The Georgics by Virgil (39 to 29 BC)

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

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

Poetic background to the Georgics

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

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

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

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

Political background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyne’s overview

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

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

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

Packed

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

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

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

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

Two translations

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

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

Georgic 1 (514 lines)

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

‘pitiful man’ (Fallon, 238)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little conclusion

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

Georgic 2 (542 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgic 3 (566 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sex

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

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

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

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

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

Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georgic 4 (566 lines)

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

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

His bees are also absolutely passionless (197 onwards):

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

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

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

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

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

The Aristaeus epyllion (lines 317 to 566)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What? Where did all this come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgil’s conclusion

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

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

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

Pyne’s interpretation

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

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

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

Incompletion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The influence of Lucretius

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

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

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

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

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

Stoicism = political involvement = messy Republican democracy = Cicero

Epicureanism = political detachment = submission to the princeps = Virgil

Invocations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fallon fantastic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

on the Nile
whose flowing waters form floodpools
(4.289)

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

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

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

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

He can be intensely lyrical:

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

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

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

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

you might as well get on with it (1.230)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

going to no end of bother
(4.265)

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

So pay close attention (1.187)

Keep all this in mind. (2.259)

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

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

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

Listen. I’ll tell you all… (4.286)

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

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

At moments dipping into Shakespearian phraseology:

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

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

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

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

And that’s a fact

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

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

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

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

Peace

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

Temple of Janus Germinus

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

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

Victories

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

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

Parthia

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

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

Army reorganisation

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

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

Building works

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

Mausoleum

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

The saepta

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

The Pantheon

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

The provinces

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

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

Roman roads

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

Colonies

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

Tours

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

The constitution

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

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

The consulships

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

The senate

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

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

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

Titles

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

Awards

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

The month of August

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

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

Religion

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

Games and festivals

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

Poets

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

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

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

Breeding

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

Succession

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

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

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

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

Livia

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

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

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

She liked dwarves and freaks (p.378).

Heirs

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

History as biography

The following thoughts were prompted by a reading of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The point is that, apart from all other considerations of literature and so on, both plays demonstrate the enduring human tendency to attribute all social change, all meaning in the flow of historical events, to Great and Eminent Personages. To humanise the flow of events and to attribute praise and blame for everything to a handful of Top Dogs.

The confusing world

It’s difficult for any of us to understand what is happening, what is going on in our own lives, let alone in the wider world. There is a natural tendency to humanise everything, to reduce everything to the behaviour of named individuals in order to make our lives manageable, graspable, bearable. If we can attribute everything to individuals then we can relapse into the standard human response of naming and shaming and blaming them. We can blame America’s ills on Donald Trump and Britain’s ills on Boris Johnson.

But on numerous levels, I think this is wrong, not morally wrong, just factually inaccurate. Even in my little family I can see how individuals are swayed by social trends and pressures. I can see how the economic outlook for my children’s generation shapes their attitudes. Multiply this by millions and you, fairly obviously, have a host of broad social, economic, technological and cultural trends which affect everything we hear, and so repeat, discuss, believe, argue about.

At the ‘highest’ level (if you want to visualise it as a hierarchy) are the cultural and ideological trends – the changing things people believe in, think about, argue about.

Beneath them you have economic trends – in our day and age drastic rises in oil and gas prices which affect the cost of fertiliser and transport which threaten severe food shortages this autumn and winter. In my country and time another huge factor is the failure of successive governments to build enough accommodation for the spiralling population, leading to the never-ending rises in house prices, and the dispirited resignation of both my kids that they will never own a home like their parents did.

Economic trends are strongly influenced by technological developments – the most obvious one in my lifetime being the enormous increase in the computerisation of all aspects of life, from high finance to finding a partner, almost everything seems to done via the internet, smart phones and social media, with all kinds of consequences, the most obvious being that people spend a huge amount of time on their phones and are immensely influenced by what they read coming through their social media feeds.

And at a deeper level there are the basic facts of geography and biology – the most important single one being the rapid heating up of the planet which is making severe drought more common, accompanied by the manmade destruction of all manner of ecosystems which we rely on for food and water, which will  greatly exacerbate the situation.

At a more individual level we are subject to our genetic inheritances which program whether we are tall or short, fat or thin, male or female, predisposed to heart disease, cancer, dementia and a host of bodily infirmities.

And then, of course, there is the constant threat of infections from outside, something most people are much more aware of since COVID-19 brought the world to a halt.

All this is hard enough to take in, and it’s only a superficial sketch of the multi-layered ‘reality’ we inhabit, or more accurately, the overlapping realities. Our minds inhabit a complex matrix of biochemistry, ever-changing sensory perceptions, the permanent wash of emotions and an endless tide of discourse and words which have no boundaries because all of these issues are, in effect, endless: discourses about the importance of oil prices on civilisation, assessing the impact of global warming, considering the effect of infectious disease on societies, explaining the importance of genetics in human behaviour, these are just a handful out of thousands of serious topics and no-one fully understands them. Vast subjects, impenetrably complex – and, when you start to begin to combine them, impossible for any individual to fully grasp.

The Great Man theory

And so it is much, much easier to think of society and what is happening in terms of a handful of powerful individuals. And this explains why most cultures, for most of human history, have done just that – attributed everything that happens to the eternal gods or, on the human plane, to Eminent Men and Women, to kings and queens and emperors and empresses and the like.

As far back as we have written records, they record the wars and acts of Great Men, emperors of China or India or Assyria or Egypt and the earliest histories which emerge from simple annals or chronologies likewise focused entirely on the doings of great men (and occasional empresses or queens).

The earliest histories had just two explanations for everything: 1. the wise or foolish behaviour of great leaders, and sitting above them, 2. the capricious interventions of the gods. 3. any unexpected turn of events could be attributed to the vague catch-all category, ‘Fortune’.

And 4. hovering behind all accounts was the primitive assumption that the present age is uniquely corrupt and degraded, a sad falling-away from some unspecified previous times when men were all upright, pure and noble.

Boris Johnson and the wheel of fortune

Armed with these four concepts you can, at a pinch, explain everything, right up to the present day. Using this template, Boris Johnson is a Great Man who Got Brexit Done, oversaw the fastest vaccine rollout of any western nation, and was leading this great country of ours onwards to greater things, when his treacherous colleagues, jealous of his achievements, conspired to stab him in the back and bring him down. To quote a Latin tag attributed to Cicero, ‘O tempora, O mores!’ meaning: ‘Oh the times! Oh the customs!’ But then again – a medieval commentator would say – no-one, even of Boris’s majesty and stature, can defy the turn of Fortune’s wheel, which is destined to bring even the highest and mightiest low.

One of the thousands and thousands of medieval depictions of the wheel of fortune bring the mighty low (Illustration by Jean Miélot to Christine de Pizan’s Epitre d’Othéa: Les Sept Sacrements de l’Eglise, about 1455)

See? Anything can be explained using these primitive concepts. Maybe more accurate to say, these concepts can be attributed to almost any events and the impression given that they’ve been explained, a completely spurious impression.

The Great Men theory in ancient authors

So it comes as no surprise when we get to the histories of the ancient (western) world, to discover that Plutarch or Sallust or Suetonius take a moralising approach to history, focusing on the character of the great men of the times they describe, and interpreting their behaviour in terms of the strengths and weaknesses. If this doesn’t completely explain the events they are chronicling, they could always add a knowing reference to Fortune which inscrutably intervenes to wreck the affairs of men.

I sometimes find it odd that the editors and translators of the editions of these ancient authors feel the need to explain the Great Men ideology of their authors, since it has been the default setting of most of mankind for most of history.

As John Wilders writes in his introduction to the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, Plutarch was a very congenial source for Shakespeare’s dramas about the ancient world because, although living 1,500 years apart:

both men wrote on the assumption that the course of history was shaped by the actions of men in power and, for that reason, both were curious to penetrate into the subtleties of human character… (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 57)

QED. It is only very recently that more objective, non-Great Men theories – broadly speaking, concepts to do with economics and sociology – have been developed. We can date this new development in human thought to the period vaguely referred to as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Maybe we can pick an arbitrary date of 1776, the year Adam Smith published ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’, which introduced readers to the notion that we are all members of a globalised system of trade and production, and that our lives – whether we have jobs, what we can afford to buy, eat or wear – subject to events in faraway countries and forces beyond our control. Just as everyone in this country is going to suffer because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A revolutionary new way of thinking about societies and human existence.

This new, economics-based and sociological way of looking at society definitely accompanied the development of the industrial revolution as all manner of authors tried to understand the sweeping changes transforming society without anybody explicitly planning or wanting them.

We find Dickens objecting to the dominance of the new breed of ‘economists’ who want to reduce all human life to economic statistics (Hard Times, 1854), and Karl Marx, obviously, was writing works which engaged with the earlier sociological theories of Hegel, in Germany, and the post-French Revolution school of theorists in France. The revolution crystallised, accelerated and disseminated all manner of new political and social theories, kick-starting the feverish debates of the nineteenth century, Hegel, Marx, Bakunin, Comte and so on.

In the more pragmatic mercantile Anglosphere the industrial revolution prompted an explosion of social and economic theorists following Smith’s lead, Malthus, Bentham, John-Stuart Mill and so on. We still, to a large extent, live in this world, a world awash with ideologies and theories, none of which completely work or explain everything and so are subject to the endless updating, revising, revisiting and rethinking etc which fill so many books and political journals.

I’m not trying to recapitulate the history of modern political and economic theory, I’m interested in the way that, despite the jungle of modern social theorisation, the Great Man / Fortune’s Wheel theory of history persists and flourishes.

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra

And so to what prompted these thoughts, Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra  which I read after reading about 30 texts from ancient Rome about history (Plutarch, Suetonius, Sallust, Cicero). When characters in these plays describe the lead figures, or the lead figures describe themselves, as world-bestriding colossi, they are doing two things.

First of all, they are reinforcing the Great Man theory of history, stymying any attempt to think beyond it and countenance less simplistic explanations. Again and again, reading ancient literature, you come up across this brick wall, this closed door. Nobody could think beyond it. it makes you realise how immensely intellectually free and liberated we are, in our age. Even if we don’t have all the answers, the answers we do have are infinitely more sophisticated, responsive than anything the ancients had.

But secondly, these old tropes continue to thrill us. The rhetoric surrounding great men in Shakespeare’s plays is wonderfully vivid and exciting:

CASSIUS: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves…
(Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2)

This is my final point: that the vicarious thrill to be experienced in the vivid rhetoric of power deployed throughout Shakespeare’s political plays is not necessarily a good thing. Food manufacturers add salt and sugar to processed food because the human palate is designed to respond favourably to their taste. The touch of salt or sugar on the palate fires basic, primitive nerves which release endorphins in the brain. because, during the course of human evolution, edible sources of salt or sugar were so extremely rare that our palates had to be sensitive enough to detect them. In our hyper-industrialised societies, manufacturers now exploit this basic human functionality and stuff so much salt and sugar in their products that the taste pleasure can become addictive. Hence the epidemic of obesity in the western world, due to the addiction of large number of consumers to products packed with unhealthy levels of salt and sugar.

Same with the Great Man Theory. It is the default setting of the human mind, it is the crudest possible way of thinking about politics and history and social change. Listen to vox pops of supporters of either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and you realise that most people still cleave to a theory of society which predates the ancient Egyptians. “Don-ald! Don-ald! Don-ald!” Chimpanzees picking each others’ fleas are more sophisticated.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but the conclusion I’m leading up to is that a good deal of the pleasure derived from watching plays like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra is comparable to the guilty pleasure of pigging out on junk food.

The author invites us to thrill to the rhetoric of power embodied in the many descriptions of ‘the triple pillar of the world’ (Philo on Antony 1.1) and ‘the greatest soldier of the world’ (Cleopatra describing Antony 1.3) or great men each owning ‘a third of the world’ (Antony of Caesar 2.2), becoming ‘lord of all the world’ (Menas to Pompey 2.7), to great men playing with half of the world as they pleased (Antony 3.11) or quartering the whole world with his sword (Antony 4.14) or deserving ‘the worship of the whole world’ (Eros of Antony 4.14), being ‘the greatest prince o’ the world’ (Antony on himself 4.15), and ‘his legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm crested the world’ (Cleopatra on Antony 5.2).

My point is that to thrill to this kind of rhetoric, to enjoy it, to be excited by it, is, intellectually speaking, the equivalent of wolfing down a Big Mac with large fries and a king-sized Coke. It is the basic, primitive , lowest-level human response to the society around us and abrogates the difficult but complex knowledge of the world we know we possess and know we ought to be employing if we’re ever to escape the mess we’ve got ourselves into.


Related reviews

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606)

“These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,
Or lose myself in dotage…”
(Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, scene 2)

Plot summary

Act I

The assassination of Julius Caesar in March 44 BC led to a period of chaos with warlords commanding legions around the Roman world, until a deal was brokered the three most powerful of them, Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus, who formed what came to be called the Second Triumvirate in November 43.

They divided up the provinces of the empire and Mark Antony was assigned command of the eastern Mediterranean. The play opens three years later, in 40 BC, and finds him living in Egypt where has fallen deeply in love with the queen, Cleopatra, where he has abandoned himself to a life of luxury and debauchery.

Act 1 scene 1 sets the scene quickly: the chorus of Demetrius and Philo lament that Antony, the fearless warrior, is ignoring his responsibilities and wasting his time in thrall to a seductive queen. They have barely finished before Antony and Cleopatra enter and give us a prize example of the foolish flirting of love. But they have barely begun – are in fact only 4 lines in – when a messenger from Rome arrives and prompts Antony to an outburst of vexed frustration. Cleopatra then taunts him, saying he must listen to the messenger in case he brings instructions from his ‘master’ Octavius in Rome, or from his true Roman wife, Fulvia.

CLEOPATRA: Fulvia perchance is angry; or, who knows
If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
His powerful mandate to you, ‘Do this, or this;

At which Antony eloquently summarises his own devil-may-care, laddish irresponsibility for the benefit of the audience:

MARK ANTONY: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man: the nobleness of life
Is to do thus;

And he embraces his Greco-Egyptian squeeze. The messengers tell Antony that his Roman wife, Fulvia, is dead. (Fulvia was a tough cookie. She had united with Antony’s brother, Lucius, to raise an army in Italy against Octavian which led to the so-called Perusine War, because it boiled down to a siege of Perusia, modern Perugia, and had taken Octavian over a year to quell. Out of respect for Antony, Caesar spared Lucius, who was sent to be governor of a province in Spain, but he exiled Fulvia to Sicyon in Greece where, we now learn, she has died from unspecified causes.)

As if this wasn’t enough another messenger arrives to tell him that the son of the Gnaeus Pompeius who had fought Julius Caesar in the first civil war of 49 BC – Sextus Pompeius – has established a naval base on Sicily from which he is attacking Roman shipping.

The guilt Antony feels at the death of his wife is compounded by news that the state he is charged with defending is in danger, and so he announces that he must return to Rome.

ANTONY: I must from this enchanting queen break off:
Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know,
My idleness doth hatch

Cleopatra is angry, mocking, scornful, upset. Antony travels with his friend, the general Enobarbus who has become even more of a wastrel in the fleshpots of Egypt and who acts as a foil to Antony’s drunken antics, a licensed jester who delivers satirical opinions about Antony, Cleopatra and everything else.

Act II

Meanwhile in Rome Octavius Caesar, adopted heir of the murdered Julius, has been consolidating his power and acting with stern dutifulness. Their first meeting is difficult, with Octavius and his entourage freely criticising Antony’s unpatriotic, unroman behaviour in Alexandria, which he is forced to acknowledge and admit to.

One of Caesar’s closest advisers, Agrippa, then proposes an ingenious solution to their problems: Antony should marry Octavius’s sister, Octavia. Antony ponders this for a moment, then willingly agrees and the two triumvirs shake hands on it.

The red-faced old general, Enobarbus is shown reunited with officer friends who are part of Octavius’s entourage, and he rather too candidly tells them the marriage will never work out. Antony will never be able to kick his addiction to Cleopatra and he paints a glowing portrait of her multi-faceted character:

ENOBARBUS: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies…
(Act 2, scene 2)

The third triumvir, Lepidus, attends these meetings but is depicted as a well-intentioned but weak-minded older man who just wants everyone to be friends.

Antony had been prompted to return to Rome by news of the threat young Sextus Pompeius poses to Rome’s merchant fleet and so the next scene shows Antony, Octavious and their followers  having a summit meeting with Sextus aboard the latter’s ship. At one point Sextus’s admiral suggests they cut the cables, put out to sea, and murder all the triumvirs but Sextus refuses. Once agreement is made, Enobarbus and Antony lead all the delegates into a boozy dinner which turns into a drinking session in which Lepidus is humiliated in front of everyone while Octavius coldly refuses to get drunk and holds himself aloof from the partying which degenerates into drunken dancing.

Act III

Cleopatra is amusing herself with her serving women, Charmian and Iras, when a messenger arrives and tells her her beloved Antony has married someone else. Furious she attacks the messenger before demanding to know everything about her rival. Only slowly does she reassure herself that this prim and proper Roman matron is no real rival for Antony’s affections.

Meanwhile Antony and Octavia arrive at Athens en route for his command in the East only to learn that Octavius has gone back on the deal he made, and attacked Pompey. He has also ended the triumvirate  by dismissing Lepidus on a trumped-up charge relating to the campaign against Pompey in Sicily.

Compassionately enough, Antony sends his new wife back to Rome to parlay with her brother – but also because, like an alcoholic hitting the bottle at the first sign of trouble, this rupture of the triumvirate makes him hanker for his real love, Cleopatra. So he heads back to Egypt with a view to raising an army to take on Octavian.

Caesar had handed over his beloved sister to Antony with visible reluctance, and had repeated his  injunction that Antony respect and love her, so her unannounced reappearance in Rome makes him furious, part of which he directs at her (the poor woman). Incensed, he declares war on Antony and Cleopatra.

Antony ignores the advice of Enobarbus and his other generals, to fight on land, and decides to tackle Caesar’s fleet at Actium. During the battle, Cleopatra’s ships flee from the Roman fleet and Antony loses his head and sails after her in his admiral’s ship, abandoning his fleet. He effectively loses the battle, his fleet, and the allegiance of the many eastern kings he had cultivated as allies.

Act IV

Initially very downcast, much weeping and wailing between the loves, Antony eventually pulls himself together and vows to rally his land forces and attack Caesar on land.

However, we are shown various soldiers and generals questioning his judgement and then, in the one supernatural scene in the play, a squad of guards at his camp at night think they hear strange music coming from underground; they take this to be Hercules, Antony’s ancestor and protector, abandoning him.

Back in the real world, Antony’s bosom buddy and drinking companion, Enobarbus, disillusioned at Antony’s string of bad decisions, defects to Caesar’s army. He had been very conflicted about doing this and when Antony graciously sends him all his belongings and a kindly message, Enobarbus is so overcome with guilt that he kills himself.

So a second, land, battle takes place between Caesar and Antony’s forces but Antony’s bullish confidence turns to despair when Cleopatra’s forces abandon Antony and, like everyone else, go over to the unstoppable force of destiny which is young Caesar.

Terrified of the Roman army which is now approaching Alexandria, Cleopatra leads her serving women and eunuchs into the stronghold of her ‘monument’. Wrongly thinking Antony will blame her for her army’s defection, she sends a messenger to Antony, wandering forlorn in the city, to say that she is dead.

She had hoped this would soften his heart to her but it is a colossal miscalculation (and eerily reminiscent of the misunderstanding at the end of Romeo and Juliet). For Antony is so distraught at her death that he resolves to die and falls on his own sword. However, like many a Roman before him (e.g. Cato) he makes a bad job of it and is writhing in agony from his injury when messengers arrive to tell him that Cleopatra is alive after all. Oh.

So he asks the messengers to carry his dying body to Cleopatra’s ‘monument’ where she has holed up. Here they have a piteous exchange, before his body is lifted up on a rope and pulley and fetched inside the ‘monument’ where they exchange touching last words, then Antony dies in her arms and Cleopatra is distraught.

Act V

With Antony defunct, the entire last act is devoted to Cleopatra and builds steadily towards a kind of apotheosis.

The Romans trick their way into the ‘monument’ and there is, at last, the confrontation between the future world emperor Caesar, and the legendary woman who seduced his father (Julius Caesar) and fellow triumvir.

Caesar is, as usual, suave and reasonable and tells her to live, for her children’s sake, and that he will allow her to continue her rule of Egypt – on Roman sufferance, of course. Cleopatra is more resolute and self possessed than, I think, a woman was expected to be in Elizabethan culture i.e. she shows herself to be exceptional and there are hints that, even in her grief and loss, she may very slyly be laying the groundwork to seduce a third great Roman leader in a row.

But as soon as Caesar leaves, she gets her women to send for a countryman who brings a basket of figs which contain the famous asps, small poisonous snakes. Suspecting nothing the Roman guards let him through. He is, in fact, a yokel, a simpleton, on a par with the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the hungover porter who pops up at the most dramatic part of Macbeth.

It’s a prime example of the incongruity and tonal unevenness which the classically minded French reject about Shakespeare and made the classically-minded Restoration playwright John Dryden rewrite the play to make it conform to enlightened standards.

Long story short, Cleopatra takes not one but two asps from the basket, gets them to bite her and dies, along with her two long-serving maids, Charmian and Iras. However, the intensity of her wish to travel quickly to the afterlife to be reunited with her beloved Antony achieves an intensity and luminance absent from most of the rest of the play and really, for me, takes it to a new level.

She dies, Caesar is called back to see the corpse, delivers the standard eulogy over the dead body of his adversary, orders the lovers to be buried together with all due ceremony etc, then tells his people they must head back to Rome where, of course, he will become undisputed ruler of the state and, in effect, the first Roman Emperor.

But still. In this final act Cleopatra rises above the skittish, ironic, mocking, bad tempered, squabbling middle-aged woman she appears in much of the rest of the play to become a force of nature. And it’s  the image of this transcendent icon that she leaves blazing in the audience’s memory.

A problem play

In the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Antony and Cleopatra is categorised as a tragedy, but it is far longer, more complex and problematic than the earlier tragedy, Julius Caesar (1599), to which it is a sort of sequel.

