Caucasus to meet Hunger in her lair and order her to haunt Erysichthon. Sure enough Hunger comes by night and embraces him, breathing her spirit into his soul. As soon as he wakes he calls for feast after feast but can never slake his hunger. He eats his way through his entire fortune then sells his daughter, Mestra, for more money for food.

Mestra, sold into slavery, begs help and Neptune takes pity. As she is walking along the shore before her master, Neptune changed her into a fisherman. When the master asks whether she/he has seen a girl she denies it and he goes off puzzled – at which Neptune changes her back.

This ability to change at will is now permanently hers and her father sells her again and again to different masters and she assumes a shape and escapes. But eventually even the money brought in from selling and reselling his daughter isn’t enough to slake his invincible hunger and Erysichthon ends up eating himself!

Book 9

Achelous tells his guests about the time he wrestled with Hercules for the hand of Deianira, transforming himself into a snake then a bull. Hercules rips off one of his horns, thus mutilating his forehead permanently, but otherwise unscathed and now river nymphs decorate his head with willow leaves so that no one notices. Next morning Theseus and companions leave his cave.

Segue to the story of Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira i.e. Nessus the centaur offers to carry Deianira over a flooded river but then goes to carry her off so Hercules downs him with a single arrow. As he dies Nessus soaks his blood into his shirt and tells Deianira, standing nearby in horror, that his blood is a love potion (lying, as he knows it is a fierce poison). Hercules rescues Deianira and takes her off. Some time later Deianira hears that Hercules is having an affair with Iole (daughter of Eurytus) and is going to being her back to their house. She agonises about how to win back her husband, remembers the shirt soaked in Nessus’s dried blood and gets a servant, Lichas, to take it to Hercules as a token of her love. He puts it on and the toxic blood immediately starts burning him. He tries to tear it off but it rips his skin, bellowing in agony. He throws the cowering servant, Lichas, into the sea, who is turned to stone so that a stone in human sometimes appears in the Euboean Gulf at low tide and sailors call it Lichas to this day.

Eventually Jupiter takes pity on his son, sloughs off his human part and translates his immortal part into the heavens.

Cut to Hercules’s mother, Alcmena, telling Iole about the hero’s birth, namely how Juno, hating Hercules even before his birth, orders the goddess of birth Lucina to squat outside Alcmena’s house with her arms and legs crossed which, magically, effected Alcmena’s womb and prevented the child’s birth. Until Alcmena’s loyal servant Galanthis fools Lucina by telling her the baby’s already been born. Surprised, Lucina uncrosses her legs and the baby Hercules then can be born. Furious, Lucina grabbed Galanthis by the hair and dragged her head down to the ground and the loyal servant was changed into a weasel.

Continuing this conversation, Iole then tells a story to Alcmena, about her half sister, Dryope. She ‘suffered the assault’ of Apollo i.e. was raped, but then respectably married off to a mortal man. One day she came to a lovely pool with her one-year-old son and innocently picked some flowers from a lotus tree, only for it to bleed. She learned the tree was the nymph Lotis fleeing the sexual advances of Priapus (sometimes the narrative feels like one rape after another). At which point Dryope is transformed into a tree. She pleads she has done nothing to justify such a sad fate, and her sister (Iole, the narrator the tale) tries to intervene, but nothing can prevent her sad fate.

They are surprised by the arrival of Iolaüs, Hercules’s nephew and companion, who has been rejuvenated, made young again. At this all the gods complain and demand similar rejuvenation for their mortal partners, lovers or children.

Even the gods are subordinate to Fate

However, Jupiter replies with an important statement about the limits of his powers, about his own subservience to the unseeable dictates of Fate, which echoes the same thought found in the Aeneid.

l Jupiter opened his mouth and said: ‘O, if you have any respect for me, where do you think all this talk is heading? Do any of you think you can overcome fate as well? Through fate Iolaüs’s past years were restored. Through fate Callirhoë’s children must prematurely become men, not through ambition or warfare. Even you, and I, too, fate rules, if that also makes you feel better. If I had power to alter fate, these late years would not bow down my pious Aeacus. Just Rhadamanthus would always possess youth’s flower, and my Minos, who is scorned because of the bitter weight of old age, and no longer orders the kingdom in the way he did before.’

‘You and I, too, fate rules.’ A profound vision of the world, where even the gods are, in the end, subservient, to darker powers.

Mention of Minos links to his rival Miletus who left their kingdom and founded his own city on the shore of Asia Minor, married Cyanee, and fathered twins, Byblis and her brother Caunus. This story is about Cyanee, the daughter of Maeander, whose stream so often curves back on itself, when she was Byblis’s incestuous love for her brother Caunus. As with Medea and Scylla, Ovid gives us another long soliloquy by a female character agonising about what to do in light of her passionate love. In the end she sets down her thoughts in a long letter declaring her love for her brother which she gets a slave to deliver. Alas, he doesn’t reciprocate but is shocked and then furious, throwing away the tablets the letter is written on.

But Byblis continues her suit, becoming more passionate, until Caunus flees, setting up his own city in Asia Minor. Byblis goes mad, roaming the hills and plains, until she falls to the ground endlessly weeping, and the naiads turn her into a fountain.

But another miraculous transformation happened around that time in Crete. Ligdus was married to Telethusa. When she gets pregnant he tells her it had better be a boy child; if a girl, they’ll expose it to die. In a dream the goddess Isis comes to Telethusa and says she will protect her. In the event she gives birth to a girl but swears all the servants to pretend it is a boy. And so Iphis is raised as a boy.

When Iphis turns 13 her father betroths her to the 13-year-old daughter of a neighbour. Iphis loves this other girl, but as a lesbian. Ovid gives another prolonged female soliloquy, this time of Iphis begging the gods for a way out of her dilemma. Telethusa prays some more and, the night before the wedding is due, Isis changes Iphis into a boy.

Book 10

Orpheus and Eurydice are married. She steps on a poisonous snake, dies and goes to the underworld. Orpheus follows her and sings a lament to Dis and Persephone which moves them to release Eurydice, on the condition Orpheus doesn’t look back at her on their long walk back to earth. Of course he does and she slips through his fingers back into the underworld, for good this time.

Devastated, Orpheus shuns the company of women and prefers to love boys, during the brief period of their first flowering.

On a flat hilltop there is a gathering of all the trees who come to listen to Orpheus’s wonderful songs (another List). The cypress tree was made when the fair youth Cyparissus accidentally speared a noble stag he had long loved. He wept and pined and was turned into the cypress.

Amid this assembly of trees Orpheus sings tales of transformation. All the rest of book 10 is Orpheus’s songs:

  • Ganymede: Jupiter temporarily turns himself into an eagle to abduct this boy
  • Hyacinth: Apollo went everywhere with this young man till one time they were having a competition to throw the discus, Apollo threw it a mighty distance, Hyacinthus ran forward to collect it but it bounded up into his face and killed him and the boy was turned into the purple flower
  • The Cerustae men murder all who stay with them as guests. For this impiety Venus turned them into bullocks.
  • The Propoetides denied Venus and were the first women to prostitute themselves in public. So Venus turned them into flints.
  • Pygmalion shuns women and makes a statue of one which he falls in love with until, during the festival of Venus, he asks the god to make his beloved statue real and she does.
  • longer than all the other stories put together is the story of Myrrha who conceives an illegal love for her own father, Cinyras. She tries to hang herself, her nurse interrupts, saves her, learns her shameful secret, and then helps disguise her so she can sleep with her father which she does, repeatedly, until he discovers the scandal, runs to get his sword, she fled the palace and wandered in the wild, until the compassionate gods changed her into the myrrh tree.
  • She was pregnant when she transformed and the boy is born of her tree trunk and raised by nymphs to become gorgeous Adonis. Venus is pricked by her son, Cupid’s, arrow and falls in love with him.
    • Story within a story within a story: Orpheus tells the story of Venus who one day, as they are lying in a glade, tells Adonis the story of Atalanta who refused to marry, challenging all her suitors to a running race and the losers are put to death. Hippomenes asks Venus for her help and the goddess gives him three apples. During the race he throws each of them to the side of the track and each time Atalanta detours to pick them up, so that Hippomenes wins. But when the victorious young man fails to thank and praise her the fickle goddess turns against him. She puts it in their minds to make love in a sacred cave, thus defiling it and Juno, offended, turns them into lions. In time Cybele tamed them and now they pull her chariot.
  • Back up a level, Orpheus goes on to describe how Adonis foolishly hunts a fierce boar which gores and kills him. Mourning Venus institutes an annual festival in his name and turns him into the anemone.

Book 11

The frenzied Ciconian women aka the Bacchantes aka the Maenads, kill Orpheus and tear his body to pieces which they throw in a river which carries it to the sea. His soul goes down to Hades and is reunited with his beloved Eurydice. Bacchus turns the Maenads who killed Orpheus into oak trees.

Bacchus’s tutor, Silenus, is captured by the Lydians and taken to King Midas. After ten days of partying the kind returns the drunk old man to Bacchus who grants him a wish and Midas chooses the golden touch. Then the standard account of how his delight turns to horror as even his food and wine turn to gold. In this version, he doesn’t touch his daughter and turn her to gold; he begs Bacchus to take back the gift, so Bacchus tells him to go bathe in the river by great Sardis.

Pan challenges Apollo to a competition as to who is best musician. They choose the god of the mountain of Tmolus as judge. Both play and Tmolus judges Apollo the better performer. Since his misfortune with the gold, Midas has wandered the fields and mountains. He happens to be at this competition and demurs, saying Pan was better. Apollo gives him ass’s ears.

Apollo flies over to watch the first building of Troy, by Laomedon and Neptune. When the king refused the promised payment Neptune flooded the land.

Jupiter gives Thetis to Peleus after Proteus predicts she will give birth to a son greater than her father. In fact Peleus comes across Thetis naked on the seashore and tries to rape her but she transforms through a series of shapes. Proteus advises holding her tight till she gives in so Peleus seizes her in her seashore cave and holds her through even more transformations till she gives in at which point he inseminates her with Achilles.

Earlier in his life Peleus had been expelled from his homeland for killing his brother and fetched up in the kingdom of Trachis whose king, Ceyx, tells him the story of Daedalion. This starts with the gods Apollo and Mercury both seeing and falling love with the Chione, the 14-year-old daughter of Daedalion. Both cast magic spells on her and raped her, Mercury by day, Apollo by night.

Nine months later this daughter gave birth to twins, Autolycus, crafty and Philammon, skilled the with lyre. Unfortunately, Chione boasted about this achievement, vaunting herself above the goddess Diana who promptly shot her dead with an arrow. Her distraught father Daedalion tried to hurl himself onto her funeral pyre, was restrained, but later threw himself off a cliff. Taking pity, Apollo turned him into a hawk who takes out his savage anger on other birds and small animals.

Ceyx has only just finished telling this story when Peleus’s herdsman comes running up and tells him a huge wolf is devastating his herd. Peleus realises it’s punishment for him killing his half-brother and prays the half-brother’s mother, Psamathe, to relent. Thetis intercedes on his behalf and the goddess changes the wolf to marble.

Despite the warnings of his loving wife, Alcyone, Ceyx goes on a journey by sea to consult the oracle of Apollo, at Claros. There is a bravura passage giving a terrific description of a storm at sea. He drowns. Not knowing this Alcyone goes daily to Juno’s shrine to pray for his safety. Taking pity, Juno sends Iris to the House of Sleep which is given a full and brilliant description. In the Kline translation:

There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.

