Eunuchus (The Eunuch) by Terence (161 BC)

‘Whatever’s happened here, it wasn’t my fault.’
(The cowardly servant Parmeno to his master Demea, page 212)

In her introduction, the editor and translator of the Penguin edition, Betty Radice, observes that The Eunuch was Terence’s most popular play and is also the most Plautine of his plays, as if these are coincidental facts. When I opened the The Ghost by Plautus I was laughing by the end of the first page. By contrast, wading through Terence’s play, The Self-Tormentor, made me want to stop reading Terence altogether, it was so contrived, impenetrably complex, and without a single laugh in the entire text. Plautus is my man.

Fortunately, The Eunuch is a lot clearer and a lot funnier than The Self-Tormentor. According to Suetonius’s life of Terence, it was performed twice in one day at the Megalensian Games in 161 BC and won its author 8,000 sesterces, ‘the highest fee ever paid for a comedy’. Like all Plautus and Terence’s plays, it is based on a Greek original, in this case by the Greek playwright Menander.

Incidentally, this play is apparently the earliest surviving Latin text to use the word ‘eunuch’, making it an important resource for academic histories of the (very varied roles played by) ‘the eunuch’ in the ancient world.

The plot

As usual, the scene consists of a street and two houses, showing the front doors of Demea, father of two errant sons, and Thais, a courtesan. As usual, the worthy father, Demea, is struggling to cope with two sons who have made inappropriate love matches: Phaedria is in love with a courtesan, Chaerea is in love with a slave girl.

Phaedria and Parmeno

Parmeno is the elderly family servant. When Phaedria tells him he is mad with love for Thais, Parmeno tells him to grow up, pay up and get rid of her.

Enter Thais

Phaedria goes weak at the knees. Thais apologises to him for locking him out of her house the day before but then goes on to give some key exposition. Thais says her mother came from Samos and lived on Rhodes. A merchant made her a present of a little girl stolen from the area where the play is set, Attica. The little girl knew her father and mother’s name but not where she came from or whether she was free or slave. The merchant had bought her off pirates who claimed to have stolen her from Sunium. This kidnapped girl was brought up alongside Thais as her sister. Then Thais found a ‘protector’, a soldier, Thraso, who brought her here to Athens (where the play is set) and set her up as his courtesan. is soldier, Thraso, then went off to Caria and Thais has found a new protector/sponsor/lover in Phaedria. And that brings the backstory up to date.

But there’s more. Recently Thais’s mother died, leaving the house and goods to her brother, including the foster sister. Since the latter was pretty and could play the lyre, Thais’s brother put her up for sale and, in a spectacular coincidence, she was bought by Thais’s very same protector, the soldier Thraso. He has recently returned to Athens, intending to give Thais the girl as a servant but, when he found out that Thais has been seeing another man (i.e. Phaedria) Thraso changed his mind. He won’t come to see her or hand over the slave girl while Phaedria is on the scene.

So now she gets to the point: will Phaedria agree to lie low for several days so that Thraso can resume his position as her lover, and give her the gift of the slave girl – so that Phaedria can then do a good deed and track down the girl’s family and return her to them?

Phaedria is angry. He thinks it’s all a story to cover wanting to go back to the soldier. Hasn’t he bought her everything? Only yesterday he paid 2,000 drachmas for an Ethiopian slave girl and a eunuch Thais said she wanted. Doesn’t he buy her whatever she wants?

Thais begs, pleads and wears him down and eventually Phaedria promises to leave town for a couple of days so the soldier can return and give Thais the slave girl. But he begs her to remain loyal in her heart. Then Phaedria turns and walks back into his father’s house. Nothing especially funny about this, is there?

Thais tells the audience one further fact, which is that she thinks she’s already identified and contacted the slave girl’s brother and he’s coming to meet her (Thais) today to discuss the matter. Then she goes into her house.

Re-enter Phaedria and Parmeno

Phaedria weeps and wails but we aren’t to take his anguish seriously; he is played for a figure of fun. He instructs Parmeno to fetch the eunuch and Ethiopian slave girl and give them to Thais and to keep an eye on his rival. Then he shoulders his bag and walks offstage, planning to stay out of town for the two days he agreed with Thais.

Enter Gnatho

Gnatho is the bumptious servant of the soldier Thraso. He is bringing the slave girl Pamphila to give to Thais. Parmeno is impressed and says the slave girl is even more beautiful than Thais.

Gnatho soliloquises, saying how proud he is of his status and profession of sponger and hanger-on. He gives a little explanation of the key requirements of the trade, namely to agree shamelessly with whatever your patron says.

The old servant Parmeno overhears all this, then cocky Gnatho spots him and likes the way he looks glum, indicating that he and his master (Phaedria) are not doing well with Thais. Good. Gnatho shows off the slave girl to Parmeno and teases him and then goes into Thais’s house. Having delivered the slave girl, he makes a few choice comments to Parmeno then exits.

Enter Chaerea

Chaerea is Demea’s other son, younger brother to Phaedria. He is a very young man in a frenzy about his new love. Parmeno overhears him talking, rolls his eyes, and pities his poor master (Demea) for having two such lovestruck puppies for sons. Chaerea announces he’s in love with a plump and juicy girl. Parmeno asks how old. 16. Parmeno rolls his eyes. As Chaerea goes on to describe falling in love with her in the street, and that she was accompanied by one of those spongers, Parmeno realises he’s talking about Pamphila, the slave girl who Gnatho has just delivered to Thais.

Parmeno explains all this and that she’s been given as a present to Thais by her soldier lover. ‘What, the rival to his brother?’ says Chaerea. ‘Yes,’ replies Parmeno. Parmeno goes on to explain that Phaedria is giving Thais the old eunuch he brought home yesterday. Not that smelly old man, Chaerea says. How unfair it is that he’ll get to be under the same roof with the fair Pamphila etc.

At which Parmeno jokes that maybe he, Chaerea, could pretend to be a eunuch and gain access to Thais’s house. YES, shouts Chaerea, yes, he can wear a eunuch outfit and pretend to be the gift from Phaedria to Thais. That way he can be close to his new beloved all day long, yes, YES! And he bundles Parmeno into Demea’s house to help dress him up as a eunuch, despite all the latter’s protestations that it was only a joke, he didn’t mean it seriously, he’ll be the one to suffer when it’s all found out etc.

Enter Thraso

Thraso is the middle-aged soldier and lover of Thais. He is a version of that well-established type, the miles gloriosus, full of sound and fury about his brave military exploits, while in fact being a pompous coward and bore.

Thraso enters accompanied by his sponger, Gnatho. Parmeno hears them arrive and opens Demea’s front door to spy on them. He watches while Gnatho shamelessly sucks up to Thraso, laughing at all his bad jokes and nodding at his stories about being the favourite of the king of Caria.

GNATHO: Heavens above, what wisdom! Every minute spent with you is something learned. (p.202)

Thraso asks Gnatho whether Thais loves him and the sponger, of course, insists that she is devoted to him i.e. reassuring Thraso’s delicate ego, as spongers are paid to do.

Enter Thais

Thais enters from her house and encounters Thraso and Gnatho. The soldier says he hopes she likes the slave girl Gnatho gave to her a bit earlier on and invites her for dinner. Parmeno takes the opportunity to present Phaedria’s gifts to Thais. He calls for the Ethiopian slave girl to be brought out, and Thraso and Gnatho make comedy insults about how relatively cheap she looks. Then Parmeno has Chaerea dressed as a eunuch brought out and presented to Thais. She is struck by how handsome Chaerea is, as are Thraso and Gnatho. I think Thraso makes a joke to the effect that, given half a chance, he’d have sex with this handsome eunuch (p.186).

Thais takes her new properties into her house while Thraso tries to mock Parmeno for having a poor master, but Parmeno easily gets the better of him, and strolls away. Gnatho quietly laughs at Thraso being mocked but hurriedly adopts a straight face when Thraso turns to him.

Thais re-enters with an elderly woman slave, Pythia. Thais tells Pythia to take good care of the new acquisitions and that, if Chremes turns up, to tell him to wait. Then she goes off to dine with Thraso and Gnatho, leaving the stage empty.

Enter Chremes

Chremes is the young man who Thais thinks is the next of kin of the slave girl she grew up with and who Thraso has just given to her, Pamphila. He enters and delivers a long speech explaining he’s puzzled why Thais contacted him, asked him a load of questions about a long lost sister, and then asked him to come see her today. He wonders whether Thais is going to pretend that she’s the long lost sister, but Chremes knows the sister would only be about 16, and Thais is much older, so it can’t be her.

Chremes knocks on the door, Pythia opens it and asks Chremes to wait for her mistress but he, suspicious and irritated, says no, so Pythia calls for another servant to take Chremes to see Thais at Thraso’s dinner, and they exit.

Enter Antipho

Antipho is a friend of Chaerea’s. A bunch of the lads had decided to club together for dinner and Chaerea’s meant to be organising it but he’s disappeared, so the lads chose Antipho to find him and ask what’s going on. At just this moment Chaerea emerges from Thais’s house but dressed as a eunuch so Antipho is understandably astonished. But Chaerea explains to him the whole scam, how he’s madly in love with the young slave who’s just been given to Thais as a present, how Parmeno suggested he pretend to be the eunuch Phaedria planned to give to Thais, how it’s worked like a dream, how he’s even been tasked with looking after her, how she’s had a bath and emerged fragrant and beautiful.

Chaerea goes on to explain how all the other serving girls left them to go off and bathe so he…locked the door and…apparently had sex with Pamphila!

This is quickly skipped over as Antipho is interested in the dinner. Chaerea says he rearranged it to take place at Discus’s house. Antipho invites Chaerea to come to his place and change out of the eunuch’s clothes first, and off they both go.

Enter Dorias

Dorias is a maid of Thais’s. She’s just come back from the dinner party where things turned sour. When Chremes turned up, Thais insisted he be brought in. But Thraso thought he was a rival for Thais’s affections, got very angry and insisted that Pamphila be brought in, in retaliation. Thais insisted that a slave girl should not be invited to a dinner and so they had a big argument.

Enter Phaedria

Phaedria should, of course, be at the family farm in the country, as he’d promised Thais. But he couldn’t keep away and has come all the way back to town, casual-like, just to catch a glimpse of his beloved.

Enter Pythias

Which is the exact moment when Pythias, Thais’s head slave, comes bursting out of her house, livid with anger. She explains to an astonished Phaedria that the eunuch who he, Phaedria, recently gave to Thais was no eunuch at all but has raped Pamphila, tearing her clothes and messing her hair. She’s inside now, in floods of tears. Pythias blames Phaedria but Phaedria disavows any knowledge that the eunuch was not a eunuch, and says he’ll go look for the eunuch straightaway. Maybe he’s in the family home, so he goes into Demea’s house to see.

Re-enter Phaedria

Phaedria almost immediately re-enters dragging the real eunuch, Dorus, out of his house. Dorus is wearing Chaerea’s clothes (Chaerea having insisted they do a swap) so Phaedria mistakenly accuses him of stealing his brother’s clothes and making ready to flee. But when he presents Dorus to Pythia and Dorias, Thais’s servants, they both claim never to have seen him before. This is not the rapist!

They all cross-question the eunuch who quickly explains that Parmeno and Chaerea came and ordered him to swap clothes with Chaerea, then they both left. Now they all understand. Chaerea impersonated the eunuch in order to be near Pamphila and then raped her.

Phaedria is terribly embarrassed. It looks like he might be in on the scam, and it certainly reflects badly on his family. So in an aside he tells Dorus to reverse his story and deny everything he’s just said. When the bewildered man does so, Phaedria says the man is an obvious liar and he’ll take him into his house to ‘torture’ him to find out the truth

Re-enter Chremes

Pythias and Dorias are just wondering whether to tell Thais about all this when Chremes re-enters. He’d got drunk at Thraso’s dinner party and now he makes a bit of a pass at Pythias (Thais’s female head slave) who primly fends him off. Instead she extracts from Chremes the fact that there was a big argument at Thrasos’s dinner party.

Enter Thais

Thais is still angry from the argument at Thrasos’s dinner party. She warns her servants that Thraso is on his way to reclaim Pamphila but that he’ll do so over her dead body. She’ll have him horsewhipped first.

First of all she briskly tells Chremes that Pamphila is his long lost sister. Not only that, but Thais hereby gives her to him, free, gratis. Chremes is immensely grateful though not quite as surprised or emotional as you might expect.

Then Thais tells Pythias to hurry inside and fetch the box of ‘proofs’ which prove Pamphila’s identity. But just then Thraso approaches.

Thraso is, of course, a seasoned soldier, albeit a bullshitting braggart. Thais instructs Chremes to stand up to him and hands him the proofs of Pamphila’s identity that Pythias has just fetched out of the house. There is comedy in the way Chremes is a complete milksop, refuses to face Thraso and wants to run off to the market to fetch help, but Thais physically restrains him and tells him to be a man.

THAIS: My dear man, you’re not afraid are you?
CHREMES: [visibly alarmed]: Nonsense. Who’s afraid? Not me. (p.200)

Thais and all her people go into her house.

Enter Thraso and followers

Enter Thraso and Gnatho with six followers. There is quite a funny parody of a military campaign, with Thraso bombastically issuing complex orders for storming Thais’s house to his motley crew of incompetent ‘soldiers’. Thais and Chremes appear at a window overlooking the action. Chremes is fearful while Thais gives a fearless and comic commentary on Thraso’s cowardly and ineffectual ‘military’ orders.

Thraso now parleys with Thais at her window. He reminds her that she promised him the next couple of days, no? And has gone back on her word? So that’s why he wants Pamphila back.

Now Chremes steps forward and confronts Thraso with the new facts: Pamphila is a) a free-born citizen b) of this region, Attica and c) Chremes’ sister. Therefore she cannot be anyone’s property. Thraso thinks he’s lying, but Chremes sends for the box of proof documents.

This is sort of funny if we buy into the play’s premises, but it is also a fascinating slice of social history on a huge subject, namely the definition and rights of free citizens and slaves in the ancient world.

Disheartened Thraso hesitates about what to do next. At which point his parasite, Gnatho, suggests they make a tactical withdrawal on the basis that women are well known for being perverse and so, if Thraso stops asking for something (which is making Thais obstinate), if he changes his approach, maybe Thais will change hers and come round. Rather doubtfully, Thraso calls off the ‘assault’ and he and his men all leave.

Enter Thais and Pythias

With Thraso gone, Thais turns her thoughts to Pamphila who she has discovered in her house with torn clothes and inconsolably weeping i.e. having been raped. Thais is furious with Pythias for letting it happen but Pythias explains that they’ve established it wasn’t the eunuch Phaedria gave her who raped Pamphila, it was Phaedria’s younger brother impersonating the eunuch who did it. At which point the culprit, Chaerea himself, strolls onstage, wearing the eunuch’s clothes.

Enter Chaerea

Chaerea had gone along to Antipho’s house to change for the lads’ party, but Antipho’s parents were home so he was scared to go in and has returned to Thais’s house by backstreets in case anyone recognises him. Now he sees Thais standing in her doorway and momentarily hesitates but decides to brazen it out and continue in character as the eunuch Dorus, so he steps forward.

But after a few exchanges of him pretending to be Dorus, Thais drops all pretences and calls him by his real name, Chaerea. About this point it began to dawn on me that Thais is the real ‘hero’ of this play, easily the most manly, resolute, strong and decisive character on the stage – and that, by the same token, all the men (Thraso, Chremes, Chaerea) are weaker and feebler and morally flawed than she is.

Thais and Chaerea come to an arrangement. Chaerea insists he meant no disrespect to Thais and that he genuinely loves Pamphila. Grudgingly, Thais accepts his apology, despite the scorn of her aggrieved servant, Pythias. In fact, Chaerea grovellingly offers to put himself completely under Thais’ guidance. She is a strong woman.

At this point they both see Pamphila’s brother Chremes approaching and Chaerea begs to be let inside so he can change out of his shameful costume. Thais laughingly agrees and they all go into her house.

Enter Chremes and Sophrona

Sophrona was Chremes’ and Pamphila’s nurse when they were small. Chremes has shown her the tokens Pamphila had and the nurse recognised them all. Now he’s brought the nurse along for the final ‘recognition scene’. The servant Pythias welcomes them and tells them to go into Thais’ house.

Enter Parmeno

As mentioned, Thais has emerged as the main driver of the plot. Usually it’s the cunning slave, in this case Parmeno, but in this play he has been totally overshadowed by Thais’ control of the narrative.

There follows a carefully staged and prepared scene in which Parmeno gets his comeuppance. He had swaggered onstage feeling very pleased with himself because his ruse (disguising Chaerea as the eunuch) had secured Chaerea his beloved, and he had also educated the young man in the ways of courtesans and their wicked ways (by which he is casting a slur on the house of Thais who is, we are reminded, a courtesan by trade).

Pythias, the angry housekeeper overhears all this, including the slur on her mistress and household, and decides to take Parmeno down a peg or two. She comes onstage pretending not to see Parmeno and lamenting and bewailing. When Parmeno asks her what the matter is, Pythias tells him that the young man he introduced into Thais’s household, Chaerea, assaulted Pamphila but now it has emerged that the latter is a free citizen, and has a well-born brother, and the brother has found out and had Chaerea tied up and is about to administer the traditional punishment for adultery and rape – castration!!!

Parmeno is devastated and thrown into a complete panic about what to do, specially when Pythias goes on to tell him that everyone blames him for what’s happened, and are looking to punish him, too. At this moment they both see the two errant sons’ father and Parmeno’s master, Demea, coming up the street. Pythias advises Parmeno to tell Demea everything, before disappearing back onto Thais’ house.

Enter Demea

Parmeno greets his old master and tells him everything (one son in love with Thais, the other in love with a slave woman who’s in Thais’s house, impersonated a eunuch to gain admission, was caught in a rape and is tied and bound and about to be punished). Suitably appalled, Demea rushes into Thais’ house to rescue his son.

Enter Pythias

Re-enter Pythias crying with laughter. Oh, she tells the audience, the comedy of misunderstandings she has just seen! And only she understood why Demea was in a panic about his son being castrated (because she’d just invented it). Hardly able to speak for laughing, she tells Parmeno she properly took him in and made him look a right fool. Now both son and master are furious with him, Parmeno, blaming him for everything. She stumbles back into the house, helpless with laughter.

Enter Thraso and Gnathos

The braggart soldier and his parasite. Thraso has decided to throw himself on Thais’ mercy but they haven’t gone far before Chaerea bursts out of Thais’ house, delirious with happiness. He rushes up to a surprised Parmeno and hugs him and calls him the ‘author and instigator and perfecter’ of all his joys. Obviously the ‘recognition scene’ has just taken place and Pamphila has been confirmed as a free citizen of Attica and therefore an entirely eligible woman for Chaerea to marry. Also, Thais has agreed to marry Phaedria, and thus put herself and her household under Demea’s protection and patronage. It is an entirely happy ending for both sons and the father.

Parmeno dashes into Demea’s house and returns with Phaedria who they tell the good news: he is going to be married to his beloved Thais!

Thraso and Gnatho have overheard all this and Thraso drily remarks that it looks like all his hopes of winning Thais have been dashed. For once Gnatho can’t find words of sycophantic support. But Thraso asks him to make one last sally and see if he can remain in Thais’s good books, if only as a friend. Gnatho extracts a promise from Thraso that, if he pulls this off, Thraso’s house and table will be open to him (Gnatho) for evermore, which Thraso agrees to. Then Gnatho goes up to the two happy brothers.

Phaedria’s first response of Thraso’s offer of friendship is to tell Thraso to clear out and if he ever sees him in this street again, he’ll kill him (!).

Gnatho asks him to calm down, ushers Thraso aside, and speaks confidentially to Phaedria. He proposes a very cynical offer. He suggests that Phaedria accepts Thraso as his rival i.e. a sort of official lover for Thais. ‘What? Why?’ Phaedria asks.

Because Thraso is such a dimwit he presents no threat whatsoever to Thais and Phaedria’s love, but he is very prodigal with gifts and money. These he will lavish on Thais and thus keep her in the manner to which she is accustomed and which, let’s face it, Phaedria can’t afford. Hmm. The brothers confer. It is quite a tidy plan and they agree on it.

Lastly, Gnatho asks if he can be accepted into their circle of friends. Again the brothers agree, and with that, Gnatho mockingly presents them with Thraso! ‘For the laughs and everything else you can get out of him’ (p.218).

Gnatho calls Thraso over and announces that the deal has been struck. Thraso recovers his composure and starts to strut and swank, and the two brothers laugh at his pompousness and foresee years of milking him for his money and mocking his pretensions.

And that is the end. Phaedria abruptly turns to the audience, asks for their applause and they all go into Thais’s house.

*******

Dark thoughts

The Eunuch has plenty of genuinely funny moments, the increasingly funny role of the bombastic soldier Thraso, the comedy swapping of the eunuch’s identity, Chremes’ cowardice, Pythias’s humiliation of Parmeno and so on.

But at the same time, I struggled to get past the ‘otherness’ of Roman society. I can’t really get past the way the entire story rest on the buying and selling of slaves and giving and receiving them as gifts.

Then, when Chaerea rapes the sleeping Pamphila, the entire tone changed for me, and I found it difficult to find anything after that very funny.

And the casual way Phaedria remarks that the only thing which will extract the truth from Dorus is ‘torture’, the casual way Pythias declares that Chaerea is about to be castrated, and the casual references to the way slaves are routinely whipped as punishment – once again I found myself being brought up short and the smile being wiped right off my face by the casual references to hyper violence (torture, whipping, chains, even crucifixion) in these Roman plays.

Sunny thoughts

If you can manage to put those dark thoughts aside then, yes, this is a funny play, by far the funniest of the three I’ve read so far. I think this is because, even though the plot is quite convoluted, of two things:

  1. Once the backstory of the abandoned slave girl and the two brothers in love with two girls is established, everything follows reasonably logically from those premises.
  2. Second reason is that the scenes are quite long and leisurely meaning that – crucially, for me at any rate – the characters thoroughly explain what is going on, what is happening and what they intend to do. For example, the idea for Chaerea to dress up as a eunuch develops quite naturally out of Parmeno’s joke suggestion which then, as it were, gets out of hand. This scene has great psychological and/or comic realism, in the sense that all of us know the experience of making a jokey, off-hand remark which our interlocutor picks up and takes far more seriously than we’d intended, and which we then regret ever mentioning. 2,200 years ago the same experience was common enough to be a comic gag in onstage.

Compare and contrast these two attributes with Terence’s play The Self-tormentor where the plot very much does not follow from the basic premise, but is 1. the result of a whole series of ad lib schemes dreamed up by the naughty slave Syrus and 2. which he keeps to himself; which he does not explain; which may well keep the characters comically in the dark about what he’s up to, but also had the result that I couldn’t follow what was happening half the time and so gave up on the play and almost gave up on Terence as a whole.

The Eunuch restored my faith in Terence as a comic playwright and confirmed my determination to continue and read all six of his plays.


Credit

Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies, edited and translated by Betty Radice.

Roman reviews

Trinummus (A Three-Dollar Day) by Plautus (c.200 BC)

‘Stick to the good old ways, my boy, and always do as I tell you.’
(Old Philto to his son Lysiteles, page 176)

Introduction

E.F. Watling’s brief one-page introduction points out the similarities and differences between this play and Mostellaria. Both involve a young adult son taking advantage of his father’s absence to squander the family fortune in riotous living. The difference is that in Mostellaria the father returns early ion the play which turns out into a series of evermore hilarious attempts by the son’s tricky slave to come up with cock and bull stories to cover the situation. Whereas in Trinummus the father doesn’t return till the end.

The comic exuberance of Mostellaria is replaced by the what Watling describes as an excess of moral edification, with no fewer than four elderly gentlemen taking it in turns to deliver words of advice or reproof for their contemporaries, juniors, or society in general (being the young wastrel’s neighbours, Megaronides and Callicles, his best friend’s father, Philto, and his own elderly slave, Stasimus).

Instead of the comic improvisation and verbal violence of the other plays I’ve read, this one overflows with worthy sententiae (plural of sententia, defined as: ‘brief moral sayings, such as proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims, or apophthegms taken from ancient or popular or other sources, often quoted without context.’)