Julius Caesar has one obvious central event to which the first half leads and from which everything in the second half follows; I’ve come to realise that although he is physically absent from the second half, it is nevertheless Caesar’s play because his spirit haunts the subsequent actions of all the characters, actually appears as a ghost to Brutus on the eve of the Battle of Philippi, and that both the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, address his spirit just as the commit suicide, and do so using the same swords they murdered him with. So there is one central figure dominating Julius Caesar.

Antony and Cleopatra is more complicated. There is no one central event and no one central figure. Instead acts 1 and 2 contain a confusing mish-mash of scenes, introducing us to different settings, characters and events in swift succession; and 3 and 4 depict a series of battles which are all defeats for Antony and lead to his downfall…but not immediately; the process is dragged out.

I agree with the assessment of Jonathan Miller who directed the BBC Shakespeare production of it, that there is something elegiac about the whole play: both Antony and Cleopatra are past their prime: Cleopatra is touchy about her age, Antony looks back to past military glories, and both, when they talk about happy love, refer to it in the past. Antony refers to the grey hairs appearing among their brown (Act 4, scene 8).

They are both on the way down and for this reason, maybe, deep down, not that sad to be beaten by confident young Octavian. The whole thing has a dying fall right from the opening lines where two Romans lament Antony’s falling-off from a world-bestriding general to the plaything of an Egyptian strumpet.

Time covered

Whereas Julius Caesar packed two years (44 to 42 BC) into its 3-hour span, Antony and Cleopatra tries to cram in ten years of complex history – from the death of Antony’s wife Fulvia, in 40 BC, to Antony and Cleopatra’s double suicides in 30 BC.

Ten years is a long time and these years were packed with events, the most notable being Antony’s vast ill-fated campaign to invade and conquer Parthia in 36 BC a huge 2-year undertaking of which we hear nothing whatsoever in the play (Wilder, p.58).

This drastic cutting and collaging is testament to Shakespeare’s skill at picking out what he needed, at throwing away references to entire wars (such as the Perusine War) in just a few lines in order to stay focused on the central psychological theme of his play, of the bickering, addicted central lovers. But still, despite all his skill, and even stripped of many key events and virtually all details, the sheer logic of the events which the play sets out to depict is still irreducibly complex and, well, big. The result is that the play is very long and feels it. Picking up on all the historical events and references is quite an ask.

Maybe this is why the final act, Cleopatra’s apotheosis, is, from one angle, the most effective thing in the play. It is the only event that is entirely in the present. It is the most mindful of the acts. It fulfils the old (and misunderstood) Aristotelian idea of the unity of time and action. With Antony dead and her cause roundly defeated, Cleopatra is intensely present. Like many suicides, once the decision is made, those last few minutes of life take on a supernatural intensity. Every word, every gesture, is lovingly scrutinised as the last this mind and this body will take. The never-ending web of Roman wars and alliances which Caesar completely mastered, which Antony miserably failed at, disappear.

Instead the audience is privileged to share the last moments of an extraordinary human being about to turn themselves into a legend.

Stats

A quick check with this website which gives basic stats about the plays reveals that, if Julius Caesar was notable for its relative shortness and the brevity of some of its acts, Antony and Cleopatra is the reverse.

At 3,039 total lines Antony and Cleopatra is longer than the average Shakespeare play (average play: 2,768 lines; average tragedy: 2,936). It has more scenes – 43 – than any other Shakespeare play (average play 21; average tragedy: 24). And far more characters – 57 – than any other play (plays: 36; tragedy: 39).

The obvious conclusion is that the excessive length and the unusually large number of scenes and characters, reflect the complexity of the history Shakespeare is trying to pack in (see below).

Knotty verse

And there’s something else. The verse is more sinewy and knotty than before. As Shakespeare’s career developed, the prolific invention of the early plays evolved into a more mature but still gorgeous style around 1600, dense with metaphor and dazzling flights of fancy. But by the time he wrote Antony and Cleopatra in late 1606, Shakespeare had been writing plays for about 17 years (first play 1589). Antony and Cleopatra follows a run of three major thrillingly visceral tragedies but, as this list demonstrates, represents a pivot into a series of later, less famous and less outstanding works:

  • All’s Well That Ends Well (1602–1603)
  • Measure for Measure (1604–1605)
  • Othello (1604–1605)
  • King Lear (1605–1606)
  • Macbeth (1605–1606)
  • Antony and Cleopatra (1606–1607)
  • Coriolanus (1607–1608)
  • Timon of Athens (1607–1608)
  • Pericles (1608–1609)
  • Cymbeline (1609–1610)

Either Shakespeare was out of juice or he was pivoting towards a late style in the conception, construction and style of the plays. Assessing the structure of the plays would require an examination of their sources and quickly turn into a book, so it’s easiest to focus on the verse style:

To me Antony and Cleopatra feels characterised by less flashily beautiful verse and a kind of sparser, knottier style than previously. Julius Caesar sounds like this:

CASSIUS. Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

This is a vivid metaphor and it is developed over four lines which run confidently over the end of each line to create one long, fluent sentence. It is clear, vivid and enjoyable to read or hear spoken. Compare it with a random passage from Antony and Cleopatra:

ANTONY: Go, Eros, send his treasure after. Do it.
Detain no jot, I charge thee. Write to him–
I will subscribe–gentle adieus and greetings.
Say that I wish he never find more cause
To change a master.

This is deliberately staccato, broken up into bitty phrases (except the more fluent sentence at the end, which caps the thought). Whereas sentences in the earlier play are long and complete, confidently running over a series of lines with little punctuation to create a fluid, mellifluent effect, in the later play, again and again, the full stop comes in mid-line and phrases are not an easy sentence in length, but are often shorter, sometimes three little phrases wedged into one line.

CLEOPATRA: Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,
But bid farewell and go. When you sued staying,
Then was the time for words, No going then.
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent. None our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven. (Act 1, scene 3)

And speeches hand over from one character to another, not at the neat end of a line, but joltingly, in mid-line.

CLEOPATRA: Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turn’d the greatest liar…
ANTONY:                               How now, lady!
CLEOPATRA: I would I had thy inches; thou shouldst know
There were a heart in Egypt.
ANTONY:                                Hear me, queen.

This creates a clotted, knotty style, a lot less fluid.

POMPEY: I shall do well.
The people love me, and the sea is mine.
My powers are crescent, and my auguring hope
Says it will come to the full. Mark Antony
In Egypt sits at dinner and will make
No wars without doors. Caesar gets money where
He loses hearts. Lepidus flatters both,
Of both is flatter’d.

It also has the related effect of making the poetry less metaphorical. There are a lot more orders and instructions or sudden thoughts, a lot less florid poetry, similes and comparisons. When Cleopatra asks whether she or Antony is at fault, Enobarbus replies:

ENOBARBUS: Antony only, that would make his will
Lord of his reason. What though you fled
From that great face of war, whose several ranges
Frighted each other? Why should he follow?
The itch of his affection should not then
Have nick’d his captainship.

See what I mean about the sentences ending (and the next one beginning) in mid-line and so creating a stuttering, staccato, clipped effect. There’s similes even in this little passage (the face of war, ‘the itch of his affection’ meaning his lust, ‘nicking his captainship’ meaning cut short his command [of the fleet at Actium]). But none of them are developed at relaxed length into a gorgeous conceit expanding over multiple lines as in his earlier style. Instead they are tightly compressed, expressed in as compressed a form as possible before the verse moves onto the next one.

It is a style less appropriate for the flowing love duets of Romeo and Juliet, than for undecorated sarcasm or irony, which doesn’t need elaborate conceits, as when Cleopatra jokes with Antony that she has something important to say to him, but can’t remember what it is:

CLEOPATRA: Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there’s not it;
That you know well: something it is I would,
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.

Here’s another example from Julius, showing what I mean by the fluent flow of long sentences running through a sequence of lines with hardly any punctuation, or coming only at the end of each line, thus allowing the lines to breathe through their full length:

SOOTHSAYER: The throng that follows Caesar at the heels,
Of senators, of praetors, common suitors,
Will crowd a feeble man almost to death.
I’ll get me to a place more void and there
Speak to great Caesar as he comes along.

It flows, each iambic pentameter has the entire line to breathe and display. It’s a pleasure to read or say aloud. By contrast here’s Octavian from the later play giving instructions to his envoy Thyreus:

CAESAR: From Antony win Cleopatra. Promise,
And in our name, what she requires. Add more,
From thine invention, offers. Women are not
In their best fortunes strong, but want will perjure
The ne’er touch’d vestal. Try thy cunning, Thyreus.

Completely different. This must be deliberate, a deliberate creation of a late style. Why? What does it do? Well, I think that instead of the long verse paragraphs, the far fetched metaphors, the open rhythms of the earlier plays, this style creates something closer to the jerkiness of actual thought and real speech. Fragments of phrases, even individual words, several different thoughts expressed in fragments bolted together to make lines. Much more bitty, fragmented, less florid, less gorgeous.

This explains why the one set-piece speech in the entire play stands out so much, namely Enobarbus’s magnificent long speech describing to Octavian’s lieutenants the scene when Antony first met Cleopatra, when she had herself rowed up the Nile in a magnificent galley.

ENOBARBUS: The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their stroke

Even this, when you look closely, is in the same manner, with the first sentence ending half-way through the second line, and sentences stopping mid-line 3 times in these 7 lines, at ‘water’, ‘them’ and ‘stroke’. The effect of ending sentences and starting new ones in mid-line is to break up the untrammelled liquid flow of the earlier style. But in this speech the effect is overruled by the gorgeousness of the metaphors and the magnificence of the vision. Its rich colour highlights how relatively grey, functional and gnarly a lot of the rest of the play is.

And difficult. The thought is often so compressed as to be hard to follow. In the excerpt below, I don’t  really understand what the first half means. It is Antony telling Octavian’s sister, the honest but boring Octavia, who he has married in a purely political marriage to try and patch up his alliance with Caesar – telling her that if she’s unhappy, she’s free to go:

ANTONY: When it appears to you where this begins,
Turn your displeasure that way. For our faults
Can never be so equal, that your love
Can equally move with them. Provide your going.
Choose your own company, and command what cost
Your heart has mind to.

It’s not only the verse that is choppy and fragmented. It feels like something clever is going on in the sentence starting “For our faults…” but, to be frank, I don’t follow it.

This kept happening to me while reading Antony and Cleopatra. I enjoyed reading and rereading Julius Caesar because each reading revealed new depths to the characters, made me realise how certain symbols or topics cleverly recur, made me see the subtle linguistic threads which bind the fabric together. Not so Antony and Cleopatra, with its fewer metaphors and similes, and its thought so compressed I often didn’t understand it. I read and reread passages and they remained obstinately gnarly in rhythm and opaque in meaning. They remain what they first appeared.

Here’s Cleopatra lamenting that Antony has married Octavia and regretting her first angry impulse to smack and slap the messenger who brought this news:

These hands do lack nobility, that they strike
A meaner than myself; since I myself
Have given myself the cause.

It sounds interwoven and self-entwining as if there ought to be a hidden meaning, but repeated readings leave it what it was.

And this brings me back to my earlier reference to the theme of age and decline. Because maybe this is a style suited to mature characters. It is not the show-off prolixity of the young and flashy. It feels like the poetic style of a man who has ‘done all that’, has written unbeatably show-off verse in Romeo and Juliet and Henry V and Hamlet and knows it, knows he’s written the best pyrotechnic verse in the world and so is now trying something different.

He’s deliberately cutting back on mellifluous flashiness and trying for something more…tough and wizened. As leathery and furrowed as the face of Colin Blakely playing Antony on the BBC Shakespeare production I’ve just watched. The lined and grizzled face of a man who, although the play gives the impression it’s taking place over a few hectic weeks, in fact ages ten years over its duration.

Lack of oomph

Admittedly ‘oomph’ is not a common technical term in literary criticism. What I mean is something like impact and atmosphere. The first three acts of Julius Caesar not only have dramatic unity because they are entirely about the conspiracy to murder him, but are given thrilling dramatic and psychological atmosphere by the use of the wild storm the night before the murder. The night the assassins hold their final meeting is characterised by a wild storm of thunder and lightning which terrifies half the characters, during which people see ghosts and wild animals prowling the streets and fire in the sky.

This is a fairly obvious effect – the same depiction of discord in nature reflecting the overthrow of the social order on earth is used in Macbeth and King Lear – but it is fantastically successful at giving the play a kind of unity of palette and the same feeling is, of course, revived at the end of the play when Brutus sees the ghost of Caesar appear to him in his tent. Once introduced, this supernatural vibe runs throughout the play.

Antony and Cleopatra lacks any of that. There are occasional attempts to give the thing an orientalist exotic Egyptian vibe, but not many, and you don’t really notice them. There is no comparable melodramatic setting / scene / vocabulary / diction which dominates and unifies the scenes. A couple of times characters refer to the stars, but this is bog standard stuff, passing references: all Shakespeare protagonists refer to Fortune or the stars at some point, even in the comedies:

ANTONY: And at this time most easy ’tis to do’t,
When my good stars, that were my former guides,
Have empty left their orbs, and shot their fires
Into the abysm of hell…

ANTONY: Alack, our terrene moon
Is now eclipsed; and it portends alone
The fall of Antony!

It isn’t the large scale dramatisation of astrological doom, as in the storms of Lear or Macbeth. The one ‘spooky’ scene is, as so often, on the eve of the last battle, a standard moment for protagonists to soulfully muse about the destinies which have brought them to this point etc, when none of the main characters are about but soldiers on guard at Antony’s camp hear strange music coming from underground and one, as if clairvoyant, says it is the sound of Hercules, Antony’s ancestor, leaving him to his fate (Act 3, scene 3). That, I grant you, is strange and eerie but not, by itself, enough to spook up the overall story.

Far more emblematic is the setpiece scene where the triumvirate meet with Pompey aboard his flagship, make peace then drink till they’re drunk and perform a drunken dance, accompanied by music. Which has no symbolic overtones at all; it’s just another party.

One way to demonstrate the lack of oomph is to compare the soothsayers in the two plays. In Julius Caesar the soothsayer’s warnings about the Ides of March are genuinely spooky and concern the central event of the play. The murder scene itself (Act 3, scene 1) opens with Caesar progressing to the senate building with his entourage and spotting in the cheering crowd the soothsayer who’d warned him about the Ides of March. Caesar shouts mockingly to him:

CAESAR: The ides of March are come.
SOOTHSAYER: Ay, Caesar; but not gone.

This has real bite. It links up to the strong supernatural theme, it revives the sense of destiny and fate, and purely in dramatic terms, it gives Caesar and his entourage pause for a moment of doubt, before Caesar recovers his composure and blusteringly dismisses him as ‘a dreamer’. In other words, this two-line exchange packs a punch on a number of levels.

There is also a soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra but a) he isn’t integrated into any other supernatural aspect or indicators; he is a rather isolated almost forlorn figure. And b) his scope is limited to reading the fortunes of Cleopatra’s giggling maids, who mock him and each other. From the sublime to the ridiculing.

Schoolgirls

I watched the BBC Shakespeare production, starring Colin Blakely and Jane Lapotaire, and the 1984 TV movie, starring Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave. Neither of them really convince and both of them bring out Shakespeare’s odd decision to make the second scene in the play a comic one featuring Cleopatra’s two serving women (‘My noble girls!’), Charmian (very much the main one) and Iras (who hardly speaks at all).

Alexas, supposedly Cleopatra’s chief minister but who appears to be her chief male servant, introduces the Egyptian soothsayer to the giggly women and, instead of adding to and crystallising the sense of world-encompassing doom, as his avatar in Julius Caesar does, this soothsayer is reduced to answering their gossipy enquiries about their husbands and children.

Now, the canny audience will spot the way the soothsayer accurately predicts the fact that both women will die alongside their mistress, but in the obscure, limited way of the Delphic Oracle, so that neither of them grasps the truth and, in any case, are too busy making jokes about each other’s future husbands to notice.

Maybe the audience will remember his predictions three hours later when Charmian and Iras accompany their mistress to her death; maybe the audience who knows they’re all going to die will enjoy the dramatic irony when they hear it – but either way, it’s indicative of the way that a supernatural element is vestigially present but much tamped down, itself symptomatic of the more muted, adult focus of the play as a whole.

The unattractive protagonists

The puzzling effect of the play is also a function of the lack of a clear protagonist. Cleopatra emerges in the final act as the dominating figure of the play, but before that was often absent for long periods or, when she was present, was a very reactive figure, reacting to Antony’s decisions or apologies or outbursts. Even when she is alone with her handmaids and Alexas, she is constantly thinking about Antony, reacting to him even in his absence.

Brutus is the protagonist of Julius Caesar and his antagonist is the savvy, virile Antony of that play, drolly ironic, cleverer than all the conspirators put together – with the ghost of Caesar lurking under the stage until he emerges in the last few scenes to neatly round everything off by haunting the assassins to their deaths. I liked the clever, ironic Antony of the earlier play, with his devil-may-care confidence.

The Antony of this play and his Cleopatra, by contrast, I found tiresome, as people. Maybe it’s me, but right at the start Shakespeare goes out of his way to show how quickly the famous lovers fall out and bicker like teenagers (‘Fie! wrangling queen!’).

Along with the immediately following scene of the schoolgirl handmaids, this sets a tone of silliness in their relationship, a stroppy teenage quickness to fall into heated arguments over nothing, from which the play, for me, never qute recovers.

I found Antony’s flip-flopping between infatuation with Cleopatra and guilty acknowledgement that he needs to break free and return to his Roman duties and responsibilities, irritating rather than profound.  I wanted to tell him to grow up.

Also, by the time we meet him, he is a loser. He has lost the insouciant, devil-may-care brashness of the earlier play. Now Caesar is the winner, and knows he will win, and goes on to win.

Antony, by contrast, is a loser. He fails in his negotiations with Cesar. He fails as a husband to innocent Octavia, setting out to damply please her but all-too-quickly letting himself and her down.

Antony never comes over as the world-bestriding general the other characters describe him as having been, once, in the play’s heretofore. When we meet him he is well on the way to making a series of catastrophic errors, which lead up to his military blunders: first, deciding to fight by sea, and then abandoning his fleet when Cleopatra sails away.

This sequence of bad calls is capped when he believes the messenger who tells him Cleopatra is dead and makes the foolish decision to kill himself; and then makes a botch of it, terribly injuring himself but failing to die. It’s failure all down the line. It’s a fine line between Tragic Fall and pathetic failure.

Similarly, Cleopatra, for me, for the first four acts, never achieves the awe and majesty which the play claims for her. Enobarbus’s description of her is far more impressive than the reality.

In Julius Caesar both Portia (wife of Brutus) and Calpurnia (wife of Caesar) have real presence and depth. Your heart bleeds for poor Portia, tormented by her husband locking her out from his feelings (i.e. not telling her about the conspiracy to murder Caesar).

Jane Lapotaire is a handsome woman but I found her continual arbitrary switching from anger to irony to sarcasm so tiresome that, when she finally got around to something like genuine expressions of love and/or soulful introspection about her feelings, I’d stopped caring. I found her unpredictable mood swings alienating rather than entrancing. Maybe she’s just not my type.

That said, I suppose Cleopatra’s depiction is on a different plane from that of the men, if only for the sheer length of time she is on stage and the phenomenal number of lines she gets to deliver. But for me, only right at the end, locked away in her strongpoint, as she commits herself to ending her life, does she attain a kind of visionary transcendence, which lifts her onto a different plane from all the other characters.

Enobarbus and Caesar

First a word of explanation: after Julius Caesar was assassinated, it turned out that in his will he left the majority of his estate to his great-nephew (his sister’s daughter’s son) Gaius Octavius who he legally adopted as his son. Octavius, only 18 at the time, promptly came to Rome to claim his inheritance, to ratify his adoption by Caesar, and, as was common with Roman adoptees, to take his adoptive father’s name, calling himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, where Octavianus is the adjectival form of Octavius. Quite quickly he took to referring to himself as ‘Caesar’ since this helped in winning the loyalty of the dead dictator’s legions. And all this explains why he is referred to as ‘Caesar’ throughout this play.

Enobarbus, meanwhile, is based on this historical figure of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, Roman general and politician, birth date unknown, who died in 31 BC. A quick scan of his Wikipedia entry indicates how thoroughly Shakespeare has fictionalised the character, and is also a good indicator of how completely Shakespeare ignores the long historical duration covered by the play, and the extremely complex web of shifting alliances which took place during the ten years the action supposedly covers.

Instead of a highly successful general who led forces against Antony at Philippi and persisted in opposing the triumvirate, until he was eventually reconciled with Antony, and went on to play a leading part in the latter’s ill-fated invasion of Parthia (36 BC), Shakespeare’s Enobarbus is depicted as a fellow drunk, a kind of embodiment of Antony’s devil-may-care debauchery. He’s a sort of cut-price Falstaff.

And a chorus to the main action. His main structural function is to be a court jester to Antony, licensed to say anything: to mock him, to mock the queen, to mock their love affair, to mock Rome and responsibility and pour Antony another drink. In the scenes where Antony and Caesar and their entourages meet, parley and party, he is shown getting on well with two of Caesar’s senior advisers, Agrippa and Maecenas, and speaking probably tactlessly about he and Antony’s party ways back in Alexandria. He very tactlessly shares his belief that Antony’s marriage to Octavia won’t last.

So he is not intended to be a pleasant man, and in his asides to the audience he has something of Iago – not in orchestrating and motivating the action, but in his increasing tone of malevolence and misanthropy. He becomes more bitter and cynical as the play progresses, eventually defects from Antony’s service altogether, going over to young Caesar, but finally malevolences his way right out of existence by killing himself (as does, of course, his former master). So he is like a barometer indicating the steady, relentless decline in Antony’s fortunes.

So from out of this pack of squabbling lovers and their cynical hangers-on, I couldn’t help coming to admire Caesar. He is quite obviously depicted as a Spock-like emotionless automaton, a ruthlessly efficient calculating machine. His speeches are very deliberately made as emotional as computer printouts.

But if one person was going to end up ruling the Roman Empire who would you prefer it to be? The childishly irresponsibly, changeable, unreliable, petulant self-pitying drunk, Antony? Or the sober, hard-working, focused and efficient young Octavian? Antony is like Boris Johnson: an impetuous, charismatic, changeable, unreliable, making-it-up-as-you-go-along party animal. A great bloke to stay up all night carousing with but shouldn’t be left in charge of a whelk stall, let alone half the Roman Empire – as his over-ambitious, badly managed, and disastrous foray into Parthia (36 BC) conclusively proved, and then his catastrophic decision to abandon his fleet and his legions at Actium (31 BC) proved all over again.