Juno has tasked Iris with asking Sleep to send one of his shape-shifting sons in a dream to tell Alcyone the bad news. Sleep despatches Morpheus, expert at assuming people’s likenesses, who appears to Alcyone in a dream as her husband and tells her he is dead. Next day she goes down to the seashore to mourn and Ceyx’s corpse is washed ashore. Alcyone jumps up onto a breakwater to see better and keeps on flying, her arms turning into wings her mouth into a beak. In fact both wife and dead husband are transformed into ‘halcyons’. It is said that they mate once a year and make a nest on the sea and after she has laid the eggs, Aeolus god of the winds delivers 7 days of complete calm on the sea. Hence the expression halcyon days.

In a breath-takingly casual link, Ovid says an old man was standing nearby who added another story, telling the ill-fated love of Aesacus, Hector’s half-brother, for the nymph Hesperie. One day, chasing her (as men chase all women in these stories) she trod on a snake, was bitten and died. Despairing, Aesacus threw himself off a cliff but Tethys caught him and transformed him into the long-necked bird which repeatedly dives into the sea, and is called a ‘diver’ (the genus Mergus).

Book 12 The Trojan War

In book 12 Ovid retells the stories of the Greek siege of Troy, but focusing on moments of transformation.

The House of Rumour

Rumour of them precedes the coming Greeks and Ovid has another page-long description of an allegorical figure, Rumour (compare previous extended descriptions of the Houses of Hunger and of Sleep).

Iphigenia and Cycnus

As to the transformations:

  • when Agamemnon is about to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, she is replaced by a deer
  • Achilles fiercely attacks Cycnus who, at the moment of death, is changed into a swan

Nestor’s tales

An extended sequence is devoted to tales told by Nestor one evening after the Greek leaders have feasted.

1. Nestor tells the story of Caenis, a young woman walking the seashore who is raped by Neptune. Afterwards he asks if she wants any gift and she asks to be turned into a man so she can never be raped again, and so Neptune turns her into the man Caeneus and makes him invulnerable to weapons.

2. Nestor gives an extended description of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous to Hippodame (pages 273 to 282). The Lapiths are a group of legendary people in Greek mythology, whose home was in Thessaly. They held a wedding feast and invited the centaurs who proceeded to get drunk and attempt to abduct the Lapiths’ women. The resulting battle is one of the most enduring of Greek legends.

Maybe placing it here is Ovid’s way of showing he can do anatomically detailed and gory descriptions of fighting in the approved epic manner, but without infringing on the actual fighting at Troy which Homer and Virgil (among many others) had already done so well.

In Ovid’s account the battles leads up the centaurs fighting the invulnerable human, Caeneus and, since no weapons can harm him, deciding to pile trees on top of him. Thus buried under torn-up trees, No one knows what happened to Caeneus in the end but some saw a bird with tawny wings fly out from the middle of the pile.

3. Tlepolemus asks Nestor why he hasn’t mentioned Hercules and Nestor explains that he loathes the man because he killed 11 of his brothers, even Periclymenus who Neptune gave the gift of being able to change shape, and who changes into an eagle to escape the massacre but Hercules kills him, nonetheless, with bow and arrow. And that is the end of Nestor’s storytelling.

The death of Achilles

Jump forward ten years to the climax of the siege of Troy. Ovid deals with the death of Achilles in an odd way. He starts by describing how Neptune, who helped to build Troy and fought on the Trojan side, resented the success of Achilles but is forbidden to confront him directly, and so goes to his nephew, Apollo, also fighting on the Trojan side, and asks whether he is not angry at man-killing Achilles and whether he’ll use his mighty bow and arrow to stop him. Apollo agrees and so seeks out Paris fighting ineffectually in the middle of the day’s battle, tells him to shoot at Achilles and he will guide his arrow. Which he does, and that is the death of Achilles.

It’s odd that Ovid doesn’t even mention the central aspect of Achilles’ death which is the vulnerability of his heel, which is where Paris’s poisoned arrow is said to have struck him. And there’s no transformation involved to justify its inclusion in the poem at all. But then his treatment of the entire war is odd, digressing into the battle of the Lapiths and avoiding describing all the famous incidents of the war itself.

Instead Ovid skips to immediately after the funeral of Achilles when argument arises about which of the surviving heroes will inherit the mighty shield of Achilles. The Greek leaders agree to hold a formal debate which begins in book 13.

Book 13

Debate between Ajax and Ulysses

Again, Ovid takes an odd, peripheral approach to the great subject. He describes in detail the set-piece debate about who should claim the arms of dead Achilles. Ajax, arguably the Greeks’ biggest strongest warrior, argues for a full 4 pages, describing his own merits (grandson of Jupiter, only Greek who can stand up to Hector) but mainly rubbishing Ulysses, describing him as a coward and a sneak who never fights in the light of day but cooks up secret midnight tricks. Then Ulysses speaks for 7 pages, defending himself.

The whole extended passage is a bravura demonstration of Ovid’s skill at staging a debate, reminding us that his parents and the emperor himself originally expected him to make a career in public life.

Anyway, Ulysses wins the debate, is awarded the arms of Achilles, and Ajax kills himself out of rage and chagrin. Ovid points out that out of his blood grew the hyacinth but it’s a pretty tangential reference to the poem’s theme. Any reaction by the other leaders is ignored.

Ulysses fetches Philoctetes

Instead Ulysses sails off to the isle of Lemnos to see Philoctetes, without whose bow and arrow, prophets said, Troy could not fall. There are umpteen versions of this story; Ovid short circuits all of them, says Philoctetes returned and Troy fell boom boom.

The deaths of Polyxena, Polydorus and transformation of Hecuba

King Priam sends his youngest son Polydorus away from Troy when the war begins, to the court of king Polymestor. But he sent a load of gold with him, too, and impious Polymestor stabbed the boy to death and threw him over a cliff into the sea.

Troy is captured, sacked, all the men killed and all the women dragged off into captivity including miserable Hecuba who tries to grab the ashes of her beloved son, Hector. The ghost of Achilles appears before the Greek leaders and tells them they will get no favourable wind for their ships unless they sacrifice one of Hecuba’s daughters, Polyxena, so the Greeks agree to do this.

Polyxena makes a noble speech, another one of the long closely-reasoned speeches Ovid writes for his female characters, then offers her breast to the priest at the altar. Like everyone else he is moved to tears by her speech but stabs her to death anyway.

Hecuba witnesses all this, herself making an extended soliloquy of misery, then goes running along the seashore mad with grief, but trying to console herself that at least she has her son to console her. That’s when she sees the corpse of Polydorus floating across the waves towards her, his wounds bleached and gaping.

Somehow, with the logic of a fairy tale not history, Hecuba with her attendants makes her way to the court of the treacherous King Polymestor, and asks for a private audience where she will tell him about more treasure. Polymestor agrees and when they are alone, swears he’ll hand the treasure on to his ward. Hecuba, knows he has murdered his ward and so knows he is swearing lying oaths. She stabs him in the eyes with her sharp fingernails and then smashes his eye sockets.

Then the Thracian people try to stone Hecuba and her Trojan women but she chases the stones, snapping at them and is turned into a dog. Even vengeful Juno is moved to say Hecuba didn’t deserve this fate but then that is the overwhelming moral of these stores: life is howlingly, outrageously cruel and unfair.

Memnon

During the war Memon had been killed by Achilles. His mother, Aurora, goddess of the dawn, goes to be Jupiter for some recognition of her grief and his achievement. Jupiter arranges for his body on the funeral pyre to give rise to a flight of birds which divide into two parties, fight each other and all die. They are called the Memnonides and celebrated at an annual feast. Meanwhile, every morning the dawn weeps tears for her dead son, what we mortals call the dew.

The pilgrimage of Aeneas

Aeneas flees Troy with his father, son, followers and household gods. First stop is Delos where king Anius tells the sad story of how his daughters, who had magic gifts for turning everything they touched into food and wine, were kidnapped by Greek forces but pleaded with the god Bacchus who gave them their skills and were transformed into white doves.

Next day they attend the oracle of Apollo for Anius is not only king but high priest, and the god tells them to seek the bones of their mother which Aeneas, falsely, takes to mean Crete. They exchange gifts with king Anius including a cup engraved with the story of Orion’s daughters, and set sail.

What follows is a very brief summary of Aeneas’s journeys i.e. he rejects Crete and heads north towards Italy, landed in the harbour of the Strophades, were terrified by the harpy, Aëllo, and a shopping list of other ancient islands and cities they sailed past on their way to Sicily, stopping at Epirus to have their futures read by Helenus, through the straits of Messina past the perils of Scylla and Charybdis.

Obviously this was all dealt with in detail in Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid. Presumably Ovid had to mention Aeneas as a kind of link between the Trojan War and later myths/history, but did he also feel obliged to namecheck it so as to incorporate/supersede Virgil in his own, eccentric epic?

Acis and Galatea

Back before Scylla was turned into a grotesque monster she combs Galatea the sea nymph ‘s hair (underwater) while the latter tells her about her love for 16-year-old mortal boy, Acis. Unfortunately, the Cyclops Polyphemus is in love with her and Ovid devotes a couple hundred lines to a rather moving love song he sings to her, like so many of these soliloquies making a case, in this instance all the reasons Galatea ought to love him e.g. he’s big, he owns lots of sheep and so on.

Then Polyphemus spots the lovers lying in each other’s arms and comes storming towards them. Galatea dives into the sea leaving Acis to run but not fast enough. Polyphemus throws a huge chunk of mountainside which crushes the boy. Galatea changes Acis into a river (and accompanying river god).

Scylla and Glaucus

After this tale Scylla returns to the land where she roams naked. She is startled by the attentions of Glaucus who used to be mortal but was turned into a merman. Glaucus tells the story of how he was transformed (by eating magic grass) but Scylla slips off, leaving him frustrated.

Book 14

Scylla and Glaucus continued

Glaucus swims across the sea to the land of Circe and begs her to concoct a potion to make Scylla fall in love with him. Circe advises him to forget Scylla and fall in love with her. Glaucus rejects her and swims off. This infuriates Circe with Scylla and so she concocts an evil potion, swims over to Scylla’s island and pours it into the pool where Scylla loves to bathe. When Scylla slips in up to her waits the region below is transformed into barking monster dogs. Glaucus is distraught. Scylla becomes curdled with hatred and takes to living on one side of the Strait, reaching out and capturing sailors of ships passing by e.g. Ulysses in his wandering or Aeneas, a little later.

More Aeneas

Which brings us back to Aeneas. Ovid briefly describes the storm which blows his fleet onto the north African coast where he, of course, encounters Dido. Their love affair barely rates a sentence before Aeneas is off again, sailing north, back to Sicily then past the isle of the Sirens, the loss of Palinurus. It’s like the Aeneid on fast forward.

A super-brief reference to the fact that Jupiter, hating the lying and deceit of the Cercopes, turned them into monkeys.

A very rushed account of Aeneas anchoring at Cumae, seeing the Sybil, plucking the golden bough and going to the underworld where he meets the spirit of his dead father, Anchises.

The Sibyl’s story

On the way back up from the underworld Aeneas offers to build a temple to the Sibyl but she corrects him; she is no god but a mortal woman. Apollo fancied her and offered her eternal life if she would sleep with him. She said no but he gave her eternal life and the gift of prophecy – but not eternal youth; in the years to come she will shrivel and shrink with age.

Macareus and Achaemenides

In a rather contorted segue Ovid says a Greek had settled in Cumae, named Macareus. This Macareus now recognises among the Trojans a fellow Greek named Achaemenides who had got left behind on Sicily in the realm of Polyphemus. Achaemenides describes the Cyclops rage at being blinded and tricked and how he threw whole mountains after Ulysses’s departing ship.

Then Macareus tells Achaemenides what happened after they escaped Sicily, namely: a) how they used the winds put into a bag by Aeolus, b) how they docked at the city of Lamus, of the Laestrygonians, whose treacherous king Antiphates led an attack on them and killed and ate some of their shipmates before they could escape.

