The Song of the Allobroges

A Horace blog to mark, a little belatedly, the draft of Horace: A Very Short Introduction that I submitted to OUP at the start of the month. But the Horatian poem I’ll be talking about here came to my attention through an entirely different project, the text and translation (with light commentary) of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs’ late-nineteeth-century Latin-language newspaper Alaudae that will be my major preoccupation this year (cf. recent blogs, passim).

The poem I’m concerned with here is not by Horace but an imitation of Horace by J. P. Steele written in 1894 and published, perhaps surprisingly, in The Lancet on March 31st of that year. It is a twenty-stanza Latin ode in alcaics on the occasion of the Eleventh International Medical Congress in Rome in April 1894, and it honours Guido Baccelli (1830-1916), the President of the Congress, an eminent physician and Ministro della Pubblica Istruzione (Minister of Public Education) in the Italian government. It also celebrates the Policlinico Umberto I, a modern teaching hospital in Rome, the first of its kind, of which Baccelli was the prime mover and in which the Congress was held, though this huge undertaking was not finally completed for another decade.

The poem is presented below along with a rough-and-ready translation done on trains through France, corrections to which would be welcome. But in summary, the author proposes, with a healthy dose of Horatian irony, that Rome had owed its ancient greatness as much to its devotion to the god of medicine Aesculapius as to its martial abilities, and that the recent revival of Rome as capital of the new nation of Italy is reflected in the renewed concern for the study of medicine in the city that Baccelli and the Policlinico exemplify.

We are informed by The Lancet that the poem was written for The Lancet and presented to Baccelli in advance of the Congress. Some explanation of this lies in Baccelli’s own enthusiasm for Latin. In his obituary in the British Medical Journal, 15 January 1916, p. 115, we learn that he “could discourse in Latin of a Ciceronian quality”, and at the preceding meeting of the triennial International Medical Congress in Berlin in 1890 Baccelli had flouted the requirement that communication be restricted to German, French and English by addressing the conference in Latin. The poem picks up on the breadth of Baccelli’s interests, bonarum cultor et artium et/ scientiarum.

The author of the poem, James Peddie Steele (1836-1917), we’d know less about but for a long and affectionate obituary in Papers of the British School at Rome 9 (1920), 1-15, by John Sandys, Cambridge Classicist and Public Orator. From this it emerges that he was another doctor-Classicist, a Scot who was a long-time resident of Italy, and latterly Florence, and who had a passion for Horace, and a particular interest in his alcaic verse. Sandys records Steele’s gift of books and bookcases to the nascent British School at Rome, his generous and authentically Horatian style of hospitality, and the summers he spent with friends at a villa in Tivoli, Sant’ Antonio, which a sequence of British owners had identified as the site of one of Horace’s properties.

For me, the trickiest detail of Steele’s poem to interpret were the references to the Allobroges. I had assumed a very loose reference to “barbarians”–Alaric conquering Rome in 410. But that seemed weak and didn’t make much sense in context. Illumination struck at Beaulieu-sur-Mer train station as I fell down a very deep rabbit hole in pursuit of the Italian/French character of this part of the Côte d’Azur. Key to the Risorgimento, the movement for Italian reunification, had been Victor Emmanuel of the House of Savoy, king of Sardinia and then from 1861 king of Italy. It was his forces that in 1870 “completed” the reunification by capturing Rome, entering the city by the Porta Pia in the Aurelian Walls, not far from the later site of the Policlinico, itself named after Victor Emmanuel’s son Umberto. The Allobroges, an Alpine people, are best known as Cicero’s informants during the Catilinarian Conspiracy, but their territory coincided with Savoy, or at any rate sufficiently so for Savoyards to claim the Allobroges as ancestors. Le Chant des Allobroges is one product of this.

Steele knows his Horace and does a good pastiche. A speech by Hannibal is inspired by Odes 4.4, and there’s one direct quotation from elsewhere in the Odes and no doubt others I’ve missed. He has managed a Horatian combination of adventurous word order and clarity, and exploits the inherent dynamics of the alcaic stanza, for instance using the emphasis given anything placed in the middle of the third line to highlight Baccelli’s name. I’ve mentioned already the characteristically Horatian elusiveness of tone. This poem is light and serious simultaneously.

Finally, it’s probably worth observing that with hindsight some of the assimilation of ancient and modern Rome that Steele pursues in 1894 foreshadows fascist ideology a generation later. An editorial in the same issue of The Lancet also addresses the Congress, Baccelli and the Policlinico (Steele was close to the editor, and may have effectively written it), and quotes a stanza from Horace’s Carmen Saeculare, alme Sol! … possis nihil urbe Roma/uisere maius (11-12), which was later inscribed on the fascist Arch of the Philaeni in Italian Libya; it was a fascist motto, in effect. Studying the 1890s, as I have certainly said before, is an eerie exercise in dramatic irony, seeing all the ingredients of the ruinous Twentieth Century as its protagonists plough on regardless.

I’ve added some even rougher and readier explanatory notes below. For Daphne I should have directed the reader to Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.452-567, where she is transformed into a laurel tree. In any case, enjoy what seems to me a remarkable transposition of Horace to the scientific aspirations of the late nineteenth century.

