Last week I read the most fascinating book I’ve read in ages. If I go on to say that this book compares the fragmentary remains of an ancient Greek novel with the fragments of a medieval Persian epic poem, this may well be the moment you and I part company, dear reader. And if you do abandon this blog and find something more interesting to do, I quite understand. It came as a surprise to me too.
But why did I find it so interesting? The Greek text is a few pages of a novel, maybe written in the first century BC, entitled Parthenope or Metiokhos kai Parthenope (“Metiokhos and Parthenope”), while the rather longer fragment of Persian poetry is a chunk of the Vamiq u ‘Adhra (The Ardent Lover and the Virgin), written by the poet ‘Unsuri in Ghazni, now Afghanistan, in the eleventh century AD. By chance, the very small parts of each work that survive overlap, and it’s perfectly clear that the Persian poem is an imitation of the Greek novel. The link or links between the two texts must be pretty close: there may have been an Arabic intermediary version of the Greek novel that ‘Unsuri turned into Persian verse, but it’s also possible that the “translation” from Greek to Persian was direct–that ‘Unsuri or a collaborator read Greek, in other words.
It all makes for quite a disorienting reading experience. In this Afghan poem, written a generation or so before the Norman Conquest, we find ourselves reading about ‘Adhra’s father Fuluqrat (Polykrates), tyrant of Shamus (Samos), with his court poet Ifiqus (Ibykos: “In Iran and Rum and Hindustan/ They told good things about him”). Meanwhile Vamiq recounts the story of Hurmuz (Hermes) discovering for the first time how a tortoise shell can be made into a lyre, and compares himself to Landrus (Leander) in his passionate devotion, and ‘Adhra to Haru (Hero) in her beauty. The plots, or rather the plot, of the novel and poem is the classic plot of an ancient novel: beautiful boy and beautiful girl meet, instantly fall in love, are separated by misfortune, and the girl maintains her virginity (‘adhra is Arabic for “virgin”; and parthen- also means “virgin” in Greek) despite numerous mishaps and enforced journeys with pirates and slave-traders far and wide. Among other places, ‘Unsuri’s poem seems to have taken ‘Adhra and the reader to Righiyun (Rhegion) in the south of Italy, and possibly Tarentum (Tartaniyush). Naples may have marked the limit of Parthenope’s travels to the West. Presumably at the end of the story boy and girl were reunited and lived happily ever after, but we’ve no clear evidence for that.
For a Classicist, at least, it’s pretty stunning to find a classical Greek text exerting that kind of influence way to the east in the borderlands of India, a millennium after it was composed. ‘Unsuri was a court poet of Mahmud of Ghazni, and that court, enriched by Mahmud’s military incursions into India, was a major cultural centre. This was where the great polymath al-Biruni was based for the last decades of his life, and also where the national epic of the Persian people, Firdausi’s Shahnama, “The Book of Kings”, was composed. In al-Biruni’s case, we know that his writing was greatly influenced by Greek thinking: al-Biruni is a remarkable figure, simultaneously the author of the first great study of India, and a mind deeply versed in Aristotle, although very prepared to disagree with the Greek master. He may also have had some kind of working relationship with ‘Unsuri, since they shared some topics in common (both wrote about the Buddhas of Bamiyan, for example, and both about Vamiq and ‘Adhra). Nevertheless, the notion that Greek literature, as opposed to philosophy, science or mathematics, could find such a positive reception on the eastern fringes of Islamic world is something else.
This Classicist has a couple more reasons to be interested in ‘Unsuri’s poem, all of them related to my personal obsession with Bamiyan. The first is just a tantalising possibility. The text of Vamiq u ‘Adhra was discovered by the Pakistani scholar Mohammad Shafi in around 1950, reused as stiffening in the binding of an old Arabic theological handbook. A note found along with the leaves of poetry seems to be an inventory of books belonging to a man named Zaki b. Muhammad b. ‘Ali ‘Abd ul-Hamid al-Bamiyani, and the al-Bamiyani at the end of this man’s impressive name may suggest that the library where this copy of Vamiq u ‘Adhra originated was at Bamiyan. The manuscript itself dates to the twelfth century, and at that time Bamiyan was a thriving and important city, as indeed it was right up to its destruction by Genghis Khan in 1221.