The island of Circe

How they next arrived the island of Circe and Macareus drew a lot to go to the palace. Pushing through flocks of wild animals (a thousand wolves, and mixed with the wolves, she-bears and lionesses) they entered the chamber where Circe’s servants were separating out her herbs and medicines. She offered them food and win then touched them with her wand and turned them into pigs. One of the party makes it back to Ulysses, tells him what happened. Ulysses has the herb moly which protects him from Circe’s magic, so when he goes up to her palace he pushes aside her wand and master her, taking her as wife. In bed he demands that his men are turned back from animals to men.

They stayed on Circe’s island for a year. Macareus tells some stories about things he saw there:

Picus and Canens and Circe

Picus, the son of Saturn, was king in the land of Ausonia and a very handsome man. All the nymphs and nerieds threw themselves at him but he wooed and wed Canens who sang beautifully. One day he went hunting in the countryside and was seen by Circe who fell madly in love with him. She conjured a phantom boar for him to chase into the depths of the forest where the cast spells and confronted him and offered him her love. But Picus rejected Circe, saying he was loyal to his wife Canens. So Circe changed him into a woodpecker. When his fellow hunters confront her, she changes them into wild beasts, too. Canens waits in vain for her husband to return, lies down beside the river Tiber and turns into nothing. The place is called Canens to this day.

Now, this story of forests and magic feels much more like Ovid’s speciality and much more like the subject of this poem than either the Troy or the Aeneas subject matter. They both feel too historical. They lack real magic. They lack the strange and unexpected. It doesn’t make chronological sense to say this, but the best of his tales have a kind of medieval feel, feel like the strange fables and magical happenings which fill Boccaccio or Chaucer.

Aeneas reaches Latium, war with Turnus

Macareus ends his tale by saying that after a year Aeneas rounded up his crew and they left Circe’s island. Again, Ovid gives a super-compressed account of Aeneas’s arrival in Latium and the war with Turnus which follows, all for the hand of Lavinia.

How Diomede lost his men

Looking for allies, Turnus sends Venulus to Diomede, a Greek in exile. Diomede can spare no men because, after long suffering, troubled journey back from Troy, one of his men, Acmon, insulted the goddess Venus who turned them all into birds a bit like swans.

En route back to Turnus Venulus passes a spot where a rude shepherd once terrorised some nymphs. He was changed into the bitter olive tree.

The Trojan ships are turned to dolphins

Turnus storms the Trojan ships and sets them alight. But the goddess Cybele remembers they’re made from trees which grew on Mount Ida which is sacred to her so she sent a thunderstorm to extinguish the fires, but then snapped their cables and sank them. Underwater, the ships were turned into dolphins.

Eventually Turnus is killed in battle and his army defeated. The city of Ardea was conquered and burned and from its midst rose a heron.

Venus asks Jupiter for permission to make Aeneas a god. His body is washed and purified by the river Numicius, then she touches his lips with nectar and ambrosia, and he becomes a god with temples where he’s worshipped.

Ovid then lists the succession of kings following Aeneas, starting with his son Ascanius and briefly describing a dozen or so until he comes to the story of Pomona.

Pomona and Vertumnis

Pomona is a skilful wood nymph wooed by many men, by Pan and Silenus. She hides herself away. But she is desperately loved by Vertumnus, god of the seasons and their produce. He disguises himself as an old woman to gain entrance to her sanctuary and there speaks eloquently in favour of Vertumnus. This pretend old lady then tells Pomona the story of Iphis, a commoner, who falls in love with the princess Anaxerete. But she is hard-hearted, refuses and mocks him. Iphis hangs around outside her locked door, sleeping on the step, hanging garlands on it (as does the stock figure of the lover in the elegiac poems, the Amores). Eventually he hangs himself from the lintel. The servants take him down and carry his body to his mother who organises his funeral procession. Anaxerete hurries up to the top floor room and leans out to watch the procession and is turned to stone as hard as her heart.

Frustrated, Vertumnus reveals himself in his glory as a handsome young man and, luckily, Pomona falls in love at first sight.

Romulus

What happens next is odd: Ovid introduces the character of Romulus but without mentioning any of the usual stuff, about the vestal virgin Ilia being impregnated by Mars, bearing twins Romulus and Remus, their being abandoned but suckled by a she-wolf, their agreeing to found settlements but Remus laughing at Romulus and the latter angrily killing his brother.

None of that at all. Ovid cuts to war with the Sabine tribe which ends in a peace whereby the Sabines’ king Tatius co-rules with Romulus. In the next sentence Tatius is dead, Romulus is ruling alone and then Mars goes to see Jupiter and asks for his son to be turned into a god (exactly as per Aeneas). And so Mars spirits Romulus – completely alive and in the middle of administering justice – into the sky.

His widow, Hersilie, receives a visit from Iris, female messenger of the gods, is told to go to the Quirinal hill, where a shooting star falls from heaven, sets fire to her hair, and she is whirled up into heaven to be reunited with Romulus. He renames her Hora, the name under which she has a temple on the Quirinal Hill.

Book 15

Cut to the figure of Numa, the second king of Rome (after Romulus) who is ambitious to understand the universe who travels to Crotona and there hears the legend of its foundation i.e. how Myscelus, the son of Alemon of Argos, was ordered in a dream to leave his home town, travel over the seas to found it.

The doctrines of Pythagoras

Turns out we’ve come to Crotona because this is where Pythagoras lived and, unexpectedly, Ovid now describes in some detail the teachings of Pythagoras.

‘I delight in journeying among the distant stars: I delight in leaving earth and its dull spaces, to ride the clouds; to stand on the shoulders of mighty Atlas, looking down from far off on men, wandering here and there, devoid of knowledge, anxious, fearing death; to read the book of fate, and to give them this encouragement!’

He has Pythagoras deliver a speech of 404 lines, roughly half the length of the book, touching on a set of Pythagorean concerns:

Polemical vegetarianism – in the Golden Age there was no hunting and killing of animals. ‘When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.’

Metempsychosis – be not afraid of death for no soul dies: ‘Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms.’

Is this why this long Pythagoras section is included? Because the belief in metempsychosis is a kind of belief in universal metamorphosis, posits a world of continual metamorphoses?

Eternal Flux – of nature, of all life forms, of human beings which grow from the womb, ever-changing.

The Four Ages of Man – in the womb, helpless baby, playful toddler, young man, mature man, ageing man etc.

The four elements – being earth, water, air and fire, endlessly intermingling, changing combinations.

Geologic changes – seashells are found on mountaintops, deserts were once pasture, islands become joined to the mainland, parts of the mainland slip under the sea. The magic properties of many rivers, some of them turn you to stone, some into birds. If the earth is an animal, volcanoes like Etna are outlets for her fires.

Animals – brief references to well-known folk stories, like buried dead bulls give rise to bees, frogs are born from mud. A buried war horse gives rise to hornets. Bury a dead crab and it will change into a scorpion. Twaddle. The legend of the phoenix. Lynxes can change their sex. Coral is wavy below water but becomes stone on contact with the air. Twaddle.

Cities rise and fall: Thebes, Mycenae, Sparta. Troy was once mighty and is now ruins. This allows Pythagoras/Ovid to mention rumours of a new city, Rome, rising by Tiber’s banks. Pythagoras recalls Helenus’s prophecy for Rome:

Helenus, son of Priam, said to a weeping Aeneas, who was unsure of his future: “Son of the goddess, if you take careful heed, of what my mind prophesies, Troy will not wholly perish while you live! Fire and sword will give way before you: you will go, as one man, catching up, and bearing away Pergama, till you find a foreign land, kinder to you and Troy, than your fatherland. I see, even now, a city, destined for Phrygian descendants, than which none is greater, or shall be, or has been, in past ages. Other leaders will make her powerful, through the long centuries, but one, born of the blood of Iülus, will make her mistress of the world. When earth has benefited from him, the celestial regions will enjoy him, and heaven will be his goal.”

Surely this is all hugely channelling Virgil and his vision of the rise of Rome portrayed in the Aeneid.

Most odd. It’s a crashing example of Ovid’s love of tricks and games and poetic tours de force to include a big passage of philosophy in a supposedly epic poem, or poem about love and transformations. It’s almost a deliberate provocation, to rank alongside his odd jumping over big aspects of the Trojan War and of the life of Romulus. Is it intended to be a serious exposition of Pythagoras’s teachings on the lines of Lucretius’s vast exposition of Epicurus’s philosophy in De Rerum Natura? Or is it an elaborate joke? Was he just constitutionally incapable of taking anything seriously?

Numa listens to this great discourse and takes Pythagoras’s teachings back to Rome where he spreads them before dying of old age. His wife, Egeria, goes lamenting through the country but is confronted by Hippolytus, son of Theseus. He tells his story, namely how his father’s wife, Phaedra, fell in love and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she accused him of trying to rape her to her husband, Hippolytus’s father. He was sent into exile but when crossing the Gulf of Corinth a vast wave filled with the roars of bulls spooked his horses who galloped off dragging him behind them till he was flayed. He goes down to the Underworld but is healed by Asclepius and given a disguise by Diana.

But Egeria continues lamenting her husband til Diana turns her into a pool of water. Romulus is amazed to see his spear turn into a tree. Cipus acquires horns.

The long-winded story of how Asclepius in the form of a snake saved Rome from a plague.

Caesar and Augustus

Then the poem reaches its climax with unstinting praise of the emperor Augustus:

Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor. Is it a greater thing to have conquered the sea-going Britons; to have led his victorious ships up the seven-mouthed flood of the papyrus-bearing Nile; to have brought the rebellious Numidians, under Juba of Cinyps, and Pontus, swollen with the name of Mithridates, under the people of Quirinus; to have earned many triumphs and celebrated few; than to have sponsored such a man, with whom, as ruler of all, you gods have richly favoured the human race?

Venus warns all the gods of the conspiracy she can see against her descendant, Julius Caesar, but in another important statement of the limits of the gods powers:

It was in vain that Venus anxiously voiced these complaints all over the sky, trying to stir the sympathies of the gods. They could not break the iron decrees of the ancient sisters. (p.355)

Still Ovid enjoys devoting half a page to all the signs and portents which anticipated the assassination of Julius Caesar, as lovingly reproduced in Shakespeare’s play on the subject. And Jupiter delivers another, longer lecture on the unavoidability of fate.

Then Jupiter, the father, spoke: ‘Alone, do you think you will move the immoveable fates, daughter? You are allowed yourself to enter the house of the three: there you will see all things written, a vast labour, in bronze and solid iron, that, eternal and secure, does not fear the clashing of the skies, the lightning’s anger, or any forces of destruction. There you will find the fate of your descendants cut in everlasting adamant.

Which turns into Jupiter praising Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, worth quoting in full seeing as what happened to Ovid soon after:

‘This descendant of yours you suffer over, Cytherean, has fulfilled his time, and the years he owes to earth are done. You, and Augustus, his ‘son’, will ensure that he ascends to heaven as a god, and is worshipped in the temples. Augustus, as heir to his name, will carry the burden placed upon him alone, and will have us with him, in battle, as the most courageous avenger of his father’s murder. Under his command, the conquered walls of besieged Mutina will sue for peace; Pharsalia will know him; Macedonian Philippi twice flow with blood; and the one who holds Pompey’s great name, will be defeated in Sicilian waters; and a Roman general’s Egyptian consort, trusting, to her cost, in their marriage, will fall, her threat that our Capitol would bow to her city of Canopus, proved vain.

‘Why enumerate foreign countries, for you or the nations living on either ocean shore? Wherever earth contains habitable land, it will be his: and even the sea will serve him!

‘When the world is at peace, he will turn his mind to the civil code, and, as the most just of legislators, make law. He will direct morality by his own example, and, looking to the future ages and coming generations, he will order a son, Tiberius, born of his virtuous wife, to take his name, and his responsibilities. He will not attain his heavenly home, and the stars, his kindred, until he is old, and his years equal his merits.’

