Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

(This is the first of two summaries and reviews of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically

Contents

Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.

(For summary and notes on the second half of the Metamorphoses, see my next blog post.)


Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Cures For Love by Ovid

All my songs offer wise advice, so obey the singer.
(The Cures For Love line 703)

The Cures For Love (Remedia Amoris) follows naturally on from the three short ‘books’ which make up The Art of Love (Ars Amatoria). It’s the same kind of length as one of those books (814 lines, 24 pages in the Penguin paperback edition, translated by Peter Green), has the same gaily mocking tone, and directly relates itself to its predecessors. If the previous three books had claimed to be guides for men and women on how to gain lovers, this one teaches how to cope with a love which has gone wrong.

It is addressed to ‘disappointed gallants’ and describes lovers so miserable they have committed suicide. For those who find unlearning passion impossible, who long to throw off love’s shackles but can’t (line 298) that he writes:

I am your public deliverer, will lighten hearts hard mastered
By passion

Thus he adopts a pose throughout of the book of doctor and healer of broken hearts. (He makes a point of emphasising his advice is for both men and women, although all the examples are cast in the form of male strategies; but he does remember this vow from time to time and repeat that his advice is meant to be unisex.)

As soon as you feel love getting a grip on your heart, throw it out, burn it off. Act quickly.

Rule 1 – always be busy. Love springs up where there is leisure and time to kill. Have things to get you up to do: public business, the law courts. Or become a soldier, go fight the Parthians.

Or farming. For a page he channels the spirit of Virgil’s Eclogues with descriptions of chores on the Roman farm.

Or hunting. Hunting deer across country, or setting traps for small birds.

Or simply leave, go away, go a journey. You’ll cry but ignore all excuses, reasons for delay, and just do it. Travelling companions, sightseeing, practical arrangements – all will take your mind off a love gone bad.

Don’t rely on magic. Their tricks didn’t do either Medea or Circe any good. Just a plain and simple prayer to Apollo, his patron, will do.

Dwell on your grievances, how she:

  • took all your gifts and gave you nothing in return
  • bankrupted you
  • cheated on her promise
  • kept you waiting outside her door all night
  • shags any old travelling salesman, everyone except you

Dwell on her imperfections:

  • her stumpy legs
  • her skinny arms
  • she’s fat
  • she’s dark

Distort the truth: if she’s innocent, say she’s ‘naive’; if she’s experienced, call her ‘saucy’; if she’s a bit plump, call her ‘bloated’.

Whatever talents she doesn’t possess, call for those ones: if she can’t sing, ask her to sing; if she can’t dance, call on her to dance; if she’s clumsy, suggest a going for a walk; if she has udders for breasts, recommend her not to wear a bra.

Kill the image you have of her as a perfect woman. Destroy it, trample it underfoot in order to expel her from your heart.

Make an unannounced surprise early morning visit, before she’s covered her face with paint. Observe how plain she is without her makeup. Look at the pots of disgusting gunk it takes to get her looking even passably presentable. Cultivate your disgust.

[Digression on poetry in which he rebuts critics who accuse him of immorality. He doesn’t write for respectable housewives but for sad loser men and courtesans. Also he is not setting out to write an epic in hexameters; he is writing naughty love poetry in elegiacs. He is already famous and will become even more so, since he has many more poems ready in his head. So Envy can take a hike.]

What about sex with the woman you’re trying to get over? Well, it obviously risks making you fall in love with her all over again? So he recommends various ant-aphrodisiacs.

Have sex with another woman before a date with your girl, then you don’t be mad for it, in fact you’ll be a bit jaded, maybe disgusted with the subject and so can remain aloof and not be tempted.

If you do have sex, choose an unsuitable, ungainly position. Keep the shutters open so critical sunlight reveals all her physical flaws, spots and wrinkles. Memorise every fault in her body. Disgust yourself.

One lover was put off by sight of his girl’s slit, another by the wet patch she left on the sheet when she got up. Watch her having a dump. Yuk. None of these by themselves will sever the bond, but cumulatively will shift your mind from love dependency to disgust, revulsion and so to freedom.

Moving onto a major strategy, he suggests having two mistresses and so diluting the power either one, individually, has over you. He distorts the story of Agamemnon replacing Chryseis with Bryseis to make it fit his thesis (though it doesn’t). But his point is clear. Having two mistresses reduces your emotional dependence on an individual. If one chucks you, it’s no longer the end of the world.

How are you meant to get these other girls? Why, read his Art of Love, of course.

How to find them you ask? Read my handbook,
And your boat will soon be scuppers-deep in girls!
(lines 487 to 488)

Cultivate detachment, even if you don’t feel it. Ignore her calls. If you go and she’s locked the door against you, laugh it off. If she calls you in a crowd, ignore her. She presses you to an assignation, say you have another engagement. Habit makes it easy; we fall in love by habit so we can detach ourselves by cultivating habits of indifference until they become real. If you’re bursting with desire, work it off with a prostitute.

If this doesn’t work for you, if withdrawal and detachment is not your style, try an alternative strategy: throw yourself full tilt into the affair, see her every chance you can, go round her house all the time, have all the sex you can, glut yourself till you begin to sicken, till you become sick of the sight of her house and her.

Don’t be alone. Be always in company. Invite friends round. Have an open door policy. Talk, drink, socialise. Days will pass and you’ll forget your lover.

Avoid other young people who are in love. Being in love is contagious, like the plague. Be with happy, sociable people, but shun anyone who’s all loved up.

Avoid the places you used to go to together, and avoid places you know she frequents. ‘Shun scenes of bygone pleasure.’ Burn her letters. Remove all mementoes. It’s hard, but make a conscious effort to change the habits of the affair.

And don’t go round bragging how you’re not in love any more. That tells everyone that you are. Just let go and let her dribble away from the realm of your desires. Let love ‘fade on the breeze and die’ (l.654).

Don’t hate her. That’s as bad as loving her. Often it’s a symptom of lasting love, certainly of enduring passion. Don’t take her to court, don’t litigate to get your presents back, this keeps the wound alive. Let her keep everything. Walk away. Strive to reach a state of complete detachment, indifference, until you can meet her with the same politeness you extend to any other acquaintance. ‘Until you’re heartwhole’ (752).

Ovid shrewdly remarks that breaking off a love affair is often difficult not so much because we love them as because we want to be loved. It is the horrible emptiness of no longer being loved which is so hard to take. So…inure yourself to it by degrees rather than jumping into an ice cold pool. And replace that hole in your life with friends and family and conviviality and activity.

Rather inevitably he comes round to poetry. Don’t read it. Don’t read Sappho, Callimachus, Catullus, Tibullus, Propertius or, though it pains him to say so, even his own poems. They’ll only reopen the wound.

And rivals? Well, you’ll have to overcome your jealousy. He gives half a page of examples of jealous lovers from mythology. But it’s no good tormenting yourself with the thought of her in someone else’s arms. This may be the hardest task but it is the best testament to having escaped love’s net. When you can greet her new lover with perfect cordiality and shake his hand, you’re nearly there. When you can greet him with a cordial kiss, you’re cured!

Thoughts

Although questionable in detail, and no doubt guilty of sexism in numerous ways, nonetheless this is the most impressive of the four books of love. Suggestions like avoiding the places you used to go to together and avoiding her friends and family so as to extirpate all memory of a miserable love – these strike me as very relevant today and, unlike a lot of the stock clichés of the earlier pickup books, indicate a genuine depth of experience and empathy. They aren’t particularly gender-specific or even heteronormative i.e. the lessons apply equally well for the use of women or LGBTQ+ people i.e. anyone trying to get over a love affair or stop themselves getting sucked into one.


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

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

Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Elegy 1.2 by Tibullus

This is a free adaptation of book one, elegy two, by the Roman poet Tibullus (55 to 19 BC). It’s based on the translation by A.M Juster in the Oxford University Press edition of Tibullus’s elegies. Juster’s version appears to give a pretty close translation of the Latin, in meaning and metre; mine is intended as a very free adaptation.

By this, I mean I’ve followed the logic and sense of Juster’s translation pretty closely but rephrased everything. Why? To try to make it roll and flow more smoothly, to give it more zing, to make it more fun to read.

In my opinion Juster’s attempt to replicate the precise metre of the original – elegiac couplets with the first line a hexameter and the second a pentameter – although a worthy aim, results in his translation feeling crabbed and constipated. From everything I’ve read, Tibullus’s elegiacs were thought by contemporaries to be stylish and attractive. So I’ve largely ignored the elegiac format – more accurately, left it as a buried foundation – and let every line do its own thing.

My adaptation doesn’t try to be elegant, exactly. I simply aim to make it fun and attractive and immediately understandable. (Also because doing an exercise like this really helps you climb inside a poem and understand how it is made.)

Elegy 2.1 by Tibullus

Pour me unwatered wine and let it drench
my grief, let sleep control my eyes
and when my brain is blurred by Bacchus let no one
wake me, let pointless passion sleep.

For my love’s held hostage by a grouchy guard
and shut up tight behind a bolted door.
O may the pelting rain attack that door
and Jupiter send jagged lightning to destroy it.

O please door, open just a pinch for me,
O hinge swing open, slyly, silently.
I’m sorry I was rude to you before,
I was mad with frustration, I admit it, my bad,
but remember I’ve also been respectful to you and kind,
promised you rewards, hung flowers on your frame.

Come lovely Delia, come out, deceive your guard,
remember Venus’s motto: who dares wins!
It’s Venus helps a boy sneak into his lover’s house,
It’s Venus helps a girl pick doorlocks with a hairpin,
It’s Venus shows how to tiptoe from the marital bed,
how to step silently across the bedroom floor,
how, even though she’s sitting next to her husband at dinner,
a woman can give secret signs to her breathless lover.

Venus doesn’t venture these gifts to just anybody,
only to those with life in them, willing to take risks.
For when I’m roaming through the darkened streets
Venus is there to make my passage safe,
making sure I don’t meet some midnight mugger,
keen to stab me, or steal my stuff at knifepoint.

After all, someone in love should travel safely,
protected by the gods, unafraid of attack.
These freezing winter nights don’t bother me,
nor do the heavy showers saturate me.
Nothing can harm me if sweet Delia
opens her door, smiles, and snaps her fingers.

Hey! Whoever that is, walking up towards me,
stop staring, Venus likes her business to be kept secret.
Stop scaring everyone with your clumsy feet, don’t ask
our names, stop waving that bloody torch about!
If anybody happens to see us whispering at the door,
keep schtum, tell the cops you don’t remember nowt.
And if anybody wants to tell tales, they’ll soon find out
why Venus is the child of savage seas and blood!

