Histories by Tacitus

Biography

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, generally referred to simply as Tacitus, was a Roman statesman and historian. He lived from 56 to 120 AD. Like many Roman writers he had an eminent career in politics and public service. He started his career under the emperor Vespasian (ruled 69 to 79) and entered political life as a quaestor in 81 or 82 under Titus (ruled 79 to 81). He became praetor under Domitian (ruled 81 to 96) in 88 and then a quindecimvir, a member of the priestly college in charge of the Sibylline Books and the Secular Games.

Tacitus gained acclaim as a lawyer and as an orator, then served in the provinces from about 89 to about 93, either in command of a legion or in a civilian post. He became suffect consul (someone appointed to replace an elected consul who had vacated their office before the completion of their year-long term) in 97, during the short reign of Nerva (ruled 96 to 98).

It was about this point that he embarked on a career as a writer, producing two historical monographs – a biography of his father-in-law Julius Agricola which, because the latter had served as governor of Britain, contains much interesting information about the tribes and geography of ancient Britain; and the Germania, an ethnographic study of the tribes of Germany, both published in 98.

Tacitus returned to public life during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98 to 117). In 100 he and his friend, Pliny the Younger, prosecuted Marius Priscus (proconsul of Africa) for corruption. Priscus was found guilty and sent into exile. Pliny wrote in a letter a few days later that Tacitus had spoken ‘with all the majesty which characterises his usual style of oratory’.

Tacitus spent the next decade or so researching his two major works, the Histories and the Annals but in 112 to 113 was back in public service, recorded as holding the highest civilian governorship, of the Roman province of ‘Asia’ i.e. western Turkey. He probably died in the 120s, though the precise date is not known.

The point of recounting all this is to emphasise that Tacitus understood military and political power from the inside. He was a noted public speaker, lawyer and prosecutor, and held senior administrative posts. This profound understanding of all aspects of the Roman political system explains why Tacitus’s histories feel so authoritative and rich. He is speaking from deep experience of how Roman government worked, along with all the scheming, backstabbing and politicking which accompanied it.

The Histories

Together, the Histories and Annals were designed to give a continuous, year-by-year history of Rome under the rule of the first 12 emperors, from the death of Augustus to the death of Domitian i.e. from 14 to 96 AD, taking in the ten emperors in between (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

Tacitus composed the Annals second but they deal with the earlier period, Augustus to Nero (14 to 68). He composed the Histories first but they deal with the later period, Galba to Domitian (68 to 96).

Both books are missing large sections. The Annals is missing a big chunk in the middle, covering the last two years of Tiberius, the entire reign of Caligula (37 to 41) and the first six years of Claudius (41 to 47). Very frustrating.

But the Histories are even more mutilated. Originally 12 or 14 books in length, all that survive are the first four books and part of the fifth so that, instead of the 30 or so years from 68 to 96, all we have is just the first two years of his intended period, namely a brief summary of 68, all of 69 and some of 70.

The 1964 Penguin Classics paperback translation by British historian Kenneth Wellesley (1911 to 1995) is 260 pages long. That’s a lot of pages for just 2 years, so straightaway you know the Histories are going to cover the period in great detail.

If it’s a shame that we’ve lost most of the Histories and thus Tacitus’s accounts of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, looking on the bright side, what we do have is a detailed account of a pivotal moment, the so-called Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, when, following Nero’s suicide in June 68, four successive military leaders contested the imperial throne.

Nero was the last representative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which had ruled Rome since 27 BC, but it was not only a dynasty that was overthrown; such was the chaos that it looked to contemporaries as if the unified, centralised structure of the Roman Empire itself might come to an end.

Four emperors died violently:

  • Nero in June 68, suicide (1. 4)
  • Galba in January 69, murdered by soldiers (1.41)
  • Otho in April 69, suicide (2.49)
  • Vitellius in December 69, murdered by soldiers (3.85)

Synopsis

Nero overthrown

In summer 68 reports reached Nero that the governor of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis, Gaius Julius Vindex, had rebelled against him. In order to gain support Vindex declared he was rebelling in support of the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, Servius Sulpicius Galba. The commander of the Germania Superior army, Lucius Verginius Rufus, remained loyal to Nero and led his army against Vindex and appears to have beaten him at the battle of Vesontio, where Vindex was killed. But in the meantime, momentum had shifted to Galba. Other army leaders swung behind him and the senate declared for him. Abandoned by the legions in Italy, Nero fled to a villa outside Rome and, hearing hostile troops approaching, committed suicide rather than be dragged back to Rome and executed.

Reign of Servius Sulpicius Galba (8 June 68 to 15 January 69)

So the senate declared for Galba and he undertook the long march from Spain to the capital, where he was acclaimed emperor in June 68. However, Galba was:

  • old – he was 70 when he came to power
  • ruled badly and inconsistently, swayed by a cabal of corrupt advisers
  • didn’t pay the army as generously as it was expecting, especially the all-important Praetorian Guard which, as a result, turned against him (1.4)c

More importantly, on 1 January 69, the same day that Galba took the office of consul alongside Titus Vinius, the legions of Upper Germany refused to swear loyalty to the new emperor. They toppled the statues of Galba and demanded that a new emperor be chosen. The following day, the soldiers of Lower Germany also refused to swear their loyalty and proclaimed the governor of their province, Aulus Vitellius, as emperor.

In a bid to secure his position, on 10 January Galba held a ceremony to adopt the 31-year-old Lucius Calpurnius Piso Licinianus as his successor but it didn’t work. Just 5 days later, on 15 January, Galba was murdered by the Praetorian Guard (1.41). His successor, Piso, fled to the Temple of Vesta, but was dragged out and killed (1.43). Their heads were cut off and paraded round on pikes.

Reign of Marcus Otho (15 January to 16 April 69)

Tacitus’s account describes in detail how his successor, Marcus Otho, based in Rome, organised the conspiracy to assassinate Galba. Otho had been close to the centre of power for over a decade. He had initially been a friend and courtier of the young Nero, but Nero had an affair with and eventually married his wife, Poppaea Sabina, so had had Otho was dispatched to be governor the remote province of Lusitania in 58.

According to Tacitus Otho ruled Lusitania moderately for a decade. In the turmoil of summer 68, Otho allied himself with Galba, who was governor of neighbouring, Hispania Tarraconensis, and he accompanied Galba on his march to Rome, not unreasonably expecting a reward for his support. He was, therefore, aggrieved when Galba overlooked him to adopt Piso.

However, all these personal motives were dwarfed when Otho, now appointed emperor, read Galba’s imperial correspondence and for the first time realised the scale of the revolt of the army in Germany. Vitellius was leading his legions on a march on Rome à la Galba. Otho made an effort to negotiate, offering Vitellius a share in ruling the empire. When this was rejected, he assembled a fleet to control the coast and led his legions north where they undertook savage attacks on the civilians in the region.

Tacitus gives a detailed account of the movements of the legions of the various armies, Vitellius’s under the ambitious Aulus Caecina Alienus, Otho’s under Suetonius Paulinus. Paulinus defeated Caecina at a battle near Cremona but Caecina was then joined by the other Vitellian army led by Fabius Valens for the key battle of the campaign which took place at Bedriacum on 14 April 69.

It was a disaster for Otho’s forces, with the historian Dio Cassius claiming that 40,000 Roman soldiers were killed on both sides. (Tacitus makes the interesting point that in a civil war there’s less point, in fact it’s illegal, to take prisoners and ransom to their families, as you can in war against foreigners. So you might as well just kill them.) The next day Otho’s forces surrendered and swore allegiance to Vitellius (2.45).

Otho had retained substantial forces at his main base at Brixellum, a few miles from the battlefield and they advised him to fight on but Otho, reluctant to be responsible for more Roman lives lost, chose to commit suicide. Otho was mocked during his life for his debauched lifestyle and flamboyant homosexuality. But his suicide struck the true Roman Stoic note and was remembered and praised. Tacitus treats Otho’s death nobly and gives him a stirring speech to his men (2.46 to 49):

It may be that others have held the principate longer, but I shall make sure that no one quits it more courageously.

(A note on the Roman cult of suicide: Tacitus claims that a number of troops committed suicide beside Otho’s funeral pyre, and at the other Othonian camps both high and low committed suicide in order ‘to share his glory.’)

Reign of Aulus Vitellius (19 April to 20 December 69)

With Otho dead, Vitellius continued his march on Rome, where he made a triumphal entry and was recognized as emperor by the Senate. Tacitus then enjoys himself hugely recounting the multiple instances of Vitellius’s disgraceful debauchery, spending fortunes on games and entertainments, listening to whoever flattered him most, letting the troops he’d brought to the capital run rampant and lose all discipline. Among the numerous executions and appointments, Vitellius failed to defuse the long-running rivalry between the two generals who had won his victory at Bedriacum, Caecina and Valens.

Indeed, as Tacitus repeatedly points out, it proved to be easier to claim the throne than to hold onto it. Vitellius’s claim was soon challenged by the legions stationed in the East (Judaea and Egypt) who proclaimed their commander, Titus Flavius Vespasian, emperor instead.

Vespasian had a formidable reputation as a military commander, having played a key role in Claudius’s invasion of Britain in 43, and he was involved in suppressing the Jewish rebellion (which had started in 66) when Nero committed suicide.

Leaving his son (and future emperor) Titus, in charge of the siege of the Jews in Jerusalem, Vespasian recruited the governor of Syria, Mucianus, and Marcus Antonius Primus, a general in Pannonia, to his cause, and sent them to march on Rome, the third such march by Roman legions in 12 months.

Vespasian himself was in Egypt securing its vital grain supply when his troops entered Italy from the north-east under Primus’s leadership. With his determination, personal courage and charisma, Primus emerges as the ‘hero’, as Wellesley puts it, of book 3 of the Histories. After a confused series of clashes and manoeuvres, Primus’s legions defeated Vitellius’s army at the second battle of Bedriacum on 24 October 69. They then stormed and sacked the nearby town of Cremona in scenes of chaos, rapine and then fire. Tacitus is ashamed of the utter destruction wrought by Roman troops on a venerable Roman city (3.33).

Meanwhile the two generals who had led Vitelius to the throne, Caecina and Valens, both abandoned him in different ways. Caecina led the first Vitellian forces north but betrayed them and his emperor by going over to the Vespasians. Valens was slow to leave Rome and when he learned of the defeat of the Vitellians at Bedriacum he abandoned his legions and took ship to Monaco, with a plan to enter Narbonensian Gaul and raise a general rebellion of the Gaulish and German tribes against Vespasian. As Tacitus comments, this would have been catastrophic if it had succeeded (3.41) but it didn’t. Valens’s ship was overtaken by a flotilla of fast Vespasian galleys. With his capture the wind went out of the Vitellian forces:

With the capture of Valens the whole Roman world rallied to the winning side. (3.44)

Tacitus emphasises that Vitellius still had ample forces around Rome and if he had crossed the Apennines to attack the exhausted Flavian troops before reinforcements had arrived, could quite possibly have won. But he hadn’t a clue about military matters and surrounded himself with flattering courtiers who refused admittance to the centurions and commanders who could have given him sound advice (3.56).

Tacitus describes the confused scenes in Rome when Vitellius came down from the palace dressed in black, made an impassioned speech to the people, but was prevented by them, the Praetorian Guard and the German auxiliaries, from abdicating as he wanted to. (3.67-68) If his wish had been carried out much bloodshed and destruction would have been avoided.

If Vitellius had found it as easy to convert his follower as to give way himself, the army of Vespasian would have entered the capital without bloodshed. (3.66)

But Vitellius’s supporters’ obstinacy meant that the Flavian forces had to fight their way into Rome, destroying property and spreading carnage as they went.

The extraordinary story of Sabinus and Domitian

Vespasian had an older brother, Titus Flavius Sabinus, who had had a successful public career. Throughout the year he had remained in Rome as successive rulers rose and fell. Staying with him was his nephew, Vespasian’s younger son, Domitian. Tacitus tell us that Vitellius was well aware of their presence but took no action against them so that his, Vitellius’s, extended family, living in various provinces, would also be unharmed.

But Sabinus wasn’t stupid and had reached out to the anti-Vitellian factions in the nobility and, when news came that Vitellius had abdicated, he mobilised these individuals and cohorts (‘the leading senators, a number of knights and representatives of the urban troops and of the watch’) and they declared for Vespasian as emperor. Then came the news that Vitellius had been forced to remain in power and the position of Sabinus’s little troupe became desperate. Scuffles between the opposing forces turned into fighting and Sabinus led his force up to the Capitoline Hill where they barricaded themselves in, where he was joined by his family and Domitian.

There followed an intense siege of the hill by the pro-Vitellian forces (3.71). Nobody knows whether it was the attackers or defenders who resorted to fire but somehow a fire started and spread to surrounding buildings, above all the venerable Temple to Jupiter the Best and Greatest. This ancient building, full of tributes and testimonials from centuries of Roman history and military achievement, was burned to the ground.

This was the most lamentable and appalling disaster in the whole history of the Roman commonwealth. (3.72)

Eventually the Vitellians stormed the hill, while panic-stricken Flavians fled or hid or disguised themselves. Sabinus was seized along with his lieutenant, Quintius Atticus, put in chains and dragged before the now-powerless emperor who spoke calmly to them but was unable to stop them being dragged off by the impassioned mob, which stabbed and hacked Sabinus to death, cut off his head and threw his body onto the Gemonian Steps. Thus the end of a great Roman patriot, one among thousands of victims of Vitellius’s inability to rein in his own followers.

The fate of his nephew, Vespasian’s son and the future emperor Domitian, is even more colourful. As the besiegers broke in, Domitian hid in the house of the caretaker of the temple. Helped by a freedman he put on ‘a linen mantle’ and pretended to be a priest in order to get through the lines and then hide at the house of one of the family dependants. Once Vespasian was in power, Domitian demolished the caretaker’s house and built a small temple to Jupiter the Preserver. When he himself became emperor, he had a bigger temple erected to Jupiter the Guardian, with a statue depicting himself ‘under the protecting arm of the god’ (3.74).

So Primus’s legions were forced to fight their way into Rome with much bloodshed and destruction and, seizing the forlorn emperor-in-name-only Vitellius, they dragged him to the same Gemonian Steps where Sabinus’s body had been thrown a few days earlier, and there hacked him to death, on 20 December 69.

Throughout book 3 Tacitus describes how the Flavian side, although generally victorious in battle, was guilty of disagreement and delay, especially how Primus waited for the arrival of Mucianus and his Syrian troops. Other leaders heard of Vitellius’s abdication and thought the war was over. Tacitus finds it hard to apportion blame, but the combined effect was delay which was ‘fatal’ and had ‘tragic’ consequences of ‘unrelieved disaster’ i.e. the siege of the Capitol, the burning of the temple, the execution of Sabinus, and the eventual storming of Rome. The advance guard attacked the city walls on the evening of 19 December 68.

Next day the Flavian armies forced entry to the city at various gates amid scenes of rape and massacre. Tacitus vividly describes how the fighting took place in front of the entire population which watched it like spectators applauding a mock battle in the arena (3.83). Next day Domitian came out of hiding and was awarded the title Caesar but real power rested with the head of the conquering army, Antonius Primus. Within a few days the governor of Syria, Municianus arrived, and power shifted to him as official representative of Vespasian. Tacitus shows how the day-to-day business of politics i.e. speechifying, backstabbing, conspiring, senators prosecuting each other, carried on unchanged.

Reign of Vespasian (July 69 to June 79)

Vespasian ruled for ten years, establishing the Flavian dynasty (which lasted 27 years) which consisted of himself, his eldest son Titus (79 to 81) and second son, Domitian (81 to 96), survivor of the escapades on the Capitoline Hill. In fact Vespasian was the first Roman emperor to be succeeded by his biological son; the succession of emperors in the Julio-Claudian dynasty had all been by adoption. Vespasian:

  • reformed Rome’s financial system of Rome
  • brought the campaign against the Jews to a successful conclusion with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 and the mass suicide of Jewish resisters at Masada in 74
  • initiated ambitious construction projects including commissioning the Flavian Amphitheatre, better known today as the Roman Colosseum

Civilis’ revolt

But Tacitus doesn’t get round to any of this in what we have of his account. Instead, book 4 of his narrative focuses on developments in Germany. Here, months before the Flavian forces had even triumphed in Italy, a Romanised Batavian prince named Gaius Julius Civilis led a rebellion of German and Gaulish tribes which, at one point, threatened the complete independence of Gaul from Rome.

Tacitus describes the complex sequence of events by which Civilis united the tribes and then their attacks on Roman strongholds (notably the long siege of the Roman camp of Vetera), along with the appalling mismanagement on the Roman side, punctuated by mutinies by dissident soldiers (4.12 to 37).

Back in Rome

Tacitus cuts back to Rome to describe the start of the new year (70 AD) and the nominal consulships of Vespasian and his son Titus. However, as both were still absent in the East, it was Vespasian’s 18-year-old Domitian who found himself titled ‘Caesar’ and officiating at the first meetings of the Senate. Tacitus lists the usual senate business of making speeches, arguing about who was guilty of what crimes and betrayals during the reigns of Nero, Galba, Otho and Vitellius, feuds and prosecutions.

