Complete Letters of Pliny the Younger translated by P.G. Walsh (2006)

Gaius Pliny sends greetings to his friend Septicius Clarus
“On numerous occasions you have urged me to assemble and to publish such letters as I had composed with some care. I have now assembled them without maintaining chronological sequence, for I was not compiling a history, but as each happened to come to hand.”
(Opening of the first letter in Pliny’s Collected Letters)

The letters of Cicero

The letters of Pliny the Younger (61 to around 113 AD) are as famous as those if Cicero (106 to 43 BC) but different. Cicero lived in extremely turbulent times and was right at the centre of events, a personal friend of Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Brutus and other key players in the political crises which led to the civil war of 49 BC. Plus he had a highly developed interest in rhetoric, poetry and philosophy, plus he had an exuberant gregarious showman personality, all of which makes his letters a joy to read 2,000 years later.

Pliny’s career

Pliny, by contrast, was a much more sober figure. His uncle (Pliny the Elder, 23 to 79 AD) was a confidante of the emperor Vespasian and a member of the imperial council. The nephew was a lifelong civil servant and administrator, moving smoothly up the ranks of the Roman administration: thus he progressed through the posts of quaestor, plebeian tribune and praetor during the reign of the emperor Domitian (ruled 81 to 96 AD) and then, under the long, peaceful rule of Trajan (98 to 117) his career really took off.

Pliny served as prefect to the military treasury then, after Domitian was assassinated in 96, prefect of the treasury of Saturn. Then, in 100, he was made suffect consul. It was on this occasion that he delivered a speech of thanks to Trajan in the senate and this speech has survived in its entirety; he called it the Panegyricus. In 103 Pliny was appointed to the college of augurs, all the more pleased because this was a position his hero, Cicero, had held. In 104, he was appointed curator of then Tiber (responsible for protecting against flooding etc). Finally, the peak of his career came with his appointment as governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus in 109 (or 110), where he probably died in post a few years later (scholars think this because the letters abruptly cease in 113).

Pliny’s letters

Pliny’s letters are arranged into ten books. Books 1 to 9 contain 246 letters all from Pliny himself; book 10 contains 121 letters, some authored by himself, some by the emperor Trajan. All the letters were written between 97 and 112, during the principates of Nerva and Trajan.

The absolutely key fact to grasp is that, unlike Cicero’s letters, Pliny’s letters are not arranged in chronological order – instead, they have been carefully organised to display the breadth of Pliny’s interests and the wide range of recipients. In this respect the letters are a calculating form of autobiography.

(Autobiography as we understand it didn’t really appear in Latin until the Confessions of Saint Augustine in about 400 AD. Military and political figures had written commentaries on their careers and decisions – notably Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars – and Cicero had pioneered a way of making a collection of letters build up into a kind of mosaic autobiography, a self portrait from multiple angles. But no autobiography as such till the Christian saint.)

Thus Pliny’s letters are artfully grouped to show the author to best advantage, as advocate in the courts, politician in the senate, knowledgeable man of letters, as owner of numerous properties and estates, as devoted husband to his wife.

(In fact Pliny married three times: firstly, when he was about 18, to a stepdaughter of Veccius Proculus, who died at age 37; secondly to the daughter of Pompeia Celerina; and thirdly to Calpurnia. Of these three it’s Calpurnia who we have letters to, in which Pliny recorded their marriage, conveys is love for her, and his grief when she miscarried a baby.)

Topics and subjects

The editor and translator of the Oxford University Press paperback edition of the letters, Professor P.G. Walsh, groups the letters under the following headings:

Advocate

Pliny as advocate in the law courts (book 2, letter11; 2.14; 4.9; 5.20).

Politician

Pliny as politician, speaking in the senate, working with the emperor (8.14; 9.13 and book 10 throughout).

His wife

Pliny married three times but we have few references to the first two, whereas there are plenty of letters to the third, Calpurnia (4.19; 6.4; 7.5; sadness about her miscarriage 8.10).

The death or illness of friends

And the way illness prompts thoughts of suicide in some (1.12; 1.22)

Diatribes against enemies

Such as Marcus Aquilius Regulus, the noted informer under Domitian’s tyranny, ‘wealthy, leader of a faction’ (1.5; 2.20; 4.2): the cumulative effect of the letters on this topic is to remind you how utterly toxic, rivalrous and dangerous Roman political life could be; everyone prosecuted everyone else for all manner of complex political or financial reasons, and if you lost the case you were liable to exile at best, execution at worst.

Roman social life

Visits to the theatre (7.24), dinner parties, particularly promoting the high-minded atmosphere at his dinner parties compared with the vulgarity of other peoples’ (1.15; 2.6; 9.17).

Slaves

Pliny takes a liberal humanitarian view (5.6; 5.19; 8.1; 8.16; 8.19), in one letter explaining that he is keen to manumit or free as many of his educated slaves as possible in order to populate his native town (Comum, by Lake Como in north Italy) with good citizens. No question of freeing his uneducated workers, though.

Education

The Roman system of education echoed the three-part system of the Greeks:

  • primary school under a litterator till the age of 7
  • secondary school under a grammaticus until the age of 11
  • upon receipt of the toga of manhood at 14, a boy proceeded to the school of rhetoric where me would stay till 18, maybe longer. Children of the wealthy were often taught at home by tutors

Literary life

Attendance at other peoples’ readings (1.13; 6.17) and his own works which include the Panegyricus (3.18) and his poems (9.34). Pliny describes the works of half a dozen contemporary poets, describes public readings, corresponds with his friends Tacitus and Suetonius.

He defends his poetry against the accusation of vulgarity, arguing that, if some of the subject matter is coarse and the language vulgar, this is to suit the genre, claiming like Catullus, Ovid and others, that his verse may be indecent but is no reflection of his upstanding life and morals (5.3).

Tacitus, Suetonius and Martial

The letters give the immodest impression that he is on friendly terms with all the major literary figures of the day. He is especially proud of his close friendship with Tacitus (born 56, 5 years before Pliny), to whom 11 letters are addressed. They worked together as prosecutors in the trial of Marius Priscus (2.11) and his description of the eruption of Vesuvius was written as a favour for Tacitus (see below). He sends his friend details of his involvement in another prosecution in the hope that Tacitus will include it in his Histories. Their relationship is one of ‘devoted pupil to master’.

By contrast his relationship with Suetonius (born 69 i.e. 8 years younger) is one of patron to protegé. Pliny helps the younger man secure posts in the administration (3.8) or buy property (1.24). The letters track Suetonius’s rising fame, as his early works of biography are published, till we find Pliny asking the younger man advice about technique for reading poetry in public recitations (9.34). Scholars think Pliny may have found Suetonius a job on his staff as governor of Pontus. And that Suetonius was close enough to the older man to have played a role in gathering his letters for publication.

Martial was about 20 years older than Pliny (born around 41 AD). He composed an obituary when he heard of Martial’s death (3.21). From this we learn that Pliny contributed to Martial’s travelling costs when the older man retired from Rome and went back to his home town in Spain in 97.

Speeches

Pliny considered himself an orator and spent his leisure time revising his speeches, of which he is inordinately proud, for publication, a process described in now fewer than 15 letters; in the centuries-old debate between the two main styles of rhetoric – the Attic style, compressed and factual, or the Asiatic style, more flowery – he comes down on the Asiatic side, defending it for greater richness of vocabulary and figures of speech (9.26).

Pliny’s style

Some of the letters comment on what the style of an ideal letter should be. In 7.98 he suggests to a young friend looking for advice about oratory that we look to letters ‘for language which is compressed and unadorned.’ In 1.16 he describes hearing someone else’s letters read out as being like listening to Plautus or Terence without the metre. Walsh summarises Pliny appeared to believe letters should be written in a plain but educated style. This, Walsh points out, is why Pliny’s letters make better material for teaching Latin than the more ornate and stylised speeches of Cicero or history of Livy (p.xxxii).

Pliny reveres Cicero

Walsh says Cicero was Pliny’s ‘idol’ (p.xxii). Pliny refers to Cicero’s integrity and also his, by this period, legendary eloquence. He was especially gratified to be appointed to the College of Augurs in 103 because this was a position Cicero had held some 170 years earlier.

Also, of course, in compiling a collection of his letters, Pliny must have had in mind the example of Cicero’s correspondence, published by his secretary soon after his death in the 43 BC, considering what did and did not work. As it happens Cicero’s 914 letters are the earliest surviving collection we have of the genre. Walsh makes the useful point that there can be considered three types of letter:

  • the verse letter, as developed by Horace in his Epistles and by Ovid, artfully in his Heroides, and then with pathetic pleading in his Black Sea letters
  • the philosophical letter, represented by the stodgy collection of Stoic teachings written by Seneca the Younger to his friend Lucilius
  • the genuine and general letter

But there’s another element which struck me, which is boastfulness. Cicero was famously and often ludicrously self-important. I base this on a reading of his legal speeches and letters, his endless reminders in these and his philosophical writings that he single-handedly saved the Roman state against the Catiline conspiracy, and the fact that he wrote a long poem about this feat which was ridiculed by his contemporaries and later readers.

Walsh appears to take Pliny at face value when he describes himself as modest (pxxii) but, personally, I found some of the letters rather boastful, where he talks about people stopping talking when he comes into a room or his acolytes and devotees. Pace Walsh I found him quite full of himself and his views and this, in a roundabout way, is indeed a tribute to his idol Cicero who was notoriously self-promoting and boastful.

Two standout topics

So his correspondence offers a variety of subject matter and insights into the lifestyle, responsibilities and opinions of a senior official of the first century Roman Empire, but never quite the acute intensity and excitement of Cicero’s letters. There are two standout moments in the correspondence:

1. Vesuvius

Pliny’s father died when he was young and he was adopted by his uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was the author, among other things, of a natural history. Young Pliny picked up an interest in the natural world from his uncle and this is demonstrated at various moments throughout the letters.

The most famous passage is his extended description of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum in August 79 AD and which Pliny witnessed at first hand. I was fascinated to learn that Pliny wrote this at the request of his friend Tacitus who included it in a now-lost part of the Histories. Letter 6.16 describes how his uncle, as commander of the fleet at Micenum had ordered a galley to go close to the shore so he could observe the huge ash cloud emerging from the volcano. Here he received urgent messages for help from friends at the threatened town of Stabiae so he took the galley into port, and went to see them. With remarkable foolishness, he dined and slept the night as the condition of the volcano deteriorated. He was woken in the middle of the night to discover the state of the sea was too disordered to set sail and it was here, on the beach, that Pliny the Elder and his party of friends, bombarded with falling pumice stones, all died of asphyxiation.

Latter 6.20 reverts to the experience of Pliny himself. Just 17 years old and left at Misenum with his mother, overnight on 24-25 August they feel all the buildings shake and the lad guides his mother out of the town, accompanied by a stream of panic-stricken townspeople. When the thick black cloud descends he takes his mother to one side, so they don’t get trampled in the panic. When daylight comes they look about them at a landscape covered with ash as if by snow. At which point they trudge back into the town, to be greeted by blood-curdling prophecies of doom.

Absent from either letter is any description of the two towns famously devastated by the catastrophe, Pompeii and Herculaneum.

2. Christians

The famous exchange in a couple of letters where Pliny writes to his boss, the emperor Trajan, in his capacity as governor of Pontus, asking his advice what to do with the troublesome new sect of Christians which have begun to be noticeable in the province (Pliny’s enquiry is letter 10.96 and Trajan’s reply 10.97, introduction p.xxiii).

This raises the broader point that his correspondence with Trajan, which is gathered in the tenth and final book, is extremely illuminating for the directness and openness of their exchanges. Pliny writes to the emperor conveying his best wishes then briskly getting to the point of describing this or that problem; and we are sooo fortunate to have Trajan’s replies, which come back with equally brisk and practical advice. With regard to the Christians, this little exchange is ‘famous’ because it tends to be quoted or summarised in just about every account of early Christianity, which is a lot.

Walsh’s notes

The OUP World Classics edition strikes me as being outstanding. P.G. Walsh’s 26-page introduction is a model of clarity and thoughtful analysis. There’s a handy map of Bithynia and Pontus featuring all the places mentioned in book 10 when Pliny was governor there. There’s an up-to-date bibliography and a simple clear timeline of Pliny’s life.

But the glory of the book is its notes. The letters were arranged to offer a many-sided portrait of their author and the times he lived in. They are addressed to a very wide variety of friends, relatives, colleagues and so on and they make reference to all sorts of topics of contemporary interest, some of which are listed above. Walsh provides 80 pages of notes which give potted profiles of every one of the addresses and pick up and explicate every one of the numerous references, to people, places and events. Read slowly and carefully, Pliny’s letters and Walsh’s notes provide a fascinating overview of the man and his times.

Greek and French

Walsh explains that educated Romans frequently dropped Greek phrases or quotes from Greek classic literature (Homer or the playwrights) into their texts. It’s interesting that he chooses to replicate this by using French tags in his English translation (though obviously keeping and translating into English actual quotes from Homer et al). The interest being that French tags in English play a comparable role to Greek tags in Latin, namely to show off your education and intellectual credentials. To swank, meaning: ‘to display one’s wealth, knowledge, or achievements in a way that is intended to impress others.’


Credit

‘The Complete letters of Pliny the Younger’, translated and introduced by P.G. Walsh, was published by Oxford University Press in 2006. All references are to the OUP World Classics paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Juvenal Satires

Juvenal wrote just 16 satires but they are considered among the best and most influential in Western literature. Tackling them now, for the first time, I discover that his poems are considerably more strange, gnarly and uneven than that reputation suggests, and also that the man himself is something of a mystery.

Potted biography

Decimus Junius Juvenal was probably born around 55 AD, the son of a well-off freedman who had settled in Aquinum near Monte Cassino, 80 miles south-east of Rome. According to two stone inscriptions found in the area, in 78 a ‘Junius Juvenal’ was appointed commander of a cohort and served in Britain under Julius Agricola (father-in-law of Tacitus the historian). The supposition is that this is the same Juvenal as our author, but scholars disagree. The satires contain a number of surprisingly detailed references to life in Britain which seem to reinforce this view, but…Nothing conclusive. (Introduction, pages 16 to 18)

The same inscription describes the return of this Junius Juvenal to Rome in 80, when he was made a priest of the deified Vespasian. A year later, in 81, Domitian became emperor and it is likely that Juvenal cultivated his position in society, writing verses. But in 93 a lampoon he’d written caused offence and he was exiled to Egypt (at least that’s what some scholars believe; Introduction p.18 to 20).

After Domitian’s assassination in 96, it seems that he was allowed back to Rome. Another decade passed and then, in 110-112 he published his first book of satires, containing satires 1 to 5.

  • Book 2 (published around 116 AD) consists of the long sixth satire against women.
  • Book 3 (around 120) consists of satires 7 to 9.
  • Book 4 (around 124) contains satires 10, 11, 12.
  • Book 5 (around 130) contains satires 13 to 16.

The dates of these publications are deduced from what seem to be contemporary references in some of the poems and are themselves the subject of fierce debate.

Unlike the satires of his predecessors in the genre, Horace and Statius, Juvenal’s satires contain no autobiographical information. They are hard, external, objective.

Contemporary references to Juvenal are few and far between. Martial’s epigrams contain three references to a ‘Juvenal’, the longest being epigram 18 in book 12 where Martial writes to someone named Juvenal, as to an old friend, gloating that while his friend is still living in noisy, stinky Rome, he (Martial) has retired to a beautifully quiet farm back in his native Spain. Scholars assume this is the same Juvenal, though there is no proof beyond the text itself.

The earliest satires are bitter and angry. In the later ones a change of tone is noticeable. Scholars assume this is because he went from being an utterly penniless poet, dependent on the good will of patrons handing out dinner invitations or a small portula or ‘dole’, to somehow acquiring a moderate ‘competency’. We learn from these later poems that he owned a small farm at Tivoli (satire 11) and a house in Rome where he entertained modestly. How did he acquire these? Did a grateful emperor gift them to him, as Augustus gave Horace a farm and a pension? We don’t know.

Scholars estimate that books 4 and 5 appeared in 123-5 and 128-30. It is likely that he survived the emperor Hadrian to die around 140, having lived a very long life. (Green refers to him as ‘the bitter old man from Aquinum’, p.10).

Soon after his death sometime in the late 130s, Juvenal’s work disappears and isn’t mentioned by anyone until the 4th century when he begins to be cited by Christian writers. Lactantius established the tradition of regarding Juvenal as a pagan moralist with a gift for pithy phrases, whose scathing contempt for corrupt pagan and secular society could be usefully quoted in order to contrast with the high-minded moral behaviour of the Christian believer – a tradition which was to hold true for the next 1,500 years.

Peter Green’s introduction

If you’ve read my notes on Peter Green’s translations of Ovid you’ll know that I’m a big fan of his. Born in 1924, Green is still alive, a British classical scholar and novelist who’s had a long and lively career, latterly teaching in America. Green’s translations of Ovid are characterised by a) long, chatty, informative, opinionated notes and b) rangy, freeflowing, stylish translations. Same here.

At 320 pages long, the Penguin edition of the Green translation feels like a bumper volume. This is because, with characteristic discursiveness, it starts with a 54-page introduction, which summarises all scholarly knowledge about, and interpretations of, the satires. And then each of the satires are immediately followed by 6, 7 or 8 pages of interesting, chatty notes.

I found Green’s introduction fascinating, as usual. He develops a wonderfully deep, complex and rewarding interpretation of Juvenal and first century Rome. It all starts with an explanation of the economic, social and cultural outlook of the rentier class.

Rentier ideology

At its most basic a rentier is ‘a person living on income from property or investments’. In our day and age these are most closely associated with the large number of unloved buy-to-let landlords. In ancient Rome the class system went, from the top:

  1. the emperor, his family and circle
  2. the senatorial class and their family and clan relatives
  3. beneath them sat the eques, the equestrian or knightly class

To belong to the senatorial class required a net worth of at least a million sesterces. To belong to the equestrian order required at least 400,000 sesterces.

Beneath these or attached to them, was the class Juvenal belonged to – educated, from a reputable family with maybe roots in the regional administrative class, who had come to Rome, rejected a career in the administration or the law courts, preferred to live by their wits, often taking advantage of the extensive networks of patrons and clients. Both Martial and Juvenal appear to have chosen to live like this. They weren’t rentiers in the strict sense of living off ‘income from property or investments’; but they were rentiers in the sense of not working for a living, not having a profession or trade or position in the administration.

Thus their livelihood depended on the existing framework of society remaining the same. Their income, clothes, property etc , all derived from finding wealthy patrons from the classes above them who endorsed the old Roman value and lived up to aristocratic notions of noblesse oblige i.e. with great wealth and position comes the responsibility to look after men of merit who have fallen on bad luck or don’t share your advantages i.e. supporting scroungers like Martial and Juvenal.

What Juvenal’s satires promote, or sometimes clamour for, is the continuation of the old Roman social structures and the endurance of the good old Roman (republican) virtues.

His approach to any social problem is, basically, one of static conservatism. (Introduction, p.23)

Green sums up the characteristic beliefs of the rentier class as:

  • lofty contempt for trade and ignorance of business
  • indifference to practical skills
  • intense political conservatism, with a corresponding fear of change or revolution
  • complete ignorance of the economic realities underpinning his existence
  • a tendency, therefore, to see all social problems in over-simplified moral terms (p.26)

The rentier believes that, because they are ‘good’ and uphold the ‘old values’ and traditional religion and so on, that they deserve to be rewarded with the old privileges and perks. They cannot process the basic reality of life that just being good, won’t make you rich.

And so the enemy of this entire worldview, of all its traditional values and relationships, is change, and especially economic change.

For in the century leading up to Juvenal’s time, Rome had not only transitioned from being a republic to becoming a full-blown empire but had also undergone sweeping economic changes. The old family farm, which was already a nostalgic fantasy in the time of Virgil and Horace, had long been obliterated by vast latifundia worked by huge gangs of shackled slaves.

But far more importantly, there had arisen an ever-changing and ever-growing class of entrepreneurs, businessmen, merchants, loan sharks, import-export buffs, hustlers and innovators who swarmed through the capital city, the regions and provinces. Sustained peace (apart from the disruption of the bad year, 69) had brought undreamed of wealth. Money, affluence, luxury was no longer restricted to the emperor, his family and the better-off senatorial classes, but had helped to create large numbers of nouveaux-riches. And these people and their obsession with money, money, money seemed to have infiltrated every aspect of Roman society.

It is this which incenses Juvenal and drives him to paroxysms of bile. He wants social relations in Rome to stay the same, ideally to revert to what they were in the fabled Golden Age, before money ruined everything. It is these floods of unprincipled money and the luxury, corruption and loss of traditional values which they bring in their wake, which obsess Juvenal. It expresses itself in different ways:

Money

Money is the root of all evil. It corrupts all social relationships.

Patron and client

Applied to Juvenal’s specific social position as an educated dinner-scrounger, parasite and hanger-on, he is incensed that the Grand and Noble Tradition of patron and client, which he likes to think applied some time back in the Golden Age, has now been corrupted and brought low by a flood of unworthy parasites among the clients, and the loss of all noble and aristocratic feeling among the patrons.

One of his recurring targets is the decadent aristocrat who has betrayed the upper-class code, whose money-mad, sexually profligate behaviour – adultery, gay sex, appearing on stage or in the gladiatorial arena – undermines all the old values Juvenal believes in.

Business

Green makes the excellent point that very often writers who find themselves in this position, dependent on charity from patrons, don’t understand how money is actually made. They’ve never run a business, let alone an international import-export business, so have only the vaguest sense of what qualities of character and responsibility and decision-making are required. This explains why Juvenal’s portraits of the nouveaux riches are so spiteful but also generalised. Somehow these ghastly people have become filthy rich and he just doesn’t understand how. With no understanding of the effort involved, of the changes in the Mediterranean economy or transport and storage or markets which are involved, all Juvenal has to resort to is abuse. The most hurtful spiteful sort of abuse is to attack someone’s sex life.

Sex

The thought of other people having sex is, for many, either disgusting or hilarious. Sex has always been an easy target for satirists. Conservatives like Juvenal, concentrate all their disgust at the wider ‘collapse of traditional values’ onto revulsion at any form of sex which doesn’t conform to traditional values (the missionary position between a married heterosexual couple). Hence the astonishing vituperation levelled at the vast orgy of deviant sex which Juvenal thinks Rome has become. He singles out a) deviant sex practiced by straight people, such as fellatio and cunnilingus; b) homosexual sex and in particular the stories of men and boys getting married: the way these couples (allegedly) dress up in the traditional garb of bride and groom, use the same priests reciting the traditional wedding ceremony etc, drives him to paroxysms of fury.

As so often with angry men, Juvenal’s vituperation is especially focused on the sexual behaviour of women, and indeed Book 2 consists of just one satire, the unusually long sixth satire against women. As Green points out, the focus of Juvenal’s fury is not women in general but aristocratic women for falling so far short of the noble values they should be upholding. What drives Juvenal mad is that their sexual liaisons are with men from the lower classes such as gladiators or actors. He contrasts their irresponsible promiscuity with the behaviour of women of lower classes who actually bear children instead of having endless abortions, and would never dream of performing on the stage or in the arena. There is a great deal of misogyny in the sixth satire but Green suggests that it is driven, like all his other anger, not quite by woman-hating alone but by the failure to preserve traditional values.

Immigrants

As mentioned several times, Rome saw an ‘invasion’ of new money and entrepreneurial rich. What gets Juvenal’s goat is how many of them are foreigners, bloody foreigners, coming over here, buying up our grand old houses, buying their way into the equestrian class, even running for public office, bringing their bloody foreign religions. A virulent strain of xenophobia runs alongside all Juvenal’s other rages and hates, in particular hatred of Egyptians who he particularly loathes. A recurrent hate figure is Crispinus (‘that Delta-bred house slave’, p.66) who, despite originating as a fish-hawker from Egypt, had risen to become commander of the Praetorian Guard!

Freedmen

Alongside loathing of the newly rich and foreigners goes hatred of freedmen, jumped-up social climbers who come from slave families or who were once slaves themselves! My God! What is the city coming to when ex-slaves rise to not only swanky houses on Rome’s grandest hills, but even become advisers to emperors (as Claudius, reigned 41 to 54, had notoriously let state affairs be run by a small coterie of freedmen.) Unhampered by the dignified self-restraint and lofty morality of the old Romans, these base-born parvenus often acquired immense fortunes and thrust themselves into positions of great political power.

This, of course, is precisely the type who Petronius nails with his extended description of the grossly luxurious dinner party of the upstart arriviste Trimalchio, in his Satyricon.

It was not just economic and social power: Juvenal raged against the fact that he and his shabby-genteel friends were kept out of the seats reserved for Knights at the theatre and the games, while the same seats were filled with the sons of pimps, auctioneers and gladiators! They were everywhere, taking over everything! What could any decent person do, he argues in satire 1, except write bilious anathemas of these crooks and careerists and corrupters?