  1. The Gauls expelled from the Capitol by Manlius (and the geese) in 390BC.
  2. Pyrrhus of Epirus, of “pyrrhic victory” fame, defeated by the Romans in 275BC.
  3. Hannibal. The Gallic capture of Rome and Pyrrhus’ and Hannibal’s campaigns in Italy could be considered the three most significant conflicts in Rome’s rise to prominence.
  4. Epidaurus in the Peloponnese was a cult centre of Asclepius/Aesculapius, the god of medicine. In response to a plague in 293BC, the Romans sent an embassy to Epidaurus to secure the god for Rome, encouraged either by the Sibylline Books or the oracle at Delphi (in either case a Sibyl), and the god expressed his willingness by boarding the Roman ship in the form of the snake wrapped around his staff. In the last book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses the poem finally reaches Rome on the ship bearing Asclepius.
  5. Asclepius, still in the form of a snake, chose the Tiber island as his new residence, and that was the location of his shrine in Rome, perhaps constructed to recall the ship that first brought him there.
  6. The wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus.
  7. A Muse, speciality history, her name suggesting fame.
  8. The kings of the Allobroges are the nineteenth-century House of Savoy: see above.
  9. In a gorgeous couple of lines Horace had asked his long-exiled friend Pompeius, quis te redonavit Quiritem/ dis patriis Italoque caelo, “who has restored you as a Roman citizen to your ancestral gods and the Italian sky?” (Odes 2.7.3-4), the unspoken answer being Augustus.
  10. Staged hunts of wild animals and gladiatorial munera, fights between men with variations of weaponry and armour, were two forms of Roman public entertainment in the Colosseum.
  11. Machaon and Podalirius, sons of Asclepius, were both doctors, described as such in Homer’s Iliad.
  12. The International Medical Congress was designed to be a triennial event, thus Washington D.C. in September 1887, Berlin in August 1890, Rome in March 1894, Moscow in August 1897. Trieteris strictly, by ancient inclusive counting, denoted a festival that occurred at intervals of two years, not three.
  13. Steele echoes Odes 3.29.35-6.

Further Larks

I’ve been translating some more issues of Alaudae (“Larks”), the Latin newspaper produced by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs from 1889 to 1895: for earlier thoughts about Ulrichs and Alaudae, see here. A three-volume edition–intro, Latin text, translation and explanatory notes–is going to be published by Bloomsbury in the fullness of time, but here is a taster, from the two issues I’ve just been translating, of the (I think, fascinating) snippet views of Europe in the 1890s (through the eyes of an activist and Classicist) that Ulrichs’ newspaper offers. The first three are from issue 17-18 in March 1891, and the last two from issue 32b in June 1895. Ulrichs is in roman; any comments from me in italics.

Latin in Istanbul:

“Not even in Constantinople is the Latin language spurned. In a Greek high school in the suburb of Pera, whose headmaster is Ch. Hadjichristou, Esq., it is taught by two teachers. And years ago in Würzburg I got to know two young men studying medicine there from Asia Minor, Greek speakers, who had received a thorough grounding in Latin. “I have read “Aeneidos β” (Book 2 of the Virgilian poem), one of them said. Moreover I remember them saying, “Wir sind Romi” (Romīi, that is, “We are Romaei.”) They declared themselves to be Romans, not Hellenes, Romans of the eastern branch, descendants of those Romans who fought under the Comneni and the last of the Palaeologi.”

Paraphrasing a Finnish scientist’s account of a research trip to the Kola Peninsula:

“In the month of July the author witnessed the plain still covered in snow, surrounded by land already cleared by the sun’s rays, and in the middle of the plain more than a hundred head of reindeer. They had retreated there to avoid the torment of mosquitoes, and the mosquitoes were not willing to follow them into the snow.”

A self-defence against criticism of his activism for the recognition and tolerance of homosexuality:

“To my critic from Munich. How unkind you are! You have certainly not read the books I have written about that remarkable mystery. Have you explored the profundities of Nature? Have you penetrated her secrets? I somewhat doubt it. And do you presume to pass sentence, a judge before your time? Forbear then, if you wish to sit in judgment, forbear to pass judgement on the defenceless, lest you harm the daughter of great Jupiter the Thunderer, heavenly Justice. If it is so much your wish to have someone to condemn, have it out with Nature the creator. Condemn her. She it was that committed the crime of not creating things according to your instructions, you silly man. A Swiss historian, a man of the purest judgment, has read my books carefully and wrote the following to me: “A wicked case cannot be defended as you have defended yours.” It is worth something, I think, to know truth, and its power to disperse the darkness and expunge unpardonable evil. To know it and remain silent, when I have the ability to speak, I have judged unworthy. Rightly would you scorn me, if I had kept silent, like someone of the basest kind and the weakest of spirits. But I was not willing to abandon what I considered my duty. I wanted to fulfil my duty. I acted fearlessly, though my heart was pounding.”

On poems in Latin in honour of Guido Baccelli, a senior Italian physician and politician, and President of the Eleventh International Medical Conference in Rome in 1894, who according to his obituary in the British Medical Journal 15th January 1916, pp. 114–115 “could discourse in Latin of a Ciceronian quality” himself; Dr. J.P. Steele’s poem is to be found in The Lancet 31st March 1894, pp. 819-20, or more conveniently, here:

“Two Latin poems have been written for Guido Baccelli. One is by a British doctor, Steele, twenty alcaic stanzas which The Lancet in London published: “At the part of the wall where the standard bearer of the Allobroges etc.” The other by the Roman doctor Cesare Ballabene is four elegiac couplets: “The … which once shone with diverse marbles and gold etc.” (Balla bene, that is, “he dances well”. If there weren’t ten elisions in these eight verses I’d judge he made good verses, too.)”

