The life of Brutus by Plutarch

(1) Marcus Brutus was said to be a descendant of the Junius Brutus who overthrew the last king of Rome in 709 BC. But unlike his ancestor who has harsh and unbending, Marcus Brutus was civilised and softened by philosophy and literature. Contemporaries attributed all that was good in the conspiracy to Brutus and all that was bad to his colleague Gaius Cassius Longinus.

(2) Brutus’s mother was Cato’s sister. Cato was his uncle. He had a higher esteem for him than any other Roman. Brutus was good friends with many philosophers, some of whom stayed with him, He was a devotee of Plato and the Old Academy. His letters demonstrate great literary style.

(3) He accompanied his uncle Cato on a mission to Cyprus.

(4) Plutarch in a huge jump skips right the way over Brutus’s boyhood and young manhood, and skips all the political travails of the 60s and 50s to arrive at the breach between Gnaeus Pompeius (usually referred to in English as Pompey) and Julius Caesar in 50 BC. Everyone expected Brutus to side with Caesar as Pompey had had his father executed, but he reasoned that Pompey represented the public good and so sided with him. He sailed to Cilicia but had nothing to contribute there so journeyed to Illyricum to meet Pompey who had just fled from Italy and was greeted by the great man who paid him the honour of getting to his feet. Even here he continued to spend most of  his time with his books.

(5) It is said that Caesar commended his officers to look out for Brutus during the Battle of Pharsalus. This was because Brutus was the son of Servilia who, although married to Cato, was madly in love with Caesar so that Julius had some grounds for believing Brutus might be his own son. Plutarch tells the same anecdote he used in the life of Cato, only told less well here – that when Caesar and Cato were speaking in the senate about the Catiline conspiracy, Caesar was handed a note which Cato excitably declared must be a message from the conspirators. So Caesar nonchalantly handed it over to Cato who realised it was a love note from his own sister to Julius. 1-0 Caesar.

(6) After Pharsalus Brutus fled to Larissa and wrote to Caesar who was delighted and asked him to join him. They discussed whither Pompey might have fled and Brutus’s opinion influenced Caesar towards Egypt. Plutarch says he was an effective public speaker who achieved his ends by reasoning and noble principles.

When Caesar travelled to Africa to fight Cato and Scipio he appointed Brutus governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and he proved an exemplary governor.

(7) Cassius was married to Brutus’s sister, Junia. But they became rivals running for praetorship of Rome in 47. Caesar hears them speaks and makes the decision. Brutus could have been Caesar’s top confidante but the colleagues of Cassius warned him not to succumb to the tyrant’s flattery.

(8) Plutarch repeats the anecdote he tells in the life of Caesar, that when the latter was told that Mark Antony and Dolabella were plotting revolution, he said it was not the fat and long-haired fellows that troubled him, but the pale and lean ones, meaning Brutus and Cassius, a story used by Shakespeare.

So Plutarch argues that, if he had waited, Brutus might have inherited from Caesar. But he was fired up by Cassius who had no noble scruples about tyranny and liberty, but just hated Julius. Plutarch attributes this, improbably, to the incident of the lions of Megara which Cassius had lined up to be part of games he was staging as aedile, but which Caesar, on taking Megara, appropriated.

(9) Plutarch says this interpretation is wrong and that Cassius had always been opposed to tyranny and calls to witness a story about how Cassius as a boy thrashed the son of the then-dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, at school. Brutus was exhorted to conspire against Caesar by flocks of supporters who left messages at the tomb of his ancestor and graffiti on monuments and so on, as listed in his life of Caesar.

(10) And so it becomes very important to the conspirators that they secure the support of Brutus as he was widely seen as a man of principle and would lend the murder dignity. So Plutarch imagines the scene where Cassius inducts Brutus into the conspiracy, writing the dialogue as for a movie and ending when the two men kiss and embrace, in perfect agreement.

(11) Short anecdote about Caius Ligarius, a declared enemy of Caesar. Brutus comes to visit him when he’s ill and when he mentions it is a bad time to be ill Ligarius twigs that something’s up, sits up in bed and declares: “Nay, Brutus, if thou hast a purpose worthy of thyself, I am well.”

(12) They recruit conspirators. Not Cicero, because he is too timorous and pernickety. Nor Statilius the Epicurean and Favonius the devoted follower of Cato. But the other Brutus, Albinus, because he was maintaining lots of gladiators in Rome. They were all won over by Brutus’s reputation for integrity. They manage to keep it a close secret, despite the many signs of ill omen (which Plutarch records extensively in his life of Caesar).

(13) During the day Brutus keeps tight control of himself but at night he is troubled and anxious. His wife, Porcia, was the daughter of Cato and realises something is wrong. One day she takes some nail scissors and deeply gashes her thigh. Then she makes a long speech about how she isn’t just some concubine brought to warm his bed, but the daughter of a famous man reared to endure hardships and determined to share her husband’s joys and sufferings. Then shows the wound in her thigh to prove it. Then Brutus lifts his hands to heaven and hopes his undertaking will be worthy of his noble wife.

(14) They decide to do it at a meeting of the senate because then all the important they need to pledge allegiance to liberty will be on the spot. It is apparent (though I’m not sure I’ve read it anywhere) that the senate met in different buildings i.e. moved around central Rome. This meeting, for the 15th March 44, was scheduled to take place in the Curia Pompeii, a part of the big theatre complex Pompey had built a decade earlier. Hence the big statue of Pompey which Caesar ends up collapsing against.

On the big day Brutus straps on his dagger and walks to the portico of Pompey where he meets the other senators, either waiting or conducting the business of praetors i.e. adjudicating petitions from a crowd of applicants.

(15) A list of misunderstandings and encounters on the morning which nearly wreck the plot. A paragraph devoted to the anxiety of Porcia who keeps racing to the door to hear news, becomes pale and faints and her women shriek that she’s dead and the rumour spreads to the senate and appals Brutus but he determines to carry on. I.e. Plutarch’s usual procedure of cranking up the melodrama.

(16) Highly detailed depiction of the scene. Caesar arrives late, delayed by his wife and soothsayers. He travels by litter which is more private. He is engaged at the door to the room by Popilius Laenas who speaks to him for some time and all the conspirators think they are being betrayed. But he is merely asking for something at great length.

(17) The detail that Trebonius engaged Antony in conversation outside the hall (apparently, this is wrong but like so much Plutarch, is highly dramatic). The precise manner in which they gather round Caesar’s chair, led by Tullius Cimber pleading for his brother in exile, Caesar becomes irritated and tries to shake them off at which point Tullius tears his toga from his shoulder and Casca stabs him and calls to his brother in Greek to join him. Caesar castigates Casca, then is inundated by other blows but when he sees Brutus draw his dagger, covers his face with his toga and submits. The body is riddled with cuts, there is blood everywhere and the conspirators injure each other in their enthusiasm.

(18) Very vivid description of the way the other senators panicked and thronged the exists. Brutus had made it quite clear no-one else was to be killed; it wasn’t to be a Sulla-esque bloodbath but a return to liberty. This was even extended to Antony who was unpopular and arrogant, but Brutus hoped that, with the tyrant removed, he would come over to their side. Mistake number one.

The murderers walked to the Capitol sporting their daggers. Rumour and panic among the people but when it became clear there wasn’t to be a massacre they thronged to hear the speech by Brutus which was noble. They applaud and bring him down and take him to the Rostrum to further address them. The mood changes when Cinna addresses the crowd. He’s not popular and the murderers withdraw to the Capitol.

(19) Next day the senate met and Antony, Plancus, and Cicero moved a vote of amnesty. Antony gives his son to the conspirators as a hostage and this gives them the confidence to leave the Capitol.

Cassius was taken home and entertained by Antony, Brutus by Lepidus, and the rest by their several comrades or friends. Early next morning the senate assembled again. In the first place, they gave a vote of thanks to Antony for having stopped an incipient civil war; next, they passed a vote of commendation for the followers of Brutus who were present; and finally, they distributed the provinces. It was voted that Brutus should have Crete, Cassius Africa, Trebonius Asia, Cimber Bithynia, and the other Brutus Cisalpine Gaul.

(20) Antony argues that Caesar’s body should be carried to his funeral and his will read to the people. Cassius is vehemently opposed but Brutus, out of gentleness of spirit, agrees. This was the second mistake. The will:

When it was found that the will of Caesar gave to every Roman 75 drachmas, and left to the people his gardens beyond the Tiber, where now stands a temple of Fortune, an astonishing kindliness and yearning for Caesar seized the citizens.

When Antony commenced his eulogy he realised the crowd was in a sentimental mood and so changed his tone and held up Caesar’s toga, showing the many places the daggers had torn it. At this the crowd went nuts and stormed local shops, dragging out wooden objects to make an ad hoc funeral pyre for the body; then took brands from it and ran off to the houses of the murderers and set them on fire.

The story of Cinna the poet who had a bad dream about Caesar the night before but nonetheless, the next day went along to the funeral and was mistaken by the mob for the Cinna who was one of the conspirators and was torn to pieces. Oh dear. Not the dignified gratitude which Brutus and Cassius had expected at all. The opposite: bloodlust fury.

(21) This incident is important because it was this which convinced the conspirators to flee Rome, despite the senate trying to bring to justice the mobsters who had attacked their houses. Unexpectedly Brutus continued to perform his role as praetor in laying on lavish games (I thought the aediles did this). And in the absence of Brutus and all the other conspirators it is Antony who emerges as the strong man in control.

(22) Everything is transformed with the arrival of Octavian.

He was pursuing his studies at Apollonia when Caesar was killed, and had been awaiting him there after his determination to march at once against the Parthians. As soon as he learned of Caesar’s fate, he came to Rome, and as a first step towards winning the favour of the people, assumed the name of Caesar and distributed to the citizens the money which had been left them by his will. Thus he deposed Antony from popular favour, and by a lavish use of money assembled and got together many of Caesar’s veteran soldiers.

Hit the ground running, very smart, very strategic. When Cicero eventually opted to support Octavian Brutus wrote him a long bitter letter saying he had no principles but just preferred a tyrant who would be nice to him.

(23) “Already one faction was forming about Octavius, and another about Antony, and the soldiers, as though for sale at auction, flocked to the highest bidder.” Against all is expectations Brutus finds himself driven out of Italy and goes to Greece. His wife, Porcia accompanied him before turning back for Italy and Plutarch paints a tear-jerking scene of departure and Brutus’s words of praise for his strong wife.

(24) Brutus sails on to Athens and purports to be socialising with philosophers but in fact sent out to the commanders of armies around Greece to recruit them for the cause of liberty. He meets Cicero’s son and praises him as a hater of tyranny. But at a feast he makes an odd quote from Homer which seems to indicate he sees himself as doomed by fate. Did he? Or is this the literary tradition, the kind of thing he ought to have said?

(25) Brutus rounds up various forces throughout Greece. Brutus marches his forces to Epidamnus but falls ill.

(26) The garrison of Epidamnus brings food to Brutus wherefore he treats the city well. Fighting between the forces of Brutus and Caius Antonius until the former has the latter surrounded in a marshy region and prevents his men massacring them and persuades them to come over to him. For a long time he respects Caius Antonius until he discovers he is conspiring to subvert Brutus’s officers and so has him locked up.

(27) News arrives that Octavian is consolidating power, has had Antony evicted from Italy, is canvassing for the consulship illegally. When he sees how unpopular this is he changes tack, sends envoys of friendship to Antony. But still gets himself elected consul at the ridiculously young age of 20. As soon as Octavian is consul he promotes prosecutions against Brutus, Cassius and the rest who are tried in absentia, and exemplary sentences intimidated out of the juries. Then, very briskly:

After this, the three men, Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus, were reconciled with one another, distributed the provinces among themselves, and sentenced to death by proscription two hundred men. Among those put to death was Cicero.

(28) The importance of family, kinship and friendship networks demonstrated by this sentence:

When tidings of these events were brought to Macedonia, Brutus felt compelled to write to Hortensius commanding him to kill Caius Antonius, on the plea that he was thus avenging Cicero and Brutus Albinus, one of whom was his friend, and the other his kinsman. For this reason, at a later time, when Antony had captured Hortensius at the battle of Philippi, he slew him on the tomb of his brother.

In mid-43 Brutus crossed into Asia where he performed the role of governor, adjudicating between native kings. He wrote to Cassius saying they shouldn’t settle into exile but be raising armies to return to Rome and ‘free’ it. Now they met at Smyrna, strong in arms.

(29) An extended description of the character of Brutus who even his enemies admitted was motivated by the highest motives of liberty. Just a shame that hardly anyone else was, including most of the population of Rome. Brutus:

The virtues of Brutus, as we are told, made him beloved by the multitude, adored by his friends, admired by the nobility, and not hated even by his enemies. For he was remarkably gentle and large-minded, free from all anger, pleasurable indulgence, and greed, and kept his purpose erect and unbending in defence of what was honourable and just.

(30) Cassius takes Rhodes, Brutus campaigns against the Lycians with many battles, namely the siege of Xanthus.

(31) When Xanthus catches fire Brutus orders his troops to put the fire out but the Xanthians in a kind of frenzy assist in the burning down of their town. Plutarch goes to town, describing little children who throw themselves into the flames, mothers jumping from the battlements and so on. Maybe there was a fire but folk legend and Plutarch’s fondness for the gruesome have added the rest.

(32) Brutus’s clemency dealing with the city of Patara compared with Cassius’s extreme exactions from Rhodes.

(33) Plutarch repeats the story told in the life of Pompey about h ow the council of young king Ptolemy deliberated what to do when Pompey approached Egypt and were persuaded by the arguments of the rhetorician Theodotus to kill him. How everyone involved in the murder was, in their turn, killed on Caesar’s orders, except this Theodotus who fled to a wretched life traipsing round Asia. Well, Brutus chanced across him and had him killed. No-one dies a natural death in these stories.

(34) In early 42 Brutus and Cassius met with their huge armies at Sardis. they lock themselves into a tent and fall into a furious argument, enumerating the list of wrongs each has done the other. All their followers have been forbidden from intervening but Marcus Favonius knew no fear and pushed his way through the throng outside the tent and insisted on going in and jokingly quoting some verse from Homer who has old Nestor say:

“But do ye harken to me, for ye both are younger than I am.” (Iliad book I 259)

This makes Cassius laugh and, although Brutus tries to have Favonius ejected, breaks the ice. That night there is a feast of the uneasy allies which Favonius gatecrashes and barges his way into the place of honour.

(35) Brutus and Cassius disagree about whether to publicly shame their officials when they catch them behaving corruptly, in this case embezzling public funds. The story is told to show Brutus the more principled of the two.

(36) Plutarch tells us Brutus needed little sleep but worked or conversed until very late. This is prologue to a repeat of the story told in the life of Caesar about how very late one night he hears someone come into his tent and turns to see a monstrous and fearful shape standing at his side who announces that he is his evil genius and will meet him at Philippi.

(37) Next morning Brutus tells Cassius about his vision and Plutarch gives Cassius an extended passage describing the philosophy of the Epicureans, namely that the senses and the imagination of man are infinitely malleable and so it was a product of his fantasy.

(38) They march across Greece till they face the armies of Antony and Octavian. ‘The plains between the armies the Romans call Campi Philippi.’

(39) As usual, Plutarch gleefully describes the various ill omens before the battle of Philippi:

  • the lictor brought Cassius his wreath turned upside down
  • in a procession at some festival, a golden victory belonging to Cassius, which was being borne along, fell to the ground, its bearer having slipped
  • many carrion birds hovered over the camp daily, and swarms of bees were seen clustering at a certain place inside the camp

All these incidents began to weaken Cassius’s Epicurean rationalism and also demoralised the soldiers. The leaders disagreed: Cassius wanted to drag the war on and wear down their opponents; Brutus wanted to get on with it and lessen the damage to Rome. Also, men were deserting to the other side. So Cassius was won round to giving battle the next day.

(40) That night Brutus dines and goes to bed but Cassius dines with intimate friends and is unusually quiet. Plutarch gives him a speech telling one friend, Messala, that he is in the same plight as Pompey, venturing the destiny of his country on one battle.

At daybreak a scarlet tunic is displayed before the tents of Brutus and Cassius which is the sign for battle. The pair are given a noble dialogue about death. Brutus tells Cassius that when he was younger he blamed Cato for killing himself and not being man enough to face whatever the fates had in store. Now he’s changed his mind. On the ides of March he gave his life for his country. Since then he has lived a life of liberty. If they lose, he will ‘go hence’ with praise for Fortune. Cassius embraces him and thus emboldened they prepare for the battle.

(41) The Battle of Philippi October 42 BC. Antony’s men were building elaborate fortifications to keep Cassius from the sea. Ocatvian was absent from the field with illness. Both were surprised when Brutus and Cassius’s men let out a great shout and ran forward. They did so in bad order and almost immediately lost touch with their neighbouring legions, but the right wing outflanked the cavalry and stormed Octavian’s camp, massacring some Lacedaemonians and wrecking Octavian’s litter leading to rumours that he was killed.

(42) According to Plutarch the defeat was down to miscommunication. Brutus’s legions were completely victorious and took the enemy camp. But Cassius’s wing was routed and the enemies took his camp.

And one thing alone brought ruin to their cause, namely, that Brutus thought Cassius victorious and did not go to his aid, while Cassius thought Brutus dead and did not wait for his aid.

(43) What happened on Cassius’s wing. He is beaten back, his forces panic and break, he makes for a hillside, sees cavalry riding towards him, can’t make out if they’re friend or foe, sends out an officer, Titinius, to find out. This man is surrounded by whooping horsemen so that Cassius thinks he has been captured. In fact it is cavalry send by Brutus celebrating finding a colleague unharmed. But under the impression that all is lost, Cassius retreats to his tent.

Here the account becomes very characteristically Plutarchian, for he reminds us that Cassius was quaestor with Marcus Crassius on his catastrophic expedition into Parthia in 53 BC. Ever since he survived that debacle he has kept by him a freedman named Pindarus. Cassius drew his robes over his head, bared his neck and instructed Pindarus to strike. So Pindarus cuts his head off. By the time Titinius returns to the camp on the hill it is to find all his generals weeping and wailing. Cursing his tardiness at returning and bringing the good news that the cavalry were Brutus’s, Titinius draws his sword and stabs himself.

(44) When Brutus hears of Cassius’s death he has the body decorated and sent to Thasos for funeral. From which one deduces we are no longer still in the heat of the battle. Brutus addresses Cassius’s men and tries to lift their spirits and gives them generous payment. He was the only one of the four generals (Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Octavius) who wasn’t defeated, but he threw away his victory by letting his soldiers loot the enemy camp.

(45) The losses on both sides. When Antony is brought the robe and sword of Cassius he is energised to fight again the next day. But the two camps Brutus is commanding have lots of problems, his own guarding numerous prisoners of war, Cassius’s men demoralised by their defeat and resentful of a new commander.

(46) Brutus tries to motivate Cassius’s demoralised men by promising them they can loot two cities, Thessalonica and Lacedaemon. This is the one time Brutus did this kind of thing, mostly he was careful to preserve the cities he passed by or took submission from. But these were desperate times and he had to do whatever he could to motivate Cassius’s surly soldiers.

(47) Octavian and Antony were in an even worse state, for their camp was on low lying land prone to flooding by the frequent rains, water which immediately froze (it was October). Moreover a large fleet Octavian had ordered from Italy was intercepted by Brutus’s fleet and destroyed. If Brutus had learned of this he probably wouldn’t have fought, because his camp was in the better position, he had more provisions and control of the sea to bring food and reinforcements. Plutarch slips into sententious mode:

But since, as it would seem, the government of Rome could no longer be a democracy, and a monarchy was necessary, Heaven, wishing to remove from the scene the only man who stood in the way of him who was able to be sole master, cut off from Brutus the knowledge of that good fortune.

(48) More omens, inevitably:

  • the foremost standard was covered with bees
  • of its own accord the arm of one of the officers sweated oil of roses, and though they often rubbed and wiped it off, it was of no avail
  • just before the battle two eagles fought a pitched battle with one another in the space between the camps, and as all were gazing at them, while an incredible silence reigned over the plain, the eagle towards Brutus gave up the fight and fled
  • and the story of the Ethiopian who, as the gate of the camp was thrown open, met the standard-bearer, and was cut to pieces by the soldiers, who thought his appearance ominous

(49) As he reviews his troops he notices how ill at ease and reluctant they are and even as his army lines up a notably brave soldier defects to the enemy. It’s now or never so Brutus decides to attack at 3pm. Brutus’s wing is triumphant but Cassius’s command spread their line too thin and are overwhelmed and then Brutus’s army is surrounded and massacred. Many fine Romans lost their lives etc, not least Cato’s son.

(50) The story of Lucilius who, as darkness falls, sees Brutus being chased by barbarian horsemen and so pretends to be him, crying out that he is surrendering and asking to be brought to Antony. The barbarian cavalry is delighted and so is Antony to hear his great opponent is coming but then is thrown into doubt about how to greet him. When he sees it is this man Lucilius he is hugely relieved, and although Lucilius makes a speech saying he is prepared to accept death for his deception, Antony in fact grants him his life, welcomes him and he becomes one of his most loyal adherents.

(51) Brutus escapes with loyal officers and takes refuge by a stream by a big rock. There is an incomprehensible anecdote about a soldier who is sent twice to fetch drinking water. Statyllius promises to cut his way through the enemy and make his way to the camp and light a flaming torch if it is safe to return. After a while they see a blazing torch raised because Statyllius managed to reach the camp but… he never returned, being struck down on the return journey.

(52) Night comes on and Brutus asks each of his companions to help him kill himself but they all refuse. Then he shakes all their hands and thanks Fortune to be left surrounded by such loyal men and considers himself lucky to be leaving behind a reputation for honesty and virtue which none of those who conquered him would have. Then he got another old friend to hold a sword steady while he plunged onto it and so died.

(53) A lot of Plutarch’s account seems to derive from an account by Messala, the comrade of Brutus, an eye witness. After Brutus’s death he went over to Octavian who found all the Greeks loyal.

Antony had the body of Brutus wrapped in his best robe and burned on a pyre, then sent the ashes home to his mother Servilia. (Suetonius, by contrast, says that the head of Brutus was sent to Rome to be thrown at the feet of Caesar’s statue.) Brutus’s wife Porcia now wanted to die but she was closely watched by all her friends till she found the opportunity to snatch up hot colas from a fire, swallow them and kept her mouth firmly closed till she died.

Plutarch ends his account very inconsequentially by stating that this might, in fact, be wrong, since a letter exists purporting to be from Brutus in which he chides them for neglecting her when she was ill and so driving her to her death while he was still alive. If this letter is genuine, that is. Who knows.

Thoughts

Plutarch excels himself at jumping right over Brutus’s family, boyhood, young manhood, political career or education in order to leap straight to the start of the civil war in 49.


Related links

Roman reviews

The Civil War by Julius Caesar – 1

Fortune, which has great influence in affairs generally and especially in war, produces by a slight disturbance of balance important changes in human affairs.
(The Civil War Book 3 chapter 68)

I picked up this 1967 Penguin paperback of Julius Caesar’s Civil Wars, translated by Jane Gardner, in the sensible A format size (18 cm by 11 cm) with reassuringly browned paper, in a second hand bookshop for just £2. Though nearly 60 years old it has fewer scuff marks and scratches than a book I recently bought ‘new’ from Amazon, ‘destroyer of books’, whose cover was smeared, scuffed and scratched.

This Penguin volume actually contains four ‘books’:

  • The Civil War, the longest text at 112 short ‘chapters’ or sections (often no more than paragraphs), making up 130 Penguin pages
  • The Alexandrian War (78 sections, 42 pages)
  • The African War (98 sections, 49 pages)
  • The Spanish War (42 sections, 22 pages)

Only the first of these is nowadays thought to have been written by Caesar. The second is generally attributed to one of Caesar’s lieutenants, Aulus Hirtius, who had written the eighth and final book in The Gallic Wars, the final two by someone who was an eye witness but of lower military rank and a lot lower literary ability than Caesar.

However, the four texts are always included together because, whatever their shortcomings, they are clearly conceived as a set, taking the reader through the entire civil war, from Caesar’s crossing the river Rubicon a little south of Ravenna in January 49 BC, through to the final mopping up of Pompeian forces in 45.

Having read numerous accounts of the civil war, I think the single most important fact (which often doesn’t come over) is that within a few weeks of Caesar entering Italy with his army of Gaul, his opponent, Gnaeus Pompeius, fled Rome and fled Italy. We know from Cicero’s letters on the subject that even at the time, his allies and supporters thought this was a mistake and so it proved to be, handing mainland Italy and the capital over to Caesar almost without a fight (this narrative describes a handful of sieges and confrontations before almost all the towns and cities and army units in Italy simply went over to Caesar’s side).

Pompey’s flight a) handed Rome and Italy over to Caesar and b) meant that the civil war would be fought on foreign soil, eventually in all the provinces Rome ruled, meaning (from west to east) Spain, north Africa, the Province (the south of France featuring the major port of Marseilles), Greece, Egypt and Asia Minor.

Despite Caesar defeating Pompey’s main army at the battle of Pharsalus in central Greece in August 48 and Pompey’s flight to Egypt where he was murdered a month later, in September 48 – nonetheless, forces loyal to Pompey and led by his sons fought on in Spain, Africa and Asia. This explains why the civil war(s) continued for another 3 years and why the main text, The Civil War, which ends with the death of Pompey, needed to be continued with the three subsequent shorter texts, and why each of them focuses on a particular arena of the later stages of the war.

Gardner’s introduction

Jane Gardner gets straight to the point with a solid factual introduction to the fraught background to the outbreak of civil war between Caesar and Pompey in 49 BC. I was struck by the way she goes back 80 years to start her historical background with two key events:

  1. The attempt by Tiberius Gracchus to implement major land reform, which led to his assassination by conservative elements of the Senate in 133 BC
  2. How Gaius Marius got himself appointed consul for five years in a row (104 to 100 BC) to deal with the threat from barbarian tribes who threatened to invade Italy from the north.

1. The killing of Gracchus was the first time the forces competing in the Roman state spilled over into political violence.

2. Marius’s career showed that the system of annually changing magistrates and proconsuls was becoming too limited for Rome’s farflung military needs. (Julius Caesar’s aunt married Marius. His father and brother supported Marius. He grew up in the shadow of Marius’s populares party and narrowly avoided execution when the dictator Sulla, representing the optimates, took power in 82.)

Gardner gives a good brief overview of the events which led to the formation of the Triumvirate which Caesar set up between himself, Pompey and Crassus (60 BC); how he used this to secure his posting as proconsul to Cisalpine Gaul (swiftly expanded to include Transalpine Gaul); how friction in the triumvirate led to its renewal at a big conference at Luca in 56; and how it was undone by two hammerblows:

  1. The death in 54 of Caesar’s daughter, Julia, who he had married to Pompey and acted as a family tie between them.
  2. The death of Crassus during his ill-fated campaign in Parthia 53.

In Gardner’s hands, the centre of the story is Pompey’s inability to make his mind up. The same self-knowledge teetering on reticence which led him to peacefully disband his army on returning from the East in 62 plays out less positively in his inability to really make his mind up how to behave in the growing political crisis of the late 50s.

In Gardner’s account it is Pompey’s lack of decisiveness which creates the crisis of uncertainty and vacillation which Caesar eventually cuts through by crossing the Rubicon and creating a state of civil war. If Pompey had grasped the nettle and agreed with Caesar’s suggestion that they both lay down their commands at the same time and meet to discuss their issues, peace could have been preserved. But Pompey left it to others – senators such as Marcus Marcellus and Lucius Lentulus – to make proposals and counter-proposals which Caesar found unacceptable, until it was too late.

Eventually Caesar felt his position was so threatened that he decided to make a lightning strike from Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), where he legitimately held command, into Italy proper, where he very much didn’t. The river Rubicon separated these two territories. So crossing the Rubicon with one of his legions was illegal and universally interpreted as an attack on the government and constitution of Rome.

How it was written

During the eight years of his command in Gaul Caesar had got into the habit of writing commentarii or reports on each campaigning season, summarising his military campaigns, in brisk no-nonsense factual accounts. He had these sent to Rome to, in effect, justify his (often dubious) actions. These were probably dictated to secretaries while he was on the move, amid the numerous other correspondence and paperwork he dealt with. There are eight of them, one for each year of his command, and taken together they make up the document known as The Gallic Wars.

Having established the habit and method for doing this, it seems likely Caesar simply continued it to document the new conflict, which continued more or less without a break from his Gallic campaigns.

The Civil War

Caesar’s paranoia: ‘What is the aim of all these preparations but my destruction?’

At the start of his narrative Caesar deals briefly with the politics, with his offers and attempts at negotiations with the Senate, but it quickly falls into another litany of towns besieged and Pompeian forces which come over to his side, very similar in feel to the Gallic Wars.

Admittedly there isn’t the total destruction, massacres, selling into slavery and hostage-giving which characterised the Gallic Wars. But it is a general’s view of things i.e. a long list of territories and cities and towns which need to be taken and then secured by posting loyal officers in them.

A note on the army

A cohort contained 480 men. A legion contained ten cohorts. When you add in officers, engineers and cavalry (120 men plus horses) a legion numbered about 5,000 men.

The text of The Civil War is divided into three ‘books’, volumes or parts, each of which is further sub-divided into short numbered sections, conventionally referred to as ‘chapters’.

Part 1: The struggle begins (87 chapters)

(N.B. These dramatic titles don’t exist in the original text. They are inventions of the editor of the Penguin edition.)

1 to 6: Intransigence at Rome

Haste and confusion characterised every transaction. (5)

Quick summary of the hasty and confused debates in the Senate at the end of 50 BC, with the anti-Caesar faction calling for JC to be sent an ultimatum to lay down his command before negotiations could begin about his future. Caesar wanted to be allowed to stand for the consulship in his physical absence. He wanted to be elected consul because it would give him immunity from all prosecution for a year. Most of the Senate refused this idea because it was unprecedented and unconstitutional. Caesar read this refusal as a deliberate ploy so that when he laid down his command in Gaul and returned to Rome as a private citizen, he would be vulnerable to prosecution by his many enemies for his many dubious actions in Gaul. Senators like Cato had made it crystal clear he would launch a legal action against Caesar the second he set foot in Italy. Hence Caesar’s demand that he be given a consulship / legal immunity. But the legitimists, traditionalists and his actual enemies all rejected this. Impasse.

Caesar also learned that the end of 50 and start of 49 was seeing widespread conscription of soldiers across Italy. Pompey’s mouthpiece in the Senate, Scipio, tells them Pompey is ready to defend the state. When the Senate meets outside the city (because Pompey as a proconsul [of Spain] is not allowed within the city limits) Pompey tells them he has command of 10 legions and is ready to defend the state. The Penguin notes tell us this presumably means the 2 legions he had withdrawn from Caesar ostensibly to be sent to the East but which hadn’t left Italy yet; seven legions loyal to Pompey in Spain; and one under Domitius. (The fact that so many of Pompey’s legions were in Spain explains why Spain would turn out to be a main crucible of the war).

Caesar goes to some lengths to single out the treatment of the tribunes of the plebs, Mark Antony and Gaius Scribonius Curio. When they continued to lobby the Senate in Caesar’s favour, the most vehement senators threatened them with violence, and they were roughly manhandled out of the building, convincing both to disguise themselves and flee north to join Caesar. In constitutional terms they had been deprived of their right of veto and Caesar tries to give his agenda a gloss of respectability by saying one of his war aims is the restoration of the tribunes’ rights.

Caesar describes his demands as moderate and just, and implies that all his enemies had vested interests of one kind or another, not least securing positions of power from which they could extract bribes. He says all the year’s appointments to governorships, proconsulships and so on were hurried and unconstitutional.

7 to 15: Caesar reacts

Caesar assembles his men and pleads his cause. The Senate has:

  1. seduced Pompey and led him astray, although they have always been friends and he has helped Pompey win positions
  2. removed the right of veto from the tribunes, something never done before
  3. declared a state of emergency when there is no emergency
  4. insulted his reputation and achievements as the pacifier of Gaul

So the troops all clamour to right these wrongs and protect his reputation. Caesar moves his legions south to Ariminum just within his province (of Cisalpine Gaul). Here he receives envoys from Pompey who remind him they have been friends and tell him to put his own grievances aside for the good of the state. Caesar adds to his list of grievances:

  1. having his command in Gaul ended 6 months early
  2. the voted will of the people that he stand for the consulship in absentia being overturned
  3. his proposal for a general demobilisation being ignored

(9) Caesar makes counter-proposals:

  1. Pompey should go to his allotted province i.e. Spain
  2. they shall both demobilise their armies
  3. there shall be a general demobilisation throughout Italy
  4. free elections to all magistracies
  5. a face to face meeting with Pompey at which everything can be settled

When these demands are presented to Pompey and the consuls at Capua, Pompey replies that Caesar must return to Gaul, disband his army and only then will Pompey go to Spain. But until he does so, the Senate will continue with a general levy of troops throughout Italy (10).

Caesar rejects these demands as unfair, not least because no date would be set for Pompey’s departure, so he would be left in Italy with his two legions indefinitely. And Pompey’s refusal to meet and talk indicates lack of goodwill. So Caesar places cohorts in the towns surrounding Arretium and the narrative becomes a description of towns seized for his side (Pisarum, Faunum, Ancona).