Vespasian, still in Egypt supervising Rome’s corn supply, was told bad things about Domitian arrogating too much power to himself, which threatened to turn him against his son, but this is the peg for Titus to make a speech asking clemency for his brother, on the basis that emperor’s needed to keep family close and well as the only true support they had (4.52). Tacitus then describes the reconsecration of the great temple of Jupiter (4.53).

More Civilis’ revolt

The interlude in Rome over, Tacitus returns to Julius Civilis’s rebellion on the Rhine (4.55 to 80). This continues to be very complex, in terms of the continually changing alliance between the tribes and their leaders (Civilis, Classicus, Tutor), the multiple military encounters at different locations, and the fact that one Roman legion is persuaded to defect to the tribals.

Despite setbacks the Romans won a hard-fought battle when the German coalition (the Batavi, Ubii, Lingones, Bructeri and Tencteri) attacked the Roman camp at Augusta Treverorum (Trier). The Roman commander was Quintus Petillius Cerealis who rallied his troops to hold the narrow bridge over the Rhine before counter-attacking and destroying the German camp (4.77). But there were other German and Gaulish forces scattered around the Rhineland, not least in Cologne, so the war was far from over.

Book 4 ends with a few short passages describing Vespasian’s ongoing sojourn in Egypt and some anthropology about the origin of the popular god Serapis, but the war on the Rhine far from resolved.

Book 5

The Jews

The fifth book, of which only the first 26 chapters survive, opens by ignoring the situation in Germany and shifting the scene about 2,000 miles East to Jerusalem. The Jews had risen against Roman rule in 66 AD. Tacitus picks up the story at the start of 70 AD as Vespasian dispatches Titus to Judaea to undertake the siege of Jerusalem. This would fall amid general bloodshed in August of that year although Tacitus’s history breaks off before then.

First though Tacitus treats his readers to an extended history of the Jews, review of their religion and traditions which, as Wellesley puts it, is a ‘fascinating farrago of truth and lies’ (introduction, page 14). But Tacitus gets it right about the Jews’ seven-day week, their monotheism, their fierce attachment to discriminatory customs such as circumcision, eschewing pork, not ‘marrying out’ and so on.

All this leads up to a description of Titus, having pacified the rest of Judaea, arriving before the impressive walled city of Jerusalem which itself contains the citadel within a city of the Temple complex. The city is packed with refugees from the other Jewish cities Roman armies had reduced, and Titus sets about mounting a siege in the approved Roman fashion. (5.13)

Back to Civilis’ revolt

At this point the text leaves Titus to return to the war in Germany. Here there are many more battles and skirmishes between Civilis’s tribes and Romans, including a close escape when Cerealis’s camp is invaded. But the Romans survived and attacked the island in the Rhine estuary where the Batavians lived, devastating it.

As summer turned into autumn Cerealis kept up a flow of secret correspondence with the Germans offering them peace and a return to the status quo ante. The chiefs of the German tribes are coming to realise that they cannot defeat the Romans and have been led into a ruinous unwinnable war by Civilis. The narrative breaks off as Civilis calls Cerealis to a conference at either side of a ruined bridge at Nabalia and begins to justify his actions…

In other words we don’t get to see Titus conclude the siege of Jerusalem or Vespasian set sail for, let alone arrive at, Rome.

The Agricola

In 78 Vespasian appointed as governor of Britain Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who aggressively expanded Roman territory far into Scotland. In the same year the young historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus married Agricola’s daughter. Twenty years later, in an act of filial duty, Tacitus wrote a biography of Agricola which survives in its entirety and contains much invaluable information about the first century British, their tribes and customs. This book, the Agricola, was published around 98 AD. It was the first of his historical works.

Tacitus shares his editorial decisions

A very winning habit of Tacitus’s is to share with the reader the balance of the evidence in front of him and his opinions about it, particularly when it is questionable. He steps out of his narrative, as it were, and we get a strong sense of his personality, brisk, logical, hard-headed:

  • Though I feel that a wilful search for old wives’ tales and the use of fiction to divert the reader is quite inappropriate in a serious work of this type, I hesitate all the same to be sceptical about events widely believed and handed down. (2.50)
  • Historians of this war who wrote during the Flavian dynasty have flatteringly described the motives of these men as ‘concern for peace’ and ‘patriotism’. My own view is that in addition to a natural instability of character and the cheapening of loyalty which was a consequence of their betrayal of Galba, a jealous fear that rivals would outpace them in Vitellius’s affections induced them to ruin Vitellius himself. (2.101)
  • I find that some widely read historians vouch for the truth of the following story…(3.51)

Tacitus tells us (3.25) that for the detail of the fighting he follows the account of Lucius Vipstanus Messalla, a Roman of senatorial status, who was directly involved in the war, being temporary commander of the legion VII Claudia stationed in Moesia which entered the civil war on the Flavian side, and who wrote an account of the war once it was over. This history is now lost but young Tacitus befriended the older man and used it as one of the prime sources for this history.

Sententiae

Sententia is the Roman word for the kind of pithy general statement about human life, the universe etc that we call by the names proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims or apophthegms. The plural form is sententiae. 1) A sententia is a general reflection on life which can arise from the previous narrative, acting as a kind of summary, summarising events or someone’s character in a pithy generalisation. So after describing the differing views among the army and its commanders in the East, he summarises:

Thus there were good men and bad, but for a variety of reasons and with equal enthusiasm all of them wanted war. (2.7)

2) A bit more squarely in the definition is this example where Tacitus describes the feverish rumours in Rome as Vitellius marched against Otho and then explains it by using a generalisation that his elite, crowd-despising, aristocratic audience would heartily endorse:

The cheers and cries of the crowd followed the usual pattern of flattery in being overdone and insincere…The passion for self-abasement operated as it does among domestic slaves, for each individual was prompted by selfishness and the decencies of public life now meant nothing. (1.89)

Hear hear, old chap. In fact the emptiness of public acclamation and the crassly craven behaviour of all mobs is a recurring theme and you can hear in Tacitus’s voice the scorn of a republican lamenting the hollow mob rule which the imperial form of government encouraged:

  • This was merely the accepted tradition whereby any emperor, no matter who he was, was acclaimed with extravagant applause and empty demonstration. (1.32)
  • [The defeated Othonian army turn on their leaders, blaming everyone except themselves.] This, of course, is typical of the mob. (2.44)
  • [On the entry of the despicable Vitellius into Rome] The lower classes are irresponsible and unable to discriminate between counterfeit and true. Adept in offering the usual flattery, they shouted and yelled their approval. (2.90)
  • In moments of fear the voice of wisdom and the gossip of the mob are listened to with equal alacrity. (3.58)

3) Or a sententia can be included in a flow of argument as a kind of proof. An author may cite a sententia summarising a common opinion or experience, with a view to winning the reader over to his point of view or recruiting the reader to his framework, his analysis:

  • Suspicion and hatred must always be the reaction of rulers towards the man talked of as the next in succession. (p.35)
  • Man’s character is such that he will always prefer to believe in mysteries. (1.22)
  • The ordinary man always goes from one emotional extreme to the other. (2.29)
  • Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness. (4.3)
  • As good men derive their effectiveness from their virtues, so those who are really evil, derive theirs from their vices. (3.77)

This type assert a view of human nature or society which he uses as evidence to bolster his interpretation.

4) Or Tacitus may sometimes be consciously creating new generalisations to express his point of view. This was part of the new, briefer, more pithy style expected of Silver Age authors. (In Latin literature the Golden Age is said to have lasted from 70 BC to 18 AD, especially the long reign of Augustus, 27 BC to 14 AD; while the Silver Age is said to be the period from about 18 to 133 AD.)

Cicero write long, flowing, declamatory prose. Tacitus also writes long sentences, but more packed with information than concern for writerly balance. And they are frequently punctuated by shorter, pithy reflections and summaries. With sententia:

  • No one has ever made good use of power evilly gained. (1.30)
  • As is so often the case with brazen falsehoods, certain individuals asserted that they had been present when the deed was done and had witnessed it. (p.40)
  • Once killing starts it is difficult to draw the line. (1.39)
  • Discipline, however inflexible in peace-time, is relaxed in civil conflicts, where agents are ready to discourage disloyalty on either side, and treachery goes unpunished. (1.51)
  • There are always courtiers who keep an eye open for an emperor’s displeasure. (2.38)
  • Revolution and strife put tremendous power into the hands of evil men, whereas peace and quiet call for good lives [or ‘the practice of virtue]. (4.1)

Tacitus frequently made me smile with his droll comments on human nature. On several occasions emperors tried to smother bad news about defeats in the field, but banning rumour only ’caused it to multiply’. (3.54) That Homo sapiens, eh? Those mobs, those crowds, those foolish fickle humans.

Pithy

Sometimes Tacitus is just wonderfully brief and punchy.

  • A war of boundless havoc seemed imminent. (3.15)
  • Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting. (3.45)
  • [Of Vitellius] Emperor no longer, he was merely the cause of the fighting. (3.70)

Conclusions

1. Instability of the emperor

Tacitus draws the major conclusion from all these events right at the beginning: the revolt of Gaius Julius Vindex and then Galba revealed the secret of the principate which had been concealed throughout the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which was that: it was possible for an emperor to be chosen from outside Rome (1.4). More specifically, it set the pattern for centuries to come, of new emperors being acclaimed by provincial armies then marching on Rome to establish their claim.

For some periods of time ‘dynasties’ endured which ordered the succession through biological or adopted relatives. But throughout 400 year history of the Roman Empire from this year onwards, simmering beneath the appearance of stability, was the threat of the violent rise of a provincial leader to overthrow the central imperial power.

2. Instability of the army

The second conclusion, closely related to the first, is that the troops were motivated not by ideology or loyalty but, above all, by the promise of loot. Time after time in the 280 pages of this narrative, commanders, governors and emperors are threatened by their own men, surrounded, mobbed, shouted at, with the soldiers’ goal almost always being the same: loot. Vitellius was unable to control the praetorian guard or German auxiliaries in Rome, and then Antonius Primus was unable to stop the sack and fire and massacre of the triumphant army as it ransacked every house looking for valuables or women to rape.

As the narrative proceeds Tacitus gives evermore examples of the terrible discipline into which all the legions and cohorts, on all sides, seemed to fall.

The troops clamoured for immediate action and threatening their officers had by now become a habit. (4.34)

3. Permanent war

Stepping back a bit, I might be missing the wood for the trees because I suppose the biggest take home from this long text is that Rome was a military empire engaged in almost constant warfare. All of Rome’s politicians and statesmen were expected to take command of armies engaged in real warfare at the drop of a hat (even Cato in North Africa, even Cicero during his year in Asia). It was a militaristic culture in which the activity of war dominated all aspects of politics and culture to an extent I don’t think we moderns can really understand.

Reading experience and translations

Once you bed down into it, Tacitus’s account is gripping. He is, after all, reporting a very dramatic series of events:

The story upon which I embark is one full of incident, marked by bitter fighting, rent by treason and even in peace, sinister. (1.2)

The course of events allows him to stage melodramatic scenes and give stirring speeches to key characters at decisive moments. But he is a master of narrative. Possibly because the subject matter itself is gripping and fast-moving, but I found the Histories a much more enjoyable read than the more diffuse and sometimes repetitive Annals (all those informers, all those treason trials, all those forced suicides – even Tacitus himself admitted to getting bored with his own narrative).

Take the couple of chapters describing the abortive rising of Sabinus and the other pro-Flavians when they thought Vitellius had abdicated, which leads into the siege of the Capitoline Hill, the fire destroying the Temple of Jupiter, Sabinus arrest and lynching and the daredevil escape of young Domitian. This is a wonderfully dramatic and exciting story and Tacitus tells it clearly and vividly.

Some of the narrative’s power must be down to Wellesley’s translation which enlivens the bare Latin with colloquial English phrases (‘old wives’ tales’, ‘run for the hills’, ‘discipline went to pieces’ 4.1, ‘he was the last man to make trouble’, 4.38, ‘Marcellus looking daggers, Crispus all smiles’ 4.43) which really bring the narrative to life, giving it a more popular, colourful vibe than I suspect a literal translation would.

Also, it appears that at least some of the pithiness which I so enjoy derives from Wellesley. Here’s Anthony Kline’s translation of the first phrase of book 3 chapter 79. I assume Kline gives a literal translation of the Latin which explains why it is rather flat and factual.

Antonius reached Saxa Rubra (nine miles north of Rome) by the Flaminian Way late at night but now too late to bring relief.

And here’s Wellesley’s version:

The night was far advanced before Antonius, marching to the rescue down the Flaminian Way, reached Saxa Rubra. It was too late. (3.79)

You can see that Wellesley has altered it in several ways, two of which stand out. 1) ‘The night was far advanced’ sounds like a boy’s own adventure trope, on a par with ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ It introduces a dash of Victorian adventure story flavour. 2) Where Kline has the flat ‘but now too late to bring relief’ Wellesley makes this phrase into a separate, clipped sentence, creating the taut, laconic style of a thriller. He does this throughout the text, sprinkling tough punchy little sentences which convey an enjoyable sense of narrative threat and suspense:

The explosion was not long in coming. (4.32)

In other words, Wellesley’s translation (as far as I can tell) tends to turn Tacitus into a gripping adventure story and ripping yarn, which is part of what makes his version such a compelling read. Along with Rolfe Humphries’ Englishing of Lucretius and Peter Green’s versions of Ovid, it’s one of the most enjoyable translations I’ve read.


Credit

The Histories of Tacitus, translated by Kenneth Wellesley, was published by Penguin Books in 1964. All quotes are from the 1986 revised paperback edition.

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The Pharsalia by Lucan – 2: Summary

In this book-by-book summary of Lucan’s Pharsalia, I started with the short text summaries provided by Wikipedia, pasted in the section summaries provided by A.S. Kline’s online translation, and then added my own observations.

Book 1 The civil war begins (695 lines)

After a brief introduction lamenting the idea of Romans fighting Romans there is a flattering dedication to Nero (‘to me you are already divine…you alone grant power to Roman verse’). Considering that Nero had Lucan killed, some critics read this as deeply ironic. But Susan Braund (translator of the Oxford University Press edition of the Pharsalia) sees no reason to. Before their falling out, while he was writing the early books of the poem, they were close friends and the first part of Nero’s reign was seen by many as ideal, peaceful and just.

The narrative summarizes background material leading up to the present war and introduces Caesar in northern Italy. Despite an urgent plea from the Spirit of Rome to lay down his arms, Caesar crosses the Rubicon, rallies his troops and marches south to Rome, joined by Curio along the way. The book closes with panic in the city, terrible portents and visions of the disaster to come.

Lines 1 to 32: The ruinous nature of civil war on earth and chaos in the heavens

33 to 66: Sycophantic homage to Nero, saying that if it took a civil war to produce such a wise and good emperor, then maybe it was worth it

67 to 97: The motives of the two leaders

98 to 157: Comparisons, Pompey the old oak tree and Caesar the unstoppable bolt of lightning

158 to 182: The hidden causes of the war, namely Rome’s wealth and decadence, bribery and corruption

183 to 227: Despite a vision of Italy as a weeping woman, Caesar denies her accusations and crosses the Rubicon

228 to 265: Caesar’s entry into Ariminum whose citizens lament that they are the first stopping point for all invaders

266 to 351: The exiled tribunes: Curio’s speech whips Caesar up to a speech detailing his grievances against Pompey and the Senate

352 to 391: The troops hesitate but are convinced by the speech of Laelius, the chief centurion

392 to 465: Caesar gathers his forces

466 to 525: Rumour triggers panic in Rome which is cowardly abandoned by its population

526 to 583: Ghosts and portents, anarchy in heaven, terrify the world

584 to 637: The soothsayer Arruns reads the future in the rotten entrails of a sacrificed bull and predicts disaster

638 to 672: Figulus reads the prophecies in the heavens

673 to 695: Apollo inspires a Roman matron in a frenzied vision to see the locations of all the forthcoming battles and bloodshed

Book 2 Pompey flees Italy (736 lines)

In a city overcome by despair, an old veteran presents a lengthy interlude regarding the previous civil war that pitted Marius against Sulla. Cato the Younger is introduced as a heroic man of principle; as abhorrent as civil war is, he argues to Brutus that it is better to fight than do nothing. After siding with Pompey—the lesser of two evils—he remarries his ex-wife, Marcia, and heads to the field. Caesar continues south through Italy and is delayed by Domitius’ brave resistance. He attempts a blockade of Pompey at Brundisium, but the general makes a narrow escape to Greece.