Bad literature

I find it the most predictable and least amusing thread in the satires, but it is a recurring theme that literature itself has been debauched by the collapse of these values. Somehow the old world of mythology, ancient myths and legends, all the twee genres of pastoral and idyll which accompanied them, none of these are appropriate for the current moronic inferno which faces the poet.

All this is entertainingly expressed in Satire 1 which is a justification of his approach i.e. rejecting all those knackered old mythological tropes and forms (idyll, epic, what-have-you) because these are all forms of escapism, in order to write blistering broadsides against the actual real world which he saw all around him.

In other words, wherever he looked, from the details of his own day-to-day livelihood to the counsels of the highest in the land, to the private lives of pretty much every citizen of note, Juvenal was aghast that a tide of money and corruption had tainted every aspect of Roman society, destroying the old aristocratic values, undermining traditional religion, destroying family values, turning the place into an Oriental bazaar run by foreigners who have imported their filthy decadent sexual practices.

Solutions?

Do Juvenal’s 16 satires offer a solution or alternative to this sorry state of affairs? Of course not. The satirist’s job is to flay abuses not fix them. Insofar as a solution is implied by the 16 satires, it is a return to traditional old Roman values and virtues. But as with so much satire, the pleasure comes not from hopes of solutions and improvements, but from sharing the sadistic glee of the demolition. He is a caricaturist, creating a rogues’ gallery of outrageous portraits.

Juvenal does not work out a coherent critique of institutions or individuals: he simply hangs a series of moral portraits on the wall and forces us to look at them. (p.43)

Philosophy

In a similar vein, Green points out that, at moments the poems appear briefly to espouse formulas from one or other of the three main philosophies popular in Rome at the time (Stoicism, Epicureanism and Cynicism), but never enough make you think he understands or cares for them. Generally they’re referred to in order to mock and ridicule their practitioners, as in the extended passage in Satire 3 which accepts the conventional view that most philosophers are homosexual and then exaggerates this idea for comic effect.

An unstructured torrent of bile

Juvenal’s lack of any theory of society or economics, any understanding of business, his lack of any coherent philosophical framework, all these go to explain the lack of structure which critics have always lamented in the satires.

Instead of coherent argument, Juvenal is notorious for bombarding the reader with powerful, vitriolic, scabrous images in paragraphs or couplets which often bear little relation to each other. Each satire has a broad subject but, within it, Juvenal’s ‘thought’ jumps all over the place. Juvenal:

picked a theme and then proceeded to drive it home into his reader’s mind by a vivid and often haphazard accumulation of examples. He is full of abrupt jumps…and splendidly irrelevant digressions. (p.44)

He obtains his effects by the piling up of visual images, paradoxical juxtapositions rather than step-by-step development. (p.46)

A principle of random selection at work, a train of thought which proceeds from one enticing image to another like a man leaping from tussock to tussock across a bog. (p.47)

Green points out that, in addition, although we have many manuscripts of the satires, all of them contain textual problems and issues – at some points there appear to be gaps in the logic of sentences or paragraphs, some passages or lines seem to be in the wrong place.

This has made Juvenal’s satires, over the centuries, a happy hunting ground for generations of editors, who have freely cut and pasted lines and passages from where they sit in the manuscript to other places where editors think they make more sense. Editors have even made up sentences to connect two passages which contain abrupt jumps. Green in his introduction laments that this is so, but himself does it quite freely, with interesting notes explaining each of his edits.

The point is that the problematic nature of all the manuscripts only exacerbate the issue which was always there, which is that Juvenal’s poems lack the kind of logical discursive narrative you find (up to a point) in ‘architectonic’ poets such as Horace or Ovid. Instead they generally consist of illogical but fantastically angry, vivid bombardments of bile and imagery.

The best attitude in a reader, then, is not to look for cool, considered argument, which simply isn’t there; it’s to sit back and enjoy the fireworks. The pleasure is in watching a clever, learnèd man, with advanced skills in writing verse, exploding with anger and bile.

Juvenal’s style

Green mentions ‘Juvenal’s technical virtuosity; his subtle control of rhythm and sound effects, his dense, hard, verbal brilliance.’ (p.7) According to Green few Roman poets can equal his absolute control over the pace, tone and texture of a hexameter, and no translator can hope to capture the condensed force of Juvenal’s enjambed hexameters, his skilful rhythmic variations, his dazzling displays of alliteration and assonance and onomatopoeia (p.59).

He goes on to elaborate that Juvenal’s use of Latin was ‘distilled, refined, crystallised.’ Of the 4,790 words used in the satires now fewer than 2,130 occur here once only and nowhere else. His entire lifetime’s work amounts to barely 4,000 lines. Rarely has a writer’s oeuvre had less spare fat. This helps to explain the number of Juvenal’s pithy phrases which went on to become well-known Latin tags:

  • quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (satire 6) = ‘who will guard the guards themselves?’, also translated as ‘who watches the watchers?’. The original context dealt with ensuring marital fidelity by setting watchers to guard an unfaithful wife, but the phrase is now used to refer to the problem of controlling the actions of persons in positions of power
  • panem et circenses (satire 10) = ‘bread and circuses’, meaning to generate public approval, not by excellence in public service or policy but by diversion, distraction, by satisfying the basest requirements of a population
  • mens sana in corpore sano (satire 10) = ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, the phrase is now widely used in sporting and educational contexts to express that physical exercise is an important part of mental and psychological well-being

The 16 satires

Book 1

Satire 1: A justification for satire (171 lines)

He’s sick to death of rubbish poets declaiming the same exhausted stories about old mythology. He too has cranked out suasoria in the school of rhetoric. Why is he writing satire in the mode of old Lucilius? With Rome overrun by money and vulgarity, what else is there to do? Then gives a long list of types of social climber, frauds, embezzlers, men who rise by screwing rich old women, or pimp out their own wives, forgers carried round in litters, chiselling advocates, sneaky informers, the young buck who squandered his inheritance on horses, the lowly barber who used to shave Juvenal but is now as rich as any aristocrat, the distinguished old lady who’s an expert in poisoning. Everyone praises honesty, but it’s crime that pays.

Why, then, it is harder not to write satires, for who
Can endure this monstrous city and swallow his wrath?

Since the days of the flood has there ever been
Such a rich crop of vices? When has the purse
Of greed yawned wider?…Today every vice
Has reached its ruinous zenith…

Though talent be wanting, yet
Indignation will drive me to verse, such as I or any scribbler
May still command. All human endeavours, men’s prayers,
Fears, angers, pleasures, joys and pursuits, these make
The mixed mash of my verse.

An extended lament on the corruption of the relationship of patron and client, and all the thrusting crooks who now join the morning scrum outside a patron’s house for the ‘dole’, including many who are actually wealthy, but still scrounge for scraps. Describes the typical day of a client i.e. hanger-on, trudging round Rome after their patron, getting hot and sweaty and hungry. He rages against the greedy patron who feeds his cadgers scraps while he gorges on roast boar and peacock. One day he’ll have a heart attack but nobody will care.

He ends by saying Lucilius in his day felt confident of shared civil values to name the guilty men; in Juvenal’s day, naming an imperial favourite or anyone with pull could end you up as a burning torch illuminating the games. Better not name names, better restrict himself to using only the names of the dead, safer that way.

Satire 2: Against homosexuals and particularly gay marriage (170 lines)

The hypocrisy of bogus moralists, people who quote the great philosophers, who fill their halls with busts of the great thinkers, but don’t understand a word. Most philosophers are effete fairies. He prefers the eunuch priest of the Mother goddess, at least he’s open about it. Just recently Domitian was reviving laws about public morality while all the time tupping his niece; he forced her to have an abortion which killed her.

He has a courtesan address one such manicured, perfumed moralist for his hypocrisy, going on to say men are far worse than women; women wouldn’t dream of licking each other’s parts; accuses men of pleasuring their boy lovers ‘both ways’. She laments how most women, when they marry, have to take second place to a favoured boy or freedman.

He describes the scandalous advocate who prosecuted a case before the public wearing see-through chiffon, ‘a walking transparency’. It’s a slippery slope which leads to involvement in the secret rites of the Mother Goddess, for men only, who wear elaborate make-up, wear women’s clothing, use women’s oaths and ‘shrill, affected voices’. Throws in an insulting comparison to ‘that fag of an emperor, Otho’ who fussed over his armour in front of a mirror.

What about the young heir who went through a wedding ceremony with a trumpeter? Or the once-honourable priest of Mars who dresses up in ‘bridal frills’.

O Father of our city,
What brought your simple shepherd people to such a pitch
Of blasphemous perversion?

When men marry men why doesn’t great Mars intervene? What’s the point of worshipping him if he lets such things happen? Mind you, they can’t have children, so can’t preserve the family name (and, Juvenal appears to suggest, do try magic remedies so that the passive homosexual can get pregnant. Can that possibly be true, can ancient Romans have really thought a man can get pregnant?)

Juvenal goes on that what’s worse than holding a wedding ceremony to marry another man was that this blue-blooded aristocrat then took up a trident and net to fight in gladiatorial games. This really seems to be the most outrageous blasphemy of all, to Juvenal.

A digression to claim that nobody in Rome now believes in the ancient religion, Hades, Charon the ferryman and all that. But if they did wouldn’t the noble dead, fallen in so many battles to make Rome great, be scandalised to welcome such a degenerate aristocrat into their midst? Wouldn’t Hades itself need to be purified?

Yes, even among the dead Rome stands dishonoured.

Even the barbarians at Rome’s borders are not so debauched; although if we bring them as prisoners to Rome, they soon learn our decadent, effeminate ways and, when released, take our corruption back to their native lands.

Satire 3: Unbricius’ monologue on leaving Rome (322 lines)

His friend Umbricius is leaving Rome to go and live in Cumae. He’s jealous. He gives Umbricius a long speech in which he says he leaves Rome to fraudulent developers, astrologers, will-fixers, magicians, the go-betweens of adulterous lovers, corrupt governors, conspirators. Above all he hates Greeks, actually Syrians with their awful language, flutes and tambourines and whores. Sly slick dexterous Greeks from the islands can turn their hand to anything. These are the people who now wear the purple, precede him at dinner parties, officiate at manumissions. They can blag anyone, which explains why they’re such great actors, especially in women’s roles. Mind you, no woman is safe from a Greek man in the house, ‘he’ll cheerfully lay his best friend’s grandmother.’

This morphs into the misery of the client or hanger-on to dismissive rich men. He describes being kicked out of a prime seat at the theatre to make way for a pimp’s son, an auctioneer’s offspring or the son of a gladiator because they have more money. A plain white cloak is fine for the provinces, but here in Rome we must beggar ourselves to keep up with the latest decadent fashions.

And the misery of living in apartment blocks which are falling down or liable to fire at any moment. (Umbricius implies he lives on the third floor, as Martial does in one of his epigrams.) If your block goes up you lose everything, compared to the rich man; if his house burns down he is flooded with presents and financial aid to rebuild it from clients and flatterers and connections.

No, Umbricius advises to buy the freehold on a nice place in the country rather than a rented hovel in Rome. The worst of it is the noise at night from all the wagons wending through the winding alleyways. Insomnia’s causes more deaths among Roman invalids than any other cause. He gives a vivid description of the muddy, jostling misery of trying to get through Rome’s packed streets without being involved in some gruesome accident.

Walking at night is even worse, with the risk of being brained by a falling roof tile or drenched in slops chucked out the window by a housewife. And then the possibility of being beaten up by some bored, drunk bully. Or the burglars. Or some ‘street apache’ who’ll end your life with a knife.

So farewell Rome, he begs the author won’t forget him and, when he goes back to his home town for a break, will invite him round to celebrate a country festival.

Satire 4: A mock epic of the turbot (154 lines)

Starts off by ridiculing Crispinus for buying a red mullet for the ludicrous price of 60 gold pieces. Then morphs into a mock epic celebrating a fisherman in the Adriatic who catches an enormous giant turbot and carries it all the way to Rome to present to the emperor. This 100 lines of mock epic poetry contains a mock invocation to the Muses, extended epic similes etc. Then – and this appears to be the real point of the poem – it turns into a list of the emperor Domitian’s privy councillors, each one a crook or sadist or nark or creep.

Satire 5: Trebius the dinner-cadger (173 lines)

Is dinner worth every insult which you pay for it?

In the miserable figure of Trebius Juvenal lists the humiliations the ‘client’ must undergo in order to wain a grudging, poor quality ‘dinner’ from his patron (here called Virro), at which he will be offered the worst wine, rocky bread and humiliated by sneering slaves, served half an egg with boiled cabbage while the patron eats a huge crayfish with asparagus garnish.

Now if you had money, if you got yourself promoted to the Equestrian Order, then at a stroke you’d become Virro’s best friend and be lavished with the finest food. As it is, he serves you the worst of everything out of spite, to amuse himself. He wants to reduce you to tears of anger and frustration.

Don’t fool yourself that you are his ‘friend’. There is none of the honour of the old Republican relationship of patron and client. He simply wants to reduce his clients to the level of a buffoon, the stupidus of Roman pantomime who has his head shaved and is always being kicked or slapped by his smarter colleagues. He wants to make you an abject punchbag.

Book 2

Satire 6: Don’t marry (661 lines)

Postumus, are you really taking a wife?
You used to be sane…

Wouldn’t it be quicker to commit suicide by jumping out of a high building or off a bridge? Surely boys are better: at least they don’t nag you during sex or demand endless gifts or criticise your lack of passion.

Juvenal gives a funny account of the Golden Age, when humans lived in cave and women were hairier than their menfolk, their big breasts giving suck to tough babies. But long ago Chastity withdrew to heaven and now infidelity and adultery are well-established traditions.

Fidelity in a woman! It’s be easier to persuade her to have an eye out than keep faithful to one man! Posh women are mad for actors and entertainers. If he marries his wife will make some flute player or guitarist or gladiator father to his children.

He profiles Eppia the senator’s wife who ran off to Egypt with a gladiator, abandoning her children and her country. Then a searing portrait of Messalina, the nymphomaniac wife of Claudius, who snuck off to a brothel where, wearing a blonde wig and gilded nipples, she let herself be fucked by all-comers, all night long. A profile of Bibula who has her husband in thrall and goes on monster shopping sprees which morphs into a dig at Queen Berenice who lived for many years in an incestuous union with her brother, Agrippa of Judaea.

What point a beautiful wife if she is proud and haughty. Juvenal cites Niobe who was so vain she called down disaster on herself and her 12 children.

Modern girls doll themselves up like the bloody Greeks and express themselves with Greek language which (apparently) reeks of the bedroom.

Our provincial dollies ape Athenian fashion, it’s smart
To chatter away in Greek – though what should make them blush
Is their slipshod Latin. All their emotions – fear,
Anger, happiness, anxiety, every inmost
Secret thought – find expression in Greek, they even
Make love Greek-style.

It may be alright for schoolgirls to act this way, but Roman women in their eighties!

A flurry of sexist stereotypes: Women want money money money. They’ll take control of household spending, veto your business plans, control your friendships. She’ll force you to include her lover’s in your will.

Yet another shocking insight into Roman’s and their slaves when it’s played for laughs that a husband will order ‘crucify that slave’ and Juvenal paints it as typically feminine of a wife to want to know why, what the slave has done, before they’re hustled off to be crucified.

And the mother-in-law! She’ll egg her daughter on to every sin, adultery, spending all your money. Women are behind virtually all law suits, and insist on defending or prosecuting. And what about women athletes! And women fencers! And women who want to fight in the ring, ‘helmeted hoydens’, gladiatresses!

But bed is the place where wives are at their worst, endlessly bitching, about your boyfriends or imaginary mistresses, all the time hiding letters from her lover or making plans to visit her mother as an excuse to meet her lover. Bursting into tears if you accuse her, but quick to insist it was always an open marriage if you find her out.

What triggered all this corruption? In the good old days of relative poverty wives were too busy working, cooking, cleaning, darning to play the whore. All this wickedness is the result of a ‘too-long peace’. The world Rome conquered takes its revenge by afflicting Rome with Luxury, from which all vices spring, money – filthy lucre – leading to ‘shameless self-indulgence’.

He accuses religious festivals: the Floralia which celebrates fertility with phallus images and prostitutes; the worship of Venus; the mysteries of the Great Goddess whose frenzied worship makes women wet between the thighs, get drunk, bump and grind – then they call in the slaves to fuck them and if there aren’t any slaves, a donkey will do. The shrine of Isis might as well be called the brothel of Isis.

Gladiator trainers keep the gay ones segregated from the straight, but in a rich woman’s house queers are encouraged, man with kohl-ringed eyes, see-though clothes and hairnets. Mind you, half of them turn out to be straight after all, and well able to give your wife a good stuffing.

Juvenal accuses a specific fag of being a straight man in disguise. His friends tell him it’s best to lock up a wife and bar the doors. And here comes one of Juvenile’s most famous quotes. Yes, by all means lock up your wife and put a guard on the doors but will keep guard on the guards? ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ They, also, will be bribed by your whore wife to turn the other eye when her lover calls. Or will screw her themselves.

He profiles a generic aristocratic woman, Ogulna, who’s mad about the games and attends with a big expensive entourage, example of women who spend everything you have then get you into debt.

Then the wives who love eunuchs, if they’ve been neutered the right way they still can get erections and no worries about abortions! Especially the big bull black ones!

Women will lavish your money on music, musicians and musical instruments. The temples are packed with woman asking the gods to favour this or that performer or actor or gladiator or whatnot.

But they’re not as bad as the flat-chested busybody, who runs round town, buttonholing men, interrupting their conversations, an expert on every subject under the sun. overflowing with gossip about politics or military campaigns. Then goes off to the baths after dark, works out with weights, has a massage from an expert who oils her and makes her climax. Making her guests wait till she arrives late and proceeds to drink gallons on an empty stomach then spew it up all over the dining room tiles.

Worse is the bluestocking who holds forth about literature at dinner, comparing Virgil and Homer. God how he hates a female pedant and grammarian, always correcting your speech, ‘a husband should be allowed his solecisms in peace’.

Juvenal gives a description of the elaborate process of an upper class woman putting her make-up on, looking ridiculous in face-pack and thick creams at home, reserving her ugliness for her husband. The kind of woman who has her wool-maid or cosmetician or litter bearers flogged till they bleed while she fusses about her eye make-up or the hem of a gown.

God, the number of helpers and assistants required just to do her hair till it stands up like a ridiculous pomade.

Then a passage ridiculing the absurd requirements of foreign religious cults and superstitions, Bellona, Cybele, requiring total immersion in the Tiber, crawling across the field of Mars on your hands and knees, going a pilgrimage to Egypt. Or admires the shaven-headed devotees of the dog god Anubis who run through the streets wailing for dead Osiris. Or a palsied Jewess arrives ready to interpret the secret laws of Jerusalem.

Then the fortune tellers, Armenians and Syrians, or the Chaldean astrologers, all knowing they’ll get a credulous hearing from the rich woman of the house, the kind of woman who won’t make any decision, who won’t accompany or agree with her husband unless her astrologer says it’s written in the starts, or the augur tells her it’s written in the entrails of some chicken or pigeon or puppy.

Poor women go to the races to consult palmists or phrenologists, but at least they actually bear children, keep their pregnancies to full term. Not like rich women with their drugs to be made sterile or prompt abortions. Well, it could be worse, you could find yourself ‘father’ to a black child, obviously not yours, obviously fathered by a slave or gladiator.

If you start forgetting things, chances are you’re being poisoned by your wife. After all, emperors’ wives have poisoned their husbands and so set an example to us all! Beware step-mothers, scheming to kill the biological son and promote their boy. He cites the example of Pontia, daughter of Petronius, who is said to have poisoned her own two sons.

He doesn’t mind the old myths about women who murdered in a white hot frenzy; what he loathes is modern matrons who cold-bloodedly scheme to do away with husbands or stepsons and care about their lives less than they do about their lapdogs.

Book 3

Satire 7: The misery of a writer’s, but especially a teacher’s, life (243 lines)

Modern poets in Juvenal’s day would make a better living opening a bakery or becoming an auctioneer. The emperor (probably Hadrian who came to power in 118) has let it be known he’s looking for poets to patronise, but the run-of-the-mill writer looking for a decent patron, forget it! The modern patron begrudges funding even a small recital in an out of town hall. After all, he’s probably a poet himself and ranks his work higher than yours!

It’s a very contrast between the lofty diction the modern poet aspires to and the sordid reality of his own life, forced to pawn his coat and dishes for his next meal. Horace on the old days, and Lucan more recently, could write magnificent verse because they weren’t hungry.

He gives an interesting sketch of the poet Publius Papinius Statius and how popular his public recitals were of his great epic, the Thebaid, reeled off in his mellifluous voice. But even has to make a living by flogging libretti to the head of the ballet company. Because:

Today the age
Of the private patron is over; Maecenas and co.
Have no successors.

Does the historian make any more, slaving away in his library, covering thousands of pages? No.

What about lawyers, huffing and puffing and promoting their skills? Look closely and you’ll see a hundred lawyers make less than one successful jockey. He profiles an aristocratic advocate, Tongilus, ‘such a bore at the baths’, who is carried about in a litter by 8 stout Thracian slaves. For what’s valued in a court of law is a dirty great ring, flash clothes and a bevy of retainers. Eloquence is dead. Juries associate justice with a flashy appearance. Cicero wouldn’t stand a chance.

What about teachers of rhetoric, wasting their lives getting boys to rehash tired old topics in stale old catchphrases. Better to drop logic and rhetoric and become a singer, they get paid a fortune.

Juvenal profiles a typical nouveau riche building private baths and a cloister to ride his pampered horses round and a banqueting hall with the best marble and ready to cough up for a first class chef and a butler. But a teacher of rhetoric for his son? Here’s a tenner, take it or leave it.

Really it’s down to luck or Fortune as the ancients called her, ‘the miraculous occult forces of Fate’. Luck makes a first class speaker or javelin thrower, if Fortune favours you can rise from teacher to consul.

In the olden days teachers were respected, even Achilles still feared the rod of his tutor Chiron as he turned man; but nowadays pupils are likely to beat up their teachers who go in fear. God, why be a teacher stuck in some hell-hole cellar before dawn, working by the light of filthy oil lamps, trying to knock sense into pupils who answer back, and all for a pittance, from which you have to give a cut to the boy’s attendant to make sure he even attends lessons?

And if the pupils are awful, what about the parents? Expecting each teacher to be a 100% expert in all knowledge, buttonholing him on the way to the baths and firing off all kinds of impossible questions. All for a pittance which, nine times out of ten, you’ll have to go to court for just to get paid.

Satire 8: Family trees and ‘nobility’ are worth nothing next to personal virtue (275 lines)

What good are family trees?

What good is tracing your family back through venerable ancestors if your own life is a public disgrace?

You may line your whole hall with waxen busts, but virtue,
And virtue alone, remains the one true nobility.

And:

Prove that your life
Is stainless, that you always abide by what is just
In word and deed – and then I’ll acknowledge your noble status.

Unlike the other satires which are often strings of abuse and comic caricatures, this one has a thread of argument and logic and is addressed to a named individual, Ponticus who is depicted as preening himself on his ‘fine breeding’..

Juvenal claims nobility is as nobility does. A racehorse may come from the noblest ancestry imaginable but if it doesn’t win races it’s pensioned off to work a mill-wheel. Just so, claiming respect for having been born to a particular family is ludicrous. Instead, show us one good deed in order to merit our respect.

Lots of the most useful work in the empire, from soldiers on the frontier to the really effective lawyers in the city, are done by ‘commoners’. He is surprisingly programmatic and non-ironic in listing the virtues:

  • be a good soldier
  • be a faithful guardian
  • be an honest witness in law cases
  • be a good governor:
    • set a limit on your greed and pity the destitute locals
    • have staff that are upright and honest (not some corrupt long-haired catamite)
    • have a wife above suspicion not a rapacious harpy
  • observe the law
  • respect the senate’s decrees

This leads into a lament for the way Rome used to govern its colonies wisely, but then came ‘the conquistadors’, the looters, Anthony and his generation, and its been rapacity, greed and illegal confiscations ever since.

Then Juvenal goes on to flay aristocratic wasters, dissipating their fortunes with love of horseracing and gambling, to be found among the lowest possible company down at the docks; or reduced to acting on the stage (clearly one of the most degraded types of behaviour Juvenal can imagine). Or – absolute lowest of the low – appear in the gladiator fights and he names a member of the noble Gracchii clan who shamefully appeared as a retiarius.

This leads to a profile of the most scandalously debased of leaders, Nero, with his insistence on performing as a musician and singer onstage, not only in Rome but at festivals across Greece. Super-noble ancestry (membership of the gens Sergii) didn’t stop Lucius Sergius Catilina planning to burn Rome to the ground and overthrow the state. It was an upstart provincial, Cicero, who saved Rome. Or Marius, man of the people, who saved Rome from invasion by Germanic tribes in 102 and 101 BC.

Achievement is what counts, not family. Juvenal ends with a surprising general point, which is that the very first settlement of Rome was carried out by Romulus who then invited men to join him, men who, according to the Roman historian Livy, were either shepherds, or escaped convicts and criminals. Ultimately, no matter how much they swank, all the ‘great and noble’ Roman families are derived from this very ignoble stock.