Just like Boris Johnson, Antony’s supporters keep giving him the benefit of the doubt as he proves himself unfit for high office again and again and again, as one by one his senior allies defect, until he managed to dig his own grave and even his most loyal hanger-on (Enobarbus) abandoned him.

ANTONY: O, my fortunes have corrupted honest men!

No, Octavian for me. If you want someone to manage a country, let alone an empire, you want a managerial type: hard working, sober, efficient, fair, and also – a winner. As he always does, right from the start Shakespeare plants the seed of the character’s eventual fate – in this case Octavian’s complete triumph – by pointing out that he just wins. Whatever enterprise he undertakes, whether it’s playing dice or taking on the senate, he just wins. Enobarbus comes to realise Caesar is ‘twenty times of better fortune’ than Antony. As the soothsayer (they crop up everywhere, these soothsayers, don’t they) tells Antony:

If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose; and, of that natural luck,
He beats thee ‘gainst the odds: thy lustre thickens,
When he shines by…

And so it ultimately proves here.

Binaries and dichotomies

Antony is a man caught between two contrasting worlds and sets of values:

  • Egypt versus Italy
  • Alexandria versus Rome
  • East versus West
  • Femininity (all those Egyptian handmaids plus the eunuchs) versus masculinity (all those Roman senators and generals)
  • Cleopatra versus Caesar
  • Love versus Reason
  • Irresponsibility versus duty
  • Sensual pleasure versus puritan abstention (Caesar’s fastidious dislike of the drunkenness at Pompey’s party)
  • An empire of the senses versus the real-world empire of war and conquest
  • Mistress versus wife
  • The personal versus the public
  • Colourful exotic costumes versus the plain white Roman toga

Indeed the play overflows with carefully contrasted binaries and contrasts:

  • (Cleopatra’s) playfulness versus (Caesar’s) earnestness
  • Humour versus seriousness
  • Irony versus sincerity
  • Hyperbole versus statements of fact
  • Emotional instability versus fixed resolution

Right down to the contrast between the two suicides, one botched and hideously painful (Antony’s) in which he is pitifully abandoned by his servants; the other ceremonious, beautiful and painless (Cleopatra’s) in which she is loyally served to the end by her maids.

Suicide

1. History. The era is packed with famous suicides: Cato, Portia, Brutus, Cassius, Enobarbus, Eros, Antony, Cleopatra, a generation of generals and rulers liquidated itself to make way for Octavius.

2. Shakespeare. Throw in Shakespeare’s most famous depictions of suicide, Romeo and Juliet and you can reasonably ask: Has any other major author so glamorised and romanticised suicide?

CLEOPATRA: The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired.

The end speech

While Antony was alive, Caesar’s cronies queued up to mimic their master’s mood and mock and insult Antony. When, in Act 5 scene 1, they learn he is dead, they queue up to praise him (‘A rarer spirit never / Did steer humanity’). Octavian joins in and then, a long 20 minutes later, after Cleopatra has also killed herself and Octavian stands over her lifeless body, he delivers the same kind of eulogy.

This naturally reminds me of the same Octavian standing over Brutus’s corpse while Antony delivers a noble eulogy to him (Brutus) at the end of Julius Caesar. All of which prompts a simple thought: it is easy to be noble and generous about your opponent after he is safely dead.

Boys will be girls

Last thought about the characters, and a fact which opens up a Pandora’s box of debates about gender and identity – women characters in the theatre of Shakespeare’s time were played by boys. The numerous scenes between Cleopatra and her maids, the opening scene where the maids discuss marriage, all those furious arguments with Antony, and Cleopatra’s final, transcendent apotheosis – all this was depicted by pubescent boys.

Historical background

The first thing to emphasise is that, like Julius CaesarAntony and Cleopatra leaps through long, complicated historical events, cutting and paring and cherry picking just what it needs to produce a narrative which focuses on two of western history’s most famous lovers. But even more ambitiously than the 2 years covered by the earlier play, Antony and Cleopatra depicts events spanning no fewer than ten years of Roman history.

After Julius Caesar’s assassination in March 44 a complicated political and military situation emerged. You’d have expected a straight fight between Mark Anthony as Caesar’s loyal lieutenant and the conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. In fact the opposing factions patched together a compromise peace and all sides, including the senate, were struggling to understand what to do next when the situation was further complicated by the arrival of 18-year-old Gaius Octavius, named by Caesar as his main heir, who arrived in Rome within weeks of Caesar’s murder, determined to claim his legacy.

Brutus and Cassius were amnestied by the senate for the assassination but thought it wise to leave Rome and so secured from the senate governorships in faraway Asia (modern-day Turkey), leaving space for a conflict emerged in Italy between Octavian – who quickly raised troops by playing on his adoptive father’s name – and Antony who marched his legions north to besiege the town of Mutina, held by the legions of another of the assassins, Decimus Brutus.

The conflict developed into one between Antony, determined to seize complete control of Italy, and the senate, who supported Decimus and were persuaded to give their backing to Octavius. This was achieved largely through the influence of Cicero who delivered a series of stinging attacks on Antony’s character and aims, so much so that Antony was declared ‘an enemy of the state’. Meanwhile Brutus and Cassius gathered their forces in Asia, anticipating involvement in the war racking Italy.

Then there came an extremely unexpected development which transformed the situation. Despite having just led their legions in bitter fighting against each other, Octavian in particular came to realise he had more to gain by declaring a truce and even allying with Antony. There was always both an emotional and legal logic to the idea that Caesar’s best friend and his adoptive son would eventually unite against the men who murdered him.

And so it turned out. The senate and all the other political actors in the drama, not least Cicero who had heartily supported Octavian against Antony, were flabbergasted when in October 43 BC Octavian convened a meeting in northern Italy with Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who had seized the provinces of Hispania and Narbonese Gaul. They called themselves the ‘triumvirate for organizing the republic’ (Latin: tresviri rei publicae constituendae) known to history as the Second Triumvirate, and divided the Roman Empire between them: at least initially Lepidus held Hispania and Narbonese Gaul, Antony retained Cisalpine Gaul and hegemony over Gaul itself, and Octavian was assigned Africa, Sicily Sardinia.

Octavia and Antony’s joined forces then embarked for Greece to confront the armies of the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, who they defeated in two clumsy, unwieldy battles fought with huge forces on both sides near Philippi in northern Greece on 3 and 23 October 42 BC. Both the assassins committed suicide and their cause dissolved. Antony and Octavian took over control of their legions and divided the Mediterranean world between them, Antony taking the East, where he wanted to win glory by taking on the Parthian Empire, and Octavian, shrewdly assuming control of Italy, Gaul and Spain. Lepidus was reassigned north Africa and Sicily.

The thing about the triumvirate is that it lasted for ten years, from 43, when the senate formally recognised it, to 33 when open conflict broke out between Octavian and Antony. Ten years is a long time and a lot happened, including a wide range of reforms back in Rome and in the administration of the empire (notably very contentious policies to seize land to settle veteran soldiers), plus wars in various places (notably against Gaius Pompeius’s son Sextus, in Sicily, in 36 BC, and the ill-fated Perusine War of 40 BC), and major disagreements between the partners, which were raggedly patched up. The triumvirate was ratified by the senate for five years, but the behaviour of the triumvirs increasingly sidelined the senate and all constitutional processes. It signalled the end of the Republic.

In 36 the triumvirate was renewed for another 5 years but Octavian took advantage of Lepidus’s mismanagement of affairs in Sicily to strip him of his powers in September of that year and force him into exile. The situation had thus evolved into just two Great Men dominating the Roman world, Antony based in the East and Octavian in Italy, Gaul and Spain.

Antony had responsibilities all round the Eastern Mediterranean but fell in love with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt and chose to spend years based in her capital, Alexandria, eventually fathering twin children by her, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II.

Octavian made use of every rumour of Antony’s partying, drunkenness, neglect of his duties, and his subservience to a foreign (and therefore, ipso facto, immoral) ruler, and a woman to boot, as part of his propaganda campaign against Antony back in Italy.

Cleopatra the movie

John Wilders, editor of the 1995 Arden edition of the play, optimistically claims that Shakespeare’s depiction of the star-crossed lovers defined them for all time:

Shakespeare clearly set a challenge for himself. He rose to it so splendidly that in most of our minds Antony and Cleopatra actually were the people he created. (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 1)

I disagree. There were plenty of other literary depictions of them, both before and after –by Chaucer in his Legend of Good Women (1380s) and by John Dryden, the Restoration playwright (1677), to pick two famous authors. In fact a quick check of the Dryden Wikipedia page tells us that Dryden’s retelling of the story was widely performed in the 18th century: ‘becoming the preferred version of the story; Shakespeare’s play did not reappear on the London stage until 1813.’

And if you had to choose just one depiction of the story, surely it would be Plutarch’s Life of Antony without which none of the other accounts would exist.

But anyway, leaving the leafy groves of academe, I’d have thought a million times more influential than any literary depiction is the fabulous 1963 Hollywood movie, Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton at the peak of their fame. Quite obviously this provides the epic spectacle, the awe and majesty, which all the stage productions I’ve watched completely lack.

And although it’s easy to dismiss it as American kitsch, I think it very effectively depicts the kind of middle-aged ‘love’ which is closer to cantankerous addiction, to perpetual arguing with someone you can’t leave, of leaving them and then discovering you can’t live without them, which is the central theme of the play.

Mind you, all this is, of course, before we get to what is indisputably THE most important cultural representation of the story in our time:

Asterix and Cleopatra by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1963)


Related links

  • Antony and Cleopatra text online
  • 1974 RSC TV production starring Janet Suzman and Richard Johnson – my favourite production: I like Richard Johnson (47 at the time) with his smoker’s laugh, as Antony, Suzman (35) has genuine sex appeal, manipulation and threat, the direction (by Jon Scoffield) captures the nuances and subtleties in the script far better than the others. And the court and party scenes, like the massage scene in 1.5, convey a genuine sense of party decadence which the other productions refer to but never show. And Corin Redgrave (35), looking younger than his years, is intimidatingly cool and calculating. The use of soft focus or blurring works very well to convey: messengers approaching from a distance; montages of events being reported, such as Antony and Cleopatra’s enthronement; and the swift transition and overlap of the short scenes conveying the Battle of Actium, the appearance of Cleopatra and her entourage to victorious Antony or of Cleopatra appearing to defeated Antony. All appear shimmering out of the sand yellow which very effectively evokes the blistering deserts of Egypt and also gives a successful visual unity to the sequence of very short scenes which critics from the 1700s onwards have criticised as too bitty.
  • 1981 BBC Shakespeare production starring Jane Lapotaire and Colin Blakely – savour Blakely (51)’s fixed rictus grin in the opening scene: he is not at home playing an abandoned sensualist; Jane Lapotaire is good but, ultimately to thin and light to convey earthy majesty as Suzman does; I very much liked Ian Charleston (32)’s cool Caesar, and liked his careful, even enunciation of the verse.
  • 1984 TV production starring Timothy Dalton and Lyn Redgrave – Dalton is fabulously handsome but not so good in the quieter scenes depicting emotion, and Redgrave comes over as a suburban housewife, Cleopatra played by Margot Ledbetter

Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Shakespeare

Theatre

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599)

Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, was first produced, in all probability, in 1599. The plot is based entirely on three of Plutarch’s biographies of eminent Romans, which Shakespeare found in Sir Thomas North’s translations into English of The Lives of the Most Noble Greeks and Romans, first published in 1579. The three lives he drew from are those of:

As you can see, whereas the assassination only takes up the last tenth of Caesar’s life, and the period from the assassination to the Battle of Philippi only takes up ten of Antony’s 87 chapters, the assassination and aftermath constitute almost all of Plutarch’s life of Brutus which may, at a very basic level, explain why Brutus emerges as the hero’ of Shakespeare’s play.

Brief synopsis

The figure the play is named after, Julius Caesar, actually dies half way through the play. The first half of the play depicts the conspiracy leading up to his assassination, the second half depicts the main consequences.

The play opens with Rome preparing for Caesar’s triumphal entrance accompanied by his best friend and deputy, Mark Antony. Brutus is a noble upstanding ally and friend of Caesar, but he fears that Caesar will become king and so overthrow the republic which he loves. Cassius is depicted as a wily and slippery friend-cum-tempter who convinces Brutus to join a conspiracy to murder Caesar. As Cassius says to himself (and the audience) after Brutus has left him.

CASSIUS: Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed…

The night before the planned assassination is wild and stormy, with various characters observing or hearing of ominous portents and signs. The conspirators turn up at Brutus’s house and they finalise their plans. When they’ve left Brutus’s wife reveals her extreme anxiety that something terrible is about to happen. Brutus hasn’t told her about the planned assassination and does his best to calm her nerves.

On the day of the assassination, Caesar’s wife Calpurnia describes an ominous dream she had of his dead body spurting blood and begs him to stay at home, but one of the conspirators, Decius Brutus, smoothly reinterprets her dream in a positive light and persuades Caesar to go to the senate as planned.

In the Senate building the conspirators crowd round Caesar before stabbing him to death. A very nervous Antony enters and reveals himself as two-faced: to the conspirators he gingerly says he respects their motives though is understandably upset, and they are satisfied with that. But when they’ve left him alone he reveals he is outraged and distraught at the behaviour of these ‘butchers’ and vows revenge.

Cut to the Roman forum where Brutus makes a speech defending the assassins’ actions before handing over, as the assassins had agreed, to Antony, who had promised to make a moderate and sensible eulogy to the dead man and appeal for calm. Instead he uses the opportunity to inflame the mob into hysterical rage and sends them rampaging through the streets to find and kill the assassins.

Act 4 cuts to 18 months later and finds a slightly tipsy Antony at table with a new character, Octavian who, we learn, was named in Caesar’s will as his main heir and has used the time since to amass a private army and become a player in Rome’s power politics. Now Octavian is cutting a deal with Antony and a third character, Lepidus. They treat Lepidus with contempt, dismissing him from the table with the result that the actor playing Lepidus has just 4 lines. With him gone the other two settle down to signing a compact. They seal it by agreeing a list of political opponents who will be ‘proscribed’ or murdered. The first line of the scene indicates the new atmosphere of brutality.

ANTONY: These many, then, shall die; their names are pricked.

I don’t think any character says it explicitly, but one of Caesar’s distinguishing features, politically and strategically, was going out of his way to ‘forgive’ his opponents. Well, look what that led to: the biggest opponent he forgave and took into his entourage, Brutus, murdered him. So, lesson learned, Octavian and Antony will show no mercy or forgiveness. Opponents will be ruthlessly exterminated.

The second part of Act 4 skips nearly a year ahead, to October 43 and finds the two assassins, Brutus and Cassius, camped with their armies near the town of Philippi in Greece, opposed by the armies of Antony and Octavius, on the night before the fateful battle between the two forces.

Brutus and Cassius have a prolonged and acrimonious quarrel before patching things up. Left alone in his tent with only a serving boy who soon nods off, Brutus sees a ghost who warns ominously about the upcoming battle.

Act 5 is entirely devoted to a succession of quickfire scenes depicting the Battle of Philippi. The two key moments are when Cassius, misled by false reports that his army has lost, persuades a slave to kill him. And then, only moments later, after Brutus’s army really is defeated, Brutus, also, begs a comrade to help him commit suicide.

Moments later, Octavian and Antony enter, stand over the dead bodies and Antony praises Brutus as ‘the noblest Roman of them all’.

Shaping and forming

As usual Shakespeare takes his source material and a) shapes it into a five-act play with a beginning, middle and end and b) presents all the 15 or so speaking parts in such a way as to give them each character and individuality, no matter how brief their appearance.

This is especially true of the leading four roles, Caesar, Cassius, Antony, and above all Brutus. Though the play bears someone else’s name, Brutus is the lead protagonist. As T.S. Dorsch puts it in his introduction to the 1955 Arden edition of the play, ‘Caesar is the titular hero, Brutus is the dramatic hero’ (Introduction page xxvii). (And yet see below for the way this initial impression – Brutus as the ‘hero’ – must then be tempered and adjusted by recognition of the centrality of Caesar’s spirit.)

Moral dilemmas

Caesar was written a little earlier than Hamlet (composed sometime between 1599 and 1601) and they share something in common: Brutus, a fundamentally decent man, must nerve himself to commit an unprovoked murder in the name of the greater good; Hamlet, a fundamentally good man, must nerve himself to commit the coldblooded murder of his uncle, who he suspects of murdering his (Hamlet’s) father.

They even at one point share the same key word, ‘question’, placed with emphasis at the end of a key sentence; for Hamlet it is the question of whether to soldier on or commit suicide and thus escape a sea of troubles:

HAMLET: To be or not to be, that is the question.

For Brutus it is the more characteristically practical question of whether Caesar, once crowned king, will become a dictator:

BRUTUS: He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

Both, then, must balance two conflicting moral imperatives, in Brutus’s case the ban on killing weighed against the greater good of the state, in Hamlet’s the ban on killing weighed against the call of justified revenge. No surprise, then, that both characters give vent to their dilemma in a series of to-the-audience soliloquies, indicators of psychological depth vouchsafed to none of the other characters. Hamlet and Brutus alone are inside the secret chamber of the drama, confronting this central moral dilemma, while all the other characters are in a sense on the outside of the psychological drama, mere players, contributors.

Speed

Julius Caesar is a play in a hurry – there is a lot to cram in. This sense of haste or the shoehorning of material comes over in numerous places and makes it, for me, an unsatisfactory play.

Acts 1, 2 and 3 hang together well enough, telling a continuous narrative of the growth and development of the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, with atmospheric meetings of the conspirators and the midnight fears of Brutus’s wife, Portia, thrown in to jack up the sense of anxiety and danger.

(Though even here there is much compression: the opening scene which depicts Caesar’s triumphing after defeating Pompey’s son conflates it with the feast of the Lupercalia where Antony thrice offered Caesar the crown and he rejected it, in reality two events which were months apart, October 45 and February 44 respectively.)

Shakespeare moves his narrative at high speed up to the assassination itself (on 15 March 44 BC), accurately based on his sources (Caesar falling at the feet of the statue of Pompey), before moving quickly on to the immediate aftermath, namely the big central scene where first Brutus then Mark Antony speak to the rowdy crowd in the Roman Forum (again skipping over the real events which played out over several days of intense confusion in Rome and telescoping them all into the same few hours).

But then there is a huge leap or break in continuity, for Act 4 skips forward 18 months to show Antony meeting with Octavian to form a pact, the so-called Second Triumvirate (along with the non-descript Lepidus who is assigned a mere 4 lines). To be precise, the play goes straight into a scene with the three men seated round a table deciding which of their political enemies they will ‘proscribe’ i.e. mark for elimination, liquidation, murder.

The point being that this meeting took place in northern Italy in October 43, 18 months after Caesar’s assassination and an enormous amount had happened in that time: After negotiating an uneasy peace with Antony, the assassins decided to flee Rome, heading out East where the senate, in the coming months, ratified their control of the provinces of Asia, where they proceeded to raise armies loyal to them.

Meanwhile, Octavius had arrived in Rome: he raised legions on the strength of his name, he encouraged Cicero to denounce Antony in a series of speeches in and outside the senate leading up to Antony being declared an enemy of the state; he led his army into several pitched battles with Antony’s forces; then both men realised they had more in common than divided them, not least opposition to the assassins or ‘liberators’ as they called themselves, led by Brutus and Cassius. All this goes unexplained when the narrative instead leaps to the scene depicted at the start of Act IV, where Octavius and Antony are shown cobbling together an alliance along with the third leader of a significant army in Italy, Lepidus.

And then, in the very next scene, the play makes another great leap, 11 months further down the line, to the immediate build-up to the Battle of Philippi, when the armies of the assassins and the Caesarians finally come face to face, which was fought in October 42 BC.

Now, making great leaps through events was standard procedure for Shakespeare, witness the history plays which play tremendously fast and loose with chronology. The aim was to skip all the boring details and alight on the key psychological moments. His plays are not factual but psychological histories, picking and choosing the moments he needs to create what are, in effect, character studies of people from history in extreme circumstances.

Thus the complex historical realities of Cassius and Brutus are reshaped to provide a series of scenes which dwell mostly on the psychological dynamic between them, turning history into psychodrama and, the slow complex course of events into a tremendously compressed narrative which moves with the speed of a hurtling train.

Brevity

It turns out there’s a website that analyses Shakespeare stats, and this confirms with statistics the impression you get either watching or reading the play that it is compressed and fast: this tells us that, at 2,451 total lines Julius Caesar is shorter than the average Shakespeare play (average play: 2,768, average tragedy: 2,936). That specific acts are the shortest of their kind: Act Four: 409 lines, much shorter than average (average play: 560, average tragedy: 547); Act Five at 353 lines, the shortest of all tragedies; much shorter than average (average play: 484, average tragedy: 478). And it has 17 scenes which is also less than average (average play: 21; average tragedy: 24). So a lot of action is compressed into fewer lines and scenes than his average play. While, by contrast, the sense of hectic activity is also the result of it having an above average number of characters, 49 characters compared to the average play: 36; average tragedy: 39.

More characters depicting more events, including a highly compressed time-scheme, in a much shorter than average space = hence the sense of hurtling pace.

The snapshot battle scenes

The snapshot approach is vividly epitomised in the final scenes of the play. These are all set during the confused battle of Philippi and play very fast and loose with the historical facts, not least the fact that there was not one but two quite distinct battles of Philippi, fought on 3 and 23 October, whereas Shakespeare makes it all happen on one day – in theatrical time, all in about ten hectic minutes.

None of this matters, it gets in the way of what Shakespeare wants to do which is to provide a neatly rounded end to his drama. All tragedies end in death and so does this one – not the death of the eponymous dictator which, as we’ve seen, comes half way through the action, but the deaths of the two leading conspirators and best buddies, Cassius and Brutus, Cassius falsely believing the battle is lost and so honourably killing himself (well, begging his colleagues and servants to hold his sword while he plunges onto it); then, just a few minutes later, Brutus correctly being informed that the battle is lost and doing exactly the same. Both are given pathetic (in the original sense of the word, meaning designed-to-evoke-tears-of-emotion) speeches, and then proceed to their stabby ends.