Lines 1 to 66: In Rome women beat their breasts in lamentation and men wish they were fighting Rome’s enemies not each other

67 to 138: An elder gives a detailed account of Marius’s career i.e. flight, then vengeful bloody return to Rome

139 to 233: The same elder recalls Sulla’s victory and vengeance against the Marian party, recalls seeking the body of his murdered brother, the Tiber was clogged with corpses

234 to 285: Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger visits Cato and makes a long speech

286 to 325: Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger’s speech of reply: wherever fate leads, virtue must follow without fear; he wishes his death could unite the enemies

326 to 349: Marcia knocks on the door; she has come from burying her husband, Hortensius, and wants to remarry Cato in order to share his tribulations

350 to 391: So Marcia and Cato marry on the spot, with Brutus as witness, but Lucan emphasises Cato’s stern devotion to duty and Rome above personal reward or pleasure

392 to 438: Pompey bases himself at Capua, with an extended geographical description of the city’s location among the Apennine mountains

439 to 461: Caesar advances into Italy

462 to 525: Commander after commander abandons his post and cities fall before Caesars advance, with the noble exception of Domitius who tried to defend Corfinium, before being given up his soldiers and then ignominiously granted clemency by Caesar (the fate Cato is determined to avoid)

526 to 595: Pompey’s speech to the army defending his cause against Caesar’s ‘pitiful madness’ and listing his many triumphs

596 to 649: But little applause follows his speech, and Pompey leads his troops to Brindisi, which is given an extended geographical description, like Capua, above; he sends his son and envoys to raise allies in Greece and the East

650 to 703: Caesar lays siege to Brindisi

704 to 736: Pompey escapes Brindisi, taking his fleet across the Adriatic to Illyricum

Book 3 War in the Mediterranean (762 lines)

As his ships sail, Pompey is visited in a dream by Julia, his dead wife and Caesar’s daughter. Caesar returns to Rome and plunders the city while Pompey reviews potential foreign allies. To protect his read Caesar heads for Spain, but his troops are detained at the lengthy siege of Massilia (Marseille). The city ultimately falls in a bloody naval battle.

Lines 1 to 45: Pompey’s vision of Julia, his previous wife, daughter of Caesar, who bound the two rivals together until her early death in 54 BC

46 to 83: Caesar sends officers to secure the grain supply from Sicily and Sardinia, then marches on Rome

84 to 140: While the senators are ignominously summoned to the House to hear Caesar, the tribune Lucius Metellus defends the treasury with his life

141 to 168: Metellus is pushed aside and the cumulated treasury of the ages seized

169 to 213: A long list of cities in Greece and Asia Minor who send men to Pompey

214 to 263: The Middle East and India rally to Pompey

264 to 297: The Black Sea and North Africa rally to Pompey – these three sections comprise a massive list of tribes and cities and peoples on the model of the List of Allies in the Iliad, itself copied in the Aeneid

298 to 357: speech of the Greek inhabitants of Marseille opposing Caesar, arguing to remain neutral

358 to 398: Caesar blockades Marseille, throwing up an enormous earthwork

399 to 452: Caesar destroys the sacred grove

453 to 496: Caesar leaves for Spain but the siege of Marseille continues, Roman siege techniques described in detail

497 to 537: The Greek inhabitants of Marseille mount a successful sortie so the Romans initiate a naval battle

538 to 582: The fleets engage with a vivid description of grappling irons, hand to hand fighting and thousands of soldiers dying in the sea, hit by random arrows, javelins, fire and sinking ships

583 to 634: The death of Catus, Telo, Gyareus, the mutilated twin

635 to 669: The death of Lycidas, the man skewered by two prows meeting

670 to 708: The death of Phoceus, who drowned many before hitting the keel of a ship, many more drown, are crushed, transfixed

709 to 751: Lygdamus, a Balearic sling-thrower, blinds Tyrrhenus who, in turn, throws a javelin which kills Argus, whose father is so distraught he stabs himself then jumps overboard – the focus on gruesome anatomical details recalls the Iliad

752 to 762: Lamentation of the women and parents of Marseille as they embraced mangled corpses or fought over headless bodies to place on funeral pyres

Book 4 Caesar victory in Spain

The first half of this book describes Caesar’s victorious campaign in Spain against Afranius and Petreius. Lucan then switches scene to focus on Pompey, his forces intercept a raft carrying Caesarians, who prefer to kill each other rather than be taken prisoner. The book concludes with Curio launching an African campaign on Caesar’s behalf, where he is defeated and killed by the African King Juba.

1 to 47: Caesar attacks the base of the two Pompeian leaders in Spain, Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius, but his soldiers, fighting uphill, are thrown back

48 to 120: Caesar’s camp is flooded, interesting because of the extended description of the geography of Spain and the causes of heavy rain and, after the flooding, the famine

121 to 156: The campaign is renewed: Caesar builds bridges across the river Sicoris, prompting Petreius to abandon the heights of Ilerda and head for central Spain

157 to 207: The two armies camp within sight of each other and this prompts many to call out then go and meet friends on the other side; Lucan praises the god Harmony, soon bitterly to be broken

208 to 253: Angry, Petreius gives a speech rousing his troops in the name of the Senate and Pompey and Freedom, whipping them up to attack the friends of Caesar’s army who had come among them, bloodshed, horror

254 to 318: Afranius loses the moral high ground with this action; Caesar pursues his army to high ground, with no water, and there surrounds it, ordering his army to resist attacks and wear the trapped enemy down from extreme thirst

319 to 362: Worn down by privations Lucius Afranius surrenders with a dignified speech

363 to 401: Pompey’s army in Spain disbands and immediately quench their thirst at the river Caesar had prevented them reaching; they are lucky, banned from fighting they will see out the long civil war in peace

402 to 447: Conflict in Dalmatia, where Gaius Antonius’s Caesarian force builds rafts to escape the island of Curicta

448 to 528: One of these rafts, bearing 600 Caesarians commanded by Vulteius, is surrounded by Pompeyan forces; as night falls Vulteius makes a long speech advocating their noble suicide

529 to 581: Vulteius and his men commit suicide

582 to 660: The myth of Hercules and Antaeus i.e. their legendary wrestling match

661 to 714: Pompey’s African army under Varus i.e. another long list of allied tribes and peoples; Caesarian Curio determines to throw his army against Varus

715 to 787: King Juba’s army lures Curio into an ambush, surrounds and massacres the Romans

788 to 824: How jarring that Pompey’s side could only triumph by pleasing the shades of Hannibal and the Carthaginians with a north African defeat of Roman legions; lament that so noble a figure as Curio was corrupted by the degenerate times to take Caesar’s shilling and inflame civil war

Book 5 Caesar in Illyria (815 lines)

The Senate in exile confirms Pompey the true leader of Rome. Appius consults the Delphic oracle to learn of his fate in the war, and leaves with a misleading prophecy. In Italy, after defusing a mutiny, Caesar marches to Brundisium and sails across the Adriatic to meet Pompey’s army. Only a portion of Caesar’s troops complete the crossing when a storm prevents further transit; he tries to personally send a message back but is himself nearly drowned. Finally, the storm subsides, and the armies face each other at full strength. With battle at hand, Pompey sends his wife to the island of Lesbos, despite her protests.

1 to 70: The consul Lentulus addresses the senators in exile in Epirus, telling them wherever they are, that is the Roman state; the senators appoint as allies the kings who have rallied to their cause

71 to 101: History of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi and speculation about how it works, what god lies buried deep in Mount Parnassus and speaks through the priestess

102 to 140: History of the oracle’s most famous predictions and why it was shut down; Appius Claudius tries to reopen the shrine, Phemonoe, the priestess, tries to resist him

141 to 197: The priestess pretends to prophesy but Appius realises she is faking and pushes her towards the chasm until she is possessed by Apollo and delivers a genuine prophecy which is that Appius will escape the storms of war

198 to 236: Further description the wild frenzy the priestess had been thrown into, then lament that Appius, like so many others, misread the oracle to mean that he was safe, when what it really meant was his premature death

237 to 299: Caesar’s troops on the verge of mutiny: given a long speech which displays Lucan’s skill at suasoria

300 to 373: Caesar quells the mutiny, exposing his chest to them, daring them to mutiny; but Lucan says shame on him for delighting in a war his own men condemn; Caesar more or less calls his men scum:

The gods will never stoop so low as to care about
the lives or deaths of such as you; events depend
on the actions of great men: humankind lives for
the few.

374 to 402: While his armies assemble at Brundisium Caesar hurried to half-empty Rome where has himself declared dictator; Lucan laments that this age ‘invented all the false titles that we have granted our masters for so long’

403 to 460: Arriving back at Brundisium Caesar finds the sea beset by storms; he persuades his fleet to set sail but, ironically, once out of sight of land it is becalmed; next morning a wind picks up and blows Caesar’s fleet to Paeneste

461 to 503: Caesar impatiently summons Mark Antony with the rest of his fleet and army

504 to 576: Caesar dresses in disguise and visits the hut of a humble fisherman, Amyclas, and persuades him, against his better judgement, to take him across the sea to Italy

577 to 637: Then the seas blow up into a real storm which Lucan with hyperbole describes as nearly drowning the entire world, till Jupiter intervenes

638 to 677: Exulting, Caesar defies the storm, saying its epic force matches his world-shattering ambition, at which point a freak wave carries the little boat back to shore and flings him safely on the beach

678 to 721: Next morning the troops in Caesar’s camp reproach him for risking his life without them; the sun comes out and Mark Anthony beings the rest of Caesar’s fleet over from Italy to Nymphaion

722 to 760: Pompey tells his wife Cornelia that Caesar’s army has landed in Illyria and so he is sending her to Lesbos for her own safety

761 to 815: Cornelia’s gives a long speech in which she laments that Caesar is forcing her and Pompey’s marriage to come to an end, laments that she won’t be with him (Pompey) when the great battle occurs, if Pompey is defeated would rather know the news at once so she can kill herself if he dies; then she packs hurriedly and is taken down to the ship to Lesbos; next night she sleeps alone in an alien bed – but Fate held worse in store

Book 6 Thessaly and Erictho the witch (830 lines)

Pompey’s troops force Caesar’s armies – featuring the heroic centurion Scaeva – to fall back to Thessaly. Lucan describes the wild Thessalian terrain as the armies wait for battle the next day. The remainder of the book follows Pompey’s son Sextus, who wishes to know the future. He finds the most powerful witch in Thessaly, Erictho, and she reanimates the corpse of a dead soldier in a terrifying ceremony. The soldier predicts Pompey’s defeat and Caesar’s eventual assassination.

Lines 1 to 27: Pompey moves to seize the town of Dyrrachium

28 to 63: Caesar hems Pompey in by building a vast fortification around his army; Lucan laments at so much effort expended for such a futile end

64 to 117: Both camps afflicted: horses die and illness spreads in Pompey’s camp, while Caesar’s men begin to starve

118 to 195: The super-heroism of the centurion Scaeva who single-handedly rallies Caesar’s troops when Pompey’s army attempts a breakout at Minicius

196 to 262: More of Scaeva’s superhuman resistance, fighting single-handed against a wall of enemies till his mutilated face is one mass of bleeding flesh; the arrival of Caesarian reinforcements puts the Pompeyans to flight, and only then does Scaeva collapse. But, Lucan asks, what was it all for?

But you can never adorn the Thunderer’s shrine
with your trophies, nor will you shout for joy
in the triumph. Unhappy man, how great your
bravery that merely paved the way for a tyrant!

263 to 313: Pompey attacks at points along the perimeter wall; at one of them Caesar counter-attacks but then Pompeyan forces charge from all sides; the civil war might have ended there in total defeat for Caesar except that Pompey ‘restrained his army’ and Caesar’s army regrouped and fought its way clear; Lucan laments the lost opportunity and lists all the disasters which would follow:

Cruel fate! Libya and Spain would not have mourned for
the disasters at Utica and Munda; neither would the Nile,
defiled by vile bloodshed, have borne that corpse nobler
than a Pharaoh’s; King Juba’s naked body would not have
burdened the African sand, nor Metellus Scipio appeased
the Carthaginian dead with his blood; nor the living have
lost their virtuous Cato. That day might have ended your
ills, Rome, and erased Pharsalia from the scroll of fate.

314 to 380: Caesar strikes camp and marches east into the interior, into Thessaly

381 to 412: Extensive description of the geography and legendary history of Thessaly or ‘the accursed land’ as Lucan calls it (see above)

413 to 506: The armies follow then camp near each other with a growing sense of Fate, that this is where the Great Confrontation will take place; but Pompey’s son, Sextus, wants to know more and, as it happens, his side have camped ‘near the dwellings of those Thessalian witches whom no conjuring of imaginary horrors can outdo’; a very long passage about their supernatural powers, especially to affect rain and tides, the oceans and even the earth’s rotation

507 to 568: An extended description of the wickedness of Erictho who is the worst witch ever

569 to 623: Erictho is pointed out to Sextus by a local guide, sitting on a high cliff, casting spells unknown to wizards in order to keep the armies at Pharsalus and make the great massacre happen here; Lucan blames Erictho for magically making the armies stay here; she’s doing this so that she can use the blood and bones and body parts of the dead soldiers in her magic rites

624 to 666: Erictho picks a corpse off the battlefield and drags it to her terrifying cave where she ties her hair with snakes and prepares to bring it back to life

667 to 718: Erictho invokes the infernal powers with tremendous power, at considerable length

719 to 774: Erictho raises the dead body to life to prophesy

775 to 830: The prophecy of the dead

Book 7 Pompey loses the Battle of Pharsalia (872 lines)

The soldiers are pressing for battle, but Pompey is reluctant until Cicero convinces him to attack. Against all the odds, the Caesarians are victorious, and Lucan laments the resulting loss of liberty. Caesar is especially cruel as he a) mocks the dying Domitius and b) forbids the cremation of the dead Pompeians. The scene is punctuated by a description of wild animals gnawing at the corpses and a lament from Lucan for Thessalia infelix, ill-fated Thessaly.

Lines 1 to 44: Pompey dreams that he is in Rome enjoying the cheers of his victories in Spain against Sertorius in 73 BC; he would have been happy if he had died at that moment; unlucky Rome, never to see him again

45 to 86: Cicero’s speech summing up the general mood, asking why Pompey is delaying battle

87 to 130: Pompey’s reply, pointing out that he is slowly winning and counselling patience, lamenting that he is being forced into a confrontation he will lose

What evil and suffering this day will bring
the nations! How many kingdoms will be ruined!

131 to 184: Omens and portents

185 to 214: The augur’s cry

215 to 234: Pompey deploys his army, including many foreign kings (Gauls and Spanish)

235 to 302: Caesar addresses his men, pointing out most of Pompey’s army is made of foreigners who care nothing for Rome

303 to 336: Continuation of Caesar’s speech in which he associates Pompey with Sulla, and says if that if the Caesarians lose, he, Caesar, will kill himself rather than be taken in chains to Rome to be punished in the Forum; his army tramples down their camp and trench and throw themselves into battle formation

337 to 384: Pompey addresses his men

385 to 459: The effects of the Battle of Pharsalia: Lucan attributes all Rome’s subsequent failings, the loss of an entire generation, the failure to expand the borders of empire, all to this fateful day:

The fields of Italy are tilled by men in chains, no one
lives beneath our ancient roofs, rotten and set to fall;
Rome is not peopled by citizens; full of the world’s
dross we have so ruined her, civil war among such
is no longer a threat. Pharsalia was the cause of all
that evil.

460 to 505: Battle is joined

506 to 544: Caesar destroys Pompey’s cavalry who Lucan depicts as mostly ill-disciplined foreigners and barbarians

545 to 596: Caesar seizes victory

597 to 646: ‘There all the glory of our country perished… a whole world died there’; Lucan associates the defeat with the birth of the imperial tyranny he says he and his generation still live under a hundred years later:

we were laid low for centuries, all
generations doomed to slavery were conquered
by those swords. What fault did we, their sons,
their grandsons, commit that we deserved to be
born under tyranny?

647 to 697: Pompey takes flight

698 to 727: Pompey reaches Larissa, where he is enthusiastically greeted, even though he has lost

728 to 780: Caesar encourages his men to loot Pompey’s abandoned camp, but that night his men have guilty dreams about murdering their kin

Neither Pentheus raving nor Agave newly sane
were subject to greater horror or mental turmoil.

781 to 824: Caesar also has poisonous dreams but awakes and orders his dining table to be set out on the battlefield which he can survey choked with Roman dead: Caesar denies them burial

825 to 872: Wolves, dogs, birds of prey, descend to ravage the many dead bodies on the battlefield; which god did Thessaly offend to not only host the disastrous battle of Pharsalus, but its echo, Philippi, six years later?

Book 8 The death of Pompey in Egypt (870 lines)

Pompey himself escapes to Lesbos, reunites with his wife, then goes to Cilicia to consider his options. He decides to enlist aid from Egypt, but the Pharaoh (Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator) is fearful of retribution from Caesar and plots to murder Pompey when he lands. Pompey suspects treachery; he consoles his wife and rows alone to the shore, meeting his fate (assassination) with Stoic poise. His headless body is flung into the ocean, but washes up on shore and receives a humble burial from Cordus.