Satire 9: Dialogue with Naevolus the unemployed gay gigolo (150 lines)

According to green some scholars think this was an early work, added in to bulk out the book. This is one explanation of why it is, unlike any of the other poems, in dialogue form. A character named Juvenal swaps dialogue with a character named Naevolus.

Juvenal starts by asking why Naevolus, previously a smart man-about-town, a pick-up artists who shagged women by the score (and their husbands too, sometimes) is now so long-in-the-mouth, pale, thin and unkempt.

Naevolus explains that his time as a gigolo has ground to an end and brought him few returns, specially since he was working for a very tight-fisted gay patron, Virro (presumably the same dinner party host who enjoyed humiliating his hangers-on in satire 5). Virro seems to have got bored of him and dumped him.

There is an extremely graphic moment when Naevolus describes how difficult it was having to stuff his hard cock up Virro’s anus, till he was ‘stopped by last night’s supper.’ Yuk.

The dialogue becomes a dialogue-within-a-dialogue as Naevolus imagines a reproachful conversation with Virro. Why does he, Naevolus, have to send his rich patron gifts on his birthday? What’s Virro going to do with his huge estates when he dies, will Naevolus get even a little cottage?

As it is Naevolus doesn’t have enough to clothe and feed his one lousy slave. Naevolus reproaches Virro that he not only had to service the fat man but his wife too!

I sired you a son and a daughter: doesn’t that mean
Anything to you at all, you ungrateful bastard?

(In the Roman context this means Naevolus has only provided Virro with heirs, but with the legal advantages of being a father.) So Juvenal interrupts to ask what Virro says in his own defence. Nothing, apparently, he’s too busy looking for Naevolus’s replacement, a mere ‘two-legged donkey’. Suddenly Naevolus gets nervous. He begs Juvenal not to whisper a word of all this, or Virro will have him bumped off, knifed or poisoned, or his house burned down.

Juvenal mocks the idea that a master can keep any secret from his slaves who will, in turn, blab to everyone they meet. There’s no such thing as secrecy in a slave society.

So Naevolus asks what Juvenal advises him to do. Juvenal replies a) there’ll always be more customers for him, b) ‘chew colewort; it’s a fine aphrodisiac.’

the poem ends with Naevolus saying he doesn’t want much, but then – surprisingly – including in his list of modest requirements a pair of brawny Bulgarian porters to carry him in a chair, a silver engraver and a portraitist, all of which seem wildly extravagant and commentators have worried about for the past 1,900 years.

Book 4

Satire 10: The vanity of human wishes (366 lines)

This is the comprehensive overview of the futility of human ambition which formed the basis for the 18th century English author, Samuel Johnson’s great poem, ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes: The Tenth Satire of Juvenal Imitated‘.

Mankind is gripped by a self-destructive urge. What man was ever guided by Reason? Any man with belongings is the toy of Fate. He invokes Democritus the laughing philosopher and Heraclitus the weeping philosopher and goes on to mockingly describe the progress of a modern consul through the streets preceded by his lictors. Democritus thought the worries of the people as absurd as their joys, the gods listen to neither. So what should we ask the gods for?

He gives Sejanus as an example, not only of Fortune turning her wheel to bring the second highest figure in the land down into the gutter, but at the fickleness of the change, since there was no legal process involved, it all resulted from one single letter from Tiberius in Capri to the Senate. And the mob? They don’t care for proof or law, they just cheer the victors and jeer the losers. They all rushed to kick Sejanus’s corpse or pull down his statues, but if Tiberius had dropped dead of a heart attack, the same mob would have been cheering Sejanus to the rafters as the new emperor. Fickle.

In the olden days, when their votes were vital for the election of consuls, praetors, governors and so on, the public took an interest in public affairs. But in 14 AD Tiberius transferred the election of magistrates from the popular assemblies to the senate, with the far-reaching consequences that Juvenal describes. After nearly a century of non-involvement, now the catchphrase is ‘who cares?’ Now there’s only two things that interest the people: bread and the games. (Another famous tag, panem et circenses in the Latin.)

No, he’d rather be the small-time governor of some sleepy backwater, with no glory but no risk, than rise to the giddy heights of a Sejanus only to be be dragged to his death. Same goes for the first triumvirate, Pompey and Crassus and Julius Caesar – lust for ultimate power took them to giddy heights and then…catastrophic fall, miserable murder.

Setting off on a tangent, Juvenal claims what everyone seeks is eloquence, the gift of swaying crowds, but look what happened to the two greatest orators of all time, Cicero was beheaded at the insistence of his arch enemy Anthony, and the great Demosthenes was forced to commit suicide.

How many national leaders thirst for glory, for the spoils of victory, for triumphs and a triumphal arch.

The thirst for glory by far outstrips the pursuit of virtue.

Vladimir Putin thinks murdering thousands of men, women and children is a price well worth paying for restoring Ukraine to the Russian motherland. Killing pregnant women is worth it to get a place in the history books. ‘The thirst for glory by far outstrips the pursuit of virtue.’

Yet countries have come to ruin
Not once but many times, through the vainglory of a few
Who lusted for power, who wanted a title that would cling
To the stones set over their ashes…

Or take Hannibal, one-time conqueror of the Mediterranean, vaingloriously vowing to capture Rome but, in the end, routed from Italy, then defeated in Africa and forced into exile to become the humiliated hanger-on of ‘a petty Eastern despot’ eventually, when his extradition was demanded by Rome, committing suicide by poison.

Same with Alexander the Great, at one point commanding the entire known world, next moment filling a coffin in Babylon. Or Xerxes whose exorbitant feats of engineering (a bridge across the Hellespont, a canal through the peninsula of Mount Athos) all led up to complete military defeat at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC and Xerxes’ miserable return to Persia.

Juvenal makes one of his jump cuts to a completely different theme, the triumph of old age over all of us. Men start out full of hope and individuality and all end up looking the same, senile sexless old dodderers. All your senses weaken, you can no longer appreciate music, you fall prey to all kinds of illnesses.

And senility. Old men forget the names of their servants, their hosts at dinner, eventually their own families, and end up disinheriting their children and leaving everything to a whore whose expert mouth has supplied senile orgasms.

But if you live to a ripe old age, as so many people wish, chances are you’ll witness the deaths of everyone you loved, your wife, your siblings, maybe your own children. ‘Perpetual grief’ is the reward of old age. Examples from legend: Nestor outliving everyone he loved; Peleus mourning his son; if only Priam had died in his prime he wouldn’t have seen all his sons killed and his city destroyed. And Mithridates, and Croesus.

Then he turns to specific Roman examples: if only Marius had died after his triumph for defeating the Teutons instead of going on to humiliation and then tyranny; if only Pompey had died at the peak of his powers instead of being miserably murdered in Egypt.

Then the theme of beauty. Mothers wish their daughters to be beautiful and their sons handsome but beauty brings great risks and he cites Lucretia raped and Virginia murdered by her own father to keep her ‘honour’. Then handsome young men generally go to the bad, become promiscuous, sleep around, and then risk falling foul of jealous husbands. Even if he stays pure and virginal, chances are he’ll fall foul of some middle-aged woman’s lust, just look at Hippolytus and Phaedra.

Or take the case of Gaius Silius, consul designate, who Claudius’s third wife, Messalina was so obsessed with she insisted they have a public wedding, even though she was already married to Claudius, precursor to a coup. With the inevitable result that when Claudius found out he sent the Praetorian Guard to execute both Silius and Messalina. (The story is told in Tacitus’s Annals 11.12 and 26.)

Juvenal concludes the poem by answering the question he asked at the start of it, what should we pray to the gods for? Answer: nothing. Leave it to them to guide our destinies without our intervention. The gods give us what we need, not what we want. Humans are led by irrational impulses and blind desires so it follows that most of our prayers are as irrational as our desires. But if you must insist on making silly sacrifices and praying for something, let your requirements be basic and practical. Ask for:

a sound mind in a sound body, a valiant heart
Without fear of death, that reckons longevity
The least among Nature’s gifts, that’s strong to endure
All kinds of toil, that’s untainted by lust and anger…
…There’s one
Path and one path only to a life of peace – through virtue.
Fortune has no divinity, could we but see it; it’s we,
We ourselves, who make her a goddess, and set her in the heavens.

So that’s the context of another of Juvenal’s most famous quotes or tags, mens sana in corpore sano – it comes at the end of an enormous long list of the futilities of seeking long life or wealth or power or glory. It is the first and central part of Juvenal’s stripped-down, bare minimum rules for living.

Satire 11: Invitation to dinner at Juvenal’s modest place in the country (208 lines)

This starts out as a diatribe against spendthrifts, against the young heirs who take out big loans and blow it all on luxurious foods. If you’re going to host a dinner, make sure you can afford it.

This leads into an actual dinner party invitation Juvenal is giving to his friend Persicus. He lists the menu and assures him it’s all ‘home-grown produce’: a plump tender kid ‘from my farmstead at Tivoli’; mountain asparagus; eggs still warm from the nest; chicken; grapes, baskets of Syrian pears and Italian bergamots, and apples.

[This mention of the farmstead is what makes Green and other commentators deduce that Juvenal had, by this point, ceased to be the impoverished and consequently very angry satirist of the earlier works, has somehow acquired a ‘competence’ and so his tone is more mellow.]

Juvenal says even this relatively modest menu would have appeared luxury in the good old republican days, and lists various high-minded old Roman heroes (Fabius, Cato, Scaurus, Fabricius) and the tough old Roman legionaries they led, uncorrupted by luxury and money, who ate their porridge off earthenware bowls. Those were the days.

The gods were closer back then, their images made of humble baked clay, not gold, and so they warned us e.g. of the approaching Gauls.

How changed is contemporary Rome whose aristocrats demand obscene levels of luxury in food and ornamentation. Nothing like that for Persicus when he comes round, there won’t be a pupil of Trypherus’s famous school of cuisine where students are taught the correct way to carve antelope, gazelle and flamingo!

His slaves, likewise, are honest lads dressed practically for warmth, a shepherd’s son and a ploughman’s son, not smooth imported Asiatics who can’t speak Latin and prance around in the baths flaunting their ‘oversized members’.

[Green notes that the Roman historian Livy dates the introduction of foreign luxuries to the defeat of the Asiatic Gauls in 187 BC. Whereas Sallust thought the introduction of corrupt luxury dated from Sulla’s campaign in Asia Minor in the 80s BC. Whatever the precise date, the point is the author always thinks things started to go to hell a few generations before their own time.]

And don’t expect any fancy entertainment like the Spanish dancers who wiggle their bums to arouse the flagging passions of middle-aged couples, no such obscene entertainment in his modest home, no, instead he’ll have a recitation of Homer or Virgil.

Like Horace, Juvenal tells his guest to relax. Discussion of business is banned. He won’t be allowed to confide his suspicions of his wife who stays out till all hours, or the ingratitude of friends. ‘Just forget all your troubles the minute you cross my threshold.’

Let all Rome (the Colosseum seated 300,000 spectators) go to the Megalesian Games (4 to 10 April) and cheer the Blues and the greens (chariot racing teams) and sweat all day in an uncomfortable toga. Juvenal prefers to let his ‘wrinkled old skin’ soak up the mild spring sunshine at his nice place in the country.

Satire 12: A storm at sea (130 lines)

The first 20 or so lines describe to a friend a series of sacrifices Juvenal is going to make, and the even bigger ones he wishes he had the money to make. Why? To celebrate the safe arrival in harbour of a dear friend of his, Catullus (not the famous poet, who died 170 years earlier, in 54 BC).

Juvenal gives a vivid description of a storm at sea, ending with the sailors seeing ‘that lofty peak so dear to Ascanius’ in diction which evokes Virgil’s Aeneid with no irony or mocking. And he’s just as sincere when he returns to describing how he’ll burnish his household gods, make oblations to Jupiter, burn incense and so on.

Up to this point this combination of devout piety and picturesque description are very much not the viciously angry Juvenal of the Roman streets that we are used to. But in the final 30 or so lines Mr Angry reappears a bit, to make the distinction between his genuine, devout sacrifices and those of legacy hunters and it turns into a stock diatribe against this class of parasites who seek out the wealthy but childless and do anything, including making extravagant sacrifices for them when they’re ill, in the hope of being included in their wills. May all their tricks and scams work but ‘May they love no man and be loved by none.’

[Incidentally, this last section has a passage about elephants, saying the legacy-hunters would sacrifice elephants if they could but none live naturally in Italy except for those of the emperor’s personal herd, near modern Anzio. Elephants are mentioned in quite a few Juvenal poems. At some level they fascinated him, maybe because they’re the biggest animal and so attracted a poet interested in extremity and exaggeration.]

Book 5

Satire 13: The futility of revenge, the pangs of a guilty conscience (249 lines)

On putting up with life’s vicissitudes. Juvenal reproaches someone called Calvinus for making a big fuss and going to court about a loan not being repaid. Doesn’t he realise the age he’s living in? Honour long since departed. It’s not like it was back in the good old days, in the Golden Age when there were only a handful of gods who dined modestly, back in those days youth respected the elderly, everyone was upstanding and dishonesty was vanishingly rare. The decent god-fearing man is a freak like the sky raining stones or a river issuing in milk.

While guilty people, whether they believe in the gods or not, tell themselves they’ll be OK, the gods won’t get round to punishing them yet and so on. In fact many make a histrionic appeal to the gods to vouchsafe their honesty, banking on ‘brazen audacity’.

Juvenal mentions the three philosophies current in his day, Cynicism, Stoicism and Epicureanism, only to dismiss them all. Instead he mocks Calvinus for making such a fuss about such a common, everyday bit of dishonesty and goes into a list of far worse crimes starting with the temple robbers who steal devoted statues or plate and melt them down or sell them off. Think of arsonists or poisoners or parricides. If you want to find the truth about human nature you should visit a courtroom.

Many unusual things are taken for granted in the appropriate context, for example big breasted women in Upper Egypt or blonde, blue-eyed men in Germany, or pygmies in Africa. Well, so does this kind of embezzlement or fraud feel completely at home in its natural setting, Rome. What’s the point of pursuing his legal vendetta. Rise above it.

Benign
Philosophy, by degrees, peels away our follies and most
Of our vices, gives us a grounding in what’s right or wrong.

[This is surprisingly reflective and thoughtful of Juvenal, supporting the thesis that the poems are in chronological order and the later ones reflect middle-age and having come into some property and generally stopped being so vitriolically angry at the world.]

He goes on to say that paying off scores is for the small-minded. Anyway, people who break laws and commit crimes are often punished most of all in their own minds, by their own guilt. ‘The mind is its best own torturer.’ He gives examples of people who suffered the pangs of conscience but what’s striking is:

  1. how didactic he’s become; instead of depicting bad behaviour with satirical glee, now he’s lecturing the reader on good behaviour
  2. how much he sounds at moments like a Christian, preaching about the power of conscience; when he says that he who meditates a crime is as guilty as he who commits one, he sounds like Christ (‘I tell you that everyone who gazes at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Matthew 5. verses 27 to 28)

The guilty man is wracked with conscience, can’t eat or drink or sleep. In fact it turns into a vivid proto-Christian depiction of the miseries of Guilt, interpreting the weather as signs from God, the slightest setback as punishment, the slightest physical ailment as payback.

Satire 14: The disastrous impact of bad parenting (331 lines)

Again this satire has a direct addressee, Fuscinus. Juvenal takes the theme that parents hugely influence their children, generally for the worse. ‘Bad examples are catching.’ By the time he’s seven a boy’s character is fixed for life. He gives examples of terrible parents starting with ‘Rutilus’ who is a sadistic brute to his slaves.

[As with so much Roman literature, the examples of brutality to slaves tend to eclipse all the subtler argumentation: here, Rutilus is described as ordering a slave to be branded with a red-hot iron for stealing a couple of towels.]

Or the girl who’s brought up into a life of adultery and sexual intrigues by her mother. We are all corrupted by examples of vice in the home. This is a spur to good behaviour – that our bad behaviour is quickly copied by our children.

All this turns into a surprisingly preachy lists of dos and don’ts and turns into almost a harangue of bad parents, telling them to set better examples.

For some reason this leads into a short passage about the Jews who Juvenal sees as handing on ridiculously restrictive practices, circumcision and avoiding certain foods, along with taking every seventh day off for idleness, to their children. So Judaism is taken as an example of parents handing down bad practices to their children in an endless succession.

Then a passage attacking misers, characterising them especially by their recycling scraps of leftover food at revolting meals. And insatiable greed for more land, the kind of men who won’t rest till they’ve bought up an estate as the entire area cultivated by the first Romans. Compare and contrast with pensioned off Roman legionaries who are lucky to receive 2 acres of land to support themselves and their families.

then he invokes the old mountain peasants and the wisdom of living simply and plainly on what a small parcel of land provides. [This strikes me as straight down the line, entry level, the good old days of the Golden Age clichés, such as centuries of Roman writers had been peddling.]

The logical corollary of praising the simple lives and virtues of his farming forefathers, is dislike and contempt for the vices of luxury which are attributed to foreigners, especially from the exotic East.

[I always thought Edward Said, in his lengthy diatribe against ‘Orientalism’, should have started not in the 18th century, but 2,000 years earlier, with the ancient Greeks writing pejoratively about oriental despotism (with Persia in mind), a discursive tradition which was handed on to the Romans who also associated decadence and luxury with the East (Cleopatra of Egypt, Mithridates of Pontus and so on), centuries of stereotyping and anathematising the East and the Oriental to which Juvenal adds his own contribution and which was merely revived, like so much other ancient learning, in the Europe of early modernity – xenophobic clichés and stereotypes which were dusted off and reapplied to the Ottoman Empire.]

Juvenal then gives an interesting portrait of the ambitious father of a modern youth, recommending all the ways he can get on and rise in the world, studying to become a lawyer, or aiming for a career in the army, or becoming a merchant. Juvenal reprimands this made-up figure, telling him to lay off inculcating greed and deceit quite so early; his kids will learn it all by themselves in good time. ‘But’, claims the made-up father, ‘I never taught my son his criminal ways!’ Yes, replies Juvenal, but you taught him the principles of greed at an early age, and all the rest follows. You set the spark, now watch the forest fire rage out of control.

And you’ll have created a peril for your own life. For such a greedy offspring will grow impatient to see his parent snuff it so he can inherit his patrimony.

In the final passage he compares the life of a merchant with that of a tightrope walker at the circus and says watching greedy merchants trying to juggle their many deals is far more entertaining. He mocks harbours packed with huge merchant ships, prepared to go to the ends of the earth and beyond to make a profit.

Juvenal goes so far as to say these far-trading merchants are mad, as mad as mad Ajax at Troy, mad to risk his life and fortune and for what? Little silver coins printed with someone else’s head. One minute he’s at the prow of his mighty ship, laden with precious cargo; next moment it’s sunk in a storm and he’s clinging to the wreckage. Only a madman would commit his life and wealth to capricious Fortune and then…he’s a beggar in the streets, waving an artist’s impression of the storm which ruined him at passersby. Right at the end he cites Diogenes the Cynic, who abandoned all earthly possessions in order to have a calm mind. Compared to the merchant who risks losing everything and even drowning at sea:

The tub of the naked Cynic
Diogenes never caught fire: if it broke, he could pick up another
The following day – or put some lead clamps in an old one.
Alexander perceived, on seeing the tub and its famous
Occupant, how much happier was the man who desired nothing
Than he whose ambitions encompassed the world, who would yet
Suffer perils as great as all his present achievements.

And he concludes with another straight, unironic recommendation of the bare minimum required by philosophers and the old Roman tradition, in phrasing very similar to the barebones advice at the end of satire 10.

If anyone asks me
Where we’re to draw the line, how much is sufficient, I’d say:
Enough to meet the requirements of cold and thirst and hunger
As much as Epicurus derived from that little garden,
Or Socrates, earlier still, possessed in his frugal home.

Satire 15: In praise of kindness (174 lines)

Addressed to Volusius of whom we know nothing. The poem opens by reviewing the fantastical beliefs of the Egyptians in their animal gods, then takes a comic view of Odysseus’s telling of his adventures at the court of King Alcinous whose guests, if they had any sense, would dismiss such a pack of lies.

The point of this introduction is to contrast fantastical myths and legends with what Juvenal now intends to tell us about which is a real-life atrocity which happened in the recent past. In fact, Peter Green in a note tells us it took place in 127AD. Juvenal goes on to describe the rancorous feud which broke out between the neighbouring towns of Ombi and Tentyra (real neighbouring towns in ancient Egypt).

the fighting becomes savage, involving thousands. One of the leading Ombites stumbled, fell and was immediately seized by the Tentyrans who tore him to pieces and ate every morsel. This gives rise to a digression about cannibalism practiced by the Spanish in the besieged town of Calagurris who were reduced by starvation to eating human flesh. Then onto the Tauri in Crimea who worshipped Artemis by making human sacrifices of travellers who fell into their hands.

But the Tauri don’t actually eat the victims they kill and the Spaniards had the excuse of starvation. nothing excused the horror of contemporary men tearing each other to pieces and eating each other’s raw bodies. It triggers an outburst of virulent xenophobia.

And then, to our complete surprise, Juvenal turns mushy. Describing these horrors turn out to have been preparation for a hymn to tenderness and kindness.

When nature
Gave teas to mankind, she proclaimed that tenderness was endemic
In the human heart: of all our impulses, this
Is the highest and best.

We weep at funerals of children, or to see adolescents in court cases. ‘What good man…thinks any human ills outside his concern?’

It’s this
That sets us apart from the dumb brutes, it’s why we alone
Have a soul that’s worthy of reverence, why we’re imbued
With a divine potential, the skill to acquire and practice
All manner of arts…

Who are you, O wise Stoic teacher, and what have you done with the angry, fire-breathing Juvenal?

When the world was still new, our common Creator granted
The breath of life alone, but on us he further bestowed
Sovereign reason, the impulse to aid one another…

Juvenal identifies this God-given sovereign reason with everything noble and altruistic in man, proof of his difference from the animals and that he has a soul. This makes him a Stoic, doesn’t it?

Then, right at the end, the poem returns to the disgusting story of the Egyptian torn apart and eaten raw, and laments that man, blessed with all these gifts, creates swords and spears, man alone of the animals, goes out of his way to kill and massacre his own kind.

Satire 16: The military life (60 lines; incomplete)

The final satire in the series is incomplete. It is addressed to one Gallius, about whom nothing is known. Were all Juvenal’s addressees fictional or real people? No-one knows.

the poem obviously set out to ironically praise the great advantages of the soldier’s life. First is that you can beat up anyone you like and either be too intimidated to take legal action against them or, if you do, you’ll end up in a military court where the judge and jury will find for the soldier and you’ll end up being beaten up a second time.

Next advantage is that, whereas most people caught up in law suits have to endure endless delays and adjournments, a soldier will get his case seen straightaway. Plus, if you earn money as a soldier it is exempt from control by your father (which other earnings aren’t). The reverse; doddering old fathers court their sons to get a cut of their pay…

Here the poem simply breaks off. Scholars speculate that Juvenal died before he completed it. or maybe the emperor Hadrian censored this mocking of the Roman army. But Green sides with the Juvenal expert, Gilbert Highet, who thinks the earliest version of the manuscript, from which all surviving manuscript copies derive, early on lost its final few pages.

Common tropes

1. Juvenal’s position really is based on a profound belief that the olden days were best, the Golden Age of Saturn, when Rome’s ancestors lived in mud huts and farmed small allotments, and lived frugally, and taught honour and respect to their sons and daughters.

Mankind was on the decline while Homer
Still lived; and today the earth breeds a race of degenerate
Weaklings, who stir high heaven to laughter and loathing.
(Satire 15)

2. The logical corollary of thinking his primitive ancestors knew best is Juvenal’s virulent xenophobia, blaming Rome’s decline into luxury and decadence on the corrupting wealth and example of foreigners, especially the tyrannies of the East (note p.238).

3. As usual, I am left reeling by the casual way he describes the brutal, savage, sadistic treatment meted out to Roman slaves. Branded with a red-hot iron for stealing a few towels, crucified for speaking out of turn, horse-whipped for trivial mistakes serving dinner. What a brutal, cruel, inhumane society. ‘Cato, in his Res Rustica, recommends the dumping of worn-out horses’ harnesses and worn-out slaves in the same breath,’ (p.276)

Thoughts

Very simply, Juvenal is the Lionel Messi of satirists, producing high-octane, intense, bitterly angry and often very funny masterpieces of the genre.

Second thought is that Augustus had Ovid exiled, supposedly for the amorality of his ‘Art of Love’ which is a guide for pick-up artists. How things had changed a hundred years later when Juvenal not only mentions the places to hang out if you want to pick up women (or boys) but goes way, way beyond Ovid in his depiction of a pungently promiscuous society with, apparently, no consequences from the powers that be.