Ancient literature, whether the Bible, Greek or Latin, is packed with them. They are pleasurable to read and get approving murmurs and applause from the audience but, as Gripus remarks in Rudens, nobody has ever been known to put any of them into actual practice:

  • It is a far better thing to be what you ought to be than to be what you want to be.
  • A prudent man is the architect of his own fate.
  • The only virtuous man is the man who knows how far he falls short of virtue and honesty.
  • Prudence isn’t a matter of age, but of character.
  • Never speak ill of an absent friend.

Watling points out that the comic spur in many of these plays is provided by a deception – deception, deceit and disguise, more usually multiple levels of deception and disguise as various scams and deceptions are kept aloft by a skilled juggler, generally the trickster slave, till they all come crashing down in the final scene.

No women appear. Women, and the bad behaviour they inspire in men, are treated in a theoretical, moralising manner. The old geezers who dominate the text grumpily complain about their nagging wives, in a way which was humorously widespread in my youth (for example, Jerry being scared of his wife, Margot, in The Good Life) but which might nowadays be classed as misogyny.

Trinummus

The Prologue introduces herself as Luxury and it’s striking how candidly she tells the audience that this play was translated by Plautus from a Greek original by Philemon entitled Thesaurus or The Treasure. Very starkly she tells us she has been accompanying a young man while, in his father’s absence, he squandered his family’s wealth, and now it has just about run out, she (Luxury) is sending her daughter, Poverty, into the house.

Charmides is a mature man. He is away on business. In his absence his son, Lesbonicus, has been spending all his patrimony on food and booze and fancy women. The play opens as Megaronides emerges from his house and sets the tone of the play with a page-long lecture about the moral decadence of the times, while wickedness flourishes. He sets off to tell his new neighbour, Callicles, that he’s done a disreputable thing by buying the house of old Charmides (next door to Megaronides – several of the plays feature houses right next each other; must have kept the sets simple).

Callicles explains the reason behind it: Charmides told him he had stashed a box of gold in the house (3,000 Phillipics) and Callicles must at all costs protect it. Next thing he knew, young Lesbonicus had put the house up on the market. Should he, Callicles asks Megaronides, have let Lesbonicus sell it to just anyone, who would then have discovered the chest of treasure and claimed it as their own? Obviously not. So he stepped in and bought the house himself and is keeping it till Charmides returns. Lesbonicus, his sister, and his lover are now relegated to the annexe at the back of the house.

This explanation goes on for four or five pages and there’s nothing at all funny about it. It’s more like a problem in ethics which the two old men are chewing over.

‘Oh,’ says Megaronides, ‘so it was a worthy and honourable deed after all. OK.’ Megaronides rounds out the scene not with a comic twist but a page-long lecture about the wickedness of Rumour and Gossip who had falsely maligned Callicles.

Lesbonicus’s best friend is Lysiteles, and he now enters strolling long to his mate’s place. He bumps into his father, Philto, who delivers a barrage of moral advice, to which Lysiteles willingly agrees. He’s a good boy. This develops into Lysiteles saying he wants to help a friend. When he names Lesbonicus, his father his horrified because it’s known all over town that Lesbonicus is wasting the family fortune.

Lysiteles calms his father down by moralising that it is the duty of the upright citizen to help those less well off, even if it is their own fault. OK, his father asks, how you going to help him? Lysiteles explains he’s going to make everyone happy by asking for Lesbonicus’s sister’s hand in marriage – but insisting he doesn’t give her a dowry. This will take the sister off Lesbonicus’s hands while at the same time not burdening him with a massive financial obligation.

So this turns out to be the crux of the entire play which could more accurately have been titled The Dowry. Clearly, it was regarded as absolutely scandalous, to both families concerned, to have a woman pass from one to the other without a cash accompaniment (a concept I’m familiar with from history but is quite difficult to relate to the present day; maybe I should have demanded a dowry with my wife, how much would have been reasonable? £10,000? £100,000).

Lysiteles asks his father just one favour: can he (Philto) be the one to put the proposition to Lesbonicus? Oh, alright son, his dad says and Lysiteles strolls away.

Leaving old Philto to confront cocky young Lesbonicus and his older, responsible and sensible slave, Stasimus. What develops is a three way dialogue in which Philto puts the proposition to Lesbonicus, Lesbonicus is offended and takes it as an insult to his family not to be asked for a dowry, and the slave Stasimus gives a running commentary, half to the audience, half to Lesbonicus, telling him not to be a bloody fool, to swallow his pride and accept the offer because the family is going bankrupt.

Lesbonicus thinks a bit and then comes up with the suggestion that his sister will be accompanied by the family farm which they will give as dowry. Stasimus is horrified since this is the only source of income left in the family. So, in a rare bit of comic business, Stasimus takes Philto aside and gives a comically horrific description of the family farm, as built on a volcano whose fumes kill all the workers, all the crops die, the cattle have pestilence, and so on. With the result that Philto returns to the main conversation with Lesbonicus and politely turns down his kind offer.

Much against his will Lesbonicus is persuaded to accept the deal and stumbles off with Philto leaving the stage to Stasimus who delivers a slave / servant’s comic lament on the ruin of his master and how, the day after the wedding, he bets his master will enrol in the army and then God knows which end of the earth they’ll be sent off to.

Enter Callicles from the main house who asks Stasimus what’s up. When Stasimus expains that his master is being persuaded to let his sister be married to Lysiteles without a dowry, old Callicles says oh dear, oh dear, this will never do, the shame for the family, the shame for the poor young lady, something must be done and bustles off.

Onto the stage come the two ‘friends’, Lesbonicus and Lysiteles. They are arguing with Lesbonicus accusing his friend of insulting him. This irritates Lysiteles so much that he decides to tell his friend a few home truths about his behaviour and proceeds to rattle off a barrage of moralistic criticism of his wastrel lifestyle which could have been spoken by his father.

I see what Watling means, instead of jokes and scams, everyone in this play devotes their energies to lecturing each other.

Lesbonicus admits his friend is right and says he was undone by love. Lysiteles then has an entire page lecture about the irresponsibility of falling in love and how it sways a man from the path of correct living. But he still can’t reconcile himself to betrothing his sister without a dowry:

She would hate me for the rest of my life, and rightly. (p193)

Stasimus appears and once again gives a running commentary on the two men’s conversation. When they exit he is again left to bemoan the fact that in a week’s time he’ll probably be in some awful military camp somewhere.

Callicles and Megaronides come on, with the former telling the latter how Lesbonicus is set to shame his family by letting his sister be married without a dowry. At this point Megaronides comes up with The Big Deceit at the heart of the play. They’ll hire some foreigner from down at the docks and pay him to pretend to be a messenger from Lesbonicus’s absent father, Charmides, come with a sack of gold for the dowry and with two letters, one for Callicles ‘giving’ him the money and one for Lesbonicus telling him to take the money. And this will be some gold Callicles takes from the box of gold in the family house which he bought and is now living in. That way the circle will be squared and everyone will be happy.

Enter Charmides the absent father. How utterly unlike Mostellaria where this arrival causes a helter skelter of comic panic. Here Charmides addresses a two-page-long hymn of praise to the god Neptune for wafting him safely over the seas. Nothing remotely comic about it.

But he walks straight into the most sustained comic scene in the play because as he approaches his own house he sees the messenger hanging round it. This is the foreigner Megaronides hired down at the docks to pretend to be a messenger from…Charmides, the very many who now approaches him and who, of course, he doesn’t recognise. For maximum comic effect the messengers (who says his name is ‘Flip’) is dressed in a garish variety of national costumes. But the core of the scene is Charmides slowly wheedling out of him that he is a messenger from him, Charmides, come to give a message to his son, Lesbonicus, via a tangle of hesitation, obfuscation and lying.

When Charmides insists, despite the other’s denials, that he is the real Charmides, the imposter says he’s been paid for this stupid job and so doesn’t care any more and stomps offstage. So that is the relatively minor character, hired for 3 dollars, who gives his name to the play.

Now onto the stage comes Stasimus, who’d stopped for a beer on the way back from running an errand and is upset because the friend he lent a load of money to is refusing to pay it back. This gives rise to yet another long moralising soliloquy on the corrupt morality and bad manners of the day, which Charmides overhears with approvel.

Then Chramides steps forward and identifies himself as Stasimus’s master. But when he goes to enter his old house Stasimus tells him the bad news that his son, Lesbonicus, has sold it for 4,000 drachmas (p.214). At that moment Callicles comes out dressed to do some gardening, is delighted by the sight of his old friend and takes him indoors to explain to him how things stand.

Enter Lysiteles, Lesbonicus’s friend who is betrothed to the latter’s sister, Charmides’s daughter. At that moment Charmides comes back out of the house with Callicles who he fulsomely thanks for being such a good friend and stepping in to preserve the house. Charmides has just one question: who was the florid imposter he met who claimed to know him. Callicles laughingly explains that this was a man they hired to pretend to be a messenger from Charmides as a cover for using some of the gold in the buried treasure chest for Lesbonicus’s sister’s dowry. Capital idea! declares Charmides, amused and impressed, and Callicles gives credit where it’s due to Megaronides.

Lysiteles steps forward and introduces himself. Charmides is charmed by him and delighted to know he is to marry his daughter, and then insists that he accepts a thousand gold Philippics as dowry. Lysiteles demurs. Charmides insists. Lysiteles says alright. He asks of Charmides just one favour. Yes? That Charmides forgive his son his bad behaviour. Well… he oughtn’t… but he does!

Lysiteles bangs on the house door and Lesbonicus emerges to be confronted by his father. But rather than the mad capers of Mostellaria, in this play the father is all-forgiving, forgives his son and announces not only that his sister will have a dowry when she marries Lysiteles, but that their neighbour, Callicles, wants him (Lesbonicus) to marry his daughter.

All references to the wild women he’s been partying with, or one in particular I thought he had fallen in love with, evaporate like dew and Lesbonicus is thrilled to be marrying Callicles’ daughter and just like that the play abruptly ends.

Thoughts

Trinummus is kind of charming and has some comic dialogue and the one really comic scene when Charmides confronts the imposter who claims to have been sent from him. But overall Trinummus is not really a comic play. It’s amiable and well constructed but it’s more charming and good humoured than actually funny.


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 2

As I explained in my review of the introduction to SPQR, Beard is a little too academic to be truly popular, yet not scholarly or intellectual enough to be truly challenging.

By ‘not scholarly’ I mean that although she certainly mentions the scholarly debates around key issues from the historiography of ancient Rome, she rarely goes into enough detail to make us really understand what’s at stake (unlike Richard Miles in his history of Carthage who can’t come across a scholarly debate without explaining it at length, accompanied by copious, and often very interesting, footnotes and extensive references).

By ‘not very  intellectual’ I mean her book contains discussions and debates about themes and issues from the period, but nothing truly thought provoking, nothing you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about ancient history (the early years are shrouded in legend, it was a very sexist culture, Roman society was very militaristic) – no surprises, no new slants or opinions, and certainly no overarching conceptual framework for her analysis. Instead, there are lots of interesting bits and bobs about archaeological finds or social history, gossip about well known figures, speculation about the early history, fairly predictable things about Caesar, the civil wars, the rise of Augustus. Ho hum.

What you very much do get a lot of is rhetorical questions. Beard is addicted to asking rhetorical questions, not one rhetorical question, but little clumps of two or three rhetorical questions which all come together like buses on a rainy day. But asking rhetorical questions doesn’t make her an intellectual, it makes her a standard teacher using a standard teaching technique.

How far is it useful to see Roman history in terms of imperial biographies or to divide the story of empire into emperor-sized (or dynasty-sized) chunks? How accurate are the standard images of these rulers that have come down to us? What exactly did the emperor’s character explain? How much difference, and to whom, did the qualities of the man on the throne make? (p.399)

Asking lots of high-sounding questions gives people the impression you’re brainy without you actually having to do any real thinking.

Superficial

More important, for me anyway, is the way Beard mentions famous events only to skate over them. Although SPQR is a long book, it is frustratingly superficial. Early on in the narrative I found her account of both the Catiline Conspiracy (63 BC) and the legend of Romulus and Remus (750s BC?) patchy and disconnected. She’s interested in this or that bit of the story, tells a bit in order to illustrate problems with the established narrative or as a pretext to bring in recent archaeological findings – but she rarely gives you a good, simple, clear description of the complete event. I had to look up both the Catiline conspiracy and the story of Romulus and Remus on Wikipedia in order to get a proper, coherent account of both, and in order to fully understand the issues which Beard only patchily explains.

Later on she refers to Pyrrhus, the Greek general who invaded southern Italy, giving rise to what became called the Pyrrhic War (280 to 275 BC). Pyrrhus won several victories but at such a cost in lives and material that they gave rise to the expression ‘Pyrrhic victory’. But Beard says very little about who Pyrrhus was, why he attacked, about the progress of his military campaigns or describe any of the costly victories which gave rise to the saying. To learn more about Pyrrhus and his wars I had, again, to look him up on Wikipedia. Ditto Spartacus, ditto the Jugurtha, ditto the Roman constitution, ditto Scipio Africanus, and so on.

Beard’s account of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy which lasted 15 years and was the core of the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) is insultingly brief at barely 2 pages (pages 175 to 176). It almost made me want to throw this book away and reread Richard Miles’s fascinating, long, rich, detailed and subtle account of the same subject.

From the 300s through to the defeat of Carthage in 146 BC Rome was almost continuously at war. Beard mentions some of these wars, and occasionally specific names, such as Mithradates king of Pontus, float to the surface for half a page or so, but many are given the briefest mention, many aren’t mentioned at all, and for none of them, none whatsoever, do you get a proper account of the military campaign. There are no descriptions of battles anywhere in the book.

If you are looking for a military history of Rome, the most militaristic state in the ancient world which built its empire on phenomenal military success, this is not it. If you’re looking for a diplomatic history of Rome i.e. a description and analysis of the strategic thinking, alliances and manoeuvres behind the wars, how the geopolitical thinking of Rome’s rulers changed and evolved over time, this is definitely not it. Occasional reference is made to the Roman gods, but not much to their attributes or worship. If you’re looking for a book about Roman religion, this isn’t it. There are lots of passages describing recent archaeological discoveries and the light they shed on this or that aspect of early Rome – for example archaeologists’ discovery under the ancient Lapis Niger section of the Forum of a stone block on which a very ancient form of Latin seems to refer to a rex or king. The block is dated to about 570 BC and so would appear to be exciting confirmation that Rome did indeed have kings at exactly the period when tradition says Romulus founded a series of ancient kings. Interesting. But this, like other similar passages, pop up almost at random. If you’re looking for a thorough archaeological history of Rome, this is not it either.

Instead SPQR proceeds by examining issues and problems in Roman historiography, introduced by flurries of rhetorical questions (which all-too-often go unanswered). Overall the text proceeds in broadly chronological order, but Beard jumps around a bit, coming back to the same subjects 20 or 30 pages after you thought we were done with them. She is also very given to repetition – some favourite scenes recur three or four times (Claudius telling the Senate that Gaulish leaders should be allowed to become consuls or the fact that Trajan was from Spain and Septimius Severus from Africa, the notion that Spartacus’s rebellion must have included more than just gladiators to have lasted so long – each of these idées fixes is mentioned four or five times, as are many others).

The result is an often confusing mix of sudden bursts of straight history interspersed with nuggets of recent archaeology, occasional profiles of specific people (for some reason the Gracchi brothers Tiberius and Gaius get extensive treatment, pages 221 to 233) all embedded in a kind of academic tide which keeps rising to a surf of academic questions before setting off onto new issues and investigations. Rather than a chronological account, it’s more like a series of articles or mini essays, arranged in a roughly chronological order.

Social history, sort of

There’s a lot of soft social history, specifically in chapter eight ‘The Home Front’ (pages 297 to 336) about Roman attitudes and customs, traditional ideas and beliefs – though done in a very limp way. I’ve just read a sentence where she adds a parenthesis explaining that the poor in ancient Rome didn’t have as much money as the rich. Maybe this book is targeted at people who need to have it explained to them that the poor, on the whole, by and large, don’t have as much money as the rich.

The specific context is she’s explaining that women in ancient Rome, though subject to umpteen restrictions which we (pretty obviously) would find intolerable, in fact had more independence than women in ancient Greece or the Near East.

The contrast is particularly striking with classical Athens, where women from wealthy families were supposed to live secluded lives, out of the public eye, largely segregated from men and male social life (the poor, needless to say, did not have the cash or space to enforce any such divisions). (p.307)

I suppose this is a useful point to make, but maybe it could have been made in a subtler way, not the rather crude formulation that the poor didn’t have as much cash as the rich. It feels like she’s bolted on the parenthesis not because it says anything useful for the reader, but because Dame Mary wants us to know that she’s really desperately concerned about the poor. Again and again you read things which ought to be interesting but which, through her banal turn of phrase or clunky thinking, are turned to lead.

Feminism, sort of

We know that Beard is a feminist because she tells everyone she meets, mentions it in all her TV shows and media appearances, and in tweets and lectures, and has written a book about Women and Power.  She flourishes her feminist credentials early on with little sequence of huffy points about sexism in ancient Rome:

  • In the middle of the first century BCE, the senate was a body of some 600 members; they were all men who had previously been elected to political office (and I mean all menno woman ever held political office in ancient Rome). (p.32)
  • Catiline’s defeat was nonetheless a notable victory for Cicero; and his supporters dubbed him pater patriae, or ‘father of the fatherland’, one of the most splendid and satisfying titles you could have in a highly patriarchal society, such as Rome. (p.35)
  • The ‘people’ was a much larger and more amorphous body than the senate, made up, in political terms, of all male citizens; the women had no formal political rights. (p.36)
  • The writers of Roman literature were almost exclusively male; or, at least, very few works by women have come down to us…(p.37)

I mock them as ‘huffy not as a sexist jibe but a jokey description of the way they’re such obvious and superficial points to make. Because she doesn’t go any deeper into any of these ideas, these throwaway remarks just come over as cheap shots. Like the reference in brackets to the poor, they don’t seem designed to tell the reader anything useful about ancient Rome so much as to let the reader know that Dame Mary is a feminist, goddamit, and proud of it and nobody is going to shut her up and Down with the patriarchy and Sisters are doing it for themselves. As profound as a t-shirt slogan.

Having got this off her chest in the opening section, Beard’s feminism largely goes to sleep for the rest of the book. She reverts to telling us the long history of legendary, proto-historical, historical, republican and imperial Rome entirely from a male point of view.

Some feminist historians I’ve read reinterpret history entirely from a female point of view, subjecting the patriarchal structures of power to the intrinsic sexism of the syntax of the language to bracing, deeply thought-through, radical reinterpretations of history which make you stop and reconsider everything you know. There is absolutely none of that in Beard’s account. Beard’s much vaunted feminism feels like a few cherries blu tacked onto a narrative which could have been written by a man about men. Her ‘feminist’ account of women in ancient Rome is a big disappointment. Apart from the occasional moan that everything was run by men, SPQR could have been written fifty years ago.

Early on she points out the (fairly obvious) fact that two of the founding legends of ancient Rome involve rape, being the abduction of the Sabine women and the rape of Lucretia. Some other, less famous turning points in Roman history, wee also marked by accusations of sex crimes. Now there’s obviously something going on here, and I’m sure a half decent feminist theorist could take us deep into the psychological and cultural and political sub-texts and interpretations this is open to. But Beard doesn’t. It’s frustrating.

The only sustained consideration of women in ancient Rome comes when she pauses her (superficial) historical narrative for a chapter about everyday life in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar (Chapter Eight: The Home Front), which kicks off with fifteen or so pages about women (pages 303 to 318). But she manages to make even this sound dull and utterly predictable: Girls were often married off young, girls were forced to make marriages advantageous to their families (p.309). Once married:

The proper role of the woman was to be devoted to her husband, to produce the next generation, to be an adornment, to be a household manager and to contribute to the domestic economy by spinning and weaving. (p.304).

More or less the same as in ancient Persia or India or China or medieval anywhere, then. The only real surprise is the point mentioned above, that women in ancient Rome enjoyed relatively more freedom than in ancient Athens. They could, for example, freely attend mixed dinner parties, which would have been scandalous in Athens (p.307).

In fact the most interesting point in the passage about women in ancient Rome was the casualness of Roman marriage. There could be a big expensive ceremony if you were rich but there didn’t need to be and there was no sense of the Christian sacrament which the last 2,000 years have drummed into us. Instead, if a couple said they were married, they were, and if they said they were divorced, they were (p.303)

That’s interesting but you can see how it’s what you could call a ‘trivial pursuit fact’, quite interesting, but devoid of any theoretical (feminist) underpinning or detail. She gives no history of the evolution or development of Roman marriage. I bet there are entire scholarly books devoted to the subject which make fascinating reading but here there are just a few sentences, an ‘oh that’s interesting’ fact, and then onto the next thing. A bit later, writing about the high infant mortality in ancient Rome, she writes:

Simply to maintain the existing population, each woman on average would have needed to bear five or six children. In practice, that rises to something closer to nine when other factors, such as sterility and widowhood, are taken into account. It was hardly a recipe for widespread women’s liberation. (p.317)

I see what she’s getting at, but it just seems a really crass and wholly inadequate conclusion to the train of facts she’s been listing.

A lot of the text consists of pulling out facts like this at the expense of a continuous narrative – chapter eight includes a couple of pages describing how a wealthy man’s Roman house was more a vehicle for public display and business meetings than what we’d call a home:

On the atrium wall, a painted family tree was one standard feature, and the spoils a man had taken in battle, the ultimate mark of Roman achievement, might also be pinned up for admiration. (p.324)

This is kind of interesting in the way the rest of the book is, ho hum, kind of interesting, no big revelations. A bit of this, a bit of that, padded out with feminist tutting and hundreds of rhetorical questions.

[Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] were a concerted attempt to evaluate the great men (and they were all men) of Greece and Rome against each other…(p.501)

(There ought to be a term in rhetoric for the tag which so many feminist writers and columnists add to everything they wrote – ‘(and they were all men)’ – as if adding it to any sentence about almost any period of history anywhere in the world up till about 50 years ago, really comes as much surprise to anyone or changes anything. The ‘all men’ tag, maybe. To dress it smartly in Latin, the omnes homines tag.)

Is SPQR too full of rhetorical questions?

One irritating aspect of her approach is Beard’s fondness for writing little clumps of rhetorical questions of exactly the type which work well in a TV documentary or maybe a lecture hall but feel like padding in a written text:

How did Cicero and his contemporaries reconstruct the early years of the city? Why were their origins important to them? What does it mean to ask ‘where does Rome begin’? How much can we, or could they, really know of earliest Rome? (p.52)

But if there is no surviving literature from the founding period and we cannot rely on the legends, how can we access any information about the origins of Rome? Is there any way of throwing light on the early years of the little town by the Tiber that grew into a world empire? (p.79)

Is it possible to link our investigations into the earliest history of Rome with the stories that the Romans themselves told, or with their elaborate speculations on the city’s origins? Can we perhaps find a little more history in the myth? (p.86)

Did someone called Ancus Marcus once exist but not do any of the things attributed to him? Were those things the work of some person or persons other than Ancus but of unknown name? (p.95)

Whose liberty was at stake? How was it most effectively defended? How could conflicting versions of the liberty of the Roman citizen be reconciled? (p.129)

What kind of model of fatherhood was this? Who was most at fault? Did high principles need to come at such a terrible cost? (p.150)

Why and how did the Romans come to dominate so much of the Mediterranean in such a short time? What was distinctive about the Roman political system? (p.173)

How influential was the popular voice in Roman Republican politics? Who controlled Rome? How should we characterise this Roman political system? (p.189)

If this was the kind of thing that came from Rome’s ancestral home, what did that imply about what it meant to be Roman? (p.207)

Clumps of rhetorical questions like these crop up throughout the text, to be precise on pages 52, 62, 65, 70, 77, 79, 80, 86, 95, 99, 110, 115, 129, 131, 137, 146, 150, 151, 153, 166, 173, 180, 182, 188, 189, 205, 207, 212, 225, 226, 234, 241, 244, 251, 255, 256, 266, 277, 281, 291, 293, 299, 301, 312, 326, 330, 331, 332, 333, 336, 341, 346, 352, 354, 358, 377, 384, 389, 395, 399, 412, 414, 415, 426, 440, 480, 510, 517 and 520.

