I’d like to report a murder

What follows is inspired by a question I was asked by my wonderfully talented friend N, but it illustrates a view of Ovid that I presented early in my very short book on the poet as his congenital inability to resist a good joke — a persistent feature of his poetry and arguably, ultimately, a blight on his life.

Ovid’s weakness for the flippant is something that sharply divides opinion about the poet among scholars today (many of my colleagues have absolutely no time for him), but it irritated ancient critics, too. Lasciuus quidem in herois quoque Ouidius et nimium amator ingenii sui, laudandus tamen in partibus, Quintilian asserted sniffily (10.1.89): “Ovid lacked seriousness even in epic and was too much a fan of his own talent, though praiseworthy in parts.” The epic that Quintilian is referring to is Ovid’s masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, and the verb lasciuire, with that same sense of being flippant and immature, is used by Seneca the Younger of Ovid’s flood narrative in the first book of the poem, a serious subject (in the philosopher’s view) ill served by Ovid’s playful treatment (Natural Questions 3.27.14). Epics (and such grand epic themes as global floods) should be deadly serious undertakings, needless to say.

Quintilian, Seneca and my colleagues raise an important point, the key element of it encapsulated by one colleague who put it to me “that if we take seriously the possibility that great poetry could improve us”, we must wonder also whether Ovid’s unremitting puckishness might not have the opposite effect. In Ovid’s case, and this is a sign of the paradoxical sophistication of his playfulness, the poetry is mischievous but also self-consciously celebrates its mischievousness: non ignorauit uitia sua sed amauit, as Seneca the Elder put it (Contr. 2.2.12), “he was not unaware of his faults, in fact he loved them.” On this question I found it useful reading up on the philosophy of humour at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, where John Morreall’s discussion certainly chimed with my own hunch that humour is an essential part of thriving as a human — and as such also, it seems to me, a valid, and edifying, characteristic of a literary composition.

Humour is a form of play, in Morreall’s account, and as beneficial as a necessary release from serious, pragmatic activity as playing squash or football. The difference is that humour is intellectual rather than physical play, but what both forms of play also have in common is the exercise they provide, under circumstances where no serious consequences will eventuate, in physical and intellectual resilience. “In the humorous frame of mind, we experience, think about, or even create something that violates our understanding of how things are supposed to be. But we suspend the personal, practical concerns that lead to negative emotions, and enjoy the oddness of what it occurring” (Morreall p. 35). Laughter, the characteristic accompaniment to the humorous, brings well-recognised physiological benefits, it is worth adding, and laughter also, as Morreall insists, enforces our sociability, the essence of our humanity, since we laugh much more often with others than alone. Humour enhances our thinking, therefore, and also our interaction with other people.

What N asked me about was a passage in Metamorphoses Book 2 which happens to be one of my favourites. This is despite the fact — OK, directly consequent upon the fact — that it represents a tremendously silly moment even by the standards of this poet and this poem. The passage is complex (more on this below), but features the Crow offering advice to the Raven based on her own past experience, and then explaining how she had been transformed by the goddess Minerva/Athena from human to crow. N’s question to me was, What was the name of that woman who had been turned by Minerva into the Crow, since Ovid never provides it?

My answer was that neither Ovid nor any other ancient author seems to give us a name for the pre-metamorphosis Crow, but that I believed that this silence provided Ovid with a golden opportunity to indulge that deplorable lack of seriousness Quintilian was talking about.

Let’s look at this passage a little more closely, because Ovid seems quite determined to make it as difficult as possible for his readers to follow. In particular, he introduces the autobiography of the Crow in the context of a really quite similar story about the Raven, and it’s a reasonable assumption that Romans found it as hard to distinguish these corvids as we typically do. As anticipated, furthermore, Ovid is far from clear and transparent about names.

Here is a summary (Met. 2.531-634):

The Raven is flying off to inform Apollo that the god’s lover Coronis, mother of Asclepius, is being unfaithful with a mortal man, but is waylaid en route by the Crow, who shares with the Raven her own backstory, specifically how, by telling tales in exactly the way the Raven is planning to do (in the Crow’s case by revealing that Cecrops’ daughters had seen the child Ericthonius in a chest that was not supposed to be opened), she found herself spurned by Minerva in favour of the owl; after that (for she is still talkative to a fault) the Crow describes how Minerva had transformed her from human to bird to protect her from an assault by Neptune/Poseidon. Subsequently the Raven does inform Apollo about Coronis’ infidelity, Apollo shoots his lover dead with an arrow, repents too late, and in anger at the tale-telling that provoked his own violence (Gods are rarely exemplary figures in the Metamorphoses) turns the previously white Raven jet-black.

This is already a pretty convoluted narrative, but the names take it to another level. The Raven (in Latin, coruus; in Greek, κόραξ/corax) is telling tales about Apollo’s lover Coronis, whose name suggests a crow (in Latin cornix; in Greek κορώνη/corone). But then, in the course of her story, the Crow (cornix, κορώνη/corone) drops in the name of her human father, Coroneus (569). This detail seems to be a pure invention on Ovid’s part, but given that “Coroneus” also suggests the Greek word for “crow”, κορώνη/corone, it is appropriate for the Crow’s father, and if we are, like N, wondering what this woman was called, Corone or Coronis are strongly implied both by her father’s name and the fact that she becomes a crow, corone. So Ovid presents us with two parallel stories associated with similar-looking birds who both talk too much, but we also have one heroine called Coronis and another apparently called Corone/Coronis.

Confused? So you should be. And a reminder that a lot of the confusion is deliberately sown by means of that invented name Coroneus — deliberately sown by the poet.

Now it should be said that we’d get even more out of this passage if we had the mini-epic Hecale of Ovid’s great Greek model Callimachus. One reason we don’t have it, as Adrian Hollis explains in his edition of the poem’s surviving fragments* (p. 40), is a bunch of marauding Frankish crusaders who sacked Athens in 1205 and as they did so quite possibly destroyed the last surviving complete copy of the work. One had apparently existed in the library, likely on the Acropolis itself, of Michael Choniates, Archbishop of Athens. In the course of Callimachus’ poem, in any case (the evidence now mainly coming in papyri from Egypt), there was a scene, possibly immediately after the death of the title character Hecale, that involved a crow (κορώνη/corone) telling another bird about Ericthonius, possibly again with a view to dissuading the other bird from sharing the unwelcome news of Hecale’s death. Callimachus’ crow then went on to prophesy (crows being considered both very old and prophetic creatures) that the raven (κόραξ/corax) would one day be turned from white to black for telling Apollo about Coronis’ infidelity (fragments 70-74 Hollis, although frs. 75-7 may also be spoken by the crow). Clearly Ovid owes a lot to Callimachus, then, and while piecing together fragmentary texts is a confusing exercise at the best of times, I suspect that Callimachus was already in the game of writing a narrative involving the punishment of too many corvids, and deliberately making it tricky for his readers to disentangle.

(Incidentally, this is all, as Hollis remarks, deeply poignant, as the myth of the crow’s rejection was supposed to explain why crows avoided the Athenian Acropolis, where it is possible that the very last complete copy of Hecale had ended its existence.)

But it’s Ovid and his irrepressible sense of humour we are concerned with, and here he does a recognisably comic and silly thing, constructing a confusing narrative, somewhat indebted to Callimachus and built on an existing human confusion between indistinguishable birds, and purposefully exacerbated through a play with names. In particular he strongly encourages his readers to supply a name for one heroine, by naming her father Coroneus, which will be indistinguishable from that of another very famous heroine (for Coronis the mother of Asclepius cf. Pindar, Pyth. 3.5-46 as well as Callimachus and Ovid). I’ll come back to this latter idea, but some further evidence first that I’m not alone in being confused by Ovid’s corvid narrative. When Chaucer in The Manciple’s Tale retells the story of Apollo and Coronis, it is a “crowe”, not a raven, that tells the tale and suffers a change in plumage. Edgar Allan Poe, meanwhile, in a reasonably famous poem associates a raven bringing news of some mysterious kind with a bust of Pallas Athena, not Apollo. Sir James Frazer struggles with what is a very complex web of stories even before Ovid gets hold of them, and suggests a deeper mythical kinship between Athena/crow and Apollo/raven.

Donald Hill’s commentary* on this passage gets what I think is going on by not getting it, I would respectfully suggest. He comments on 569:

Coroneus: not otherwise known, but the name was presumably chosen to encourage the reader to supply for the name of the crow herself the Greek word for that bird, ‘Corone’. Her name is certainly not ‘Coronis’, as in the plot summaries of some medieval manuscripts and renaissance editions, for that would produce intolerable confusion.

Those are my italics. But to put Hill’s argument another way, Ovid has successfully provoked lots of medieval and Renaissance (and no doubt ancient) readers to supply the name “Coronis” for the Crow as well as Apollo’s doomed lover, but that can’t be right as it would be far too confusing. Alison Keith*, in a clever and detailed treatment of the passage in the context of the whole book, reads the overlapping parallels between Ovid’s crow and raven narratives as supporting in various ways a characterisation of their encounter — not as intolerably confusing, then, but as complexity with a coherent narrative purpose. There’s every chance she’s right, but I find myself closer to Alessandro Barchiesi*, who’s more inclined to see the complexity, our feeling as readers of the Metamorphoses that we have lost our way, as an end in itself for Ovid. The watchword with Ovid’s poem, I’ve suggested, is its lasciuia, frivolousness, mischief, indiscipline. Here, Ovid mischievously brings into collision readily confused birds, and myths (it is typical of Ovid that the joke depends on something as universal as confusion about corvids, and something so sophisticated as a deep knowledge of myth), and caps that confusion by drawing us to conclude that both myths centre round women who share the very same name. Far from “intolerable confusion” being a reason to resist a particular interpretation of the Metamorphoses, such confusion is exactly what this poet is regularly aiming to inflict on readers of his poem.

Now, the matter of humour has dropped out of sight somewhat, but it can be amusing to read an increasingly convoluted story, and Ovid’s casual inclusion of the name of the Crow’s father, Coroneus, leaving us to draw the implication about her name, is brilliantly witty. If we do lose our bearings in this story (and laugh as we do so), in any case, I’m confident that we’re doing what Ovid wanted us to do. It’s hyper-sophisticated, it’s thoroughly daft (lasciuus), and (for good or ill) it’s Ovid through-and-through.

But am I wrong to be quite convinced that my life is enriched — that I am improved — by spending time with this brilliant silliness?

A. Barchiesi, Ovidio, Metamorfosi, Vol. 1: Libri I-II (Milan, 2005);

A. M. Keith, The Play of Fictions: Studies in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 2 (Ann Arbor, 1992);

D. E. Hill, Ovid, Metamorphoses I-IV (Warminster, 1985);

A. S. Hollis, Callimachus, Hecale (Oxford, 1990);

The source of the illustration at the top is here.

A city with no name?

This is my second blog on the “prehistory” of the Aeneid in quick succession, but this one is directly inspired by Shadi Bartsch’s wonderful new translation of Virgil’s poem. Everyone should get a copy; it’s by far the best English version available, in my humble opinion. In this blog I’ll actually be questioning Prof. Bartsch’s translation of a line, but my ultimate point will be that her rendering of that line is as right as it’s wrong, and more importantly that it exemplifies the engagement with the spirit of an original text that a truly great translation can achieve.