Julius looks down on his son who has superseded his achievements and the poem ends with a prolonged and serious vow, invoking all the gods, that Augustus live to a ripe old age.

You gods, the friends of Aeneas, to whom fire and sword gave way; you deities of Italy; and Romulus, founder of our city; and Mars, father of Romulus; Vesta, Diana, sacred among Caesar’s ancestral gods, and you, Phoebus, sharing the temple with Caesar’s Vesta; you, Jupiter who hold the high Tarpeian citadel; and all you other gods, whom it is fitting and holy for a poet to invoke, I beg that the day be slow to arrive, and beyond our own lifetimes, when Augustus shall rise to heaven, leaving the world he rules, and there, far off, shall listen, with favour, to our prayers!

It could hardly be more fulsome.

In a sense the entire theme of miraculous transformation can be seen as a kind of artistic validation or evidence base or literary justification for the belief that Julius Caesar really was transformed into a god at his death and that his adopted son will follow in his path. The poem dramatises the ideology which underpins Augustus’s power. In their way – a subtle, playful, colourful way – the Metamorphoses suck up to Augustus just as much as Virgil’s Aeneid does, until the sucking up becomes as overt as it could possibly be in the last few pages.

Long female soliloquies about love

As mentioned, some passages are very similar to the Heroides in that women are given long soliloquies in which they make a case, argue and discuss issues with themselves (always about illicit love).

  • Medea (book 7)
  • Scylla (book 8)
  • Byblis (book 9)
  • Myrrha (book 10)
  • Iphigeneia (book 12)
  • Hecuba (book 13)

Allegorical figures

Mostly the narrative concerns itself with mortals and gods whose attributes and abilities are only briefly mentioned, as it’s relevant to the story. But a couple of times the narrative introduces grand allegorical figures who are given the full treatment, with a description of their dwelling place, physical appearance, accoutrements and so on. Although I know they’re common in medieval literature and later, they remind me of the allegorical figures found in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and, later, in Paradise Lost (I’m thinking of Sin and Death who Satan encounters in book 2).

  • Hunger (book 8)
  • Sleep (book 11)
  • Rumour (book 12)

Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The poems of Propertius translated by Ronald Musker

He errs who expects the madness of love to end;
Love that is true can know no measure…
In life I shall always be hers; in death
I shall be hers still.
(Book 2, elegy 15)

Robert Maltby’s introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the elegies of Tibullus is outstanding in its clarity and authority and includes elements which make a good introduction to Propertius, too.

Maltby explains that in the last decades of the first century BC, Rome was home to a small cohort of leading Roman poets who took the Greek metre associated with elegies and which had come to be called ‘elegiacs’, and repurposed them as vehicles to describe very personal (or personal sounding) love affairs. Or, in Propertius’s words:

Priestlike I lead the way from the crystal spring
To adapt Italian rites to Grecian measures.
(3.1)

To repeat what I wrote in the Tibullus review:

What is an elegy?

The modern sense of ‘elegy’ as a lament for the dead only crystallised during the 16th century. Two thousand years ago, for the ancient Greeks and Romans the word had a much wider definition – elegies could cover a wide range of subject matter (death, love, war).

The defining feature of them was that they were written in elegiac couplets or ‘elegiacs’, which consist of a dactylic hexameter line followed by a dactylic pentameter line i.e. six ‘feet’ in the first line, five in the second. In English it looks like this, 6 beats, followed by 5:

My girl is now held hostage by a surly guard (6)
and her stout door is shut and bolted tight. (5)

I’ve often tried to banish pains of love with wine,
but sorrow turned the uncut wine to tears.

Obviously you’re not meant to say it out loud emphasising these beats, that would be silly. It’s just a structuring device, a convention, a code buried under the words, a rhythm you’re meant to be only dimly aware of, if at all, which gives a subliminal sense of regularity and rhythm.

The effect of a long line followed by a slightly shorter one was to create a kind of dying fall, repeated every two lines – hence its attraction for poets who wanted to write an elegy in our sense, a lament for someone who’d died, and the elegiac couplet was in fact the metre used for writing funeral inscriptions and sometimes examples of these were included in elegiac poems. However, the most famous of the Roman elegists copied the way that late Greek or Hellenistic poets had taken to using it to express personal and often ‘amatory’ subject matter.

The variation between the two lines helped to build the impression that elegiac couplets were more appropriate for the expression of ‘direct and immediate concerns’ i.e. the poet’s personal life, than a poem written entirely in hexameters, which was felt to be the metre for continuous narrative, as in Homer’s epics.

Catullus (84 to 54 BC) was the first Roman poet to co-opt the form from the Greek Hellenistic poets and adapt it to Latin for his scandalous love poems and execrations. Catullus was followed by Tibullus (55 to 18 BC, in his elegies), Propertius (50 to 16 BC in his elegies) and Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD, in a series of works, namely the Amores, Heroides, Tristia and Letters from Pontus).

Elegiacs as love poems

The classic Roman elegists used the form to write love poems, often surprisingly candid about their own love affairs. The convention quickly arose of devoting some or all of the poems to a Beloved Mistress, who receives the poet’s devotion despite being often capricious or antagonistic.

‘Your theme shall be flower-wreathed lovers at someone’s door,
And the signs they leave of their drunken flight through the night…’
(The Muse Calliope telling Propertius what his subject should be, book 3, elegy 3)

Catullus (b.84 BC) can be said to have invented many aspects of this convention in his poems to ‘Lesbia’, universally taken as a pseudonym for the Roman aristocrat Clodia Metelli with whom he (if the poems are to be believed) had a passionate affair and then an equally emotional falling-out. (Catullus and Lesbia are mentioned a couple of times by Propertius; he consciously compares his love for Cynthia with Catullus’s for Lesbia, 2.32, 2.34C).

In the next generation Tibullus (b.55 BC) is a little unusual in addressing elegiacs to three figures, two women and a boy. The dates of publication of Tibullus’s two books interlink with the first books by Propertius. Propertius (b.50 BC) is more typical in addressing most of his elegies to just the one figure, who he names ‘Cynthia’. A little later, Ovid (b.43 BC), wrote love elegiacs addressing a figure named ‘Corinna’, though there is widespread agreement that she probably didn’t exist but was a poetic convention.

In Maltby’s opinion Ovid rang pretty much every possible permutation on the use of elegiac as love poem and made it obvious that he was experimenting with the form for its own sake. Maltby thinks he used it up and hollowed it out and as a result the metre fell out of fashion.

Publishing in ancient Rome

Using the word ‘publishing’ gives a misleading impression. There were no printing presses in the West for another 1,500 years. ‘Publishing’ meant that a hand-written manuscript of the text was given to secretaries or amanuenses to copy out in full, by hand, on rolls of papyrus. These rolls were then rolled up and slipped into tubular containers. A library’ consisted of numerous tubes containing manuscripts.

As this implies, not many copies were made, generally scores, rarely into the hundreds. There was no question of making money from this process. The aim was a) if you were rich, to gain a reputation among the people who counted, the educated class or b) if you were less well-off (as Virgil, Horace and Propertius were) to win the patronage of a rich sponsor, as all three were lucky enough to do with Maecenas, who gave land, property and money to both Horace and Virgil.

Ronald Musker’s introduction

I read Propertius’s poems in the 1972 Everyman edition translated by Ronald Musker. In his introduction Musker points out that Propertius came from the equestrian class i.e. the second rank of the aristocracy below the senatorial class. His family had extensive lands in north-central Italy but, like many of his class and generation, lost a substantial amount during the enforced confiscations of Octavian after the Battle of Phillippi.

Too early you gathered up your father’s ashes;
And you had to accept a straitened hearth and home,
For many an ox had turned your rich lands over,
But the ruthless surveying rod took your wealth away. (4.1)

It also appears from one of the elegies, that a close relative or perhaps guardian was killed in the bitter localised civil war known as the Perugine War because it ended up with the rebels (led by Mark Anthony’s wife and brother) holed up and besieged by Octavian’s forces in the city of Perugia, near Propertius’s birthplace. Musker considers the trauma of these events may explain the tone of melancholy which recurs throughout his poems.

In Rome young Sextus Propertius was a friend of fellow poets Gallus and Virgil and, through them, was adopted by the renowned patron of the arts, Gaius Maecenas. His poems survive in 4 books containing around 92 poems. Actually the number varies because editors of book 2 in particular think some poems are jumbled together which must once have been separate poems and so snip and separate them; other scholars disagree; hence the difficulty of giving an exact number.

The translator, Musker, appears to have given each poem a tabloid-style title, which aren’t in the original. These are actually quite helpful in distinguishing between them and indicating the topic of each poem at a glance.

Book 1, 25 BC (23 poems)

Cynthia is the main subject, the first word of the first poem and mentioned in over half the other poems. The poems proceed through the set subjects and attitudes of the afflicted male love for his mistress, including mad declarations of love, promises to be true, lists of her achievements and perfections, jealousy of other men, despair at being abandoned, rage at being abandoned, laments on why women are so fickle and/or easily bought by rich men with shiny trinkets – and so on.

It includes a paraclausithyron i.e a poem describing the lover at the locked door of his beloved. Apparently, Propertius’s version of this is a novelty because he has the door itself speak – we get the door’s point of view, a rather cutting description of the wretched poet pining outside.

I noticed, reading Propertius, that the way these poets created the bulk of a poem, most of its content, is to address a friend, sometimes a rival or enemy – either calling them to witness aspects of your sorrow and affliction, or giving wise advice to them if they fall in love, or any other kind of address.

This conceit of addressing the poem to a pal a) makes it more dynamic b) makes it more like a speech than a solitary meditation. At many points a poem reminded me of Cicero’s legal speeches. All of them, without exception, make a case.

Also, addressing a friend in a poem makes it very public because you have to respect politeness and decorum. The two friends whose names crop up most frequently are Gallus and Tullus, apparently, historically verified real people.

Why, Bassus, by praising all these other girls
Must you try to change me… (1.4)

Put an end, my envious friend, to your tiresome talk… (1.5)

I am not afraid, my Tullus, to learn with you
The Adriatic’s moods… (1.6)

While you, my Ponticus, tell of the city of Cadmus… (1.7)

I told you, my scornful friend, that love would visit you… (1.9)

You, as your way is, Gallus, will be delighted
At my plight… (1.13)

I suppose it’s worth pointing out that the poet addresses a cohort or circle of friends and they are all men. A group of men talking about a woman, one woman’s behaviour. Hmmm. Very much a one-sided perspective, not just a guy talking about a girl but a buy recruiting all his mates to pile in behind him and back up his interpretation.

Although the Cynthia poems felt competent, the single poem which stood out for me was the ante-penultimate one, number 20, which Musker titles ‘Beware of the nymphs!’. This advises his friend, Gallus, on his love affair with a boy, warning him that the (unnamed) boy is so beautiful that he, Gallus, should keep him away from predatory girls, otherwise he’ll lose him, just as the legendary Hylas was lost to Naiads (spirits of the water) on the voyage of the Argonauts. Apart from 4 or 5 lines at the beginning and end, this is a verse description of Hylas’s story i.e. an extended fantasia into Greek legend, describing the way Hylas was sent off by Hercules to gather firewood but wandered too far and was seduced by the water nymphs while Hercules’ voice echoed wanly from afar. This was genuinely haunting.

This raises the issue of the extent to which Propertius not just incorporates Greek myth and legend into his poems, but packs them with mythological references (see below).

