The life of Julius Caesar by Suetonius (120 AD)

Suetonius

Not much is known about Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, generally referred to as Suetonius. He was born around 70 AD, probably in a town in modern-day Algeria. He may have taught literature for a while, he seems to have practiced the law. He is recorded as serving on the staff of Pliny the Younger when the latter was governor of Bithynia in north Turkey in 110 to 112 AD. Subsequently he served on the staff of emperors, being in charge of the emperor’s libraries under Trajan and then managing the emperor Hadrian’s correspondence. Pliny describes him as a quiet and studious man devoted to his writing. He wrote The Lives of Illustrious Men, 60 or so biographies of poets, grammarians, orators and historians, almost all of which has been lost (except for short lives of Terence, Virgil and Horace).

The Lives of the Caesars, by contrast, has survived almost in its entirety (it is thought that only some of the opening sections of the first life, Caesar, are missing). As it says on the tin, The Lives of the Caesars includes biographies of the first 12 Roman emperors, being:

  • Julius Caesar
  • Augustus (ruled 31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Gaius (Caligula) (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)
  • Galba (68 to 69)
  • Otho (69)
  • Vitellius (69)
  • Vespasian (69 to 79)
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)

(It may be worth pointing out that Nero’s suicide in 68 led to a period of anarchy in which a succession of generals seized power. Three of them ruled for only a few months each –Galba from June 68 to January 69; Otho from January to April 69; and Vitellius from April to December 69 – before Vespasian seized power and stabilised the situation, ruling from 69 to 79. Which is why 69 came to be called The Year of Four Emperors.)

Suetonius realised that the genre of biography needed to strike out in a different direction from history, not least because of the overpowering example of Publius Cornelius Tacitus, whose Annals and Histories describe the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors. (Taken together, Suetonius and Tacitus are our only major sources for this critical, formative period in the history of the western world.

So Suetonius departed from the strictly chronological approach of the historians, and of his younger contemporary, the biographer Plutarch (46 to 120), and a chose a different method. Suetonius only briefly covers the facts of the lives before moving to more personal, non-political material about his subjects, classified and arranged according to subject matter. Although this sounds dry the result is the opposite; the inclusion of lots of juicy gossip and anecdotes, delivered with a deadpan, non-judgemental expression.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, the renowned classicist Michael Grant (1914 to 2004) points out that Suetonius’s main contribution to the genre was that he moved away from the traditional eulogistic treatment of dead great men to take a more ‘astringent’ and ‘disenchanted’ view (lovely words).

Above all, he avoids the heavy moralising of earlier writers (Sallust with his heavy moralising and Plutarch with his negative opinion of Caesar, both spring to mind). Suetonius assembles evidence for and against his subjects – then leaves it for the reader to decide.

Penguin still publish the translation they commissioned in the 1950s from the famous novelist and poet Robert Graves, a writer who is just as charming and gossipy as Suetonius (see his wonderful memoir Goodbye To All That).

The Life of Caesar

Just as with Plutarch’s life of Julius Caesar, Suetonius’s life appears to be missing the first section, about the great man’s family and boyhood. Why? Did Augustus suppress them as he is said to have suppressed Caesar’s juvenile writings, in order to manipulate and burnish the legend of his adoptive father?

The Life consists of 89 short sections which fill 40 pages of the Penguin translation.

(1) Aged barely 18, Caesar married Cornelia, daughter of the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna, of Gaius Marius’s party. The dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla demanded that Caesar ‘put her away’ i.e. divorce her, but Caesar obstinately refused and had to go into hiding from Sulla’s wrath. Eventually friends of his persuaded Sulla to relent, at which he spoke the much quoted words: “Have your way and take him but bear in mind that the man you are so eager to save will one day deal the death blow to the cause of the aristocracy, which you have joined with me in upholding. There are many Mariuses in this fellow Caesar.”

(2) He went to serve in Asia as aide-de-camp to the provincial governor Marcus Thermus. When sent to  raise a fleet in Bithynia he spent so much time with king Nicomedes that a rumour spread he was having a homosexual relationship with him. [A reputation for philandering was to follow Caesar cf his affair with Cleopatra.]

(3) He was serving another commander in Cilicia (southern Turkey) when the death of Sulla in 78 BC opened up the political scene and he hurried back to Rome, He was offered a place in the revolt of Marcus Lepidus but doubted the latter’s chances and turned it down.

(4) He brought a law suit against Cornelius Dolabella but it failed and to escape the resulting ill feeling he headed off to Rhodes to study under the noted orator Apollonius Molo. But en route he was captured by pirates and held to ransom. When his family and friends coughed up the required amount (50 talents = 12,000 gold pieces) Caesar promptly hired some ships and soldier, tracked down the pirates and had them all crucified. Then continued on to Rhodes to study.

(5) On Caesar’s return to Rome he helped the Assembly undo aspects of Sulla’s constitutional reforms, for example restoring the veto of the tribunes of the plebs.

(6) During his quaestorship in 69 BC he delivered eulogies to his aunt Julia [the one who had married the general and ruler of Rome Gaius Marius] and wife Cornelia, in which he lost no opportunity to remind everyone that his extended family or clan, the Julii, claimed descent from Aeneas and through him to the goddess Venus.

He next married Pompeia but divorced her after the strange (and irritatingly ubiquitous) story about Publius Clodius Pulcher disguising himself as a woman to enter Caesar’s house during the women-only rites for the goddess Bona.

(7) As quaestor he was sent to help govern Spain, In Gades he was seen to sigh on seeing the statue of Alexander the Great, vexed that, at the same age as Alexander when he died, he had done nothing of note. [In Plutarch the same story is told except Caesar bursts into tears.] He had a dream of raping his mother which the soothsayers interpreted as meaning he was destined to conquer the Earth, ‘our Universal Mother’.

(8) He laid down his quaestorship and visited the citizens living beyond the river Po who complained that they weren’t granted full Roman citizenship and might have raised them in revolt had not the authorities brought in fresh legions. In other words, he was an impatient ambitious young man looking for a cause.

(9) He was elected aedile in 65 BC. Suetonius then reports that Caesar conspired with Rome’s richest man, Marcus Licinius Crassus, to overthrow the government, to storm the Senate, massacre as many senators as possible, have Crassus installed as dictator with Caesar his Master of Horse or deputy, and a couple of other conspirators as consuls. Apparently Crassus got cold feet and the plan fell through. Suetonius mentions another conspiracy, with Piso, to raise rebellion in Rome, the Po valley and Spain simultaneously. Suetonius knows these are scandalous accusations and so names three other historians as his authorities. None of this is mentioned in Plutarch.

(10) As aedile Caesar put on spectacular shows. In fact he assembled so many gladiators for public fights that his opponents thought he was going to use them for political violence and rushed through a law limiting the number of gladiators that anyone might keep in Rome.

(11) Ambition. Caesar tried to get control of Egypt by popular vote following the outcry after Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, officially a friend and ally of Rome, was overthrown – but the aristocratic party foiled his attempt. [All this is context for his involvement in Egypt and Cleopatra 20 years later.] In revenge he restored statues of the anti-aristocratic Marius throughout central Rome. He also prosecuted bounty hunters who had brought in the heads of those proscribed under Sulla.

(12) He presided over the trial of Gaius Rabirius.

(13) He won the position of pontifex maximus, getting deeply into debt in order to bribe the people. Suetonius repeats the oft-told story that, on the morning of his election, as he set off to the polls, he told his mother he would return as pontifex or not at all [generally taken to mean he would be in so much debt that if he didn’t win the post, he’d be forced to flee the city.]

(14) The Catiline conspiracy Caesar spoke against the death penalty for the conspirators and swayed most of the Senate till Marcus Porcius Cato (also known as Cato the Younger) stood up and spoke sternly in favour of the death penalty. [A full transcript of these dramatic speeches, albeit probably made up, is given in Sallust’s Cataline’s War.]

Suetonius goes beyond previous accounts in adding the dramatic detail that when Caesar persisted in his call for clemency, a troop of Roman knights threatened him and even drew their swords and made  threatening passes with them so that his friends had to rally round and shield him. Only then did he yield the point, withdraw, and for the rest of the year didn’t revisit the Senate House.

This sounds like an artistic touch, like a deliberate prefigurement of his assassination 20 years later.

(15) On the first day of his praetor­ship he called upon Quintus Catulus to render an account owing to the people touching the restoration of the Capitol, but abandoned it when the aristocratic party of senators, who had been accompanying the newly elected consuls to the Capitol, returned to the Senate building.

(16) He supported Caecilius Metellus, tribune of the commons, in bringing some bills of a highly seditious nature in spite of the veto of his colleagues. Even when the Senate ordered him to cease and desist, he persisted until they threatened him with violence at which point he dismissed his lictors, laid aside his robe of office, and slipped off to his house.

All these stories bespeak the rebellious obstinacy of the man and the turbulence which surrounded him.

(17) He then got into trouble by being named among the accomplices of Catiline by an informer called Lucius Vettius and in the senate by Quintus Curius. Caesar strongly refuted the claims, not least by pointing out how he had alerted Cicero, consul and lead magistrate in Rome, of the conspiracy and so was decisive in getting is quelled. He secured the conviction and imprisonment of both informers.

(18) After securing the governorship of Further Spain he left hastily before formally confirmed in post in order to avoid his, by now, numerous and clamouring creditors. He restored order in the province but returned hastily to Rome to claim a triumph. He also wanted to be consul for the following year and couldn’t do both. After agonising, he entered the city, thus losing the triumph, in order to contest the consulship.

(19) Caesar was elected consul but not with the partner he wanted, as the aristocracy lobbied hard and bribed heavily to ensure that one of their party, Marcus Bibulus, was elected as his partner consul. The optimates then offered him the most trivial and demeaning governorship possible, of ‘woods and pastures’, which in practice meant guarding the mountain-pastures and keeping the woods free from brigands.

Frustrated, Caesar worked behind the scenes to reconcile the most successful general in the land, Pompey, and the richest man, Crassus, to come to a behind the scenes arrangement to share power and secure each other’s aims. This came to be called the First Triumvirate.

(20) As consul Caesar immediately passed a law that the proceedings both of the senate and of the people should day by day be compiled and published. He also revived a by-gone custom, that during the months when he did not have the fasces an orderly should walk before him, while the lictors followed him. He brought forward an agrarian law too and when his partner consul opposed it, drove him from the Senate by force, terrorising him into remaining in his house for the rest of his term.

Caesar had in effect made himself sole ruler. A joke went round that official documents, instead of being signed by the two consuls i.e. “Done in the consul­ship of Bibulus and Caesar” were marked “Done in the consul­ship of Julius and Caesar”. Many a true word spoken in jest. Suetonius gives examples of Caesar’s peremptory behaviour:

  • he divided public land among twenty thousand citizens who had three or more children each
  • when the tax collectors asked for relief, he freed them from a third part of their obligation but warned them from bidding too recklessly for contracts in the future
  • he freely granted to anyone whatever they took it into their heads to ask
  • Cato, who tried to delay proceedings, was dragged from the House by a lictor at Caesar’s command and taken off to prison
  • when Lucius Lucullus was too outspoken in his opposition, he filled him with such fear of malicious prosecution that Lucullus actually fell on his knees before him
  • because Cicero, while pleading in a court case, deplored the times, Caesar transferred the orator’s enemy Publius Clodius that same day from the patricians to the plebeians, something Clodius had vainly been striving for for ages
  • he bribed an informer to declare that he had been encouraged by certain men to murder Pompey, and to name them in public; however, the informer bungled the task and to cover this attempt to incriminate the entire body of his political enemies, Caesar had the would be informant poisoned

(21) As previously discussed, marriage in ancient Rome was an important way of creating political alliances. Caesar now married Calpurnia, daughter of Lucius Piso, who was to succeed him in the consul­ship, and married his own daughter, Julia, to Gnaeus Pompeius, to cement their partnership.

(22) With these influential backers in place Caesar now lobbied to be awarded the governorship of Gaul, not the ‘woods and pastures’, figuring, like so many Roman governors, that it would a an excellent location in which a) to gain military glory b) fleece the natives and grow rich.

At first by the bill of Vatinius he received only Cisalpine Gaul with the addition of Illyricum but then the Senate, fearful that the people would lobby violently, decided to add Gallia Comata as well. Suetonius passes on a juicy anecdote that, later, among friends, he celebrated his success over his enemies and said he would use it to mount on their heads with a pun meaning a) clambering over their heads b) mounting their penises.

When someone insultingly remarked that that would be no easy matter for any woman, he replied in the same vein that Semiramis too had been queen in Syria and the Amazons in days of old had held sway over a great part of Asia.

(23) As soon as his consulship ended some praetors tried to bring legal proceedings against him for misconduct but Caesar managed to bribe his way out of this and thenceforward took pains to be on good terms with all succeeding magistrates, getting them to vow and even sign pledges not to prosecute him.

[This is how Roman politics worked. Academics explain the process of voting for candidates but not enough attention is paid to what appears to be the almost inevitable consequence of office which is someone will try and prosecute you. While canvassing for office candidates had to spend a fortune bribing the voters and, after leaving office, had to spend a fortune bribing succeeding officials not to prosecute them. Forget morality – it was just a crazily unstable system.]

(24) Suetonius has the motivation behind Caesar calling a meeting of the Triumvirate in Luca, in 56, being that Lucius Domitius, candidate for the consul­ship, was threatening to remove him from the generalship of the armies in Gaul. He called Pompey, Crassus and a third of the Senate to head this off and, in exchange for favours to his partners, had his command in Gaul extended by 5 years.

(25) Suetonius summarises Caesar’s 9 years in Gaul:

  • he reduced the entire area to a province and imposed an annual tribute of 40 million sestercii
  • he was the first to build a bridge over the Rhine and attack the Germans on their home turf
  • he invaded Britain, exacting money and hostages

In all this time he suffered only three setbacks:

  • in Britain, where his fleet narrowly escaped destruction in a violent storm
  • in Gaul, when one of his legions was routed at Gergovia
  • on the borders of Germany, when his lieutenants Titurius and Aurunculeius were ambushed and slain

[In fact, by Caesar’s own account, he suffered more close shaves than that.]