I can see what Shakespeare’s aiming to do, to shape messy history into another smoothly delivered morality lesson with the same overall shape as all his other historical morality lessons, leading up to the well-known and heart-rending deaths scenes for both the assassins. But, in my opinion, they don’t really come off and this leaves an enduring impression that the play is unsatisfactory, half-cocked or somehow unfinished.

Part of the problem is the bittiness of the battle scenes. Designed to convey the chaos and peril of battle, they consist of a series of very short scenes, sometimes only half a dozen lines, with one set of soldiers running on, shouting a few lines at each other, then running off only to be immediately replaced with a new set of soldiers running on from the other side of the stage and depicting key moments from other locations on the battlefield. Shakespeare does it in Henry IV and Henry V and probably all the other history plays.

On Shakespeare’s static stage, with huge allowance made for the conventions of the time, this works. But it has proved very difficult for directors in more realistic times, in the Victorian era, let along the post-war period of super-realistic drama, to depict what Shakespeare asks the actors to do without it seeming artificial and contrived and, sometimes, a bit absurd.

The double suicide risks absurdity

This sense of absurdity is, unfortunately, reinforced by the doubling up of the suicide scenes. If it had been just Brutus who realised the battle was lost, delivered a stirring speech about the nobility of his aim to rid Rome of tyranny, then fell on his sword with dignity, it would be one thing; but the effect of Brutus’s speech and death are – for me at any rate – seriously undermined by the fact that Cassius has done the exact same thing 3 minutes earlier.

Not only that, but Cassius’s death is not the result of noble resolve and high-mindedness, it is caused by a really stupid mistake. He sends a messenger back to their base to check whether it has been overrun by the enemy (Antony and Octavius’s army) and, if not, to signal back to them that all is fine. He then sends a colleague up a nearby hill to watch the messenger’s progress. The man up the hill proceeds to completely misinterpret events, because he shouts back down to Cassius that their messenger has been captured. They both hear a big roar from soldiers which the lookout interprets as the enemy cheering at having captured Cassius’s spy. And so Cassius concludes that all is lost and begs colleagues to help him commit suicide.

Except that only minutes after he has collapsed to the floor and bled to death, another messenger comes running in to announce that everything is OK, that the messenger got through to the camp, and it has been successfully held against the enemy, and the cheer they heard was not from the victorious enemy but from his own men cheering to hear he is still alive. Except that now he isn’t. He is dead on the ground and the too-late messenger is given a sad and tear-jerking speech over his dead body before himself stabbing himself and falling on Cassius’s body.

At which point another group of Cassius’s soldiers enter, hoping to find their gallant leader and instead discovering two bloody corpses.

This is… this is hard to take seriously. It is what Plutarch reports as actually happening but in historical accounts is given much more context and explanation and so emerges as a noble and tragic act. It is hard to take seriously a man who kills himself out of high-minded motives which are really just all a stupid mistake.

And then more or less the same thing happens to Brutus – although without the stupid mistake. He at least, at a later stage of the day, has drawn the correct conclusion that the battle is lost . But, in my opinion, the power of his suicide is seriously drained of dignity and meaning by the silly suicide of Cassius only moments before. To persuade us of all that happening in just 2 or 3 minutes of stage time is a big ask and, in the BBC production I’ve just watched, fails.

The standard end-speech

Then the play ends with the stock-in-trade, bog standard arrival of the victors who behold the bodies of their noble antagonists and order that their bodies be given full and proper funerals. Compare and contrast Fortinbras arriving at the end of Hamlet to encounter a stage littered with dead bodies.

In Hamlet this has a pathetic effect in the original sense of the word, depicting a man who has no idea of the complex psychodrama which has played out in the court of Denmark, but instinctively recognises nobility. It has a complex flavour because it is, at the same time, a conventional king’s conventional, conservative response to a situation which is wildly unconventional and strange. We have been witnesses of the extremely complicated psychodrama of which the conventional Fortinbras only sees the outward or external results, and responds in a standard, conventional way.

Whereas Antony and Octavius entering at the end of Julius Caesar, expressing a few stock sentiments about what noble men Cassius and Brutus were and ordering they be given proper state funerals…doesn’t have the same effect. It feels thin and inadequate to me. Shakespeare tries. He saves up some of the best poetry in the play for Antony’s brief eulogy:

ANTONY: This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

Excellent words, an eloquent summary of the life and motives of the Great and Noble Brutus who is the real subject of this play and yet…they don’t quite compensate for the structural weaknesses of much that came before.

It was a popular play in Shakespeare’s time because audiences couldn’t get enough of kings and princes getting their brutal come-uppance, and so they loved the pathetic suicide speeches of Cassius and Brutus. To my modern sensibility these scenes felt rushed and contrived and so ended the play on a false note.

Famous bits

As so often with Shakespeare the most impactful thing is not necessarily the overall narrative, compressed and hurried as it is – it comes in the numerous moments of deep psychological penetration which litter the drama.

Antony’s Forum speech

The most famous of these is the long scene 2 in Act 3, where Brutus (foolishly, fatally) invites Mark Antony to make a funeral oration to the Roman crowd over the body of the assassinated Caesar. It opens with famously quotable phrases:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.

It is a highly enjoyable scene because it is a sustained performance of psychological manipulation. Again and again Antony swears to the crowd that he is not there to inflame them with anger against the assassins, who he repeatedly calls ‘honourable men’, at every mention the phrase sounding increasingly ironic and, eventually, contemptuous – while all the time in fact doing his level best to do just that, to inflame them into a wild mob rage against the assassins so that, by the end, the crowd are ready to rush off and burn down the houses of all the assassins. It is a tour de force of sophisticated rhetoric and mob manipulation, all masquerading as modesty and plain speaking:

I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man,
That love my friend…
For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech,
To stir men’s blood: I only speak right on…

As T.S. Dorsch rather grandly puts it: ‘If ever Shakespeare wanted to show genius at work, surely it was in Antony’s oration’ (Arden introduction p.lii) and many, many commentators have analysed the speech at length, highlighting its rhetorical techniques. One reason for its effectiveness is its sheer length, it goes on and on, as Antony pauses for breath, retires for emotion, quells the crowd and draws one more rabbit out of his hat (the reading of Caesar’s will).

But another reason, I think, is its sheer exuberance: it is a bravura performance by a man at the top of his game, of a canny chancer and opportunist responding magnificently to the fact that his patron and protector has been cruelly murdered and his entire world turned upside down. The 1970 movie of the play sinks under the weight of an astonishingly bad performance of Brutus by Jason Robards, but is illuminating in lots of other ways, not least in the way it shows Antony, played with a swaggering sneer by Charlton Heston, having whipped the mob into a frenzy and sent them off to burn the conspirators’ houses down, collapsing exhausted against a nearby cart of wine barrels, hacking one open, drinking deep of the booze, and declaring:

ANTONY: Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot,
Take thou what course thou wilt!

His invocation of chaos allies him with Iago and other instigators of anarchy. He doesn’t care what happens, because he’s supremely, sublimely confident that come what may, he will ride the storm and easily get the better of poor saps like Brutus and Cassius. As he does…for a while….

Caesar’s dignity

We only get a flavour of Caesar’s character in three scenes: in the opening one where he is processing regally through the crowd, conferring with colleagues; in the long scene where his wife tries to dissuade him from going to the senate that morning, the ides of March, but Caesar allows himself to be persuaded to attend by the flattery and insinuation of one of the conspirators, Decimus Brutus; and then, maybe, in the dignity of his bearing while the assassins close in with their importunate demands for the return from exile of Metellus Cimber’s brother, before they reveal their daggers and their true intentions.

In the complex opening scene, where many themes and characters are first revealed, Caesar utters the famous lines hinting at his suspicions of Cassius and Brutus:

CAESAR: Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.
ANTONY: Fear him not, Caesar; he’s not dangerous;
He is a noble Roman, and well given.
CAESAR: Would he were fatter!

Ominousness

The play overflows with bad omens. It is interesting to consider that Shakespeare and his audience in the 1590s appear to have been every bit as irrationally superstitious as Plutarch and his readers in about 100 AD. In between there had been one and a half millennia of dark and middle ages, and then the Renaissance, all of which continued to take seriously signs and omens and superstitions and auguries and harbingers and portents and premonitions.

CASCA: Against the Capitol I met a lion,
Who glared upon me, and went surly by,
Without annoying me: and there were drawn
Upon a heap a hundred ghastly women,
Transformed with their fear; who swore they saw
Men all in fire walk up and down the streets.
And yesterday the bird of night did sit
Even at noon-day upon the market-place,
Hooting and shrieking. When these prodigies
Do so conjointly meet, let not men say
‘These are their reasons; they are natural;’
For, I believe, they are portentous things

Hence the extensive scenes set during the dark and stormy night before the assassination in which all the characters describe nature in turmoil and retail rumours of the dead rising from their graves, great fires across the sky, and so on. The play is drenched with these irrational superstitions, with strange sightings on the dark and stormy night before the assassination, so much so that even the man himself has, or so Cassius alleges, caught the infection:

CASSIUS: But it is doubtful yet,
Whether Caesar will come forth to-day, or no;
For he is superstitious grown of late,
Quite from the main opinion he held once
Of fantasy, of dreams and ceremonies:
It may be, these apparent prodigies,
The unaccustom’d terror of this night,
And the persuasion of his augurers,
May hold him from the Capitol to-day.

On the morning of the fateful day Calpurnia repeats and reinforces the theme, claiming that all manner of strange sights have been seen across Rome:

CALPURNIA: There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

But in fact, as the Calpurnia scene shows, this is another of Cassius’s slurs on Caesar, dictated by his own festering resentment, for in that scene Caesar is very deliberately placed in antithesis to Calpurnia’s fears and alarms, instead displaying a rational and fearless contempt for superstition and hearsay.

The night before murder

One of the most beautiful scenes in literature has to be the young king in Henry V on the night before the battle of Agincourt, disguising himself and going among his soldiers to discover their mood. Night time prompts a special sensitivity in Shakespeare. Compare with the beautiful and sensitive dialogue between Jessica and Lorenzo in Act 5 scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice.

Here, the night before the planned assassination provides the setting for a number of characters to reveal their worries and fears. It is, of course, a violent stormy night, full of thunder and lightning and so part of the atmosphere of portents and premonitions which anticipate the assassination, and then return at the end of the play to anticipate the deaths of the two leading protagonists.

The night before is always a powerful, revealing moment in a Shakespeare tragedy. Think of the night when Macbeth and his wife are terrified to admit even to themselves their feverish plans to murder the lawful king.

Here, after some scenes involving Cicero, Casca and so on, the drama really zeroes in on the troubled minds of Brutus and his wife. The extent to which we are taken into his private life indicates his centrality as a protagonist. As always, Shakespeare reveals a sensitivity to women characters which seems centuries ahead of his time. Both here and in the scene the next morning when Calpurnia begs her husband not to attend the senate, these wives are depicted with great psychological acuity. The audience is entirely persuaded to sympathise with them and see their points of view.

The night before battle

I should have referred to Henry V in this section, because it is more appropriate. The long Act 4 scene 2 set in Brutus’s tent where he and his best buddy Cassius have a prolonged falling out, ends with Cassius leaving Brutus in the company of his young servant, Lucius, who Brutus asks to fetch a lamp and then settles down to read while Lucius gently plays a harp. As so often in Shakespeare there is a sweetness and delicacy to the scene and Brutus’s concern for the tired boy which reaches out beyond the ostensible subject matter, and his own time and place, and seems to kiss something deep and essential in human nature, a depthless kindness and generosity.

It is all the more effective, then, having conjured this gentle atmosphere, when it is broken by the sudden apparition of Caesar’s ghost to Brutus. As I mentioned at the start, this play was written while Shakespeare was working on the much longer, much more complex Hamlet which also, of course, features an ambiguous ghost. Brutus’s ghost never tells his name, all it says, when Brutus asks its identity, is that he is ‘Thy evil spirit, Brutus’. But any uncertainty is cleared up right at the end when Brutus tells his comrade, Volumnius:

The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:

Explaining that this is why he knows his hour has come.

Revenge

Chances are it is because this allows the play to fit neatly into the format of the revenge tragedy. The argument goes that, rather than disappearing at his death, the titular figure goes underground but remains a presence, disturbing the minds of men, and especially the guilty men who murdered him, as all good ghosts in revenge tragedies are supposed to.

The long argument between Brutus and Cassius which makes up Act 4 scene 2 changes from being a rather pointless bicker to showing the subtle, lingering effects of their crime driving two former friends apart – at one point Brutus bitterly reproaches Cassius for what he’s done, what they’ve done, not unlike the mutual reproaches of the guilt-ridden Macbeth and his wife.

And then in the ghost scene the subterranean presence of the dead man becomes explicit – the haunting of their minds goes from metaphorical to literal.

On this reading, the final scenes do not depict an absurdist comedy of misunderstandings but depict the fitting closure of the revenge theme, as both Cassius and Brutus in their different ways can only find peace through terminating their troubled consciousnesses. And as they point out in order to make the theme of revenge and closure totally obvious to even the dimmest theatre-goer, both do so using the same swords they used to murder Caesar.

CASSIUS: Caesar, thou art revenged,
Even with the sword that kill’d thee.

And Brutus, looking down on his friend’s body, makes the revenge theme explicit:

BRUTUS: O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3, 94 to 96)

Then, after all is lost, Brutus rams home the thought as with his final words:

BRUTUS: Caesar, now be still:
I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.
(Runs onto sword. Dies)

On this reading Octavius and Antony don’t arrive on the scene to wind up external historical events but to bring to a fitting end the psychodrama of two men undermined and fated by their own guilt.

On this reading Brutus is not the protagonist he appears to be – that figure is the spirit of Caesar who determines everybody else’s actions, and works underground to bring about his just revenge. The play could be called The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus but it is also The Revenge of Julius Caesar.

Antony’s irony

T.S. Dorsch repeats the good point (first made by various scholars before him) that the true turning point comes not with the murder of Caesar as such (although that is, obviously, the main central event) but with the arrival a few minutes later of a servant from Antony. This servant asks their permission for his master to approach them safely, but with the special combination of enduring love for the dead dictator with flattery of the assassins which is to become Antony’s leading tone or strategy. Dorsch compares it to the introduction of a new theme into the final part of a symphony.

The assassins’ naive hope is that by eliminating the dictator they will restore the One Good Thing which was the old Res publica. But all they have done is return Rome to its pre-civil war state of being a snakepit of conflicting ambitions and men who lie and scheme, and Antony’s character as a champion schemer is wonderfully written and reaches its apogee in the complex ironies of his great speech in the forum. And all this is already present in the servant’s message:

SERVANT: Brutus is noble, wise, valiant, and honest;
Caesar was mighty, bold, royal, and loving.
Say, I love Brutus, and I honor him;
Say, I feared Caesar, honored him, and loved him.
If Brutus will vouchsafe that Antony
May safely come to him and be resolved
How Caesar hath deserved to lie in death,
Mark Antony shall not love Caesar dead
So well as Brutus living, but will follow
The fortunes and affairs of noble Brutus
Thorough the hazards of this untrod state
With all true faith.

‘With all true faith’ ha ha ha. As in his speech in person to the assassins, and then to the crowd in the forum, Antony means the precise opposite of what he says, and his discourse is therefore the most vigorous and dynamic and enjoyable of all the characters.

Compare and contrast with the straightforward noble honesty of Brutus’s speeches, which are moving in performance and yet, somehow, eminently forgettable. In these instances ‘character’ doesn’t seem a strong enough word for what Shakespeare is doing: he manages to conjure up entirely different psychological worlds through the medium of spoken language.

Seen from this perspective Cassius is a kind of mini-me to Antony’s master. The opening scenes are all about Cassius flattering and bringing out Brutus’s straightforward noble fears about Caesar’s ambition to become king so that, when Brutus leaves, Cassius rejoices in his ability to manipulate the greater but simpler man. But next to Antony he is an amateur. Antony is a master of discursive distortion and deviousness. In the psychodrama of the play he triumphs not because his army has won a battle, out there, in the boring real world. He triumphs because his discursive ability is streets ahead of either the straightforward Brutus or the wily Cassius, wily and tricksy certainly, but not wily enough. Antony outwilies everyone and it is deeply enjoyable to watch him do so, a master at work.

Brutus as Hamlet

Brutus soliloquises like Hamlet and often in language very similar to Hamlet’s:

BRUTUS: It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question…

That is the question. A little later he delivers the beautiful lines:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

But Dorsch warns against taking Brutus at face value, at his own valuation, as a noble hero. Once Cassius has swayed him to join the conspirator, all the others accept him as their leader and yet…the sober truth is that on every major decision he’s called upon to make, Brutus makes exactly the wrong call:

  • they conspirators want to bind themselves by an oath but Brutus overrides them and delivers a pompous little speech about Roman Honour
  • then Cassius suggests they invited Cicero to join them but Brutus decisively rejects that
  • Cassius worries whether they ought to kill Antony at the same time as Caesar but, again, Brutus overrides this, insisting that Antony is just a ‘limb’ of Caesar’s

In the aftermath of the murder it quickly becomes clear that Brutus has no better idea what to do to restore the republic than to run out into the streets shouting ‘Freedom! Liberty!’ He has no plan to present to the senate, no strategy to establish control of the all-important army.

And within minutes of the assassination he makes the catastrophically bad decision to let Antony speak at Caesar’s funeral. In the history of Bad Decisions, this is in the top ten.

Things get worse during the long argument scene in Act 4. This has several functions: it is here partly to point the time-honoured moral of how conspirators fall out among themselves. But it also shows Brutus to very poor advantage, showing him bullying and imposing on his snivelling partner. There’s a slight comparison to be had, maybe, with Milton’s Satan who starts Paradise Lost as a vast, awesome and terrifying figure and slowly and relentlessly shrinks and shrivels down until, by the end of the poem, he is the size of a misshapen frog. There isn’t a direct comparison, but something broadly similar can be said of Brutus who starts the play with noble soliloquies and high ideals but consistently mismanages every aspect of one of the most cack-handed conspiracies in history.

His final two contributions are to override Cassius’s suggestion that they delay and battle, insisting they fight on the battlefield of Philippi (which turns out to be a disaster). And then to mismanage the battle itself so that his own side is utterly defeated.

Stripped of all the high-sounding rhetoric, it’s not really an impressive record, is it? Shakespeare, as it were, restores the high dignified tone surrounding Brutus in the opening scenes with Antony’s fine words about ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ – but the litany of really fatal errors and mismanagement I’ve just listed tends to outweigh those fine words.

Dorsch sums up by saying Brutus is a man who honestly struggles with a problem which is beyond his abilities to solve. Murdering one man was easy. Resurrecting the Roman Republic which had collapsed for all kinds of reasons turned out to be wildly beyond the ability of a dozen or so men with daggers and not the slightest idea what to do next.

Suicide

Cassius’s eventual suicide is anticipated and prepared many times earlier in the play. Shakespeare makes him a man extremely willing to consider suicide at the slightest contradiction. Already in act one, when he is only just starting to sketch out the reasons to resist Caesar’s tyranny, he gets very vexed describing their subjugated state to Casca and then whips out his dagger and says he’s ready to off himself at any moment, that suicide is the last refuge of the oppressed:

CASSIUS: I know where I will wear this dagger then;
Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius:
Therein, ye gods, you make the weak most strong;
Therein, ye gods, you tyrants do defeat:
Nor stony tower, nor walls of beaten brass,
Nor airless dungeon, nor strong links of iron,
Can be retentive to the strength of spirit;
But life, being weary of these worldly bars,
Never lacks power to dismiss itself. (1.3)

At the height of his argument with Brutus he bares his breast and asks Brutus to stab him:

CASSIUS: There is my dagger,
And here my naked breast; within, a heart
Dearer than Plutus’ mine, richer than gold:
If that thou be’st a Roman, take it forth;
I, that denied thee gold, will give my heart:
Strike, as thou didst at Caesar. (4.3)

By contrast, Brutus betrays no such melodramatic thoughts, indeed Shakespeare has him explicitly speak against suicide in the comrades’ dialogue before the start of the fateful battle:

BRUTUS: Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself, I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life: arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.

So there is concealed in the text a debate, of sorts, about suicide (just as suicide is a major theme of Hamlet who considers killing himself in order to escape his unbearable moral dilemma).

Critics have pointed out that this little speech against suicide is contradicted by Brutus’s own behaviour a few minutes later, but, as so often in Shakespeare, the logics of individual positions (along with accurate chronology and a host of other details) are sacrificed to the compelling immediacy of the drama. In this case the Brutus’s philosophical position is overruled by the dynamic of the play, embodied in the power of Caesar’s ghost as an instrument of fate/fortune/destiny:

The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night; at Sardis once,
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields:
I know my hour is come.

You can’t fight a messenger from the other side, and so:

It is more worthy to leap in ourselves,
Than tarry till they push us.

Against the wyrd of ghosts, philosophy has no power.

Reading Shakespeare

Reading Shakespeare is like this. You watch a production of the play and take in the gross events of the plot, noticing pretty obvious things like the murder, the ghost and the suicides. And then you read and reread the play and start to notice the way these aren’t just isolated events, but have been carefully prepared for earlier in the text or have lingering consequences afterwards.

And so you begin to realise that the suicides didn’t come out of nowhere but were anticipated, the idea was discussed, at a number of key moments earlier, or that, in the case of revenge, the word and the theme recur steadily, carefully placed in dialogue and speeches after the assassination. And you begin to appreciate the number of themes and verbal echoes which thread throughout the text which, as a result, comes more fully to life, seems deeper and more complex and more full of carefully planted echoes and anticipations than you dreamed when you just watched it on the stage.

And behold! You have walked through the looking glass into a new world made entirely of text, where ‘history’ or the ‘real world’ are no longer the prime concern, are only useful if they can be quarried for material to bolster and elaborate the dream world of the text, and you are just the most recent of the scores of millions of people who have watched this drama, read this text, and entered this dream.

Wisdom sayings

Apart from his skill at shaping stories into compelling narratives, and his supernatural ability at delving deep into the psychology of such a variety of people of all ranks, ages and genders, Shakespeare is famous for his unparalleled ability to expressing things memorably, for taking age-old saws and insights and giving them beautiful and memorable phrasing.