Book 2, 24 BC? (55 poems, including 10 or more ‘fragments’)

Book 2 for the first time features poems addressing Augustus’s great ‘minister for the arts’, Maecenas. He is described, rather unctuously, in the first poem as:

True heart alike in peace or war

and:

hope of the youth of Rome
And their envy, and my true glory in life and death…

Scholars deduce that the first book brought Propertius to Maecenas’s attention and in this second one he has become one of the great man’s circle. So not only does it address Maecenas himself but also, as was required, directly addresses Augustus.

Book 2 contains as many poems as 1 and 3 put together so some scholars think it actually combines 2 separate books. This is also suggested by the poor state of many of the poems in it. This has led some scholars to drastically rewrite the poems, taking bits which from poems where they seem out of place and stitching them into other poems where they seem to fit better. I can imagine this leads ultimately to a nightmare jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of fragments on the table in front of you as you rack your brains to recombine them in more ‘sensible’ ways.

Musker explains all this and concludes that, although many of these scholarly editions are intriguing for experts in the field, in this edition he rejects almost all of them. Because there is an alternative explanation – which is that Propertius deliberately made sudden swerves and juxtapositions in his verse, as policy. One of the elements that contributes to what Musker calls Propertius’s ‘elusiveness’ and has made him less popular in modern times that the far more sensible, down-to-earth Horace, or the scandalously sexy Catullus.

The subject matter of the poems is more varied though still circling round the figure of Cynthia. Several describe a rich rival who appears to have won her affections with jewels, and throw deep hatred his way. But then the next one might be another hymn of fulsome love and devotion. So the poems follow no order i.e you can’t make out a narrative, in fact they seem almost deliberately randomised.

Book 3, sometime after 23 BC (27, including 2 ‘fragments’)

The poems start to range in subject matter beyond simple love songs to tackle more public themes. For example, several invoke Augustus’s previous victories against Antony and Cleopatra and his current campaign in Parthia (3.4) (cf the long poem in book 4 celebrating the battle of Actium and repeatedly criticising Cleopatra).

There’s one very close to the royal family, lamenting the death of young Marcus Claudius Marcellus, Augustus’s nephew, who he legally adopted then married to his daughter Julia, only for him to die in 23 BC, his twentieth year (3.18).There’s one on the standard topic of how Rome has become corrupted by foreign riches and let its shrines and temples fall into shameful disuse:

Proud Rome is falling, crushed by her own prosperity. (3.13)

Several of the early ones are recusatios, a stock type of poem in which the poet bashfully excuses himself from writing the grand epic poem about Rome’s heroic military victories which society expected, and instead gets a Muse or god to explain that the poet’s real vocation is love poetry.

Wars I would tell of in patriotic verses,
But, alas, how weak the notes that sound on my lips! (4.1)

He writes a long poem to Maecenas saying everyone has his own nature and his (Propertius’s) is emphatically not either going to war or writing about war. The only war he enjoys is the battle of love (‘love’s sweet strife’, 3.20B). In fact this is continuing a trend which began in book 2, with 2.34 actually mentioning Virgil as the great epic poem of Propertius’s time.

Cynthia still pops up. In some he celebrates Cynthia’s birthday (3.10), but overall he seems to be tiring  of her, and the final poems declare himself well shot of her:

False is that trust of yours in your beauty, woman,
Whom my favouring eyes have long made overproud.
Yes, Cynthia, greatly indeed my love has praised you;
It shames me now that through my verses
You gained such fame. (3.24)

And the last poem in the book is an execration, calling down curses on her, and looking forward to her aging and withering and losing her beauty (3.25).

Book 4, published sometime after 16 BC (12 poems)

Book 4 contains only half the number of poems as book 1, leading some scholars to speculate that it may have been published posthumously, a tidying-up operation. Several of the poems imply that Cynthia is dead – in 4.7 her ghost complains to Propertius that her funeral wasn’t lavish enough.

The other poems move well beyond love poetry, addressing a variety of subjects. They include several ‘aetiological poems’, a genre which explains the origin of various Roman rites and landmarks. They’re longer than before, too. Many poems in book 1 were one page long. All those in book 4 are at least 2 pages long, some 3 or even 4.

  1. The poet describes the early history of Rome for 2 pages and the original rural appearance of Rome in terms very reminiscent of the Aeneid before the second half is spoken by a Babylonion priest predicting Propertius’s horoscope.
  2. The Etruscan god Vertumnus speaks, speculating about his own origins and purpose; he is a chameleon and can be male or female or take any role or profession.
  3. Two-page poem in which a young wife, Arethusa, writes to her husband, Lycótas, away at the wars, describing her sadness and devotion.
  4. Three pages describe the iniquity of Tarpeia, a vestal virgin back in the earliest days of Rome, when it was little more than a village, who falls in love with Tatius king of the neighbouring tribe of the Sabines; she betrays a secret path up the Palatine Hill into Rome but when Tatius marries her, as he promised, he gets his men to crush her with their shields for her treachery. This, supposedly, is the origin of the name of the Tarpeian Rock on the Palatine.
  5. Execration of a procuress named Acanthis, who incited his (unnamed) love to spurn the gods, whore after gold, reject his love, and so on.
  6. Three pages celebrating Augustus’s victory at the Battle of Actium. Always good policy to suck up to the emperor.
  7. Cynthia’s ghost comes back from the tomb to upbraid him on the evening of her funeral. At the end he tries to embrace her but her ghost vanishes into air which reminds me of the umpteen time the same thing happens in the Aeneid.
  8. To get his own back on Cynthia (see how the poems are not in any narrative order) the poet organises a little orgy with two hand-picked courtesans at the height of which Cynthia storms in, drives the girls out scratching and screaming, then demands complete submission from the poet, before fumigating the place. Then they have championship sex.
  9. Another poem describing what Rome looked like before it was founded i.e. was idyllic countryside – very reminiscent of book 8 of the Aeneid – here the backdrop for the legendary moment when Hercules stopped on the site only to have his cattle stolen by Cacus. The poem describes the Forum when it was just a grazing ground and explains the origin of the Great Altar which still stood in Propertius’s time. I wonder if it was Augustus and Maecenas’s pressure which led him to drop love poetry and turn to accounts of Rome’s founding legends.
  10. If a Roman military leader defeated the leader of the enemy in single combat and kept the latter’s arms and armour, these were called the spolia opima and brought back to be dedicated in the temple of Jupiter Feretrius. It had only happened three times in Roman history and this poem describes those three great personal achievements, by Romulus, Aulus Cornelius Cossus (consul in 428 BC) and Marcus Claudius Marcellus (consul in 222 BC).
  11. The final poem is a touching address by the recently deceased Cornelia consoling her husband, Paullus Aemilius Lepidus (77 to 11 BC). This man’s father had been brother to the Lepidus who was in the Second Triumvirate alongside Anthony and Octavius. Not long after Cornelia’s death, he married Claudia Marcella Minor, a daughter of Octavia the Younger, sister of Augustus. So like the lament for Marcus Claudius Marcellus (3.18) this is by way of being an imperial commission. However, its stately beauty has led to it being described as the ‘queen of the elegies’ and it is commonly considered the best poem in the entire collection.

Musker’s translation

Having carefully explained what the Latin elegiac metre was, Musker then goes ahead and cheerfully ignores the strictness of it in his own translation. His versions are very free and all the better for it. Try and spot traces of the hexameter-pentameter combination in the following:

Whence, you ask me, come all my poems of love,
And my book that sounds on men’s lips its note of langour.
Calliope does not sing me these songs nor Apollo;
A girl provides me with all I have
Of poetic talent.
(2.1)

Instead of couplets defined by the elegiac metre, Musker uses the verse paragraph. Each poem, instead of presenting a solid column of verse –as they do in the original Latin – is divided into 3 or 4 or 5 verse paragraphs of 5 or 6 lines, the last one or two lines always notably shorter, maybe a kind of recreation of the ‘dying fall’ of the original. Thus:

Penelope, who was worthy of many suitors,
For twice ten years was able to live untouched;
To defer remarriage by feigning a womanly industry,
Then unwinding by nightly stealth the weft of the day.
And though, grown old with waiting, she had no hope
Of ever seeing Ulysses again,
She yet stayed true.
(2.9A)

This not being faced by a wall of verse, instead being able to read a paragraph at a time, makes the poems immensely more readable, as does Musker’s relaxed approach to metre

Conventions of the love poem

Scholars have suggested various real-life models for Cynthia but there is no consensus. As usual all we have to go on is hints within the poems and one remote historical reference.

Propertius mentions that Cynthia is a descendant of the Roman poet Hostius. He frequently compliments her as docta puella meaning ‘learned girl’. He tells us that she herself was a writer of verse. This kind of autobiographical clue-hunting strikes me as pointless. Even when you have confirmed that Lesbia was a codename for Clodia…does it change anything? If anything, it reduces the impact of the poems, which they gain from being about a shadowy unnamed woman.

Instead, the poems are artifices; they rehearse a number of postures or attitudes or emotions related to love affairs. These may or may not ever have been ‘genuine’ or related to ‘a real person’ but it’s a question of taste whether you need to believe that to enjoy them. I don’t.

Poems are verbal machines designed to evoke psychological states in the reader; some of these might be mimetic, directly replicating the emotion described in the poem. But once you’ve read a certain number of poems and start to recognise the same topics recurring in the same treatment, at least part of your mind becomes capable of detachment, regarding even the most moving poem as a verbal artifact, a device.

Mythology

Apparently, Propertius is often criticised because of his excessive use of references from myth and legend. For example, elegy 2.6 kicks off with a flurry of mythological comparisons: he cites three of the most famous courtesans from ancient times and the crowds of men who flocked around them and then claims they were all nothing compared to the hordes of men who swarm at Cynthia’s door. In other words, it is a poem about male jealousy.

The house of Laïs at Corinth, though at her door
All Greece paid court, was never thronged like yours;
Thaïs, famed by Menander and once the darling
Of Athens, attracted no such swarm;
Nor yet did Phrynë, enriched by all those lovers
So that she could have re-erected
Demolished Thebes. (2.6)

In his introduction Musker defends Propertius against the charge of introducing too much mythological matter into his poems. His defence is:

  1. The ancients thought through mythology. Lacking anything remotely like a modern scientific understanding of the laws of nature, their extremely dense and multi-layered mythology provided not exactly rules or laws but stories from history which suggested underlying tendencies, among humans and among the fate which seems to hover over them. Mythology helps to make sense (albeit a chaotic and violent sense) of the world.
  2. Sheer swank. Propertius’s jealousy risks coming over as petty, small-minded, unaristocratic. But if he devotes a paragraph to comparing himself and Cynthia to figures from myth and legend then he obviously flatters her, bigs himself up, and turns a personal peeve into what sounds like the grand statement of some general law rather than a trivial tiff between pampered layabouts.

Personally, I enjoyed Propertius’s use of mythology. In Horace the mythological references often felt dragged in – I think it’s because Horace is such a regular guy, his entire schtick is about living for the moment and enjoying life in a very realistically described Rome, his is such a down-to-earth, sensible philosophy, that Achilles and Apollo seem wildly out of place in it.

Whereas Propertius from the start is more intense and shrill, a little more hysterical and extreme, and so his use of myth and legend genuinely helps to expand and enhance the poems, gives them size, like adding echo to a voice track.

The Romans expected their lovers to give them prominent love bites (note to 4.3, p.220, and 4.5).


Credit

Poems of Propertius, translated by Robert Musker, was published by Everyman books in 1972. All references are to the 1972 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag: States of Oneness @ Serpentine South

‘States of Oneness’ is a new exhibition of paintings and drawings at the main Serpentine Gallery (Serpentine South, as it’s now known) by pioneering Sudanese artist Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.

‘Two Women (Eve and Eve)’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

It brings together works in a variety of media, including:

  • numerous oil paintings
  • a number of early charcoal drawings
  • oil painting on leather drums
  • decorated vases or calabashes
  • a set of 5 Quranic prayers, photocopies of Arabic text which she has decorated with ink and acrylic paint
  • one large painted wooden screen

As usual, the plain white walls and light open spaces of the Serpentine’s rooms make an excellent setting for this major survey of an artist who is, I think, little known in the UK.