An origin in Bamiyan for the manuscript is an appealing possibility, but a less tenuous connection is that ‘Unsuri, author of Vamiq u ‘Adhra, wrote another poem entitled Khing but u Surkh but (The Moon-white idol and the Red idol), another romantic tale, also lost, which offered an explanation of the great Buddha statues at Bamiyan, celebrated marvels in the medieval Islamic world: Khing but, “Moon-white idol” and Surkh but, “Red idol” were the established names in Islamic accounts for the smaller and larger Buddha at Bamiyan. ‘Unsuri’s poem on the Buddhas shared the same metrical and rhyming system with his Vamiq u ‘Adhra, an epic system also used for romances, and in fact it’s often unclear which fragments belong to Vamiq u ‘Adhra and which to Khing but u Surkh but. But we know that the latter poem described how two lovers were separated and died apart, but were buried together, their tombs being the two gigantic Buddha statues.
(Recent research has suggested that these names for the Buddhas originated very early in the Islamic history of Afghanistan. The statues were carved in the sixth and seventh centuries AD, but by as early as AD 800 Bamiyan had been converted to Islam. When Muslim witnesses first described the Buddhas, then, the statues retained some of the rich decoration they’d enjoyed when Bamiyan was still Buddhist. Since the destruction of the Buddhas in 2001 German researchers have established that the statues were repeatedly repainted during the Buddhist period, but in their final form were painted white (khing) in the case of the smaller Buddha, and red (surkh) in the case of the larger. It’s not often that historical sources and archaeology mesh so neatly.)
In my book on Bamiyan I used the fact that ‘Unsuri wrote a poem about them to illustrate how diverse Muslim attitudes to the giant Buddhas have historically been. To listen to the Taliban you would think that, as religious images, they were an obvious affront to Islam. But the fact is that they survived for well over a thousand years in an Islamic culture, treated (as I’ve mentioned) as wonders of the God-created world. Here in ‘Unsuri’s poem they were the romantic leads.
This brings us round to what I think is the most important thing that Vamiq u ‘Adhra has to tell us about Bamiyan. I’ve described ‘Unsuri’s patron, Mahmud of Ghazni, as a great patron of the arts. This was the case in literature and natural science, and also in the visual arts: for example, beautifully decorated Ghaznavid palaces once lined the river Helmand near Lashkar Gah (the Ghaznavids’ winter capital), a place with entirely different associations today. But it’s fair to say that isn’t how Mahmud’s seen in all quarters. Take for example Mullah Omar, spiritual head of the Taliban, who repeatedly in the run-up to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 cited Mahmud of Ghazni as a precedent for his own policy. A story, and it is just a story, is told of Mahmud’s plundering of the Hindu temple at Somnath on the coast of Gujarat: the priests in the temple, so we’re told, tried to buy back their idol, a Shiva linga, from Mahmud, to which he is supposed to have responded, “I am the idol-breaker (but-shekan), not the idol-seller (but-furosh).” According to the folktale Mahmud is the perfect Islamic warrior, undistracted from pious idol destruction by the seduction of money. In 2001, when foreign organisations offered to pay Afghanistan to preserve the Buddhas, Mullah Omar responded with Mahmud’s (alleged) words, and of course proceeded to break the idols of Bamiyan.
But the truth about Mahmud is there, if we look hard enough, in the Vamiq u ‘Adhra. Far from being driven by religious zealotry, Mahmud was motivated by the human and practical demands of an impressive court, a professional army and expansive ambitions: he needed money, and the wealthy temples of India were good sources of it. Cash was his motivation for invading India, not the saving of souls. Now Mahmud no doubt dressed up his activities as the actions of a pious Muslim bringing enlightenment to idol-worshipping Indians. But in actual fact the position of the Ghaznavid empire in the borderlands between the world of Islam and India required a ruler in his perilous position to be very liberal, for the day, in the relations he maintained with other faiths. For example, there was an Indian quarter in Ghazni, home to Indian contingents which formed an important part of Mahmud’s invading forces. We even hear of the widows of Mahmud’s fallen Indian soldiers committing sati, an entirely unIslamic practice.
In the Vamiq u ‘Adhra Mahmud, or maybe his successor Ma’sud, enjoyed a Greek popular story of a couple that met in the famous haikal or but-khana, temple, of Hera on Samos, one of them an assertive young woman who holds her own in philosophical debate on the nature of Love in the company of men, and later fights in battle. Literature is not life in any straightforward way, of course, but it’s equally clear that the notion of Mahmud as a model of puritanical zealotry can’t survive the sophisticated and gloriously polychromatic environment of his court at Ghazni, or the pleasure palaces beside the Helmand.