Iguvium comes over to him. He sets off to take Auximum which is held by Attius Varus and the narrative settles down into a long list of small Italian towns and little known Roman officers who hold them. Caesar is at pains to emphasise that when he took towns he thanked the populations and, more often than not, let the officers who’d opposed him go free, as in the case of Lucius Pupius.

(14) The ease with which towns go over to Caesar causes panic at Rome where the two consuls raid the treasury then travel south to join Pompey at Capua, where he is stationed with his two legions. Arguably, the authorities’ abandonment of Rome meant the war was lost from the start.

Caesar continues marching south towards Asculum which was being held by Lentulus Spinther who, hearing of his approach, flees; Lucilius Hirrus similarly abandons Camerinum. But Lentulus rallies the remaining forces of both and takes them to Corfinium, which was being held by Domitius Ahenobarbus.

16 to 23: The siege of Corfinium

Caesar moves with characteristic speed and comes across Domitius’s forces dismantling a bridge over the river before they’ve finished the job, fights them off, and forces them into the town. Domitius is an effective opponent. He reinforces the town defences, sends a message to Pompey telling him to bring legions to surround Caesar, and addresses his men.

Sulmo, a town 7 miles away, is being held by the senator Quintus Lucretius and Attius but Caesar sends Mark Antony there and the townsfolk gladly open their gates and the troops go over to Caesar, who incorporates them into his own forces and lets Attius go free.

Caesar spends days building siege works. Domitius receives a reply from Pompey who refuses to come to his help, saying it would jeopardise his cause and no-one asked him to go to Corfinium. So Domitius deceitfully tells his troops Pompey is on his way, while making a plan with his closest advisors to secretly flee the town.

Word leaks out and the soldiers decide to abandon such a two-faced leader, arrest Domitius and send messages to Caesar saying they’re prepared to surrender. Caesar is wary of sending his troops into the town that night lest they loot it, so he sends the envoys back and maintains the siege. At dawn Lentulus asks for a private interview, is let out of the town and taken to Caesar who takes the opportunity (in the narrative) to reiterate his demands. He:

  1. does not intend to harm anyone
  2. wants to protect himself from the slanders of his enemies
  3. to restore the expelled tribunes to their rightful position
  4. to reclaim for himself and the Roman people independence from the power of ‘a small clique’

Are these the demands of ‘a revolutionary proconsul who placed his own dignitas above his country’? Discuss.

In the morning Caesar orders all the senators and magistrates hiding in Corfinium to be brought to him. He protects them from the jeers and insults of the soldiers, berates them for giving no thanks for the benefits he’s brought them and then, quite simply, lets them go. He has all the soldiers in the town swear allegiance to him. The magistrates of the town bring him 6 million sesterces but Caesar simply gives it back to Domitius to prove he is not interested in financial gain.

24 to 29: Pompey leaves Italy

Pompey had already abandoned Rome. Now he moves quickly to Canusium and then onto Brundisium, then, as now, the port for ships to Greece.

Caesar follows him, picking up Pompeian forces who abandon their leaders on the way. Caesar discovers the two consuls and most of Pompey’s army have taken ship for Dyrrachium, leaving Pompey inside Brundisium with 20 cohorts.

Caesar immediately starts building a great breakwater to block the port, but continues to send envoys to Pompey requesting a face-to-face meeting. Characteristically, Pompey doesn’t grasp the nettle but hides behind the constitutional nicety that, in the absence of the 2 consuls (who have fled) he is not authorised to negotiate.

In Caesar’s version, it is Pompey’s inability to take responsibility and engage in the kind of face-to-face discussions they had during the triumvirate which condemns Rome to civil war.

Caesar’s patience wears out, he realises he’s never going to get a sensible reply, and finally decides to conduct an all-out war (26).

The ships which had ferried Pompey’s first contingent to Greece now return and Pompey makes plans to  embark the second and final cohort of troops. He fills the town with booby traps and a light guard on the city walls while the rest of the troops embark. At the last minute the guards are called and run down to the port, as the ships are setting off. Caesar’s men scale the walls, are helped by the townspeople to evade the traps, and some make it onto the water and capture two of Pompey’s ships which had gone aground on a breakwater.

Strategically, the best thing for Caesar would have been to pursue Pompey as quickly as possible but for the simple fact that Pompey had commandeered all the ships and waiting for new ones to be sent from Sicily or Gaul would lose the advantage. Meanwhile, most of Pompey’s legions were in Spain where a lot of the country’s nobles owed Pompey big debts of gratitude (for making them Roman citizens).

30 to 33: Caesar’s Senate

Accordingly Caesar sends lieutenants to Sardinia and Sicily which the Pompeian governors promptly flee.

Caesar’s noted enemy, Cato the Younger, governor of Sicily, makes a public speech about how Pompey had deceived him and the Senate into believing they were ready for war when they weren’t at all, and then flees to Africa, where the Pompeian Attius Varrus has taken control.

Having made his deployments Caesar goes to Rome and makes a long repetition of his complains directly to the remaining senators (32). He asks them to join him in governing Rome, otherwise he’ll do it by himself. But no-one volunteers to go as emissary to Pompey as they are afraid, and one of the tribunes has been suborned to filibuster events as long as possible, and so Caesar gives it up as a bad job and heads off for Gaul.

34 to 36: Resistance at Massilia

In the Province Caesar learns that Domitius has seized Massilia. Caesar makes a speech to the elders of Massilia who promise neutrality but meanwhile Domitius takes control, requisitioning ships from neighbouring ports. Caesar orders ships to be built in nearby ports then leaves Gaius Trebonius in charge of the siege of Massilia and marches on towards Spain.

37 to 55: The first Spanish campaign – Ilerda

The complex deployment and redeployment of Pompey’s lieutenants to the different provinces of Spain, which leads up to the siege of Ilerda, held by the Pompeian Lucius Afranius.

This is the first full-blown military encounter of the war and is described in Caesar’s usual technical detail, with siegeworks, attack and counter-attack. The river running past the town, the Sicoris, plays a key role, especially when there’s heavy rainfall and it and another river flood and wash away the bridges, leaving the Roman forces trapped between them, cut off from supplies of corn which, in any case, were short at this time of year. When a train of senators, magistrates, cohorts and cavalry arrive to join Caesar, they are prevented by the flooded rivers and attacked by Afranius’s forces.

All this is talked up by Afranius’s supporters and word spreads to Rome that the war is virtually over, which encouraged more to go over to Pompey’s side. But Caesar has boats made in a lightweight style he had seen in Britain, ferries enough of his troops over the flooded river to set up a base and then build a bridge from both sides. His cavalry attack a party out foraging Pompeians then fight off an enemy cavalry attack.

56 to 58: The naval fight at Massilia

The Pompeians under Domitius had built 17 warships while Caesar’s force under Decimus Brutus had hurriedly built far less at an island near Massilia. Domitius attacks. Caesar describes the composition and strengths of the opposing forces. Despite bad odds Caesar’s forces prevail.

59 to 80: Spain – a war of attrition

The situation swiftly changes:

  1. the bridge has allowed Caesar’s force full mobility
  2. five important local tribes switch allegiance to Caesar
  3. and promise to deliver corn, thus solving the crisis in provisions
  4. optimistic rumours that Pompey was marching through north Africa to cross into Spain to reinforce his garrisons prove to be untrue (60)

Afranius and his colleague Petreius worry that they’re going to be cut off and so decide to abandon Ilerda and move deeper into Celtiberia, where the reputation of Pompey will guarantee support. They build a bridge across the Ebro 20 miles away just as the river hemming Caesar in becomes fordable. (To be honest, it is pretty difficult making sense of these complicated and often obscure descriptions of flooded rivers, bridges and fords.)

Caesar’s forces protest that they are hanging around while the enemy gets away, so Caesar selects the weakest to stay behind and guard the camp and the strongest to ford the river, which they just about manage to do. He forms them up and they pursue the fleeing Pompeians. They come up to them within a few miles of mountains, where both sides make camp.

Next day Caesar takes his men by a roundabout route to get to the bridge across the Ebro first. Afranius’s forces at first jeer them for fleeing the battlefield until they slowly realise they are going to be cut off. There follows complex manoeuvring to seize the high ground and the first of the mountain passes. Caesar’s forces massacre some of the Pompeian cavalry. Caesar’s men are all for finishing them off but Caesar thinks he can win without bloodshed and gives himself a speech saying he wants to avoid the deaths of citizens if at all possible. His army mutters and disagrees.

Next day some of the Pompeians are harassed when going to fetch water, so the leaders decide to build a protective rampart from their camp down to the water and go to supervise it. In their absence there is a mutiny with soldiers of all ranks, up to and including Afranius’s own son, fraternising with Caesar’s forces, calling out to friends, asking if they will be well treated if they surrender.

When Afranius hears all this he is ready to fall in with the capitulation. Petreius, on the other hand, stays resolute and with a small cavalry bodyguard descends on the fraternising soldiers, killing as many of Caesar’s as he can. He then tours the army, begging them not to abandon Pompey their leader; has the entire army, by centuries, repledge its oath of allegiance to him; and calls for anyone harbouring Caesarian soldiers to hand them over, before having them publicly executed in front of his soldiers. By terrorising his troops, Afranius restores discipline.

In his own camp Caesar shows his famous clemency, ordering soldiers from the opposing camp to be not punished but protected. And many chose to stay on with his side and Caesar was careful to show them honour. The Pompeians are running out of food and finding it hard to access water so they decide to march back to Ilerda. Caesar harasses their rearguard all the way.

81 to 87: The Pompeians capitulate

Caesar forces the Pompeians to make camp a distance from water, sets up his own camp and starts making siegeworks. On the second day the Pompeians come out to offer battle but a) Caesar doesn’t want unnecessary bloodshed and b) he doesn’t think there’s sufficient space (2 miles) between the camps to enforce a decisive victory. In the event, despite being impressively drawn up, neither side offers battle and at sunset they both withdraw to their camps.

Caesar sends his cavalry ahead to secure the ford over the river Sicoris thus cutting off the Pompeians from their intended route. At which point, starving and thirsty, the Pompeian leaders sue for peace, at a public meeting held in sight of both armies. Caesar makes a long speech in which he recapitulates the wrongs he has endured and the broader historical picture in which he claims that an army has been maintained in Spain (which is at peace and hardly needs it) purely to attack him. He lists other innovations whose sole purpose has been to threaten and attack him at the will of a ‘clique’ in Rome.

In a magnanimous display of clemency Caesar announces his only condition for peace is the disbanding of this Spanish army and everyone can go free. The location of demobilisation is set as the river Var. The Pompeian army cheer, as they had expected punishment of some sort, and clamour to be demobilised sooner rather than later. Caesar promises to supply them corn till they reach the Var and compensate all soldiers for any property lost to his men.

A third of the army was disbanded in the next 2 days, the rest marched under escort to the Var and was disbanded there. Caesar is at pains to convey his consistent humanity and clemency.

Part 2: Securing the West (44 chapters)

1 to 16: The siege of Massilia

Caesar’s lieutenant Gaius Trebonius continues the siege of Massilia. Pompey sends Lucius Nasidius with a fleet of ships to help out. These join forces with Lucius Domitius and Caesar describes a big sea battle which the Caesarean fleet of Decimus Brutus wins.

Caesar gives a very detailed description of the siege works his men build against the wall of Massilia which eventually weaken it. Envoys from the city come out and plead for mercy from Trebonius and beg to wait the return of Caesar. The result is a ceasefire during which both sides slacken off. Until some of the besieged garrison, that is, make a sortie with firebrands and successfully burn down one of the besieging towers. This makes the besiegers return to construction with a vengeance and less inclined to forgiveness.

17 to 21: Spain – surrender of Varro

In Further Spain Pompeian governor Marcus Varro hesitates which side to support until he hears misleading news of Pompeian victories at Ilerda and Massilia, whereupon he comes down fiercely on the Pompeian side, persecuting towns and individuals said to sympathise with Caesar.

Caesar for his part wants to return to Italy but knows he must finish the job in Spain or it will remain a Pompeian stronghold in his rear. In the event the plans of the Pompeian governor Marcus Terentius Varro are overthrown as town after town of Hither Spain declares for Caesar till eventually Varro surrenders to Caesar without a fight all his forces and money.

Caesar holds councils at Corduba and elsewhere, rewarding towns and communities. He puts Quintus Cassius in charge of the province and travels back to Massilia.

22: Massilia capitulates

Two defeats at sea, the undermining of their walls, starvation and an outbreak of pestilence convince the inhabitants of Massilia (called Massiliotes) to surrender. Their governor Lucius Domitius escapes by ship. Caesar accepts Massilia’s submission, leaves two legions to guard it and hastens back to Rome.

23 to 36: Africa – Curio’s campaign

Caesarean Gaius Scribonius Curio’s campaign in Tunisia against the Pompeian Publius Attius Varus. Curio is over-confident of success, only taking 2 of the 4 legions Caesar gave him to Africa. Here he camps opposite Varus’s camp outside Utica and has an initial success when his cavalry routs some of Pompey’s.

Now a lot of Curio’s men came from the Pompeian forces which surrendered at the siege of Corfinium. Varus has one of his men ride up and down opposite Curio’s lines, reminding them of their original oath to Pompey. This gives rise to rumours and dissension within Curio’s army and his advisers are split between forcing an attack on Utica or withdrawing to their original camp, Castra Cornelia, along the coast.

Caesar depicts Curio giving a speech to his advisers saying he’ll take neither course of action, and then addressing his troops at length, saying it was their example of abandoning Pompey which helped turn over Italy to Caesar, how Caesar has won 2 provinces in Spain, plus Massilia, pointing out that they didn’t desert their general Lucius Domitius, it was Lucius Domitius who deserted them. And lastly asking whether he has been a good and fair general to them.

This rouses them so much that on the following day they brave a difficult ravine between the two armies to take Varus’s forces by storm and force him right back, to abandon his camp and take refuge in the town.

37 to 44: Curio’s last stand

Then Curio hears that king Juba of the Numidians is approaching and withdraws his legions from the advanced camp back to Camp Castra, and sends to Sicily for food. The camp would be very well positioned to stand a long siege, but when Curio hears the king himself has been distracted by a tribal war and is only sending his lieutenant, Saburra, with a smaller force he willingly believes it. At nightfall Curio sends all his cavalry to ambush Saburra at the river Bagradas, which they successfully do.

Curio receives the triumphant cavalry back with their prisoners and loot as proof of victory and leads his infantry out in the middle of the night with the plan to force march to attack Saburra while the latter is still in confusion. What he doesn’t know is that King Juba very much is marching his way and that, when he hears of Saburra’s setback, he sends him 2,000 of his best cavalry and continues his infantry march to join him.

With the result that Curio’s force confronts Saburra’s forces in full battle order. Curio is victorious wherever he attacks but a) his on cavalry is slow and tired and b) his men are outnumbered. Reinforcements from the king continually arrive until Curio is surrounded. He sees a nearby hill and orders his men to gather there to make a stand, but enemy cavalry possess it first, at which point Curio’s men give up. His officers encourage him to flee the field but he says he couldn’t face Caesar after losing the army he gave him and so fights on till he’s killed.

Back at Camp Cornelia the rest of Curio’s forces panic and, when the quaestor Marcus Rufus tries to organise an orderly departure by ship, the men panic and swamp the boats, sinking many and discouraging the other ships from coming into harbour. Only a handful of officers and centurions make it aboard and so back to Sicily alive. The rest surrender to Varus.

Next day when King Juba arrives and sees cohorts of survivors in front of Utica he declares them his spoils of war and has them all executed. Varus is too weak and scared to prevent him.

End of Part 2. Part 3 is summarised in the next blog post.


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Plutarch’s life of Pompey

Pompey always maintained that simplicity in his habits which cost him no great effort; for he was naturally temperate and orderly in his desires. (18)

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106 to 48 BC)

This is one of the longest lives, with 80 chapters. Pompey the Great was a boy wonder general, who racked up a series of military victories, both in Rome’s civil wars and against external enemies. He was awarded unprecedented military power to fight the pirates and then prosecute the war in Parthia in the 60s BC, with the result that a growing number of critics began to think him a threat to the state.

In 60 BC Pompey entered into an uneasy alliance with the two other most powerful men in Rome, Julius Caesar (who had himself been awarded extraordinary and extended powers to fight his long war in Gaul) and Marcus Crassus (the richest man in Rome) in order to bribe and strong-arm their way to successive consulships and continually renewed generalships. It was called the triumvirate.

In the later 50s the triumvirate collapsed because a) Crassus was killed on campaign in Parthia and b) Caesar’s beloved daughter, Julia, who he had given to Pompey, died young, thus breaking the family tie between them. It left Pompey and Caesar as the two most powerful men in the state, both with devoted armies behind them, eyeing each other nervously. When his political opponents in Rome tried to end Caesar’s command in Gaul he marched with his army into Italy in 49 BC, triggering a civil war against Pompey and the army of Italy, which lasted from 49 to 45, ending with complete victory for Caesar. But by this stage Pompey was already dead, having been murdered in Egypt, fleeing from a military defeat in Greece, at which point the Pompey part of the story ends.

The life

(1) Contrasts the extreme unpopularity of the father, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (135 to 87), hated by his soldiers for his greed and cruelty, with the tremendous popularity of the son. Plutarch says the son was persuasive, trustworthy and tactful. Now all of this contrasts strongly with the portrait of Pompey given in the Life of Crassus, where he is made to be tactless, clumsy and anti-social. This raises the strong possibility that the characters Plutarch paints are not historically accurate or even consistent across his own biographies, but that Plutarch changes and rearranges them in the context of each life to make each life more dramatic. Artistic licence. Plutarch did warn us hat he feels more like a painter than a historian.

(2) He had a boyish youthful grace which people found attractive leading many to nickname him Alexander, after the boy wonder conqueror. Many rumours of his love affairs, for example the story of Flora the old courtesan who boasted that she never left his company without bitemarks.

(3) How young Pompey quelled an attempt by mutinous troops to murder his father and then talked round the troops.

(4) On his father’s death in 87 Pompey was put on trial for misappropriation of public funds but defended himself ably and was acquitted, in fact the judge in the case, Antistius, offered him his daughter in marriage.

(5) Plutarch associates Pompey directly with Cinna‘s death, saying that Pompey went into hiding but people thought Cinna had ordered him killed, so soldiers rose up against Cinna and a centurion pursued and killed him. 84 BC. By contrast the history books say Cinna was murdered by his own troops who mutinied rather than be sent across the Adriatic to fight Sulla in Greece.

(6) Gnaeus Papirius Carbo replaced Cinna as ruler of Rome, and Pompey, not yet 23, raised an army against him in the provinces and marched to Rome to support Sulla.

(7) Pompey defeated in quick succession the forces of Carinas, Cloelius, and Brutus, then persuaded the army of Scipio the consul to come over to him, then defeated a force sent by Carbo himself. Wunderkind.

(8) When Sulla’s army approaches Pompey ensures his looks smart and Sulla greets him at Imperator and later showed great marks of respect. When Sulla wanted to send Pompey to Gaul to help Metellus, Pompey very tactfully said he didn’t want to tread on the older man’s toes but would go if requested. He was requested, he did go and performed great feats.

(9) Sulla realised how valuable Pompey was and, once he was established in power in Rome (82 BC) he and his wife Metella prevail on the young man to divorce Antistia and marry Aemilia, the step-daughter of Sulla, even though she was pregnant with another man’s child. Political marriages. [In the same spirit Sulla tried to make Julius Caesar part with his wife, but Caesar refused and was so scared of reprisals that he went into hiding.] This was cruel on Antistia whose father had been murdered by Marius’s son, Marcus, for being a partisan of Pompey’s and whose mother had killed herself in response. Anyway, fate is fate, and Amelia had barely been installed in Pompey’s house before she died giving birth to the other man’s child.

(10) Once Sulla is secure in power in Rome, Pompey was charged with mopping up outstanding noble survivors. He was harshly judged for his delaying treatment of Carbo, 4 times consul, and but dealt mercifully with Himera and Sthenis. Perpenna was occupying Sicily until Pompey headed that way, at which he abandoned it and headed for Spain (where he was to become a grudging lieutenant to that other Marian exile, Sertorius).

(11) Sulla sends Pompey to Libya to fight Domitius Ahenobarbus. Pompey lands with a large force and defeats Domitius in a rainstorm. He arranges treaties with the cities of Libya and then invades into Numidia. It is said all this took him just 40 days and he was only 24 years old.

(12) Back at his base in Utica Pompey receives a letter from Sulla telling him to send his legions back to Italy which upsets Pompey, but his army threaten to mutiny in order to stay with him. When Pompey returns to Rome the people flock out to see him, who many are already calling Magnus or ‘the Great’ and Sulla thinks it politic to also acclaim Pompey as the great. According to Plutarch Pompey himself was one of the last to use this agnomen.

(14) Pompey asks for a triumph but Sulla refuses, saying he hasn’t even been a praetor yet let alone a consul. This was the context of Pompey allegedly muttering that more people worship the rising than the setting sun which, when he heard it, Sulla was so impressed by Pompey’s sheer cheek that he changed his mind and let Pompey have his triumph (probably in 81 BC). Pompey could easily have been elected to the Senate but it didn’t interest him so he didn’t try.

(15) Sulla resented Pompey’s popularity with the people but rarely let it show. He did, though, remark when Pompey put his name behind Lepidus‘s campaign to be elected consul in 78 BC, that Pompey had ensured that the worst man alive (Lepidus) secured more votes than the best (Catulus). Later that year Sulla died

(16) Lepidus, elected consul in 78, demanded a second consulship for the following year and, when it was refused, raised an army along with the sons of the old Marian cause. Pompey, as so often, was tasked with quelling the rebellion, defeated Lepidus at Cosa and Lepidus withdrew into Sardinia where he died the same year. Many of his supporters escaped to Spain where they joined the Marian rebel, Sertorius.

(17) Having defeated Lepidus, Pompey refused to disband his army but kept it near Rome. Many deprecated this, but it meant he was ready when the Senate ordered him to Spain to deal with the Marian rebel Sertorius. Pompey took over from Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius who was old and, to general surprise, had become addicted to luxury. This was never a problem for Pompey who was naturally moderate in all things.

(18) Pompey’s arrival in Spain rejuvenated the Roman troops. He wins a victory near Valentia.

(19) The big but inconclusive battle at the river Sucro in which he is wounded in the hand. Pompey’s respect for Metellus. The success of Sertorius’s hit and run guerrilla tactics.

(20) In 74, running low on money, Pompey wrote a famous letter to the Senate asking for more resources or saying he’d be forced to march home. LucullusPlutarch’s life of Lucullus was consul and did everything he could to get the money assigned. This was for personal reasons because he wanted to be assigned command of the army heading East to fight King Mithridates VI of Pontus (the region along the south coast of the Black sea), and didn’t want Pompey to come home and snaffle this very desirable gig.

In 73 Sertorius was murdered at a dinner party by his resentful lieutenant Perpenna. Perpenna then took to the field against Pompey but had none of his victim’s agility and strategy. Pompey engaged the rebels in plain battle and slaughtered them. Perpenna and other Roman nobles were brought before him, and Pompey had them all executed.

There’s a story that Perpenna offered Pompey Sertorius’s correspondence with lots of leading figures in Rome who had been corresponding with him about overthrowing Sulla in the popular cause – but Pompey didn’t want to revive the civil war which was only just over and so burned the correspondence unread.

(21) Pompey went on to arrange peace in Spain, before returning to Italy in 71. He arrived at the height of the Spartacus rebellion, to the great irritation of Crassus who wanted to finish it off before Pompey took the credit. So Crassus hurried up and arranged a final set piece battle with Spartacus, at which he massacred the insurgents. Yet Pompey still managed to get credit because about 5,000 escaped from the main battle and Pompey engaged with them and slaughtered them. Then wrote a letter to the Senate saying Crassus certainly defeated Spartacus in battle but he, Pompey, scotched the cause once and for all.

There was widespread fear that, not disbanding his army and with so many successes, Pompey might turn into another Sulla. But he didn’t and he went out of his way to ingratiate himself with the people, for example supporting the law to have the powers which Sulla had taken away from the people’s tribunes restored to them.

(22) His influence is indicated by the way that Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome, only considered putting himself forward for consul if Pompey would back him, which he did. Both men were elected consuls in 70 BC. The story of Pompey appearing in person before the two censors to resign his military command.

(23) However, the pair spent a lot of their consul year at daggers drawn. As the year of their joint office neared its end a man climbed on the public platform they were sharing and said Jupiter had appeared in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t lay down their office till they’d become friends again. So Crassus stepped forward, took Pompey’s hand and praised him to the crowd. Having laid down his office, Pompey was seen less and less in public, and then only surrounded by a crowd to boost his sense of magnificence.

(24) Pirates A digression giving background on the rise of the pirates around the Mediterranean – caused in part because the Romans are devoting their energies to civil wars – till the pirates were said to have 1,000 ships and to have captured 400 cities. Their flaunting their power, wearing fine clothes and decorated ships was offensive. But in more practical terms the pirate plague was driving up prices and causing discontent.

(25) In 67 the tribune Aulus Gabinius proposed a law giving Pompey extraordinary power to crush the pirates, which led to impassioned speeches for and against in the Senate. But it was a very popular idea with the people.

(26) Pompey was awarded the commission divided the Mediterranean into quadrants which he assigned to subordinates tasked with sweeping them clean. In an astonishing 40 days he had routed the pirates and ended the problem in the western Med.

(27) In Rome the consul Piso conspired against Pompey, trying to limit the funding of the project and releasing ship’s crews early, so Pompey interrupted his campaign to anchor at Brindisi, march to Rome and sort things out.

Then he returned to sea, sailing East, with a stopover at Athens. Pompey closed in on the pirates’ bases in Cilicia but then amazed everyone by capturing but then setting free the pirates. He treated all of them leniently.

(28) Finally he tackles the hard core pirates at a headland off Cilicia. Pompey drove them off their boats and into a fortress which he besieged till the pirates, starving, surrendered. In less than 3 months the entire pirate problem had been sorted. He had captured 20,000 prisoners. Rather than punish them, though, Pompey very wisely resettled the pirates and their families in Greece and Asia Minor, in cities which he then granted extra land, figuring that good example, honest work and opportunity would tame them.

(29) Pompey’s dispute with Metellus (relative of the Metellus he fought alongside in Spain) who was fighting the pirates in Crete but whose authority Pompey undermined, taking the side of the pirates. Much criticism.

(30) With the end of the pirate campaign in 66 BC, one of the tribunes of the plebs, Manilius, proposes a law giving Pompey extraordinary power in the East to prosecute the war against Mithridates, taking command away from Lucius Licinius Lucullus. Debate, opposition from the nobles, but passed by the people. Pompey pretends to be vexed by the endless tasks he is given but was in reality pleased.

(31) So Pompey rallies his legions and sails for Asia Minor. Here he marches through the land, leaving nothing undisturbed that Lucullus had done. Eventually the two meet, with their armies, in Galatia. Both sets of lictors have put wreaths on their fasces but after a weary march Pompey’s are faded, so Lucullus’s lictors put their fresh wreaths on Pompey’s lictors’ fasces – which was remembered long afterwards as symbolising how Pompey had come to steal glory from Lucullus who had done all the hard work.

He’s referring to the way Pompey had a track record of arriving at the end of military campaigns and stealing the glory from, for example, Metellus in Spain and Crassus against Spartacus. Lucullus apparently compared Pompey to a lazy carrion-bird, that alights on bodies that others had killed and mocks him for having won a triumph (in 71 BC) for appearing at the end of the 3 year war against Spartacus and wiping out a relatively small number of stragglers. Right place, right time.

The two successful generals try to be civil, but behind each other’s backs, Pompey criticises Lucullus for his greed and looting and Lucullus criticises Pompey for his lust for power.

(32) Pompey’s campaign against Mithridates who shows the same ability to endlessly escape from battles and traps as he did against Lucullus. A battle fought by moonlight where the Romans massacre 10,000 Parthians.

(33) Pompey discovers young Tigranes of Armenia is in rebellion against his father, Tigranes king of kings, so allies and marches with him. The elder Tigranes comes to submit and is going to obeise himself when Pompey raises him up, sits him at his side, says he can retain his kingship and remaining provinces but a) those won by Lucullus will become Roman b) he must pay an indemnity of 6,000 talents, to which Tigranes agrees. Young Tigranes violently disagrees, insults Pompey and is put in chains. Phraates, king of the Parthians, sends an embassy suggesting the Euphrates should be the border between Roman territory and Parthian, and Pompey agrees.

(34) Pompey marches north towards and the Caucasus in search of Mithridates, and is attacked by native peoples, first the Albanians then the Iberians, both of which he thrashes.

(35) Mithridates had headed west and Pompey wanted to follow him but heard that the Albanians had rebelled again so crossed the river Cyrnus with difficulty, then marches across dry land carrying 10,000 waterskins and then crushed the Albanian army consisting of 60,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry. As always, with numbers, a healthy dose of scepticism. Rumour that the Amazons fought with the Albanians but no women’s bodies were found. Note on the location and customs of the Amazons who are said to live in the Caucasus.

(36) Pompey sets off for Hyrcania but is driven back by the wild snakes. The kings of the Elymaeans and the Medes sent ambassadors to him, and he wrote them a friendly answer. The Parthian king had burst into Gordyene and was plundering the subjects of Tigranes so Pompey he sent an armed force under Afranius.

Pompey is sent all the concubines of Mithridates but doesn’t keep them, sending them back to their homes. Folk tale of one of the concubines, Stratonice, who was daughter to a very poor old man. When Mithridates took her as a concubine the old man woke up to find his house overflowing with treasure and servants. This Stratonice had been left in charge of one of Mithridates’ fortresses but handed it over to Pompey who, chastely, handed them over to the questors to be sent back to Rome.

(37) In the castle of Caenum Pompey comes across a cache of Mithridates’ correspondence showing, among other things, the people he’d had poisoned, including one of his own sons.

(38) While Mithridates was still alive and at large with a big force, Pompey did what he’d criticised Lucullus for doing and began to administer his provinces, having meetings with kings, issuing edicts and so on.

In his campaigns Pompey had reached some of the limits of the known world. In Spain he had reached the Atlantic (which the ancients thought was the Great Ocean surrounding one unified land mass). In North Africa he had also marched as far as the Outer Sea. In the East he had nearly reached Hyrcania. Now he wanted to march south through Arabia to the Red Sea.

(39) Pompey ordered a blockade of Mithridates in his base in the Bosporus (not the Bosphorus by modern Istanbul, but the area round the Crimea in the north Black Sea) and set off south. He annexed Syria for Rome and then Judaea, and made a prisoner of Aristobulus the king. He acted more and more like a mighty sovereign, dispensing justice to lower kings. He was asked to arbitrate a dispute between the kings of Parthia and Armenia. However many of his associates and lieutenants were grasping and corrupt.

(40) A notable hanger-on of Pompey’s was the Greek would-be philosopher Demetrius, who was impertinent and greedy. He used the treasure he looted in the East to buy big properties in Rome including the ‘gardens of Demetrius’. By contrast Pompey always lived in a very modest house.

(41) Pompey was on his way to deal with the king of Petra when messengers arrive bearing the news that Mithridates is finally dead. He killed himself after the revolt of his son, Pharnaces in 63 BC.

Locked up by his son, Pharnaces, Mithridates has his two young daughters poisoned then asks his bodyguard Bituitus to kill him.

The new king, Pharnaces, writes to Pompey saying he wants peace and sends the corpses of his father and entourage. Pompey is amazed at the splendour of the dead king’s accoutrements, most of which are subsequently stolen.

(42) Pompey winds up his affairs in Asia Minor then heads back to Rome in what turns into a kind of triumphal tour, stopping to be publicly praised in Mytilene, Rhodes and Athens. As he gets closer to Italy he takes more serious the rumours that his wife, Mucia, had been living a wild and debauched life, and so divorced her, winning the enmity of her family.

(43) It’s 63 BC. There is much paranoia in Rome that Pompey is returning to conquer the city as Sulla had done in 82. Crassus flees the city with his children. But on arriving at Brundisium Pompey dismissed his army, telling them to return to their homes, and continued to Rome accompanied only by close friends and entourage. This won him huge popularity and crowds turned out to cheer him in every town. He really was a golden boy (well man – aged 43).

(44) A general was not supposed to enter Rome until his triumph. Pompey asked for a dispensation to help the campaign for consul of M. Pupius Piso but Cato argued against it and it was blocked. Pompey admired Cato and suggested he marry one of Cato’s nieces and have his son marry the other one, but Cato saw through this form of bribery and refused. Nonetheless Pompey spent a fortune bribing the voters to elect Afranius consul in 60.

(45) September 61, Pompey’s awesome triumph which took 2 days. Not only was it awesome in terms of territory conquered, kings defeated and revenue brought in but Pompey’s three triumphs had been one in Africa, one in Europe and one in Asia, as if he had conquered the whole world.

(46) If he had died at this point, Pompey would have gone down as one of the greatest generals in history. Instead he was to get mixed up in politics and the immense reputation he had won would in the end go to empower his rival Julius Caesar.

Lucullus and Cato band against Pompey and, in response, Pompey found himself allying with an unpleasant character, Publius Clodius Pulcher, who dragged his name into the mud and involved him in the shameful exile of Cicero (in 58).

(47) Caesar had returned from Gaul and, seeing that Crassus and Pompey were opponents and he couldn’t ally with one without alienating the other, had the bright idea of allying with both and persuading them to join in a coalition, the triumvirate, to promote all their interests, established at secret meetings in 60. Caesar was elected consul for 59. In the same year to everyone’s surprise Pompey now married Julius Caesar’s young daughter, Julia.