(25) After the murder of Clodius the Senate voted for just one consul to hold office and gave it to Pompey. This seems a little garbled. I thought Pompey was awarded sole consulship in light of the ongoing riots between the rival gangs of Clodius and Titus Annius Milo.

Caesar now began lobbying to be awarded the consulship at the moment he relinquished his command in Gaul in 50 BC. He began to campaign lavishly, he:

  • began to build a new forum with his spoils from Gaul
  • announced a massive feast in memory of his daughter
  • he announced massive gladiatorial games and paid for gladiators to be trained
  • he doubled the pay of the legions for all time
  • whenever grain was plenti­ful he distributed it to the people

Populism. When he had put all Pompey’s friends under obligation, as well as the greater part of the Senate, through loans made without interest or at a low rate, he lavished gifts on men of all other classes.

(28) How he curried favour with foreign princes, sending troops or money or hostages as appropriate. He paid for public works for the principle cities throughout the empire. [Plutarch doesn’t make mention of this global campaign. Is it a later inflation of the legend?]

Nonetheless, events moved towards their crisis. The consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus proposed that, since peace was finally established in Gaul, Caesar be relieved of his command but forbidden from standing as consul in that year’s elections. The precise opposite of what Caesar wanted.

(29) The following year Gaius Marcellus, who had succeeded his cousin Marcus as consul, tried the same thing but Caesar by a heavy bribe secured the support of the other consul, Aemilius Paulus, and of Gaius Curio, the most reckless of the tribunes. He proposed a compromise, that he give up eight legions and Transalpine Gaul but be allowed to keep two legions and Cisalpine Gaul until he was elected consul.

(30) At the crisis intensified, Caesar crossed the Alps to Cisalpine Gaul and halted at Ravenna. When the Senate passed a decree that Caesar should disband his army before a given date and the tribunes Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius exercised their privilege and vetoed it, not only did the Senate ignore the veto but hounded the tribunes out of town with the threat of violence.

Why did he cross the Rubicon? Pompey later said it was he couldn’t afford to complete all the great works he’d promised and so wanted a state of disruption. Others said he knew he would be prosecuted for breaking umpteen laws during his first consulship. Cato hugely exacerbated the problem by taking an oath swearing he would impeach Caesar the minute he lay down his command. The simplest reason is he knew he would be tried, found guilty of something and permanently exiled.

(31) The story of how he decided to cross the Rubicon and sent his troops ahead but himself spent all day very publicly around Ravenna and in the evening attended a party, to allay suspicions. Only at the end of the evening did he harness a carriage and race to meet his troops.

(32) As he and his troops hesitated a being of wondrous stature and beauty appeared, snatched a trumpet from one of the soldiers, strode across the river and sounded the war-note with mighty blast from the other side. If only all corporate decisions were made that way.

(33) He harangued the soldiers with tears and tore his tunic and waved his hand around. This latter gave rise to a misunderstanding for he wore his senator’s ring on his left hand and the soldiers who couldn’t hear him thought he was offering them each a fortune to fight for him.

(34) He overran Umbria, Picenum, and Etruria, took prisoner Lucius Domitius, who was holding the town of Corfinium, let him go free, then proceeded along the Adriatic to Brundisium, where Pompey and the consuls had taken refuge. He tried but failed to prevent them sailing in a fleet across to modern day Albania but had no ships of his own to follow, so marched on Rome, taking it. Here he dealt peacefully with his remaining enemies, before setting off for Spain in order to defeat Pompey’s strongest forces, under command of three of his lieutenants – Marcus Petreius, Lucius Afranius, and Marcus Varro – which he did with surprising speed.

(35) Suetonius makes very light indeed of what happened next, describing Caesar’s assembly of a fleet, transport of his army across the Adriatic, the four month siege of Dyrrhachium, then following Pompey’s army into Thrace where he soundly defeated him at the battle of Pharsalum in one sentence. He followed the fleeing Pompey to Egypt where he arrived to discover he had been murdered by Egyptian officers who thought it would please him, and then became embroiled in an inconvenient war, bottled-up in the city of Alexandria. He was eventually triumphant over the army of the pharaoh who fled and was never heard of again, so that Caesar was able to leave Egypt in control of Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra.

Then he sums up the separate campaigns in Asia, Africa and Spain thus:

From Alexandria he crossed to Syria, and from there went to Pontus, spurred on by the news that Pharnaces, son of Mithridates the Great, had taken advantage of the situation to make war, and was already flushed with numerous successes; but Caesar vanquished him in a single battle within five days after his arrival and four hours after getting sight of him, often remarking on Pompey’s good luck in gaining his principal fame as a general by victories over such feeble foemen. Then he overcame Scipio and Juba, who were patching up the remnants of their party in Africa, and the sons of Pompey in Spain.

[Suetonius is a man in a hurry. All this is covered in vastly more detail in Caesar’s own account of the War in Alexandria, and whoever wrote the accounts of the campaigns in north Africa and Spain.]

(36) In all the civil wars Caesar suffered not a single disaster except through his lieutenant.

(37) Having ended the wars, he celebrated five triumphs, the first and most splendid was the Gallic triumph, the next the Alexandrian, then the Pontic, after that the African, and finally the Spanish, each differing from the rest in its equipment and display of spoils. He mounted the Capitol by torchlight with forty elephants bearing lamps on his right and his left. In his Pontic triumph he displayed among the show-pieces an inscription with just three words, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” not even bothering to describe the events of the war or the key battle (the battle of Zela, August 47 BC) but emphasising what he himself considered his outstanding quality which was amazing speed, of approach and attack.

(38) As examples of the astonishing liberality of these top leaders, Suetonius states that:

To each and every foot-soldier of his veteran legions he gave 24,000 sesterces by way of booty, over and above the 2,000 apiece which he had paid them at the beginning of the civil strife. He also assigned them lands but was careful not to dispossess any of the former owners. To every man of the people he gave 10 pecks of grain and the same number of pounds of oil plus the 300 sesterces he had promised at first, and 100 apiece because of the delay. He remitted a year’s rent in Rome to tenants who paid 2,000 sesterces or less and in Italy up to 500 sesterces. He added a banquet and a dole of meat, and after his Spanish victory two dinners for everyone.

[The reader is awed by the wealth of these super-rich people, but also at the kind of society in which this was a recognised convention or way of proceeding.]

(39) Having covered the war against Pompey and his heirs with laughable superficiality, Suetonius devotes twice as much space to describing the lavish games Caesar paid for. It is worth quoting at length because its impact derives from its scale.

1. He gave entertainments of diverse kinds: a combat of gladiators and also stage-plays in every ward all over the city, performed too by actors of all languages, as well as races in the circus, athletic contests, and a sham sea-fight. In the gladiatorial contest in the Forum Furius Leptinus, a man of praetorian stock, and Quintus Calpenus, a former senator and pleader at the bar, fought to a finish. A Pyrrhic dance was performed by the sons of the princes of Asia and Bithynia. 2. During the plays Decimus Laberius, a Roman knight, acted a farce of his own composition, and having been presented with five hundred thousand sesterces and a gold ring,​ passed from the stage through the orchestra and took his place in the fourteen rows.​ For the races the circus was lengthened at either end and a broad canal​ was dug all about it; then young men of the highest rank drove four-horse and two-horse chariots and rode pairs of horses, vaulting from one to the other. The game called Troy was performed by two troops, of younger and of older boys. 3. Combats with wild beasts were presented on five successive days, and last of all there was a battle between two opposing armies, in which five hundred foot-soldiers, twenty elephants, and thirty horsemen engaged on each side. To make room for this, the goals were taken down and in their place two camps were pitched over against each other. The athletic competitions lasted for three days in a temporary stadium built for the purpose in the region of the Campus Martius. 4. For the naval battle a pool was dug in the lesser Codeta and there was a contest of ships of two, three, and four banks of oars, belonging to the Tyrian and Egyptian fleets, manned by a large force of fighting men. Such a throng flocked to all these shows from every quarter, that many strangers had to lodge in tents pitched in streets or along the roads, and the press was often such that many were crushed to death, including two senators.

(40) Caesar reformed the calendar, adding a few days to make it last the 365 days of the solar year, with an extra day added every fourth year, such as we still do, 2,000 years later.

(41) He filled the vacancies in the senate, enrolled additional patricians, and increased the number of praetors, aediles, and quaestors, as well as of the minor officials. Half the officials were elected in the old way, half were directly appointed by him.

(42) Details of more of his reforms, including how long citizens were allowed to live overseas, who was allowed to travel. He made a partial attempt to sort out the problem of indebtedness which seems to have been one of Rome’s most enduring social problem. He dissolved all guilds, except those of ancient foundation. He increased the penalties for crimes.

(43) 1. He administered justice with the utmost conscientiousness and strictness. Those convicted of extortion he dismissed from the senatorial order. He imposed duties on foreign wares. He denied the use of litters and the wearing of scarlet robes or pearls to all except those of a designated position and age, and on set days. 2. He enforced the laws against extravagance, setting watchmen in the market to seize and bring to him dainties which were exposed for sale in violation of the law. Sometimes he sent his lictors and soldiers to take from a dining-room any articles which had escaped the vigilance of his watchmen, even if they had already been served to the guests.

(44) Caesar’s grand public schemes involved:

  • to build a temple of Mars bigger than any in existence
  • to build a theatre of vast size, sloping down from the Tarpeian rock
  • to reduce the civil code to fixed limits and the vast, prolix mass of statutes down to only the best and most essential
  • to open to the public the greatest possible libraries of Greek and Latin books
  • to drain the Pontine marshes
  • to build a highway from the Adriatic across the summit of the Apennines as far as the Tiber

Militarily, he planned to check the Dacians, who had poured into Pontus and Thrace then to make war on the Parthians by way of Lesser Armenia.

[Remember I mentioned that Suetonius departed from the basic chronological methodology of his predecessors by adding descriptions of his subjects’ characters by category? Well, sections 45 to about 77 of the Life of Caesar do just that, pausing the (often very superficial) account of Caesar’s life story to look at a range of his qualities or characteristics.]

Before I speak of Caesar’s death, it will not be amiss to describe briefly his personal appearance, his dress, his mode of life, and his character, as well as his conduct in civil and military life.

(45) “He is said to have been tall of stature with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen black eyes. Sound of health, except that towards the end he was subject to sudden fainting fits and to nightmare as well. He was twice attacked by the falling sickness​ during his campaigns. 2. He was overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out.”

[Hence his reputation, as a young man, of being a dandy.]

“His baldness was a disfigurement which troubled him greatly since he found that it was often the subject of the gibes of his detractors. Because of this he used to comb fhis thin hair forward from the crown of his head. Of all the honours voted him by the senate and people he welcomed none more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times since it covered his baldness.”

(46) He is said to have built a country house on his estate at Nemi at great cost but then torn it down because it did not suit him in every particular even though he was, at the time, poor and in debt. It was said that he carried tesselated and mosaic floors about with him on his campaigns [!].

(47) “He was an enthusiastic collector of gems, carvings, statues, and pictures by early artists. Also of slaves of exceptional figure and training at enormous prices, of which he himself was so ashamed that he forbade their entry in his accounts.”

(48) “He was so punctilious in the management of his household that he put his baker in irons for serving him with one kind of bread and his guests with another. He inflicted capital punishment on a favourite freedman for adultery with the wife of a Roman knight, although no complaint was made against him.”

(49) His early ‘friendship with King Nicomedes dogged the rest of his career, giving rise to no end of homophobic quips and insults.

(50) His affairs with women were described as numerous and extravagant. He seduced the wives of many senators and even Pompey’s wife Mucia. “But beyond all others Caesar loved Servilia, the mother of Marcus Brutus, for whom in his first consul­ship he bought a pearl costing six million sesterces.” Some people said that Servilia prostituted her own daughter Tertia to Caesar.

(51) That he behaved the same in Gaul is suggested by one of the many bawdy songs his soldiers sang about him in the Gallic triumph: “Men of Rome, keep close to your consorts, here’s a bald adulterer.”

(52) He had affairs with foreign queens, the most notable of course being Cleopatra. It is said that he would have followed her in a barge up the Nile to Ethiopia but his soldiers rebelled. He lavished her with presents and titles and she bore his son, Caesarion.

The extraordinary suggestion that Helvius Cinna, tribune of the commons, admitted to friends that he had a bill drawn which Caesar had ordered him to propose to the people in his absence, making it lawful for Caesar to marry what wives he wished, and as many as he wished, “for the purpose of begetting children.” [He sounds like an African dictator.]

That he had a bad reputation both for shameless vice and for adultery is suggested by the fact that the elder Curio in one of his speeches called him “every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” [Bisexual and shamelessly promiscuous.]

(53) He drank little, was never drunk, and cared little about food.

(54) In Gaul and Spain he shamelessly sacked towns which had surrendered in order to loot them. At first this was to pay off his monster debts but eventually he accumulated so much god “he didn’t know what to do with it”. In his first consul­ship he stole 3,000 pounds of gold from the Capitol, replacing it with the same weight of gilded bronze. He made alliances and thrones a matter of barter, for he extorted from Ptolemy alone nearly 6,000 talents. Later on he met the heavy expenses of the civil wars, his triumphs and entertainments by the most bare-faced pillage and sacrilegious looting of temples.

(55) Caesar equalled or surpassed both the greatest generals and the greatest orators in history. His prosecution of Dolabella placed him in the first rank of advocates and Cicero asked in his Brutus whether his readers knew of a better speaker than Caesar, of anyone who spoke so wittily with such a wide yet precise vocabulary.

(56) Caesar left memoirs of the Gallic war and the civil war with Pompey. The author of their continuations into a history of the Alexandrian, African, and Spanish Wars is unknown; some think it was Oppius, others Hirtius, who also supplied the final book of the Gallic War.

Cicero thought the accounts were “naked in their simplicity, straightforward yet graceful, stripped of all rhetorical adornment, as of a garment” and obviously written to supply material to others.

The orator, poet, playwright, literary critic, and historian Gaius Asinius Pollio thought they had been left incomplete and that Caesar intended to revise and polish them. Also that they were flawed because Caesar was biased in the description of his own accounts and too readily believed his subordinates’ accounts of their doings.