Lines 1 to 85: Pompey sails to Lesbos; Cornelia, scanning the seas, faints when she sees his approach; he revives her, saying now is the time for her love and loyalty

86 to 108: Cornelia says she brings a curse to everyone she marries and wishes Julia would come and take her as a sacrifice so as to spare Pompey; everyone bursts into tears

109 to 158: The people of Lesbos beg Pompey to stay another night and put themselves at his disposal; Pompey is moved by their loyalty, pays them tribute, but sets sail with Cornelia

159 to 201: Pompey asks the ship’s navigator to explain how he navigates by the stars

202 to 255: Though defeated, Pompey retains loyalty; he sends Deiotarus to rally the kingdoms of the East, especially Parthia, to his cause; detailed geographical description of his route by sea

256 to 330: Pompey sails along the coast of Cilicia (southern Turkey) till he arrives at the port of Syhedra where he addresses the senators and other leaders who followed him: he rejects Ptolemy of Egypt and King Juba of Africa as allies; instead he says they must ally in the East with the Parthians, with the bonus that Parthians killed in this civil

331 to 455: Lentulus speaks against Pompey’s plans, scandalised that he is considering relying on Rome’s most ancient enemy; also the Parthians are soft and lousy fighters, and Lentulus goes on to accuse Easterners in general of polygamy, sexual perversions, incest; all Roman armies should be uniting against the Parthians to avenge the infamous massacre of Crassus’s legions; he advocates going to Egypt

456 to 535: As Pompey reaches Egypt, debate among the young Pharaoh’s advisers, with a long speech by Pothinus, his regent, counselling amoral Realpolitik, namely that Pompey has obviously lost, that they don’t want to be dragged down with him: he argues they should kill Pompey

536 to 636: The Egyptian council approve this policy; thus Pompey approaches the sandy shore, is met by a rowing boat and invited to step down into it, is rowed to the beach and there stabbed to death, shamefully by a renegade Roman servant of Pharaoh’s, Septimius: Lucan gives Pompey a last internal soliloquy as he overcomes pain and fear at his death

637 to 662: Cornelia laments and begs to be killed, herself

663 to 711: The assassins hack off Pompey’s head and take it to Pharaoh who has it embalmed, leaving his headless body to be battered by the surf and rocks

712 to 822: Cordus, a former soldier of Pompey’s, claims his corpse from the sea, builds a makeshift pyre from a wrecked boat, places the body amidst it and lights it, hours later, at dawn, scoops up the bones, buries the ashes under sand and a stone, a memorial wildly out of keeping with Pompey’s world-straddling achievements

823 to 870: A curse on Egypt

Book 9 Cato in Libya

Pompey’s wife mourns her husband as Cato takes up leadership of the Senate’s cause. He plans to regroup and heroically marches the army across Africa to join forces with King Juba, a trek that occupies most of the middle section of the book. On the way, he passes an oracle but refuses to consult it, citing Stoic principles. Caesar visits Troy and pays respects to his ancestral gods. A short time later he arrives in Egypt. When Pharaoh’s messenger presents him with the head of Pompey, Caesar feigns grief to hide his joy at Pompey’s death.

It’s important to realise that Cato didn’t support Pompey, he went along with Pompey because he offered the best chances of achieving what Cato really wanted which was the restoration of the Republic with no strong men. When Pompey dies it doesn’t mean the end of the struggle (as it does for many of the allies); for Cato it means one strongman down, just one more to finish off (Caesar) then Freedom can be restored.

1 to 50: Pompey’s spirit rises into the lower heavens, realm of demi-gods, to watch the stars, then back down to earth to imbue Cato with more resolution to oppose Caesar (and later, to fortify Caesar’s assassin, Brutus)

51 to 116: Cornelia laments her fallen husbands (she was previously married to ill-fated Crassus) then repeats Pompey’s last message to his sons, namely to raise fleets to plague Caesar, recommending Cato as the only leader to follow; she locks herself belowdecks as a storm hits the fleet

117 to 166: Sextus Pompeius tells his older brother, Gnaeus, about the murder of their father; Gnaeus vows fierce revenge on Egypt

167 to 214: Cornelia sails west to meet with Cato at Utica, and burns all Pompey’s belongings in a big pyre; Cato eulogises Pompey and praises suicide

215 to 252: Many of the rulers who followed Pompey now depart Cato’s stronghold, explaining that they followed the man not the cause and now he is dead, they will return tom their homelands and take their chances

253 to 293: Cato wins them over (‘Shame on you, vile slaves’)

294 to 347: Another extended geographical description, of ‘the Syrtes’ on the coast of Libya, which Cato’s fleet skirts as it sails along the coast to Lake Tritonis

348 to 410: Mythological background of the region, including the story of Hercules stealing apples from the Garden of the Hesperides: Cato gives a speech encouraging the men to march inland from the coast across the desert

411 to 462: Geographical description of North Africa

463 to 510: The Romans battle on through a massive sandstorm

511 to 586: Description of the Libyans’ god Ammon; Labienus persuades Cato to consult the oracle because he has ‘always ruled your life according to heavenly law, a follower of the divine’; Cato gives a sound rebuttal, with the Stoic argument that God planted all the knowledge in our mind at birth to live virtuous lives, he doesn’t need oracles in the desert

587 to 618: Cato leads the men on the long march

619 to 699: Digression for the mythical tale of Perseus and Medusa; Perseus flew over Libya carrying Medusa’s severed head which dropped blood onto the desert and spawned countless species of poisonous snakes

700 to 760: Catalogue of the snakes of Libya; the gruesome death of standard bearer Aulus, bitten by a dipsas (species of poison snake)

761 to 788: The cruel death of Sabellus, bitten by a seps, which makes its victims’ bodies melt!

789 to 838: Further deaths by snake bite

839 to 889: The soldiers’ heroic endurance and many deaths, Cato always being at the soldier’s side to make them unafraid

890 to 937: One local tribe is immune to the snakebites, being the Psylli of Marmarica; they select their infants by exposing them to snakebites, the survivors joining the tribe; how they help Cato and his soldiers survive snake bites

938 to 986: Finally Cato and his men arrive at inhabited territory near to Leptis where they erect winter quarters. Cut to Caesar as he visits the site of Troy, taking a detailed tour; triggering Lucan to promise that his poem will live and preserve its protagonists’ names, as long as Homer’s did

987 to 1,063: Caesar prays to the gods of Troy that if they make his journey prosper, he will rebuild their city; sails to Egypt; is met by an envoy who presents him with Pompey’s head; Lucan flays Caesar’s hypocrisy at pretending to be upset and weeping

1,064 to 1,108: Caesar’s speech berating Pharaoh for murdering Pompey because it prevented Caesar from exercising his clemency; he had wanted to triumph, yes, but then be reconciled with Pompey; he orders the Egyptians to gather Pompey’s ashes and erect a proper shrine

Book 10 Caesar in Egypt and Cleopatra

Caesar in Egypt is beguiled by the Pharaoh’s sister, Cleopatra. A banquet is held. Pothinus, Ptolemy’s cynical and bloodthirsty chief minister, plots an assassination of Caesar but is killed in his surprise attack on the palace. A second attack comes from Ganymede, an Egyptian noble, and the poem breaks off abruptly as Caesar is fighting for his life.

Lines 1 to 52: Caesar visits Alexander’s grave; Lucan calls him a ‘chance marauder’, ‘a plague on earth’, another conqueror and tyrant

53 to 103: The people of Alexandria bridle at Roman occupation; Caesar takes Pharaoh hostage; Cleopatra smuggles herself into the palace, ‘Egypt’s shame, Latium’s Fury’; Lucan execrates Caesar for letting himself be seduced, giving into ‘adulterous lust’, engendering siblings for his dead Julia: Cleopatra’s speech, pointing out her father intended her to be co-ruler and saying her brother the Pharaoh is in the clutches of the advisor, Pothinus

104 to 135: Cleopatra seduces Caesar; they sleep together; description of Cleopatra’s magnificent palace

136 to 193: At a luxurious feast (‘Caesar learns how to squander the riches of a ransacked world’); Caesar asks Acoreus the priest to give him some background on Egypt’s geography and history, starting with the source and flooding of the Nile

194 to 267: Acoreus discourses on the sources of the Nile, invoking a lot of useless astrology and then reviewing a series of theories, all of them nonsense

268 to 331: Acorius discourses more on the source of the Nile, about which he knows nothing (cf my review of Explorers of the Nile by Tim Jeal)

332 to 433: A very long speech in which Pharaoh’s regent, Pothinus, tells Achillas (one of the two men who assassinated Pompey) that they must do the same to Caesar i.e. assassinate him that very evening; but when evening comes, they bottle out and miss the opportunity

434 to 485: Next morning the conspirators lead an entire army against Alexandria; seeing it approach the city, Caesar barricades himself into the royal palace, taking Pharaoh as a hostage, while the Egyptians set up a siege

486 to 546: The siege includes ships blocking the harbour; Caesar orders these set fire and the fire spreads to houses on the mainland; he seizes the Pharos, the island attached to the mainland by a mole, which controlled entrance to Alexandria’s port; Caesar has Pothinus beheaded; Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoe, is smuggled out of the palace to take control of the besieging army where she in turn has the incompetent Achillas executed; Caesar is moving his troops onto the empty ships in the harbour when he is attacked from all sides, from the Pharos, from the sea, and from the mainland – at which point the poem abruptly stops

Horror and madness

Lucan emphasises the horrific nature of his subject matter in the poem’s first seven lines (the same number as the opening sentence of Virgil’s Aeneid):

I sing of a worse than civil war, of war fought between kinsmen
over Pharsalia’s plains, of wickedness deemed justice; of how
a powerful people turned their own right hands against themselves;
of strife within families; how, with the first Triumvirate broken,
the forces of the quivering globe contended in mutual sinfulness;
standard ranged against standard, eagle matched against eagle,
spear threatening spear. What madness, my countrymen, how wild
that slaughter!

Any civil war represents the complete inversion of all the normal rules and values of society, starting with patriotism and love of your fellow countrymen.

Events throughout the poem are described in terms of madness and sacrilege. Far from glorious, the battle scenes are portraits of bloody horror, where nature is ravaged to build terrible siege engines and wild animals tear mercilessly at the flesh of the dead (perhaps reflecting the taste of an audience accustomed to the bloodlust of gladiatorial games).

Horror

Arruns reading the entrails:

Behold, he saw a horror never once witnessed
in a victim’s entrails without disaster following;
a vast second lobe grew on the lobe of the liver,
so that one part hung flabby with sickness,
while the other quivered and its veins trembled
to an a-rhythmic beat.

Madness

War’s madness is upon us,
where the sword’s power will wildly confound
all law, and vicious crime be called virtue.
(1.665)

Say, O Phoebus,
what madness embroils Roman arms
and spears in battle, in war without a foe?
(1.679)

Terror

Julia doesn’t just appear as just a ghost to Pompey, but as a Fury:

Julia, a phantom full of menace and terror, raising her
sorrowful face above the yawning earth, stood there in
the shape of a Fury amid the flames of her funeral pyre.
(3.8 to 10)

But then again, if Seneca’s tragedies are anything to go by, elite audiences in Nero’s Rome revelled in horrific subject matter, in the depiction of madness, horror, incest, mutilation, all wrapped in the most lurid, extreme rhetoric the poet could concoct.

Anti-imperialism

Given Lucan’s clear anti-imperialism, the flattering Book I dedication to Nero is somewhat puzzling. Some scholars have tried to read these lines ironically, but most see it as a traditional dedication written at a time before the (supposed) true depravity of Lucan’s patron was revealed. The extant “Lives” of the poet support this interpretation, stating that a portion of the Pharsalia was in circulation before Lucan and Nero had their falling out.

Furthermore, according to Braund, Lucan’s negative portrayal of Caesar in the early portion of the poem was not likely meant as criticism of Nero, and it may have been Lucan’s way of warning the new emperor about the issues of the past.

The poem as civil war

A critic named Jamie Masters has come up with a clever idea which is that the Pharsalia is not just a poem about a civil war but, in a metaphorical way, is a civil war. Not only are the two characters, Caesar and Pompey, at war with each other, but the poem can be divided into Pompeian and Caesarian styles and approaches.

Thus the sections about Pompey are slow, embody delay, and revels in delay, and dwell on the horrors of civil war. The passages describing Caesar are noticeably faster, cover more ground, with less lamenting and more energy.

This leads Masters to maybe overdo it a bit, suggesting the conflict was ultimately within Lucan’s mind so that the binary opposition that he sees throughout the entire poem embodies Lucan’s own ‘schizophrenic poetic persona.’

Lucan’s influence

Lucan’s work was popular in his own day and remained a school text in late antiquity and during the Middle Ages. Over 400 manuscripts survive. Its interest to the court of Charlemagne is proved by the existence of five complete manuscripts from the 9th century. Dante includes Lucan among other classical poets in the first circle of the Inferno, and draws on the Pharsalia in his scene with Antaeus (the giant depicted in Lucan’s book 4).

Christopher Marlowe wrote a translation of Book 1. Thomas May followed with translation of the other nine books in 1626, and then went on to invent a continuation, adding seven books to take the story up to Caesar’s assassination.

Suetonius’s Life of Lucan

Suetonius’s Life of Lucan is very short. This is it, in its entirety, in the Loeb Classical Library 1914 translation:

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus of Corduba made his first appearance as a poet with a ‘Eulogy of Nero’ at the emperor’s Quinquennial Contests,​ and then gave a public reading of his poem on the ‘Civil War’ waged between Pompey and Caesar. In a kind of introduction to the latter, comparing his time of life and his first essays with those of Vergil, he had the audacity to ask:

“How far, pray, do I fall short of the Culex”?​

In his early youth, learning that his father was living in the remote country districts because of an unhappy marriage…He was recalled from Athens by Nero and made one of his intimate friends, besides being honoured with the quaestor­ship; but he could not keep the emperor’s favour. For piqued because Nero had suddenly called a meeting of the senate and gone out when he was giving a reading, with no other motive than to throw cold water on the performance,​ he afterwards did not refrain from words and acts of hostility to the prince, which are still notorious. Once for example in a public privy, when he relieved his bowels with an uncommonly loud noise, he shouted out this half line of the emperor’s, while those who were there for the same purpose took to their heels:

“You might suppose it thundered ‘neath the earth.”

He also tongue-lashed not only the emperor but also his most power­ful friends in a scurrilous poem. Finally, he came out almost as the ringleader​ in the conspiracy of Piso, publicly making great talk about the glory of tyrannicides, and full of threats, even going to the length of offering Caesar’s head to all his friends. But when the conspiracy was detected, he showed by no means equal firmness of purpose; for he was easily forced to a confession, descended to the most abject entreaties, and even named his own mother among the guilty parties, although she was innocent, in hopes that this lack of filial devotion would win him favour with a parricidal prince.

But when he was allowed free choice of the manner of his death, he wrote a letter to his father, containing corrections for some of his verses, and after eating heartily, offered his arms to a physician, to cut his veins. I recall that his poems were even read in public,​ while they were published and offered for sale by editors lacking in taste, as well as by some who were painstaking and careful.


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The Pharsalia by Lucan – 1: Introduction

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

Lucan biography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes in the Pharsalia

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

1. No gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sometimes the two concepts seem interchangeable:

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

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

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

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

2. No heroes

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

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

1. Gaius Julius Caesar

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

2. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

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

3. Marcus Porcius Cato

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The gruesome and the macabre

The supernatural

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

a) Dreams and visions

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

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

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

b) Portents, prophecies and consultations of supernatural powers

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

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

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

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

Chaos on earth reflected in heaven

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

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

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

Haruspicy and necromancy

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

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

4. Extreme rhetoric

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Episodic structure

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

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

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

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

6. Lucan and Virgil

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

7. Epic similes

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

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

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

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

Describing Octavius’s naval strategy:

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

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

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

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

8. Geographical descriptions

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

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

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

9. Natural history

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

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

10. Is the Pharsalia unfinished?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. The Roman cult of suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because:

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

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

12. Lucan and Seneca

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

Modern views

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

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

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

Caesar crossing the Rubicon by Adolphe Yvon (1875)


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Why Seneca was wrong

In his ‘Letters to Lucilius’ Seneca expounds his version of Stoic philosophy. As I explain in my review of the letters, I think they consist more of a mix of moral exhortation and self-help advice than a fully worked-out ‘philosophy’. But on the occasions when he does set out to argue from first principles I find myself quite strongly disagreeing with just about every assertion and every argument Seneca makes. Letter 76 lays out the premises of Seneca’s philosophy with particular clarity (a ‘premise’ being defined as “a statement taken to be true and used as a basis for argument or reasoning”) from which I extract the following sequence of assertions.

Seneca’s argument

Seneca says there is a God who made the universe and created man. Wrong.

Seneca says God planted a fragment of divine Reason in man. Wrong. No God, no divine Reason.

Seneca says every created thing has one particular merit or attribute which sets it apart – the fruit of the vine, the speed of the stag, the strong back of a pack animal, the hunting dog’s sense of smell and so on. The one distinctive attribute of human beings is Reason. Wrong:

a) This notion that every thing has just one peculiar merit is primitive and childish. Quite clearly all living organisms have multiple features and qualities. Study biology.

b) To say that the One Special Thing about humans is Reason is a wild underestimate of the numberless qualities which contribute to human survival and evolution. As one example, according to my son the biologist, humans can run for longer than any other animal, not a massively important attribute but a refutation of Seneca’s claim that there is just one thing which sets humans apart from other animals. Then there’s also the small factor of the opposable thumb, which gives us the ability to manipulate tools and develop the countless inventions and technologies we have devised – far more distinctive than ‘divine Reason’.

