The Georgics by Virgil (39 to 29 BC)

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

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

Poetic background to the Georgics

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

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

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

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

Political background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyne’s overview

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

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

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

Packed

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

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

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

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

Two translations

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

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

Georgic 1 (514 lines)

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

‘pitiful man’ (Fallon, 238)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little conclusion

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

Georgic 2 (542 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgic 3 (566 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex

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

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

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

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

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

Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgic 4 (566 lines)

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

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

His bees are also absolutely passionless (197 onwards):

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

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

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

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

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

The Aristaeus epyllion (lines 317 to 566)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What? Where did all this come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgil’s conclusion

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

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

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

Pyne’s interpretation

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

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

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

Incompletion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The influence of Lucretius

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

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

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

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

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

Stoicism = political involvement = messy Republican democracy = Cicero

Epicureanism = political detachment = submission to the princeps = Virgil

Invocations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallon fantastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

on the Nile
whose flowing waters form floodpools
(4.289)

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

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

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

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

He can be intensely lyrical:

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

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

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

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

you might as well get on with it (1.230)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

going to no end of bother
(4.265)

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

So pay close attention (1.187)

Keep all this in mind. (2.259)

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

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

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

Listen. I’ll tell you all… (4.286)

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

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

At moments dipping into Shakespearian phraseology:

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

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

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

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

And that’s a fact

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

De republica by Cicero (54 BC)

The best possible political constitution represents a judicious blend of these three types: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.
(De republica by Cicero, fragment of Book 2)

De republica was written by the Roman lawyer, orator, politician and philosophical populariser Marcus Tullius Cicero between 54 and 51 BC. It is variously translated into English as The Republic, A Treatise on the Commonwealth, On the state or On government.

Cicero was not himself a philosopher or political theorist of note. This work was one among nearly twenty in which he translated the best of Greek philosophy into Latin, pulling various Greek theories together into new texts and introducing or inventing Latin terms to translate Greek ideas. Because of the purity and eloquence of his Latin many of these texts were preserved throughout the Middle Ages as teaching aids, and were revived during the Renaissance. In this way Cicero’s works played a central role in preserving the philosophical, moral and political ideas of the ancient world into the modern era and shaping their revival.

The Republic is cast as a dialogue, the form immortalised by Plato (427 to 327 BC). Unlike a manifesto or treatise a dialogue isn’t a straightforward statement of views. Having a number of people debate various opinions makes it more of a teaching or heuristic form. Students can be asked to study the work, then to describe which viewpoint they support and why.

As with Cicero’s other dialogues, The Republic studiously avoided controversy by being set in the past among long dead characters. It is set in the country villa of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (185 to 129 BC), known as Scipio Aemilianus or Scipio Africanus the Younger. Scipio was a Roman general and statesman who led the third and final war against Carthage, personally overseeing its siege, capture and utter destruction, as vividly described in Richard Miles’s history of Carthage. Scipio also restored order after assassination of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC and mediated between the political factions.

The Republic takes place in Scipio’s estate over three consecutive days. Each day is described in two books, with an introduction by Cicero preceding the dialogue of each book, making six books in all.

  • Book 1 – Scipio outlines the three types of government (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) and asserts the best type is a mix of all three
  • Book 2 – Scipio gives quite a detailed outline of early Roman history in order to show the evolution of the Roman constitution
  • Book 3 – Philus and Laelius engage in a set-piece debate about whether pragmatic injustice (Philus) or ideal justice (Laelius) are intrinsic to politics
  • Book 4 – is a discussion of education
  • Book 5 – considers the qualities of the ideal citizen in government
  • Book 6 – considers the character of the ideal ruler

The Republic survives only in fragments. Large parts of the text are missing. Books one to 3 survive in significant chunks, but the from the fourth and fifth books only minor fragments survive, and all the other books have a distressing number of missing passages.

The only part of the sixth book which survives is the final section, a relatively short passage in which Scipio tells his guests about a dream in which he was whirled up into space and shown the structure of the universe. This has survived because it was the subject of a commentary by the neoplatonist philosopher Macrobius and this part of the text, along with Macrobius’s commentary, became very popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with their profound interest in astrology and astronomy.

The best preserved parts of the text discuss constitutions and political theory but it is important to realise that this was only part of Cicero’s aim. The discussion of constitutions fills only a third of the book. For Cicero ‘politics’ wasn’t a narrow profession but a branch of philosophy which dealt in a broader way with human nature and ethics as demonstrated in societies. This explains why the treatise deals with different types of constitution early on in order to get on to the more important subjects of what kind of citizen and what kind of ruler are required to create a perfect state. The best kind of state is not a dry technical question, comparable to modern debates about different voting procedures: the best kind of state produces the best kinds of citizens and the best kinds of rulers (optimus civis) and so must be considered in the broadest context.

The characters

The discussions take place between no fewer than nine named individuals who are given speaking parts.

Scipio was maybe the most pre-eminent figure in mid-second century BC Rome, a very successful general who, however, a) did not abuse his power as later generals such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar did and b) was a noted patron of artists and writers such as the Greek historian Polybius. You can see why Cicero hero worshiped him.

Other characters

  • Gaius Laelius: close friend and associate of Scipio, consul in 140 BC, promoter of the study of literature and philosophy, practical and down to earth.
  • Lucius Furius Philus: consul 136 BC, orator, a man of great personal rectitude who takes on the defence of injustice, in book 3, for the sake of the debate
  • Manius Manilius: consul in 149 BC, a venerable legal expert.
  • Quintus Mucius Scaevola: Laelius’s son-in-law, a legal scholar and patron of the young Cicero.
  • Spurius Mummius: conservative and anti-democrat.
  • Quintus Aelius Tubero: Scipio’s nephew, tribune c. 129 BC. Legal scholar dedicated to Stoicism.
  • Gaius Fannius: consul in 122 BC, follower of Stoicism, historian and orator. Son-in-law to Laelius.
  • Publius Rutilius Rufus: a politician admired for his honesty, dedicated to Stoicism.

Book One

Missing its preface, the text we have starts in mid sentence and mid argument. Cicero is arguing against the Epicurean belief that the educated man should hold aloof from politics in order to preserve his calm. On the contrary, Cicero argues that the highest form of moral activity and of virtue consists of the practical application of morality in the practice of statecraft.

Then Cicero the narrator hands over to the supposed discussion held at Scipio’s house where his guests ask Scipio’s opinions.

The conversation starts with one of his visitors talking about the rare phenomenon of two suns being seen in the sky. But Scipio repeats the Greek idea (Aristotle) that there is little we can know about the workings of the cosmos whereas we very much can study human beings, how they behave, morality, epistemology and so on, and that’s what we ought to do.

Scipio follows his Greek predecessors in claiming that human beings seem to have an innate compulsion to live together in communities i.e. we are not a solitary species (Book I, section 39). When this happens there are three ways communities of humans organise their power: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Each has its merits:

Kings attract us by affection, aristocracies by good sense, and democracies by freedom. (I, 55)

Each has a dark side, when it becomes corrupt. Monarchy becomes despotism, aristocracy becomes oligarchy and democracy becomes mob rule (I, 44).

Personally, Scipio thinks a careful mixture of all three is best (I, 69), but if he had to pick just one it would be monarchy. This is because there is only one king god in heaven, Jupiter (I, 57). Every family has only one father and a king is like the father of his subjects (I, 54). There can be only one ruling element in the human mind, which is sovereign over all the other passions, and this is Reason (I, 60). Only one person can run a household, only one person can be in charge of a ship, only one person can treat us for illness. And when people are deprived of a just king they are like orphans.