All his plays abound in sudden moments when his language clarifies and expresses a human thought for all time. Here’s Brutus at the end of his fierce meeting with Cassius, concluding the allies’ discussion of where and when to give battle the next day, explaining that opportunities must be seized:

BRUTUS: There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Noble and heroic, isn’t it? In this respect alone, reading Shakespeare and soaking our minds in the wonderfully evocative expression of all kinds of human feelings, emotions, desires and opinions, hugely ennobles his readers. Although, rather spoiling the effect, the whole speech is uttered as part of Brutus’s insistence that they go to meet their opponents at Philippi, despite Cassius’s objections. In other words, it is the very beautiful expression of a disastrous miscalculation.


Related link

Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Shakespeare

Theatre

The Legend of Cleopatra by Geoffrey Chaucer (1386)

And as for me, thogh that I can but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte
And in myn herte have hem in reverence;
And to hem yeve swich lust and swich credence,
That ther is wel unethe game noon
That from my bokes make me to goon.

(The narrator describing his love of books in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1380s)

The Legend of Good Women is a long-ish poem by the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 to 1400). Like so many poems from the period, it features a dream vision i.e. the narrator falls asleep and then has a supernatural fantasy (in this case of the god of Love) which is described in a naturalistic manner. Chaucer wrote three other dream vision poems (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls) and it was a very popular genre for other poets of the period (for example, William’s Vision of Piers Plowman, written by William Langland about a decade earlier).

In the prologue to the poem, after he has fallen asleep, the god of Love appears to the narrator (pretty obviously Chaucer) and reprimands him for giving a negative image of women in a) his translation of the long French poem, The Romance of the Rose ‘that is an heresye ayeins my lawe’, and b) his portrayal of the fickle and inconstant Criseyde, in his very long poem, Troilus and Criseyde. The god of Love demands that Chaucer correct this breach of manners by depicting women from myth or legend who have lived well according to the medieval religion of courtly love i.e. lived and died for Love. Who have been ‘Cupid’s saints’.

This is meant to be a poetic version of the real-life story behind the commissioning of the poem, for it is said that Anne of Bohemia, the wife of King Richard II, expressed the same sentiments of gentle disapproval and so laid on Chaucer the commission of writing a poem in praise of women and hence The Legend. Nice, if it’s true.

Courtly love

In the Middle Ages the cult of Courtly Love arose, stemming supposedly from the south of France and spreading to all the courts of Europe. Courtly love wittily and sophisticatedly reworked the format and rhetoric surrounding Christian saints and, indeed, the Christian religion itself, into a mock-serious ‘religion’ centred around the adoration of a courtier knight or poet for his semi-divine mistress or Lady.

Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. To quote my review of Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995):

The twelfth century saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service of a noble knight to an aristocratic lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

As it spread, the cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address recommended to courtiers who wanted to play this sophisticated game. As the Dutch historian of the late Middle Ages, Johan Huizinga, put it, back in 1919:

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life.
(The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga, Penguin paperback edition, page 105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

And so Chaucer is reprimanded by the stern god of Love for having been discourteous to women as a whole in his portrayal of Criseyde, and must – by the rules of Courtly Love – atone to all noble women for this transgression.

A ‘legendary’

The structure of the poem is based on the ‘legendary’, a well-established medieval format of a collection of lives of saints. Thus each section of the poem is the courtly love equivalent of a saint’s life, except that these saints died not out of devotion to the Christian God, but as martyrs to the god of Love.

Thus, for example, the very title of the legend of Cleopatra invokes Christian rhetoric in a light, sophisticated play on ideas: Incipit Legenda Cleopatrie, Martiris, Egipti Regine, meaning ‘Here starts the legend of Cleopatra, martyr, queen of Egypt.’ She was, quite obviously, not a martyr to the Christian religion, which didn’t exist when she committed suicide (in 30 BC); but viewed through the prism of Courtly Love, she and any number of other fine ladies from pre-Christian myth and legend were martyrs to the religion of Love.

The Legend of Good Women devotes a chapter or legend to each of nine virtuous women from myth and legend, being:

  1. The legend of Cleopatra
  2. The Legend of Thisbe
  3. The Legend of Dido
  4. The Legend of Hypsipyle and Medea
  5. The Legend of Lucretia
  6. The Legend of Ariadne
  7. The Legend of Philomela
  8. The Legend of Phyllis
  9. The Legend of Hypermnestra

Unfinished

Like Chaucer’s most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, the Legend appears to be unfinished. The Retraction or Apology for the Canterbury Tales mentions 25 legends and we only have nine, so maybe some are lost or maybe he never completed it. The balade embedded in the prologue mentions several women — Esther, Penelope, Marcia Catonis (wife of Cato the younger), Lavinia, Polyxena and Laodamia — who don’t appear in the legends we have; were they meant to be included?

At the end of the Prologue the god of Love indicates that the nineteen women who are attending Queen Alceste must all be included in the poem (though he doesn’t name any of them):

Thise other ladies sittinge here arowe
Ben in thy balade, if thou canst hem knowe,
And in thy bokes alle thou shalt hem finde;
Have hem now in thy Legend alle in minde.

It’s discrepancies like this which lead scholars to conclude the poem was abandoned. Whether the poem’s state is due to Chaucer becoming bored with it is uncertain, but it is now regarded as very much a lesser work, despite being popular when first written. The legends are a bit repetitive, with the same high-minded behaviour tending to recur again and again, so that it lacks the drama of Troilus and and the wonderful variety and vivid characterisation which is key to The Canterbury Tales.

Iambic pentameter

The poem is among the first works in English to use the iambic pentameter, which Chaucer later used throughout The Canterbury Tales. A pentameter is a line with five beats:

When I consider how my light is spent

Lines of poetry can be divided up into units surrounding a beat. A long time ago, the Greeks categorised all this and called these units ‘feet’. When you write a line of verse it naturally has strong or emphasised or accented syllables, and weak or soft or unaccented syllables, and a moment’s reflection makes you realise there’s a certain amount of variety to these.

For a start, a ‘foot’ can have one, two, three or possibly more syllables. And the accented syllable can come first, second, third in the order of these syllables. All the possible permutations were defined and named by the ancient Greeks two and a half thousand years ago, which explains why we still use unusual (Greek) words to describe them.

A Wikipedia article lists all the possible permutations of beat within a foot, with their Greek names. By far the most common ‘foot’ in English is the ‘iamb’, where the unit has two syllables and the emphasis falls on the second syllable. If you emphasise the syllables in bold you’ll get it straightaway:

When I consider how my light is spent

Or just:

di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum

It is a pentameter because it has five beats. It is a iambic pentameter because each of the beats comes in a pairing with a softer, unaccented syllable, which comes before it. The accent falls on the second syllable of each unit or ‘foot’. di dum.

Anyway, the point is that, even if he didn’t introduce it to English poetry, Chaucer was the first poet to write extensively in this metre. With the vast examples of Troilus and the Canterbury Tales, he helped to establish it as the basic, default metre for English poetry, which it has remained ever since.

Reading Chaucer’s verse

The single most important thing to do when reading Chaucer’s medieval verse is to pronounce the final ‘e’ in every word – then the lines will scan as five-beat pentameters. Here I’ve bolded the e’s which need to be pronounced, not the beats.

The moste party of thy tyme spende

Don’t pronounce these e’s as eee, but as schwa, or ‘er’.

The most-er party of thy tym-er spend-er

Now the line has five regular beats and is a iambic pentameter (nobody minds that it has a final unstressed syllable dangling at the end, this dangling syllable is very common in Chaucer’s verse and gives it a nice bouncy feel).

If you do this with all the lines (unless the e comes before a vowel, in which case don’t pronounce it), they all become regular, and the thing comes into focus as a jolly rhythmic canter (s is pronounced as z in this excerpt) (and now I am bolding the syllables to emphasise):

Of good-er wommen, maiden-ez and wyv-ez,
That weren trewe [don’t pronounce the e because it is followed by a vowel: so true-win] in lovinge [omit the e] al hir lyv-ez.

Obviously there are other differences in pronunciation between Chaucer’s English and ours but I’m not writing a book. If you just pronounce the e’s, emphasise the beat and pause at the end of every line, it will start swimming into focus. Above all don’t worry if you don’t understand half of it. Don’t stop to look up individual words. Get into the swing and the rhythm first and the general gist will emerge. Years ago I was taught how to pronounce it and remember most of the principles but, listening to myself say it out loud, I suddenly realised I sound a bit like the Swedish chef from the Muppets, especially if you really pronounce those final e’s.

The prologues

Actually there are two prologues, one scholars think was the original (Prologue A), and a second one which survives in just one copy and critics think was a later version, maybe composed when Chaucer revised the poem some time in the 1390s (Prologue B).

There’s a lot of overlap but also passages unique to each prologue. The solution (well, a solution) is to have an edition like the old OUP Complete Chaucer which is big enough to print both versions side by side. To compare and contrast, if you’re feeling scholarly: or just to jump from one to the other to make sure you catch everything he wrote.

They both begin with a characteristically invocation of the importance of ‘olde bokes’ from which we study and learn. Book learning.

Than mote we to bokes that we finde,
Through which that olde thinges been in minde,
And to the doctrine of these olde wyse,
Yeven credence, in every skilful wyse,
And trowen on these olde aproved stories,
Of holinesse, or regnes, of victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry thinges,
Of whiche I may not maken rehersinges.
And if that olde bokes were a-weye,
Y-loren were of remembraunce the keye.
Wel oghte us than on olde bokes leve,
Ther-as ther is non other assay by preve.

Lightly translated:

Then must we to the books that we find
Through which the old things are kept in mind,
And to the doctrine of these old ways
Give credence in every skillful ways
And believe in these old approved stories,
Of holiness, or reigns, or victories,
Of love, of hate, of other sundry things,
Of which I need not make rehearsings.
And if that old books were put away,
Lost would be of memory the key.
Well ought we, then, in old books to believe,
Because there is no other way to prove.

In praise of the daisy

As soon as the poem has got settled in it turns into an extended passage in praise of the humble daisy.

Now have I than swich a condicioun,
That, of alle the floures in the mede,
Than love I most these floures whyte and rede,
Swiche as men callen daysies in our toun.
To hem have I so great affeccioun,
As I seyde erst, whan comen is the May,
That in my bed ther daweth me no day
That I nam up, and walking in the mede
To seen this flour agein the sonne sprede,
Whan hit upryseth erly by the morwe;
That blisful sighte softneth al my sorwe,
So glad am I whan that I have presence
Of hit, to doon al maner reverence,
As she, that is of alle floures flour,
Fulfilled of al vertu and honour,
And ever y-lyke fair, and fresh of hewe;
And I love hit, and ever y-lyke newe,
And ever shal, til that myn herte dye…

It barely needs translating, but:

Now have I then such a condition
That, of all the flowers in the meed,
Then love I most these flowers white and red,
Such as men call daisies in our town.
To them have I so great affection,
As I said before, when comes in the May,
That in my bed there dawns for me no day
But I am up and walking in the meed
To see this flower against the sun spread,
When it uprises early in the morrow.
That blissful sight softens all my sorrow,
So glad I am when I am in its presence,
To do it all manner of reverence,
As she that is of all flowers the flower,
Fulfilled of every virtue and honour,
And always alike, fair and fresh of hue,
And I love it and ever like new,
And always will until my heart dies…

Why is it so effective? Because it has a sweet and touching innocence without being naive or sentimental. Plus the language of Middle English has an intrinsic simplicity about it, a simplicity of vocabulary, for example, a pure English which was to become increasingly cluttered with new-fangled foreign imports and made-up words as we move into the Renaissance but, back in Chaucer’s time, feels simple and fresh.

But it’s also important to note that this passage is the product of tremendous poetic sophistication. Many Italian and French poets had already written poems in praise of various flowers – there is a vast epic poem named The Romance of the Rose – and Chaucer has read them and knowingly references lines and ideas from them. He tells us as much:

For wel I wot, that ye han her-biforn
Of making ropen, and lad awey the corn;
And I come after, glening here and there,
And am ful glad if I may finde an ere
Of any goodly word that ye han left.

For well I know that you have here-before,
Of making rope and led away the corn,
And I come after gleaning here and there,
And am full glad if I may find an ear
Of any goodly word that you have left.

If you think about it, praise of flowers is very compatible with the ideas of Courtly Love. It is a soft and beautiful subject very appropriate for a feminised court (as, for example, grittier stories of knights and wars, anything from the bloodthirsty ancient world, emphatically were not).

So popular did the cult of flowers as a kind of sub-category of Courtly Love become that we have records of courts dividing into factions who, in a witty, sophisticated spirit, staged debates about the relative merits of different flowers.

There are records of debates between defenders of the flour and defenders of the leaf. In the hands of this culture everything becomes allegorical, symbolic of something else, and so the flower came to be associated with beauty and sensual pleasure which is intense but, alas, fleeting; whereas the leaf symbolises fidelity and endurance – and so these debates and poems displayed the participants’ skill and graciousness, but always circled round to alight on a firm Christian moral.

An entire medieval poem survives on the subject – The Floure and the Leafe – and Chaucer references this cult, too:

Ye lovers, that can make of sentement;
In this cas oghte ye be diligent
To forthren me somwhat in my labour,
Whether ye ben with the leef or with the flour.

You lovers, that can write of sentiment,
In this cause ought you to be diligent
To further me somewhat in my labour,
Whether you are with the leaf or with the flower.

That poem is invoked half a dozen times, with Chaucer humorously clarifying that he is not coming down on one side or other of the Great Debate, but wishes to speak of ancient stories from well before the Great Strife began:

But natheles, ne wene nat that I make
In preysing of the flour agayn the leef,
No more than of the corn agayn the sheef:
For, as to me, nis lever noon ne lother;
I nam with-holden yit with never nother.
Ne I not who serveth leef, ne who the flour;
Wel brouken they hir service or labour;
For this thing is al of another tonne,
Of olde story, er swich thing was begonne.

And so the Prologue wends its lazy way, weaving a complex tapestry of references to ancient authors, to the cult of the leaf and the flower, praising the daisy but also praising a Grand Lady or muse figure to whom the narrator speaks.

The narrator describes rising early one May morning and going out into the fields to kneel down ‘Upon the smale softe swote gras’ and admire the sweet daisy (‘The Empress, and flower of flowers all’) and its lovely scent.

He hears the birds singing their songs and imagines they are taunting the hunters who hunted them in winter and lay traps for them. Some of the birds are singing lays of love in honour of their mates, some sing in praise of St Valentine, on whose day they met, and they nuzzle their beaks against each other. Any who have erred promise repentance. And the gods Zephyr and Flora give to the flowers their sweet breath.

This is all a magnificent preparation, sweet and sensitive and beautiful. For after this hard day admiring flowers and listening to the birds, the narrator makes his way home, has his servants rig up a couch in a little arbour, and there he falls asleep, and at this point the Dream Vision commences:

The Dream Vision

The narrator dreams he is in a meadow and sees come walking the god of Love, with two small wings and holding two fiery darts. He is holding hands with a queen, dressed in green with a fret of gold about her hair and a white crown, looking, in other words, very like his beloved daisy. The narrator says people say the god of Love is blind but this god of Love is looking at him very sternly and makes his blood run cold!

The queen is named ‘Alceste the debonayre’. Behind them come ‘ladyes nyntene’ in attendance, followed by a vast concourse of other women, making up maybe a quarter, maybe a third of the world’s population! (At the very end of the Prologue, the god of Love suggests that the figure is 20,000. Small world.)

It is at this point that the ladies spy the daisy the narrator is worshipping and stop to sing a ballad with a repeated refrain. Each verse lists a number of famously beautiful women from antiquity and tells them to hide or retire, because none of them can compare with the lady they are accompanying i.e. Alceste. In one version of the prologue the refrain runs:

Alceste is here, that al that may desteyne.

The other version has:

My lady cometh, that al this may desteyne.

Where I think ‘desteyne’ means ‘disdain’ in the sense of triumphs over or puts all that – all those other women – in the shade. The second version feels fractionally better, more powerful.

Now this entourage notice the narrator and call him over to them and the god of Love proceeds to reprimand him for translating the Romance of the Rose and writing Troilus and Criseyde and generally portraying women, and love, in a bad light. Why has he shown women in such a negative light?

‘Why noldest thow as wel han seyd goodnesse
Of wemen, as thow hast seyd wikedness?’

Couldn’t Chaucer find in all his fancy books stories of women who were ‘good and trewe’? After all, he has no fewer than sixty books in his library, telling of ancient Greeks and Romans, featuring many stories of women who preferred to die than betray their love, who preserved their virginity, or were faithful to their husbands, or were dutiful in their widowhood. This is a fierce indictment.

But then queen Alceste intervenes on the narrator’s behalf, reminding the angry god of Love (at great length) of the mercy of great kings and even of beasts, such as the noble lion. Such should be the mercy the god should show this errant servant who was only translating matter out of old books. (You can see how the intercession of a compassionate queen softening the wrath of a stern ruler echoes the role assigned to Mary in Catholic theology, interceding on the part of us poor sinners; a posture which could also be mapped onto countless medieval courts, where hard-headed kings and princes could (possibly) be softened by appeals for mercy from their queens.)

Alceste proceeds to plead the poet’s cause and it becomes clear (if it wasn’t before) that the sleeper and narrator of the vision is Chaucer himself, because she cites his many works which do speak favourably of love, to wit, The House of FameThe Book of the DuchessThe Parliament of Fowls, the story of Palamon and Arcite (i.e. the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales). And ‘to speke of other holynesse’ he has translated the popular medieval philosopher, Boethius.

Alceste concludes her defence of Chaucer by promising that, if the god of Love forgives him:

“Now as ye been a god, and eek a king,
I, your Alceste, whylom quene of Trace,
I aske yow this man, right of your grace,
That ye him never hurte in al his lyve;
And he shal sweren yow, and that as blyve,
He shal no more agilten in this wyse;
But he shal maken, as ye wil devyse,
Of wommen trewe in lovinge al hir lyve,
Wher-so ye wil, of maiden or of wyve,
And forthren yow, as muche as he misseyde
Or in the Rose or elles in Creseyde.”

Out of reverence for the queen (and obeying the Courtly Love injunction to cede to your Mistress’s requests), the god of Love quickly and graciously forgives the narrator, who promptly kneels and delivers his own justification. Chaucer grovellingly points out that he never meant to do any harm. He only repeated what his source authors wrote. His purpose was only ever to promote ‘trouthe in love’ and to warn his readers away from falseness and from vice. ‘This was my menynge’.

By which point I’m realising that this has turned into a court case, or a trial, comparable in structure to the debates about the floure and leefe. It has the same formal structure of accusation and two figures arguing for the prosecution and the defence.

Anyway, Chaucer is still wittering on when Alceste, rather winningly, tells him to shut up. No pleading can influence the forgiveness of a god, which proceeds by his own grace alone. And she then proceeds to itemise the penance Chaucer must undertake:

“Now wol I seyn what penance thou shald do
For thy trespas, and understond hit here:
Thou shalt, whyl that thou livest, yeer by yere,
The moste party of thy tyme spende
In making of a glorious Legende
Of Gode Wommen, maidenes and wyves,
That weren trewe in lovinge al hir lyves;
And telle of false men that hem bitrayen,
That al hir lyf ne doon nat but assayen
How many wommen they may doon a shame;

“For in your world that is now holde [considered] a game.
And thogh thee lyke nat a lover be,
Spek wel of love; this penance yive I thee.

“And to the god of love I shal so preye,
That he shal charge his servants, by any weye,
To forthren thee, and wel thy labour quyte.”

And she concludes his penance with a sudden surprising reference to the real world.

“Go now thy wey, this penance is but lyte.
And whan this book is maad, yive hit the quene
On my behalfe, at Eltham, or at Shene.”

Chaucer is grovellingly grateful. The god of Love is amused and tells him of the high ancestry of this forgiving queen, for the first time explaining why it is Alceste of all ancient women who accompanies him. It is because, according to legend, Alcestis was the wife of Admetus, king of Pherae in Thessaly. To prolong his life, she offered to die in his stead. Later she was rescued from hell by Hercules.

Thus she is an eminently fitting figure to herald a book about feminine loyalty and ‘trouthe’ unto death. What is not in any ancient version of the story is the association the poet goes on to make between Alceste, queen of women, and the daisy, queen of flowers whose colours, as we observed above, she is dressed in (green and white and gold).

The god of Love concludes the vision with two points: first, he indicates (as mentioned above) that all nineteen of the unnamed escorts of Queen Alceste should appear in this poem he has to write. Lastly, he tells Chaucer to start with Cleopatra. He gives no strong reason, just the general thought:

“For lat see now what man that lover be,
Wol doon so strong a peyne for love as she.”

‘Let’s see what man would ever suffer for love as much as she did!’ In other words, Cleopatra is arguably the most eminent example from the ancient world of a woman who died for love.

The Legend of Cleopatra, approach

And she hir deeth receyveth, with good chere,
For love of Antony, that was hir so dere.

Well, after all the buildup (the Prologue is about 800 lines long), the actual legend of Cleopatra is disarmingly short, a mere 126 lines long.

I’ve read the several Plutarch biographies which underpin modern knowledge of Antony and Cleopatra (Julius Caesar, Antony) and Suetonius’s life of Augustus, as well as half a dozen histories of the period but there’s not much point applying them here. This is an entertainingly cartoon version of the story, short and simple with sweet medieval details and phrasing thrown in.

In fact this lack of historical rigour is something the author was conscious of and expresses through the god of Love, who is made to explicitly order Chaucer to keep his legends short and sweet:

“I wot wel that thou mayest nat al hit ryme,
That swiche lovers diden in hir tyme;
It were so long to reden and to here;
Suffyceth me, thou make in this manere,
That thou reherce of al hir lyf the grete,
After thise olde auctours listen to trete.
For who-so shal so many a storie telle,
Sey shortly, or he shal to longe dwelle.”

“I know well that you may not it all rhyme,
What such lovers did in their time,
It were too long to read and to hear.
Suffices me, you write in this manner,
That you rehearse of all their life the great,
Following what those old authors liked to treat.
For whoso shall so many a story tell,
Should say shortly or he shall too long dwell.”

The Legend of Cleopatra, plot summary

After the deeth of Tholomee the king, regned his daughter, quene Cleopataras. Out of Rome was sent a senatour to rule Egypt and he was named Antonius. He abandoned his legal wife, the sister of Octavian, because he wanted another wife: ‘For whiche he took with Rome and Cesar stryf’.