(57) He was highly skilled in arms and horseman­ship, and of incredible powers of endurance. He moved at incredible speed, sometimes covering 100 miles in a day, sometimes arriving at his destination before the messengers sent to warn of his coming.

(58) He was careful and cautious, about crossing to Britain, about crossing the Rhine, about crossing from Brundisium to Dyrrachium.

(59) No regard for religion ever turned him from any undertaking, or even delayed him.

(60) He joined battle, not only after planning his movements in advance but on a sudden opportunity, often immediately at the end of a march, and sometimes in the foulest weather, when one would least expect him to make a move.

(61) He rode a remarkable horse with feet that were almost human for its hoofs were cloven in such a way as to look like toes. This horse was foaled on his own place and the soothsayers foretold that its master would one day rule the world.

(62) When his army gave way, he often rallied it single-handed, planting himself in the way of the fleeing men and grabbing them one by one and turning them to face the enemy.

(63) He was famous for his presence of mind in a crisis.

(64) “At Alexandria, while assaulting a bridge, he was forced by a sudden sally of the enemy to take to a small skiff. When many others threw themselves into the same boat, he plunged into the sea, and after swimming for 200 paces, got away to the nearest ship, holding up his left hand all the way, so as not to wet some papers which he was carrying, and dragging his cloak after him with his teeth, to keep the enemy from getting it as a trophy.” [This seems to derive the War in Alexandria.]

(65) He valued his soldiers neither for their personal character nor for their fortune, but solely for their prowess, and he treated them with equal strictness and indulgence.

(66) When they were in a panic through reports about the enemy’s numbers, he used to rouse their courage not by denying or discounting the rumours, but by falsely exaggerating the true danger.

(67) He did not take notice of all his soldiers’ offences or punish them by rule, but he kept a sharp look out for deserters and mutineers. This he chastised them most severely, shutting his eyes to other faults.

(68) His men were fantastically loyal to him and looked after each other. When captured they refused to go over to the other side. They fought fanatically.

(69) They did not mutiny once during the ten years of the Gallic war. In the civil wars they did so now and then, but quickly resumed their duty. Caesar discharged the entire ninth legion in disgrace before Placentia, though Pompey was still in the field, reinstating them unwillingly and only after many abject entreaties, while insisting on punishing the ringleaders.

(70) How he handled the Tenth Legion which clamoured to be released from duty and which he humiliated by calling them ‘citizens’, making them beg to be reinstated as citizens again.

(71) His rescue of Masintha, a youth of high birth, against king Hiempsa.

(72) His friends he treated with invariable kindness and consideration.

(73) He readily forgave his enemies including Gaius Memmius, Gaius Calvus and the poet Valerius Catullus.

(74) Even in revenge he was merciful. Suetonius claims that when Caesar tracked down the pirates who had held him captive and had them crucified, he ordered their throats cut first so they didn’t really suffer.

(75) He repeatedly spared the lives of enemies, promoted some to high offices, in battle refused to kill his prisoners when the opposition killed theirs, and so on.

(76) On the other hand, he was intolerably puffed up with pride and accept excessive honours, such as:

  • an uninterrupted consul­ship
  • the dictator­ship for life
  • the censor­ship of public morals
  • the forename Imperator
  • the surname of Father of his Country
  • a statue among those of the kings
  • and a raised couch in the orchestra

He allowed honours to be bestowed on him which were too great for mortal man:

  • a golden throne in the House and on the judgment seat
  • a chariot and litter carrying his image in the procession at the circus
  • temples, altars, and statues beside those of the gods
  • an additional college of the Luperci
  • and the calling of one of the months by his name

He ruled by personal whim appointing officials with total disregard for law and precedent.

(77) A selection of some of his ‘arrogant’ sayings such as that the ‘state’ was a name without a body and that Sulla made a mistake when he lay down his dictatorship.

(78) The event which caused most ill feeling was when the Senate approached him in a body with many highly honorary decrees and Caesar received them before the temple of Venus Genetrix without rising. Some think he was held back by Cornelius Balbus, others that he felt one of his epileptic fits coming on and didn’t dare rise, but the story is widely attested as a prime example of him arrogantly thinking himself above the state.

(79) Kingship The events and rumours which led people to think he seriously aimed at becoming king, the one thing anathema to all Romans:

  • at the Latin Festival someone placed on his statue a laurel wreath with a white fillet tied to it symbolising kingship. When two tribunes ordered that the ribbon be removed from the wreath and the man taken off to prison, Caesar rebuked and deposed them. He claimed this was because he had been robbed of the glory of refusing it but from that time on he could not rid himself of the odium of having aspired to the title of monarch
  • the famous quip, when asked if he wanted to be king, that “I am Caesar and no king”
  • at the feast of the Lupercalia, when Mark Antony several times attempted to place a crown on his head as he spoke from the rostra, he put it aside and at last sent it to the Capitol, to be offered to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
  • reports that he planned to move to Alexandria, taking with him the resources of the state and leaving Rome in the charge of deputies
  • the rumour that at the next meeting of the Senate Lucius Cotta would announce as the decision of the college of fifteen priests that, since it was written in the Sybilline Books that the Parthians could only be conquered only by a king, Caesar should be given that title

(80) Examples of the resentment of the people at Caesar’s adoption of absolute power [Suetonius doesn’t give us details of when he made himself dictator and the powers it gave him]. Thus:

  • when Caesar admitted foreigners into the Senate, a placard was posted telling no-one to point out the way to the Senate House “to a newly made senator”
  • rude verses were made up and sung accusing Caesar of promoting Gauls
  • Caesar appointed Quintus Maximus as consul in his place for three months, but when Quintus was entering the theatre, and his lictor called attention to his arrival in the usual manner, a general shout was raised: “He’s no consul!”
  • someone wrote on the base of Lucius Brutus’ statue, the man who drove the last kings from Rome: “Oh, that you were still alive”

Thus there was widespread popular feeling against Caesar and this encouraged different groups of conspirators to coalesce into one big conspiracy, which eventually totally 60 men. Various times and places were discussed until a meeting of the Senate was called for the Ideas (15) of March and the plan coalesced.

(81) Just as much as Plutarch, Suetonius takes bad omens seriously enough to record them in detail:

  • at Capua settlers in the new colony found in some old tombs a bronze tablet saying that when these bones were moved, a son of Ilium shall be slain at the hands of his kindred and avenged at heavy cost to Italy [son of Ilium because a) that was the Greek name for Troy b) Caesar’s family, the Julii, claimed descent from Aeneas, a prince of Troy]
  • the herds of horses which he had dedicated to the river Rubicon when he crossed it, and had let loose without a keeper, stubbornly refused to graze and wept copiously
  • when Caesar was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the Ides of March
  • on the day before the Ides of March a little bird called the king-bird flew into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel, pursued by others of various kinds from the grove hard by, which tore it to pieces in the hall
  • the night before his murder he dreamt now that he was flying above the clouds, now that he was clasping the hand of Jupiter
  • his wife Calpurnia dreamed that the pediment​ of their house fell, and that her husband was stabbed in her arms

Which is why he hesitated to go to the Senate House that morning but Decimus Brutus, who was in on the conspiracy, kept urging him not to let the Senate down, so eventually he left his house and set off. Several people handed him notes warning him of the conspiracy but he merely held onto them without reading.

Finally, it is said that he laughed at Spurinna and calling him a false prophet, because the Ides of March had come and he wasn’t harmed – but Spurinna replied that they had indeed come, but they had not gone.

(82) Description of the precise order of who stabbed him where. Compare and contrast with Plutarch. What always amazes me is that in a such a heavily militarised society where almost every adult male had served in the army, it took 23 stab wounds to kill him. Everyone fled the scene leaving the body and it was left to three slaves to place it on a litter and carry it home to his wife.

The conspirators had intended to drag his body to the Tiber, confiscate his property and revoke his decrees but they forebore through fear of Marcus Antonius the consul, and Lepidus, the master of horse. [Unlike Plutarch’s version where they ran out of the Senate House crying “Liberty! Freedom!”]

(83) Suetonius has Caesar’s will being opened and read at Mark Antony’s house: he allotted three quarters of his fortune to his sisters’ grandson, Gaius Octavius, and Lucius Pinarius and Quintus Pedius to share the remainder. At the end of the will he adopted Gaius Octavius into his family and gave him his name. To the people he left his gardens near the Tiber for their common use and three hundred sesterces to each man.

(84) Suetonius gives a very different account of Caesar’s funeral which omits Antony’s inflammatory reading of the will and displaying the bloody toga to the mob, which infuriated them. Suetonius gives s detailed description of the gilded shrine which was made after the model of the temple of Venus Genetrix, within which was a couch of ivory with coverlets of purple and gold, and at its head a pillar hung with the robe in which he was slain. And that Antony had the decree of the Senate read out by which Caesar was deified, to which he added very few words of his own [unlike Plutarch, where it is Antony’s sustained impassioned speech which rouses the crowd to vengeance.

While his friends debated where the pyre should be lit, in another supernatural moment;

on a sudden two beings​ with swords by their sides and brandishing a pair of darts set fire to it with blazing torches, and at once the throng of bystanders heaped upon it dry branches, the judgment seats with the benches, and whatever else could serve as an offering.

Angels, apparently.

(85) Inflamed with anger the mob ran to set fire to the houses of the conspirators Brutus and Cassius, but were repelled. They came across the harmless poet Helvius Cinna in the street and, mistaking him for the conspirator Cornelius Cinna, tore him to pieces and paraded his head on a spear. [Suetonius doesn’t mention it but it was this incident which persuaded the conspirators to flee Rome, thus handing the city over to their enemy, Mark Antony.]

The people set up in the Forum a solid column of Numidian marble almost twenty feet high and inscribed upon it, “To the Father of his Country.” At the foot of this for years afterwards they made sacrifice, made vows, and settled disputes by an oath in the name of Caesar.

(86) Some of his friends thought Caesar no longer wanted to live due to failing health. This would explain why, despite the mounting rumours and ominous portents, he dismissed the armed bodyguard of Spanish soldiers that formerly attended him and went to the Senate unprotected.

It is reported that he said that it wasn’t for his own sake that he should remain alive – he had long since had his fill of power and glory – it was because if he were killed, the commonwealth would have no peace but be plunged into strife under much worse conditions. Which is precisely what happened.

(87) Everyone agrees Caesar himself had a horror of a long lingering death and wanted one which was sudden and unexpected.

(88) Caesar was 56 when he died and was swiftly deified, not only by a formal decree, but also in the hearts of the common people. At the first of the games which his heir Augustus gave in honour of his apotheosis, a comet shone for seven days in a row.

It was voted that the hall in which he was murdered be walled up, that the Ides of March be called the Day of Parricide, and that a meeting of the Senate should never be called on that day.

(89) Hardly any of his assassins survived him for more than three years or died a natural death. They all perished in various ways — some by shipwreck, some in battle; some took their own lives with the self-same dagger with which they had stabbed Caesar.

Comparisons

In comparison with Plutarch, Suetonius really skimps on the details of both the political intrigue and the military campaigns. Instead you get the character profiling about his horse and haircut and so on in chapters 45 to 77. For the intense debate in the Senate about the Catiline conspirators, read Sallust. For Caesar’s achievements in Gaul read his own account, ditto the civil war with Pompey. Cicero’s letters give a vivid feel of what it felt like living under Caesar’s dictatorship i.e. stifled and numb.

Like Plutarch, like plenty of commentators at the time and ever since, Suetonius seems conflicted in his opinion about Caesar, supplying plenty of evidence that he was an extravagant and arbitrary dictator, but also lamenting the impiety of his murder.


Related link

Roman reviews

The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics People 1933-75 by Stephen Spender (1978)

Artists always have been and always will be individualists (p.52)

In this book Spender brought together key reviews, essays and other documents from each decade of his writing career. There’s a section of writings from the 1930s, but also from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

As you know, I don’t have much time for Spender’s poetry, but he has sensible, honest liberal views on a wide range of subjects, and is a fantastic gossip. His very sensibleness seems to have made him a good editor (by all accounts), of Horizon magazine which he co-founded in 1939, and literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967.

As an affable, clubbable fellow, he sat as a judge for various prizes and could be counted to take part in innumerable ‘writers congresses’, with the result that he seems to have met and chatted with just about every important writer from the middle of the twentieth century. The index of this handy little paperback is a who’s who of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights from the 1920s to the 70s.

These are notes on his essays and reviews from, and comments about, the 1930s.

The Thirties

Background

Spender thinks the left-wing feel of literature in the 1930s has deep roots, going back at least to the Fabians (who included H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw). He points out that the famous war poets Sassoon, Graves and Owen were all, by the war’s end, ‘socialists’ too, based on:

  • hatred of the older generation who had sent out the young to be slaughtered
  • sympathy for the working class men they supervised
  • admiration for revolutionary movements in Europe, political cultural and sexual
  • resentment of the way the British establishment tried to strangle the Bolshevik revolution
  • dislike of the British Empire

That said, all arts undergraduates of the late 1920s revered T.S. Eliot whose masterpiece The Waste Land prophesied the end of all civilisation, an apocalyptic vision which made conventional politics irrelevant.

But although the Modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis) held extreme right-wing views, their young fans still revered them because they were revolutionary in form & content. Also, although right-wing in tendency, the Modernists were heartily loathed by the dead, dull, philistine Conservatives who ran the artistic and literary establishment and thought them dangerous radicals and Bohemians (foreigners, too). The English conservative establishment was, Spender tells us, ‘philistine, stupid, respectable and frightened’.

As an undergraduate Auden held the view that the poet should be utterly unpolitical, in fact that he should be as unemotional and detached as a scientist: his own emotions, the lives around him and society at large were merely a field for his forensic enquiries. The exact opposite of, say, Shelley.

Writing in the 1970s, Spender now sees how that view stems from T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay Tradition and The Individual Talent i.e. was indebted to the detached classicism of the Modernist generation.

Spender thinks he and the Auden Gang initially continued to adhere to the apolitical aesthetics of the Modernists. Only slowly did they let politics enter their work and it felt, to them, like a conscious lowering of standards. They had a ‘we’re only doing this for the duration’ feel about them. MacNeice in particular barely wrote any ‘political’ poetry during the 30s.