Mind you, even if people tattle, Delia’s ‘husband’ won’t believe it –
A sorceress assures me he’s been put under a spell.
This witch, I’ve seen her call down the stars from heaven,
divert a raging river with her magic.
Her incantations split the earth, her charms
raise up the dead and bring burned bones back whole from the pyre.
She can drum up demons with her mystic moaning,
then rein them in with the help of sprinkled milk.
Whenever she likes she can chase clouds out of the skies
or summon up snow in summer, if she wants.
Only she has the poisonous herbs which belonged to Medea,
only she tamed the baying hounds of Hecate.

She made a spell to help Delia deceive her husband.
You chant it three times, then three times spit on the floor
and her husband won’t believe anything bad he hears about us,
not even if he found us at it in their bed.

Should I trust this witch? Well, she told me
she could rid me of my love with spells and herbs,
and cleanse me with a pine torch. Late one night
she sacrificed a black beast to the gods of hell.
I wasn’t asking for my love to end, just for it
to become fair between us; I could never leave you, Delia.

O your husband is cold as iron! When he could have had you,
he preferred to go off to war, pursuing plunder.
Well, let him go slaughter the soldiers of Cilicia
and pitch his camp on captured ground.
Let him pose magnificently astride his horse,
strong arms sheathed in stolen gold and silver.

But Delia, just to be with you I would
be happy to yoke oxen and feed sheep on windswept hillsides.
If I could only hold you in my enfolding arms
I’d gladly kip out nights on the stony ground.
What good is lying in a silky Tyrian bed
if I’m without you, loveless, lost in tears?
Not the softest feathers nor the cleanest sheets,
nor the sound of tinkling fountains, nothing could console me.

If I have offended Venus with some of my ranting,
then let my guilty mouth forfeit the price.
People saying I defiled the temples
and stole garlands from altars to decorate your door.
If I’m guilty, I’ll willingly fall full-length before those altars
and kiss their thresholds with my penitent lips,
and crawl on my knees through dirt, as holy penance,
and beat my head against their holy pillars.

But you, passerby, standing there and laughing at me,
while I go through all these turmoils – you beware!
The gods won’t punish me forever, it’ll be your turn soon.
I’ve seen a mature man who mocked a lovestruck youth
himself fall victim to the chains of Venus,
attempt seductive speeches with a shaking voice,
try to comb over his grey hair with his hand,
reduced to hovering by his beloved’s door
and pestering her servants in the market.
I saw young men surrounding him and laughing,
spitting on their chests to ward off the old man’s curses.

Oh spare me, Venus! I will serve you loyally.
I am a rich harvest of devotion, don’t let your anger ruin me.


Roman reviews

The Epistles of Horace: Book 1

In a world torn by hope and worry, dread and anger,
imagine every day that dawns is the last you’ll see;
the hour you never hoped for will prove a happy surprise.
(Epistle 4)

As to the genre of ‘epistles, according to translator Niall Rudd in his introduction, one of the earliest examples of an epistle as a literary form is a fragment of an epistle by Lucilius (180 to 103; the founder of the genre of satire, none of whose works have survived complete) complaining to a friend who had failed to visit him when he was sick. And it appears from other references that Lucilius had given some thought to the place of ‘the epistle’ in literature. But the idea of composing a whole book of verse epistles was completely novel and apparently invented by the ancient Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus (usually referred to in English as Horace).

Horace wrote two books of epistles, which take their place in his oeuvre thus:

Book 1 contains 20 epistles. Book 2 contains just 2 (long ones), followed by the 476-line epistle universally referred to the Ars Poetica or Art of Poetry.

Horatian urbanity

The epistles are characteristically Horatian in the way they are addressed to the same kind of circle of friends as the odes and reflect on similar themes of: friendship, the nature of civilised behaviour and how to achieve true happiness (adopt the golden mean; leave the stressful city for the relaxed countryside; don’t hanker after wealth and luxury; be content with the simple things of life, like wine and the company of good friends).

What is an epistle?

The English word ‘epistle’ comes direct from the Latin word epistola which means ‘a letter’, itself derived from the Greek epistole meaning ‘message, letter, command, commission, whether verbal or in writing’.

Were Horace’s ‘epistles’ actual letters, written to people, sent and expecting a reply? Critics debate this question to this day. Some of the epistles contain specific questions to the addressee and explicitly expect a reply (for example, Epistle 3 to Julius Florus posted to Tiberius’s army). Others are more like moral essays, addressed to an individual but which make general points about life i.e. not letters in our sense (Epistle 2 to Lollius Maximus). The shortest one really feels like a note to a friend (Epistle 4, 16 lines). Either way, there’s no doubt they are the result of much art and effort; no-one ‘dashes off’ a 300-line poem in finely judged hexameters on the spur of the moment.

One other thing that’s so obvious no-one comments on it, but in a standard letter the author indicates their identity. In English we used to write ‘Your sincerely’, ‘Kind regards’ or similar. There’s nothing like that here. The text of each epistle just ends.

Wikipedia has a handy one-line summary of each of the epistles, which I found very useful to consult before reading each one, and so get a quick grasp of the general purpose and shape of each of the poems.

Age-appropriate genres

Rudd mentions a twelfth century scholar who suggested that Horace wrote his four major types of poetry for four different age groups: the odes for boys, the Ars Poetica for young men, the satires for mature men, and the epistles for old and complete men.

This doesn’t reflect modern scholarly opinion about when the different types were published, but contains a big grain of truth. The odes feel very active and exuberant; the Ars Poetica is a useful vade mecum for poets just starting out; the satires are for men of business and affairs; the epistles are for men heading into old age, who are past life’s storms and stresses and able to look back and reflect on their own and other people’s behaviour.

‘Morality is obvious’

In some ways Horace’s epistles continue the form of the satires, but the epistles are more philosophic, more ethical and meditative. For me the most obvious difference is that many of the satires were in dialogue form, like mini plays; whereas the epistles are more often monologues (although several of them include the imagined dialogue of critics or opponents, and some of them morph into anecdotes which features the dialogue of the characters involved).

As so often when classic poets or writers give life advice, Horace’s lessons are often obvious and a bit boring. In Epistle 1 (to Maecenas) Horace tells us that Virtue’s first rule is ‘avoid vice’ and Wisdom’s first rule is ‘get rid of folly’. Not exactly ground-breaking information stuff, is it? In Epistle 2 (to Lollius Maximus) he says:

  • despise pleasure – often the price of the resulting pain outweighs it (drunkenness leads to illness, promiscuous sex leads to disease)
  • the greedy are never content, always wanting more
  • envious people are driven mad by wanting what everyone else has
  • unrestrained anger drives people away and makes them hate you

So don’t overdo it. Moderation in all things. Train yourself to be happy with what you’ve got.

Maybe this is as useful as moral writing can get. Maybe reflecting on these suggestions for the half hour or so it takes to read each poem does make readers stop and think a bit about their own attitudes and behaviour. Maybe they have had a beneficial effect on people’s lives. But it’s difficult to know how you’d go about measuring this.

I’m tempted to say, though, that the interest isn’t in the moral lessons, which are a bit samey and a bit obvious, it’s in two other things. One is the incidental social history which the epistles are full of, descriptions of the habits and behaviour of the rich and boastful of his day, of the poor in their crappy slums, tips on how to be the client of a rich patron, how to approach Augustus so as not to irritate him and so on – a mosaic of snapshots of Roman society.

Second, and a bit deeper, is the psychology of the thinking about the moral lessons. The lessons themselves, when bluntly stated, are a bit trite. But when he reflects on his own attitudes to them, how he’s come to these conclusions, how he tries to apply them in his own life – then the lessons come a bit more to life, they are dramatised. If the ostensible lessons are mostly a bit obvious, the text and texture and presentation are often interesting and genuinely entertaining.

Addressees

In my review of Horace’s Odes I remarked that the sheer number of people Horace addresses in them creates a sense of a sociable, civilised society. Same here, along with endearingly casual references to the ordinary humdrum concerns of him and his friends. Not great affairs of state or business deals or law cases, but who’s going to whose dinner party, who’s falling in or out of love, impressions of famous tourist attractions, what the weather’s like on the coast this time of year, the changing scenery around his farm (1.16) and so on. Tittle tattle. Gossip. Thoughts.

The poems are addressed to:

  • Maecenas, Horace’s patron (1.1, 1.7, 1.19)
  • Lollius Maximus, served under Augustus in Spain (1.2, 1.18)
  • Julius Florus, a young aristocrat who wrote satires (1.3)
  • Albius Tibullus, the poet famous for his elegies (1.4)
  • Manlius Torquatus, an aristocrat (1.5)
  • Numicius (unknown) (1.6)
  • Celsus Albinovanus, serving on Tiberius’s staff in Asia (1.8)
  • Tiberius, future emperor, recommending a friend (1.9)
  • Aristius Fuscus, friend (1.10)
  • Bullatius (unknown) (1.11)
  • Iccius, steward of Agrippa’s property in Sicily (1.12)
  • Vinius Asina, a centurion in Augustus’s praetorian guard (1.13)
  • the unnamed bailiff of his country property, written to when Horace is in Rome on business (1.14)
  • Numonius Vala (1.15)
  • Quinctius Hirpinus (1.16)
  • Scaeva (1.17)

But just listing the addressees doesn’t convey their sociable quality. The poems address named individuals, as above, but often refer to other people as well, male or female, sometimes to mutual friends, sometimes to the rich and grand, sometimes to figures from Roman history (all Roman writers were obsessed with figures from their history), to figures from myth and legend (that bloody Trojan War!), and sometimes contain anecdotes like the extended story about the lawyer Philippus who persuaded the auctioneer Volteius Mena to change professions and become a farmer ((1.7). The epistles are inclusive, chatty, populous. From one perspective, the pleasure of Horace’s poems is the pleasure of gossip.

Themes

Since Wikipedia and umpteen other websites give epistle-by-epistle commentaries, I’ll look instead at recurring themes.

Maturity

Born in 65 BC, Horace was about 44 when the first book was published. He says his age and keenness are not what they were. He feels like an old horse which has had its best days. Time to get a bit serious:

Now I am laying aside my verses and other amusements.
My sole concern is the question ‘What is right and proper?’

Certainty instead of change

Everyone has an opinion, and even people with well-worked out opinions change them from time to time. The great flux of dinner party chat and commentating. Instead of this endless flux, Horace wants certitude.

Be content with what you have

…Avoid what’s big. In a humble house
you can beat kings and the friends of kings in the race for life….
If you’re happy with the deal you’ve received, you’ll live wisely. (1.10)

Whatever lucky hour heaven has offered you, take it
gratefully (1.11)

The retired life

Small things for the small. It isn’t royal Rome
that attracts me now, but quiet Tibur or peaceful Tarentum. (1.2)

Country over city

If we are supposed to live in accordance with nature,
and we have to start by choosing a site to build a house on,
can you think of any place to beat the glorious country?

