The Pharsalia by Lucan – 2: Summary

In this book-by-book summary of Lucan’s Pharsalia, I started with the short text summaries provided by Wikipedia, pasted in the section summaries provided by A.S. Kline’s online translation, and then added my own observations.

Book 1 The civil war begins (695 lines)

After a brief introduction lamenting the idea of Romans fighting Romans there is a flattering dedication to Nero (‘to me you are already divine…you alone grant power to Roman verse’). Considering that Nero had Lucan killed, some critics read this as deeply ironic. But Susan Braund (translator of the Oxford University Press edition of the Pharsalia) sees no reason to. Before their falling out, while he was writing the early books of the poem, they were close friends and the first part of Nero’s reign was seen by many as ideal, peaceful and just.

The narrative summarizes background material leading up to the present war and introduces Caesar in northern Italy. Despite an urgent plea from the Spirit of Rome to lay down his arms, Caesar crosses the Rubicon, rallies his troops and marches south to Rome, joined by Curio along the way. The book closes with panic in the city, terrible portents and visions of the disaster to come.

Lines 1 to 32: The ruinous nature of civil war on earth and chaos in the heavens

33 to 66: Sycophantic homage to Nero, saying that if it took a civil war to produce such a wise and good emperor, then maybe it was worth it

67 to 97: The motives of the two leaders

98 to 157: Comparisons, Pompey the old oak tree and Caesar the unstoppable bolt of lightning

158 to 182: The hidden causes of the war, namely Rome’s wealth and decadence, bribery and corruption

183 to 227: Despite a vision of Italy as a weeping woman, Caesar denies her accusations and crosses the Rubicon

228 to 265: Caesar’s entry into Ariminum whose citizens lament that they are the first stopping point for all invaders

266 to 351: The exiled tribunes: Curio’s speech whips Caesar up to a speech detailing his grievances against Pompey and the Senate

352 to 391: The troops hesitate but are convinced by the speech of Laelius, the chief centurion

392 to 465: Caesar gathers his forces

466 to 525: Rumour triggers panic in Rome which is cowardly abandoned by its population

526 to 583: Ghosts and portents, anarchy in heaven, terrify the world

584 to 637: The soothsayer Arruns reads the future in the rotten entrails of a sacrificed bull and predicts disaster

638 to 672: Figulus reads the prophecies in the heavens

673 to 695: Apollo inspires a Roman matron in a frenzied vision to see the locations of all the forthcoming battles and bloodshed

Book 2 Pompey flees Italy (736 lines)

In a city overcome by despair, an old veteran presents a lengthy interlude regarding the previous civil war that pitted Marius against Sulla. Cato the Younger is introduced as a heroic man of principle; as abhorrent as civil war is, he argues to Brutus that it is better to fight than do nothing. After siding with Pompey—the lesser of two evils—he remarries his ex-wife, Marcia, and heads to the field. Caesar continues south through Italy and is delayed by Domitius’ brave resistance. He attempts a blockade of Pompey at Brundisium, but the general makes a narrow escape to Greece.

Lines 1 to 66: In Rome women beat their breasts in lamentation and men wish they were fighting Rome’s enemies not each other

67 to 138: An elder gives a detailed account of Marius’s career i.e. flight, then vengeful bloody return to Rome

139 to 233: The same elder recalls Sulla’s victory and vengeance against the Marian party, recalls seeking the body of his murdered brother, the Tiber was clogged with corpses

234 to 285: Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger visits Cato and makes a long speech

286 to 325: Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger’s speech of reply: wherever fate leads, virtue must follow without fear; he wishes his death could unite the enemies

326 to 349: Marcia knocks on the door; she has come from burying her husband, Hortensius, and wants to remarry Cato in order to share his tribulations

350 to 391: So Marcia and Cato marry on the spot, with Brutus as witness, but Lucan emphasises Cato’s stern devotion to duty and Rome above personal reward or pleasure

392 to 438: Pompey bases himself at Capua, with an extended geographical description of the city’s location among the Apennine mountains

439 to 461: Caesar advances into Italy

462 to 525: Commander after commander abandons his post and cities fall before Caesars advance, with the noble exception of Domitius who tried to defend Corfinium, before being given up his soldiers and then ignominiously granted clemency by Caesar (the fate Cato is determined to avoid)

526 to 595: Pompey’s speech to the army defending his cause against Caesar’s ‘pitiful madness’ and listing his many triumphs

596 to 649: But little applause follows his speech, and Pompey leads his troops to Brindisi, which is given an extended geographical description, like Capua, above; he sends his son and envoys to raise allies in Greece and the East

650 to 703: Caesar lays siege to Brindisi

704 to 736: Pompey escapes Brindisi, taking his fleet across the Adriatic to Illyricum

Book 3 War in the Mediterranean (762 lines)

As his ships sail, Pompey is visited in a dream by Julia, his dead wife and Caesar’s daughter. Caesar returns to Rome and plunders the city while Pompey reviews potential foreign allies. To protect his read Caesar heads for Spain, but his troops are detained at the lengthy siege of Massilia (Marseille). The city ultimately falls in a bloody naval battle.

Lines 1 to 45: Pompey’s vision of Julia, his previous wife, daughter of Caesar, who bound the two rivals together until her early death in 54 BC

46 to 83: Caesar sends officers to secure the grain supply from Sicily and Sardinia, then marches on Rome

84 to 140: While the senators are ignominously summoned to the House to hear Caesar, the tribune Lucius Metellus defends the treasury with his life

141 to 168: Metellus is pushed aside and the cumulated treasury of the ages seized

169 to 213: A long list of cities in Greece and Asia Minor who send men to Pompey

214 to 263: The Middle East and India rally to Pompey

264 to 297: The Black Sea and North Africa rally to Pompey – these three sections comprise a massive list of tribes and cities and peoples on the model of the List of Allies in the Iliad, itself copied in the Aeneid

298 to 357: speech of the Greek inhabitants of Marseille opposing Caesar, arguing to remain neutral

358 to 398: Caesar blockades Marseille, throwing up an enormous earthwork

399 to 452: Caesar destroys the sacred grove

453 to 496: Caesar leaves for Spain but the siege of Marseille continues, Roman siege techniques described in detail

497 to 537: The Greek inhabitants of Marseille mount a successful sortie so the Romans initiate a naval battle

538 to 582: The fleets engage with a vivid description of grappling irons, hand to hand fighting and thousands of soldiers dying in the sea, hit by random arrows, javelins, fire and sinking ships

583 to 634: The death of Catus, Telo, Gyareus, the mutilated twin

635 to 669: The death of Lycidas, the man skewered by two prows meeting

670 to 708: The death of Phoceus, who drowned many before hitting the keel of a ship, many more drown, are crushed, transfixed

709 to 751: Lygdamus, a Balearic sling-thrower, blinds Tyrrhenus who, in turn, throws a javelin which kills Argus, whose father is so distraught he stabs himself then jumps overboard – the focus on gruesome anatomical details recalls the Iliad

752 to 762: Lamentation of the women and parents of Marseille as they embraced mangled corpses or fought over headless bodies to place on funeral pyres

Book 4 Caesar victory in Spain

The first half of this book describes Caesar’s victorious campaign in Spain against Afranius and Petreius. Lucan then switches scene to focus on Pompey, his forces intercept a raft carrying Caesarians, who prefer to kill each other rather than be taken prisoner. The book concludes with Curio launching an African campaign on Caesar’s behalf, where he is defeated and killed by the African King Juba.

1 to 47: Caesar attacks the base of the two Pompeian leaders in Spain, Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius, but his soldiers, fighting uphill, are thrown back

48 to 120: Caesar’s camp is flooded, interesting because of the extended description of the geography of Spain and the causes of heavy rain and, after the flooding, the famine

121 to 156: The campaign is renewed: Caesar builds bridges across the river Sicoris, prompting Petreius to abandon the heights of Ilerda and head for central Spain

157 to 207: The two armies camp within sight of each other and this prompts many to call out then go and meet friends on the other side; Lucan praises the god Harmony, soon bitterly to be broken

208 to 253: Angry, Petreius gives a speech rousing his troops in the name of the Senate and Pompey and Freedom, whipping them up to attack the friends of Caesar’s army who had come among them, bloodshed, horror

254 to 318: Afranius loses the moral high ground with this action; Caesar pursues his army to high ground, with no water, and there surrounds it, ordering his army to resist attacks and wear the trapped enemy down from extreme thirst

319 to 362: Worn down by privations Lucius Afranius surrenders with a dignified speech

363 to 401: Pompey’s army in Spain disbands and immediately quench their thirst at the river Caesar had prevented them reaching; they are lucky, banned from fighting they will see out the long civil war in peace

402 to 447: Conflict in Dalmatia, where Gaius Antonius’s Caesarian force builds rafts to escape the island of Curicta

448 to 528: One of these rafts, bearing 600 Caesarians commanded by Vulteius, is surrounded by Pompeyan forces; as night falls Vulteius makes a long speech advocating their noble suicide

529 to 581: Vulteius and his men commit suicide

582 to 660: The myth of Hercules and Antaeus i.e. their legendary wrestling match

661 to 714: Pompey’s African army under Varus i.e. another long list of allied tribes and peoples; Caesarian Curio determines to throw his army against Varus

715 to 787: King Juba’s army lures Curio into an ambush, surrounds and massacres the Romans

788 to 824: How jarring that Pompey’s side could only triumph by pleasing the shades of Hannibal and the Carthaginians with a north African defeat of Roman legions; lament that so noble a figure as Curio was corrupted by the degenerate times to take Caesar’s shilling and inflame civil war

Book 5 Caesar in Illyria (815 lines)

The Senate in exile confirms Pompey the true leader of Rome. Appius consults the Delphic oracle to learn of his fate in the war, and leaves with a misleading prophecy. In Italy, after defusing a mutiny, Caesar marches to Brundisium and sails across the Adriatic to meet Pompey’s army. Only a portion of Caesar’s troops complete the crossing when a storm prevents further transit; he tries to personally send a message back but is himself nearly drowned. Finally, the storm subsides, and the armies face each other at full strength. With battle at hand, Pompey sends his wife to the island of Lesbos, despite her protests.

1 to 70: The consul Lentulus addresses the senators in exile in Epirus, telling them wherever they are, that is the Roman state; the senators appoint as allies the kings who have rallied to their cause

71 to 101: History of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and speculation about how it works, what god lies buried deep in Mount Parnassus and speaks through the priestess

102 to 140: History of the oracle’s most famous predictions and why it was shut down; Appius Claudius tries to reopen the shrine, Phemonoe, the priestess, tries to resist him

141 to 197: The priestess pretends to prophesy but Appius realises she is faking and pushes her towards the chasm until she is possessed by Apollo and delivers a genuine prophecy which is that Appius will escape the storms of war

198 to 236: Further description the wild frenzy the priestess had been thrown into, then lament that Appius, like so many others, misread the oracle to mean that he was safe, when what it really meant was his premature death

237 to 299: Caesar’s troops on the verge of mutiny: given a long speech which displays Lucan’s skill at suasoria

300 to 373: Caesar quells the mutiny, exposing his chest to them, daring them to mutiny; but Lucan says shame on him for delighting in a war his own men condemn; Caesar more or less calls his men scum:

The gods will never stoop so low as to care about
the lives or deaths of such as you; events depend
on the actions of great men: humankind lives for
the few.

374 to 402: While his armies assemble at Brundisium Caesar hurried to half-empty Rome where has himself declared dictator; Lucan laments that this age ‘invented all the false titles that we have granted our masters for so long’

403 to 460: Arriving back at Brundisium Caesar finds the sea beset by storms; he persuades his fleet to set sail but, ironically, once out of sight of land it is becalmed; next morning a wind picks up and blows Caesar’s fleet to Paeneste

461 to 503: Caesar impatiently summons Mark Antony with the rest of his fleet and army

504 to 576: Caesar dresses in disguise and visits the hut of a humble fisherman, Amyclas, and persuades him, against his better judgement, to take him across the sea to Italy

577 to 637: Then the seas blow up into a real storm which Lucan with hyperbole describes as nearly drowning the entire world, till Jupiter intervenes

638 to 677: Exulting, Caesar defies the storm, saying its epic force matches his world-shattering ambition, at which point a freak wave carries the little boat back to shore and flings him safely on the beach

678 to 721: Next morning the troops in Caesar’s camp reproach him for risking his life without them; the sun comes out and Mark Anthony beings the rest of Caesar’s fleet over from Italy to Nymphaion

722 to 760: Pompey tells his wife Cornelia that Caesar’s army has landed in Illyria and so he is sending her to Lesbos for her own safety

761 to 815: Cornelia’s gives a long speech in which she laments that Caesar is forcing her and Pompey’s marriage to come to an end, laments that she won’t be with him (Pompey) when the great battle occurs, if Pompey is defeated would rather know the news at once so she can kill herself if he dies; then she packs hurriedly and is taken down to the ship to Lesbos; next night she sleeps alone in an alien bed – but Fate held worse in store

Book 6 Thessaly and Erictho the witch (830 lines)

Pompey’s troops force Caesar’s armies – featuring the heroic centurion Scaeva – to fall back to Thessaly. Lucan describes the wild Thessalian terrain as the armies wait for battle the next day. The remainder of the book follows Pompey’s son Sextus, who wishes to know the future. He finds the most powerful witch in Thessaly, Erictho, and she reanimates the corpse of a dead soldier in a terrifying ceremony. The soldier predicts Pompey’s defeat and Caesar’s eventual assassination.

Lines 1 to 27: Pompey moves to seize the town of Dyrrachium

28 to 63: Caesar hems Pompey in by building a vast fortification around his army; Lucan laments at so much effort expended for such a futile end

64 to 117: Both camps afflicted: horses die and illness spreads in Pompey’s camp, while Caesar’s men begin to starve

118 to 195: The super-heroism of the centurion Scaeva who single-handedly rallies Caesar’s troops when Pompey’s army attempts a breakout at Minicius

196 to 262: More of Scaeva’s superhuman resistance, fighting single-handed against a wall of enemies till his mutilated face is one mass of bleeding flesh; the arrival of Caesarian reinforcements puts the Pompeyans to flight, and only then does Scaeva collapse. But, Lucan asks, what was it all for?

But you can never adorn the Thunderer’s shrine
with your trophies, nor will you shout for joy
in the triumph. Unhappy man, how great your
bravery that merely paved the way for a tyrant!

263 to 313: Pompey attacks at points along the perimeter wall; at one of them Caesar counter-attacks but then Pompeyan forces charge from all sides; the civil war might have ended there in total defeat for Caesar except that Pompey ‘restrained his army’ and Caesar’s army regrouped and fought its way clear; Lucan laments the lost opportunity and lists all the disasters which would follow:

Cruel fate! Libya and Spain would not have mourned for
the disasters at Utica and Munda; neither would the Nile,
defiled by vile bloodshed, have borne that corpse nobler
than a Pharaoh’s; King Juba’s naked body would not have
burdened the African sand, nor Metellus Scipio appeased
the Carthaginian dead with his blood; nor the living have
lost their virtuous Cato. That day might have ended your
ills, Rome, and erased Pharsalia from the scroll of fate.

314 to 380: Caesar strikes camp and marches east into the interior, into Thessaly

381 to 412: Extensive description of the geography and legendary history of Thessaly or ‘the accursed land’ as Lucan calls it (see above)

413 to 506: The armies follow then camp near each other with a growing sense of Fate, that this is where the Great Confrontation will take place; but Pompey’s son, Sextus, wants to know more and, as it happens, his side have camped ‘near the dwellings of those Thessalian witches whom no conjuring of imaginary horrors can outdo’; a very long passage about their supernatural powers, especially to affect rain and tides, the oceans and even the earth’s rotation

507 to 568: An extended description of the wickedness of Erictho who is the worst witch ever

569 to 623: Erictho is pointed out to Sextus by a local guide, sitting on a high cliff, casting spells unknown to wizards in order to keep the armies at Pharsalus and make the great massacre happen here; Lucan blames Erictho for magically making the armies stay here; she’s doing this so that she can use the blood and bones and body parts of the dead soldiers in her magic rites

624 to 666: Erictho picks a corpse off the battlefield and drags it to her terrifying cave where she ties her hair with snakes and prepares to bring it back to life

667 to 718: Erictho invokes the infernal powers with tremendous power, at considerable length

719 to 774: Erictho raises the dead body to life to prophesy

775 to 830: The prophecy of the dead

Book 7 Pompey loses the Battle of Pharsalia (872 lines)

The soldiers are pressing for battle, but Pompey is reluctant until Cicero convinces him to attack. Against all the odds, the Caesarians are victorious, and Lucan laments the resulting loss of liberty. Caesar is especially cruel as he a) mocks the dying Domitius and b) forbids the cremation of the dead Pompeians. The scene is punctuated by a description of wild animals gnawing at the corpses and a lament from Lucan for Thessalia infelix, ill-fated Thessaly.

Lines 1 to 44: Pompey dreams that he is in Rome enjoying the cheers of his victories in Spain against Sertorius in 73 BC; he would have been happy if he had died at that moment; unlucky Rome, never to see him again

45 to 86: Cicero’s speech summing up the general mood, asking why Pompey is delaying battle

87 to 130: Pompey’s reply, pointing out that he is slowly winning and counselling patience, lamenting that he is being forced into a confrontation he will lose

What evil and suffering this day will bring
the nations! How many kingdoms will be ruined!

131 to 184: Omens and portents

185 to 214: The augur’s cry

215 to 234: Pompey deploys his army, including many foreign kings (Gauls and Spanish)

235 to 302: Caesar addresses his men, pointing out most of Pompey’s army is made of foreigners who care nothing for Rome

303 to 336: Continuation of Caesar’s speech in which he associates Pompey with Sulla, and says if that if the Caesarians lose, he, Caesar, will kill himself rather than be taken in chains to Rome to be punished in the Forum; his army tramples down their camp and trench and throw themselves into battle formation

337 to 384: Pompey addresses his men

385 to 459: The effects of the Battle of Pharsalia: Lucan attributes all Rome’s subsequent failings, the loss of an entire generation, the failure to expand the borders of empire, all to this fateful day:

The fields of Italy are tilled by men in chains, no one
lives beneath our ancient roofs, rotten and set to fall;
Rome is not peopled by citizens; full of the world’s
dross we have so ruined her, civil war among such
is no longer a threat. Pharsalia was the cause of all
that evil.

460 to 505: Battle is joined

506 to 544: Caesar destroys Pompey’s cavalry who Lucan depicts as mostly ill-disciplined foreigners and barbarians

545 to 596: Caesar seizes victory

597 to 646: ‘There all the glory of our country perished… a whole world died there’; Lucan associates the defeat with the birth of the imperial tyranny he says he and his generation still live under a hundred years later:

we were laid low for centuries, all
generations doomed to slavery were conquered
by those swords. What fault did we, their sons,
their grandsons, commit that we deserved to be
born under tyranny?

647 to 697: Pompey takes flight

698 to 727: Pompey reaches Larissa, where he is enthusiastically greeted, even though he has lost

728 to 780: Caesar encourages his men to loot Pompey’s abandoned camp, but that night his men have guilty dreams about murdering their kin

Neither Pentheus raving nor Agave newly sane
were subject to greater horror or mental turmoil.

781 to 824: Caesar also has poisonous dreams but awakes and orders his dining table to be set out on the battlefield which he can survey choked with Roman dead: Caesar denies them burial

825 to 872: Wolves, dogs, birds of prey, descend to ravage the many dead bodies on the battlefield; which god did Thessaly offend to not only host the disastrous battle of Pharsalus, but its echo, Philippi, six years later?

