The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley (1965)

Obviously the issues of women, gender, sexuality, ‘the body’ and so on have come to dominate academic discourse in the humanities over the last 30 years or so. Before it was fashionable, 60 years ago, the classicist M.I. Finley wrote a thoughtful essay on the role of women in ancient Rome, which must have seemed fairly radical in its time but has itself come to be criticised by modern feminist historians.

M.I. Finley

Finley himself is an interesting character. He was born in 1912 in New York City to Nathan Finkelstein and Anna Katzenellenbogen, so was Jewish. Young Finkelstein was precociously intelligent and graduated from Syracuse University at the age of 15, and took another degree at Columbia University. He then taught at Columbia and City College of New York, where he was influenced by members of the Marxist Frankfurt School who had fled Nazi Germany and were working in exile in America. About 1945 he changed his name to Finley, nobody seems to know why, maybe to forestall antisemitism.

Finley was teaching at Rutgers University when, in 1951, he was named by a witness before the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a communist. He was then summoned before the committee and, when asked whether he was a communist, took the Fifth Amendment, like many other fellow travellers. J. Edgar Hoover leaned on Rutgers and, after the affair had dragged on for 3 years, Finley was eventually dismissed.

So he emigrated to Britain where he was quickly appointed university lecturer in classics at Cambridge, elected to a fellowship at Jesus College, and eventually rose through the hierarchy to become Master of Darwin College (1976 to 1982). He was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971 and knighted in 1979, becoming Sir Moses Israel Finley. He died in 1986.

The silent women of Rome

Finley’s essay has a straightforward aim: to lament the passive, repressed, largely voiceless role of aristocratic women in ancient Rome, using a number of examples, laws and situations to do so.

To start with he says that not many names of Roman-era women are remembered: the most famous woman from the period, Cleopatra was neither Roman nor Egyptian but Greek. As to Roman women, how many of them are remembered? Messalina, Agrippina, Catullus’s Lesbia, some legendary women such as Lucretia or, going way back, Dido.

[This is obviously a weak way to begin, with purely anecdotal summary of ‘famous women’ and no actual evidence.]

Obviously, most societies have been patriarchal and suppressed women but Finley asserts it’s hard to think of any other great civilised state ‘without a single really important woman writer or poet, with no truly regal queen…no patron of the arts.’

He then moves on to a more careful consideration of the evidence which he places under five headings:

  1. through the erotic and satirical poetry of the late Republic and empire, ‘all written by men’
  2. through the historians and biographers, ‘all men’ and attracted to salacious scandal
  3. through the letter writers and philosophers, ‘all men’
  4. through painting and sculpture, inscribed tombstones and religious monuments
  5. through innumerable legal texts

So Finley, with his left-wing credentials, is fully aware of the patriarchal slant of his sources and that they record ideals and stereotypes ‘formulated and imposed by middle- and upper-class Roman males.’ For his day (1965) this feels like a full-on, left-wing, feminist mindset, and you’d have thought he anticipated a million feminist plaints by lamenting that what will always be missing from histories of Rome is the voices of women themselves.

For a start, until late in Roman history, women didn’t have individual names. The names they were given were the family name with an ‘a’ added, so that a daughter of the Claudii gens was named Claudia, of the Julii gens, Julia, and so on. In this spirit sisters were given the same name and only distinguished by the addition of ‘elder’ and ‘younger’, or ‘first’, ‘second’ etc. In the case of marriage between paternal cousins, mother and daughter could easily end up with the same names. For example, Augustus’s daughter was named Julia because he and she came of the Julii clan, and her daughter (Augustus’s grand daughter) was also named Julia.

This in itself is a staggering fact, really worth stopping to take onboard. Roman women didn’t have individual names. As Finley goes on to say, it’s as if Roman society as a whole wished to emphasise that girls and women were not genuine individuals but only offshoots of male-dominated families.

In fact he goes on to point out that although the word familia is Latin it never meant to Romans what it does to us nowadays. Familia either meant all the persons under the authority of the head of the household, or all the descendants from a common ancestor, or all one’s property, or all one’s servants – never our modern notion of the small nuclear family. ‘The stress was on a power structure, rather than on biology or intimacy.’

The Roman paterfamilias need not even be a father; the term was a legal one and applied to any head of a household. Biological children were excluded if illegitimate, whereas the practice of legal adoption was very common (two famous examples being Publius Clodius Pulcher having himself adopted by a plebeian family; and Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew Octavius).

Theoretically a paterfamilias’s power over his wife, sons and daughters and son’s wives and children, over all his slaves and property, was absolute. In law it was the power of life or death. A Roman woman was rarely if ever, at any point in her life, not in the legal power of a man.

Roman legislators and lawyers devoted a lot of space to precise definitions of the status of all possible permutations of family members (in the extended sense). This was because the family, in this extended sense, was the basic building block, the foundation, of their society. Not just women had highly defined places, but children, sons, heirs, and so on. Finley explains that strict rules were enacted prohibiting certain kinds of marriage: between a Roman citizen and a non-citizen; or between a Roman of the senatorial class and a citizen who had risen from the class of freemen (former slaves).

We miss the full picture if we concentrate only on women. The Roman state sought to regulate and control all social relationships.

Finley’s essay then uses the complex family life of Octavian/Augustus to demonstrate the absolute power of the paterfamilias at arranging the lives and marriages of all those in his power; but this strikes me as not a useful example because the greatest, longest-serving emperor is just about the least representative example you can imagine, and it’s all available in any life of Augustus, anyway.

Finley then goes back a bit in time to guesstimate that the submissive role of women in the Roman state was very ancient, and certainly by the time Hannibal was defeated (about 200 BC) all the elements were in place of the social situation Augustus tried to manage.

Male infidelity was widely accepted. Husbands could have mistresses, multiple partners and illegitimate children. ‘There was no puritanism in the Roman concept of morality.’ When you think about it this follows naturally from the central axiom that all that concerned the state was the efficient management of family legal matters; beyond carrying out their legal functions and duties towards the state, what people got up to in their ‘private lives’ was their own affair.

Throughout his long rule Augustus wasn’t concerned with reforming what we, the heirs to Christianity, think of ‘morality’, so much as social order. Above all he was concerned that not enough upper-class citizens were getting married and having children. Childlessness was an abrogation of responsibilities to the state. The licentious living he saw becoming more common around him wasn’t completely reprehensible in itself, but to be criticised insofar as it indicated a dereliction of duty to the state which he saw it as his responsibility to protect and maintain. Augustus disapproved of the Roman aristocracy living debauched lives because they were spending money on themselves which they should have been investing in their children and The Future of Rome.

There was nothing at all holy about marriage, as the chopping and changing of Augustus’s own marital career and of umpteen aristocrats amply demonstrated. This explains why divorce was easy and commonplace. It was a purely legal transaction. Marriage was important because:

  • it ensured the creation of the next generation of citizens
  • it ensured the smooth transition of property from one generation to the next
  • the entire social hierarchy depended on cleanly defined lineage and descent within families, which themselves needed to be clearly defined as patrician or plebeian or knightly in order to take their place in the systems of political management and control

So marriage was really important in ancient Rome from a social, economic, political and legal point of view. But hardly at all from a moral or emotional point of view, the two ways in which we have been increasingly taught to view it over the past 200 years, maybe since the so-called Romantic revolution around 1800 began to change a lot of attitudes in favour of the primacy of personality and emotion over duty and sacrifice.

Finley has a digression about the laws of marriage governing soldiers. These kept changing, as soldiers’ terms of service were themselves changed and developed, eventually becoming so complicated it resulted in an entire specialised area of Roman law.

Having discussed the aristocracy at some length, Finley then goes on to speculate about the condition of women in the working class. We know next to nothing about them but the chances are they were a lot more free of the social codes and restrictions imposed on aristocratic women because a) they had to work, and probably helped their husbands in a wide variety of trades and b) the rapid expansion of the slave trade and the slave population after the destruction of Carthage (146 BC), along with the surprisingly generous Roman habit of freeing slaves, meant that an ever-increasing proportion of the free population was directly descended from slaves, almost certainly giving them a drastically different notions about marriage norms than the aristocracy.

Mortality was higher among women than men. It is estimated that of the population which reached the age of 15 (i.e. evaded the high infant mortality) more than half the women were dead by forty, in some places, by 35. Women were a lot more likely to die due to a) multiple childbirths without any modern medicine b) sheer exhaustion of bearing children, rearing them, and working.

Divorce was easy and men often remarried. You can see how this would enormously complicate the legal situation around heirs, property, citizenship and so on. Hence the jungle of legislation.

And yet (Finley says, swinging his train of thought into a new groove), there is evidence that aristocratic Roman enjoyed some autonomy. They attended dinner parties and certainly the many festivals and games. Many Roman writers report the stimulating conversation of educated women in mixed company. Ovid in The Art of Love gives extensive advice on how to make the best of themselves, advising women of this class to dress and primp properly, to sweeten their breath, to walk gracefully and dance well, to cultivate the best poetry. This makes them sound quite free and independent in their behaviour.

Finley comes to his final thought: How did respectable Roman women of the level of education implied by Ovid and others find outlets for their repressed energies?

1. Religion

Roman religion was very patriarchal. Traditional Roman religion was based on the household gods and public rituals and men controlled both. There was a handful of female cults, such as the women-only Bona Dea, but all religious festivals were led by men and even the famous Vestal Virgins were under the direct supervision of a man, the pontifex maximus.

A big change came with the solidification of the empire and the great influx into Rome of eastern mystery cults, many of them carrying the entirely unroman concepts of personal communion with the god and personal salvation. Although some of these gods were completely closed to women (such as the military cult of Mithras) others offered women status and agency like they’d never had before.

The most notable example of these was the cult of Isis, who subsumed a world of other goddesses and cults (and which Ovid complains about in some of his poems). One of the hymns to Isis says: ‘You gave women equal power with men.’ This explains why the cult of Isis was one of the most obstinately resistant to the rise of the new cult of Christ as the latter spread  around the Mediterranean during the later first century AD.

Christianity itself was a very mixed blessing for women. Women played a crucial role in the life of Jesus. His mother, Mary, quickly assumed cult status. Jesus was genuinely open-handed about the role of women. Take the woman her community is about to stone for adultery. Jesus saves her and shames the vengeful men.

Women quickly held office in the early church, not in ultimate power but as assistants, deacons and sacristans, assisting in ceremonies as well as taking a lead in charitable works. It was the Empress Helena who ‘found’ the true cross in Palestine and brought it back to Rome. A good proportion of the early martyrs were women i.e. women were allowed to be memorialised as martyrs, to be remembered as saints, and their relics worked just as many miracles, as men did. Here was a true holy equality.

But then, alas, St Paul. Paul thrashed out the theology of Christianity but at the expense of embedding it deeply back into the traditional Jewish teachings which Jesus had seemed to escape. In chapter 14 of his first letter to the congregation at Corinth he says:

‘Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.’

From the floating repertoire of ancient documents indicated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the early Christians selected the ones which they thought best bolstered their case, assembling them into a library which eventually came to be called The Old Testament. Much of it was a reversion to a harsher, Jewish concept of the deity than Jesus seemed at many moments to believe. Over coming generations the strange and ominous legend of Adam and Eve came to assume the severity of doctrine, and became an irrefutable accusation with which hundreds of generations of misogynists could bad-mouth and shut down women.

One unintended consequence of Pauline thought was the new emphasis it put on virginity. In our times we think the obsessive importance assigned by generations of Christians to the virginity of a bride ludicrously repressive and bigoted. But if you think about it from the point of view of a 12, 13 or 14 year old girl in a Roman household, who knows she is doomed to be married off to someone she might never have met, who might be four times her age, purely as a business and legal transaction – then a new cult which rejects this bartering of women, and declares that the holiest thing a woman can do is devote her life to Jesus and eternal virginity, maybe in a community of like-minded women – you can see how in many cases this might have been experienced as a wonderful liberation from patriarchal tyranny. An escape route.

Convents began to be set up soon after the first monasteries and offered a way for women to walk out of the entire male-dominated society in a way they hadn’t been able to since Rome was founded. A huge subject but Finley’s brief discussion is suggestive.

2. Entertainments

Much smaller in conceptual terms, but still significant, was the way women were allowed to be spectators in theatres and at games. Finley tells us that gladiators became ‘pin-ups’ for Roman women, ‘especially in the upper classes’. It would be good to see the evidence for this.

3. Imperial women

Finley rather spoils the effect with his third area of female agency, by reverting to the anecdotal level of the opening of his essay, and telling us that many of the women at the top of the next few hundred years of Roman Empire ‘revealed a ferocity and sadism’ that were not often matched by their menfolk. They never held direct power, but they pulled many of the strings for their husbands and sons, brothers and lovers. Well, if feminists want strong independent women, here are some of the most ferociously strong and determined women we have any record of.

Finley tries to interpret the behaviour of this handful of bloodthirsty women as a ‘rebellion’ against the suppression of almost all women almost all the time. Unfortunately, it comes over more as a certain type of sexist stereotyping without any consideration of the fact that strong women everywhere have been subjected to poisonous character assassination. I.e. that much of what male society and its male historians wrote about them may be vicious rumours or simply untrue.

Shame. Finley was very ‘on message’ and sympathetic to Rome’s repressed women up to this very last point.


This is a deeply intelligent, very interesting, well-written essay. It has an elegantly arresting introductory remark about Cleopatra and then moves with a steady, fluent logic through a series of highly interesting points. Agree or disagree with his thesis, it is beautifully written.

It is very persuasive about the topics it addresses. But it can be seen that, at various points, it veers away from a strict consideration of its title; the passage on the marriage laws for Roman soldiers feels some distance from ‘the silent women of Rome’, the extended passage about Augustus and his women is interesting but can hardly be taken as representative of Roman society at large.

The anti-Finley debate

A few minutes surfing on the internet turns up the fact that Finley’s essay was contested by feminists.

The Reverend Dr. J. Dorcas Gordon of Knox College, Canada, in her book ‘Sister or Wife? 1 Corinthians 7 and Cultural Anthropology’, gives a summary of the feminist responses to Finley’s essay, which she calls ‘controversial’.

According to her, there is a relatively straightforward spectrum of views, with one school holding that women in Rome lived passive repressed lives in the shadows of their fathers or husbands (the Finley view), but quite a few more modern revisionists insisting the exact opposite.

These latter are represented by Sarah Pomeroy who, in her pioneering 1975 feminist book, ‘Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity’, argued that changes in Hellenistic society produced many emancipated but respected upper-class women. She argues that Roman matrons had a much bigger range of choices in their roles and lifestyles, as well as more of an influence on the cultural and political life of their society, than Finley allows.

Gordon goes on to produce pages of evidence showing women having more agency in the ancient world than the Finley side of the debate claims, evidence including history, moral anecdote and exempla, slander, funerary inscriptions.

In Hellenistic Egypt we know that women bought and sold real estate as well as movable property. We know from Cicero’s abundant correspondence that his wife, Terentia, had considerable freedom of action in the areas of finance, politics and matchmaking.

There is evidence that women, despite an explicit ban, argued their cases in the law courts, namely Afrania, wife of a senator and Hortensia delivering a speech before the triumvirs. Servilia was the long-time mistress of Julius Caesar and mother of Brutus and all her contemporaries took her political influence of for granted. Cicero depicts a woman friend, Caerellia, as independently wealthy and a noted intellectual. Everyone was intimidated by Augustus’s formidable wife, Livia.

An inscription from Corinth recognises Junia Theodora who bestowed gifts of money on the city and citizens. More surprisingly an inscription speaks of a certain Hedea racing a chariot and winning at the Isthmean Games of 43 AD. Inscriptions from Asia Minor memorialise wealthy Greek women who civic and federal magistracies and priesthoods. Women with estates and all sorts of businesses were attested at Pompeii.

And so, considerably, on.

The major engine for new historical interpretations

In the end, Dorcas suggests, it depends how you interpret the evidence. Obviously that is true, but I’d go a step further to point out something obvious, to me at any rate, which is: the outcome of many debates in the humanities depends not so much on how you interpret the evidence, but on what evidence you consider; on what evidence you admit to the field of debate.

Time after time, when reading modern history books which claim to be ‘overturning conventional wisdom’ or ‘subverting established beliefs’ blah blah, it turns out that they’re not doing so by presenting startling new evidence; more often than not they are using evidence which has always been known about by scholars, but not previously considered part of the debate; things the experts knew about but nobody had considered including in the body of evidence used in this particular debate.

If the complete corpus of historical evidence can be likened to a landscape, the landscape itself rarely changes – what changes, and sometimes drastically, is which features of the landscape historians choose to pay attention to; which bits of evidence we include and prioritise.

Since you and I can never hope to acquire total mastery of all the evidence from the ancient world on this or any number of other issues (the experiences of slaves, the experiences of gladiators, the experiences of the working classes, the experience of farmers, the experiences of business men) we are, in effect, at the mercy of scholars and their changing interests. Our knowledge of ‘history’ is restricted by the ever-changing fashions for this or that kind of evidence among the historians we read.

Now almost contemporary historians are convinced that we need to be more inclusive, need to pay attention to the lives of women, or black people, or other previously excluded groups. While fine and admirable in itself, this attitude can also be seen as just the latest wave, the latest refocusing of attention and evidence which will, itself, be eclipsed by further waves in the decades to come.

In other words, nothing like a ‘true’ understanding of history is ever possible. Because the study of history covers such a huge area, and historians for decades have been expanding the fields of evidence to include previously ignored groups, any modern read is doing well if they can get a grasp on the history of a period as it is generally understood today i.e. as it is interpreted and conceived for our times by the congeries of historians of our day.

But even if you could wriggle free of the preconceptions and assumptions of our age, penetrating through the veil of how events are presented by contemporary writers is virtually impossible, because as you go further back in time you don’t encourage any kind of truth, all you encounter is previous generations of historians interpreting events in terms of the ideologies, moral values, social needs of their times, biased by all their preconceptions and prejudices.

The thing itself – the objective, ‘true’ and definitive account of events – can it ever be reached, does it even exist? I don’t think so. It’s bias, interpretation and ideology all the way back to the original sources and documents which, themselves, are (fairly obviously) biased and limited. From ever-changing mosaics of evidence historians create narratives which are acceptable to us and our concerns.


The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley was published in 1965. It was included in a collection of essays by him titled Aspects of Antiquity, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

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Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt @ the British Museum

Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty (1855 to 1808 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is a major exhibition held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the year 1822 when French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs which had been puzzling scholars for the best part of 1,500 years.

At its heart is the eerily beautiful and hugely important Rosetta Stone, discovered by French troops in Egypt in 1799. The central part of the exhibition summarises the genuinely exciting narrative of the great Race To Decipher hieroglyphics, as it developed into a rivalry between Great Britain – represented by antiquarian Thomas Young (1773 to 1829) – and France – represented by the ambitious young scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 to 1832).

The exhibition brings together a rather staggering 250 artefacts, many (as usual) on loan from foreign museums. As such it provides a unique opportunity to see so much high quality Egyptiana in one place – all presented in a beautifully designed and laid out exhibition space. If the sheer scale sounds daunting, maybe the crucial thing to grasp is that the exhibition is divided into three main areas or parts.

Part One: The end of hieroglyphics, the revival of interest

Part one briefly covers the end of the millennia-long tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs in the years after the Greek conquest of Egypt in 320 BC. The Greek dynasty of the Ptolemy family kept up all the Egyptian traditions, but it was the advent of Roman rule from 30 BC (when the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide) which signalled the slow decline of hieroglyphic writing. It was the imposition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius in 391, and the order to close down all pagan temples, which spelled the end of the tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates from 394. Byzantine rule of the province continued for centuries until swept away by the great Arab Conquest of the 640s AD.

Intellectual energy in the centuries following the Muslim conquest went into elaborating aspects of Islamic religion and philosophy, as well as preserving and commenting on survivals from antiquity, especially Greek texts. There was only scattered interest in the pictorial language carved into the huge stone monuments all across Egypt.

Some Muslim scholars are namechecked, but for us in Europe it was only the revival of learning from the 1400s onwards, the period which came to be called the Renaissance, which saw sustained scholarly activity to decipher the hieroglyphs. A negative key factor was that there had been some scholarly enquiry during ancient times, with Roman scholars writing books about the hieroglyphs – but that these were often seriously wrong and misleading but were considered indisputable evidence throughout the Renaissance.

Interestingly, study of ancient Egyptian artifacts centred on Rome itself for the simple reason that victorious generals from Julius Caesar onwards had a fondness for stealing and shipping back to Rome impressive numbers of obelisks, stelae, statues, inscriptions and so on (a stela is an inscribed stone or wooden slab) – many of which were still standing 1,400 years later when the revival of interest in old texts (be they ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian, Egyptian and so on) gathered pace.

The most significant figure was a German Jesuit and polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602 to 1680). Working with Arabic grammars and dictionaries of Coptic acquired in Egypt by an Italian traveller, Kircher produced flawed but pioneering translations and grammars of the language in the 1640s and 1650s, leading up to his masterwork, the ‘Oedipus Aegyptiacus’ of 1652.