Spender sees the real generational break being between his friends – Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice – and the genuinely younger generation of fire-eating communist poets – Julian Bell and John Cornford – who were sincerely and utterly political (though he tempers this by pointing out that they were, in every instance, rebelling against the apolitical bourgeois aestheticism of their Bloomsbury parents).

Spender suggest that even when they were writing ‘political’ poems, he and Auden were in a way simply continuing the anti-war attitude of Wilfred Owen. He suggests his own poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, and Auden’s sonnets from China. They are anti-war protests, a kind of ‘anti-fascist pacifist poetry’.

In fact Spender thinks there wasn’t a thirties ‘movement’; movements have meetings and manifestos. But Auden was a ‘leader’ in the sense that he was intellectually in advance of all the rest, had through things through more thoroughly, and had a more highly developed technique.

Spender describes Auden’s advanced knowledge of psychoanalysis and how he used it to psychoanalyse his friends, inviting them to his darkened rooms in Christ Church and exposing them to penetrating psychological investigation. He liked doing this one-on-one, and preferred to keep his friends apart, which partly explains why the members of the so-called ‘movement’ rarely actually met.

In other words people didn’t ‘follow’ Auden because he commanded obedience. He simply was a cleverer, more fully formed and fascinating character than everyone else.

What triggered the ‘political content was simply the extremity of the times, the early 1930s, when it really looked as if the capitalist system might collapse, and the well-heeled literati in the south of England couldn’t fail to notice mass unemployment, squalor, and millions going hungry, their lives going to waste.

Because it was part of every educated person’s consciousness, the social crisis inevitably entered their writing. Overlapping it and extending the sense of crisis was the rise to power of Hitler and the sense, by the mid-30s, that war was inevitable. And they had an H.G. Wells-style horror of what the approaching war would entail. Spender was told by a leading government expert that British cities would be flattened in days by mass bombing.

Adding bite to this mood was the appalling complacency of almost everyone outside the ‘intellectual class’ – the complacency of Stanley Baldwin and the Empire exhibition. You can hear the same note of exasperation in George Orwell’s novels – he wants to shake England out of its myopic slumber. Wake up! so many of those poems say.

Spender sympathises with the critics who point out the 100% private school nature of these lefties. There was something laughable, Spender himself admits, in their attempts to write for the working classes. Spender thinks that, if anyone, their poems were aimed at ‘sixth-formers from their old schools and at one another’ (p.23).

But what else could they have done? Ignored the mass unemployment and economic collapse of the Great Depression? Ignored the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War? In a society in crisis every work becomes political.

The essence of the Modernist movement was it created works which centred on themselves, were self contained as art. The next generation, his generation, took Modernist tools and reinjected what the Modernist works had lacked, namely day-to-day subject matter. ‘We were putting the subject back into poetry’.

In his opinion the members of the movement were very varied, never had a manifesto, and had all kinds of doubts about putting politics into poetry – but were made to seem like a movement because of the deep sleep of everyone else around them. Writing about the Slump or Hitler created the impression of a camaraderie among writers who were, deep down, very disparate.

Real political poetry was that written by committed Communists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Tom Wintringham – but the first three of these were killed in Spain and the tradition they might have created, vanished with them.

All these concerns came to a head with the Spanish Civil War which triggered a crescendo of political commitment among the bourgeois poets – and then a collapse of cynicism and disillusion. One way of seeing it is that all the bourgeois writers were brought by the crisis right up against the need to write propaganda, that is, to lie, to write things they doubted or knew were lies (about the unity of the left, about the Moscow show trials, the wisdom of Stalin, and so on). When push came to shove, they all rebelled against this.

In face of Stalinist propaganda and methods it was a reversion to the view that individual conscience is the repository of witnessed truth. (p.29)

Once the scales fell from their eyes, they realised they had let themselves be cajoled into writing in ways, about subjects and reaching conclusions, that they knew to be false or disagreed with. This concern for individual truth-telling explains why many of them, most famously Auden, tried to suppress much of their work from the 30s as ‘dishonest’. Thus he tinkered with Spain, the long poem he wrote trying to support the Republicans, but eventually came to hate its entire tone and banned it.

This notion of individual truth was the reef that the ‘movement’ of political poetry ran aground on.

Review of A Vision by W.B. Yeats (April 1938)

In this book Yeats systematically laid out the complex system of images and ideas which underpinned his later poetry and which, he claimed, had been communicated to his wife by messages from the spirit world. With restrained irony Spender says that, if these complex insights into the meaning of human history, its patterns and recurrences really are true, it is a shame this long and complicated book makes no attempt to prove the fact or to relate it to the world the rest of us live in. More sharply, Spender notes that when Yeats writes that when he read Oswald Spengler’s vast epic about The Decline of the West (1918-22) he found an eerie similarity with his own thought – that is because both of them, along with Stefan George and d’Annunzio, in their attacks on the rotten littleness of modern democratic society and the need for new Caesars to rise up and restore civilisation – all prove ideological and artistic justifications for fascism.

Review of One-Way Song by Wyndham Lewis (December 1933)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was an avant-garde artist who, just before the First World War, founded the short-lived movement of Vorticism, a British response to Italian Futurism. After the war (in which he served) he continued to paint, including marvellous modernist portraits of his chums T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, plus the doyenne of 1920s poetry, Edith Sitwell; but also wrote a lot, novels, huge meditations upon Western Man, and, as in this case, poetry.

One-Way Song is an extended satire written with Lewis’s demonic energy which sets out to flail every cause Lewis can think of, including parliamentary democracy, Progress, relativity, the expanding universe and racial equality. Some of the lines tend towards fascism i.e. saying society can only be saved from its pettiness by a Strong Leader, but on the whole Spender admires Lewis for his vigour and his openness, unlike many a fascist sympathiser who couches their support in suaver support for ‘the corporate state’ etc.

Review of Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence (January 1937)

Lawrence was one of a kind, sui generis. Not many major writers have emerged from the genuine working class, his Dad being a miner in the coalfields outside Nottingham. As Lawrence got educated he moved out of his own class, but was never at home with the smug bourgeoisie which runs English culture (in his day, the Bloomsbury Group).

Despising the middle class for its post-impressionist pusillanimity, but unable to expect anything of a working class he knew was crushed and cowed, he found a solution, a way out – Sex.

In the sexual act two people could transcend the petty restrictions of class and country and rediscover human dignity and authenticity. On this discovery he posited a potential social revolution, and described and wrote about it on countless occasions. He was against crowds, the masses and their filthy representation politics and democracy. In this respect he was anti-democratic and gave way sometimes to brooding images of Dark Power and the Strong Leader. But at its core he revolted against all of society, of whatever shape, in favour of a revolution in the head of individuals, then of men and women in their relationships with each other.

All settlement of the property question must arise spontaneously out of the new impulse in man, to free himself from the extraneous load of possession, and walk naked and light.

This is why he is among the Great Writers – because he took the key subject of the most serious novels – relationships between men and woman, or a man and a woman – to new levels of intensity.

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

A review of a zealously communist poem by the French poet, Louis Aragon. Spender is blisteringly critical of its calls for the proletariat to rise up and shoot the bourgeoisie. Why, asks Spender. Why is one lot of people arresting, imprisoning, torturing and executing another group of people terrible if it’s group A, but fabulous and deserving hymns of praise if it’s group B? They’re all people.

Marx had an answer. The proletariat represent Hegel’s Spirit of History. They are not only good and just in themselves, they represent the future of mankind. Spender obviously doesn’t buy this.

Spender says this isn’t a poem it’s propaganda and, what’s more, threatening propaganda. He treats Aragon to about the most withering criticism possible by saying its invocations and threats of violence are directly comparable to Hitler. Compare this poem to any speech by Hitler. Whoosh!

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

A poem is complete in itself, it does not reach out and affect the real world. Poetry is idealist in the sense that it is restricted to the world of thought. It is, therefore, the opposite of materialist thought. Individuals locked in their own little worlds is the opposite of the mass movement which the revolutionist calls for.

Basically Spender argues that all literature is middle class. To read it or be able to write it, workers have to get educated enough to lose their working class roots and enter the bourgeoisie. Even rebels against the bourgeoisie tend to be bourgeois, and their ‘rebellion’ tends to be into precisely the kind of visionary individualism which the true revolutionary hates most (he evidences the French poet, Rimbaud).

The bourgeois artist can not rebel against his bourgeois origins. But he can serve revolutionary ends by writing honestly. If he writes honestly his writings will accurately reveal the symptoms of a decaying society.

He defends poetry with these arguments:

  • poetry records the changing meaning of words, it preserves words in their pure and historic meaning
  • poetry saves the language from degenerating
  • poetry is a function of our emotional life
  • ‘poetry is the language of moments in which we see ourselves or other people in their true relation to humanity or nature’
  • poetry expresses compassion for all human beings regardless of race or class

Contemporary writers who wish to be communists cannot join the communist cause because of their economic condition, which forces them to be individuals, alone and alienated. Come the revolution, this will be solved.

(Compare and contrast Spender’s lightweight ideas with the fully worked out theory of Realism in fiction propounded by Marxist philosopher György Lukács.)

The Poetic Dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (Autumn 1938)

Spender had written a poetic drama himself, Trial of a Judge, this same year of 1938.

He praises the poetic dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, specifically The Dog Beneath The Skin and The Ascent of F6, but enters a few typically sensible caveats.

  • Not much of the poetry in them is as good as Auden’s individual poems.
  • None of the characters has the subtlety of the characters in Isherwood’s novels.
  • Lastly, the pop nature of some of the lyrics created a kind of lowest common denominator style which Auden’s younger fans are now copying.

The public figures in F6 are too true to life to be believable. The satire on them is too crude to be believable and therefore effective. In this respect, yes, they are rather schoolboyish, as older critics claimed. Spender considers Dog works in its long journey round Europe, but when the protagonist returns to his English village, the climax of the play is him delivering a sermon indistinguishable from one any ordinary vicar would deliver.

Spender acutely points out the several ways in which the conclusion of The Ascent of F6 is not only unsatisfactory, it is incoherent. I agree with him that lots of it are just chunks of Auden which have been inserted into the play without too much regard for context. But that the chorus poetry of Mr and Mrs A is excellent (the best thing in the play, in my view).

With a touch of the apocalyptic, Spender hopes Auden and Isherwood have laid the foundations of what might be a much wider social change in coming decades which would see ‘the emergence of the theatre as the most significant and living of literary forms’ (p.61). Of course, they hadn’t.

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

Six months into the Spanish Civil War, Spender tried to get into republican Spain but was refused a visa so he did the next best thing which was to travel to Tangiers – where he attended meetings, speeches etc by Republican supporters – then Gibraltar, where he dwells on the revolting Franco sympathies of the British authorities and old British colonels’ mithering about ‘Red atrocities’. Even if these atrocities are true, Spender excuses them as the inevitable excesses of the suffering imposed on the people by the ‘monstrous Spanish system’ (p.64).

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

Finally Spender got himself into Republican Spain and reports on what he saw and the Unity of the People as he travelled round for six weeks.

Spender takes exception to calling anyone who dies in a war, a ‘hero’, saying this is just a rhetoric people use to hide from themselves the disgusting reality of war. He testifies that the actual soldiers dislike talk of heroes and heroics; in the reports they read they are far more concerned to hear the simple truth.

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

Being notes on the International Writers Congress held in which Spender attended. He is very impressed by André Malraux (‘a hero’) and his talk of will, how the writer must create an environment which allows them to write. They drive from Barcelona to Valencia and on to Madrid, seeing sights, meeting the People, excited by the social revolution very obviously going on around them. The essay concludes with a conversation with the Spanish poet, José Bergamín who, when asked about his Catholicism, says yes yes yes he believes all the articles of faith, but no no no he believes the Catholic Church in Spain has allied with one particular class and is trying to prevent ‘the spiritual growth of the Spanish people’. Spender optimistically concludes that, within the political revolution sparked by the war, is also taking place a Catholic Reformation. (In both predictions he was, of course, wrong.)

I join the Communist Party (Daily Worker, February 1937)

Spender explains that the motivation of his book Forward From Liberalism, published in 1937, was to show the mindset of a typical bourgeois liberal (i.e. himself) approaching communism, namely his belief in social justice and international peace rather than imperialist aggression.

In this article he announces that he has a) formally joined the communist party b) is setting off to Valencia to support the Republican government.

In fact these three short pages conclude with a description of his whistlestop tour of Tangiers and Gibraltar (mentioned above) and how he found everywhere how a minority of capitalist-imperialists was wedded to the Francoist attachment to property and in doing so seeking to suppress and put down the 80% of the population who wanted revolutionary change to their society.

Everywhere he went he saw Communists leading the fight against fascism, the best and most dignified of the working class were the Communists. And so he’s joined the Party.

When he puts it like that, his decision sounds eminently reasonable.

However, the first half of the little essay indicates a massive problem he faced: even before he joined the Party he had been sharply criticised by a critic in the Daily Worker for passages in Forward From Liberalism in which he had questioned the Moscow Show Trials i.e. Stalin’s word.

This is the crux of this entire section and of Left-wing politics in the 1930s as a whole. In contrast to the rotten, do-nothing democracies, Communism was actively fighting the unambiguous evil of fascism, and everywhere communist workers provided inspiring examples of human heroism and high-mindedness. Plus, to the anxious bourgeois intellectual, the Communist Party provided a wonderful sense of community and acceptance in a greater task. Good.

But, as they all discovered, Communism-in-practice meant lying for Stalin. Lying about the show trials, the deportations, the famines, the labour camps, the murder of opponents and rivals in Russia, and lying about the undermining of the entire Spanish Republican war effort by commissars more concerned with eliminating Trotskyists or Anarchists than with fighting the supposed enemy.

And this was the enormous disillusion which woke Spender, Auden and many other writers from their dream of solidarity with the working class. They would love to show solidarity with the working class and overthrow the rotten old system. But central to membership of the Party was abandoning their individual ‘bourgeois’ consciences and lying for a brutal, murderous dictator. And none of them could do that.