The line in question is a momentous one, the very opening line of Aeneid VIII, an important book of Augustan foundations, which also marks the formal outbreak of war between the Latin and Trojan forces. Here are lines 1-6, followed by Prof. Bartsch’s translation:

Ut belli signum Laurenti Turnus ab arce
extulit et rauco strepuerunt cornua cantu,
utque acris concussit equos utque impulit arma,
extemplo turbati animi, simul omne tumultu
coniurat trepido Latium saeuitque iuuentus               

“As bugles blared their strident notes, Turnus waved/ the standard on Laurentum’s citadel, spurred/ his eager horse and clanged his sword and shield./ At one, all hearts were thrown in turmoil. In the anxious/ tumult, Latium swore loyalty; the young men/ raged for war.”

It’s a terrific opening, building momentum for the conflict to come. The previous book had ended with a catalogue of all the Italian forces gathering to oppose Aeneas. Here at the start of Book VIII the resistance to the Trojan arrivals is encapsulated in Turnus’ action in 1-2 of raising the “signal of war” (signum is a notoriously vague word, but some kind of standard or flag is perhaps implied) from the citadel of the city ruled by king Latinus.

I’m being careful about how I refer to that city of Latinus because this is the nub of the issue. The expression Laurenti… ab arce is translated by Prof. Bartsch as “on/from Laurentum’s citadel”, reading Laurenti as the genitive form of a proper name Laurentum, the name of the city. But Laurenti can also be the ablative form of the adjective Laurens, agreeing with arce, in which case Laurenti… ab arce would mean “from the Laurentine citadel” and the city would not in fact have been named. It’s fair to say that most translators and commentaries understand the construction in the latter way — fundamentally, it’s truer to Virgil’s practice elsewhere of identifying the people of this city as Laurentes, and things they possess as “Laurentine”. Aside from 8.1 he uses Laurens as an adjective (at a rough count) twenty times (the related Laurentius once), and as a substantive in the plural, Laurentes, seven times.

On two further occasions beyond 8.1 we find the form Laurenti, 8.38 and 12.769, again generally read as dative/ablative of the adjective Laurens, and less prone to be read as the genitive of Laurentum (Prof. Bartsch goes with “Laurentian” is both instances), perhaps because arx, “citadel”, evokes a physical city more strongly than solum, “soil”, “earth”, at 8.38 or diuus, “god”, at 12.769. It’s also worth mentioning that “as an -nt- stem, Laurens shows both i-stem and consonant stem inflections in abl. sg. and gen. pl.” (A.J. Nussbaum, ‘Ennian Laurentis terra’, HSCPh 77 [1973], 207-15, at 209), that is with either -i and -e in the ablative singular and -ium and -um in the genitive plural (though always -um in Virgil): we find the ablative form Laurente at Aen. 7.47 and 12.547. “The i-declension was confused even to the Romans themselves”, in the immortal words of Allen and Greenough.

(Woodcut illustration from the “Strasbourg Vergil”, source and explanation: http://dcc.dickinson.edu/images/brant-duplicate-latinus-sitting-amidst-grieving-women.)

My view — the mainstream view, I think I can claim — is that the natural reading of Laurenti at 8.1 is as an adjective, “Laurentine/Laurentian”. But I also think that Virgil was perfectly alive to this ambiguity, and that makes it all more interesting. With luck, at any rate, I can convince my reader that a matter of grammatical detail can have some quite momentous implications.

There’s a parallel argument to be made, ultimately no more conclusive than this stylistic hunch, but of an interestingly diverse kind. This is that, while other localities in Latium mentioned by Virgil, Ardea and Lavinium, were undoubtedly features of Augustan-era Latium and are identifiable in the modern landscape, the same is not so of any town called Laurentum.

A hundred years ago Jérome Carcopino in Virgile et les origines d’Ostie (Paris, 1919) argued very persuasively and at considerable length (pp.171-387; pp. 151-340 in the second edition (1968), which I’ll be citing), that Laurentum was never a place, and any ancient claims that it was were based on a misconception. Carcopino was writing against the backdrop of strenuous efforts to locate Laurentum in the coastal strip south of Rome, activity grounded in a general assumption that the remains of a real town bearing that name were indeed there to be discovered. See, by way of illustration, the detailed note on Laurentum in William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman geography (London, 1854).

What Carcopino establishes very comprehensively, however, is that whenever one tries to locate Laurentum, it always turns out to be the same as Lavinium. The truth is that the people known as the Laurentes, occupying an extent of territory known as the ager Laurens, had an urban centre called Lavinium: as Carcopino puts it, “there was never any town of Laurentum, because Lavinium was always THE town of the Laurentes” (173). Thus at the site of Lavinium, Pratica di Mare, almost all the inscriptions feature the Laurentes, which would be peculiar if they occupied a different town; the Via Laurentina led from Rome to Lavinium; and the cults of the Laurentes were performed at Lavinium. “Laurentum is the civitas, and Lavinium is the urbs; Laurentum is the living city, and comprises the territory, gods and men of which Lavinium is the bricks-and-mortar town” (173). Laurentum as such, then, as opposed to the Laurentes, the ager Laurens, and the religious traditions of the Laurentes, the latter of particular significance to Rome, never actually existed. (On the observation by the Roman state of key foundational cults, of Aeneas and the Penates, at Lavinium, see A. Alföldi, Early Rome and the Latins [1963], esp. 256-62.)

Thus far Carcopino’s argument is utterly convincing, indeed unanswerable. But he comes a bit unstuck when he tries to impose his understanding of the relationship between the Laurentes and Lavinium on Virgil’s account of things in the Aeneid. What he proposes is that the city of Latinus, with its “Laurentine citadel”, is Lavinium, but in order to maintain this claim he has to discount Aen. 1.258-60 and 12.193-4, where first Jupiter and then Aeneas anticipate the future foundation of Lavinium (1.258), a city to which “Lavinia will give her name” (12.194). Lavinium will be established by Aeneas and named after the bride he will marry after his killing of Turnus at the conclusion of the poem. But if the city of Latinus, the city from the citadel of which Turnus unfurls the standard of resistance, is not Lavinium, what is it? The striking truth is that Latinus’ city, a place of enormous significance in the plot of Aeneid 7-12, ultimately Virgil’s equivalent of the city of Troy, is never in the course of the poem actually named. Or perhaps I should say, never named unequivocally.

Nicholas Horsfall has a detailed discussion of the Laurentes and the anonymity of their city in the Enciclopedia Virgiliana (Vol. 3.141-4), which among other things fills out the bibliography since Carcopino. Nicholas Purcell also has an extremely interesting article forthcoming, which he was kind enough to show me, that relates Augustus’ country estate in the ager Laurens, which encompassed Lavinium, to Virgil’s presentation of the Laurentines and their capital, suggesting also that this issue was already to people of the Augustan period something of distant antiquity and myth — just the kind of thing Augustus might be keen to reinvent. My own theory, for what it’s worth, is limited to the Aeneid, and really to that first line of Book VIII and the expression Laurenti… ab arce.

The enemy city is nameless, and that is a subtle but effective way of denying it the right to exist in the mind of the reader. This city is the alternative to Aeneas’ foundation Lavinium, which is bound up in various ways by Virgil with the ultimate foundation, Rome itself — the fundamental goal of Aeneas’ heroic exploits. Virgil thereby deprives it of the reality, the presence, that a name would bestow, and unnamed, its eclipse by Lavinium/Rome seems pre-ordained.

But I think 8.1, Laurenti… ab arce, complicates that picture just a touch. A point that Carcopino makes more than once is how unusual the situation with Lavinium and the Laurentes was even for the ancients, “a duality that … had become extremely rare” in Virgil’s time and later (198). Among ancient writers there is certainly some evidence of confusion, for Greek authors especially: Strabo mentions a town named Λαυρεντόν (5.3.5), similarly Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Rom. Ant. 5.54.1) and Plutarch (Romulus 23.1); more surprisingly Pliny the Elder talks of an oppidum Laurentum (HN 3.56), and is followed by Pomponius Mela (2.64); and it features in the Itineraries and on the Tabula Peutingeriana (Carcopino 217-8). In the latter cases the imperial foundation in the area for personnel of the imperial estate, the Vicus Laurentium, may be exerting some influence.

(From a facsimile of the Peutinger Table, source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabula_Peutingeriana#Map: “Laurento” is on the coast to the right of Ostia.)

These hints that the ancients were already a bit nonplussed by the Laurentes and their relationship to Lavinium are what make me refine my view of Aeneid 8.1 somewhat. The point, I suspect, is not so much that Virgil’s Roman readers knew that Laurentum was a fiction, but that the status of the Laurentes was mysterious, and the question of their city, and its relationship to Lavinium, perplexing. This is what Aen. 8.1 is playing on, I think, and why its ambiguity is important.

At Aeneid 8.1, the moment of greatest threat to Aeneas’ mission, when we have been introduced to the forces massing under Turnus’ leadership and war is declared from the citadel, Laurentum is all but named. Even Carcopino allows that for an instant here there is “the illusion of the presence of Laurentum” (244). It is that exquisite hint of threat, the contours of the rival city to Rome gaining momentary definition at this most critical juncture, it seems to me, that Prof. Bartsch captures perfectly by doing what Virgil never quite (unequivocally) does — giving the city of “Laurentum” its name.

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The Antoneid

So here is a fragment of Polybius, really a chunk of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Rom. Ant. 1.32.1=Polybius 6.11.1), which quietly blew my mind the other day:

“But as some writers record, among them Polybius of Megalopolis, [the town Pallantium, the mythic ancient city on the Palatine Hill in Rome, was named] after Pallas, a boy who died there; he was the son of Heracles and Lavinia, the daughter of Evander, and his maternal grandfather [i.e. Evander] raised a tomb to him on the hill and named the place Pallantium after the boy.”

(ὡς δέ τινες ἱστοροῦσιν, ὧν ἐστι καὶ Πολύβιος ὁ Μεγαλοπολίτης, ἐπί τινος μειρακίου Πάλλαντος αὐτόθι τελευτήσαντος· τοῦτον δὲ Ἡρακλέους εἶναι παῖδα καὶ Λαουϊνίας τῆς Εὐάνδρου θυγατρός· χώσαντα δ᾿ αὐτῷ τὸν μητροπάτορα τάφον ἐπὶ τῷ λόφῳ Παλλάντιον ἐπὶ τοῦ μειρακίου τὸν τόπον ὀνομάσαι.)

All of these names (Pallas, Heracles/Hercules, Lavinia, Evander, and even the toponym Pallanteum/ium) are familiar from the second half of the Aeneid, but it is as if Virgil’s poem were a pack of cards and Polybius has given it a good shuffle. Strictly, though, since Polybius predates Virgil by a century or more, it is Virgil doing the shuffling. Lavinia, the daughter of king Latinus, for whose hand Aeneas vies with Turnus, is in Polybius’ version the daughter of Evander, Aeneas’ ally against the Latins in the Aeneid. Meanwhile Pallas, in Virgil’s version the son of Evander whose slaying by Turnus motivates the brutal denouement of the poem, is the grandson of Evander and the child of Heracles by Lavinia. Of Aeneas in this account of things there is not a trace.

Lavinia’s name here, Λαουϊνία (the text is the Loeb of Cary, cf. I.xliv-xlv), is a conjectural emendation of the meaningless δύνας preserved in all the manuscripts, albeit a persuasive one. But I shan’t be making too much of Lavinia per se in what follows. What I will offer is the suggestion that Virgil and his Roman readers were not unfamiliar with alternative accounts of Roman mythic history like Polybius’s, and that Virgil positively exploits that familiarity even as he presents his own version. That what Polybius recorded could claim some authority is a reasonable assumption since the Greek historian rubbed shoulders with some of the leading Romans of his day, and would have had access to some high-status Roman folklore. Virgil and his readers may also have known Polybius’ text directly, of course.