Summary

Final thought is that this is another brilliant volume from Peter Green, containing not just a zingy, stylish translation from the Latin but also long and fascinating introduction, and then encyclopedic notes which are full of fascinating titbits of information, opinion and insight. Of course most editions of ancient texts have notes, but Green’s are distinguished by their length and engaging chattiness. Here’s a random selection of brief but typical nuggets:

  • Women swore by Juno. (page 83)
  • After the sack of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 AD many Jews made their way to Rome and eked out a living as fortune tellers or beggars. (99)
  • No wheeled traffic was allowed in Rome for ten hours after dawn, so the city was incredibly noisy all through the night as farmers and merchants drove their carts through the narrow cobbled streets. (102)
  • Any of the (six) vestal virgin caught having sex was buried alive. (111)
  • Nine days after a funeral, offerings of eggs, salt and lentils were left on the grave of the deceased. (125)
  • It is hard to realise the influence which the Roman ballet (or pantomimus) exerted on Roman citizens. It was not only immensely popular but formed a centre for violent factions like those of the chariot races and sometimes led to riots and bloodshed. (153)
  • The secret rites of the Bona Dea were held at the home of one of the consuls. It was attended by women only. The house owner and all male slaves had to leave the premises. Even statues or images of men were covered up to protect the secret ceremonies. (156)
  • Eclipses of the moon were said to be caused by witchcraft. Beating pots and pans was said to put the witches off their wicked spells. (158)
  • A lawyer who won a case could advertise the fact by hanging palm branches outside his door.
  • People who survived a shipwreck often commissioned a painting of the event either to hang in a temple as an offering or to display to passersby in the street, if they were begging. (246)
  • the emperor kept a herd of elephants on a ranch at Laurentum, near Ardea. (248)

Among his many fascinating comments, one theme stood out for me:

Useless natural history

It’s odd that 2,000 years of writers or scholars in the humanities continue to quote, praise or base their writings on the literature or philosophy of the ancient world, when the ancients’ knowledge of the natural world, the world around them, its geology, and geography, and weather, and all the life forms we share the planet with, was fantastically ignorant.

As Green points out in a note, it is staggering that all the ancient authors whose writings have survived held ludicrous and absurd beliefs about animals and nature which you’d have thought the slightest actual observation by any rational adult would have disproved in a moment (note, page 238).

No, elephants do not get rid of their over-heavy tusks by thrusting them in the ground (satire 11). No, sparrows are not more highly sexed than other birds (satire 9). No, cranes flying south do not engage in pitched battles with pygmies in Ethiopia (satire 13). No, stags do not live to over 900 years old (satire 14).

‘A collector of natural history fallacies would do quite well out of Juvenal’ (note, page 291).

It is testament, maybe, to the way their culture preferred book learning to even the slightest amount of actual observation. And on a par with their credulous belief in no end of signs, omens and portents. Not only are these reported in all the histories as preceding momentous occasions but most official ceremonies in Rome, including whether to do battle or not, depended on the reading of the weather or flight of birds or entrails of sacrificed animals. It was an astonishingly credulous culture.

Only with Francis Bacon in the 1600s do we have an author who bravely declares that we ought to throw away most ancient ‘learning’ and make our own scientific observations about the phenomena around us. Such a long, long time it took for genuinely rational scientific method to slowly extract itself from deadening layers of absurd and nonsensical ‘learning’.


Credit

Sixteen Satires by Juvenal, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Classics in 1967, then reprinted with revisions in 1973. Page references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

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The Life of Galba by Suetonius

As an experiment I’m juxtaposing an edited-down version of the Wikipedia article about Galba with an edited-down version of an online English translation of Suetonius’s Life of Galba. Suetonius’s lives are often inaccurate and omit important facts. On the other hand, they contain much detail and comment which is omitted by encyclopedia articles. So I’ve set the two side by side to see how they complement each other. The most obvious learning is discovering just how much of the Wikipedia article is taken almost verbatim from Suetonius.

Servius Sulpicius Galba (3 BC to 69 AD) was the sixth Roman emperor, ruling briefly from the suicide of Nero on 8 June 68 AD to his own assassination on 15 January 69. After his adoption by his stepmother, and before becoming emperor, Galba was known as Livius Ocella Sulpicius Galba. He was the first of the emperors who ruled in the chaotic Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD).

1. Galba Wikipedia article

Background

Galba was born into a wealthy and distinguished family. His father and brother, both named Gaius, were consul in 5 BC and AD 22 respectively. Galba held at various times the positions of praetor, consul, and governor to the provinces of Aquitania, Upper Germany, and Africa during the first half of the first century AD. He retired from his positions during the latter part of Claudius’ reign (with the advent of Agrippina the Younger as Claudius’s fourth wife), but Nero later granted him the governorship of Hispania.

Taking advantage of the defeat of the uprising against Nero of Gaius Julius Vindex, governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, in early 68, Galba marched with his army on Rome, prompting Nero’s suicide on 9 June 68 whereupon Galba was declared emperor by the senate, with the support of the Praetorian Guard.

Galba’s physical weakness and general apathy led to him being easily led by favorites. Unable to gain popularity with the people or maintain the support of the Praetorian Guard (not least by not paying them the bounty he had promised), Galba was murdered by troops supporting Marcus Otho, governor of the neighbouring province of Lusitania, who had accompanied Galba in the march on Rome but was aggrieved at being passed over for high office.

Galba was distantly related to the empress Livia, who he respected and who, in turn, advanced his career. In her will Livia left him 50 million sesterces. Emperor Tiberius, however, cheated Galba by reducing the amount to 500,000 sesterces and never even paid Galba the reduced amount.

Galba was gay. According to Suetonius ‘he was more inclined to … the hard-bodied and those past their prime.’ Nevertheless, he married a woman named Aemilia Lepida and had two sons. Aemilia and their sons died during the early years of the reign of Claudius and Galba never remarried.

Career

In 39 Galba was appointed general of the Upper German legions. According to one report, Galba curried favour with the emperor Caligula by running alongside his chariot for twenty miles. As commander of the legions of Upper Germany, Galba gained a reputation as a disciplinarian. Suetonius writes that Galba was advised to seize the throne following the assassination of Caligula in 41, but instead loyally served Caligula’s uncle and successor Claudius.

Claudius appointed Galba governor of Africa in 44 or 45. He retired at an unknown point during the reign of Claudius, possibly in 49. He was recalled in 59 or 60 by the emperor Nero to govern Hispania.

Revolt

A rebellion against Nero was orchestrated by Gaius Julius Vindex in Gaul on the anniversary of the death of Nero’s mother, Agrippina the Younger, in 68. Shortly afterwards, Galba, in Spain, disavowed the title ‘General of Caesar’ in favour of ‘General of The Senate and People of Rome’.

Among several contenders for the throne who arose in light of Vindex’s revolt, Galba was supported by the influential imperial official Tigellinus. At midnight on 8 June, another imperial official, Nymphidius Sabinus, falsely announced to the Praetorian Guard that Nero had fled to Egypt, and the Senate proclaimed Galba emperor. Nero, who had fled to a suburban villa, committed assisted suicide with help from his secretary.

Reign

Galba was 72 when he came to the throne. Upon becoming emperor, he was faced by the rebellion of Nymphidius Sabinus, who had his own aspirations for the imperial throne. However, Sabinus was killed by the Praetorians before he could take the throne.

While Galba was arriving at Rome with the Lusitanian governor Marcus Salvius Otho, his army was attacked by a legion that had been organized by Nero. A number of Galba’s troops were killed in the fighting.

Galba surrounded himself with a group of cronies who gave him bad advice. He seized the property of Roman citizens, disbanded the German legions, and didn’t pay the Praetorian Guard and the soldiers who fought for him against Vindex. He condemned to death distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial. He became unpopular.

Mutiny on the frontier and assassination

On 1 January 69, the day Galba and Vinius took the office of consul, the fourth and twenty-second legions of Upper Germany refused to swear loyalty to Galba. They toppled his statues, demanding that a new emperor be chosen. On the following day, the soldiers of Lower Germany also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of the province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.

Galba tried to ensure his authority as emperor by adopting a successor, the young handsome nobleman Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus. But it was too little too late. Galba was killed by the Praetorian Guard on 15 January.

Marcus Salvius Otho was angry that he had been passed over for adoption and had organised a conspiracy with a small number of Praetorian Guards to murder the aged emperor and elevate himself. The soldiery in the capital, composed not just of Praetorians but of Galba’s legion from Spain and several detachments of men from the Roman fleet, Illyria, Britain, and Germany, were angered at not having received a donative i.e. reward for supporting him.

They also resented Galba’s purges of their officers and fellow soldiers (this was especially true of the men from the fleet). Many in the Praetorian Guard were shaken by the recent murder of their Prefect, Nymphidius Sabinus – some of the waverers were convinced to come over to Otho’s side out of fear that Galba might yet take revenge on them for their connection to Sabinus.

120 men later petitioned Otho that they had killed Galba. They would all be executed by Vitellius. A company of German soldiers to whom he had once done a kindness rushed to help Galba, however they took a wrong turn and arrived too late. He was killed near the Lacus Curtius.

Of Galba’s cronies: Vinius tried to run away, calling out that Otho had not ordered him killed, but was run through with a spear. Laco was banished to an island where he was later murdered by soldiers sent by Otho. Icelus was publicly executed. Piso was also killed; his head along with Galba’s and Vinius’s were placed on poles and mocked by the soldiers.

Galba’s head was brought by a soldier to Otho’s camp where camp boys mocked it. Vinius’s head was sold to his daughter for 2,500 drachmas. Piso’s head was given to his wife. Galba’s head was bought for 100 gold pieces by a freedman who threw it at Sessorium where his master, Patrobius Neronianus, had been killed by Galba. So much killing.

2. Suetonius’s Life of Galba

Suetonius gives Galba’s life in 23 short ‘chapters’ (compare with the 56 for Nero). I’ve copied and sub-edited the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation by J. C. Rolfe.

Nero was the last who bore the name ‘Caesar’ because of his connection with the family of Augustus; after him it turned from being a family name into a designation of rank.

1. With Nero the line of the Caesars became extinct. [Suetonius is as superstitious as Plutarch or Tacitus and so records a crop of the usual bad omens.]

  • the holy laurel tree from which the emperors had their wreaths made wilted
  • the temple of the Caesars​ was struck by lightning which decapitated all the statues at the same time
  • Augustus’s sceptre was dashed from his hand

2. When he became emperor, Galba displayed a family tree in his hall claiming his ancestry went back on his father’s side to Jupiter and on his mother’s to Pasiphae, the wife of Minos.

3. Nobody knows how the name Galba was introduced into the clan Sulpicii which he belonged to. One theory is that after a long siege of some Spanish town the Sulpicius in question set fire to it with torches smeared with resin (galbanum). Others because this ancestor during a long illness resorted to galbeum, a sort of poultice, that is to say of remedies wrapped in wool. Others think he was very fat man, the Gallic word for which is galba. Others that he was, on the contrary, like the galba, a creature which breeds in oak trees. [Shows you how wild and inaccurate Roman attempts at etymology were.]

His ancestor, Servius Galba, served as consul, was the most eloquent speaker of his time and triggered the war with Viriathus because, while governing Spain, he treacherously massacred 30,000 Lusitanians.

Galba’s great-grandfather was blocked by Julius Caesar in his campaign for the consulship in 49 BC and so joined Brutus’s conspiracy and was one of Caesar’s assassins. From him were descended the grandfather and the father of the emperor Galba. The former published a voluminous and painstaking history.

Galba’s father attained the consulship and, despite being a hunchback, was an effective advocate. He had two wives: Mummia Achaica, great-granddaughter of Lucius Mummius who destroyed Corinth, bore him two sons, Gaius and Servius (our protagonist). Gaius committed suicide because Tiberius would not allow him to take part in the allotment of the provinces in his year (i.e. following immediately his consulship). When Achaica died, Galba’s father married Livia Ocellina, a very rich and beautiful woman, who adopted Servius as her step-son.

4. The future emperor Servius Galba was born in the consulship of Marcus Valerius Messala and Gnaeus Lentulus (3 BC), on the ninth day before the Kalends of January i.e. 24 December, in a country house situated on a hill near Tarracina.

Adopted by his stepmother Livia, he took her name and the surname Ocella, and also changed his forename, using Lucius instead of Servius from that time until he became emperor.

Suetonius has some entertaining anecdotes. It was, he says, well known in his day that when Galba was a boy and called to pay his respects to Augustus with others of his age, the emperor pinched his cheek and said in Greek: ‘You too will taste a little of my power, child.’

And Tiberius too, when he heard that Galba was destined to be emperor, but in his old age, said: ‘Well, let him live then, since that does not concern me.’

When he reached adult years, Galba dreamed that Fortune said that she was tired of waiting outside his door and, unless he let her in, she would be fair game for the next passerby. When he awoke and opened the door into the hall he found a bronze statue of Fortune about two feet high. This he carried lovingly to his summer house a Tusculum, and consecrated it in a room there, worshiping it from that time on with monthly sacrifices and an annual vigil. [Compare and contrast with Nero’s alleged attachment to a small figure of a girl sent him by an unnamed commoner.]

As a young man he persisted in keeping up an old and forgotten custom which survived only in his own household, of having his freedmen and slaves appear before him twice a day in a body, greeting him in the morning and bidding him goodnight at evening, one by one.

5. Galba applied himself to liberal studies, particularly the law.

He took marriage seriously but after his wife Lepida and the two sons he had by her died, he remained a widower. He could not be tempted afterwards by any match, not even with the redoubtable Agrippina [mother of Nero], who no sooner lost [her first husband] Domitius by death than she made such shameless advances to him, while his wife was still alive, that Lepida’s mother gave her a public reprimand, going so far as to slap her.

Galba showed marked respect to Livia Augusta, to whose favour he owed great influence during her lifetime and by whose last will he almost became a rich man; for he had the largest bequest among her legatees, one of 50 million sesterces. But because the sum was designated in figures and not written out in words, Tiberius, who was her heir, reduced the bequest to 500,000, and Galba never received even that amount.

6. Galba began his career of office before the legal age, and in celebrating the games of the Floralia in his praetorship he gave a new kind of exhibition, namely of elephants walking the rope.​ Then he governed the province of Aquitania for nearly a year and soon afterwards held a regular consulship​ for six months. It chanced that in this office he succeeded Lucius​ Domitius, the father of Nero, and was succeeded by Salvius Otho, the father of the emperor Otho, a kind of omen of what happened later, when he became emperor between the reigns of the sons of these two men.

Appointed governor of Upper Germany by Gaius Caesar, the day after he appeared before the legions Galba put a stop to their applause at a festival which chanced to fall at that time, by issuing a written order to keep their hands under their cloaks; and immediately this verse was bandied about the camp:

‘Soldier, learn to play the soldier; ’tis Galba, not Gaetulicus.’

With equal strictness Galba put a stop to the requests for furloughs. He got both the veterans and the new recruits into condition by plenty of hard work, speedily checked the barbarians, who had already made inroads even into Gaul. When Gaius (Caligula) arrived on a tour of inspection, Galba and his army made such a good impression that out of the great body of troops assembled from all the provinces none received greater commendation or richer rewards. Galba particularly distinguished himself while directing the military manoeuvres shield in hand, by running for twenty miles close beside Caligula’s chariot.

7. When the murder of Caligula was announced, although many urged Galba to take advantage of the opportunity, he preferred quiet. Hence he was in high favour with Claudius, became one of his staff of intimate friends, and was treated with such consideration that the departure of the expedition to Britain was put off because Galba was taken with a sudden illness (of no great severity).

Galba governed Africa for two years with the rank of proconsul, being specially chosen​ to restore order in the province, which was disturbed both by internal strife and by a revolt of the barbarians. He was successful owing to his insistence on strict discipline and his observance of justice even in trifling matters. When provisions were very scarce during a foray and a soldier was accused of having sold for a hundred denarii a peck​ of wheat which was left from his rations, Galba gave orders that when the man began to lack food, no one should help him and so he starved to death.

On another occasion, when Galba was holding court and the question of the ownership of a beast of burden was laid before him, as the evidence on both sides was slight and the witnesses unreliable so that it was difficult to get at the truth, Galba ruled that the beast should be led with its head muffled up to the pool where it was usually watered, that it should then be unmuffled, and should belong to which of the men it returned to of its own accord.

8. Galba’s services in Africa at that time, and previously in Germany, were recognised by the triumphal regalia and three priesthoods, for he was chosen a member of the Fifteen,​ of the brotherhood of Titius,​ and of the priests of Augustus.

After that he lived for the most part in retirement until about the middle of Nero’s reign, never going out even for recreation without taking a million sesterces in gold with him in a second carriage. Finally, while he was staying in the town of Fundi, the province of Hispania Tarraconensis was offered to him.

It happened that as he was offering sacrifice in a public temple after his arrival in the province, the hair of a young attendant who was carrying an incense-box suddenly turned white all over his head. Some interpreted this as a sign of a change of rulers and of the succession of an old man to a young one, that is to say, of Galba to Nero. Not long after this, lightning struck a lake of Cantabria and twelve axes were found there, an unmistakable token of supreme power.

9. For eight years Galba governed the province in a variable and inconsistent manner. At first he was vigorous and energetic and even over-severe in punishing offences. For example, he cut off the hands of a money-lender who carried on his business dishonestly and nailed them to his counter. He crucified a man for poisoning his ward, whose property he was to inherit in case of his death and when the man invoked the law and declared that he was a Roman citizen, Galba, pretending to lighten his punishment by some consolation and honour, ordered that a cross much higher than the rest and painted white be set up, and the man transferred to it.

But he gradually changed to sloth and inaction, not to give Nero any cause for jealousy and, as he used to say himself, because no one could be forced to render an account for doing nothing.

As he was holding the assizes at New Carthage, Galba learned of the rebellion of the Gallic provinces through an urgent appeal for help from the governor of Aquitania. Then came letters from Vindex, calling on Galba to make himself the liberator and leader of mankind. So, without much hesitation, Galba accepted the proposal, led by fear as well as by hope. For he had intercepted despatches ordering his own death, which had been secretly sent by Nero to his agents.​

Galba was encouraged too, in addition to most favourable auspices and omens, by the prediction of a young girl of high birth; and also because the priest of Jupiter at Clunia, directed by a dream, had found in the inner shrine of his temple the very same prediction, likewise spoken by an inspired girl 200 years before. The drift of the verses​ was that one day there would come out of Spain the ruler and lord of the world.

10. Accordingly, pretending that he was going to attend to the manumitting of slaves, Galba mounted the tribunal, on the front of which he had set up as many images as he could find of those who had been condemned and put to death by Nero – and having by his side a boy of noble family whom he had summoned for that very purpose from his place of exile hard by in the Balearic Isles – he deplored the state of the times.

Being hailed as emperor by his troops, Galba declared that he was their governor, representing the senate and people of Rome.​ Then, proclaiming a holiday, he enrolled from the people of the province legions and auxiliaries in addition to his former force of one legion, two divisions of cavalry and three cohorts.

But from the oldest and most experienced of the nobles Galba chose a kind of senate who he might refer matters of special importance to whenever it was necessary. He also chose young men of the order of knights, who were to have the title of volunteers​ and guard his bedchamber in place of the regular soldiers, without losing their right to wear the gold ring.​ He also sent proclamations throughout the province, urging all men individually and collectively to join the revolution and aid the common cause in every possible way.

More omens and portents:

  • During the fortification of a town which he had chosen as the seat of war, a ring of ancient workmanship was found, containing a precious stone engraved with a Victory and a trophy.
  • Immediately afterwards a ship from Alexandria loaded with arms arrived at Dertosa without a pilot, without a single sailor or passenger, removing all doubt in anyone’s mind that the war was just and holy and undertaken with the approval of the gods.

Then suddenly and unexpectedly the whole plan almost failed. One of Galba’s two divisions of cavalry,​ repenting of its change of allegiance, attempted to desert Galba as he was approaching his camp and was only with difficulty prevented.

Some slaves too, whom one of Nero’s freedmen had given to Galba with treachery in view, nearly assassinated him as he was going to the bath through a narrow passage-way. They would have succeeded had they not been overheard discussing ‘the opportunity’ and, when interrogated about what ‘the opportunity’ referred to, confessed.

11. To these great perils was added the defeat and death of Vindex by forces loyal to Nero. This made Galba panic and even contemplate taking his own life, believing the cause of insurrection was lost. But when some messengers came from Rome, reporting that Nero was dead and that all the people had sworn allegiance to him, Galba, he laid aside the title of governor and assumed that of Caesar.

He then began his march to Rome in a general’s cloak with a dagger hanging from his neck in front of his breast and he did not resume the toga until he had overthrown his opponents, Nymphidius Sabinus, prefect of the praetorian guard at Rome, and in Germany and Africa the governors Fonteius Capito and Clodius Macer.

12. Galba’s double reputation for cruelty and avarice had gone before him. Men said that he had punished the cities of the Spanish and Gallic provinces which had hesitated about taking sides with him by imposing heavier taxes and even razing the walls of some of them, executing the governors and imperial deputies​ along with their wives and children.

It was further alleged that he had melted down a golden crown of fifteen pounds weight, which the people of Tarraco had taken from their ancient temple of Jupiter and presented to him; he ordered that the three ounces which it fell short by should be exacted from them.

Galba’s reputation for harshness was confirmed immediately on his arrival in Rome. He compelled some marines whom Nero had made regular soldiers to return to their former position as rowers and, when they refused and obstinately demanded an eagle and standards, Galba not only dispersed them by a cavalry charge but had them decimated.

Galba also disbanded a cohort of Germans, whom the previous Caesars had made their bodyguard​ and had found absolutely faithful in many emergencies, and sent them back to their native country without any rewards. He alleged that they were favourably inclined towards Gnaeus Dolabella, near whose gardens they had their camp.

The following tales were told in mockery of him, whether truly or falsely:

  • that when an unusually elegant dinner was set before him, he groaned aloud
  • that when his duly appointed steward presented his expense account, he handed him a dish of beans in return for his industry
  • that when the flute player Canus greatly pleased him, he presented him with five denarii, which he took from his own purse with his own hand i.e. he acquired a reputation for being stingy

13. Accordingly Galba’s arrival in Rome was not so welcome as it might have been. This was apparent at the first performance in the theatre, for when the actors of an Atellan farce began the familiar lines:

‘Here comes Onesimus from his farm’

all the spectators at once finished the song in chorus and repeated it several times with appropriate gestures, as if it mockingly referred to Galba.

14. Thus Galba’s popularity and prestige were greater when he won than while he ruled the empire, although he gave many proofs of being an excellent prince. But he was more hated for his bad acts than loved for his wise ones.

Galba was wholly under the control of three men who were commonly known as his tutors because they lived with him in the palace and never left his side. These were:

  • Titus Vinius, one of his generals in Spain, a man of unbounded covetousness
  • Cornelius Laco, advanced from the position of judge’s assistant to that of prefect of the Guard and intolerably haughty and indolent
  • his own freedman Icelus, who had only just before received the honour of the gold ring​ and the surname of Marcianus, yet already aspired to the highest office open to the equestrian order

Galba was so under the influence of these men with their different agendas that his conduct was inconsistent: sometimes he was exacting and niggardly, other times more extravagant and reckless than became a prince chosen by the people and of his time of life.

Galba condemned to death various distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial. He rarely granted Roman citizenship, and granted the privileges of threefold paternity​ to hardly one or two men, and even to those only for a fixed and limited time.

When the jurors petitioned that a sixth division be added to their number, he not only refused but even deprived them of the privilege, granted by Claudius, of not being summoned for court duty in winter and at the beginning of the year.

15. It was thought too that Galba intended to limit the offices open to senators and knights to a period of two years, and to give them only to such as did not wish them and declined them.​

He had all the grants of Nero revoked, allowing only a tenth part to be retained and he demanded repayment with the help of fifty Roman knights, stipulating that even if the actors and athletes had sold anything that had formerly been given them (by Nero), it should be taken away from the purchases, in case the recipient had spent the money and could not repay it.

On the other hand, there was nothing that he did not allow his friends and freedmen to sell at a price or bestow as a favour, taxes and freedom from taxation, the punishment of the guiltless and impunity for the guilty.

More, when the Roman people called for the punishment of Halotus and Tigellinus, the most abandoned of Nero’s creatures, not content with saving their lives, Galba honoured Halotus with an important stewardship and, in the case of Tigellinus, issued an edict rebuking the people for their cruelty in criticising him.

16. Having thus incurred the hatred of almost all men of every class, Galba was especially detested by the soldiers, for although their officers​ had promised them a larger gift than common when they swore allegiance to Galba in his absence, so far from keeping the promise, Galba declared more than once that it was his habit to levy troops, not to buy them. With this policy he embittered the soldiers all over the empire. He filled the praetorians with fear and indignation by discharging many of them from time to time as under suspicion of being partisans of Nymphidius.

But loudest of all was the grumbling of the army in Upper Germany, because it was defrauded of the reward for its services against the Gauls and Vindex. This is why these troops were the first to venture on mutiny, refusing on the Kalends of January to swear allegiance to anyone save the senate, and at once resolving to send a deputation to the praetorians with the following message: that the emperor created in Spain did not suit them and the Guard must choose one who would be acceptable to all the armies.

17. When this was reported to Galba, thinking that it was not so much his age as his lack of children that was criticised, he picked out Piso Frugi Licinianus from the throng at one of his morning receptions, a young man of noble birth and high character, who had long been one of his special favourites and always named in his will as heir to his property and his name.

Calling him ‘son’, Galba led Piso to the praetorian camp and adopted him before the assembled soldiers. But even then he made no mention of largess (i.e. money for the soldiers), thus making it easier for Marcus Salvius Otho to overthrow him just six days after the adoption.

18. Many prodigies from the start of his reign had foretold Galba’s end exactly as it happened:

  • when animals were being slain to right and left all along his march to Rome in every town,​ an ox, maddened by the stroke of an axe, broke its bonds and charged the emperor’s chariot and deluged him with blood
  • as Galba dismounted, one of his guards, pushed forward by the crowd, almost wounded him with his lance
  • as he entered Rome, and later the Palace, he was met by a shock of earthquake and a sound like the lowing of cattle

There followed even clearer signs: he had set apart from all the treasure a necklace made of pearls and precious stones, for the adornment of his image of Fortune at Tusculum.​ This on a sudden impulse he consecrated to the Capitoline Venus, thinking it worthy of a more august position. The next night Fortune appeared to him in his dreams, complaining of being robbed of the gift intended for her and threatening to take away what she had bestowed. When day came Galba hastened in terror to Tusculum to offer expiatory sacrifices because of the dream, and sent men ahead to make preparations for the ceremony. But on arrival, he found on the altar nothing but warm ashes and beside it an old man dressed in black, holding the incense in a glass dish and the wine in an earthen cup.​

It was also noticed that as Galba was sacrificing on the Kalends of January, the garland fell from his head and that, as he took the auspices, the sacred chickens flew away.

As he was on the point of addressing the soldiers on the day of the adoption,​ his camp chair, through the forgetfulness of his attendants, was not placed on the tribunal, as is customary. In the senate his curule chair was set wrong side foremost.

19. As Galba was offering sacrifice on the morning before he was killed, a soothsayer warned him to look out for danger, since assassins were not far off.

Not long after this Galba learned that Otho had taken possession of the camp of the Praetorian Guard. When advisers recommended that Galba go there as soon as possible — for they said that he could win the day by his presence and prestige — he decided to do no more than hold his present position and strengthen it by assembling a guard of the legionaries, who were camped around Rome.

Galba did put on a linen cuirass, though he admitted it would give little protection against so many swords. But he was lured out by false reports, circulated by the conspirators, to induce him to appear in public. They assured him that the trouble was over, that the rebels had been overthrown, and that the rest were coming in a body to offer their congratulations, ready to submit to all his orders.

So Galba went out to meet them with so much confidence that when one of the soldiers boasted that he had slain Otho, he asked him, ‘On whose authority?’ and then he went on to the Forum. There the cavalry who had been bidden to slay him, spurring their horses through the streets and dispersing the crowd of civilians, caught sight of him from a distance and halted for a moment. Then they rushed upon him again and butchered him, abandoned by his followers.

20. Some say that at the beginning of the disturbance Galba cried out, ‘What mean you, fellow soldiers? I am yours and you are mine,’ and that he even promised them largess. But the more general account is that he offered them his neck without resistance, urging them to do their duty​ and strike, since it was their will.

It might seem surprising that none of those present tried to help their emperor, and that everyone who Galba sent for treated the summons with contempt, except for a company of German troops. These responded because of his recent kindness in showing them great indulgence when they were weakened by illness, and they ran to his help but, not knowing their way round Rome, took a roundabout way and arrived too late.

Galba was killed beside the Lake of Curtius​ and was left lying just as he was, until a common soldier, returning from a distribution of grain, threw down his load and cut off the head. Since there was no hair by which to grasp it, the soldier put it under his robe, but later thrust his thumb into the mouth and so carried it to Otho.

Otho handed the head over to his servants and camp-followers, who stuck it on a lance and paraded it about the camp with jeers, crying out from time to time: ‘Galba, thou Cupid, exult in thy vigour!’ The point of this joke was that the report had gone around a few days earlier that when someone had congratulated him on still looking young and vigorous, Galba had replied:

‘As yet my strength is unimpaired.’

The head was bought from these camp followers by a freedman of Patrobius Neronianus for 100 pieces of gold and thrown in the place where his patron had been executed on Galba’s orders.

At last, however, Galba’s steward, Argivus, consigned it, with the rest of the body, to the tomb in Galba’s private gardens on the Aurelian Road.

21. Galba was of average height, very bald, with blue eyes and a hooked nose. His hands and feet were so distorted by gout that he couldn’t bear to wear a shoe for long, to unroll a book, or even to hold one. The flesh on his right side too had grown out and hung down to such an extent that it could only with difficulty be held in place by a bandage.

22. It’s said that Galba was a heavy eater and in winter time used to take food even before daylight, while at dinner he helped himself so lavishly that he would have the leftovers placed in front of him to finish off before he distributed it among his attendants.

Galba was more inclined in his sexual tastes to men and, of those, vigorous and older ones. They say that when Icelus, one of his old favourites, brought him news in Spain of Nero’s death, he not only received him openly with the fondest kisses, but begged him to ‘prepare himself’ without delay and took him to one side [i.e. buggered him].

23. Galba met his end in the seventy-third year of his age and the seventh month of his reign. The senate, as soon as it was allowed to do so, voted him a statue standing on a column decorated with the beaks of ships, in the part of the Forum where he was killed. But Vespasian [after he came to power in July 69] annulled this decree, believing that Galba had sent assassins from Spain to Judaea to murder him.

[Suetonius’s Life of Galba should be read alongside Tacitus’s account of the same events in his Histories.]


Related links

Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Roman reviews

The Pharsalia by Lucan – 2: Summary

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

Book 1 The civil war begins (695 lines)

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

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

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

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

67 to 97: The motives of the two leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

392 to 465: Caesar gathers his forces

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

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

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

638 to 672: Figulus reads the prophecies in the heavens

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

Book 2 Pompey flees Italy (736 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

439 to 461: Caesar advances into Italy

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

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

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

650 to 703: Caesar lays siege to Brindisi

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

Book 3 War in the Mediterranean (762 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

399 to 452: Caesar destroys the sacred grove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 4 Caesar victory in Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

529 to 581: Vulteius and his men commit suicide

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

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

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

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

Book 5 Caesar in Illyria (815 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 6 Thessaly and Erictho the witch (830 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

775 to 830: The prophecy of the dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

131 to 184: Omens and portents

185 to 214: The augur’s cry

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

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

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

337 to 384: Pompey addresses his men

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

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

460 to 505: Battle is joined

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

545 to 596: Caesar seizes victory

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

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

647 to 697: Pompey takes flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

823 to 870: A curse on Egypt

Book 9 Cato in Libya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

411 to 462: Geographical description of North Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

789 to 838: Further deaths by snake bite

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

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

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

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

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

Book 10 Caesar in Egypt and Cleopatra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Horror and madness

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

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

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

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

Horror

Arruns reading the entrails:

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

Madness

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

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

Terror

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

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

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

Anti-imperialism

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

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

The poem as civil war

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

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

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

Lucan’s influence

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

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

Suetonius’s Life of Lucan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Pharsalia by Lucan – 1: Introduction

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

Lucan biography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes in the Pharsalia

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

1. No gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sometimes the two concepts seem interchangeable:

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

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

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

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

2. No heroes

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

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

1. Gaius Julius Caesar

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

2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

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

3. Marcus Porcius Cato

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The gruesome and the macabre

The supernatural

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

a) Dreams and visions

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

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

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

b) Portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers

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

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

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

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

Chaos on earth reflected in heaven

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

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

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

Haruspicy and necromancy

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

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

4. Extreme rhetoric

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Episodic structure

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

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

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

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

6. Lucan and Virgil

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

7. Epic similes

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

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

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

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

Describing Octavius’s naval strategy:

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

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

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

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

8. Geographical descriptions

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

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

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

9. Natural history

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

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

10. Is the Pharsalia unfinished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. The Roman cult of suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because:

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

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

12. Lucan and Seneca

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

Modern views

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

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

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

Caesar crossing the Rubicon by Adolphe Yvon (1875)


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The Apocolocyntosis by Seneca

Seneca

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

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

The Apocolocyntosis

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

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

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

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

Menippean satire

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

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

Claudius the Clod

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Augustus repeats the list of crimes, that Claudius murdered:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

Ironic conclusion

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

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

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

Robert Graves

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

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

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


Credit

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

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Moral letters by Seneca

What do you need to be a good man? Willpower.
(Letter 80, section 4)

Whatever you do, keep death in mind.
(Letter 114, section 27)

You must embed these thoughts deep in your heart, Lucilius.
(Letter 7, section 12)

Stoicism

The thing about Stoic philosophy is how wrong its premises are and how banal its teachings.

Stoics believed there is a God, that the universe or Nature is God, or God suffuses Nature. Human beings were created by God with a spark of Divine Reason within us. Our job is to clear away all the clutter of work, society, gossip, all relationships, friends and family, all the clamour which clogs up our lives, including all our own passions and emotions, love, anger and so on – in order to cultivate this fragment of the Divine Reason in each of is and, by doing so, bring our lives into alignment with the values of the universe/God. Then, by cultivating detachment from all earthly worries and passions, by strengthening our minds, we can prepare for the worst the world has to throw at us and defuse the ultimate terror, the fear of death.

That’s it. You can vary the wording and multiply the precepts with lots of specific examples (avoid gossip, avoid crowds, eat moderately, don’t get drunk, treat everyone with respect – ponder with the worst possible outcomes so nothing surprises you, analyse every situation with detachment), but it’s that simple and, after the initial novelty has worn off, that boring.

Seneca

The Roman author, tutor, Stoic philosopher, politician and immensely rich man, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD) is called Seneca the Younger because his father (54 BC to 39 AD) – author of a collection of reminiscences about the Roman schools of rhetoric (which survives) and a history of Roman affairs from the beginning of the Civil Wars until the last years of his life (which is lost) – had the exact same name, so is known as Seneca the Elder.

Seneca the Younger, much more famous than his father, is sometimes just referred to as Seneca.

Seneca wrote a prodigious amount; later critics said too much. E.F. Watling, in his Penguin edition of Seneca’s plays, says that his best-loved works are the letters he wrote to one specific friend, Lucilius. Seneca himself titled these the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’), also known in English as the ‘Letters from a Stoic’. Seneca wrote this collection of 124 letters at the end of his life, from approximately 63 to 65 AD, after he had largely retired as tutor and adviser to the Emperor Nero, a post he’d held since 49 – sixteen years.

The letters are addressed to Lucilius Junior who was then procurator of Sicily and is known to posterity only through Seneca’s writings. (Seneca also dedicated his dialogue On Providence and his encyclopedic Natural Questions to this same Lucilius.)

Scholars fret about whether these were ‘real’ letters, and what the structure of correspondence was – did Seneca only respond to questions sent him by Lucilius? Where is Lucilius’s half of the correspondence? etc. But whether or not they were ever part of a ‘real’ correspondence, it is clear that Seneca wrote these letters with a wider readership in mind. They contain numerous carefully crafted passages obviously aimed at posterity and are structured so as to cover a wide range of subjects dear to Stoics. The 124 letters were published grouped together into 20 ‘books’.

Philosophy as therapy

The letters amount to a series of short moral lessons, designed to help Lucilius achieve the wisdom and peace of mind (‘a calm and correct state of mind,’ Letter 4) promised by Stoic doctrine. In order to do this the letters focus on the traditional themes of Stoic philosophy such as removing oneself from the crowd; cultivating a contempt of death; learning to endure the ups and downs of life; acknowledging virtue as the supreme good, and so on.

The key point which the translator of the Oxford University Press edition, Elaine Fantham, makes in her introduction, is that the letters do not amount to a systematic exposition of Stoicism. Almost the reverse. They are like a series of lessons on ad hoc, specific topics, often beginning with an everyday experience and then extracting from it an insight or type of behaviour which Seneca tells Lucilius he can adopt in order to improve himself. Each letter contains ‘a little bit of profit’ (5) – like instalments in a self-help correspondence course.

Seneca wrote the letters not to promote a complete finished system of thought: he wasn’t necessarily interested in extrapolating a comprehensive system. As Fantham says, Seneca put moral impact before intellectual debate. He ‘puts the ability to avoid fear and desire ahead of any intellectual expertise’ (note, page 298). Seneca gave the work a new type of name, Epistulae Morales, and wrote them with a moral purpose to promote moral behaviour.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds…it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done and what to be avoided. (16)

Thus Seneca instructs Lucilius not about this or that point of abstract philosophical doctrine – but over and over again tells him that he must repeat certain thoughts in order to put them into practice, to make them part of his everyday waking thoughts.

Only Philosophy will wake us up, it alone will shake off our heavy sleep, so dedicate yourself wholly to it. (53.8)

Possibly the most consistent lesson (repeated so many times it gets a little boring) is cultivating a ‘contempt’ for death. When death comes it is over; it is nothing. We need to live with the idea of our death all the time, to get accustomed to it, so as to eliminate all fear and anxiety about it:

  • Let us order our minds so that we wish for whatever circumstances demand, and especially let us think about our ends without sadness. We need to be prepared for death before we are prepared for life. (61.3)
  • The more men have accustomed themselves to hardship, the more easily they will endure it. (76.34)
  • Whatever has been long anticipated comes as a lighter blow. (78.29)
  • Everyone approaches a hazard to which he has long squared himself with more courage and resists harsh events by contemplating them in advance. (107.4)

This accustoming to death takes effort so we must ‘practice thinking this over each day’ (4.5) and ‘ensure that what is now an urge becomes a lasting disposition’ (17.6).

Virtue does not come to a mind unless it is trained and taught and brought to its highest condition by constant exercise. (90.46)

Repeat, practice, memorise. The letters are lessons in how to think, in how to live life in order to maximise calm and reason, mental or psychological exercises which must be learned through constant repetition.

  • You must persist and build up strength by constant diligence until what is now a good intention becomes a good state of mind. (16.1)
  • These are things we must learn, in fact learn by heart. (123.17)

In this respect, the OUP is a good edition because Fantham precedes every letter with a short summary of its main topics, of its time and place of composition, and how it relates to other letters on the same topic. This is extremely useful. (Mind you, the 1917 translation by Richard Mott Gummere which is available online has something the Fantham edition hasn’t, which is attributing each letter a title such as ‘On saving time’, ‘On discursiveness in reading’ and so on. I imagine these titles aren’t in the original but they are extremely useful in remembering at a glance which letter is about what.)

There is some background information about Roman society, but not as much as you’d hope for, certainly nothing like the chatty detail you get in Cicero’s wonderful letters (Seneca consciously distances himself from Cicero’s style and gossipy subject matter in letter 118).

Like all Roman writers, Seneca now and then cites famous Roman heroes or historical figures as examples of ‘virtue’ (notably Marcus Porcius Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC, as the example of fortitude in the face of death; or Gaius Mucius Cordus who unflinchingly put his hand into a fire to prove his bravery).

There is a description of the lives of the super-rich at Baiae (51), a fascinating portrait of the conditions of slaves (47), a vivid comparison of the spartan bathhouses of old with their modern luxurious equivalents (86), a description of the grand retinues of foreign slaves rich people insist on travelling with (123), a description of viticulture and grafting techniques (86). Mostly, though, the letters are disappointing from a social history point of view. Philosophy is drab.

This Oxford University Press edition does not contain all of the letters – it contains 80 out of 124 (introduction p.xxxv) – but still claims to be the largest selection available in print.

Epistolary traditions

In a throwaway remark, Fantham indicates that there were two types of letter, two epistolary traditions: the philosophical letter of advice (pioneered by Epicurus, born 341 BC, and into which these letters fall) and chatty personal correspondence (Cicero, born 106 BC). [She doesn’t mention a third type which occurs to me, which is the crafted verse epistle as epitomised by Horace’s Letters or Ovid’s Black Sea Letters.]

The problem of suicide

A major stumbling block is Seneca’s worldview, the classical Roman worldview, which promotes suicide as a noble, honourable and virtuous response to all kinds of social humiliations, setbacks, not least the threats from tyrannical power.

It is a noble thing to die honourably, prudently and bravely. (77)

Part of the reason for cultivating a contempt for death, for having death continually in your thoughts, is so that, when the moment comes, it will feel like only a small additional step to fall on your sword or open your veins in a hot bath.

How many people death has been useful to, how many it frees from torture, poverty, laments, punishment, weariness. We are not in any man’s power when death is in our power. (91.21)

The historical model Seneca invokes repeatedly is Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC two years into the civil war, when he was governor of Utica, a city in North Africa, as Julius Caesar’s army was closing in. Cato killed himself to deprive Caesar of the power of either executing him or (more likely) humiliatingly pardoning him, meaning he would ignominiously owe the rest of his existence to a tyrant.

Desiring neither option, Cato stabbed himself. In the event failed to kill himself, a doctor was called who patched up his stomach wound, gave him medicine, put him to bed. In the night Cato placed his fingers into the stomach wound, ripped it open, and proceeded to pull out his intestines until he died of shock. This is held up by Seneca as exemplary behaviour.

This makes sense within the long Roman tradition of preferring honourable suicide to dishonour, but it is just not a worldview any modern person shares and Cato is not a role model any modern person would wish to copy. Of course, this strand in Seneca’s writings is magnified by the fact that Seneca himself did something similar, committing suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero, his one-time pupil, in an exemplary fashion, calmly dictating notes about Stoic resilience as he bled to death in a hot bath.

Thus he has gone down as a hero of high-minded Stoicism but there are numerous objections to this notion. One is that plenty, thousands, of other Roman notables killed themselves over the centuries, famous examples being Anthony and Cleopatra, and they weren’t Stoic philosophers. So Seneca’s high-minded end wasn’t unique, far from it, it was a very common behaviour among the aristocratic class in the ancient world, and not only under the Empire but the Republic, too.

So a) it was far from being an act unique to ‘philosophers’ but b) it is obviously something very remote indeed from modern society. Sure, people still kill themselves. But not many people kill themselves at the command of an emperor, or to demonstrate their high-minded command over their destiny and a Stoic rising above the petty concerns of life and death. This whole worldview is so remote as to be science fiction.

There seems to me something perverse, almost creepy, about a philosophy which is constantly preparing its followers for death and for suicide. The words ‘death’ or ‘die’ recur on every page. I infinitely prefer Horace’s encouragement to enjoy life to the full while we can.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key.
(Horace Odes, book 2, poem 1)

Themes in the letters

Despise death

We start to die from the day we are born. When we die there is nothing. There was nothing before life and there will be nothing after. So be not afraid.

  • What I am recommending to you is not just a remedy for this disease but for your whole life: despise death. (78.5)
  • First free yourself from the fear of death. (80.5)

Freedom

Despising death means we are free from the threats of tyrants or society. What is the worst they can do to us if we despise the worst, consider it nothing? Nothing can harm the calm and virtuous mind. By welcoming whatever will happen, it creates its own freedom no matter what the external circumstances. With typical extremity of metaphor or rhetoric, Seneca continually contrasts freedom, not with being bogged down or caught up or hampered by obligations – such as most of us encounter in real life – but with full-on hardcore Roman slavery:

  • You ask what is liberty? To be enslaved to no object, no necessity, no chances, to reduce Fortune to a level field. (51.9)
  • We must busy ourselves with our studies and the sources of wisdom…this is how we should rescue our mind from a most wretched enslavement and restore it to liberty. (104.16)
  • We have enslaved our spirit to pleasure whose indulgence is the beginning of all evils. (110.10)

Now it makes sense that Seneca uses as metaphor the slavery which was, arguably, the central fact of Roman life. But as with the way his mind, when he wants to imagine examples of adversity, leaps straight towards images of torture and execution, it’s another example of the extremity of metaphor and argument which underpins his ‘philosophy’ and makes so much of it feel so alien to the modern mind.

True friendship

Gauge a man before making him a friend. Be cautious, test out friends. But once someone is a friend, bind them to you, share everything with them. True friends share everything, including misfortune. Seneca says you have to learn to be a friend to yourself.

Avoid crowds

‘Shun whatever pleases the common herd’ (8). One iniquitous example can adversely affect you. A crowd presents all kinds of bad examples. People are emboldened to behave badly in crowds. So withdraw into yourself and study philosophy, but not so conspicuously as to draw attention or criticism. Don’t draw attention to your retirement and quietism. Quietly disappear.

Your body

A great and cautious man separates his mind from his body and spends the better part of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Provide it only as much as needed to preserve good health. Avoid excess. Consume as much plain drink as required to quench thirst, as much plain food as to quench hunger, the minimum clothes to protect you from the elements, a house sufficient to protect you from the weather.

Devote some days to eating as little as possible. Become familiar with the bare minimum needed to keep alive and healthy (so that if exile to a bare rock or sudden incarceration befall you, your body is ready for much reduced circumstances).

Don’t exercise to excess. Do as much as needed to keep healthy. Reserve your energy for cultivating the mind.

As to physical pleasures, avoid them like the plague; they enslave the body and then the mind.

  • Uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • First of all we must reject pleasures; they make men weak and effeminate and demand too much time and effort. (104.34)

Your house

Your house should be a size and contain only as much as needed to protect you from the elements. Despise ornament and decoration.

Possessions

Have as few as possible. ‘No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions.’ (18.13) Have them, but adopt a mindset where you could happily dispense with all of them, where they are all taken from you and you don’t care a jot, because you are secure in the untroubled citadel of your mind.

Enough

Don’t overdo it: don’t mortify your body, don’t insist on eating bread and water, living in a hut, neglecting your body, like the Cynics who, following Diogenes, set out to punish their bodies. Live comfortably and sensibly, just not to excess.

  • So correct yourself, take off your burdens and shrink your desires within a healthy limit. (104.20)

How to be content

And cultivate contentment by being happy with what you’ve got.

  • I will tell you how you can recognise the healthy man: he is content with himself. (72.7)
  • This is what philosophy will guarantee you, something which nothing surpasses: you will never be dissatisfied with yourself. (115.18)

Excess

Similar to his thoughts about suicide and anger, in that it sounds reasonable of Seneca to tell his follower not live to excess, but what Seneca has in mind is Roman excess, the off-the-scale lavishness and baroque luxury of the Roman emperors and the richest in the known world (as described in the letters from the fashionable resort of Baiae, 49, 51).

  • Too many amenities make the spirit effeminate…The stricter discipline of a simpler place strengthens the mind and makes it fit for great undertakings. (51.10-11)

The general point is not so much that indulgence is morally bad in itself: but that people enslave themselves by indulging the pleasures of the senses, deform their minds, make themselves into addicts, by coming to rely on excessive behaviour, on excessive drinking, excessive eating, excessive sex, excessive gambling.

It’s not so much that moderation is good in itself but that it stops you developing addictions and so becoming enslaved to them. Moderation leaves your mind free to focus on more important, ‘higher’ things. Moderation sets you free from all the snares of the senses.

That is why:

We ought to concentrate on escaping as far as possible from the provocations to vice. One’s mind must be hardened and dragged away from the enticements of pleasure. (51.5)

Anger

Quite apart from the letters, Seneca wrote no fewer than three treatises on anger. Fantham makes a really profound point about this which depends, again, on the profound difference between us and Roman society. This is that Roman emperors had complete power over all citizens, and all citizens had complete power over huge numbers of slaves. In this society an angry citizen could order his slave to be tortured or killed, just as an angry emperor could order anyone he fancied to be exiled, thrown into gaol, tortured or executed. Therefore controlling anger was much, much more important than it is in our society. Anger is not a good emotion with us but could have catastrophic consequences in Seneca’s world.

The mind

‘Nothing deserves admiration except the mind’ (9). The mind alone is worth cultivating. No other skills, activities, pastimes are worth cultivating.

  • Control your mind so as to bring it to perfection in the most calm condition, a mind which feels neither what is taken from it nor added to it, but keeps the same disposition however affairs turn out. (36.6)
  • A great and cautious man separates his mind from the body and spends much of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Moral behaviour

Imagine the most moral, honourable person you can. Then imagine they are watching everything you say or do.

Fear, anxiety, stress

All these are caused by worry that the worst is going to happen. Well, imagine the worst has happened. Live with the worst, imaginatively – prepare yourself for the worst. Once you dispel anxiety about unnamed and exaggerated fears, you can get rid of the panic and examine the issue rationally, restoring order and calm to the mind, allowing Reason to operate unhampered by over emotions.

Philosophy

Philosophy, for Seneca, isn’t the working out of a complex system or ideology: it is a psychological or spiritual practice. It is an exercise to attain an attitude, cultivated with the sole aim of making its practitioner mentally strong and resilient against tyranny, suffering and death.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds. It is not taken up to make sure the day passes with some enjoyment, to take the boredom out of leisure; it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done or avoided; it is seated at the helm and steers the course of those adrift among treacherous shoals. Without it no man can live without fear or anxiety; countless things occur each hour that need the advice which we must seek from philosophy. (16.3)

Philosophy may include technical aspects such as types of argument and syllogism (which he consistently ridicules and dismisses for its pedantry) but, far more importantly, Seneca sees ‘philosophy’ as a kind of mental fortress, a psychological redoubt:

So withdraw into philosophy as far as you may; she will protect you in her bosom and in her shrine you will be safe. (103.4)

In doing so, it can raise us above the level of mere mortals:

This is what philosophy promises me, to make me equal to a god. (48.11)

Slavery

As you might expect Seneca admonishes Lucilius to treat his slaves as equals because they are as human as you or I:

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47.10)

But, just as predictably, Seneca doesn’t actually recommend actually freeing them. (In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Juvenal’s Satires, Peter Green says this attitude was typical of Stoics: ‘[Juvenal] attacked wanton cruelty to slaves, but did not query the concept of slavery itself (another characteristically Stoic attitude.)] Introduction, page 23)

Letter 47 is fascinating for giving an extended description of the types of functions slaves performed in an aristocratic household and the brutal punishments they were liable to for the slightest infraction.

(It is a secondary consideration that in the long letter 90, a detailed list of the technical achievements and innovations which make up civilisation, Seneca despises them all and considers all of them – agriculture and irrigation and milling grain to make bread and architecture and glass windows and all the rest of it – only worthy of slaves and freedmen [who, apparently, largely made up the artisan class of Rome] and so far beneath an aristocrat like himself and his friend Lucilius. Aristocrats needed to rise above these slave occupations in order to practice the only thing worthwhile activity for humans, to cultivate the mind, perfect reason, acquire wisdom, so as to rise above passions and fear of death. That is the primary aim of the letter, but in order to make the point what comes over is a contempt for the artisan class, for engineers and innovators and craftsmen, which makes me dislike Seneca even more. His assumption is that all the achievements of the thousands of people who had perfected all aspects of civilisation and raised it to the luxurious heights of his day only matter insofar as they allow him to perfect his wonderful mind. It’s a privileged narcissism which is, in its own arrogant way, every bit as corrupt as the decadent court of the arch-egotist Nero.)

Self-help slogans

The book is stacked with improving and inspiring thoughts of the kind which have become over-familiar in the subsequent 2,000 years, particularly the last 50 years or so of self-help books.

  • I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. (2.1)
  • The best measure of wealth is to have what is necessary and the next best, is to have enough. (2.5)
  • The man at ease should take action, and the man at action should take ease. (5)
  • Who is well born? The man well set up by nature for virtue…it is the spirit that makes one noble. (44.5)
  • Nature made us teachable and gave us an imperfect reason but one which can be perfected. (50.11)

Although Seneca’s long porridgey paragraphs have the heavy feel of ‘philosophy’, the quality of the argumentation is often weak and many of the actual injunctions feel more like daytime TV, self-help guru-talk than Hegel or Hume. Once or twice he came close to the banal catchphrase mocked in the old TV sitcom, Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em: ‘Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.’

I rejoice that you are studying with perseverance and abandoning all else for this one thing, to make yourself a better man each day. (5.1)

Critique

As with all philosophy, and especially ‘moral’ philosophy, there is no end to the debate, discussion, critique and commentary which the Letters from a Stoic have spawned over the past 2,000 years. A handful of themes struck me:

1. Simplistic values

The most obvious, for me, is the extreme difference in the social context between Seneca and us and in particular his concept of negative life events. For Seneca a bad turn of events is an ever-present threat under the tyranny of imperial rule. It is associated with prison, torture, enslavement and all the other dire possibilities of life under arbitrary Roman emperors such as Nero. Thus there is a misleading simplicity to most of his meditations. When he imagines something bad, it’s being thrown into prison or tortured or executed by the emperor. The conception of negative life events which he uses to underpin his entire Stoic system is disconcertingly simple and extreme – exile, torture, death – and so the mental lesson he is teaching is concomitantly simplistic: prepare your mind to be strong and noble under torture or the threat of death (see the harping on about torture and death in letters 67 and 70).

But not many modern readers of the letters are going to have the same concerns – that they will thrown into prison, tortured or forced to commit suicide at the whim of a Roman emperor. The worst things I can imagine happening to me are: being in a life-changing accident i.e. becoming wheelchair-bound or having a stroke; being diagnosed with a terminal or life-changing illness; something bad happening to my loved ones, especially my children. But my day-to-day worries are more humdrum, recalcitrant, fiddly, frustrating: worried about my performance at work, this or that bit of the house needs maintenance, I’m worried about money, about not being able to pay my bills – fuel bills, heating bills, food bills.

I know Stoic thought can be applied to these modern circumstances i.e. I should try to cultivate mental detachment and resilience so I am ready to face bad events and rise above them. But the extremity and the simpleness of the situations Seneca describes and which form the basis of his entire philosophy (arbitrary arrest, torture, execution) rarely if ever occur in modern Western life and so all his much-repeated lessons rarely if at all apply to me. Modern life is more complex and multi-faceted than Seneca’s philosophy allows.

Seneca’s ‘philosophy’ is worth reading as an extremely vivid insight into the mindset of the Stoic classes during the tyranny of Nero but is, in my opinion, of limited use or value to modern readers leading modern lives.

2. Hypocrisy

I’ve just read Tacitus’s Annals where Seneca is described as being one of the richest men in Rome, with mansions as big as Nero’s and gardens even bigger, hundreds of servants, immense wealth in gold and assets. (In fact Seneca’s extreme wealth became proverbial to later generations: Juvenal’s tenth satire describes how Seneca, ‘grown too wealthy’ lost his magnificent gardens.) So it’s pretty ironic, knowing the man was a byword for obscene wealth, to read Seneca’s continual recommendation of the plain, simple life, eschewing pleasure and cultivating virtue. It’s easy advice for the ridiculously rich to give. The hypocrisy is summed up by a character in John Marston’s 1603 play, The Malcontent, which Watling quotes:

Out upon him! He writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure and died like an effeminate coward. (The Malcontent, Act 3, scene 1, line 28)

Not quite accurate (Seneca definitely did not die ‘like an effeminate coward’) but the first half, the epicure accusation, has force. This point was epitomised, for me, in a throwaway remark of Seneca’s in a letter which is intended to be about exercise and physical frailty:

I have just returned from my ride. I am just as tired as if I had walked as far as I have been sitting. It is an effort to be carried for a long time, and I rather think the effort is greater because riding is contrary to nature. (55.1)

It is an effort to be carried for a long time. (In a sedan chair, presumably.) Well, what about the slaves who were doing the carrying? Bet it was a bit of an effort for them, too. Seneca’s writings cannot escape from the taint of the astonishing level of privilege enjoyed by his class in general, and the extraordinarily privileged lifestyle enjoyed by him – according to Tacitus the richest man in Rome – in particular.

3. How Christians appropriated Stoic rhetoric

Many of the lessons Seneca spells out to Lucilius are very familiar from the long tradition of Western moralists, from Erasmus, through Montaigne, on into the Enlightenment and then diffused out into the broader culture by thousands of Victorian moralists.

My mum used to tell us kids, ‘Moderation in everything’. You don’t need to read Seneca to already know half of his nostrums and tags. I suggest that much of it seems so familiar because Stoic teachings were taken over wholesale by the early Christians and formed the basis of much Christian everyday morality. Obviously not the bits specific to Christian theology (the Fall, Original Sin, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection etc) but the fundamental theist worldview is often indistinguishable from Christianity:

  • No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions. (18.13)
  • God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. (41.1)
  • What is enough for God is not too little for masters. (47.18)
  • The place which God occupies in this universe is the place which mind occupies in man. (65.24)
  • God comes to men. Indeed, what is actually nearer, he comes into men. No mind is good without God. (73.16)
  • Whatever is good for us our God and father placed at hand. (110.10)

My point is that in the advice about day-to-day living, the Christians appropriated Stoic teachings so completely that the advice to Lucilius to cultivate the mind, avoid the crowd and their superficial entertainments, practice virtue, despise the knocks of Fortune and cultivate a contempt for death – all these are the familiar background hum of Christian morality, the subjects of hundreds of thousands of Sunday sermons and public lectures, recycled on radio phone-ins and daytime TV and millions of self-help columns in magazines and newspapers and books. Which explains why when we moderns come to read Seneca we are so rarely surprised and so often find his nostrums familiar and reassuring.

4. Repetition

Above all, like any good teacher, he repeats the same key points again and again, in different formulations, approached from different angles, but coming back again and again to the same fundamental idea: rise above the fortuitous events of your life; rise above all emotions and attachments; cultivate ‘philosophy’, which means a Buddhist detachment from everyone else and even from yourself; live with the idea of death so continually that it eventually presents no fears. And then you will have conquered yourself, your fear of death and you will be…free.

  • I am forcing my mind to focus on itself and not be distracted by outside events…The real calm is when a good state of mind unfolds. (56.6)
  • The wise man is full of joy, cheerful and calm, undisturbed. He lives on equal terms with the gods…The wise man’s mind is like the universe beyond the moon: there it is always fine and calm. (59.14)
  • Abandon those distractions which men have rushed to enjoy; abandon riches, which are either a danger or a burden to their possessors; leave the pleasures of body and mind, which soften and weaken you; abandon ambition, which is a bloated, hollow and windy condition with no limit. (84.11)
  • There is only one way the dawn can come: if a man takes in this knowledge of things human and divine and does not just sprinkle it over himself but but steeps himself in it; if he goes over the same things repeatedly (110.8)

But repetition is not argumentation. Despite Seneca using the word ‘philosophy’ all the time, this isn’t really philosophy at all. It is, as I’ve said, more like exhortation to a good frame of mind, moral uplift, encouragement to develop a tough attitude, therapy for the anxious, a self-help manual. And incredibly repetitive.

Unvexed by terrors and uncorrupted by pleasures we shall dread neither death nor the gods. We shall know that death is not an evil and the gods do not exist for evil. What harms us is as weak as what is harmed; the best things lack the power to harm. What awaits us, if we ever emerge from these dregs to the sublime and lofty region, is peace of mind and liberty free from the errors which have been driven out. What does that liberty consist of? Not fearing men or gods; wanting neither what is base nor excessive; having the greatest power over oneself. It is an incalculable good to become one’s own master. (75.17-18)

5. Family and friends

In nearly 300 pages of relentless insistence that we rise above all attachments and emotions, nowhere does he mention family (in just one letter, 104, he mentions his wife, Paulina).

Family was a very big thing indeed for noble Romans, so it’s a striking absence in the context of Seneca’s own time. But regarded as instructions for modern readers, his insistence on boiling your life right down to a relentless focus on cultivating your virtue and your indifference to death completely ignores the scores of relationships most people have in their lives, starting with their family.

Most modern therapy involves getting to grip with your childhood experiences and your relationship with your parents. But parents, spouses or children are completely absent from Seneca’s teachings. His Stoicism is an impressively selfish concern, in which he endlessly exhorts Lucilius to forget about everyone but himself, to focus on his own mind and anxiety of death etc, to think about no-one but me me me.

This makes his ‘philosophy’ inapplicable, in practice, to anyone who has parents, partners or children and really cares for them, is involved in their day-to-day wellbeing and, especially when it comes to children, to their little triumphs or setbacks. None of that for Stoic Seneca. He is in his study toughening up his mind by envisaging torture in every detail so as to be able to rise above it, when the time comes.

But it struck me that this deliberate ignoring of family sheds light on and helps to explain the humanistic obsession with friendship. Seneca’s letters on the importance of having one, key soulmate-level friend are one of the sources for the obsession with friendship which is a central theme of humanist writings from the 15th century onwards.

Friends know that they have everything in common…the true friendship which neither hope nor fear nor self-interest can sever, the friendship with which men die and for which they die. (6.2)

It’s possible to interpret this obsession with Perfect friendship as the Stoic replacing the messy, uncontrollable web of family relationships, with all its unpredictable ups and downs, with One Relationship with One Special Friend. To use the modern buzzword, it’s a very controlling approach. When you read the great humanist works on this subject (Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon) what comes over is that you are only going to meet one or two soulmates in your life and that you will become identical in interests and affections with this one special person. In a science fiction kind of way, you and the True Friend of humanist tradition will become one person.

So, to put it crudely, humanist teaching about friendship a) is a way of ducking the uncontrollable mess of family ties and responsibilities and b) ends up with you looking in a mirror. Solipsistic narcissism.

Horace

As Roman ‘moralists’ go, I prefer Horace. He’s lighter, funnier, his affable tone is more persuasive, more inspiring for me, than Seneca’s dour and relentless lecturing. Seneca sounds like the tutor he was:

I hereby order you to be slow in speaking. (40.14)

Whereas Horace sounds like a friend offering gentle advice:

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully…
(Horace, Odes, book 1, poem 9)

Seneca thinks of himself as embattled – quick! time is short! the enemy is at the door! focus on the essentials!

  • I am being besieged right now…the enemy is at our backs…I need a heroic spirit (49.9)
  • Fortune is waging war with me but I will not do what she orders, I will not accept the yoke. (51.8)
  • A real man prefers his sleep to be broken by a bugle than a chorus. (51.12)

This sense of the world as a battlefield, a fight, a struggle against countless enemies all trying to seduce your God-given soul, was inherited by Christianity. It dominates the letters of St Paul who wrote the most influential letters in Christendom, and used rhetoric similar to Seneca when he urged his followers to ‘fight the good fight’ (First letter to Timothy).

To understand Paul, we must grasp that he is at war, with the angels of heaven at his back. The Acts of the Apostles is, at its base, a power-struggle between Christ and Satan, wrenching whole peoples away from Satan’s grasp. (Jesus Walk Bible Studies)

In contrast to this worldview of unrelenting embattled paranoia, Horace writes a letter to a friend inviting him to come round and try the new wine they’ve just bottled on his estate. There’ll be other friends there, and they’ll stay up late together laughing and joking. Seneca’s remedy for the fickleness of human existence is to be continually, constantly thinking about death all the time.

Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable…Say to me when I lie down to sleep: ‘You may not wake again!’ And when I have waked: ‘You may not go to sleep again!’ Say to me when I go forth from my house: ‘You may not return!’ And when I return: ‘You may never go forth again!’

Well, you may win the lottery this weekend. You may run down the escalator and bump into the woman of your dreams. If you start speculating about things which may happen, the sky’s the limit. In which case – why focus only on the bad things which ‘may’ happen. Lovely things ‘may’ happen, too. Pondering Seneca’s use of the conditional to dwell only on the most extreme negative outcomes (torture, execution) makes the reader realise how much he is obsessed with the dark side of life, and so insists that we be brutally harsh with ourselves:

  • Cast out whatever desires are lacerating your heart and if they cannot be pulled out any other way then you must tear out your heart with them. In particular, uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • We believe pleasure is a moral failing…Pleasure is a shameful thing. (59.1-2)

What a stupid attitude. Horace has an equally frank acceptance of how time is limited and we are hurrying towards our deaths, but he draws the exact opposite conclusion, which is: carpe diem, enjoy the moment. Instead of considering yourself under siege from wicked temptations so that you have to harden your heart against all affection, think of life as a blessing, bless every moment it brings you, and savour the fleeting pleasures. Horace gets my vote.

Last word to Martial

Martial book 11, epigram 56, begins, in the translation by James Michie:

Because you glorify death, old Stoic,
Don’t expect me to admire you as heroic…

And ends ten lines later:

It’s easy to despise life when things go wrong;
The true hero endures much, and long.


Credit

Selected Letters of Seneca, translated and introduced by Elaine Fantham, was published as an Oxford University Press paperback in 2010. All quotes are from this edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Seneca’s Plays

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

Seneca’s biography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca’s tragedies

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

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

Watling’s critique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

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

Background

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

Act I

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

Act II

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

Act III

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

Act IV

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

Act V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Phaedra

Background

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

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

Prelude (Hippolytus)

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

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3

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

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

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

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

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

Act 4

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

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

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

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

Act 5

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Trojan Women

Background

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

Act 1

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

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

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

Act 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 4

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

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

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

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

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

Act 5

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

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

Thoughts

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

4. Oedipus

Background

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

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

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

Act 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3

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

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

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

Act 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moral of the story

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

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

Big ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

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

Related links

Roman reviews

The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus – 1

The more I think about history, ancient or modern, the more ironical all human affairs seem.
(Annals of ancient Rome by Tacitus, page 127)

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 to 120 AD)

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian and politician. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians. He held high official positions, being consul in 97 and governor of Anatolia in 113.

His two major works – the Annals and the Histories – cover the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus (14 AD) to the death of Domitian (96 AD), although there are substantial gaps in the surviving texts.

Saint Jerome stated that The Histories and Annals together amounted to 30 books. Scholars traditionally assign 16 books to the Annals and 14 books to the Histories. Of the 30 books mentioned by Jerome only about half have survived.

Three other, lesser works by Tacitus survive in their entirety:

  • a dialogue about oratory, in which two lawyers and two literary men discuss the claims of oratory against literature (published 102)
  • a study of Germany and the German tribes (the Germania, published about 98)
  • a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola (the Agricola, published about 98)

Incomplete

The Annals were Tacitus’s final work. The Histories, although published earlier, cover the later part of his period, from 68 to 96 AD. The Annals, though published later, cover the earlier period, from the end of the reign of Augustus, through those of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius and Nero, covering the years 14 to 68 AD, the year when Nero committed suicide.

But the absolutely key thing about the Annals is that half of them are missing. There are dirty great gaps in the narrative, big holes in the story.

We have the first part, a good continuous narrative from the end of Augustus’s reign (14) through most of Tiberius’s rule (14 to 37) in detail. But the text breaks off after the death of Tiberius and the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47) are missing. The narrative then resumes for the last seven or so years of Claudius (47 to 54) and the entire reign of Nero (54 to 68), at which point the narrative of the Annals connects with that of the Histories.

The best

Tacitus’s is the earliest and best account we have of this crucial period in western history. We do also possess the biographies of the first 12 emperors by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 to 122), Tacitus’s younger contemporary, which cover the exact same period and were published around 120 AD; and it’s true that Suetonius was an imperial secretary (to Hadrian) and so had access to imperial archives and was able to amass much curious and colourful material in his biographies. But Suetonius followed the conventions of his time in thinking ‘biography’ a much less serious genre than ‘history’ and so didn’t attempt the deeper analysis and wider scope which Tacitus achieves.

The other main source for this period is the Greek historian Lucius Cassius Dio (155 to 235) who wrote a vast history of Rome from its foundation up to his own time in no fewer than 80 volumes. But Michael Grant, the translator of the Penguin edition of the Annals, considers Dio ‘pedestrian’ and lacking ‘the imagination to grasp the affairs of the early empire’.

So although there are these two other sources, nonetheless Tacitus:

is the best literary source for the events of the early principate that we possess.

The purpose of history

Like everyone in the ancient world, Tacitus thought writing had a moral purpose. Grant’s introduction spends some time untangling the complicated relationship in Tacitus’s time between history, rhetoric and philosophy.

For a start all these genres – poetry, history, tragedy and comedy, eulogy and lyric poetry – were pioneered by the ancient Greeks. The Romans only began to copy these genres hundreds of years after the Greeks had brought them to a first perfection. (The first Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote his Histories about 430 BC, whereas the first Roman historian, Cato the Elder, wrote his Origines 250 years later, about 180 BC.)

Grant tells us that history, as a genre, grew out of poetry. First came Homer and Hesiod (700 BC?) and only centuries later, the first of the Greek historians – Thucydides b.460 and Herodotus b.430. For a very long time ‘history’ was regarded as a subsidiary form of literature.

This explains the elements of the dramatic found in Tacitus, for example the extended speeches he gives characters at various points which, scholars think, were almost all entirely invented by Tacitus. He attributed to leading characters in the narrative beautifully structured speeches which expressed the kinds of things they ought to have said at the most dramatic or pivotal moments.

And from the tradition of Greek tragedy comes an urge to make events seem tragic and terrible. You can feel this at moments in the narrative where, after trundling through a list of law cases and official appointments, Tacitus returns to the year’s activities of Tiberius or Nero and, suddenly, the narrative takes on a more colourful, sometimes stricken, tone, as he talks up the appalling reign of terror which Tiberius assembled or the terrible acts of the sadist and murderer Nero. You can almost hear him cranking up the horror. Which is why some scholars question whether things really were as bad under Tiberius and Nero as Tacitus claimed or whether some, at least, of the horror is included for dramatic effect.

Alongside drama went didacticism, the urge to teach and instruct, which grew, according to Grant, in popularity in the Greek world from the 4th century BC onwards. Tacitus takes a deeply moral line. He is concerned not only with recording everything which happened in a specific year, but giving his opinion about it.

Tacitus’s history is a succession of issues by which I mean a record of each year’s military campaigns, appointments of officials, promulgating of laws, prosecuting of officials or criminals, the character of particular officials (governors, generals, the emperors themselves) and so on – all of which Tacitus gives his opinion about. It is a very opinionated history.

Tacitus is in no doubt that the fundamental purpose of his writing is didactic. The aim of history is to teach men to know themselves better and behave better by showing them great examples – of good and terrible behaviour – from the past.

It seems to me a historian’s foremost duty to ensure that merit is recorded and to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciations.
(p.150; book 3, 64)

Which brings us to another massive topic, which is rhetoric, the art of persuasion, in writing and speaking. Rhetoric was the central element of the educational syllabus of the well-educated in the ancient world, and was explained in a stream of famous and complex manuals.

Thus a writer like Cicero, in his De legibus, says that history’s first concern may be recording the truth, but very close afterwards comes the need to a) persuade his audience and b) to sound well. This brings us back in a circle to history’s origins as a child of poetry. By Tacitus’s time it had travelled a long way from its parent but hadn’t shaken off the expectation that the historian would, as well as being a good researcher of facts, be an artist of prose.

Hence (to repeat a bit) the importance of the set-piece speeches Tacitus invented for his historical personages. The speeches are not only appropriate for the personage and the situation, they exploit the personage and the situation to put on a good show – in order to demonstrate the author’s skill at making a case, and to tickle the taste buds of the educated Roman audience who enjoyed savouring and judging well-made rhetoric and oratory.

Many of the set-piece passages in Tacitus were almost certainly written to be declaimed i.e. read aloud to an audience trained to its fingertips in the art of rhetoric, who would spot and appreciate the author’s various tricks and skills.

Conceived as accurate depictions of what actually happened, written in order to promote good behaviour and deprecate bad behaviour, Tacitus’s writings also had an interest in bringing out dramatic moments and presenting successive cases and arguments with all the skills of an orator. (For example, the passage in book 1, sections 7 to 10, where Tacitus puts the case for, and then the case against, Augustus’s achievements.) It’s a colourful, rich and often highly artistic combination.

Sententiae

Alongside and accompanying this overtly didactic aim, Tacitus from time to time throws in sententiae or pithy comments on history, society and human nature. these were a well-known part of his style and were quoted and excerpted for a millennium and a half afterwards. However, the modern reader may feel that, beneath their air of profundity, they are often strangely anodyne.

So the avenging of Germanicus ended. Contradictory rumours have raged around it among contemporaries and later generations alike. Important events are obscure. Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of errors are magnified by time. (p.128, book 3, section 18)

It would be easy to enjoy and dismiss the sententiae without realising their true significance. Tacitus is trying to understand human nature by stepping back and commenting on aspects of what he sees, which arise naturally from his subject matter (the origins of tyranny) or his researches (how very prone people are to believe all kinds of rumours and lies).

He is investigating the nature of what is remembered, and why, and how fictions so quickly arise to fulfil people’s expectations.

Sejanus, too much loved by Tiberius and hated by everyone else, passed for the author of every crime; and rumours always proliferate around the downfalls of the great. For such reasons even the most monstrous myths found believers…My own motive in mentioning and refuting the rumour has been to illustrate by one conspicuous instance the falsity of hearsay gossip, and to urge those who read this book not to prefer incredible tales – however widely current and readily accepted – to the truth unblemished by marvels.
(p.162, book 4, section 9)

Fairly obvious though they seem to us, these kinds of reflection on human nature and the psychology of society was much rarer in ancient times. Although they were to some extent expected in history as a genre, it is always fascinating to read these occasional insights, not into society as such, but into how ancient authors thought about their society and about social change.

No chapter markers

I read the Annals in the translation by Michael Grant published by Penguin in 1956. It is a clear, forceful translation making for an enjoyable read (if you like Roman and military history) but with one massive flaw. Most Roman texts were divided by the author into numbered sections which modern editors, not entirely accurately, often call ‘chapters’.

The Annals and Histories are divided into these numbered sections, which are themselves gathered into ‘books’. But Grant or his editor took the decision not to include these chapter numbers in the text, which is inconvenient. It would have been useful to know which book and which section various events occur in.

Robert Graves’s translation of Suetonius and Kenneth Wellesley’s translation of Tacitus’s Histories, both for Penguin, do keep the section numbers in –so that every other paragraph or so starts with a number – and this allows you to compare their texts with other translations available online by referring to these numbers. You can go straight to the precise section of the other translations and make comparisons very easily. And, when I quote a sentence or two in my blog, I can cite the precise section it occurs in, for everyone’s convenience.

You simply can’t do that with the Grant translation. The book number and chapter number are given in the header at the top of each page, but this covers all the contents of both pages and so is very imprecise, and leaves you having to guess which chapter number applies to a particular paragraph. Very irritating.

Annalistic

What is an annal, anyway? Merriam-Webster defines an annal as ‘a record of the events of one year’ and annals in the plural as a record of events arranged in a year-by-year sequence. Thus Tacitus proceeds, rather pedantically, a year at a time. This means he doesn’t describe long-running themes which ran over successive years, as a whole. Instead he tells you everything which happened in 14 AD. Then everything which happened in 15 AD. And so on.

Sources

1. Apparently, the initial scaffolding of the work was based on annual notices called the ‘Records of the Priests’. These were primarily religious in nature but since the Roman year was packed with celebrations and festivals a lot of the other business of the state (elections, wars, trials) began to be mentioned and then actively recorded in the Records. By the second century BC historians who used these sources had become known generally as the Annalists. They provide an obvious precedent for Tacitus’s work.

2. Tacitus also mentions searching ‘histories and official journals as part of his researches (p.120), a note from Grant telling us this latter refers to the acta diurna which began to be kept in the year of Julius Caesar’s first consulship (59 BC).

3. He also, like Suetonius, at some points refers to stories he himself heard from those alive at the time, and so gives a version of Piso’s eventual death ‘given by people who were alive when I was young’ (p.126).

4. And he balances the written record with hearsay, the oral tradition which is so often lost and so is valuable that Tacitus recorded:

In describing Drusus’ death I have followed the most numerous and reputable authorities. But I should also record a contemporary rumour, strong enough to remain current today…’ (p.163, book 4 section 10)

(This rumour was that Sejanus not only seduced Drusus’s wife, Livilla, into becoming his lover and helping him poison her husband, Drusus – but also seduced Drusus’ eunuch, Lygdus, to help in the conspiracy.)

Sallust

Grant sees the key figure in the Roman tradition before Tacitus as being Sallust, author of a lost history as well as studies of the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy, which have survived. Sallust was popular because of the drama and energy of his narratives, spliced with exciting speeches, most notably the long speeches he attributes to Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger in the Catiline conspiracy – combining artistry and rhetoric.

‘Next’

This explains why one of the key words in Grant’s translation is ‘next’. Tiberius did this. ‘Next’ x and y were installed as consuls for the year. ‘Next’ the Senate debated a motion to prosecute this or that governor. ‘Next’ there were rebellions by the following tribes on the following borders of the empire. ‘Next’ Tiberius announced a new policy to enforce z.

The summary of each year opens by naming the consuls for that year:

  • In the next year the consuls were Servius Cornelius Cetegus and Lucius Visellius Varro… (p.165)
  • In the following year the consuls were Cossus Cornelius Lentulus and Marcus Asinius Agrippa… (p.173)

And ends with a brief list of notable figures who died during it:

  • At the end of the year two notable Romans died… (p.134)
  • Two eminent men died this year…’ (p.155)

And so on. On one level it is a record of events which really is just ‘one damn thing after another’. As I got into the text I realised that, although broad chapter titles Grant assigns to big blocks of narrative (see below) are zippy and dramatic, it would make a lot more sense to layout the narrative by year, starting a new ‘chapter’ with each year to really bring out the year-by-year annalistic nature of the text.

By ‘everything’ I mean a fairly narrow, limited range of concerns. Tacitus frequently refers to his own researches in state records. The point being that his narrative appears to be based on the brief records which Roman officials had been keeping for centuries of a) appointments to the key magistracies; b) debates and decisions of the Senate, regarding new laws or the prosecution of leading figures for breaching various laws; c) military campaigns; d) important court cases, often the prosecution of provincial governors for corruption.

Tacitus lays out a list of these kinds of events for each year and then expands on them, giving further background where required, especially about the individuals concerned, their family and character, and explaining what happened in each instance. These kinds of things form what you could call the background hum of the narrative.

No social or economic history

There is very little about a subject which has become central to modern history, which is economics. The ancients had little or no understanding of economics. Like his peers, Tacitus will say ‘in this year there was a shortage of wheat or grain’ and that food prices went up or there was scarcity leading to riots, prompting the emperor to intervene and buy up huge amounts to be distributed cheaply to the population of Rome. But that’s about it.

And there’s nothing at all about the lives or experiences of the common people, except for occasional references to the mob or riots. It is very much a personal history of the very top echelons of society, the senatorial class and the so-called ‘knights’. And it is a moral history of their personal attitudes and behaviour.

The emperors

But laid over the top of the background hum of the year-to-year events is what you could call the juiciest element of the Annals, which is the cumulative portrait of the emperors being (since we lack Caligula altogether) Tiberius, Claudius and Nero.

The most famous biographer of this period, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 to 122) has left us, among copious other writings, a famous set of biographies of the first 12 emperors (Lives of the Caesars) which covers the exact same period as Tacitus’s Annals and Histories. The two works can be read side by side.

Suetonius’s biographies are relatively brief (40 or so pages in the Penguin translation). After a shortish chronological section detailing the objective historical events of their reigns, Suetonius moves onto personal aspects of his subjects, arranged like a PowerPoint presentation under specific headings (personal attributes, appearance, wives and offspring and so on) under which he groups facts or events to illustrate each of his topics. These often contain juicy gossip and quirky facts (such as Augustus’s distinctive birthmarks or his habit of wearing a big floppy hat when he went out to protect him from the sun) which make them pithy and memorable.

Tacitus, by contrast, presents us with one long continuous narrative. This means there is a great deal more content, especially in two particular areas: domestic policy and military campaigns.

Suetonius lists the aspects of the emperors and then illustrates them by anecdotes, jumping around place and time to provide evidence. Tacitus, by contrast, proceeds, in a slightly plodding way, through the key events of each year, as he’s derived them from studying the official records of the senate, the elections, the law courts etc. And out of this list of events grows his analysis of the emperor. The prosecution of this or that official brings out this side of the emperor. The handling of a military campaign highlights that side of his personality. And so on. Far more historical information.

Books and titles

As I’ve mentioned Grant doesn’t structure his narrative by the books and sections of the original text. Instead he creates his own ‘chapters’, giving them titles (which I’m pretty sure aren’t in the original). The aim is to add drama and give his narrative the feel of a novel. They are:

Part one: Tiberius

  1. From Augustus to Tiberius (book 1, sections 1 to 15)
  2. Mutiny on the Frontiers (book 1, sections 16 to 49)
  3. War with the Germans (book 1 section 49 to book 2 section 26)
  4. The First Treason Trials (book 2 sections 27 to 52)
  5. The Death of Germanicus (book 2 section 53 to book 3 section 19)
  6. Tiberius and the Senate (book 3 sections 19 to 76)
  7. ‘Partner of my labours’ (p.158) [about Sejanus] (books 4 and 5)
  8. The reign of terror (book 6)

Part two: Claudius and Nero:

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

Tiberius

Unlike sociable Augustus, Tiberius comes over as ‘profoundly secretive’ (p.140), ‘cryptic’ (p.143) ambiguous and unpredictable. In his introduction Grant points out that Tacitus attributes to Tiberius all the qualities of a villain of melodrama, the stock tyrant of ancient literature: he is portrayed as unjust, sensual, cruel and, above all, suspicious and cunning.

Livia

His mother, Augustus’s widow, Livia – who was given the ominous title ‘the Augusta’ – is, if anything, worse, a monster of malicious manipulation. It’s often difficult to spot the moment at which the transition takes place, but quite often, when reading about these two, you realise the text has turned into a pantomime and the audience is meant to be booing and hissing the baddies.

Germanicus

Every panto needs a hero and this deep tendency – to cast things into dramatic shape – explains the tremendous shininess with which the young prince, Germanicus, is depicted, Tacitus emphasising his graciousness, openness, honesty, his ability to get on with people and his great military victories in Germany, in order to contrast all of this with Tiberius’s negative versions of the same virtues, with Tiberius’s surliness, suspicion, duplicity, holing up in Rome (and then retirement to Capri).

Germanicus in Germany

In his notes Grant brings out something I had sensed or felt in the narrative but wasn’t sure about, which is that Germanicus’s campaigns in Germany (against the Cherusci, led by Arminius, the Chatti, the Marsi and other rebel tribes), dramatic and extended through they were, were ultimately an expensive waste of time resulting in no permanent conquests or treaties.

The most memorable part of these early books is Tacitus’s descriptions of the very hard-fought battles in the mud and undergrowth of the endless German forest and then, above all else, the terrific description of the huge storm in the North Sea which wrecked Germanicus’s fleet, which destroyed many ships and drowned many soldiers. Tacitus’s account has a Hollywood blockbuster feel to it (pages 87 to 88).

 The North Sea is the roughest in the world and the German climate the worst. The disaster was proportionately terrible – indeed, it was unprecedented. (p.87)

All the more horrifying that Tacitus presents the evidence for and against the widely held suspicion that Germanicus was poisoned by the governor of Syria, Cnaius Calpurnius Piso, where Germanicus had been sent to lead the military campaign in Armenia. (Germanicus dies on page 113, book 2 section 69, warning his wife against Tiberius’s malevolence.)

Tiberius’s decline

The headline story of Tiberius’s reign (14 to 37) is that it was in two parts. While he was finding his feet Tiberius was cautious and stuck to the letter of the law, abiding by all of Augustus’s decisions. But slowly, slowly, in a score of ways – through the way he managed and cowed the Senate, made appointments to the army, in his spiky relations with his biological son (Drusus) and adopted son (Germanicus), in his revival of the treason law (p.73) and encouragement of informers and spies (‘It was a sort of contagion, like an epidemic’, p.203), and especially on his growing reliance on the creepy figure of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, head of the Praetorian Guard – Tiberius became slowly more tyrannical.

Although the treason trials (for ‘crimes’ as trivial as swearing in the vicinity of a statue of Augustus) began as early as 16 (p.90), Tacitus cites 23 AD as the year when Tiberius’s rule began to deteriorate (p.159, book 4, section 3) and he is quite brutal in describing the total compliance which Tiberius created:

The impressiveness of the Republican facade only meant that the slave-state, which was to grow out of them, would be all the more loathsome. (p.77, 1.77)

Tiberius is so important to Tacitus because it was under him that the weakness and corruption of one-man rule became clear. Tiberius set the pattern that later autocrats and tyrants copied.

It was under Tiberius that freedom suffered its most fatal losses. (Grant, Introduction, p.21)

Augustus had spent half his life in the Republic and had the immense skill to retain a tactful facade of republicanism even as he took more and more control of things. And he was canny with people.

He seduced the army with bonuses and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. He attracted everybody’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials and even the law. (p.32, book 1 section 1)

Tiberius was high-minded and principled in many ways but lacked Augustus’s social and interpersonal skills. Cold and distant, he alienated people.

What Tiberius said, even when he did not aim at concealment, was – by habit or nature – always hesitant, always cryptic. (p.39, 1.10)

And had never known the republic. All he knew was his own wishes, which slowly became an unreliable guide to rule by and the result was a slow descent into a reign of terror. As he has a character say:

‘In spite of all his experience of public affairs, Tiberius was transformed and deranged by absolute power.’ (book 6, section 48)

As witnessed by the fact that it was widely believed that he conspired in the deaths of his adopted (and too popular) son, Germanicus (widely held to have commissioned Piso to poison him out in the Middle East) and then of his own son, Drusus, who Tacitus frankly claims was poisoned by Tiberius’s creature, Sejanus (p.161, book 4, section 6).

The first couple of books focus, memorably and vividly, on Germanicus’s campaigns in god-forsaken mud and forest of tribal Germany. But the institution Tacitus most analyses is the Senate, recording event after event, debates, and decisions, and consular elections, which step by step mark its descent into grovelling sycophancy towards the increasingly terrifying emperor. It is from Tacitus that we learn that Tiberius frequently left the Senate muttering, ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ (p.150)

Tiberius retires to Capri, 28 AD

Finally Tiberius quit the Italian mainland and, in 28 AD, retired to the island of Capri where he stayed holed up for the last 11 years of his life (he died in 37 AD, aged 77). He no longer attended the senate, as he had done assiduously, or the law courts, as he had done, inspiring fear and intimidation. Now all government business was conducted by letter.

Access to him was harder now. It was only procurable by intrigue and complicity. (p.194)

Tacitus thinks he did it partly to get away from his nagging mother, Livia, partly because he genuinely found the daily task of attending the senate or the law courts and so on gruelling. And partly to indulge the sensual lusts and perversions which became harder to control as he aged.

For his criminal lusts shamed him. Their uncontrolled activity was worthy of an oriental tyrant. Free-born children were his victims. He was fascinated by beauty, youthful innocence, and aristocratic birth. New names for types of perversions were invented. (p.200 cf p.202)

And so on. More details are given in Suetonius’s deliberately scandalous Life of Tiberius.

Death of Livia, 29 AD

She was a compliant wife to Augustus but an overbearing mother to Tiberius. Tacitus thinks part of his motivation in retiring to Capri was to be free of her endless nagging. (That and his wish to indulge his disreputable personal behaviour.) With her death Tiberius’s restraint was thrown to the wind.

Now began a time of sheer crushing tyranny. (p.196)

Tiberius and Sejanus began to persecute Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina (the Elder). He sent a letter to Rome denouncing her and her son, Nero Caesar, Tiberius’s daughter-in-law and grandson.

Here there is a gap in the text covering two years. During those key years, first Agrippina (Germanicus’s widow), Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar (her young sons) were exiled, and Nero Caesar died. More seismically, Tiberius began to suspect his right-hand man, Sejanus, instrumental in so many plots against his enemies, to be conspiring against Tiberius himself. So Tiberius had him arrested in the senate and executed. At which point Sejanus’s divorced wife revealed to Tiberius that it was Sejanus and his lover Livilla (Drusus’s own wife) who had conspired to poison Drusus (Tiberius’s son). After this was revealed Livilla died, either killing herself or executed.

The fall of Sejanus was brutal but so was the aftermath. Previously consuls and senators and aristocrats had vied with each other to fall in with the emperor’s henchman to curry favour. Now all that arse-licking came to be regarded in a diametrically opposite light and many who had associated with Sejanus were now accused of being part of his plot to overthrow the emperor.

Frenzied with bloodshed, the emperor now ordered the execution of all those arrested for complicity with Sejanus. It was a massacre. Without discrimination of sex or age, eminence or obscurity, there they lay, strewn about – or in heaps. (p.209)

With great brutality Sejanus’s two young children were executed. Tacitus reports that, since capital punishment for a virgin was forbidden, she was first raped by the public executioner, then garotted. Both their bodies were then thrown onto the Gemonian steps (where the bodies of criminals and the disgraced were thrown in ignominy; p.199).

The deaths Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina the Elder (p.212) and then of two of her children: Nero Julius Caesar was accused of treason, declared by the senate an enemy of the state, banished to the island of Pontia where he was either killed or encouraged to kill himself in 31.

His brother, Drusus Caesar, Tiberius’s grandson was accused by Cassius Severus of plotting against Tiberius. He was imprisoned and confined to a dungeon on the Palatine in 30. He starved to death in prison in 33 after, according to Tacitus, being reduced to chewing the stuffing of his mattress.

This left young Gaius as their only surviving brother and at an early age he was sent to be Tiberius’s companion on Capri. Here he learned thorough-going debauchery from the old man and how to recognise and manage his moods. He was to succeed Tiberius on the latter’s death in 37 and is known to history by his nickname, Caligula.

The long description of Tiberius ends with ever-increasing terror, with scores of senators and knights accused of all kinds of crimes and queuing up to commit suicide. Tacitus describes Rome as awash with blood and piled with bodies which must have been an exaggeration. But it felt like that to those who lived through it.

Gaius Vibius Marsius is accused of adultery and decides to starve himself to death. Tacitus gives him a grim speech explaining to his friends that he doesn’t want to hang on the last few weeks until the obviously ill emperor dies, because he prophesies that the reign of Tiberius’s successor will be even worse (p.225).

The deaths of Nero Julius Caesar and his brother, Drusus Caesar left Tiberius Gemellus, the son of Drusus and Livilla, the grandson of the Emperor Tiberius, as hair. In 35 Gemellus, along with his cousin Gaius, were named joint-heirs by Tiberius. Upon Tiberius’s death in March 37, Gaius assumed the throne and had Gemellus killed (or forced to kill himself) in late 37 or early 38.

Degenerate times

Tacitus shares the universal belief among all ancient writers that the world was going to the dogs and that the age they were living in was witness to unprecedented degeneracy. Decline and fall. Sallust complained about the degenerate times he was describing in the 50s BC and Tacitus expresses exactly the same feeling 150 years later.

I am aware that much of what I have described, and shall describe, may seem unimportant and trivial. But my chronicle is quite a different matter from histories of early Rome. Their subjects were great wars, cities stormed, kings routed and captured. Or, if home affairs were their choice, they could turn freely to conflicts of consuls with tribunes, to land- and corn-laws, feuds of conservatives and commons. Mine, on the other hand, is a circumscribed, inglorious field. Peace was scarcely broken – if at all. Rome was plunged in gloom, the ruler uninterested in expanding the empire. (p.173, book 4, section 31)

The futility of tyranny

As part of the general reign of terror and intimidation of every form of free speech and opinion, in 25 the historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus was charged with, in his Histories, praising Brutus and describing Cassius as ‘the last of the Romans’. Cremutius put up a stirring defence in the senate (probably another speech invented by Tacitus), went home and starved himself to death. Which prompts Tacitus to reflect:

The senate ordered his books to be burned by the aediles. But they survived, first hidden and later republished. This makes one deride the stupidity of people who believe that today’s authority can destroy tomorrow’s memories. On the contrary, repressions of genius increase its prestige. All that tyrannical conquerors, and imitators of their brutalities, achieve is their own disrepute and their victims’ renown.
(p.175, book 4, section 35)

Tacfarinas


Credit

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

Related link

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The Life of Claudius by Suetonius

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the fourth Roman emperor. Born in 10 BC, Claudius ruled from the assassination of his predecessor Caligula, in 41, until his own death in 54, a total of 13 years.

Claudius was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus (38 to 9 BC) and Antonia the Younger, the younger of two surviving daughters of Mark Antony and Octavia the Elder. He was born at Lugdunum (modern-day Lyons) in Roman Gaul, where his father was stationed as a military legate.

In his boyhood Claudius suffered an illness which left him with a limp and slight deafness. This led to him being ostracised by his family and excluded from public office (unlike most of his male relatives he didn’t hold any public office until he was allotted a consulship when his nephew became emperor in 37).

It was probably these infirmities which saved his life. Under the reigns of terror instituted by Tiberius (14 to 37) and Caligula (37 to 41) most of his extended family was executed. Claudius, by contrast, was not seen as a serious threat. In his Life of Caligula, Suetonius states that Caligula kept Claudius around as a laughing-stock (Caligula, chapter 23). When, to his own amazement, he was selected by the Praetorian Guard to replace Caligula, Claudius was the last surviving adult male of his family.

Claudius ruled effectively, though under continual threat from restive nobles. It was under Claudius that Britain was first invaded, conquered and settled by the Romans. (Julius Caesar had made a couple of brief incursions in 55 and 54 BC, fought a few battles then departed, leaving no lasting impact.)

When Claudius died at the age of 63, it was widely rumoured that he’d been poisoned by his fourth wife, Agrippina the Younger. Agrippina wanted to secure the succession for her son, Lucius Domitius, whom Claudius had, at her bidding, adopted, before Claudius’s biological son (Britannicus) by his third wife (Messalina) could come of age. So Nero ascended the throne and the next year, 55, Britannicus died aged just 13, and all sources agree he was poisoned on Nero’s orders.

Suetonius’s life of Claudius

Roman texts were divided into short sections, sometimes called ‘chapters’ though most are less than a page long. Suetonius’s biography of the emperor Claudius is 46 sections long.

1. Claudius’s father, Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus (38 to 9 BC), also called Drusus the Elder, was the son of Livia Drusilla. He was born just three months after her marriage to Augustus (i.e. Augustus married her when she was 6 months pregnant by her first husband, who he forced her to divorce – unless the child was Augustus’s all along, and he had been sleeping with Livia while she was married).

Drusus was a successful general, in charge of the war in Raetia and later in Germany, the first Roman general to sail the northern Ocean, and responsible for building the huge canals which bear his name to this day. He was awarded an ovation with the triumphal regalia and was named consul, but after he returned to his summer camp in northern Gaul, he died, aged just 29. His body was brought back to Rome amid widespread mourning, he was given a marble arch on the Appian Way, and the surname Germanicus for himself and his descendants.

He made no secret of wanting to restore the old republican form of government whenever possible.

Some think that this prompted the enmity of Augustus and even accuse Augustus of having him poisoned. But Suetonius thinks this unlikely because there is plenty of evidence that Augustus loved him dearly, named him joint-heir along with his (adopted) sons, and eulogised him warmly after his death.

Drusus had several children by the younger Antonia, but was survived by only three, Germanicus, Livilla and Claudius.

2. At birth, Claudius’s name was Tiberius Claudius Drusus. Later, on the adoption of his elder brother Germanicus into the Julian family, he took over the surname Germanicus.

Claudius lost his father when he was a baby and throughout his childhood and youth he suffered so severely from various obstinate disorders that the vigour of both his mind and his body was dulled, so that he was not thought capable of any public or private business.

For a long time, even after he reached the age of manhood, he remained in the charge of a guardian. Later Claudius complained that this man was a barbarian and a former chief of muleteers, whose sole purpose was punishing severely for any cause of all.

It was because of poor health that Claudius wore a cloak when he presided at the gladiatorial games which he and his brother gave in honour of their father. Such was the family’s embarrassment of him that on the day when he assumed the gown of manhood, instead of processing to the Capitol in a public procession, he was taken there in a litter in the middle of the night, with no escort.

3. Claudius early was interested in the liberal arts and published works in many genres. But he could not attain any public position.

His mother Antonia often called him ‘a monster of a man, a man Nature had begun but not finished’ and if she ever accused anyone of dullness, she used to say that they were ‘an even bigger fool than my son Claudius.’

Claudius’s grandmother, Augusta, always treated him with the utmost contempt, very rarely speaking to him, and reproving him in short, bitter letters.

When his sister Livilla heard that he would one day be emperor, she openly and loudly prayed that the Roman people would be spared such a cruel and undeserved fate.

4. Suetonius then quotes extensively from letters by Augustus to Livia saying something must be done about ‘the Claudius problem’, namely that his lack of soundness of mind and body risked making the entire imperial family a laughing stock. However, his letters also suggest that, when he had a quit chat with Claudius, he was surprised how sensible and dignified he was.

‘How in the world anyone who is so unclear in his conversation can speak with such clearness and propriety when he declaims, is more than I can understand.’

In the event, Augustus left him invested with no office other than the augural priesthood and didn’t even name him as one of his heirs, save in the third degree​, and to a sixth part of his estate – among relatives so distant as to be virtual strangers.

5. When Claudius’s paternal uncle, Tiberius, assumed the throne, he gave him the consular regalia but refused to give him any other office.

So Claudius abandoned all hope of advancement and gave himself up to idleness, living sometimes in his house and gardens in the suburbs, sometimes at a villa in Campania. He hung out with the lowest of men and incurred criticism for drunkenness and gambling.

Yet somehow he retained the respect of the nobility and the public.

6. The equestrian order twice chose Claudius as their patron, to head a deputation on their behalf. They used to rise when he appeared at the public shows and put off their cloaks. The senate voted that he be made a special member of the priests of Augustus, who were usually chosen by lot. When he later lost his house by fire, the senate voted that it should be rebuilt at the public expense.

When Tiberius died (in 37) he named Claudius only among his heirs in the third degree, to a third part of his estate, although he did give him a legacy of about two million sesterces, and expressly commended him besides to the armies and to the senate and people of Rome.

7. It was only when his nephew, Caligula, came to power, that his uncle Claudius was awarded any significant office. Caligula made him consul, though admittedly only for two months.

It chanced that as he entered the Forum for the first time with the fasces, an eagle that was flying by alighted on his shoulder.

He was allotted a second consul­ship, to be held four years later, and several times he presided at the shows in place of Caligula, and was greeted by the people with cries of ‘Success to the emperor’s uncle!’ and with ‘All hail to the brother of Germanicus!’

8. None of which saved Claudius from constant insults. He’d arrive at dinner to find no place for him and have to wander round the dining-room. Whenever he went to sleep after dinner, which was a habit of his, he was pelted with the stones of olives and dates.

9. But Claudius also faced real dangers. He was almost deposed from his first consulship when he was slow in setting up statues of the emperor’s brothers, of Nero and Drusus.

After the conspiracy of Lepidus and Gaetulicus was discovered he was sent to Germany as one of the envoys to congratulate the emperor, but Caligula was furious that his uncle of all men had been sent to him, as if he were a child in need of a guardian. Some say Caligula had Claudius thrown into the river, clothes and all.

In the Senate he was humiliated by being ranked last to have his opinion asked.

10. Having spent most of his life putting up with humiliations like this, Claudius became emperor in his fiftieth year by a freak of fortune. When Caligula’s assassins shut out the crowd under pretence that the emperor wished to be alone, Claudius was ousted with the rest and withdrew to an apartment called the Hermaeum. When rumour of the assassination spread Claudius hid behind the curtains on a nearby balcony.

As he cowered there, a common soldier, who was prowling about at random, saw his feet and, intending to ask who he was, pulled him out. But when Claudius fell at his feet in terror, he was astonished when the soldier hailed him as emperor.

Then he took him to the rest of his comrades who were angry, confused and didn’t know what to do. These placed him in a litter and carried him to the army camp in a state of despair and terror. Here he spent the night among the sentries, full of doubt because the consuls, the senate and the city cohorts had taken possession of the Forum and the Capitol, and were determined to restore the republic.

When he was summoned to the Senate by the tribunes to give his advice on the situation, he sent word that he was being detained by force. But the Senate lost its chance by prevarication and argument among factions while the people, standing outside, called for one ruler and expressly named Claudius.

Learning of this, Claudius allowed the assembly of the soldiers to swear allegiance to him, and promised each man fifteen thousand sesterces. In doing so he was the first of the Caesars who resorted to bribery to secure the loyalty of the troops.

11. The first thing Claudius did was pass an act of oblivion for everything done and said in the confusion after the assassination, except for executing a few of the tribunes and centurions who he learned had called for his own death.

He then set about venerating the memories of his grandmother Livia and Augustus. He inaugurated annual games on his father’s birthday and for his (dead) mother a carriage to bear her image through the Circus and the surname of Augusta, which she had declined during her lifetime.

He took every opportunity of honouring his (dead) brother, Germanicus. He completed the marble arch to Tiberius near Pompey’s theatre, which had been voted some time before by the senate, but left unfinished.

He annulled all the acts of Caligula.

12. Claudius was modest and unassuming, refraining from taking the forename Imperator, refusing excessive honours, and passing over the betrothal of his daughter and the birthday of a grandson in with merely private ceremonies.

He recalled no one from exile except with the approval of the senate. He asked the consuls for permission to hold fairs on his private estates. He often appeared as one of the advisers at cases tried before the magistrates. When games were held he rose with the rest of the audience and showed his respect by acclamations and applause.

When the tribunes of the commons appeared before him as he sat upon the tribunal, he apologised to them because for lack of room he could not hear them unless they stood up.

By such conduct he won love and devotion in a short time. When it was erroneously reported that he had been ambushed and killed on a journey to Ostia, it triggered a riot and outpouring of anger against the senate and soldiers, until witnesses were brought to the rostra to assure the people that Claudius was safe.

13. Yet Claudius’s rule saw many threats: he was attacked by individuals, by a conspiracy, and finally by a civil war.

A commoner was caught near his bed-chamber in the middle of the night, dagger in hand. Two members of the equestrian order were found lying in wait for him in public places, one ready to attack him with a sword-cane as he came out of the theatre, the other with a hunting knife as he was sacrificing in the temple of Mars.

Asinius Gallus and Statilius Corvinus, grandsons of the orators Pollio and Messala, conspired to overthrow him, aided by a number of his own freedmen and slaves. [When you consider how wise and just Augustus was, and yet the final years of his rule were clouded by conspiracies, you realise there will always be men who want to overthrow the existing regime, for whatever purpose.]

The civil war was set on foot by Furius Camillus Scribonianus, governor of Dalmatia but his rebellion was put down within five days, since the legions which had changed their allegiance were turned from their purpose by superstitious fear for when the order was given to march, by some chance the eagles could not be adorned​ nor the standards pulled up and moved.

14. Claudius held four consul­ships in addition to his original one under Caligula. He administered justice most conscientiously both as consul and when out of office, even on his own anniversaries and those of his family, and sometimes even on festivals of ancient date and days of ill-omen.

He did not always follow the letter of the laws, but modified their severity or lenity in many cases according to his own notions of equity and justice; for he allowed a new trial to those who had lost their cases before private judges by demanding more than the law prescribed, while, overstepping the lawful penalty, he condemned to the wild beasts those who were convicted of especially heinous crimes.

15. In hearing and deciding cases​ Claudius showed a strange inconsistency of temper, for he was now careful and shrewd, sometimes hasty and inconsiderate, occasionally silly.

When a woman refused to recognise her son, the evidence on both sides was conflicting, he forced her to admit the truth by ordering her to marry the young man.

Whenever one party to a suit was absent, he was prone to decide in favour of the one who was present, without considering whether his opponent had failed to appear through his own fault or from a necessary cause.

On a man’s being convicted of forgery, someone cried out that his hands ought to be cut off, whereupon Claudius insisted that an executioner be summoned at once with knife and block.

In a case involving citizen­ship a fruitless dispute arose among the advocates as to whether the defendant ought to make his appearance in the toga​ or in a Greek mantle, and the emperor, with the idea of showing absolute impartiality, made him change his garb several times, according as he was accused or defended.

By such acts as these he so discredited himself that he was held in general and open contempt.

Suetonius drops in another personal anecdote, saying that he himself used to hear older men say that the pleaders took such advantage of Claudius’s good-nature, that they would not only call him back when he left the tribunal, but would catch hold of the fringe of his robe, and sometimes of his foot, and thus detain him.

Suetonius says it is a widely known story that a Roman knight who was tried on charge of improper conduct towards women cooked up by his enemies, upon seeing common prostitutes brought as witnesses against him, hurled his stylus and tablets in the emperor’s face with such force as to cut his cheek badly. [Suetonius doesn’t say whether he was punished for this outburst.]

16. Claudius also assumed the censor­ship which had long been discontinued, but in this office too he was variable and both his theory and his practice were inconsistent.

In his review of the knights he left off a young man of evil character on his own judgement. Another who was notorious for corruption and adultery he merely admonished to be more restrained. He removed the mark of censure affixed to one man’s name, at the request of his friends, but insisted that the mark of erasure remain visible. He struck from the list of jurors a man of high birth, a leading citizen of the province of Greece, because he did not know Latin, and even deprived him of the rights of citizen­ship. And he degraded many, some contrary to their expectation and on the novel charge that they had left Italy without consulting him and obtaining leave of absence.

When he attempted to degrade more he discovered that the snooping of his spies was often careless, because those he accused of celibacy, childlessness or lack of means were able to prove that they were married, or fathers or well-to‑do.

17. Claudius waged only one military campaign and that of little importance. When the senate voted him the triumphal regalia, thinking the honour beneath the imperial dignity and desiring the glory of a legitimate triumph, he chose Britain as the best place for gaining it, a land that had been attempted by no one since the Deified Julius and was just at that time in a state of rebellion because of the refusal to return certain deserters.​

He led a force across the Channel and, without any battle or bloodshed, received the submission of a part of the island, returned to Rome within six months after leaving the city, and celebrated a triumph of great splendour.

18. Claudius always gave scrupulous attention to the care of the city and the supply of grain. On the occasion of a serious fire he paid the common people to work to put it out with his own money. When there was a bread shortage, he was caught by the mob and pelted with bread and abuse so that, from that moment on, he used every possible means to bring grain to Rome.

20. The public works which Claudius completed were great and essential rather than numerous. He completed an aqueduct begun by Caligula. He built an outlet of Lake Fucinus which was three miles in length, partly by levelling and partly by tunnelling a mountain, a work of great difficulty and requiring eleven years, although he had 30,000 men at work all the time without interruption.

He brought to the city on stone arches the cool and abundant founts of the Claudian aqueduct, one of which is called Caeruleus and the other Curtius and Albudignus, and at the same time the spring of the new Anio, distributing them into many beauti­fully ornamented pools.

He constructed the harbour at Ostia by building curving breakwaters on the right and left, while before the entrance he placed a mole in deep water. To give this mole a firmer foundation, he first sank the ship in which the great obelisk​ had been brought from Egypt, and then securing it by piles, built upon it a very lofty tower after the model of the Pharos at Alexandria, to be lighted at night and guide the course of ships.

21. Claudius very often distributed largess to the people. He also gave several splendid shows, some of a new kind and some revived from ancient times.

He opened the games at the dedication of Pompey’s theatre, which he had restored when it was damaged by a fire.

He also celebrated secular games,​ alleging that they had been given too early by Augustus and not reserved for the regular time.

He often gave games in the Vatican Circus, with a beast-baiting between every five races. The Great Circus he adorned with barriers of marble and gilded goals,​ whereas before they had been of tufa and wood, and assigned special seats to the senators, who had been in the habit of viewing the games with the rest of the people.

In addition to the chariot races he exhibited the game called Troy and also panthers, which were hunted down by a squadron of the praetorian cavalry under the lead of the tribunes and the prefect himself. And Thessalian horsemen who drive wild bulls all over the arena, leaping upon them when they are tired out and throwing them to the ground by the horns.

He gave many gladiatorial shows: one in yearly celebration of his accession, and one in the Saepta of the usual kind; another not in the regular list, short and lasting but a few days, to which he was the first to apply the name of sportula,​ because he proclaimed that he invited the people ‘as it were to an extempore meal, hastily prepared.’

He was familiar with the people, regularly addressing the audience and urging them to merriment, interspersing feeble jokes.

When he had granted the wooden sword​ to an essedarius for whose discharge four sons begged, and the act was received with loud and general applause, he at once circulated a note, pointing out to the people how greatly they ought to desire children, since they saw that they brought favour and protection even to a gladiator [an interesting commentary on the ongoing need to keep Rome’s population up which had so bothered Augustus 50 years earlier].

He staged a sea battle on the Fucine lake between a Sicilian and a Rhodian fleet, each numbering twelve triremes. The signal to commence was sounded on a horn by a silver Triton, which was raised from the middle of the lake by a mechanical device.

22. Claudius corrected various abuses, revived some old customs or even established new ones. He scrupulously observed the custom of having the praetor call an assembly and proclaim a holiday whenever there was an earthquake within the city, as well as that of offering up a supplication whenever a bird of ill-omen was seen on the Capitol.

23. The courts previously sat in a winter and a summer season; Claudius made them sit continuously.

He made a law that those who were banished from a province by its magistrates should also be debarred from Rome and from Italy. He created a new punishment whereby some were forbidden to go more than three miles outside of the city.

24. Claudius obliged the college of quaestors to give a gladiatorial show in place of paving the roads, then, depriving them of their official duties at Ostia and in Gaul, he restored to them the charge of the treasury of Saturn,​ which had in the meantime been administered by praetors, or by ex-praetors, as in our time.

He gave the triumphal regalia to Silanus, his daughter’s affianced husband, who was still a boy, and conferred them on older men so often and so readily, that a joint petition was circulated in the name of the legions,​ praying that those emblems be given the consular governors at the same time with their armies, to prevent their seeking pretexts for war.

25. Claudius rearranged the military career of the knights, assigning a division of cavalry after a cohort, and next the tribunate of a legion. He also instituted a series of military positions and a kind of fictitious service, which is called ‘supernumerary’ and could be performed in absentia and in name only.

When certain men were exposing their sick and worn out slaves on the Island of Aesculapius​ because of the trouble of treating them, Claudius decreed that all such slaves were free, and that if they recovered, they should not return to the control of their master; but if anyone preferred to kill such a slave rather than to abandon him, he was liable to the charge of murder.

Those who usurped the privileges of Roman citizen­ship he executed in the Esquiline field.​ He restored to the senate the provinces of Achaia and Macedonia, which Tiberius had taken into his own charge. He deprived the Lycians of their independence because of deadly intestine feuds, and restored theirs to the Rhodians, since they had given up their former faults.

He allowed the people of Ilium perpetual exemption from tribute, on the ground that they were the founders of the Roman race.

Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.

He allowed the envoys of the Germans to sit in the orchestra, led by their naïve self-confidence; for when they had been taken to the seats occupied by the common people and saw the Parthian and Armenian envoys sitting with the senate, they moved of their own accord to the same part of the theatre, protesting that their merits and rank were no whit inferior.

He abolished the cruel and inhuman religion of the Druids among the Gauls, which under Augustus had merely been prohibited to Roman citizens. He tried to transfer the Eleusinian rites from Attica to Rome.

In this and many other acts he acquired the reputation of being dictated to by his wives and freedmen, since he nearly always acted in accordance with their interests and desires.

26. Claudius had four wives. He was betrothed several times before marrying Plautia Urgulanilla, whose father had been honoured with a triumph. Then Aelia Paetina, daughter of an ex-consul. He divorced both these, Paetina for trivial offences, Urgulanilla because of her scandalous lewdness and the suspicion of murder.

Then he married Valeria Messalina, daughter of his cousin Messala Barbatus. But when he learned that, besides other shameful and wicked deeds, she had bigamously married Gaius Silius, he put her to death and declared before the praetorian guard that, because his marriages did not turn out well, he would remain a widower.

Nonetheless, he toyed with marrying Paetina, whom he had formerly discarded, or Lollia Paulina, who had been the wife of Caligula.

But his affections were finally captured by Agrippina, daughter of his brother Germanicus and so, at the next meeting of the senate, he sponsored some senators to propose that he be compelled to marry Agrippina ‘for the interest of the State’, and he married her with hardly a single day’s delay.

27. He had children by three of his wives: by Urgulanilla, Drusus and Claudia; by Paetina, Antonia; by Messalina, Octavia and a son, at first called Germanicus and later Britannicus.

He lost Drusus just before he came to manhood, for he was strangled by a pear which he had thrown into the air in play and caught in his open mouth. A few days before this he had betrothed him to the daughter of Sejanus. Claudia was the offspring of his freedman Boter, and although she was born within five months after the divorce​ and he had begun to rear her, yet he ordered her to be cast out naked at her mother’s door and disowned.

He gave Antonia in marriage to Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later to Faustus Sulla, both young men of high birth, and gave Octavia to his stepson Nero, after she had previously been betrothed to Silanus.

Britannicus was born on the twenty-second day of his reign and in his second consul­ship.​ When he was still very small, Claudius would often take him in his arms and commend him to the assembled soldiers, and to the people at the games, holding him in his outstretched hands to the applauding crowd.

Of his sons-in‑law he adopted Nero; Pompeius and Silanus he not only declined to adopt, but put to death.

28. Suetonius lists some of Claudius’s favourite freedmen. Most of all he was devoted to his secretary Narcissus and his treasurer Pallas, and he gladly allowed them to be honoured in addition by a decree of the senate, not only with immense gifts, but even with the insignia of quaestors and praetors. He permitted them to amass such wealth by plunder, that when he once complained of the low state of his funds, the witty answer was made that he would have enough and to spare, if he were taken into partner­ship by his two freedmen.

29. Suetonius repeats the claim that Claudius was wholly under the control of these freedmen and his wives, playing the part, not of a prince, but of a servant lavishing honours, the command of armies, pardons or punishments, as they wishes.

It was at their wishes that he put to death his father-in‑law Appius Silanus and the two Julias, daughters of Drusus and Germanicus, on an unsupported charge and giving them no opportunity for defence. Also Gnaeus Pompeius, the husband of his elder daughter, and Lucius Silanus who was betrothed to his younger one.

He inflicted the death penalty on 35 senators and more than 300 Roman knights with such indifference, that when a centurion in reporting the death of an ex-consul said that his order had been carried out, he replied that he had given no order; but he nevertheless approved the act, since his freedmen declared that the soldiers had done their duty in hastening to avenge their emperor without instructions.

30. Claudius possessed majesty and dignity of appearance, but only when he was standing still or sitting, and especially when he was lying down; for he was tall but not slender, with an attractive face, becoming white hair, and a full neck.

But when he walked, his weak knees gave way under him (in 21 Suetonius describes it as ‘his ridiculous tottering gait’).

He had many disagreeable traits: his laughter was unseemly and his anger still more disgusting for he would foam at the mouth and trickle at the nose. He stammered and his head was very shaky at all times, but especially when he made the least exertion.

31. Though before ascending the throne Claudius’s health had been bad, it was excellent while he was emperor, except for attacks of heartburn, which he said all but drove him to suicide.

32. Claudius gave frequent and grand dinner parties, as a rule in spacious places, where 600 guests were often entertained at one time.

He gave a banquet close to the outlet of the Fucine Lake and was well-nigh drowned, when the water was let out with a rush and deluged the place.

He always invited his own children to dinner along with the sons and daughters of distinguished men, having them sit at the arms​ of the couches as they ate, after the old time custom.​

He is even said to have considered an edict allowing the privilege of breaking wind quietly or noisily at table, having learned of a man who ran some risk by restraining himself through modesty.

33. Claudius was eager for food and drink at all times and in all places. Once when he was holding court in the forum of Augustus and had caught the savour of a meal which was preparing for the Salii​ in the temple of Mars hard by, he left the tribunal, went up where the priests were, and took his place at their table.

He hardly ever left the dining-room until he was stuffed and soaked. Then he went to sleep at once, lying on his back with his mouth open, and a feather was put down his throat to relieve his stomach.

He slept but little at a time, for he was usually awake before midnight; but he would sometimes drop off in the daytime while holding court and could hardly be roused when the advocates raised their voices for the purpose.

He was immoderate in his passion for women, but wholly free from unnatural vice.​

He was greatly devoted to gaming, even publishing a book on the art, and he actually used to play while driving, having the board so fitted to his carriage as to prevent his game from being disturbed.

34. That Claudius was of a cruel and bloodthirsty disposition was shown in matters great and small:

He always exacted examination by torture and the punishment of parricides​ at once and in his presence.

When he was at Tibur and wished to see an execution in the ancient fashion,​ no executioner could be found after the criminals were bound to the stake, whereupon he sent to fetch one from the city and continued to wait for him until nightfall.

At any gladiatorial show, either his own or another’s, he gave orders that even those who fell accidentally should be slain, in particular the net-fighters,​ so that he could watch their faces as they died.

He took such pleasure in the combats with wild beasts and of those who fought at noonday that he would go down to the arena at daybreak and after dismissing the people for luncheon at midday, he would keep his seat and in addition to the appointed combatants, he would for trivial and hasty reasons match others, even of the carpenters, the assistants, and men of that class, if any automatic device, or pageant, or anything else of the kind, had not worked well. He even forced one of his pages​ to enter the arena just as he was, in his toga.

35. Claudius was most famous, though, for timidity and suspicion.

He never ventured to go to a banquet without being surrounded by guards with lances and having his soldiers wait upon him in place of the servants.

He never visited a man who was ill without having the patient’s room examined beforehand and his pillows and bed-clothing felt over and shaken out.

When Camillus began his coup he wrote Claudius a threatening letter telling him to retire to private life if he wanted to live and Claudius was so timorous that he called together the leading men and asked their advice about complying.

36. After the man with a dagger was caught near his person, Claudius summoned the senate in haste and bewailed his lot in tears. Coward.

When he thought Messalina’s lover Silius was planning a coup, he ran off to the army base, doing nothing all the way but ask whether his throne was secure.

[When you compare this behaviour with that of Sulla and Marius or Caesar and Pompey, it is laughable, pathetic.]

37. No suspicion was too trivial to drive him on to precaution and vengeance.

When Messalina and Narcissus had put their heads together to destroy him, they agreed on their parts and the latter rushed into his patron’s bed-chamber before daybreak in pretended consternation, declaring that he had dreamed that Appius Silanus had made an attack on the emperor. Then Messalina, with assumed surprise, declared that she had had the same dream for several successive nights. A little later, as the conspirators had arranged, Appius, who had received orders the day before to come at that time, was reported to be forcing his way in, as proving the conspirators’ dreams. And so Claudius ordered his immediate accusation and death. Then recounted the whole story to the senate next day and thanked the freedman​ for watching over his emperor’s safety even in his sleep.

38. Claudius knew he was quick to anger and resentment and excused both in an edict. Suetonius gives a list of his rash acts, generally punishing people for minor offences.

In some speeches Claudius declared that he had purposely feigned stupidity under Caligula in order to survive. This convinced no one and an anonymous book was published called ‘The Elevation of Fools’ arguing that that no-one feigned folly.

39. People were astonished by Claudius’s forgetfulness. Shortly after having his third wife, Messalina, put to death, he took his place at the table and asked where the empress was.

He caused many of those he had condemned to death to be summoned the very next day to consult with him or game with him, and sent a messenger to upbraid them for being sleepy-heads when they didn’t appear.

Just before his adoption of Nero, as if it were not bad enough to adopt a stepson when he had a grown-up son of his own, he publicly declared more than once that no-one had ever been taken into the Claudian family by adoption.

40. He often showed such heedlessness in word and act that one would suppose that he did not know or care to whom, with whom, when, or where he was speaking. Every hour he made unwise or tactless remarks.

41. He began to write a history in his youth with the encouragement of Livy and the help of Sulpicius Flavius. But when he gave his first reading to a large audience, he had difficulty in finishing, since he more than once threw cold water on his own performance. For at the beginning of the reading the breaking down of several benches by a fat man raised a laugh, and even after the disturbance was quieted, Claudius could not keep from recalling the incident and renewing his guffaws.

Even while emperor he wrote a good deal and gave constant recitals through a professional reader.

He began his history with the death of the dictator Caesar, but passed to a later period and took a fresh start at the end of the civil war, realising that he was not allowed to give a frank or true account of the earlier times, since he was often taken to task both by his mother and his grandmother.

He left two books of the earlier history, but forty-one of the later one.

He also composed an autobiography in eight books, lacking rather in good taste than in style, as well as a ‘Defence of Cicero against the Writings of Asinius Gallus’, a work of no little learning.

He invented three new letters and added them to the alphabet, maintaining that they were greatly needed. He published a book on their theory when he was still in private life, and when he became emperor had no difficulty in bringing about their general use. These characters may still be seen in numerous books and in inscriptions on public buildings.

42. Claudius studied Greek which he publicly declared superior to Latin. He often replied to Greek envoys in the senate in a set speech. He quoted many Homeric lines from the tribunal.

He wrote historical works in Greek, 20 books of Etruscan History and eight of Carthaginian. Because of these works there was added to the old Museum at Alexandria a new one called after his name where it was required that his Etruscan History should be read each year from beginning to end, and in the other his Carthaginian, by various readers in turn, in the manner of public recitations.

43. Towards the end of his life Claudius repented his marriage with Agrippina and his adoption of Nero. For example when he was praised for his judgement in the trial of a woman for adultery, he declared that it had been his destiny, also, to have wives who were all adulterous but who went unpunished.

Meeting Britannicus, he hugged him close and urged him to grow up and receive from his father an account of all that he had done, adding in Greek, ‘He who dealt the wound will heal it.’

He expressed his intention of giving Britannicus the gown of manhood, since his stature justified it though he was still young, adding that: ‘The Roman people may at last have a genuine Caesar’.

44. Not long afterwards Claudius made his will and sealed it with the seals of all the magistrates but before he could go any farther he was cut short by Agrippina, who was being accused by increasing numbers of informers.

It is the general belief that Claudius was poisoned, but by whom is disputed. Some say that it was his taster, the eunuch Halotus, as he was banqueting on the Citadel with the priests. Others say that at a family dinner Agrippina served the poison to him with her own hand in mushrooms, a dish which he was extravagantly fond of.

Reports also differ as to what followed. Many say that as soon as he swallowed the poison he became speechless and then suffered excruciating pain all night, dying just before dawn. Some say that he first fell into a stupor, then vomited up the whole contents of his overloaded stomach, and was given a second dose, perhaps in a gruel, under pretence that he must be refreshed with food after his exhaustion, or administered in a syringe, as if he were suffering from a surfeit and required relief by that form of evacuation as well.

45. Claudius’s death was kept quiet until all the arrangements were made about the succession. Accordingly, vows were offered for his safety as if he were still ill, and the farce was kept up by bringing in comic actors, under pretence that he had asked to be entertained in that way.

He died on the third day before the Ides of October in the sixty-fourth year of his age and the fourteenth of his reign (in 54 AD). He was buried with regal pomp and enrolled among the gods, an honour neglected and finally annulled by Nero, but later restored to him by Vespasian.

46. There were, of course, omens foretelling Claudius’s death:

  • the rise of a long-haired star, commonly called a comet
  • the striking of his father Drusus’s tomb by lightning
  • the fact that many magistrates of all ranks had died that same year

There are indications that he suspected his approaching end: when he was appointing the consuls, he made no appointment beyond the month when, it turned out, he died. On his last appearance in the senate, after earnestly exhorting his children to harmony, he begged the members to watch over the tender years of both. And in his last sitting on the tribunal he declared more than once that he had reached the end of a mortal career, although all who heard him prayed that the omen might be averted.

Summary

One has the vague idea that Claudius was a huge relief after the madness of Caligula, but Suetonius goes out of his way to emphasise that Claudius, just as much as his predecessor, enjoyed watching people being tortured or forced to fight to the death in the arena and ordered the execution of senators and knights – while at the same time being a cowardly pawn of his scheming wife and freedmen.

In other words, he was still a pitiful falling-off after the ability and honour and sheer competence of Julius Caesar or Augustus: only the fact that he was bookended by Caligula and Nero makes Claudius look good.


Credit

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

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