Installation view of ‘States of Oneness’ showing a) a big painting on the back wall b) the five framed Quranic prayers on the wall to the right and c) two painted calabashes in the foreground © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 2022. Photo: George Darrell, Courtesy Serpentine

Ishag’s biography

Born in 1939, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag has practiced since the 1960s and become a defining figure of modern Arab and African art. In the early to mid-1960s, Ishag was part of the Khartoum School, an influential Sudanese modernist movement, which collectively forged an identity for the newly independent nation by drawing on both Arabo-Islamic and African artistic traditions.

Ishag in London

Ishag was among the first women artists to graduate from the College of Fine and Applied Art in Khartoum in 1963, and she followed this with studies in Mural Painting at the RCA in London from 1964 to 1966, and Lithography, Typography and Illustration from 1968 to 1969. During her time in London – the press handout tells us – she was subject to three strong influences:

  • she was drawn to the visionary tone of William Blake’s poetry and etchings
  • she was affected by Francis Bacon’s distorted figures
  • and she was struck by the distorted reflections of human faces and figures she saw in the curved windows of Underground trains

One of the exhibition’s rooms features some big paintings from the 1970s which directly reference Bacon, showing human figures in very dark colours, midnight blues and angsty purples, confined in dimly visible cages, with titles like ‘Loneliness’. Striking but not typical of her work.

Loneliness (1987) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Much more important, though, is the spiritualist and other-worldly vibe which you can feel flowing through all her work.

The Crystalist movement

In the mid-1970s, she co-founded the Crystalists, a postmodern, conceptual group which challenged the male-dominated and identity-focused Sudanese art scene and advocated for a new aesthetic modelled on diversity, transparency and existentialist theory. Her Wikipedia tells us more about the Crystalists:

The Crystalist Group broke away from traditional practices in the Sudanese art scene. Their intention was to distinguish themselves from the Khartoum School of painting and their traditional male-centred outlook. This new approach in Sudanese painting was marked by a public declaration in the form of the so-called Crystalist Manifesto. This document presented an artistic vision that attempted to work beyond the Sudanese-Islamic framework of the Khartoum School. Moreover, the Crystalists sought to internationalize their art by embracing an existentialist avant-garde, more akin to European aesthetics.

“The Cosmos is a project of a transparent crystal with no veil and eternal depth. The truth is that the Crystalists’ perception of time and space is different from that of others. The goal of the Crystalists is to bring back to life the language of the crystal and to transform language into something more transparent, in which no word can veil another – no selectivity in language. […] We are living a new life, and this life needs a new language and new poetry.”
(The Crystalist Group, Khartoum, 1971)

Events have moved on in Khartoum and the wider world in the half century since then, but you can hear the stands of mysticism, feminism and internationalism which have informed her work to this day.

Spiritualism in Ishag’s art

The Crystalists may have come and gone as a movement but Ishag’s interest in spiritualism and reaching beyond the veil has endured. Working out way to depict the many ‘states of oneness’. According to the press handout, this derives from the stories of spirits told by her mother and grandmothers, and the field research she carried out with spiritualist women convening healing Zar ceremonies, a traditional practice in North Africa and the surrounding region.

In terms of the work, this has resulted in a very distinctive handling of the human body and face, transforming human beings into willowy, undulating shapes, boneless spirits, barely embodied. In the most recurring instances I thought her people were transforming into spermatazoa, heads with wriggly tails for bodies. That’s what the tadpoles wriggling round the bottom of this picture remind me of.

‘Procession’ (Zaar) by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

Or as here, in the untitled decoration of a leather drum, where the bodies are made to taper parallel to palm trees, in an image obviously influenced by the landscape of Sudan.

Composition by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

And above all her faces. So many of the faces which appear in these paintings are doubled, as if split, as if she is capturing the duality of human experience in every portrait. As mentioned above, this owes something to her seeing faces of people travelling on the Tube curved and distorted and refracted in Tube carriage windows.

‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

But looking at some of them, I thought about Freud and psychoanalytical notions of the conscious and unconscious selves, or wider depth psychology ideas about the multitude of selves we contain within ourselves. Looking at others I thought about the most basic tenet of most religions which is that we are made of body and soul, are made of bodily instincts and soulful longings. Then again, the ones with multiple eyes reminded me of Picasso or the Picasso which his philistine critics liked to mock, two eyes on the same side of the nose, that sort of thing.

Detail of ‘Faces with two roses’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

These and many more interpretations are possible. I like art which allows indeterminacy of interpretation, allows thoughts and reflections to rise and connect and free associate.

Nature in Ishag’s art

The other really important aspect of her work is nature, to be precise, trees and leaves and flowers. There are many images of trees and leaves and of people’s willowy bodies undulating in line with arboreal curves. For example, the image at the top of this review of two women floating amid a sea of bright green leaves, or the spectacular ‘Lady grown in a tree’.

‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

This lady really is deeply embroiled with her tree. The idea made me think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and all those figures from Greek mythology, mostly women, who turns into flowers or trees.

‘Nothing now remained of my dear sister except her face: all the rest was tree.’
(Iole describing the fate of her sister, Dryope, transformed into a tree, in book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses)

But looking up close, it struck me the lady’s face is very reminiscent of the African mask-inspired faced of Picasso’s famous painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, from a hundred and ten years earlier, in 1907.

Detail of ‘Lady grown in a tree’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2017) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

The people who float around at a gallery like the Serpentine and are available to answer questions are called ‘visitor assistants’. They are always extremely helpful and very well informed. I got chatting to one visitor assistant who pointed out that many of these images of trees and flowers derive from the plants in Ishag’s own garden in Khartoum. Some – like the palm trees on the drum I mentioned above – are obviously nods to Sudan’s wider landscape. But many not only show flowers but convey a very feminine sense of sociability in a calm, leafy, civilised space. Hence the stylised but still very evocative painting ‘Gathering’ from 2015.

‘Gathering’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2015) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

I assume this is a meeting of (rather ghoulish-looking) ladies who are drinking tea or a light beverage from the long glasses with tiny handles, or maybe just water, which symbolises the water of life. Maybe the glasses are both on the table and floating off it (at the same time) and the picture captures the way it’s the same water as feeds the trees and plants in her garden, which can’t live without it. So the water in the human glasses is one with the water feeding nature and so the plants can be thought of as growing out of the water in the glasses as it is all one.

The more you look, the more you see images of greenery – flowers, plants, tendrils and leaves, either as central motifs for a picture or as decorative elements furling around the split faces and swimming spermatazoa, or of people turning into trees, or of trees containing human faces.

Take the image at the top of this review, ‘Two Women’, if you look carefully at the trees, you’ll see they both contain a human face. In fact at the bottom of both trees, especially the one on the right, you can see a pair of human feet. This painting in particular, made me think of the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, giants in tree form.

The more you look, the more you see leaves, flowers, tendrils, trees everywhere, images of wholeness and healing to set against her continually disturbing depiction of human faces.

Detail of ‘Two figures in two balls’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2016) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (photo by the author)

‘Blues for the Martyrs’

As might be obvious by now but I think Ishag’s most recent work is her best. In the big paintings from the last decade or so all her themes – willowy people, strange split faces, trees and tendrils – emerge with most force and power. Some artists peak early and fade; Ishag strikes me as getting better and better with every year. Long may she continue.

Thus it is that arguably the most striking image in the entire show is the most recent. It’s titled ‘Blues for the Martyrs’ and it was made this year, 2022. One of those visitor assistants I was talking about explained it to me. In 2019 there were student protests in Khartoum. The police cracked down with violence. They beat up and threw protesters into the river (Nile). Hence the deep blue of the painting which portrays the river and the tendrils of river weeds billowing up through the water.

And the faces in their bubbles? Ishag is using the faux naif style she has perfected over decades to convey the sense of the souls of the dead, protected in hermetic bubbles, enduring, living on, smiling blissfully, a little childishly, maybe. They’re certainly strikingly unlike the troubled split faces, the ghoul faces, of virtually all her previous work. ‘Smiley face for the martyrs.’

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ by Kamala Ibrahim Ishag (2022) © Kamala Ibrahim Ishag

‘Blues for the Martyrs’ is pretty much the most striking painting in the exhibition, not least because it marks such a complete departure from the palette of almost all the other works. Much of the other stuff, whether painted on drums or calabashes or canvas, is predominantly brown or sand, colours of a hot desert country, sprinkled with green leaves, splashes of plantlife in the desert.

By contrast this painting is huge and painted a powerfully deep rich blue. It’s a very striking image but I’ve saved it till last because it’s so uncharacteristic of everything which came before it. Maybe it’s a one-off or…maybe it marks a new departure in Ishag’s work, which is still very much ongoing.

Summary

This is an unusual, unexpected, strange and often very beautiful exhibition, beautifully laid out in the Serpentine’s main big white gallery space. And it’s FREE. Well worth making a detour through the park to see.

Here’s the artist herself, pushing 83 and still rocking it.

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag. Photo © Mohamed Noureldin Abdallah Ahmed


Related links

Other Serpentine reviews

The odes of Horace

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

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

Horace’s works

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

Horace’s odes

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is an ode?

The following is adapted from the Wikipedia definition:

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

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

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

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

Subject matter

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

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

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

James Michie

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

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

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

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

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

Themes

Direct address to gods

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

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

1.10 To Mercury

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

1.21 To Diana

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

1.30 Prayer to Venus

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

1.31 Prayer to Apollo

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

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

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

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

1.35 Hymn to Fortuna

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

Thee the poor farmer with his worried prayer
Propitiates…

To women

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

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

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

1.13 To Lydia

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

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

1.19 The Poet’s Love for Glycera

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

Is Glycera.

1.23 To Chloe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In praise of booze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.11 carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greek mythology

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

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

Succeed? (3.4)

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

False modesty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magnificent themes, Maecenas… (2.12)

Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The simple life

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

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

Homosexuality

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

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

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

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

Sucking up to Augustus

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

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

He, whether leading in entitled triumph
The Parthians now darkening Rome’s horizon,
The Indian or the Chinese peoples huddled
Close to the rising sun,

Shall, as thy right hand, deal the broad earth justice. (1.12)

Here Horace is asking the fickle goddess Fortune to protect Augustus and the Roman armies engaged in battle:

Guard Caesar bound for Britain at the world’s end,
Guard our young swarm of warriors on the wing now
To spread the fear of Rome
Into Arabia and the Red Sea coasts. (1.35)

1.37 includes a brief description of Octavian’s historic victory over the fleets of Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Thunder in heaven confirms our faith – Jove rules there;
But here on earth Augustus shall be hailed as
God also, when he makes
New subjects of the Briton and the dour

Parthian. (3.5)

Incidentally, I don’t know why there are so many references to conquering Britain. In his long reign Augustus never sent armies to invade Britain, that was left to his great-nephew, the emperor Claudius, in 43 AD.

Book 4 contains noticeably more praise of Augustus (‘O shield of Italy and her imperial metropolis’) than the previous books: was it clearer than ever that the new regime was here to stay? Had Horace got closer to Augustus? Was it a shrewd political move to butter up the big man?

We know that Horace had been personally commissioned to write the two odes in praise of Drusus (4.4) and Tiberius (4.14) which overflow with slavish praise of their stepfather, Augustus, and the book includes a poem calling on Apollo to help him write the Centennial Hymn which Augustus commissioned (4.6). So this book contains more lickspittle emperor-worship than the previous 3 books combined.