The first thing that strikes me, though, is something that’s been staring me in the face. I’m very interested in Hercules, and that includes what I see as his critical symbolic role within the Aeneid. Hercules/Heracles is a figure to whom Aeneas is regularly, though subtly, assimilated. For example, when Aeneas lifts things onto his shoulders, the great shield forged by Vulcan in Aeneid 8 or his own father in Aeneid 2, a parallel is activated with Hercules bearing the burden of the sky (or the universe), which he does while Atlas fetches for him the golden apples of the Hesperides (but which had become, along with Atlas’ own role as sky-bearer, an image of heroic endurance).

Metope from the temple of Zeus, Olympia, depicting Heracles bearing the heavens, with a little help from Athena, while Atlas proffers the apples of the Hesperides.

In Book 8 Aeneas visits the future site of Rome and is told by Evander of Hercules’ visit to the place, when he rid it of the monstrous bandit Cacus. Aeneas’ arrival is deliberately aligned with Hercules’s, since the Trojan hero arrives on the day that commemorates Hercules’ visit. In fact August 12th, the date of the festival of Hercules at the Ara Maxima, the day when Aeneas came, also corresponds to Augustus’ “arrival” outside Rome before his Triple Triumph on August 13th, 14th and 15th in 29 BC, the conclusion of the Civil Wars, another event that Virgil depicts, on the shield which Aeneas hoists onto his shoulders in Herculean fashion at the very end of Aeneid 8. So Hercules, Aeneas and Augustus are layered one on top of another in an intriguing fashion as benefactors of Rome.

There’s lots more to say about Aeneas and Hercules, particularly when it comes to understanding the violence between future Romans that fills Books VII to XII. But what this fragment of Polybius alerts me to is a clear Herculean model for Aeneas’ role as ancestor of the Romans. The Trojan hero will marry the daughter of the local king, Lavinia, and the result will be a brand new people, the Romans. This is classic Herculean lore, and in Polybius we find Hercules in Aeneas’ role. To illustrate, here’s an account of Hercules’ stay in southern France (presumably), on the same journey from Spain to Greece that brought him to Rome, driving Geryon’s cattle before him (Parthenius, Sufferings in Love 30; translation J. Lightfoot):

“It is also said of Heracles that when he was bringing the cattle of Geryon from Erythea, his wanderings through the land of the Celts brought him to the court of Bretannus. This king had a daughter called Celtine. She fell in love with Heracles and hid his cattle, refusing to surrender them unless he first had intercourse with her. Heracles was in a hurry to get his cattle back, but he was even more struck by the girl’s beauty, and so he did have intercourse with her. When the time came round, a child was born to them, Celtus, from whom the Celts take their name.”

Hercules/Heracles makes a habit of begetting new peoples around the Mediterranean, and it seems to me that Aeneas’ role as the progenitor of the new race in Italy, a blend of the native and the foreign, and as partner of the king’s daughter, is another respect in which Virgil’s hero is patterned upon Hercules.

But I was going to suggest ways in which Virgil’s version of the story exploited Polybius’s very different account, or something like it, and I’d offer two illustrations of that thought, neither of them enough to protect me from the suspicion that I’m just mentally exhausted from exam marking. The first is the passage in Aeneid 10 where Pallas, son of Evander, prays to Hercules, now a god, for help in his imminent duel with Turnus. Pallas is outmatched and doomed, and Hercules in heaven can do nothing but weep, and I explained the significance of Hercules’ all-too-human tears here. But the model for Hercules’ fruitless concern for a doomed mortal is Zeus in Iliad 16 witnessing the death of his son Sarpedon–a scene that Virgil is careful to remind us of. In the Aeneid Hercules’ concern for Pallas seems, by comparison with Zeus, perhaps a little undermotivated. Sure, Hercules had visited Pallanteum and rid it of the monstrous bandit Cacus, but no particularly close connection between the hero and Pallas has been indicated before. My thought about Polybius’ version of the story, though, is that if readers are carrying with them a vague idea that Pallas is as close to Hercules as a son to his father, the relationship that Sarpedon bears to Zeus and Pallas to Heracles in Polybius, it lends this scene, currently (I’ll confess) my very favourite moment in the Aeneid, an exquisite extra force.

I’d regard the funeral of Pallas in Aeneid 11 as a similar nudge in the direction of an alternative detail. The young warrior dies in battle against Turnus, but his body is sent back to Pallanteum, the city of Evander, and that is where he is interred. Now Virgil, through the words of the river Tiber (Aen. 8.51-4), has explicitly derived the name of Pallanteum from another man named Pallas, Evander’s ancestor, but when Pallas is buried on the Palatine in Aeneid 11, his youth as in Polybius heavily emphasised, I wonder if Roman readers could exclude from their minds the possibility that this Pallas, the boy who died, is the origin of the name of the Palatine Hill. (We have already met at 7. 655-69, for what it’s worth, another son of Hercules who appears to be the eponym of a Roman hill, Auentinus, and the reader is by now well used to locations, Palinurus, Misenum, Caieta, named after burials.) If that thought was at all likely to occur to them, all I’d add is that the hint of an act of foundation is associated here, as elsewhere in the Aeneid, with sacrificial slaughter: it is on the Palatine, the very site of Rome, that the eight sons of Sulmo and Ufens, taken captive by Aeneas, are sacrificed at Pallas’ last rites. I discuss that deeply shocking turn of events, and its connections to the closing scene of the poem, in the latest Proceedings of the Virgil Society, if it’s of any interest.

Well, the notion that Virgil is contending with, or exploiting, alternative versions of the various stories that he tells in the Aeneid is a well-established one, particularly perhaps in relation to his departure from Troy. The introduction to Shadi Bartsch’s brilliant new translation of the Aeneid chases some of those ideas around. The presence of “Polybian” hints in the Aeneid, always assuming I’m right, may be further evidence, hardly needed, for Virgil’s subtlety, but what it also reminds us of is the astonishing power of the story that Virgil narrated, a wildly tendentious take on Roman mythic history that was so compellingly told that it eclipsed what must have been a jungle of alternatives. I wonder here also about Virgil’s simple talent for persuasive invention, for making his version the definitive version. Obviously to persuade the reader of one’s own story while at the same time exploiting their awareness of others requires particular virtuosity.

At the end of a string of speculations, some appropriately wild counterfactuals to round things off. I have a personal conviction that, had the Civil Wars which brought Augustus to power turned out differently, and Mark Antony rather than Augustus had won, the world might yet possess a Latin epic not hugely different from the Aeneid. It would feature at least as much Hercules, at any rate, because Antony claimed descent from him. Here is Plutarch, Life of Antony 4.1-2 (translation, B. Perrin):

“He had also a noble dignity of form; and a shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Heracles. Moreover, there was an ancient tradition that the Antonii were Heracleidae, being descendants of Anton, a son of Heracles. And this tradition Antony thought that he confirmed, both by the shape of his body, as has been said, and by his attire. For whenever he was going to be seen by many people, he always wore his tunic girt up to his thigh, a large sword hung at his side, and a heavy cloak enveloped him.”

This gives us precious little information about the details of Antony’s claimed genealogy, but if Anton, ancestor of the Antonii, was also fathered during Hercules’ cattle herding along the Italian coast, then some permutation of the kind of story told by Polybius might have formed the core of an epic narrative written by a poet with the requisite talent, maybe Virgil himself. The essential scenario of such an Antoneid may seem daft, but that’s only because Virgil has managed the remarkable achievement of convincing us that Augustus’ claim of descent from Aeneas isn’t.

Oxford, a satire

I’ve been teaching Juvenal’s satires for the first time in a while this term, and it reminded me of something.

Oxford, a satire is a version of what is probably Juvenal’s most celebrated satire, No. 3 on the city of Rome (it’s between this one and 10, on the vanity of human aspirations, at any rate). Oxford was first published, privately and anonymously, in 1910 and republished in 1922, and in it Rome is replaced as the target of criticism with “Oxford, whose fogs and enervating air/ The brain befuddle and the health impair” — the University specifically. It is an extremely accomplished piece of work, a successful reinvention of Juvenal, and that entails being just as mordantly disagreeable as the Roman satirist.

Satire is a troubling and controversial form, one that sets out to cause offence and yet was also considered by the Romans an expression of their most cherished civic virtues. The satirist is well characterised by Alvin Kernan as a figure who “believes that the case of man and society is desperate, and he applies appropriate therapeutic treatments: the whip, the scalpel, the strappado, the emetic, the burning acid. But each of these cruel methods of treatment suggests that the man who uses them exclusively enjoys his work. The more powerfully the satirist swings his scourge — and he usually does so with considerable gusto — the more he will appear to have a marked sadistic tendency” (The Cankered Muse: Satire of the English Renaissance [1976], 26). Juvenal, as Kernan makes clear, is the archetype of this savage satirist.

In this version of Juvenal from 1910, too, no feelings are spared. Here, for instance, the target is an academic like me (though students cop it too):

Vile is the tradesman that our purse has stole,
But viler still the Don that steals the soul.
The young enthusiast comes with heart aflame
For wisdom, learning, poetry, and fame;
He sees the hills of Rome in every dream,
And peoples with Greek nymphs each English stream.
'Let me drink deep,' he cries, 'of ancient lore,
And make my soul what Shelley's was before!
All joys I'll barter such a prize to gain!'
Poor youth, thy prayer how noble! yet how vain!
Can pigs grow wings and fly, unwonted birds?
Can the salt sea grow black with grazing herds?
Can the lean thistle blossom into figs?
Or Oxford aught produce save fools and prigs?
Doomed now, deposing reason from its throne,
To spend whole days with boredom and with Bohn,
To read each commentator's endless reams,
And learn for one Greek word two German names,
To hear some greybeard, chattering and perplexed,
Destroy all meaning and corrupt the text,
Or, reading out whole volumes on one word,
Hold 'nunc' in scorn, and show why 'tunc's' preferred;
Compelled in sterile toil whole months to waste,
Nor e'er to use his judgement, wit, or taste,
[He hears the Don primaeval views impart,
Scribbles them down, and learns them off by heart.
He goes to lectures; only hears a part;
Miswrites half that; and learns his note by heart.

This has Juvenal’s aggression and rhetorical point, his mock-elevated style, and his ability also to make us laugh at things we know we shouldn’t laugh at, the latter perhaps the very essence of satire.

Well, what I’m going to do here is fill in some hitherto missing details about the author of this work, anonymous at its publication, and study some of the nastiest material in a bit more detail, identifying ways in which they both tie Oxford to 1910 or 1922 and illustrate the precision of its reworking of Juvenal.

Juvenal’s third satire features the long complaint of Umbricius, a friend of the satirist who has had enough of Rome and is leaving. In Oxford Patroclus is the satirist’s friend, and the scene of the satire is transferred from the Porta Capena at the edge of Rome, from where the Appian Way began, to Oxford railway station. Patroclus has been sent down by “B_ll_l’s Dons“, but insists that he’s better off this way.

"Though Oxford hath dismissed her generous son
For toils neglected and for tasks undone,
Small cause of triumph to my foes I leave,
Least cause of all for you, my friends, to grieve.
No theme for pity on this joyous day
Am I who leave, but rather you who stay;
Pent in so vile a 'varsity and town,
Their fate is hardest who are not sent down."

The end of Oxford mimics Juvenal, too, both Umbricius and Patroclus imagining they will meet the satirist again when he goes home, in Juvenal’s case to Aquinum (3.318-22):

"But thou, my friend, the partner of my heart,
When that time comes that thou must hence depart,
O come, and read thy satires to thy friend,
And mock at Oxford, safe in Ponders End!"