Postscript

With the ending of the Spanish Civil War it became clear that the thirties was being wound up like a company going into bankruptcy. The departure of Auden for America in 1939, whatever personal feelings it aroused, considered as a public act only underlined what most of his colleagues already felt: that the individualist phase was over. From now on, people did not join anti-fascism as individuals who might influence history. They joined armies in which they were expected to forget that they were individuals. (p.85)

With a few exceptions the writer associated with the thirties tried after 1939 to break with their political connections. This was particularly true of Auden who edited out of his works what might be termed the Thirties Connection. His departure for Isherwood in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (p.276)

(In this second passage Spender makes a small but telling mistake. Auden and Isherwood sailed for New York in January 1939, at the start of the year. Spender’s memory has smoothed this out by making it occur in ‘late’ 1939, right at the end of the year and so of the decade – thus making it appear more symbolic and neat. Well, he’s a poet, not a historian.)


Credit

The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender was first published by Macmillan Books. All references are to the 1978 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


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Other reviews of late antiquity

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (1952)

Originally there were three Foundation novels, each one a packaging-up of some of the eight linked short stories which Asimov wrote for John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine from 1941 to 1948.

Thus this, the second book in the original Foundation trilogy, is not a novel at all. It consists of two long short stories, The General (75 pages) and The Mule (149 pages).

And although they were brought out in book form in 1952, they had both been published much earlier, The General in the April 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the title Dead Hand, and The Mule in two parts in the November and December 1945 issues.

The two stories continue the narrative of the Foundation, established 12,000 years into the era of the Galactic Empire by the leading psychohistorian of the day, Hari Seldon. Seldon had predicted that the Galactic Empire, then at its peak, was in fact destined to collapse over the following 500 years, a collapse which would lead to a dark age which would last for 30,000 years.

He arranged for the establishment of the Foundation and ensured it was based right at the periphery of the Galaxy on a remote planet named Terminus, in such a way that it could rise from the ashes of the ruined Empire, and restore civilisation in a much shorter period of time, hopefully – if his plans went right – only one thousand years.

The five short stories collected in volume one of the trilogy, Foundation, each zeroes in on a particular moment of crisis, when the Foundation faced a threat to its existence, and each one showed how key protagonists used the Seldon Principles of Psychohistory to a) understand how the crisis would play out and b) take advantage of the crisis to enable the Foundation to triumph and evolve.

The two long stories in this volume take the story forward into the third century after the establishment of the Federation, showing how the complex unfolding of events still embodied the importance of Seldon’s principles and foresight.

1. The General

Although it has withdrawn from the Periphery of the Galaxy, the Empire still has keen advocates and military leaders true to its traditions, One such is charismatic and successful General Bel Riose who launches an attack against the Foundation. The leaders of the Foundation discuss how, rather than forcing a direct confrontation, they can maybe use their network of traders to infiltrate and neutralise the attacking force.

They concoct a plan. The Foundation trader Lathan Devers lets himself be captured and taken prisoner by Riose’s battleship where he encounters Ducem Barr, a venerable senator from the planet Siwenna. (Riose had earlier visited Barr and invited him on his expedition, to advise him about the rumours that the Foundation employs ‘magicians’. And readers of the first book will recognise that Ducem is the son of the Onum Barr who we met in the story, The Merchant Princes.)

After a great deal of dialogue and argument – and as they learn that the Imperial fleet is one-by-one reconquering and garrisoning star systems closer and closer to the Foundation territory – Devers and Barr are brought before General Riose. When he threatens to use a Psychic Probe on them, old Barr, to Devers’ surprise, bashes the general over the head with a stone bust, knocking him out.

Devers and Barr promptly leave the general’s rooms and walk quickly to the landing bay, where they get into Devers’ high-powered trading ship which blasts its way free and escapes into hyperspace.

Once safely escaped and tucking into space rations, Barr reveals to Devers that, as they fled, he had pinched the message which had just come through to the general from the Emperor’s much-hated advisor, Brodrig.

They both look at the message and realise that the ambiguity of its phrasing could be interpreted to look as if Brodrig and the general are in a conspiracy to overthrow the emperor.

Aha. They could use the message as evidence to sway the Emperor against his swashbuckling general – and thus rescue the Foundation.

So they travel through hyperspace to the capital planet of the Empire, Trantor, with a view to putting the message before the Emperor, Cleon II.

However, with its population of 40 million, Trantor is a jungle of bureaucracy and our guys have only bribed their way to about the second of ten levels when the interviewing bureaucrat reveals that he is in fact a lieutenant of the Imperial Police, that their ‘conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor’ has been identified, and that they are under arrest.

At which point Devers and Barr have to shoot their way out of the interview room, leg it back to their spaceship and blast their way into Trantor’s stratosphere and so into hyperspace.

It’s too dangerous to try to contact the emperor now, so they abandon their plan and make easy jumps through hyperspace right back out to the Periphery and to Terminus, the planet of the Foundation.

Here they report to the board of leaders of the Foundation (who we had met much earlier in the story), the guys who we saw weighing the encroaching threat of Riose and sending Devers off on his mission.

It is only now that Devers and Barr find out that Riose’s slow advance through neighbouring star systems towards the Foundation has been called off because Riose has been recalled to the Imperial capital planet, Trantor, under a cloud, tried and executed for treason.

And here comes the USP, the Foundation Scene, the Hari Seldon element —

Because it is only now that Devers realises that all this – Riose’s recall – would have happened regardless of anything the individual characters had done. It was a structural inevitability. A weak emperor must always live in fear of a strong general (considering how many generals had overthrown the emperor and taken the crown for himself).

Regardless of anything the council or Devers or Barr could have done, Riose would have failed anyway.

Once again the wisdom of Hari Seldon is proved to have been right – to the characters in the story, and to the admiring reader!

2. The Mule

In a foreword written years later, in the 1980s, Asimov confesses that The Mule was his favourite Foundation story and you can see why. It hangs together better than most of the others, the characters rise above the cardboard pulp level of most of the other ‘characters’, and there are scenes which almost prompt something like emotion in the reader.

It’s a hundred years since the previous story. Trantor, the great capital planet of the Empire has undergone ‘The Great Sack’ by a barbarian fleet. Most of the Galaxy has split up into barbaric kingdoms. The Empire itself has entered into an even more rapid phase of decline and civil wars. So far, so exactly like the actual history of ancient Rome transposed into a science fiction context.

The Foundation has become the dominant power in its quadrant of the galaxy, partly because of its preservation of advanced tech, plus the extensive trading policy we saw being established in the previous stories. Believing itself invulnerable, the leaders of the Foundation have become despotic and complacent.

This has led leaders of the Independent Traders’ Alliance to consider a rebellion against the Foundation. However, before they can make a move they and the Foundation come under attack from a mysterious warlord known only as ‘the Mule’.

The story follows a young couple, Toran and Bayta Darell, who have just got married. Toran’s father is a former trader, his uncle one of the would-be rebel traders. They are among the many who gather to watch another of Hari Seldon’s scheduled hologram messages. Imagine everybody’s horror when Seldon does not mention the Mule, but assumes that a civil war has been fought with the traders from which the Foundation emerged victor. For the first time in Foundation history – Seldon has got it wrong!

That civil war was exactly what was about to happen – until the Mule emerged. Could it be that the Mule is the kind of one-off, individual event which Seldon’s psychohistorical theories did not take account of? Has the comforting sense of inevitability about the Foundation’s rise come to a grinding halt?

Toran and Bayta Darell are the key characters. They fall in with a kind of rebel psychologist, Ebling Mis, and one ‘Magnifico Giganticus’, a clown they rescue at a planetary resort on their honeymoon, who seems to be fleeing the Mule himself. He is about to be arrested when Toran intervenes to save the odd, gawky, clumsy clown, and they take him off in their spaceship.

It looks as if they are to play a more central role than they expected, when this protective move is presented as the ‘kidnapping’ of his clown by the Mule and cited as a pretext for attacking the Foundation.

To everyone’s horror, the outer planets fall to the Mule’s assaults, and then the Foundation’s fleet itself mysteriously surrenders.

Determined to find out why, Toran, Bayta and Ebling Mis conceive the idea of travelling through hyperspace to the Galaxy’s former capital planet, Trantor, to look into the Imperial archives in search of a clue as to the Mule’s origins and behaviour.

Here the book for once fleetingly catches some real imaginative feeling, the kind of feeling H.G. Wells’s novels are full of, when Toran, Bayta and Mis touch down on Trantor to find it a ruin. Amid the buildings wrecked by the Great Sack, a new generation of agriculturalists are clearing away the great metal skyscrapers, to reveal the raw soil and living a primitive agricultural existence.

Tentatively our heroes make peace with these suspicious tribes, who allow them into the ruins of the old Imperial Library. There isn’t in all of Asimov a droplet of the awe and emotion conveyed in H.G. Wells’s description of entering the ruined Great Museum in The Time Machine, but these pages come the closest.

At the Great Library, Ebling Mis works continuously until his health is undermined, but in the climactic last few pages, he reveals a massive new twist in the narrative. He says that his researches show that the Foundation, the one they come from, is only one of two Foundations which Hari Seldon established 300 years earlier. And all the researches Mis have done suggest that their Foundation is the less important one!

Maybe it was a decoy all along, precisely to draw ambitious warlords like the Mule towards it – all the while ensuring that the Second Foundation could go about its work of regenerating civilisation in peace.

Mis, with his dying breath, is just about to reveal the location of the Second Foundation when… Bayta blasts him to oblivion with an atom blaster gun!! What???

Bayta explains to her outraged husband why. She points out to him (and the reader) that they have been at the heart of a whole series of coincidences: present on Terminus when the Seldon hologram appeared; present on another planet, Haven, just before that fell; there was another coincidence when they were pulled over in an unknown quadrant on their way to Trantor, by an unknown spaceship which turned out to be carrying a Foundation official they had met earlier in the story, Han Pritcher; and then – in a massive coincidence – this same Han Pritcher had turned up just a few days earlier on Trantor, apparently, followed them all the way from the Periphery of the Galaxy.

How come all these coincidences? Someone has been spying on them. Someone has been following their progress and their discoveries from the start. But who?

She turns to the spindly ‘clown’, who has been their constant companion since they saved him from an angry mob back on their honeymoon, back in the early pages of the story – Magnifico.

Bayta reveals that Magnifico… is the Mule himself!!!!!!

Magnifico stops cringing and speaking in his irritating fake courtly manner which he has maintained ever since we met him a hundred pages earlier. He straightens up and introduces himself suavely. Yes. He is the Mule. He is a mutant, one of the millions born every year across the galaxy, but with a unique power: he can control people’s emotional moods. Thus he forced a local warlord into such a state of depression that he handed over his fleet to the Mule. Thus he created a sense of despair among the populations of the outer planets, which supinely submitted to him.

It was using this power that he made most of the Foundation fleet simply surrender to him, suddenly overcome with despair and convinced their battle was futile. And it was this mind control which he used on Mis at his researches in the old Galactic Library, forcing him to work himself literally to death to discover the location of the Second Foundation.

So Bayta was right, right to stop Mis revealing its location with his dying words!

What will happen now? Well, after briefly threatening to force Bayta to become his consort – a prospect which makes her shiver with revulsion – the Mule rather adolescently declares that, since the couple genuinely befriended him and looked after him – as so many people didn’t in his wretched, outcast life (sob) he will… let them live. And he walks out the room.

The Darells are left on Trantor. The Mule leaves to reign over the Foundation and the rest of his new empire. The existence of the Second Foundation (as an organization centred on the science of psychology and mentalics, in contrast to the Foundation’s focus on physical sciences) is now known to the Darells and to the Mule.

Now that the Mule has conquered the Foundation he stands as the most powerful force in the galaxy, and the Second Foundation is the only threat to his eventual rule over the entire galaxy.

Before he leaves the Mule vows that he will find the Second Foundation, but Bayta declares it has already prepared for him and that he will not have enough time before the Second Foundation reacts.

What will happen next? Tune into next week’s exciting episode.

Or, in this case, move right on to reading the last two stories in the series, contained in the final book of the trilogy, Second Foundation.


Immaturities

When I first read the Foundation novels aged 12 or 13, I was absolutely gripped, riveted, enthralled by their profound insights into human life and history and society. I remember my sense of horror and thrill when events finally began to diverge from Hari Seldon’s prophecies. What was going to happen?

The trouble is that, since then, I have grown up (I hope). I have certainly read a lot more books, Chaucer and Shakespeare among them, 17th and 18th century satires on courts and kings and emperors, as well as countless histories of the Roman Empire, and other ancient empires, as well as numerous books about politics, philosophy and economics, as well as biographies of actual kings and emperors and political leaders.

My point being that proper literature and actual history are all much better, much more sophisticated, much better written, much more psychologically subtle, than anything in Asimov.

And all have the massive extra value of being true and, therefore, forcing you to think hard about the mysteries of actual history and actual human nature – not human nature out of a bubblegum packet.

Asimov freely admitted that he based the characters of the Emperor Cleon II and his General Bel Riose on the historical Roman Emperor Justinian I and his general Belisarius, as described in Robert Graves’s novel, Count Belisarius.

Years later, when I read Count Belisarius, I realised that it is much, much better than anything Asimov ever wrote, in every measurable way: deeper understanding of human beings and behaviour, vastly better prose style, and giving its reader an in-depth insight into real history.

Psychohistory as twaddle

When I was 12 or 13 I was barely beginning an education in the humanities. Every book I read which touched on history or economics or psychology, no matter how superficially, opened up vast new vistas to me, since it was the first time I’d encountered them. Thus, emotionally naive, inexperienced in anything of life, profoundly ignorant of most intellectual disciplines, books like Asimov’s introduced me to a world of new ideas – how emperors and their slimey sycophants behave – how empires rise and fall – how councils and committees are run – how grown-ups debate things, discuss strategy, make plans.

But the trouble is that I went on not only to read huge numbers of more serious books for my humanities and literature A-levels and degree – but to work in current affairs TV, attending countless editorial meetings, dealing with difficult situations, budgets, live broadcasts – and then, latterly, to work in the civil service, attending countless meetings, presentations, strategy boards, getting a feel for the labyrinthine politics of the civil service and the complexity of real-world politics.

Discovering, at every turn, that pretty much everything Asimov describes and presents is, in fact, a child’s eye, profoundly superficial, immature and depthless version of all these matters. Profoundly immature and simplistic.

Fake wisdom

The conceit is that the trilogy gives the reader immense insight into human history. But it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.