(48) Pompey now organises street gangs to terrorise the opponents of his plan to get land made available for his army veterans. His strongest opponent is Cato’s son-in-law, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus. A basket of dung is emptied over his head, his lictors are beaten up. The people are cowed into passing Pompey’s law. In 59 Publius Vatinius as tribune of the plebs proposed the lex Vatinia, which granted Caesar Cisalpine Gaul and IIlyricum for five years. At the instigation of Pompey and Piso the Senate added the province of Transalpine Gaul. The consuls for the following year were to be Piso, the father-in‑law of Caesar, and Gabinius, the most extravagant of Pompey’s flatterers. That is how the triumvirate administered their power.

Of their opponents Bibulus hid in his villa, Lucullus retired from public life altogether but Cato continued haranguing them in the Senate. In fact Pompey was soon seduced by his wife into retiring into private life. Caesar had disappeared off to Gaul so the political agenda was driven by Piso who got Cicero driven into exile (58) and then had Cato sent as governor to Cyprus. (Neither of these events are described in any detail, maybe because they’re dealt with in the respective lives.)

(49) Clodius then turned his scurrilous abuse against Pompey who regretted his acquiescence in Cicero’s exile. When Cicero was recalled he helped steer the passage of a corn law which placed Pompey in absolute control of Rome’s harbours, trading-places, distributions of crops — in a word, navigation and agriculture. Pompey really was the go-to guy to get things fixed.

(50) A brief note on Pompey’s success in sailing to Sicily, Sardinia and Africa to get grain. As usual Plutarch isn’t at all interested in the details but tells an improving story about Pompey’s words of encouragement to the captain of the fleet when a big storm arises as they’re about to set sail.

(51) Plutarch explains how Caesar’s time in Gaul was spent not only fighting the various tribes but in readying his army for civil strife, and in continually sending money and treasure back to Rome to bribe officials and the people to his side. Witness the conference he called at Luca in 66 to bolster the triumvirate which was attended by Pompey, Crassus, 200 men of senatorial rank and 120 proconsuls and praetors. The deal struck was that Caesar would send back enough soldiers to ensure the election of Crassus and Pompey as consuls for the following year on condition they passed a law getting Caesar’s command in Gaul extended.

(52) Cato, now back in Rome, encouraged his brother-in-law Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship of 55 but, true to the triumvirate pact, Pompey organised a gang to attack him and his entourage in the forum, killing his torchbearer and wounding Cato himself as he went to protect Domitius. It’s like the street fighting in Renaissance Italy or, more grimly, in Weimar Germany.

At the expiry of his consulship Crassus set off to be governor of Syria with authority over the entire East. Meanwhile Pompey opened his vast and splendid circus with a series of spectaculars, the one which stuck in everyone’s minds being a battle against elephants which horrified the spectators (including Cicero who records it in a letter).

(53) Pompey was criticised for his uxoriousness i.e. retiring to his villa to enjoy life with his young wife. She was devoted to him, maybe for the simple reason that among Roman men he was remarkably faithful. He was also handsome and had charming manners. Her devotion is demonstrated by the occasion on which a fight broke out in the forum and his toga was splashed with blood. His servants carried it home to be cleaned but when Julia saw it she fainted and miscarried. This sounds like an idealised folk story. Because for the purposes of the narrative she quickly has to be gotten pregnant again and nine months later, miscarry and die (in 54 BC). Pompey was distraught and wanted her buried at a family villa but the people insisted she was buried in the Campus Martius.

Plutarch then skips very quickly over Crassus’s defeat and death in Parthia (presumably because it’s dealt with at such massive length in his life of Crassus) skipping on to the main point which is that these 2 events marked the end of the triumvirate and the unravelling of the working relationship between Caesar and Pompey. He drops into graceful moralising:

So slight a thing is fortune when compared with human nature; for she cannot satisfy its desires, since all that extent of empire and magnitude of wide-stretching domain could not suffice for two men. They had heard and read that the gods​ “divided the universe into three parts, and each got his share of power” and yet they did not think the Roman dominion enough for themselves, who were but two. (53)

Beginning the slide into 25 years of civil war.

(54) The issue almost immediately was whether Caesar would lay down his command. Pompey made speeches pointing out how easily he had given up his command after returning from the East. Pompey tried to get his supporters into positions of power but discovered that Caesar had been quietly doing this for some time. Government became gridlocked and as soon as the following year, 53, a tribune suggested Pompey be made dictator. Elections of consuls stalled in 52 and even opponents such as Cato suggested Pompey be made sole consul, as being better than anarchy.

Pompey approached Cato in a private capacity to give advice, but Cato was typically priggish and said he would continue speaking his mind.

(55) Pompey marries Cornelia, widow of Publius Crassus, the son of Crassus who perished along with his father in Parthia. Critics thought it bad taste to be frolicking with garlands at a time of public crisis. He supervised public life effectively, placing soldiers at trials so they could continue without the usual barracking and intimidation. He was blamed for showing partiality in some trials but overall did a good job and was awarded governorship of his provinces for another five years.

(56) Caesar’s supporters said that he, too, deserved reward, and should have his command in Gaul extended. The suggestion was made that he should be allowed to stand for the consulship in his absence. Conservatives like Cato strongly objected, saying he should relinquish his command and return as an ordinary citizen to canvas.

(57) Pompey had a serious illness at Naples. When he recovered there was widespread rejoicing in that city and then in all the towns he passed through on his way back to Rome. Plutarch says this public support gave him a misleading sense of his own power. Back when the triumvirate was formed Pompey had sent two of the legions assigned to him to Gaul with Caesar. Now he asked for them back and they came commanded by Appius who made slighting comments about Caesar’s abilities. Pompey was fooled into thinking he had widespread support and military strength in Italy.

(58) Caesar based himself near to the border with Italy and intervened extensively in Roman politics, in particular bribing key officials in his favour and sending large blocs of soldiers to swing elections in his favour. A tribune made the suggestion that both generals lay down their arms at the same moment and became private citizens, thus not presenting a threat to the other. Opponents said Caesar was a public enemy and should simply relinquish his command, full stop, as he was not more powerful in the state and in no position to make demands of the senate.

(59) Marcellus announces that Caesar is crossing the Alps with ten legions and goes to see Pompey accompanied by the senate to call on him to save the state. But when Pompey tried to levy troops he was surprised at the poor response and reluctance. One reason was that Mark Anthony read out a letter from Caesar in which he suggested that he and Pompey give up their provinces and their armies and submit themselves to the people’s judgement. Cicero proposed a compromise that Caesar give up most but not all of his provinces and retain just 2 legions while he canvassed for a consulship. Arguments. Shouting.

(60) Now news came that Caesar was marching fast into Italy. Caesar pauses at the river Rubicon because it formed the boundary between his allotted province (Cisalpine Gaul) and Italy proper. In Cisalpine Gaul he was official commander and could do as he pleased. But crossing the river was an illegal act, and represented an invasion and subversion of the law.

Caesar took the decision to lead his army across the river and into Italy with the words ‘the die is cast’. The senate immediately asked Pompey to raise the army he had promised to protect Italy, Rome and them – but were horrified to learn that Pompey would struggle to raise a proper army. The legions Caesar had only recently sent back to him were unlikely to march against their former commander.

(61) Pandemonium in Rome, with endless rumour, an outflow of the panicking rich, an influx of refugees, collapse of magistrate authority and Pompey finding it hard to fix on a strategy. He declared a state of civil war, ordered all the senators to follow him, and that evening left the city.

(62) A few days later Caesar arrived in Rome, occupied it, ransacked the treasury for funds with which to pursue Pompey. Caesar wanted Pompey and his army cleared out of Italy before his army from Spain could arrive to reinforce him. Pompey takes his army to Brundisium, occupies and fortifies it then ferries his army ship by ship across to Albania. Caesar arrives but is held at the city walls for nine days while Pompey sailed.

(63) Caesar had sent a friend of Pompey’s, Numerius, to him with free and fair terms. But Pompey had sailed. Without bloodshed Caesar had become master of Rome and Italy. Now he set about and marched all the way to Spain to recruit the armies based there.

(64) Pompey now rallies an enormous army on lad and navy at sea. He inspires the training by taking part himself, aged 58. So many nobles flocked to him that they were able to recreate the senate.

(65) This senate passed a suggestion of Cato’s that no Roman be killed except in actual battle and no Roman cities subjected. This won even more people over to Pompey’s cause.

Meanwhile Caesar also was showing great clemency. After defeating Pompey’s forces in Spain he freely released the commanders and took the soldiers into his own service then marches back to Italy, to Brundisium and crossed to Oricum. He sent an emissary suggesting they lay down their arms, have a conference and become friends as of old. Pompey dismissed it as a trick. Pompey held the coast and dominated supplies. Caesar was hard pressed.

(66) Pompey’s allies pushed him to engage in open battle but Pompey correctly judged that a) Caesar’s army was more battle hardened after years in Gaul but b) they had less supplies – so he planned a war of attrition. Caesar struck camp and marched into Thessaly. Pompey’s supporters were jubilant and behaved as if they’d already won. He was encouraged to cross back to Italy, take total control of it and Rome. But Pompey didn’t want to a) run away again b) abandon his forces in Greece to Caesar c) bring bloodshed into Italy.

(67) So he chose to pursue Caesar, cutting his lines of communication and depriving him of supplies. Plutarch describes Pompey’s suspicions of Cato, who was with him in his camp but who he suspected would demand he lay down his command the second Caesar was defeated. Plutarch paints a grim picture of the politicking and squabbling among the politicians who had accompanied him and spent all their time criticising his plans. It affected his judgement.

(68) Pompey’s army comes out into the plain of Pharsalia. Various of his lieutenants vow not to return to camp until they had routed the enemy. That evening signs and portents are seen in the sky (as they always are). Pompey dreams he is laying tributes in the temple of Venus who was, of course, Caesar’s ancestor. At dawn Caesar was delighted to learn from his scouts that Pompey was preparing for battle.

(69) Pompey had twice as many men as Caesar, 40,000 to 22,000. But Caesar’s army assembled in quiet and confidence whereas Pompey’s were shouting and milling about in their inexperience.

(70) Plutarch takes a chapter to moralise on the pitiful tragic outcome of greed and folly which saw Roman pitted against Roman, family member against family member, when if they had united they could have conquered Scythia, Parthia even India.

(71) The Battle of Pharsalia 9 August 48 BC. Caesar’s troops scatter Pompey’s cavalry with the tactic of pushing their spears up into their faces. Then encircle Pompey’s infantry who panic.

(72) Caesar’s legions triumphed and pushed on into Pompey’s camp. Pompey left the battlefield to sit in his tent in shock, then rallied his men and rode away. 6,000 were killed. Caesar’s men found Pompey’s tents adorned with garlands, dressed for a feast. Such was their inexperience of battle and foolish hopes.

(73) Pompey escaped with a handful of companions. Plutarch paints him as mournfully reviewing the sudden collapse in his fortunes, the first time he’d ever lost a battle. He escaped to the coast and took a fisherman’s boat to a port where he boarded a merchantman. Its captain, Peticius, just happened to have had a dream the night before in which Pompey came imploring. Now he sculls up in a boat with a handful of companions in poor shape. Peticius takes them aboard and offers them a meal.

(74) They sail to Mytilene to take on board Pompey’s wife and son. He sends them a messenger. In best melodramatic tradition the messenger doesn’t say anything but his tears tell the story and Cornelia flings herself on the ground where she lies a long time motionless. Odd that this is the universal attitude of despair in these texts, compared with our modern stock attitude which would be thrashing around and ranting.

Cornelia is given a speech out of a Greek tragedy bewailing her lot, as wife to Publius Crassus, who met a miserable death in Parthia, and now wishing she had killed herself then and not brought bad luck to Pompey.

(75) Pompey is given a stock speech in reply about Fortune and they are only mortals and might rise again. Cornelia sends for her things. The people of Mytilene want to invite Pompey in but he refuses and says the conqueror will come soon enough. More interesting is the little digression in which Pompey was said to have had a conversation with the local philosopher, Cratippus, about Providence. Plutarch slips in the moral of the entire book:

For when Pompey raised questions about Providence, Cratippus might have answered that the state now required a monarchy because it was so badly administered.

The Romans mismanaged their way into a disastrous civil war.

(76) At its next stop the ship is met by some of Pompey’s navy. This has survived intact and he laments the fact that he didn’t make more use of it but allowed himself to be lured into battle far from the sea. He learns Cato rescued many of the soldiers and is shipping them over to Libya. He has been joined by his lieutenants and 60 or so senators. The plan is to recruit more men from the cities. Emissaries are sent out. Pompey and advisers debate where to hole up while they recuperate their forces. Some argue for Libya, some for far-off Parthia. But the strongest voices are for Egypt which is only three days’ sail ,away and where the young king Ptolemy owes his throne to Pompey.

(77) So they sail south to Egypt in a Seleucian trireme from Cyprus, accompanied by warships and merchant ships. When they arrive they discover Ptolemy is at war with his sister Cleopatra. Ptolemy’s advisers hold a conclave on what to do, led by Potheinus the eunuch. Theodotus the rhetorician wins the day by arguing they should kill Pompey thus pleasing Caesar and removing the threat.

(78) Pompey was in a small boat which had approached the shore. Potheinus and Theodotus deputed the task of receiving him to some Roman soldiers who had gravitated to Ptolemy’s court, Achillas, Septimius and Salvius. When the Romans saw a handful of men coming towards them in an ordinary boat, none of the pomp of the pharaoh, they sensed something was wrong. But as the Egyptian boat came up they and the Romans in it hailed them they saw other boats being manned on the shore. To fly would show lack of confidence and trigger attack. So Pompey embraced his wife who was already weeping as if he were dead, and taking a few servants, Philip and Scythe, stepped into the Egyptian boat.

(79) The men in the boat were cold and distant from Pompey. He took out his notebook to practice the speech to Ptolemy in Greek which he had practiced. As they reached the shore Pompey stretched his arm up to be helped to his feet and Septimius ran him through with a sword from behind, then Achillas and Salvius stabbed him, too. Pompey drew his toga over his face and fell.

(80) From the Roman fleet a mighty groan then they set sail and left before the Egyptian fleet could come out. The Egyptians cut off Pompey’s head and threw his body into the sea. His servant Philip waited till they’d left then scavenged along the shore for enough wood to build a pyre. Along comes an old Roman, a veteran, and offers to help, and so these two poor men built and supervised the burning of one of the greatest Romans of all.

Next day a ship carrying Lucius Lentulus comes into view, he lands and sees the pyre and asks Philip about his master’s fate, and delivers a lament as from a tragedy. Then he was captured by the Egyptians and also put to death.

Plutarch ends his narrative by tying up the loose ends. When Caesar landed and was presented with the head of Pompey he was disgusted, when shown his ring he burst into tears. He had Achillas and Potheinus put to death. King Ptolemy was defeated in battle and disappeared into the interior never to be heard of again. The sophist Theodotus fled but many years later, after Caesar’s assassination, Brutus tracked him down in Asia and had him put to death with many tortures. The ashes of Pompey were taken to his widow who buried them at his country house near Alba.


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Plutarch’s lives of Marius and Sulla (translated by Rex Warner)

Now the generals of this later period were men who had risen to the top by violence rather than by merit; they needed armies to fight against one another rather than against the public enemy.
(Doleful reflections of the Amphictyons of Delphi upon being ordered to hand over all their treasure to the Roman general Sulla who was besieging Athens: Life of Sulla, chapter 12)

1. Plutarch’s Life of Caius Marius (157 to 86 BC)

Plutarch’s life of Marius is divided into 46 brief sections. Rex Warner’s translation of Plutarch in the Penguin edition is relaxed and chatty. Very clear, very readable. However it is not available online whereas the 1920 Loeb Classical Library edition is. So, for practical purposes, I’ll quote Loeb.

As for the personal appearance of Marius, we have seen a marble statue of him at Ravenna in Gaul,​ and it very well portrays the harshness and bitterness of character which were ascribed to him. For since he was naturally virile and fond of war, and since he received a training in military rather than in civil life, his temper was fierce when he came to exercise authority.

Plutarch brings out very vividly the successive rivalries during the Jugurthine War (112 to 106 BC) between Metellus, Marius, and his quaestor Sulla. The Roman army comes over as an engine of fierce rivalries. But although Plutarch describes some of Marius’s military victories, in Numidia (112 to 106 BC) and then against the Cimbrian and Teutons who threatened to invade Italy from Gaul (113 to 101 BC) what really impresses is the second half of the life, and especially the final years when Marius fell from military and political favour and was eventually outlawed from Italy and had to go on the run, in disguise.

These final sections of his adventures on the run (35 to 45) read more like a boy’s own adventure story than history. The modern histories I’ve read refer to Marius’s brief exile only in general terms whereas in Plutarch we meet the captains of the ships which smuggle him out of Ostia, then dump him further down the Italian coast, the peasants who take him in and try to hide him, his betrayal and arrest to the authorities. We meet the Cimbrian soldier who is ordered to kill him but can’t bring himself to do so because, in the darkened bedroom, he sees Marius’s eyes darting fire and hears the voice of a god warning him against such a wicked deed. And so on. It’s like something out of the Arabian Nights more than history, more even, than biography.

Superstitions

Rex and other commentators emphasise Plutarch’s focus on the individual, on character, and call him ‘the first of modern biographers’ (p.9). None of them mention the ubiquity of superstition, prophecies and the uncanny i.e. the irrational, in his narratives. Thus in Marius alone:

  • as Marius prepares to sail back from Africa to Rome a soothsayer predicts great things (8)
  • in the campaign against the Cimbri and Teutones Marius has a Syrian prophetess named Martha accompany him in a litter (17)
  • the story that his army was accompanied everywhere by two vultures (17)
  • over the Italian cities of Ameria and Tuder flaming spears and swords are seen in the sky moving as if in actual battle (17)
  • from the massed ranks of the enemy arose an unearthly wailing (20)
  • heavy rain often follows a major battle because the supernatural powers want to hallow and cleanse the earth (21)
  • Fortune or nemesis or natural necessity, call it what you will, some force always ensures the enjoyment of any great success is never unalloyed or pure (23)
  • the incident of Fannia’s donkey who ran out to drink water from a spring near where Marius was being held by his escort, stopped directly in front of him, let out a tremendous bray, then went frisking past him – from which Marius drew the conclusion that his escape would be by sea

And:

When he was quite young and living in the country, Marius had caught in his cloak a falling eagle’s nest, which had seven young ones in it; at sight of this, his parents were amazed, and made enquiries of the seers, who told them that their son would be most illustrious of men, and was destined to receive the highest command and power seven times. (36)

  • when a Cimbrian soldier went into Marius’s bedroom to kill him he saw a pair of mighty eyes darting flame at him and a voice as of a god saying: ‘Man, does thou dare to slay Caius Marius?’ (39)

The grotesque

A sprinkling of what must surely be grotesque exaggerations, notably the wildly improbable description of the mass suicides of the Cimbri civilians once their menfolk were defeated

The fugitives were driven back to their entrenchments where the Romans beheld a most tragic spectacle. The women, in black garments, stood at the wagons and slew the fugitives — their husbands or brothers or fathers, then strangled their little children and cast them beneath the wheels of the wagons or the feet of the cattle, and then cut their own throats. It is said that one woman hung dangling from the tip of a wagon-pole with her children tied to either ankle, while the men, for lack of trees, fastened themselves by the neck to the horns of the cattle, or to their legs, then plied the goad, and were dragged or trampled to death as the cattle dashed away. (27)

In their hurry to claim for Plutarch all kinds of proto-modern interests in character and psychology, Rex and others simply ignore the much more prominent traits of primitive superstition and a garish, vulgar fascination with grotesque violence.

Thus Plutarch dwells lovingly on the scenes in Rome once Marius has returned from exile, seizes power along with Cinna, and unleashes a tidal wave of vengeful violence:

Headless trunks thrown into the streets and trampled under foot excited no pity, though everybody trembled and shuddered at the sight. The people were most distressed however, by the wanton licence of the Bardyaei, as they were called, who butchered fathers of families in their houses, outraged their children, raped their wives, and could not be checked in their career of rapine and murder until Cinna and Sertorius, after taking counsel together, fell upon them as they were asleep in their camp, and transfixed them all with javelins. (44)

Gory enough for you?

The ludicrous

And then incidents which are so wildly improbable as to be ludicrous. Take the incident of the faked diarrhoea. Marius fell in with a rabble rousing demagogue who didn’t hesitate to murder his political opponents, Saturninus. Marius attempts to keep the respect of the senate but also stay in with Saturninus, a balancing act which is epitomised one night:

For when the leading men had come to him by night and were trying to incite him against Saturninus, without their knowledge he introduced Saturninus into the house by another door; then, pretending to both parties that he had a diarrhoea, he would run backwards and forwards in the house, now to the nobles and now to Saturninus, trying to irritate and bring them into collision. (30)

2. Plutarch’s Life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78 BC)

Sulla served as captain of cavalry under Marius in the Jugurthine War. To his bravery was attributed the final negotiations which led to the capture of Jugurtha and Sulla was embittered when Marius received the credit and triumph for it. Sulla was tasked with fighting the Social War (91 to 87 BC) and when Marius, in Rome, managed to manoeuvre Sulla out of leadership of the army set to head off to deal with Mithradates in Turkey, Sulla rejected the senate’s decision, let his men kill the senate’s envoy and marched on Rome.

Why Sulla failed

Rex gives admirably brief, one-page introductions to each of the lives (generally pointing out how Plutarch ignores the profound historical importance of this or that event in order to focus on trivial anecdotes or shallow moralising). Therefore it is Rex who sums up Sulla’s political agenda, once he’d become dictator (82 to 78 BC) and why it failed, more briefly and better than any other account I’ve read.

After marching on Rome to seize power twice, with an intervening period of anarchy and bloodshed under Cinna (87 to 84 BC), Sulla set out to make the republic safe by ensuring the situation which led to the anarchy could never happen again. These he took to be:

  • the ability of the tribunes of the plebs to veto laws suggested by the patricians and senate, which sounds fine in theory, but in practice tribunes were all too often bribed by powerful interests to derail senatorial rule
  • the struggle between senate and equites for control of the courts, which again unravelled into political powerplays
  • the consecutive consulships of overmighty rulers (in the recent past the consecutive consulships of Marius in 107, 104, 103, 102, 101, 100)

So Sulla:

  • abolished the legislative powers of the tribunate and debarred those who held it from higher office
  • restored the courts to full control of the senate
  • revived the lex annalis which set minimum ages to hold each of the magistracies in the so-called cursus honorum and required fixed periods between people holding each post

It was a valiant effort but, as Rex points out, it was blind to the fact that the chief threat to the republic came not from any law or aspect of the constitution but from a reality which transcended them, which was the advent of proconsuls appointed for long periods of time to prosecute distant wars whose armies came to owe more allegiance to them than to the state – the conversion of Roman armies into something closer to private armies answerable to charismatic warlords.

The obvious examples were Marius, Sulla himself, Pompey then Caesar, then Mark Anthony and Octavian and the era of instability and collapse exactly matches the rise of this new phenomenon.

Plutarch’s Sulla

Predictably, Plutarch focuses on gossip and anecdote:

  • Sulla had a famously bad complexion, covered in blotchy spots.
  • Though he came from a patrician family, it was very down at heel and he spent a dissolute young manhood with dancers and actors and cross-dressers and comedians. Throughout his life, strict and stern in public, once he sat down at a banquet he reverted to a monstrously debauched and bohemian character.

And, once again, a blizzard of superstitions, omens and prophecies:

  • A certain man in the retinue of Orobazus, a Chaldaean, after looking Sulla intently in the face, and studying carefully the movements of his mind and body, and investigating his nature according to the principles of his peculiar art, declared that this man must of necessity become the greatest in the world, and that even now the wonder was that he consented not to be first of all men. (6)
  • Sulla himself relates that when he was dispatched with an army to the Social War, a great chasm in the earth opened near Laverna, from which a great quantity of fire burst forth and a bright flame towered up towards the heavens; whereupon the soothsayers declared that a brave man, of rare courage and surpassing appearance, was to take the government in hand and free the city from its present troubles. And Sulla says that he himself was this man, for his golden head of hair gave him a singular appearance, and as for bravery, he was not ashamed to testify in his own behalf, after such great and noble deeds as he had performed.
  • When Sulla had set out for his camp on unfinished business,​ he himself kept at home and contrived that most fatal sedition, which wrought Rome more harm than all her wars together had done, as indeed the heavenly powers foreshadowed to them:
    • for fire broke forth of its own accord from the staves which supported the ensigns, and was with difficulty extinguished
    • and three ravens brought their young forth into the street and devoured them, and then carried the remains back again into their nest
    • and after mice had gnawed consecrated gold in a temple, the keepers caught one of them, a female, in a trap, and in the very trap she brought forth five young ones and ate up three of them
    • but most important of all, out of a cloudless and clear air there rang out the voice of a trumpet, prolonging a shrill and dismal note, so that all were amazed and terrified at its loudness. The Tuscan wise men declared that the prodigy foretokened a change of conditions and the advent of a new age (7)
  • While the senate was busied with the soothsayers about these prodigies, and holding its session in the temple of Bellona, a sparrow came flying in, before the eyes of all, with a grasshopper in its mouth, a part of which it threw down and left there, and then went away with the other part. From this the diviners apprehended a quarrelsome dissension between the landed proprietors and the populace of the city and forum; for the latter is vociferous like a grasshopper, while the former haunt the fields (like the sparrow). (7)
  • After he had offered a sacrifice, Postumius the soothsayer learned what the omens were, and stretching out both hands to Sulla, begged that he might be bound and kept a prisoner until the battle, assuring him that he was willing to undergo the extremest penalty if all things did not speedily come to a good issue for him. (9)
  • It is said, also, that to Sulla himself there appeared in his dreams a goddess whom the Romans learned to worship from the Cappadocians, whether she is Luna, or Minerva, or Bellona. This goddess, as Sulla fancied, stood by his side and put into his hand a thunder-bolt, and naming his enemies one by one, bade him smite them with it; and they were all smitten, and fell, and vanished away. Encouraged by the vision, he told it to his colleague, and at break of day led on towards Rome. (9)
  • Mithridates, who was staying at Pergamum, was visited with many other portents from Heaven, and that a Victory with a crown in her hand, which the Pergamenians were lowering towards him by machinery of some sort, was broken to pieces just as she was about to touch his head, and the crown went tumbling from her hand to the ground in the midst of the theatre, and was shattered, whereat the people shuddered, and Mithridates was greatly dejected. (11)

And so on and very much on. And The Grotesque:

Nearby is Apollonia, and in its vicinity is the Nymphaeum, a sacred precinct, which sends forth in various places from its green dell and meadows, streams of perpetually flowing fire. Here, they say, a satyr was caught asleep, such an one as sculptors and painters represent, and brought to Sulla, where he was asked through many interpreters who he was. And when at last he uttered nothing intelligible, but with difficulty emitted a hoarse cry that was something between the neighing of a horse and the bleating of a goat, Sulla was horrified, and ordered him out of his sight. (27)

Fairy tales

At Fidentia, when Marcus Lucullus, one of Sulla’s commanders, with sixteen cohorts confronted fifty cohorts of the enemy, although he had confidence in the readiness of his soldiers, still, as most of them were without arms, he hesitated to attack. But while he was waiting and deliberating, from the neighbouring plain, which was a meadow, a gentle breeze brought a quantity of flowers and scattered them down on his army; they settled of their own accord and enveloped the shields and helmets of the soldiers, so that to the enemy these appeared to be crowned with garlands. This circumstance made them more eager for the fray, and they joined battle, won the victory, killed eighteen thousand of the enemy, and took their camp. (27)

Fortunate Sulla

Plutarch emphasises the Sulla himself was happy to attribute much of his success to Fortune rather than his own personal merits or achievements. So in the matrix of opinions about what constitutes a Successful Man which the Parallel Lives amount to, Sulla stands at one extreme of the spectrum, a superstitious man who attributed much to Fortune. Hence his own insistence on the agnomen (‘a fourth name occasionally given as an honour to an ancient Roman citizen’) ‘Felix’, superficially meaning ‘happy’ but at a deeper level meaning ‘lucky’ – more than lucky, in the deepest sense of the word, fortune-ate. Fortune rich. Fortune full.

Slaughter in Athens 86 BC

Apart from the civil war and street fighting in Rome, what comes over more vividly from this account than others I’ve read, is the unmitigated slaughter Sulla inflicted on Athens after a prolonged siege in which he had devastated the surrounding territory. ‘There was no counting the slain’. The blood flowed under the city gates (14).

Proscriptions in Rome

The mass murder in Rome of Sulla’s enemies who he included on lists of ‘proscriptions’ brings to mind Stalin sitting up late into the night going through long lists of names, putting a tick or a cross next to who should live or die.

Sulla now busied himself with slaughter, and murders without number or limit filled the city…He also proscribed anyone who harboured and saved a proscribed person, making death the punishment for such humanity, without exception of brother, son, or parents, but offering anyone who slew a proscribed person two talents as a reward for this murderous deed, even though a slave should slay his master, or a son his father. And what seemed the greatest injustice of all, he took away the civil rights from the sons and grandsons of those who had been proscribed, and confiscated the property of all. Moreover, proscriptions were made not only in Rome, but also in every city of Italy, and neither temple of God, nor hearth of hospitality, nor paternal home was free from the stain of bloodshed, but husbands were butchered in the embraces of their wedded wives, and sons in the arms of their mothers. (31)

Mass murder at Praeneste

Meanwhile Marius the younger, at the point of being captured slew himself; and Sulla, coming to Praeneste, at first gave each man there a separate trial before he executed him, but afterwards, since time failed him, gathered them all together in one place — there were twelve thousand of them — and gave orders to slaughter them all. (32)

Metrobius

Plutarch’s life ends where it began, with comments on Sulla’s private behaviour and liking for louche, lowlife, bohemian company. Despite having a series of respectable wives, in the usual Roman fashion, Sulla also:

consorted with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people, drinking with them on couches all day long. For these were the men who had most influence with him now: Roscius the comedian, Sorex the archmime, and Metrobius the impersonator of women, for whom, though past his prime, he continued up to the last to be passionately fond, and made no denial of it.

Mass murderer, sacker of Athens, failed attempter to restore the Republic, and lifelong lover of a female impersonator.

A grisly end

Then comes the kind of moralising conclusion which delighted the ancients and then the Christians, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Plutarch claims that in his final illness Sulla was literally eaten alive by worms.

By this mode of life [his decadent lifestyle] Sulla aggravated a disease which was insignificant in its beginnings, and for a long time he knew not that his bowels were ulcerated. This disease corrupted his whole flesh also, and converted it into worms, so that although many were employed day and night in removing them, what they took away was as nothing compared with the increase upon him, but all his clothing, baths, hand-basins, and food, were infected with that flux of corruption, so violent was its discharge. Therefore he immersed himself many times a day in water to cleanse and scour his person. But it was of no use; for the change gained upon him rapidly, and the swarm of vermin defied all purification. (36)


Related links

Roman reviews

  • Plutarch
  • Plutarch’s Lives of Marius and Sulla
  • Plutarch’s life of Sertorius
  • Plutarch’s Life of Lucullus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Crassus
  • Plutarch’s Life of Pompey
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cicero
  • Plutarch’s Life of Caesar
  • Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger
  • Plutarch’s Life of Antony
  • Plutarch’s Life of Brutus

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 3 Historical overview

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard is divided into roughly three parts – the early legendary period (1200 to 500 BC), the republic (509 to 30 BC) and the empire (30 BC to where Beard chooses to end her account, in the year 212 AD).

It’s sort of predictable that most of the earliest history of ancient Rome, its foundation and early years, would be shrouded in legend and probably mostly fictional. It’s a more interesting point, and one Beard repeats a number of times, that a good deal of what you could call the early historical period, the 600s, 500s, 400s and even 300s BC, were still heavily distorted and fictionalised and glamorised by the authors of the first centuries BC and AD.

They projected the administrative ranks and classes and issues, the epic battles and even the grand architecture of the Rome of their own time, back onto earlier periods which probably consisted of little more than chieftains living in basic huts and leading cattle raids against nearby communities.

It was a world of chieftains and warrior bands, not of organised armies and foreign policy. (p.117)

For a fundamental learning to emerge from the first 200 pages of this book is that the first century BC and the first century AD were the classic period for great Roman writing, including the first extensive historical writing (Livy), detailed discussions of the Roman constitution and politics (Cicero),  Catullus’s love poetry, Caesar’s accounts of his war in Gaul, plays, poetry and so on (p.214).

The point being that modern historians think that many aspects of the accounts written during these centuries about the founding and early history of Rome hundreds of years earlier are very misleading. The rulers, warriors, wars and battles of the early centuries were exaggerated to heroic proportions, mixed with legend, and highly moralised to provide improving, educational stories to a 1st century audience.

It is clear that much of the tradition that has come down to us, far from reality, is a fascinating mythical projection of later Roman priorities and anxieties into the distant past. (p.100)

(This core idea, and the word ‘projected’, recur on pages 97, 100, 108, 141, 205).