But the weakness of rule by a king is that when they go wrong, they go really wrong and become tyrants. Therefore the most stable and also the most ‘just’ form of government is one which permits a balance of power between the different classes and so is ‘equally just to all ranks of society’ (II, 55). He thinks this has best been achieved by the Roman constitution with its balance between the powers of a king (vested for one year only in the role of the consuls), the moderating influence of the aristocracy (embodied by the wisdom and experience of the senate and a voting system heavily skewed towards the rich and ‘best’ in society) and the voice of the people (expressed in the office of tribune of the plebs and the voting power of the people’s assemblies).

Book two

Scipio/Cicero come to the bold conclusion that the best possible political constitution in the world is the one created by their Roman forebears and handed down to himself and his contemporaries, the inheritance of Rome, ‘the greatest State of all’!

This is as laughably self-centred as the great German philosopher Hegel pondering deeply and concluding that the best possible way to organise a society was…the constitution of the Prussian state of his day! Or the booming confidence of late Victorians that the British Empire with its constitutional monarchy was the best imaginable form of government.

He gives a deeply traditional and patriotic account of the founding of Rome by the wise and godlike Romulus and the cumulative constitutional innovations of the traditional and legendary seven kings of Rome, dwelling on each of them at some length and the great virtues of the Roman people:

The Roman people became strong, not by chance, but through their own good sense and their firm system of values… (II, 30)

The underlying point of book two is that the Roman constitution wasn’t created by one wise lawgiver (cf Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Athens) but developed and evolved over a long period, with successive rules adding processes, creating the complex voting procedures, organising the population into tribes but also, for voting purposes, into centuries, and setting up assemblies where they could debate. What struck me is how close this is to the justification of English traditionalists for the English constitution, which is nowhere written down but amounts to a tangle of precedents and traditions.

This is sort of interesting but it is history not philosophy or political theory, history with occasional comments. The notes to the Oxford University Press translation point out where Scipio differs from the more comprehensive account given by Titus Livius (Livy) in his history of Rome written 10 or 15 years later, which is indicative of the way the account of sort of interesting but mainly of academic interest.

At the same time as the thinking is fairly simplistic there’s also something hyperbolical and exaggerated about Scipio’s diction:

As soon as this king turned to a mastery less just than before, he instantly became a tyrant, and no creature more vile or horrible than a tyrant, or more hateful to gods and men, can be imagined ; for, though he bears a human form, yet he surpasses the most monstrous of the wild beasts in the cruelty of his nature. (II, 49)

The underlying thought is as simple minded as a fairy story, but the language has the vehemence of a rabble-rousing political speech. Either way, it often has neither the depth or sober objective language you might expect from ‘philosophy’.

In section 54 Scipio makes explicit why he is reviewing early Roman constitutional history in such detail: it is to point to examples of the wise men who created new and useful innovations. Publius Valerius emerges as a notable example, the man who demonstrated his wisdom by: moving house from the top of the Velian Hill where the kings had lived; passing a law forbidding a Roman citizen from being flogged or put to death without appeal; had a colleague elected as co-ruler, to be called consuls, and decided that they would rule on alternate months and be guarded by lictors only for that month.

This brings out something he’d mentioned earlier which is the aim of this discourse is not to debate the theoretical nature of an ideal state, as Plato did in his Republic, but to describe the practical reality of such a state and, especially, the qualities required of the Ideal Stateman to run it.

Towards the end of book 2 Scipio recapitulates:

I defined the three commendable types of States and the three bad types which are their opposites. Next I demonstrated that no single one of these types is the ideal, but that a form of government which is an equal mixture of the three good forms is superior to any of them by itself. As for my using our own State as a pattern, I did so, not to help me to define the ideal constitution (for that could be done without using any pattern at all), but in order to show, by illustrations from the actual history of the greatest State of all, what it was that reason and speech were striving to make clear.

The ideal statesman:

He should be given almost no other duties than this one (for it comprises most of the others) – of improving and examining himself continually, urging others to imitate him, and by the splendour of his mind and conduct offering himself as a mirror to his fellow citizens. (II, 69)

Here you can see how, lacking any knowledge of economics or class or social or technological developments, no financial theory and no knowledge of the vast amounts of data we have been collecting about ‘society’ since the industrial revolution and which underpin all modern politics – in this huge vacuum of knowledge Cicero, like Sallust and Plutarch, conceives of politics as being predominantly about individuals and, this being so, overly obsess about the character of the Ideal Statesman, completely omitting the proficiency in economics, law, and statistics which modern politics call for, and the way the huge structure of the state bureaucracy measures outcomes by data: inflation, unemployment, GDP, health outcomes and so on.

By contrast with the vast complexity of the modern state, Cicero’s image of the Ideal Ruler is closer to fairy tale than modern political theory: ‘…by the splendour of his mind and conduct offering himself as a mirror to his fellow citizens.’

I suppose it represents an enormous shift from a theory based on morality and ethics to one based entirely on utilitarian values: does it work, is it good for the economy, for most people, is it good for my core voters, these are the questions a modern politicians asks.

And the absence of the huge body of theory and statistical information which forms the basis of modern politics explains why political ‘philosophy’ from Plato, through the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Renaissance and well into the modern era relied on analogies rather than data. They had nothing else to go on. So they compared the ideal state to a well-ordered mind, or to the human body where all the parts have to co-operate, or to the harmonious movements of the celestial bodies through the heaves; or compared Reason’s control over the mind to a father’s control over his sons or a master’s control over his slaves (III, 37) etc etc. Analogy rather than data.

All this is sweet and lovely but like a child’s colouring book compared to the complex technocracy of the modern state. Immersing yourself in a text like this continually reminds the reader of children’s books and fairy tales.

Book three

Fragments in which Cicero explains that despite our failings, humans have inside us the divine fire of Reason. He briefly sketches the invention of language (interesting) and maths before moving onto teachers or truth and moral excellence blah blah which, when put into practice, leads to the art of governing.

Comparison of philosophers, who teach moral excellence and best conduct through words alone, and statesmen, who promote moral excellence and best conduct through actions and laws. Clearly the latter are more effective and important (III, 7).

The 12 or so pages of fragments we have of book 3 indicate that it was conceived as a debate between Laelius and Philus about whether injustice is a necessary part of political rule, whether it is inevitable and unavoidable. What gives ancient books like this their flavour is the inclusion of myths and legends and fanciful imagery which, to repeat myself, are more like fairy tales than political analysis. Thus Philus kicks off his presentation of the case that injustice is an inevitable and necessary part of politics by asking his audience to imagine they are flying in a chariot of winged snakes:

If one could visit many diverse nations and cities and examine them, travelling about in Pacuvius’ famous ‘chariot of winged snakes’ one would see first of all in Egypt, a land which has escaped change more successfully than any other, and which preserves in written records the events of countless centuries, a bull, which the Egyptians call Apis, is deemed a god, and many other monsters and animals of every sort are held sacred as divine. (III, 14)

When he gets going, Philus makes a persuasive argument that there is no such thing as natural justice, nature does not implant justice in the human mind, there are no universal laws. On the contrary, the point of his metaphor of flying over the countries of the Mediterranean is to survey just how varied and irreconcilable all their laws, and customs and religions are with each other. QED: there is no one universal law or notion of justice.

No fewer than 80 leaves of book 3 are missing. From references and summaries in other, later authors we know some of the contents. Apparently Philus makes the anti-Roman point that empire is nothing but stealing other people’s lands and goods. Romans hold aggressive generals to be epitomes of valour and excellence (‘He advanced the bounds of empire’ is their highest compliment) when they are, of course, the same as all other aggressive conquerors of all other nations. The fact that the Romans have priests formally declare war just shows their hypocrisy in dressing up greed and criminality in fancy words.

When we come back to the actual text Philus makes the simple (and, to the modern mind, sympathetic) argument that the kind of mixed constitution supported by Scipio doesn’t derive from Virtue and Wisdom but from the simple fact that each rank (or class) fears the power of the others and so seeks to check it (a proto-Hobbesian view, maybe). The mother or justice is not nature or virtue but weakness and fear.