In the body of the poem the irritations of a frustrated Roman are replaced by scenes from undergraduate life. These cleverly parallel Umbricius’ concerns at times, dreadful student journalism standing in for the debased literary life of Rome, for instance — another respect we’ll consider later.

I first came across this version of Juvenal in Martin Winkler’s fine Penguin Classics collection Juvenal in English from 2001, where the author is identified as Geoffrey Howard, but Winkler appears to have no further information about him. Geoffrey Howard clearly was the author, as will emerge, but I’m not quite sure how his name came to light. It seems to be something to do with the second publication in 1922, when the author identified himself as G.H., and his address as “Temple”, and there is evidence here that his identity was known in some circles in 1929. The author of this copy of Oxford, a satire, Charles W. Baty, who inscribed it in around 1920, was equally confident:

Confusion reigns to the present day, nevertheless, among antiquarian book dealers and in bibliographical works such as Minor British Poets, 1789-1918 (Davis, Calif., 1983-6), Vol. 4 no. 302, the issue being, aside from the anonymity of the original publication, an unfortunate coincidence that a work with exactly the same title, Oxford, a satire, had been published by Sir Andrew Caldecott in 1907. The minimal authorial indications provided by the 1922 edition of Howard’s satire, at any rate, initials and a legal connection, are the key to a fuller biography.

By 1922 Geoffrey Howard was a practicing barrister, called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1919. He was a quietly successful lawyer, a County Court Judge from 1952 until his retirement in 1963, but he had broader interests than the Law, as we shall see. He died in 1973 at the age of 83.

At the time of his composition of Oxford, a satire Howard was an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, studying Modern History between 1908 and 1911 (my thanks to Judith Curthoys, Archivist at Christ Church, for those details). One thought I had after working out his dates was that between an undergraduate publication in 1910 and a republication in 1922 most likely lay service during the First World War, and he did indeed serve in France as an officer in the Royal Fusiliers. A poignant memorial on the Christ Church site records the death of his older brother Arthur (who had attended the same college, and served in the same regiment). Arthur Howard had been severely wounded in 1917, but died of his wounds only in 1923. Three poems by Geoffrey Howard feature in the wartime publication Soldier poets, songs of the fighting men (1916), important context for the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, as explained by P. Norgate, “Wilfred Owen and the Soldier Poets”, The Review of English Studies 40 (1989), 516-530, and they offer strong incidental confirmation that Howard’s talent lay in comic verse.

The most significant thing I’ve discovered, though as always not necessarily ahead of someone else whom I’ve missed, is that the author of Oxford, a satire, alongside his legal career, enjoyed modest literary celebrity between the wars, and that his post-war publications betray a clear affinity with his Oxford juvenilia/juvenalia.

The evidence (starting from a hint in a posting on Ancestry.com) comes from a short obituary of Howard in The Times on May 31, 1973 and a personal reminiscence by the eminent lawyer Graham Swanwick on June 8. In addition, one of Howard’s pupils was Elizabeth Lane, the first woman High Court Judge in England, and her autobiography, Hear the other side (Audi alteram partem) (1985), has a little more detail on him. It emerges, at any rate, that under the pseudonym “Marmaduke Dixey” Howard wrote extensively for Punch and produced, alongside two satirical novels, a collection of poems, and an extended humorous poem, published in the early days of contract bridge, on how to play that game. The collection, Words, Beasts and Fishes (1936), consists of amusing animal fables displaying the same deftness and wit as Oxford. His model in this book is interesting, too, the Fables of John Gay, one of the Golden Age of English satirists sometimes referred to as Scriblerians. The Beauties of Bridge (1938) similarly suggests the mock heroics of Pope in The Rape of the Lock, while the cover of the 1922 edition of Oxford imitates in language and presentation an eighteenth-century Scriblerian publication. To imply as this cover does that Juvenal is the fons et origo of at least one thread of English verse satire is of course uncontroversial.

Well, if I have reunited “Marmaduke Dixey” with his earlier composition in and about Oxford, that is one thing achieved. But I did say that Oxford also successfully captures some less palatable aspects of his model. Any authentic reinvention of Juvenal is going to be distasteful by the very nature of Juvenalian satire, as I’ve suggested, a poetry of critical abuse that respects nothing and is indiscriminate in whom it offends. Here, by way of illustration, depressingly predictable, both satirists, 1,800 years apart, engage in a passing, almost casual, anti-semitism, and in both cases this oldest and most persistent of prejudices attributes to Jews a reprehensible commitment to money-making.

But perhaps the key component of Juvenal 3, on the evidence of its many imitators, at least, is the more extended attack that it contains on a people, the Greeks, who by their migration to Rome, it claims, combined with the deceitful character that the satire attributes to them, have made the city uninhabitable for “authentic” Romans like Umbricius. A trend in the numerous post-Renaissance versions of Juvenal’s poem is to replace those Greeks with whatever contemporary group offered the best equivalent scapegoat. For Samuel Johnson and his rather snappier predecessor John Oldham (1653-83), both of whom relocate Juvenal’s satire from Rome to London (Johnson’s London was first published in 1738), it was the French who had ruined it, while in Edward Burnaby Greene’s The Satires of Juvenal Paraphrastically Imitated, and Adapted to the Times (1763), Juvenal’s non possum ferre, Quirites,/ Graecam Vrbem, “I cannot endure, fellow Romans, a Rome turned Greek”, becomes “unmoved I cannot see/ poor England sink a Scottish colony.” Passages from all these authors can be found in Winkler’s excellent anthology.

Oxford, a satire also targets an out-group responsible for Patroclus’ alienation from Oxford, and while Howard’s victims feature only momentarily, it is an interesting target he chooses. He has been pillorying student publications:

Yet, O my friends, these wretched rags forgive!
Who could write English where few English live?
Dark, alien tribes have driv'n our native far,
And all the Ganges flows into the Cher.
Such Ethiopian hosts the 'High' adorn,
Such crowds of Rajahs jostle in the 'Corn,'
That should the timid Briton come in sight
They start, affronted, at a face that's white!

The ingenuity here, for instance the transformation of iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes, “Long since has the Syrian Orontes flowed into the Tiber”, is undeniable, and as offensive as Juvenal’s xenophobia. A further point, though, is that, whether Howard considered this or not, the target matches Juvenal’s Greeks quite precisely, since the presence of these Indian and African students at Oxford was as much a consequence of empire as the Greek inhabitants of Rome.

Sumita Mukherjee’s Nationalism, emigration and migrant identities: the England-returned (2010) is an interesting study of Indian students in the U.K. in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular for providing the perspective of those students, often from personal archives. One detail will convey Oxford’s Juvenalian exaggeration: in the Lee-Warner “Report into the Position of Indian Students in the UK” of 1907 (not officially published until 1922), out of 700 Indian students at universities in the UK the vast majority were in London, while in Oxford there were a sum total of 32 (Mukherjee p.17). Numbers at Oxford did increase rapidly after 1906, when the requirement to sit Responsions, entrance examinations including compulsory Latin or Greek, were relaxed (English could be taken instead of the ancient languages, Mukherjee p.22). But they were never as large as Oxford, a satire implies, needless to say. A pie chart reproduced by Mukherjee (p.24) giving the proportions of “Dominion and Indian” students at UK universities or related institutions gives 45% for Indians and 37% for Africans (including 11% Egyptians, counted separately), incidentally, bearing in mind Howard’s reference to students from Africa.

The aim in making British higher education available to students from India (and African colonies) was to give the elites of India and elsewhere in the Empire an investment in the continuation of British rule, especially if, as in many cases, they returned to government service such as the Indian Civil Service (ICS). In practice, though, an inevitable consequence of gathering together students from all over India as Indians was to promote nationalist discussion and feeling (Mukherjee 47), additionally raising the reasonable question in the minds of these students why suitably qualified Indians should not be running their own country. It is possible that when Howard was writing his satire the status of Indian students was particularly on the agenda, as in July 1909 an Indian student in London, Madan Lal Dhingra, had assassinated William Curzon Wyllie, a high official of the British Indian government. This story also emerges from the same milieu, on a warmer note.

What we have in Oxford, a satire, then, is an early work by a writer who would achieve some prominence between the wars, and it offers some evidence why. Howard/Dixey was a poet steeped in Classical and eighteenth-century satire, and achieved an idiom — mock-elevated, rhetorically pointed, hyperbolic — that captures unusually well the Juvenalian voice, and targets its victims just as disproportionately as his notorious Roman model. I encourage my students to see that Juvenal, though writing in the early second century AD, was often rehearsing highly conventional lines of attack dating back as far as his great precursor, C. Lucilius, at the end of the second century BC. Details of Juvenal’s exposure of the Greekness of Rome in Satire 3 closely (and self-consciously) evoke complaints that Lucilius had made — but then Romans had been worrying that they were turning into Greeks for as long as they’d been Romans, and satire was always a privileged vehicle for Rome’s deepest self-expression and anxieties.

Howard was in obvious ways applying a critical template of hoary antiquity to Oxford University, but some of the most Juvenalian details of this poem also offer glimpses of circumstances in 1910, not least the irrational anxiety, expressed in spectacularly racist terms, that the colonised were usurping the privileges of the coloniser.

A final thought, though, returning to the indiscriminate character of satire in the tradition of Juvenal. There are a few minor changes between the 1910 and 1922 editions of Oxford, a satire, and four lines added to the 1922 version are perhaps worth noting. It is a supplement to a list of tedious visitors an undergraduate can expect to his rooms, and “Miles” is the Latin miles, “soldier”:

No longer to my rooms shall Claudius stroll,
Drink all my whisky, and explain his soul,
Or, sitting hourly in my easy chair,
Twiddle his thumbs and wonder if they're there!
The melancholy Miles shall no more
Spread out his matches and re-win the war
In tones so tedious, and with slang so stale,
You'd rather face the battle than the tale. [1922]

There is truly nothing, and nobody, that Juvenal and his imitators are unprepared to satirize, it seems.

I have scanned both the 1910 and 1922 editions of Oxford, a satire in my possession, and you should find them at their respective links.


What follows is sheer speculation, but I should start with an explanation.

Last summer I went with my family to Deal in Kent for a week, and one day, intrigued by theories about Julius Caesar’s landing place in 55 and 54 BC, as one is bound to be, I took a long walk down the coast from Deal to within sight of the White Cliffs at Kingsdown.

In Kingsdown I found myself walking past something fine and unexpected, a beautifully presented Edwardian house by the sea with a Latin text carved in its façade.

The text reads si mea laeta placet casa tu precor hospes adesto, or with punctuation, si mea laeta placet casa, tu, precor, hospes, adesto; in English literally, “If my happy cottage is pleasing, do, I pray, stranger, be here”, or more fluently, “If you like my cheerful cottage, stranger, do please come in.” You may notice, though, that some of the letters are larger than others (I pick them out in bold): SI MEA LAETA PLACET CASA TV PRECOR HOSPES ADESTO. These larger letters, understood as Roman numerals, add up (I + V + L + L + C + C + C + D + M) to 1906, apparently the date when the house was constructed. In other words, it’s a chronogram, about which I blogged here, while here I pondered a connection between this chronogram in Deal and the examples from Oxford (including my own college, Brasenose) that I’d discussed in that blog. I so pondered because this example in Deal is a great piece of work, the nicest I’ve seen. Like the chronogram at Brasenose it is in verse, a dactylic hexameter, and it would be an extremely elegant composition even if it weren’t also a dating formula.

