Amores by Ovid

The Peter Green edition

I read Ovid’s Amores in the 1982 Penguin edition, which also includes Ovid’s later works, The Art of Love and the Cures for Love, all translated and introduced by Peter Green. This edition contains an awesome amount of editorial paraphernalia. The introduction is 81 pages long and there are 167 pages of notes at the end, so that’s 248 pages of scholarly apparatus (not counting the index). The text of the three Ovid works only take up 180 pages. So in the Penguin/Peter Green edition there’s a hell of a lot of information to process. And in doing so, it’s possible to get caught up in the matrix of interconnections (this passage from an Amor resembling that passage from the Art of Love and so on) and the web of mythological references and end up quite losing yourself in what is quite a deceptively huge book.

Ovid’s Amores

Ovid’s Amores (Latin for ‘loves’) is a set of 50 short love poems written in the elegiac metre – pairs of lines or couplets in which the first line is a hexameter, the second line a pentameter – a format which had become traditional in late-Republican Rome for this kind of subject matter. Poets such as Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius and several others whose works are now lost (notably Gallus), had used the elegiac metre for this kind of personal love poem, generally addressing poems to a beautiful but inaccessible and capricious lady. Catullus (born 84 BC) addressed poems to Lesbia, Tibullus (b.55 BC) to Delia, Propertius (b.55 BC) to Cynthia and Ovid (b.43 BC) to Corrina.

A.M. Juster in his introduction to the love poems of Tibullus suggests that Ovid took the form to such a peak of clever irony, witty pastiche and knowing self-mockery that he hollowed out the form and ended the tradition; nobody after him attempted such a long sequence of love poems in this format and metre.

A little epigram at the start of the work tells us that Ovid’s Amores were initially published in five volumes in about 16 BC. The Penguin translator, Peter Green, devotes some of his huge introduction to speculating that these were very much a young man’s poems and that some time in middle life, Ovid went back, deleted some, rewrote others, and republished them in the three-volume edition we have today.

The Amores’ contents are very straightforward. The poet writes in the first person of his love affair with an unattainable higher-class woman, Corinna. Each poem picks a different incident or mood in this love affair then explores or develops it with rhetorical, logical and poetical skill. The sequence builds into a showcase for the poet’s skills at handling different subjects and feelings.

In line with the idea that Ovid was the most sophisticated and knowing poet in this tradition, many scholars doubt whether the ‘Corrina’ addressed throughout the poems ever actually existed, but was merely a literary pretext for the poet’s powers.

Ovid’s sequence feels more unified and planned as a narrative than those of Tibullus or Propertius; both those poets include in their works lots of poems on unrelated subjects. On closer examination, so does Ovid, addressing a number of husbands, lady’s maids, and women he’s pursuing who are evidently not Corrina. Nonetheless, the sequence somehow feels more smooth and structured than those of his predecessors.

Of course, if the other poets were describing actual events, the order of their poems is likely to be as scrappy and haphazard as real life generally is; whereas, if Ovid was making the whole thing up, he could afford to be more carefully structured and calculating.

Carefree Ovid

Unlike all the previous Roman authors I’ve reviewed, the key thing about Ovid is that he grew up in times of peace. Born in 43 BC, Publius Ovidius Naso was just a toddler during the civil wars which followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, and just 12 when Octavius won his decisive battle against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC, which brought 60 years of civil wars to an end.

This may explain the tone of frivolous irresponsibility which marks most of Ovid’s poetic career. Green makes the point that from about 25 BC (when he’s thought to have started the Amores) through to 1 AD (when he published the Cure For Love) Ovid devoted the best years of his maturity to writing about sex.

OK, he also wrote the 21 love letters of the Heroides (themselves on the subject of love) and a play on the subject of Medea (now, tragically, lost) but what survived, and survived because it was so popular, were his witty, clever poems depicting the author as a stylish man-about-town and sexual athlete. He may describe himself as a ‘slave to love’ (a trope so common it had its own name, the servitium amoris), stricken by Cupid’s arrows and plunged into despair – but it’s impossible to ever take Ovid seriously. Irony, parody and irreverent laughter are his thing, what Green describes as ‘his wit, his irony, his bubbling sense of fun’ (p.80). As Green puts it, ‘Ovid is Homo ludens in person’.

The translation

On page 79 of his long introduction Green explains that he is going to translate the strict elegiac metre (a hexameter followed by a pentameter) very freely, using ‘a variable short-stopped line with anything from five to two stresses’. This approach hints at the metrical regularity of the original, yet gives scope for changes of pace and emphasis, ‘often through a casual enjambment that works more easily in English than it might in Latin.’ None of this prepares you for the tone and style of Green’s translations, which is wild, flippant and jazzy.

Arms, warfare, violence – I was winding up to produce a
Regular epic, with verse form to match –
Hexameters, naturally. But Cupid (they say) with a snicker
Lopped off one foot from each alternate line.
‘Nasty young brat,’ I told him, ‘Who made you Inspector of Metres?
We poets comes under the Muses, we’re not in your mob.’

Right from the start Green announces the flippancy and slanginess of this translation. The result is that the number of beats in each line is difficult to ascertain and, as Green indicated, not at all regular. Instead we are carried away by the energy of the diction, although this, also, is a little difficult to nail down. That ‘Hexameters, naturally’ sounds like a confident posh boy, but ‘snicker’ is an American word, whereas ‘mob’, I suppose, is an America word associated with the 1930s but makes me think of the Lavender Hill Mob. So I found his tone wildly all over the place.

‘Look boy, you’ve got your own empire and a sight too much influence…’

‘Boy’ is either the demeaning word used by southern Americans to blacks (unlikely) or the tone of a posh, public school banker to a waiter at his club (maybe); ‘a sight too much’ strikes me as a very English locution, again of a posh variety, something I don’t think anybody says any more. I give plenty of quotes below, and you can see for yourself how Green uses a variety of locutions to create a witty, slangy, vibrant register.

The Amores

Book 1

1.1 The poet announces that love will be his theme.

In a trope familiar from all the elegists, the poet declares he wanted to write a grand epic as society (and Augustus) require, but was foiled by Cupid. When he wails that he hasn’t got a subject to write about Cupid promptly shoots him with his arrows, making him fall furiously in love.

‘Hey, poet!’ he called, ‘you want a theme? Take that!’
His shafts – worse luck for me – never miss their target:
I’m on fire now, Love owns the freehold of my heart.

So that’s going to be the subject, love, and Ovid himself, right here in the first poem, describes the process of abandoning ambitious plans to write a highfalutin’ epic poem in regular hexameters and settling for the alternating metre of elegiacs:

So let my verse rise with six stresses, drop to five on the downbeat –
Goodbye to martial epic and epic metre too!

1.2 He admits defeat to Cupid

He tosses and turns at night and then pleads with Cupid that he’ll come quietly. The ox that resists the yoke suffers most or, as Green puts it in his deliberately uncouth, slangy style:

It’s the same with Love. Play stubborn, you get a far more thorough
Going-over than those who admit they’re hooked.
So I’m coming clean, Cupid: here I am, your latest victim.

Sounds like a character from ‘The Sweeney’ – I’m surprised he doesn’t address Cupid as ‘guv’nor’. Anyway, the poet says he’ll submit to Love’s demands, he’ll be a captive in Love’s great triumphal procession, and then gives a mock description of a Roman triumph as burlesqued by Love and Love’s army:

And what an escort – the Blandishment Corps, the Illusion
And Passion Brigade, your regular bodyguard:
These are the troops you employ to conquer men and immortals…

1.3 He addresses his lover for the first time and lists her good qualities

Green’s Cockney register continues in this poem, where the poet addresses Venus and vows to be true to her if she can make his mistress love him.

Fair’s fair now, Venus. This girl’s got me hooked. All I’m asking for
Is love – or at least some future hope for my own
Eternal devotion. No, even that’s too much – hell, just let me love her!
(Listen, Venus: I’ve asked you so often now.)
Say yes, pet. I’d be your slave for years, for a lifetime.

‘Pet’? Very casual locution, originally from the North East of England. Anyway, Ovid goes on to say that he doesn’t come from some posh, blue-blood family with ‘top-drawer connections’.