The good life is based, not on virtue, justice and selflessness, but on looking out for yourself and your family, on practical assessments of what will bring you most benefit. And as with families so with states: dress it up how you like, statecraft and international affairs are based on brute assessments of power and self interest. And they should be (III, 28).

This is thrilling stuff and the editor of the OUP edition (Niall Rudd) notes that, once Philus has finished his case, Laelius, who follows and argues the contrary case, can’t really rebut his analysis and so ignores his points to argue something slightly different, which is the importance of the notion of justice for the administration of a state.

It is symptomatic of the conservatism and narrow-mindedness of Roman thought that this negative, cynical and so unpopular point of view is attributed to a foreigner, a Greek, the philosopher Carneades and that when Laelius speaks, he roundly attacks it for its immorality and calls Carneades ‘a filthy scoundrel’ (III, 32).

Laelius proceeds to give a positive but very naive definition of law as a Platonic fact of nature, eternal and unchanging, which all men must obey, which sounds magnificent and is obvious tripe:

True law is right reason in agreement with nature. It is of universal application, unchanging and everlasting. It summons to duty by its commands, and averts from wrongdoing by its prohibitions… It is a sin to try to alter this law, nor is it allowable to attempt to repeal any part of it, and it is impossible to abolish it… We cannot be freed from its obligations by senate or people, and we need not look outside ourselves for an expounder or interpreter of it. And there will not be different laws at Rome and at Athens, or different laws now and in the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and all times, and there will be one master and ruler, that is, God who is the author, proposer and interpreter of that law. (III, 33)

Laelius appears to go on to describe how this eternal law was embodied and followed by specific Romans from history, but we have only fragments.

Then Scipio comes back in as the main speaker, recapitulating his idea of the three types of government, asking which one is the ‘true’ meaning of a republic. The text breaks off abruptly just as the speakers were going to address the merits of the uncorrupted versions of the three types.

Book four

The subject of book four is clearly intended to be Education and address the question: what kind of education is best for citizens of the ideal state? As with the other books, Cicero does not proceed from philosophical first principles, as per Plato, but ranges far and wide through Roman and Greek history, comparing practices and laws. But the book is in, to quote Rudd’s words, ‘a pitiful state’, barely four pages of fragments. The longest fragment is where a speaker is made to explain at length why poets and playwrights should not be allowed to pillory statesmen and generals (IV, 11 to 12).

This, in my opinion, is the problem with all theories which start out by defining Virtue and Morality and The Good and so on – they always lead to strict definitions, which themselves inevitably lead to very strict rules about encouraging said Virtue and Suppressing Vice or anything which demeans or criticises Virtue or encourages Vice.

And so, by a few easy steps, these arguments all-too-often arrive, with the ‘noblest’ of intentions, at state censorship: the censorship of Cromwell’s England, revolutionary France, Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Taliban Afghanistan and any number of authoritarian regimes in between. Anyone who sets out to define or justify Absolute Values ends up defending absolutist states. (Discuss)

Book five

This was evidently meant to address the character of the Ideal Statesman but is even more fragmentary than book four, with only sections 3, 5, 6 and 7 surviving (each book originally had up to 100 sections) and a handful of scraps barely making up 3 pages of a modern book.

What we have is a lament that in the olden days Rome was ruled by Great Men, Excellent Men, Men of Virtue who knew how to rule wisely, but the present age is ruled by the selfish and greedy who have let the excellent institutions they inherited decay and collapse.

What we have is a lament that in the olden days Rome was ruled by Great Men, Excellent Men, Men of Virtue who knew how to rule wisely, but the present age is ruled by the selfish and greedy who have let the excellent institutions they inherited decay and collapse. Where are the great men of yesteryear? This developed into a stereotyped genre or topic during the Middle Ages which was given its own name, the ubi sunt (‘where are they?’) topos.

Long before living memory our ancestral way of life produced outstanding men, and those excellent men preserved the old way of life and the institutions of our forefathers. (V, 1)

But:

What remains of those ancient customs on which he said the state of Rome stood firm? We see them so ruined by neglect that not only do they go unobserved, they are no longer known. (V, 2)

Oh woe. But then every generation feels it is living in a uniquely degraded era when the great institutions it inherited from the past are collapsing and where are the Great Leaders of yesteryear and the end times are upon us. But they never are. We muddle through and 20 years later people look back to that time as a golden age.

I spent most of the 1990s ashamed of living under the government of the bumbling poltroon John Major – and yet now I regularly read articles which look back to the 90s as a golden age. Plus ca change…

Book six

In even worse state than book 5, with barely a page and a half of disconnected fragments. What does survive intact is the passage which was intended to conclude the entire book. In current editions this is numbered sections 9 to 29. It is the concluding passage in which the main speaker, Scipio, tells his companions about a dream he had. In this dream he is whirled up into heaven and sees a) the structure of the solar system and the universe and b) the smallness of the earth and the littleness of human existence. This passage has survived because the 4th century AD Roman grammarian and philosopher Macrobius wrote an extensive commentary about it. This commentary became very popular during the Middle Ages, helping to define the medieval view of the cosmos and surviving in multiple copies. So, in this roundabout manner, these 20 sections of Cicero’s book survive.

In the Dream Scipio describes how his adoptive grandfather comes to him and predicts the future, namely that he will be elected consul, destroy Carthage and be given a triumph in Rome, before being sent to end the war in Spain and serving as consul a second time.

But this is just the beginning. He is introduced to the spirit of his father, Paulus, who explains how souls are derived from the stars (they are now standing in the middle of the sky among the stars) before being consigned to a body down there on earth. How can you escape from the body and join the other spirits? Here is the point of the vision and the climax of the book’s entire consideration of political theory: you get to heaven by doing your patriotic duty.

Respect justice and do your duty. That is important in the case of parents and relatives, and paramount in the case of one’s country. That is the way of life which leads to heaven and to the company, here, of those who have already completed their lives. (VI, 16)

Cicero shows his difference from the Greek philosophers he copied in his very Roman emphasis on the practical. After all the fine talk about constitutions and justice and the character of the statesman, what matters is doing your patriotic duty.

There is a kind of path for noble patriots leading to the gate of heaven… (VI, 26)

The true part of a man is his mind, not his body. The mind is immortal, godlike. The best way to employ this godlike mind is in activity for the safety of one’s country. Minds which have devoted themselves to this cause will fly more quickly to heaven (VI, 29). If Cicero was standing to attention saluting the flag with tears running down his face while the national anthem played, the intended conclusion of his book could hardly be more sentimentally patriotic.

Which makes sense because this is precisely how the entire book opens. The very first sentence reads: ‘Had it not been for his sense of patriotic duty […] would not have delivered our country…’ (I, 1) and goes on to assert:

I simply state this as a basic fact: nature has given to mankind such a compulsion to do good, and such a desire to defend the well-being of the community, that this force prevails over all the temptations of pleasure and ease. (I, 1)

So it might rope in a number of other subjects along the way, but De republica is fundamentally a work of Roman patriotism.

Thoughts

I found The Republic hard to read for two reasons. It really is very fragmented – the text is continually breaking off mid-sentence with parentheses telling you that 2 or 4 or 80 (!) pages are missing, so that you resume reading a lot further along in the original text, when the characters are discussing a completely different subject. It’s like listening to an old-style LP of a classical symphony that is so scratched that you barely get 20 seconds of melody before it skips 20 seconds or several minutes. Very disconnected. Snippets.

But there’s a deeper problem with the book which is its lack of sophistication, which makes it, ultimately, boring. The best preserved passage in Book One tells us there are three forms of government and each has a debased version, which makes for a neat, schematic table but is, ultimately, useless for our current needs, in Britain, in 2022.

