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

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

The Aeneid’s structure

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

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

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

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

Historical background

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

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

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

The price of peace

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

Aspects of patriotism

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

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

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

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

A political poem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copying the Greeks

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

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

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

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

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

The process of composition

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

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

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

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

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

The violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The animal sacrifices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgil’s multi-levelled and holey theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Furens

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

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

The poetry

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

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

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

  • flexibility in writing lines and passages
  • compactness

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

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

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

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

Pederast

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 4 to 6

‘[This is] Trojan Aeneas, famous for his devotion and his feats of arms.’
(The Sibyl defending Aeneas to Charon in Aeneid book 6, line 404)

Book 4 Dido, love and death

Dido admits to her sister, Anna, that she is falling in love with Aeneas. Anna says she has held aloof from suitors from all the neighbouring tribes, but yes, she needs to let go of her dead husband and fall in love. Encouraged by this, Dido falls madly in love. Virgil – in his Epicurean, anti-emotion way – describes it as a madness, a fever, a fire in the bones, and other alarming analogies.

Remember that in the third Georgic Virgil wrote an extended denunciation of love and sex and passion in all its forms, whether in animals or humans, as a fire and frenzy which completely derails efforts to live rationally and orderly:

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(Georgic 3: lines 242 to 244, translated by Peter Fallon)

Venus meets with Juno. Juno suggests they let Aeneas and Dido marry, thus uniting exiled Tyrians and Trojans into a super-tribe. Venus interprets this as a transparent attempt to stop Aeneas continuing on to Italy and founding the Roman people who will, centuries hence, crush Dido’s heirs. She agrees in principle but diplomatically suggests Juno asks her husband, Jupiter, king of the gods, what he thinks. Juno outlines her plans to interrupt Dido and Aeneas’s next hunting trip, conjure up a storm, separate the lovers from their entourages, drive them into a cave and there have them consummate their love.

And this is what happens, with fire flashing and nymphs wailing from the mountaintops. For centuries of readers their love has been reinterpreted in the light of the medieval concept of courtly love and the sentimental romantic ideas which followed. But Virgil is harshly critical. Not only does this mark the beginning of the end for Dido:

This day was the beginning of her death, the first cause of all her sufferings. (4. 170)

But it had a ruinous effect on her people. When she slackened her leadership, they stopped building the city. The towers ceased to rise. The harbours and fortifications were left half-finished. All stood idle.

Virgil spends a page describing the genealogy and character of Rumour which runs fleet of foot among all men and communities spreading lies and when he describes Rumour as telling foreign rulers that Dido and Aeneas have ceased leading their people in order to wallow in lust…I immediately realise Virgil has made them Antony and Cleopatra, ‘lovers who had lost all recollection of their good name’ (4.221) which makes Creusa the emblem of Octavia, Antony’s loyal dutiful Roman wife, abandoned for an oriental whore.

The local king, Iarbas, had long harboured plans of marrying Dido so now he is infuriated that she abruptly abandoned herself to another. He offers up heartfelt angry complaints to his father, Jupiter.

Jupiter hears and is angry that Aeneas is shirking his duty. He calls Mercury and tells him to deliver an angry message to the Trojan. Is this the hero Venus promised them? Hardly. ‘He must sail. That is all there is to say.’

Mercury puts on his winged sandals, takes his caduceus and skims down through the skies to alight by Aeneas, busy helping build a temple. Mercury gets straight to it, telling Aeneas he is a disgrace by abandoning his destiny and to think about his little son who is meant to inherit leadership of a brave new race: ‘You owe him the land of Rome and the kingdom of Italy.’ (4.286)

So Aeneas immediately calls his lieutenants to him and tells them to ready the ships and the people for departure. Dido obviously hears about this and comes raging to see him, eyes blazing with anger. he tries to justify himself, but furious Dido dismisses all his excuses, calls him a traitor, mocks his stories about Jupiter this and Mercury that, then dismisses him, tells him to leave, but warns that her furious ghost will return to haunt him. (Lots of ghosts, a poem of ghosts, bringing with them the sad wisdom of the dead.)

Dido runs off into her palace, collapsing with despair. Virgil points the moral: See? This is where ‘love’ gets you:

Love is a cruel master. There are no lengths to which it does not force the human heart. (4.413)

But Aeneas, unlike Antony, is faithful to his duty (4.394) and continues preparations for departure. Dido pours her heart out to her sister, Anna, and sends her again and again with heartfelt pleas for pity or at least a delay – but the Fates forbade it and God blocked his ears to all appeals.

‘Possessed by madness’, Dido perceives all kinds of portents. Her sacrificial offerings turn black and bloody, She hears muttering at the shrine of her dead husband. She has nightmares in which she is abandoned on the African shore alone. Madness is the key word, repeated again and again.

She instructs her sister to build a big funeral pyre in the atrium of the palace where she says she will burn all Aeneas’s belongings. She attends ceremonies supervised by a terrifying priestess from Ethiopia who chants incantations to all the deities of hell.

Like all suicides Dido can’t see a way out: if she goes with Aeneas and the Trojans she will be their chattel; if she tries to persuade the entire Tyrian people to follow her they will refuse; if she stays behind she will be the laughing stock of all the tribes around who she used to treat so haughtily and will now see her humbled. No. She must die. [Virgil dramatises the logic of her thinking all too vividly.] And she reproaches herself for ever abandoning her independent single status as a widow.

Aeneas is asleep in the stern of a ship but he has a terrifying dream vision of ‘the god’ who warns him not to wait, but to leave now before morning comes and Dido comes to talk him out of leaving or to burn his ships. He wakes and wakes his men, they weight anchor and depart.

Dido waking with the dawn sees the sea covered with their ships and the harbour empty and delivers a magnificent harangue cursing Aeneas mightily and ends with an actual curse, invoking all the gods to ensure Aeneas in his new homeland never enjoys it, but is harried by a strong race, and driven from his own land, and beg for help and see his people dying. Let him die before his time and lie unburied on the sand. And may undying enmity be between her people and his (obviously referring to the legendary enmity which grew up between Rome and Carthage in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC).

Then she climbs onto the pyre she has prepared, delivers another magnificent speech about her destiny and her good intentions and plunges upon Aeneas’s sword and her blood foams out. Her serving women see and a great wailing spreads across the city as if the enemy were within and destroying everything (exactly as they had at Troy: repetitions and echoes).

Her sister Anna comes running, cursing herself for not realising this is what her sister really wanted the pyre built for and recriminating Dido for not waiting or sharing her death. She climbs atop the pyre and holds her sister as three times she tries to rise on her elbow but collapses and then expires.

Thus Dido died ‘in a sudden blaze of madness’ and Juno took pity and sent Iris down to loosen the binding of her soul. And so Iris descends as a rainbow through the sky and alights on the pyre and cuts a lock of Dido’s hair and thus releases her soul from its anguish.

God, surely this is the most magnificent and moving book ever written! It is breathtakingly powerful, cuts deep, and yet is short, just 23 pages in the Penguin edition, with not an ounce of fat, nothing verbose or long-winded or tiresome, but fast-moving, alert and to the point, fiercely and deeply imagined, and transcendently moving!

Book 5 Funeral games

Another storm hits, forcing them ashore back in Sicily, in the port run by his brother Eryx, where the bones of his father Anchises are buried. They are greeted by Acestes, half Trojan. The months pass until it is a full year since Anchises died and was buried. Aeneas leads sacrifices and ceremonies at his tomb.

Then he holds grand funeral games. First a boat race across the sea to a prominent rock and back. Then a running race. Then boxing matches. All are described in loving (and surprisingly exciting) detail. An arrow shooting competition and then equipage, horse management by the young contemporaries of Ascanius. They young cavalry perform a mock battle. Virgil explains how Ascanius will pass this on to his descendants and eventually it will be performed in Rome by youthful cavalry and called the lusus Troiae.

For the first time Virgil associates specific companions of Aeneas with the patrician Roman families they will establish (Mnestheus giving his name to the Memmii family, Sergestus the Sergii, Cloanthus the Cluentii [5.120], Atys founder of the Atii [5.569]).

The games are then officially ended but meanwhile the wretched women of Troy, fed up with seven years wandering over the endless ocean, rebel. Juno, font of endless schemes against Aeneas, sends Iris in disguise of one of their number to rouse them to indignation and insist that they sail no further but settle here on Sicily. Possessed by divine fury, they seize brands from the various altars and throw them into the Trojan ships.

The men quickly drop their games and rush to the beach just as the goddess leaves the women’s minds and, coming to their senses, the realise what they’ve done and run off into the woods and hills. Aeneas stares at his burning fleet and calls on Jupiter to save what little remains – at which there is a sudden torrential downpour. Most of the ships are saved but four are write-offs.

Aeneas is downhearted. But old Nautes gives good advice: he says Aeneas and the young and fit must continue on to Italy; but leave here on Sicily the old men, the women worn out by the sea, the ‘heart-weary’. Let them build a city and call it Acesta.

Still, Aeneas is worried and careworn when the ghost of his father slides down through the dark. He reinforces Nautes’ advice to leave the old and sick here on Sicily and only take the young and strong with him to Italy for there, as he has been told quite a few times by now, he will have to overcome ‘a wild and strong people’.

But Anchises tells him something new. First he will have to go down into Dis, the underworld, to meet his spirit there. He will be helped through the doorway to hell by a Sibyll. There he will learn about all the descendants who are to follow him. Then, like so many of his visions, he disappears into thin air like smoke.

Aeneas, as is his wont, goes straight into action (as he did after the god told him to leave Carthage immediately). For nine days he helps the people they’re leaving behind lay out the boundaries of the new city, build a forum, ordain laws and erect a temple to Venus, building a mini-Troy.

Then they say their farewells, make the sacrifices and oblations, and set sail, with a fair wind and rowing. Cut to Venus visiting Neptune god of the sea and bewailing Juno’s unending spite against the Trojans and beseeching Neptune to take pity on them. Neptune reminds her how he protected Aeneas when Achilles was running mad in front of Troy, and promises fair seas.

All the mortals see is the appearance of a clear sky and fair winds and they set sail for Italy with good heart. Thus Virgil shows us, behind every physical event, especially large scale ones like the weather, storms, shooting stars, erupting volcanoes and so on, the direct involvement of the gods. The gods are the environment through which mortals walk, purblind and ignorant.

And Palinurus, the loyal helmsman who has always given the best advice – the god of sleep wafts down from heaven, taps him on the temples with a stick dripping with water from the rivers Lethe and the Styx (rivers of the underworld), Palinurus is plunged into a deep sleep and the god of sleep chucks him overboard where he drowns down down down into the blue ocean.

Noticing something wrong, Aeneas goes astern and discovers his top helmsman has fall overboard, and blames him for trusting to a calm sea. But, as we know, it is not his fault. Like all mortals, there is nothing he can do to resist the whims of the gods.

Half way through the book I am noticing:

  • how many visions, ghosts, dream visitations, spectral appearances and just as sudden disappearances there are
  • by extension, the way there are few if any conversations, but rather great block chunks of speeches
  • the enormous amount of sacrifices – so many bullocks slaughtered, so many entrails, so much steaming gore

Book 6 The underworld

They make land at Cumae (according to Wikipedia ‘the first ancient Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, founded by settlers from Euboea in the 8th century BC and soon becoming one of the strongest colonies.’) Aeneas makes to the citadel with its huge temple of Apollo, and a vast cave, retreat of ‘the awesome Sibyl’. On the doors of the temple are depicted scenes from legend including the story of the Minotaur. For legend has it that this is where Daedalus touched down after making wings for himself to escape from captivity in Crete.

The daughter of the high priest tells them to make animal sacrifices then come with her. She is suddenly possessed by the go and tells Aeneas to pray. Aeneas delivers a page-long supplication to the god Apollo to have mercy on his people.

The priestess fights against the god but finally he possesses her and delivers his prophecy to Aeneas. They have finished their travels by sea. But what awaits them by land will be worse.

I see wars, deadly wars, I see the Thybris foaming with torrents of blood. (6.86)

Immigration

This line was notoriously quoted out of context by the British politician Enoch Powell in his virulently anti-immigration speech of April 1968. Reading it here, I realise there’s a political irony here, because this speech, about bloodshed, isn’t addressed to the native people, warning them against immigrants – Aeneas is the immigrant. He is the one arriving in a strange land and it is his god-inspired conviction that he’s owed a living and a future here which brings bloodshed and war.

Women’s wombs

Anyway, the god goes on to predict he must face ‘a second Achilles’. More interestingly, he warns that ‘Once again the cause of all this Trojan suffering will be a foreign bride’ – just as the entire Trojan war was fought over Helen (and just as the action of the Iliad is triggered by a squabble between Agamemnon and Achilles about who should be assigned a slave girl they captured at a raid on an outlying temple). The rightful ownership of women, and their reproductive capacity, is the core cause of these wars between violent men. Next to ownership of the land and its food-producing capacity, comes ownership of women and their baby-producing capacity. It is as primitive as that.

Madness

The visionary state in which the priestess speaks Apollo’s words is described as ‘madness’. Did Virgil use the same word for this as for the ‘madness’ of Dido? In which case it weakens the rhetoric of his argument against love and passion. If so, is it the same word he used for the ‘madness’ of the Trojan women who set fire to the ships in Sicily (5.660, 670)? In which case, is he making the point that a certain kind of madness is restricted to, or characteristic of, women?

Aeneas begs the Sibyl to allow him to go down into hell to see his father. The Sibyl warns the way down is easy, it’s the coming back that’s difficult. When the Sibyl warns that undertaking such a journey is ‘the labour of madness‘ I begin to see frenzy, insanity and madness as being a recurring theme or motif of the poem.

The Sibyl tells him a) there is a dead man lying unburied which is polluting the fleet; he must find and bury him and perform the rituals b) there is a tree in a dark grove which bears a golden bough; he must pluck it and carry it down to hell to please Queen Proserpina; but only the favoured of the gods can find it or pluck it.

Aeneas leaves, accompanied by his faithful friend Achates, and on the shore above the tideline they discover the body of Misenus. He had engaged in a horn blowing competition with a Triton who drowned him. So the Trojans chop down a load of trees (whose species Virgil carefully lists) to build a shrine and altar. While doing so Aeneas prays for help in finding the grove of the golden bough and his mother Venus sends two white doves who lead him to the tree.

He plucks the golden bough, presents it to the Sibyl, who insists on numerous more rites and sacrifices and then leads him down into hell, taking him past a checklist of the florid monsters who guard the gates, centaurs, scyllas, chimera, gorgons, harpies and so on.

Dante

I can see why Virgil was such a model for Dante in terms of format. Aeneas spots individuals among the various crowds (such as the crowd waiting to be ferried by Charon across the Styx), asks them a question, and the other briefly tells his story, explaining why he’s ended up here. This is more or less the recurring format for the entire Divine Comedy.

So Aeneas sees Palinurus, quizzes him, and Palinurus tells him his sad fate – he was not drowned after all, but swam to shore where he was murdered by ruffians. He begs to be allowed to cross the river; the sibyl says this is not possible till his body is given a decent burial; the sibyl reassures him that the people who live near his corpse will be driven by signs from heaven to find it and give it a decent burial

This entire story of Palinurus seems designed to evoke a sweet sadness, as we observe his grief, his regrets, Aeneas’s grief for him, their manly love for each other – commander and staunch helmsman – who met a cruel fate through no fault of his own. The Palinurus story encapsulates Virgil’s pity for suffering humanity. Seeing the great tide of woeful humanity waiting on the river bank, ‘the helpless souls of the unburied’, Aeneas ‘pitied their cruel fate.’

The hell sequence is packed with mythological details (three-headed Cerberus etc), but it is the human moments which strike home, not least his encounter with the shade of Dido. Till this moment he wasn’t sure what became of her but now he realises the rumours were true and she killed herself. He fulsomely apologises, saying he was driven on by the command of the gods, but she won’t even look at him, stands silent, then wafts away to be with her first, murdered, husband, grief speaking to grief.

In Wilfred Owen’s famous preface to his war poems he said ‘the poetry is in the pity’. Well, there is poetry in every aspect of this magnificent poem, but the consistent underlying tone of the Aeneid is heartfelt pity at the sad and tragic plight of humanity.

There is an awesome description of their walk through hell while the aged priestess of Apollo explains the variety and ingenuity of the punishments for all who have broken the laws of gods and men, including the shades of all the Greeks and the Trojans who fought and died during the recent war. Then they come to the home of the blessed: here there is singing and games, poets, leading up to the great Musaeus, who tells Aeneas where to find his father.

Aeneas is reunited with the spirit of his father. He goes to embrace him three times (the rule of three; just as Aeneas tried to embrace the ghost of Creusa three times, 2.792) but, like Creusa, Anchises is soft as the wind (6.700). But he can speak. He is delighted to see his son and then explains how some souls in the afterlife are purged of their earthly memories and returned to the primeval fire which first began the universe; but others buzz round Elysium for a thousand years and then are sent back to inhabit new bodies on earth. In other words, reincarnation.

He leads Aeneas and the Sibyl to a slight mound in the plain and predicts the long line of Aeneas’s descendants who will make Rome and Italy great. Reincarnation seems very unGreek but then, if his prime aim was to have scene where Aeneas is shown all his descendants, it’s hard to see how else this could have been achieved. The souls of famous men had to be available before they were born in order for Aeneas to review them. The more you think about it, the weirder it becomes.

Anchises points out Aeneas’s descendants starting with his posthumous son, Silvius who will be followed by Procas, Capys, Numitor, Silvius Aeneas, founders of Alba Longa and other settlements. Then Romulus founder of Rome ‘whose empire shall cover the earth’.

Then Anchises turns to the Caesar, mentioning Julius Caesar (remote descendant of Iulus, or Ascanius, Aeneas’s son). Then follows the famous hymn to Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will bring back the golden years of the age of Saturn, who will extend the borders of the empire to the edge of the known world, who will achieve more than Hercules or Bacchus. Is that enough brown-nosing?

Rather anachronistically, Anchises goes back to recount the line of kings who ruled Rome, before switching to heroes of the early Republic, the Brutus who drove out the Tarquins, others who invented the consulship, Cato the Elder, the Gracchi, the two Scipios, Fabius Maximus, great figures from Roman history. And then some sternly patriotic rhetoric:

Your task, Romans, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud. (6.851)

Then Anchises delivers a page-long lament for a young man they see accompanying Marcellus on his triumph. This is Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42 to 23 BC), nephew of Augustus and his closest male relative, who enjoyed an accelerated political career and was married to Augustus’s daughter, Julia. But he died of an infection which swept through Italy (Augustus got it but recovered) dashing Augustus’s hopes of making him his heir. So it seems likely that this extended passage in praise of young Marcellus was written just after his death in 23 BC, in order to please Virgil’s patron, the great Augustus.

David West, the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Aeneid, devotes a 3-page appendix to this section, the procession of Roman heroes, giving brief descriptions of all the eminent Romans who feature in it. He mentions the story, recorded in a near-contemporary biography of Virgil, that when he was reading his poem to Augustus and his family, his sister – Octavia (mother of Marcellus) – fainted at this passage. It’s worth repeating this anecdote to emphasise just how direct and personal Augustus’s relationship with Virgil was, and therefore, by extension, with much of the content of the poem.

After the long passage of praise for Marcellus the last few sentences of the book are an anti-climax. Virgil tells us that Anchises told Aeneas about the entire future course of events, his war against the Laurentines, how he should maximise his fate.

Aeneas’s return through hell, crossing back over the Styx, climbing back up to the entrance to the great cavern – all this isn’t even described. Instead all we get is a short, abrupt sentence saying that Aeneas made his way back to his ships and his comrades, then steered a straight course to the harbour of Caieta, where they dropped anchor.

It’s an oddly abrupt ending to one of the most magnificent and influential books of poetry ever written.

Epithets of Aeneas

I’ve slowly been realising that, as the poem progresses, Aeneas comes to be accompanied by more and more adjectives. I mean that, in the early books, he is mostly plain ‘Aeneas’. But it’s noticeable that, certainly by book 6, his name rarely occurs without being accompanied by an adjective indicating his greatness. By this sly method, Virgil implies the way Aeneas grows in stature, experience and leadership as the adventures continue. I’d noticed the same happening to Anchises who, in the earlier books, comes to be referred to more and more frequently as Father Anchises. When he dies the title passes quietly to Aeneas, Father Aeneas, sometimes referred to as ‘the son of Anchises’, and then the epithets begin to occur more frequently:

  • the leader of the Trojans (4.165)
  • the son of Anchises (5.424)
  • the great-hearted son of Anchises
  • Father Aeneas (5.461)
  • dutiful Aeneas (6.233)
  • devout Aeneas (5.685, 12.175)
  • the hero Aeneas (6.103)
  • huge Aeneas (6.413)
  • great glory of our Troy (6.547)
  • Aeneas, greatest of warriors (9.41)
  • great Aeneas (10.159)

Roman reviews

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 1 to 3

I am Aeneas, known for my devotion. (Aeneid book 1, line 378)

I own three translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin Classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1971 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin Classics prose translation by David West

I read most of the Aeneid in the West prose translation. It seemed easy and modern. I dipped into the Mandelbaum but was put off by his tone, too hectically American, maybe because I read it at the height of the heatwave when everything felt a bit hysterical. But I did use Mandelbaum’s comprehensive Glossary of Names and Places. The West edition doesn’t have a glossary or any notes at all. The idea is for you to rely entirely on the information Virgil gives in the poem itself which, it turns out, is all you need, most of the time.

Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to as Virgil (70 to 19 BC) was the great Roman poet who straddled the epochal transition from the Roman Republic to the early Roman Empire. There were other very important figures, such as Catullus from the generation before (b.84), Virgil’s younger contemporary, Horace (b.63 BC), and, a generation younger, the great poet of mythology, Ovid (b.43). But Virgil towers above them all.

Virgil was born near the northern city of Mantua to parents who owned farmland. He was sent to Rome to complete his education where he probably met the young Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD) and his friends, namely his future patron and Augustus’s ‘minister of culture’, Maecenas (68 to 8 BC).

Always a sickly, sensitive young man, Virgil left Rome and settled near Naples where he spent the rest of his life quietly studying and writing poetry.

Virgil left no juvenilia or collections of random poems. He wrote just three works, each of them masterpieces:

  • the ten very short and highly stylised poems of idealised country life featuring lovelorn shepherds, the Eclogues
  • the four longer, tougher-minded, sometimes lyrical, sometimes practical, sometimes sweepingly destructive Georgics, are, on paper, poems of advice to farmers and livestock owners, but in reality a lot more varied and complex than that
  • the long epic poem the Aeneid, which has a claim to being the most important and most influential poem ever written in Europe

Epic poem

An epic poem is a long poem with a historical or legendary setting, which usually tells the adventures of one or more heroes on an epic journey or pitched into a mighty struggle, all with the input of gods and goddesses. Many societies and cultures have produced epic poems.

Sometimes an epic poem has as part of its purpose to explain the origin of cities or races or gods and religions. (The Greeks had a word for such an origin story, an aition.) Always epics are characterised by long narratives with multiple incidents or episodes strung along the central plot.

In the 1940s C.S. Lewis proposed an elemental distinction between primary and secondary epic. Primary epic is produced in illiterate cultures, often by travelling poets or troubadors, often using familiar narratives, well-known characters and using time-honoured, stock descriptions. The process by which they’re written down is obscure but by the time they are recorded they already display very sophisticated techniques of oral storytelling. In our European tradition, the two Greek epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey show these characteristics. They are attributed to a figure called ‘Homer’ but it’s not certain that anyone named Homer ever existed.

By complete contrast, secondary epic is the production of a literate culture. It is the product of known authors, was written at a known time and place. It self-consciously invokes many of the tropes and techniques of primary epic, such as well-known legends and legendary characters, famous episodes or adventures, extended similes, stock descriptive phrases, episodic structure and so on. Virgil’s Aeneid has a good claim to be the greatest secondary epic.

A poem of multiple levels

The Aeneid is a carefully wrought collation of numerous themes on multiple levels.

Adventure story

In terms of storyline or plot it tells the story of Aeneas, a prince of Troy – a story familiar to all educated Romans of Virgil’s day – who escapes the destruction of the city at the climax of the ten-year-long siege by the Greeks, and describes the wanderings of him and 20 shiploads of comrades as they sail west across the Mediterranean looking for a new home.

Foundation story

Why bother with this story? Because the Romans believed that their city ultimately owed its founding to prince Aeneas. The traditional view (which is recapped in book 1) goes that Aeneas underwent numerous florid adventures as he sailed west from Troy before finally making landfall in western Italy. After fighting off the local tribes he establishes a settlement at a place he calls Lavinium.

His son, Ascanius, also known as Iulus, will move their settlement to a place named Alba Longa, where his descendants will live for 300 years. Then Ilia, the royal priestess of Vesta, will be seduced and impregnated by the god Mars and give birth to twins, Romulus and Remus. Romulus will grow up to build a new settlement, named Rome after him, which will go on to rule the world.

Patriotic story

So on one level the poem is an ultra-patriotic dramatisation of the man who founds the settlement which was to form the basis of Rome. Aeneas is shown as an epitome of the Roman virtues, a man who puts duty to family and country before self.

Pleasing Augustus

Throughout the narrative Virgil goes out of his way to suck up to the current ruler of Rome, the princeps Gaius Octavianus who was awarded the title Augustus while he was composing the work. Gaius Octavianus had been adopted by Julius Caesar in his will and so took his name, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar.

Virgil is at pains to demonstrate the extreme antiquity of the family of ‘Julii’ of which Octavianus had become a member, and so goes out of his way to tell us, repeatedly, that Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, had this second name Iulus (this name had been Ilus while Troy, which was also called Ilium, had stood). Ilus – Iulus – Iulius. The aim was to create a direct link from Aeneas via Ilus-Iulius to the house of Julius Caesar, and so to the current emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar aka Augustus.

Those are the public and political aims of the poem. Two additional factors make it a masterpiece.

Adapting Homer

One is the tremendous skill with which Virgil closely models himself on the two outstanding epics of his tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, adopting the tone of voice, the capacious bird’s-eye-view of the narrator, the confident intertwining of the human level with the character of the immortal gods who play a crucial role in the plot, either supporting or scheming against Aeneas. It is a very sophisticated invocation and twining together of the epic tradition up to his time.

Virgil’s sensibility

But more important is Virgil’s sensitivity. Homer’s heroes are killing machines. They may be sad and burst into tears, but only when there is good justification (weeping over the dead) and most of the time they are just angry and keying themselves up for yet another fight.

By contrast, the Aeneid is soulful. The narrator and his hero are sensitive to ‘the tears of things’, to the tragic inevitability of the universe. Aeneas does his duty, but with a heavy heart at the suffering he has seen and the new suffering he causes. It is an epic poem with lyrical feeling.

Book 1 Storm and banquet

In the best tradition, the poem starts in media res meaning ‘in the middle of things’. We find our hero aboard ship, having set sail from Sicily towards the cost of Italy but caught up in a violent storm. His fleet is dispersed and at least one ship sinks.

In fact the read of the poem is informed that this storm has been whipped up by Juno queen of the gods. She hates Aeneas and is his steady foe. She cannot forgive the Trojans for the snub when Paris awarded the apple of beauty to Venus. This long-standing grudge is why we see her visit the home of Aeolus, gods of the winds, and ask him to whip up a storm to shipwreck Aeneas, which he promptly does.

But we also see Venus, Aeneas’s mother, who was impregnated by Aeneas’s father Anchises, rushing to confront Jupiter, king of the gods, and tearfully ask how he can let his wife massacre her son and his colleagues. Jupiter calmly tells her to dry her eyes, he has no intention of letting Aeneas drown, and it is now that he reveals what the fates have in store for the Trojan prince (as I outlined above).

And as he speaks he gets his brother Neptune, king of the seas, to abate the storm, and gently blow the remainder of Aeneas’s fleet towards the coast of north Africa, referred to here as Libya. Here the Trojans gratefully anchor, come ashore, dry off, go hunting, shoot some deer, build fires, eat and drink wine and recover their strength.