I suppose this is a standard teaching technique. I imagine a Cambridge Professor of Classics, whether in a classroom or lecture hall, often proceeds by putting rhetorical questions to her students and then setting out to answer them. Maybe it’s a common device in other factual books. But not quite to this extent, not so many clumps of so many questions. It begins to feel as if history exists mainly to provide professors of history with the opportunity of asking lots of rhetorical questions. After a while it gets pretty irritating, especially when the questions often aren’t even answered but left hanging in your mind…

What kind of act had he been playing all those years?… Where was the real Augustus? And who wrote these lines? These questions remain. (p.384)

Banal ‘ideas’

When she proudly presents us with so-called ‘ideas’ they are often disappointingly obvious and banal. I’ve mentioned above the point she makes that the poor don’t have as much money as the rich. Elsewhere she remarks that:

Civil war had its seedy side too. (p.300)

Or:

Hypocrisy is a common weapon of power. (p.358)

Well, yes, I kind of suspected as much. Here’s another Beardesque remark:

There is often a fuzzy boundary between myth and history (p.71)

It’s not untrue, it’s just limp. Quite a massive amount more could be made of this point by someone with brains and insight but not in this book. As it happens the same phrase recurs 400 pages later:

There was always a fuzzy zone where Roman control faded gradually into non-Roman territory (p.484)

And this echo made me realise that this, like other similar statements throughout the book, are not  really ‘ideas’ at all. They’re not the conclusions of a train of thought, they’re the axioms she starts out with – and my God, aren’t they boring?

  • Cultural identity is always a slippery notion…(p.205)
  • Elites everywhere tend to worry about places where the lower classes congregate… (p.456)

They’re not quite truisms but they are pretty obvious. I wish I’d noticed them earlier and made a collection because the ones I read in the final stretch of the book have the amusing tone of a schoolmistress lecturing rather dim children. It was like being back at infants school. For example, she tells us how early legends of Romulus claim he didn’t die but was covered by a cloud and disappeared:

crossing the boundary between human and divine in a way that Rome’s polytheistic religious system sometimes allowed (even if it seems faintly silly to us) (p.73)

I enjoyed that sensibly dismissive tone of voice – ‘seems faintly silly to us’. I imagine sentences like this being read in the voice of Joyce Grenfell, a no-nonsense, jolly hockeysticks, 1950s schoolteacher telling us how frightfully silly these old Romans could be! At other moments you can hear her telling the children to pay attention because she’s about to make a jolly important point which she wants us all to write down and remember:

It is a fallacy to imagine that only the poor write on walls. (p.470)

Yes, Miss.

Contrived comparisons

Beard has made ten or so TV documentaries and written the accompanying coffee table books and I can well imagine how she was encouraged at every step to insert ‘contemporary comparisons’ for events or aspects of life in ancient Rome in order to make them more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ to the average viewer. Maybe this kind of thing does work for some people, but there are at least three risks with this approach:

1. Contemporary comparisons date

What are initially ‘contemporary’ comparisons quickly go out of date. Time moves on at a relentless pace (it’s odd having to point this out to a professor of a historical subject) so what were once surprising and illuminating comparisons between events in the ancient world and bang up-to-date contemporary events quickly lose their relevance. In my last review I mentioned her reference to the 1990s TV show Gladiators or the 2000 movie Gladiator which, far from shedding light on her subject, now themselves require a footnote to explain to younger readers what she’s on about. I think something similar applies to many of her other ‘cool’ and edgy comparisons (she uses the word ‘edgy’ at one point).

(Incidentally, if you wanted to learn anything about gladiators in ancient Rome, forget it, once again this isn’t the book for you. Spartacus is mentioned a couple of times in passing (pages 217 to 218 and 248 to 250) but always folded into a bigger, vaguer academic discussion of the class wars which racked Italy. Beard isn’t at all interested in gladiators’ lives or training or the battles fought during the uprising. Instead she uses it to explain the modern theory that Spartacus didn’t lead gladiators alone but rallied a lot of the rural poor and lower middle class to his cause. Gladiators fighting beasts to the death in the colosseum are mentioned half a dozen times but always in passing, in the context or urban planning or urban pastimes etc.)

Beard opens the narrative with a description of the Catiline conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state in the 60s BC. She tries to make this more relevant or accessible by mentioning ‘homeland security’ and ‘terrorism’ a lot.

Over the centuries the rights and wrongs of the conspiracy, the respective faults and virtues of Catiline and Cicero, and the conflicts between homeland security and civil liberties have been fiercely debated…(p.49)

But the US Homeland Security Act was passed in 2002 and, although terrorism will be with us forever, the distinctive atmosphere of paranoid fear of Islamic terrorism which was very widespread in the 2000s seems, to me, nowadays, to have virtually disappeared. Far more important for the era we live in now, in 2022, was the financial crash of 2008 which led governments around the Western world to implement a decade of ‘austerity’ policies which bore down hardest on the most vulnerable in society, leading to widespread resentment. It was arguably this resentment which found an outlet in the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US, decisions which dominated British and American politics for the following 4 years. And then, of course, everything was superseded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Obviously Brexit, Trump and Covid are not mentioned in a book published in 2015. But that means that the book itself, and what were once bang up-to-date ‘modern’ comparisons, are already starting to have a faded, dated quality. Time marches on and comparisons which might have seemed useful in connecting ancient history to contemporary events inevitably age and date, become irrelevant and, eventually, themselves become obscure historical references which need explaining. I smiled when I read the following:

The [Catiline] ‘conspiracy’ will always be a prime example of the classic interpretative dilemma: were there really ‘reds under the bed’ or was the crisis, partly at least, a conservative invention? (p.48)

‘Reds under the bed’? See what I mean by dated? Apparently this phrase originated in the United States as far back as 1924 although it only became common parlance during the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the late 1940s. It’s a phrase Beard might have picked up when she was young in the 1970s, certainly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but this ‘contemporary’ reference, included in a bid to make the story more ‘accessible’, nowadays itself requires explaining to anyone under the age of 30.

Something similar happens when, later in the book, she tries to make the writings of the emperor Marcus Aurelius seem more relevant and contemporary by excitedly pointing out that one of his big fans is Bill Clinton (p.399). When I ask my kids who Bill Clinton is they look at me with blank faces; after all, his second term as US president ended in 2001.

Same again when she casually refers to the (often bloody) transition from rule by one emperor to the next one as ‘regime change’ (pages 403 and 414), a phrase which, I believe, was popularised at the time of the Iraq War and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, almost twenty years ago.

In Beard’s mind these might be useful comparisons which make the text more ‘accessible’, but all they do for the reader in 2022 is reveal how dated and ageing her entire frame of references is, here and throughout the text, in multiple ways.

2. Patronising

Carefully inserting comparisons to ‘contemporary’ events or culture in order to try and make ancient history more understandable, relatable and relevant runs the risk of sounding patronising and Beard sometimes does sound condescending. She frequently addresses the reader as if we’ve never read any history or know anything about the ancient world (or life in general: carefully explaining that poor people don’t have as much money as rich people, or that not everyone who writes graffiti on walls is poor).

I won’t go so far as to call her attitude ‘insulting’ but you can see why the general attitude betrayed in casual comparisons, asides and parentheses put me off. By contrast, Richard Miles in his book about ancient Carthage, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, treats his readers like adults, in fact more than adults because he takes you right into the heart of scholarly debates about the events he’s describing, giving extensive notes and making countless references to scholarly articles on the subject, which all make quite a lot of demands on the average reader.

But I’d rather read something which asks me to strain my faculties, which requires me to master the detail of conflicting scholarly interpretations of historical facts, I’d rather feel that I’m being stretched than, as with Beard, be subject to a succession of rhetorical questions, staged discussions, dated comparisons all larded with rather obvious truisms and banal comments.

3. Strained

In my first review I mentioned special pleading. What I was trying to express is the way Beard never knowingly neglects an opportunity to throw in a reference to modern life or use a modern phrase (homeland security, domestic abuse, people trafficking) to try and link whatever bit of ancient Rome she’s describing to modern headlines and issues. I’ve described how these comparisons can be both dated and patronising, but they can also come over as strained and contrived, missing the point of modern example and confusing our understanding of the ancient event.

So when Cicero turns up at a poll with an armed guard and wearing a military breastplate under his toga, this breach of etiquette was:

rather as if a modern politician were to enter the legislature in a business suit with a machine gun slung over his shoulder’ (p.29).

For some reason the phrase ‘machine gun’ made me think of Tintin in 1930s Chicago and cartoon gangsters. Maybe it’s a useful comparison, but there’s also something cartoonish and childish about it and – my real beef – nifty comparisons like this often mask the way Beard doesn’t explain things properly. Although she spends quite a few pages on it, and compares it to modern concerns about terrorism and ‘homeland security’ and ‘regime change’, Beard never really properly, clearly explains what the Catiline Conspiracy actually was. I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get a full sense of it. Too often she’s more interested in rhetorical questions and cartoon comparisons and then in rushing off to discuss the issues this or that event raises, than in actually, clearly, lucidly explaining the thing she’s meant to be telling us.

In 63 BC the Senate issued a law allowing Cicero to do whatever was necessary to secure the state (which meant rounding up and executing the Catiline conspirators). But in case we didn’t understand what this means, Beard explains that this was:

roughly the ancient equivalent of a modern ’emergency powers’ or ‘prevention of terrorism’ act (p.30)

Maybe this helps some readers but, like so much of what she writes, a detailed understanding of the thing itself, the event in the ancient world, its precedents and meanings, are sacrificed for a flashy modern comparison.

Trivial pursuit facts

Obviously Beard is hugely knowledgeable about her chosen subject, I’m not denying that for a minute. And so the book does contain a wealth of information, if you can bite your tongue and ignore the patronising tone, the banal generalisations and the limp ‘ideas’. Some examples from the first half of the book include:

– The first century BC is the best documented period of human history before Renaissance Florence, in the sense that we have a wealth of documents written by leading players giving us insights into their lives and thoughts (p.22).

– The towering figure is Cicero, not in terms of military achievement (in this warlike society he was not a warrior, he was a lawyer and orator) or political achievement (he took the losing side in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey and met a wretched fate) but because so many of his writings have survived. It is possible to get to know him better than anyone else in the whole of the ancient world (pages 26 and 299). This explains why Cicero crops up throughout the book, since he wrote so copiously and so widely about earlier Roman history, customs, religion and so on. It explains why the chapter about social life and the Roman house depends heavily on Cicero – because we have lots of detail about his buying and selling of properties, loans and rents, even down the details of him buying statues and furniture to decorate them.

Julius Caesar had a healthy appetite because he followed a course of emetics, a popular form of detoxification among rich Romans which involved regular vomiting (p.302).

The traditional colour for brides in ancient Rome was yellow (p.303).

Some random Latin words

The Romans referred to themselves as gens togata meaning ‘the people who wear the toga’ (p.32).

The English word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means whitened and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns (p.32) (compare our use of the English word candid which comes from the same root).

The Latin word for female wolf, lupa, was also a slang term for prostitute. So could it be that the old tale about Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf actually referred to a female sex worker? (Nice suggestion. Probably not.)

The English word palace derives from the early 13th century French word palais, from the Medieval Latin palacium (source of the Spanish palacio, Italian palazzo) which all stem from the Latin palatium, which derives from from Mons Palatinus, ‘the Palatine Hill’, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome, where Augustus Caesar’s house stood (the original ‘palace’) and was later the site of the splendid residence built by Nero (pages 59 and 418).

Lots of political bodies in countries round the world are called senates, copying the Roman word and idea. The word Senate derives from the Latin senex meaning old man. The original idea, developed in the 3rd century BC, was that everyone who had held a public office (as consul, magistrate, quaestor and so on) at the end of their term went to sit in the Senate where they could use their experience of public life to judge new laws or directives issuing from the Assemblies or consuls.

Crime and punishment

Custodial sentences were not the penalties of choice in the ancient world. Fines, exile and death made up the usual repertoire of Roman punishment (p.35).

Later writers thought the rot set in with the defeat of Carthage 146 BC

In the 40s BC Gaius Sallustius Crispus, known as Sallust, wrote an essay about the Cataline conspiracy in which he claimed the conspiracy was symptomatic of Rome’s moral decline. He claimed the moral fibre of Roman culture had been destroyed by the city’s success and by the wealth, greed and lust for power that followed its successful crushing of all its rivals. Specifically, he mentions the final destruction of its old rival Carthage in 146 BC and the emergence of Rome as the paramount power in the Mediterranean as the moment when the rot started to set in (page 38 and 516).

Slavery (pages 328 to 333)

All slaves are enemies – Roman proverb

In the mid first-century BC there were between 1.5 and 2 million slaves in Italy, about a fifth of the population. There was a huge variety of slaves, of functions and origins. Slaves could be enemy soldiers or populations captured in war, the children of established slaves, or even abandoned babies rescued from the municipal rubbish dump. Some slaves wore rags and were worked to death in silver mines, some wore fine clothes and acted as secretaries to rich Romans like Cicero. In wealthy households the line between an educated, well treated slave and other staff was often paper thin. The Latin word familia referred to the entire household, including both the non-free and free members (p.330).

  • servus – Latin for slave
  • libertus – Latin for freed slave

Beard refers to slavery for half a page on page 68 and then devotes five pages in chapter eight. The facts she relates are interesting enough – it’s interesting to be told about the great variety of types and statuses of slave in ancient Rome, how some were considered members of the family, how easy it was to free them (although the authorities introduced a tax which had to be paid when you did so).

How the Roman policy of freeing slaves (manumission to use the English word derived from the Latin term) who could then go on to acquire full civic rights was unique in the ancient world.

That in Ancient Rome, a slave was freed in a ceremony in which a praetor touched the slave with a rod called a vindicta and pronounced him or her to be free. The slave’s head was shaved and a special kind of hat, the pileus or liberty cap, was placed on it. Both the vindicta and the cap were considered symbols of Libertas, the goddess representing liberty.

It’s interesting to think that the sheer rate at which Romans freed slaves who originally came from faraway places as defeated soldiers or captives, over the long term contributed to Rome becoming one of the most ethnically diverse places in the ancient world (p.330)

That the Greek island of Delos was one of the great commercial hubs of its day which was inextricably linked with it also being a centre of the Mediterranean slave trade.

But five and a half pages are hardly enough to cover such an engrained, scandalous and essential part of Roman history and culture. Like so much else in the book, the facts she gives are interesting enough but, ultimately, all a bit…well…meh.


Credit

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

Roman reviews

The legacies of Rome

At the start of Mary Beard’s comprehensive but pedestrian history of ancient Rome she gives some examples of the ‘legacy’ of Rome as reasons why people should know more about ancient Rome and read her book. I critiqued her reasons for being arbitrary, superficial and not really justifying her case. Nonetheless it does broach an interesting subject: just what should be included in the legacies left by Ancient Rome to later ages and the present day? Over the week it took to read Beard’s book, I began to make a list of aspects of the legacy of Rome which live on in the modern world. Can you add any more to my list?

Roman Catholicism, the religion of power

Surely the biggest legacy is the Roman Catholic church, founded and spread across the eastern Mediterranean but given its definitive organisational and liturgical form after it was decriminalised by the Emperor Constantine in 313 and then made the official state religion of the empire by the emperor Theodosius I in 380.

The language of the Latin Mass, Christian theology and practices, and the organisational structure of the church, which dominated the religious lives of everyone in the West till the Reformation, and still dominate Western Catholics and huge numbers of peoples living in countries colonised by Catholic Spain and Portugal to this day.

Apparently there are some 1.34 billion Catholics in the world today. Their spiritual lives, personalities and imaginations are shaped by concepts and terms crystallised in the series of church councils supervised by the Roman authorities, by a hierarchy based in Rome, almost every detail of which is based on Roman words for officials. Pope. Saint (‘sanctus’). Vatican. Mass. ‘Deus’ (Latin for God) used in countless phrases.

Moral exemplars and great lives

From the Middle Ages through to the Enlightenment it was possible to argue that Latin was the universal language of scholarship, of philosophy, science and law. As part of the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the promotion by various national groups of their national languages, this became steadily less and less true. It was possible to argue that the study of Latin disciplined the mind.

But modern justifications for studying Latin tend to overlook three aspects of the content of Latin literature:

  • the supposedly moral teachings embedded in Latin literature
  • examples of characters from literature
  • examples of characters from history

The moral teachings are straightforward. Roman moralists explicitly praised honesty, civic duty and heroism. Similarly, most Roman literature is moralistic in the sense that it embodies these values, it shows how true heroes followed their sense of duty and patriotism, maybe the most obvious example being Aeneas who turns his back on the chance of true love with Dido of Carthage in order to obey the orders of the gods, sail to Italy and found the predecessor of Rome.

But there are also the non-fictional real people from Roman history. A lot of figures from Roman history were used as examples of (mostly heroic) behaviour to later generations. The Romans themselves began this tradition, projecting back onto 5th and 4th century figures the stern devotion to civic duty they valued in their own 1st century society. But many of these figures continued to play a role in literary, philosophical, moral and political debates for centuries after the fall of Rome.

The story of Horatio holding the bridge single-handed against the Gauls is a typical example of straightforward patriotic heroism, which schoolboys from Cicero’s time down to the present day are taught to emulate. There are other Roman heroes, for example Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a legendary 5th century character, who was chosen to save Rome when it was threatened by neighbouring tribes and, once they had been defeated, retired back to his modest life on a farm (in a year traditionally dated 458 BC).

The early years of the French Revolution were packed with the imagery of Republican Rome, with paintings, frescos, badges and mottos of the families who overthrew the last Roman King, Tarquin the Arrogant, and of heroes of republican virtue.

More complex are what you might call the ‘debatable’ figures, huge and impressive figures from the historic era whose lives and fates became examples and talking points to later generations. The most obvious example is Julius Caesar: was he a military genius set to save the republic from civil war or was he poised to become an autocratic dictator? Were the assassins right to murder him?

Beginning during the Roman period itself and for the subsequent 2,000 years, Roman historical figures  have been used as guides to contemporary behaviour and politics all across the developed world.

Latin, the language of power

Throughout the middle ages and Renaissance, Latin was the language of scholarship and intellectual authority. I’m not sure exactly when that can be said to have come to an end (during the eighteenth century?)

Scholarly works on any subject are no longer written in Latin as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries. But academics, journalists and other types of authors still signal their superior education (and, by implication, superior wisdom) by deploying Latin tags, little phrases which signal membership of, or exclusion from, the club of the well educated. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of Latin tags which is intimidatingly long. More fun is this list of 50 common Latin tags. But a few points emerge from reading both, which is the different types of tag, depending on source and context.

Latin quotes

‘Veni, vidi, vici’ is just a famous quote, comparable to ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’.

Latin terms from philosophy

Philosophy and the law, two of the most conservative subject areas, still use Latin to name key concepts. Thus ‘ad hominem’ is a technical term from philosophy, describing a particular type of argument (in this case meaning, ‘at the man’, meaning it’s an attack on the speaker not their argument). Here’s a handy list of philosophical fallacies which all have Latin names.

Legal Latin

And, of course, the Law is packed with legal jargon, much of which, to this day, remains in Latin, the language of power – see this list of Latin legal terms. Forbiddingly long, isn’t it?

Latin mottos

Countless hundreds of thousands of business and organisations around the world adopt Latin mottos because it makes them sound smart. It is a tiny contribution to their authority, to their reason for existing. Members of organisations can be rallied round mottos as much as around flags or brands. If you search the list of Latin phrases for ‘motto’ (click control and f, then type motto into the search box) you get 659 results. At the end of my road where I grew up was a memorial to the Royal Air Force so I read ‘per ardua ad astra’ (‘through adversity to the stars’) every day to and from school. ‘E pluribus unum’ (‘out of many, one’) is on most American coins and bank notes.

Winnie the Pooh loquitur latine (speaks Latin)

This meme from the Mondly web page instantly indicates why people like using Latin tags. Swank , defined as ‘behaviour, talk, or display intended to impress others’.

Comic meme indicating how using a Latin tag is a cheap way to impress (source: Mondly.com)

English words derived from Latin

A staggeringly high number.

About 80 percent of the entries in any English dictionary are borrowed, mainly from Latin. Over 60 percent of all English words have Greek or Latin roots. In the vocabulary of the sciences and technology, the figure rises to over 90 percent. About 10 percent of the Latin vocabulary has found its way directly into English without an intermediary (usually French). (Dictionary.com)

Latin discrimination

There’s a handy Wikipedia article about the Latin influence in English. It ends with a section explaining the thesis that familiarity with longer Latinate words associated with education and the professions and a range of specialisms gives children confident in reading and handling these kinds of words a measurable educational advantage.

David Corson in The Lexical Bar (1985) defended the thesis that academic English, due to its large portion of Greco-Latinate words, explains the difficulties of working class children in the educational system. When exposed at home mainly to colloquial English (the easier, shorter, Anglo-Saxon words), the differences with children who have more access to academic words (longer, more difficult, Greco-Latinate) tend not to become less by education but worse, impeding their access to academic or social careers.

Romance languages derive from Latin

Apparently, some 900 million people speak a Romance language, being Spanish (543 million), Portuguese (258 million), French (267 million), Italian (68 million), and Romanian (24 million). Regional Romance languages also exist, including Catalan, Occitan and Sardinian.

The ideas, words, phrases and concepts these people use to identify themselves and operate in the world derive from the language of a small town in central Italy.

Roman architecture of power

The United States Capitol

Nations round the developed world adopted the architectural language of power perfected by the Romans. Sure it was copied from the ancient Greeks, but the enormous reach of the Roman Empire a) brought a consistency of look and design b) spread it from Carlisle to Egypt. It has been used to make politicians feel powerful and important and to intimidate populations since we regained the ability to build such imposing edifices i.e. the last 200 years or so (the US Capitol was constructed in the early 1800s).

Roman statues of power

Statues by the ancient Greeks tried to capture the idealised version of their gods and heroes. By contrast Roman statuary, particularly portrait busts, really focus on capturing the individuality of the subject. The Greeks depicted horses (as on the frieze of the Parthenon) and men riding horses, but the Romans made this subject into an important symbol of power and leadership. Not many equestrian statues survive from ancient Rome, but the ones that do became models for medieval and especially Renaissance sculptors to create three dimensional icons of power and authority. Cities round the developed world are littered with variations of these metal men on horseback.

Bronze copy of the ancient Roman statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the Palazzo Nuovo in Rome

Senates

Take the idea of a ‘senate’ as the upper house of a bicameral legislature. The name comes from the ancient Roman Senatus, derived from senex meaning ‘old man’, indicating an assembly said to be experienced and wise and therefore qualified to review and amend legislation sent through from a purely elected chamber. Apparently, 63 modern nations have a senate and senators.

Censuses

From the Latin census, from censere meaning ‘to estimate’. The census played a crucial role in Roman administration because it determined what class a citizen belonged to for both military and tax purposes. Beginning in the middle republic, it was usually carried out every five years and supplied a register of citizens and their property from which their duties and privileges could be listed.

Censuses to establish facts about the population began to be reintroduced to western countries during the nineteenth century (although the sweeping review of the country he’d just conquered which was ordered by William of Normandy and which resulted in the Domesday Book was obviously a striking example of a medieval census).

Roman calendar

On page 104 Beard makes the simple point that the calendar we all use and take for granted was invented by the Romans. This may be, literally, their most workaday legacy. On page 292 she explains that fixing the antiquated Roman calendar was just one of Julius Caesar’s many reforms.  The fundamental problem all early calendar makes have is that the two obvious natural systems of timekeeping are out of synch– the twelve lunar months add up to just over 354 days whereas the solar years lasts 365 and  a quarter days. Using know-how he had picked up in Alexandria, Caesar established a year with 365 days with an extra day added to the end of January every four years. Although the words day, month and year are of Germanic origin (Old English dæg, monað and gear in which the g is pronounced as a y) the names of the months themselves are resolutely Roman:

  • January is named after the Roman god Janus who had two faces so he could see the future and the past
  • February is named after an ancient Roman festival of purification called Februa
  • March is named after Mars, the Roman god of war
  • April takes its name from the Latin word aperire meaning ‘to open’, just like flowers do in spring
  • May is named after the Greek goddess Maia
  • June is named after the Roman goddess Juno, goddess of marriage and childbirth and the wife of Jupiter, king of the gods
  • July is named after the Roman reformer of the calendar, Julius Caesar
  • August is named after the first emperor, Augustus
  • September is named for the Roman number seven as it was originally the seventh month, before July and August were added
  • October was the eighth month before July and August were added
  • November was the ninth month
  • December was the tenth month

(Source: British Museum blog)


Credit

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

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 1

SPQR is a long book – including the notes and index, it totals a chunky 606 pages. I picked it up at the British Museum’s Nero exhibition, my mind fired up by a couple of hours looking at exhibits illustrating all aspects of ancient Roman life in the first century AD.