When Scipio argues that monarchy is the best of the three types because there’s only one king of the gods, only one person can be in charge of a household, and only one element, Reason, which controls the mind…well, these are quaint ways of thinking – using child-like analogies rather than data, as I explained above – which have a sort of historical interest, but they’re not ideas anyone alive today would waste their time espousing.

And most of the contents are like that. Of antiquarian interest but nothing much to make you sit up and think. The actual history of the late republic, when Cicero was writing, is much more thought-provoking than this essay.

I appreciate that Cicero was writing a kind of abstract, a pedagogical text designed to raise the standard of political discourse in his own time – but in actual fact, nothing he wrote affected the fate of the Roman Republic in the slightest, and it is highly symbolic that the head that conceived these highfalutin ideas and the hands that wrote them were chopped off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. That was the utterly unscrupulous, deeply, immoral and justice-free reality of Roman politics.

A list of analogies

Once I’d realised that Cicero’s thought is guided more by analogies than data or statistics (of which he has almost no concept, apart from election results and the size of armies), it amused me to collect analogies from the last few books, although too late to compile a definitive list.

The mind rules over the body like a king over his subjects or a father over his children. The mind rules over its desires like a master over his slaves. (III, 37)

The sun is the mind and regulator of the universe. (VI, 17)

As the god who moves the universe is immortal, so the soul which moves the body is immortal (VI, 26)

Niall Rudd’s translation

A word of praise for this Oxford University Press edition. I described, probably at too much length, how strongly I disliked the prose styles and odd attitudes of A.J. Woodman, who translated Sallust, and Carolyn Hammond, who translated Caesar’s Gallic War, both for OUP, so that I abandoned reading both their translations. This edition restored my faith in OUP editions of the classics.

The introduction, mostly written by Jonathan Powell, is a model of lucidity, useful and to the point, as are the extensive notes, scholarly and interesting. There is a useful list of names and also an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation is by Professor Niall Rudd (1927 to 2015) and was first published in 1998. It is clear and unaffected – you feel you are engaging directly with the text. I cannot judge its fidelity to the source Latin, but it makes for a lucid, engaging read, as I hope you can tell from the many quotations I take from it. All round, it is a gold standard edition.


Credit

The Republic and The Laws by Cicero, translated by Niall Rudd with introduction and notes by Jonathan Powell and Niall Rudd, was published by Oxford University Press in 1998. All references are to the 2008 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

The way things are by Lucretius translated by Rolfe Humphries (1969)

I try to learn about the way things are
And set my findings down in Latin verse.

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

This is a hugely enjoyable translation of Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura which literally translates as ‘On the nature of things’. Fluent, full of force and vigour, it captures not only the argumentative, didactic nature of the poem but dresses it in consistently fine phrasing. It has an attractive variety of tones, from the lofty and heroic to the accessible and demotic, sometimes sounding like Milton:

Time brings everything
Little by little to the shores of light
By grace of art and reason, till we see
All things illuminate each other’s rise
Up to the pinnacles of loftiness.

(Book V, final lines, 1,453 to 1,457)

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

We had better have some principle
In our discussion of celestial ways,
Under what system both the sun and moon
Wheel in their courses, and what impulse moves
Events on earth.

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

Sometimes like the guy sitting next to you at the bar:

I keep you waiting with my promises;
We’d best be getting on.

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

What once was too-much-feared becomes in time
The what-we-love-to-stomp-on.

(Book V, lines 1,140 and 1,141)

Titus Lucretius Carus

Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher who lived from about 99 to about 55 BC. Not much is known about him. His only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura, a didactic epic poem of some 7,500 lines, written entirely to promote the abstract philosophy of Epicureanism. No heroes, no gods, no battles, no epic speeches. Just 7,500 lines comprehensively describing Epicurus’s atomic materialism and his ‘scientific’, rationalist worldview.

The title is usually translated into English as On the Nature of Things. It is a mark of Rolfe Humphries’ attractive contrariness that he drops the almost universally used English title in favour of the slightly more confrontational and all-encompassing The ways things are. He himself in his preface describes this title as ‘simple, forthright, insistent, peremptory’. Peremptory. Nice word. Like so much else in his translation, it feels instantly right.

The various modern translations

In the past few months I’ve had bad experiences with both Oxford University Press and Penguin translations of Latin classics. I thought the Penguin translation of Sallust by A.J. Woodman was clotted, eccentric and misleading. But I also disliked the OUP translation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars by Carolyn Hammond, which I bought brand new but disliked her way with English in just the introduction before I’d even begun the text, so that I ended up abandoning her for the more fluent 1951 Penguin translation by S.A Handford (which also features a useful introduction by Jane Gardner, who comes over as intelligent and witty in a way Hammond simply isn’t).

Shopping around for an English translation of Lucretius, I was not impressed by the snippets of either the Penguin or OUP translations which are available on Amazon. It was only when I went further down the list and read the paragraph or so of Rolfe Humphries’ translation which is quoted in the sales blurb that I was immediately gripped and persuaded to cough up a tenner to buy it on the spot.

I knew an OUP edition would be festooned with notes, many of which would be insultingly obvious (Rome is the capital city of Italy, Julius Caesar was the great Roman general who blah blah blah). Humphries’ edition certainly has notes but only 18 pages of them tucked right at the very back of the text (there’s no list of names or index). And there’s no indication of them in the actual body text, no asterisks or superscript numbers to distract the reader, to make you continually stop and turn to the end notes section.

Instead the minimal annotation is part of Humphries’ strategy to hit you right between the eyes straightaway with the power and soaring eloquence of this epic poem, to present it as one continuous and overwhelming reading experience, without footling distractions and interruptions. Good call, very good call.

[Most epics are about heroes, myths and legends, from Homer and Virgil through Beowulf and Paradise Lost. Insofar as it is about the nature of the universe i.e. sees things on a vast scale, The way things are is comparable in scope and rhetoric with Paradise Lost and frequently reaches for a similar lofty tone, but unlike all those other epic poems it doesn’t have heroes and villains, gods and demons, in fact it has no human protagonists at all. In his introduction, Burton Feldman suggests the only protagonist is intelligence, the mind of man in quest of reality, seeking a detached lucid contemplation of the ways things are. On reflection I think that’s wrong. This description is more appropriate for Wordsworth’s epic poem on the growth and development of the poet’s mind, The Prelude. There’s a stronger case for arguing that the ‘hero’ of the poem is Epicurus, subject of no fewer than three sutained passages of inflated praise. But ultimately surely the protagonist of The way things are is the universe itself, or Lucretius’s materialistic conception of it. The ‘hero’ is the extraordinary world around us which he seeks to explain in solely rationalist, materialist way.]

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

It was a grind reading Cicero’s On the nature of the gods but one thing came over very clearly (mainly from the long, excellent introduction by J.M. Ross). That Epicurus’s philosophy was designed to allay anxiety and fear.

Epicurus identified two causes of stress and anxiety in human beings: fear of death and fear of the gods (meaning their irrational, unpredictable interventions in human lives so). So Epicurus devised a system of belief based on ‘atomic materialism’, on a view of the universe as consisting of an infinite number of atoms continually combining in orderly and predictable ways according to immutable laws, designed to banish those fears and anxieties forever.

If men could see this clearly, follow it
With proper reasoning, their minds would be
Free of great agony and fear

(Book III, lines 907-909)

Irrelevant though a 2,000 year old pseudo-scientific theory may initially sound, it has massive consequences and most of the poem is devoted to explaining Epicurus’s materialistic atomism (or atomistic materialism) and its implications.

