The Art of Love by Ovid

ego sum praeceptor Amoris
I am Love’s teacher
(The Art of Love, book 1, line 17)

Ovid the pickup artist

Anyone expecting a treatise on the philosophical types of love à la Plato or Castiglione, or expecting a text about sentimental or romantic forms of love, will be very disappointed and possibly repelled. This is a hard-headed book by a professional pickup artist and consists of practical advice to young men on where and how to pick up, chat up, seduce and take to bed women married or single, young or old.

‘Love’ suggests a steady state, an ongoing condition. That bores Ovid. He is interested in the chase, the pursuit. His premise is that any woman can be seduced but only if you have technique, and that’s what he’s going to teach. Any fool can try to chat up a woman just as any fool can try his hand at sports, angling or taming horses. But all these things have a technique, an expertise, traditions and methods to guarantee success. He, Ovid, the teacher of love, pickup artist extraordinaire, seduction guru par excellence, is going to share his top tips with the excited young reader.

Vexing Augustus

Over half of Peter Green’s immense introduction to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s love poems is taken up speculating about why the emperor Augustus abruptly exiled Ovid to the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire, to the miserable frontier town of Tomis, on the Black Sea. To cut a long story short, Green thinks it’s because Ovid was witness to some kind of meeting or evidence about a conspiracy to overthrow Augustus in 8 AD and didn’t report it. In his wretched Letters From Exile Ovid hints at the nature of his crime, but to the immense frustration of scholars for 2,000 years, nowhere spells it out explicitly. He simply insists that he, personally, was never treacherous, never acted against the emperor or planned to poison or kill or hurt anyone. It wasn’t enough. Augustus, and his successor Tiberius, refused to rescind Ovid’s exile and he died miserably in Tomis in 17 or 18 AD.

The point is that Green has to piece this together, and present it as a theory, because Augustus and his people gave it out that the official reason Ovid was banished was for corrupting morals, that Ovid had deliberately undermined Augustus’s programme of moral revival, and they cited this poem, The Art of Love, as the prime example of his corrupting influence.

To grasp the background to this you have to know that, once he had secured a position of complete power, Augustus set about a wholesale programme or reviving Rome in every way: building new roads and aqueducts, encouraging the building of cities in the provinces and roads connecting them, reviving trade. And in Rome, building a grand new forum, rebuilding the temples of various gods, encouraging the revival of ancient religious ceremonies and rituals.

And when it came to the population of Rome, Augustus embarked on a campaign to reform morals and, above all, to encourage the upper classes to marry and have many sons. The series of civil wars from 91 to 31 BC had decimated many venerable old families. Augustus embarked on a series of laws designed to revive them.

In 18 BC he passed the Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus (all laws passed under Augustus began with ‘lex Julia‘ because he saw himself continuing the Julian family of Julius Caesar). This law required all citizens to marry, and granted numerous benefits to fathers of three children or more; conversely, there were penalties for the unmarried and childless. Senators were forbidden from marrying freedmen (ex-slaves).

A year later Augustus passed the Lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis. This law punished adultery with banishment. The two guilty parties were sent to different islands and part of their property was confiscated. Fathers were permitted to kill daughters and their partners taken in adultery (!). Husbands could kill unfaithful partners, under certain circumstances, and were compelled to divorce adulterous wives (!). Augustus himself invoked the law against his own daughter, Julia (Julia the Elder, who was banished to the island of Pandateria in 2 BC) and then against her eldest daughter (Julia the Younger who was exiled in 8 AD).

In 9 BC Augustus passed the Lex Papia et Poppaea which encouraged and strengthened the institution of marriage. It included provisions against adultery and against celibacy after a certain age. Specifically, it forbade the marriage of a senator or a senator’s children with a libertina (an emancipated slave), with a woman whose father or mother had followed one of the ars ludicra (i.e. been a dancer, actor, gladiator, or other entertainer), with a prostitute, and also the marriage of a libertinus with a senator’s daughter. The provisions against celibacy included, for example, a provision that any unmarried person could not inherit a bequest or legacy; to qualify for the bequest, they had to marry within 100 days. All else being equal, candidates with children were preferred in elections or court cases over candidates with none.

So: Rebuilding Rome, ongoing military campaigns (to pacify northern Spain, parts of Gaul and Switzerland), reviving venerable religious ceremonies, erecting fine new public buildings, enforcing sexual morality, these were all key policies of the new emperor – and, in the Art of Love, Ovid mocks every single one of them.

Ovid’s book says that being a layabout sex pest is a much more worthy lifestyle than being a boring old soldier. He mocks the empire’s military campaigns. He thinks the gods are a load of lies and fancy stories. He thinks the only use of Rome’s fine new buildings is for hanging round so you can pick up women. And above all, he targets married women. The Art of Love encourages and gives tips about precisely the kind of marital infidelity and sexual aberrance which Augustus passed laws and went to great lengths to try and prevent.

Let me instruct you in all
The way of deceit.
(3.617)

In line after line, topic after topic, Ovid seems to be deliberately, calculatedly, spitting in the face of everything Augustus dedicated his life to achieving. The only wonder about all this is why it took till 8 AD for Augustus to banish Ovid given that the Ars Amatoria was published around 1 BC i.e. 8 or 9 years earlier. And also the fact that, by the time of his banishment, Ovid himself had moved on from his erotic period and had only just published the Metamorphoses, his huge collection of ancient myths and legends, far more acceptable to Augustus and his regime, although with a strong, amoral emphasis on sex and violence.

Hence Green’s elaborate theory that the accusations of corrupting public morals which the regime used to justify exiling Ovid so far away were really just a cover for something else, in Green’s view Ovid’s passive participation in some kind of political conspiracy against Augustus.

Comparison with Oscar Wilde

So, in a way, reading the Ars is like reading Oscar Wilde. Obviously you can just read Wilde for the immediate pleasure of his wit and style but…the experience changes when you learn that many passages of his work were read out in court and interpreted in a blunt, literal sense in order to be used as evidence against him, evidence that he mocked Victorian values, mocked decent ‘morality’, and promoted irresponsible sensuality and gross immorality i.e. homosexuality.

What made Wilde’s defence so difficult was that he had written all these subversive thoughts, albeit in a wonderfully witty style. Wilde thought his style would save him but it didn’t. Therefore, reading Wilde with this in mind can be unintentionally harrowing, because each time he pokes his tongue out at conventional Victorian values you shudder for the wretched fate it was to bring him (two years hard labour in a series of grim prisons, which utterly broke his spirit and led to his early death).

Same with Ovid. Having read Green’s very long introduction, which dwells on the miseries of his Black Sea exile, means that, every time Ovid pokes his tongue out at and mocks all the po-faced solemnities of official Roman morality, you shiver a little with a premonition of what is to befall him, the miserable fate that all these witty little jokes would end up bringing down on his head.

The theatre’s curving tiers should form your favourite
Hunting ground: here you are sure to find
The richest returns, be your wish for lover or playmate,
A one-night stand or a permanent affair.
As ants hurry to and fro in column, mandibles
Clutching grains of wheat
(Their regular diet), as bees haunt fragrant pastures
And meadows, hovering over the thyme,
Flitting from flower to flower, so our fashionable ladies
Swarm to the games in such crowds, I often can’t
Decide which I like. As spectators they come, come to be inspected:
Chaste modesty doesn’t stand a chance.
(lines 89 to 100)

Proem

Back to the poem itself, the first 30 or so lines make up the proem, an ancient term for preface or prologue. It is here that Ovid explains his aim of systematically teaching the technique of the pickup artist. It does include a half line invocation of the goddess Venus, but in an almost insultingly cursory manner, compared to the five lines he spends explaining that this book isn’t theoretical – he has lived and practiced all the tricks he describes himself. He emphatically insists everything the book is based on personal experience and is fact.

There follows a brief, 10-line partitio (‘a logical division into parts or heads’, ‘a descriptive programme of contents’) where he lays out the subject matter the poem will address, which is easily summarised:

  • Book 1 is about finding and wooing a woman
  • Book 2 is about keeping her

The text contains a book 3, just as long, in fact longer than either book 1 or 2, so the fact that it isn’t mentioned in the partitio makes scholars think it was a later addition.

Book 1 (773 lines)

After the proem and partitio, book 1 is divided into two halves: part one is a description of all the best places in Rome to pick up women, namely the colonnades, foreign temples (the synagogue is a good place), the theatre, the circus (for chariot racing), during triumphal processions, at dinner parties and at coastal spas, notably the notorious resort of Baiae.

Part two lists ploys and strategies for winning women. Cultivate their maids (but don’t end up sleeping with them) so they’ll put in a good word for you at the opportune moment, like when the mistress has been snubbed by another lover.

Don’t let the target woman con you into giving them expensive presents: he lists some of the scams women use to try and wangle gifts from their lovers, and how to resist them. (This was a prominent theme in the elegiac love poems of Tibullus and Propertius, too.)

Soften them up with love letters. Use language carefully, softly, sweetly. And persist: Time breaks stubborn oxen to the yoke, Time accustoms wild horses to the bridle. Same with women.

Be clean in your personal hygiene, though not effeminately so: ‘Real men shouldn’t primp their good looks’ (line 509). Take exercise, work up an outdoor tan. Hair and beard demand expert attention. Trim your nails and your nose hairs. Avoid male body odour.

Don’t drink too much at dinner parties (though it can be handy to pretend to be more drunk than you are as this gives you licence to be more forward than a sober man would be, in order to test the waters). Become knowledgeable in the language of secret signs. Drink from her cup, accidentally brush your hand against hers. If she’s with a companion, butter him up. Let him have precedence, award him the garland so he looks favourably on you.

Promise anything; lovers’ oaths don’t count.

Don’t be shy about promising: it’s promises girls are undone by. (1.631)

You can’t flatter too much, every woman is vain of her appearance.

Undermine them with devious
Flatteries: so a stream will eat away
Its overhanging bank. Never weary of praising
Her face, her hair, her slim fingers, her tiny feet.
Even the chaste like having their good looks published,
Even virgins are taken up with their own
Cute figures.
(1.619 to 624)

Look pale and thin to prove your sincerity. Lean and haggard, reek of sleepless nights, make yourself an object of pity so passersby comment, ‘He must be in love.’

Mocking Romulus

Describing the theatre as a good location to pick up women leads Ovid into an extended comparison with the legend about early Rome, that Romulus and his band of earliest settlers invited members of the nearby Sabine tribe to a very early version of a theatrical entertainment and then, at a pre-arranged signal, all the Romans grabbed a Sabine woman and ran off with them. The so-called Rape of the Sabine Women. It was a traditional story, told in many texts, what makes it Ovidian is the way he satirises and mocks Romulus’s high-minded speeches, and makes the entire story a kind of justification for the contemporary theatre being a good pickup location, an ironic mocking use of ‘tradition’ to justify his current cynical activities.

Ever since that day, by hallowed custom,
Our theatres have always held dangers for pretty girls.

In his notes (p.341) Green points out that Augustus, as part of his programme of restoring Roman values and traditions and religions, took the figure of Romulus very seriously indeed, in fact he had for a while considered renaming himself Romulus before the negative connotations outweighed the positive and he settled on the title ‘Augustus’ (awarded him by the Senate in 27 BC). So in this passage Ovid is going out of his way to take the mickey out of a figure very dear indeed to Augustus’s heart, and remodel him as a sponsor for Ovid’s own brand of cynical sexual predatoriness. Can you imagine how furious Augustus must have been?

The gods are expedient

Book 1 contains a line which became famous, it’s line 637 in Green’s translation:

The existence of gods is expedient: let us therefore assume it.

This sounds like a grand philosophical statement. In fact it’s more to do with the fact that the gods of the Graeco-Roman pantheon behaved scandalously, indulging human passions, mad with lust or jealousy…so let’s copy them with a clear conscience. Jupiter seduced umpteen women so…so can I! Again, you can imagine Augustus reading this kind of thing and grinding his teeth with anger.

Book 2 (746 lines)

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much more offensive, it stops. Book 2 is about keeping your beloved and is considerably more emollient and less sexist than Book 1.  Obviously it has the same underlying ideology, which is that women are passive animals while men are the smart manipulators, which 50% of the population may find grossly offensive, but a lot of the actual advice could have come out of a contemporary advice column. Maybe…

To be loved, you must prove yourself lovable.

(So much so that Green in his notes is regularly lampooning the triteness of some the agony aunt truisms he spouts. Maybe. Maybe not.)

Ovid opens Book 2 with ironic cheers for the man who has followed his advice and managed to ‘bag’ himself a lady love. Well done, sunshine. But now the real challenge in this whole business is how to keep her. So that’s what this book will be about:

If my art
Caught her, my art must keep her. To guard a conquest’s
As tricky as making it. There was luck in the chase,
But this task will call for skill.

Don’t mess with witchcraft, aphrodisiacs or drugs. Didn’t work for Medea or Circe. Instead (surprisingly) cultivate the life of the mind.

… to avoid a surprise desertion
And keep your girl, it’s best you have gifts of mind
In addition to physical charms…

Then build an enduring mind, add that to your beauty:
It alone will last till the flames
Consume you. Keep your wits sharp, explore the liberal
Arts, win a mastery over Greek
As well as Latin. Ulysses was eloquent, not handsome…

Be pleasant. Be tactful, be tolerant and understanding. Keep clear of all quarrels and recriminations. Love is sensitive and needs to be fed with gentle words. Leave wrangling to wives; a mistress should hear what she wants to hear.

He emphasises the distinction between married couples who have law to keep them together, and the kind of couples he’s describing where ‘love substitutes for law’. a) the kind of thing calculated to get Augustus’s goat b) a shrewd distinction. Married couples have not only the law, but shared responsibilities for raising children and the expectations of family, plus social reputation, to keep them together; illicit lovers have none of that. So it behoves them to be more considerate and tolerant. In another throwaway line which mockingly equates Rome’s mighty military enterprises with his frothy adulterer’s handbook:

Fight Parthians, but keep peace with a civilised mistress.
(2.175)

Do not use brute force. Go with the natural bend of the bough, don’t force it. Go with the current. Laugh when she laughs, cry when she cries, approve what she approves, criticise what she criticises. Open her parasol, clear a path through the crowd. Help her on and off with her slippers. Don’t bridle at menial tasks like holding her mirror for her. Always be early for dates. If she asks for you at her country residence, Go, no matter what the weather or obstacles.

About now I began to wonder what the point of all this is? The aim doesn’t appear to be to have sex at all. Sex isn’t mentioned anywhere in Book 1 and only appears a bit in the last couple of pages of Book 2 (see below). It’s nice, but it doesn’t appear to the be the prime aim. It feels more as if the whole point of the chase is the thrill of the chase itself and the achievement of…. what exactly? Winning a woman’s what? Heart? Allegiance? Devotion? When he writes that ‘Love is a species of warfare’, I don’t take it in the sexist sense to mean warfare between men and women, but warfare between male suitors for.. for what? For the beloved’s love? All the elegiac poets complain bitterly when their lady love is taken off them by another man: the embittered poem to The Rival is a genre unto itself.

Is it just about a sense of possession, of ownership? Is it about winning a woman as a trophy and then….then not really knowing quite what to do with her?

Anyway, the reference to Parthia allows Ovid a passage comparing the soldier of love with the actual soldier in the army, and make witty comparisons with the hardships both have to endure, a trope which is beginning to feel done to death in the Amores and here, let alone in all the other elegiac poets.

It may sound ludicrous but the rhetoric about the need to humble your pride, humiliate yourself, debase yourself before your beloved, accept that no task is too great to please her is reminiscent of Christian rhetoric, with its emphasis on humility and service. At moments Ovid steps out of the 1st century BC and sounds like a medieval troubador or Renaissance lover.

(Personally, as a Darwinian materialist, I would venture that this is because human nature is finite and only capable of a fixed array of emotions, feelings and strategies. The same kind of rhetoric is found in communist propaganda, which tells you to mortify your bourgeois pride in order to throw in your lot with The People, accepting any task, no matter how humble, for the sake of the Revolution. I appreciate the contexts are wildly different but the same phrases and attitudes can be found in numerous ideologies and religions. We humans think we’re fabulous but are, in practice, very limited, very predictable animals.)

Back to Ovid’s Top Tips for Lovers: Don’t give your mistress costly presents – give small ones, but chosen with skill and discretion. Poetry? Girls might be impressed by it as by a cute little gift, but what most women really want is money, rich presents. That’s why this is truly ‘the Golden Age’, he says, with heavy irony.

Very casually he mentions slaves that are going to be manumitted, or about to be flogged, or sent to a chain gang. As usual, I find references to slavery profoundly disturbing (as I do the references to upper class women scratching the faces of their slave maids or stabbing them with pins, if they make a mistake). The context is that if you were thinking of forgiving your slaves their punishments, wangle it so your mistress pleads for mercy, then do what you were going to do anyway.

Praise her beauty. Praise anything she’s wearing. Compliment her hair, or her dancing, or her singing. Lay it on with a trowel. Praise her technique in bed. The one golden rule is don’t overdo it and get caught out obviously lying. Then your reputation’s ruined.

If she gets ill, attend her sick room, cry, be all sympathy, bring an old crone to purify the room.

The key is to be always present, get her accustomed to you, hearing your voice, seeing your face. Then, when you’ve reached peak presence, arrange to be absent and make her miss you. Absence makes the heart grow fonder…up to a point. Not too long. In a page-long passage he doesn’t blame Helen for eloping with Paris but Menelaus for going off and leaving her by herself (2.357 to 372) (a theme he explored in some detail in the Heroides supposedly written by Helen and Paris).

In a very throwaway manner he says, obviously he’s not imagining you’re restricting yourself to just one lover. God forbid! So in order not to get caught out, don’t give X presents that Y might recognise; make sure you erase all previous messages from a wax tablet letter you send lover Y; don’t meet different lovers in the same places, cultivate different locales for each.

If she catches you out, deny everything, if that fails go for it, in bed. Hard ‘cocksmanship’ is its own proof that a) your not shagging anyone else b) you’re still devoted. Some aphrodisiacs might work and he gives a characteristically Roman quirky list of foodstuffs and ingredients (white Megarian onions, colewort, eggs, Hymettus honey, pine nuts).

If things get boring you could strategically let slip that you’re seeing someone else. Handled correctly, with the right kind of girl, this could lead to terrible scenes and recriminations, sure, but if you navigate your way through the tears, beg forgiveness, take her to bed and have great make-up sex, this can rejuvenate a relationship.

The last couple of hundred lines become chaotic. I found this with Horace’s last few epistles, as well. Roman poets are not great at structure. Their poems often take unexpected turns and detours. Out of nowhere the god Apollo appears by Ovid’s side and delivers a 20 line lecture, telling lovers to employ the famous motto over his oracle in Delphi, namely to know yourself. So if you’re handsome, always present your profile; if you’re clever, fill the space at dinner parties with brilliant talk; if a good drinker, show it and so on. It’s puzzling and random that Apollo pops up like this, given that he was name-checked in the opening lines of the poem as a god who had not inspired the poet (who insists everything he teaches derives from his own experience).

After this interruption, there’s a more puzzling digression as he appears to say that all lovers should know when to quit. It is not gentlemanly to become a bore. Know when to leave, before she starts complaining that you’re always hanging around (2.530). You’d have thought this – advice on how to end a relationship – would come right at the end of the book.

Instead the book still has 200 lines to run and continues with a section on how to cope with a rival, which is accept him with sang-froid – advice Ovid immediately goes on to say he finds hard to follow himself. He advises lovers to let their mistress have another lover and turn a blind eye. Snooping, opening letters, eavesdropping, those are the mean-minded activities of a husband, a lover should rise above them.

There’s more contradiction here, because Ovid had (unnecessarily and briefly) asserted that he doesn’t have in mind, he never has in mind, respectably married matrons. And yet here and at many other places, he mentions the husband of the ideal target of all this seduction technique. It’s a flat contradiction which has no clever or literary impact – it just comes over as confused and contradictory, either badly planned or contradictory passages have been cut and pasted together, for some reason.

The final section seems repetitive. He (again) advises flattery: if the mistress is black as pitch call her a ‘brunette’ to flatter her; if she squints, compare her to Venus; if she croaks, tell her she’s like Minerva; if she’s a living skeleton, call her ‘svelte’.

Never ask a woman her age, specially if she’s past her girlish prime. Anyway, age is good, it brings experience, sophistication and skill. They know a thousand different positions. And then he surprised me by making the most explicit reference I’ve read in any Roman poet. Green has Ovid saying he likes it when both partners reach climax during love making. That’s his main objection to sex with boys, he loves making his mistress gasp with sex, and making her climax (2.683 to 691).

He gives sex advice: touch her where she wants to be touched; watch her eyes assume that expression, rapture, gasps and moans. Take your time. Don’t hurry to climax and don’t come before your mistress.

Book 2 ends with a comic conclusion in which he says he excels all the soldier heroes of legend for his skill and excellence in teaching, so may every man who uses his advice to win and keep a mistress carve a trophy with the words: ‘Ovid was my guide’!

This feels like a very neat tying up of the poem and many scholars feel it was the original ending, emphasised by the fact that two of the heroes he mentions – Achilles and Automedon – were mentioned right at the start of Book 2.

But there then appear 2 additional lines, claiming that now – the girls want his advice, which most scholars think were tacked on in order to justify the later addition of Book 3.

Book 3 (812 lines)

A prologue explaining that he’s equipped men against women, now he’s going to do the reverse and offer the girls the benefit of his ‘wisdom’. The same kind of sweeping generalisations he made against women in books 1 and 2 he now makes for women. It reminds me of Cicero the lawyer, arguing sometimes for, sometimes against, the same client. It makes you realise the extent to which this poem obviously, but maybe Roman literature as a whole, was always much more of a rhetorical exercise than we are used to. Was always more of a performance of the poet’s skill in a certain style, in a certain metre, on a certain topic – than anything like our notion of poetry in particular as expressing genuine personal feelings and views.

All this explains his sudden volte-face and attempts to prove the opposite of what he was asserting a few pages back.

Men are often deceivers, girls hardly ever.

I was president of my school debating society. I recognise the signs of being given a topic you don’t have much sympathy for, and being told to present a case, first for it, then against it. You don’t win prizes for sincerity. You win prizes for the skill with which you select and present your points.

He invents the notion of Venus appearing to him and complaining that men are benefiting from his 2 books of advice; give the girls a chance.

In fact, his advice kicks off by not being particularly woman-friendly. He spends a couple of pages striking the carpe diem note i.e. your youth will pass, you’ll grow old and wizened and grey-haired so seize the day, give into love. Maybe your lover will turn out a cheat and a liar, who cares? What’s lost? Have a shower and move onto the next one. Some goods wear out with use, but your privates won’t wear out (line 92) so let your lovers come to the well a thousand times.

I naively thought the book would be a guide to women on the art of seducing men, so was disappointed when it turned out to be more like a woman’s magazine-type set of articles about how to make the most of yourself. Don’t overdo jewellery and accessories. Advice on the best hairstyle to match the shape of your face. A page on different colours for dresses. Shave your armpits and your legs. Clean your teeth. Make-up, powder and rouge. Mascara. As traditional, the best make-up remains unobtrusive (3.211).

Keep all this hard work hidden. ‘There’s a lot men are better off not knowing.’

Beauties don’t need him, his advice is for the less than perfect, the ugly or plain or short (just as his advice to men wasn’t to the handsome and rich, who need no help, but the less well-off and physically ordinary). He goes on to give advice for the skinny, the pale, the swarthy, those with skinny calves or ugly feet, buck teeth or bad breath.

Learn to cry on demand. Learn to walk elegantly with a nice sway of the hips (3.302).