In any case, do what you will, you can’t fight the deep slow force of nature.

Expel nature with a fork; she’ll keep on trotting back.
Relax – and she’ll break triumphantly through your silly refinements. (1.10)

In praise of wine

Think of the wonders uncorked by wine! It opens secrets,
gives heart to our hopes, pushes the cowardly into battle,
lifts the load from anxious minds, and evokes talents.
Thanks to the bottle’s promptings no-one is lost for words,
no one who’s cramped by poverty fails to find release.
(Epistle 5)

The first half of 1.19 jokingly claims that all the best poets were drunks.

Sex and slavery

Maybe I’m overdoing it, maybe it’s a personal obsession; I wonder because so few of the translators and writers of introductions mention it, but – this was a slave society. A society built on slavery. Slaves were worked to death in the gold and silver mines to produce the fancy trinkets which Catullus and Horace mock. Slaves by the hundreds of thousands worked the huge estates which produced the food to feed the empire.

Horace writes repeatedly about his lovely little farm, the Sabine farm, the lovely scenery around it and so on. (Scholars and historians refer to it as the Sabine farm because he tells us, in Epistle 1.10, that his villa was next to the sanctuary of the Sabine goddess, Vacuna.) He describes it with such affection that it is easy to join his affectionate tone. But it was run by slaves, 8 slaves, slaves he called ‘boy’. Slaves who I know, from umpteen other sources, were not only bought and sold, but could be whipped or subject to any other form of punishment at the whim of the owner.

If a slave’s testimony was required in a trial, it had to be extracted under torture. Quite trivial offences could be punished by having your legs broken, or being crucified. Plautus’s plays are full of slave characters nervously worrying about being crucified if their master’s scams and tricks are revealed.

Maybe it’s me, maybe I’m eccentric, but the knowledge that the lovely lifestyle praised in all these poems was based on the sweat and punishment of hundreds of thousands of slaves brings me up short. Makes me shiver with horror.

Epistle 1.18 is quite a long set of advice to Lollius Maximus on how to behave well if you are the client of a rich patron. There’s loads of points of etiquette or correct behaviour you have to look out for. Immediately after telling him to be careful what he says, and who to, because tactless remarks are always passed on, he comes to this bit of advice:

Don’t let any maid or lad arouse your desires
within the marble hall of the friend you hope to impress.
The owner may give you the pretty boy or the darling girl
(and add nothing of substance!) or cause you pain by refusing.

Hang on. ‘The owner may give you the pretty boy or the darling girl…’ As if you said, ‘Oh I like that vase’ and the rich blasé owner said, ‘Well, have it’, in the same spirit you might say, ‘Your wine girl is very sexy’ and the rich blasé owner would just say, ‘Well, you can have her.’ The girl gets no say. She is a slave. So is the boy you fancy. Either of them are just handed over to you for your sexual pleasure.

All this is said in passing because Horace is concerned about the problems of etiquette which arise if you let one of your patron’s slaves arouse you. The fact of a human being being treated as an object by everyone, including (apparently) the translator, goes unremarked. But I remark it. And I can’t help finding it disgusting.

Bookishness

In 1.18 Horace utters a little prayer, which includes the line ‘May I have a decent supply of books and enough food for the year’. In 1.2 he instructs Lollius Maximus to send for a book and a lamp before daylight and study noble aims. In 1.7 he tells Maecenas he plans to go down to the seaside and ‘take it easy, curled up with a book’. Epistle 13 entirely consists of instructions to Vinius Asina about delivering a copy of his odes to Augustus. Epistle 3 enquires about the literary activities of a bunch of young writers who are officers with Tiberius’s army.

These and other references add a layer of bookishness the general air of civilised chat and banter. But I couldn’t help starting to detect in them what I understand is called ‘the Liberal Fallacy’, which is the belief that, if only people – the population in general – were more bookish, and read the right sort of books, and read them in the right sort of spirit, well…the world would be a much better place.

A decade ago I read an article in the Guardian by a nice middle-class white man which overflowed with empathy for black people and women, with sensitive support for #metoo and Black Lives Matter. What made it Peak Guardian was that at the end of the article he included a reading list. The article wasn’t about a particular subject and so the reading list wasn’t addressing a particular topic: it was a reading list to help the article’s readers become like the author, sharing, caring and inclusive. I wish I’d bookmarked it because it perfectly embodied this belief: If only everyone were bookish like me, what a wonderful world it would be.

The two obvious flaws with this view are that:

  1. Most people don’t read, certainly not books. Huge numbers of working class people struggle to read or have a low reading age, or aren’t interested; and I’ve met many highly educated professional people who have the smarts to read, but are simply too busy: one or two thrillers on their annual holiday and that’s their lot. So an outbreak of mass reading is never going to happen.
  2. Anyway, reading doesn’t make you a better person, in fact excess study can reinforce evil behaviour, vide the very intelligent and well-read Lenin, Trotsky, and any number of revolutionaries. Pol Pot was educated at some of Cambodia’s most elite schools and worked as a teacher. Mao went to university, worked for a while as the university librarian, was an intellectual, wrote numerous books. Bookishness, by itself, means nothing.

Obviously book learning was nowhere near as poisonous in Horace’s day as it had become 2,000 years later, and curling up with a good book is still a fabulous thing to do, I do it all the time. But believing that reading makes you a better person or that if only more people read books, the world would be a better place are both absurd contentions. It would be lovely, but…

Leave your cares

Ultimately Horace has three messages:

  1. Stop worrying, be happy.
  2. Learn to be content with what you have.
  3. Enjoy the simple and good things in life while you can.

They’re summed up in Epistle 5 where he tells Manlius Torquatus to leave Rome. Leave the city. Stop worrying about politics and ambition and money. Forget about your wretched law case. Stop worrying about the ‘threat’ from the Parthians or the Cantabrians or whoever. Come down to my place in the country. I’ve got some good wine stored up and I’ve invited all our friends. We’re going to drink our fill and stay up late into the night laughing and joking. Who knows what the future holds. Stop worrying about it because you can’t do anything about it. This is what life is about. Wine and good company. As he tells Albius in Epistle 4: ‘Come and see me when you want a laugh.’

It is a hugely attractive and sane worldview.


Credit

Niall Rudd’s translation of the Epistles of Horace was published by Penguin books in 1979. All references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The odes of Horace

The gods watch over me; a heart
That’s reverent and the poets art
Please them.
(Horace Book 1, ode 17, in James Michie’s translation)

Come, learn this air
And sing it to delight me.
A good song can repair
The ravages inflicted by black care.
(Book 4, ode 11)

Horace’s works

Scholars broadly agree the following dates for Horace’s body of poetry:

Horace’s odes

Horace published 104 odes. They are divided into 4 books. He published the first 3 books of odes in 23 BC, containing 88 carmina or songs. He prided himself on the skill with which he adapted a wide variety of Greek metres to suit Latin, which is a more concise, pithy and sententious language than Greek.

I shall be renowned
As one who, poor-born, rose and pioneered
A way to fit Greek rhythms to our tongue… (3.30)

Horace aimed to create interest by varying the metre as much as possible, using over a dozen different verse formats. He was particularly indebted to metres associated with two Greek poets, Alcaeus and Sappho. Of the 104 odes, 37 are in Alcaics and 26 in Sapphics i.e. over half.

The precise definition of these forms is highly technical, so I refer you to the Wikipedia articles for Alcaics and Sapphics.

Despite all this skillful adaptation, the odes were not greeted with the acclaim Horace hoped for, which may explain why he seems to have abandoned ode writing and returned to the hexameters in which he had written the satires. Using this he now proceeded to write two books of epistles, ‘elegant and witty reflections on literature and morality,’ according to James Michie, which scholars think were published in 20 and 12 BC, respectively.

In 17 BC Augustus commissioned Horace to write an ode to be sung at the start of the Secular Games which he had reinstated as part of his policy of reviving traditional Roman festivals, customs and religious ceremonies. Soon afterwards, Augustus asked Horace to write odes on the military victories of his grandsons Drusus and Tiberius. Whether these commissions renewed an interest in the form or spurred him to assemble works he’d been writing in the interim we don’t know but in about 11 BC Horace published his fourth, final and shortest book of odes, containing just 15 poems.

What is an ode?

The following is adapted from the Wikipedia definition:

An ode (from Ancient Greek: ᾠδή, romanized: ōdḗ) is a sub-type of lyrical poem. An ode generally praises or glorifies an event or individual. Whereas a pure lyric uses impassioned and emotional language, and a satire uses harsh and demotic language, an ode – insofar as it is an address to a named individual, whether friend, emperor or god – generally has a dignified and sincere tone (although part of Horace’s practice was experimenting with and varying that tone).

Greek odes were originally poetic pieces performed with musical accompaniment. As time passed they gradually became known as personal lyrical compositions whether sung (with or without musical instruments) or merely recited (always with accompaniment). The primary instruments used were the aulos and the lyre. There are three typical forms of odes: the Pindaric, Horatian, and irregular.

  • The typical Pindaric ode was structured into three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. However, Horace’s odes do not follow this pattern.
  • Horatian odes do not have the three-part structure of Pindaric odes. They tend to be written as continuous blocks of verse, or, more often, are divided into four-line stanzas. It’s in this division into neat 4-line stanzas that they most imitate Greek lyricists such as Alcaeus and Anacreon.
  • Irregular odes use rhyme but not the three-part form of the Pindaric ode, nor the two- or four-line stanza of the Horatian ode.

An ode is short. I’ve recently read the Eclogues of Virgil which are fairly long and the Georgics which felt very long: Horace’s odes are the opposite. Some are as short as 8 lines, for example book 1 ode 30 and 4.10.

Subject matter

Horace was praised by critics for not just adapting the Greek forms of Alcaeus and Sappho to Latin, but filling them with details of the social life of Rome in the age of Augustus. He broadened the subject matter to cover a much wider range of subjects including love and jealousy, friendship and mourning, hymns to various gods, addresses to the all-powerful emperor Augustus, reflections on mortality, promotion of the golden mean and patriotic criticism of excess luxury and calls for society to return to the sterner, abstemious values of their Roman ancestors. There are several poems consisting entirely of eulogy to Augustus, describing him as a blessing to the nation, the only man who could bring peace and wishing him success in his military campaigns in the East. I enjoy John Dryden’s description of Horace as “a well-mannered court slave”. It doesn’t feel that when you read all his other poems, but when you read the Augustus ones, you immediately get what Dryden was saying. The word ‘poet’ is only one letter away from ‘pet’.