Mary Beard’s ubiquity

By the bottom of page one I was disappointed. Dame Mary Beard DBE FSA FBA FRSL is a tiresomely ubiquitous presence across all media:

  • she has a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘A Don’s Life’, columns which have been gathered into not one but two books
  • she has fronted seven TV documentary series – Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town (BBC 2), Meet the Romans with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Caligula with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard (BBC 1), Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit (BBC 2), Julius Caesar Revealed (BBC 1), she wrote and presented two of the nine episodes in Civilisations (BBC 2) and she hosts a new BBC arts programme Lockdown Culture
  • she regularly appears on Question Time and other BBC panel shows
  • she is very ‘vocal’ on her twitter account and has been ‘controversial’ enough to trigger a number of twitterstorms
  • she’s written nineteen books and countless articles and reviews

To churn out this huge volume of content requires compromises in style and content, especially when making TV documentaries which have to be lucid and simple enough to appeal to everyone. Listing her enormous output is relevant because it helps to explain why this book is so disappointingly mediocre. What I mean is, SPQR is a readable jog through all the key events and people of ancient Rome – and God knows, there are thousands of them. But it contains few if any ideas worth the name and is written in a jolly, chatty, empty magazine style.

Compare and contrast with Richard Miles’s book about Carthage which combines scholarly scrupulousness with teasingly subtle interpretations of ancient history, propounding interesting and unusual ideas about the cultural struggle waged between Rome and Carthage. Well, there’s nothing like that here.

On the back cover there’s a positive review from the Daily Mail:

‘If they’d had Mary Beard on their side back then, the Romans would still have an empire!’

and this jolly knockabout attitude accurately captures the tone of the book. Beard is the Daily Mail‘s idea of an intellectual i.e. she’s at Cambridge, she knows about a fairly obscure subject, and she can speak a foreign language. She must be brainy!

And she’s outspoken, too. She’s what TV producers call ‘good value’. She can be relied on to start a twitterstorm by being outspokenly ‘controversial’ on statues or black lives matter or #metoo or any of the usual hot topics. Indeed Beard first came to public notice when she wrote in the London Review of Books in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that America ‘had it coming’, an off the cuff remark which prompted a storm of abuse. More recently she sparked ‘controversy’ through with her apparent defence of Oxfam workers practising sexual exploitation in Haiti, and so on.

Like so many other people on social media, Beard mistakes being provocative for actually having anything interesting to say; in which respect she is like thousands of other provocateurs and shock jocks and arguers on social media, all of whom think they are ‘martyrs to the truth’ and ‘saying the unsayable’ and ‘refusing to be silenced’, exactly the kind of rhetoric used by Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage. She is the Piers Morgan of academia.

Mary Beard’s reasons to study ancient Rome

The superficiality of her thinking becomes horribly clear on page one of SPQR where Beard gives us her reasons why ancient Rome is still relevant to the present day, why it is important for us all to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

As a lifelong specialist in Classics you’d hope these would be pretty thoughtful and persuasive, right? Here are her reasons, with my comments:

1. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world, and think about ourselves.

No it doesn’t. I imagine you could study economics and international politics, biology and geography, climate science and sociology and psychology without ever needing to refer to ancient Rome. Marx, Darwin and Freud go a long way to defining how we understand the world. Cicero a lot less so.

2. After 2,000 years, Rome continues to underpin Western culture and politics.

No, it doesn’t. Brexit, Boris Johnson’s current problems, Trump’s popularity, modern music, art and design; all these can be perfectly well understood without any knowledge whatsoever of Roman history.

3. The assassination of Julius Caesar… has provided the template… for the killing of tyrants ever since.

Has it?

4. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond.

Well, yes and no. Italy and France and Spain are undoubtedly similar to the Roman territories of the same name and many cities in western Europe have Roman origins – but everywhere north of the Rhine or Danube was untouched by the Romans, so the borders and cities of modern-day Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Czech republic, Slovak republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Croatia have bugger-all to do with ancient Rome. It’s a tendentious fib to say ‘modern Europe’ owes its political geography to Rome.

5. The main reason London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province of Britannia.

Well a) after the Romans left in 410 London, like all other British cities, fell into disrepair. The reason London slowly rose again as a trading centre during the early Middle Ages has more to do with the fact that it is the logical place to build a major city in England, being close to the continent and at the lowest fordable point of a major river which reaches into the heart of the country and is thus a vital transport hub; b) London is capital of the United Kingdom because of political developments vis-a-vis Wales, Scotland and Ireland which took place a thousand years after the Romans left.

6. Rome has bequeathed us the ideas of liberty and citizenship.

This is true, up to a point, although these ideas were developed and debated in ancient Greece well before the Romans came along, and have undergone 1,500 years of evolution and development since.

7. Rome has loaned us catchphrases such as ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’.

It was when I read this sentence that I began to doubt Mary Beard’s grasp on reality. Is she claiming that ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ is by any stretch of the imagination a ‘catchphrase’ which anyone in Britain would recognise, who hadn’t had a classical education?

She’s closer to the mark when she goes on to mention a couple of other catchphrases like ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ or ‘bread and circuses’, which I imagine a large number of people would recognise if they read them in a magazine or newspaper.

But lots of people have given us comparable quotes and catchphrases, from Shakespeare to the Fonz. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes over 20,000 quotations. Citing just three quotations as the basis for persuading people to study an entirely new subject is far from persuasive. If the number of quotations which a subject has produced is taken as a good reason for studying it, then Shakespeare would be a hugely better relevant subject for everyone to study, to understand where the hundreds of quotations which float around the language deriving from him come from (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? To be or not to be? Is this a dagger I see before me? All that glitters is not gold. The be-all and end-all. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.)

And then came Beard’s showstopper claim:

8. Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were.

Is Mary Beard seriously claiming that ‘Ancient Rome is important’ (the first sentence in the book) because ‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’? Let’s ponder this sentence and this argument for a moment.

Can Beard possibly be saying that actual gladiators, trained professional warriors who fight each other or wild beasts to the death in front of huge live audiences, ‘are as big box office now as they ever were’? I wish she was. I’d definitely pay to see that. But of course she isn’t she must be referring to the entertainment industry. I’m guessing it’s a throwaway reference to any one of three possible items: the television show Gladiators, which started broadcasting in 1992, some of whose expressions became jokey catchphrases (‘Contender ready! Gladiator ready!!’); to the 2000 movie Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, that was very successful and won five Oscars; and possibly to the 2010 American TV series Spartacus. Two TV shows and a movie about gladiators in 30 years. Hardly a deluge, is it?

Beard’s argument appears to be that, because a successful game show, movie and TV series have been made on the subject of ‘gladiators’ that is a sufficient reason for everyone to drop everything and study ancient Rome.

a) That’s obviously a rubbish argument on its own terms, but b) it ignores the wider context of modern media, of the entertainment industry, namely that there is a huge, an enormous output of product by film and TV companies, all the time, on every subject under the sun. If your argument is that, because a subject has been chosen as the topic of immensely popular movies or TV shows this proves that we must study that subject, then we should all be studying the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The reality of modern media is that it chews up and spits out any subject which it thinks will make money. In the last twenty years I have been dazed by the enormous explosion in the number of science fiction movies and TV shows, about alien invasions and artificial intelligence and robots and androids, which have hit our screens. Does this mean we should all study artificial intelligence and robotics? No. These are just entertainment products which we may or may not choose to watch.

Placed in the broadest context of western cultural products, then, gladiators, or even the overall subject of ancient Rome, pale into insignificance. Ancient Rome is just one of half a dozen hackneyed historical settings which TV and film producers return to from time to time to see if there’s some more profit to be squeezed from them, up there with Arthur of the Britons, Henry VIII and the Tudors, Regency-era dramas like Bridgerton, Dickens adaptations, the Wild West, not to mention the perennial subject of the two world wars which never go out of fashion.

If you base your case for studying an academic subject on its TV and movie ratings (‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’) then it follows that a) subjects with higher ratings are even more necessary to study (the Edwardian society of Downton Abbey, say) and b) low ratings for the subject you’re promoting undermine your argument. My son told me about an HBO series titled simply ‘Rome’ which only ran for two series (2005 to 2007) before it was pulled due to huge expense and disappointing ratings. Maybe ancient Rome isn’t as popular a subject as a professor of Classics likes to think.

Summary

Anyway, the eight sentences I’ve listed above constitute the list of the reasons given by ‘Britain’s leading Classicist’ for studying ancient Rome.

Not very persuasive, are they? Every one of these instances sounds plausible enough at a first glance, if you read it quickly, skimming over it as you skim over a magazine on a plane flight or listen to the script of a big budget documentary about Pompeii you’re half paying attention to.

But stop and ponder any of the eight arguments for more than a moment and they disintegrate in your hands. They are all either factually incorrect or laughably superficial, and they strongly indicate the fluent but facile nature of the mind which selected and wrote them.

Missing obvious arguments

In passing, it’s odd that Beard misses several obvious arguments from her list.

Because I’m interested in language, I’d say a good reason for studying Classics is because Latin forms the basis of a lot of contemporary English words. If you grasp a relatively small number of principles about Latin (such as the prefixes e- for ‘out of’ and in- for ‘into’ and ab- for ‘from’) it can help you recognise and understand a surprising number of English words.

Easily as important as Rome’s impact on political geography is the obvious fact that three major European languages are descended from it, namely Italian, French and Spanish. That’s a really massive lasting impact and people often say that studying Latin helps you learn Italian, French or Spanish.

In fact, having studied Latin, French and Spanish I don’t think it’s true. The main benefit of studying Latin is that it forces you to get clear in your head the logical structure of (western) language, understanding the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, the arrangement of adjectives and adverbs – in other words, it gives you a kind of mental map of the basic logic of western languages, a mental structure which then helps you understand the structure of other languages, including English.

My son studied Latin at school and remembers his teacher trying to persuade his class that Latin was a ‘cool’ subject by telling them that the Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard had studied it. Beard’s efforts t opersuade us all to take ancient Rome more seriously are on about the same level.

But maybe I’m missing the point because Beard is talking about history and I’m talking about languages.

Once we got chatting about it, my son went on to suggest that arguably the most obvious legacy of ancient Rome is its architecture. All over the western world monumental buildings fronted by columns and porticos, sporting arches and architraves, reference and repeat the Architecture of Power which Rome perfected and exported around the Mediterranean and which architects copy to this day.

But again maybe I’m missing the point talking about architecture when Beard is determined to focus very narrowly on the history, on the events and personalities of ancient Rome.

Then again, having discussed it with my son made me realise that how narrow that focus is. If we agree that the biggest legacy of Rome was its political geography, the founding of important towns and cities in western Europe, its ancestry of widely spoken languages, and its hugely influential style of architecture, then this places the actual history of events, long and colourful though they may have been, in a relatively minor role – in terms of direct enduring influence on our lives, now.

Feminists can be boring old farts, too

Just because she makes a point of not wearing make-up and makes a big deal on the radio, on TV, in the TLS, in countless reviews and in all her books about being a ‘feminist’ doesn’t make Mary Beard any less of a privileged, out of touch, Oxbridge academic than hundreds of fusty old men before her. She attended a girls private school, then the all-women Newnham college Cambridge, and went onto a long and successful academic career at Cambridge, rising to become Professor of Classics.

This is all relevant to a book review because I am trying to convey the powerful impression the book gives of someone who is fantastically pleased with themselves and how jolly ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ and ‘outspoken’ they are and yet:

a) who is apparently blind to the fact that they are exactly the kind of out-of-touch, white privileged media figure they themselves have expended such effort in books and articles criticising and lambasting

More importantly:

b) who mistakes sometimes dated references to popular culture or trivial ‘provocations’ about gender or race on twitter, for thought, for real thought, for real deep thinking which sheds new light on a subject and changes readers’ minds and understanding. As the Richard Miles’ book on Carthage regularly does; as this book never does.

Facebubble

A Facebubble is what is created among groups of friends or colleagues on Facebook who all befriend each other, share the same kinds of values, are interested in the same kind of subjects and choose the same kinds of items from their newsfeeds. Over time, Facebook’s algorithms serve them what they want to read, suggesting links to articles and documentaries which reinforce what they already know and like. After a while people become trapped in self-confirming facebubbles.

It is a form of confirmation bias, where we only register or remember facts or ideas which confirm our existing opinions (or prejudices).

Again and again Beard’s book confirms your sense that, despite her rhetoric about making the subject more accessible and open, she is in fact addressing a relatively small cohort of readers who are already interested in the history of the ancient world. The oddity is how she again and again gives the impression of thinking that these already knowledgeable readers are somehow representative of the broader UK population.

Of course this is true of more or less any factual book which addresses a specific audience for a specialised subject – it assumes a tone of general interest. What makes Beard’s book irritating is the references to the notion that ‘we’ are ‘all’ still fascinated by ancient Rome, that ‘everyone’ ‘needs’ to be engaged with the subject. That ancient Rome ‘demands’ our attention. Those are the words she uses.

But no, ancient Rome does not ‘demand’ our attention and no ‘we’ are not ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome. My Chinese postman, the three Albanians who put up my new fence, the Irish labourers who took away the wreckage of the old fence, the Asian woman on the checkout at Tesco, the Jamaican guy who blows leaves out the road for the council, the Turkish family who run the delicatessen round the corner – are they ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome? Does it ‘demand’ their attention? It feels as if she’s writing for a white, middle class, university educated Radio 4-listening public and badly mistaking them for representing the big, complex, very diverse population of modern Britain.

On page two she tells us how:

SPQR takes its title from another famous catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (p.16)

Is this a famous catchphrase, though? Roughly how many people know what SPQR stands for? What percentage of the population do you think could translate Senatus PopulusQue Romanus? Maybe people with degrees in the humanities, particularly in the arts and literature, probably ought to. And anybody who’s been to Rome as a tourist might have noticed the letters SPQR appearing on letter boxes and manhole covers. I know what it stands for and what the Latin means because I happen to study Latin at my state school and went on to do a history-based degree, which is precisely why I bought and am reading this book. But I have the self awareness to know that I represent a fairly small, self-selectingly bookish percentage of the total population.

Myth busting

On page 3 of the introduction, Beard says her book will set out to smash some of the ‘myths’ which ‘she, like many’ grew up with’ (p.17). These are:

  1. that the Romans started out with a plan for world domination
  2. that in acquiring their empire the Romans trampled over peace-loving peoples
  3. that Rome was the thuggish younger sibling of classical Greece

Are these myths which you grew up with? Is it very important that ‘we’, the British people, have these ‘dangerous’ myths corrected? No, not really. They are only remotely important in the mind of someone who specialises in the subject.

All this rhetoric of ‘need’ and ‘must’ and ‘demand’ builds up an impression of special pleading, defined as when someone ‘tries to persuade you of something by only telling you the facts that support their case’. Beard is a Professor of Classics. Her job is to teach students Classics. She has taken it upon herself to make Classics more ‘accessible’ to a wider public, which may well be admirable. She tries to persuade us that everybody ought to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

But the arguments she uses to do so are weak and unconvincing.

I am not attacking Beard or her subject. I am critiquing the poor quality of her arguments.

First impressions

All these arguments and my responses to them occurred in the first few pages of the book. I hope you can see why, before the end of the 5-page introduction to SPQR, I realised that this was not going to be a scholarly book, and was not going to show much intellectual depth. It is a long, thorough and competent Sunday supplement-level account of its subject, stuffed with interesting facts, with some novel spins on things I thought I knew about (for example, the latest thinking about the legend of Romulus and Remus).

But it is disappointingly magaziney, features article-y, lacking in real depth. Instead of really unsettling and disrupting your ideas, of opening new vistas of understanding, as Richard Miles’s book does, Beard’s ideas of ‘controversy’ are on a disappointing twitter level – telling us that ancient Rome was a very sexist society, that its political debates about freedom versus security are very like our own, that there’s a lot we still don’t understand about its origins, that the archaeology is still much debated.

These are all ideas you could have predicted before you opened the book. That’s what I mean by comparing it to a very long magazine article which is packed with the latest knowledge and hundreds of dates and historical personages, but doesn’t really change your opinion about anything.

Very disappointing.


Credit

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

Roman reviews

Ovid’s Amores translated by Christopher Marlowe

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet (3.13)

Introduction to Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, generally known as Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) was a well-known Latin poet who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and a younger contemporary of arguably the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Virgil (70 BC – 19 AD).

After years of success and public honours, at the height of his fame, in 8 AD the emperor ordered Ovid to be summarily exiled to the remote backwater of the Black Sea. Possibly some of his verse had offended, either because of their satire or their erotic content. Possibly he had a relationship with the emperor’s daughter Julia. To this day, scholars aren’t completely sure. Augustus ordered Ovid’s works removed from libraries and destroyed, but that seems to have had little effect on his popularity. He was always among the most widely read and imitated of Latin poets and more copies of his works survive than of any other Latin poet.

Amores is Latin for ‘loves’ and the work consists of 48 poems, all in the first person, which describe the poet’s love affair with a rich and unhappily married woman, named Corinna. The series doesn’t tell a well-defined narrative with beginning, middle and end. Some poems seem to refer to specific events, but more often they address topics arising from the general idea of being in love. Some seem aimed at a generic female figure, others wander off the central topic altogether to make general points about Poetry, or the poet’s Muse. One is an elegy to fellow poet Tibullus, who had done much to establish the genre of the erotic elegy.

The word ‘elegy’ has come to mean a lament for someone who’s died, but in Ovid’s day it had the broader meaning of a poem written to or about a specific person – in this case Corinna, although many of the poems are actually written to figures surrounding her, such as her eunuch.

Scholars credit Ovid with taking aspects of the love elegy and developing them further, in particular a subversive irony and humour, ironising his own role as lover, the beloved’s character and, indeed, the whole palaver of being in love, wooing and all the rest of it.

Summary of the Amores

Book 1 contains 15 poems. The first tells of Ovid’s intention to write epic poetry, which is thwarted when Cupid steals a metrical foot from him, changing his work into love elegy. Poem 4 is didactic and describes principles that Ovid would develop in the Ars Amatoria. The fifth poem, describing sex in the afternoon, first introduces Corinna by name. Poems 8 and 9 deal with Corinna selling her love for gifts, while 11 and 12 describe the poet’s failed attempt to arrange a meeting. Poem 14 discusses Corinna’s disastrous experiment in dyeing her hair and 15 stresses the immortality of Ovid and love poets.

The second book contains 19 poems. The opening poem tells of Ovid’s abandonment of a Gigantomachy in favour of elegy. Poems 2 and 3 are entreaties to a guardian to let the poet see Corinna, poem 6 is a lament for Corinna’s dead parrot; poems 7 and 8 deal with Ovid’s affair with Corinna’s servant and her discovery of it, and 11 and 12 try to prevent Corinna from going on vacation. Poem 13 is a prayer to Isis for Corinna’s illness, 14 a poem against abortion, and 19 a warning to unwary husbands.

Book 3 contains 15 poems. The opening piece depicts personified Tragedy and Elegy fighting over Ovid. Poem 2 describes a visit to the races, 3 and 8 focus on Corinna’s interest in other men, 10 is a complaint to Ceres because of her festival that requires abstinence, 13 is a poem on a festival of Juno, and 9 a lament for Tibullus. In poem 11 Ovid decides not to love Corinna any longer and regrets the poems he has written about her. The final poem is Ovid’s farewell to the erotic muse.

The most accessible poems

I have boldened the poems I found easiest to understand and so most enjoyable, being 1.5, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13 and 2.14 about abortion, 3.6 about impotence, 3.8 the elegy to Tibullus, 3.13 telling his mistress to be discreet.

The summaries in italics are in the Penguin edition and appear to be the summaries given in the original Elizabethan edition.

Book 1

1.1 How he was forced by Cupid to write of love instead of war – At the time epic poetry was written in hexameters which have six ‘feet’ or units per line, whereas love poems were written in pentameters with five ‘feet’. The poet humorously complains that he set out to write bold, manly war poetry but that Cupid stole one of the ‘feet’ of his verse, and so now he is condemned to write love poems. He complains this is topsy turvey, Cupid should not have the power to intervene in poetry, but Cupid replied by shooting him with one of his arrows.

Thus I complaind, but Love unlockt his quiver,
Tooke out the shaft, ordaind my hart to shiver:
And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,
Saying, Poet heers a worke beseeming thee.
Oh woe is me, he never shootes but hits,
I burne, love in my idle bosome sits.

1.2 First captured by love, he endures being led in triumph by Cupid – What is keeping him awake at night? It is love. He gives examples of types of animals which know that fighting against man’s shackles and bridles only makes it worse. Similarly, he has the wisdom to submit.

Yielding or striving do we give him might,
Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.

1.3 To his mistress – He describes his devotion and his good qualities as a lover:

Be thou the happy subject of my books
That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.

1.4 He advises his love what devices and signals they ought to employ when they were at dinner with her husband present – The poet goes to a dinner party along with his lover and her husband and gives a long list of instructions to her not to dally too much or too openly with him, not to hang about his neck, fondle his chin, entwine her legs with his and the secret signs they will use to convey their passion to each other.

View me, my becks, and speaking countenance;
Take, and return each secret amorous glance.
Words without voice shall on my eyebrows sit,
Lines thou shalt read in wine by my hand writ.

1.5 Sex with Corinna – He describes an afternoon when Corinna comes to his rooms and they make love (quoted in full below).

1.6 To her porter, to open the door for him – He begs Corinna’s doorkeeper to let him into the house to see his love. This is an example, believe it or not, of a recognised genre, the paraclausithyron, the ‘door poem’ or ‘lament beside the door’, in which the exclusus amator (‘shut-out lover’) addresses the door or doorkeeper keeping him from his mistress. Horace wrote a poem threatening the door, Tibullus appealed to the door, Propertius wrote a poem in which the door is the speaker. The trope was revived by some of the troubadors, recurs in Victorian poetry, and lives on into our day, witness the 1971 song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? by the Rolling Stones:

Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door

1.7 That his mistress, who he has beaten, should make peace with him – In a blind rage he hits his lover, then sees her tears and throws himself at her feet in regret.

1.8 He reviles the bawd who has been introducing his mistress to the courtesan’s art – The longest poem in book 1, the poet describes the ancient bawd and procuress Dipsas as a witch and then overhears, from a hiding place, the old crone giving his mistress lessons on how to keep a lover on tenterhooks. At the end of her lecture the poet heartily curses her.

1.9 To Atticus: that a lover may not be lazy, any more than a soldier – The poet compares lovers with soldiers, including the greats of the tale of Troy, and says he is like a soldier, at his mistress’ beck and call as a soldier is of his captain’s.

1.10 To his girl, that she should not demand money for her love – He complains that alone among species, female humans refrain from sex until given gifts, until bought like whores.

The mare asks not the horse, the cow the bull,
Nor the mild ewe gifts from the ram doth pull.
Only a woman gets spoils from a man,
Farms out herself on nights for what she can;
And lets [prevents] what both delight, what both desire,
Making her joy according to her hire.

He swears that the gift he gives his mistress – his – will last long after the gold and jewels that common mistresses demand.

1.11 He pleads with Nape to carry a letter to Corinna – He asks Corinna’s maid to take a message to her and await her reply.

1.12 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – He seems to be attacking a book or books or manuscript, maybe it’s a letter announcing his mistress cannot visit.

1.13 To Dawn, not to hurry – He criticises the dawn for waking humanity from its rest and forcing all kinds of people, trades and animals to their daily work.

Poor travellers though tired, rise at thy sight,
And soldiers make them ready to the fight.
The painful hind by thee to field is sent;
Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.
Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them
To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

But, worst of all, parting him from his mistress.

1.14 He consoles his girl, whose hair has fallen out from excessive hair-washing  – He mocks Corinna for cutting off her hair and dyeing the rest and then complaining about the result.

She holds, and views her old locks in her lap;
Ay me! rare gifts unworthy such a hap!

1.15 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – The book ends with Ovid describing the immortal fame achieved by the great poets of the past and the subjects they wrote about (Troy, Aeneas, the golden fleece) and that he will be among them (as he, indeed, is).