And here Aeneas is visited by his mother in the guise of a local woman who assures him all will be well and tells him about the nearby town of Carthage, just now being built by exiles from Tyre. Venus-in-disguise tells the rather complicated backstory of this people. Tyre is a rich city on the coast of Phoenicia (what is now Israel) ruled by king Pygmalion. He has a sister, princess Dido. Dido marries a rich man Sychaeus. But Pygmalion is jealous of Sychaeus’s wealth and murders him while he worships at an altar. For a while no-one knows who committed the crime and Pygmalion hypocritically comforts his sister.

But then the ghost of Sychaeus appears to Dido, reveals the truth, warns her to flee her brother, and shows her the burial place of a huge secret treasure. She gathers her friends and supporters and the many people opposed to the ‘tyrant’ Pygmalion, they dig up the treasure, load it onto some ships and sail away forever.

Now she and her people have arrived at the other end of the Mediterranean, made land, settled and Aeneas and his crew have arrived just as the Tyrians are laying out and building a new ‘city’, a city the narrative refers to as Carthage.

You don’t need to be a literary critic to spot that both Aeneas and Dido are in similar plight, both refugees from distant lands in the eastern Mediterranean, forced by tragic events to flee their home cities, and now trying to build new lives, and new cities, in the west.

All this is explained to him by Aeneas’s mother, Venus who, having intervened to save Aeneas from the storm, now appears to him in the guise of a local maiden. She has wrapped Aeneas in a magic cloud so he and his companion can walk up to the new city walls and watch the Tyrians building Carthage.

Then she disappears the cloud and Aeneas is welcomed by the Tyrians. Their queen, Dido, welcomes Aeneas and his men to a lavish feast. Venus waylays Aeneas’s son as he comes from the beach where they’ve all landed towards the city, makes him fall asleep in a copse of trees. And gets her other son, the god Eros, to take on Ascanius’s form, and be introduced to Queen Dido, and sit on her lap during the feast (!) and deliberately make her fall in love with Aeneas. Because we all know how this love affair will end Virgil describes her as poor Dido and ‘doomed’ Dido.

Homer is always full of a kind of metallic energy. Even when his heroes weep, they do so in a virile, manly way. But in his treatment of Dido Virgil displays a completely different sensibility, sympathetic and sad.

Back at the feast, Dido asks Aeneas to tell them about his adventures. He has already told them he has been wandering for seven years since the fall of Troy. Reluctantly, Aeneas agrees.

Book 2 The fall of Troy

Aeneas’s story. He cuts straight to the final days of the 10-year-long siege as the Greeks cut down mighty trees to make the enormous wooden horse. Then strike camp and sail away leaving it alone on the plain in front of Troy. The Trojans come out to admire it. The priest Laocoön warns them all that it is a Greek scam but at that point a Trojan patrol returns with a Greek captive. He tells them he’s called Sinon and, after incurring the enmity of the mighty Odysseus (here called Ulixes) he was chosen to be the human sacrifice the Greek fleet needed to set sail (just as it had required the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigeneia in order to set sail from Greece, 10 long years ago).

Sinon tells them he managed to escape the night before he was due to be killed and has hidden. Now they can kill him or spare him as they please. But he is a plant left by the Greeks to give a false explanation of the horse. He says it is a peace offering to the gods to let the fleet sail. More precisely, it is atonement for the incident when Ulixes and Diomede stole the Palladium from the temple of Pallas Athene in the citadel of Troy. Since then she has persecuted them and their chief priest, Calchas, ordered them a) to return to Greece to worship the gods, atone for their sins, rearm and return to renew the siege, and b) to build this enormous horse as a peace offering to Athena. Sinon warns that if the Trojans damage it at all it will bring down the wrath of Athena on them. If, on the other hand, they take it into the city and venerate it, then Athena will bless them and, when the Greeks return, allies from all across Asia will rally to their cause and they will defeat the Greeks in a final battle.

The Trojans are still hesitating when an amazing thing happens. The priest of Neptune, Laocoön, is sacrificing to an altar by the shore when two might sea snakes emerge from the waves and envelop his two young sons. Laocoön goes to their rescue and tries to fight them off but the snakes strangle all three to death and then slither into the city and up to the citadel of the goddess Venus.

Well, that decides it for the Trojans who set about dismantling part of their walls (the horse is too big to go through the city gates) in a kind of mad frenzy. Aeneas tells the story with much regret and sorrow at their foolhardiness, but they were whipped on by the scheming gods. The priestess Cassandra warns against letting the horse in but, of course, she was doomed never to be believed.

That night the Trojans hold a mighty feast to celebrate the end of the war then pass out on their beds. In the middle of the night Aeneas is woken by the ghost of Hector, looking grim and broken and bloody as he was after Achilles dragged his corpse round the walls of Troy, tied by the ankles to his chariot.

Hector’s ghost warns Aeneas to flee and sure enough, now he is awake, he hears screams and smells smoke. While they were asleep, Sinon snuck out to the horse, undid the pine bolts which secured its secret trap door, the Greeks inside the horse lowered themselves by a rope to the ground and set about massacring the guards set on the horse, while a contingent went and opened the main gates to the Greeks who had a) silently sailed back from where the fleet had hidden behind the offshore island of Tenedos and b) swarmed across the plain, till they were massed outside the gates.

Now the Greek army is pouring into the city determined to kill every man, woman and child. Hector’s ghost tells Aeneas all his lost, to gather his family and companions and flee, and predicts that, after long wanderings, he will found a new city.

But if you think about it, Virgil can’t depict the legendary founder of Rome as a coward who turns and bolts. Instead Aeneas leaps from his bed, grabs his armour, runs into the street, and rallies other warriors he finds emerging from their homes. They form a troop and roam through the streets taking on Greeks. They massacre one group of Greeks and put on their armour. This allows them to mingle with other Greeks before turning on them and many, the narrative assures us, they sent down to Orcus (hell), many fled back across the plain, and some even scuttled back up inside the horse.

Then a huge fight develops around the figure of the priestess Cassandra who is being dragged bound and gagged by Greeks from her temple. Aeneas and his band rally to save her but a hornet’s nest of Greeks counter attack, and they are even struck down by some Trojan brothers because they are wearing Greek armour.

He doesn’t mention Cassandra again but shifts the focus to the battle round the palace of Priam. Trojans are reduced to tearing down their walls and roofs to throw down on the Greeks climbing siege ladders. Aeneas enters the palace by a secret back passage and makes his way to the top of the tallest tower where he joins Trojans loosening the masonry to send huge blocks of stone falling on the Greek attackers.

Aeneas knows his audience will want to know how King Priam died. He gives a vivid, heart-breaking account of the old man buckling on his armour and heading for the fight, how his wife Hecuba tries to persuade him to desist, how Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, chases and kills Polites, one of Priam’s sons, right in front of him. How Priam defies him, harmlessly throws his spear, reproaches Pyrrhus for being a shame to his noble father. But Pyrrhus doesn’t care, grabs Priam by his long hair, drags him over to the altar and thrusts his sword up to the hilt in Priam’s side. Then his head is hacked from his body which is left to rot on the shore, unknown and unmourned.

Aeneas looks around and realises all his companions are dead i.e. he has done all that honour demanded. Now his thoughts turn to his aged father Anchises, his wife, Creusa, and son, Ascanius.

He spots Helen hiding in a temple, cause of all this death and destruction. Shall she survive and be taken back to Sparta to live in luxury, waited on by Trojan slaves? In a burst of fury Aeneas rushes forward to kill her but suddenly his mother, the goddess Venus appears. She tells him the war is not really Helen or even Paris’s fault. It is the gods. And she strips away the fog which clouds his mortal vision and shows him Neptune shaking the city’s foundations, Juno opening the gates and egging on the Greeks, Pallas Athena taking command of the citadel, and Jupiter himself leading the gods and supporting the Greeks. No mortal can stop this. As the Sibyl says, much later, in book 6:

You must cease to hope that the fates of the gods can be altered by prayer. (6.376)

Venus now orders Aeneas to collect his family and flee. But Anchises refuses to leave the city he has lived in all his life, determined to die in his house. Aeneas remonstrates, the old man refuses, so Aeneas says he’ll buckle back on his armour and die defending him rather than leave him. But Creusa throws herself in front of him and tells him his first duty is to his family.

At this tense moment there are signs from heaven. A heatless flame settles on Ascanius’s head and there was a peal of thunder and a star fell from the sky, a meteorite crashing down into Mount Ida.

This persuades Anchises to leave, so Aeneas puts a lion skin on his shoulders, tells the household slaves to meet them at a hill outside the city, puts his father on his shoulder, takes little Ascanius by the hand and Creusa follows behind as they set off through the dark side streets of the burning city.

It was then that his father heard marching soldiers’ feet and told Aeneas to run and Aeneas was overcome by irrational fear and bolted and somehow his wife Creusa got left behind, He never saw her again.

I stormed and raged and blamed every man and god that ever was. (2.745)

He puts his armour back on and runs back to the city, through the same gate they exited, trying to retrace his steps, going first to his house then to the palace of Priam, finding death, devastation and flames everywhere.

But then Creusa appears in a vision to him, calmly telling him that this is the wish of the gods and destiny. He is to sail far away and come to rest in Hesperia by the river Thybris in a land of warriors and take another bride. It is for the best. Their gods will protect her. She promises she will never be led away a slave for some Greek wife, although what her exact fate is is left unstated. He goes to put his arms around her but she fades like a phantom.

Anyway, this, like the account of Aeneas’s brave fighting, are obviously both designed to show him to best advantage, full of patriotic, familial and husbandly loyalty, but at every step overpowered by fate and destiny and the will of the gods. Now, sadly. Aeneas returns to the mound where his father and son are waiting and is amazed at the sheer number of other survivors who have gathered there. From now on he is to be their leader.

[Maybe worth pointing out the number of ghostly and visionary appearances: Dido’s husband’s ghost appears to her; Hector’s ghost appears to Aeneas; Creusa’s spirit appears to him. Although ostensibly about fighting there is a good deal of this otherworldly, visionary, shimmering quality about much of the story.]

Book 3 The wanderings

Aeneas is still talking, recounting his adventures to Dido and her court. He describes how the survivors built a settlement not far from ruined Troy, in the lee of the Ida mountains and built ships. Then set sail. This is described very briefly, in successive sentences. The lack of detail is very characteristic of Virgil. Unlike the hard-edged detailing of Homer, Virgil’s habit of skipping over details (for example, not telling us the outcome of the battle over Cassandra) creates a kind of shimmering, dreamy quality to the poem.

They sail to Thrace and begin to lay out foundations for a city but when Aeneas pulls up trees to decorate the altar he’s going to sacrifice on, he is horrified when they and spurt blood. Then terrified when a voice speaks and declares himself to be the spirit of Polydorus, sent by Priam to Thrace with a treasure, to be raised there, far from war-torn Troy. Now he tells Aeneas he was murdered by the king of Thrace who simply stole the gold.

Aeneas tells Anchises who responds that this is no place to stay. So they rebury the body of Polydorus with full rites, and set sail, letting the gods decide their final destination. They sail onto the island of Delos, dock in the harbour of Ortygia, and are greeted by King Anius.

Aeneas prays at the temple of Apollo, asking what he should do. A booming voice replies he must seek out the land of his ‘ancient mother’. Father Anchises interprets this to mean Crete, where the founder of Troy, Teucer, first came from.

So they sail and row from Delos via Naxos, Donusa, Olearos, Paros, through the Cyclades to Crete, where they land and begin to build a settlement Aeneas calls Pergamea. Things are just beginning to thrive when the settlement is struck down by a great plague and the crops wither in the fields.

One night the household gods are bathed in sunlight and speak to him, telling him again the prophecy that he will sail the seas, come to a peaceful land, and found a race who rule the world. The Greeks call the land Hesperia but it has been settled by the Oenetrians who have called it Italy after their god, Italus.

When he tells Father Anchises the latter remembers that Troy had two founders. One was Teucer from Crete but the other was Dardanus from Hesperia. They misinterpreted the message from Apollo and mistakenly came to Crete. So now they pack ship and set sail for Hesperia/Italy.

For three days and nights a black storm descends, blotting out the sky. Then it lifts and they sail into the harbour of the Strophades. They see fat cattle and goats and storm ashore, kill some and are feasting when they are attacked by the foul harpies, birds with the faces of girls, bellies oozing filth, talons like birds, which tear the food from their hands.

The harpies’ leader, Celaeno, perches on a pinnacle of rock and announces a prophecy which Jupiter gave Apollo, and Apollo gave her, and she is now giving the Trojans. They will settle a new land but not until they have passed through a famine which makes them gnaw their tables. (The prophesy is fulfilled at 7.116 to 130.)

So the Trojans abandon the feast and the land, take ship and scud over the waves to the island of Leucas. Here they performed rites of purification and then held games. They stayed here till mid-winter, when Aeneas pinned a shield taken from a Greek on the temple doors and they set sail again.

They dock at Chaonia and walk up to the city of Buthrotum. Here they are astounded to come across Andromache, wife of the great hero Hector, making ritual sacrifices for her dead husband. She tells them that she survived the sack of Troy and was taken as wife by Pyrrhus to whom she bore a child. But Pyrrhus dumped her on fellow slave Helenus (one of the sons of Priam) in order to marry Hermione. But Orestes loved Hermione and so murdered Pyrrhus. At his death some of Pyrrhus’s land descended to Helenus. He built a settlement there, a new Pergamum, and here Andromache lives.

At which point Helenus arrives and, amid much weeping by everyone, escorts them to his city which is a miniature copy of Troy in all aspects. They stay for some time. Eventually Aeneas asks the priest Helenus to answer his questions: should he set sail, will he come to the promised land?

So Helenus sacrifices some bullocks and then gives Aeneas the latest in the line of prophecies, first of all warning it won’t be a short voyage, but a long one fraught with adventures. He will recognise the place to build his city because he will find a sow suckling 30 piglets. He must make it a priority to worship Juno and try to win her over. He must make time to visit the prophetess at Cumae. He must avoid sailing through the straits of Messina, which are terrorised by Scylla and Charybdis.

Helenus gives them gifts of gold and ivory and silver, and blesses them as they set sail. They sight Italy and sail into harbour. They sail on past Tarentum in the instep of Italy. They sail past the gulf of Scylla and Charybdis and make shore in the land of the Cyclopes, a peaceful harbour but in the shadow of the fearsome Mount Etna who belching black smoke darkens the sky.

Next morning they are surprised to see a wretched filthy man in rags come running towards them. He announces he is Achaemenides, one of Ulixe’s crew. He describes how they were captured by the Cyclops which ate some of their comrades, drank and fell asleep and how, in the night, they conspired to blind him. But they sailed and left him behind. He has just about survived for three months, since then. But he warns them to flee.

At that moment they see blinded Polyphemus appear with his flocks on the side of the mountain and run down to their ships and set sail, rowing for all they’re worth. Polyphemus hears them and lets out a road which shakes the earth and brings all the other cyclops to the shore to rage at them, but they are clear of harm.

They sail down the east coast of Sicily past Syracuse. Then along the south coast, ticking off all the settlements and sights till they come to Lilybaeum. They put in at Drepanum but here Aeneas ‘lost’ his father Anchises. There is, as so often with Virgil, no detail, no explanation, just a focus on Aeneas’s loss and sadness.

When they set sail from there to head north and east to the Italian coast the great storm described at the start of book 1 was stirred up and so they were blown to the African shore which the Tyrians are settling. And with that, Aeneas’s recital of his story comes to an end.

Epicurean rest

It is noticeable that Virgil/West phrase the very end of Aeneas’s recital with ‘Here he made an end and was at peace.’ When I read Virgil’s Georgics I was struck by how much he told us he was struggling to complete the poem. He had to ask his patron, Maecenas, for help and support, he kept telling himself ‘onwards and upwards!’, he wrote with relief about reaching the end of each of the four books. Then the very opening of book 4 describes how Dido fell in love and ‘love gave her body no rest or peace‘.

It was only when I read the Georgics that I became aware for the first time of Virgil’s adherence to the teachings of Epicurus. In the blurb to the Penguin edition, I learn that Virgil lived most of his adult life in an Epicurean colony near Naples.

Epicurus’s teachings are above all designed to cultivate freedom from stress and anxiety in his followers. Peace of mind and spirit. So these references in the Aeneid to peace of spirit, or lack of it, acquired, for me, two deeper resonances. On one level, Virgil uses the word ‘peace’ to mean an end to the gruelling torment of writing this long, demanding poem, which comes over as being a huge ordeal for him. But the word also means far more than it does to you or me – for the Epicurean Virgil, ‘peace’ represents the nirvana, the blessed state sought for by his philosophy. When he says his characters achieve ‘peace’ or, conversely, are deprived of ‘peace’, it isn’t in the casual way that you or I might use the word, but has this much deeper resonance, referring to a philosophically idealised state of complete detachment from all sources of strife or worry.

Looked at this way, the entire poem represents a kind of vast detour from man’s ideal condition of rest or stasis, into a world of strife and anxiety. It helps to explain Virgil’s sad and doleful tone, lamenting the endless destiny of man to be troubled – by duties, responsibilities, the need to work, to eat, to love, to be a social animal – all of it endlessly distracting from his best, optimum state of complete Buddhist detachment. Hence Virgil’s insistent tone of lamentation over humanity in general, continually remarking on the sadness of their poor mortal existence.

It was the time when sleep, the most grateful gift of the gods, was first beginning to creep over suffering mortals… (2.270)

I guess there’s a third interpretation which is literally to do with rest after physical labour. This harks back to the many images in the Georgics of the sheer amount of physical labour involved in human existence. How many times in that long book did weary shepherds, farmers, goatherds, horticulturalists and livestock herders and outdoor workers greet the end of the day, the westering of the sun, as a welcome sign of the end of their day’s labours. Well, that tone is repeated again and again in the Aeneid. Night and, with it, sleep, represent welcome oblivion for animals and humans exhausted by their labours.

It was night and weary living things were peacefully taking their rest upon the earth. (4.522)

It was night and over the whole earth the weary animals, all manner of birds and all manner of flocks, were already deep in sleep.. (8.28)

Over the whole world the creatures of the earth were relaxed in sleep, all resting from their cares, and their hearts had forgotten their labours… (9.226)

Contrasting with the mellifluous descriptions of restful sleep are the hard descriptions of the scenes of fighting and the days of war (especially in the harsh, second half of the Aeneid, which I’ll be discussing in a later blog post).

Bitter grief was everywhere. Everywhere there was fear and death in many forms. (2.369)

Aurora meanwhile had lifted up her life-giving light for miserable mortals, bringing back their toil and sufferings. (11.184)

As an English poet wrote, 1,600 years later:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.


Roman reviews

The Georgics by Virgil (39 to 29 BC)

Time’s flying by, time we’ll never know again,
while we in our delighted state savour our subject bit by bit.
(Eclogue 3, lines 284 to 285)

Publius Vergilius Maro (70 to 19 BC), generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Poetic background to the Georgics

In about 39 BC Virgil became part of the circle of poets associated with Gaius Cilnius Maecenas (70 to 8 BC), close friend and political advisor to Gaius Octavius, who was to become the first Roman Emperor under the name Augustus. According to the introduction to the Peter Fallon OUP translation of the Georgics, they took Virgil seven years to write, 35 to 28 BC (Fallon p.xxxix).

There are four Georgics. If Virgil took the Greek poet Theocritus as his model for the Eclogues, in the Georgics he bases himself on the much older, ‘archaic’ Greek poet Hesiod, author of Works and Days, a miscellany of moral and religious advice mixed in with practical instruction on agriculture.

Virgil’s four long poems pretend to be giving practical advice to the traditional figure of the Roman smallholder. The word ‘georgic’ comes from the Greek word γεωργικά (geōrgika) which means ‘agricultural (things)’. But in fact the advice, although extensive, manages somehow to be very shallow and is certainly not very practical. An entire book is devoted to the care of bees but nothing about, say, goats or chickens.

Moreover, the nominal addressee, the smallholder, was a vanishing figure in Virgil’s day. Already by 73 BC Spartacus’s gladiators, marching across Italy, were amazed to discover the quaint patchwork of family farms they were expecting to find had been swept away and replaced with vast estates or latifundia worked not by cosy extended families but by armies of badly treated slaves (many of whom they recruited to their cause). The word ‘slave’ occurs nowhere in the Georgics just as the harsh economic and social realities of the Roman countryside are ignored. So what was Virgil’s real motive for writing these long and often very detailed texts?

Political background

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press edition of the Georgics translated by Cecil Day Lewis, the classicist R.O.A.M. Lyne pins everything on their historic context. The period 39 to 29 saw ongoing political instability with a barely maintained alliance between Julius Caesar’s adoptive son, Gaius Octavianus (who had renamed himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in honour of his assassinated great-uncle, and is generally referred to by historians as as Octavian) and his colleague in the so-called Second Triumvirate, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony).

In 36 Antony embarked on his ill-fated campaign to invade the Parthian Empire in the East, while Octavian led a campaign to defeat Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus’s surviving son, Sextus Pompeius, who had established a military and naval base in Sicily.

Antony lost badly and retreated to Egypt, while Octavian astutely used the Sicilian War to force the retirement of the third triumvir, Lepidus, thus making himself ruler of the central and western Mediterranean. Throughout 33 and 32 BC he promoted fierce propaganda in the senate and people’s assemblies against Antony, accusing him of going native in Egypt, transgressing all Roman values, abandoning his legal Roman wife (Octavia) and debasing himself in a slavish passion to the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra.

In 32 BC Octavian manipulated the senate into depriving Antony of his executive powers and declaring war on Cleopatra. It was another genuine civil war because, despite decades of anti-Egyptian propaganda, and the record of his own scandalous misbehaviour and defeats in Parthia, a large number of the Roman ruling class still identified with Antony. On the declaration of war, both consuls, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and Gaius Sosius, and a third of the senate abandoned Rome to meet Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.

Nonetheless, the decisive naval Battle of Actium in September 32 was a disaster for Antony. When he saw Cleopatra’s contingent leaving his side, he abandoned his own fleet to follow her. Octavian then led his army to Egypt and besieged the capital, Alexandria. After the Egyptian fleet sallied out only to defect to Octavian, both Antony and Cleopatra realised the game was up and committed suicide rather than be captured and dragged through the streets of Rome in a vulgar triumph.

So the Georgics were composed during yet another period of prolonged and bitter civil dispute and then open warfare between Romans. And so, Lyne suggests, their real purpose was not in the slightest to give ‘practical’ advice to that non-existent figure, the Latin smallholding farmer. Their intention was moral and religious.

In reaction to an era of chaos and destruction, Virgil wrote four works hymning the values of hard work, piety and peace.

Lyne’s overview

In his introduction to the Oxford University Press (OUP) edition, R.O.A.M. Lyne gives a précis of each of the four books and then proceeds to an overarching thesis. For him the key books are 1 and 4. Book 1 gives a tough, unsentimental description of farming as demanding unremitting effort and attention. The text is packed with instructions on what to expect and what to do at key moments throughout the year.

However, the final book is a lengthy description of bees and bee-keeping and, in Lyne’s opinion, this represents a significant shift in Virgil’s opinion. When restoring the Republic seemed an option, albeit remote, a society of rugged individuals seemed a desirable prospect. However, sometime during the decade 39 to 29 Virgil appears to have changed his view and come round to the opinion that only the suppression of individualism and the submission of individuals to the needs of the community can benefit or save society as a whole. In other words, the progress of the four books embodies Virgil’s move from Republican to Imperial thinking.

It’s a powerful interpretation but, as Lyne points out, there’s a lot of other stuff going on the Georgics as well. Lyne ends this very political interpretation by saying that it is only one interpretation and others are possible. And also that there are long stretches which are just beautiful poetry, in the same sense that an 18th or 19th century landscape painting may have had umpteen ulterior motives (not least to gratify the landowner who paid for it) but it can also just be…beautiful – just there to be enjoyed as a sensual evocation of country life.

Packed

I don’t have a problem with Lyne’s interpretation, I get it in a flash. The real problem is in fully taking on board, processing and assimilating what are very dense poems. The Georgics are far from easy to read because they are so cluttered. And (it has to be said) badly laid out. I found them confusing. It was only by dint of reading the first one three times, and introductions to it twice, that I began to get a handle on what is going on. When you read a summary saying it describes a calendar year in terms of the many jobs that a smallholding farmer needs to do, it sounds graspable and rational, but it is much more than that.

The passage of the year is difficult to grasp because Virgil doesn’t mark it off by clearly describing the passage of the seasons let alone the months. And when he does do it, he does it via astrology i.e. the coming into dominance of various star signs. For the ancients this counted as knowledge (and is still serving that function in, for example, the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, 1,400 years later) but for us it obscures the dating.

Also, Virgil rarely alights on one subject, announces it clearly and describes it properly. Instead, line after line describe individual sights or features of the season, rivers flooding, leaves falling, lists of crops that need to be sown, lists of weeds that need to be hoed up, and the behaviour of domestic and wild animals.

My view is the poem is designed to be a cornucopia, a horn of plenty. It is designed not to be a clear and rational handbook, but to overflow with images. It’s not so much a depiction of country life as a feast of agricultural lore and traditions and descriptions.

Two translations

I have the Georgics in two translations. I bought the old Day Lewis translation, albeit packed in a shiny new OUP paperback, because it was the only cheap way of getting the Eclogues. However, I found Day Lewis’s verse rhythms a little unwieldy, maybe because he is closely following or ghosting the strict hexameter of Virgil’s original, or maybe it’s his 1940s style, I don’t know. I struggled through his translation of the first Georgic.

But I had also bought the OUP paperback edition of a much more recent translation, by Peter Fallon, from 2004. Oh my God, it is a totally different reading experience. Fallon appears to translate it into something approaching free verse where the length and rhythm of each line appears to vary to suit the meaning and vocabulary of each individual line. It is enormously more appealing and attractive and readable than the Day Lewis.

Georgic 1 (514 lines)

Yes, unremitting labour
And harsh necessity’s hand will master anything.
(Day Lewis, lines 145 to 146)

‘pitiful man’ (Fallon, 238)

Opening prayer to various agricultural deities (Liber/Bacchus, Ceres, Neptune, Pan, Minerva, Triptolemos, Sylvanus) and then to Augustus (‘and I address you, too, O Caesar’), with 15 lines prophesying Augustus’s divinity, his place among the stars, a new sign of the zodiac etc.

At which point Virgil plunges straight into a description of ‘the sweet o’ the year’ which I take to be spring, when streams begin to melt and clods crumble and it’s time to put the bull before ‘the deep-pointed plough’ etc. A litany of agricultural products, including ones from far flung regions of the earth (Arabia), each from its specific place as ordained by nature.

Plough the soil twice (line 48). Rotate crops. Respect the laws Nature has imposed on the soil (60). Fertilise the soil with manure (80) or spread ashes. Set fire to stubble (he speculates why this seems to work). Break the soil with hoe and mattock (95). The countryman should pray for wet summers and mild winters (100).

Then something which none of the summaries I’d read had quite prepared me for: Virgil says Jupiter has made husbandry difficult in order to prevent idleness. Honey used to fall from the trees, the crops sowed themselves, there were never storms. Jupiter overturned all this and deliberately made life hard in order to spur men’s creativity. God overturned the Golden Age in order to make men creative, come up with tools and processes. God instantiated into the world, into the way of things, a fundamental need for work, piety and order:

Hard work prevailed, hard work and pressing poverty. (146)

Because now, since God’s intervention, nature is set towards decline and fall, entropy, things fall apart, unless maintained with unremitting toil:

world forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall (200)

Like a man paddling a canoe against the current; if you stop for even a second, you are borne backwards and lose all your work.

Back to practicalities, Virgil describes the construction of the ideal plough (160 to 175). It hovers between instructions of a sort, for example, how to build a proper threshing floor (178) – and the history of agriculture i.e. who invented what under the inspiration of which god or goddess.