In the process of deciphering this section, I discovered (with some effort) two things: the first was that “Guido” can be rendered in Latin as “Vitus”, and the second that Ulrichs’ Latin abbreviation for Baccelli’s governmental position in 1894, “min. regius a p. instr.”, could be expanded as “minister regius a populo instruendo”, “Regio Ministro della Pubblica Istruzione”, “Royal Minister of Public Education”, which was indeed Baccelli’s role in 1881, 1881-4, 1893-6, and 1898-1900.

Excerpt from a Latin oration delivered by John Sandys, Public Orator, on the occasion of the award of an honorary doctorate to the future George V by Cambridge University, June 1894; the child mentioned is the future Edward VIII, born just a few days before the ceremony:

“Most worthy sir, Mr Chancellor, and the whole University! How happily we hail the grandson of the Queen and Prince Albert, once our Chancellor. We hail his father, our most eminent Prince, whom thirty years ago we saw honoured with the same accolade. We hail his mother, whom we rejoice is today herself in attendance. We hail the Prince, who almost from boyhood has devoted himself to mastering naval science; who, having traversed the oceans, visited our colonies separated from us by the whole world but joined with us with their whole hearts, as yet unaware of the kingship that would one day be his; who has shown again and again that the naval glory of the British Empire is his greatest love. … Almost a year ago he took as wife the granddaughter of the first Duke of Cambridge *) Today we rejoice that the heir of the heir of this great kingdom has been blessed with a son and that the royal line has been continued to the third degree. I bring before you Prince George Frederick, Duke of York.”

At *) Ulrichs comments, “I love this name. The Duke of Cambridge ruled the kingdom of Hanover, my homeland, as Viceroy when I was a boy. U.” Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, was Viceroy of Hanover from 1816 to 1837, at which point Victoria’s accession in Great Britain caused the dissolution of the “personal union” between Britain and Hanover. Adolphus was the grandfather of Mary of Teck, the wife of George V, and was associated by Ulrichs with a more liberal constitution in Hanover than followed after the separation, and then again some years later after Hanover’s annexation by Prussia.

The View from Malakand

There are links here, here, here, and here to a pdf of my and Prof. Olivieri’s open-access book on Harold Deane, political officer and archaeologist.

Blogs related to the research it involved me in are here (the Jahanabad Buddha, destroyed and restored); here (the search for Alexander’s Aornos); here (the edicts of Ashoka, and Deane’s role in their interpretation); here (Aurel Stein and Deane’s botanical collection); here (a Persian wordplay applied to Deane); and here (Deane’s dreams of Alexander).

You can also find me here, back in 2020, struggling to figure out Deane’s frankly shocking handwriting.

Ingenuo patre natus?

A snippet here, scribbled rapidly on a Saturday afternoon before the FA Cup final (in the event, I shouldn’t have scribbled so rapidly), from the research I’m doing toward Horace: A Very Short Introduction. The issue here is a detail, and quite a significant one given Roman snobbery, of the poet’s biography.

Horace’s stellar career, according to Horace himself, owed a lot to his father. But was his father born a slave?

If so, Horace’s career even prior to his success as a poet is stunningly unconventional. For instance, he enjoyed the Roman elite’s equivalent of higher education in Athens, hobnobbing with the most privileged stratum of Rome’s highly stratified society, and thereafter as tribunus militum, a rank again reserved for the Roman elite, he seems to have commanded a legion at Philippi. Rome was an intensely status-conscious place, and while the extremities of civil war brought inevitable compromises, that remains an unexpected CV for the son of an ex-slave.

Now, there is no question that Horace was in some sense “the son of a freedman”, his father a slave who had secured his freedom. Satire 1.6, which will feature a lot here, is clear that Horace was so considered by detractors at least (libertino patre natum, 1.6.6, 45-6). But an influential (and clever) article by Gordon Williams, “Libertino patre natus: true or false?”, in S.J. Harrison, Homage to Horace (1995), has argued that Horace was exaggerating the humbleness of his origins for effect (an important theme of the poem is the consideration due to people of lower social status), and that Horace’s father was only an ex-slave in a technical sense.

What Williams proposed was that Horace senior had been captured, in his youth, when the Romans took the rebel city of Venusia, Horace’s home town, at the end of the Social War in 88 BC. Once in captivity, he would likely have been considered a slave, Williams suggests with reference to known parallels, but his status might have been reversed fairly easily, in which case he could have quickly returned to his previous existence as a free inhabitant, potentially quite prominent and prosperous, of Venusia. In literal terms a freedman, then, but in social status far from a typical example.

Well, Williams’ argument rests on detailed readings of Satire 1.6, and I think it’s fair to say that Horace’s chatty style in the Satires (they are designed to read like the conversations of Romans at dinner) makes it hard to pin down precisely what he’s saying about himself—hard for Williams to ground his theory securely, but hard also for me to dispute it. But a word that features a lot in connection with Horace’s father seems to me important, and this is ingenuus. It can be used loosely to mean something like “respectable” or “gentlemanly”, but its core meaning is “freeborn”, and in a poem where social categories are at issue, in general and with reference to Horace’s father, that implication must be readily felt.

By Williams’ theory, Horace’s father was “freeborn”, ingenuus, his enslavement a temporary inconvenience of his early years. But on three occasions in Satire 1.6 Horace’s father is, to put it no stronger than this, associated with a lack of ingenuitas, freeborn status. The question is whether we can walk away from this poem seriously doubting that he was born unfree.

In the first case Horace credits Maecenas, his powerful friend and patron, with attaching no importance to quali sit quisque parente/ natus, dum ingenuus, “of what kind of parent anyone is born, so long as he be ingenuus” (7-8). Here I think the natural sense of ingenuus is “freeborn”, and while Williams suggests that Horace might in this clause be describing the father rather than “anyone”, that seems to me a stretch. In context it is Horace’s status that is the primary issue here, and Maecenas’ unconcern for the status of an individual’s father. There may be an implication that Horace’s father was not freeborn, unlike his son, but no more than that.