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,
Verse is immortal and shall ne’er decay.
To[ verse let kings give place and kingly shows,
And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vild things;
Fair Phœbus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

Book 2

2.1 Why he is impelled to write of love, rather than of titanic struggles – The poet describes the sort of audience that he desires, hot maids looking for a husband and boys hurt, like him, by Cupid’s arrows. He jokingly says what good will it do him to write about Achilles or Odysseus, they’re long dead? But if he writes a poem to a pretty woman, he might get a snog out of it!

2.2 To Bagous, to keep a more lax watch over his mistress, who has been entrusted to him – The poet asks Bagous, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress in a poem I found largely incomprehensible.

2.3 To the eunuch serving his mistress – The poet addresses a eunuch, arguing he should let him see his mistress.

2.4 That he loves women of all sorts – An unusually comprehensible poem in which the poet explains that he loves every woman he sees, tall or short, dark or fair, coy or brazen, singing or silent, dancing or plodding:

I cannot rule myself but where Love please;
Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.
No one face likes me best, all faces move,
A hundred reasons make me ever love.

2.5 To his faithless mistress – How lucky is a lover who intercepts letters or hears gossip that his lover is unfaithful: because she can deny it and he can believe her. But the poet saw with his own eyes how, when a dinner party had ended, she kissed at length, with tongues, ‘another’ (presumably her husband).

2.6 On the death of his parrot – A pet parrot has died and he expends numerous classical analogies in mourning it. Despite reading the poem several times I can’t work out whether the parrot belonged to Corinna, or the poet, or whether Corinna is meant to be speaking (‘The parrot, from East India to me sent/Is dead…’)

2.7 He swears to his mistress that he has not made love to her maid – The poet complains that she’s always accusing him of something, in this case of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis. The poet denies it based on class loyalty, he would never demean himself to have sex with a slave. He throws in an unnerving detail – that her back is ‘rough with stripes’. From being whipped!?

With Venus’ game who will a servant grace?
Or any back, made rough with stripes, embrace?

2.8 To Cypassis, Corinna’s maid – In humorous contrast to the preceding poem, the poet now addresses Cypassis freely admitting that they’ve been having sex, and using classical precedents (Achilles and Agamemnon both had affairs with servants) as freely to justify the affair to Cypassis as he had used others to deny it to Corinna.

The poem appears to take place in real time, i.e. is his part of a dialogue, because after he’s taken the credit for speaking up in her defence when Corinna accused her, he promptly asks her to lie with him as a reward and, when she refuses, gets cross and threatens to reveal the truth to her mistress (which would, presumably, lead to another whipping).

2.9 To Cupid – The poet reproaches Cupid for causing him so much pain in love, for driving him like a headstrong horse or a storm at sea, when he (the poet) is a fellow soldier, a colleague, in love’s wars.

2.10 To Graecinus, that he can love two at once – His friend Graecinus told him it was impossible to be in love with two women at the same time, but he is (‘Which is the loveliest, it is hard to say’)! He describes the joy of two lovers at length and humorously gloats over his enemies who lie alone at night in their big empty beds.

2.11 To his mistress sailing – He is very anxious indeed about a planned sea voyage Corinna is going to make, curses the pioneers of sea adventures, and then invokes a ton of gods to look after her, before anticipating the joy of their reunion when she returns.

2.12 He rejoices that he has conquered his mistress – A humorous poem in which he compares himself to a mighty warrior and says he deserves to be crowned with bay leaves like the traditional victor of a campaign because he has won Corinna who is even at this moment lying on his breast, a victory greater than the defeat of Troy.

2.13 To Isis, to aid Corinna in Labour– He prays to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to Lucina goddess of childbirth, to protect and save Corinna who is having an abortion he is sure is from him, save Corinna and, in doing so, also save the anxious poet.

My wench, Lucina, I entreat thee favour;
Worthy she is, thou should’st in mercy save her.

2.14 To his mistress, who has attempted an abortion – The poet laments that, although women are not involved in war, they have come up with ways to harm themselves, namely having abortions which, apparently, involves ‘hid irons’ and ‘dire poison’. If all women had practiced abortion, the world would be empty, there would have been no Priam or Achilles (as usual his mind goes straight to the Trojan Wars), no Romulus and Rome, in fact no Ovid and Corinna.

2.15 To a ring which he has given his mistress – He wishes he were his mistress ring so he could familiarly touch her lap and pap.

2.16 To his mistress, to come to his country estate – He wishes his mistress would come to his country estate in Sulmo (in the Abruzzi, a region of east-central Italy). He gives an extensive description of the region’s natural beauties but says that, without her, it means nothing.

2.17 That he will serve only Corinna – He laments that his mistress is well aware how beautiful she is and this makes her haughty and disdainful. He recalls how many women from classical myth accepted a more junior lover e.g. Venus with club-footed Vulcan.

And thou, my light, accept me howsoever;
Lay in the mid bed, there be my lawgiver.

2.18 To Macer, writing of his love poems – Another poem pointing out that he would like to write of war and high tragedy but his mistress is wriggling on his lap, refuses to go when he orders her, and so his poems end up being about love and his love emotions.

I yield, and back my wit from battles bring,
Domestic acts, and mine own wars to sing.

2.19 – To his rival, her husband, who does not guard his wife – He is irritated with the husband for making Corinna so available. Forbidden love is sweeter, and he rattles off a list of women from myth and legend who were difficult to attain and so fired up their lovers more (Danae kept in a high tower, Io guarded by Juno)

What flies I follow, what follows me I shun.

In fact, he warns the husband, unless he starts protecting her more seriously, Ovid is going to give up being her lover, it’s too easy, it’s boring.

Now I forewarn, unless to keep her stronger
Thou dost begin, she shall be mine no longer.

Book 3

3.1 The poet’s deliberation whether to continue writing elegies or to turn to tragedy – Walking in a wood he is confronted by personifications of Elegy and Tragedy. Tragedy says he has become a laughing stock, writing about his lewd love affairs. Time to fulfil his talents and write Great Things. Elegy replies that she is light and trivial and yet suited for some subjects. She dresses out Venus and Corinna. The poet says he will turn to Grand Things in time and Tragedy appears to grant him a period to continue dawdling with trivial love, before turning to Higher Things. A worry which is still nagging him in 3.10:

When Thebes, when Troy, when Cæsar should be writ,
Alone Corinna moves my wanton wit.

3.2 To his mistress watching the races – He has come to the races, not to look at the horse, but his mistress. As avidly as she feeds on the arduous horse, he feeds on sight of her. There is an extended description of every element of a Roman horse-race and how they can be metaphorically applied to his feverish wooing.

3.3 On his mistress, who has lied to him – He is appalled that his mistress has lied to him and yet looks just as beautiful and desirable as before. Are there no gods, is there no justice? Characteristically, he launches into a long list of legendary figures and asks why the gods bothered punishing them so excessively if they are going to let his mistress off scot-free?

3.4 To a man who guards his wife – He warns a man who is trying to guard his lover from adultery that it will have the opposite effect: forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; it is nature to hanker for what is banned.

3.5 To a torrent, while he is on his way to his mistress – He has travelled day and night to reach his lover and now is prevented by a river in flood as the mountain snows thaw. Characteristically, he then compares the flooded river to numerous other rivers in Graeco-Roman mythology, an extended litany which helps to make this the longest poem in the book.

3.6 He bewails the fact that, in bed with his mistress, he was unable to perform – 

Though both of us performed our true intent,
Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Interestingly, he points out that whatever caused the first failure, it was compounded by shame i.e. embarrassment. Interesting because that is, indeed, how erectile disfunction works, the more aware you become, the worse it gets, and the more humiliated you feel. At several points he directly describes the failing member:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mockèd me, hung down the head and sunk…

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,
Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday…

3.7 He mourns that his mistress will not receive him – He is consumed with anger and jealousy that his mistress has rejected him, ‘the pure priest of Phoebus and the Muses’, for a battle-scarred hunk whose hands are bloody from the men he’s killed. Alas, poetry and the arts are now worth less than gold – Barbarism!

3.8 He mourns the death of Tibullus – Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. In Ovid’s poem Cupid has broken his bow and mourns. He compares Tibullus’ death to those of legendary heroes and says death makes him doubt the existence of the gods.

Outrageous death profanes all holy things,
And on all creatures obscure darkness brings.

It is a sweet and moving elegy, in the modern sense of the word.

3.9 To Ceres, complaining that because of her ceremonies he is not allowed to sleep with his mistress – The Festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from meeting his mistress who lies alone in an empty bed. There is an extended description of Ceres’ history and attributes, before he concludes that he’d rather be celebrating a festival to Venus!

3.10 To his mistress, from whose love he cannot free himself – So many times he has been turned away from her door and slept on the floor. ‘Long have I borne much, mad thy faults me make.’ He has impersonated one of her servants and seen many a sated lover leaving her bedroom, observed her tricks and signs to lovers at dinner parties, put up with her lies and deceptions. But now he has made some kind of break:

Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain,
And what I have borne, shame to bear again.

Now hate and love fight in his breast.

Now love and hate my light breast each way move,
But victory, I think, will hap to love.
I’ll hate, if I can; if not, love ‘gainst my will,

Torn: ‘Nor with thee, nor without thee can I live.’

3.11 He complains that his lover is so well known through his poems that she is available to many rival lovers – Actually, when you stop and reflect on the previous 40 or so poems, you realise that he has not in fact painted a particularly vivid picture of his lover. Horse-racing, his native countryside, the maid he had a fling with, the doorkeeper, her husband, even the details of horse-racing – and lots and lots of references to classical myths, yes, certainly. But in a curious way, the mistress – if her name is Corinna – is strangely absent from many of the poems, and even when she’s explicitly named, a strangely fugitive presence.

Which makes you realise how conventional this poem lamenting that fact that he’s made her famous, actually is.

Characteristically, he turns to classical mythology to give examples of how vivid and blazing and enduring the poet’s myths and fables have been.

3.12 On the feast of Juno – A straightfoward description of the Festival of Juno, which takes place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins. He ends the poem by piously hoping that Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

3.13 – To his mistress; if she will be licentious, let her do it discreetly – He tells her not to boast about her night’s adventures, if she is going to stray, at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Be as wanton as she likes in bed, but, risen and dressed and in company, be sage and graceful and proper. That will make it easier for him to overlook her infidelities.

3.14 To Venus, putting an end to his elegies – In a relatively short, poignant poem, he bids farewell to ‘tender Love’s mother’ i.e. Venus, to ‘weak elegies’ and his ‘delightful muse’. What gives it a particular feel is that it is almost devoid of the extensive lists of gods and heroes which pad out most of the poems. Instead he speaks fondly of his home among the Paeligni tribe of the Abruzzi. Whereas visitors might think it fitting that Mantua sired the great poet Vergil and Verona was home to Catullus, they might be surprised that the little town of Sulmo was his birthplace. But he loves it and will praise it. And now it is time to move on, to tackle a greater ground with a greater horse. To move onto the more Serious kind of poetry which has periodically nagged him throughout the series.

Marlowe’s translation

Marlowe’s Ovid is the earliest, the least studied of his works and the most dismissed. One reason is the technical inaccuracies, errors and mistranslations which, apparently, crop up in every line, partly Marlowe’s errors, partly because the printed texts he was working from were themselves inaccurate.

This, understandably, irks Latin scholars and has resulted in 400 years of negative reviews. We, however, need not be very troubled by these pedantic concerns about literal accuracy. A hundred years ago Ezra Pound showed that translations can be full of howlers but still be very beautiful (Cathay). The thing deserves to be judged on its own terms.

That said, these poems are often boring and quite hard to follow. Why? Having just read Hero and Leander and the first couple of plays, I think it’s for several inter-connected reasons:

The couplet form

Ovid’s original was written in couplets, that’s to say paired lines, sentences divided into two lines which end with a full stop. The impact of reading a series of self-contained rhymed couplets quickly becomes monotonous. It feels mechanical.

Aye me an Eunuch keepes my mistrisse chaste,
That cannot Venus mutuall pleasure taste.
Who first depriv’d yong boyes of their best part,
With selfe same woundes he gave, he ought to smart.
To kinde requests thou wouldst more gentle prove,
If ever wench had made luke-warme thy love.

It feels like Marlowe is cabined and confined by this format. He is clearly constrained to convey Ovid’s original meaning and struggles to do so within the narrow bounds of the couplet. It routinely feels like he is contorting normal English phrasing or rhythm, so much so that I found it very difficult to understand what entire poems were actually about. 1.2 mentions a husband and husbands generally, but I struggled to understand even one line.

I sawe ones legges with fetters blacke and blewe,
By whom the husband his wives incest knewe.
More he deserv’d, to both great harme he fram’d,
The man did grieve, the woman was defam’d.
Trust me all husbands for such faults are sad
Nor make they any man that heare them glad.
If he loves not, deafe eares thou doest importune,
Or if he loves, thy tale breedes his misfortune.

The pronouns, and the apparent subject, of the poem keep changing so that I’m not sure who’s being talked about. I’ve no idea why incest has cropped up, I’ve no idea who the man is, or the woman is in the first four lines. I don’t understand what faults are being referred to, and I nearly understand the last couplet but don’t really know who the ‘thou’ referred to is. Is it the poet’s lover Corinna? But if so, why does her tale breed ‘his misfortune’?

Latin

Latin is a more compact language than English. Its declensions and conjugations, the way it changes the ends of the words to convey changes in case for nouns, and tense and person for verbs, mean that one Latin word can convey what can easily take two, three or four English words to express.

Latin can elegantly fit into two lines ideas and meanings which English can only fit into the tight straitjacket by mangling word order and meaning. To give one repeated example of this at work, many of the poems start with a ringing couplet whose first line sounds fine because he has written it out at full length, so to speak – but whose second line is incomprehensible, as Marlowe tries to fit into the second line a meaning which really requires one and a half or two. Quite often the second lines are incomprehensible.

I ask but right, let her that caught me late,
Either love, or cause that I may never hate… (?)

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains,
While rage is absent, take some friend the pains…(?)

I, Ovid, poet, of my wantonness,
Born at Peligny, to write more address. (?)

It explains why Marlowe continually distorts normal word order and sense. In the poem about the doorkeeper, he writes:

Little I ask, a little entrance make,
The gate half-ope my bent side in will take.
Long love my body to such use makes slender,
And to get out doth like apt members render.

So, the first line is fairly smooth and understandable, the second is peculiarly phrased (‘bent side’?). The third line is understandable if you make the effort to read it carefully, and the fourth line is gibberish. He’s mangling the English because he’s trying to shoehorn a Latin meaning which simply contains more than an English couplet can handle.

The net effect is that it’s possible to read line after line, poem after poem, without really understanding what they’re about. Easy to begin skipping verse which is so hard to get a grasp of, or reading through entire passages without properly understanding them. Takes this couplet from 1.3:

I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The first line is so compacted you have to read it several times to parse the meaning – the second half of the second line is clear enough, but I don’t quite get why he’ll live with his love forever ‘if men have faith’. What have other men got to do with it? Maybe it means something like, ‘as long as men are faithful, I’ll live with thee forever’, but the little shoebox of the heroic couplet forces him to abbreviate English words so much as to teeter on the incomprehensible.

Contrast with Marlowe the playwright

Taken together what the set highlights, by being such a sharp contrast to it, is Marlowe’s natural gift for a completely different type of verse when he is writing at will and with freedom – for verse which flows freely for entire paragraphs – his gift for rolling lines which convey a luxurious flow of meaning over 5, 6, 7 or more lines, the kind of wonderfully fluent passages you find again and again in the plays. Here is Jupiter flirting with Ganymede at the start of his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of Time;
Why, are not all the gods at thy command,
And Heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine daughters sing when thou art sad;
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face:
And Venus’ swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed:

What makes this both enjoyable and understandable is they way the same basic thought (‘I’ll give you anything you want, sweet Ganymede’) expands out over ten lines. All the examples repeat the same basic idea – that all the gods will dance at Ganymede’s command – and the reader, having once grasped the basic idea, is freed up to enjoy the poet’s embellishments and elaborations. We readers revel in Marlowe’s inventiveness and fluency and therein lies the mental pleasure, the sense of luxury which derives from the effortlessness with which Marlowe spins out elegantly phrased elaborations of the theme. It’s like a luxury hotel, every room is smoothly and tastefully furnished.

Seeing Marlowe pace up and down the cage of these rhyming couplets, makes you appreciate it even more when you see him released to go bounding joyfully across the open sunny savannah of the blank verse of his plays.

The dead parrot

Whereas in the Ovid translations, the reader continually feels, along with the poet, that his natural grandiloquent discursiveness has been chopped up and cramped into bite-sized couplets. The poem about the death of Corinna’s parrot ought to be funny, the subject is potentially humorous, but the performance feels stuttery and confined.

Elisium hath a wood of holme trees black,
Whose earth doth not perpetuall greene-grasse lacke,
There good birds rest (if we beleeve things hidden)
Whence uncleane fowles are said to be forbidden.
There harrnelesse Swans feed all abroad the river,
There lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever.
There Junoes bird displayes his gorgious feather,
And loving Doves kisse eagerly together.
The Parrat into wood receiv’d with these,
Turnes all the goodly birdes to what she please.

What does ‘if we believe things hidden’ really mean? That belief in the afterlife is some esoteric knowledge? – but it wasn’t. As in hundreds of other lines, the meaning is puzzlingly meaningless or unclear. The line about harmless swans on the river is easy enough to understand but, although you can see the idea lurking behind ‘there lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever’, the actual phrasing feels clumsy and contorted, and poetry is about the actual phrasing.

Juno’s bird (the peacock) displaying her gorgeous feather I understand alright, and the loving turtle doves are a stock cliché – but the final couplet is horrible: ‘The parrot into wood received with these’ is just horrible phrasing, and what does the final line actually mean? Is it something to do with the parrot’s ability to mimic the other birds? I’ve no idea.

Love in the afternoon

Of the 45 poems only one manages to be both completely understandable and to show the extended fluency on a simple idea which distinguishes the more relaxed and fluent verse of his plays – which explains why it’s the one that is always included in anthologies.

Book 1 Elegy 5

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed
Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered there withal.
And striving thus, as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see!
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest; being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!

And then, it’s about a naked woman and sex, which always helps.

Legacy

There are several points to make.

1. Marlowe’s sonnet sequence

Although they are obviously not sonnets, and he didn’t write them from scratch, nonetheless the Amores can be thought of as ‘Marlowe’s sonnet sequence’. Most other leading poets of the day wrote an extended series of sonnets, all addressed to the same remote and aloof mistress, which they used to explore different moods and subjects, some tragic, some humorous. Examples include Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser’s sequence Amoretti, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the set which is sometimes seen as ending the fashion, Michael Drayton’s Idea sequence.

The point is, the Amores played something of the same role for Marlowe, allowing him to experiment with how to phrase in English a wide variety of moods, emotions and tones of voice. Each of the poems tends to make a case i.e. is not a flow of emotion, but a string of rhetorical arguments around a particular love-related issue (jealousy, passion, anger, regret). So you could argue that the Amores was practice, warming up and rehearsal for deploying variations on all these emotions in the mouths of the characters in his plays, for example the variety of arguments deployed by Aeneas and Dido as they fall in and out of love.

2. Grabby openings

One of the often-noted features of both Shakespeare’s sonnets and John Donne’s lyrics, is their colloquial, dramatic, buttonholing opening lines – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ or ‘I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved…’ being examples of Shakespeare and Donne, respectively.

The point is you can make the case that Marlowe helped establish this tone – that instead of the long and formal exordium of earlier Renaissance poetry,  Marlowe’s translations leap straight in with colloquial, chatty or arresting openings:

What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Thy husband to a banquet goes with me…

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains…

Leave colouring thy tresses, I did cry…

Ay me, an eunuch keeps my mistress chaste… (2.3)

Well, maybe. Maybe some of them. But just as many start with crabbed or obscure lines, simple situational setups, or promising phrases which are then bent and broken:

An old wood stands, uncut of long years’ space,
‘Tis credible some godhead haunts the place…

I sit not here the noble horse to see;
Yet whom thou favour’st, pray may conqueror be.

What, are there gods? herself she hath forswore,
And yet remains the face she had before.

Rude man, ’tis vain thy damsel to commend
To keeper’s trust: their wits should them defend.

Flood with reed-grown slime banks, till I be past
Thy waters stay: I to my mistress haste.

3. The ubiquity of classical mythology

So obvious it’s easy to overlook, but the Amores are stuffed with references to the gods and legends of the ancient world. Probably Marlowe read Horace and Virgil, too, and many other Latin authors, but the way the characters of the gods and the stories of their adventures continually pop into the poet’s mind to illustrate almost every point he’s making, will also characterise the plays – certainly Dido and Tamburlaine – where all the characters invoke the Roman gods, the characters from the tale of Troy, plus stock stories from ancient myth.

4. Classical padding

About half way through I began to notice a pattern to many of the poems: Ovid states the situation and describes it in fairly realistic terms. And then, around line 10, he will suddenly switch to invoking classical precedents. One minute he’s addressing his mistress, doorkeeper, friend etc. Then there is almost always a swerve, a change of tone, and he suddenly begins a (usually very extended) list of comparisons with figures from myth and legend. This suggests two thoughts:

  • It is padding. He can pad out any thought, emotion or moment by invoking a classical precedent and then describing it at length, or alternatively piling up a list of quickfire precedents. Either way, most of the poems are twice as long as the ostensible subject justifies, because they have these long passages invoking Venus and Vulcan and Jove and Achilles and so on.
  • I wonder to what extent people living in those times really did structure, categorise and make sense of their human experience through the filter of classical myth and legend. We nowadays – I think – invoke a range of discourses, popular sayings about mental health, maybe, or gender stereotyping or other cliches, maybe about northerners and southerners, or class-based tropes. I’m not in a position to make a full list and I dare say it varies from person to person. But whereas we might think ‘I’m depressed, I’m stressed, it’s sexism, the management don’t know what they’re doing’ – those kinds of categories – I wonder if denizens of the ancient world actually thought, ‘Well beautiful Venus had an affair with ugly Vulcan, this is like jealous Juno taking her revenge on Hercules, he’s sulking like Achilles’ and so on. Or was it only in the poems? Is it an entirely literary artifact?

5. Poetry lasts forever

People still talk about Troy, the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, getting on for 3,000 years after the stories were first told. Ovid is still mentioned, discussed and quoted long after most of the generals and all the politicians of his day are forgotten. Poetry really does outlast not only men’s lives, but entire civilisations. It’s an ancient trope because it’s true. In this couplet, I like the way he places poetry alongside ‘history’s pretence’.

Poets’ large power is boundless and immense,
Nor have their words true history’s pretence.

That’s a complicated word, ‘pretence’, because it involves effort and aspiration (pretensions), but also acting and dissembling. History is the attempt to make sense of what has happened but, as I’ve made clear in my 350 history reviews, it is always a story, or an attempt to frame a meaningful narrative. And the sense of what history is, what it is for, as well as the actual ‘histories’ of every period, change and mutate over time. But not Ovid’s words, or Marlowe’s. When Marlowe wrote ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships’ he made something which will last as long as the English language.

It’s a trope, it’s a cliché which recurs as on of the threads running through the Amores. But it’s true.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Alex’s Adventures In Numberland by Alex Bellos (2010)

Alexander Bellos (born in 1969) is a British writer and broadcaster. He is the author of books about Brazil and mathematics, as well as having a column in The Guardian newspaper. After adventures in Brazil (see his Wikipedia page) he returned to England in 2007 and wrote this, his first book. It spent four months in the Sunday Times bestseller list and led on to five more popular maths books.

It’s a hugely enjoyable read for three reasons:

  1. Bellos immediately establishes a candid, open, good bloke persona, sharing stories from his early job as a reporter on the Brighton Argus, telling some colourful anecdotes about his time in Brazil and then being surprisingly open about the way that, when he moved back to Britain, he had no idea what to do. The tone of the book is immediately modern, accessible and friendly.
  2. However this doesn’t mean he is verbose. The opposite. The book is packed with fascinating information. Every single paragraph, almost every sentence contains a fact or insight which makes you sit up and marvel. It is stufffed with good things.
  3. Lastly, although its central theme is mathematics, it approaches this through a wealth of information from the humanities. There is as much history and psychology and anthropology and cultural studies and philosophy as there is actual maths, and these are all subjects which the average humanities graduate can immediately relate to and assimilate.