What have I got on my side, then? Poetic genius, sweetheart.

‘Sweetheart’? This is fun.

1.4 He attends a dinner part where his beloved and her husband are also present

The poet is driven so mad with jealousy that his beloved is going to be embraced and kissed and pawed by her husband, in full view of himself and everyone else at this dinner party, that he gives her a list of secret signs to reassure him that she secretly loves him.

As with everything else in the Amores, you strongly feel these are stock clichés of the form, but jived up by Ovid’s breezy attitude. So: when she’s thinking about the last time they made love, she should touch her cheek with her thumb; if she’s cross with him but can’t say so, pinch her earlobe; if he says or does something which pleases her, she should turn the ring on her finger.

If her husband kisses her, he swears he’ll leap up, declare his love, and claim all her kisses as his own! He’ll follow them home and, though he’ll be locked outside at her door, he begs her to be frigid with her husband, ‘make sex a dead loss’.

1.5 Corinna visits him for afternoon sex

This is the poem brilliantly translated by Christopher Marlowe one and a half thousand years after it was written. It’s the first time in the sequence that Corrina is called by her name.

1.6 He begs Corrina’s doorkeeper to let him into her house to see his love

This is an example of the paraclausithyron or ‘poem at the beloved’s door’ and Ovid adopts the traditional figure of the exclusus amator (the ‘shut-out lover’). Similar poems were written by Horace (Odes 3.10), Tibullus (Elegies 1.2) and Propertius (Elegies 1.16). Propertius’s variation on this familiar theme is notable, for he gets the door itself to give its opinion about all these weeping lovers hanging round outside it.

In Ovid’s version, the poet tracks through a range of topoi associated with this genre – how the poet’s tears water the doorpost, how the porter need only open the door a fraction because the poor poet has lost so much weight pining away that he’ll be able to slip through a mere crack, etc.

What struck me was the opening line where he describes how the door slave is chained to the doorpost. At line 20 he reminds the door slave of the time he was stripped ready for a whipping but he, the poet, talked Corrina out of punishing him. This is all meant to be part of the playful banter, but…chains and whips. Slavery.

1.7 He hits his lover and is remorseful

Obviously he’s consumed with regret, says he was momentarily out of his mind with rage – but the alleged hitting is really only a pretext to invoke a whole host of precedents from myth and legend of psychotically angry heroes like Ajax and Orestes. And after all (he whines), all he did was mess up her hair a little, which made her look even more beautiful, like Atalanta or Ariadne or Cassandra about to be raped at the fall of Troy (!).

To be precise, he grabbed her hair and scratched her face (line 50) – an oddly girlish form of assault. He asks himself why he didn’t do something more manly, such as ripping her dress from neck to waistline (an interesting notion). What’s most effective in the poem is his description of how Corrina didn’t say anything but stood shivering and crying mute tears. That sounds horribly believable.

As a side point, he remarks that, instead of tears, the proper marks of love should be bruised lips and bites around the neck and shoulders. Now, love bites are mentioned in Propertius and in Plutarch’s life of Pompey: it was obviously an accepted part of love play in ancient Rome.

1.8 Dipsas’s monologue

Dipsas is a bawd or procuress. The poet violently describes her as a cursed witch. This is because, one day, he claims to have overheard her giving cynical advice to Corrina on how to bewitch young men and wangle rich gifts out of them, gifts she can then share with her mentor, Dipsas.

He particularly hears Dipsas disrespecting Ovid because he’s poor, telling Corrina to angle for richer lovers, and not even to be fussy about freed slaves, so long as they’re rich. Dipsas tells Corrina to play hard to get, to agree to sex now and then but often say she’s got a headache or abstain because of Isis (attendants at ceremonies for Isis had to be celibate 10 days beforehand). He overhears Dipsas telling Corrina to stage strategic arguments to drive him away, though not permanently. She should learn how to cry at will. She should get a houseboy and a maid, who can both extract even more presents from her desperate lover.

Like the beating poem or the door poem, above, this feels like Ovid adopting a standard topic (the wicked old adviser) and determined to write the best, most comprehensive poem on the theme.

As a footnote to Roman love, Dipsas tells Corrina to cultivate a few bruises on her neck i.e. indicating that she’s having sex with someone else to make her lover jealous. Love bites and bruises.

1.9 The poet compares lovers with soldiers

Both belong to the same age group, lusty young men.

A soldier lays siege to cities, a lover to girls’ houses,
The one assaults city gates, the other front doors.

Obviously this is mocking the martial traditions of Rome, in a style previously done by Propertius, but somehow in Ovid’s hands it feels that much more mocking and derisive. And the poem ends with the mocking thought that he was a lazy good-for-nothing scribbling poems until – he fell in love! Now look at him – ‘fighting fit, dead keen on night exercises’!

1.10 He complains that his mistress is demanding material gifts instead of the gift of poetry

So he mounts a list of arguments why this is corrupt, why love should be naked, why sex should be equal, only prostitutes ask for money or gifts etc. All gifts are trash and will rot, but his poetry, if he gives it to her, will last forever and make her immortal. Another very familiar trope.

1.11 Praise of Corinna’s maid

Let me tell you about Napë. Though she’s expert at setting
Unruly hair, she’s no common lady’s maid.

The poem is set in the present as the poet calls Napë over and instructs her to take this note to his beloved, right now, and wait while she reads it, and mark her expression, and insist on a reply, and not just a brief note but ‘a full tablet’: get her (Corrina) to squeeze up the lines and scribble in the margins.

1.12 The poet curses his tablet

Corrina says NO to a visit and so the poet vents his fury on the wood and wax tablet which failed in its duty, cursing the tree which made the wood, the beeswax etc. It turns into a full blown execration of the wretched tablet, which is inventive and funny.

1.13 He addresses the dawn and asks it to wait, so he can stay longer with his mistress

The poet addresses Aurora asking her to rise slowly, to wait, so he can extend his time with his beloved. He invokes the mythology surrounding Aurora, cruelly claiming she’s only in such a rush each morning to get away from her ancient withered lover, Tithonus.

1.14 He mocks Corinna for ruining her hair by dyeing it

A very uxorious, familiar poem in which the poet scolds his beloved for ignoring his advice to lay off hair dyes and rinses; she used them and now her hair’s all falling out. It used to be so long, could be arranged in a hundred different styles, was so fine, like spider’s web, a ‘brindled auburn’ colour. It was also damaged by her insistence on applying heated tongs to corkscrew it.

Oh well, he says, look on the bright side – after ‘our’ recent German conquests she can get a wig made from some captive German woman’s hair.

1.15 The book ends with Ovid writing of the famous poets of the past, and claiming his name will be among them

He gets the allegorical figure of Envy to articulate all the criticisms which could be made of his position: drone, parasite, layabout who should be using his youth as a soldier or his intellect as a lawyer – then refutes these accusations. He wants to be numbered among the immortal poets:

What I seek is perennial fame,
Undying world-wide remembrance.

Though Time, in time, can consume the enduring ploughshare,
Though flint itself will perish, poetry lives –
Deathless, unfading, triumphant over kings and their triumphs,
Richer than Spanish river-gold.

And here I am, 2,000 years later, reading his poetry, proving him correct.

Preliminary thoughts

1. In his mockery of a soldier’s life, his description of a mock triumph, his jokey comparison of a soldier and a lover (1. 9) Ovid mocks Rome’s military tradition (‘the dusty rewards of a soldier’s career’, 1.15). And in his whole approach promotes the lifestyle of an upper-class layabout lover with no sense of public duty, frittering his life away on girlish emotions. This, as his later career was to make clear, was a risky strategy. As with Oscar Wilde, traditional society eventually took its revenge on a taunting provocateur.

2. In his introduction, Peter Green spends a lot of effort suggesting that ‘Corrina’ is based on a real figure and that it was Ovid’s first wife, who he married when he was just 18. Although the convention for these poems was that the beloved was the wife of another man, high-born and unattainable, or a moody and capricious courtesan – and this certainly fits some of the poems, such as the door poem and the pair about sending a note to his mistress – on the other hand the ‘Corrina was Ovid’s wife’ theory is a better fit for the poems about sex on a summer’s afternoon (1.5), the poem to the dawn and especially the one about her hair (1.14). These have none of the stress of stolen visits while husband is away, but have the relaxed candour of married love.

