Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Aeneas 1200 BC

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

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

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

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

2. Romulus 750s BC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The monarchy 750s to 509 BC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the main constitutional reforms from the period include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Consolidating power in Italy – Rome’s wars

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

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

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

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

Conquest of Veii 396

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

Gauls take Rome 390 BC

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

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

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

Latin War 341 to 338 (p.158)

The Samnite wars (p.158)

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

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

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

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

Pyrrhic war 280 to 275

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

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

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

First Punic War 264 to 241

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

Second Punic war 219 to 202

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

First Macedonian war 215 to 205

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

Second Macedonian war 200 to 197

Syrian war 192 to 188

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

Third Macedonian war 172 to 168

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

War in Iberia 155 to 133

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

Third Punic war 149 to 146

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

War with Jugurtha 118 to 106

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

The Social War 91 to 87

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

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

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

Civil wars

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

First Mithradatic war 89 to 85

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

Second Mithradatic war 83 to 81

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

Third Mithradatic war 73 to 63

Revolt of Spartacus 73 to 71

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

Pompey the Great

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

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

Julius Caesar

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

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

P.S.

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


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Borges reviews

Genghis Khan by James Chambers (1999)

The greatest fortune a man can have is to conquer his enemy, steal his riches, ride his horses, and enjoy his women. (Genghis Khan)

Genghis Khan was born sometime in the 1160s into a small clan of Steppe Mongols. From obscure origins he rose, through the power of his charisma, courage and canny alliances, to unite the disparate Mongol tribes into one huge, well-organised, ferocious and world-beating army.

By the time of his death in 1227 Genghis had subjugated more lands and more people in twenty-five years than the Romans did in four hundred. His successors built on his conquests until the empire he bequeathed stretched from Hungary in the west to the Pacific in the East, forming the largest continuous land empire the world has ever known.

James Chambers’s biography is a small, zippy book, part of the Sutton Pocket Biography series, designed, in their words, to be ‘highly readable brief lives of those who have played a significant part in history, and whose contributions still influence contemporary culture.’

At 100 small pages it’s a quick read – it only took me two hours to wing through it. But what makes this book different from most of the other biographies of Genghis is its distinctive approach: it starts out in the fairy tale tones of Mongol myth and legend, and never really quite transitions to the dry, factual approach most of us associate with normal ‘history’. Which makes it rather marvellous.

Thus Chambers starts his text without any introduction or explanation but by going straight into a retelling of the creation myth of the steppe Mongols. He tells us how the god of Eternal Heaven, Mongke Tengri, made all things, but humans didn’t appear until the grey wolf, the grey hunter, wandered down from his mountain and mated with a deer.

Detail of a Totem from Northern Mongolia showing a grey wolf and a white doe (Hun tomb, 3rd-1st century BC). Born according to the will of the Sky, Borte Chino (Blue Wolf) is the ancestor of the Mongolians and his partner/wife is Gua Maral (Red Deer)

The story then skips forward ten generations to when the Mongols have bred and multiplied, and a direct descendant of the grey wolf’s firstborn, Dobun the Sagacious, marries a woman named Alan the Fair, who came from a tribe of hunters in the forest.

We learn how Alan had five sons and taught them to stick together but, after her death, the four eldest divided her herd between them and left the youngest, Bodunchar the Simple, to ride off alone on an ugly pony. When they repented of their meanness and went to find him, they discovered Bodunchar living in a hut on the banks of the river Onon and surviving by hunting duck with a trained hawk and begging mare’s milk from a clan camped nearby.

Once they’d taken Bodunchar back into the family, he tells them more about the nearby clan who’d helped him out, namely that they lack central organisation or a strong leader. And so the five sons of Alan the Fair proceed to attack the clan, stealing all their cattle and their women.