Epicurus’s atomic theory

The central premise of Epicureanism is its atomic theory, which consists of two parts:

  1. Nothing comes of nothing.
  2. Nothing can be reduced to nothing.

The basic building blocks of nature are constant in quantity, uncreated and indestructible, for all intents and purposes, eternal. Therefore, everything in nature is generated from these elementary building blocks through natural processes, is generated, grows, thrives, decays, dies and decomposes into its constituent elements. But the sum total of matter in the universe remains fixed and unalterable.

Once we have seen that Nothing comes of nothing,
We shall perceive with greater clarity
What we are looking for, whence each thing comes,
How things are caused, and no ‘gods’ will’ about it!

It may sound trivial or peripheral, but what follows from this premise is that nature is filled from top to bottom with order and predictability. There cannot be wonders, freak incidents, arbitrary acts of god and so on. The unpredictable intervention of gods is abolished and replaced by a vision of a calm, ordered world acting according to natural laws and so – There is no need for stress and anxiety.

Because if no new matter can be created, if the universe is made of atoms combining into larger entities based on fixed and predictable laws, then two things follow.

Number One, There are no gods and they certainly do not suddenly interfere with human activities. In other words, nobody should be afraid of the wrath or revenge of the gods because in Epicurus’s mechanistic universe such a thing is nonsensical.

Holding this knowledge, you can’t help but see
That nature has no tyrants over her,
But always acts of her own will; she has
No part of any godhead whatsoever.

(Book II, lines 1,192 to 1,195)

And the second consequence is a purely mechanistic explanation of death. When we, or any living thing, dies, its body decomposes back into its constituent atoms. There is no state of death, there is no soul or spirit, and so there is no afterlife in which humans will be punished or rewarded. We will not experience death, because all the functioning of our bodies, including perception and thought, will all be over, with no spirit or soul lingering on.

Therefore: no need for ‘the silly, vain, ridiculous fear of gods’ (III, 982), no need to fear death, no need to fear punishment in some afterlife. Instead, we must live by the light of the mind and rational knowledge.

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

Interestingly Lucretius likes this phrase so much that he repeats it verbatim at Book II, lines 57 to 61, at Book III, lines 118 to 112, and Book VI, lines 42 to 45. Like all good teachers he knows the essence of education is repetition.

Epicurus the god

The radicalness of this anti-religious materialist philosophy explains why, early in Book I, Lucretius praises Epicurus extravagantly. He lauds him as the man whose imagination ranged the lengths of the universe, penetrated into the secrets of its origin and nature, and returned to free the human race from bondage. One man alone, Epicurus, set us free by enquiring more deeply into the nature of things than any man before him and so springing ‘the tight-barred gates of Nature’s hold asunder’.

Epicureanism is as much as ‘religious’ experience as a rational philosophy and Lucretius’s references to Epicurus in the poem could almost be hymns to Christ from a Christian epic. They are full of more than awe, of reverence and almost worship. (Book I 66ff, Book II, Book III 1042, opening of Book V).

He was a god, a god indeed, who first
Found a new life-scheme, a system, a design
Now known as Wisdom or Philosophy…

He seems to us, by absolute right, a god
From whom, distributed through all the world,
Come those dear consolations of the mind,
That precious balm of spirit.

(Book V, lines 11 to 13 and 25 to 28)

Lucretius’s idolisation of Epicurus just about stops short of actual worship because Religion is the enemy. Organised religion is what keeps people in fear of the gods and makes their lives a misery. Epicurus’s aim was to liberate mankind from the oppression and wickedness into which Religious belief, superstition and fanatacism all too often lead it.

Religion the enemy of freedom

Lucretius loathes and detests organised Religion. It oppresses everyone, imposing ludicrous fictions and superstitions about divine intervention and divine punishment. Nonsense designed to oppress and quell the population.

I teach great things.
I try to loose men’s spirits from the ties,
Tight knotted, which religion binds around them.

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

As a vivid example of the way Religion always stands with evil he gives the story of Agamemnon being told by soothsayers to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease the gods, to calm the seas, so that the fleet of 1,000 Greek ships can sail from Greece to Troy. Could you conceive a worse example of the wicked behaviour religious belief can lead people into.

Too many times
Religion mothers crime and wickedness…
A mighty counsellor, Religion stood
With all that power for wickedness.

(Book I, lines 83 to 84 and 99 to 100)

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

The notes to the book were written by Professor George Strodach. Like the notes in H.H. Scullard’s classic history of Republican Rome, Strodach’s notes are not the frequent little factoids you so often find in Penguin or OUP editions (Democritus was born in Thrace around 460 BC etc), but fewer in number and longer, amounting to interesting essays in their own right.

Among several really interesting points, he tells us that after Alexander the Great conquered the Greek city states in the late 4th century (320s BC) many of those city states decayed in power and influence and their citizens felt deprived of the civic framework which previously gave their lives meaning. To fill this void there arose two competing ‘salvation ideologies, Stoicism and Epicureanism. Each offered their devotees a meaningful way of life plus a rational and fully worked out account of the world as a whole. In both cases the worldview is the groundwork for ‘the therapy of dislocated and unhappy souls’. In each, the sick soul of the initiate must first of all learn the nature of reality before it can take steps towards leading the good life.

Lucretius’ long poem is by way of leading the novice step by step deeper into a worldview which, once adopted, is designed to help him or her conquer anxiety and achieve peace of mind by abandoning the chains of superstitious religious belief and coming to a full and complete understanding of the scientific, materialistic view of the way things are.

There’s no good life
No blessedness, without a mind made clear,
A spirit purged of error.

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

Hence the poem’s extreme didacticism. It is not so much a long lecture (thought it often sounds like it) as a prolonged initiation into the worldview of the cult of Epicurus, addressed to one person, Lucretius’s sponsor Gaius Memmius, but designed to be used by anyone who can read.

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

Hence the didactic lecturing tone throughout, which tells the reader to listen up, pay attention, focus, remember what he said earlier, lays out a lesson plan, and then proceeds systematically from point to point.

I shall begin
With a discussion of the scheme of things
As it regards the heaven and powers above,
Then I shall state the origin of things,
The seeds from which nature creates all things,
Bids them increase and multiply; in turn,
How she resolves them to their elements
After their course is run.

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

The poem is littered with reminders that it is one long argument, that Lucretius is making a case. He repeatedly tells Memmius to pay attention, to follow the thread of his argument, not to get distracted by common fears or misapprehensions, and takes time to rubbish the theories of rivals.

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

If you know this,
It only takes a very little trouble
To learn the rest: the lessons, one by one,
Brighten each other, no dark night will keep you,
Pathless, astray, from ultimate vision and light,
All things illumined in each other’s radiance.

And it’s quite funny, the (fairly regular) moments when he insists that he’s told us the same thing over and over again, like a schoolteacher starting to be irritated by his pupils’ obtuseness:

  • I have said this many, many times already
  • I am almost tired of saying (III, 692)
  • as I have told you all too many times (IV, 673)
  • Be attentive now. (IV, 878)
  • I have said this over and over, many times. (IV, 1,210)
  • This I’ve said before (VI, 175)
  • Don’t be impatient. Listen! (VI, 244)
  • Remember/Never forget this! (VI, 653 to 654)
  • As I have said before… (VI, 770)
  • Once again/I hammer home this axiom… (VI, 938)

The good life

Contrary to popular belief the Epicureans did not promote a hedonistic life of pleasure. Their aim was negative: the good life is one which is, as far as possible, free from bodily pains and mental anxiety. They deprecated the competitive and acquisitive values so prevalent in first century BC Roman society:

The strife of wits, the wars for precedence,
The everlasting struggle, night and day
To win towards heights of wealth and power.

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

What vanity!
To struggle towards the top, toward honour’s height
They made the way a foul and deadly road,
And when they reached the summit, down they came
Like thunderbolts, for Envy strikes men down
Like thunderbolts, into most loathsome Hell…
…let others sweat themselves
Into exhaustion, jamming that defile
They call ambition…

(Book V, lines 1,124 to 1,130 and 1,134 to 1,136)

Instead the Epicureans promoted withdrawal from all that and the spousal of extreme simplicity of living.