3. Above all else, the poems feel very programmatic, systematic, as if he’s listed all the topics which poems in this genre ought to address, and then set out to write the best possible example of each type.

4. Ovid’s persona is of supreme self-confidence, a very attractive, brash, bullet-proof, man-about-town cockiness. Even when he pretends to be downhearted we know he’s only playing

5. Lastly, re. Green’s style of verse, I like the way his lines are of unpredictably varying length, they rock along in perfect match with his laddish, demotic diction. BUT. One small point of criticism – I don’t like the way he starts each line with a capital letter. It has the effect of cluttering lines which are already cluttered with italics, brackets, exclamation marks and so on. I wish that, like most modern poets, he’d started new lines with small letters, unless it is actually starting a new sentence.

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
than ignored.

is better than:

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
Than ignored.

Clearer, easier to read and parse (understand the grammar of), and looks more modern, has more swing.

Book 2

2.1 The poet describes the sort of audience he wants (girls)

A formal opening to the second book by ‘that naughty provincial poet’, ‘the chronicler of his own wanton frivolities’. Ovid describes how he was actually writing a worthy epic about war in heaven when his mistress locked her door against him and straightaway he forgot his epic and fell back on soft love poems, for

Soft words
Remove harsh door-chains. There’s magic in poetry, its power
Can pull down the bloody moon,
Turn back the sun, make serpents burst asunder
Or rivers flow upstream.

Yes, ‘epics’s a dead loss for me’:

I’ll get nowhere with swift-footed
Achilles, or either of Atreus’s sons.
Old what’s-his-name wasting twenty years on war and travel,
Poor Hector dragged in the dust –
No good. But lavish fine words on some young girl’s profile
And sooner or later she’ll tender herself as the fee.
An ample reward for your labours. So farewell, heroic
Figures of legend – the quid
Pro quo
you offer won’t tempt me. A bevy of beauties
All swooning over my love songs – that’s what I want.

2.2 The poet asks Bagoas, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress

The poet addresses Bagoas, a beautiful woman’s maid or servant and delivers a long list of reasons why she should engage in all kinds of subterfuges to help her mistress’s lover gain his ends, the main motive being she’ll be paid and can save up enough to buy her freedom (line 40).

What struck me is the poem opens with him describing taking a walk in some cloisters and spying this young woman and being struck by her beauty i.e. it doesn’t seem particularly about Corrina.

2.3: The poet addresses a eunuch (probably Bagoas from 2.2) who is preventing him from seeing a woman

A short poem in which the poet laments the condition of men who’ve been castrated and says they (the poet and his mistress) could have got round the neuter minder anyway, but it seemed more polite to make a direct approach and offer him cash for access.

2.4 The poet describes his love for women of all sorts

Other people are going to criticise his character so why doesn’t he go ahead and do it himself. He despises who he is, his weakness for every pretty face he sees, his lack of self discipline. Thick, clever, shy, forward, sophisticated, naive, fans of his, critics of his, dancers, musicians, tall, short, fashionable, dowdy, fair, dark or brunettes – he’s ‘omnisusceptible’, he wants to shag them all.

Young girls have the looks – but when it comes to technique
Give me an older woman. In short, there’s a vast cross-section
Of desirable beauties in Rome – and I want them all!

2.5 The poet addresses his lover, whom he has seen being unfaithful at a dinner party

Describes the rage of jealousy he’s thrown into when he sees her fondling and snogging another man at a dinner party. When he confronts her, later, about it, she denies it means anything and, like a fool, he believes her. Still. Her kisses show a new style, technique and passion. She’s been learning from a master!

2.6 The poet mourns the death of Corinna’s parrot

A comic exequy for Corrina’s parrot, a gift from the East, who was so sociable and clever and ate so little and now is dead. He gives an extended comparison with all other types of birds ending with a vision of pretty Polly in paradise.

2.7 The poet defends himself to his mistress, who is accusing him of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis (28 lines)

Short one in which he accuses his mistress of being too touchy and jealous. Of course he isn’t having an affair with her maid! God, the thought! Why would he bother with ‘a lower-class drudge’? More to the point:

What gentleman would fancy making love to a servant,
Embracing that lash-scarred back?

‘Lash-scarred back.’ I know I’m developing an obsession with this subject, but the ubiquity in Roman social life of slaves, performing every possible function, present at almost all events, present throughout everybody’s house, who can be chained to the doorpost, who can be shackled and manacled and who can be stripped and whipped at a moment’s notice, seriously impairs my enjoyment of these ‘light-hearted’ poems.

2.8 The poet addresses Cypassis, asking her to keep their affair a secret from her mistress

The joke is that, having just denied it in 2.7, he now lets us in on the secret that he is shagging his mistress’s slave. The poem bespeaks the furtiveness of a secret affair. Did they get away with it when Corrina accused him point blank? When Cypassis blushed, did the poet’s fierce oath that it wasn’t true convince her? Now – he wants sex.

I did you a good turn. Now it’s time for repayment.
Dusky Cypassis, I want to sleep with you. Today.

‘Dusky’? Is she black?

2.9a The poet rebukes Cupid (24 lines)

He blames Cupid for trapping him in this life of love for good. The old soldier can retire, an old racehorse is put out to grass, warships are dry docked, an old gladiator can hang up his sword. Why won’t Cupid let him go?

2.9b The poet professes his addiction to love (30 lines)

He admits to sometimes feeling sick of the whole business of love but some kink in his nature addicts him to it. He just can’t kick the habit of loving and shagging. He’s Cupid’s best customer, his arrows know the way to his heart without needing to be fire. They’re more at home in his heart than Cupid’s quiver. He sounds quite a bit more tired and cynical than previously:

My mistress deceived me – so what? I’d rather be lied to
Than ignored.

2.10 The poet bemoans being in love with two girls at once

The poet addresses a man, Graecinus, and makes you realise it’s the first time he’s done so on 25 poems. A lot of Tibullus and Propertius’s poems are addressed to other blokes; surprisingly, this is rare in Ovid. Maybe showing how much of a lady’s man he is.

Anyway, this Graecinus told him no man could possibly fall in love with two women and yet – here he is, in love with two women! It seems like an unnecessary surfeit but he’d rather have two than none at all. And he proceeds to show off a bit:

I can stand the strain. My limbs may be thin, but they’re wiry;
Though I’m a lightweight, I’m hard –
And virility feeds on sex, is boosted by practice;
No girl’s ever complained about my technique.
Often enough I’ve spent the whole night in pleasure, yet still been
Fit as a fighting cock next day.

He wants to die in mid-act, ‘on the job’.

2.11 Corinna’s voyage (56 lines)

He deploys the full range of arguments against taking a sea voyage (the danger, the monsters, the boredom) but Corrina is determined to go, so he switches to wishing her good luck.

2.12 His triumph (28 lines)

Meaning Roman triumph because the poet has, finally, despite all obstacles, won his Corrina. Again he compares himself to a soldier, conscripted and fighting in great battles , except:

The credit is mine alone, I’m a one-man band,
Commander, cavalry, infantry, standard-bearer, announcing
With one voice: Objective achieved!

What’s odd is we saw him having lazy summer afternoon sex with Corrina back in 1.5, so why is ‘winning’ her, here, depicted as such a huge triumph? Is it a reminder that we should never take these poems as telling any kind of coherent narrative, but more a selection, arranged in a vague but not narrative-based order?

2.13 The poet prays to the gods about Corinna’s abortion (28 lines)

Corrina has carried out an abortion on herself and now lies badly ill. The poet addresses the goddesses Isis and Ilythia, saying he’ll do anything for them offer them anything, if only his beloved recovers. If we’re talking about possible narratives and orders, it is odd to have a poem this serious immediately after the one in which he claims to only just have ‘triumphed’ and won her (2.12).