Antonius was brought to such a rage and tied himself in a noose (the noose of fate), ‘Al for the love of Cleopataras, That al the world he sette at no value.’

Cleopataras loved this knight for his ‘persone and of gentilesse, And of discrecioun and hardinesse’. So they got married.

The narrator complains that, as he has so many stories to write, he doesn’t have time ‘The wedding and the feste to devyse’ so he’ll get right to the point:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

Octavian was infuriated by this marriage and so led a host of brave Romans against Antonius.

Interestingly, the longest passage in this short poem is a vivid if cartoony description of a battle at sea, the decisive Battle of Actium. The description keeps talking about ‘he’ as if referring to one person, but translations indicate it is a generic pronoun, like ‘one’, and best translated as ‘they’, thus describing the behaviour of countless sailors in incidents from the battle.

And in the see hit happed hem to mete —
Up goth the trompe — and for to shoute and shete,
And peynen hem to sette on with the sonne.
With grisly soun out goth the grete gonne,
And heterly they hurtlen al at ones,
And fro the top doun cometh the grete stones.

In goth the grapnel so ful of crokes
Among the ropes, and the shering-hokes.
In with the polax presseth he and he;
Behind the mast beginneth he to flee,
And out agayn, and dryveth him over-borde;
He stingeth him upon his speres orde;
He rent the sail with hokes lyke a sythe;
He bringeth the cuppe, and biddeth hem be blythe;
He poureth pesen upon the hacches slider;
With pottes ful of lym they goon to-gider;

And thus the longe day in fight they spende
Til, at the laste, as every thing hath ende,
Anthony is shent, and put him to the flighte,
And al his folk to-go, that best go mighte.

As:

And in the sea it happened that they meet —
Up sounds the trumpet — and to shout and beat,
And urged them to set on with the sun.
With grisly sound out booms the great gun,
And fiercely they hurtled all at once,
And from the top down came the great stones.

In goes the grapnel, so full of crooks,
Among the ropes, and the shearing-hooks.
In with the poleaxe presses one and another;
Behind the mast one begins to flee,
And out again, and drives him overboard.

One stabs himself upon his own spear;
One tears the sail with hooks like a scythe;
One brings a cup, and bids them to be blithe;
One pours out peas, so on the deck they slither;
With pot full of lime they fall together;

And thus the long day in fight they spend
Til, at the last, as every thing has end,
Anthony is beat and put to flight,
And all his folk run off as best they might.

Chaucer follows the sources so much as to say that it was the flight of Cleopatra’s fleet which plunged Anthony into despair but jumps over all the events which followed in order to get straight to his suicide. He laments the day that he was born and runs himself through the heart with his sword. Unlike Plutarch and Shakespeare’s Antony, Chaucer’s one conveniently dies on the spot.

Knowing she will get no forgiveness from Caesar, Cleopatra flees back to Egypt, ‘for drede and for distresse.’ And now we come to her suicide, but first Chaucer repeats the moral mentioned in the Prologue, that all men who make great boasts about the sacrifices they’ve made for love, should observe how it’s really done.

Ye men, that falsely sweren many an ooth
That ye wol die, if that your love be wrooth,
Here may ye seen of women such a trouthe!

Cleopatra is so bitterly pained with lost love and despair that she gets her workmen to build a shrine with all the rubies and fine stones of Egypt. She has Antony’s body laid in it, along with plenty of with ‘spycerye’. Then has a pit built next to it and gets all the serpents that she owns put into it.

And then Cleopatra delivers the point, the message, in an extended speech – for she says that on the day they were married she swore an oath to be with Antony night and day, and as he suffered wele or wo, to accompany him, to bear all with him, ‘lyf or deeth’.

“And this same covenant, while me lasteth breath,
I will fulfill, and that shall well be seen.”

She made an oath, a covenant, a promise and now – far excelling most women and all men – she will fulfil it unto death. And so she jumps naked into the pit full of snakes (!). Immediately the snakes began to bite her and she received her death ‘with good chere.’

“Was never unto hir love a trewer quene.”

Thoughts

It’s not worth wasting time pointing out the many facts Chaucer has simply dropped, he’s in a hurry to get to the only bit that matters for the purposes of his royal commission, the moment of Cleopataras’s outstanding fidelity to love:

And forthy to th’effect than wol I skippe,
And al the remenant, I wol lete hit slippe.

True to his commission, Chaucer has exonerated Cleopatra. She is not at all the wicked, oriental seductress, the Egyptian whore who seduced a noble Roman away from his family and duty, as depicted in Augustan propaganda and later male, Roman accounts.

On the contrary, in this brisk telling of her story Cleopatra emerges as an epitome, a role model of fidelity unto death, a type of fidelity no man could ever aspire to. And not just included in a collection of loyal women, but carefully and deliberately placed as the first in the list, the loyalest and truest of all the loyal and true women of antiquity. A role model for love.


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Other medieval reviews

For practical purposes I date the Middle Ages from the Norman Conquest of 1066 until about 1500, and so exclude all texts from and histories about the Dark Ages, thus excluding my reviews of Anglo-Saxon poetry or the Icelandic sagas which, although written in the 13th century, refer to events before the Conquest.

Medieval art

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Modern histories of the Middle Ages

Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

‘Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses?’
(Cicero defending his fascination with politics to his secretary, Tiro, in Imperium, page 263)

What you notice first about this book are a) its length (480 pages) and b) the blank flatness of its style. Here’s how it opens:

My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. (p.3)

Very clear, plain and factual, with a complete absence of literary effects or colour. Opening my review of Harris’s 2016 thriller Conclave to extract the list of my reviews of Harris’s other novels, I see this is exactly what I thought about that work, too, so I might as well quote myself:

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a hotel lift or lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanations of the personalities and politics of 1st century BC Rome – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man who worked for decades in high level journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid, a servant of the subject matter, never drawing attention to itself.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake). But it leaves something be desired when it comes to character, setting or atmosphere.

Having read four histories of ancient Rome which all feature passages about Cicero, Sallust’s Catiline War in which he plays a starring role, Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and a selection of Cicero’s letters, I feel pretty familiar, if not slightly bored, by the actual content of the book i.e. the setting, characters and main events of Republican Rome from 79 to 64 BC (the exact dates are indicated on the title pages of the novels two parts).

For me, already over-familiar with the course of events, the interest was not in the narrative as such, but in the way Harris ‘brings the history alive’ by vividly imagining particular moments. These are hardly great literature but they have an uncanny knack of ringing true and, slowly, subtly, without you realising it, placing you right there, in the houses of the great, in the forum and senate house and numerous other locations of ancient Rome, watching the characters interact, the voters queue up on the dusty Field of Mars, the scrum of senators waiting outside the senate house, the night time stink coming from the public dumps just beyond the city walls, Cicero’s habit of tossing a leather ball from hand to hand as he thinks, or working a crowd of clients, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone by name.

The prose is as interesting as tap water, style-wise, but quite quickly the sheer intelligence Harris brings to his descriptions of ancient Roman power politics and the deftness with which he describes scenes and settings, really draw the reader into the narrative.

Ticking the boxes

Having just read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and Cicero’s letters, I recognise well-known anecdotes or remarks popping up throughout the novel. It feels slightly, to someone familiar with the source texts, as if Harris made a list of key anecdotes about and descriptions of Cicero and then found places to insert them into his text. It has a slightly mechanical feel. Thus we get mention of:

  • Cicero’s habit of making witty jokes about people which mortally offended them, thus making unnecessary enemies (pages 62, 296, 325, 326, 347, 403)
  • how Marcus Licinius Crassus got rich by sending his people to wherever a fire had broken out in Rome and offering to buy their houses from the owners at rock bottom prices then, when they’d sold them, sending in his fire brigade to put out the fires and make a massive profit on the properties (pages 79 and 306)
  • Cicero’s touchiness about his lowly provincial origins (p.97)
  • the fact that the leading lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, owned a statuette of the sphinx, the subject of one of Cicero’s wisecracks as reported in Plutarch’s life (pages 237 and 444; Plutarch’s Life of Cicero chapter 7)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of pushy young Gnaeus Pompeius telling the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla that more people worship the rising than the setting sun (p.218)
  • the much-told story of how Caesar was captured by pirates and, after he was eventually ransomed and released, returned with Roman soldiers, tracked down all his captors and supervised their crucifixions (p.287)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of the raven flying over the forum when Pompey was acclaimed to the special command to eliminate the pirate threat, and which was killed by the roar of approval from the crowd, dropping stone dead out of the sky (p.324 and Plutarch’s Life of Pompey chapter 25)

There’s a steady stream of these little flash bulbs going off in the narrative, as one by one anecdotes from the sources are deftly inserted into the text and ticked off the list.

Politics

But the real subject of the novel is not Cicero’s life but politics.

Harris was famously close to the Blair family during Tony Blair’s years as leader of New Labour. Although not directly involved in politics he saw how power and personality played out at the highest levels, experience which underpins The Ghost, his 2007 novel about a fictional Labour Prime Minister and his wife, which is blatantly based on Tony and Cherie Blair. That novel was published just a year after this one and you can’t help thinking they were worked on simultaneously, insights into the nature of power allotted to one or other of the closely related texts as appropriate.

All this is relevant because political power is also the subject of Imperium. It’s a novel about power and Harris takes every opportunity to really imagine what the exercise of power would have looked and felt like in ancient Rome. Harris’s descriptions can perhaps be categorised into implicit and explicit descriptions.

1. By explicit all I mean is explicit comments on and about the nature of power. Tiro’s narrative is littered with apothegms and reflections on the exercise of power, which are phrased in such a way that they could apply to Westminster today or to any place where power is exercised:

  • Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them. (p.2)
  • ‘The first rule in politics, Tiro, never forget a face.’ (p.29)
  • ‘Sometimes if you find yourself stuck, in politics, the thing to do is start a fight – start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.’ (p.58)
  • As every fool knows, the quickest way to get to the top on politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top. (p.76)
  • Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating on only one thing at a time. (p.77)
  • There are certain politicians who can’t stand to be in the same room as one another, even if mutual self-interest dictates that they should try to get along…This is what the Stoics fail to grasp when they assert that reason rather than emotion should play the dominant part in human affairs. I am afraid the reverse is true, and always will be, even – perhaps especially – in the supposedly calculating world of politics. (p.84)
  • I have frequently observed this curious aspect of power: that it is often when one is physically closest to its source that one is least well informed as to what is actually going on. (p.90)
  • No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. (p.132)
  • There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner. (p.188)
  • ‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)
  • The work gave Cicero his first real taste of what it is to have power – which is usually, when it comes down to it, a matter of choosing between equally unpalatable options – and fairly bitter he found it. (p.235)
  • Cicero knew that the way to a great man‘s confidence, curiously enough, is often to speak harshly back to him, thus conveying an appearance of disinterested candour. (p.271)
  • Is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? (p.292)
  • How important appearance is in politics. (p.296)
  • The journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery. (p.301)
  • You can scheme all you like in politics, the gesture seemed to say, but in the end it all comes down to luck. (p.333)
  • It is dangerous in politics to find oneself a great man’s whipping boy. (as Cicero began to find himself ‘owned’ by Pompey, p.340)
  • What a heap of ash most political careers amount to, when one really stops to consider them! (p.394)
  • ‘Cicero, you disappoint me. Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?’ (p.398)
  • ‘The ability to listen to bores requires stamina, and such stamina is the essence of politics. It is from the bores that you really find things out.’ (p.405)
  • It is always said of elections, in my experience, that whichever one is in progress at the time is the most significant there has ever been. (p.469)

As mention of Tony Blair suggests, quite a few of these sayings about politics could be applied to the contemporary British political world which Harris had seen at first hand. The kind of generalised rules Tiro articulates are designed to be widely applied. Thus when he has Cicero say:

‘The most fatal error for any statesman is to allow his fellow countrymen, even for an instant, to suspect that he puts the interests of foreigners above those of his own people.’ (p.251)

it made me think of how Jeremy Corbyn was monstered in the Tory press for his associations with the IRA and Hamas i.e. was accused of being unpatriotic. When Tiro describes the hysterical fear triggered in Rome when pirates attacked and burned the port city of Ostia, and how Pompey and Caesar describe this as a new kind of threat, international, with no centralised power structure, which must be crushed – it was impossible not to hear echoes of the kind of rhetoric which filled thousands of articles and op-eds about al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 (p.268).

Tiro’s thoughts are designed to make the reader hover, equivocally, between the ostensible setting of Rome 70 BC and London 1990s or 2020s. If there’s any consistent ‘literary’ effect in the book, maybe it’s this.

2. What I mean by implicit is the way Harris brilliantly captures the dynamics of power as it plays out in personal confrontations, in dramatic scenes and situations cleverly constructed to demonstrate how power politics really works in practice; how cunning political operators handle themselves and manipulate others. Thus:

  • The meeting with Lollius Palicanus who represents Pompey’s interest and tries to persuade Cicero to join up to Pompey’s cause. (p.61)
  • The meeting with Crassus outside Rome after the latter had crushed the Spartacus rebellion and crucified 6,000 of the rebel gladiators along 350 miles of the Appian Way. That’s all very Hollywood, but the point of the scene is the way the two men, intellectually and psychologically, sound each other out, assess each other, sparring and disagreeing while on the surface remaining immaculately polite, all while Tiro looks on. (p.81)
  • The way Cicero is invited to Pompey’s first big levée in the city after returning from his successful campaigns in Spain, and then only cursorily greeted by Pompey in a lineup like the cast meeting a royal at a movie premiere. It is a memorable image of the relationship between true, exceptional power (Pompey) and a rather desperate aspirer (Cicero). (p.97)
  • The entire extended description of the trial of Gaius Verres amounts to Cicero creating power from his oratory and the wealth of evidence he has amassed, and then wielding it against Verres along with the lawyer he has bought (Hortensius) and the corrupt senators he has bribed until they are all swept away in mob anger at the governor (Verres’s) scandalous, criminal behaviour. (chapter 9, pages 203 to 238)
  • ‘There is as much skill in knowing how to handle a meeting of ten as in manipulating a gathering of hundreds.’ (p.290)
  • ‘He leaned in close and moistened his lips; there was something almost lecherous about the way Crassus talked of power.’ (p.309)

And then the climax of the plot, the sequence of events leading up to Cicero’s big meeting with the grandest of Rome’s aristocrats and the Faustian pact he enters into with them in order to get elected consul, is an elaborate, multi-levelled and quite thrilling dramatisation of power in action, dirty deals, betrayals, compromises and all.

Imperium

Hence the title of the book. The plot centres on Cicero as described by his loyal freedman and secretary Tiro, but its real subject is power, how to win it, use it and keep it, as the narrator Tiro himself explains on page 2 with its hokey reference to the opening of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. ‘Arms and the man I sing’, wrote Virgil. Harris writes:

It is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual.

I looked up the Wikipedia definition:

In ancient Rome, imperium was a form of authority held by a citizen to control a military or governmental entity. It is distinct from auctoritas and potestas, different and generally inferior types of power in the Roman Republic and Empire. One’s imperium could be over a specific military unit, or it could be over a province or territory…In a general sense, imperium was the scope of someone’s power, and could include anything, such as public office, commerce, political influence, or wealth.

Tiro writes that:

Whenever I picture the word imperium it is always Pompey who comes to mind. (p.326)

But the same is true of half a dozen of the other characters who each exemplify really dizzying, intimidating top-level power in action – the terrifying Crassus, slippery Caesar, suave Publius Clodius Pulcher or half-mad Catiline. The whole novel is heady with the aroma of power and the endless threat and risk from the machinations of super-powerful men. Harris doesn’t need much literary styling because the subject matter itself is so psychologically powerful.

The plot

The text is divided into two parts:

Part one – Senator (79 to 70 BC)

This introduces the narrator, Marcus Tullius Tiro, freed slave and secretary to up-and-coming lawyer and aspiring politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro tells us he is writing his memoirs as he approaches the ripe old age of 100, long after Cicero and everyone else he will describe is dead. (Since Tiro tells us he was aged 34 in the year Cicero won the Verres case (p.230), which was in 70 BC, then 65 years later, the date must be 5 BC, well after the Roman Republic disintegrated and was replaced by the sole rule of Augustus, who established the template for the emperors who followed.)

Part one quickly jumps over Cicero’s early career, describing his sojourn in Athens where he learned oratory from the best teachers available, his election to the senate, and then the one-year governorship he served in Sicily, followed by his return to Rome and election as aedile.

But the majority of part one is devoted to Cicero’s involvement in the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for outrageous corruption and extortion, showing how it all began when a Sicilian whose business had been ruined by Verres arrives on Cicero’s doorstep, and following the subsequent twists and turns as Cicero and Tiro get drawn into his ‘case’, eventually travelling to Sicily to assemble evidence, and how the case itself gets tangled up in the bitter rivalry between Rome’s two strong men, the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the menacing plutocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Part one ends with Cicero overcoming all the vested interests facing him and triumphantly winning the Verres case. Along the way we have been introduced to key politicians and leading figures in Cicero’s personal life, his fearsome wife, Terentia, and beloved daughter, Tullia, his support network of brother Quintus Tullius Cicero and cousin Lucius. And enjoyed Harris’s well-researched descriptions of various aspects of life in ancient Rome, from the squalid apartment blocks known as insulae to the richest mansions, the festivals and triumphs, with special emphasis on the forms and rituals surrounding elections to public posts and ill-tempered debates in the senate.

Part two – Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)

The first part had a really strong central subject in the Verres case. Part two is a bit more diffuse. It starts by giving an insider’s view of the machinations surrounding the senate’s decision to appoint Pompey to a special command to deal with the threat from pirates, against the opposition of the aristocratic party, most of the senate and, most menacing of all, Crassus.

Then the narrative settles onto Cicero’s attempts to be elected one of Rome’s 8 praetors and, once he achieves that position, his manouevring for the ultimate prize, election as consul. Many obstacles present themselves but none as big as the enmity of the half-mad Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The novel develops into a genuinely nerve-wracking thriller as Tiro is smuggled into a secret meeting of Caesar, Crassus, Catiline and others who have developed a master plan to take over the running of the state and then make huge sums by selling off state land and taking over Egypt. Cicero then attends a late-night private meeting of Rome’s senior aristocrats, informs them about this plot and persuades them, reluctantly, that the only way to foil it is to give Cicero their vote in the consular elections, and it is this election which forms the climax of the second part.

Harris has this great knack of generating genuine excitement in a narrative – not anything to do with his style, but with the intelligent laying on of facts and his vivid depiction of the psychology of power politics. The result is that the novel builds to a real climax in the form of a thriller-style conspiracy which Cicero cleverly turns against the conspirators by revealing it to the aristocrats in exchange for their support.

And then…Cicero has won! Achieved his lifetime’s ambition. He is a consul, one of the two most powerful men in Rome for a year. And the book ends with a little family celebration on the roof of his house underneath the stars, where his entourage learn the details of the deal he made with the aristocrats and the compromises he will have to make during his time in power. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Imperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about Cicero’s career so the reader can be confident that the consequences of this deal will be described in the second book of the trilogy, Lustrum. Anyone who knows about Cicero, knows that it was during his year as consul that the Cataline conspiracy erupted, one of the most dangerous and florid events in late Republican Rome. Wow, what a feast of political intrigue for Harris the political novelist get his teeth into!

The multi-layered connectivity of Roman politics

From a factual point of view, one thing comes over very strongly in this novel which is often missing from the history books and this is the tremendous importance of family, clan, tribe and social connections among Rome’s elite in creating the very complex political ‘system’ or just situation, seething with competition and rivalry.

Elections in ancient Rome were a complicated business:

  • The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens into 193 centuries organised into tiers by rank and property, with the equites or knights at the top and the unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Which century voted first was decided by lot and the winning century was called the centuria praerogativa (p.471)
  • Quaestors and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. The electorates for both these assemblies were divided into 35 tribes or geographical units of voters. Harris names and gives pen portraits of the important tribes in his description of the election of Cicero as aedile (pages 198 to 200).

A really important point to grasp is that all votes were not equal. The votes of the wealthy and upper classes counted for a lot more than the votes of the average citizen. In the Centuriate Assembly the oldest established tribes voted first and their votes counted for more.

As well as tribes, the city was divided into wards. Each of these had community meeting halls and community (or gang) leaders, who could turn their members out if you needed a crowd, to jeer at a trial or cheer a triumph or jostle senators on their way into the senate house.

The novel gives a vivid description of the ‘voting syndicates’ based on local wards, which had organisers and which could be bought at a price (the precise, elaborate and well established method of bribing these syndicates is described in detail on pages 406 to 408).

The reader is made aware of the way these tribes and wards fed into political situations and calculations.

But sitting above this complicated electoral system was the intricate web of family connections which dictated or rather, made up Roman politics. It had arguably two aspects.

1. Like any aristocracy, the Romans had very ancient, super-well-established families which could trace their origins right back to the legendary times when the monarchy was overthrown (about 500 BC). Their authority was bolstered by their family’s track records in holding office and this was made visible because the atriums of the worthiest families contained wax busts of the ancestors who had held public office, in particular the consulship. These busts could be removed from the home and paraded by the proud descendant at festivals or political events.

The Togatus Barberini, a marble sculpture from first-century Rome depicting an unknown Roman of noble birth holding effigies of his ancestors in either hand

Let’s take a detour into structural linguistics for a moment:

Synchrony and diachrony are two complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. A diachronic approach considers the development and evolution of a language through history.

The Roman upper classes can be considered in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective. I’ve just outlined the diachronic perspective, namely the history of each family and its eminent members. But the ruling class must also be seen synchronically in terms of its alliances in the present.

2. Thus someone like Cicero, trying to play the political game, had to be aware not only of the histories of all the most eminent families, but also of the super-complicated mesh of marriage alliances, of uncles, aunts, first and second cousins which connected families and factions at the highest level.

In addition to the complex interlinking of powerful families by marriage went the uniquely Roman custom of adopting someone from a different family into yours, but not in our modern sense of adopting a baby or toddler. It meant adopting a full-grown adult from one family into another. To take two famous cases, Publius Clodius Pulcher came from a very distinguished and ancient family but in a demonstration of aristocratic eccentricity, in the 50s had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian family so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs. More famously, Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir, a legal position he used to maximum advantage when he arrived in Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.