Book 8 The death of Pompey in Egypt (870 lines)

Pompey himself escapes to Lesbos, reunites with his wife, then goes to Cilicia to consider his options. He decides to enlist aid from Egypt, but the Pharaoh (Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator) is fearful of retribution from Caesar and plots to murder Pompey when he lands. Pompey suspects treachery; he consoles his wife and rows alone to the shore, meeting his fate (assassination) with Stoic poise. His headless body is flung into the ocean, but washes up on shore and receives a humble burial from Cordus.

Lines 1 to 85: Pompey sails to Lesbos; Cornelia, scanning the seas, faints when she sees his approach; he revives her, saying now is the time for her love and loyalty

86 to 108: Cornelia says she brings a curse to everyone she marries and wishes Julia would come and take her as a sacrifice so as to spare Pompey; everyone bursts into tears

109 to 158: The people of Lesbos beg Pompey to stay another night and put themselves at his disposal; Pompey is moved by their loyalty, pays them tribute, but sets sail with Cornelia

159 to 201: Pompey asks the ship’s navigator to explain how he navigates by the stars

202 to 255: Though defeated, Pompey retains loyalty; he sends Deiotarus to rally the kingdoms of the East, especially Parthia, to his cause; detailed geographical description of his route by sea

256 to 330: Pompey sails along the coast of Cilicia (southern Turkey) till he arrives at the port of Syhedra where he addresses the senators and other leaders who followed him: he rejects Ptolemy of Egypt and King Juba of Africa as allies; instead he says they must ally in the East with the Parthians, with the bonus that Parthians killed in this civil

331 to 455: Lentulus speaks against Pompey’s plans, scandalised that he is considering relying on Rome’s most ancient enemy; also the Parthians are soft and lousy fighters, and Lentulus goes on to accuse Easterners in general of polygamy, sexual perversions, incest; all Roman armies should be uniting against the Parthians to avenge the infamous massacre of Crassus’s legions; he advocates going to Egypt

456 to 535: As Pompey reaches Egypt, debate among the young Pharaoh’s advisers, with a long speech by Pothinus, his regent, counselling amoral Realpolitik, namely that Pompey has obviously lost, that they don’t want to be dragged down with him: he argues they should kill Pompey

536 to 636: The Egyptian council approve this policy; thus Pompey approaches the sandy shore, is met by a rowing boat and invited to step down into it, is rowed to the beach and there stabbed to death, shamefully by a renegade Roman servant of Pharaoh’s, Septimius: Lucan gives Pompey a last internal soliloquy as he overcomes pain and fear at his death

637 to 662: Cornelia laments and begs to be killed, herself

663 to 711: The assassins hack off Pompey’s head and take it to Pharaoh who has it embalmed, leaving his headless body to be battered by the surf and rocks

712 to 822: Cordus, a former soldier of Pompey’s, claims his corpse from the sea, builds a makeshift pyre from a wrecked boat, places the body amidst it and lights it, hours later, at dawn, scoops up the bones, buries the ashes under sand and a stone, a memorial wildly out of keeping with Pompey’s world-straddling achievements

823 to 870: A curse on Egypt

Book 9 Cato in Libya

Pompey’s wife mourns her husband as Cato takes up leadership of the Senate’s cause. He plans to regroup and heroically marches the army across Africa to join forces with King Juba, a trek that occupies most of the middle section of the book. On the way, he passes an oracle but refuses to consult it, citing Stoic principles. Caesar visits Troy and pays respects to his ancestral gods. A short time later he arrives in Egypt. When Pharaoh’s messenger presents him with the head of Pompey, Caesar feigns grief to hide his joy at Pompey’s death.

It’s important to realise that Cato didn’t support Pompey, he went along with Pompey because he offered the best chances of achieving what Cato really wanted which was the restoration of the Republic with no strong men. When Pompey dies it doesn’t mean the end of the struggle (as it does for many of the allies); for Cato it means one strongman down, just one more to finish off (Caesar) then Freedom can be restored.

1 to 50: Pompey’s spirit rises into the lower heavens, realm of demi-gods, to watch the stars, then back down to earth to imbue Cato with more resolution to oppose Caesar (and later, to fortify Caesar’s assassin, Brutus)

51 to 116: Cornelia laments her fallen husbands (she was previously married to ill-fated Crassus) then repeats Pompey’s last message to his sons, namely to raise fleets to plague Caesar, recommending Cato as the only leader to follow; she locks herself belowdecks as a storm hits the fleet

117 to 166: Sextus Pompeius tells his older brother, Gnaeus, about the murder of their father; Gnaeus vows fierce revenge on Egypt

167 to 214: Cornelia sails west to meet with Cato at Utica, and burns all Pompey’s belongings in a big pyre; Cato eulogises Pompey and praises suicide

215 to 252: Many of the rulers who followed Pompey now depart Cato’s stronghold, explaining that they followed the man not the cause and now he is dead, they will return tom their homelands and take their chances

253 to 293: Cato wins them over (‘Shame on you, vile slaves’)

294 to 347: Another extended geographical description, of ‘the Syrtes’ on the coast of Libya, which Cato’s fleet skirts as it sails along the coast to Lake Tritonis

348 to 410: Mythological background of the region, including the story of Hercules stealing apples from the Garden of the Hesperides: Cato gives a speech encouraging the men to march inland from the coast across the desert

411 to 462: Geographical description of North Africa

463 to 510: The Romans battle on through a massive sandstorm

511 to 586: Description of the Libyans’ god Ammon; Labienus persuades Cato to consult the oracle because he has ‘always ruled your life according to heavenly law, a follower of the divine’; Cato gives a sound rebuttal, with the Stoic argument that God planted all the knowledge in our mind at birth to live virtuous lives, he doesn’t need oracles in the desert

587 to 618: Cato leads the men on the long march

619 to 699: Digression for the mythical tale of Perseus and Medusa; Perseus flew over Libya carrying Medusa’s severed head which dropped blood onto the desert and spawned countless species of poisonous snakes

700 to 760: Catalogue of the snakes of Libya; the gruesome death of standard bearer Aulus, bitten by a dipsas (species of poison snake)

761 to 788: The cruel death of Sabellus, bitten by a seps, which makes its victims’ bodies melt!

789 to 838: Further deaths by snake bite

839 to 889: The soldiers’ heroic endurance and many deaths, Cato always being at the soldier’s side to make them unafraid

890 to 937: One local tribe is immune to the snakebites, being the Psylli of Marmarica; they select their infants by exposing them to snakebites, the survivors joining the tribe; how they help Cato and his soldiers survive snake bites

938 to 986: Finally Cato and his men arrive at inhabited territory near to Leptis where they erect winter quarters. Cut to Caesar as he visits the site of Troy, taking a detailed tour; triggering Lucan to promise that his poem will live and preserve its protagonists’ names, as long as Homer’s did

987 to 1,063: Caesar prays to the gods of Troy that if they make his journey prosper, he will rebuild their city; sails to Egypt; is met by an envoy who presents him with Pompey’s head; Lucan flays Caesar’s hypocrisy at pretending to be upset and weeping

1,064 to 1,108: Caesar’s speech berating Pharaoh for murdering Pompey because it prevented Caesar from exercising his clemency; he had wanted to triumph, yes, but then be reconciled with Pompey; he orders the Egyptians to gather Pompey’s ashes and erect a proper shrine

Book 10 Caesar in Egypt and Cleopatra

Caesar in Egypt is beguiled by the Pharaoh’s sister, Cleopatra. A banquet is held. Pothinus, Ptolemy’s cynical and bloodthirsty chief minister, plots an assassination of Caesar but is killed in his surprise attack on the palace. A second attack comes from Ganymede, an Egyptian noble, and the poem breaks off abruptly as Caesar is fighting for his life.

Lines 1 to 52: Caesar visits Alexander’s grave; Lucan calls him a ‘chance marauder’, ‘a plague on earth’, another conqueror and tyrant

53 to 103: The people of Alexandria bridle at Roman occupation; Caesar takes Pharaoh hostage; Cleopatra smuggles herself into the palace, ‘Egypt’s shame, Latium’s Fury’; Lucan execrates Caesar for letting himself be seduced, giving into ‘adulterous lust’, engendering siblings for his dead Julia: Cleopatra’s speech, pointing out her father intended her to be co-ruler and saying her brother the Pharaoh is in the clutches of the advisor, Pothinus

104 to 135: Cleopatra seduces Caesar; they sleep together; description of Cleopatra’s magnificent palace

136 to 193: At a luxurious feast (‘Caesar learns how to squander the riches of a ransacked world’); Caesar asks Acoreus the priest to give him some background on Egypt’s geography and history, starting with the source and flooding of the Nile

194 to 267: Acoreus discourses on the sources of the Nile, invoking a lot of useless astrology and then reviewing a series of theories, all of them nonsense

268 to 331: Acorius discourses more on the source of the Nile, about which he knows nothing (cf my review of Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal)

332 to 433: A very long speech in which Pharaoh’s regent, Pothinus, tells Achillas (one of the two men who assassinated Pompey) that they must do the same to Caesar i.e. assassinate him that very evening; but when evening comes, they bottle out and miss the opportunity

434 to 485: Next morning the conspirators lead an entire army against Alexandria; seeing it approach the city, Caesar barricades himself into the royal palace, taking Pharaoh as a hostage, while the Egyptians set up a siege

486 to 546: The siege includes ships blocking the harbour; Caesar orders these set fire and the fire spreads to houses on the mainland; he seizes the Pharos, the island attached to the mainland by a mole, which controlled entrance to Alexandria’s port; Caesar has Pothinus beheaded; Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoe, is smuggled out of the palace to take control of the besieging army where she in turn has the incompetent Achillas executed; Caesar is moving his troops onto the empty ships in the harbour when he is attacked from all sides, from the Pharos, from the sea, and from the mainland – at which point the poem abruptly stops

Horror and madness

Lucan emphasises the horrific nature of his subject matter in the poem’s first seven lines (the same number as the opening sentence of Virgil’s Aeneid):

I sing of a worse than civil war, of war fought between kinsmen
over Pharsalia’s plains, of wickedness deemed justice; of how
a powerful people turned their own right hands against themselves;
of strife within families; how, with the first Triumvirate broken,
the forces of the quivering globe contended in mutual sinfulness;
standard ranged against standard, eagle matched against eagle,
spear threatening spear. What madness, my countrymen, how wild
that slaughter!

Any civil war represents the complete inversion of all the normal rules and values of society, starting with patriotism and love of your fellow countrymen.

Events throughout the poem are described in terms of madness and sacrilege. Far from glorious, the battle scenes are portraits of bloody horror, where nature is ravaged to build terrible siege engines and wild animals tear mercilessly at the flesh of the dead (perhaps reflecting the taste of an audience accustomed to the bloodlust of gladiatorial games).

Horror

Arruns reading the entrails:

Behold, he saw a horror never once witnessed
in a victim’s entrails without disaster following;
a vast second lobe grew on the lobe of the liver,
so that one part hung flabby with sickness,
while the other quivered and its veins trembled
to an a-rhythmic beat.

Madness

War’s madness is upon us,
where the sword’s power will wildly confound
all law, and vicious crime be called virtue.
(1.665)

Say, O Phoebus,
what madness embroils Roman arms
and spears in battle, in war without a foe?
(1.679)

Terror

Julia doesn’t just appear as just a ghost to Pompey, but as a Fury:

Julia, a phantom full of menace and terror, raising her
sorrowful face above the yawning earth, stood there in
the shape of a Fury amid the flames of her funeral pyre.
(3.8 to 10)

But then again, if Seneca’s tragedies are anything to go by, elite audiences in Nero’s Rome revelled in horrific subject matter, in the depiction of madness, horror, incest, mutilation, all wrapped in the most lurid, extreme rhetoric the poet could concoct.

Anti-imperialism

Given Lucan’s clear anti-imperialism, the flattering Book I dedication to Nero is somewhat puzzling. Some scholars have tried to read these lines ironically, but most see it as a traditional dedication written at a time before the (supposed) true depravity of Lucan’s patron was revealed. The extant “Lives” of the poet support this interpretation, stating that a portion of the Pharsalia was in circulation before Lucan and Nero had their falling out.

Furthermore, according to Braund, Lucan’s negative portrayal of Caesar in the early portion of the poem was not likely meant as criticism of Nero, and it may have been Lucan’s way of warning the new emperor about the issues of the past.

The poem as civil war

A critic named Jamie Masters has come up with a clever idea which is that the Pharsalia is not just a poem about a civil war but, in a metaphorical way, is a civil war. Not only are the two characters, Caesar and Pompey, at war with each other, but the poem can be divided into Pompeian and Caesarian styles and approaches.

Thus the sections about Pompey are slow, embody delay, and revels in delay, and dwell on the horrors of civil war. The passages describing Caesar are noticeably faster, cover more ground, with less lamenting and more energy.

This leads Masters to maybe overdo it a bit, suggesting the conflict was ultimately within Lucan’s mind so that the binary opposition that he sees throughout the entire poem embodies Lucan’s own ‘schizophrenic poetic persona.’

Lucan’s influence

Lucan’s work was popular in his own day and remained a school text in late antiquity and during the Middle Ages. Over 400 manuscripts survive. Its interest to the court of Charlemagne is proved by the existence of five complete manuscripts from the 9th century. Dante includes Lucan among other classical poets in the first circle of the Inferno, and draws on the Pharsalia in his scene with Antaeus (the giant depicted in Lucan’s book 4).

Christopher Marlowe wrote a translation of Book 1. Thomas May followed with translation of the other nine books in 1626, and then went on to invent a continuation, adding seven books to take the story up to Caesar’s assassination.

Suetonius’s Life of Lucan

Suetonius’s Life of Lucan is very short. This is it, in its entirety, in the Loeb Classical Library 1914 translation:

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus of Corduba made his first appearance as a poet with a ‘Eulogy of Nero’ at the emperor’s Quinquennial Contests,​ and then gave a public reading of his poem on the ‘Civil War’ waged between Pompey and Caesar. In a kind of introduction to the latter, comparing his time of life and his first essays with those of Vergil, he had the audacity to ask:

“How far, pray, do I fall short of the Culex”?​

In his early youth, learning that his father was living in the remote country districts because of an unhappy marriage…He was recalled from Athens by Nero and made one of his intimate friends, besides being honoured with the quaestor­ship; but he could not keep the emperor’s favour. For piqued because Nero had suddenly called a meeting of the senate and gone out when he was giving a reading, with no other motive than to throw cold water on the performance,​ he afterwards did not refrain from words and acts of hostility to the prince, which are still notorious. Once for example in a public privy, when he relieved his bowels with an uncommonly loud noise, he shouted out this half line of the emperor’s, while those who were there for the same purpose took to their heels:

“You might suppose it thundered ‘neath the earth.”

He also tongue-lashed not only the emperor but also his most power­ful friends in a scurrilous poem. Finally, he came out almost as the ringleader​ in the conspiracy of Piso, publicly making great talk about the glory of tyrannicides, and full of threats, even going to the length of offering Caesar’s head to all his friends. But when the conspiracy was detected, he showed by no means equal firmness of purpose; for he was easily forced to a confession, descended to the most abject entreaties, and even named his own mother among the guilty parties, although she was innocent, in hopes that this lack of filial devotion would win him favour with a parricidal prince.

But when he was allowed free choice of the manner of his death, he wrote a letter to his father, containing corrections for some of his verses, and after eating heartily, offered his arms to a physician, to cut his veins. I recall that his poems were even read in public,​ while they were published and offered for sale by editors lacking in taste, as well as by some who were painstaking and careful.


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The Pharsalia by Lucan – 1: Introduction

O mighty the sacred labour of the poet! He rescues
all from fate, and grants immortality to mortal beings.
(Pharsalia Book 9, lines 980 to 981)

Lucan biography

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39 to 65 AD), generally referred to in English simply as ‘Lucan’, was a Roman poet, born in Corduba (modern-day Córdoba) in the Roman province of Hispania. Although he was ordered to kill himself by the emperor Nero at the age of just 25, Lucan is regarded as one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial Latin period, particularly for his (unfinished) epic poem, Pharsalia.

Lucan was the son of Marcus Annaeus Mela, younger brother of Seneca the Younger i.e. he was Seneca’s nephew.

Lucan’s father was wealthy, a member of the knightly class, and sent him to study rhetoric at Athens and he was probably tutored in philosophy, and especially Stoic philosophy, by his uncle (maybe by Seneca’s freedman, Cornutus, who also tutored the slightly older poet, Persius).

Lucan was a precocious talent and was welcomed into the literary and philosophical circles around the young emperor Nero, who was only two years older than him (born 37 AD). In 60 AD i.e. aged barely 21, Lucan won prizes for extemporising poems at Nero’s new Quinquennial Games. Nero rewarded him by appointing him to the office of augur, a plum position in Rome’s religious hierarchy.

Soon afterwards Lucan began circulating the first three books of what was intended to be an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (generally referred to as Pompey). This has come down to us with the title Pharsalia, or De Bello civili (‘On the civil war’) in other manuscripts. It’s titled Pharsalia because the action focuses on the decisive Battle of Pharsalus, fought on 9 August 48 BC, at which Caesar decisively defeated Pompey’s army.

At some point Nero and Lucan fell out. According to Tacitus (Annals, book 15, section 49) Nero became jealous of Lucan and ordered him to stop publishing the Pharsalia. According to Suetonius (in his brief Life of Lucan, cited in full at the end of this blog post), Nero disrupted a public reading by Lucan by leaving and calling a meeting of the senate. Lucan responded by writing insulting poems about Nero – which is always a bad thing to do against a tyrant. The grammarian Vacca mentions that one of Lucan’s works was entitled De Incendio Urbis (‘On the Burning of the City’) which presumably contained criticism of Nero’s role in the Great Fire of Rome (July 64). This is confirmed by a reference in a poem by Lucan’s younger contemporary, Publius Papinius Statius (45 to 96 AD).

As further proof, after the pro-Nero eulogy of the opening book, nearly all the subsequent references to emperors and the empire are vitriolically anti-imperial and pro-republic in tone. To take an example at random, Lucan’s biting criticism of not only Alexander the Great’s achievements, but of the cult of imperial Alexander which followed his death.

For, if the world had regained a shred of liberty
his corpse would have been retained as an object
of derision, not shown as an example to the world
of how a host of lands were subjected to one man.
He left his Macedonian obscurity, spurned Athens
that his father had conquered, and spurred on by
the power of destiny ran amok among the realms
of Asia, slaying humankind, putting every land
to the sword. He stained far-off rivers, Persia’s
Euphrates, India’s Ganges with blood; a plague
on earth, a lightning bolt that struck all peoples
alike, a fateful comet flaring over every nation.

But what ended Lucan’s life was his involvement in Gaius Calpurnius Piso’s conspiracy against Nero, uncovered in 65. Lucan was one of many conspirators revealed by torturing suspects. According to Suetonius he miserably truckled to his persecutors, giving them names of further conspirators, including even his own mother, in the vain hope of winning a pardon.

Once his guilt was established Nero ordered Lucan to commit suicide by opening a vein (the alternative being arrest, torture and public execution). According to Tacitus, as Lucan bled to death he recited some lines he had written about a wounded soldier. I wonder if they were from the passage about the 600 Caesarians who chose suicide rather than surrender to Pompey, in book 4:

how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide
(4.577)

Alternatively, according to Suetonius, Lucan in his dying minutes wrote a letter to his father containing corrections to some of his verses and, after eating heartily, offered his arms to a physician to cut his veins. Lucan’s father and both his uncles, i.e all three sons of Seneca the Elder, were also compelled to kill themselves.

(Statius wrote an elegy to Lucan, the Genethliacon Lucani, which was addressed to his widow, Polla Argentaria, on the dead man’s birthday. It was written during the reign of Domitian (81 to 96) and included in Statius’s collection, Silvae).