2.14 The poet condemns abortion (44 lines)

A fairly playful development of the anti-abortion position, to wit: if every woman acted like Corrina the human race would die out. This is followed by a list of amusing counterfactuals: what if Thetis had carried out an abortion? No Achilles, no defeat of Troy. Or what if the priestess of Mars had done the same? No Romulus and Remus, no Rome. What if Corrina’s mum had done the same? No Corrina! Or Ovid’s mum, if he’d been ‘mother-scuppered before birth’? No Amores!

From a social history point of view the poem makes clear that self-attempted abortion was quite a common occurrence in ancient Rome and equally common girls dying from it (line 40).

2.15 The ring (28 lines)

He sends her a ring and then, in flights of fantasy, imagines being the ring, fitting snugly on her finger, accompanying the finger when it strokes her skin, her cleavage or…elsewhere.

2.16 At Sulmona, a town in his native region (52 lines)

His home town, Sulmona, is lovely and fertile and all…but his girl isn’t with him so it feels barren and strange. Suddenly, urgently, he wills her to call out her cart, harness the quick-stepping ponies and make haste to be with him.

2.17 His devotion to Corrina (34 lines)

Corrina’s loveliness makes her treat him like dirt. He describes beautiful legendary women who paired with less attractive men e.g. Venus and Vulcan, and then compares them to the way the hexameter and pentameter are combined in the elegiac couplet.

Well, look at the metre I’m using – that limps. But together
Long and short lines combine
In a heroic couplet.

Apparently some other woman is going round claiming to be the ‘Corrina’ of his poems, but gently and sweetly he assures her she is his only beloved.

…none but you shall be sung
In my verses, you and you only shall give my creative
Impulse its shape and theme.

2.18 The death of tragedy (40 lines)

He writes to his friend Macer, a poet who appears to have been writing a epic poem describing the events leading up to the Iliad describing having another go at writing a tragedy but how not only his Muse mocked him but then Corrina came and sat on his lap and covered him and kisses and asked why he wasn’t writing about her. Oh, what the hell, he might as well stick to what he’s good at, ‘verse lectures on seduction’ or ‘love-lorn heroines’ letters’ (referring to the Heroides).

Interestingly, he appears to imply that another friend of his, Sabinus, also a poet, had written letters in which the absent menfolk reply to the letters listed in the Heroides. If he did, they’re now lost.

2.19 To a husband to be more protective of his wife (60 lines)

Ironic satirical poem written to the husband of another woman who he’s seeking to woo (not Corrina) telling him (the husband) to take more care of her because at the moment, seducing her is just too easy! He prefers a battle, a struggle, the thrill of the chase.

Then the addressee seems to change to the woman in question, ‘my latest eye-ravisher’. He tells her to copy Corrina who was a master of teasing him, throwing temper tantrums, then relenting, leading him on, rebuffing him, exciting his ardour.

That’s the way I like it, that feeds the flame.

Then back to the husband and a very funny sequence of mounting frustration at his relaxed complaisance. Be more jealous, put your foot down, be a man for God’s sake. There’s no fun in an easy conquest.

Book 3

3.1 Elegy and Tragedy

Walking in a wood, the poet encounters the allegorical figure of Tragedy who tells him it’s time to grow up, drop ballads for schoolgirls and produce a really serious work. But then appears Elegy (with one foot shorter than the other, harping on that at fact of the elegiac metre, hexameter followed by pentameter) who tells Tragedy not to be so condescending, and then tells both of them what she’s been through, pinned to closed doors, torn up and flushed down the loo. If Tragedy’s interested in Ovid, it’s because of what Elegy’s done for him.

The poet asks the two ladies to stop quarrelling and admits that he chooses Elegy (again) and Tragedy will just have to be patient. (It is a big irony of history that Ovid did apparently write a tragedy, on the subject of Medea, and it was praised by Tacitus and Quintilian, but, very unhappily, it has been lost. Or ironically, in the context of this poem.)

3.2 At the races (84 lines)

A vivid description of our man chatting up a girl in the audience of the chariot races. In Green’s translation it’s a stream-of-consciousness account as the poet compares himself to a chariot racer, asks other members of the audience to stop poking and cramping them, begs Venus to give him luck with his new amour.

He describes a fixed feature of the races, which was the entrance of a procession (pompa) of ivory statues of the gods, borne on wagons or floats, which made its way through the Forum and into the Circus and proceeded the entire length of the racetrack to the cheers of the vast audience. The poet gives a running commentary on the images of the gods and how they’re useful to him, and then commentates on an actual race, yelling for the chariot his amour has bet on to win.

3.3 The lie (84 lines)

Ovid laments that his lover has not been punished for lying. He blames the gods for letting beautiful women get away with murder but coming down like a ton of bricks on men.

3.4 Give her freedom (48 lines)

Ovid warns a man about overprotectively trying to guard his wife from adultery. Do the opposite, give her complete freedom and watch her lose interest. We only chafe for what we can’t get. If it’s suddenly all available, we lose interest. ‘Illicit passion is sweeter.’ Doesn’t seem to be about Corrina.

3.5 The dream (46 lines)

The poet describes having a dream about a white heifer who is joined in a field by a black bull, but a black crow comes and starts pecking at the heifer’s breast till she stands up and waddles off to another herd of cows in the distance.

The poet asks the dream interpreter (an oneirocrit) who’s listened to his recounting, what it means, and the interpreter says that he, Ovid, is the black bull, the white heifer is his beloved, and the crow is a bawd who comes and pesters her to leave him (the poet) and go off to seek riches elsewhere.

At these words the blood ran freezing
From my face and the world went black before my eyes.

This, for me, is one of the most effective poems in the set, maybe because it’s so unusual, so unlike the familiar tropes of the genre.

3.6 The flooded river (106 lines)

The poet had got up early to make a journey to see his lover and finds his way blocked by a swollen stream. First he complains to the river about being so damn inconvenient. Then he claims the river ought to be helping him not hindering and rattles off a page-long list of rivers and how they helped lovers, or were themselves lovers, back in mythological times – although, knowing as ever, he emphasises that these old stories are:

All lies, old poetic nonsense
That never really happened – and never will.

Despite this brash dismissal, the poem is unusually long precisely because it contains a dramatised version of one these old ‘lies’, the legend of Ilia the Vestal Virgin ravished by the river Anio.

And the poem ends with an amusing execration of the river that’s blocking his path, barely a proper river at all, a desert of stones and dust in the summer, then an unpredictable torrent in winter, not marked on any maps, just a ‘no-name dribble’!

3.7 Erectile dysfunction (84 lines)

Also unusually long. The poem is about a time he lay in his beloved’s arms and she tried every trick in the book (French kisses, dirty words, called him ‘Master’) to no avail:

My member hung slack as though frozen by hemlock,
A dead loss for the sort of game I’d planned.
There I lay, a sham, a deadweight, a trunk of inert matter…

I wonder if Ovid is really as much of a Jack the Lad in the original Latin as Green’s zingy English makes him sound:

It’s not all that long since I made it
Twice with that smart Greek blonde, three times
With a couple of other beauties – and as for Corrina,
In one short night, I remember, she made me perform
Nine times, no less!

The poem is interesting because it puts his ‘love’ for Corrina in the context of sleeping with umpteen other girls as well i.e. it is nowhere near as devoted and obsessive as Propertius’s love for Cynthia, let alone the high devotion of Courtly Love which was to invoke his memory over a thousand years later.

He wonders whether some jealous rival has commissioned a magician to put a hex on him, laments that she was such a beautiful girl and yet no dice; compared to the moment when he’s actually writing, when his member is standing stiff and proud to attention, ‘you bastard’ (line 69). After trying everything, eventually his girl got cross, accused him of recently sleeping with someone else, flounced out of bed and – to fool her maids that something had happened – splashed around with some water for a bit.

Is this the reason why his beloved appears to have abandoned him in 3.5 and appears to be going out with a soldier, described in the next poem as having more money than Ovid, but maybe just being able to…get it up.

3.8 The cure of money (66 lines)

He can’t believe his beloved is now dating a soldier, just because he has money from his campaigns. This develops into a traditional curse on gold and greed, and a lament on the decline since the idyllic days of Saturn (the so-called Saturnia regna) the lost Golden Age when gold and precious metals lay in the ground. Instead gold rules Rome now and leaves a poor lover like him unable to compete with a rich soldier, flashing his rings and stolen treasure (boo hoo).

In his notes Green adds resonance by pointing out that Ovid was not well off but prided himself from coming from an old established family and not being a parvenu like so many of the nouveaux riches who had made a fortune and acquired status through the disruptions of the civil wars. Soldiers who’d done well in the wars or merchants who’d bought up proscribed land, speculators and bankers. Ovid, like hard-up poets throughout history, despised them all.

Me, genius, out in the cold,
Traipsing round like a fool, replaced by some new-rich soldier,
A bloody oaf who slashed his way to the cash
And a knighthood!

An interesting footnote points out that that the beloved who’s been taken by another man is married i.e. has swapped adultery with Ovid for adultery with the soldier. No mention of Corrina’s name.

3.9 An elegy for Tibullus (68 lines)

He says Cupid has doused his torch and broken his bow in sorrow at the death of Tibullus, the great elegiac poet (thought by scholars to have died in autumn 19 BC). There can be no gods if such good men are allowed to die. While his body is rendered down to an urnful of ashes, only the poet’s work, his songs, survive, and for all time.

Green, in his notes, points out the structural similarity with the epicedion or funeral lament for Corrina’s parrot (2.6) and that both follow the same five-part structure:

  1. introductory address to the mourners
  2. the laudatio including the ‘what avails it…’ theme, and a ritual outburst (schetliasmós) against unjust fate
  3. the deathbed scene
  4. consolatio
  5. the burial itself followed by a prayer for the repose of the dead

Interestingly, Ovid confirms the names of the two beloved women mentioned in Tibullus’s elegies, claiming that at his pyre Delia and Nemesis squabbled over who loved him most. Then says his soul will be greeted in Elysium by Catullus (84 to 54 BC) and Gaius Cornelius Gallus (69 to 26 BC), his predecessors in elegiac poetry.

3.10 The Festival of Ceres (48 lines)

The annual festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from making love to his mistress, which leads into an extended description of the rise of Ceres and her own godly love affairs.

3.11a Enough (32 lines)

He’s finally had enough of his lover, enough of being shown the door, grovelling in the street, while she was shagging someone else inside, then watch his rival, exhausted by sex, stumble out into the street. He is ashamed of watching her send secret signals at dinner parties to other men; of her broken promises. Enough! ‘I’m not the fool I was.’

3.11b Conflicted (20 lines)

He is conflicted. He loves and hates:

Your morals turn me off, your beauty on
So I can live neither with you or without you.

He loves and lusts after his lover but describes her infidelity and betrayals. He wishes she were less attractive so he can more easily escape her grasp.

3.12 (44 lines)

Ovid laments that his poetry has attracted others to his lover, led them to her front door.

What good have my poems done me? They’ve brought me nothing but trouble.

So he’s sick not just of Corrina but of poetry, or these kinds of poems – fat lot of good they’ve done him. He claims that poets’ statements shouldn’t be taken for fact, they’re much more suited to making up wild fantasies – and then goes off on a page-long digression listing some of the most florid Greek myths.

Oh, creative poetic licence
Is boundless, and unconstrained
By historical fact

A thought worth keeping in mind when we come to the Metamorphoses.

3.13 The Festival of Juno (36 lines)

A relatively chaste poem in which he describes the festival of Juno (‘sacrifice of a heifer; crowded games’) taking place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins, describing at some length, the shrine, the procession of youths and shy maidens and so on. He ends by hoping Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

Green makes the point that the poem breaks the cardinal rule of love elegies by mentioning his wife! At a stroke this dose of spousal affection and family piety undermines the elaborate poses of the entire series. Unless, like Green, you take the rather mind-boggling view that Corrina may be based on Ovid’s wife. Personally, my experience of reading the other elegists (Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius) suggests to me that these sequences are more random, and contain more random elements, than modern tidy-minded critics would like. To us a poem about his wife breaks the fourth wall, undermines the illusion of the hard-shagging, lover-about-town image promulgated in the other poems.

3.14 Keep it to yourself (50 lines)

Ovid sounds tired, resigned. He doesn’t mind if his beloved has other affairs, but can she just keep it to herself. He describes the passion of the bedroom (stripping off, twining thigh over thigh, French kissing, ecstatic moans, the bed rattling like mad) but when you reappear in public, affect respectability and virtue. Instead of which his beloved enjoys feeding tittle-tattle about her sex life to gossips. Must she flaunt her dishevelled hair, the unmade bed, those live bites? So disappointing, so vulgar. Every time she confesses another liaison it kills him by inches. Can’t she please just deny her countless other trysts and so let him live in ignorant bliss.

3.15 Farewell to love elegy (20 lines)

Mother of tender loves, you must find another poet;
My elegies are homing on their final lap.

This final very short poem gives a brief potted biography of him, not from a rich family, but an ancient and distinguished one; from the little town of Sulmona in the region of Paelignia, which fought so bravely against Rome in the Social Wars. Farewell to elegiac verse;

Horned Bacchus is goading me on to weightier efforts, bigger
Horses, a really ambitious trip.

What’s he referring to? The Metamorphoses?

Brief summary

Reviewing the Amores I can well see how Ovid took the stock subjects or topics of the genre, one by one, and took them to the limit, developing each premise to sometimes absurd extents, stuffing each poem with the maximum number of relevant mythological references, including all possible relevant emotions – but at the same time he quite visibly did it as a joke, as a game, playfully, ironically, knowingly. Homo ludens. Thus I can see the force of A.M. Juster’s point that Ovid both a) exhausted the possibilities of the content of the genre but, more profoundly b) undermined all future attempts to take it seriously. He killed it.

Latin terminology

  • consolatio – type of ceremonial oratory, typically used rhetorically to comfort mourners at funeral
  • epicedion – funeral lament
  • exclusus amator – the shut-out lover
  • Homo ludens – playful man, game-playing man
  • laudatio – epitaph in praise of someone who’s died, often a loved one
  • paraclausithyron – poem at the beloved’s door
  • rusticitas – rusticity, the quality of country life and people, by extension, lack of education, idiocy
  • schetliasmós – ritual outburst against unjust fate
  • servitium amoris – servant of love
  • urbanitas – city fashions or manners; refinement, politeness, courtesy, urbanity, sophistication; of speech – delicacy, elegance or refinement of speech; wit, humor

Credit

The Erotic Poems of Ovid, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Books in 1982. All references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC)

Gaius Sallustius Crispus, usually anglicised as Sallust (86 to 35 BC), is the first Roman historian by whom a complete work survives – we know the names of earlier Roman historians but none of their works have come down to us. In fact, we have just two works by Sallust, being his account of the Catiline Conspiracy of 63 BC and the Jugurthine War of 112 to 106 BC.

A third work, the Histories, covered the period from 78 (the year the dictator Sulla died) to 66 BC, taking in the war against Sertorius (72), the campaigns of Lucullus against Mithradates VI of Pontus (75 to 66 BC), and the victories of Pompey in the East (66 to 62). Invaluable as this material would be, nothing of the Histories survives except a fragment of book 5, describing the year 67 BC, and scattered quotes in later works.

His two surviving works are relatively brief – Cataline 44 pages and Jugurtha 86 pages long in the 2007 Penguin paperback edition, edited and translated by A.J Woodman. Throw in a detailed introduction, notes, index and a couple of maps, and it adds up to a tidy little 204 page-long paperback.

In his own time and ever since, Sallust’s brief oeuvre has been famous for two things: a terse style much given to archaic vocabulary and phrasing; and his insistent moralising.

Theories of history

The editor and translator, A.J. Woodman echoes critics quoted on Sallust’s Wikipedia article who all emphasise that Sallust relies on a moralising interpretation of history. He attributes the prolonged failure to end the Jugurthine War on the corruption and willingness to be bribed of numerous Roman officials, and the Catiline conspiracy on the same kind of falling away from Rome’s venerable notions of honour and duty among its ruling class.

Critics point out that Sallust therefore misses the deeper social and economic causes of the events he describes, interpretative paradigms which the last couple of hundred years of economic, sociological, historical and political theorising have elaborated to sophisticated heights.

He doesn’t even take into account the clash of personalities, which was obvious enough to contemporaries (for example, Cicero) and should have informed Sallust’s accounts.

I see what the critics mean but I’m inclined to take Sallust as he is – I mean, to read and enjoy Sallust for what he says rather than what he doesn’t. There’s no shortage of modern histories of the Roman Republic which overflow with economic, sociological, Marxist, feminist or other schools of interpretation. Throw in the findings of modern archaeology, the study of contemporary texts from other cultures, numismatics and so on, and modern scholars often know more about ancient events than contemporaries did – and are certainly able to spin more elaborate and sophisticated analyses of them than the ancients could.

It’s always seemed obvious to me that the value of ancient (so-called) histories is not to reach a ‘true’ account of events because a) they are frequently littered with exaggerations (of casualties in battles), made-up speeches and bizarre omens and b) modern editors routinely point out their factual errors and elisions, to the extent of getting the dates of key events or names of people wrong.

I’ve always read them not for a strictly accurate account of what happened so much as to get a sense of the meaning the events they describe had for their contemporaries – not so much what happened, but how they thought about what happened. What it all meant to them. How they made sense of human existence, human actions, big historical events. They did this in ways very different from us, but it’s precisely those differences which shed light both ways, bringing out the subtly but profoundly different world they lived in, and also helping to understand the (sometimes taken for granted) bases of our own worldview.

Historiographical motifs

There is another factor at play, here. Woodman devotes a section of his introduction to explaining the simple fact that ancient historians often didn’t describe what happened because half the time they didn’t know what happened and went by hearsay and folk tradition.

Instead you often find ancient historians describing what should have happened. When two great generals confronted each other in battle, everyone knows the outcome i.e. who won, but the ancient historian garnished his account with a lengthy set speech from each general setting out their aims and motivation, probably calling on the gods to help him.

To take a well known example. Publius Cornelius Tacitus (56 to 120 AD) in his profile of his father-in-law, the general Gnaeus Julius Agricola, describes him leading Roman legions against Caledonian tribes somewhere in Scotland, a long list of places they trudged through and minor skirmishes against tribes whose names Tacitus may or may not have got correct. The campaign leads up to a climactic battle, which, again, he may or may not describe accurately, but either way is a bit boring. What has made the scene live forever is that Tacitus invented a Caledonian chieftain, giving him the name Calgacus and, on the eve of the battle, gives him a great long speech to inspire his troops, which includes vivid accusations against the Romans and their ideology of imperialism. There now! Much more dramatic and satisfying.

Same in Sallust. In the case of the Cataline conspiracy actual speeches were given in the Senate during the days of the crisis (November and December 63 BC) and official records and eye witnesses survived which Sallust could consult. But for the Jugurthine War (112 to 106 BC), by the time Sallust was writing in about 40 BC, all eye witnesses were dead.

To really drill home this point, Woodman quotes Cicero. He summarises Cicero’s description of the central role of what he calls inventio in oratory, particularly in prosecuting a case in the courts. Cicero defines inventio as ‘the devising of matter true or lifelike which will make a case appear convincing‘ (On Invention 1.9, quoted in Woodman’s introduction, page xxiii). Woodman then applies this interpretation to Sallust’s practice, concluding that ‘a significant portion of his narrative was the product of “invention”‘ (p.xxiv).

Sallust wanted his accounts to be powerful, convincing and persuasive – and so it can be shown that he gave protagonists, at key moments, long moralising speeches which a) they probably never gave and b) which echo similar speeches in the works of previous historians (especially the Greek historian, Thucydides, who Sallust borrows from extensively). He is not recording objective history, he is reworking well established literary motifs to make his history more convincing and dramatic.

In other words, Sallust is one of those ancient historians who thought of writing history more as an art form than as an objective attempt to record ‘the truth’.

Moralising

This brings us to Sallust’s moralising. In a nutshell, Sallust took the entirely traditional view that Rome had declined from the former greatness of its glorious past and that the age he lived in was uniquely corrupt, depraved and fallen, a very, very common view of human existence, shared throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages and among pub bores down to the present day.

Like his contemporaries, Sallust had been buffeted by the chaos of the 50s (which happened to be the years when he held political office – quaestor in 55, plebeian tribune in 52, expelled from the Senate by Appius Claudius Pulcher in 50 BC).

With the coming of civil war in 49 Sallust opted, wisely as it turned out, to support Caesar (unlike Cicero who made the mistake of backing Pompey). In fact, in 46 BC Sallust served as a praetor and accompanied Caesar on his African campaign, so he was significantly more than an armchair supporter and actively involved in Caesarian campaigning.

Nonetheless, in the absence of modern sociological theories of historical causation, Sallust’s view of history is cast entirely in terms of personal morality. For Sallust history consists of, and is entirely driven by, the moral or immoral behaviour of great men. His three works can be threaded on this single principle:

  1. The pitiful failure of Rome to end the Jugurthine war was caused by – and symptomatic of – the increasingly venal, selfish and amoral Roman nobles and officials of his day.
  2. The Catiline Conspiracy represented the complete abandonment of the Roman ideals of loyalty, duty and devotion to the state in the shape of the vile traitor Catiline.
  3. The preface to the Histories repeats the accusation of personal irresponsibility, greed and corruption against the Roman nobles, taking an even more pessimistic view of Tome’s moral collapse than the two monographs.

This approach to history was widely shared in the ancient world. The idea was not to present a definitive ‘truth’ about events, but to present them in such a way as to instruct the present. Rather than invoke impersonal forces such as economic or social developments, a historian like Sallust is presenting the good or bad behaviour of high profile individuals from the past as lessons in morality for the present. The aim of this kind of history is to make us behave better, and if that requires colouring and dramatising events, well so be it.

Translating ‘virtus’

By contrast with the decline and fall which he sees everywhere, Sallust posits a quality which stands as polar opposite to the corruption of the Roman ruling class and which he calls virtusVir is the Latin for ‘man’ (hence ‘virile’ meaning ‘manly’) and therefore virtus describes the qualities and attributes of an ideal (Roman) man (loyalty, devotion to family, duty to the state, military ability and so on).

Unhappily, in my view, Woodman translates this key word, virtus, as ‘prowess’. The dictionary definition of ‘prowess’ is ‘skill or expertise in a particular activity or field,’ so I can see what he’s driving at, but I still think it’s too narrow? ‘Prowess’ by itself doesn’t immediately convey all the attributes of the ideal man in the way virtus obviously does for Sallust. Maybe it’s one of those instances in making a translation where leaving the word in the original language might have been best, because its frequent repetition would have allowed the reader to build up multiple meanings accrued from its various contexts. Slowly the reader would have been taught by the text what Sallust’s multiple uses of virtus mean to him.

It’s worth mentioning all this because the word and concept virtus occurs on virtually every page of the Jugurthine War, sometimes multiple times per page. It is an absolutely central theme in Sallust’s discourse, so the reader is reminded several times a page of the shortcomings of Woodman’s preferred term of ‘prowess’.

Woodman makes several other odd lexical decisions which undermine trust in his translation. Sallust repeatedly refers to the lack of action or energy with which the first Roman commanders prosecuted the war against Jugurtha. Woodman translates this quality as ‘apathy’ which, to me, conveys a completely different meaning; someone who is apathetic doesn’t care about anything, whereas someone who is inactive or is guilty of inaction is capable of more but is making a conscious decision not to act, and so is reprehensible. That’s much closer to the sense of what Sallust means.

Another peculiar translation choice is Woodman’s repeated use of the word ‘muscle’, the application of ‘muscle’, the use of ‘muscle’ in political or military situations, which makes his text sound like an American book about the mafia. I’d guess a better or more dignified translation would be ‘might’ or ‘manpower’.

In a nutshell, although I enjoyed Sallust, I came to dislike and distrust Woodman’s translation.

Mind versus body

Both Jugurtha and Catiline open with general remarks about human nature and, above all, how humans are separate from all other species by virtue of having mind, by the ability to think and reason. Here’s the opening of Jugurtha (in the 1896 translation by the Reverend J.S. Watson which is available online and doesn’t use ‘prowess’ to translate virtus):

The ruler and director of the life of man is the mind, which, when it pursues glory in the path of true merit [virtus], is sufficiently powerful, efficient, and worthy of honour, and needs no assistance from fortune, who can neither bestow integrity, industry, or other good qualities, nor can take them away. But if the mind, ensnared by corrupt passions, abandons itself to indolence and sensuality, when it has indulged for a season in pernicious gratifications, and when bodily strength, time, and mental vigour, have been wasted in sloth, the infirmity of nature is accused, and those who are themselves in fault impute their delinquency to circumstances.

If man, however, had as much regard for worthy objects, as he has spirit in the pursuit of what is useless, unprofitable, and even perilous, he would not be governed by circumstances more than he would govern them, and would attain to a point of greatness, at which, instead of being mortal, he would be immortalised by glory. (From the 1896 translation by the Reverend J.S. Watson)

The Catiline also opens with an extended passage explaining how humanity’s possession of reason behoves us to use it. Woodman here again uses ‘prowess’ in a dubious way whereas the Loeb Classical Library translation of 1921 (which can be found on the excellent LacusCurtius website) translates virtus as ‘mental excellence’. Where Woodman has:

The glory of riches and appearance is fleeting and fragile, but to have prowess is something distinguished and everlasting.

The Loeb edition has:

For the renown which riches or beauty confer is fleeting and frail; mental excellence is a splendid and lasting possession.

Which seems to me both more precise and more impressive. Or again, Woodman:

Ploughing, sailing and building are all dependent on prowess.

Loeb:

Success in agriculture, navigation, and architecture depends invariably upon mental excellence.

Woodman’s hangup with the word ‘prowess’, in my opinion, distort Sallust’s meaning on every page. Also, as a general rule. Woodman’s phrasing of English is worse. Woodman:

His eloquence was adequate, scant his wisdom. (5)

Loeb:

He possessed a certain amount of eloquence, but little discretion.

Which is a hundred times better – clearer, more vivid, more precise and also, paradoxically, more modern. ‘Scant his wisdom’ feels Elizabethan. Despite being a hundred years old the Loeb version is much clearer and more attractive and enjoyable, as prose than Woodman which is why I gave up reading the Penguin translation and read both books online.

After Carthage

One last point. Like many later Romans, Sallust thought the collapse in Roman honour, integrity etc set in at one very particular moment – after Carthage was conquered in 146 BC and Rome faced no more great enemies:

Before the destruction of Carthage, the senate and people managed the affairs of the republic with mutual moderation and forbearance; there were no contests among the citizens for honour or ascendency but the dread of an enemy kept the state in order. When that fear, however, was removed from their minds, licentiousness and pride – evils which prosperity loves to foster, –immediately began to prevail and thus peace, which they had so eagerly desired in adversity, proved, when they had obtained it, more grievous and fatal than adversity itself.

The patricians carried their authority, and the people their liberty, to excess; every man took, snatched, and seized what he could. There was a complete division into two factions, and the republic was torn in pieces between them.

Yet the nobility still maintained an ascendency by conspiring together for the strength of the people, being disunited and dispersed among a multitude, was less able to exert itself. Things were accordingly directed, both at home and in the field, by the will of a small number of men, at whose disposal were the treasury, the provinces, offices, honours, and triumphs while the people were oppressed with military service and with poverty, and the generals divided the spoils of war with a few of their friends. The parents and children of the soldiers, meantime, if they chanced to dwell near a powerful neighbour, were driven from their homes.

Thus avarice, leagued with power, disturbed, violated, and wasted every thing, without moderation or restraint, disregarding alike reason and religion and rushing headlong, as it were, to its own destruction. For whenever any arose among the nobility who preferred true glory to unjust power the state was immediately in a tumult and civil discord spread with as much disturbance as attends a convulsion of the earth. (Watson translation)

2,000 years later, many of the contemporary historians I’m reading, despite their use of much more sophisticated theories of history and society, and economic and social evidence, broadly agree. 146 BC, the year when Rome destroyed Carthage in the West and Corinth in the East (thus decisively taking control of all Greece) was the turning point. On this, a soldier who served under Caesar over 2,000 years ago and the most up-to-date scholar in a Cambridge college, agree.

Summary

To summarise, then: Sallust makes up most of his speeches, and maybe even some of the events he describes, in order to:

  • make his account more powerful and convincing
  • further his worldview or ideology – his scathing criticism of Rome’s nobles and senatorial class, his lament at the decline of Rome’s morality and behaviour
  • all with a view of instructing his readers and encouraging them, by showing the bad behaviour of people in the past, to behave better in the future

Roman reviews

  • Sallust
  • The Jugurthine War by Sallust (41 BC)
  • The Catiline Conspiracy by Sallust (42 BC)

Roman writers

As well to remember that all Roman literature was written by an elite for an elite about an elite, and is overwhelmingly conservative and traditionalist in tone. Even when they’re writing about farmers or ordinary citizens or soldiers, Roman writers are doing it from the perspective of privileged members of the highly educated aristocratic classes. The only possible exceptions are the first two entries in the list, the comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, whose work features numerous slaves and tradesmen (often cooks) – though here again, we should be cautious about treating these characters and their views as documentary evidence, as they are clearly based on standardised stereotypes which owe their origins, in any case, to the Greek theatre.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of Roman authors, that would be much longer. These are the important Roman authors and this is by way of being an ideal or personal, reading list.

The Republic

Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus, 254 to 184 BC) Plautus’s comedies are the earliest Latin literary works to survive in their entirety: Asinaria, Aulularia, Captivi, Casina, Curculio, Epidicus, Menaechmi, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria, Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Rudens, Stichus, Trinummus, Truculentus.

Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, 195 to 159 BC) Six plays: Andria (The Girl from Andros), Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law), Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor), Phormio, Eunuchus, Adelphoe (The Brothers). Fanous for his t-shirt motto:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto – I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me

Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 to 43 BC) statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher. Cicero wrote more than 75% of the extant Latin literature that is known to have existed in his lifetime, including law court speeches, letters, treatises on rhetoric, philosophy and politics.

Julius Caesar (100 to 44 BC) author of accounts of his wars in Gaul, Egypt, Spain and Africa.

Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, 99 to 55 BC) poet and philosopher whose only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura or ‘On the nature of things’, a poetic exposition of the philosophy of Epicureanism.

Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC) author of two historical monographs, on the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy.

Catullus (Gaius Valerius Catullus, 84 to 54 BC) known for an anthology of 116 carmina or poems which are divided into three parts according to their form: sixty short poems in varying meters, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

Livy (Titus Livius, 59 BC to 17 AD) author of a monumental History of Rome titled Ab Urbe Condita Libri (‘Books from the Founding of the City’) which originally comprised 142 ‘books’, 35 of which still exist in reasonably complete form.

The Empire

Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 to 19 BC) composed three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics and the epic poem, Aeneid.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 to 8 BC) the leading Roman lyric poet during the rule of the emperor Augustus: famous for his Odes, Satires, Epistles and Epodes.

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC to 18 AD) younger contemporary of Virgil and Horace, together considered the three canonical poets of Latin literature. His three three main works are the Metamorphoses, the Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Love’) and Fasti.

Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, 4 BC to AD 65) philosopher, statesman, dramatist and satirist: a dozen essays and 124 letters dealing with moral issues, 9 tragedies: Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women), Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes.

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, 39 BC to 65 AD) known for his epic Pharsalia or De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) about the wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey.

Plutarch (46 to after 119 AD) Greek philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest, author, among many other works, of the Parallel Lives, biographies of 50 eminent Greeks and Romans.

Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 56 to 120 AD) widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians known for two incomplete works, the Annals and the Histories, covering the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) to 70 AD in the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73). Also a dialogue on oratory, the Germania or De origine et situ Germanorum and the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, the general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae). In the latter, a leader of the rebellious Scots is given a long speech criticising the Roman Empire which includes the famous quote:

ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant – they create a desert and call it peace

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 55? to 150? AD) author of 16 satires divided into five books.