The traditional, grand and impressive history of the founding and early years of ancient Rome, as it was written up by Rome’s first century propagandists, was repeated for centuries afterwards, inspiring all subsequent histories, countless poems and paintings and plays throughout the Western tradition. It was only in the twentieth century, with the advent of modern archaeological techniques, that virtually all these stories came, not so much to be questioned (historians had been sceptical about some of the taller tales even at the time) but to be definitively disproved by the evidence in the ground.

This process goes on to the present day, with ever-more advanced technology and computer analysis (and DNA analysis of bones and remains) contributing to a comprehensive overhaul of our image of ancient Rome. If you Google books about ancient Rome you’ll quickly discover that ones published even as recently as 2000 are now considered out of date because the archaeology is moving at such a pace and shedding ever-newer light on Rome’s origins and early development.

Now, Beard does take a lot of this on board. Her narrative frequently grinds to a halt while she tells us about important, recent archaeological discoveries, complete with photos and descriptions. The problem for the reader is that Beard doesn’t give a good clear detailed account of what the traditional story actually was before setting out to question and undermine it. She’ll write that the famous story about x has been thrown into doubt by recent finds under the Forum and you, as the reader, go: ‘Hang on, hang on, what famous story about x?’

In fact she uses the word ‘famous’ very liberally and often to describe things I’ve never heard of. I appreciate that this is because they are ‘famous’ in the world of Classics and ancient history, but surely the whole point of the book is to try and bring this world to outsiders, to people who know very little about it apart from the handful of clichés and stereotypes we call ‘general knowledge’.

What follows is my notes for myself on the key events from the traditional version.

1. Aeneas 1200 BC

Ancient legends associate Rome with the arrival of Aeneas, exile from Troy, around 1200 BC (ancient Greeks and Romans dated the Trojan War to what we now call the 12th or 11th centuries BC). Aeneas settled in central Italy and founded the line which led, centuries later, to King Numitor the maternal grandfather of the twins, Romulus and Remus.

Numerous variations on the Aeneas legend exist and were extensively reworked in the historical period i.e. from the 2nd century BC onwards. The version best known to the post-Roman world derives from the Aeneid, the great epic poem by Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC to 19 AD). The Aeneid is maybe the most influential poem in Western literature (p.76).

The first six of the poem’s twelve books describe Aeneas’s journey from Troy to Rome, the second six describe Aeneas’s settlement in Italy in the region of what would (a lot later) come to be Rome. This process of settlement involved Aeneas in fierce fighting against local tribes (the Rutulians led by their king, Turnus) until he finally won the war, gained the territory and the hand of the beautiful Lavinia, daughter of another powerful local king, Latinus.

But Aeneas was not the actual founder of Rome. He founded a town he named Lavinium after his wife. It was his son, Ascanius, who was said to have founded another town in the area, Alba Longa, whose king, Numitor, some 400 years later, was to the maternal grandfather of the twins Romulus and Remus (p.77).

2. Romulus 750s BC

Beard speculates freely about the origins and meaning of the Romulus and Remus legend about the founding of Rome. Characteristically, she doesn’t explain it very well so I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get a clear understanding. Various versions are found in ancient texts, many of which contradict each other, but the consensus story is that:

Numitor was king of Alba Longa, a town a little south of what was to become Rome. He was overthrown by his brother Amulius. Numitor had a daughter, Rhea Silvia, who was a vestal virgin. She was made pregnant by the war god Mars and gave birth to twins. Seeing as they were descendants of the rightful (overthrown) king, Numitor, Amulius ordered the twins to be abandoned on the banks of the river Tiber (as Moses, Oedipus, Paris and so many other figures of legend are abandoned as children). Here they were discovered by a she-wolf who suckled them and kept them alive in a cave (later known as the Lupercal) until they were discovered and adopted by Faustulus, a shepherd and raised (like Paris) as simple shepherds. In time the twins grew into natural leaders of men and found themselves caught up in a conflict between Numitor and Amulius. They joined the forces of Numitor and helped restore him to his rightful throne of Alba Longa, during which process they were recognised as Numitor’s grandsons. Then they set off to found a city of their own, deciding to build it on the defensible hills by the Tiber where they founded Rome. They each set about building a citadel of their own, Romulus preferring the Palatine Hill (above the Lupercal cave), Remus preferring the Aventine Hill. When Remus mockingly jumped over the early foundations of Romulus’s wall, Romulus killed him (various versions supply other reasons why the pair fell out so badly). Romulus then went on to found the city of Rome, its institutions, government, military and religious traditions and reigned for many years as its first king.

Interpret this legend how you will. The story of founding brothers who fall out, with one murdering the other, is as old as Cain and Abel (p.64). And on this telling, Romulus and Remus are repeating the fraternal falling out of their grandfather and his brother, Numitor and Amulius. In my opinion these myths may be attempts by ancient peoples to structure and rationalise the kind of civil strife early societies were prone to.

Did any of this actually happen? Almost certainly not. The earliest written record of the legend dates from the late third century BC i.e. some 500 years after the events it purports to describe. Far from being a real person who founded Rome, Romulus is almost certainly a legendary invention and his name the result of what historians and linguists call ‘back formation’ i.e. starting with an established place and inventing a legendary figure who you claim it’s named after. Almost certainly ‘Roma’ came first and Romulus afterwards (p.71).

The suckling by the she-wolf is precisely the kind of odd, distinctive and uncanny detail of ancient myth which defies rationalisation. A quick amateur interpretation for a self-consciously warrior race like the Romans would be that the twins imbibed wolfish aggression and ferocity from their animal wetnurse. Same with their parentage, a vestal virgin (holiness and piety) impregnated by the God of War (speaks for itself).

Incidentally, what Beard refers to as the ‘famous’ statue of Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf is a fake, in the sense that the figures of the suckling boys were made in the fifteenth century, a thousand years after the sculpture of the wolf.

Statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, currently in the Capitoline Museum. The statue is thought to be Etruscan, maybe from the fifth century BC while the twins are from the 15th century AD.

By the 1st century Roman historians had calculated a year for the founding of their city (in the third year of the sixth cycle of Olympic Games, p.71) and dated events ab urbe condita (AUC) or ‘since the city was founded’. Six hundred years later, in 525 AD when the monk Dionysius Exiguus first devised the system of dating events around the birth of Christ, into either ‘before Christ’ (BC) or ‘in the year of our Lord’ (anno domini or AD), he calculated the AUC date to be 753 BC, a Christian-era date which became enshrined in later tradition.

By contrast, during the republican period itself, historic events were dated by referring to the name of the consuls in power during a particular year. In the imperial period, government officials date events as in year 1, 2, 3 etc of each individual emperor. You can see why both these methods would eventually become very cumbersome, complicated and confusing. It’s surprising it took so long for the Christian authorities, in the shape of Dionysus, to come up with what, to us, appears the obvious, improved system.

3. The monarchy 750s to 509 BC

Seven improbably long-lived kings are said to have filled the period from 753 (the traditional date for the founding of the city) to 509 (the traditional date for the overthrow of the monarchy) (p.93, 96). Maybe seven kings to match the seven hills the city is supposedly founded on (?). Archaeologists and historians think the last 3 in the list were real people, but there’s debate over whether the first 4 were real or figures of legend:

  1. Romulus
  2. Numa Pompilius
  3. Tullus Hostilius
  4. Ancus Marcius
  5. Tarquinius Priscus
  6. Servius Tullius
  7. Tarquinius Superbus

4. End of the monarchy / founding of the republic 509 BC

The outrageous behaviour of the last king, Tarquin the Arrogant, prompted the population of Rome to rise up, overthrow him, and establish a republic. The spark for the revolution was, from an early point, associated with the legend of the rape of Lucretia.

Lucretia was a noblewoman in ancient Rome. She was raped by the son of the last king, Sextus Tarquinius and, out of shame, committed suicide by stabbing herself (p.122-3). Lucretia’s noble family and their allies rose up against Tarquinius and drove him and his family out of Rome although he didn’t give up without a fight, sparking a war against him and his followers which lasted up to a decade (p.125). As with other early legends there are no contemporary accounts, in fact the first written accounts of the story are only given by the Roman historian Livy (born 60 BC) and Greco-Roman historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (born 59 BC) 450 years later.

There followed a period of transition during which it was agreed that the new republic would be ruled by an elected leader called a ‘consul’, himself advised by a ‘senate’ of elders and aristocrats. This quickly evolved into the notion of two consuls, each elected to serve for one year, a system Rome was to keep for the next 1,000 years. Collatinus, the husband of the raped suicide Lucretia was one of the first consuls (p.127).

Quite soon the Senate invented another innovation, the ability to elect a single leader, a ‘dictator’, to manage the republic during time of war. This was necessary because the early accounts describe how Rome was plunged almost immediately into a long series of wars with neighbouring tribes and people in Italy, for example the Etruscans, the Samnites, the Aquians, the Veii, the Senones, Umbri, Picentes and the Marsi.

5. The Conflict of the Orders 400s to 200s BC

In its earliest days political power was held by the wealthiest families, described as ‘patricians’ (Latin patricii) and sharply distinguished from the majority of the population who were described as ‘plebeians’ or ‘plebs’. Membership of the patrician class was hereditary and could only be achieved by birth.

The fifth century i.e. the 400s BC, were marked by a series of administrative reforms which slowly and arduously gave the plebeians equal power and say with the patricians (although it wasn’t until 366 that the first plebeian consul was elected).

The conflict between the patricians and plebeians in Rome is referred to as the Conflict of the Orders although, as Beard points out, the Latin ordines translates better as ‘social ranks’ (p.146). In our post-Marxist times it’s tempting to call it the Class War but that would also be wrong because a key point that emerges from Beard’s account is that the plebs in question weren’t necessarily poor: in fact many of them were richer than the patricians, it was more a question of nouveaux riches ‘new men’, who’d acquired military glory and/or wealth but were excluded from running the city by virtue of not being born into the right families.

The conflict took place over a very long period, from soon after the foundation of the republic, around 500 BC, down to 287 BC when patrician senators finally lost their last check over the Plebeian Council.

Really major moments were marked by a secessio when the entire population of plebeians left the city causing what was, in effect, a general strike. The first of these took place in 494, prompted by the plebeians’ widespread indebtedness to rich patrician lenders, and it successfully led to the establishment of a new body, the Concilium Plebis, and a new office of state, the tribunes of the people (tribuni plebis). There were at least five secessios.

Some of the main constitutional reforms from the period include:

450 BC drafting of the Twelve Tables, an early code of law (pages 139 to 145).

445 Lex Canuleia removing the ban on marriage between patricians and plebeians (lex is Latin for law, hence English words like ‘legal’)

443 BC The offices of the Tribuni militum consulari potestate were established. A collegium of three patrician or plebeian tribunes, one each from specific Roman tribes (the Titienses, the Ramnenses, and the Luceres) would hold the power of the consuls from year to year, subject to the Senate.

367 BC one of the consulships was opened to plebeians (p.148).

342 BC law passed making it mandatory for one of the two consuls to be a plebeian.

339 BC law passed making it mandatory for one of the two censors to be a plebeian

326 BC the system of enslavement for debt was abolished, establishing the principle that the liberty of the Roman citizen was an inalienable right (p.148).

300 BC half of the priesthoods (which were also state offices) must be plebeian.

287 BC Third Secession led to the Hortensian Law stating, among other things, that all plebiscites (measures passed in the Concilium Plebis) had the force of laws for the whole Roman state, removing from the Patrician senators their final check over the Plebeian Council. By depriving the Patricians of their final weapon over the Plebeians, it ensured that the Roman state didn’t become a democracy but rested firmly under the control of the new Patricio-Plebeian aristocracy.

The conflict marked the breakdown of the old aristocracy of birth and its replacement by an aristocracy based on i) the holding of political offices and ii) wealth, particularly land-based wealth. In Beard’s words, the Conflict of the Orders:

replaced a governing class defined by birth with one defined by wealth and achievement. (p.167)

The upshot of the Conflict of the Orders was not popular revolution but the creation of a new governing class, comprising rich plebeians and patricians. (p.189)

So it didn’t remove the hierarchical, class-based nature of Roman society, nor did it significantly improve the lives or prospects of the poorer members of society.

6. Consolidating power in Italy – Rome’s wars

This was a world where violence was endemic, skirmishes with neighbours were annual events, plunder was a significant revenue stream for everyone and disputes were resolved by force. (p.162)

Military campaigning was a defining feature of Roman life…the Roman tradition [viewed] war as the structuring principle of history…The Romans directed enormous resources to warfare and, even as victors, paid a huge price in human life…somewhere between 10 and 25 per cent of the Roman adult male population would have served in the legions each year…(pages 176 to 177)

It was a world of political conflict, shifting alliances and continuous, brutal interstate violence…(p.194)

The ancient world consisted of tribes, kingdoms and empires almost continually at war with each other. Rome was to eventually emerge as the most effective fighting state in the Mediterranean region. But first it took a century of fighting their neighbours to emerge as the strongest power in central, and then all of, Italy. And then the series of Punic Wars (264 to 146) to wear down and eliminate their main rival in the central Mediterranean. Carthage. Here are some of the key moments:

Conquest of Veii 396

396 BC Roman forces led by the dictator Marcus Furius Camillus conquered the nearby town of Veii. This probably involved relatively small numbers on both sides but was mythologised by later writers as a heroic conflict up there with the Trojan wars. For Beard its significance is that Rome didn’t just beat another city, it annexed it along with all its land. Soon afterwards, the Veii and three local tribes were included in the list of tribes who were allowed to become Roman citizens. Conquest and assimilation were to be the basis for Rome’s winning formula. It is no coincidence that around the same time as this Roman soldiers first earned a salary (from the Latin for ‘salt’) i.e. they stopped being glorified private militias and became something much more organised, centrally funded and administered (p.155).

Gauls take Rome 390 BC

Brennus was a chieftain of the Senones tribe of Cisalpine Gauls (where Cisalpine means this side of the Alps i.e. in Italy, as opposed to transalpine meaning the other side of the Alps i.e. in modern France) (incidentally that explains the newish word cisgender, meaning someone whose sense of personal identity aligns with their birth gender, as opposed to transgender meaning someone whose sense of personal identity is different from their birth sex: you can see how cis and trans retain the sense they had in ancient times of this side and that side of a border, in this case a psychological one to do with gender identity.)

Back to Brennus: in about 390 BC he defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Allia and went on to take Rome, holding it for several months (pages 138 and 155).

Brennus’s sack of Rome was the only time in 800 years the city was occupied by a non-Roman army before the fall of the city to the Visigoths in 410 AD and beard spends some time describing the how the memory grew in shame and trauma over the years, was exaggerated and lamented by 1st century writers, and routinely used as a benchmark of scandal and humiliation with which to attack contemporary politicians.

Latin War 341 to 338 (p.158)

The Samnite wars (p.158)

Fought against communities in the mountainous parts of central-south Italy (p.158).

  • First Samnite War 343 to 341
  • Second Samnite War 326 to 304
  • Third Samnite War 298 to 290

By the end of the Samnite wars over half the Italian peninsula was under Roman control, either directly or through alliances (p.159).

(334 to 323 Alexander the Great conquers from Greece to India, p.158)

Pyrrhic war 280 to 275

From the incursion of Pyrrhus in 280 BC to the final crushing of Carthage in 146 Rome was continuously at war with enemies in the Italian peninsula or overseas (p.175).

The Greek king Pyrrhus invades southern Italy but, despite a series of victories, his forces become so depleted that he moved on to Sicily (278 to 275) before returning to the mainland and being conclusively defeated by the Romans. He survived the final battle and withdrew the remnant of  his forces back to Greece (p.174).

The Pyrrhic War was the first time that Rome confronted the professional mercenary armies of the Hellenistic states of the eastern Mediterranean. Their victory sent waves around the eastern Mediterranean. As a result of the war, Rome confirmed its hegemony over southern Italy.

First Punic War 264 to 241

Rome against Carthage, fought almost entirely in the contested island of Sicily (p.175).

Second Punic war 219 to 202

When Hannibal Barca marched a Carthaginian army from Spain around the south of France and then over the Alps. This is covered in detail in Richard Miles’s book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, from which I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t a one-year campaign, but that Hannibal and his army criss-crossed Italy for fifteen years (p.175). The campaign was most famous for the epic Battle of Cannae in 216 where Hannibal destroyed a Roman army, inflicting a reputed 70,000 casualties (p.180-2).

First Macedonian war 215 to 205

The Macedon wars were triggered by fears that their king would cross the short stretch of sea to Italy to come to Hannibal’s aid. So a Roman army was sent to fight him (p.176).

Second Macedonian war 200 to 197

Syrian war 192 to 188

Under Scipio Asiaticus the Romans defeated Antiochus ‘the Great’ of Syria (who had, as it happens, given a refuge to Hannibal in exile from Carthage) (p.176).

Third Macedonian war 172 to 168

Final Roman victory in this war effectively gave Rome control over all mainland Greece (p.176 and 196). The Greek historian Polybius commented that, in the 50 years up to 168 Rome had conquered the entire known world (p.199). When Aemilius Paulinus returned from defeating king Perseus of Macedon, was given a ‘triumph’ in 167, it took three days for the procession of loot to pass through Rome, including so much silver coin that 3,000 men were needed to carry it in 750 huge vessels (p.201).

War in Iberia 155 to 133

Carthage occupied southern Spain, not least to exploit the vast silver mines there which were worked by up to 40,000 slaves (p.196). Hannibal was the son of the Carthaginian general who first conquered it, which explains why he set out from Spain, not Africa, to attack Rome. During these years Rome sent legions to finally defeat and expel the Carthaginians from southern Spain.

Third Punic war 149 to 146

Short struggle which ended with the Romans under Publius Cornelius Scipio breaking into Carthage, burning and razing it to the ground, carrying off the population that survived into slavery. For which Scipio acquired the name ‘Africanus’ i.e. African (Carthage being in north Africa, under what is the modern city of Tunis) (p.209).

War with Jugurtha 118 to 106

Described on pages 264 to 268 as an example of the way Rome’s old constitution struggled to cope with managing a Mediterranean-wide empire. The mismanagement of the war led Sallust to compose The War Against Jugurtha a devastating indictment of Rome’s failure to quell this north African ruler.

The Social War 91 to 87

From the Latin bellum sociale meaning ‘war of the allies’, when Rome went to war with its several of its autonomous allies or socii (pages 234 to 239). The allies had for some time wanted full Roman citizenship, an issue which became more and more bitterly divisive. Things came to a head when the consul Marcus Livius Drusus suggested reforms grant the Italian allies Roman citizenship, giving them a greater say in the external policy of the Roman Republic. The Roman senatorial elite rejected his ideas and he was assassinated. At which point the allies realised there was no hope of reform and communities across Italy declared independence from Rome. When the rebels took Asculum, the first city to fall to them, they slaughtered every Roman they could find. The wives of the men who refused to join them were tortured and scalped. To which Rome replied with equal brutality. And so four long years of what, in many places, was in effect a civil war. According to Beard, the Social War was:

one of the deadliest and most puzzling conflicts in Roman history (p.234)

After defeating the various allies, Rome did indeed grant citizenship to all of peninsular Italy, at a stroke trebling the number of Roman citizens to about a million. The Social War led to a complete Romanisation of Italy (p.217) and the nearest thing to a nation state that ever existed in the ancient world (p.239).

Civil wars

Which brings us to the era of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78 BC), Roman general and statesman who won the first large-scale civil war in Roman history and became the first man of the Republic to seize power through force. He was the first Roman general to march on Rome and take it by force, in 88, doing so to outlaw his enemy Gaius Marius. He did it again on his return from campaigning in the East, installing himself as dictator in Rome and embarking on a reign of terror which involved issuing proscriptions, or prices on the heads of thousands of men including a third of the Senate (pages 217 and 243). The point is that a general occupying Rome by force and bloodily wiping out his political opponents set a terrible precedent for the decades to come.

First Mithradatic war 89 to 85

The Greek king Mithradates VI of Pontus was to prove a comically irrepressible and obstinate foe (p.242).

Second Mithradatic war 83 to 81

It was during this war that General Sulla was appointed dictator by the Senate.

Third Mithradatic war 73 to 63

Revolt of Spartacus 73 to 71

Beard refers to Spartacus’s slave revolt three or four times (pages 217, 248, 249) but is not interested in the details of battles or outcomes. She uses it mainly to demonstrate modern ideas about the social make-up of the Italian countryside, in the sense that the rebellion can’t have lasted as long as it did if it was just slaves. Quite a lot of the rural poor and maybe lower middle classes must have joined it (page 217 and again on page 249).

Pompey the Great

During the 70s Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was manoeuvring to become the most powerful Roman general. In the scope of his ambition based on his enormous achievement in remodelling Rome’s entire possessions in the East, Beard thinks ‘Pompey has a good claim to be called the first Roman emperor’ (p.274). Complex politicking led in 60 BC to Pompey joining Marcus Licinius Crassus (the man who led the army which finally defeated Spartacus) and Julius Caesar in a military-political alliance known as the First Triumvirate (p.218 and 279). The point about it was the way it aimed to circumvent all the careful checks and balances of the old republican constitution in order to vest absolute and permanent power in the hands of just three men.

The 50s were a decade of complex jockeying for power as the two main players fought for Rome in their respective arenas, Caesar conquering Gaul, Pompey in the East. Crassus died at the disastrous Battle of Carrhae in 53 against Rome’s long-time eastern enemy, the Parthian Empire. His death began the unravelling of the uneasy partnership between Pompey and Caesar.

Julius Caesar

In 49 Caesar marched his army back into Italy and crossed the river Rubicon, committing to war with Pompey, a civil war which led to Pompey’s death in 48 but which dragged on until the last of his supporters were vanquished in 45.

At which point Caesar had emerged as by the far the most powerful politician and military figure in Rome and was looking forward to consolidating his power and implementing a widespread programme of reforms, when he was assassinated in March 44, plunging Rome into another 15 years of civil war.

P.S.

It’s worth reiterating and emphasising that Beard’s book is not a military history. She doesn’t give detailed descriptions of any battles, doesn’t detail the progress of any specific campaign or war. She only mentions wars as ammunition for discussions about the historical and social questions and issues which is what she’s far more interested in. So to repeat an example given above, she refers to the Spartacus rebellion 3 or 4 times but gives hardly any detail about the man himself, about the life or conditions of gladiators, doesn’t give any sense of the campaigns or battles involved in the three-year-long conflict. Instead it’s only briefly mentioned in the context of broader discussions of poverty, social ranks, relationships with Rome’s Italian allies and so on. If you’re looking for good accounts of ancient Roman wars, battles, generals and so on, this is emphatically not the book for you.


Credit

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

Roman reviews

Unconditional Surrender by Evelyn Waugh (1961)

‘Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians–not very many perhaps–who felt this. Were there none in England?’
‘God forgive me,’ said Guy. ‘I was one of them.’
(Mme. Kanyi talking to Guy Crouchback in Unconditional Surrender, page 232)

The second novel in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy followed on from the first with hardly a break, commencing on the afternoon of the same day the previous one ended. Here things are very different. At the end of the previous book, the ‘hero’ of the trilogy, Guy Crouchback, had arrived back in England eight weeks after hearing of the German invasion of Russia, on 22 June 1941, so roughly 22 August 1941. Unconditional Surrender only really gets going in August 1943, two years later i.e. there is a big gap, the central years of the war.

The book is divided into five sections or parts:

  1. PROLOGUE. Locust Years
  2. BOOK ONE. State Sword
  3. BOOK TWO. Fin de Ligne
  4. BOOK THREE. The Death Wish
  5. EPILOGUE. Festival of Britain

1. Prologue: Locust Years

This brief introduction reviews Guy’s recaps the previous 2 years, describing Guy’s lack of direction when he got back from Crete in 1941, touching base with his father at his seaside hotel. He ends up helping to assemble and train a new generation of officers and men for the Royal Corps of Halberdiers. But in August 1943 he is told he is too old to accompany them abroad. More precisely, the new CO was his superior in Freetown back in 1940 and remembers the unfortunate incident of Guy giving a very sick colleague, Apthorpe, a bottle of whiskey with which he proceeded to drink himself to death. Further clarifying the timelines, Guy takes some leave and is at Matchet with his father when Italy surrenders on September 8 1943. Jumbo Trotter visits the barracks later the same month and fins Guy miserable so tells him to move in with him in London, while they find a new role for him. At his London club, Bellamy’s, he bumps into Tommy Blackhouse, a commanding officer in the commandos, about to leave for Italy, but Guy burned his bridges when he turned down an offer to join them two years earlier, preferring to return to the Halberdiers. He’s really screwed up his choices. But it is Tommy who suggests he might find a post in HOO HQ.

2. Book One: State Sword

HOO HQ Brompton

Anyway, as the narrative proper opens Guy is rising 40. In fact early on he has his 40th birthday, 29 October 1943, the day after Waugh’s own birthday.

Guy has come to rest in one of the many departments belonging to Hazardous Offensive Operations Headquarters (HOO HQ) which has grown and spread since we first met it in 1940. Now it occupies multiple buildings in central and west London. Guy finds himself with a cramped office:

in the Venetian-Gothic brick edifice of the Royal Victorian Institute, a museum nobly planned but little frequented in the parish of Brompton.

A cramped space he shares, surreally, with ‘a plaster reconstruction of a megalosaurus’. His job appears to be to receive memos and reports from other departments, sign or stamp or comment on them, before shuffling them along to other departments. Guy goes for a stroll round the building, which is a peg to introduce several other minor characters and for Waugh to describe the way a number of them are out and out communists. The alliance with Soviet Russia has allowed this political view to both spread and be more openly espoused and discussed, and not just among the ‘working classes’. He imagines one particular lofty bureaucrat, Sir Ralph Brompton, the diplomatic adviser to HOO HQ who promotes alliances and support for communist forces everywhere, picturing Guy being put up against a wall and shot, in the best Soviet manner (p.29)

His stroll round the premises leads up to a conversation with Mr. Oates, who has recently installed an Electronic Personnel Selector, an early example of a computer and, as in a stage comedy or sitcom, he demonstrates its purpose in finding the right personnel for new jobs by discovering that there is a vacancy for a man with experience of Italy and some experience of the commandos – for Guy, in fact (p.31).

The sword of Stalingrad

Waugh novels are always multi-stranded or at least contain a number of characters and storylines. The central symbol of this book is the Sword of Stalingrad, a huge sword commissioned by the King himself and to be sent to Stalingrad in Russia as a symbol of solidarity with our Russian allies and testament to their fortitude in the brutal 6-month long siege. Silver, gold, rock-crystal and enamel had gone to its embellishment and throughout the novel it is placed on a fake altar in Westminster Cathedral where long queues of proles queue for a sight of it.

This sword, in Guy’s view a spurious product of press relations and alliance with an immoral beast is contrasted with the noble and pure sword of Sir Roger of Waybroke, an Englishman who travelled on crusade but never made it to the Holy Land, was shipwrecked on the Italian coast, fought and fell for the local count who buried him in the local church of the little island, Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, where Guy spent the 1930s. Over the years Guy developed a religious/superstitious attachment to the knight and attributed to him the finest feelings of nobility and chivalry. At the start of the first novel in the trilogy,  Men at Arms, before he leaves Santa Dulcina delle Rocce Guy touches the stone effigy of the knight and his sword, asking Sir Roger to pray for him and his embattled kingdom (i.e. Britain).

So the symbolism of the two swords, one ancient, venerable and noble, the other a modern, factitious and flashily popular fake, run through the text, symbolising the two sets of values, the two worldviews, the novel and Guy finds himself betwebelen, the dying old world and the new meritocratic one struggling to be born.

Ludovic

We are reintroduced to Ludovic, slippery, mysterious figure from book 2, who saved Guy when the two drifted across the Mediterranean in an open boat after the disastrous fall of Crete. We learn that he appears to have been picked up by the Sir Ralph Brompton we met a few pages earlier, way back in the 1930s, when he was a tall handsome junior officer in the Halberdiers. It is not stated but strongly implied that this was a homosexual affair, with the richer older man extracting Ludovic from his regiment and taking him abroad for five years to be his valet or secretary, depending on the situation, grooming and educating the lower class but handsome boy.

A decade has passed and Ludovic is a more imposing figure. He was given the Military Medical for conspicuous bravery for rescuing Guy and promoted. For a while the army couldn’t find a role for him but he was eventually put in charge of a training base in the country which teaches army and partisan groups to parachute, a job which gave him plenty of time to write and hone his literary skills. Despite all this, when in London, he still looks up old Sir Ralph for tea.

Everard Spruce

Sir Ralph is, of course, well connected, and tells Ludovic he has passed on the latter’s philosophical musings (which we saw Ludovic sketching out in the previous novel) on to the noted literary editor, Everard Spruce, editor of the fictional arts magazine Survival. This is a pretty obvious reference to the real-life noted editor Cyril Connolly and his arts magazine Horizon. Everard liked his Pensées and would like to meet him, though he thinks the title should be changed to something more modishly technical, like ‘In Transit’ (the sub-title, as it happens, of the second and final book of poems by Welsh war poet Alun Lewis).

(Waugh had already satirised Connolly and Horizon as Ambrose Silk and his magazine Ivory Tower in  the 1942 novel, Put Out More Flags. Connolly was to devote the entire February 1948 issue of Horizon to Waugh’s novel, The Loved One, so he had a keen understanding of Waugh’s importance. It is interesting that Waugh describes Spruce/Connolly as ‘a man who cherished no ambitions for the future, believing, despite the title of his monthly review, that the human race was destined to dissolve in chaos’, interesting if true of Connolly. p.39. It may be also worth noting that, despite finding himself satirised in Waugh’s novels, Connolly still described the trilogy as ‘Unquestionably the finest novel to come out of the war’, top quote on the cover of all three Penguin editions.)

Ludovic walks from Sir Ralph’s rooms in Victoria to Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where Spruce lives and works, tended on by four young bohemian secretaries, just in time for a posh party. He notices the flimsy blackout curtain, the manuscripts and mess everywhere, the posh guests. He notes and observes. What makes Ludovic so compelling is the way he is the coldest of cold fish, cold and aloof.

The Kilbannocks

We met Ian and Kerstie Kilbannock in the previous book, with their house in Eaton Terrace. Kerstie is now a cipher clerk, Ian has steadily worked his way up the pole of military press and PR. They have struggled but been sensible and make do.

Virginia Troy comes round, Guy’s ex-wife, who deserted him for Tommy Blackhouse, went on to have a string of affairs, married an American named Troy, has lived separated from him for ages. Now Troy reveals he’s had private detectives trailing her and is divorcing her on the grounds of infidelity. She will be left without a cent. For the first time in her life she’s panicking, She’s come round with all her possessions to ask Kerstie to help her go through them and decide what to pawn.

For the last few years she has been forced to support Trimmer, the ‘hero’ of a farcically incompetent ‘raid’ on the French mainland, as he tours the factories of England to boost morale, but is hopelessly in love with her. It’s Ian, as her employer at HOO HQ, who obliged her to ‘support’ Trimmer and the implication seems to be, obliged her to ‘keep him happy’ i.e. sleep with him (Trimmer).

The Loot

Waugh’s anti-Americanism came out so fiercely in the caricature of three slobbish American journalists at the end of Officers and Gentlemen. It recurs here:

London was full of American soldiers, tall, slouching, friendly, woefully homesick young men who seemed always to be in search of somewhere to sit down. In the summer they had filled the parks and sat on the pavements round the once august mansions which had been assigned to them. For their comfort there swarmed out of the slums and across the bridges multitudes of drab, ill-favoured adolescent girls and their aunts and mothers, never before seen in the squares of Mayfair and Belgravia. These they passionately and publicly embraced, in the blackout and at high noon, and rewarded with chewing-gum, razor-blades and other rare trade-goods from their PX stores.

‘Ill-favoured’ lol, that’s a nice phrase. And again when de Souza describes the experience of fighting in Italy:

‘And then in Italy there were Americans all over the place clamouring for doughnuts and Coca-Cola and ice cream.’ (p.95)

Anyway, towering above the general swarm of Yanks is a central and recurring figure, Lieutenant Padfield. The ‘Loot’ is a phenomenon, supernaturally present at every party, luncheon and dinner, knowing everyone in London, a finger in every pie. Incongruously, he goes to Everard Spruce’s party, turns up at Guy’s father’s funeral, and turns out to have been gathering evidence against Virginia for Mr Troy’s law firm.

Guy meets Ludovic

It is Guy’s fortieth birthday. He sallies forth to Bellamy’s where he meets Ian, just kicked out of his house for the evening by Kerstie who wants a girlie tete-a-tete with Virginia. Together with the Loot, Guy and Ian take a cab to Chelsea to Spruce’s party. Spruce had just gotten round to finding time to talk to Ludovic who he thinks is a very important New Writer. There is a droll bit of dialogue where Spruce thinks the lead images in Ludovic’s book of pensées (French for ‘thoughts’) are highly symbolic and/or derived from psychological sources, namely the theme of the drowned man and of the cave, while the reader of the trilogies knows that, in the last days of the ill-fated Crete campaign Ludovic holed up with other AWOL soldiers in safe caves, and then, in the local fishing boat which they got working in order to escape the advancing Germans, more than likely threw the 2 or 3 other sailors overboard in order to preserve himself and Guy. Spruce thinks these are deep symbolic images; whereas we know they are blunt facts.

‘And besides these there seemed to me two poetic themes which occur again and again. There is the Drowned Sailor motif–an echo of the Waste Land perhaps? Had you Eliot consciously in mind?’
‘Not Eliot,’ said Ludovic. ‘I don’t think he was called Eliot.’
‘Very interesting. And then there was the Cave image. You must have read a lot of Freudian psychology?’
‘Not a lot. There was nothing psychological about the cave.’