Whereas, if man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, lines 1,117 to 1,120)

This much I think I can, and do, assert:
That our perverse vestigial native ways
Are small enough for reason to dispel
So that it lies within our power to live
Lives worthy of the gods.

This kind of life is challenging to achieve by yourself which is why the Epicureans were noted for setting up small communities of shared values. (See what I mean by the disarmingly open but powerful eloquence of Humphries’ style.)

If man would regulate his life
With proper wisdom, he would know that wealth,
The greatest wealth, is living modestly,
Serene, content with little.

(Book V, 1,118 to 1,121)

Shortcomings of Latin

Lucretius repeatedly points out that it is difficult to write about philosophy in Latin because it doesn’t have the words, the terminology or the traditions which have developed them, unlike the Greeks.

I know
New terms must be invented, since our tongue
Is poor and this material is new.

The poverty of our speech, our native tongue,
Makes it hard for me to say exactly how
These basic elements mingle…

(Book III, lines 293-295)

Interesting because this is the exact same point Cicero makes in the De rerum deorum. Cicero, in his books and letters made clear that his philosophical works as a whole have the aim of importing the best Greek thinking into Latin and, as part of the process, creating new Latin words or adapting old ones to translate the sophisticated philosophical terminology which the Greeks had spent centuries developing.

The really miraculous thing is that Humphries captures all this, or has written an English poem which is actually worth reading as poetry. ‘I

for your sake, Memmius,
Have wanted to explain the way things are
Turning the taste of honey into sound
As musical, as golden, so that I
May hold your mind with poetry, while you
Are learning all about that form, that pattern,
And see its usefulness.

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)

Synopis

Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

– hymn to Venus, metaphorical symbol of the creative urge in all life forms

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

– the two basic postulates of atomism, namely: nothing comes of nothing and the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, cannot be destroyed

– the importance of void or space between atoms which allows movement

– everything else, all human history, even time itself, are by-products or accidents of the basic interplay of atoms and void

– on the characteristics of atoms

– a refutation of rival theories, of Heraclitus (all things are made of fire), Empedocles (set no limit to the smallness of things), the Stoics (who believe everything is made up of mixtures of the 4 elements) and Anaxagoras (who believed everything was made up of miniature versions of itself) – all comprehensively rubbished

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

– the good life is living free from care, fear or anxiety

– varieties of atomic motion namely endless falling through infinite space; atoms travel faster than light

– the atomic swerve and its consequences i.e. it is a slight swerve in the endless downward fall of atoms through infinite space which begins the process of clustering and accumulation which leads to matter which leads, eventually, to the universe we see around us

– how free will is the result of a similar kind of ‘swerve’ in our mechanistic lives

– the conservation of energy

– the variety of atomic shapes and the effects of these on sensation

– atoms themselves have no secondary qualities such as colour, temperature and so on

– there is an infinite number of worlds, all formed purely mechanically i.e. no divine intervention required

– there are gods, as there are men, but they are serenely indifferent to us and our lives: in Epicurus’s worldview, the so-called gods are really just moral exemplars of lives lived with complete detachment, calm and peace (what the Greeks called ataraxia)

to think that gods
Have organised all things for the sake of men
Is nothing but a lot of foolishness. (II, 14-176)

– all things decay and our times are degraded since the golden age (‘The past was better, infinitely so’)

That all things, little by little, waste away
As time’s erosion crumbles them to doom.

Book III (1,094 lines)

– Epicurus as therapist of the soul – this passage, along with other hymns of praise to the great man scattered through the poem, make it clear that Epicurus was more than a philosopher but the founder of a cult whose devotees exalted him

– the fear of hell as the root cause of all human vices

– the material nature of mind and soul – their interaction and relation to the body – spirit is made of atoms like everything else, but much smaller than ‘body atoms’, and rarer, and finely intricated

– rebuttal of Democritus’s theory of how atoms of body and spirit interact (he thought they formed a chains of alternating body and spirit atoms)

– descriptions of bodily ailments (such as epilepsy) and mental ailments( such as fear or depression) as both showing the intimate link between body and spirit

– an extended passage arguing why the spirit or soul is intimately linked with the body so that when one dies, the other dies with it

– the soul is not immortal – therefore there is no ‘transmigration of souls’; a soul which was in someone else for their lifetime does not leave their body upon their death and enter that of the nearest newly-conceived foetus – he ridicules this belief by envisioning the souls waiting in a queue hovering around an egg about to be impregnated by a sperm and all vying to be the soul that enters the new life

– the soul is not immortal – being made of atoms it disintegrates like the body from the moment of death (in lines 417 to 820 Lucretius states no fewer than 26 proofs of the mortality of the soul: Strodach groups them into 1. proofs from the material make-up of the soul; proofs from diseases and their cures; 3. proofs from the parallelism of body and soul; 4. proofs from the various logical absurdities inherent in believing the soul could exist independently of the body)

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

– vivid descriptions of types of people and social situations (at funerals, at banquets) at which people’s wrong understanding of the way things are makes them miserable

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

Because I teach great things, because I strive
To free the spirit, give the mind release
From the constrictions of religious fear…

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

– atomic images or films: these are like an invisible skin or film shed from the surfaces of all objects, very fine, passing through the air, through glass – this is his explanation of how sight and smell work, our senses detect these microscopic films of things which are passing through the air all around us

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

all knowledge is based on the senses; rejecting the evidence of the senses in favour of ideas and theories leads to nonsense, ‘a road to ruin’. Strodach calls this ‘extreme empiricism’ and contrast it with the two other ancient philosophies, Platonism which rejected the fragile knowledge of the senses and erected knowledge on the basis of maths and logic; and Scepticism, which said both mind and body can be wrong, so we have to go on probabilities and experience

– his explanations of sight, hearing and taste are colourful, imaginative, full of interesting examples, and completely wrong

– how we think, based on the theory of ‘images’ derived by the impression of atomic ‘skins’ through our senses; it seems wildly wrong, giving the impression that ‘thought’ is the almost accidental combination of these atomistic images in among the finer textured atoms of the mind

– a review of related topics of human experience, including movement, sleep and dreams, the latter produced when fragments of atomistic images are assembled by the perceiving mind when it is asleep, passive and undirected

– an extended passage ridiculing romantic love which moves on to theory about sex and reproduction, namely that the next generation are a mix of material from each parent, with a load of old wives’ tales about which position to adopt to get pregnant, and the sex or characteristics of offspring derive from the vigour and other characteristics of the parents. Lucretius tries to give a scientific explanation of the many aspects of sex and reproduction which, since he lacked all science, come over as folk myths. But he is a card carrying Epicurean and believes the whole point of life is to avoid anxiety, stress and discombobulation and so, logically enough, despises and ridicules sex and love.

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

– the world is mortal, its origin is mechanical not divine

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

– an extended passage describing the rise of man from lying under bushes in a state of nature through the creation of tribes, then cities – the origin of civilisation, including the invention of kings and hierarchies, the discovery of fire, how to use metals and weave clothes, the invention of language and law and, alas, the development of Religion to awe and terrify ourselves with

This book is the longest and also the weakest, in that Lucretius reveals his woeful ignorance about a whole raft of scientific issues. He thinks the earth is at the centre of the universe and the moon, sun, planets and stars all circle round it. He thinks the earth is a flat surface and the moon and the sun disappear underneath it. He thinks the sun, moon and stars are moved by the wind. He thinks all animals and other life forms were given birth by the earth, and that maggots and worms are generated from soil. In her early days the earth gave birth to all kinds of life forms but this no longer happens because she is tired out. Lucretius is anti-evolutionary in the way he thinks animals and plants and man came into being with abilities fully formed (the eye, nose, hand) and only then found uses for them, rather than the modern view that even slight, rudimentary fingers, hands, sense of smell, taste, sight, would convey evolutionary advantage on their possessors which tend to encourage their development over successive generations.