Underlying all the poems, and appearing them as either passing references or the central subject, are two ‘philosophical’ themes: the uncertainty and transience of life, and the need to observe moderation in all things, what Aristotle had defined as ‘the golden mean’ between extremes:

All who love safety make their prize
The golden mean and hate extremes… (2.10)

James Michie

Greek and Latin poets did not use rhyme to structure their poetry, they used the counting of syllables in each line according to a variety of patterns established by various ancient Greek poets and copied and adapted by the Romans.

English poets by contrast, since the Middle Ages, use beats or emphasis instead of counting syllables, and have used rhyme. Not exclusively, witness the reams of blank verse used in the dramas of Shakespeare and his contemporaries or in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but certainly in short lyrics and Horace’s odes are short lyrics. All 104 of Horace’s odes fit onto just 114 pages of English verse.

This explains the decision of James Michie, translator of the 1964 Penguin paperback edition of the complete odes of Horace, to cast them into predominantly rhymed verse.

The Penguin edition is interesting and/or useful because it features the Latin on one page, with Michie’s English translation on the page opposite. I did Latin GCSE and so, with a bit of effort, can correlate the English words to the original Latin phrases, though I don’t have anything like enough Latin to appreciate Horace’s style.

Book 1 is the longest, containing 38 odes. Book 2 has 20. Book 3 has 30, and the final, short one, book 4, has 15.

Themes

Direct address to gods

Any summary of Horace as the poet of friendship and conviviality has to take account that about one in six of the poems are straight religious hymns to named deities. Michie’s (admirably brief) introduction explains that the poems give no evidence about how sincerely Horace felt these religious sentiments. Probably he was religious in the same way most educated Romans of his time were, as Cicero was: viewing religion and the old festivals and ceremonies as important for the social cohesion of Rome.

In this view the correct ceremonies had to be carried out on the correct occasions to the correct deities in order to ensure the state’s security and future. Whether an individual ‘believed’ in the gods or not was irrelevant: correct action was all. The importance of internal, psychological ‘belief’ only became an issue with the slow arrival of Christianity well over a hundred years later. In the meantime, correct invocations of the gods could be seen as part of civic and patriotic duty, especially for Augustus, who in so many ways tried to restore the old ceremonies, rites and festivals of Republican Rome.

1.10 To Mercury

You are the one my poem sings –
The lyre’s inventor; he who brings
Heaven’s messages; the witty
Adventurer who takes delight
In slyly stowing out of sight
Anything he finds pretty.

1.21 To Diana

Virgin maidens, praise Diana.
Young men, sing a like hosanna

1.30 Prayer to Venus

O Queen of Cnidos, Paphos,
Come, leave, though dearly thine,
Cyprus; for here’s thick incense,
And Glycera calls divine
Venus to her new shrine.

1.31 Prayer to Apollo

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine request?

Incidentally, note the slight complexity of this long sentence. It took me a few readings to realise it is:

What boon, Apollo, what does the poet (as
He pours the new wine out of the bowl at your
New shrine) request?

We’ll come back to this issue, the sometimes grammatically challenging nature of Michie’s translation.

1.35 Hymn to Fortuna

O goddess ruling over favoured Antium,
With power to raise our perishable bodies
From low degree or turn
The pomp of triumph into funeral,

Thee the poor farmer with his worried prayer
Propitiates…

To women

The poems of heterosexual men are often about difficulties with relationships. Horace has poems directly addressing women, lovers, more often ex-lovers; or addressing women who are messing with his friends’ emotions; or poems to male friends offering advice about their relationships with women. I can see how a feminist critic might object to Horace’s basic stance and to much of the detail of what he says. For me the main effect is to create a sense of the extended social circle the poet inhabits.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key. (2.1)

Horace plays at being jealous, while never achieving the emotional intensity of Catullus. And this is because his ‘love’ poems, such as 1.13, often turn out to be really promoting his philosophy of life, namely moderation in all things, wine, women, politics and poetry.

1.13 To Lydia

Happy are they alone whom affections hold
Inseparable united; those who stay
Friends without quarrels, and who cannot be torn away
From each other’s arms until their dying day.

1.16 is addressed to an unnamed women who he has, apparently, infuriated by writing a witty lampoon about her. Horace apologises unreservedly for upsetting her. But the poem is really about the emotion of anger, how ruinous it is for individuals and nations, how it must be avoided at all costs. Moments like this accumulate to make you suspect that even Horace’s most ‘passionate’ poems are clever artifice. It is hard to imagine the poet who promoted moderation and sensible restraint at every opportunity ever losing his head over anyone, no matter how he poses.

1.19 The Poet’s Love for Glycera

The Mother of the Loves, unkindly
Goddess, and Semele’s son combine
With wild abandon to remind me
That though I had thought desire
Dead, it still burns. The fire

Is Glycera.

1.23 To Chloe

This is such fun I’ll quote it in its entirety. Whether it reflects any real situation, I doubt. It feels more like a witty exercise, in the manner of Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. To understand it you need to realise the first line means ‘Chloe, why won’t you venture near ME’, but Michie cannot quite say that in order to preserve his tight rhyme scheme. And to know that ‘dam’ is an archaic poetic word for ‘mother’. So that the majority of the poem is treating this young woman, Chloe, as if she is as timorous and scared as Bambi.

Chloe, you will not venture near,
Just like a lost young mountain deer
Seeking her frantic dam; for her each
Gust in the trees is a needless fear.

Whether the spring-announcing breeze
Shudders the light leaves or she sees
The brambles twitched by a green lizard,
Panic sets racing her heart and knees.

Am I a fierce Gaetulian
Lion or some tiger with a plan
To seize and maul you? Come, now, leave your
Mother: you’re ready to know a man.

So, in fact, this middle-aged man is preparing ‘to seize and maul’ this timorous young woman. If we attribute the speaking voice to 40-something Horace, it is inappropriate. But if it is a song to be sung by any young man, less so.

Here he is gently mocking a friend (in fact a fellow poet, Tibullus) because his girlfriend’s dumped him:

Tibullus, give up this extravagant grieving
For a sweetheart turned sour. ‘Why was she deceiving?’
You ask, and then whimper long elegies on
The theme of the older man being outshone… (1.33)

In praise of booze

Horace is surprisingly insistent on the blessings of wine and the vine, with a number of poems recommending it as the appropriate accompaniment to all sorts of situations, from cheering up a doleful lover to consoling a parent for the loss of a child, celebrating an old friend having his citizenship restored or safely returned from a long journey (1.36), or just a way to forget sorrows and anxieties and be sociable (2.11). In ancient Rome wine was never drunk neat, but always diluted with water:

Come, boy, look sharp. Let the healths rip!
To midnight! The new moon! The augurship
Of our Murena! Mix the bowls – diluted
With three or nine parts wine: tastes must be suited.
The poet, who loves the Muses’ number, nine,
Inspired, demands that measure of pure wine. (3.19)

Above all wine was shared. In ancient Rome wine was drunk in social situations, among friends and with slaves to open the bottles and mix them correctly. In Horace’s day, men who got together to hold a convivial evening elected one of their number ‘president’ by rolling dice to see who got the highest score, and the president then selected which wines were to be drunk, in which order, to command the slaves, and institute topics of conversation or games.

Who’ll win the right to be
Lord of the revelry
By dicing highest? (2.7)

In other words, ‘wine’ symbolises not just a drink but a much deeper concept of sociability and conviviality. And importantly, this sociability was the cure for anxiety, depression and grief. So ‘wine’ isn’t at all about seeking intoxication or oblivion; quite the opposite: ‘wine’ symbolises the moderation and sociable common sense which Horace is always promoting. Even when he appears to be promoting booze, it’s really this idea he’s promoting.

Let Damalis, the girl we crown
Champion drinker, be put down
By Bassus at the game of sinking
A whole cup without breath or blinking. (1.36)

And, as with almost all aspects of Roman life, there was a ‘religious’ aspect in the sense that the Romans thanked the gods for all their blessings (just as they attributed all disasters to the malign influence of Fortune). It was ‘fitting’ to thank the gods, and often this was done with ‘libations’ i.e. pouring part of each bottle of wine onto the ground as an offering to the gods, as thanks for blessings received, as hope for blessings continued.

Pay Jove his feast, then. In my laurel’s shade
Stretch out the bones that long campaigns have made
Weary. Your wine’s been waiting
For years: no hesitating! (2.7)

In the following extract the ‘fast-greying tops’ means the greying heads of hair of Horace and his friend, Quinctilius, who he’s trying to persuade to stop being so anxious about life.

Futurity is infinite:
Why tax the brain with plans for it?
Better by this tall plane or pine
To sprawl and while we may, drink wine
And grace with Syrian balsam drops
And roses these fast-greying tops.
Bacchus shoos off the wolves of worry. (2.11)

1.11 carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

Horace’s attitude overlaps with the modern notion of mindfulness. According to this website, ‘Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. As he tells Maecenas:

Be a plain citizen for once – you fret
Too much about the people’s sufferings.
Relax. Take what the hour gives, gladly. Let
Others attend the graver side of things. (3.8)

The shame of recent Roman history i.e. the civil wars

This attitude is not bourgeois complacency (‘Hey slave, bring us more booze!’). Well, OK, it is – but it is given more bite by the historical background. Rome had just emerged from about 13 years of civil war (Antony and Octavian against Caesar’s assassins) or a very uneasy peace leading to another civil war (Octavian against Antony). Unlike most bourgeois Horace had led a legion in a major battle (Philippi), seen men hacked to pieces around him, and seen his cause completely crushed. What good had the assassination of Julius Caesar and then Brutus and Cassius’s war against Octavian and Antony achieved? Nothing. Absolutely nothing except tens of thousands of Roman dead and devastation of entire provinces.

And he refers to it repeatedly, the utter pointlessness and futility of war.

Alas, the shameful past – our scars, our crimes, our
Fratricides! This hardened generation
Has winced at nothing, left
No horror unexplored… (1.35)

Our fields are rich with Roman
Dead and not one lacks graves to speak against our
Impious battles. Even
Parthia can hear the ruin of the West. (2.1)

So Horace’s is not the complacent attitude of a pampered aristocrat who has never known trouble, but of a self-made man who has seen a whole lot of trouble and therefore knows the true value of peace. Although he wears it lightly, it is a hard-won philosophy. And he refers to it, repeatedly.

Greek mythology

Horace is so identified in my mind with Rome, with Augustus, with the golden age of Roman literature, that it comes as a shock to see just how much of the subject matter is Greek. Take 1.15 which is a dramatic address to Paris as he abducts Helen by the sea goddess Nereus, foreseeing the long siege and destruction of Troy. 2.4 is about inappropriate love but stuffed with examples from Troy. But all of the poems contain references to Greek mythology and require a good working knowledge of its complex family trees: just who is son of Latona, who is Semele’s son? Who are:

Yet how could mighty Mimas or Typhoeus
Or Rhoetus or Porphyrion for all hid
Colossal rage or fierce
Enceladus who tore up trees for darts

Succeed? (3.4)

Or take the long poem 3.27 which contains a rather moving soliloquy by the maid Europa who, in a fit of madness, let herself be raped by a bull, a sophisticated poem full of unexpected compassion for the miserable young woman who is, of course, Jupiter in disguise. The poem contains a twist in the tail, for Venus has been standing by all through the girl’s frantic speech, enjoying the scene with that detached cruelty typical of the gods and only at the end reveals the bull in question was none other than Jupiter in disguise, hence explaining the girl’s powerlessness to resist.

False modesty

That said, there is another repeated trope which, as it were, modifies the Hellenic influence and this is Horace’s stock protestations that his muse and lyre and skill aren’t up to epic or serious verse, are instead designed for more homely, lowly subject matter. He turns this into a joke on a couple of occasions when he’s getting carried away invoking the Mighty Warriors of the Trojan War and suddenly realises what he’s doing, back pedals and dials it down.

Where are you rambling, Muse? This theme’s beyond your
Light-hearted lyre. End now. Absurd presumption
To tell tales of the gods
And mar high matters with your reedy voice! (3.3)

Maybe 1.6 is the best expression of this repeated trope of inadequacy. To understand it you need to know that Varius is a rival Roman poet, famous for his high-flown tragedies, and that the poem is directly addressed to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the Roman general who Augustus relied on to win his battles.

That eagle of Homeric wing,
Varius, will in due course sing
Your courage and your conquests, every deed
Of daring that our forces,
Riding on ships or horses
Accomplish with Agrippa in the lead.

But I’m not strong enough to try
Such epic flights. For themes as high
As iron Achilles in his savage pique,
Crafty Ulysses homing
After long ocean-roaming,
Or Pelops’ house of blood, my wings feel weak.

And both my modesty and my Muse,
Who tunes her lyre to peace, refuse
To let her tarnish in the laureate’s part
Our glorious Augustus’
Or your own battle-lustres
With my imperfect and unpolished art…

Feasts, and the war where girls’ trimmed nails
Scratch fiercely at besieging males –
These are the subjects that appeal to me,
Flippant, as is my fashion,
Whether the flame of passion
Has scorched me or has left me fancy-free.

As usual, the translation is fluent and clever, but I stumbled over the grammar of ‘Augustus” and it took me a few goes to realise he’s saying ‘my muse refuses to tarnish either Augustus’s, or your, battle-lustres’. Maybe you got it first time, but at quite a few places, Michie’s ingenuity in rhyming results in phrases which made me stumble. Anyway, here is Horace again, protesting the modesty of his poetic aims and means:

The history of the long Numantian war;
Iron Hannibal; the sea incarnadined
Off Sicily with Carthaginian gore;
Wild Lapiths fighting blind-

Drunk Centaurs; or the Giants who made the bright
Halls of old Saturn reel till Hercules
Tame them – you’d find my gentle lyre too slight
An instrument for these

Magnificent themes, Maecenas… (2.12)

Friends

The majority of the poems address a named individual, buttonholing and badgering them, and the number of these addressed poems, added to the variety of subject matter, creates a sense of great sociability, of a buzzing circle of friends. Horace comes over as a very sociable man with a word of advice for all his many friends, something which really struck me in the run of poems at the start of book 2:

Sallustius Crispus, you’re no friend of metal
Unless it’s made to gleam with healthy motion… (2.2)

Maintain and unmoved poise in adversity;
Likewise in luck, one free of extravagant
Joy. Bear in mind my admonition,
Dellius… (2.3)

Dear Phocian Xanthias, don’t feel ashamed
Of loving a servant… (2.4)

Septimius, my beloved friend,
Who’d go with me to the world’s end… (2.6)

Pompeius, chief of all my friends, with whom
I often ventured to the edge of doom
When Brutus led our line… (2.7)

Barine, if for perjured truth
Some punishment had ever hurt you –
One blemished nail or blackened tooth –
I might believe this show of virtue… (2.7)

The clouds disgorge a flood
Of rain; fields are churned mud;
The Caspian seas
Are persecuted by the pouncing blasts;
But, Valgius, my friend, no weather lasts
For ever… (2.9)

Licinius, to live wisely shun
The deep sea; on the other hand,
Straining to dodge the storm don’t run
Too close in to the jagged land… (2.10)

‘Is warlike Spain hatching a plot?’
You ask me anxiously. ‘And what
Of Scythia?’ My dear Quinctius
There’s a whole ocean guarding us.
Stop fretting… (2.11)

Male friends he addresses poems to include: Maecenas his patron and ‘inseperable friend’ (2.17), Virgil, Sestius, Plancus, Thaliarchus, Leuconoe, Tyndaris, Aristius Fuscus, Megilla of Opus, Iccius, Tibullus, Plotius Numida, Asinius Pollio, Sallustius Crispus, Quintus Dellius, Xanthias Phoceus, Septimius, Pompeius Varus, C. Valgius Rufus, Lucius Licinius Murena, Quinctius Hirpinus, Postumus, Aelius Lama, Telephus, Phidyle, Ligurinus, Julus, Torquatus, Caius Marcius Censorinus and Lollius.

The women he addresses include: Pyrrha, Lydia (who appears in 4 poems 1.8, 1.13, 1.25, 3.9), the unnamed lady of 1.16, Glycera (twice 1.19, 1.30, 1.33), Chloe, Barine, Asterie, Lyce, Chloris, Galatea and Phyllis.

All go to create the sense of a thriving active social life, an extended circle of friends and acquaintances which is very…urbane. Civilised, indulgent, luxurious:

Boy, fetch me wreaths, bring perfume, pour
Wine from a jar that can recall
Memories of the Marsian war… (3.14)

The predominant tone is of friendship and fondness and frank advice:

Then go, my Galatea, and, wherever
You choose, live happily… (3.27)

But the reader is left to wonder whether any of these people (apart from Maecenas and Virgil, and maybe one or two others) ever actually existed, or whether they are characters in the play of his imaginarium.

The simple life

Again and again Horace contrasts the anxious life of high officials in Rome with the simplicity of life on his farm out in the country, and the even simpler pleasures of life the peasants who live on it. The theme is elaborated at greatest length in one of the longest poems, 3.29, where Horace invites careworn Maecenas to come and stay on his farm, yet another excuse to repeat his injunction to Live in the Present, for nobody knows what the future holds.

Call him happy
And master of his own soul who every evening
Can say, ‘Today I have lived…’

Homosexuality

As long as a Roman citizen of the upper class married, sired male children and performed his religious and family duties, the details of his sexuality weren’t important, or might have prompted waspish gossip, but weren’t illegal. Homosexuality isn’t as prominent in Horace’s poetry as it is in Virgil’s, but it’s here as part of his urbane mockery of his own love life and one poem in particular, 4.1, is a passionate and surprisingly moving poem of unrequited love for a youth named Ligurinus.

Why then,
My Ligurinus, why
Should the reluctant-flowing tears surprise these dry
Cheeks, and my fluent tongue
Stumble in unbecoming silences among
Syllable? In dreams at night
I hold you in my arms, or toil behind your flight
Across the Martian Field,
Or chase through yielding waves the boy who will not yield.

This Ligurinus is (apparently) a pre-pubescent boy because another entire poem, 4.10, is devoted to him, pointing out that one day soon he’ll sprout a beard, his peaches and cream complexion will roughen, and he’ll no longer be the hairless beauty he is now.

It is very striking indeed that earlier in book 4 Horace writes a series of poems lamenting the decline and fall in Roman social standards, singling out greed and luxury, and also adultery which, of course, makes it difficult to determine the real father of a child – and yet this flagrantly homosexual and, possibly, if the boy is under 16 which seems pretty certain, pederastic poem, passes without comment and presents no obstacle to the poet’s earlier harsh moralising.

Sucking up to Augustus

As is fitting, the first poem in book 1 addresses his patron (and friend) Augustus’s minister for the arts, Maecenas. And the second poem addresses the boss man himself, Augustus, unquestioned supreme ruler of Rome and its empire, who is subsequently addressed at regular intervals throughout the series of poems. Here is Horace, addressing Jupiter king of the gods but describing Augustus (referred to here by the name of his adoptive great-uncle, Caesar, by which he was widely known, before the title ‘Augustus’ was bestowed in 27 BC):

Thou son of Saturn, father and protector
Of humankind, to thee Fate has entrusted
Care of great Caesar; govern, then, while Caesar
Holds the lieutenancy.

He, whether leading in entitled triumph
The Parthians now darkening Rome’s horizon,
The Indian or the Chinese peoples huddled
Close to the rising sun,

Shall, as thy right hand, deal the broad earth justice. (1.12)

Here Horace is asking the fickle goddess Fortune to protect Augustus and the Roman armies engaged in battle:

Guard Caesar bound for Britain at the world’s end,
Guard our young swarm of warriors on the wing now
To spread the fear of Rome
Into Arabia and the Red Sea coasts. (1.35)

1.37 includes a brief description of Octavian’s historic victory over the fleets of Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC.

Thunder in heaven confirms our faith – Jove rules there;
But here on earth Augustus shall be hailed as
God also, when he makes
New subjects of the Briton and the dour

Parthian. (3.5)

Incidentally, I don’t know why there are so many references to conquering Britain. In his long reign Augustus never sent armies to invade Britain, that was left to his great-nephew, the emperor Claudius, in 43 AD.

Book 4 contains noticeably more praise of Augustus (‘O shield of Italy and her imperial metropolis’) than the previous books: was it clearer than ever that the new regime was here to stay? Had Horace got closer to Augustus? Was it a shrewd political move to butter up the big man?

We know that Horace had been personally commissioned to write the two odes in praise of Drusus (4.4) and Tiberius (4.14) which overflow with slavish praise of their stepfather, Augustus, and the book includes a poem calling on Apollo to help him write the Centennial Hymn which Augustus commissioned (4.6). So this book contains more lickspittle emperor-worship than the previous 3 books combined.

How shall a zealous parliament or people
With due emolument and ample honours
Immortalise thy name
By inscription and commemorative page,

Augustus, O pre-eminent of princes
Wherever sunlight makes inhabitable
The earth? (4.14)

And the final ode in the entire series, 4.15, is another extended hymn of praise to Augustus’s peerless achievements.

Book 4

In his edition of Horace’s satires, Professor Nial Rudd points out that book 4, published about 12 years after books 1 to 3, has a definite autumnal feeling. Virgil is dead (19 BC) and Horace’s patron, Maecenas, no longer plays the central role he had done a decade earlier. The odes to Tiberius and Drusus highlight that a new young generation is coming up, and Horace refers to his own grey hair and age. Had Maecenas previously formed a buffer between him and the emperor, and, with his declining influence, has the emperor become more demanding of direct praise?

Famous phrases

It’s difficult for a non-Latinist to really be sure of but all the scholars and translators assure us that Horace had a way with a phrase and that this meant he coined numerous quotations used by later generations.

Probably the three most famous are ‘carpe diem’ and ‘nunc est bibendum’ and ‘dulce et decorum est’, from 1.11, 1.37 and 3.2, respectively. Here’s the source Latin and Michie’s translations of each instance:

Carmen 1.11 (complete)

Tu ne quaesieris (scire nefas) quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. Ut melius quicquid erit pati!
Seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare 5
Tyrrhenum, sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. Dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Don’t ask (we may not know), Leuconie,
What the gods plan for you and me.
Leave the Chaldees to parse
The sentence of the stars.

Better to bear the outcome, good or bad,
Whether Jove purposes to add
Fresh winters to the past
Or to make this the last

Which now tires out the Tuscan sea and mocks
Its strength with barricades of rocks.
Be wise, strain clear the wine
And prune the rambling vine

Of expectation. Life’s short. Even while
We talk, Time, hateful, runs a mile.
Don’t trust tomorrow’s bough
For fruit. Pluck this, here, now.

Carmen 1.37 (opening stanza)

Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero
pulsanda tellus, nunc Saliaribus
ornare pulvinar deorum
tempus erat dapibus, sodales…

Today is the day to drink and dance on. Dance, then,
Merrily, friends, till the earth shakes. Now let us
Rival the priests of Mars
With feasts to deck the couches of the gods…

3.2 comes from the series of 6 poems which open book 3, which are longer than usual and adopt quite a strict scolding tone, instructing Romans of his day to abandon luxury and return to the noble warrior values of their ancestors. It needs to be read in that context:

Carmen 3.2 (Opening only)

Angustam amice pauperiem pati
robustus acri militia puer
condiscat et Parthos ferocis
vexet eques metuendus hasta

vitamque sub divo et trepidis agat
in rebus. Illum ex moenibus hosticis
matrona bellantis tyranni
prospiciens et adulta virgo

suspiret, eheu, ne rudis agminum
sponsus lacessat regius asperum
tactu leonem, quem cruenta
per medias rapit ira caedes.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo…

Disciplined in the school of hard campaigning,
Let the young Roman study how to bear
Rigorous difficulties without complaining,
And camp with danger in the open air,

And with his horse and lance become the scourge of
Wild Parthians. From the ramparts of the town
Of the warring king, the princess on the verge of
Womanhood with her mother shall look down

And sigh, ‘Ah, royal lover, still a stranger
To battle, do not recklessly excite
That lion, savage to touch, whom murderous anger
Drives headlong through the thickest of the fight.’

The glorious and the decent way of dying
Is for one’s country. Run, and death will seize
You no less surely. The young coward, flying,
Gets his quietus in his back and knees…

Two points. One, quite obviously ancient Rome was an extremely militarised society with all its politicians expected to have served in the army or, as consuls, be sent off in command of armies in umpteen foreign campaigns. Two, with this in mind it’s worth pointing out that the poem goes on to contrast the glory won by death in battle with the vulgar world of democratic politics and elections.

Unconscious of mere loss of votes and shining
With honours that the mob’s breath cannot dim,
True worth is not found raising or resigning
The fasces at the wind of popular whim…

The fasces being the bundle of wooden rods, sometimes bound around an axe with its blade emerging, which was carried by the lictors who accompanied a consul everywhere during his term of office and which symbolised a magistrate’s power and jurisdiction.

Summary

Michie is very proficient indeed at rhyming. More than that, he enjoys showing off his skill:

Boys, give Tempe praise meanwhile and
Delos, the god’s birthday island. (1.21)

A cheap hag haunting alley places
On moonless nights when the wind from Thrace is
Rising and raging… (1.25)

When the brigade of Giants
In impious defiance… (2.19)

But I think the cumulative effect of so much dazzling ingenuity is that sometimes  the poems reek more of cleverness for its own sake than the kind of dignified tone which the Latinists describe as having. At times the cleverness of his rhyming overshadows the sense.

Boy, I detest the Persian style
Of elaboration. Garlands bore me
Laced up with lime-bark. Don’t run a mile
To find the last rose of summer for me. (1.38)

Throughout the book, in pretty much every poem, although I could read the words, I struggled to understand what the poem was about. I had to read most of them 2 or 3 times to understand what was going on. Half way through, I stumbled upon the one-sentence summaries of each ode given on the Wikipedia page about the Odes. This was a lifesaver, a game changer. From that point on, I read the one-sentence summary of each poem to find out who it was addressed to and what it was about – and so was freed to enjoy how it was constructed, and the slickness of Michie’s translations.

Bless this life

Above all, be happy. Life is short. Count each day as a blessing.

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully… (1.9)

You can see why all the translators, scholars and commentators on Horace describe him as a friendly, reassuring presence. A poet to take down off your shelves and read whenever you need to feel sensible and grounded.


Related links

Roman reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspects of Horace’s satire

Satire as argument

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

Dramatised

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

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

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

Names

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

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

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

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

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

The origin of satire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satire’s limitations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of Horace’s satires

Book 1

Satire 1 (121 lines)

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

Satire 2 (134 lines)

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

Satire 3 (142 lines)

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

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

Therefore:

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

Satire 4 (143 lines)

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

Satire 5 (104 lines)

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

Satire 6 (131 lines)

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

Satire 7 (35 lines)

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

Satire 8 (50 lines)

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

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

The Latin for witch was saga.

Satire 9 (78 lines)

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

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

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

Satire 10 (92 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 2

Satire 1 (86 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

Satire 2 (136 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

Satire 3 (326 lines)

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

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

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

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

Satire 4 (95 lines)

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

Satire 5 (110 lines)

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

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

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

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

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

Satire 6 (117 lines)

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

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

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

Satire 7 (118 lines)

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

Satire 8 (95 lines)

Another dialogue which goes straight into an ongoing conversation, as the poet tells his friend Fundanius that he knows he was at a dinner party given by the arriviste, Nasidienus Rufus, for Maecenas and some others last night: what was it like?

Fundanius gives a wry description of the over-fussy meal, with its multiple courses of ridiculous luxury, plus an absurd over-selection of wines. Two of the guests decide to wind the host up by drinking vast mugs full of the very expensive wine and the pretentious fish dish has only just been served when the awning, presumably over the whole party, collapsed, causing a great cloud of black pepper. Nobody is harmed, the awning is fixed. The host wants to abandon it but Nomentanus persuaded their host to continue and the meal proceeds

The guests bend to each others’ ears and whisper gossip and criticism. I feel sorry for Nasidienus with such ungrateful badly-mannered guests. Then the extravagant culinary pièces-de-resistance are brought in, namely crane, goose liver and hare’s legs – but the narrator ends the poem by saying the guests got their own back on the arriviste by leaving without touching a thing. Pretty mean but vivid indication of the snobbery which was central to life in Rome’s educated classes.

Summary

I’m very glad I made the effort to track down and buy this Rudd edition. The satires are astonishingly personable and accessible, even if some patches are (to me) incomprehensible, on either a first or second reading.


Credit

Niall Rudd’s translation of the satires of Horace and Persius was published by Penguin books in 1973. A revised edition with Horace’s epistles was published in 1979. All references are to the 2005 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch (1945)

The silver lamp next to the couch swung gently to and fro on its long silver chain and outside the window the emanation of the city, ebbing and flowing above the roofs, was dissolved into purple, from purple-violet into dark blue and black, and then into the enigmatic and fluctuant.
(The Death of Virgil, page 47)

The Sleepwalkers

A few years ago I read and reviewed The Sleepwalkers (1931), the masterpiece of Modernist German novelist Hermann Broch (1886 to 1951). The title in fact refers to a trilogy of novels each of which focuses on a troubled individual from successive generations of German society, the novels being titled: The Romantic (1888), The Anarchist (1903) and The Realist (1918).

I reviewed each novel individually but also subjected the magniloquent claims often made about the trilogy to fierce criticism, using evidence from Walter Laqueur’s blistering attack on the failure of intellectuals in the Weimar Republic, Weimar: A Cultural History 1918 to 1933 by Walter Laqueur (1974). I argued that calling the trilogy things like ‘a panoramic overview of German society and history’ were wrong in fact and misleading in implication. The three novels are more eccentric and particular than such generalisations. But then lots of critics make sweeping claims about books they haven’t read.

Broch flees Austria

In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria in a move known as the Anschluss. Within days Broch was arrested by Nazi authorities for possession of a Socialist pamphlet and thrown into a concentration camp. A campaign by western writers managed to get him freed and he immediately emigrated to Britain, then moved on to America where he settled in 1939.

Before this happened, in 1937, in Austria, Broch had delivered a radio lecture about Virgil. Over the following years he enormously expanded and elaborated this text to become his other great masterpiece, Der Tod des Vergil or The Death of Virgil. This big novel was first published in June 1945 in both the original German and English translation simultaneously. Symbolically, it appeared in the month after the Second World War in Europe finally came to an end, with the complete destruction of Nazi Germany. A crushing end to all illusions about Germany politics, history and culture.

Schematics

Broch’s imagination is schematic: the three novels which make up The Sleepwalkers trilogy each centre on a character who a) come from successive generations and are in some sense emblematic of them; and who b) are each of a distinct and categorisable type. The same urge to structure the material is immediately evident in The Death, which is divided into four equal parts, portentously titled:

  • Water – The Arrival
  • Fire – The Descent
  • Earth – The Expectation
  • Air – The Homecoming

Despite these universal-sounding categories the ‘action’ of novel in fact only ‘describes’ the last 18 hours of the Roman poet Virgil’s life in the port of southern Italian port of Brundisium. The year is 19 BC. Virgil had travelled to Greece, according to this novel hoping to a) escape the fevers of Rome b) finally complete the long poem which has been dogging him, and c) be free to pursue his first love, philosophy.

But he was foiled in this ambition when the princeps or proto-emperor, Augustus, returning from the East, stopped off in Athens, called on Virgil and invited/ordered him to accompany him back to Italy. Hence Virgil’s regret at the start of the novel at giving in to Augustus’s insistence and abandoning his hopes of finally being rid or ‘art and poetry’ and devoting his life to meditation and study.

Anyway, on this return journey Augustus, Virgil and others of the party fell ill. Augustus fully recovered, but the novel opens with Virgil lying in a hammock that’s been rigged up in one of the ships, feeling very unwell indeed. Starting from this moment the long novel portrays the last 18 hours of his life.

The central theme or subject of the novel is Virgil’s wish to burn the manuscript of his epic poem, The Aeneid, a wish which is decisively thwarted by his master and ‘friend’, Augustus.

Modernist?

Blurbs about the novel claims it uses well-established modernist techniques, mixing poetry and prose with different styles and registers to convey the consciousness of a sick man drifting in and out of reality and hallucination but I didn’t find this to really be the case.

When I think of modernism I think of the combination of fragmented interiority matched by collage used in The Waste Land, or the highly collaged text of Berlin Alexanderplatz or the tremendous stylistic variety of Ulysses. There’s none of that here: the text is fluent and continuous. There’s no collage effect, no newspaper headlines or scraps of popular song or advertising jingles. Instead the text is continuous and smooth and highly poetic in style.

Modernism is also usually associated with the accelerated rhythms of the western city, as in the examples above or in John dos Passos’s huge novel, USA (1930 to 1936). Quite obviously a novel set nearly 2,000 years, before anything like the modern city had been imagined, could not use, quote or riff off any aspects of the twentieth century urban experience. So in that respect, also, the novel is not modernist.

What is modernist about it, maybe, is a secondary characteristic, which may sound trivial but is the inordinate length of Broch’s sentences. These can be huge and very often contain multiple clauses designed to convey the simultaneous perception of external sense impressions with bursts of interior thought, memory, opinion and so on – all captured in one sentence.

The Jean Starr Untermeyer translation

The 1945 translation into English was done by Jean Starr Untermeyer. I have owned the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition of this translation (with an introduction by Bernard Levin) since the mid-1980s and never got round to reading it till now. This edition contains a longer-than-usual 4-page translator’s note by Jean Starr Untermeyer who, we learn, devoted five years of her life to translating this novel. We also realise, within a few sentences, that her English is non-standard i.e. a bit quirky and idiomatic. On the whole I think that is a good thing because it continually reminds you of the novel’s non-English nature.

Untermeyer makes a number of good points about the difficulty of translating German into English. An obvious one is German’s tendency to create new words by combining individual nouns into new compound nouns. A second aspect of German style is that it can often have a concrete practical meaning but also a ghostly metaphysical implication. This doesn’t happen in English which has traditionally been a much more pragmatic down-to-earth language.

Long sentences

The biggest issue, though, is sentence length. Good German prose style has for centuries allowed of long sentences which build up a succession of subordinate clauses before being rounded out or capped by a final main verb.

English is the extreme opposite. English prefers short sentences. Hemingway stands as the patron saint of the prose style taught in all creative courses for the past 40 years which recommends the dropping of subordinate clauses, the striking out of all unnecessary adjectives, the injunction to keep sentences short and unadorned, a process Untermeyer colourfully refers to as ‘exfoliation’.

As Untermeyer points out, Henry James’s use of long, multi-clause sentences was very much against the general trend of 20th century English prose (as was the extravagant prose style developed by William Faulkner a generation or so later, contrary to the Hemingway Imperative).

Untermeyer says that English prose works by placing its thoughts in sequence and separately expressed in short, clear sentences; German prose more often works by seeking to express multiple levels of meaning ‘at one stroke’ i.e. in each sentence.

But Broch not only came from this very different tradition of conceiving and writing prose, but he pushed that tradition to extremes. Untermeyer reckons some of the sentences in the middle of the book might be the longest sentences ever written in literature. (I’m not so sure. Samuel Beckett wrote some very long sentences in Malone Dies and The Unnameable.)

Thought-groups

Broch’s sentences are long, very long, but they don’t have the deliberately confusing repetitiveness, the incantatory repetitiveness of Beckett. They are clearly trying to capture something and Untermeyer explains in her note that the aim can be summed up by one maxim: ‘one thought – one moment – one sentence’.

Each sentence is trying to capture what she calls one ‘thought-group’, the flickering and often disparate impressions and sensations which occur to all of us, all the time, continually, in each changing second of perception and thought. The difference between you and me and Hermann Broch is that Broch spent a lifetime trying to develop a prose style which adequately captures the complexity of each fleeting moment of consciousness.

In English we do have a tradition of hazy impressionistic prose maybe best represented by the shimmering surfaces of Walter Pater’s aesthetic novel, Marius the Epicurean (also about ancient Rome). And a related tradition of deliberate over-writing in order to create an indulgently sensual effect, maybe associated with Oscar Wilde and sometimes dismissively called ‘purple prose’.

Broch’s intention is different from both of those because he is trying to be precise. His sentences are so very long only because he is trying to capture everything that his subject felt in that moment. The superficial comparison in English is with James Joyce’s Ulysses but Joyce wove an intricate web of symbolic and sound associations, at the same time as he steadily dismantled the English language, in order to make his text approximate the shimmering a-logical process of consciousness. Broch goes nowhere near that far. His sentences may be epic in length, but they are always made up of discrete clauses each of which is perfectly practical and logical and understandable in its own right.

And from Pater to Joyce, the English style of long sentences has tended to choose sensual and lugubrious subject matter, from the lilies and roses of Wilde’s prose to the astonishing sensuality of Ulysses. Broch, by contrast, uses his long sentences to cover a much wider range of subject matter, much of it modern, unpleasant and absolutely not soft and sensual.

In the warehouse district

One example will go a long way to demonstrating what I’m describing. Early in the novel the little fleet carrying the emperor and Virgil docks at Brundisium. Virgil is then carried off the ship and carried in a litter by slaves to the emperor’s mansion in the city, led by a young man with a torch who leads them among the warehouses of Brundisium. Here is one sentence from the passage describing this journey.

Again the odours changed; one could smell the whole produce of the country, one could smell the huge masses of comestibles that were stored here, stored for barter within the empire but destined, either here or there after much buying and selling, to be slagged through these human bodies and their serpentine intestines, one could smell the dry sweetness of the grain, stacks of which reared up in front of the darkened silos waiting to be shoveled within, one could smell the dusty dryness of the corn-sacks, the barley-sacks, the wheat-sacks, the spelt-sacks, one could smell the sourish mellowness of the oil-tuns, the oil-jugs, the oil-casks and also the biting acridity of the wine stores that stretched along the docks one could smell the carpenter shops, the mass of oak timber, the wood of which never dies, piled somewhere in the darkness, one could smell its bark no less than the pliant resistance of its marrow, one could smell the hewn blocks in which the axe still clove, as it was left behind by the workman at the end of his labour, and besides the smell of the new well-planed deck-boards, the shavings and sawdust one could smell the weariness of the battered, greenish-white slimy mouldering barnacled old ship lumber that waited in great heaps to be burned. (Pages 24 to 25)

What does this excerpt tell us? It demonstrates both a) Broch’s ability to handle a long sentence with multiple clauses and b) the complete absence of modernist tricks such as collage, quotation etc.

And there is none of the shimmering incoherence of, say, Virginia Woolf’s internal monologues. Instead it is quite clear and comprehensible and even logical. What stands out is the repetition, and the way it’s really more like a list than a wandering thought.

I’ve mentioned that Broch is a systematic thinker and many of these long sentences don’t really meander, they work through all the aspects of a thought or, in Untermeyer’s phrase, thought-group. We are in the warehouse district, a place saturated in the stinks of the goods stored there. And so Broch enumerates them, not in the English style, in a series of short, discrete sentences, but in one super-sentence which tries to capture the totality of the sense impression all together, as it were, capturing one moment of super-saturated perception.

Pigs and slaves

Far from the shimmering impressionism of the English tradition, The Death of Virgil is also capable of being quite hard, almost brutal. Thus the opening passages contain quite stunning descriptions of being on deck of an ancient Roman galley on a very calm sea as it is rowed at twilight into the harbour of Brundisium just as a thousand lamps are lit in the town and reflected like stars on the black water. So far, so aesthetic.

But Broch mingles this soft stuff with over a page harshly criticising the aristocratic guests on the ship whose only interest on the entire journey has been stuffing their faces like pigs. At these moments the narrative is more like Breughel than Baudelaire.

He also devotes a page to a nauseated imagining of the life of the galley slaves, chained below decks, condemned to eternal toil, barely human, a frank admission of the slave society the entire narrative is set among. The theme is repeated a bit later as Virgil watches the slaves carrying goods from the ship once it’s docked and being casually whipped by their bored overseers.

And there’s another theme as well. When the imperial ship docks, it is greeted by roars of approval from the crowd who have gathered to greet their emperor. Suddenly Broch switches to a more socio-political mode, meditating on the terrible evil to be found in the crowds which seek to suppress their individual isolation by excessive adulation of The One – an obvious critique of Nazism.

From far off came the raging, the raging noise of the crowd frantic to see, the raging uproar of the feast, the seething of sheer creatureliness, hellish, stolid, inevitable, tempting, lewd and irresistible, clamorous and yet satiated, blind and staring, the uproar of the trampling herd that in the shadowless phantom-light of brands and torches dove on towards the evil abyss of nothingness… (p.47)

German brutalism

These passages also epitomise what I think of as ‘the German quality’ in literature, which is a tendency to have overgassy metaphysical speculation cheek-by-jowl with a pig-like brutality, qualities I found in the other so-called masterpiece of German Modernism.

The claim about metaphysical bloat is merely repeating the claim of Walter Laqueur, who knew more about Weimar literature than I ever will and found it present in much of that literature. The comment about piggishness is based on my reading of:

  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, which starts as the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, is released from prison where he’d been serving a sentence for murdering his girlfriend, Ida, and one of the first things he does is go round and rape his dead girlfriend’s sister, Minna. There’s the scene where the scumbag Reinhold drunkenly smashes his girlfriend, Trude’s, face to a pulp or when Franz beats his girlfriend Mieze black and blue etc.
  • The surprising crudity of much Kafka, the protagonists of The Trial and The Castle jumping on their female companions without warning, and the visceral brutality of stories like The Hunger Artist or In The Penal Colony.
  • The crudity of Herman Hesse’s novels, such as The Steppenwolf, in which the ‘hero’, Harry Haller, murders the woman who took pity on him and loved him, Hermine.
  • The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil which I was enjoying very much for its urbane and humorous tone until – sigh – being German, it had to introduce a psychopath, Moosbrugger, who is on trial for murdering a prostitute and chopping her up into pieces, a process which the author describes in gratuitous detail.
  • In Broch’s own novels, Esch, the piggish ‘hero’ of The Anarchist rapes the innkeeper he subsequently shacks up with, and thinks well of himself because he doesn’t beat her up too much, too often.
  • Wilhelm Huguenau, the smooth-talking psychopathic ‘hero’ of The Realist, murders Esch and then rapes his wife.
  • Bertolt Brecht made a point of dispensing with bourgeois conventions in order to emphasise the brutal reality of the ‘class struggle: ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.’