For all the sophistication, life in eleventh-century Afghanistan was insecure. In the two centuries after the career of ‘Unsuri (who died in 1039/40) Ghazni would be sacked twice, by a Ghurid leader known for his treatment of Ghazni as Jahan-suz, “The World-burner”, and then with even greater destructive force by Genghis Khan. Bamiyan, too, would be destroyed by the Mongols: the traveller ibn-Battuta tells us that “Genghis massacred the inhabitants of Bamiyan, and destroyed it from top to bottom, with the exception of the minaret of its Friday Mosque.” It’s not too surprising that ‘Unsuri’s poem on Vamiq and ‘Adhra all-but disappeared.
I’m deeply grateful to Jean-Marie Lafont, another Classicist who has strayed into Central Asia, for drawing my attention to this remarkable literary phenomenon. The book I’ve been reading is by Bo Utas and the late Tomas Hägg, The Virgin and her Lover: Fragments of an Ancient Greek Novel (Leiden, 2003).
For reasons that will emerge, I’m intrigued by the practice of travelling with a copy of your favourite classical author in your pocket; and I’m struck by the fact that Horace seems to be the most commonly chosen travelling companion. In Horace’s fifth satire, when he describes setting off on a journey with Heliodorus, there’s a theory that Heliodorus is a book (it was the name of the author of a book called The Wonders of Italy, or possibly The Wonders of Medicine) rather than a flesh-and-blood companion, so that’s kind of appropriate for starters.
It isn’t always Horace. The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński did all his foreign reporting accompanied by a gift from his editor, “a thick book with a stiff cover of yellow cloth. On the front, stamped in gold letters, was Herodotus, THE HISTORIES.” Europeans trudging through Afghanistan in the nineteenth century cited chapter and verse on Alexander’s itinerary with such accuracy that I can’t help but suspect they had copies of Quintus Curtius Rufus’ Histories of Alexander the Great secreted somewhere about their persons.
Virgil is another favourite, and with him the unhealthier aspects of this practice come to the fore. Abraham Cowley was the author, among other things, of an epic, The Civil War, which he wrote as the English Civil War unfolded in the 1640s (and which mutates from an epic into a satire as Cowley’s favoured side, the Royalists, lose ground.) According to John Aubrey he “alwaies had a Virgil in his pocket”, and his reverence for the Aeneid is very obvious in The Civil War: he even imitates Virgil’s “half-lines”, lines left unfinished by Virgil at his death (he died before the Aeneid was completely finished), but which Cowley thought were deliberate, and expressive.
But Cowley’s devotion to Virgil didn’t stop at the odd half-line. Aubrey recounts a story of Cowley using his pocket Virgil to consult the “Virgilian lots” (sortes Vergilianae) with the future Charles II, opening the pages of the Aeneid at random as a way of predicting the future. And predictably enough, Cowley and the prince happen on Dido’s curse of Aeneas at the end of Aeneid 4, where the queen of Carthage prays that Aeneas will see his friends fall before his eyes, make peace on unjust terms, and die before his time: Virgil was telling them what would happen to the prince’s father Charles I.
That is a story with many variants, and it doesn’t always involve Cowley. But we can establish that Cowley had a habit of consulting the sortes Vergilianae. Dr Johnson quotes a letter written by Cowley in which he discusses the prospects for an alliance with the Scots. Cowley is confident of a positive outcome to negotiations: “The Scotch will moderate something of the rigour of their demands; the mutual necessity of an accord is visible; the king is persuaded of it. And to tell the truth (which I take to be an argument above all the rest) Virgil has told me something to that purpose.” Virgil has told me… The text in the pocket has become the intimacy of a direct word in the ear.
Well, Virgil can play with people’s heads: Cowley’s consultation of the Virgil in his pocket is a bit like Jackson Knight’s consultation of a medium (supposedly channelling Virgil himself) when he was writing his Penguin translation of the Aeneid (just in case anyone thought Morrissey’s inclusion in the Penguin Classics was the maddest thing to happen to that series).