Work according to the sky / stars / the zodiac, with different tasks appropriate under Arcturus, the Charioteer, Draco (205), Taurus, the Dog, the Seven Sisters. At the equinox sow barley, linseed and poppies (212). But in springtime (see what I mean by the chronology jumping around a bit?) sow alfalfa and millet (215).

An extended passage on the structure of the globe, consisting of freezing zones at each pole, an uninhabitably hot zone in the middle, and two temperate zones inhabitable my ‘pitiful man’ in between. This morphs into a description of the underworld, dark and infernal, inside the earth.

So: the importance of always being aware of the seasons and the stars and the constellations (252). If it rains, there are lots of odd jobs to do indoors, which he proceeds to list (260). Some days are, traditionally, lucky and some very unlucky for different types of work, Beware the fifth!’ (276). ‘The seventeenth’s a lucky day’ (284).

This morphs into consideration of what tasks are appropriate for times of the day, with a sweet description of a countryman staying up all night by winter firelight to edge his tools, while his wife weaving and minding a boiling pot (296).

Winter is a time of rest but there are still chores: gathering up acorns, setting traps for herons (307).

In a confusing passage he says he’s going to describe the trials of autumn (following winter) but then of spring. Since this follows vivid evocations of winter, it shows how the poem is not a neat chronology moving through the seasons of the year at all; it’s a confusing mess.

The book comes to a first climax with the description of a great storm in lines 311 to 350. He describes the sudden devastation of raging storms and rainstorms, Jupiter, ‘squire of the sky’, straddling the skies and sending down deluges and laying human hearts low in panic. For which reason, observe the stars and zodiac and make your offerings to the appropriate gods (338) in particular Ceres, and a passage describing various rituals and observances.

But this is barely done before we’re off describing the meaning of the different phases of the moon. You tell a storm at sea is coming when cormorants fly inland, herons forsake the lake and there are shooting stars (366).

Quite a long passage listing countrymen’s signs to detect the approach of rain (374 to 392). This, like many of these passages, is really beautiful. I loved the crow cawing Rain, rain and the housewife working by lamplight noticing the sputtering of the wick.

Or the signs predicting sunshine and clear weather: stars unblurred, the moon brighter. 12 lines on how ravens croak and caw to celebrate the coming of fine weather (410 to 412).

More reasons for why you need to pay attention to the sun and moon. How to interpret different appearances of the moon (427 to 437). Same for different appearances of the sun, clear, blurred, emerging from clouds, with tinges of other colours, and so on: ‘Who’d dare to question the sun’s word?’ (438 to 464).

And mention of the sun’s signs leads us into the last 40 or so lines, 2 pages of paperback text, in which Virgil lists some of the portents associated with Caesar’s assassination and the coming of the civil war. These are far more lurid and ridiculous than anything in Plutarch. According to Virgil, cattle spoke, the Alps trembled, ghosts walked abroad at night, statues wept, rivers ground to a halt, the Po flooded and devastated farmland, wells spouted blood, wolves howled all night long.

This is all very vivid but, stepping back a bit – it is all twaddle. How much of this nonsense did men like Virgil and Plutarch genuinely believe? If even a fraction, then ‘credulous fools’ would be a polite description of them.

Anyway, Virgil deliberately conflates the universal upheaval triggered by Caesar’s assassination with other signs and portents observed before the Battle of Philippi, where Octavian and Antony defeated the assassins (as depicted in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar). In fact the notes tell me something I would have never noticed, which is that Virgil also conflates it with the Battle of Pharsalus, where Caesar triumphed over Pompey, 6 years earlier in 48 BC.

He clearly does so in order to create a grand sense of wear and ruin in order to finish the book with…a second hymn to Octavian. He begs Romulus and Vesta, patrons of Rome, to stand back and allow the rise of young Octavian:

this young one who comes to save / a world in ruins (500)

In fact, it doesn’t end with the sycophantic words of praise I was expecting but with a vivid ten lines or so depicting a world run completely mad with war (lines 505 to 514), like (in a simile as vivid as the one about the rower borne back by the tide) a charioteer competing in the circus whose horses run out of control, he can’t rein them in, a world hurtling towards ruin.

Little conclusion

Pyne points out that the overall vibe of the book is negative. If we neglect the principles of hard work, fail to follow best practice, are not sufficiently alert to all the signs of nature and the gods – then we will have chaos and destruction. The harshness of Virgil’s tone reflects the very bitter experience of civil wars he has lived through. Pyne takes this to be the meaning of the ‘tumultuous’ consequences of the assassination of Caesar and it’s pretty obvious in the vision of chaos at the very end of the eclogue. Only Octavian/Augustus offers any hope of salvation.

Georgic 2 (542 lines)

Book 2 is less harsh and more attractive. It starts by hymning trees before focusing in on the vine. Its moral is that Nature is fruitful, especially in Italy.

Invocation to Bacchus, god of wine, to be with him and support him. Then a second dedication, to Maecenas, Virgil’s friend and patron.

Lesson one is about trees and how they seed themselves and grow. Many species and many varieties, oak, elm, ash, alder etc etc. Each land has trees specific to it. The medicinal attributes of citron.

A passage of praise of Italy, a passage which came to have its own name, the Laudes Italiae (lines 136 to 176): ‘Hail to thee Italy, holy mother of all that grows, mother of men ‘ (173), mixed with an address to Caesar, ‘first of all mankind’ (170). I keep thinking I must read a biography of Mussolini to see how much of this slavish praise of a dictator was revived 2,000 years later.

Different types of terrain and soil, the wooded fields and open spaces of Tarentum, the rolling plains of Mantua etc.

Black friable soil is best for corn, gravel in a hilly place, chalkland. The best soil for olives. The difference between land for corn and land for vines. Order the rows of vines like troops lined up for battle (279). Dig shallow trenches for vines, but deep holes for trees. Don’t plan a vineyard facing west.

The perils of wildfires. Don’t plough rock solid ground while north winds bare their teeth.

Best to sow vines in the spring for then the almighty father, Air, marries the earth, penetrating her body with showers. This is a beautifully sensuous passage which, apparently, is famous enough to have been given its own name, the Praises of Spring (323 to 345).

After you’ve planted your vines you need to hoe and weed them, then erect canes and supports (358). At first pluck new buds only with your fingers, don’t use metal tools.

Build hedges to keep animals out (371). Their incessant nibbling and destruction of crops, especially vines, is why a goat is sacrificed to the god Bacchus (380). An extended passage on how Virgil associates rural worship of Bacchus with the origins of theatre and the origin of sacrifices and rites they still perform.

More work: break up the clods around vines and clear away leaves (401).

Virgil makes reference to the turning of the year, the procession of the seasons, and yet his poem emphatically does NOT follow the cycle of the seasons at all. It is NOT rational, ordered or structured, but wanders all over the place, one digression after another.

More chores with vines, but he suddenly switches to consideration of olive growing (420). Olives do it by themselves, as do apple trees.

Clover must be cut for fodder. Deep in the woods pines are cut down to provide firewood.

Suddenly we are in the far distant Caucasus, home to various useful trees (440) and what tools are made from them.

Then suddenly back to Bacchus and, with no logic I can discern, into a final hymn in praise of country life (458 to 542). How lucky the lowly countryman who doesn’t live in a mansion crowded with sycophants! He has the quiet, carefree life! Pools of running water, cool grottos, naps in the shade and sweet Justice.

Then he turns to address himself and used to wish that sweet Poetry would open up to him the secrets of the earth (480). But since that appears not to be happening, maybe because of his ‘heart’s lack of feeling’, well, at least let him be satisfied with rural beauty and streams running through glens.

In line 490 he appears to envy one referred to only as ‘that man’ who is lucky enough to understand the workings of the world and escaped fear of hell and death. Even without the note I’d have guess this referred to Epicurus, whose entire materialist philosophy was designed to assuage anxiety, especially when it goes on to confirm that this man is not interested in the bitter competition for high public office which led to the downfall of the Republic.

The different types of bad rich man are enumerated in lines 495 to 512 – then compared with the simple countryman who tills his native soil and increases its wealth, who glories in the harvest, who keeps an ordered homestead with dutiful sons, who organises feasts and games for his hired hands (javelin throwing, wrestling matches). Ah, those were the virtuous activities of the old Sabines. Ah, the good old days, the Golden Age of Saturn before his son, Jupiter, overthrew him and instituted the Iron Age when everything became bloody hard work (as described at the start of Georgic 1).

Georgic 3 (566 lines)

George 3 is in two halves and mainly about animal husbandry. The first half is devoted to the selection of  good breeding stock and the breeding of horses and cattle.

The opening 39 lines are nothing whatever to do with rural life, but a poetic invocation describing his ambition to achieve things never before achieved in verse (much the same as invocations on the same theme by Ennius and Lucretius), and a vivid description of a massive festival, complete with elaborate games, he will hold in honour of Caesar. I hadn’t realised Virgil was such a thorough-going courtier and sycophant.

This segues into a secondary invocation to his patron, Maecenas, asking for his help in his self-appointed task. Revealingly, he tells us the time is not far off when he will have to gird himself to write a full account of Caesar/Octavian’s ‘hard-fought battles’ – the plan to celebrate Octavian which evolved into the Aeneid.

So there’s all this fol-de-rol before we get back to the rural tone and subject of the poem, but we’ve barely had 15 lines about horses and horse breeding before Virgil gives way to some moralising lines commiserating poor humans that we are, the best days of our lives are first to fly etc.

Then he finally gets back to the subject in hand – how to recognise good horses to breed, by their age, their colour and their behaviour – but this barely lasts 20 lines before he digresses off to talk about famous horses from mythology, the horses of Pollux, Mars, Achilles, Jupiter and so on.

There are 8 lines on how you shouldn’t choose a knackered old horse which can’t get an erection to breed from, before he’s off on another digression, this time a thrilling description of the horses in a chariot race at the Circus. And then a few lines on the man who first tamed horses and tied four to a chariot i.e. godfather to the circus chariot races (Erichthoneus).

It feels very much as if Virgil doesn’t want to write this boring manual about animal husbandry and would rather be writing a much more exciting epic poem, invoking gods and figures from history.

Anyway: how to choose and prepare the stallion; how to prepare the mares for insemination namely by lots of exercise so, when they are mounted, they will tuck the seed away deep inside; when they are pregnant don’t use them to pull carts or let them swim in rivers.

Avoid the gadfly which will drive them into a frenzy, as it did when Hera turned Io into a heifer and set it on her. Only release pregnant horses out to pasture at dawn or as evening falls.

When they foal, the best will be selected for sacrifice, some for breeding and some for farmwork. How to train young horses to bear a collar and bridge (170).

How to train a horse for warfare, to become a cavalry mount (179 to 194).

Sex

And it’s at this point that we come to the most striking passage in the poem which concerns sex. From line 209 onwards the narrator counsels horse breeders to keep male horses and cattle away from females. This is the best way of ensuring their strength. This leads into an extended set piece on the futile and destructive lengths to which sexual passion drives animals and, by implication, men. It is a wild fantastical passion, a helter-skelter of images and legends of horses and other animals (lioness, bear, boar, tiger) running completely mad with lust and sexual frenzy.

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(242 to 244)

As Pyne puts it, this isn’t a description, it’s a denunciation and Pyne links it to Epicurus’s great denunciation of irrational sexual passion in De rerum natura book 4. Certainly, this makes little or no sense as ‘practical’ advice to any farmer: it is clearly didactic moralising. Virgil is making a general point about The Good Life and asserting that passion must be eliminated in order to enable the peaceful and moral life.

Anyone familiar with the plot of his great epic poem, the Aeneid, knows that this is the thrust of the most famous narrative sequence, where prince Aeneas falls in love with Queen Dido of Carthage and is strongly tempted to settle down and be happy with her but, eventually, acknowledges his destiny, puts duty above love, and abandons her to sail for Italy. Sex, and all forms of emotion, must be renounced in order to lead The Good Life and fulfil one’s duty.

At line 284 he pivots to the second half of the book. This is devoted to the care and protection of sheep and goats and their by-products.

Death

Some very lovely lines about taking out sheep and goats to their summer pasture first thing in the morning when the dew is glistening (322).

For some reason shepherds from Libya occur to him, who are in constant motion because their land is so hot; and this triggers a description of the exact opposite, an extended description of the legendary people who live in the farthest north, near the pole, and endure conditions of ultimate winter (352 to 383). Structurally, a lot of the poem consists of a kind of learnèd free association.

Half a dozen lines about how to choose a breeding ram segue into a legend about Pan disguising himself as a sheep in order to seduce the moon. If you want milk, give your ewes lucerne, clover and salted grass.

Keep dogs, they will help you hunt, protect against rustlers at night or wolves.

In cattle stalls burn juniper to keep snakes at bay. Kills snakes with a big rock or stick (420). Extended description of a particularly fearsome three-tongued serpent.

At line 440 Virgil commences a new subject, the diseases which afflict livestock, with an extended description of how to treat scab. If sheep bleat for pain and have a fever, bleed them from a vein in the feet. If you see a ewe dilly-dallying or sloping off to slump under the shade of a tree, waste no time in killing it to prevent the infection spreading (468).

Just as a great storm wrecks the farmer’s work in the first Georgic, the third Georgic moves towards  an extended description of the havoc and devastation among livestock caused by an actual historical plague  which broke out in Noricum (470 to 566). (To be clear: a plague affecting only of animals, not humans.)

Animals selected for sacrifice died at the altar; entrails refuse to light; a knife slipped under the skin draws no blood; calves dropped in droves; house-trained dogs went mad; pigs’ throats welled up so they couldn’t breathe; horses fell sick; the plough ox collapsed.

Lyne interprets this to mean that the farmer must acknowledge, that even if he follows all the rules laid down in Georgic 1, is pious and hard working and true, a hellish plague may come along and ruin his life’s work. The dying ox is anthropomorphised as if it had human feelings:

All the work he did, all he contributed – and to what end? (525)

It was a universal plague: fish died on the shore; seals tried to escape upriver; vipers died in their dens; birds fell dead out of the skies. There was no cure, all the animals died and their hides and skins were worthless; anyone who tried to wear them broke out in ‘a fester of pustules’. And with that, the book abruptly ends.

In the face of overwhelming external forces of destruction, what is the reasonable man to do?

Georgic 4 (566 lines)

Georgic 4 is about bees and bee keeping. Instructions to the beekeeper. An interlude describing an old gardener, Corycian (116 to 148). Then the bee description develops into an obvious allegory.

Bee society stands for a model of ideal human society: absolute patriotism, complete concord, total subordination of the self to the common good. In line 201 the bees are even referred to as quirites, the Latin word for Roman citizens. And yet all this harmony and submission is based on service to a monarch (lines 210 onwards), an extremely unroman attitude, the precise thing all Romans have railed against for the entire history of the Republic.

His bees are also absolutely passionless (197 onwards):

bees refrain from intercourse, their bodies never
weaken into the ways of love

This is obviously picking up the denunciation of passion from Georgic 3, continuing the Epicurean attack on passion. (Just as obviously, Virgil’s entire account of bee keeping is wildly wrong and shows no understanding of how bees reproduce. Amazingly, Virgil seems to imply that bees populate their hive  by discovering their young on leaves in lovely meadows, 4.201).

The book ends with by recapitulating the end of Georgic 3, but this time with a happy ending. For, whereas human society may be ruined by a cataclysmic plague, devastated bee societies can be restored. The poem describes the method for recreating devastated bee colonies as the invention of one Aristaeus and describes it at length.

The most obvious thing about the relatively short passage giving practical advice on how to create a bee colony is it’s twaddle. Virgil describes at length how to rebuild a bee colony (4.295 to 314). Take a bull calf 2 years old. Build an enclosure with apertures facing the four directions of the wind and a tiled roof. Plug his nostrils and, despite his struggles, beat him to death, though without breaking the skin. Under his ribcage place branches of thyme and newly picked spurge laurel. Do all this before the onset of spring. The dead bull’s bones will start to ferment, and from them insects will appear: at first legless, but then with wings, eventually spilling out like rain.

Do you think that’s how modern beekeepers create a new colony?

The Aristaeus epyllion (lines 317 to 566)

After giving this absurd advice, Virgil shifts to safer ground and cuts and pastes into the end of this book a relatively long mythological poem. All the critics refer to this as an epyllion, being ‘a relatively short narrative poem (or discrete episode in a longer work) that shows formal affinities with epic but whose subject and poetic techniques are not characteristic of epic proper.’

Just to be crystal clear, the entire rationale of the previous three poems, to provide ‘practical’ advice for yeoman farmers, is simply dropped. Instead we enter a completely different imaginative realm, a sustained piece of mythological writing.

Virgil has Aristaeus lament the collapse of his farming efforts to his mother, the nymph Cyrene, living in the river Peneius, sitting spinning wool attended by her handmaidens, who are each lovingly named, leading into another passage which gives a similarly sensuous list of classical rivers.

Cyrene gives permission for Aristaeus to be wafted through the waves to her (much sensual description) and he is amazed at life under a river. Then she explains that he will have to go on a mission to capture the god Proteus in order to extract from him the reason why all his (Aristaeus’s) ventures have failed. This permits a florid description of Proteus’s legendary ability to change shape.

Cut to a lovely description of night falling over the sea and the cave where Proteus lives, surrounded by the race of mermen splashing in the briny sea while seals frolic around them. Aristaeus pounces and holds him tight, whatever shape Proteus assumes. Eventually, tired out, Proteus he admits defeat, at which point Aristaeus asks his question.

As in a chamber of mirrors, Proteus then explains that Aristaeus has undergone the punishment of his labours on the orders of Orpheus who is angry with him for the role he played in the abduction of his beloved Eurydice.

What? Where did all this come from?

It seems that Aristaeus was in love with Eurydice, too, and one day pursued her out of lust so that she stumbled across a seven-headed water snake and was bitten and died. Hence her passage to the underworld, hence Orpheus’s journey thither to reclaim her. Here’s a taste of one aspect of an epyllion’s epic style i.e. stuffing the text with exotic place names:

Then the chorus of her peers, the Dryads, filled the mountaintops with their lament,
the heights of Rhodope cried out, too, in mourning,
as did lofty Pangaea, and the land of the warring Rhesus,
and the Getae, the river Hebrus and the princess Orothyia.
(4.460 to 464)

There follows an extensive description of Orpheus venturing down into the underworld to the amazement of its denizens, his pleading with the god of hell to release his beloved, her release and their slow progress back up towards the light when, of course, in a moment of madness, Orpheus looked behind him, broke his promise and Eurydice disappeared back into the shadows.

Returned to earth, Orpheus spends ages bewailing his fate, seven months singing his lamentations, until the bacchantes, thinking themselves slighted by his obsession, tore him to pieces and distributed the pieces throughout the land. But even in death Orpheus’s head continued to cry out ‘Eurydice’ as it was carried down the river.

At which point Proteus ends his recitation of the Orpheus story and plunges back into the waves, handing the narrative back to Atraeus’s mother, Cyrene. Cyrene summarises: so that’s the reason Orpheus cursed his agricultural work. The only cure is to make an offering, and pay respect to the nymphs, and she gives instructions on how to do this:

Select four bulls and four heifers. Build four altars ‘by the tall temples of the goddesses’. Cut their throats and let the blood pour. Leave the carcasses in a leafy den. After nine days send as offerings to Orpheus soporific poppies and sacrifice a black ewe, then go back to the thicket (presumably where the 8 cattle corpses are) and worship Eurydice with a slaughtered calf.

So Aristaeus does exactly as his mummy told him and lo and behold, when he returned to the thicket nine days later…

And there they met a miracle and looked it in the face –
from those cattle’s decomposing flesh, the hum of bees,
bubbling first, then boiling over and, trailing giant veils into the trees,
they hung like grapes in bunches from the swaying branches.

In other words, this enormous digression has been by way of explaining how Aristaeus discovered that killing cattle and letting them rot, under the right conditions, triggers the creation of a colony of bees! Wow. What a round-the-houses way of doing it. As Seneca said (every commentary I’ve read mentions this opinion of Seneca) Virgil never intended his book for the instruction of anyone, let alone an actual farmer: it is an aristocratic entertainment, pure and simple.

Virgil’s conclusion

Virgil rounds out his book with a 9-line conclusion:

Such was the song that I took on to sing, about the care of crops
and stock, and trees with fruit, while he, our mighty Caesar,
was going hell for leather along the great Euphrates
adding victory to triumph, winning the war for people who appreciate his deeds,
and laying down the law – enough to earn his place in heaven.

And I, Virgil, was lying in the lap of Naples, quite at home
in studies of the arts of peace, I, who once amused myself
with rustic rhymes, and, still a callow youth,
sang of you Tityrus, as I lounged beneath the reach of one great beech.
(4. 458 to 566)

Pyne’s interpretation

Pyne largely ignores the presence of the epyllion to focus on the last piece of practical advice in the book, about how to recreate a bee colony. For Pyne the metaphor is clear: war or revolution may devastate a society, but that society may be recreated and regenerated by a saviour, a man of destiny, particularly if that man has divine parentage like… like Augustus Caesar, adoptive son of the now deified Julius.

Thus, in Pyne’s view, the poem dramatises a problem in political and moral theory: Georgic 3 shows that, no matter how hard working and pious the individual is, all his work may still be ruined by forces beyond his control. Georgic 4 offers the solution, which is to shift the focus away from the individual altogether, and see things from the perspective of the entire society.

If the individual can identify, not with his personal, highly fragile situation, but with society as a whole, in particular with a strong leader, then he can rise above the tribulations of his individual story.

Incompletion

There is another interpretation of the plonking down of this extended epyllion into the fourth Georgic (at 249 lines, it makes up nearly half the book). This is that Virgil really struggled to finish things. I’m saying this with advance knowledge that he, notoriously, failed to complete – to his own satisfaction – his epic poem, the Aeneid, and asked his literary executors to burn it (which the latter, very fortunately, refused to do).

The fourth Georgic, and therefore the book as a whole, doesn’t work its subject through in the same way the previous ones did. Instead it feels like Virgil has abandoned his subject and treatment completely – until the very end where he suddenly brings his long story back to being, rather improbably, about how the first farmer learned to recreate a bee colony.

This thought highlights in retrospect what struck me as odd in the previous books, which is Virgil’s complaints about how hard he was finding it to write the damn thing. When he invokes his patron Maecenas, more often than not it’s because he’s really struggling to write. At the start of book 1 he asks Caesar to ‘grant him an easy course’.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right,
have no second thoughts before the great adventure into which I’ve launched myself.
Not that I could ever hope to feature all things in my verses –
not even if I had a hundred mouths, as many ways of speech,
and a voice as strong as iron. Stand by me now – as we proceed along the shoreline…
(2.39 to 40)

Meanwhile we’ll trace the Dryads’ woods and virgin glades,
no little task that you’ve laid out for me, Maecenas,
for without encouragement from you, what could I amount to?
Come on! Help me shake off this lassitude…
(3.40 to 43)

Was it a task laid on him by Maecenas? And then there are the other places where Maecenas isn’t mentioned but Virgil candidly shares with the reader the sheer effort of writing this stuff, like his sigh of relief at getting to the end of book 2:

But we have covered vast tracts of matter and, besides,
it’s high time that we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.541 to 542)

And the several times in book 4 that he gets excited about the fact that he’s nearly bloody finished:

Indeed, if I were not already near the limit of my undertaking,
furling my sails and hurrying my prow to shore…
(4.116 to 117)

And his apology that he’s running out of time and space:

The like of this, however, I must forgo – time and space conspiring
to defeat me – and leave for later men to make more of.
(4.147 to 148)

Why? Why couldn’t Virgil have carried on for another year and described these things fully? No doubt it’s a familiar trope or topos to include in an extended poem, but still…it speaks to Virgil’s sense of himself as unable to finish, harassed by time but, deeper down, haunted by inadequacy and incompletion.

The influence of Lucretius

As soon as I learned that Georgic 3 ends with an extended description of a plague I immediately thought of the powerful but odd way that Lucretius’s long didactic poem describing Epicurean belief, De rerum natura, also ends in a devastating plague, of Athens (albeit it’s important to emphasise that Lucretius’s plague afflicts humans whereas Virgil’s one decimates only animals).

Epicurus had already made an appearance in Georgic 2 in the passage towards the end which describes a great man who both understands how the universe works and is divinely detached from the strife-ridden competition for political office which has wrecked Rome.

Pyne emphasises Lucretius’s influence by pointing out the several places where Virgil insists on the absence of passion as being a crucial prerequisite for happiness which, of course, evoke Lucretius’s Good Life of divinely passionless detachment. Pyne doesn’t fully explore the Lucretius connection so I might as well quote Wikipedia on the subject:

The philosophical text with the greatest influence on the Georgics as a whole was Lucretius’ Epicurean epic De rerum natura. G. B. Conte notes that ‘the basic impulse for the Georgics came from a dialogue with Lucretius.’ David West states that Virgil is ‘saturated with the poetry of Lucretius, and its words, phrases, thought and rhythms have merged in his mind, and become transmuted into an original work of poetic art.’

I found this very interesting because, as I know from my reading of Cicero’s De rerum deorum, Cicero strongly criticised Epicureanism, principally because it counselled withdrawal from the public realm, whereas Cicero espoused Stoicism, which was more suitable to his model of the responsible Republican citizen throwing himself into the permanent civil strife which is what Republican politics consisted of.

Stoicism = political involvement = messy Republican democracy = Cicero

Epicureanism = political detachment = submission to the princeps = Virgil

Invocations

Worth reminding myself how many invocations there are in the poem. These are (it seems to me) of three types.

1. Virgil tends to start each book with an extended appeal to one or more gods, chosen to be appropriate to the subject matter, calling on them to assist him in his task or organising the right material and help his eloquence.

2. As mentioned above, he also appeals to his worldly patron, Maecenas, friend and cultural fixer for Augustus.

And you, Maecenas, stand behind me now in this, the work I’ve taken on,
you to whom the largest fraction of my fame belongs by right…
(2.39 to 40)

Lend kind ears to this part, my lord Maecenas (4.2)

3. Lastly, there are the direct addresses to Octavian/Caesar/Augustus himself, or references to his greatness:

and I address you too, O Caesar, although none knows the gathering of gods
in which you soon will be accommodated…
(1.24 to 25)

Long, long ago since heaven’s royal estate
begrudged you first your place among us, Caesar…
(1. 502 to 503)

…and you yourself, Caesar, first of all mankind,
you who, already champion of Asia’s furthest bounds,
rebuffs the craven Indian from the arched portals of the capital…
(2.170 to 173)

These addresses are often very extravagant, witness the 18 lines at the start of book 1 (1.24 to 42) extravagantly wondering whether Caesar will be gathered among the gods, whether the wide world will worship him as begetter of the harvest or master of the seasons, or whether he will become ‘lord of the endless sea’, worshipped by sailors, or becomes a new sign of the zodiac. Whatever the details, his power will reach to the ends of the earth and everyone will bow down to him.

These are quite extravagantly oriental obeisances before a Great Ruler, worthy of the emperors of Babylon or Assyria. In Georgic 3 Virgil dreams of erecting a marble temple in his home town of Mantua, by the banks of the river Mincius and:

At its centre I’ll place Caesar, master of the shrine,
and in his honour – the day being mine – resplendent in my purple robes,
I’ll drive five score of teams-of-four up and down along the bank.
(3.16 to 19)

But the thing is… Virgil was right. Augustus did usher in a new golden age of peace and prosperity and he was worshipped as a god (in the superstitious East, anyway), had a month named after him and any number of other imperial honours.