Chapter Zero – A Head for Numbers

Alex meets Pierre Pica, a linguist who’s studied the Munduruku people of the Amazon and discovered they have little or no sense of numbers. They only have names for numbers up to five. Also, they cluster numbers together logarithmically i.e. the higher the number, the closer together they clustered them. Same thing is done by kindergarten children who only slowly learn that numbers are evenly spaced, in a linear way.

This may be because small children and the Munduruku don’t count so much as estimate using the ratios between numbers.

It may also be because above a certain number (five) Stone Age man needed to make quick estimates along the lines of, Are there more wild animals / members of the other gang, than us?

Another possibility is that distance appears to us to be logarithmic due to perspective: the first fifty yards we see in close detail, the next fifty yards not so detailed, beyond 100 yards looking smaller, and so on.

It appears that we have to be actively taught when young to overcome our logarithmic instincts, and to apply the rule that each successive whole number is an equal distance from its predecessor and successor i.e. the rational numbers lies along a straight line at regular intervals.

More proof that the logarithmic approach is the deep, hard-wired one is the way most of us revert to its perspective when considering big numbers. As John Allen Paulos laments, people make no end of fuss about discrepancies between 2 or 3 or 4 – but are often merrily oblivious to the difference between a million or a billion, let alone a trillion. For most of us these numbers are just ‘big’.

He goes on to describe experiments done on chimpanzees, monkeys and lions which appear to show that animals have the ability to estimate numbers. And then onto experiments with small babies which appear to show that as soon as they can focus on the outside world, babies can detect changes in number of objects.

And it appears that we also have a further number skill, that guesstimating things – the journey takes 30 or 40 minutes, there were twenty or thirty people at the party, you get a hundred, maybe hundred and fifty peas in a sack. When it comes to these figures almost all of us give rough estimates.

To summarise:

  • we are sensitive to small numbers, acutely so of 1, 2, 3, 4, less so of 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
  • left to our own devices we think logarithmically about larger numbers i.e lose the sense of distinction between them, clump them together
  • we have a good ability to guesstimate medium size numbers – 30, 40, 100

But it was only with the invention of notation, a way of writing numbers down, that we were able to create the linear system of counting (where every number is 1 larger than its predecessor, laid out in a straight line, at regular intervals).

And that this cultural invention enabled human beings to transcend our vague guesstimating abilities, and laid the basis for the systematic manipulation of the world which followed

Chapter One – The Counter Culture

The probable origins of counting lie in stock taking in the early agricultural revolution some 8,000 years ago.

We nowadays count using a number base 10 i.e. the decimal system. But other bases have their virtues, especially base 12. It has more factors i.e. is easier to divide: 12 can be divided neatly by 2, 3, 4 and 6. A quarter of 10 is 2.5 but of 12 is 3. A third of 10 is 3.333 but of 12 is 4. Striking that a version of the duodecimal system (pounds, shillings and pence) hung on in Britain till we finally went metric in the 1970s. There is even a Duodecimal Society of America which still actively campaigns for the superiority of a base 12 counting scheme.

Bellos describes a bewildering variety of other counting systems and bases. In 1716 King Charles XII of Sweden asked Emmanuel Swedenborg to devise a new counting system with a base of 64. The Arara in the Amazon count in pairs, the Renaissance author Luca Paccioli was just one of hundreds who have devised finger-based systems of counting – indeed, the widespread use of base 10 probably stems from the fact that we have ten fingers and toes.

He describes a complicated Chinese system where every part of the hand and fingers has a value which allows you to count up to nearly a billion – on one hand!

The Yupno system which attributes a different value for parts of the body up to its highest number, 33, represented by the penis.

Diagram showing numbers attributed to parts of the body by the Yupno tribe

Diagram showing numbers attributed to parts of the body by the Yupno tribe

There’s another point to make about his whole approach which comes out if we compare him with the popular maths books by John Allen Paulos which I’ve just read.

Paulos clearly sees the need to leaven his explanations of comparative probability and Arrow’s Theorem and so on with lighter material and so his strategy is to chuck into his text things which interest him: corny jokes, anecdotes about baseball, casual random digressions which occur to him in mid-flow. But al his examples clearly 1. emanate from Paulos’s own interests and hobby horses (especially baseball) and 2. they are tacked onto the subjects being discussed.

Bellos, also, has grasped that the general reader needs to be spoonfed maths via generous helpings of other, more easily digestible material. But Bellos’s choice of material arises naturally from the topic under discussion. The humour emerges naturally and easily from the subject matter instead of being tacked on in the form of bad jokes.

You feel yourself in the hands of a master storyteller who has all sorts of wonderful things to explain to you.

In fourth millennium BC, an early counting system was created by pressing a reed into soft clay. By 2700 BC the Sumerians were using cuneiform. And they had number symbols for 1, 10, 60 and 3,600 – a mix of decimal and sexagesimal systems.

Why the Sumerians grouped their numbers in 60s has been described as one of the greatest unresolved mysteries in the history of arithmetic. (p.58)

Measuring in 60s was inherited by the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Greeks and is why we still measure hours in 60 minutes and the divisions of a circle by 360 degrees.

I didn’t know that after the French Revolution, when the National Convention introduced the decimal system of weights and measures, it also tried to decimalise time, introducing a new system whereby every day would be divided into ten hours, each of a hundred minutes, each divided into 100 seconds. Thus there were a very neat 10 x 100 x 100 = 100,000 seconds in a day. But it failed. An hour of 60 minutes turns out to be a deeply useful division of time, intuitively measurable, and a reasonable amount of time to spend on tasks. The reform was quietly dropped after six months, although revolutionary decimal clocks still exist.

Studies consistently show that Chinese children find it easier to count than European children. This may be because of our system of notation, or the structure of number names. Instead of eleven or twelve, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans say the equivalent of ten one, ten two. 21 and 22 become two ten one and two ten two. It has been shown that this makes it a lot simpler and more intuitive to do basic addition and subtraction.

Bellos goes on to describe the various systems of abacuses which have developed in different cultures, before explaining the phenomenal popularity of abacus counting, abacus clubs, and abacus championships in Japan which helps kids develop the ability to perform anzan, using the mental image of an abacus to help its practitioners to sums at phenomenal speed.

Chapter Two – Behold!

The mystical sense of the deep meaning of numbers, from Pythagoras with his vegetarian religious cult of numbers in 4th century BC Athens to Jerome Carter who advises leading rap stars about the numerological significance of their names.

Euclid and the elegant and pure way he deduced mathematical theorems from a handful of basic axioms.

A description of the basic Platonic shapes leads into the nature of tessalating tiles, and the Arab pioneering of abstract design. The complex designs of the Sierpinski carpet and the Menger sponge. And then the complex and sophisticated world of origami, which has its traditionalists, its pioneers and surprising applications to various fields of advanced science, introducing us to the American guru of modern origami, Robert Lang, and the Japanese rebel, Kazuo Haga, father of Haga’s Theorem.

Chapter Three – Something About Nothing

A bombardment of information about the counting systems of ancient Hindus, Buddhists, about number symbols in Sanskrit, Hebrew, Greek and Latin. How the concept of zero was slowly evolved in India and moved to the Muslim world with the result that the symbols we use nowadays are known as the Arabic numerals.

A digression into ‘a set of arithmetical tricks known as Vedic Mathematics ‘ devised by a young Indian swami at the start of the twentieth century, Bharati Krishna Tirthaji, based on a series of 16 aphorisms which he found in the ancient holy texts known as the Vedas.

Shankaracharya is a commonly used title of heads of monasteries called mathas in the Advaita Vedanta tradition. Tirthaji was the Shankaracharya of the monastery at Puri. Bellos goes to visit the current Shankaracharya who explains the closeness, in fact the identity, of mathematics and Hindu spirituality.

Chapter Four – Life of Pi

An entire chapter about pi which turns out not only to be a fundamental aspect of calculating radiuses and diameters and volumes of circles and cubes, but also to have a long history of mathematicians vying with each other to work out its value to as many decimal places as possible (we currently know the value of pi to 2.7 trillion decimal places) and the surprising history of people who have set records reciting the value if pi.

Thus, in 2006, retired Japanese engineer Akira Haraguchi set a world record for reciting the value of pi to the first 100,000 decimal places from memory! It took 16 hours with five minute beaks every two hours to eat rice balls and drink some water.

There are several types or classes of numbers:

  • natural numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…
  • integers – all the natural numbers, but including the negative ones as well – …-3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3…
  • fractions
  • which are also called rational numbers
  • numbers which cannot be written as fractions are called irrational numbers
  • transcendent numbers – ‘a transcendental number is an irrational number that cannot be described by an equation with a finite number of terms’

The qualities of the heptagonal 50p coin and the related qualities of the Reuleux triangle.

Chapter Five – The x-factor

The origin of algebra (in Arab mathematicians).

Bellos makes the big historical point that for the Greeks (Pythagoras, Plato, Euclid) maths was geometric. They thought of maths as being about shapes – circles, triangles, squares and so on. These shapes had hidden properties which maths revealed, thus giving – the Pythagoreans thought – insight into the secret deeper values of the world.

It is only with the introduction of algebra in the 17th century (Bellos attributes its widespread adoption to Descartes’s Method in the 1640s) that it is possible to fly free of shapes into whole new worlds of abstract numbers and formulae.

Logarithms turn the difficult operation of multiplication into the simpler operation of addition. If X x Y = Z, then log X + log Y = log Z. They were invented by a Scottish laird John Napier, and publicised in a huge book of logarithmic tables published in 1614. Englishman Henry Briggs established logarithms to base 10 in 1628. In 1620 Englishman Edmund Gunter marked logarithms on a ruler. Later in the 1620s Englishman William Oughtred placed two logarithmic rulers next to each other to create the slide rule.

Three hundred years of dominance by the slide rule was brought to a screeching halt by the launch of the first pocket calculator in 1972.

Quadratic equations are equations with an x and an x², e.g. 3x² + 2x – 4 = 0. ‘Quadratics have become so crucial to the understanding of the world, that it is no exaggeration to say that they underpin modern science’ (p.200).

Chapter Six – Playtime

Number games. The origin of Sudoku, which is Japanese for ‘the number must appear only once’. There are some 5 billion ways for numbers to be arranged in a table of nine cells so that the sum of any row or column is the same.

There have, apparently, only been four international puzzle crazes with a mathematical slant – the tangram, the Fifteen puzzle, Rubik’s cube and Sudoku – and Bellos describes the origin and nature and solutions to all four. More than 300 million cubes have seen sold since Ernö Rubik came up with the idea in 1974. Bellos gives us the latest records set in the hyper-competitive sport of speedcubing: the current record of restoring a copletely scrambled cube to order (i.e. all the faces of one colour) is 7.08 seconds, a record held by Erik Akkersdijk, a 19-year-old Dutch student.

A visit to the annual Gathering for Gardner, honouring Martin Gardner, one of the greatest popularisers of mathematical games and puzzles who Bellos visits. The origin of the ambigram, and the computer game Tetris.

Chapter Seven – Secrets of Succession

The joy of sequences. Prime numbers.

The fundamental theorem of arithmetic – In number theory, the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, also called the unique factorization theorem or the unique-prime-factorization theorem, states that every integer greater than 1 either is a prime number itself or can be represented as the product of prime numbers.

The Goldbach conjecture – one of the oldest and best-known unsolved problems in number theory and all of mathematics. It states that, Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes. The conjecture has been shown to hold for all integers less than 4 × 1018, but remains unproven despite considerable effort.

Neil Sloane’s idea of persistence – The number of steps it takes to get to a single digit by multiplying all the digits of the preceding number to obtain a second number, then multiplying all the digits of that number to get a third number, and so on until you get down to a single digit. 88 has a persistence of three.

88 → 8 x 8 = 64 → 6 x 4 = 24 → 2 x 4 = 8

John Horton Conway’s idea of the powertrain – For any number abcd its powertrain goes to abcd, in the case of numbers with an odd number of digits the final one has no power, abcde’s powertrain is abcde.

The Recamán sequence Subtract if you can, unless a) it would result in a negative number or b) the number is already in the sequence. The result is:

0, 1, 3, 6, 2, 7, 13, 20, 12, 21, 11….

Gijswijt’s sequence a self-describing sequence where each term counts the maximum number of repeated blocks of numbers in the sequence immediately preceding that term.

1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 2, 1, …

Perfect number A perfect number is any number that is equal to the sum of its factors. Thus 6 – its factors (the numbers which divided into it) are 1, 2 and 3. Which also add up to (are the sum of) 6. The next perfect number is 28 because its factors – 1, 2, 4, 7, 14 – add up to 28. And so on.

Amicable numbers A number is amicable if the sum of the factors of the first number equals the second number, and if the sum of the factors of the second number equals the first. The factors of 220 are 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 22, 44, 55 and 110. Added together these make 284. The factors of 284 are 1, 2, 4, 71 and 142. Added together they make 220!

Sociable numbers In 1918 Paul Poulet invented the term sociable numbers. ‘The members of aliquot cycles of length greater than 2 are often called sociable numbers. The smallest two such cycles have length 5 and 28’

Mersenne’s prime A prime number which can be written in the form 2n – 1 a prime number that is one less than a power of two. That is, it is a prime number of the form Mn = 2n − 1 for some integer n. The exponents n which give Mersenne primes are 2, 3, 5, 7, 13, 17, 19, 31, … and the resulting Mersenne primes are 3, 7, 31, 127, 8191, 131071, 524287, 2147483647, …

These and every other sequence ever created by humankind are documented on The On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS), also cited simply as Sloane’s. This is an online database of integer sequences, created and maintained by Neil Sloane while a researcher at AT&T Labs.

Chapter Eight – Gold Finger

The golden section a number found by dividing a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is also equal to the whole length divided by the longer part.

Phi The number is often symbolized using phi, after the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet. In an equation form:

a/b = (a+b)/a = 1.6180339887498948420 …

As with pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter), the digits go on and on, theoretically into infinity. Phi is usually rounded off to 1.618.

The Fibonnaci sequence Each number in the sequence is the sum of the two numbers that precede it. So the sequence goes: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on. The mathematical equation describing it is Xn+2= Xn+1 + Xn.

as the basis of seeds in flowerheads, arrangement of leaves round a stem, design of nautilus shell and much more.

Chapter Nine – Chance Is A Fine Thing

A chapter about probability and gambling.

Impossibility has a value 0, certainty a value 1, everything else is in between. Probabilities can be expressed as fractions e.g. 1/6 chance of rolling a 6 on a die, or as percentages, 16.6%, or as decimals, 0.16…

The probability is something not happening is 1 minus the probability of that thing happening.

Probability was defined and given mathematical form in 17th century. One contribution was the questions the Chevalier de Méré asked the mathematical prodigy Blaise Pascal. Pascal corresponded with his friend, Pierre de Fermat, and they worked out the bases of probability theory.

Expected value is what you can expect to get out of a bet. Bellos takes us on a tour of the usual suspects – rolling dice, tossing coins, and roulette (invented in France).

Payback percentage if you bet £10 at craps, you can expect – over time – to receive an average of about £9.86 back. In other words craps has a payback percentage of 98.6 percent. European roulette has a payback percentage of 97.3 percent. American roulette, 94.7 percent. On other words, gambling is a fancy way of giving your money away. A miserly slot machine has a payback percentage of 85%. The National Lottery has a payback percentage of 50%.

The law of large numbers The more you play a game of chance, the more likely the results will approach the statistical probability. Toss a coin three times, you might get three heads. Toss a coin a thousand times, the chances are you will get very close the statistical probability of 50% heads.

The law of very large numbers With a large enough sample, outrageous coincidences become likely.

The gambler’s fallacy The mistaken belief that, if something happens more frequently than normal during a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future (or vice versa). In other words, that a random process becomes less random, and more predictable, the more it is repeated.

The birthday paradox The probability that, in a set of n randomly chosen people, some pair of them will have the same birthday. By the pigeonhole principle, the probability reaches 100% when the number of people reaches 367 (since there are only 366 possible birthdays, including February 29). However, 99.9% probability is reached with just 70 people, and 50% probability with 23 people. (These conclusions are based on the assumption that each day of the year (excluding February 29) is equally probable for a birthday.) In other words you only need a group of 23 people to have an evens chance that two of them share a birthday.

The drunkard’s walk

The difficulty of attaining true randomness and the human addiction to finding meaning in anything.

The distinction between playing strategy (best strategy to win a game) and betting strategy (best strategy to maximise your winnings), not always the same.

Chapter Ten – Situation Normal

Carl Friedrich Gauss, the bell curve, normal distribution aka Gaussian distribution. Normal or Gaurrian distribution results in a bell curve. Bellos describes the invention and refinement of the bell curve (he explains that ‘the long tail’ results from a mathematician who envisioned a thin bell curve as looking like two kangaroos facing each other with their long tails heading off in opposite directions). And why

Regression to the mean – if the outcome of an event is determined at least in part by random factors, then an extreme event will probably be followed by one that is less extreme. And recent devastating analyses which show how startlingly random sports achievements are, from leading baseball hitters to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s analysis of the form of the England soccer team.

Chapter Eleven – The End of the Line

Two breakthroughs which paved the way for modern i.e. 20th century, maths: the invention of non-Euclidean geometry, specifically the concept of hyperbolic geometry. To picture this draw a triangle on a Pringle. it is recognisably a triangle but all its angles do not add up to 180°, therefore it defies, escapes, eludes all the rule of Euclidean geometry, which were designed for flat 2D surfaces.

Bellos introduces us to Daina Taimina, a maths prof at Cornell University, who invented a way of crocheting hyperbolic surfaces. The result looks curly, like curly kale or the surface of coral.

Anyway, the breakaway from flat 2-D Euclidean space led to theories about curved geometry, either convex like a sphere, or hyperbolic like the pringle. It was this notion of curved space, which paved the way for Einstein’s breakthrough ideas in the early 20th century.

The second big breakthrough was Georg Cantor’s discovery that you can have many different types of infinity. Until Cantor the mathematical tradition from the ancient Greeks to Galileo and Newton had fought shy of infinity which threatened to disrupt so many formulae.

Cantor’s breakthrough was to stop thinking about numbers, and instead think of sets. This is demonstrated through the paradoxes of Hilbert’s Hotel. You need to buckle your safety belt to understand it.

Thoughts

This is easily the best book about maths I’ve ever read. It gives you a panoramic history of the subject which starts with innumerate cavemen and takes us to the edge of Einstein’s great discoveries. But Bellos adds to it all kinds of levels and abilities.

He is engaging and candid and funny. He is fantastically authoritative, taking us gently into forests of daunting mathematical theory without placing a foot wrong. He’s a great explainer. He knows a good story when he sees one, and how to tell it engagingly. And in every chapter there is a ‘human angle’ as he describes his own personal meetings and interviews with many of the (living) key players in the world of contemporary maths, games and puzzles.

Like the Ian Stewart book but on a vastly bigger scale, Bellos makes you feel what it is like to be a mathematician, not just interested in nature’s patterns (the basis of Stewart’s book, Nature’s Numbers) but in the beauty of mathematical theories and discoveries for their own sakes. (This comes over very strongly in chapter seven with its description of some of the weirdest and wackiest number sequences dreamed up by the human mind.) I’ve often read scientists describing the beauty of mathematical theories, but Bellos’s book really helps you develop a feel for this kind of beauty.

For me, I think three broad conclusions emerged:

1. Most mathematicians are in it for the fun. Setting yourself, and solving, mathematical puzzles is obviously extremely rewarding. Maths includes the vast territory of puzzles and games, such as the Sudoku and so on he describes in chapter six. Obviously it has all sorts of real-world application in physics, engineering and so on, but Bellos’s book really brings over that a true understanding of maths begins in puzzles, games and patterns, and often remains there for a lifetime. Like everything else maths is no highly professionalised the property of tenured professors in universities; and yet even to this day – as throughout its history – contributions can be made by enthusiastic amateurs.

2. As he points out repeatedly, many insights which started out as the hobby horses of obsessives, or arcane breakthroughs on the borders of our understanding, and which have been airily dismissed by the professionals, often end up being useful, having applications no-one dreamed of. Either they help unravel aspects of the physical universe undreamed of when they were discovered, or have been useful to human artificers. Thus the development of random number sequences seemed utterly pointless in the 19th century, but now underlies much internet security.

On a profounder note, Bellos expresses the eerie, mystical sense many mathematicians have that it seems so strange, so pregnant with meaning, that so many of these arcane numbers end up explaining aspects of the world their inventors knew nothing of. Ian Stewart has an admirably pragmatic explanation for this: he speculates that nature uses everything it can find in order to build efficient life forms. Or, to be less teleological, over the past 3 and a half billion years, every combination of useful patterns has been tried out. Given this length of time, and the incalculable variety of life forms which have evolved on this planet, it would be strange if every number system conceivable by one of those life forms – humankind – had not been tried out at one time or another.

3. My third conclusion is that, despite John Allen Paulos’s and Bellos’s insistence, I do not live in a world ever-more bombarded by maths. I don’t gamble on anything, and I don’t follow sports – the two biggest popular areas where maths is important – and the third is the twin areas of surveys and opinion polls (55% of Americans believe in alien abductions etc etc) and the daily blizzard of reports (for example, I see in today’s paper that the ‘Number of primary school children at referral units soars’).

I register their existence but they don’t impact on me for the simple reason that I don’t believe any of them. In 1992 every opinion poll said John Major would lose the general election, but he won with a thumping majority. Since then I haven’t believed any poll about anything. For example almost all the opinion polls predicted a win for Remain in the Brexit vote. Why does any sane person believe opinion polls?

And ‘new and shocking’ reports come out at the rate of a dozen a day and, on closer examination, lots of them turn out to be recycled information, or much much more mundane releases of data sets from which journalists are paid to draw the most shocking and extreme conclusions. Some may be of fleeting interest but once you really grasp that the people reporting them to you are paid to exaggerate and horrify, you soon learn to ignore them.

If you reject or ignore these areas – sport, gambling and the news (made up of rehashed opinion polls, surveys and reports) – then unless you’re in a profession which actively requires the sophisticated manipulation of figures, I’d speculate that most of the rest of us barely come into contact with numbers from one day to the next.

I think that’s the answer to Paulos and Bellos when they are in their ‘why aren’t more people mathematically numerate?’ mode. It’s because maths is difficult, and counter-intuitive, and hard to understand and follow, it is a lot of work, it does make your head ache. Even trying to solve a simple binomial equation hurt my brain.

But I think the biggest reason that ‘we’ are so innumerate is simply that – beautiful, elegant, satisfying and thought-provoking though maths may be to the professionals – maths is more or less irrelevant to most of our day to day lives, most of the time.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Trilby by George du Maurier (1895)

‘Y a pas d’quoi!’ said Trilby, divesting herself of her basket and putting it, with the pick and lantern, in a corner. ‘Et maintenant, le temps d’absorber une fine de fin sec et je m’la brise. On m’attend à l’Ambassade d’Autriche. Et puis zut! Allez toujours, mes enfants. En avant la boxe!’

Trilby was a publishing and cultural phenomenon. It was the best-selling book of 1894, selling 300,000 copies by the end of the year. Soap, songs, dances, toothpaste, and even the city of Trilby in Florida were all named after the heroine. Trilby boots, shoes, silver scarf pins, parodies, and even sausages flooded the market, and the type of soft felt hat with an indented crown that was worn in the London stage dramatization of the novel, is known to this day as a trilby hat. The plot inspired Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Phantom of the Opera and innumerable other works derived from it.

The plot in brief

In outline the plot is simple. We are in the bohemian artistic circles of Paris a generation or so before the book’s publication, so sometime in the late 1850s. An uneducated but strikingly beautiful young woman, Trilby, who works as an artists’ model and also does sewing, charring and other odd jobs, is ‘discovered’, by the tall, creepy Jewish musician, Svengali. He discovers that as a consequence of her sweet innocent nature, Trilby is very easy to hypnotise. So he does, and turns her into a concert-level singer and performer. In the right clothes, tall and statuesque and under his rigid control, Trilby is transformed into a singer of classical music who electrifies audiences all across Europe, making Svengali rich and famous.

The Paris background

Du Maurier was himself an art student in 1850s Paris. He attended the atelier of painter Charles Gleyre where he met talented young artists such as the American James Whistler, Thomas Armstrong (later Director of Art at the South Kensington Museum) and Edward Poynter (later, President of the Royal Academy).