Unfortunately, Kircher brought to his studies a deep belief in mystic practices and magic. As a Jesuit he believed Egyptian religion must have foreshadowed the One True Religion i.e. Christianity, and so all his interpretations were coloured by a wish to find mystical meanings in even brief sets of symbols. In his hands even short texts of only a few hieroglyphic characters were translated into lengthy sentences describing mystical religious ideas.

But Kircher was only one of hundreds of scholars and commentators, including many of the early Muslim scholars, who were convinced the hieroglyphs represented ancient magic or the secrets of ‘alchemy’, and that true knowledge would allow modern practitioners to revive magical spells and incantations.

The Enchanted Basin

This belief that the hieroglyphs contained ancient magic is represented here by ‘the enchanted basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BC, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. Devotees believed that bathing in the basin (accompanied by the appropriate rituals and spells) could offer relief from the torments of love.

‘The Enchanted Basin’ aka the sarcophagus of Hapmen, Egypt, 26th Dynasty (600 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’ – and has been identified as simply a sarcophagus – for Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Exhibition design 1

This first part of the exhibition is presented in the usual glass cases etc but against a backdrop of jet black walls themselves covered in silver hieroglyphic scripts which shimmer and capture the eye as you walk through them – evoking a world of black magic and mystery. Most wall panels relate to specific exhibits but the curators have also had the bright idea of creating standalone panels devoted to specific glyphs, explaining what they are and what they mean. This is one of several aspects designed, I think to appeal to children and school visits, and a charming idea.

One of the panels for schoolchildren in ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’

Part Two: The Rivalry

The second section declares its change of focus with a complete change of design, layout and atmosphere. No longer black, the gallery walls are lighter and the room is dominated by three long wooden benches, with wooden chairs set in front of them (which I think visitors are encouraged to sit at so as to study the artifacts on offer).

The dominance of stained wood reminds me of the British Museum’s extensive Enlightenment Gallery on the ground floor and is, I assume, intended to convey a sense of 18th and 19th century scholarship taking place in the civilised, wood-panelled rooms of Royal Societies and the private collections of rich European travellers across Enlightenment Europe.

This woody, benchy room is the setting for the gripping story of The Race To Decipher Hieroglyphs between the two men who are presented as rivals in scholarship and representatives of their respective nations, Thomas Young of Great Britain and Jean-François Champollion of France.

The Rosetta Stone

In fact the transition from part 1 to part 2 of the exhibition takes you past the famous Rosetta Stone itself, which was the clue to the whole thing and is a story, or several stories, in itself.

The Rosetta Stone, Rasid, Egypt (Ptolemaic, 196 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

History of the discovery

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led an invasion of Egypt with 40,000 troops. By this stage revolutionary France had been at war with Great Britain for five years and the Egyptian strategy was designed to cut off Britain’s lucrative trade with her greatest colony, India. But, being French and priding himself on being a man of the Enlightenment, Napoleon took with him 200 scholars, engineers, antiquarians and so on. Over the next few years these experts made numerous drawings, descriptions and maps of the antiquities of Egypt which were later published in the multi-volume Description de l’Égypte (1809 to 1829).

The following year, in 1799, French forces were rebuilding an old fort in the coastal town of Rashid, when they dug up this large fragment of stone covered in writing. Realising its importance the officer in charge sent it to Napoleon’s headquarters. It was taken into possession of the lead scientist in Napoleon’s force but events were about to take a significant twist. In August 1798 the Royal Navy defeated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile.

A treaty (the Capitulation of Alexandria) was then negotiated (in 1801) between the victorious British and the French by which the victors took possession of most of the artefacts, findings and notes created by the French antiquarians. Discussions were detailed and became heated, but to cut a long story short, the British seized the Rosetta Stone and shipped it back to London, where it was presented to the king who in turn passed it onto the fledgling British Museum. It went on public display in 1802, has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously and is its most visited object.

Almost immediately the British Society of Antiquarians made plaster copies of the stone and printed reproductions of the text and distributed them to other institutions across Europe.

It is called the Rosetta Stone because Rosette was the name Europeans gave to the town Arabs called Rashid and the name stuck.

What I took from all this was that this breakthrough in Egyptology and understanding of the ancient world came about almost entirely because of war between the great powers.

All down the line, from the first officer to see it, through the experts on Napoleon’s staff, through to the British officers in charge of the peace negotiation, through to the king’s advisors and officials at the British Museum, everyone recognised the stone’s immense importance.

Why is the Rosetta Stone important?

Because it was the first artifact found anywhere in Egypt which contained several languages or scripts in parallel. At a glance you can see that the top part of the stone contains rows of hieroglyphics, the next section contains lines of text in another script, and the lower third of the stone contains text in yet another script, which scholars quickly recognised as Greek.

To be precise, from top to bottom, the top two scripts are in Ancient Egyptian, the top one using hieroglyphic and the second one ‘Demotic’ script, while the bottom one is in Ancient Greek.

What is ‘Demotic’? We now know that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs on their official monuments, but on administrative and religious life used a form of cursive script which was easier to write and read. This cursive script changed and evolved over the thousands of years of Egyptian history:

  • the oldest form is called ‘hieratic’ from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC
  • the so-called Demotic form of the language developed and then held sway from about 650 BC to the 5th century AD
  • and was replaced by the third major form, Coptic, the final development of the Egyptian language, spoken by the common people from around the third-century AD through till the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Coptic has no native speakers today, although it is preserved and still recited by priests of the Coptic church

So what the Rosetta stone presents is a text in classical hieroglyphs, a text in ‘Demotic’ i.e. the common form of written Egyptian of the day, and then a text in ancient Greek.

Scholars immediately realised that, if the three sets of script represented the same text in three different languages, then they should be able to use the Greek at the bottom to read the hieroglyphs at the top and, in so doing, identify what words or sounds individual hieroglyphs stand for and so crack the code, decipher the language of hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone as it appears in the exhibition. Note the animated timeline of the Race To Decipher in the right background, and blown-up reproductions of scholarly texts hanging from the ceiling

Unexpected delay

In my ignorance I thought the discovery of the stone meant we had the key to the door, the job was done, and we could start deciphering hieroglyphs immediately.

Not at all. Turns out there was still a lot of work to be done, not least because there was disagreement on fundamental facts. For example, not all scholars agreed the three scripts contained the same text. And the stone at first presented more puzzles than solutions because antiquarians could no more read demotic than hieroglyphs. So at first sight the stone presented double the problem, two challenges – of aligning the ancient Greek (readable) with the demotic and hieroglyphs (unreadable).

It took a surprising amount of scholarly guesswork, trial and error, devising and testing different theories for knowledge to inch forward. This room – the wooden table room- presents a year-by-year account of the 20 or so years between the stone going on public display and Champollion’s breakthrough in 1822. You might think all this is a fairly niche subject, but think again; there’s an impressive number of books on the subject:

Major landmarks in the decoding included recognition that:

  • 1799: the stone shows three versions of the same text
  • 1802: the demotic text uses phonetic characters to spell foreign names
  • 1814: the hieroglyphic text uses phonetic characters as well, and so has numerous similarities to the demotic
  • 1822: phonetic characters were used to spell not just foreign names but native Egyptian words

The breakthrough 1822

Scripts for languages can be either:

  • ideographic – symbols are used for words or concepts
  • syllabic – symbols are used to convey the sounds of syllables which make up words
  • alphabetic – a symbol is assigned to individual elements out of which words are built

The latter two are examples of phonetic languages i.e:

You can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it. Or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

The ancient Romans had queered the pitch and misled centuries of scholars by claiming that all hieroglyphs were symbols, one glyph directly standing for one idea or concept. Hundreds of scholars wasted their lives trying to figure out what each hieroglyph ‘stood for’.

As I understand it, Champollion’s big breakthrough was realising that Demotic and hieroglyphic i.e. ancient Egyptian language as a whole, was a combination of ideographic and phonetic. He realised this after seeing another scholar’s decipherment of foreign names as phonetic sounds in the hieroglyphs. This was the actual key – that the names of foreign (generally Greek) rulers, were spelled phonetically.

Rather than try to explain further, I’ll quote Wikipedia:

In 1822, Champollion saw copies of brief hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions taken from an obelisk found at Philae, on which William John Bankes had tentatively noted the names “Ptolemaios” and “Kleopatra” in both languages. From this, Champollion identified the phonetic characters ‘k l e o p a t r a’. On the basis of this and the foreign names on the Rosetta Stone, he quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, completing his work on 14 September and announcing it publicly on 27 September in a lecture to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. On the same day he wrote the famous “Lettre à M. Dacier” to Bon-Joseph Dacier, secretary of the Académie, detailing his discovery. In the postscript Champollion notes that similar phonetic characters seemed to occur in both Greek and Egyptian names, a hypothesis confirmed in 1823, when he identified the names of pharaohs Ramesses and Thutmose written in cartouches at Abu Simbel.

1824 Champollion published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs.

In 1829, he travelled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

In 1832 Champollion died from illnesses brought on by travel in Egypt.

1838 his Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously. But if you thought that was the end of the affair, you’d be wrong, for Champollion erroneously assumed that the hieroglyphs could be read directly in Coptic script, whereas in fact they represented a much older stage of the language which differs in many ways from Coptic.

It took scholars the rest of the century to work through all the details of ancient Egyptian and work is still ongoing because it turns out to have developed in more forms and variations and dialects than initially thought.

What does the Rosetta Stone actually say?

At the end of all that, what does the Rosetta Stone text actually say? Each of the 3 languages records a priestly decree of 196 BC issued by a council of Egyptian priests from the city of Memphis during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (i.e. ironically, it’s a text about a Greek ruler and not one of the classic ancient Egyptian pharaohs). The text praises the righteous acts of the king and lists the honours bestowed on him by the priests.

So no magic spells or alchemical procedures, much more banal than that. Interestingly, this kind of decree wasn’t even an Egyptian tradition, but hailed from Greece, a type of inscription imported along with the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

Part Three: Modern Egyptology

Design 3: Airy design and huge videos

Struggling to process the complexities of this story, the visitor walks from wood-lined part two of the exhibition through an Egyptian archway into a completely different space.

Here the walls are white and the ceiling is high, creating a sense of light and clarity. On the wall on the right is a video projection of part of an ancient wall with birds flying by – but this is dwarfed by the end wall onto which is projected a huge landscape video of the River Nile itself, a long band of rippling blue water, above which sits the fabulously fertile green riverbank – all reeds, grasses and palm trees – and then the deep blue of the Egyptian sky.

So, in terms of design, the visitor has progressed from pitch black walls at the start, though the gentlemen’s-club brown wood panelling of the second part, and now arrives in the kind of bright light space typical of modern art galleries. I guess this is also symbolic of passing from ignorance, through purblind scholarship and study, into the modern age of research and understanding.

Egyptian social history

This final part of the exhibition could almost be staged in its own right, for it is a fascinating overview of Egyptian social history, social life, in all its many aspects.

If you want the history of ancient Egypt – the political history of all those pharaohs, their wars, their dynasties, maps of their territory etc – that is already available in the vast series of rooms which, as it happens, you exit into after the exhibition space, the long gallery called Room 4. This isn’t that.

Instead this third part of the exhibition presents a careful selection of objects which illustrate the modern understanding of all aspects of Egyptian society, which Champollion’s discovery (much elaborated and built on by later scholars) allowed. It is a collection of choice artifacts which shed unparalleled insight into the lives, not of kings and pharaohs, but of ordinary people – their lives, loves, marriages, divorces, financial affairs, loans and mortgages, the stories they told each other, the poems and hymns they recited, their religious beliefs and practices, maths textbooks, guides to the interpretation of dreams, their calendar and how they structured the year, the months, the weeks, the days, even shopping lists and tax returns.

For example, a papyrus from about 1200 BC explains that the Egyptian year was divided into 12 months of 30 days. Their week lasted 10 days, and the year had three seasons – Akhet (flooding), Peret (growing) and Shemu (harvest).

Or take the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word and includes ritual spells. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet (papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs.

A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

Royal cubit rod of Amenemope (18th Dynasty) Torino, Museo Egizio

The cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25 to 30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

Cartonnage of the lady Baketenhor (late 22nd Dynasty, between 945 and 715 BC) Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Image © Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums

Prayers to Hathor, the goddess of love and music, were often accompanied by the sistrum, a musical instrument used in dances and religious ceremonies. When shaken, the sistrum produced a soft clink or a loud jangle which had power to appease the gods. Note the face at the top of the handle.

Ancient Egyptian sistrum (747 to 332 BC)

(There are references to a sistrum – ‘the sacred rattle… the jingling bronze of the sistrum…’ – being used in worship of Isis, book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and it’s also referred to in the thirteenth satire of Juvenal.)

On a much more humble level, a papyrus from 1100 BC records the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener and tells us that he supported her for three years after the divorce. The reasons for the divorce aren’t stated but we know from other sources that the wife probably kept the possessions she brought to the marriage.

Papyrus from 1100 BC recording the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener

We now know the ancient Egyptians had over 90 recipes for the treatment of eye problems. Black and green kohl had antibacterial properties and could be carried around in pots to be used as eye liner.

There’s a book helping with the interpretation of dreams, a perennial topic in the ancient world. This one belonged to a certain Qenherkhepshef and contains the following useful advice:

If a man sees himself in a dream looking after monkeys: bad – a change awaits him!

And hundreds more.

I also noticed the way a number of wall labels featured quotes all attributed to ‘Voices from Rashid’. What is this? The British Museum interviewed schoolchildren from the town of Rashid (modern day Rosetta) about the stone and ancient Egyptian life and these quotes are the opinions of the schoolchildren on aspects of Egyptian history, the hieroglyphics, the stone and so on, sprinkled on panels throughout the exhibition.

Statue of a scribe (6th Dynasty) Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

This exhibition is fascinating, inspiring, beautifully designed and laid out. In the section about the Race To Decipher, it is surprisingly gripping. And the wide-ranging final section brings you closer to the concerns of ordinary ancient Egyptian men and women than you would have thought possible.

Related links

Other British Museum reviews

An introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps (1969)

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind’)
(Aeneid Book 1, line 462)

The Aeneid’s structure

The first six books describe wandering, the second six books describe war.

The first six books are set on or near the sea, the second six books are set on land.

The first six books copy a lot from Homer’s Odyssey, the second six books copy a lot from Homer’s Iliad.

The first half focuses on Carthage, leading to the death of Dido, the second half focuses on Latium, leading to the death of Turnus. (In fact, it’s not quite as neat as that because Dido dies at the end of book 4, leaving book 5 to describe the funeral games for Anchises and book 6 the journey to the underworld, so the deaths of Dido and Turnus don’t perfectly bookend each half.)

Historical background

Virgil lived through stormy and decisive political times. He was born in 70 BC only 15 or so years after the end of the Social War, a 4-year-long bitter and needless fight between Rome and various tribes and peoples of Italy who demanded full Roman citizenship. In the end Rome acquiesced and gave it them. The precise relationship between Rome and the other local tribes is implicit in the whole idea of Aeneas coming as an immigrant and stirring up a huge ruinous war between its existing inhabitants, and then is specifically addressed right at the end of the Aeneid when Juno demands equal rights for the Latins vis-à-vis the newcomers from her husband Jupiter, as a condition of giving up her vicious vendetta against the Trojans.

Then Virgil was 21 when civil war broke out in 49 BC between Caesar and Pompey. He saw what it was like for the Roman ruling class to be split right down the middle and many men die pointlessly, as, arguably, all the terrible deaths in the second half of the Aeneid are, ultimately, pointless and unnecessary.

Then Virgil was 26 when Caesar was assassinated and Rome plunged into a further 15 years of instability and recurring civil wars, before Octavian finally brought peace by defeating Antony in 31 BC, as Virgil turned 40.

The price of peace

Virgil composed the Aeneid over the 10 or so years from 29 BC to his premature death in 19 BC. After a life lived against a backdrop of unending civil strife you can see why Virgil would desperately have wanted peace and order to be restored and pinned his hopes for that outcome on the new rule of Augustus. But you can also see why one of the Aeneid‘s main themes is the price that has to be paid for the final arrival of peace and order, and it is a very, very high price in tragedy and bloodshed. Hecatombs of the dead. So many brave young lives cut short. Aeneas wins his place in the promised land of Hesperia, but my God what a trail of death and destruction he leaves behind him.

Aspects of patriotism

All elements in the poem are multi-levelled and dense with allusiveness. Thus the poem’s patriotism is plain for everyone to see, and yet is effective because it works at so many levels. Central is the plot itself, Aeneas’s journey to Italy to found a new city and new people. The gods repeatedly reassure him of the future greatness of the Roman people. He sees a procession of eminent Romans in the underworld at the end of book 6. The figure of Augustus appears here, and as the central figure on the shield his mother gives him at the end of book 8, as well as being invoked several other times, crystallising the hopes of the world.

But it also works in a host of other ways. Most poignantly and hauntingly when we discover that King Evander’s little township is built on the site of the future Rome and that he and Aeneas are walking through the landmarks of the greatness that is to come. But also in the mention throughout the poem of beliefs and customs which first came with the Trojans or, conversely, are already practiced by the Arcadians or the Latins:

  • they Latins are referred to as ‘the people of the Roman gown’
  • the Roman custom of covering the head at sacrifice is enjoined on Aeneas by the seer Helenus before his arrival in Italy (3.403)
  • the exhibition of horse drill known to the Romans as lusus Troiae is demonstrated by Ascanius and the young horsemen during the funeral games for Anchises (5.596)
  • Aeneas promises to inaugurate the tradition of the Sibylline Books (6.71)
  • the practice of opening or closing the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war already exists in Latium (7.601)
  • the worship of Hercules at the great altar in the cattle market which existed in Virgil’s time is said to already exist when Aeneas arrives in Latium (8.268)

So the poem’s patriotism is shouted from the rooftops in the shape of the plot and in the multiple predictions but also threaded subtly into a fabric of hints and allusions.

A political poem?

Camps surprises me by claiming the Aeneid is not a political poem. He deploys the kind of sentimental humanism found throughout post-war Anglophone literary criticism, deflecting analysis off into fancy fondling about morality or spirituality:

The Aeneid is in no sense political propaganda, for it is not in its nature a political poem. The Rome that is its inspiration is not conceived in terms of a political system; and the background against which the humans in the story act and suffer is provided not by contrasting political ideas but by the working of the historical process and the conflict of spiritual powers. (p.2)

This is plain wrong, isn’t it? It’s as if someone who wrote a long poem in praise of Nazi rule over occupied Europe claimed that it wasn’t a political poem because the Nazi rule it praises ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system’. Well, it doesn’t need to be. If politics in the broadest sense is defined as how a society chooses to run itself, then this poem explicitly says that Rome will reach its height when it is ruled by the enlightened dictator Augustus, and that the Roman people are destined to rule the entire known world – and are justified in doing so because of their unique skill at ruling justly.

Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.
(6.1,151 to 1,154)

This prophecy of Anchises is only the most famous of several passages which justify Roman conquest and rule over the entire world. The Aeneid is a hymn to Roman hegemony. Nothing could be more political. Claiming it is ‘not in its nature a political poem’ because it doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of the constitution or describe any particular ‘political system’ or discuss political parties is being disingenuous or naive. Try telling any of the peoples Rome had conquered, whose towns they had destroyed and populations they’d sold into slavery (read Caesar’s Gallic Wars) that writing an elaborate poem justifying Rome’s eternal rule over the entire known world was not a political statement and watch them laugh in your face.

Clearly your answer to the question, ‘Is the Aeneid a political poem?’ depends on how you define ‘politics’, but there’s also another level or type of definition of politics in play here: this is the issue of taking sides during a civil war. This, also, is a glaring ‘political issue’: whether one is on the side of, say, the nationalists or the republicans during the Spanish Civil War could hardly be a more political and politicised decision.

Well, in the civil war with Antony, Virgil hugely comes down on the side of Augustus and writes it into his poem. In the epic scene where Vulcan forges a mighty shield for Aeneas he depicts on it the Battle of Actium where Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and the narrator throws in criticisms of the doomed lovers. And the shield then goes on to celebrate Augustus’s unprecedented three triumphs over his political and military opponents.

It beggars belief that Camps thinks that this hugely committed work of propaganda is ‘in no sense political propaganda’ solely because it ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system.’ As I’ve been writing this I’ve realised I myself am missing another way to argue against him, which is to point out that he is wrong even on his own terms: that the entire poem is ‘conceived in terms of a political system’, namely – the imperial rule of Augustus. Rule by an emperor emphatically is a political system and this poem consistently and repeatedly predicts and celebrates this political system.

Copying the Greeks

Virgil wrote three great works. In each of them he copied Greek originals. The Eclogues copy the Idylls of Theocritus, the Georgics copy the Work and Days of Hesiod, the Aeneid very closely copies the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Camps claims Virgil is not stealing – he is reconciling the two cultures.