How shall a zealous parliament or people
With due emolument and ample honours
Immortalise thy name
By inscription and commemorative page,

Augustus, O pre-eminent of princes
Wherever sunlight makes inhabitable
The earth? (4.14)

And the final ode in the entire series, 4.15, is another extended hymn of praise to Augustus’s peerless achievements.

Book 4

In his edition of Horace’s satires, Professor Nial Rudd points out that book 4, published about 12 years after books 1 to 3, has a definite autumnal feeling. Virgil is dead (19 BC) and Horace’s patron, Maecenas, no longer plays the central role he had done a decade earlier. The odes to Tiberius and Drusus highlight that a new young generation is coming up, and Horace refers to his own grey hair and age. Had Maecenas previously formed a buffer between him and the emperor, and, with his declining influence, has the emperor become more demanding of direct praise?

Famous phrases

It’s difficult for a non-Latinist to really be sure of but all the scholars and translators assure us that Horace had a way with a phrase and that this meant he coined numerous quotations used by later generations.

Probably the three most famous are ‘carpe diem’ and ‘nunc est bibendum’ and ‘dulce et decorum est’, from 1.11, 1.37 and 3.2, respectively. Here’s the source Latin and Michie’s translations of each instance:

Carmen 1.11 (complete)

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare 5
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Don’t ask (we may not know), Leuconie,
What the gods plan for you and me.
Leave the Chaldees to parse
The sentence of the stars.

Better to bear the outcome, good or bad,
Whether Jove purposes to add
Fresh winters to the past
Or to make this the last

Which now tires out the Tuscan sea and mocks
Its strength with barricades of rocks.
Be wise, strain clear the wine
And prune the rambling vine

Of expectation. Life’s short. Even while
We talk, Time, hateful, runs a mile.
Don’t trust tomorrow’s bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.

Carmen 1.37 (opening stanza)

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero
pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus
ornare pulvinar deorum
tempus erat dapibus, sodales…

Today is the day to drink and dance on. Dance, then,
Merrily, friends, till the earth shakes. Now let us
Rival the priests of Mars
With feasts to deck the couches of the gods…

3.2 comes from the series of 6 poems which open book 3, which are longer than usual and adopt quite a strict scolding tone, instructing Romans of his day to abandon luxury and return to the noble warrior values of their ancestors. It needs to be read in that context:

Carmen 3.2 (Opening only)

Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta

vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. Illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo

suspiret, eheu, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo…

Disciplined in the school of hard campaigning,
Let the young Roman study how to bear
Rigorous difficulties without complaining,
And camp with danger in the open air,

And with his horse and lance become the scourge of
Wild Parthians. From the ramparts of the town
Of the warring king, the princess on the verge of
Womanhood with her mother shall look down

And sigh, ‘Ah, royal lover, still a stranger
To battle, do not recklessly excite
That lion, savage to touch, whom murderous anger
Drives headlong through the thickest of the fight.’

The glorious and the decent way of dying
Is for one’s country. Run, and death will seize
You no less surely. The young coward, flying,
Gets his quietus in his back and knees…

Two points. One, quite obviously ancient Rome was an extremely militarised society with all its politicians expected to have served in the army or, as consuls, be sent off in command of armies in umpteen foreign campaigns. Two, with this in mind it’s worth pointing out that the poem goes on to contrast the glory won by death in battle with the vulgar world of democratic politics and elections.

Unconscious of mere loss of votes and shining
With honours that the mob’s breath cannot dim,
True worth is not found raising or resigning
The fasces at the wind of popular whim…

The fasces being the bundle of wooden rods, sometimes bound around an axe with its blade emerging, which was carried by the lictors who accompanied a consul everywhere during his term of office and which symbolised a magistrate’s power and jurisdiction.

Summary

Michie is very proficient indeed at rhyming. More than that, he enjoys showing off his skill:

Boys, give Tempe praise meanwhile and
Delos, the god’s birthday island. (1.21)

A cheap hag haunting alley places
On moonless nights when the wind from Thrace is
Rising and raging… (1.25)

When the brigade of Giants
In impious defiance… (2.19)

But I think the cumulative effect of so much dazzling ingenuity is that sometimes  the poems reek more of cleverness for its own sake than the kind of dignified tone which the Latinists describe as having. At times the cleverness of his rhyming overshadows the sense.

Boy, I detest the Persian style
Of elaboration. Garlands bore me
Laced up with lime-bark. Don’t run a mile
To find the last rose of summer for me. (1.38)

Throughout the book, in pretty much every poem, although I could read the words, I struggled to understand what the poem was about. I had to read most of them 2 or 3 times to understand what was going on. Half way through, I stumbled upon the one-sentence summaries of each ode given on the Wikipedia page about the Odes. This was a lifesaver, a game changer. From that point on, I read the one-sentence summary of each poem to find out who it was addressed to and what it was about – and so was freed to enjoy how it was constructed, and the slickness of Michie’s translations.

Bless this life

Above all, be happy. Life is short. Count each day as a blessing.

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully… (1.9)

You can see why all the translators, scholars and commentators on Horace describe him as a friendly, reassuring presence. A poet to take down off your shelves and read whenever you need to feel sensible and grounded.


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Roman reviews

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 7 to 9

‘War is the business of men.’
(Turnus, book 7, line 445)

Book 7 War in Latium

Following the dictates of the gods Aeneas and his fellow Trojans are still en route to Italy where their destiny awaits.

They pause just long enough in Caetia to make a funeral pyre for Aeneas’s nurse, who dies here and whose name they give to this harbour, then they sail on. They avoid the island of Circe, who bewitches men and turns them into animals (so in Virgil her island is just off the coast of Italy? In Homer the implication is that it is in the far East, as far away as the Black Sea; but Apollonius of Rhodes, in his narrative of Jason and the Argonauts, places it just south of Elba, within sight of the coast of Tuscany. OK.)

Anyway, Circe is included in the narrative in order to transcend her and the whole world she comes from. Educated Romans had for centuries been aware of their cultural inferiority to the Greeks and had copied or stolen huge chunks of their culture. (I am particularly aware of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s self-imposed project of translating everything that he thought useful from Greek philosophy into Latin, inventing or redefining Latin words as he went in order to capture Greek technical terms. Then there’s the drama, copied straight from the Greek; the architecture ditto. And then this very poem, the Aeneid, copying form, tone and conventions from the Greek).

So the Romans had to find a way to justify their superiority to the Greeks and, by extension, to all the other peoples they had subjugated in the century and a half leading up to Augustus’s rule. They did so by talking about Rome’s unique ability to rule wisely and justly, in a way no other culture or empire could.

This partly explains why Virgil opens book 7 with a very conscious change of tone. Up till now, the first 6 books, have been dealing with adventures by sea and among the mythical legendary world of the Greeks, of all the Greek legends of great heroes and myths of gods and monsters. It is the half-magical world of Homer’s Odyssey.

With book 7 Aeneas finally ceases his sailing and the rest of the poem is about The Land. And in particular fighting for the land. It is about military conquest and this is the uniquely Roman sphere of achievement which without any doubt sets her apart from all other cultures of the Mediterranean. If the first half rehashes themes and images from the Odyssey, part two invokes the much more brutal, unforgiving world of the Iliad and the stern work of conquest which is the Romans’ destiny and métier.

All this explains the stern invocation to Erato, the muse of lyric poetry and mimic imitation:

Come now, Erato, and I shall tell of the kings of ancient Latium, of its history, of the state of this land when first the army of strangers beached their ships on the shores of Ausonia. I shall recall, too, the cause of the first battle – come, goddess, come and instruct your prophet. I shall speak of fearsome fighting, I shall speak of wars and of kings driven into the ways of death by their pride of spirit, of a band of fighting men from Etruria and the whole land of Hesperia under
arms. For me this is the birth of a higher order of things. This is a greater work I now set in motion.

Aeneas’s fleet sight the mouth of the river Thyber they have heard so much about and they sail into the river and the narrative introduces us to the people who live here. Old King Latinus is descended from Saturn but his son and heir died young. He has one marriageable daughter, Lavinia, and the kings of all the neighbouring tribes have vied for her hand, not least King Turnus.

Omens tell the Latins strangers have arrived; first a swarm of bees, then Lavinia is shrouded in flame, then Latinus late at nights hears words prophesying that the new arrivals will merge with his people to forge a race which will rule the entire world.

Aeneas and his men have anchored their ships and are eating, and are so hungry they eat the plate-shaped compacts of wheat which they used as containers or holders of their meal, when Ascanius bursts out that ‘they are eating their tables’. In a flash Aeneas realises this is the fulfilment of the prophecy his father made back in book 3: so they really have finished their journeying; this is their destined settlement place.

They send out messengers who quickly come to the city of the Latins, seeing their brave young men exercising. At the same time king Latinus hears confirmation of the arrival of the prophesied strangers. The embassy led by Ilioneus explains why they have come, their peaceful intention to settle. Latinus realises these are the stranger predicted by the prophecies, and their leader is the man fated to marry his daughter: ‘This Aeneas is the man the Fates demanded.’

BUT – Juno sees all this from heaven and is overcome with rage. Maybe it is fated that Aeneas will marry Lavinia but she, Juno, can drag it out for as long as possible and inflict as much damage, pain and grief as possible on all concerned first. She commissions Allecto, bringer of grief, to stir things up.

1. Allecto goes to Latinus’s palace and throws one of the snakes that grow on her head into the breast of Queen Amata. This poisons the queen and whips her up to a mad frenzy. She rails against the king and his passive acceptance of marriage of their daughter to a Trojan. Remember Paris who abducted Helen. At the first breath of trouble Aeneas will abduct their daughter. Also, she is promised in marriage to Turnus, who is king Latinus’s own flesh and blood etc. When the king demurs Amata goes hog crazy, running raving through the palace, out into the countryside, abducting her daughter and devoting her to the god Bacchus, sending word to all the women of Latinum to untie their hair and run wild with her in the woods.

2. Part two of the plan sees Allecto flying to the palace of Turnus, king of the Rutulians. She assumes the shape of an old priestess and warns Turnus the Aeneas is taking his place. Turnus poo-poohs this so Allecto reveals herself in her true size and shape, terrifying Turnus, then throws a flaming brand into his heart and inspires him with ‘the criminal madness of war’ (7.463), and he wakes to rant and rage and call for his armour and declare war on the newcomers.

3. Part three is Allecto flies off to find Ascanius out hunting. She inspires his hounds to track down the finest stag in the neighbourhood which has been patiently reared by hand by Silvia, the daughter of the local lord, Tyrrhus. Ascanius shoots it with an arrow and it runs home crying. The wife is distraught, the husband blows his horns to rally his neighbouring shepherds, the Trojans rally from their ships and the fighting escalates. Tyrrhus’s son is killed, then the wisest oldest landowner in the neighbourhood.

Latinus doesn’t want war, but most of his court including his wife, are furious for it, so he washes his hands of it and withdraws to his chamber. The Latins have a temple whose gates are opened when war is declared, unleashing the furies of war. Latinus refuses to open it so Juno comes down from heaven herself to do so. The fighting escalates. It is war!

Vast armies of allies rush to join the Latinums and Virgil enumerates their leaders and heritances and distinctive weapons and numbers. Like sands on the shore. Scores of thousands of fighting men, Turnus standing a head taller than all of them in a helmet graced by a chimaera, and last of all was Camilla the warrior maiden of the Volsci.

Book 8 Aeneas in Pallantium / Rome

‘Fortune that no man can resist, and Fate that no man can escape’
King Evander explaining how he ended up inhabiting his lands, 8.335)

Aeneas witnesses this vast mobilisation for a massive war and, characteristically, ‘great tides of grief flowed in his heart’. He is ‘heart sick at the sadness of war.’ He thought all his troubles were over. Seems like they’re only just beginning.