Laid on top of this was political alliances which came in at least two flavours: First, as a rule, the aristocracy stuck together and thought of themselves as the optimates or best people (hero figure Sulla, contemporary leader Quintus Lutatius Catulus). Anyone who opposed them was liable to be tarred as populares i.e. upstart representatives of the ever-unruly ordinary people of Rome, unpredictable, cowardly, ignoble (hero figure Marius, contemporary star Caesar).

But of course, the unrelenting competition for power of the ambitious often cut across class divides. Thus the psychopathic Cataline (‘A jagged streak of violent madness ran through Catalina like lightning across his brain’, p.351) who ended up trying to lead an abortive rebellion came from one of the oldest patrician families in Rome, gens Sergia. In his frustrated furious ambition to seize power he ended up allying himself with the working classes and political outcasts of all kinds.

His younger contemporary, Clodius, also came from one of Rome’s oldest and noblest patrician families, the Claudia gens. But, again, lust for power and a certain aristocratic perversity, led him to get adopted by an obscure plebeian so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs, which is why he changed his middle name from the aristocratic ‘Claudius’ to the more plebeian ‘Clodius’.

In addition to all this was the complicated system of clients and patrons. Rich and influential Romans acquired clients who they had done or would do favours for in return for their political or financial support, and so whose patron they would be. Powerful individuals such as Crassus, Caesar or Pompey were continually working behind the scenes to acquire and cultivate networks of hundreds of clients. Nothing came for nothing. All the deals which businessmen, lawyers, politicians and military commanders were doing all the time created new alliances, new networks of clientilism and patronage.

So as you read about figures in Republican Rome, you have to be aware that they operated in a society where people were individuals but also came enmeshed in a tribe, a clan, a family, with both a particular family history and the complexity of recent familial alliances (through marriage or adoption), as well as their position in the simmering conflict between optimates and populares, as well as their calculated commitments to this or that powerful patron.

Taken together these elements or strands created the fantastically complex matrix of history, family, class, financial, legal and political obligations which Tiro at one point (in a rare departure from Harris’s use of the plainest of plain English) describes as the ‘webwork’ of Roman society.

It’s into this webwork of 1st century BC Rome that the book swiftly plunges the reader, and a great deal of the pleasure of reading it derives from getting used to this multi-levelled game of allegiance and obligation which Cicero (and everyone else) finds themselves playing all their adult lives. With the whole thing acutely observed by the clever but non-participating eye-witness, Tiro.

Family connections

Publius Clodius Pulcher’s biography demonstrates the complex interlinking at the top of Roman society. His elder brothers were Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul in 54 BC, and Gaius Claudius Pulcher, praetor in 56 BC and subsequently governor of Asia. His sisters included Claudia, the wife of Quintus Marcius Rex, Claudia Quadrantaria, the wife of Celer, and Claudia Quinta, the wife of the fantastically successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Through his family, Clodius was closely connected with a number of prominent Roman politicians. His brother-in-law, Lucullus, was consul in 74 BC, while brother-in-law Celer was consul in 60, and the latter’s brother, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, in 57. Mucia Tertia, a half-sister to the Caecilii, was the wife of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, praetor in 56 BC. A half-brother, Publius Mucius Scaevola, was a pontifex, while his brother Quintus was an augur, and tribune of the plebs in 54.

So anyone who tangled with Clodius had to be aware that he was also going to provoke some or all of his extended network of family members and spouses, who each had their own positions of power, ambitions and networks of clients to consider. Matrices and intricate webworks of alliance, patronage and position, in every direction…

Aspects of ancient Rome

  • The hubbub as senators gathered in the senaculum before entering the chamber for a debate.
  • Sumptuous description of Pompey’s grand triumph. (p.115)
  • The look, feel and smell of rundown apartment blocks.
  • The stench of decay coming from the public dump outside the Esquiline Gate. (p.193)
  • Detailed description of the melée on the Field of Mars on election day. (pages 196 to 200)

Harris has Tiro describe Catullus as ‘that cruellest of poets’ (p.307).

Cicero describes Tiro as his second brother (p.428).

Lowering

Right at the end of the book I realised what it is I find so depressing about Harris’s books. Not a word in any of his political books hints for a moment that politics is about making a fairer, juster, safer world, could be about plans for building a better society, helping the vulnerable, righting historic wrongs, supporting hard-working families, planning carefully for the future etc. In Harris’s discourse none of this exists.

‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)

Like the outstanding political journalist he was, Harris sees politics is just another career, like medicine or the law. Tiro (like the narrator of Harris’s novel of contemporary politics, Ghost) never mentions policy or political programmes, what is best for Rome and its people, but thinks only in terms of individual politicians, their scams and strategems, and the special buzz you get from being in the room with the big beasts as they are making seismic decisions.

It’s depressing because in this world of professional politicians and their journalistic hangers-on nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. A succession of charismatic crooks, desperate wannabes, blustering liars, and bullying blowhards will create coalitions of supporters enough to scrabble their way to the leadership of their parties, then do anything, say anything, make any promise and cook up any impractical policy, in order to ensure good headlines in tomorrow’s papers and cling onto power for another day.

I found that Cicero was fond of repeating certain phrases and these I learned to reduce to a line or even a few dots – thus proving what most people already know, that politicians essentially say the same thing over and over again. (p.14)

Harris’s journalistic cynicism may be intelligent and witty, and the speed of the narrative as it builds up to the big conspiracy at the end is certainly thrilling. But to any thinking reader it is also pretty dispiriting.

If you’re right in the thick of the political vortex it is no doubt tremendously exciting, and this novel powerfully projects Harris’s first-hand knowledge of the nail-biting psychology of power 2,000 years back onto the dramatic political career of Cicero. Countless memoirs testify to how thrilling it can be to be right in the thick of the political world, talking to the leaders of nations as they wage the daily struggle to stay in power, please the people and shaft their rivals. But you only have to walk out of the room, down the corridor and out into the fresh air to suddenly find the hype and hysteria surrounding most politics pathetic and squalid.

And if you’re a citizen of the country unlucky enough to be ruled by these bloviating blunderers, then there is no excitement at all, but depressed resignation at the spectacle of the unending bickering and mismanagement of idiots.

The visceral thrill of the political manoeuvrings which Harris describes so well make it easy to lose sight of the basic fact that the personal rivalries described in Imperium destabilised the late Roman Republic for decades, eventually leading to nearly 20 years of civil war and social upheaval, deaths, destruction, starvation, ruin.

Politics in our own time has given us Brexit, the mismanagement of the Covid crisis, widespread corruption, now a pointless war in Ukraine and a global food crisis. The stupidity of human mismanagement, which some people dignify with the term ‘politics’, never ends.


The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Cicero reviews

Roman reviews

Pro Caelio by Cicero (56 BC)

Background

Marcus Tullius Cicero gave the speech known as Pro Caelio on 4 April 56 BC in defence of his young protegé and one-time friend, Marcus Caelius Rufus, generally known as Caelius.

The full background to the trial is staggeringly complicated. It is explained in great detail and with admirable clarity by D.H. Berry, editor and translator of the excellent Oxford University Press edition of (five) Defence Speeches by Cicero (2000).

The Cataline conspiracy

In 63 BC Cicero was consul during the crisis of the Cataline Conspiracy i.e. the attempt of the disgruntled aristocrat to lead an armed overthrow of the Roman state. He was in north Italy raising an insurrectionary army when five leading conspirators, including some senators, were caught in Rome and implicated by letters and then confessed. Cicero led a debate in the senate about what to do with them which concluded by voting to execute them and Cicero led them straightaway to the state execution or carnifex who did the deed.

In the years that followed various of Cicero’s enemies developed the accusation that, because the five had never been granted a full (long and probably delayed) trial, they had been illegally killed – and that Cicero was therefore guilty of murder and treason (killing senators).

One of the lead proponents of this view was the nasty piece of work known as Publius Clodius Pulcher, an eccentric scion of the distinguished Claudius clan, who had arranged to be adopted by a plebeian family in order to stand for office as tribune of the plebs. He used this office to pass measures designed to appeal to the people and made rabble-rousing speeches. He developed a following of thugs who terrorised the streets of Rome and even beat up senators and other magistrates.

Cicero sent into exile

In 58 BC, while serving as tribune, Clodius got a law passed declaring it treason to have any Roman citizen put to death without a trial. Everyone knew this was directed at Cicero and his precipitate action in having the five high-ranking Catiline conspirators executed – so he swiftly packed up his things and went into exile, in Greece.

He was gone for a long, miserable 18 months during which Clodius had his house in Rome torn down and had a temple to Liberty build over the ruins, as well as having Cicero’s other properties around Italy looted and sacked.

But the mood in Rome changed. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English as Pompey, had acquiesced in Cicero’s exile but then Clodius got above himself and started attacking Pompey verbally and attacking some of his lieutenants in the street. Pompey and the other members of the triumvirate realised they’d let Clodius get out of control. Pompey signalled to his followers that he would support Cicero’s exile being ended and so a law was raised and passed declaring Cicero innocent of any wrongdoing.

So Cicero made a triumphant return to Brundisium and the a triumphant progress across south Italy feted in every town as the Father of the Nation. In his absence Clodius had not only destroyed his homes but sponsored mistreatment of his wife, Terentia. So the two men were at daggers drawn.

Marcus Caelius Rufus

Now to Marcus Caelius Rufus. Born in 82 BC, and so 24 years younger than Cicero, Caelius had been Cicero’s pupil and protégé, learning the arts of politics and oratory at first hand. In 63, however, he was intoxicated, like many others, by the revolutionary rhetoric of the half-mad Cataline and supported his bid to become consul (the same election which was won by Lucius Licinius Murena, who Cicero had defended in another famous speech).

He appears to have abandoned the Cataline cause when the latter when postal and decided to launch an all-out insurrection. Instead Caelius went off to serve as assistant to the governor of Africa from 62 to 60. Back in Rome he began to make a name for himself as a lawyer by launching a prosecution against Gaius Antonius Hybrida, the man who had been co-consul with Cicero in 63, and who had ‘led’ the army which finally defeated Catalina in the field.

Cicero didn’t much like Antonius but figured the state owed him a debt of gratitude and so defended him – but Caelius won the case, defeating his old master. Inspired by his success, Caelius moved to the smart set on the Palatine Hill and rented a room from Clodius, close to the residence of his sister, Clodia. Clodia’s husband had recently died (59 BC) and it was widely rumoured that Caelius became her lover.

As described above, in 58 Clodius held office as tribune and got Cicero exiled; 18 months later in 57 Cicero was triumphantly recalled. Then at the end of 57 or beginning of 56 Caelius broke with the Clodiuses. Did she dump him, did the men fallout? We don’t know, but Berry thinks the most likely reason is that Caelius had switched his political allegiance from the Clodii to Pompey, who was increasingly antagonistic to them. Whatever the exact reason, in their venomous way the brother and sister decided to take revenge.

Lucius Calpurnius Bestia

The proximate cause of the trouble was the trial of Lucius Calpurnius Bestia. Caelius was prosecuting Bestia for malpractice in the elections for the praetorship of 57, in which Bestia stood unsuccessfully. Now this Bestia had been on trial no fewer than four times previously, and Cicero had defended and got him acquitted on each occasion. So now he defended Bestia against his old protégé, Caelius, and won again. However, Caelius was not daunted. Bestia was planning to stand for the praetorship this year as well and so Caelius launched yet another prosecution against him.

But at this point Bestia’s son, Lucius Sempronius Atratinus, got involved. He realised the best form of defence is attack and so launched a pre-emptive prosecution against Caelius. If Caelius was convicted he would be unable to take forward his prosecution of Bestia. Atratinus needed to move fast to protect his dad and so launched the prosecution in the violence court (quaestio de vi) which, unlike other courts, sat during public holidays. (This fact would be central to Cicero’s speech.) And, crucially, Atratinus’s attack on Caelius attracted the support of Clodius and his sister. They agreed to be witnesses against Caelius and suggested some additional charges against him (see below for the charges).

Caelius was an experienced orator and so elected to defend himself – but he also managed to persuade the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus to join him. Improbably, he also persuaded Cicero to join his defence. You’d have thought there was no love lost between Cicero and his protégé who had betrayed him twice over, once joining the diabolical Catalina, and then allying with his nemesis, Clodius. But it seems that Cicero invoked that timeless equation, my enemy’s enemy is my friend: anyone who Clodius hated must be worth defending.

Ptolemy XII of Egypt

There’s more? Yes, involving – bizarrely enough – the king of Egypt. In 80 BC Alexander of Egypt died and bequesthed his nation to Rome. The throne was usurped, however, by Ptolemy XII ‘Auletes’ who proceeded to rule with the nervous knowledge that at any moment Rome might step in to claim its prize. Thus he sucked up to the Romans at every turn, much to the dislike of his people. When the triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey took power in 60 BC Ptolemy offered to pay them the huge sum of 6,000 talents in exchange for formal recognition of his title. But when he tried to collect it from h is people they rebelled and expelled him from the kingdom.

Ptolemy took refuge in Rome where he borrowed and got into debt lobbying and bribing Roman politicians to raise an army to restore him to power. But the Egyptians didn’t want him back and so in 57 sent a deputation of their best men, led by the Academic philosopher Dio, to put their case before the senate. Ptolemy’s response was to try and get the leading men assassinated, to organise an uprising against them when they stopped in Naples and to bribe slaves in the noble houses where they stayed in Rome to kill them.

At the end of 57 the senate finally found in Ptolemy’s favour but then someone found a reference in the Sibylline books which allegedly forbade it, so the senate rescinded its gesture. Pompey was lobbying to be appointed general in charge of restoring Ptolemy against his rebellious population when, early in 56, Dio was murdered.

Everybody suspected everybody else – the killing obviously suited Ptolemy who wanted the delegation to fail and Pompey who wanted the generalship of imposing Ptolemy on his reluctant people – and a number of prosecutions swiftly followed.

First an agent of Pompey’s, Asicius, was tried for the murder of Dio; Cicero defended him and he was acquitted.

Next we come to the case brought against Caelius by Atratinus. As we have seen this was predominantly motivated by Atratinus’s wish to have Caelius convicted so he wouldn’t be able to prosecute his (Atratinus’s) father, Bestia, for the sixth time. The Clodii were persuaded to join the prosecution against Caelius because a) they had a personal grudge against him, mixed up with the way he had ceased to be Clodia’s lover, nobody knows the details but it obviously left them both furious; and b) it was a way of getting at Pompey, who Clodius now hated.

The charges

The prosecution brought five charges against Caelius, all relating to the disturbances surrounding Dio’s embassy to Rome, namely:

  1. the civil disturbances which affected the Egyptian delegation in Naples
  2. assaults on the delegation at Puteoli
  3. damage to the property of Palla (nobody knows who Palla is but presumably something connected with the above)
  4. taking gold for the attempted murder of Dio and then the attempted poisoning of Clodia: in more detail the charge was that Caelius borrowed gold from Clodia under false pretences, with the intention of using it to bribe servants at the house where Dio was staying to murder him; then, when Clodia discovered what Caelius was planning, Caelius attempted to bribe some of her slaves to poison her in order to shut her up
  5. the murder of Dio – Caelius was accused of being in league with Asicius to have Dio murdered (despite the illogic of the fact that Asicius had, by the time of the trial, been qcuitted – and by Cicero, who therefore had intimate knowledge of all the circumstances surrounding the murder

The preceding speeches

Prosecution

Atratinus spoke first and made an extended attack on Caelius’s character, calling him a ‘pretty boy Jason’, a loose-living, immoral lover of luxury, corrupt and used to committing bribery and violence.

Clodius Confusingly, Berry thinks the ‘Clodius’ who spoke at the trial was not the Clodius but someone who shared the name or a freed slave. We don’t have a transcript but it is likely he deplored the treatment of the Egyptian delegation, criticised Pompey for his support for the corrupt and unpopular Ptolemy, and referred to the evidence Clodia would give at the end of the trial to the effect that a friend of Caelius’s was caught handing poison to some of her, Clodia’s, slaves, having bribed them to poison her with it.

Lucius Herrenius Balbus closing the case for the prosecution, Balbus repeated the accusations of immorality against Caelius, and therefore his unfitness to be continuing the prosecution of Bestia (i.e. fulfilling the core aim of Atratinus who brought the prosecution in the first place.)

Defence

Caelius spoke in his own defence, wittily referring to Clodia as a ‘one-penny Clytemnestra’ i.e. a loose women who murdered her husband (she was suspected of poisoning him). We don’t have his speech either, but it is logical to imagine that he defended himself against all five of the charges.

Crassus ditto, presumably addressed the charges.

Cicero’s speech pro Caelio

Cicero was (as he preferred to be) the third and final of the three defence speakers.

Cicero takes advantage of the fact that the trial was taking place on the first day of the Megalensian games. While everyone else was watching the games in the circus the jury of 75 was stuck all day in the forum listening to this legal case. Therefore Cicero sets out to entertain them, by adopting a jocular tone throughout, telling jokes, impersonating famous people.

Above all it is a relentlessly ad hominem attack on the plaintiffs. In this respect it is a classic example of misdirection. Instead of answering any of the prosecution’s arguments, Cicero turns his speech into a) a defence of Caelius’s character but above all b) a devastating attack on one of the chief movers of the case, Clodia.

In this trial, members of the jury, everything has to do with Clodia, a woman who is not only of aristocratic birth, but notorious. (31)

an impetuous, capricious and angry woman (55)

With a woman like that anything is possible (69)

He is witheringly insulting. The prosecution had painted Rufus as a pretty-boy Jason, but in the ancient story Jason was seduced by the monster of anger and revenge, Medea, and so Cicero is not slow to compare Clodia to Medea, calling her the ‘Medea of the Palatine’ (18). He compares her to a prostitute (1, 37, 48, 49, 50, 57) and a sex-starved matron. He accuses her of incest (32, 34). He says the entire case only exists because of her ‘insupportable passion and bitter hatred’ (2), ‘to gratify the whim of a licentious woman’ (70), that it originates from:

a malevolent, disreputable, vindictive, crime-ridden, lust-ridden house (55)

and:

a household like this in which the lady of the house behaves like a prostitute, in which nothing that goes on is fit to be made public, in which perverted lusts, extravagant living, and all kinds of outlandish vices and outrages are rife (57)

The prosecution had calculated that Caelius would not reveal that he was actually Clodia’s lover and he apparently didn’t – but Cicero did, and depicted Clodia as a nymphomaniac who, if she was spurned, lied, bribed and cheater her way to revenge. Cicero admits their liaison but in such a way as to make Clodia seem the main mover of it, an immoral seducer and then, once spurned, a vengeful harpy. By sleight of hand, or deft presentation, Cicero manages to reveal the affair but have Caelius emerge unblemished. Thus Cicero didn’t address any of the charges, but dismissed them all as the pretexts of a deranged nymphomaniac.

He associates Clodia with Baiae, the southern resort which had become associated with decadence and immorality:

Baiae talks all right, and not only that, it resounds with this report – that the lusts of a single woman have sunk to such depths that she does not merely decline to seek seclusion and darkness with which to veil her immoralities, but openly revels in the most disgusting practices amid crowds of onlookers and in the broadest light of day! (47)

Cicero does address the two specific charges that Caelius took gold from Clodia under false pretences to pay for the murder of Dio, and that, when she found out, he tried to poison her. But he very effectively destroys the plausibility of both charges. Why on earth did she give him such a large amount of gold, unless he was her lover? And as to the entire story about Caelius attempting to poison Clodia when she discovered what he was really using the gold for, Cicero subjects this to a long forensic deconstruction, which demolishes every step of the supposed narrative as wildly improbable until the whole story collapses (56 onwards).

But he goes one further. He pounces on the entire notion of poison and makes the prosecution realise they made a terrible mistake raising it: because Clodia herself was suspected of poisoning her husband, and Cicero describes the death bed scene of this husband, Quintus Metellus, in harrowing detail and in a subtle way so as to implicate Clodia in his death – all in such a way as to completely distract attention away from Caelius.

But far longer is the passage where he ridicules the entire notion of Clodia recruiting men friends to wait concealed in the public baths till they say Lucinius hand over the famous box of poison to one of her slaves. Where are these brave hiders, Cicero asks. What are their names, why have they not been produced by the prosecution, where did they hide, in an actual bath or was there a wooden horse nearby, like at Troy? You can imagine the jury rocking with laughter. Over 2,000 years later it’s still funny and funnier because Cicero keeps piling on the comic exaggeration and ridiculous variations on the prosecution’s narrative, reducing it to smoking wreckage.

This itself is a triumph of the barrister’s manipulating art. But the OUP editor Berry makes a further point. The entire case had a very fraught political significance. The Roman public had been outraged by the shameless murder of an emissary from a foreign country who had come to live, unprotected, among them. It breached very profound codes of hospitality and civilisation. Everyone knew that Pompey supported Dio’s enemy, Ptolemy, and so the case had the serious potential to badly unravel and make Pompey very unpopular.

By focusing on Clodia alone, Cicero managed to contain this: he eclipsed the genuine outrage felt by many over the murder with a pantomime act. Personalising it depoliticised it. It also meant Cicero didn’t have to take a view either way, doing which would have risked alienating either the people or Pompey. Instead he ignored the charges and produced a Carry On entertainment which gave everyone a good laugh.

Each of the Cicero speeches in this volume has a moment when the argument ends, and the conclusion begins. Having read two of them I can begin to see how each speech ends with a description of the distressed family of the accused, and a sentimental appeal to the jury not to condemn the wife, children, mother or father of the accused to misery and shame, in Caelius’s case, Cicero paints a heart-breaking portrait of Caelius’s father as an old man with no-one else to look after him.

The result

Caelius was acquitted which allowed him, against Atratinus’s plans, to proceed with his prosecution of Bestia. Once again Cicero defended Bestia but lost. Bestia went into exile.

The next year, 55, Ptolemy was restored to the Egyptian throne by bribing the governor of Syria, Aulus Gabinius with the eye-watering sum of 10,000 talents. On his return to Rome Gabinius was prosecuted for this, Cicero defended him but lost and Gabinius also was sent into exile.

Ptolemy ruled until his death in 51 when he divided the throne between his son, Ptolemy XIII and daughter Cleopatra VII. It was his deep involvement in the cause of their father, which led Pompey, after his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48, to decide to make his way to Egypt to seek sanctuary with Auletes son. This was a fateful decision because Ptolemy XIII’s advisers told him Julius Caesar would like it if he eliminated his rival – and so Pompey was brutally murdered as he set foot ashore in Egypt (Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, chapter 79).