Fallon fantastic

Spring it is, spring that’s good to the core of the wood, to the leaves of groves,
spring that reawakens soil and coaxes seeds to fruitfulness.
(1.323)

The Peter Fallon translation of the Georgics is absolutely brilliant. Rather than sticking to any defined metre, his lines feel wonderfully free, each line free to have the rhythm and shape its content suggests. That means there is no monotony of rhythm but a continual cascade of surprises. Here’s his translation of Virgil’s (oblique) description of Epicurus:

That man has all the luck who can understand what makes the world
tick, who has crushed underfoot his fears about
what’s laid out in store for him and stilled the roar of Hell’s esurient river.
(2.400 to 402)

The tone is relaxed (‘what makes the world tick’), the rhythm is deliberately playful (holding ‘tick’ over till the second line), there are rhymes but not at each line end, instead dotted artfully within the line (‘about/out’ and ‘store/roar’) and then a surprise at the end where he allows himself the unusual word, the Latinate word ‘esurient’ (meaning hungry or greedy), gently reminding us that this is a translation from another language: the low tone (tick) for us, the high tone (esurient) reminding us of the much more formalised, aristocratic Roman origins of the work.

The free verse allows a free attitude. It allows his lines to be hugely varied and inventive, jewelled with occasional recherché vocabulary (hasky 1.453; smigs 3.311; violaceous 3.372; exscinding 3.468; mastic 4.39, eft 4.242, clabber 4.478, paludal 4.493) and effects subtle or obvious, ever-interesting and accessible. Take the entertaining alliteration, distantly echoing the organising principle of Anglo-Saxon verse:

Now tell me about the tools and tackle unflagging farmers had to have…
(1.160)

I’ll waste none of your time with made-up rhymes,
or riddles, or prolonged preambles.
(2.45 to 46)

It’s high time we released the sweating horses from their halters.
(2.542)

First find a site and station for the bees
far from the ways of the wind…
(4.8 to 9)

a swarming tone that brings to mind the broken blast of a bugle-horn
(4.72)

the Curetes’
songlike sounds, their shields clashing like cymbals.
(4.150 to 151)

on the Nile
whose flowing waters form floodpools
(4.289)

already she was making her stiff way across the Styx
(4.506)

In fact once I started to look for alliteration I found it everywhere: it’s a key component of Fallon’s style. He combines it with internal rhymes for greater effect:

and, though enraptured by such strange delight, they mind
their nestlings and newborn, seed and breed of them.
(4.54 to 56)

the way a troubled sea shrieks and creaks at ebb-tide
(4.262)

He can be intensely lyrical:

Come the sweet o’ the year, when streams begin to melt and tumble down the hoary hills
and clods to crumble underneath the current of west winds…
(1.43 to 44)

Oh for the open countryside
along the Spercheus, or the mountains of Taygetus, its horde of Spartan maidens
ripe for picking! Oh, for the one who’d lay me down to rest
in cool valleys of the Haemus range and mind me in the shade of mighty branches!
(2.486 to 489)

Come night, the youngsters haul themselves back home, exhausted,
leg-baskets loaded down with thyme; they pick randomly on wild strawberry,
the blue-grey willow, spunge laurel (that’s the bee plant), blushing saffron,
and a luxury of limes and lindens and lilies tinted rust.
(4.180 to 184)

Fallon is sometimes demotic i.e. uses everyday turns of phrase:

you might as well get on with it (1.230)

and no let up and no let off, they’re kicking up such a storm (3.110)

The Lapiths, all the way from Pelion, bequeathed us bits and bridles
and – riders astride – the lunging ring, and taught the cavalry
to hit the ground running
(3.115 to 117)

and spare no end of trouble to flesh him out and fatten him up
(3.124)

You see, that’s why they banish horses to the back of beyond
(3.212)

There’s nothing that can snaffle them when they’re in season
(3.269)

at the mercy of the worst those east winds have to offer
(3.383)

…all this
in case an east wind occurred to sprinkle them [bees]
while they were dawdling, or dunked them head first in the drink.
(4.28 to 30)

and on their beaks they hone their stings; they are limbering up
(4.73)

going to no end of bother
(4.265)

And uses short phrases of command in the many places where Virgil tells us to sit up and pay attention, in phrases which are presumably as short and imperative in the original Latin as in this translation:

So pay close attention (1.187)

Keep all this in mind. (2.259)

Listen. Here’s how you’ll tell the sort of soil you’re dealing with. (2.226)

So spare no efforts to shield them from the bite of frosts and icy winds (3.318)

So listen now, while I outline the qualities bestowed on bees by Jupiter…(4.149)

Listen. I’ll tell you all… (4.286)

Mostly, it hovers around a combination of the above with a sort of semi-hieratic, not-too-elevated form of translationese i.e. not language any ordinary English speaker would write, which registers the heightened tone of the original, but without heaviness or portentousness, acknowledging the folk wisdom and maybe proverbial basis of a lot of the content:

For that’s the way it is –
World forces all things to the bad, to founder and to fall
(1.199 to 200)

At moments dipping into Shakespearian phraseology:

And it was he that felt for Rome that time that Caesar fell…
(1.466)

In a slightly different mood I might have complained about this unevenness of tone, except that it’s carried out with such style and charm. You like Fallon for his cheek and tricks and twists and endless invention. It’s a mashup of registers and tones, which matches his mashup of rhythms. There are hundreds of precise and evocative moments. I love his descriptions of birds, especially the crow:

Then a crow, strutting the deserted shore,
proclaims in its mean caw, Rain, rain, and then more rain.
(1.387 to 390)

This is up there with Rolfe Humphrey’s translation of Epicurus as maybe the best two verse translations I’ve ever read.

And that’s a fact

Fallon’s translation has frequent repetition of the phrase ‘that’s a fact’ and ‘it’s a fact and true’ (2.48 and 61), ‘as a matter of true fact’ (4.221).

a) I wonder why Virgil felt the need to keep telling his readers that what he’s telling them is true.

b) It automatically raises the doubt that the opposite is the case. I planted seven trees in my garden this spring, dug over two separate borders, forked in manure and compost, and planted bushes and flowers for bees and insects. I didn’t find a single sentence in all these 2,188 lines of hexameter verse which was remotely useful or even rang a vague bell.

I wonder if any of Virgil’s advice is true. I have no doubt he conscientiously gathered tips and folklore on the widest range of agriculture available to him (and the notes point out his abundant borrowings from all available previous writers on these subjects). I have no doubt that he crammed in as many relevant myths and legends as he could, plus the usual tall tales about remote peoples and their fantastical habits (most memorable is the absolute winter passage in Georgic 3). But I wonder if any of it is true.

What would be interesting to read is an assessment of the book by an agricultural expert, going through line by line, and assessing whether anything he tells us about planting vines or trees (2.290) or nipping buds off new vines (2.366), or how to select the best breeding stallion or ram, or how to ensure a good yield of milk from your sheep – whether any of it is the slightest use.

‘Take my word’ he says (4.279). Should we?


Credit

Georgics by Virgil, translated by Peter Fallon, was first published by The Gallery Press in 2004. I read the 2009 Oxford University Press edition, with an excellent introduction and notes by Elaine Fantham.

Roman reviews

The Eclogues by Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Historical background

Virgil was born in 70 BC, in the consulships of (the bitter rivals) Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaius Pompeius. When Virgil was 7, Cicero was consul and managing the Catiline conspiracy. When he was 10, the rivals Pompey and Crassus were reconciled by Julius Caesar who formed them into the behind-the-scenes alliance which later came to be called the First Triumvirate.

The 50s BC in Rome were characterised by the street violence of rival political gangs led by Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo. For most of the decade (58 to 50) Julius Caesar was racking up famous victories in his campaign to conquer all of Gaul. In 53 Crassus’s army was destroyed by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae and he was killed, ending the triumvirate.

At the end of the 50s, the 18 year old Virgil arrived in Rome to find a career. Throughout 50 BC the political crisis grew deeper and, eventually, in January 49, Caesar illegally led a legion of his Army of Gaul across the river Rubicon, thus triggering civil war with Pompey and the senate. Virgil was 21.

This civil war dragged on for 5 long years, dividing families, laying waste tracts of land which armies marched across despoiling, with a series of battles in which Romans killed Romans at locations around the Mediterranean, until Caesar’s final victory in Spain at the Battle of Munda in March 45.

Caesar returned to Rome and began administering the empire, briskly and efficiently. Soon after he had had himself made dictator for life, he was assassinated in March 44. Virgil was 26. But removing the dictator did not bring the moribund forms of the old Republic back to life, as the conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, had hoped. Instead it inaugurated another 13 years of political instability, with the arrival in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, Gaius Octavius, complicating an already fraught situation.

After initially fighting against Caesar’s former lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, Octavius made peace with him in November 43, inviting a third military leader, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to form what became known as the Second Triumvirate. Virgil was now 27.

In 42 BC the combined forces of Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi (where the poet Horace led a legion on the losing side).

The second triumvirate lasted a long time, from 43 to 31 BC, although the partners often fell out, fiercely criticised each other and sometimes threatened open conflict. Antony assigned himself rule of the eastern Mediterranean in which capacity he a) embarked in 36 BC on an ill-fated attempt to invade the Parthian Empire, which ended in complete failure; and b) based himself in the capital of Egypt, Alexandria, where he famously had a long relationship with its queen, Cleopatra, fathering 2 children by her.

In 36 a war against Pompey’s surviving son, Sextus, who obstinately held the island of Sicily and was using his fleet to attack Roman ships, provided the pretext Octavius needed to accuse Lepidus of ineffectiveness and corruption and send him into internal exile in Italy. Virgil was 34.

The second triumvirate had become a duumvirate and very unstable, with Octavius using Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra to paint him as undignified, unroman, unpatriotic. Eventually Octavius declared open war on Antony, marching his forces to meet Antony’s legions in Greece, and defeating his fleet at the naval Battle of Actium, in September 31, after Cleopatra famously led her small contingent away from the battle, prompting the latter to follow her and abandon his own sailors to defeat.

The ill-fated couple returned to Alexandria and, when Octavius approached the city with his legions, both committed suicide.

Not only was Octavian now the only one of the triumvirate left but, after the long 18 years of almost continual civil war since Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he was the only figure with any authority left in Roman politics.

With astonishing assurance he proceeded to transform the constitution of the old Republic into the shape of what would become the Roman Empire, with him at its centre holding all the strings. Virgil was 39 when Octavius emerged as the strongest figure in Rome, and 43 when, 4 years later, the senate awarded him the title by which he is known to history, ‘Augustus’. His entire adult life had been lived against a backdrop of war, dispute and destruction.

The Oxford University Press edition

The 1930s poet Cecil Day Lewis made translations of The Georgics in 1940 and of The Eclogues in 1963. These (fairly dated) translations are still available in a nifty Oxford University Press paperback, with a 1983 introduction by academic R.O.A.M. Lyne (both, like most classicists, educated at private school and Oxbridge).

Virgil the poet

Let Athena dwell in the cities she has founded. For me the woodlands.
(Eclogue 1, line 62)

Between 42 and 39 Virgil wrote ten short poems known as the Eclogues. In the introduction to this OUP volume, R.O.A.M. Lyne explains that Virgil’s explicit model was the Greek poet Theocritus (300 to 260 BC). Theocritus wrote a variety of poems but is famous for his idylls and bucolics. The word idyll is Greek and originally meant simply ‘little scene’ or ‘vignette’. In Theocritus’s hands, an idyll became a short poem describing an idealised view of country life among peasants, farmers and especially shepherds. A bucolic is a similar form, describing idealised peasant life in the country.

Theocritus helped establish the long literary tradition whereby apparently artless depictions of idealised country life turn out to be the opposite of naive and simple-minded but often the most sophisticated verse of all. Theocritus’s shepherds display a surprising ability to quote previous poets or refer to Greek legend and seem to spend far more time reciting beautifully formed verse to each other than tending their flocks.

Theocritus stands at the start of that tradition that pretending to rural simplicity is nearly always associated with sophisticated and aristocratic audiences who like to take a break from their more serious urban responsibilities with fantasies of country living. Look at the elaborate form and demandingly allegorical content of Spenser’s Faerie Queene or the 18th century’s endless paintings of shepherds and swains. Vide Marie Antoinette’s fondness for dressing up as a shepherdess.

Virgil takes the already sophisticated form Theocritus had developed and adds a whole new range of subterranean depths to it. His stretching of the form he inherited is indicated by the very first eclogue in the set. This deals, albeit tangentially, with a controversial aspect of contemporary Roman policy (see below). Other poems address the turmoil of romantic love with a disruptive intensity not found in Theocritus.

An indication of his difference is that Virgil didn’t use Theocritus’s term, idyll, but called his poems eclogues, eclogue in Latin meaning ‘draft’, ‘selection’ or ‘reckoning’. By the Middle Ages the terms idyllbucolic and eclogue had become almost synonymous.

Eclogue 1

A dialogue between Tityrus and Meliboeus. Tityrus describes having been up to Rome to petition ‘the young prince’ to keep his family land. The prince grants his petition and so Meliboeus is a ‘fortunate old man’, whereas Tityrus laments that he and many like him will be dispersed to Scythia, ‘bone-dry Africa’, even to Britain, ‘that place cut off at the world’s end (line 66).

This poem was probably written in 41 BC, when Octavian was arranging the demobilisation and settlement around Italy of soldiers who had fought for him and Antony in the campaign to defeat the assassins of Julius Caesar, which climaxed in the Battle of Philippi (October 42 BC). Antony went on to sort out the East while Octavian was given the unwelcome task of settling the demobbed veterans. He carried out the very unpopular policy of dispossessing current farmers from their land in order to assign it to veterans (who often had no clue about running a farm, something Meliboeus bitterly points out in this poem):

To think of some godless soldier owning my well-farmed fallow,
A foreigner reaping these crops!

And laments that this is what the civil wars have brought them to:

…To such a pass has civil
Dissensions brought us: for people like these have we sown our fields.

So the first eclogue may be cast as a Theocritan idyll, and feature descriptions of idealised country scenery and farming practices – but it makes no bones about dealing with very contemporary politics, unfair state policy, unfairness and bitterness.

Eclogue 2

By contrast the second eclogue consists of the soliloquy or monologue of the shepherd Corydon who burns with love for the ‘handsome boy’, Alexis. Corydon boasts of his ability with the Pan pipes, the fertility of his flocks, and the idyllicness of the lives they could live together…but to no avail.

And, again, although the poem is deceptively dressed in rural imagery, the feeling is intense:

Yet love still scorches me – love has no lull, no limit. (line 68)

It’s worth pointing out that this is an explicitly homosexual poem, which did Virgil no harm at all with his patron, Maecenas nor his emperor.

Eclogue 3

The third eclogue feels different, again. It features rough and tumble squabbling between Menalcas and Damoetas, which leads up to Damoetas suggesting they hold a singing contest to decide who’s best.

At which point the poem turns from consisting of Virgil’s standard hexameters into alternating series of four-line, four-beat stanzas which have much shorter lines, a lyric format which Day-Lewis captures by making them rhyme.

The wolf is cruel to the sheep,
Cruel a storm to orchard tree,
Cruel is rain to ripened crops,
Amaryllis’ rage is cruel to me.

Eclogue 4

A dramatic departure from the stereotypical idea of an easy-going chat between shepherds, this eclogue is an extremely intense, visionary poem prophesying the birth of a divine baby who will usher in a Golden Age, peace on earth and describes a new age of peace and plenty when farm animals mind themselves and there is enough for all.

Later, Christian, commentators took this to be a prediction of the birth of Christ (about 40 years after the poem was written) and this was part of the mystique that grew up around Virgil in the Middle Ages, one reason why Dante chose him to be his guide through Hell in his long poem, the Divine Comedy.

Chances are, however, that Virgil had a much more mundane practical event in mind. The alliance between Octavian and Antony following Caesar’s assassination was very ropey indeed, and kept needing patching up. One such occasion was the Pact of Brundisium, agreed in 40 BC, whereby, among other provisions, Antony agreed to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia (a betrothal portrayed in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra). According to this interpretation, the ‘saviour child’ of this poem is the son everybody hoped would be born of this union, who would usher in a post-civil war era of peace and plenty.

In the event, the alliance wore very thin before Octavius eventually declared war on Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, leading to their naval defeat at the Battle of Actium and their double suicide soon thereafter. Thus, the cynical reader may conclude, all hyperbolic expectations of a New Age tend to be brutally disappointed by real world politics.

Eclogue 5

In a completely different mood, back in the land of idylls, shepherds Menalcas and Mopsus bump into each other and decide to have a singing contest, taking turns to sing poems they have written about the lovely Daphnis.

Eclogue 6

Two naughty shepherds (Cromis and Mnasyllus) come across the old drunk, Silenus, in a cave and tie him up, but he insists on singing a series of strophes absolutely packed with references to Greek mythology, a kind of 2-page summary of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Eclogue 7

Goatherd Meliboeus relates how Daphnis called him over to listen to a singing competition between Corydon and Thyrsis, who proceed to take turns singing 12 4-line rhyming stanzas.

More sweet than thyme, more fair than pale ivy,
More white to swans you are to me:
Come soon, when the bulls through the meadows are homing,
Come soon, if you love me, my nymph of the sea!
(lines 37 to 40)

Eclogue 8

Another singing competition, this time between Damon and Alphesiboeus, and this time, instead of alternating short verse, each takes it in turn to sing a page-long poem made of longer, rhyming stanzas, each ending with the same line repeated as a refrain. Damon’s verses go like this:

A child you were when I first beheld you –
Our orchard fruit was chilled with dew –
You and your mother both apple gathering:
Just twelve I was, but I took charge of you.
On tiptoe reaching the laden branches,
One glance I gave you and utterly
My heard was ravished, my reason banished –
O flute of Maenalus, come, play with me!

Alphesiboeus’s verse is more interesting: it describes the magic, witchcraft, incantations and magic objects the narrator creates and casts in order to get his beloved, Daphnis, to return to him:

These keepsakes he left with me once, faithless man:
They are things that he wore – the most precious I own.
Mother earth, now I dig by my door and consign
Them to you – the dear keepsakes that pledge his return.
Make Daphnis come home from the city, my spells!

This also appears to be an explicitly gay poem, a man keening for his male lover.

Eclogue 9

This is another poem lamenting the unfair and divisive policy of land sequestration. Two out of the ten poems are on this subject. Sad Moeris complains to Lycidas that an outsider has taken over his farm and made him a servant on his old land and that’s why he is now driving his (the new owners’) goats to market.

Interestingly, Lycidas says he’d heard that the intercession of the poet Menalcus had prevented the land appropriation going ahead. Not so, replies bitter Moeris. But the interesting point is: is this a reference to Virgil’s attempts to moderate the land confiscation policy by appealing to Augustus? And a sad reflection on his failure?

MOERIS:… But poems
Stand no more chance, where the claims of soldiers are involved,
Than do the prophetic doves if the eagle swoops upon them.

This touches on the broader point of Virgil’s ambiguity: his verse is very finely balanced between political allegory, factual description and poetic fantasia. It hovers and shimmers between different layers of meaning.

Meanwhile, the two characters manage to get over their initial bitterness and swap fragments of poems they themselves have written or other people’s lines which they remember. Lycidas points out that the wind has dropped, the lake waters are still. It’s a golden opportunity to stop their trudge to the market town and recite to each other their favourite old songs. At which point the poem ends.

Complex effects. Although the rural setting and the simple names and many of the homely details about goats and plants and whatnot frankly derive from his Greek model, the emotion or psychological effect is more complex and multiflavoured than Theocritus.

Eclogue 10

A poem dedicated to Virgil’s friend, Caius Cornelius Gallus, politician and poet. He wrote elegies devoted to a fictional female figure, Lycoris who, the note tells us, is probably a code name for the courtesan Cytheris, also Mark Antony’s lover. (Shades of Catullus’s beloved Lesbia, being the code name of Clodia, lover of umpteen other young Roman men. Roman poets and their aristocratic affairs).

The translation

I liked Day Lewis’s translation well enough, it is light and clear, as the examples I’ve quoted demonstrate. I suppose you could quibble about the slight unevenness of register: some of his phrasing uses the vague, rather stagey diction of so much translationese:

Let us honour the pastoral muse of Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Whose singing, when they competed together, left the lynxes
Dumbfounded, caused a heifer to pause in her grazing, spellbound,
And so entranced the rivers that they checked their onward flow.
(Eclogue 8, opening lines)

It’s clear enough but not really what any actual modern poet would write. Anyway, my point is that this slightly stiff style comes a cropper in the many places where Day Lewis attempts a more demotic, matey note:

I’m driven from my home place but you can take it easy…

I have two roes which I found in a dangerous combe…
Thestylis has been begging for ages to take them off me…

‘Bumpkin! As if Alexis care twopence for your offerings!’

I wonder when the last time was that any English speaker used the word ‘bumpkin’ in a literal, serious sense? Or:

‘Watch it! What right do you have to lecture a chap!’

‘You desperado, while his mongrel was barking his head off!’

‘Strike up if you have a song to sing, I’ll not be backward…’

‘I’ll not be backward’ – of course I understand the meaning, I just kept being brought up short by Day Lewis’s well-meaning 1950s slang. Maybe it’s in the original: maybe the Virgil has a variety of tones, from the tragically lovelorn to the banter of farm workers. But this unevenness is definitely a feature of the Day Lewis translation.

Scansion

Scansion means the method of determining the metrical pattern of a line of verse. Latin (and French and Italian) verse uses patterns based on the number of syllables in a line and the different ‘lengths’ of each syllable. English poetry, rather more crudely, is based on the number of beats in each line. In English poetry each beat is at the heart of a ‘foot’, and each foot can have 1, 2 or 3 other unstressed syllables either before or after the beat. Thus a iambic pentameter is a line made up of five beats and so five ‘feet’, with each ‘foot’ made up of two syllables, the beat falling on the second one, di dum. A ‘foot’ with two syllables with the stress falling on the second one was called, by the ancient Greeks, a iamb, and so a iambic pentameter is a five-beat line, consisting of five feet, all of them in the form di dum.

Di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

But I struggled to figure out the metre of many of Day Lewis’s verses. First off, the eclogues are not all written in the same style. Day Lewis varies the verse forms a lot. There appears to be a long form line for the basic narrative sections, which he varies when the various shepherds and goatherds go into their singing competitions. But I found it difficult to scan even his basic form. Take the opening of Eclogue 4:

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

This seems to me a regular iambic heptameter i.e. seven beats.

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

But the next two lines throw me:

Shrubberies or meek tamarisks are not for all: but if it’s
Forests I sing, may the forest be worthy of a consul.

If the first line is intended to have only 7 beats in it, surely it would end on ‘if’. Not only do these lines not have 7 beats but the beat is difficult to assign. Is it shrub-be-ries or shrub-ries? Either way that appears to be a trochee i.e. a foot which starts with the beat instead of having it second.

Maybe it’s deliberate. Maybe Day Lewis writes a loose long line which occasionally falls into the regularity of a heptameter but just as often skips round it. Maybe it’s designed to shimmer round regularity just as Virgil’s allegories and political meanings shimmer into view then disappear again.

At the start of the book Day Lewis writes a brief note about his approach to translation, which mentions that in some of the singing competitions between shepherds he uses ‘rhythms of English and Irish folk song’. This explains the stimulating variety of verse forms found throughout the book. Some of them have a regularity I enjoyed, but I found others puzzling and a bit irritating:

The fields are dry, a blight’s in the weather,
No vine leaves grow – the Wine-god is sour

So far I read these as having four beats per line (and so tetrameters), with variation in the feet i.e. they’re not all strict iambs. But having got into that swing, the next 2 lines (and there are only four; this is a quatrain) threw me by having five beats, but beats which don’t occur in any neat way:

Shading our uplands – but when my Phyllis comes here,
Green shall the woodlands be, and many the shower.

I wondered whether he was using the Latin technique of literally counting the syllables in each line and ignoring the beats, but I don’t think it’s that, since the first line has 10 syllables, the second 9, the third 12 and the fourth 12. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I found this lack of regularity in Day Lewis’s verse irksome and distracting.

Competition

All the histories I’ve read of the period describe the escalation of once-sensible rivalry between Rome’s leading men into increasingly violent, bitter and unforgiving conflict. It becomes almost an obsession of Tom Holland’s account, which blames out-of-control, toxic political rivalry for the Republic’s collapse.

That was my first thought when I realised that, far from idyllic peace and tranquility half of the poems describe and enact poetic competitions. Now I know that the competing goatherds aren’t bribing the voters and having each other’s supporters beaten up in the streets, as in the chaotic final decades of the Republic, nothing like that, the competitions are presented as amiable, good-hearted exercises (Eclogues 7 and 8). Still. Its presence in these would-be idyllic poems suggests that competition was a fundamental category which informs / underpins / infects absolutely every aspect of Roman existence.


Credit

The Eclogues by Virgil were translated into English by Cecil Day Lewis in 1963. I read them in the 1999 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy (2014) – 2

Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography of Augustus is long, thorough and consistently interesting, shedding light not only on the man himself but containing an immense amount of background information on the customs, traditions, laws and so on of the Rome of his time and how he set about reforming and remodelling them so decisively.

It’s impossible to summarise the achievements of the longest-serving and most impressive Roman emperor, Augustus (reigned 31 BC to 14 AD), without ending up repeating long Wikipedia article. Instead, here is an impressionistic list of themes and achievements which emerge from Adrian Goldsworthy’s impressive book.

Peace

Above all everyone wanted peace after decades of chaos, war, disruptions to trade, impressment, deaths and injuries and proscriptions. Once Antony was defeated and had committed suicide (in 30 BC), Goldsworthy repeatedly describes the widespread desire for peace to explain the absence of opposition to let alone rebellion against Augustus (pages 199, 200, 211, 282).

Temple of Janus Germinus

The Janus Geminus (to reflect his twin faces) was a small shrine that held an archaic bronze statue of the god, said to have been dedicated by Numa, Rome’s second king (Plutarch, Life, XX.1-2). Pliny (XXIV.33) relates that its fingers were arranged to indicate the 355 days of the year. Ovid in his Fasti, I.99 says that one hand held a key (as the god of entrances), the other, a staff (to signify his authority and as a guide).

The doors of the Janus Geminus were opened to indicate that Rome was at war and closed during times of peace. Since the time of Numa, the doors were said to have been closed only in 235 BC, after the first Punic war; in 30 BC, after the battle of Actium; and several times during the reign of Augustus (for example, when the Cantabrians were defeated in 25 BC, supposedly ending the Spanish wars (pages 200, 239)

Victories

For Romans peace came through conquest and victory: it was always an imposed peace. Thus, having defeated and eliminated Mark Antony and become ruler of the entire Roman Empire, Augustus still had work to do. Campaigns followed:

  • Egypt was formally annexed to the empire
  • to pacify the north-west of Spain (pages 241 to 245, 254 to 255), final embers stamped out in 19 BC (p.322)
  • Illyria (pages 174 to 178)
  • the Alps, pages 339 to 341 (surprising it took the Romans so long to pacify their own back yard)

Parthia

The Romans never defeated the Parthians. A great achievement was a negotiated settlement with the great Parthian Empire which resulted in the return of the legionary standards lost by Crassus at Carrhae in 53 and then by Antony in 36. This was painted as a great victory. The compliant senate voted Augustus even more honours and a triumph (all of which he rejected). Coins were minted showing the standards, and they are depicted on the breastplate Augustus is wearing in the most famous statue of him, the one found at the suburb of Prima Porta (p.303).

Statue of Augustus wearing a breastplate depicting the return of the legionary standards from the Parthians

Army reorganisation

Augustus reorganised the army, reducing it from 60 or so legions down to 28 (p.247 to 256) making it more professional. Huge scope was opened up for posts for aristocrats and promotions and Octavius made sure to retain control of all appointments and ensure all senior officers were loyal to him.

In 13 BC he carried out more reforms, regularising the period of service for a legionary to 16 years and defining other periods and terms of service. He made auxiliary units more permanent. Many of them were now raised from the provinces, from Gaul, Spain or Thrace and service in them allowed provincial aristocrats the opportunity to acquire citizenship and work their way into the hierarchy of empire (p.349). He laid down regulations for the constructions of camps and forts (p.366).

Building works

Augustus completed Julius Caesar’s forum with its massive temple to Venus Genetrix at one end. Then designed and built his own forum with a massive temple to Mars Ultor, in 2 BC and dedicated to the god Mars in his guise as avenger.