Girls should know how to sing and play a musical instrument. And, of course, poetry, leading into a much-cited passage mentioning the appeal of various poets, the love poetry of Catullus, Tibullus or Propertius, the heroic history of Virgil (‘the most publicised Latin poem of all time’) maybe even his own products, the Amores and Heroides (proudly boasting that the heroic epistle is an art form he invented himself).

A girl should know how to dance. And how to play board games, which leads into a page about Roman board games which is infuriatingly light on detail (apparently, historians don’t know how to play even one single Roman board game). Ovid points out the key thing about playing is to maintain control while men, all too easily excited by games, lose theirs.

A confused section contrasts women’s limited social freedoms with men being able to exercise on the Field of Mars and go swimming in the Tiber; which quickly cuts back to places women can go to, a surprisingly large amount i.e. temples, the colonnades, the theatre, the circus, the forum. Somehow this morphs back onto a passage about poets and how they used to be respected in olden times, not so much nowadays. As towards the end of Book 2, it feels like Ovid is just cutting and pasting passages in willy-nilly, with no logic and unnecessary repetition. Somehow the passage about poetry ends with the conclusion that a good place to find a husband is at your last husband’s funeral, when you’re there with dishevelled hair and tear-stained eyes, which some men find very sexy.

Beware of smart-looking young beaux with a handsome profile and rings on their fingers – they’re cheaters and users.

By line 470, sensing that he’s becoming chaotic, Ovid tells himself to rein his muse in and try and be more structured in how he’s presenting this advice.

How to handle letters from passionate lovers i.e. wait a bit then get your maid or boy to reply. Don’t be taken in by feigned passion.

Riskily he refers to Augustus as ‘our great leader’ and just as he places men in various positions, advises a woman to do the same to her prospective lovers.

Confusingly there’s now a third section about poets, this time including some famous lines about how they get their inspiration from heaven, the God is within them etc. Sure, but why weren’t these three separate passages about poets gathered together and ordered more logically?

Back to lovers. Lock them out sometimes. Make them sweat. When things are getting boring drop hints that you have another lover, he has a rival. Juice him up. Pretend your husband’s a tyrant who’s having you watched. In the middle of an assignation have a maid come running in shouting, ‘The master’s coming,’ and then both bundle him out the window in a panic. That’ll keep him interested.

He gives a couple of pages on how to evade the watchful eye of your husband or guardian, by smuggling messages in and out, arranging illicit meetings, using a friend’s apartment, dates at the theatre or circus, let alone the baths, or the religious ceremonies supposedly restricted to women only etc.

Don’t trust girlfriends. Or your own maid. Ovid confesses to having seduced many a maid when her mistress just made herself too unavailable. The theme of jealousy prompts him to insert a lengthy telling of the story of Cephalus and Procris (3.687 to 746). This feels like padding out and is immediately followed by a note to himself to stop all these digressions.

Final burst of advice: regarding parties, already arrive late, after dark, when the torches have been lit. Eat sparingly and daintily. Final part is another surprisingly candid section of sexual advice. Just as he recommended different hairstyles and dress colours for different faces and physiques, here he runs through half a dozen different sexual positions which are appropriate for different body types (if you have a pretty face, do it missionary position; if a strong back, from behind; if you’re petite, ride him like a horse etc).

This and the parallel passage in Book 2 are the only descriptions I’ve read in the 50 or so Roman texts I’ve read. As this is a guidebook, they’re brisk and practical. As in Book 2, his ideal is that man and woman climax together. He is aware of the fact that many women can’t climax (at least not through penetrative sex) and so suggests they pant and moan and pretend, ‘put on an act!’ something, as I understand it, hundreds of millions of women have done through the ages.

And with that it’s over and he, very weakly, ends with a straight repeat of the lines at the end of Book 2, telling his girl disciples, like the boys before them, to inscribe on their trophies of successful loves, ‘Ovid was my guide.’ It was funny the first time round. Here it’s indicative of Book 3’s very belated, tacked-on and ragbag structure. No wonder he tells himself frequently throughout the book to leave off digressing, to get back to the point, to pull his socks up.

I wonder if a powerful woman ordered him to add a Book 3. Livia, maybe?


Sexism

The Ars Amatoria isn’t a bit sexist, it is made of sexism. Has there ever been a more sexist book? The entire text is based on the assumption that women are prey, like wild animals, to be stalked and captured, that they have little or no will of their own, that their main characteristics are vanity about their looks and shopping, which is why the pickup artist should focus on relentless flattery and know how to gracefully handle endless demands for gifts.

As the Amores set out to capture and record every possible aspect of the love poem, as the Metamorphoses set out to record every single Greek myth which involved bodily change, so the Ars Amatoria is, in effect, an encyclopedia of sexist and misogynist attitudes.

I could list the ways Ovid dehumanises women, reducing them to game (as in big game, animals to be hunted), birds to be caught, wild animals to be stalked, fish to be hooked, or soil to be ploughed, wild land to be tamed, and so on.

At a less metaphorical level, he is straightforward insulting about women’s natures:

If you’re wise
Gull only girls, they’re no danger. In this one deception
It’s good faith that ought to make you blush.
They’re cheats, so cheat them: most are dumb and unscrupulous: let them
Fall into the traps they’ve set themselves.
(1.642 to 646)

If Augustus was driven to fury by Ovid’s calculated mockery of Rome’s religion, venerable founder, and sexual mores, what must the formidable Livia have made of this unrelenting abuse of women as a sex? Did she have any input into the decision to banish the scandalous poet?

I imagine modern women readers will struggle with such continual libel, objectification, undermining, insult, sexism and misogyny without being overcome with disgust. Towards the end of Book 1 Ovid sinks into the darkest hole of all when he repeats the lie of the ages, that when a woman says no she doesn’t mean it: all women, deep down, want to be overcome, by force if necessary.

It’s all right to use force – force of that sort goes down well with
The girls: what in fact they love to yield
They’d often rather have stolen. Rough seduction
Delights them, the audacity of near-rape
Is a compliment.
(1.673 to 677)

And goes on to mention two women from Greek mythology who were raped and then fell in love with their rapists. Wow. Needs no comment from me.

Just one comment about Green’s style. As I mentioned in my review of his translation of the Amores, Green uses an exaggeratedly demotic, Jack-the-Lad register, and this turns out to be really appropriate for this poem, which is a long hymn to Jack the Lads. I now understand that Green’s very demotic style – which I initially thought inappropriate for the Amores – turns out to be very appropriate for the Art of Love, bringing out the vulgarity and crudity of a lot of the thought, more so than a smoother, more ‘literary’ translation might have done.

Many women adore the elusive,
Hate over-eagerness. So, play hard to get,
Stop boredom developing. And don’t let your entreaties
Sound too confident of possession. Insinuate sex
Camouflaged as friendship
. I’ve seen ultra-stubborn creatures
Fooled by this gambit, the switch from companion to stud.
(1.717 to 722)

This is a vivid translation of often very repellent sentiments.

Anticipations of the Metamorphoses

Ovid is most known and read for his epic masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, a long poem in 15 books which chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. What makes it distinctive is that it tells the story via a series of classic Greek myths or legends, in particular, stories about humans metamorphosing into plants and animals of which, when you come to study it, there turn out to be a surprising number.

I mention it here because, unexpectedly, and not really directly relevant, the Ars Amatoria contains fairly long passages which anticipate some of these stories. Thus there are extended accounts of:

Book 1

  • the legend of Pasiphaë, queen of Crete, and how she was impregnated by a bull, conceiving the half-man, half-bull monster, the Minotaur (1.289 to 327)
  • Bacchus coming to the rescue of Ariadne, abandoned on her desert island by Theseus (1.525 to 564)

Book 2

  • Daedalus devising his plan to escape imprisonment on Crete by creating wings for himself and his son Icarus, and flying to freedom (2.20 to 97)
  • the creation of the world and the universal drive to procreate among animals (2.467 to 489)
  • Vulcan trapping his wife in adultery with Mars (2.561 to 592)

Book 3

  • the legend of Cephalus and Procris (3.687 to 746)

Last word

Let others worship the past; I much prefer the present,
Am delighted to be alive today.
(3.121)

This is actually quite a striking departure from convention, because it was axiomatic for pretty much all writers and thinkers in the ancient world that the past contained a matchless Golden Age and the present was a sad, fallen age of degeneration and decline. In this handful of words Ovid rejects that entire tradition and hapless, sorry-for-itself way of thinking and strikes an exuberantly Nietzschean note: Rejoice! The present is all we have, so: Make the most of it.


Credit

The Erotic Poems of Ovid, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Books in 1982. All references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

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

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

Harold Isbell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

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

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

Dramatic irony

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

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

Elegiac metre

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

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

Mythological references

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isbell’s translations

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

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

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

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

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

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

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

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

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

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

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

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

3. Briseis to Achilles

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

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

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

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

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

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

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

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

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

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

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

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

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

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

5. Oenone to Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of Helen:

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

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

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

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

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

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

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

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

7. Dido to Aeneas

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

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

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

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

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

8. Hermione to Orestes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Deianira to Hercules

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

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

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

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

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

10. Ariadne to Theseus

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

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

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

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

11. Canace to Macareus

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

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

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

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

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

12. Medea to Jason

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

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

A hymn of vengeance:

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

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

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

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

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Sappho to Phaon

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

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

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

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

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

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

The double letters

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

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

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

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

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

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

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Violence

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

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

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

Emotional extremity

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

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

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

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

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

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

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

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

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

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

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

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rape

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

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

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

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

Familiarity and pleasure

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

Introductions to the Aeneid – 2. Allen Mandelbaum

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1970 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

This is the middle of three blog posts giving detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. This one looks at Allen Mandelbaum’s introduction to his 1970 translation. (The third blog post, about David West’s introduction, includes examples of each of the translators’ actual translations, including Mandelbaum’s.)

1970 introduction by Allen Mandelbaum

Allen Mandelbaum (1926 to 2011) was a Jewish-American professor of literature and the humanities, poet, and translator from Classical Greek, Latin and Italian. After going to live for decades in Italy he returned to the States and taught English and comparative literature at the City University of New York from 1966 to 1986. His translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1980 to 1984) won him Italy’s highest award, the Presidential Cross of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity. Impressive. This translation of the Aeneid won the 1973 National Book Award in the translation category. The preface to it, which am now going to summarise, was published in 1970.

***********

Before we even get to Mandelbaum’s introduction, the blurb on the inside cover about Virgil is interesting. It says that as part of Octavius’s sweeping land reallocation to retired soldiers after the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), he confiscated Virgil’s parents’ extensive farmlands around Mantua. It says Virgil travelled to Rome to argue for its return, and this certainly chimes with the accounts in several of the Virgil’s eclogues of land confiscation and of the shepherd who has travelled to Rome and seen the young prince i.e. Octavius to try and get his land back.

The blurb goes on to say it was as a result of Virgil’s pleading that he became friends with Octavius and was handed over to be managed by his arts minister, Maecenas. This close relationship between patron and poet leads the blurb writer to say that it was at Augustus’s express command that Virgil’s request to burn the draft of the Aeneid was overruled, and that it was Augustus who handed it to the scholars Varius and Tucca with specific instructions to edit only the obvious errors and repetitions, but to add nothing new to it, and to publish the result, which they did in 16 BC.

**********

Mandelbaum’s introduction is only 8 pages long but it’s packed. He gets stuck in right away by saying he came to Virgil late because he was put off him by three judgements. First was a quip by the American critic Mark Van Doren (1894 to 1972) that ‘Homer is a world; Virgil, a style’. Mandelbaum associated this comment with Coleridge’s similarly negative judgement that ‘If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?’ So these two adverse opinion come under the heading of ‘Homer is the Great Original, Virgil is a Poor Copy’.

Mandelbaum goes on to mentions the judgement of the great Marxist critic, György Lukács (whose thoughts on Kafka I’ve reviewed). György boy who wrote in his Theory of the Novel that: ‘The heroes of Virgil live the cool and limited existence of shadows, nourished by the blood of noble zeal, blood that has been sacrificed in order to recall what has forever disappeared.’

Lukács was a swine but I still enjoy this kind of class-based Marxist criticism, ancient though it now feels; after all, we still live in a heavily class-based society where privately educated ministers hand out multi-million pound contracts to their friends and wives while northern proles queue at foodbanks, where gas and energy prices makes billions in profits while old age pensioners freeze to death in their flats.

Anyway, Lukács’s implication is that Virgil’s characters are contemptible because they harbour a utopian hankering for what has irredeemably disappeared, namely a nostalgic memory of a land of small family-owned farms, which had mostly been swept away by vast estates worked by slaves by the time Virgil wrote.

Anyway, Lukács’s criticism, as well as being vague and impressionistic, seems wrong to me. To me the Aeneid reads as a poem very much of the harsh present, reeking with the blood of animals slaughtered at the altar and men being stabbed, eviscerated and burned to ashes in a very perilous present.

(In case you needed to know, the third dismissal came in Concetto Marchesi’s History of Latin Literature which deprecated Virgil in favour of Lucretius.)

It is when Mandelbaum goes on to describe the personal importance to him of the English poet John Milton that the reader begins to realise that this is not going to be a scholarly introduction, but the personal musings of Mandelbaum the poet (for in addition to his prizewinning translations, Mandelbaum also published several volumes of his own poetry, as the preface now proceeds to tell us). This introduction is going to be a description of his own personal odyssey from these boyhood influences who put him off Virgil, to his late-flowering realisation of Virgil’s brilliance.

Central to Mandelbaum’s conversion were the poems of Giusseppe Ungaretti (1888 to 1970). Mandelbaum was deeply involved in translating Ungaretti’s Italian poems into English as he wrote them, and helped get them published in America throughout the 1950s. And many of Ungaretti’s poems invoked characters or themes from Virgil. So Mandelbaum first really discovered Virgilian themes through the lens of Ungaretti. He quotes a florid passage of Ungaretti’s:

Aeneas is beauty, youth, ingenuousness ever in search of a promised land, where, in the contemplated, fleeting beauty, his own beauty smiles and enchants.

Personally I’d have thought nothing could be further from a true picture of Aeneas, the careworn early-middle-aged son of decrepit Anchises and anxious father of young Ascanius, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, stumbling from one disaster to another, his hands red with blood.

As so often with ‘criticism’ by writers or poets, this isn’t objective analysis but a deliberate, and I’d say knowing, teasing, rewriting of Virgil’s character entirely to suit Ungaretti’s own poetic preoccupations. Heavily misleading, in other words. Mandelbaum goes on to quote an even more overripe slice of tripe:

Dido came to represent the experience of one who, in late autumn, is about to pass beyond it; the hour in which living is about to become barren; the hour of one from whom the horrible, tremendous, final tremor of youth is about to depart. Dido is the experience of nature as against the moral experience.

This may be a fine expression of Ungaretti’s (mimsy, impressionist) concerns but strikes me as having nothing whatsoever to do with the Dido who features in the Aeneid. All this is a worrying indication that Mandelbaum’s response to Virgil is going to be hugely contaminated by his embroilment in Ungaretti’s highly ‘poetic’ prose, all ‘tremors of youth’ and ‘the moral experience’ and fuck-all to do with the Dido who calls down the vengeance of the gods on Aeneas and makes her people swear eternal enmity with Rome.

Reminiscing about those happy times in Italy in the 1950s you can almost hear Mandelbaum relaxing the sinews of his mind and slipping into an odoriferous bath of fine feelings, claiming that Ungaretti helped him to see:

the underground denial – by consciousness and longing – of the total claims of the state and history.

I think he means the persistence in the poem of numerous threads which oppose or undermine the overt worship of Rome, of Roman patriotism, of obeisance to the predictions of Rome’s rise to world-dominating empire, which occur throughout it on a surface level.

But like so many other aesthetes what comes over strongly is the way Mandelbaum wants to reject the overt meaning of the text in front of him, preferring to project his own bourgeois fantasies of rebellion and subversion onto Virgil – very much as W.F. Jackson Knight projected his fantasies about spiritualism and universal truth onto the poor Roman in his introduction to his translation.

So much literary criticism from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century consists of this kind of whipping-up meringues made of knowing references and stylish allusions, like a conjuror pulling a string of multi-coloured flags out of his mouth, designed to impress us with the author’s wide reading and fine feelings, but leaving behind no tangible insights or ideas.

Next, Mandelbaum shows off by telling us how he loves a passage by Mark Van Doren, which uses a ‘brilliant suggestion’ by Jacob Klein to use a passage from Plato’s text The Statesman to shed light on the episode in Aeneid book 6 where Anchises is explaining to Aeneas how the souls of the dead are made to forget their past lives before being reincarnated in new bodies back on earth.

It feels like a competition to see how many names he can drop in a single passage.

Van Doren claims this passage is evidence that Virgil believed in the reassuring and ‘lulling myth of cycles’, and the hope that peace would come about by magic. Mandelbaum cites all this in order to disagree with it. He points out that far from finding the creation of new generations ‘lulling’, Virgil had demonstrated in the Georgics the sheer amount of hard physical labour which goes into producing the basics of civilisation.

With this much, I can agree, although Mandelbaum then goes on to equate the hard physical manual labour of maintaining the land depicted in the Georgics with the 11 years of dedicated mental labour involved in writing the Aeneid.

Contrary to all this talk of lulling cycles, Mandelbaum asserts that Virgil believed in power, dominion and the rule of law. As the Sibyl predicts to Aeneas:

yours will be the rulership of nations;
remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer
to spare defeated peoples, spare the proud
(6. 1,134 to 1,137)

But Virgil was aware of the price to be paid in the triumph of positive law over natural law. King Evander explains to Aeneas how his people originally lived at peace and plenty under the rule of exiled Saturn when humans needed no laws or rules. But then an Age of Iron came, violence increased, and laws became vital. All this is an accurate summary of this part of the Aeneid.

But then Mandelbaum is back to Ungaretti, telling us that he was, apparently, ‘a true Petrarchan’. I can’t see any relevance whatsoever of this random observation in a supposed introduction to Virgil. It just feels like another example of Mandelbaum’s compulsive name-dropping and/or personal reminiscence. Develop the idea, man! What are you trying to say?

But the thought isn’t developed or even explained properly. Instead, Mandelbaum switches to tell us that his other route into Virgil was via a long-lasting engagement with Dante, whose Divine Comedy he has also translated. Having lived with the Inferno, in particular, for years, he knew that Dante learned not from the style of Virgil but the styles of Virgil.

Mandelbaum quotes a passage from the English critic Donald Davie who distinguishes poets into two classes (how many critics, over how many centuries, have taken this simple-minded approach of dividing the thing under consideration into just Two Types?)

Davie says the first type of poet revels in words, that Shakespeare would have ended up using every word in the language if he’d enough time. The second type of poet is one who carefully employs a narrower selection of words, consciously excluding ones which don’t fit, in order to create a style, a verbal world.

On this reading Dante is a Shakespearian, with a very wide lexis while Virgil is the second type, with a much more limited vocabulary.

Now Mandelbaum explains what Dante learned from Virgil: he quotes the ancient grammarian Macrobius who says Virgil’s style was ‘now brief, now full, now dry, now rich, now easy, now impetuous’ to suggest that what Dante learned from Virgil was variety of tone.

Also he learned a free approach to the line, the free use of enjambment and runover.

And lastly, the free mixing up of time, the ‘rapid shifts of tenses’ which are, indeed, very noticeable in the Aeneid as Virgil mixes up the past and present, sometimes in the same sentence.

Only as he approaches the end of this brief but packed introduction does Mandelbaum explain his aims as a translator. He has tried to ‘impress’ on his translation ‘the grave tread’ but also ‘the speed and angularity’ of Virgil, ‘the asymmetrical thrust of a mind on the move’. This is fair enough, an interestingly impressionistic description of something which maybe can’t be fully put into words.

But then Mandelbaum goes into full late 60s mystical mode:

The other part of the self brings me to the last way, the unmediated one. The way is the path that opens when the guides, for whom one has been grateful, fall away or say: ‘I crown and mitre you over yourself.’

Mandelbaum doesn’t tell us, because his technique is one of flashy meringue-making, that this last phrase is in fact a quote from Dante’s Paradiso canto 27. I suspected as much though I had to Google it to confirm my hunch.

Veering off in another direction, Mandelbaum then overshares with us the personal fact that he left Italy after many years and embarked on his translation of Virgil ‘at a time of much personal discontent’. He had long thought poetry shouldn’t be used for consolation (why?) but now his experience of ‘personal discontent’ changed his mind.

And now, abruptly and dramatically, he casts a vivid slash across his entire preface when he suddenly starts talking about the Vietnam War!

The Vietnam War has, he claims, as of 1970, made it impossible to talk about American ‘society’ any more – he insists we have to use the harsher word, ‘state’. In Vietnam, the American ‘state’ ‘has wrought the unthinkable, the abominable’.

Wow. With one flash you get the full colour of Mandelbaum’s mindset. In this book, in this translation, in this introduction, it is 1970, America is just starting to withdraw its forces from Vietnam after a shameful military debacle, and Allen Mandelbaum is applying the atmosphere of these times to his thinking about power and dominion as described by a poet from 2,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, instead of drawing any kind of analogy between America’s intervention in Vietnam and Aeneas’s intervention in Italy – which would be unexpected but potentially very illuminating – Mandelbaum’s mind once again veers off into impressionistic mush and hero worship. It is frustrating that he thus raises but fails to address the key political aspect of the Aeneid, which is Virgil’s attitude towards Augustus, his violent conquests and domestic tyranny.

I take the point that the expression of these political themes in the poem is complex and multi-levelled but Mandelbaum’s entire analysis of this huge subject amounts to the following:

Virgil is not free of the taint of the proconsular; but he speaks from time to time of peace achieved, and no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost.

Two points. 1. See how he mentioned Virgil’s complicity in Augustus’s regime in just ten words, ten words expressed in the pompous and evasive phraseology of a nineteenth century politician (‘not free of the taint…’). Mandelbaum avoids the issue; he tries to gloss over it by saying that although Virgil might have been complicit with the crimes of the regime, it’s alright because he was so sensitive to the suffering of ‘the defeated and the lost’ and so that redeems him. But does it?

Second point is the rather offensive hyperbole of claiming that ‘no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost’. Really? No man? Ever? Primo Levi describing the damned in Auschwitz? Solzhenitsyn describing the defeated millions in the gulags? Even if those authors are not directly comparable with Virgil, Mandelbaum’s claim is still wildly hyperbolic, symptomatic of the way hero worship replaces analysis.

At regular moments throughout the poem the text may express what might be Virgil’s feelings about the pity of war, the pity of loss and death and grief. BUT. At the centre of the poem is the brute fact of Aeneas as a huge man-killing machine, raging like Mars across the battlefield, slaughtering hecatombs of men to achieve his God-given destiny. And his last action, the memorable last image of the poem which is left squelching in the mind’s eye – is of Aeneas thrusting his sword right up to the hilt into the chest of a man begging for mercy.

Both Jackson Knight and Mandelbaum have spent years with the Aeneid but, in their respective introductions, repress or ignore the off-the-scale levels of toxic, masculine hyper-violence which runs through it in rivers of blood, preferring to write willowy tripe about universal values and deep feelings.

Instead of analysis, Mandelbaum has namedropping combined with hero worship:

And if the relative weights of the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Pythagorean in him are often hard to assess, his humanity is constant.