By the standard of the steppes there was nothing wrong in what Bodunchar and his brothers had done. In truth, as well as in legend, it was the way in which Turko-Mongol nomads had always lived, and the way in which they were to continue to live for several more generations. These nomads measured each other’s wealth by the numbers of their sheep and horses, and when the size of a clan’s herds increased, it was usually as a result of audacious raiding rather than patient husbandry. Ruthless opportunists like Bodunchar were regarded as heroes, and their success bred success. Warriors often moved from clan to clan, swearing new allegiances to the men most likely to protect their families and make them rich. Although the tribes and clans into which they were divided must have begun as extended families, their blood lines were soon diluted, not only because those with the best leaders attracted warriors from elsewhere, but also because it was the custom to marry outside the clan. Since bride prices were high, women were often acquired like horses on raiding parties. In such a society life was simple, selfish and precarious. (p.5)

Why are we being told all these stories about Alan the Fair and Bodunchar the Simple? Because shamans, the Mongol holy men, had prophesied that a descendant of Bonduchar would unite all the Mongol tribes and lead them to world conquest.

And so it is that, several generations later, a boy is born of Bonduchar’s line, a boy named Temüjin, one of the five children of Yesügei. In preparation, Chambers has described the confused and war-torn world Temüjin grew up in:

  • how the great city of Zhongdu (early Beijing) had been captured by Khitan horsemen from the steppes
  • how the Chinese Song empire had been weakened when the Tangut inhabitants of north-west China seceded to establish their own kingdom of Xi Xia
  • how the north had been wrested from the Khitan by a new wave of conquerors, the Jurchen who came from Manchuria and established a new dynasty they called the Jin
  • how the Jin feared invasion by other Mongol tribes and so allied with Tatar tribes who they paid to attack and break up the remaining Mongol forces
  • how one of the Mongol commanders who survived these attacks was Yesügei, of the Kiyat clan, who claimed descent from Bonduchar
  • and how Yesügei,  after kidnapping himself a wife – Ho’elun of the Onggirats – from a prince of the Merkits, had five children by her, one of whom was Temüjin – Mongol for ‘man of iron’
  • and how, aged just nine, Temüjin, lost his father Yesügei, poisoned by the tribe whose woman he stole to make his wife and Temüjin’s mother

And it was this Temüjin who would grow up to become Genghis Khan, one of the greatest, most successful but also most bloodthirsty conquerors of all time.

(NB Genghis Khan is an honorary name Temüjin was given after he had united the Mongol tribes, at the ripe age of 39. He was awarded it at a great assembly of all the Mongol tribes and clans, the Great Khuriltai held beneath the sacred mountain at the source of the river Onon in 1206 – Khan being the generic name for king or leader, and Genghis (probably) stemming from tengiz meaning ocean and so suggesting ‘King of Everything within the great ocean’ or ‘Oceanic King’, p.50).

The actual story of his rise to power is long and complex, mainly revolving around a sequence of alliances, at first with individuals who help or rescue young Temüjin from perilous situations (like Sorkun who helped Temüjin escape after he’d been captured and tied to a wooden yoke by the vengeful relatives of the first husband of Ho’elun, his mother, the woman kidnapped by his father Yesugei), then with more powerful clan leaders, slowly cultivating powerful men and drawing freelance warriors to his side.

Map of the Mongol Empire during Genghis’s lifetime, showing the complexity of the Mongol tribes and kingdoms he set out to unify, and the peoples living outside it e.g. the Chinese Jin Dynasty in the south-east (Source: Wikipedia)

And then the thing which set him apart from all his rival leaders and rival powers – his phenomenal gift for organisation, for imposing new laws on the Mongol tribes, for introducing a census and mass conscription, for organising his army into light and heavy cavalry with, later on, divisions devoted to siege equipment, provisioned with scaling ladders and sacks that could be turned into sandbags (p.72).

His army was systematically organised and rigorously disciplined. A division was known as a tumen and contained 10,000 men. Each tumen was divided into ten regiments of a thousand called a minghan. Each minghan contained ten squadrons of a hundred called a jagun and each jagunwas divided into ten troops called arbans. A large Mongol camp was called an ordu which is the origin of the English word ‘horde’.

Chambers goes on to describe the thorough training regime Genghis established for the army, along with the ‘staff college’ of his personal guard, which supplied the generals and senior commanders to each division. He explains the Mongols’ battle tactics and the transmission of information by a cohort of trained messengers using the fastest horses. Genghis set up staging posts every 25 miles in the territory he conquered, which were permanently manned with provisions and fresh horses, so that messengers could ride in relay in any direction across his empire bringing vital information. The messengers were wrapped up warm and wore a belt of small bells to alert the managers of the post that a rider was arriving, so the new horse could be saddled and ready.