I appreciate that Lucretius was trying his best to give an objective, rational and unsupernatural account of all aspects of reality. I understand that although his account of the origins of lightning and thunder may be wildly incorrect (clouds contain particles of fire) his aim was worthy and forward looking – to substitute a rational materialistic account for the absurdly anthropocentric, superstitious, god-fearing superstitions of his day, by which people thought lightning and thunder betokened the anger of the gods. He had very good intentions.

But these good intentions don’t stop the majority of his account from being ignorant tripe. Well intention and asking the right questions (what causes rain, what causes thunder, what is lightning, what is magnetism) and trying hard to devise rational answers to them. But wrong about almost everything.

Reading it makes you realise what enormous events the invention of the telescope and the microscope were, both around 1600, Galileo’s proof that the earth orbits round the sun a decade later, the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 1620s, Newton’s theory of gravity in the 1680s, the discovery of electricity around 1800, the theory of evolution in the 1850s, the germ theory of the 1880s and, well, all of modern science.

Reading Lucretius, like reading all the ancients and medieval authors, is to engage with intelligent, learned, observant and sensitive people who knew absolutely nothing about how the world works, what causes natural phenomena, how living organisms came about and evolved, next to nothing about astronomy, geography, geology, biology, physics, chemistry or any of the natural sciences. Their appeal is their eloquence, the beauty of their language and the beguilingness of their fairy tales.

And of course, the scientific worldview is always provisional. It may turn out that everything we believe is wrong and about to be turned upside down by new discoveries and paradigm shifts., It’s happened before.

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

…he cleansed
Our hearts by words of truth; he put an end
To greed and fears; he showed the highest good
Toward which we all are aiming, showed the way…

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

– meteorology: thunder, lightning because the clouds contain gold and seeds of fire, waterspouts

– geological phenomena: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, clouds, rain, why the sea never overflows considering all the rivers running into it, the inundation of the Nile

– why noxious things oppress humanity; pigs hate perfume but love mud!

– four pages about magnetism, noticing and describing many aspects of it but completely wrong about what it is and how it works

– disease, plague and pestilence, which he thinks derive from motes and mist which is in the right ballpark

The odd thing about the entire poem is that it leads up, not to an inspiring vision of the Good Life lived free of anxiety in some ideal Epicurean community, but to a sustained and harrowing description of the great plague which devastated Athens during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC). For four pages the poet lays on detail after detail of the great plague, the symptoms, the horrible suffering and death, its spread, social breakdown, streets full of rotting corpses. And then – it just ends. Stops. Not quite in mid-sentence, but certainly in mid-flow.

The abruptness of this unexpected ending has led many commentators to speculate that Lucretius intended to write a seventh book, which would have been devoted to religion, theology, ethics and led up to the hymn to the Good Life everyone was expecting. I agree. Throughout the poem he is chatty, badgering the reader, telling us he’s embarking on a new subject, repeating things he’s said before, haranguing and nagging us. For the text to just end in the middle of describing men fighting over whose family members will be burned on funeral pyres is macabre and weird. Here are the very last lines:

Everyone in grief
Buried his own whatever way he could
Amid the general panic. Sudden need
And poverty persuaded men to use
Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place
Their dead on pyres prepared for other men’
Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl
To keep the corpses from abandonment.

(Book VI, lines 1,279 to 1,286)

It must be unfinished.

Thoughts

1. The philosophy

I’m very attracted by Epicurus’s thought, as propounded here and in Cicero’s De natura deorum. After a long and sometimes troubled life I very much want to achieve a state of ataraxia i.e. freedom from mental disturbances. However, there seems to me a very big flaw at the heart of Epicureanism. One of the two cardinal fears addressed is fear of the gods, in the sense of fear of their arbitrary intervention in our lives unless we endlessly propitiate these angry entities with sacrifices and processions and whatnot. This fear of punishment and retribution is said to be one of the principle sources of anxiety in people.

Except that this isn’t really true. I live in a society, England, which in 2022 is predominantly godless. Real believers in actual gods are in a distinct minority. And yet mental illnesses, including depression and ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, are more prevalent than ever before, afflicting up to a quarter of the population annually.

It felt to me throughout the poem that accusing religious belief in gods as the principle or sole cause of anxiety and unhappiness is so wide of the mark as to make it useless. Even in a godless world, all humans are still susceptible to utterly random accidents, to a whole range of unfortunate blows, from being diagnosed with cancer to getting hit by a bus, losing your job, losing your house, losing your partner. We are vulnerable to thousands of incidents and accidents which could affect us very adversely and it is not at all irrational to be aware of them, and it is very hard indeed not to worry about them, particularly if you actually do lose your job, your house, your partner, your children, your parents etc.

The idea that human beings waste a lot of time in fear and anxiety and stress and worry is spot on. So the notion that removing this fear and anxiety and stress and worry would be a good thing is laudable. And Epicurus’s argument against the fear of death (death is the end of mind and body both; therefore it is pointless worrying about it because you won’t feel it; it is less than nothing) is still relevant, powerful and potentially helpful.

But the idea that you can alleviate anxiety do that by disproving the existence of ‘gods’ is, alas, completely irrelevant to the real causes of the problem, which have endured long after any ‘fear of the gods’ has evaporated and so is of no practical help at all. All Epicurus and Lucretius’s arguments in this area, fluent and enjoyable though they are, are of purely academic or historical interest. Sadly.

2. The poem

Cicero’s De rerum natura was a hard read because of the unrelentingness of the arguments, many of which seemed really stupid or petty. The way things are, on the contrary, is an amazingly enjoyable read because of the rhythm and pacing and phrasing of the poem.

Lucretius is just as argumentative as Cicero i.e. the poem is packed with arguments following pell mell one after the other (‘Moreover…one more point…furthermore…In addition…’) but this alternates with, or is embedded in, descriptions of human nature, of the world and people around us, and of the make-up of the universe, which are both attractive and interesting in themselves, and also provide a sense of rhythm, changes of subject and pace, to the poem.

Amazingly, although the subject matter is pretty mono-minded and Lucretius is banging on and on about essentially the same thing, the poem itself manages never to be monotonous. I kept reading and rereading entire pages just for the pleasure of the words and phrasing. This is one of the, if not the, most enjoyable classical text I’ve read. And a huge part of that is, I think, down to Humphries’s adeptness as a poet.

Comparison with the Penguin edition

As it happened, just after I finished reading the Humphries translation I came across the 2007 Penguin edition of the poem in a local charity shop and snapped it up for £2. It’s titled The Nature of Things and contains a translation by A.E. Stallings with an introduction and notes by Richard Jenkyns.

Textual apparatus

As you’d expect from Penguin, it’s a much more traditional layout, including not only the translation but an introduction, further reading, an explanation of the style and metre of the translation, 22 pages of factual notes at the end (exactly the kind of fussy, mostly distracting notes the Humphries edition avoids), and a glossary of names.

In addition it has two useful features: the text includes line numberings, given next to every tenth line. It’s a feature of the Humphries version that it’s kept as plain and stripped down as possible with no indication of lines except at the top of the page, so if you want to know which line you’re looking at you have to manually count from the top line downwards. Trivial but irritating.

The other handy thing about the Penguin edition is it gives each of the books a title, absent in the original and Humphries. Again, no biggy, but useful.