Themes in the Pharsalia

De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) or the Pharsalia is long and dense with themes and ideas, some of which I will now consider:

1. No gods

The traditional epic poem is packed with gods, supporting various protagonists and intervening in the events. The entire narrative of the Aeneid exists because of the enmity of the queen of the gods, Juno, to the hero, Aeneas, who she continually enters the story to block and stymy, in doing so setting herself against fellow goddess, Venus, who, for her part, does everything she can to support Aeneas (who is her son). This leads to great set-piece debates in heaven between the rival gods, adjudicated by the king of the heavens, Jupiter.

There’s none of this in Lucan. Lucan took the decision to dispense with all the divine interventions associated with traditional epic. Lucan replaces them with the more up-to-date Stoic notions of Fate and Fortune. These two forces, sometimes blurring into each other and overlapping, at other moments appear as clearly distinct entities, names for two different forces operating at different levels of the universe.

Fate, fatum or fata is Destiny – the fixed, foreordained course of events which underpins the universe. Fate is the name given to the working through of the deep plan for the world and the nations in it.

And now, as light dispersed the chill shades of night,
Destiny lit the flames of war, setting the spur to Caesar’s
wavering heart, shattering the barriers shame interposed
and driving him on to conflict. Fate worked to justify
his rebellion, and found a pretext for his use of arms.
(Book 1, lines 261 to 265)

What but the power of destiny, that tragic fate
decreed by the eternal order, drew him, doomed
to die, to that shore…Yet
Pompey yielded to fate, obeying when requested
to leave his ship, choosing to die rather than show
fear…
(8.571 ff.)

By contrast, Fortune, fortuna, is Chance, a fickle, unpredictable force, continually turning her wheel, ensuring that anyone at the peak of professional or social success, can never be certain that Fortune won’t turn her wheel and plunge them down to the pits of failure.

At a deep level, Fate determines the occurrence of a civil war and that Caesar will win. But Fortune decides the outcome of specific events and details.

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
due to idleness, but summoned all his forces scattered
throughout Gaul, moving every legion towards Rome.
(1.392 to 395)

Susan Braund explains all this in the introduction to her translation of the Pharsalia published by the Oxford University Press. The distinct operational levels of the two forces are sometimes made particularly clear:

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
(1.392-3)

Where Destiny is the overall force or plan but whether individual elements of the plan fall this way or that, depends on Fortune. Or:

Fate stirred the peoples and sent them as companions
to a great disaster, as a funeral train fit for Pompey’s
exequies. Even horned Ammon was not slow to send
squadrons from Africa to battle, from all parched Libya,
from Morocco in the west to Egyptian Syrtes in the east.
So that Caesar, fortune‘s favourite, might win all with
a single throw, Pharsalia brought all the world to battle.
(3.291 to 297)

The distinction is made particularly clear in the long speech by the witch Erictho in book 6, where she makes a distinction between ‘the chain of events fixed from the beginning of the world’ which nobody can change or alter, and ‘lesser decrees of fate’, which witches like her can alter. Level 1 and Level 2. (6.609 to 621)

However, at other moments I found the concepts a lot less clear cut, for example in this passage where you’d expect the Pompey’s ultimate death, the deep pattern of his life, to be described as his Fate not his Fortune.

Pompey by then, had gained the open sea, but the luck
that aided his past hunts for pirates was his no longer,
and Fortune, wearied by his triumphs, proved untrue.

And sometimes the two concepts seem interchangeable:

Greedy quicksand and spongy marshes hid the secret
Fate had placed there; yet later that aged general’s flesh
was scarred by iron fetters reduced by long vile imprisonment.
He was to die though as Fortune’s friend, as consul in a Rome
he had ruined.
(2.71 to 75)

Anyway, Lucan’s neglect of the traditional apparatus of gods and his focus on Fate and Fortune do two things for the poem:

  1. Lots of gods would have distracted attention away from what was a very human catastrophe and away from the all-too-human human protagonists.
  2. Also the gods can, in some sense, be appealed to and swayed by humans. Whereas Fate and Fortune are profoundly impersonal forces and so bring out the horror of the unstoppable nature of civil war, Fate emphasising the deep inevitability of the outcome, with Fortune standing for the many chance victims along the way.

There is a simpler explanation, which is that the introduction of the kind of gods found in Virgil was simply inappropriate – would have appeared gauche and clumsy – in a poem dealing with very events almost within living memory. Roman literature – Classical literature generally – was very concerned with what was and wasn’t appropriate for every genre, in terms of subject matter, tone and even individual words. Including the gods in a historical epic would have breached the conventions of the genre.

2. No heroes

Epic poems feature the adventures of more-than-human heroes, from Gilgamesh, through Achilles and Aeneas, to Beowulf, humans not only with superhuman power but often the progeny of the gods. Whereas a historical epic like the Pharsalia is concerned with real historical personages, many of whose relatives were still alive when Lucan wrote.

Not only that, but epics generally feature one obvious central protagonist (Gilgamesh, Achilles, Beowulf) but just as there are no gods or divine intervention in the Pharsalia, so there is no one hero or central protagonist. Instead there are three leading but not totally dominating figures:

1. Gaius Julius Caesar

Caesar is the most prominent character in the first part of the poem, active, clear-sighted, ambitious, a force of nature – but not likeable. Lucan’s Caesar approaches closest to the figure of traditional epic hero. He has no moderating feminine influence on him until right at the end, in book 10, where his encounter with Cleopatra is a meeting of two cynical players. After the climactic battle of Pharsalus, however, Caesar is depicted as becoming more ambitious and imperial.

2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

Pompey is portrayed as the opposite – vacillating, indecisive, and past his prime (‘the mere shadow of a mighty name’) but, in scenes with friends, followers and especially his wife, Cornelia, far more human than Caesar. At the end, after Pharsalus, Pompey is transformed into a stoic martyr, receiving a kind of visionary treatment as he nears his tragic death on the beach in Egypt which he meets with Stoic calm acceptance.

3. Marcus Porcius Cato

And, after the death of Pompey in book 8, Cato emerges as the strongest leader of the Republican cause, holed up with Republican legions in north Africa. Cato epitomises stern old-fashioned values. He stands for Roman patriotism and Stoic contempt for death, notably in the episode in book 9 where he scorns to consult the oracle of Ammon, saying God gave us all the knowledge we need to live a virtuous life at birth; which triggers adulation from Lucan:

Behold, the true father of his
country, a man worthy to be worshipped,
Rome, at your altars; by whom none need
blush to swear, and who, if you ever free
your neck from the yoke, shall be made a god.

In fact, in a striking episode on the march across the desert, Cato not only embodies Stoic resolution in the face of death but inspires it in others:

Alone he was present at every
death; whenever they call, he goes, and confers that
mighty benefit, more than life: the courage to die;
so that, with him as witness, any man was ashamed
to die with a groan on his lips.
(9.882)

When Cato’s first wife, Marcia, returns to him the narrative emphasises that their marriage is sexless; it symbolises his adherence to defunct, sterile values. Many critics think Lucan intended Cato to develop into the central figure of the poem, with the narrative designed to end with his famous suicide in the besieged garrison town of Utica, symbolising the moral victory of Stoic principle and Freedom against Tyranny.

There’s a case for saying the three figures are on a spectrum: Caesar is over-balanced in one direction, all energy and decision and lust (‘impetuous in everything’ 2.657); Cato stands at the other pole, arid, sexless, aloof; with Pompey standing in the middle, reasonable and given scenes of touching married love with Cornelia. As this blog shrewdly suggests, it’s as if the heroic protagonist of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas, has decomposed into three characters, none of which are heroic.

3. The gruesome and the macabre

The supernatural

If the Pharsalia doesn’t have gods, what it does have in abundance is the Supernatural – the poem is awash with visions, dreams, ghosts, magic, rituals and so on. Braund sees the supernatural as falling into two categories, ‘dreams and visions’ and ‘portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers’.

a) Dreams and visions

There are four important dream or vision sequences in the poem:

  1. Caesar’s vision of Roma as he is about to cross the Rubicon.
  2. The ghost of Julia (his beloved dead wife) appearing to Pompey (3.1 to 45)
  3. Pompey’s dream of his happy past (7.1 to 30)
  4. Caesar and his troops’ dream of battle and destruction.

All four of these dream-visions are placed strategically throughout the poem to provide structure, and to dramatise key turning points in the narrative.

b) Portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers

Lucan describes a number of portents, with two specifically oracular episodes. What is a portent? “A sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.” So, on the morning of the fateful battle:

Now Fortune too did not hesitate to reveal the future
by diverse signs. When the army made for Thessaly’s
fields, the whole sky opposed their march, hurling
meteors against them, columns of flame, whirlwinds
sucking up water and trees together, blinding their
eyes with lightning, striking crests from their helms,
melting the swords in their scabbards, tearing spears
from their grasp while fusing them, their evil blades
smoking with air-borne sulphur. The standards too
could barely be plucked from the soil, their great
weight bowing the heads of the standard-bearers;
and the standards wept real tears…
(7.151 to 162)

The central example is the necromancy which takes up half of book 6, when Pompey’s son, Sextus, goes to consult the witch Erachtho. Lucan’s description of the witch and her ritual take up half the entire book (lines 413 to 830).

All this appealed to contemporary taste for the macabre. Braund cites events in one of the tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca, his Oedipus, which contains a) a visit to the Delphic oracle, b) a gruesome description of the sacrifice and entrail examination of a bull and heifer (haruspicy), and c) the even more macabre magical rituals by which Tiresias raises the ghost of dead King Laius to accuse Oedipus of his murder.

Chaos on earth reflected in heaven

It is a central feature of the histories that war and disruption on earth must inevitably be accompanied by chaos in the heavens – just as in his uncle Seneca’s tragedies where mayhem on earth is matched and mimicked by cosmic catastrophes. In both Lucan and Seneca the entire universe often seems to be trembling on the brink of complete dissolution.

So when the fabric
of the world dissolves, in that final hour that gathers in the ages,
reverting to primal chaos, star will clash with star in confusion,
the fiery constellations will sink into the sea, and earth heaving
upwards her flat shores will throw off the ocean, the moon will
move counter to her brother, and claiming the rule of day disdain
to drive her chariot on its slanting path, and the whole discordant
frame of the shattered firmament will break free of every law.
(1.72 to 79)

This worldview, the intimate parallelism between human and supernatural affairs, is very prevalent in the biographers Plutarch and Suetonius, writing a generation later.

Haruspicy and necromancy

Along the way, Braund gives useful definitions of two key Roman practices:

  • haruspicy (haruspicies) is the art of studying animal entrails, usually the victims of ritual sacrifices
  • necromancy is the art of getting the dead to speak prophecy; necromancy is not only the general practice of this craft, but you perform a necromancy

4. Extreme rhetoric

Education for Roman aristocrats focused on rhetoric, the ability to speak eloquently and make a persuasive argument. We know from contemporary comments and satires that under the empire many of the exercises which students were given became steadily more extreme and exaggerated. This was reflected in the poetry of the age; from what survives the most extreme example might be the bloodthirsty and over-written tragedies of Seneca.

A central part of the curriculum was the suasoria, an exercise where students wrote speeches advising an historical figure on a course of action. This obviously fed into the largely invented speeches which fill Tacitus’s histories as much as Lucan’s poem.

Lucan is sometimes criticised for the extremity of his rhetoric and the luridness of scenes and imagery. But Susan Braund comes to his defence, with two arguments. One is that Lucan was a product of his times. There was a taste for melodrama and Gothic hyperbole which Lucan catered to.

More interesting is the second argument. This is to do with Virgil. Virgil was the undisputed king of Roman poets and his epic, the Aeneid, was acknowledged as a classic even as he was writing it. The problem for ambitious poets in all the succeeding generations was how to escape Virgil’s dominating influence, how to do anything new. Braund says Ovid found one way, in his Metamorphoses, which was to drop the notion of one, unified, linear narrative and instead string together hundreds of stories and episodes.

Lucan adopted another strategy which was to import into his text the ‘discourse of contemporary rhetoric’, in all its exaggeration and extremity. For there’s another aspect here, which is not to forget that a poem like this was meant to be recited aloud to audiences. Before the rule of Augustus, poetry was recited to group of like-minded friends or patrons. During Augustus’s reign it became common to recite it to larger audiences. We have accounts of Virgil reciting to the emperor and his extended family. Horace was commissioned to write odes to be declaimed at public games.

Braund argues that this trend for declamation had two consequences: it tended to promote more striking and vibrant imagery/style. And it incentivised the poet to think in terms of episodes.

5. Episodic structure

The Aeneid is very carefully constructed and susceptible to many types of structural analysis. Although critics have, of course, made a case for the existence of a deep structure in the Pharsalia (for example, a tetradic structure whereby the first four books focus on Caesar, the next four on Pompey and the final four on Cato) Braund disagrees. She thinks the narrative is far more episodic. In this respect it is like the highly episodic structure of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with one story leading to another, then another, then another – itself a strategy for escaping the highly unified and centralised narrative of the Aeneid.

Like the Metamorphoses, this lack of a single unifying narrative in the Pharsalia allows for more episodes, more adventures, more flicking between channels – episodes which contain are like mini-genres, containing their own appropriate languages, structure and style.

Lucan is fond of discontinuity. He presents his narrative as a series of discrete scenes, often without any transitional or scene-changing lines. Rather than a continuous narrative, it often feels like scenes are balanced within a book or between books, working by correspondence, similarity and difference between them.

We can imagine how well these dramatic episodes would have gone down as stand-alone recitations to a sophisticate audience of Roman aristocrats. I’m thinking of Appius’s confrontation with the priestess at Delphi or the terrific storm scene or Caesar’s speech of defiance to his mutinous troops, all in book 5.

6. Lucan and Virgil

Lucan frequently appropriates ideas from Virgil’s epic and inverts them to undermine their original, heroic purpose. Sextus’ visit to the Thracian witch Erictho in book 6 is the most obvious example, the scene and language clearly referencing Aeneas’ descent into the underworld (in Book 6 of the Aeneid), but while Virgil’s description, despite its gloomy setting, is an optimistic, nay triumphant vision of the future heroes of Rome leading up to the glories of Augustan rule, Lucan uses his scene to convey a bitter and bloody pessimism about the loss of liberty under the coming empire.

7. Epic similes

Braund and other critics emphasis the way that Lucan seeks to break free from the epic conventions, in particular the way he references Virgil in order to reverse or invert his technique and meaning. But in one respect Lucan strongly conforms with the tradition, which is in his use of epic similes. Straight-up epic similes really litter the narrative. Here’s the famous extended comparison of Pompey, larded with triumphs, to a venerable oak tree:

So some oak-tree towers in a rich grove,
hung with a nation’s ancient trophies, sacred gifts of the victors,
and though its clinging roots have lost their strength, their weight
alone holds it, spreading naked branches to the sky, casting shade
not with leaves but its trunk alone, and though it quivers, doomed
to fall at the next gale, among the host of sounder trees that rise
around it, still it alone is celebrated.
(1.137 to 143)

Or the inhabitants of towns which Caesar’s army approached were conflicted about who to support.

Though loyalty contended with the threat of danger,
they still favoured Pompey, as when a southerly rules
the waves, and all the sea is stirred by its vast power,
so that even if Aeolus’ trident opens the solid earth,
and lets an easterly loose on the mounting breakers,
the ocean, though struck by that second force, stays
true to the first, and though the sky surrenders itself
to the rain-filled easterly, the sea asserts the southerly’s
power.
(2.452 to 460)

Describing Octavius’s naval strategy:

So the hunter works,
holding back the net of coloured feathers that scares
the deer with its scent, till he can pen them all, or
quieting the noise of the swift Molossian hounds,
leashing the dogs of Crete and Sparta, till he has set
his stakes and nets, leaving one hound alone to range
the ground, it puzzling out the scent and only barking
when the prey is found, content then to point toward
the creature’s lair while tugging at the leash.
(4.436 to 444)

Or describing the way Cato’s speech in book 9 persuades the allies to remain with the anti-Caesarian army:

So, when hosts of bees
depart the hive, where their young have hatched,
they neglect the waxy cells, their wings no longer
brush one another, each takes its own way, idling,
refraining now from sipping the flowering thyme
with its bitter taste; yet if the sound of Phrygian
cymbals rises, they interrupt their flight, in alarm,
returning to the performance of their flowery task,
and their love of gathering pollen. The shepherd
in Hybla’s meadows is relieved, delighted that
his honey harvest is secured. So Cato’s speech
persuaded his men to endure the lawful conflict.
(9.282 to 293)

Nothing particularly lurid or extreme or melodramatic or supernatural about these. Very conventional epic similes.

8. Geographical descriptions

Before I started reading the poem I was impressed by Braund’s introduction and its emphasis on the macabre and bloodthirsty in Lucan. But once I began reading, I realised there were a lot of other, more low-key, less sensational elements that go to make up the text. More frequent than descriptions of battle, let alone supernatural visions, are the frequent very long passages describing the precise geography of a particular location, such as the region around Capua where Pompey first took his army or, in book 6, this very long description of Thessaly.

Mount Pelion’s ridge bounds Thessaly in the quarter where
the winter sun rises, Mount Ossa where in high summer
its shade obstructs the rays of Phoebus rising in the dawn;
while wooded Othrys dispels the flames of the southern sky,
at midsummer, opposing the brow of the all-devouring Lion;
and Mount Pindus outfacing westerlies and north-westerlies,
where daylight ebbs hastens evening on; while those who live
at the foot of Olympus never dreading the northerlies, know
nothing of the Great Bear’s stars shining a whole night long.
The low-lying lands in the region between these mountains
were once covered with endless marshes; since the plains
retained the waters, and the Vale of Tempe was insufficient
for them to reach the sea they formed continuous swampland,
and their only course was to rise. But when Hercules lifted
Ossa’s weight from Olympus, the sea felt a sudden onrush
of waters as Thessalian Pharsalos, that realm of Achilles
the hero born of a sea-goddess, rose above the surface,
a realm better drowned forever. There rose too, Phylace
whose king was first to land in the war at Troy; Pteleos;
Dorion, that laments the Muses’ anger and blind Thamyris;
Trachis; Meliboea whose Philoctetes received Hercules’
bow, for lighting that hero’s funeral pyre; Larisa, powerful
once; and the sites where the plough now passes over famed
Argos, where Echion’s Thebes once stood, to which Agave
howling bore the head of Pentheus giving it to the funeral
pyre, grieving to have carried off no other part of his flesh.
Thus the swamp was drained forming a host of rivers. From
there the Aeas, clear in its flow but of little volume, runs
westward to the Ionian Sea, the Inachus glides with no more
powerful a current (he was the river-god, father of ravished Io)
nor the Achelous (he almost won Deianeira, Oeneus’ daughter)
that silts the Echinades islands; there, the Euhenos, stained
as it is with Nessus’ blood runs through Meleager’s Calydon;
there Spercheos’ swift stream meets the Malian Gulf’s wave,
and the pure depths of the Amphrysos water those pastures
where Apollo herded cattle. There, the Asopos starts its flow,
and the Black River, and the Phoenix; there, the Anauros,
free of moist vapours, dew-drenched air, capricious breezes.
There too are the rivers which do not reach the sea themselves
but are tributaries of Peneus – the Apidanus, robbed of its flow,
the Enipeus never swift until it finds Peneus, and the Titaresos,
which alone, meeting with that river, keeps its waters intact,
glides on the surface, as though the greater river were dry land,
for legend says its stream flows from the pool of Styx, and so,
mindful of its source, scorns commingling with common water,
inspiring still that awe of its current the gods themselves feel.
Once the waters had flowed away leaving dry land, the fertile
soil was furrowed by the ploughs of the Bebryces; the labour
of Leleges drove the share deep; the ground was broken by
Aeolidae and Dolopians, by Magnesians breeders of horses,
Minyae builders of ships.
(6.398 to 416)

Long, isn’t it? A tourist’s guide to the region. I imagine the long list of not only place names but myths and legends associated with them were a) appropriate to the grandeur of the epic genre, magnifying the action b) awed Lucan’s readers or auditor’s with the poet’s impressive erudition c) made those in the aristocratic audience who had visited some or many of those sites nod with smug recognition.