Is it, though, Allen? I didn’t find it so. I find the Aeneid very uneven, manufactured from hundreds of strands and themes and tones which often sit very uncomfortably together, and all of it drenched in psychopathic anger and rivers of gore. You can pick out the moment of sad sympathy with suffering humanity, stitch them together and claim this is the ‘real’ Virgil. But what about the far greater number of passages of brutal animal sacrifice? Or passages describing insensate fury? Or the many many passages describing slaughter and massacre? Or the frequent passages expressing slavish sycophancy to the great Augustus. All of these and numerous other topics and tones need to be incorporated into an proper assessment of the ‘real’ Virgil.

Instead of addressing all this, Mandelbaum thanks Virgil for not being ‘shrill’, and then brings in yet another unnecessarily personal angle:

and when, with the goad of public despair, my own poetic voice has had to struggle often with shrillness, the work on this translation has been most welcome.

So, if I read this correctly, we are to be grateful to Virgil for helping Allen Mandelbaum to overcome the tone of shrill invective which his protests against the Vietnam War and the evil American state often led him into. No doubt this is useful if you are a big Allen Mandelbaum fan, but if you’re mainly interested in understanding Virgil, maybe not so much.

Finally, Mandelbaum returns to the notion raised in the comparison with Dante, of Virgil’s limits. In Mandelbaum’s view Virgil does not swarm with the really full variety of a Homer or Dante or Shakespeare. He is not as exhaustive as they are. His is a world, not the world. He is more selective and less objective than the other three greats. At which point, as he reaches the conclusion of his preface, Mandelbaum becomes quite hard to understand:

Virgil is ‘sustained’ and is not ‘of the young’ (though for them, and for the aged, too, of Plato’s Laws); and none of his selection and imagination seems to involve what I think of as premature stripping, where the other world of poetry takes over before this world is known: Virgil selects after his knowing this world. For this he is a name-giver whose letters and syllables seem to imitate not what Lukács called ‘the cool and limited existence of shadows’ but ‘the real nature of each thing’.

After repeated reading I think the second half of this proposition indicates that Virgil is a poet who described the real world, selecting descriptions of the world as experienced and not reaching out to describe the world of shadows beyond this one, which Mandelbaum appears to think the superior approach. But if this is what Mandelbaum means, why doesn’t he say so? Surely a teacher is paid to teach.

Mandelbaum’s short introduction flashes insights like a striptease artist, momentary promises of insights which he never delivers on. One or two of his ideas hove into view, make sense, but then are smothered by his autobiographical reminiscences or detour into namedropping allusions. It’s maybe worth reading for these moments but, on the whole, Mandelbaum’s introduction is not very helpful as any kind of guide to reading the huge, magnificent and appalling epic poem the reader is about to embark on.


Roman reviews

On Friendship by Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne (1533 to 1592) was one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance, famous for popularising the essay as a literary genre. The final edition of the Essays was published posthumously in 1595. It was divided into three books containing 107 essays, featuring some of the most influential essays ever written. The first edition, published in 1580, was quickly translated into English and some scholars have detected the influence of Montaigne’s thoughts and phrasing in Shakespeare’s plays.

Essayer

I’ve always loved the fact that our English word, essay, comes direct from the French, essai, which is the noun form of the verb essayer meaning ‘to try’. So an essay is a try or trial, or attempt, to marshall your thoughts on a particular topic, to see if they make sense and hang together.

Thus Montaigne’s essays are the opposite of what most written texts up to his time had been, namely dogmatic and didactic. Instead they are tentative explorations, of what he knows or can find out on a particular topic. They are experiments in knowing.

A novel kind of autobiography

And this explains why he, Montaigne, is such a persistent presence in so many of the essays. They address not only the nominal subjects but continually shed light on “some traits of my character and of my humours.” They are experiments in what he knows or can understand. Or, as he admitted in the introduction, “I am myself the matter of this book”. As well as meditations on specific subjects, his essays build up to become a novel and innovative form of autobiography.

Que sais-je?

And the most attractive quality that comes over from the essays is Montaigne’s frank scepticism. As a devout Catholic he believed that whereas truth, like God, is infinite, the human capacity to grasp it is very finite, very limited. Chances are there’s nothing we can really know for sure. Hence the personal motto he adopted and had engraved on the medal he wore round his neck in the handful of portraits we have of him: ‘Que sais-je?’ – ‘What do I know?’

What, indeed. This scepticism is often generalised into commiseration for the plight of humans, endowed with a divine spark but trapped in a body fragile and finite and subject to a thousand afflictions, in a mind easily buffeted by emotions or pain.

In his own time Montaigne’s extensive inclusion of his own thoughts and reflections in his essays was criticised, but over the course of the centuries, as the essay’s factual knowledge or classical references have become outdated and antiquarian, it is the autobiographical element which has endured and continues to attract many readers.

All this is very well, but for most modern readers the most striking thing about these essays will probably be the way they contain blizzards of quotations from ancient Greek, Latin and Italian texts. In Montaigne’s day these classical quotes were what data and statistics are to modern essays – his evidence, his proof. Nowadays, they are mostly a pain to read (and a double pain because, since most of them are in Latin, most of us have to read them in translation, further undermining their utility) and the temptation is just to skip them.

To be precise, in these 13 pages Montaigne quotes from Horace (4 times), Cicero (3 times), Catullus (twice), Terence (twice), Ariosto, Plato and Virgil.

Montaigne on friendship

Montaigne’s essay on friendship forms chapter 28 of Book I. It is 13 pages long in the Penguin edition.

He commences with a self deprecating description of the essays themselves:

What are these things I scribble, other than grotesques and monstrous bodies, made of various parts, without any certain figure, or any other than accidental order, coherence, or proportion?

But it quickly becomes clear that the main body of the text is going to describe in some detail his friendship with an older writer named Étienne de la Boétie.

Montaigne starts by explaining how, some years earlier, a Latin satire against tyranny by de la Boétie came into his hands and was his first introduction to the man who would go on to become a friend of unique depth and unanimity. Which leads us into his theme:

There is nothing for which nature seems to have given us such a bent as for society.

Of a perfect society friendship is the peak.

Insofar as human relationships involve cause or aim or incentive, motives or calculation – they are not true friendships, which are pure and selfless.

The love between parents and children is nothing like it, for parents cannot confess their feelings and thoughts without showing inappropriate intimacy, and children cannot chastise their parents – but a good friend can.

Brothers ought to be friends but the fact that they have to make their same way in the world, from the same place, at the same time, inevitably gives rise to jostling and rivalry. Also, the connection between brothers is imposed by nature and fact, whereas the essence of friendship is that it is freely given.

Love binds strangers but it is reckless and changeable and fickle. Friendship, by contrast, is temperate and constant.

Sexual desire is the opposite of friendship. It is a burning flame which vanishes as soon as it is achieved whereas friendship doesn’t flame out but grows the more it is possessed. The more you are in company with a friend, talking, joking, the deeper the friendship becomes.

Marriages can be close but are built on legal and moral restraints, unlike friendship which encourages total freedom.

In a passage which eliminates half the population from his fan club, Montaigne asserts that women lack the depth and constancy required for friendship:

The normal capacity of women is unequal to the demands of that communion and intercourse on which the sacred bond [of friendship] is fed; their souls do not seem firm enough to bear the strain of so hard and lasting a tie. (p.95)

Homosexuality, even as practiced by the high-minded Greeks was, so far as we can tell, all about the external appearance of beautiful young men i.e. not about mature minds, like the friendship Montaigne is extolling. There is an inequality built into the love between an older man and a younger youth which, in the base and vulgar, often involves fishing for money or advancement.

And so, after this consideration of alternative social bonds, back to Montaigne’s friendship with Étienne de la Boétie. He feels it was fated by a ‘power of destiny’, because they knew of each other’s books before they met. And as soon as they met they had a complete mutual understanding. In fact De la Boétie wrote a work on the power of their attraction. It didn’t grow slowly through a hundred and one meetings and occurrences, but was the whole thing immediately. They lost themselves in each other and henceforth both were part of the other.

A digression to the story (told by Cicero in his essay on friendship) about Laelius questioning Gaius Blossius about his friendship with Gaius Gracchus, after the latter was arrested for sedition. ‘Would you have done anything for him?’ asks Laelius. ‘Even set the temples on fire?’ ‘He would never have asked such a thing,’ says Blossius. ‘Yes, but if he had, would you have?’ asks Laelius, and Blossius replies ‘Yes’. Cicero, the conservative patriot, thinks this is a disgraceful answer and uses it to establish a rule that we should do anything for a friend unless it leads us into immoral behaviour at which point we should immediately stop and drop the friend. Montaigne, on the other hand, admires Blossius’s answer. Friendship means total abandonment to each other’s wills and personalities.

It is a deliberate indication of the distance between Cicero’s stern Republican patriotism and Montaigne’s politically detached, sophisticated humanism.

Montaigne and de la Boétie’s souls and will were as one, they travelled together, read and talked together, they saw into each other’s hearts.

Montaigne draws a distinction between the Super Friendship he is describing, and all the other ‘commonplace and everyday’ friendships which most of us experience. With those one can never relax because you are never truly united with each other. One must ride with one hand on the bridle because at any moment this more superficial type of friend might do something unpredictable, questionable or immoral, and you must be ready to pull away.

By contrast the Super Friendship he is describing does not count help and gifts because there is a complete ‘fusion of wills’ and so helping your friend requires no more explanation than helping yourself. All concepts such as benefit, obligation, gratitude, request and thanks are inappropriate because they imply separation where there is no separation; there is a complete fusion of two souls.

He tells a story from antiquity about a man who draws up a will bequeathing his two friends, not money and goods, but the obligations (to look after his mother and marry off his daughter) which he left unfulfilled at his death. Bystanders thought this was hilarious, but it displays the quality of True Friendship which is that you are grateful to undertake obligations for your friend – you consider it an honour.

Mind you, the fact that the story names two friends to the dying man is an imperfection i.e. it depicts three friends. Friendship of the type Montaigne is describing is only possible between two men and no more.

Again he draws a distinction between ‘commonplace and everyday’ friendships, which are divisible i.e. you love one man for his beauty, another for his easy manner, another for his liberality and so on – and the grand True Friendship he is describing. This second type ‘dissolves all other obligations’. It is ‘absolutely single and indivisible’. A friendship like this is rare indeed and only comes along once in a lifetime, if then:

It is easy enough to find men fit for a superficial acquaintance, but here, where a man commits himself from the depths of his heart, keeping nothing back, it is essential that all the springs of action be perfectly clean and reliable. (p.101)

Compared with the four years during which Montaigne knew de la Boétie, the rest of his life seems like smoke, ‘but a dark and tedious night’ (p.103). He had grown so used to being completely united with him, that since his death he feels like half a man.

The text ends with a page explaining that he was minded to republish his friend’s essay against tyranny within his own book of essays except that it has recently been published by ‘those who wish to change the form of the French government’ (he means French Protestants who were engaged in a long low-level conflict with the Catholic authorities which periodically burst out into open civil war). And these enemies have published de la Boétie’s essay in a collection lumped in amid a load of their own tracts as if de la Boétie was one of theirs – which Montaigne strongly objects to. He goes on to emphasise that the essay was written when his friend was only 16, as a schoolboy exercise, and so doesn’t reflect his mature thought.

Finally, Montaigne concludes by emphasising that, contrary to the implication of the essay being published by Protestant subversives, his friend was a good Catholic and law-abiding patriot. This maxim was imprinted on his soul:

That he must most religiously obey and submit to the laws under which he was born. There was never a better citizen, nor one who cared more for his country’s peace; no one more hostile to the commotions and revolutions of his time. (p.105)

Hm. So although he was at pains to separate himself from Cicero’s moralising patriotism, Montaigne himself ends up doing something similar in the end, asserting, albeit a little more subtly, the value of true religion and patriotic feeling.

Thoughts

Having written a brief introduction to Montaigne which emphasised the modernity of his sceptical and experimental approach, I was, to be honest, surprised that the essay on friendship is so very much in thrall to ancient philosophy, to notions of Oneness and Uniqueness deriving from Plato and the Stoics in its depiction of the Super Friendship between him and de la Boétie.

Surprised and a dismayed. It felt much more medieval than I remembered Montaigne to be. He sounds more like Cicero, who died 1,600 years earlier, than Bacon, who was only a 28 years his junior, and gives frank, realistic advice which we can all relate to. A bit staggering that the droll, pithy Bacon overlaps with Cicero-quoting Montaigne and was writing his early, pithy essays as Montaigne was writing his final, wordy ones. They feel worlds apart.

Second reflection is that the essay should really be called ‘Super Friendship: On The One Unique Soul-Sharing Friendship Which Comes Only Once In A Lifetime’. It would be handy if that was more clearly explained at the start. And it would clarify that Montaigne doesn’t really touch on the practical aspects of ordinary friendship and acquaintance, such as you or I might experience them.

Third reflection is that the extenuation of de la Boétie which concludes the essay sheds light back on everything which preceded it. It makes you wonder whether Montaigne’s entire motivation for writing the essay was less an objective exploration of the quality of (super) friendship than to mount a spirited defence of his friend from posthumous accusations of treachery. A suspicion fortified when you learn that, instead of publishing his friend’s essay in the body of this volume, he published 29 sonnets by de la Boétie. I.e. that the essay is less a reflection about friendship than an embodiment of the obligations and responsibilities he felt towards a particular friend.

In that respect it exemplifies, it’s a contemporary embodiment, of the story about the Roman citizen who left his friends not his fortune but his obligations. It’s of a piece.

The essay is fairly interesting in its working through and conceptualisation of the type of Super Friendship he’s chosen to describe, but does feel rather airless and asphyxiating in the same kind of way that Cicero does, in circumscribed by a limiting agenda. I prefer being in the real world with Bacon and his practical maxims.

You could almost say that Montaigne demonstrates (in this essay at least) the kind of thralldom to ancient wisdom and to famous authors and dusty old poetry which Bacon thought needed to be chucked out of the intellectual world in order for us to really frankly assess who we are and how we live. Bacon was never able to describe this new world of knowledge since so little scientific discovery existed in his day: but his fervent belief that it was the right way to proceed turned out to be bang on the money.

Credit

All references are to the translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays by J.M. Cohen published by Penguin books in 1958.


Related links

On Old Age by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Of what immense worth is it for the soul to be with itself, to live, as the phrase is, with itself, discharged from the service of lust, ambition, strife, enmities, desires of every kind!’
(On old age by Cicero)

Cicero wrote De senectute or ‘Of old age’ to disabuse people of their negative stereotypes about old age, to defend old age, to make it less feared. It’s a relatively short treatise by Cicero’s standards. It is dedicated to his good friend Titus Pomponius (who gave himself the nickname ‘Atticus’ because he loved Athens so much).

Cicero sets it, like De republica and De amitia, back in the time of Scipio Aemilianus, about 130 BC, and has the characters in the dialogue be Scipio, his friend Caius Laelius, and the stern moralist Cato the Elder, who lived a very long life (234 to 149 BC) and so was eminently qualified to talk about age.

In De senectute Cicero, like the defence lawyer he was, mounts a defence of the state of old age against its alleged disadvantages. He has Cato tell Scipio and Laelius how foolish general attitudes to old age are. The best way to live is to ‘follow and obey Nature, the surest guide, as if she were a god,’ (which my recent reading has taught me to see as pure Stoicism). Hence the Stoic insistence on Virtue:

CATO: “The best-fitting defensive armour of old age, Scipio and Laelius, consists in the knowledge and practice of the virtues, which, assiduously cultivated, after the varied experiences of a long life, are wonderfully fruitful, not only because they never take flight, not even at the last moment, — although this is a consideration of prime importance, — but because the consciousness of a well-spent life and a memory rich in good deeds afford supreme happiness.”

Those who criticise old age are often simply projecting their own vices and shortcomings onto an inevitable part of life.

About a quarter of the way into the text, after this fictional Cato has given us profiles and anecdotes about quite a few eminent Romans of his time, he gets round to tabulating the four main criticisms people make of old age.

“One, that it calls us away from the management of affairs; another, that it impairs bodily vigour; the third, that it deprives us to a great degree of sensual gratifications; the fourth, that it brings one to the verge of death.”

The essay consists of him examining and refuting each of these claims in turn:

1. Old age withdraws us from active pursuits

It’s true old age prevents activities which are appropriate for youth and strength of body. But there are many activities appropriate to maturity and statesmanship, and he gives a list of eminent Romans who played decisive roles at key moments of Roman history:

The old man does not do what the young men do; but he does greater and better things. Great things are accomplished, not by strength, or swiftness, or suppleness of body, but by counsel, influence, deliberate opinion, of which old age is not wont to be bereft, but, on the other hand, to possess them more abundantly…Unless these were the characteristics of seniors in age, our ancestors would not have called the supreme council the Senate.

The word senate derives from senex, the Latin for old man, implying that with age comes wisdom and decision.

If you see fit to read or hear the history of foreign nations, you will find that states have been undermined by young men, but maintained and restored by old men.

Rashness, indeed, belongs to youth; prudence, to age.

Indeed, the crowning glory of old age is authority.

Old age, especially when it has filled offices of high public trust, has so much authority, that for this alone it is worth all the pleasures of youth.

Old men are said to forget, but Cato insists this is only true among those who do not exercise their memory or were slow-minded to begin with. No, old men remember everything that they care about and:

Old men have their powers of mind unimpaired when they do not suspend their usual pursuits and their habits of industry.

Examples of men who excelled at their craft well into old age include Sophocles, Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Stesichorus, Isocrates, Gorgias, Pythagoras and Democritus, Plato, Xenocrates, Zeno and Cleanthes and so on. Did these men not continue working at the top of their bent till the end of their lives?

Some say old age is repellent to the young, but it need not be so if is considered with respect to the wisdom age has to offer:

As wise old men are charmed with well-disposed youth, so do young men delight in the counsels of the old, by which they are led to the cultivation of the virtues.

And so another of the benefits of age is the respect of the young and he details the respect afforded successful elder statesmen, such as being saluted in the morning, grasped by the hand, received by the rising of those present, escorted to the Forum, escorted home, asked for advice.

What pleasures of body are to be compared with the prerogatives of authority?

2. Old age makes the body weaker

It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength

But the eloquence that becomes one of advanced years is calm and gentle, and not infrequently a clear-headed old man commands special attention by the simple, quiet elegance of his style

You can at least help others by your counsel; and what is more pleasant than old age surrounded by young disciples? Must we not admit that old age has sufficient strength to teach young men, to educate them, to train them for the discharge of every duty? And what can be more worthy of renown than work like this?

If you know someone stronger than you, does that make them better than you? No, each of us has the strength appropriate to our bodies and exercise, so:

Provided one husbands one’s strength, and does not attempt to go beyond it, one will not be hindered in one’s work by any lack of the requisite strength.

Accept the course of nature.

Life has its fixed course, and nature one unvarying way; each age has assigned to it what best suits it, so that the fickleness of boyhood, the sanguine temper of youth, the soberness of riper years, and the maturity of old age, equally have something in harmony with nature.

But do what you can to remain fit.

Exercise and temperance, then, can preserve even in old age something of one’s pristine vigour.

Live a healthy life.

Old age, like disease, should be fought against. Care must be bestowed upon the health; moderate exercise must be taken; the food and drink should be sufficient to recruit the strength, and not in such excess as to become oppressive. Nor yet should the body alone be sustained in vigour, but much more the powers of mind; for these too, unless you pour oil into the lamp, are extinguished by old age. Indeed, while overexertion tends by fatigue to weigh down the body, exercise makes the mind elastic.

Cato lists the intimidating roster of activities he is undertaking in his 84th year, including:

  • he is writing a history
  • he is collecting memorials of older times
  • he is writing out the speeches he gave in all his law cases
  • he is treating of augural, pontifical, civil law
  • to exercise his mind he recalls every evening whatever he has said, heard or done during the day
  • he often appears in court on behalf of friends
  • he attends the senate and still has motions he wants to propose

These are the exercises of the mind; these, the race-ground of the intellect.

If you remain alert and active:

One who is always occupied in these studies and labours is unaware when age creeps upon him. Thus one grows old gradually and unconsciously,

3. Old age deprives us of almost all physical pleasures

This is a positive thing, considering that the lure of physical pleasure is one of the most harmful things to youth. He quotes a violent speech against pleasure by Archytas of Tarentum:

“There is no form of guilt, no atrocity of evil, to the accomplishment of which men are not driven by lust for pleasure. Debaucheries, adulteries, and all enormities of that kind have no other inducing cause than the allurements of pleasure.

“Still more, while neither Nature nor any god has bestowed upon man aught more noble than mind, nothing is so hostile as pleasure to this divine endowment and gift. Nor while lust bears sway can self-restraint find place, nor under the reign of pleasure can virtue have any foothold whatever.”

If reason is the greatest gift of the gods and the highest faculty of man, and if indulgence in physical pleasure overrides or extinguishes it, then thank God for old age if it means all these harmful forces leave you.

For pleasure thwarts good counsel, is the enemy of reason, and, if I may so speak, blindfolds the eyes of the mind, nor has it anything in common with virtue.

Plato called pleasure ‘the bait of evil’, and so:

It is not only no reproach to old age, but even its highest merit, that it does not severely feel the loss of bodily pleasures.

It is said that old men have less intensity of sensual enjoyment. So I believe; but there is no craving for it. You do not miss what you do not want.

Sophocles very aptly replied, when asked in his old age whether he indulged in sensual pleasure, “May the gods do better for me! I rejoice in my escape from a savage and ferocious tyrant.”

So one can feel grateful for it:

I am heartily thankful to my advanced years for increasing my appetency for conversation, and diminishing my craving for food and drink.

Speaking personally, I’m glad I’m middle aged. When I was a young man I felt I had a raging fire burning in my mind which could only be extinguished by intoxicants and inebriants, I hurtled round London feeling like I might explode at any moment. Now the fires of testosterone have banked right down and I am content to read literature and tend my garden, like the best of the ancients. It is an enormous relief not to be young any more.

it is to Solon’s honour that he says, in the verse which I just now quoted, that as he advanced in age he learned something every day, — a pleasure of the mind than which there can be none greater.

He then has a passage about the joys of what he calls agriculture, but is nearer to horticulture, with an extended description of the joy of growing grapes and watching the vines grow and spread.

What can I say of the planting, upspringing, and growth of vines? It is with insatiable delight that I thus make known to you the repose and enjoyment of my old age.

I know what he means. This year I have planted seven trees, set up 10 trellises and planted five climbers to grow up them, and sown wild flowers seed along 20 metres of border. There is no pleasure like the calm pleasure of planning, planting, watering and tending your own garden.

He introduces some further accusations against old men 1) that they are morose, uneasy, irritable and hard to please, 2) that they become avaricious with age.

But these are faults of character, not of age itself.

He defends (some) old men from being uneasy and irritable because this is, in fact, a justified response to the way they are sometimes treated – when they are scorned, despised, mocked. Who can blame old people from being grumpy about being badly treated and neglected.

Also, if you have a weaker body, sometimes undermined by chronic health problems, then any cause of vexation is felt more keenly. But such infirmities of temper should be corrected by good manners and liberal culture.

As to old men becoming greedy, he can’t understand it at all. With less of life to live, why bother devoting your energies to acquiring wealth you won’t have time to spend. Better to cultivate a calm but active mind.

4. Old age is liable to excessive solicitude and distress because death is so near

But one of the key achievements of wisdom is to overcome your fear of death and learn to despise it. There are, after all, only two scenarios: either the soul / mind ceases to exist at death (in which case there is nothing to worry about) or we pass to an immortal realm (which is highly desirable). Win-win, either way.

In fact, young people are more liable to fatal incidents than old people: young people commit suicide, are killed in car or motorbike crashes, in fights or murders and, in Cicero’s time, in battle, much more than old people.