In fact Whistler recognised a blatant portrait of himself in the character named Jim Silbey when the story was published in magazine instalments, and threatened to sue, forcing Du Maurier and his publishers to remove the character, and an illustration of him, from the published book.

There were obviously lots of hi-jinks in that high-spirited setting, boisterous students in the 1850s, and a big part of the book’s appeal for 1890s readers was its nostalgia for what was, by then, a bygone era of simpler times.

The fin de siècle reader, disgusted at the thought of such an orgy [of drunkenness] as I have been trying to describe, must remember that it happened in the fifties, when men calling themselves gentlemen, and being called so, still wrenched off door-knockers and came back drunk from the Derby, and even drank too much after dinner before joining the ladies, as is all duly chronicled and set down in John Leech’s immortal pictures of life and character out of Punch.

It seems, from the text, that people (well, men) could get away with a lot more back then.

And it is the most surprising and unexpected thing about the book that this bohemian setting is the dominant theme of the book. It comes as a great surprise to discover that Trilby and Svengali are only really – in terms of time on screen – relatively minor characters in the story.

The first 200 pages (of the 300-page edition I read) are overwhelmingly about, and told from the point of view of, three happy-go-lucky British art students having the time of their lives in Paris.

The setting is the studio rented by these three – nicknamed Taffy, the Laird and Little Billee. They paint away during the week, and host Sunday ‘afternoons’ where all sorts of other artists and musicians come round. They own a variety of exercise equipment, notably several sets of fencing gear, so the Sundays generally involve someone playing the piano, someone singing, a couple of chaps fencing, and a host of others milling among the half-finished paintings, chatting, smoking pipes and cigarettes.

Svengali and his sidekick, Gecko, are initially just two of a gallery of characters who appear at these parties, while Trilby is to start with simply the girl who brings the milk up to the studio every morning. They invite her to take a break and smoke a cigarette while she watches them work, and then she offers to do a bit of cleaning, and then they ask her to model for them and, before you know it, she’s one of the gang, spending many day with the chaps, cooking and cleaning or smoking and relaxing with them.

There’s a wonderful passage in part one which describes a typical day in the life of a bohemian artist in Paris in the 1850s, which involves strolling round Paris enjoying the sights and stopping at cafés to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, going to a cabaret, drinking and smoking some more, and generally having a wonderful time. It is all described with high-spirited humour and conviction. Du Maurier lived this life. Lots of it comes over as simple autobiography and memoir, which is what gives it such verisimilitude.

There’s no sex in the book. In terms of release and escapism, I think it was the happy, uplifting portrayal of youthful high spirits in Paris which contributed greatly to its popularity. Some of it reads like a holiday brochure.

England versus France

The opposition or thematic polarity in the book which is most often discussed is that between the pure, virginal, white Trilby and dark, swarthy, Jewish Svengali. White Western virgin women threatened by dark, Eastern, wicked men, a theme expanded in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published the following year – and in hundreds of thousands of pulp novels and sensational movies from then right up to the present day (the movie Taken was on TV last night in which hard-man Liam Neeson rescues his white virginal daughter from Albanian sex traffickers who are planning to sell her to a rich Arab. Nothing changes.)

Except that for the first 200 pages or so the book isn’t like that at all. We really don’t see Svengali and Trilby together that much. The polarity which dominates the majority of the text is between Britain and France, specifically Paris. Between good, solid, Anglo-Saxon purity and the magic, mystery and ‘immorality’ of legendary, mythical Paris. Innocent Little Billee can’t believe he is here, in Paris, city of poets and artists.

Paris! Paris!! Paris!!!
The very name had always been one to conjure with, whether he thought of it as a mere sound on the lips and in the ear, or as a magical written or printed word for the eye.

Poetic Paris is contrasted throughout with businesslike London – as the humorous, dainty, witty Parisian artists are continually contrasted with ‘Taffy’, a six-foot, former British Army officer, taller and stronger (of course) than any mere Continental and who, in the course of numerous anecdotes, knocks them down, breaks up fights, picks up puny Frenchmen and swings them round his head.

Paris is poetry and art and exquisite cuisine. Britain is roast beef, business and the finest army in the world.

And the Frenchness of the story – and du Maurier’s tremendous confidence in this milieu which he knew so well – extends to the language, because a good deal of the book is actually in French.

Lots of the book is in French

Large chunks of the dialogue, and numerous throwaway words and phrases throughout the narrative prose are in French. Du Maurier not only spent his formative student days in Paris, but he had been born and raised there, was perfectly bilingual, and it shows.

‘Tiens! c’est la grande Trilby!’ exclaimed Jules Guinot through his fencing-mask. ‘Comment! t’es déjà debout après hier soir? Avons-nous assez rigolé chez Mathieu, hein? Crénom d’un nom, quelle noce! V’là une crémaillère qui peut se vanter d’être diantrement bien pendue, j’espère! Et la petite santé, c’matin?’
‘Hé, hé! mon vieux,’ answered Trilby. ‘Ça boulotte, apparemment! Et toi? et Victorine? Comment qu’a s’porte à c’t’heure? Elle avait un fier coup d’chasselas! c’est-y jobard, hein? de s’fich ‘paf comme ça d’vant l’monde! Tiens, v’là, Gontran! ça marche-t-y, Gontran, Zouzou d’mon cœur?’
‘Comme sur des roulettes, ma biche!” said Gontran, alias l’Zouzou—a corporal in the Zouaves. “Mais tu t’es donc mise chiffonnière, à présent? T’as fait banqueroute?’
‘Mais-z-oui, mon bon!” she said. “Dame! pas d’veine hier soir! t’as bien vu! Dans la dêche jusqu’aux omoplates, mon pauv’ caporal-sous-off! nom d’un canon – faut bien vivre, s’pas?’

It’s expecting a lot from your average reader to be able to read extended passages of dialogue in pure French. But it’s worse than that. A great deal of this dialogue is in the French slang from the bohemian circles of mid-Victorian Paris, French which is – as the narrator describes it – ‘droll, slangy, piquant, quaint, picturesque’ – in a phrase, ‘French French’.

The book contains all kinds of French dialects. For example, Trilby’s French is highly colloquial. Where the French students speak student slang (‘studio French’), Trilby speaks a more working class dialect of the street. And Svengali murders French with his heavy Germanic accent. And the three British characters all have different French accents which are phonetically transcribed.  So there are quite a few different types of French on display. Here’s Trilby:

‘Maïe, aïe! c’est rudement bien tapé, c’te musique-là! Seulement, c’est pas gai, vous savez! Comment q’ça s’appelle?’

Here’s the Laird struggling to speaka da lingo:

‘Voilà l’espayce de hom ker jer swee!’ said the Laird.

Here’s Little Billee, trying to keep up with native Frenchman, the sculptor Durien:

Durien came in and looked over his shoulder, and exclaimed: ‘Tiens! le pied de Trilby! vous avez fait ça d’après nature?’
‘Nong!’
‘De mémoire, alors?’
‘Wee!’
‘Je vous en fais mon compliment! Vous avez eu la main heureuse. Je voudrais bien avoir fait ça, moi! C’est un petit chef-d’œuvre que vous avez fait là—tout bonnement, mon cher! Mais vous élaborez trop. De grâce, n’y touchez plus!’

And:

‘Demang mattang, à votre sairveece!’ said Little Billee, with a courteous bow.

And:

‘Dites donc, l’Anglais?’
‘Kwaw'” said Little Billee.
‘Avez-vous une sœur?”
‘Wee.’
‘Est-ce qu’elle vous ressemble?’
‘Nong.’

And here’s Svengali speaking ungrammatical French with a heavy German accent:

“Sacrepleu! il choue pien, le Checko, hein?’ said Svengali, when they had brought this wonderful double improvisation to a climax and a close. ‘C’est mon élèfe! che le fais chanter sur son fiolon, c’est comme si c’était moi qui chantais! ach! si ch’afais pour teux sous de voix, che serais le bremier chanteur du monte!’

The Oxford University Press paperback edition I read has footnotes translating all this and it’s just as well. Every page of the novel has at least some French on it – raw, colloquial slangy French – and some pages have huge great chunks. How did the original readers manage when the dialogue just switched into pure French?

At last she asked Durien if he knew him.
‘Parbleu! Si je connais Svengali!’
‘Quest-ce que t’en penses?’
‘Quand il sera mort, ça fera une fameuse crapule de moins!’

Possibly an ‘educated’ Briton would have less difficulty with the occasional Latin tags which du Maurier scatters through his text:

  • ‘Quia multum amavit!’
  • et vera incessu patuit dea!
  • Omne ignotum pro magnifico!
  • Par nobile fratrum
  • ex pede Herculem!

But what about the patches of German and Italian, which also appear?

The experience of reading the book is not only to be soaked in the lives and jokes and high spirits of 1850s Bohemian Paris, but to be dropped into extended passages of raw French. This is the melodramatic climax of the entire book, when the conductor of the orchestra at her final concert tells Trilby to sing and, without Svengali, she discovers that she can’t:

The band struck up the opening bars of ‘Ben Bolt’, with which she was announced to make her début.
She still stared – but she didn’t sing – and they played the little symphony three times.
One could hear Monsieur J—— in a hoarse, anxious whisper saying,
‘Mais chantez donc, madame – pour l’amour de Dieu, commencez donc – commencez!’
She turned round with an extraordinary expression of face, and said, ‘Chanter? pourquoi donc voulez-vous que je chante, moi? chanter quoi, alors?’
‘Mais ‘Ben Bolt,’ parbleu – chantez!’
‘Ah – ‘Ben Bolt!’ oui – je connais ça!’
Then the band began again.
And she tried, but failed to begin herself. She turned round and said,
‘Comment diable voulez-vous que je chante avec tout ce train qu’ils font, ces diables de musiciens!’
‘Mais, mon Dieu, madame—qu’est-ce que vous avez donc?’ cried Monsieur J——.
‘J’ai que j’aime mieux chanter sans toute cette satanée musique, parbleu! J’aime mieux chanter toute seule!’
‘Sans musique, alors – mais chantez – chantez!’

At key moments throughout the book you need to be really fluent in French, and several other languages – or to be reading an edition which translates these passages – to have a clue what’s going on.

‘Got sei dank! Ich habe geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! Cristo di Dio…. Sweet sister in heaven…. Ô Dieu de Misère, ayez pitié de nous….’

This brings us to another really dominating aspect of the experience of the text – the pictures.

120 illustrations

Du Maurier was a writer only by accident and at the very end of his life. For most of his career he was a highly successful illustrator for magazines and books.

Born in 1834, du Maurier studied art in Paris, then got a job with Britain’s leading satirical magazine, Punch, in 1865, drawing two cartoons a week. He also did illustrations for popular periodicals such as Harper’s, The Graphic, The Illustrated Times, The Cornhill Magazine and Good Words. He illustrated a number of ‘classic’ novels from the time, including several by Thackeray. It was only after 25 or more years of producing a steady stream of humorous illustrations with comic captions that his failing eyesight drew an end to his artistic career and forced him to consider other options.

In 1891 he reduced his involvement with Punch and, at the suggestion of his good friend Henry James, wrote his first novel Peter Ibbetson, which was a modest success. Trilby was his second novel, published in 1894 and a runaway success beyond anyone’s imagining. He spent the next two years getting increasingly fed up with the demands from commercial interests and the book’s thousands of fans, before he died in 1896, leaving a long unfinished autobiographical novel to be published posthumously.

The fact that he was primarily an artist – and a book illustrator at that – explains why Trilby is stuffed with du Maurier’s own illustrations, some 120 of them by my count. These illustrations, like the ones he’d been doing all his life, portray rather stiff and starchy Victorian people but in situations which convey a sense of warmth and humour.

Here is young ‘Little Billee’ with the taller Taffy and the Laird, distracted from studying Old Masters in the Louvre by the sight of a pretty woman art student. It contains humour at the expense both of the easily distracted young man, as well as something satirical in the ‘saintly’ gaze of the fetching student. The entire setting is gently sent-up.

Among the Old Masters

Among the Old Masters

The presence of illustrations on around half the pages makes it feel like a children’s book, half-reminds you of reading Winnie The Pooh or Professor Branestawm. For the first 50 or 60 pages it doesn’t feel at all serious, which means that when you do finally get to the more ghoulish and creepy scenes with Svengali, it has more the sense of pantomime (‘He’s behind you!’) than full-blooded horror.

Combined with the general student hi-jinks of the early scenes, the good-humoured illustrations also contribute to the book’s entertainment value.

Comedy

Trilby so drips with comedy that it is almost a comic novel. The opening setup describing the three British artists in their studios is hugely funny. Their inability to understand the French spoken around them is gently mocked. In fact throughout the book there is a continual stereotyping of British and French national characteristics which is comparable to the outrageous humour of ‘Allo ‘Allo.

The British are characterised by bluntness, philistinism, bad food, bad weather. In particular there is no end to the gentle raillery of the biggest of the three, big Beefy British warrior, Taffy the Yorkshireman or ‘the Man of Blood’.

A Yorkshireman, by-the-way, called Taffy (and also the Man of Blood, because he was supposed to be distantly related to a baronet) – was more energetically engaged. Bare-armed, and in his shirt and trousers, he was twirling a pair of Indian clubs round his head. His face was flushed, and he was perspiring freely and looked fierce. He was a very big young man, fair, with kind but choleric blue eyes, and the muscles of his brawny arm were strong as iron bands.

For three years he had borne her Majesty’s commission, and had been through the Crimean campaign without a scratch. He would have been one of the famous six hundred in the famous charge at Balaklava but for a sprained ankle (caught playing leapfrog in the trenches), which kept him in hospital on that momentous day. So that he lost his chance of glory or the grave, and this humiliating misadventure had sickened him of soldiering for life, and he never quite got over it. Then, feeling within himself an irresistible vocation for art, he had sold out; and here he was in Paris, hard at work, as we see.

He was good-looking, with straight features; but I regret to say that, besides his heavy plunger’s mustache, he wore an immense pair of drooping auburn whiskers, of the kind that used to be called Piccadilly weepers, and were afterwards affected by Mr. Sothern in Lord Dundreary. It was a fashion to do so then for such of our gilded youth as could afford the time (and the hair); the bigger and fairer the whiskers, the more beautiful was thought the youth! It seems incredible in these days, when even her Majesty’s household brigade go about with smooth cheeks and lips, like priests or play-actors.

He is the Roast Beef of Old England made flesh.

Taffy jumped out of his bath, such a towering figure of righteous Herculean wrath that Svengali was appalled, and fled.

And when the art students at Carrel’s studio attempt to carry out the traditional initiation ceremony on Taffy:

He took up the first rapin that came to hand, and, using him as a kind of club, he swung him about so freely and knocked down so many students and easels and drawing-boards with him, and made such a terrific rumpus, that the whole studio had to cry for ‘pax!’ Then he performed feats of strength of such a surprising kind that the memory of him remained in Carrel’s studio for years, and he became a legend, a tradition, a myth! It is now said (in what still remains of the Quartier Latin) that he was seven feet high, and used to juggle with the massier and model as with a pair of billiard balls, using only his left hand!

But then the entire bohemian world comes in for sustained ribbing. Du Maurier finds it all wonderfully entertaining and he invites you to, as well. Even when Svengali is at his most sinister he never loses the heavy German accent which made him such a figure of fun in the first half of the book and which remains right to the end, well, funny.

Du Maurier as intrusive narrator

Du Maurier intrudes a lot as the first person narrator, either directly or in the mocking persona of ‘the scribe’:

That is the best society, isn’t it? At all events, we are assured it used to be; but that must have been before the present scribe (a meek and somewhat innocent outsider) had been privileged to see it with his own little eye.

The present scribe is no snob. He is a respectably brought-up old Briton of the higher middle-class – at least, he flatters himself so.

And that is the question the present scribe is doing his little best to answer.

The present scribe was not present on that memorable occasion, and has written this inadequate and most incomplete description partly from hearsay and private information, partly from the reports in the contemporary newspapers.

And he also invokes the figure of ‘the reader’, an equally stereotyped source of humour, in the tradition of the 18th century comic novelists and of William Thackeray, so many of whose books du Maurier illustrated.

Of course the sympathetic reader will foresee…

Let the reader have no fear. I will not attempt to describe it.

And that, as the reader has guessed long ago, was big Taffy’s “history.”

Fundamentally this is a comic strategy, making the reader a collaborator in the essentially light-hearted and frivolous occupation of telling a story.

It is ironic that du Maurier was friends with Henry James. James was an avowed opponent of the ‘baggy monster’ novels of the great Victorians, stories told in monthly instalments which wandered all over the place and in which the author kept interrupting, introducing himself, making apologies and generally carrying on.

James spent his career developing infinitely more sophisticated narratives in which he explored the implications of different types of narrator. Trilby is a late-flowering example of everything James hated, more like an episode of the Chris Evans radio show than a work of art, with the effervescent presenter continually popping up and commenting on his own story, taking the mickey out of his readers, of Victorian society, of churchmen, of the French, of novels and of his own ability as a storyteller.

Prose constructed from humorous episodes

There’s another consequence of du Maurier’s origins as a creator of humorous cartoons, which is not so obvious but, I think, quietly ubiquitous.

This is to do with the structure of the humorous cartoons which du Maurier spent the majority of his working life devising.

As a rule these cartoons start with the incredibly realistic scene and setting. There is a wonderfully limned background and then the vividly delineated characters. It is only when you have taken in the substantial amount of visual information the artist is giving you, that the eye progresses to the bottom of the picture, there to discover the humorous caption.

These captions are almost always in dialogue form, in which someone says something and then someone else replies with something ironic or revealing.

Take du Maurier’s most famous cartoon (below). It is breakfast time in the household of a pompous vicar. He has invited a curate (a person who undertakes lowly duties in a parish) to attend. But in his epic condescension, the vicar has given the curate only one egg for breakfast, and a rather old one at that. The pompous vicar says:’ I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mrs Jones.’ To which the curate, unctuously keen not to offend his boss, replies: ‘Oh no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!’

The effort expended in creating the illustration is phenomenal. The attention to detail! The characterisation of the balding vicar, with his rigid backbone and hook nose and pompous demeanour, wonderfully contrasted with the young curate’s sloping shoulders and eager-to-please neophyte expression.

But just as important to the overall effect are the faces of the two women sitting aloofly at table. And that’s before you explore the wealth of visual detail, all the cutlery on the table, the pictures on the wall, and the presence of both a butler and a maid in the background.

What I’m suggesting is that du Maurier took a technique he had perfected in his cartoons – a wealth of realistic detail treated solely in order to lead up to a boom-boom punchline – and wrote his prose novels the same way. Realistic, if gently mocking depiction, leading up to a boom-boom punchline.

Take the long passage in Part Two (the novel is in eight parts) describing Svengali’s background, and which includes this paragraph. It is long and thorough and detailed and realistic – and it leads up to quite a good joke. Just like one of du Maurier’s cartoons.

He was poor; for in spite of his talent he had not yet made his mark in Paris. His manners may have been accountable for this. He would either fawn or bully, and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humour, which was more offensive than amusing, and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And his laughter was always derisive and full of malice. And his egotism and conceit were not to be borne; and then he was both tawdry and dirty in his person; more greasily, mattedly unkempt than even a really successful pianist has any right to be, even in the best society.

All these jokes lead in the same direction. Du Maurier mocks the pomposity and pieties of the mid-Victorian middle class.

The example above doesn’t so much mock pianists themselves, as satirise posh society’s fashionable expectations of what they should be, namely dishevelled in appearance in order to stress their ‘Romantic’ sensibility. He mocking the way this idea – that being greasy and dirty equates to sublime artistic talent – is most piously held among the most refined and precious parts of society.

Same goes for the excerpt below. The Victorians, or Victorian journalists, developed the hackneyed phrase and idea that a piece of contemporary art or literature should be chaste and pure enough so as not to risk ‘bringing a blush to the cheek‘ of a young person.

In part of his lengthy description of Trilby, du Maurier goes into an extended riff which gently mocks this whole idea, invoking the non-existent ‘young person’ and the piety of her supposed parents (specifically, the mother).

Trilby had all the virtues but one; but the virtue she lacked (the very one of all that plays the title-role, and gives its generic name to all the rest of that goodly company) was of such a kind that I have found it impossible so to tell her history as to make it quite fit and proper reading for the ubiquitous young person so dear to us all.

Most deeply to my regret. For I had fondly hoped it might one day be said of me that whatever my other literary shortcomings might be, I at least had never penned a line which a pure-minded young British mother might not read aloud to her little blue-eyed babe as it lies sucking its little bottle in its little bassinet.

Fate has willed it otherwise.

Would indeed that I could duly express poor Trilby’s one shortcoming in some not too familiar medium – in Latin or Greek, let us say – lest the young person (in this ubiquitousness of hers, for which Heaven be praised) should happen to pry into these pages when her mother is looking another way.

Latin and Greek are languages the young person should not be taught to understand – seeing that they are highly improper languages, deservedly dead – in which pagan bards who should have known better have sung the filthy loves of their gods and goddesses.

First of all du Maurier laments that his tale is not pure enough to avoid a blush rising to the cheeks of any virginal young person who looked at it. Then he mockingly laments his fate as the author of such a shameful story. Then he moves on to make a joke about how, on this strict criteria, we ought to ban Greek and Latin since they are crammed full of obscenity.

You could sum it up by saying that the spirit of Punch saturates the entire book.

Anglo-Saxon morality

Anyway, this mention of Anglo-Saxon morality brings us back to the plot of the book, which is not at all what I expected.

For the narrative follows neither Trilby nor Svengali. It turns out all to be about Little Billee, the naive and innocent youngest of the trio of British painters in Paris. He is arguably the most gifted and certainly the most sentimental, always ready – as du Maurier mockingly points out – with a tear poised at the edge of his eye, to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

So it is that Little Billee falls in love with Trilby. When she is posing (dressed) for Taffy, the Laird and Little Billy, she keeps looking up and seeing his eye firmly focused on her face while he neglects his drawing. Once or twice he goes into studios of other artists, especially the training studio of Carrel and, finding Trilby posing nude in front of thirty or so male students, rushes back out, red-faced with shame and mortification.

Slowly Trilby realises that he has ‘fallen in love’ with her. And at the end of a Christmas Day when the other two Brits have staged an epic party for all their Bohemian friends (described with a Dickensian love of the food and with much mocking and ribbing of the hosts and guests) Little Billee takes Trilby to the top of the garret stairs and proposes to her. In fact this turns out to be the nineteenth time he has proposed to her (comedy!) and she, exhausted and worn down, says yes and then runs off in floods of tears.

Without realising it, Little Billee’s naive obsession proves the catastrophe or turning point of the action. For he writes a letter to his mother and sweet virginal sister back in provincial Devon announcing that he is to be married – but instead of joy, this prompts horror in Mrs Bagot (Billee’s real name) who promptly turns up in Paris with her teenage daughter and accompanied by her brother-in-law who is, rather inevitably, a man of the cloth, the Rev. Thomas Bagot.

They represent, in other words, a full frontal, massed assault of Victorian Values at their most strict and narrow and they proceed to interrogate Taffy about this ‘Trilby’. At which he is forced to concede that she is an uneducated model and cleaner. Can you imagine the response of the respectable Mrs Bagot and the reverend? Suffice to say, it is not favourable.

Then, at just the right moment, Trilby walks in (‘just as in a play’ as the author comments, tongue in cheek) and has a Grand Confrontation with her fiance’s mother. Long story short, Trilby a) presents herself with dignity and honour but b) agrees that she must not come between sweet Billee and his family. So she immediately decides break off the engagement and to leave Paris.

Little Billee discovers this, later in the day, from a letter she sends him – and promptly has a nervous breakdown. He has a complete collapse. He is confined to his bed, doctors tend him, it takes weeks to recover, during which Trilby packs her bags and, taking the younger brother she cares for, flees Paris to an unknown destination. When Billee is better, he is helped to a train and back to England, all the way back to the family home in Devon, where he is cared for by his sweet sister and loving mother.

Taffy and the Laird are left devastated that their happy-go-lucky little household has been broken up, and upset about Billee and worried about Trilby.