Well, I did some rapid research on the internet yesterday, and I started with one slighter stronger assumption, and one decidedly weak. The strong one is that chronograms of this quality are not easy to produce and are thus likely to be the work of a limited number of people. The weak is the one I’ve mentioned: given that I’ve identified two chronograms in Oxford, one on the façade of Frewin Hall from 1888 and another on the front of the Rhodes Building from 1911, as the work of Charles Shadwell, Fellow and later Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, I suspected that this example might have something to do with him too.

What I established yesterday was that in 1963, in the will of Alan Bruce Blaxland, the house bearing the chronogram, named “Pleasaunce” (a name alluded to in PLACET), was given as his residence at the time of his death. Alan Bruce Blaxland C.B. O.B.E. had been a senior officer in the British Indian Army during the Second World War, his most controversial role perhaps coming after the war when he chaired the court-martials of men who had joined Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army: he died on September 2, 1963 in the Victoria Hospital, Deal, at the age of 71.

In the 1901 and 1911 censuses we find Alan Bruce Blaxland at the ages of 8 and 18 at home with his family, two further brothers and two sisters, his mother Constance and father Bruce, a Church of England clergyman. In 1901 Bruce Blaxland was vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Lilleshall, Shropshire, and in 1911 of the Abbey Church in Shewsbury.

And it’s with Bruce that I start to indulge in wild speculation. The first step is the observation that both Bruce and Constance were from east Kent, Bruce from Canterbury, and Constance from Eastry, which is just a few miles from Kingsdown — my guess is that the house Alan Bruce Blaxland was living in in 1963 was built by his parents as a holiday home back where they spent their childhoods. The next step, and the ice gets less and less secure the further out I venture, involves the Revd. Bruce Blaxland’s education, since according to this very comprehensive account of his career (and I’ve checked out some of the relevant details in The Times archive), he studied Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford from 1879 to 1882, achieving a First Class degree.

This was, needless to say, precisely when Charles Shadwell was a fellow of Oriel, with his hobbies (as listed in Who’s Who) of “punting, billiards, chess problems, chronograms”. (One can read Walter Pater’s essay Diaphaneité, which describes an ideal personality, living a “purity of life”, modelled on his friend Charles Shadwell, and wonder about those recreations.) From 1874 to 1887, Shadwell, a man devoted to his college, was treasurer of Oriel, and from 1905 to 1914 its head. In between he lived at Frewin Hall, Oxford, carried out extensive renovations, and popped a Latin, hexametrical chronogram over the front door. I can think of any number of ways by which Blaxland and Shadwell might have become acquainted, and I’m obviously imagining that either Bruce Blaxland got into chronography himself when an undergraduate, inspired by Shadwell (in which case he was an excellent pupil), or (and I think this more likely) Blaxland requested a chronogram from Shadwell at a later date. The coincidence of an Oriel connection just seems too great to me otherwise.

Anyhow, it’s my blog, and I can speculate as much as I like.

Happy media

Hercules Epitrapezios in the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, and image from the same: https://www.fujibi.or.jp/en/our-collection/profile-of-works.html?work_id=1940

A highlight of a challenging term has been teaching, with Barney Taylor, a new course on late first/early second-century Roman literature–Martial and Statius so far, with Pliny the Younger, Tacitus and Juvenal to come next term. One text this brought me back to is the fourth book of Statius’ “occasional” (i.e. lighter, officially non-epic) poetry, Silvae. I’ve a personal soft spot for the Silvae, and Silvae 4 especially, because it was while, in 1997 in Dublin, I was listening to a talk on Silvae 4.3, Statius’ celebration of the new Via Domitiana that the emperor had built, a quick road connection to Naples, that I had an idea from which, a decade later, this book finally emerged. The idea of Musa Pedestris was to encourage readers of Roman poetry to pay more attention to the metrical form that it adopted, which (I argued) potentially contributed as much meaning to its poetry as any other element of the composition. The various metrical forms that Roman poetry adopted had their own independent character, established by usage (and theory about usage) over time, and this could shape in interesting ways the poetry they carried.

Well, in a fit of nostalgia, here’s a blog that illustrates the thesis, or tries to, that if you ignore the metre of a Roman poem, you potentially miss something fundamental. The subject is three interrelated poems about a statue of Hercules, by Statius (Silvae 4.6) and Martial (9.43 and 44), but first a couple of general rules about metrical character or ethos by way of introduction; with a warning that what I’m ultimately going to argue here is that the poets want us to see their manipulation of metrical structures as in some sense equivalent to the sculpting of a bronze statuette.

Statius’ poem is in a metre that we call the dactylic hexameter, and which the ancients as often referred to as the “heroic verse”. This was by convention the most elevated poetic form, a metre fit to tell the tales of heroic figures of epic poetry like Achilles or Aeneas. (The notion that combinations of long and short syllables could have a perceived character might seem odd, but here and here are striking illustrations of how well-established it was; and here a less striking one.) In any case the hexameter is Statius’ favourite metre in the Silvae, and among other things allows this supposedly occasional poetry to rise at times to the level of epic. Another metre, meanwhile, the hendecasyllable, had been much used by Catullus, and is both Statius’ choice for a number of the Silvae and the second-most common metre in Martial’s epigrams. When used by both Martial and Statius it can evoke a Catullan atmosphere (it lends a sense of Catullan spontaneity, freedom and youthful energy to Domitian’s new road in Silvae 4.3, for instance), but it was also considered a kind of polar opposite of the grand hexameter, a vehicle for trivialities, not heroes. The choice of metre for 4.3, essentially a panegyric of the emperor, was thus also arrestingly unexpected. Elsewhere the hendecasyllable is used by Statius for festive or Saturnalian poems.

The three poems I’m concerned with here all address a single topic, a miniature statue of Hercules (less than Roman foot high, according to Statius, 4.6.39) that served as a table ornament and was owned by a man with the excellent name Novius Vindex. The poems are in hexameters (Statius, Silvae 4.6), hendecasyllables (Martial 9.44), and in the case of Martial 9.43 elegiac couplets. A final word on that last metrical system. The elegiac couplet combines a hexameter line with a shorter dactylic length known as a pentameter, and one consequence is that it can carry with it a sense of being closely related to the heroic hexameter, since that provides its first line, yet also inferior, since a pentameter, a shorter length, always follows the hexameter. But note that this kinship with the hexameter securely establishes elegiacs as higher in the metrical pecking order than hendecasyllables.

Here is one example from elsewhere in the Silvae of the kind of subtle play with metrical associations that these poets are capable of.

Silvae 1.2 is an epithalamion, a marriage poem, for L. Arruntius Stella, a patron of poets such as Statius and Martial and a poet in his own right, the author of love elegies in the tradition of Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid. These had their trademark metre, the elegiac couplet that we’ve mentioned, a combination of a dactylic hexameter and pentameter often said to fall short of the epic hexameter by one foot (pente < hex). Statius’ poem (playfully) presents Stella’s marriage to his new bride Violentilla as an abandonment of his elegiac life of dissolute love (his formerly solutus amor must now obey the laws of marriage, 28-9), and the metre of Statius’ own poem, hexameter, is made to express in its own right Stella’s new status as a respectable married man. Elegy herself, embodiment of the metrical form of elegiac poetry, and of the kind of poetry for which that metre was the vehicle, attends their wedding. In Ovid’s love elegies Elegy had been portrayed as limping (deficient in one foot, geddit?) and all the more attractive for it (Amores 3.1.7-10). Statius’ Silvae have survived by a whisker, and the text is often difficult to reconstruct. But at Silvae 1.2.7-10 Elegy tries to slip herself unnoticed among the nine Muses who are hymning the happy couple, and she does something with her foot (the critical word is unclear, but it may suggest a built-up shoe) to conceal her tell-tale elegiac limp. It’s a brilliant conceit, even if we can’t quite see exactly how it works: if Elegy loses her limp, we have the heroic hexameter, and the hexameter here means marital respectability.

But back to Novius Vindex’s statue of Hercules. It was a representation of the the hero is a relaxed state that had both miniature and full-size (and larger than full-size) versions in antiquity (on this ambiguously titled “Hercules Epitrapezios” see M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical Art from Greece to Rome, 197-8). The originals, big and small, of this image were attributed to Lysippus (on whose remarkable influence as a sculptor of Heracles see here), and numerous copies survive to this day. But Vindex’s statue is claimed by the poets to be an original, the work of Lysippus’ own hand, and furthermore to boast an illustrious history of ownership, having passed from Alexander to Hannibal and on to the Roman dictator L. Sulla. This seems unlikely, although all three of these men did display particular respect for Heracles/Melqart/Hercules, it is fair to say.

Sitzender Herkules, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, https://www.khm.at/it/objektdb/detail/67480/?offset=42&lv=list

A key theme in the poems on Vindex’s statue is the tension inherent in a statue of a great hero (and a statue that had allegedly belonged to some of the most famous figures in history) which is diminutive in size and function, and in the possession of a private citizen. Statius develops this play between big and small, heroic and domestic, public and private at some length, but Martial does similar things in his first epigram (9.43), which can illustrate the theme:

Hic qui dura sedens porrecto saxa leone
       mitigat, exiguo magnus in aere deus,
quaeque tulit spectat resupino sidera uultu,
       cuius laeua calet robore, dextra mero:
non est fama recens nec nostri gloria caeli;               5
       nobile Lysippi munus opusque uides.
hoc habuit numen Pellaei mensa tyranni,
       qui cito perdomito uictor in orbe iacet;
hunc puer ad Libycas iurauerat Hannibal aras;
       iusserat hic Sullam ponere regna trucem.              10
offensus uariae tumidis terroribus aulae
       priuatos gaudet nunc habitare lares,
utque fuit quondam placidi conuiua Molorchi,
       sic uoluit docti Vindicis esse deus.

“This one that sits and softens the hard rocks with outspread/ lionskin, a mighty god in a miniscule bronze,/ and gazes at the stars he once bore with upturned face,/ whose left hand is busy with a club, his right with wine–/ he is no recent object of fame nor the glory of a Roman chisel;/ it is the noble work and gift of Lysippus that you see./ This deity the table of the tyrant of Pella possessed,/ who lies at rest a victor in a world he swiftly subdued;/ by him the young Hannibal swore an oath at a Libyan altar;/ it was he that bade pitiless Sulla lay down his kingship./ Discomfited by the inflamed terrors of diverse courts,/ he rejoices now to dwell in a private house,/ and as once he dined with peaceful Molorchus,/ so the god wished to be the guest of learned Vindex.”

Martial wrote two poems on the same subject, as mentioned. In other words Vindex’s statue provokes in Martial a metrical game he occasionally plays, presenting alternative accounts of a circumstance in different metres, elegiacs and hendecasyllables, the metres seemingly shaping each treatment according to their traditional character. The phenomenon is investigated by Patricia Watson, “Contextualising Martial’s metres”, in R.R. Nauta, H.-J. Van Dam & J.J.L. Smolenaars (eds.), Flavian Poetry (2006), 285-98.

Martial 9.44’s approach to the subject, in hendecasyllables, is strikingly different from his preceding poem. Whereas the elegiacs we have just seen are overtly poetic and formal in expression, 9.44 is colloquial, realistic, and humorous:

Alciden modo Vindicis rogabam
esset cuius opus laborque felix.
risit, nam solet hoc, leuique nutu
‘Graece numquid’ ait ‘poeta nescis?
inscripta est basis indicatque nomen.’              5
Lysippum lego, Phidiae putavi.

“I recently asked Vindex’s Hercules/ whose work and happy creation he was./ He laughed, as is his way, and with a light nod/ “Poet”, he said, “don’t you know Greek?/ My base is inscribed and shows the name.” I read Lysippus. I thought it was Phidias’s.”