Chaps with Horace in their pockets are a more stable bunch all round, I like to think. But if that’s true, it has a lot to do with the focus of Horace’s poetry. His most famous and quoted poems are the Odes, and the concerns of these short lyric poems weren’t the profound mysteries of existence delved by Virgil (a figure further amplified by the strange mythology that built up around him after his death). Horace is all about the demands of this life we’re living, the inevitability of aging and death, the pleasure of the present moment. His genius is to give incomparable expression to simple principles of living. Carpe diem, etc.
As he set off to travel on foot to Constantinople in 1933 Paddy Leigh Fermor packed an Oxford Book of English Verse and, a gift from his mother, “the Loeb Horace, Vol. I”, containing the Epodes and Odes; and as he walked across Europe he memorised his favourite odes. That special relationship with Horace featured in Leigh Fermor’s most famous exploit, when he captured the German General Karl Kreipe, commander on Crete, and had him smuggled out to Cairo. As they climbed Mount Ida, Kreipe muttered the first line of Horace’s ninth ode, Vides ut alta stet niue candidum Soracte, “You see how Mt Soracte stands white with deep snow,” and Leigh Fermor responded with the rest of the poem:
The general’s blue eyes had swiveled away from the mountain top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” “Ah, yes, Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.
Horace, whom both Germans and British had managed to convince themselves was the perfect encapsulation of their respective gentlemanly codes, established a mutual understanding between these two officers. Between them, for example, they managed to piece together the superb conclusion to the Regulus Ode (3.5), where the Roman general Regulus, heroically insisting on going to meet his death at the hands of the Carthaginians, leaves Rome as nonchalantly as a man heading off for a relaxing weekend at his country house.
If Horace was an Englishman, or alternatively a German, he was a piece of home, wherever that was. I like the way a lot of these travelling Horaces are gifts from people back where the travellers started: it was Leigh Fermor’s mother who gave him the Loeb edition of Horace, and in the case of Raymond Asquith, who was to die on the Somme, it came from his wife. On November 1, 1915 he wrote to her (quoted in E. Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (Oxford, 2010), 60-61):
I have determined to devote 5 minutes a day to serious reading and began this day on the Odes of Horace, pleasantly surprised as I always am to find how astonishingly good they are. It was wonderfully clever of you, my sweet, to find that minute Horace for me.
In more peaceful times Gladstone took Horace on the train with him during a General Election “far back in the ‘sixties'”, writing translations of the Odes which he later published (my thanks to Emily Pillinger for pointing me to that one). Michael Gilleland on his wonderful blog describes a copy of Horace owned by Stendhal, “pierced by the tip of a sword or a bayonet” in Napoleon’s Jena campaign of 1806: how Stendhal came by the book is an interesting question. Gilleland also finds in Holbrook Jackson’s Anatomy of Bibliomania (1950) a reference to a devotion to Horace on the part of the French poet François de Malherbe (1555-1628) comparable to Cowley’s obsession with Virgil:
Malherbe, the father of French poetry, had for sole favourite Horace, whom he called his breviary; Horace was his companion when out walking, and he laid him on his pillow at night…
“For some,” as Gilleland comments, “Horace is a kind of holy book,” and that’s true. I could well be overstating the difference between Horace-carriers and Virgil-carriers. It’s worth pointing out that the Loeb edition of Horace’s Odes and Epodes that Leigh Fermor took with him was dedicated to Professor Hiram Corson of Cornell University, who used to “contact” the greats of English poetry: Tennyson assured Corson from beyond the grave that he shouldn’t worry about smoking a pipe. (That detail owed to Peter Wiseman’s great article on Jackson Knight in Talking to Virgil.)
I generally come back to Central Asia sooner or later in these blogs, and of course Horace accompanied the classically educated men who extended, or attempted to extend, the Empire into the NW of India. On the title page of the most influential of travellers’ books in that period and part of the world, Alexander Burnes’ Travels into Bokhara (1834) is a well-chosen passage from Odes 1.22, another poem that Leigh Fermor and Kreipe found they had in common, in which Horace playfully claims that a morally pure man, integer uitae scelerisque purus, need fear nothing “whether he travels across the seething Syrtes or the inhospitable Caucasus or the lands lapped by the legendary Hydaspes.” The Hydaspes is the Jhelum, westernmost of the five rivers of the Punjab, and Burnes could interpret “Caucasus” as the Indian Caucasus, the Hindu Kush: he crossed both these physical barriers in his travels, but integer uitae he was not, and he paid the price for his immoral behaviour by dying at the hands of a Kabuli mob in 1841.