Young people hope to live to a ripe old age. An old person should rejoice because he has achieved that wish.

Each one should be content with such time as it is allotted to him to live.

In order to give pleasure to the audience, the actor need not finish the play; he may win approval in whatever act he takes part in; nor need the wise man remain on the stage till the closing plaudit. A brief time is long enough to live well and honourably.

But if you live on, you have no more reason to mourn over your advancing years, than the farmers have, when the sweet days of spring are past, to lament the coming of summer and of autumn.

What can be more natural than to die old. It is those who die young who are the tragic waste. Dying old is part of the natural cycle of things.

Old men die as when a spent fire goes out of its own accord, without force employed to quench it…This ripeness of old age is to me so pleasant, that, in proportion as I draw near to death, I seem to see land, and after a long voyage to be on the point of entering the harbour.

And:

Because old age has no fixed term, one may fitly live in it so long as one can observe and discharge the duties of his station, and yet despise death.

Old age, fearless of death, may transcend youth in courage and in fortitude.

As to the actual pain of dying:

There may be, indeed, some painful sensation in dying, yet for only a little while, especially for the old; after death there is either desirable sensation or none at all.

It is possible to have had enough, to have lived well and done everything one wanted so as to reach a stage of being ready for death:

satiety of life, as it seems to me, creates satiety of pursuits of every kind. There are certain pursuits belonging to boyhood; do grownup young men therefore long for them? There are others appertaining to early youth; are they required in the sedate period of life which we call middle age? This, too, has its own pursuits, and they are not sought in old age. As the pursuits of earlier periods of life fall away, so in like manner do those of old age. When this period is reached, satiety of life brings a season ripe for death.

Cato ends by sharing his personal thoughts about the soul. He believes, with the Pythagoreans, that each human soul is a fragment of the Divine Mind forced, for a while, into the prison of an earthly habitation. Indivisible and immortal, human souls knew things before we were born (as per Plato).

The wise soul knows it will live on after death:

Since men of the highest wisdom die with perfect calmness, those who are the most foolish with extreme disquiet, can you doubt that the soul which sees more and farther perceives that it is going to a better state, while the soul of obtuser vision has no view beyond death?

Cato is looking forward to meeting the great men he knew in life, as well as legendary figures from earlier days. And so, after a lifetime of toil for his nation, Cato is ready to move on for a better place, the abode of bliss and the company of heroes:

I depart from life, as from an inn, not as from a home; for nature has given us here a lodging for a sojourn, not a place of habitation. O glorious day, when I shall go to that divine company and assembly of souls, and when I shall depart from this crowd and tumult!

Thoughts

Unlike Cicero’s treatise on friendship, which was impossibly high-minded and deformed by Cicero’s obsession with Stoic philosophy, his insistence on spelling out the belief in God which underlies his belief in a God-given Human Nature and therefore God-given Moral Laws – this essay is far less theoretical, and therefore a genuinely useful, insightful guide to how to age gracefully and well.

Once or twice he mentions the Stoic nostrum that virtue can fortify the mind against all vicissitudes, but the philosophy is tamped right down in favour of the many practical, real world examples of fellow Romans who Cato has known or whose grace and wisdom and ongoing energy in old age offer genuinely inspiring examples, both to him and to anybody who reads it.


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On the laws by Cicero

We are born for justice and what is just is based, not on opinion, but on nature.
(De legibus, book I, section 28)

Cicero began writing the De legibus or On the laws during the same period as the De republica, i.e. the late 50s BC, but suspended work on it when he was compelled to go and be governor of Cilicia in 51 BC, and possibly never resumed it. It is certainly unfinished. We have just two books of 60-odd sections each and most of book 3 (49 sections) then the manuscript stops in mid-sentence. The 4th century AD philosopher Macrobius refers to the existence of a book 5. Maybe it was intended to have 6 books to parallel the De republica to which it is obviously a partner.

Like most of Cicero’s other works it is a dialogue though, unlike the De republica, it is set in the present and, instead of historical personages, features just the author himself, his brother (Quintus Tullius Cicero) and his best friend (Titus Pomponius Atticus, addressee of so many of Cicero’s letters).

De legibus has a simple premise: since he is Rome’s leading lawyer and advocate, Cicero’s brother and friend suggest he is perfectly placed to write a book about The Law, and so Cicero sets off with the aim of establishing the fundamental basis of law, before considering specific laws, whether they need to be amended and, if so, how. From the start Cicero describes and explicates what was essentially the Stoic theory of natural law as amounting to right reason in action.

Natural Law

In the introduction to the Oxford University Press edition, Jonathan Powell explains that Cicero’s theory of Natural Law was based on certain premises:

  1. that the universe is a system run by a rational providence
  2. that mankind stands between God and the animals so that in creating and obeying laws man is employing Right Reason
  3. that human potential can only be realised in communities – Cicero derives this from Aristotle’s view that humans are sociable animals
  4. that man is a homogeneous species – we have more in common than separates us – therefore we are susceptible to the same, one, universal natural law which stands above (or lies beneath) all ‘positive’ i.e. merely local and culture-specific laws
  5. that law is based on (human) nature not opinion – individual laws may come and go but the existence of a deep fundamental law of human nature can never change

Natural Law refuted

The objections to this are obvious and start with the counter statement that the universe is very much not a system run by a rational providence. Since Isaac Newton’s discoveries of the basic forces which govern the universe, there has been no need to posit a God to create and keep the universe running; and since Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, there has been no need to posit a God who created the extraordinary diversity of life forms we see around us, including humanity. Many other reasons may be found for adducing the existence of a God or gods, but the regularity of the cosmos and the diversity of the natural world are not among them.

If God does not exist, didn’t create the universe and does not deploy a benevolent providence to watch over us, then humans cannot occupy a middle space between the animals and this God who doesn’t exist. We are more accurately seen as just another life form amid the trillions teeming all over the earth.

Cicero displays towards human beings the same kind of anthropocentric chauvinism and exceptionalism which was first recorded among his Greek predecessors and persisted through most thinking about humanity and human nature up till very recently. Only in the last couple of generations has it become clear that humans may have invented language and maths and built skyscrapers and flown to the moon but that, deep down, we are just apes, mammals, animals, and behave much like all the other mammals, in terms of our fundamental behaviours – feeding, mating and fighting.

If you have a God, then you can establish a hierarchy with him at the top, then the angels, then humans sitting comfortably above all other species on earth. If you have no God, the hierarchy crumbles and we are just one among a million different life forms jumbled together on this small planet, engaged in the never-ending battle for survival. Nowadays we know that humanity is killing off the other species, destroying countless habitats, and burning up the planet as no other species possibly could. Some people characterise our arrogant lording it over life forms as speciesism, a view I share.

If there is one quality that distinguishes human beings from all other species it is our unique capacity for destruction.

The notion that humans are governed by Right Reason has always seemed to me self evidently false. Our values are inculcated by the society we grow up in. If some values are almost universal across most of these societies this is because they make evolutionary sense, they help the group survive, rather than being a Universal Law handed down by a Benevolent God.

Therefore premises 1, 2, 4 and 5 listed above are false. We are left with 3, the notion that humans naturally live in groups or communities, which seems to be objectively true, but gives us no guide on how we should conduct ourselves, or establish laws or rules for running these communities.

Lastly, the introductions to all these texts by Cicero tend to talk about Universal values, Universal laws, and Universal human nature very freely but I can’t help feeling they only apply to the Western world. The terms of reference seem very Eurocentric or Anglocentric or whatever the word is for Western-centric. Meaning that my reading about African tribes, cultures, laws and traditions, or what I know about Chinese history, and my personal experience of travelling in the Muslim world, suggest that there are many non-Western cultures which don’t share these ways of looking at the world at all. I’m guessing the same could be said about Indian culture, or the traditions of the native Americans of North or South America, the Australian aborigenes and any number of other cultures.

Liberals may be proud of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the recently founded United Nations, founded by the soon-to-be-victorious Allies during the Second World War, based in New York, a document drafted by a committee chaired by the American president’s wife (Eleanor Roosevelt) – but the idea of universal set of values is not a fact about human beings but a high-minded aspiration.

I recently visited the British Museum exhibition on Stonehenge. This has a section describing life in Britain before the advent of the (first) agricultural revolution, which began in the Middle East 12,000 years ago. The human population of Britain was minuscule (maybe 5,000) arranged into tiny communities of hunter gatherers who lived deep amid nature as they found her, without the knowledge, means or incentive to change anything, to fell trees, clear land, burn forests and so on. Instead they considered themselves an integral part of nature, not set aside from it. They killed rarely and atoned for their killings with offerings. And the exhibition says this was the way of life for most hunter-gatherer societies for most of human history i.e. going back hundreds of thousands of years, back through all the various species of the genus Homo.

So I’m saying that Cicero’s premises are not only wrong in the theoretical/theological way that they posit the existence of One Universal God to explain the world around us, an explanation which has been utterly superseded by the scientific worldview – but wrong in all his factual claims about human nature,  above all that it is universally the same, whereas we now know that there have been, and currently are, many, many, many more human cultures than Cicero could ever imagine.

The Romans thought the world amounted to one continent completely surrounded by a vast Ocean, punctuated by the middle-earth or Mediterranean Sea. They hugely underestimated the size of Africa, and thought the world ended with India and a little beyond the Ural mountains, so forming one circular continent. The historical examples Cicero bases his notion of a universal human nature on amount to a tiny sub-set of the actually existing cultures of his own time, and a minuscule sub-set of all the human cultures and societies which have existed over the face of the earth for the past several hundred thousand years.

So: this book is clever and interesting in all kinds of ways but it is based on multiple types of ignorance – deep, deep ignorance – which lead to false premises and wrong deductions on every page.

Cicero’s motivation

As we saw in De republica Cicero was a very practical-minded Roman. He wasn’t interested in airy-fairy philosophical speculations for their own sake. He was a staunch Roman patriot who wanted to preserve the Roman state. The practicalness of his motivation is stated explicitly mid-way through book one:

You see the direction which this discussion is taking. My whole thesis aims to bring stability to states, steadiness to cities, and well-being to communities. (I, 37)

He is not seeking ‘the truth’, so much as cherry-picking arguments from the range of Greek philosophy in order to shore up his practical and patriotic aim.

Book one

Cicero asserts that:

  1. human beings are blessed with the ultimate gift of the gods, Reason
  2. humans have a single way of living with one another which is universal
  3. all people in a community are held together by natural goodwill and kindness (I, 35)

As you can see, all these axioms are wrong and he goes on to deliver a slew of equally high-minded, fine-sounding sentiments which are equally false:

Law is the highest reason, inherent in nature, which enjoins what ought to be done and forbids the opposite. (I, 18)

Law is a force of nature, the intelligence and reason of a wise man, and the criterion of truth and injustice. (I, 19)

The creature of foresight, wisdom, variety, keenness, memory, endowed with reason and judgement, which we call man, was created by the supreme god to enjoy a remarkable status. Of all the types and species of living creatures he is the only one that participates in reason and reflection whereas none of the others do…Since there is nothing better than reason, and reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God. (I, 22-23)

No, humans were not created by God but evolved through natural processes. We now know that numerous other species certainly have memory, and many appear capable of thought and calculation. Who says there is nothing better than reason? A philosopher whose central subject is reason, which is like a carpenter saying there’s nothing better in the world than working with wood. Why is there nothing better in the world than reason. How about, say, love?

Since there is no God, the statement ‘since reason is present in both man and God, there is a primordial partnership between man and God’ is meaningless. Or more accurately, it has a meaning, but a meaning made out of words, in the same way that a poem about blue guitars floating up to the moon makes sense, but refers to nothing in the real world. On it goes:

Those who share reason also share right reason; and since that is law, we men must also be thought of as partners with the gods in law. (I, 23)

Those who obey the same laws effectively live in the same state and:

and they do in fact obey this celestial system, the divine mind, and the all-powerful god. Hence this whole universe must be thought of as a single community shared by gods and men. (I, 23)

In the course of the continuous circuits and revolutions of the heavens the right moment arrived for sowing the human race; that after being scattered and sown in the earth it was further endowed with the divine gift of mind; that whereas men derived the other elements in their makeup from their mortal nature…their mind was implanted in them by God. Hence we have…a lineage, origin or stock in common with gods…As a result man recognises God in as much as he recognises his place of origin…the same moral excellence in man and in God. (I, 24-25)

Cicero’s belief in God or gods isn’t tangential to his thought: his theism is absolutely central and vital to his entire view of human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice. And so, since there is no God, Cicero’s views on human nature, reason, ethics, law and justice are wrong from top to bottom. They may occasionally coincide with modern views based on humanistic atheism but these are accidental overlaps.

What makes this relatively short book (72 pages) so hard to read is that I disagreed with all his premises and almost all his conclusions. As a discussion of the theoretical basis of law and justice I found it useless. It has a sort of historical usefulness in shedding a very clear light on how a leading Roman lawyer conceived his profession and clearly explaining the kind of arguments about jurisprudence which were common in his day. And it includes references to Greek and Roman history which are anecdotally interesting. But every time he makes a general statement I find myself totally disagreeing and this eventually becomes very wearing:

Nature has lavished such a wealth of things on men for their use and convenience that every growing thing seems to have been given to us on purpose; it does not come into existence by chance. (I, 26)

Wrong: the life forms we see around us evolved by the process explained by Darwin, of which Cicero knows nothing; none of them were created ‘for our convenience’, instead food crops and livestock only began to be bred and fine-tuned for our use during the agricultural revolution which began some 10,000 years before Cicero’s time, of which he knew and understood nothing.

And the world does not exist ‘for our convenience’: it is precisely this self-centred sense of human privilege and entitlement which is very obviously destroying the earth in our own time.

God has created and equipped man in this way, intending him to take precedence over everything else. (I, 27)

Anthropocentrism. Narcissism*. Human chauvinism. Arrogance.

Nature made man alone erect, encouraging him to gaze at the heavens as being akin to him and his original home. (I, 27)

Sweet, poetic and false.

Cicero goes on to make the humanistic claim that people have more in common than separates them, we are all one human family. He is not stating this because he’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony but because he wants to continue his thought that there is One God who has created one human race with One Reason and so it follows that there must be One Law to rule them all. Hence his insistence that there is One Human Nature. He claims that Reason:

  • may vary in what it teaches but is constant in its ability to learn
  • that what we perceive through the senses, we all perceive alike
  • that perceptions which impinge on our minds do so on all minds in the same way
  • that human speech may use different words but expresses the same ideas
  • troubles and joys, desires and fears haunt the minds of all alike

He is trying to corral human nature into his One God, One Reason, One Human Nature therefore One Law argument, but each of those four statements is questionable or wrong, starting with the notion that everyone is alike in the ability to learn and ending with the notion that we all experience the same emotions. Demonstrably false.

This is the evidence, in reality just wishes and assertions, which leads him to conclude that there is One Justice and that it derives from Nature (I, 33). Again and again he repeats the same formulas:

There is one, single, justice. It binds together human society and has been established by one, single law. That law is right reason in commanding and forbidding. (I, 42)

We are inclined by nature to have a regard for others and that is the basis of justice. (I, 43)

But repeating false claims doesn’t make them true.

Nature has created perceptions that we have in common, and has sketched them in such a way that we classify honourable things as virtues and dishonourable things as vices. (I, 44)

And yet Cicero saw Scipio Africanus, the general who oversaw the complete destruction of Carthage and the selling of its entire population of 50,000 into slavery as an epitome of virtue and honour and glory. Is that a perception we all have in common? Probably not the population of Carthage.

Moral excellence is reason fully developed and that is certainly grounded in nature. (I, 45)

Goodness itself is good not because of people’s opinions but because of nature. (I, 46)

Here and in many other similar formulations you can see that what he is arguing against is the notion that goodness and morality and law are contingent upon human societies. If this is true then, for a patriotic, socially-minded conservative like Cicero, what follows is anarchy. (It is the same fear of anarchy which underpins his conservative preference to keep on worshipping the gods according to the traditional ceremonies, as expressed in De rerum deorum.)

For more pragmatic, sceptical and utilitarian-minded people like myself, what follows is not anarchy, but is certainly a complex and never-ending process of trying to create culture, morality and laws which allow for diversity and strike a balance between conflicting opinions, classes and needs. The unending messiness of democracy, in other words.

Book one is essentially in two parts: up to section 40-something he is laying down these basic principles, and then gets his brother and best friend to enthusiastically vouch that he has certainly proved them, that men were endowed with reason by the gods, men live with one another in the same way everywhere, and that all human communities are held together by the same universal justice (I, 35).

All good men love what is fair in itself and what is right in itself. (I, 48)

In the second half he introduces, or wanders off to consider, notions of the good and morality. Sometimes, reading Cicero, it feels like you can see the joins, the places where he moved from copying one Greek text to suddenly copying from another. The order is his but much of the source content is cribbed from Greek originals (as he freely admits in his letters and in the texts themselves) with the result that his works rarely feel like they have a steady clear direction of travel, but more like a collection of related topics thrown loosely together. And this partly explains why his so-called conclusions rarely feel really justified by what has preceded them.

The conclusion is obvious from what has been said, namely that one should strive after justice and every moral virtue for their own sake. (I, 48)

Therefore what is right should be sought and cultivated for itself. (I, 48)

The t-shirt slogans keep on coming:

Justice looks for no prize; it is sought for itself and is at once the cause and meaning of all virtues. (I, 48)

This reminds me of St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude… (1 Corinthians 13:4)

And the comparison confirms my sense that Cicero’s writings are less philosophy than wisdom literature, defined as: “statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue.”

A fundamental mistake he makes is common to dogmatists of his type, namely the false dilemma or false dichotomy, “an informal fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.” For, Cicero argues, if his account of One God endowing One Human Race with One Right Reason so that Justice and Virtue arise out of Nature is wrong – then the only alternative is chaos. For if people only act in their own self-interest, not according to Universal Justice, then:

where is a generous person to be found…what becomes of gratitude…where is that holy thing, friendship…what are we to say of restraint, temperance, and self-control? What od modesty, decency and chastity?… then there is no such thing as justice at all. (I, 49-50)

But this is a false dichotomy. There aren’t just two stark alternatives. There are, in reality, a huge variety of societies, laws, customs and traditions. Yes it may look like anarchy to a conservative like Cicero. But it is how human beings actually live. The false dichotomy is a way for an author to terrorise you into accepting his tendentious view.

Cicero is not seeking ‘the truth’; he is, like the excellent lawyer he was, making a case and using every rhetorical and logical sleight of hand to do so.

Quintus asks where all this is going (I, 52) and Marcus replies that he is steering the discussion towards a definition of the Highest Good. Oh God, how boring. As with all these conservative/authoritarian thinkers, there can only be one of everything, One God, One Human Nature, One Reason, One Justice, One State and One Good.

As usual he a) approaches the problem through a blizzard of references to Greek philosophers including Phaedrus, the Academy, Zeno, the Old Academy, Antiochus, Chios, Aristotle, Plato and b) fails to reach any meaningful conclusion. Whereas the Old Academy called what is honourable the highest good, Zeno said it was the only good, holding the same beliefs as Aristotle but using different terms. (I, 55).

Quintus suggests that:

There is no doubt about it: the highest good is either to live according to nature (i.e. to enjoy a life of moderation governed by moral excellence) or to follow nature and to live, so to speak, by the law (i.e. as far as possible to omit nothing in order to achieve what nature requires, which means the same as this: to live, as it were, by a code of moral excellence). (I, 56)

Great. Does that help anyone? No. Words, words, words. But when Quintus asks him to show what all this means in practice, Cicero at first pleads that it is beyond his powers. What isn’t beyond his powers is more highfalutin’ truisms:

Wisdom is the mother of all good things; the love of her gives us the word ‘philosophy’ from the Greek. Of all the gifts which the immortal gods have bestowed on human life none is richer or more abundant or more desirable. (I, 58)

Cicero deflects to invoke the famous maxim carved above the oracle at Delphi, Know thyself:

The person who knows himself will first of all realise that he possesses something divine, and he will compare his own inner nature to a kind of holy image placed within a temple. (I, 59)

Will he? The book concludes with a half page hymn of praise to the Truly Great Man Who Knows Himself, understands his mind is a gift from God, understands Wisdom and Virtue and Justice, and so is ideally placed to rule over his fellow men. In other words, the ideal Roman ruler of Cicero’s own time.

Book two

As a break, the characters describe the fictional walk they are taking through the countryside of around the Cicero family estate outside Cicero’s home town of Arpinum, 100 kilometres south east of Rome. Pleasant chat about the view (‘What could be more delightful?’) is artfully placed in order to lead on to consideration of love of birthplace and country. Never forget that Cicero was a fierce Roman patriot. A person’s birthplace:

is the country for which we should be willing to die, to which we should devote ourselves heart and soul, and on whose altar we should dedicate and consecrate all that is our. (II, 5)

All that is ours. Cicero is usually referred to as a lovely humanist but this is as fierce and total a patriotism as Mussolini’s. And then we return to consideration of the law and Cicero recapitulates his axioms for the umpteenth time:

Law was not thought up by the intelligence of human beings, nor is it some kind of resolution passed by communities, but rather an eternal force which rules the world by the wisdom of its commands and prohibitions…the original and final law is the intelligence of God, who ordains or forbids everything through reason. Hence that law which the gods have given to the human race is rightly praised, for it represents the intelligence of a wise man directed to issuing commands and prohibitions. (II, 8)

I think I disagree with pretty much every word of this. On it goes: the power of encouraging people to right actions:

is not only older than the existence of communities and states; it is coeval with that god who watches over and rules heaven and earth. (II, 10)

Repetition

If in doubt, repeat it again and again, bludgeoning your readers into submission:

Reason existed, reason derived from the nature of the universe, impelling people to right actions and restraining them from wrong. That reason did not first become law even it was written down, but rather when it came into being. And it came into being at the same time as the divine mind. Therefore the authentic original law, whose function is to command and forbid, is the right reason of Jupiter, Lord of all. (II, 10)

Mind you, in a note to page 162 Jonathan Powell points out that repeating ideas in different formulations in order to drive it home was a skill that was taught and practiced in the schools of rhetoric which Cicero attended.

The use value of religion

I mentioned above how the conservative Cicero thought religion should be kept up in order to maintain social structure, for its use value. In book two he makes this explicit:

Who would deny that these [religious] ideas are useful, bearing in mind how many contracts are strengthened by the swearing of oaths, how valuable religious scruples are for guaranteeing treaties, how many people are restrained from crime for fear of divine retribution…(II, 16)

One of the reasons Cicero despises and mocks Epicureans is because they sought to free people’s minds from fear of the gods. For Cicero (as for the ancient Jews) piety and morality begin with fear of the gods. This is very Roman, very practical-minded of Cicero. And explains why the population has to be brainwashed into believing in the gods:

Citizens should first of all be convinced of this, that the gods are lords and masters of everything; that what is done is done by their decision and authority; that they are, moreover, great benefactors of mankind and observe what kind of person everyone is…Minds imbued with these facts will surely not deviate from true and wholesome ideas. (II, 15)

I don’t need to point out how coercive and authoritarian this idea is. The gods are Big Brother, watching you, reading your thoughts, checking up that you obey Right Reason, as defined by Cicero and his class.

That said, Cicero’s attitude really only reflected the attitudes of most educated men of his time. They didn’t believe in their religion in the same way a Christian or Muslim believes in their God. Roman religion was, as Jonathan Powell puts it, by this period a matter almost entirely of public ritual, tradition and custom. Religious belief, in the post-Christian sense of the word, wasn’t required or checked. Obedience to custom and ritual, reverence for tradition, was all.

Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion

All of which explains why, when he comes to actually enumerate the laws in his ideal state, Cicero does so with Laws Governing Religion. Anti-climactically, these turn out to be pretty much the same laws as govern Rome. Just as De republica concluded that the Roman constitution was the best imaginable constitution (a conclusion he repeatedly refers to here e.g. II, 23), so De legibus, when push comes to shove, concludes that the best possible laws the human mind could devise are…exactly the same as the laws of ancient Rome (II, 23).

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: a relatively considered statement of Cicero’s ideal laws concerning religion (sections 18 to 22) followed by a detailed commentary on each of them (sections 23 to 60). There follow pages and pages of detailed prescriptions about religious rites and rituals, an extraordinary level of detailed specification. There’s a short digression about the proper regulation of music to stop it becoming immoral and corrupting which made me think of Mary Whitehouse and demonstrates Cicero’s cultural conservatism, before we plunge back into thickets of religious law.

The contrast between the high minded rhetoric about the One God and Universal Human Nature and Divine Law in book one and the slavish iteration of Roman rules and regulations as the actual embodiment of this supposedly Universal Law is unintentionally comic. Bathos = “an effect of anti-climax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous.”

The place of burial is not called a grave until the rites have been conducted and the pig has been slain. (II, 57)

Do not smooth the pure with a trowel. (II, 59)

Women shall not scratch their cheeks on the occasion of a funeral. (II, 64)

It is forbidden to decorate a tomb with stucco work. (II, 65)

Do these sound like the Universal Laws indicative of the Divine Mind which Cicero has been banging on about…or the customs and conventions accumulated by one particular little city state?

Once this lengthy and hyper-detailed account of Rome’s religious laws is finished, Cicero announces that the next most important element in the structure of the state is magistrates and that he will devote the next book to considering the ideal magistrate.

Book three

Cicero bases his thoughts about magistrates, like his thoughts about everything else, on God:

Nothing is so closely bound up with the decrees and terms of nature…as authority. Without that, no house or clan or state can survive – no nor the human race, nor the whole of nature, nor the very universe itself. For the universe obeys God; land and sea abide by the laws of the universe; and human life is subject to the commands of the supreme law. (III, 3)

As with book two, he gives a clipped concise statement of his ideal laws governing magistracies or public offices (sections 6 to 11, 3 pages) then a detailed commentary on them (sections 12 to 47, 14 pages).

And yet again he repeats that, since his ‘six previous books’ (i.e the De republica) ‘proved’ that the Roman constitution was the best one conceivable by the human mind, so, logically enough, the kind of Ideal Magistrate he intends to describe will also turn out to be…Roman ones!

And so indeed, it turns out, after consulting the Divine Mind, that the optimum state will feature quaestors, aediles, praetors, consuls and censors, a senate to propose laws and popular assemblies to vote on them – exactly like the Roman state! He has the good grace to have his characters admit that this is a little embarrassing:

QUINTUS: How succinctly, Marcus, you have drawn up a scheme of all the magistrates for our inspection! But they are almost identical with those of our own country, even if you have introduced a little novelty.
MARCUS: Yes, we are talking about the harmoniously mixed constitution which Scipio praised in those books and prefers to all others…and since our constitution was given the most sensible and well-adjusted form by our ancestors, I found little or nothing to change in the laws. (III, 12)

The latter part of book three goes into considerable details about all aspects of the Roman constitution, the peculiarities of the different magistracies, the age limits, the pros and cons of the tribunate, the different types of voting (by acclamation, writing down, secret ballot) and so on. This is quite interesting because it is, arguably, the most practical part of the book, describing Rome’s actual constitutional practices and debating points Cicero (or his more conservative brother, Quintus) would like to change, a bit, not too much.

Worth emphasising that the aim of all the tinkering round the edges which Cicero proposes is to ensure that power remains firmly in the hands of the aristocracy and out of the hands of the people at large.

Liberty will exist in the sense that the people are given the opportunity to do the aristocracy an honourable favour.

Thanks to my [proposed] law, the appearance of liberty is given to the people [and] the authority of the aristocracy is retained. (III, 39)

The end was nigh

This final section has a wistfully hypothetical air about it because, within a few short years the entire world it describes would be swept away.

Let us imagine that Cicero was half way through writing the book when, in 51 BC, he was called on to take up the governorship of Cilicia (the southern coast of modern Turkey) and served throughout the year 50.

This meant that he was out of Rome as the political confrontation between Caesar and the Senate came to a head. there was a flurry of proposals and counter proposals in December 50, all of which failed and prompted Caesar, in January 49, to cross with his army from Cisalpine Gaul where he held an official post, into mainland Italy, where he didn’t, thus breaking the law, making himself an outlaw, and sparking the five year civil war between himself and Pompey and his followers.

When peace was restored in 45 BC, Caesar had himself declared dictator for life thus turning the entire Roman constitution into a hollow shell and rendering On the laws, with their pages of pedantic footling about precise constitutional arrangements, redundant overnight. It became overnight a record of a specific historical moment, which was eclipsed before the book could even be completed.

Thoughts

Cicero is frequently held up as the godfather of humanism. Finding, translating and commenting on his books was a central element in the Renaissance, which saw the creation of modern ideas of humanism. (“Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters is often credited for initiating the 14th-century Renaissance.” Lumen).

However, as my close readings of De rerum deorumDe republica and De legibus amply demonstrate, Cicero’s ‘humanism’ is crucially, vitally, centrally based on his theism, his belief in One God who created human beings and implanted in them fragments of the Divine Reason which underpin all our values, morality, law, justice and statecraft.

Thus, in a nutshell: humanism derives from religious belief. Without its religious underpinning, humanism is nothing. It becomes a wish, a hope, a dream, with no factual or logical basis. I don’t say this to undermine humanistic values. I am probably a humanistic progressive liberal myself. Where I appear to differ from most of my tribe is I don’t believe these truths to be self evident. There are other ways of being human, other cultures, other values completely different from ours, probably the majority of human lives have very much not been lived according to these values. Several points follow:

1. We do not have the right to compel these other cultures into adherence to our values. That is no different from Victorian missionaries trying to convert tribes in Africa or Asia or Australia to their narrow Christian culture.

2. If we want to defend our values effectively against those who threaten them, for example Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, we must base them on really secure foundations, not wishes or aspirations. Far stronger foundations than Cicero, who wrote all these fancy words only to have his head cut off by Mark Antony’s bounty hunters. The sword is mightier than the pen.

* Cicero’s self promotion

It’s further evidence of Cicero’s self-centred narcissism that in several places in book 3 he manages to showehorn into the text the famous events of 63 BC, when he was consul and saved the state from the Cataline conspiracy. He gives a melodramatic account of the tremendous dangers he faced and how he single-handedly overcame them (III, 26) and then has Atticus fulsomely thank him for his efforts.

To be sure, the whole order is behind you and cherishes most happy memories of your consulship. (III, 29)

Cicero also takes the opportunity to remind everyone that he should never have been exiled (in 57 BC) and that’s why it needed no legislation to rescind his exile (III, 47). In other words, no matter what Cicero is writing about, the text has a strong tendency to end up being about himself.

There is something irredeemably comic about Cicero, like Oliver Hardy pretending to be Napoleon. It’s this hyper-intelligent, super articulate yet comical earnestness which has endeared him to 2,000 years of readers.

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. 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 scholarly and interesting notes. There is a useful list of names and an appendix giving a handy summary of the sometimes confusing Roman constitution.

The translation itself 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.

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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 life of Brutus by Plutarch

(1) Marcus Brutus was said to be a descendant of the Junius Brutus who overthrew the last king of Rome in 709 BC. But unlike his ancestor who has harsh and unbending, Marcus Brutus was civilised and softened by philosophy and literature. Contemporaries attributed all that was good in the conspiracy to Brutus and all that was bad to his colleague Gaius Cassius Longinus.

(2) Brutus’s mother was Cato’s sister. Cato was his uncle. He had a higher esteem for him than any other Roman. Brutus was good friends with many philosophers, some of whom stayed with him, He was a devotee of Plato and the Old Academy. His letters demonstrate great literary style.

(3) He accompanied his uncle Cato on a mission to Cyprus.

(4) Plutarch in a huge jump skips right the way over Brutus’s boyhood and young manhood, and skips all the political travails of the 60s and 50s to arrive at the breach between Gnaeus Pompeius (usually referred to in English as Pompey) and Julius Caesar in 50 BC. Everyone expected Brutus to side with Caesar as Pompey had had his father executed, but he reasoned that Pompey represented the public good and so sided with him. He sailed to Cilicia but had nothing to contribute there so journeyed to Illyricum to meet Pompey who had just fled from Italy and was greeted by the great man who paid him the honour of getting to his feet. Even here he continued to spend most of  his time with his books.

(5) It is said that Caesar commended his officers to look out for Brutus during the Battle of Pharsalus. This was because Brutus was the son of Servilia who, although married to Cato, was madly in love with Caesar so that Julius had some grounds for believing Brutus might be his own son. Plutarch tells the same anecdote he used in the life of Cato, only told less well here – that when Caesar and Cato were speaking in the senate about the Catiline conspiracy, Caesar was handed a note which Cato excitably declared must be a message from the conspirators. So Caesar nonchalantly handed it over to Cato who realised it was a love note from his own sister to Julius. 1-0 Caesar.

(6) After Pharsalus Brutus fled to Larissa and wrote to Caesar who was delighted and asked him to join him. They discussed whither Pompey might have fled and Brutus’s opinion influenced Caesar towards Egypt. Plutarch says he was an effective public speaker who achieved his ends by reasoning and noble principles.

When Caesar travelled to Africa to fight Cato and Scipio he appointed Brutus governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and he proved an exemplary governor.

(7) Cassius was married to Brutus’s sister, Junia. But they became rivals running for praetorship of Rome in 47. Caesar hears them speaks and makes the decision. Brutus could have been Caesar’s top confidante but the colleagues of Cassius warned him not to succumb to the tyrant’s flattery.

(8) Plutarch repeats the anecdote he tells in the life of Caesar, that when the latter was told that Mark Antony and Dolabella were plotting revolution, he said it was not the fat and long-haired fellows that troubled him, but the pale and lean ones, meaning Brutus and Cassius, a story used by Shakespeare.

So Plutarch argues that, if he had waited, Brutus might have inherited from Caesar. But he was fired up by Cassius who had no noble scruples about tyranny and liberty, but just hated Julius. Plutarch attributes this, improbably, to the incident of the lions of Megara which Cassius had lined up to be part of games he was staging as aedile, but which Caesar, on taking Megara, appropriated.

(9) Plutarch says this interpretation is wrong and that Cassius had always been opposed to tyranny and calls to witness a story about how Cassius as a boy thrashed the son of the then-dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla, at school. Brutus was exhorted to conspire against Caesar by flocks of supporters who left messages at the tomb of his ancestor and graffiti on monuments and so on, as listed in his life of Caesar.

(10) And so it becomes very important to the conspirators that they secure the support of Brutus as he was widely seen as a man of principle and would lend the murder dignity. So Plutarch imagines the scene where Cassius inducts Brutus into the conspiracy, writing the dialogue as for a movie and ending when the two men kiss and embrace, in perfect agreement.

(11) Short anecdote about Caius Ligarius, a declared enemy of Caesar. Brutus comes to visit him when he’s ill and when he mentions it is a bad time to be ill Ligarius twigs that something’s up, sits up in bed and declares: “Nay, Brutus, if thou hast a purpose worthy of thyself, I am well.”

(12) They recruit conspirators. Not Cicero, because he is too timorous and pernickety. Nor Statilius the Epicurean and Favonius the devoted follower of Cato. But the other Brutus, Albinus, because he was maintaining lots of gladiators in Rome. They were all won over by Brutus’s reputation for integrity. They manage to keep it a close secret, despite the many signs of ill omen (which Plutarch records extensively in his life of Caesar).

(13) During the day Brutus keeps tight control of himself but at night he is troubled and anxious. His wife, Porcia, was the daughter of Cato and realises something is wrong. One day she takes some nail scissors and deeply gashes her thigh. Then she makes a long speech about how she isn’t just some concubine brought to warm his bed, but the daughter of a famous man reared to endure hardships and determined to share her husband’s joys and sufferings. Then shows the wound in her thigh to prove it. Then Brutus lifts his hands to heaven and hopes his undertaking will be worthy of his noble wife.

(14) They decide to do it at a meeting of the senate because then all the important they need to pledge allegiance to liberty will be on the spot. It is apparent (though I’m not sure I’ve read it anywhere) that the senate met in different buildings i.e. moved around central Rome. This meeting, for the 15th March 44, was scheduled to take place in the Curia Pompeii, a part of the big theatre complex Pompey had built a decade earlier. Hence the big statue of Pompey which Caesar ends up collapsing against.

On the big day Brutus straps on his dagger and walks to the portico of Pompey where he meets the other senators, either waiting or conducting the business of praetors i.e. adjudicating petitions from a crowd of applicants.

(15) A list of misunderstandings and encounters on the morning which nearly wreck the plot. A paragraph devoted to the anxiety of Porcia who keeps racing to the door to hear news, becomes pale and faints and her women shriek that she’s dead and the rumour spreads to the senate and appals Brutus but he determines to carry on. I.e. Plutarch’s usual procedure of cranking up the melodrama.

(16) Highly detailed depiction of the scene. Caesar arrives late, delayed by his wife and soothsayers. He travels by litter which is more private. He is engaged at the door to the room by Popilius Laenas who speaks to him for some time and all the conspirators think they are being betrayed. But he is merely asking for something at great length.

(17) The detail that Trebonius engaged Antony in conversation outside the hall (apparently, this is wrong but like so much Plutarch, is highly dramatic). The precise manner in which they gather round Caesar’s chair, led by Tullius Cimber pleading for his brother in exile, Caesar becomes irritated and tries to shake them off at which point Tullius tears his toga from his shoulder and Casca stabs him and calls to his brother in Greek to join him. Caesar castigates Casca, then is inundated by other blows but when he sees Brutus draw his dagger, covers his face with his toga and submits. The body is riddled with cuts, there is blood everywhere and the conspirators injure each other in their enthusiasm.

(18) Very vivid description of the way the other senators panicked and thronged the exists. Brutus had made it quite clear no-one else was to be killed; it wasn’t to be a Sulla-esque bloodbath but a return to liberty. This was even extended to Antony who was unpopular and arrogant, but Brutus hoped that, with the tyrant removed, he would come over to their side. Mistake number one.

The murderers walked to the Capitol sporting their daggers. Rumour and panic among the people but when it became clear there wasn’t to be a massacre they thronged to hear the speech by Brutus which was noble. They applaud and bring him down and take him to the Rostrum to further address them. The mood changes when Cinna addresses the crowd. He’s not popular and the murderers withdraw to the Capitol.

(19) Next day the senate met and Antony, Plancus, and Cicero moved a vote of amnesty. Antony gives his son to the conspirators as a hostage and this gives them the confidence to leave the Capitol.

Cassius was taken home and entertained by Antony, Brutus by Lepidus, and the rest by their several comrades or friends. Early next morning the senate assembled again. In the first place, they gave a vote of thanks to Antony for having stopped an incipient civil war; next, they passed a vote of commendation for the followers of Brutus who were present; and finally, they distributed the provinces. It was voted that Brutus should have Crete, Cassius Africa, Trebonius Asia, Cimber Bithynia, and the other Brutus Cisalpine Gaul.

(20) Antony argues that Caesar’s body should be carried to his funeral and his will read to the people. Cassius is vehemently opposed but Brutus, out of gentleness of spirit, agrees. This was the second mistake. The will:

When it was found that the will of Caesar gave to every Roman 75 drachmas, and left to the people his gardens beyond the Tiber, where now stands a temple of Fortune, an astonishing kindliness and yearning for Caesar seized the citizens.

When Antony commenced his eulogy he realised the crowd was in a sentimental mood and so changed his tone and held up Caesar’s toga, showing the many places the daggers had torn it. At this the crowd went nuts and stormed local shops, dragging out wooden objects to make an ad hoc funeral pyre for the body; then took brands from it and ran off to the houses of the murderers and set them on fire.

The story of Cinna the poet who had a bad dream about Caesar the night before but nonetheless, the next day went along to the funeral and was mistaken by the mob for the Cinna who was one of the conspirators and was torn to pieces. Oh dear. Not the dignified gratitude which Brutus and Cassius had expected at all. The opposite: bloodlust fury.

(21) This incident is important because it was this which convinced the conspirators to flee Rome, despite the senate trying to bring to justice the mobsters who had attacked their houses. Unexpectedly Brutus continued to perform his role as praetor in laying on lavish games (I thought the aediles did this). And in the absence of Brutus and all the other conspirators it is Antony who emerges as the strong man in control.

(22) Everything is transformed with the arrival of Octavian.

He was pursuing his studies at Apollonia when Caesar was killed, and had been awaiting him there after his determination to march at once against the Parthians. As soon as he learned of Caesar’s fate, he came to Rome, and as a first step towards winning the favour of the people, assumed the name of Caesar and distributed to the citizens the money which had been left them by his will. Thus he deposed Antony from popular favour, and by a lavish use of money assembled and got together many of Caesar’s veteran soldiers.

Hit the ground running, very smart, very strategic. When Cicero eventually opted to support Octavian Brutus wrote him a long bitter letter saying he had no principles but just preferred a tyrant who would be nice to him.

(23) “Already one faction was forming about Octavius, and another about Antony, and the soldiers, as though for sale at auction, flocked to the highest bidder.” Against all is expectations Brutus finds himself driven out of Italy and goes to Greece. His wife, Porcia accompanied him before turning back for Italy and Plutarch paints a tear-jerking scene of departure and Brutus’s words of praise for his strong wife.

(24) Brutus sails on to Athens and purports to be socialising with philosophers but in fact sent out to the commanders of armies around Greece to recruit them for the cause of liberty. He meets Cicero’s son and praises him as a hater of tyranny. But at a feast he makes an odd quote from Homer which seems to indicate he sees himself as doomed by fate. Did he? Or is this the literary tradition, the kind of thing he ought to have said?

(25) Brutus rounds up various forces throughout Greece. Brutus marches his forces to Epidamnus but falls ill.

(26) The garrison of Epidamnus brings food to Brutus wherefore he treats the city well. Fighting between the forces of Brutus and Caius Antonius until the former has the latter surrounded in a marshy region and prevents his men massacring them and persuades them to come over to him. For a long time he respects Caius Antonius until he discovers he is conspiring to subvert Brutus’s officers and so has him locked up.

(27) News arrives that Octavian is consolidating power, has had Antony evicted from Italy, is canvassing for the consulship illegally. When he sees how unpopular this is he changes tack, sends envoys of friendship to Antony. But still gets himself elected consul at the ridiculously young age of 20. As soon as Octavian is consul he promotes prosecutions against Brutus, Cassius and the rest who are tried in absentia, and exemplary sentences intimidated out of the juries. Then, very briskly:

After this, the three men, Octavius, Antony, and Lepidus, were reconciled with one another, distributed the provinces among themselves, and sentenced to death by proscription two hundred men. Among those put to death was Cicero.

(28) The importance of family, kinship and friendship networks demonstrated by this sentence:

When tidings of these events were brought to Macedonia, Brutus felt compelled to write to Hortensius commanding him to kill Caius Antonius, on the plea that he was thus avenging Cicero and Brutus Albinus, one of whom was his friend, and the other his kinsman. For this reason, at a later time, when Antony had captured Hortensius at the battle of Philippi, he slew him on the tomb of his brother.

In mid-43 Brutus crossed into Asia where he performed the role of governor, adjudicating between native kings. He wrote to Cassius saying they shouldn’t settle into exile but be raising armies to return to Rome and ‘free’ it. Now they met at Smyrna, strong in arms.

(29) An extended description of the character of Brutus who even his enemies admitted was motivated by the highest motives of liberty. Just a shame that hardly anyone else was, including most of the population of Rome. Brutus:

The virtues of Brutus, as we are told, made him beloved by the multitude, adored by his friends, admired by the nobility, and not hated even by his enemies. For he was remarkably gentle and large-minded, free from all anger, pleasurable indulgence, and greed, and kept his purpose erect and unbending in defence of what was honourable and just.

(30) Cassius takes Rhodes, Brutus campaigns against the Lycians with many battles, namely the siege of Xanthus.

(31) When Xanthus catches fire Brutus orders his troops to put the fire out but the Xanthians in a kind of frenzy assist in the burning down of their town. Plutarch goes to town, describing little children who throw themselves into the flames, mothers jumping from the battlements and so on. Maybe there was a fire but folk legend and Plutarch’s fondness for the gruesome have added the rest.

(32) Brutus’s clemency dealing with the city of Patara compared with Cassius’s extreme exactions from Rhodes.

(33) Plutarch repeats the story told in the life of Pompey about h ow the council of young king Ptolemy deliberated what to do when Pompey approached Egypt and were persuaded by the arguments of the rhetorician Theodotus to kill him. How everyone involved in the murder was, in their turn, killed on Caesar’s orders, except this Theodotus who fled to a wretched life traipsing round Asia. Well, Brutus chanced across him and had him killed. No-one dies a natural death in these stories.

(34) In early 42 Brutus and Cassius met with their huge armies at Sardis. they lock themselves into a tent and fall into a furious argument, enumerating the list of wrongs each has done the other. All their followers have been forbidden from intervening but Marcus Favonius knew no fear and pushed his way through the throng outside the tent and insisted on going in and jokingly quoting some verse from Homer who has old Nestor say:

“But do ye harken to me, for ye both are younger than I am.” (Iliad book I 259)

This makes Cassius laugh and, although Brutus tries to have Favonius ejected, breaks the ice. That night there is a feast of the uneasy allies which Favonius gatecrashes and barges his way into the place of honour.

(35) Brutus and Cassius disagree about whether to publicly shame their officials when they catch them behaving corruptly, in this case embezzling public funds. The story is told to show Brutus the more principled of the two.

(36) Plutarch tells us Brutus needed little sleep but worked or conversed until very late. This is prologue to a repeat of the story told in the life of Caesar about how very late one night he hears someone come into his tent and turns to see a monstrous and fearful shape standing at his side who announces that he is his evil genius and will meet him at Philippi.

(37) Next morning Brutus tells Cassius about his vision and Plutarch gives Cassius an extended passage describing the philosophy of the Epicureans, namely that the senses and the imagination of man are infinitely malleable and so it was a product of his fantasy.

(38) They march across Greece till they face the armies of Antony and Octavian. ‘The plains between the armies the Romans call Campi Philippi.’

(39) As usual, Plutarch gleefully describes the various ill omens before the battle of Philippi:

  • the lictor brought Cassius his wreath turned upside down
  • in a procession at some festival, a golden victory belonging to Cassius, which was being borne along, fell to the ground, its bearer having slipped
  • many carrion birds hovered over the camp daily, and swarms of bees were seen clustering at a certain place inside the camp

All these incidents began to weaken Cassius’s Epicurean rationalism and also demoralised the soldiers. The leaders disagreed: Cassius wanted to drag the war on and wear down their opponents; Brutus wanted to get on with it and lessen the damage to Rome. Also, men were deserting to the other side. So Cassius was won round to giving battle the next day.

(40) That night Brutus dines and goes to bed but Cassius dines with intimate friends and is unusually quiet. Plutarch gives him a speech telling one friend, Messala, that he is in the same plight as Pompey, venturing the destiny of his country on one battle.