9. Natural history

In his last few years, Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, composed an enormous work of natural history, the Naturales quaestiones, an encyclopedia of the natural world. A decade later, 77, Pliny the Elder published the first 10 books of his compendious Naturalis Historia (Natural History) (the largest single work to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day).

I mention these works to indicate that a taste for ‘natural history’ was obviously in the air and maybe explains the presence of the extended passages of natural history in the Pharsalia. The obvious example is the really extended passage about the snakes of Libya which takes up over 300 lines in book 9.

10. Is the Pharsalia unfinished?

Almost all scholars agree that the Pharsalia as we now have it is unfinished. Lucan was working in book 10 when Nero’s order to commit suicide came through. Book 10 breaks off with Caesar in Egypt. There are numerous theories about this as about all other aspects of the poem. Here are some:

  • Some argue that Lucan intended to end his poem with the Battle of Philippi (42 BC).
  • Some critics speculate that the narrative was intended to continue all the way to the assassination of Julius Caesar four years after the Battle of Pharsalus, in 44 BC.
  • Some even think it was meant to continue all the way to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

The latter two theories, in particular, suppose that Lucan intended to write a work many times larger than what we have. The 10-book poem we have today covers a total of 20 months i.e. roughly a book per 2 months; so the 48 months to Caesar’s assassination would imply another 24 books; the 17 years (204 month) to Actium, imply another 102 books!

Another problem with the timeline continuing as far as Caesar’s assassination is that, with both Pompey and Cato dead, Lucan would have had to embark on building up a new set of characters, in particular the leaders of Caesar’s assassination, Cassius and Brutus.

Which is why Braund ends up going with the simplest hypothesis which is that Lucan’s original intent was a 12-book poem, mirroring the length of the Aeneid. The strongest piece of evidence for Lucan consciously modelling the Pharsalia on Virgil is the way Lucan introduces an extended necromantic ritual in his sixth book that deliberately parallels and inverts many of the motifs found in Virgil’s sixth book. Thus Braund goes with the view that the poem was to be 12 books long and was heading towards the suicide of Cato (as the army of Julius Caesar approached his stronghold of Utica in North Africa) held up as a model of Stoic dignity rising above tyranny.

There are a few more scenarios: one is that the Pharsalia in in fact finished, was meant to end at the end of the tenth book, and is complete as we have it. This is the view of Classicist Jamie Masters but most other scholars disagree.

But there is one last logical possibility, which is that Lucan did in fact complete the poem but, for whatever reason, the final few books of the work were lost at some point. Braund notes that little evidence has been found one way or the other, so this question will remain a matter of speculation.

11. The Roman cult of suicide

Throughout the poem suicide is praised as a noble and dignified way to take control of your life. Nothing becomes a true Roman man so much as either a) dying in battle or b) controlling the time and place of his death, especially when faced with tyranny. Thus Afranius contemplates suicide before surrendering to Caesar (book 4), Vulteius and his men actually do commit suicide, en masse, rather than be captured:

No instant is too short for a man
to kill himself; suicide is no less glorious when death
at another’s hand approaches.
(4.480)

Even Julius Caesar unashamedly tells his mutinying soldiers that, if they lose, he will commit suicide:

I shall seek
my own salvation in suicide; whoever looks back
if the foe is unbeaten, will see me stab my breast.
(7.308)

From which Lucan draws the general lesson that suicide is the ultimate way to escape from tyranny:

Yet even after the example set
by such heroes, nations of cowards still do not comprehend
how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide; so the tyrant’s
power is feared, freedom is constrained by savage weapons,
while all remain ignorant that the sword is there to deliver
every man from slavery.

For me, the careful seeding of examples of, and praise of, and defences of, suicide, strongly suggest the poem was building up to the suicide of Cato as its climax and crowning example of resistance. Thus it is that Cato himself sternly celebrates Pompey’s death after defeat:

O happy was he, whose ending
followed on defeat, the Egyptian swords
offering the death he should have sought.
He might perhaps have lived on instead
under Caesar’s rule

Because:

the highest fate
is to know when to die, and the second
best to have such death forced upon one.

The ‘highest fate’, the best thing a man can do, the greatest achievement of human reason, is to know when to die. All the more ghoulishly ironic that Lucan himself was forced to commit suicide before he could complete the depiction of his Stoic hero committing suicide.

12. Lucan and Seneca

I finished reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic weeks after reading the Pharsalia. Reviewing my notes I realise the tremendous overlap in ‘philosophy’, namely the absolutely central role played in both texts by suicide as escape from tyranny. It is the central theme of both works. But as I point out in my review of the letters, suicide my be an acceptable theme for a poem, but not for a really long work of moral exhortation (the letters) which claim to be instructions on how to live and think. Personally, I recommend not thinking about suicide every moment of every day, as a healthier way to live.

Modern views

Since the Enlightenment the Pharsalia has commonly been considered a second rank offering, not in the same league as the king of the Roman epics, the Aeneid. But in recent decades more sophisticated literary analysis has brought out how the poem’s ‘studied artifice enacts a complex relationship between poetic fantasy and historical reality’.

His narrative of the civil war is pared down to a bare minimum; but this is overlaid with a rich and varied virtuoso display of learning which reflected contemporary interests. (Braund, Introduction, page 37)

All I can add is that I found the Pharsalia a surprisingly gripping and interesting read.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon by Adolphe Yvon (1875)


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The Apocolocyntosis by Seneca

Seneca

Seneca the Younger (4 BC to 65 AD) was recalled from exile by Agrippina, the emperor Claudius’s fourth and final wife, in 54 AD, to be appointed tutor to her son, Domitius Ahenobarbus who would, 10 years later, ascend the throne to become the emperor Nero.

Seneca was a prolific author, producing a dozen philosophical works, about the same number of blood-curdling tragic plays, the 120 or so Letters to Lucilius and a work of Natural History. He was, for the first 5 or so years of Nero’s rule, the emperor’s speech writer and wrote the moving eulogy which Nero delivered at his uncle (Claudius’s) funeral. (This is described in Tacitus’s Annals 13.3).

The Apocolocyntosis

But scholars also think that Seneca was the author of a short satire about Claudius produced shortly after the late emperor’s death. It is referred to by the Greek historian of the early imperial era, Cassius Dio, by the title the Apocolocyntosis (divi) Claudii. This is a pun, of sorts, on the Latin for the deification or apotheosis of Claudius which (as for previous emperors) was carried out soon after his death. It literally means ‘The Gourdification of (the Divine) Claudius’, although many translators, including the translator of the Penguin edition, J.P. Sullivan, prefer the more ludicrous word ‘Pumpkinification’.

The manuscript gives the satire the title Ludus de morte Divi Claudii (‘Play on the Death of the Divine Claudius’) and most scholars think this is the same work as Dio was referring to, although the identification is not absolutely certain and some scholars disagree. The strongest argument against identifying the two is that the text as we have it nowhere mentions the transformation of Claudius into either a gourd or a pumpkin. Instead it describes Claudius’s trial in heaven and then his journey down to hell.

To confuse the picture a bit more, the similarity of the work’s format (Menippean satire) and tone (deliberately colloquial) have led some scholars to attribute the Ludus to the author of the only other Latin Menippean satire we have, the Satyricon by Petronius – which explains why they’re both published in the same Penguin paperback volume.

So is the Ludus we have the same as the Apocolocyntosis mentioned by Dio? Is it by Seneca or could it just possibly be by Petronius? Qui sait?

Menippean satire

As a literary form, the piece belongs to the class called Satura Menippea or Menippean satire, being a satiric medley in prose and verse. This form was developed in ancient Greece and named after its chief practitioner, Menippus. Menippus of Gadara (3rd century BC) was a Cynic satirist. All of his works are lost but later authors described him as both an important purveyor of Cynic philosophy and a major comic influence. The Roman satirist, Lucian, in particular, claimed to be directly imitating Menippus.

According to later summarisers, Menippus discussed serious subjects in a spirit of ridicule; he particularly mocked the two main philosophical schools of Epicureans and Stoics. Strabo and Stephanus call him the ‘earnest-jester’ i.e. taking potentially serious subjects and mocking them.

Claudius the Clod

The translator of this Penguin edition, J.P. Sullivan, appears to have invented the title he gives to the work, the equally witty and satirical ‘The Deification of Claudius the Clod’, capturing both a play on apotheosis (‘deification of’) and a reference to Robert Graves’s famous historical novel, Claudius the God.

Some critics think the poem is so vulgar and crude as to be beneath the dignity of the author who wrote the earnest moral exhortations of the Letters to Lucilius. But it seems just about plausible that Seneca might have knocked off this short squib to entertain the new young emperor (Nero was just 17 when he ascended the throne) and his cronies.

Certainly there’s nothing new in the satire; its author repeats criticism of Claudius also made in Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio: that he was a figure of fun, part fussy pedant, part capricious tyrant. In the poem his head shakes and his speech is unclear (the difficulty of understanding anything he says is repeatedly emphasised). Claudius is portrayed as a slave to his freedmen and absent-mindedly consigns senior Romans he’s jealous of to death almost at random.

Sullivan points out that the satire is as notable for what it omits as what it includes, namely that Claudius was a great womaniser. This might have been too close to the bone for Nero, who was showing similar tastes even as a teenager. The poem also includes the specific claim that Claudius died while watching a troupe of comedians, whereas in fact he was dead by that point (probably murdered by his fourth wife, Agrippina) and the troupe was invited to his palace as a cover, to give the impression he was still alive, while Agrippina finalised the details for the smooth accession of her son.

Above all, the text describes and then, in its final passages, really focuses in on Claudius’s record as a tyrant and murderer.

The plot

The narrative takes a while to get going, is a bit laboured in the middle – where part of it is missing – and then hurries to an abrupt end, so abrupt that some scholars think it isn’t actually complete. Like most Roman prose texts, it is divided into short numbered sections, conventionally called ‘chapters’.

The narrative is told in the first person by a jokey, mocking narrator who swears what he is going to tell is the honest truth, so help him God, and if we don’t believe him, go and ask the fellow who swore he saw the soul of Julia Drusilla ascend into heaven: that’s his source. (Drusilla was the sister and, it was widely thought, lover of the emperor Caligula, who paid the senator Livius Germinius 250,000 sestercii to swear he saw her soul ascend into heaven.)

(3) It’s 13 October and Claudius is struggling to die so Mercury goes to visit the Fates and says can’t they hurry things up a bit and put Claudius, and his country, out of its misery. The Fate Clotho makes a joke, saying she’s delaying his death because Claudius hasn’t quite granted Italian citizenship to every possible nationality. (This is a jokey reference to Claudius’s famous speech to the senate defending the right of Gauls, living in Roman Gaul, to stand for magistracies in Rome, arguing that this policy of assimilation is what made Rome great.)

But Clotho gives in and agrees to let Claudius die, ensuring it happens at the same time as two other notorious buffoons pass away, so that he’ll have appropriate company on the path to heaven.

(4) There’s now a section of poetry which describes how the Fates, having dispensed with Claudius (‘cut from the imperial line one doddering life’) turn to weaving the thread of life of his successor and this turns into a cloyingly sycophantic paean to the new emperor, Nero:

To a weary folk
He brings glad days, to muted law a tongue,
As the Morning Star, setting the stars to flight,
As the shining sun, when his chariot moves first from the line,
So Caesar comes, so Nero appears to Rome,
His bright face glowing with gentle radiance,
His neck all beauty under his glowing hair.

The poem describes how the Fate Lachesis, influenced by the young man’s beauty, gives him a long life. So much for flattering the teenage successor.

Back to Claudius and he finally expires (watching a troupe of comedians, a fact the narrator says, which explains his terror of comedians). In the poem his last words are: ‘Oh I appear to have shat myself.’

Whether he had, I don’t know. He certainly shat on everything else.

(5) The narrator takes it for granted how happy people were at this news, so he moves on to describe what happens next, in heaven. It was announced to Jupiter that a new visitor had arrived. He was shaking his head and limping. When asked who he was, his reply was unintelligible.

Jupiter dispatches Hercules to deal with him but even Hercules, who’s faced and overcome every monster known to man, is intimidated by the new arrival’s strange face, weird walk and unintelligible mumble. He asks the new arrival who he is in Greek, in fact quoting a line of Homer. Claudius is reassured to find there are literary men up here, as there might find an appreciative audience for his ‘Histories’. (As a young man Claudius began researching and writing a history of the civil wars, a typically clumsy and tactless undertaking seeing as it involved assessment and judgement on so many people still living, not least the emperor Augustus.)

(6) Claudius has been accompanied to heaven by the goddess Fever also known as Our Lady of Malaria. She now tells Hercules about Claudius, repeatedly asserting that he was born in Lugdunum (modern Lyons) so is a Gaul and this explains why, like a vengeful Gaul, he ‘conquered Rome’. (Ever since the sack of Rome by Gaulish tribes in 390 BC the Romans lived in exaggerated fear of the Gauls; this was part of the feeling behind the many senators who opposed the granting to Gauls of full Roman citizenship.)

This angers Claudius who makes the biggest growl he can manage but no-one can understand what he’s saying. Instead he repeatedly makes ‘the familiar gesture with which he had people’s heads cut off’, a grim indication of Claudius’s practice. But, the narrative humorously goes on, you’d have thought the people present were all his freedmen from the way they completely ignored his request (another satirical jab, this time at the common accusation that Claudius was the pawn of a handful of freedmen who held senior positions in his household).

(7) Hercules then repeats the question, who is Claudius, this time in the form of mock epic verse (notable for, once again, repeating the claim that Claudius a) mumbles so badly he can’t be understood and b) is continually shaking his head).

Claudius finally realises he is no longer lord and master, up here in heaven. He replies to Hercules that he’s surprised he doesn’t recognise him, seeing as how he, Claudius, spent many long days judging law cases brought to him, sitting in front of the Temple of Hercules in the Roman resort of Tibur. He assures Hercules he had to deal with as much bullshit as when the hero had to sort out the Augean Stables.

At this point the text breaks off and there’s a lengthy gap. Sullivan says we can be confident it describes how Claudius wins over Hercules who forces his way into the Senate of Olympus and pleads the case for Claudius to be deified. There is uproar at the suggestion so Jupiter throws the matter open to the House. The text resumes in the speech of one of the gods refuting Hercules’ claims.

(8) The text resumes with this unnamed god making a joke about contemporary philosophy, asking what kind of god Claudius should be: he can’t be an Epicurean god, since they are ‘untroubled and trouble none’ i.e. are completely disengaged from the world. But nor can he be a Stoic god since they are, according to one description, globular with no head or other protuberance. [For Stoics, God is coterminate with the universe, so has no separate shape.] Although (joke) there is something of the Stoic god about Claudius…as he has no head and no heart (boom boom!).

Another joke suggesting Claudius was a drunk, referring to the fact that he added one day to the traditional four-day festival of the Saturnalia, and was, indeed, a heavy drinker.

There’s a tortuous reference to incest among the gods, presumably a hit at the way Claudius was persuaded to falsely accuse the fiancé of his daughter, Octavia, Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus, with incest with his sister (Junia Calvina), the idea being to discredit him and call off the wedding, thus leaving Octavia free to marry Claudius’s new step-son, the future Nero. Also possibly referring to the fact that Claudius’s fourth marriage was to Agrippina, who was his niece.

The unnamed god goes on to ask why it isn’t enough that Claudius has temples to himself as a god in Britain and have savages worship him there. [Interestingly, according to Tacitus, the huge size of the temple to Claudius in Camulodunum was one of the grievances of the tribes who rose against Roman rule under Boudicca in 60.]

(9) Jupiter tries to restore order. He remembers the old Senate rule that debates shouldn’t be held with members of the public present and so has Claudius escorted out. The god Janus takes the floor. The narrator mocks Roman values by describing Janus as a canny operator, having eyes in the back as well as front of his head, living in the Forum (where his temple was) and therefore accustomed to public speaking.

Janus’s line is simple: too many people are being made into ‘gods’ and it’s making a laughing stock of the whole thing. Once it was a great thing to become a god [he doesn’t mention it, but one thinks of Hercules]; now it’s become a farce. Janus proposes that no-one who eats ordinary food grown in fields should be allowed to become a god. In fact anyone who has the presumption to do so should be handed over to ‘the Infernal Agents’ and, at the next public show, be flogged with a birch amongst the new gladiators.

Next to speak was Diespiter, son of Vica Pota, he also being consul elect, and a moneylender on the side. Diespiter makes a speech defending Claudius’s right to be a god, which starts out reasonably serious – pointing out his family links to Augustus and Livia who were both made gods – but then morphs into more satirical territory, claiming he ‘far surpasses all mortal men in wisdom’, then proceeding to outright mockery, pointing out that Rome’s venerable founder, Romulus, needs company in pursuing his humble peasant diet of eating ‘boiled turnips’. The speech ends with the surprising request that, once he’s deified, ‘that a note to that effect be added to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. [This is interesting. Is it a dig at Ovid for having ended his long collection of Greek myths with a grovellingly sycophantic description of the apotheosis of Julius Caesar and much praise of Augustus?]

The gods then fall to debating the matter and opinion is evenly matched.

(10) Then Augustus rises to his feet to speak. He explains that ever since his elevation to the pantheon of the gods he has kept silent, but the prospect of Claudius being deified appals him. He is given pretty straight lines of moral indignation:

But now I can keep on the mask no longer, nor conceal the sorrow which shame makes all the greater. Is it for this I made peace by land and sea? For this that I put an end to civil war? Was it for this I brought law and order to Rome and beautified the city with public works? And now… words fail me.

He then proceeds to a grim and serious indictment of Claudius’s record as emperor: He accuses Claudius of ordering the chopping off of heads as easily as a dog sits down; accuses him of murdering two Julias, great-granddaughters of his, one by cold steel and one by starvation. [One of these, Julius Livilla, was the one accused of adultery with Seneca, which resulted in Seneca’s banishment in 41 AD]. Augustus also accuses Claudius of killing one great-grandson, Lucius Silanus. He directly asks Claudius why he had so many people put to death without ever hearing their side of the story.

(11) Augustus continues that although Jupiter has been king of heaven for all these years the worst he’s done to any other god was break Vulcan’s leg. Even when he was furious with his wife, Juno, he never harmed her. Whereas Claudius had his third wife, Messalina, who was Augustus’s great-niece, executed. Augustus makes the further accusation that if, as the stories go, Claudius didn’t even realise the murder had taken place, it makes him all the more damnable. [This is a reference to Claudius’s notorious absent-mindedness; according to Tacitus he once asked a senator who he’d invited to dinner where his wife was, having forgotten that he had ordered the man’s wife executed the day before.]

Augustus lists Claudius’s murders. He had killed Appius Silanus, his step-father, Lucius Junius Silanus, his intended son-in-law, and Gnaius Pompeius Magnus, who had married Claudius’s daughter, Antonia. In one family he destroyed Crassus, Magnus, Scribonia, the Tristionias and Assario.

Augustus’s speech turns into a diatribe: he asks the other gods whether they can possibly be serious about turning this monster into a god? ‘Look at him! Who’s going to worship him as a god? Who’s going to believe in him? While you create such gods, no-one will believe that you yourselves are gods.’