Symptomatic is the central premise that Hari Seldon was a genius who had unprecedented insight into the functioning of human history. Thus we are from time to time treated to some of Seldon’s profound sayings sprinkled through the text for our admiration.

But, when you actually read them, they are twaddle. When Asimov strains to authorly wisdom – just like when he strains to say anything meaningful about human nature, about human relationships, about power politics and so on – he is embarrassingly trite.

‘Seldon’s rules of psychohistory on which it is so comforting to rely probably have as one of the contributing variables, a certain normal initiative on the part of the people of the Foundation themselves. Seldon’s laws help those who help themselves.’ (The Magicians)

‘Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!’ (The Traders)

‘Gratitude is best and most effective when it does not evaporate itself in empty phrases.’ (The Mule)

‘There’s a saying on Haven that when the cave lights go out, it is time for the righteous and hard-working to sleep.’ (The Mule)

When the lights go out, it’s time to go to bed! Wow. Wisdom for six-year-olds.

Just as the narratives give the appearance of insight into history and human society without doing anything of the sort, these trite sayings have the appearance of pithy wisdom and humour – but are neither funny nor witty, interesting or useful.

Anthropocentric

The Empire rules over quadrillions of planets in billions of star systems spread across the entire galaxy. And all of them are inhabited by men (and I really do mean men – there are hardly any women in these stories). No aliens, no alternative life forms, nada.

With the result that nothing really strange or alien or uncanny happens in any of these stories.

Although ostensibly science fiction, and certainly featuring space ships and atom blasters, there isn’t a single alien form of life, or alien disease, or alien problem. There aren’t solar winds or gas clouds or unexpected radiation or all the other perils which you might associate with science fiction.

Instead, what you get is a succession of scenes in which adult men (almost no women until Bayta in The Mule, but no children and no emotional ties worth mentioning) discuss power and strategy, trying to tease out how to manipulate and beat each other.

The conflicts are entirely human. It is an entirely human galaxy.

The style, the dialogue

My God, Asimov’s presentation of character through dialogue, and his efforts at dramatic confrontation are scandalously bad!

Most of the scenes are just that – scenes, as if from a play – in which small groups of characters discuss, argue and accuse each other.

They didn’t have TV in the 1940s when Asimov wrote all this, so I’m guessing he owed a lot of how he arranged and wrote these scenes to the conventions of radio drama. That might explain why there are few if any descriptions of things. The Imperial planet Trantor does give rise to a few paragraphs conveying how it is totally covered in manmade structures and habitations, but that’s about it. We get next to nothing about conditions on any of the other planets, and only the slightest descriptions of space ships. These are referred to often enough, but left largely undescribed.

Maybe it was a convention of the pulp sci-fi magazines Asimov was writing for. Maybe the emphasis was all about the human drama, leaving out all unnecessary technical details or prose descriptions. Maybe that was deliberately left to the illustrators to fill out as they saw fit.

Whatever the reason, almost the entire weight of the text and the narrative is thrown onto the dialogue, to explain what’s going on, and to move the plot forward – and, my God, is it cheesy!

Imagine the crappiest dialogue from a cheesy Hollywood historical ‘epic’ and then go down several notches. Cross it with scenes of The Prisoner of Zenda-style swashbuckling heroics. And then have everyone dressed up in costumes from Flash Gordon.

The senior lieutenant of the Dark Nebula stared in horror at the visiplate.
‘Great Galloping Galaxies!’ It should have been a howl, but it was a whisper instead, ‘What’s
that?’ (The Merchant Princes)

Great galloping galaxies! It sounds like Robin’s expletives in the cheesy 1960s TV series of Batman – ‘Holy Uncanny Photographic Mental Processes, Batman!’

The use of ‘Galaxy!’ as a universal oath or expletive by the characters is symptomatic: it is intended to make the whole story feel truly outer-worldly, futuristic, science fictiony. But it comes over as cheap and crass.

‘He may be the proof I need – and I need something, Galaxy knows – to awaken the Foundation.’ (The Mule)

‘When the Galaxy was this?’ (The Mule)

Instead of inspiring awe, or making me feel like I was transported to another dimension – I kept bursting out laughing at this, and at most of the rest of the dialogue’s appalling hamminess.

Characters who are clichés

Asimov has fun trying to create a range of characters, from the ‘Hi honey’ couple the Darells, to the dastardly Regent Wienis and his whiny nephew Lepold, to the stolid Foundation officer Pritcher. The only trouble is that, as soon as he departs from cardboard cutouts, he lapses into staggering cliché. And when he tries for comedy… My God, he is so embarrassing.

In Foundation he has the bright idea of creating a lisping, foppish diplomat named Lord Dorwin, Asimov’s pulp version of the pomaded dandies who infest Restoration drama. Here he is Lord Dorwin in full flood:

‘Ah, yes, Anacweon.’ A negligent wave of the hand. ‘I have just come from theah. Most bahbawous planet. It is thowoughly inconceivable that human beings could live heah in the Pewiphewy. The lack of the most elementawy wequiahments of a cultuahed gentleman; the absence of the most fundamental necessities foah comfoht and convenience – the uttah desuetude into which they – ‘
Hardin interrupted dryly: ‘The Anacreonians, unfortunately, have all the elementary requirements for warfare and all the fundamental necessities for destruction.’
‘Quite, quite.’ Lord Dorwin seemed annoyed, perhaps at being stopped midway in his sentence. ‘But we ahn’t to discuss business now, y’know. Weally, I’m othahwise concuhned.’ (The Encyclopedists)

Maybe Asimov’s original teenage sci-fi addicts found this kind of thing hilarious, but it gets very tiresome very quickly. Especially since, like most Asimov characters, Dorwin says nothing either remotely funny or acute. It is like a schoolboy dressing up in adult clothes – looks great but… he has no idea what to say or how to handle himself among adults.

In Foundation and Empire the central character turns out to be the Mule’s court jester, Magnifico. For most of the story, until he is unmasked as the Mule himself, Magnifico is made to speak in a deliberately cod medieval style, which gets as wearing as quickly as Jar Jar Bink’s disastrous mannerisms in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace:

‘My lady,’ he gasped, ‘it is indeed of an effect the most magical. It is of balance and response
almost beyond hope in its delicacy and stability. On this, it would seem I could work wonders.
How liked you my composition, my lady?’ (The Mule)

There are literally hundreds of paragraphs of dialogue like that. The characterisation of wicked Prince Regent Wienis rubbing his hands and cackling over his spoilt and impressionable teenage nephew, the teenage King Lepold I is like something out of pantomime. I enjoyed these passages because they were so preposterously bad.

‘Lepold!.. Now will you attend?’
The king shrugged and gravitated to the end table where he nibbled at a Lera nut in quite an unregal sulk. He did not dare to meet his uncle’s eyes. Wienis said, by way of preamble, ‘I’ve been to the ship today.’
‘What ship?’
‘There is only one ship. The ship. The one the Foundation is repairing for the navy. The old Imperial cruiser. Do I make myself sufficiently plain?’
‘That one? You see, I told you the Foundation would repair it if we asked them to. It’s all poppycock, you know, that story of yours about their wanting to attack us. Because if they did, why would they fix the ship? It doesn’t make sense, you know.’
‘Lepold, you’re a fool!’
The king, who had just discarded the shell of the Lera nut and was lifting another to his lips, flushed.
‘Well now, look here,’ he said, with anger that scarcely rose above peevishness, ‘I don’t think you ought to call me that. You forget yourself. I’ll be of age in two months, you know.’ (The Mayors)

Summaries of the plots of the Foundation stories (and I’ve read quite a few) have the effect of making them look intelligent and thoughtful. Actually reading them, though, plunges you into a world of embarrassing stereotypes and clichés.

Illiterate

If the dialogue is stagey beyond belief, the narrative prose is often worse. Routinely the reader comes across sentences, or expressions, which only barely make sense. Asimov is an appalling writer of English prose.

Mayor Indbur – successively the third of that name – was the grandson of the first Indbur, who had been brutal and capable; and who had exhibited the first quality in spectacular fashion by his manner of seizing power, and the latter by the skill with which he put an end to the last farcical remnants of free election and the even greater skill with which he maintained a relatively peaceful rule. Mayor Indbur was also the son of the second Indbur, who was the first Mayor of the Foundation to succeed to his post by right of birth – and who was only half his father, for he was merely brutal. So Mayor Indbur was the third of the name and the second to succeed by right of birth, and he was the least of the three, for he was neither brutal nor capable – but merely an excellent book keeper born wrong. Indbur the Third was a peculiar combination of ersatz characteristics to all but himself. (The Mule)

In the cities, the escapers of the Galaxy could take their varieties of pleasure to suit their purse,
from the ethereal sky-palaces of spectacle and fantasy that opened their doors to the masses at the jingle of half a credit, to the unmarked, unnoted haunts to which only those of great wealth were of the cognoscenti. (The Mule)

The “hangar” on Kalgan is an institution peculiar unto itself, born of the need for the disposition of the vast number of ships brought in by the visitors from abroad, and the simultaneous and consequent vast need for living accommodations for the same. (The Mule)

The Mule’s clown who had reported that within his narrow compass of body he held the lordly name of Magnifico Giganticus, sat hunched over the table and gobbled at the food set before him. (The Mule)

‘I tell you, Mis, there’s not a thing there that breathes anything but order and peace – ‘ The door at the far, long end opened, and, in far too dramatically coincident a fashion to suggest anything but real life, a plainly-costumed notable stepped in. (The Mule)

There was an atmosphere about the Time Vault that just missed definition in several directions at once.

Randu, as newly-appointed co-ordinator – in itself a wartime post – of the confederation of cities on Haven, had been assigned, at his own request, to an upper room, out of the window of which he could brood over the roof tops and greenery of the city. Now, in the fading of the cave lights, the city receded into the level lack of distinction of the shades.

What?

Wise.. or wally?

Asimov wants to be taken as a man-of-the-world author, dispensing insightful generalisations about the human condition as suavely and wittily as Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde. But he comes across as a shallow and pretentious jerk, who mistakes pompous sonority for wit and manages to avoid any inkling of genuine insight.

He said, ‘What is the meaning of this?’
It is the precise question and the precise wording thereof that has been put to the atmosphere on such occasions by an incredible variety of men since humanity was invented. It is not recorded that it has ever been asked for any purpose other than dignified effect.

Juddee, the plain, snub-nosed, indifferent blonde at the dining unit diagonally across had been the superficial one of the nonacquaintance. And now Juddee was crying, biting woefully at a moist handkerchief, and choking back sobs until her complexion was blotched with turgid red. Her shapeless radiation-proof costume was thrown back upon her shoulders, and her transparent face shield had tumbled forward into her dessert, and there remained.
Bayta joined the three girls who were taking turns at the eternally applied and eternally inefficacious remedies of shoulder-patting, hair-smoothing, and incoherent murmuring.

‘The precise wording thereof…’

The prose is almost all like this – routinely managing to be either pretentious (in the sense of pretending to a wit and wisdom which it conspicuously lacks) or teetering on the brink of unintelligibility.

A Star Wars note

Lathan Devers is a rough tough inter-galactic trader who flies the fastest little trading ship in the galaxy, always ready with a plan and a bit of blarney to talk his way out of trouble.

Remind you of anyone? Reminded me of Han Solo from Star Wars. So I sat bolt upright when, in chapter 2 of The Mule, we are introduced to a – Captain Han Pritcher! Han. Not a common name, is it? He goes on to play quite a role in The Mule and appears in the final book, too. So when I googled a comparison I was not surprised to discover I among the last people on earth to notice the resemblance, just of the name, but of lots of structural elements between the Foundation stories and the Star Wars movies.

  • Mankind is spread over the entire Galaxy
  • There’s a Galactic Empire with a bureaucratic capital world (Trantor / Coruscant)
  • There are outer provinces whose inhabitants are mainly smugglers and scavengers.
  • Ships jumps into hyperspace for shortening traveling time.
  • The Republic holding out against the Empire (Star Wars) resembles the Foundation holding out against the Empire.
  • Both Hober Mallow (Foundation) and Han Solo (Star Wars) are smugglers who become agents and fighters for their respective worlds, and fly spaceships which can outrun any Empire ship.

Devers bent over the little dead globe, watching for a tiny sign of life. The directional control was slowly and thoroughly sieving space with its jabbing tight sheaf of signals. Barr watched patiently from his seat on the low cot in the comer, He asked, ‘No more signs of them?’
‘The Empire boys? No.’ The trader growled the words with evident impatience. ‘We lost the scuppers long ago. Space! With the blind jumps we took through hyperspace, it’s lucky we didn’t land up in a sun’s belly. They couldn’t have followed us even if they outranged us, which they didn’t.’ (The General, chapter 8)

  • Princess Leia resembles Bayta Darell; while Leia battled against Darth Vader, Bayta battled against the Mule.
  • The Foundation was set up on the ‘outer rim of the galaxy’ and Luke’s home planet of Tatooine is also in ‘the outer rim’.
  • The inhabitants of the Second Foundation have enormous mental powers and their minds can control people and objects. In the Universe of Star Wars this power is called The Force.

Asimov himself saw the connection.

I modeled my ‘Galactic Empire’ (a phrase I think I was the first to use) quite consciously on the Roman Empire. Ever since then, other science fiction writers have been following the fashion, and have written series of their own after the fashion of the Foundation series. In fact, in the late 1970s the Galactic Empire reached the movies in the enormously popular Star Wars, which, here and there, offered rather more than a whiff of the Foundation. (No, I don’t mind. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I certainly imitated Edward Gibbon, so I can scarcely object if someone imitates me.)
(From Asimov’s essay Empires, 1983)

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Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1920)

A figure stripped to the waist, with ripped-open back, leaned against the parapet. Another, with a triangular flap hanging off the back of his skull, emitted short, high-pitched screams. This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. (p.31)

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) fought for the German army in the First World War. Wikipedia gives a good summary of his wartime career.

Most other memoirs and fictions about the war took years to surface, while the authors struggled to manage their traumatic memories and to find the words to describe the experience.