Camps lists some of the major plot devices he is indebted to Homer for:

  • an extended sea journey packed with adventures – the Odyssey
  • enmity of a god who hates the hero drawing out the journey to extended length – the Odyssey
  • councils of the gods in heaven – both Odyssey and Iliad
  • descent to the underworld – the Odyssey
  • funeral games – the Iliad
  • massive, sustained war featuring a siege and many detailed battle scenes – the Iliad
  • the aristeia in which a warrior reaches the peak of their excellence before being cut down – the Iliad
  • the blacksmith god creating a suit of armour and a shield decorated with emblematic events for the hero – the Iliad
  • strong female warrior (Camilla) – the Iliad
  • a foray into the enemy camp by night – the Iliad
  • retirement of the protagonist in whose absence the other army comes right up to the allies’ base and threatens to storm it and win the war – the Iliad
  • hero’s beautiful young friend killed by the main antagonist, a loss which drives the hero to psychopathic vengeance – the Iliad
  • climactic single combat between two epic heroes – the Iliad

(Camps gives a much longer list of direct copying on page 81.) Camps says that Virgil used Homer to supply ‘a deficiency in the possibilities of his own imagination’ (p.9) but it’s bigger than that: the Aeneid doesn’t borrow elements from Homer’s epics, it couldn’t have existed without them. They provide the entire historical background, the entire worldview of gods interfering in the lives of mortals, the entire concept of a long poem focusing on an epic hero, and almost all the significant events. ‘Borrowing’ or ‘copying’ aren’t adequate enough words for the wholesale reincarnation of Homer’s epics in Virgil’s work, and in a later chapter Camps seems to acknowledge this:

To a very large extent the story told in the Aeneid is made by remoulding Homeric materials, as well as owing to Homer the broad motifs which govern its design. (p.82)

The process of composition

Camps devotes an appendix to describing some of the short biographies of Virgil which were written after his death. Suetonius wrote one, now, unfortunately, lost. The best early one which survives is by Aelius Donatus and Camps presents a translation of the full text (6 pages long).

Donatus and fragments from other biographies tell us that Virgil’s method in composing poetry was to make a complete prose summary of the entire story before he began writing any verse. Donatus says that every morning Virgil dictated some verses to a secretary for as long as inspiration lasted, then, after lunch, spent the afternoon working over what he had dictated, sometimes whittling a mass of verses down to just a handful of lines, sometimes just one. Apparently, Virgil compared the process to the ancient folklore notion that a mother bear gave birth to formless lumps of life and then literally licked them into shape (p.117).

(In fact, Donatus describes this as Virgil’s method in writing the Georgics but everyone has silently agreed that this is probably how he composed the Aeneid as well.)

Crucially, Donatus says that Virgil did not compose the poem by starting at the beginning and working through. Instead, he was inspired to versify particular ad hoc scenes as the inspiration took him, sometimes composing later scenes years before earlier ones. This explains all sorts of discrepancies which a close reading of the poem brings to light, notably the lack of linking and smoothing passages, for example the abrupt ending of the famous book 6, and the even more abrupt ending of the entire poem.

Moreover, Donatus tells us that the poem contains many lines of poor quality, as well as lines which are metrically incomplete which Virgil deliberately left in because he needed the padding and structure to get onto the more finished sections, but would have returned to improve had he lived.

The violence

I think my view of the poem has been very strongly skewed by the hyper violence of the second part of the poem. The orgies of testosterone-fuelled slaughter which it describes with such relish strongly affect my impression of the first half, so that I remember mainly the violence – for example, the extended description of the fighting at the sack of Troy. Camps wants us to feel soft and sentimental about the book-long love affair with Dido but what I mainly remember from book 4 is:

  • the murder of Dido’s husband and the unhappiness of his ghost
  • the self slaughter of Dido, who does it in the Roman way, falling on her sword
  • Dido’s extended curse on the Romans and getting her people to swear eternal enmity, an enmity which will lead to three ruinous wars and then the eventual sack of Carthage, the killing of tens of thousands of soldiers and the selling of her entire people into slavery

Similarly, I take the point that the journey to the underworld is genuinely weird and spooky, and Aeneas encounters many strange sights, that his pity for suffering humanity especially aroused by the sight of the pitiful shades waiting to be ferried across the river Styx and then his doleful reunion with the shade of his father.

But for me this all tends to be eclipsed by the shiny vision of the procession of his Roman descendants and, when you look at this list of Great Romans, what are they famous for? What all Romans are famous for, their military victories. David West in his 1991 Penguin edition has a handy little appendix which lists the figures Aeneas sees in the procession of Great Romans:

  • Silvius the warrior king
  • Brutus, famous for expelling the last kings and executing his two sons when they tried to restore them
  • the Decii, father and son, famous for giving their lives to win victory in two wars
  • Torquatus, led an army against the Gauls and executed his own son for disobeying orders
  • Lucius Mummius who not only sacked Corinth in 146 but utterly destroyed it as an example of Roman power
  • Aemilius Paullus credited with the conquest of Greece for defeating Pyrrhus king of Epirus
  • Cornelius Cossus defeated a foreign king in single combat
  • Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, the reforming tribunes, both of whom were murdered in the streets of Rome along, in the latter case, with thousands of their supporters
  • Scipio Africanus Maior defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama
  • Scipio Africanus Minor leading the army which sacked, utterly destroyed Carthage and sold its 50,000 inhabitants into slavery
  • Fabricius who led an army against Pyrrhus
  • Fabius Maximus Cunctator, the general who delayed and delayed confronting Hannibal in Italy
  • M. Claudius Marcellus killed a Gaulish chieftain in single combat

This is (not quite all) the people who feature in Aeneas’s vision of his glorious descendants, and what do they all have in common? Violence and killing. Slaughter. Rome was hyper-violent state, engaged in almost non-stop war (the Gallic Wars) and when they weren’t destroying other peoples’ cities (Corinth, Carthage, Gaul) they fought with terrible ferocity among themselves (Pharsalis, Philippi, Actium).

If any contemporary Roman set out a pageant of their glorious history, what would it consist of? Except a litany of wars and battles. It was a phenomenally militaristic state. Even the humanist’s favourite, Cicero, not only went to serve as governor on Cilicia but led his army in a siege and battles. Even the sternly principled Cato sided with Pompey in the civil war and was made governor of north Africa where he managed the military campaigns. Holding a senior magistracy at any time in Roman history almost inevitably entailed leading a Roman army.

Camps’s attempts at a moral interpretation undermined by the violence

Maybe I’m getting this way wrong, but I read Camps’s introduction from end to end and I think it gives a deeply misleading impression of the Aeneid. He devotes a chapter to Aeneas, then one to Dido and Turnus, and these overflow with sensitive empathy for their sufferings and the deeply ‘moral’ choices which they face.

But the poem I read venerates power, might, military strength, masculinity, supreme ability in battle and its centre stand two awesome killing machines, terminator-figures, Aeneas and Turnus who rampage across the battlefield beheading, belimbing, skewering and butchering anyone who stands in their way.

This is one of the reasons I dislike the moralising tone of humanist literary criticism, because it distorts the facts, it deceives and lies. You can read Camps’s book from end to end and get no sense of the piles of bodies, bloody gore and funeral pyres which clot the poem, and end up thinking it’s a Henry James novel making sensitive discriminations about moral scruples. It really isn’t.

At the end of Camps’s chapter about Aeneas, he does, eventually, concede, that there is a bit of fighting, and, OK, Aeneas is a bit brutal. He lists some examples. On the battlefield at the height of his rage Aeneas taunts a victim with the thought that his body will lie unburied; he consigns some of the prisoners they’ve taken to be executed in cold blood to adorn Pallas’s funeral.

There’s more like this but Camps deliberately omits it. Instead he goes out of his way to exonerate his vision of a caring, sharing, sensitive hero, these brutalities:

are altogether at variance with the hero’s usual humanity, and indeed with the standards of the poet’s civilised contemporaries.

Rubbish. A quick checklist of Augustus’ behaviour refutes this, not to mention a scan of Caesar’s record in Gaul, Roman behaviour in Carthage or Corinth or in the Wild East of Asia Minor. Camps limply goes on to concede that ‘the Roman world was not a gentle one’ [sic], and then devotes a paragraph to trying to justify Aeneas’s brutal, bloody execution of an unarmed prisoner on his knees at the end of the poem. He claims that this execution ‘would seem to Virgil’s readers poetically just’. Right at the end of his introduction, he returns to the fact that the entire poem builds up to this ominous and disturbing conclusion, the enraged murder of Turnus, and finds it:

strangely discordant with the normally disciplined humanity of Aeneas (p.142)

But reading Camps’s efforts to explain away this glaring, brutal event I thought: ‘But what if…what if the brutal killing, maiming and taunting, the sending for execution and murderous mayhem Aeneas enacts at the end of the Aeneid is NOT the temporary aberration Camps tries to explain away? What if it is the real Aeneas coming through and showing his “civilised contemporaries” what the real Rome is really like and it is – a killing machine?’

To be really crude, Camps is an apologist for a poem glorifying a mass killer and a violent empire.

The animal sacrifices

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be disgusted by the vast number of animals who are ritually slaughtered on almost every page of the Aeneid, led to the place of sacrifice and having their throats cut so their hot blood splashes over the altar by the gallon. Thousands and thousands of animals are butchered in the name of religion, in fact, in practical terms, animal butchery is their religion, both Trojans and Latins.

You know the line they’ve been putting on movie credits for decades, ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this movie’? Well, thousands of animals were slaughtered, had their throats slashed while they were alive and fully conscious, in the making of this poem.

Two points. 1. Again, this is the kind of really obvious in-your-face aspect of the text which a ‘moralising’ critic like Camps completely ignores. It’s just not there for him, because his ideology that literature must be about humanistic morality and sensibility simply prevents him from registering what is in front of him. As soon as I see a critic (of literature or art or film or whatever) mention the words ‘moral’, ‘morality’, ‘moral choices’ etc I know they are going to give a distorted and inaccurate account of the work under consideration, because their obsession with ‘moral values’ restricts them to just one narrow aspect of the characters and the text and blinds them, like the blinkers on a carthorse, to everything else which is going on around them, to the totality of the work.

Anyway, Camps doesn’t have the ‘moral’ awareness to even register that the cruel slaughter of thousands of sentient animals might be wrong.

But 2. The relentless animal slaughter plays a really important role in the fabric of the poem by making the human slaughter seem natural. It desensitises you. If you’ve already waded through lakes of animal blood, spurting from slashed throats, it makes the butchery of human beings just that bit more assimilable. The entire poem becomes a welter of blood and gore.

As I said, I’m aware that this is also a biased and partial view and that there are plenty of passages of delightful description, Aeneas’s sensitivity and sea nymphs frolicking in the waves etc. I am just pointing out what Camps’s supposedly thorough introduction to the poem completely omits from its account.

Virgil’s multi-levelled and holey theology

Christian theology has spent 2,000 years trying to reconcile the paradox that, while on the one hand God is all-knowing and so knows the future as well as the past, on the other hand, the theology of reward and punishment only makes sense if humans have free will. If everything is foreordained, then I have no free will, and therefore cannot be guilty or innocent of my actions. Therefore cannot be sent to hell or heaven. Whereas Christian theologians and hierarchies and organisations, very much do want to emphasise our free will precisely in order to threaten us with punishment in the afterlife and keep us in line.

Now the same problem is raised by the Aeneid only in a much more intense form because at every step of the way, at almost every decisive moment, it is the gods’ intervention which makes things happen. Venus makes Dido fall in love with Aeneas, going to some lengths to do so, luring Aeneas’s son into a copse where she puts him asleep and replacing him at Dido’s reception feast for Aeneas with her other son, Eros god of love, assuming the form of Eros entirely to soften her spinsterhood and make her fall for the Trojan. And then it is Venus who, at the end of their affair, comes to Aeneas in a dream and tells him he must get up and rouse his companions and load his ships and leave Carthage right now.

Similarly, the entire action of the second half of the book, the entire war between the Trojans and the Latins, with the enormous destruction and loss of life on both sides, only takes place solely because Juno makes it happen, commissioning the Fury Allecto to fire up the Latins against the peace treaty with the Trojans.

And yet, throughout the poem, the narrator also assigns praise and blame to individual actors, and they themselves debate their guilt and responsibility. For example, Aeneas tells Dido it is not his fault that he is running off and abandoning her: sed me iusa deum – the nasty god made me do it.

It would be interesting to read a clever analysis which explained what we know of Roman theology and sets Virgil’s depiction of the issue within that framework of belief. Camps sketches out the issues in his chapter 5 but doesn’t tell us anything which wasn’t already obvious from the poem.

For me the key to thinking about this problem is suggested by something Camps explains at the start of his book, which is to do with Virgil’s method of composition. Namely, it was episodic. (Camps uses the Latin word particulatim which means ‘piecemeal’, p.125). According to Donatus’s Life of Virgil, the poet first wrote out a prose version of his story but then chose not to work through it in order, but to work up particular ad hoc scenes from different parts of the narrative into verse.

And in doing so, he focused on producing as intense and vivid a scene as possible for the scene’s sake and we know that this sometimes led to discrepancies between episodes; characters behave inconsistently or say one thing in one scene, another in another; characters are introduced who we have already met and so on.

(Camps mentions the two apparently different deaths of Palinurus, who, at the end of book 5, plunges down into the sea, drowning, but in book 6 is said to have swim to shore, p.125. Or there are the two completely different versions of how Helen reacts to the sacking of Troy a) hiding in terror 2.567, or b) out confidently leading the Greeks around the city in book 6. He gives more examples of this kind of contradiction in appendix 4.)

Well, Virgil’s theology can be thought about in the same way as his method of composition, namely that he is not expounding a consistent and thought-through theology in the manner of Tertullian or Augustine; rather he is writing a dramatic poem and all that matters is the intensity of particular episodes. The momentary impact is the thing. Therefore it creates a great dramatic effect to show Juno or Venus interfering almost all the way through the narrative. But at other moments, on the human plane, mortals may discuss their decisions and implications in human terms of agency and responsibility. And because Virgil is concerned with creating whatever is most effective at any particular point, he isn’t concerned with trying to reconcile the theological contradictions thrown up by these different approaches.

In fact there are at least three levels at work in the poem, because above the continual interfering of the gods, which is continually described, sits another force – this is the power of fate or the Fates. This isn’t described but referred to at various points, mainly by the gods themselves. Nothing at all, not even Jupiter, can change what is destined and fated. He and the other gods can only interfere with what, in the end, are details, but the overall Fate and Destiny of everyone is fixed and unalterable.

Thus Juno herself is made to admit that she cannot change Aeneas’s ultimate destiny to settle in Italy and found the Roman race; she can only delay it. Which she does, at the cost of thousands of needless deaths including, ironically, that of her own favourite, Turnus.

On this view, you can pray to the gods, and the gods are depicted answering some (though not all) prayers (mortals can never be sure which ones will be answered and which ones won’t). But no prayers can alter the fixed outlines of Fate.

Fate has built the matrix with bands of steel. Nothing can change or alter them. But within the matrix, individual gods are free to mess about with details, to delay, to alter, to bend – but never to change the fundamental ends.

It’s in this context that Camps makes the shrewd point that the gods themselves pursue their own ends. The gods are as selfish as mortals, maybe more so. Only Jupiter rises above their endless squabbles and tries to adjudicate fairly but, as many readers have observed, he is only an intermittent presence in the poem: Juno and Venus are much more prominent, Juno most of all. The Aeneid could accurately be called the Book of Juno, or The Book of Juno’s Anger.

To anyone who takes this mirage, ‘morality’, seriously, the gods in Virgil are quite demonstrably monsters of immorality, cruel, thoughtless, heartless, irresponsible – like children. Any real consideration of the pagan gods of antiquity eventually suggests why they had to be superseded by the Christian god. They were just not worthy of serious intellectual consideration. And they are fundamentally indifferent to human life, breath-takingly callous. Serious consideration of the pagan gods led philosophers to sets of beliefs like Epicureanism or Stoicism, very different ideologies but alike in their aim of trying to eliminate the role of the gods in human life. Paganism tends towards a brutal indifference to human existence.

Compare and contrast that with the intense feeling of personal salvation which Christianity offered its believers. As Camps puts it, ‘the promise of the new kind of religion is evidence of the terrors of the old’ (p.49).

Anyway, the existence of these three levels of action allows Virgil to switch between them as it suits his narrative ends. Jupiter apologises to Juno, saying his hands are tied by Fate. Aeneas apologises to Dido, saying his hands are tied by the gods, and so on.

How are humans meant to know what the devil is going on? Via the welter of omens, signs and prophecies which the text is full of. These are the channel of communication between the three levels.

Sometimes a god personally explains something to Aeneas, but far more often it is the shade of a dead mortal (Hector or Anchises) who can explain things up to a point but not the full picture. This up-to-a-pointness is really striking: ghosts and spirits are continually telling Aeneas just so much of his future and, when he wants to know more, fading into smoke.

At other times it is the mute symbolism of some sign or portent like a comet in the skies or a swarm of bees or the eagle carrying off a swan who is beaten off by all the other birds – in other words, portents which mortals are forced to interpret and guess at.

My position is that none of this amounts to a worked-out theology on the analogy of Christian theologies. The opposite. Although these elements fill the text to bursting, they don’t indicate a coherent worldview, but one that is cheerfully incoherent: one which is ragged and flexible enough for the characters and narrator to switch between at least 3 levels of belief: belief in a Fixed and Unchangeable Fate, belief in the continual intervention of the gods, and belief in man’s free will which is sufficient to allow him to carry out free actions which can, accordingly, be judged within a ‘moral’ framework.

The overlap and interplay of the different systems is one of the things which keeps the poem dynamic and varied, keeps the reader in a continual sense of flux and uncertainty.


Alongside the multiple levels of destiny, goes a kind of dualistic theory of human nature. Dido and Turnus have two modes of being: their ‘normal’ selves and themselves possessed. In their states of possession they are associated with a range of frenetic adjectives, to wit: amens, turbidus, fervidus, ardens, furens, trepidans, in a state of inania, furor and violentia.

Furor in particular is applied to Dido a dozen times and Turnus half a dozen times. And Aeneas, after the death of Pallas, becomes a man ‘possessed’ on the battlefield. If you felt so inclined you could read the entire poem through the vector of frenzied possession just as much as by Camps’s limp metric of ‘morality’.

The poetry

It’s difficult to follow Camps’s chapter about the verse itself (chapter 7) unless you can not only read Latin but have a good feel for it as a medium of expression. I did Latin GCSE but have nowhere near the ability to judge it as poetry. Some key points which come over from Camps’s account are:

Vocabulary Virgil used a consciously ‘poetic’ diction, on the model of Milton in Paradise Lost or Tennyson in Idylls of the King, with a sprinkling of words from earlier poetry and archaic forms to give it sonority and authority.

Syntax Flexible, sometimes an adjective whose meaning attaches to one noun is grammatically attached to another; two nouns related by a verb have their normal relationship inverted; a phrase is compressed by omitting a term of meaning, letting the reader supply it; sometimes grammar as well as meaning is understated or omitted and the reader needs to supply it, too. These and other tactics create:

  • flexibility in writing lines and passages
  • compactness

But Camps says that, more distinctive than either of these is Virgil’s coining of highly expressive original phrases out of very basic words. Alongside their power goes a certain ambiguity. This has meant that many phrases of Virgil’s can be extracted from their original context and acquire new, more powerful meanings. Take lacrimae rerum.

Aeneas has been washed up on the coast of Africa and welcomed into the new city of Carthage and now he is looking at a mural in a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Juno that depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. He is moved to tears and says ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

Apparently, even in the original Latin, this phrase is grammatically ambiguous and can equally mean, ‘There are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind’ or, ‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind.’

Either way, the phrase went on to have a tremendous afterlife, being widely quoted in later writers as pithily summing up the sadness of human existence. Then, in the early twentieth century, it began to be used on Great War memorials, thus entering wider consciousness. It’s one example of the way Virgil’s just-so selection of very ordinary words was done in such a way as to pack an eerily powerful – and enduring – punch.


The single most striking thing in Camps’s book is not by him but is in Aelius Donatus’s short Life of Virgil which Camps includes in its entirety in an appendix. In the early section about his appearance and nature, Donatus writes:

He was somewhat inclined to pederasty, [his particular favourites being Cebes and Alexander, whom he calls Alexis in the second Eclogue. Alexander was given to him by Asinius Pollio. Both of them were well-educated and Cebes wrote poetry himself.] (p.115)

Donatus then goes on to report the rumour that Virgil had a relationship with an apparently notable woman named Plotia Hieria, but that she denied it in later life. Apart from that ‘his conduct and demeanour were so respectable’ that at Naples he acquired the nickname Parthenias, an adjective applied to Athena and meaning chaste and virginal.

Three points. 1. This entirely chimes with several of the Eclogues which describe passionate love between  some of the poems’ idealised young shepherds and are plainly homoerotic. 2. The fact that ‘Alexander’ was a gift shows that the young men in question were slaves. Virgil had gay relationships with his male slaves. Slavery.

3. It’s interesting how Donatus’s description moves easily from describing his fondness for male slaves to his rumoured affair with a Roman matron. I.e. the homosexuality had the same kind of value or scandal value as a rumoured ‘straight’ affair i.e. merited a sentence or two, but not worth making any fuss over.

It’s a demonstration of the point made in M.I. Finley’s essay about women and marriage in ancient Rome, that what mattered more than anything else was the legal integrity of the official family, and in particular the legal status of sons and daughters to ensure the efficient heritance of property, titles and lineage. As long as these legal forms were observed, then there was considerable leeway in how citizens (mostly men) (mis)behaved.