(As an indication of how malleable this argument is, I have just read in Tacitus’s Histories the stirring speech of Gaius Julius Civilis who tells his warriors that The One Distinctive Thing About Humans is Courage [Tacitus, Histories, book 4, chapter 17]. 1,900 years later, Jean-Paul Sartre would claim the One Distinctive Thing About Humans is our existentialist Freedom. It’s a parlour game. Anyone can join in.)

c) Anyway, humans are emphatically not rational. Humans are wildly irrational. A book like Stuart Sutherland’s Irrationality, which brings together a century of psychological study of how clumsily and irrationally all humans think, almost all the time, demolishes the Rationalist argument forever.

d) The entire form of this argument is tendentious because it is clearly designed to justify what follows.

Seneca says all these animals are designed to ‘reach the goal of their nature’ i.e. they aspire to maximise the distinctive attribute given to them by God. Wrong. There is no God and this one, special attribute doesn’t exist. Seneca has invented it for the sake of his argument.

Seneca says that, seeing as man’s one special attribute is Reason, and that all beings find their greatest fulfilment when they maximise their one special attribute, it follows that man will be happiest and most fulfilled when he cultivates his Reason to the max.

Well:

a) It’s wrong to say that man’s one special attribute is ‘Reason’.

b) Humans are wildly irrational.

c) Since it doesn’t exist, this ‘Reason’ can’t be developed to the max as if that implies one, widely agreed state of mind.

d) If this notion of ‘Reason’ actually existed, surely all ‘philosophers’ would agree about it, whereas anyone who’s read a bit of philosophy immediately discovers that there are hundreds of ‘philosophies’ and philosophers who completely contradict each other.

e) Far from ‘philosophy’ making its practitioners calm and content, there’s plenty of evidence that some of the greatest philosophers were deeply unhappy individuals: characters as different as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein spring to mind. There is no evidence whatsoever that someone who practices ‘philosophy’ is more happy than the general run of the population.

(By this point it should be clear that although Seneca uses philosophical-sounding arguments to support his case, he isn’t really dealing in philosophy but with lessons in mental resilience and moral uplift.)

Seneca goes on to say that when this ‘Reason’ is brought to ‘perfection’ through the study of ‘philosophy’, ‘this perfected reason is called virtue’ (Letter 76, section 10). This also is obviously wrong:

a) There is no such thing as ‘Reason’ with a capital R, instead:

i) Two and a half thousand years of philosophers can’t agree what ‘Reason’ is or how it works.

ii) According to psychologists like Sutherland, instead of One Reason humans use hundreds of different strategies for thinking and problem solving, which often overlap and contradict each other, hence the appearance of the real world we actually live in, made up of endlessly conflicting opinions and plans.

b) What is this ‘virtue’? Seneca identifies ‘virtue’ with the perfection of human ‘Reason’ but by now we can see that this is just playing with words, it’s like moving shiny counters around on a board game, it doesn’t relate to anything in the real world.

Seneca goes on to identify this maximised Reason with ‘virtue’ and ‘the good’ and ‘the honourable’. I appreciate that Seneca is engaging with the tradition of moral philosophy which is concerned with trying to define terms like ‘the good’, ‘honour’, ‘virtue’ but I believe that, mildly entertaining although these verbal games are, they have little or nothing to do with real people or the actual world we live in. Within the rules of the game called ‘moral philosophy’ these kinds of definitions and redefinitions may have meaning, but it is a niche activity with no impact on the real world.

Also, it often feels as if Seneca is using rhetorical tricks to prove that His Way is the Only Way to achieve these great goals i.e. it is less an open-ended enquiry designed to establish an objective truth than a tendentious distortion of arguments all designed to ‘prove’ a view of human nature and a way of life which he already subscribes to. It amounts to a wordy rationalisation of a personal lifestyle preference (to live a simple life and read books is best).

The counter-argument to Seneca

There is no God. The universe came about in a big bang 13.7 billion years ago. Certain laws and regularities emerge from the nature of the matter created by this cataclysm. Stars form, galaxies form,  planets form around suns. Conditions for life happened to occur on this planet as they probably have on countless others. Primitive replicating structures come about as an inevitable product of chemistry. As soon as the most primitive replicating organisms come about they are governed by evolution through natural selection, which dictates that only the most fit will replicate, thus setting in train an endless process of diversity and selection. Human beings are a random offshoot of mammals, themselves lucky to survive the last great extinction event 66 million years ago. There is no teleology or purpose or plan. Shit happens, whether it’s your valley flooding or a meteor hitting the earth, and some organisms survive to pass on their genes to their offspring. Over vast distances of time – hundreds of millions of years – fast-breeding organisms have diverged to fill every available niche in countless different ecosystems which themselves change and evolve all the time. Modern archaeology shows that there is not one human race, but that over the past few hundred thousand years, many different forms of the genus Homo have sprung up, flourished for a time, then died out. Seneca and we happen to belong to the one branch or variety which happens to have survived. Others might have; we happened to. There was no God, providence or teleology involved.

To attribute this immensely long chain of chance and accident to the providence of some creator God is psychologically appealing but factually ludicrous. If there is a God behind it then he works so completely through accident and mass extinction as to be indistinguishable from randomness.

Therefore humans do not possess some ‘divine Reason’ which can be cultivated to its maximum potential at which point it can grandly be called ‘virtue’. The exact opposite. Humans quite evidently employ hundreds, maybe thousands of different mental strategies, tricks and approaches to solve the problems thrown up by day-to-day existence, and struggle daily to implement our deep biological drives (to eat and drink, get shelter, find a mate, raise a new generation, find physical and psychological security) against the challenges of the rebarbative real world, with all kinds of florid, varied and unpredictable outcomes.

Summary

Seneca’s theistic rationalism looks for and privileges One Thing in every field: One God, One Human Race, One Reason, One Virtue, One Philosophy.

Although I can see the appeal of submitting to this One World point of view – I can see the comfort it brings to its adherents or even to modern readers who bathe in its simple-minded reassurance while they’re reading his text (and I can also see how so much of Stoicism was incorporated into the equally consoling and comforting One World Christian ideology) – nonetheless, I find it creepy, I detect in it authoritarian, even totalitarian tendencies. To genuinely believe that there is just One Way to Virtue which all people should submit themselves to…

And it also happens to be factually incorrect at every step.

By contrast, I believe in diversity, in manyness, in multitudes. In my worldview humans have evolved over a very long period to possess incredibly complex mental and physical attributes, far too complex and multifaceted to encompass in one definition, in one ‘philosophy’, in one set of magic words like ‘Reason’, ‘good’ and ‘virtue’, even in words like ‘science’ or ‘biology’. The real world continually surprises us and overflows all human attempts at neat definitions, whether in philosophy, religion, science or any other system.

People are quite obviously capable of believing all kinds of things, struggle with all kinds of problems, use all manner of beliefs and faiths and rites and rituals and traditions and cultures to get them through their days and lives. All these belief systems and practices are themselves constantly evolving, added to, improved, fossilise, dumped, revived, you name it – with the result that human cultures are mind-bogglingly rich and diverse and many-sided – far too many to summarise or encapsulate in this prescriptive One World dogma.

Conclusion

Therefore it is my view that, although I can see why, narrowly appealing and comforting though Seneca’s teachings may appear at a first reading, they are nonetheless not only a) factually incorrect at every level, at every step or his argument, but b) derive from an incredibly narrow social caste (the Roman aristocracy) during an incredibly narrow moment in history (Nero’s tyranny).

Seneca’s letters are worth reading because they give a vivid insight into the mindset of a very clever man situated very close to a terrifyingly arbitrary tyrant and working out a philosophical tradition he inherited from Greek originators to fit his very specific (and very fraught) circumstances (hence the obsessive belief in suicide as an escape from tyranny).

He circles around central Stoic beliefs, reviewing them from different angles in different contexts and this provides a very useful, panoramic view of this particular belief system – and a fascinating insight into a particular cultural moment.

And many of his recommendations – shorn of their theistical underpinning – are of value, at least to the kind of reader who is already predisposed to bookish aloofness. Avoid the crowd, despise pleasure, cultivate the life of the mind, rise above the chaos of petty emotions and transient enjoyments – all this reads very well and flatters a certain kind of bookish reader who may believe that they already practice some or all of these prescriptions.

But then surely these precepts are taught by the high-minded in pretty much every major religion: surely this kind of advice can be found not only in the Christianity which incorporated so much of it, but in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Shintoism and countless other religious traditions? Or expounded by high-minded secular humanists. Ignore the trashy entertainments of the masses, despise the vulgar trappings of wealth, be content with the simple life, concentrate on acquiring wisdom.

Widespread though his conclusions may be, because they speak to a certain character type which recurs across diverse cultures, and propose a type of psychological practice which clearly speaks to a certain type of person — to focus back on the specific arguments Seneca uses to justify and underpin his philosophy – the logical sequence of arguments which I summarised at the start of this post – I have explained why I believe they are factually incorrect and intellectually untenable from start to finish.


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On the diversity of belief systems

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Moral letters by Seneca

What do you need to be a good man? Willpower.
(Letter 80, section 4)

Whatever you do, keep death in mind.
(Letter 114, section 27)

You must embed these thoughts deep in your heart, Lucilius.
(Letter 7, section 12)

Stoicism

The thing about Stoic philosophy is how wrong its premises are and how banal its teachings.

Stoics believed there is a God, that the universe or Nature is God, or God suffuses Nature. Human beings were created by God with a spark of Divine Reason within us. Our job is to clear away all the clutter of work, society, gossip, all relationships, friends and family, all the clamour which clogs up our lives, including all our own passions and emotions, love, anger and so on – in order to cultivate this fragment of the Divine Reason in each of is and, by doing so, bring our lives into alignment with the values of the universe/God. Then, by cultivating detachment from all earthly worries and passions, by strengthening our minds, we can prepare for the worst the world has to throw at us and defuse the ultimate terror, the fear of death.

That’s it. You can vary the wording and multiply the precepts with lots of specific examples (avoid gossip, avoid crowds, eat moderately, don’t get drunk, treat everyone with respect – ponder with the worst possible outcomes so nothing surprises you, analyse every situation with detachment), but it’s that simple and, after the initial novelty has worn off, that boring.

Seneca

The Roman author, tutor, Stoic philosopher, politician and immensely rich man, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD) is called Seneca the Younger because his father (54 BC to 39 AD) – author of a collection of reminiscences about the Roman schools of rhetoric (which survives) and a history of Roman affairs from the beginning of the Civil Wars until the last years of his life (which is lost) – had the exact same name, so is known as Seneca the Elder.

Seneca the Younger, much more famous than his father, is sometimes just referred to as Seneca.

Seneca wrote a prodigious amount; later critics said too much. E.F. Watling, in his Penguin edition of Seneca’s plays, says that his best-loved works are the letters he wrote to one specific friend, Lucilius. Seneca himself titled these the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’), also known in English as the ‘Letters from a Stoic’. Seneca wrote this collection of 124 letters at the end of his life, from approximately 63 to 65 AD, after he had largely retired as tutor and adviser to the Emperor Nero, a post he’d held since 49 – sixteen years.

The letters are addressed to Lucilius Junior who was then procurator of Sicily and is known to posterity only through Seneca’s writings. (Seneca also dedicated his dialogue On Providence and his encyclopedic Natural Questions to this same Lucilius.)

Scholars fret about whether these were ‘real’ letters, and what the structure of correspondence was – did Seneca only respond to questions sent him by Lucilius? Where is Lucilius’s half of the correspondence? etc. But whether or not they were ever part of a ‘real’ correspondence, it is clear that Seneca wrote these letters with a wider readership in mind. They contain numerous carefully crafted passages obviously aimed at posterity and are structured so as to cover a wide range of subjects dear to Stoics. The 124 letters were published grouped together into 20 ‘books’.

Philosophy as therapy

The letters amount to a series of short moral lessons, designed to help Lucilius achieve the wisdom and peace of mind (‘a calm and correct state of mind,’ Letter 4) promised by Stoic doctrine. In order to do this the letters focus on the traditional themes of Stoic philosophy such as removing oneself from the crowd; cultivating a contempt of death; learning to endure the ups and downs of life; acknowledging virtue as the supreme good, and so on.

The key point which the translator of the Oxford University Press edition, Elaine Fantham, makes in her introduction, is that the letters do not amount to a systematic exposition of Stoicism. Almost the reverse. They are like a series of lessons on ad hoc, specific topics, often beginning with an everyday experience and then extracting from it an insight or type of behaviour which Seneca tells Lucilius he can adopt in order to improve himself. Each letter contains ‘a little bit of profit’ (5) – like instalments in a self-help correspondence course.

Seneca wrote the letters not to promote a complete finished system of thought: he wasn’t necessarily interested in extrapolating a comprehensive system. As Fantham says, Seneca put moral impact before intellectual debate. He ‘puts the ability to avoid fear and desire ahead of any intellectual expertise’ (note, page 298). Seneca gave the work a new type of name, Epistulae Morales, and wrote them with a moral purpose to promote moral behaviour.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds…it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done and what to be avoided. (16)

Thus Seneca instructs Lucilius not about this or that point of abstract philosophical doctrine – but over and over again tells him that he must repeat certain thoughts in order to put them into practice, to make them part of his everyday waking thoughts.

Only Philosophy will wake us up, it alone will shake off our heavy sleep, so dedicate yourself wholly to it. (53.8)

Possibly the most consistent lesson (repeated so many times it gets a little boring) is cultivating a ‘contempt’ for death. When death comes it is over; it is nothing. We need to live with the idea of our death all the time, to get accustomed to it, so as to eliminate all fear and anxiety about it:

  • Let us order our minds so that we wish for whatever circumstances demand, and especially let us think about our ends without sadness. We need to be prepared for death before we are prepared for life. (61.3)
  • The more men have accustomed themselves to hardship, the more easily they will endure it. (76.34)
  • Whatever has been long anticipated comes as a lighter blow. (78.29)
  • Everyone approaches a hazard to which he has long squared himself with more courage and resists harsh events by contemplating them in advance. (107.4)

This accustoming to death takes effort so we must ‘practice thinking this over each day’ (4.5) and ‘ensure that what is now an urge becomes a lasting disposition’ (17.6).

Virtue does not come to a mind unless it is trained and taught and brought to its highest condition by constant exercise. (90.46)

Repeat, practice, memorise. The letters are lessons in how to think, in how to live life in order to maximise calm and reason, mental or psychological exercises which must be learned through constant repetition.

  • You must persist and build up strength by constant diligence until what is now a good intention becomes a good state of mind. (16.1)
  • These are things we must learn, in fact learn by heart. (123.17)

In this respect, the OUP is a good edition because Fantham precedes every letter with a short summary of its main topics, of its time and place of composition, and how it relates to other letters on the same topic. This is extremely useful. (Mind you, the 1917 translation by Richard Mott Gummere which is available online has something the Fantham edition hasn’t, which is attributing each letter a title such as ‘On saving time’, ‘On discursiveness in reading’ and so on. I imagine these titles aren’t in the original but they are extremely useful in remembering at a glance which letter is about what.)

There is some background information about Roman society, but not as much as you’d hope for, certainly nothing like the chatty detail you get in Cicero’s wonderful letters (Seneca consciously distances himself from Cicero’s style and gossipy subject matter in letter 118).

Like all Roman writers, Seneca now and then cites famous Roman heroes or historical figures as examples of ‘virtue’ (notably Marcus Porcius Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC, as the example of fortitude in the face of death; or Gaius Mucius Cordus who unflinchingly put his hand into a fire to prove his bravery).

There is a description of the lives of the super-rich at Baiae (51), a fascinating portrait of the conditions of slaves (47), a vivid comparison of the spartan bathhouses of old with their modern luxurious equivalents (86), a description of the grand retinues of foreign slaves rich people insist on travelling with (123), a description of viticulture and grafting techniques (86). Mostly, though, the letters are disappointing from a social history point of view. Philosophy is drab.

This Oxford University Press edition does not contain all of the letters – it contains 80 out of 124 (introduction p.xxxv) – but still claims to be the largest selection available in print.

Epistolary traditions

In a throwaway remark, Fantham indicates that there were two types of letter, two epistolary traditions: the philosophical letter of advice (pioneered by Epicurus, born 341 BC, and into which these letters fall) and chatty personal correspondence (Cicero, born 106 BC). [She doesn’t mention a third type which occurs to me, which is the crafted verse epistle as epitomised by Horace’s Letters or Ovid’s Black Sea Letters.]

The problem of suicide

A major stumbling block is Seneca’s worldview, the classical Roman worldview, which promotes suicide as a noble, honourable and virtuous response to all kinds of social humiliations, setbacks, not least the threats from tyrannical power.

It is a noble thing to die honourably, prudently and bravely. (77)

Part of the reason for cultivating a contempt for death, for having death continually in your thoughts, is so that, when the moment comes, it will feel like only a small additional step to fall on your sword or open your veins in a hot bath.

How many people death has been useful to, how many it frees from torture, poverty, laments, punishment, weariness. We are not in any man’s power when death is in our power. (91.21)

The historical model Seneca invokes repeatedly is Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC two years into the civil war, when he was governor of Utica, a city in North Africa, as Julius Caesar’s army was closing in. Cato killed himself to deprive Caesar of the power of either executing him or (more likely) humiliatingly pardoning him, meaning he would ignominiously owe the rest of his existence to a tyrant.

Desiring neither option, Cato stabbed himself. In the event failed to kill himself, a doctor was called who patched up his stomach wound, gave him medicine, put him to bed. In the night Cato placed his fingers into the stomach wound, ripped it open, and proceeded to pull out his intestines until he died of shock. This is held up by Seneca as exemplary behaviour.