In the second passage, the most important for us, Horace is stating, and also accepting (somewhat unexpectedly), that people of low birth will not get far in political life: namque esto populus Laeuino mallet honorem/ quam Decio mandare nouo, censorque moueret/ Appius, ingenuo si non essem patre natus/ —uel merito, quoniam in propria non pelle quiessem, “For let’s grant that the people would rather entrust office to a Laevinus than to a Decius with no family background, and that Appius the censor would exclude me from the Senate if I weren’t born of a freeborn father—rightly perhaps, since I’d not have rested quietly in my own skin” (19-22).

To repeat, getting the nuance of satirical Latin is not straightforward, and this does not say outright that Horace’s father was not freeborn—that is stated as a remote condition, strictly speaking—but it is hard to explain why he raises this of all possible objections to himself (and in terms that so clearly recall the earlier statement of Maecenas’ point of view), not to mention the following acknowledgement in principle of the validity of the imagined sanction by the censor (an official responsible among other things for policing the qualifications of senators), unless Horace wants this understanding of himself and his paternity to be seriously entertained.

Finally, 89-92, which won’t clinch anything either: nil me paeniteat sanum patris huius, eoque/ non, ut magna dolo factum negat esse suo pars,/ quod non ingenuos habeat clarosque parentis,/ sic me defendam, “While of sound mind I would never regret having such a father, and the way the majority say it’s not their fault that they don’t have freeborn or distinguished parents isn’t how I would defend myself.” Here ingenuos might, I suppose, just entail “respectable”, if at any rate a reader could fail even toward the end of the poem to be thinking of more precise kinds of social differentiation. For a sense of the contemporary significance of being not just free but freeborn, the story of Augustus’ refusal to dine in the company of Menas/Menodorus, the turncoat freedman of Pompey, until he had been assertus in ingenuitatem, deemed legally (if not actually) freeborn, is suggestive (Suetonius, Life of Augustus 74, cf. Appian, BC 5.338, ἐλεύθερον εὐθὺς ἀπέφηνεν ἐξ ἀπελευθέρου).

Williams’ argument needs to be read to be properly assessed, and I can’t do it justice here: it’s also included in Kirk Freudenburg’s collection Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Horace, Satires and Epistles (2009). All I can do is say that my own impression at the end of Satire 1.6 is that Horace has strongly implied that his father was born a slave. If this is correct, it is not, I think, something that a poet in Rome would state of his background unless it were substantially true.

“And so what?” you might say at this point.

I think to me it matters because it restores to Horace’s life story some of its dramatic quality. It reinstates major obstacles that Horace and his father had to overcome for the Horace we know and can write books about to emerge.

The turning point in Horace’s early life, described in this satire and in more oblique terms in his famous ode on the Bandusian Spring, was his father’s decision to secure for him an education at Rome, 200 miles from Venusia. If we conclude that Horace senior was a conventional Venusian who had simply experienced some misfortune (widely shared among his fellow townsmen) as a youngster, that still counts as a courageous decision, but it is vastly more so if a man born a slave refused to let his talented son be limited by his own accident of birth, in a culture that continued to set great store by such things.

Some of the most impressive figures from Greco-Roman antiquity are those whose exceptional ability had secured their escape from slavery: here is such a person, for instance. Horace’s remarkable rise to the very heights of Roman society—including his composition and performance of the hymn at the Secular Games in 17BC, perhaps the ideological acme of the Augustus’ principate—had as its catalyst the fatherly ambition that took him to Rome, and I’m loath to lose the sheer, splendid audacity of that decision by a man born enslaved without better reason than Williams seems to give us.

Alma mater

It can’t be claimed that Irene Frude’s memorial has a very pretty setting.

Off the south side of Little Clarendon St, just north of the centre of Oxford, is a covered entrance serving 25 Wellington Square. This building has graduate flats on the upper storeys and shops on the ground floor. The covered space is used for parking and for the rubbish bins.

On the eastern wall of this unappealing space, very easily missed, is a small cast-iron plaque, 27” x 7”, with the following text:


OCTOBER 29 A.D. 1976

A bin fire “around 2008” has caused the plaque to buckle slightly, and one side is discoloured. Vehicles are constantly parked close against the wall to which it’s attached, and it’s consequently very hard to find it when you’re first looking for it, and to get a decent photo when you do.

I’m indebted to Antigone Magazine for drawing my attention to something that I’ve ridden past unknowingly countless times. I am also more grateful than words can express to the Oxford University Archives, especially Anna Petre, for information both about the inscription and the circumstances of its installation. It is described in R. H. Adams, Latin inscriptions in Oxford, a useful book vitiated by occasionally dodgy Latin, and on this excellent page which I nevertheless think gets a bit confused about Bedford House School and the site of Mrs Frude’s lodging house.

Let’s clear that up first.

Mrs Frude’s lodging house, which she ran from 1936 until 1972 and which was an example of a licensed lodging house for students, a phenomenon now long since extinct, was at 130 Walton St., just around the corner from Little Clarendon St. Some years before, 130 Walton St had briefly accommodated Bedford House School, run by John H Thorogood, before he had a purpose-built school built a little way up Walton St at 122, where it still stands.