At daybreak a scarlet tunic is displayed before the tents of Brutus and Cassius which is the sign for battle. The pair are given a noble dialogue about death. Brutus tells Cassius that when he was younger he blamed Cato for killing himself and not being man enough to face whatever the fates had in store. Now he’s changed his mind. On the ides of March he gave his life for his country. Since then he has lived a life of liberty. If they lose, he will ‘go hence’ with praise for Fortune. Cassius embraces him and thus emboldened they prepare for the battle.

(41) The Battle of Philippi October 42 BC. Antony’s men were building elaborate fortifications to keep Cassius from the sea. Ocatvian was absent from the field with illness. Both were surprised when Brutus and Cassius’s men let out a great shout and ran forward. They did so in bad order and almost immediately lost touch with their neighbouring legions, but the right wing outflanked the cavalry and stormed Octavian’s camp, massacring some Lacedaemonians and wrecking Octavian’s litter leading to rumours that he was killed.

(42) According to Plutarch the defeat was down to miscommunication. Brutus’s legions were completely victorious and took the enemy camp. But Cassius’s wing was routed and the enemies took his camp.

And one thing alone brought ruin to their cause, namely, that Brutus thought Cassius victorious and did not go to his aid, while Cassius thought Brutus dead and did not wait for his aid.

(43) What happened on Cassius’s wing. He is beaten back, his forces panic and break, he makes for a hillside, sees cavalry riding towards him, can’t make out if they’re friend or foe, sends out an officer, Titinius, to find out. This man is surrounded by whooping horsemen so that Cassius thinks he has been captured. In fact it is cavalry send by Brutus celebrating finding a colleague unharmed. But under the impression that all is lost, Cassius retreats to his tent.

Here the account becomes very characteristically Plutarchian, for he reminds us that Cassius was quaestor with Marcus Crassius on his catastrophic expedition into Parthia in 53 BC. Ever since he survived that debacle he has kept by him a freedman named Pindarus. Cassius drew his robes over his head, bared his neck and instructed Pindarus to strike. So Pindarus cuts his head off. By the time Titinius returns to the camp on the hill it is to find all his generals weeping and wailing. Cursing his tardiness at returning and bringing the good news that the cavalry were Brutus’s, Titinius draws his sword and stabs himself.

(44) When Brutus hears of Cassius’s death he has the body decorated and sent to Thasos for funeral. From which one deduces we are no longer still in the heat of the battle. Brutus addresses Cassius’s men and tries to lift their spirits and gives them generous payment. He was the only one of the four generals (Brutus, Cassius, Antony, Octavius) who wasn’t defeated, but he threw away his victory by letting his soldiers loot the enemy camp.

(45) The losses on both sides. When Antony is brought the robe and sword of Cassius he is energised to fight again the next day. But the two camps Brutus is commanding have lots of problems, his own guarding numerous prisoners of war, Cassius’s men demoralised by their defeat and resentful of a new commander.

(46) Brutus tries to motivate Cassius’s demoralised men by promising them they can loot two cities, Thessalonica and Lacedaemon. This is the one time Brutus did this kind of thing, mostly he was careful to preserve the cities he passed by or took submission from. But these were desperate times and he had to do whatever he could to motivate Cassius’s surly soldiers.

(47) Octavian and Antony were in an even worse state, for their camp was on low lying land prone to flooding by the frequent rains, water which immediately froze (it was October). Moreover a large fleet Octavian had ordered from Italy was intercepted by Brutus’s fleet and destroyed. If Brutus had learned of this he probably wouldn’t have fought, because his camp was in the better position, he had more provisions and control of the sea to bring food and reinforcements. Plutarch slips into sententious mode:

But since, as it would seem, the government of Rome could no longer be a democracy, and a monarchy was necessary, Heaven, wishing to remove from the scene the only man who stood in the way of him who was able to be sole master, cut off from Brutus the knowledge of that good fortune.

(48) More omens, inevitably:

  • the foremost standard was covered with bees
  • of its own accord the arm of one of the officers sweated oil of roses, and though they often rubbed and wiped it off, it was of no avail
  • just before the battle two eagles fought a pitched battle with one another in the space between the camps, and as all were gazing at them, while an incredible silence reigned over the plain, the eagle towards Brutus gave up the fight and fled
  • and the story of the Ethiopian who, as the gate of the camp was thrown open, met the standard-bearer, and was cut to pieces by the soldiers, who thought his appearance ominous

(49) As he reviews his troops he notices how ill at ease and reluctant they are and even as his army lines up a notably brave soldier defects to the enemy. It’s now or never so Brutus decides to attack at 3pm. Brutus’s wing is triumphant but Cassius’s command spread their line too thin and are overwhelmed and then Brutus’s army is surrounded and massacred. Many fine Romans lost their lives etc, not least Cato’s son.

(50) The story of Lucilius who, as darkness falls, sees Brutus being chased by barbarian horsemen and so pretends to be him, crying out that he is surrendering and asking to be brought to Antony. The barbarian cavalry is delighted and so is Antony to hear his great opponent is coming but then is thrown into doubt about how to greet him. When he sees it is this man Lucilius he is hugely relieved, and although Lucilius makes a speech saying he is prepared to accept death for his deception, Antony in fact grants him his life, welcomes him and he becomes one of his most loyal adherents.

(51) Brutus escapes with loyal officers and takes refuge by a stream by a big rock. There is an incomprehensible anecdote about a soldier who is sent twice to fetch drinking water. Statyllius promises to cut his way through the enemy and make his way to the camp and light a flaming torch if it is safe to return. After a while they see a blazing torch raised because Statyllius managed to reach the camp but… he never returned, being struck down on the return journey.

(52) Night comes on and Brutus asks each of his companions to help him kill himself but they all refuse. Then he shakes all their hands and thanks Fortune to be left surrounded by such loyal men and considers himself lucky to be leaving behind a reputation for honesty and virtue which none of those who conquered him would have. Then he got another old friend to hold a sword steady while he plunged onto it and so died.

(53) A lot of Plutarch’s account seems to derive from an account by Messala, the comrade of Brutus, an eye witness. After Brutus’s death he went over to Octavian who found all the Greeks loyal.

Antony had the body of Brutus wrapped in his best robe and burned on a pyre, then sent the ashes home to his mother Servilia. (Suetonius, by contrast, says that the head of Brutus was sent to Rome to be thrown at the feet of Caesar’s statue.) Brutus’s wife Porcia now wanted to die but she was closely watched by all her friends till she found the opportunity to snatch up hot colas from a fire, swallow them and kept her mouth firmly closed till she died.

Plutarch ends his account very inconsequentially by stating that this might, in fact, be wrong, since a letter exists purporting to be from Brutus in which he chides them for neglecting her when she was ill and so driving her to her death while he was still alive. If this letter is genuine, that is. Who knows.

Thoughts

Plutarch excels himself at jumping right over Brutus’s family, boyhood, young manhood, political career or education in order to leap straight to the start of the civil war in 49.


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Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger

This is one of Plutarch’s longer biographies of eminent Romans, at 73 ‘chapters’ or sections.

Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Younger (95 to 46 BC), was a conservative Roman senator in the period of the late Republic. He made a reputation for being a stern, inflexible defender of the strictest interpretation of traditional ‘Roman’ values and a literalistic interpretation of the constitution. As such he was in effect a defender of the optimates party of traditional aristocrats and the senate as a body, against the growing power and political lobbying of the populares party, represented by others in the 80s and 70s but during the 60s and 50s increasingly represented by Julius Caesar. Cato saw Caesar as an over-ambitious autocrat who sought to tear up the traditional constitution and make himself tyrant and king, so he bitterly opposed him at every opportunity.

Ironically, the net effect of his stern speechifying and high-minded opposition to Caesar helped to create the impassible divide which arose between Caesar and Pompey (who he defected to and served during the civil war) and precipitated the civil war which overthrew the republic that he loved. When compromise was required, Cato offered inflexible opposition.

His suicide in north Africa, where he was one of Pompey’s governors, after Caesar had effectively won the province in 46 BC, was, in my opinion, not a noble end to a noble life but epitomised the political cul-de-sac he’d painted himself into. Compromise and mutual respect are the basic requisites for a functioning democracy.

The life

(1) Marcus Porcius Cato or Cato the Younger was a great-grandson of Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Censor, Cato the Elder and Cato the Wise (234 to 149). The Elder was a Roman soldier, senator, and historian known for his conservatism and opposition to Hellenization, who was the first to write history in Latin with his Origines, a now lost work on the history of Rome.

Unusually Plutarch gives us something of Cato’s boyhood. Both his parents died leaving him, his sister and brother orphans. They were brought up by a maternal uncle. People noticed he was inflexible, harsh, not given to laughter though occasionally he smiled. He was a slow but steady learner, and Plutarch favours us with some 2,000 year old theory of education (based, apparently, on Aristotle).

(2) When he was 4 the Social War broke out and Pompaedius Silo, a representative of the rebels, visited Cato’s guardian’s house and humorously asked the children for their support. The others childishly agreed but Cato stared inflexibly silently in front of him, even when the visitor held him out the window as if to drop him. He took boyhood games very seriously.

(3) The dictator Sulla liked Cato and his half brother for their father’s sake and Cato’s tutor Sarpedon often took him to visit, till one day the 14-year-old asked why there were so many cries of torture and severed heads (!) carried from Sulla’s house and when his tutor explained everyone was too frightened to intervene, Cato angrily asked for a sword and said he’d rid his country of this scourge.

Cato’s devout attachment to his brother Caepio.

(4) He was made a priest of Apollo and moved out of his guardian’s house. He tried to put into practice Stoic philosophy and lived very plainly. He was a close companion of Antipater the Tyrian, a Stoic philosopher. He believed in a form of justice which was rigid and uncompromising.

(5) When the tribunes wanted to make changes to the Basilica Porcia which his famous ancestor had constructed, Cato was reluctantly drawn into defending it and opposing the move. Everyone commented on the stern maturity of his speech.

He took vigorous exercise, refused to ride a horse or be carried in a chair, exercised in cold or heat. Spartan.

(6) He was surprisingly unabstemious, though, and would stay up through the night, drinking and arguing with philosophers. He dressed so deliberately unostentatiously that it drew attention. When he came into an inheritance he shared it liberally with friends.

(7) He became betrothed to a woman named Lepida who had been dropped by Metellus Scipio but then Metellus changed his mind and wooed and won her which made Cato so furious he eased his mind by writing scathing verses against Metellus. Then he married Atilia, a daughter of Serranus.

(8) During the war of Spartacus (73 to 71 BC) Cato volunteered to serve since his brother was a military tribune. He displayed good discipline, self-control, courage in all emergencies and sagacity. When the commander, Lucius Gellius Publicola (consul in 72) awarded him honours Cato turned them down, saying he’d done nothing special. So he acquired a reputation as being clever and brave, but odd.

(9) In 67 he was appointed military tribune and sent to Macedonia, to serve under Rubrius the praetor. It’s fascinating to learn that he travelled to this post with fifteen slaves, two freedmen, and four friends. He was assigned a legion and won over the men by his unpretentious willingness to join in with all the tasks.

(10) Cato hears a Stoic philosopher named Athenodorus Cordylion, was living at Pergamum, he travelled there to persuade him to return with him to the army camp, which the latter did. Cato was more proud of this achievement than any military conquest.

(11) Cato’s brother fell sick at Aenus in Thrace. He made his way there as quickly as possible but his brother died before he arrived. People were surprised at his excess of grief and the huge amount he spent on the funeral rites, ‘not observing how much tenderness and affection was mingled with the man’s inflexibility and firmness against pleasures, fears, and shameless entreaties.’ In other words, Plutarch likes Cato.

(12) When he completed his military service the men saw Cato off with tears and embraces, which was unusual, On his journey through Asia he was very humble about his entrance to towns, didn’t do it with grand display and intimidate the local magistrates (which, by implication, was the norm).

(13) Plutarch tells the genuinely funny story of Cato entering Antioch in Syria to find a reception of young men in military cloaks or gala gowns and imagining it was for him. But when the city master of ceremonies stepped forward and greeted him it was to ask when Demetrius would be arriving – all this pomp was for him. Even funnier, Demeterius had at one stage been a slave of Pompey’s but Pompey was so in the ascendent that an ex-slave of his drew more of a grand welcome than Cato. Cato’s friends laughed about this all the way to their inn.

(14) When Cato arrived in Ephesus Pompey, who was there, made a big point of going to meet and greet him by hand, and praising his virtue to his face and behind it. But this was all in self interest, for Pompey never attached Cato to his entourage as he did other young men. Anyway, as a result of Pompey’s favour, the towns he subsequently passed through made a special effort to give him honours, though he asked his friends to ensure he didn’t fulfil the prediction of his friend Curio, that he would return from Asia more tamed.

(15) Deiotarus the Galatian repeatedly sends him lavish presents but Cato sends them back. Taking ship for Brundisium, his friends advise the ashes of Caepio should travel by another ship but Cato insisted they go in the same boat as him even though they turned out to have a difficult crossing.

(16) Back in Rome he is elected quaestor in 65 BC though not before making a careful study of the full constitutional roles and responsibilities of the office. Once instated he insisted on utter rectitude and obedience to the rule from his many clerks, who were used to pulling the wool over the eyes of new young officials. Cato sacked a leading clerk for embezzlement which led to a protracted law case.

(17) By his thoroughness Cato raised the office of quaestor to almost eclipse the consulship in dignity. He:

  1. made sure all debts to the public treasury were immediately called in, so that he could then make all the disbursements owed
  2. he weeded out false claims and decrees
  3. the assassins who murdered people on Sulla’s notorious proscription lists for money, and were widely loathed, he called to account, demanded the money back, upbraided them for their filthy acts, at which point many of them were arraigned for murder: for many people this closed the door on the shameful time of Sulla’s dictatorship (82 to 78 BC)

(18) He got to work early and left late. He set the state treasury on its feet. He attended the senate and popular assemblies to make sure slack politicians didn’t make promises of money they couldn’t keep. All in all he showed that the state treasury could be run honourably.

On the last day of office he was being accompanied home by a grateful crowd, when he heard that his boyhood friend Marcellus was trying to register a crooked remission of moneys so Cato turned right round, marched back to the treasury and, in Marcellus’s sight, expunged the application from the tablets, then took Marcellus home with home for dinner. Nothing personal, just inflexible application of the rules.

(19) Having held the quaestorship, Cato is automatically enrolled in the senate. Here he shows the same inflexible devotion to duty, arriving first, leaving last, and making sure he reads all notes and briefing papers, keeping across all details of all policies. Unlike many who drifted into it by accident, Cato

chose a public career as the proper task for a good man, and thought that he ought to be more attentive to the common interests than the bee to its honey. And so he was careful to have the affairs of the provinces and decrees and trials and the most important measures sent to him by his connections and friends in every place.

He soon became a byword for lecturing sternness and honesty. His name began to be of proverbial weight. Plutarch gives examples.

(20) When the time came to vote for tribunes despite his friends urging him to stand, Cato decided against and set off for one of his country estates to study philosophy. But on the way they encountered the entourage of Metellus Nepos on their way into town so Metellus could stand as tribune. At which Cato ordered his people to about turn and hastened back to Rome to contest the tribuneship in order to preserve the freedoms of the state.

(21) When he stood for the tribuneship many thought that, rather than seeking advantages for himself, he was conferring a gift on the role. In 63 he was elected one of the ten tribunes. He promptly lived up to his reputation for rectitude by prosecuting the consults elected that year to serve in the following years, Silanus and Murena, for bribery. It was the custom for the accused to hire a man to tail the prosecutor everywhere to see who he was talking to and what materials he was gathering. Murena’s hired man was soon impressed by Cato’s rectitude and eventually, if he asked Cato whether he was going about business for the trial that day, if Cato said no, he took his word and didn’t tail him.

Cicero was consul in 63 and defended Murena from Cato’s prosecution and got him off but it didn’t affect his respect for Cato’s honesty and he often consulted him, for:

in the tribunal and in the senate he was severe and terrible in his defence of justice, but afterwards his manner towards all men was benevolent and kindly.

(22) Two chapters on the Catiline conspiracy. Plutarch skips over all the details, to the debate about what to do with the conspirators Cicero has captured in the city. Plutarch focuses on Caesar’s speech advocating leniency for the conspirators i.e. that they be sent to various cities under house arrest until the conspiracy was completely quenched. Plutarch really comes out as anti-Caesar with these remarks:

Caesar now rose, and since he was a power­ful speaker and wished to increase every change and commotion in the state as so much stuff for his own designs, rather than to allow them to be quenched, he urged many persuasive and humane arguments.

That’s not how it comes over when you read Sallust’s reconstruction of Caesar’s speech in his account of the Catiline Conspiracy, which is sober and responsible. It also chimes with his lifelong practice of clemency and forgiveness first.

(23) But what Plutarch wants to get to is how many of the senate were swayed by Caesar until Cato stood up to speak and tore into Caesar as himself a traitor supporting traitors:

Caesar, he said, under a popular pretext and with humane words, was trying to subvert the state; he was seeking to frighten the senate in a case where he himself had much to fear; and he might be well content if he should come off guiltless of what had been done and free from suspicion, since he was so openly and recklessly trying to rescue the common enemies, while for his country, which had been on the brink of ruin, and was so good and great, he confessed that he had no pity; and yet for men who ought not to have lived or been born even, he was shedding tears and lamenting, although by their deaths they would free the state from great slaughter and perils.

So ferocious and impassioned that the senate voted overwhelmingly for immediate execution and Cicero led them away to the Roman prison and had them garrotted there and then. A rash impetuous act which would come back to haunt him in later years (when he was threatened with prosecution for having murdered these men without due legal process and so was terrified into going into exile in 58 BC).

Plutarch gives us an interesting little piece of social history by telling us that this was the only speech of Cato’s to have been recorded, and this is because Cicero was responsible for instituting the new practice of having a number of secretaries skilled at shorthand to record senate procedures. (Which is the central fact in Robert Harris’s trilogy of novels about Cicero.)

(24) Another quite funny anecdote. In the middle of Cato’s furious tirade against Caesar he observed a messenger come into the senate and hand Caesar a note, at which point he thunderously pointed this out to the senate and claimed it had something to do with the conspiracy, demanding he read it out. Caesar handed it over to Cato who read it and realised it was an erotic message from none other than his own sister, Servilia, to Caesar, who she was in love with (though he was married). Cato flung it back at Caesar. This is a lovely moment.

Plutarch goes on to state that Cato had bad luck with ‘his’ women: one sister gained a bad reputation for her carryings-on with Caesar, the other thrown out of her husband Lucullus’s house for infidelity, and his own wife Atilia ‘put away’ because of her ‘unseemly behaviour’. So Cato marries a daughter of Philippus, Marcia.

(25) The strange case of Quintus Hortensius, a man of splendid reputation and excellent character, who tries to persuade Cato to farm out to him his daughter who just happens to be married to another man, Bibulus. Why? To bind their families together and increase wise and virtuous offspring. Cato politely refuses. Things then become garbled as Plutarch states that Hortensius then asked for Cato’s wife in marriage. The fact that Cato agreed and that her father agreed, indicate that he had, or was about to, divorce her. Lots of divorces and remarriages among the Roman aristocracy.

(26) So Lentulus and the other conspirators are executed but Plutarch says Caesar continues to stir up unrest among the city’s poor and describes Cato as being wise and good in passing a law to expand the free grain distribution to the poor and landless.

It is 62 BC and Pompey is en route back to Italy from his triumphs in the East. Metellus has taken up the tribuneship and proposes a law asking Pompey to hurry back and protect the city. Cato at first politely declines and asks Metellus to reconsider. But when the latter takes advantage of his meekness, becomes angry and shouty, leaving witnesses with the sense that they’re both bonkers.

(27) The night before the vote the forum was filled with armed strangers and gladiators and servants with strong support from Caesar, who was praetor. That night Cato bravely walks with his friend Minucius Thermus through the throng of armed men to the temple of Castor and Pollux and pushes through the armed gladiators to eventually plonk himself in a chair between Caesar and Metellus who were conversing.

(28) The proposed law is read out but Cato snatches the paper out of Metellus’s hand. When Metellus continues to recite it from memory, Cato puts his hand over his mouth. So Metellus ordered the men at arms to come to his aid and some of the people pelted Cato with sticks and stones. Not a model democracy, was it?

(29) This brawl goes on for some time with Metellus attempting to read his law and some of the people threatening him. In the event Metellus fled from the people to the forum, made a long speech against Cato, and then fled the city altogether heading towards Pompey.

Switching subject, Lucullus had returned triumphant from the East in 66 but had been forced to wait for a triumph by the opposition of Caius Memmius who wanted to suck up to Pompey. Cato opposed this, partly because Lucullus was married to Cato’s sister. The importance of these marriage and family alliances and allegiances is difficult to capture but was a key element in Roman politics.

(30) Pompey as he approached Rome sent asking the senate if they could postpone the consular elections so he could canvass for Piso in person. The senate was inclined to agree but Cato vehemently disapproved. Seeing he was going to be an obstacle, Pompey then sent a message asking for the hand in marriage of Cato’s daughter for him and the other daughter for his son. When they heard this the women in question were delighted to make such high matches but Cato immediately refused and sent back that he wasn’t to be bought with marriage alliances. Plutarch, for once, is critical, and makes the kind of point I’ve made, which is that Cato’s intransigence brought about the very thing he sought to avoid:

However, if we are to judge by the results, it would seem that Cato was wholly wrong in not accepting the marriage connection, instead of allowing Pompey to turn to Caesar and contract a marriage which united the power of the two men, nearly overthrew the Roman state, and destroyed the constitution. None of these things perhaps would have happened, had not Cato been so afraid of the slight transgressions of Pompey as to allow him to commit the greatest of all, and add his power to that of another.

(31) Furthermore, Cato blocks Pompey’s wishes for a law distributing land to his veteran soldiers, and then blocks Caesar’s wish, on returning from Spain, to canvass for the consulship whilst remaining outside the city pending a triumph. Cato denied him this, too, by talking for an entire day and so talking the time out. But the effect of this scrupulous defence of principle was to drive Caesar and Pompey together and both to support the unscrupulous agitator Clodius. Again, by his scruples he brought about the thing he most opposed. Lucullus and Cicero are of h is party, but the new triumvirate outpowers them and Caesar is elected consul for 59.

(32) Plutarch describes the street violence encouraged by Cato’s opponents. With the help of this rioting Pompey’s land redistribution bill is passed after all along with an unusual clause compelling all senators to take an oath to uphold it. Inevitably, Cato refused to do this until persuaded into it by Cicero who said it was vanity to hold out against the general will, and that he needed Cato in Rome rather than in exile.

(33) Caesar introduces a law to divide almost all of Campania among the poor and needy. Of course Cato objects and so Caesar has him dragged off to prison. Plutarch alleges that it is by such shameless laws that Caesar curried favour with the people and so got himself awarded governorship of Gaul for five years despite Cato warning the people that they themselves were creating a tyrant.

(34) Caesar’s creature, Clodius, gets Cato sent against his will as governor to Cyprus and Ptolemy of Egypt, very obviously to get him out of the way to the clique can pursue their aims unobstructed. Clodius is particularly hot to hound Cicero out of Rome, something he couldn’t achieve if Cato were there.

(35) En route to the East Cato wrote to Cicero whose enemies were trying to get him banished to submit to the mood of the times. King Ptolemy of Egypt comes to see him and finds Cato full of wisdom, not least in his advice to have nothing to do with the rapacious crooks at Rome (Pompey and Caesar) and return to Alexandria and be reconciled with his people. Ptolemy in fact continues onto Rome but Plutarch has him (improbably) at the door of the first magistrate he visits groaning at his own weakness.