An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps was published by Oxford University Press in 1969. All references are to the 1984 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

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

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

(Book IV, lines 968 and 969)

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

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

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

Sometimes technocratic and scientific:

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

(Book I lines 130 to 135)

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

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

(Book V, lines 95 and 96)

Sometimes slipping in slangy phrases for the hell of it:

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

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

Titus Lucretius Carus

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

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

The various modern translations

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

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

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

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

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

Epicurus’s message of reassurance

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

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

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

(Book III, lines 907-909)

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

Epicurus’s atomic theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book I, lines 146 to 150)

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

Epicurus the god

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion the enemy of freedom

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

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

(Book I, lines 930 to 932)

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

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

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

Epicureanism and Stoicism in their social context

I need your full attention. Listen well!

(Book VI, line 916)

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

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

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

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

(Book V, lines 23 to 25)

Very didactic

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

Pay attention!…
Just remember this…

(Book II, lines 66 and 90)

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

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

(Book I, lines 54 to 57)

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

Now pay heed! I have more to say…

(Book III, line 136)

The poem amounts to a very long lecture.

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

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

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

The good life

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

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

(Book II, lines 13 to 15)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortcomings of Latin

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

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

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

(Book III, lines 293-295)

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

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

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

(Book IV, lines 19 to 25)


Book 1 (1,117 lines)

– Introduction

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

– address to the poet’s patron, Memmius

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

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

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

– on the characteristics of atoms

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

– the infinity of matter and space

Book 2 (1,174 lines)

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

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

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

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

– the conservation of energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book III (1,094 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– therefore, Death is nothing to us

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

Book IV (1,287 lines)

– the poet’s task is to teach

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

(Book IV, lines 8 to 10)

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

– all our sensations are caused by these atomic images

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

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

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

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

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

Book V (1,457 lines)

– Epicurus as revealer of philosophical wisdom and healer

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

– astronomical questions

– the origin of vegetable, animal and human life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book VI (1,286 lines)

– another hymn to Epicurus and his godlike wisdom

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

(Book VI, lines 22 to 25)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It must be unfinished.


1. The philosophy

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

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

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

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

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

2. The poem

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

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

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

Comparison with the Penguin edition

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

Textual apparatus

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

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

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

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

New things I learned from Richard Jenkyns’ introduction were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stalling’s translation

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

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

(Book I, lines 1 to 8)

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

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

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

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

Now Stalling:

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

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

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

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

(Book I, lines 146 to 153)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book III, lines 15 to 25)

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

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

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

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

Online translations

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

(Book IV, lines 115 to 116)

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

Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 3


Rarely have I read so many wrong-headed, misleading and bad arguments collected together in one place as in Cicero’s book, On the nature of the gods. The overall impression is to make you think ‘philosophy’ is a cover-all term for playground squabbling rather than an activity for adults. At one point Cotta says that the task of philosophy is to clear away bad thinking and error in order to get to ‘the truth’ but this text demonstrates the exact opposite. It is like stirring up a pond with a stick till you have completely muddied and confused the waters.

The handful of axioms which all the characters base all their arguments on are null and void.

Argument from consensus

All the protagonists claim that gods must exist because all human beings have an innate sense of gods or a God. Well a) no they don’t and b), even if they did, mjust because everyone believes something (for example, witches must be burned) doesn’t make it true or socially useful. Fail.

Argument from design

The Argument from Design is invoked repeatedly throughout the book (on pages 129 159, 160 to 164, 167, 170, 172 and many more). Velleius, Balbus and Cotta all look up at the regular movements of the stars, are impressed by tides of the oceans, or admire the beauty of all manner of animals – and proclaim that all this order and pattern must prove the existence of a rational designer and, in the Stoics’ case, an ongoing divine and rational providence moving all things in order and harmony.

Unfortunately, the Argument from Design was destroyed in its abstract philosophical form by David Hume in the 1770s and in its application to all living things, by Charles Darwin in the 1850s. So instead of being impressed and converted by its frequent repetition, I became more vexed and irritated.

Relying on the Argument from Design is as false as the way all the characters in the text assume that the earth is at the centre of the solar system and the sun revolves around it (p.165) which proves that the earth is the centre of the universe, and that human beings are the centre of the earth, and therefore that we must share our nature with the Master Creator.


All of these arguments are aspects of mankind’s incorrigible anthropoventrism and inescapable narcissism, and all of them are null and void.

‘The providence of God’ (p.175) is simply a phrase people like Cicero’s characters and many millions of others for well over 2,000 years have used to describe the laws of astronomy, geography and biology which they observe in action but which were completely ignorant of.

The reality that we, in the West at any rate, currently inhabit is that:

  • the structure, patterns, rules and laws governing the universe, galaxy, solar system and so on are all adequately explained by modern cosmology
  • the structure, pattern, rules and laws governing the non-organic aspect of the earth are explained by geology and geography
  • the structure, pattern, rules and laws governing all organic life forms are explained by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, as immeasurably deepened by the discovery of DNA in the 1950s and the rise of supercomputing power in the last few decades

Nobody who wants to know ‘the truth’ about these matters needs to read this book which, rather than any kind of guide to any kind of ‘truth’ should be regarded as a cabinet of curiosities. Educate yourself about the facts of life. Literally.

Too binary thinking

The fundamental mistake all Cicero’s characters make is to adopt a binary opposition between chance and design. What astronomy and biology have taught us is, to put it simply, that it’s a lot more complicated than that. The universe we see and inhabit is not the product of completely random ‘chance’ in the simple-minded sense; it is the product of a huge array of rules which govern matter of all kinds, at a host of levels, under all kinds of situations, many of which we still don’t understand (quantum physics).

But the existence of these complex rules doesn’t require a designer or intelligence or maker or divine providence to have made them. They just are the rules under which matter operates. That two atoms of hydrogen bond to one of oxygen to make water doesn’t require a divine intelligence to make happen. It is a property of certain chemicals. The periodic table of elements crystallises out as the universe cools after the Big Bang. Chemical elements behave in certain ways according to their valencies and electrochemical characteristics.

The same goes for other ‘concepts’ the ancients throw around like pieces of Lego, such as ‘free will’ and ‘providence’. Nobody knows what is going to happen in the future, but most of us can be pretty sure the basic rules of physics and chemistry and biology will continue to apply. It doesn’t require a God to underpin every moment of every atom and cell in the universe at all moments. The rule of physics and chemistry and biology suffice.

One David Attenborough documentary contains more factual information than all the ‘wisdom’ of the ancients.

Atheism as a minority belief

It is clear that the majority of people around the world are still religious, some very much so – fundamentalists in the US, Catholics in Latin America, evangelicals in Africa, the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims and 1.2 billion Hindus. Easily the majority of humans currently alive believe in some kind of god.

So the arguments I put forward, above, only apply to a minority of the world’s population, mostly in the western, post-industrial societies. Still, in ‘my’ minority culture of white western atheists, our worldview is determined by Newton and Einstein, Darwin, Watson and Crick and tens of thousands of astronomers and biologists since.

Live and let live

Although I personally believe all forms of theism are factually incorrect, I have no great beef about them and am not driven to waste vast amounts of energy trying to disprove them à la Richard Dawkins. Why? Because people quite obviously need them. The lives of human beings are short and scary. We all die in various forms of pain or fear. We see all around us evidence of a vast universe which doesn’t give a damn whether we live or die, are blissfully happy or existing in misery and pain. Therefore it makes psychological sense for many many people to have space in their minds for powers or spirits or gods or a God who they can imagine protecting them and looking after them and their families.

Even for people who are doing well in life, it makes psychological sense to be aware that life is fragile, fortune is fickle and it might all come crashing down at any moment. Therefore it makes sense to give thanks to someone, to something, to nature or god, to something outside yourself, for the blessings you are conscious of enjoying.

As Freud said in one of his letters, he was painfully aware that he  couldn’t give most of his patients what they were, at bottom, all searching for: consolation. Religion can.

Narrow atheism à la Richard Dawkins may be factually correct but Dawkins’s obvious failing is to be completely oblivious to human psychology, which is why he comes over as an inflexible robot and makes so few converts, while managing to antagonise religious believers of all flavours.

When your child is born or your parent dies, when you are anxious about your health or stressed about work or where the next meal is going to come from – then we all need psychological strategies to help us cope. And thousands of years of cultural evolution mean that the world’s religions have accumulated huge numbers of psychological strategies, along with rites and rituals and ceremonies and beliefs for coping and making sense of life and the thousand ills we are prey to.

So my view is that anything which helps people to get through life and make sense of it is to be respected. The fact that we can prove that this or that aspect of it is factually wrong (wrong like the Christian evangelicals who reject Darwin or fossils) is missing the point. Most of us aren’t coolly analytical logic machines to begin with. Most of us need help. Humans are, after all, wildly irrational.

In a thousand shapes and forms religions provide a conceptual structure and cultural traditions and psychological aids which help billions of people cope and make sense of and endure and even enjoy life. It would be pointless, and narrow minded, of me to quibble with that.


This books was interesting in shedding light on Cicero’s broad knowledge, his ambitions to bring Greek philosophy to the Latin world, and so helping me understand his importance not only in his own time but as a preserver or conduit of ancient learning through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. But as an examination of the actual subject it purports to tackle, it felt to me almost completely worthless.

Related links

Roman reviews

On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 2

‘It is the task of philosophy to dispel errors so that when we talk about the immortal gods we may say only what is worthy of them.’
(Gaius Aurelius Cotta, page 219, book III, On the nature of the gods)

On the nature of Cicero’s books

Cicero’s books are extremely argumentative. By which I mean that there are no descriptive or literary passages, only the briefest autobiographical passage at the start and then – bang! – straight into 150 pages of non-stop, unrelenting argumentation. Every paragraph is arguing a point, and he sometimes makes two or 3 points on a page. On the nature of the gods is only 150 or so pages long in the Penguin paperback edition but every page is crammed with a non-stop barrage of arguments, proofs and refutations.

The one really obvious attraction of these ancient texts is that they are accessible. By that I mean that the protagonists in a text like this use examples and ideas which are completely understandable by the man or woman in the street. Unlike modern philosophy there is a complete absence of: maths and maths-style logic (as found in analytical and logical philosophy); specialised technical terms; and, above all, the clutter and detritus of hundreds of other philosophical schools which have arisen over the past 2,000 years and left their semantic and conceptual wreckage strewn across the intellectual landscape.

Instead, the three protagonists in this dialogue about the nature of the gods almost entirely use ordinary language and everyday examples to make their points. For example when Velleius says that, if God only decided to make the universe, the sun and the moon and so on at some point into infinite time, does that mean that up till that moment he had been living in darkness like a pauper in a hovel? There is a lot more like this, a lot more crude sarcasm and taunting and ridiculing than you might expect in a ‘philosophical’ work.

(Actually, that’s not strictly true: from time to time the speakers use philosophical terms coined by the original Greek philosophers. Not many and not often, though.)

The result is twofold: although a lot of the arguments come across as wrong, superficial and bizarre, nonetheless it is easy to read and enjoyable to follow the flow of each speaker’s case. The editor, J.M. Ross, points out that the text is very uneven, with chunks missing, other bits arranged in what seem to be the wrong order, with the protagonists failing to address each other’s points or wandering off the subject altogether. But this makes it all the more entertaining, like listening to a tipsy polymath holding forth at a dinner party or at the bar. I think of the comic monologues of entertainers of my youth like Victor Borge or Peter Ustinov. The combination of serious points embellished with ridicule and exaggeration are frequently more reminiscent of a comic monologue than a work of ‘philosophy’.

It also gives the book a pleasing naivety. Coming to Cicero after trying to read Derrida or Habermas is like walking from an intense undergraduate seminar down the corridor into the creche where a load of toddlers are playing with lego.

Three speakers

As explained before, the text is conceived as presenting three speakers, each of whom is a star representative of the three main philosophical schools of Cicero’s day – Epicurean, Stoic, Academic. There were many other minor schools but as his book is focusing on the specific questions of a) whether there are gods and b) what they’re like and c) how we should behave regarding them, Cicero only needed three positions or attitudes. The three interlocutors are:

  • Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view
  • Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view
  • Gaius Aurelius Cotta who represents the Academic point of view

The three positions can be summarised as:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providence / Stoic (gods exist and are identical with nature, with the visible universe and its laws)
  • sceptic (voicing objections to both the above to arrive at a ‘common sense’ view of the existence of the gods and the reverence due them)

In what follows I’m not going to give an exhaustive summary of all the points made by all the speakers, just the ones which came over to me as important or interesting or quirky.


In the brief introduction Cicero makes a couple of points which will recur throughout the book:

Cicero takes it as axiomatic that there are gods. Only a fool or anarchist would be an atheist. Belief in the existence of the gods follows from two key axioms:

1. All of history and all of anthropology suggests that all humanity is naturally and innately inclined to believe in gods. And this universal predilection is taken as incontrovertible proof.

2. Religious belief and practice are the vital glue holding society together and underpinning all moral and social values, underpinning interpersonal ethics and the rule of law and justice.

When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life…If our reverence for the gods were lost, we should see the end of good faith, of human brotherhood, and even of justice itself, which is the keystone of all the virtues. (I.2)

So although all three speakers may at points touch on the logical possibility of there being no gods, none of them actually propounds this view. Possibly this was also because, although there was no actual law against atheism, nonetheless Greek thinkers who had propounded atheism had been vilified. Cotta gives the example of Protagoras of Abdera who wrote in a book that he was not able to say whether the gods existed or not, and was as a result banished from the city and his works burned in public. Cicero himself had been elected a member of the College of Augurs in 53 BC and so was responsible for performing various religious duties in public. As he has Cotta say:

I myself hold a religious office and I believe that public religious worship and ritual ought to be reverently observed. (p.94)

If his book had openly espoused atheism, presumably he would have been sacked from that job and maybe faced further sanctions. So hidden behind the civilised chat of our three protagonists lurks a coercive social threat. (The notion that it is ‘prudent’ to profess belief in the gods is repeated on pages 104, 120 and 193.)

1a. Gaius Velleius and the Epicurean view of the gods (pages 77 to 92)

Rubbishing the opposition

A good deal of Velleius’s discourse consists of stating, then rubbishing, Stoic and other Greek philosophical views.

Velleius kicks off by rubbishing Stoic-style notions that the universe was built by a master artificer, the view put forward by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus. Can anyone actually imagine that happening? What tools did he use, what levers and pulleys and scaffolding? How came earth and air and fire and water to obey his commands?

Plato makes the world a manufactured article but he contradicts himself by saying the universe was made but at other points saying it is eternal.

We know time is infinite, eternal. Therefore the universe was created some point into infinite time. It had a beginning. Why? Why create it just at that moment? What triggered this sudden decision? What prompted God to decorate the universe with pretty lights like ‘some Minister of Public Works’? Is it because the world was created for the benefit of the wise? Then surely, never was so much trouble gone to to please so few.

Also: if the universe had a beginning, it must also have an ending.

How can the universe be a conscious being?

He mocks people who say the universe is a great consciousness, one conscious and immortal being (i.e. Stoics). They have no idea what consciousness is. They are ‘stupid’. Plato says the universe must be a sphere because the sphere is ‘the perfect shape’. How childish. He also says it must be spinning. If this sphere is conscious and is spinning at high speed, doesn’t God get giddy? And if the universe is ‘conscious’ some parts of the world are freezing ice caps, some parts are burning desert. So doesn’t it follow that god is roasting on one place and freezing in another?

Listing and rubbishing all other philosophers

Velleius then gives a long list of Greek philosophers starting with Thales, devoting a paragraph to summarising their chief contribution and then dismissing it with a sentence, being: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Alcmeon, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, Protagoras, Democritus, Diogenes, Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Speusippus, Aristotle, Xenocrates, Heraclides, Theophrastus, Strato, Zeno (father of Stoicism), Aristo, Cleanthes, Persaeus, Chrysippus, Diogenes of Babylon, and more.

In his introduction Ross describes this list as an irritating digression which the reader can skip but, on the contrary, I found it an enjoyable and informative overview. Above all it is a useful counter to Cicero’s structural claim that there are only 3 schools of philosophy. On the contrary, this list demonstrates the huge jungley undergrowth of Greek philosophical opinions.

Rubbishing Aristotle

Velleius castigates Aristotle for holding at least three separate views: in one place attributing divinity to mind only, in another saying the entire universe is God, in another setting God above the universe with the power to order all its motions; in yet another claiming the fiery ether is God, so how does that square with the entire universe being God? And if heaven is a God where do the gods reside? Anyway, how could the heavens, in their endless fast revolutions around the earth, maintain consciousness worthy of a god? And if God is bodiless how can he be in motion?

See what I mean by argumentative? In just one paragraph Velleius rubbishes 9 theological propositions of Aristotle. So this list of silly philosophers also feeds into Cicero’s Academic scepticism by demonstrating what a range of absurd and contradictory opinions have been held by such ‘clever’ people. Velleius calls them ‘the fantasies of lunatics’, no better than the fictions of the poets and the wonders of the magicians.

Velleius’s exposition of Epicurus (pages 87 to 92)

Epicurus thought the gods must exist because nature has imprinted an idea of them in the minds of all mankind. This is one of the fundamental axioms of human thought without which there can be no knowledge, rational thought or argument. It is the basis of a firm and continuing consensus.

The same nature which imprints this idea also imprints the notion that they are blessed and immortal. If this is so, the gods must be free from care, anxiety and other human emotions, and must cause no care or anxiety in others i.e. mortals.

The logical consequence of this is that a) the gods deserve reverence as everything which is excellent deserves reverence, but b) we need not fear the gods because blessed and immortal beings have no motive to cause anxiety and fear in others (p.89). This is the core aim of Epicureanism – to banish anxiety, fear, worry and care from its followers.

The gods have human form

Evidence for this includes:

  1. The universal conviction of all humanity i.e. nature has implanted this idea in all human minds.
  2. Because the divine nature is perfect, it must be clothed in the most perfect form and what form is more perfect and beautiful than the human body?
  3. Reason cannot dwell in any other form but the human form.

He gives a good example of the poor, biased and sometimes absurd arguments used throughout the book when he claims that: everyone agrees that the gods are happy, and no happiness is possible without virtue, and there is no virtue without reason, and reason is associated only with the human form: therefore, the gods must have human form. Cotta picks up on this sentence to point out that the final link – that reason is only associated with the human form – does not follow but is willed (p.104 and p.114).

BUT individual human bodies are fallible, vulnerable, age and die. Not so immortal bodies. Therefore the gods have the shape of human bodies but not actual human flesh and blood.

The gods are blissfully detached

Happiness is a state of rest. The gods do not strive and work. They have attained stasis, contemplating their own holiness and wisdom (which sounds very Buddhist). Therefore they have no involvement whatsoever in the world of men, which would involve them in anxiety and endeavour.

A being which is blessed and immortal is itself without cares and brings no cares to others. (p.104)

The universe was created by natural causes

Rather than created by some God, the universe came into being quite naturally by the clash of the infinite number of atoms falling infinitely through infinite space, banging into each other, congealing and constellating. No need for any God labouring away with levers and pulleys.

Thus there is no overseeing God, no God involved in creating the universe, it and everything in it have developed by natural processes. Thus there is no reason to be afraid of a curious god poking and prying into our lives, ‘a busybody god’.

Velleius’s conclusion

Epicurus has saved us from all such fears and set us free, so that we have no terror of the gods, whom we know neither devise any mischief for themselves nor seek to bring it upon others. And so with reverence and awe we worship them in their divine perfection. (p.92)

1b. Cotta’s refutation of Velleius (pages 93 to 120)

Cotta the sceptic is ‘one of those who can more easily see why something is false than true’. Cicero, rather unfairly, gives more space to Cotta’s demolition of Velleius than to the former’s main exposition. Cotta calls Velleius’s Epicurean views ‘irresponsible and ridiculous’.

1. Velleius’s main argument for the existence of the gods is that ‘all mankind’ believes in them. Well, how does he know the opinion of all mankind? There may be any number of wild and primitive peoples who don’t believe in gods, how can he know? Also, there is a record of known philosophers in Greece who have been out-and-out atheists; it doesn’t take many instances to disprove a claim to universality.

2. Cotta comes down hard on Velleius’s theory of atoms endlessly falling in infinite space, whose collisions eventually give rise to matter and the universe. Cotta denies the existence of atoms but says that, even if they existed, the notion that from sheer chance they have created the universe and all the order and regularity and life forms which we observe is ridiculous (p.114). The entire cock and bull theory is a working backwards from the necessary core of Epicureanism i.e. the non-intervention of the gods.

More fatally, if everything is made of atoms then the gods are made of atoms too and can be dissolved as easily as they came into being. If they had a beginning they must have an end: so how can they avoid anxiety about death and dissolution? (p.115)

3. Cotta ridicules Epicurus for saying that the gods must have a human body, as that is the highest form of perfection, and yet it is not actually a body because that is subject to decay – so they have something like a body but not subject to decay. Velleius criticised all other philosophers for their absurdities; Cotta calls Epicurus’s ideas ‘fanciful dreams’.

The notion that the gods must have human form is the product of:

  • superstitious minds who created phantom images of the gods because it was easy
  • poets and painters who need to work with something tangible, and therefore promoted the idea of gods having bodily form
  • humanity’s bias or prejudice towards thinking itself fabulous and the highest of all possible life forms; it is a form of narcissism; anthropomorphism (“the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”)

Are the gods different as human beings are different, one from another? In which case, how can they be perfect? Surely there is only one model of perfection and all gods ought to embody it?

Anyway, it’s not true to say that all cultures envision the gods in human form: the Egyptians envision gods as animals (dog, crocodile, jackal, cat), as do many other cultures.

Similarly, is there a fixed number of gods with fixed identities? Because a) all cultures appear to have their own gods and b) many gods who are recognisably the same (king of the gods, queen of the gods, god of war, god of love) seem to have multiple names.

‘Do you really think that a god looks like me or like you? The fact is, you have no idea.’ (p.103)

Epicurus appears to say that there is no causal link between humans looking like gods and gods having human form, that both are just accidents of the infinite interaction of an infinite number of atoms in infinite space. This is a ridiculous assertion.

If the gods are so powerful why do they need bodies at all? Why do they need hands or feet or limbs let alone the complex internal organs? If they have godly powers they have no need of all these clumsy encumbrances. If they have bodies the gods would have to walk and climb and bend and stoop. they would have to eat and drink and pee and defecate. If they have the usual organs of generation they would have sex, with all the indignity that implies.

If the gods are vastly superior to us in mind and reason why shouldn’t they be similarly superior to us in body, inhabiting bodies whose shape and powers we can’t even conceive of?

Cotta ridicules the notion of the gods’ detachment. Even idle children get up to games. No human can rest idle indefinitely. What is the point of having the body he insists they have, if they don’t use them?

All creatures, all living things, have a sphere of operation within which they live and are active. Where is the gods’ sphere? To what objects do they use their mind and intelligence. If they know everything their minds are, in a sense, empty, because unexercised.

Velleius had said that the gods are happy because they have achieved the height of virtue. But virtue doesn’t mean anything unless it is tested in action i.e. someone has a choice of actions and decisions and acts accordingly. But Epicurus’s gods do not act in any way. Therefore they do not exercise virtue. Therefore they cannot be happy. Humans exercise decision and judgement all the time, therefore are more able to behave virtuously, therefore humans must be happier than the gods (p.115).

Epicurus derives all happiness, ultimately, from bodily pleasure (hence his reputation). Yet the gods have no bodies in the flesh and blood human sense and so cannot experience pleasure in the Epicurean sense and so cannot by happy (p.116).

Cotta attacks the Innate Theory i.e. that the notion of the gods is a universal aspect of human nature so must be true. Because plenty of other ideas and notions seem to be universal. Are they also true? And our minds can conceive and imagine all manner of things and situations. Are they all true, too?

Epicureanism undermines reverence for the gods

What reverence is due to beings who have never done anything and will never do anything? What reverence do we owe beings who have never done anything for us and never will? Piety is a bond but what bond can there be for beings who never interact? Why should we thank the gods if they have never done anything for us?

This undermining of any reason for humans to reverence or worship the gods in effect destroys religion.

One of the noblest qualities of people is their love and affection for others. Epicurus’s gods have no interest in anyone or anything else at all, but sit perfectly passively uninvolved with anything contemplating their own sterile ‘happiness’. This is to take away the ‘graciousness’ which is the highest attribute of humanity.

Compare and contrast with the doctrine of the Stoics that we should love all good and honest people as ourselves. Epicurean detachment teaches a terrible ethical lesson. A true human friendship is free and selfless. The love and selflessness of the gods ought to be that much superior to human love, yet Epicurus strips his gods of all fine feelings.

Cotta concludes by saying the whole tendency of Epicurus’s thought is atheist, he just tacked on his incoherent ‘defence’ of his very peculiar conception of the gods ‘in order to avoid the odour of atheism’. He was merely paying lip service to the gods that he had actually destroyed (p.120).

Summary of Velleius

Having read it twice I can see how Velleius’s points of view, with all their distortions of fact, the weird atomic theory and the, in the end, weird view of gods who are utterly detached from the world – I can see how these are all the tortured consequences of a reasonable premise and intention which was to free human beings from fear and anxiety.

As a philosophy it appeals to those who seek an oriental-style detachment from involvement in the trials and tribulations of life and instead seek detachment and calm.

Its weak spots are its implausible atomic theory about the creation of not one but infinite universes; and its bloodless vision of gods which are supposedly made in human form and yet utterly lifeless, like beautiful shop window mannequins.

2. Balbus’s presentation of the Stoic view of the gods (pages 123 to 190)

Balbus says he can divide Stoic views into 4 areas. The Stoics:

  • teach that divine beings exist
  • explain their nature
  • describe their government of the world
  • show how they care for mankind

The Argument from Design

If Velleius rested his case on the universal innate conviction of the gods’ existence, Balbus bases his on the Argument from Design. Look up at the sky and survey the beauty of the heavens. What more proof do you need that god exists? You might as well doubt the existence of the sun. Both god and the sun are as obvious to our senses. (It was to refute this age-old argument that Richard Dawkins wrote his long argumentative book The Blind Watchmaker.)

As ancient superstitions are sloughed off, true religion is growing more popular with every day. Balbus bases this assertion on:

  • the intervention of the gods in human history, especially at key moments of Roman history
  • predictions and prophecies
  • the special level of piety of the ancient Romans (like everyone in antiquity, Balbus thinks things, in this case religious piety, have declined in his day)

The proof of prophecies and soothsaying is that they have accurately predicted the future. Plenty of evidence from Rome’s history. So who can doubt the gods exist if they send messages?

‘Beings who do not exist can send us no messages. But the gods do have their prophets and messengers. So how can we deny they exist.’ (p.128)

The state prospers only under the guidance of men of religious faith.

In fact Balbus then echoes Velleius’s nostrum: The existence of gods is inscribed on the human mind from birth (p.128). Thus there is no debate about the existence of gods, only about their nature.

Cleanthes speaks of 4 influences which have formed men’s images of gods:

  1. the power and evidence and proof of divination and prophecy
  2. the blessings of a temperate climate and fertile soil
  3. the awe inspired by natural phenomena such as storms, hailstorms, blizzards, floods, plagues, earthquakes etc
  4. the regularity of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Movements so vast and purposive and regular must be guided and controlled by a divine intelligence. He lists the motion of the sun and moon and stars and the tides and oceans and says none of this would work unless it were powered by a divine and omnipotent spirit. These are all variations on the Argument from Design (p.129).

Only an arrogant fool would think there is nothing in the universe smarter than him. Therefore there must be something greater than Man. And that something must be God.

There is nothing more beautiful or perfect in the world than Reason or mind or intellect. The universe is perfect. Therefore the universe must be possessed of reason i.e. be rational. All natural laws, the passage of the seasons etc etc all these bespeak ‘the planning of a divine and omnipresent spirit’ (p.131).

The universe and God are one. He cites arguments formulated by Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism.

If a being is without consciousness then every part of it must be without consciousness. But some parts of the universe are conscious beings, therefore the entire universe as a whole must be a conscious being. Therefore the universe is a living intelligence.

The universe must be a rational being and the nature which permeates all things must be endowed with reason in its highest form. So God and the world of Nature must be one and all the life of the world must be contained within the being of God. As the universe is surely superior to any other being, then it must be endowed with reason. ‘The universe was endowed with wisdom from eternity and is itself divine.’ (p.137).

There is no quality higher than goodness and nothing more perfect than the universe. Therefore goodness must be a characteristic of the universe. (p.138)

[Pages 141 to 145 consist of a sluggish digression on astronomy i.e. the movements of the planets and stars.]

He then argues that the sun must be a conscious rational being, and so are all the stars, as proved by the regularity of their motions. The stars move of their own free will and motivated by their own intelligence – what other force could move them so efficiently?

I cannot understand this regularity in the stars, his harmony of time and motion in their various orbits through all eternity, except as the expression of reason, mind and purpose in the planets themselves, which we must therefore reckon in the number of the gods. (p.145)

At which point he makes the leap that the fact that the gods exist is so obvious that anyone who disagreed must be mad (p.141). Anyone who looks up and observes the beautiful order and regularity of the movement of the stars and doesn’t feel the power of God must be out of his mind (p.145, repetition of p.124).

As we have an innate idea in our minds that God must be a living God and supreme above all else in the world, there seems to me nothing more consonant with this idea than to recognise the whole universe, than which there can be nothing more sublime, as being the living God. (p.141)

The gods just exist because there must be some supreme being which is superior to all else. 

Another reason is that, although all men acknowledge the existence of the gods, to give them human form is to assign them limitations and imperfections. This, also, is an argument for equating God with the entire universe.

Balbus argues that the gods don’t of course have the form of humans with all the frailties and limitations that implies. The traditional names of the gods embody qualities of the universe which are gifts to humankind and which we ought to worship (p.147).

[Pages 147 to 151 consist of a digression on the etymology of the names of the gods.]

On the providence of the gods

Balbus then sets out to prove that the world is governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods.

My belief is that the universe and everything in it has been created by the providence of the gods and is governed by their providence through all eternity. (p.154)

Stoics like him give three reasons:

  1. if you grant the existence of gods, you must grant their providence
  2. all things are ordered by a sentient natural power impelling them towards their own perfection
  3. the wonders of the earth and sky (Argument from Design)

1. All men acknowledge that the gods exist. If they exist, they must be active. What kind of activity could be better than the government of the world. Therefore the world is governed by the wisdom of the gods (p.154). There is nothing greater or more wonderful than the universe. Therefore it must be governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods (p.156).

2. Nature is a principle of reason which pursues its own methodical course. His explanation of nature/God is based on the ancients’ belief that the world was made of four elements (earth, air, water, fire) and theories about reason and mind, all of which are twaddle, so it’s difficult to follow in its complexity something you know is rubbish. A central problem is the interchangeability of the words universe’ and ‘nature’ throughout this book.

  • Nature is the power which rules the universe.

There follows an extended passage (pages 161 to 177) describing the wonders of the stars and the planets and the sun and then of geography (seas and rivers and forests and deserts) and then a lot of ‘wonders’ of the natural world, every one of which Balbus recruits as evidence for his simple-minded insistence that every single one proves the universe is controlled by an intelligent and caring providence.

From all this evidence we must conclude that everything in the world is marvellously ordered by divine providence and wisdom for the safety and protection of us all. (p.177)

Wrong. The ludicrously naive self-centredness of this view becomes apparent when he goes on to ask for whom all this wonder was laid on? Well, obviously not for the lifeless rocks or even for mindless animals. Obviously for those with mind and reason, ta-dah! Us humans!

We can therefore well believe that the earth and everything in it was created for the gods and for mankind. (p.177)

Balbus then goes on to consider the ‘perfection’ of the design of man, how perfect the human mouth is for drinking, how perfect the lungs for drawing in air, the stomach for digesting food and so on, the gift of speech, the wonder of the human hand (pages 178 to 184). Balbus attributes all this to:

the wise and careful providence of nature, which shows the great and gracious benefits the gods have bestowed upon mankind. (p.180)

Everything in the world which we enjoy was made and ordered for our sake. (p.185)

I attribute it to evolution. Balbus’s anthropocentric narcissism leaps out when he claims that ‘every human sense far surpasses the sense of beast’ (p.182) which is plumb wrong, as we now know that all human senses are far excelled by any number of other animals.

To sum up: man has been given all manner of gifts in the design of the universe, the beauty of the world, the provision of plants and animals to rear and eat, in the wonderfully apt design of his own body and, above all, in the gift of reason so we can understand it all. Contemplating all this must lead to awareness of a guiding and kindly providence working throughout the universe and in our favour, and from this stems Religion and a sense of the virtues, of the good life which is living in harmony with the universe, in loving-kindness and generosity to our fellow men.

Summary of Balbus

Although every factual claim he makes about the universe, the solar system and the natural world are howlingly wrong, I can see the aim of Balbus’s Stoic philosophy. It is for those who appreciate the beauty of the night skies and the wonders of the natural world and believe that they indicate some natural law or harmony and that, in order to live well, in order to live wisely and virtuously, we humans should acknowledge these gifts and try and bring our way of living into harmony with the natural world. A not unreasonable ambition.

Its weak spot is Stoics odd insistence on the importance of ‘prophesy’ as a strong proof of providence. Both Epicureans and Academics were quick to ridicule this and it’s hard to see why it is needed in their system and couldn’t be quietly dropped.

3. Cotta puts the academic view (pages 193 to 235)

Cotta introduces himself as a member of the College of Augurs and a priest. He will never abandon the views he has inherited from his Roman forebears about worship of the gods. He doesn’t require a load of fancy arguments to prove the existence of the gods: the traditional belief of their Roman ancestors was enough. As a rational man, he simply wants to question the arguments of the other two more closely in order to base his own belief on a sound foundation.

Remember that a substantial portion of Cotta’s book is missing, and it feels like it. Anyway, he says he will not refute Balbus’s argument in its entirety but ask him about specific aspects. He attacks Balbus’s stories about ‘prophecy’ and ‘omens’ as superstitious hearsay.

Then he attacks one of the central arguments of both Velleius and Balbus, that the gods exist because the notion of immortal gods is innate in human nature. Not so, says Cotta. Just because a large number of people believe something to be true does not make it true.

More importantly, for me, Cotta refutes most of the arguments Balbus put forward to prove that the universe, the sun and the moon and the stars are all gods. No, says Cotta. Just because something behaves with mechanical regularity and is beautiful to look at (like the stars) doesn’t mean it is either conscious or immortal (p.202).

One flaw in his argument is to assume that anything bigger than man must be Perfect and Immortal, such as the movement of tides, and rivers and the seasons and the stars. not at all. They might just be part of the mechanical rhythm of the universe. The parts of nature move in consonance but this does not require a guiding intelligence.

Nature persists and coheres by its own power without any help from the gods. (p.204)

Just because something is bigger than man doesn’t make it a god. Otherwise all mountains would be gods. Every hill, every bluff, every tree would be a god.

Cotta’s critique of Balbus is less effective than his attack on Velleius. This seems to be because he is actually missing a lot of Balbus’s point. He says that all things made up of the elements will eventually decompose and die but this isn’t as effective an attack on Balbus as on Velleius. He says the so-called gods experience no evil so cannot judge between good and evil so cannot really enact virtue. How can we respect a god who doesn’t exercise reason or moral qualities?

Then he moves on to attack the way many humans, either legendary or historical figures, have, allegedly been translated into gods. This didn’t strike me as central to Balbus’s argument. What both of them seem to be missing is the centrality of prophecy to Stoic beliefs and the enormous problems thrown up by trying to reconcile God’s Preknowledge of the future and human free will (without which there can be no morality), a topic which was to bedevil Christian theology for 2,000 years.

Instead he wastes his time on the secondary argument of which of the actual Roman gods who have temples devoted to them Balbus includes in his pantheon, and which he excludes, and why. As he rattles off an enormous list of gods major and minor and then nymphs and satyrs and demi-gods and so on, it dawned on me he is missing a major distinction to be made between religion as theology and religion as practice. I’m betting most people are attached to their religions as traditions and practices which bind together families and communities. Cotta’s attack on the pantheon of the gods makes it clear just how futile it is trying to come up with a coherent intellectual underpinning for the super-diverse world of actual religious practice. Religious practices just are.

This reductio ad absurdem list of gods goes on for some time (pages 208 to 219), with Cotta asking Balbus whether he allows the rainbow to be a god or clouds and so on, ridiculing the idea that qualities such as Faith or Courage or objects of desire such as Victory and Honour can be gods.

Lacuna in the text.

He spends so much time on it because, apparently, many Stoic writers have devoted a lot of time to giving philosophical rationales for all these gods. But, says Cotta, this is all superstitious twaddle.

Lacuna in the text.

Balbus had assumed all through his speech that Reason is the highest attribute imaginable. So Cotta sets out to destroy this view by quoting an extensive number of examples where people have used their reason for evil i.e. have acted rationally in order to achieve wicked ends.

If the divine mind willed the good of men, when it endowed them with reason, then it willed only the good of those whom it also endowed with the power to use their reason well, whom we see to be very few indeed, if any. (p.222)

Maybe it would have been better if the gods had never given man reason at all. Maybe philosophy does more to lead students astray into immoral or unnatural beliefs and activities than improve them.

The problem of pain

Then Cotta moves on to a version of the perennial ‘problem of pain’, asking why the gods gave men the power of ‘reason’ instead of the ability to act virtuously? Instead, monsters have thrived and honest men met violent ends. If the gods do look upon our world they apparently make no distinction between good and bad men.

There can be no divine guidance of human affairs if the gods make no distinction between good and evil. (p.230)


The prosperity and good fortune of the wicked absolutely disprove the power of the gods. (p.232)

Why don’t the gods intervene on the side of good while letting evil prosper? It’s the central question which has plagued the Abrahamic religions with their notion of an all-powerful all-loving god down to the present day, crystallised by the central catastrophe of the twentieth century: if there is an all-powerful, all-loving God why did he allow the Holocaust?

Abrupt ending

Right at the last minute on the last page Cotta re-emphasises that he doesn’t say this to argue against the gods but to submit men’s arguments to strict scrutiny and show how difficult the issue is. This feels very much like a last-minute cop-out designed to avert accusations of atheism which most of the rest of the document strongly endorses.

The host, Lucilius, is made to say that he would take up arms to defend their venerable religious traditions and temples and so on, and Cotta repeats that he agrees and will join him and has been merely working through the arguments not denying religion. Perish the thought!

It’s worth quoting the final sentence for two reasons. It purportedly gives the view of Cicero who has been a silent witness throughout the previous 3 books, never saying a word.

The conversation ended here, and we parted. Velleius judged that the arguments of Cotta were truest; but those of Balbus seemed to me to have the greater probability.

It has puzzled commentators that Cicero came down on the side of Balbus rather than sympathising with his fellow Academician, Cotta. It rather suggests that the debate was never between three points of view, but between two major points of view both of which were then critiqued by Cotta, with the result that onlookers (such as Cicero) only had a choice of two.

Lastly, its abruptness has convinced most commentators that the work was never finished properly and would probably have been revised and polished if Cicero had lived long enough.

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On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 1

A mine of curious information about ancient science, religion and philosophy…
(J.M. Ross in his introduction to De natura deorum, p.62)

Cicero wrote this book to examine a central problem of theology, namely do the gods have any impact on human life and, if so, what? It approaches the issue by focusing on a specific question, namely: Is there a Providence? Meaning: are events predetermined and preordained by the gods? Because if they are, then this calls into question the entire concept of ‘free will’ upon which most concepts of ‘morality’ rest. No free will = no morality, no law, no justice.

The 1972 Penguin edition I own contains a translation of Cicero’s De natura deorum by H.C.P. McGregor and an introduction by J.M. Ross. The introduction is unusually long, at 64 pages, and gives a thorough introduction to Cicero, the sources and aims of De natura deorum and its place in the overall plan of Cicero’s works.

Cicero had already written extensively about social duties and responsibilities, about friendship, personal morality, politics and the state. But, in a sense, a person’s views about all these topics depends on the fundamental question, is there a God or not. Your position on the existence and nature of a god or gods stands at the centre of your position on all those issues, underpinning or undermining them all.

Very broadly, there are four possible positions:

1. There are no gods or God, in which case there is no divine sanction or underpinning for morality, for virtue or wisdom, for right and wrong. Human behaviour and values are completely up to us to define and judge.

Pessimists or theological propagandists denigrate this situation as Anarchy and Cicero is among them: he is of the atheism = anarchy party and strongly believed that religion was necessary to underpin morality.

If the Gods have neither the power nor the inclination to help us; if they take no care of us, and pay no regard to our actions…then what reason can we have to pay any adoration, or any honours, or to prefer any prayers to them? Piety, like the other virtues, cannot have any connection with vain show or dissimulation. When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life. (I.2)

2. There are immortal gods who in some sense underpin our moral values, but they are completely indifferent to human affairs or don’t intervene, don’t respond to sacrifices or prayers or human suffering.

As I understand it, this was the view of the Epicureans, the followers of Epicurus. Some Epicureans went so far as to claim that worshipping gods – any form of state religion – was such an irrelevance and a distraction from the problems of good governance that it amounted to a social evil.

3. There are gods but they, like humans, are caught in the mechanism of the universe, which is entirely mechanistic and deterministic. Everything has been pre-ordained by fate and nothing they or we can do can change that.

This, as I understand it, is the Stoic position. Some Stoics went so far as to claim that God is identical with the universe and that both are governed by iron rules i.e. even God himself doesn’t have free will.

4. There are immortal gods and they do intervene in human affairs, do respond to sacrifices and prayers and try to make things right.

Position 4 is Cicero’s: there are gods, they underpin a moral law, they do answer prayers and sacrifices. However, Cicero doesn’t believe this with the dogmatism that would later be associated with Christian religion, because in his time there were no widely agreed texts laying down precise rules of behaviour in the manner of Christian teaching.

Instead, Cicero was an adherent of the Academic philosophy, so-called because it was taught by members of the Academy in Athens founded by Plato back in the fourth century BC. The Academic approach was to question everything, to attack all positions and points of view with the most powerful arguments possible, until only the strongest, most likely position remained. That was then adopted. It was a thorough-going scepticism.

In his introduction Ross quotes the theory of scholar H.A.K. Hunt that Cicero’s purpose in this book was to clear the decks of the jungle of contemporary misunderstandings about the gods in order for all his other writings about friendship, citizenship and so on to make sense. The need to address the specific question of predestination (as the Christians would call it) or Providence (as Cicero’s contemporaries called it) explains why he devoted a long book to the subject of Divination, at first sight a slightly cranky choice of subject, until you realise that, if divination works and the future can be foretold, then there is no human free will, in which case all his other moral and political arguments collapse.

In fact, it turns out that Ross cites Hunt’s theory in order to refute it. Ross thinks Cicero wasn’t as narrowly focussed as Hunt suggests. He takes Cicero at his word when he says that his aim was to introduce the entirety of Greek philosophy into Latin, to ‘by devoting myself to the examination of the whole body of philosophy’ (I.4).

Ross interprets Cicero’s writings as a systematic attempt to translate all the key philosophical debates of his time from Greek – where they had a long provenance – into Latin, where they were relatively new and where some key concepts didn’t even have an adequate Latin translation. These topics included:

  • Epistemology, the problem of knowledge: can we be certain of anything, can we trust the evidence of our senses – which Cicero addresses in his book titled the Academics
  • Ethics, what is the highest ‘good’ we should aim at – treated in The Ends of Good and Evil
  • consolation for death, whether our souls survive after death – treated in the Tusculan Disputations
  • the relationship between god and the world, treated via a translation of Plato’s Timaeus
  • a more detailed look at applied ethics in On Duties


The Academic tradition Cicero followed was sceptical. It held that absolute truth is impossible for humans to find and may not even exist. All we can do is weight the balance of probabilities. In order to do this we need to consider all the available evidence before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Cicero’s philosophical position is very similar to a lawyer or judge’s approach in a court of law, a comparison he himself draws:

I am asking everyone to come into court, weight up the evidence, and return their verdict (I.6).

Therefore, in their written treatises, adherents of the Academy set down all the possible views on a topic and subject them to criticism. Only at the end of this process does a likely contender for ‘the truth’ remain standing.

The dialogue form

And this explains two things about the De naturam deorum. First, the way Cicero systematically lays out the beliefs of all the existing schools before, only at the end, revealing his own position. Secondly, the book is, like most of Cicero’s works, in dialogue format. This format perfectly suits the Academic approach as it assigns each of the key positions to an individual and then lets their position be probed and questioned by all the others.

Thus the text takes the form of an imagined conversation between four educated Romans in the year 77 BC. It is set in the house of Gaius Aurelius Cotta, who is the senior representative of the Academic point of view and features Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view, and Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view. And the fourth? Cicero is depicted as a late-comer, who arrives at Cotta’s house after the debate has begun and is invited to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So he doesn’t take part in the main debate at all.

Why only three schools of thought, when the Greek world pullulated with philosophies? Because a) to most educated Romans there were only 3 philosophical schools to choose from, Epicurean, Stoic or Academic; b) because the question itself boils down to only 3 positions:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providential / Stoic (gods exist and have foreordained everything )
  • sceptic (voicing objections to the 2 dogmatic views above and trying to find pragmatic compromises)

In fact in the text itself Cicero mentions a fourth school, the Peripatetic school, which could have been represented by its leading Roman proponent, Marcus Piso. But 1. he has Cotta explain that by the time the debate takes place the Peripatetics’ main beliefs about theology had become almost indistinguishable from Stoicism and 2. Ross suspects that Cicero probably knew less about the Peripatetics than he did about the two other schools, so preferred to stay on safe ground.

Early on, Cicero indicates that although he belongs to the sceptical Academy the last thing he wants to do is undermine religion, as he believes it provides a vital underpinning to society, is the foundation of personal morality and public justice (as per the passage quoted above). He just wants to remove the bad arguments for this position, to establish the really good arguments and then promote them. His book is a form of spring cleaning or decluttering. He wants to banish superstition (which he defines as ‘a senseless fear of the gods’), not religion (which he defines as ‘the science of divine worship’) (p.117).

It is also worth noting that Cicero himself held a post in Rome’s state religion. In 53 BC he was elected member of the college of augurs. According to Wikipedia, an augur:

was a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury: interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds – whether they were flying in groups or alone, what noises they made as they flew, direction of flight, and what kind of birds they were. This was known as ‘taking the auspices’. The augural ceremony and function of the augur was central to any major undertaking in Roman society – public or private – including matters of war, commerce, and religion. Augurs sought the divine will regarding any proposed course of action which might affect Rome’s pax, fortuna, and salus (peace, good fortune, and well-being).

So we can probably hear his own opinion expressed through Cotta in I.61.

Three books

Since it expounds and critiques three schools of thought, the text is divided into three volumes, although not quite as neatly as you might imagine. In the first half of book I Velleius propounds the Epicurean position at length; in the second half, Cotta the academic enthusiastically demolishes Velleius’s arguments, with a wealth of exuberant abuse. Book II is devoted to a lengthy exposition of the Stoic position by Balbus. Then Book III consists of Cotta’s extensive criticism of everything Balbus has said.

Three problems with philosophy

The three things I’ve always disliked about philosophy ever since I started reading it at school are:

  1. The terrible state of most of its key texts, many of which exist in such poor shape it’s not at all clear what the authors intended.
  2. The need nearly all philosophers have felt to invent new words and terms to describe their views, terms which invariably lead to endless squabbling among their acolytes and among academics about what they actually mean, resulting in needless obscurity.
  3. The way most of philosophy’s key authors changed and developed their positions, sometimes so much so that their later philosophy ends up completely contradicting their earlier views (Wittgenstein springs to mind).

De rerum deorum demonstrates all three of these problems. Regarding the text, there are gaping holes. The master manuscript, which appears to have been the source of all the later manuscripts which survive, appears to have come to pieces and been reassembled, not in a particularly rational order, and with some big and important sections (like Cotta’s refutations of key Stoic points) altogether missing. Maybe a third of book III is missing.

Then it is patchily organised. Even without this textual confusion, it’s clear that Cicero, when he has a character refuting the previous character’s presentation, often omits key points in what they said and answers points they never made. In other words, even if we had a perfect text, it would still be uneven, and badly assembled. This is because Cicero was copying his arguments from a variety of Greek sources and didn’t manage to fully assimilate them into a smooth flow or argument.

This also explains why the text contains a number of irritating digressions, when Cicero seems to have inserted vaguely relevant topics (such as the origins of the names of gods, pages 147 to 152, or a passage on astronomy) just because he had them to hand and they were sort of relevant to the topic, but which damage the flow of the argument.

To further add to the confusion, there were not one but two main traditions of Stoicism in regard to conceptions of God and Providence, and Cicero doesn’t distinguish clearly between them, either in Balbus’s presentation or in Cotta’s refutation. Early Stoicism was pantheistic, believing that God was just another name for nature and that everything in the world is divinely determined. Later, a more Platonic conception was overlaid onto this, in which God is a free rational deity caring for men, and interfering in the world for their welfare. As you can see, these are two quite distinct beliefs, but they are bundled together in Balbus’s presentation and (in what survives of) Cotta’s refutation.


All this explains two things: why De rerum deorum has been heavily criticised by commentators and why it is one of Cicero’s less popular texts. The central criticism is that it was written at great speed and so is riddled with inconsistencies in the main argument and littered with distracting digressions. Ross concludes that it was never really finished and Cicero intended to revise, trim and make it more coherent.

In addition, all readers have criticised the way the book just stops, without any kind of summary of the results of its long-winded investigation. If it was intended to be useful, then the most potentially useful part, the conclusion, is missing. Instead Cicero seems to have decided to address to sub-aspects of the problem of gods in the supplementary works, On divination and On fate.

In other words, this book is prime evidence for my case against philosophy, a good example of the way the self-proclaimed ‘lovers of truth’ in fact produce badly organised, badly thought-through, inconsistent texts which are so badly written that even their own pupils can’t agree what they mean and, instead of shedding light on ‘the truth’ serve to sink it miles deeper into oceanic depths of murky obscurity.

The philosophical buffet

In reality:

  • although reading philosophy is entertaining and often intellectually challenging (for example when, as so often, it is written in deliberately obscure language using ad hoc invented terms and phrases designed to tease you away from your normal perceptions or habits of thought);
  • although philosophical debates, especially about ‘morality’ are inevitable, can result in real changes in people’s opinions, in social attitudes and even the law;

nonetheless, there are now so many philosophical schools, systems and arguments that, as with the Bible, almost any position you care to take, from extreme idealism to extreme pragmatism, from moral altruism to cynical selfishness, from rigid obedience to strict laws to the wildest anarchism, have been fully worked out, named, popularised and made into t-shirt slogans.

With the result that, far from being the pursuit of any kind of ‘truth’, the vast realm of philosophic discourse is more like an enormous breakfast buffet where people interested in this kind of thing can choose from a huge range of options, mix and match, and cobble together whichever belief and value systems suit them. In other words, 3,000 years of philosophy has left the world and human beings in even worse conceptual and moral confusion than it found them.

In the following two blog posts I’ll summarise the arguments used in De rerum deorum in detail.

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The world of Stonehenge @ the British Museum

This is an awe-inspiring exhibition, in at least two senses of the word:

  • it is huge and includes a whopping 430 exhibits, far more than the human mind can reasonably process and relate to
  • and it chronicles the strange and fugitive world of late Stone Age and Bronze Age spirituality, life and society, over a huge time period and a very wide geographical range

Stonehenge © English Heritage

The exhibition is about much more than Stonehenge. The Stonehenge material represents only about 10 or 15% of the content. Sure, Stonehenge provides the central structure to the exhibition, but timewise it covers a much longer period, opening nearly five thousand years before the earliest workings at Stonehenge, in around 10,000 BC, and ending thousands of years after it had ceased to be an active religious monument, about 1000 BC.

Similarly the exhibition isn’t restricted to the stones and burials mounds in Wiltshire but ranges far, far further afield, introducing us to breath-taking archaeological discoveries from Wales and Ireland, from religious offerings at Grimes Graves in Norfolk to a blizzard of recent archaeological discoveries made in the remote Orkney Islands. There are countless strange and haunting objects like the beautiful carved balls, about the size of a tennis ball but carved from stone with a variety of geometric markings, made in eastern Scotland. There are objects from sites in Brittany, north Germany and Denmark, Spain and as far afield as Switzerland and Italy, all accompanied by elaborate commentary and explication.

So the story of Stonehenge is just the central thread or scaffold which the curators use to structure a far-reaching investigation of all aspects of late Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures, not only in Britain but further afield. As the catalogue puts it:

Stonehenge itself acts as a useful gateway and reference point for exploring the chronology of this ancient world. (Catalogue page 18)

It’s tempting to call it a portrait of an age or a window into a distant world except that, as the exhibition makes very clear, in the ten or so millennia it covers, Britain and Europe moved through a whole series of eras and worlds, each with their own distinctive economic, technological and artistic characteristics.

Keeping track of the multitudinous series of changes, trying to process the 430 objects with their huge variety of shapes and sizes and meanings and contexts, while also trying to keep a grip on the key stages of Stonehenge’s evolution, proves a daunting challenge. It was too much for me to really take it all in but I found it helped if I kept in mind the three really huge changes or revolutions in human society which occurred during the period 10,000 to 1,000 BC.

Three revolutions

1. Britain becomes an island

10,000 years ago Britain was joined to the continent by an extensive body of land. To put it another way, what are now the British Isles were then one more wiggly peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic, like Scandinavia or Spain. This extensive stretch of land is called Doggerland by modern scholars (after Dogger Bank which was once a stretch of high land and is now a notable shallow area of the North Sea). Modern research suggests it was a fertile area of tundra which was populated by large mammals and humans who would have access to good fishing.

Around 6,200 BC this vast stretch of land was flooded, slowly at first and latterly by a series of tidal waves, separating Britain from the continent. The people who lived on it must have moved west into Britain or east into Europe unaware that their descendants would become cut off from each other.

Map of north-west Europe about 10,000 years ago showing the extensive area of low-lying land which joined Britain to Holland and Denmark and which archaeologists refer to as Doggerland

2. The agricultural revolution

After the great separation, Britain was inhabited by a tiny number of hunter gatherers, maybe as few as 5,000. Imagine the native Americans of North America moving carefully through the forests of ancient Britain, living in awe of the natural world.

Then, about 6,000 years ago, the culture of farming arrived in Britain, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). There has been prolonged debate in the world of archaeology about whether the secrets of agriculture were spread to the native inhabitants or whether it was newcomers and immigrants who brought it with them. Modern DNA analysis of bones suggests the latter.

Agriculture can support a far larger population than hunting and gathering. Agriculture also produces surpluses which can feed non-productive members of the community, in the classic model of the Fertile Crescent, kings, priests and soldiers. There’s no direct evidence for any of these groups but the immense amount of physical labour required to quarry, transport and erect the stones of Stonehenge a) required the availability of people who weren’t required for agricultural work and b) someone to conceive, design, organise and supervise the work.

Each of the huge sarsen stones in the henge required at least 1,000 people to transport from their source 25 kilometres away. It took generations to complete the full design. What kind of society was able to do that?

As well as social change, the advent of agriculture leads to a profound psychological and cultural transformation. Hunter gatherers move through the landscape, placating its animals and spirits, knowing they are as transient as all the other forest creatures. With agriculture come roots, in multiple senses. People now believed that they owned the land, and monuments like the henge became markers of communal ownership and identity. In turn they became special places for burying the dead and for interring objects related to them. Multiple layers of meaning build up around ancestral land in a way which wasn’t conceivable for the hunter gatherers who moved through it without leaving a trace.

3. Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from around 2500 to 800 BC. It was heralded by the arrival of the Beaker People, so-called because suddenly British graves are full of beakers of a size and shape which weren’t found earlier. The Bronze Age is generally sub-divided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 800 BC). It is followed by the so-called Iron Age.

The arrival of the knowledge of how to smelt metals and shape them into treasures and weapons, about 4,500 years ago, transformed British society. In a nutshell, society became more selfish and violent. We know from their grave goods that neolithic peoples had some treasured possessions, axeheads, necklaces of teeth and the like. But the existence of Stonehenge and other comparable structures suggest that their culture or religion was communal and led to the creation of shared, communal edifices.

The latter part of the exhibition shows how all this changed with the advent of precious metals. Relatively small objects acquired immense value. In a sense religion became personalised. Instead of going into the creation of communal buildings which embodied shared beliefs and rituals, metal goods allowed religious feelings to be inscribed on images and objects which could be owned, shared, traded and gifted. The solstice positions which took such an immense effort to inscribe into a vast building and into the landscape, 500 years later was being inscribed into shiny portable objects. The entire concept of the religious and spiritual must have fundamentally changed.

And so Stonehenge fell out of use. It still existed as an awe-inspiring testament to the past, like a great cathedral, but now instead of being the focus of communal beliefs, it becomes surrounded by graves of the newly rich with all their precious metal goods, much like medieval kings and princes wanting to be buried inside a cathedral, for the prestige. The emphasis changed from building communal monuments to raising mounds in cemeteries for the purpose of celebrating powerful individuals. The 40 plus burial mounds which surround Stonehenge indicate a switch of focus away from community to family and status.

Not only is gold portable, it is stealable. The exhibition ends with a corridor packed with evidence of a new wave of violence which swept through Britain, testifying to the rise of a more selfish, fracture, war-torn society.

Earlier sections of the show displayed primitive but beautiful objects in a variety of decorative styles. The corridor of death showcases lots of swords and skeletons displaying signs of violent ends. One of the most startling things in the whole exhibition is a wall of skulls and bones, embedded in something like dried mud and attached to a very big panel stuck on the wall. It looks like an art installation but it is here to memorialise a big battle fought at the river Tollense by up to 4,000 men, aged between 20 and 40 sometime in the 1200s BC.

The wall of bones from the battlefield of Tollense, north Germany, where a major battle took place in the 13th century BC, used to indicate the way the advent of metal smelting signalled the descent into a more acquisitive, violent society

The final corridor of the exhibition is full of swords and shields and battle helmets and skulls with holes in them. A new age had dawned.

Stonehenge’s complexity

Use of Stonehenge as a chassis for the show adds multiple further layers of complexity because Stonehenge – on the face of it the series of concentric stone circles familiar to all of us – is, in archaeological terms, itself fantastically complicated: not only is there lots that is still uncertain about the henge itself, but it lies at the heart of what, with every passing year, is being revealed as a bewilderingly complex landscape covered with ancient ruins, burials, tracks, pits, roads, barrows and so on.

What we call Stonehenge is a series of monuments, of concentric rings of standing stones, earthworks and ditches believed to have been built and extended over a 1,000 year period between 3000 to 2000 BC. Stonehenge itself consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet high, seven feet wide, and weighing around 25 tons, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Within this circle is a ring of smaller bluestones (though I can’t say they look any different in colour from the outer sarsen stones). Inside these are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical Sarsens joined by one lintel. The stone circle is surrounded by a circular earth bank and ditch which have been dated to about 3100 BC. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC.

Stonehenge © English Heritage

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Right inside the ditch and bank is a circle of 56 pits, each about a metre in diameter, known as the Aubrey holes. These may have contained standing timbers creating a timber circle or they may have been used to erect a bluestone circle. No conclusive evidence exists either way. Both at the immediate site and in the area around the henge there are numerous other archaeological sites and remains, many of which remain puzzling.

Recent discoveries

A little further afield over 20 burial sites and barrows have been identified, plus the Lesser Cursus and the structure called Coneybury Henge, and new discoveries are continually being made. Only recently has the ‘avenue’ which leads off from the north-east of the circle been traced all the way to the River Avon and here, in 2008 a previously unknown circular area was discovered which probably housed four further stones, most likely as a marker for the starting point of the ceremonial ‘avenue’.

In 2014 investigations using ground-penetrating radar equipment revealed as many as seventeen new monuments around the nearby settlement of Durrington, 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge, which itself has been shown to be a highly populated centre in the period between 2600 and 2400 BC.

In 2020 a geophysical survey at Durrington uncovered a number of pits, some natural sink holes and others apparently modified to hold massive timbers, interpreted as belonging to a 1.2-mile-wide circle 10-metre pits of Neolithic age. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument.

In 2021 initial excavations to build a long tunnel in which to bury A303 have revealed a treasure trove of Bronze Age finds. Basically the entire area is riddled with burials and evidence of numerous other buildings, banks and ditches and barrows. It is holy ground, criss-crossed with memories, legacies, multiple layers of succeeding generations and cultures.

Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle) 1950 to 1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photograph by David Bukach © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The sun

Throughout the changing eras, the curators emphasise the mystical and religious aspects of the  changing populations and cultures. At the heart of many of these belief was the sun. Obviously the sun has been worshipped by almost all societies as the source of warmth and light, but it has a special significance for agricultural societies which need light and heat to grow the crops on which they depend and so a central theme running through the exhibition is the importance of images and symbols of, and materials believed to be connected with, the sun.

Stonehenge itself was aligned in such a way that the north-east ‘entrance’ to the site precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, something which is open to all kinds of interpretations. Some people think it was a device for measuring the solstices, for marking time and agricultural processes, or maybe it had a religious purpose i.e. was used to invoke the sun or celebrate the advent of spring. Maybe it was a way of humanising, of bringing down to a human scale, the vast impersonal forces of nature. All these theories and more abound.

And it wasn’t a one-off. The curators describe a number of other neolithic henges and constructions which were deliberately orientated around the angle of the sun at its solstices, for example the communal enclosure at Larkhill which was built some 700 years before Stonehenge. Knowledge of the sun’s movements and worship of it at specially constructed sites existed for almost a thousand years before building began at Stonehenge.

The sun acquired a kind of new importance or urgency with the arrival of metal smelting at the start of the Bronze Age. The curators explain that burnished metal reflected sunlight and could be thought of as not only reflecting it but in some sense capturing it and partaking of its qualities. None more so than gold and the later part of the exhibition is awash with dramatic gold jewellery, necklaces, torcs and helmets. These included the objects known as lunulae, from the Latin meaning ‘little moon’, crescent-shaped early Bronze Age necklaces or collars.

Lunula, 2400 to 2000 BC from Blessington, County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The wall labels tell us that the inner and outer edges were very finely decorated but the main body of the lunula was left plain in order to better reflect sunlight. If you own an object, a bracelet, necklace, mirror which reflects sunlight, do you in some sense own that bit of sunlight?

Religion and spirituality

Huge stones like the standing sarsens at Stonehenge are commonly interpreted by modern scholars as connecting the earth and the sky – bigger, higher and heavier than any human being, connecting human time and celestial time.

But it wasn’t the big shiny things that took my imagination, it was the eerie and peripheral objects. And I warmed more to many of the pre-metal age objects, less flash and shiny, but more earthy and mysterious.

In the fen country of Somerset a neolithic walkway made of wood has been discovered. Crossed beams of coppiced alder wood which does not rot when it is waterlogged supported a narrow walk of planks. It has been dated to 3,800 BC. So far so practical. But it seems that well-hewn axe heads and other precious objects were deliberately included in its foundations – offerings to the water gods or vouchsafing the builders’ seriousness?

General view of the first part of the exhibition showing the remains of a neolithic wooden trackway across Avalon marshes in Somerset, c.3800 BC. Next to it is a case displaying some of the axe heads found at its base. On the wall on the right is an animation showing oxen and a cart they would have pulled, reconstructed from skeletons found in a neolithic grave.

Five highlights

The curators are at pains to highlight a handful of really outstanding loans which lift the show into the blockbuster category. Thus, in chronological order:

The Bad Dürrenberg shaman

One of the earliest cases hold the deer skull and antlers and necklaces of teeth and other accoutrements associated with the skeleton of a woman buried near the modern German town of Bad Dürrenberg and a haunting artist’s impression of what she would have looked like.

Artist’s impression of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman in her full regalia c.7000 BC © State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt

This woman was aged between 25 and 35 when she died some 9,000 years ago and was honoured with a very rich burial indicating the privileged place she held in her society. She was buried in a sitting position with the body of a baby between her legs. Both bodies were covered in ochre paint. Why?

The grave contained a great diversity of animal remains including a necklace made from the teeth of many species and a polished boar tooth talisman, all presumably with symbolic importance long ago lost.

Analysis of the woman’s skeleton has revealed that her uppermost cervical vertebra was malformed and that blood vessels in the lower skull area could have been spatially restricted. Or, as the curators put it, she would have had the ability to make herself faint and ‘to enter trance states’.  This rare ability, they guess, was the cause of the respect with which she was interred.

This is the oldest burial site in all Germany, but the exhibition correlates it with similar finds of hollowed out deer skulls found at the neolithic treasure trove of Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Headdresses were made by removing the lower half of the deer skull, cleaning away the brain and blood and boring two holes in the bone, probably for straps, so that the wearer could become half human, half deer, and – presumably – able to communicate with the animal world or perform spells and magic to propitiate it.


In 1998 the tops of a circle of tree trunks was spotted emerging from the mud at the coastal Norfolk village of Holme next the sea. Archaeologists set to work and we now know it was built around 4050 BC on a saltmarsh, at a position halfway between sea and land. It was quickly nicknamed Seahenge or the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’.

Seahenge consists of a large upturned tree stump surrounded by 54 wooden posts. The oak posts, some up to 3 metre tall, were tightly packed in a 6.6 metre diameter circle with their bark-covered sides facing outwards. Inside the circle was a large oak tree oak, its roots upturned towards the heavens like branches. Collectively the circle creates a giant tree. A narrow entranceway was aligned on the rising midsummer sun and it is thought the monument was used for ritual purposes.

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Nobody knows why it was built where it was or what its purpose was. Perhaps the central upturned trunk was used in funerary rituals to support a dead body. Perhaps entering the circular shrine brought worshippers closer to the otherworld.

it is one of the coups of the exhibition that many (not all) of the original trunks have been brought to London and re-erected in the British Museum. It is accompanied by a special soundscape commissioned from Rob St John, which plays quietly from concealed loudspeakers so that you walk into (and then out of) its ambient zone.

The Nebra sky disc

The Nebra Sky Disc from about 1,600 BC is the oldest surviving representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. It is a phenomenal and awe-inspiring object, one of the top treasures in the exhibition.

Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600 BC. Photo courtesy of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

The shapes of beaten gold are supposed to represent the moon in its various phases. The dots clearly represent stars and experts have realised that the distinctive rosette of stars between the round and crescent moon represents the Pleiades. these stars play a key role in an ancient rule, known from a 2,700 year old Babylonian text, that allowed the shorter lunar year to be synchronised with the longer solar year. the rule is that a leap month should be added every third year if a crescent moon a few days old appears next to the Pleiades in the springtime sky.

Other treasures

3,500 years ago the appearance of new objects and symbols in a range of locations across Europe suggest that a more complex model of the cosmos was emerging. In Scandinavia images of the sun, the horse and the ship acquired religious force. In central Europe two waterbirds connected by a boat-shaped body below a sun became widespread. Examples of both are included from a hoard found in Denmark and dating from around 1,000 BC.

A grave within spitting distance of Stonehenge, the Bush Barrow site, includes the ‘gold lozenge’ which is the finest example of Bronze Age gold craftsmanship ever found in Britain, buried across the chest of the Bush Barrow chieftain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The exhibition includes two rare and remarkable gold cone-shaped hats from around 1600 BC, the Schifferstadt gold hat from Germany and the Avanton gold cone from France. They are decorated with elaborate solar motifs that reflect the religious importance of the sun during this era. Only four examples of these hats are known to have survived. Serving as headgear during ceremonies or rituals, perhaps they endowed the wearer with divine or otherworldly status.

The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer


I attended the press launch of the exhibition where we were treated to an address by the curator, Neil Wilkins. He said many interesting things about the purpose of the exhibition and some of the star exhibits, but one stood out for me. He said that among its many purposes, one aim of the exhibition was to introduce us to specific ancient individuals. He said he and his fellow curators wanted us to meet these people and take them on their own terms and try to enter their world(s).

He was referring to the powerful image of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman, but to others as well. To the man widely called the Amesbury Archer, a man whose grave, found close to the henge, contained the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK. No fewer than 39 of these objects – copper knives, gold ornaments and flint tools – are in the show. Even more arresting is that modern DNA techniques show that the archer originally came from modern-day Switzerland or Germany. What an odyssey he had been on!

Another treasure I haven’t mentioned yet is the Burton Agnes drum. This is a carved chalk cylinder or ‘drum’ dated from 3005 to 2890 BC which was found in 2015 near Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Museum has described it as ‘one of the most significant ancient objects ever found on the British Isles’ because of the skill of its creation and decoration. But the real point is that it was found in the grave of three children who were carefully buried so that they appear to have been touching and maybe even holding hands. And the ‘drum’ contains in its top three perfectly drilled holes, presumably relating to the dead children. What? Why?

These are the kind of people Wilkins was describing in his address, people like us and deserving of our respect.

This, I reflected as I listened to his presentation, seems to me to mark a shift in museum culture. God knows I’ve been to numerous exhibitions and museums over the decades and seen countless skulls and skeletons of the ancient dead. But Wilkins’ address made explicit a new mood, a new feeling which runs through the exhibition and which gently brings out the humanity of all these long dead people.

These are not exhibits, they are people. Subtly, alongside the wood and metal remains, we are introduced to individuals. Due to DNA analysis we know more about them than ever before. We know that the Amesbury Archer was buried along with his great grandson. We know about the physical complaint which was the Bad Dürrenberg shaman’s blessing and maybe her curse. We can accurately date the three children found with the Agnes Burton drum.

It may sound silly but I found Wilkins’ words very moving. He was indicating the way that the exhibition may well document the big social changes over this huge range of time, and the awesome human effort involved in creating the henge, and the cosmological beliefs associated with it; it certainly gives exhaustive scholarly explanations of the hundreds of objects on display – all done in what you could call the traditional museological style.

But at the same time it introduces us to a number of long-dead individuals who, although we don’t know their names or ethnicity or lives or histories, doesn’t make them any the less human and valid. They lived their lives in this country, among family and friends and community, struggled to find food, to survive in an often hostile environment, crafted religious and domestic objects, created communal buildings and edifices, had deep experiences, laughed, cried, got sick and died.

And I found this idea, that transcending the information and the countless objects it contains, this exhibition enables personal encounters with people dead nearly 10,000 years, far more moving than any of the more obvious symbols of neolithic and bronze age spirituality. Call it the religion of humanity.

Stonehenge at dawn © English Heritage

Related links

Other British Museum reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 6. Social history

Having covered the rule of the pivotal figure in Roman history, the emperor Augustus, in chapter 9, and the rule of the 14 emperors who followed him in chapter 10, Beard has finished with her chronological account of the Roman empire and moves on to consider the social history of the period. Here are some highlights:

The Roman emperor had more wealth than anyone in human history, derived from huge landholdings right around the Mediterranean, including not only vast farms, but mines and ports and harbours which paid taxes and customs duties (p.435).

Property qualifications for office: to be eligible for the Senate one had to have a fortune of at least 1 million sestercii. To be a local councillor one needed a house with at least 1,500 roof tiles (p.436). The purpose of the well-organised censuses held in Rome was not to provide data for the provision of all kinds of social services, as in the modern world, but at least in part to assess the wealth of the property-owning classes in order to clarify who was, and was not, eligible to serve in various offices of local and central government.

Of Rome’s seven hills, the Palatine Hill had for some time been associated with the houses of the rich. During the imperial period it was steadily taken over by the emperors with their plans for grandiose palaces Lower down the scale, and in the provinces, the very rich vied to build themselves into history by commissioning extravagant buildings and entire developments in cities around the Mediterranean (p.436).

That said, Rome was not the city of grand boulevards lined with elegant buildings of the modern imagination. It was a warren of dirty alleys, occasionally opening onto squares, chief among them the Forum. There was no organised rubbish collection so the streets were full of rubbish and human waste. As a result disease was rife, even in the famous public baths. In 160 AD the entire empire was swept by an epidemic, possibly a form of smallpox, which caused a large death toll (p.439).

At its height the Roman Empire probably had a population of between 50 and 60 million. The rich, who lived in fine houses, took part in political and cultural life, and among whom all the writers we know about can be counted, numbered maybe 300,000 i.e. less than 1% (p.440).

The majority of the population were peasant farmers, smallholders struggling to make a living off the land for them and their families (p.442). In cities and towns we know there were large numbers of homeless or squatters, living wherever they could find a nook. Many Roman towns and cities must have looked like modern Third World shanty towns (p.444). One of the many paintings preserved in Pompeii shows a homeless man with a dog begging from a rich lady. Could be the West End of London, any day during my lifetime (p.444).

The Cura Annonae was the term used to describe the import and distribution of grain to the residents of  Rome. Inaugurated under the Republic, the number receiving the dole swelled to an unmanageable 300,000 before being set at 200,000 by Augustus (p.445). This combined with the spectacular public gladiator fights and other displays put on by the emperors lie behind the satirist Juvenal’s comment that the Roman population was only kept in line, obedient and compliant, by the provision of panem et circenses meaning ‘bread and circuses’ (p.440).

The seating capacity of even the enormous Colosseum was only 50,000, at the huge Circus Maximus it was a whopping 250,000 – for the population of Rome which, at its peak, reached about one million (p.462).

The well preserved ruins of Pompeii are a goldmine of social history. Among many other findings they demonstrate a surprisingly large number of bars and cooked food outlets, and that gambling at a wide variety of games was endemic (p.459).

Rome had no police force at all – if someone did you wrong, you had to apply to a law court for justice, take matters into your own hands, or the hands of friends and family, or let it go. In reality, the sophisticated world of Roman law and law courts and sophisticated lawyers, was the preserve of the rich (p.465). Another way of getting your own back was asking the gods for revenge. We know this because so many votive offerings have survived in which individuals call down curses on people who have wronged them. Or you could ask any number of fortune tellers and seers and so on to do the same (p.465).

There was only a small, basic fire service which helps explain why the Great Fire of Rome during Nero’s reign, in 64 AD, was so ruinous (p.463).


As with her discussion of the issues and problems surrounding the figure of the Roman emperor, so again in this chapter, once Beard is liberated from the constraints of chronology i.e. from history as a sequence of dates and events, once she is free to explore themes and ideas, then she is an entertaining and instructive guide.


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

Roman reviews

Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles (2010)

According to legend Carthage was founded in 814 BC. Its history came to an end in 146 BC, the year in which Rome defeated and utterly destroyed it. Richard Miles is a young historian whose book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, sets out to record everything we know about Carthage, from the legends of its founding, through its umpteen wars, up to the final catastrophe.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed is long, 373 pages of text, 77 pages of notes, 34 page bibliography and a 66-page index = 521 pages.

It is not a social or political history. There is hardly anything about Carthage’s form of government, a reasonable amount about its economy (trade and some agriculture), a surprising amount about the evolving design and metallurgy of its coinage (in the absence of other evidence, coins are a good indicator of cultural changes and economic success), and quite a lot about its religion, in particular a recurring thread about the syncretistic melding of the Phoenician god of Melqat with the Hellenistic demigod Heracles, about which Miles has a real bee in his bonnet.

But what the text is really filled with is relentless details of Carthage’s endless wars, wars, wars. It is an overwhelmingly military history. Countless battles, an apparently endless stream of generals with the same four names (Hannibal, Hamilcar, Hasdrubal or Hanno) and gruesome references to torture. Failed generals, defeated enemies, rebellious mercenaries, overthrown tyrants, unlucky hostages or ambassadors, an endless stream of unfortunates are publicly tortured, beheaded or crucified (pages 131, 147, 152, 165, 173, 203, 208, 211, 212, 219, 273, 358). The ideal reader of this book will really love details of ancient wars and sadistic punishments.

The single most surprising thing about the history of Carthage is how much of it took place on the island of Sicily. The western half of Sicily was colonised by Carthage from about 900 BC, the eastern half by Greek colonists from different mother cities from about 750 BC, and the economic and territorial rivalry led to almost continuous warfare between the two sets of colonists between 580 and 265 BC, a period known as the Sicilian Wars.

If you know nothing whatever about Carthage, here are the key facts:

The Phoenicians

is the general name given to the people who, 3,000 years ago (1,000 BC) inhabited the trading cities situated along the coast of modern-day Lebanon, ports like Byblos, Sidon and Tyre. The Phoenicians invented new types of more efficient sailing ships with which they established trading routes all round the Mediterranean, trading in precious metals and manufactured goods such as jewellery, ceramics, and food. The high point of Phoenician culture and sea power is usually placed between about 1,200 to 800 BC. They founded trading settlements on all the Mediterranean islands (Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia) and as far afield as Gades (modern Cadiz) beyond what the ancients called the Pillars of Hercules, i.e. beyond the Mediterranean, onto the Atlantic coast of modern-day Spain.


The most successful of these settlements was Carthage. Carthage was founded in the 9th century BC on the coast of North Africa, in what is now Tunisia, by traders from Tyre in Phoenicia (Phoenicia being the coastal strip of the what is now Syria and Lebanon). It was a pivotal position, half way along the trade routes from east to west and also handy for the short routes north to and south from Italy and its two big islands, Sardinia and Sicily.

Map of the Mediterranean showing position, central to various trade routes (source: Politeia website)

In the following centuries Carthage became independent of its mother city (which was eventually subjugated by the Asian empire of Assyria) to become a trading empire in its own right, creating its own colonies around the Mediterranean and spreading inland from its coastal location to conquer territory originally occupied by Libyan tribes.

New city

Carthage’s status as a colony or settlement is indicated by its name: the Punic term qrt-ḥdšt directly translates as ‘new city’, implying it was a ‘new Tyre’ (p.62). The city states of Phoenicia – the leading ones being Sidon and Tyre – had thrived in the vacuum caused by the late Bronze Age collapse (about 1,200 to 1,100 BC). But from 900 to 800 onwards the big land empires returned, namely Egypt to the south and Assyria to the east, and repeatedly invaded and conquered the city states. Miles shows how they allowed some, Tyre in particular, a measure of independence because the Assyrian rulers relied on the luxury goods, and especially the rare metals, which were brought in from their trade around the Med (copper from Cyprus, silver from southern Spain).

Nonetheless, as the mother city, Tyre, lost power, its strongest child, Carthage, grew.

Punic wars

From the 300s BC onwards Carthage found its maritime empire threatened by the fast-growing new power of Rome, half-way up the west coast of the Italian peninsula. The Romans used the adjective poenus to refer to the Phoenicians and, by extension, the Carthaginians, and so the three wars Rome fought against Carthage are referred to as ‘the Punic Wars’:

  • First Punic War (264–241 BC)
  • Second Punic War (218–201 BC)
  • Third and final Punic War (149–146 BC)

Rome wins

Rome won the Third Punic War, stormed the city and utterly destroyed Carthage in 146 BC, leading away the survivors into brutal slavery and razing the buildings to the ground. During the final war a leading Roman politician, Cato the Censor, made a reputation by, whatever subject he was nominally addressing in the Senate, ending all his speeches with the same words, ‘Carthago delenda est’, meaning ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. It is this famous catchphrase that gives this book its title.

Not only did the Romans destroy all buildings, but all statues, inscriptions and records, emptying the libraries of Carthage and giving away the manuscripts and codices to local tribes. None have survived. This explains why, despite its long history and one-time predominance, the historiography of Carthage is so shadowy, and has to be reconstructed from references in the writings of its enemies or from the often obscure or ambiguous archaeological evidence.


The victorious Romans razed Carthage to the ground. Generations later, the first emperor, Augustus, ordered the erection of a new city on its ruins, Colonia Iulia Concordia Carthago (p.364). Both are now embedded in the huge modern city of Tunis, capital of Tunisia (current population 11 million), which makes archaeological investigation difficult to this day. However, the Carthaginians had established many of their own colonies both across northern Tunisia and on many Mediterranean islands, and from time to time new Punic sites are discovered, or new discoveries are made at existing sites, which provide information which keep our view of Carthage’s history slowly changing and updating.

Punic gods

All written records were destroyed, all the poems and hymns and inscriptions which we have for the Greek or Roman pantheons. From archaeological evidence and references in Greek or Roman works it appears the main gods of Carthage were a couple, the god Baal Hammon and the goddess Tanit (list of 3 triads of gods on page 289).

Baal was a Phoenician name for ‘Lord’, so there were a lot of gods whose first name was Baal. In fact the common Carthaginian men’s name Hannibal is a combination of the Carthaginian name Hanno with the word ‘Baal’.

Melqart was the tutelary god of Carthage’s mother-city, Tyre, sometimes titled the ‘Lord of Tyre’ (Ba‘al Ṣūr), King of the Underworld, and Protector of the Universe. Miles shows how worship of Melqart was encouraged at all Phoenician colonies across the Mediterranean as a way of binding them together culturally.

Miles also shows how Melqart became identified and merged with Greek worship of Heracles, the hugely popular Greek figure who could be taken as both a demigod or a mortal hero, depending on context, and who was the signature figure for Greeks colonising westwards through the Mediterranean in the sixth century and later (pages 105, 221). Heracles was even adopted as a patron and icon by Alexander the Great.

In fact the prevalence of Melqart-Heracles becomes a recurring theme of Miles’s book, popping up wherever Carthage creates colonies, for example becoming the god/face or brand of the new colony in south Spain in the third century (p.221), depicted on the coins of Hannibal (p.227), and then co-opted by the post-Punic emperor Augustus. Miles develops what almost amounts to an obsession with Heracles, turning his myths and legends into a kind of central narrative to the five or six centuries leading up to the Christian Era which are fought over by Greeks and Carthaginians and Romans in turn, who each seek to commandeer and appropriate him as ancestor and avatar for their own colonial ambitions.

By contrast with the hundreds of mentions and extended passages about Heracles, the goddess Astarte is only mentioned a handful of times. She was a goddess of the Levant, of not only Phoenicians but the Canaanites too, rather than distinctively of the Phoenician diaspora. Still, I could have done with more about Astarte.

Carthage as ‘the other’ for Rome

Miles’s central point is that, for the reasons explained above, almost everything we know about ancient Carthage comes down to us from Greek, and then Roman sources, and that both of them were bitter rivals of Carthage’s trading and military might. In other words, all the written evidence we have about Carthage comes from her enemies.

Miles uses ideas derived from Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism about how colonial conquerors project onto their victims their own vices, to suggest that in these accounts the ancient Greeks and Romans projected onto the Carthaginians all the moral and social sins and transgressions and weaknesses they could think of. These included cruelty, dishonesty, effeminacy, luxuriousness, barbarity, sexual immorality, and so on. The notion of the unreliability or deceitfulness of the Carthaginians gave rise to a Roman proverb, fides Punica, meaning Punic or Carthaginian ‘faith’ – ironically indicating the exact opposite. Towards the end of the book he spends three pages describing how the Roman comic playwright Plautus’s play, The Little Carthaginian, performed in the lull between the second and third Punic wars, attributed all these perfidious characteristics to the hapless protagonist (pages

So Miles’s mission is to use the latest up-to-the-minute archaeological and scholarly knowledge to penetrate back through centuries of Greek and Roman prejudice and anti-Carthage propaganda to try and establish who the Carthaginians really were.

There are two problems with this approach:

1. It assumes that you are already fairly familiar with all the Roman prejudices against Carthage which he is setting out to overthrow. If you’re not familiar with Roman slurs against Carthage, then the book has to explain the prejudiced view first, before going on to rebut it and, in doing so, it turns out that the accusations of the Greeks and Romans are often so florid and vivid that you remember them more than Miles’s myth-busting antidotes.

2. This is especially the case when Miles’s anti-prejudice myth-busting is not as exciting or as clear-cut as you might hope, substituting a clearly defined line with the uncertain speculations of modern scholars.

The most obvious example is when Miles sets out to undermine the Greek and Roman accusation that the Carthaginians practised the ritual sacrifice of babies. But to do so he has to present all the evidence supporting the baby-killing view and this turns out to be pretty persuasive. He explains that a ‘tophet’ was the general term the Carthaginians used for a site where infants were sacrificed. It was a Hebrew term derived from a location in Jerusalem in the Gehinnom where worshippers, influenced by the ancient Canaanite religion, practised the human sacrifice of children to the gods Moloch and Baal by burning them alive.

Miles then goes on to look very thoroughly at the archaeological evidence from the cemeteries which have been found in Carthage itself and in the surrounding towns, where urns have been found which contain the ashes of infants. Up-to-the minute scholarly research using DNA and other types of scientific technology seem to have established that many of the infants who were (undoubtedly) burned to ashes, were so young as to maybe have been still-born. Maybe it was only still-born infants or infants who died within months of birth (i.e. who were already dead) who were burned as offerings to the gods. But still… the accusation is not completely baseless… the Carthaginians did burn babies… So Miles’s attempt to overthrow a modern ‘prejudice’ against the Carthaginians ends up bringing the prejudice more prominently to my attention and not really decisively rebutting it.

The endlessness of scholarly debate

And that’s the trouble with any book which sets out to take us into the heart of scholarly debate – the trouble is that scholarly debate is endless. And it is particularly exacerbated with a subject like Carthage where the Romans went out of their way to destroy every building, statue, stele or inscription, and all the books and manuscripts which recorded Carthaginian religion, culture or history.

What we are left with is an admittedly copious amount of archaeological evidence from the city itself and its numerous colonies around the Mediterranean, but evidence which is always partial, fragmentary, complex and open to differing interpretation.

Therefore Miles’s book doesn’t tell ‘the’ story of Carthage, it tells one possible story and, as his narrative proceeds, it is very scrupulous in pointing out where scholars differ and mentioning different interpretations. In fact he does this so often you feel you are reading not one but multiple versions, multiple possible histories of Carthage.

Take something as simple as the start of the Punic period itself, the period of Phoenician economic hegemony in the Mediterranean, presumably, after two and a half thousand years, historians are fairly clear when this began, right? Wrong.

The advent of what we call the ‘Punic’ era is notoriously difficult to define. (p.88)

Presumably historians have a clear sense of what ‘Punic’ culture was, right? Wrong. Turns out that Punic culture was highly ‘syncretic’ i.e. incorporating elements from many other Mediterranean cultures:

What we refer to as ‘Punic’ culture is an umbrella term for a whole series of diffuse cultural experiences that took place all over the western and central Mediterranean. (p.89)

In other words, wherever you look in the subject of Punic or Carthaginian history, there are scholarly problems of interpretation which the steady trickle of modern archaeological discoveries only makes more complex, sometimes bewilderingly so. In fact rather than one coherent story, the text can more accurately be described as a succession of puzzles, historical teasers for which Miles presents the evidence for and against particular solutions or interpretations.

For example, does the existence of the Ara Maxima altar and temple in the Forum Boarium in Rome testify to the early Roman adaptation of a local legend about a hero-brigand with the Greek legends about the wandering hero Heracles? Or, on the contrary, might it point towards early Rome being a mish-mash of Etrurian, Greek, Phoenician, Punic and other peoples in a typically Phoenician cosmopolitan trading community?

Miles devotes pages 108 to 111 to presenting the evidence for either interpretation, which were intriguing to follow but, ultimately, quite hard to remember or care about – and my point is that a good deal of the book is like this, a sequence of puzzles and mysteries and obscurities which scholars are wrangling over right up to the present day, and which Miles shares with us in some detail.

  • There is no consensus on the meaning of the Nora stone… (p385)
  • There has been considerable debate over the provenance of the Cacus myth… (p.404)
  • The identification of the goddess figure has been controversial… (p.405)

Greece, the first rival

For centuries before Rome rose, Carthage’s rival was Greece or, more precisely, the numerous Greek colonies around the Mediterranean. Not a lot of people know that the Greeks colonised or, more accurately, set up trading centres which became towns and sometimes fortified citadels, at points all round the Mediterranean coast, the ones Carthage clashed with dotting the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily. I’m always surprised to reread that the southern coast of Italy was for centuries known as Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece, because of the dominance of Greek towns.

The ubiquity of Greek colonisation was reflected in the spread of the cult of the Greek hero and demi-god, Herakles, whose legendary travels, labours and womanising, as Miles shows, became a symbol of ‘the Greek colonial project’, the ‘Greek colonial endeavour’ (p.171). Temples were built for him all over the Mediterranean littoral and local towns and cities and even ethnic groups claimed descent from the far-travelling bully. A particularly striking example is the way that the Celtic race claimed to be descended from Heracles after he slept with the daughter of the king of Galicia and fathered a son named Kelta (p.399).

Sicily, the endless battlefield

Sicily is separated from Italy by a strait just 1.9 miles wide at its narrowest point and is only 87 miles from the African shore.

Around 500 the narrative emerges from speculation based on archaeology into more reliable history documented by Greek sources, in the form of military campaigns in Sicily. A glance at the map shows why Sicily was important to anyone trying to set up a trading empire in the Mediterranean and Miles devotes several chapters to accounts of the long-running conflict between towns founded by Carthage in the west of the island, and towns founded by Greeks in the east, specifically Syracuse, founded by Greek settlers from Corinth.

The Sicilian Wars, or Greco-Punic Wars, were a series of conflicts fought between ancient Carthage and the Greek city-states led by Syracuse over control of Sicily and the western Mediterranean between 580 and 265 BC. (Wikipedia)

The Carthaginians set up small trading settlements on Sicily as early as 900 BC but never penetrated far inland. They had traded with the local peoples, the Elymians, Sicani and Sicels. Greek colonists began arriving after 750 BC.

  • 580 BC – The Phoenicians in Sicily and the Elymians unite to defeat the Greeks of Selinus and Rhodes near Lilybaeum, the first such recorded incident in Sicily
  • 540 – Carthaginian Malchus is said to have ‘conquered all Sicily’ and sent captured booty to Tyre
  • 510 BC – Carthage helped the town of Segesta defeat the expedition of the Greek Dorieus
  • early 5th century; the higher 400s BC were the era of Sicilian ‘tyrants’ i.e. rulers who ruled a town and its surrounding area without consulting the landed elite; examples of these ‘tyrants’ crop up in the writings about contemporary political theory of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle; for example, Gelon who captured the main Greek city, Syracuse, in 485 BC and then deployed a policy of ‘ethnic cleansing, deportation and enslavement’
  • 483 – Terrilus, tyrant of Himera, was deposed by the tyrant Theron of Acragas, and called on Carthage to help; Carthage was motivate to defend its Sicilian territory against Theron who threatened to take over; Carthage sent a large army, maybe as many as 50,000, many mercenaries, under general Hamilcar; the fleet suffered heavy losses en route to Sicily and was then slaughtered at the Battle of Himera; the defeat was a catastrophe and had political ramifications back in Carthage, leading to the replacement of government by an aristocratic elite with the institution of a special form of republic managed by a Council of 104 and an Assembly of Elders (pages 116, 130, 215); Carthage didn’t intervene in Sicily for 70 years, allowing the Greeks to undergo an era of expansion and building, although they themselves then collapsed into a dozen or so bickering commonwealths
  • 410 – Carthage got involved in the complicated internecine Sicilian wars when Hannibal Mago helped the town of Segesta defeat the town of Selinus and then destroyed Himera, thus avenging the disastrous defeat of 73 years earlier
  • 406 – second expedition led by Hannibal Mago was ravaged by plague which killed Hannibal but his successor Himilco, captured and sacked Akragas, then captured the city of Gela, sacked Camarina and repeatedly defeated the army of Dionysius I, the new tyrant of Syracuse, before plague brought the fighting to a halt

And so on for another 150 years. I’m not going to explain the details of this map from the Turning Points of Ancient History website, I’m including it to show how the island of Sicily was characteristically divided up into a surprising number of territories and towns all of which were, at some point, attacking each other, besieged, surrendered, burnt down and so on during the 300 years of the Sicilian Wars. Basically, for most of that period Carthage held the west of the island, various Greek rulers held Syracuse in the south-east, and then they got embroiled in scores of alliances to try and grab as much of the territory between them.

Map of Sicily 483 BC showing its division between different rulers.

What was surprising to me about this was:

  • realising just how much of a colonising, imperialist peoples the Greeks were: I had a very limited image of the ancient Greeks as philosophers in togas strolling round the agora in Athens or heroically defending themselves against the Persians at Thermopylae; it’s chastening to read about their ambitious imperial aims and their success at founding Greek towns on coastlines all around the Mediterranean; in this respect the long chapter Miles devotes to the cult and legends of Herakles and the way his cult was used to both explain and justify Greek imperialism, is genuinely eye-opening
  • and of course, where you have colonies you have people being colonised; Miles’s book and the Wikipedia article devote all their time to the names of Carthaginian and Greek leaders and their battles and only in passing mention the names of the local ‘peoples’ whose land and livings were stolen from them by one or other set of invaders – the natives being the Elymians, Sicani and Sicels – having read so much about the European colonisation of Africa recently, I was struck by the similarities, only on a much smaller scale, in the sense that we hear a lot about the colonists because they were literate and left records, and almost nothing about the illiterate subject tribes who have gone down in history without a voice

Rome’s civic nationalism

Most people think of Carthage in connection with its rivalry with Rome, which led to the three Punic wars (264 to 146 BC) and which climaxed in the conquest and utter destruction of the city. Miles describes the long prehistory to the conflict, describing the slow but steady rise of Rome from a Carthaginian point of view.

Putting to one side the blizzard of dates, events and individuals, what is fascinating is Miles’s analysis of Rome’s success. It had a number of causes. One was that Rome was ruled by a pair of consuls who were elected for one year’s service. This meant they were in a hurry to make their name in history and were encouraged to aggressive policies now. A contrast to most other polities led by kings or tyrants who could afford to take their time. Miles explains that this ‘war without respite’ was a new thing, and economically exhausted Carthage (p.192).

Another was that when the Romans were defeated they simply raised more troops and came back to avenge the defeat, unlike the Carthaginians who tended to withdraw.

Another big reason for Rome’s success was its astonishing ability to integrate newly conquered territory and peoples into the Roman state (pages 158-9 and 197). This was done via infrastructure – conquered territory soon benefited from the building of the famous roads and aqueducts and laying out towns rationally and efficiently. But also by law, whereby newly integrated populations became equal under Roman law. Rome espoused what Michael Ignatieff calls ‘civic nationalism’ – all Roman citizens were treated equally under the law regardless of race or religion – as opposed to the ‘ethnic nationalism’ which most other states (then and for most of history) employed to unite its populations.

The ancient Latin identity survived, but only as a set of duties, rights and privileges enshrined in Roman law. (p.159)

A huge consequence of this is that Rome was able to recruit its armies from citizens, albeit only recently incorporated into the Roman state, but still, freeborn Roman citizens, who were inculcated with a sincere belief in Roman laws and values. This was in striking contrast to most other Mediterranean powers, including Carthage, which relied heavily on mercenaries to fill their armies, mercenaries who were both unreliable (often mutinied or defected) but also very expensive (a fact pointed out by the contemporary historian Polybius, quoted page 241). One of the reasons for Carthage’s relative decline was it bankrupted itself paying mercenaries to fight the wars against Rome.

(The best example of this was the Mercenary War which began at the end of the first Punic War when a huge force of some 20,000 mercenaries mutinied and turned on Carthage because they hadn’t been paid. Under canny leaders, who allied with neighbouring African tribes who would benefit from the overthrow of Carthage, it turned into a full-blown war on its own account which lasted from 241 to 237 BC when the mercenaries were finally defeated and massacred. Miles describes it in vivid detail pages 200 to 211. The mutiny contributed to the further weakening of Carthage in her long-running feud with Rome and vividly demonstrated the weakness of relying on foreign mercenaries. It is also the vivid and barbaric background to Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbô.)

To be honest, this was one of the seven main things I took away from this long detailed book:

  1. The Carthaginians sacrificed (or were widely accused of sacrificing) babies to their gods.
  2. The huge cultural importance of the figure of Heracles to Greek imperialism and how he was incorporated into the Carthaginian cult of Melqart.
  3. Rome’s success was in large part to its efficiency at incorporating conquered territory and peoples into the civic nationalism of its polity.
  4. Rome’s military success was attributable, in part, to the way they just would not stop or admit defeat, put pressed on relentlessly till they won. (A point seconded by Adrian Goldsworthy’s book about the Punic Wars.)
  5. The gigantic role played by Sicily in Carthage’s history.
  6. The Mercenary War.
  7. The origins and career of Hannibal Barca.

The Punic Wars

Obviously Miles gives a very thorough account of the Punic Wars although here, as in his account of the Sicilian Wars, the immense detail and the explanation of scholarly debate about various key points and cruxes, often threatened to obscure the outline of the bigger picture. For example, in Miles’s narrative, it wasn’t exactly clear when each of the Punic wars either started or ended, since they merged into peace negotiations and visits by ambassadors and skirmishes and violent rebellions or coups and so on.

The overall message seems to be that the three Punic wars accelerated the rise of Rome, in all sorts of ways, militarily, culturally, economically and culturally.

The first war (264 to 241 BC) was fought mainly on the island of Sicily. Rome’s involvement was the first time that a Roman army was sent outside Italy (p.357). However, even having just read about it, it pales into the background compared to the second one (218 to 201 BC) which is dominated by the ‘romantic’ figure of Hannibal. Part of the reason is that, apparently, we have far better sources for the second war, not least because a number of biographies of the famous Hannibal survive in whole or part.


In case it’s not clear, all these societies the ancient Greeks, the Romans and the Carthaginians, relied on slaves. In all the wars, the populations of captured towns and cities were routinely sold into slavery by the victors (pages 127, 140, 281, 296, 315, 347, 352).


A fascinating aspect of the final period of Carthage was the success of its sub-colony in the south of Spain, which was established and triumphed due to the region’s extensive silver deposits. The Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca invaded and subdued the locals in 237 BC, putting them to work on the silver mines on an industrial scale. Eventually there were something like 40,000 slaves working in the silver mines to generate the precious metal to prop up Carthage and its military campaigns. (The town of Cartagena in south-east Spain was founded by Hamilcar as qrt-ḥdšt, which the Romans called ‘Cartago Nova,’ which was corrupted by the locals to Cartagena. So the city of Cartagena in Colombia owes its name to the same origin in the Phoenician language of the Middle East, page 224.)

The Barcids

Hamilcar’s success really brought to prominence the family of Barca whose era or influence is referred to by the adjective ‘Barcid’. Hence ‘Barcid Spain’. In fact the most famous Hannibal of all, the one who took his elephants over the Alps in 218 BC, was a Barcid, the son of the Hamilcar Barca who subjugated the Iberian tribes. When Hamilcar died in the early 220s, his son-in-law Hasdrupal took over, with Hannibal becoming a senior officer in the army aged just 18. When Hasdrupal was assassinated in 221 Hannibal was acclaimed leader by the army (and promptly issued new coinage depicting Heracles/Melqart, just one of the way in which Hannibal consciously associated himself with the oldest iconography of Carthaginian power, pages 227, 245, 247, 250-258).

Hannibal and the second Punic war (218 to 201 BC)

I remember Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps from boyhood history books. I must have wondered why he did it. This book makes things clear.

1. Hannibal was seeking revenge or, more accurately, restitution from the peace settlement of the first Punic war (264 to 241 BC) which had given Sicily to Rome as a Roman province – the first ever Roman province – and cemented Rome as the leading military power in the western Mediterranean and, increasingly, the Mediterranean region as a whole. (Coming 20 years after the end of the first war, and seeking to correct the ‘injustices’ of the peace treaty which ended it, reminds me of the 20 year gap between the first and second world wars.)

2. Having been acclaimed general of the Carthaginian army in Spain Hannibal was ambitious to make his mark and confident, having been raised in an army family, gone on campaigns from an early age and been an officer at age 18, that he could do it.

3. But instead of trying to invade and conquer Sicily – graveyard of so many Carthaginian campaigns in the past – he would strike direct at the enemy and invade Italy.

4. But why over the Alps? Simples. The Romans controlled the seas. A sea-borne invasion was just too risky.

As it was, as soon as Hannibal’s left Carthage-occupied Spain they were attacked by Celtic Iberian tribes. Crossing the Pyrenees was dangerous. Then crossing the entire south of France, again, involved armed confrontations with a succession of local Gaulish tribes. Finally they were shown by guides how to ascend one side of the Alps, go through passes, and descend into Italy in late autumn 218, with 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and an unknown number of elephants – the survivors of the 37 with which he left Iberia.

Here Hannibal spent several years marching and fighting and campaigning. He won one of the most famous victories of the ancient world, crushing a Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC, but the description of the war quickly gets bogged down and complicated. Overall the war makes the point that you can be the best general of your day and win stunning battles but still lose a war which is being fought on numerous fronts. While he was in Italy the Romans shrewdly sent an army to Iberia; although they suffered numerous setbacks, the Iberian tribes the Carthaginians had oppressed were happy to defect to them and so, eventually, the Romans defeated them, and, despite mutinies in their own army and local rebellions, eventually forced all Carthaginian forces, led by Hasdrubal Gisco, out of Iberia. The thirty-year Punic occupation of south Iberia was over, and it became a Roman province, as Sicily had at the end of the first war.

Hannibal was in Italy from 218 to 203. 15 years. Long time, isn’t it? Lots of battles. Early on the Roman authorities panicked and appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator. Fabius introduced the strategy of avoiding open battle with his opponent, instead skirmishing with small detachments of the enemy. This was unpopular with the army, public or Roman elite, as Hannibal marched through the richest and most fertile provinces of Italy wreaking devastation as he went. (This softly, slowly approach explains the name of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884 as a British socialist organisation which aims to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist effort in democracies, rather than by revolutionary overthrow.)

At one point he seized key towns in the very south, Magna Graecia, notably Capua, not as Punic fiefs but giving them their independence. His aim was not to destroy Rome but to mortally weaken it by giving Rome’s Latin and Italian allies their independence. This explains why he only once marched on the actual city and then was rebuffed by its thorough defences. In the end, though, all the cities he’d liberated ended up being retaken by the Romans.

Nonetheless, in the book’s conclusion, Miles says that these fifteen years during which an alien invader roamed more at less at will across the sacred territory of Rome left a deep psychological scar on the Roman psyche which took generations to exorcise (p.361).

In 203 Hannibal was recalled to Africa because in his absence, Publius Cornelius Scipio who had led the Romans to victory in Iberia, had led a force to Africa. Scipio destroyed an army of 50,000 sent against him but failed to capture the town of Utica and realised that besieging Carthage itself would probably be a long drawn-out process, costly in men and resources.

Thus both sides had fought themselves to a standstill and were ready to sue for peace. The Romans imposed very harsh terms but when Hannibal finally arrived back in Carthaginian territory the stage was set for a massive battle between the two old enemies. At the Battle of Zama in October 202 BC Scipio won a decisive victory and brought the war to an end (p.316).

Wikipedia has a cool animated graphic which sums up the change in territorial holdings over the course of the wars:

Changes in Rome and Carthage’s territories during the three Punic Wars, 264 to 146 BC. (Image by Agata Brilli ‘DensityDesign Integrated Course Final Synthesis Studio’, Polytechnic University of Milan)

The third Punic war

Surprisingly, shorn of its empire, Carthage flourished after the second war, quickly paying off the reparations owed to Rome and actively supplying her with vast amounts of wheat and food to support Rome’s wars against Macedon and other kingdoms in the East. When the end came it was entirely of Roman prompting. Factions in the Senate warned endlessly of the threat Carthage could still pose. Cato visited Carthage and was appalled at its prosperity. Eventually argument in the Senate led to an embassy being sent to demand impossible conditions of the Carthaginians – to uproot their city and move inland and cease to be an ocean-going, trading nation at all.

The embassy withdrew into the city and a 3-year siege commenced. Scipio adopted grandson of the great Scipio Africanus. Eventually stormed the walls and broke into the city and destroyed it and massacred its population. There is no doubt in Miles’s mind the Carthaginians did everything they could to abide by the letter of the treaties and to avoid war, and that the Romans would accept nothing but utter destruction. Once again it was Roman inflexibility and relentlessness which triumphed. Miles notes how this was recorded around the Mediterranean where Rome’s determination was noted but many lamented its bad faith, its falling short of the values it claimed to promote, of fairness and good faith.

Appropriating Carthage

At the end of the book, Miles shows how Carthage served numerous ideological purposes for Rome. For a start, in later works it became THE enemy which Rome had to overcome to in order to become great. In a sense, if Carthage hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent her (p.373).

Closely connected, as mentioned above re. Said, even as it was being besieged and for centuries afterwards, Carthage became the anti-type of all the virtues the Romans congratulated themselves on, perfidious compared to Roman fides, with a disgusting baby-killing religion compared to Rome’s dignified ceremonies. Rome’s self-image was built by contrasting itself with the imagined vices of Carthage.

Third, however, a series of poets and historians wondered whether, in defeating Carthage, Rome had somehow peaked. The existence of a potent rival in a sense kept Rome on her toes, not just militarily but morally. For some later moralists, the defeat of Carthage marked the start of the internal squabbles, factions and corruption which were to lead to the civil wars, starting in the 80s BC.

The many dead

Deep down, the book made me marvel and gape at just how many, many men, throughout history, have miserably lost their lives in war. As Adrian Goldsworthy writes in his book on the Punic Wars:

In just one battle, in 216, the Romans and their allies lost 50,000 dead. During the second Punic war a sizeable part of Rome’s adult make population perished, mostly in the first few years of the conflict.

Between one and a quarter and one and three quarter millions of men died in the 120-year war. God knows how many civilians perished or were sold into slavery.

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