No such hesitation for Jünger, who converted the 16 diaries he’d kept during his three-year period of service into a narrative – titled In Stahlgewittern – which he had privately printed in 1920 in an edition of 2,000.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919 – looking miraculously untouched after three years of war and some 20 wounds

Over the course of his very long life (he lived to be 102 years old), Jünger not only wrote many more books and articles, but he rewrote In Stahlgewittern half a dozen times, each time moving further from the diary format, adding passages of philosophical reflection, and altering the emphasis.

For example, the 1924 edition is the most blood-thirsty and gives precise details of how he shot British soldiers. The 1934 edition, by contrast, is much more muted and removes those descriptions. Jünger was by now reaching an international audience i.e. British and French readers, with whom he needed to be more tactful.

It was only in 1930 that Storm of Steel was first translated into English and given this English title. During the 1930s it quickly became acknowledged as one of the classic accounts of trench fighting in the Great War.

Translating Jünger into English

English written by an English person tends to indicate the author’s social class, with traces of the kind of school they went to (private or state), sometimes their regional origins, and so on. It is full of all kinds of traces.

Translations into English, on the other hand, generally tell you more about the translator than about the original author.

Clunky phrasing

The translation I read is by Michael Hofmann, the poet, and was published in 2003. Although it won several prizes, I found it very easy to dislike.

Hofmann’s English prose doesn’t flow, in fact it regularly (two or three times per page) breaks down into unidiomatic and clunky phrasing. Again and again I found myself thinking ‘No native English speaker ever spoke or wrote like that – so why are you?’

‘They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not soon be over.’ (p.8)
How about … ‘and whether the war was going to end soon’

‘I was given a couple of hours to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout.’ (p.9)
‘To find an exhausted sleep’??

‘If it’s all one to you, I’d just as soon hang on to it.’ (p.18)
No English speaker ever said ‘If it’s all one to you’. An English speaker would say ‘If it’s all the same to you…’

We had the satisfaction of having our opponent disappearing for good after a series of shots had struck the clay ramparts directly in front of his face. (p.65)
Why the -ing on the end of disappear?

‘Recouvrance was a remote village, nestling in pretty chalk hills, to where all the regiments in the division dispatched a few of their young men to receive a thorough schooling in military matters…” (p.16)
Why not just delete ‘to’? And replace ‘dispatched’ with ‘sent’?

Maybe the resolutely un-English nature of many of the sentences and the un-English atmosphere which hovers over the entire text is a deliberate strategy to convey the un-English nature of Jünger’s original German.

But I doubt it because many of the sentences in Hofmann’s introduction have the same broken-backed, wrong-word-order, clumsy clauses, not-quite-English feel about them.

As I read Hofmann’s translation I compared it with the first translation of Storm of Steel into English which was made by Basil Creighton back in 1930, and which I borrowed from my local library. Creighton’s translation of that last excerpt reads:

Recouvrance was a remote little village hidden among delightful chalk hills. A certain number of the more youthful of us were sent there from the division to receive a thorough military training…

Though not perfect, Creighton’s version has more of the rhythm of ordinary English prose, and is therefore much more readable, than the Hofmann.

Erratic vocabulary and register

Hofmann is an acclaimed poet – which maybe explains why in some places he shows a deliberately refractory choice of phrasing and word order – why he often flaunts odd words and phrases – in a way common in modern poetry but which stands out next to Creighton’s straightforwardly factual (if sometimes dated) prose.

This often leads Hofmann into what I thought was a curiously tin ear for register, by which I mean the way a writer chooses vocabulary and phrasing, manages the positioning of subordinate clauses and so on, in order to create a consistent style or voice.

To give a specific example, Hofmann seems to deliberately combine terms which are inappropriate or anachronistic in order to create a clash of registers. Take this sentence:

After this incident I betook myself to my dugout, but today too there was no chance of any restorative kip. (p.74)

‘Betook myself to’? When do you think that phrase was last used in everyday speech or writing? It sounds like Dr Johnson and the Augustans to me. Googling it you find that ‘betook myself’ is included in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, which was written in the mid-19th century in a deliberately archaic and Gothic style. In other words, the phrase was old in 1845.

On the other hand ‘kip’ is a slang term for sleep which reminds me of George Orwell’s use of it in Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1930s, where it has the feel of the rough, lower-class, Victorian vocabulary used by Orwell’s tramps.

Bringing them together in the one sentence – an extremely archaic 18th century idiom running into a 1930s slang term – creates, for me, a car crash of registers. And neither of them are what you’d call modern colloquial or formal English. They create a made-up register, an invented English.

Why? Maybe we are meant to accept it as the style of a famous poet playing with language. ‘He’s a poet; of course he’s going to give you a poetic translation!’

Which is all well and good in the privacy of his own writing where he can do as he pleases – but when he is translating a notable foreign author surely he should try to recreate a consistent register of English which is the nearest possible replication of the original author’s tone of voice. Isn’t that the goal of most translations?

(Incidentally, the insertion of ‘too’ in the ‘betook’ sentence is something no English speaker would do, but is instead a quite obvious direct translation of the German word auch and is placed where the German word comes in the sentence: aber heute auch – ‘but today also’. An English writer might say: ‘After this incident I went back to my dugout but once [or yet] again there was no chance of a restorative sleep.’)

To take another tiny, jarring detail, I was pulled up short when Hofmann has Jünger use the term ‘grunt’ (pp.133, 196) for infantryman. Now ‘grunt’ is a well-known word to anyone who’s read about the Vietnam War of the 1960s, where it became the universal term for the American infantry, expressing a combination of embattled fondness for the dumb front-line soldiers with contempt for the shitstorm their superiors had dumped them in. Looking it up, I find that ‘grunt’ was first recorded in this sense in print in 1969.

My point is that all this word’s associations are to Vietnam – to choppers, ‘gooks’, napalm at dawn and so on. Dropping it into your translation of Jünger describing the First World War is like dropping a couple of seconds of colour film into a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie. It is a deliberately jarring anachronism.

It seemed to me that at moments like this the translator is grandstanding, making more of an effort to display his modernist taste for unexpected juxtapositions of register, signalling what a poet he is – rather than concentrating on translating Jünger into clear, effective and tonally consistent prose.

Sometimes Hoffman has Jünger use low-class phrases like ‘argy-bargy’ (pp.155, 245) and ‘getting on our wicks’ (p.149) – phrases more evocative of Eastenders than an élite Germany infantry officer of 1917.

But at the other extreme of class diction, after our hero survives a violent foray into the British trenches, Hoffman has him overhearing a common soldier saying:

‘I must say, though, that Lieutenant Jünger is really something else: my word, the sight of him vaulting over those barricades!’

‘I must say… My word’! Does Hoffman really think that an ordinary squaddie – one of the common infantry he describes as ‘grunts’ – would actually talk like that? While he has posh, upper-class officers says things are ‘getting on our wicks’. It is a topsy-turvy use of registers.

Where and when is this English set? Is it with Edgar Allen Poe in 1845, with Orwell’s tramps’ during the depression, 1920s Jeeves and Wooster banter, or in 1967 Vietnam slang? This prose is all over the place.

German word order

I studied German at GCSE level. Not enough to be fluent but enough to have a feel for its grammar and very different word order from English. So I kept having the feeling that Hofmann, happy to play havoc with the register of his prose, also made a point of clinging to the original German word order.

Maybe, again, this is a deliberate strategy to convey the ‘otherness’ of the original German, but too often it simply has the result of obscuring Jünger’s actual meaning.

For example, Jünger first experiences a really heavy artillery barrage at les Éparges in 1915. He feels weirdly disconnected from the mayhem around him. Hofmann has:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Note the way he handles the subordinate clauses in these sentences. French and German users often put descriptions of something or someone or an action that the subject of the sentence has taken, into a subordinate clause right next to the subject or object. They write:

The ball, having been kicked by Daisy, rolled across the grass.

Francois, a man I had never liked, opened the door.

It often makes French and German prose, if translated literally, feel clotted or lumpy. Deciding what to do with these stumpy subordinate clauses is one of the chief problems facing anyone translating from those languages into English.

Because in flowing, idiomatic English, we prefer to give such clauses a main verb and subject of their own, sometimes inserting them into the main sentence, or – if that’s too tricky – just breaking a long clotted sentence up into two simpler ones. This makes them flow better, and it makes the prose more punchy and effective because, instead of a passive past participle, you have an active verb. So we write:

Daisy kicked the ball and it rolled across the grass.

Francois opened the door. I had never liked him.

Clearer, simpler, more active. Let’s look at that passage again:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Twice in this short passage Hofmann uses subordinate clauses, and these create a sense of passivity: ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ and ‘returned to my unit’ are both adjectival phrases describing the ‘I’ which immediately follows. They blunt the potential for active verbs. They weight the subject down like a ball and chain. They make the prose inactive and heavy.

Compare and contrast with Creighton’s translation of the same passage:

At the same time I had no fear. For I felt that I was not seen, and I could not believe that anyone aimed at me or that I should be hit. Indeed, when I rejoined my section I surveyed our front with complete calm. It was the courage of ignorance.

Not perfect prose either, I grant you, but note:

  1. Hofmann’s passive subordinate clauses have become phrases led by an active verb – ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ has become ‘I felt that I was not seen’, and ‘returned to my unit’ becomes ‘when I rejoined my section’. Feels brighter and more lively, doesn’t it? The point is that Hofmann tucks away a lot of information in clauses which – as the name suggests – are subordinate – passive, veiled and hidden. Creighton’s prose brings this information out into the daylight as active phrases which contribute to the flow of the prose and which the reader notices more.
  2. And this greater activity is really rammed home by Creighton’s final sentence which has the ta-dah! impact of the pithy couplet at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. ‘It was the courage of ignorance’ is exactly the kind of didactic punchline the paragraph is crying out for, which brings the point out into the open and rams it home. (It’s easier to feel the impact of this last sentence if you’ve read the whole of the previous sequence of paragraphs: it neatly sums up an entire passage.)

The result of all this is that I didn’t really notice this passage at all when I read it in the Hofmann. It just drifted by, passive, subordinate and veiled. Whereas when I read the Creighton version, this passage really leaped out at me as the pithy and powerful conclusion of a man who had been through his first artillery barrage and now, looking back, realises how naive and foolish he was to have felt so confident.

It was only in the Creighton translation that I understood the point Jünger was making.

So: from very early on in my reading, I had the impression that Hofmann was more interested in tickling the tastebuds of modish readers who like poetic effects (jarring, modernist, poetic effects) than in finding a consistent register which would allow Jünger’s meaning and conclusions to come over as clearly, consistently and powerfully as possible.

To be even blunter – I felt that in reading the Hofmann, I not only had to put up with a steady flow of clunking un-English phraseology and word order, but that I was missing a lot of what Jünger wanted to say.

Hofmann’s clunks

At four o’clock already we were roused from our bed put together from bits of furniture, to be given our steel helmets. (p.93)
This is German word order, not English. French and German uses the equivalent of ‘already’ a lot more than we do in English. It’s a giveaway sign that the German is being translated word for word rather than into idiomatic English.

All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of coloured flares. (p.95)

When morning paled, the strange surroundings gradually revealed themselves to our disbelieving eyes. (p.97)
Show-off, poetic use of ‘pale’ as a verb.

In my unhealthy irritation, I couldn’t help but think that these vehicles followed no other purpose than to annoy us… (p.102)
I don’t think ‘to follow a purpose’ is an English idiom. We’d say ‘had no other purpose’, though it’s still clunky phrasing. How about: ‘I couldn’t help thinking the only point of these vehicles was to annoy us…’

The following morning, the battalion marched off into the direction of heavy firing… (p.131)
Doesn’t he mean either ‘in the direction of’ or, more simply, ‘towards’?

We ate heartily, and handed the bottle of ’98 proof’ around. Then we settled off to sleep… (p.166)
‘Settled off’? Obviously he means ‘settled down’. This is not English. Why wasn’t this book proof read by an English speaker?

Our first period in position passed pleasantly quietly. (p.142)

In the evening, the shelling waxed to a demented fury. (p.161)
‘Waxed’? I know that it can mean ‘grew’, but it hasn’t been used in this sense since Shakespeare.

German humour

Maybe they simply don’t survive Hofmann’s clumsy translation, but what appear to be  Jünger’s attempts at humour aren’t very funny. For example, I think the following is intended to include both a stylish reference to a German literary figure, and to be itself a humorous description of trying to get rid of lice.

Fairly unscathed myself thus far by that scourge, I helped my comrade Priepke, an exporter from Hamburg, wrap his woollen waistcoat – as populous as once the garment of the adventurous Simplicissimus – round a heavy boulder, and for mass extermination, dunk it in the river. Where, since we left Hérinnes very suddenly, it will have mouldered away quietly ever since. (p.20)

This is godawful English prose. What a mouthful of marbles! In Creighton’s version this becomes:

As I had been more or less free from this plague, I assisted a friend, Priepke, to deal with his woollen vest, which was as populous as the habit of Simplicius Simplicissimus of yore. So we wrapped it round a large stone and sank it in a stream. As our departure from Herne followed very suddenly upon this, it is likely that the garment enjoys a quiet resting-place there to this day.

Creighton’s version is not brilliant either, but at least he makes the sensible move of breaking up the long clotted main sentence into two smaller sentences. And the use of ‘so’ at the start of the second sentence gives a sense of logic and clarity to the description.

Still not that rib-tickling, though, is it?

In his introduction Hofmann devotes a couple of pages to explaining what an awful translator Creighton was, and how he made literally hundreds of elemental mistakes in his understanding of German. Maybe. But his version is much more readable than Hofmann’s. If Hofmann’s accusations against Creighton are true then, alas, it seems that the reader is stuck with two very flawed translations.

Worse, it appears that the Creighton contains content – passages of reflection and philosophising – which are simply not present in the Hofmann. Presumably this is because Creighton was translating from one of the more wordy and reflective versions of the book, and Hofmann has chosen to translate one of the leaner versions or to himself cut out the philosophising passages.

It is in these sections that Jünger gives his thoughts about the meaning of war and bravery. Creighton has quite a few of them; Hofmann has none. Maybe this makes the Hofmann version more pure and elemental but it does mean that the average English reader will never get to see and read Jünger’s thoughts about his central subject – men in war.