This makes sense within the long Roman tradition of preferring honourable suicide to dishonour, but it is just not a worldview any modern person shares and Cato is not a role model any modern person would wish to copy. Of course, this strand in Seneca’s writings is magnified by the fact that Seneca himself did something similar, committing suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero, his one-time pupil, in an exemplary fashion, calmly dictating notes about Stoic resilience as he bled to death in a hot bath.

Thus he has gone down as a hero of high-minded Stoicism but there are numerous objections to this notion. One is that plenty, thousands, of other Roman notables killed themselves over the centuries, famous examples being Anthony and Cleopatra, and they weren’t Stoic philosophers. So Seneca’s high-minded end wasn’t unique, far from it, it was a very common behaviour among the aristocratic class in the ancient world, and not only under the Empire but the Republic, too.

So a) it was far from being an act unique to ‘philosophers’ but b) it is obviously something very remote indeed from modern society. Sure, people still kill themselves. But not many people kill themselves at the command of an emperor, or to demonstrate their high-minded command over their destiny and a Stoic rising above the petty concerns of life and death. This whole worldview is so remote as to be science fiction.

There seems to me something perverse, almost creepy, about a philosophy which is constantly preparing its followers for death and for suicide. The words ‘death’ or ‘die’ recur on every page. I infinitely prefer Horace’s encouragement to enjoy life to the full while we can.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key.
(Horace Odes, book 2, poem 1)

Themes in the letters

Despise death

We start to die from the day we are born. When we die there is nothing. There was nothing before life and there will be nothing after. So be not afraid.

  • What I am recommending to you is not just a remedy for this disease but for your whole life: despise death. (78.5)
  • First free yourself from the fear of death. (80.5)

Freedom

Despising death means we are free from the threats of tyrants or society. What is the worst they can do to us if we despise the worst, consider it nothing? Nothing can harm the calm and virtuous mind. By welcoming whatever will happen, it creates its own freedom no matter what the external circumstances. With typical extremity of metaphor or rhetoric, Seneca continually contrasts freedom, not with being bogged down or caught up or hampered by obligations – such as most of us encounter in real life – but with full-on hardcore Roman slavery:

  • You ask what is liberty? To be enslaved to no object, no necessity, no chances, to reduce Fortune to a level field. (51.9)
  • We must busy ourselves with our studies and the sources of wisdom…this is how we should rescue our mind from a most wretched enslavement and restore it to liberty. (104.16)
  • We have enslaved our spirit to pleasure whose indulgence is the beginning of all evils. (110.10)

Now it makes sense that Seneca uses as metaphor the slavery which was, arguably, the central fact of Roman life. But as with the way his mind, when he wants to imagine examples of adversity, leaps straight towards images of torture and execution, it’s another example of the extremity of metaphor and argument which underpins his ‘philosophy’ and makes so much of it feel so alien to the modern mind.

True friendship

Gauge a man before making him a friend. Be cautious, test out friends. But once someone is a friend, bind them to you, share everything with them. True friends share everything, including misfortune. Seneca says you have to learn to be a friend to yourself.

Avoid crowds

‘Shun whatever pleases the common herd’ (8). One iniquitous example can adversely affect you. A crowd presents all kinds of bad examples. People are emboldened to behave badly in crowds. So withdraw into yourself and study philosophy, but not so conspicuously as to draw attention or criticism. Don’t draw attention to your retirement and quietism. Quietly disappear.

Your body

A great and cautious man separates his mind from his body and spends the better part of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Provide it only as much as needed to preserve good health. Avoid excess. Consume as much plain drink as required to quench thirst, as much plain food as to quench hunger, the minimum clothes to protect you from the elements, a house sufficient to protect you from the weather.

Devote some days to eating as little as possible. Become familiar with the bare minimum needed to keep alive and healthy (so that if exile to a bare rock or sudden incarceration befall you, your body is ready for much reduced circumstances).

Don’t exercise to excess. Do as much as needed to keep healthy. Reserve your energy for cultivating the mind.

As to physical pleasures, avoid them like the plague; they enslave the body and then the mind.

  • Uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • First of all we must reject pleasures; they make men weak and effeminate and demand too much time and effort. (104.34)

Your house

Your house should be a size and contain only as much as needed to protect you from the elements. Despise ornament and decoration.

Possessions

Have as few as possible. ‘No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions.’ (18.13) Have them, but adopt a mindset where you could happily dispense with all of them, where they are all taken from you and you don’t care a jot, because you are secure in the untroubled citadel of your mind.

Enough

Don’t overdo it: don’t mortify your body, don’t insist on eating bread and water, living in a hut, neglecting your body, like the Cynics who, following Diogenes, set out to punish their bodies. Live comfortably and sensibly, just not to excess.

  • So correct yourself, take off your burdens and shrink your desires within a healthy limit. (104.20)

How to be content

And cultivate contentment by being happy with what you’ve got.

  • I will tell you how you can recognise the healthy man: he is content with himself. (72.7)
  • This is what philosophy will guarantee you, something which nothing surpasses: you will never be dissatisfied with yourself. (115.18)

Excess

Similar to his thoughts about suicide and anger, in that it sounds reasonable of Seneca to tell his follower not live to excess, but what Seneca has in mind is Roman excess, the off-the-scale lavishness and baroque luxury of the Roman emperors and the richest in the known world (as described in the letters from the fashionable resort of Baiae, 49, 51).

  • Too many amenities make the spirit effeminate…The stricter discipline of a simpler place strengthens the mind and makes it fit for great undertakings. (51.10-11)

The general point is not so much that indulgence is morally bad in itself: but that people enslave themselves by indulging the pleasures of the senses, deform their minds, make themselves into addicts, by coming to rely on excessive behaviour, on excessive drinking, excessive eating, excessive sex, excessive gambling.

It’s not so much that moderation is good in itself but that it stops you developing addictions and so becoming enslaved to them. Moderation leaves your mind free to focus on more important, ‘higher’ things. Moderation sets you free from all the snares of the senses.

That is why:

We ought to concentrate on escaping as far as possible from the provocations to vice. One’s mind must be hardened and dragged away from the enticements of pleasure. (51.5)

Anger

Quite apart from the letters, Seneca wrote no fewer than three treatises on anger. Fantham makes a really profound point about this which depends, again, on the profound difference between us and Roman society. This is that Roman emperors had complete power over all citizens, and all citizens had complete power over huge numbers of slaves. In this society an angry citizen could order his slave to be tortured or killed, just as an angry emperor could order anyone he fancied to be exiled, thrown into gaol, tortured or executed. Therefore controlling anger was much, much more important than it is in our society. Anger is not a good emotion with us but could have catastrophic consequences in Seneca’s world.

The mind

‘Nothing deserves admiration except the mind’ (9). The mind alone is worth cultivating. No other skills, activities, pastimes are worth cultivating.

  • Control your mind so as to bring it to perfection in the most calm condition, a mind which feels neither what is taken from it nor added to it, but keeps the same disposition however affairs turn out. (36.6)
  • A great and cautious man separates his mind from the body and spends much of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Moral behaviour

Imagine the most moral, honourable person you can. Then imagine they are watching everything you say or do.

Fear, anxiety, stress

All these are caused by worry that the worst is going to happen. Well, imagine the worst has happened. Live with the worst, imaginatively – prepare yourself for the worst. Once you dispel anxiety about unnamed and exaggerated fears, you can get rid of the panic and examine the issue rationally, restoring order and calm to the mind, allowing Reason to operate unhampered by over emotions.

Philosophy

Philosophy, for Seneca, isn’t the working out of a complex system or ideology: it is a psychological or spiritual practice. It is an exercise to attain an attitude, cultivated with the sole aim of making its practitioner mentally strong and resilient against tyranny, suffering and death.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds. It is not taken up to make sure the day passes with some enjoyment, to take the boredom out of leisure; it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done or avoided; it is seated at the helm and steers the course of those adrift among treacherous shoals. Without it no man can live without fear or anxiety; countless things occur each hour that need the advice which we must seek from philosophy. (16.3)

Philosophy may include technical aspects such as types of argument and syllogism (which he consistently ridicules and dismisses for its pedantry) but, far more importantly, Seneca sees ‘philosophy’ as a kind of mental fortress, a psychological redoubt:

So withdraw into philosophy as far as you may; she will protect you in her bosom and in her shrine you will be safe. (103.4)

In doing so, it can raise us above the level of mere mortals:

This is what philosophy promises me, to make me equal to a god. (48.11)

Slavery

As you might expect Seneca admonishes Lucilius to treat his slaves as equals because they are as human as you or I:

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47.10)

But, just as predictably, Seneca doesn’t actually recommend actually freeing them. (In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Juvenal’s Satires, Peter Green says this attitude was typical of Stoics: ‘[Juvenal] attacked wanton cruelty to slaves, but did not query the concept of slavery itself (another characteristically Stoic attitude.)] Introduction, page 23)

Letter 47 is fascinating for giving an extended description of the types of functions slaves performed in an aristocratic household and the brutal punishments they were liable to for the slightest infraction.

(It is a secondary consideration that in the long letter 90, a detailed list of the technical achievements and innovations which make up civilisation, Seneca despises them all and considers all of them – agriculture and irrigation and milling grain to make bread and architecture and glass windows and all the rest of it – only worthy of slaves and freedmen [who, apparently, largely made up the artisan class of Rome] and so far beneath an aristocrat like himself and his friend Lucilius. Aristocrats needed to rise above these slave occupations in order to practice the only thing worthwhile activity for humans, to cultivate the mind, perfect reason, acquire wisdom, so as to rise above passions and fear of death. That is the primary aim of the letter, but in order to make the point what comes over is a contempt for the artisan class, for engineers and innovators and craftsmen, which makes me dislike Seneca even more. His assumption is that all the achievements of the thousands of people who had perfected all aspects of civilisation and raised it to the luxurious heights of his day only matter insofar as they allow him to perfect his wonderful mind. It’s a privileged narcissism which is, in its own arrogant way, every bit as corrupt as the decadent court of the arch-egotist Nero.)

Self-help slogans

The book is stacked with improving and inspiring thoughts of the kind which have become over-familiar in the subsequent 2,000 years, particularly the last 50 years or so of self-help books.

  • I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. (2.1)
  • The best measure of wealth is to have what is necessary and the next best, is to have enough. (2.5)
  • The man at ease should take action, and the man at action should take ease. (5)
  • Who is well born? The man well set up by nature for virtue…it is the spirit that makes one noble. (44.5)
  • Nature made us teachable and gave us an imperfect reason but one which can be perfected. (50.11)

Although Seneca’s long porridgey paragraphs have the heavy feel of ‘philosophy’, the quality of the argumentation is often weak and many of the actual injunctions feel more like daytime TV, self-help guru-talk than Hegel or Hume. Once or twice he came close to the banal catchphrase mocked in the old TV sitcom, Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em: ‘Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.’

I rejoice that you are studying with perseverance and abandoning all else for this one thing, to make yourself a better man each day. (5.1)

Critique

As with all philosophy, and especially ‘moral’ philosophy, there is no end to the debate, discussion, critique and commentary which the Letters from a Stoic have spawned over the past 2,000 years. A handful of themes struck me:

1. Simplistic values

The most obvious, for me, is the extreme difference in the social context between Seneca and us and in particular his concept of negative life events. For Seneca a bad turn of events is an ever-present threat under the tyranny of imperial rule. It is associated with prison, torture, enslavement and all the other dire possibilities of life under arbitrary Roman emperors such as Nero. Thus there is a misleading simplicity to most of his meditations. When he imagines something bad, it’s being thrown into prison or tortured or executed by the emperor. The conception of negative life events which he uses to underpin his entire Stoic system is disconcertingly simple and extreme – exile, torture, death – and so the mental lesson he is teaching is concomitantly simplistic: prepare your mind to be strong and noble under torture or the threat of death (see the harping on about torture and death in letters 67 and 70).

But not many modern readers of the letters are going to have the same concerns – that they will thrown into prison, tortured or forced to commit suicide at the whim of a Roman emperor. The worst things I can imagine happening to me are: being in a life-changing accident i.e. becoming wheelchair-bound or having a stroke; being diagnosed with a terminal or life-changing illness; something bad happening to my loved ones, especially my children. But my day-to-day worries are more humdrum, recalcitrant, fiddly, frustrating: worried about my performance at work, this or that bit of the house needs maintenance, I’m worried about money, about not being able to pay my bills – fuel bills, heating bills, food bills.

I know Stoic thought can be applied to these modern circumstances i.e. I should try to cultivate mental detachment and resilience so I am ready to face bad events and rise above them. But the extremity and the simpleness of the situations Seneca describes and which form the basis of his entire philosophy (arbitrary arrest, torture, execution) rarely if ever occur in modern Western life and so all his much-repeated lessons rarely if at all apply to me. Modern life is more complex and multi-faceted than Seneca’s philosophy allows.

Seneca’s ‘philosophy’ is worth reading as an extremely vivid insight into the mindset of the Stoic classes during the tyranny of Nero but is, in my opinion, of limited use or value to modern readers leading modern lives.

2. Hypocrisy

I’ve just read Tacitus’s Annals where Seneca is described as being one of the richest men in Rome, with mansions as big as Nero’s and gardens even bigger, hundreds of servants, immense wealth in gold and assets. (In fact Seneca’s extreme wealth became proverbial to later generations: Juvenal’s tenth satire describes how Seneca, ‘grown too wealthy’ lost his magnificent gardens.) So it’s pretty ironic, knowing the man was a byword for obscene wealth, to read Seneca’s continual recommendation of the plain, simple life, eschewing pleasure and cultivating virtue. It’s easy advice for the ridiculously rich to give. The hypocrisy is summed up by a character in John Marston’s 1603 play, The Malcontent, which Watling quotes:

Out upon him! He writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure and died like an effeminate coward. (The Malcontent, Act 3, scene 1, line 28)

Not quite accurate (Seneca definitely did not die ‘like an effeminate coward’) but the first half, the epicure accusation, has force. This point was epitomised, for me, in a throwaway remark of Seneca’s in a letter which is intended to be about exercise and physical frailty:

I have just returned from my ride. I am just as tired as if I had walked as far as I have been sitting. It is an effort to be carried for a long time, and I rather think the effort is greater because riding is contrary to nature. (55.1)

It is an effort to be carried for a long time. (In a sedan chair, presumably.) Well, what about the slaves who were doing the carrying? Bet it was a bit of an effort for them, too. Seneca’s writings cannot escape from the taint of the astonishing level of privilege enjoyed by his class in general, and the extraordinarily privileged lifestyle enjoyed by him – according to Tacitus the richest man in Rome – in particular.

3. How Christians appropriated Stoic rhetoric

Many of the lessons Seneca spells out to Lucilius are very familiar from the long tradition of Western moralists, from Erasmus, through Montaigne, on into the Enlightenment and then diffused out into the broader culture by thousands of Victorian moralists.

My mum used to tell us kids, ‘Moderation in everything’. You don’t need to read Seneca to already know half of his nostrums and tags. I suggest that much of it seems so familiar because Stoic teachings were taken over wholesale by the early Christians and formed the basis of much Christian everyday morality. Obviously not the bits specific to Christian theology (the Fall, Original Sin, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection etc) but the fundamental theist worldview is often indistinguishable from Christianity:

  • No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions. (18.13)
  • God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. (41.1)
  • What is enough for God is not too little for masters. (47.18)
  • The place which God occupies in this universe is the place which mind occupies in man. (65.24)
  • God comes to men. Indeed, what is actually nearer, he comes into men. No mind is good without God. (73.16)
  • Whatever is good for us our God and father placed at hand. (110.10)

My point is that in the advice about day-to-day living, the Christians appropriated Stoic teachings so completely that the advice to Lucilius to cultivate the mind, avoid the crowd and their superficial entertainments, practice virtue, despise the knocks of Fortune and cultivate a contempt for death – all these are the familiar background hum of Christian morality, the subjects of hundreds of thousands of Sunday sermons and public lectures, recycled on radio phone-ins and daytime TV and millions of self-help columns in magazines and newspapers and books. Which explains why when we moderns come to read Seneca we are so rarely surprised and so often find his nostrums familiar and reassuring.

4. Repetition

Above all, like any good teacher, he repeats the same key points again and again, in different formulations, approached from different angles, but coming back again and again to the same fundamental idea: rise above the fortuitous events of your life; rise above all emotions and attachments; cultivate ‘philosophy’, which means a Buddhist detachment from everyone else and even from yourself; live with the idea of death so continually that it eventually presents no fears. And then you will have conquered yourself, your fear of death and you will be…free.

  • I am forcing my mind to focus on itself and not be distracted by outside events…The real calm is when a good state of mind unfolds. (56.6)
  • The wise man is full of joy, cheerful and calm, undisturbed. He lives on equal terms with the gods…The wise man’s mind is like the universe beyond the moon: there it is always fine and calm. (59.14)
  • Abandon those distractions which men have rushed to enjoy; abandon riches, which are either a danger or a burden to their possessors; leave the pleasures of body and mind, which soften and weaken you; abandon ambition, which is a bloated, hollow and windy condition with no limit. (84.11)
  • There is only one way the dawn can come: if a man takes in this knowledge of things human and divine and does not just sprinkle it over himself but but steeps himself in it; if he goes over the same things repeatedly (110.8)

But repetition is not argumentation. Despite Seneca using the word ‘philosophy’ all the time, this isn’t really philosophy at all. It is, as I’ve said, more like exhortation to a good frame of mind, moral uplift, encouragement to develop a tough attitude, therapy for the anxious, a self-help manual. And incredibly repetitive.