Mausoleum

The huge circular mausoleum Augustus built for himself and his family was one of the first building projects he began after victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. It consisted of several concentric rings of earth and brick, faced with travertine on the exterior, and planted with cypresses on the top tier. It measured 295 feet in diameter and 137 feet in height. He built it for himself but many of his close family were to find resting places there before him, including: Marcus Claudius Marcellus (son of Octavia Minor), Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (Augustus’s right-hand man and husband of Julia the Elder), Nero Claudius Drusus (son of Livia Drusilla), Octavia Minor (sister of Augustus), Gaius Caesar and Lucius Caesar (his grandsons).

The saepta

The saepta or ‘sheepfolds’ were the traditional structures on the Campus Martius which hosted elections. Augustus turned them from wooden into permanent stone structures. Year after year the whole area was transformed into a giant monument to his glory (p.357). Agrippa, in effect Augustus’s number two, accumulated a vast fortune and spent it nearly as lavishly as his master on public works. The diribitorium was a public voting hall situated on the Campus Martius in Ancient Rome. Agrippa paid for the building called the Diribitorium, where votes were counted by diribitores (election officials). It was begun by Marcus Agrippa but after his death in 12 BC was finished by Augustus (p.385).

The Pantheon

The Pantheon was a part of the complex created by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa on the Campus Martius in 29 to 19 BC, which included three buildings aligned from south to north: the Baths of Agrippa, the Basilica of Neptune, and the Pantheon. It was rebuilt by Hadrian in the 120s AD, it was later adapted to be a Catholic church and so well maintained, thus ending up being the best preserved building we have from ancient Rome.

The provinces

The restoration of peace led to the revival of trade and, wherever he went or had influence, Augustus encouraged local elites to mimic him and build, refurbishing and improving their cities and towns, building theatres, reviving festivals and games. He dangled offers of citizenship or administrative posts as an incentive to provincial leaders (p.292).

Large numbers of people resident in provincial towns and cities won citizenship. The benefits of Roman citizenship came to be seen as valuable, itself an incentive for powerful or aspiring men to keep the peace in order to gain it (p.298). Every town and city in the empire was encouraged to be rebuilt along Roman lines, in a grid system, with roads converging on an open forum (p.343).

Roman roads

One of the most clichéd achievements of the Romans was building roads. Goldsworthy describes the creation of a network of roads across Gaul, linking the new-look Roman towns (p.341). Good, navigable roads which didn’t flood or wash away in winter led to hugely expanded trade and thus prosperity (pages 342 to 343).

Colonies

Colonae is the term the Romans gave to new settlements or towns. They had been building them for centuries, mainly as places to house the large numbers of men continually being demobilised from their armies. Augustus increased the number of colonies or new towns built in newly pacified Spain and Gaul, including the forebears of modern Zaragoza and Merida (p.347). Most Gauls had lived in defendable hilltop settlements. Now they came down off their hills and lived in towns joined by direct, well-maintained roads. Trade thrived. Prosperity (p.348).

Tours

To aid the process Augustus spent more of his rule away from Rome than in it, systematically touring all the provinces. Anecdotes suggest he went out of his way to make himself very accessible to all who had a grievance or issue (p.324). In his absence from Rome he left administration to loyal subordinates such as Agrippa (p.353) and Statilius Taurus. He increased the grain dole (p.224).

The constitution

The restoration of the constitution is a massive and subtle subject as Augustus spent 45 years restoring then tinkering with the constitution to make it appear as if the Republic had been restored while maintaining a firm grip on power. Thus he restored the post of consul and held annual elections for the consulship, as per tradition – except that he made sure that he was always elected one of the consuls.

In 27 BC, Octavian made a show of returning full power to the Roman Senate and relinquishing his control of the Roman provinces and their armies. But he retained control of the ‘grand provincial command’ whose importance Goldsworthy explains in detail (p.381).

The consulships

Augustus held one of the consulships every year from 31 BC to 23 BC, when he entered his eleventh consulship.

The senate

In practical terms Augustus tried to reform the senate, reducing its numbers from the unwieldy 1,000 it had grown to. Augustus tried to separate senators from the equestrian class with which they overlapped and imposed a minimum wealth requirement of 1 million sestercii (p.320).

He struggled with the problem that quite a few scions of the great houses didn’t even want to sit in the senate but were quite happy with their wealthy lives as equites (p.353). In 9 BC Augustus had another go at reform, determining that the senate would meet on fixed dates, ensuring they didn’t overlap with court cases and other obligations, and requiring all senators to attend, anyone absent being fined. But bribery and corruption persisted. In the consul elections of 8 BC, all the candidates including the winners bribed voters on such a heroic scale that Augustus insisted in future all candidates must pay a deposit which they would forfeit on conviction of bribery (p.383).

His tinkering with various rules and initiatives to get just what he wanted, and the continual stymying of his reforms by a corrupt ruling class, remind me of Oliver Cromwell’s forlorn attempts to get just the right kind of House of Commons, free but also high-minded and responsible.

Titles

He began with the name Gaius Octavius, son of Caius Octavius. When Julius Caesar’s will was read in March 44 he immediately took his adoptive father’s name to become Gaius Julius Caesar, with or without the legacy name Octavianus. From 38 BC at the latest, Octavian officially dropped all of his names except Caesar and began using the victory title imperator (‘commander’) in place of the traditional Roman forename, so Imperator Caesar. In 27 BC the Senate granted him the additional name ‘Augustus’, making Imperator Caesar Augustus.

Awards

Previous Romans were awarded days of thanksgiving when they secured a victory. Augustus’s were off the scale. He was awarded a staggering 51 thanksgivings, adding up to a total of 590 days (p.357).

The month of August

Julius Caesar had reformed the Roman month which had, until then, consisted of ten months (hence the way in our English months September, October, November and December, the first syllable indicates the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th months, respectively). Because the old calendar only contained 355 days it quickly went out of sync with the seasons and required the addition of an extra, or intercalary, month every so often. Caesar consulted astronomers and devised a new calendar of 365 days, adding a few days to each month and inventing an entirely new month, modestly named after himself, which gives us the English ‘July’ (French ‘Juillet’, Spanish ‘Julio’). His reforms came into force on 1 January 45 BC.

Augustus followed in his adoptive father’s footsteps and received yet another honour from the Senate, the renaming of a month in his name. Some wanted him to have September, the month he was born in. But Augustus chose the sixth month or Sextilis, when he had first been elected consul and won many of his victories. So in 8 BC the month was renamed August and remained so in European calendars including English.

Religion

Augustus embarked on a policy of rebuilding or beautifying temples and reviving, restoring and encouraging the practice of traditional rituals, not only in Rome but throughout Italy and the provinces.

Games and festivals

For example, he created the rather factitious ludi saecularii, supposedly to celebrate the return of what the Romans called ‘the Great Year’ (p.330).

Poets

Augustus prided himself on his association with only the greatest writers. During his rule flourished the three greatest Roman poets:

  • Publius Vergilius Maro, known in the English-speaking world as Virgil (70 to 19 BC)
  • Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known in the English-speaking world as Horace (65 to 8 BC)
  • Pūblius Ovidius Nāsō, a generation younger, known as Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD)

Goldsworthy devotes a significant passage to describing Virgil and then summarising the themes and importance of his great poem, The Aeneid. This is an epic poem telling the story of the flight of Prince Aeneas from Troy after it had been captured by the Greeks at the climax of the Trojan War. It describes his extended dalliance with Dido Queen of Carthage, before piety and duty forces him to abandon her and sail on to Italy, where he is caught up in a series of brutal conflicts with various tribes before conquering them all to establish Alba Longa, the settlement near what would, centuries later, become Rome and to which Roman antiquarians attributed the origin of their city and race (pages 307 to 317).

Breeding

Augustus became concerned about the disastrous impact the civil wars and the proscriptions had than on aristocratic and knightly families, with many lines going extinct. Therefore he passed the lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus to encourage the upper classes to reproduce, granting benefits to fathers of three or more children and penalising the unmarried or childless (p.325).

Succession

This is the issue which Mary Beard identifies as the single biggest political problem for the emperors: who was to succeed? (See my summary of her discussion of the various options.)

What the reader of this book notices is that the first hundred pages describe the traditional republican constitutional forms of consuls and tribunes and so on; the middle 200 describe how Augustus attempted to keep the façade of all these elections and structures, while continuing to hold all the reins of power; how he vehemently denied in the 20s that he was grooming any of his close family to ‘succeed’ because he was not a monarch.

But how, during the last 100 pages or so, the issue of Augustus’s family becomes more and more pressing, with the narrative focussing more and more on the marriages of his extended family and the health or otherwise of his various stepsons and nephews and so on.

In his endeavours to ensure a smooth transition of power Augustus was ill-fated and the labyrinthine complexities of his extended family and the bad luck and/or conspiracies among them are amply recorded in Robert Graves’s best-selling novels I, Claudius and Claudius the god.

Livia

Goldsworthy devotes extended passages to profiling Augustus’s wife, Livia (e.g. pages 377 to 379). She was his third wife. There was a whiff of scandal about their marriage, because she had first been married to Tiberius Claudius Nero around 43 BC, and they had had two sons, Tiberius and Drusus. Octavian saw her, liked her, and compelled her to divorce Nero and marry him in 38 BC.

When the Senate granted Octavian the title Augustus, Livia automatically became Augusta, prototype of all future empresses. Just as Augustus used propaganda tools to depict himself as the ideal Roman male and ruler, Livia was portrayed as the ideal Roman matron.

Rumour surrounded her machinations to get her eldest son Tiberius into position as heir to Augustus, and it’s these rumours Robert Graves used as the central theme of I Claudius. Tiberius was fast-tracked through military education and the old cursus honorem (p.336). Through Tiberius she was grandmother of the emperor Claudius, great-grandmother of the emperor Caligula, and the great-great-grandmother of the emperor Nero.

She liked dwarves and freaks (p.378).

Heirs

Augustus’s ultra-reliable number two, Agrippa, was married to Augustus’s daughter, Julia (p.321). A dynasty was taking shape (p.322).

It is a small indicator of the shift in emphasis that the last ever old-style triumph was awarded to the Younger Balbus in 19 BC. Thereafter, triumphs were only awarded to members of the imperial family (p.305). Something similar happened a few years later when, in 12 BC Augustus had himself appointed head priest or pontifex maximus. No civilian was ever to hold this post again. From now till the fall of Rome in 410 AD this title and post was only held by the emperor (p.350).

Augustus arrogated unprecedented powers and privileges to himself (p.356) but there were never any indications he planned to nominate a sole heir (p.359). He appears to have expected to be succeeded by a college of colleagues, all with advanced power but who would work collaboratively. In other words, he gave no indication of realising that what would happen would be rule by a series of single individuals, kings in all but name (p.360).

Thoughts

Augustus is an awesome figure. Rarely can one man have had such an impact on an entire civilisation.

Reading the book is overwhelming because of the extraordinarily hectic nature of the times Gaius Octavianus lived through and mastered, and then the dizzying list of his achievements.

But it left me with one dominating thought: The book is like a doorway between two eras. For the first hundred pages we are solidly in the world of the Roman Republic, with its complex constitution, its squabbling senate, its fiercely competitive elections to the consulship and the tribunate and the jostling for power of a host of larger-than-life characters including Crassus, Caesar, Pompey, Cicero and so on.

But in the last 100 pages (380 to 480) we are in a completely different world, one of peace and stability, where elections continue but are essentially hollow, where no public figures at all come anywhere close to the wielding the power and significance of Augustus, and where, increasingly, the only people of interest are the members of his own family: Livia, Drusus, Tiberius, Julia and so on.

By around page 390 all his old friends have died off – Agrippa, Maecenas, Virgil and Horace – the old generation has departed, and the narrative becomes evermore focused on the palace intrigues and manoeuvring over who will replace the princeps when he finally dies. These are now the palace intrigues of an emperor in all but name, completely unlike anything which existed under the Republic.

So reading the book gives a slightly vertiginous, Alice-through-the-looking-glass feel, of transitioning the reader, without you quite realising it, without you being aware precisely when it happens, from one world to another, completely different one.

I wonder if people at the time were aware that they were living through such a fundamental transition, or whether it’s just the effect of reading a modern account which, by its nature, tends to focus on what changed and maybe neglects the vast continuities which most people probably experienced in their day-to-day lives.

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor is a thorough, solid, continually interesting and, in the end, rather mind-bending read.


Credit

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy was published in 2014 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 2015 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy (2014) – 1

Augustus was one of the most successful rulers of all time. He rescued Rome from the recurring collapse of its political institutions into civil war which dogged the years 100 to 30 BC, and established an entirely new form of government – what he called the ‘principate’ but which came to be called imperial rule – which went on to last for 250 years. Even after the empire collapsed in the West, its ghostly image lived in for a further thousand years in Byzantium.

Augustus ruled longer than any other Roman ruler, whether king, dictator or emperor. He nearly doubled the size of the empire. His reforms endured for centuries. It beggars belief that he entered the toxic jungle of Roman politics when he was just eighteen years old and proceeded to outwit and defeat all his opponents, defeating some in war, having some murdered, forcing others to commit to suicide, to emerge as the unchallenged ruler of the greatest empire Europe has ever seen.

Augustus’s name

First, the name. He was born Caius Octavius. On being adopted as Julius Caesar’s heir he took his legal father’s name, becoming Caius Julius Caesar. In the decade after Caesar’s assassination he slowly dropped the Caius, sometimes operating under the exact same name as the dead general, sometimes adding the title Imperator at the start of his name. Mark Antony commented that he was ‘a boy who owed everything to his name’ which was certainly true at the start. When Caesar was deified by the senate, Octavianus added ‘son of the divine Julius’ in some contexts. Finally, in 27, he was awarded the made-up title ‘Augustus’ by the senate.

In other words, maybe the most important thing about Augustus is his shape-shifting changes of identity. He played the Name Game as deftly as he played the terrifying power politics of the Republic. And when it ceased to be a republic and he established himself as the sole authority figure, he was again careful not to use the name king (heaven forbid) or even empire and emperor. Instead he used the semi-official term princeps meaning ‘first citizen’ to describe himself and principate to describe the kind of political system he proceeded to build around him.

Goldsworthy says he will use the name Julius Caesar to refer to him, but I think that’s pretty confusing. Although I take the point that only his enemies called him Octavianus, I will use the more usual tradition of calling him Octavian until he is awarded the title Augustus.

Goldsworthy says historians tend to divide history into neat periods, having the Republican era end with the assassination of Julius and starting the Augustan era with the defeat of Antony at Actium. This has the effect of underplaying the key period from 44 to 31 BC which Octavian spent mostly in Rome or Italy, consolidating his grip on power by establishing favourites, contacts and clients who he placed in positions of power at all levels.

Dr Adrian Goldsworthy

Goldsworthy was (born in Wales in 1969, educated at private school and Oxford) is a historian specialising in the Roman army and Roman history (although he has also written half a dozen historical novels set during the Napoleonic wars). According to his introduction to this book, it was while developing his interest in the Roman army into a blockbuster biography of Julius Caesar (2006) that he became aware of the glaring absence of a good, scholarly but accessible biography of the latter’s adoptive son and heir, Caius Octavianus, known to history as the emperor Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD), inventor of the Roman Empire. So he wrote it.

It’s a big book, 607 pages long, including a 100 pages of bibliography, notes, index, a glossary of terms, a list of key personages, and a series of intimidatingly complicated family trees of the key players. But beyond this, it is also an outstanding introduction to the rules and practices surrounding Roman power.

Augustus’s father

In the opening 50 pages in particular, as Goldsworthy describes the promising career of Augustus’s father (Caius Octavius, born 100 BC and steadily rising through the ranks of the cursus honorem and just about to stand for consul when he died of a sudden illness in 59) he interweaves masses of background information about the Roman constitution, customs and conventions, which make the book a useful introduction to all aspects of the Rome of the late Republic.

Background facts

I found his explanation of the precise way in which elections to the different magistracies were held particularly enlightening (the election of the praetors pages 41 to 43), but he also gives to-the-point explanations of:

  • Roman marriage (a Roman husband had only to utter the phrase ‘take your things for yourself’ – tuas res tibi habeto – to separate from his wife, p.163)
  • the meanings of the words optimates (the best men or aristocracy), populares (aristocrats pandering the populist agenda such as free food allowance, forgiveness of debts or land distribution), plebs (the majority of people, defined in contrast to the patricians, or ‘best’ or more noble families) (p.51)
  • the property qualifications needed to be a member of the equites or knightly class
  • the absence of any political parties and so the way Roman society was structured around bonds of obligation between patrons and clients

He explains exactly which officials were involved in Roman trials and how the court was physically laid out (p.43). (Cicero thought so highly of Caius Octavius’s conduct as praetor supervising trials that he wrote to his brother Quintus telling him to copy his example, p.44.) He explains how the role of provincial governor was notoriously regarded as a way to get rich quick by extorting taxes and bribes from Rome’s subjects (p.45).

Training boys He tells us how boys of aristocratic families from the age of five were encouraged to observe their fathers going about their business, receiving clients, attending the senate. Within a year or so they began physical exercise on the Campus Martius and learned to ride a horse, throw a javelin and fight with sword or shield.

Education There were about 20 schools in Rome, for those who could afford them, though the really rich would hire a grammaticus, a teacher of language and literature, to tutor their sons in reading and writing at home (p.55).

Background He gives very clear accounts of the events which formed the background to preceded Gaius’s career, namely the civil war between Marius and Sulla in the 80s, then the rise of the boy wonder general Pompey in the 70s, the rebellions of Lepidus and Sertorius, the disaffection which led up to the conspiracy of Catilina in 63 BC which was the same year Pompey returned from his military command against Mithridates in Asia and ostentatiously disbanded his army at Brundisium, thus demonstrating his democratic bona fides.

Unlike Mary Beard’s rambling history of Rome, which organises itself around a succession of irritating rhetorical questions, Goldsworthy just gets on and tells you interesting stuff, very interesting stuff, in plain no-nonsense prose, which is why I found this an addictive read.

More background facts

Women’s names Roman women kept their name throughout their lives and did not change it at marriage. Generally they only had one name, unlike aristocratic men who had three (the praenomen, nomen and cognomen, sometimes with a nickname added), hence Julia, Fulvia, Terentia, Tullia. They were generally given a female version of the clan name, hence Caius Julius Caesar’s sister was called Julia and Marcus Tullius Cicero’s daughter was named Tullia (p.23), Titus Pomponia’s daughter was called Pomponia (p.356) and so on.

If there were two daughters they were given the same name and the aftername major or minor, meaning in this context, older and junior. If many daughters, they were sometimes numbered: Julia 1, Julia 2, Julia 3 and so on. Thus Augustus’s mother, Atia, was so called because it was the gens or family name of her father, Marcus Atius Balbus. She probably had an older sister, who had the same name, and so was sometimes called Atia Secunda.

Marriage alliances Marriage was a tool of political alignment or social advantage, consolidating links between (generally powerful) families. Hence Pompey’s marriage to Caesar’s daughter, Julia, and Octavius marrying his sister, Octavia, off to Mark Antony (p.35).

Personal abuse was the common coin of political exchanges (p.33) in fact high political discourse and, by extension the courts, were characterised by astonishing levels of ‘violent and imaginative abuse’ (p.131).

Publicans There was a profession of men who undertook state contracts such as collecting taxes in subjugated provinces. These were called publicani, a term which is translated as publicans in the King James version of the New Testament.

Personality Having just read some courtroom speeches by Cicero, it is relevant to read that in the many elections held for official office throughout the Roman year, the electors rarely if ever voted for a clearly articulated political programme or policies, but far more on the basis of character (plus a hefty amount of bribery) – more or less as jurors at trials were subjected to much more argumentation about the defendant’s (and the prosecuting and defence attorney’s) characters, than about any actual facts or evidence (p.37).

Clients The importance to politicians of being accompanied at all times by a crowd of clients, who waited outside your front door from early morning, some of whom you admitted for audience, the rest following you as you emerged and made your way down to the forum and to the senate house. If eminent or notable men were in this attending crowd, all the better (p.39).

These ties of family, clan and class were not incidental but intrinsic to Roman society:

Men rose to high office through the support of new or inherited friendships and bonds of patronage, and by marriage alliances. (p.356)

The praetors Each year eight praetors were elected, seven of them to preside over the seven courts of quaestiones established by the dictator Sulla, the eighth to be praetor urbanus with wide-ranging legal powers.

Prosecuting Goldsworthy confirms D.H. Berry’s account in his introduction to Cicero’s defence speeches, that a) since there was no equivalent of the Crown or State legal cases could only be brought by individuals and b) prosecuting was seen as invidious, unless one was defending family pride or there was a really gross example of wrongdoing – and so accusers tended to be young men out to make a name for themselves with one or two eye-catching prosecutions, before settling into the more congenial and socially accepted role of defence counsel, exactly the career Cicero followed (p.43), a point repeated on page 281:

Prosecution was generally left to the young, and had long provided an opportunity for youthful aristocrats to catch the public eye at an early stage in their careers.

The rabble rouser Publius Clodius Pulcher’s support came largely from the collegia or guilds of tradesemen (p.57).

Aristocratic funerals were public events, designed to impress and remind everyone of a family’s antiquity and noble achievements for the state, commencing with a ceremony in the forum and then a procession to beyond the city walls where the cremation was carried out (p.65).

The toga is, on the face of it, a simple item of clothing: a roughly semicircular cloth, between 12 and 20 feet long, worn draped over the shoulders and around the body. It was usually woven from white wool, and was worn over a tunic. But there were at least half a dozen types or styles, several of which had important social meanings:

  • the toga virilis or ‘toga of manhood’, also known as toga alba or toga pura was a plain white toga, worn on formal occasions by adult male commoners, and by senators not holding a curule magistracy: it represented adult male citizenship and its attendant rights, freedoms and responsibilities
  • the toga praetexta, a white toga with a broad purple stripe on its border, worn over a tunic with two broad, vertical purple stripes, the formal costume for:
    • curule magistrates in their official functions
    • freeborn boys before they came of age
    • the strip indicated the wearer’s protection by law from sexual predation and immoral; a praetexta was thought effective against malignant magic, as were a boy’s bulla, and a girl’s lunula, amulets they wore round their necks
  • the toga candida or ‘bright toga’, from the Latin adjective candida, meaning pure white, a toga rubbed with chalk to a dazzling white and worn by candidates for election
  • the toga picta or ‘painted toga’, dyed solid purple, decorated with imagery in gold thread and worn over a similarly-decorated tunica palmata, this was worn by generals in their triumphs

Courtesans Goldsworthy explains something which had slightly puzzled me in the plays of Plautus and Terence, which is that, above and beyond the many brothels in Rome, there was a class of high-end courtesans ‘who needed to be wooed and cared for in expensive style’ (p.69). In England in 2022, I imagined that a client pays for a courtesan and then can have his way, but the comedies of Plautus and Terence depict courtesans as being every bit as independent and strong-willed as a mistress.

Senate hours The senate was not allowed to sit after dusk. As the sun set senators knew it was time to wind up a debate. This explains how Marcus Porcius Cato was able on numerous occasions to filibuster or talk non-stop, refusing to sit down, until dusk came and the session had to end, in order to prevent decisions being passed which he objected to (p.107).

Centurions Goldsworthy is at pains to bust various myths, for example the one that centurions were experienced old bloods raised from the ranks to become a kind of sergeant major figure. Wrong. They ‘were men of property and often came from the aristocracies of the country towns of Italy’ (p.123).

Piety (pietas in Latin), the honour owed to gods, country and especially parents, was a profound and very Roman duty. [Augustus] proclaimed his own pietas as he avenged his murdered father. (p.158)

Pietas was a virtue central to Rome’s sense of identity and the neglect of proper reverence due to the old gods of the Roman people was symptomatic of the moral decline of recent generations, so evident in the decades of discord and violence. (p.224)

Moral explanations of everything As I explained in reviews of Plutarch and Cicero’s speeches, lacking any of the numerous theories which we nowadays use to explain social change and development, all the Romans had was a very basic recourse to notions of morality:

Moral explanations for upheaval came most readily to the Roman mind, and so restoration must involve changes in behaviour, conduct and a reassertion of a good relationship with the gods who had guided Rome’s rise to greatness. (p.224)

Auguries In a sense, you can see the rich paraphernalia of auguries, soothsayers, oracles and so on as reflecting the same complete absence of rational theory. Completely lacking the modern infrastructure of statistics, data, social trends, as we use them to analyse and manage the economy, trade, population, illness and even military encounters, the ancients were thrown back on two extremely primitive vectors of explanation – the moral character of Great Men, and the moods or wishes of the capricious gods.

Animal sacrifice (p.331)

Decimation was the traditional punishment, though already antiquated by Octavius’s day, of punishing a mutinous or cowardly legion by having one man in ten beaten to death and the rest shamed by receiving barley – food traditionally given to slaves and animals – instead of wheat (p.177)

Spolia opima (‘rich spoils’) were the armour, arms, and other effects that an ancient Roman general stripped from the body of an opposing commander slain in single combat. The spolia opima were regarded as the most honourable of the several kinds of war trophies a commander could obtain, including enemy military standards and the peaks of warships.

Caesar’s scruples By the time Octavius, Antony and Lepidus had raised armies to back them up, with Cassius and Brutus raising armies in the East and Sextus Pompeius in control of Sicily i.e. in the late 40s BC, the issue which triggered the civil war between Caesar and Pompey – whether Caesar was allowed to enter Italy with his army of Gaul – had vanished like dew, become completely irrelevant in a world where first Octavius, then Antony, not only marched legions on Rome, but put it under military occupation. All the pettifogging precision of the debates about Caesar’s rights and privileges were ancient history within less than a decade (p.178)

Antony’s drunkenness Many of the leading politicians were also authors, pre-eminently Caesar. Mark Antony published just the one book, De sua ebrietate (‘On his drunkenness’) a touchy defence admitting that he liked getting drunk buy denying accusations that he was ever under the influence while performing official or military duties. Sadly, like the autobiographies of Sulla and Augustus himself, it has not survived (p.185).

Aged 33 When he was 33, Julius Caesar encountered a statue of Alexander the Great in Spain, and according to Plutarch and Suetonius either burst into tears or heaved a heavy sigh and explained to his colleagues that by his age Alexander had conquered the known world whereas he, Caesar, had achieved nothing. By sharp contrast, Goldsworthy points out how, with the deaths of Brutus and Cassius, Anthony and Cleopatra, by 30 BC Octavius, himself now widely known as Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, had done the same – making himself master of Rome and unrivalled ruler of the Mediterranean world (p.194). He commanded 60 legions, more than any Roman commander in history (p.204).

Special commands The wonderfully intricate and carefully balanced Roman constitution was a marvel of checks and balances, but it also led, increasingly in the late Republic, to blockage and inaction, as rival political leaders preferred to stymy each other’s initiatives regardless of the best interests of the Republic. Which is why the state found itself reverting increasingly to giving Special Commands to (particularly military) commanders, such as Pompey received to sort out the pirates, then sort out King Mithridates. And which, unconsciously, as it were, prepared both the senate and the people to the idea that rule by one man (Augustus) was more likely to get things done than the increasingly fractious rule of consuls, tribunes and the rest of it (p.235).

Augustus was able to make things happen. If he was not involved then the inertia which had characterised senatorial government for so many years seemed to return. (p.276)

Images In the long years of his rule Augustus worked hard to ensure that his image became more widespread around the Mediterranean than the images of any other individual, whether human or divine. It was on every coin, created in mints all round the empire, and depicted in thousands of statues he had erected in towns and cities everywhere. We have far more images of Augustus than any other figure from the ancient world (250 statues survive and countless coins).

He was everywhere, his name, image or symbols on monuments in the heart of Rome, in the towns of Italy and throughout the provinces. (p.305)

And yet he single-handedly overthrew the longstanding Roman tradition of very realistic sculpture which depicts figures such as Marius, Sulla, Caesar or Pompey with distinctive features, jowls and wrinkles, with pomaded quiffs or thin combovers or whatever – Augustus swept this all away and ensured the image of him was standardised around the empire, to depict an idealised image of the nations’ ruler, handsome, authoritative and tall, and above all in the prime of manhood, young and virile and decisive.