While running the school at 122, Thorogood lived at 135 Walton St (he was there with his family in the 1881 and 1891 censuses, and his wife was still there in 1901; he died in 1902). He called 135 Walton St. Bedford House (the name is over the front door), and that is the house pictured on the webpage about Mrs Frude that I mentioned earlier. In the 1881 census it is clearly a “school house” for boarders: lots of “scholars”, schoolboys, are listed as living there alongside the family. But Thorogood no longer had anything to do with 130 Walton St., and there can be no glimpse of it on Google Maps because 130 Walton St. no longer exists.

Behind Little Clarendon St. and Walton St. lies Wellington Square, where the offices of Oxford University stand, and which was previously the location of the city workhouse. The University bought the site in 1865 (information gleaned from this interesting document), and it was developed on 99-year leases which fell in around the mid-1960s, at which point the University commissioned the architect Leslie Martin to replan the entire area. In the event, the University Offices and the graduate accommodation in 25 Wellington Sq. were all that was realised of Martin’s plan, but the latter building did for 130 Walton St.

Before the new buildings Walton St. (itself in this stretch the product of those 99-year leases) began south of Little Clarendon St. at No. 128, and 128-31 inclusive, four houses, were demolished to make room for the west end of 25 Wellington Sq. (and another space for bins and parking). A detail below of an aerial photo that predates the demolition, from the Oxfordshire County Council image collection, shows the corner of Walton St. and Little Clarendon St. The last four houses on the left are no longer there (compare with the image above), and third from the end of the row is 130.

The construction of 25 Wellington Sq. was supposed to run from the spring of 1973 to the middle of 1975, but there were the inevitable delays, and it was only finally completed in July 1976, receiving its first residents the following month. This last information is from Anna Petre in the University Archive, and she also found letters indicating that Mrs Frude moved out of 130 Walton St. and “into alternative accommodation … provided by the University” on November 8 1972 (apparently a flat in Divinity Rd.), in advance of the demolition of the building in January 1973. The minutes of the Buildings Committee make reference in September 1974 to a letter from a graduate student at Keble by the name of John Findon requesting permission, along with other ex-lodgers of Mrs Frude, to install “on the wall of the building that will eventually replace her house” a plaque in honour of someone who had a “reputation … second to none among Oxford landladies”. By November it had been agreed that an inscription, in Latin, would be placed “in the undercroft through which those entering the building from Little Clarendon Street will pass”, and a provisional text had been proposed. The text given is at some remove from the final text, and the committee also decided to send the submitted text to the Corpus Christi Professor of Latin “for an opinion”, which means that we can safely credit Robin Nisbet, Professor from 1970 to 1992, for some, at least, of the elegance of the final product.

It was evidently at the earliest possible opportunity after the opening of the new building, October 1976, that the inscription was actually inaugurated. It sits some little distance from the site of Mrs Frude’s house, it’s fair to say: the satellite image above marks 130 with a blue arrow and the plaque with a red. A location for it near the entrance to the flats at their west end would have expressed hoc in loco more faithfully, but the Buildings Committee minutes imply that it was deemed preferable to place it inside the building, and where it might be seen by anyone using one of the entrances to the flat complex–and it might be so seen if there weren’t vehicles constantly parked up against it.

It deserves to be noticed, as it is charming, in content if not, after the fire, in physical appearance.

I like its Roman date, literally “four days before the Kalends of November”, with a wry A.D. just in case we’re misled. I like the play on the word alumnus, meaning a pupil as well as an old member of the college (this last a US usage but familiar enough in the 1970s). It hovers between these two senses in its two appearances, but also, in its basic sense of nursling, connects with altrix for Irene, a nurse and her foster-children—as Armand D’Angour suggests, the root in alo, “feed, nourish”, brings in the food dimension: she feeds, altrix, and they get fed, alumni. Meanwhile ingentissima ientacula is just superb, so funny yet so full of affection. A shabby old memorial in a shabby location, but such warmth.

John Findon informs me that by the time he was Mrs Frude’s lodger (I think in 1971-72) she wasn’t able to conjure up the “huge breakfasts” any more, but did produce “magnificent Victoria sponges for us as a treat.” Irene Frude died in April 1977 at the age of 78. I expressed the hope in an earlier version of this blog that this gave her time enough to learn how much her alumni loved her, and I learn from John that he and his friends took her to see the plaque, so she did.

Spot the memorial

On liking the unlikeable

I’ve been trying to find an analogy for my personal response to Horace’s political odes (spoiler: I like them), which has implications also for how I talk about them in the Very Short Introduction I’m writing. Horace’s Odes are all “political” in a broader sense, but here I mean the lyric poems that advance Augustan ideology in an overt fashion.

Contemporary scholarship tends to have a problem with these poems that it doesn’t have with other odes, and I find it odd. Sometimes the idea is that we in the twenty-first century have less sympathy with his political material, to which my response is that one doesn’t have to read his other poetry at all hard to find material or attitudes that are objectionable, and it doesn’t seem to me that poems promoting support for Augustus are much different in that respect. Sometimes the thought is more that Horace’s was too liberal a sensitivity to give real assent to the Augustan poetry he wrote, and just one objection to that is that every lyric poem composed by Horace is a carefully crafted piece of artifice, and not to be confused with any straightforward expression of his inner beliefs.

My feeling is that we can do two things with this poetry that are sometimes treated as incompatible. We can enjoy it, allowing ourselves to empathise enough with the poet and the poet’s circumstances to appreciate how effectively he promotes the cause, and to take pleasure from the reading experience; while at the same time we can achieve the detachment necessary to see accomplished political poetry for what it is, a sophisticated way of rendering people susceptible to a partisan ideology.