This is a controversial poem. Change the text of the first line a bit and it’s Vindex being questioned, not the god himself; and the point of the last line is elusive, too. But what matters for my purposes is the metrical self-awareness that Martial sees fit to flaunt in his book of epigrams, largely for its own sake. I’d merely make a provisional further point at this stage that Martial’s poetic reception of Vindex’s bijou statue of Hercules shares with that statue a mastery of high and low, the capacity to capture it in the elevated, aestheticised terms of dactylic elegy, and also in the colloquial mode of the hendecasyllable.

Statius also seems determined to create a poetic artefact that shares characteristics with the statue it celebrates, and again his approach has a metrical dimension, I think.

Silvae 4.6 addresses Vindex’s statue in terms so close to Martial’s as to make us suspect the guiding hand of Vindex in each–intriguingly, the two leading Flavian poets never explicitly acknowledge each other’s existence. Again, a key conceit in Statius’ poem is the grandeur of the figure of Hercules paradoxically captured in a tiny figure, finesque inclusa per artos/ maiestas (35-6), “small to the sight, huge in impression” (37-8, paruusque uideri/ sentirique ingens). And like Martial again, Statius’ celebration of this diminutive masterpiece ranges between poetic styles. In this case Silvae 4.6 traverses the full spectrum of poetic registers from satire to epic before settling in an intermediary position that the “occasional” Silvae find congenial.

Let me explain what I mean, and what the implications for metre are. Verse satire was a genre pursued by Horace, Persius and Juvenal (and C. Lucilius before them) and was considered Rome’s only poetic innovation–everything else they borrowed from the Greeks. Satire was a genre of criticism, and more generally a poetry that concerned itself with the lowest, meanest aspects of human life. Satire is never entirely convinced that it’s really poetry at all, so unedifying is its content. (It’s a melancholy fact that the one genre of poetry Romans could call their own isn’t certain it is poetry.) A development that crystallized satire’s character was C. Lucilius’ decision to adopt the dactylic hexameter as the signature metre of this anti-genre–an outrageous choice, since it matched the most elevated metre to the tawdry topics of satire. This reinforced satire’s status as a response, or antidote, to the artificiality of epic poetry. Every subsequent satirical hexameter, one might say, advertised the mismatch of content and vehicle.

Statius in 4.6 frames his encounter with Vindex as a dinner to which Vindex has invited him, and he starts his poem with extensive reminiscence of Horace’s Satires, when he insists the joy of the dinner was not a matter of luxurious food, for instance (Kathy Coleman’s commentary to Silvae 4 cites parallels in Horace), but most obviously at the very start, where Statius wandering idly in Rome, described in a conversational tone, strongly evokes Horace doing the same in Satire 1.9 (Statius’ first line alludes to the first and last line of Horace’s poem). But the dinner-by-invitation, cena, and the sermo, “conversation”, that was conventionally the essence of a good cena (the quality of the sermo chez Vindex is singled out by Statius), were the bread and butter (so to speak) of satirical poetry.

Soon enough, though, Statius’ poem rises to a higher register, as Amphitryoniades enters the poem, “Hercules son of Amphitryon” (33), a grandiose epic patronymic filling half the line, and especially when Statius starts enumerating his eminent previous owners. Here is Hannibal’s spectacular introduction by way of illustration (75-8):

Mox Nasamoniaco decus admirabile regi        
possessum; fortique deo libauit honores
semper atrox dextra periuroque ense superbus

“Presently the marvellous treasure came to belong to the Nasamonian king: the valiant god he, Hannibal, honoured by libation, ever savage with his right hand and arrogant with treacherous sword.”

Statius’ poem will ultimately find its way to an accommodation of these divergent registers, the god Hercules still epically mighty, but relaxed and at peace (and pint-sized, of course) in Vindex’s private home, and this compromise typifies the intermediary poetics to which the Silvae aspire. The interplay of large and small, high and low, in Statius’ poem and Martial’s epigrams has been well investigated by Charles McNelis, “Ut sculptura poesis: Statius, Martial, and the Hercules Epitrapezios of Novius Vindex,” AJPh 129 (2008), 255-76, with an emphasis on Callimachus as a model (Molorchus in particular points in his direction), and McNelis draws out the emulative impulse of Martial’s and Statius’s response to the statue–poetic achievements comparable in artistic dexterity to the statuette itself are the only adequate way to celebrate it.

All I’d like to add is a proper recognition of the role of satire in Statius’ poem, and an observation about metre that links both poets. Martial and Statius react to Vindex’s statue with poetry that seeks to match the quality of a valuable artefact, and that matches it in one particular respect: both poets advertise a control of the high and the low parallel to that of the sculptor Lysippus, a mastery of the spectrum of registers from the mundane to the magnificent. In Martial’s case this is conveyed by two poems in contrasting metres and concomitant styles; but Statius also exploits the scope available to him within the Roman history of a single metre, the dactylic hexameter, shifting between the hexametrical poles of satire and epic with as much deftness as Martial flips from elegiacs to hendecasyllables.

When I was writing about metre many years ago I came to feel that the Romans regarded the metrical forms of their poetry as closely akin to physical structures. Michael Roberts considers Statius a harbinger of the style of late-antique Latin poetry, and in The Jeweled Style (1989), p.21 has this to say of the latter:

“Words are viewed as possessing a physical presence of their own, distinct from any considerations of sense or syntax. They may be moved like building blocks or pieces in a puzzle to create ever new formal constructs. It is this sense of the physical existence of words and of meter as their structural matrix that underlies the ingenious verbal patterns of Optatianus Porfyrius and the Technopaegnion of Ausonius.”

Not the least important respect in which Statius and Martial craft an adequate response to Lysippus’ miniature god, creating poetic artefacts comparable to an exquisite sculpture, is in their absolute mastery of the poetic structures we call metres.

Statua colossale di Ercole, da Alba Fucens (Aq), museo archeologico nazionale di Chieti. Image courtesy of Inabruzzo.it


In the last book of Homer’s Iliad, Priam ventures out of the safety of the city of Troy and makes his way to the camp of the Achilles, who is keeping with him the corpse of Priam’s eldest son Hector and daily tying it to his chariot and dragging it around the walls of Troy. Priam is a vulnerable old man moving across No Man’s Land in darkness to a place of greatest danger, and there on the plain of Troy the god Hermes comes to meet him (Iliad 24.360-71, tr. Hammond):

“But the very god, the kindly one, came close to him, and took the old man by the hand and spoke to him with questions: ‘Where is it, father, that you are driving your horses and mules through the immortal night, when other men are sleeping? Are you not frightened of the Achaians who breathe fury? They are your enemies and intend you harm, and they are close by. If any of them were to see you coming through the quick black night with so many treasures, what would become of you then? You are not young yourself, and your companion here is too old for defence against a man who starts a fight with you. But I will do you no harm, and indeed I will protect you from any who would—I look on you as my own father.'”

But what has the god Hermes got to do with the three-metre tall, solid bronze sculpture of a foot that is pictured at the top?

A valid question, to which the beginning of an answer is that the title of that sculpture, a work by William Tucker, is Messenger, and an account of the thinking behind it runs as follows: “Using the energy in the moment of lift of a foot leaping, Tucker describes through just one element of anatomy the idea of the classical messenger Hermes perhaps taking flight.”

William Tucker is an extremely distinguished modernist sculptor who also happens to have been a student at my college, Brasenose, studying Modern History between 1955 and 1958. Earlier in the year he contacted our Fellow in Fine Arts, Ian Kiaer, to offer one of his sculptures to his old college. After some consideration, it has been agreed that Messenger will be installed in the near future at Frewin, an accommodation annexe of Brasenose College on the other side of central Oxford.

Frewin is about to enjoy a major facelift. It is a fascinating spot, in many ways of greater historic interest than the College’s main site. It was a college in its own right once, St Mary’s, and while it lasted Erasmus spent a term there. At its heart is an old house, Frewin Hall, which I’ve written about before, and which has elements from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but a cellar that dates back to the twelfth, and a façade we owe to an eccentric, chronogram-obsessed resident at the end of the nineteenth century. Frewin Hall was badly chopped about in the eighties, but it is going to be restored in the next few years, with its ground floor suite of panelled rooms turned into a student common room/library. I’m excited also, after a chat with the architect, about the possibilities for my favourite space in the entire College, the Norman cellar.

At the same time, a beautiful new accommodation building, planning permission permitting, will be rising to the south of Frewin Hall, and the green areas of Frewin will be replanted and relandscaped. A gift from the greatest artist ever to emerge from Brasenose College, which will be a central feature of the new gardens, could not have come at a more opportune time.

Tucker’s style of sculpture has evolved over time from abstract works like this at MoMA to the more figurative style represented by Messenger. It remains the case that the impact of this piece derives, like any sculpture, from intangible things like size, material and texture as much as from any real object or associations it may evoke. But one of the best arguments for giving Messenger a permanent place at the heart of our educational establishment is the meaning conveyed by Tucker’s sculpture of a rising foot inspired by the messenger god Hermes.

Which brings us back to Hermes in the last book of the Iliad, lending his protection to Priam in the space between Troy and the Achaean camp. Because that is Hermes in his very element. We could consider this fascinating god the denizen of the spaces between, or the divine patron of transition, but in any case Hermes’ special area of jurisdiction is connections. He is of course the means of communication, as the divine herald, between gods and humans, and in a moment like his descent in Aeneid Book 4 to instruct Aeneas to leave Carthage, one level of interpretation is to see the god as the action of the special capacity, reason, that unites gods and humans, according to the ancients. Aeneas when Mercury appears to him “sees reason” in more senses than one. Hermes/Mercury bridges other spaces, escorting the souls of the dead from this world to the next, and a patron also of commerce. He invents the lyre and music; he could be understood as the inventor of language itself. He is the god of thieves and protection against thieves–again, that undefined territory in-between.

I quoted to my colleagues a neat summary of Hermes’ jurisdiction from Arlene Allan, Hermes (Routledge, 2018), 18:

“We may, with [Robert] Parker, categorise this involvement [of Hermes] in mortal life according to the triad ‘transition/communication/exchange’: he moves individuals and societies from ignorance to knowledge (communication); from point A to point B (transition); and from want to satisfaction (exchange). Or we might, as previously suggested, prefer to think of these three general areas as subsumable under the single word ‘translation’ in its various shades of meaning. However, the idea of Hermes can be further articulated by identifying what is accomplished through his interaction. Collectively the evidence points to Hermes as the power behind purposeful individual and systemic movement kata moiran (‘according to destiny’): his is the power that makes connections and builds relationships.”

A college is a society of learning, and Hermes the messenger at so many levels a perfect embodiment of its ethos. Tucker’s statue, with beautiful economy, and a lovely tension between solid metal and the deft movement it represents, captures with a brazen body part, I would propose, the essence of the College of the Brazen Nose.

The Lifeboat Calamity at Wells

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One hundred and forty years ago today, my great-great-grandfather was drowned at sea.