Statue of Augustus found in 1863 nine miles from Rome in the suburb of Prima Porta. Note the depiction on his breastplate of the return to Rome of the legionary standards seized by the Parthians in victories over Crassus and Antony, but returned to Augustus in 20 BC

Among the thousands of images of Augustus which survive none deviate from this strict model, there are no images of him as a middle-aged or old man (p.256). And yet we know from Suetonius how far removed from reality this image was: in real life Octavius was shorter than average, with bad teeth, and a skin so sensitive that far from strutting round in military armour he preferred to be carried about in a litter and wore a broad-brimmed floppy hat to protect himself from the sun (Goldsworthy p.300; Suetonius Augustus, 82).

Temper Augustus had a bad temper, something he learned to control in later life. One of his tutors, the Greek teacher of rhetoric Athenodorus, told him that every time he lost his temper, ‘recite the alphabet before you speak’ (p.202).

Goldsworthy’s military expertise

Goldsworthy began his career as a military historian of the Roman army. His first publications were:

  • The Roman Army at War 100 BC (1996)
  • Roman Warfare (2000)
  • The Punic Wars (2000)
  • Fields of Battle: Cannae (2001)
  • Caesar’s Civil War: 49 to 44 BC (2002)
  • The Complete Roman Army (2003)

His summaries of the hectic political events which led up to the assassination of Caesar (15 March 44 BC) and then the confused manouevrings of the various parties in the years that followed are always good and clear, and he also gives, as mentioned above, a continual feed of clear, useful background information about all aspects of the Roman state.

But with the outbreak of the wars which Octavius was directly involved in, from about page 100 onwards, the narrative gives more space and time to explaining the campaigns and battles and the military background than previously – the number of legions, their actual likely strengths, their supply lines and so on. Suddenly a good deal more military history is included.

Several things emerge from this: for a start size mattered:

In the civil wars of these years there was great emphasis on mass, on simply fielding more legions than the opposition. There was also a well-entrenched Roman belief that throwing numbers and resources at a problem ought to being success. (p.165)

A commander’s prestige relied more on the number of his legions than the precise total of soldiers under his command, so there was a tendency to raise lots of units, which in turn had the added advantage of giving plenty of opportunities to promote loyal followers to the senior ranks. (p.125)

Another key and surprising fact which emerges is that the Roman armies weren’t that good. Good enough to defeat chaotic barbarians, maybe, but just because they were Romans didn’t guarantee quality. Goldsworthy goes out of his way to highlight that Mark Antony was very much not the great military leader later historians mistake him for, having had quite limited experience of command. Several examples: none of the four main commanders at the Battle(s) of Philippi (3 and 23 October 42 BC), Mark Antony, Octavius, Cassius or Brutus, had anything like the experience of Pompey or Caesar. Moreover they had, as explained above, all devoted a lot of energy to raising large armies without making sure that they were particularly well trained; in fact new recruits were by definition the opposite; easily spooked and ready to run.

This was a war fought by large and clumsy armies, where none of the senior officers had any experience of warfare on so grand a scale. On each side the armies remained to a great degree separate, loyal only to the leader who paid them. They formed up beside each other, but they were not integrated into a single command. (p.138)

This all explains why Philippi was such a confusing mess:

Cumbersome and essentially amateur armies given poor leadership, or none at all, turned the First Battle of Philippi into a draw. (p.141)

This is very important information but it’s the kind of thing which is often skipped over in political histories which concentrate solely on the political machinations between rivals. And yet Roman history is pre-eminently military; it was a highly militarised society in which the entire aristocracy was trained and motivated to achieve glorious victories in war.

The greatest service to the Republic was to defeat a foreign enemy. (p.173)

That quite a few of these military leaders were actually incompetent is something which is glossed over in other accounts but foregrounded in Goldsworthy’s.

This explains, for example, the wretched destruction of Marcus Licinius Crassus’s badly led and undisciplined army in Parthia in 53 BC; and also sheds light on Antony’s almost-as-disastrous defeat in the same territory in 36 BC (this is a summary from Wikipedia):

As Antony marched his huge army of 80,000 soldiers into Parthian territory the Parthians simply withdrew. In order to move faster, Antony left his logistics train in the care of two legions (approximately 10,000 soldiers), which was attacked and completely destroyed by the Parthian army before Antony could rescue them. Antony pressed his army forward and set siege to the provincial capital but failed to take it and by mid-October had to withdraw. The retreat was mercilessly harried by the Parthians. According to Plutarch, eighteen battles were fought between the retreating Romans and the Parthians during the month-long march back to Armenia, with approximately 20,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry dying during the retreat alone.

And so, from page 100 or thereabouts, Goldsworthy with his military historian hat on gives us descriptions of various campaigns which aren’t disproportionately long but longer than a political historian without his specialist military knowledge would have given:

  • Antony’s siege of the senatorial army in Mutina, pages 115 to 120
  • the build-up to the decisive Battle of Philippi, from page 134
  • the campaign against Sextus Pompeius in Sicily, pages 165 to 168
  • Octavius’s campaign in Illyria, pages 174 to 178
  • Antony’s big military disaster in Parthia, pages 172 to 173
  • Antony’s defeat at the Battle of Actium, pages 188 to 192

Goldsworthy makes another interesting point which is that, ideally, the Romans didn’t negotiate:

For the Romans, true peace was the product of victory, ideally so complete that the same enemy would never need to be fought again…Conflicts ended with absolute victory, the Romans dictating the terms, and not in compromise or concessions. (p.197)

This helps to explain the way that, in Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul, he was continually looking for excuses to crush new enemies: the slightest provocation or incursion was all he needed to justify punitive invasions and crushing conquest (p.226) which his critics in Rome (notable Cato the Younger) thought unwarranted and illegal.

Peace was celebrated but it was a Roman peace, following on from military victory…[a] peace of unchallenged Roman dominance. (p.359)

On the one hand this unremitting drive for total victory explains the sense of an unstoppable military machine which peoples all round the Mediterranean experienced. But on the downside, it explains the bitterness and the brutality of their civil wars, for they brought the same drive for total victory to their wars among themselves (p.197).

They don’t swamp the book at all, but Goldsworthy gives more detail about the state and nature of the armies and combatants in these and many other confrontations than a purely political historian would give, and, as always with Goldsworthy, it is presented in a clear, factual way and is very interesting.

Octavius’s escapades

Goldsworthy sheds a shrewd sidelight on the various narratives of this time which have come down to us. In a lot of the official narratives put out by Octavius’s side during this early, battle-strewn part of his life, mention was made of the future emperor’s lucky escapes, when he was nearly hit by a javelin, or escaped from some fire with only singed hair, or was only slightly hurt when a siege drawbridge he was leading troops across collapsed.

Goldsworthy makes the shrewd point that in his great-uncle and adopted father’s copious accounts of his wars in Gaul, Caesar rarely makes an appearance in the fighting (though once or twice he does seize a standard or shield and charge to the front, rallying his troops). In Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars the events – Caesar’s relentless steamroller sequence of victories –are allowed to speak for themselves and are all the more impressive for it.

By complete contrast, many of the battles and campaigns Octavius was personally involved in were far more mixed or problematic or failures in outcome – and so the narrative genre is completely different, and is concerned with how Fortune Smiled on our gallant hero as he pulled off a series of close shaves and narrow escapes. This focus on Our Lucky Hero also conveniently concealed the fact that, when he did win, Octavius almost always owed his victory to talented subordinates (above all the tremendously competent and reliable Marcus Vipsania Agrippa). No Caesar he, and he early realised it but learned to turn it – like everything else – to his advantage. (p.169)

Cleopatra

Goldsworthy’s half a dozen myth-busters include quite a big one about queen Cleopatra. Contrary to Egyptian nationalists, Cleopatra was Greek, came from a Greek family, had a Greek name and spoke Greek. There is, according to Goldsworthy, no evidence that she was very interested in the traditional Egyptian gods, but instead cleaved to the Hellenistic gods which held sway around most of the Mediterranean.

Second, she was in essence no different from the numerous other kings, rulers and tetrarchs scattered around the Eastern Mediterranean, generally struggling with family feuds and civil wars at home, who tried to curry favour with whichever Roman ruler was uppermost. Cleopatra’s main achievement was to prostitute herself out to not one but two of them, having affairs with and children by Julius Caesar (a son who she named Caesarion but Caesar never showed interest in) and then with Mark Antony (twins who she named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II, in 40 BC, and a third, Ptolemy Philadelphus, in 36 BC).

When Mark Anthony committed suicide on the approach of Octavius’s army to the capital, Alexandria, the 29-year-old survivor prepared herself for another seduction and impregnation:

She had always been a loyal ally of Rome, and would no doubt exploit her subjects just as enthusiastically for his benefit as she had for Julius Caesar and Antony. (p.192)

Goldsworthy argues that Cleopatra’s prominence in history is at least in part due to Octavius’s propaganda. It is factually correct that she had a long affair with Antony which lasted to the end of his life, and the children, and that the departure of her ships from the naval engagement off Actium prompted Antony to withdraw and thus lose the battle – but at the same time it suited Octavius very well indeed to exaggerate what to a patriotic Roman audience were all the negative aspects of the situation: that Antony was in thrall to a woman; that he had deserted his noble, long-suffering Roman wife, Octavia; that he let his administrative and military decisions be swayed by a female – all anathema to Roman values (p.192).

Change in narrative tone

Somewhere after page 200 (maybe with the start of Part Four on page 217) the narrative undergoes another subtle change in feel or vibe. The subject matter becomes more…pedestrian. It took me a while to realise why this was but Goldsworthy himself explains it on page 281:

The historian Dio lamented that it was harder to recount events after Augustus’ victory in the Civil War than it was before, since so many key decisions were taken in private and unrecorded, while much that was in the public domain was merely an empty ceremony.

That’s what it is. In the dozen or so accounts I’ve read of the troubled century from 133 to 27 BC there were always multiple players and combatants, vying for political power, either within the bounds of the constitution or spilling over into conflict, all having to stand for election, make speeches in the senate or addressing the popular assemblies or writing accounts of their doings or speeches – historians are able to give often very detailed accounts of political manoeuvrings and positionings because there are so many players involved and many of them left records or we have good accounts from contemporary or near contemporary historians.

Then Augustus wins total victory and it all goes quiet. By the time he has won he is the last man standing: Pompey, Caesar, Cicero, Cato, Cassius, Brutus, Antony, one by one all the great men of the previous generation were killed or killed themselves, leaving Octavius the sole figure on the stage.

He was very careful not to have himself declared dictator, as the ill-fated Caesar did, but to work through the channels of the Republican constitution, to continue to have elections of consuls and tribunes carried out, it was just that he arranged for himself to be elected ten years in a row and arranged who was to be his partner consul. There continued to be a senate, larger than ever in terms of numbers, all holding debates and speaking in the time-honoured way except that none of their debates carried any weight and many of the recorded speeches are eulogies to the princeps as he had himself called, a steady roll call of titles and awards which a grateful nation kept giving him.

Previously we had Pompey and Caesar and the senate all squabbling like ferrets in a sack and historians can calculate what each player’s motives were, and interpret each one’s moves, declarations and so on. And then… a great smothering blanket settles over Roman political life because only one man made the decisions. We have a record of the decisions but why he made them, what his thinking was, remains a matter of speculation.

Which is why all biographies of Augustus circle round to the same conclusion: that he was a mystery, an enigma, unknowable, in a way that Caesar and Pompey and Crassus and Cicero feel highly knowable. He wrote an autobiography but that has vanished. All we have is the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, a monumental inscription composed 35 paragraphs, grouped into four sections – political career, public benefactions, military accomplishments and a political statement – which manage to smother the turbulence and problems of what turned out to be the longest rule by any Roman emperor (45 years) into a series of bland, corporate achievements. It sounds like this:

Wars, both civil and foreign, I undertook throughout the world, on sea and land, and when victorious I spared all citizens who sued for pardon.

And:

I pacified the Alps, from the area closest to the Adriatic Sea all the way to the Tuscan Sea, without waging an unjust war against any tribe. (quoted p.334)

We have this and the biographies of later historians, namely Suetonius (69 to 120 AD), which capture snippets of gossip and factoids, but the rest…is a record of decisions by one of the colossi of history whose ‘true character’, despite hundreds of thousands of analyses, remains a mystery.

Pronunciation

The Latin pronunciation is:

  • praetor – pry-tor
  • quaestor – kwy-stor
  • Julius Kye-zer
  • Kikero

But if, in English, we say Julius Sea-zer, then it follows that all Latin words with ‘ae’ should be pronounced ‘e’ – hence preetor, queestor and so on.


Credit

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy was published in 2014 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 2015 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Life of Augustus by Suetonius

Suetonius’s life of Augustus has 101 chapters compared with his life of Julius Caesar with 89.

(1) Traditional connection of the Octavian family with the town of Velitrae. Tradition that a forebear was in the middle of sacrificing to Mars when a neighbouring tribe attacked so that he grabbed the innards out of the fire half burned [no idea what this really means], giving rise to a tradition of sacrificing that way in the town.

(2) The family was of the equestrian class i.e. neither rich and venerable patricians nor plebeians. Generations back the family split into two branches, one of which sought high office, Octavius’s branch less so. His father was the first family member to become a senator. Mark Antony taunted him that his great-grandfather was a freedman and rope-make, while his grandfather was a money-changer.

(3) His father Gaius Octavius was a man of wealth and repute who served well as governor of Macedonia, defeating Rome’s enemies in battle, meting out justice to Rome’s allies. Marcus Cicero, in a letter to his brother, Quintus, who was serving as proconsular governor​ of Asia, advises him to imitate his neighbour Octavius.

(4) On the way back from Macedonia he died suddenly leaving a wife, Atia, and three children, one by his first wife, 2 by Atia. Atia was the daughter of Marcus Atius Balbus and Julia, sister of Gaius Caesar. Balbus came from a family with many senators in its history and was closely connected on his mother’s side with Pompey the Great.

(5) Augustus was born just before sunrise on the ninth day before the Kalends of October [i.e. 23 September] in the consul­ship of Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius [63 BC], at the Ox‑Heads, a small property in the Palatine quarter, where there is now a shrine, built shortly after his death.

(6) A small room like a pantry is shown to this day as the emperor’s nursery in his grandfather’s country-house near Velitrae, which is now said to be haunted.

(7) His names In his infancy he was given the surname Thurinus in memory of the home of his ancestors. Mark Antony uses the name as an insult when the two fell out in the 30s BC. In 44 BC he took the name of Gaius Caesar by the will of his great-uncle, Julius. In 27 BC he was awarded the surname Augustus, on the motion of Munatius Plancus, Augustus being a made-up name because sacred places and those in which anything is consecrated by augural rites are called ‘august’ from the increase (auctus) in dignity or authority.

Suetonius uses the name Augustus throughout.

(8) He lost his father when he was 4. At 12 he delivered a funeral eulogy to his grandmother Julia. When his uncle went to Spain to engage the sons of Pompey, although he had hardly recovered from a severe illness, he followed over roads beset by the enemy with only a very few companions and so endeared himself to Caesar, who soon formed a high opinion of his character.

Suetonius gives a fantastically abbreviated account of Augustus’s career in order to get onto the character stuff: so, after Caesar defeated the last of the Pompeyans in Spain, thinking peace had arrived for good, Augustus devoted himself to study in Greece. When he learned that his great-uncle had been assassinated, and he had been named his heir, he pondered whether to appeal to the nearest legions, eventually deciding against it. He returned to Rome and entered upon his inheritance, in spite of the doubts of his mother and the strong opposition of his stepfather, the ex-consul Marcius Philippus. Then he levied armies and henceforth ruled the State, at first with Marcus Antonius and Marcus Lepidus, then with Antony alone for nearly 12 years, and finally by himself for 44. That’s it, that’s the complete summary of Augustus’s political career.

(9) “Having given as it were a summary of his life, I shall now take up its various phases one by one, not in chronological order, but by classes, to make the account clearer and more intelligible.” In his introduction to the Penguin edition, Michael Grant points out that Suetonius’s fondness for assigning things to categories reminds us that he wrote the lives of great grammarians (now lost). Very bookish, very librariany, this love of taxonomies.

He wages five civil wars which Suetonius oddly names after their decisive battles: Mutina (43 BC), Philippi (42), Perusia (40), Sicily and Actium (31).

(10) Augustus initially wanted to avenge his uncle [for some reason Suetonius insists on calling Caesar Octavius’s ‘uncle’ not his ‘great uncle’] by gaining a position of power such as tribune of the plebs and then leading forces against Brutus and Cassius. But he was blocked in all attempts by Mark Antony and so went over to the aristocrats’ party. He plotted to assassinate Antony but when the conspiracy was uncovered, raised veterans to protect himself. He was put in command of the army which he had raised, with the rank of propraetor, and bidden to join with Hirtius and Pansa, who had become consuls, in lending aid to Decimus Brutus.

(11) Both Hirtius and Pansa lost their lives in this war and there were persistent rumours that Augustus had them arranged their deaths in order to create vacancies in the consulship.

(12) But when Antony, after his flight north, found a protector in Marcus Lepidus, and realising that the rest of the leaders and armies were coming to terms with them, he abandoned the cause of the nobles without hesitation and entered negotiations.

(13) He now formed a league with Antony and Lepidus and they finished the war against Brutus and Cassius with the two battles of Philippi. He was not merciful. He sent Brutus’s head to be thrown at the foot of Caesar’s statue.

When the duties of administration were divided after the victory at Philippi, Antony undertook to restore order in the East, and Augustus to lead the veterans back to Italy and assign them lands in the municipalities. But he could please neither the veterans nor the landowners, since the latter complained that they were driven from their homes, and the former that they were not being treated as their services deserved.

(14) Dangerous incidents during the siege of Lucius Antonius in Perusia.

(15) After the capture of Perusia he took vengeance on many, meeting all attempts to beg for pardon or to make excuses with the one reply, “You must die.”

(16) Details of the war in Sicily against Pompey’s son, Sextus Pompeius.

(17) When the final breach with Antony came, despite numerous attempts to patch it up, in 32 BC Augustus had Antony’s will read out to the people in which he named his children by Cleopatra as his heirs. Suetonius briskly deals with the battle of Actium, the difficulties he had sending his fleet and troops back to Italy, then his journey with some forces to besiege Antony in Alexandria.

Although Antony tried to make terms at the eleventh hour, Augustus forced him to commit suicide, and viewed his corpse. He greatly desired to save Cleopatra alive for his triumph, and even had Psylli brought to her, to suck the poison from her wound, since it was thought that she had died from the bite of an asp.

The young Antony, the elder of Fulvia’s two sons, he dragged from the image of the Deified Julius, to which he had fled after many vain entreaties, and slew him. Caesarion, too, whom Cleopatra fathered on Caesar, he overtook in his flight, brought back, and put to death. But he spared the rest of the offspring of Antony and Cleopatra, and afterwards maintained and reared them according to their several positions, as carefully as if they were his own kin.

(18) He visited the shrine of Alexander and placed a golden crown in the tomb. He annexed Egypt as a Roman province and had troops clear out the canals from the Nile in order to make it a more efficient bread basket. He founded the city of Nicopolis close to the site of his victory at Actium.

(19) Half a dozen assassination attempts are foiled.

(20) He carried on but two foreign wars in person: in Dalmatia, when he was but a youth, and with the Cantabrians after the overthrow of Antony.

(21) He subdued Cantabria, Aquitania, Pannonia, Dalmatia, and all Illyricum, as well as Raetia and the Vindelici and Salassi, which are Alpine tribes. He put a stop to the inroads of the Dacians, slaying great numbers of them, together with three of their leaders, and forced the Germans back to the farther side of the river Albis. But he never made war on any nation without just and due cause and was far from desiring to increase his dominion or his military glory at any cost. He only took hostages where necessary and if the hostage-giving nation rebelled, did not execute them but sold them into slavery.

His moderation in this and other things prompted India and the Scythians to send friendly envoys. Friendship with the eternally troublesome Parthian Empire allowed Augustus to reclaim the standards lost by Crassus at the battle of Carrhae in 53, and by Antony’s lieutenants in 40 and 36 BC.

(22) He had the doors of the temple of Janus Quirinuse closed three times, having won peace on land and sea. He twice entered the city in an ovation, after the war of Philippi, again after that in Sicily, and celebrated three regular triumphs​, for his victories in Dalmatia, at Actium, and at Alexandria, on three successive days.

(23) He suffered but two severe and ignominious defeats, those of Lollius and Varus, both of which were in Germany. [At the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9 3 entire legions led by Publius Quinctilius Varus were destroyed by Arminius, leader of the Cherusci.] It was said Augustus was so affected that for several months he cut neither his beard nor his hair, and sometimes he would dash his head against a door, crying: “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!” And he observed the day of the disaster each year as one of sorrow and mourning.

(24) He was a strict disciplinarian. He dismissed the entire tenth legion in disgrace because they were insubordinate. If any cohorts gave way in battle, he decimated them, [had every tenth man, chosen by lot, executed].

(25) After the civil wars he never called any of the troops ‘comrades’ either in the assembly or in an edict but always ‘soldiers’, thinking the former term too flattering for the requirements of discipline, the peaceful state of the times, and his own dignity.

He thought the worst quality in a general or officer was haste and risk. Hence his favourite sayings: “More haste, less speed”; “Better a safe commander than a bold”; and “That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.”

(26) He held the consulship an unprecedented 13 times. The first time he bullied the Senate into granting it him when he was only 20. He held his second consul­ship 9 years later, and a third after a year’s interval. The rest up to the eleventh were in successive years, then a long interval of 17 years till his twelfth and 2 years till his thirteenth.

(27) He was for ten years a member of the triumvirate for restoring the State to order, and though he opposed his colleagues for some time and tried to prevent a proscription, yet when it was begun, he carried it through with greater severity than either of them.

While he was triumvir, Augustus incurred general detestation by many of his acts and Suetonius lists the times Augustus had nobles he suspected of treachery arrested, tortured or executed on the spot.

He received the tribunician power for life, and once or twice chose a colleague in the office for periods of five years each. He was also given the supervision of morals and of the laws for all time, and by the virtue of this position, although without the title of censor, he nevertheless took the census thrice.

(28) He twice seriously considered restoring the Republic but both times was given pause at the thought of what would happen to himself, and by what new dissensions would immediately break out. [The same kind of argument which kept Oliver Cromwell in power.]

He undertook such sustained building work that in later life he liked to say he had found Rome built of brick and left it made of marble.

(29) A list of the notable buildings he had erected, and he encouraged other rich citizens to build new buildings or restore old ones.

(30) He reorganised the city into wards, organised fire watches, widened the channel of the Tiber to prevent floods and had all the approach roads to Rome widened and improved.

(31) After assuming the post of pontifex maximus on the death of Lepidus he collected whatever prophetic writings of Greek or Latin origin were in circulation and burned them. He restored Julius’s reform of the calendar and had the month Sextilis renamed after him, August, because it was the month when he held his first consulship and won his most famous victories.

He increased the number and importance of the priests. He increased the privileges of the Vestal virgins. He revived ancient rites which had fallen into disuse, such as the augury of Safety, the office of Flamen Dialis, the ceremonies of the Lupercalia, the Secular Games and the festival of the Compitalia. He provided that the Lares of the Crossroads should be crowned twice a year, with spring and summer flowers.

(32) To put a stop to brigandage, he stationed guards of soldiers wherever it seemed advisable, inspected the workhouses, and disbanded all guilds, except such as were of long standing and formed for legitimate purposes. He reformed the system of juries.

(33) In his administration of justice he was both highly conscientious and very lenient. [As so many have commented, it was as if the bloodshed of the civil wars and the proscriptions led to a psychological backlash, in which he tried to erase his former brutality.]

(34) He revised existing laws and enacted some new ones, for example, on extravagance, on adultery and chastity, on bribery, and on the encouragement of marriage among the various classes of citizens.

(35) Membership of the Senate had swollen to over 1,000 due to bribery and other reasons. He reduced it to 600, partly by having them vote worthy candidates, partly by his own intervention. He had sittings regularised to twice a month.

(36) Description of other administrative innovations designed to save money and avoid corruption.

(37) To enable more men to take part in the administration of the State, he devised new offices: the charge of public buildings, of the roads, of the aqueducts, of the channel of the Tiber, of the distribution of grain to the people, as well as the prefecture of the city, a board of three for choosing senators, and another for reviewing the companies of the knights whenever it should be necessary.

(38) He was generous in honouring military achievement for he had regular triumphs​ voted to over 30 generals. To enable senators’ sons to gain an earlier acquaintance with public business, he allowed them to assume the broad purple stripe immediately after the gown of manhood and to attend meetings of the senate. And when they began their military career, he gave them not merely a tribunate in a legion, but the command of a division of cavalry as well.

(39) His review of the knightly class, scolding and reprimanding many for bad behaviour.

(40) He revised conditions of the knightly class. He reviewed the way the free grain dole was distributed. He tried to abolish the widespread bribery at elections.

He was very hesitant to grant full Roman citizenship on foreigners. He made careful provision as to the number, condition, and status of slaves who were manumitted.

He wished to promote traditional forms of dress and directed the aediles not to allow anyone to appear in the Forum or its neighbourhood who wasn’t wearing a toga and a cloak.

(41) He increased the property qualification for senators, requiring 1,200,000 sesterces instead of 800,000. He loaned money at zero interest to people who needed it. He paid for the grain distribution in times of scarcity.

(42) But he was strict about acts of generosity and got cross when the people demanded more than he had promised.

(43) He surpassed all his predecessors in the frequency, variety, and magnificence of his public shows. If anything rare and worth seeing was ever brought to the city, it was his habit to make a special exhibit of it in any convenient place on days when no shows were appointed. For example, a rhinoceros in the Saepta, a tiger on the stage and a snake of fifty cubits in front of the Comitium.

(44) Reforms to rules surrounding the theatre, shows, gladiatorial combats, athletics competitions and so on.

(45) Games He didn’t attend all the games but when he did, he made a point of giving them his full attention, unlike Julius who was publicly criticised for answering correspondence and working during the show. He improved conditions for athletes. It appears that actors were legendarily lawless and he had some severely punished. For example, Pylades was expelled from the city and from Italy as well, because by pointing at him with his finger​ he turned all eyes upon a spectator who was hissing him.

(46) Population He increased the population of Italy by creating 28 new colonies. He paid for new buildings throughout. To keep up the supply of men of rank and induce the commons to increase and multiply, he admitted to the equestrian military career​ those who were recommended by any town. As he did his rounds of towns and districts he paid all who had had legitimate children 1,000 sesterces for each child.

(47) Provinces He assigned to himself rule of the stronger provinces; the others he assigned to proconsular governors selected by lot. Cities which had treaties with Rome but were on the road to ruin through their lawlessness, he deprived of their independence. He relieved others that were overwhelmed with debt, rebuilt some which had been destroyed by earthquakes, and gave Latin rights​ or full citizen­ship to all who could point to services rendered the Roman people.

(48) Foreign kingdoms He restored the kingdoms of which he gained possession by the right of conquest to those from whom he had taken them or joined them with other foreign nations. He encouraged dynastic intermarriages. He appointed guardians to the children of kings and had some brought up with his own.

(49) Reforms to the administration and pay of the army.

(50) Personal seal In dispatches and private letters he used as his seal first a sphinx, later an image of Alexander the Great, and finally his own image carved by Dioscurides.

(51) Clemency The evidences of his clemency and moderation are numerous and strong. He was content to let people speak ill of him, at dinner parties and such, confident they wouldn’t actually do anything.

[It is faintly miraculous the way the history of the Republic from about 100 BC to Augustus’s realm was continually riven by dissension and people supporting rival great men…and then all such talk just disappears.]

(52) When the people did their best to force the dictator­ship upon him, he knelt down, threw off his toga from his shoulders and with bare breast begged them not to insist.