  • Book I – Matter and Void
  • Book II – The Dance of Atoms
  • Book III – Mortality and the Soul
  • Book IV – The Senses
  • Book V – Cosmos and Civilisation
  • Book VI – Weather and the Earth

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

Epicurus’s own writings are austere and he was said to disapprove of poetry. Lucretius’s achievement, and what makes his poem so great, was the tremendous depth of lyric feeling he brought to the, potentially very dry, subject matter. He doesn’t just report Epicurus’s philosophy, he infuses it with passion, conviction and new levels of meaning.

This, for Jenkyns, explains a paradox which has bugged scholars, namely why a poem expounding a philosophy which is fiercely anti-religion, opens with a big Hymn to Venus. It’s because Venus is a metaphor for the underlying unity of everything which is implicit in Epicurus’s teaching that there is no spirit, no soul, nothing but atoms in various combinations and this means we are all united in the bounty of nature.

The opponents of Epicureanism commonly treated it as a dull, drab creed; Lucretius’ assertion is that, rightly apprehended, it is beautiful, majestic and inspiring. (p.xviii)

Lucretius’s was very influential on the leading poet of the next generation, Virgil, who assimilated his soaring tone.

The passages praising Epicurus are strategically place throughout the poem, much as invocations of the muses open key books in the traditional classical epic.

Jenkyns points out that Lucretius’s tone varies quite a bit, notable for much soaring rhetoric but also including invective and diatribe, knockabout abuse of rival philosophers, sometimes robustly humorous, sometimes sweetly domestic, sometimes focusing on random observations about everyday life, then soaring into speculation about the stars and the planets. But everything is driven by and reverts to, a tone of impassioned communication. He has seen the light and he is desperate to share it with everyone. It is an evangelical poem.

Stalling’s translation

Quite separate from Jenkyns’s introduction, Stalling gives a 5-page explanation of the thinking behind her translation. The obvious and overwhelming differences are that her version rhymes, and is in very long lines which she calls fourteeners. To be precise she decided to translate Lucretius’s Latin dactylic hexameters into English rhyming heptameters, where heptameter means a line having seven ‘feet’ or beats. What does that mean in practice? Well, count the number of beats in each of these lines. The first line is tricky so I’ve bolded the syllables I think need emphasising:

Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
And the ship-freighted sea – for every species comes to birth
Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
For you, the oceans laugh, the sky grows peaceful after showers…

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

Stalling concedes that the standard form for translating foreign poetry is probably loose unrhymed pentameters, with five beats per line – exactly the metre Humphries uses:

Creatress, mother of the Roman line,
Dear Venus, joy of earth and joy of heaven,
All things that live below that heraldry
Of star and planet, whose processional
Moves ever slow and solemn over us,
All things conceived, all things that face the light
In their bright visit, the grain-bearing fields,
The marinered ocean, where the wind and cloud
Are quiet in your presence – all proclaim
Your gift, without which they are nothingness.

Clearly Humphries’ unrhymed pentameters have a much more light and airy feel. They also allow for snazzy phrasing – I like ‘marinered ocean’, a bit contrived, but still stylish. Or take Humphries’ opening of Book III:

O glory of the Greeks, the first to raise
The shining light out of tremendous dark
Illumining the blessings of our life
You are the one I follow. In your steps
I tread, not as a rival, but for love
Of your example. Does the swallow vie
With swans? Do wobbly-legged little goats
Compete in strength and speed with thoroughbreds?

Now Stalling:

You, who first amidst such thick gloom could raise up so bright
A lantern, bringing everything that’s good in life to light,
You I follow, Glory of the Greeks, and place my feet,
Within your footsteps. Not because I would compete
With you, but for the sake of love, because I long to follow
And long to emulate you. After all, why would a swallow
Strive with swans? How can a kid with legs that wobble catch
Up with the gallop of a horse? – the race would be no match.

Stalling makes the point that the heptameter has, since the early Renaissance, been associated with ballads and with narrative and so is suited to a long didactic poem. Arthur Golding used it in his 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and George Chapman in his 1611 translation of the Iliad. Stalling hopes the ‘old fashioned rhythm and ring’ of her fourteeners will, implicitly, convey ‘something of the archaic flavour of Lucretius’s Latin’ (p.xxvi).

OK, let’s look at the little passage which I noticed crops up no fewer than four times in the poem. Here’s Stalling’s version:

This dread, these shadows of the mind, must thus be swept away
Not by rays of the sun or by the brilliant beams of day,
But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us – her first principle: that nothing’s brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught
.

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

That use of ‘naught’ transports us back to the 1850s and Tennyson. It is consciously backward looking, in sound and meaning and connotation. I can see why: she’s following through on her stated aim of conveying the original archaism of the poem. But, on the whole, I just don’t like the effect. I prefer Humphries’ more modern-sounding diction.

Also, despite having much longer lines to play with, something about the rhythm and the requirement to rhyme each line paradoxically end up cramping Stalling’s ability to express things clearly and simply. Compare Humphries’ version of these same lines:

Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled, not by the sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation. So
Our starting point shall be this principle:
Nothing at all is ever born from nothing
By the gods’ will
.

‘Insight into nature’ and ‘systematic contemplation’ are so much more emphatic and precise than ‘by observing Nature and her laws’ which is bland, clichéd and flabby.

Humphries’ ‘Our starting point shall be this principle’ is a little stagey and rhetorical but has the advantage of being crystal clear. Whereas Stalling’s ‘And this will lay/The warp out for us – her first principle…’ is cramped and confusing. Distracted by the odd word ‘warp’, trying to visualise what it means in this context, means I miss the impact of this key element of Lucretius’s message.

In her translator’s note Stalling refers to earlier translations and has this to say about Humphries:

Rolfe Humphries’ brisk, blank verse translation The way things are (1969) often spurred me to greater vigour and concision. (p.xxviii)

Precisely. I think the Stalling is very capable, and it should be emphasised that the fourteeners really do bed down when you take them over the long haul. If you read just a few lines of this style it seems silly and old fashioned, but if you read a full page it makes sense and after several pages you really get into the swing. It is a good meter for rattling through an extended narrative.

But still. I’m glad I read the poem in the Humphries’ version. To use Stalling’s own phrase, it has ‘greater vigour and concision’. Humphries much more vividly conveys Lucretius’s urgency of tone, his compulsion to share the good news with us and set us free:

…all terrors of the mind
Vanish, are gone; the barriers of the world
Dissolve before me, and I see things happen
All through the void of empty space. I see
The gods majestic, and their calm abodes
Winds do not shake, nor clouds befoul nor snow
Violate with the knives of sleet and cold;
But there the sky is purest blue, the air
Is almost laughter in that radiance,
And nature satisfies their every need,
And nothing, nothing mars their peace of mind.

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

I’m with him, I’m seeing the vision of the passionless gods with him, and I’m caught up in his impassioned repetition of ‘nothing, nothing‘. All of which, alas, is fogged and swaddled in the long fustian lines of Stalling’s version:

…The gods appear to me
Enthroned in all their holiness and their serenity,
And where they dwell, wind never lashes them, cloud never rains,
And snowfall white and crisp with biting frost never profanes.
The canopy of aether over them is always bright
And unbeclouded, lavishing the laughter of its light.
And there they want for nothing; every need, nature supplies;
And nothing ever ruffles their peace of mind. Contrariwise…

The key phrase about the gods’ peace of mind should conclude the line; instead it ends mid-line and is, as a result, muffled. Why? To make way for the rhyme, which in this case is supplied by another heavily archaic word ‘contrariwise’ which has the unintended effect of trivialising the preceding line.

Stalling’s translation is skilful, clever, immensely rhythmic, a fascinating experiment, but…no.

Online translations

Now let me extend my argument. I’ll try
To be as brief as possible, but listen!

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

There have been scores of translations of De rerum natura into English. An easy one to access on the internet is William Ellery Leonard’s 1916 verse translation. Compared to either Stalling or Humphries, it’s dire, but it’s free.


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