Caelius was elected tribune in 52. This was the year when Clodius was finally murdered, by his longstanding rival Titus Annius Milo, and Caelius helped Cicero defend his killers (see another of Cicero’s best-known speeches, Pro Milone).

In 51 Cicero reluctantly acquiesced in being sent by the senate to be governor of Cilicia, now south-west Turkey. Caelius was elected aedile, in Rome, while he was away and any reader of Cicero’s letters is familiar with the way Cicero had him promise to send him all the news and gossip he could gather. Caelius memorably keeps needling Cicero to send him some panthers so he can make a splash at the public games which he, as aedile, was charged with organising.

When the civil war broke out Caelius made the right call and supported Caesar and was appointed one of the praetors. However, he put forward radical plans for debt relief against the wishes of his fellow praetors, which caused a riot and he was suspended from office. He fled Rome and, along with Milo, who he had helped defend 4 years earlier, tried to foment a revolt against Caesar, but they were both killed by Caesar’s troops. Few, if any, happy endings in ancient Rome.


Credit

Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

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Introduction to the defence speeches of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC), without the benefit of coming from a patrician or aristocratic family, rose by hard work to become the leading Roman lawyer and orator of his day. For a generation he dominated the Roman courts, usually appearing for the defence. We know of 88 law speeches he gave and an amazing 58 of them survive in whole or in part. The Oxford University Press publish an excellent paperback containing five of his most famous defence speeches.

(Note that the Latin word pro simply means ‘for’ and takes the ablative case i.e. changes the ending of words and names to ‘o’, so that the speech ‘for Caelius’ is known as ‘Pro Caelio’ and so on – unless the name ends in ‘a’, in which case it stays the same, or already ends in ‘o’ in which case it adds ‘ne’ to the end. These are examples of the kind of rules you have to learn when studying Latin.). The five features speeches are:

  1. Pro Roscio Amerino: his defence of Quintus Roscius Gallus, falsely accused of murdering his father
  2. Pro Murena: defence of the consul-elect Lucius Licinius Murena, accused of electoral bribery (39 pages)
  3. Pro Archia: defence of the poet Archias, on a citizenship charge
  4. Pro Caelio: of Marcus Caelius Rufus , ex-lover of Clodia Metelli, on charges of poisoning and violence
  5. Pro Milone: defence of Titus Annius Milo, accused of murdering Cicero’s hated enemy Clodius

The most obvious thing about the speeches is how long they are. I’ve no idea how long a modern defence address is but Cicero’s speeches occupy 30 to 40 pages of an average paperback and must have taken some time to deliver, especially stopping for all the dramatic pauses, the appeals to the jury and the strategic bursting into tears (he refers to his own tears of grief in several of the speeches). Did he memorise them and deliver them without notes? That, also, is an impressive feat.

The next most obvious thing is how complex the background and context of each case is. If you look them up online, you discover that each of Cicero’s major speeches has an entire Wikipedia article devoted to it because each one requires a meaty explanation of the context of the case: where it stood in Cicero’s career, and then the (generally very complicated) background of the case, including biographies of all the main participants, which themselves only make sense when carefully located within the feverish and tortuously complicated politics of the late Roman Republic.

Many law cases brought in ancient Rome were not objective products of what we think of as ‘justice’ but were entirely motivated by personal rivalries, sparked by the never-ending competition for office, but often just personal feuds or vendettas.

There was no police force in ancient Rome and, crucially, no office of public prosecution, no Crown Prosecution Service such as we have in modern England. In other words, you didn’t take your grievance to the authorities, who then carefully assessed whether there was a case to answer and decided whether to bring a criminal or civil case against a suspect or defendant. None of that framework existed. So people (generally rich and well-connected people) brought cases against individuals off their own initiative, using their own interpretation of the law.

And many of the cases were what I think are, in modern law, called ‘vexatious’, meaning they were not attempts to achieve objective justice but were nakedly biased attempts to game the system in the prosecutor’s favour, often shameless attempts to get political rivals convicted, exiled or maybe even executed. And this was accepted because everyone else was gaming the system, too. Personally motivated accusations and counter-accusations and counter-counter-accusations were the normal procedure.

The courts were one of the principal arenas in which the business of politics in Rome was played out: if you wanted to get rid of a political opponent, you prosecuted him and brought about his exile; if you failed, he might then prosecute you.
(Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, Introduction p.xxvii)

It was also the case that no one could be prosecuted while holding political office. Therefore a lot of the fiercely competitive vying to be elected to ‘magistracies’ or political offices in late Republican Rome was motivated not by keenness to serve, but as a tactic to dodge prosecution.

(This rose to a kind of climax with the political impasse which developed when Caius Julius Caesar refused to give up his command in Gaul and return to Rome unless he could be promised the opportunity to run for consul in his absence [an election he knew he could bribe his way to winning]. His sole reason for doing this being to avoid the prosecutions for corruption and malpractice which he knew he would face if he returned to Rome as a private citizen. Caesar knew this would happen because stentorian Republicans like Cato had made umpteen speeches promising to prosecute him. Therefore he had no choice but to seek election in order to win immunity, and he could only run in his physical absence because he knew that, as soon as he entered Rome as a private citizen, he knew he’d be tried, multiple times until his enemies got the result they wanted. When the senate rejected all his and his supporters’ attempts to negotiate this deal, he was left with no alternative but to enter Italy backed by his legions for security – thus triggering the civil war.)

D.H. Berry’s introductions

So before the reader gets anywhere near the speeches themselves, you have to mug up on their very complex background. And that’s where the OUP edition of Cicero’s Defence Speeches is outstanding. The editor and translator D.H. Berry not only provides an excellent general introduction to the volume, giving us a thorough and vivid overview of Cicero’s life and how it entwined with the complicated political context of the 70s, 60s and 50s BC, before going on to explain at some length the quirks of the Roman legal system…

But he also precedes each of the speeches with an in-depth summary of the political context and specific events which gave rise to it. This sounds simple but is, in each case, impressively complicated and absolutely vital: without a full understanding of the context you wouldn’t know what Cicero was trying to achieve in each speech. Berry is excellent at not only explaining the factual background but the strategy and tactics Cicero adopts in each speech.

General introduction

There were two main types of oratory: ‘forensic’ (from the Latin forensis meaning ‘of the forum’, which is where the public law courts were sited, also known as judicial) and ‘deliberative’ (the display of public oratory in political assemblies).

The Roman first court or ‘public inquiry’ was only set up in 149 BC and was followed by the establishment of further courts set up to try specific types of cases. Juries were large (sometimes hundreds of citizens) and if no court existed for the type of case, the trial was held in front of the entire people in the forum.

The system grew piecemeal for the next 70 years or so until it was swept away by the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 81 BC. He set up seven courts, designed to try specific types of case, namely murder, forgery, extortion, treason, electoral malpractice, embezzlement and assault.

The make-up of juries was a subject of controversy for decades – as you can imagine, if many cases were politically motivated, then who was allowed to sit on the jury was vitally important to both sides – until a law of 70 BC decreed they should be made up of one third senators, one third equites (or knights) and one third ‘tribunes of the treasury’ (who seem to have been a minor sort of equites).

In the decades that followed, more permanent courts were added, such as one devoted to violence, and other ad hoc types were created as and when required, such as the ‘sacrilege court’ set up to try Publius Clodius Pulcher for his famous dressing-up as a woman to infiltrate the women-only celebration of the Bona Dea being held at Julius Caesar’s house in 61 BC.

There were no public prosecutors. A defendant was prosecuted by the man who brought the case against him and any advocates or eminent men he could persuade to join him. The scope for doing deals and sharing prosecutions with social or political allies who stood to gain from a victory were endless.

Something else surprising: successful prosecutors were awarded their victim’s marks of honour and acceded to their rank in the senatorial hierarchy. So, on the face of it, a very strong motive to bring a prosecution and win.

However, they didn’t gain respect from doing this, often the reverse, and prosecuting was generally seen as an invidious role, unless you were obliged to carry it out by civic or family duty or gross injustice. The role of defender was much more socially respected, which explains why in almost all of Cicero’s cases he appears for the defence. The general idea was to mount one spectacular prosecution to make your name, then seek the safety of defending (a career path Cicero explicitly recommends in Pro Caelio, 73).

Also surprising is that it was forbidden by law to pay a defence attorney. This law had been passed as long ago as 204 BC to prevent bribery, but in a roundabout way led to subtler corruption. Roman society functioned via complex webs of clients and patrons. Patrons gave protection and assistance to clients who in turn waited on their patrons in their houses, in the street, rallied support for them at elections and so on. (These scenes are described by Cicero himself in Pro Murena, 70.)

In a legal setting an advocate (actually called, in Latin, a patronus) was a continuation of this intricate web of allegiances. Cicero might choose to defend a client because he owed them favours (he defended men who had supported him during the Catiline crisis of 63) or to put someone in his debt. It was never done out of charity or public duty. Every relationship, every act in ancient Rome, had undertones of politics and power.

Another surprisingly important factor was personal charisma. Roman trials put less weight on the evidence (they didn’t have the tradition of presenting forensically objective evidence that we do) and much more on the character of the people involved. Often a legal speech spent more time assassinating the character of the accused, or the accuser, than querying any of the supposed facts.

And this extended to the character of the advocate himself. Many of Cicero’s speeches not only defend his client’s character and denigrate the character of the plaintiff, but they also viciously attack the character of the prosecuting attorneys. By the same token, all the speeches in the volume draw heavily on Cicero’s own character and record as part of the defence.

Cicero obsessively invokes the auctoritas he acquired after ‘saving the nation’ during the Catiline crisis, repeatedly describes the risks he ran, the danger he faced, his boldness of action.

In my own consulship I undertook a bold venture for the sake of yourselves and your children. (Pro Milone, 82)

He is not slow to remind everyone that Cato had called him ‘the Father of the Nation’. He does all this in order to bring his (he hoped) huge moral authority to bear on the case.

(For example, when he reminds the jury of his role in saving the nation and then uses this authority to personally vouch for Marcus Caelius Rufus’s good character in Pro Caelio, 77, let alone the half or dozen or more references to it throughout Pro Milone.)

[This emphasis on character and personality is not restricted to Cicero’s speeches. It permeates the histories written at the time. Lacking any theories of society or economics, otherwise intelligent men like Sallust, Plutarch and Suetonius fall back again and again on individual character as the primary engine of history and human affairs, in a manner which we, as heirs to 2,000 years of evermore sophisticated social theory, frequently find naive and simplistic.]

Trials took place in the open air (what happened if it rained?). The presiding magistrate and scribes sat on a raised platform (tribunal) at the front of the court, while the jury (probably) sat on benches slightly raised off the ground. The plaintiff, defendant, their advocates, legal advisers, friends and families sat in two groups to one side. And this diorama was open to the forum and to sometimes huge crowds of the general public who gathered to watch and follow every trial, especially if it was of someone eminent or promised juicy gossip.

Trials were more like theatre than we are used to. The defendant had to wear mourning clothes and not shave or wash for several days in order to present a piteous spectacle. Berry gives examples of defendants who refused to comply with this ridiculous convention and were promptly convicted, regardless of the proceedings, solely because of their affront to tradition.

The prosecution spoke first, laying out the case, then the defence rebutted the prosecution points – only then was any evidence presented. Oddly, to us, in some of Cicero’s speeches he guesses at what the evidence will be.

Slaves could be made to give evidence but only under torture. Nowhere does Cicero refer to the shocking inhumanity of this tradition, which sheds light on the fear of all the slaves in the ‘comedies’ of Plautus and Terence that they might find themselves being tortured if their master gets into any kind of legal difficulty.

The magistrates (praetors) overseeing a case often knew nothing about the law (praetors were elected to hold office for only one year). They simply kept the peace and ensured the rules were complied with. (Cicero is on record as complementing the father of the future Augustus, Gaius Octavius, for his fairness and calm in supervising trials.)

How many jurors were there? Evidence is mixed, but it seems to have been a surprising 75, 25 from each of the three categories mentioned above. Jurors were not allowed to confer and voted immediately after the evidence was presented in a secret ballot. They were each given a wax table with A for absolvo on one side and C for condemno on the other. They rubbed out the letter they didn’t want and popped the table in an urn, then a court official totted up the votes.

If a defendant was found guilty the official penalty was death. But since there were no police and the defendant was never in anyone’s ‘custody’, it was generally pretty easy for them to leave the court, the forum, pack up their things and go into voluntary exile. Before most Italian tribes were given Roman status in 90 BC, this might mean retiring to places like Praeneste (only 23 miles from Rome) but by the time Cicero was a prosecutor it meant having to leave Italy altogether. Massilia, the large thriving port on the south coast of Gaul (modern Marseilles) was a popular destination and was where both Verres, who Cicero successfully prosecuted for corruption, and Milo, who he failed to defend from prosecution for murder, ended up living out their lives in well-heeled exile there.

Rhetorical style

Following his extremely useful and informative summary of Cicero’s career and the apparatus of Roman laws, Berry gives an equally useful explanation of the rhetorical techniques Cicero used in his speeches.

Cicero’s prose style is highly artificial. Sentences are long, sometimes a third of a modern page, sometimes longer. The style is ‘periodic’, meaning the sentences only achieve closure and make their meaning clear right at the end. The result is suspense: the audience hangs on the orator’s words and the succession of subordinate clauses, waiting to find out whether the sentence will end as they expected (with a nice sense of completion) or will deliver a surprise (gasps of delight). You can see how, done well, this could enthral a crowd.

Sometimes clauses are in pairs, to create balance, either/or.

‘For it is not my enemies who will take you away from me but my dearest friends; not those who have on occasion treated me badly, but those who have always been good to me,’ (Pro Milone, 99)

Sometimes they come in threes, to provide a crescendo effect. Pairs and trios create a balanced civilised effect. By contrast, sometimes his sentences pile up 4, 5, 6 7 short clauses to create a machine gun effect, to create something more feverish and frantic.

‘No witness, no accomplice has been named. The entire charge arises out of a malevolent, disreputable, vindictive, crime-ridden, lust-ridden house.’ (Pro Caelio, 55)

Cicero took great care to make sure his clauses ended with certain rhythms. Apparently these cadences were named, categorised and taught by teachers of oratory, although Berry doesn’t list or explain any, and they’re not really detectable in English translation.

The jurors and the public watching the trial knew all about these techniques and assessed speakers on their skill at deploying them. Cicero tells an anecdote about a crowd bursting into applause at an advocate’s particularly elegant turn of phrase.

In addition to rhythm a trained orator could deploy:

Anaphora

The repetition of words or phrases in a group of sentences, clauses, or poetic lines.

If you restore Caelius to me, to his family, and to the country, you will have a man who is dedicated, devoted and bound to you. (Pro Caelio 80)

Asyndeton

The omission of the conjunctions that ordinarily join coordinate words or clauses, as in ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.

Apostrophe

A speech or address to a person who is not present or to a personified object. Cicero frequently addresses the spirit of dead, venerable Romans, or addresses the spirit of murdered Clodius, or addresses figures not physically present in the court (such as Pompey, directly addressed in Pro Milone).

Exclamation

For example, ‘O gods!’ the speaker pretending to give way to moments of emotion.

Alliteration, assonance and wordplay

Berry assures us these are everywhere present in Cicero but it is, of course, impossible to judge in translation.

Metaphor

One consul handing over to another informs him of the current challenges and issues in much the same way that the captain of a ship putting into port tells the captains of ships just setting out about the weather and pirates (Pro Murena, 4). A metaphor which is revived later in the speech, in the extended comparison of elections to unpredictable ocean currents or storms in (35 to 36).

Rhetorical strategies

At a higher level than specific tricks of rhetoric are larger-scale rhetorical tactics.

Appropriating the prosecution

Often he repeats the points the prosecution has made in order to rebut them. He does this by quoting them but often twisting the points in such a way as to suit himself, to tee up the kind of rebuttal he wants to make – as when he repeats a series of points allegedly made by Cato in Pro Murena, 67 onwards).

Inventing opposition points

One step beyond twisting prosecution points is inventing possible objections to what he’s saying in order to easily counter them. There are hundreds of instances along the lines of:

  • ‘You will no doubt ask me, Grattius…’ (Pro Archia, 12)
  • ‘Someone will surely ask…’ (Pro Archia, 15)

In which he attributes to the opposition lines of attack which he then easily refutes.

Rhetorical questions

Why do I mention his mother and his home when the penalty of the law deprives him of his home, his parent, and the company and sight of his friends? Shall the poor man go into exile, then? Where? To the east, where for many years he serves as a legate, led armies and performed heroic deeds? (Pro Murena, 89)

If Caelius had really given himself up to the kind of life that is alleged, would he, when still a young man, have brought a prosecution against an ex-consul? If he shied away from hard work, if he were enslaved to pleasure, would he do battle here every day, go in search of personal enmities, bring prosecutions, and run the risk of being prosecuted himself? And would he also maintain for so many months now and in full view of the entire Roman people a struggle for one of two things – his own political survival or glory? (Pro Caelio, 47)

Mimicry

As when Cicero imagines the feelings of soldiers called on to vote for Murena and remembering his many achievements in the army of the East (Pro Murena, 36) or mimics the voices of sceptical voters on election day (Pro Murena, 45).

Or the great sequence in Pro Caelio where he pretends to be one of Clodia’s ancestors brought back from the dead to thunder against her immoral behaviour.

There’s another type of mimicry. Surprisingly, the defendant was not allowed to speak at their own trial and so Cicero sometimes speaks for them, in the sense of putting words into their mouths and telling the jury, this is what X said to me, these are his very words.

This is notable at the climax of Pro Milone where sections 94 , 95 and 98 purport to be the sad but stoic speech of Milo himself.

If you combine this technique with ‘apostrophe’, addresses to people either absent or dead, you can see why the speeches are highly dramatic in the sense that there are a surprising number of characters in them, not as in a play, obviously, but being named, addressed, invoked and even attributed whole speeches which are then performed in another voice.

Changing the subject

In Pro Milone Cicero doesn’t bother denying that Milo was responsible for the murder of Clodius, but tries to shift the ground of argument to the issue of whether Milo was acting in justifiable self defence. Specifically, he argues that the incident wasn’t a random accident but a carefully contrived ambush by Clodius and so his client was only responding as Great and Eminent Romans Throughout History had responded i.e. by defending himself. This strategy failed and Milo was convicted.

Invoking famous men

In all the speeches Cicero invokes the memory of Great and Noble Romans from history who he says behaved like his client. It is a variation on invoking his own auctoritas.

Closely related is the Appeal To Patriotism. All of the speeches invoke the idea that jury must acquit his client because The Very Existence of the State is at stake!

‘In this trial you hold the whole country in your hands!!’ (Pro Murena, 83)

Invoking the sad family

At the end of Pro Murena and Pro Caelio Cicero invokes the tragic spectacle of the defendant’s family, his aged father, his weeping mother or wife, on their knees, begging for their son or husband or father to be freed and their family happily reunited.

The Appeal to the Romans’ very strong sense of Family Values seems to have been a tried and trusted, standard strategy (Pro Caelio, 79 and 80).

Crying

In several of the speeches Cicero refers to the fact that he himself is weeping, crying at the spectacle of such a valiant, heroic, brave, virtuous, patriotic, dutiful and wonderful person having been brought low by his fiendish enemies and so utterly deserving of vindication and acquittal that he, Cicero, cannot help bursting into floods of tears, he cannot see the jury, he cannot see the court, he can barely speak for grief!

‘But I must stop now. I can no longer speak for tears…’ (Pro Milone, 105)

Repetition

Obviously the rule of three, or using multiple clauses to say the same thing, or asking a series of rhetorical questions are all types of repetition. But a big feature of all the speeches which Berry doesn’t really address is their repetitiveness. Cicero often says he’s going to address a point, addresses it, tells us he’s finished with it, and yet several pages (a few minutes) later, brings it up again.

I can’t find the precise references now but in the three longest speeches, he has a tendency to make a point, wander off to something completely different, then revert to the same point later. This was the single factor which made reading them difficult for me, the sense that they didn’t have a clear logical flow – a beginning, middle and end – but on the contrary, I found all the speeches rambling and digressive and often hard to follow, with no higher level logic.

Conclusion

The cumulative effect of all these techniques is that the speeches, especially when written down and published (as Cicero took care to have done) are emphatically not the language of ordinary speech. The orator has done a lot of work preparing them and he expects the audience to do some work to appreciate them. It is intended to sound ‘theatrical and high flown’ in Berry’s phrase. The fact that I found them long-winded and often quite confusing maybe says more about my taste, shaped as it is by the 20th century taste for laconic brevity, than Cicero’s verbose and long-winded achievement.

P.S. Adrian Goldsworthy’s comments

Dr Adrian Goldsworthy’s big biography of Augustus contains lots of factual asides about aspects of late Republican Rome. Some of these concern the law and provide context to these speeches:

Legal attacks could easily end a career and so were far more high-stakes than in our society (p.94).

Goldsworthy gives an example of the rhythm of Cicero’s sayings in Latin. This was a throwaway remark he made about young Octavius, laudanum adulescentum, ornandum, tollendum – which means ‘we will praise the young man, reward and discard him’ – and, apparently, caused a serious breach in their relations (p.122) – but it’s one of the few examples I have of the rhythm of Cicero’s language in Latin.

He reinforces the notion that a) since there was no equivalent of the Crown or State, legal cases could only be brought by individuals and b) prosecuting was seen as invidious, unless one was defending family pride or there was a really gross example of wrongdoing – and so accusers tended to be young men out to make a name for themselves with one or two eye-catching prosecutions, before settling into the more congenial and socially accepted role of defence counsel, exactly the career Cicero followed (Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy p.43). He repeats the point on page 281:

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

Goldsworthy refers to ‘the aggressive and abusive tone common in Roman trials’ which we’ve seen plenty of evidence of (p.280).

Above all, Goldsworthy makes the most devastating single point about Cicero’s speeches with striking simplicity:

A glance at Cicero’s speeches is enough to show the readiness with which Roman advocates distorted the truth. (p.278)

For all his pontifications about Justice, for all his exhaustive descriptions of Law epitomising Reason In Action – Cicero was a highly professional and convincing liar.


Credit

Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

Cicero reviews

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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.

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