(36) Confusingly (for me at any rate) Plutarch then talks about an apparently different Ptolemy, ‘the Ptolemy in Cyprus’, who poisons himself. Cato hears this at Byzantium where he is supervising a peace (?) before he goes on to Cyprus and organises the auctioning of the king’s belongings. He insists on handling every aspect of this himself and so alienates a lot of his friends.

(37) An extended description of the falling out between Cato and his friend Munatius, who feels himself slighted. In the end they are reconciled with kindness and tears. This is a good example of an anecdote or passage which has nothing to do with politics or history, as such, but demonstrates Plutarch’s primary focus which is an interest in ‘the perception and manifestation of character‘.

(38) When Cato returned from the East he meant to present immaculate accounts of the enormous sum of money he was bringing back (7,000 talents of silver), but his account books were lost in unfortunate accidents which vexed him because he had wanted to display them as models and templates.

(39) Cato arrived back from the East in 56 BC and all Rome turned out to meet him, the senate and the people. Characteristically, Cato sailed right past his reception committee and to the docks, which irritated many. But he made up for it when he paraded the wealth he’d brought back through the forum, and he was awarded an extraordinary praetorship.

(40) In 57 BC Cicero had returned to Rome after an exile of 16 months. He promptly acted controversially by having all the records of Clodius’s acts as tribune destroyed, claiming that Clodius had been improperly elected through bribery. Surprisingly, Cato contradicted Cicero’s speech, saying it had not been illegal for Clodius to move from the patrician to the plebeian class, and arguing that if Clodius’s acts were to be erased so should his, Cato’s, in the East because his appointment was made by Clodius. This public disagreement caused Cicero to break off friendship with Cato for a long time.

(41) Plutarch briskly skips over the conference of the triumvirate at Luca. He calls it:

a conspiracy for the division of the supreme power and the abolition of the constitution.

It was where they agreed to make Crassus and Pompey consuls for the following year. Lucius Domitius is encouraged to put himself forward as a rival but Pompey’s thugs attack him one early morning as he is walking in the Campus Martius, killing a torchbearer and injuring others, including Cato who was with him.

(42) So Pompey and Crassus were voted consuls for 55 BC. But Cato didn’t give up his opposition and stood for praetor so he could oppose them from an official position. Plutarch describes the bribery and tricks Pompey used to prevent Cato’s election but he then gives a big address to the people expressing his fears about a tyranny and is followed home by a big crowd (as so often happens in these anecdotes).

(43) Caius Trebonius proposes a law assigning provinces to the consuls which Cato vehemently opposes, speaking against it at such length from the rostrum that he is dragged from it by his opponents, a fight breaks out, some people are killed (!). When another law is promulgated giving Caesar his command in Gaul, Cato makes a speech directly addressing Pompey saying he is unwittingly creating a burden which will crush him. But Pompey ignored him, trusting in his own power and fortune.

(44) Cato is elected praetor for 54 and tries to introduce a law eradicating bribery. This makes him unpopular with the mob who like being bribed, and he is pelted and jostled in the forum until he claws his way onto the rostrum and makes a principled speech which reduces the mob to silence. He institutes a bill whereby the candidates for election all give a deposit to Cato who then monitors the election and anybody caught cheating forfeits their deposit.

(45) His honesty shames the great men of the state who league against him. Clodius is back in Pompey’s orbit and regularly attacks him for corruption etc. Cato replies that he brought more treasure back from Cyprus by honest means than Pompey did from ravaging the East. Cato said Pompey had no right lending his legions to Caesar in Gaul without consulting the state as if they were his private possessions. And warns that he remains near Rome (i.e. didn’t take his governorship of Spain) in order to manage factions at elections as they were games.

(46) Cato ensures his friend Marcus Favonius is fairly elected aedile, the post which supervised games and entertainments, but Cato actually carries out a lot of the duties. People are amused by the way Cato rewards the players with humble gifts of food and fruit rather than elaborate gold and luxuries. He thought that to sport and entertainment, light and gladsome arrangements were appropriate.

(47) In 52 BC the street fighting of Clodius and Titus Annius Milo’s gangs and others became so extreme that elections to the magistracies were suspended. Opinion crystallised that Pompey needed to intervene with his army to restore order. When this was proposed in the senate to everyone’s surprise Cato supported it, with the simple argument that any government is better than no government at all.

(48) And so Pompey is appointed sole consul, floods the streets with soldiers, puts an end to political violence and safeguards the elections. A benign military dictatorship. He asks Cato to be his adviser. Cato, typically, says when he criticised him before it wasn’t out of personal malice and if he helps him now it won’t be to truckle favour, in both cases it is for the good of the state. He advises him against the retrospective prosecution of officials for winning their places by bribery, arguing that a) it will be difficult to know where to stop and b) it was unfair to punish people according to a law which didn’t exist when they acted.

Cato’s difficulty as a juror in trials where he couldn’t be suborned or bought and so was an unpredictable quality to both prosecution and defence.

(49) All this time Caesar is using the money and power he accumulates in Gaul to buy friends and influence in Rome. Finally it dawns on Pompey that he is becoming a threat. Cato decides to stand for the consulship to try and limit’s Caesar’s ambitions. Cato proposes a law that candidates must canvas in person, and not through middle men who distribute money and bribes, which alienates the populace who like money and bribes. Refusing to employ the common practices of a consul ingratiating himself with the people, he is not elected.

(50) Cicero upbraids Cato because, when the times required a man like him in power, he refused to change his principles and humble himself to stand for election, and so lost the opportunity to help the state. How much should a man compromise his principles in order to win power to enact his principles?

(51) It is reported in Rome that Caesar attacked Germans in Gaul during a truce, and massacred them. A great public celebration is called but Cato declares Caesar should be handed over to the Germans whose trust he breached. Caesar wrote a letter to be read out in the senate justifying his actions and execrating Cato at length. But this only gives Cato an opportunity to deliver a long, carefully evidenced indictment of Caesar’s behaviour and ambitions, so that the latter’s friends regret reading out the letter in the first place.

The senate consider it is well to find a replacement for Caesar but Caesar replies that he’ll only do that if Pompey lays down his arms. At which Cato points out that what he prophesied was coming to pass, that overmighty leaders with private armies were dictating to the senate rather than following the instructions of the government.

“Those things are come to pass which I foretold to you, and the man is at last resorting to open compulsion, using the forces which he got by deceiving and cheating the state.”

(52) Plutarch skips over the entire complex web of events which led to the escalating crisis between Caesar and Pompey, the ultimatums, the attempts at mediation, and skips suddenly to Caesar having crossed the Rubicon and occupied the town of Ariminum (January 49 BC). Cato says ‘I told you so’ and recommends that Pompey be supported in opposing Caesar. Pompey acknowledges that Cato was a prophet but fails to raise the armies he told everyone it would be so easy to raise and decides to flee Rome.

At this perilous moment Plutarch pauses to tell us about Cato’s private life, namely that he remarried the Marcia he had divorced and who subsequently married Hortensius, who had died, leaving her free again. Apparently Caesar made much of this in the virulent diatribe he wrote against Cato, claiming the latter in effect farmed his wife out to the wealthy Hortensius so that, when the latter died, he could remarry his wife and come into a fortune. Thus the Roman aristocracy, bickering among themselves.

(53) Cato opts to support Pompey and is sent as Pompeian governor to Sicily. But when he hears that Pompey has fled Italy for Greece he makes the droll remark that:

there was much inconsistency and obscurity in the divine government, since Pompey had been invincible while his course was neither sound nor just, but now, when he wished to save his country and was fighting in defence of liberty, he had been deserted by his good fortune.

As to being governor of Sicily, when a Caesarian force arrives under Asinius Pollio, Cato says he doesn’t want to lay waste the province with war and so sails to join Pompey in Greece. Here he made good policy suggestions, namely not to plunder a city that was subject to Rome, and not to put a Roman to death except on the field of battle. This brought to the party of Pompey a good repute, and induced many to join it.

(54) Cato is sent to Asia, whither he is accompanied by his sister, much reformed from her dissolute behaviour, and where he persuades Rhodes to declare for Pompey. At first Pompey is inclined to give Cato command of his huge fleet of some 500 ships, until it is pointed out to him that Pompey is not devoted to his cause but to Rome and that, the minute Caesar was defeated, Cato would be insisting that Pompey surrender his command, too. So he appoints Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus admiral.

But Cato proves an asset. When all the generals give speeches to the men before a big battle at Dyrrhachium, the soldiers listen lethargically, but when Cato addresses them and invokes all the ideas of patriotism and bravery and tells them the gods are watching he rouses them to a true fighting spirit and Pompey wins the battle.

(55) When Pompey marched his army into Thessaly, he left Cato in command of the supplies and men he left at Dyrrhachium, along with fifteen cohorts. After Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus, Cato offered command of the fleet to Cicero, who refused, saying he wanted to return to Italy. But Pompey’s son, Gnaeus Pompey, was violently against anyone who deserted the cause, and might have killed Cicero had he left. Cato talked him into remaining and so probably saved his life (well, for the time being; nobody’s life is really saved, not forever).

(56) Guessing that Pompey had headed south Cato sailed to Africa with his fleet. In Libya he met Sextus Pompeius and learned of his father’s murder. Ashamed of abandoning men, Cato found himself taking command of the remaining Pompeian forces (reminding us how close, how very close, the military world was to all the Roman ‘statesman’ we read about. It was a totally militarised politics.)

He learns of other Pompeian forces under Juba the king and Attius Varus and resolves to join them. Cato shows all the signs of mourning (for Pompey) walks rather than rides a horse, only lies down to sleep, east sitting down.

(57) Cato tries to resolve the squabbles between the Roman commanders Scipio and Varus, and King Juba of the Numidians. He is punctilious about not taking command because he is only a pro-praetor whereas Scipio is a pro-consul.

(58) Scipio was going to give in to Juba’s request to have the city of Utica razed to the ground and it inhabitants slaughtered but Cato vehemently objected, got himself appointed governor of it to ensure its loyalty to the Pompeians. With his usual administrative flair he turns it into a storehouse for Pompeian forces in Africa. But his advice to Scipio, to play a waiting game and let Caesar tired himself in Africa, is ignored. Scipio mocks Cato locked up safe and secure in a walled city but when Cato offers to take his army to Italy to decoy Caesar back there, Scipio mocks this too. And Cato begins to realise Scipio is a rash and unreliable leader and would probably make himself tyrant, given half a chance.

All of which is grimly confirmed when messengers bring news of the Battle of Thapsus 6 April 46 in which Caesar demolished the much bigger army of Juba and Scipio and Varus.

(59) That night the population panics but Cato walks among them calming their fears. When day comes he assembles the 300 or so Roman citizens in the town, businessmen and moneylenders with the senators who had taken refuge there. (It is typical of the kind of insights you glean from these texts, that Plutarch calls these people Cat’s ‘senate’. Did this mean every town and city in a Roman province had its own ‘senate’ made up of the richest Roman inhabitants?)

Cato then makes a speech advising everyone to stay put and not flee, severally. And says it’s their free choice whether to switch to Caesar but he would admire and praise them more if they if they remained true to what he saw not as ‘Pompey’s side’ but the cause of Rome and its laws and traditions.

(60) Cato’s speech inspires the people to elect him their leader and use their goods and weapons and lives as he thinks fit. Someone suggests a law freeing all the slaves but Cato, with typically legalistic precision, says such a law would be illegal, but individual slave-owners can free them and all of military age will be accepted into the army. Both Juba (with the remnants of his army) and Scipio (with his fleet) send messages saying they await Cato’s decision what to do next.

(61) The senators manumitted their slaves but the leading 300 citizens were conflicted and Plutarch gives a paragraph of their thinking and reasoning why they want to hand themselves over to Caesar.

(62) Given these divisions Cato sends back to Juba and Scipio telling them not to come. But when a large number of allied cavalry arrive, Cato and the senators beg them to come inside the city and stay with them.

(63) The horsemen say they will but only if Cato drives out the ‘barbarian’ ‘fickle’ Phoenician people of Utica. Cato says he will consider it. When he returns inside the city the 300 have become bolder and complaining why they are being forced to oppose the undefeatable Caesar, and muttering more and more about the senators being responsible for their danger.

Then he hears that the cavalry force is riding away so grabs a horse and rides after them. They say come with us and be saved. Cato bursts into tears and begs them to come back to Utica if only for one day, to protect the senators.

(64) The cavalry take up positions inside Utica which is now really divided between the senators, who are with Cato, and the 300 businessmen, who want to surrender. Cato has decided to kill himself, since every future he can foresee is one of tyrants in which his beloved Rome is ruined. But he delays in his bid to reconcile the 300 and the senators. The 300 want to send messages to Caesar surrendering and offer prayers. Cato says by all means send messages but prayers are for the defeated and he is not defeated; he is triumphant in spirit, it is Caesar who has admitted his treacherous intent.

(65) As Caesar’s forces approach, Cato tries to keep order in the city, to ensure the senators’ safety, and to prevent the cavalry looting and killing. He tries to unite the people into accepting the treacherous 300, so they stand as one city. He helps those who want to flee embark from the harbour.

(66) Lucius Caesar offers to go as envoy to the great Julius and fall down at his feet to beg for Cato. But Cato says, No, this is his job. Instead they discuss how to save the 300. Then he gathers his son and family round him and takes a bath.

(67) He hosts a big dinner party after which literary and philosophical subjects are discussed, including the so-called ‘paradoxes of the Stoics’ which include the maxim that all good men are free and that the bad are all slaves. A peripatetic philosopher begins to object to this but Cato wades in and argues at length and fiercely for its truth. Only the good, like him, are truly free. The bad, like Caesar, despite all appearances to the contrary, are slaves. From his tone and words everyone realised he intended to kill himself.

(68) He walks with family and friends, embraces them all, and retired to his bedroom. Here he reads Plato on the soul but on glancing around discovers his sword is gone, His son removed it. He orders his slaves to find it, gets angry and hits them when they can’t, eventually his son arrives in floods of tears and Cato remonstrates with him for taking away his means of defence.

(69) He is left with just two friends and asks if they have been set there to talk him out of killing himself.

(70) These two friends burst into tears and leave. Then the sword is sent in, carried by a child. He sets it aside and rereads the Plato twice, then falls asleep. Then wakes up and sends an official, Butas, to check everyone who wanted has safely departed the harbour. His doctor he has bandage the hand he damaged punching his servant. Butas tells him most of those who wanted to depart have left but a strong wind and storm are blowing up.

When Butas has left Cato tries to kill himself but makes a weak blow with the sword and falls to the floor. His slaves and son rush in, weeping. The doctor tries to push his intestines which are spilling out of his abdomen back in, but when he realises what is going on, Cato pushes him away, tears at his own intestines and at the wound to make it bigger, and so dies. How disgusting. How undignified.

So, as with Pompey and Caesar and Cicero, Plutarch really lays on the domestic details in order to work his death scene up into one designed to spark strong emotion. Craftsmanlike, painterly.

(71) In an improbable show of unity which one suspects owes more to Plutarch’s partiality, he has the 300 and the townspeople all uniting in their love of Cato and declaring him the one free man. They dress his body richly, bury it near the sea and erect a statue which stands to this day.

(72) Soon after Caesar arrives at Utica, learns of Cato’s death and utters the famous words:

“”O Cato, I begrudge thee thy death; for thou didst begrudge me the sparing of thy life.”

But Cato didn’t want to live if it meant living at the whim of (people he thought) tyrants and of simultaneously having the sparing of his life turned into a great credit to Caesar’s reputation. No. He only really had one course of action.

(73) Coda about Cato’s son, who Caesar spared, as was his habit. Initially he became a figure of fun by having an affair with the wife of an eastern king, and Plutarch quotes some maxims or aphorisms made about him. But he ended well, dying fighting at Philippi against Caesar and Antony. His daughter married that Brutus who assassinated Caesar, was part of the conspiracy and died in the cause. And this expired the line of Cato.

Thoughts

Choosing sides

At various points in the reading you realise how difficult it is to know what to do in a society which is falling to bits. It wasn’t really a question of choosing sides because not until the final breakout of civil war were there two sides to pick from. Cato’s career demonstrates that the uttermost probity and honesty only take you so far. In the real world compromise has to be made on a host of occasions. A big example is when Cato surprised everyone by backing Pompey as sole consul in 52. Any government is better than anarchy.

But that, for me, raises the central issue. There are lots of interpretations, lots of scholarly reasons given, for the collapse of the republic, but in my opinion the fundamental one was the collapse of political discourse into street violence. Over the preceding generations it had become acceptable to physically attack your opponents and their supporters in the street. The problem was how to contain this violence, how to contain it within the realm of politics and stop it spreading over into the realm of violence.

Philosophy

Much is made of Cato’s devotion to philosophy, but it can be said of him as of so many other people who study the subject, that in the end they choose the school and philosophy which suits their temperament, which they were always going to choose. He was harsh and inflexible and sought to display little or no feeling, so he was drawn to stoicism which “teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.”

Far from teaching ‘truth’, philosophy is like a huge breakfast buffet where you can tuck into whatever you fancy and mix and match at will, change your opinions, decide you fancy a fry-up instead of pastries. Or, to quote Bob Dylan, “People do what they want to and then think up reasons to justify their actions later.”


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On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 2

‘It is the task of philosophy to dispel errors so that when we talk about the immortal gods we may say only what is worthy of them.’
(Gaius Aurelius Cotta, page 219, book III, On the nature of the gods)

On the nature of Cicero’s books

Cicero’s books are extremely argumentative. By which I mean that there are no descriptive or literary passages, only the briefest autobiographical passage at the start and then – bang! – straight into 150 pages of non-stop, unrelenting argumentation. Every paragraph is arguing a point, and he sometimes makes two or 3 points on a page. On the nature of the gods is only 150 or so pages long in the Penguin paperback edition but every page is crammed with a non-stop barrage of arguments, proofs and refutations.

The one really obvious attraction of these ancient texts is that they are accessible. By that I mean that the protagonists in a text like this use examples and ideas which are completely understandable by the man or woman in the street. Unlike modern philosophy there is a complete absence of: maths and maths-style logic (as found in analytical and logical philosophy); specialised technical terms; and, above all, the clutter and detritus of hundreds of other philosophical schools which have arisen over the past 2,000 years and left their semantic and conceptual wreckage strewn across the intellectual landscape.

Instead, the three protagonists in this dialogue about the nature of the gods almost entirely use ordinary language and everyday examples to make their points. For example when Velleius says that, if God only decided to make the universe, the sun and the moon and so on at some point into infinite time, does that mean that up till that moment he had been living in darkness like a pauper in a hovel? There is a lot more like this, a lot more crude sarcasm and taunting and ridiculing than you might expect in a ‘philosophical’ work.

(Actually, that’s not strictly true: from time to time the speakers use philosophical terms coined by the original Greek philosophers. Not many and not often, though.)

The result is twofold: although a lot of the arguments come across as wrong, superficial and bizarre, nonetheless it is easy to read and enjoyable to follow the flow of each speaker’s case. The editor, J.M. Ross, points out that the text is very uneven, with chunks missing, other bits arranged in what seem to be the wrong order, with the protagonists failing to address each other’s points or wandering off the subject altogether. But this makes it all the more entertaining, like listening to a tipsy polymath holding forth at a dinner party or at the bar. I think of the comic monologues of entertainers of my youth like Victor Borge or Peter Ustinov. The combination of serious points embellished with ridicule and exaggeration are frequently more reminiscent of a comic monologue than a work of ‘philosophy’.

It also gives the book a pleasing naivety. Coming to Cicero after trying to read Derrida or Habermas is like walking from an intense undergraduate seminar down the corridor into the creche where a load of toddlers are playing with lego.

Three speakers

As explained before, the text is conceived as presenting three speakers, each of whom is a star representative of the three main philosophical schools of Cicero’s day – Epicurean, Stoic, Academic. There were many other minor schools but as his book is focusing on the specific questions of a) whether there are gods and b) what they’re like and c) how we should behave regarding them, Cicero only needed three positions or attitudes. The three interlocutors are:

  • Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view
  • Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view
  • Gaius Aurelius Cotta who represents the Academic point of view

The three positions can be summarised as:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providence / Stoic (gods exist and are identical with nature, with the visible universe and its laws)
  • sceptic (voicing objections to both the above to arrive at a ‘common sense’ view of the existence of the gods and the reverence due them)

In what follows I’m not going to give an exhaustive summary of all the points made by all the speakers, just the ones which came over to me as important or interesting or quirky.

Introduction

In the brief introduction Cicero makes a couple of points which will recur throughout the book:

Cicero takes it as axiomatic that there are gods. Only a fool or anarchist would be an atheist. Belief in the existence of the gods follows from two key axioms:

1. All of history and all of anthropology suggests that all humanity is naturally and innately inclined to believe in gods. And this universal predilection is taken as incontrovertible proof.

2. Religious belief and practice are the vital glue holding society together and underpinning all moral and social values, underpinning interpersonal ethics and the rule of law and justice.

When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life…If our reverence for the gods were lost, we should see the end of good faith, of human brotherhood, and even of justice itself, which is the keystone of all the virtues. (I.2)

So although all three speakers may at points touch on the logical possibility of there being no gods, none of them actually propounds this view. Possibly this was also because, although there was no actual law against atheism, nonetheless Greek thinkers who had propounded atheism had been vilified. Cotta gives the example of Protagoras of Abdera who wrote in a book that he was not able to say whether the gods existed or not, and was as a result banished from the city and his works burned in public. Cicero himself had been elected a member of the College of Augurs in 53 BC and so was responsible for performing various religious duties in public. As he has Cotta say:

I myself hold a religious office and I believe that public religious worship and ritual ought to be reverently observed. (p.94)

If his book had openly espoused atheism, presumably he would have been sacked from that job and maybe faced further sanctions. So hidden behind the civilised chat of our three protagonists lurks a coercive social threat. (The notion that it is ‘prudent’ to profess belief in the gods is repeated on pages 104, 120 and 193.)

1a. Gaius Velleius and the Epicurean view of the gods (pages 77 to 92)

Rubbishing the opposition

A good deal of Velleius’s discourse consists of stating, then rubbishing, Stoic and other Greek philosophical views.

Velleius kicks off by rubbishing Stoic-style notions that the universe was built by a master artificer, the view put forward by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus. Can anyone actually imagine that happening? What tools did he use, what levers and pulleys and scaffolding? How came earth and air and fire and water to obey his commands?

Plato makes the world a manufactured article but he contradicts himself by saying the universe was made but at other points saying it is eternal.

We know time is infinite, eternal. Therefore the universe was created some point into infinite time. It had a beginning. Why? Why create it just at that moment? What triggered this sudden decision? What prompted God to decorate the universe with pretty lights like ‘some Minister of Public Works’? Is it because the world was created for the benefit of the wise? Then surely, never was so much trouble gone to to please so few.

Also: if the universe had a beginning, it must also have an ending.

How can the universe be a conscious being?

He mocks people who say the universe is a great consciousness, one conscious and immortal being (i.e. Stoics). They have no idea what consciousness is. They are ‘stupid’. Plato says the universe must be a sphere because the sphere is ‘the perfect shape’. How childish. He also says it must be spinning. If this sphere is conscious and is spinning at high speed, doesn’t God get giddy? And if the universe is ‘conscious’ some parts of the world are freezing ice caps, some parts are burning desert. So doesn’t it follow that god is roasting on one place and freezing in another?

Listing and rubbishing all other philosophers

Velleius then gives a long list of Greek philosophers starting with Thales, devoting a paragraph to summarising their chief contribution and then dismissing it with a sentence, being: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Alcmeon, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, Protagoras, Democritus, Diogenes, Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Speusippus, Aristotle, Xenocrates, Heraclides, Theophrastus, Strato, Zeno (father of Stoicism), Aristo, Cleanthes, Persaeus, Chrysippus, Diogenes of Babylon, and more.