Augustus repeats the list of crimes, that Claudius murdered:

  • his father-in-law Appius Silanus
  • his two sons-in-law, Pompeius Magnus and Lucius Silanus
  • his daughter’s father-in-law Crassus Frugi
  • his daughter’s mother-in-law, Scribonia
  • his wife Messalina

and others too numerous to mention, and calls for him to be banished, deported from heaven within thirty days, and from Olympus within thirty hours. The motion is quickly passed and Mercury seizes Claudius by the scruff of the neck and hauls him down to hell. [The fact that Claudius is apparently present for Augustus’s speech (‘Look at him!’) is taken by some scholars of the satire’s hurried, unrevised state.]

(12) On the way lower regions Mercury and Claudius pass an impressive procession going along the Via Sacra.

It was the most handsome cortège ever with no expense spared to let you know that a god was being buried, horn players, and every kind of brass instrumentalist that even Claudius could hear it.

The narrator remarks that ‘people walked about like free men’. A few famous advocates who thrived under Claudius were weeping, and for once, they actually meant it! But out of the shadows creep real lawyers, men with principle, thin and pale from having hidden for the duration of Claudius’s reign. When these honest lawyers see the creepy ones crying, they say: “Told you the Saturnalia [the four-day festival of misrule held in December but, by extension, the mad period of Claudius’s rule] couldn’t last forever.”

The text then includes a comic parody of a funeral dirge in verse. The satire comes in the way the dirge is a pack of lies, claiming that Claudius was witty, fleet of foot, brave in battle, defeated the Persians and Parthians, quick to decide law suits – all of which are the precise opposite of the case.

(13) Claudius was understandably please to hear himself so lavishly praised as Mercury dragged him along through the Field of Mars (with his head covered so no-one would recognise him). Somewhere between the Tiber and the Via Tecta they descended into the Infernal Regions.

On arrival he finds himself greeted by his freedman, Narcissus. The text jokes that he had taken a short cut, referencing the fact that almost as soon as he came to power, Nero had Narcissus compelled to commit suicide. Mercury tells him to go ahead of them and announce their arrival.

They come to the gate of Hell (or Dis, in Roman mythology), guarded by Cerberus, ‘certainly not the sort of thing you’d like to meet in the dark’. Interestingly, the text tells us Claudius had a white dog for a pet.

Here is assembled a welcoming committee of eminent Romans who Claudius had had executed, many for involvement in the mock marriage of his third wife, Messalina to Gaius Siliuis, which was taken as the start of a coup attempt and so led to mass executions of conspirators. Amid the throng was Mnester the mime, very popular with Caligula and, for a time, with Claudius, before he had him beheaded.

Forward come Messalina, his freedmen (Polybius, Myron, Harpocras, Amphaeus, Pheronactus), two prefects (Justus Catonius and Rufrius Pollio), his friends (Saturninus, Lusius and Pedo Pompeius and Lupus and Celer Asinius, of consular rank), his brother’s daughter, his sister’s daughter, sons-in-law, fathers and mothers-in-law – all people Claudius had had executed or forced to kill themselves.

With typical dithery absent-mindedness, Claudius is made to ask them how they all got here? To which Pedo Pompeius replies: ‘What do you mean, you cruel bastard? Who else sent us here but you, you cruel butcher of every friend you ever had,’

(14) Pedo brings Claudius before the judgement seat of Aeacus, who was holding court. The text humorously says the legal procedures in Hell are modelled on, and use the exact same laws, as Rome, especially surrounding murder, in this instance the Lex Cornelia.

Pedo reads out the charges against Claudius: charged with killing 35 senators, 221 knights and others as numerous as the sands of the sea-shore. At first nobody could be found to defend Claudius, until an old crony, Publius Petronius stepped forward for the defence. He immediately asked for an adjournment which was as quickly refused. the prosecution made its case then, without waiting for a response, Aeacus, finds Claudius guilty and announces the sentence:

There was then debate about an appropriate sentence and, humorously, it is said that some of the old lags in hell could do with a break and be replaced with Claudius, such as Sisyphus endlessly pushing his stone uphill, Tantalus dying of thirst surrounded by water he cannot reach or Ixion eternally punished on a wheel.

The punishment eventually chosen is like these ones. Claudius is condemned to eternally throw dice from a dice cup with a hole in it so he can never actually get them into it and every time he goes to pick them up they slip through his fingers.

(15) All of a sudden who should turn up but Caligula, who claims Claudius as his slave. [This is a humorous reference to the way Caligula kept Claudius alive during the four years of his rule, to torment and mock him.] Caligula now claims Claudius as his slave, and brings witnesses who say they’d seen him being flogged, caned and punched by him which, apparently, proves his case [and is yet another insight into the brutal mistreatment of slaves in ancient Rome].

But even this isn’t quite the end of the narrative. Having satirised a) Claudius’s addiction to dice and gambling and b) his humiliating treatment by Caligula, the narrative ends with a third punishment c), appropriate to two other aspects of Claudius’s character, the notorious length of time it took him to reach legal decisions, and his notorious subjugation to the opinions of his own freedmen.

So right at the end of the text Caligula hands Claudius over to Aeacus, who hands him on to his freedman Menander, to be his subordinate and legal secretary for all time.

Thoughts

I can see why critics who associate Seneca with the high-minded tone of the Letters to Lucilius would be reluctant to associate him with this very uneven satire. But for a lay reader it’s really interesting. It is, at some points, genuinely funny, as when Claudius tells Hercules that he had to deal with more shit adjudicating law cases in Tibur than Hercules did when he cleaned out the Augean stables. It is useful to know that Claudius’s limp, palsied head and incomprehensible mumbling speech were so well known as to be elements of popular comedy. And then there is the light shed on Roman customs, for example rules in the Senate, or the description of Claudius’s funeral procession, and so on. It isn’t great literature but I enjoyed it.

Ironic conclusion

The whole squib is devoted to describing what a shocking, immoral, murderous emperor Claudius had been, and to welcoming his young successor, Nero, with 20 lines of fulsome poetic praise about how he will restore freedom and justice.

So Caesar comes, so Nero appears to Rome,
His bright face glowing with gentle radiance,
His neck all beauty under his glowing hair.

Ha ha ha. Nero was not only ten times worse than Claudius but, if the author of this piece was Seneca, Nero was to compel the author of this fulsome praise to kill himself 11 years later.

Robert Graves

Robert Graves included a translation of the Apocolocyntosis in the annexes at the end of his historical novel, Claudius the God. Graves’s translation is better than Sullivan’s, more fun and fluent.

There’s one notable structural difference which is that, in the passage immediately after the gap, Sullivan attributes the speech to one (unnamed) god. Graves, far more imaginatively, and following the suggestion in the text that the gods, plural, burst into uproar, breaks the same passage down into a series of smaller segments, each being spoken by (unnamed) gods.

Doing this creates a much more dramatic effect and, incidentally, makes sense of the fact that some of the sentiments expressed contradict each other – a problem if it’s all spoken by one person but perfect sense if attributed to half a dozen squabbling speakers.


Credit

J.P. Sullivan’s translation of the Apocolocyntosis by Seneca was published in America in 1966, before being incorporated into the Penguin edition of Petronius’s Satyricon in 1977. I flipped between this translation and the online translation by W.H.D. Rouse, published in 1920.

Related links

Roman reviews

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’.

**********

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 Nero by Suetonius

Executive summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suetonius’s life of Nero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14. Nero held four consul­ships.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nero the performer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delinquent behaviour

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

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

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

Lavish feasts

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

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

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

Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extravagance

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

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

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

Building works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murdering Claudius

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

Murdering Britannicus

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

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

Murdering Agrippina

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nero’s wives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The great fire of Rome

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

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

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

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

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

The Gaulish revolt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wife, father, mother drive me to my death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

Black Sea Letters by Ovid, translated by Peter Green

I lie at the world’s end in a lonely wasteland.
(Black Sea Letters book 1, poem 3, line 49)

One cry for help, many addresses.
(3.6 line 42)

My review of Ovid’s Tristia praises Peter Green’s compendious notes and fluent, flowing translations of the 50 or so poems from exile which that volume contains. Alongside the Tristia, Ovid wrote another 50 or so verse letters from exile which were collected in a different volume titled Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’). The difference between the two sets is that whereas the poems of Tristia sometimes address anonymous figures as part of his generalised lament about exile, each of the ‘Black Sea Letters’ is very much addressed to a specific, named individual, and the poems devote space to describing this person’s career, relationship with Ovid, before he turns to his familiar refrain of asking them to intervene for him.

Green gives the collection a slightly different title, calling it the Black Sea Letters, and both his translations – of the Letters and Tristia – are included in the same Penguin paperback omnibus edition, which is collectively titled Poems from Exile.

The reason for Ovid’s exile

In late 8 AD the Roman poet Ovid, at the age of 51, was sent into exile by the (ageing) emperor, Augustus. Although he wrote about 100 poems from his exile (which he endured from late 8 AD until his death in 17 AD) and describes his miserable plight endlessly, he nowhere specifies what crime he had committed to justify this harsh sentence.

He does mention that there were two causes: the official one, given out by the regime, was that the tendency of Ovid’s light, sophisticated and fashionable love poetry, in particular the scandalous Art of Love – which is an extended guidebook on how to pick up and conduct affairs with married women – flew in the face of Augustus’s legislative attempts to promote marriage and traditional morality (collectively known as the Leges Iuliae).

But Ovid himself, and all commentators since, regard this as camouflage, not least because the Art of Love had been published around 1 AD so had been in public circulation for nearly a decade when Ovid was suddenly summoned for an audience with Augustus, given a dressing down and told his fate.

No, the real reason is that Ovid saw something incriminating and failed to alert the authorities. He insists again and again and again that he committed no crime, intended no bloodshed or to break any laws; instead, in poem after poem he insists that he committed an error (he uses the original Latin word) of witnessing and seeing something, something criminal, something scandalous, something with infuriated the emperor but…what, exactly?

Infuriatingly, he never tells us. In an early poem in Tristia he tells us he was sworn to secrecy. In other poems he says he doesn’t want to discuss it, it is best buried in darkness and oblivion. With the result that we have 100 or so poems self-pityingly lamenting his fate – and not one clear explanation of what it was that he saw that so infuriated the emperor. Leading to 2,000 years of scholarly speculation.

Peter Green’s view is that Ovid was present at either a meeting of a group or cabal who discussed a plot to overthrow Augustus or a secret marriage which created an alliance between players and families which was a preparation for the overthrow of the dynasty.

The last decade of Augustus’s long rule (from 31 BC to 14 AD) was troubled with military defeats, famine and unrest, and numerous plots.

In 2 BC Augustus surprised Rome by arresting his own daughter, Julia (who he had forced to marry his wife’s son, Tiberius), and exiling her under very harsh conditions to a stony island off the coast of Italy, forbidden to have any visitors or travel anywhere. She was charged with adultery and treason. Augustus must have known for some time about Julia’s sexual promiscuity – which was the official reason given for this surprise move; so it was (presumably) details of a plot to overthrow him which prompted Augustus’s harsh action. We know that at the same time several of Julia’s lovers were exiled and one was forced to commit suicide. The assumption is that her sexual activities overlapped with assembling a cabal of men who were conspiring to a) get her divorced from Tiberius, then b) get rid of both Augustus and Tiberius and crown Julia and her lover. All this occurred just before Ovid published the second edition of his stylish love poems, the Amores. The assumption is that Ovid’s stylish, cynical, anti-establishment poems were popular among the promiscuous, privileged set which surrounded Julia.

What makes things a little confusing is that Ovid’s actual banishment, 8 or so years later, coincided with Augustus exiling a second Julia, Julia the Younger, the daughter of the Julia I just described, Julia the Elder, and her husband Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Born in 19 BC, Julia the Younger was 27 when she was banished in 8 AD.

According to ancient historians Julia was exiled for having an affair with one Decimus Junius Silanus, a Roman senator. She was sent to Tremirus, a small Italian island, where she gave birth to a child. Augustus rejected the infant and ordered it to be left on a mountainside to die. Harsh, eh? Absolutely unforgiving. Silanus went into voluntary exile. The plot thickens when you learn that sometime between 1 and 14 AD, Julia the Younger’s husband, Paullus, had been executed as a conspirator in a revolt.

So: modern historians theorise that Julia the Younger’s exile was not actually for adultery but for involvement in her husband, Paullus’s, revolt. And, to come back to Ovid, the view of people like Green is that Ovid’s witty, cynical, erotic poetry formed a kind of soundtrack to the amoral lifestyle of this very upper class set and that somehow, during that fateful year of 8 AD, hanging out with Julia the Younger’s people, he saw something take place which he failed, out of loyalty to the fast set, to report to the authorities, and it was this failure to speak out which was the error which he talks about obsessively in poem after poem.

But what it was, exactly…we’re back at the dead end. Again and again he says he never planned anything, never intended bloodshed, was entirely passive, that he saw something incriminating without himself intending anything criminal. Again and again Ovid insists he made a mistake but didn’t commit a crime. So you can see why scholars like Green speculate that what he saw, if it was just one activity, was either a group of conspirators discussing a seditious plan or swearing an oath or, the rather more florid speculation, that he witnessed the secret marriage of Julia the Younger which somehow bound her into the conspiracy to overthrow the emperor. Nobody knows.

Repeatedly Ovid compares himself to the mythological figure Actaeon, who accidentally stumbled into a clearing and saw the hunter goddess Diana bathing naked and so, as punishment, was transformed into a deer and torn to pieces by his own hunting hounds. Ovid says he was just as innocent as Actaeon, had no intent to do harm, stumbled upon a scene he barely understood, but has been just as harshly punished.

The condition of exile

Thus it was that in December 8 AD Ovid was ordered to make his way by ship from Italy, past all the islands and promontories of Greece, through the Dardanelles and into the Black Sea and onto the frontier settlement known as Tomis (modern-day Constanța in Romania), 70 miles south of the massive marshy delta where the river Danube empties into the Black Sea. And this was to be his home for the remainder of his life, for the next nine years (scholars think he died sometimes during the winter of 17/18).

Here in Tomis, as the Tristia poems make abundantly clear, Ovid fell into a deep depression, lost his appetite and weight, grew pale, suffered anxiety, often felt suicidal. The reasons included:

  • the miserable scenery about Tomis, which was flat and bleak and windswept
  • the extreme cold, such that during the long winter the Danube and even parts of the Black Sea froze over
  • the lack of even one person in the town who spoke Latin; almost everyone spoke one of the two or three local tribal languages – this was crushing for a man who had spent his entire life enjoying and playing with the Latin language, and whose art depended on reading his poems out loud to an audience and getting intelligent feedback; not in Tomis
  • but above all, the constant fear of attack by the fierce tribes who lived outside the town, who routinely swept into the area, looted all farmers’ properties, either taking them off to slavery or murdering them on the spot – several times Ovid mentions being forced to buckle on a sword and take part in the defence of the town, which only survived these assaults because of its good defensive position and wall (which Ovid perpetually worries about being too low and too weak)

One minute he was a pampered poet sauntering through the salons of fashionable Rome, a few weeks later he was frozen, isolated, unable to talk to anyone, and terrified for his life

Poems of exile

In exile Ovid wrote two distinct volumes of poems. The Tristia (which can be translated as ‘Poems of Desolation’ or ‘Lamentation’) consists of five ‘books’ of 50 or so short poems (a page or two in length, with the exception of book 2 which consists of one 580-line poem, which is a sustained address to Augustus proclaiming his innocence and asking for his exile to be ended). I have reviewed the Tristia in the excellent translation by Peter Green.

The other set of poems he wrote is the Epistulae ex Ponto or ‘Letters from Pontis’ (Pontis being the name of the Roman province on the north coast of the Black Sea). Green translates this as Black Sea Letters. Both the Tristia and the letters are included in one excellent Penguin edition, translated with extensive notes by the America-based English academic Peter Green.

Black Sea Letters

The ‘Black Sea Letters’ is a collection of verse epistles describing Ovid’s exile in Tomis written in elegiac couplets (the ‘six-five beat’ as he calls it in book 3 poem 3) and addressed to his wife and a wide variety of friends and contacts back in Rome.

The academic consensus is that the first three books were composed between 12 and 13 AD. They give every evidence of having been carefully assembled and ordered to create an artistic effect. The fourth book, by contrast, is believed to have been published posthumously, not least because it has a more miscellaneous feel.

The themes of the poems are identical with those of the Tristia (‘same theme different title’, as Ovid himself puts it in 1.1) namely:

  • the grimness of his place of exile, the cold, the wretched scenery, the lack of company
  • his deteriorating state of health
  • terror at the constant threat of violence from rampaging tribesmen
  • requests to intercede with the emperor on his behalf, if not to rescind his exile, to at least post him somewhere less bleak and terrifying: both the Julias were sent to islands off Italy, why can’t he get the same?
  • excoriations of his enemies and critics back in Rome

So a lot of the subject matter is already very familiar from the Tristia. The main difference with the Tristia is that all these poems are in epistolary format which means that almost all the poems are addressed to named individuals, unlike the 50 poems in Tristia which all address unnamed, anonymous figures. Ovid highlights this difference in the very first poem of the collection.

Augustus features heavily in the collection, as he does in Tristia, as absolute arbiter of Ovid’s fate. In between these begging passages, are appeals to Germanicus, nephew and adopted son of the emperor Tiberius, who was widely seen as a civilised, gracious, moderate influence.

All to no avail. No-one in authority gave any hint of relenting and Tiberius, when he replaced Augustus at the latter’s death in August 14 AD was, if anything, even more adamant against Ovid. When his highest-ranking correspondent, the senator Paullus Fabius Maximus, died in the same year as Augustus, Ovid’s last hopes petered out, and the collection ends on a deeply depressed note, the final letter being to an enemy who is bad mouthing him. Then…silence.

Books 1 to 3 were conceived of as one unit and are topped and tailed by poems to Ovid’s publisher and editor in Rome, one Brutus. Green, as usual, gives very thorough summaries of other scholars who have found deeper patterns in the structuring of the three books. There’s no doubt they were carefully arranged.

Book 1 (10 poems)

Letters to Brutus, Paullus Fabius Maximus, Rufinus, his wife, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Publius Pomponius Graecinus, Messalinus, Severus, Flaccus.

1.1 To Brutus

The set opens with an envoi to Ovid’s publisher, Brutus, asking him to accept this volume of verse letters and slip them into the gap created by Ovid’s now-banned Art of Love. He argues that the works of more subversive figures (Mark Anthony and Brutus the assassin) remain publicly available. He makes some fancy comments about worshippers of Isis or the Great Mother but then bursts out in anguish:

I repent, I repent! If the damned have any credence,
I repent, I’m tormented by the thing I did.

Misery: his mind is melting like snow, being eaten away like rust, being eaten into like bookworms eat books, suffers a perpetual canker of anguish. Maybe, maybe, the all-powerful Jove will remit his punishment and move his place of exile to somewhere less appalling.

1.2 To Paullus Fabius Maximus (150 lines)

Ovid’s most high-ranking contact, who had married a first cousin of the emperor and accompanied Augustus himself on a secret mission to Agrippa Postumus in exile. Ovid rehearses the same old themes, giving a vivid variation on the theme of the terrifying tribesmen who regularly assault Tomis’s walls and fire off their poisoned arrows. The cold is endless, winter turns into winter. It’s his fourth year and he weeps continually with misery.

What is my life? Stark bitterness never-ending,
torment exacerbated by time.

He dreams of home, of his wife, but that makes awaking even harder to bear. Often he prays for death. He asks Maximus to aid his exile ‘with a kind word or two’. He optimistically claims that Augustus (‘that god’) can’t possibly have known how bleak and horrible it was in Tomis, otherwise he wouldn’t have sent him. And God forbid he dies and is buried there, far from all his friends and family, his spirit abandoned on a bleak windswept shore. Ovid’s wife came from Maximus’s household so, if only for her sake:

Speak up for me…Petition to have my place
of exile moved nearer home.