From all this I conclude that maybe what this important book deserves is some kind of scholarly variorum edition. An edition which:

  • clearly explains the textual history of the book
  • summarises the changes between all the different versions
  • decides which version to translate (and explains why)
  • renders it into clear, unfussy English

But which also features extensive footnotes or endnotes which include the important passages from all the other versions, so we can see how Jünger chopped and changed the text, and with notes explaining why he did this and how it reflected his evolving attitude towards the subject matter.

Jünger’s detached attitude

As to the actual content of the book, it is notorious for Jünger’s apparently cold, detached and heartless description of what he experiences.

There is absolutely no build-up in the way of the author’s birth, upbringing, family, education, feelings on the outbreak of war, agonising over which regiment to join and so on, none of the bonhomie and chat and certainly none of the humour which characterises, say, Robert Graves’s famous war book, Goodbye To All That.

Instead we are thrown straight into the action: the narrator just steps off a train in France, is told to line up with his squad, is marched to a village, has his first experience of shellfire, sees some men from a different unit get killed, and then he’s taken up the line and starts the trench soldier’s existence of sleeplessness, cold and discomfort.

It is a little as if an utterly detached intelligence from another planet has been embedded in a human body and proceeds to do everything it’s told, while all the time observing the strange human creatures and their customs.

I still viewed the machinery of conflict with the eyes of an inexperienced recruit – the expressions of bellicosity seemed as distant and peculiar to me as events on another planet. (p.27)

It’s only some way into the text that we even learn the year he’s describing, namely 1915. It is a bare bones approach. In the fifth chapter (‘Daily life in the trenches’) the text really returns to the ‘bones’ of his experience, as it reverts to its original format as a diary, each paragraph starting with a date and the events of that day. We follow a straightforward chronological sequence of dates which takes us through the summer and autumn 1915, through Christmas, and into the spring of 1916.

The names of lots of soldier comrades are given, but only in the briefest, most clinical way. Often they’re only mentioned on the date they die, in fact most of the diary entries are clipped descriptions of who died on what day, and how.

Jünger doesn’t seem to have any close friends. He certainly doesn’t have the witty conversations with them that Graves does, or hang out with a few close buddies like Frederick Manning does in his brilliant war memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune.

Instead, Jünger observes with cool detachment everything that happens around him. After he’s wounded the first time – a shrapnel laceration across his thigh – Jünger is brought back to a clearing station, where the surgeon is overwhelmed with casualties.

At the sight of the surgeon, who stood checking the roster in the bloody chaos, I once again had the impression, hard to describe, of seeing a man surrounded by elemental terror and anguish, studying the functioning of his organisation with ant-like cold-bloodedness. (p.32)

As it happens, among his many other achievements, Jünger lived to become a famous entomologist i.e. an expert on insects, and went on to write books on the subject after the war. So it strikes me that his portrait of the surgeon, calm and detached among the slaughter, watching the people around him as if they were insects to be studied – is in fact Jünger’s self-portrait of himself.


Jünger’s vision of war

What it lacks in warmth, humour or human touch, the book more than makes up for with the thing that makes it so powerful, which helped it grow into a classic – which is Jünger’s hugely compelling descriptions of the brutal, the eerie, the strange, the heroic and the primordial nature of this utterly new kind of total war, and of the terrifying new race of men it seemed to be breeding.

Physical disgust

In the rising mist, I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror; next to me a figure was crouched by a tree. It still had gleaming French leather harness, and on its back was a fully packed haversack, topped by a round mess-tin. Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All round were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. (p.25)

Not only are there corpses all around, but the book gives us hundreds of descriptions of men being shot, eviscerated, decapitated, buried alive, flayed by shrapnel, burned to death by fire, stifled by gas, and exploded.

There was another whistling high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.

Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine-gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for a moment tore open the extreme abysm of terror. (p.225)

The rate of deaths, the endless stream of deaths Jünger sees at first hand, right in front of him, never lets up, is staggering, stupefying. So many men, so many terrifying woundings, eviscerations, liquidations, smashings, manglings and screams of pain.

NCO Dujesiefken, my comrade at Regniéville, was standing in front of my foxhole, begging me to get into the trench as even a light shell bursting anywhere near would cause masses of earth to come down on top of me. An explosion cut him off: he sprawled to the ground, missing a leg. He was past help. (p.230)

Beside the ruined cottage lay a piece of trench that was being swept with machine-gun fire from beyond. I jumped into it, and found it untenanted. Immediately afterwards, I was joined by Oskar Kius and von Wedelstädt. An orderly of von Wedelstädt’s, the last man in, collapsed in mid-air, shot through one eye. (p.237)

One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured onto the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. (p.248)

On his six visits to dressing stations in the rear and then on to hospitals to be treated, Jünger is in the company of men weeping and screaming from all sorts of pitiful wounds. At one hospital he is told they had received 30,000 casualties in the previous three weeks. Men die horrible deaths left, right and centre, all the time, unrelentingly. Death death death.

In the spring the ice and frost melt and the walls of the trenches thaw and dissolve, revealing the massed bodies and equipment of the men of 1914 and 1915, whose bodies had been built into the defences. The soldiers find themselves treading on the slimy gloop of the decomposing corpses from last year’s battles.

The scale of the killing is inconceivable.

Heightened alertness

Yet Jünger combines countless examples of disgusting physical injury and the ubiquity of slimy, popping, farting, rotting corpses, with an unquenchable lust for life and excitement. Nothing can stop his steely patriotism and lust for excitement.

Whenever possible he volunteers to go on night patrols into no man’s land, risking his life for often trivial rewards or none at all, generally ending up haring back to his own lines as rifle and machine gun fire starts up from the British or French opposite. But to be out there, sneaking silently in the presence of Death, is to be alive as nowhere else.

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterable menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow burst; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape. ( p.71)

Battlefield stress

Sometimes it all seems like a dream or a nightmare, a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. On one occasion, caught out in no man’s land when his little squad bumps into some foraging Brits, the two groups fall to mad hand-to-hand fighting in which all their 20th century weapons fail, leaving only wordless, primitive struggle.

After one shot the magazine had clicked out of my pistol grip. I stood yelling in front of a Briton who in his horror was pressing his back into the barbed wire, and kept pulling the trigger. Nothing happened – it was like a dream of impotence. (p.88)

Later, Jünger is behind the lines in the village of Fresnoy when it comes under a pulverising artillery bombardment that blows houses to pieces and human beings into shreds of flesh.

I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform; his head was off, and the blood had flowed into a puddle. When an ambulanceman turned him over to check him for valuables, I saw as in a nightmare that his thumb was still hanging from the remains of his arm. (p.135)

It is a world of despairingly horrific sights and intense visions. A world in which everything is bright, overlit, too vivid, permanently visionary.

Like a vision in a dream, the sight, lit only by falling sparks, of a double line of kneeling figures at the instant in which they rose to advance, etched itself into my eye. (p.147)

A world in which even things which have just happened are so outside the range of normal human experience that they are impossible to process in any rational way.

I experienced quite a few adventures in the course of the war, but none was quite as eerie as this. It still makes me feel a cold sweat when I think of us wandering around among those unfamiliar trenches by the cold early light. It was like the dream of a labyrinth. (p.190)

Unsurprisingly, so many close encounters with death – not just close, but so irrational, so uncanny, so deep, arousing the cave man or the prehuman in their souls – had psychological repercussions.

It was only afterwards that I noticed that the experience had taken its toll on my nerves, when I was lying on my pallet in my dugout with my teeth chattering, and quite unable to sleep. Rather, I had the sensation of a sort of supreme awakeness – as if I had a little electric bell going off somewhere in my body. The following morning I could hardly walk. (p.88)

But like the men he so fulsomely praises, Jünger does get up, he commands, he leads, he doesn’t stop.

The emotions of war

The intensity of the war, the relentless bombardment, the lack of sleep, the continual toll of deaths from snipers or random mortar bombs, gives rise to new emotions and feelings – strange hilarities, clarities, hysterias – which he observes working within himself.

Here, and really only here, I was to observe that there is a quality of dread that feels as unfamiliar as a foreign country. In moments when I felt it, I experienced no fear as such but a kind of exalted, almost demoniacal lightness; often attended by fits of laughter I was unable to repress. (p.93)

And he repeatedly describes the madness of combat, the crazed exhiliration of the charge, bayonets fixed, down a confusing warren of corpse-strewn trenches, towards the top, and over into the face of the enemy.

On, on! In one violently bombarded defile, the sections backed up. Take cover! A horribly penetrating smell told us that this passage had already taken a good many lives. After running for our lives, we managed to reach a second defile which concealed the dugout of the front-line commanding officer, then we lost our way again, and in a painful crush of excited men, had to turn back once more. At the most five yards from Vogel and me, a middle-sized shell struck the bank behind us with a dull thump, and hurled mighty clods of earth over us, as we thought our last moment had come. Finally, our guide found the path again – a strangely constellated group of corpses serving as a landmark. One of the dead lay there as if crucified on the chalk slope. It was impossible to imagine a more appropriate landmark.

On, on! Men collapsed while running, we had to threaten them to use the last energy from their exhausted bodies. Wounded men went down left and right in craters – we disregarded their cries for help. We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a thin chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn’t make out on account of the darkness. The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate: he too was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards. (pp.96-97)

Courage

And in this strange landscape, between the midnight hunting in no man’s land, the grinding lack of sleep of the nightly sentry routine, and the appallingly unrelenting artillery bombardments unleashed by the British, amid all this horror, Jünger’s comrades do not defect or resile. They stand to when ordered to. They muster by the revetments of the trenches causing Jünger to burn with pride.

It was in the course of these days that I learned to appreciate these men with whom I was to be together for two more years of the war. What was at stake here was a British initiative on such a small scale as barely to find mention in the histories of both armies, intended to commit us to a sector where the main attack was not to be. Nor did the men have much to do, only cover the very small amount of ground, from the entrance of the shelter to the sentry posts. But these few steps needed to be taken in the instant of a great crescendo of fire before an attack, the precise timing of which is a matter of gut instinct and feeling. The dark wave that so many times in those nights welled up to the traverses through fire, and without even an order being possible, remained with me in my heart as a personal yardstick for human trustworthiness. (p.85)

Something awesome is happening, and Jünger brilliantly conveys its tensed uniqueness.

These instants, in which the entire complement of men stood behind the traverses, tensed and ready, had something magical about them; they were like the last breathless second before a hugely important performance, as the music is turned off and the big lights go up. (p.77)

New men

For amid this inferno, a new race of men is being forged.

A runner from a Württemberg regiment reported to me to guide my new platoon to the famous town of Combles, where we were to be held in reserve for the time being. He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world… Nothing was left in his voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It’s men like that that you need for fighting. (p.92)

Invulnerable, invincible men of steel, forged in the furnace of war.

As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered. (p.99)

New men. Men of the future. The Overmen.

There was in these men a quality that both emphasised the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood. (p.140)

Something primordial

Men being shaped anew in the storm of steel because these are conditions and circumstances unlike any ever experienced by any humans in all previous human history.

From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells criss-crossed hissing and howling over our heads. All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of flares. Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. We had the sensation of the ineluctable and the unconditionally necessary, as if we were facing an elemental force. (p.95)

The sheer unrelenting killing machine mincing its way through human flesh on an unprecedented scale awakes echoes of something infinitely primitive, primordial, echoes of pre-human conditions, the beginning or end of the world.

The whole scene – the mixture of the prisoners’ laments and our jubilation – had something primordial about it. This wasn’t war; it was ancient history. (p.150)

Conclusion

Storm of Steel follows Jünger’s diary in giving the German point of view of a number of Western front battles, in chronological order, from 1915 to 1918, including the Battle of the Somme and leading up to the German spring offensive of 1918, followed by the Allied counter-attack in the summer of 1918. At this point Jünger was wounded for the sixth time, and he was recuperating back in Germany when the war ended.

The text could be used as evidence of the camaraderie of the German forces, or of their officers’ awareness of their material inferiority to the Allies, or of their confidence in the superiority of the German fighting spirit.

The Creighton translation has an introduction by one R.H. Mottram, who himself fought in the war. In his opinion Storm of Steel is evidence of the obtuse refusal to face reality of the entire Germany military class. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in October 1914, it became clear that the war could only ever end with Allied victory – yet the German High Command stretched it out for four long, bitter years of psychological denial, resulting in ten million unnecessary deaths.

There are occasional moments when Jünger reveals a human side. Half way through the book there’s an unexpected passage in which Jünger discovers that his brother, who had also enlisted, is fighting in a unit right alongside his own. He immediately goes to find him, in the heat of a battle and, discovering him wounded in a farmhouse, arranges for him to be carried back to a field hospital in a piece of tarpaulin, probably saving his life.

So, all in all, Storm of Steel contains much material for historians or literary critics, psychologists or military analysts, to excerpt and analyse.

And there are countless details to shock and grab the casual reader’s attention, like the little girl lying in a pool of her own blood in a bombed-out village, or the soldier thrown into the exact pose of the crucifixion by a shell blast – the kind of details which feed into the modern liberal consensus that war is hell.

But in my opinion, all these elements are eclipsed by Jünger’s terrifying sense of a new world of war emerging, a world of unprecedented destruction and obliteration, in which a wholly new breed of heartless, battle-hardened warriors would arise to fight and flourish. Emerging from his visceral description of total war is a nightmare vision of the future, and an even more destructive conflagration to come.

As though waking from a deep dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching through the craters. They seemed to sprout from the fire-harrowed soil like some iron harvest. (p.235)


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Other blog posts about the First World War

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929)

In Northumberland I reread ‘Goodbye to All That’ by Robert Graves, in an old Penguin paperback with a wraparound cover of a mud-brown John Nash painting.

A delight, endlessly entertaining. Graves has polished his anecdotes till they gleam like pebbles in a stream, sparkling with his dry sense of humour, a shining eye for detail, and his crisp, clear, modern prose. The same style which makes ‘I, Claudius’ and his other novels so compelling, so damn readable.

The first 50 pages are about his childhood and miserable schooling at Charterhouse; the final 50 about his subsistence as a poor, hastily married poet living outside Oxford; the middle 150 pages about his lengthy Great War service. By the end of the book you can understand why he was thoroughly sick of England and all its values and keen to flee to Majorca, where he spent the rest of his life.


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