When Guy appears at Spruce’s party, Ludovic is almost paralysed with horror. The implication is that Ludovic did bump off the other men in the boat and is convinced Guy knows this and has tracked him down to confront him about it. Of course, Guy knows nothing and so is as puzzled as Spruce when Ludovic simply gets up and walks out of the party.

3. Book Two: Fin de Ligne

Virginia is pregnant

Virginia goes to a doctor who confirms she is pregnant. Must be by Trimmer. Yikes.

Guy is selected for parachute training

Guy goes for an interview about the job spat out by Mr Oates’s Electronic Personnel Selector. Something about parachuting into north Italy. He’ll need to go and do parachute training. Since the narrator has told us that Ludovic now manages a parachute training centre…

Guy’s father’s funeral

When Guy returns to the Transit Camp he finds a telegram from his sister telling him his father has died peacefully in his sleep. So he catches a train to Matchet with Box-Bender to attend the funeral whose Catholic elaborations are described in great detail. The county lord-lieutenant, a representative of the cardinal etc are in attendance and so, incongruously, is the Loot, who turns up everywhere. Angela and Guy are both astonished at the number of thank you letters their father has received; seems he quietly performed countless acts of charity, as well as giving a lot of his income to the needy.

Quantitative judgments don’t apply

The last time they’d met, Guy and his father had a little disagreement about the policy of the Popes concerning compromising with the values of the modern world. Guy argued that the popes should have stood aloof from all politics since Italian unification (1871). A few days later his father writes him a kindly letter explaining that, in his opinion, this is not how Catholicism works. It works in the world and through the world. It cannot disengage and hold itself in an ivory castle. Who knows how many souls came to the Church and so were saved because of successive Popes’ interventions:

Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of “face.”

This is a very important quote. Guy will repeat it to himself over and again as the novel progresses, regarding Virginia and in Yugoslavia.

The first abortionist

Kerstie prises the address of an illegal abortionist out of her very reluctant doctor, but when Virginia takes a taxi to the address it is bombed out. When she pops into nearby Claridge’s she finds the Loot, who tells her about attending Mr Crouchback’s funeral, and also the surprising news that he was quite well off. Planting a seed…

The voodoo abortionist

When Virginia tries a Black doctor who Kerstie’s cleaner recommends as an abortionist, there is broad farce when Virginia discovers he has been hired by HOO HQ to perform voodoo ceremonies in order to give the Nazi leaders bad dreams! He asks her whether she has brought the scorpions he’s requested as part of his ceremonies. No, replies Virginia. No, I haven’t brought scorpions.

The witch doctor sits alongside Dr Glendening-Rees, the forager sent to teach the commando how to eat seaweed and heather in Officers and Gentlemen, in Waugh’s gallery of military eccentrics.

Ludovic and the parachute training centre

It is November 1943 (p.117). Ludovic lives a quiet civilised life at his parachute training base in Essex (officially known as ‘Number 4 Special Training Centre’). Until he receives notification that none other than Guy Crouchback is among the next batch of trainees. He is horrified, convinced it is fate.

In the bus en route to the training centre, Guy bumps into an old hand from the Halberdiers, de Souza who becomes very confidential, saying a number of the 12 ‘candidates’ for the course probably know Sir Ralph Brompton. It’s becoming pretty obvious Brompton is more than a communist sympathiser, but maybe a Soviet spy.

Sustained and very evocative description of parachute training. Also a sustained running joke about Ludovic’s fantastically chilling effect on all around him. In fact, upon learning that Guy is coming for training he orders his staff to remove his name from all official documents, noticeboards, not to refer to him by name and to have his meals sent up to his room. De Souza notices this and makes a very funny running joke about their commanding officer having been overthrown in a coup and now being held hostage in his own room.

When it comes turn to do his first parachute jump Guy twists the same knee he injured all those years ago in the Halberdier barracks and is sent off to hospital whereupon Ludovic deigns to come down from his rooms and dine with the other 11 trainees, casting a wonderfully ghoulish coldness over the assembly. De Souza nicknames him Major Dracula. His number two seriously considers the possibility that his commanding officer has gone mad (mental illness and madness being, as we have so often observed, a recurrent theme in Waugh’s work). As de Souza puts it:

‘In my experience the more responsible posts in the army are largely filled by certifiable lunatics. They don’t cause any more trouble than the sane ones.’ (p.109)

Ludovic, like Apthorpe in the first book, only in a very different way, is a comic creation of genius. He consolidates his reputation for weirdness by insisting on buying a Pekinese dog. He clinches his second in command’s view that he’s gone mad when he exits the dinner singing the music hall song:

Jumbo rescues Guy who moves in with Uncle Peregrine

Guy hates it in the RAF hospital where the officers are rude and lackadaisical and which is bombarded all day long with the throbbing and wailing of jazz music from the wireless. He gets de Souza to pass on a message to Jumbo Trotter who promptly comes down to rescue him and take him back to his digs. However, Guy becomes depressed, so depressed that he takes up the offer of his uncle, his father’s brother, the notorious bore Peregrine Crouchback, to move in with him in his house in Bourne Mansions, Carlisle Place. It is the time of the Tehran Conference 28 November to 1 December 1943.

Virginia pops in on Guy. She takes to popping in every day, bringing cards and gin. She inveigles dear old Uncle Peregrine into taking her out for dinner and explains that she is thinking of becoming a Catholic so she can return to being married to Guy. She is quite candid about being skint, needing money and being tired of gallivanting around. Peregrine is a bit put out because, in his ancient innocence, he’d been rather thinking she’d been popping in to see him.

Then one day she tells him the truth. Asks if he loves her. Very unusually for Waugh, there is a reference to sex, when she runs her hand up his leg under his bedclothes (Guy is still restricted to bed because of his knee) and gets no response. In fact Guy instinctively shies away from her. No attraction at all. It is then she makes the Great Revelation of the novel and tells him she is pregnant, with Trimmer’s child.

To the astonishment of everyone in the know, namely Ian and Kerstie Kilbannock, Guy agrees on the spot to take her back, to get remarried in a civil ceremony (they were never parted, according to this theology). So Virginia and Ian, returning from Christmas 1943 discover Virginia has moved out of their house (where shes’ been staying, much to Ian’s mounting irritation) and moved straight into Uncle Peregine’s house, room next to Guy’s.

Kerstie goes straight round, Virginia is out, and she tells him point blank about Virginia’s baby by Trimmer and is flabbergasted that Guy knows. He tries to explain. For over a decade he was lived alone, depressed, morose, occasionally wishing there was one good deed he could do in the world, one good deed which was genuinely selfless, entirely about helping someone else. By helping Virginia in her time of need, and by becoming father to the child, he helps a vulnerable woman and a baby who would be fatherless.

Kerstie says wartorn Europe is full of helpless women and orphans. But Guy says he can’t help all of them. But he could help Virginia. He repeats the words of his father:

Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of loss of “face.”

Remarrying Virginia and fathering the child are good deeds; loss of face before the whole world is secondary.

4. Book Three: The Death Wish

It is late February 1944 and Guy is flown in a Dakota plane via stopovers in Gibraltar and North Africa to Bari in Italy. Reports for duty to the Headquarters of the British Mission to the Anti-fascist Forces of National Liberation (Adriatic). He’s been dispatched here because a) Ludovic lied about his success in parachute training in order to get ride of him (as we saw, Guy failed to complete the course due to a knee injury); and b) because in the bowels of HOO HQ Sir Ralph and colleagues think Guy will make a good clean cover for what they’re really up to i.e. aiding the communist partisans.

Having signed in and met the Brigadier and the keen information officer Joe Cattermole, he is filled in about the Yugoslavs or ‘Jugs’ as the Brits call them. Keen to take all the help they can from the British, but their true leaders are the Russians, pan-Slavism. The partisans offer a permanent irritation to the Germans, who periodically carry out sweeps into the mountains. But the Germans’ central aim is to keep communications with Greece open. Earlier in the war they were going to use this as a jumping off point for the Middle East, for Palestine or Egypt. Now, with the tide strongly against them, they need Yugoslavia open so when the time is right they can withdraw their Greek army out and up into mainland Europe.

Guy us kept hanging round. He socialises with the Brigadier who has a WAAF mistress, he lunches and dines out, though the food is as thin and grim as back in England. He meets the bloody Loot who, improbably enough, is being paid to recruit a full orchestra and revive Italian opera, with the aim of winning over Italian hearts and minds. It’s proving difficult to find any singers.

In March 1943 Guy is informed he is to be parachuted into Croatia. He visits a church to make a last confession. He surprises us by confessing that he wants to die. It’s important to catch all the nuances of this surprising declaration to so I quote at length:

Guy had no preparations to make for this journey except to prepare himself. He walked to the old town, where he found a dilapidated romanesque church where a priest was hearing confessions. Guy waited, took his turn and at length said: “Father, I wish to die.’
‘Yes. How many times?’
‘Almost all the time.’
The obscure figure behind the grill leant nearer. ‘What was it you wished to do?’
‘To die.’
‘Yes. You have attempted suicide?’
‘No.’
‘Of what, then, are you accusing yourself? To wish to die is quite usual today. It may even be a very good disposition. You do not accuse yourself of despair?’
‘No, Father; presumption. I am not fit to die.’
‘There is no sin there. This is a mere scruple. Make an act of contrition for all the unrepented sins of your past life.’ (p.170)

Guy’s title is Military Liaison Officer, his job is to report on the military situation from the British Mission at a place called Begoy. Also to transcribe, encypher and send to Allied HQ in Italy the partisans’ often exorbitant and detailed requirements. He is grudgingly accepted by the ‘Jugs’. He is given a Serb ‘translator’ who speaks English with a brutal Noo Yawk accent and is, of course, a spy.

Time passes. One day the translator tells him a group of Jews is outside. A deputation ask him for help to travel to Italy. He explains that only the wounded and soldiers are flown out on the daily plane, it is not for civilians. They go away disgruntled. A month later he is asked to report on displaced persons in his area (UNRRA stands for United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration):

U.N.R.R.A. research team requires particulars displaced persons. Report any your district. This phrase, which was to be among the keywords of the decade, was as yet unfamiliar.
‘What are “displaced persons”?’ he asked the Squadron Leader.
‘Aren’t we all?’ (p.179)

Guy goes to see the hundred or so Jewish refugees who are living in absolute squalor. His visit annoys the partisan authorities who call him to a meeting more like an interrogation and tell him it is not his place to interfere in internal matters of what will become their country. Guy explains he was only following direct orders from UNRRA and gets cross.

That night he gets a telegram saying Virginia has given birth to a son. The Crouchback line will be continued. It is 4 June 1944, the day Allied forces enter Rome.

Waning force

Waugh describes a general sense of power moving away from many of the London characters. On the eve of Operation Overlord pretty much everything HOO HQ ever cooked up seems redundant. General Whale has creates of old files burned. Ian Kilbannock tries to get a posting to follow the troops to Normandy: first-hand D-Day experience will be like gold dust in a post-war career.

Ludovic and Brideshead Revisited

Ludovic has been writing a novel and sending the instalments off to a typist in Scotland to type up the manuscript. It has a plot of Shakespearian improbability and is told in over-the-top prose. Waugh tells us half a dozen other novelists were working in the same vein of over-written nostalgia:

Had he known it, half a dozen other English writers, averting themselves sickly from privations of war and apprehensions of the social consequences of the peace, were even then severally and secretly, unknown to one another, to Everard Spruce, to Coney and to Frankie, composing or preparing to compose books which would turn from drab alleys of the thirties into the odorous gardens of a recent past transformed and illuminated by disordered memory and imagination…Nor was it for all its glitter a cheerful book. Melancholy suffused all its pages and deepened towards the close. (p.188)

I wonder if Waugh is describing his own magnum opus, Brideshead Revisited, which he wrote in an intense burst of work from December 1943 to June 1944. In his preface to the 1963 edition Waugh himself described Brideshead in similar terms:

It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English – and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful.

Ludovic titles his over-written melodrama The Death Wish. To Ian Kilbannock’s surprise, his exhausted superior General Whale one evening confides he is so tired he just wants to die (p.191). Virginia gives birth to her baby son and has a nurse and has people round to see it and it is christened into the Catholic faith, but she can’t bring herself to look at it, refers to it as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’.

Germany commences its operation of sending V1 rockets to land on London. Members of Bellamy’s are not so exuberant as during the Blitz at the start of Officers and Gentlemen. The war is obviously winding down and the best is behind them. Opportunities are closed. Their record is their record. They listen to each night’s series of random explosions glumly. Each night Virginia wonders if the next one she hears will be the one to kill her (p.191). She sends the baby with Angela down to her place in the country for safety.

Virginia’s death

Sure enough a doodlebug kills Virginia, landing on the house in Carlisle Place one morning at 10am, killing Peregrine and the housekeeper, too. Angela sends an air mail latter which Guy opens after the daily plane has touched down with supplies. There is a very moving passage where Guy remembers what happened when Virginia moved in with him after their simple registrar ceremony of remarriage i.e. they went to bed together. Over the next few weeks his knee healed but so did a big hole in his heart.

Without passion or sentiment but in a friendly, cosy way they had resumed the pleasures of marriage and in the weeks while his knee mended the deep old wound in Guy’s heart and pride healed also, as perhaps Virginia had intuitively known that it might do. January had been a month of content; a time of completion, not of initiation. When Guy was passed fit for active service and his move-order was issued, he had felt as though he were leaving a hospital where he had been skilfully treated, a place of grateful memory to which he had no particular wish to return. He did not mention Virginia’s death to Frank then or later. (p.196)

I found this very moving indeed, the complexity of adult, mature, married love, after a lifetime of unhappiness and tribulation. Like many other moments in the trilogy it seems to me to strike exactly the right note of melancholy healing and closure.

Catholic convert Eloise Plessington asks Angela Box-Bender if she can take little baby Gervase off her hands, he is her godson after all. Their conversation is a pretext for speculating that maybe, from a theological point of view, this was the perfect moment for Virginia to be killed, when she was happy and had done a noble deed, a moment of maximum grace.

Some Jews escape

Guy is less moved by Virginia’s death than the fact the UNRRA asked for 2 representatives of his displaced Jews to be sent back on the same flight. the partisans refuse to let the young, best educated couple leave because the husband is the only one who can keep the generator going which (intermittently) keeps the lights on in the little cluster of buildings they all inhabit. So Guy sends two other Jews off to Italy to plead the cause of their colleagues with the authorities.

De Souza

The same flight brings in Frank de Souza who Guy and we have known since the first book when they were new officers in the Halberdiers together. De Souza has been promoted and is now Guy’s superior officer. He puts Guy in the picture. The British have leaned on the Serb government in exile in London, complete with king, to accept a new set of ministers and advisers who are more friendly to the communists and the partisans and deprecate the Jug royalists, the Chetniks. Tito is going to meet Churchill. Basically de Souza is a representative of a government which is going to sell out the Yugoslav nation to the communists.

Guy visits the local priest to arrange a mass to be said for his dead wife. The communist partisans are deeply suspicious, arrest the priest, confiscate the food Guy gave him and de Souza gives him a dressing down. The key thing is not to offend the communist partisans. Guy is disgusted.

This whole sequence leads up to a showcase military operation put on to impress the Americans and persuade them of the British support for the partisans. The communists line up an attack on an isolated guardhouse, not manned by Germans or even by the Croatian fascist Ustaše but by the pretty hopeless Croatian home guard.

It is fitting that this fiasco is witnessed by Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke, now reduced to a shambling wreck of  his former self, and by Ian Kilbannock, hyper ambitious to establish himself as a wide-ranging political commentator, along with the Loot, of course, and quite a throng of other military top brass (even someone from the Free French).

The plane crash

The plane Kilbannock, Ritchie-Hooke and his aide, the Loot and his tame British composer, the American general and his staff, a photographer and the Free Frenchman are flying in crashes in a field. It is very vividly described from the point of view of Ian who comes round to find himself lying hear the burning plane. The American general got most of them out. The crew were killed. Guy and staff from the British Mission and partisans arrive to help them onto stretchers and to a nearby sick bay.

The staged attack

The attack on the ‘enemy’ blockhouse, which is really more by way of being a small ancient castle, is, as you might expect, a fiasco. There are meant to be two brigades of partisans. One is on time the other is late, when the second one arrives the first opens fire on it. Precisely at 10am two RAF planes scream out of the blue and fire two missiles, the first pair completely missing the blockhouse, the second hitting the massive stone walls and barely scratching them. News arrives that a German patrol is on its way, at which point Waugh delivers a lovely comic exchange between the American general who’s been flown all this way to observe the indomitable partisans in action and his partisan translator:

‘A German armoured column has been warned and is on its way here.’
‘What do your men do about that?’
‘Before a German armoured column they disperse. That is the secret of our great and many victories.’ (p.221)

The partisans are sneaking away and de Souza announces lunch, when everyone sees an extraordinary spectacle. Revived by his close shave with death the night before, Ben Ritchie-Hooke advances across the bridge towards the solid little castle all alone except for the American photographer who tumbles around him like a dwarf in a medieval court. Ben assumes the partisans will be following his gallant charge but they have disappeared and he is shot down in a hail of Croat bullets. The German patrol which arrives a little later is mystified by this single-handed attack on a fortified position by a British major-general, attended in one account by a small boy, in another by a midget. War as farcical tragedy, tragic farce. Chatting with the General’s aide later, Guy learns he had, for some time, expressed a wish to die in battle. Like so many others, he, too, had a death wish.

The Jews

There’s a funeral service for the dead in the plane then things settle down. The Germans are withdrawing. The American general gives the go-ahead for the partisans to receive many more supplies. These are flown in on a daily basis. There’s little form Guy to do except watch. August turns into September 1944. Guy asks de Souza to send messages about the transport of the hundred Jews to Italy. Messages go back and forth.

At the end of September de Souza leaves. He explains that Tito has gone over to the Russians lock, stock and barrel. Winston had hoped to set up a coalition government in Belgrade comprising different ethnic groups and a political mix i.e. democrats and liberals. Not going to happen now: it’s going to be a Soviet dictatorship.

Things go quiet. The local priest is gone, who knows where, his house requisitioned by communists. Guy is followed everywhere by his translator-minder, who he likes to torment by going for long tramps through the wet countryside. On his 41st birthday, 29 October 1944, Guy receives the thrilling news that four Dakota planes will fly in to evacuate the Jews. The Jews are rounded up and marched to the landing field but a very thick fog prevents their despatch. Twice in the next couple of weeks the planes arrive but cannot land. Guy is obsessed. He prays to God to clear the fogs. God doesn’t listen, Then the first snows fall. There will be no more landings till the spring.

Then news comes of a special air drop of supplies solely for the Jews. But the partisan general in charge of the committee which liaises with the British Mission refuses to accept this and, when the supplies are parachuted in, confiscates them all.

Also in October 1944 Belgrade was liberated by the Soviet Red Army, Yugoslav Partisans, and the Bulgarian Army. With no explanation the Jews are suddenly given the supplies which had been impounded and for a week they appear in public wearing a bizarre array of English clothes and properly fed for the first time in a year. Then they disappear. The creepy young translator to the communist commissar explains that partisans and fighting forces complained that they had no boots or winter coats. The goods have been redistributed and the Jews moved to other accommodation.

A few days later Guy encounters the young Jewish woman who speaks Italian and, the first time he saw them, translated. She explains it was the peasants who complained about the largesse shown to the Jews and the partisans are dependent on the peasants for food. She explains the Jews have been moved to a former Nazi prison camp. Guy is horrified and says he will kick up a fuss when he is flown back to Italy. At which point this Jewess, Mme. Kanyi, delivers the moral of this part of the novel and maybe of the sequence as a whole:

‘There was a time when I thought that all I needed for happiness was to leave. Our people feel that. They must move away from evil. Some hope to find homes in Palestine. Most look no farther than Italy–just to cross the water, like crossing the Red Sea. Is there any place that is free from evil? It is too simple to say that only the Nazis wanted war. These Communists wanted it too. It was the only way in which they could come to power. Many of my people wanted it, to be revenged on the Germans, to hasten the creation of the national state. It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians–not very many perhaps–who felt this. Were there none in England?’
‘God forgive me,’ said Guy. ‘I was one of them.’ (p.232)

The coast

Guy is ordered to leave Begoy. He drives through ruined villages to the coast at Split. He is ordered to Dubrovnik to liaise between a small British force which had landed under the impression it was among friends only to find itself impounded by the communist partisans.

In mid-February 1945 he is withdrawn along with the British party and finds himself in Bari a year after he arrived. There he learns that the Jews of Begoy were finally liberated when a private American sponsor paid for an expedition of trucks to drive from Italy to collect them, bribing the partisans to release them. When Guy visits them he finds them in yet another camp guarded by soldiers, albeit British. But Mme. Kanyi and her husband are not among them. Through an interpreter Guy learns they were taken off the truck by the partisans of Begoy.

The fellow traveller

Finally he gets some sense from an odious functionary named Gilpin who we first met at the parachute training centre where Guy overheard him whispering to de Souza, linking both to Sir Ralph Brompton and his set of communist agents. Now this self-satisfied lickspittle rattles off a list of typically inaccurate communist accusations – that she was the mistress of the British Liaison Officer (meaning him, Guy), that her husband sabotaged the power plant (when he was the only engineer who could keep it going), that she was caught in possession of counter-revolutionary propaganda (before leaving Guy had given her the Mission’s collection of American glossy magazines). It is a pack of lies which Gilpin goes on to compound when Gilpin goes on to say that Guy himself was almost had up on a disciplinary charge for consorting with her, but one of the other communist officers decided to let him off. He goes on to say that the couple were tried by a Peoples’ Court and ‘You may be sure that justice has been done.’

This is such a travesty of the truth, such an inversion of ‘justice’, such a betrayal of any ideas of a just war and honour, all delivered with an unctuous smile by a vile and vindictive little functionary that Guy clenches his fist to punch him. But what would be the point? It is the final absolute crushing of all Guy’s ideals of honour, charity and justice in this world.

5. Epilogue: Festival of Britain

The Festival if Britain took place in London starting in May 1951. In this novel it is the occasion for a party when Tommy Blackhouse, now a much-decorated general, assembles 15 old comrades for dinner at Bellamy’s. On the same evening Arthur Box-Bender is giving a party for his daughter’s 18th birthday, which is, the narrator emphasises, absolutely nothing like the glittering ‘coming out’ balls held for the young ladies of his generation. Disgusted by the manners and clothes of the younger generation, Box-Bender takes the first opportunity to get away from it and strolls down to St James’s Street and into Bellamy’s just as the raucous Blackhouse party comes tumbling out of its room. Typically quick drunken conversations allow Waugh very beautifully and neatly, as in an old fashioned novel, to tell us the post-war fates of his characters:

  • Tommy Blackhouse had returned to England in May. He was retiring from the army with many decorations, a new, pretty wife and the rank of major-general.
  • Ivor Claire had spent six months in Burma with the Chindits, had done well, collected a D.S.O. and an honourably incapacitating wound. He was often in Bellamy’s now. His brief period of disgrace was set aside and almost forgotten.
  • Trimmer had disappeared. All Tommy’s enquiries failed to find any trace of him. Some said he had jumped ship in South Africa. Nothing was known certainly.
  • Box-Bender lost his seat in parliament in the great Labour landslide of 1945.
  • Box-Bender was defeated by Gilpin, the revolting wretch who gloatingly told Guy about the execution of the Kanyis. He is now a Labour MP, not popular in the House but making his mark and had lately become an under-secretary.
  • Guy has sold the Castello Crouchback. To Ludovic of all people.
  • Ludovic’s long novel, The Death Wish, which we saw him working on, old nearly a million copies in America and they’ve just filmed it. He’s rich.
  • Improbably, but in a gesture towards poetic justice, it appears ‘the Loot’, Lieutenant Padfield, has become Ludovic’s fixer and general factotum.
  • Guy has married Domenica, daughter of Lady Plessington, a family friend and godmother to Gervase (Guy’s son by Virginia). He has taken back the property at Broome and is just about making a go of running the farm. In the end, after all his tribulations, things turn out well for Guy.

Summary

Taken individually all three novels are brilliant, combining comedy, complicated storylines, vivid characters and an extraordinary grasp of the complexities of military and social life during the war. Taken together, the Sword of Honour trilogy is surely one of the greatest achievements of English literature in the twentieth century.

The final sequence of events in which Guy agrees to marry Virginia and thus do the one good, selfless deed he had been seeking to do since the start of the war, in which she is then killed by a V rocket but the baby saved; and his long attempts to do right by the Jews in Croatia; all make for a very moving, sometimes overwhelming cocktail of emotions. It feels deep and rich and true to the complex mix of hopes and hard work and frustration and small victories which life is really like. The trilogy as a whole is an extraordinary achievement.


History of the language

New phrases

It’s a very minor point, but these books contain occasional references to phrases which have just entered the language at the moment he’s describing. Thus book one refers to ‘the already advertised spirit of Dunkirk’. The second half of book two is titled ‘In The Picture’, a phrase Waugh ironically describes thus:

Trimmer remained quiet while he was ‘put in the picture’. It was significant, Ian Kilbannock reflected while he listened to the exposition of GSO II (Planning) that this metaphoric use of ‘picture’ had come into vogue at the time when all the painters of the world had finally abandoned lucidity.

As this snippet suggests, Waugh is old bufferishly critical, disdainful or contemptuous of these new-fangled phrases, using antiseptic speech marks to handle them with. Same happens in this book, when the literary editor Spruce is said to receive ‘fan letters’ (p.42). When he refers to Guy taking the ‘tube railway’ (p.47) he sounds like a ridiculous old fuddy-duddy. Or when Virginia says:

‘I just feel I ought to have what Mr. Troy calls a ‘check-up.'”

He tells us the working class term ‘ducks’ had become prevalent during the Blitz. Here’s Mrs Bristow, Kerstie Kilbannock’s cleaner:

“Just off, ducks,” she said using a form of address that had become prevalent during the blitz.

In fact Waugh gives us more samples of the working class speech of the time than in the previous books:

  • ‘Sorry, sir,’ said the [the Staff Captain’s batman] as he discovered the tousled figure. ‘Didn’t know you was here.’ (p.114)
  • ‘Cor,’ he said, ‘just take a dekko at the little perisher.’ (p.115)

Americanisms

Having had occasional contact with the film world during the 1930s (and having, outside the timeline of the novel, been to Hollywood in 1947) Waugh has picked up plenty of Americanisms which he handles with distaste:

Stirred by the heavy North African wine, de Souza’s imagination rolled into action as though at a “story conference” of jaded script-writers. (p.111)

Other Americanisms are handled with care:

Here was something most unwelcome, put into my hands; something which I believe the Americans describe as ‘beyond the call of duty’; not the normal behaviour of an officer and a gentleman… (p.151)

And American food, creeping in everywhere:

A civilian waiter brought them their pink gins. Guy asked him in Italian for olives. He answered in English almost scornfully: “No olives for senior officers,” and brought American peanuts. (p.157)

It is sweet that he uses phrases like ‘motor bus’ and ‘wireless’. In this respect Waugh is a good example of the futility of thinking that if you use old-fashioned words and are openly contemptuous of new-fangled phrases, you can somehow prevent social change. No-one can prevent social change nor the steady evolution of the language. King Canute on the beach.

The wireless

It is interesting that Waugh detested the earliest signs of muzak. This occasionally crops up in the other novels, where he had shown a fuddy-duddy objection to the ‘wireless’ and, surprisingly for a member of the late 1920s Bright Young Things, an antipathy to jazz. It becomes more noticeable in this novel. Thus the ageing Guy shows a mild resentment of:

The new young officers were conscripts who liked to spend their leisure listening to jazz on the wireless.

And at the parachute training centre the incessant music from the ‘wireless’ infuriates the usually mild-mannered Guy:

‘Can’t you stop this infernal noise?’
‘What noise was that?’
‘The wireless.’
‘Oh, no. I couldn’t do that. It’s laid on special. Piped all through the camp. It isn’t all wireless anyway. Some of it’s records. You’ll soon find you get so you don’t notice it.’

It is characteristic of Waugh that he associates enjoyment of ‘wireless’ programmes to the uneducated lower classes, for example, Kerstie Kilbannock’s cleaner:

Kerstie did not sleep long, but when she came downstairs at noon, she found that the lure of Bellamy’s had proved stronger than Ian’s caution and that the house was empty save for Mrs. Bristow, who was crowning her morning’s labour with a cup of tea and a performance on the wireless of “Music While You Work.” (p.90)

Ian and Kerstie Kilbannock returned to London from Scotland on the night of Childermas. He went straight to his office, she home, where Mrs. Bristow was smoking a cigarette and listening to the wireless. (p.148)


Credit

Unconditional Surrender by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1961. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh (1952)

‘I’m what’s called a “conducting officer”. I take American journalists round fighter stations. But I shall find something else soon. The great thing is to get into uniform; then you can start moving yourself round. It’s a very exclusive war at present. Once you’re in, there’s every opportunity.’
(Lord Ian Kilbannock explaining to Guy the importance of getting on in a war, Men at Arms)

Men at Arms is the first in what developed into a trilogy of novels about the Second World War which Waugh named The Sword of Honour trilogy. It tells the story of devout Catholic, conservative, standoffish but honourable and frequently depressed fellow, Guy Crouchback:

Thirty-five years old, slight and trim, plainly foreign but not so plainly English, young, now, in heart and step…

The novel starts with the outbreak of the Second World War and follows Guy’s long, clumsy and sometimes very funny progress through the military machine, with a world of details about the farcical bureaucratic aspects of army life.

But the book also includes, like a persistent background hum, Guy’s deep Catholic faith and his feel for the ‘old’ values of religion and an older traditional way of life embodied in the figure of Guy’s venerable father, Mr Crouchback.

And the book’s other understated but persistent theme is for Guy’s loneliness and isolation, his unhappiness, sometimes sinking as low as actual despair. For too long, the narrative tells us, Guy has inhabited a ‘dry, empty place’ of the soul.

The Crouchback family

How so? Well, Guy’s character is carefully constructed to evoke the same kind of pity and compassion he was seeking to evoke in Brideshead Revisited, the sense of the decline and fall of a once noble family, the sense of quietly heroic old buffers trying to keep up ancient values and dignity in a world gone to hell.

Guy’s father is over 70, a quiet, decent man of deep devout Catholic faith who has nobly weathered a series of setbacks. He is the representative of a family which can trace its lineage back to the time of Henry I. For centuries the Crouchback family have lived in a country estate named Broome, somewhere in north Devon. But the family suffered a) personal and b) financial setbacks.

On the personal front, Mr Crouchback’s wife gave him four children then died young, leaving him with a permanent sense of sadness. Worse was to come because, at the outbreak of the Great War, the eldest son and heir, Gervase, went straight from his Catholic private school, Downside, into the Irish Guards, where he managed to get himself killed on his first day in the trenches. Then the second son, Ivo, always a loner and oddball, when he was 26 went missing from home and was discovered months later, holed up in a lodging in Cricklewood where he was deliberately starving himself to death. He was brought home but the damage was done and he died soon after.

There was an only daughter, Angela, who married a non-Catholic, an ambitious chap who’s gone on to become a successful Conservative MP, Arthur Box-Bender.

And Guy himself. Guy also ‘married out’ of the family religion, marrying the beautiful non-Catholic socialite, Virginia. He took his younger son’s share of the diminished family fortune and settled in Kenya, running a farm beside a mountain lake where the flamingos rose at dawn first white then pink. Wow. But his wife pined and said she needed to go to England for a break and then, after 6 months or so, wrote to announce she was leaving him, for a mutual friend named Tommy Blackhouse.

‘Poor Guy, you did get in a mess, didn’t you? Money gone, me gone, all in one go. I suppose in the old days they’d have said I’d ruined you.’
‘They might.’

Now, Guy is a Catholic, his father is a Catholic, his sister is a Catholic and so they all take it for granted that, although he can get divorced according to the law of the land, he cannot be divorced in the eyes of God. In other words, he will never be able to remarry, never be able to have children, in particular a son. Therefore the family name is doomed to die out. This is the pessimistic scenario Waugh has engineered for his characters, one source of the sense of loss and mild depression which hangs over the figure of Guy Crouchback.

His non-Catholic brother-in-law Box-Bender is just the most prominent of their friends who think this is all nonsense: Guy should just remarry, have children, reclaim the home farm, revive the estate and the family name. Where’s the problem? When Guy meets up with his ex-wife again in London, she also is blissfully light-hearted about it all:

‘You never married again?’
‘How could I?’
‘Darling, don’t pretend your heart was broken for life.’
‘Apart from my heart, Catholics can’t remarry, you know.’
‘Oh, that. You still keep to all that?’
‘More than ever.’

But Box-Bender, Virginia and all the rest of them are pagans, non-believers, not part of the clique, not part of sinn fein (Irish for ‘ourselves’), of the cosa nostra (Italian for ‘our thing’), of the special ones. They are not Catholics, and Catholicism, at least in Waugh’s hands, is not only a theological but a sociological marker, which sets the believer apart and, though he doesn’t overplay this, pretty obviously marks them as morally and spiritually superior to everyone else around him.

So much for a) the personal; as to b) the financial situation, in the aftermath of the First World War the estate became slowly too large and costly for Mr Crouchback to run. So he sold off the contents (attending the auction himself), let the house to a convent and retired to a hotel in Matchet, a nearby seaside resort.