1.3 To Caius Vibinius Rufinus (94 lines)

A senior figure who shared in Tiberius’s triumph of 12 AD and went on to serve as proconsul in Asia. The poem makes it clear that he has sent Ovid a consolatio or message containing philosophical precepts designed to cheer him up. Ovid thanks him and tells him it has been some comfort (‘I was down but your message revived me’) but cannot fully heal his heart. He gives examples from medicine, of which he obviously knew something.

But all humans want to return to the land of their birth, even to a wretched hole like Tomis, and he cannot find peace till he returns to Rome. Lines repeating the wretched flat landscape and continual fear of attack by tribals. Nobody in all history has been exiled to a remote of nastier spot.

1.4 To his wife (58 lines)

A sad poem to his wife saying he has aged, his hair is white, his face is lined, she’d no longer recognise him. It’s not just age, it’s ‘unremitting hardship, distress of mind.’ He embarks on an extended comparison (known as a synkresis) between himself and Jason who led the Argonauts because the land of Colchis that they sailed to was identified with the east coast of the Black Sea. But the comparison is designed to bring out how Jason was surrounded by comrades and friends, whereas it is Ovid’s complete isolation, with no friends or support, which has ground him down.

He hopes to be reunited with her soon, soon, and vividly imagines the tears and hugs of their reunion.

1.5 To Cotta Maximus (86 lines)

By all accounts an unpleasant young man, Cotta was, nonetheless, rich.

Ovid apologises for the poverty of his verse, claims his talents have atrophied and the Muse cannot be persuaded to visit distant Scythia. This poem, like others of the same ilk, were forced out of his mind with no pleasure. Now he regrets having written so much frivolous verse. So why does he keep writing? Because he can’t give it up. Every man has his vocation: Ovid’s is writing. There it is. He doesn’t expect fame or reward. He writes because it passes the long empty days and fills his mind, distracting him from his misery.

1.6 To Caius Pomponius Graecinus (54 lines)

Graecinus was suffect consul in 16 AD, an old friend of Ovid’s. He is quoted in Amores 2.10 arguing that no man can love two women at the same time. Graecinus had now become a friend and drinking buddy of the heir apparent, Tiberius, so Green detects in this poem a cooling of the friendship, now that Ovid is persona non grata.

Ovid testifies to their friendship and Graecinus’s interest in the liberal arts, says Graecinus was one of the bulwarks of his heart, repeats that it isn’t ‘safe’ for him to describe his ‘culpable error’ explicitly.

Strikingly, Ovid lets slip that he has contemplated suicide, held a sword in his hand, but the goddess Hope intervened. He begs that Graecinus add some words in his favour to the emperor.

1.7 To Valerius Messalla Messalinus (70 lines)

Messalinus was a distinguished soldier and consul who accompanied Tiberius on his campaign in Pannonia. (Pannonia was a Roman province consisting of present-day western Hungary and parts of eastern Austria several Balkan states.) Ovid wrote Messalinus three poems/letters because of the poet’s friendship with Messalinus’s influential father, but all betray a certain nervousness as if he knew that Messalinus’s closeness to Tiberius meant he would do nothing for the disgraced poet.

Ovid nervously acknowledges that Messalinus might not be pleased to receive a letter from him, or it might be inappropriate for him to reach out to a friend of the Caesar’s. He nervously repeats that he committed no ‘crime’ just a ‘folly’, which leads him on to bless Augustus’s clemency, mildness and restraint. Maybe they weren’t that friendly, maybe he attended his brother’s house more than his: still, would Messalinus mind lending his voice to his cause.

1.8 Severus (74 lines)

Opens, as always, with a brief summary of his woes – illness, depression, bitter cold and the ever-threatening natives with their poisoned arrows. He sadly describes how in his mind’s eye he walks through Rome, visiting his wife and daughter, strolling past the theatres and temples. He remembers the scenery of the Field of Mars, canals, orchards which he helped plant with his own hand. Are they still there? In fact he’d love to be a farmer here, plough the soil and sow and water it – but that’s impossible because of the endless raids by the barbarian Getans, murdering farmers, burning down their farms, carrying survivors off into slavery.

He asks Severus to intercede with Augustus with a modest request: to have him moved somewhere peaceful, not exposed to warfare, to somewhere he could farm land in peace.

1.9 To Cotta Maximus (56 lines)

The poem opens with a lament for the death of one Albinovanus Celsus. Green points out in his notes that both Cotta and Celsus had dodgy reputations, Celsus (according to Horace) for plagiarising other people’s poetry. The fact that Ovid refers to them as his bestest friends reflects poorly on the poet.

Ovid tells Cotta that Celsus was one of the few friends to stick by him when disaster struck, came to visit him, put his arms round him, shed tears and restrained Ovid when he talked about suicide, telling him Augustus was merciful so he should live in hope of a reprieve.

He praises Celsus for his loyalty, laments his death, wishes he could have attended the funeral, praises Maximus for supervising the funeral obsequies with ceremony and honour. Well, just as he behave honourably and dutifully for Celsus – so should he now do the same for his suffering friend Ovid.

1.10 To Licius Pomponius Flaccus (44 lines)

Flaccus was brother to Graecinus addressed in 1.6 and was another high-ranking soldier and drinking companion of Tiberius. Suetonius claimed he was given the governorship of Syria solely for accompanying Tiberius on a long drinking session. He may or may not have shared the future emperor’s predilection for kinky sex but his general profligacy makes it (deliberately) ironic that this poem is devoted to describing how Ovid’s physical appetites have all atrophied.

He’s lost his appetite, is pale and listless, has lost weight. Green speculates he might have had recurring diarrhoea caused by the bad or brackish water of the region (he claims never to have been a drinker of wine). He ends, as usual, by begging that Flaccus and his brother Graecinus put in a good word for him with ‘Caesar’s godhead’, not to be allowed to return, just the milder request to be exiled somewhere less appalling and depleting.

Book 2 (11 poems)

Letters to Germanicus, Messalinus, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Atticus, Salanus, Publius Pomponius Graecinus, Cotys of Thrace, Macer and Rufus.

2.1 (68 lines)

Ovid imagines Tiberius’s triumph through Rome on 27 October 12 AD.

Ovid had obviously received an account of it, either by letter or from a visitor, because he describe the way the weather was rainy for days beforehand but cleared up at the last moment. It’s noticeable that although it was Tiberius’s triumph, Ovid chooses to not to name him but instead to address Germanicus, the much more charismatic figure (‘flower of our youth in peace and war’) who, he hoped, would intercede for him.

2.2 To Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalinus (126 lines)

Same addressee as (probably) Tristia 4.4. Same appeal, mentioning his father, praising Augustus and the health of his extended family – then asking Messalinus to use all his charm, exert all his influence, to win Ovid a change of exile.

2.3 To Cotta Maximus (100 lines)

The usual themes and pleas: notable because it describes the scene when Ovid was holidaying on Elba and Augustus’s abrupt, angry summoning of the poet arrived along with rumour of what his offence was. Ovid describes how Cotta was shocked, disappointed, but then persuaded that Ovid had committed no crime, merely made an ‘error’ – and then it was all tears and condolence.

2.4 To Atticus (34 lines)

All that’s known about this Atticus derives from Ovid’s two or three poems to him, namely that the friendship was of long standing, back in Rome they went everywhere together, he criticised Ovid’s work and, since Ovid’s fall, had grown cool towards him.

2.5 To Cassius Salanus (76 lines)

Not much is known about this Cassius Salanus except that he was tutor to Germanicus. To paraphrase Wikipedia:

Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 BC to 19 AD) was a Roman general noted for his victories in Germany, and a powerful member of the Julian-Claudian dynasty. He was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia the Younger and was the nephew of the future emperor Tiberius. In 4 AD he was adopted as legal son by Tiberius. His connection to the Julii was consolidated through a marriage between himself and Agrippina the Elder, a granddaughter of Augustus. The agnomen Germanicus was added to his full name in 9 BC when it was posthumously awarded to his father in honour of his victories in Germania. Germanicus was central to the line of emperors in that he was the older brother of Claudius, the father of Caligula and the maternal grandfather of Nero.

Obviously the later emperors were in the future. For Ovid’s purposes, Germanicus had emerged as a young, successful, charismatic figure, far more open and sympathetic than his grouchy adoptive father, Tiberius. In the Black Sea Letters the reader can increasingly see Ovid adopting what Peter Green calls ‘the Germanicus gambit’ with more and more space given to praise of ‘that Prince of the Youths’ (line 41).

Green points out that, as the letters progress, old patrons are dropped (the family of Messalla Corvinus) or die (Paullus Fabius) and Ovid focuses on figures in Germanicus’s circle. However, this didn’t exactly endear him to the adoptive father, Tiberius – especially the way Ovid chose to end his poem describing Tiberius’s ‘Pannonian triumph’ of 12 AD with a digression in praise of Germanicus, which – Green says – friends pointed out to him had offended more than pleased Tiberius.

This poem is interesting to me because of a throwaway reference to the fact that Ovid’s heard that Salanus liked and praised the poems he’s sent from the Black Sea and that his approval ‘helped them’. This raises, for me, an issue Green doesn’t clarify, which is: what was the status of these poems of exile? Was each of the five books of Tristia despatched as he completed them to Rome? Who published them, the shadowy Brutus addressed in poem 1 of the Letters? If the Ars Amatoria had been banned from Rome’s libraries, how come the emperor allowed these poems, obsessed as they are with Ovid rehearsing his unhappiness and grievances, to be published? Were they copied and so freely available that someone he didn’t know very well, like Salanus, came across or was given a copy?

If they were made generally available, what was the feedback from Rome? What did contemporaries make of them? Do we know?

And even more mystifying, how did Ovid find out what contemporaries thought? Green makes a passing comment to the possibility that a visitor to Tomis gave Ovid an eye-witness description of Tiberius’s triumph. But this raises the huge question did Ovid receive visitors from Rome? He never mentions any in the poems. Or did Green mean something more like a visiting trader or merchant or government official?

Now I reflect on it, many of the poems in Tristia and the Letters respond to things he’s heard about from Rome, from word that this or that individual is bad mouthing him or has insulted his wife. So he was receiving letters from Rome, but how many and how regularly? Ovid repeatedly asks people to write to him more but this begs the question of how much mail he received and how often.

Back to the poem itself, the sickly sweet over-praising of Germanicus is astonishing.

2.6 To Caius Pomponius Graecinus (38 lines)

Also addressed in 1.6. Ovid is clearly replying to a letter in which Graecinus chided him, telling him to count his blessings, and that his ‘crime’ merited a much worse punishment (death?). Ovid replies, what’s the point warning him now and being wise after the event? It’s too late.

Ovid delivers a perfunctory blessing for Graecinus’s family before delivering a far more powerful denunciation if he should abandon his hapless friend (‘shame on you’). Then delivers a little list of mythological figures famous for the steadfastness of their friendship (Pylades, Orestes, Theseus, Pirithoüs) winding up by promising that, if Graecinus continues his support, and if Ovid’s verse endures, then he will make his name immortal. As he has done.

2.7 To Atticus (84 lines)

Also addressed in 2.4. It’s worth copying Green’s summary of the poem as a good example of what had, by this stage, become a very stereotyped layout:

  • Ovid admits he exaggerates his fears (5 to 20)
  • he gives a list of adynata ‘I’d sooner number the ears in a Libyan wheatfield’ than reckon up all the woes he’s suffered (25 to 30)
  • he parades the usual troubles and worries (31 to 48)
  • over-sensitivity produced by excess of suffering (37 to 45)
  • others achieved fame through the liberal arts, but they have destroyed him (47 to 48)
  • his prior life was blameless (49)
  • his friends have failed to be active enough on his behalf (51 to 52)
  • he was not on the spot when the storm broke (53 to 54)
  • he was forced to take ship at the worst possible time of year (with the stock comparison of himself to long-suffering Ulysses) (57 to 60)
  • his travelling companions robbed him (61 to 62)
  • his place of exile is a hellhole with constant threats to life, impossible to pursue agriculture (63 to 70)
  • endless cold, undrinkable water (71 to 74)
  • all that keeps him going is hope that Augustus’s anger will abate (79 to 80)
  • he addresses ‘you few friends’, begging them to continue the battle on his behalf

In fact so standardised has this list of complaints become that you can almost feel him going through the motions. I wonder why he didn’t just write the same stock letter and just change the first few lines of greeting and a few details in the middle and send them to everyone he knew back in Rome? Is it because he knew they’d be handed round, read widely, that he had to go to the trouble of making each one individually tailored to its recipient?

2.8 To Cotta Maximus Messalinus (76 lines)

Cotta has sent the poet two images in silver, two ‘Caesars’ (presumably Augustus and Tiberius) and one of Livia (Green debates whether they might have been statuettes or medallions).

The poem is one of the most embarrassingly fulsome acts of lavish sycophancy in Roman literature. He calls Augustus:

  • that Celestial being
  • he embodies our country’s image
  • his virtues eclipse the boundless cosmos
  • imperishable glory of our era
  • lord of the world

Plus extravagant praise of Livia and his extended family, all leading up to grovelling begging to have his place of exile moved to somewhere less appalling.

2.9 To King Cotys IV of Thrace (80 lines)

Because in 12 AD Augustus divided the kingdom of Thrace between two client rules, King Cotys IV and his uncle Rhescuporis. Ovid is writing a celebration of Cotys because his kingdom would form a buffer between the Hellenised colonies of Moesia and the savage tribes of the hinterland. (According to the Wikipedia article, Ovid must be talking about Moesia Inferior, which you can see on the map [just about] forming a buffer between the coast at Tomis and the untamed interior.)

He hails Cotys and straightaway asks him to grant his plea to be moved to a less dire location. He argues that the great feature of power is to grant appeals for the powerless, otherwise what is the point of the sacrifices made across the Mediterranean by everyone from peasants to emperors to the mighty gods, unless they hear and grant appeals?

Let him be worthy of his noble father. The liberal arts, which he is known to cultivate (Cotys wrote poetry) soften a man’s heart. In fact the writing of poetry creates a bond between them. As ever he mentions he is guilty of two offences, 1) writing the Ars Amoris 2) one which cannot be named.

2.10 To Macer (52 lines)

Precise identity unknown, maybe the companion of Ovid’s Grand Tour of Greece when he was a student and, according to the poem, some kin with Ovid’s wife. Macer is, apparently a poet, but unlike the foolish subjects which got Ovid into trouble, he apparently wanted to write another poem about the Trojan War. So Ovid repeats the stock trope that all poets are linked by their trade (‘a cult they all share in common’). Then moves onto a vivid description of their tour round the sights of the Mediterranean (lines 21 to 42).

2.11 To Rufus (28 lines)

We know nothing about this Rufus except what Ovid tells us in this short poem (Rufus was one of the most common cognomina or surnames in ancient Rome). Green makes the point that the addressees of book 2 become more peripheral to the centres of power, more literary and familial as it progresses. He has worked through his list of influential powerful contacts and is getting to the bottom of his address book.

Briefly, Ovid thanks him for his tears of sympathy back in Rome when the news was announced. He thanks Rufus for guiding and advising his wife (apparently he was her uncle). And thanks him for carrying out Ovid’s ‘instructions’.

Book 3 (9 poems)

Letters to his wife, Cotta Maximus Messalinus, Paullus Fabius Maximus, Rufinus, an unknown friend and a group of unknown friends.

3.1 To his wife (166 lines)

The longest poem in the entire exilic corpus, complex and problematic. The first page (30 lines) gives a vivid portrait of how awful Tomis was, in the style of his earlier poems i.e. full and detailed. One of the best passages in the poems. Only at line 31 does he address his wife and then in bitter ungracious terms, accuses her of not doing enough for him. He says some call her a model wife, but she must up her game and work harder to get him freed. In return he will make her name last for ever, give her the immortality of other famous wives from mythology. (The massive irony is that we don’t, in fact, know her name for sure.)

He goes on at length about how their marriage contract, her upbringing, the house she came from, and a host of classical examples, all demand she do more for her tragic husband’s cause.

The poem ends with a passage about Livia (‘possessing Venus’ beauty, the character of Juno’), second only to Augustus in wisdom etc etc. Ovid advises his wife to be cautious about approaching her; do it now, when the city is at peace, when there have been no deaths, no public grief – not if she’s busy and distracted with other matters; and only on an auspicious day, if the auguries are favourable; kindle a fire on the altar of Augustus, offer incense and wine – that’s the time when his wife should make her approach.

Ovid tells his wife not to try to defend him, it’s best to simply admit his guilt: but be free with tears, bow down, fall prostrate, reach out your arms, ’embrace those immortal feet!’

Worth noting that Livia was 71 when this poem was written (so much for Venus’ beauty) and Juno was famous, if anything, for prolonged spiteful vendettas against heroes (Hercules, Aeneas). So, as Green points out, Ovid doesn’t seem above to prevent ironic and ambiguous elements entering everything he wrote; even when he’s trying to be grovellingly sycophantic, he still manages to give the impression that Livia is a monstrous ogre.

3.2 To Cotta (110 lines)

The fifth appeal to Cotta in the letters, with one more to come. Ovid praises Cotta for his loyalty to him and magnanimously forgives those friends who quickly abandoned him – he understands they were just scared to death of Augustus’s anger. He gives the usual roll call of loyal friends from mythology (Orestes, Theseus) before letting slip that he has learned how to speak ‘the native tongue’. This triggers a note by Green discussing just how much of the native tongues Ovid knew. His own testimony is mixed and confusing. Sometimes he writes that he’s learned enough Getan to contemplate writing poems in it. Other times he emphasises that he can only make himself understood by sign language and that the natives laugh at his Latin and attempts to speak their language. Green’s conclusion is that Ovid probably learned the local Greek-based pidgen or patois, used to facilitate trade but not the two local languages we know about, Getic and Sarmatian.

The poem is notable for introducing a mythical story, in the manner of the Metamorphoses, in this case he uses the device of having an local old man tell the story to him of Iphigeneia and Orestes, the point of which is to say that, if these local barbarians can value friendship, then how much more so should a civilised Roman like Cotta.

3.3 To Paullus Fabius Maximus / Eros (108 lines)

This is an interesting departure from the grind of repetitive poems. Same could be said of the opening section of 3.1 and the old man’s story in 3.2.

Anyway 3.3 opens with Ovid telling Cotta about a dream he had, first painting the picture of a balmy evening, him sleeping and dreaming he had a visit from the god of Love, so familiar to him from his umpteen appearances in the Amores. And the poem turns into a dialogue with Eros, son of Venus, with his bow and arrow. Ovid blames Eros for inspiring him to write that ‘stupid poem’ which got him into so much trouble, then mounted a spirited defence that it was never intended to lure married women into adultery and thus (the key point, from Augustus’s point of view) ‘raise doubts about whose heir is whose’.

To which Eros gives a very tendentious reply, affirming that Ovid’s poems never misled or corrupted anyone and concludes with an uplifting assurance that Augustus will change his mind and relent. This is all interesting, colourful and much more dramatic than most of the poems.

Then the poem concludes with grovellingly sycophantic praise and thanks to Cotta (93 to 108).

Green makes the interesting point that the setting – falling asleep on a divan – recalls the famous Amores 1.5.

3.4 To Rufinus (116 lines)

Ovid asks Rufinus to support the poem describing Tiberius’s triumph which he sent him. In fact it goes on to be an extensive lament on what he missed out on, and how his poem must fall short, by virtue of not seeing it at first hand, but only hearing second hand reports.

Then he laments the poem will have been poor because he is simply unaccustomed to joy and celebration, seeing as he lives in a land of woes: he has forgotten happy words!

And then he claims it can take up to a year for a poem of his to travel the journey from Tomis to Rome so that, by the time it arrives, everyone is glutted and bored with the subject so his poem is ignored.