John Elsdon, from Wells in Norfolk, was a fisherman, like many in Wells, and also served on the crew of the Wells lifeboat. In late October 1880 gales were lashing the east coast of England, and on November 1 The Times reported a disaster in Wells (p. 10):

“It is feared that by the capsizing of the lifeboat at Wells on Friday [October 29] 11 of the crew have been drowned. It appears that the boat went out to the assistance of the brig Ocean Queen, of Sunderland, but could not get alongside owing to the falling tide, and was returning when she was struck by a heavy sea, which capsized her, The crew consisted of Robert William Elsdon, harbour master and captain; John Elsdon, coxswain; Samuel Smith, Charles Smith, William Field, George Jay, William Green, Thomas Kew, Charles Hinds, John Stacey, Frank Abel, William Wordingham, and William Bell, all seamen. Of these only Thomas Kew and William Bell have been saved. One of the survivors states that the crew had on their cork jackets. Some clung to the boat, or were entangled in the gear, while others, separated from her, struck out for shore half-a-mile distant. The lifeboat did not right herself until she had been driven a considerable distance, and had her mast carried away. Bell was afterwards found in the boat; Kew swam ashore, and was picked up half dead by the coastguard. One or two bodies were picked up on Friday night and several others were recovered on Saturday. All the 11 drowned men were married, and leave families–Jay as many as eight children. The crew of the Ocean Queen walked ashore at low water.”

Robert William Elsdon was in fact the coxswain of the lifeboat, “Eliza Adams”, while John was his younger brother (and my ancestor). On November 4 The Times (p. 11) published a letter by the local MP which among other things adds the detail that the Wells lifeboat had already executed a rescue on the night of October 29 (of seven souls from the brig “Sharon’s Rose”) before it headed out again to the aid of “Ocean Queen”. In between trips out, the crew had largely been replaced, but the more experienced men, including Robert William Elsdon, 62, and John, 60, were involved in both efforts. Propelling a lifeboat in stormy seas was mainly done by rowing, and I cannot imagine how exhausted they were by the time they set out for the second time:

“Sir,–I venture to make appeal on behalf of the ten widows and 27 orphans of the gallant lifeboatmen who perished from the Wells lifeboat on Friday last. The facts of this distressing case have already been made generally known, and my present object is simply to ask your co-operation in helping me to bring the claims of the bereaved families under the notice of the British public. The lifeboat work has assumed a national character, and, therefore, naturally appeals to every one for sympathy and aid in such distressful circumstances. The district in which this calamity occurred is a poor one, and the county, being an agricultural one, has, like similar counties, suffered much from agricultural depression. I feel sure that the National Lifeboat Institution, to whom the lifeboat belonged, will, as usual, deal most liberally and generously with the fund for the relief of the widows and orphans, but the institution can hardly be expected to meet altogether the requirements of this distressing case. I therefore appeal with confidence to the co-operation of The Times in helping me to bring into prominent notice the strong and urgent claims of the widows and orphans of those noble men who sacrificed their own lives while attempting to save the lives of others. I may mention that the Wells lifeboat had only an hour or so previously been successful in saving a shipwrecked crew, and it was only on a second trip that this dreadful calamity happened, when she was attempting to save the crew of a Sunderland vessel. I beg to add that I shall be happy myself to receive contributions on behalf of the fund, or they may be paid to Messrs. Gurneys and Co., Bank, Wells, Norfolk, or to their London agents, Messrs. Barclay and Co., Lombard-street, E.C. I am yours faithfully, EDWARD BIRKBECK, M.P. for North Norfolk. Horstead-hall, Norwich, Nov. 3″

On November 20 (The Times p.8) subscriptions to the relief fund in the intervening fortnight are recorded. £1,000 from the National Lifeboat Association has been roughly doubled by subventions from such as HRH The Prince of Wales (£20), the Earl of Leicester (£100) and “Kelling Church Collection, per Rev. R. J. Roberts” (£1 3s 9d). Further contributions are invited, but I have no idea if the resulting sum was equal to the need. Robert William Elsdon’s widow Emily describes herself in the 1881 census, taken on April 3, as a “Lifeboat Annuitant”.

My great-grandfather (also called Robert William Elsdon), the son of John Elsdon, was in his mid-thirties by the time of his father’s death, and I think already a dock worker in the London Docks. My grandmother grew up in Poplar, and is listed in the 1901 census, at the age of 13, as a “Factory Lad”. John Elsdon’s widow Harriet, my great-great-grandmother, lived to the age of 91, dying in Wells in 1916, though I don’t know how well my grandmother knew hers. A photo survives of Harriet Elsdon with a daughter (I’m not as yet sure which: Harriet had six in total, I think), son-in-law and two granddaughters, the clothes of the latter suggesting a date in the early 1900s, when Harriet, born in 1824, was approaching eighty:

In 1906, at the initiative of Thomas Kew, one of the survivors, a memorial (image at the top) was unveiled near the Lifeboat House in Wells, with Harriet undoubtedly in attendance: there’s a photo of Kew in front of it here.

Forty years ago my mother and I visited Wells to see the memorial that she had heard about, and arrived, quite by chance, within a couple of days of the centenary.

You can donate to the RNLI here.


From E. C. Bayley, “Notes on some sculptures found in the district of Peshawar”, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 21 (1852), 606–21, a scan provided by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org).

A particularly excellent initiative from the outstanding Gandhara Connections project based in Oxford, directed by my old friend Peter Stewart, is a series of short, stimulating introductions to Gandharan topics written by Project Consultant Dr Wannaporn Kay Rienjang. The latest of these, on the monastery site of Jamalgarhi, one of the most celebrated archaeological sites in the Peshawar valley, is as highly recommended as its predecessors. For the purposes of this blog, though, it contains the image at the top, an image that set me thinking.

It is E. C. Bayley’s drawing of one of a number of Buddhist sculptures provided to him by two British officers, Lieutenant Stokes and Lieutenant Lumsden, of the Horse Artillery and the Guide Corps respectively, who had removed them from Jamalgarhi. My immediate thought when I saw it was that the Buddha and the figure with his back turned to the Buddha’s immediate left bore a remarkable similarity to another relief I was familiar with from Jamalgarhi. This relief, now in the Indian Museum in Kolkata (no. G-34), is best illustrated by James Craddock’s photograph from 1880 on the British Library site of pieces found in later, more official excavations of the monastery:

Source: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/apac/photocoll/b/largeimage59035.html

The carving in the relief at the centre of this image is especially fine. But what I had been reminded of within this composition was the central figure of the Buddha and the figure to his left, here with Bayley’s equivalents for comparison:

The two compositions, from the realisation of the Buddha and his orientation to the striking presentation of the accompanying figure, back turned, left leg bent, are very similar indeed, and Peter and Kay tell me that such replication in a monastery’s decorative scheme is quite unusual.

Now, my personal interest here is the figure with his back turned to the Buddha’s left, and I’ll come to him presently. Before I do, though, a little bit more on these images as we have them, or indeed don’t have them. Bayley’s sketches of the sculptures that he had received are in fact all that we do now have, because the sculptures picked up by Stokes and Lumsden subsequently travelled to London for exhibition, and were on display in the Crystal Palace at Sydenham when fire broke out at the end of December 1866, destroying (according to the Illustrated London News January 5, 1867, p. 22) “nearly all the north quarter of that magnificent structure, containing the Tropical Department; the whole of the Natural History Collection; the Assyrian, Alhambra, and Byzantine Courts; the Queen’s Apartments; the Library and Printing Offices; the India, Architectural, Model, and Marine Galleries.” (E. Errington, The Western discovery of the art of Gandhara (1987), 90; V. A. Smith, “Graeco-Roman influence on the civilisation of ancient India”, JASB 58 (1889), 107-98 at 113; J. Burgess, “The Gandhara Sculptures”, The Journal of Indian Art 8 (1900), 23-90, at 23-4).

From The Illustrated London News January 12, 1867, p. 1.

They were never photographed before their destruction, and one particular question I have is thus left unanswerable: whether the Buddha’s companion was indeed more discreetly clothed in the relief that Bayley sketched, or Bayley added the pants out of a Victorian sense of propriety.

We shall never know, but what remains of this blog is dedicated to establishing that the posterior of this figure, be it clothed or left magnificently bare, is of the greatest significance. In both images it belongs to Vajrapani, the attendant and guardian of the Buddha who wields the vajra or thunderbolt, symbol of the Buddha’s penetrating insight. A fascinating feature of Gandharan art is its adoption for the iconography of Vajrapani, in many instances, of the Greco-Roman Heracles, perhaps the most striking example (again no longer in existence) being a Vajrapani from the monastery complex of Hadda in eastern Afghanistan:

Image from a Persée scan of Z. Tarzi, “Hadda à la lumière des trois dernières campagnes de fouilles de Tapa-è-Shotor”, Comptes rendus de séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 120 (1976), 381-410 at 395.

In the case of Jamalgarhi, Bayley comments on the Vajrapani he had sketched, “This figure, which has its back turned to the spectator, is admirably designed” (108), and that judgement is easy to understand from the Craddock photo, which shows a remarkably subtle realisation of a muscular Herculean physique.

What’s even more remarkable, though, is the specific source of this Herculean representation of Vajrapani. If we compare the Jamalgarhi Vajrapanis with a reasonably famous image of Hercules…

The Farnese Hercules, front and back, image by erikakettleson on flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/54849035@N08/5075985885/sizes/o/in/photostream/

…we have the same straight right leg and flexed left, the same (shall we say) prominent buttocks, and comparably pronounced musculature of the back. The Farnese Hercules in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, discovered on the site of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, is the most famous example of a very common sculptural image of the hero, the so-called “Weary Hercules”, a work originally by Lysippus in the fourth century BC of which over 80 imitations from antiquity survive (M. Beard and J. Henderson, Classical art from Greece to Rome (2001), 199-202), presumably not including these two examples from Pakistan.

Lysippus’ Hercules didn’t travel directly to Jamalgarhi, or at least not necessarily. Another imitation of the Weary Hercules was discovered at the site of Seleucia on the Tigris near Baghdad in the 1980s. This is a precious historical document, as Parthian Sources Online explains: on either thigh of the statue accounts are inscribed, in Greek and Parthian (calling him Heracles in Greek and Verethragna, the name of a Persian hero, in the Parthian), of its capture by the Parthian king in the reconquest of a client kingdom, Mesene, in AD 151. There is no image I can legally place here, I don’t think, but at this site there are front and rear views of Heracles-Verethragna, and the key element of the latter is described by Antonio Invernizzi in La terra tra i due fiumi: venti anni di archeologia italiana in Medio Oriente (1985), 420-22 using unmistakeable terms that also go much better in Italian, somehow: “I glutei asimmetrici sono un po’ squadrati, divisi da un profondo solco e hanno forte rilievo sulle cosce,” “The asymmetric buttocks are a little square, divided by a deep cleft and stand out prominently from the thighs.”

Lysippus’ Heracles at Jamalgarhi, pronounced buttocks and all, has been as fully accommodated in his new Buddhist context as Heracles/Verethragna was in Parthia. Each relief presents stories from the Buddha’s life, presented in consecutive scenes like a cartoon strip, and in the case of the Craddock photo that is the tale of the white dog that barked. This is a discipline full of beautiful books, I have discovered, but Isao Kurita, Gandharan art = Gandara bijutsu (Tokyo, 2003), recommended to me by Peter Stewart, may take the biscuit, two volumes of images of Gandharan art and explanations of their content, and on p. 325 there is a summary of this story: the Buddha visits the house of Śuka, where a white dog on a couch barks furiously at him. The Buddha reveals that the dog is Śuka’s father and that treasure that his father had covetously buried is there to be dug up. The dog, under the Buddha’s influence, proceeds to do so.