That night he has a vision of Old Father Tiber speaking to him. Tiber reassures him that this is the place he is destined to settle and that all will be well. Tells him to ally with the Arcadians. Tells him he will see a sow suckling 30 piglets, and these symbolise the thirty years until his son Ascanius founds the city of Alba Longa.

So Aeneas takes 2 ships of warriors and sails up the Tyber for a couple of days to the city of the Arcadians, which they have named Pallanteum (meaning belonging to Pallas Athena). He makes an alliance with their venerable king, Evander, based on their shared ancestry going back to the legendary Atlas, and the fact that Evander had, when a young man, met and admired Aeneas’s father, Anchises. Evander invites Aeneas to join the annual feast in honour of their founder Hercules.

Evander tells their founding legend, how they were terrorised by the foul monster Cacus until the latter made the mistake of stealing some of Hercules’s cattle as he was driving them by on his journey back from Gades/Cadiz in Spain. And so Hercules killed him in an epic fight. Evander’s people sing a page-long hymn to Hercules.

Evander then explains that the original people roundabouts were hunter-gatherers who had no agriculture until the god Saturn appeared, who inaugurated a Golden Age. But this was slowly degraded by the appearance of baser metals and the madness of war and the lust for possessions.

[This is interesting because it chimes with the Stonehenge exhibition and catalogue which depict the change from a hunter-gatherer society similar to that of the Native Peoples of North America, to the arrival of agriculture, which transformed human society; and then the ability to smelt and shape iron, which led to stronger weapons which led to an outburst of war and looting – ‘the madness of war and the lust for possessions’ 8.328. Much like the sequence of events related by King Evander to Aeneas.]

Only now, as Evander points out some of the features of the primitive settlement of Pallanteum do we realise that they are walking through the future site of Rome, for he indicates the cave of Lupercal, the Tarpeian Rock, the hill of the Capitol, the Janiculum, none of which had their later names yet. The idea is that the name Pallantium will evolve over time into Palatine, name of the prime hill of Rome. But for now, the future forum is filled with cattle lazily grazing. Evander invites Aeneas into his humble little house and they both sleep as night falls.

But his mother, the goddess Venus, is very worried about the armies gathering. She goes to her husband, the lame god of the forge, Vulcan, ‘took him gently in her white arms and caressed him, and caressed him again. Suddenly he caught fire as he always did’ and she persuades him to make a magnificent shield for her son. First they have sex and he falls asleep, sated. But in the middle of the night he wakes and flies down to the island of Vulcania, where his workshop is based in caverns like those beneath Mount Etna.

This is the beginning of the extraordinary and brilliant description of the forging of the mighty shield for Aeneas, totally modelled on Hephaestus’s forging of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad, but brilliantly vivid and stirring in its own right. Vulcan gets his three Cyclopes to drop what they’re doing and create the greatest shield in the world.

While they crack on the scene shifts back to the humble house of Evander, next morning, when he and Aeneas wake and discuss politics. Evander tells him the warlike Lydians settled in the Etruscan mountains but suffered under a cruel ruler Mezentius till they rose up and drove him out. He ran off to the land of his guest-friend Turnus. The Etruscans are up in arms and want him, Mezentius, back, to punish. But a prophecy has said the Etrurians will never put themselves under an Italian leader. But an exile just arrived from Troy…Evander says he will put Aeneas at the head of this army, and all its other allies. ‘You, Aeneas, are the man the gods are asking for.’

Evander tells him he will give him 200 cavalry, and his son Pallas to be trained in the ways of war, who will bring 200 more. Aeneas is saddened that it has come to this but then his mother Venus sends a sudden flash of lightning and crash of thunder and the sky is filled with an Etruscan trumpet and they see a suit of armour glowing red in the sky. Aeneas realises it is a sign, Venus will send him heavenly armour as she promised.

So he accepts Evander’s commission and is dressed for war. He selects his strongest companions and sends the 2 ships he came in back down the river to alert Ascanius and the other Trojans of the arrangement.

Word gets round Pallanteum that was has come and mothers fret over their sons. ‘Mothers stood on the city walls full of dread.’ Virgil writes a moving speech for King Evander to deliver to his beloved son, born to him late in life, how he would prefer to die now than hear bad news about him. But he must go. It is destiny.

Aeneas and his forces ride out from Pallanteum, with Pallas looking magnificent in their centre. Not long after the come to the Etruscan forces in their camp, led by Tarcho, hail and greet them.

But somehow, in the vague way of Virgil’s, at the same time he is separate from all the others, in a copse and to him appears his mother, Venus, and lays the new-forged armour at the foot of an oak tree. The remaining 120 lines of the book (about 4 pages of the Penguin paperback) are devoted to a thrilling, visceral description of the many scenes from Roman history which Vulcan has moulded onto the mighty shield, ending with a vast diorama of the Battle of Actium in which Augustus Caesar and Antony are specifically named (and Cleopatra is castigated, ‘pale with the pallor of approaching death’) before we see the unprecedented three triumphant processions held by the victorious Augustus through Rome.

As in Book 6, the brown-nosing, the honours paid to Augustus (‘from his radiant forehead there streamed a double flame and his father’s star shone above his head’) are off the scale.

Obviously only a fraction of these scenes could fit on any actual shield but that’s not the point. Aeneas, as you might expect, marvels at the scenes depicted, without a clue what any of it means

Book 9 Nisus and Euryalus

Spiteful Juno sends Iris down to tell Turnus that Aeneas is away from his base camp at the mouth of the Tiber so this is a perfect time to attack. Turnus rouses his men and their allies and in a mighty host they approach the Trojan camp. However, Aeneas left explicit instructions for the Trojans not to engage, so they stay secure behind their walls.

Frustrated Turnus lights on the idea of burning their fleet which is riding at anchor on the Tiber. But, as it happens, back when Aeneas and the Trojans cut down the wood to build these ships, Cybele, god of the earth, went to Jupiter and begged that ships built from her holy grove would never suffer ruin. So Jupiter promised that once they had sailed across the seas they would be transformed into immortal goddesses. And so it is that as Turnus’s men set about torching the ships a great light is seen from the East and the voice of the goddess is heard and each ship turns into a sea nymph and dives into the sea like a dolphin!

Undaunted, Turnus rallies his men saying this only means the Trojans have lost all means of retreat. They crap on about Venus and destiny but now they are here in the land of Latium he, Turnus, will ensure they meet a different destiny – to be hacked down by his sword! He calls them cowards and assures them his siege won’t last ten years! and he sets armed guards over all the gates and settles his men in their own camp.

Cut to a pair of Trojans on guard duty, beautiful young Nisus and the even younger Euryalus, who hasn’t started shaving yet. Nisus has spotted a gap in the encircling army. He suggests to Euryalus that they sneak through the gap and go to find Aeneas and tell him of their encirclement. They find guards to take their spot and go suggest the plan to Ascanius and the generals. They are awed by the young men’s bravery, burst into tears, clasp them by their right hands and Ascanius promises them an extravagant amount of booty (Turnus’s horse and armour) as well as ‘twelve chosen matrons’. Who would not risk their life for ‘twelve chosen matrons’? They all exchange vows and accompany them to the gate out of which they will sneak but Virgil dashes our spirits by saying it was all ‘futile’, the wind scattered them like clouds.

So they sneak into the enemy camp, finding them all asleep after drinking wine late into the night. Nisus proceeds to massacre loads of them as they sleep, cutting their heads off, letting the black blood soak the earth.

They finally bring the slaughter to an end and sneak on beyond the camp but the shiny helmet Nisus is wearing gives them away to a mounted patrol which confronts them. They run off the road into a copse but the enemy know it well. Nisus gets clear but discovers Euryalus has been caught and goes back to rescue him. He sees Euryalus being bound prisoner and throws a spear at the Rutulians killing one, then another spear killing another. Their leader Volcens is infuriated and heads straight for Euryalus. Nisus breaks cover and yells that it was him who threw the spear, his friend is innocent but is too late and he watches Volcens plunge his sword into Euryalus, killing him on the spot. Demented with anger Nisus rushes upon the entire platoon, fighting on despite repeated wounds till he makes it through to Volcens and plunges his sword into his mouth before dropping dead.

Virgil writes a memorial saying as long as his poetry lives, so will their names live in glory.

Morning comes and the Rutulians are appalled to discover so many of their main leaders murdered in the night. They cut off Nisus and Euryalus’s heads, pin them on spears and parade them up and down in front of the Trojan ramparts.

Euryalus’s mother hears of his death and drops her loom and runs to the ramparts and delivers an impassioned lament. She is demoralising her side so is helped back to her tent.

Then the Rutulians attack and the Trojans defend their walls as they have had long bitter years of practice doing. Virgil calls on Calliope and the other muses to help him recount all the deeds performed that day, and proceeds to give a dense account of the men killed in a variety of ways on both sides, exactly in the manner of Homer, especially the first kill performed by young Ascanius, which requires a boastful address by his Rutulian victim (Numanus), and Ascanius’s prayer to the gods to make his arrow shoot true. Having killed his man Ascanius is praised by no less a figure than the god Apollo who, however, tells him to quit while he’s ahead, and it is always best to obey the god Apollo.

In the most notable incident the two huge brothers Pandarus and Bitias are so confident of their powers that they open their gate to let the raging Rutulians in and proceed to slaughter every one that comes through the gates. But when Turnus hears of this he quits fighting on another part of the field and runs to the gate where he kills several Trojans then fells Bitias with ‘an artillery spear’. Pandarus realises the tide has turned and so leans against the gate to shut it but in his haste locks Turnus on the inside. Then two square up to each other and make set-piece speeches of defiance. Pandarus throws his huge spear but the goddess Juno deflects it into the wall whereupon Turnus lifts his huge sword and brings it crashing down on Pandarus’s head, cleaving his skull in two with much splattering brains.

If Turnus had opened the gate and let his comrades swarm inside, the war would have ended then and there, but he is battle-mad and fights on, massacring scores of Trojans. However reinforcements come and he is overcome by sheer weight of numbers, exiting through the gate and fleeing. His helmet rang again and again with blows, the plume was torn from his helmet, and the boss of his shield destroyed.

But – in one of those events in Virgil which have a kind of dreamlike simplicity and impracticality, and also great abruptness – Turnus is described as jumping into the river Tiber in full body armour into the river Tiber which bears him up, washes the blood and gore away and carries him safely to his companions. Nothing about that is remotely plausible and it sheds back on the quite brutal realism of what came before the strange half-light of a dream.

The rule of three

In her death throes three times Dido lifts herself on her elbow, three times she falls back onto her pyre (4. 692). Three times Aeneas tries to embrace his father in the underworld (6.700). Three times Juturna beats her lovely breasts (12.155).

Into wind

Only towards the end did I begin to register how often things disappear into the wind, turn to air, or smoke, blown and vanishing on the wind. This is true of many of the people who appear in dreams or spirits of the dead who appear in the daylight.

Three times Aeneas tries to embrace his father in the underworld, but:

three times the phantom melted in his hands, as weightless as the wind… (6.702)

Or when, earlier, Aeneas has fled burning Troy but then realises he’s gotten separated from Creusa and goes back into the burning city, mad with grief, searching everywhere until her spirit appears before him and tells him to desist; it is fated by the gods; he must go and found a great city etc, and then:

She spoke and faded into the insubstantial air, leaving me there in tears and longing to reply. (2.790)

Sometimes it is their words, for example Arruns’ prayer to Apollo in book 11. He prays to Apollo to kill the scourge that is Camilla, and Apollo grants this bit; but also prays to return to the city of his fathers, and this part Apollo ‘scatters to the swift breezes of air’ (11.797), these words are seized by a sudden squall and blown far away to the winds of the south (11.798).

The restless, invisible wind is a powerful symbol off the evaporation, disappearance, vanishing into non-being, of human visions, words and wishes. They cremate their dead. All humans, eventually, go up in smoke.


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