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, 61 to about 113) lawyer, author and magistrate famous because he wrote hundreds of letters, 247 of which survive: the most notable are the hundred or so in his correspondence with the emperor Trajan in his capacity of governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, one of which asks advice about how to treat the new sect of Christians (one of the earliest references to Christianity) and the exchange where his friend Tacitus asks him for his memories of the eruption of Mount Etna which Pliny witnessed.

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, 69 to 122 AD) historian whose most important surviving work is De vita Caesarum, a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter, 27 to 66 AD) was a courtier to the emperor Nero and is believed to be the author of the scandalously satirical novel, the Satyricon.

Cassius Dio (Lucius Cassius Dio, 155 to 235) Roman historian and senator of Greek origin who published 80 volumes of the history of ancient Rome, from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy through to 229 AD, covering about 1,000 years of history.


Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing features of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will (it was stashed in the temple of the Vestal Virgins) and read it out in the Forum. He claimed it showed that Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82), is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’.

I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)

Augustus

The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has OIne Big Idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)

And:

The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)

And:

Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject.

Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.

Summary

The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


Credit

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

Roman reviews

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


Related links

Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germans (the Germania) by Tacitus (98)

Cornelius Tacitus lived from around 54 to 120 AD. He’s famous for his full-length histories of the early Roman Empire – the Annals and the Histories. Before these, in 98, he wrote two short monographs, a eulogy to his father-in-law Agricola, and a study of the Germanic peoples beyond the border of the Roman Empire – De Origine et situ Germanorum or Concerning the Origin and Situation of the Germanics.

It is the usual mish-mash of hearsay, twaddle and detailed, real information – it is the task of scholars to disentangle the two. Tacitus most improbably claims the Germanic tribes worship the Roman gods:

Of the gods, Mercury is the principal object of their adoration; whom, on certain days, they think it lawful to propitiate even with human victims. To Hercules and Mars they offer the animals usually allotted for sacrifice. Some of the Suevi also perform sacred rites to Isis.

He confidently makes sweeping statements: All the Germans do this; without exception they do that: which scholars have to validate or invalidate from the handful of other sources:

In every house the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder. Every mother suckles her own children, and does not deliver them into the hands of servants and nurses. No indulgence distinguishes the young master from the slave. They lie together amidst the same cattle, upon the same ground, till age separates, and valor marks out, the free-born.

Is any of that true? Could be. Tacitus talks confidently about the Germans’ myths and legends:

In their ancient songs, which are their only records or annals, they celebrate the god Tuisto, sprung from the earth, and his son Mannus, as the fathers and founders of their race.

No other source mentions a Tuisto. It is interesting to follow up the reference to Tuisto and see what shapes scholars have twisted themselves into trying to assimilate Tacitus to what we do know: could Tuisto be etymologically linked to the Ymir of Snorri? Or, as a recent scholar points out, could the whole sentence  derive from Tacitus’s “simple ignorance of the facts”?

By far the most interesting thing about the Germania is the impact it’s had on history and on the Germans themselves:

In medieval Germany (the Holy Roman Empire), a self-designation of ‘Germanii’ was virtually never used. The name was only revived in 1471, inspired by the rediscovered text of Germania, to invoke the warlike qualities of the ancient Germans in a crusade against the Turks. Ever since its discovery, treatment of the text regarding the culture of the early Germanic peoples in ancient Germany remains strong especially in German history, philology, and ethnology studies… Beginning in 16th-century German humanism, German interest in Germanic antiquity remained acute throughout the period of Romanticism and nationalism. A scientific angle was introduced with the development of Germanic philology by Jacob Grimm in the 19th century…

The Nazis incorporated many of Tacitus’s claims about the Germanic tribes into their farrago of Nordic nonsense. In particular the fateful section about the ‘purity’ of the Germanic tribes:

I concur in opinion with those who deem the Germans never to have intermarried with other nations; but to be a race, pure, unmixed, and stamped with a distinct character. Hence a family likeness pervades the whole, though their numbers are so great: eyes stern and blue; ruddy hair; large bodies, powerful in sudden exertions, but impatient of toil and labor, least of all capable of sustaining thirst and heat. Cold and hunger they are accustomed by their climate and soil to endure.

Because of its influence on the ideologies of Pan-Germanism and Nordicism, Jewish-Italian historian Arnaldo Momigliano in 1956 described Germania as ‘among the most dangerous books ever written’. Christopher Krebs, a professor at Stanford University, argues in his A Most Dangerous Book, that Germania played a major role in the formation of the core concepts of Nazi ideology.

Read Tacitus’s Germania on Project Gutenberg

Map of The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna, with some Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Roman Empire in 116 AD and Germania Magna, with some Germanic tribes mentioned by Tacitus (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On the life and character of Julius Agricola by Tacitus (98)

Before he composed the weighty historical works for which he is famous, the Roman historian Tacitus (55 -120) wrote three short monographs – a history of oratory, an ethnographic study of the German tribes, and this eulogy of his father-in law, Gnaeus Julius Agricola, one of the earliest governors of Roman Britain.

The text is called De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, or On the life and character of Julius Agricola and is a slender 50 pages long in the Penguin edition.

We get the general shape of Agricola’s career but with a frustrating lack of dates (obviously the Romans dated things differently from us, anyway), or places or other people, without all the specifics which make a biography interesting. In fact, as Harold Mattingley says in his introduction, it is more the biography of a career than a person.

What comes across more strongly than Agricola is Tacitus’s deep disillusion at the times he has lived through. Tacitus writing about the reign of Domitian (81-96) sounds like a Soviet writing after the death of Stalin.

The triumvirs were commissioned to burn in the forum those works of splendid genius. They fancied, forsooth, that in that fire the voice of the Roman people, the freedom of the Senate, and the conscience of the human race were perishing, while at the same time they banished the teachers of philosophy, and exiled every noble pursuit, that nothing good might anywhere confront them. Certainly we showed a magnificent example of patience; as a former age had witnessed the extreme of liberty, so we witnessed the extreme of servitude, when the informer robbed us of the interchange of speech and hearing. We should have lost memory as well as voice, had it been as easy to forget as to keep silence. (Chapter 2)

What if during those fifteen years, a large portion of human life, many were cut off by ordinary casualties, and the ablest fell victims to the Emperor’s rage, if a few of us survive, I may almost say, not only others but our own selves, survive, though there have been taken from the midst of life those many years which brought the young in dumb silence to old age, and the old almost to the very verge and end of existence!  (Chapter 3)

In a familiar topos Tacitus compares the uncivilised but brave Britons favourably with the tamed, and thus slack, Gauls.

The Britons exhibit more spirit as being a people whom a long peace has not yet enervated. Indeed we have understood that even the Gauls were once renowned in war; but, after a while, sloth following on ease crept over them, and they lost their courage along with their freedom. This too has happened to the long-conquered tribes of Britain; the rest are still what the Gauls once were. (Chapter 11)

In fact Tacitus is not ambivalent, he is downright hostile to the so-called civilisation which Rome itself represents and brings to its conquered people.

Agricola likewise provided a liberal education for the sons of the chiefs, and showed such a preference for the natural powers of the Britons over the industry of the Gauls that they who lately disdained the tongue of Rome now coveted its eloquence. Hence, too, a liking sprang up for our style of dress, and the toga became fashionable. Step by step they were led to things which dispose to vice, the lounge, the bath, the elegant banquet. All this in their ignorance, they called civilization, when it was but a part of their servitude. (Chapter 21)

Admittedly the following is given as part of the long set-piece speech delivered by the barbarian leader on the eve of Agricola’s great victory at the (possibly fictitious) Battle of Mons Graupius – and it was a sign of a good orator and lawyer that he could argue all sides of an argument – still, the final phrase climaxes a devastating critique of Rome’s greed and rapaciousness which echoes other comments scattered throughout the text, so powerful it has become almost proverbial.

To us who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth and of freedom, this remote sanctuary of Britain’s glory has up to this time been a defence. Now, however, the furthest limits of Britain are thrown open, and the unknown always passes for the marvellous. But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace. (Chapter 30)

Auferre trucidare rapere falsis nominibus imperium, atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

On the life and character of Julius Agricola, English translation on Wikisource.

Photo of Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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