As with quite a few of these letters, Ovid repeats the idea that poets make up a secret fraternity (with the implication that he misses the support, the practical criticism and advice he enjoyed from belonging to the fraternity of Roman poets).

The last 30 lines of the poem claim to be direct inspiration from ‘the god’ who predicts a second German triumph for Tiberius (though not mentioning him by name; Ovid had a strange reluctance to do so) though he does mention Livia and tells her to hasten to make the elaborate arrangements for her son’s soon-coming parade!

3.5 To Cotta Maximus (58 lines)

Cotta has thoughtfully sent Ovid copies of ‘the clever speeches you made to a packed forum’, which the latter has enjoyed reading and asks for more. In exile modes he laments the fact that he wasn’t there in Rome to witness the speeches being given and no approval in person. In his mind’s eye he can escape his wretched location ‘among the shaggy Goths’ and walk around Rome once more and meet and chat to Cotta like in the old days. Then he asks querulously, have people forgotten him? Do they still read his poems? Do they still talk about him?

3.6 (60 lines)

Ovid tetchily writes to an unknown addressee asking why he insists on not being named in the letter: what has he to fear from the cosmically magnanimous Augustus – ‘no god’s more moderate than our Prince’? If Ovid sent letters not naming the addresses that wasn’t out of doubt of Augustus’s wisdom and mercy, but more out of his own panic fear when the bombshell struck. Now he’s calmed down a bit he doesn’t mind adding the name but will politely wait till his correspondent gives him permission to.

The poem mentions Augustus’s establishment of a cult and shrine of Justitia Augusta, on 8 January 13 AD. Unsurprisingly, Ovid argues that ‘Justice’ must necessitate moderation of his punishment i.e. removal to somewhere less hostile.

3.7 To his friends (40 lines)

Now I’m out of words, I’ve asked the same thing so often;
now I feel shame for my endless, hopeless prayers.
You must be bored stiff by these monotonous poems…

For the first time Ovid acknowledges that maybe his exile won’t be abated, he won’t even be allowed to move somewhere nicer. Maybe all his pleas and poems and letters have been a waste of time. Why kick against the pricks and swim against the current? Hope brings only endless disappointments. Some wounds are made worse by meddling. Better than drown than prolong the agony of thrashing around in ‘mountainous seas’. He adds the bitter sting that he expected hope and remedy from his friends’ efforts but won’t make that mistake again. So it’s bitter recrimination as much as Stoic acceptance.

3.8 To Maximus (24 lines)

This is a spirited little number, one of the best of the poems because it is short and pithy and mostly empty of self pity. He wonders what present to send the addresses (one of the Maximuses, either Cotta or Fabius) and the poem consists of a miserable list of all the facilities and goods Pontus does not possess, until he comes to the sting in the tail and says the one thing it is notes for is its poisoned arrows. So he’s sending a quiverful so that they may ‘be reddened with your enemies’ blood!’

3.9 To Brutus (56 lines)

Green repeats the scholarly consensus that the first 3 books of Black Sea Letters weren’t just assembled at random but carefully arranged to form a pattern of addressees. The most basic proof of this is the way the collection starts and ends with a poem to the same person, Ovid’s publisher in Rome, Brutus.

Ovid writes in reply to Brutus who has, apparently, told him that critics back in Rome are criticising Ovid for the monotony of theme of his poems. (Green humorously summarises the message of the entire Black Sea Letters as ‘Get me out of here!’)

He gives an insight into his poetic practice i.e. initial creation, then going back over the verse to amend words and phrases. He apologises to Brutus but says, know what? He can’t be bothered any more. It hardly seems sane taking the immense trouble required to polish his poems amid savage Goths who don’t understand a word of Latin.

As to the accusation that his Pontic poems are monotonous, well, guess what?

Cheerful, I wrote cheerful verses; sad, I write sad ones. (line 35)

And:

Of what should I write but the faults of this bitter region,
what pray for, but to die in a better place?

One last point: when a poet makes something up he is free to introduce the themes and variations he wants. But Ovid’s theme was dictated by his pitiful situation. He didn’t write these poems to achieve high poetic repute but a bread-and-butter practical means to a practical end. The variation, such as it is, came from varying the exact content to be appropriate to each addressee:

Not to make a book, but to send the appropriate letter
to each person – this was my object and my care.

In fact, in his commentary Green comes down quite hard on Ovid, accusing him of, ultimately, defeating his own ends by boring his readers with the monotony of his subject matter and complaints until they stopped listening. Better if he’d made the effort to diversify his subject matter; that might have had more impact. Maybe. Unlikely, though.

Book 4 (16 poems)

Letters to Sextus Pompeius, Cornelius Severus, Brutus, Vestalis, Suillius, Graecinus, Albinovanus, Gallio, Carus, Tuticanus and an unnamed enemy.

Scholars think that books 1, 2 and 3 of the Black Sea Letters were carefully assembled and shaped by Ovid, a literary operator to the end. However, the scholarly consensus is that the fourth book of letters was added later, possibly after his death, for several reasons:

  • it’s longer than all the others, 16 poems 880 lines
  • its addressees are new to the series
  • Ovid’s wife is conspicuous by her absence
  • in some places Ovid displays embarrassment at not having communicated with new addressees before

So it’s considered a mopping up exercise, collecting the best of the rest.

What the new addressees almost all have in common is service under or support for Germanicus (see 2.5, above), for example Sextus Pompeius, recipient of four epistles, related to Augustus and an adherent of Germanicus.

Because when Augustus died in August 14, Ovid stood no hope of clemency from Tiberius, sterner than Augustus and under the powerful dominance of his mother Livia. So Ovid turned his hopes towards the emperor’s adopted son, the famously charming, civilised and accessible Germanicus.

4.1 To Sextus Pompeius (36 lines)

Pray accept a poem composed, Sextus Propertius,
by one who owes you his life…

Pompeius takes over the role of prime addressee performed in earlier books by Fabius Maximus and the sons of Messalla Corvinus. Ovid sounds nervous and embarrassed that he hasn’t written to him before, saying he meant to, often wrote his name by mistake at the head of previous letters etc. In a moment of weird hyperbole, Ovid claims that Propertius made him into a work of art.

4.2 To Cornelius Séverus (50 lines)

What you are reading, Séverus, great bard of mighty monarchs,
comes to you all the way from the long-haired Goths…

Séverus was an epic poet (he wrote an epic poem about the Sicilian War) and in the same literary circle as Ovid, that of Messalla Corvinus. Like many of the other poems, he apologises for not having addressed a poem to him before but, interestingly, writes that they have been keeping up a correspondence in verse. What happened to all those letters to and from Ovid for those ten long years?

The poem is an opportunity to complain that his inspiration has left him, he is ploughing the seashore. He has writer’s block because he has no intelligent audience or critical feedback. Paradoxically this poem about poetic barrenness throws up one of the most quotable lines in all the 100 exilic poems:

Writing a poem you can read to no-one
is like dancing in the dark.
(lines 33 to 34)

4.3 To Unnamed (58 lines)

A generic poem castigating a close friend, known since boyhood, who has not only not written to him, but denied they were ever a friend of his. Traitor and dissembler. Ovid warns him just how fickle Fortune is, as light as a breeze, and lists great men brought low (Croesus, Pompey). One day he might fall low and need other people’s help, then he’ll regret abandoning his friends.

4.4 To Sextus Pompeius (50 lines)

A variation on a stock poem or subject, the laudatio consulis i.e. in praise of someone about to be appointed consul for a year. Scholars point out it resembles stock letters that Cicero sent to about-to-be-installed consuls. It invokes and plays against the conventions of the form. Also notable because Ovid introduces the figure of Rumour which gives the sense, not often mentioned in the poems, that he was, all the time, carrying on a busy correspondence in prose with friends and family back in Rome.

He paints a scene of himself walking along the barren seashore when the voice of the allegorical figure of Rumour whispers in his ear that the coming year will be one of joy for ‘the consul will be Pompeius, your dearest friend in the world’ and this leads him into a vivid imagining of the sights and scenes involved in a consul’s entry into power, which Ovid conjures up to console himself.

4.5 To Sextus Pompeius (46 lines)

The poem is an envoi, conceived as a messenger sent to Pompeius who has now commenced his consular year (14 AD).

Go, lightweight elegiac, to our consul’s ultra-learned
ears, take this message for the man of honours to read.

And paints an interesting picture of how the poem-messenger must make his way through the throng around Pompeius as he performs his duties, until he can speak to him and remind him of its sad author. Interestingly, Ovid says he owes his life to Pompeius, that he ‘ensured safe passage for [Ovid] through the wilds’ and has, subsequently, given him ‘life-sustaining gifts.’

The imperial family feature in the poem as those Pompeius must praise and placate but it’s interesting that Germanicus gets the longest mention, 6 lines, Augustus 2, and Tiberius isn’t mentioned at all.

4.6 To Brutus (50 lines)

Ovid’s publisher and literary confidante whose full name we don’t know. He says he’s moving into his second five-year spell in exile (14 AD) and that he’s heard the new that Augustus is dead (August 14) so it must have been written about October-November of that year. Ovid optimistically writes that Augustus ‘had begun to forgive my unwitting error’. Seems optimistic. He says he’s sent Brutus a poem celebrating the new deity i.e. the deification of Augustus. He mentions it in other exile poems, too. it hasn’t survived, but it would have been a treat to see just how oleaginous Ovid could be.

The poem praises Brutus for being compassionate and so surprising many by his forensic ferocity in prosecuting law cases. And implies he’s fat (‘the great frame of yours!’) And claims that ‘the greater part of [his] private circle] abandoned him, denying all knowledge of him.

4.7 To Vestalis (54 lines)

Vestalis was the ‘son of a native prince’ and ‘scion of Alpine kings’, who rose through the ranks of the Roman army and was appointed prefect to the coast of Pontus i.e. across the Black Sea from Tomis.

Since you’ve been posted to the Black Sea’s shore, Vestalis,
to keep the peace in these sub-polar lands,
you can see for yourself the kind of country I lie in,
can testify that mine are no feigned complaints.

The poem turns into a long list of Vestalis’s achievements as a soldier and commander, vividly describing various battles and victories, notably Aegisos. To quote A.S. Kline’s notes, “Aegisos was a Moesian town on the Danube delta. The modern Tulcea, it lies about forty miles inland from the southern mouth of the delta and about seventy miles north of Tomis. It was retaken by Roman forces led by Vestalis in AD12 after a Getic incursion.” hence this poem in praise of Vestalis, comparing him to Ajax before Troy:

conspicuous in your gleaming armour,
ensuring your brave deeds could not be missed,
with great strides you charged the swords, the strong position,
stones thicker than wintry hail,
and neither the downflung rain of javelins could halt you
nor arrows envenomed.

4.8 To Publius Suillius Rufus (90 lines)

Ovid was connected to Rufus twice over. He had married Ovid’s step-daughter, Perilla, in around 12 AD, 5 or 6 years after Ovid’s relegatio; and he was quaestor to Germanicus, Ovid’s last best home of forgiveness.

This explains why the poem morphs into an appeal to Germanicus, in three parts: a) Ovid cannot offer Germanicus money but he can offer him poetic immortality:

Let opulent houses and cities present you with temples; Ovid’s
gratitude will be shown through his sole riches – verse.

b) His (Ovid’s) praise will amplify his fame and reputation. This launches an extended example of the common trope that poems of praise are the best and longest lasting monument. Not only famous contemporaries but the great men of legend and even the gods themselves are to some extent kept alive – we have heard of them – because of poetry.

Than time
there’s nothing in existence has greater strength.
The written word defies the years.

c) Germanicus is himself an author – they have ‘rites in common’ – and so all the more should free Ovid from his horrible exile among ‘the savage Goths’.

4.9 To Graecinus (134 lines)

Same addressee as 1.6 and 2.6, Graecinus was an old friend of Ovid’s but also a drinking buddy of Tiberius’s so had probably made the sensible move of dropping his old friend.

Graecinus was appointed suffect consul in 14 AD so in this poem Ovid: a) imagines the scene of his installation, saying how much he’d have liked to have been there to offer congratulations in person; b) hopes Graeconus will use his position to intercede with the emperor.

Ovid then goes on to celebrate the happy fact that Graecinus will be replaced as consul by his brother, Lucius Pomponius Flaccus. Since Flaccus served as commander of a district on the Black Sea coast (where he distinguished himself in a campaign of 12 AD), Ovid asks Graecinus to get his brother to confirm Ovid’s descriptions of the miserable climate, warlike tribes and so on.

Ovid describes how he is esteemed in Tomis, how his behaviour has won him privileges and exemptions. He goes on to describe how he has a shrine to the entire royal family, Augustus, Livia, Tiberius and the two adopted grandsons Drusus and Germanicus. He asks Graecinus to ask anyone how zealous he is in offering incense to this little group of statuettes every single morning – poor desperate grovelling man.

It’s an unusually long poem and ends with a vision of Augustus, now deified, up in heaven looking down on Ovid, appreciating the poems on his deification which Ovid mentions having recently written.

4.10 To Albinovanus Pedo (84 lines)

Ovid says he’s writing this in his sixth summer. If he departed Rome in December 8 and arrived in the spring of 9, this makes it 15 AD. Albinovanus Pedo was a soldier who’d served under Germanicus. Some of his exploits are described in Tacitus’s Annals and, rather amazingly, he wrote an epic poem about the huge storm which wrecked Germanicus’s fleet in the North Sea in 16.

Anyway, this poem is unusual because, although it raises some super-familiar topics about Tomis – the bleakness of the flat plain, the sea freezing over, the barbarian Goths with their poisoned arrows – there is, surprisingly, no pitiful begging and pleading for help. On the contrary, Ovid, for once, boasts about his toughness, his duritia, at having survived it all.

Can you
compare any flint or steel, dear Albinovanus,
to my endurance?…
All things but me, then, time that great corrosive,
will destroy: even death holds off, quite overcome
by my toughness…

He has heard that people back in Rome simply don’t believe his stories about the cannibal tribes or the sea freezing over, let them come and see for themselves! In fact he goes on to give a technical explanation of why the shore-sides of the Black Sea do freeze over in the winter which Green, in his notes, points out is, unlike most natural history written by the ancients, scientifically correct.

4.11 Junius Gallo (22 lines)

Gallo was a noted rhetorician and friend of the elder Seneca. In one of his typically full and fascinating notes, Green tells us that Gallo’s senatorial career was cut short years later, in 32 AD, when he suggested that ex-praetorians should be given seating privileges in the theatre. ‘Tiberius reprimanded him, removed him from the Senate and sent him into exile.’ Crikey! This fact is more interesting than the poem, a striking insight into the immense importance of hierarchy and precedence and procedure in ancient Rome. Sent into exile! For suggesting a minor change in the seating plant at the theatre?

Anyway, in this short poem Ovid greets Gallo, apologises for not having written earlier, and commiserates on the death of his wife. He laments it takes so long for his letters to travel to Rome (Green, in his notes, says the period of a year is a gross exaggeration). So Ovid speculates that, given this long delay in Gallo’s letter reaching him, maybe he has remarried!?

4.12 To Tuticanus (50 lines)

Although Ovid describes him as an old friend (‘through all the long years we’ve enjoyed together/I’ve loved you like a brother’) and that they developed a very close relationship through sharing and critiquing each other’s poems, Tuticanus hasn’t appeared in any earlier poem and so Green detects a (by now fairly familiar) tone of embarrassed apology in this poem.

Ovid tries to make a joke by pointing out that it is impossible to fit Tuticanus’s name, which consists of a double trochee, into the tight metrical scheme of his elegiac metre. Ovid runs through the various distortions he could make of his friend’s name to fit it in, but says they’d all be laughed at. You don’t have to totally understand the metrical variations which he describes to grasp the point that the kind of verse Ovid (and his contemporaries) wrote was extremely strict in every single syllable of its beats and measures. So when he read his poetry aloud to a literary audience and they critiqued it, as often as not it would be about the strict mathematical count of the metre as about the things we moderns care more about (metaphors and sentiment). Maybe it can be summarised as saying that Roman poetry as considerably more mathematical than we are used to.

Tuticanus has clearly asked in a poem what Ovid wants, but by now, demoralised and defeatist, Ovid confesses he doesn’t know:

I can find nothing to do, or want, or not want,
nor do I clearly know what’s best for me.

4.13 To Carus (50 lines)

We know little about Carus except that he, too, was a poet and, according to this poem, a tutor to Germanicus’s two young sons (Nero and Drusus III). Well-placed, then.

But this poem is noteworthy because in it Ovid claims he has mastered enough of the local lingo to be writing poetry in it and to have become ‘a Getic bard’. Green doubts this means Ovid had become fluent in the local tribal language. More likely he had mastered the bastardised Greek or Greek patois used at this remote trading post. Thus Ovid’s verse technique, based on counting syllables, would still work in a language which retained Greek syllable counts. It is extremely unlikely this syllabic technique could be applied to a non-Mediterranean language based, more than likely, on stresses and beats.

Anyway, he tells Carus he’s had a popular hit among the natives with a poem praising the imperial family, describing how Augustus’s soul had gone to heaven and his virtues been inherited by his wise and good successor (as usual, he can’t bring himself to use Tiberius’s name). Then he jokily describes the scene of assembled Goths, who have listened in silence, at the poem’s end breaking into applause, nodding and shaking their quivers full of arrows – a cartoon scene.

Then he has one of the Getic leaders asking why, when he writes such wonderful praise of Caesar, Caesar doesn’t recall him to Rome.’ But it’s too late. This is his sixth winter. Ovid asks Carus to intercede for him with Germanicus, but it’s half-hearted. His sixth winter is approaching. He’s worn out.

4.14 To Tuticanus (62 lines)

Same addressee as 4.12. It quickly becomes an angrily desperate plea to be moved somewhere, anywhere but wretched Tomis. But this leads into a new and interesting topic: turns out that his incessant bitching about how dreadful Tomis is has vexed the locals. Which leads into a self-pitying lament that whatever he writers, his poetry seems to get him into endless trouble. Maybe he should cut off his fingers so he can’t write any more. Rather unconvincingly he now addresses the ‘men of Tomis’ and assures them that, deep down, he loves them, it’s just their land and its wretched climate he hates. Nice try, Publius.

Then he moves on to positive praise of the way the people of Tomis have welcomed, celebrated and even honoured him. (My God, it would be fascinating to know more about this.) He has been granted a tax exemption. A wreath has been placed around his head ‘by popular acclamation’. Tomis has proved ‘ever loyal and hospitable’. If only it wasn’t so close to the frozen pole!

4.15 To Sextus Pompeius (42 lines)

For once this is a poem of thanks to someone who clearly has given Ovid material aid, and more than once. He writes that he owes all his welfare to him, after the gods he takes first place, his kindnesses have been as many as grapes in a vineyard.

In exchange Ovid describes himself as a chattel and a possession which now belongs to Pompeius, going far beyond the dutifulness described in a usual client-patron relationship. Ovid’s abandonment of himself to Pompeius is abject, complete.

He then apologises for writing the same old thing; whatever subject he sets out to address it always comes back to the same old rut, his plea for forgiveness.

4.16 To anonymous (52 lines)

The final poem in book four and therefore the entire Black Sea Letters is an angry execration of an unnamed person who is bad-mouthing him back in Rome. He adopts from the start the pose he has created before that Ovid is dead – the fashionable man-about-Rome who wrote all those witty poems died the day he was sent into exile and everything since has been written by a corpse. So what on earth is the point of calumniating and criticising a dead man?

The poem opens with an impressive roll call of contemporary poets (listed below), long and exhaustive, leading up to the defiant conclusion that Ovid was, and knew he was, head and shoulders among this packed competition. But what does any of it matter? Ovid is dead now. So, Malice, sheathe your bloody claws. Ovid has lost everything. What’s the point stabbing a dead body?