Phenomenology

I’ll quote from my own review of The Romantic:

Aged 40 Broch gave up management of the textile factory he had inherited from his father and enrolled in the University of Vienna to study mathematics, philosophy and psychology. I wonder what kind of philosophy Broch studied because this focus on trying to describe the actual processes of consciousness – the flavour of different thoughts, and the ways different types of thought arise and pass and sink in our minds – reminds me that Phenomenology was a Germanic school of philosophy from the early part of the century, initially associated with Vienna. According to Wikipedia:

In its most basic form, phenomenology attempts to create conditions for the objective study of topics usually regarded as subjective: consciousness and the content of conscious experiences such as judgements, perceptions, and emotions. Although phenomenology seeks to be scientific, it does not attempt to study consciousness from the perspective of clinical psychology or neurology. Instead, it seeks through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.

‘Through systematic reflection to determine the essential properties and structures of experience.’ That’s not a bad summary of what Broch does in The Sleepwalker novels and does again here. The obvious difference is that whereas The Sleepwalker novels have plots and numerous characters who interact in a multitude of scenes, in The Death of Virgil Broch found a perfect subject – a deeply sensitive, highly articulate poet – to host/inspire/articulate an enormous number of these phenomenological speculations, long passages which not only describe Virgil’s sensations and thoughts, but analyse, ponder and reflect on the nature of thought itself.

Thus the first part of the passage through the warehouses, which I’ve quoted, amounts to a catalogue of sense impressions. But the smells of country produce awaken a yearning in him for the peace he knew back when he was growing up on his parents’ farm, but not some peace described in the English purple prose tradition – instead a highly theoretical and metaphysical notion of ‘peace’, as representing longing for a full integration of the self, a longing-yearning which haunts Virgil but which he is fated never to achieve.

Here’s an excerpt from that scene. To understand it you need to know that the roaring greeting of the mob in Brundisium town square had led Virgil to pretty negative thoughts about humanity in all its crudity. And so, in this sentence, the two themes –yearning, and the mob – are blended.

It was himself he found everywhere and if he had to retain everything and was enabled to return all, if he succeeded in laying hold on the world-multiplicity to which he was pledged, to which he was driven, given over to it in a daydream, belonging to it without effort, effortlessly possessing it, this was so because the mutiplicity had been his from the very beginning; indeed before all espial, before all hearkening, before all sensibility, it had been his own because recollection and retention are never other than the innate self, self-remembered, and the self-remembered time when he must have drunk the wine, fingered the wood, tasted the oil, even before oil, wine or wood existed, when he must have recognised the unknown, because the profusion of faces or non-faces, together with their ardour, their greed, their carnality, their covetous coldness, with their animal-physical being, but also with their immense nocturnal yearning, because taken all together, whether he had ever seen them or not, whether they had ever lived or not, were all embodied in him from his primordial origins as the chaotic primal humus of his very existence, as his own carnality, his own ardour, his own greed, his own facelessness, but also his own yearning: and even had this yearning changed in the course of his earthly wanderings, turned to knowledge, so much so that having become more and more painful it could scarcely now be called yearning, or even a yearning for yearning, and if all this transformation had been predestined by fate from the beginning in the form of expulsion or seclusion, the first bearing evil, the second bringing salvation, but both scarcely endurable for a human creature, the yearning still remained, inborn, imperishable, imperishably the primal humus of being, the groundwork of cognition and recognition which nourishes memory and to which memory returns, a refuge from fortune and misfortune, a refuge from the unbearable; almost physical this last yearning, which always and forever vibrated in every effort to attain the deeps of memory, however ripe with knowledge that memory might be. (pages 25 to 26)

Here we have some choice examples of the German tendency to make up new compound nouns to describe elusive philosophical or psychological categories: ‘world-multiplicity’, ‘self-remembered’, ‘animal-physical’.

And the use of repetition is pretty obvious – I’ve singled out the words ‘yearning’ and ‘memory’. It isn’t really repetition for the sake of either euphony (purely for the sound), or to drive home a point (as in, say, Cicero’s legal speeches). It is more that, with each repetition, the meaning of the word changes. Broch is examining the concepts behind these key words from different angles. Each repetition sheds new light, or maybe gives the word additional connotations. It is a cumulative effect.

An obvious question is: does this kind of thing actually shed light, does it help us to understand the human mind any better? Well, not in a strictly factual sense, but in the way that literature forces us to have different thoughts, sensations, expands the possibilities of cognition, vocabulary and expression, then, maybe, yes. And the epic length of Broch’s sentences are indicative of his attempt to really stretch the possibilities of perception, or perception-through-language, in his readers.

Then again, it isn’t an actual lecture, it’s not a scholarly paper appearing in a journal of psychology; it’s embedded in a work of literature so a better question is: how does it work within the text?

Any answer has to take account of the fact that this is only one of literally hundreds of other passages like it. No doubt critics and scholars have tabulated and analysed Broch’s use of key words and concepts and traced them back to works of psychology, philosophy or phenomenology he may have read. For the average reader the repetition of words and phrases and the notions they convey has more of a musical effect, like the appearance, disappearance, then reappearance of themes and motifs, building up a complex network of echoes and repetitions, many of which are not noticeable on a first reading. I ended up reading passages 2 or 3 times and getting new things from them at every reading.

Last but not least: do you like it? I found The Death of Virgil difficult to read not because of the clever meanings or subtle psychology but because a lifetime of reading prose from the Hemingway Century, compounded by a career working on public-facing websites, has indoctrinated my mind into preferring short, precise sentences. So I found it an effort to concentrate fully on every clause of these monster sentences – that, the sheer effort of concentrating of every element in these long sentences, holding all the clauses in your mind as they echo and modify each other – that’s what I found difficult.

But short answer: Yes, I did enjoy it. Very much. And it grows and adds new resonances with every rereading. It’s a slow read because I kept picking it up after putting it aside to make lunch, water the garden, feed the cats etc, found I’d forgotten where I was (because so many of the pages are solid blocks of text without any paragraph breaks) and so ended up rereading pages which I’d read once and not even realising it, but when I did, deliberately rereading it with a whole new pleasure, hearing aspects of the text, its meanings and implications and lush style, which I’d missed first time around.

Lyricism

Because The Death of Virgil is highly lyrical. Untermeyer says the entire text is in effect a poem because of its sustained lyricism. It certainly overflows with lyrical passages of deliberate sensuality.

Through the open arched windows well above the city’s roofs a cool breeze was blowing, a cool remembrance of land and sea, seafast, landfast, swept through the chamber, the candles, blown down obliquely, burned on the many-branched, flower-wreathed candelabrum in the centre of the room, the wall-fountain let a fragile, fan-shaped veil of water purl coolly over its marble steps, the bed under the mosquito netting was made up and on the table beside it food and drink had been set out. (p.41)

Maybe you could posit a spectrum of the content, with pure lyricism at one end, pure abstraction at the other, and a mix in the middle. So the excerpt above is what you could call entry-level lyricism in the sense that it is concerned solely with sense impressions, sense data, describing the ‘real’ world. Here’s a passage which contains hints of the metaphysical:

Yet in the night’s breath all was mingled, the brawling of the feast and the stillness of the mountains and the glittering of the sea as well, the once and the now and again the once, one merging into the other, merged into one another… (p.42)

And here is the full-on visionary-metaphysical:

Oh, human perception not yet become knowledge, no longer instinct, rising from the humus of existence, from the seed of sentience, rising out of the wisdom of the mothers, ascending into the deadly clarity of utter-light, of utter-life, ascending to the burning knowledge of the father, ascending to cool heights, oh human knowledge, unrooted, eternally in motion, neither in the depths nor on the heights but hovering forever over the starry threshold between night and day, a sigh and a breath in the interrealm of starry dusk, hovering between the life of the night-held herds, and the death of light-flooded identification with Apollo, between silence and the word, the word that always returns into silence. (p.48)

By now I hope you can see how Virgil’s mind is in almost permanently visionary mode. In his last hours he is entirely concerned with huge abstract ideas of human nature and destiny and personal intimations about being and consciousness and awareness, all mixed into a great, prolonged swirl. Every conversation, every new event, stirs a new aspect of this endless flow of thoughts, triggers a new long rhapsody. The novel as rhapsody, where rhapsody is defined as ‘an effusively enthusiastic or ecstatic expression of feeling’.

Plot summary

Part one, ‘Water – The Arrival’, is just 53 pages long. The third person narrator records Virgil’s thoughts about the sea journey, his swinish companions, his regret at being forced to leave Athens, notifies us that he is very ill, all as the fleet of 6 ships pulls into the harbour of Brundisium as night falls.

The emperor’s ship navigates among the many other ships in the harbour, ties up and slaves start to unload it, while Virgil is carried ashore in a litter borne by 4 slaves.

A huge crowd has turned out to greet Augustus in the central square, roaring approval. Virgil is carried through them, overcome with disgust at humanity, led by a youth who has appeared out of nowhere carrying a torch.

This youth leads the slaves bearing Virgil’s litter through the smelly warehouse quarter and then into a very dirty narrow back passage, reeking of poverty, as raddled women hang out their windows yelling abuse at the rich guy in the litter. This is a sort of vision of hell and goes on for some pages, Virgil repeatedly calling it Misery Street.

They finally emerge into a plaza, also thronged, and make their way through the surging crowd to the gates to the emperor’s palazzo. Here they are let through by the guard and handled by an efficient major-domo who escorts them to their room.

The mysterious torch-bearing boy is unaccountably still with Virgil and when the major-domo tells him to leave, Virgil, on an impulse, says the boy is his ‘scribe’ and can stay. When he asks how long the boy slave will stay with him, the boy gives the portentous reply ‘forever’, which triggers a characteristic response in Virgil:

 Everlasting night, domain in which the mother rules, the child fast asleep in immutability, lulled by darkness, from dark to dark, oh sweet permanence of ‘forever’. (p.44)

The slaves depart. Virgil is alone in the bedroom he’s been allotted, perceiving the night sky, the plash of the fountain in the gardens outside, overcome with swirling thoughts about peace and youth and sense impressions and memory, as he lies on the bed and tries to sleep. End of part one.


Credit

The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch was published by Pantheon Books in 1945. References are to the 1983 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

Hermann Broch reviews

Reviews of 20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

Exhibitions

Books

German history

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

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

The Aeneid’s structure

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

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

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

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

Historical background

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

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

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

The price of peace

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

Aspects of patriotism

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

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

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

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

A political poem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copying the Greeks

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

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

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

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

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

The process of composition

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

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

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

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

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

The violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The animal sacrifices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virgil’s multi-levelled and holey theology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Furens

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

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

The poetry

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

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

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

  • flexibility in writing lines and passages
  • compactness

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

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

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

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

Pederast

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

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