An example of what I’m talking about in Horace might be the passage in Odes 3.5, the Regulus Ode, where Horace condemns the miles Crassi, the “soldier of Crassus” taken prisoner by the Parthians in their crushing victory at Carrhae in 53 BC. Their greatest failure, in line with the core concern of this poem with the ethical guidance provided by the Roman past, is that they have forgotten their Romanness and “gone native” (5-12):

milesne Crassi coniuge barbara
turpis maritus uixit et hostium —
pro curia inuersique mores! —
consenuit socerorum in armis

sub rege Medo Marsus et Apulus
anciliorum et nominis et togae
oblitus aeternaeque Vestae,
incolumi Iove et urbe Roma?

“Has the soldier of Crassus lived his life a disgraceful husband to a barbarian wife, and have the Marsian and Apulian—shame on the Senate House and our topsy-turvy values!—grown old bearing arms for their fathers-in-law, their enemies, in the service of the Persian King, forgetful of the sacred shields and their name and the toga and everlasting Vesta while Jupiter and the city of Rome are yet unimpaired?”

It goes without saying, I hope, that I don’t endorse the chauvinistic nationalism of Horace’s “Roman Odes”, and furthermore I’m fascinated as an academic literary critic by the terms in which he expresses it, for instance the items that function as the Roman counterparts of motherhood and apple pie, the staples of a Roman identity that Horace suggests a true Roman could never forget: the sacred figure-of-eight shields borne by the dancing priests of Mars; the peculiar Roman styles of naming and dress; and Vesta, the goddess whose everlasting flame guaranteed Rome’s permanent existence.

Part and parcel of that analysis is seeing how brilliant the poetry is in which Horace’s xenophobic case is made. Just one detail out of many: how he exploits the expansive character of the third line of these alcaic stanzas to give aeternae special emphasis, the description of Vesta, “everlasting/eternal”, which clashes outrageously with oblitus, “forgetful” before it. What kind of people could forget Vesta who is always there, Horace asks us: only Romans who had fallen so far as no longer really to be Romans–and I feel the power of this. At some level I’m allowing myself to be manipulated by the poet, and understanding what he is doing by experiencing it.

Stated thus, it may still seem a paradoxical claim that I can be manipulated and still critique, but here comes my analogy. In the clip below Leonid Kharitonov, a Russian bass-baritone, with the Red Army Choir, performs the Song of the Volga Boatmen at a concert in the Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, in 1965. I see (and who couldn’t, since everyone is in military uniform) the ideological project, and (9 years after Hungary, 3 before Prague) I deplore it. (Current events exert their own influence, no doubt.) Furthermore it interests me intellectually how a folksong, because it talks about working men collaborating for the common good, and doing so along Russia’s greatest river, could be coopted by an outfit like the Red Army Choir to express a Soviet ideal.

That said, though, I find everything about this video frankly thrilling, the power of the singing, by Kharitonov and by the Red Army Choir, the superb arrangement by the Choir’s director, the camera work and the whole mise-en-scène of the film. I think what’s happening here is that I’m achieving an imaginative empathy with the Soviet elite in 1965 which does not preclude, indeed coexists with and positively informs, my critical distance and dispassionate analysis.

And I think I can do that with Horace, too.

Enjoy, in any case (but critically):


I’m not at all sure this justifies a post. But at 100 blogs I disburdened myself of some familial stuff, and this happens to be no. 125.

Our dog Chester had been growing increasingly frail over the last few months. But his death on Tuesday, while related to that frailty, was sudden, unexpected in its manner, and traumatic in ways I shan’t elaborate. But he was a jack russell/chihuahua cross, a jack chi or jackhuahua if you prefer, rising 15, and facing pretty rapid decline.

I do buy the idea that dogs slot into families so naturally because we’ve been cohabiting, our two species, for tens of thousands of years. Having rather dreaded Chester’s arrival twelve or thirteen years ago—how much effort and inconvenience it could be, disruption in an already disrupted household, and a rescue dog to boot—I now feel a huge absence, and it’s not just the thousands of companionable miles, for years now without a lead, that we’ve clocked up in that time strolling round the neighbourhood. My wife understood that a dog would be a force for calm in a household in some need of it when our elder son was nine, and he has been, a shared focus of affection in our family life.

I know, of course, that our reasons for, and pleasure in, those walks were mutually incomprehensible, but that I guess is how symbiosis works. Similarly, I’ve no understanding why every day without fail, immediately after his dinner, Chester would steal one of my socks and “bury” it somewhere around the house.

No understanding at all, but I miss it.

Horace, top dog

As I ponder putting pen to paper for the first time in my Horace: A Very Short Introduction, it’s proving as daunting a challenge as I anticipated. Horace is both technically meticulous and hugely versatile, and trying to capture his essence in 100 pages is not straightforward. But I think Horace at least, the great miniaturist, would approve of the attempt.

In his Odes, poems composed within the tiny structures represented by his lyric stanzas, brevity is the key. Horace has various strategies to achieve it, but one of them is an astonishing precision in word selection. An ancient assessment by the critic Quintilian (10.1.96) identifies Horace’s inventiveness in figures of speech and felicitous boldness in word choice (a paraphrase of uarius figuris et uerbis felicissime audax) as a characteristic quality of his lyric poetry, and what follows is a brief illustration: a moment in the Odes where a word chosen with pin-point precision generates a remarkable richness of imagery from a minimum of text. This is a turn of phrase that I’ve loved for a long time, but I’d missed the full subtlety of it until a recent rereading of the Odes—and my hunch, I should add, found corroboration in Nisbet & Rudd.