The essence of Genghis Khan’s genius lay in his ability to recognise and develop a good idea, and above all in his instinctive capacity for meticulous planning and detailed organisation, a capacity which was all the more extraordinary in a man who had received no education. (p.65)

Map showing the campaigns of the Mongols from their heartland out across Asia. Note that China was divided under three rulers, the Jurchen Jin in the North, the Song dynasty in the south, and the Western Xia in the space between Tibet and Mongolia (source: Wikipedia)

Now a glance at Amazon shows you that there are quite a few books about Genghis Khan, some running to four or five hundred pages, and there is, of course, a lengthy Wikipedia article about him.

But most of these are westernised, factual accounts, which start in the way you’d expect, with factual accounts of the steppe, its peoples, their history, before moving on to give factual accounts based on a judicial analysis of the sources and the (scant) archaeological evidence.

In some of these more academic respects Chambers’ account is a bit lacking; I certainly found his description of the campaigns of the mature Genghis rather quick and difficult to follow.

But it matters not. I bet this is the only account which starts and then continues within the Mongol mindset. It takes the reader inside the world of mare’s milk and hawking, surviving off berries and raw fish, a world where an extended family possesses just nine horses and a tent set amid the vast limitless blankness of the steppe. A world where the wolf god mates with human women, and shamans correctly predict the future.

Admittedly, as Chambers’ account proceeds and actually gets onto the campaigning and battles, it becomes more and more factual, more like Wikipedia, and my interest waned a bit. It also describes the military massacres which occurred on a growing scale and made Genghis’s name a terror to future generations.

Notable among these were the rape of Zhongdu, an early name for what is now Beijing. It was already an enormous city, with a population of maybe a million, protected by a huge wall. After a prolonged siege, the Mongols finally breached the wall in 1215. Genghis ordered total annihilation and for one month the conquerors burned, murdered and raped. A year later visiting ambassadors described the streets as slippery with human fat. And they were shown a white hill outside the ruined city walls which was made out of human skulls. (This forced the Jin ruler, Emperor Xuanzong, to move his capital south to Kaifeng and abandon the northern half of his empire to the Mongols. Further Mongol campaigns were to lead to the collapse of the Jin dynasty in 1234.) It was the same year that the Magna Carta was signed in England.

Even worse was the prolonged campaign against Ala ad-Din Muhammad II, Shah of the Khwarezmian Empire from 1200 to 1220. Muhammad made the very unwise move of arresting and executing the envoys that Genghis had sent to him. This prompted the Mongol invasion of Khwarezmia, which resulted in its utter destruction. The Mongols razed every city they came to and massacred every single inhabitant: the lowest contemporary estimates were 700,000 dead for each of the cities of Merv and Balkh, and a million and a half each for Herat and Nishapur, where the heads of men, women and children were gathered into separate piles. These are widely considered the bloodiest massacres the world had seen until the 20th century.

‘I am the punishment of God…If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.’ (Genghis Khan)

All this may well be true, but it’s another reason for finding the later part of the book less enjoyable.

Because my imagination had been so fired up by the opening, mythical chapters, and the way they wonderfully transport the reader into a genuinely remote and different other-world. These passages engrossed me like a children’s book does. It made me feel it was me fighting alongside Jebe the Arrow and Toghril the mighty, in a heroic alliance with the Naimans and the Tayichi’uts against enemy tribes like the Keraits and the Tatars, taking part in legendary conflicts like the wonderfully named Battle of the Seventy Felt Cloaks.

Reviews suggest that this short books leaves out a lot of the facts about Genghis, as known by modern historians. No doubt it does. But what it leaves in is the romance and fairy-tale feel of the wonderfully evocative names, the distant lifestyles, and the legendary stories about strange peoples and faraway places which for a happy couple of hours really caught my imagination.

The statue of Genghis Khan outside the parliament building in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.


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