However, it is important for Waugh and his characters that the ancient rituals do not completely die out and so ‘the sanctuary lamp still burned at Broome as of old’ and Guy’s father attends mass there once a year.

So, both financially and personally, the Crouchback family has fallen a long way and Guy is its embattled, lonely, often depressed last representative.

Guy is a loner

Guy’s Kenya period is underplayed, referred to only in a couple of sentences. Much more is made of the family’s Italian property, ‘Castello Crouchback’, on the idyllic Italian island of Santa Dulcina delle Rocce, a property bought by Guy’s grandfather back in the time of Queen Victoria. In fact the novel opens with a historical passage describing the first arrival of those grandparents on a yachting holiday at the island and their decision to buy the run-down ruins.

You might have thought these opening passages would afford luxury descriptions of pre-war Italy, and they do, a bit, but what they’re really for is to establish a) the penumbra of sadness which hangs over Guy ever since his wife left him eight years earlier, and b) the way he can never really make friends. He’s always an outsider. The Italian villagers take to nearly all the other expats on the island, they are sympatico, but Guy is not simpatico.

He was not loved, Guy knew, either by his household or in the town. He was accepted and respected but he was not simpatico.

Guy is lonely. Inside him is a blankness, an emptiness he can’t put into words, his imagination a prey to mournful images:

Sometimes he imagined himself serving the last mass for the last Pope in a catacomb at the end of the world.

It is against this complex family and personal background that the declaration of war comes on 3 September 1939 and (like many other men) Guy is hugely relieved to escape the frustrations and unhappiness of personal life, and make a clear and unambiguous commitment: to return to England to serve his king and country and fight against unambiguous evil.

Guy back in England

All the above is explained in a sort of prologue to the book. The main action of the novel opens with the declaration of war and Guy packing his stuff to return from his Italian island home to England to serve king and country.

Guy arrives in London hoping to find a role in the army straightaway. He goes to his club, Bellamy’s, every day. Everyone is in turmoil. Everyone has evacuated their families from their London places and sent them down to the country. Box-Bender is locking up his London place and moving in with two male friends. Guy embarks on a campaign to get himself into the army, buttonholing military friends and writing countless letters to ministries and old contacts. No joy.

So he goes to stay with his sister Angela at her home in Gloucestershire.

Box-Bender’s house was a small, gabled manor in a sophisticated village where half the cottages were equipped with baths and chintz.

In a typically comic/farcical detail, their hallway is stuffed with crates of ‘Hittite tablets’ evacuated from the British Museum.

Guy is impressed by Arthur and Angela’s son, Tony, young and keen, who’s already got himself a place in the army, lucky blighter. They gossip about all the local families, some who’ve left the country altogether (the Abercrombies have decamped to Jamaica) and about the numerous accidents resulting from the blackout. Scandalised reports of the crime wave prompted by the blackout, lots of muggings.

After staying the night Guy travels down to see his father at the pub, the Marine Arms, in Matchet, where he took rooms as a long-term resident after he relinquished the estate at Broome. Like everywhere in England it’s in a tizzy because of the war, packed with an unusual numbers of guests, some of the staff have been conscripted etc. In the dining room, his father introduces him to Tickeridge, a hairy old cove who’s a major in the Halberdiers. When Guy expresses a genuine wish to be in the army, Tickeridge says he’ll see what he can do. Ha! Contacts. It’s not what you know, or who you know – it’s who your father knows!

Guy joins the army

And so Guy finds himself one of a new cohort of officers in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, nicknamed the Apple Jacks and the Copper Heads, a fictional regiment which is going to be central to his career in the army and all three novels. His closest associate is a lightly eccentric fellow called Apthorpe.

Both being that much older, they find themselves referred to as ‘uncle’. Lots of detail of army protocol, an extension of the strict rules around correct dress which were drummed into him at school, then university. Regimental traditions. Pen portraits of the other new officers, namely de Souza, Sarum-Smith, Leonard and a slightly shifty chap called Trimmer.

Guy joins his regiment

Guy joins the Halberdiers at their peacetime barracks. There is basic training and squarebashing i.e. drill on parade grounds. There is a lot of fuss about dressing correctly for different functions at different times of day, for example, the officers have to dress appropriately, and immaculately, for dinner in the mess hall.

It is obvious to me, at any rate, how life in the army follows naturally from life at prep school, life at private school, life at Oxford or Cambridge, and then life in the kind of upper class country house which Waugh idealises. What they all have in common are servants who do all the drudgery, change bedding, do all laundry, clean shoes and boots and cook and bring drinks. Their country houses are full of servants, their junior boys fag for the seniors at private school, there are ‘scouts’ to clean their rooms at Oxford and waiters bring meals in hall dinners, but on the other side of the ledger, in return for all these privileges, it is expected that the beneficiary, the boy growing up in a country house, at private school or Oxford, and then an officer in a good regiment, will follow the rules and there are lots and lots of rules governing all aspects of behaviour, dress, speech and thought.

It is a world of huge privilege but also of tremendous constraints. There is often no legal punishment for breaking the rules, but the army has a wide variety of sanctions for chaps who do not behave like an officer and a gentleman, and the narrow society of London clubs which Guy moves in also has its sanctions, its ability to cut or snub anyone who behaves incorrectly.

Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook

We are introduced to the feared and renowned figure of Ben Ritchie-Hooke, who will become their brigadier. I don’t really understand the structure of the British army, but I think what is happening is that , now war has been declared, all regiments, which had been allowed to dwindle in peacetime, are being rapidly up to full strength, recently retired officers asked back in and new officers being recruited. This is the new intake of officers which Guy is part of. First they will be trained, then newly recruited and conscripted ordinary soldiers will arrive and be put in their charge. At some point the regiment will become fully operational and Ben Ritchie-Hook will come into full command.

Throughout the first part of this novel this process takes place, observed from Guy’s point of view, sometimes, confusing the reader, sometimes confusing even Guy who’s in the thick of it.

Anyway, Ritchie-Hook is an almost Monty Python level of a caricature of a senior army officer. He wears an eye patch and a black leather glove on one hand, having lost an eye and fingers and thumb in battle. A sharp line is drawn between the initial commander in chief of the barracks who oversees thorough but pedestrian training, and the terrific change in mood which takes place when Ritchie-Hook arrives and takes over. He is all about biffing the enemy.

For example, the initial rifle range practice consists of long boring afternoons loading your gun, lying down, firing at a distant target, and having the target monitor flag whether you got a hit, a bullseye etc. By contrast, under Ritchie-Hook the brigadier himself runs up and down the trench at the end of the range waving a stick with a tin hat on it above ground level and defies his men to hit it. Later they have to crawl on their hands and knees just under a barrage of live fire.

Ritchie-Hook is a wonderful comic creation and the trigger for a series of comic incidents. For example he first appears at a drinks party held by a senior officer where, through a series of verbal misunderstandings, he mistakes Guy for Apthorpe the fellah who was in Africa for years, gruffly dismissing the fact that one of his officers seems to have spent the 1930s in Italy, no good that, don’t like the sound of that – which of course refers to Guy who keeps very silent about the fact for the rest of the evening. Comedy of manners.

but he also allows Waugh to create the kind of war he wants, which is farce. If you read war books from the Great War you are left in no doubt that it was a tragedy of enormous scale. Anyone coming to Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy expecting the same will be surprised. It is overwhelmingly concerned with the boring humdrum details of training and office politics (as officers jostle for promotion) and bureaucracy and pettifogging rules, interspersed with moments of ludicrous farce. Only at the very end are any guns fired in anger and then only a dozen or so and for a few pages, on a tiny night-time excursion onto a beach in Africa which is over half an hour after it began and achieves nothing.

Southsand prep school

The officers are sent to a place called Kut-al-Imara House at Southsand-on-sea. It is a preparatory school, vacated by staff and pupils so the army can take over. Its rooms are named after World War One battles and, as Guy explores it on arrival, he paints a very vivid picture of a certain kind of lower league school, redolent of embarrassment and shame.

He leant against a coil of antiquated iron pipes and was surprised to find them hot. They seemed to lack all power of radiation; a yard from them there was no sensible warmth. He could imagine a row of little boys struggling to sit on them, tight-trousered boys with adenoids and chilblains; or perhaps it was a privilege to sit there enjoyed only by prefects and the First Eleven. In its desolation he could see the whole school as it had been made familiar to him in many recent realistic novels; an enterprise neither progressive nor prosperous. The assistant masters changed often, he supposed, arriving with bluff, departing with bluster; half the boys were taken at surreptitiously reduced fees; none of them ever won a scholarship or passed into a reputable public school or returned for an Old Boys’ Day or ever thought of his years there with anything but loathing and shame. The History lessons were patriotic in design, turned to ridicule by the young masters. There was no school song at Kut-al-Imara House. All this Guy thought he snuffed in the air of the forsaken building.

It’s one more image which brings the reader up short and makes you realise just how much Waugh was writing for readers of his own class and not for the humble likes of you and I. And also one more example of the way this class obsesses about its prep and private schools. It’s a common observation that Waugh’s generation of writers – including George Orwell, Cyril Connolly, W.H. Auden and many others – never really seem to have escaped the clothes, drill, mannerisms and world view inculcated by an English public school system which reached a kind of acme in their day.

And then the equally commonly commented-on fact that so many of the institutions of English public life – the quadrangles of Oxford and Cambridge, the quadrangles of the inns of court for lawyers, the quads and committee rooms of Westminster, the parade grounds and officers messes of the army – are a continuation of that ordered, regimented, elite, blinkered, narrow but highly effective view of life.

The characters frequently compare this or that army regulation to ‘school’, the narrator compares this or that situation to something similar at a public school. It comes as no surprise when a prep school moves into Malchett and hire old Mr Crouchback as a supply teacher, teaching, of course, not maths or geography or something useful, but, of course, Classics, ancient Greek to be precise. Apthorpe even takes Guy, one drunk night, in a taxi out to the location of his prep school Staplehurst, now, he discovers to his horror, demolished and a modern estate built over it. Sic transit…

Anyway, life at Southsand is the backdrop for Waugh giving a thousand and one little details of army life, starting with the typical ‘foul-up’ that Guy and his cohort of officers arrive at Southsand station an hour after the bus arranged to pick them up had left and having to make their own way by taxi. Bureaucratic cock-up typical of hundreds and hundreds more which Guy will become used to in army life.

There are comic incidents. At a guest night for the regiment the officers end up getting drunk and playing a game of rugby with a waste paper basket and when everyone piles onto Guy his knee is painfully wrenched. It swells up and so for weeks afterwards, he wears a bulky dressing, needs a cane to walk and is excused drill practice.

When his fellow older officer, Apthorpe also manages to injure his leg on a drunken night out, the two eldest new officers, who had both already gained the ambivalent nickname ‘uncle’, both appear limping and using canes, to general hilarity. The comedy is like that. Schoolboy comedy.

Similarly, Guy discovers he can’t actually see the targets at the firing range at the statutory 300 yard distance, thus discovering that he needs glasses, but on a whim, instead has a monocle made by a local optician, which solves his firing range problem but, of course, also contributes to making him a figure of fun.

Another little plot strand is the Italian restaurant kept by Mr Pelecci which they take to frequenting, chatty Mr Pelecci often sitting with them and chatting about the news. They don’t at first realise that he is a spy.

Catholic theology on Guy’s marriage

The officers are allowed out to explore the town. Guy and Apthorpe join the town yachting club, chiefly for its bar. He meets a Mr Goodall, Ambrose Goodall, who turns out to be a Catholic convert with a hobby of studying the old Catholic families of England. They have lunch and dine and go to the yacht club bar and it emerges that Goodall knows the history of Broome and Guy’s own family. And then, in the context of another family, in passing remarks that, theologically, it is no sin or crime for a man to have sex with his divorced wife as, in the eyes of God, she has never been separated from him. Although Virginia has been unfaithful, he hasn’t, and so the marriage is still, theologically speaking, valid.

Seduction of Virginia

This leads to disastrous episode where Guy tracks Virginia down in London. She is, typically for him and the circles they move in, staying at Claridge’s hotel. He moves into a room down the hall and she is initially delighted to bump into him, as she is delighted to bump into everyone, darling, during this beastly ghastly war. He invites her round for drinks and it is then that he puts his arm along the back of the sofa and makes an attempt to kiss her. Virginia thinks he’s being ridiculous. If you’re going to do it, do it properly, and puts down her drink and kisses him back.

But then she asks what’s brought this one and Guy makes the disastrous mistake of explaining the theological position i.e. she is still his wife in the eyes of God and it is still theologically permitted for him to have sex with her. This shocks and horrified her much more than if it were a casual attempt at sex and she stands up and moves to the fireplace expressing horror, at which point Guy really screws things up by venting 8 years of frustration and accusing her of being a tart. Then there is a big silence when they both react to what has happened and been said.

Virginia: ‘You take too much for granted.’
Guy: ‘That’s an absolutely awful expression,’ said Guy. ‘Only tarts use it.’
Virginia: ‘Isn’t that rather what you think I am?’
Guy: ‘Isn’t it rather what you are?’

Guy grovellingly apologises, more because it’s bad form and poor manners than untrue, and they sort of patch things up. But, later, leaving Claridge’s, the incident does have the positive effect that it seems to have laid a ghost. His true feelings for Virginia have come out and he feels some sense of closure. It is  14 February 1940.

Apthorpe

His fellow ‘new’ officer, Apthrope, is arguably the dominant figure of the novel. Indeed the three main sections the book is divided into each use a Latin word to describe the three stages of Apthorpe’s progression, namely: Apthorpe Gloriosus, Apthorpe Furibundus and Apthorpe Immolatus where gloriosus is self evident, furibundus means ‘frantic, frenzied, maddened’ and immolatus means ‘having been immolated or sacrificed’.

Apthorpe’s character fascinates Guy from the start, his comic obsessions and behaviour. Thus, when Apthorpe is promoted to rank of captain ahead of Guy, he insists Guy salute him, and asks him to ask all the other new officers to do so, too. This, apparently, was technically correct but not necessary and makes Apthorpe look like a pedantic fool; in fact his fellow officers play various games with the act of saluting or not saluting when Apthorpe expects it which drives the poor man into a frenzy.

A platoon of signallers are billeted with the Halberdiers and Apthorpe insists they conform to Halberdier discipline and procedure, which leads to a long and increasingly embittered feud with their commanding officer, Dunn, which eventually escalates up to commanding officer level. Although he has been promoted. Apthorpe is acquiring a reputation as an eccentric.

Apthorpe and the saga of the Thunder-Box

One of Apthorpe’s eccentricities has been carrying round an enormous amount of lumber and ‘kit’ and ‘gear’ with him which he insists was vital to his much-mentioned but obscure ‘time in Africa’. ‘Somewhere among these possessions lay something rare and mysterious which Apthorpe spoke of as his “Bush Thunder-box”.’

This develops into the book’s best-known comic sequence, the kind of extended comic digression which characterised the best of his 1930s comic novels, reminiscent of Basil Seal’s scams in Put Out More Flags. The thunder-box is a beautifully made Edwardian chemical toilet, a cube of solid wood, which opens to reveal a porcelain seat and bowl. But why? asks Guy: there are toilets just down the hallway. ‘The clap old chap,’ Apthrope confidently explains. ‘A chap can never be too careful.’ So Guy watches Apthorpe surreptitiously, one evening, when the other chaps are in the game room, haul this big box out of the general lumber room and drag it across the prep school playing fields into a little games storeroom hidden among the bushes. For a couple of days Apthorpse disappears for ten minutes at a time and only Guy knows where he’s going.

However, disaster strikes when one evening Apthorpe encounters fearsome Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke exiting the clump of bushes which conceal his secret. Both are forced to salute each other but very uneasily. Apthorpe tells Guy the terrible news but worse is to follow. Next day Apthorpe goes for his daily evacuation and is horrified to see a sign pinned on the little outhouse saying the place is out of bounds to everyone below the rank of brigadier.

Apthorpe anxiously discusses the situation with Guy and ropes him into moving the dread device. So one evening they sneak down to the outhouse and manhandle it some distance away to another hiding place, returning very satisfied with their work. A few evenings later Apthorpe makes his usual excuses and slips off and a few minutes later Guy hears a muffled explosion. He knows at once what it is, and sets off running across the playing fields and into the bushes. He discovers a dazed Apthorpe sprawled on his face a few yards from the thunder-box which is now a splintered smoking wreck. Ritchie-Hook, in one of his famous practical jokes, had rigged the thing with a small explosive device.

The sequence of events themselves are fairly funny, but what turns it into award-winning farce is the tremendous seriousness with which Apthorpe takes it all, and the completely straight-faced way Guy plays along with him.

Penkirk

The regiment is moved to Penkirk not far from Edinburgh in a camp of tents. A castle is nearby. Here Apthorpe’s eccentricities continue to flourish. It is here that he commences his long-running vendetta against the officer in the Signalling regiment.

It is here that the first division of commands is given and Guy is bitter to be given only a platoon while Apthorpe is promoted above him. Only later does a friendly superior explain this is because Apthorpe is actually fingered for promotion into purely administrative positions whereas the Brigadier doesn’t want anyone in command of actual fighting units who hasn’t started out with experience of commanding a platoon. That cheers him up a bit.

A new commander is assigned, one Hayter, who Guy comes to dislike. There is a great deal about relations between the new officers of his rank and the complex array of commanding officers who come and go as the regiment is restructured and reorganised.

There is a long sequence which Waugh cleverly arranges around the one hundred and forty-three questions in the Army Training Memorandum No. 31 War. April 1940 which all the officers receive and are ordered to complete.

On 10 May 1940 Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, replacing the hapless Neville Chamberlain. It is worth lingering over what Waugh, or at least his character Guy, thinks of him:

Guy knew of Mr. Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and of Lloyd George.

He thinks he’ll be better than the other chap. But this is a novel and another character, Major Erskine, who, in the dim-witted nature of these characters is thought to be ‘brainy’ because he reads novels and is a bit scruffy, this Erskine is made to say, prophetically:

‘Churchill is about the only man who may save us from losing this war.’

The difference between history and novels is in novels opinions, ideas, perspectives are distributed among different characters for dramatic effect. Might be worth also quoting the place where Waugh gives his clearest explanation of Guy’s motive for fighting, for taking part in this war:

[Guy] was a good loser, but he did not believe his country would lose this war; each apparent defeat seemed strangely to sustain it. There was in Romance great virtue in unequal odds. There were in morals two requisites for a lawful war, a just cause and the chance of victory. The cause was now, past all question, just. The enemy was exorbitant. His actions in Austria and Bohemia had been defensible. There was even a shadow of plausibility in his quarrel with Poland. But now, however victorious, he was an outlaw. And the more victorious he was the more he drew to himself the enmity of the world and the punishment of God.

Note the complete absence of political analysis. Waugh doesn’t, for example declare his protagonist an enemy of fascism or Nazism (in fact, having lived in Italy for most of the 1930s, Guy has a relaxed attitude to the reality of Italian fascism on the ground). Certainly not in the way that English left-wing or liberal thinkers thought of Nazism as unambiguously evil and a threat to all notions of freedom. Guy just seems to think that in invading Poland, Nazi Germany has gone a bit too far. And then this phrase ‘the enmity of God.’ Is Waugh serious? Well, his character probably is. Guy is a devout and in many ways simple Catholic, with a simple sense of right and wrong.

The flap

All this is taking place in the spring and early summer of 1940 which saw, in the wider world of war, the Russian invasion of Finland and the German invasion of Norway, this latter prompting a badly organised and chaotic British attempt to land troops and hold the German advance. (Waugh’s earlier novel, Put Out More Flags, includes towards the end a passage describing the ill-fated involvement of one of the characters, Cedric Lyne, in this badly organised fiasco.) And then, of course, the evacuation of Dunkirk, 26 May to 4 June 1940.

All kinds of rumour reach our chaps and this is a useful social history aspect of the novel, what makes it more than history, that it doesn’t record what happened, but what educated people of the time thought was happening and was going to happen.

Aldershot

So they’re sent to Aldershot in Surrey, with some description of the surrounding sandy heathland. Apthorpe distinguishes himself again by, the second he’s put in charge when the commander in chief is briefly absent, causing a great panic when he claims he has reports of German paratroopers landing.

Maps of Calais are issued as if they’re going to be shipped across to fight there, the officers memorise them, discuss lines of defence and so on. Guy’s platoon is dominated by the impressive figure of Company Sergeant Major Rawkes. Guy leads his men on a training exercise on the big barren heathland, everyone gets lost, some men go absent without leave, no-one knows what is going on, rumours fly in all directions.

Tony

Guy receives two letters from his father, the first one (2 June 1940) lamenting that his nephew, Tony, appears to be missing presumed killed in France, the second one (12 June 1940) with the reassuring news that he is in fact a prisoner of war, but the doleful commentary that a) it was shameful that his regiment surrendered to the Germans, but they were ordered to and b) it is likely to be a long war and so a shame that such a fine fellow is going to spend the best years of his young manhood behind bars. He receives both letters on the day the Germans march into Paris, 14 June 1940.

The world has shifted on its axis. Nobody expected France to fall at all, and certainly not so quickly. Now Britain really is alone. Churchill gave his ‘we shall fight them on the beaches’ speech on 4 June 1940.

North Cornwall

The regiment is moved to Cornwall. Waugh details the boredom of hanging round not knowing what the future holds. There are wild rumours that the Germans are about to take Limerick in Ireland and the Halberdiers are about to be shipped over to defend it. Much studying maps of Limerick. Nothing happens. The officers have to cook up ways to keep the men entertained, lectures (Guy gives a well received one about wine making, knowledge he gained in Italy). Football. Evening games of bingo which, surprisingly, Brigadier Ritchie-Hooke recommends and calls ‘housey-housey’.

Extraneous figures came to add to the congestion. An odd, old captain like a cockatoo in the gaudy service-dress of a defunct regiment of Irish cavalry. He said he was the cipher officer and was roped in to lecture on ‘Court Life at St. Petersburg’.

Seen from Waugh’s perspective, army life is one surreal and farcical event after another. This is what makes the books so supremely readable and enjoyable, the tone of quiet humour which suffuses them, occasionally rising to moments of supreme farce.

South Cornwall

Then they are ordered to pack up everything and shunted on a series of trains across to the South Cornwall coast where they are ordered to guard several miles of heavily barbed wired beach. Top brass come for an inspection and one of the intelligence officers goes out of his way to emphasise the risk of fifth columnists, a concept and phrase which had only recently been coined, by General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

This leads to an incident when Guy has a touch of the Apthorpes and reacts with paranoia when two officers turn up at his HQ (a requisitioned hotel) claiming to be from A Company, the 5th Loamshires. Guy suspects them of being fifth columnists, is impressed by their accurate seeming papers and posh English accents, but nevertheless instructs the sergeant major to take over the bren gun next on the clifftop and cover the pair as they’re taken down for a dip in the sea by a soldier he deputes for the job. If they make one funny move, the sergeant major is to shoot them. The dismay of Sergeant Major Rawkes who had, until this moment, thought Guy wasn’t too bad, for an officer, is very funny.

Brook Park

They’re ordered to pack up yet again and entrain for Brook Park in Surrey. Here occurs an event which the sardonic and witty fellow officer, de Souza, nicknames ‘the Languishing of Leonard’. Early on we had met officer Leonard’s wife, Daisy, who is distinctly not the right class, who drops her aitches and speaks out of turn at dinners or drinks for the regimental officers. She has followed her man from base to base, taking hotel rooms and now announces that she is pregnant. She kicks up an immense fuss and wants Leonard seconded to a safe domestic posting so he can be with her. Very sheepishly Leonard falls in line with her demands, secures his posting, from which point onwards the Adjutant, or acting head of the regiment, requests that his name never be mentioned again. Shame.

Liverpool

Next thing they know they are given two days leave (Guy goes to visit his father and finds him, of course, knee deep in the classics text he’s teaching the little chaps at the evacuated prep school) before returning to barracks at which point the entire regiment is packed up and sent to Liverpool.

After the usual chaos, embarking, disembarking and so on, they finally set sail to the Bay of Biscay, are joined by a fleet and sail on to the coast of Africa, near Dakar, to be precise (capital of what is now Senegal).

Here the fleet moors and numerous high level meetings are held. Initially Brigadier Ritchie-Hook is excited because they are finally going to get to land and biff the enemy. But this turns to bitter frustration when the raid is called off. The ordinary soldiers celebrate but Guy is called to a meeting of senior officers, namely the Brigadier, Colonel Tickeridge and the ship’s captain.

The beach raid in Africa

Ritchie-Hooke is furious that the raid has been called off because naval intelligence has some aerial photos of the beaches which could be interpreted to indicate that they’re criss-crossed with wire. But in this little meeting he is gleeful because he and Tickeridge have persuaded the captain of the ship to let them send a tiny little landing party to ascertain whether this is true. And Guy is to lead it.

He is told to go and choose a dozen men who will be taken aboard a launch by a navy captain, shuttled ashore under cover of darkness, faces blacked, carrying minimal equipment. Their mission is to ascertain the existence or not of ‘wire’ and capture a souvenir, a coconut, say, as proof of their trip.

The atmosphere of tense excitement is beautifully conveyed. There’s a beautiful little description as Guy and his men wait in the hold for the little sally-port, or door low down in the side of the ship, to be opened so they can climb a short distance down a rope ladder into the launch:

The lights were all turned off in the hold before the sally-port was opened by one of the crew. It revealed a faintly lighter square and a steamy breath of the sea.

Well, to be brief, they chug onto the beach, slip over the side and wade through the warm water, tiptoe up the ashore and do, indeed, find wire, rows of wire amateurishly strung across it. Then sounds and someone starts firing and then lots of guns start firing. Guy blows his whistle for general retreat but one of his chaps goes haring forward into the darkness. The rest return to the boat unharmed and the sailor captaining it reports everyone present and correct but Guy knows he saw someone else and goes back to check.

Just as well he did, for he discovers one of his men crawling back through the dunes, wounded in the leg. Guy curses, runs forward, supports him arm over shoulder back to the launch, heaves him in and the launch turns and putters back to the ship. As he helps him Guy realises this disobedient man is none other than… Ben Ritchie-Hook. Not only that, but after he is manhandled into the launch he slips into Guy’s lap the object he’s been hugging close all this time. It is the severed head of an African soldier.

The ‘gruesome’ in Waugh

What to make of this? It is at the same time farcical, comic and gruesome. But readers will remember this is the sometimes puzzlingly extreme tone he takes in many of his books. It is as if part of his approach to humour is to occasionally crank it up to broad farce, and then sometimes to take farce way over the top into The Gruesome.

It’s easy to forget that in his very first novel, Decline and Fall, when the young innocent Paul Pennyfeather finds himself in prison, he discovers that the padre is none other than one of his teachers at the crappy private school he taught at in Wales, Prendergast, who has retrained as a chaplain, and how the prison governor with his fancy ideas, decides it is a good thing to try and reform one of their most notorious prisoners by allowing him to express himself in the carpentry shop – and how this prisoner takes the first opportunity to saw off the padre’s head.

Ritchie-Hooke later explains that the man raised his gun at him so Ritchie chucked a grenade which blew him to bits, one of the bits of which was the head (which he proceeded to ‘trim’ a bit). The beheading of the African is no more offensive than the decapitation of Prendergast i.e. a bit offensive against good taste and restraint. What definitely is offensive is the way Ritchie-Hook refers to the head as his ‘coconut’ and so does everyone else concerned during the incident’s repercussions.

The repercussions are that Ritchie-Hooke has gone too far this time and is recalled to London for a bollocking and possibly the end of his military career. Guy was only obeying direct orders but finds himself also condemned to have a black mark against him.

Freetown

Having abandoned the attack on Dakar the allied fleet sails on to Freetown, the port capital of Sierra Leone (a British colony which remained secure during the war). Damaged ships turn back. The two ships carrying the Halberdiers dock and they go ashore.

There is a new brigadier. He calls Guy in, tells him that during the journey he was promoted captain but that, in light of his involvement in the Dakar fiasco, he has been demoted again. He is to be recalled to London. He will be flown there along with Ritchie-Hooke as soon as the latter is fit enough to travel.

Here in Freetown he makes his second mistake. Apthorpe took the opportunity of leave to go up country. Now word comes back that he is ill. In fact he has been brought back by native bearers in a Victorian style ‘sheeted hammock’ and deposited in hospital.

The brigade major gives Guy permission to visit Apthorpe and recommends he take a bottle of whiskey along, it’s always a nice gesture, though strictly speaking advised against. Guy does so and has a long rambling encounter with Apthorpe who is genuinely ill. Guy slips the whiskey under his bedclothes. A nurse coming in smells it on their breath and says the doctor has forbidden it but Guy lies and says he just gave Apthorpe a nip from his flask.

During this interview Apthorpe, in his comically earnest and tragic way, entrusts Guy with a last wish, which is to ensure that he (Guy) hands over Apthorpe’s legendary pile of kit and equipment to his old friend ‘Chatty’ Corner (who we met earlier in the book when he attended one of the regimental drinks parties). Guy promises and leaves.

A few days later the brigade major calls him in to tell him that Althorpe is dead. Drank the whole bottle of whiskey in a day. Guy is shocked but then more shocked to learn that he is being blamed. The brigade major was the one who suggested the idea, but now holds him responsible.

(Throughout Apthorpe’s dying scenes there is another thread of Waugh’s irrepressible cheeky comedy, which is that Apthorpe solemnly assures him that when he told him, all the way back at the start of the book, that he had two aunts, he was, in fact, fibbing: he only has one. Guy accepts this deathbed confession with a straight face. But this misconception, that Apthorpe had two aunts who will grieve his loss, is then repeated by every other officer and official involved in the case, adding a wonderful thread of humour to counterpoint the rather grim fact of his actual death.

Again, as in the story of the decapitated African, grim death is inextricably intertwined with farce. It is a conscious policy.

So anyway, now Guy has two black marks against him. A flying boat lands in the harbour. It is to take him and Ritchie-Hook back to London and at this point the novel ends.

Cutaway ending

Except that, as Guy flies back to Blighty and an uncertain future, Waugh uses his characteristic technique of cutting away from the protagonist to have him and his plight be discussed by people at some distance from the action who, therefore, treat it with the levity and half attention we all give to gossip about people we half know or have vaguely heard of. It is a home counties version of the Alienation Effect. It is half humorous, half-despairing. It is the way human life is, never really understood, immediately transformed into gossip, all our lives, ultimately, dust. Sarum-Smith and de Souza attend the funeral of Apthorpe, laid to rest in the English cemetery in Freetown, and then remark on the fact that both of the oldest ‘new’ officers, the ones they nicknamed ‘uncle’, have left on the same day (one being buried, the other flying home under a cloud):

‘Both Uncles gone the same day.’
‘Funny, I was thinking the same. I rather preferred Crouchback on the whole.’
‘He seemed a nice enough fellow. I could never quite make him out. Pity he made an ass of himself.’
Already the Second Battalion of the Halberdiers spoke of Guy in the past tense. He had momentarily been of them; now he was an alien; someone in their long and varied past, but forgotten.

The old truth: life is intense tragedy to the person living it, but comedy to everyone else.


Waugh’s worldview

Snobbery

Only members of his class count. The narrator is scornful of anyone outside his circle and its very limited extension into the narrow circle of People Like Us.

The vulgar middle class

Throughout his works Waugh is snooty about people who make a living through trade, shopkeepers, merchants, and what you might call the lower professions, accountants and the like. Thinking about the professions, the very big gap in his oeuvre is the legal profession. If you think about Dickens, his works are full of lawyers and legal cases. None in Waugh. The central profession is, in the 1930s comedies, journalism and, in the novels from Put Out More Flags, the army.

The working classes

The working class is invisible except for servants, publicans, waiters and waitresses (in civilian life) and batmen, valets, servants and drivers (in the army). Oh and the actual soldiers, the common soldier, the private. Almost none of these are mentioned and none are named. When Guy takes his little troupe ashore at Dakar the sergeant has a name but none of the men. They are anonymous extras.

But what interests me is not Waugh’s snobbish, privileged, entitled elitism, as such. It’s more to do with the way that, operating within this closed, super-narrow, elite worldview – the upper class, private school and Oxbridge, country house and the-old-regiment kind of world, bolstered by the exclusiveness and elitism of his upper-class Catholic faith – enables his discourse, allows the texts to be written. A writer can’t write about the entire world; you have to pick a subject. Waugh isn’t trying to describe the great shambling chaos of the modern world. His bright, alert, highly regimented, policed and orderly world is the unshakeable foundation which allows him to create these comic, satirical and, occasionally, devastating fictions.

The elitism is as much a genre as a worldview, with its own customs and conventions. If, for the purpose of reading and enjoying his books, you accept this worldview, then the interest moves on from anatomising the worldview itself, to enjoying the way Waugh subverts, bends and occasionally breaks it.

Private schools and prep schools

Authors of his generation just can’t get away from memories of their childhood prep schools and boyhood private schools. They make endless comparisons to them, something reminds them of this or that at prep or public school, somehow prep schools are always cropping up as actual items: thus the location of training in Southsea is a requisitioned prep school and Mr Crouchback finds a private school evacuating to near his hotel and is invited to become a teacher, a Classics teacher, of course. I wasn’t at all surprised when (in the third book in the trilogy) de Souza tells Guy:

‘All army courses are like prep schools–all that welcoming of the new boys.’ (Unconditional Surrender, page 97)

It’s the first point of comparison for all these privately educated men.