The story represented in Bayley’s sketch is less obvious, though it is clearly entirely different. It looks like someone is threatening violence, the figure to our left drawing a sword, but after reading, with Kay Rienjang’s encouragement, Monica Zin’s brilliant article, “About two rocks in the Buddha’s life story”, East and West 56 (2006), 329-58, I don’t think it’s the resentful and aggressive monk Devadatta. It may possibly be the story of Angulimala, a mass murderer converted by the Buddha and taken by him to a monastery, on whom see Zin again, “The unknown Ajanta painting of the Angulimala story”, in C. Jarrige and V. Lefèvre, South Asian Archaeology 2001 II: Historical Archaeology and Ancient History (2005), 705-13. I’m open to other suggestions, needless to say, but this is an important point: “Heracles” features in scenes which are stylistically very influenced by Greece, but in every other respect, and most importantly in their religious significance, Indian. Heracles on the Tigris was still Heracles to those reading his right thigh, at least, but what looks to me like Heracles at Jamalgarhi really isn’t Heracles any more.

That said, there’s something about the virtuosity with which an artist at Jamalgarhi has rendered the Lysippan model, the boldness with which he presents Vajrapani nude, and with his back to us, that seems to demand we compare it to its Mediterranean forebears. It frankly staggers me (perhaps I am easily staggered) that the movement of Heracles across the vast expanses of the ancient world was not just a matter of his general image and physical attributes crossing cultures, but of the persistence of quite specific artistic realisations of the god-hero: here an image created by Alexander’s favourite sculptor features in a Buddhist tale of a man reincarnated as a dog, and maybe also a man turned from extreme violence to peaceful meditation, and that rather encapsulates the astonishing resilience of an artistic idea while all around it is utterly transformed.

My own small contribution to all of this is to note that Vajrapani’s shapely Lysippan derrière featured not just once in the astonishingly rich embellishment of the monastery at Jamalgarhi but twice. And why not? It is a truly illustrious ancestry that those buttocks can claim.

West is East & East is West

We all have nostalgic memories of the time before Covid, our own private summers of 1914. In my case it’s a trip I took on the coattails of the Oxford Modern History Faculty, and in particular of Abigail Green and Faridah Zaman, to Woking, where we saw the oldest purpose-built mosque in the country (once part of Gottlieb Leitner’s Oriental Institute) and heard from Tharik Hussain about an amazing community history project, Everyday Muslim, led by Sadiya Ahmed. We rounded off the day with a visit with Tharik to Brookwood Cemetery.

Many things I saw and heard and discussed on that day stick in my mind, and I remember also that the weather was dreadful, nothing like the summer of 1914, but something I really haven’t stopped thinking about since is the beautiful Parsi (Zoroastrian) section of the larger cemetery at Brookwood. I’m writing about it now (the trip was back in February) because I’m pondering a lecture I plan to give on Classics and British India; also, though, because of things said in the context of the 2499th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae to do with the Greek/Persian conflict as an archetypal assertion of (superior) West v. (inferior) East. What I offer here is something to lob into that pot, perhaps, but I hope that what emerges most strongly is the respect of this complete outsider for the longstanding Parsi community in this country, and for the power of its cultural expression.

I return to the simple visual impact of the Parsi cemetery, hard to capture in writing. Here, though, is a clip from The Sphere, a long-discontinued Empire-wide newspaper which on July 13th, 1901 welcomed the consecration of the cemetery (the Parsee Burial Ground had been established in 1862, so this was, I suppose, a reorganization of the space on a more formal basis) with the following report:

From the British Newspaper Archive

At the heart of the cemetery stands the tomb (on the left) of Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia, a leading light in the Bombay cotton industry (The Times April 24, 1952, p.6), and it is a replica of Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, establishing an Achaemenid theme further illustrated in the Sphere report by architecture and architectural decoration evoking Persepolis. The tombs of the Tata family that now mark the boundary to the avenue similarly (the one on the left is very like the Wadia tomb without the elevation):

The symbolism of this style of funerary architecture is powerful and clear, a claim to cultural continuity with the Ancient Persian builders of Persepolis and Pasargadae. The Parsis are an Indian minority, concentrated particularly in Mumbai, who trace their descent from Zoroastrians who left Iran in the wake of the Arab conquest, or that is the tradition. The religion they profess is of enormous antiquity in Iran, and while there is debate whether the Achaemenid kings themselves observed anything strictly definable as Zoroastrianism, Parsis can reasonably claim religious and cultural community with that early period of Persian history.

There is an excellent collection of essays on Zoroastrianism in M. Strausberg and Y. S.-D. Vevaina, The Wiley Companion to Zoroastrianism, which I’m currently part-way through. One of the editors, my colleague Yuhan Vevaina, also replied to a typically ill-informed enquiry from me about Brookwood with some fascinating scholarship on other Achaemenid revivals in modern times, one of them a close parallel to what I’m talking about here.

R. Schmitt and M. Stolper, “An Old Persian cuneiform inscription on a tomb in the Woodlawn Cemetery, New York City”, Journal of the American Oriental Society 136 (2016), 591-601, is a lovely thing, a scholarly edition of a Persian cuneiform text composed for a mausoleum built less than a century ago. The tomb, in an Achaemenid style of architecture and decoration, was constructed, and the text presumably composed, between 1922 and 1924 for Phirozshaw D. Saklatvala, a representative of the interests of the Tata family (to whom he was related) in the United States. It holds Phirozshaw and his wife Mae, who died in 1934 and 1939 respectively, Phirozshaw’s brother Behram (d. 1944), and an infant daughter of the Saklatvalas, Jerbai, who died in 1920 or 1921, and thus, rather poignantly, motivated the construction of the tomb from 1922. The mother of the Saklatvala brothers, also Jerbai, is buried at Brookwood, as is another brother, Shapurji, who was twice MP for Battersea North, representing the Communist Party. Here are the Tata mausolea again, and Jerbai is the reclining figure on the right beyond the stone pergola–Shapurji is also commemorated there:

The New York Saklatvala tomb is another piece of funerary architecture making powerful use of Achaemenid models, then, and there is every reason to believe it drew some inspiration from Brookwood. N. N. Wadia’s tomb doesn’t feature cuneiform, but it does imitate in its main inscription the style of Achaemenid monuments: I AM NOWROSJEE NASHIRWANJEE WADIA/ OF THE ANCIENT ARYAN RACE OF PERSIA/ A CITIZEN OF THE LOYAL TOWN OF BOMBAY/ WHO LIE HERE PEACEFULLY UNDER/ THE FAR OFF SKY OF WIDE FAMED BRITAIN.

What Yuhan also pointed me towards was discussion of “Neo-Achaemenism” within Iran, where it carries a significant extra charge. A lot of attention is given to Persepolis ’71, the spectacular performance staged by the last Shah in 1971, featuring a pageant of Iranian history back to the Achaemenids, to mark 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. A speech by the Shah before Cyrus’ tomb at Pasargadae, with an audience of heads of state from across the world, kicked proceedings off. The Shah was claiming a status for his country in world affairs, a Great Civilisation to compete with others, based on the grandeur and antiquity of Ancient Iranian culture in particular. As such, the narrative presented sidelined the Islamic history of Iran, and that, alongside the expense and general excess of Persepolis ’71, ended up fuelling opposition to the Shah’s regime, leading ultimately to the Islamic Revolution at the end of the decade.

Talinn Grigor reads Persepolis ’71 as a kind of internalized Orientalism, Western perceptions of Iranian history adopted by the Shah of Iran, then fired back at a Western audience as a plea for acceptance. (Something somewhat similar is happening on Afghan banknotes, I suggested a few years back.) In contrast, Neo-Achaemenism in Parsi culture lacks the essential controversy of the Shah’s gesture, there being no profound religious tension in a Parsi identity rooted in Achaemenid Persia. But there are still ways of looking at N. N. Wadia’s tomb that put less emphasis on the archetypal conflict of Greeks with Persians, the original assertion that East is East and West is West, and more on the commonality fostered by a shared focus on these ancient events.

The observation I’d make is a bit similar to Grigor’s, that to take Achaemenid Persia as one’s point of reference intersects with significant British or Western myths of origin. That includes the Persian Wars, of course, but also Alexander the Great, who went to Pasargadae to pay his respects to Cyrus, and burned Persepolis to the ground, but for our purposes was also a figure who played a very important role in British Imperial perception of India, and self-perception of their own role there. Lugubelinus has had a lot to say on this matter in the past, but try this hat for size. In other words, Achaemenid Persia is the image of Iran most familiar, and interesting, to the West, too. What gives this thought some force is that the Parsi community was one of the most successful communities within British India, and the most loyal (as N. N. Wadia says of Bombay), commercially and politically integrated with the British rulers of India to a greater degree than any other, hence (among other things) the strong Parsi presence in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The claim to Achaemenid heritage on Wadia’s tomb and elsewhere in the cemetery is proud and assertive, then, but it also grants the Parsis a role in the grand Imperial story of ancient origins.

We can sharpen that point, though with less precision than I imagined in the first version of this blog. The article in Encyclopaedia Iranica on “PASARGADAE”, by D. Stronach and H. Gopnik stresses, perhaps overstresses, the debate surrounding the identity of the site, and the tomb at the heart of it. The Tomb of Cyrus, the model for N. N. Wadia’s tomb, was not identified as such to general satisfaction, they suggest, until George Nathaniel Curzon’s Persia and the Persian Question in 1892, and then the publication of Ernst Herzfeld’s doctoral dissertation in 1908. Curzon devotes twenty scholarly pages of his Persia and the Persian Question to Pasargadae (Vol. 2, 71-90), and fifteen of them to the identity of the Tomb which follows from the first (the evidence is primarily in the Alexander historians): I can offer you the option of a scan from the Rashtrapati Bhavan, formerly the Viceroy’s residence, or from the library of the Archaeological Survey of India. If his identification of the tomb had been as seminal as Gopnik and Strobach suggest, that would be very close in time to the construction of Wadia’s tomb in 1900, and the contribution to an arch-imperialist and indeed Viceroy of India would be interesting.

In actuality, however, as Lindsay Allen has pointed out to me, there is good reason to believe that the tomb at Pasargadae would have been confidently identified as Cyrus’s in certain circles earlier than this. Once again, Talinn Grigor has a very interesting article, “Parsi patronage of the Urheimat”, Getty Research Journal 2 (2010), 53-68, on Indian Parsi involvement in cultural and political developments in Iran in the nineteenth century. Her marvellous survey of what books Parsi boys might have encountered at Elphinstone College in Bombay (which we can certainly assume was N. N. Wadia’s alma mater) includes at least three works that toyed with, or firmly asserted, that it was Cyrus’ tomb, James Morier’s Journeys through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor (1812), Robert Ker Porter’s Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylonia (1821), and James Fergusson’s Palaces of Nineveh and Persepolis Restored (1851). Here is the building as sketched by Ker Porter:

As Grigor puts it, though, “Educated urban Parsis, who admired and wrote about Iran’s ancient heritage, predominantly read European literature found in British institutions” such as the library of Elphinstone College. It follows then that, even as they recovered their Achaemenid heritage, they did so in works that typically pursued the identification of Pasargadae out of a Western, and classicizing, preoccupation with those places that were relevant to Greek history. Wadia’s proud assertion of independent Persian identity, in other words, also expresses, explicitly in his own voice but implicitly too, a claim to belong. Being mischievous, the Tata purchases of Corus (British Steel) and Jaguar Land Rover might, if we insisted on reading Thermopylae etc. as a charter for perpetual East/West conflict, be Persia’s belated revenge for Salamis. Or you could rather say that for Nowrosjee Nashirwanjee Wadia there simply was no ongoing conflict between East and West, Persian and Greek, just the one shared history.

It occurs to me that I’ve pondered before both the power of Zoroastrian imagery, and its capacity to resolve cultural difference: On St. George and his day. The dragon-slayer is not a bad story to share, either.