Odes 3.29 is often (and, as it happens, rightly) considered Horace’s lyric masterpiece, the penultimate poem of his first collection of lyric poems, an address to his patron Maecenas which restates in powerful and memorable terms some core themes of his lyric.

As he rounds off this glorious poem, Horace explains what to do if Fortune turns against you, offering himself as a model for Maecenas and the rest of us (3.29.53-6):

laudo manentem; si celeris quatit
pinnas, resigno quae dedit et mea
virtute me involvo probamque
pauperiem sine dote quaero.

David West’s translation: I praise [Fortune] while she stays. If she shakes out/ her swift wings, I return what she gave, wrap myself/ in my virtue and look for honest Poverty,/ asking no dowry.

Even this one tiny stanza is fraught with implication. Fortune is as flighty as a winged thing; resigno, which is what Horace does with all Fortune’s gifts, makes of everything he has received from her just a temporary loan that he has always had to pay back; while quaero presents his calm acceptance of poverty as courting a potential wife, but Poverty, while a virtuous lady, will not bring any financial advantage with her.

But it’s the image in the middle I’m concerned with here, et mea/ uirtute me inuoluo, “and I wrap myself in the virtue that is my personal possession” (mea carries a lot of weight here: the virtue is really his, what he got from Fortune merely borrowed). Virtue is transformed by this metaphor into a cloak that protects the poet against the inclement conditions once Fortune has departed—and even left there, it’s a wonderfully rich effect achieved with impressive economy. For me, too, the repetition mea … me and the way the vowel of me blends with the initial vowel of inuoluo give an impression of things tightly wrapped, but I am known to overread.

But let’s press inuoluo itself a bit harder. Who wraps themselves up in cloaks in Greco-Roman antiquity?

An identifying feature of a Cynic, an illustration of the extreme self-denial to which adherents of this philosophical tradition subjected themselves, was the simple kit, the sum of their possessions, that they carried around with them: a staff, a leather pouch, and a rough cloak known as a τρίβων/tribōn (Arrian, Epict. diss. 3.22.10). Antisthenes, often regarded in antiquity as the founder of the school, “was the first, according to Diocles, to wrap his cloak twice around himself (πρῶτος ἐδίπλωσε τὸν τρίβωνα) and be content with that one garment” (Diog. Laert. 6.13); according to others it was Diogenes, the most famous of the Cynics and a rival for the role of founder, who first doubled up his τρίβων (Diog. Laert. 6.22). Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, incidentally, is just the best text: Diogenes was called “the Dog”, Κύων; by the poet Cercidas, the οὐράνιος κύων, the heavenly dog Sirius (Diog. Laert. 6.77; Cercidas fr. 54 Livrea).* But Antisthenes was “the Absolute Dog”, ʽΑπλοκύων (Diog. Laert. 6.13).


Dogs aside, the key idea here is that the τρίβων, the rough-and-ready outer garment which was also all in the way of clothing that the Cynics allowed themselves, was a visible expression of their ascetic philosophical principles: Cynics regarded virtue as alone sufficient for a flourishing existence (eudaimonia), and exactly like Horace in this stanza scorned such superficial human comforts as fickle Fortune might bestow.

Our poet, wrapping himself tightly in the virtue that is all that remains to him, but also everything that he needs, assumes the character of a Cynic preacher, the last word in austere self-sufficiency. But what we have to remind ourselves of, and what poses me a problem in my very short introduction, is that if, as we read, we find ourselves thinking of bitingly cold weather, cloaks wrapped tight, and Cynic mendicants, it’s essentially with the single word inuoluo that Horace has conjured up all these associations.

And there are another 70,000 or so meticulously chosen Horatian words where that came from.

Think about it…

*J. L. López Cruces, “A heavenly son of Zeus (Diog. Laert. 6.76 = Cercidas, fr. 54 Livrea)”, CQ 68 (2018), 91-6.


Scipio Aemilianus and Polybius at the fall of Carthage

One reason I blog so often about Virgil is my habit, in the middle of the university lectures on the Aeneid that I’ve been giving for years, of suddenly seeing things more clearly. This happened a couple of weeks ago, when I understood a moment in Aeneid 1 as I talked about it better than I ever have before. I then did most of the research for this blog sitting for fifteen minutes after a Covid booster, and I dunno, but maybe a blog about how everything is bound sooner or later to fail, as well as about bursting into tears at inappropriate moments, speaks a little to our current circumstances.

The moment in question is when Aeneas, accompanied by Achates, sets eyes for the first time upon Carthage (1.418-38):

Carthage in the first book of the Aeneid is presented by Virgil to his Roman readers as a place both alien and deeply (and because it’s Carthage, Rome’s historical bête noire, disconcertingly) familiar. I wrote here about passing hints of the Carthaginians’ most notorious religious practices within Virgil’s otherwise surprisingly appealing account of Carthage and its exemplary leader, Dido. In this passage we could point to the word magalia, “huts”, in the fourth line, a Punic term that defines the space as irrevocably foreign; but against that, the city being constructed before Aeneas’ eyes has theatres with columns, and in line 426 (suspected by some scholars, but present in all the manuscripts) even iura, “laws”, magistrates and a senate, more Roman words and concepts than which it would be hard to find.

Aeneas reacts to this scene with a kind of rueful recognition: the Carthaginians are realising the precise thing that he passionately wants but is constantly prevented from achieving, a new city for his Trojan followers. The readers of the Aeneid have also been promised that new city, Rome, from the very beginning of this national epic, and they are feeling pretty disorientated just four hundred lines into the poem when there is indeed a city being founded, but it’s Rome’s nemesis, Carthage.