Mental illness

I’ve mentioned it repeatedly in my reviews of Waugh’s novels, but a surprising number of them feature characters or passages dealing with mental illness or mental breakdown. Thus the nervous collapse of Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies, the teetering on the brink of shocked breakdown of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, the decline into depressed alcoholism of former High Society doyenne Angela Lyne in Put Out More Flags, the mental collapse of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, not one but two suicides in The Loved One. Several of his short stories are about homicidal lunatics (Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing and The Sympathetic Passenger).

In the trilogy Waugh continues his interest in several ways, at several levels. Guy’s elder brother, Ivo, has a complete collapse into psychosis and starves himself to death. Guy himself has been down enough to qualify as depressed and there are plenty of descriptions of his sense of hollowness, emptiness and futility:

He [was] himself destitute, possessed of nothing save a few dry grains of faith.

His brother-in-law, Box-Bender, frankly expects Guy to go mad at any moment, like his older brother, which doesn’t help. And then there’s something odd, ‘rum’, about the central figure, Apthorpe, mounting in eccentricity all the way through to his final collapse.

It feels like madness is constantly lurking just around the corner in any Waugh text. For the most part Waugh manages to keep the lid on it, contain it, and express it in socially acceptable form as a sense of the ludicrous or the farcical. But sometimes, pop! madness or despair emerge into the open.

Influence of film

1. As I’ve pointed out in other reviews, the film technique of quick cutting between scenes is something Waugh absorbed and used to great effect, most notably in an early novel like Vile Bodies but more subtly throughout all his fictions. He is still using it liberally throughout the trilogy, which often features sequences of 2 or 3-page scenes, moving quickly from one setting to another.

2. At moments, like so many of us, like so many characters in twentieth century fiction, Guy compares his behaviour to what people would do in a film and finds himself failing to live up to the Hollywood ideal of dashing masculinity.

3. And then, sometimes, he just takes the mickey out of movies, very amusingly:

Once Guy saw a film of the Rising of ’45. Prince Charles and his intimates stood on a mound of heather, making a sad little group, dressed as though for the Caledonian Ball, looking, indeed, precisely as though they were a party of despairing revellers mustered in the outer suburbs to meet a friend with a motor-car who had not turned up.

An awful moment came when the sun touched the horizon behind them. The Prince bowed his head, sheathed his claymore and said in rich Milwaukee accents: ‘I guess it’s all off, Mackingtosh.’

Influence of books

The comparing oneself with cultural ideals comes over more clearly in his comparisons with popular fiction. Early on in the book Guy recalls a story of derring-do he was read at prep school (naturally) during the Great War, and which inspired him and his friends with images of dashing heroism. The memory comes when the Brigadier addresses the men:

‘Gentlemen,’ he began, ‘to-morrow you meet the men you will lead in battle.’

It was the old, potent spell, big magic. Those two phrases, ‘the officers who will command you…’, ‘the men you will lead…’ set the junior officers precisely in their place, in the heart of the battle. For Guy they set swinging all the chimes of his boyhood’s reading…

‘…”I’ve chosen your squadron for the task, Truslove.” “Thank you, sir. What are our chances of getting through?” “It can be done, Truslove, or I shouldn’t be sending you. If anyone can do it, you can. And I can tell you this, my boy, I’d give all my seniority and all these bits of ribbon on my chest to be with you. But my duty lies here with the Regiment. Good luck to you, my boy. You’ll need it”…’

The words came back to him from a summer Sunday evening at his preparatory school, in the headmaster’s drawing-room, the three top forms sitting about on the floor, some in a dream of home, others – Guy among them – spell-bound.

This passage explains much, about ideals and identity and the centrality of his bloody private school in both of them. But it also, on a comic level, gives rise to a recurring trope which is when Guy finds himself in a tight corner and wonders what this ‘Truslove’ character from his boyhood stories would have done in his place. Thus he refers, later on, to an officer volunteering for a mission ‘Truslove style’, and ironically nicknames the farcical episode on the beach of Dakar ‘Operation Truslove’.

It is a variation on the deep central issue I’ve mentioned above, of the way so many men – well, writers, anyway – of this generation, never escaped their public school manners, morals and essentially immature, schoolboy worldview.


Credit

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1952. All references are to the 1983 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh (1936)

On Monday night there was a bacchanalian scene at Mme Idot’s, where, among other songs of international popularity, ‘Giovanezza’ was sung in a litter of upturned tables and broken crockery.
(Waugh in Abyssinia, page 107)

In 1935 Italy declared war on Abyssinia, an independent sovereign state in north east Africa, and Evelyn Waugh was hired by a British newspaper (I think it’s the London Evening Standard) and sent to the capital, Addis Ababa, to cover the conflict. This was because it was widely assumed that he knew about the country because of the hilarious and colourful, but also detailed and thoughtful, account of the 1930 coronation of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie which he had covered for The Times and then expanded into his book, Remote People.

Serious opinions

Waugh in Abyssinia opens a lot more seriously than its predecessor, with a chapter he jokingly titles ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to the Ethiopian Question’. (This is a humorous reference to the book ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism’, published George Bernard Shaw in 1928.)

This opening chapter reads like an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It gives a detailed history of Abyssinia from the turn of the nineteenth century till the present day. The facts he gives are illuminating but what’s really striking is his opinions: this dyed-in-the-wool Tory repeats at face value the standard Marxist critique of Empire, that the scramble for Africa, although dressed up in pious sentiments, was mainly motivated by the need of Western capitalists for:

new sources of raw material, new markets, but, more than anything, for new fields of profitable investment.

Even more surprisingly, he frankly agrees with modern ideas that Africa was seized by force from its traditional owners, who were swindled or simply out-gunned out of their land.

The most remarkable feature of the partition was the speed with which it was accomplished. In less than ten years the whole of pagan Africa was in the hands of one or other of the European Powers. Explorers pushed on from village to village armed with satchels of draft treaties upon which hospitable chiefs were induced to set their mark; native interpreters made gibberish of the legal phraseology; inalienable tribal rights were exchanged for opera hats and musical boxes; some potentates, such as the Sultan of Sokoto, thought they were accepting tribute when they were receiving a subsidy in lieu of their sovereign rights, others that it was the white man’s polite custom to collect souvenirs of this kind; if, when they found they had been tricked, they resisted the invaders, they were suppressed with the use of the latest lethal machinery: diplomats in Europe drew frontiers across tracts of land of which they were totally ignorant, negligently overruling historic divisions of race and culture and the natural features of physical geography, consigning to the care of one or other white race millions of men who had never seen a white face. A task which was to determine the future history of an entire continent, requiring the highest possible degrees of scholarship and statesmanship, was rushed through in less than ten years.

These are the kind of progressive sentiments which authors writing in the 1990s or 2000s pride themselves on and yet here they are, forcefully and clearly stated as long ago as 1935, as not just the property of the left or progressives, but as a universally acknowledged truth held by all educated people of the day:

But the avarice, treachery, hypocrisy and brutality of the partition are now a commonplace which needs no particularisation…

Not only that, but this Tory patriot then zeroes in on the record of his own country and the particular brand of hypocrisy which the English brought to their colonising.

It is worth remembering indeed, in the present circumstances, the particular nature of the reproach which attaches to England. France, Germany and Belgium were the more ruthless; we the more treacherous. We went into the shady business with pious expressions of principle; we betrayed the Portuguese and the Sultan of Zanzibar, renouncing explicit and freshly made guarantees of their territory; we betrayed Lobenguela and other native rulers in precisely the same method but with louder protestations of benevolent intention than our competitors; no matter into what caprice of policy our electorate chose to lead us, we preached on blandly and continuously; it was a trait which the world found difficult to tolerate; but we are still preaching.

And then his comments about the important impact of African art on Western art:

For centuries Africa has offered Europe successive waves of aesthetic stimulus…the gracious, intricate art of Morocco or the splendour of Benin…the dark, instinctive art of the negro — the ju-ju sculpture, the carved masks of the medicine man, the Ngomas, the traditional terrifying ballet which the dancing troops carry from the Great Lakes to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.

Although we might bridle at some of his phrasing, nevertheless this is the kind of claim you find made in up-to-the minute art exhibitions by the wokest of curators (for example, Tate’s self-flagellating exhibition about British Imperialism) . I was genuinely startled that a man who’s often seen as a blimpish reactionary held views 90 years ago which are identified with the most progressive of progressives in 2021.

Abyssinia and Ethiopia

As to Ethiopia’s origins:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Abyssinia consisted of the four mountain kingdoms of Amhara, Shoa, Tigre and Gojjam, situated in almost complete isolation from outside intercourse.

Waugh says the word ‘Abyssinia’ is a corruption of the Arabic Habasha, variously said to mean ‘mongrels’ or ‘members of the Arabian Habashat tribe.’

They believed they had migrated from Arabia at some unrecorded date, probably before the Christian era; they employed a common literary language, Ghiz, which had some affinity with ancient Armenian, and spoke dialects derived from it, Tigrean and Amharic; they shared a common culture and feudal organisation and recognised a paramount King of Kings as their nominal head.

He says he will use the term ‘Abyssinian’ to describe the Amharic-speaking, Christian peoples of the four original kingdoms, and Ethiopian to describe the tribes and naturalised immigrants subject to their rule.

He describes the series of kings who sought to unite the four squabbling kingdoms, namely Emperor Theodore and Emperor Johannes, and then goes on to describe the rule of Menelik II, who is the key figure in the story. It was Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) whose organisation, diplomacy and buying up of Western guns and ammunition allowed the well organised Ethiopian army to massacre an Italian army which had been sent to colonise his country, at the decisive Battle of Adowa in 1896. For the rest of his reign, from 1896 to 1913, Menelik devoted himself to expanding his ’empire’, and is a record of conquests, treaties and submissions by neighbouring tribes and chieftains until, by 1913, he had quadrupled the size of his ‘country’.

This long opening chapter is designed to show that the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was far from being a simple act of unprovoked aggression. His aim is to show that Ethiopia was a much more complex place, with a complex and troubled history, than the simple shape on the map of Africa suggested. It was itself the product of imperial conquest, above all by the legendary King Menelik II, who attacked Tigray in the north, Somalia in the south and East, seizing territory, forcing countless chieftains, sheikhs and local leaders into obeisance. ‘Ethiopia’ was the result of conquest every bit as brutal as the European conquest of Africa, a ‘country’ which was more a:

vast and obscure agglomeration of feudal fiefs, occupied military provinces, tributary sultanates, trackless no-man’s-lands roamed by homicidal nomads; undefined in extent, unmapped, unexplored, in part left without law, in part grossly subjugated; the brightly coloured patch in the schoolroom atlas marked, for want of a more exact system of terminology, ‘ Ethiopian Empire’.

Return to farce

So the opening chapter is surprisingly serious, factual and (liberally) opinionated. But as soon as we move to chapter two we enter the more familiar territory of Waugh farce and fiasco.

He describes for comic effect the panic throughout London’s media as war in Abyssinia looms and companies scrabble to capitalise on the fact: publishers dust off rubbish old books about the north east Africa, which suddenly sell like hot cakes, press agencies buff up photos of Borneo head hunters or Australian aborigines to flog them as pics of Abyssinian natives.

Above all anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Ethiopia is suddenly in great demand and thus it is that Waugh finds himself able to wangle another commission as a foreign correspondent, sent by his paper to buy a mountain of comic equipment, catching the boat train to Paris, train to Marseilles, boarding a steamer along with hordes of other journalists, steaming across the Med and through the Suez Canal to Djibouti, then scrambling aboard the shabby stopping train across the barren desert and then up into the Ethiopian highlands to Addis Ababa.

Comedy

There is ample comedy about the farcical aspects of journalism, war, and Africa. Here is Waugh at his magisterial comic best, this paragraph like a magnificent galleon sailing though a comic extravaganza of his own devising.

There were several hotels in Addis Ababa, all, at the time of our arrival, outrageously prosperous. The ‘Splendide,’ at which we all assumed we should stay — the Radical had had the name painted in large white letters on his medicine chest — was completely full with journalists and photographers living in hideous proximity, two or three to a room even in the outbuildings. It was a massive, shabby building of sepulchral gloom, presided over by a sturdy, middle-aged, misanthropic Greek, who had taken it over as a failing concern just before the troubles. There was something admirable about the undisguised and unaffected distaste with which he regarded his guests and his ruthless disregard of their comfort and dignity. Some attempted to be patronising to him, some dictatorial, some ingratiating; all were treated with uniform contempt. He was well aware that for a very few months nothing that he did or left undone could affect his roaring prosperity; after that anything might happen.

Deadpan

A very Waughesque effect is the deadpan statement of bizarre or extreme facts.

Presently [the Italian consul’s] luggage arrived, prominent in its midst a dripping packing case containing bottled beer on ice, and a caged leopard.

Charles G. had had the fortune to witness a fight between two of the European police officers. As a result he had lately been expelled on a charge of espionage. His parting act was to buy a slave and give her to Mati Hari as a tip.

We secured [a cook] who looked, and as it turned out was, all that a cook should be. A fat, flabby Abyssinian with reproachful eyes. His chief claim to interest was that his former master, a German, had been murdered and dismembered in the Issa country. (p.125)

The chauffeur seemed to be suitable until we gave him a fortnight’s wages in advance to buy a blanket. Instead he bought cartridges and tedj, shot up the bazaar quarter and was put in chains. (p.125)

[The soldiers] were ragged and dilapidated, some armed with spears but most of them with antiquated guns. ‘ I am sorry to disturb you,’ said James [our servant] politely, ‘ but these people wished to shoot us.’ (p.129)

Waugh doesn’t approve of a slave being given as a tip any more than he approves of a German being murdered and dismembered. His records a world brimful of violent absurdities. It is the harshness of some of these absurdities which gives his books their bite, and also helps to explain the depth of his Roman Catholic faith. Only faith in a benevolent God could stay him against the panorama of violence, futility and fiasco he saw all around him. He reports it deadpan for its comic effect. But sometimes his despair peeks through.

Before the war

Although there were armed clashes in late 1934, and Mussolini made a steady stream of blustering warnings throughout the spring and summer of 1935, in reality Italy was happy to bide its time till the right time and place to commence hostilities.

With the result that ship after shipload of correspondents arrived from all over Europe, America, Japan and beyond, booking up all the rooms at every hotel and, like Waugh, spilling over into neighbouring boarding houses, engaging in feverish rounds of press conferences, meetings with diplomats, interviewing every official they could find, creating an over-excited community of feverish scribblers liable to over-react to every new rumour no matter how far fetched, and yet – long weeks went by and nothing happened.

Waugh is tempted to go on excursions to locations said to be vital in the strategic planning of the attackers, and so find himself going with an old friend (Waugh’s world is full of old friends from public school or Oxford or London’s narrow literary clique) back to Harar, the town he first visited in 1930, which is east of Addis. They had an interesting time, he gives an evocative description of how the place had changed in just 5 years since he was previously there. They press on further east to the town of Jijiga on the border with Somalia (p.70) and here Waugh and Balfour stumble on the story of a French aristocrat, Count Maurice de Roquefeuil du Bousquet, who runs a mining concession in the district and  who has just been arrested, along with his wife, for spying for the Italians. He had been taking photographs of Ethiopian defences and sending the rolls of film by secret courier to the Italian Consulate at Harar (p.74). Balfour and Waugh take photographs of all the relevant locations, of the count himself in prison and send off excited despatches to their papers back in Blighty.

Slowly, however, their excitement at having secured a scoop fades and by the time they arrive back at Addis they realise that, by being absent for those few days, they have missed one of the great scoops of the period, which was that the emperor had granted to an American consortium, led by one Mr Rickett, the mineral concession for the entire north of Ethiopia, precisely the territory an invading Italian army would have to cross, in a typically canny attempt to invoke international law and get the international community on his side (p.80). In fact it failed, as a diplomatic ploy, because the US government refused to ratify the concession and by doing so, in effect, gave the green light to Italy to invade.

Comic characters

In Waugh’s hands every person he meets becomes a comic character: Mr Kakophilos the gloomy Greek owner of the Hotel Splendide; Herr and Frau Heft, owners of the Deutsches Haus boarding house, also home to two fierce geese and a pig; the Radical journalist, a high-minded reporter for, presumably, the Manchester Guardian; Mme Idot and Mme Moriatis, French owners of the only two places of entertainment in town and bitter enemies; Dr Lorenzo Taesas, the beady-eyed Tigrayan head of the Press Bureau; the accident-prone American newsreel cameraman, Mr Prospero; the avaricious Greek owner of the only hotel in Harar, Mr Caraselloss; the bibulous chief of police in Harar; a spy Waugh hires, an imposing old Afghan named Wazir Ali Beg who roams the country sending Waugh ever-more ludicrous reports (p.68); the spy his friend Patrick Balfour hires, who they all nickname Mata Hari (p.69); Gabri, Patrick’s Abyssinian servant who speaks eccentric French; the wily customs officer of Jijiga, Kebreth Astatkie; the Swiss chef hired by the emperor who, when he doesn’t get paid for a few months, quit in high dudgeon and the emperor tried to persuade to return by arresting his entire kitchen staff (p.93).

These aren’t people so much as a cast, the cast of a wonderful comic extravaganza. At several points Waugh just lists the weird and wonderful types who have washed up in Addis, for their oddity value.

There was a simian Soudanese, who travelled under a Brazilian passport and worked for an Egyptian paper; there was a monocled Latvian colonel, who was said at an earlier stage of his life to have worked as ringmaster in a German circus; there was a German who travelled under the name of Haroun al Raschid, a title, he said, which had been conferred on him during the Dardanelles campaign by the late Sultan of Turkey; his head was completely hairless; his wife shaved it for him, emphasising the frequent slips of her razor with tufts of cotton-wool. There was a venerable American, clothed always in dingy black, who seemed to have strayed from the pulpit of a religious conventicle; he wrote imaginative despatches of great length and flamboyancy. There was an Austrian, in Alpine costume, with crimped flaxen hair, the group leader, one would have thought, of some Central-European Youth Movement; a pair of rubicund young colonials, who came out on chance and were doing brisk business with numberless competing organisations; two indistinguishable Japanese, who beamed at the world through hornrimmed spectacles and played interminable, highly dexterous games of ping-pong in Mme. Idot’s bar. (p.81)

And:

Two humane English colonels excited feverish speculation for a few days until it was discovered that they were merely emissaries of a World League for the Abolition of Fascism. There was a negro from South Africa who claimed to be a Tigrean, and represented another World League for the abolition, I think, of the white races, and a Greek who claimed to be a Bourbon prince and represented some unspecified and unrealised ambitions of his own. There was an American who claimed to be a French Viscount and represented a league, founded in Monte Carlo, for the provision of an Ethiopian Disperata squadron, for the bombardment of Assab. There was a completely unambiguous British adventurer, who claimed to have been one of Al Capone’s bodyguard and wanted a job; and an ex-officer of the R.A.F. who started to live in some style with a pair of horses, a bull terrier and a cavalry moustache—he wanted a job to.

In my review of Remote People I remarked that these collections of eccentrics and oddballs reminded me of the Tintin books from the 1930s and 40s, a seemingly endless supply of screwball eccentrics.

Dodgy dossier

I was fascinated to learn that the Italians compiled a dossier of grievances against Ethiopia which they presented to the League of Nations in Geneva as justification for their invasion. It brought together all the evidence they could muster from the legalistic to the cultural.

Thus they claimed the emperor had signed a contract giving an Italian firm the job of building a railway from Addis to the coast but in the event gave the work to a French company. They complained that Ethiopia had breached various clauses of the 1928 Treaty of Friendship between the two states. The new arterial road, which was specifically provided in the 1928 agreement, joining Dessye with Assab was abandoned and, instead, Selassie concentrated in opening communications with the British territories in Kenya and Somaliland. The construction of a wireless station at Addis Ababa was undertaken by an Italian company, heavily subsidised by the Italian government, but on completion was handed over to the management of a Swede and a Frenchman. They documented slights, insults, abuse and even the arrest of Italian citizens.

The Italians accused Ethiopia of what we would nowadays call ‘human rights abuses’, namely the fact that slavery and slave-raiding were universal (and this isn’t a bootless accusation; Waugh meets many officials or rich Ethiopians who are accompanied by one or more slaves). The Italians claim that justice, when executed at all, was accompanied by torture and mutilation; the central government was precarious and only rendered effective by repeated resort to armed force; disease was rampant, and so on.

How similar to the ‘dodgy dossier’ assembled by our own dear government to justify our attack on Iraq back in 2003.

The state of the prisons was confirmed by Waugh who made a horrified visit to one, discovering prisoners manacled to the walls of tiny hutches by chains which barely let them crawl a few yards into a courtyard to catch a little sun, no food or water provided, the prisoners surviving amid their own excrement. It was ‘the lowest pit of human misery’ he had ever seen (p.94)

The feverish press pack attend various ceremonies connected with the week-long festival of Maskar, some officiated over by the emperor, understanding little or nothing of what was going on.

Waugh becomes so bored he buys a baboon who, however, turns out to be ‘petulant and humourless’, and ‘added very little to the interest of these dull days’ (p.101)

The war

War finally broke out – that’s to say Italy invaded northern Ethiopia without any formal declaration of war – on 3 October 1935. It immediately resulted in a ramping up of baseless rumours and shameless speculation. The Italian forces consisted entirely of natives; a Red Cross hospital full of women and children had been obliterated by Italian bombing; the Italians were deserting in droves. All turned out to be utterly false.

The absurdity intensifies. The press pack in Addis is remarkably isolated from the front and the outside world. Therefore they routinely find themselves discovering by telegraph or even in newspapers, events which are happening in the war they’re meant to be covering. Waugh discovers a perverse law is at work: the London editors imagine stereotyped scenes, for example riots at the Addis railway station as desperate refugees fight their way onto the last train out of town weeks before anything like that happens; so that when there finally is something approximating to fights to get onto what everyone believes (erroneously, as it turns out) will be the last train, the newspaper editors aren’t interested: it’s old news even though it’s only just happened. Again and again Waugh has the dizzy experience of seeing the media-manufactured fictions precede the facts, creating ‘an inverted time lag between the event and its publication’ (p.113).

Eventually the press pack begin to discuss leaving. The most experienced foreign correspondent does in fact depart. Waugh embarks on another visit to Harar where there is a serious interlude when he talks to venerable Muslim elders of the town, who tell him, at some risk to themselves, how saddened they are by the attrition of the Muslim culture and customs of the place by the swamping Abyssinian Christians with their drunkenness, prostitution and corruption. It is to Waugh’s credit that he listens and retails their concerns with sympathy.

Back in Addis he discovers the press have been granted permission to head north to the town of Dessye, nowadays called Dessie. He decides to travel there with the Radical journalist and they buy a knackered lorry off a shifty looking Syrian. In the event the outing is a total farce. At the first little town on the way they are pulled over and given the third degree by the officious chief of police who their servant, ‘James’ buys off with a half pint of whiskey. But a few hours drive further along the road, at Debra Birhan, the shabby mayor and chief of police conspire to forbid their further progress. When they return from the chief’s shabby office they find the locals have built barricades of stone in front and behind their lorry. They are obliged to spend the night camping there, and in the morning the chief removes the barricade behind them and obliges them to trundle back to Addis. Oh well.

Barely have they got back than the Press Office gives the entire press corps permission to travel to Dessie, so now our heroes set out on the same road but this time accompanied by many other cars and lorries packed with journalists and are not hindered or stopped.

In other words, Waugh at no time gets anywhere near a front, sees no fighting, doesn’t even hear the roar of distant artillery, never sees an enemy airplane. The text is entirely about the fatuity of the press corps and the obstructiveness of the Ethiopian authorities.

The emperor arrives at Dessye which would thenceforward be his headquarters for the war, until, in the spring, he was forced to flee the Italian advance, driving fast back to Addis, then catching the train to the coast and then by ship into exile.

By now it was December and the European press and American film companies were bored of the lack of action, coverage, footage, photos and stories. One by one the journalists find themselves being withdrawn. Everyone expects the war to drag on and end with some kind of diplomatic fudge which would revert to the status quo ante, Italy with a bit more influence, maybe Britain and France intervening under cover of a League of Nations mandate, foreign companies seeking concessions, then demanding justice if there was any murder or harassment. Same old.

Waugh’s newspaper terminates his contract. Having come this far he toys with staying on as a freelancers but, like everyone else, expects nothing will happen. He blags a seat in a Red Cross car heading back for the capital.

The German driver — an adventurous young airman who had come to look for good fortune after serving in the Paraguayan war — kept a rifle across the wheel and inflicted slight wounds on the passing farmers at point-blank range. (p.142)

Bereft of its emperor, the capital is dead. The bars are empty. The thronging press pack has gone, He packs his things and gets the train to Djibouti where he discovers a little community of journalists who never even bothered to go to the capital, but were making a perfectly happy living reporting events which they entirely invented. Ship back up through the canal, to Palestine where he fulfils an ambition to see Christmas in Bethlehem. And so by easy stages back to dear old Blighty.

Collapse

The final chapter reports events as a historian, from England. The Italian advance through February and March 1936, the sudden complete collapse of Ethiopian forces and the flight of the emperor to Djibouti and into exile. It had to compete with the German occupation of the Rhine and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

But he follows events, aware as few others how much being printed in the papers was nonsense, eventually overcome by curiosity he applies for permission to return to Abyssinia and, one year after his initial setting off, once again crosses France, then the Mediterranean, then down the Red Sea and so to Djibouti. It is packed with Italians and native hawkers.

Waugh is amused at the sight of the Italian soldiers having to travel from Djibouti, which was in French Somaliland, as far as the border with Ethiopia proper, in mufti. At the border they were allowed to change back into the garish uniforms. Absurdity.

Immediately things are counter-intuitive. He had read that his favourite town of Harar had been bombed and devastated. His friend Patrick Balfour wrote an eloquent obsequy for it in a newspaper. Except it hadn’t. If anything it was cleaner. the pavements had been fixed. The town was packed with Italians. The Hararis looked happy as sandmen to replace the oppressive rule of the Abyssinians with the more permissive – and lucrative – rule of the bon vivant Italians.

He discovers currency chaos with seven different currencies in circulation. There have been attacks on the train by ‘bandits’ prompting ‘pacification’ measures by the Italians in the surrounding villages. When the emperor left there was wholescale looting in Addis Ababa. Waugh discovers no building was untouched, curtains ripped down, electric light fittings torn out.

Waugh meets the Italian general running the new imperial administration, the Viceroy, Field Marshall Graziani. He is frank and forthright, happy to give Waugh whatever help he needs. Slowly it is revealed how extensively Addis was not only looted but burned down. The main hotel looted, the boarding house where Waugh stayed, attacked and burned. Accommodation is difficult. Everywhere is overflowing with the new Italian soldiers and administrators. The streams of lazy Abyssinians riding mules in their white cloaks have disappeared. Crops have not been sown. Food prices are astronomical. There will be famine.

Addis feels besieged. Groups of armed men, sometimes in their hundreds, penetrate the defences on raids. In the four days he spends there, Waugh hear of a substantial attack on the airdrome, and numerous other incursions. Waugh’s trademark deadpan humour:

I had an appointment that afternoon to visit Ras Hailu ; drove out to his house beyond the American hospital and was politely informed that his Highness was unable to see me ; he had gone out to a battle. (p.157)

The Europeans fear for the day a massed attack will be met by an insurrection of blacks within the city and they’ll all be murdered in their sleep. Uneasy sleeps the colonist.

Waugh gives his view frankly and openly, as he did at the start about the process of Western colonialism, as he did in the previous book about the cause of the white settlers in Kenya. For him the central fact is nobody expected the Abyssinian nation to collapse to quickly and completely. Instead of Abyssinians fighting against the Italians and their former subject peoples (which he and other intelligent commentators expected) the Abyssinians themselves had disintegrated into scores of warlords and warrior bandits, living off the peasantry and fighting each other. Complete anarchy, in other words.

As always, the colonists hold the cities and towns, the railway and most of the roads, during the day at least. but the vast expanse of the country is the home of warring bandits as per Afghanistan in our time, as per Vietnam, as per so many colonially occupied countries. Waugh thinks the Italians are tougher than opinion credits them and they’ll make a go of their new empire, but it will be hard.

The road

The book closes with a short chapter describing progress on the new modern motorway the Italians are constructing to run the length of their new colony, praising the engineers and navvies who have built a wide, modern trunk road from the north coast through the heart of the country to Addis and which is still being constructed south towards Somalia and Mogadishu as he writes.

Waugh is positively propagandistic about the new Italian empire. He sees white men working very hard to build the road, something incomprehensible to the Abyssinians who watch them.

The Italian occupation of Ethiopia is the expansion of a race. It began with fighting, but it is not a military movement, like the French occupation of Morocco. It began with the annexation of potential sources of wealth, but it is not a capitalistic movement like the British occupation of the South African goldfields. It is being attended by the spread of order and decency, education and medicine, in a disgraceful place, but it is not primarily a humane movement, like the British occupation of Uganda. It can be compared best in recent history to the great western drive of the American peoples, the dispossession of the Indian tribes and the establishment in a barren land of new pastures and cities.

Very surprising that someone with such a shrewd, pitilessly realistic eye, and a temperament disposed to ennui and sometimes depression, should write such rose-tinted hogwash.

He goes on a whistlestop tour of the occupied north of the country: Asmara, Axum, Adowa and many more now made accessible in hours via the modern autostrada which only a year before had been inaccessibly remote hypothetical places marked on the journalists’ maps, which would have taken weeks of driving then mule trekking to reach. Quite obviously, it is this incredible turnaround in wretched, backward, squalid Ethiopia’s landscape which prompted his raptures about the Italian occupation.

Abandoning everything which makes him such good company, such an alert, malicious, eagle-eyed observer, such a cynic, with such an acute eye for human foibles and follies, right at the very end Waugh delivers a ridiculous hymn of praise to Italian Fascism. I quote it in full a) to give the full mounting rhythm of the thing but b) because it reviews and summarises some of the places he visited and experiences he described and c) it’s an important passage:

They [the engineers and navvies] are at work there at this moment, as I write. They will be at work there when these words appear, and in a few months the great metalled highway will run uninterrupted along the way where the Radical and I so painfully travelled a year before, past the hot springs where our servants mistook the bubbles for rising fish, past the camping ground where Dedjasmach Matafara entertained us to breakfast, up the immense escarpment, past Debra Birhan, where the one-eyed chief held us prisoner, to Addis, where a new city will be in growth — a real ‘New Flower’ — to take the place of the shoddy ruins of Menelik and Tafari. And from Dessye new roads will be radiating to all points of the compass, and along the roads will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, as they came to our savage ancestors in France and Britain and Germany, bringing some rubbish and some mischief; a good deal of vulgar talk and some sharp misfortunes for individual opponents; but above and beyond and entirely predominating, the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgement — the two determining qualities of the human spirit, by which alone, under God, man grows and flourishes.

What utter horseshit. I wonder what Evelyn’s friends, let alone his enemies, made of this misplaced paean seven short years later when many of them were fighting against and being killed by these same charming Fascists in the Italian campaign of the Second World War.

Pondering Waugh’s imperialist rhetoric

This florid passage is such a contrast with the entirely progressive, left-wing view of colonialism which he expressed in chapter one of the book. Then again revisiting that opening rhetoric may be a clue to its meaning or its origin. Waugh lived in a world where there were no aid agencies (with the notable exception of the International Red Cross which, however, restricted itself to treating victims of war). There was none of the long-established mechanisms of international aid, foreign loans, ministries of overseas aid, ministries of international development, nor the hundreds and hundreds of charities which medical, teaching, water aid, famine relief, mine clearing, humanitarian assistance and so on, which I have grown up with and take entirely for granted. (Thinking about it, I realise that there were quite a number of missionary agencies which had been operating since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and supported schools and, to a lesser extent, hospitals.)

Waugh had visited the country twice, travelled round it more extensively than most Westerners. He had learned that it was a ramshackle ’empire’ built on the conquest and suppression of neighbouring peoples and tribes. He had seen that, even at the centre, it was characterised by backward obscurantism, inefficiency, endless delay and inaction. No roads worth the name, hardly any hospitals, rarely any schools, and a population mostly illiterate living in poverty in the towns and absolute destitution in the countryside, where famine often brought starvation, many parts of which were prey to wandering bands murdering bandits.

It is worth, therefore, mentally trying on the position, I mean experimenting with the view he is clearly expressing, that Italian colonisation genuinely offered the best way forward for the people of Abyssinia. If you genuinely cared for the population, if you wanted to see roads built, and the economy developed, and modern commerce, and schools and hospitals built in regional centres and the population educated…then the building of the big new trunk road to run right across the country was a symbol of a new life for Ethiopia’s people.

This goes some way to explain his enthusiasm, that and maybe the decision to end the book on an upbeat, positive note. It still doesn’t justify the extravagance of his rhetoric, which seems ludicrous to us now. And, as with his support for the white settlers in Kenya which he expressed in Remote People, we have the immense advantage of hindsight, of knowing that his view was swept away by three or four cumulative forces: that Italian colonisation would be short-lived and ineffectual; that Mussolini’s government would be swept away by the Second World War; that the entire ideology of imperialism and colonisation would a) be swept away in the early 1960s and b) become associated with criminal exploitation.