(53) Lord He angrily refused the title of dominus or Lord. As consul he commonly went through the streets on foot, and when he was not consul, generally in a closed litter. His morning receptions were open to all, including the common people, and he met the requests of those who approached him with great affability, jocosely reproving one man because he presented a petition to him with as much hesitation “as he would a penny to an elephant.”

He was a highly effective socialiser: On the day of a meeting of the senate he greeted all the members in the House​, calling each man by name without a prompter and when he left the House he took leave of them in the same manner. He exchanged social calls with many and attended all their birthdays.

(54) Some senators cheeked him or made slighting remarks but no one suffered for their freedom of speech or insolence.

(55) He was relaxed about anonymous lampoons and satires.

(56) When he voted for officials he did so in his tribe as an ordinary citizen. He made sure all his friends and contacts were subject to the law. He even appeared in court and allowed himself to be cross questioned.

(57) As a result of this phenomenally wise rule he was immensely popular and regularly voted titles and given feasts and festivals by all classes of citizen.

(58) He was offered the title Father of His Country by popular acclaim and the Senate and graciously accepted it.

(59) A statue was erected to his doctor, Antonius Musa. Some of the Italian cities made the day on which he first visited them the beginning of their year. Many of the provinces, in addition to temples and altars, established quinquennial games​ in his honour.

(60) His friends and allies among the kings each in his own realm founded a city called Caesarea.

(61) Now Suetonius turns to consider his personal and domestic life.

(62) Three wives 1. When he became reconciled with Antony after their first quarrel, and their troops begged that the rivals be further united by some tie of kinship, he married Antony’s stepdaughter Claudia, daughter of Fulvia by Publius Clodius, although she was barely of marriageable age; but because of a falling out with his mother-in‑law Fulvia, he divorced her before they had begun to live together.

2. Shortly afterwards he married Scribonia, who had been married before to two ex-consuls, and was a mother by one of them. He divorced her also, “unable to put up with her shrewish disposition,” in his own words on the same day that she gave birth to his daughter, Julia.

3. And on that same day married Livia Drusilla, taking her from her husband Tiberius Nero, although she was with child at the time; and he loved and esteemed her to the end without a rival (although with numerous other sexual partners, see below).

(63) Children i.e. one daughter By Scribonia he had a daughter Julia, by Livia no children at all. He gave Julia in marriage first to Marcellus, son of his sister Octavia and hardly more than a boy, and then after his death to Marcus Agrippa, prevailing upon his sister to yield her son-in‑law to him. At this point the family tree of Augustus and Livia’s families, various children, grandchildren and adopted children becomes increasingly complicated.

(64) His grandchildren and very close supervision of them.

(65) Bad family Despite all his precautions Fortune intervened to screw up his family. He found the two Julias, his daughter and granddaughter, guilty of every form of vice and banished them. He lost grandsons Gaius and Lucius within the span of 18 months, the former dying in Lycia, the latter at Massilia. He then publicly adopted his third grandson Agrippa but soon disowned him because of his low tastes and violent temper.

Julia He exiled his daughter to the island of Pandataria where he denied her the use of wine and every form of luxury. No man, bond or free, was allowed to come near her without his permission, and then not without being informed of his stature, complexion, and even of any marks or scars upon his body. He frequently lamented having been inflicted with such daughters and wives.

(66) Friends He had few friends but was extremely loyal to those. Suetonius names two who he was forced to hand over to the authorities when it was discovered they were conspiring. He was very sensitive to friends’ death bed comments, or comments written in wills (which Romans often used to vent their true feelings, especially about rulers, once they were dead).

(67) Freedmen and slaves He had close friends among his freedmen but was severe with anyone who broke bounds:

  • he forced Polus, a favourite freedman of his, to take his own life, because he was convicted of adultery with Roman matrons
  • he broke the legs of his secretary Thallus for taking five hundred denarii to betray the contents of a letter
  • when the tutor and attendants of his son Gaius took advantage of their master’s illness and death to commit acts of arrogance and greed in his province, he had them thrown into a river with heavy weights about their necks

(68) Gay In young manhood many accusations that he was gay.

(69) Adultery His widespread adultery. He took the wife of an ex-consul from her husband’s dining-room before his very eyes into a bed-chamber, and brought her back to the table with her hair in disorder and her ears glowing. Mark Antony claimed his friends acted as his panders, and stripped and inspected matrons and well-grown girls, as if Toranius the slave-dealer were putting them up for sale.

(70) Vices The anecdote of the scandalous dinner of the twelve gods when Augustus and his circle dressed as, then behaved as, the gods and goddesses.

He was criticized as over fond of costly furniture and Corinthian bronzes. It was said some of the people proscribed in 43 BC were murdered so he could seize their bronzes. Sounds like the kind of gossip that always surrounds this kind of thing, compare and contrast with Sulla’s proscriptions.

(71) He was not greedy and freely distributed treasure he seized abroad. He was promiscuous, though: they say that even in his later years he was fond of deflowering maidens who were brought together for him from all quarters, even by his own wife.

He was open about his addiction to gaming and gambling, particularly dice.

(72) Temperate lifestyle Given his complete power and immense wealth he lived relatively simply, staying in one house in Rome, summer or winter, staying at other people’s houses, disliking grand palaces. He had the mansion built by his disgraced daughter Julia razed to the ground.

At his villa at Capreae he amassed a collection of the monstrous bones of huge sea monsters and wild beasts called the “bones of the giants”. These were fossils.

(73) Clothes He lived and dressed simply. He wore raised shoes to make him seem taller than he was.

(74) Dinner parties He gave dinner parties constantly, which weren’t that lavish or formal, at which he was a considerate host.

(75) Celebrations He celebrated festivals and holiday, sometimes with jokes and pranks, organising lotteries with wildly varying prizes.

(76) Eating He preferred plain food. He particularly liked coarse bread, small fishes, hand-made moist cheese, and green figs of the second crop. He would eat even before dinner, wherever and whenever he felt hungry.

(77) Alcohol He drank little, sometimes three swigs of a glass of wine and that was it. He would take a bit of bread soaked in cold water, a slice of cucumber, a sprig of young lettuce, or an apple with a tart flavour,​ either fresh or dried.

(78) Sleep He took a nap after lunch. After dinner he went back to his study to work. He slept 7 hours or less. He often woke up and called for a storyteller to speak till he fell asleep again. He hated getting up early. Due to his trouble sleeping he often nodded off during ceremonies or in his litter.

(79) Appearance He was unusually handsome and exceedingly graceful at all periods of his life but wasn’t fussed about appearance, having his hair cut any whichway, not bothering whether his beard was shaved or trimmed. He had clear bright eyes in which he liked to think a sparkle of divinity shone and he liked it if people he stared at dropped their gaze as if before the glare of the sun.

His eyebrows met. His ears were of moderate size, and his nose projected a little at the top and then bent slightly inward.​ His complexion was between dark and fair. He was short of stature though you didn’t notice it because his body was perfectly proportioned.

(80) Health He was rather sickly: he was covered in spots, itched constantly and was not very strong in his left hip, thigh, and leg, and even limped slightly at times.

(81) Ailments He suffered from bladder stones, enlargement of the diaphragm, catarrh. He didn’t like the winter cold.

(82) Clothes In winter he wore an undershirt, a woollen chest-protector and wraps for his thighs and shins, four tunics and a heavy toga. He couldn’t endure the sun even in winter, and never walked in the open air without wearing a broad-brimmed hat, even at home. He travelled in a litter, usually at night.

(83) Exercise Riding, pass-ball, balloon-ball, running and leaping dressed in a blanket. He sought out street urchins to play dice with but abhorred dwarfs, cripples, and people of that sort, as freaks of nature and of ill omen.

(84) Speaking From early youth Augustus devoted himself eagerly and with utmost diligence to oratory and liberal studies. To avoid the danger of forgetting what he was to say, or wasting time in committing it to memory, he adopted the practice of reading everything from a manuscript. Even his conversations with individuals and the more important of those with his own wife Livia, he always wrote out and read from a note-book, for fear of saying too much or too little if he spoke offhand.

(85) Writings He wrote numerous works of various kinds in prose, most of which have perished [except for the blankly factual Res Gestae].

(86) Writing style He sought to write as clearly as possible, without the affectations of style common at the time.

(87) Suetonius itemises specific linguistic habits of Augustus.

(88) Orthography i.e. spelling. Augustus wasn’t strict or consistent, preferring to spell as words sounded, phonetically.

(89) Literature He was interested in Greek oratory and studied it but never became fluent in Greek. He gave every encouragement to the men of talent of his own age, listening with courtesy and patience to their readings, not only of poetry and history, but of speeches and dialogues as well.

[Suetonius doesn’t mention it, but the three most important Roman poets flourished under Augustus’s patronage, Virgil, Ovid and Horace.]

(90) Superstition When it thundered and lightninged he took refuge in an underground bunker because he was once being carried in a litter when lightning struck and killed the servant walking in front bearing a lantern, something he never forgot.

(91) Dreams Examples of dreams which saved Augustus’s life or in which he spoke to Jupiter.

(92) Auspices Certain auspices and omens he regarded as infallible. If his shoes were put on in the wrong way in the morning he considered it a bad sign. If there was a drizzle of rain when he was starting on a long journey by land or sea, he thought it a good omen.

(93) He treated with great respect such foreign rites as were ancient and well established, but held the rest in contempt.

(94) Omens Suetonius brings together all the omens surrounding his birth which hinted that he was to be a great man. No difference between him and Plutarch, similarly in thrall to superstitions, omens, auguries and signs:

  • The day he was born the conspiracy of Catiline was before the House, and his father Octavius arrived late because of his wife’s confinement. Then Publius Nigidius, as everyone knows, learning the reason for his tardiness and being informed also of the hour of the birth, declared that the ruler of the world had been born.
  • As soon as he began to talk, it chanced that the frogs were making a great noise at his grandfather’s country place; he bade them be silent, and they say that since then no frog has ever croaked there.
  • As the Deified Julius was cutting down a wood at Munda and preparing a place for his camp, coming across a palm tree, he caused it to be spared as an omen of victory. From this a shoot at once sprang forth and in a few days grew so great that it not only equalled the parent tree, but even overshadowed it. Moreover, many doves built their nests there, although that kind of bird especially avoids hard and rough foliage. Indeed, it was that omen in particular, they say, that led Caesar to wish that none other than his sister’s grandson should be his successor.

(95) As he was entering the city on his return from Apollonia after Caesar’s death, though the heaven was clear and cloudless, a circle like a rainbow suddenly formed around the sun’s disc, and straightway the tomb of Caesar’s daughter Julia was struck by lightning.

(96) Auguries of victory As he was on his way to Philippi, a Thessalian gave him notice of his coming victory on the authority of the deified Caesar, whose shade had met him on a lonely road. As he was walking on the shore the day before the sea-fight off Sicily, a fish sprang from the sea and fell at his feet. And so on…

(97) Omens of death Towards the end of his life the first letter of his name was melted from the inscription on one of his statues by a flash of lightning. This was interpreted to mean that he would live only a hundred days from that time, the number indicated by the letter C, and that he would be numbered with the gods, since aesar (that is, the part of the name Caesar which was left) is the word for god in the Etruscan tongue.

(98) His final journey to the island of Capri. On the sea journey he contracted diarrhea. Anecdotes of his last few days, accompanying Tiberius, attending games, joking at a dinner party. He at last took to bed in Nola.

(99) Last day On his last day he was attended by servants and friends. He passed away as he was kissing Livia, uttering these last words: “Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell,” thus blessed with an easy death such as he had always longed for.

(100) Funeral His body was escorted back to Rome. Details of his funeral, his cremation, burial in the Mausoleum. An ex-praetor who took oath that he had seen the form of the Emperor, after he had been reduced to ashes, on its way to heaven.

(101) His will, very detailed and specific, giving sums to Rome, to the praetorian guard, city cohorts and legionaries and other named individuals and groups. Its most important provision was appointing Tiberius his heir.

Summary

It can easily be seen that Suetonius skimps on Augustus’s military or political record – barely records most of it – in order to move onto what really interests him, which is the carefully categorised itemisation of Augustus’s qualities and attitudes.

And many readers just remember the most colourful anecdotes, like the rhinoceros and the elephant, breaking his secretary’s legs, having Roman matrons stripped naked for his inspection, or addressing his wife from written notes to avoid making mistakes. Suetonius encourages the quirks and oddities.


Related links

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History as biography

The following thoughts were prompted by a reading of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The point is that, apart from all other considerations of literature and so on, both plays demonstrate the enduring human tendency to attribute all social change, all meaning in the flow of historical events, to Great and Eminent Personages. To humanise the flow of events and to attribute praise and blame for everything to a handful of Top Dogs.

The confusing world

It’s difficult for any of us to understand what is happening, what is going on in our own lives, let alone in the wider world. There is a natural tendency to humanise everything, to reduce everything to the behaviour of named individuals in order to make our lives manageable, graspable, bearable. If we can attribute everything to individuals then we can relapse into the standard human response of naming and shaming and blaming them. We can blame America’s ills on Donald Trump and Britain’s ills on Boris Johnson.

But on numerous levels, I think this is wrong, not morally wrong, just factually inaccurate. Even in my little family I can see how individuals are swayed by social trends and pressures. I can see how the economic outlook for my children’s generation shapes their attitudes. Multiply this by millions and you, fairly obviously, have a host of broad social, economic, technological and cultural trends which affect everything we hear, and so repeat, discuss, believe, argue about.

At the ‘highest’ level (if you want to visualise it as a hierarchy) are the cultural and ideological trends – the changing things people believe in, think about, argue about.

Beneath them you have economic trends – in our day and age drastic rises in oil and gas prices which affect the cost of fertiliser and transport which threaten severe food shortages this autumn and winter. In my country and time another huge factor is the failure of successive governments to build enough accommodation for the spiralling population, leading to the never-ending rises in house prices, and the dispirited resignation of both my kids that they will never own a home like their parents did.

Economic trends are strongly influenced by technological developments – the most obvious one in my lifetime being the enormous increase in the computerisation of all aspects of life, from high finance to finding a partner, almost everything seems to done via the internet, smart phones and social media, with all kinds of consequences, the most obvious being that people spend a huge amount of time on their phones and are immensely influenced by what they read coming through their social media feeds.

And at a deeper level there are the basic facts of geography and biology – the most important single one being the rapid heating up of the planet which is making severe drought more common, accompanied by the manmade destruction of all manner of ecosystems which we rely on for food and water, which will  greatly exacerbate the situation.

At a more individual level we are subject to our genetic inheritances which program whether we are tall or short, fat or thin, male or female, predisposed to heart disease, cancer, dementia and a host of bodily infirmities.

And then, of course, there is the constant threat of infections from outside, something most people are much more aware of since COVID-19 brought the world to a halt.

All this is hard enough to take in, and it’s only a superficial sketch of the multi-layered ‘reality’ we inhabit, or more accurately, the overlapping realities. Our minds inhabit a complex matrix of biochemistry, ever-changing sensory perceptions, the permanent wash of emotions and an endless tide of discourse and words which have no boundaries because all of these issues are, in effect, endless: discourses about the importance of oil prices on civilisation, assessing the impact of global warming, considering the effect of infectious disease on societies, explaining the importance of genetics in human behaviour, these are just a handful out of thousands of serious topics and no-one fully understands them. Vast subjects, impenetrably complex – and, when you start to begin to combine them, impossible for any individual to fully grasp.

The Great Man theory

And so it is much, much easier to think of society and what is happening in terms of a handful of powerful individuals. And this explains why most cultures, for most of human history, have done just that – attributed everything that happens to the eternal gods or, on the human plane, to Eminent Men and Women, to kings and queens and emperors and empresses and the like.

As far back as we have written records, they record the wars and acts of Great Men, emperors of China or India or Assyria or Egypt and the earliest histories which emerge from simple annals or chronologies likewise focused entirely on the doings of great men (and occasional empresses or queens).

The earliest histories had just two explanations for everything: 1. the wise or foolish behaviour of great leaders, and sitting above them, 2. the capricious interventions of the gods. 3. any unexpected turn of events could be attributed to the vague catch-all category, ‘Fortune’.

And 4. hovering behind all accounts was the primitive assumption that the present age is uniquely corrupt and degraded, a sad falling-away from some unspecified previous times when men were all upright, pure and noble.

Boris Johnson and the wheel of fortune

Armed with these four concepts you can, at a pinch, explain everything, right up to the present day. Using this template, Boris Johnson is a Great Man who Got Brexit Done, oversaw the fastest vaccine rollout of any western nation, and was leading this great country of ours onwards to greater things, when his treacherous colleagues, jealous of his achievements, conspired to stab him in the back and bring him down. To quote a Latin tag attributed to Cicero, ‘O tempora, O mores!’ meaning: ‘Oh the times! Oh the customs!’ But then again – a medieval commentator would say – no-one, even of Boris’s majesty and stature, can defy the turn of Fortune’s wheel, which is destined to bring even the highest and mightiest low.

One of the thousands and thousands of medieval depictions of the wheel of fortune bring the mighty low (Illustration by Jean Miélot to Christine de Pizan’s Epitre d’Othéa: Les Sept Sacrements de l’Eglise, about 1455)

See? Anything can be explained using these primitive concepts. Maybe more accurate to say, these concepts can be attributed to almost any events and the impression given that they’ve been explained, a completely spurious impression.

The Great Men theory in ancient authors

So it comes as no surprise when we get to the histories of the ancient (western) world, to discover that Plutarch or Sallust or Suetonius take a moralising approach to history, focusing on the character of the great men of the times they describe, and interpreting their behaviour in terms of the strengths and weaknesses. If this doesn’t completely explain the events they are chronicling, they could always add a knowing reference to Fortune which inscrutably intervenes to wreck the affairs of men.

I sometimes find it odd that the editors and translators of the editions of these ancient authors feel the need to explain the Great Men ideology of their authors, since it has been the default setting of most of mankind for most of history.

As John Wilders writes in his introduction to the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, Plutarch was a very congenial source for Shakespeare’s dramas about the ancient world because, although living 1,500 years apart:

both men wrote on the assumption that the course of history was shaped by the actions of men in power and, for that reason, both were curious to penetrate into the subtleties of human character… (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 57)

QED. It is only very recently that more objective, non-Great Men theories – broadly speaking, concepts to do with economics and sociology – have been developed. We can date this new development in human thought to the period vaguely referred to as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Maybe we can pick an arbitrary date of 1776, the year Adam Smith published ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’, which introduced readers to the notion that we are all members of a globalised system of trade and production, and that our lives – whether we have jobs, what we can afford to buy, eat or wear – subject to events in faraway countries and forces beyond our control. Just as everyone in this country is going to suffer because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A revolutionary new way of thinking about societies and human existence.

This new, economics-based and sociological way of looking at society definitely accompanied the development of the industrial revolution as all manner of authors tried to understand the sweeping changes transforming society without anybody explicitly planning or wanting them.

We find Dickens objecting to the dominance of the new breed of ‘economists’ who want to reduce all human life to economic statistics (Hard Times, 1854), and Karl Marx, obviously, was writing works which engaged with the earlier sociological theories of Hegel, in Germany, and the post-French Revolution school of theorists in France. The revolution crystallised, accelerated and disseminated all manner of new political and social theories, kick-starting the feverish debates of the nineteenth century, Hegel, Marx, Bakunin, Comte and so on.

In the more pragmatic mercantile Anglosphere the industrial revolution prompted an explosion of social and economic theorists following Smith’s lead, Malthus, Bentham, John-Stuart Mill and so on. We still, to a large extent, live in this world, a world awash with ideologies and theories, none of which completely work or explain everything and so are subject to the endless updating, revising, revisiting and rethinking etc which fill so many books and political journals.

I’m not trying to recapitulate the history of modern political and economic theory, I’m interested in the way that, despite the jungle of modern social theorisation, the Great Man / Fortune’s Wheel theory of history persists and flourishes.

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra

And so to what prompted these thoughts, Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra  which I read after reading about 30 texts from ancient Rome about history (Plutarch, Suetonius, Sallust, Cicero). When characters in these plays describe the lead figures, or the lead figures describe themselves, as world-bestriding colossi, they are doing two things.

First of all, they are reinforcing the Great Man theory of history, stymying any attempt to think beyond it and countenance less simplistic explanations. Again and again, reading ancient literature, you come up across this brick wall, this closed door. Nobody could think beyond it. it makes you realise how immensely intellectually free and liberated we are, in our age. Even if we don’t have all the answers, the answers we do have are infinitely more sophisticated, responsive than anything the ancients had.

But secondly, these old tropes continue to thrill us. The rhetoric surrounding great men in Shakespeare’s plays is wonderfully vivid and exciting:

CASSIUS: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves…
(Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2)

This is my final point: that the vicarious thrill to be experienced in the vivid rhetoric of power deployed throughout Shakespeare’s political plays is not necessarily a good thing. Food manufacturers add salt and sugar to processed food because the human palate is designed to respond favourably to their taste. The touch of salt or sugar on the palate fires basic, primitive nerves which release endorphins in the brain. because, during the course of human evolution, edible sources of salt or sugar were so extremely rare that our palates had to be sensitive enough to detect them. In our hyper-industrialised societies, manufacturers now exploit this basic human functionality and stuff so much salt and sugar in their products that the taste pleasure can become addictive. Hence the epidemic of obesity in the western world, due to the addiction of large number of consumers to products packed with unhealthy levels of salt and sugar.

Same with the Great Man Theory. It is the default setting of the human mind, it is the crudest possible way of thinking about politics and history and social change. Listen to vox pops of supporters of either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and you realise that most people still cleave to a theory of society which predates the ancient Egyptians. “Don-ald! Don-ald! Don-ald!” Chimpanzees picking each others’ fleas are more sophisticated.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but the conclusion I’m leading up to is that a good deal of the pleasure derived from watching plays like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra is comparable to the guilty pleasure of pigging out on junk food.

The author invites us to thrill to the rhetoric of power embodied in the many descriptions of ‘the triple pillar of the world’ (Philo on Antony 1.1) and ‘the greatest soldier of the world’ (Cleopatra describing Antony 1.3) or great men each owning ‘a third of the world’ (Antony of Caesar 2.2), becoming ‘lord of all the world’ (Menas to Pompey 2.7), to great men playing with half of the world as they pleased (Antony 3.11) or quartering the whole world with his sword (Antony 4.14) or deserving ‘the worship of the whole world’ (Eros of Antony 4.14), being ‘the greatest prince o’ the world’ (Antony on himself 4.15), and ‘his legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm crested the world’ (Cleopatra on Antony 5.2).

My point is that to thrill to this kind of rhetoric, to enjoy it, to be excited by it, is, intellectually speaking, the equivalent of wolfing down a Big Mac with large fries and a king-sized Coke. It is the basic, primitive , lowest-level human response to the society around us and abrogates the difficult but complex knowledge of the world we know we possess and know we ought to be employing if we’re ever to escape the mess we’ve got ourselves into.


Related reviews

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599)

Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, was first produced, in all probability, in 1599. The plot is based entirely on three of Plutarch’s biographies of eminent Romans, which Shakespeare found in Sir Thomas North’s translations into English of The Lives of the Most Noble Greeks and Romans, first published in 1579. The three lives he drew from are those of:

As you can see, whereas the assassination only takes up the last tenth of Caesar’s life, and the period from the assassination to the Battle of Philippi only takes up ten of Antony’s 87 chapters, the assassination and aftermath constitute almost all of Plutarch’s life of Brutus which may, at a very basic level, explain why Brutus emerges as the hero’ of Shakespeare’s play.

Brief synopsis

The figure the play is named after, Julius Caesar, actually dies half way through the play. The first half of the play depicts the conspiracy leading up to his assassination, the second half depicts the main consequences.

The play opens with Rome preparing for Caesar’s triumphal entrance accompanied by his best friend and deputy, Mark Antony. Brutus is a noble upstanding ally and friend of Caesar, but he fears that Caesar will become king and so overthrow the republic which he loves. Cassius is depicted as a wily and slippery friend-cum-tempter who convinces Brutus to join a conspiracy to murder Caesar. As Cassius says to himself (and the audience) after Brutus has left him.

CASSIUS: Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed…

The night before the planned assassination is wild and stormy, with various characters observing or hearing of ominous portents and signs. The conspirators turn up at Brutus’s house and they finalise their plans. When they’ve left Brutus’s wife reveals her extreme anxiety that something terrible is about to happen. Brutus hasn’t told her about the planned assassination and does his best to calm her nerves.

On the day of the assassination, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia describes an ominous dream she had of his dead body spurting blood and begs him to stay at home, but one of the conspirators, Decius Brutus, smoothly reinterprets her dream in a positive light and persuades Caesar to go to the senate as planned.

In the Senate building the conspirators crowd round Caesar before stabbing him to death. A very nervous Antony enters and reveals himself as two-faced: to the conspirators he gingerly says he respects their motives though is understandably upset, and they are satisfied with that. But when they’ve left him alone he reveals he is outraged and distraught at the behaviour of these ‘butchers’ and vows revenge.

Cut to the Roman forum where Brutus makes a speech defending the assassins’ actions before handing over, as the assassins had agreed, to Antony, who had promised to make a moderate and sensible eulogy to the dead man and appeal for calm. Instead he uses the opportunity to inflame the mob into hysterical rage and sends them rampaging through the streets to find and kill the assassins.

Act 4 cuts to 18 months later and finds a slightly tipsy Antony at table with a new character, Octavian who, we learn, was named in Caesar’s will as his main heir and has used the time since to amass a private army and become a player in Rome’s power politics. Now Octavian is cutting a deal with Antony and a third character, Lepidus. They treat Lepidus with contempt, dismissing him from the table with the result that the actor playing Lepidus has just 4 lines. With him gone the other two settle down to signing a compact. They seal it by agreeing a list of political opponents who will be ‘proscribed’ or murdered. The first line of the scene indicates the new atmosphere of brutality.

ANTONY: These many, then, shall die; their names are pricked.

I don’t think any character says it explicitly, but one of Caesar’s distinguishing features, politically and strategically, was going out of his way to ‘forgive’ his opponents. Well, look what that led to: the biggest opponent he forgave and took into his entourage, Brutus, murdered him. So, lesson learned, Octavian and Antony will show no mercy or forgiveness. Opponents will be ruthlessly exterminated.

The second part of Act 4 skips nearly a year ahead, to October 43 and finds the two assassins, Brutus and Cassius, camped with their armies near the town of Philippi in Greece, opposed by the armies of Antony and Octavius, on the night before the fateful battle between the two forces.

Brutus and Cassius have a prolonged and acrimonious quarrel before patching things up. Left alone in his tent with only a serving boy who soon nods off, Brutus sees a ghost who warns ominously about the upcoming battle.

Act 5 is entirely devoted to a succession of quickfire scenes depicting the Battle of Philippi. The two key moments are when Cassius, misled by false reports that his army has lost, persuades a slave to kill him. And then, only moments later, after Brutus’s army really is defeated, Brutus, also, begs a comrade to help him commit suicide.

Moments later, Octavian and Antony enter, stand over the dead bodies and Antony praises Brutus as ‘the noblest Roman of them all’.

Shaping and forming

As usual Shakespeare takes his source material and a) shapes it into a five-act play with a beginning, middle and end and b) presents all the 15 or so speaking parts in such a way as to give them each character and individuality, no matter how brief their appearance.

This is especially true of the leading four roles, Caesar, Cassius, Antony, and above all Brutus. Though the play bears someone else’s name, Brutus is the lead protagonist. As T.S. Dorsch puts it in his introduction to the 1955 Arden edition of the play, ‘Caesar is the titular hero, Brutus is the dramatic hero’ (Introduction page xxvii). (And yet see below for the way this initial impression – Brutus as the ‘hero’ – must then be tempered and adjusted by recognition of the centrality of Caesar’s spirit.)