I don’t know if Burnes had a Horace in his pocket, and to be honest I hope not (it would tarnish the brand), but a later traveller in these parts did, a much better person named Aurel Stein. In 1900, during an expedition to investigate lost cultures in the Tarim basin (now in the Xinjiang “autonomous region” of China), described in Sand-buried Ruins of Khotan (1904), he was surveying the headwaters of the Yurungkash (White Jade) and Karakash (Black Jade) rivers in the Kunlun mountains. The survey took him through a landscape he found oppressive, arid and depopulated. But finding a stream and some rare sunshine Stein (to my surprise and delight when I first read Sand-buried Ruins) pulls out a copy of Horace:
I enjoyed the splash and sound of the water after those silent dead ravines, and sat cheerfully by its side until my baggage appeared at dusk. It was pleasant to read in the tiny seventeenth-century edition of Horace, which always travels in my saddlebag, of the springs that gave charm for the poet to another mountain region far away in the West. And then the question touched my mind: What is this vast mountain world in human interest compared to the Sabine Hills? It has no past history as far as man is concerned, and what can be its future?—unless destiny has reserved the prospects of another Klondyke for the auriferous rivers of Khotan.
Stein was probably reading Horace’s ode on the Bandusian spring, often thought to be at his estate in the Sabine hills east of Rome (though in fact a landmark of Horace’s youth, further to the south of Italy.) The supposed site of Horace’s estate has drawn foreign visitors in large numbers for at least three hundred years, and the reason is this peculiarly intimate appeal that Horace exerted for modern Europeans. When James Boswell, Dr Johnson’s biographer, visited the site of the villa, he “Saw ruins: fell on knees and uttered some enthusiastic words.” “Horace was an Englishman,” I wrote a long time ago. But Horace was also a German and a Frenchman, a poet whose Latin lyrics expressed a widely shared ideal of gentlemanly conduct. To a British-Hungarian archaeologist (and gentleman) deep in the Kunlun mountains Horace embodied humanity amidst desolation.
A treasured memory of my own is explaining to a British friend as we drove through the Hindu Kush why at difficult moments I repeat a tag of Horace to myself:
sperat infestis, metuit secundis
alteram sortem bene praeparatum
It is untranslatable, but it means that the best attitude is to be optimistic in hard times, but pessimistic when times are good. It comes in a poem (Odes 2.10) where Horace discusses, and gives a name to, the Golden Mean, aurea mediocritas, a life lived by the principle of moderation in all things.
And yes, I had a copy of Horace in my pocket when I travelled in Afghanistan, a gift from my wife.
Poetry likes to deceive its readers into thinking they are seeing what the poet’s words are describing. But there aren’t many poets who are better than Virgil at making you confuse what they’re saying with what they’re talking about.
In the sixth book of the Aeneid Virgil describes how the hero Aeneas, guided by two doves sent by his mother Venus, searches in a deep forest for the mysterious golden bough: this, the Sibyl of Cumae has told him, will allow him access to the Underworld, and a meeting with his dead father.
Here is Robert Fitzgerald’s translation:
Then he stood still to see
What signs the doves might give, or where their flight
Might lead him. And they fed, and then flew on,
Each time as far as one who came behind
Could keep in view. Then when they reached the gorge
Of sulphurous Avernus, first borne upward
Through the lucent air, they glided down
To their desired rest, the two-hued tree
Where glitter of gold filtered between green boughs.
Eventually the doves settle in a tree, and Aeneas can dimly perceive the gleam of the golden branch. The line translated by Fitzgerald as “Where glitter of gold filtered between green boughs” is in Latin
discolor unde auri per ramos aura refulsit
There’s been lots of discussion of this line, because Virgil uses a very strange expression for the gleam of the bough: auri … aura literally means “the breath (or “breeze”) of gold”. Perhaps the strangeness is the point: how better to convey an outlandish metallic tree branch than with a verbal expression that’s hard to grasp?
But there’s something else going on here. In the four words auri per ramos aura, “the glint of gold through the branches,” he has two words of very similar look and sound, auri and aura (“of gold” and “glint”), separated by the branches, per ramos. And what that gives the reader, besides everything else, is the momentary impression that the text they’re reading is the dense forest, through which the golden gleam of the bough shines, and then is hidden by trees, and then shines again.