Unvexed by terrors and uncorrupted by pleasures we shall dread neither death nor the gods. We shall know that death is not an evil and the gods do not exist for evil. What harms us is as weak as what is harmed; the best things lack the power to harm. What awaits us, if we ever emerge from these dregs to the sublime and lofty region, is peace of mind and liberty free from the errors which have been driven out. What does that liberty consist of? Not fearing men or gods; wanting neither what is base nor excessive; having the greatest power over oneself. It is an incalculable good to become one’s own master. (75.17-18)

5. Family and friends

In nearly 300 pages of relentless insistence that we rise above all attachments and emotions, nowhere does he mention family (in just one letter, 104, he mentions his wife, Paulina).

Family was a very big thing indeed for noble Romans, so it’s a striking absence in the context of Seneca’s own time. But regarded as instructions for modern readers, his insistence on boiling your life right down to a relentless focus on cultivating your virtue and your indifference to death completely ignores the scores of relationships most people have in their lives, starting with their family.

Most modern therapy involves getting to grip with your childhood experiences and your relationship with your parents. But parents, spouses or children are completely absent from Seneca’s teachings. His Stoicism is an impressively selfish concern, in which he endlessly exhorts Lucilius to forget about everyone but himself, to focus on his own mind and anxiety of death etc, to think about no-one but me me me.

This makes his ‘philosophy’ inapplicable, in practice, to anyone who has parents, partners or children and really cares for them, is involved in their day-to-day wellbeing and, especially when it comes to children, to their little triumphs or setbacks. None of that for Stoic Seneca. He is in his study toughening up his mind by envisaging torture in every detail so as to be able to rise above it, when the time comes.

But it struck me that this deliberate ignoring of family sheds light on and helps to explain the humanistic obsession with friendship. Seneca’s letters on the importance of having one, key soulmate-level friend are one of the sources for the obsession with friendship which is a central theme of humanist writings from the 15th century onwards.

Friends know that they have everything in common…the true friendship which neither hope nor fear nor self-interest can sever, the friendship with which men die and for which they die. (6.2)

It’s possible to interpret this obsession with Perfect friendship as the Stoic replacing the messy, uncontrollable web of family relationships, with all its unpredictable ups and downs, with One Relationship with One Special Friend. To use the modern buzzword, it’s a very controlling approach. When you read the great humanist works on this subject (Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon) what comes over is that you are only going to meet one or two soulmates in your life and that you will become identical in interests and affections with this one special person. In a science fiction kind of way, you and the True Friend of humanist tradition will become one person.

So, to put it crudely, humanist teaching about friendship a) is a way of ducking the uncontrollable mess of family ties and responsibilities and b) ends up with you looking in a mirror. Solipsistic narcissism.

Horace

As Roman ‘moralists’ go, I prefer Horace. He’s lighter, funnier, his affable tone is more persuasive, more inspiring for me, than Seneca’s dour and relentless lecturing. Seneca sounds like the tutor he was:

I hereby order you to be slow in speaking. (40.14)

Whereas Horace sounds like a friend offering gentle advice:

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully…
(Horace, Odes, book 1, poem 9)

Seneca thinks of himself as embattled – quick! time is short! the enemy is at the door! focus on the essentials!

  • I am being besieged right now…the enemy is at our backs…I need a heroic spirit (49.9)
  • Fortune is waging war with me but I will not do what she orders, I will not accept the yoke. (51.8)
  • A real man prefers his sleep to be broken by a bugle than a chorus. (51.12)

This sense of the world as a battlefield, a fight, a struggle against countless enemies all trying to seduce your God-given soul, was inherited by Christianity. It dominates the letters of St Paul who wrote the most influential letters in Christendom, and used rhetoric similar to Seneca when he urged his followers to ‘fight the good fight’ (First letter to Timothy).

To understand Paul, we must grasp that he is at war, with the angels of heaven at his back. The Acts of the Apostles is, at its base, a power-struggle between Christ and Satan, wrenching whole peoples away from Satan’s grasp. (Jesus Walk Bible Studies)

In contrast to this worldview of unrelenting embattled paranoia, Horace writes a letter to a friend inviting him to come round and try the new wine they’ve just bottled on his estate. There’ll be other friends there, and they’ll stay up late together laughing and joking. Seneca’s remedy for the fickleness of human existence is to be continually, constantly thinking about death all the time.

Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable…Say to me when I lie down to sleep: ‘You may not wake again!’ And when I have waked: ‘You may not go to sleep again!’ Say to me when I go forth from my house: ‘You may not return!’ And when I return: ‘You may never go forth again!’

Well, you may win the lottery this weekend. You may run down the escalator and bump into the woman of your dreams. If you start speculating about things which may happen, the sky’s the limit. In which case – why focus only on the bad things which ‘may’ happen. Lovely things ‘may’ happen, too. Pondering Seneca’s use of the conditional to dwell only on the most extreme negative outcomes (torture, execution) makes the reader realise how much he is obsessed with the dark side of life, and so insists that we be brutally harsh with ourselves:

  • Cast out whatever desires are lacerating your heart and if they cannot be pulled out any other way then you must tear out your heart with them. In particular, uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • We believe pleasure is a moral failing…Pleasure is a shameful thing. (59.1-2)

What a stupid attitude. Horace has an equally frank acceptance of how time is limited and we are hurrying towards our deaths, but he draws the exact opposite conclusion, which is: carpe diem, enjoy the moment. Instead of considering yourself under siege from wicked temptations so that you have to harden your heart against all affection, think of life as a blessing, bless every moment it brings you, and savour the fleeting pleasures. Horace gets my vote.

Last word to Martial

Martial book 11, epigram 56, begins, in the translation by James Michie:

Because you glorify death, old Stoic,
Don’t expect me to admire you as heroic…

And ends ten lines later:

It’s easy to despise life when things go wrong;
The true hero endures much, and long.


Credit

Selected Letters of Seneca, translated and introduced by Elaine Fantham, was published as an Oxford University Press paperback in 2010. All quotes are from this edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Seneca’s Plays

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

Seneca’s biography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seneca’s tragedies

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

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

Watling’s critique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

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

Background

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

Act I

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

Act II

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

Act III

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

Act IV

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

Act V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Phaedra

Background

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

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

Prelude (Hippolytus)

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

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3

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

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

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

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

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

Act 4

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

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

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

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

Act 5

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

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

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

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

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

3. The Trojan Women

Background

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

Act 1

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

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

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

Act 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 4

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

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

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

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

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

Act 5

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

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

Thoughts

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

4. Oedipus

Background

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

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

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

Act 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3

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

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

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

Act 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moral of the story

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

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

Big ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

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

Related links

Roman reviews

The satires of Horace, translated by Niall Rudd (1973)

Take a thousand men, you’ll find
a thousand hobbies. Mine is enclosing words in metre.
(Satire 1, book 2)

Penguin classics translations are often old. This translation of Horace’s satires was first published in 1973, a date which evokes fond memories of David Essex and Glam Rock for me but it is, of course, 50 years ago, now, and the translator of this edition, Professor Niall Rudd, born in 1927, is as dead as his hero Horace.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus, usually referred to in English simply as Horace, was born in 65 BC and died in 8 BC. His life therefore spanned the transition of Rome from free republic to proto-empire under the first emperor, Augustus.

Horace was the son of a slave, who was granted his freedom and made a successful career as an auctioneer’s agent (Introduction page xvii), earning enough to send the boy Horace to a good school then on to Rome to study. Horace served as an officer in the republican army of Brutus and Cassius which was defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 by the allied forces of Octavian and Antony, but (obviously) survived and returned to Italy. (In Satire 1.6 Horace specifies that he was a tribune in charge of a legion in the army of Brutus, and the experience of seeing the republican ranks breaking and fleeing is described in two of his odes, 2.7 and 3.4.)

Back in Italy, Horace discovered his father was dead and his properties had been confiscated as part of the huge land appropriations carried out by Octavian after Philippi. Horace managed to get a job in the treasury and wrote poetry in his spare time (p.xvii). His verse came to the attention of Virgil, favourite poet of the new regime, who brought it to the attention of Augustus’s schoolboy friend and cultural commissar, Maecenas (an event described in satire 1.6). This was in 37 BC. Two years later Horace published his first book, of ten satires.

Maecenas realised Horace’s gift and became his patron, eventually buying him a large country estate , thus removing Horace’s money worries. Henceforth the poet mixed with the top rank of Roman society and its leading writers.

Horace is most famous for his odes, which have charmed and consoled readers for 2,000 years. They are wise and gracious. Some of them are extremely flattering to his lord and master Augustus, so a regular debating point about Horace’s poetry has been assessing how much he managed to keep his independence and how much he truckled to the wishes of the regime. The English poet John Dryden knew a thing or two about writing political poetry, so his opinion bears weight when he calls Horace ‘a well-mannered court slave.’

Apparently, scholars broadly agree the following dates for Horace’s poetry:

  • Satires 1 (c. 35 to 34 BC)
  • Satires 2 (c. 30 BC)
  • Epodes (30 BC)
  • Odes 1 to 3 (c. 23 BC)
  • Epistles 1 (c. 21 BC)
  • Carmen Saeculare (17 BC)
  • Epistles 2 (c. 11 BC)
  • Odes 4 (c. 11 BC)
  • Ars Poetica (c. 10 to 8 BC)

Less well known than the odes are Horace’s satires, written in elegantly crafted hexameters i.e. verse with six ‘feet’ or beats per line. There are two books of satires, book 1 containing 10 poems and book 2 containing 8 poems i.e. 18 satires in all.

This Penguin edition also contains Horace’s epistles, book 1 containing 20 epistles, book 2 containing two standard epistles and then the longer, third, epistle which is a treatise on the art of poetry, the Ars poetica in the Latin.

This Penguin edition contains three brief forewords which show how Professor Rudd successively revised his translations in 1979, 1996 and 2005, the latter edition in particular being comprehensively revised ‘to produce a smoother and lighter versification’.

Aspects of Horace’s satire

Satire as argument

Horace’s satires remind me a lot of Cicero’s law speeches in that they are arguments; more precisely a series of arguments strung together around a central topic. They are designed to persuade you or, maybe like Cicero’s speeches, to amuse and entertain the auditor while they go through the motions of persuading. They are a performance of persuading.

Dramatised

The second way they’re like Cicero is the way they routinely dramatise the text by inventing opponents, antagonists who make a point against Horace, his beliefs or his practice of poetry – so that Horace can then neatly refute them. For example the imaginary accuser in this excerpt:

‘You like giving pain,’
says a voice, ‘and you do it out of sheer malice.’ Where did you get
that slander to throw at me?

The invented antagonist is just one component of the surprisingly chatty, conversational, buttonholing tone of Horace’s satires.

Names

Another feature is the way Horace fleshes out general observations by embodying vices in certain named individuals. The notes to the book point out that we don’t know who most of these people are. My hunch would be that Horace invented them, gave them plausible names, added them to the rogues gallery or cast of characters which populate the satires. He gives this trick a down-home explanation by attributing it to his dad:

Yet if I’m a little outspoken or perhaps
too fond of a joke, I hope you’ll grant me that privilege.
My good father gave me the habit; to warn me off
he used to point out various vices by citing examples. (1.4)

The lyric poet tends to write about him or herself and their fine feelings. By contrast, Horace’s satires overflow with people, talking, jostling, lecturing him, criticising, talking back. Thus characters named Ummidius, Naevius, Nommentanus, Tigellius the singer, Fufidius, Maltinus, Rufillus, Cupiennius, Galba, Sallust, Marsaeus, Origo, Villius, Fausta, Longarenus, Cerinthus, Hypsaea, Catia, Philodemus, Lady Ilia, Countess Egeria, Fabius appear in just the first two satires.

As a whole, as a genre, the satires overflow with recognisable social types and characters, all jostling and arguing with him, like an urban crowd or maybe like a very packed house party at a rich man’s villa.

Anyway, the net effect is to make you, dear reader, feel as if you are in the swim, you are in the know, you are part of this smart set, fully informed of all the goings-on in Rome’s smartest circles. Sometimes Horace’s satires are like high society gossip columns.

The origin of satire

There has a been a lot of scholarly debate about the origin of the word and genre of ‘satire’. The Middle Ages thought it had something to do with satyrs, the half men, half goats of mythology. Nowadays, scholars think it derives from the Latin word satura. It is now seen as a development of the rough, rude, vulgar plays and written entertainments the Romans composed in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, before they were really exposed to the long-established forms of Greek literature.

But in his introduction, the translator, Professor Niall Rudd, makes an important distinction between satire and satura. The Greeks, obviously, had countless expressions of the satirical spirit; what they didn’t have was a genre named satura. The saturae that Horace wrote overlapped with the idea of satire, but not completely and not all the time. Saturae seem from the beginning to have been associated with the idea of medley and mixture. Rudd traces its origins from Naevius via Ennius, the first major Roman poet, to Lucilius, ‘the first European satirist’ (p.xi).

Horace himself refers to the key role played by the Roman poet Lucilius in inventing this genre. We know Lucilius died in 103 BC, because a state funeral was held for him, but nobody knows when he was born.

It is now routinely thought that Lucilius took ‘the rude inartistic medley, known to the Romans by the name of satura‘ and used it as a vehicle for the kind of aggressive and censorious criticism of persons, morals, manners, politics, literature, etc. which the word satire has denoted ever since.

The reason we’re not sure about any of this is because no single poem of Lucilius’s has survived. We know that he wrote some thirty books (!) of satires, but we only have fragments, admittedly a lot of fragments, some 1,300 (!), but which are mostly single lines taken out of context and quoted in the works of later grammarians.

Lucilius seems to have begun his career by ridiculing and parodying the conventional language of epic and tragic poetry, setting against it the ordinary language of educated men of his time. You can see how there would be something intrinsically humorous in juxtaposing the highflown language of epic and tragedy with the actual humdrum, rather shabby lives most of us lead.

And how it would be only a small step from that to devoting entire poems to the real social practices of his time, with sarcastic commentary on the intrigues of politics, the ubiquitous greed not only of the rich but of grasping merchants, the gossip and scandal about well-known figures, the perennial disapproval of other people’s sex lives, the equally perennial disapproval of other people’s gluttony and drunkenness, the ghastly vulgarity of the addle-headed mob who will follow any populist who throws them simple slogans, promises a better life, and so on.

But Rudd emphasises that Lucilius’s range was huge: the fragments include dramatic scenes, fables, sermons, dialogues, letters, epigrams, anecdotes and learned exposition. Medleys, indeed.

One other point: As part of mocking highfalutin’ language, Lucilius used the more ordinary speech of educated members of his society and, especially when talking about himself, used a relaxed, open and candid tone of voice, an informal, candid tone which Horace copies.

But Rudd’s discussion also raises a point which Horace himself repeatedly mentions, which is whether satire is even poetry at all, but more like a form of rhythmical prose. If the tone and subject matter become so casual and realistic, is it much more than rhythmic prose? Well, we can judge because in some translations Horace’s verse is changed into English prose and even a cursory glance at these shows you  that something is lost. This is a) the rhythmical pleasure which always comes from of reading lines of verse and b) admiration of his skill at coining a phrase, or turning a phrase, within the strict limitations of the metre. The display and performative aspects of verse are lost. Verse is better; it gives a more multi-levelled pleasure. When deciding what translations of these Roman poets to buy I always prefer the verse translation.

And so the genre of satire was born, the only literary genre the Romans could claim to have invented without Greek precedent.

Satire’s limitations

However, the most obvious thing about satire is it doesn’t work. American satirists ripped the piss out of Donald Trump during his bid to win the Republican nomination, then during his presidential campaign of 2015, and then, of course, during his entire 4 years in power. But in the November 2020 presidential election, the total number of votes cast for Donald Trump went up, from 62,984,828 to 74,216,154! So much for the tens of thousands of satirists, comedians, commentators, academics, film-makers, playwrights, novelists and so on who relentlessly mocked him for 4 years. Net result: his popularity increased!

Same with Boris Johnson in the UK. What brought him down was emphatically not the efforts of the thousands of liberal comedians and satirists relentlessly mocking his every move and word etc etc but the desertion of key allies in his own cabinet when they thought his erratic judgement threatened their own careers.

So if satire doesn’t change anything, what is it for? Well, obviously to entertain and amuse. But there’s another motive. If you reflect on what the effect of reading Private Eye or other satirical magazines, or being in the audience of some standup comedian is on the reader or audience, maybe the most obvious one is making them feel virtuous, making them feel an insider, in with the good guys, on the side of the angels.

I lost interest in, and then actively avoided, comedy programmes during the Trump presidency, because they became so lazy. All a joker had to do was make reference to Trump’s hair or hands or two or three of his most notorious quotes and the audience exploded with laughter. This is the risk with satire, that you end up preaching to the converted. You are telling them jokes they already know, mocking figures that everybody already mocks – laughable politicians, corrupt businessmen, the royal family, rich bankers etc. It has little or no effect on the target but makes its audience feel knowing and justified. Everyone else is laughing. It’s not just me.