Moral dilemmas

Caesar was written a little earlier than Hamlet (composed sometime between 1599 and 1601) and they share something in common: Brutus, a fundamentally decent man, must nerve himself to commit an unprovoked murder in the name of the greater good; Hamlet, a fundamentally good man, must nerve himself to commit the coldblooded murder of his uncle, who he suspects of murdering his (Hamlet’s) father.

They even at one point share the same key word, ‘question’, placed with emphasis at the end of a key sentence; for Hamlet it is the question of whether to soldier on or commit suicide and thus escape a sea of troubles:

HAMLET: To be or not to be, that is the question.

For Brutus it is the more characteristically practical question of whether Caesar, once crowned king, will become a dictator:

BRUTUS: He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

Both, then, must balance two conflicting moral imperatives, in Brutus’s case the ban on killing weighed against the greater good of the state, in Hamlet’s the ban on killing weighed against the call of justified revenge. No surprise, then, that both characters give vent to their dilemma in a series of to-the-audience soliloquies, indicators of psychological depth vouchsafed to none of the other characters. Hamlet and Brutus alone are inside the secret chamber of the drama, confronting this central moral dilemma, while all the other characters are in a sense on the outside of the psychological drama, mere players, contributors.

Speed

Julius Caesar is a play in a hurry – there is a lot to cram in. This sense of haste or the shoehorning of material comes over in numerous places and makes it, for me, an unsatisfactory play.

Acts 1, 2 and 3 hang together well enough, telling a continuous narrative of the growth and development of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, with atmospheric meetings of the conspirators and the midnight fears of Brutus’s wife, Portia, thrown in to jack up the sense of anxiety and danger.

(Though even here there is much compression: the opening scene which depicts Caesar’s triumphing after defeating Pompey’s son conflates it with the feast of the Lupercalia where Antony thrice offered Caesar the crown and he rejected it, in reality two events which were months apart, October 45 and February 44 respectively.)

Shakespeare moves his narrative at high speed up to the assassination itself (on 15 March 44 BC), accurately based on his sources (Caesar falling at the feet of the statue of Pompey), before moving quickly on to the immediate aftermath, namely the big central scene where first Brutus then Mark Antony speak to the rowdy crowd in the Roman Forum (again skipping over the real events which played out over several days of intense confusion in Rome and telescoping them all into the same few hours).

But then there is a huge leap or break in continuity, for Act 4 skips forward 18 months to show Antony meeting with Octavian to form a pact, the so-called Second Triumvirate (along with the non-descript Lepidus who is assigned a mere 4 lines). To be precise, the play goes straight into a scene with the three men seated round a table deciding which of their political enemies they will ‘proscribe’ i.e. mark for elimination, liquidation, murder.

The point being that this meeting took place in northern Italy in October 43, 18 months after Caesar’s assassination and an enormous amount had happened in that time: After negotiating an uneasy peace with Antony, the assassins decided to flee Rome, heading out East where the senate, in the coming months, ratified their control of the provinces of Asia, where they proceeded to raise armies loyal to them.

Meanwhile, Octavius had arrived in Rome: he raised legions on the strength of his name, he encouraged Cicero to denounce Antony in a series of speeches in and outside the senate leading up to Antony being declared an enemy of the state; he led his army into several pitched battles with Antony’s forces; then both men realised they had more in common than divided them, not least opposition to the assassins or ‘liberators’ as they called themselves, led by Brutus and Cassius. All this goes unexplained when the narrative instead leaps to the scene depicted at the start of Act IV, where Octavius and Antony are shown cobbling together an alliance along with the third leader of a significant army in Italy, Lepidus.

And then, in the very next scene, the play makes another great leap, 11 months further down the line, to the immediate build-up to the Battle of Philippi, when the armies of the assassins and the Caesarians finally come face to face, which was fought in October 42 BC.

Now, making great leaps through events was standard procedure for Shakespeare, witness the history plays which play tremendously fast and loose with chronology. The aim was to skip all the boring details and alight on the key psychological moments. His plays are not factual but psychological histories, picking and choosing the moments he needs to create what are, in effect, character studies of people from history in extreme circumstances.

Thus the complex historical realities of Cassius and Brutus are reshaped to provide a series of scenes which dwell mostly on the psychological dynamic between them, turning history into psychodrama and, the slow complex course of events into a tremendously compressed narrative which moves with the speed of a hurtling train.

Brevity

It turns out there’s a website that analyses Shakespeare stats, and this confirms with statistics the impression you get either watching or reading the play that it is compressed and fast: this tells us that, at 2,451 total lines Julius Caesar is shorter than the average Shakespeare play (average play: 2,768, average tragedy: 2,936). That specific acts are the shortest of their kind: Act Four: 409 lines, much shorter than average (average play: 560, average tragedy: 547); Act Five at 353 lines, the shortest of all tragedies; much shorter than average (average play: 484, average tragedy: 478). And it has 17 scenes which is also less than average (average play: 21; average tragedy: 24). So a lot of action is compressed into fewer lines and scenes than his average play. While, by contrast, the sense of hectic activity is also the result of it having an above average number of characters, 49 characters compared to the average play: 36; average tragedy: 39.

More characters depicting more events, including a highly compressed time-scheme, in a much shorter than average space = hence the sense of hurtling pace.

The snapshot battle scenes

The snapshot approach is vividly epitomised in the final scenes of the play. These are all set during the confused battle of Philippi and play very fast and loose with the historical facts, not least the fact that there was not one but two quite distinct battles of Philippi, fought on 3 and 23 October, whereas Shakespeare makes it all happen on one day – in theatrical time, all in about ten hectic minutes.

None of this matters, it gets in the way of what Shakespeare wants to do which is to provide a neatly rounded end to his drama. All tragedies end in death and so does this one – not the death of the eponymous dictator which, as we’ve seen, comes half way through the action, but the deaths of the two leading conspirators and best buddies, Cassius and Brutus, Cassius falsely believing the battle is lost and so honourably killing himself (well, begging his colleagues and servants to hold his sword while he plunges onto it); then, just a few minutes later, Brutus correctly being informed that the battle is lost and doing exactly the same. Both are given pathetic (in the original sense of the word, meaning designed-to-evoke-tears-of-emotion) speeches, and then proceed to their stabby ends.

I can see what Shakespeare’s aiming to do, to shape messy history into another smoothly delivered morality lesson with the same overall shape as all his other historical morality lessons, leading up to the well-known and heart-rending deaths scenes for both the assassins. But, in my opinion, they don’t really come off and this leaves an enduring impression that the play is unsatisfactory, half-cocked or somehow unfinished.

Part of the problem is the bittiness of the battle scenes. Designed to convey the chaos and peril of battle, they consist of a series of very short scenes, sometimes only half a dozen lines, with one set of soldiers running on, shouting a few lines at each other, then running off only to be immediately replaced with a new set of soldiers running on from the other side of the stage and depicting key moments from other locations on the battlefield. Shakespeare does it in Henry IV and Henry V and probably all the other history plays.

On Shakespeare’s static stage, with huge allowance made for the conventions of the time, this works. But it has proved very difficult for directors in more realistic times, in the Victorian era, let along the post-war period of super-realistic drama, to depict what Shakespeare asks the actors to do without it seeming artificial and contrived and, sometimes, a bit absurd.

The double suicide risks absurdity

This sense of absurdity is, unfortunately, reinforced by the doubling up of the suicide scenes. If it had been just Brutus who realised the battle was lost, delivered a stirring speech about the nobility of his aim to rid Rome of tyranny, then fell on his sword with dignity, it would be one thing; but the effect of Brutus’s speech and death are – for me at any rate – seriously undermined by the fact that Cassius has done the exact same thing 3 minutes earlier.

Not only that, but Cassius’s death is not the result of noble resolve and high-mindedness, it is caused by a really stupid mistake. He sends a messenger back to their base to check whether it has been overrun by the enemy (Antony and Octavius’s army) and, if not, to signal back to them that all is fine. He then sends a colleague up a nearby hill to watch the messenger’s progress. The man up the hill proceeds to completely misinterpret events, because he shouts back down to Cassius that their messenger has been captured. They both hear a big roar from soldiers which the lookout interprets as the enemy cheering at having captured Cassius’s spy. And so Cassius concludes that all is lost and begs colleagues to help him commit suicide.

Except that only minutes after he has collapsed to the floor and bled to death, another messenger comes running in to announce that everything is OK, that the messenger got through to the camp, and it has been successfully held against the enemy, and the cheer they heard was not from the victorious enemy but from his own men cheering to hear he is still alive. Except that now he isn’t. He is dead on the ground and the too-late messenger is given a sad and tear-jerking speech over his dead body before himself stabbing himself and falling on Cassius’s body.

At which point another group of Cassius’s soldiers enter, hoping to find their gallant leader and instead discovering two bloody corpses.

This is… this is hard to take seriously. It is what Plutarch reports as actually happening but in historical accounts is given much more context and explanation and so emerges as a noble and tragic act. It is hard to take seriously a man who kills himself out of high-minded motives which are really just all a stupid mistake.

And then more or less the same thing happens to Brutus – although without the stupid mistake. He at least, at a later stage of the day, has drawn the correct conclusion that the battle is lost . But, in my opinion, the power of his suicide is seriously drained of dignity and meaning by the silly suicide of Cassius only moments before. To persuade us of all that happening in just 2 or 3 minutes of stage time is a big ask and, in the BBC production I’ve just watched, fails.

The standard end-speech

Then the play ends with the stock-in-trade, bog standard arrival of the victors who behold the bodies of their noble antagonists and order that their bodies be given full and proper funerals. Compare and contrast Fortinbras arriving at the end of Hamlet to encounter a stage littered with dead bodies.

In Hamlet this has a pathetic effect in the original sense of the word, depicting a man who has no idea of the complex psychodrama which has played out in the court of Denmark, but instinctively recognises nobility. It has a complex flavour because it is, at the same time, a conventional king’s conventional, conservative response to a situation which is wildly unconventional and strange. We have been witnesses of the extremely complicated psychodrama of which the conventional Fortinbras only sees the outward or external results, and responds in a standard, conventional way.

Whereas Antony and Octavius entering at the end of Julius Caesar, expressing a few stock sentiments about what noble men Cassius and Brutus were and ordering they be given proper state funerals…doesn’t have the same effect. It feels thin and inadequate to me. Shakespeare tries. He saves up some of the best poetry in the play for Antony’s brief eulogy:

ANTONY: This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

Excellent words, an eloquent summary of the life and motives of the Great and Noble Brutus who is the real subject of this play and yet…they don’t quite compensate for the structural weaknesses of much that came before.

It was a popular play in Shakespeare’s time because audiences couldn’t get enough of kings and princes getting their brutal come-uppance, and so they loved the pathetic suicide speeches of Cassius and Brutus. To my modern sensibility these scenes felt rushed and contrived and so ended the play on a false note.

Famous bits

As so often with Shakespeare the most impactful thing is not necessarily the overall narrative, compressed and hurried as it is – it comes in the numerous moments of deep psychological penetration which litter the drama.

Antony’s Forum speech

The most famous of these is the long scene 2 in Act 3, where Brutus (foolishly, fatally) invites Mark Antony to make a funeral oration to the Roman crowd over the body of the assassinated Caesar. It opens with famously quotable phrases:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.

It is a highly enjoyable scene because it is a sustained performance of psychological manipulation. Again and again Antony swears to the crowd that he is not there to inflame them with anger against the assassins, who he repeatedly calls ‘honourable men’, at every mention the phrase sounding increasingly ironic and, eventually, contemptuous – while all the time in fact doing his level best to do just that, to inflame them into a wild mob rage against the assassins so that, by the end, the crowd are ready to rush off and burn down the houses of all the assassins. It is a tour de force of sophisticated rhetoric and mob manipulation, all masquerading as modesty and plain speaking:

I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend…
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on…

As T.S. Dorsch rather grandly puts it: ‘If ever Shakespeare wanted to show genius at work, surely it was in Antony’s oration’ (Arden introduction p.lii) and many, many commentators have analysed the speech at length, highlighting its rhetorical techniques. One reason for its effectiveness is its sheer length, it goes on and on, as Antony pauses for breath, retires for emotion, quells the crowd and draws one more rabbit out of his hat (the reading of Caesar’s will).

But another reason, I think, is its sheer exuberance: it is a bravura performance by a man at the top of his game, of a canny chancer and opportunist responding magnificently to the fact that his patron and protector has been cruelly murdered and his entire world turned upside down. The 1970 movie of the play sinks under the weight of an astonishingly bad performance of Brutus by Jason Robards, but is illuminating in lots of other ways, not least in the way it shows Antony, played with a swaggering sneer by Charlton Heston, having whipped the mob into a frenzy and sent them off to burn the conspirators’ houses down, collapsing exhausted against a nearby cart of wine barrels, hacking one open, drinking deep of the booze, and declaring:

ANTONY: Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!

His invocation of chaos allies him with Iago and other instigators of anarchy. He doesn’t care what happens, because he’s supremely, sublimely confident that come what may, he will ride the storm and easily get the better of poor saps like Brutus and Cassius. As he does…for a while….

Caesar’s dignity

We only get a flavour of Caesar’s character in three scenes: in the opening one where he is processing regally through the crowd, conferring with colleagues; in the long scene where his wife tries to dissuade him from going to the senate that morning, the ides of March, but Caesar allows himself to be persuaded to attend by the flattery and insinuation of one of the conspirators, Decimus Brutus; and then, maybe, in the dignity of his bearing while the assassins close in with their importunate demands for the return from exile of Metellus Cimber’s brother, before they reveal their daggers and their true intentions.

In the complex opening scene, where many themes and characters are first revealed, Caesar utters the famous lines hinting at his suspicions of Cassius and Brutus:

CAESAR: Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
ANTONY: Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous;
He is a noble Roman, and well given.
CAESAR: Would he were fatter!

Ominousness

The play overflows with bad omens. It is interesting to consider that Shakespeare and his audience in the 1590s appear to have been every bit as irrationally superstitious as Plutarch and his readers in about 100 AD. In between there had been one and a half millennia of dark and middle ages, and then the Renaissance, all of which continued to take seriously signs and omens and superstitions and auguries and harbingers and portents and premonitions.

CASCA: Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glared upon me, and went surly by,
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For, I believe, they are portentous things

Hence the extensive scenes set during the dark and stormy night before the assassination in which all the characters describe nature in turmoil and retail rumours of the dead rising from their graves, great fires across the sky, and so on. The play is drenched with these irrational superstitions, with strange sightings on the dark and stormy night before the assassination, so much so that even the man himself has, or so Cassius alleges, caught the infection:

CASSIUS: But it is doubtful yet,
Whether Caesar will come forth to-day, or no;
For he is superstitious grown of late,
Quite from the main opinion he held once
Of fantasy, of dreams and ceremonies:
It may be, these apparent prodigies,
The unaccustom’d terror of this night,
And the persuasion of his augurers,
May hold him from the Capitol to-day.

On the morning of the fateful day Calpurnia repeats and reinforces the theme, claiming that all manner of strange sights have been seen across Rome:

CALPURNIA: There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

But in fact, as the Calpurnia scene shows, this is another of Cassius’s slurs on Caesar, dictated by his own festering resentment, for in that scene Caesar is very deliberately placed in antithesis to Calpurnia’s fears and alarms, instead displaying a rational and fearless contempt for superstition and hearsay.

The night before murder

One of the most beautiful scenes in literature has to be the young king in Henry V on the night before the battle of Agincourt, disguising himself and going among his soldiers to discover their mood. Night time prompts a special sensitivity in Shakespeare. Compare with the beautiful and sensitive dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo in Act 5 scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice.

Here, the night before the planned assassination provides the setting for a number of characters to reveal their worries and fears. It is, of course, a violent stormy night, full of thunder and lightning and so part of the atmosphere of portents and premonitions which anticipate the assassination, and then return at the end of the play to anticipate the deaths of the two leading protagonists.

The night before is always a powerful, revealing moment in a Shakespeare tragedy. Think of the night when Macbeth and his wife are terrified to admit even to themselves their feverish plans to murder the lawful king.

Here, after some scenes involving Cicero, Casca and so on, the drama really zeroes in on the troubled minds of Brutus and his wife. The extent to which we are taken into his private life indicates his centrality as a protagonist. As always, Shakespeare reveals a sensitivity to women characters which seems centuries ahead of his time. Both here and in the scene the next morning when Calpurnia begs her husband not to attend the senate, these wives are depicted with great psychological acuity. The audience is entirely persuaded to sympathise with them and see their points of view.

The night before battle

I should have referred to Henry V in this section, because it is more appropriate. The long Act 4 scene 2 set in Brutus’s tent where he and his best buddy Cassius have a prolonged falling out, ends with Cassius leaving Brutus in the company of his young servant, Lucius, who Brutus asks to fetch a lamp and then settles down to read while Lucius gently plays a harp. As so often in Shakespeare there is a sweetness and delicacy to the scene and Brutus’s concern for the tired boy which reaches out beyond the ostensible subject matter, and his own time and place, and seems to kiss something deep and essential in human nature, a depthless kindness and generosity.

It is all the more effective, then, having conjured this gentle atmosphere, when it is broken by the sudden apparition of Caesar’s ghost to Brutus. As I mentioned at the start, this play was written while Shakespeare was working on the much longer, much more complex Hamlet which also, of course, features an ambiguous ghost. Brutus’s ghost never tells his name, all it says, when Brutus asks its identity, is that he is ‘Thy evil spirit, Brutus’. But any uncertainty is cleared up right at the end when Brutus tells his comrade, Volumnius:

The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:

Explaining that this is why he knows his hour has come.

Revenge

Chances are it is because this allows the play to fit neatly into the format of the revenge tragedy. The argument goes that, rather than disappearing at his death, the titular figure goes underground but remains a presence, disturbing the minds of men, and especially the guilty men who murdered him, as all good ghosts in revenge tragedies are supposed to.

The long argument between Brutus and Cassius which makes up Act 4 scene 2 changes from being a rather pointless bicker to showing the subtle, lingering effects of their crime driving two former friends apart – at one point Brutus bitterly reproaches Cassius for what he’s done, what they’ve done, not unlike the mutual reproaches of the guilt-ridden Macbeth and his wife.

And then in the ghost scene the subterranean presence of the dead man becomes explicit – the haunting of their minds goes from metaphorical to literal.

On this reading, the final scenes do not depict an absurdist comedy of misunderstandings but depict the fitting closure of the revenge theme, as both Cassius and Brutus in their different ways can only find peace through terminating their troubled consciousnesses. And as they point out in order to make the theme of revenge and closure totally obvious to even the dimmest theatre-goer, both do so using the same swords they used to murder Caesar.

CASSIUS: Caesar, thou art revenged,
Even with the sword that kill’d thee.

And Brutus, looking down on his friend’s body, makes the revenge theme explicit:

BRUTUS: O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3, 94 to 96)

Then, after all is lost, Brutus rams home the thought as with his final words:

BRUTUS: Caesar, now be still:
I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.
(Runs onto sword. Dies)

On this reading Octavius and Antony don’t arrive on the scene to wind up external historical events but to bring to a fitting end the psychodrama of two men undermined and fated by their own guilt.

On this reading Brutus is not the protagonist he appears to be – that figure is the spirit of Caesar who determines everybody else’s actions, and works underground to bring about his just revenge. The play could be called The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus but it is also The Revenge of Julius Caesar.

Antony’s irony

T.S. Dorsch repeats the good point (first made by various scholars before him) that the true turning point comes not with the murder of Caesar as such (although that is, obviously, the main central event) but with the arrival a few minutes later of a servant from Antony. This servant asks their permission for his master to approach them safely, but with the special combination of enduring love for the dead dictator with flattery of the assassins which is to become Antony’s leading tone or strategy. Dorsch compares it to the introduction of a new theme into the final part of a symphony.

The assassins’ naive hope is that by eliminating the dictator they will restore the One Good Thing which was the old Res publica. But all they have done is return Rome to its pre-civil war state of being a snakepit of conflicting ambitions and men who lie and scheme, and Antony’s character as a champion schemer is wonderfully written and reaches its apogee in the complex ironies of his great speech in the forum. And all this is already present in the servant’s message:

SERVANT: Brutus is noble, wise, valiant, and honest;
Caesar was mighty, bold, royal, and loving.
Say, I love Brutus, and I honor him;
Say, I feared Caesar, honored him, and loved him.
If Brutus will vouchsafe that Antony
May safely come to him and be resolved
How Caesar hath deserved to lie in death,
Mark Antony shall not love Caesar dead
So well as Brutus living, but will follow
The fortunes and affairs of noble Brutus
Thorough the hazards of this untrod state
With all true faith.

‘With all true faith’ ha ha ha. As in his speech in person to the assassins, and then to the crowd in the forum, Antony means the precise opposite of what he says, and his discourse is therefore the most vigorous and dynamic and enjoyable of all the characters.

Compare and contrast with the straightforward noble honesty of Brutus’s speeches, which are moving in performance and yet, somehow, eminently forgettable. In these instances ‘character’ doesn’t seem a strong enough word for what Shakespeare is doing: he manages to conjure up entirely different psychological worlds through the medium of spoken language.

Seen from this perspective Cassius is a kind of mini-me to Antony’s master. The opening scenes are all about Cassius flattering and bringing out Brutus’s straightforward noble fears about Caesar’s ambition to become king so that, when Brutus leaves, Cassius rejoices in his ability to manipulate the greater but simpler man. But next to Antony he is an amateur. Antony is a master of discursive distortion and deviousness. In the psychodrama of the play he triumphs not because his army has won a battle, out there, in the boring real world. He triumphs because his discursive ability is streets ahead of either the straightforward Brutus or the wily Cassius, wily and tricksy certainly, but not wily enough. Antony outwilies everyone and it is deeply enjoyable to watch him do so, a master at work.

Brutus as Hamlet

Brutus soliloquises like Hamlet and often in language very similar to Hamlet’s:

BRUTUS: It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question…

That is the question. A little later he delivers the beautiful lines:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

But Dorsch warns against taking Brutus at face value, at his own valuation, as a noble hero. Once Cassius has swayed him to join the conspirator, all the others accept him as their leader and yet…the sober truth is that on every major decision he’s called upon to make, Brutus makes exactly the wrong call:

  • they conspirators want to bind themselves by an oath but Brutus overrides them and delivers a pompous little speech about Roman Honour
  • then Cassius suggests they invited Cicero to join them but Brutus decisively rejects that
  • Cassius worries whether they ought to kill Antony at the same time as Caesar but, again, Brutus overrides this, insisting that Antony is just a ‘limb’ of Caesar’s

In the aftermath of the murder it quickly becomes clear that Brutus has no better idea what to do to restore the republic than to run out into the streets shouting ‘Freedom! Liberty!’ He has no plan to present to the senate, no strategy to establish control of the all-important army.

And within minutes of the assassination he makes the catastrophically bad decision to let Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral. In the history of Bad Decisions, this is in the top ten.

Things get worse during the long argument scene in Act 4. This has several functions: it is here partly to point the time-honoured moral of how conspirators fall out among themselves. But it also shows Brutus to very poor advantage, showing him bullying and imposing on his snivelling partner. There’s a slight comparison to be had, maybe, with Milton’s Satan who starts Paradise Lost as a vast, awesome and terrifying figure and slowly and relentlessly shrinks and shrivels down until, by the end of the poem, he is the size of a misshapen frog. There isn’t a direct comparison, but something broadly similar can be said of Brutus who starts the play with noble soliloquies and high ideals but consistently mismanages every aspect of one of the most cack-handed conspiracies in history.

His final two contributions are to override Cassius’s suggestion that they delay and battle, insisting they fight on the battlefield of Philippi (which turns out to be a disaster). And then to mismanage the battle itself so that his own side is utterly defeated.

Stripped of all the high-sounding rhetoric, it’s not really an impressive record, is it? Shakespeare, as it were, restores the high dignified tone surrounding Brutus in the opening scenes with Antony’s fine words about ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ – but the litany of really fatal errors and mismanagement I’ve just listed tends to outweigh those fine words.

Dorsch sums up by saying Brutus is a man who honestly struggles with a problem which is beyond his abilities to solve. Murdering one man was easy. Resurrecting the Roman Republic which had collapsed for all kinds of reasons turned out to be wildly beyond the ability of a dozen or so men with daggers and not the slightest idea what to do next.

Suicide

Cassius’s eventual suicide is anticipated and prepared many times earlier in the play. Shakespeare makes him a man extremely willing to consider suicide at the slightest contradiction. Already in act one, when he is only just starting to sketch out the reasons to resist Caesar’s tyranny, he gets very vexed describing their subjugated state to Casca and then whips out his dagger and says he’s ready to off himself at any moment, that suicide is the last refuge of the oppressed:

CASSIUS: I know where I will wear this dagger then;
Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius:
Therein, ye gods, you make the weak most strong;
Therein, ye gods, you tyrants do defeat:
Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself. (1.3)

At the height of his argument with Brutus he bares his breast and asks Brutus to stab him:

CASSIUS: There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast; within, a heart
Dearer than Plutus’ mine, richer than gold:
If that thou be’st a Roman, take it forth;
I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart:
Strike, as thou didst at Caesar. (4.3)

By contrast, Brutus betrays no such melodramatic thoughts, indeed Shakespeare has him explicitly speak against suicide in the comrades’ dialogue before the start of the fateful battle:

BRUTUS: Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself, I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life: arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.

So there is concealed in the text a debate, of sorts, about suicide (just as suicide is a major theme of Hamlet who considers killing himself in order to escape his unbearable moral dilemma).

Critics have pointed out that this little speech against suicide is contradicted by Brutus’s own behaviour a few minutes later, but, as so often in Shakespeare, the logics of individual positions (along with accurate chronology and a host of other details) are sacrificed to the compelling immediacy of the drama. In this case the Brutus’s philosophical position is overruled by the dynamic of the play, embodied in the power of Caesar’s ghost as an instrument of fate/fortune/destiny:

The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:
I know my hour is come.

You can’t fight a messenger from the other side, and so:

It is more worthy to leap in ourselves,
Than tarry till they push us.

Against the wyrd of ghosts, philosophy has no power.

Reading Shakespeare

Reading Shakespeare is like this. You watch a production of the play and take in the gross events of the plot, noticing pretty obvious things like the murder, the ghost and the suicides. And then you read and reread the play and start to notice the way these aren’t just isolated events, but have been carefully prepared for earlier in the text or have lingering consequences afterwards.

And so you begin to realise that the suicides didn’t come out of nowhere but were anticipated, the idea was discussed, at a number of key moments earlier, or that, in the case of revenge, the word and the theme recur steadily, carefully placed in dialogue and speeches after the assassination. And you begin to appreciate the number of themes and verbal echoes which thread throughout the text which, as a result, comes more fully to life, seems deeper and more complex and more full of carefully planted echoes and anticipations than you dreamed when you just watched it on the stage.

And behold! You have walked through the looking glass into a new world made entirely of text, where ‘history’ or the ‘real world’ are no longer the prime concern, are only useful if they can be quarried for material to bolster and elaborate the dream world of the text, and you are just the most recent of the scores of millions of people who have watched this drama, read this text, and entered this dream.

Wisdom sayings

Apart from his skill at shaping stories into compelling narratives, and his supernatural ability at delving deep into the psychology of such a variety of people of all ranks, ages and genders, Shakespeare is famous for his unparalleled ability to expressing things memorably, for taking age-old saws and insights and giving them beautiful and memorable phrasing.

All his plays abound in sudden moments when his language clarifies and expresses a human thought for all time. Here’s Brutus at the end of his fierce meeting with Cassius, concluding the allies’ discussion of where and when to give battle the next day, explaining that opportunities must be seized:

BRUTUS: There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Noble and heroic, isn’t it? In this respect alone, reading Shakespeare and soaking our minds in the wonderfully evocative expression of all kinds of human feelings, emotions, desires and opinions, hugely ennobles his readers. Although, rather spoiling the effect, the whole speech is uttered as part of Brutus’s insistence that they go to meet their opponents at Philippi, despite Cassius’s objections. In other words, it is the very beautiful expression of a disastrous miscalculation.


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Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Shakespeare

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