I’m not defending his position, I’m just pointing out that Waugh knew none of this was going to happen and that, at the time of writing, while the colonisation process had barely even begun, he was genuinely inspired with hope that Italian hegemony would bring a new era of education and enlightenment to a country he had ample evidence for thinking backward and, in some areas (take his harrowing description of Addis Ababa’s prison) positively barbaric.

It is also worth remembering that we, in our fabulously enlightened modern era, despite knowing vastly more about international development than Waugh, have been prone to the same triumphalist rhetoric. Witness the gushingly positive commentary that surrounded the Western invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, when Western nations invaded third world countries and overthrew their dictatorial regimes, promising a new dawn of peace and prosperity, the rule of law, hospitals, schools and all the rest of it – only to find themselves bogged down in years of violent conflict with unreconciled resistance fighters.

The opening chapter of the book makes it clear that Waugh was all too aware that high-minded European involvement in a developing country all too often covered self-serving commercial and strategic considerations. This makes it all the odder that he gave way to such a booming passage of high-minded rhetoric at the end of the narrative.

Well, a Western country hadn’t invaded a developing country in quite that way, with quite the modern facilities Italy brought to Ethiopia in the 1930s, for quite a while, when Waugh wrote. Presumably he thought this time it’ll be different.

And he had actually seen with his own eyes the impressive new trunk road being built across the country and seen the contrast between the dynamic Italian navvies and the shiftless, poverty stricken native peasants who looked on in amazement. So he has the excuse that he was writing about what he had actually seen at first hand and this included his genuine excitement that genuine change was at hand for the country’s people.

Whereas 70 years later, the armchair commentators, politicians and populations of Western countries who greeted America’s invasion of first Afghanistan then Iraq had no excuses. 70 years of brutal, disillusioning global history had intervened and they should have known better. But hope springs eternal in the human breast and the supporters of those invasions, just like Waugh supporting the Italian invasion, thought this time it’ll be different.

But it’s never different. It’s always the same.

Some Ethiopian words

  • dedjasmatch = civic leader or commander in the field
  • khat = wild plant whose leaves, when chewed, release a stimulant drug which produces mild euphoria and makes people feel more alert and talkative
  • tedj/tej = a honey wine, like mead, that has an alcohol content generally ranging from 7 to 11%
  • tukal/tukul = a traditional thatched roof hut

Credit

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh was published by Longmans in 1936. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Africa-related reviews

History and journalism

Fictions, memoirs and travel writing set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


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Ovid’s Amores translated by Christopher Marlowe

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet (3.13)

Introduction to Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, generally known as Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) was a well-known Latin poet who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and a younger contemporary of arguably the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Virgil (70 BC – 19 AD).

After years of success and public honours, at the height of his fame, in 8 AD the emperor ordered Ovid to be summarily exiled to the remote backwater of the Black Sea. Possibly some of his verse had offended, either because of their satire or their erotic content. Possibly he had a relationship with the emperor’s daughter Julia. To this day, scholars aren’t completely sure. Augustus ordered Ovid’s works removed from libraries and destroyed, but that seems to have had little effect on his popularity. He was always among the most widely read and imitated of Latin poets and more copies of his works survive than of any other Latin poet.

Amores is Latin for ‘loves’ and the work consists of 48 poems, all in the first person, which describe the poet’s love affair with a rich and unhappily married woman, named Corinna. The series doesn’t tell a well-defined narrative with beginning, middle and end. Some poems seem to refer to specific events, but more often they address topics arising from the general idea of being in love. Some seem aimed at a generic female figure, others wander off the central topic altogether to make general points about Poetry, or the poet’s Muse. One is an elegy to fellow poet Tibullus, who had done much to establish the genre of the erotic elegy.

The word ‘elegy’ has come to mean a lament for someone who’s died, but in Ovid’s day it had the broader meaning of a poem written to or about a specific person – in this case Corinna, although many of the poems are actually written to figures surrounding her, such as her eunuch.

Scholars credit Ovid with taking aspects of the love elegy and developing them further, in particular a subversive irony and humour, ironising his own role as lover, the beloved’s character and, indeed, the whole palaver of being in love, wooing and all the rest of it.

Summary of the Amores

Book 1 contains 15 poems. The first tells of Ovid’s intention to write epic poetry, which is thwarted when Cupid steals a metrical foot from him, changing his work into love elegy. Poem 4 is didactic and describes principles that Ovid would develop in the Ars Amatoria. The fifth poem, describing sex in the afternoon, first introduces Corinna by name. Poems 8 and 9 deal with Corinna selling her love for gifts, while 11 and 12 describe the poet’s failed attempt to arrange a meeting. Poem 14 discusses Corinna’s disastrous experiment in dyeing her hair and 15 stresses the immortality of Ovid and love poets.

The second book contains 19 poems. The opening poem tells of Ovid’s abandonment of a Gigantomachy in favour of elegy. Poems 2 and 3 are entreaties to a guardian to let the poet see Corinna, poem 6 is a lament for Corinna’s dead parrot; poems 7 and 8 deal with Ovid’s affair with Corinna’s servant and her discovery of it, and 11 and 12 try to prevent Corinna from going on vacation. Poem 13 is a prayer to Isis for Corinna’s illness, 14 a poem against abortion, and 19 a warning to unwary husbands.

Book 3 contains 15 poems. The opening piece depicts personified Tragedy and Elegy fighting over Ovid. Poem 2 describes a visit to the races, 3 and 8 focus on Corinna’s interest in other men, 10 is a complaint to Ceres because of her festival that requires abstinence, 13 is a poem on a festival of Juno, and 9 a lament for Tibullus. In poem 11 Ovid decides not to love Corinna any longer and regrets the poems he has written about her. The final poem is Ovid’s farewell to the erotic muse.

The most accessible poems

I have boldened the poems I found easiest to understand and so most enjoyable, being 1.5, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13 and 2.14 about abortion, 3.6 about impotence, 3.8 the elegy to Tibullus, 3.13 telling his mistress to be discreet.

The summaries in italics are in the Penguin edition and appear to be the summaries given in the original Elizabethan edition.

Book 1

1.1 How he was forced by Cupid to write of love instead of war – At the time epic poetry was written in hexameters which have six ‘feet’ or units per line, whereas love poems were written in pentameters with five ‘feet’. The poet humorously complains that he set out to write bold, manly war poetry but that Cupid stole one of the ‘feet’ of his verse, and so now he is condemned to write love poems. He complains this is topsy turvey, Cupid should not have the power to intervene in poetry, but Cupid replied by shooting him with one of his arrows.

Thus I complaind, but Love unlockt his quiver,
Tooke out the shaft, ordaind my hart to shiver:
And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,
Saying, Poet heers a worke beseeming thee.
Oh woe is me, he never shootes but hits,
I burne, love in my idle bosome sits.

1.2 First captured by love, he endures being led in triumph by Cupid – What is keeping him awake at night? It is love. He gives examples of types of animals which know that fighting against man’s shackles and bridles only makes it worse. Similarly, he has the wisdom to submit.

Yielding or striving do we give him might,
Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.

1.3 To his mistress – He describes his devotion and his good qualities as a lover:

Be thou the happy subject of my books
That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.

1.4 He advises his love what devices and signals they ought to employ when they were at dinner with her husband present – The poet goes to a dinner party along with his lover and her husband and gives a long list of instructions to her not to dally too much or too openly with him, not to hang about his neck, fondle his chin, entwine her legs with his and the secret signs they will use to convey their passion to each other.

View me, my becks, and speaking countenance;
Take, and return each secret amorous glance.
Words without voice shall on my eyebrows sit,
Lines thou shalt read in wine by my hand writ.

1.5 Sex with Corinna – He describes an afternoon when Corinna comes to his rooms and they make love (quoted in full below).

1.6 To her porter, to open the door for him – He begs Corinna’s doorkeeper to let him into the house to see his love. This is an example, believe it or not, of a recognised genre, the paraclausithyron, the ‘door poem’ or ‘lament beside the door’, in which the exclusus amator (‘shut-out lover’) addresses the door or doorkeeper keeping him from his mistress. Horace wrote a poem threatening the door, Tibullus appealed to the door, Propertius wrote a poem in which the door is the speaker. The trope was revived by some of the troubadors, recurs in Victorian poetry, and lives on into our day, witness the 1971 song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? by the Rolling Stones:

Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door

1.7 That his mistress, who he has beaten, should make peace with him – In a blind rage he hits his lover, then sees her tears and throws himself at her feet in regret.

1.8 He reviles the bawd who has been introducing his mistress to the courtesan’s art – The longest poem in book 1, the poet describes the ancient bawd and procuress Dipsas as a witch and then overhears, from a hiding place, the old crone giving his mistress lessons on how to keep a lover on tenterhooks. At the end of her lecture the poet heartily curses her.

1.9 To Atticus: that a lover may not be lazy, any more than a soldier – The poet compares lovers with soldiers, including the greats of the tale of Troy, and says he is like a soldier, at his mistress’ beck and call as a soldier is of his captain’s.

1.10 To his girl, that she should not demand money for her love – He complains that alone among species, female humans refrain from sex until given gifts, until bought like whores.

The mare asks not the horse, the cow the bull,
Nor the mild ewe gifts from the ram doth pull.
Only a woman gets spoils from a man,
Farms out herself on nights for what she can;
And lets [prevents] what both delight, what both desire,
Making her joy according to her hire.

He swears that the gift he gives his mistress – his – will last long after the gold and jewels that common mistresses demand.

1.11 He pleads with Nape to carry a letter to Corinna – He asks Corinna’s maid to take a message to her and await her reply.

1.12 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – He seems to be attacking a book or books or manuscript, maybe it’s a letter announcing his mistress cannot visit.

1.13 To Dawn, not to hurry – He criticises the dawn for waking humanity from its rest and forcing all kinds of people, trades and animals to their daily work.

Poor travellers though tired, rise at thy sight,
And soldiers make them ready to the fight.
The painful hind by thee to field is sent;
Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.
Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them
To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

But, worst of all, parting him from his mistress.

1.14 He consoles his girl, whose hair has fallen out from excessive hair-washing  – He mocks Corinna for cutting off her hair and dyeing the rest and then complaining about the result.

She holds, and views her old locks in her lap;
Ay me! rare gifts unworthy such a hap!

1.15 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – The book ends with Ovid describing the immortal fame achieved by the great poets of the past and the subjects they wrote about (Troy, Aeneas, the golden fleece) and that he will be among them (as he, indeed, is).

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,
Verse is immortal and shall ne’er decay.
To[ verse let kings give place and kingly shows,
And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vild things;
Fair Phœbus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

Book 2

2.1 Why he is impelled to write of love, rather than of titanic struggles – The poet describes the sort of audience that he desires, hot maids looking for a husband and boys hurt, like him, by Cupid’s arrows. He jokingly says what good will it do him to write about Achilles or Odysseus, they’re long dead? But if he writes a poem to a pretty woman, he might get a snog out of it!

2.2 To Bagous, to keep a more lax watch over his mistress, who has been entrusted to him – The poet asks Bagous, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress in a poem I found largely incomprehensible.

2.3 To the eunuch serving his mistress – The poet addresses a eunuch, arguing he should let him see his mistress.

2.4 That he loves women of all sorts – An unusually comprehensible poem in which the poet explains that he loves every woman he sees, tall or short, dark or fair, coy or brazen, singing or silent, dancing or plodding:

I cannot rule myself but where Love please;
Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.
No one face likes me best, all faces move,
A hundred reasons make me ever love.

2.5 To his faithless mistress – How lucky is a lover who intercepts letters or hears gossip that his lover is unfaithful: because she can deny it and he can believe her. But the poet saw with his own eyes how, when a dinner party had ended, she kissed at length, with tongues, ‘another’ (presumably her husband).

2.6 On the death of his parrot – A pet parrot has died and he expends numerous classical analogies in mourning it. Despite reading the poem several times I can’t work out whether the parrot belonged to Corinna, or the poet, or whether Corinna is meant to be speaking (‘The parrot, from East India to me sent/Is dead…’)

2.7 He swears to his mistress that he has not made love to her maid – The poet complains that she’s always accusing him of something, in this case of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis. The poet denies it based on class loyalty, he would never demean himself to have sex with a slave. He throws in an unnerving detail – that her back is ‘rough with stripes’. From being whipped!?

With Venus’ game who will a servant grace?
Or any back, made rough with stripes, embrace?

2.8 To Cypassis, Corinna’s maid – In humorous contrast to the preceding poem, the poet now addresses Cypassis freely admitting that they’ve been having sex, and using classical precedents (Achilles and Agamemnon both had affairs with servants) as freely to justify the affair to Cypassis as he had used others to deny it to Corinna.

The poem appears to take place in real time, i.e. is his part of a dialogue, because after he’s taken the credit for speaking up in her defence when Corinna accused her, he promptly asks her to lie with him as a reward and, when she refuses, gets cross and threatens to reveal the truth to her mistress (which would, presumably, lead to another whipping).

2.9 To Cupid – The poet reproaches Cupid for causing him so much pain in love, for driving him like a headstrong horse or a storm at sea, when he (the poet) is a fellow soldier, a colleague, in love’s wars.

2.10 To Graecinus, that he can love two at once – His friend Graecinus told him it was impossible to be in love with two women at the same time, but he is (‘Which is the loveliest, it is hard to say’)! He describes the joy of two lovers at length and humorously gloats over his enemies who lie alone at night in their big empty beds.

2.11 To his mistress sailing – He is very anxious indeed about a planned sea voyage Corinna is going to make, curses the pioneers of sea adventures, and then invokes a ton of gods to look after her, before anticipating the joy of their reunion when she returns.

2.12 He rejoices that he has conquered his mistress – A humorous poem in which he compares himself to a mighty warrior and says he deserves to be crowned with bay leaves like the traditional victor of a campaign because he has won Corinna who is even at this moment lying on his breast, a victory greater than the defeat of Troy.

2.13 To Isis, to aid Corinna in Labour– He prays to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to Lucina goddess of childbirth, to protect and save Corinna who is having an abortion he is sure is from him, save Corinna and, in doing so, also save the anxious poet.

My wench, Lucina, I entreat thee favour;
Worthy she is, thou should’st in mercy save her.

2.14 To his mistress, who has attempted an abortion – The poet laments that, although women are not involved in war, they have come up with ways to harm themselves, namely having abortions which, apparently, involves ‘hid irons’ and ‘dire poison’. If all women had practiced abortion, the world would be empty, there would have been no Priam or Achilles (as usual his mind goes straight to the Trojan Wars), no Romulus and Rome, in fact no Ovid and Corinna.

2.15 To a ring which he has given his mistress – He wishes he were his mistress ring so he could familiarly touch her lap and pap.

2.16 To his mistress, to come to his country estate – He wishes his mistress would come to his country estate in Sulmo (in the Abruzzi, a region of east-central Italy). He gives an extensive description of the region’s natural beauties but says that, without her, it means nothing.

2.17 That he will serve only Corinna – He laments that his mistress is well aware how beautiful she is and this makes her haughty and disdainful. He recalls how many women from classical myth accepted a more junior lover e.g. Venus with club-footed Vulcan.

And thou, my light, accept me howsoever;
Lay in the mid bed, there be my lawgiver.

2.18 To Macer, writing of his love poems – Another poem pointing out that he would like to write of war and high tragedy but his mistress is wriggling on his lap, refuses to go when he orders her, and so his poems end up being about love and his love emotions.

I yield, and back my wit from battles bring,
Domestic acts, and mine own wars to sing.

2.19 – To his rival, her husband, who does not guard his wife – He is irritated with the husband for making Corinna so available. Forbidden love is sweeter, and he rattles off a list of women from myth and legend who were difficult to attain and so fired up their lovers more (Danae kept in a high tower, Io guarded by Juno)

What flies I follow, what follows me I shun.

In fact, he warns the husband, unless he starts protecting her more seriously, Ovid is going to give up being her lover, it’s too easy, it’s boring.

Now I forewarn, unless to keep her stronger
Thou dost begin, she shall be mine no longer.

Book 3

3.1 The poet’s deliberation whether to continue writing elegies or to turn to tragedy – Walking in a wood he is confronted by personifications of Elegy and Tragedy. Tragedy says he has become a laughing stock, writing about his lewd love affairs. Time to fulfil his talents and write Great Things. Elegy replies that she is light and trivial and yet suited for some subjects. She dresses out Venus and Corinna. The poet says he will turn to Grand Things in time and Tragedy appears to grant him a period to continue dawdling with trivial love, before turning to Higher Things. A worry which is still nagging him in 3.10:

When Thebes, when Troy, when Cæsar should be writ,
Alone Corinna moves my wanton wit.

3.2 To his mistress watching the races – He has come to the races, not to look at the horse, but his mistress. As avidly as she feeds on the arduous horse, he feeds on sight of her. There is an extended description of every element of a Roman horse-race and how they can be metaphorically applied to his feverish wooing.

3.3 On his mistress, who has lied to him – He is appalled that his mistress has lied to him and yet looks just as beautiful and desirable as before. Are there no gods, is there no justice? Characteristically, he launches into a long list of legendary figures and asks why the gods bothered punishing them so excessively if they are going to let his mistress off scot-free?

3.4 To a man who guards his wife – He warns a man who is trying to guard his lover from adultery that it will have the opposite effect: forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; it is nature to hanker for what is banned.

3.5 To a torrent, while he is on his way to his mistress – He has travelled day and night to reach his lover and now is prevented by a river in flood as the mountain snows thaw. Characteristically, he then compares the flooded river to numerous other rivers in Graeco-Roman mythology, an extended litany which helps to make this the longest poem in the book.

3.6 He bewails the fact that, in bed with his mistress, he was unable to perform – 

Though both of us performed our true intent,
Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Interestingly, he points out that whatever caused the first failure, it was compounded by shame i.e. embarrassment. Interesting because that is, indeed, how erectile disfunction works, the more aware you become, the worse it gets, and the more humiliated you feel. At several points he directly describes the failing member:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mockèd me, hung down the head and sunk…

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,
Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday…

3.7 He mourns that his mistress will not receive him – He is consumed with anger and jealousy that his mistress has rejected him, ‘the pure priest of Phoebus and the Muses’, for a battle-scarred hunk whose hands are bloody from the men he’s killed. Alas, poetry and the arts are now worth less than gold – Barbarism!

3.8 He mourns the death of Tibullus – Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. In Ovid’s poem Cupid has broken his bow and mourns. He compares Tibullus’ death to those of legendary heroes and says death makes him doubt the existence of the gods.

Outrageous death profanes all holy things,
And on all creatures obscure darkness brings.

It is a sweet and moving elegy, in the modern sense of the word.

3.9 To Ceres, complaining that because of her ceremonies he is not allowed to sleep with his mistress – The Festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from meeting his mistress who lies alone in an empty bed. There is an extended description of Ceres’ history and attributes, before he concludes that he’d rather be celebrating a festival to Venus!

3.10 To his mistress, from whose love he cannot free himself – So many times he has been turned away from her door and slept on the floor. ‘Long have I borne much, mad thy faults me make.’ He has impersonated one of her servants and seen many a sated lover leaving her bedroom, observed her tricks and signs to lovers at dinner parties, put up with her lies and deceptions. But now he has made some kind of break:

Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain,
And what I have borne, shame to bear again.

Now hate and love fight in his breast.

Now love and hate my light breast each way move,
But victory, I think, will hap to love.
I’ll hate, if I can; if not, love ‘gainst my will,

Torn: ‘Nor with thee, nor without thee can I live.’

3.11 He complains that his lover is so well known through his poems that she is available to many rival lovers – Actually, when you stop and reflect on the previous 40 or so poems, you realise that he has not in fact painted a particularly vivid picture of his lover. Horse-racing, his native countryside, the maid he had a fling with, the doorkeeper, her husband, even the details of horse-racing – and lots and lots of references to classical myths, yes, certainly. But in a curious way, the mistress – if her name is Corinna – is strangely absent from many of the poems, and even when she’s explicitly named, a strangely fugitive presence.

Which makes you realise how conventional this poem lamenting that fact that he’s made her famous, actually is.

Characteristically, he turns to classical mythology to give examples of how vivid and blazing and enduring the poet’s myths and fables have been.

3.12 On the feast of Juno – A straightfoward description of the Festival of Juno, which takes place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins. He ends the poem by piously hoping that Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

3.13 – To his mistress; if she will be licentious, let her do it discreetly – He tells her not to boast about her night’s adventures, if she is going to stray, at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Be as wanton as she likes in bed, but, risen and dressed and in company, be sage and graceful and proper. That will make it easier for him to overlook her infidelities.

3.14 To Venus, putting an end to his elegies – In a relatively short, poignant poem, he bids farewell to ‘tender Love’s mother’ i.e. Venus, to ‘weak elegies’ and his ‘delightful muse’. What gives it a particular feel is that it is almost devoid of the extensive lists of gods and heroes which pad out most of the poems. Instead he speaks fondly of his home among the Paeligni tribe of the Abruzzi. Whereas visitors might think it fitting that Mantua sired the great poet Vergil and Verona was home to Catullus, they might be surprised that the little town of Sulmo was his birthplace. But he loves it and will praise it. And now it is time to move on, to tackle a greater ground with a greater horse. To move onto the more Serious kind of poetry which has periodically nagged him throughout the series.

Marlowe’s translation

Marlowe’s Ovid is the earliest, the least studied of his works and the most dismissed. One reason is the technical inaccuracies, errors and mistranslations which, apparently, crop up in every line, partly Marlowe’s errors, partly because the printed texts he was working from were themselves inaccurate.

This, understandably, irks Latin scholars and has resulted in 400 years of negative reviews. We, however, need not be very troubled by these pedantic concerns about literal accuracy. A hundred years ago Ezra Pound showed that translations can be full of howlers but still be very beautiful (Cathay). The thing deserves to be judged on its own terms.

That said, these poems are often boring and quite hard to follow. Why? Having just read Hero and Leander and the first couple of plays, I think it’s for several inter-connected reasons:

The couplet form

Ovid’s original was written in couplets, that’s to say paired lines, sentences divided into two lines which end with a full stop. The impact of reading a series of self-contained rhymed couplets quickly becomes monotonous. It feels mechanical.

Aye me an Eunuch keepes my mistrisse chaste,
That cannot Venus mutuall pleasure taste.
Who first depriv’d yong boyes of their best part,
With selfe same woundes he gave, he ought to smart.
To kinde requests thou wouldst more gentle prove,
If ever wench had made luke-warme thy love.

It feels like Marlowe is cabined and confined by this format. He is clearly constrained to convey Ovid’s original meaning and struggles to do so within the narrow bounds of the couplet. It routinely feels like he is contorting normal English phrasing or rhythm, so much so that I found it very difficult to understand what entire poems were actually about. 1.2 mentions a husband and husbands generally, but I struggled to understand even one line.

I sawe ones legges with fetters blacke and blewe,
By whom the husband his wives incest knewe.
More he deserv’d, to both great harme he fram’d,
The man did grieve, the woman was defam’d.
Trust me all husbands for such faults are sad
Nor make they any man that heare them glad.
If he loves not, deafe eares thou doest importune,
Or if he loves, thy tale breedes his misfortune.

The pronouns, and the apparent subject, of the poem keep changing so that I’m not sure who’s being talked about. I’ve no idea why incest has cropped up, I’ve no idea who the man is, or the woman is in the first four lines. I don’t understand what faults are being referred to, and I nearly understand the last couplet but don’t really know who the ‘thou’ referred to is. Is it the poet’s lover Corinna? But if so, why does her tale breed ‘his misfortune’?

Latin

Latin is a more compact language than English. Its declensions and conjugations, the way it changes the ends of the words to convey changes in case for nouns, and tense and person for verbs, mean that one Latin word can convey what can easily take two, three or four English words to express.

Latin can elegantly fit into two lines ideas and meanings which English can only fit into the tight straitjacket by mangling word order and meaning. To give one repeated example of this at work, many of the poems start with a ringing couplet whose first line sounds fine because he has written it out at full length, so to speak – but whose second line is incomprehensible, as Marlowe tries to fit into the second line a meaning which really requires one and a half or two. Quite often the second lines are incomprehensible.

I ask but right, let her that caught me late,
Either love, or cause that I may never hate… (?)

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains,
While rage is absent, take some friend the pains…(?)

I, Ovid, poet, of my wantonness,
Born at Peligny, to write more address. (?)

It explains why Marlowe continually distorts normal word order and sense. In the poem about the doorkeeper, he writes:

Little I ask, a little entrance make,
The gate half-ope my bent side in will take.
Long love my body to such use makes slender,
And to get out doth like apt members render.

So, the first line is fairly smooth and understandable, the second is peculiarly phrased (‘bent side’?). The third line is understandable if you make the effort to read it carefully, and the fourth line is gibberish. He’s mangling the English because he’s trying to shoehorn a Latin meaning which simply contains more than an English couplet can handle.

The net effect is that it’s possible to read line after line, poem after poem, without really understanding what they’re about. Easy to begin skipping verse which is so hard to get a grasp of, or reading through entire passages without properly understanding them. Takes this couplet from 1.3:

I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The first line is so compacted you have to read it several times to parse the meaning – the second half of the second line is clear enough, but I don’t quite get why he’ll live with his love forever ‘if men have faith’. What have other men got to do with it? Maybe it means something like, ‘as long as men are faithful, I’ll live with thee forever’, but the little shoebox of the heroic couplet forces him to abbreviate English words so much as to teeter on the incomprehensible.

Contrast with Marlowe the playwright

Taken together what the set highlights, by being such a sharp contrast to it, is Marlowe’s natural gift for a completely different type of verse when he is writing at will and with freedom – for verse which flows freely for entire paragraphs – his gift for rolling lines which convey a luxurious flow of meaning over 5, 6, 7 or more lines, the kind of wonderfully fluent passages you find again and again in the plays. Here is Jupiter flirting with Ganymede at the start of his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of Time;
Why, are not all the gods at thy command,
And Heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine daughters sing when thou art sad;
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face:
And Venus’ swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed:

What makes this both enjoyable and understandable is they way the same basic thought (‘I’ll give you anything you want, sweet Ganymede’) expands out over ten lines. All the examples repeat the same basic idea – that all the gods will dance at Ganymede’s command – and the reader, having once grasped the basic idea, is freed up to enjoy the poet’s embellishments and elaborations. We readers revel in Marlowe’s inventiveness and fluency and therein lies the mental pleasure, the sense of luxury which derives from the effortlessness with which Marlowe spins out elegantly phrased elaborations of the theme. It’s like a luxury hotel, every room is smoothly and tastefully furnished.

Seeing Marlowe pace up and down the cage of these rhyming couplets, makes you appreciate it even more when you see him released to go bounding joyfully across the open sunny savannah of the blank verse of his plays.

The dead parrot

Whereas in the Ovid translations, the reader continually feels, along with the poet, that his natural grandiloquent discursiveness has been chopped up and cramped into bite-sized couplets. The poem about the death of Corinna’s parrot ought to be funny, the subject is potentially humorous, but the performance feels stuttery and confined.

Elisium hath a wood of holme trees black,
Whose earth doth not perpetuall greene-grasse lacke,
There good birds rest (if we beleeve things hidden)
Whence uncleane fowles are said to be forbidden.
There harrnelesse Swans feed all abroad the river,
There lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever.
There Junoes bird displayes his gorgious feather,
And loving Doves kisse eagerly together.
The Parrat into wood receiv’d with these,
Turnes all the goodly birdes to what she please.

What does ‘if we believe things hidden’ really mean? That belief in the afterlife is some esoteric knowledge? – but it wasn’t. As in hundreds of other lines, the meaning is puzzlingly meaningless or unclear. The line about harmless swans on the river is easy enough to understand but, although you can see the idea lurking behind ‘there lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever’, the actual phrasing feels clumsy and contorted, and poetry is about the actual phrasing.

Juno’s bird (the peacock) displaying her gorgeous feather I understand alright, and the loving turtle doves are a stock cliché – but the final couplet is horrible: ‘The parrot into wood received with these’ is just horrible phrasing, and what does the final line actually mean? Is it something to do with the parrot’s ability to mimic the other birds? I’ve no idea.

Love in the afternoon

Of the 45 poems only one manages to be both completely understandable and to show the extended fluency on a simple idea which distinguishes the more relaxed and fluent verse of his plays – which explains why it’s the one that is always included in anthologies.

Book 1 Elegy 5

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed
Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered there withal.
And striving thus, as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see!
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest; being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!

And then, it’s about a naked woman and sex, which always helps.

Legacy

There are several points to make.

1. Marlowe’s sonnet sequence

Although they are obviously not sonnets, and he didn’t write them from scratch, nonetheless the Amores can be thought of as ‘Marlowe’s sonnet sequence’. Most other leading poets of the day wrote an extended series of sonnets, all addressed to the same remote and aloof mistress, which they used to explore different moods and subjects, some tragic, some humorous. Examples include Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser’s sequence Amoretti, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the set which is sometimes seen as ending the fashion, Michael Drayton’s Idea sequence.

The point is, the Amores played something of the same role for Marlowe, allowing him to experiment with how to phrase in English a wide variety of moods, emotions and tones of voice. Each of the poems tends to make a case i.e. is not a flow of emotion, but a string of rhetorical arguments around a particular love-related issue (jealousy, passion, anger, regret). So you could argue that the Amores was practice, warming up and rehearsal for deploying variations on all these emotions in the mouths of the characters in his plays, for example the variety of arguments deployed by Aeneas and Dido as they fall in and out of love.

2. Grabby openings

One of the often-noted features of both Shakespeare’s sonnets and John Donne’s lyrics, is their colloquial, dramatic, buttonholing opening lines – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ or ‘I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved…’ being examples of Shakespeare and Donne, respectively.

The point is you can make the case that Marlowe helped establish this tone – that instead of the long and formal exordium of earlier Renaissance poetry,  Marlowe’s translations leap straight in with colloquial, chatty or arresting openings:

What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Thy husband to a banquet goes with me…

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains…

Leave colouring thy tresses, I did cry…

Ay me, an eunuch keeps my mistress chaste… (2.3)

Well, maybe. Maybe some of them. But just as many start with crabbed or obscure lines, simple situational setups, or promising phrases which are then bent and broken:

An old wood stands, uncut of long years’ space,
‘Tis credible some godhead haunts the place…

I sit not here the noble horse to see;
Yet whom thou favour’st, pray may conqueror be.

What, are there gods? herself she hath forswore,
And yet remains the face she had before.

Rude man, ’tis vain thy damsel to commend
To keeper’s trust: their wits should them defend.

Flood with reed-grown slime banks, till I be past
Thy waters stay: I to my mistress haste.

3. The ubiquity of classical mythology

So obvious it’s easy to overlook, but the Amores are stuffed with references to the gods and legends of the ancient world. Probably Marlowe read Horace and Virgil, too, and many other Latin authors, but the way the characters of the gods and the stories of their adventures continually pop into the poet’s mind to illustrate almost every point he’s making, will also characterise the plays – certainly Dido and Tamburlaine – where all the characters invoke the Roman gods, the characters from the tale of Troy, plus stock stories from ancient myth.

4. Classical padding

About half way through I began to notice a pattern to many of the poems: Ovid states the situation and describes it in fairly realistic terms. And then, around line 10, he will suddenly switch to invoking classical precedents. One minute he’s addressing his mistress, doorkeeper, friend etc. Then there is almost always a swerve, a change of tone, and he suddenly begins a (usually very extended) list of comparisons with figures from myth and legend. This suggests two thoughts:

  • It is padding. He can pad out any thought, emotion or moment by invoking a classical precedent and then describing it at length, or alternatively piling up a list of quickfire precedents. Either way, most of the poems are twice as long as the ostensible subject justifies, because they have these long passages invoking Venus and Vulcan and Jove and Achilles and so on.
  • I wonder to what extent people living in those times really did structure, categorise and make sense of their human experience through the filter of classical myth and legend. We nowadays – I think – invoke a range of discourses, popular sayings about mental health, maybe, or gender stereotyping or other cliches, maybe about northerners and southerners, or class-based tropes. I’m not in a position to make a full list and I dare say it varies from person to person. But whereas we might think ‘I’m depressed, I’m stressed, it’s sexism, the management don’t know what they’re doing’ – those kinds of categories – I wonder if denizens of the ancient world actually thought, ‘Well beautiful Venus had an affair with ugly Vulcan, this is like jealous Juno taking her revenge on Hercules, he’s sulking like Achilles’ and so on. Or was it only in the poems? Is it an entirely literary artifact?

5. Poetry lasts forever

People still talk about Troy, the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, getting on for 3,000 years after the stories were first told. Ovid is still mentioned, discussed and quoted long after most of the generals and all the politicians of his day are forgotten. Poetry really does outlast not only men’s lives, but entire civilisations. It’s an ancient trope because it’s true. In this couplet, I like the way he places poetry alongside ‘history’s pretence’.

Poets’ large power is boundless and immense,
Nor have their words true history’s pretence.

That’s a complicated word, ‘pretence’, because it involves effort and aspiration (pretensions), but also acting and dissembling. History is the attempt to make sense of what has happened but, as I’ve made clear in my 350 history reviews, it is always a story, or an attempt to frame a meaningful narrative. And the sense of what history is, what it is for, as well as the actual ‘histories’ of every period, change and mutate over time. But not Ovid’s words, or Marlowe’s. When Marlowe wrote ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships’ he made something which will last as long as the English language.

It’s a trope, it’s a cliché which recurs as on of the threads running through the Amores. But it’s true.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

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