There is no space in me now for another wound.

Thoughts

1. Ovid more of a hanger-on than we thought

The letters shed light on the real nexus of relationships Ovid navigated back in Rome and it is not a pretty one. More than once you get the impression Ovid was a hanger-on to much more important, powerful, rich men, leading figures in politics or the army, who indulged the wimpy poet because of his quick tongue and his outrageous wit, but never really liked him and, now he’s in trouble, have promptly dumped him and wouldn’t dream of jeopardising their standing with the old or new emperor for such a hanger-on. Not flattering.

2. Why repetition works for love but not for exile

It’s difficult not to get worn down by the sheer repetition of the same half dozen tropes repeated in almost all the 100 poems, illustrated by the same half dozen metaphors and the same half dozen mythological references (endlessly comparing himself to storm-tossed Ulysses, long-suffering Philoctetes, Capaneus, comparing his dutiful wife to Penelope, Andromache, Evadne et al).

But there’s a point to be made here: the Amores mercilessly reshuffled half a dozen tropes about love – about the poet being a slave for love, shackled for love, love’s servant, love’s soldier, love’s long-suffering victim, twanged through the heart by love’s arrows etc – and these are endlessly enjoyable.

My suggestion is that from Ovid’s time right up to the present, we are so indoctrinated by the mass media with the importance of ‘Love’ that we accept reading the same love tropes in poetry, reading the same love stories in novels, watching the same half dozen love plots (competition for the pretty girl, marriage then infidelity, torn between two lovers etc) without complaint.

As a Darwinian materialist I see the never-ending and enormous obsession of all our media and cultural productions with ‘love’ and sex as reflecting the central concern of human beings (when regarded as mammals just like all the other mammals on the planet) which is to mate, to nest and to reproduce.

When Ovid applies the same half dozen tropes about love (in the Heroides, Amores, Art of Love) we lap it up, the repetition doesn’t seem to matter, the expression of the same old love plaint seems fresh and new and heartfelt each time we read it.

But when he applies the same technique of endless repetition of a half dozen tropes regarding a different subject, namely his unhappy exile in windswept, tribe-infested Tomis, we react with growing boredom and exasperation.

It’s because this highly specific situation doesn’t have anything like the same basic, animal, evolutionary interest for us that sex and love do. This is why we mostly remain on the outside of his poems and don’t take them to heart as we do his love poems. And helps to explain why the constant repetition eventually becomes really wearing.

The extent of repetition with variation is comparable in both cases: but one subject is core to almost everyone’s central purpose as human beings (love and sex), the other is marginal and niche.

3. More poets than you’d expect

Neither Green nor anyone else I’ve read makes much of this last point, but a surprising number of the people Ovid writes too wrote poetry. It was clearly a really common activity among the educated classes of Rome which must, therefore, have created a highly qualified audience for Ovid’s recitations, and plenty of feedback and criticism. Only towards the end did I start listing people he writes to who are described either in the poem itself or in Green’s notes as poets and then discovered that the final poem in the entire book, 4.16, includes a handy list of the poets among Ovid’s contemporaries:

  • Cornelius Severus (4.2) author of an epic poem about the Sicilian Wars
  • Albinovanus Pedo (4.10) wrote an epic poem on Theseus and on the exploits of Germanicus
  • Tuticanus (4.12) wrote a Phaeacid a reworking of the Phaeacian books in Homer’s Odyssey
  • Carus (4.13) wrote a poem about Hercules
  • Domitius Marsus (4.16) wrote an epitaph on Tibullus
  • ‘bombastic’ Rabirius (4.16) wrote an epic on the civil wars which the critic Velleius Paterculus thought equal to Virgil
  • Clutorius Priscus (4.16) wrote a lament on the death of Germanicus
  • Julius Montanus (4.16)
  • Sabinus (4.16) wrote verse replies to Ovid’s Heroides and ‘an almanac in verse’
  • an unnamed poet (4.16) ‘who versified Rome’s wars in Libya’
  • Marius (4.16) who could turn his hand to anything
  • Camarinus (4.16) wrote an epic account from the death of Hector to the end of the Trojan war
  • Rufus (4.16) a lyric poet, ‘one man performer upon Pindar’s lyre’
  • a ‘Sicilian friend’ (4.16) wrote a Perseid
  • Lupus (4.16) who described Menelaus and Helen’s adventures on the journey back to Sparta
  • Turranius (4.16) author of unnamed tragedies
  • Gaius Melissus (4.16) developed a new type of social comedy
  • Lucius Varius Rufus (4.16) wrote tragedies, a panegyric to Augustus, an epic On Death, and was commissioned by Augustus, along with Plotius Tucca, after Virgil’s death, to edit and produce a publishable version of the Aeneid
  • Graccus (4.16) composed a poem on Thyestes
  • Proclus (4.16) an imitator of the Greek poet Callimachus and so one of the ‘neoteric’ poets, most famous of whom was Catullus
  • Grattius (4.16) author of a 540-line poem on hunting and the training of hunting dogs
  • Fontanus (4.16) ‘tossed off the amours of nymphs and satyrs’
  • Capella (4.16) ‘crammed phrases in the elegiac mould’
  • Cotta Maximus (4.16) rich, powerful patron and dabbler in poetry

Where are they now? Well, Green dolefully informs us, of the 16 poets I’ve mentioned above, who Ovid references in 4.16 (plus two or three I haven’t mentioned because they are referred to by work not name), none of their works have survived intact, with the one rather sad exception of the hunting poem by Grattius.

The collected works of all the others, including all those epic poems about death, the Trojan war, the civil war, all those plays…all vanished into oblivion.


Credit

Peter Green’s translation of Ovid’s Black Sea Letters was included in Ovid: The Poems of Exile, 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

Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes (1997)

Given his reputation for avoiding anything which smacked of ‘the Poetic Tradition’, the fact that he dropped English at Cambridge because he found studying the classics too stifling for his imagination, and his lifelong preference for depicting the harsh realities of a brutal, untamed nature – it might come as quite a surprise that, right at the end of his life, in 1997, Ted Hughes published a full-on translation of the Metamorphoses by the ancient Roman poet, Ovid, the kind of thing you might expect from a far more traditional, decorous, academic poet.

An odd choice?

Having just read the full Ovid poem I can see that Hughes’s decision is less surprising than might at first appear. I had fond memories of reading the Metamorphoses 30 years ago and had completely forgotten that they are consistently brutal, intense and often very cruel indeed. As such, they obviously chime with Hughes’s lifelong obsession with the brutality, intensity, and visionary otherness of the natural world.

Also, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Hughes had, earlier in his career, translated another work by a canonical Roman writer, the Oedipus of Seneca. In fact I was surprised, double checking his bibliography, to discover that after his death a whole suite of translations was published – translations of The Oresteia of Aeschylus, Phèdre by Jean Racine, and Alcestis by Euripides, all published in 1999. What do they have in common? Classic stories from classical antiquity. So the Ovid translations are far from unique. Hughes’s imagination clearly took a classical turn in his last decade.

And then, on rereading his poetry as I just have, I realised there are scattered references to classical mythology throughout – not many, admittedly, but they’re there.

Plus the entire sequence in Moortown named ‘Prometheus on his crag’, and the poem in that volume about Actaeon, and one titled ‘Pan’.

So once you start looking, you find a strong undercurrent of classical references and subject matter throughout his oeuvre.

The Metamorphoses

The Metamorphoses is a long poem in Latin in which the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, generally referred to as Ovid (43 BC t o18 AD) brought together into one continuous narrative some 250 ancient Greek myths and legends.

these ancient stories all have one thing in common – the protagonist, the figure at the centre of the story, be they man, woman, child, sometimes a minor divinity such as a nymph or nereid – at the climax of the story, each of them is transformed into something else. Sometimes into an animal, like a bird or pig or wolf or dog; sometimes into flora, such as a tree or flower; sometimes into inanimate matter, like stone – various characters are turned into statues or just into stone – or into water – several characters are turned into standing pools or streams.

Hughes’s approach

Ovid’s poem is huge. At just short of 12,000 lines of regular dactylic hexameter it is as long and detailed and complicated as the canonical epic poems of Homer and Virgil. Hughes’s version is nowhere near as long. For a start he restricts himself to just 24 of the longer or more complete tales.

So instead of a continuous narrative describing stories big and small, containing full length treatments with throwaway references in a line or two, as Ovid does, Hughes presents us with what is, in effect, a collection of 24 individual poems.

Second, and a more glaring difference, is Hughes translates Ovid into free verse. Hughes employed free verse and flexible stanza shapes right from the start of his career, so by 1997 he’d had 40 years of practice. The result is a style where every line is its own thing, its own measure, justifying its own length and rhythm by its meaning and poetic force, rather than being compelled to fit into a regular metre.

Tales from Ovid does in fact contain regular stanza structures, though I only slowly realised it. Thus the opening story about Phaethon who fools his father, the god of the sun, into letting him drive his chariot for a day and proves totally inadequate to the task – a kind of ancient Greek Liz Truss – and loses control of the immortal horses and lets the sun chariot swoop low over the earth causing widespread destruction – in Hughes’s hands this narratives begins by being told in 47 5-line stanzas, each line being as flexible as he needed it to be.

When Phaethon bragged about is father, Phoebus
The sun-god,
His friends mocked him. ‘Your mother must be crazy
Or you’re crazy to believe her.
How could the sun be anybody’s father?’

In a rage of humiliation
Phaethon came to his mother, Clymene.
‘They’re all laughing at me,
And I can’t answer. What can I say? It’s horrible.
I have to stand like a dumb fool and be laughed at.’

And so on. However, Hughes has no hesitation in switching format as required so that, for example, when Phaethon enters the palace of his father, the verse switches to long verse paragraphs in order to describe its grandeur.

Fittingly magnificent
Columns underpropped a mass
Of gold strata so bright
The eyes flinched from it.
The whole roof a reflector
Of polished ivory.
The silver doors like sheet flame –
And worked into that flame
Vulcan, the god of fire,
Had set, in relief, a portrait of the creation…

Back to 5-line stanzas for a bit and then, when Phaethon loses control of the horse of the sun so that they fly down, far too close to the surface of the earth, it switches again to verse paragraphs, although the freedom of individual lines remains identical to what it was in the stanzas i.e. there’s no particular rhyme or pattern except the power of the phrases themselves.

Earth began to burn, the summits first.
Baked, the cracks gaped. All fields, all thickets,
All crops were instantly fuel –
The land blazed briefly.
In the one flare noble cities
Were rendered
To black stumps of burnt stone.
Whole nations, in all their variety,
Were clouds of hot ashes, blowing in the wind,.
Forest-covered mountains were bonfires…

Later on the 9-page tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is told in a series of free verse 3-line stanzas so popular with contemporary poets for some reason. (Maybe this is for the simple reason that they’re no couplets which tend to make you expect rhymes, and not quatrains, ditto. Triplets are free of those old traditional expectations.)

Throughout the East men spoke in awe of Thisbe –
A girl who had suddenly bloomed
In Babylon, the mud-brick city.

The house she had grown up in adjoined
The house where Pyramus, so many years a boy,
Brooded bewildered by the moods of manhood.

These two, playmates from the beginning,
Fell in love.
For angry reasons, no part of the story,

The parents of each forbade their child
To marry the other…

In other words, Hughes felt utterly free to pick and choose verse forms, or variations of free verse forms, as they suited his needs.

List of the poems

  1. The Creation of the Universe. The Four Ages (Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron). the Flood. The story of Lycaon (20 pages)
  2. Phaethon (21 pages)
  3. Callisto and Arcas (7 pages)
  4. The Rape of Proserpina (15 pages)
  5. Arethusa (4 pages)
  6. Tiresias (2 pages)
  7. Echo and Narcissus (11 pages)
  8. Erisychthon (10 pages)
  9. Semele (6 pages)
  10. Peleus and Thetis (4 pages)
  11. Actaeon (8 pages)
  12. Myrrha (15 pages)
  13. Venus and Adonis (16 pages)
  14. Pygmalion (7 pages)
  15. Hercules and Dejanira (13 pages)
  16. The Birth of Hercules (3 pages)
  17. The Death of Cygnus (6 pages)
  18. Arachne (9 pages)
  19. Bacchus and Pentheus (18 pages)
  20. Midas (11 pages)
  21. Niobe (12 pages)
  22. Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (5 pages)
  23. Tereus (17 pages)
  24. Pyramus and Thisbe (9 pages)

The merits of Hughes’s version

Characteristic, trademark phrasing, precise, brisk, no fat on the bone, no extraneous syllables. Hard, precise and clinical.

Hercules, the son of Jupiter,
Was bringing his new bride home
When he came to the river Evenus.

Burst banks, booming torrent,
Where there had been a ford. Hercules
Had no fear for himself, only for his wife.

No namby-pamby, stuff-and-nonsense, decoration or silly sentiment for our Ted. Stick to the facts, son, and tha’ll do alreeght.

The weaknesses of Hughes’s version

1. Verbosity

The weakness of Hughes’s later verse is its verbosity, as I tried to demonstrate in my overview of Hughes’s career. Much of Crow is dazzlingly brilliant, Gaudete is an extraordinarily weird achievement, but by the time of Moortown in 1979, you feel Hughes could churn this stuff out by the yard, by the mile if necessary. Same is true in spades of Tales from Ovid.

There are still flashes of brilliance in his phrasing, and his shaping of lines i.e. deciding how many words and beats to include in each line, and his ability to build up rhythms over successive free verse lines remains very impressive. But his commitment to a diction which is ‘a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical’ often ends up emptying the lines of colour. His verse feels oddly empty.

2. Functionality

Also, in order to tell stories in verse some of the lines need to be unavoidably functional. Now, if you’re Dryden or Pope, you could use a standard format like the rhyming couplet or blank verse, both of which are utterly predictable in layout, pace and metre and so very suitable for settling down to hear a very long narrative in.

Hughes tries to translate his 24 stories into ad hoc verse shapes and line lengths but, whereas these were justified when they contained a blitz of stunning images in his own poems, this approach works less well for narrative poetry.

Somewhere the critic (and mate of Hughes’s) Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems leap from one dazzling image to the next. That’s fine if that’s all the poems are meant to do – dazzle. But telling a story requires something a bit more predictable, a regular repeatable style which can take a backseat to the narrative.

3. Thin

In stripping his versions back to the bone, Hughes loses a lot of what makes Ovid Ovid, which is the myriad digressions and throwaway references, about genealogy and relationships and attributes of this god or the achievements of that hero; all the peripheral detail which goes to build up a rich imaginative world. These are just some of the aspects which make the original Metamorphoses feel very dense and rich, sumptuous, luxurious. Hughes deliberately chucks all that out in order to hone things down to maximum intensity for each line. But what if the sumptuous detail is the point of Ovid?

4. Scene setting and landscapes

Now I’m really thinking about this, I realise that Ovid, in his best most extended stories, often goes in for slow, lush, storytelling descriptions of scenery and setting.

There was a valley there called Gargaphie, dense with pine trees and sharp cypresses, sacred to Diana of the high-girded tunic, where, in the depths, there is a wooded cave, not fashioned by art. But ingenious nature had imitated art. She had made a natural arch out of native pumice and porous tufa. On the right, a spring of bright clear water murmured into a widening pool, enclosed by grassy banks. Here the woodland goddess, weary from the chase, would bathe her virgin limbs in the crystal liquid. (book 3)

Hughes chucks all this out in order to get to the pith of the action.

A deep cleft at the bottom of the mountain
Dark with matted pine and spiky cypress

Was known as Gargaphie, sacred to Diana,
Goddess of the hunt.
In the depths of this goyle was the mouth of a cavern

That might have been carved out with deliberate art
From the soft volcanic rock.
It half-hid a broad pool, perpetually shaken

By a waterfall inside the mountain,
Noisy but hidden. Often to that grotto,
Aching and burning from her hunting,

Diana came
To cool the naked beauty she hid from the world.

I suppose Hughes’s version is more crisp, factual, minimalist and modern – but, in a poem of Ovid’s type, half the pleasure is in the details, the lushness and the time taken to elaborate and decorate the subject. It’s nice to know that Diana is the goddess ‘of the high-girded tunic’ and a thousand and one other details and spin-off phrases which adorn and enrich the Ovid. All burned away in Hughes. Hughes’s version is like a concrete multi-story car park – admirable in its stark, uncompromising efficiency. But difficult to warm to, let alone love.

5. Blank style

And that brings me round to the lack of sensuality in Hughes’s verse. His is a powerful sensuality of imagery but not of language, as such.

Right from the start Hughes was capable of using simple words in unexpected combinations to convey his otherworldly insights into nature with stunning power, but there was rarely anything special about the words themselves. they are often very ordinary indeed. It was always the novel combinations of words into brilliant, often mind-bending phrases which had so much impact on readers. In fact, paradoxically, Hughes often works with a very limited, plain diction.

Somehow, for me, his translation of the Tales really brings this out. The deliberate blankness of a lot of the style, and the occasional dazzling phraseology, can’t conceal the fact that a lot of the lines are, lexically speaking, rather, well, pedestrian.

The introduction

There’s a case for saying the best part of the book is the introduction. For a start, it’s admirably brief at just four and a half pages. After some fluff about Ovid’s biography, it quickly turns to Hughesian interests. After mentioning the Metamorphoses‘ importance to Chaucer as a source book for all manner of myths and legends, Hughes goes on to cite Shakespeare.

Characteristically, Hughes dismisses Shakespeare finding sweet and beautiful images amidst Ovid’s dense foliage. Instead:

A more crucial connection, maybe, can be found in their common taste for a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion that border on the grotesque.

Now, admittedly these elements are present in Shakespeare’s earliest, goriest plays and remain in moments of the high tragedies, especially King Lear. But roughly speaking who do ‘a tortured subjectivity and catastrophic extremes of passion’ remind you of? Hughes. and his hyperbolic brain-damaged worldview (see my overview of Hughes’s oeuvre for quotes to back this up).

But it’s worth bearing with this over-passionate man for the insights he offers into Ovid:

Above all, Ovid was interested in passion. or rather, in what a passion feels like to the one possessed by it. Not just ordinary passion either, but human passion in extremis – passion where it combusts, or levitates, or mutates into an experience of the supernatural.

Then Hughes says something really interesting and profoundly insightful. I quote it in full to give the rhythm and rise of his argument:

The act of metamorphosis, which at some point, touches each of the tales, operates as the symbolic guarantee that the passion has become mythic, has achieved the unendurable intensity that lifts the whole episode onto the supernatural or divine plane. Sometimes this happens because mortals tangle with the gods, sometimes because mortal passion makes the breakthrough by sheer excess, without divine intervention – as in the tale of Tereus and Philomela. But in every case, to a greater or lesser degree, Ovid locates and captures the particular frisson of that event, where the all-too-human victim stumbles out into the mythic arena and is transformed.

I think the thought behind this, and the phrasing, are wonderfully vivid and evocative. I’m not at all sure what he says is true of the entire Metamorphoses, which feature just as many nymphs and Naiads and whatnot as mortals – and also includes some happy endings, such as Pygmalion, and Baucis and Philemon (the happiest story in the Metamorphoses and so, symptomatically, not included in Hughes’s selection of tales.)

But as a description of what does happen to the poor, stricken mortals among Ovid’s hapless protagonists, this is a wonderfully, energetically perceived and phrased insight.

Conclusion

As Hughes’s last volume of poetry, Tales from Ovid has interest, though it’s not the best place to start if you’ve never read him before.

If you want to find out what Ovid’s Metamorphoses is actually like, then emphatically do not read this translation, try the more traditional versions from Penguin or OUP which give you the full text along with all the wonderful details and grace notes which welcome you into an entirely new world. Every bit as savage and cruel as Hughes’s, but redeemed and enlivened by far more colour and variety.


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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.

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