In his introduction Ross describes this list as an irritating digression which the reader can skip but, on the contrary, I found it an enjoyable and informative overview. Above all it is a useful counter to Cicero’s structural claim that there are only 3 schools of philosophy. On the contrary, this list demonstrates the huge jungley undergrowth of Greek philosophical opinions.

Rubbishing Aristotle

Velleius castigates Aristotle for holding at least three separate views: in one place attributing divinity to mind only, in another saying the entire universe is God, in another setting God above the universe with the power to order all its motions; in yet another claiming the fiery ether is God, so how does that square with the entire universe being God? And if heaven is a God where do the gods reside? Anyway, how could the heavens, in their endless fast revolutions around the earth, maintain consciousness worthy of a god? And if God is bodiless how can he be in motion?

See what I mean by argumentative? In just one paragraph Velleius rubbishes 9 theological propositions of Aristotle. So this list of silly philosophers also feeds into Cicero’s Academic scepticism by demonstrating what a range of absurd and contradictory opinions have been held by such ‘clever’ people. Velleius calls them ‘the fantasies of lunatics’, no better than the fictions of the poets and the wonders of the magicians.

Velleius’s exposition of Epicurus (pages 87 to 92)

Epicurus thought the gods must exist because nature has imprinted an idea of them in the minds of all mankind. This is one of the fundamental axioms of human thought without which there can be no knowledge, rational thought or argument. It is the basis of a firm and continuing consensus.

The same nature which imprints this idea also imprints the notion that they are blessed and immortal. If this is so, the gods must be free from care, anxiety and other human emotions, and must cause no care or anxiety in others i.e. mortals.

The logical consequence of this is that a) the gods deserve reverence as everything which is excellent deserves reverence, but b) we need not fear the gods because blessed and immortal beings have no motive to cause anxiety and fear in others (p.89). This is the core aim of Epicureanism – to banish anxiety, fear, worry and care from its followers.

The gods have human form

Evidence for this includes:

  1. The universal conviction of all humanity i.e. nature has implanted this idea in all human minds.
  2. Because the divine nature is perfect, it must be clothed in the most perfect form and what form is more perfect and beautiful than the human body?
  3. Reason cannot dwell in any other form but the human form.

He gives a good example of the poor, biased and sometimes absurd arguments used throughout the book when he claims that: everyone agrees that the gods are happy, and no happiness is possible without virtue, and there is no virtue without reason, and reason is associated only with the human form: therefore, the gods must have human form. Cotta picks up on this sentence to point out that the final link – that reason is only associated with the human form – does not follow but is willed (p.104 and p.114).

BUT individual human bodies are fallible, vulnerable, age and die. Not so immortal bodies. Therefore the gods have the shape of human bodies but not actual human flesh and blood.

The gods are blissfully detached

Happiness is a state of rest. The gods do not strive and work. They have attained stasis, contemplating their own holiness and wisdom (which sounds very Buddhist). Therefore they have no involvement whatsoever in the world of men, which would involve them in anxiety and endeavour.

A being which is blessed and immortal is itself without cares and brings no cares to others. (p.104)

The universe was created by natural causes

Rather than created by some God, the universe came into being quite naturally by the clash of the infinite number of atoms falling infinitely through infinite space, banging into each other, congealing and constellating. No need for any God labouring away with levers and pulleys.

Thus there is no overseeing God, no God involved in creating the universe, it and everything in it have developed by natural processes. Thus there is no reason to be afraid of a curious god poking and prying into our lives, ‘a busybody god’.

Velleius’s conclusion

Epicurus has saved us from all such fears and set us free, so that we have no terror of the gods, whom we know neither devise any mischief for themselves nor seek to bring it upon others. And so with reverence and awe we worship them in their divine perfection. (p.92)

1b. Cotta’s refutation of Velleius (pages 93 to 120)

Cotta the sceptic is ‘one of those who can more easily see why something is false than true’. Cicero, rather unfairly, gives more space to Cotta’s demolition of Velleius than to the former’s main exposition. Cotta calls Velleius’s Epicurean views ‘irresponsible and ridiculous’.

1. Velleius’s main argument for the existence of the gods is that ‘all mankind’ believes in them. Well, how does he know the opinion of all mankind? There may be any number of wild and primitive peoples who don’t believe in gods, how can he know? Also, there is a record of known philosophers in Greece who have been out-and-out atheists; it doesn’t take many instances to disprove a claim to universality.

2. Cotta comes down hard on Velleius’s theory of atoms endlessly falling in infinite space, whose collisions eventually give rise to matter and the universe. Cotta denies the existence of atoms but says that, even if they existed, the notion that from sheer chance they have created the universe and all the order and regularity and life forms which we observe is ridiculous (p.114). The entire cock and bull theory is a working backwards from the necessary core of Epicureanism i.e. the non-intervention of the gods.

More fatally, if everything is made of atoms then the gods are made of atoms too and can be dissolved as easily as they came into being. If they had a beginning they must have an end: so how can they avoid anxiety about death and dissolution? (p.115)

3. Cotta ridicules Epicurus for saying that the gods must have a human body, as that is the highest form of perfection, and yet it is not actually a body because that is subject to decay – so they have something like a body but not subject to decay. Velleius criticised all other philosophers for their absurdities; Cotta calls Epicurus’s ideas ‘fanciful dreams’.

The notion that the gods must have human form is the product of:

  • superstitious minds who created phantom images of the gods because it was easy
  • poets and painters who need to work with something tangible, and therefore promoted the idea of gods having bodily form
  • humanity’s bias or prejudice towards thinking itself fabulous and the highest of all possible life forms; it is a form of narcissism; anthropomorphism (“the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”)

Are the gods different as human beings are different, one from another? In which case, how can they be perfect? Surely there is only one model of perfection and all gods ought to embody it?

Anyway, it’s not true to say that all cultures envision the gods in human form: the Egyptians envision gods as animals (dog, crocodile, jackal, cat), as do many other cultures.

Similarly, is there a fixed number of gods with fixed identities? Because a) all cultures appear to have their own gods and b) many gods who are recognisably the same (king of the gods, queen of the gods, god of war, god of love) seem to have multiple names.

‘Do you really think that a god looks like me or like you? The fact is, you have no idea.’ (p.103)

Epicurus appears to say that there is no causal link between humans looking like gods and gods having human form, that both are just accidents of the infinite interaction of an infinite number of atoms in infinite space. This is a ridiculous assertion.

If the gods are so powerful why do they need bodies at all? Why do they need hands or feet or limbs let alone the complex internal organs? If they have godly powers they have no need of all these clumsy encumbrances. If they have bodies the gods would have to walk and climb and bend and stoop. they would have to eat and drink and pee and defecate. If they have the usual organs of generation they would have sex, with all the indignity that implies.

If the gods are vastly superior to us in mind and reason why shouldn’t they be similarly superior to us in body, inhabiting bodies whose shape and powers we can’t even conceive of?

Cotta ridicules the notion of the gods’ detachment. Even idle children get up to games. No human can rest idle indefinitely. What is the point of having the body he insists they have, if they don’t use them?

All creatures, all living things, have a sphere of operation within which they live and are active. Where is the gods’ sphere? To what objects do they use their mind and intelligence. If they know everything their minds are, in a sense, empty, because unexercised.

Velleius had said that the gods are happy because they have achieved the height of virtue. But virtue doesn’t mean anything unless it is tested in action i.e. someone has a choice of actions and decisions and acts accordingly. But Epicurus’s gods do not act in any way. Therefore they do not exercise virtue. Therefore they cannot be happy. Humans exercise decision and judgement all the time, therefore are more able to behave virtuously, therefore humans must be happier than the gods (p.115).

Epicurus derives all happiness, ultimately, from bodily pleasure (hence his reputation). Yet the gods have no bodies in the flesh and blood human sense and so cannot experience pleasure in the Epicurean sense and so cannot by happy (p.116).

Cotta attacks the Innate Theory i.e. that the notion of the gods is a universal aspect of human nature so must be true. Because plenty of other ideas and notions seem to be universal. Are they also true? And our minds can conceive and imagine all manner of things and situations. Are they all true, too?

Epicureanism undermines reverence for the gods

What reverence is due to beings who have never done anything and will never do anything? What reverence do we owe beings who have never done anything for us and never will? Piety is a bond but what bond can there be for beings who never interact? Why should we thank the gods if they have never done anything for us?

This undermining of any reason for humans to reverence or worship the gods in effect destroys religion.

One of the noblest qualities of people is their love and affection for others. Epicurus’s gods have no interest in anyone or anything else at all, but sit perfectly passively uninvolved with anything contemplating their own sterile ‘happiness’. This is to take away the ‘graciousness’ which is the highest attribute of humanity.

Compare and contrast with the doctrine of the Stoics that we should love all good and honest people as ourselves. Epicurean detachment teaches a terrible ethical lesson. A true human friendship is free and selfless. The love and selflessness of the gods ought to be that much superior to human love, yet Epicurus strips his gods of all fine feelings.

Cotta concludes by saying the whole tendency of Epicurus’s thought is atheist, he just tacked on his incoherent ‘defence’ of his very peculiar conception of the gods ‘in order to avoid the odour of atheism’. He was merely paying lip service to the gods that he had actually destroyed (p.120).

Summary of Velleius

Having read it twice I can see how Velleius’s points of view, with all their distortions of fact, the weird atomic theory and the, in the end, weird view of gods who are utterly detached from the world – I can see how these are all the tortured consequences of a reasonable premise and intention which was to free human beings from fear and anxiety.

As a philosophy it appeals to those who seek an oriental-style detachment from involvement in the trials and tribulations of life and instead seek detachment and calm.

Its weak spots are its implausible atomic theory about the creation of not one but infinite universes; and its bloodless vision of gods which are supposedly made in human form and yet utterly lifeless, like beautiful shop window mannequins.

2. Balbus’s presentation of the Stoic view of the gods (pages 123 to 190)

Balbus says he can divide Stoic views into 4 areas. The Stoics:

  • teach that divine beings exist
  • explain their nature
  • describe their government of the world
  • show how they care for mankind

The Argument from Design

If Velleius rested his case on the universal innate conviction of the gods’ existence, Balbus bases his on the Argument from Design. Look up at the sky and survey the beauty of the heavens. What more proof do you need that god exists? You might as well doubt the existence of the sun. Both god and the sun are as obvious to our senses. (It was to refute this age-old argument that Richard Dawkins wrote his long argumentative book The Blind Watchmaker.)

As ancient superstitions are sloughed off, true religion is growing more popular with every day. Balbus bases this assertion on:

  • the intervention of the gods in human history, especially at key moments of Roman history
  • predictions and prophecies
  • the special level of piety of the ancient Romans (like everyone in antiquity, Balbus thinks things, in this case religious piety, have declined in his day)

The proof of prophecies and soothsaying is that they have accurately predicted the future. Plenty of evidence from Rome’s history. So who can doubt the gods exist if they send messages?

‘Beings who do not exist can send us no messages. But the gods do have their prophets and messengers. So how can we deny they exist.’ (p.128)

The state prospers only under the guidance of men of religious faith.

In fact Balbus then echoes Velleius’s nostrum: The existence of gods is inscribed on the human mind from birth (p.128). Thus there is no debate about the existence of gods, only about their nature.

Cleanthes speaks of 4 influences which have formed men’s images of gods:

  1. the power and evidence and proof of divination and prophecy
  2. the blessings of a temperate climate and fertile soil
  3. the awe inspired by natural phenomena such as storms, hailstorms, blizzards, floods, plagues, earthquakes etc
  4. the regularity of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Movements so vast and purposive and regular must be guided and controlled by a divine intelligence. He lists the motion of the sun and moon and stars and the tides and oceans and says none of this would work unless it were powered by a divine and omnipotent spirit. These are all variations on the Argument from Design (p.129).

Only an arrogant fool would think there is nothing in the universe smarter than him. Therefore there must be something greater than Man. And that something must be God.

There is nothing more beautiful or perfect in the world than Reason or mind or intellect. The universe is perfect. Therefore the universe must be possessed of reason i.e. be rational. All natural laws, the passage of the seasons etc etc all these bespeak ‘the planning of a divine and omnipresent spirit’ (p.131).

The universe and God are one. He cites arguments formulated by Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism.

If a being is without consciousness then every part of it must be without consciousness. But some parts of the universe are conscious beings, therefore the entire universe as a whole must be a conscious being. Therefore the universe is a living intelligence.

The universe must be a rational being and the nature which permeates all things must be endowed with reason in its highest form. So God and the world of Nature must be one and all the life of the world must be contained within the being of God. As the universe is surely superior to any other being, then it must be endowed with reason. ‘The universe was endowed with wisdom from eternity and is itself divine.’ (p.137).

There is no quality higher than goodness and nothing more perfect than the universe. Therefore goodness must be a characteristic of the universe. (p.138)

[Pages 141 to 145 consist of a sluggish digression on astronomy i.e. the movements of the planets and stars.]

He then argues that the sun must be a conscious rational being, and so are all the stars, as proved by the regularity of their motions. The stars move of their own free will and motivated by their own intelligence – what other force could move them so efficiently?

I cannot understand this regularity in the stars, his harmony of time and motion in their various orbits through all eternity, except as the expression of reason, mind and purpose in the planets themselves, which we must therefore reckon in the number of the gods. (p.145)

At which point he makes the leap that the fact that the gods exist is so obvious that anyone who disagreed must be mad (p.141). Anyone who looks up and observes the beautiful order and regularity of the movement of the stars and doesn’t feel the power of God must be out of his mind (p.145, repetition of p.124).

As we have an innate idea in our minds that God must be a living God and supreme above all else in the world, there seems to me nothing more consonant with this idea than to recognise the whole universe, than which there can be nothing more sublime, as being the living God. (p.141)

The gods just exist because there must be some supreme being which is superior to all else. 

Another reason is that, although all men acknowledge the existence of the gods, to give them human form is to assign them limitations and imperfections. This, also, is an argument for equating God with the entire universe.

Balbus argues that the gods don’t of course have the form of humans with all the frailties and limitations that implies. The traditional names of the gods embody qualities of the universe which are gifts to humankind and which we ought to worship (p.147).

[Pages 147 to 151 consist of a digression on the etymology of the names of the gods.]

On the providence of the gods

Balbus then sets out to prove that the world is governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods.

My belief is that the universe and everything in it has been created by the providence of the gods and is governed by their providence through all eternity. (p.154)

Stoics like him give three reasons:

  1. if you grant the existence of gods, you must grant their providence
  2. all things are ordered by a sentient natural power impelling them towards their own perfection
  3. the wonders of the earth and sky (Argument from Design)

1. All men acknowledge that the gods exist. If they exist, they must be active. What kind of activity could be better than the government of the world. Therefore the world is governed by the wisdom of the gods (p.154). There is nothing greater or more wonderful than the universe. Therefore it must be governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods (p.156).

2. Nature is a principle of reason which pursues its own methodical course. His explanation of nature/God is based on the ancients’ belief that the world was made of four elements (earth, air, water, fire) and theories about reason and mind, all of which are twaddle, so it’s difficult to follow in its complexity something you know is rubbish. A central problem is the interchangeability of the words universe’ and ‘nature’ throughout this book.

  • Nature is the power which rules the universe.

There follows an extended passage (pages 161 to 177) describing the wonders of the stars and the planets and the sun and then of geography (seas and rivers and forests and deserts) and then a lot of ‘wonders’ of the natural world, every one of which Balbus recruits as evidence for his simple-minded insistence that every single one proves the universe is controlled by an intelligent and caring providence.

From all this evidence we must conclude that everything in the world is marvellously ordered by divine providence and wisdom for the safety and protection of us all. (p.177)

Wrong. The ludicrously naive self-centredness of this view becomes apparent when he goes on to ask for whom all this wonder was laid on? Well, obviously not for the lifeless rocks or even for mindless animals. Obviously for those with mind and reason, ta-dah! Us humans!

We can therefore well believe that the earth and everything in it was created for the gods and for mankind. (p.177)

Balbus then goes on to consider the ‘perfection’ of the design of man, how perfect the human mouth is for drinking, how perfect the lungs for drawing in air, the stomach for digesting food and so on, the gift of speech, the wonder of the human hand (pages 178 to 184). Balbus attributes all this to:

the wise and careful providence of nature, which shows the great and gracious benefits the gods have bestowed upon mankind. (p.180)

Everything in the world which we enjoy was made and ordered for our sake. (p.185)

I attribute it to evolution. Balbus’s anthropocentric narcissism leaps out when he claims that ‘every human sense far surpasses the sense of beast’ (p.182) which is plumb wrong, as we now know that all human senses are far excelled by any number of other animals.

To sum up: man has been given all manner of gifts in the design of the universe, the beauty of the world, the provision of plants and animals to rear and eat, in the wonderfully apt design of his own body and, above all, in the gift of reason so we can understand it all. Contemplating all this must lead to awareness of a guiding and kindly providence working throughout the universe and in our favour, and from this stems Religion and a sense of the virtues, of the good life which is living in harmony with the universe, in loving-kindness and generosity to our fellow men.

Summary of Balbus

Although every factual claim he makes about the universe, the solar system and the natural world are howlingly wrong, I can see the aim of Balbus’s Stoic philosophy. It is for those who appreciate the beauty of the night skies and the wonders of the natural world and believe that they indicate some natural law or harmony and that, in order to live well, in order to live wisely and virtuously, we humans should acknowledge these gifts and try and bring our way of living into harmony with the natural world. A not unreasonable ambition.

Its weak spot is Stoics odd insistence on the importance of ‘prophesy’ as a strong proof of providence. Both Epicureans and Academics were quick to ridicule this and it’s hard to see why it is needed in their system and couldn’t be quietly dropped.

3. Cotta puts the academic view (pages 193 to 235)

Cotta introduces himself as a member of the College of Augurs and a priest. He will never abandon the views he has inherited from his Roman forebears about worship of the gods. He doesn’t require a load of fancy arguments to prove the existence of the gods: the traditional belief of their Roman ancestors was enough. As a rational man, he simply wants to question the arguments of the other two more closely in order to base his own belief on a sound foundation.

Remember that a substantial portion of Cotta’s book is missing, and it feels like it. Anyway, he says he will not refute Balbus’s argument in its entirety but ask him about specific aspects. He attacks Balbus’s stories about ‘prophecy’ and ‘omens’ as superstitious hearsay.

Then he attacks one of the central arguments of both Velleius and Balbus, that the gods exist because the notion of immortal gods is innate in human nature. Not so, says Cotta. Just because a large number of people believe something to be true does not make it true.

More importantly, for me, Cotta refutes most of the arguments Balbus put forward to prove that the universe, the sun and the moon and the stars are all gods. No, says Cotta. Just because something behaves with mechanical regularity and is beautiful to look at (like the stars) doesn’t mean it is either conscious or immortal (p.202).

One flaw in his argument is to assume that anything bigger than man must be Perfect and Immortal, such as the movement of tides, and rivers and the seasons and the stars. not at all. They might just be part of the mechanical rhythm of the universe. The parts of nature move in consonance but this does not require a guiding intelligence.

Nature persists and coheres by its own power without any help from the gods. (p.204)

Just because something is bigger than man doesn’t make it a god. Otherwise all mountains would be gods. Every hill, every bluff, every tree would be a god.

Cotta’s critique of Balbus is less effective than his attack on Velleius. This seems to be because he is actually missing a lot of Balbus’s point. He says that all things made up of the elements will eventually decompose and die but this isn’t as effective an attack on Balbus as on Velleius. He says the so-called gods experience no evil so cannot judge between good and evil so cannot really enact virtue. How can we respect a god who doesn’t exercise reason or moral qualities?

Then he moves on to attack the way many humans, either legendary or historical figures, have, allegedly been translated into gods. This didn’t strike me as central to Balbus’s argument. What both of them seem to be missing is the centrality of prophecy to Stoic beliefs and the enormous problems thrown up by trying to reconcile God’s Preknowledge of the future and human free will (without which there can be no morality), a topic which was to bedevil Christian theology for 2,000 years.

Instead he wastes his time on the secondary argument of which of the actual Roman gods who have temples devoted to them Balbus includes in his pantheon, and which he excludes, and why. As he rattles off an enormous list of gods major and minor and then nymphs and satyrs and demi-gods and so on, it dawned on me he is missing a major distinction to be made between religion as theology and religion as practice. I’m betting most people are attached to their religions as traditions and practices which bind together families and communities. Cotta’s attack on the pantheon of the gods makes it clear just how futile it is trying to come up with a coherent intellectual underpinning for the super-diverse world of actual religious practice. Religious practices just are.

This reductio ad absurdem list of gods goes on for some time (pages 208 to 219), with Cotta asking Balbus whether he allows the rainbow to be a god or clouds and so on, ridiculing the idea that qualities such as Faith or Courage or objects of desire such as Victory and Honour can be gods.

Lacuna in the text.

He spends so much time on it because, apparently, many Stoic writers have devoted a lot of time to giving philosophical rationales for all these gods. But, says Cotta, this is all superstitious twaddle.

Lacuna in the text.

Balbus had assumed all through his speech that Reason is the highest attribute imaginable. So Cotta sets out to destroy this view by quoting an extensive number of examples where people have used their reason for evil i.e. have acted rationally in order to achieve wicked ends.

If the divine mind willed the good of men, when it endowed them with reason, then it willed only the good of those whom it also endowed with the power to use their reason well, whom we see to be very few indeed, if any. (p.222)

Maybe it would have been better if the gods had never given man reason at all. Maybe philosophy does more to lead students astray into immoral or unnatural beliefs and activities than improve them.

The problem of pain

Then Cotta moves on to a version of the perennial ‘problem of pain’, asking why the gods gave men the power of ‘reason’ instead of the ability to act virtuously? Instead, monsters have thrived and honest men met violent ends. If the gods do look upon our world they apparently make no distinction between good and bad men.

There can be no divine guidance of human affairs if the gods make no distinction between good and evil. (p.230)

And:

The prosperity and good fortune of the wicked absolutely disprove the power of the gods. (p.232)

Why don’t the gods intervene on the side of good while letting evil prosper? It’s the central question which has plagued the Abrahamic religions with their notion of an all-powerful all-loving god down to the present day, crystallised by the central catastrophe of the twentieth century: if there is an all-powerful, all-loving God why did he allow the Holocaust?

Abrupt ending

Right at the last minute on the last page Cotta re-emphasises that he doesn’t say this to argue against the gods but to submit men’s arguments to strict scrutiny and show how difficult the issue is. This feels very much like a last-minute cop-out designed to avert accusations of atheism which most of the rest of the document strongly endorses.

The host, Lucilius, is made to say that he would take up arms to defend their venerable religious traditions and temples and so on, and Cotta repeats that he agrees and will join him and has been merely working through the arguments not denying religion. Perish the thought!

It’s worth quoting the final sentence for two reasons. It purportedly gives the view of Cicero who has been a silent witness throughout the previous 3 books, never saying a word.

The conversation ended here, and we parted. Velleius judged that the arguments of Cotta were truest; but those of Balbus seemed to me to have the greater probability.

It has puzzled commentators that Cicero came down on the side of Balbus rather than sympathising with his fellow Academician, Cotta. It rather suggests that the debate was never between three points of view, but between two major points of view both of which were then critiqued by Cotta, with the result that onlookers (such as Cicero) only had a choice of two.

Lastly, its abruptness has convinced most commentators that the work was never finished properly and would probably have been revised and polished if Cicero had lived long enough.


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