As a reader who had been very happily amused and entertained up to this point, I was absolutely furious with Mrs Bagot. She is concerned for her son’s future, for his career, for his place in society, and that he should marry a ‘respectable’ woman who will help him climb the ladder. Nonetheless, Billee’s selfish obsession and his mother’s narrow-mindedness bring the happy-go-lucky first half of the novel to a crashing end, and I couldn’t help resenting her for it.

The odd thing is that du Maurier, having spent 150 pages being amusingly indulgent of the student milieu, having reported their drunkenness, their laziness, their slovenliness, the cheap clothes, their outrageous jokes and the easy way they hang round with models who are ‘no better than they should be’ (it is very broadly hinted that Trilby has had a number of lovers) all of a sudden sits up and becomes pious and sentimental on us, himself.

He takes Mrs Bagot’s concerns seriously. When Trilby leaves the studio she glimpses virginal Miss Bagot in the cab waiting outside and is stricken with guilt at besmirching the name of such a family. Later that day, when Billee reads the goodbye letter from Trilby, he collapses in the arms of his mother and sister i.e. he is won over to their side, and du Maurier gives us some surprisingly pious paragraphs about family honour and so on.

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

When push comes to shove, du Maurier abandons his youthful high-spiritedness and tolerance – and sides with the enemy. It is almost unbelievable that this one event has such seismic consequences for all concerned, and strips the book of its innocence. From now on du Maurier struggles to recover the high-spirited humour of the first half. The reader, rather like Taffy and the Laird, feels a strong ‘sense of desolation and dull bereavement’.

The passage of time

Instead, five years pass. Billee, now William Bagot, continues painting and becomes a success, a name, an artistic ‘lion’, who is invited to salons by rich society ladies, who mixes with the highest society, is mentioned among the great up-and-coming artists and so on. But inside he is cold and empty. He is as polite as is required, but his heart is dead.

It was as though some part of his brain where his affections were seated had been paralyzed, while all the rest of it was as keen and as active as ever. He felt like some poor live bird or beast or reptile, a part of whose cerebrum (or cerebellum, or whatever it is) had been dug out by the vivisector for experimental purposes; and the strongest emotional feeling he seemed capable of was his anxiety and alarm about this curious symptom, and his concern as to whether he ought to mention it or not.

Du Maurier takes us on Billee’s journeys into upper-class society and, more interestingly, for a page or two, out to the East End where he also becomes well known and takes part in evening sing-songs in squalid taverns… an echo of Dorian Gray’s adventures out East.

Du Maurier says it was the breadth of Billee’s human sympathies which underpinned the warmth and humanity of his art. Which is fine, but there was no such painter as William Bagot. And also, throughout the extensive and detailed sections on art, I can’t help thinking that British art of this period grew steadily more isolated from all the trends on the Continent, almost completely oblivious to Impressionism and the myriad types of post-Impressionism, continuing with ever-more dreamy depictions of sad-eyed women by Edward Burne-Jones or the stately, half-naked ladies of ancient Rome by Frederick Leighton, Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Wonderful in their way, but eventually destined to hit the brick wall of European Modern Art and evaporate overnight.

The book contains very long passages about art, about types and theories of mid-Victorian art, about the difference between superficial and profound art, much humour at the expense of the Laird’s endless attempts to paint toreadors accurately (and a typical joke about the fact that, once he actually visits Spain and starts to paint toreadors from life, his paintings immediately stop selling).

But to a post-modern reader it all seems pre-historic. We are told that one of Billee’s most successful paintings is of a sow in a sty being suckled by lots of little pink piglets, handled with:

An ineffable charm of poetry and refinement, of pathos and sympathy and delicate humour combined, an incomparable ease and grace and felicity of workmanship.

This sounds like the sickly sweet animal paintings of Edwin Landseer, and reminds me of the depiction of the artist Basil Hallward in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) or Rudyard Kipling’s portrayal of the artist Dick Heldar in The Light That Failed (1891). In none of these three books is there a glimmer of the tsunami of modernism which is about to completely revolutionise the very idea of what art is.

Anyway, rather surprisingly du Maurier describes himself as being present in the story – telling us that he was introduced to the Laird and Taffy when Little Billee brought them to a grand party at the house of millionaire Sir Louis Cornely.

And it is here that they hear, from the lips of a great classical singer, of the spreading reputation of La Svengali, the most beautiful woman singer in the world. This gives rise to discussion among the posh chaps present who have seen the famed singer at various venues around Europe, while Billee, Taffy and the Laird listen in amazement, wondering if it can possibly be the same Svengali they knew all those years ago back in Paris.

Darwinism

The novel takes us up to page 200 with a lengthy passage describing Billee’s return from London, where he had attended this party, back to his family in Devon. His mother has ambitions to marry him to Alice, daughter of the local vicar. She is, indeed, a noble, virtuous, shy, well-mannered and devout young lady, and deeply in love with Billee. Billee goes and sits by the sea, with Alice’s own dog, Trey sitting at his feet (in order to give the whole scene a sentimental resonance. Think of Landseer’s sentimental dog portraits.)

There's No Place Like Home (1842) by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

There’s No Place Like Home (1842) by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer

Billee would like to please Alice, his mother and his sister, and is sure he could make the lady a good and faithful husband except for one tiny detail… He is an atheist. He is reading On the Origin of Species for the third time and it has demolished his belief in a Christian God. If there is a God, how could he be so cruel and vengeful, flooding the earth, punishing unbelievers, conceiving of Hell?

To round out this scene, as Billee is walking back towards the village, he bumps into Alice’s father, the vicar. The vicar starts questioning Billee about his faith, which church in London he attends and so on, to which Billee has to stumblingly admit that he has no faith and attends no church. By the end of the walk the pair are no longer on speaking terms, and Billee’s engagement to Alice is broken off.

Du Maurier being the satirist that he is, then gives a page-long passage describing the way that this redoubtable pillar of the church (the vicar) in later life came into a small fortune due to acquiring shares in a rising company, and found that the financial independence this gave him allowed him to read widely and, like Billee, to lose his faith. He ends up becoming a Positivist (i.e. a believer in science not religion as the source of truth). The vicar argues with his bishop, loses his post and moves to London where he becomes an atheist lecturer.

So far, so satirical. His daughter, on the other hand, remains sweet and virginal and a devout Anglican. This little homily seems to me to epitomise the split-mind of Victorian men – happy to mock and satirise his fellow middle class peers – but coming over all pious and sentimental at the sight of a young English lady.

Thus du Maurier was quite relaxed and open about the ‘affairs’ of the many models he described in the French scenes – of Svengali’s one-time girlfriend ‘Mimi la Salope’, and of Trilby herself. But as soon as an English lady – Mrs Bagot – and even more, an English virgin – saintly young Miss Bagot – enter the narrative, all open-minded, relaxed tolerance of permissive living vanishes, and the narrative hits a cold hard wall.

As far as I can tell, for the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th, this was a common phenomenon. Young, and not so young, men went over to Paris to have ‘adventures’ i.e. casual sex, and then came back to England to act as stern, upright defenders of British sexual morality.

Fake context

You know the movie Forrest Gump where Gump is made to appear at various key moments of history, for example receiving a war medal from President Johnson, the inclusion of real historical events and personages designed to give verisimilitude to the story.

Same here. Du Maurier invokes a number of figures from the worlds of art and music and literature to lend reality to his tale. Regarding Billee’s success as an artist, du Maurier intrudes into the narrative to ask us whether we remember the first great success of Billee’s painting – ‘The Moon-Dial’ – or the great sale at Sotheby’s where his painting fetched a record price? He makes this effort in order to persuade us that Billee is one of the great contemporary British painters (although we all know that he doesn’t exist).

Similarly, after Trilby’s great appearance singing in Paris, du Maurier claims his fictitious character was reviewed by the entirely real figures of Berlioz (who, he says, wrote no fewer than twelve articles about La Svengali) and Théophile Gautier, who is made to write her a poem.

Back to Trilby

These digressions take up about 50 pages of this 300-page book. Only now do we touch back down five more years after the previous events (the vicar and so on).

Little Billee, Taffy and the Laird reunite to go to Paris to see a performance of Trilby under the management of Svengali. First they take a stroll around all their haunts – which gives du Maurier chance to describe how Paris changed in the 1860s due to Baron Haussmann’s famous boulevard-building programme.

They also bump into a raft of former acquaintances from their student days, most of whom have abandoned art. One of the liveliest of them, Dodor, is now working as shop supervisor in a haberdasher’s store and is engaged to the owner’s daughter. Another, l’Zouzou, a soldier who was, to their surprise, related to a grand ducal family, they meet on an outing to the Bois de Boulogne, where he is entertaining his bride-to-be, a very ugly American lady named Miss Lavinia Hunks, and her incredibly wealthy mother. This is all the opportunity for much knowing satire and mockery.  Such is life. Sic transit gloria mundi, and other truisms.

Our trio then attend the Paris premiere of Trilby’s singing, which du Maurier describes in pages of detail. The humble milk girl they’d known back in the day who could barely hold a note is now the possessor of the greatest voice the world has ever heard. (In a stroke of creative inspiration du Maurier has her sing mostly cheap trite street songs and nursery rhymes, but with such thrilling passion and expression that there is 15 minutes of standing ovation at the end of her brief concert.)

They go away stunned at the impact her performance has on them. Above all, for the central protagonist of the novel, Little Billee, it seems to unblock the cold channels of his heart. Once again he feels the thrill of passion and is swept up with genuine love for his friends and burning jealousy for the man Trilby has married, no other than her mentor, the tall, swarthy, oleaginous Svengali.

Next day Little Billee pops down to the post office to write and send a letter to his dear mama. Who should be there but Svengali, with a clutch of letters. Svengali notices our hero:

looking small and weak and flurried, and apparently alone; and being an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew, he had not been able to resist the temptation of spitting in his face, since he must not throttle him to death.

That ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ is on the face of it, heart-stoppingly offensive and anti-Semitic. You have to remember that a) plenty of other characters are given the same kind of excessive description based on national stereotypes, especially big strong Anglo-Saxon Taffy – and b) that du Maurier’s style delights in hyperbole and exaggeration and c) that it creates humour by concatenated repetition. So, for example:

As for Trilby, G—, to whom she sat for his Phryne, once told me that the sight of her thus was a thing to melt Sir Galahad, and sober Silenus, and chasten Jove himself – a thing to Quixotize a modern French masher!

Galahad, Silenus, Jove and Don Quixote are all dragged into a short sentence (which also makes a throwaway generalisation about the French) in a classic example of du Maurier’s technique of comic hyperbole, of overdoing it for comic effect.

Or sentimental hyperbole, as when Svengali’s sidekick Gecko describes his devotion to sweet Trilby:

‘Well, that was Trilby, your Trilby! That was my Trilby too – and I loved her as one loves an only love, an only sister, an only child – a gentle martyr on earth, a blessed saint in heaven!’

That’s five descriptive phrases in a row, a glut of descriptors, which are piled up like this in order to satirise the speaker.

Indeed, all the characters, in their dialogue, and the narrator in his prose, are given to overemphasis and repetition. It’s part of what makes the whole thing feel like a Victorian play, crammed with moments of comedy, sentiment, horror and shock by turns.

So I think the purpose of that ‘Hebrew’ sentence is comic rather than insulting. On some level, now lost to us, the unnecessary repetition of ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ was meant to be humorous. As that last clause – ‘since he couldn’t throttle him to death’ – is also typical of the mocking exaggeration du Maurier applies to all his characters.

Anyway, Little Billee fights back and isn’t getting anywhere, when Taffy, who has witnessed the whole episode, steps up to Svengali who, recognising him, cowers in terror. Tall, strong, manly, Anglo-Saxon Taffy takes ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ Svengali by the nose and wags his head from side to side before delivering a stinging open-handed slap. While the manager of the hotel calls for the police, Svengali runs off, and doesn’t bring any charges.

Taffy gives Svengali what for

Taffy gives Svengali what for

This all happens in Paris. Then our trio return to England and to their separate pursuits. Little Billee goes down to Devon again, this time accompanied by Taffy, who turns out to be have connections with the vicar and with the local gentry, and gets taken up by them, the two artists generally making a very favourable impression on the local society and peasants.

Once they have all celebrated a quiet Christmas, Billee and Taffy return to London in order to see Trilby’s London debut. They don’t know that that very afternoon Svengali had been in a brawl with his loyal and devoted lieutenant, Gecko.

Back in those bohemian Sunday afternoon sessions, Gecko had often played violin for Svengali and, as Trilby’s singing career took off, Gecko had continued to be lead violin in the orchestra, whose arrangements Svengali wrote himself.

But all through those years Gecko had grown more and more devoted to Trilby. The encounter with Billee and Taffy had put Svengali on edge and tetchy. Several times during the afternoon’s rehearsals he had criticised Trilby’s singing and, finally, rapped her over the knuckles with his baton.

At which Gecko snapped and leaped at him, stabbing Svengali with a shallow cut on the neck. Gecko is manhandled away, doctors are called who patch up Svengali’s throat but tell him on no account must he conduct this evening in case the wound bursts again.

So that evening, at the grand theatre in London, where are assembled the cream of high society and stretching up away into the gods, everyone who is anyone, Trilby goes to sing with Svengali, for the first time, not conducting, but in a box, though still placed so he can see her.

But when the band strikes up, and the conductor turns to Trilby, the statuesque woman in the expensive ballgown appears dazed and confused. ‘What am I doing here?’ she asks. ‘What do you mean, sing?’ The conductor begs and implores her to perform and so she eventually reluctantly gives in and – gives vent to the tuneless, cracked voice the bohemians remember from all those years earlier.

The shocked audience starts booing. Trilby bursts into tears and is hustled off the stage. It is discovered that Svengali is dead. He died of heart failure in his box and had been sitting there with a rictus grin on his face and black demonic eyes empty of life.

Our heroes – the Laird, Taffy and Billee – swarm backstage and, when Trilby obviously recognises them, the show’s impresario allows them to take her home with them.

They put her up in Billee’s Fitzroy Square rooms. And here the truth comes out. She remembers nothing about the previous five years. Her memory is that she first fled Paris to escape Billee – lived miserably in the countryside for a while then,after her kid brother died, came back to Paris, suicidally depressed and unable to sleep, and came across Svengali somewhere. And he helped her to sleep. And he adored and worshipped her. And they seemed to travel around a lot and she was often tired. That’s all she can remember.

When they explain to her that she is one of the most famous women in Europe, that she is the most famous singer in the world, she laughs and puts them off and says, ‘Get away, nonsense, who are you trying to kid?’ She has no memory at all of her world-conquering career. For the entire time she has been the puppet of Svengali, the master musician and hypnotist.

And now Trilby is drained and broken. Only 23 she looks 30, her skin white and translucent. For the last thirty pages of the book she wastes away and dies. She is surrounded by the three chaps and her maid, and regularly called on by the best doctors money can buy, but they can do nothing.

Du Maurier wrings every last drop of emotion from the situation, making Dickens’s description of the death of Little Nell look like a newsflash. First he gets Mrs Bagot to come all the way from Devon and, upon seeing how nobly Trilby is dying, to realise what a foolish woman she has been and to beg Trilby to forgive her and Trilby begs Mrs B to forgive her and both women collapse in tears – as does the gentle reader.

Mrs B and Trilby have a long conversation about God, death and forgiveness, in which Trilby reveals that the worst thing she ever did in her life was go off for a carriage ride with some admirers and leave her five-year-old brother crying at home. Mrs Bagot cries. Trilby cries. The reader cries.

Then, right at the end, from out of nowhere a packing case is delivered and Trilby unwraps it to discover a fine photographic portrait of Svengali in his Hungarian musicians outfit, staring straight out of the photo. Trilby is lying on a couch, places it on her feet, holding it at full length and then… a strange change comes over her. Svengali’s intense black eyes hypnotise her one last time, from beyond the grave, and she sings the Chopin Impromptu in A flat which was her signature piece, sounds of supernatural beauty which bestil the room and move the listeners to tears.

Then she is gone. Doctors called. Death confirmed. Not a dry eye in the house.

The death of Trilby

The death of Trilby

Postscript

Cut to twenty years later at the Grand Hotel on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris where Svengali had spat at Billee and Taffy pulled his nose and slapped him.

Taffy is now married to Little Billee’s sister, but alas Little Billee is dead. Trilby’s dying words were ‘Svengali, Svengali, Svengali’ and this prompts the sensitive Billee to have a recurrence of the brain fever which had afflicted him all those years earlier. He sickens, wastes and dies, an ‘early death, his manly, calm, and most beautiful surrender.’

Well, anyway, Taffy and wife have come back to Paris sometime in the 1880s. Once again du Maurier shows off his knowledge of the city as he has the happy couple tour round all his old haunts. But the purpose of this final section is that he takes Mrs Taffy to the theatre and notices, down in the orchestra pit, a grey-haired violinist who looks like Gecko, Svengali’s old assistant.

It is Gecko and Taffy invites him out for a meal. And now, for the first time, we hear the full story and Gecko clarifies, if we had any doubt, that there were two Trilbies: the sweet innocent natural girl – and then the robotic hypnotised singing machine which Svengali and he spent three long years hypnotising and training to sing note by note.

Not only notes but inflections, volume, stress, every element of singing was drilled into her by the painstaking Svengali. Once again Gecko emphasises that Svengali was a musical genius, and had a crystal clear idea of what perfect singing should be, but which most humans fell short of.

But because he exercised complete control over Trilby, he was able to programme her like a robot; and, eventually, after the long years training, control her with the slightest movement of his eyes or his baton.

So these final pages make explicit the theme of the double, the doppelgänger, and suddenly I’m thinking of Jeckyll and Hyde, and the Picture of Dorian Gray and all those Sherlock Holmes stories which are based on people living double lives, the whole late-Victorian fascination with two-sidedness. Trilby the sweet innocent / Trilby the robot.

Gecko says it was horrible to see Trilby turned into an automaton; only on a few occasions in all that time was she truly herself. He leans his head on his arms and weeps. Truly this is not a happy book. Taffy orders Gecko a cab and pours him into it. Then Mr and Mrs Taffy stroll home through the deserted streets of Paris, looking forward to going back to England, back to their quiet little country home and their happy family.

For all its jaunty humour and carefully calibrated irreverence, Trilby ends with a hymn to the pieties of home and family every bit as whole hearted as Tennyson’s great mid-Victorian poem, In Memoriam. It’s final words are characteristically in French, but the sentiment is piously British and Victorian.

Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de ta famille?’

Anti-Semitism

Quite obviously the novel brings together two blatant, popular and enduring stereotypes or topoi: the pure, upstanding, virginal white English woman in jeopardy from a dark, swarthy, threatening foreigner from the East. These are so obvious, and have been written about and criticised so often, that I can’t think of much to add except for a few thoughts about Svengali.

The most striking thing about the Jewish characterisation of Svengali is how breath-takingly in-your-face it is.

Trilby went to see him in his garret, and he played to her, and leered and ogled, and flashed his bold, black, beady Jew’s eyes into hers, and she straightway mentally prostrated herself in reverence and adoration before this dazzling specimen of her race. So that her sordid, mercenary little gutter-draggled soul was filled with the sight and the sound of him, as of a lordly, godlike, shawm-playing, cymbal-banging hero and prophet of the Lord God of Israel – David and Saul in one!

Not only Svengali is described in anti-Semitic terms. His first attempt to hypnotise someone is:

Mimi la Salope… a dirty, drabby little dolly-mop of a Jewess, a model for the figure.

Du Maurier notes that one of the contemporary music scene’s greatest singers is of Spanish or Sephardi Jewish ancestry:

For Glorioli – the biggest, handsomest, and most distinguished-looking Jew that ever was – one of the Sephardim (one of the Seraphim!) – hailed from Spain, where he was junior partner in the great firm of Moralés, Peralés, Gonzalés & Glorioli, wine-merchants, Malaga. He travelled for his own firm; his wine was good, and he sold much of it in England. But his voice would bring him far more gold in the month he spent here; for his wines have been equalled – even surpassed – but there was no voice like his anywhere in the world, and no more finished singer.

And, surprisingly, the protagonist of the story, Little Billee, is described as having a tincture of Jewish blood in him:

In his [Little Billee’s] winning and handsome face there was just a faint suggestion of some possible very remote Jewish ancestor – just a tinge of that strong, sturdy, irrepressible, indomitable, indelible blood which is of such priceless value in diluted homœopathic doses, like the dry white Spanish wine called montijo, which is not meant to be taken pure; but without a judicious admixture of which no sherry can go round the world and keep its flavour intact; or like the famous bull-dog strain, which is not beautiful in itself; and yet just for lacking a little of the same no greyhound can ever hope to be a champion.

As usual, when you read these kinds of comment in context you realise that they are more complex and multiform than the term ‘anti-Semitic’ (or ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’) allow. They are just selected examples from a spectrum of comments based on ideas of racial characteristics which we have, by and large, abandoned.

In fact these four examples demonstrate how du Maurier applied racial stereotypes toall his characters, and invoked a wide range of ‘types’. Svengali has all the threatening stereotypes du Maurier can muster heaped on him but Mimi is, by contrast, a hapless victim. Glorioli is characterised as not an Eastern  but a Spanish Jew, and therefore is described in different terms from the other two.

And this last paragraph, where he says a drop of Jewish ‘blood’ enhances character doesn’t appear to be an insult but a roundabout form of praise of Jews – albeit based on ideas of ‘race’ or ‘blood’ which we now find abhorrent.

Also, anyone angered or horrified by the cruder descriptions of Svengali must also bear in mind that du Maurier also makes him tall and powerful. He is a big threatening man. And credit is repeatedly given to his unquestioned musical genius. Svengali plays the piano to concert level and is credited with arranging the music for Trilby to sing with great taste and precision.

And, after all, we should remember that Svengali is invited to the heroes’ Sunday afternoon parties. Invited, not banned. Du Maurier is interested in creating a rounded, if objectionable, character. He is a novelist, not a Nazi.

Anyway, this spectrum of opinion about Jews is itself only part of the broader spectrum which includes comments about all manner of races – the French ‘race’ and character is pored over at length, the Americans come in for some ripe satire, at least half the negative characterisation of Svengali derives not from his Jewishness, but from the (arguably more damning) fact that he is German.

He could be very funny, Svengali, though he was German, poor dear!

Let alone the countless mocking descriptions of all aspects of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ character, some fond, some satirical, some surprisingly patriotic, some openly scathing (about the narrow philistinism of the English bourgeoisie).

The point is that the entire book comes from an completely different way of looking at human nature – in terms of the intrinsic values of identifiable categories called ‘races’ – which tried, throughout the 19th century, to make sense of the diversity of human beings by grouping them into categories.

All ages do this. Our own age – as I’m reminded every time I open a newspaper or turn on the radio – enthusiastically groups humans into categories according to present-day concerns, namely ‘women’ (who all and everywhere need our help), ‘people of colour’ (who need to be more represented in culture and organisations) and Muslims (who are the victims of Islamophobia). Against them are lined up racists, sexists and Islamophobes.

These are just the same kind of sweeping generalisations but, because they belong to our time, we take them for granted – just as much as du Mauritier’s readers accepted stereotypes about the English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Germans and Jews.

Reading du Maurier’s racial generalisations doesn’t offend me. It feels as remote from real life as reading the medieval Catholic literature which damned Jews and Muslims to an eternity in Hell. (There is hair-raisingly anti-Semitic content in Dante, who also condemned the Prophet Mohammed to a special place in Hell.)

None of that offends me. It is of anthropological and historical interest. I am interested in the cultural system these old categories embodied and elaborated, and the light it sheds on how previous societies created and structured their values. It’s no different from reading contemporary journalism which blames ‘gammons’ for Brexit and ‘angry white men’ for Trump. A lot less harmful because it is so obviously from a vanished era, and it is done with sympathy and humour.

I’m not trying to let du Maurier off the hook. There is a virulence and vehemence about the characterisation of Svengali which I can easily imagine being very offensive to any Jew and indeed any progressive liberal reading it these days.

But on the other hand, he is the baddy. Baddies, in boy adventure stories like this, always are laden with all the negative qualities the writer can muster.They generally are cruel, sadistic bullies, often from the East (reflect on the villains in the James Bond books; plenty of eastern stereotypes, not least about Russia).

Every age tries to make sense of the world by creating stereotyped categories of human beings to populate it with, those on ‘our’ side and those who are ‘against’ us, and then proceeds to vilify and insult those opponents. To imagine that our own society doesn’t do just the same is naive.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction from the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

%d bloggers like this: