The Pharsalia by Lucan – 1: Introduction

O mighty the sacred labour of the poet! He rescues
all from fate, and grants immortality to mortal beings.
(Pharsalia Book 9, lines 980 to 981)

Lucan biography

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39 to 65 AD), generally referred to in English simply as ‘Lucan’, was a Roman poet, born in Corduba (modern-day Córdoba) in the Roman province of Hispania. Although he was ordered to kill himself by the emperor Nero at the age of just 25, Lucan is regarded as one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial Latin period, particularly for his (unfinished) epic poem, Pharsalia.

Lucan was the son of Marcus Annaeus Mela, younger brother of Seneca the Younger i.e. he was Seneca’s nephew.

Lucan’s father was wealthy, a member of the knightly class, and sent him to study rhetoric at Athens and he was probably tutored in philosophy, and especially Stoic philosophy, by his uncle (maybe by Seneca’s freedman, Cornutus, who also tutored the slightly older poet, Persius).

Lucan was a precocious talent and was welcomed into the literary and philosophical circles around the young emperor Nero, who was only two years older than him (born 37 AD). In 60 AD i.e. aged barely 21, Lucan won prizes for extemporising poems at Nero’s new Quinquennial Games. Nero rewarded him by appointing him to the office of augur, a plum position in Rome’s religious hierarchy.

Soon afterwards Lucan began circulating the first three books of what was intended to be an epic poem about the civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (generally referred to as Pompey). This has come down to us with the title Pharsalia, or De Bello civili (‘On the civil war’) in other manuscripts. It’s titled Pharsalia because the action focuses on the decisive Battle of Pharsalus, fought on 9 August 48 BC, at which Caesar decisively defeated Pompey’s army.

At some point Nero and Lucan fell out. According to Tacitus (Annals, book 15, section 49) Nero became jealous of Lucan and ordered him to stop publishing the Pharsalia. According to Suetonius (in his brief Life of Lucan, cited in full at the end of this blog post), Nero disrupted a public reading by Lucan by leaving and calling a meeting of the senate. Lucan responded by writing insulting poems about Nero – which is always a bad thing to do against a tyrant. The grammarian Vacca mentions that one of Lucan’s works was entitled De Incendio Urbis (‘On the Burning of the City’) which presumably contained criticism of Nero’s role in the Great Fire of Rome (July 64). This is confirmed by a reference in a poem by Lucan’s younger contemporary, Publius Papinius Statius (45 to 96 AD).

As further proof, after the pro-Nero eulogy of the opening book, nearly all the subsequent references to emperors and the empire are vitriolically anti-imperial and pro-republic in tone. To take an example at random, Lucan’s biting criticism of not only Alexander the Great’s achievements, but of the cult of imperial Alexander which followed his death.

For, if the world had regained a shred of liberty
his corpse would have been retained as an object
of derision, not shown as an example to the world
of how a host of lands were subjected to one man.
He left his Macedonian obscurity, spurned Athens
that his father had conquered, and spurred on by
the power of destiny ran amok among the realms
of Asia, slaying humankind, putting every land
to the sword. He stained far-off rivers, Persia’s
Euphrates, India’s Ganges with blood; a plague
on earth, a lightning bolt that struck all peoples
alike, a fateful comet flaring over every nation.

But what ended Lucan’s life was his involvement in Gaius Calpurnius Piso’s conspiracy against Nero, uncovered in 65. Lucan was one of many conspirators revealed by torturing suspects. According to Suetonius he miserably truckled to his persecutors, giving them names of further conspirators, including even his own mother, in the vain hope of winning a pardon.

Once his guilt was established Nero ordered Lucan to commit suicide by opening a vein (the alternative being arrest, torture and public execution). According to Tacitus, as Lucan bled to death he recited some lines he had written about a wounded soldier. I wonder if they were from the passage about the 600 Caesarians who chose suicide rather than surrender to Pompey, in book 4:

how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide
(4.577)

Alternatively, according to Suetonius, Lucan in his dying minutes wrote a letter to his father containing corrections to some of his verses and, after eating heartily, offered his arms to a physician to cut his veins. Lucan’s father and both his uncles, i.e all three sons of Seneca the Elder, were also compelled to kill themselves.

(Statius wrote an elegy to Lucan, the Genethliacon Lucani, which was addressed to his widow, Polla Argentaria, on the dead man’s birthday. It was written during the reign of Domitian (81 to 96) and included in Statius’s collection, Silvae).

Themes in the Pharsalia

De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) or the Pharsalia is long and dense with themes and ideas, some of which I will now consider:

1. No gods

The traditional epic poem is packed with gods, supporting various protagonists and intervening in the events. The entire narrative of the Aeneid exists because of the enmity of the queen of the gods, Juno, to the hero, Aeneas, who she continually enters the story to block and stymy, in doing so setting herself against fellow goddess, Venus, who, for her part, does everything she can to support Aeneas (who is her son). This leads to great set-piece debates in heaven between the rival gods, adjudicated by the king of the heavens, Jupiter.

There’s none of this in Lucan. Lucan took the decision to dispense with all the divine interventions associated with traditional epic. Lucan replaces them with the more up-to-date Stoic notions of Fate and Fortune. These two forces, sometimes blurring into each other and overlapping, at other moments appear as clearly distinct entities, names for two different forces operating at different levels of the universe.

Fate, fatum or fata is Destiny – the fixed, foreordained course of events which underpins the universe. Fate is the name given to the working through of the deep plan for the world and the nations in it.

And now, as light dispersed the chill shades of night,
Destiny lit the flames of war, setting the spur to Caesar’s
wavering heart, shattering the barriers shame interposed
and driving him on to conflict. Fate worked to justify
his rebellion, and found a pretext for his use of arms.
(Book 1, lines 261 to 265)

What but the power of destiny, that tragic fate
decreed by the eternal order, drew him, doomed
to die, to that shore…Yet
Pompey yielded to fate, obeying when requested
to leave his ship, choosing to die rather than show
fear…
(8.571 ff.)

By contrast, Fortune, fortuna, is Chance, a fickle, unpredictable force, continually turning her wheel, ensuring that anyone at the peak of professional or social success, can never be certain that Fortune won’t turn her wheel and plunge them down to the pits of failure.

At a deep level, Fate determines the occurrence of a civil war and that Caesar will win. But Fortune decides the outcome of specific events and details.

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
due to idleness, but summoned all his forces scattered
throughout Gaul, moving every legion towards Rome.
(1.392 to 395)

Susan Braund explains all this in the introduction to her translation of the Pharsalia published by the Oxford University Press. The distinct operational levels of the two forces are sometimes made particularly clear:

Caesar, finding civil war so eagerly welcomed by his men,
and finding fortune favourable, granted destiny no delay
(1.392-3)

Where Destiny is the overall force or plan but whether individual elements of the plan fall this way or that, depends on Fortune. Or:

Fate stirred the peoples and sent them as companions
to a great disaster, as a funeral train fit for Pompey’s
exequies. Even horned Ammon was not slow to send
squadrons from Africa to battle, from all parched Libya,
from Morocco in the west to Egyptian Syrtes in the east.
So that Caesar, fortune‘s favourite, might win all with
a single throw, Pharsalia brought all the world to battle.
(3.291 to 297)

The distinction is made particularly clear in the long speech by the witch Erictho in book 6, where she makes a distinction between ‘the chain of events fixed from the beginning of the world’ which nobody can change or alter, and ‘lesser decrees of fate’, which witches like her can alter. Level 1 and Level 2. (6.609 to 621)

However, at other moments I found the concepts a lot less clear cut, for example in this passage where you’d expect the Pompey’s ultimate death, the deep pattern of his life, to be described as his Fate not his Fortune.

Pompey by then, had gained the open sea, but the luck
that aided his past hunts for pirates was his no longer,
and Fortune, wearied by his triumphs, proved untrue.

And sometimes the two concepts seem interchangeable:

Greedy quicksand and spongy marshes hid the secret
Fate had placed there; yet later that aged general’s flesh
was scarred by iron fetters reduced by long vile imprisonment.
He was to die though as Fortune’s friend, as consul in a Rome
he had ruined.
(2.71 to 75)

Anyway, Lucan’s neglect of the traditional apparatus of gods and his focus on Fate and Fortune do two things for the poem:

  1. Lots of gods would have distracted attention away from what was a very human catastrophe and away from the all-too-human human protagonists.
  2. Also the gods can, in some sense, be appealed to and swayed by humans. Whereas Fate and Fortune are profoundly impersonal forces and so bring out the horror of the unstoppable nature of civil war, Fate emphasising the deep inevitability of the outcome, with Fortune standing for the many chance victims along the way.

There is a simpler explanation, which is that the introduction of the kind of gods found in Virgil was simply inappropriate – would have appeared gauche and clumsy – in a poem dealing with very events almost within living memory. Roman literature – Classical literature generally – was very concerned with what was and wasn’t appropriate for every genre, in terms of subject matter, tone and even individual words. Including the gods in a historical epic would have breached the conventions of the genre.

2. No heroes

Epic poems feature the adventures of more-than-human heroes, from Gilgamesh, through Achilles and Aeneas, to Beowulf, humans not only with superhuman power but often the progeny of the gods. Whereas a historical epic like the Pharsalia is concerned with real historical personages, many of whose relatives were still alive when Lucan wrote.

Not only that, but epics generally feature one obvious central protagonist (Gilgamesh, Achilles, Beowulf) but just as there are no gods or divine intervention in the Pharsalia, so there is no one hero or central protagonist. Instead there are three leading but not totally dominating figures:

1. Gaius Julius Caesar

Caesar is the most prominent character in the first part of the poem, active, clear-sighted, ambitious, a force of nature – but not likeable. Lucan’s Caesar approaches closest to the figure of traditional epic hero. He has no moderating feminine influence on him until right at the end, in book 10, where his encounter with Cleopatra is a meeting of two cynical players. After the climactic battle of Pharsalus, however, Caesar is depicted as becoming more ambitious and imperial.

2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

Pompey is portrayed as the opposite – vacillating, indecisive, and past his prime (‘the mere shadow of a mighty name’) but, in scenes with friends, followers and especially his wife, Cornelia, far more human than Caesar. At the end, after Pharsalus, Pompey is transformed into a stoic martyr, receiving a kind of visionary treatment as he nears his tragic death on the beach in Egypt which he meets with Stoic calm acceptance.

3. Marcus Porcius Cato

And, after the death of Pompey in book 8, Cato emerges as the strongest leader of the Republican cause, holed up with Republican legions in north Africa. Cato epitomises stern old-fashioned values. He stands for Roman patriotism and Stoic contempt for death, notably in the episode in book 9 where he scorns to consult the oracle of Ammon, saying God gave us all the knowledge we need to live a virtuous life at birth; which triggers adulation from Lucan:

Behold, the true father of his
country, a man worthy to be worshipped,
Rome, at your altars; by whom none need
blush to swear, and who, if you ever free
your neck from the yoke, shall be made a god.

In fact, in a striking episode on the march across the desert, Cato not only embodies Stoic resolution in the face of death but inspires it in others:

Alone he was present at every
death; whenever they call, he goes, and confers that
mighty benefit, more than life: the courage to die;
so that, with him as witness, any man was ashamed
to die with a groan on his lips.
(9.882)

When Cato’s first wife, Marcia, returns to him the narrative emphasises that their marriage is sexless; it symbolises his adherence to defunct, sterile values. Many critics think Lucan intended Cato to develop into the central figure of the poem, with the narrative designed to end with his famous suicide in the besieged garrison town of Utica, symbolising the moral victory of Stoic principle and Freedom against Tyranny.

There’s a case for saying the three figures are on a spectrum: Caesar is over-balanced in one direction, all energy and decision and lust (‘impetuous in everything’ 2.657); Cato stands at the other pole, arid, sexless, aloof; with Pompey standing in the middle, reasonable and given scenes of touching married love with Cornelia. As this blog shrewdly suggests, it’s as if the heroic protagonist of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas, has decomposed into three characters, none of which are heroic.

3. The gruesome and the macabre

The supernatural

If the Pharsalia doesn’t have gods, what it does have in abundance is the Supernatural – the poem is awash with visions, dreams, ghosts, magic, rituals and so on. Braund sees the supernatural as falling into two categories, ‘dreams and visions’ and ‘portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers’.

a) Dreams and visions

There are four important dream or vision sequences in the poem:

  1. Caesar’s vision of Roma as he is about to cross the Rubicon.
  2. The ghost of Julia (his beloved dead wife) appearing to Pompey (3.1 to 45)
  3. Pompey’s dream of his happy past (7.1 to 30)
  4. Caesar and his troops’ dream of battle and destruction.

All four of these dream-visions are placed strategically throughout the poem to provide structure, and to dramatise key turning points in the narrative.

b) Portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers

Lucan describes a number of portents, with two specifically oracular episodes. What is a portent? “A sign or warning that a momentous or calamitous event is likely to happen.” So, on the morning of the fateful battle:

Now Fortune too did not hesitate to reveal the future
by diverse signs. When the army made for Thessaly’s
fields, the whole sky opposed their march, hurling
meteors against them, columns of flame, whirlwinds
sucking up water and trees together, blinding their
eyes with lightning, striking crests from their helms,
melting the swords in their scabbards, tearing spears
from their grasp while fusing them, their evil blades
smoking with air-borne sulphur. The standards too
could barely be plucked from the soil, their great
weight bowing the heads of the standard-bearers;
and the standards wept real tears…
(7.151 to 162)

The central example is the necromancy which takes up half of book 6, when Pompey’s son, Sextus, goes to consult the witch Erachtho. Lucan’s description of the witch and her ritual take up half the entire book (lines 413 to 830).

All this appealed to contemporary taste for the macabre. Braund cites events in one of the tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca, his Oedipus, which contains a) a visit to the Delphic oracle, b) a gruesome description of the sacrifice and entrail examination of a bull and heifer (haruspicy), and c) the even more macabre magical rituals by which Tiresias raises the ghost of dead King Laius to accuse Oedipus of his murder.

Chaos on earth reflected in heaven

It is a central feature of the histories that war and disruption on earth must inevitably be accompanied by chaos in the heavens – just as in his uncle Seneca’s tragedies where mayhem on earth is matched and mimicked by cosmic catastrophes. In both Lucan and Seneca the entire universe often seems to be trembling on the brink of complete dissolution.

So when the fabric
of the world dissolves, in that final hour that gathers in the ages,
reverting to primal chaos, star will clash with star in confusion,
the fiery constellations will sink into the sea, and earth heaving
upwards her flat shores will throw off the ocean, the moon will
move counter to her brother, and claiming the rule of day disdain
to drive her chariot on its slanting path, and the whole discordant
frame of the shattered firmament will break free of every law.
(1.72 to 79)

This worldview, the intimate parallelism between human and supernatural affairs, is very prevalent in the biographers Plutarch and Suetonius, writing a generation later.

Haruspicy and necromancy

Along the way, Braund gives useful definitions of two key Roman practices:

  • haruspicy (haruspicies) is the art of studying animal entrails, usually the victims of ritual sacrifices
  • necromancy is the art of getting the dead to speak prophecy; necromancy is not only the general practice of this craft, but you perform a necromancy

4. Extreme rhetoric

Education for Roman aristocrats focused on rhetoric, the ability to speak eloquently and make a persuasive argument. We know from contemporary comments and satires that under the empire many of the exercises which students were given became steadily more extreme and exaggerated. This was reflected in the poetry of the age; from what survives the most extreme example might be the bloodthirsty and over-written tragedies of Seneca.

A central part of the curriculum was the suasoria, an exercise where students wrote speeches advising an historical figure on a course of action. This obviously fed into the largely invented speeches which fill Tacitus’s histories as much as Lucan’s poem.

Lucan is sometimes criticised for the extremity of his rhetoric and the luridness of scenes and imagery. But Susan Braund comes to his defence, with two arguments. One is that Lucan was a product of his times. There was a taste for melodrama and Gothic hyperbole which Lucan catered to.

More interesting is the second argument. This is to do with Virgil. Virgil was the undisputed king of Roman poets and his epic, the Aeneid, was acknowledged as a classic even as he was writing it. The problem for ambitious poets in all the succeeding generations was how to escape Virgil’s dominating influence, how to do anything new. Braund says Ovid found one way, in his Metamorphoses, which was to drop the notion of one, unified, linear narrative and instead string together hundreds of stories and episodes.

Lucan adopted another strategy which was to import into his text the ‘discourse of contemporary rhetoric’, in all its exaggeration and extremity. For there’s another aspect here, which is not to forget that a poem like this was meant to be recited aloud to audiences. Before the rule of Augustus, poetry was recited to group of like-minded friends or patrons. During Augustus’s reign it became common to recite it to larger audiences. We have accounts of Virgil reciting to the emperor and his extended family. Horace was commissioned to write odes to be declaimed at public games.

Braund argues that this trend for declamation had two consequences: it tended to promote more striking and vibrant imagery/style. And it incentivised the poet to think in terms of episodes.

5. Episodic structure

The Aeneid is very carefully constructed and susceptible to many types of structural analysis. Although critics have, of course, made a case for the existence of a deep structure in the Pharsalia (for example, a tetradic structure whereby the first four books focus on Caesar, the next four on Pompey and the final four on Cato) Braund disagrees. She thinks the narrative is far more episodic. In this respect it is like the highly episodic structure of Ovid’s Metamorphoses with one story leading to another, then another, then another – itself a strategy for escaping the highly unified and centralised narrative of the Aeneid.

Like the Metamorphoses, this lack of a single unifying narrative in the Pharsalia allows for more episodes, more adventures, more flicking between channels – episodes which contain are like mini-genres, containing their own appropriate languages, structure and style.

Lucan is fond of discontinuity. He presents his narrative as a series of discrete scenes, often without any transitional or scene-changing lines. Rather than a continuous narrative, it often feels like scenes are balanced within a book or between books, working by correspondence, similarity and difference between them.

We can imagine how well these dramatic episodes would have gone down as stand-alone recitations to a sophisticate audience of Roman aristocrats. I’m thinking of Appius’s confrontation with the priestess at Delphi or the terrific storm scene or Caesar’s speech of defiance to his mutinous troops, all in book 5.

6. Lucan and Virgil

Lucan frequently appropriates ideas from Virgil’s epic and inverts them to undermine their original, heroic purpose. Sextus’ visit to the Thracian witch Erictho in book 6 is the most obvious example, the scene and language clearly referencing Aeneas’ descent into the underworld (in Book 6 of the Aeneid), but while Virgil’s description, despite its gloomy setting, is an optimistic, nay triumphant vision of the future heroes of Rome leading up to the glories of Augustan rule, Lucan uses his scene to convey a bitter and bloody pessimism about the loss of liberty under the coming empire.

7. Epic similes

Braund and other critics emphasis the way that Lucan seeks to break free from the epic conventions, in particular the way he references Virgil in order to reverse or invert his technique and meaning. But in one respect Lucan strongly conforms with the tradition, which is in his use of epic similes. Straight-up epic similes really litter the narrative. Here’s the famous extended comparison of Pompey, larded with triumphs, to a venerable oak tree:

So some oak-tree towers in a rich grove,
hung with a nation’s ancient trophies, sacred gifts of the victors,
and though its clinging roots have lost their strength, their weight
alone holds it, spreading naked branches to the sky, casting shade
not with leaves but its trunk alone, and though it quivers, doomed
to fall at the next gale, among the host of sounder trees that rise
around it, still it alone is celebrated.
(1.137 to 143)

Or the inhabitants of towns which Caesar’s army approached were conflicted about who to support.

Though loyalty contended with the threat of danger,
they still favoured Pompey, as when a southerly rules
the waves, and all the sea is stirred by its vast power,
so that even if Aeolus’ trident opens the solid earth,
and lets an easterly loose on the mounting breakers,
the ocean, though struck by that second force, stays
true to the first, and though the sky surrenders itself
to the rain-filled easterly, the sea asserts the southerly’s
power.
(2.452 to 460)

Describing Octavius’s naval strategy:

So the hunter works,
holding back the net of coloured feathers that scares
the deer with its scent, till he can pen them all, or
quieting the noise of the swift Molossian hounds,
leashing the dogs of Crete and Sparta, till he has set
his stakes and nets, leaving one hound alone to range
the ground, it puzzling out the scent and only barking
when the prey is found, content then to point toward
the creature’s lair while tugging at the leash.
(4.436 to 444)

Or describing the way Cato’s speech in book 9 persuades the allies to remain with the anti-Caesarian army:

So, when hosts of bees
depart the hive, where their young have hatched,
they neglect the waxy cells, their wings no longer
brush one another, each takes its own way, idling,
refraining now from sipping the flowering thyme
with its bitter taste; yet if the sound of Phrygian
cymbals rises, they interrupt their flight, in alarm,
returning to the performance of their flowery task,
and their love of gathering pollen. The shepherd
in Hybla’s meadows is relieved, delighted that
his honey harvest is secured. So Cato’s speech
persuaded his men to endure the lawful conflict.
(9.282 to 293)

Nothing particularly lurid or extreme or melodramatic or supernatural about these. Very conventional epic similes.

8. Geographical descriptions

Before I started reading the poem I was impressed by Braund’s introduction and its emphasis on the macabre and bloodthirsty in Lucan. But once I began reading, I realised there were a lot of other, more low-key, less sensational elements that go to make up the text. More frequent than descriptions of battle, let alone supernatural visions, are the frequent very long passages describing the precise geography of a particular location, such as the region around Capua where Pompey first took his army or, in book 6, this very long description of Thessaly.

Mount Pelion’s ridge bounds Thessaly in the quarter where
the winter sun rises, Mount Ossa where in high summer
its shade obstructs the rays of Phoebus rising in the dawn;
while wooded Othrys dispels the flames of the southern sky,
at midsummer, opposing the brow of the all-devouring Lion;
and Mount Pindus outfacing westerlies and north-westerlies,
where daylight ebbs hastens evening on; while those who live
at the foot of Olympus never dreading the northerlies, know
nothing of the Great Bear’s stars shining a whole night long.
The low-lying lands in the region between these mountains
were once covered with endless marshes; since the plains
retained the waters, and the Vale of Tempe was insufficient
for them to reach the sea they formed continuous swampland,
and their only course was to rise. But when Hercules lifted
Ossa’s weight from Olympus, the sea felt a sudden onrush
of waters as Thessalian Pharsalos, that realm of Achilles
the hero born of a sea-goddess, rose above the surface,
a realm better drowned forever. There rose too, Phylace
whose king was first to land in the war at Troy; Pteleos;
Dorion, that laments the Muses’ anger and blind Thamyris;
Trachis; Meliboea whose Philoctetes received Hercules’
bow, for lighting that hero’s funeral pyre; Larisa, powerful
once; and the sites where the plough now passes over famed
Argos, where Echion’s Thebes once stood, to which Agave
howling bore the head of Pentheus giving it to the funeral
pyre, grieving to have carried off no other part of his flesh.
Thus the swamp was drained forming a host of rivers. From
there the Aeas, clear in its flow but of little volume, runs
westward to the Ionian Sea, the Inachus glides with no more
powerful a current (he was the river-god, father of ravished Io)
nor the Achelous (he almost won Deianeira, Oeneus’ daughter)
that silts the Echinades islands; there, the Euhenos, stained
as it is with Nessus’ blood runs through Meleager’s Calydon;
there Spercheos’ swift stream meets the Malian Gulf’s wave,
and the pure depths of the Amphrysos water those pastures
where Apollo herded cattle. There, the Asopos starts its flow,
and the Black River, and the Phoenix; there, the Anauros,
free of moist vapours, dew-drenched air, capricious breezes.
There too are the rivers which do not reach the sea themselves
but are tributaries of Peneus – the Apidanus, robbed of its flow,
the Enipeus never swift until it finds Peneus, and the Titaresos,
which alone, meeting with that river, keeps its waters intact,
glides on the surface, as though the greater river were dry land,
for legend says its stream flows from the pool of Styx, and so,
mindful of its source, scorns commingling with common water,
inspiring still that awe of its current the gods themselves feel.
Once the waters had flowed away leaving dry land, the fertile
soil was furrowed by the ploughs of the Bebryces; the labour
of Leleges drove the share deep; the ground was broken by
Aeolidae and Dolopians, by Magnesians breeders of horses,
Minyae builders of ships.
(6.398 to 416)

Long, isn’t it? A tourist’s guide to the region. I imagine the long list of not only place names but myths and legends associated with them were a) appropriate to the grandeur of the epic genre, magnifying the action b) awed Lucan’s readers or auditor’s with the poet’s impressive erudition c) made those in the aristocratic audience who had visited some or many of those sites nod with smug recognition.

9. Natural history

In his last few years, Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, composed an enormous work of natural history, the Naturales quaestiones, an encyclopedia of the natural world. A decade later, 77, Pliny the Elder published the first 10 books of his compendious Naturalis Historia (Natural History) (the largest single work to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day).

I mention these works to indicate that a taste for ‘natural history’ was obviously in the air and maybe explains the presence of the extended passages of natural history in the Pharsalia. The obvious example is the really extended passage about the snakes of Libya which takes up over 300 lines in book 9.

10. Is the Pharsalia unfinished?

Almost all scholars agree that the Pharsalia as we now have it is unfinished. Lucan was working in book 10 when Nero’s order to commit suicide came through. Book 10 breaks off with Caesar in Egypt. There are numerous theories about this as about all other aspects of the poem. Here are some:

  • Some argue that Lucan intended to end his poem with the Battle of Philippi (42 BC).
  • Some critics speculate that the narrative was intended to continue all the way to the assassination of Julius Caesar four years after the Battle of Pharsalus, in 44 BC.
  • Some even think it was meant to continue all the way to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

The latter two theories, in particular, suppose that Lucan intended to write a work many times larger than what we have. The 10-book poem we have today covers a total of 20 months i.e. roughly a book per 2 months; so the 48 months to Caesar’s assassination would imply another 24 books; the 17 years (204 month) to Actium, imply another 102 books!

Another problem with the timeline continuing as far as Caesar’s assassination is that, with both Pompey and Cato dead, Lucan would have had to embark on building up a new set of characters, in particular the leaders of Caesar’s assassination, Cassius and Brutus.

Which is why Braund ends up going with the simplest hypothesis which is that Lucan’s original intent was a 12-book poem, mirroring the length of the Aeneid. The strongest piece of evidence for Lucan consciously modelling the Pharsalia on Virgil is the way Lucan introduces an extended necromantic ritual in his sixth book that deliberately parallels and inverts many of the motifs found in Virgil’s sixth book. Thus Braund goes with the view that the poem was to be 12 books long and was heading towards the suicide of Cato (as the army of Julius Caesar approached his stronghold of Utica in North Africa) held up as a model of Stoic dignity rising above tyranny.

There are a few more scenarios: one is that the Pharsalia in in fact finished, was meant to end at the end of the tenth book, and is complete as we have it. This is the view of Classicist Jamie Masters but most other scholars disagree.

But there is one last logical possibility, which is that Lucan did in fact complete the poem but, for whatever reason, the final few books of the work were lost at some point. Braund notes that little evidence has been found one way or the other, so this question will remain a matter of speculation.

11. The Roman cult of suicide

Throughout the poem suicide is praised as a noble and dignified way to take control of your life. Nothing becomes a true Roman man so much as either a) dying in battle or b) controlling the time and place of his death, especially when faced with tyranny. Thus Afranius contemplates suicide before surrendering to Caesar (book 4), Vulteius and his men actually do commit suicide, en masse, rather than be captured:

No instant is too short for a man
to kill himself; suicide is no less glorious when death
at another’s hand approaches.
(4.480)

Even Julius Caesar unashamedly tells his mutinying soldiers that, if they lose, he will commit suicide:

I shall seek
my own salvation in suicide; whoever looks back
if the foe is unbeaten, will see me stab my breast.
(7.308)

From which Lucan draws the general lesson that suicide is the ultimate way to escape from tyranny:

Yet even after the example set
by such heroes, nations of cowards still do not comprehend
how simple it is to escape captivity by suicide; so the tyrant’s
power is feared, freedom is constrained by savage weapons,
while all remain ignorant that the sword is there to deliver
every man from slavery.

For me, the careful seeding of examples of, and praise of, and defences of, suicide, strongly suggest the poem was building up to the suicide of Cato as its climax and crowning example of resistance. Thus it is that Cato himself sternly celebrates Pompey’s death after defeat:

O happy was he, whose ending
followed on defeat, the Egyptian swords
offering the death he should have sought.
He might perhaps have lived on instead
under Caesar’s rule

Because:

the highest fate
is to know when to die, and the second
best to have such death forced upon one.

The ‘highest fate’, the best thing a man can do, the greatest achievement of human reason, is to know when to die. All the more ghoulishly ironic that Lucan himself was forced to commit suicide before he could complete the depiction of his Stoic hero committing suicide.

12. Lucan and Seneca

I finished reading Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic weeks after reading the Pharsalia. Reviewing my notes I realise the tremendous overlap in ‘philosophy’, namely the absolutely central role played in both texts by suicide as escape from tyranny. It is the central theme of both works. But as I point out in my review of the letters, suicide my be an acceptable theme for a poem, but not for a really long work of moral exhortation (the letters) which claim to be instructions on how to live and think. Personally, I recommend not thinking about suicide every moment of every day, as a healthier way to live.

Modern views

Since the Enlightenment the Pharsalia has commonly been considered a second rank offering, not in the same league as the king of the Roman epics, the Aeneid. But in recent decades more sophisticated literary analysis has brought out how the poem’s ‘studied artifice enacts a complex relationship between poetic fantasy and historical reality’.

His narrative of the civil war is pared down to a bare minimum; but this is overlaid with a rich and varied virtuoso display of learning which reflected contemporary interests. (Braund, Introduction, page 37)

All I can add is that I found the Pharsalia a surprisingly gripping and interesting read.

Caesar crossing the Rubicon by Adolphe Yvon (1875)


Related links

Roman reviews

Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

**********

Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

  • Seneca: Plays
  • Seneca: Letters to Lucilius
    Seneca: The Apocolocyntosis

The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus – 1

The more I think about history, ancient or modern, the more ironical all human affairs seem.
(Annals of ancient Rome by Tacitus, page 127)

Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 to 120 AD)

Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian and politician. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians. He held high official positions, being consul in 97 and governor of Anatolia in 113.

His two major works – the Annals and the Histories – cover the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus (14 AD) to the death of Domitian (96 AD), although there are substantial gaps in the surviving texts.

Saint Jerome stated that The Histories and Annals together amounted to 30 books. Scholars traditionally assign 16 books to the Annals and 14 books to the Histories. Of the 30 books mentioned by Jerome only about half have survived.

Three other, lesser works by Tacitus survive in their entirety:

  • a dialogue about oratory, in which two lawyers and two literary men discuss the claims of oratory against literature (published 102)
  • a study of Germany and the German tribes (the Germania, published about 98)
  • a biography of his father-in-law, Agricola (the Agricola, published about 98)

Incomplete

The Annals were Tacitus’s final work. The Histories, although published earlier, cover the later part of his period, from 68 to 96 AD. The Annals, though published later, cover the earlier period, from the end of the reign of Augustus, through those of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius and Nero, covering the years 14 to 68 AD, the year when Nero committed suicide.

But the absolutely key thing about the Annals is that half of them are missing. There are dirty great gaps in the narrative, big holes in the story.

We have the first part, a good continuous narrative from the end of Augustus’s reign (14) through most of Tiberius’s rule (14 to 37) in detail. But the text breaks off after the death of Tiberius and the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47) are missing. The narrative then resumes for the last seven or so years of Claudius (47 to 54) and the entire reign of Nero (54 to 68), at which point the narrative of the Annals connects with that of the Histories.

The best

Tacitus’s is the earliest and best account we have of this crucial period in western history. We do also possess the biographies of the first 12 emperors by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 to 122), Tacitus’s younger contemporary, which cover the exact same period and were published around 120 AD; and it’s true that Suetonius was an imperial secretary (to Hadrian) and so had access to imperial archives and was able to amass much curious and colourful material in his biographies. But Suetonius followed the conventions of his time in thinking ‘biography’ a much less serious genre than ‘history’ and so didn’t attempt the deeper analysis and wider scope which Tacitus achieves.

The other main source for this period is the Greek historian Lucius Cassius Dio (155 to 235) who wrote a vast history of Rome from its foundation up to his own time in no fewer than 80 volumes. But Michael Grant, the translator of the Penguin edition of the Annals, considers Dio ‘pedestrian’ and lacking ‘the imagination to grasp the affairs of the early empire’.

So although there are these two other sources, nonetheless Tacitus:

is the best literary source for the events of the early principate that we possess.

The purpose of history

Like everyone in the ancient world, Tacitus thought writing had a moral purpose. Grant’s introduction spends some time untangling the complicated relationship in Tacitus’s time between history, rhetoric and philosophy.

For a start all these genres – poetry, history, tragedy and comedy, eulogy and lyric poetry – were pioneered by the ancient Greeks. The Romans only began to copy these genres hundreds of years after the Greeks had brought them to a first perfection. (The first Greek historian, Herodotus, wrote his Histories about 430 BC, whereas the first Roman historian, Cato the Elder, wrote his Origines 250 years later, about 180 BC.)

Grant tells us that history, as a genre, grew out of poetry. First came Homer and Hesiod (700 BC?) and only centuries later, the first of the Greek historians – Thucydides b.460 and Herodotus b.430. For a very long time ‘history’ was regarded as a subsidiary form of literature.

This explains the elements of the dramatic found in Tacitus, for example the extended speeches he gives characters at various points which, scholars think, were almost all entirely invented by Tacitus. He attributed to leading characters in the narrative beautifully structured speeches which expressed the kinds of things they ought to have said at the most dramatic or pivotal moments.

And from the tradition of Greek tragedy comes an urge to make events seem tragic and terrible. You can feel this at moments in the narrative where, after trundling through a list of law cases and official appointments, Tacitus returns to the year’s activities of Tiberius or Nero and, suddenly, the narrative takes on a more colourful, sometimes stricken, tone, as he talks up the appalling reign of terror which Tiberius assembled or the terrible acts of the sadist and murderer Nero. You can almost hear him cranking up the horror. Which is why some scholars question whether things really were as bad under Tiberius and Nero as Tacitus claimed or whether some, at least, of the horror is included for dramatic effect.

Alongside drama went didacticism, the urge to teach and instruct, which grew, according to Grant, in popularity in the Greek world from the 4th century BC onwards. Tacitus takes a deeply moral line. He is concerned not only with recording everything which happened in a specific year, but giving his opinion about it.

Tacitus’s history is a succession of issues by which I mean a record of each year’s military campaigns, appointments of officials, promulgating of laws, prosecuting of officials or criminals, the character of particular officials (governors, generals, the emperors themselves) and so on – all of which Tacitus gives his opinion about. It is a very opinionated history.

Tacitus is in no doubt that the fundamental purpose of his writing is didactic. The aim of history is to teach men to know themselves better and behave better by showing them great examples – of good and terrible behaviour – from the past.

It seems to me a historian’s foremost duty to ensure that merit is recorded and to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciations.
(p.150; book 3, 64)

Which brings us to another massive topic, which is rhetoric, the art of persuasion, in writing and speaking. Rhetoric was the central element of the educational syllabus of the well-educated in the ancient world, and was explained in a stream of famous and complex manuals.

Thus a writer like Cicero, in his De legibus, says that history’s first concern may be recording the truth, but very close afterwards comes the need to a) persuade his audience and b) to sound well. This brings us back in a circle to history’s origins as a child of poetry. By Tacitus’s time it had travelled a long way from its parent but hadn’t shaken off the expectation that the historian would, as well as being a good researcher of facts, be an artist of prose.

Hence (to repeat a bit) the importance of the set-piece speeches Tacitus invented for his historical personages. The speeches are not only appropriate for the personage and the situation, they exploit the personage and the situation to put on a good show – in order to demonstrate the author’s skill at making a case, and to tickle the taste buds of the educated Roman audience who enjoyed savouring and judging well-made rhetoric and oratory.

Many of the set-piece passages in Tacitus were almost certainly written to be declaimed i.e. read aloud to an audience trained to its fingertips in the art of rhetoric, who would spot and appreciate the author’s various tricks and skills.

Conceived as accurate depictions of what actually happened, written in order to promote good behaviour and deprecate bad behaviour, Tacitus’s writings also had an interest in bringing out dramatic moments and presenting successive cases and arguments with all the skills of an orator. (For example, the passage in book 1, sections 7 to 10, where Tacitus puts the case for, and then the case against, Augustus’s achievements.) It’s a colourful, rich and often highly artistic combination.

Sententiae

Alongside and accompanying this overtly didactic aim, Tacitus from time to time throws in sententiae or pithy comments on history, society and human nature. these were a well-known part of his style and were quoted and excerpted for a millennium and a half afterwards. However, the modern reader may feel that, beneath their air of profundity, they are often strangely anodyne.

So the avenging of Germanicus ended. Contradictory rumours have raged around it among contemporaries and later generations alike. Important events are obscure. Some believe all manner of hearsay evidence; others twist truth into fiction; and both sorts of errors are magnified by time. (p.128, book 3, section 18)

It would be easy to enjoy and dismiss the sententiae without realising their true significance. Tacitus is trying to understand human nature by stepping back and commenting on aspects of what he sees, which arise naturally from his subject matter (the origins of tyranny) or his researches (how very prone people are to believe all kinds of rumours and lies).

He is investigating the nature of what is remembered, and why, and how fictions so quickly arise to fulfil people’s expectations.

Sejanus, too much loved by Tiberius and hated by everyone else, passed for the author of every crime; and rumours always proliferate around the downfalls of the great. For such reasons even the most monstrous myths found believers…My own motive in mentioning and refuting the rumour has been to illustrate by one conspicuous instance the falsity of hearsay gossip, and to urge those who read this book not to prefer incredible tales – however widely current and readily accepted – to the truth unblemished by marvels.
(p.162, book 4, section 9)

Fairly obvious though they seem to us, these kinds of reflection on human nature and the psychology of society was much rarer in ancient times. Although they were to some extent expected in history as a genre, it is always fascinating to read these occasional insights, not into society as such, but into how ancient authors thought about their society and about social change.

No chapter markers

I read the Annals in the translation by Michael Grant published by Penguin in 1956. It is a clear, forceful translation making for an enjoyable read (if you like Roman and military history) but with one massive flaw. Most Roman texts were divided by the author into numbered sections which modern editors, not entirely accurately, often call ‘chapters’.

The Annals and Histories are divided into these numbered sections, which are themselves gathered into ‘books’. But Grant or his editor took the decision not to include these chapter numbers in the text, which is inconvenient. It would have been useful to know which book and which section various events occur in.

Robert Graves’s translation of Suetonius and Kenneth Wellesley’s translation of Tacitus’s Histories, both for Penguin, do keep the section numbers in –so that every other paragraph or so starts with a number – and this allows you to compare their texts with other translations available online by referring to these numbers. You can go straight to the precise section of the other translations and make comparisons very easily. And, when I quote a sentence or two in my blog, I can cite the precise section it occurs in, for everyone’s convenience.

You simply can’t do that with the Grant translation. The book number and chapter number are given in the header at the top of each page, but this covers all the contents of both pages and so is very imprecise, and leaves you having to guess which chapter number applies to a particular paragraph. Very irritating.

Annalistic

What is an annal, anyway? Merriam-Webster defines an annal as ‘a record of the events of one year’ and annals in the plural as a record of events arranged in a year-by-year sequence. Thus Tacitus proceeds, rather pedantically, a year at a time. This means he doesn’t describe long-running themes which ran over successive years, as a whole. Instead he tells you everything which happened in 14 AD. Then everything which happened in 15 AD. And so on.

Sources

1. Apparently, the initial scaffolding of the work was based on annual notices called the ‘Records of the Priests’. These were primarily religious in nature but since the Roman year was packed with celebrations and festivals a lot of the other business of the state (elections, wars, trials) began to be mentioned and then actively recorded in the Records. By the second century BC historians who used these sources had become known generally as the Annalists. They provide an obvious precedent for Tacitus’s work.

2. Tacitus also mentions searching ‘histories and official journals as part of his researches (p.120), a note from Grant telling us this latter refers to the acta diurna which began to be kept in the year of Julius Caesar’s first consulship (59 BC).

3. He also, like Suetonius, at some points refers to stories he himself heard from those alive at the time, and so gives a version of Piso’s eventual death ‘given by people who were alive when I was young’ (p.126).

4. And he balances the written record with hearsay, the oral tradition which is so often lost and so is valuable that Tacitus recorded:

In describing Drusus’ death I have followed the most numerous and reputable authorities. But I should also record a contemporary rumour, strong enough to remain current today…’ (p.163, book 4 section 10)

(This rumour was that Sejanus not only seduced Drusus’s wife, Livilla, into becoming his lover and helping him poison her husband, Drusus – but also seduced Drusus’ eunuch, Lygdus, to help in the conspiracy.)

Sallust

Grant sees the key figure in the Roman tradition before Tacitus as being Sallust, author of a lost history as well as studies of the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy, which have survived. Sallust was popular because of the drama and energy of his narratives, spliced with exciting speeches, most notably the long speeches he attributes to Julius Caesar and Cato the Younger in the Catiline conspiracy – combining artistry and rhetoric.

‘Next’

This explains why one of the key words in Grant’s translation is ‘next’. Tiberius did this. ‘Next’ x and y were installed as consuls for the year. ‘Next’ the Senate debated a motion to prosecute this or that governor. ‘Next’ there were rebellions by the following tribes on the following borders of the empire. ‘Next’ Tiberius announced a new policy to enforce z.

The summary of each year opens by naming the consuls for that year:

  • In the next year the consuls were Servius Cornelius Cetegus and Lucius Visellius Varro… (p.165)
  • In the following year the consuls were Cossus Cornelius Lentulus and Marcus Asinius Agrippa… (p.173)

And ends with a brief list of notable figures who died during it:

  • At the end of the year two notable Romans died… (p.134)
  • Two eminent men died this year…’ (p.155)

And so on. On one level it is a record of events which really is just ‘one damn thing after another’. As I got into the text I realised that, although broad chapter titles Grant assigns to big blocks of narrative (see below) are zippy and dramatic, it would make a lot more sense to layout the narrative by year, starting a new ‘chapter’ with each year to really bring out the year-by-year annalistic nature of the text.

By ‘everything’ I mean a fairly narrow, limited range of concerns. Tacitus frequently refers to his own researches in state records. The point being that his narrative appears to be based on the brief records which Roman officials had been keeping for centuries of a) appointments to the key magistracies; b) debates and decisions of the Senate, regarding new laws or the prosecution of leading figures for breaching various laws; c) military campaigns; d) important court cases, often the prosecution of provincial governors for corruption.

Tacitus lays out a list of these kinds of events for each year and then expands on them, giving further background where required, especially about the individuals concerned, their family and character, and explaining what happened in each instance. These kinds of things form what you could call the background hum of the narrative.

No social or economic history

There is very little about a subject which has become central to modern history, which is economics. The ancients had little or no understanding of economics. Like his peers, Tacitus will say ‘in this year there was a shortage of wheat or grain’ and that food prices went up or there was scarcity leading to riots, prompting the emperor to intervene and buy up huge amounts to be distributed cheaply to the population of Rome. But that’s about it.

And there’s nothing at all about the lives or experiences of the common people, except for occasional references to the mob or riots. It is very much a personal history of the very top echelons of society, the senatorial class and the so-called ‘knights’. And it is a moral history of their personal attitudes and behaviour.

The emperors

But laid over the top of the background hum of the year-to-year events is what you could call the juiciest element of the Annals, which is the cumulative portrait of the emperors being (since we lack Caligula altogether) Tiberius, Claudius and Nero.

The most famous biographer of this period, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 to 122) has left us, among copious other writings, a famous set of biographies of the first 12 emperors (Lives of the Caesars) which covers the exact same period as Tacitus’s Annals and Histories. The two works can be read side by side.

Suetonius’s biographies are relatively brief (40 or so pages in the Penguin translation). After a shortish chronological section detailing the objective historical events of their reigns, Suetonius moves onto personal aspects of his subjects, arranged like a PowerPoint presentation under specific headings (personal attributes, appearance, wives and offspring and so on) under which he groups facts or events to illustrate each of his topics. These often contain juicy gossip and quirky facts (such as Augustus’s distinctive birthmarks or his habit of wearing a big floppy hat when he went out to protect him from the sun) which make them pithy and memorable.

Tacitus, by contrast, presents us with one long continuous narrative. This means there is a great deal more content, especially in two particular areas: domestic policy and military campaigns.

Suetonius lists the aspects of the emperors and then illustrates them by anecdotes, jumping around place and time to provide evidence. Tacitus, by contrast, proceeds, in a slightly plodding way, through the key events of each year, as he’s derived them from studying the official records of the senate, the elections, the law courts etc. And out of this list of events grows his analysis of the emperor. The prosecution of this or that official brings out this side of the emperor. The handling of a military campaign highlights that side of his personality. And so on. Far more historical information.

Books and titles

As I’ve mentioned Grant doesn’t structure his narrative by the books and sections of the original text. Instead he creates his own ‘chapters’, giving them titles (which I’m pretty sure aren’t in the original). The aim is to add drama and give his narrative the feel of a novel. They are:

Part one: Tiberius

  1. From Augustus to Tiberius (book 1, sections 1 to 15)
  2. Mutiny on the Frontiers (book 1, sections 16 to 49)
  3. War with the Germans (book 1 section 49 to book 2 section 26)
  4. The First Treason Trials (book 2 sections 27 to 52)
  5. The Death of Germanicus (book 2 section 53 to book 3 section 19)
  6. Tiberius and the Senate (book 3 sections 19 to 76)
  7. ‘Partner of my labours’ (p.158) [about Sejanus] (books 4 and 5)
  8. The reign of terror (book 6)

Part two: Claudius and Nero:

  1. The fall of Messalina (book 11)
  2. The Mother of Nero (book 12)
  3. The fall of Agrippina (book 13 to book 14 section 13)
  4. Nero and his helpers (book 14 sections 14 to 65)
  5. Eastern settlement (book 14 sections 1 to 32)
  6. The burning of Rome (book 15, sections 32 to 47)
  7. The plot (book 15, sections 48 to 74)
  8. Innocent victims (book 16)

Tiberius

Unlike sociable Augustus, Tiberius comes over as ‘profoundly secretive’ (p.140), ‘cryptic’ (p.143) ambiguous and unpredictable. In his introduction Grant points out that Tacitus attributes to Tiberius all the qualities of a villain of melodrama, the stock tyrant of ancient literature: he is portrayed as unjust, sensual, cruel and, above all, suspicious and cunning.

Livia

His mother, Augustus’s widow, Livia – who was given the ominous title ‘the Augusta’ – is, if anything, worse, a monster of malicious manipulation. It’s often difficult to spot the moment at which the transition takes place, but quite often, when reading about these two, you realise the text has turned into a pantomime and the audience is meant to be booing and hissing the baddies.

Germanicus

Every panto needs a hero and this deep tendency – to cast things into dramatic shape – explains the tremendous shininess with which the young prince, Germanicus, is depicted, Tacitus emphasising his graciousness, openness, honesty, his ability to get on with people and his great military victories in Germany, in order to contrast all of this with Tiberius’s negative versions of the same virtues, with Tiberius’s surliness, suspicion, duplicity, holing up in Rome (and then retirement to Capri).

Germanicus in Germany

In his notes Grant brings out something I had sensed or felt in the narrative but wasn’t sure about, which is that Germanicus’s campaigns in Germany (against the Cherusci, led by Arminius, the Chatti, the Marsi and other rebel tribes), dramatic and extended through they were, were ultimately an expensive waste of time resulting in no permanent conquests or treaties.

The most memorable part of these early books is Tacitus’s descriptions of the very hard-fought battles in the mud and undergrowth of the endless German forest and then, above all else, the terrific description of the huge storm in the North Sea which wrecked Germanicus’s fleet, which destroyed many ships and drowned many soldiers. Tacitus’s account has a Hollywood blockbuster feel to it (pages 87 to 88).

 The North Sea is the roughest in the world and the German climate the worst. The disaster was proportionately terrible – indeed, it was unprecedented. (p.87)

All the more horrifying that Tacitus presents the evidence for and against the widely held suspicion that Germanicus was poisoned by the governor of Syria, Cnaius Calpurnius Piso, where Germanicus had been sent to lead the military campaign in Armenia. (Germanicus dies on page 113, book 2 section 69, warning his wife against Tiberius’s malevolence.)

Tiberius’s decline

The headline story of Tiberius’s reign (14 to 37) is that it was in two parts. While he was finding his feet Tiberius was cautious and stuck to the letter of the law, abiding by all of Augustus’s decisions. But slowly, slowly, in a score of ways – through the way he managed and cowed the Senate, made appointments to the army, in his spiky relations with his biological son (Drusus) and adopted son (Germanicus), in his revival of the treason law (p.73) and encouragement of informers and spies (‘It was a sort of contagion, like an epidemic’, p.203), and especially on his growing reliance on the creepy figure of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, head of the Praetorian Guard – Tiberius became slowly more tyrannical.

Although the treason trials (for ‘crimes’ as trivial as swearing in the vicinity of a statue of Augustus) began as early as 16 (p.90), Tacitus cites 23 AD as the year when Tiberius’s rule began to deteriorate (p.159, book 4, section 3) and he is quite brutal in describing the total compliance which Tiberius created:

The impressiveness of the Republican facade only meant that the slave-state, which was to grow out of them, would be all the more loathsome. (p.77, 1.77)

Tiberius is so important to Tacitus because it was under him that the weakness and corruption of one-man rule became clear. Tiberius set the pattern that later autocrats and tyrants copied.

It was under Tiberius that freedom suffered its most fatal losses. (Grant, Introduction, p.21)

Augustus had spent half his life in the Republic and had the immense skill to retain a tactful facade of republicanism even as he took more and more control of things. And he was canny with people.

He seduced the army with bonuses and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. He attracted everybody’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace. Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials and even the law. (p.32, book 1 section 1)

Tiberius was high-minded and principled in many ways but lacked Augustus’s social and interpersonal skills. Cold and distant, he alienated people.

What Tiberius said, even when he did not aim at concealment, was – by habit or nature – always hesitant, always cryptic. (p.39, 1.10)

And had never known the republic. All he knew was his own wishes, which slowly became an unreliable guide to rule by and the result was a slow descent into a reign of terror. As he has a character say:

‘In spite of all his experience of public affairs, Tiberius was transformed and deranged by absolute power.’ (book 6, section 48)

As witnessed by the fact that it was widely believed that he conspired in the deaths of his adopted (and too popular) son, Germanicus (widely held to have commissioned Piso to poison him out in the Middle East) and then of his own son, Drusus, who Tacitus frankly claims was poisoned by Tiberius’s creature, Sejanus (p.161, book 4, section 6).

The first couple of books focus, memorably and vividly, on Germanicus’s campaigns in god-forsaken mud and forest of tribal Germany. But the institution Tacitus most analyses is the Senate, recording event after event, debates, and decisions, and consular elections, which step by step mark its descent into grovelling sycophancy towards the increasingly terrifying emperor. It is from Tacitus that we learn that Tiberius frequently left the Senate muttering, ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ (p.150)

Tiberius retires to Capri, 28 AD

Finally Tiberius quit the Italian mainland and, in 28 AD, retired to the island of Capri where he stayed holed up for the last 11 years of his life (he died in 37 AD, aged 77). He no longer attended the senate, as he had done assiduously, or the law courts, as he had done, inspiring fear and intimidation. Now all government business was conducted by letter.

Access to him was harder now. It was only procurable by intrigue and complicity. (p.194)

Tacitus thinks he did it partly to get away from his nagging mother, Livia, partly because he genuinely found the daily task of attending the senate or the law courts and so on gruelling. And partly to indulge the sensual lusts and perversions which became harder to control as he aged.

For his criminal lusts shamed him. Their uncontrolled activity was worthy of an oriental tyrant. Free-born children were his victims. He was fascinated by beauty, youthful innocence, and aristocratic birth. New names for types of perversions were invented. (p.200 cf p.202)

And so on. More details are given in Suetonius’s deliberately scandalous Life of Tiberius.

Death of Livia, 29 AD

She was a compliant wife to Augustus but an overbearing mother to Tiberius. Tacitus thinks part of his motivation in retiring to Capri was to be free of her endless nagging. (That and his wish to indulge his disreputable personal behaviour.) With her death Tiberius’s restraint was thrown to the wind.

Now began a time of sheer crushing tyranny. (p.196)

Tiberius and Sejanus began to persecute Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina (the Elder). He sent a letter to Rome denouncing her and her son, Nero Caesar, Tiberius’s daughter-in-law and grandson.

Here there is a gap in the text covering two years. During those key years, first Agrippina (Germanicus’s widow), Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar (her young sons) were exiled, and Nero Caesar died. More seismically, Tiberius began to suspect his right-hand man, Sejanus, instrumental in so many plots against his enemies, to be conspiring against Tiberius himself. So Tiberius had him arrested in the senate and executed. At which point Sejanus’s divorced wife revealed to Tiberius that it was Sejanus and his lover Livilla (Drusus’s own wife) who had conspired to poison Drusus (Tiberius’s son). After this was revealed Livilla died, either killing herself or executed.

The fall of Sejanus was brutal but so was the aftermath. Previously consuls and senators and aristocrats had vied with each other to fall in with the emperor’s henchman to curry favour. Now all that arse-licking came to be regarded in a diametrically opposite light and many who had associated with Sejanus were now accused of being part of his plot to overthrow the emperor.

Frenzied with bloodshed, the emperor now ordered the execution of all those arrested for complicity with Sejanus. It was a massacre. Without discrimination of sex or age, eminence or obscurity, there they lay, strewn about – or in heaps. (p.209)

With great brutality Sejanus’s two young children were executed. Tacitus reports that, since capital punishment for a virgin was forbidden, she was first raped by the public executioner, then garotted. Both their bodies were then thrown onto the Gemonian steps (where the bodies of criminals and the disgraced were thrown in ignominy; p.199).

The deaths Germanicus’s widow, Agrippina the Elder (p.212) and then of two of her children: Nero Julius Caesar was accused of treason, declared by the senate an enemy of the state, banished to the island of Pontia where he was either killed or encouraged to kill himself in 31.

His brother, Drusus Caesar, Tiberius’s grandson was accused by Cassius Severus of plotting against Tiberius. He was imprisoned and confined to a dungeon on the Palatine in 30. He starved to death in prison in 33 after, according to Tacitus, being reduced to chewing the stuffing of his mattress.

This left young Gaius as their only surviving brother and at an early age he was sent to be Tiberius’s companion on Capri. Here he learned thorough-going debauchery from the old man and how to recognise and manage his moods. He was to succeed Tiberius on the latter’s death in 37 and is known to history by his nickname, Caligula.

The long description of Tiberius ends with ever-increasing terror, with scores of senators and knights accused of all kinds of crimes and queuing up to commit suicide. Tacitus describes Rome as awash with blood and piled with bodies which must have been an exaggeration. But it felt like that to those who lived through it.

Gaius Vibius Marsius is accused of adultery and decides to starve himself to death. Tacitus gives him a grim speech explaining to his friends that he doesn’t want to hang on the last few weeks until the obviously ill emperor dies, because he prophesies that the reign of Tiberius’s successor will be even worse (p.225).

The deaths of Nero Julius Caesar and his brother, Drusus Caesar left Tiberius Gemellus, the son of Drusus and Livilla, the grandson of the Emperor Tiberius, as hair. In 35 Gemellus, along with his cousin Gaius, were named joint-heirs by Tiberius. Upon Tiberius’s death in March 37, Gaius assumed the throne and had Gemellus killed (or forced to kill himself) in late 37 or early 38.

Degenerate times

Tacitus shares the universal belief among all ancient writers that the world was going to the dogs and that the age they were living in was witness to unprecedented degeneracy. Decline and fall. Sallust complained about the degenerate times he was describing in the 50s BC and Tacitus expresses exactly the same feeling 150 years later.

I am aware that much of what I have described, and shall describe, may seem unimportant and trivial. But my chronicle is quite a different matter from histories of early Rome. Their subjects were great wars, cities stormed, kings routed and captured. Or, if home affairs were their choice, they could turn freely to conflicts of consuls with tribunes, to land- and corn-laws, feuds of conservatives and commons. Mine, on the other hand, is a circumscribed, inglorious field. Peace was scarcely broken – if at all. Rome was plunged in gloom, the ruler uninterested in expanding the empire. (p.173, book 4, section 31)

The futility of tyranny

As part of the general reign of terror and intimidation of every form of free speech and opinion, in 25 the historian Aulus Cremutius Cordus was charged with, in his Histories, praising Brutus and describing Cassius as ‘the last of the Romans’. Cremutius put up a stirring defence in the senate (probably another speech invented by Tacitus), went home and starved himself to death. Which prompts Tacitus to reflect:

The senate ordered his books to be burned by the aediles. But they survived, first hidden and later republished. This makes one deride the stupidity of people who believe that today’s authority can destroy tomorrow’s memories. On the contrary, repressions of genius increase its prestige. All that tyrannical conquerors, and imitators of their brutalities, achieve is their own disrepute and their victims’ renown.
(p.175, book 4, section 35)

Tacfarinas


Credit

Michael Grant’s fluent, energetic translation of Tacitus’s Annals was published by Penguin Books in 1956. References are to the revised 1971 edition, as reprinted in 1988.

Related link

Roman reviews

Tristia by Ovid

How wretched to live among tribal natives
for him whose name was once a household word.
(Tristia book 4, poem 1, lines 67 and 68)

What I seek is not praise but pardon.
(Tristia book 1, poem 7, line 31)

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
(Tristia, book 3, poem 7, lines 43 and 44)

America-based British academic Peter Green has published an impressive number of books about the ancient world – numerous histories and essays, along with many translations from ancient Greek and Latin.

Among these are two volumes of translations of the Roman poet Ovid for Penguin books: a portmanteau volume titled The Erotic Poems of Ovid, which includes Amores, The Art of Love and The Cure for Love, and this volume, The Poems of Exile, which includes Ovid’s last two works, Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto (‘Letters from the Black Sea’).

These fairly long works (Tristia 103 page, Letters 90 pages) were, as the title suggests, written during Ovid’s 10-year-long and miserable exile at a town called Tomis, on the Black Sea (now the coastal resort of Constanca in Romania).

(Apparently it is important to distinguish between exile (deportatio) – where the banished person lost their Roman citizenship and all their property – and Ovid’s condition, which was the lesser punishment of relegatio, whereby he retained his citizenship and his property – very important for the ongoing life of his wife and daughter back in Rome, see note p.225 among others.

Ovid’s career

Born in 43 BC Ovid was a fluent and prolific poet who made his reputation with a series of books about love, treated in a cynically witty, urbane style:

  • first there was a set of letters supposedly written by women from myth and legend (the Heroides)
  • then the stylish Amores (‘Love poems’) which followed in the line of elegiac love lyrics pioneered by Catullus and developed by Tibullus and Propertius. The Amores were published in 16 BC
  • but most successful, and scandalous, was the Ars Amoris (‘The Art of Love’) which I thought might be a philosophical-moral treatise but turns out to be an extremely cynical, worldly guide to picking up women, preferably married women, for an illicit affair, closer to the world of Tinder and modern pickup artists than Plato or Castiglione. The Ars Amoris was published around 1 BC

Around the age of 40, Ovid made a significant shift in subject matter to produce the vast Metamorphoses, an encyclopedic collection of ancient myths and legends linked by the common topic of physical transformation i.e. tales of men and women who were changed by the gods or magic or fate into flowers, trees, animals, rivers and so on.

The poem contains flattering references to the emperor Augustus (who effectively ruled Rome single handed between 27 BC and his death in 14 AD) and leads up to a description of the apotheosis (conversion into a god) of Augustus’s adoptive father, Julius Caesar and then fulsome praise of Augustus himself. Metamorphoses was published in 8 AD.

Ovid was half way through writing a work which contains even more flattering references to Augustus and his extended family, the Fasti, a long poetic account of the Roman calendar which sets out to explain the origins and aspects of Rome’s numerous religious festivals, anniversaries and important dates – when he received an angry summons to the emperor’s personal presence, was given a fierce dressing down and instructed to pack his bags because he was being sent into exile (or to be precise relegatio). He was ordered to go and live in the wretched frontier town of Tomis, in the only partly-pacified province of Moesia, on the coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Romania.

Born in 43 BC, Ovid was 51 in late 8 AD when he was sent into exile.

Ovid’s exile

Why? What had he done which was so outrageous? For the last ten years of his life (8 to 18 AD) Ovid wrote these two books – 50 or so letters in which he pleaded with all his friends back in Rome to beg the emperor to change his mind and rescind his banishment, and 50 or so poems in which he gave poetic expression to the changing moods of an exile. But although he refers to the causes of his exile quite a few times, he never specifies exactly what it was.

To be precise, Ovid attributes his exile to two causes. One was that his recklessly cynical and amoral pickup guide The Art of Love offended against the very serious efforts of Augustus to restore traditional morality among Rome’s aristocracy, particularly when it came to marriage – banning adultery and rewarding fidelity and especially the parenting of children who should be brought up in a traditional, settled married environment. The Art of Love, as a guide to how to start and maintain adulterous affairs, flew straight in the face of everything Augustus was trying to achieve.

But Ovid himself thinks Augustus’s citing of this poem as a cause for exiling him was a smokescreen for a deeper reason. This he refers to repeatedly as his error but, infuriatingly, tells us his lips are sealed and he won’t explain it. For 2,000 years scholars have been forced to speculate.

Political – maybe was present at discussions about a coup to overthrow Augustus; maybe he was a witness to a secret marriage of Julia – either way Ovid’s hints imply that he himself was never part of a conspiracy, never carried out any action: but that he witnessed something and then, apparently, failed to report it.

The Tristia are accessible and enjoyable

I really struggled with Anne and Peter Wiseman’s prose translation of Ovid’s Fasti, several times thinking I’d have to give up reading the work altogether. It was only when I switched to A.S. Kline’s online verse translation that I was able to finish wading through the often very obscure and confusing text.

By contrast Peter Green’s verse translations of the Tristia and The Letters from Pontus are a delight to read. Above all, unlike long sections of the Fasti, it’s obvious what they’re about. Whether he’s describing the long stormy journey by sea to Tomis, or sending his book back to Rome, or praising his wife for her loyalty, or castigating an old friend for abandoning him, or begging Augustus for forgiveness, or saying his frivolous love poetry didn’t deserve to bring such a harsh fate down on their author’s head – the subject matter is obvious and the development of the argument almost always easy to follow.

Peter Green’s translation

This is immensely helped by Peter Green’s fresh, zingy, accessible translation. In fact there are two very strong points about this edition. One is the translation, which has an enjoyably flexible, rolling rhythm about it. The second is Green’s notes. Wiseman’s notes for the Fasti were sensible but fairly brief, restrained, limited. By contrast Green’s notes are almost long as the texts themselves (Tristia text 103 pages, Green’s notes 90 pages).

Green is gloriously unbuttoned, chatty, opinionated, fluent, garrulous. Tristia is divided into 5 books and each book gets a page or so of introduction explaining when it was written, describing Ovid’s changing tone of voice and approach as the books progress.

Then each poem in each book gets a page introduction to itself, before we get onto notes for specific references: these introductions describe what the poem is about, how it differs from other poems or echoes or repeats certain themes, how it riffs off this or that ancient genre or trope. Green freely discusses contemporary history, Ovid’s family relationships, the climate and people of Tomis, the theories of other scholars (for example, whether the poems are arranged in careful order or are more random) and so on, in a buttonholing garrulous manner which I found immensely interesting and entertaining.

And it is all immensely helpful for understanding how the tone and approach of the books changed over the long 10 years during which they were written; at understanding the genres or rhetorical conventions of Latin poetry which they invoke, copy or modify; for understanding the complex matrix of cross references Ovid sets up between them; and, on the simplest bucket level, understanding the historical events, the real historical people or the mythical personages which the poems refer to.

Instead of a set of standalone, isolated factual explications, Green’s notes are more like one vast essay of commentary and explication. His notes are easily as interesting to read as the poems.

Book 1 (11 poems)

1.1 (128 lines)

Little book – no, I don’t begrudge it you – you’re off to the City
without me, going where your only begetter is banned!

This is the envoi to book 1 and addresses the book as a sentient being which he is sending to Rome to argue on his behalf. This was an established literary convention (used by Catullus and Horace among others) but differs from its predecessors in introducing the recurrent theme that the book will argue for forgiveness and an end to his exile.

1.2 (110 lines)

‘You gods of sea and sky’ – what’s left me now but prayer? –
‘Don’t, break up our storm-tossed ship:
don’t, I beseech you, endorse great Caesar’s fury!’

Description of the violent storms which Ovid endured on his journey by ship across the Mediterranean in December 8 AD, with some poking fun at traditional descriptions and epic conventions around describing storms at sea.

1.3 (102 lines)

Nagging reminders: the black ghost-melancholy vision
of my final night in Rome,
the night I abandoned so much I dearly treasured,
to think of it, even now, starts tears…

Ovid paints the scene of his departure from Rome, the weeping and wailing of his servants and family, especially his (third) wife. With typical irony (and mocking epic convention) he compares himself briefly to Aeneas leaving Troy. More to the point he emphasises that his error was a mistake and not a deliberate crime.

1.4 (28 lines)

Dipped now in Ocean, the She-Bear’s stellar guardian
is stirring up stormy seas: yet here am I
constrained, not by my will, to plough the Adriatic…

Another description of his stormy journey, notable for the description of the figurehead of Minerva at the prow of the ship (Roman and Greek vessels carried painted figureheads of gods, to whom the crew prayed if they got into trouble).

1.5 (84 lines)

Friend, henceforth be reckoned the foremost among my comrades,
who, above all others, made your fate your own,
who first, I recall, when the bolt struck, dared to support me
with words of comfort…

Ovid praises the handful of friends who stuck by him when most of his fairweather friends bolted as soon as Augustus’s wrath struck his home. This passage, and Ovid’s plight generally, remind me much of Oscar Wilde’s sudden, fateful reversal of fortune, from talk of the town to almost complete abandonment by all but a handful of real friends:

Before my house’s downfall
visitors thronged the place, I was à la mode
if not ambitious. The first tremor sent them running…

In the second half of the poem Ovid wittily but bitterly compares himself to Ulysses who made a long and painful journey by sea, but the poet uses the extended comparison to bring out obvious differences, namely that Ulysses was a rough tough warrior, whereas Ovid is a sensitive poet unused to rough conditions; and that Ulysses was heading home to his loving wife and family whereas Ovid is heading away from everything that he loves.

1.6 (36 lines)

Not so dear was Lyde to the Clarian poet, not so truly
loved was Bittis by her singer from Cos
as you are deeply entwined, wife, in my heart…

In praise of his wife’s loyalty, including the (repeated so often as to become hackneyed) comparison with Ulysses’ loyal wife, Penelope. It ends with another theme which was to be repeated scores of times, the notion that his exile has killed off his former self, old Ovid is dead, and the old poetic exuberance borne of his high-flying social life is extinguished – but still the old dead suffering ex-poet can still squeeze out a few last lines:

Alas, my verses possess but scanty strength, your virtues
are more than my tongue can proclaim,
and the spark of creative vigour I once commanded
is extinct, killed off by my long
misfortunes. Yet in so far as our words of praise have power
you shall live through these verses for all time.

1.7 (40 lines)

Reader, if you possess a bust made in my likeness,
strip off the Bacchic ivy from its locks!
Such signs of felicity belong to fortunate poets:
on my temples a wreath is out of place.

A poem to a friend who’s stuck by Ovid, but which is really about the condition of the works Ovid leaves behind him in Rome. The poem claims that Ovid threw his copy of the Metamorphoses into the fire, and that it was unfinished, had yet to have a final revision:

…because the poem was still unfinished, still
in rough draft… it lacks my final hand:
a job snatched from me half-done, while still on the anvil,
a draft minus the last touch of the file.

1.8 (50 lines)

A poem of bitter reproach to an old friend who dumped him when trouble struck, scholars identify as the poem Macer, related to Ovid’s third wife, with whom he travelled through Greece and Asia Minor when he was a student. The poem opens with the rhetorical trope called adynaton meaning ‘impossibility’, similar to the modern saying ‘when hell freezes over’.

Back from the sea now, back to their sources shall deep rivers
flow, and the Sun, wheeling his steeds about,
run backward; earth shall bear stars, the plough cleave heaven,
fire shall give forth water, and water flames,
all things shall move contrary to the laws of nature,
no element in the world shall keep its path,
all that I swore impossible will happen now: there’s nothing left
that I can’t believe. This I prophesy after my betrayal by that person
who, I’d believed, would aid me in my distress…

1.9 (66 lines)

Reader, should you peruse this work without malice, may you
cross life’s finishing-line without a spill!

A poem to a faithful friend, notable for reminding friends who hesitate to support him that Augustus has demonstrated a capacity for clemency and respects those who stay loyal to friends and cause, even if they opposed him. Ovid says he wishes now he had never taken up the wretched art of poetry, seeing as where it’s led him. And repeats other recurring tropes: that the cynical amorality of the Ars Amatoria had nothing to do with his own private life which was chaste and faithful; and that it was a joke, a joke for God’s sake.

1.10 (50 lines)

I have (may I always keep!) blonde Minerva’s protection: my vessel
bears her painted casque, borrows her name.

In contrast to the earlier poems about storms at sea, this is a poem in praise of the good ship Minerva which brought him to a harbour in eastern Greece where they docked, Ovid unloaded and continued his journey by land, but the second half of the poem is an envisioning of the voyage back the ship will take, studded with famous placenames and historical references and calling down blessings on the good ship Minerva.

1.11 (44 lines)

Every word you’ve read in this whole book was written
during the anxious days
of my journey: scribbling lines in mid-Adriatic
while December froze the blood…

A poem highlighting the contrast between the lazy peaceful couch on which he composed his great works back in Rome, and the storm-tossed ship on which he tried to write poems on the blustery, brine-drenched journey East.

If these lines fall short – as they do –
of your hope: they were not written, as formerly, in my garden,
while I lounged on a favourite day-bed, but at sea,
in wintry light, rough-tossed by filthy weather, spindrift
spattering the paper as I write.

Book 2 (578 lines)

Book 2 stands out because instead of a set of 10 or so shorter poems it is one longer poem of 578 lines. Green cites earlier scholars who consider the poem a suasoria, meaning:

Suasoria is an exercise in rhetoric: a form of declamation in which the student makes a speech which is the soliloquy of an historical figure debating how to proceed at a critical junction in his life. (Wikipedia)

Or maybe a legal argument, to be presented in court. It consists of:

  1. the exordium – attempt to placate the judge (Augustus) (lines 1 to 26)
  2. the propositio – outlining the speaker’s aim (27 to 28)
  3. the tractatio – the handling or treatment in which the case is unfolded at length (29 to 578); this can be sub-divided into:
    1. probatio or proof of evidence (29 to 154)
    2. epilogus 1 or first conclusion, entering a plea for mitigation of sentence
    3. refutatio or rebuttal of the charge (Ovid argues that his poetry never corrupted anyone because to the pure all things are pure and to the corrupt, anything is corrupt) (207 to 572)
    4. epilogus 2 or second conclusion, again calling for clemency

In other words, even more than

Book 3 (15 poems)

These poems were composed in 9 to 10 AD. The first excitement of the journey into exile, undertaken in December 8 AD and vividly described in book 1, is over. He has spent one winter in Tomis and now knows the role freezing bitter cold is going to play in his life. And it is dawning on him that this exile isn’t for a year or so, isn’t a game which will come to an end – but is the bitter condition for the rest of his days.

3.1 (82 lines)

‘I’m an exile’s book. He sent me. I’m tired. I feel trepidation
approaching his city – kind reader, lend a hand.’

Book 3 poem 1 repeats the conceit of book 1 poem 1 in conceiving the book as envoy except that whereas in book 1 Ovid had been outside the book, sending it as the author, this poem speaks in the voice of the book itself. This allows the book itself to find its way through Rome in order to seek out readers, a library to stay in, and the palace of the great Augustus (who, for the umpteenth time, Ovid begs for forgiveness). In so doing, the poem provides an interesting and historically useful guide to the layout of the Rome of his day. He is as conscious as ever of the role the Ars Amoria plays in his personal disaster, something so well known that he has his book tell anyone encountering not to fear:

‘Have no fear: I won’t turn out an embarrassment to you:
no instructions about love, not one page,
not a syllable. So bleak my master’s misfortunes, he shouldn’t
try to camouflage them with light verse,
though that sport of his green years, that frivolous disaster
he now – too late, alas! – detests and condemns.
See what I bring you’ll find nothing here but lamentation,
verse matching its circumstances…’

The book’s tour of Rome, appropriately, at Asinius Pollio’s library

3.2 (30 lines)

So it was my destiny to travel as far as Scythia,
that land lying below the Northern pole,
and neither you, Muses, not you, Leto’s son Apollo,
cultured crowd though you are, gave any help
to your own priest…

Ovid makes the theme clear: he is a soft poet, not used to a hard life (‘an escapist, born for leisured comfort’), his erotic poetry was a joke, a pose, he was never a libertine in real life (‘my poetry’s more wanton than my life’). But now all that’s dead and gone.

The journey to Tomis was so stormy and colourful it helped to distract him from the misery of exile, even inspired him a bit. But now the hard fact of exile has hit him and his existence has settled into a monotonous drudge – it’s cold, it’s boring and it’s dangerous. Now ‘weeping is my only pleasure’. Now he yearns for death.

In the poem he knocks at the door of his own sepulchre door, which he finds stubbornly shut against him. (Green makes the typically illuminating comment that this is an inversion of the trope of the paraclausithyron, the image of the poet keeping watch morosely outside the locked door of his beloved, well established in the elegiac tradition and which Ovid had himself used in the Amores.

3.3 (88 lines)

If perhaps you’re wondering why this letter’s drafted
by another’s hand, I’ve been, am, sick,
sick, and at the unmapped world’s remotest limits,
scarce certain of my survival.

Ovid is ill and depressed. He lists the tribulations of exile: cold climate, impure water, depressing landscape, no proper housing, bad diet, no doctors to treat his illness, no friends’ conversation to distract him. He addresses his wife, swearing she’s the only woman he thinks about, he said her name during the delirium of his illness. He imagines his death. He writes his own epitaph.

3.4A (lines 1 to 46)

Ah friend, my dear care as always, though in harsh circumstances
first truly assayed, after my world’s collapse,
if you’ve any respect for the lessons experience has taught me,
live for yourself, keep far from all great names…

A poem to an unnamed friend, advising him to live a discrete, retired life, not to make grand acquaintances, not to fly too high lest, like poor Ovid, he be blasted by Jove’s thunderbolt. (The comparisons of Augustus with Jupiter, and the decision to exile Ovid falling on him like the god’s thunderbolt, appear in virtually all the poems, quickly becoming a part of their standardised litany of complaint.) He warns his friend to:

Live without rousing envy, enjoy years of undistinguished
ease and delight…

3.4B (lines 47 to 78)

A region that neighbours the polar constellations
imprisons me now, land seared by crimping frost…

The poem begins by lamenting the frozen waste he finds himself in, such that Rome and its familiar landscapes now linger on only in his memory. Next to them, his wife, whose image haunts him. And then his loyal friends. He asks them not to forget him, to do what they can to lend a hand to his cause.

3.5 (56 lines)

Our friendship was new and slight: you could have denied it
without any trouble. (You’d have not, I think,
embraced me more closely had my vessel been driven
on by a favouring wind.)

While some of his old friends have abandoned him, the (unnamed) addressee of this poem stuck by him despite being a new acquaintance. Ovid thanks and praises him, then asks that he use his eloquence to argue his cause before the emperor.

Again and again and again Ovid insists he did no wrong, he merely witnessed something and failed to report it: he committed no crime except simply having eyes. Here there’s one of the longest passages describing this, 10 lines of exculpation, emphasising that he committed an error but – as he repeats just as often – shying away from explaining the nature of this ‘error’. God, I can see why it’s driven 2,000 years of scholars mad with frustration.

3.6 (38 lines)

The bond of friendship between us, carissimo, you neither
wish to dissimulate, nor could if you so wished…

To his best friend, praising his loyalty, saying he’s shared everything with him – except the nature of the ‘offence’ which got him banished. If he’d shared it, his friend would have joined him in exile, indicating what a toxically powerful secret it must have been.

He repeats the claim that he, Ovid, didn’t do anything, merely witnessed something – so that it’s his eyes which are to blame. He says that even to hint at his crime would be ‘great risk’. He says it is better buried in deepest night. He asks his friend to help and intercede on his behalf with angry Jupiter.

3.7 (54 lines)

Go quickly, scribbled letter, my loyal mouthpiece,
and greet Perilla for me. Her you’ll find
either sitting in the company of her sweet mother
or among her books and poems…

A sweet and touching poem to his step-daughter, Perilla (his wife’s daughter by an earlier husband), now a young woman. Surprisingly, it turns out that she is a poet too, her talent spotted and nurtured by her dad. They often read their poems to each other. He praises her and tells her, if she’s worried about his fate, that she’ll be fine so long as she doesn’t set out to teach anyone about love (Ovid’s writing of The Art of Love having been given out as the official reason for his banishment).

It ends with a triumphant assertion of the supremacy and triumph of art. Age may wither her, the emperor’s punishment has blasted him – everything can be taken from them, and yet:

There’s nothing we own that isn’t mortal
save talent, the spark in the mind.
Look at me – I’ve lost my home, the two of you, my country,
they’ve stripped me of all they could take,
yet my talent remains my joy, my constant companion:
over this, Caesar could have no rights…

Caesar will die, yet so long as Rome exists, Ovid will be read. It must have been an optimistic claim, made to keep his spirits up and yet, 2,000 years later, amazingly… it’s true!

3.8 (42 lines)

Now I wish I were high aloft in the car of Triptolemus
who flung the untried seed on virgin soil…

He wishes for the paraphernalia of various mythological figures so he can fly back to Rome, then pulls himself up short. Fool! Instead of old legends he should be petitioning the real Augustus in the here and now. If not to end his exile at least to move him somewhere else. The wretched climate, the lack of all amenities and civilised companionship is sapping his spirit, making him ill. God, why didn’t Augustus just kill him outright and be done with it?

3.9 (34 lines)

Here too, then, there are – who would credit it? – Greek cities
among the wild place-names of barbary: here too
colonists, sent out from Miletus, founded Greek outposts
on Getic soil…

An aetiological poem i.e. one which explains a modern custom, practice or place name in terms of a myth or legend. In this case Ovid derives the name of his exile town, Tomis, from the old story that the witch Medea, having fled her homeland, saw the sail of the ship of her father, Aeëtes, approaching and, in panic, conceived a plan to delay him so she could make a getaway. The plan? To rip to shreds her brother and scatter his body parts about the shore, thus forcing her father to collect them together for a proper funeral pyre. In Latin the (false) etymology relates tomé, a noun meaning the act of chopping up, with Tomis.

Green’s notes tell us that a) aetiological poems were a speciality of the Hellenistic poet, Callimachus (305 to 240 BC) and b) Roman aetiological poems almost always get the etymology and derivation of words wrong. Odd that we, 2,000 years later, know more about their customs and, especially their language, than they did.

3.10 (78 lines)

If anyone there still remembers exiled Ovid, if my
name survives in the City now I’m gone,
let him know that beneath those stars that never dip in Ocean
I live now in mid-barbary, hemmed about
by wild Sarmatians, Bessi, Getae, names unworthy
of my talent!

A long vivid poem giving a rare description of what Tomis was actually like, or the landscape around it. To be precise Ovid focuses on the bitter freezing winter weather and the way the many mouths of the river Danube which enter the Black Sea close to the town freeze over. Not only that but the sea itself freezes: he knows, he’s walked on frozen waves.

But it’s worse, it’s not just that it’s cold: normally the river acts as a barrier against barbarian tribes but when it freezes they can ride over it and raid nearby villages. Some peasants flee, leaving their farms and possessions to be looted by the raiders. Some are shackled and led off to slavery. Some die in agony because the raider’s sharp arrowheads are dipped in poison. What they can’t steal, the barbarians burn to the ground.

3.11 (74 lines)

Whoever you are, vile man, who scoff at my misfortunes,
and with bloody zeal fling charges at me – you
were born from the rocks, by wild beasts’ udders nurtured
with flints, I’ll swear, in your breast…

A bitter recrimination against some (unnamed) enemy who is bad mouthing and savaging his character back in Rome. Why make a miserable man more miserable? Ovid laments the coldness, the isolation, he can’t speak the natives’ language, he suffered cruelly on the journey out, now he lives in terror of the violent tribesmen. O vile calumniator, why hit an unfortunate man when he’s down?

3.12 (54 lines)

West winds now ease the cold: at the year’s closure
a longer-than-ever winter must yield at last,
while the Ram (that bore Helle – and dropped her) now equalises
the hours of darkness and light…

March 10 AD. The first half of the poem is a vivid celebration of the sights and sounds of spring back in Rome and the Italian countryside, spring flowers, children playing in the fields, men exercising, the roar of crowds at the theatre.

Then the volta or ‘turn’ to contrast his sad isolated existence. For Ovid Spring means the very slow thaw of the ice, some water runs a bit free in the cistern. Wine left outside no longer freezes solid in the bottle. The Danube flows again and the Black Sea becomes navigable and so, once in a blue moon, a ship may arrive from Rome and Ovid will avidly question the captain for even the slightest scraps of gossip which can, for a moment, revive his link to his long-lost homeland.

3.13 (28 lines)

My birthday god’s here again, on time – and superfluous:
what good did I get from being born?
Cruel spirit, why come to increase this wretch’s years of exile?
You should rather have cut them short…

The Greeks considered the genethliakon or ‘birthday poem’ a genre in its own right, with its own rules and stock imagery. It’s here to mark Ovid’s birthday. He was born on 20 March 43 BC so, if this poem was written in 10 AD, he was 53.

But Ovid deliberately reverses all the conventions of the birthday poem. For example, he curses the birth god (the natalis) who oversaw his birth. It would have been more merciful to have let him die as a baby, or never be born at all, rather than endure this misery. Instead of the customary toga and ritual thanksgivings on his birthday, he’d prefer an altar of death.

3.14 (52 lines)

Patron and reverend guardian of men of letters, you always
befriended my talent – but what’s your attitude now?
In the days before my downfall you used to promote me –
and today?

Scholars consider the addressee of this poem to have been Caius Julius Hyginus, director of the Palatine library, patron of young poets, and a close friend in the old days back in Rome. The poem echoes the themes of books and libraries announced in poem 3.1, in other words they form bookends ti the volume.

Ovid hopes Hyginus is still supportive of his work. Books are like children, they can remain behind in the city even when the father is exiled. Ovid refers to the fact that his erotic poems (The Art of LiveThe Cure For Love) have been banned and removed from all libraries, but hopes the others are read.

Interestingly, he is at pains to emphasise that the Metamorphoses was left unfinished (a claim which consciously or unconsciously compares him with Virgil’s famously unfinished masterpiece, the Aeneid).

Then he turns to the present book, ‘a missive from the world’s end’, and asks Hyginus to be indulgent and remember the context of its writing: Ovid fears his talent has withered, he has forgotten his Latin, here in a place surrounded by barbarian tongues and threatened every day with violent attack, he worries all his stylishness has been rubbed off him. Please make allowances.

Book 4 (10 poems)

4.1 (106 lines)

Whatever defects there may be – and there will be – in these poems,
hold them excused, good reader, by the times
in which they were written. An exile, I was seeking solace,
not fame…

In the envoi to book 4 Ovid asks the reader’s indulgence, and to consider the miserable exile. His only true and steadfast companion is his Muse. He tells us how slaves, chained rowers, slave girls, manual labourers, sing songs to pass the time, as did the legendary figures Orpheus and even Achilles, sulking in his tent.

And so Ovid in exile. He ought to curse the avocation which led him to write the love guide which led to his downfall, but he can’t: he’s hooked. Writing transports him away from his miserable situation, drugs him, like the potions which numbed the lotus eaters.

What is he drugging himself from? The horrible situation of living in a walled defensive town liable to attack at any moment from barbarian tribes. He describes the way the way the alarm goes and he has to buckle on a sword although he’s 60 years old! He repeats the description of the way the raiders capture, shackle and lead off to slavery local farmers, or just shoot them with poisoned arrows and leave them to die.

Once again he laments that there is no-one at all to read his poems to who will understand them let alone appreciate them. Sometimes he waters the paper with his tears. Sometimes he crunches them up and throws them in the fire. What has survived he presents in this book and craves our indulgence.

4.2 (74 lines)

Already fierce Germany, like all the world, confronted
by the Caesars, may well have bent her knee
in surrender…

He imagines the full panoply of celebrations surrounding what he assumes must be Tiberius’s victories in Germany, including the sacrifices in temples and the great public triumphant procession through Rome, all under the guiding vision of beneficent Augustus.

The poem switches to meditate on the process of imagination itself, by which he is imagining and visualising all this, for his imagination, his mind’s eye, can go where he, alas, never again can.

4.3 (84 lines)

He asks the stars of the new constellation to turn their eyes upon his wife, ‘sweetest of wives’. He hopes she is missing him. Then addresses her directly and asks a series of rhetorical questions itemising her grief (when she looks at his untouched pillow in their marital bed, does she weep?)

Yet, to be honest, he wishes he had died. Then she would have something simple and pure to weep over, instead of his agonising shame, and the fact that he lives, but forever inaccessible to her. She supported him and was so proud of his achievements, for so long. Please don’t be ashamed of him, now. Defend him. Intercede for him.

4.4 (88 lines)

O you who with your high birth and ancestral titles
in nobility of character still outshine
your clan, whose mind mirrors your father’s brilliance
while retaining a brilliance all your own…

An appeal to Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalinus, the eldest son of Ovid’s patron (recently deceased), Messalla Corvinus. Ovid sings Valerius’s praises but as the poem proceeds it becomes clear he never really knew the boy and is trying to curry favour because of the connection with his (now dead) father.

This leads Ovid into embarrassed contortions, and apologies, before going on to the usual litany of self-exculpation (‘it wasn’t a crime, it was an error‘) before begging Valerius to intervene with Augustus to ask for his exile to be, if not revoked, that at least he be moved somewhere better, safer from raids by barbarians, hot for blood and plunder, some of whom are cannibals.

4.5 (34 lines)

A sycophantic poem addressed to Messalinus’s younger brother, Marcus Valerius Cotta Maximus although, as with all the Tristia the addressee is not explicitly named – because Ovid knew it would do nobody any good to be associated with his disgrace, his exile, his crime. This young man was loaded and well connected. Ovid politely, discreetly, begs for his help.

Do what you safely can: rejoice in your heart that I’m mindful
of you, that you’ve been loyal to me; still bend,
as now, to your oars to bring me succour…

4.6 (50 lines)

Believe me I’m failing; to judge from my physical condition
I’d say my troubles have a scant
future remaining – I lack my old strength and colour,
there’s barely enough skin to cover my bones;
yet sick though my body is, my mind is sicker
from endless contemplation of its woes…
(lines 39 to 44)

Two winters have passed (of 9 and 10 AD) so scholars think this poem was written in 11. Ovid is tired, worn down, sick in mind and body, and has one hope left – ‘that my troubles may be soon cut short by death’.

4.7 (26 lines)

Twice has the Sun approached me after the chills of icy
winter, twice rounded his journey off
through the sign of the fish.

The sign of the Fish enters the Sun in February so scholars date this poem to 11 AD. Ovid reproaches a dear old friend (unnamed like all the addressees of these poems) for not writing to him, hoping he has written, but that the letters have got lost on the long, fraught journey to the outer reaches of the empire.

4.8 (52 lines)

Already my temples are mimicking swans’ plumage,
and hoary age bleaching my once-dark hair;
already the frail years are on me, the age of inertia,
already my infirm self fins life too hard…

He has grown old. Ships, racehorses, charioteers, old soldiers, all these get to be pensioned off – why not an old poet? Why can’t an old poet be set free from his miserable exile and allowed to return?

At my time of life I shouldn’t be breathing this alien
air, or easing my thirst at Getic wells,
but dividing my days between those peaceful country gardens
I once possessed, and the pleasures of human life,
the human round…

4.9 (32 lines)

Ovid is ferociously angry with an unnamed enemy who has been bad-mouthing the powerless poet back in Rome. Ovid calls down vengeance on him – ‘then luckless sorrow will perforce take arms’ – and promises that his angry words will travel the world and last for generations to come – as they, indeed, did.

Although
I’m sequestered on this wasteland where the northern stars circle
high and dry above my gaze, nevertheless
my clarion message will go forth to countless peoples,
my complaint shall be known world-wide;
whatever I say shall be heard, across deep waters;
my lamentation shall find a mighty voice.

4.10 (132 lines)

This is the best known of all the 100 or so exilic poems for the simple reason that it is a versified autobiography, detailing Ovid’s early life and career, his decision to choose poetry and art over a career in public service, then the inevitable story of his erotic poetry – emphasising, as always, the clear distinction between his promiscuous poetry and his respectable personal life. And then on to his notorious ‘error’ and so into exile.

He dwells on the deaths of his elder brother, which left him maimed. Later the deaths of his father then mother, and he thinks them lucky to have led long blameless lives. Maybe from Elysium they can hear him when he assures them (for the umpteenth time) that his exile was caused by an error not a crime.

When a youth the older poets were like gods to him. Old Macer read him his latest poems. Propertius and he had ‘a close-binding comradeship between us’. Horace, ‘that metrical wizard’, held them spellbound to the sound of the lyre. Virgil he only saw, never spoke to. Tibullus died young, before he could make his acquaintance. He thinks of the elegiac poets as being, in chronological order, Gallus (whose entire oeuvre is lost), Tibullus, Propertius then himself (interesting that he doesn’t mention Catullus).

He lists his three marriages, the first wife ‘worthless and useless’, the second wife died young, and now his long third marriage. His daughter makes him a grandfather. He is growing old when the thunderbolt falls, and he is sent into exile.

The cause (though too familiar to everyone) of my ruin
must not be revealed through testimony of mine.

After a long and gruelling journey (again and again he compares himself to Ulysses) he arrives in his wretched place of exile and now, his only remaining solace is writing poems, when he can. Again, he repeats the idea that everything else is lost, but his talent, his gift, and the Muse which brings it, remain.

Book 5 (15 poems)

Yet another Black Sea booklet
to add to the four I’ve already sent!

The fifth and final book of Tristria is different in tone from the previous four, more resigned, more limited in ambition, with less zest and irony. More tetchy, irritated, and desperate. Only one poem is descriptive (i.e describes Tomis). The other 13 are all addressed to specific individuals, half of them to his wife (more than in the previous four books put together) begging them all to get Augustus to revoke his exile or, at least, assign him somewhere warmer, safer and closer to Rome.

His references and analogies become increasingly repetitive. In every single poem he repeats that he did nothing wrong, he committed no bloodshed, it was a simple ‘error’, he merely witnessed something by accident, by mistake.

In every poem Augustus is compared to Jupiter (reasonably enough). Ovid repeatedly compares himself to Capaneus, one of the heroes of the war against Thebes who, as he led the attack on one of the city’s gates shouted that not even Jupiter could stop him now, so Jupiter promptly zapped him with a thunderbolt.

Or to Philoctetes, suffering from a wound which would never heal, for ten long years abandoned on the inhospitable island of Lemnos.

5.1 (80 lines)

I don’t correct these poems, let them be read as written:
they’re no more barbarous than their place of birth.

He warns his reader that this is not a book of sexy, frivolous poems as by Gallus, Tibullus or Propertius. They are grim and bleak, like his circumstances: ‘A dirge best fits a living death’.

He imagines a critical reader wondering why he’s bothering to write such depressing poems, and defends it as a form of crying out in pain, an action he then defends by giving half a dozen mythological examples of legendary figures crying out in unendurable pain.

He defends his erotic poetry against the charge of immorality by pointing out the only person who ever suffered because of it was him.

(Green makes the droll point that, alone of all the Augustan poets Ovid was singled out for immorality therefore undermining Augustus’s reforming legislation about marriage; and yet, as far as we know, Ovid was the only one of the famous poets to be married: neither Virgil (gay), Horace (promiscuous bachelor), nor Propertius were.)

5.2 (78 lines)

To his wife, increasingly desperate, sick and depressed.

It’s a barbarous land that now holds me, earth’s final outpost,
a place ringed by savage foes.

He accuses his wife of not putting herself out as she should on his behalf. Has she deserted him, like everyone else? He tells her to approach the emperor directly. If she won’t then he will and at line 45 the poem changes to a hymn of praise to Augustus. All the double-edged irony and wit which you can discern in the earlier references to Augustus has evaporated. Now he is on his knees, spouting extravagantly excessive praise and openly begging.

O glory, O image of the country that flourishes through you,
O hero to match the very sphere you rule.

He says it’s not the cold, nor the lack of culture among a people none of whom speak Latin, it’s the fear of attack by uncivilised barbarians, living in a small settlement protected only by one low wall, that he’s seen fighting at close quarters, that he lives in constant anxiety and insecurity. He begs Augustus to move him to some less terrifying place of exile.

5.3 (58 lines)

A poem celebrating Bacchus, god of wine, on his feast day, the Liberalia, 17 March (described in Ovid’s poetic version of the Roman calendar, the Fasti) then asking him to intercede with Augustus.

5.4 (50 lines)

From the Black Sea’s shore I have come, a letter of Ovid’s,
wearied by sea-travel, wearied by the road.
Weeping he told me: ‘See Rome, for you it’s not forbidden –
alas, how better far your lot than mine!’

Ovid repeats the conceit of having the poem speak in the first person as a letter, all the way from the shores of the Black Sea to the (unnamed) recipient in Rome, a letter able to go where he, alas, cannot, sealed with a signet ring wet with his tears.

But he emphasises that he accepts he was wrong, accepts punishment, like a broken horse doesn’t strain against the leash. He just wishes the great god who punished him will show mercy.

The letter rehearses Ovid’s grievances and bitter experiences before going on to describe the addressee as his best friend, remembering how he stuck by him when almost everyone else abandoned him, how he visited Ovid and wept and tried to console him for his sad fate.

5.5 (64 lines)

A poem to his wife. It’s her birthday so he describes going through the rituals to celebrate a birthday, namely wearing a white toga, building an altar from turf, hanging a woven wreath, lighting a fire and sprinkling wine and incense on it. He sends her a fleet of good wishes, may she have a long untroubled life. He says she has a strength of character to match Penelope or Andromache, she is a paragon of ‘uprightness, chastity, faithfulness’.

He introduces a series of classical comparisons with the thought that all those famous women from antiquity were famous because of their husband’s suffering and their loyalty – Andromache, Penelope, Evadne (wife of the recurring figure of Capaneus, blasted by Jupiter), Alcestis, Laodamia.

But she doesn’t deserve to be famous for her husband’s suffering and her share of it, and so the poem ends with a plea to Augustus to forgive him, for his wife’s sake if not his own.

5.6 (46 lines)

Poem to an unnamed friend. Ovid recriminates the friend for dropping him, now he’s in trouble, now he’s become a ‘burden’. Ovid compares him unfavourably to a raft of mythological figures famous for their loyalty. For the umpteenth time he invokes a familiar set of similes to indicate the sheer number of woes he suffers, as numerous as reeds which soak sodden ditches, or bees on Mount Hybla (famous for its honey), or ants carrying grains to their nest, or grains of sand on the seashore, or ears of wheat in a field.

5.7A (lines 1 to 24)

A short letter to an unnamed friend in which he describes himself as wretchedly miserable and gives a rare description of the native inhabitants, great hordes of tribal nomads, Sarmatians, Getae, hogging the road on their horses, each bearing a bow and quiver full of poisoned arrows, fierce faces, harsh voices, shaggy hair and beards, quick to argue and stab each other with the knives in their belts.

These are the people Ovid lives among, the elegant esteem he won for his light love verses back in Rome long, long forgotten and irrelevant in this harsh environment and violent, illiterate society.

5.7B (lines 25 to 68)

Some scholars divide the poem in two, because this second half switches from describing the grim natives of Tomis and whirls us back to Rome where he hears that his poems are now recited and applauded on the stage (the translator, Peter Green, speculates that this is for the pantomimi where an actor declaimed verses while dancers danced; sounds like ballet).

He curses his poetry which got him into such trouble, and yet he has nothing else. Here in this windswept waste amid violent, illiterate tribals, writing poetry is the only consolation he has, the only last slender link with distant Rome and his former life.

Then about language: not a single person in Tomis speaks Latin, none. Some speak a very debased form of Greek, legacy of when the town was founded centuries ago by Greeks. But most speak only the local tribal tongues. When he talks to anyone it is in pidgen-Sarmatian. He worries not only that he’s lost his style, in the absence of Latin speakers to listen to and comment on his poems – he worries that he’s forgetting Latin. And so he spends his time conversing with himself and doing writing exercises and writing these poems, holding at bay the collapse of his language skills and talent.

Thus I drag out my life and time, thus
tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes.
Through writing I seek an anodyne to misery: if my studies
win me such a reward, that is enough.

5.8 (38 lines)

Angry poem to an unnamed person who has been spreading malicious lies about him, a ‘vile wretch’ than whom no-one is lower. Once again Ovid curses this person, then emphasises the non-criminal nature of his error, praises the emperor’s clemency (hoping against hope), and hopes for the end of his exile and recall.

The early part of the poem is an interesting invocation of the goddess Fortune, whose wheel is always turning, and Nemesis, ‘hot for revenge’. Ovid says he has certainly been brought from the pinnacle of fame to miserable exile, but what makes his unnamed critic so confident the same thing won’t happen to him?

For Ovid hopes that Augustus will apply his mercy and recall him, at which point the critic will be amazed to see his face, one day, in Rome and then Ovid knows things which will secure that his critic is sent into exile!

5.9 (38 lines)

A poem to a friend who stayed loyal, Ovid claims more or less the only friend who stayed loyal and so he wishes he could a) name him (but that is forbidden for the friend’s own safety), b) devote every poem he ever writes in future to his friend’s praise.

The poem is factually interesting because it (unconsciously) brings to the fore the thought that whatever Ovid did (his notorious error) may actually have merited death. Therefore his relegatio already exemplified Augustus’s mercy, and that this may account for why no further mercy(i.e. relenting and letting Ovid return; even moving his place of exile to somewhere less inhospitable) may have been impossible for Augustus.

Behind all this is the most common interpretation of his fate which is that it was tied to something he saw being enacted in favour of Julia and her so-called ‘party’, meaning the aide of the extended Augustan family which wanted the succession to pass to a male on her side of the family.

Tiberius had had two sons by Julia, Augustus’s daughter – Gaius and Lucius, who died in 4 and 2 AD, respectively. Agrippa Postumus, Julia’s son by her first husband, Agrippa, had been unadopted and exiled in 7 AD. Julia herself was sent into exile in 8 AD, the same year as Ovid, ostensibly for immorality and widespread adultery, though conspiracy theorists from that day to this speculate that she was involved in some kind of plan to overthrow Augustus and replace the heir apparent with someone from her side of the family, or possibly a male contender who she married in the hypothetical secret marriage that Ovid hypothetically witnessed or knew about but didn’t report.

Both the Roman historians, Cassius Dio and Suetonius refer to a series of plots in the final years of Augustus’s rule, the most serious in the spring or early summer of 8 AD. Green thinks Ovid’s error was some kind of passive involvement in one of these (note p.212).

Thus the speculation engendered by Ovid’s frustrating failure, in over 100 poems of exile, to spell out what his offence was.

If it was a secret marriage, or a vow, or some kind of ceremony binding the Julia party, this explains the unremitting opposition to Ovid of the man who emerged during these years as the (reluctant) heir apparent, Tiberius, and of his scheming mother, Augustus’s second wife, Livia.

If Ovid’s error had somehow proved him sympathetic to the Julia party then not only was this the reason for his relegatio but explains why Livia made quite sure that Augustus, even if he contemplated mercy, never enacted it. And that when Tiberius came to power in 14 AD, Ovid stood no chance.

It explains why Ovid never mentions Tiberius in any of the 100 exile poems, but does mention Germanicus and Drusus, heirs in the Julian line. (Indeed, in exile Ovid reworked the first book of the unfinished Fasti to introduce a new dedication to Germanicus, Tiberius’s nephew, who Augustus had forced him to adopt in 4 AD – presumably in the hope that he would intercede with Augustus.)

It explains something which comes over in the notes – though not explicitly in the poems – which is that his friends back in Rome, in varying degrees, saw the way the wind was blowing, saw that Tiberius’s rise to power was becoming unstoppable, and so shifted allegiance to the coming man.

For all his contacts back in Rome, then, defending Ovid not only risked angering the old and visibly ailing emperor Augustus, but alienating the new master.

5.10 (52 lines)

Ovid tells his addressee he’s been in Tomis for 3 winters, watching the Danube freeze over. He ponders time: has time in general slowed down or is it only for him? In which case, is time subjective? (Well, the experience of it obviously is).

Once again he laments his location and, above all, the endless threat from marauding tribes whose only language is rape and pillage and the feeble defences (a good defensive site and a low wall) which is all that stands between Tomis and violent death. Their poisoned arrows litter the streets. Farmers dare not farm for they will be raided at any moment. Over half the population of the town are tribals, their chest-length hair, their shaggy bears, their trousers, fill him with loathing.

He knows that the townspeople regard him as the outsider, the oddity, with his soft hands and strange foreign language. Here he is the barbarian. OK, he admits, maybe it was right for him to be exiled…but to a place like this? It is cruel.

5.11 (30 lines)

The poem starts out feeling terribly sorry for his wife who, he’s learned, has been called ‘the wife of an exile’ as a deliberate insult. He grieves at the shame he’s brought upon her and tells her to be steadfast.

Then he switches, for the umpteenth time, to consider his fate. He does this to try and console his wife by making a fine legal distinction, namely that the emperor could have had him a) executed or b) fully exiled (deportatio), deprived of all rights and Roman citizenship. Instead Ovid was c) given the milder punishment of relegatio and so has retained life and estates and civil rights; to that extent, the emperor showed clemency, a punishment fitting his error, not a crime. To that extent the bastard who called his wife ‘the wife of an exile’ was wrong. So there! Little comfort, the modern reader might feel, to his lonely, distant wife.

Then in a move which feels pitifully grovelling, Ovid turns to praising the emperor, claiming his decision was just and mild, and that is why he devotes his poems to praising him:

Rightly then, Caesar, and to the very best of their powers
my poems (such as they are) proclaim your praise…

But if the interpretation that Ovid had seen something (as he repeatedly says, he didn’t do anything, his error was simply to witness, to see something) which somehow linked him with the Julia party, implicated him in a secret marriage or plan or collaboration which, in effect, was a conspiracy against the emperor and his chosen successor, Tiberius – if this was the case then it’s sadly obvious to the reader that absolutely no amount of grovellingly sycophantic hymns to Augustus would ever change Ovid’s plight. And they didn’t

5.12 (68 lines)

Reply to a friend who appears to have told him to buck up and write poems. Ovid sullenly replies there are two kinds of poems, the best ones, the real ones, require happiness and peace of mind to emerge, as inspiration (a commonplace of Roman poetry also mentioned by Horace, Tacitus, Juvenal among others). Here, in the grim outback, surrounded by barbarian tribesmen, the best he can do is squeeze out these exile elegies which are, in reality, mere vehicles for his complaints and grievances.

As to cheering up, should Priam have had fun fresh from his son’s funeral, should Niobe have held a party after all her children were killed?

Chief among the Forces undermining the peace of mind needed for composition are fear, constant fear of attack and violent death. Beside, long rusting has eaten away his talent. He is a field that’s been long unploughed and returned to stones and weeds. He is a rowboat kept out of the water that has cracked and rotting. So that explains the poor quality of the poems he now sends to Rome, such as this one itself.

Finally, a young poet is fired by ambition for renown, to be famous, numbered among the immortals. Now all that has soured to nothing. Now he wishes to be unknown, never to have been famous. His poems got him into this mess. He bitterly blames the Muses for ever inspiring him.

No-one in his remote outpost, a place of savage jabber and animal outcry’, even understands Latin, let alone the wonderful refinements and tricks he brought to it. Lastly, he admits his inspiration does still drive him to write – but he still has his standards and most of it ends up in the fire. Only ‘scraps of my efforts’, such as this very poem, survive because they have a practical purpose.

[What, 2,000 years of fans and scholars have wondered, were those poems he consigned to the flames about and how good were they? Unless this is another trope, developed solely for literary purposes, to illustrate his feelings of disgust and failure, just as he claims to have consigned his own draft of the Metamorphoses to the flames in 1.7. (note p.214)]

5.13 (34 lines)

Of all the Tristia poems this one is most like a letter in format, starting with the standard salutation (‘Good health and greetings from Ovid in his outback’) ending with the standard ‘Farewell’. In between the short poem addresses a loyal friend, possessed of ‘oak-touch loyalty’, complaining that:

  • he’s sick, the mental illness has penetrated his body, to give him a searing pain in his side (Green and scholars suspect pleurisy, triggered by the freezing climate)
  • this friend doesn’t send him enough letters to alleviate his bleak isolation

Ovid hopes the friend has not forgotten him, it’s merely the errancy of the postal service not delivering the letters. He remembers their many happy conversations, talking late into the night. Now letters between them can recreate that intimacy and intelligence. Please write.

5.14 (46 lines)

The final poem in the volume is to his wife, ‘dearer to me than myself’. It’s odd because it defines her, praises her, for sharing his suffering; it is this, her role as wife to a famous poet and tragic figure, which will make her immortal, just like Penelope, Andromache and Alcestis, Evadne and Laodameia.

To be good when there are no tribulations is easy; but to be faithful, as she has been, after the wreck of a god’s thunderbolts, ‘that is true married love/that’s loyalty indeed.’

He praises her continually and now – the poem veers in subject matter – wants her to return his devotion by appealing on his behalf. It is a sincere love poem, and that he ends the entire book with it is moving – even though a modern critic, particularly feminist, may find it objectionable, the extent to which he defines his wife solely in relationship to him. But then, he was in a dire situation.

Terms of rhetoric

Green is chatty, loquacious, garrulous, sprinkling his introductions and notes with foreign phrases (not just Latin – French and the like), references to modern poets (T.S Eliot crops up a lot [pages 217, 220, 224], so we can deduce he is an influence on Green’s translating style) and mention of ancient Greek and Roman rhetorical devices. These always interest me but I have a terrible memory for them. So here’s an (incomplete) list:

  • adynaton – a figure of speech in the form of hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility: ‘pigs will fly’ (note p.216)
  • apologia – a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct
  • chiasmus – (‘to shape like the letter Χ’) reversal of grammatical structures in successive phrases or clauses – but no repetition of words: ‘By day the frolic, and the dance by night’
  • circumlocution – the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea; in ancient poetry it refers to poets’ habit of referring to people in terms of their relationships to someone else (‘the son of…’, ‘the wife of…’ etc) or to a place (‘the Phrygian hero’); this can often make ancient poetry difficult to read – it’s particularly common in Ovid’s Fasti which is why I found it such a demanding read (note p.219)
  • genethliakon – a poem in honour of a birthday in association with a gift or standing alone. Callim.
  • hysteron proteron – a figure of speech consisting of the reversal of a natural or rational order: ‘putting the cart before the horse’ (note p.218)
  • laudatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in praise or commendation of someone or something
  • propemptikon – a poem that wishes a departing friend or relative all the best for a prosperous trip overseas, such as 1.1
  • recusatio – a poem, or part of a poem, in which the poet says he is unable or disinclined to write the type of poem which he originally intended to, and instead writes in a different style; the Hellenistic poet Callimachus introduced the trope of saying his poetic gift was too modest to attempt great epics, so he would write frivolous love poems instead, and this trope was copied in Augustan Rome by Virgil, Horace, Propertius and Ovid
  • synkrisis – the juxtaposition of people or things with the aim of comparing them: a famous exampe is the juxtaposition of the long speeches by Caesar then Cato in Sallust’s account of the Catiline conspiracy
  • variatio – varying a theme with digressions, examples and so on
  • zeugma – (note p.220) any case of parallelism and ellipsis working together so that a single word governs two or more other parts of a sentence: ‘She filed her nails and then a complaint against her boss’

Conclusion

After struggling through both the Metamorphoses and especially the FastiTristia came as a welcome relief. Although a hundred pages long in the Penguin translation, it’s made up of short, discrete poems which you can pick up and read in a few minutes. You can immediately grasp what they’re about, what he’s saying, and immediately empathise with his feelings.

All this is hugely helped by Peter Green’s easy-going, demotic translations and his free approach to rhythm and metre which means you barely notice you’re reading poetry, in the best sense, meaning each poem flows smoothly, seems well phrased and expresses its meaning, conveys its purpose, easily and enjoyably. Surprisingly accessible and enjoyable.

And strongly helped by the fact that the editorial apparatus around the poems is so ample and informative. Not only the introduction to the entire volume, but the extremely useful introductions to each individual poem accompanied by useful notes, but also a long Glossary of named individuals and places. Altogether it makes for a full and thorough and rich and informative experience. Other translations are available, but this is one of the best, most compendious, most enjoyable volumes of Roman literature that I’ve read.


Credit

Peter Green’s translation of Tristia by Ovid was published by Penguin books in 1994. All references are to this 1994 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Pro Milone by Cicero (52 BC)

All five speeches in the Oxford University Press selection of Defence Speeches by Cicero are given extremely thorough and wonderfully lucid introductions by the volume’s editor and translator, D.H. Berry. Pro Milone has the longest introduction of the lot, at 12 pages of small font, i.e. a lot of content because there’s a lot to explain.

The trial of Titus Annius Milo, generally referred to as Milo, was held between 4 and 7 April 52 BC. He was charged with the murder of Publius Clodius Pulcher. While he was prosecuted by the usual number of three advocates – Appius Claudius Pulcher, Marcus Antonius and Publius Valerius Nepos – he was defended by just Cicero.

Publius Clodius Pulcher

For a change the background is fairly simple. From the late 60s onwards Clodius had established himself as a rabble-rousing tribune of the people who developed a wide popular following and developed tough street gangs to intimidate and beat up his opponents. He first clashed with Cicero when the latter testified against him at his trial for dressing up as a woman in order to infiltrate the rites of the goddess Bona Dea being held in Julius Caesar’s house (because Caesar held the office of pontifex maximus) in December 62.

From that point onwards Clodius sought revenge and his gangs took to intimidating Cicero on numerous occasions. In 58, Clodius was elected tribune of the plebs and passed a law declaring anyone who had put to death Roman citizens without a trial guilty of treason. This was targeted solely at Cicero who, as consul in 63 BC, had followed the advice of the senate and had five leading members of the Catiline conspiracy put to death. Despite the support of the senate, the letter of the law defined Cicero as a criminal liable to the death penalty and so he was forced to flee into exile in Greece. 18 months later, in 57, the political atmosphere in Rome changed and he was allowed to return.

During his absence Clodius’s street gangs for the first time met their match in equal and opposing groups of fighters organised by ex-gladiator Titus Annius Milo, who held the post of tribune. Milo arrested some of Clodius’s men, was attacked by his gangs, attempted to prosecute Clodius for violence and, when that failed, recruited gangs of his own to meet violence with violence.

In 56 Clodius brought Milo to court but the trial was broken up by brawling and not reconvened. When Cicero defended another tribune he used the opportunity to issue a rallying cry to patriots to gather round patriots such as Milo and against traitors such as Clodius. The two became close allies. Milo provided bodyguards to protect the builders who were rebuilding Cicero’s house (after Clodius had it demolished during his exile) from Clodius’s gangs who were attacking them.

In April 56 Cicero delivered a blistering attack on Clodius and especially his sister, the notorious Clodia, as part of his defence of Marcus Caelius Rufus (referred to as as Caelius) in the speech known as Pro Caelio. Clodius’s hatred grew even deeper and resulted in several violent incidents, but Clodius’s main enemy was Milo.

In late 53 both Milo and Clodius stood for office, Milo for consul, Clodius for praetor. Cicero strongly backed Milo’s campaign since, as consul, he would be able to control Clodius. But every attempt to hold elections was foiled by outbreaks of violence and 52 opened with no magistrates elected.

The murder of Clodius

It was only a few weeks into the year, on 18 January 52, that Milo and his entourage encountered Clodius and his followers on the Appian Way outside Rome heading in opposite directions. They passed in surly silence but the rearguard of both gangs provoked each other and started fighting. It spread and became a general melee. Clodius was wounded with a spear and taken to a nearby inn at which point Milo was faced with the choice between leaving a wounded and infuriated enemy alive or doing away with him for good. So he had his men drag Clodius into the road and finish him off, leaving the body.

Milo’s trial

Having been done various favours by Milo over the years Cicero felt duty bound to speak in his defence. His presentation was seriously hampered by booing and catcalls from Clodius’s followers and it is said that Cicero didn’t manage to finish. In any case the facts were generally agreed and Milo was convicted. He hurriedly went into exile in Massilia, modern Marseilles. Subsequently Cicero polished his text and had it published. It was his last surviving court speech and is widely considered his masterpiece.

What makes it twice as interesting is that it is the only speech by Cicero for which we have an independent and separate account, by a first century AD scholar named Quintus Asconius Pedianus (3 to 88 AD) and that Asconius’s account drastically differs from Cicero’s. Its existence suggests the extent to which Cicero manipulated the facts and distorted the narrative (lied) in his speeches.

Some people thought the best line of defending Milo would have been to claim that eliminating Clodius was in the interests of public peace and order. Marcus Junius Brutus wrote and circulated the speech he thought should have been given along these lines. But instead Cicero decided to base his entire long speech on the premise that Clodius knowingly set a trap for Milo, who was therefore justified in defending himself. However, according to Asconius the encounter on the Appian Way was an accident and the outbreak of violence was an accident.

Asconius’s version

Berry includes in this edition a translation of Asconius’s version, his summary of the events surrounding Clodius’s murder and of the trial itself (and of the trials of Clodius and Milo’s associates which followed). In fact he recommends that the reader read it first, before reading Cicero’s account. It is a trim ten pages long.

Berry points out the key substantive difference between Cicero and Asconius, namely Cicero says Clodius planned an ambush which Milo heroically defended himself from, while Asconius (and, in the event, the jury) believed it was sheer luck that led to a purely accidental meeting on the Appian Way.

But there’s another way in which Asconius’s account sheds light on Cicero’s –it is brief and to the point. It is arranged in a simple chronological order, dealing with the background, the events on the day, and the complex arrangements regarding Roman law which led up to the trial itself. In many places it reads like a Wikipedia article. Asconius doesn’t mention himself once.

All this is, of course, in striking contrast to what I’ve learned to think of as Cicero’s style, which is:

  • wordy, very wordy, gabby and verbose
  • rarely if ever addresses the facts, and if it does you barely notice because they are drowned in:
  • a never-ending stream of self-glorifying self-promoting references to himself, to his great achievement in saving the state during the Cataline crisis, to his importance as a mentor and role model for the young, to his tastes in literature, to the hard work he’s put in to becoming Rome’s leading advocate, and so on and so on
  • barrages of references to Great Romans From The Past: to Scipio Aemilianus and Gaius Laelius and Quintus Metellus and Cato the Elder, and so on and on, great names yoked into his discourse in order to boost it, make it sound more patriotic and weighty
  • cluttered and repetitive: his defence of Archias is short by his standards but still manages to repeat certain claims 3 or 4 times; arguments and related sub-arguments pop up unexpectedly, with no apparent logic and then, a few pages later, pop up again
  • melodrama: in every trial Cicero makes out that the entire future of Rome, and all its citizens and women and children and their great heritage is at stake! and that only acquitting the noble defendant – a man ‘who has done more for his country than any other man in history’ (76) – can save the nation from ‘national calamity’! This unrelenting hyperbole must have gotten pretty tiring.

In contrast to all this, Asconius’s style and presentation is a wonderful breath of fresh air and makes you realise that not all ancient writing needs to be as verbose, overwrought, self-indulgent and confusing as Cicero’s.

Here’s Cicero:

So give me your attention, gentlemen, and lay aside any fear you might have. For if you have ever had the power of judging loyal and valiant men, if you have ever had the power of judging meritorious citizens, and if specially selected men from the most distinguished orders have ever been given the opportunity of demonstrating, by their actions and their votes, that approval of valiant and loyal citizens which they have so often expressed in the past by looks and words; if that is how it is, then you have at this moment complete power to decide whether we who have always upheld your authority should linger on in adversity for all time, or whether, after being persecuted for years by the most degraded citizens, we are at long last to be revived by your good selves, and by your honour, your courage and your wisdom. (4)

Here’s Asconius:

Milo was travelling in a coach with his wife Fausta, the daughter of Lucius Sulla the dictator, and his friend Marcus Fufius. Following them was a large column of slaves and also some gladiators, including two well-known ones, Eudamus and Birria. These were moving slowly at the rear of the column, and started an altercation with Publius Clodius’s slaves. As Clodius looked back menacingly at the disturbance, Birria pierced his shoulder with a spear. Then a fight began, and more of Milo’s men ran up. The wounded Clodius, meanwhile, was carried into a nearby inn in the territory of Bovilla. (32C)

I appreciate that Cicero was working within a specific genre – the advocate’s speech – that oratory had a host of rules, that the audience expected a show of rhetorical fireworks and that, in this respect, Cicero’s over-ripe performances were following convention and pleasing the crowd. And that, by contrast, Asconius’s commentary is just that, a scholarly text conforming to a completely different set of conventions and required to be precise and factual. But my God, what a relief it is to turn from Cicero’s gluttonous grandiloquence to Asconius’s spartan diet of bread and water.

Two versions of Cicero’s speech

Berry devotes several pages of his introduction to making a key point about the text. The version we have is a document Cicero heavily revised and reworked after the trial. Evidence for this comes from two sources. Firstly Asconius and the noted 1st century orator Quintilian both refer to the original version Cicero actually delivered at the trial – they’d both read it – and distinguish it from the text we have.

Secondly, Berry is the latest in a long line of scholars to detect a noticeable change in the text: the first two-thirds of the speech are favourable to the then-most powerful man in Rome, former general Gnaeus Pompeius, generally known as Pompey the Great:

  • ‘the wise and fair-minded Gnaeus Pompeius’ (2)
  • ‘a man of lofty and almost divine mind’ (21)
  • ‘a man of the highest principles’ (21)
  • ‘the exceptional carefulness of Gnaeus Pompeius’ (65)
  • ‘so very brave a man as Gnaeus Pompeius’ (66)

But around section 70, Pompey becomes more the focus of the speech and for the final third the references to him become notably hostile. Berry thinks this is because the first two-thirds are close to what Cicero delivered on the day, when the outcome of the trial still hung in the balance and it made sense to suck up to Pompey. The final third of the second version of the text was composed after it had become clear that Pompey in fact supported the prosecution and (tacitly, in the background) helped Milo be convicted. Hence the switch in tone from sucking up to critical.

The speech itself

It takes up 40 pages in the OUP edition and is divided into 105 sections. The central point is that Cicero chose to frame the events as Clodius having set a trap for Milo and so the response of Milo and his entourage was justified self-defence. He says:

  • it was Clodius who set a trap for Milo (6) and repeatedly tries to narrow the entirety of the case down to this one point, that either Clodius or Milo set a trap, and it was Clodius (31)
  • if it is agreed that Clodius set a trap, then it is no crime for a Roman to kill a criminal if his house is being burgled, or he is being assaulted or sexually attacked – a bandit may be lawfully killed (11) – and gives a roll call of Eminent Romans who have killed enemies but still been honoured (8, 9, 10)
  • it is a natural law which needs no encoding, that a man may use violence to defend himself if attacked (10)
  • he states and then repeats the claim that, by killing Clodius, Milo did the state and the people a favour, to ‘the benefit to our country, the benefit to you, and the benefit to all loyal citizens’ (30)
  • it was just the latest in a long line of services Milo has performed ‘for our country’
  • the senate has repeatedly spoken in favour of Milo (12)

Cicero asks who had the most motive for setting a trap? The obvious answer is Clodius, for Clodius was running for the office of praetor whereas Milo was running for consul and showed every sign of being elected. Now if they’d both been elected, Milo would have cramped Clodius’s (no doubt treasonous plans) at every turn – so Clodius had a clear and obvious reason for eliminating Milo. Whereas, now that he has been brought to trial for Clodius’s murder, Milo’s position is in deep jeopardy: in other words Milo had no motive for killing Clodius, quite the contrary, his murder has jeopardised his career and even his life (34).

Having established, to his own satisfaction, that the case boils down to which of the 2 men planned to ambush the other, Cicero compiles a dozen or more ways in which the time and location and make-up of the two entourages all favoured Clodius, so he was the obvious planner and trapper.

Cicero’s speech is laced with the usual references to Great Romans in order to big up his speech, to make it seem more weighty and prestigious by associating his case with Famous Men, something which really counted in this super-patriotic society.

In a related way, he continually makes the case sound as if it’s not about the guilt of just one man, but that the entire fate of the state – and therefore of the entire world (19) – is at stake. This is a familiar Cicero strategy, to make it sound as if the entire world will collapse if his man isn’t acquitted.

And both lines of argument are also connected with Cicero’s relentless flattery of the jury:

  • ‘specially selected men from the most distinguished orders’ (4)
  • ‘the most distinguished men from all the orders’ (5)
  • ‘the brightest luminaries from the most distinguished orders’ (21)

Indeed the final phrase of the entire over-ripe performance is unfettered sucking up to the jury of ‘those who are the best, the wisest and the most brave.’ (105)

Above all else, Cicero’s speech is full of endless references to himself, to his tangled history with Clodius – with an extended description of how it was Clodius’s intimidation which (unfairly) drove him into exile in 58 – and all after he had saved the state, single handed, by his own quick thinking (36 and 73 and yet again at 82).

There is something more than ludicrous about Cicero’s endless self glorification and self justification, his references to the way ‘the entire people of Italy was united by concern for his welfare’ (38), and the later passages which repeatedly refer to his exile and then ‘my restoration’ (39, 68 and 87 and 88).

The reader learns to shiver at the familiar words ‘And as for me, gentlemen…’ which introduce yet another variation on what a hero he was single-handedly saving the state during the Cataline crisis, how unjustly he was terrorised into exile by Clodius, and how ‘all of Italy’ and ‘the entire Roman people’ celebrated his return. One of the most frequent words in a speech by Cicero is ‘me’.

And so it comes as no real surprise, but is still vaguely ludicrous that the final passage in the entire speech is an extraordinarily long eulogy not to Milo, but to himself!

But as things are, Titus Annius, there is one consolation that sustains me – the thought that there is no duty of love, support, or devotion in which I have failed you. I have incurred the hostility of the powers that be for your sake; I have exposed my body and my life many times to the weapons of your enemies; I have abased myself as a suppliant before many people for your sake; I have risked my own property and possessions, and those of my children, by throwing in my lot with yours; and today, if any violence has been arranged, of if there is to be any life and death struggle, then I claim it as my own. What, then, does that leave? What more can I do for you, to repay your services to me, except to consider your own fortune, whatever it may be, my own? I shall not refuse it. I shall not say ‘No’. (100)

Several times Cicero refers to the tears in his eyes as he speaks (‘I can no longer speak for tears’, 105). This is a histrionic performance. He was on a stage. He was playing a tragic death scene, playing to the crowd, tugging the heartstrings of the jury, using every rhetorical and psychological and dramatic trick to align his own auctoritas and his noble self-sacrificing actions with those of Milo, trying to make them both out to be ‘saviours of their country.’

But wait! Cicero has more to say about himself! He always does:

How unhappy I am! What appalling luck I have had! You succeeded, Milo, in obtaining the help of these men in recalling me to my country; shall I be unsuccessful in obtaining their help to keep you in yours? What shall I say to my children, who count you as their second father? What shall I say to you, brother Quintus, who are now far away, but who shared those difficult times with me? That, in attempting to protect Milo’s welfare, I was unable to obtain the help of the very men who had helped Milo to secure my own welfare? Unable in what sort of cause? One that was approved by all the nations of the world. Unable to protect Milo’s welfare from whom? From those who had felt the greatest relief at the death of Publius Clodius. And on whose advocacy? My own. (102)

What terrible crime did I devise or what awful deed did I commit, gentlemen, when I tracked down, uncovered, exposed and expunged those indications of our impending destruction? All my troubles, and those of those close to me, derive from that source. Why did you want me to return to Rome? Was it so that I could watch the expulsion of those by whom my restoration was secured? I beseech you, do not let my return be more painful to me than my departure was! For how can I consider myself restored if I am to be separated from those who were responsible for securing my restoration? (103)

Subsequent trials

One last important thing: because it is so widely considered Cicero’s ‘masterpiece’ and is often read or studied by itself, a false impression is created of Pro Milone as sitting in splendid isolation like a statue on a plinth. It is salutary, then, to learn from the introduction (and from Asconius’s account, which devotes its last 2 pages to the fact) that the Milo trial was immediately followed by a succession of further trials, all related to the events of that day, and that Cicero was just as involved in these trials as in the Milo one.

Far from his world falling apart when Milo was convicted – as his histrionic performance stated – Cicero merely went back to his study and knocked out another defence speech. And another. And another.

Thus, although Milo was found guilty in the trial we’ve been following, and packed his bags and went into exile overnight, he was, in his absence, the subject of three further trials:

  • Milo prosecuted for electoral malpractice (bribery) – convicted in his absence
  • Milo prosecuted under the law on illegal association – convicted in his absence
  • Miilo prosecuted under a different law about illegal violence – convicted in his absence

But the battle between Milo and Clodius’s followers raged on in the courts:

  • Milo’s gang leader, Marcus Saufeius – the man who actually supervised the attack on the inn where Clodius had taken refuge and his actual murder – was tried and acquitted by just one vote – and he was defended by Cicero and Caelius.
  • Saufeius was then immediately retried, under an alternative law about illegal violence, was again defended by Cicero, and again acquitted, this time by a larger majority.
  • Meanwhile, Clodius’s gang leader, Sextus Cloelius, was prosecuted for taking Clodius’s body into the senate building on the day of his funeral, which resulted in the building being set on fire, and was convicted by a near unanimous verdict.
  • A number of other Clodians were tried and convicted.
  • A Clodian ex-tribune, Quintus Pompeius Rufus, was prosecuted by Caelius for the burning of the senate house, convicted and went into exile – Cicero was delighted because Pompeius had been spreading the lie that Cicero had organised Clodius’s murder.
  • Then another Clodian ex-tribune, Titus Munatius Plancus Bursa, was prosecuted by Cicero, also for responsibility in the burning of the senate house, convicted and went into exile.

Plancus’s conviction, in particular, pleased Cicero. We have a letter to a friend in which he says the conviction of Plancus gave him more pleasure than the death of Clodius a) because he preferred justice to be done in a court of law than at swordpoint b) because it reflected well on his friend Milo but – and this is what is so characteristically Ciceronian about the letter and his reasons – because c):

I was especially pleased at the display of good-will towards me on the part of honest men in the face of an astonishing amount of pressure from a very grand and powerful personage [he’s referring to Pompey, who tried to defend Plancus]

As so often in his legal speeches, the whole thing ends up being about him. He goes on to say:

It is a great victory. No braver Roman ever lived than those jurymen who dared to find him guilty in spite of all the power of the very personage who had empanelled them [Pompey]. They would never have done that if they had not felt my grievance as their own.

There is something winningly boyish in Cicero’s complete inability to conceive of justice as an objective factual thing, and persistently see it in solely personal terms, of whether the great figures in the land, judges and juries are for him or against him.

Slavery

Few editors comment on it but I am continually appalled at the casual references to slavery in every one of these old Roman texts. I know slavery was universal and universally accepted, and the editors of all the books I’ve read generally take it for granted – but it never ceases to shock and upset me.

A moment in Asconius’s text is even more upsetting than usual, where he claims that, immediately after the fight on the Appian Way, Milo had travelled to Clodius’s country villa to find his son (presumably to kill him) but, finding the son had been taken away, interrogated the head slave, Halicor, by cutting off his limbs one by one, before going on to murder Clodius’s bailiff and two other slaves.

!

This incident is contained in the Asconius text that Berry includes in this edition and translates, but he nowhere mentions it and it doesn’t, of course, crop up in Cicero’s speech, which makes Milo out to be a noble and patriotic man, the saviour of his nation, a man who had ‘freed his country at his own personal risk’ (72).

But it’s moments like this, the steady trickle of throwaway references to how despicably slaves were treated in ancient Rome without free men blinking an eye, which make me feel physically sick and make all reference to the ‘civilisation’ of the ancient world seem like a mockery.


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Pro Murena by Cicero (63 BC)

‘Hardly anyone dances when he is sober, unless he is insane…’
(Cicero defending his client against charges of loose living in Pro Murena)

It is late November 63 BC and Marcus Tullius Cicero is drawing towards the end of his year serving as one of Rome’s two consuls. The last few months have been marked by the increasingly scandalous behaviour of the Roman senator Lucius Sergius Catilina, who, frustrated in his plans to get elected consul for the following year (62 BC), is planning to overthrow the Roman state, to set Rome itself on fire, murder its leading politicians and lead an army of liberated slaves on the capital.

In the last few weeks Cicero, aware of the growing threat, has made blistering attacks on Catalina in the senate, prompting the latter to outspoken defiance and threats to bring everything down in flames, before he fled the capital. Now news has just arrived in Rome that Catalina has placed himself at the head of a rebel army in Etruria, with the obvious aim of marching on Rome and taking it by force and then implementing his violent social revolution. And it is at this moment of high jeopardy that a case comes to court in which Cicero, in his civilian capacity as Rome’s best advocate, is slated to speak for the defence.

The case has been brought against Lucius Licinius Murena. Murena is a prominent politician and general from a distinguished family and has just been elected to succeed Cicero as one of the two consuls for the following year, 62 BC, elected in the same contest in which Catalina was defeated.

The charge against Murena is of electoral malpractice i.e. bribery, and the prosecutors include some of the leading men of the state, including Servius Sulpicius Rufus, Gaius Posthumius, and Marcus Porcius Cato.

The election and the case and the Cataline rebellion are all intimately linked because Catalina only embarked on his uprising when he was defeated in the election for consul by Murena. It was the third time Catalina had stood for election to consul and failed and it was frustration and bitterness which spurred him to rebel against his city and class.

The speech itself is a classic example of Cicero choosing to ignore the main thrust of the charges in order to shift the point of debate onto a topic where he thinks he stands more chance of winning. Thus the focus of his speech is not whether Murena is guilty or not (there was widespread agreement that he was) but whether Rome could afford to send a distinguished general into exile at just the exact moment when she needed him to save her from Catalina’s uprising. Murena’s conviction and banishment would automatically require a supplementary election to be held to fill the now vacant post of consul. Could Rome afford to be distracted by the holding of a supplementary election at exactly the moment when it needed two consuls, both firing on all cylinders.

D.H. Berry is the translator and editor of the excellent Oxford University Press edition of five of Cicero’s best defence speeches. In his wonderfully lucid introduction to Pro Murena, Berry explains the motivations of the advocates involved on both sides of the trial.

Bear in mind that in ancient Rome there was no police force and no state institutions for the administration of justice, no Crown Prosecution Service. So prosecutions could only be undertaken by individuals against other individuals, and both protagonists then tried to rope in friends, family or colleagues, the more eminent and high social status the better, onto their sides. The whole ‘system’ was riddled with private motives, grievances, opportunities to seize advantage, get rid of rivals, or ally with powerful patrons, and the Murena case was no different.

The prosecutors

Servius Sulpicius Rufus

Sulpicius had stood in the election for consul and been defeated by Murena. He was irked because, as a leading jurist, he had kept within the strict rules governing election behaviour. When Murena was elected, Sulpicius launched the prosecution a) because Murena had undoubtedly breached the law and b) because, if Murena was disqualified (and driven into exile) Sulpicius would stand in the resulting ‘supplementary election’ and stood a good chance of achieving his goal of becoming consul. So pretty crude political motivations, then.

Marcus Porcius Cato

Cato announced before the election that he would prosecute anyone found to breach the new, tougher electoral rules and so, as inflexible as a terminator, joined the prosecution regardless of its political and practical consequences.

The defenders

Quintus Hortensius Hortalus

Hortensius had been the leading advocate in Rome until the young up-and-comer Cicero defeated him in several cases at which point he retired. However, when Cicero was appointed consul in 63 Hortensius returned to the courts and the two now worked together, as on this case. Hortensius was a close ally of Lucius Licinius Lucullus, the general who had won great victories in the East until recalled by the senate and replaced by the boy wonder general, Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey), since when he had been sulking at his vast villa complex near Naples. Murena was related to Lucullus and had served as legate (second in command) for him in Asia, so Lucullus backed him and Hortensius was Lucullus’s agent in the courts.

Marcus Licinius Crassus

It’s surprising to find Rome’s richest man involved in the rough and tumble of a court case but his motivation was similar to Hortensius’s, namely opposition to Pompey. Crassus had resented Pompey ever since he had swept in at the end of Crassus’s prolonged campaign to put down the Spartacus rebellion in 71 BC and claimed all the credit for himself. Pompey had gone on to be given special commands against the pirates, in 67 BC, then sent to relieve Lucullus in the war against King Mithridates in Asia in 66. Now, with that war at an end, Pompey had announced he was soon to return to Rome. So Crassus got involved in the defence of Murena because it would be infinitely better for him to have the consul for 62 (Murena) in big debt to him, than to let Murena be exiled and the leadership of the just-about-to-start campaign against Catalina handed to his enemy, Pompey. (See what I mean about private motivations playing a big role in law cases?)

Cicero

Cicero’s own motivation is more puzzling. He was a good friend of the lead prosecutor, Sulpicius. He was favourably disposed to Pompey i.e. didn’t share the anti-Pompey animus which united Hortensius and Crassus. And Murena was being prosecuted under new, tighter legislation about electoral procedure which he had himself sponsored (the lex Tullia de ambitu). In the absence of any evidence, our best guess is that, as the Cataline conspiracy exploded into open warfare, Cicero wanted to ensure that one of the two consuls due to take over from him in just a few weeks’ time (on 1 January 62) was a seasoned general (as Murena was) who would be the Republic’s strongest possible defender against the rebels.

Also, because nobody’s motive in ancient Rome were pure or simple, it did Cicero no harm that Hortensius and Crassus were leading conservatives. Having risen to the top of the greasy pole by dint of talent and hard work, Cicero promptly espoused the conservative republicanism of the aristocracy and Crassus and Hortensius were leading lights of that faction. So it was a shrewd career and social move to work with them, no matter how temporarily.

Cicero’s speech

Cicero describes the prosecution case as being in three parts. Surprisingly for us, but customary at the time, only one of these parts is concerned with the actual evidence for the charges. Cicero enumerates the three parts as:

  1. an attack on his client’s private life
  2. a comparison of the merits of other candidates who stood against Murena in the consulship election
  3. actual charges of electoral malpractice (11)

As an amateur non-scholar and non-Latinist, for me several things stand out. One is the strongly ad hominem nature of the content throughout, the highly personal nature of both Cicero’s defence and his counter-attacks against the prosecutors. And the way these are entwined with Cicero’s unrelenting self promotion.

The speech is conventionally divided into fairly short (half page) 90 sections and Cicero spends the first 10 of these defending attacks which have obviously been made against him personally by both Sulpicius and Cato regarding his decision to defend Murena at all.

He devotes only four short sections to briskly addressing the accusations of personal immorality the opposition have made, stemming from Murena’s time in Asia, by pointing out that he was there serving as a junior officer under his father and therefore carrying out the kind of filial duty so important to Romans.

Then, somehow, we are back with personalities for a section where Cicero defends Murena against attacks of being a ‘new man’, something which Cicero, the quintessential ‘new man’, takes to heart, prompting him to justify his own attempts to open careers for men like himself.

As you read on, you find that Cicero’s arguments continually rotate back round to himself; they might digress off on this or that topic for a while but they always seem to come back to another way in which Cicero can promote himself, defend himself, extol his virtues and remind everyone of his sterling service to the state.

Sections 18 to 21 compare the careers of Sulpicius (who brought the case against Murena and stood against him and lost in the recent consular election) and Murena; both served as quaestors before Murena went off to work as legate under Lucius Lucullus while Sulpicius stayed in Rome and studied hard to become a leading jurist.

In 21 Cicero adverts to himself again, and the way his constant presence in Rome led to his astounding popularity, swank swank.

22 features a nice use of antithesis with Cicero directly comparing Murena’s daily life in an army in the field with Sulpicius’s cushy civilian existence. This develops, in sections 23 to 29, into Cicero, surprisingly, mocking and scorning Sulpicius’s chosen profession as legal expert (‘filled to the brim with trickery and foolishness’, 26, ‘consisting entirely of fictions and fabrications’, 28), unfavourably comparing the timid life of a scholar to the skills and manliness required by Murena’s of officer in the army. In other words, an extended attack on the prosecutor, completely ignoring the basis of the case.

And throughout, Cicero constantly refers to himself:

It seems to me that many men have started out with a strong preference for my procession, but when in due course they found they were not up to it, they sank to yours. (29)

I was aware of this when I was standing myself… (40)

Having done the same myself when I was a praetor and in my consulship… (42)

I repeatedly told you, Servius, that you had no idea how to campaign for the consulship… (43)

I myself have first-hand experience… (46)

To be a bit more precise, Cicero mocks Sulpicius for being a jurist or expert on the law. By comparison, he says the two qualities most required for a consul are military ability and the ability to speak, to be an orator, to control and sway armies and civilian crowds – both of which, of course, he claims his client has in abundance.

This comparison of Murena and Sulpicius moves on to the flaws in the latter’s campaigning in the recent consular election, which Cicero itemises in devastating detail. His strongest point is that, from an early stage, Sullpicius persuaded the senate to pass a new law against electoral malfeasance stronger than the existing one. Everyone promptly concluded that Sulpicius was throwing in the towel and knew he would lose. Cicero does a witty impersonation of ordinary people on election day, discussing Sulpicius’s giving up and so abandoning him for Murena.

Cicero then lists the people Suplicius’s strict new law alienated, starting with the masses themselves (for, as Berry points out in a droll note, the people liked being bribed; it was one of the perks of being a Roman citizen.)

And this criticism of Sulpicius for threatening to prosecute whoever won the election instead of actively campaigning himself, segues into the reckless behaviour of Catalina during the same campaign which, of course, circles back round to Cicero’s role in the Catalina affair (up to that point) and suddenly the speech is all about Cicero’s actions and motivations in calling Catalina out in the senate (49 ff).

Murena was criticised for having decorated the triumph of his father with military gifts (as well as sharing in the triumph), and that he had lived in luxury while on military campaign. Regarding the triumph, Cicero argued that such actions were legitimate because he had served in the war under his father’s command. He added that the fact that he served in a war made him worthy of praise not criticism.

Incongruously, Murena was also accused of being a dancer, which made him in Roman eyes a person of less dignity. Cicero dismissed this as irrelevant.

Answering Cato

Eventually Cicero reaches the end of addressing issues raised by Sulpicius, takes a pause, and announces he is going to consider the arguments put by the other prosecutors, namely Gaius Postumius and Cato.

He devotes most time to Cato, pointing out that he is a highly moral and distinguished man, but that his adherence to Stoic philosophy has made him hard and inflexible. He asks Cato whether it is wise or practical to deprive the state of the service of an experience general now, at this crucial juncture, just as the Cataline conspiracy is reaching its climax.

Having established this theme in his section criticising Cato, Cicero expands it to bring his speech to a crescendo in the last 5 sections or so, as he turns to the jury and repeats the same idea half a dozen times, that this is no time to be jettisoning a consul and wasting the people’s energies on a supplementary election.

This I understand, but I was puzzled why, in the last few sentences, Cicero dragged in a few extraneous points which he hadn’t mentioned at all in the preceding 90 sections, asking the jury to consider the shock and shame and upset to Murena’s father and wife and extended family if he were to be exiled (87); and also to consider the virtue of his home town, ‘the extremely ancient town’ of Lanuvium (86).

These seem odd distractions to throw in right at the very end, oddly distracting from the pulverising central notion that we can’t afford to lose a consul and a general in this time of crisis.

Plutarch’s account

The order of defence speakers was Hortensius, Crassus and then Cicero, as he preferred speaking last and delivering the killer blow. Plutarch, in his Life of Cato describes the scene:

When the trial was held, Cicero, who was consul at that time and one of Murena’s advocates, took advantage of Cato’s fondness for the Stoics to rail and jest at length about those philosophers and what were called their ‘paradoxes’, thus making the jurors laugh. Cato, accordingly, as we are told, said with a smile to the bystander: ‘My friends, what a droll fellow our consul is!’
(Plutarch, Life of Cato, 21.5)

According to Plutarch, Cicero is said to have spoken below his usual standard because he was up late the night writing the speech, but it didn’t matter – Murena was acquitted, anyway: the jury accepted Cicero’s simple line that the national interest trumped strict adherence to the law or anything Murena might have actually done to breach it.

Subsequently

Murena was acquitted but the Cataline conspiracy was yet to reach its twin climaxes. Only a few weeks after the trial, Cicero was able to present to the senate documentary evidence (letters) and first person testimony from senior conspirators who had been part of the plan to overthrow the state. A famous debate followed about what to do with these five senior figures, which led to the decision to have them executed, which Cicero promptly did – an act which was to haunt the rest of his life as later political enemies would claim it was an illegal and even treasonous act. It would lead to his exile in 58 BC.

Having disposed of the leadership in the city, the struggle against Catalina turned to battle against the army he had raised in the north of Italy and here, ironically, Murena, who had been acquitted chiefly because of his military skills, was to play no part in the military campaign – the loyalist army which confronted and defeated Catalina’s forces in January 62 was led by Cicero’s fellow consul for 63, Gaius Antonius Hybrida, who had his command of the army extended by the senate into the new year solely for this purpose.

Murena, who Cicero had defended so successfully on the premise that the state needed him to defeat Catalina, in the event, played no role whatsoever in the defeat of Catalina. There’s no point studying history if you don’t have a taste for unintended consequences and ironic reversals.

The rule of three

Many rhetorical techniques are on display and there is much balancing of two ideas or parentheses, and some sentences contain four, five or six clauses – but the ancient rule of three is everywhere evident:

But if shunning hard work denotes sloth, rejecting supplicants arrogance, and abandoning one’s friends shamelessness, then this case is one which no one who is hard working or compassionate or loyal to duty could possibly refuse. (10)

For my part, gentleman, I should consider myself wicked had I deserted a friend, cruel had I deserted a man in trouble, arrogant had I deserted a consul. (10)

[Murena’s] father found him an invaluable help in moments of crisis, a comfort in times of strain, and a son to be proud of in moments of victory. (12)

There is nothing more fickle than the masses, nothing more unfathomable than people’s intentions, nothing more misleading than the entire process of an election. (36)

Marcus Crassus, a man of the greatest rank and diligence and oratorical skill… (48)

The rage in his face, the criminality in his eyes, and the insolence in his speech… (49)

He was a man of the greatest eloquence, the greatest devotion to duty, and the greatest integrity… (58)

I venture to predict that in due course experience will influence you, time will soften you, age will mellow you. (65)

Can’t lose with the rule of three. Makes anything sound grander, nobler, more effective.


Credit

Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

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Introduction to the defence speeches of Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 to 43 BC), without the benefit of coming from a patrician or aristocratic family, rose by hard work to become the leading Roman lawyer and orator of his day. For a generation he dominated the Roman courts, usually appearing for the defence. We know of 88 law speeches he gave and an amazing 58 of them survive in whole or in part. The Oxford University Press publish an excellent paperback containing five of his most famous defence speeches.

(Note that the Latin word pro simply means ‘for’ and takes the ablative case i.e. changes the ending of words and names to ‘o’, so that the speech ‘for Caelius’ is known as ‘Pro Caelio’ and so on – unless the name ends in ‘a’, in which case it stays the same, or already ends in ‘o’ in which case it adds ‘ne’ to the end. These are examples of the kind of rules you have to learn when studying Latin.). The five features speeches are:

  1. Pro Roscio Amerino: his defence of Quintus Roscius Gallus, falsely accused of murdering his father
  2. Pro Murena: defence of the consul-elect Lucius Licinius Murena, accused of electoral bribery (39 pages)
  3. Pro Archia: defence of the poet Archias, on a citizenship charge
  4. Pro Caelio: of Marcus Caelius Rufus , ex-lover of Clodia Metelli, on charges of poisoning and violence
  5. Pro Milone: defence of Titus Annius Milo, accused of murdering Cicero’s hated enemy Clodius

The most obvious thing about the speeches is how long they are. I’ve no idea how long a modern defence address is but Cicero’s speeches occupy 30 to 40 pages of an average paperback and must have taken some time to deliver, especially stopping for all the dramatic pauses, the appeals to the jury and the strategic bursting into tears (he refers to his own tears of grief in several of the speeches). Did he memorise them and deliver them without notes? That, also, is an impressive feat.

The next most obvious thing is how complex the background and context of each case is. If you look them up online, you discover that each of Cicero’s major speeches has an entire Wikipedia article devoted to it because each one requires a meaty explanation of the context of the case: where it stood in Cicero’s career, and then the (generally very complicated) background of the case, including biographies of all the main participants, which themselves only make sense when carefully located within the feverish and tortuously complicated politics of the late Roman Republic.

Many law cases brought in ancient Rome were not objective products of what we think of as ‘justice’ but were entirely motivated by personal rivalries, sparked by the never-ending competition for office, but often just personal feuds or vendettas.

There was no police force in ancient Rome and, crucially, no office of public prosecution, no Crown Prosecution Service such as we have in modern England. In other words, you didn’t take your grievance to the authorities, who then carefully assessed whether there was a case to answer and decided whether to bring a criminal or civil case against a suspect or defendant. None of that framework existed. So people (generally rich and well-connected people) brought cases against individuals off their own initiative, using their own interpretation of the law.

And many of the cases were what I think are, in modern law, called ‘vexatious’, meaning they were not attempts to achieve objective justice but were nakedly biased attempts to game the system in the prosecutor’s favour, often shameless attempts to get political rivals convicted, exiled or maybe even executed. And this was accepted because everyone else was gaming the system, too. Personally motivated accusations and counter-accusations and counter-counter-accusations were the normal procedure.

The courts were one of the principal arenas in which the business of politics in Rome was played out: if you wanted to get rid of a political opponent, you prosecuted him and brought about his exile; if you failed, he might then prosecute you.
(Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, Introduction p.xxvii)

It was also the case that no one could be prosecuted while holding political office. Therefore a lot of the fiercely competitive vying to be elected to ‘magistracies’ or political offices in late Republican Rome was motivated not by keenness to serve, but as a tactic to dodge prosecution.

(This rose to a kind of climax with the political impasse which developed when Caius Julius Caesar refused to give up his command in Gaul and return to Rome unless he could be promised the opportunity to run for consul in his absence [an election he knew he could bribe his way to winning]. His sole reason for doing this being to avoid the prosecutions for corruption and malpractice which he knew he would face if he returned to Rome as a private citizen. Caesar knew this would happen because stentorian Republicans like Cato had made umpteen speeches promising to prosecute him. Therefore he had no choice but to seek election in order to win immunity, and he could only run in his physical absence because he knew that, as soon as he entered Rome as a private citizen, he knew he’d be tried, multiple times until his enemies got the result they wanted. When the senate rejected all his and his supporters’ attempts to negotiate this deal, he was left with no alternative but to enter Italy backed by his legions for security – thus triggering the civil war.)

D.H. Berry’s introductions

So before the reader gets anywhere near the speeches themselves, you have to mug up on their very complex background. And that’s where the OUP edition of Cicero’s Defence Speeches is outstanding. The editor and translator D.H. Berry not only provides an excellent general introduction to the volume, giving us a thorough and vivid overview of Cicero’s life and how it entwined with the complicated political context of the 70s, 60s and 50s BC, before going on to explain at some length the quirks of the Roman legal system…

But he also precedes each of the speeches with an in-depth summary of the political context and specific events which gave rise to it. This sounds simple but is, in each case, impressively complicated and absolutely vital: without a full understanding of the context you wouldn’t know what Cicero was trying to achieve in each speech. Berry is excellent at not only explaining the factual background but the strategy and tactics Cicero adopts in each speech.

General introduction

There were two main types of oratory: ‘forensic’ (from the Latin forensis meaning ‘of the forum’, which is where the public law courts were sited, also known as judicial) and ‘deliberative’ (the display of public oratory in political assemblies).

The Roman first court or ‘public inquiry’ was only set up in 149 BC and was followed by the establishment of further courts set up to try specific types of cases. Juries were large (sometimes hundreds of citizens) and if no court existed for the type of case, the trial was held in front of the entire people in the forum.

The system grew piecemeal for the next 70 years or so until it was swept away by the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 81 BC. He set up seven courts, designed to try specific types of case, namely murder, forgery, extortion, treason, electoral malpractice, embezzlement and assault.

The make-up of juries was a subject of controversy for decades – as you can imagine, if many cases were politically motivated, then who was allowed to sit on the jury was vitally important to both sides – until a law of 70 BC decreed they should be made up of one third senators, one third equites (or knights) and one third ‘tribunes of the treasury’ (who seem to have been a minor sort of equites).

In the decades that followed, more permanent courts were added, such as one devoted to violence, and other ad hoc types were created as and when required, such as the ‘sacrilege court’ set up to try Publius Clodius Pulcher for his famous dressing-up as a woman to infiltrate the women-only celebration of the Bona Dea being held at Julius Caesar’s house in 61 BC.

There were no public prosecutors. A defendant was prosecuted by the man who brought the case against him and any advocates or eminent men he could persuade to join him. The scope for doing deals and sharing prosecutions with social or political allies who stood to gain from a victory were endless.

Something else surprising: successful prosecutors were awarded their victim’s marks of honour and acceded to their rank in the senatorial hierarchy. So, on the face of it, a very strong motive to bring a prosecution and win.

However, they didn’t gain respect from doing this, often the reverse, and prosecuting was generally seen as an invidious role, unless you were obliged to carry it out by civic or family duty or gross injustice. The role of defender was much more socially respected, which explains why in almost all of Cicero’s cases he appears for the defence. The general idea was to mount one spectacular prosecution to make your name, then seek the safety of defending (a career path Cicero explicitly recommends in Pro Caelio, 73).

Also surprising is that it was forbidden by law to pay a defence attorney. This law had been passed as long ago as 204 BC to prevent bribery, but in a roundabout way led to subtler corruption. Roman society functioned via complex webs of clients and patrons. Patrons gave protection and assistance to clients who in turn waited on their patrons in their houses, in the street, rallied support for them at elections and so on. (These scenes are described by Cicero himself in Pro Murena, 70.)

In a legal setting an advocate (actually called, in Latin, a patronus) was a continuation of this intricate web of allegiances. Cicero might choose to defend a client because he owed them favours (he defended men who had supported him during the Catiline crisis of 63) or to put someone in his debt. It was never done out of charity or public duty. Every relationship, every act in ancient Rome, had undertones of politics and power.

Another surprisingly important factor was personal charisma. Roman trials put less weight on the evidence (they didn’t have the tradition of presenting forensically objective evidence that we do) and much more on the character of the people involved. Often a legal speech spent more time assassinating the character of the accused, or the accuser, than querying any of the supposed facts.

And this extended to the character of the advocate himself. Many of Cicero’s speeches not only defend his client’s character and denigrate the character of the plaintiff, but they also viciously attack the character of the prosecuting attorneys. By the same token, all the speeches in the volume draw heavily on Cicero’s own character and record as part of the defence.

Cicero obsessively invokes the auctoritas he acquired after ‘saving the nation’ during the Catiline crisis, repeatedly describes the risks he ran, the danger he faced, his boldness of action.

In my own consulship I undertook a bold venture for the sake of yourselves and your children. (Pro Milone, 82)

He is not slow to remind everyone that Cato had called him ‘the Father of the Nation’. He does all this in order to bring his (he hoped) huge moral authority to bear on the case.

(For example, when he reminds the jury of his role in saving the nation and then uses this authority to personally vouch for Marcus Caelius Rufus’s good character in Pro Caelio, 77, let alone the half or dozen or more references to it throughout Pro Milone.)

[This emphasis on character and personality is not restricted to Cicero’s speeches. It permeates the histories written at the time. Lacking any theories of society or economics, otherwise intelligent men like Sallust, Plutarch and Suetonius fall back again and again on individual character as the primary engine of history and human affairs, in a manner which we, as heirs to 2,000 years of evermore sophisticated social theory, frequently find naive and simplistic.]

Trials took place in the open air (what happened if it rained?). The presiding magistrate and scribes sat on a raised platform (tribunal) at the front of the court, while the jury (probably) sat on benches slightly raised off the ground. The plaintiff, defendant, their advocates, legal advisers, friends and families sat in two groups to one side. And this diorama was open to the forum and to sometimes huge crowds of the general public who gathered to watch and follow every trial, especially if it was of someone eminent or promised juicy gossip.

Trials were more like theatre than we are used to. The defendant had to wear mourning clothes and not shave or wash for several days in order to present a piteous spectacle. Berry gives examples of defendants who refused to comply with this ridiculous convention and were promptly convicted, regardless of the proceedings, solely because of their affront to tradition.

The prosecution spoke first, laying out the case, then the defence rebutted the prosecution points – only then was any evidence presented. Oddly, to us, in some of Cicero’s speeches he guesses at what the evidence will be.

Slaves could be made to give evidence but only under torture. Nowhere does Cicero refer to the shocking inhumanity of this tradition, which sheds light on the fear of all the slaves in the ‘comedies’ of Plautus and Terence that they might find themselves being tortured if their master gets into any kind of legal difficulty.

The magistrates (praetors) overseeing a case often knew nothing about the law (praetors were elected to hold office for only one year). They simply kept the peace and ensured the rules were complied with. (Cicero is on record as complementing the father of the future Augustus, Gaius Octavius, for his fairness and calm in supervising trials.)

How many jurors were there? Evidence is mixed, but it seems to have been a surprising 75, 25 from each of the three categories mentioned above. Jurors were not allowed to confer and voted immediately after the evidence was presented in a secret ballot. They were each given a wax table with A for absolvo on one side and C for condemno on the other. They rubbed out the letter they didn’t want and popped the table in an urn, then a court official totted up the votes.

If a defendant was found guilty the official penalty was death. But since there were no police and the defendant was never in anyone’s ‘custody’, it was generally pretty easy for them to leave the court, the forum, pack up their things and go into voluntary exile. Before most Italian tribes were given Roman status in 90 BC, this might mean retiring to places like Praeneste (only 23 miles from Rome) but by the time Cicero was a prosecutor it meant having to leave Italy altogether. Massilia, the large thriving port on the south coast of Gaul (modern Marseilles) was a popular destination and was where both Verres, who Cicero successfully prosecuted for corruption, and Milo, who he failed to defend from prosecution for murder, ended up living out their lives in well-heeled exile there.

Rhetorical style

Following his extremely useful and informative summary of Cicero’s career and the apparatus of Roman laws, Berry gives an equally useful explanation of the rhetorical techniques Cicero used in his speeches.

Cicero’s prose style is highly artificial. Sentences are long, sometimes a third of a modern page, sometimes longer. The style is ‘periodic’, meaning the sentences only achieve closure and make their meaning clear right at the end. The result is suspense: the audience hangs on the orator’s words and the succession of subordinate clauses, waiting to find out whether the sentence will end as they expected (with a nice sense of completion) or will deliver a surprise (gasps of delight). You can see how, done well, this could enthral a crowd.

Sometimes clauses are in pairs, to create balance, either/or.

‘For it is not my enemies who will take you away from me but my dearest friends; not those who have on occasion treated me badly, but those who have always been good to me,’ (Pro Milone, 99)

Sometimes they come in threes, to provide a crescendo effect. Pairs and trios create a balanced civilised effect. By contrast, sometimes his sentences pile up 4, 5, 6 7 short clauses to create a machine gun effect, to create something more feverish and frantic.

‘No witness, no accomplice has been named. The entire charge arises out of a malevolent, disreputable, vindictive, crime-ridden, lust-ridden house.’ (Pro Caelio, 55)

Cicero took great care to make sure his clauses ended with certain rhythms. Apparently these cadences were named, categorised and taught by teachers of oratory, although Berry doesn’t list or explain any, and they’re not really detectable in English translation.

The jurors and the public watching the trial knew all about these techniques and assessed speakers on their skill at deploying them. Cicero tells an anecdote about a crowd bursting into applause at an advocate’s particularly elegant turn of phrase.

In addition to rhythm a trained orator could deploy:

Anaphora

The repetition of words or phrases in a group of sentences, clauses, or poetic lines.

If you restore Caelius to me, to his family, and to the country, you will have a man who is dedicated, devoted and bound to you. (Pro Caelio 80)

Asyndeton

The omission of the conjunctions that ordinarily join coordinate words or clauses, as in ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.

Apostrophe

A speech or address to a person who is not present or to a personified object. Cicero frequently addresses the spirit of dead, venerable Romans, or addresses the spirit of murdered Clodius, or addresses figures not physically present in the court (such as Pompey, directly addressed in Pro Milone).

Exclamation

For example, ‘O gods!’ the speaker pretending to give way to moments of emotion.

Alliteration, assonance and wordplay

Berry assures us these are everywhere present in Cicero but it is, of course, impossible to judge in translation.

Metaphor

One consul handing over to another informs him of the current challenges and issues in much the same way that the captain of a ship putting into port tells the captains of ships just setting out about the weather and pirates (Pro Murena, 4). A metaphor which is revived later in the speech, in the extended comparison of elections to unpredictable ocean currents or storms in (35 to 36).

Rhetorical strategies

At a higher level than specific tricks of rhetoric are larger-scale rhetorical tactics.

Appropriating the prosecution

Often he repeats the points the prosecution has made in order to rebut them. He does this by quoting them but often twisting the points in such a way as to suit himself, to tee up the kind of rebuttal he wants to make – as when he repeats a series of points allegedly made by Cato in Pro Murena, 67 onwards).

Inventing opposition points

One step beyond twisting prosecution points is inventing possible objections to what he’s saying in order to easily counter them. There are hundreds of instances along the lines of:

  • ‘You will no doubt ask me, Grattius…’ (Pro Archia, 12)
  • ‘Someone will surely ask…’ (Pro Archia, 15)

In which he attributes to the opposition lines of attack which he then easily refutes.

Rhetorical questions

Why do I mention his mother and his home when the penalty of the law deprives him of his home, his parent, and the company and sight of his friends? Shall the poor man go into exile, then? Where? To the east, where for many years he serves as a legate, led armies and performed heroic deeds? (Pro Murena, 89)

If Caelius had really given himself up to the kind of life that is alleged, would he, when still a young man, have brought a prosecution against an ex-consul? If he shied away from hard work, if he were enslaved to pleasure, would he do battle here every day, go in search of personal enmities, bring prosecutions, and run the risk of being prosecuted himself? And would he also maintain for so many months now and in full view of the entire Roman people a struggle for one of two things – his own political survival or glory? (Pro Caelio, 47)

Mimicry

As when Cicero imagines the feelings of soldiers called on to vote for Murena and remembering his many achievements in the army of the East (Pro Murena, 36) or mimics the voices of sceptical voters on election day (Pro Murena, 45).

Or the great sequence in Pro Caelio where he pretends to be one of Clodia’s ancestors brought back from the dead to thunder against her immoral behaviour.

There’s another type of mimicry. Surprisingly, the defendant was not allowed to speak at their own trial and so Cicero sometimes speaks for them, in the sense of putting words into their mouths and telling the jury, this is what X said to me, these are his very words.

This is notable at the climax of Pro Milone where sections 94 , 95 and 98 purport to be the sad but stoic speech of Milo himself.

If you combine this technique with ‘apostrophe’, addresses to people either absent or dead, you can see why the speeches are highly dramatic in the sense that there are a surprising number of characters in them, not as in a play, obviously, but being named, addressed, invoked and even attributed whole speeches which are then performed in another voice.

Changing the subject

In Pro Milone Cicero doesn’t bother denying that Milo was responsible for the murder of Clodius, but tries to shift the ground of argument to the issue of whether Milo was acting in justifiable self defence. Specifically, he argues that the incident wasn’t a random accident but a carefully contrived ambush by Clodius and so his client was only responding as Great and Eminent Romans Throughout History had responded i.e. by defending himself. This strategy failed and Milo was convicted.

Invoking famous men

In all the speeches Cicero invokes the memory of Great and Noble Romans from history who he says behaved like his client. It is a variation on invoking his own auctoritas.

Closely related is the Appeal To Patriotism. All of the speeches invoke the idea that jury must acquit his client because The Very Existence of the State is at stake!

‘In this trial you hold the whole country in your hands!!’ (Pro Murena, 83)

Invoking the sad family

At the end of Pro Murena and Pro Caelio Cicero invokes the tragic spectacle of the defendant’s family, his aged father, his weeping mother or wife, on their knees, begging for their son or husband or father to be freed and their family happily reunited.

The Appeal to the Romans’ very strong sense of Family Values seems to have been a tried and trusted, standard strategy (Pro Caelio, 79 and 80).

Crying

In several of the speeches Cicero refers to the fact that he himself is weeping, crying at the spectacle of such a valiant, heroic, brave, virtuous, patriotic, dutiful and wonderful person having been brought low by his fiendish enemies and so utterly deserving of vindication and acquittal that he, Cicero, cannot help bursting into floods of tears, he cannot see the jury, he cannot see the court, he can barely speak for grief!

‘But I must stop now. I can no longer speak for tears…’ (Pro Milone, 105)

Repetition

Obviously the rule of three, or using multiple clauses to say the same thing, or asking a series of rhetorical questions are all types of repetition. But a big feature of all the speeches which Berry doesn’t really address is their repetitiveness. Cicero often says he’s going to address a point, addresses it, tells us he’s finished with it, and yet several pages (a few minutes) later, brings it up again.

I can’t find the precise references now but in the three longest speeches, he has a tendency to make a point, wander off to something completely different, then revert to the same point later. This was the single factor which made reading them difficult for me, the sense that they didn’t have a clear logical flow – a beginning, middle and end – but on the contrary, I found all the speeches rambling and digressive and often hard to follow, with no higher level logic.

Conclusion

The cumulative effect of all these techniques is that the speeches, especially when written down and published (as Cicero took care to have done) are emphatically not the language of ordinary speech. The orator has done a lot of work preparing them and he expects the audience to do some work to appreciate them. It is intended to sound ‘theatrical and high flown’ in Berry’s phrase. The fact that I found them long-winded and often quite confusing maybe says more about my taste, shaped as it is by the 20th century taste for laconic brevity, than Cicero’s verbose and long-winded achievement.

P.S. Adrian Goldsworthy’s comments

Dr Adrian Goldsworthy’s big biography of Augustus contains lots of factual asides about aspects of late Republican Rome. Some of these concern the law and provide context to these speeches:

Legal attacks could easily end a career and so were far more high-stakes than in our society (p.94).

Goldsworthy gives an example of the rhythm of Cicero’s sayings in Latin. This was a throwaway remark he made about young Octavius, laudanum adulescentum, ornandum, tollendum – which means ‘we will praise the young man, reward and discard him’ – and, apparently, caused a serious breach in their relations (p.122) – but it’s one of the few examples I have of the rhythm of Cicero’s language in Latin.

He reinforces the notion that a) since there was no equivalent of the Crown or State, legal cases could only be brought by individuals and b) prosecuting was seen as invidious, unless one was defending family pride or there was a really gross example of wrongdoing – and so accusers tended to be young men out to make a name for themselves with one or two eye-catching prosecutions, before settling into the more congenial and socially accepted role of defence counsel, exactly the career Cicero followed (Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy p.43). He repeats the point on page 281:

Prosecution was generally left to the young, and had long provided an opportunity for youthful aristocrats to catch the public eye at an early stage in their careers.

Goldsworthy refers to ‘the aggressive and abusive tone common in Roman trials’ which we’ve seen plenty of evidence of (p.280).

Above all, Goldsworthy makes the most devastating single point about Cicero’s speeches with striking simplicity:

A glance at Cicero’s speeches is enough to show the readiness with which Roman advocates distorted the truth. (p.278)

For all his pontifications about Justice, for all his exhaustive descriptions of Law epitomising Reason In Action – Cicero was a highly professional and convincing liar.


Credit

Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

Cicero reviews

Roman reviews

Richard Dawkins and Christianity

Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

Dawkins obviously has a psychological problem with Christian believers. He won’t stop or let up in his attacks on the ‘foolish’, ‘misguided’ Christians and creationists who persist in their religious faith – despite the theory of evolution having provided a comprehensive answer to how life on earth originated but, above all, on why it has proliferated, become so diverse, and is so intricately interlinked, giving such an appearance of wonderful ‘design’ that the badly-educated or wilfully ignorant persist in claiming there must be an Omnipotent designer of it all.

‘Wrong wrong wrong!’ as Dawkins puts it with typical subtlety puts it in River Out of Eden.

Dawkins has devoted most of his adult life to writing a series of books which effectively repeat the same arguments against this kind of Christian obscurantism over and over again:

  • The Blind Watchmaker
  • River Out of Eden
  • Climbing Mount Improbable
  • Unweaving the Rainbow
  • A Devil’s Chaplain
  • The God Delusion
  • The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
  • The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True
  • Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

All of which lead up to his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, published just last year as he entered his 78th year.

What motivates Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

What drives this unyielding commitment to attack, criticise, undermine and ridicule Christians and creationists at every available opportunity?

Well, consider this excerpt from Dawkins’s Wikipedia article:

From 1954 to 1959 Dawkins attended Oundle School in Northamptonshire, an English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour, where he was in Laundimer house… Dawkins describes his childhood as ‘a normal Anglican upbringing’. He embraced Christianity until halfway through his teenage years, at which point he concluded that the theory of evolution was a better explanation for life’s complexity, and ceased believing in a god…

‘An English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour’. Aha.

In a nutshell, I think Dawkins argues so fiercely and unrelentingly with Christians, and with all the Christian attempts to adapt the theory of evolution to Christian belief, because he is arguing with his own younger self.

This explains why the arguing is so ubiquitous – why he finds The Enemy everywhere he looks – because the Enemy is in his own mind.

And it explains why the war can never end – because the young Dawkins’s naive and earnest Christian belief will be with him, dogging his every thought, like an unwanted Mr Hyde, until he dies.

It explains why Dawkins never takes on anti-evolutionary believers from other faiths, such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus and so on, and entirely restricts his obsessive attacks to Christian anti-evolutionists.

And it explains why the cast of straw men he sets out to demolish consists almost exclusively of Church of England bishops and American fundamentalists – because these are Protestant Christians, Christians from his own Anglican tribe.

Richard Dawkins’s Christian turn of thought

It also explains something else about The Blind Watchmaker and River Out of Eden, which is unexpected, counter-intuitive and easy to overlook.

This is that, amid the endless analogies, metaphors, comparisons and parallels that Dawkins is constantly drawing in order to make his polemical anti-creationist points, he still automatically invokes Christian examples, stories and texts – and here’s the most telling point – sometimes in a very positive light.

At these moments in the books, you can envision the bright-eyed schoolboy Dawkins, proudly taking part in each Sunday’s Morning Service at his Anglican public school, peeping through the text.

His fundamental attachment to Christian tropes pops up all over the place. Take the title of the book, River Out of Eden – why bring Eden into it at all? Why Christianise the story of DNA?

Same with ‘African Eve’ and ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, terms applied to the hypothetical female ancestor from which all currently living humans are supposedly descended… Why introduce the misleading word ‘Eve’ into it at all? Why piggy-back on Christian myth?

Casually he says a person’s DNA may be compared to their ‘family Bible’ (p.44) and that the mitochondrial DNA within our cells can be compared to the ‘Apocrypha’ of the family Bible (p.55). I wonder how many modern readers know, unprompted, what the Apocrypha are.

Later he casually mentions that the famous Big Bang which brought the universe into being ‘baptised time and the universe’ (p.168). Baptised?

Why reinforce the framework of Christian ideology like this, with a continual drizzle of Christian references – why not create entirely new metaphors and concepts?

Take the passage which purports to explain how the process of sex mixes up the parents’ DNA as it passes into their progeny. Within a sentence of explaining that this is his subject, Dawkins veers off to compare the mixing up of DNA to the textual history of the Song of Songs from the Bible.

Why? Does he really imagine his secular, multi-cultural audience will be sufficiently familiar with the text of The Song of Songs to take his point about changes and mutations in it? For the Song, he tells us:

contains errors – mutations – especially in translation: ‘Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines’ is a mistranslation, even though a lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal of its own, which is unlikely to be matched by the more correct: ‘Catch for us the fruit bats, the little fruit bats…’ (p.45)

‘A lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal’? A lifetime’s repetition by who, exactly? Have you spent a lifetime repeating these words from The Song of Songs? I haven’t.

This is pure autobiography and gives us a window into Richard’s mind and – it is my contention – demonstrates that Dawkins is coming from a far more deeply rooted Christian worldview than any of his secular readers.

Take another, longer example – the extraordinary passage in The Blind Watchmaker where Dawkins devotes a chapter of the book to arguing against the newish theory of evolution by punctuated equilibrium which had been proposed by paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould in the early 1970s.

But here’s how he starts the chapter on this subject: he asks the reader to imagine themselves in the scholarly field of ancient history, and to imagine a new scholarly paper which has just been published and which takes a literal interpretation of the story of the 40 years the ancient Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt and before they reached the Promised Land.

Dawkins goes into loads of detail about what this hypothetical paper would contain: He explains that the paper takes the claim that the ancient Israelites took 40 years to travel from the borders of Egypt to what is modern-day Israel at literal face value and then works out that the travelling horde must have covered about 25 yards a day, in other words, one yard an hour.

This is so patently absurd that the hypothetical ancient historian in this hypothetical paper Dawkins has invented, dismisses the entire story of the Exodus as a ridiculous myth, and this is what has rattled the cages of the scholarly world of ancient historians and brought it to the attention of the world’s media – in Dawkins’s made-up analogy.

At the end of two pages devoted to elaborately working out all the details of this extended analogy, Dawkins finally announces that this literalistic ancient historian’s approach is precisely the approach Eldridge and Gould take towards evolution in their theory of punctuated equilibrium – taking the physical facts (of the patchy fossil record) literally, in order to ridicule the larger theory of neo-Darwinism (neo-Darwinism is the twentieth-century synthesis of Darwin’s original theory with the Mendelian genetics which provide the mechanism by which it works, later confirmed by the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953; it is, strictly speaking, this neo-Darwinism which Dawkins is at such pains to defend).

Anyway:

1. I couldn’t believe Dawkins wasted so much space on such a far-fetched, fantastical, long-winded and, in the end, completely useless analogy (Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated evolution is like a hypothetical scholar of Bible history coming up with a new interpretation of the Book of Exodus!)

2. But for my purposes in this review, what is really telling about the passage is the way that, when he’s not consciously attacking it, Dawkins’s religious education gave him such a deep familiarity with Christian stories and the prose of the King James Bible and the Book of Prayer – that he cannot escape them, that his mind automatically reaches to them as his first analogy for anything.

And 3. that Dawkins expects his readers to be so equally imbued with a comprehensive knowledge of Christian stories and texts that he just assumes the best analogy for almost anything he wants to explain will be a Christian analogy.

Other examples of Dawkins’s Christian turn of mind

In the last third of River Out of Eden Dawkins introduces the rather abstruse idea of a ‘utility function’ which is, apparently, a concept from engineering which means ‘that which must be maximised’.

When it comes to life and evolution Dawkins says it is often useful to apply this concept to various attributes of living organisms such as the peacock’s tail, the extraordinary life-cycles of queen bees and so on, in order to understand the function they perform.

But then he staggered me by going on to say:

A good way to dramatise our task is to imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer and try to work out, by reverse engineering, what the engineer was trying to maximise: What was God’s Utility Function? (p.122)

And in fact this entire 44-page-long chapter is titled God’s Utility Function.

This flabbergasted me. The whole point of his long, exhausting book The Blind Watchmaker was to explain again and again, in countless variations, how the complex life forms we see around us were emphatically NOT designed by a creator God, but are the result of countless small mutations and variations naturally produced in each new generation of organism, which are selected out by the environment and other organisms, so that only the ones which help an organism adapt to its environment survive.

So why is he now asking the reader to imagine a God which is a Divine Engineer and Grand Designer?!!!!

Similarly, in Unweaving The Rainbow, which I’ve just read, he starts the rambling chapter about DNA finger-printing with a quote about lawyers from the Gospel of Saint Luke. Why?

And compares the lineage of DNA down the billennia to God making his promise to Abraham that his seed will inhabit the land, going on to give the complete quotation.

When he wants to cite a date from ancient history, it’s none of the acts of the ancient Greeks or Romans which spring to mind but but, of course, the birth of Christ, a handy two thousand years ago.

Continually, throughout all his books, the Christian framework, Christian dates, Christian stories, Christian quotations and Christian turns of phrase recur again and again.

Conclusion

In conclusion, you could argue, a little cheekily, that although Dawkins’s conscious mind and intentions and numerous books and lectures and TV programmes are all directed (with monotonous obsessiveness) at countering and undermining Christian belief – his unconscious mind, his boyhood memories, his love of the rhythms and images of the Christian Bible – mean that the Christian mythos, its legends and stories and even particular phrases from its holy texts, continually recur to him as his first choice for comparisons and analogies, and that as a result – unwittingly – he is reinforcing and re-embedding the very thing he claims to want to overthrow.

You could argue that Richard Dawkins is a fundamentally Christian author.


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River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins (1995)

Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. That is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn.
(River out of Eden, page 112)

Three things become clear early in this book:

1. Dawkins is very argumentative He can barely state a fact or idea without immediately imagining a scientific illiterate misunderstanding it, or a creationist arguing against it, or the tradition of thinkers who’ve adopted a contrary position, and then – whooosh! – he’s off on one of his long-winded digressions devising metaphors and analogies and thought experiments (‘imagine 20 million typists sitting in a row…’) devoted to demolishing these opponents and their silly beliefs.

The neutral reader sits back, puzzled as to why Dawkins feels such a continual necessity to find enemies and argue against them, constantly and endlessly, instead of just stating the facts about the natural world in a lucid, calm way and letting them speak for themselves.

2. Dawkins is not a mathematician as he points out quite a few times in The Blind Watchmaker. As I read him saying this for the third or fourth time, it dawned on me that this means Dawkins rarely if ever makes his points with numbers – through data or statistics, tables and graphs and diagrams, as a true scientist might. Instead, deprived of numbers (of course he does use numbers, but very sparingly), Dawkins makes his case through persuasion and rhetoric. He is a rhetorician – the dictionary definition being someone who:

exploits figures of speech and other compositional techniques to have a persuasive or impressive effect

Consider the titles of the clutch of mid-career books which I’m rereading: The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, Climbing Mount Improbable, Unweaving The Rainbow. They are all named for metaphors or analogies for the big Darwinian idea he is so anxious to explicate and defend, and they are themselves made up of chapters which are made up of sections and passages which rely far more on metaphor and analogy and stories and anecdotes than they do on hard data and scientific facts.

3. Dawkins is good at it The four book titles quoted above are all vivid and powerful metaphors for evolution and its implications. The master metaphor which dominates River Out of Eden – that all life on earth amounts to a river of DNA flowing from simple beginnings and then splitting over a billion years or more into thousands and then millions of tributaries, one for each of the species now alive – is a powerful explanatory tool, and leads you on into a series of other analogies and metaphors.

Wrong!

I was amused by the number of times Dawkins mentions or quotes other people – creationists, fellow academics or other biologists – solely to show how their approach or interpretation of Darwinism, biology or anything else is wrong wrong wrong!

He doesn’t hold back. He isn’t subtle or circumspect. He often puts exclamation marks at the end to emphasise just how wrong wrong wrong they are! before proceeding to demolish them one by one! It’s like watching a confident man at a coconut shy throwing the wooden balls and knocking each coconut off, one… by… one. Here’s a selection of his targets:

– Lamarckism or the belief that characteristics organisms acquire during their lives are passed on to their children – ‘Wrong, utterly wrong! (p.3)

– It’s tempting to think of the original branches between what would later turn out to be distinct families or orders of animals as consisting at the time of the first breach ‘mighty Mississippis rivers’ – ‘But this image is deeply wrong‘ (p.10)

– Zoologists are tempted to think of the divide between what later became major groups as a momentous event. But they are ‘misled’ (p.11)

– One zoologist has suggested that the entire process of evolution during the Cambrian period, when so many new species came into existence, must have been a different process from what it is now. ‘The fallacy is glaring!‘ (p.12)

– The digital revolution at the core of the new biology has dealt ‘a killer blow to vitalism, the incorrect belief that living matter is deeply distinct from nonliving material’ (p.20).

– ‘There is a fashionable salon philosophy called cultural relativism which holds… that science has no more claim to truth than tribal myth’. It is, of course, wrong, which he goes on to prove with the fact that tribal myth can’t build the airplanes which fly you to conferences where you can present papers about cultural relativism.

– He once asked a student how far back you’d have to go to find ancestors that Dawkins and the student shared. She replied back to the apes. ‘An excusable intuitive leap, but it is approximately 10,000 percent wrong.’

– Some creationists insist on misinterpreting the scientific concept of Mitochondrial Eve and claim, from the sound of it, that she’s identical with the Biblical Eve! ‘This is a complete misunderstanding.’ (p.62)

And so on…

The trouble with Dawkins’s arguments

There are several practical problems with Dawkins’s relentless argufying.

One is that, because Dawkin is arguing all the time with someone or other, if you put down the book then pick it up later, it’s often difficult to remember the precise Wrong Interpretation of evolution he was in the middle of raging against i.e. to recall the context of whatever scientific information he happens to be presenting.

Making it worse is the way Dawkins often breaks down the argument he’s tackling into sub-arguments, and especially the way he breaks his own counter-arguments down into sub-counter-arguments. And then he’ll say, ‘I’ve just got to explain a few basic concepts…’ or ‘Before I reply to the main thrust of that argument, let me make a small digression…’ leading you steadily away from whatever point you think he was trying to make.

And if the digression takes the form of an analogy, yjrm quite quickly you can be three of four ‘levels’ removed from the initial proposition he’s arguing against. You find yourself needing to follow an analogy he’s using to explain a concept you need to understand in order to grasp the thrust of a part of an argument he’s making against a specific aspect of one particular misinterpretation of evolution.

In other words – it’s easy to get lost.

At several points he asks the reader to be patent, but I wonder how many of his readers really do have the patience to put up with the digressions and analogies.

It’s an oddity of Dawkins’s approach that moments after venting a vivid attack on creationists and Christians for their ignorance, for being ‘wrong, utterly wrong!’ – he will ask them to bear with him, and have a little patience because what follows is only a rough analogy or a hypothetical example or a computer program he’s made up, or some other rather remote and tangential point.

It’s as if someone punched you in the face and then asked you to hold their coat for them. it shows an astonishing naivety and innocence.

And more to the point, the upshot of all these aspects of his approach is that – he never really presents the knock-down, drop-dead, unanswerable counter-arguments against creationist literature which he continually promises.

In fact on several occasions in The Blind Watchmaker he made so many apologies about the absence of current scientific knowledge on a particular point (especially about a) the patchiness of the fossil record and b) the sharply conflicting hypotheses among scientists about how life on earth got started) – or he went on at such length about the arguments and divisions among the scientists themselves – that I emerged with my belief in evolution shaken, not confirmed.

I couldn’t help feeling that, if I was a born-again Christian, a fundamentalist and creationist, Dawkins’s books, with their combination of in-your-face insults with mealy-mouthed, round-the-houses argufying, might well confirm me in my anti-evolutionary beliefs.

The importance of geological time

To summarise Dawkins’s arguments for him, the central foundation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is TIME. Lots and lots and lots of time. Geological time. More time than we can possibly imagine. To quote Wikipedia (in order to have the latest, up-to-date info):

The earliest time that life forms first appeared on Earth is at least 3.77 billion years ago, possibly as early as 4.28 billion years, or even 4.5 billion years; not long after the oceans formed 4.41 billion years ago, and after the formation of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago.

Around 4 billion years ago. No human being can understand that length of time.

The next element in Darwin’s theory is the advantage of small changes, minute changes, sometimes molecular changes, in organisms as they reproduce and create new generations. Even minuscule differences, which humans cannot detect, might be the vital determinants in whether an organism just about survives to reproduce, or just fails and is killed or eaten before it reproduces.

Dawkins’s core argument is that, if you set that process in train and let it run for four and a half billion years – then anything can happen, and we have the evidence in the fossil record that it has, that forms of life of surpassing weirdness and sizes and functions have been and gone, and their descendants live on all around us in a marvellous profusion.

It is:

  1. the enormous, impossible-to-conceive length of geological time
  2. and the big difference to its chances of survival which even tiny variants in an organism’s attributes can give it

which anti-evolutionists tend not to have grasped, or understood or have simply rejected. Which drives Dawkins crazy.

The evolution of ‘the eye’

The locus classicus (the classic example) where the two sides clash is THE EYE.

Anti-evolutionary writers of all stripes cite the human eye and assert that it is ridiculously unlikely that The Eye can have just popped into existence in complete perfection, with a fully functioning iris and lens and all the rods and cones which detect light and shade and colour, absurdly unlikely, only a caring Creator God could have made something so wonderful.

AND the related creationist argument, that what possible use would half an eye, or a tenth of an eye or a hundredth of an eye have been to any organism? It must have appeared fully functional or not all.

To which Dawkins and all the evolutionists reply that a) no-one is saying it came into being fully functional and b) you’d be surprised: half an eye is really useful. So is a hundredth of an eye, or a thousandth.

In fact, having a patch of skin which is merely light-sensitive can convey advantage on some organisms. Given enough generations this light-sensitive patch will become a confirmed part of all the members of a particular species, and will tend to form a dip or hollow in the skin to protect itself from damage. If the dip goes deep enough then sooner or later some chance mutation may code for another strand of skin to form across the opening of the dip, with a slight preference given to any variation which creates a membrane which is translucent i.e. lets at least some light through to the light-sensitive skin beneath.

And bingo! The eye!

The killer fact (for me, reading this well-trodden argument for the umpteenth time) is that not only is The Eye not an improbable device for evolution to create in the natural flow of endless variations created in each new generation and likely to be selected because its adds even a smidgeon of survival value to its owners..

But that the formation of The Eye turns out to be a highly probable result of evolution. We know this because we now know that The Eye has evolved at least forty separate times in widely separated orders and families and genera. over the past four and a half billion years. Conclusion:

Never say, and never take seriously anybody who says: ‘I cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by natural selection.’ (p.81)

Dawkins dubs this position The Argument from Personal Incredulity, and this discussion of The Eye is one of the few places where Dawkins states an opponent’s argument clearly and then mounts a clearn and convincing counter-argument.

Analogies

Bored with a lot of the these tired old arguments, and of Dawkins’s combative yet strangely naive style, I took to noting the the analogies, reading them as a kind of buried or counter-narrative linking up the boring arguments.

– The river out of Eden is the river of DNA, a river of digital information, which makes up all living things. In fact the river has branched out over the aeons, with countless streams and tributaries running dry but there are, as of now, some thirty million separate rivers of DNA or species.

– Each generation is a sieve or filter: good genes get through, ‘bad’ genes don’t.

– The genetic code is like a dictionary of a language with 64 words.

– the DNA inside each of us is like a family Bible (p.44)

– Insofar as it is digital, the genetic code is like digital phones or computer codes.

– Every cell in your body contains the equivalent of 36 immense data tapes (i.e the chromosomes) (p.21).

– We humans – and all living things – are survival machines designed to propagate the digital database that did the programming.

– The membranes in a living cell are like the glassware in a laboratory.

– An enzyme is like a large machine tool, carefully jigged to turn out a production line of molecules of a particular shape (p.26)

– Cells’ ability to replicate is comparable to the process of ‘bootstrapping’ required in the early days of computing (p.27).

Reading River Out of Eden for the analogies was more fun that trying to follow many of Dawkins’s trains of thought which were often tortuous, long-winded and strangely forgettable.

Credit

River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson in 1995. All references are to the 1996 Phoenix paperback edition.


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Karl Marx’s prose style

My daughter is studying sociology and I get to help her with her homework and read her textbooks. The flat, dull tone of would-be scientific writing is enough to drive you mad.

The prose style of Karl Marx, according to some people the founder of modern sociology, is the exact opposite.

It is a constant surprise how rhetorical Marx is: pithy poetic phrases, bombastic generalisations, baggy lists, nifty antitheses, classical references, all these are deployed in a tone dominated by sarcasm and satire – Marx constantly expects the ‘bourgeoisie’ to do its worst and is rarely disappointed.

This blog post simply aims to highlight the importance of techniques of rhetorical persuasion in Marx’s writings.

It’s based on a close reading of Karl Marx Political Writings Volume 2: Surveys from Exile edited by David Fernbach – specifically from Marx’s two long essays about the political turmoil in France between 1848 and 1852, The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Page numbers refer to the 1973 Pelican paperback edition.

Insults 

For a start Marx is not respectful. He doesn’t feel any inhibitions about abusing and insulting all his enemies, from the bourgeoisie in general to the hollow trickster, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who he calls

  • a grotesque mediocrity
  • a ludicrous, vulgar and hated person
  • the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon

The Provisional Assembly which replaced the French king in February 1848, had the bright idea of declaring universal male suffrage i.e. all adult men were empowered to vote, most importantly in the election for a new president to replace the abdicated king. 1. The urban liberals in their idealism overlooked the fact that by far the biggest single part of the electorate was the millions of peasants, who outnumbered the populations of all French cities and towns several times over. 2. By the time the presidential election was held in December 1848, the political landscape had changed out of all recognition. The result was an overwhelming victory for the buffoonish figure of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte.

Thus Marx not only doesn’t like Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, he actively despises the backward, clumsy, ignorant peasants who voted for him.

The symbol that expressed the peasants’ entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naive, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery and an indecipherable hieroglyphic for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable physiognomy of the class that represents barbarism within civilization.

But his strongest vituperation is, of course, reserved for the hated ‘bourgeoisie’.

The mortgage debt burdening the soil of France imposes on the French peasantry an amount of interest equal to the annual interest on the entire British national debt. Small-holding property, in this enslavement by capital toward which its development pushes it unavoidably, has transformed the mass of the French nation into troglodytes. Sixteen million peasants (including women and children) dwell in caves, a large number of which have but one opening, others only two and the most favored only three. Windows are to a house what the five senses are to the head. The bourgeois order, which at the beginning of the century set the state to stand guard over the newly emerged small holdings and fertilized them with laurels, has become a vampire that sucks the blood from their hearts and brains and casts them into the alchemist’s cauldron of capital. (p.242)

Note how solid factual analysis (of the results of debt on French peasants) is inextricably entwined with highly alarmist and exaggerated similes and metaphors – of enslavement, troglodytes and vampires. Abuse and insults are an intrinsic part of Marx’s analysis, not an accident, not a removeable element – bitter hatred of the bourgeois enemy is a key part of Marx’s worldview.

Rhetorical repetition 

Marx uses rhetorical repetition, often in the time-honoured form of the three clauses trick.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not of fleeing from its solution in reality; of finding the spirit of revolution once more, not of making its ghost walk about again.

Bonaparte represented the peasant’s superstition, not his enlightenment; his prejudice, not his judgement; his past, not his future.

Antitheses 

He likes antithesis, or the repetition of an idea with variations – ideally a straight inversion – to produce a snappy phrase.

The republic had announced itself to the peasantry with the tax collector; it announced itself to the republic with the emperor.

The December 10 Society was to remain Bonaparte’s private army until he succeeded in transforming the public army into a December 10 Society.

This tendency is more important than it seems because it indicates the underlying fondness for neat patterns of Marx’s thought. He thinks that History moves in neat antitheses, just like his prose (just like the neatly antithetical prose he learned as a student at the feet of the classically trained Idealist philosopher, Hegel).

Repetition of phrases

Sometimes Marx uses repetition with variation (as above). On other occasions he uses simple repetition, its flatness and bathos indicating the batheticness of the actors he attributes it to, in this case the charlatan, Louis-Napoléon. The use of deadpan repetition reminded me of modern stand-up comedy.

As a fatalist, [Louis-Napoléon] lives by the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage. With this in mind, to begin with, he treats officers and non-commissioned officers in his Elysée apartments to cigars and champagne, to cold poultry and garlic sausage.

Out of context this comes over as a bit flat, but in the warmth of his ongoing text this little trick comes as a moment of comic relief. Boom, boom.

Lists

There is nothing so glorious as a long, ragbag, rollercoaster of a list.

On the pretext of founding a benevolent society, the lumpenproletariat of Paris had been organized into secret sections, each section being led by Bonapartist agents, with a Bonapartist general at the head of the whole organization. Decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, rubbed shoulders with vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux, brothel keepers, portes, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole of the nebulous, disintegrated mass, scattered hither and thither, which the French call la bohème; from this kindred element Bonaparte formed the core of the December 10 Society…

Having conjured up this vivid Dickensian mob, Marx proceeds in his characteristic tone of High Sarcasm to reveal the ‘real’ motives of such bourgeois shams, and uses a panoply of rhetorical tricks to ram home his contempt for Louis.

… A ‘benevolent society’ – in so far as, like Bonaparte, all its members felt the need to benefit themselves at the expense of the labouring nation. This Bonaparte, who constitutes himself chief of the lumpenproletariat, who here alone rediscovers in mass form the interests which he personally pursues, who recognizes in the scum, offal and refuse of all classes the only class upon which he can base himself unconditionally, is the real Bonaparte, the Bonaparte sans phrase. An old crafty roué, he conceives the historical life of the nations and their performances of state as comedy in the most vulgar sense, as a masquerade where the grand costumes, words and postures merely serve to mask the pettiest knavery.

Note the use of three clauses to build rhetorical power. Note the insult words (scum, refuse). Note the ad hominem attack on Louis-Napoléon (a crafty old roué with a vulgar sense of theatre). Rhetoric and insults are central.

Conjuring ghosts and spectres

The word ‘conjure’ appears five times in the Brumaire, ‘ghost’ eight times, ‘spirit’ 16 times. Circe and her ‘black magic’ are mentioned.

The opening sentence of The Communist Manifesto is bold and memorable – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of communism’ – but reading further into Marx, you realise that the use of imagery connected to ghosts, spirits, conjurors and magicians is not that exceptional. It is a routine fixture of his imagination and his rhetoric.

Even a mere Vaisse [a deputy in the national assembly] could conjure up the red spectre… (p.212)

The social republic appeared as a phrase, as a prophecy, on the threshold of the February Revolution. In the June days of 1848, it was drowned in the blood of the Paris proletariat, but it haunts the subsequent acts of the drama like a ghost… (p.234)

All the ‘Napoleonic ideas’ are ideas of the undeveloped small holding in the freshness of its youth; they are a contradiction to the outlived holdings. They are only the hallucinations of its death struggle, words transformed into phrases, spirits transformed into ghosts. (p.244)

1. The frequency of ghost imagery reminds you that Marx the writer grew to maturity in the 1830s, the heyday of High Romantic writing, of plays and operas about the supernatural, especially in Germany, and so it’s no surprise that there is a certain Gothic quality to his imagination, teeming as it is with ghosts and spectres.

2. It worryingly reminds you that Marx was above all a writer, given to conjuring up words, classes, nations, conflicts with the stroke of a pen, without a second thought. Historical eras, sociological classes, leading politicians, can all be made to appear or disappear in a puff of smoke by Marx, the political prestidigitator.

The constitution, the National Assembly, the dynastic parties, the blue and red republicans, the
heroes of Africa, the thunder from the platform, the sheet lightning of the daily press, all the other publications, the political names and the intellectual reputations, the civil law and the penal code, liberté, egalité, fraternité, and the second Sunday in May, 1852 – all have vanished like a series of optical illusions before the spell of a man whom even his enemies do not claim to be a magician. (p.151)

So we find his compadre, Engels, writing in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions with the optimistic hope that all the reactionary types who had helped to crush the uprisings (specifically, in the Austrian empire) would be swept away.

The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will smash this Slav Sonderbund and wipe out all these petty hidebound nations, down to their very names. The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward. (The Magyar Struggle in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 13 January 1849).

Unfortunately, their descendants in the Marxist-Leninist line of ideology would take them at their word and, instead of merely textual flourishes, would make real people in the real world and – in Stalin and Mao’s cases – entire groups of people (the kulaks, the urban intelligentsia), disappear with the stroke of a pen into freezing gulags or mass graves.

The language of theatre

The language of magic and conjuring is intimately linked with the lexicon of drama, theatre, comedy, masquerades, costumes and stage with which these texts are drenched.

Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the eighteenth century, storm more swiftly from success to
success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds,
ecstasy is the order of the day. (p.152)

The opening pages of the Brumaire are famous for stating an enormous theory of history, which is that current political actors always clothe themselves in the names and values of previous ones. This allows Marx to compare all of the actors, throughout the book, with their predecessors in everywhere from ancient Israel to the Jacobin Revolution via the Rome of the Caesars.

Whether Marx’s theory that history repeats itself with modern political pygmies dressing up in the clothes of Great Men of the Past has any factual validity, as an imaginative and rhetorical trope it creates a vast sense of a) historical knowledgeableness, and of b) intellectual spaciousness – we feel we are privy to a mind which understands all of human history.

If we consider this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference is revealed immediately. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time in Roman costume and with Roman phrases, the task of unchaining and setting up modern bourgeois society.

The first ones smashed the feudal basis to pieces and mowed down the feudal heads which had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parcelled landed property exploited and the unchained industrial productive power of the nation employed; and everywhere beyond the French borders he swept the feudal institutions away, to the extent necessary to provide bourgeois society in France with a suitable up-to-date environment on the European Continent. Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian Colossi disappeared and with them resurrected Romanity – the Brutuses, Gracchi, Publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.

This long quote demonstrates the way Marx thought of politics as intrinsically theatrical, and the way his imagination constantly recurs to Great Men of the (real or legendary) past.

But he is not only pointing out the way that modern political actors often invoke the shades of the Great Protagonists of the past to bolster their authority – there is also a deeper reference in this idea to Marx’s fundamentally Hegelian worldview: the worldview that History is moving through inevitable phases to an inevitable conclusion. The Jacobins ‘performed the task of their time’; Napoleon ‘swept the feudal institutions away’: both prepared the way for the triumph of ‘free competition’. Marx’s view of History is profoundly teleological; the basis of his entire position is that human History is moving along a pre-determined course towards a pre-determined end.

And if History is heading towards an inevitable conclusion, it must follow that we are all to some extent actors on a stage, playing parts in a drama which is already written. This premise maybe explains Marx’s fondness for theatrical metaphors.

The first act of his ministry was the restoration of the old royalist administration. The official scene was at once transformed – scenery, costumes, speech, actors, supers, mutes, prompters, the position of the parties, the theme of the drama, the content of the conflict, the whole situation.

The revolution made progress, forged ahead, not by its immediate tragicomic achievements but, on the contrary, by the creation of a powerful, united counterrevolution…

Marie’s ateliers, devised in direct antagonism to the Luxembourg, offered occasion, thanks to the common label, for a comedy of errors worthy of the Spanish servant farce…

Instead of only a few factions of the bourgeoisie, all classes of French society were suddenly hurled into the orbit of political power, forced to leave the boxes, the stalls, and the gallery and to act in person upon the revolutionary stage!

The people cried: À bas les grands voleurs! À bas les assassins! when in 1847, on the most prominent stages of bourgeois society, the same scenes were publicly enacted that regularly lead the lumpenproletariat to brothels, to workhouses and lunatic asylums, to the bar of justice, to the dungeon, and to the scaffold.

The terrible attempt of April 16 furnished the excuse for recalling the army to Paris – the real purpose of the clumsily staged comedy and for the reactionary federalist demonstrations in the provinces.

In the many places where Marx invokes the theatre, we join him in the audience watching a political drama which has already been written, assimilated and analysed: while the poor political actors take their parts in the farce or tragedy totally seriously, we, the privileged spectators, understand what is really going on behind the sham of bourgeois rhetoric and in the drama of History.

The rhetoric of both these long essays encourage in the reader a sense of superiority to other commentators and analysts, to the politicians and moralists who are taken in by the play. We are not taken in. We know what is really going on. We are the only ones who understand that all human existence, all human history and all political events are based on class conflict, that this dizzying vaudeville of political acts are all combinations on the theme of the ‘bourgeois’ control of power – and that the entire giddy play will one day come tumbling down when we, the clever ones, and the workers, rise up in revolution.

It is in the opening lines of the Brumaire that he expresses most pithily the idea that History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. (p.147)

Taken in isolation this has the crisp appeal of an Oscar Wilde witticism. But I hope I have provided enough context to show that it is just one among many examples of Marx’s highly theatrical way of thinking about history, and of his very dramatic and rhetorical way of writing.

It isn’t, in other words, the one-off insight it is so often painted as being.

On the contrary, this pithy quote is a key which opens up Marx’s entire imaginative worldview of the world as being a stage, a platform on which a pre-scripted drama is unfolding towards its preordained end and we, his readers and the members of his ‘party’ – sitting by his side – are privileged to be in on the secret of the plot, we are the cognoscenti, we have a front row seat at the great drama of History.

Summary

There are plenty more examples, and I could have elaborated a bit more on the connection between rhetorical tropes and his actual ideas – but I wanted to keep this blog post short and sweet.

The point is simply that, whenever you read that Marx founded a form of ‘scientific’ socialism, invented the objective ‘scientific’ analysis of society, of its economic and class basis and so on – you should also remember that he did so in texts notable for their sustained irony, ad hominem abuse, rhetorical play and theatrical melodrama.


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Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how,during the Spanish Civil War, the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party turned on its left-wing allies – specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was a member of – and how Orwell, having fought bravely for the Republic, was forced to flee the country, only just escaping arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

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