But maybe by ‘everybody’ I mean mainly the well educated. The audience that finds the slightest reference to Trump howlingly funny is probably young, white, university educated. If we apply this model to Horace, we see that he explicitly appeals to a similar readership – not to the uneducated mob, not to the corrupt politicians or greedy merchants he mocks: but to a hypothetical readership of People Like Us; educated, moderate, sensible, guilty of a few forgivable foibles maybe, but innocent of all grosser corruptions and turpitudes. Decent people, yes, we agree with Horace.

So a working model of satire is that its main purpose is both to entertain, sure, but also to reinforce the group identity and groupthink of its educated, middle (in Rome, upper) class audience.

The other limitation of satire is the extreme narrowness of its range. The best novels take into the minds and experiences of people drastically different from their readers. Lyric poetry can interweave acuteness of perception with psychological insight. Epic poetry transports our minds to the superhuman realm of gods and heroes. Whereas, on the whole, satire hits its subjects with a mallet, and it is a narrow range of subjects.

In satire 1.4 (i.e. book 1, satire 4) Horace makes a provisional list of the kinds of people he mocks: the greedy, the ambitious, those sexually obsessed with married women or with boys; over-rich collectors of objets d’art in silver or bronze; merchants anxious about their shipments and the next deal i.e. businessmen.

It’s a familiar list, indicative of the way human nature hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years, at least in complex societies. These societies seem to throw up the same types of character again and again, along with an audience of the non-rich, the non-perverted, the not-involved-in-politics, who enjoy being entertained by someone taking the mickey out of those members of society who are (rich, perverted,  incompetent politicians or corrupt businessmen).

So if satire’s targets are predictable, if the list of behaviours which are going to be mocked are known in advance, why is it not boring? Well, the answer is in the stylishness, zip and intelligence of the satirist, the vim and twist of their delivery. Plus – their sheer aggression. The best satire is malicious, so that beneath the jokes you sense real anger, and this anger, the way it is managed and shaped and directed can be immensely entertaining.

So it’s a balancing act, satire: you’ve got to hit targets familiar enough for the audience to laugh in recognition but not so obvious as to become boring; you’ve got to display inventiveness and wit in hitting those targets; you mustn’t attack your audience, for the most part you have to reassure them that they’re on the side of the angels (although occasional good-natured jabs at the audience’s complacency keep things lively – but not too much).

And any genuine anger you feel must be reined in and channeled into the show, not openly displayed – sublimated into comic invention, because raw anger changes the tone from comedy to rant. Watching performers like Lenny Bruce or Bill Hicks walk that line between inventive invective and rant can be thrilling, invogorating, shocking, hilarious.

Horace’s satires display the kind of skill, variety and inventiveness which I’m suggesting good satire requires. They mock the usual suspects but often come at them from unexpected angles. And they do sometimes range a bit beyond the usual targets of satire into unexpected subject matter.

And this is because they are describing a society which, although in some respects similar to ours (the greedy rich, corrupt politicians, who’s shagging who etc) in many other details is significantly different, and therein lies another pleasure in reading Horace – for the details of ancient social history which pack the poems. Maybe this is all best demonstrated by a brief summary of each of the satires.

Summary of Horace’s satires

Book 1

Satire 1 (121 lines)

Why do people work so hard and yet almost everybody is fed up with their job and would swap it in a moment for someone else’s? Is it to do with greed? The poem turns into a dialogue with a miser.

Satire 2 (134 lines)

About sexual morality, it seems to say that whereas some rich men prefer sex to have obstacles, such as seducing other men’s wives, the author likes to keep sex simple and simply available.

Satire 3 (142 lines)

Numerous details of people being quick to criticise others (even their own friends behind their backs) yet hypocritically asking indulgence for their own flaws. It turns into a general point, which is that the punishment ought to fit the crime, arguing against Stoic doctrine that all crimes should be treated with equal severity. Because:

no-one is free from faults, the best is the man who is hampered by the smallest

Therefore:

Let’s have a fair penalty-scale for offences.

Satire 4 (143 lines)

Horace defends his writing of satires by claiming he writes very little, does not claim everyone’s attention, does not give public recitations, his writings are for his own improvement and amusement. He makes the significant point that satire is barely poetry at all, but more like rhythmic prose. He has an invented interlocutor accuse him of malice but refutes the accusation, contrasting himself with the kind of creep who gets drunk at a dinner party and abuses all his friends; now that’s malice. Then making the point that his father tried to teach him about life by pointing out men brought low by various flaws or low behaviour. His poetry is his notes to himself continuing that tradition.

Satire 5 (104 lines)

An amiable description of a journey Horace took from Rome to Brundisium, decorated with incidents and people encountered along the way, not least his good friend Virgil and his mates Plotius and Varius.

Satire 6 (131 lines)

On ambition and snobbery. Horace starts by thanking his patron, Maecenas who, although he came of pretty exalted parents, is free of snobbery. He laments his own position (‘only a freedman’s son, run down by all as only a freedman’s son’, l.46). This morphs into an extended tribute to his father who scrimped and saved to send him to the best school. Horace earns very big brownie points in a patriarchal society like Rome’s for his exemplary filial devotion. And then onto very attractive praise of the free and simple life he leads, being free of political office or ambition.

Satire 7 (35 lines)

A short piece telling the story of the half-breed Persius and the venomous outlaw Rupilius King. I didn’t understand the narrative but I could see that at various points he mocks their confrontation by comparing it to episodes in the Iliad, i.e. mock heroic, presumably to some extent echoing Lucilius’s mocking of high epic style.

Satire 8 (50 lines)

Spoken in the person of an old wooden statue of Priapus set up in the former common graveyard of the Esquiline Hill. Now, in line with Augustus’s policy of beautifying cities, Maecenas has converted the cemetery into pleasure gardens, hence, presumably, the commission to write a speech for the old statue. Half way through it unexpectedly changes into a vivid depiction of the sorcery and witchcraft the statue has been forced to observe late at night as hags tear a black lamb apart with their teeth and trying to summon the spirits of the dead from the resulting trench of blood.

The poem ends with the Priapus triumphantly telling us how, in the middle of their spells, he let rip an enormous fart and sent the witches scurrying off in fear. As usual Horace gives the witches names but, as usual, scholars have been unable to identify them with historical individuals.

The Latin for witch was saga.

Satire 9 (78 lines)

Comic anecdote about how he was strolling out one day when he was accosted by an aspiring writer who begs an introduction to Maecenas and won’t leave him alone. He drolly comments that a soothsayer (‘a Sabine crone’) predicted he wouldn’t die or any ordinary ailment, but was fated to be bored to death!

The pest pesters him for insights about Maecenas who Horace proceeds to describe as a fine example of a wise and moderate man who has made the best of his fate (what else was he going to say?) A friend of Horace’s joins them but, realising what’s up, playfully refuses to intervene or help him by agreeing to a private conversation.

In the end it appears the pest is due in court and his opponent now spots him and roars, ‘why isn’t he in court?’ It ends with a few obscure lines in which the opponent asks whether Horace will act as a witness (to what? why?) and Horace allows the opponent to touch his ear (why?), hustles the pest off to court, while people come running and shouting from every side. (Why?)

Satire 10 (92 lines)

Horace’s fullest statement of his own theory of satire. The poem opens with him answering critics who have obviously objected to his comments in 1.4 about Licinius’s lines being ‘rough’. What you need for satire is:

  • terseness, the opposite of verbosity
  • a flexible style, sometimes severely moralising, sometimes light-hearted
  • humour is often better at dealing with knotty issues than sharpness (as we saw in many of Cicero’s legal speeches)

He creates the kind of puppet interlocutors I mentioned above in order to refute or address their points. A critic praises him for blending Latin with Greek but Horace says that’s very outdated now. Catullus used Greek phraseology to introduce sensuality into his poetry. Horace eschews Greek, preferring only Latin. He says Greek is banned in law court, implying a comparison, implying satire is at least as serious as legal pleading.

Horace attributes the founding of satire to Lucinius (line 48) and replies to his critics that if Licinius were alive in Horace’s day, he’d have to make a significant effort to slim down his verse and polish it. Then more rules:

  • if you hope for a second reading of your work, delete and edit
  • don’t seek mass adulation, be content with a few, informed, readers

How many readers should the poet aim for? Strikingly, Horace names 14 individuals ‘and several others’, suggesting that he is writing for an audience of about 20 people.

The poem, and so the first book of satires, ends with an instruction to a slave to take this poem away and add it to ‘my little volume’.

Book 2

Satire 1 (86 lines)

Dialogue with Trebatius, an imaginary legal expert, giving Horace the opportunity to defend his practice of satire. In the poem Trebatius gives Horace a series of sensible suggestions which the poet comically complains he can’t implement.

It starts with Horace saying he is attacked from al sides for either stretching the genre beyond its limit or, alternatively, writing too much. Trebatius advises he take a rest. Not a bad idea, but he can’t get to sleep at nights and finds writing soothing. Trebatius advises he try swimming the Tiber three times or souse himself in wine; if he still needs to write, how about a history of the triumphs of Caesar? Even if he does a bad job it won’t rouse the anger of his victims as satire does.

Again he namechecks Lucilius as his forebear and a better man than either of them. He asks Jupiter for a quiet life but if anyone crosses him, he’ll make them the laughing stock of Rome.

Lucilius stripped away the facade of the great and the good parading through Rome and yet he still enjoyed the friendship of that hero Scipio Africanus and his wise friend, Laelius (the culture heroes who Cicero chose to set some of his philosophical dialogues among).

It ends abruptly as Trebatius warns Horace that if he composes foul verses to the detriment of someone’s reputation he can expect to end up in court; to which Horace replies that he composes fine verses which a) please Augustus b) only target public menaces.

Satire 2 (136 lines)

A sermon on the virtues of the simple life put into the mouth of Ofellus, a peasant Horace knew in his youth. The basic idea is that a good appetite comes from the body, comes from exercise and bodily need, making redundant the increasingly exquisite choices of Rome’s notorious gourmands and gluttons. Horace reserves an insult for ‘the youth of Rome’, ‘always amenable to any perverse suggestion’.

A simple diet needn’t be a stingy one, which allows him to lampoon misers who serve musty old food. The benefits of a simple diet include health, avoiding sickly excess, compared to gluttons who come away green from rich meals. When he’s ill or as he gets old, the simple man can treat himself, but the glutton has used up all his treats.

A rich man should spend his money to help out the deserving poor or pay to rebuild old temples?

Who will fare better in a crisis, the spoiled man used to luxury, or the simple man with few needs who has prepared his mind and body for adversity?

Interestingly for social historians, Horace has his boyhood farmer friend, Ofellus, recount in some detail how his farm was confiscated as part of Octavius’s policy of reassigning property to demobbed soldiers after his victory at Philippis (42 BC). Compare this with the bitter descriptions of land confiscation in Virgil’s Eclogues.

Satire 3 (326 lines)

By far the longest satire. Horace is spending the holiday of Saturnalia on his Sabine farm when a guest arrives, Damasippus. The poem opens with Damasippus accusing Horace of fleeing the city but failing to write a line i.e. having writer’s block. Damasippus goes on to describe how his business as an art dealer went bankrupt and he was standing on a bridge over the Tiber thinking about throwing himself in, when he was buttonholed and saved by a Stoic thinker, Stertinius.

With the zeal of a convert to the faith Damasippus proceeds to deliver a sermon on the text ‘everyone is mad except the sage’, asserting that loads of human vices, including greed, ambition, self indulgence and superstition, are all forms of madness.

Being so long exposes the fact, less obvious in shorter poems, that it’s often hard to make out what’s meant to be going on, and difficult to follow the presumed flow of thought or narrative. Stories come in unexpectedly, with characters we don’t fully know, obscure references being made we know not why. Presumably his audience found that the logic of the arguments flowed smoothly and sweetly, but I found this one impossible to follow.

It’s the biggest problem with ancient literature, that the reader has a good rough feel for what the author is on about but is often perplexed by an apparent lack of logical flow and ends up reading a series of sentences, sometimes themselves very obscure, which don’t really seem to explain or convey anything. There are passages where you just zone out because you’ve lost the thread of the grammar or argument.

Satire 4 (95 lines)

Horace is given a lecture on gastronomy by Catius who has just attended a lecture on the subject. There’s no satire or attitude, the entire thing is a very detailed list of which type of food, how to store and cook and serve it; it’s like a guidebook and, as such, sort of interesting social history. Most of the actual cooking, like the instructions for preparing the best oil for cooking, sound complex and pointless. It includes the kind of rubbish pseudoscience the ancients delighted in (Aristotle believed that round eggs were male and long eggs were female etc).

Satire 5 (110 lines)

A satire on how to get money, in an interestingly imaginative setting. This is a dramatic dialogue set in hell between Ulysses who has gone down to hell, as described in Homer’s Odyssey, book 11, and the wise blind seer Tiresias who he meets there.

Ulysses is afraid of returning home penniless, so Tiresias gives him advice on how to pick up money. The satire lies in the cynical worldliness of the advice. Thus: if you’re given a thrush or a similar present, present it to the household of the nearest rich, old man. Apples and other fruit from your farm, give to a rich man first. He may be a crook or a murder, doesn’t matter; butter him up.

Fish around for old men’s wills. If a law case comes up volunteer to help any party who is old and childless, regardless of the rights or wrongs. Tell the old geezer to go home while you manage his affairs for him. If you do well other fish will swim into your net.

Or find a man with a delicate, sickly son and worm your way into his affections, with the hope that the sickly son dies and you inherit. If the old guy offers you a look at the will, blithely wave it away as if of no interest. If he writes terrible poetry, praise it. If he is an old lecher, don’t hesitate to hand over your wife. And so on, all painting a picture of the untrammelled greed and corruption of contemporary Rome.

But what if Penelope is pure and moral? Offer her a share of the takings, she’ll agree to prostitute herself quickly enough. Even after the old boy’s died and you’ve inherited some of the fortune, make a show of building a decent tomb, if other heirs need financial help offer it: the more you plough, the more you sow.

Satire 6 (117 lines)

Written in 31 BC 3 or 4 years after Maecenas removed all Horace’s money worries by presenting him with a farm in Sabine country. It is a straightforward comparison of the advantages of country life versus the stress of the city, much imitated by later authors.

There’s some reference to the hurly burly of business, of being accosted in the street and the forum and asked for this or that favour. But a lot of it revolves around his friendship with Maecenas, endless petitioners asking his opinion about this or that state policy, because they know he is friends with Maecenas, who was Octavian’s deputy on his absence during the final war against Antony. When Horace claims to know nothing, the petitioners are upset or angry, convinced he does but is refusing to share.

How much nicer to be at his country place, to enjoy a simple but filling dinner, and then interesting, unrancorous conversation with good friends. Unexpectedly, the poem ends with a retelling of the proverbial story of the town mouse and the country mouse.

Satire 7 (118 lines)

Another sermon on a Stoic theme. As with some of the others, I found the exact structure confusing. I think Horace’s slave, Davus, delivers an extended sermon invoking Stoic doctrine to assert that Horace is just as a much a ‘slave’ to his passions and habits as Davus is an actual, literal slave.

Satire 8 (95 lines)

Another dialogue which goes straight into an ongoing conversation, as the poet tells his friend Fundanius that he knows he was at a dinner party given by the arriviste, Nasidienus Rufus, for Maecenas and some others last night: what was it like?

Fundanius gives a wry description of the over-fussy meal, with its multiple courses of ridiculous luxury, plus an absurd over-selection of wines. Two of the guests decide to wind the host up by drinking vast mugs full of the very expensive wine and the pretentious fish dish has only just been served when the awning, presumably over the whole party, collapsed, causing a great cloud of black pepper. Nobody is harmed, the awning is fixed. The host wants to abandon it but Nomentanus persuaded their host to continue and the meal proceeds

The guests bend to each others’ ears and whisper gossip and criticism. I feel sorry for Nasidienus with such ungrateful badly-mannered guests. Then the extravagant culinary pièces-de-resistance are brought in, namely crane, goose liver and hare’s legs – but the narrator ends the poem by saying the guests got their own back on the arriviste by leaving without touching a thing. Pretty mean but vivid indication of the snobbery which was central to life in Rome’s educated classes.

Summary

I’m very glad I made the effort to track down and buy this Rudd edition. The satires are astonishingly personable and accessible, even if some patches are (to me) incomprehensible, on either a first or second reading.


Credit

Niall Rudd’s translation of the satires of Horace and Persius was published by Penguin books in 1973. A revised edition with Horace’s epistles was published in 1979. All references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

On Old Age by Cicero (44 BC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Old age withdraws us from active pursuits

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, the crowning glory of old age is authority.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Old age makes the body weaker

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

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

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

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

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

Accept the course of nature.

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

But do what you can to remain fit.

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

Live a healthy life.

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

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

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

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

If you remain alert and active:

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

3. Old age deprives us of almost all physical pleasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So one can feel grateful for it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

As to the actual pain of dying:

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

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

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

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

The wise soul knows it will live on after death:

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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


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