This effect was all the sharper for the first Roman readers of the Aeneid, or so I tell the students in my lectures. Rome in the early Augustan period was a building site: Chapter 29 of Suetonius’ life of Augustus lists everything built by Augustus, or by other senior Romans with his encouragement, while 19-21 of the Res Gestae gives a longer list of his own construction projects. Augustus’ building programme, whereby he famously took a city of mud brick and left it made of marble (Suet., Aug. 28.3), was a way of giving concrete form to his claim to be refounding Rome: Suetonius again (7.2) records the perception of Augustus as a conditor urbis, a founder of Rome, by virtue of restoring harmony after decades in which Romans had fought fellow Romans. My point in the lecture is that if the scene of Carthage under construction evoked anything for contemporary Romans it was their own city.

So Aeneas is looking at Carthage and thinking of Rome, but Virgil ensures that his readers are doing the same, and I just say again that we can’t overstate how bold it is of the poet to present Carthage, of all places, to his Roman readership early in his poem as not only not demonically alien but actually familiar enough to provoke thoughts of home.

Another thing we can say about the scene of Aeneas contemplating the beginnings of Carthage is that I don’t think Romans could look at Carthage being founded and fail to think of Carthage getting destroyed. The name “Carthage” actually means “New City”, but the latter end of Carthage’s history, its capture and destruction in 146 BC, was an iconic moment in Roman history, the final defeat of their most daunting enemy. Something the historical sources and the archaeology agree on is how comprehensively the city of Carthage was made to disappear by its vengeful conquerors. The sources talk of a fire that lasted seventeen days, unrestricted looting by Roman troops, the city walls reduced to dust, all but the most senior men sold into slavery, and a ritual obliteration as important as the physical: the site was cursed, set aside for the gods by consecratio: no human was to live there again. The action of ploughing over the site mentioned by Modestinus (Digest of Justinian 7.4.21) reversed the ploughing that established the sacred boundary of the city at foundation, hinted at by Virgil at line 425. C. Marius, at a low ebb after defeat by Sulla, pondered his humiliation appropriately seated amid the ruins of the fallen city (Plutarch, Marius 40.4; Lucan 2.85-93).

The only thing the Romans didn’t do was sow the ground of Carthage with salt, for that is a factoid with no basis in the ancient sources: the ancient evidence for the destruction is collected by Ridley in the process of scotching that story, and supplemented in a more open-minded way by Purcell, and both citations are at the bottom.

Blyth after Mortimer, Caius Marius on the Ruins of Carthage

Archaeological work at Carthage tells a similarly terrifying story. In Virgil’s day, after false starts by Gaius Gracchus and then Julius Caesar, Augustus established a colony on the site of Carthage, the beginnings of a very successful future city. This looks at first glance like a contradiction of the consecratio in 146 BC, but archaeological discoveries suggest the efforts that were made to honour that original decision that Carthage was not in any way to be refounded. On the Byrsa, the citadel of the Punic city, Serge Lancel describes a “gigantic levelling” by Roman engineers in preparation for the new colony, “a resection that would seem to us almost unimaginable without the aid of our powerful public works machines.” The top of the Byrsa hill was effectively sliced off, 100,000 cubic metres of earth removed, and the character of the space utterly transformed, an astonishingly thorough intervention into the physical landscape of Carthage that clearly had the aim of “effacing any surviving trace of the past.” Deleta est Carthago.

This brings me to my final thought about Virgil’s scene, which is in fact something suggested to me a few years ago by Denis Feeney (it was Sandro Barchiesi who alerted me to the remarkable archaeology of the Byrsa, I should also say). Denis told me that he was pretty certain we were supposed to see, when Aeneas stands on the hill and contemplates Carthage rising, a strong hint of a famous anecdote from the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC involving the triumphant Roman commander Scipio Aemilianus. The story originates with Polybius, who was with Scipio Aemilianus at the time, but it is recorded by Diodorus and Appian (Diodorus 32.24, Pun. 132 = Polybius 38.22):

“When Carthage had been put to the torch and the flames were doing their awful work of devastation throughout the whole city, Scipio wept unabashedly. Asked by Polybius, his mentor, why he was thus affected, he said: ‘Because I am reflecting on the fickleness of Fortune. Some day, perhaps, the time will come when a similar fate shall overtake Rome.’ And he cited these lines from the poet, Homer: ‘The day will come when sacred Ilium shall perish,/ with Priam and his people.'”

The Homeric quotation is from Hector’s moving words to his wife Andromache in Iliad 6. Trojan Aeneas gazes at Carthage as it is being founded and is put in mind of his own hoped-for foundation, Rome; Scipio witnesses the fall of Carthage and thinks of Rome and the sack of Troy; and the readers of the Aeneid watch as their Trojan founder looks upon Carthage, and find themselves pondering their own city Rome at the end of the first century BC, subject to the ineluctable processes of construction and destruction, as they well knew, just like Troy and Carthage before it.

A insensitively named street in modern Carthage, photo by Vic Baines.

* * *

R.T. Ridley, “To be taken with a pinch of salt: the destruction of Carthage”, Classical Philology 81 (1986), 140-46;

N. Purcell, “On the sacking of Corinth and Carthage”, in D. Innes, H. Hines, and C. Pelling (eds.), Ethics and Rhetoric: Classical Essays for Donald Russell on his 75th Birthday (Oxford, 1995), 133-48;

J. Davidson, “Domesticating Dido”, in M. Burden (ed.), A woman scorn’d: responses to the Dido myth (London, 1998), 65-88;

S. Lancel, La colline de Byrsa à l’époque punique (Paris, 1983), 7-8.